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Title: A Crime On Canvas Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200081h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: May 2012 This eBook was produced 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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|CHAPTER I - PRIDE
CHAPTER II - THE PAINTED FACE
CHAPTER III - THE SECOND FACE
CHAPTER IV - WANTED—A FRIEND
CHAPTER V - A DARKER CLOUD
CHAPTER VI - THE DAWN OF FREEDOM
CHAPTER VII - THE BRAND OF SHAME
CHAPTER VIII - A COMPACT
CHAPTER IX - FACE TO FACE
CHAPTER X - IN THE STUDIO
CHAPTER XI - A HAUNTING DOUBT
CHAPTER XII - MR. DOVELUCK
CHAPTER XIII - A STRANGE GATHERING
CHAPTER XIV - A STARTLING MESSAGE
CHAPTER XV - IN PURSUIT
CHAPTER XVI - IN THE STUDIO
CHAPTER XVII - BEYOND REPAIR
CHAPTER XVIII - A TRAGIC INTERLUDE
CHAPTER XIX - BETWEEN TWO FIRES
CHAPTER XX - TOO MUCH TO ASK
CHAPTER XXI - FOLLOWING IT UP
CHAPTER XXII - "MR. THIRTEEN"
CHAPTER XXIII - A NEW PHASE
CHAPTER XXIV - THE ONLY WAY
CHAPTER XXV - SOMETHING CONCEALED
CHAPTER XXVI - THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS
|CHAPTER XXVII -
ONE TOO MANY
CHAPTER XXVIII - THE FACE AGAIN
CHAPTER XXIX - WHO WAS THE ARTIST?
CHAPTER XXX - THE PROGRESS OF THE PICTURE
CHAPTER XXXI - A VISIT TO THE MILLIONAIRE
CHAPTER XXXII - A DEALER IN ANTIQUES
CHAPTER XXXIII - THE DEAD HAND
CHAPTER XXXIV - RECOGNIZED
CHAPTER XXXV - WANTED!
CHAPTER XXXVI - FRESH FOOD FOR THE PRESS
CHAPTER XXXVII - CRITICAL OPINION
CHAPTER XXXVIII - A POINT TO THE PRISONER
CHAPTER XXXIX - THE CASE OF A POINT FOR THE PRISONER
CHAPTER XL - THE LITTLE BOTTLE
CHAPTER XLI - A VOICE IN THE DARK
CHAPTER XLII - AN UNBIDDEN GUEST
CHAPTER XLIII - THE SPUR OF CIRCUMSTANCE
CHAPTER XLIV - THICKER THAN WATER
CHAPTER XLV - THE PRIDE OF LUCIFER
CHAPTER XLVI - BY FORCE OF ARMS
CHAPTER XLVII - A GLIMPSE OF THE TRUTH
CHAPTER XLVIII - A RING OF IRON
CHAPTER XLIX - THE AMATEUR CRACKSMAN
CHAPTER L - BACK FROM THE GRAVE
CHAPTER LI - THE CROWN OF FOLLY
CHAPTER LII - THE LIGHT OF DAY
THERE is no more distinguished family in England than the Blantyres of Glenallan. Its very name is a sufficient passport into the best society. Nevertheless, those who know shrug their shoulders, glance significantly at one another, and leave the rest to discreet silence. Be that as it may, however, the Blantyres are still important people in their own neighbourhood. Their estates are as extensive as ever, and their revenues have suffered no diminution, even in these democratic days, when few old families can boast of the power and influence they wielded a hundred years ago.
At the time the story opens the Blantyre estates and title were vested in Sir Arthur Blantyre, an elderly man of somewhat close and eccentric habits. No one could say anything against him; no breath of scandal dimmed his fame. And yet there was not a single tenant or neighbour on the estate who had not some strange story to tell in regard to his landlord.
Perhaps this was mainly because Sir Arthur Blantyre kept entirely to himself. He could hardly expect to be popular, seeing that he had not succeeded to the title till late in life; and when he came into the grand old house and still grander estates, he was accompanied only by a young girl, who addressed him as grandfather. The late baronet had been a bachelor—one of the hard-living, hard-riding school, who, when he did speak of his successor, always alluded to him in terms of contempt; indeed, until Sir Arthur Blantyre first crossed the threshold of Glenallan he had never even seen the home of his ancestors. He was known to have been poor before his accession, and rumour had it that before the old Squire's death he had lived for the most part in France. Certainly his dress and manner supported this report, for the new baronet was not in the least like his predecessors. He was tall and slight. He wore his snow-white hair rather long. There was something Continental about his white moustache and imperial. He took not the slightest interest in field sports and the other matters that go to make a country gentleman popular with his neighbours. And as to his estates, he handed over their management to an agent in an adjacent town, while, so far as he himself was concerned, his time was devoted to his library. At the end of four or five years there were outlying tenants on the estate who could say with truth that they had never even spoken to their landlord. In the country all this makes for unpopularity, and it was no exaggeration to say that Sir Arthur Blantyre was disliked by his subordinates and tenants.
Not that this seemed to trouble the baronet much. There were people who averred that he had troubles and worries enough of his own. His health was good. He enjoyed a princely income. But he was never seen to smile. A look of melancholy and unhappiness never left his face, and from time to time in his dark eyes there was the shadow of fear.
At first the neighbours had called in plenty. But one and all were chilled with their reception, and gradually the flow of visitors ceased. For the last two years or so no neighbour had ever come up the famous avenue of elms leading to the house. Ever since she had been under that roof Ethel Blantyre had never known what it was to have a friend. At the beginning Sir Arthur had seemed disposed to be on fairly good terms with the vicar of the parish and one other person, a Frenchman named Le Blanc. But the vicar was dead. There had been some scandal in connexion with a son of his of which people spoke in whispers, though Ethel could never understand what it meant. And she had a distinct recollection of a terrible quarrel between her grandfather and Le Blanc, during which blows were struck and blood was shed. This had taken place at dead of night in Glenallan library, and Ethel had been a more or less unwilling witness of the scene. Once she had ventured to speak to her grandfather about it, but the lightning flash of rage in his eyes and the lurid anger on his face warned her not to pursue the topic. For three years she had held her peace, wondering if she were ever to see Lawrence Hatton, the son of the old vicar, again. He had been her only friend and playmate, so that her heart still held a tender place for him; indeed, these two had been something more than friends, though Sir Arthur Blantyre would have laughed the notion to scorn.
There was no one to tell Ethel anything. She had to ferret out information from the servants as best she could. All she knew was that Lawrence Hatton had been tried for some offence, and that he was now working out his sentence in gaol. It seemed incredible, almost monstrous, and Ethel was filled with indignation whenever she thought of it. But facts are inexorable things. The unhappy vicar had gone down to his grave in shame and humiliation, and the prison taint lay heavily on his only son. There had been another young man, too, whom Ethel remembered vividly—the son of the Frenchman Le Blanc. He was handsomer, more brilliant and more fascinating than young Hatton, but Ethel had never liked him, and even as an innocent child there was something about him that chilled and repelled her and warned her to keep him at a distance. There were people who said that Le Blanc the younger was making a great reputation as an artist. But as to that Ethel neither knew nor cared.
And so her dreary life went on in that cold, desolate house which seemed to be full of ghosts and shadows. Glenallan was a show-place in its way. It was full of magnificent pictures and furniture. The place was replete with historic memories. And yet Ethel would have cheerfully exchanged its splendour and beauty, its well-kept gardens and noble environment, for a cottage where she might have a little warmth and love and sunshine. She was no longer afraid as once she had been. She had grown accustomed to those gloomy corridors. They did not seem to be full of ghosts and spectres as when she had first come. She had her own recreations and amusements. But, all the same, she was exceedingly lonely. For Sir Arthur was in the habit of mysteriously disappearing periodically and remaining away for weeks. Where he went and what he did he told nobody. But every time he returned Ethel thought he looked more careworn and more anxious than before.
What this gloom was and what it meant the girl did not know, for her grandfather said little or nothing to her. He seemed to regard her merely as a girl, as a more or less necessary adjunct to the house. And yet there were moments when his eyes turned upon her appealingly, as if he would fain take her into his confidence and seek the benefit of her assistance and advice. But these intervals were rare.
And so in summer and winter alike the dreary life went on with nothing to break its black monotony. Occasionally Ethel would have welcomed any diversion, however serious. Anything would be better than the weariness and desolation of her present existence. What, she wondered, was the mystery that hung over the house? In the midst of all this wealth and luxury, what was it that caused her grandfather to look so pale and haggard, that hung about him like some cursed thing?
Ethel was pondering the matter as she sat at the breakfast-table making her grandfather's coffee. The little cedar-panelled room was gay with flowers which she had looted from the conservatories. The sun shone in through the rose windows, making a cosy picture which to the casual eye suggested envy and admiration. This did not serve to elevate Ethel's spirits in the least. One day was so like another that even the presence or absence of the blessed sunshine counted for nothing. Sir Arthur was not down yet. His pile of letters lay unopened by his plate. He came in by and by and kissed his granddaughter carelessly. Then, without a word, he began to open his correspondence. There were dark lines under his eyes. His hand shook like that of a man who had been drinking heavily the previous night. But Sir Arthur indulged in no dissipation. He held it in the deepest abhorrence.
He murmured something more or less polite as he turned over his letters. He slipped his coffee daintily, though he made a mere pretence of eating his breakfast. Ethel could see his slim hands with their sparkling rings tremble as he slipped open the envelopes of his letters with a pocket-knife. Then, from one of them, he took what appeared to be a small piece of folded canvas and opened it languidly. All at once the words he was speaking seemed to freeze upon his lips. His face congealed and glazed with horror. One quivering hand was outstretched, so that he might look on the scrap of cloth as if to make sure of the evidence of his senses.
"God in Heaven!" he murmured, and his voice trembled like that of a man in the grip of intense physical agony, "to think that after all this time——"
The words trailed off into a broken whisper. With an incoherent stammer, Sir Arthur half rose to his feet. His coffee cup fell with a crash. Then he, too, sank silently to the floor.
ETHEL uttered no cry, nor summoned assistance. In some vague, intangible way she felt as if she had gone through the whole thing before, as if she were acting exactly as her grandfather would wish. She knew what a self-contained man he was, and how annoyed he would be were his servants to see him at that moment. It appeared to Ethel, too, as if, sooner or later, this black thing was inevitable. No man could go on for ever with such a cloud hanging over him as seemed to overshadow the life of Sir Arthur Blantyre.
The girl was cool and collected. She leant down by her grandfather's side and raised his head from the floor. Already a little colour was creeping back into his face, the whiteness was leaving his lips. As he sat up, half unconscious and oblivious to his surroundings, he still clutched the fragment of cloth in a tenacious grip. Ethel would have been less than human if she had not glanced at the innocent-looking object which had been the cause of all this emotion. Her grandfather must have been moved to the very depths of his being to give way like this.
The old Adam surging up in Ethel's heart took possession of her, and she looked eagerly at the strip of canvas in Sir Arthur's hand. What could there be in it to cause such an agitation? For the scrap of canvas contained nothing more repulsive than a lovely, innocent face, painted by a master hand. It was little more than a miniature, though, to judge from its ragged edges and oval shape, it might have been cut with a pair of scissors from a frame. As to the rest, it was a girl's face, fair and smiling, radiantly beautiful, with eyes dark, appealing and pathetic. Ethel's knowledge of art matters was limited. But it needed no critic to tell her that this was no idealization of the painter's dream, but a true and faithful portrait. Despite the beauty of the drawing and the sweet simplicity of the face, the artist in some subtle way had made the features suggest trial and suffering.
As Ethel gazed intently upon this picture her feeling of curiosity gave way to another and different emotion. She seemed to have seen that face before. It was impossible, of course, but she could not rid herself of the impression that here was no stranger to her. Then there burst upon her a vivid flash of illumination. Given a little difference in age, in dress and expression and the picture would pass for a likeness of herself. There was no mistaking this fact when once it had come home to her. Who, then, was the stranger?
Still dazed by this startling discovery the girl was staring at the picture when Sir Arthur opened his eyes and suddenly grasped what was going on. He realized by instinct what Ethel was doing, struggled painfully to his feet and crushed the offensive painting convulsively in his hands. Then he turned almost sternly to his granddaughter.
"Give me some coffee," he gasped, "and get me some brandy from the sideboard. Now tell me the truth. Have you seen this accursed thing? I must know."
"I looked at it, of course," Ethel said with a slight accession of colour in her cheeks. "I don't want to pry into your secrets, but I couldn't very well help seeing it. But, please, drink this coffee before you say another word."
Sir Arthur appeared as if about to speak, then changed his mind. He sipped his coffee slowly and thoughtfully, his dark eyes brooding over the past.
"How old are you?" he demanded abruptly.
"I think I have come to years of discretion," Ethel ventured to say. "I shall be twenty on my next birthday. If you have anything to say, I think you can trust me."
There was something of reproach in the remark and it was not without effect on Sir Arthur. All these years he had been wrapped up in himself and his troubles. It had never occurred to him that Ethel was verging upon womanhood.
"Perhaps you are right," he said, apparently speaking more to himself than his companion. "I am a lonely old man. I have no friend to assist and advise me. I wonder if I dare trust you. I wonder if I dare tell you the story of my past—the story of a proud man whose sin found him out when it was too late for repentance. But, no, not yet. I cannot do it yet. I must go my own way for the time being. You are to forget what you have seen this morning. You are never to mention it to a soul. Now tell me truthfully—did you see that picture?"
"I saw it, yes," Ethel said boldly enough, "and I cannot help thinking it very strange that a thing so beautiful——"
"Ah, beauty is not always what it seems," Sir Arthur burst out. "There is a beauty so diabolical and so fair that it lures men to destruction. You know nothing of that. Now, another question, what did you think of the picture? Did you see any resemblance to anybody?"
"I did," Ethel said candidly. "I was very much struck with the resemblance between the picture and myself."
Once more the pained look came over Sir Arthur's face. He shook his head sadly.
"I was afraid of it," he murmured. "Now there is one thing I want you to promise me. You must do your best to forget what you have seen this morning. Above all you must not dwell upon the fancied likeness between the picture and yourself. I won't say that it is a coincidence, because that would not be altogether true. In all the years we have been under this roof I don't think I have ever said so much to you before. Heaven knows, it may be for the best that my hand has been forced in this fashion. It may be that you can help me, but of that I will say no more for the present. Now leave me."
The last words were harsh and spoken in the voice which Ethel generally associated with her grandfather. The girl was excited. Her heart was beating rapidly. At last things had been violently shaken out of their old groove and the time for movement and action was come. She had the high courage and resolution of her race. She was ready to welcome anything that would lift her out of the monotony against which her whole soul rebelled. If there was trouble and danger she was ready to share it. Anything was better than the appalling dreariness of her existence.
Yet, as the day went on, Sir Arthur made no further sign. It seemed as if he meant to ignore the breakfast incident, for he sat moodily over his lunch without more than an occasional word to the girl flung to her as a man would toss a bone to his dog. It was the same at tea time in the dim oak-panelled hall where the firelight gleamed on armour and spear, on china and picture, and during the long ceremonious dinner, over which they sat until there were moments when Ethel could have jumped from her chair and cried aloud.
But the girl possessed her soul in patience. She felt that the time was coming when she might be asked to be up and doing. There was more savour in life now, more enjoyment in her piano and the flowers which she loved so well; indeed, but for the flowers and their constant arrangement the hours at Glenallan would have hung heavily upon her hands. They were like friends and comrades to her. She handled them as carefully and tenderly as a mother fondles her young and delicate child. So Ethel sat there until the lights began to go out and the servants one by one crept up to bed. She was not in the least sleepy or tired. There was no need to hurry for, despite his years, Sir Arthur was a late man, and many a time had Ethel heard him come wearily up the stairs when the dawn was breaking and the birds were beginning to sing in the great Lebanon cedar trees outside, which were one of the joys and pride of Glenallan. Even as she sat, she could hear Sir Arthur pacing up and down his study. She heard him stop presently. Her quick ears detected the sound of a window being opened and a murmur of voices, borne on the breeze, drifted along the corridor. Then the hall light went out. There was a gentle flicker up and down the walls as if some one were passing with a lantern. Very softly Ethel turned out the drawing-room lights and fumbled her way to the door. There, surely enough, was the outline of a figure clad in a rough pilot jacket, which she had no difficulty in recognizing as that of her grandfather.
He passed stealthily along the interminable corridors like a thief in the night. It was curious to watch a man playing the spy under his own roof. Ethel's curiosity was aroused and her pulses were quickened. Was she a child that she should be shut out continually from her grandfather's confidence? She set her white teeth grimly together.
"It may be wrong," she murmured, "but, at any risk, I am going to follow."
IT was not a difficult task that Ethel had set herself, seeing that her grandfather had not the least idea that he was being shadowed. The track he took was a strange one to the girl, though she had flattered herself she knew the house thoroughly. Sir Arthur appeared to be leading towards the kitchens. But he branched off presently along a passage, which, to the girl's surprise, was thickly, not to say richly, carpeted, and gave a general idea of comfort and luxury. She thought it odd she had never been through it before. But she had other thoughts to occupy her attention. With a sudden feeling that she was not behaving altogether well, she contrived to keep her grandfather in sight till he paused before a door which he proceeded to open with a patent latchkey he had taken from his pocket. He did not seem to trouble whether he was being followed or not. The idea of such a thing had never occurred to him, for he left the door open and turned up the lights.
Glenallan was still an old-fashioned house rejoicing in its old-fashioned traditions, but one innovation Sir Arthur had introduced, and that was the electric light. The room was flooded now to its utmost corner, so that Ethel could stand in the passage and see what was going on. At the first blush there was nothing to rouse her suspicions or cause her any feeling of alarm. It was just an ordinary sitting-room, evidently furnished with a view to gratify a pretty feminine taste. The carpet was of soft Aubusson silk, daintily figured after the most elegant design; the richly-gilt furniture belonged to the period of Louis Quatorze, and possessed all the graceful character of that epoch, without the garishness inseparable from the tasteless imitation. The tables and chairs were covered with priceless tapestry, and most of the pictures on the brocade-panelled walls were those of beautiful women, the work of famous French artists; indeed, the whole room might have been transported bodily from Versailles or one of the old French palaces. Doubtless some bygone Blantyre had furnished this room for herself regardless of cost, though why she had chosen an out-of-the-way room, accessible only by a dingy corridor, Ethel could not divine.
One thing she did not fail to notice, and that was the unfinished and neglected appearance of the electric fittings. There were no beaten copper or brass electroliers, carefully selected to harmonize with the surroundings, nothing but loose flexes in solitary bulbs hanging here and there as if the work had been hastily rigged up by some amateur. It occurred to Ethel that the workman who had been responsible for the contract had been purposely excluded from this apartment.
Naturally, all this added to the mystery and excitement of the adventure. Taking her courage in her hands Ethel advanced closer, so that she could look into the room and observe what was going on. She saw her grandfather standing in front of a beautifully inlaid table on which were scattered books in priceless bindings. These he swept carelessly to the ground as if they were so much waste paper. Then he drew back one of the brocade panels in the wall and produced a large portfolio of prints or water-colour drawings. He laid the portfolio on the table and began to search amongst the contents as if looking for something. Then he gave a sigh of satisfaction as he withdrew what seemed to be a pair of paintings in oils upon canvas. For a long time he bent over the uppermost of these and examined it with the most painstaking scrutiny.
Would he never be done with the pictures? They appeared to be of absorbing interest. Almost unconscious of what she was doing, the girl advanced nearer and nearer until at length she was actually inside the room. She laid an unsteady hand upon the back of a chair for support. A board creaked under her feet with a snap like a pistol shot and Sir Arthur started and rubbed his eyes. He looked round in a vague and lack-lustre way. It was some little time before he realized that he was not alone. Then he turned and caught Ethel by the shoulder in a grip that caused her to wince. She had not expected such strength in so feeble a frame.
"You are hurting me," she whispered.
"It is a wonder I did no worse," Sir Arthur said hoarsely. He seemed beside himself with rage. "So you followed me here. Why did you do so? Surely you must know how dishonourable a thing it is to spy upon my movements."
Ethel hung her head. A red wave of shame swept over her beautiful and sensitive face. For it was a dishonourable thing to do. There was nothing for it but to make a clean breast of the matter.
"I am exceedingly sorry," she faltered, "but some impulse I could not resist constrained me to follow you. You have looked so miserable and unhappy of late that I have longed to help you; but I meant no harm. I mean no harm now. If you tell me to go I will do so at once and leave you to yourself."
Sir Arthur appeared to hesitate. The anger had died out of his face. His eyes were sombre. At the same time he had not altogether forgotten himself, for he took a sheet of paper lying on the top of the portfolio and laid it over the oil painting which he had been studying so intently. The action was not lost upon Ethel.
"You are here and the mischief is done," he said. "Whether you stay or not matters little. But you must not mention to a soul what you have seen to-night. It comes as a great surprise to you, of course, to know that there is such a room under this roof so remote from the state apartments. I dare say you are asking yourself who is responsible for all this luxury and extravagance. You have probably noted that the furniture and the pictures are as fine as anything else we have in the house. Well, so far as you are concerned, your curiosity is not likely to be gratified—at least not yet. I must prove your ability and your courage first. But you have seen enough to know that I am a desolate and miserable old man, and that I have a secret trouble which has poisoned and ruined my life. If I were less proud I should not suffer so much. But, then, you see, I am a Blantyre, and I have never been allowed to forget it since the day when I was old enough to understand anything. It is through my pride that I suffer. It is through my pride that this punishment has fallen so heavily upon me. The fiend who tortures me night and day knows this. He knows how to hit me on the tenderest spot, and he knows how to take vengeance. He is none of your clumsy haters who strikes with a bludgeon, or ends a life with a knife or a revolver—his methods are far more subtle."
"I am afraid I don't understand," Ethel said. "But there are ways of striking back. Surely, in this twentieth century, it is impossible for any one to carry out the practice of the Borgias or the Brinvilliers. And if you are not strong enough yourself to cope with this trouble, you must find some friend who is able to assist you."
"Not one," Sir Arthur cried in anguished tones. "I have not a single friend on the face of God's earth. If I could find one man devoted to my interests, why, then, I might summon back my lost courage and fight the thing to the finish. What I want is a friend who is absolutely alone in the world, who has suffered as I have done myself, and who would cling to me and do my bidding from a sense that fidelity to me was the only policy possible to him. Ah, if you could find me some one like that——"
Ethel made no reply for a moment. She was filled with a brilliant idea, though she dared not give utterance to the thought that thrilled her. She knew the very man whom Sir Arthur most needed at this critical juncture. But she would not speak yet, she told herself. She would wait till the morning.
"I think some one might be found," she said.
Sir Arthur turned away from her with a gesture of despair. As he did so his arm came in contact with the sheet of paper overlying the picture on the table, so that it came fluttering to the floor. In that instant, under the broad light of the electrics, Ethel had a full view of the picture. It was a half-length drawing of a girl in a white dress with a bunch of violets at her throat. It was only possible to get a glimpse of the smiling face for a moment before the paper was replaced. But that moment was enough. It was the same face painted in exactly the same form as the scrap of canvas which had so affected Sir Arthur in the morning. Ethel turned so that her grandfather should not see the startled expression in her eyes. But he had forgotten her, and as she looked towards the door she saw, or thought she saw, a long slim hand feeling for the electric switch. Before Ethel could make up her mind whether it was a delusion or not the switches clicked noisily and the room was plunged in darkness.
THE whole thing was so sudden and yet so natural that neither Sir Arthur nor his companion was alarmed, though Ethel was still uncertain whether her imagination had played her a trick or not. As to Blantyre, he was under the impression that something had gone wrong with the accumultators. He muttered a word or two to this effect, and fumbled his way towards the door in search of his lantern. At the same moment it seemed to Ethel that somebody had flitted by her in the direction of the table. She could feel a slight current of air such as would be caused by the movement of a body. Her senses took in the fact that the room was filled with a faint sweet perfume such as the girl had never smelt before. It was by no means unpleasant, not in the least cloying, but there was something about it not easily forgotten. A few seconds later and there came the unmistakable sound as of something torn, and then everything was still and the strange scent began to fade away until only the slightest suspicion of it was left.
By this time Ethel had recovered her senses sufficiently to realize that all this was done by means of human agency, and to grasp the fact that some one had been tampering with the switches. She felt her way across to the door and a moment later the room was blazing with light again.
"What does it mean?" Blantyre demanded.
"Why, somebody came in," Ethel cried excitedly. "I distinctly felt some one pass me. The air moved as she did so."
"But why are you sure it was a woman?" Blantyre demanded.
"How could there be any doubt of it?" Ethel asked. "Didn't you notice that peculiar scent? No man would have anything like that about him. Surely you can smell it still."
"I noticed something strange," Blantyre admitted.
"Well, that is what I mean. I know some one pushed by me towards the table. I looked to the door a minute or two ago and I saw a long, slim hand fumbling at the switch. At first I thought it was imagination. But when the light went out I felt certain that I was not mistaken. And, besides, you must have heard that extraordinary tearing noise——"
"I had not thought of that," Blantyre said hoarsely.
He came striding across the room, and bent eagerly over the picture on the table. Then he started back with a cry. It was unnecessary to ask what had happened. Ethel could see that the canvas had been folded across about two-thirds of the way up and ripped from side to side as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body remained on the table, but the smiling face was gone. It was singular that such a slim hand as Ethel had seen tampering with the switch should have been powerful enough to tear the painted canvas across as if it had been so much paper. She glanced at her grandfather to see what he made of it, but the old man's face was grey and damp and his hands shook as he shuffled everything back into the portfolio again and concealed it behind the damask panel.
"I am tired and worn out," he said wearily. "Don't ask me to explain. Let us go to bed and try to forget all about the matter for the present. We can discuss it in the morning."
Breakfast time, however, found Sir Arthur in a different mood. He seemed to be frightened and disposed to discuss any subject rather than the events of the previous night. But Ethel was not to be put off. She gradually led up to the matter which she had nearest her heart.
"You were saying last night," she said, "that you would give anything for a friend in the hour of need. You wanted a man who would be entirely devoted to your interests, a man who would be bound to you by personal ties, and I think I have found him."
"Really," Blantyre said with a slight sneer, "who is he?"
"Lawrence Hatton," Ethel said boldly. "Oh, of course, I know that he is under a cloud and that the prison taint is upon him. But I am sure you believe he was convicted of a crime he never committed. I used to fancy that you liked Lawrence."
"I didn't dislike him," Blantyre allowed.
"Well, at any rate, I know you did your best to help him in the time of his trouble," Ethel persisted. "I admit that appearances were against him. But something tells me he is innocent. Before long he will be coming out of gaol without a friend in the world to hold out a hand to him. What I suggest may be a desperate expedient, but, I think, Lawrence Hatton is just the man you want. You might, at any rate, give him a chance. Whatever his faults may be, he was always loyal to his friends, and his courage is undoubted."
Much to Ethel's relief she saw that the sarcastic smile was fading from her grandfather's face, and that he appeared half-inclined to listen to her argument. He raised one or two objections, it is true, mainly on the score that he did not know when Hatton's time was up, or in which of His Majesty's gaols the convict was confined. These were trivial points, and Ethel had no trouble in brushing them aside.
"That we can easily find out," she said, "if I could get the papers bearing on the trial."
"I can supply you with these," Blantyre said. "I remember reading them carefully at the time. Now let me see, where did I put them? Oh, yes, I recollect. They are in the small French cabinet in the corner of the very room you were in last night. I will give you the key and you may examine them for yourself. From the day of the trial to the present moment no one has ever seen them, so you will find them in order. Perhaps they may help you, and perhaps they may not. But you will be able to ascertain when young Hatton's sentence expires, so that you may try to get in touch with him when he comes out. I don't suppose your suggestion is the least good. But I am disposed to try the experiment."
Ethel did not rest until she had obtained the key of the room, and for a few hours she was busy poring over the newspapers which contained a full account of Lawrence Hatton's trial and sentence. They were interesting reading, and the girl's heart sank within her as she saw how the evidence was piled up against her old friend and playmate. But there was another thing which disturbed the girl and filled her with uneasiness. Blantyre had volunteered the statement that these papers had been locked away carefully, and that no one had had access to them. There was no particular reason why this statement should have been made, neither was there any reason to doubt it, except for the fact that the papers were tossed about in confusion, and that they needed sorting before Ethel could obtain a coherent account of the proceedings. This was foreign to her grandfather's tidy and methodical ways. He was the kind of man who viewed any sort of disorder with something approaching positive pain. It would be almost a matter of course that directly he had finished with the papers he would put them away in their proper sequence.
Who, therefore, had been interested in the doings of Lawrence Hatton in the meantime? Who had found his way into that room and disarranged the newspapers?
Ethel was still pondering this problem when her eyes lighted upon a piece of evidence which rendered assurance doubly sure. Inserted between one of the folded sheets was a torn scrap of a letter wrenched off the sheet of paper from top to bottom and containing part of some address, evidently in Paris, and the fraction of a date, which proved that the letter had only been written within the last two months. The slip was laid between the printed sheets and was clearly intended as a marker to show how far the last investigator had gone.
Further proof of interference was not needed. With troubled mind Ethel went on with her reading until she had come to the end. She looked at the date on the top of the last newspaper and made a rapid calculation between that and the sentence passed upon Hatton by his judge. Her heart gave a little leap as she compared the dates. Her scheme had come to her just in the nick of time, for, after making allowance for the remission of part of his sentence, which Lawrence would be sure to earn, in two days he would be released from gaol, to drift Heaven alone knew where, if no friends came forward to hold out a helping hand.
There was no time to be lost. But where was she to find the object of her search? In what gaol was Hatton confined. To ascertain this was a matter of vital importance, and admitted of no delay. Perhaps it would be possible for her grandfather to help her, Ethel thought, as she hastily began to put the papers together again. As she did so a loose card slipped from the packet and lay at her feet. It was a French postcard, addressed from a number at a post office, and on the other side just three lines:—
His Majesty's Prison,
Here was the information she so sorely needed.
THE discovery worried Ethel more than she cared to admit. Why should other people have suddenly taken an interest in the welfare of Lawrence Hatton after he appeared to be absolutely forgotten? And Ethel would have been less troubled in her mind if these inquiries had not been of quite so recent a date. That somebody had been rummaging amongst the newspapers within the last few weeks was evident; indeed, the fragment torn from the Parisian letter showed as much, to say nothing of the postcard which was still more startling evidence of a recent interference with the contents of the French cabinet.
Doubtless, whoever had been prying here had left the postcard by accident amongst the letters. Ethel turned it over and saw that the stamp indicated a postmark not much more than three weeks old. She took the card to the light and studied it in vain with a view to making out the postmark of the office in England to which it was delivered after being posted in Paris. But the mark was blurred and faint, and even Ethel's sharp eyes could make nothing of it. If she was to find anything out it would certainly not be here. Still she had ascertained the important fact that Lawrence Hatton's release from prison was only a matter of hours and that something would have to be done speedily if she were to see him.
Sir Arthur listened with more or less interest to all that Ethel had to say. His face brightened and his interest grew keener as Ethel produced the postcard for his inspection.
"You see what this is," the girl explained. "This was written by some one in Paris to somebody in London who was anxious to ascertain Lawrence Hatton's address. I am glad that I found it, because it will probably be more useful to me than to the person to whom it was written. But it makes me very uneasy. I can understand how some friend of Mr. Hatton's in London desired to know his whereabouts. But why this secrecy? Why should the card have been addressed to a number at the post office? All this points to mystery. But I should have thought it a good deal safer to put the letter in an envelope in the ordinary way. Don't you think so?"
"I should have done so," Blantyre said thoughtfully. "Do you mean to say that you found this postcard amongst those papers? It seems incredible."
"Incredible or not, it is a fact," Ethel said. "I not only found the postcard there, but also the scrap of letter paper which you have in your hand. And yet you told me that the cabinet hadn't been opened for two or three years, and that the lock is an extraordinarily complicated one."
"Well, is it not?" Blantyre retorted. "You had the keys and can judge. So far as I am concerned, that cabinet has not been opened for nearly three years, and the key has never been out of my possession. But we have too much to think about to worry over a small matter like this. I dare say it will be explained in good time. And, at any rate, you have acquired information through this third person which you would never have discovered for yourself."
"That is true enough," Ethel observed. "And now, as you see for yourself, there is no time to be lost if we are to avail ourselves of the services of Lawrence Hatton. One of us must go to town without delay, so as to be at Wandsworth Prison to meet our unfortunate friend."
"We shall be in town," Sir Arthur said with an unwonted outburst of energy. "I believe I must be in London to-morrow, though I cannot speak definitely till later in the day. Hitherto, on these secret excursions I have gone entirely alone. But the time has come when I must take you into my confidence. I have been thinking over what happened yesterday, and I fancy that you will be able to help me. If I am right then you shall know everything. But for the present you must be content to do what I tell you and ask no questions. And now I shall be glad if you will leave me, for I have a great deal of work to do."
Ethel asked no further questions. She was satisfied with events as far as they had gone. Things were moving at last. The monotony of life was being broken up and anything would be better than the existence which had been her portion at Glenallan for the past few years. The day no longer dragged slowly and wearily as it had done in the past, and Ethel found plenty to do to occupy her attention.
Evening came at length. The first bell had gone for dinner and Ethel was upstairs in her room getting ready for the elaborate ceremony of the evening meal. She waited just a moment for the gong to go again. Her hand was already on the door-knob, when a servant knocked and handed her a note from her grandfather. There were only two or three lines to say that an acquaintance had come in to dinner and that Sir Arthur was anxious that his granddaughter should not meet the newcomer. Any slight excuse would be sufficient to meet what he suggested. Perhaps she might plead the conventional headache so that dinner might be sent up to her own room. The note was in the form of a suggestion. But, at the same time, Ethel could read a command behind it which she did not hesitate to obey. She saw, too, that the letter had been scribbled hurriedly, and that the handwriting was far from steady.
Ethel crushed a desire to ask the servant who the stranger was. Then she turned to him quietly and gave him a message which she desired him to convey to Sir Arthur.
"Tell your master I am much obliged," she said, "but I hope he will excuse me this evening. You may inform him that I have a headache, and that, if he does not mind, I propose to take my dinner in my own room. I think that is all."
The well-trained servant bowed and went his way, and so the evening dragged along. There was nothing in the fact that Ethel was dining in her own room; indeed, she had done the same thing many times before. She dismissed her maid and tried to interest herself in a book. As she sat there with the door ajar she could hear from time to time the sound of voices below, until, gradually, the house grew still and dark as the servants one by one retired to bed. Presently the front door clanged sullenly, and a moment or two later some one knocked gently at Ethel's door, and Sir Arthur Blantyre's pale, anxious face appeared.
"I am glad you fell in with my suggestion to-night," he murmured. "It would have been almost fatal to my plans if you had met the man who insisted upon thrusting his company upon me. But there is no time to be lost in talking. When can you be ready to start for London?"
"To-morrow?" Ethel faltered.
"No, no," Blantyre said fiercely, "I mean now. We must go within the next half-hour. The motor will be ready by that time, and I never take more than one trusted servant with me. Come, surely it won't take you long to pack. At the most we shall not be more than two or three days away, and during that time we are not likely to see anybody, or to have a single moment for pleasure. Put a few of your plainest things together and join me in the hall in half an hour at the very latest. This is the only way we can be in time to intercept Lawrence Hatton."
The name roused Ethel to a sense of her responsibilities. Her courage was rising and she was looking forward to the adventure. A little later it seemed almost like a dream, the flitting from the house a vague unreality. It was so strange to creep away from Glenallan as if they had been thieves in the night, to pass swiftly and silently along the dark country road, until at length the lights of London began to loom in the distance.
To what part they were bound Ethel neither knew nor cared. She was moving rapidly and swiftly and events were beginning to develop. She expressed no surprise when the car pulled up before a handsome house and Blantyre led the way in with the air of a man who is perfectly at home. This was no time to ask questions, the journey had tired Ethel, and all she wanted was to get to bed without delay. There would be time enough to investigate in the morning, and she had plenty of work to do, plenty to occupy her.
Morning came at length and Ethel turned out of the house, her face towards London, filled with a certain resolution. If her heart were beating quicker than usual she did not seem to be conscious of it. She was going to meet the old friend and companion whom she had not seen for years. She wondered if he would recognize her, if he would be able to discern in her handsome self anything of the girl who, at one time, had been his constant companion.
By and by she stood before the grim walls of the great prison, waiting for the doors to open. Nine o'clock she had been told was the time at which the prisoners were released who had served their sentences. But nine o'clock came and went and there was no sign of life beyond those frowning doors. A warder strode across the square at length and Ethel addressed him timidly. She was too late. The discharged prisoners had left an hour before.
CONVICT 196 Opened his eyes, dimly conscious of the fact that to-day something was going to happen. It was still early morning, and the faint ray of dawn was struggling with the last shades of night, so that the prison cell was full of hard brown shadows. The prisoner turned on his wretched bed asking himself in a sleepy way what it was that was about to happen to him. Then, in a somnolent, cynical way he dismissed the idea. For what, indeed, was likely to happen to him? Here he was in a place where one day was so hideously like another that men sometimes went mad from the sheer monotony of it. Why at the dawn of this beautiful spring morning should he suddenly take it into his head that the awful routine of his life was all at once to be broken?
And yet, dismiss the subject as he would, it came cropping up again and again until he could see the outline of the window of his cell and the faint suggestion of a rosy dawn behind it. He was wide awake now, and gradually his brain resumed its normal function. The truth came to him with a swiftness and suddenness that brought him upright in his bed, trembling in every limb and sweating in every pore. The faint flush of day behind the grating grew into a long beam of light which cast itself like a lance, all gold and dazzling, across the greyness of the ceiling. Another moment and Lawrence Hatton was out of bed, staggering across the cold floor as if he had just recovered from a serious illness with limbs still too weak to support him.
He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and began hastily to drag on his prison clothes. Then he laughed unsteadily as he stripped the coarse garments off.
"What a fool I am!" he muttered. "Of course, I remember. This is the day of my release. I am not to put those clothes on. I was told to wait till one of the warders brought me my own garments. And so I am about to exchange the broad arrow and those ghastly grey stockings for the garb of a gentleman again. Well, I have paid the penalty. I have suffered three years for a crime that I never committed. But it will be no use telling the world that, for no one will believe me. Not that it matters in the least, seeing that Raymond Watney is the only friend I have left. I suppose he will meet me as he promised. Ah, well, though I feel like an old man with every hope gone, it will be good to shake that honest hand again, it will be good to sit down to a civilized table and eat a meal which is worthy of something better than a dog."
So Lawrence Hatton sat there musing until the great bell of the prison clanged out and the wards burst into echoing life. It was a little before eight o'clock when a warder appeared bearing a neat pile of clothing and the usual breakfast in the usual unattractive tin. The warder nodded in friendly fashion.
"I have brought you these," he said. "You will have to come before the Governor presently to claim any valuables that may belong to you. I have brought your breakfast, too, though I don't suppose you will care much about that."
"I think not," Hatton said drily. "I propose, if a friend of mine meets me, to have something a little more attractive. You can take it away, thanks."
A little time dragged on, and then, feeling almost uncomfortable in his ordinary clothing, Hatton appeared before the Governor. It was not a long ceremony, and almost before he knew it he was standing in the open air with the sun shining down upon him, a man free to go where he liked and to seek his own pleasures and enjoyments. Just for a moment he stood almost stunned by the sudden change of his fortunes. A mist rose before his eyes blotting out the sunshine. Then, as if ashamed of this momentary weakness, he pulled himself together and looked about him.
If he had expected to meet a friend there, he was doomed to disappointment. For the moment he did not know which way to go or where to turn. Just for an instant it occurred to him that his friend had deliberately failed him; then he put the idea aside as one utterly unworthy.
"I mustn't get like that," he whispered to himself. "I must try to believe that all the world is not against me. There may be lots of good reasons why Watney could not turn up this morning. A busy journalist is never entirely master of his own time. But I wish I could recollect where he lived, so that I could look him up for myself."
But this was cold comfort for a man who stood there with no prospect before him and, so far as eye could see, friendless. Other prisoners were being released besides himself, perhaps a score or more of them altogether, and Hatton saw with something like a pang of envy that hardly one left the precincts of the gaol alone. For the most part they were met by friends. Women were waiting anxiously, so say nothing of a handful of children. But of Raymond Watney there was no sign, and presently Hatton began to shuffle along in an aimless kind of way, looking for a seat where he could sit down and think the matter out. It seemed to him that he was being followed. Then he turned to a man in a shabby suit of clothes and fiercely inquired whether he wanted to speak to him.
The little foxy man grinned uneasily and writhed about as if afraid to speak. Then, in a hoarse whisper he mentioned Lawrence's name and inquired as to his identity.
"Oh, that's all right," Hatton said impatiently. "We need not make any mystery on that score. My name is Lawrence Hatton, and I have just come out of Wandsworth Prison yonder, having finished my sentence. That I was innocent is a mere detail. And now tell me what you want. I can hardly believe that you have been sent here by any friend of mine, because I don't think that any of my old acquaintances would employ a man of your class in any capacity unless he had suddenly taken to dog-stealing. Now do speak out."
The little man writhed and wriggled. There was an uneasy grin on his face as if he were trying to appreciate Hatton's grim pleasantry. He spoke huskily at length.
"Nevertheless, you are quite wrong, sir," he said. "I did come here to meet you on behalf of a friend of yours who could not be here himself. He instructed me to come here——"
"Not Watney, I'll swear," Lawrence cried.
The little man shook his head with a puzzled expression.
"I never heard the name before, sir," he said; "indeed, to tell you the truth, the gentleman for whom I am acting didn't give me his name. He told me exactly what I was to do and paid me for my services, and that's why I am here. I was to come and see you and ask you to come with me as far as the Embankment Gardens. We were to sit down there on a certain seat, and then, as far as I am concerned, my business will be finished."
"Extraordinary," Lawrence muttered. "Upon my word, I had no idea that so many persons were interested in my welfare. And so I am to come with you like a child and ask no questions, and presently this fairy godfather is to appear with a fortune all ready to pour into my lap. Well, I am alone in the world. I am reckless and desperate, for the one friend I relied upon seems to have played me false. Seeing that it doesn't matter two straws what becomes of me, you can guide me to the rendezvous and introduce me to Prince Fortunatus."
The little man grinned and winked as he slapped his pocket significantly. With a curt gesture Hatton signified that he might lead the way, and together the ill-assorted couple shuffled along until they came to the railway station. In the same silence they travelled till they reached Waterloo. It was with strangely mingled feelings that Lawrence surveyed the bustling station and crowds of people on the platforms. Even in the space of time in which he had been withdrawn from the world things seemed to have changed. It was strange to think that for the last three years he had never seen a daily paper. A thousand questions trembled on his tongue, but he was too proud and reserved to speak to his companion. They came at length to the Embankment Gardens now glowing tender green in their young spring foliage. And here the shabby little man indicated a seat. He cocked his head on one side and listened as a neighbouring clock struck.
"We are a quarter of an hour too soon," he said. "But you have only to sit here and wait. As for myself, I will wish you a respectful good morning. I thank you for your company and the geniality and friendship of your manners."
With this parting thrust the little man went on his way, leaving Hatton to wonder what was going to happen next. As he sat there deeply immersed in thought, he heard his name mentioned. He looked up in surprise to see a girl standing before him.
"Lawrence," she murmured. "Have you forgotten?"
"Really," Hatton replied, "you have the advantage. Good Heavens! it is Ethel—Miss Blantyre. Surely I am not mistaken."
LAWRENCE HATTON'S first impulse was to laugh. He felt a hysterical grip at his throat. There was something almost humorous in this meeting. For here was the very last person in the world that he expected to see; the last person whom he would have desired to see had the matter been left to his own free choice. Of all the folk he would have chosen to share his solitude and give him the encouragement he needed, no persons were more remote than those with whom he had been associated in the old days when he was a happy youth with all the world before him. He checked the impulse. A physical weakness had suddenly caught him and held him firm. All his strength and manhood seemed to have departed from him. Just for the time being he had forgotten that the hour was getting late, and that he had not yet breakfasted. He sat on the seat, feeling very much like a child that has lost itself in some fierce, selfish crowd. He did not in the least look like a man who had been an athlete in his day. Even yet he did not fully realize that he was in the open sunshine. He could not grasp the exquisite beauty of the tender spring green. The subtle fragrance of the lilacs touched him not at all. If the roar of the traffic in the distant Strand caught his ear, it was drowned by the dreadful clamour of a remorseless bell. He could still hear the echo of iron heels on flagged pavements, and the never-ending click of keys in ceaseless locks. Yet it seemed impossible to believe that he had only come out of gaol that morning, and that, not two hours before, the doors of Wandsworth Gaol had closed upon him. It was nearly three years since he had last looked upon a green tree or a tender blossom. He was trying to understand what it all meant. Then the feeling of weakness came over him again and he closed his eyes as if in sleep.
It seemed to the girl standing opposite him that there was no suggestion of the prison taint on Lawrence Hatton. To Ethel he looked more like a man who was just recovering from some dangerous illness. She could not fail to notice the sadness in his eyes. Thank Heaven, he had not been spoilt by his penance. There was no shadow of the criminal outcast at war with society here, no revengeful being smarting under the sense of unmerited punishment.
Lawrence had carefully schooled himself against that. He knew that no one would have believed his assertion that he was innocent. The judge had been dead against him from the first, and the jury had given their verdict without leaving the box. Well, he had paid his penalty, and now he was free. He had lost position, friends, everything that goes to make up the sum of life. And here, when things looked just at their lowest ebb, something had happened that was in the nature of a miracle.
"Did you come to look for me?" he asked.
Ethel blushed painfully. Lawrence hungrily noted the delicate flower-like beauty of her face. In his eyes it was a sweet, refined, thoughtful face, lighted by deeply-sympathetic eyes, and a mouth that told of gentleness and sympathy. For the rest, the girl had an air of true breeding—she was exactly what Lawrence Hatton had pictured. She was exactly as he would have described her had he had occasion to do so. And she had come in search of him and was glad to see him once more, or her eyes belied her.
"This is extraordinary," Lawrence murmured. "A most amazing thing. I left gaol this morning expecting to find a friend awaiting me, who fails to turn up. Then a stranger brings me here and tells me to wait with what patience I possess till somebody comes along who is about to befriend me."
"There is somebody else, then?" Ethel asked.
"It certainly looked like it," Lawrence said with a ghost of a laugh. "But, with your permission, we will let my anonymous friend take care of himself for the moment. I cannot permit an opportunity like this to slip. Here was I a minute or two ago praying to Heaven for one friend to clasp me by the hand, for just one kindly voice in my ear—anybody who had sympathy for those in suffering and distress—and, behold, I have found you. My dear Ethel, I did not hope my prayer would be granted thus. But I forget myself. I forget the gulf that three years has placed between us. Still, be that as it may, it is very good of you, Miss Blantyre——"
"Don't, Lawrence," Ethel whispered. The tears were falling from her eyes. The long purple lashes were wet with them. "Oh, if you only knew how you hurt me when you speak like that."
Impulsively she held out her hand to Lawrence, and just for a moment he held it in a rigid clasp. He could feel the soft, loving caress of those fingers, and their touch brought balm to his scarred spirit. He felt strangely uplifted and strong.
"And so you believe in me still, Ethel?" he asked.
"Oh, my dear Lawrence, yes," the girl said. "Black as things always looked, I never wavered in my belief in your innocence. It was a great grief to me when I discovered that I could do nothing to help you. But you know my grandfather and his family pride; how no one was good enough to associate with the Blantyres of Glenallan. The fact that you were a gentleman counted for nothing. But, of course, all the time I knew that you were innocent. Many of us knew it. And even my grandfather is convinced. And that brings me to the point of my presence here this morning. It was only by the sheerest good luck in the world that I found you. Unfortunately I reached the prison too late, or I should have been with you before. You will be surprised to hear that I have come here with a message from my grandfather. But I knew, too, that you would be glad to see me if only for my own sake."
Once more the little fingers pressed Hatton's lovingly. He had forgotten all his troubles. Everything had gone from him but the exquisite joy of the moment. The past had been bridged over in the last few minutes, and the pretty girl whom he had called his sweetheart in the old days met him now as if it had not existed and as if there were a perfect understanding between them. Small wonder, then, that he forgot everything but the joy and happiness of the present.
"I shall be able to speak coherently by and by," he said. "I shall be able to grasp the fact that you have not forgotten me, that we are still a little more than friends. But why were you anxious to find me?"
"It was my own idea," Ethel said with a little colour in her cheeks. "For some time a great trouble has been coming over the fortunes of the Blantyres. Don't ask me what it is, because I do not know. And even if I did, I am afraid I could not tell you. My grandfather has aged terribly of late. He has lost a deal of his self-reliance and has taken me to some extent into his confidence. He told me that he was in need of a friend who would give himself up heart and soul to assist in some scheme that he has on hand, and I ventured to suggest your name to Sir Arthur. That is why I came to see you this morning, and perhaps that is why I am so fortunate as to find you here. I came this way, because I wanted to walk and think, and to my mind this is one of the prettiest spots in London. My grandfather will be pleased to know I was not too late. He thought you would be too proud to look up old friends, and that probably when you were a free man you would drift abroad."
"So I should," Lawrence smiled. "I was just thinking out the best way when you spoke to me. And now let us move a little farther on before my mysterious friend turns up. I shall feel quite justified in giving him the slip, seeing that I have found real friends, and in any case I mistrusted his messenger. And now, can't you tell me in a few words what your grandfather requires?"
"I am coming to that point as quickly as possible. I should say that Sir Arthur wants something in the way of a secretary. I should say, too, that the work will be hard and there may be danger attached to it. You will have to be discreet and silent, and the less you are seen in the world the better. But, of course, Sir Arthur will tell you all about that himself. And now, are you ready to come with me? Are you willing to throw in your lot with ours and help us to lift this cloud from our house?"
"I should be ungrateful if I refused," Lawrence said quietly. "It is very kind and thoughtful of Sir Arthur to trust me so implicitly after what has happened. You may rely upon me to do the best I can; only I should like to get away for a day or two to some quiet place until I have control of my nerves. And now, don't you think you could manage to take me to Sir Arthur at once?"
Ethel waited to hear no more. It was exactly what she required. Her heart was flowing with tenderness.
"We will do our best to make you happy with us," she murmured. "We are going to trust you implicitly, and we hope that that trust will be mutual. And however black things may seem, you must never lose faith in the Blantyres. I am certain that we shall come out happy and triumphant in the end."
Ethel appeared as if about to say more, then suddenly checked herself. It was some time later that the girl turned into a gate leading to a house set back from the road and bordered by a strip of lawn. It was one of those houses to the north of Regent's Park—the quiet secluded quarter which seems at times to be in the country. Ethel smiled a welcome.
"Here we are," she said. "For the time being, this is our hiding-place; though why we are here, and how long we are going to stay is only known to Sir Arthur."
LAWRENCE followed into the house. He saw that the hall was in semi-darkness, as, indeed, was every room on the ground floor. The electric lights were burning brilliantly, though it was not yet mid-day. The place itself was one mass of flowers—white flowers for the most part, but there were geraniums and begonias, too, the scent of which was almost overpowering. Outside was a conservatory or winter garden. Lawrence had never seen so many flowers massed together before. He turned an inquiring eye on Ethel.
"Very strange, is it not?" she whispered. "But please don't ask me to explain. What it all means, I have not the remotest notion, for I have never been here before, and I never dreamt that my grandfather had a house other than Glenallan. You had better take it all for granted until Sir Arthur is disposed to make a confidant of you. Meanwhile, I'll go and look for him."
Ethel flitted away. To Lawrence the house was painfully silent and he sat with a vague sense of coming evil. He seemed to hear the tolling of that dreadful prison bell still. Then a footman in the plainest and severest of black liveries came like a ghost out of the gloom. His face was pale and his lips twitched slightly.
"Please come this way, sir," he said in a whisper. "Sir Arthur is ready to see you now."
Lawrence Hatton found himself in a large room at the back of the house opening out into a magnificent conservatory. It was quite evident that the owner of the house was attached to flowers of all kinds, though Lawrence could not call to mind any hobby of that sort on Sir Arthur's part in the old days. Still, this was no time to ask questions. There was no artificial light here, and the rays of the sun came softly through the dome of the great transparent house. A figure rose from the depths of a cavernous armchair—a figure at once strange yet familiar to Hatton.
"So this," he told himself, "is all that remains of Sir Arthur Blantyre after the lapse of three years." The hard, wiry frame was still there, but the chest was sunken, and the keen, dark eyes retained little of their wonted fire. The curly hair was white, though the moustache and imperial still retained some suggestion of their darkness.
"Sit down, Mr. Hatton," Blantyre said after extending a shaking hand to his companion. "This is a strange meeting after all these years. And if you have had your misfortunes, God knows I have not been free from mine."
Looking at the speaker, Lawrence could well believe it. Yet he was a man whose family and property were the envy of a whole countryside. None was so proud and exclusive as were the Blantyres of Glenallan. The Hattons, good old family as they were, had never aspired to be on equal terms with the owners of Glenallan.
"I am a broken man, Sir Arthur," Lawrence said quietly. "Four years ago I looked to great things in my profession as a barrister. My dear old father could leave me nothing when he died. But his death-bed was rendered smooth by the fact that he knew I had made a fair start in the world. Then came my cruel misfortune—one of the strangest cases of a miscarriage of justice that ever took place in a court of law. But we need not dwell upon that. I live in hopes that some day my character will be vindicated——"
"It shall," Blantyre cried excitedly as he paced about the room. "It is possible that I may be able to show you how. Did it ever strike you that Victor Le Blanc could have turned the tide in your favour if you had summoned him as a witness?"
"That is possible," Lawrence said coolly. "Victor Le Blanc was an old school-fellow of mine, and his mother and my father were great friends. But the elder Le Blanc was a thorough-paced scoundrel and I am afraid that Victor took after him."
"Good Heavens, yes! It was a bad day for me when the doors of Glenallan opened to admit that rascal. But go on."
"Is there any need, Sir Arthur?" Lawrence asked. "Of course, I could have called Le Blanc had I so chosen. If I had done so, certain episodes in his past would have been disclosed, and the scandal would have killed his mother. She eventually did die of a weak heart, I believe. And as for her, why, I loved her like a mother. And she was so fond and proud of Victor, she was so sure that he was not likely to take after his father. For her sake I suffered, buoyed up with the hope that my good name would be cleared in the end. Otherwise——"
"Oh, I know, I know," Sir Arthur said sadly. "It was, indeed, wasted kindness. On the whole face of the earth there is no greater scoundrel than Victor Le Blanc. I could not measure the misery that he has brought upon my house. He has humbled my pride in the dust, he has made me what I am. And even yet the measure of his wickedness is not full. I will tell you later how I incurred his displeasure, and how he is preparing a vengeance which will make me a laughing-stock and a by-word wherever the name of Blantyre is known. For my sake, for Ethel's sake, in the interests of another who must be nameless for the moment, this thing will have to be stopped. . . . I suppose you failed to recognize Ethel when she spoke to you this morning. You found her much changed?"
"I think she might have walked by me without recognition, Sir Arthur. The pretty child I used to be so fond of has grown to a very beautiful girl. You must recognize that."
"Indeed, I do, Hatton. And yet there are times, God forgive me, when I wish that she had never been born. Still, we are a brave race, and I am not going to despair. I sent for you to come to my little hiding-place here, first because I feel you are innocent, and secondly because I knew you would find some difficulty in finding employment—at any rate, for the present. But that is not the only reason. You have no acquaintances to chatter with. You will be prudent and not talk. Now if you accept the post which I am going to offer you, can I rely upon your courage?"
"It was never doubted," Lawrence said quietly. "I don't know what to do or where to turn. But I will do anything so long as your work is honourable."
"That is just how I expected you to speak," Sir Arthur replied. "Your nerve will be tried, and your pluck tested to the uttermost. As to the material side of the bargain I will pay you well. But you will have to move quietly and diplomatically, and, above all things, you must contrive to blind everybody to the fact that you are working on my behalf. I am afraid the first task I am going to give you will not be a congenial one, but I want you to seek out Le Blanc and learn all about his movements. I know for a fact that he is back from Paris plotting the vengeance which I have spoken of. If you could manage to drive him out of the country——"
"There are more unlikely things," Lawrence exclaimed. "But, tell me, where is the man to be found, and what is he doing? He bade fair at one time to make a reputation as an artist, like his father before him."
"My dear Hatton he has made quite a great name," Blantyre cried. "In France his reputation stands very high. It is through this gift of his that he means to strike me. I cannot tell you everything at present, but I am already letting you into secrets which, up to now, are unknown even to Ethel.... It is strange that a man like Le Blanc could be so inspired and yet so depraved. But I am wandering. Of course, you will say nothing to Le Blanc as to your coming from me. You will act on your own inspiration. You will find out all you can, and let me know every one of that man's movements. Above all, you are to keep an eye upon his artistic work and see that I am thoroughly posted. Ethel and myself will go back to Glenallan to-morrow, for the pressing business which brought me here is finished for the moment. If you want money you may draw upon me for all you require. And don't write to me at Glenallan, come down and see me if you have anything important to say."
Lawrence glanced thoughtfully at the speaker. The latter's words seemed to be business-like enough, but he was palpably the prey of some strong emotion. What hold could that scoundrel have over Sir Arthur? It seemed almost impossible that this thing could be, and yet something had transformed this strong man into a pitiable nervous wreck.
"I will do all I can," Lawrence said. "I am sorry that you cannot see your way to trusting me implicitly."
"I dare not," Sir Arthur groaned. "Besides, the secret is not entirely mine. If I could buy off that man with money, I would not hesitate if it cost me my whole fortune. But poorly extravagant as that fellow is, I cannot move him in that way."
"We may find another method," Lawrence said cheerfully. "And now give me his address, and I will see what I can do for you. I suppose the fellow has a studio in London."
"In Fitzroy Square," Sir Arthur explained. "I will write down the number for you. And now I shall be glad if you will leave me, for I am very tired."
With the address in his pocket, Lawrence went back into the hall amongst the darkness and the flowers. If he had hoped to meet Ethel he was doomed to disappointment. The girl was nowhere to be seen. But there were more important matters to occupy his attention. He stepped out into the open and looked down the road. He saw no one but an itinerant musician with a tin whistle. Lawrence started back and hid himself in the doorway.
LAWRENCE strode along in the direction of the Temple feeling that he had, indeed, something like an object in life. He had not dared to analyse his own sensations. But now that he was alone the full significance of the last few hours came upon him with almost overpowering force. He began to be cognizant of the fact that he was filled with a ravening sense of hunger. He had been faint with the want of food when he had met with Ethel Blantyre. But the sensations of the moment had carried him out of himself, and all physical feelings had given place to the spiritual call on his nature. At any rate, he was hungry enough now. He could go no farther without good and proper food. He was almost astonished to find that already he began to see the humorous side of life, seeing that for the past three years he had heard and witnessed nothing which was in the least likely to bring a smile to his lips.
The joy of life was moving in his veins. He felt equal to the task before him. He turned into one of the smaller restaurants in the Strand, and after studying the menu to the best advantage provided a full and satisfying meal. It was not particularly well served or well cooked for the matter of that, but after the loathsome monotony of prison fare it seemed to Lawrence to be ambrosia fit for the gods—the sweetest fare that he had ever tasted in his life. Greatly extravagant, he purchased a cigarette, then went on his way feeling quite equal to cope with any emergency. He had lost the nervous sensation of the morning, though he was still, perhaps, just a little dazed and confused with the rapid march of events. He could not altogether rid himself of the strange feeling that he was old-fashioned and behind the times, but he was human enough to note with satisfaction that there was nothing particularly old-fashioned about his clothing. So far as outward appearances were concerned men were very much the same to look at as when the doors of a prison had clanged behind him.
He would see Le Blanc without delay, though as yet he was hardly prepared with an excuse for calling upon him. And after his mission was done in this respect, he would go and look up his friend, Raymond Watney. He felt that he would find the latter useful at this juncture, for Watney was a well-known journalist who knew everybody and would be able to furnish him with the trend of recent public events. Besides this, it was possible that Watney might be able to give him some fresh hints of the career of the artist whose pictures were just now causing such a stir in the world. On the whole, he thought it would be best if he called in at Watney's chambers and saw him first. It was not difficult to obtain the journalist's address from a Post Office Directory, and Lawrence was fortunate enough to find his friend at home. The little man with the gold spectacles greeted him heartily and sincerely.
"My dear old chap, I am delighted to see you," he said. "I have looked forward to this day with pleasure. Some time or another we are going to prove your innocence and put the right man in your place. I was more than sorry I could not meet you this morning, but a most important piece of business cropped up at the last moment and prevented me. However, I felt sure you would look me up, and now, having done so, sit down and make yourself at home. On the whole, you look better and happier than I should have expected. Surely some piece of good fortune has befallen you. Help yourself to cigarettes and tell me all about it."
Thus encouraged, Lawrence told his story, the recital of which appeared to fill Watney with satisfaction.
"That is really good hearing," he said heartily. "I am glad you have found something to do, and you might be far worse employed than giving Sir Arthur a helping hand. I don't understand Blantyre myself or what he is suffering from. Of course, I haven't come in close contact with him for years, not since you and myself and Le Blanc were boys together at Glenallan. But I saw the other man the other day and I was shocked to see the change in him. You remember how frightened we used to be of him in the old days."
"I recollect," Lawrence smiled. "As a matter of fact, Blantyre has confided in me to a certain extent. As far as I can gather I am going to act as a kind of private detective. First of all, I have to look up our old acquaintance, Victor Le Blanc. He seems to be the man of whom Sir Arthur stands in such dread. There is some question of a vendetta between them, but exactly what it is I am not free to say. But I am in a position to go and see Le Blanc, because I can plead the old days when we were friends, and profess that I have called upon him with a view to finding something to do. I am told he has gone tremendously far during the last two or three years, but as to that I can say very little, because I have been out of the world. Any information on the subject of our old acquaintance I shall welcome with gratitude."
Watney puffed vigorously at his cigarette.
"Thorough blackguard," he said laconically. "And, between ourselves, he always was—though we were too young and unsophisticated in the old days to know it. Taking into consideration the fact that we were all boys together years ago——"
"Oh, I know all about that," Lawrence said grimly. "I am alluding to the last three years. Can you help me?"
"Well, I can give you more or less authentic gossip," Watney said. "Le Blanc earned for himself an evil reputation here; in fact, for the time, London was too hot to hold him, so that he fell back on the more congenial atmosphere of Paris. But after a time there he pulled himself together and changed his life. He threw all his shady friends and companions over and became so morose and misanthropic that he appeared to be simply posing. At the same time, he did not neglect his art, for he turned out three pictures one after another which attracted tremendous attention at the Salon, and now he is back in London with a big reputation already made. Of course, I am only speaking from hearsay, for I haven't taken the trouble to look the man up, and since he has been in London we have not met."
"A difficult man to approach," Lawrence suggested.
"Just in his present mood, I should say he is. He sees nobody. He goes nowhere, and declines to be interviewed. I dare say it is all part of an attitude; but there it is. Gossip has it he has just finished a marvellous picture, which will be on view before long in one of the leading galleries. But as to this, I can't say for certain, because when Le Blanc is in London he is absolutely alone in his studio and keeps nothing in the shape of servant. He has an old woman to light his fires and do his dusting, but this is only a matter of an hour or so. I am afraid I can't tell you more than this."
"A strange change for a born Sybarite like Le Blanc," Lawrence murmured. "But I will go and see him and take the bull by the horns. You say that I shall probably be refused admittance, in which case I must open the door and walk in, I suppose. I'll let you know how things go. Oh, by the way, there is one thing I had forgotten—you say you intended meeting me this morning, but were prevented by a piece of important business. Did you send anybody as a messenger, by any chance, to take your place?"
Watney shook his head resolutely. Most assuredly he had used no messenger; indeed, it was not till a few minutes before the time to set out for Wandsworth that an imperative command over the telephone changed all his plans.
"Why do you ask the question?"
"Well, because somebody did meet me," Lawrence proceeded to explain. "Outside the gaol I was accosted by a little old man whose appearance and expression of face by no means prepossessed me in his favour. He was very vague and mysterious, and all I could get out of him was that somebody wished to see me on an important matter at a certain time in the Embankment Gardens. I resolved to see the adventure through, though I am bound to confess I didn't like it in the least. But what the upshot of it would have been I can't say, because Miss Blantyre came on the scene and changed all my plans. I went off with her to Regent's Park, and from what I know to the contrary my mysterious benefactor may be still cooling his heels behind Somerset House. It suddenly occurred to me that this messenger might have been from you."
"You may abandon that idea," Watney said.
"I saw the man again," Lawrence went on. "He was in the road outside the house near Regent's Park playing the beggar with the aid of a penny whistle. Without being unduly suspicious, his appearance there struck me as strange. Evidently somebody has an eye upon me already."
"IT sounds rather queer," Watney admitted. "However, it is no business of mine, and you will have to work this thing out in your own way. And now, as I am rather busy, the best thing you can do is to go off on your errand and come back presently with an account of your adventures. Then we can lunch together and talk about the future. Off you go."
Lawrence made his way towards Fitzroy Square. He found the studio of which he was in search—a low, rambling, dilapidated-looking place in a neglected garden which opened on the far side by means of a little green gate. There was an air of mystery about the house which struck him as sinister. He went through the ceremony of knocking at the door, but no reply coming he laid his hand upon the handle and found that the lock turned quite easily to the touch. Only for a moment he hesitated, then went boldly and determinedly in. It would be easy to explain his presence to Le Blanc if the latter happened to be upon the premises. If not, why, then, it was just possible that some useful piece of information might reward this bold and hazardous intrusion.
If the outer aspect of the place suggested decay, the studio itself was luxurious to the last degree. The room was large and lofty. A great sky window filled the studio with brilliant spring light, touching up the Cordova leather hangings on the walls, and glinting on the ancient armour. The polished oak floor was strewn with the skins of various animals. Here and there were carved oak chairs. The whole was very pleasing and restful to the eye, but after one look round the picture in the centre of the floor riveted the attention of the visitor to the exclusion of everything else. The canvas was a large one on a big easel. It was slanted at an angle that caught the full light from the roof. As to the rest, the work represented a female figure in a simple white gown with a bunch of violets at her throat.
She appeared to be standing by the side of a rustic table on which was a dark rose, lying upon an open letter. One hand touched the rose irresolutely, whilst the slender fingers of the other hand firmly clasped a diamond star. The allegory was quite plain—youth and innocence hesitating between love and the desire for power and riches. An exclamation of admiration came from Lawrence's lips. And yet the picture was irritating because it was not finished. The face which would have made the whole thing complete was represented as yet only by an oval staring blank in the centre of the canvas. Obviously the painting was still being worked upon, for there was a chair, whereon a model had been seated, with a silken wrap thrown carelessly across it. From an inner room came a little laugh and two or three words which struck Lawrence almost like a blow. It seemed to him that he was listening to the voice of Ethel Blantyre. Then he put the absurd supposition aside. A moment later and some one was addressing him by name. He came back to earth again with a start and a muttered apology.
"I suppose you are surprised to see me," he murmured.
"Surprise is not quite the word I should have chosen," the other man said grimly. "I allow no one to come here, and people respect my wishes. Why, therefore, do you intrude?"
Lawrence glanced fixedly at Le Blanc. He saw a slight, dark man with a strong powerful face and a wonderfully noble head. The face was handsome enough, though the effect of the whole was spoilt by the affected cut of the hair and the waxed moustaches. The eyes were a trifle furtive, too.
"Why should I be ashamed?" Lawrence asked. "Nobody in the wide world knows better than you that I have done no harm. You could have gone a long way to prove my innocence had I called you at my trial. If your mother had not been alive I should not have had the slightest hesitation in doing so."
"You were always considerate for the feelings of others," Le Blanc sneered. "But what can I do for you? If it is money you are after, then you have had your errand for your pains. All this looks like wealth, but it is not paid for. I can have my fame and its consequent future for the asking any day. But there is one thing I want first—revenge! There is a proud soul that I have to humble in the dust. . . . What do you think of my picture?"
"A pity it is not finished," Lawrence said. "There is genius in every brush mark. I should very much like to see it when the face is filled in. There is something about the figure which puzzles me, it is so suggestive—of—of——"
Lawrence paused in some confusion, conscious that Le Blanc's dark, burning eyes were upon him.
"You might as well finish," he said. "You were going to say that my heroine is suggestive of Ethel Blantyre."
"The resemblance is very strong," Lawrence stammered.
"You are as frank and as ingenuous as ever," Le Blanc sneered. "When you got into trouble Ethel Blantyre was no more than a child. You were nothing to her then, for people in our position only associated with the Blantyres on sufferance. Family pride was a disease with Sir Arthur. And yet you, fresh from gaol this very morning speak of the likeness of my heroine's figure to Miss Blantyre's. Why, you have told me your story and your errand as plainly as if you had put it into words. Sir Arthur has employed you to spy upon me and keep him au fait of my movements. I cannot congratulate the baronet upon his choice of a detective."
Lawrence flushed with deep annoyance. He had not expected to be read in this fashion.
"I can say a good deal about your past," he retorted. "I am practically in a position to drive you out of London."
"Really," Le Blanc sneered. "It would be easy for me to denounce you as a gaol bird who has attempted to blackmail me. I have only to declare that you came here to extort money by threats, and you would have to go back yonder at once to serve out the balance of your sentence. Prison rat, do you dare to measure your brain against mine!"
The voice was hard and grating, and it was all so cruelly true. In the eyes of the world, Lawrence Hatton was a convict. Nobody would have believed his story. It only needed the lifting of Le Blanc's little finger, and those dreadful doors would close upon him again. The artist's laugh stung him to the quick.
"Earthen pipkins cannot swim with iron pots," Le Blanc sneered. "Go back to your patron and tell him you have failed. And don't forget to inform him all about the picture."
There was a mocking suggestion in the last words that struck Lawrence like a chill. He was sure that there was some horrible significance behind them.
"The picture is to be of the most beautiful girl in the world," Le Blanc resumed with the same dread suggestion. "I call that picture 'The World's Desire.' Even one so futile as you can see the meaning of the allegory. Tell Sir Arthur all about it. Tell him of whom my heroine's figure reminds you. Tell him that the face will be painted in to-morrow, and that, in a day or two, the whole thing will be the gem of a Bond Street gallery, the talk of the day, another epoch in my career. Through that picture I will strike at Sir Arthur's pride. Through it I will stab him to the heart. He will understand."
Le Blanc had risen and was pacing up and down the room.
"There are revenges and revenges," he went on. "Some of them are clumsy and crude like the vengeance of the knife or the bullet. What avails you to strike your victim down and end his tortures before he can enjoy them? My father taught me that—there was no better or cleverer hater in the world. Sir Arthur slighted me once, but I told him I should get even with him. I have plotted and waited for my time which has come at last. If the face of my heroine were fitted into that picture it would fill you with delight and pleasure. Sir Arthur will regard it with disgust and loathing. Oh, you must not forget to tell him about the picture. I would give five years of my life to be there and see his face."
A dry chuckle broke from Le Blanc as he concluded his speech. His face had cleared and his eyes were laughing almost frankly.
"Go away, little sheep," he said, "go and report progress. But stop, I shall be quite curious to know what has happened. You will also be curious to know more, and I will gratify that weakness if you will come and see me again. You have not so many friends that your nights are fully occupied. I am going to take a lady to the theatre this evening and I shall be back by half-past eleven. Come and see me then—walk in with the charming absence of ceremony you displayed just now, and don't forget the picture. A la bonne heure. Now go away, little sheep."
Without another word Lawrence turned on his heel. He felt baffled and humiliated. It was degrading to realize how quickly Le Blanc had read him. And now he would have to go back to Sir Arthur and proclaim himself an absolute and complete failure. He could see the grinning triumph in the eyes of Le Blanc. And yet he had no retort ready upon which he could make a graceful exit.
It was at this moment that the door at the back of the studio opened and a girl looked in. Seeing that Le Blanc was engaged, she turned away again with a quick apology, but not before Lawrence had caught a glimpse of her face. Then he walked quietly into the road and wiped the perspiration from his face.
"Ethel!" he murmured, "there! Am I going Ethel mad?"
ETHEL in Le Blanc's studio!
The idea was ridiculous, preposterous, and not to be entertained for a moment. And yet, if Lawrence had been compelled to give testimony in a Court of Law, honour would have obliged him to swear that, for a moment, he had been face to face with Ethel Blantyre. The vision had come upon him so swiftly and unexpectedly that there was no room for doubt. Another minute or two, perhaps, and he might have been able to analyse the fact, and come to the conclusion that the whole thing had been no more than a wonderful coincidence. But then, there had been no time for speculation, no time to discern the difference between a blue eye or a brown one, the different hues of hair, or the subtle expressions which distinguish people whom Nature has cast in a precisely similar mould. There was, he thought, no getting away from the fact that Ethel Blantyre was in Le Blanc's studio, the only difference, so far as Lawrence could recall, being that her face had worn a gay, indeed, almost an artificial smile, which was so unlike the gentle, amiable expression he had always noticed on the features of his old playmate.
As he stood there gathering his scattered thoughts he recollected one or two smaller matters which might be destined later to produce great results. For instance, it occurred to him that the girl of the studio had been extravagantly and smartly dressed, in a fashion not likely to be affected by Miss Blantyre. Then, too, it seemed to Lawrence that there had come wafted into the studio a peculiar odour, the like of which he had never smelt before. It was not unpleasant or sickly, or overpoweringly pungent. On the contrary, there was something essentially feminine about it, something suggestive of the toilet and the boudoir. Beyond doubt, the splendid vision in the studio had been responsible for this. It was, after all, only a minor detail, but Ethel Blantyre was simple in her habits and would be the last person in the world to use so striking a perfume, or anything in the nature of a scent at all.
"Oh, what does it matter?" Lawrence muttered to himself impatiently. "Why am I worrying over trifles when the great fact remains? But I suppose in investigations like this there are no such things as trifles. I believe that is the lesson that most detectives have to learn at the outset of their career. At any rate, I'll make a note of it, because this information may come in useful later. And now I suppose the best thing I can do is to inform Sir Arthur what a failure I have been. It was wonderful how quickly that fellow discerned the object of my mission and guessed who had sent me."
Lawrence was in no very exalted frame of mind when he reached his destination. Still, he was prudent enough to glance carefully up and down the road before he entered the house. The mysterious individual with the tin whistle was no longer to be seen. Doubtless he had finished his errand and gone elsewhere. The same pale-faced footman who had admitted Lawrence earlier in the day informed him that Sir Arthur was out and that his return was somewhat uncertain. At the same time, he had left word that if Mr. Hatton called, he was to be good enough to wait. Lawrence came into the hall.
"I might see Miss Blantyre," he suggested.
He put the question with a certain amount of hesitation, hoping with all his heart that the footman would reply that Ethel was at home. In that case, he would know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he had been mistaken, and that the radiant vision of Le Blanc's studio was no more than a double of Sir Arthur's granddaughter. But this hope was dashed to the ground by a shake of the footman's head.
"Miss Blantyre is out, too, sir," he said.
"She has gone with Sir Arthur?" Lawrence asked.
"No, sir. A telegram came for Sir Arthur directly after you left, and he went out immediately. It was some time later before Miss Blantyre went out. She went out alone. But I think she would be back in time for lunch."
Lawrence went to the conservatory and possessed his soul with as much patience as he could muster. The time crept slowly along until the clock over the mantelpiece struck the hour of two, and with it came the sound of voices outside and the entrance of Ethel into the room. Lawrence thought she was a little confused. But he dismissed this from his mind as an idle fancy. But it was no fancy, as he saw, for the girl's face was pale, and there was a look in her eyes which was not altogether free from fear. Then, as she moved across the room and took her seat close by the double doors leading to the conservatory, Lawrence could have sworn that he caught a whiff of that peculiar perfume which had puzzled him so a short time before. Of course, this might have been no more than the fruit of his suspicions, but he pressed his handkerchief to his nostrils, and then, as he took the cambric away, the scent was once more apparent.
Well, it was no business of his. The secret was Ethel's and he would not seek to pry into it. Yet it was unaccountable that the girl who appeared to be on the side of her grandfather should be associating herself with Le Blanc, Sir Arthur's deadly enemy, in such an underhand way as this. He could not bring himself to believe that she was playing a double part. It was impossible to look into her candid, truthful eyes and credit anything of the kind. After the first moment or two Ethel became perfectly natural and Lawrence's suspicions began to dissolve.
"Have you been successful?" she asked. "Have you had an encouraging morning altogether?"
"I cannot say I have," Lawrence said ruefully. "On the whole, I have been disappointed, and I am bound to confess that I have made more or less of a mess of things. Still, these are early days, and I am not going to be discouraged. I thought I would come back at once and report to Sir Arthur, but they tell me that he has gone out on important business, and that he wants me to wait till he returns. But tell me, where have you been yourself? I thought you had no friends in London."
The hot blood mounted to Ethel's cheeks. She blushed painfully. There was a strange uncertain hesitation in her manner which Lawrence had never seen before. He found some difficulty in hearing what she said when she began to talk.
"I did not think I had," she murmured, "and I had no idea that any acquaintance of mine was aware that I was in London. But it appears that I was mistaken. I have had rather a disturbing morning. I have heard so much extraordinary news, but I cannot speak of that yet, because the secret is not wholly mine. Perhaps a little later I shall be able to explain. But why do you look at me like that, Lawrence? There is a suggestion in your face as if you did not believe me."
It was Lawrence Hatton's turn to colour. He was both annoyed and disturbed to find that his face betrayed his feelings so eloquently. He would make a poor detective, indeed, if he were going to carry an index of his emotions about in this fashion.
"I am sure I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I am only sorry that I asked you the question which has caused you so much anxiety. It would be a bad day for me if I came to the conclusion that you were wilfully deceiving me or anybody else."
Lawrence spoke as warmly as he could, but he was painfully aware that his voice lacked the ring of sincerity. He was happy enough, as a rule, in Ethel's society. He asked nothing better than the sweetness of her companionship, but he was conscious of a feeling of relief when Sir Arthur came in and interrupted the conversation. Blantyre looked troubled and uneasy. His face was white, and Lawrence could see that his hands trembled. He seemed, too, to have grown older and more bent during the last hour or two. He made some pretence of indifference. He gave one or two quick orders to a footman whom he summoned by the bell.
"I am glad you have come back already," he said, "because I can only give you a few minutes. As things have fallen out, it will be necessary for us to get back to Glenallan without delay. I hope you are ready to travel, Ethel. I gave you a hint at breakfast time that we might want to move in a hurry."
Somewhat to his surprise, as the door opened, Lawrence could see down the hall into the roadway outside. A cab stood there, with a considerable pile of luggage on top. The lights had been turned out in the dim hall. The pallid footman crossed it towards the front door carrying a kit bag in his hand. Lawrence turned to Sir Arthur for an explanation.
"I don't understand," he stammered. "I believe you told me that for the next day or two——"
"That we were not leaving for a short time," Sir Arthur interrupted. "That was quite my intention when I saw you last. But circumstances are too strong for me. For years I have been the sport of fate, but never was I the plaything of fortune more than I am at the present moment. Ethel——"
But already the girl had slipped from the room. Doubtless she had gone off to make her preparations.
"I WAS going to leave a message asking you to follow me as soon as possible," Sir Arthur explained. "Still, since you are here, I can give you ten minutes. You might let me know if you have seen or heard anything about Victor Le Blanc."
"I have just come from his studio," Lawrence explained. "I am almost ashamed to tell you that we had anything but a satisfactory interview. He seemed to divine almost by instinct why I had called upon him and who sent me. And when I suggested that I could make London too hot to hold him he retorted by a threat to charge me with blackmail. You will see at once with a record like mine how this would have ruined me. . . Sir Arthur, I will do anything in the world to help you, but I really could not go back to prison."
"Poor boy, poor boy," Sir Arthur said sadly, "I quite understand. I am sorry your mission has begun in failure, but I can find many uses for you yet. So long as Le Blanc did not know that you came from me and were acting on my behalf, why, it seems to me——"
"But he did, Sir Arthur," Lawrence cried. "It was really most unfortunate. Le Blanc was not actually in the studio at the time of my arrival; in fact, I don't mind telling you that I walked straight into the place when I found that it was useless to knock at the door. I was alone in the studio for a minute or two, and I had the opportunity of admiring a picture which the artist is just on the verge of finishing. To cut a long story short, the painting was a kind of allegory of a young girl hesitating between love and money."
"What was the face like?" Sir Arthur demanded hoarsely.
"Strangely enough, there was no face," Lawrence went on. "Everything else was finished, but the features were left a blank. As to the figure itself, it was marvellously like that of Miss Blantyre, which fact struck me directly I looked at it. It may seem rather far-fetched to say this, but the fact remains. I am afraid that Le Blanc guessed what I was thinking, for when he came in he put a question to me which threw me entirely off my balance. He asked me innocently enough if the figure did not remind me of Miss Blantyre, and like the dull fool that I was I said yes. Then he laughed at me and told me that I was far too ingenuous to make a success of the detective business. And so——But goodness gracious! you are ill, sir? Can I get anything for you?"
Sir Arthur threw himself down in a chair and covered his white face with his hands. When he looked up again his features were white and ghastly. His lips had lost their colour.
"I was not wholly unprepared for this," he groaned. "And so that scoundrel was playing with you. Of course, that frank confession of yours betrayed you into his hands."
"It did, indeed, Sir Arthur," Lawrence said sadly. "That man's intuition was wonderful. I was so taken aback that I could not stand up to him for a moment. And then he sent a message to you. He spoke of vengeance patiently waited for and diabolically worked out. He bade me tell you that he was going to strike you through the medium of that picture, and that, in a few days it would not only be exhibited, but that it would also be the talk of London. Le Blanc does not err on the side of modesty. But I hope that I am not causing you pain."
"Never mind that," Sir Arthur murmured. "I tell you this thing must be prevented. At all hazards that picture must never leave the painter's studio. It must be destroyed, mutilated, stolen—anything to prevent a public exposure. I am a rich man and, comparatively speaking, money is nothing to me. Now will you undertake this thing for me if I make it worth your while?"
The old man spoke vaguely. He was trembling from head to foot. A fierce light gleamed in his dark eyes. Then suddenly his manner changed and he broke down almost pitifully.
"You must forgive me," he murmured. "I ought not to have made such a suggestion. Perhaps I should have confided in you more fully, but I am too upset to do so now. Tell me, is there any chance of your coming in contact with Le Blanc again?"
"As a matter of fact, I am going to see him to-night after eleven," Lawrence explained. "For the present I am staying with my friend Watney, whom you may remember. I don't quite know why Le Blanc asked me to call again, unless it is to ascertain what you thought of his scheme of vengeance. I fancy he knows you are in London. But whether he is aware of your address or not I cannot say. Now don't you think it would be as well, sir, if you remained here for a day or two longer? So long as you are on the spot I can consult you at any moment. You see, Glenallan is such a long way off, and you particularly cautioned me that if I had anything to say I was not to write. It seems so important."
Sir Arthur shook his head sadly. He did not see how it was possible to delay his return to Glenallan, though he would postpone his departure till later in the day, and send a telegram to Raymond Watney's rooms announcing his final decision. With no more than this to go upon Lawrence took his departure and made his way towards the place where Watney lived. He had the rest of the afternoon to himself, for it was nearly dinner-time before Watney returned with the announcement that he had nothing further to do for the day, and that he was entirely at Lawrence's disposal. He looked curiously at his visitor over his gold spectacles. Lawrence sat there thoughtfully.
"Are you going to tell me nothing?" Watney asked. "Of course, I don't want to pry into your business, but I think I can help you a little. In the course of my professional career I come across some very peculiar people from time to time who are in a position to afford me all sorts of out-of-the-way information. And for an hour this morning I was talking to a man who seems to know a great deal about the doings of Victor Le Blanc. Now did you notice anything particularly strange about him this morning?"
"I didn't," Lawrence admitted, "except that he had changed marvellously. It occurred to me that he had a very strong and striking personality, and I am bound to confess that he got the best of me altogether. Apart from that I saw nothing striking or noteworthy."
"I thought perhaps you might," Watney said. "I find that the fellow is little better than a madman. He has a perfect monomania of hatred against those who interfere with him or cross him in any way. It doesn't matter whether the offence is great or small, for that wild hatred still exists in the same highly concentrated form. To a certain extent he inherits this characteristic from his father, who was very eccentric, as you may remember. But in Le Blanc's case this morbid characteristic is intensified and strengthened by a dreadful habit into which he has drifted—a habit which will sooner or later land him in a premature grave. The man has no vices or excesses now save one, but that one is worse than a thousand minor dissipations. To put the matter plainly and bluntly, Le Blanc is a confirmed morphia maniac. This information will be useful to you presently. Now tell me without betraying confidences what happened between you and Le Blanc when you met this morning. My curiosity is not idle."
Lawrence debated the matter a moment carefully before he replied. After all there would really be no breach of confidence. And Watney seemed to be moved by a genuine desire to aid him. He recited the whole of his adventures faithfully, not omitting to describe Le Blanc's invitation to visit the studio after eleven o'clock that night.
"Oh come, this is useful," Watney chuckled. "Now don't you think the best thing you can do is to get all the information you can? For instance, I see you are very much puzzled as to the identity of the mysterious lady who was in the studio this morning. It is quite fair to assume that she is the fair one whom Le Blanc is going to take to the theatre to-night. Don't you think it would be as well if we went to the same theatre and made ourselves sure on the point? I happen to know the restaurant where Le Blanc generally dines, and it is odds that the fair charmer will dine with him. There is not the slightest reason why we shouldn't take our modest chop at the same place and follow the couple if it is worth while when they leave the restaurant. Oh, you needn't worry about your wardrobe. I have all your clothes here, so that you will be able to look out your evening dress and make yourself presentable. Now what do you say to my suggestion?"
Lawrence approved of it. He was eagerly looking forward to the adventure. He was looking forward, too, to the pleasure of dining in a well-regulated restaurant once more.
Later Hatton found himself seated in a secluded corner of a restaurant, half shaded behind a palm which stood on the table. He glanced more or less curiously about him; then his gaze became fixed upon a solitary diner a little way down the room. The man was correctly dressed and to all outward appearances was a gentleman.
"Who is that fellow?" he asked suddenly.
"Name of Doveluck," Watney said sketchily. "Eccentric. And supposed to be a millionaire. Why?"
"Because," Lawrence whispered, "he is my friend of the penny whistle. I will take my oath on it."
WATNEY looked eagerly at Lawrence over the top of his gold spectacles. Like most modern journalists, he loved a mystery and here was one which, judiciously handled, seemed likely to prove of service in the way of copy.
"I wouldn't be quite sure if I were you," he said. "In the first place, there are scores of people in the West End of London who know Mr. Doveluck quite well and hold him in considerable respect. He has a reputation for being slightly eccentric, but one forgives that in a millionaire."
"Are you quite sure he is a millionaire?" Lawrence asked.
Watney shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, one never can tell in these days, you know," he said, "especially when so much wealth is on paper. But, at any rate, Mr. Doveluck is known to have most luxurious quarters both in London and Paris, and I believe that his flats are dreams of luxury and taste. I have known the man walk into an auction room and pay six thousand pounds for a picture without turning a hair. And to my certain knowledge, he has been doing this kind of thing for years. You have made a mistake, Lawrence."
Hatton's teeth snapped obstinately together.
"I haven't," he muttered curtly. "But, go on, tell me more about this man. Who are his relations?"
"My dear chap, he doesn't seem to have any. Your modern millionaire seldom confesses to any encumbrances in this direction. And besides, what on earth does it matter? Nobody knows where Doveluck comes from, and no one cares two straws. I am certain you will prove to be mistaken. It is impossible that Doveluck can be associated with a street loafer who passes his time playing a whistle for casual pennies."
Lawrence stole another glance at the stranger, who appeared to be deeply intent upon the menu in front of him, and the more Lawrence sized up the eccentric millionaire, the more certain he was of his identity. Of course, there was no superficial resemblance between the itinerant musician and the well-dressed gentleman of the restaurant, but one or two tricks of manner were by no means lost upon Hatton. To begin with, the millionaire was slightly misshapen just as the man outside Wandsworth gaol had been. He had the same peculiar, broad, flat hands, the same unmistakable droop of the eye.
"I am not going to argue further," Lawrence said. "There is the same man and you can make what you can out of it. Besides, you are bound to admit that you know nothing about your fastidious millionaire who, for all you know to the contrary, may be no better than a highly successful burglar who has reduced his trade to a fine art. But, at any rate, that is the man who accosted me this morning and induced me to accompany him as far as the Embankment Gardens. I am sorry now that I didn't complete the adventure. I might, at any rate, have found out something of this strange business, which, I feel perfectly certain, is not unconnected with Sir Arthur Blantyre's trouble. It is too late now."
"Not a bit of it," Watney said cheerfully. "You have nothing to do till after eleven, which means considerably over three hours, and we can keep our eyes open during that time. You don't suggest, I suppose, that our friend yonder has any kind of connexion with Victor Le Blanc."
"I shouldn't wonder," Lawrence said. "At any rate, we can do as you suggest. There is no hurry and our friend intends to dine in comfort. We have a secluded seat where we can watch him in safety, and when he leaves the place we can follow. That is, provided always, that we don't decide to keep an eye upon Le Blanc."
Watney murmured that it might be possible to keep an eye upon both simultaneously, especially should it appear that there was any connexion between the millionaire and the artist. Some point was given to Lawrence's suspicions by the fact that Doveluck was here at all. Possibly he had come to meet Le Blanc. Beyond all question he was waiting for somebody, for he was still playing with the menu, and more than one waiter who approached him with deference was waved aside. A little later the swing doors opened and a man in evening dress came in, preceded by a lady whose figure was disguised and whose features were hidden by a long wrap and a hood which covered the whole of her head. As to the man, there was no attempt at concealment, so that when his face stood out in the brilliant light Lawrence was able to see who it was. He tapped the arm of his friend significantly.
"We are getting on," he whispered. "Here is Le Blanc, at any rate. Now we shall see what we shall see."
The artist's handsome face lighted up with a smile as his glance fell upon the solitary figure toying with the menu card. The woman walked slowly up the room looking neither to the right nor to the left. As far as Lawrence could judge, she was young, though her walk indicated a certain amount of lassitude and fatigue, as if she had been reluctant to come or were just recovering from serious illness. She made no effort to remove her wraps. She came across towards Lawrence and Watney, as if to take up an accustomed seat, when Le Blanc called her back. She turned round with a sudden swish and toss of her silken draperies, and as she did so the atmosphere was suddenly filled with the peculiar perfume which Lawrence had recognized during his visit to Le Blanc's studio. It did not matter very much whether the woman removed her wrap or not. He knew pretty well who she was and, for the time being, this sufficed.
There was nothing for it but to sit down quietly and go on with their dinner and watch what was taking place at the table where the millionaire was seated. Le Blanc hailed Doveluck familiarly, and it was evident that the two were on friendly terms. With a weary-looking gesture the woman took the seat which Doveluck rose and offered her. She waved him aside when he suggested that she should remove her wrap. Then Le Blanc and his companion entered upon what appeared to be an earnest conversation, whilst the woman lay back in her chair ignoring them entirely. Lawrence turned to Watney eagerly.
"Are you satisfied now?" he asked, "or do you still believe that I am suffering from a delusion, when I tell you that the penny-whistle man and Doveluck are one and the same? You may depend upon it that Le Blanc takes more interest in my movements than he pretends. After what I have just seen, I fell sure that that man came to meet me this morning at Le Blanc's instigation. And what they expect to get out of me, goodness only knows. I suppose it is no use asking you who the lady is."
"I am afraid not," Watney admitted. "I would give something to know. I presume you haven't seen her before?"
"On the contrary, I believe I have," Lawrence went on to explain. "When I told you of my adventures this morning, I believe I mentioned casually a lady who looked into the studio and who vanished directly she saw Le Blanc was not alone. It may be mere fancy, but I could have sworn at the moment that she was none other than Ethel Blantyre, whom I had parted from not long before. It was only for a moment that I saw the woman, but it was long enough for me to mark the amazing likeness. Still, it is possible that I might have been mistaken. But there is no mistaking that extraordinary scent which I told you about, too, and which the lady who is dining yonder carries about with her still. I caught the fragrance of it plainly as she came near our table. Don't you think it might be to our advantage to find out all about this mysterious woman?"
"I am certain of it," Watney exclaimed. "I have a little theory of my own which has just occurred to me, though it is too soon to say much about it. At any rate, we are in luck so far, because we have all our puppets together. You have found the man who met you at Wandsworth Gaol this morning. You have also found Le Blanc whom we arranged to follow to the theatre. Also we have found the mysterious female, who, unless I am greatly mistaken, will play an important part. In all probability Doveluck will accompany them to the theatre, and later we shall see what can be done. In the meantime, there is no reason why you should not enjoy your dinner. Goodness knows what you will have to do presently."
There was wisdom in this suggestion, and for the next half-hour or so Lawrence devoted himself to an excellent repast. From time to time he glanced at the trio in the centre of the room. Le Blanc and Doveluck were still in earnest conversation and the woman was reclining in her chair, apparently ignoring her companions in a way which was distant, not to say contemptuous. So far as Lawrence could see, she ate little or nothing. She waved the waiter away when he would have filled her glass. For a long time she sat aloof as if she had nothing to do with the rest. Then Doveluck bent over and said something to her in a quick, constrained voice and she shook her head resolutely. Lawrence could catch just a flash of slim, jewelled hands which appeared to be raised in protest about something. He could see that the woman's shoulders were shaking as if with some sudden grief. But not for a moment did she show her face.
AS Lawrence watched the little drama he saw the features of Le Blanc suddenly harden. There was cruelty as well as anger in his eyes, his hand half went out in the direction of the woman with a gesture which was terribly significant. There are certain men, strong men, reputed to be of pluck and courage, who yet do not scruple to lay their hands upon a woman, but Lawrence had not associated Le Blanc with men of this class. But in that moment his eyes were opened and he knew that here, at any rate, was one of them. He could see the way the woman shrank suddenly back. He could see a sudden disgust and loathing flash over the features of the millionaire before he resumed his normal expression. It was not unpleasant to know that whatever Doveluck's feelings might be, he had no sympathy with the brutal mood of his companion. He said something now in a quick, staccato voice which brought the blood flaming into Le Blanc's face and caused his eyes to glitter evilly. Here was a man obviously at times unaccountable for his actions. Here, perhaps, was the result of the morphia with which Le Blanc's constitution was saturated.
"Did you see that?" Lawrence whispered.
"Of course I did. My dear chap, there is precious little that escapes the attention of a journalist. Without special powers of observation we should be of no account to-day. We know now that Le Blanc belongs to the type of man who would not hesitate to strike a woman if his impulses lay in that way. We know that our millionaire friend has no sympathy with that kind of thing. Of course, one must make allowance for the amount of poison Le Blanc is always pouring into his system—a poison worse than any drink. The man is sapping his vitality and will come down to the level of a brute. Le Blanc has the greatest possible influence over that poor woman, or she would never suffer him to ill-treat her and still remain on friendly terms. What astonishing creatures women are! One has the best husband in the world and she hasn't the faintest scrap of love or gratitude for him, whilst another may be allied to a bully and a scoundrel whom she fairly worships. These people are moving at length, and if we are going to follow, the sooner we are off the better. If you have finished, come along."
"Oh, I have quite finished," Lawrence smiled. "The dinner has been a perfect delight, and I shall be content to forego my coffee and smoke my cigarette in the cab."
It was easy to discover whither the three were bound, for the commissionaire who called up the cab gave the directions of the Vivacity Theatre in tones loud enough to be heard across the street. A little later Lawrence and his companion were settled in the stalls of the theatre, not far from the box in the second tier which was occupied by Doveluck and Le Blanc and the mysterious lady, who sat well back, her features still hidden by her hood.
"This is going to be a slow business," Watney murmured. "I hoped when we got here that the lady would disclose her features. Not that that would necessarily have helped us. But one never can tell. The only thing we can do is to make the best of the play and see what may happen afterwards."
For some time the comedy proceeded without incident. Then, towards the end of the first act Lawrence saw that the lady in the box had taken a seat a little farther forward and appeared to be watching the chain of events on the stage with more or less interest. She turned round presently to Doveluck and began with him an animated conversation. With her hood still about her head, she threw back the body of her wrap and disclosed the shimmering folds of the white dress which she wore underneath. Lawrence could see for the first time that she carried flowers in her hand, for she reached forward and laid the bouquet on the edge of the box. She placed her programme beside it and then leant forward, so that Lawrence could see the sparkle in her eyes, though her face was still in shadow. She remained in much the same position when the curtain fell at the end of the first act. Then she began to sweep the house with her glasses. All this time she kept up her conversation with Doveluck, who nodded and pointed here and there, so that it was fairly evident to Lawrence that the woman was asking the millionaire to indicate such celebrities as happened to be present. By and by the glasses were bent, or appeared to be bent, upon Watney, so that Lawrence felt sure that his name had been mentioned to the seeker-after-knowledge.
There was nothing remarkable or out of the way in this, seeing that Watney was such a well-known journalist, and therefore it was only natural that Doveluck should pick him out among the rest of his companions. It was only for a moment that the glasses rested upon Watney; then they were turned to another part of the house, and immediately the curtain went up upon the second and best act of the play, but Lawrence was not in the least interested. As he glanced from time to time at the box above, it seemed to him that the woman was trying to attract his or Watney's attention. Half ashamed of himself for this ridiculous supposition he bent over and confided his discovery to his companion. Watney laughed and shook his head. Then he, too, glanced up at the box. It was only for a moment before the amused light faded from his eyes and he turned eagerly to Lawrence.
"You've got a fine instinct," he whispered. "I wonder where you learnt it. That woman is undoubtedly trying to attract my attention, though goodness knows what she is driving at. Perhaps she expects me to help her. I shall be obliged if you will confine your attention strictly to the stage for the next quarter of an hour so that I may work this problem out. It will be a thousand pities if you spoil the thing now by a display of vulgar curiosity."
Lawrence nodded curtly. He was far too interested himself to be likely to do anything of that sort. He sat with his attention apparently engrossed upon the stage, though, from time to time, out of the corner of his eye he could see a little of what was going on. A moment or two later and he started as a fluttering object fell from one of the stage boxes followed by a little cry of annoyance from the woman hidden behind the hood. Then Lawrence could see for himself what had happened. Either by design or accident the woman, in stretching out her arm, had knocked her bouquet from the ledge of the box, and in making a grab for it had impelled it until the mass of dainty blossoms reached almost to Watney's feet. In the most natural way in the world, the journalist stooped and picked it up and glanced towards the box. There was no attendant on the floor of the theatre, so that Watney made a move from his seat as if to restore the bouquet in person. As he turned away he managed to show Lawrence that a page of the programme had been dexterously twisted amongst the flowers, and that it contained a few pencilled words, evidently intended for Watney alone.
"I'll be able to read them going up the stairs," Watney whispered. "I shall not be more than a minute. I'll tell you about it when I come back. This is quite an adventure."
Lawrence nodded as if the whole matter had no particular interest for him, but he was consumed with curiosity all the same. Presently Watney returned and took his seat again in the most matter-of-fact way.
"I can't tell you what is going on," Watney whispered. "All I know is that that woman picked me out to do her a favour. It was a daring thing to try, and she must have been pretty hard put to it before she played the experiment. She wanted me to get Le Blanc out of the way, to induce him to leave the theatre for half an hour on some pretext or another. You shall read the message on the programme for yourself by and by. There was no explanation beyond that, and seeing beauty in distress I had nothing for it but to obey. And Le Blanc has gone already."
"You managed it, then?" Lawrence asked eagerly.
"Of course I did. If you glance up at the box you will see that Le Blanc is no longer there. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, before very long our mysterious beauty in the hood will be gone, too. When Le Blanc comes back she will have vanished. Now don't you think it will be just as well to find out where she goes? Suppose you lounge out into the vestibule and smoke a cigarette and keep your eye upon things generally."
Lawrence needed no second bidding. He had no time to waste, either, for he had hardly reached the vestibule before a dainty figure came hurrying down the stairs and gave the commissionaire orders to call up a car the number of which she gave. A moment or two later and the big car was humming down the road, but not before Lawrence had heard the address given, or before it was noted in his mind. He had taken care to keep his back turned to the lady, and as he swung round he heard the grizzled old commissionaire chuckling to himself.
"There goes the best of the lot of them," the man said. "There was never an actress like her and never will be again. She came out in Paris four years ago and made a regular sensation. Then she suddenly dropped the stage and has never been seen in public since. I dare say you have heard of the lady whom they call Charlotte Beaumont."
"Rather!" Lawrence exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me that it is Charlotte Beaumont who has just gone out——"
THE name mentioned by the commissionaire was familiar to Lawrence, though he had not probably given it a thought during the last three years. In happier times he had been a confirmed theatre-goer, and there were few people connected with the stage of any note whom he had not seen at one time or another. He recalled now the sensation which had followed the debut of Charlotte Beaumont in Paris, and how, sooner or later, she had promised to give London a sample of her marvellous powers. And then all at once she seemed to fade out as quickly as she had come. If ever there was a case where the old proverb of the rocket and the stick applied, it was certainly applicable in the instance of Charlotte Beaumont. Like a meteor she had flashed, dazzlingly, across the theatrical horizon. She had been a success from the first moment of her appearance, and then, when she seemed to have the world at her feet, she simply vanished. She broke her contracts without a single word of explanation; indeed, no theatrical manager had been able to trace her to expostulate upon this extraordinary line of conduct. Then, as other stars arose and other sensations came the name of Charlotte Beaumont was gradually forgotten. Probably it had not been mentioned in the walls of the theatre for the past two years, until the old commissionaire had blurted it out to Lawrence.
The information was interesting enough in itself, but it did not throw much light upon the investigation which Lawrence had in hand. True, he had learnt the name of the woman over whom Le Blanc seemed to have such a powerful influence, but this did not seem very much of a gain. He returned slowly into the theatre and murmured his discovery to Watney. The latter immediately rose from his seat. He appeared to have lost all further interest in the proceedings on the stage. Together the two went out into the open air where it was possible to speak more freely.
"What do you think of it?" Lawrence asked.
"Much—ever so much," Watney replied. "Of course, it is no business of mine, but I fancy you will find yourself on the brink of a tragedy before long. At any rate, we know who Le Blanc's companion is and you have her address. We shall be able to look her up when the time comes. And now the best thing you can do is to keep your appointment with Le Blanc and see if you can't worm out something else. I have work which will keep me till an early hour in the morning, so that you will have finished long before I shall be in my rooms again. Then we can talk the matter over and discuss plans for the future."
There appeared nothing for it but to fall in with the suggestion. A little later Lawrence was walking down the Strand killing time till the hour of his appointment with Le Blanc. It was only just after ten, so that there was no hurry in regard to reaching the studio in Fitzroy Square.
For the moment Lawrence had no longing for human companionship. He had money in his pocket, but the tinsel and glitter of the various bars and restaurants had no attraction for him. Otherwise he might have turned into one of these and whiled half an hour away. As it was, it suddenly occurred to him to stroll as far as the street which Charlotte Beaumont had given to the commissionaire as her destination. It was no far cry to Russell Place which Lawrence recollected as a small thoroughfare leading out of Gower Street. Most of the houses, he found, were more or less in darkness, except No. 13, which seemed to be plunged in a blaze of light.
Lawrence had expected to gain nothing by his visit; indeed, he was frankly killing time. He had not contemplated anything audacious, such as an invasion of the house. He had not planned any particular coup whereby he might get inside. But circumstances were helping him and he was not indisposed to take advantage of what he regarded as a piece of decided good fortune. There was not the slightest reason why the people in Russell Place should not let lodgings. But Lawrence was hardly prepared for the card in a window of No. 13 to the effect that a sitting-room and bedroom were vacant.
It was rather late at night to call on the look-out for lodgings, but the spirit of adventure was strong upon Hatton, and he rang the bell and desired to see the mistress of the house. He was not afraid of his appearance. He knew that his dress would avert any suspicion which might have been aroused by his calling at such an unbusiness-like hour.
A tall gaunt woman in black came, and somewhat suspiciously asked Lawrence his business. On his murmuring that he was looking for lodgings, the woman led the way into a sitting-room and turned up the gas. Her hard cold eye was fixed upon her visitor; indeed, from her manner, Lawrence gathered that she was not particularly anxious to avail herself of the chance of receiving him under her roof.
"I know this is a very awkward time to call," he remarked. "But I could not come earlier."
"You are engaged in one of the business establishments near by, I suppose?" the woman suggested.
Lawrence let it go at that. It was just as well that the woman should think something of the kind. As he proceeded, his story became more glib and, indeed, it seemed to him that he might do worse than pass a week or two under the roof of No. 13, whither Fate had led him to-night, and where, it was possible, he might be able to place his finger on the pulse of tragedy. It would be easy later to announce that business had called him elsewhere and so leave No. 13 without arousing suspicion. It was very little that he wanted, Lawrence said. He merely stipulated for bed and breakfast, leaving the rest of his meals to be taken outside. He made no demur when Mrs. Omley mentioned terms considerably higher than was customary.
"Oh, that will be all right," he said carelessly. "Meanwhile, if it is not too much trouble I should like to see the rooms. Yes, they are quite suitable. I can send you references and pay you a week's rent in advance which I hope will be quite satisfactory."
The tall thin woman softened slightly. She so far forgot herself as to smile. Lawrence found himself presently gravely inspecting a stuffy little room furnished in the conventional fashion, with a bedroom beyond, which appeared as if it had been designed to afford the minimum of comfort at the smallest possible outlay. As he stood with the door wide open he commanded a full view of the landing and was surprised to see the gas burning brilliantly. This waste seemed to be so out of keeping with the rest of the house that the light fascinated Lawrence, and the tall woman shrugged her shoulders.
"You are wondering at all the light," she said. "That is a whim of one of my lodgers. Of course, so long as she pays for it, it doesn't matter to me. But she never seems as if she can have enough light. Still——"
"An artist, I presume?" Lawrence suggested.
"An actress, I should say," Mrs. Omley went on. "I fancy she is something of that kind, though she has never said a word to me about it. But I guess it from her wardrobe, and the number of theatrical things she has about her. But she pays well and it isn't for me to interfere. Well, now, then."
The last words were addressed with some austerity to a small servant who came up and whispered something in her mistress's ear. Asking to be excused for a moment, Mrs. Omley left Lawrence to his own devices, a piece of good luck which he fully appreciated.
There was nothing very dangerous in stepping out on to the landing and making investigations for himself. As he stood there a door opposite suddenly opened and a brilliant flood of light streamed across the space. To Lawrence's surprise he saw a large and handsome room furnished in a fashion which was entirely out of keeping with the humdrum respectability of Russell Place. It was more like a glimpse into some dazzling stage picture than anything else. It might have been a peep from some set at His Majesty's or St. James's depicting the boudoir of a spoilt Society butterfly or woman of fashion. It was only for a moment or two that Lawrence was able to look in. Then the door closed behind a dazzling white figure, whom Hatton had no difficulty in recognizing as Le Blanc's companion earlier in the evening. He had never seen her face before, but there was no mistaking the figure in the white dress, and no mistaking, either, the strange, half-hesitating, half-bold glance that the woman bestowed upon him. Her face was strangely sad and set, and yet there was just a twinkle in her eye which suggested that she could be mirthful enough when occasion arose. That she partly recognized Lawrence was evidenced by her words. She touched him lightly on the arm.
"You are a bold young man," she said. "I think I have to thank you, or rather your friend, for assistance just now. Let me try to show my gratitude. You are doing a foolish thing. You are running your head into the lion's mouth. If you value your future, stop while there is time. For of all the men I know, there is not one more cruel or more rapacious than Victor Le Blanc. Now do not say that I did not give you timely warning."
HATTON had always boasted that he was not easily taken aback. But there was something in this free, frank speech which left him stammering and hesitating. He could only look into the fair face of the speaker and gasp out something which she could not understand. It was not altogether her boldness and freedom that confused him. He was wondering how he could ever have identified the speaker with Ethel Blantyre. He felt perfectly sure that this was the girl he had seen in Le Blanc's studio, for that same faint subtle perfume still clung to her. But now that he was face to face with her she did not appear to be in the least like Sir Arthur's grandchild. What more Lawrence might have said or done was cut short by the brilliant creature herself. She waited for no explanation or further question, but she flitted daintily across the landing and disappeared into a room on the other side. At the same moment Mrs. Omley came toiling up the stairs again with profuse apologies for her delay.
Where she had been or what she had to say Lawrence neither knew nor cared. He was dimly aware of the fact that the woman was chattering volubly. It came to him by and by that the whole business was settled and that he had committed himself to take the rooms for a fortnight certain from the following Monday. It was only after all this business was duly signed and sealed that he pulled himself together and began to speak of Mrs. Omley's other lodger. He was surprised to find presently that she had gone out. He was a little disappointed, too, because he had hopes of further speech with one who had so sorely puzzled him. He wondered, too, how she had managed to leave the house. But it was no business of his, and inquiry might have ended in exciting the suspicions of the volatile Mrs. Omley. At this moment a neighbouring clock struck the hour of eleven, and Lawrence suddenly remembered that he was due at Le Blanc's studio.
It was nearly half-past eleven when he entered Fitzroy Square. He came at length to the little brick wall with the green gate leading into the neglected garden. He stood there a moment collecting his thoughts, for he realized that he had an important interview before him, and that he would require all his wit and shrewdness if he meant to be on equal terms with the artist. After the recent specimen of Le Blanc's powers, he had not the least expectation of coming off victorious in the fray.
It was quite easy to see his way, for a brilliant moon was riding high in a clear sky, the stars had crept out one by one till the heavens were bejewelled with them. It was intensely quiet, so still and lonely that Lawrence could imagine any crime being committed near that spot without the slightest chance of the criminal being detected. That the studio was occupied and that he was expected Lawrence gathered from the fact that there was a glow of red shining from a lamp outside the studio door and that the door itself was not fastened. As Hatton stood hesitating he could hear the sound of voices proceeding from within. He recognized this with a sense of annoyance, for he was still shy of strangers and the ways and manners of the prison still clung to him. It was possible that Le Blanc's guests would not stay long. Besides, the artist would naturally be expecting Lawrence and it was not to be supposed that he would care to introduce one so recently freed from durance vile to his other visitors. All the same, the knowledge that strangers were here struck Lawrence as being singular, seeing that Watney had told him how very careful the painter had been to keep entirely to himself of late.
But it was no use standing there in that stupid fashion. With an angry impulse Lawrence pushed the door open and walked into the studio. To his surprise and gratification he found the room empty. The voices, whosever they were, or wherever they came from, did not come from the studio, but, more probably, from the rooms which formed the rest of the house at the back of the dome-like structure where Le Blanc painted his pictures. As Lawrence stood there he could hear the voices plainly enough, though it was somewhat difficult to follow what was taking place, for the speakers were using French as the medium for the exchange of ideas. Lawrence regretted that his elementary knowledge of the language prevented him from gathering the gist of the conversation. Presently he could hear the noise and tramp of feet and the closing of a door somewhere, after which the conversation grew less noisy and less pronounced. It seemed as if two people were quarrelling. Then there followed a cry sharp and clear, after which there suddenly fell a silence which lasted for the best part of five minutes. To Lawrence, with every nerve alert and quivering, the five minutes seemed like as many hours.
His first impulse had been to rush forward and see what was going on. Then he checked himself. It was no business of his and in any case, it was no time, either, to allow impulse to usurp common sense. He knew that he had a strenuous fight in front of him. He knew that he would want all his acumen to get the better of Le Blanc. So he waited for what was going to happen.
The studio was lighted by a Moorish lantern in the roof and a big standard lamp upon the floor. Probably both needed replenishing, for as Lawrence stood there they became dimmer and dimmer until every object in the studio began to stand out in a dim and pallid light like so many ghosts and phantoms. It was like some dramatic stage effect, and Lawrence half wondered whether it had been engineered by Le Blanc for his special benefit.
He shut his teeth grimly and resolved to see the thing out to the bitter end, when once more he was arrested by the sound of voices raised in a hubbub, with one of them above the rest clear and piercing like the string of a violin.
"Give it me," the voice cried. "Let me have it. Just a brush and some red paint and there will be an end of all your hopes, my friend. Give me a brush with thick red paint. That's all I ask for. Give it me, I say, and——"
The scream suddenly ceased. It dropped to a bubbling murmur just as if somebody had clapped a hand over the speaker's mouth and was holding in the words by force.
Lawrence smiled grimly. If there were danger here, he was not afraid. He was timid of Le Blanc's diplomacy. But in a matter of physical courage he cared little for any man. Yet he must not be precipitate. He did not see why he should interfere when so many interests were at stake. He glanced round the studio as the lights were becoming still more dim, so faint indeed that he could detect little or nothing of the great picture which Le Blanc had threatened was to have such an effect upon the future fortunes of the house of Glenallan. In spite of his mixed feelings Lawrence wondered why he had not taken notice of the picture before. He regretted the feebleness of the light, more especially because he was anxious to see if any substantial progress had been made with the features of the woman. He could just make out something like the outline of a face, though it was too dark to identify the portrait of anybody. However, Le Blanc had been at work upon it. The artist had not forgotten his vengeance.
Still the lights went lower and the strange silence continued. All at once there broke out with renewed vigour from the next room the mistakable sound of blows and cries for assistance. There came back to Lawrence swiftly the recollection of something that he had seen earlier in the evening in the restaurant—that significant motion of Le Blanc's arm towards the woman who sat next to him at dinner. Lawrence did not need to be told that violence was being done and that his presence was needed. All his scruples were thrown to the winds. He made a dash for the door on the far side of the studio and blundered headlong into a sitting-room where supper appeared to have been laid for some half-dozen people. Fruit and flowers, crystal and silver were scattered about in confusion all over the table. Here and there decanters glowed redly in the light of the lamps. Lawrence rubbed his eyes to make sure that he was awake, for the room was empty. A sense of shame, the knowledge of the absurdity of his position forced itself upon him. He felt that in some way he was being tricked. At any rate, he had no desire to be caught there. He could imagine Le Blanc's sneering face and uplifted eyebrows—a picture which hurried him back to the studio, where he decided to wait in patience whatever might happen. There was just sufficient light for him to make his way across the floor between the various objects. Instinctively he turned towards the picture. A startled cry escaped him. Here was a change, indeed. For the face was wiped out of existence. It was wet with a bold, broad slash of vermilion paint—a hideous mocking ruin!
FOR a moment Lawrence forgot his errand. He forgot the urgent reason which had brought him to Le Blanc's studio. He stood in rapt contemplation of the picture just as if that and nothing else mattered in the world. He was very much like a man keenly bent on business who is suddenly pulled up by some street accident, by some swift and unexpected call upon his humanity. At such moments everything else is forgotten in the demands of the crisis, and so it was that Lawrence could think of nothing else than the pity of it. As a work of art he had admired the picture immensely, though it had puzzled and bewildered him. But now there was no sentiment in his heart except one of wrath and sadness that a rude hand should have been laid upon a thing of beauty. He came slowly and steadily down the studio till he could touch the canvas. Even now he was not sure that his eyes had not deceived him in the gloom. But as he touched the paint he could feel the red pigment moist and sticky on the tips of his fingers. He glowed with indignation.
"What a scandalous shame!" he murmured. "Surely this fellow, whoever he was, could have found some other way of revenging himself. If I had painted a picture like that it would be part and parcel of my very being."
Lawrence was still pondering the outrage when he fancied he heard the sound of footsteps. It was growing still darker in the studio, for the lamps gave only the tiniest glow, and the smell of the wicks was becoming offensive. As Lawrence glanced over his shoulder, he thought he could make out the dim outline of a shadow flitting from place to place. His quick ears did not fail to note the soft footfalls. Whoever the stranger might be, he or she must have known the studio very well, for the intruder darted from place to place without the slightest hesitation and without disturbing any of the numerous objects which went to furnish the painting-room.
Lawrence was hesitating whether to speak or not. But before he could make up his mind the figure vanished as mysteriously as it had come, and he was once more alone. It was perhaps idle to speculate, but it seemed to Lawrence that the intruder must have been a woman, for no mere man could have swept about the place so swiftly and so noiselessly.
What was he to do next? There seemed nothing to gain by remaining. Le Blanc had not put in an appearance, neither did he seem likely to. The place had grown strangely still. A clock somewhere in the distance struck the hour of twelve. The Moorish lamp in the roof of the studio began to flicker like the quick beating of a human pulse in a body which is near the end. Then the waning light vanished and intense darkness followed. There was nothing for it now but to creep along, feeling his way as best he could towards the door.
But at this moment the door on the far side opened and a long shaft of light cut into the velvet darkness and filled a part of the studio with its brilliant gleam. Lawrence stood in the centre of it. He heard a low chuckle from behind the light. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to the order of things he made out the form of Le Blanc. The latter placed his lantern on the table and proceeded to take a box of matches from his pocket. A moment or two later, and a score or more of candles in quaint old sconces gave an appropriate light to the studio. Gravely and leisurely Le Blanc proceeded with his task until his work was finished. Then he turned almost threateningly upon his visitor.
"Have you been here long?" he demanded.
"More than half an hour," Lawrence explained. "As the door was not fastened I walked in. But I heard that you had friends, and I decided to wait until you had got rid of them."
"Not feeling quite up to society yet, I suppose," Le Blanc sneered, "and not altogether sure of your reception, eh? Well, I admire your modesty, though I have very little sympathy with it myself. Did you hear anything that aroused that abnormal curiosity of yours, anything suspicious?"
"It was no business of mine," Lawrence said coldly. "Still, if you press me, I am bound to say that I heard what seemed to me to be signs of violence followed by the cry of a woman in distress. I rushed into a room yonder to see if I could be of any assistance, but I found the place empty. Then I came back here and waited for you to return. Can I give you any other information?"
Le Blanc appeared to be satisfied, for he turned away muttering to himself. He spoke in his usual cool, cold, cynical fashion, but Lawrence could see how pale his face was, how unsteady were his hands. There was, too, a vacant glassy look in his eyes which was by no means lost upon the observant visitor.
"That is all you have to say?" Le Blanc asked.
"Oh, well, nearly. Good Heavens, man, how can you stand there so quietly and contemplate the mischief which has been done without showing your feelings! A quarter of an hour ago that picture of yours was perfect. When I left the studio there was not so much as a pencil mark on the face. When I came back it was as you see it now. Oh, some enemy has done this thing. Look at it! Are you blind?"
But, strange to say, Le Blanc showed no signs of anger or amazement. He merely nodded and blinked like a man suddenly roused from sleep who has not yet gathered what is taking place around him.
"I have more important things to occupy my attention," he said. "There is that boy I sent to the chemist's. I told him I would give him a shilling if he were back in ten minutes, and already he has been gone more than half an hour. Only just round the corner, too. I can't think what on earth possessed me to forget it. I haven't allowed myself to run short like this for years. But, of course, you can't understand."
"Oh, you are mad!" Lawrence exclaimed. "Look at that picture, man. Do you see what it means? I suppose you must have been working on that canvas for months. You must have thrown your heart and soul into it. I should have thought you would go clean out of your mind if it were ruined. See, the thing is utterly spoilt. Some Vandal has wiped out the face. The thing was done in a few moments while my back was turned. Much as I dislike you, I am ready to help you to lay the miscreant by the heels. And yet here are you, who ought to be full of righteous indignation, blethering about chemists' shops and unpunctual errand-boys. The whole thing is an insult to one's common sense. Surely, you didn't ask me to come here to-night to listen to such drivel? I have no patience with you."
But Le Blanc gave no sign except for a feeble nodding of his head. Every ounce of strength and vitality and manhood seemed to have left him. In a sudden flux of anger, Lawrence gripped him by the neck and dragged him so close to the canvas that Le Blanc's face was within an inch or two of the painted features of his model. But nothing seemed to rouse him out of his extraordinary attitude of almost paralytic imbecility.
"I can't help it," he said. "Nothing matters to-night. At least, nothing matters till that boy comes back. And, then, if you can wait as long as that, you shall see what you shall see. But what do you know about such things? How should you know what it means to wake with the horrors of Hell upon you, and then to sup Heaven in a few spots of precious liquid that little more than stand on the point of a needle. Look here, and here, do you see those marks? There are scores of them, hundreds of them, and each represents some glorious dream, some of them standing for work accomplished which the whole world has applauded. And here am I now, a creature more abject and more helpless than yourself, waiting on the good will of an errand-boy who loiters over his task. But wait—wait and see if I can only hang on long enough. Your face is a blank, my good Hatton. Evidently all that I have said conveys nothing to your intelligence. You haven't even guessed what those little punctures on my arms represent."
Lawrence shook his head impatiently. Then suddenly he recollected. Watney had told him that Le Blanc was a morphia maniac of the worst type. The horrible truth was apparent in the artist's lack-lustre eyes and trembling limbs. Every one of those punctures on his arms meant a thrust of the hypodermic syringe; every one of them was responsible for a dose of the deadly poison which produced such amazing results and left such a ghastly reaction. For the moment, Le Blanc was an utter physical wreck. He would be good for nothing till the boy returned with the drug which in very truth was life and reason to him.
Clean and healthy-minded as he was, Lawrence turned away from his companion in disgust. He knew little or nothing about the working of morphia, neither did he wish to know. When once more that fascinating poison was leaping through Le Blanc's veins his strength and manhood might return to him in a few moments. On the other hand, it might be hours before the shattered nerves were built up again. How long the process took, Hatton neither knew nor cared. He was not going to ask questions. He saw Le Blanc cover his face with his hands. He heard the sobs break from him. He saw the childish tears trickling through his fingers. Then in disgust he turned and left the studio.
LAWRENCE hurriedly proceeded to Watney's rooms. It was long past twelve and the probabilities were that Watney had finished his night's work and was at home. He did not belong to the type of journalist who habitually turned day into night. He was no believer in the club or the smoking-room, especially as, in addition to his permanent appointments, he had a large clientele as a free-lance. He was just putting the finishing touches to an article when Lawrence came in.
"You are just in time," he said. "My idea was to have another pipe and then go to bed. Well, have you got the information for me? Did you get anything out of Le Blanc? Or did he score off you as successfully as he did in the morning?"
"It is a pity you weren't in my place," Lawrence smiled. "You used to be ambitious to write a novel. I don't know whether you have accomplished it or not, but you would have found plenty of material had you been with me to-night. My dear Watney, my adventures have been thrilling enough for yellow covers. But perhaps I had better sit down and tell you all about it. I am sure I shall not bore you."
Watney followed with the greatest possible eagerness. But he shook his head and his face looked grave as Lawrence came by degrees to the end of his story.
"You made a mistake, you know," the journalist said thoughtfully. "Why did you leave in such a hurry?"
Lawrence shrugged his shoulders with contempt.
"I was so utterly disgusted," he protested. "It seemed such a terrible thing to see a strong man given over to drugs just like a weak hysterical woman who has over-indulged herself in pleasure and wants something to soothe her nerves. There is not the slightest excuse for Le Blanc. The man has a splendid constitution and, physically, is as strong as a horse. And yet, with his eyes wide open, knowing deliberately what was going to happen, he takes to poisoning himself with that wretched morphia. I tell you, when I saw him doubled up there before me with the idiotic tears trickling through his fingers I could have seized him by the back of the neck and choked the life out of him. That is why I came away. It was evident I was going to get nothing rational out of the man. I was merely wasting my time."
"Ah, there," Watney said, "I don't agree with you at all. My dear fellow, if you are going to score as an amateur detective you've got a lot to learn. I take it that the man was in possession of his senses, though, for the time being, his nervous system was utterly broken down. Don't you see, you had it in your power to dominate him entirely? So long as he is short of the drug, his will is no more potent than that of a little child. A few moments' thought ought to have shown you that you might have dragged everything out of him. If I were in your place, I should go back to the studio. It may be so much waste of time, but, on the other hand, you may learn something of the greatest assistance to you."
"I think he is too far gone," Lawrence muttered. "Besides, I don't know what effect morphia has upon people. Suppose the boy had come back and Le Blanc had taken enough to send himself off to sleep? Do you know anything about its action?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I do," Watney admitted. "I had to go into the matter professionally a little time ago, and I read the subject up rather carefully. According to what one eminent authority told me, morphia acts in different ways upon different constitutions. We will suppose for the moment that you are the ordinary man in the street. Your doctor injects morphia to alleviate pain. You are rather a dull sort of chap, and almost immediately you go straight off to sleep, and maybe you have the most extraordinary dream. But, if you have the volatile, artistic temperament, the stuff will affect you in quite another way. It will take your pain away and brace your nerves up as no champagne could do, and, perhaps, for hours afterwards, you will have a clear brain and a creative faculty far beyond the normal. I am speaking now of men of the mood and disposition of Le Blanc. If you had waited longer to see him take a dose you would have noticed that the effects were almost instantaneous. And after suffering as he doubtless has done for the last two or three hours, he would be conscious of a kind of amiability which might have induced him to show you something in the way of generosity. No; you made a mistake by coming away. Even now, I should go back if I were you."
Lawrence hesitated for a moment. There was something so earnest and sincere in his friend's voice that he could not altogether ignore it. And his duty was clear and plain enough. He had promised to throw himself heart and soul into the unraveling of the mystery which overshadowed the lives of Sir Arthur Blantyre and his granddaughter and, beyond question, the man who held the key to the whole problem was Victor Le Blanc. Lawrence began to see now that there was a great deal of wisdom in Watney's words. He began to fell how unequal to the task he himself was. At any rate, he would be guided in this matter by Watney, who appeared to know so much about insidious drugs.
"Very well," he said. "I will take your advice and go back to the studio at once. In all probability I shall be too late. But I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that I have done my best. Perhaps you wouldn't mind walking as far with me."
"All right," Watney agreed. "I will stroll as far as the studio, and then come back here and wait until you return. And whatever you do, be careful. Don't act in such a headstrong manner. And try to think before you speak. Remember what an exceedingly clever man you have to deal with. Recollect that he will take every advantage of you. It is no use your trying to play the strict game with Le Blanc, because, by so doing, he has you at his mercy."
"Be it so," Lawrence smiled. "Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, and perhaps my experience of the last three years has taught me the necessity of keeping absolutely straight. At the same time, I see what you mean. Except so far as physical courage is concerned I fear Sir Arthur has a weak reed to rely upon in me."
For some time the friends walked on in silence, until they came in sight of the studio. Here Watney paused and declined to go any farther. There was no reason, he said, why he should be dragged into the business yet. It was possible that he might be of great use later. But he had no fancy that Le Blanc should know that his sympathies had been enlisted on the side of Sir Arthur Blantyre and Ethel.
"A strong enemy is a dangerous thing," he said sapiently, "even when you know your man and can stand up to him. But how much stronger is he when he is working and you are not even aware of his existence? That is the position I want to stand in, and that is the standpoint from which I want to fight Le Blanc. Scruples about honour and honesty and not stabbing a man in the back are very well in their way, but when you have an unscrupulous scoundrel like Le Blanc to deal with, you are justified in using any policy you please. And that is one of the reasons why I am not coming farther. Now, go on, make the best you can of it, and above all, don't hurry. I shall not go to bed till you come back, and, if I want amusement, why, a dozen articles waiting to be written are lying on my conscience."
Without another word Watney turned on his heel and left Lawrence alone. He felt singularly buoyed up and strengthened. He felt equal to the task of grappling with Le Blanc single-handed. The square was very still and quiet; all the lights were out, so that the dome of the studio stood out in a bold outline. Apparently Le Blanc had lighted the lamps again, and this in itself was evidence that the recreant boy had returned from his errand. Probably Le Blanc would be clothed and in his right mind, and ready for anything in the way of combat which Lawrence cared to suggest. In his mind's eye he could see that cold set face with the sneer upon the lips. But it was no time to dwell upon that, so Lawrence pushed the door open and boldly entered. So far as he could see from a casual glance about him, the studio was empty.
Then Lawrence became aware that a subtle change had come over the place since he had been there. The studio was the same and yet entirely different. One or two chairs had been overturned. The heaps of rugs and skins on the shining floor were huddled up in confusion. On an oak gate-legged table was a white cloth with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. The bottle lay on its side, the wine had soaked into the doth, the faint perfume of it permeated the room. The only thing that seemed to stand apart from all signs of violence was the mysterious picture with the features obliterated with the streak of red paint. As to the rest, some great struggle had taken place.
A feeling that something terrible had happened gripped the intruder. His eye roamed round the walls and floor, a dishevelled bearskin attracted his attention. It seemed to him that something was wrapped up in it. Almost timidly Lawrence bent down and proceeded to straighten out the mass of fur. As he did so he recoiled with a cry of horror on his lips.
WITH a heart beating thick and fast Lawrence smoothed out the bearskin and disclosed the still, silent form which had been huddled up so horribly in the folds of the fur. He knew exactly what he was going to find. He needed no one to tell him what had come to light. For some time there had been a heavy feeling of oppression upon him, that sort of sick sense that most of us feel before the blighting blow of tragedy comes out of the blue with all the extra force of the unexpected. There was no reason to glance more than once at the white, set face. He murmured to himself that Victor Le Blanc was beyond further powers of mischief. Nevertheless, the shock was tremendous, and for a while Lawrence could only stand gasping as if he himself had been the murderer, and the dead man lying at his feet the victim of his own uncontrollable passion.
He felt a wild desire to close the studio door behind him gently and to steal into the night as if he had done something to be ashamed of. Then, with something like a smile at his cowardice, he bent once more over the prostrate body. The dead man lay on his back, his left arm behind the back of his head as if he had fallen into a deep sleep. But Lawrence knew better than that. It was no use trying to deceive himself with the thought that here was a victim to an overdose of the insidious drug which had held Le Blanc captive for so long. For though the man's face bore no traces of evil passion, Lawrence knew that he had been murdered, and that, if he had been on the spot a short time ago, he probably would have witnessed the tragedy. It seemed odd to think that the man whom he had such occasion to dread should now be lying at his feet beyond all hope and human help.
Once more the tendency to turn and fly gripped Lawrence and held him firm. His duty was plain. He did not see it any the less clearly because duty and inclination pulled two different ways. In ordinary circumstances, he ought at once to raise an alarm. But there were many reasons why Lawrence did not see his way to do this. There were grounds for his fears.
He began to control himself now and pull himself together. He felt angry with his own weakness and want of nerve. But there were many excuses and it had been a trying time for him. There was nothing more calculated to destroy pluck and courage than prison life, and Lawrence was feeling the fact acutely at that moment. He bent down and laid his hand upon the heart of the murdered man. It might have been fancy, or it might have been the result of an over-heated imagination, but it seemed to him that he could feel a slight pulsation, though it was a difficult matter for a layman to decide whether there was pulsation or not.
Holding himself rigidly to his repulsive task, Lawrence opened the back of his watch and held the polished inner surface to the rigid lips. There was not one solitary hint of moisture on the burnished metal. If the watch was any test, then Le Blanc had ceased to breathe.
And now that Lawrence had assured himself that the man was dead beyond all question, he began to look about the studio for evidences of crime. Here and there on the floor were dark red stains which could not have been caused by the spilling of wine as he had at first conjectured. There was a smear of blood, too, on the long fur of the bearskin, and some of it came off horribly on Lawrence's hands. He rubbed them together to obliterate the tell-tale stains. He would have liked to turn the body over to search further, but he was afraid to do that. It seemed to him that already he had compromised himself enough.
What the cause of the mischief was, it was not possible to ascertain without handling the body still more. Doubtless, the wound, if wound there were, was between Le Blanc's shoulders, for it was only fair to assume that the assassin had attacked him from behind. Probably he had staggered back and fallen on the rug, and evidently, by way of gaining time, the assassin had huddled the body up in the bearskin. In a vague way Lawrence wondered if the author of this dreadful deed had also mutilated the picture, or whether that act of mischief had led up to the crime.
Lawrence managed to get his fingers clean at length. There was nothing further to be done in the studio, and the longer he stood shivering and hesitating, the more and more plain did his duty become. He knew perfectly well that he ought to give the alarm at once and call in the police. And yet the mere suggestion of this course filled him with dread.
No doubt it would have been easy enough to account for his presence, easy to prove that up to a comparatively recent time he had been on friendly terms with the deceased. But what account would he have to give of himself? He had no character, no shred of reputation left to hide his moral nakedness. He was a ticket-of-leave man, and in the eyes of the law his word was worth little less than nothing. Besides, if he were a credible witness, here was quite an easy way to commit the capital crime without fear of consequences. It would be open to any murderer possessing the necessary coolness or audacity to dispatch his victim and calmly state that he had found the body in such and such circumstances. No, only a man of the highest moral character could go to the police with a story like that, and in his mind's eye Lawrence saw himself in gaol once more, this time facing a more serious charge than the old one.
He literally could not do it; he durst not face the inquiry. His nerve and courage suddenly broke down, and he turned to fly. He laid his hand upon the door. It seemed now as if some force were behind it. And then as Lawrence wrenched it back, to his intense surprise and horror, a man came reeling and staggering into the room with the unmistakable smile of intoxication on his face. The thing was so unexpected and so out of place that Lawrence could only stand gaping at the intruder.
He was a slight, shabby man of some forty years of age, with the marks of drunkenness strong upon an otherwise not unpleasant face. The features were amiable. The blue eyes had a merry twinkle in them, the lower part of the face was disguised by a silky beard and moustache. The newcomer laughed as he lurched into a chair.
"Who the devil are you?" he said in a voice of extreme friendliness. "I've never met you before. And what are you doing here at this time of night? Is there anything to drink?"
"No," Lawrence said curtly, "there isn't. And if there were, I should take care that you didn't have any. Come, sir, this is no time for levity of this kind. If you are a friend of Mr. Le Blanc's, it is just possible that you may help me."
"No friend of mine," the man in the chair hiccoughed. "Oh, I don't bear any malice. I am not that sort of chap. I wish I were. It would be far better for me. As a matter of fact, Le Blanc is the greatest enemy I ever had. He has put any amount of money in my pocket and I've no doubt he will again. But it was a bad day for me when I first came across him. What do you think of a man who uses other people's brains and ideas and passes them off as his own? You might say he pays for them, but what then? If you've got any sort of ambition, that is something much more precious than money."
Lawrence followed the speech with some difficulty, for it was accompanied by much incoherence of utterance and many changes of expression. Up to that moment Lawrence had not seen the full extent of the other's intoxication. He swayed back in his chair with an amiable smile on his face, just as if he had been giving Le Blanc the best character in the world.
Once more Lawrence said, "Will you tell me your name?"
"Now what is my name?" the other asked with a puzzled expression. "Upon my word, you ask me a teaser. You may say I am drunk. Very well, we'll let it go at that. I am drunk. It's my usual condition unless I have important work to do, and then I can keep off it for a whole week. But I can't for the life of me think what my name is. Ah, yes, Mr. Thirteen. That's right. My name is Mr. Thirteen. But stop, is my name Thirteen, or is that the number of the street where I live? I've got some sort of idea that my name begins with O—Omelette, or something like that—absolutely absurd for a man to be called Omelette. But you mustn't blame me. I decline to incur any responsibility at all."
The man spoke in terms of ridiculous gravity which would have amused Lawrence at any other time. As it was, he crossed the room and shook the speaker vigorously by the shoulder.
"Try to get some sort of sense into that muddle head of yours," he exclaimed. "You are a friend of Le Blanc's. From what you say, I should gather you work together."
"I do the work and he gets the credit," the stranger muttered.
"Oh, what does it matter? I tell you Le Blanc is dead—he has been murdered. He lies there at your feet. You can see for yourself. Cannot you understand?"
The man in the chair smiled in the most amiable fashion; indeed, he appeared to receive the news with the air of one who hears of something to his advantage. He muttered that on the whole he was glad to hear it. Then his head fell back and he snored aloud. With a feeling of despair Lawrence left the studio and strode out into the night.
LAWRENCE passed his hand across his forehead as if he were trying to wipe out this horrible nightmare. The more he thought over it the more gruesome did it become, and it was none the less terrible because of the extraordinary comedy element which the presence of the drunken man had imported into the drama. Lawrence tried to brace himself up to go boldly to the nearest policeman and take him at once to the studio. And yet as he stood there trying to force himself to this line of action he knew perfectly well that he could not do it. He knew that he durst not face the inquiry. What little nerve and courage he had left broke down suddenly, and he turned and fled from the door of the studio as if some power of evil were behind him. Down the deserted garden he went rapidly, and so into the square. Here he forced himself to proceed more slowly, lest by his haste he might attract the attention of some suspicious policeman. As a matter of fact, he did not meet a soul till he was well past Fitzroy Square. His heart was beating less painfully, and he was almost himself again by the time he reached Watney's rooms in the Temple. He heard Big Ben strike the hour of one as he toiled wearily up the stairs. Watney pushed aside the article he was writing. He gave Lawrence a rapid glance, then motioned him to take a chair.
"You will never make a detective," he said. "You have the most tell-tale face of any man I ever saw. You come in here telling me as plainly as possible, and that without uttering a single word, that something out of the common has taken place. Why, man alive, you are a walking tragedy. Now sit down and take your time and tell me all about it. In the first place, I insist upon your drinking this whisky and soda. If you don't want it, then your looks belie you strangely. Ah, that is better! Now, what has happened to our friend Le Blanc?"
"A dreadful business," Lawrence said faintly. He reached out eagerly for the stimulant which Watney handed to him. His teeth chattered on the edge of the glass. Then the potent spirit began to run in his veins, and he became himself once more. "I went to Le Blanc's, as you know, to see if I could get any more out of him. You were under the impression I should find him amenable to reason, and perhaps learn something which was worth the journey. As a matter of fact, I found Le Blanc lying on the floor of his studio huddled up in one of his fur rugs. He was dead."
"You don't mean that?" Watney cried. "You called in a doctor, of course. What did he say was the cause of death? But then one can easily guess. A man doesn't go filling himself up with morphia as Le Blanc has done all these years without paying the penalty sooner or later. I suppose, like all the rest of those poor demented wretches, he took an overdose and thus stopped the action of his heart. Was that it?"
"You don't understand," Lawrence said with his head bent down. He did not altogether care to face Watney's eager eyes at that moment. "Le Blanc has been murdered! I did not dare to turn the body over, because the poor fellow lay on his back, and, well, because I did not care about soiling my fingers. But there was blood all over the place. And as soon as I made the discovery I came away without delay. Not to put too fine a point upon matters, I behaved like a coward. There was another man there——"
"Oh, there was another man, was there?" Watney asked in surprise. "Upon my word, you are telling your story very badly. What was the name of the other man? Also, what was he doing there?"
Lawrence waved the question aside impatiently.
"Oh, we'll come to that presently," he said. "In the first place, I want to justify myself in your eyes if I can. You cannot stigmatize me as a greater coward than I know myself to be. But I dared not raise an alarm. My dear Raymond, don't you see what a cruel position mine is? In the eyes of the world, I am merely a ticket-of-leave scoundrel, no good for anything. Do you suppose that my story would have been believed for a moment? Do you suppose that the police would have listened to me? I left that dreadful place and came straight back to you. I am in your hands, and I will act exactly as you desire, only don't ask me to—to——"
"I understand," Watney said sympathetically. "Only, you must see, my dear fellow, we can't leave matters as they are. I will make the discovery presently. That being so, there is no reason why we should not keep you out of the business altogether. I quite see what an awkward position you stand in. You were on anything but good terms with Le Blanc. It might come out at any time that he had done you a great injury. And, as you say, there is a taint upon you which will be sure to lead the police to make their own deductions. But I, being a well-known journalist, have an excuse for poking my nose everywhere. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that I wanted to know all about that mysterious picture——"
"And that is mutilated almost beyond recognition," Lawrence exclaimed. "But, of course, you know so much already. It seems to me that here we have another phase of the mystery. But perhaps I had better tell you all about Le Blanc's visitor and the way in which he came into the studio. Mind you, I am certain he had nothing whatever to do with the crime—anybody less like a criminal I never saw. The fellow was a picture of amiability, though his good looks were marred by traces of dissipation, and he was most unmistakably drunk. So drunk was he that it was quite in vain that I tried to make him understand what had happened."
"Remarkable," Watney cried, "but go on."
"Well, I should say that the intruder was an artist. He spoke in somewhat bitter terms about Le Blanc. He rather insinuated that the dead man was in the habit of taking his work and passing it off as his own. But, then, when drunk, man talks incoherently; it is hard to know what to believe. And the whole business is so ghastly. I don't know which sickened me most—the sight of that body lying there, or the levity of the man who spoke so flippantly about Le Blanc."
"What is his name?" Watney asked.
"He couldn't recollect it. He was too intoxicated. In the first instance he assured me that he was Mr. Thirteen, and almost before he had told me that he came to the conclusion that that must be the number of the street in which he lived. I let the argument pass because it sounded reasonable. Then he went on to say that his name was Omelette or something of that kind. But, really, I could make nothing of him. And when I came away the creature was peacefully asleep in a chair within a few feet of the murdered man. And now I have told you everything. So far as I am concerned, I have done all I can. I must leave the rest to your ingenuity. I dare not move farther."
Meanwhile, Watney had been listening with eagerness to all that Lawrence had to say. His keen journalistic instinct was aroused now and he began to see his way clearly.
"This is very interesting," he said. "I will go down to the studio at once and raise an alarm. It is a little like acting a lie, but you must be shielded. Then to-morrow you can go down to Glenallan and see Blantyre. He may be able to assist you."
"All right," Lawrence said wearily. "Arrange the plan of campaign to suit yourself. I think it would be just as well if you came down to Glenallan with me. But I am deadly tired. Upon my word, I could sleep in this chair."
Raymond Watney nodded his sympathy. He knew what it was to be worn and fagged out whilst there was work yet to be done.
"The best thing that could happen to you," he said cordially. "Now you stay here and forget all about your troubles till I come back. I am not sure that I am acting altogether honestly, but my great idea is to shield you. On the whole, you had better not go to bed till I return. It is pretty sure that I shall have some startling news for you."
It seemed to Lawrence he had hardly closed his eyes before a heavy hand was on his shoulder and somebody was shaking him violently. He struggled back to his senses to find Watney bending over him. The eyes of the journalist were shining in a strange manner. Evidently he had something out of the common to tell.
"Did you call in the police?" Lawrence asked sleepily.
"Oh, I managed all that right enough. That was easy. Also I saw the mulcted picture with the red splash of paint across it. The blood-marks were on the floor exactly as you described them to me. Naturally I went round to the nearest police station without delay. The explanation that I called to see Le Blanc on business connected with my newspaper was accepted without the slightest hesitation. Then we went back to the studio again. But all the same I didn't make the discovery which I expected."
"What do you mean?" Lawrence asked. "Surely the body——"
"Yes, that's just it," Watney went on. "The first thing that I looked for in the studio was the body, there was the picture and the blood-stains on the fateful skin rug, but as to the body——"
"It hadn't vanished?" Lawrence shouted. "Not stolen?"
"Stolen or not, it was gone," Watney said quietly. "And after that, you had best go to bed."
But Lawrence made no sign of movement. He had not taken in the statement yet. It seemed so incredible, a continuation, as it were, of the same nightmare.
"And the man who called himself Omelette?" he asked. "Do you mean to say that he had gone, too?"
"Beyond a doubt. At any rate, your erratic friend was not to be seen."
BUT Hatton showed no signs of falling in with Watney's suggestion. Tired and worn out as he had been a little time before, he was alert and vigorous now. If necessary, he would have gone back to the studio to verify all these amazing facts for himself.
"What is the good of talking to me about bed?" he said. "Do you suppose I could sleep in my present frame of mind? But, then, I suppose a hardened journalist gets accustomed to anything. Now perhaps you will be good enough to repeat that all over again. For the more I try to grasp things, the more incomprehensible they become. I must confess that I am utterly bewildered. The whole thing sounds impossible, wilder and more improbable than one could read in a book. I am certain that when I left the studio Le Blanc lay there dead."
"Well, I am not going to argue with you over that," Watney retorted. "You see, there was no opportunity for me to judge whether you were right or wrong. There was not a soul in the studio, not even your drunken friend Mr. Thirteen. But as to Le Blanc's body, it had vanished, leaving no trace behind."
"But," Lawrence protested, "you must have noticed blood-stains on the floor—they were plain enough, goodness knows! I had the filthy stuff on my fingers. Horrible!"
"I am not going to deny the blood-marks," Watney conceded. "They were there all right, to say nothing of the powerful clue in the shape of the mutilated picture. Of course, I kept my own counsel after I had called in the police, though this course may land me in trouble later. I retired gracefully from the scene, so that those fellows could follow up the clue in their own way."
"They have a theory, of course?" Lawrence asked.
"Oh dear, yes, they were chockful of theories. The main idea was that some miscreant had burgled the studio for the purpose of mutilating the picture, and that he was surprised by the artist, who possibly gave chase to him. What Scotland Yard is looking for now is a more or less demented foreign painter who has a grudge against Le Blanc. It wasn't for me to suggest that anything serious had happened to Le Blanc, because that would have been giving the game away as far as we are concerned. And I must confess, I should like to have a hand myself in getting to the bottom of this mystery. But there the thing stands at the moment, and there are the police, very complacent and very much in love with their theory. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, I could have a tale unfolded. But circumstances did not warrant my opening my mouth too widely. But one thing is pretty certain—Le Blanc is not dead."
"And I feel sure that he is," Lawrence replied. "I could not have been so far mistaken when I held the inner side of my watch case to the poor chap's lips; there was not so much as a trace of moisture upon it. Oh, Le Blanc is dead right enough."
Watney paced up and down the room excitedly.
"Your idea is impossible," he exclaimed. "Now, come, think it out for yourself. Do you mean to tell me that somebody came in after you had gone and walked off with the body? Don't forget that Le Blanc is not a small man. Some one takes the corpse through the streets of London at the very time when every man who carries anything bigger than a walking-stick is regarded as an object of suspicion by the police. Why, my dear fellow, an action like that implies an accomplice, if not more than one, to say nothing of a conveyance of some kind, which logically means several more confederates. I am bound to confess that I like the police theory better than yours. It is more reasonable."
Lawrence shook his head but did not contest the point any farther. It was useless to sit up arguing this puzzling affair, which the more it was stirred up the more bewildering it grew. It would be better to go to bed, Lawrence thought, and woo the sleep which he so sorely needed. He was, perhaps, more tired than he knew, for he fairly staggered when he rose to his feet. To Watney's suggestion that they should both go down to Glenallan the next day he made no reply. It seemed to him that there were many things to be done in London first. For a little time he tossed and turned upon his bed; then exhausted Nature asserted herself and he fell into a deep dreamless sleep. A long night's rest made all the difference to him, and when he woke in the morning he was fresh and vigorous and ready for work once more. It was rather late when he came down to breakfast and Watney had already been out. He was back again now and ready to give an account of his movements during the last hour or two.
"What have you been up to?" Lawrence asked.
"Well, I have been spending some time with the police," Watney explained. "Upon my word, I am fairly and squarely puzzled. I felt pretty sure of my ground last night, but now I don't know what to say or do. And the police are just as much in the dark."
Lawrence smiled gently to himself.
"Then our friend has not returned?" he asked. "The police have seen nothing whatever of him?"
"Nothing whatever," Watney was fain to admit. "Up to half an hour ago Le Blanc had not put in an appearance at the studio. Seeing that he lives there makes the matter all the more complicated."
"I suppose the whole house has been searched?" Lawrence asked.
"Oh, that was done last night. I assure you that no stone has been left unturned."
"Le Blanc will never come back again," Lawrence said solemnly. "I tell you that I saw his dead body and nothing whatever has happened since to change my opinion. When you come to think of it, a vulgar, brutal murder like this is not so very much out of the common. Le Blanc had his enemies, as we know. I am not going to count the alcoholic gentleman I met last night one of them, though he seemed to have a grievance against the dead artist. He was not at all the class of man to commit a crime—indeed, the worst you could say about him was that he was no one's enemy but his own. But the woman is a very different matter. Who is the woman who is so much under Le Blanc's influence that she shrinks from him when he holds up a hand towards her? I have not forgotten that significant gesture. And was she the same woman who was in the studio last night—the woman who was calling aloud for a brush of red paint? Mind, I am not speaking without book, because I have seen the lady, both in the studio and on the stairs at Mrs. Omley's house, No. 13, Russell Place. If we can come across this woman again, it is more than probable that she can give us some valuable information. I should say that between her and that eccentric millionaire Doveluck we could get to the bottom of the whole business. Unfortunately my hands are tied, so that I cannot take so prominent a lead in this matter as I should like. It will never do for the police to know that I have been mixed up in this affair. Whereas, so far as you are concerned, the same restriction does not apply."
"What is your idea, then?" Watney asked.
Lawrence hesitated for a moment.
"Upon my word, I hardly like to put it in words," he said. "It sounds so startling. Now let us assume for a moment that Le Blanc met his death at the hands of this woman. She is reckless and desperate; she is goaded beyond human endurance. And mind, she is not the first delicately-nurtured woman who has played the part of principal in a ghastly crime. We will assume that she killed Le Blanc. So far, this is fairly commonplace. But after she gets clean away, without, as she imagines, being detected or suspected, why does she come back and remove the body? At least, she couldn't move the body by herself. But she could—evidently did—procure others to do so for her. There must have been some pressing reason for her to run a risk like this."
"I give it up," Watney said after a long, thoughtful pause. "The hope is a slender one, but it is just possible that Sir Arthur Blantyre might be able to throw some light on the matter. And that is why I suggest that we should go down to-day. I am free for a few hours provided as I shall be at my post to-morrow night. Now what do you say to this notion?"
Lawrence hesitated. The temptation was a sufficiently strong one. He had a big budget of news for Sir Arthur, which in itself constituted a good excuse for a run down to Glenallan. And Sir Arthur had warned him not to write if he had anything to say, but to convey it in person. Glenallan would be looking at its best. It would be a welcome change to get away from the racket and roar and turmoil of London to those peaceful green shades, and the cool breezes which came in from the sea at the back of the north wind.
There were other reasons besides—the recollection of Ethel Blantyre and the tender sympathy in her dark blue ayes. A little further pressure on Watney's part and the thing was done.
"I should like very much to go," Lawrence murmured. "But there are one or two matters which need clearing up first. And, besides, if I get into the habit of running down to Glenallan every time I want five minutes' conversation with Sir Arthur the work would never be finished. Don't ask me again. We will go down next Friday if you like. Till then there is plenty for me to do. You must see that for yourself."
Watney shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
"As you will," he said. "But what do you propose to do now?"
"WELL," Lawrence said thoughtfully, "have you forgotten that I hold a somewhat important clue in my hands? Have you forgotten that by sheer good luck I am in a position to follow it up without causing the slightest suspicion? Don't forget the piece of good fortune I had when I interviewed that lodging-house keeper in Russell Place. In the first instance, I found out who Le Blanc's mysterious lady friend was, and I found out also where she lives. As if that did not fill up the measure of my good fortune, I had an interview with the lady, who solemnly warned me what was likely to happen if I ventured to cross swords with Victor Le Blanc. More than that, I took lodgings under the same roof, where I am expected in a day or two. Of course, I am not bound to stay there long. I can remain till the end of the week, or stop as long as I choose. What I thought of doing was this—taking up my quarters there with a view to finding out all that is possible. It would be a foolish thing to neglect this opportunity until the scent grew cold. Thanks to Sir Arthur's generosity, I have plenty of money, and thanks to your kindness all my belongings are under your roof. I propose to go and see Mrs. Omley and arrange to take possession of the rooms at once. You may be sure I shall keep my eyes open, and anything out of the common that takes place shall be reported to you. Now don't you think this is a much better scheme than rushing off to Glenallan to confer with Sir Arthur?"
Watney admitted that it was. He had not thought of it. But when the idea was mentioned, he was perhaps more enthusiastic than Lawrence. The matter was arranged and Hatton set out to put it into operation without delay. He saw the austere Mrs. Omley later in the day and arranged that his belongings should come round the same evening. The rest of the afternoon was occupied in getting everything together, so that Lawrence had but little time to trouble about the studio mystery.
But the tragedy had spread from one end of London to the other. The mysterious disappearance of the artist, the account of his studio, the description of the blood-marks, all went to make up a drama such as London revels in. There are some crimes ghastly enough in themselves which pass almost unnoticed, whilst other crimes seem to fasten on popular imagination with the grasp of an octopus, and the disappearance of Victor Le Blanc was one of these. The man was a mystery in himself. He had loomed large in the public eye of late, and all the afternoon papers devoted columns to the subject.
Lawrence shuddered slightly as his eye encountered the headlines outside the newsagents' shops. There was not a single newspaper placard that was not entirely given over to the Fitzroy Square mystery. Striking the eye in great black and red type:—
"MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AN ARTIST,"
"SUPPOSED MURDER OF MR. LE BLANC,"
"FAMOUS ANGLO-FRENCH ARTIST VANISHES."
and the like. Here was a sensation likely to last London for some time. Lawrence turned away with a sense of sickening dread.
"I don't like it. I shall be glad to get away from the whole thing. I begin to feel sorry now that I ever undertook to give my services to Sir Arthur. I feel certain that sooner or later my visit to Le Blanc's studio will get me into trouble. It would have been better if I had hardened my heart and stuck to my first determination to leave the country. But, then, who could have resisted the pleading face and beseeching eyes of Ethel Blantyre? No, on the whole, I am not sorry."
By seven o'clock in the evening Lawrence was comfortably settled in his new quarters. He did not venture to ask any questions about his fellow-lodger, for he was fearful of arousing suspicion, and, besides, he hoped to get all his information at first hand. He had arranged to take most of his meals out, so that it was late in the evening before he turned in with a view to going to bed.
As he went up the stairs to his own room he saw that the apartments devoted to the use of Charlotte Beaumont were wide open and that they were in darkness. For a moment a fear crossed him that the woman might have left. He was reassured presently by the sight of a number of letters on a little side-table addressed to her, whereby he knew that his fears were groundless. There was another point, too, on which he might congratulate himself and that was the quietness of the house. The place was more or less in darkness, owing to that rigid economy in the matter of gas which seems to be the hall-mark of most houses where people let lodgings. There was a mere spot of light in the hall, and just enough on the stairs to enable people to go up and down without accident.
Lawrence sat himself down presently over a pipe to think matters out. It was approaching twelve o'clock before he felt inclined to go to bed and he was debating this point in his mind when there came a timid knock at the door and Mrs. Omley entered. She did not look quite so austere and forbidding as usual. On the contrary, her face was disturbed and her eyes were anxious. She hesitated for a moment as if half-afraid of what she was going to say. Lawrence's smile was encouraging.
"There is one little matter before you go to bed, sir," she said, "and that is, I hope you won't mind if you hear a noise or two in the night. Of course, if you are a sound sleeper it won't matter. But I know that some gentlemen are very particular in that respect."
Lawrence pricked up his ears. He began to wonder if he was on the verge of another mystery, or if, mayhap, he had tapped another phase of the studio sensation. Obviously, it was his cue to induce Mrs. Omley to speak freely.
"I am a pretty fair sleeper," he said, "but I am not at all nervous. Don't you think it would be as well to tell me what I have to be afraid of? I should be very loth indeed to find myself in the early hours of the morning engaged in deadly combat with an assumed burglar who may turn out to be perhaps your most desirable lodger."
Mrs. Omley dared to smile.
"Well, it isn't exactly a lodger, sir," she said in tones of relief. "Not to put too fine a point upon it, it's my son. He is by no means a bad son, and when he makes money he is very free with it; indeed, if he were not so kind to me I should be hard put to it to pay my rent very often. But my son has one weakness—he is very fond of what he calls good company. I dare say you know what that sort of thing means, sir?"
Lawrence nodded. There was no reason for Mrs. Omley to put her words more plainly. She had told him clearly enough that her son had a weakness for bar parlours and shady clubs and the class of society where men are never happy unless they have a glass of something strong and stimulating before them. It was evident that the roystering son was in the habit of coming home intoxicated in the middle of the night, to the great scandal of the neighbours and the annoyance of Mrs. Omley's lodgers. Lawrence could picture the man quite well—a big, good-natured, kind-hearted man, whose ambition in life is to make a noise, but is his own enemy.
"Oh, that will be all right," Lawrence said. "I have seen a good deal of the world and have tried to make allowances for other people. You can go to bed with the comfortable assurance that there is not likely to be any strife between your son and myself."
Mrs. Omley thanked her lodger and withdrew. Lawrence sat in front of the fire, smoking his pipe and reviewing the strange events of the past day or two. He was getting sleepy and his thoughts turned towards bed, when he heard the rattle of a latchkey downstairs, followed by the banging of a door and the fall of something heavy and substantial in the hall. A moment later a cheerful voice began to sing the praises of wine and the advantage of turning night into day, through which means a few more hours could be judiciously added to life, thereby scoring over those humdrum respectable people who are in the habit of retiring to rest at what is called a rational hour. The voice came nearer and nearer as the singer dragged himself up the stairs. Then there was a heavy lurch and another ponderous fall, followed by a long and ominous silence.
The smile of amusement died from Lawrence's face. It occurred to him that the roysterer might have hurt himself. He slipped out of his room, and in the faint light of the glimmer of gas he saw a man lying on his face apparently fast asleep. With great difficulty Lawrence managed to lift the man to his feet and drag him into his sitting-room. He lay back in a chair with his eyes closed. Then, suddenly, he sat up and looked round him with a hazy eye.
"Let's have another whisky and soda," he said huskily. "We are all good fellows here and a drink more or less doesn't matter. Now who the dickens are you? And where have I seen you before? Still, if you are a friend of mine, it doesn't matter."
Lawrence had no reply for a moment. He was too astonished to speak, for here, seated in his own armchair, gazing at him with a sleepy and fuddled expression, was the man whom he had seen in Le Blanc's studio the night before in a state of hopeless if amiable intoxication. Here was a danger as grave as it was dramatic and unexpected.
WITH a sigh Lawrence submitted himself to the inevitable. He had been battling against circumstances ever since the door of the prison had closed upon him. Now he was inclined to give the whole thing up in despair. Try as he would, be as careful as he could, troubles and dangers seemed to rise up at every corner. But here was a trouble which was not only unforeseen, but more likely to prove dangerous than any other of his worries. It was nothing that the intoxicated person in the armchair failed to recognize him for the moment, because, sooner or later, his mind would clear and he would be able to point to Lawrence as the man whom he had seen in Le Blanc's studio. The evil day might be postponed for a little, but it would come inevitably.
Still, there was something in the fact that he was dealing with a good-natured man, and from this Lawrence derived a scanty measure of comfort. The stranger did not look in the least vindictive—on the contrary, Lawrence sized him up to be the kind of man who would go a long way off the beaten track to help a fellow-creature. Obviously, it would be a pleasure to him to lend a helping hand to humanity in distress.
There was no reason, either, for Lawrence to ask the intruder's name. This was Mrs. Omley's son—hence he had called himself Omelette the night before. It would be just as well, perhaps, Lawrence thought, to test the man's memory and see how far he recollected the events which had taken place after the finding of Le Blanc's body.
"You are Mr. Omley," Lawrence said tentatively.
"Of course I am," the other man said. He puffed out his chest with the air of one who is accustomed to be well spoken of. "My name is George Omley. I am an artist. If I were not also a fool, I would have a big reputation by this time. You seem to be a good sort. What is your name?"
It must not be supposed that Omley asked these questions coherently and rationally. On the contrary, his kindly eyes were bleared and sleepy and his tongue found considerable difficulty in shaping the necessary words. And yet Lawrence could not but feel attracted towards his companion.
"You are an artist by profession?" he asked.
"I am," Omley replied, "and proud of the title. You may believe it or not, but I am one of the cleverest artists and biggest fools in London. I am drunk now and I don't care what happens to me. Give me a few pounds to make a fool of myself with, and you can have all the best work I do and take all the credit for it. Oh, you would not be the only one, I assure you. I could put my hand upon three or four men with big reputations who have hardly soiled a canvas for years. How is it done, you ask? Why, the thing is simple. You have only to look round the smaller studios and you'll find a dozen men like me any day. Our work doesn't sell because we are lazy and because we lack tenacity of purpose. Then the rascals come along and offer to buy all we paint at a price. Sometimes we are indignant, sometimes we resort to violence. But, bless your soul, it is all the same in the long run. We are bound to have money to enjoy ourselves. We are bound to be clothed and fed. And then, later, you see all the papers praise a picture good enough to make half a dozen reputations, and everybody is talking about the new man. Then you go off and drown your remorse in brandy, swearing all the time that it shall never happen again. Ah, we are poor creatures, miserable wretches."
Mr. George Omley stammered through his long speech, at the end of which he bowed his head upon his hands and shed a few maudlin tears. Then he sat up again and in a husky whisper demanded to know if Lawrence had any brandy on the premises.
"I have nothing," Lawrence said tersely. "As a matter of fact, I am practically a teetotaller. I suppose you don't recollect meeting me before?"
Omley turned his dull eyes upon the speaker and shook his head resolutely. His first feeling of suspicion had vanished now. He was certain he had never seen his companion before. Indeed, he regretted that, up to now. Fate had been so unkind as to part him from so kindred a spirit and congenial a companion. He wept a few more maudlin tears at this cruel stroke and Lawrence began to feel easier in his mind. It was possible, after all, that his secret might be safe.
At the same time, there was a good deal to find out, and this would have to be done carefully without arousing Omley's suspicions. What was he doing in Le Blanc's studio? And how did he come to be on such familiar terms with the man who during the last year or so, at any rate, had shut himself out almost entirely from human society? Surely there must be some powerful reason why Le Blanc should tolerate the presence in his studio of a drunken artist who, on his own confession, was not ashamed to do work which he allowed other and less clever painters to pass off as their own. Moreover, he had come into the studio with the air and manner of a man who was quite at home. Lawrence thought that if he could get to the bottom of this business he would be well on the way to a really important discovery. He put his scruples aside and began a close cross-examination.
"Do you find much trouble," he asked, "in getting rid of your work? Are there many men ready to jump at the chance of passing your stuff off as their own?"
"As many as I want," Omley stammered.
"I know one or two artists myself," Lawrence went on. "I recall one in particular who was an old school-fellow. They tell me he has been making wonderful strides of recent years. Perhaps you may have heard of him."
As Lawrence spoke he shot a keen glance from under his eyebrows at his companion. He saw that Omley's eyes had cleared just for the moment, and that his face had assumed a more alert expression. He smiled in a peculiarly knowing fashion.
"Oh, I have heard of him," he said. "A Frenchman, isn't he? I suppose he does do some pretty good work, or rather he did at one time. Still, a man can't do what Victor Le Blanc does and keep up to the level of his pictures. It is bad enough to drink as I do, but when it comes to that infernal morphia——"
The speaker paused abruptly as if conscious that he was saying too much. He changed the subject and began in a somewhat rapid voice to speak of artistic matters generally. Lawrence racked his brains to know how to raise the main question again, but though he put one or two interrogations to Omley, he could not draw him any farther on the subject of Le Blanc. Then in sheer desperation he asked a question point blank.
"Did you ever do anything for him?" he said.
A decidedly ugly expression crossed Omley's face.
"That's no business of yours," he said sullenly. "Don't you run away with the idea that because I'm a fool I'm a blackguard as well. I make my bargain with my eyes wide open, and I am ready to abide by it. A proper sort of scoundrel I should be if I took a man's money for the child of my brain, then afterwards went about the clubs telling everybody about it. There are half a dozen artists to-day whose reputation I have made—made, mind you. Ay, and there are authors, musicians and sculptors in a similar position. But when I have sold my picture, there is an end of it. I am drunk half my time and I am drunk now. But nobody ever heard George Omley betray a confidence, and if you think you are going to get any out of me you are mistaken."
It was useless to pursue the discussion and Lawrence apologized with due humility. His companion was getting quieter and more sleepy, especially when he came to understand that there was no chance of prolonging the evening at the expense of Lawrence's hospitality. He rose presently and held out his hand with the beaming good-nature of a man who is actuated only by the most friendly feeling towards the world in general.
"Good-night," he said. "You are a very good sort, and I hope to see more of you. Only if you are to have the inestimable privilege of my society, you will have to keep a stock of liquor in your rooms. Now, good-night and pleasant dreams to you."
So saying Omley rose unsteadily to his feet and steered his way with more or less dexterity towards the door. He sternly, almost scornfully, refused the offer of assistance. But he left the door wide open behind him, so that Lawrence had a full view of the landing. At the moment that Omley reached the staircase another figure appeared which Lawrence had no difficulty in recognizing as Charlotte Beaumont. She was clad in evening dress of some white material, and Lawrence could see the gleam of her clear skin and the shimmer of diamonds in her hair. She stopped to speak to Omley as if his presence there had been the most natural thing in the world. She seemed to be impressing something upon him which he had some difficulty in understanding, for he shook his head dubiously.
"It's no use," he said in a hoarse whisper, which was perfectly audible to Lawrence. "You are wasting your time talking to me now. Wait till the morning, when I shall be able to go into the thing with you. Danger! What danger can there be?"
Charlotte Beaumont turned away with a gesture of annoyance and closed the door of her sitting-room behind her. Omley stood a moment gazing sorrowfully after her. Then he shook his head and went up to his room.
LAWRENCE lost no time after breakfast in making his way to the Temple and laying his latest discovery before Watney. The latter's eyes twinkled as he listened.
"This is a bit of good luck," he said, "and not the least of your good fortune lies in the fact that this man Omley failed to recognize you. Of course we shall have to find out what he was doing in the studio and what he knows of the events which followed your leaving the place. You must find some way of introducing me to the man. By the way, did he show any signs of confusion when you mentioned Le Blanc's name? He must know by this time that Le Blanc has disappeared. He is bound to know it."
"I don't think he did last night," Lawrence replied. "You see, he was a long way from being sober, though he seems to have a pretty good idea of keeping his secret so far as his own affairs are concerned. But the fact remains that he has had the run of Le Blanc's studio, and that he is on the most friendly terms with Charlotte Beaumont, who could tell us a great deal if she were so disposed. Don't you think it would be just as well to let events take their own course a bit? It lies in my power to become as friendly with George Omley as I like, and sooner or later a man with his disposition is certain to betray himself. Besides, we have plenty of time before us. Is there much in this morning's papers on the subject of the disappearance of Le Blanc?"
"Crammed full of it," Watney said curtly. "This is just the kind of tragedy that appeals to the public. Probably all suburban London was gloating over the details at breakfast this morning. You see, Le Blanc was a figure in his way, and he has been very much paragraphed of late. But you can see for yourself what a fuss has been made over the affair. And now, don't you think it would be just as well if we went down to Glenallan on Friday night and saw Sir Arthur Blantyre?"
"As you like," Lawrence agreed. "There is only one drawback about it—it is such a long journey. Whatever train we take, it will be impossible to get there before ten o'clock at night, and then there is a long drive from the station. In any case, I shall have to send a guarded telegram to Sir Arthur to say that we are coming and ask him to send a trap to meet us."
"I don't see any objection to that," Watney said. "We don't want to make any fuss. When we get to Glenallan, all we shall need is a bit of supper and a bed, and there won't be any difficulty in putting us up. At any rate, I leave it to you to fix the train and I am at your service after mid-day on Friday. And now, will you be good enough to clear out and leave me to go on with my work?"
The thing was settled and Lawrence drifted off to kill time as best he might. All he could hope to do between now and Friday was to make a little more progress in his friendship with George Omley, and, perhaps, be able to give Blantyre more information than he possessed at present.
Watney had not been far wrong in his estimate of the way in which the Press would treat the studio mystery. The papers were crammed full of more or less authentic details. Each morning and afternoon brought a fresh sensation, which was promptly contradicted in due course. Nobody knew anything and the police appeared to be utterly at fault. But this did not prevent the Press from launching out into theories of its own and publishing misleading contents' bills with a view to gulling the susceptible British public. Lawrence was getting heartily sick of it. It seemed impossible for him to walk the street without having some reminder of the studio mystery and the part he had unwittingly played in it. He had not yet got over the dread of arrest, the feeling that in some way or other the police might call upon him to tell all he knew. He was heartily glad when the week-end came and it was time for Watney and himself to start on their journey to Glenallan. There was a feeling of relief in the knowledge that they were in a hansom driving towards Euston. Even here they could not get away from the Le Blanc business, for though it was early in the afternoon the first edition of the evening papers was out and a crowd of ragged men and boys were calling out hoarse lies bearing upon the fact of Victor Le Blanc. Lawrence shuddered as he passed through the gates into the station.
"Oh, I am glad to get out of this for a bit," he said. "For the last two or three days I have bitterly regretted my action in this matter. It would have been far better if I had stuck to my original idea and turned my back on England."
"I don't agree with you at all," Watney said, as he proceeded to make himself comfortable in the corner of a first-class carriage. "Besides, you are not the sort of man to turn your back upon trouble. Sooner or later your innocence is going to be established, and you will take your proper place in the world. I am sure that you would not like Ethel Blantyre to feel that you had deserted her at a critical moment; would you?"
Lawrence flushed and said nothing. The mere mention of the name of Ethel Blantyre acted like a charm upon his spirits. He knew that he was capable of doing anything for her sake, and he could not forget that hers was the first kindly voice that he had heard after the long years of torture, that she had been the first to address him as if he were a human being. And in addition to this, was not Ethel a firm believer in his innocence?
These were the thoughts that were uppermost in Lawrence Hatton's mind as the train sped along. It was a weary journey across country with many irritating delays, and both men were glad to find themselves at length on the platform of the little station which was some four or five miles from the old house at Glenallan. It was an intensely dark night, but that made no difference to the travellers, for they could almost have found their way to their destination blindfold.
"There are changes even here," Watney remarked, as they stood waiting for the trap. "Both the porters are strangers to me, and that is a new house across the road. Can't you see the lights of the tower of Glenallan?"
Lawrence scarcely dared to trust himself to speak. He stood with his foot on the step of the dog-cart looking around him. The dim light which Watney had spoken of was visible in the distance; for generations it had acted as a beacon to the fishing-boats at sea. Lawrence thrilled as he saw it. He had been born here. His happiest days had been spent under the shadow of the tower of Glenallan. The sweet scents of the country-side came familiarly to his nostrils. Everything filled him with a mingled sense of pleasure and pain. It was with the same feeling that he drove up the avenue presently—the long elm avenue that ended at the great house. In some queer way the place suggested to Lawrence a feeling of desolation and despair. And yet the Blantyres were rich and powerful. Theirs was still a name to conjure with as it had been for generations past. But the black cloud hung over it. It seemed to Lawrence that there was much to do before the sun shone on the old house again.
It was just after ten o'clock, when there were few lights to be seen, and these were scattered at intervals along the facade. Watney rang the bell twice before the footman appeared. And when the servant did come he seemed to be subdued and frightened. He was not sure whether his master could see anybody or not, for Sir Arthur was by no means himself to-day.
"We must see him, all the same," Watney said in his emphatic way. "In fact, we have come down from London on purpose. Go and tell your master so whilst we wait here."
The footman vanished somewhat reluctantly leaving the visitors in the great hall with its magnificent painted walls and chain armour. Late in the spring as it was, a great wood fire glowed on the hearth, for it was generally chilly in the hall at Glenallan. The house was singularly quiet, as if some spirit were brooding over it and there was a strong sense of desolation to-night.
Lawrence thrilled as he recognized the voice of Ethel Blantyre giving directions to the footman.
"Ask the gentlemen into the library," she said. "I will go and tell your master that they are here."
It was cheerful in the library with its brilliant lights and the gay bindings of the books. Even here a fire burned and the glow did not seem to be out of place. A moment later Sir Arthur Blantyre walked in. His manner was fairly cordial, but Lawrence thought he had something on his mind. He carried a bundle of daily papers in his hand, which he had been reading. As he threw them on the table Lawrence saw that here and there the account of the studio mystery came uppermost.
"I am glad to see you, gentlemen," Sir Arthur said. "It is very good of you, Mr. Watney, to interest yourself in this affair. But tell me what has happened. Tell me, have you any idea where Le Blanc has gone? I cannot indulge myself in the luxury of the hope that that man is dead."
Watney answered that it would be just as well if Lawrence told his story first. The three men sat round the fire whilst Lawrence proceeded with the narrative which Sir Arthur followed with the most vivid interest. His eyes were glowing and his face had lost its pallor. Then he rose to his feet as the name of Omley was mentioned.
"Have you found him?" he asked in a terrified whisper. "Oh, I had not expected anything quite so bad as this! But what am I talking about? Go on with your story, please."
LAWRENCE and Watney exchanged glances. From the very start the whole affair had been a mystery, becoming even more puzzling as things proceeded, so that neither of the young men felt the slightest surprise at this otherwise astounding outbreak of Sir Arthur Blantyre's. What he knew of George Omley, or what he had to fear from that eccentric artist was a mere speculation. At any rate, it was lucky that Blantyre was apparently able to throw some light on this side issue. No doubt he would go on to explain his agitation at knowing that Omley was mixed up in the imbroglio. They were going to learn something fresh.
As a matter of fact, they did nothing of the kind. Blantyre stammered and hesitated and then tried his best to remove the impression of terror and astonishment which his manner had conveyed.
"Dear! dear!" he muttered, "what am I talking about? My mind has become so confused of late that I am always muddling up things in the most extraordinary way. Upon my word, just for the moment, I thought you meant somebody else. You see, I have a very dear friend whose name is George—what did you say your man's name was? What did you call him?"
"We called him Omley," Watney said curtly. "My friend Hatton pronounced the word distinctly. I hope you are not suffering from deafness, Sir Arthur."
There was an intentional sting in Watney's speech. He knew perfectly well that Sir Arthur had caught the word quite plainly. He knew that the baronet was prevaricating, not to use a harsher word. But that he was deliberately attempting to draw the others off the track was evidenced by his pale face and curiously agitated manner.
"Ah," he said, "that makes all the difference." He studiously avoided taking notice of Watney's brusqueness. "I was deceived in the resemblance for the moment, and when a man's nerves are disordered it does not take much to upset him. My friend's name is Holmlay. But pray proceed. I am anxious to know what this drunken artist has to do with the disappearance of Le Blanc."
Watney threw himself back in his chair and took no further interest in the conversation. He was disappointed and annoyed. He resented this treatment on the part of Sir Arthur, who, for some reason or other, was withholding valuable information. There was a shiftiness about him and his face wore a semi-apologetic look which filled the journalist with something like disgust. It would be impossible to help this man if he was going to have secrets from those whom he had selected as his allies, and who were supposed to possess his confidence to the full. The only extenuating points were his age and his worries. He might be faltering in his mind. There might perhaps be a reason which he thought satisfactory for keeping his knowledge to himself.
Apparently Lawrence did not mind, for he talked freely, answering Sir Arthur's feverish questions to the best of his ability. The conversation began to drag presently. The hour was getting late and there was nothing for it but to defer the conference until the next morning.
Watney was in Lawrence's bedroom betimes with the tidings that it was a glorious morning, and that already he had been strolling about the grounds. He roused Hatton vigorously.
"It is a sin to be in bed on such a heavenly morning," he said. "What fools we are to coop ourselves up in London when we can live in the country! If I had a place here I could earn just as much money as I do now, and have all the benefit of this pure air and freedom from worry. But I bury myself in Fleet Street without taking a proper holiday for years. I have been wondering the last hour or so why on earth I am saving my money. I declare that I feel twenty years younger already. Come outside and let's talk matters over. We have not come here for our own benefit solely, and there are one or two things I should like to discuss with you. I was disgusted last night as you probably noticed."
"I am afraid I didn't," Lawrence confessed. "But go downstairs and wait for me. I won't keep you more than ten minutes."
Lawrence soon joined his friend in the garden. The sun was up. The trees and flowers sparkled under their dewdrops as if gemmed with millions of diamonds. It seemed impossible to associate all this beauty and sweetness with the gloom and misery which hung over the house of Glenallan. For a while the two friends paused, in silence taking in the wealth and glory of it. Then, as an anticlimax, Watney produced a black pipe which he proceeded to fill with coarse tobacco. The journalist could not leave the environment of the town for very long behind him.
"We'll come here later and really enjoy it," he said. "For the present, we mustn't forget business. So let us get to the point. Do you mean to tell me you didn't notice anything last night? You did not see anything peculiar about the way in which Sir Arthur received the name of that erratic chap, George Omley?"
"Can't say I did," Lawrence said. "He seemed to me to be natural enough. The name struck him as more or less familiar. Then he remembered that the resemblance turned upon a similarity of name, though there was some difference in spelling. You are too suspicious."
"Oh, too suspicious be hanged!" Watney broke out warmly. "That won't do for me. I would stake my reputation that Sir Arthur knows Omley well. Why, he was in a state of pitiable agitation when you mentioned the fellow's name. Then he began to lie freely, which is hardly the kind of thing one expects from the chief of the Blantyres. How, in the name of goodness, are we going to get to the bottom of this business if we are to be baffled and deceived at every turn by the man who has asked us to help him? However, there is no use beating about the bush. If Sir Arthur won't tell the truth, we must find somebody else who will. The only explanation I can offer is that the old man's mind is affected."
"There are more unlikely things than that," Lawrence admitted. "I see you have some scheme in your head. What do you want me to do?"
"Well, you must take Miss Blantyre into your confidence. It is possible she may know something. At any rate, if Sir Arthur is humbugging us, as I think, we cannot go on until this phase of the mystery is cleared up. What I want to know and what I mean to know is what connexion there is between Sir Arthur and George Omley. You will be seeing Miss Blantyre presently, and I hope you will learn something from her."
As Lawrence gave the desired assurance, the breakfast gong summoned them to the house. They found that the morning meal had been laid out in one of the small sitting-rooms looking over the terrace. The pleasant room was flooded with sunshine. There were flowers in profusion. It was hard to believe that Glenallan was the home of unhappiness. On every hand there was evidence of luxury and taste and fortune. In front of the window lay the green lawns, close and thick and velvety as they had been for centuries. Beyond was the dense foliage in the park with the moving shadows of the deer as they marched along through the bracken. And yet the shadow was here. It lay, though almost imperceptibly, on Ethel Blantyre's smooth brow. It seemed to cloud the light of Sir Arthur's eyes.
Watney watched him closely. It struck him that his host was unduly apologetic, as if anxious to efface some bad impression. The journalist smiled grimly to himself. It seemed only the other day that he had been an inmate of Glenallan merely on sufferance. At the period he was thinking of the Blantyres had more or less patronized their neighbours, and whilst Watney's father and the elder Le Blanc and the Reverend Robert Hatton were by way of being on friendly terms with the head of the house, everybody understood the footing on which they were received. And here was Watney, a hard-worked Fleet Street journalist, of no public position whatever, seated at table as the honoured guest of the last of the Blantyres. He wondered if the family pride had brought this curse upon the house. He wondered if, after all, the trouble was as deep and festering as Sir Arthur represented.
But Watney was a man of the world. He always made the most of his opportunities and for the time being was in need of breakfast. He had an appetite such as he had not known for years. He flitted from one dish to another. He talked clever commonplaces to Ethel as if nothing out of the common had happened and he were only a passing guest. It was as well that Sir Arthur should see nothing of his annoyance, because, as he suspected, the baronet's mind was a little off the balance, and it would never do to breed further suspicion, especially when he was athirst for information.
"You will stay till Monday," Sir Arthur suggested. "You need not hurry back. We are very quiet, I know, but it will be a pleasant change after London."
"OH, you must stay," Ethel murmured. "It will be a real kindness to us, for we see so few people."
Watney hesitated, then inclination got the better of prudence and he decided to throw work to the winds. It would only mean a telegram or two. He could return on Tuesday, and he had not had a week-end for months. As for Lawrence, he asked nothing better than to stay. He saw a welcome in Ethel's eyes. He began a conversation with her in a low voice, whilst Watney was engaging his host in a discourse on old books and manuscripts. Apart from his troubles and worries Sir Arthur was a cultured man. He was only too glad to find a companion after his own heart. No sooner was breakfast over than he dragged Watney to the library leaving Lawrence and Ethel alone. The girl rose presently and opened a window leading to the garden. The sunshine was grateful. The whole earth was filled with the scent of flowers. At the foot of the terrace a bank of white lilacs rose stately in the full panoply of their bloom and fragrance.
"Come outside," Ethel said gaily. "Come out and let us forget our troubles. It seems impossible under such a sunshine to believe that troubles exist. You may smoke and we can have a long delicious chat. I have not been altogether happy at Glenallan, but in such glorious weather there is no place like it in the world."
"I would not differ from you if I could," Lawrence murmured as he walked along by the girl's side. "I was born almost under the shadow of the tower. I lived here till I grew up, and every footstep holds some pleasant association for me. Even as I stand here I can see the place where I shot my first rabbit. In the distance is the tree where I found the kite's nest. Upon my word, I can hardly think of it without going back to my youth again. You can imagine how this tranquil beauty appeals to me after the past three years. Fancy a man as fond of the country as I am having nothing to look at all that time except stone wails."
Ethel laid her hand on her companion's arm.
"I don't want you to think about that," she whispered. "I want you to try to forget it altogether. I dare say you feel hard and bitter, especially seeing that you are an innocent man. But there are some people who believe in you, and sooner or later your innocence will be established. Promise me you won't allude to it again. The subject is hateful."
"Very well," Lawrence said. "Now if you have nothing better to do we will go through the park and along the cliffs and home by way of the sea. There is a matter I want to speak to you about, connected with the trouble here."
"Must we go back to that to-day?" Ethel asked. "Can't we put it aside till Monday?"
Lawrence shook his head resolutely.
"I am afraid not," he said. "I am here on business and I have nothing to think about except your grandfather's interests. And that brings me to the point. He must have had bitter trouble lately; indeed, I was shocked when I saw how changed he was. But do you think that his worry is altogether real? Don't you think he imagines a great portion of it? But, of course, he would not take me into his confidence——"
"I might say the same thing. It is my grandfather's fault that he is so curiously reticent. He appears to believe that we can help him to ward off danger without knowing where the danger is."
"That is what I mean," Lawrence said eagerly. "No doubt he has his worries like the rest of us, but are they not distorted by a diseased imagination? To put it bluntly and plainly, do you think Sir Arthur is quite right in his head? I am putting it brutally, I know."
Ethel looked up with a startled expression.
"Have you seen anything to warrant the suggestion?" she asked.
"Well, I haven't, but Watney believes he has. He was only speaking to me about it this morning. Your grandfather's brain is either clouded or he is concealing something from us. How can we get along if people are not candid?"
Ethel made no reply. There was a startled gleam in her eyes. Then her face flamed scarlet and she looked down in confusion. Was she concealing something? Then there flashed across Lawrence's mind the recollection of that peculiar scent and Ethel's mysterious journey on the day after she and Sir Arthur reached London. It was a sore temptation to introduce the subject, but Lawrence refrained. If Ethel had a secret, it was a purely innocent one. The girl could not lend herself to anything that was mean and dishonourable and underhanded. Nevertheless, Lawrence felt sure that he had touched a hidden chord, that unconsciously he was placing a finger upon Ethel's tender conscience. He went on hurriedly to speak of other things.
"Perhaps I had better explain," he said. "I came here with Watney last night to give your grandfather an idea of the events which had occurred during the last eight and forty hours. In the course of my story I had to mention the name of a man called Omley, who is an artist. In point of fact, he is the son of the woman who keeps the rooms where I am lodging. Now nobody would have supposed that your grandfather had even so much as heard the name of this obscure and drunken painter who gets a precarious living by doing work for other people. And yet, directly I mentioned George Omley Sir Arthur was thrown into a state of agitation, though I am bound to confess that he recovered himself in a marvellous manner. He denied that he had ever heard the name before. He protested that it was only a resemblance between Omley and something else. But he wasn't telling the truth, Ethel; he was deceiving us deliberately. That is why I ask you if you have ever suspected whether your grandfather is suffering in his mind. It may be that we have all been deceived."
"I have asked myself the question more than once," Ethel whispered. "Sir Arthur is so reticent. He is so queer at times. And yet his family pride is as great and sinful as ever. It is a perfect monomania with him, and there is little doubt that he did deceive you. I have been thinking the matter over, and I recollect that many years ago our housekeeper had a sister who married a London tradesman called Omley. I have heard Mrs. Bryce mention her name over and over again. I believe she is a widow and lives near the British Museum. She keeps a lodging-house. Her son is an artist and came down here some years ago and painted Mrs. Bryce's portrait. It hangs in the housekeeper's room, and Mrs. Bryce is exceedingly proud of it. Of course Sir Arthur must know all this. He is bound to recollect. And yet you tell me that he denied all knowledge of the name. That is very singular. I will see Mrs. Bryce after lunch and get what information I can from her. If my grandfather won't help himself we must help him, malgre lui."
Lawrence dropped the subject lightly. It was too beautiful a day to trouble about the mystery which hung over the house of Glenallan. Besides, he had other matters to occupy his attention, and gradually the conversation grew personal and tender. There was a flush on Ethel's face as she came back to lunch. She appeared to avoid Lawrence for the rest of the afternoon. She was grateful, perhaps, to Watney, who was still deep in the library with Sir Arthur.
So the day went on till the shadows began to fall, and it was time to dress for dinner. Lawrence came in rather late, for he had taken a fancy to walk as far as the vicarage for the sake of old times. The second gong had gone before he reached the house. As he passed into the hall he heard one of the footmen arguing with some person who stood on the doorstep with the intention of coming in. The stranger was loud and insistent. He demanded to see Sir Arthur without delay. He had come, he said, to see the baronet at the latter's express request.
"And I have come to stay, my friend," he said, in tones which suggested that he had been refreshing himself not wisely but too well. "You take my bag up to my bedroom and say no more about it. I may be a bit late for dinner, and if I don't come downstairs you can make some excuse for me. Say I've got a headache. Say all that I want is a sandwich and a bottle of champagne."
"Sir Arthur is expecting no guest; I am certain of that," the footman said firmly. "You had better go about your business and try elsewhere. You have come to the wrong house; that's what is the matter with you. Now be off."
By way of reply the intruder took a step forward and playfully swung round his bag until it caught the unsuspicious footman in the ribs and sent him staggering across the hall. Before the footman could recover himself the unconventional visitor entered and seated himself on a chair and laughed silently. Something in the man's manner attracted Lawrence. He came forward with a feeling that strange things were about to happen. One glance at the intruder confirmed his suspicions.
"Hallo!" the newcomer said, "fancy seeing you here! Well, this is a bit of unexpected luck. It isn't often that an honour like this falls to the lot of George Omley."
OMLEY sat with a smile upon his face—the good-natured obstinate smile which showed a disposition far more difficult to deal with than any display of passion or emotion. The man had made up his mind what to do, and nothing on Lawrence's part was likely to turn him from his purpose. He appeared to be perfectly at home, too, as if he had been there many a time before, though he had failed to commend himself to the good opinion of the footman. He did not seem surprised to find that Lawrence had forestalled him; indeed, he treated the whole thing as something in the way of a joke. This was the one note of comedy in the tragedy, the one inconsequent item which upset Lawrence's theories. He could not, for the life of him, imagine where Omley came in, or what part he was playing in the mystery. Whether the man was aware how far things had gone it was impossible to say. But whatever his knowledge might be, he regarded the whole affair with the light-heartedness of a child. Lawrence could not be angry, or expostulate with him, as he would have done with a more responsible being.
"Now," Omley said in his most genial way, "this is a pleasant surprise. I come here on a matter of business, and find that my friend, Mr. Lawrence Hatton, has arrived before me. Mr. Lawrence Hatton is evidently a friend of the Lord High Executioner—I mean Sir Arthur Blantyre, which is so much the better. For, between ourselves, my dear Hatton, Sir Arthur is a dull dog, a devilish dull dog who utterly fails to recognize his responsibilities. Do you know that he is the owner of one of the finest cellars of wine in England?"
"That interests you more than it does me," Lawrence said with a smile. "What has that to do with it?"
Omley looked at the speaker in contempt.
"I thought, perhaps, you would understand," he said. "I repeat, sir, one of the finest cellars in England. And the last time I was here I had to remind Sir Arthur three times about the port. Still, on the whole, one doesn't have a bad time here."
"And what did you come for?" Lawrence asked pointedly.
Omley winked solemnly and mysteriously.
"Business," he said with becoming gravity. "The nature of that business is a secret between Sir Arthur and myself. As I told you before, I never discuss my clients' affairs with outsiders. Let it be sufficient to say that Sir Arthur has an artistic hobby which calls for my services. I come as an honoured guest and have literally to fight my way into the house. I suppose that is the new footman who let me in—or rather refused to let me in? But no matter. I am proud in the consciousness of my genius—by the way, do you know how long it is till dinner-time? I have been travelling most of the day and I am confoundedly hungry. I was up all night, too, working like a galley slave. I say, you might do me a favour. If there is no port on the table during dinner, I shall be glad if you'll introduce the subject. You needn't ask for the glorious vintage of '63 yourself. All you have to do is to lead up to the subject artfully and leave the rest to me. Is it a bargain?"
Lawrence turned away half-amused and half-angry. Really, it was impossible to take this creature seriously, as it was also impossible to dislike a man at once so genial and so simple-minded. After all, it was more Sir Arthur's business than anybody else's, and casual as Omley was, he would not have come to Glenallan without an invitation. No man, however Bohemian or thick-skinned, would attempt such a thing a second time. And, obviously, Omley was quite at home. Lawrence moved up towards the stairs with the full intention of wiping his hands of the whole thing when one of the side doors opened and Sir Arthur appeared. In the gloom he did not notice Lawrence. His whole attention was riveted on the intruder. His face was white with anger. He was shaking from head to foot with passion. Yet when he spoke, his voice betrayed unmistakable fear.
"What brings you here?" he said hoarsely. "Why do you come down to disgrace me in this fashion? If you had chosen your own time to bring trouble and humiliation upon me, you could not have arrived at a more unfortunate moment than the present."
"Well, I like that," Omley exclaimed with a good nature which nothing seemed to shake. "I got your telegram yesterday, and I did exactly what you asked me to do. I've got the thing in my pocket somewhere. You said I was to come without delay. And here I am. And there are you, abusing me as if I were a pickpocket. This is an insult, sir, which can only be wiped out in blood, or, let us say, port wine. Give me a bottle of '63 after dinner and all will be forgiven."
Sir Arthur turned his head away and groaned.
"Will you never be serious?" he asked. "Must you always be frivolling and fooling? Have you seen anybody since you came, because, if not, it is not yet too late to get you out of the way for a day or two——"
"Couldn't think of it," Omley said with dignity. "What did my friend Mr. Lawrence Hatton say? There he is going up the stairs. Mr. Lawrence Hatton is a desirable acquaintance. He is good enough to honour my mother by living under her lonely roof. It was he who met me when I came in this house. It was he who prevented my exclusion at the hands of a soulless footman who failed to recognize greatness when he saw it. If you don't believe me, ask Mr. Hatton."
There was nothing for it but for Lawrence to descend and make the best of the situation. The position was awkward in all conscience. Here, under Sir Arthur's roof, was the very man of whose existence he had denied all knowledge only a few hours before. And, moreover, the man was sitting there with the air and manner of one who is quite at home and paying by no means his first visit to Glenallan.
Lawrence and Sir Arthur looked at one another in embarrassment. The elder man knew that he had been caught in a deliberate lie and his pride was suffering accordingly. It was not pleasant for the head of Glenallan to recognize that he had been detected in wilfully deceiving his young friend, and, on the other hand, Lawrence's position was only a shade less delicate. Not for worlds would he have had Omley know that they had met in Le Blanc's studio. And a word might betray this at any moment. A single sentence might fire Omley's recollection and bring the whole train of circumstances back to him.
"There is some mistake," Lawrence murmured. "I am afraid you did not catch the name I mentioned last night. Mr. Omley is quite right, though it is only very recently that I have come to live under the same roof as himself. I understand that he is an exceedingly clever artist, and I presume he has come here to advise you about your pictures."
Sir Arthur looked gratefully at the speaker.
"Yes, yes," he said unsteadily. "There are certain paintings that I wish to have restored, and Mr. Omley's name was mentioned to me as likely to be able to give me the best advice. As a matter of fact, he has been here before. He seems to have mistaken the wording of a telegram I sent him; hence his appearance to-night was unexpected. But if you will come this way, my dear sir, I will try to make amends for the carelessness of my servant. And as a penalty for my stupidity I will see that a bottle of the '63 is decanted after dinner. By the way, was that the second gong that I heard just now?"
Lawrence took the hint and vanished upstairs. So far, it had been a drawn battle between Sir Arthur and himself. He had caught the latter in a deliberate deceit. But against that his own tongue was tied, unless he wished Omley to know that he and the erratic artist had met elsewhere than in his lodgings. Perhaps Sir Arthur would explain later. Perhaps he would expound the reason why Omley's presence filled him with such annoyance, and why he wanted to conceal the fact of the artist's acquaintance with himself from the two men who were helping him, and who ought, according to the dictates of common sense, to know everything. It was only natural, therefore, that Lawrence should feel some degree of irritation against his host, who, while professing to trust him, was, at the same time, suppressing information of the most important kind.
Lawrence came down to dinner at length, but not before he had time to warn Watney of what had happened. The latter shrugged his shoulders and accepted the situation philosophically.
"The old gentleman is mad," he said; "there is no question about it. I dare say if we got to the bottom of the whole thing, we should find that the secret which Sir Arthur and Omley are sharing is quite innocent. From what you say it will be impossible to associate your erratic artist with crime, or mystery, or intrigue of any kind."
"Then why was Sir Arthur so terrified last night when his name was mentioned?" Lawrence persisted. "And why should he go out of his way to deny that he knew Omley? I know the fellow is honest and, I should say, as gentle as a child. The man is incapable of anything really wrong."
"Then why bother? Come along and let us go down to dinner."
WHETHER Sir Arthur had been coaching his eccentric guest or not Lawrence could not say. At any rate, Omley behaved with great circumspection, and all signs of his previous hilarity had passed away. Certainly he had been a long way from sober when Lawrence saw him in the hall. But he was propriety itself at dinner and his conversation on art was luminous and entertaining. He spoke as if he knew the Blantyre family pictures by heart. And yet, from the few remarks which Ethel addressed to him, Lawrence concluded that she had never met the artist before. At the same time, he had spoken to Lawrence as if he were a frequent guest. The only conclusion he could come to was that Omley was in the habit of visiting Glenallan secretly, presumably late at night when the household had gone to bed. There was just a possibility that the wine might loosen Omley's tongue, but the evening advanced quietly and nothing was said or done by the stranger to give any further clue to the reason why he was visiting Glenallan. Bed-time came at length, and even Omley seemed to be glad of the chance of retiring.
On Monday at noon came the London papers, which Lawrence proceeded to scan with a view to seeing if there was anything fresh in regard to the studio tragedy. A little later Watney and himself would be returning to London, but a judicious question or two thrown out in Omley's direction elicited the fact that he would not be back in town till towards the end of the week.
The papers were crammed with all sorts of reports relating to the sensation of the hour. Some of them were idle extravagance, and some downright fiction. From the great mass of matter Lawrence failed to extract anything in the least likely to afford information or to suggest anything which could be directed against himself. He had disposed of most of the sheets when an arresting paragraph in one of the halfpenny papers caught his eye.
"Just before going to press," the report ran, "there reached us an authentic account of a happening which may sooner or later tend to throw a flood of light upon the studio mystery. It appears that a woman named Marsh, whose occupation is that of house-cleaning and the like, was going home through Fitzroy Square on the night of the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Victor Le Blanc. Seen by a representative the woman distinctly recalls a set of circumstances which are in themselves highly suspicious. It seems that about midnight, Mrs. Marsh was passing close to the famous artist's studio. As most of our readers know, the studio lies back from the road and is fenced by a large neglected garden in which it would be possible for a score of miscreants to hide without attracting the attention of the police. Mrs. Marsh would have gone on her way without having her suspicions aroused but for the fact that she saw a figure come hastily down the garden of the studio and halt suddenly on the path as if waiting for some one.
"In ordinary circumstances, there would have been nothing out of the common in this, but for the fact that the lady was in evening dress. Her shoulders were merely covered by a wrap, and in her hair, our witness declares, were a number of diamonds which shone distinctly in the lamplight. Mrs. Marsh stopped to take stock of this unexpected apparition. It was only for a moment or two that the lady in evening dress stood there. Then a hansom cab which she had obviously been expecting drove up and the lady entered without delay. Questioned as to what kind of cab it was, our witness declares that it was a private hansom, for she noted how well-appointed it was, and how well groomed was the driver. Struck by the somewhat strange apparition our witness lingered until she saw another figure come down the path. This time the stranger was a man. He came running down the garden path and bolted down the road for some distance, when he pulled up and began to walk slowly as if it had suddenly occurred to him that his headlong flight might attract the notice of the police. Closely questioned by our representative, Mrs. Marsh is certain that she will be able to recognize the man, though she is by no means so sure as far as the woman is concerned. Her reason for not giving this evidence before is that she has been laid up with a severe cold, and only last night was able to get out again and discuss with her neighbours what she had seen. It only remains now for the police to follow out this clue, and solve the studio mystery. One man, at any rate, who can throw light on this dark incident is at large in London, and, given a favourable opportunity, he can be recognized by Mrs. Marsh. It is unfortunate that the lady in evening dress with the diamonds used her own cab, for this must render the task of the police more difficult. Had an ordinary cab-driver been employed, doubtless, by this time, the public curiosity would have been gratified as regards one of the most baffling crimes that Scotland Yard has ever had to deal with."
Lawrence read the fateful paragraph more than once before he began to realize its true inwardness. It was plain that he had been recognized by this charwoman, who would be kept well in hand by Scotland Yard with a view to picking out the mysterious individual who visited Le Blanc's studio on the night of his disappearance. He shuddered to think that at any moment during his progress through the London streets he might be confronted by this woman and dragged off without ceremony to give an explanation.
There was another thing that frightened him, too—the recollection that he was a ticket-of-leave man. Within the next two or three weeks he would be bound to report himself at the nearest police station to his lodgings, and it was conceivable that he might be detained on the off-chance that he might be the man who was wanted. The very first thing the police would do would be to confront Mrs. Marsh with all the ticket-of-leave men who were at present in London. Moreover, by now the police had probably gone carefully into Le Blanc's early history; by this time they would know that amongst the friends of his boyhood were Watney and himself. It would not be strange if he found himself ere long in an exceedingly tight corner; indeed, common sense told him that it would be singular if it were otherwise. There was nothing for it but to keep away from London as long as he could.
With a cold foreboding in his heart he went in search of Watney and laid the paragraph before him. There was no reason to tell the astute journalist the extent of his fears, for Watney recognized the gravity of the situation at once.
"This is very bad," he said gravely. "I see you understand what it means. It is very unfortunate, too, just at the present moment. Without jumping to a conclusion, the best thing you can do is to lie low here whilst I go up to town and see what I can do with a view to clearing the ground for you. I may be able to do something. Luckily, you have already reported yourself to the police since you came out of Wandsworth, and, therefore, they have no claim upon you for at least another month. In that time, I may be able to make things easier for you. It is a great nuisance all the same."
Watney must return to town as soon as possible and spy out the land for himself. For a journalist, it was easy to go to Scotland Yard and make inquiries. The police would naturally conclude that he was doing no more than his best in the interests of his paper.
It was past midnight before Watney reached Euston and he proceeded directly to Scotland Yard. Most of the heads of the departments were personally known to him. Therefore he had no difficulty in at once getting in contact with the inspector who had the studio mystery in hand. The latter smiled grimly. He appeared to be amused about something connected with the case. Evidently, some event of more than usual importance had taken place during the past few hours.
"I see there is something up," Watney asked, "what is it?"
Again a queer smile trembled on the inspector's lips.
"This business beats Banagher," he said. "There never was anything like it in the history of criminality before. You are a pretty hardened sinner for a journalist, Mr. Watney, but I think I can astonish even you. And you have come in the nick of time. I am just going to Le Blanc's studio and if you like to come with me you may learn something to your advantage. But, mind you, the information is not to be yours for the present. I haven't said a word to the rest of the chattering mob of scribblers, because there is not one of them I can trust except yourself. And now, if you've got any natural curiosity come and see for yourself."
Half an hour later and the inspector's cab pulled up before the studio and he and Watney entered. The place was exactly as it had been left, except that certain articles were sealed with the official seal. The rugs on the floor were still scattered. Even the mysterious picture on the easel stood in its place.
"There," said the Inspector. "Look at it!"
Watney looked through his glasses. The red streak of paint had been wiped clean out, and there on the fair canvas some strange hand had been painting in a human face!
WATNEY expressed no particular surprise; he was too astute a journalist for that. Very gravely he approached the picture and proceeded to examine it closely and carefully through his gold-rimmed glasses. As a matter of fact, he was revelling in the problem which was slowly unfolding itself before him. It had been his business from time to time on behalf of his paper to take a hand in the solution of all kinds of queer and out-of-the-way crimes; indeed, the subject fascinated him, just as certain people are bitten by the somewhat dangerous mania for chess. At various times in his career he had been instrumental in cutting the Gordian knot of crime, but never had he come into touch with anything at once so strange and so fascinating as this. The inspector watched him keenly.
"Well," that official said impatiently, "what do you make of it? Come, Mr. Watney, you have had some experience. You don't mean to tell me that you regard this as commonplace?"
"On the contrary," Watney replied gravely, "I regard it as the most amazing thing I ever tackled. Why, man, this is an absolute pearl of crimes. For once I wish I had been born under a propitious star, in which case I should have been a detective instead of a journalist. The thing almost tempts me to throw up my own profession and follow yours. And now that you have the tribute of my admiration, perhaps you will be good enough to tell me what you know of this affair. Have you any idea, for instance, who is responsible for this joke?"
"Joke!" the inspector ejaculated indignantly, "joke!"
"Well, so I regard it," Watney said with becoming gravity. "An artistic joke, if you like, but a comedy all the same. Oh, I am not going to deny the ability of the artist, because the man who painted in that face is as clever as Le Blanc himself. What I want to know is whether you have any clue to the fellow's identity."
The inspector replied with an eloquent shrug of his shoulders.
"No reason to say any more," Watney went on. "I see that Scotland Yard is baffled as usual. On the whole, I am rather glad. It will be a fine feather in my cap if I can get to the bottom of this complicated affair with the assistance of one of you gentlemen. Still, I must ask you a few more questions. I should like to know how the artist managed to find his way into the studio. I may take it that since the disappearance of Le Blanc you had this place carefully watched."
"Night and day," the inspector said earnestly. "It is a pet theory of mine that, sooner or later, the criminal of the pronounced type harks back to the scene of his crime. I don't know why, but I have seen the thing happen over and over again. On the off-chance of picking up something useful I have had this place watched, and watched in an intelligent way, mind you, by plain-clothes men who had special instructions to disguise the fact that they were interested in the studio. There isn't one of them who has seen anything in the least suspicious, and yet during the last four and twenty hours somebody must have had the run of the studio for a considerable time. Now look here, Mr. Watney, you are much more familiar with these matters than I am. I wonder if you can tell me how long the average artist would be in painting a face like that."
Watney pondered the question for a moment or two.
"That is rather difficult to say," he said. "You see, some men work much more quickly than others. But, on the other hand, this is highly technical work and cannot be hurried. Even an impressionist can't dash off a portrait in the course of a single sitting. If I were asked to give an opinion I should say that at least seven or eight hours' work is represented on the canvas. You can't play with oil paints, and manipulate them as you do water colours, seeing that they take so much longer to dry. But why do you ask?"
"Well, that makes the question all the more complicated," Inspector Middlewick replied. "One could understand a humourist of this type contriving to get the run of the studio for half an hour. But how the dickens the fellow managed to put in half a day here passes my comprehension. And why did he come? And who sent him? And why is he so anxious that the picture should be finished? These are questions which will take a deal of answering."
"Well, yes," Watney said drily. "You see, when they are answered, the whole thing will be explained. But I dare say you have formed some theory."
"My dear sir," Middlewick said impressively, "I have formed forty. That I have had to abandon them one after the other is a mere detail. I start with a line of what appear to be logical facts, and just as I am going swimmingly along I find myself suddenly amongst the breakers and have to start all over again."
"Oh, you have my sympathy," Watney said feelingly. "I have been through the same thing too often not to understand. And now, has it ever occurred to you that our friend Le Blanc is not dead at all? He might be alive you know."
"Even that has not escaped me," Middlewick said.
"Very well, let us assume for a moment that he is not dead. I happen to know a good deal about the man. He was an old school-fellow of mine. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Victor Le Blanc was an utter scoundrel, ready for anything. Add to this, he was a confirmed morphia maniac. You know how even the noblest natures can be warped by the abnormal use of drugs. But if one starts with a temperament like Le Blanc's and feeds it with huge doses of morphia you can imagine what the moral result will be in time. Now here is a man, a genius, eccentric, sticking at nothing, and prepared to take any risks to gain a desired end. He disappears mysteriously from his studio, and no trace of him can be found. You have no real evidence that he has met with foul play."
"Well, we have your evidence, at any rate," Middlewick retorted. "When you came to Scotland Yard the other night you told us that a crime had been committed, and that Mr. Le Blanc was lying dead in his studio with every evidence of having been foully murdered. When we came to investigate the matter we found that the body had disappeared."
"Well, that is exactly what I said," Watney interrupted. "I said that you had no evidence that Le Blanc was dead. I might have made a mistake. Let us assume that I hastily believed Le Blanc to be murdered when I saw him lying on the floor there, and that what I mistook for foul play was nothing more nor less than an overdose of morphia. Instead of investigating the thing properly and closely, I rush headlong to Scotland Yard with a story which turns out to be utterly wrong when it comes to be sifted. After all said and done, there is no reason why Le Blanc should not disappear."
There was a certain amount of method in the line which Watney was taking with Middlewick. He had to be very careful, for a single slip or one incautious word might bring Lawrence Hatton into the business. Therefore, to a certain extent, he had to speak at random. He had, at any rate, the consolation of knowing that he was leading Middlewick off the track without throwing any obstacles in the way of official investigation.
"There was blood upon the skins, remember," Middlewick said.
"Oh, I think I can afford to grant you that," Watney said generously. "We can put that down to an accident, a sudden fall, a violent contact with the floor after the deadly morphia. That, really, is not worth troubling about. And when one comes to give the thing due thought, it seems to me that you have matters more or less in your own hands. It makes very little difference who the mysterious artist is who ran the risk of coming here to finish that face. You can say it is Le Blanc if you like, or you can say it is somebody else. But whoever it was he came here taking great risks with a view to getting the face finished by a certain time. Mind you, all this is theory, but it seems to me to be sound theory. Now, doesn't it?"
"I grant you all that," Middlewick said handsomely.
"Well, after that we can get on," Watney proceeded. "Unknown to us there is some urgent reason why this picture must be finished by a certain time. It matters, as I said before, little or nothing who is doing the work, because it seems to me to be entirely in your hands to lay him by the heels."
"And how am I going to do that?" Middlewick asked.
"Well, I call that pretty easy," Watney laughed. "Don't you see that the task is only half completed? Doesn't it occur to you that our mysterious genius will come back again; that he must come back again before long and complete his contract? It may not be to-day, or to-morrow. It may not be to-night, or the next. But you can be pretty sure that he will come. And then, if you have laid your plans right, you will catch him red-handed."
Middlewick's somewhat grave face lit up with a smile. Shrewd and clever as he was, this solution of the problem had not occurred to him. Watney's argument was, he thought, sound common sense. He could see no flaw in it. Besides, it was absurd to assume that any one would abandon the work after running such risks to make a start upon it.
"I am vastly obliged to you, Mr. Watney," the inspector said gravely. "You have given me a hint which may prove of the greatest value. And if anybody gets into the studio again without my knowing it, why, some of my men will get into trouble."
"And now, if there is nothing else that I can tell you, we had better go. We are both wasting time here."
LAWRENCE HATTON had by no means exaggerated the effect which the studio mystery was having upon popular imagination. For the moment there was a dearth of general news. The alarmists of the cheap press could devise no new scares on the subject of German invasions and the like. Political questions were in abeyance and stagnation prevailed. It was just one of those still, peaceful times, when the average editor is at his wits' end to present his readers with a really exciting paper. Hence the studio mystery was being worked with an intensity and feverishness which, at any other time, might not have been bestowed upon it. Every detail, however trivial, was magnified. Paragraphs were expanded into columns and, much to her surprise, the woman Marsh found herself suddenly in the role of a public character.
Half a dozen times a day the evening papers came out with rumours to the effect that the mysterious visitor to the studio had been arrested, or that the body of the Anglo-French artist had been found. Nobody was talking about anything else. The affair was the one theme of conversation. In these circumstances, it did not seem to Watney to be prudent for Hatton to return to London.
Meanwhile, the witness Marsh appeared to be refreshing her memory. Pressed by one journalist after another to give some sort of account of the man whom she had seen leaving the studio, she began bit by bit to build up a portrait which, before long, seemed to bear a striking likeness to Lawrence Hatton. The likeness would not be apparent to the ordinary newspaper reader, but to Watney it was sufficiently close to counsel extreme caution. He clipped the accounts from the various papers in which they appeared and sent them on to Lawrence with the suggestion that he had far better remain where he was. How long this state of things was going to last it was impossible to say. But until the excitement had died down it would be madness on the part of Lawrence Hatton to return to London. He might chafe under the delay. He might feel that he was doing nothing to gain the confidence of his employer. But anything was better than falling into the hands of the police and being called upon to give an explanation which would have been tantamount to accusing himself of the murder of Victor Le Blanc. Therefore, Watney resolved to put aside most of his work and take up the matter at the place where Lawrence had involuntarily left it. It occurred to him that he might obtain something tangible if he paid a visit to Russell Place and interviewed George Omley. Probably the latter was back in London by this time. His tongue might be loosened by the application of judiciously-applied drinks. It might, indeed, be possible through the same medium to form the acquaintance of Charlotte Beaumont, who could tell so much concerning the past of Victor Le Blanc.
But Watney was not so successful as he had anticipated. Omley was back in London and exceedingly busy executing a commission or two for one of his patrons whose reputation he had made. At such times Omley was a perfect pattern of sobriety. He refused to touch anything of an alcoholic nature. He gave himself up entirely to the work in hand. He was pessimistic, too, and inclined to take a gloomy view of human nature.
"There are times," he said to Watney, speaking with a grave face and a somewhat ironic manner, "when I am what Dick Swiveller would have fittingly called 'a kindred spirit.' As a matter of fact, I am one of the few kindred spirits still left in Bohemia. In other words, I am a popular man with only one bitter enemy, and that, myself. Come to me when I am not busy, and I will show you what a complete and absolute fool I can make of myself. Do you know, my dear sir, that I ought to be one of the most celebrated artists in London? I ought to have a fine reputation and a fine establishment, and a wife who would be proud of my work. Instead of which, I am a down-at-heels vagabond, turning out paintings by the yard, which other men sell as their own for so much a square inch. That is the sort of idiot I am. And when I sit here executing commissions, painfully sober and with all my senses about me, I could find it in my heart to blow my brains out and settle the thing that way. Yes, and I would do so, too, perhaps, but for the sake of my mother, who is more or less dependent upon me."
"I have heard of these things," Watney admitted, "but I have never met the artistic ghost before. If I can judge from the work you are engaged upon now, you ought to have a great many patrons. I suppose that it is an absolute secret——"
"Yes, it is," Omley said with a sudden snarl. "And if you ask me the question which I see is trembling on your lips, by Heaven, I will kick you down the stairs. Whatever my faults may be, I never yet betrayed the man who put money in my pocket."
Watney changed his policy. He was annoyed at his own want of tact. He fell to praising the picture on which Omley was engaged. He affected to see in it some likeness to Charlotte Beaumont whose name he boldly introduced. There was no reason why he should not do so, seeing that he had seen the actress in Paris during her meteoric career on the stage. He could see that Omley's eyes were gleaming and that the painter's hands were none too steady. But, beyond this, the artist gave no hint of the least feeling. He shook his head when the name of Beaumont was mentioned.
"It is curious you should mention her name," he said coolly, "seeing that she is staying in my mother's house. But perhaps you knew that?"
Watney fenced the question judiciously. Apparently he was not in luck this morning. He had made the mistake of underrating Omley's powers of observation. He had an uneasy sort of feeling that the latter was laughing at him. It was rather a shock to the astute journalist to find that the casual Bohemian had so discriminating an instinct. For the present, Watney could only take his leave, feeling that he had wasted his morning, though hoping for better things when Omley's commissions were finished and he had become a nomad once more.
Nevertheless, Watney thought he had made something in the way of a discovery. The features which Omley was painting did bear a certain resemblance to those of Charlotte Beaumont; added to which there was the fact that Omley must have been on terms of great personal friendship with Le Blanc. Therefore, it was fair to assume that Omley had had some hand in restoring the face to the picture in Le Blanc's studio. Perhaps, if the face ever came to be finished, it might transpire to be that of the actress herself, in which case Watney would have gone a long way towards solving the problem which he had taken in hand. He still was debating this subject in the seclusion of his chambers when there came an urgent message on the telephone from Inspector Middlewick, asking him to step round to Fitzroy Square and call at Le Blanc's studio.
Here was something better than killing time in idle speculation and Watney burred off at once to the studio. Only a matter of four and twenty hours had elapsed since he had been there before, and during that time Middlewick had taken the most elaborate precautions to have the place watched so that there should be no repetition of the mysterious visit.
So far as Watney could see the studio had not been interfered with. Everything seemed to be in exactly the same condition as it had been on the previous day. Planted in the centre of one of the big rugs and tugging disconsolately at his beard was the burly form of Inspector Middlewick. He turned a shame-faced glance towards Watney.
"What's happened now?" the latter asked.
Middlewick pointed solemnly to the picture.
"Look at it!" he said in a hollow voice. "Just see for yourself. I left no stone unturned with a view to laying hands on the fellow, if he ever came here again. I picked out the very best men in the Yard for the purpose. There isn't one of them whom I would not trust with the proverbial untold gold. And yet, in spite of all, our mysterious artist-friend has been here again and, what is more, he has finished the face."
It was as Middlewick had said. The strange artist had managed to complete his task without interruption. The face now was a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. It was the work, too, of a master—a lovely, delicate face, with not a line too many, nor a shade too few. There was something about the face which attracted Watney at the same time that it repelled him. There was something in the expression, conveyed more than painted, which filled him with mistrust. Evidently the work had been a labour of love on the part of the artist. Evidently he had worked upon it as if he had not been in the least afraid of outside interference.
"Amazing!" Watney exclaimed. "It seems to me——"
He pulled up suddenly, for he was about to tell Middlewick that here was a striking portrait of Charlotte Beaumont, at one time a shining light of the Parisian stage. On second thoughts he changed his mind. There was no reason why he should tell Middlewick anything of the sort. That might come later.
He was about to say something else when the door of the studio opened and Mr. Doveluck, the millionaire, strode coolly in. He glanced approvingly at the picture through his eyeglass.
"Ah," he said, "so my painting is finished at last. Remarkable piece of work, don't you think, Mr. Watney?"
WATNEY welcomed the newcomer with a fierce delight, much as a terrier does the unexpected advent of a rat. Truth to tell, the journalist was puzzled, and that was a frame of mind in which he seldom found himself and one which he did not enjoy in the least. Here was something tangible to go upon, somebody to question with the strong likelihood of being answered. If Watney had had his pick of all the men in London whom he most desired to see he would not have hesitated to name Mr. Doveluck. The eccentric millionaire was known to be a friend of Le Blanc's, and it was a fair assumption that he shared most of the other's secrets, and, therefore, if he liked, he might have shed a great deal of light upon the mystery. Piquancy was added to the situation by the knowledge that Doveluck was not altogether honourable and above board.
Watney bowed gravely to the speaker. He showed little or nothing of the feelings which actuated him. There was no gleam behind his gold-rimmed spectacles.
"It is, as you say, a remarkable work of art," he said, "though perhaps you will tell my friend here how you come to claim it."
"Has he any right to inquire?" Doveluck asked.
"I think so," Middlewick said drily. "You see I happen to be the inspector from Scotland Yard who has the case in hand. And here is my card that you may see for yourself. I may say it would be of great advantage to me to know by what right you claim possession of this picture."
Doveluck chuckled slightly. There was a peculiar gleam in his eyes.
"I claim it by purchase," he said. "I bought it from the artist before it was finished. If you like I will produce the receipt for the money. I put it in my pocket, half-expecting something of this kind."
"Then you've seen it before?" Watney asked.
"My dear sir, of course I have. I might go further and say that I commissioned it. Is that sufficient?"
Middlewick asked no questions somewhat to Watney's annoyance. He would rather have remained in the background, but Middlewick's silence forced his hand.
"How did you know it was finished?" he asked.
"I was told," Doveluck began, "in fact—but what am I talking about? I must have been thinking about something else. Of course I haven't been here for some days, and all I know I have read for myself in the papers."
It was a pretty fair recovery, but not sufficiently alert to deceive Watney. The man lied boldly enough when he had made a start, but the halting confusion of his first few words was not lost upon the journalist. It was plain that Doveluck had come in the full knowledge of the truth that the picture was finished, although the papers he alluded to contained no statement of the fact, for the simple reason that the outside public knew nothing of what had happened. Besides, if Doveluck had derived his inspiration from the daily press, he must have betrayed surprise on coming into the studio to find the picture finished. So far as the average reporter knew, Le Blanc's latest portrait was still without a face. On the whole, Watney was not displeased. It was a great source of satisfaction to him to feel that Doveluck knew so much, and to realize that here was another spring to be tapped in order to reach the source of the mystery. Watney turned away casually as if he had noticed nothing equivocal in Doveluck's speech.
At this point Middlewick woke up and began to ask questions. He had assumed his most official manner, and Doveluck was protesting against what he called arbitrary action on the part of the police.
"You mean to say," he demanded, "that I cannot take that picture away? Do you mean to tell me that I cannot do what I like with my own? And I am prepared to prove to you that I bought the painting and paid for it! Why, you have the receipt in your hands. I came here this morning, on the off-chance of finding some of your men in possession of the studio, to take my property away. Surely you can have no kind of object in refusing my request. Besides, if you should want to see the picture or want to have it in your custody at any time, the matter can easily be arranged. But I tell you candidly, I am not going to suffer this kind of thing. If you don't hand my property over to me I shall take action before a magistrate."
"Quite right," Watney said emphatically. "If I were in your position I should take precisely the same view. Come, Middlewick, you are not going to stand between this gentleman and his property? Besides, he tells you plainly that you may have the painting at any time the course of the law requires it, and from a man in Mr. Doveluck's position that ought to be sufficient guarantee. If I were a millionaire I should feel just as indignant as our friend."
Doveluck nodded approvingly. He was impressed by the apparent sincerity of Watney's speech. Middlewick shuffled about the studio uneasily.
"Well, sir," he said presently, "I admit there is something in what you say. But you see, I have no power to comply with your suggestion. If you like, I will lay all your arguments before the Chief Commissioner, and if he takes the same view as yourself, why you can come and fetch your picture at any time you like."
Doveluck allowed that this sounded more rational. He inquired as to the hour when Middlewick expected to see the Chief Commissioner, after which he nodded curtly to the detective and Watney and vanished from the studio as quickly and abruptly as he had come.
"I am glad you took that line," Watney said, "very glad indeed. And now I want you to do me a particular favour, Middlewick. You are in a position to help me and help yourself at the same time. You may be surprised to hear it, but if that man liked he could expound the whole mystery for us. Oh, I know he calls himself a millionaire. I know that he has managed to find his way into society. But I have a very decided impression that he is only an adventurer. Now, I particularly want to get into that man's confidence. I want to see the inside of his rooms. I want to know what he is driving at. As a journalist I can pry into his affairs without arousing much suspicion, because the modern journalist is allowed to ask any questions he pleases without running the risk of being kicked downstairs. I have done you one or two good turns and, without boasting, I think I am going to show you a way to get to the bottom of the Le Blanc business. But, to do that, Doveluck must have his picture. You must convince the Commissioner that this is essential—even if it is only for a few days. You had better go back to the Yard at once and telephone me to my chambers if you are successful. Then I can begin to move."
Middlewick promised without asking further questions. He had a good deal of faith in Watney, who had given him a valuable hint on more than one occasion. It was getting towards three o'clock when Watney received the telephone message to the effect that the Chief Commissioner had raised no objection and that already Doveluck had called and taken away his picture. But he had not been allowed to do so unconditionally. Scotland Yard, naturally enough, desired to know what was the destination of the picture. They had expected Doveluck, perhaps, to take it to his flat, instead of which it had been conveyed to the establishment of Messrs. Priory & Co., of Regent Street. This seemed reasonable seeing that the picture needed a frame and that Priory & Co. did a large business in this respect. They were something more than framers and gilders; they were the possessors of a large art gallery where paintings were exhibited from time to time. And, moreover, their showrooms contained perhaps the most valuable collection of china and furniture and bric—brac in London. It would be hardly necessary to mention the name of Priory & Co. to the connoisseur, for their reputation was world-wide. With this information in his possession Watney set out to open a little scheme of his own.
It was nearly four o'clock when he turned his steps towards Regent Street. The second and third editions of the evening papers were already out. They were filled, as usual, with more or less authentic information concerning the studio mystery. A line on one of the placards caught Watney's eye, and he purchased an evening Herald. To his surprise he found that the story of the finished picture was given in detail and, for the first time, the public were acquainted with the mysterious fashion in which the mutilated portrait had been restored.
"Now that's very odd," Watney muttered to himself. "Where did those papers get their information? Not from me, and assuredly, not from Middlewick. Therefore, Doveluck must have been talking. I think I'll go down as far as his flat and see if I can get anything out of him. I am on the right track now. My time won't be wasted. I shall, at any rate, have an opportunity of admiring Doveluck's old furniture. I wonder if he knows as much about that kind of thing as I do."
MR. DOVELUCK happened to be at home and he would have great pleasure in seeing Mr. Watney. The journalist found himself presently in the dining-room, which was crammed with old furniture and works of art. There appeared to be no crowding. Everything was arranged with an eye to artistic effect. Nothing was wanting to make the colour scheme perfect. Watney noted the tout ensemble with approval, from the Persian carpets on the floor to the Moorish lanterns which depended from bronze chains in the ceiling. In his own way, Watney was a keen and discriminating connoisseur. He would have been a collector had he the means. Many brilliant and scholarly articles had he written from the connoisseur's point of view, and many an enjoyable afternoon had he spent in the establishment of Messrs. Priory. There were one or two old servants of that firm who loved their work for its own sake, and with these men Watney was on the best of terms. He knew most of the articles of value in the establishment, and when one or another passed into the possession of some wealthy amateur he had mourned its loss almost as if it had been his own.
For the moment he forgot his mission. He wandered from cabinet to picture, and from picture to bronze, taking in all the beauties of the various works of art with eager delight. He paused at length before a vase which stood on a Chippendale table in the corner of the room. The vase was not particularly large or attractively showy; in fact, it was more of a ginger jar than anything else, in a deep blue enamel picked out over the entire surface with white hawthorn. There was just a shade of brown in the cover and the pedestal, but otherwise there was no attempt at decoration. Watney touched it almost lovingly.
There was nothing to attract the attention of the average collector, but to the quidnunc the Prinus vase was unique, and a thing of beauty almost unparalleled. Not so many years before it had changed hands for a few shillings, and yet, within the past few months, Messrs. Priory had given for it in open auction no less than six thousand guineas. Watney had been under the impression that the vase had already been disposed of to a wealthy American, and that, before long, it would be on its way across the Atlantic. Why, then, was it here? Watney knew Doveluck as a collector, but only in regard to furniture. The millionaire frequently declared that his knowledge of china was practically nil, and he was not the man to touch anything which he could not guarantee of his own knowledge. Here was a puzzle.
Watney's speculation was cut short by the entrance of Doveluck, who came forward with a smile of welcome on his face. Watney put a few questions which had a peculiarly professional flavour, for he wanted to clear the ground without exciting the suspicions of his host. He elicited the fact that Le Blanc's picture had gone to Messrs. Priory with a view to being framed and that, afterwards, it would be exhibited in their gallery for inspection by the public at a shilling a head.
"You will make money out of it, then?" Watney asked.
"My good sir, of course I will," Doveluck responded. "That is the way I have become rich. There is nothing I would not sell for profit. I have been collecting this old furniture for years. Yet you could have it lock, stock and barrel if you can only insure me a profit on the deal."
"The Prinus vase included?" Watney asked.
"Well, why not?" Doveluck retorted. "Priory's people bought a vase like that the other day for six thousand guineas. I am told they sold it for double the money. If you give me six thousand five hundred for mine it is yours."
Watney shook his head gravely. He was wondering why Doveluck was lying in this fashion, why he was trying to prevent him from knowing that the vase in question came from the establishment of Messrs. Priory. Watney had had the thing in his hands too often to be deceived. There was only one possible inference and that flashed into Watney's mind at once. Being so well-known in Messrs. Priory's galleries, he would have no difficulty in ascertaining whether he had hit the right solution or not. And, after all, it was a small matter, though small matters occasionally lead to great results.
An hour or so later Watney left the flat and made his way to Regent Street. It was a quiet time in the afternoon and he managed to secure the undivided attention of one of the assistants, who, like himself, was an ardent admirer of the antique and the beautiful for its own sake.
"Now look here, Masson," he said, "I am going to ask you to do me a favour. Of course you know that fond as I am of this kind of thing I have my living as a journalist to get, and a reputation for exclusive information to keep up. Occasionally one thing leads to another, but I never expected to find anything startling here, or make any money through your place except by articles for the artistic reviews. But I dropped upon a little thing this morning which may put a good deal into my pocket. But it will be useless unless you like to be candid with me."
"Anything you please," Masson said.
"Very well, then. Do you remember about a year ago putting me up to an 'exclusive' in regard to the class of man who makes an income by exhibiting old furniture? I mean men of education, of course, who take a real interest in the subject, and who have learnt to turn their knowledge to advantage. You said you had three or four clients, mostly men of title, who furnished flats and houses with the most marvellous old furniture entirely upon the system of paying for the stuff when it is disposed of. There was Sir Richard Hammerton who furnished an entire house in Curzon Street. I think you told me that your bill was over sixty thousand pounds. Everything was disposed of just as it stood to an American millionaire at an increased price, and Sir Richard crept out with a handsome profit. Do you recollect?"
"I do," Masson smiled. "Why, we have a client who disposed of the furniture of his flat five times in a single year. On one occasion he was giving a dinner on a Saturday night, and another dinner on the Wednesday. He sold everything to one of his Saturday night's guests, and before Wednesday we had refurnished the flat. Mind you, it is legitimate business, and if wealthy South Africans and Americans like to buy their stuff that way and save themselves the trouble of furnishing by going here and there, it is no one's business but their own. But why do you ask? I hope you are not contemplating a series of sensational articles giving real names and so on."
"Oh, dear, no," Watney replied. "But there is a certain person who interests me, and I want to know if he is one of that class. I know he has your Prinus vase, because I saw it at his place half an hour ago. Not knowing I was interested in this kind of thing he lied to me about it, and tried to induce me to believe that he had picked up the replica of the famous vase for which you gave a fortune. When he told me that, and that he was ready to sell the whole lot of his treasures at a profit the explanation of the whole thing flashed upon me. The man calls himself a millionaire and, indeed, he is generally accepted at that estimate. He spends money right and left, and his entertainments are quite a feature of the London season. Not to make a long story of it, the man's name is Doveluck. Now is he one of the men for whom you furnish on credit and who pay you when they do a deal?"
"You are asking me to betray the secrets of the prison-house," he said, "which is hardly fair. But so far I will go—I will neither contradict nor affirm what you say. I will leave you to form your own conclusions, merely remarking that you are exceedingly clever in drawing your inferences from a slender basis. I am sure you don't want me to say more than that."
"'A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse,'" Watney said gaily. "And now, tell me what you are going to do in regard to that picture which Doveluck brought here this morning. I know that, ostensibly, it came here to be framed. But is it really a fact that you are going to make a show of the thing and pander to public curiosity at a shilling a head? Is that Doveluck's idea?"
"That's the notion," Masson said. "My dear sir, we shall have London simply tumbling over one another to come and see it. The rush will be unprecedented. And it is a fine picture. When we have it properly framed and draped and exposed in a good light it will be one of the best modern works any gallery has boasted for many years. Come with me and have a look at it. I have provisionally placed it, although, of course, the lack of a frame makes all the difference in the world."
Watney followed, though his curiosity was already sufficiently sated. He found that the picture had been arranged with a background of black velvet under a skylight, so that all its best points were picked out and accentuated. In the room there were three or four people, a small party which had been brought there by one of the partners. Standing almost behind them was a tall, slender woman quietly dressed in a cloth costume, though it was evident from the cut of her garment that she did not study economy. She wore a plain black straw hat and a motor veil of some thin material, which, however, was of sufficient substance to conceal her features. She stood there almost like a statue, save for the fact that her hands worked as if she were moved by some powerful emotion. Then, as Watney glanced at her again, it struck him that this was none other than the actress, Charlotte Beaumont!
WATNEY dropped back a step or two so that he might watch the tall, slender figure of Charlotte Beaumont unperceived. The situation, though not entirely unexpected, was full of promise. It had been obvious that in some way the French actress was mixed up in the mysterious affair, and Watney could not do better than keep her under his eye for the present. Possibly, if she only chose, this woman could shed a blinding light upon Le Blanc's disappearance.
Whatever her relations with the artist, she did not appear to be suffering from overpowering grief. At the same time she was strongly moved either by fear or passion, though Watney could not say which was the prevailing emotion.
She stood with her eyes fixed intently upon the picture, still and rigid as a statue, except that her hands were working much as a cat's claws work when she is about to spring. In one neatly-gloved hand Watney saw that she carried a copy of the Coronet, which had been crushed and twisted until it was no better than a rag. From this it was easy to infer that Charlotte Beaumont, having read all about the picture and its destination, had come straight to Messrs. Priory's gallery to ascertain the truth for herself.
For some little time Watney considered what attitude the woman was likely to take up. Finally, he came to the conclusion that she was indignant about something and that in some way she had been grossly deceived. She turned away presently with a bitter sigh and strode resolutely out of the shop. At first Watney thought of following her, but he recollected that he had her address and could find her whenever he desired. There was plenty of time, and perhaps if he abstained from precipitate action a better and more workman-like idea might occur to him later. There was consolation in the fact that he knew more of this affair than the police, and that eventually the solution was more likely to come through him than through them. With this philosophic comfort he turned his back upon the picture and proceeded to examine certain articles of furniture which his companion brought to his notice.
Meanwhile the actress walked swiftly through the streets, looking neither to the right nor to the left, until she came to Russell Place. When in her own room she rang the bell violently. She tore off her hat and veil and turned to meet her landlady like a beautiful fury. There was no denying her grace and loveliness, and in ordinary circumstances she might have been gentle and fascinating, but now Mrs. Omley retreated a step or so as she noted the livid fury of her face.
"I think you rang, miss," she said meekly.
"Why, of course I did," the actress cried. "I want to speak to you. Tell me, where is that scoundrelly son of yours?"
Mrs. Omley spread out her hands hopelessly. She was accustomed to this outburst of temper.
"I am sorry I can't tell you, miss," she said timidly. "For the last few days George has been hard at work in his bedroom, so that he has had barely time to get his meals. I understood that he was doing work on commission which had to be finished by a certain time. He went away with his work this morning and has not returned. You know what it means when he has money in his pocket and has finished a commission. He may be back in an hour's time, or I may not see him for a week. It is a shameful confession for a mother to make, but I suppose I ought to be comparatively thankful, since George is a good son to me when he is sober."
The wilful beauty swept the explanation aside impulsively.
"Oh, I know all about that," she exclaimed. "Your son is a drunken fool who might have made a great name for himself if only he had had strength of mind to keep away from the drink. And now his best work goes to feed the reputation of other men. With all his faults I have hitherto regarded him as an honest man. I never expected to see the day when one of your family would play a dastardly trick upon one of mine."
"My son has done it?" Mrs. Omley demanded.
"Have I not said so? If George Omley had deliberately gone out of his way to find some method of stabbing me to the heart, he could not have succeeded more effectually than he has done. Oh, I am not going to tell you how; probably you wouldn't understand if I did. But the fact remains that he has done it, and from the meanest and most sordid of motives. He has betrayed me to put a few pounds in his pocket. Oh, why didn't he come to me and tell me what he was going to do? I would have given him ten times as much as the villain who has been his principal in this matter."
"I am sorry to hear it," Mrs. Omley said. "And what's more, I can't believe it. It seems unnatural that one of my flesh and blood should injure one of the name of——"
"Oh, don't mention the name," the actress said. "I am trying to forget it. I am trying to put it out of my mind for good. It is no use talking. I came back here beside myself with rage and passion. I returned to do you a mischief; indeed, I hardly knew what I was doing. It is not your fault that you are the mother of a scoundrel. Never mind why, but I must see him at once, and I want you to tell me where I am most likely to find him. It doesn't matter how low or debased his haunt may be, I must find him at once."
"But you can't, miss," Mrs. Omley protested. "George frequents one or two places where it would be impossible for you to show your face."
"Nevertheless, I will do it," Charlotte Beaumont said. "Now, write down one or two addresses. Don't stand staring at me in that stupid fashion. Put them down, I say. No harm is likely to come to me and I must find your son at once, though I look for him in the vilest slum in London."
Mrs. Omley hesitated with a shaking pain in her hand. It was on the tip of her tongue to refuse the request. But there was something in the keen, fierce glance of the actress which impelled her to act against her better judgment. Perhaps, too, there was something in the fact that she had known this girl for years and regarded her as out of the common. Perhaps she was anxious to vindicate the good name of her son and clear him of this accusation of treachery. Like most people, she knew her son was weak and easily led. But no question of his good faith and his good nature had occurred before.
"There," she said with a catch in her voice as she finished the addresses. "You were always headstrong; even as a child there was no gainsaying you. And if you have made up your mind to seek George in these places it is useless to stop you."
Charlotte Beaumont snatched up the paper without comment. She donned her hat again, stabbing the pins through her hair as if they had been daggers plunged into some human heart. Then she went rapidly down the stairs in search of the man who had done her this wrong. It was late before she returned. Her steps were dragging, her face was white and tired. She sat down languidly and shook her head when solicitous Mrs. Omley suggested supper.
"I want nothing," she said impatiently. "I have been out on a fool's errand. I have traced your son from place to place, always five minutes too late to see him. But, I am certain to come across him to-morrow. No, I require nothing, thank you. I am too tired to eat."
Mrs. Omley sighed gently and withdrew. She sighed a good many times next day, for Charlotte Beaumont was out all day and the clocks in the neighbourhood were striking eleven before she returned. All day she had been in search of George Omley. She had endured one humiliation after another without flinching. There were those who were sympathetic and disposed to help her. There were others who regarded her with a covert smile and a horrible sneer on their lips. More than once the girl's blood boiled up passionately. More than once she wanted to turn round and smite this or that dirty creature in the face. When she grew faint and weary, her resolution and determination were as strong as ever. And finally there came to her the success which, sooner or later, always crowns honest endeavour. With pale face and nerves tingling she turned into a crowded bar, full of reeking humanity and smelling strongly of beer and sawdust—that vile blend which is so offensive to delicate nostrils. She had been informed that she would find George Omley there, and, sure enough, there he was, surrounded by a mob of models together with a number of broken-down hangers-on to the artistic profession. Omley's eyes were glazed, his speech was thick, and he was talking in his usual flamboyant fashion. As Charlotte Beaumont grasped his arm, he turned a lacklustre gaze upon her.
"Come out of this," she said in a fierce whisper. "I must have speech with you. Come at once. You would not put me to indignity in such company."
The voice, full of contempt, seemed to touch Omley on a tender spot. He turned to his companions and bade them wait his return, and went out into the cool air of the street.
PERHAPS it was the freshness of the atmosphere, perhaps it was the burning anger of Charlotte Beaumont's eyes, but Omley seemed to come to himself and grasped the fact that something out of the common had happened. There was a note of shame in his voice.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "What possessed one of your name to come into a slum like this?"
"It is no more disgrace to me than it is to you," Charlotte said contemptuously. "Fancy a man of your ability, a man who ought to write R.A. after his name, a man whom the best people should be proud to know, hobnobbing and drinking with those degraded wretches in a low pothouse! I know you are not sober. You are not capable of understanding what I am saying."
"Yes, I am," Omley said indignantly. "Oh, do you think I don't know? Do you suppose that the criminal in his cell never regrets the past? Perhaps it is not altogether my fault that I have a weak spot in my nature. And now, what is it? It must have been some powerful motive that brought you here."
"As if you didn't know," Charlotte exclaimed. "Oh, you are not so fuddled that you don't understand what I am talking about. I am speaking of that portrait of me—the portrait which Victor Le Blanc painted against my wishes, though on my knees and with tears in my eyes I begged him to leave it alone. He laughed at me. He refused to forego his vengeance. He did not care for me any more. Then kind fortune stepped in and Victor Le Blanc vanished. You know that. You know that we shall never see him again. It doesn't matter who did us this good turn. It doesn't matter whom we have to thank for this slice of glorious luck. It is enough to know that Victor Le Blanc has passed out of my life, and is never likely to come into it again."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," Omley muttered.
"It is a comfort to me to think so," Charlotte went on. "Upon my word, there were times when I could have raised a hand and silenced him for ever without a moment's regret or a moment's remorse. You know who spoilt his picture. You know who had pluck enough to strike a blow for freedom. You know where that patch of crimson paint came from. And then the artist disappeared leaving no trace behind. Ah, there was such happiness in my heart then as I had not known for years. I was safe at last and Le Blanc's vengeance would remain for ever incomplete. The picture was spoilt. The artist was either dead or dared not stay in London longer. And then you, of all men in the world, you, step in and finish it. You come forward when Victor Le Blanc is powerless and do his bidding as if you were his slave. It is incredible that one of your name should act in such a cowardly fashion to my father's daughter. Why did you do it?"
Omley looked at the speaker with a startled expression on his face. He seemed to be sober enough.
"What do you mean?" he stammered. "I have done nothing."
"Done nothing! Then you call it doing nothing to restore that picture to its original state and bring about the very thing which I would give ten years of my life to avoid? In a day or two the story will be known to the whole of London. There are columns about it in the Coronet to-night. The thing reads like a story. Le Blanc had disappeared leaving an unfinished portrait the features of which had been obliterated by a dash of scarlet paint a deed that looked like the malicious spite of some enemy. All this the British public has read for itself. And now it is informed that some mysterious individual has found his way into the studio and finished the picture afresh."
"Impossible," Omley cried, "impossible!"
"Bah! The story is absolutely true. Somebody did find his way into the studio and finish the picture, which was claimed by Mr. Doveluck the millionaire and by him taken to Messrs. Priory to be framed. The portrait is to be exhibited at so much a head and thousands of people will flock to see it. They will come there to see me, you understand. I shall be recognized, identified, the whole miserable story will be raked up again, and I shall be placed in the pillory in order that certain newspapers may sell a few extra thousand copies. Not only is it in the Coronet, but I have seen the portrait myself. I went down to Messrs. Priory's galleries directly I read the account and there the thing was staring me in the face. My own features were reflected to the life. Now what have you got to say? What excuse can you make?"
Omley shook his head sorrowfully.
"I don't know what to make of it," he murmured. "And so you think it was I who painted the face in?"
"Think! I am certain of it."
"And I swear you are wrong," Omley said vehemently. "I am ready to go down on my knees now and swear that I had nothing whatever to do with it. Whoever finished that portrait, it was not me."
Charlotte gazed into his face. She regarded him long and steadily as if she would look into his very soul. But he neither flinched nor moved. The expression in his eyes was one of sorrow and sadness. He was sober now. He had been impressed with the gravity of the situation. It was impossible to believe the man was lying, for, with all his faults, George Omley had never had a reputation for that kind of thing.
"I suppose I must take your word for it," the girl said.
"It matters little whether you do or not," Omley said. "I swear to you that so far as the completion of the picture is concerned, I have never touched a brush. And now, what do you want me to do? I will do anything you please to save the situation. Not one drop of liquor will I taste again till this matter is put right. If you will wait for me five minutes I shall be at your service. I suppose you are afraid to stay here."
Charlotte dismissed the suggestion with a gesture of contempt.
"I am afraid of nothing," she said. "Go back to your boon companions and apologize for having to leave them. I will wait here."
Omley strode off, leaving Charlotte in the street. The place was crowded with people of sorts. The atmosphere was close and stifling. The language that came to the girl's ears brought a pink spot on either cheek, but she remained resolutely, determined to see the thing out to the bitter end. The plate-glass doors of the glittering public-house swung to and fro. A constant stream of derelict humanity passed in and out; indeed, Charlotte found herself vaguely speculating how these poor half-starved wretches found the money to gratify their love of strong drink. A woman emerged presently—a short, stout woman with a crimson face, who was made much of by three or four companions, who hung round her and listened attentively to all she was saying. She appeared to appreciate the importance of her position.
"Don't tell me," she said in a shrill treble, "don't tell me I'm mistaken. 'Cos if you do, all I say is you don't know wot you're talking about. Perhaps you know Fitzroy Square better nor me. Perhaps you have been a-cleaning out studios for the last twenty-five years the same as I've done. And if you don't believe me, I'll tell you exackly wot I told the p'lice, that if I ever seed the gentleman as was a-coming out of Mr. Le Blank's studio I'd know him at once. Perhaps you'd like to say I wasn't sober and dreamed it all."
A bitter smile crossed Charlotte Beaumont's face. Go where she would, there was no getting away from the studio mystery. This, no doubt, was the Mrs. Marsh who had given the police information as to the person whom she had seen leaving the studio on the night of Victor Le Blanc's disappearance. The woman spoke in the loud assertive tones of one who knows she is a celebrity and expects deference accordingly. One or two of her companions laughed in sympathy, but the original cause of offence still bore a mocking smile.
"I tell you, I'd pick him out of a million," Mrs. Marsh averred in the same shrill voice. "He came by me just as I was a-passing a lamp-post and the light was full on his face. I could see he'd been up to no good, for his face was pale as never was, and there was terror in his eyes. At first I thought he was a-going to speak to me, then he sort of changed his mind and went down the road. But bless your soul! I'd pick him out fast enough. I'd——!"
The speaker pulled up quickly and stood gaping a moment or two, her eyes following the direction of a man who came swiftly striding down the road and turned into the glaring public-house which Mrs. Marsh had so lately vacated. She stood with her mouth wide open impervious to the questions of her companions, till one of them jogged her in the ribs.
"What are you gaping at?" she asked.
"It seems like a judgment," Mrs. Marsh said breathlessly, "but that was the very man himself. Strike me pink, that was the chap I saw coming from the studio!"
Charlotte Beaumont stood there gasping, too.
"Good Heavens!" she murmured. "What is Lawrence Hatton doing here? And what connexion has he with Le Blanc?"
THE actress forgot her own troubles and became absorbed in what was taking place. Naturally enough, she had followed with the closest interest all that had appeared in the press about the studio mystery. What she knew about it privately, what her connexion had been with Victor Le Blanc, and what was her own secret might possibly be disclosed under stress of circumstances. But as to what had happened since the night of the artist's mysterious disappearance she had had to depend on the newspapers.
She would have been less than human had she not followed this with the keenest interest. No detail, however small, had been overlooked, so that directly the red-faced woman spoke and alluded to the studio mystery she identified her as the Mrs. Marsh, the charwoman who had had greatness thrust upon her in a manner as sudden as it was unexpected.
So here was the woman who professed to be able to identify the person who had left Le Blanc's studio on the night of the tragedy. This in itself had been interesting enough, but now the interest had grown keen and vivid. It was startling to run against a woman like Mrs. Marsh in this unexpected fashion.
It was still more dramatic to see the red-faced witness identify a man whom Charlotte Beaumont had known for years. She was conscious he would not recognize her. But she had identified him at the first glance. And now it seemed to her quick wit and ready comprehension that Lawrence Hatton stood in imminent danger. If the woman followed him and mentioned her suspicions in the ear of the nearest policeman, then things were likely to prove awkward for Lawrence Hatton. Nor was the red-faced woman in the least likely to hesitate, seeing that a substantial reward had been offered to anybody who could identify the man who had left the studio late at night just prior to Le Blanc's extraordinary disappearance. Here, then, was a chance which Mrs. Marsh was not likely to miss. Here, then, was an opportunity of gratifying for many weeks to come the passion for strong drink, the love of which was deeply depicted upon her bloated features. There was no time to be lost.
Charlotte stood for a minute or two debating in her mind what steps she should take to save Lawrence Hatton from danger. She saw Mrs. Marsh shake herself off from her companions and re-enter the gaudy saloon into which Hatton had disappeared. Then, without further hesitation, the actress followed. She could see Lawrence in earnest confabulation with Omley. She noticed how the woman with the red face hovered around, anxious to get a word in, and trembling with eagerness to prove the truth of her assertion. Omley was speaking in emphatic tones.
"It is impossible," Charlotte heard him say. "I could not do it if I would. I'll see Sir Arthur Blantyre if you like, but I fear it will be useless. I am sorry, Mr. Hatton, more sorry than I can tell you. Now, my good woman, where are you pushing to? Do you happen to know either of us?"
"I'll trouble you to speak to me in a proper manner," Mrs. Marsh said, trembling with indignation. "I am not your good woman or anybody else's, for that matter. I don't know who you are, and I don't care. But me and this other gentleman have met before, and I don't think he'll deny it."
There was something truculent and threatening in the woman's manner. The offensiveness of it brought the blood into Lawrence's face, though he spoke coolly.
"I am afraid you have the advantage of me," he said. "If I happen to know your name——"
"Oh, my name's my own, and I'm not ashamed of it," the woman went on. "My name's Marsh, and I'm engaged, for the most part, in looking after some of the studios in Fitzroy Square. But perhaps you've seen my name in the papers."
"Ah," Lawrence exclaimed, "now I understand. It was you who happened to see somebody coming away from Mr. Le Blanc's studio on the night of his disappearance. But I fail to see how this concerns me. What do you want?"
"Oh, don't you?" the woman said angrily. "Then I'll tell you, my fine fellow. You are the man I saw coming out of the studio, and I'm prepared to swear to you anywhere. And if I'm mistaken, and you are innocent, you won't have no difficulty in proving it when you get to the police station. I'll just trouble you to come along with me and we'll get this matter settled at once."
Lawrence essayed something in the way of a smile. Nevertheless his heart sank as he realized the dire peril which lay before him. The woman was in deadly earnest. There was a hard look about her mouth, and her eyes gleamed with cupidity and greed. The handsome reward seemed well in sight. She would not have relaxed her grip now had Lawrence been her own flesh and blood. Her voice was high-pitched, too. A score or so of loafers had turned away from the counter and were following the conversation with deepest interest. A startling drama was unfolding itself before their very eyes. Already it seemed to Lawrence as if that motley assembly had tried and condemned him for the murder of Victor Le Blanc. He turned an appealing glance to Omley who came forward in his breezy way.
"What nonsense!" he cried. "Old lady, you have been taking too much of your favourite gin. This gentleman is a friend of mine, and I am prepared to speak for his respectability. And you had better be careful. Many a man and woman have got themselves into trouble for a simpler thing than this. And now, let's have another drink all round, and forget all about it."
A murmur of applause followed from the seedy loafers. There was a rush back to the counter during which the red-faced woman was thrust aside, leaving Lawrence free from her hated attentions for the moment. Before he could decide what to do or which way to act Charlotte had grasped him by the arm and fairly dragged him through the swing-doors into the street.
"Come along," she whispered, "you have no time to lose."
"You are very good," Lawrence murmured. "I don't quite understand what has happened. And now, may I ask to whom I am indebted for this friendly act?"
Charlotte put the question aside impatiently. Lawrence glanced into her face. He noticed the same mocking, haunting likeness to Ethel Blantyre. He caught the faint fragrance of the mysterious scent which he had noticed during his fateful visit to Le Blanc's studio. It was only for a moment, then the scent became so faint as to be imperceptible. The strange likeness to Ethel disappeared. The girl was hurrying along with face averted as if half-afraid of being recognized.
"You did not answer my question," Lawrence ventured.
"There was no occasion," Charlotte replied. "I shall be greatly obliged if you do not repeat it. I am doing my best on your behalf, and the way in which you can repay me best is to say nothing and find out nothing. If you think we have met before——"
"I am certain of it," Lawrence exclaimed.
"Well, it is not for me to contradict you. We will let it go at that. Believe me, it is far wiser to say nothing. And now it would be prudent to part. On the whole, we should have been far safer if you had remained at Glenallan. It was very foolish of you to come to town."
Before Lawrence could reply to this startling speech the girl suddenly turned away from him and hailed a passing hansom. Evidently she desired no further intercourse with Hatton. She had done her best and the interview was closed. Disturbed in mind, and not a little uneasy as to the future Lawrence made his way to the Temple, where he hoped to find Watney at home. As luck would have it he was successful, though Watney's welcome was a good deal more petulant than hospitable.
"Are you mad?" the journalist asked. "Have you taken leave of your senses that you come to London like this? I thought you were going to stay at Glenallan."
"So I intended," Lawrence replied. "When I got up this morning I hadn't the remotest idea I should be in London to-night. But after the papers came and Sir Arthur had read all about the mysterious way that infernal picture had been finished he insisted upon coming to town at once. I never saw a man more excited. He declined to say what the trouble was. He refused to take me into his confidence, except that I was to come to London with him and look up that fellow Omley without delay. Seeing that Sir Arthur is my employer, and that I am pledged to do all he asks, I couldn't very well refuse his request. For the last hour or two I have been amongst the slums looking for Omley on the strength of certain information supplied to me by Sir Arthur, and finally, by good luck, I found him. I gave him a note from Sir Arthur, and there, for the time being, my task was finished. Then I had a piece of unexpected bad luck. It is such a terrible business that I am almost afraid to tell you about it. Perhaps you can guess whom I saw to-night, or, rather, who saw me?"
"Guess," Watney said with great irritability, "of course I can. You ran up against that drunken old charwoman, Marsh, and she recognized you. I should like to know how you managed to get away from her without being followed."
Lawrence was about to explain when Watney's servant came in with a card on a tray.
"Show him up," he said. "It is Inspector Middlewick, Lawrence, and it's long odds he has come here after you!"
LAWRENCE nodded gravely. He had no delusions on the score of Middlewick's visit. He felt certain that he had been followed and tracked to Watney's rooms, after which, no doubt, the person most interested had telephoned to Scotland Yard; hence the appearance of Inspector Middlewick at this moment.
"I am sorry to intrude at this time of night," Middlewick said quietly, "but I think this gentleman will understand why I have come. I believe I am speaking to Mr. Hatton."
"The same," Lawrence said gravely. "Pray proceed."
The inspector's manner was polite, far more polite than the average officer is wont to display to a ticket-of-leave man, and Lawrence was grateful accordingly. At the same time, there was a grim determination about Middlewick which left no room for illusions.
"I don't want to give you any more pain than I can help," Middlewick went on, "but I understand that you were in the neighbourhood of Endell Street to-night, where you were recognized by Mrs. Marsh as the person whom she saw leaving Mr. Le Blanc's studio on the night of the latter's disappearance. The woman in question is prepared to swear to you, and indeed, she was anxious to accompany me here. But in common fairness to yourself I felt bound to refuse the suggestion. You will have to be at Scotland Yard to-morrow, when Mrs. Marsh will have the chance of picking you out of a dozen or so. I am very sorry, but you see that in the circumstances I have no alternative. You will attend at ten o'clock, please."
"I am much obliged to you," Lawrence said quietly. "I appreciate your courtesy in the matter. I quite recognize that you might arrest me on the spot if you chose to do so."
"Well, yes," Middlewick said, scraping his chin reflectively. "That, of course, is a fact. And if you will take my advice you will say as little as possible. During the last few days we have been making inquiries as to the movements of certain ticket-of-leave men, yourself amongst the number. It strikes me as odd that we should discover that you were intimately acquainted with Mr. Le Blanc up to a comparatively recent date."
"Well, so was I, for the matter of that," Watney put in. "Depend upon it, the whole thing is no more than a coincidence, Middlewick. Our friend will come out of it all right."
"I hope so," Middlewick said politely. "But I won't detain you longer."
After the detective had left, there was a long silence between the friends. It was Lawrence who spoke at length.
"Middlewick was extremely polite," he said. "Why didn't he arrest me on the spot?"
"Middlewick is no fool," Watney responded. "He knows you are a friend of mine and is not blind to the fact that I can give him more information about this affair than he knows himself. But I am more concerned about you than anything else. That woman will pick you out to-morrow to a dead certainty; and what is more, she will make no mistake in so doing. I have no wish to be a Job's comforter, my dear fellow, but hang me if I see how you are going to get out of this trouble. Really, it is most unfortunate. It would have been far better if you had gone to the police and proclaimed your discovery. As it is, the authorities have been looking everywhere for some one to throw light upon this mystery. And now they know that you have been deliberately concealing information of the greatest value. But, still, it is no use crying over spilt milk. We must do the best we can for you when the time comes. Meanwhile——"
Watney paused and shrugged his shoulders eloquently. There was nothing to gain by discussing the matter. There was nothing to be said or done which was likely to bring comfort to Lawrence's anxious mind. He knew perfectly well what was going to happen. He would inevitably be recognized in the morning by the red-faced woman. And when that ordeal was gone through he would be detained pending inquiries.
"The best thing you can do now," Watney said gloomily, "is to go home and get to bed. Come and see me in the morning first thing, and if anything occurs to me I'll let you know. But I am not sanguine."
Lawrence retired sadly. He was inclined to blame himself bitterly now for his want of courage and procrastination in the first instance. He knew perfectly well that his action in the matter would be misconstrued by both the police and the public. They were not able to appreciate or understand the frame of mind of a man who had already suffered a term of imprisonment. Nine people out of ten would attribute his conduct to guilt. They would feel certain that no information would have been vouchsafed by him had not a recognition on the part of the charwoman forced him to action. Looking at it all round Lawrence could see no gleam of light anywhere. Doubtless by this time the police would have learnt the fact that he and Le Blanc were enemies, and this in itself would be a powerful factor against him. Alive Le Blanc had been his evil genius, and now that the artist was dead he seemed able to strike a crushing blow from beyond the grave. These moody thoughts were uppermost in Lawrence's mind as he went slowly up to his own room and sat there smoking gloomily. He had not troubled to close the door. He became aware presently that somebody was quietly ascending the stairs, and he looked up just in time to see the vanishing figure of Omley. The latter had what appeared to be a roll of canvas under his arm, and in his hand he carried a large paint-box to which was strapped a wooden palette. There was something furtive about Omley which Lawrence had not noticed before. He had never identified the erratic artist with anything that was mean and underhanded. He wondered in a vague sort of way where Omley was going at this time of night and what mischief he was up to. Then he put his curiosity aside contemptuously. After all, what did it matter? He had enough trouble and worry of his own without prying into the affairs of other people, and it would take a wise man to expound the comings and goings of a wanderer like George Omley.
He heard the front door close quietly. He finished his cigarette and went drearily off to bed. He tossed about from side to side sleeplessly until the early morning when he fell into a troubled slumber. It was nearly nine o'clock when he awoke, too late to think about breakfast if he wanted to see Watney before he went to Scotland Yard. He dressed himself hastily and went out without so much as glancing at the papers which lay on his table. He was somewhat dismayed to find that Watney was out, though the latter had left a message that he would be back at any moment. He came in presently looking eager and excited and having the air of a man who had been up all night.
"I suppose you have breakfasted?" he asked.
"Indeed, I haven't," Lawrence confessed. "I had a bad night and overslept myself this morning. If I had waited for breakfast I should not have been able to come here and see you. But it doesn't matter in the least. I have no appetite."
"Oh, doesn't it?" Watney exclaimed. "My dear fellow, it is necessary that you should make a good breakfast. You may not have the chance again for weeks. Now you just wait five minutes and I'll see what can be done for you. After that I've got some information for you which I think you will find surprising. But you are not going to hear it until you have had a hearty meal. I have been out just now to verify things for myself, and I find that for once the papers have not exaggerated. They are all full of it this morning."
Lawrence smiled bitterly.
"The studio mystery again?" he asked. "Don't tell me that there is another development of this business."
"Presently," Watney said. "Here comes the breakfast. And not one word do you get out of me until you have done ample justice to it. Now sit down and fire away."
Lawrence sat down, and gradually his appetite came back to him and he partook of a hearty meal. He felt all the stronger for it, and ready now to face the trying ordeal before him.
"I should like to hear your news," he said.
"Very well," Watney said trying to speak calmly and failing in the attempt. "A most extraordinary thing happened late last night or early this morning. As you know, Le Blanc's finished picture was in Messrs. Priory's gallery. The public flocked there this morning to see it. Mind you, the place is securely locked, and two of the electric lights burn all night. The police noticed nothing wrong, neither did anybody else till the assistants opened the shop this morning. Out of all the valuables there nothing was missing, nothing disturbed except the famous picture, and that was gone."
"Gone!" Lawrence cried. "How do you mean?"
"Vanished, disappeared altogether! Taken clean out of the frame and carted away as if it had never existed. The thief was evidently a humourist in his way, for, acting on the theory that exchange is no robbery, he had actually left another picture in the place of it which fitted the frame to a nicety."
"That's a hoax on the part of the papers," Lawrence cried.
Watney helped himself to an egg gravely.
"Not a bit of it," he said. "I have just been to see for myself. The picture has gone."
LAWRENCE laughed almost despairingly. The whole thing was so bewildering, so inexplicable that he felt inclined to abandon every attempt to solve the mystery. There was something almost farcical in Watney's statement. It seemed to Lawrence that the strange developments, treated with a light touch, might have a success on the stage.
"It is useless to try to get to the bottom of it," he said. "I am only sorry now that I ever had anything to do with the matter. I have thought and thought over it till my brain is fairly muddled. Take the case of Doveluck. Why should a man in his position take the trouble to disguise himself as a beggar and come and meet me at the door of Wandsworth Prison? You will admit that that is the last thing you might expect a millionaire to do. Of course I know that in some way Doveluck was in league with Le Blanc. But what on earth do they want me for? It is almost a pity now that I went off with Ethel Blantyre instead of waiting for Doveluck's so-called patron. If I had gone abroad as I had first intended, I should have got out of all this mess, whereas it seems that I am likely to find myself back in Wandsworth Prison before long."
"Oh, cheer up," Watney exclaimed. "We shall see daylight presently. And as to friend Doveluck I am not so sure that he is a millionaire after all. I know for a positive fact he is little better than a furniture dealer, as I shall be able to prove to you by and by. But we are wandering from the point. Don't you think we had better keep to the case in hand? As I said just now, Le Blanc's picture has disappeared, and another painting has taken its place."
"Go on," Lawrence said wearily, "go on."
"Oh, I make every allowance for your feelings, but you will gain nothing by this despondent attitude. The fact remains that the painting has vanished, and that it has been replaced in its frame by a commonplace portrait of some nonentity whose identity we have yet to discover. Whoever the thief was he was pretty cool about his work, but what he had to gain by substituting one painting for another remains to be proved. At any rate, it adds to the excitement of the chase."
"Does the new work fit the frame?" Lawrence asked.
"Perfectly. The canvas and the frame might have been made for one another. When I heard what had happened this morning I refused to believe it, so I went to Regent Street to verify the facts for myself. There is no doubt about it as you will be able to see presently."
"Shall I really?" Lawrence said grimly. "I shall be fortunate indeed if I find myself free after my visit to Scotland Yard. That woman is certain to identify me, and I shall be detained on the suspicion of having had a hand in the disappearance of Victor Le Blanc. What the upshot will be no one can say."
It was useless for Watney to attempt anything in the way of consolation, so very wisely he left it alone. He went out presently with Lawrence and accompanied the latter some way towards Scotland Yard. Then he turned back and walked towards Regent Street. He reached the premises of Messrs. Priory at length to find that a considerable crowd had gathered outside, which crowd was disappointed to find that nobody must be admitted to examine the substituted picture. The authorities had given orders that the public were to be excluded from that part of the premises in which Le Blanc's picture had been deposited. A policeman or two were explaining this to the crowd and moving the curious lookers-on as quickly as possible. Being a privileged individual, Watney was allowed to pass into the shop, where he found Middlewick accompanied by one or two of his subordinates. They were whispering together in a corner, and for some time the inspector did not notice Watney. He came forward presently with a peculiar smile upon his face. He made some commonplace remark anent the strange happenings of the previous evening.
"You have got a clue, of course," Watney said drily.
"You must have your joke," Middlewick responded. "As a matter of fact I haven't got so much even as a theory. Now I wonder if you can make anything of it?"
"We'll talk about that by and by," Watney replied. "Meanwhile I have just parted from my friend, Mr. Lawrence Hatton, who has gone down to Scotland Yard to keep his appointment. We will take it for granted that he will be recognized by the woman Marsh. That being so, what is likely to happen?"
Middlewick gave an eloquent shrug of his shoulders,
"Oh, the usual thing," he said. "We shall have to detain Mr. Hatton. He will probably be brought before magistrates and charged with being concerned in the disappearance of Mr. Le Blanc. Personally I think that the whole thing is capable of an explanation, though, of course, this private opinion of mine does not make my public duty any the less plain. There will be a remand as a matter of course, and I am afraid it will be no use your friend asking for bail. And now, what do you think of this latest phase?"
Watney shook his head doubtfully. He was looking at the picture, examining it in a strong light from all points of view. Beyond doubt, the original canvas had been abstracted and the new one substituted in its place. The canvas was what is known as a stock size, and, for the time being, Le Blanc's picture had been fitted into an old carved Florentine frame until such time as a new one could be made for it. The thief, whoever he was, had been deliberate, for there was not a nail missing in the back of the frame; in fact, the new canvas had been inserted with a workman-like finish and neatness which might have been achieved by a man who had passed all his life in handling picture frames.
"Do you see anything suspicious?" Middlewick asked.
"Nothing whatever," Watney replied. "The whole thing is inexplicable. I can understand the thief walking off with the painting, but why did he substitute this in its place? I suppose you have carefully cross-examined the assistants in the shop. Have you learnt anything through them as to how the culprit could have found his way here and escaped without attracting attention?"
"They can tell me nothing," Middlewick said almost sadly. "The whole thing is as much a puzzle to them as it is to us. Neither of the partners has arrived yet, so I have had no opportunity of discussing the matter with them. But I shall have the chance of doing so later in the day. Meanwhile, I must get back to Scotland Yard and see what becomes of the interview between Mr. Lawrence and the witness Marsh."
Middlewick bustled off leaving Watney to his own reflections. As he stood examining the picture his acquaintance Masson came up to him. The elderly assistant was full of the robbery. He appeared to be incapable of thinking of anything else.
"Speculation is useless," Watney said. "What we have to deal with is fact. Now you've been here all your lifetime pretty well, can you tell me how it would be possible for anybody to commit this outrage without being detected? You say that the light was burning all night, and I am informed that the front entrance was intact this morning. Is there any other way of getting here without using the ordinary entrance?"
"Well, there is," Masson said after a moment's hesitation. "You see, at present we occupy the whole of these premises. On the first floor is our picture gallery, where we have some of the finest modern works in Europe. The gallery used to be downstairs at one time; but latterly we have increased our stock of furniture so much that more room had to be obtained. Up to a year or two ago the first floor was occupied by Mr. Sladen, the well-known R.A., who ran a big school of art there. When Sladen's eyes began to fail him his pupils dropped away, and in the course of time the painter was only too glad to transfer his lease to us. I suppose he must have occupied the premises which are now in our hands for the last five and twenty years. As you are probably aware, Sladen turned out some fine workmen whose names are now household words. There is a side entrance to the second floor in Air Street, and at one time certain famous pupils of Sladen's possessed latchkeys which enabled them to call at the studio and work at any time of the day or night. It was only to a favoured few these latchkeys were given, and my theory is that in some way or other one of these keys found its way into the hands of the very clever scamp who visited us last night. I have discovered that the door in Air Street has never been properly fastened up, and that anybody possessing one of those keys can reach the first floor without the slightest trouble."
"You haven't told anybody this," Watney whispered. "Ah, I am glad of that. Now you go and attend to that customer who is waiting so impatiently over yonder and we will speak of this matter again. Meanwhile I'll go and have a chat with Sir Arthur Seymour over there, the famous R.A., who may be able to give me a useful hint or two. He looks as if he had made a discovery."
The well-known Academician looked up with a smile as Watney accosted him. The two men were acquainted with one another, so there was no need for ceremony.
"What do you make of it, sir?" Watney asked.
"My dear sir," Sir Arthur whispered excitedly, "It is only too plain. If you will come with me to the other end of the shop I will give you a really critical opinion."
THE interest in the Le Blanc case had trebled during the last twenty-four hours. There was nothing else talked about but the disappearance of the one portrait and the substitution of another in its place. A few persons who had been fortunate enough to see the original painting, hinted pretty openly that they were able to identify the girl who had sat to Le Blanc for his latest and greatest picture. Some of the papers, too, hinted at exclusive information, but nobody really knew anything, and the mystery remained more involved and more complicated than ever. The whole thing read like a romance, like some weird impossible story emanating from the brain of a fantastic novelist. It appealed strongly to the public imagination and held it in a firm grip. Nothing so strange had happened in the memory of man.
And now here was another phase which kept excitement up to boiling-point. Later in the day it became known that the witness Marsh had positively identified a man detained at Scotland Yard as the person she had seen coming out of Le Blanc's studio on the night of his disappearance. The prisoner would appear at Bow Street on the following morning, when no doubt evidence would be offered against him which would illuminate the dark places and serve in a measure to satisfy public curiosity.
For things had fallen out pretty much as Middlewick had foretold. Without the slightest hesitation Mrs. Marsh had picked out Lawrence from amongst a score of prisoners as the man whom she had seen leaving the studio. In the face of this assurance there was nothing for it but to detain Hatton in custody, and inform him that he would be taken before the magistrate on the following morning, when enough evidence would be offered to justify a remand. If Lawrence desired the assistance of a solicitor he was at liberty to send for him. As a matter of fact, he sent for Watney instead, leaving it in the latter's hands to choose an efficient counsel. So far the public had to be satisfied with this information till the morrow when, no doubt, sensational evidence would be offered. Long before the hour appointed for the hearing of the case the court was packed, so that even Watney had some difficulty in securing a seat.
The case opened quietly. Counsel for the Crown merely stated certain facts upon which he based his application for a remand. With every desire to be fair to the prisoner it was his duty to say that Mr. Lawrence Hatton was at present a ticket-of-leave man, and that he had a few months of his sentence still to serve. The barrister laid some stress upon the point that many years ago the artist Le Blanc and the prisoner had been school-fellows, and that they had been more or less friends in their early manhood. Then the lawyer said he understood that there had been something like a quarrel between the two men which had never been patched up until Mr. Le Blanc went to Paris and the prisoner had embarked upon business in the City. This might, of course, be nothing but a coincidence, but in the face of what had come to light the facts were significant. On the same day upon which the prisoner had been discharged from Wandsworth Gaol he had called at Le Blanc's studio, which fact would be proved on the sworn testimony of the witness Marsh. How a man in gaol, cut off from all connexion with his fellow-creatures, could have discovered that Le Blanc was back in England again and the possessor of a studio in Fitzroy Square was a point which was still to be elucidated. But the fact remained that the prisoner had visited the studio late at night. He was seen to leave the house in a state of considerable mental agitation, and within a few hours Le Blanc had disappeared. That there had been a scene of violence in the studio was beyond all question. When the police visited the place they found everything in utter confusion. The furniture was scattered about and there were bloodstains, not only on the floor, but also upon the rugs which lay here and there on the polished boards. He proposed to call the witness Marsh to testify on oath, after which he would ask for a remand for eight days.
Lawrence's soul was filled with bitterness as he listened. As a reasonable man with a logical mind, he was bound to admit that the prosecuting counsel was making out a remarkably strong case. When the woman Marsh had given her evidence the case became stronger still. Lawrence had only to glance round the court into the eager faces of the spectators to see his sentence already written in large letters. He was destined to be surprised when his own lawyer rose to cross-examine. He had left the line of defence entirely to his advocate. He had expected that nothing would be done beyond the commonplace course of reserving the defence and allowing the case to go for trial. Now it seemed as if the barrister meant to fight the matter from the first.
But he made no impression whatever upon the stolid witness, who, after all, was telling no more than the truth. Beyond doubt, she had seen Lawrence coming away from the studio. She had recognized him, and there was no more to be said. When the woman was allowed to depart, which she did with a grin of triumph on her face, everybody in court regarded Lawrence as as good as convicted. From his point of view even the outlook was hopeless. He listened languidly when his advocate rose to oppose the adjournment, stating that he had a witness to call.
"I know I am pursuing a somewhat unusual course, sir," he said to the magistrate, "but we should like to have this matter settled now. Of course, it is in your worship's power to commit the prisoner for trial, and considering the seriousness of the charge, I am afraid it will be useless for me to ask for bail. That is why I am anxious to try to convince your worship that though appearances are greatly against my client an extraordinary mistake has been made and that he is absolutely innocent. At any rate, I will produce a witness who will influence you favourably when I come to apply for bail. Otherwise, I should have allowed the matter to take its ordinary course and reserve my defence. As it is I desire to call on our behalf Sir Arthur Seymour, the well-known artist."
The assembled spectators thrilled as if they scented something sensational in the way of disclosures. The name of the great Academician echoed through the court, and presently Sir Arthur stood in the witness-box. He made an imposing appearance as he stood there, tall, handsome, and sliver-haired. He smiled with great composure and coolness.
"I will not detain you long," the defending counsel said, "but I should like to put a few questions to you, Sir Arthur. I think you are acquainted with Mr. Le Blanc."
"I was," Sir Arthur replied. "Before he went to Paris he was a pupil of mine. It was at my suggestion that he went over to the French capital to complete his studies, and I may say that I followed his progress with the greatest interest. I think I was one of the first persons he called upon when he came back to England. And at his request I visited his studio to look at some of his most recent work. That was a few weeks ago."
"And you were not disappointed, Sir Arthur?"
"Indeed, I was not. Victor Le Blanc was a great genius. There is an individuality about his work which one cannot possibly mistake!"
"I am going to ask you rather a personal question. Sir Arthur," the lawyer went on. "Did you notice any change, any physical change for the worse in your old pupil?"
"Well, yes," Sir Arthur said with some hesitation, "I did. He appeared to be moody and irritable and exceedingly shaky, like a man who is far gone in habits of dissipation. As an old man and an old master, I ventured to allude to this change. I ventured to point out what the consequence of such folly would be to any man who depends upon clearness of brain and steadiness of hand for his reputation. I could do no more."
"Were your remarks accepted in good part?"
"On the whole, yes. You see I am rather a privileged person. Mr. Le Blanc assured me that so far as intemperance was concerned, he was innocent of any suggestion of excess. I understood him to say that he had been ill lately, and that foolishly enough he had fallen into the habit of taking considerable doses of morphia. I rather gathered from what he told me that he was making a strenuous effort to shake off this pernicious course, which accounted for his extreme shakiness and irritability."
"As a matter of fact," Lawrence's counsel said parenthetically, "we shall be able to prove that Mr. Le Blanc was a confirmed morphia maniac. And now let us get a little farther, Sir Arthur. During the visit to Mr. Le Blanc's studio did he happen to show you the picture around which so furious a controversy has been raging lately? Did you happen to see the complete portrait?"
"Not quite," Sir Arthur admitted. "The face was merely sketched in. But I saw a study of the features, and I was so struck with it that I expressed a desire to purchase it. Mr. Le Blanc would not hear of the suggestion for a moment, but he bade my acceptance of the study which I have at home at the present moment. It is a most remarkable piece of work."
"You don't think anybody could have copied it? I mean, you don't think anybody would be able to finish the picture in the absence of the original artist?"
Sir Arthur smiled almost contemptuously.
"No, sir," he said with emphasis. "If I may be allowed to explain, I will prove its impossibility."
A THRILL ran through the crowded court. Sir Arthur had spoken quietly enough, yet there was a suggestion of power and confidence behind his words which carried weight to the dullest and least observant of the spectators. Lawrence's counsel nodded his head, much as if he had expected something of this kind.
"Excellent," he murmured. "And now perhaps you had better explain in your own words exactly what you mean."
"Perhaps I had better," Sir Arthur said. "Naturally enough, I was exceedingly interested when I heard of the strange disappearance of Mr. Le Blanc——"
"But you were not surprised?" counsel suggested. "I mean a man who is the slave of a habit as Mr. Le Blanc was might be capable of any eccentricity?"
"That is so, sir," Sir Arthur said gravely. "But perhaps I should get on better if you did not interrupt me."
"Really, I beg your pardon," the barrister said with a humility he was far from feeling. "But I could not resist the temptation of impressing my point upon the Bench. What I want to convey is that a man in the state to which Le Blanc had brought himself is capable of any folly or any stupidity."
Counsel for the prosecution sarcastically suggested that the time had hardly arrived when the prisoner's representative was in a position to make a speech. To which remark that astute individual said nothing. He had succeeded in making a telling point, and that was all he cared about.
"I quite agree with you, sir," Sir Arthur went on in the same stately way. "On the night to which I have already alluded, Mr. Le Blanc was in a state when a man might commit any folly. But that is not quite what I wanted to emphasize. As I said before, he showed me the portrait, of which he seemed to be justly proud. The picture was by no means finished, as the features were more or less sketched in. I left the studio eventually promising to call again and inspect the complete work at the earliest opportunity. The matter escaped my mind; indeed, I had practically forgotten all about it, when my attention was called to the business by the sensational paragraphs in the newspaper. Like most people I read of my young friend's disappearance. I read how strangely the portrait had been mutilated. I took it for granted that the picture had been finished, for otherwise there would have been no occasion for the culprit or culprits to have disfigured the canvas with the red paint. Subsequently I saw that the portrait had been once more restored to perfection, though Le Blanc was still missing, and naturally enough I was exceedingly puzzled to understand the meaning of this extraordinary business. I took the very earliest opportunity of going down to Messrs. Priory's gallery and inspecting the work myself. I found it absolutely complete, and wanting in no particular."
"You formed a high opinion of it?" counsel asked.
"An exceedingly high opinion, indeed," the witness went on. "Nothing finer in the way of portraiture has been accomplished in recent years. I say this with every confidence, though I have not the least idea who the original of the picture was."
"Now I am going to ask you a direct question, Sir Arthur," the barrister said. "Is it your deliberate opinion that some friend of the missing artist found his way to the studio and repainted that face? Such things have been done before."
"Not in this case," the great R.A. said emphatically. "There are not three men in London who could have done what you suggest. Victor Le Blanc has original methods, and originality is just the thing that people cannot imitate. I am as certain of that as I am of standing here. The face of the picture recently stolen from Messrs. Priory's gallery was painted by Le Blanc himself."
"Le Blanc is dead," the lawyer muttered.
"I beg your pardon," the witness said, "I decline to believe anything of the kind. I understand it is some days since Mr. Le Blanc vanished. I believe the police are under the impression that he is the victim of some foul play, in short, that he was murdered in his studio and his body smuggled away in some mysterious fashion. With all due deference to this professional opinion, I say the police are absolutely wrong. Le Blanc came back again secretly and finished his picture. When I have shown the study that I spoke of just now to a body of experts I am certain that they will all agree with me. Of course, we shall have to find the stolen picture in the first instance. But there is no possible doubt of the fact that Victor Le Blanc was living eight and forty hours ago, and that the prisoner in the dock yonder assuredly had no hand in the outrage."
The words were clear enough, and spoken with a tone of authority which carried conviction to a great number of the spectators. Sir Arthur waited for a moment or two but no further questions were asked. Then the counsel for the defence turned to the Bench and intimated that, for the present, he did not intend to carry the case any farther.
"I do not propose a remand, your worship; I do not suggest that my learned friend on the other side has failed to make out a case for such a procedure. But I do contend that in the face of so distinguished a witness as Sir Arthur Seymour I have every right to ask for bail for the prisoner."
Counsel for the Crown jumped up and opposed vehemently. This was a serious matter, he said, and with every respect for so great an authority as Sir Arthur Seymour the latter's evidence was more a question of personal opinion than hard fact.
Many persons in court had veered round in favour of the prisoner, and these listened eagerly to hear what the magistrate would have to say.
No one followed with a more vivid interest or a faster-beating heart than Ethel Blantyre, who sat in the well of the court with Sir Arthur by her side. So far as Watney could see, the latter took no interest in the proceedings. He sat with a vacant look upon his face. His lips moved from time to time as if he were muttering to himself. To Watney's keen eye he seemed a fit subject for a medical man, for if Sir Arthur's mental powers were not failing him, his personal appearance was a cruel travesty on his state of mind.
The magistrate spoke at length. He had carefully considered the matter, and for the present he regretted he could not see his way to fall in with the suggestion made by the prisoner's counsel. He would remand the case for the short space of a week, and perhaps in the meantime such evidence might be forthcoming as would cause him to change his mind on the important subject of bail. There was nothing more to be said and the spectators began to troop into the open air. Sir Arthur Blantyre wandered off in the same vague fashion, whilst Ethel Blantyre lingered behind to say a few words to Watney. She seemed to be terribly moved about something. Her face was deadly pale and her eyes shone like stars. The hand on Watney's arm trembled terribly.
"How cruel! How unjust and unfair!" she exclaimed. "I cannot understand how a man could hesitate after hearing Sir Arthur's evidence. Lawrence Hatton is innocent. And that being so, he ought not to have to submit to the indignity of imprisonment. And the cruel part of the whole thing is that my grandfather could set him free if he only would come forward and do so."
"Are you sure of that?" Watney exclaimed.
"Positively certain," Ethel went on breathlessly. "Mind, I could not tell you how I know. I could not give the necessary evidence myself. But I am sure that my grandfather is in a position to do so. He has been so strange in his manner lately that I quite tremble for his sanity. He talks to himself under the impression that he is quite alone. He drops most extraordinary hints from time to time, and when I reminded him this morning of what I had overheard and how he could help Lawrence, he burst out into an extraordinary fit of rage which culminated in an attack of mild apoplexy. I was so frightened that I durst not carry the matter farther; indeed, I was very much surprised when Sir Arthur recovered to find that he meant to come this morning and listen to the evidence against Mr. Hatton. The whole way from Regent's Park he never said a word, and I don't believe he heard a single word of anything that took place in court. He has a considerable belief in your powers, Mr. Watney, and I thought perhaps you might find time to come up this evening and talk matters over with him. He won't listen to a word I say; he looks upon me as a silly girl whose ideas are not worth listening to. But whatever the secret is, and whatever disgrace it entails upon our family, the truth must be told and nothing left undone to free Lawrence from his terrible position. Now will you come up this evening and help me?"
It did not need the pleading look in Ethel's eyes, or the distress in her voice to enlist Watney's sympathy; he was only too eager to do what was necessary out of sheer curiosity. If there was a chance of eliciting valuable information, he did not mean to lose it.
"I shall be only too pleased," he said. "As a matter of fact, I shall be in the neighbourhood of Regent's Park this evening, for I have to call upon an artist named Sladen who, I hope, can give me some information bearing upon this extraordinary case. If you will give me the address I will come round after dinner."
"That is very good of you," Ethel said gratefully. "I am sure you will not have a fruitless journey."
ETHEL turned quickly away so that Watney might not see the tears which had risen to her eyes. She hastened outside where Sir Arthur Blantyre stood with the uncertain air of one who has lost something and cannot recollect what it is. He mumbled as Ethel took his arm and suggested that they might just as well have a cab.
The baronet had changed woefully during the last few days. He looked bent and withered. There were twitchings about the corners of his mouth, and a dull and vacant look in his eyes; it needed no specialist in mental disease to see that the unfortunate man was leaning far over the borderland which divides reason from insanity. Not till the house in Regent's Park was reached and Sir Arthur was sitting amongst his flowers again did Ethel speak. In ordinary circumstances she would have been too full of sympathy to give the old man pain, but now that there was a human life at stake it was not the time to be over-delicate.
Sir Arthur rose to his feet and proceeded to snip here and there such of the white blossoms in the conservatory as showed signs of decay. Ethel watched him more or less impatiently. Her heart was hard, her throat very dry.
"Oh, is there nothing more important than those flowers?" she exclaimed petulantly. "Can't you realize what is taking place?"
Sir Arthur shook his head gravely.
"She always liked white flowers," he said. "They were a passion with her. And that is why I took this house and filled it with these lovely blossoms, because, you see, some day she will come back again. And, as things have turned out, it is impossible for her to go to Glenallan. I could find it in my heart to forgive her the disgrace she has brought upon my house. But there are limits to my generosity. And Glenallan must always remain closed against her. Still, she can come back here. She can have all these beautiful white flowers to console her——"
The speaker's voice trailed off into a mumbling whisper. With a sudden spurt of anger Ethel laid her hand upon his shoulder.
"Don't you understand?" she cried. "Don't you know where you have been this morning? Is it impossible for you to realize that Lawrence Hatton's life is in danger? Can't you grasp the fact that he has run this risk entirely on your account?"
Something like comprehension shone in Sir Arthur's eyes.
"We'll find a way out for him," he whispered. "But I can't speak. I dare not. I dare not."
"Then there are others who will," Ethel said passionately. "I cannot do so, but I can find those who will. All this selfishness on your part amounts to crime. You have seven days to consider your position, to consider whether an innocent man shall suffer or not, and if you don't make up your mind by then to do the right and honourable thing, I shall take matters in my own hands."
"What do you mean?" Sir Arthur asked hoarsely.
"Oh, I think you understand. If you will not speak, then I must fall back upon the woman called Charlotte Beaumont."
Sir Arthur paused suddenly in his walk and clasped his hand to his forehead. He staggered as if a bullet had struck him and moaned like a creature in physical pain; then his voice gradually rose to something like a stifled scream. He laid two trembling hands upon Ethel's shoulder and shook her to and fro with a strength and passion that were amazing.
"What do you know about her?" he cried. "Who told you that there was such a person? Who is the enemy that has betrayed me like this? If you dare to mention that name again——"
The man's strength suddenly vanished. He tottered to a chair and lay back with closed eyes and every appearance of physical exhaustion. When he looked up again, all traces of his agitation had left him. He might have been a man trying to recollect the details of a confused dream.
"I am very tired," he murmured. "If you will leave me I will try to sleep."
It was useless to persevere, useless to try to get anything out of the old man, so Ethel retired in despair. And yet her efforts had not been in vain. She knew that she had struck the right chord. She knew that she was fumbling along the dark path which led to the very heart of the mystery. Perhaps Watney would be able to help her later, for it would be worth while to take him into her confidence. For the rest of the day Sir Arthur sat in the same half-unconscious state. It was only when Ethel suggested his seeing a doctor that he showed signs of intelligence.
"No doctor for me," he said irritably. "They are too clever. They find out too much. Oh, I know that I am ill. I know that my head is all strange and confused. But that is just the reason why I don't want to see a doctor. He'll ask me cunning questions. He will pry into my affairs—and before I know where I am, he will discover the secret of the missing picture which——"
Once more the speaker paused at the very moment when his conversation was most interesting. He appeared to Ethel to have all the cunning of the poor demented creature who realizes that his mind is going, and whose one anxiety is to keep the fact to himself.
There was nothing for it now but to wait till Watney appeared and see whether his astuteness could do anything.
Meanwhile the journalist had not been idle. During the day he had picked up one or two trifles in the way of information which, pieced together, promised to be of considerable use later. On the whole he was not ill-pleased as he turned out after dinner and made his way on foot towards Regent's Park. His intention was to kill two birds with one stone—to see Mr. Sladen, the artist and former proprietor of the school of art over the Priory galleries, and afterwards call upon Sir Arthur Blantyre. It would be odd if he did not lay his hand upon something likely to turn out to Lawrence Hatton's benefit.
The blind artist occupied rooms in a house somewhere north of Regent's Park, where he was looked after by an elderly relative. His circumstances were more or less comfortable, owing to the fact that a grateful nation had voted him a Civil List pension of two hundred pounds a year as some acknowledgment of his services to art. In his day Mr. Sladen had been a man of importance, though his name conveyed very little to the present generation. The house in question was not so easily found, and presently Watney turned into a chemist's shop to elicit further particulars. He knew that an establishment of this kind was usually as good as a post office in tracing people whose address in the Directory is vague. The establishment was a good one, evidently doing a sound family business, though it was more or less deserted and some of the shutters were already up. There was only one light burning in the shop, and under this a gentlemanly assistant with the aid of the Directory was doing his best to afford Watney the information he desired. He shook his head by and by.
"I am afraid I am somewhat at sea, sir," he said. "But if you will wait half a moment, I will consult the proprietor, who has been in business here for the last forty years."
The assistant disappeared in the background, and Watney amused himself by reading the various names of articles on the different show-cases. He was standing half in the shadow when another person entered the shop and demanded something in a voice which Watney did not catch. He turned with a certain languid curiosity to see a little old man with a peculiar cast in one eye, dressed in a seedy frock coat, who carried a tin whistle in his hand. With that peculiar inconsequence of thought which frequently amounts to instinct, it occurred to Watney that this was the street musician who had accosted Lawrence Hatton on the morning when he was released from Wandsworth Gaol. The more he studied the stranger, the more sure did he feel of his fact. Of course, the thing might only be a ridiculous effort of the imagination, but the evening was young yet, the light outside was far from faded, and Watney was in no hurry. On the whole, he determined it would be worth his while to follow the man with the tin whistle.
He saw him receive a tiny bottle which evidently contained poison, for it was a dark blue fluted phial with a red label upon it. A few pence changed hands, and then the stranger went hobbling off down the road with the same sideway lameness which Lawrence Hatton had described. He came at length to a well-appointed house standing in its own grounds, part of which abutted on a side lane, and here he stopped. He glanced about him as if to make sure he was not being observed. Then he strode resolutely through the iron gates abandoning his lameness as he entered the drive. There was no hesitation whatever in his manner. Evidently he was quite at home here. Watney turned down the side lane and sat down on the grass to think the matter out. It was too light to do anything as yet, but, perhaps, before it got dark he might see his way to some plan of campaign. As Watney sat there, a side door opened and a housemaid with a dustpan in her hand threw a heap of rubbish into the road and retired. A little bottle rolled to Watney's feet. On it was a label and the inscription "Morphia 1 in 10."
Watney chuckled as he read the sign.
"A clue, a positive clue," he murmured. "I haven't had a bit of luck like this for many a long day."
WATNEY waited there a little longer, feeling fairly secure in the knowledge that the lane was not much frequented, and that his presence would not be likely to arouse suspicion. The house upon which his mind was set was surrounded by a high hedge with a belt of firs beyond, so that only the upper windows were visible to anybody who happened to be passing along the lane. Watney noticed that the housemaid who had so luckily placed a clue in his hands had not fastened the door behind her, so that he was free to look into the garden if he chose and spy out the land for himself. This struck him as strange, seeing that the door was a strong one fitted into the solid masonry, and apparently intended to be kept secure against passers-by.
"Evidently not the tradesmen's entrance," Watney muttered to himself. "Very few carts come down this lane, or there would be more wheel ruts, and by the look of that door I should say that it is very seldom used. Either somebody in authority has left it open, or the servant has forgotten to turn the key in the lock. Perhaps I had better have a look in before it gets too dark."
With a cautious glance to see that he was not watched, Watney turned the handle of the green door and pushed it quietly open. He found himself upon a gravel path bordered on either side by nut trees, through the leaves of which he could make out a portion of the house and the strip of well-kept lawn round it. Farther in the background were the domestic offices, facing the avenue of trees. Beyond this point Watney felt it would be indiscreet at present to go, if he would avoid the risk of being discovered by one of the servants, followed by an ignominious retreat. It would be wiser to return after dark and explore the premises under cover of the friendly gloom. Watney retraced his steps, taking care before he left the lane to insert a pebble in the keyhole of the door.
"That will prevent it from being locked to-night," he told himself. "It is any odds that the servants won't trouble if they find they can't turn the key in the lock. And it is even betting that if anybody in authority fails to do the same thing, he will elect to let matters remain as they are till the morning. This is the safest way into the grounds and much more likely to be free from the prying eye of any passer-by. Meanwhile, I shall look up Sladen."
Watney had not far to go and, after sending in a message by a servant, was informed that Mr. Sladen would see him. He came presently into a pleasant sitting-room, where a very old man was seated listening to a girl who was reading aloud from some book.
The girl rose and left the two men together.
"I am very sorry to intrude upon you, sir," Watney said, "but I thought, perhaps, you would give me some information. I happen to be a journalist."
The blind artist smiled.
"Oh, your name is familiar to me," he said. "Afflicted as I am, the daily papers are one of my few consolations. My niece reads them all out to me with the exception of advertisements. I meet very few journalists now. They used to make much of me in the old days when I was a familiar figure in the art world, and when I had my school in Regent Street. However, I can't complain. I had rather a long day, and perhaps I might have been enjoying it still, but for this affliction which it has pleased Providence to bestow upon me. But sit down. Let us chat, Mr. Watney. It is always a pleasure when an intelligent man of the world comes to see me. Now what can I do for you?"
Watney murmured something appropriate. He looked at the patient, dignified figure in the big armchair. He noted the long, silver beard, the grey hair, and the marvellous patience engraved on that handsome face. It seemed almost a pity to drag this simple-minded gentleman into so sordid a case.
"Perhaps I had better be perfectly frank with you," Watney went on. "I am greatly interested in what is called the studio mystery. As you are so familiar with the papers I presume you are acquainted with the last phase of that extraordinary case."
The old man lifted his face eagerly.
"Oh, dear, yes," he exclaimed. "You see, being an artist, the affair appeals particularly to me. I have been most interested in all the details; indeed, not very long ago my niece was reading me the latest particulars in the evening papers. On the whole, I am not altogether inclined to agree with the evidence of Sir Arthur Seymour, especially in what he says about originality and the impossibility of copying it. Believe me, our distinguished friend is quite wrong there. When I had a school of my own I could have produced half a dozen pupils at any time capable of copying a modern masterpiece in a way which would even have puzzled its creator. And yet, the copyists I speak of were quite fifth-rate artists. Whatever Sir Arthur may say, it seems to me that the man under arrest stands on particularly dangerous ground."
"I am glad you referred to Mr. Hatton," Watney said, "because it brings me directly to the point. Hatton is a personal friend of mine. I was at school with him. I may say that I have known him all his life. You may take it from me that though he is a ticket-of-leave man, he is utterly innocent of the crime of which he was convicted, as I hope to prove shortly. It will be a great surprise to the public when they find that the real criminal was no other than Le Blanc himself. But all this is beside the point. It is imperative that we should find out without delay what has become of the missing picture, and for that purpose we must put our hands upon such persons as were in a position to find their way into Messrs. Priory's gallery without resorting to burglary or other nefarious means. Now I have been making inquiries and I find that at one time your school of art was over the gallery. I find that there was a side entrance from Air Street which still exists and was the only way into your school at one time. One of Messrs. Priory's employees tells me that some of your pupils were granted the privilege of latchkeys, so that they might enter the school at any time for the purpose of study. You can understand how the possessor of such a key could find his way into the gallery without attracting attention, or even without being seen. Of course, I know it is a great many years since your school was given up, but I am going to ask you to try to remember the names of the pupils to whom you gave those keys. I know it is a large order——"
"Not so large as you think," the painter smiled. "It is a practice which I adopted towards the end of my career, and there were only three keys altogether. Two of them came back to me as I remember perfectly well. The third ought to have been returned, but wasn't. But, then, this third key was given to one of the most extraordinary geniuses that ever came under my notice. He was a man unlike anybody else. At any rate, he didn't return the key, and I haven't seen it from that day to this. Ah, what a magnificent career he might have had if he had only possessed the necessary perseverance. But he seemed to me to be a weak, self-indulgent creature, who would do nothing so long as he had a shilling in his pocket. I don't know what has become of him. But I often regret his lost possibilities. There never was such a pupil as he."
"Would you mind giving me his name?" Watney asked.
"Certainly. His name was George Omley."
Watney said nothing for a moment. Though he had half-expected this reply, it came with the force of a shock to him all the same. It tallied, too, so perfectly with his theory, it fitted in to the logical scheme which he had built up as completely as the missing part of a puzzle. He began to see his way clear.
"I am vastly obliged to you," he said, "though, from what you say it is hardly probable that this favourite pupil of yours had anything to do with the disappearance of the picture from Messrs. Priory's gallery. It would not be fair to assume that he had. He might have lost that key. It might have been stolen. There are a score of ways of accounting for its finding its way into the hands of other people. Of course, you understand I came to you in the off-chance of discovering something."
"Then you have done nothing of the sort," Mr. Sladen smiled. "I am sorry that I can't tell you more."
Watney expressed his thanks and changed the conversation. In half an hour or so he left the house and made his way back to the establishment where he had seen Doveluck a little time before. As a matter of fact, he was satisfied and more than satisfied with his visit to Mr. Sladen. His luck appeared to be with him now. He turned the handle of the green door and walked into the garden with a curious feeling upon him that the dramatic surprises of the evening were not yet over. It was quite dark, so that he could move along the path between the trees in safety and take the bearings of the house. So far as he could see, the kitchens were in darkness, as if the servants had gone to bed. There was an absence of light in the front of the house, too. No gleam came from the hall. One window upstairs was open and the blind pulled partly up. There was a strong light here, and as Watney stood listening intently it seemed to him that he could hear voices, one smooth and persuasive, the other hard and grating, as if the speaker were suffering from some physical pain. Watney strained his ears.
"You devil!" the hoarse voice said. "You cunning fiend! Give it me at once, or I'll do you a mischief, certain!"
WATNEY thought he had heard the voice before, though for the moment he could not connect it with anybody. He heard the other person in the bedroom reply in low tones, obviously intended to be soothing. But it seemed to Watney's quick ears as if there was something ironic concealed behind them. Once more the hoarse, strained voice pleaded and appealed as a man dying of thirst might have appealed for water. Then there was a sound as if a chair had been knocked over and the quick fierce breathing as of two persons struggling together. Then a head which, in the darkness, Watney could not distinguish was thrust out of the window, and somebody appeared to be addressing the intruder below.
"How much longer are you going to be, confound you!" the voice asked. "Do you suppose I want to stay here all night? Do you think I wish to pass the time with a dangerous lunatic? Come up at once!"
So startled was Watney that he was on the verge of a reply when it occurred to him swiftly that the speaker had mistaken him for somebody else. He guessed that the outline of his figure might be made out in the dark. If he wanted to escape unpleasant attention he must devise some speedy means out of the difficulty. He grunted something in reply and slipped away in the shadow of a mass of creepers growing against the side of the house. The head had scarcely been withdrawn from the window and Watney had had barely time to hide himself, before another figure came looming out of the darkness and glided towards the front door. Then presently the noise and scuffle of feet re-commenced overhead. The window was closed with a bang, and there was silence complete and profound. A quarter of an hour passed without further sign of life or movement and Watney began to grow impatient at the waste of time. He crept along the gravel as far as the front door. He saw now that there was just a feeble light shining through the transome as if some one had put a match to the gas in the hall and turned it down to a pin-point. Greatly daring, Watney placed his hand upon the door-knob and found that it yielded to his touch. He crept inside feeling secure of his exit. He desired now to know as far as possible what manner of house it was.
So far as he could see, it was elegantly furnished in the modern style, and contained little or nothing of the antique furniture and old pictures which Doveluck affected in his other flat. And Doveluck, dealer though he was, was nevertheless a lover of art treasures, and would most assuredly have been surrounded with them had the house in Regent's Park been a residence of his. Beyond question, he was either a welcome visitor, or had hired the house for some nefarious purpose, which Watney felt intuitively was identified with the studio mystery. It was impossible to get rid of this theory. It was impossible, also, to go much farther on the path of discovery to-night. Watney crept away, closing the door quietly behind him, resolved to restrain the impulse to explore. Here was a case emphatically where more haste meant less speed, and if he wanted to benefit by the advantage which Fortune had placed in his way he would have to think the matter out carefully. It would be prudent to retire while the course was clear and avail himself of Ethel Blantyre's invitation to call upon Sir Arthur and see what he could do for the unfortunate baronet, who might, within a short time, be mentally incapable of giving any information at all. A brief walk brought Watney to the house where he appeared to be expected, for he was immediately asked into the drawing-room by a servant, who went off in search of Miss Blantyre.
Ethel came presently, looking very sweet and girlish in her simple evening dress. She extended her hand to Watney. The expression on her face was one of deep gratitude to him.
"It is so good of you to come," she murmured. "I feel so helpless myself. I feel it so terrible that we should be losing valuable time in this way. The hours and the days go on, and we are not a bit nearer to the solution of the trouble. I feel that I can hardly bear the life I am leading at present. Fancy having to pass the afternoon doing nothing. Fancy having to dress for dinner and sit over a long elaborate meal talking commonplaces to Sir Arthur, while every moment might be of such tremendous import to Lawrence Hatton. It is all very well for Sir Arthur Seymour to take the view he does of the case, but do you suppose that what he said would impress a jury?"
"I am afraid it is open to criticism," Watney replied. "I have just been having a long talk with Mr. Sladen, the artist, who tells me that Sir Arthur is wrong in his views as to the impossibility of copying originality. I don't suppose that the prosecution will put Mr. Sladen in the box. But no doubt they could lay their hands upon a dozen celebrities who would be willing to say what Mr. Sladen said to me. But I implore you not to be despondent, Miss Blantyre. I know that you are interested in Lawrence, and that you would do anything——"
"I love him," the girl said simply and sincerely. "I have loved him ever since I was a child. Of course I didn't know it then. I had to find that out on the morning that I met Lawrence in the Embankment Gardens. I will know neither peace nor happiness till his name is cleared before the world. And if you have discovered anything——"
"I think I have," Watney interrupted. "I have found out to-night how it would be possible for anybody to get into the Priory galleries without attracting attention, and incidentally carry off that picture. I have discovered the name of a man who had a latchkey some years ago."
"I can guess who it was," Ethel whispered. "The possessor of the latchkey was our friend, George Omley."
"That is right," Watney admitted, "but don't you think it would be just as well if I saw Sir Arthur and tried to get something out of him? We can talk of George Omley another time."
"I had almost forgotten him for the moment," Ethel said. "Come this way and you will see my grandfather at once. I told him you were coming. He seemed rather pleased than otherwise."
Ethel led the way through the hall to the sitting-room behind with its white blooms and the mass of flowers in the conservatory beyond. With hands clasped behind his back, and figure bent and tottering, Sir Arthur was pacing up and down the room talking to himself. He seemed to be far enough away from his surroundings. His gaze was absent. It was some time before he grasped the fact that he was talking to Watney.
"I was thinking," he said in a feeble voice. "It seems to me that I have time for nothing else now. My young friend, I hope when you come to my time of life you will have something more pleasant to look back to than I have. But I see you are admiring my flowers. Nothing but white flowers. Perhaps you wonder why I am pledged to one scheme of colour. But those are her flowers you understand; indeed, she never cared for any others. I put them here because when she comes back, as she will some day, she will take it as a token of forgiveness. Of course, you may ask me why I don't make the same preparations at Glenallan. But she can never go back there. It must never be forgotten that she has brought shame and trouble upon the family."
All this in a low, strained voice as if the speaker were communing with himself, as if he had forgotten that a stranger was present. It was only when Ethel laid her hand upon his arm and whispered a few vigorous words in his ear that he rubbed his eyes and came back to earth again.
"You must try to listen. You must try to understand," the girl said vehemently. "You must get away from your own thoughts, from your own sorrows. I have asked Mr. Watney to come here to-night, because Lawrence Hatton is in danger, and I am certain that, if you choose to do so, you can save him. You must do so, grandfather, you must tell the truth at any cost. If you do not do so, you are little better than a scoundrel. What is the good of the name of Blantyre to you if you have lost your reputation and your honour?"
The words seemed to sting the old man. They brought a thin flush into his face. He turned upon Ethel a pair of eyes smouldering with the old lurid light.
"How dare you speak to me like this, girl?" he said hoarsely. "How dare you venture to suggest that a mere creature like Lawrence Hatton should be considered to the detriment of a Blantyre? Would you have the whole world know of my disgrace and my shame? Go away at once and leave me to talk over matters with Mr. Watney. Do you hear what I say? Leave the room."
Ethel hesitated for a moment. Her blood was flaming now. All the pluck and courage of her race were tingling to her finger-tips. She felt willing and ready to fight the matter out with her grandfather. She would have replied with spirit, had not a glance from Watney checked her.
"Better humour him," the journalist murmured. "I am afraid you will gain nothing by opposition. Leave us alone together. I will see what I can do."
"Very well," the girl murmured. "You have a wiser head than mine. But matters cannot remain where they are."
Ethel turned away and closed the door behind her. For some time she sat in the drawing-room. A prey to gloomy and distracting thoughts. A servant came in presently and handed Ethel a card on which a few words were scribbled:—
"I must see you at once. I implore you not to refuse me. It is a matter of life or death and admits of no delay.—Charlotte Beaumont."
ETHEL turned the card slowly and thoughtfully over in her fingers. She hesitated a long time—so long indeed, that the servant stood fidgeting, waiting for orders. So far as the girl could see there was no reason at all why she should grant an interview to this visitor, despite the fact that the message on the card was both imperative and urgent. In truth, it would not be the first time she and Charlotte Beaumont had met, though the previous interview had been anything but satisfactory to Sir Arthur Blantyre's granddaughter. Above all things, the girl hated mystery. She had had enough and to spare of it lately. She turned away from every suggestion of it with impatience. Besides, this intrigue, this whispering in corners, was foreign to her. She did not lack her share of the Blantyre pride, though from her point of view pride and uprightness should always go together. That Charlotte Beaumont was in some way connected with her and her family she did not question for a moment. The actress's likeness to herself forbade all doubt.
She was tempted to tear the card up and throw it in the fire and to send out a message that it was useless for Miss Beaumont to waste her time here. And then there came to her the recollection of the last meeting, of the strange half-imploring look in the eye of the stranger. Moreover to appear discourteous and give pain were abhorrent to Ethel's nature.
"Please show the lady in," she said.
Charlotte came in with a certain haughty humility, which did not impose upon Ethel for a moment. In spite of her powers as an actress the stranger was evidently playing a part. She bowed coolly enough, but Ethel did not fail to notice the heaving of her breast, the apparent presence of a lump in her throat which she strove in vain to swallow. With all her beauty and self-possession there was something pathetic and lonely about Ethel's visitor, a suggestion that she was friendless in the world.
"It is very good of you to receive me," she said. "If you will remember at our last interview——"
"One moment, if you please," Ethel interrupted. "At your request I called upon you the last time we were in London. You are a perfect stranger to me, yet you wrote me a letter which I found it difficult to resist. I know what it is to be practically alone in the world and your letter touched me. I came to you expecting goodness knows what. And yet when we did meet you were reticent and distant to the last degree. You wanted me to give you certain information without offering me any confidence in return. I am afraid that that interview was not a success."
"I am afraid not," the visitor said sadly.
"And that," went on Ethel, "is why I want to guard against a repetition of the same thing. If we are to come to an understanding it must be complete and thorough. It is impossible for me to look at you and doubt that you are in some way connected with me. There are moments when you might pass for my sister. Your expression is different from mine, and you appear to be able to vary it at will. But, at the same time, the resemblance between us is remarkable. You may call yourself Beaumont if you like, but I am certain that the blood of the Blantyres flows in your veins."
"We will come to that presently," Charlotte said. "For the moment I am not here to discuss my pedigree or any relationship that may exist between us. I am here to do my best to save Mr. Lawrence Hatton from the fate that threatens him."
"You can do that?" Ethel exclaimed.
"Well, I think so; at any rate, I can help. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Hatton is something more than a friend of yours."
The quick colour flamed into Ethel's face.
"In most people that remark would savour of impertinence," she said. "But I see you are in earnest and without any intention of offence. How comes it that you are so familiar with my movements? How do you know that Mr. Lawrence Hatton is no more than a mere acquaintance?"
"Once more, we will come to that presently," Charlotte said. "I see that I am not far short of the mark; indeed, that is why I am here, and why I rely upon your assistance. You shall know in time why I was so reticent last time we met, though I am prepared to discuss my past with you. More than once lately I have been at Glenallan. I have been a great deal closer to you than you imagined. Do you remember the night when you followed your grandfather into that disused wing of the house? Do you remember the occasion on which the light was put out and part of a picture vanished from under your very eyes?"
"I have not forgotten it," Ethel murmured.
"Ah, I thought you would recollect. I have that picture in my possession still, though I ought to have destroyed it long ago. It is my own portrait. Perhaps you can guess who painted it?"
Ethel shook her head impatiently. It seemed that she was on the verge of another mystery.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, speak more plainly," she cried. "Why cannot you be candid and straightforward? Why cannot you tell me what business you had at Glenallan? Why should I not know why you played that trick upon my grandfather and myself? You say that the picture was your own portrait——"
"Painted by Victor Le Blanc," the actress said coolly. "If you will only give me a chance I will tell you everything. You know Victor Le Blanc well enough. You are acquainted with his reputation. You are aware what manner of man he is. You knew him as a boy. You knew him in early manhood. Surely, you would be disposed to pity a woman tied to a creature like that."
"She would have my deepest sympathy," Ethel murmured.
"I am glad to hear you say that, because now I can reckon you as a friend. I am Victor Le Blanc's unfortunate wife. I am the woman who for years has suffered at his hands. Nobody but myself knows the thoroughness of his cruelty. There are men who ill-treat their wives, who cause their wives physical suffering, and yet retain their affection. There are hundreds of such in London, I understand; but there is a refinement of torture that cuts and wounds more deeply than any physical hurt, and in all those diabolical arts Victor Le Blanc is a past master. He was bad enough when he first married; he was vile enough when he found that I would not put my pride in my pocket and appeal to my family for money for his dissipations. But when he took to poisoning his body and soul with that accursed morphia he was ten thousand times worse. He became a veritable fiend then. I was a slave, a mere creature for him to practise his diabolical arts upon. But I had my revenge. I refused to go on the stage to make money for him to squander with his dissolute companions. I deliberately abandoned a great career so that he should not benefit by it. And then we came to England. By this time my husband had practically lost all creative power. From a great genius he had become a wreck trading on his reputation and enjoying the fruits of another's work. For the last twelve months he has not drawn a single line which would not have disgraced the veriest tyro that ever went to an art school. And so the thing has been going on. So it went on till the night in the studio when flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and I took the first revenge that came to my hands."
Ethel recoiled from the speaker.
"You killed him?" she whispered.
"I? You don't suppose I would run a risk like that for so base a creature! I tell you the whole thing is a plot, a deliberate and disgraceful plot to ruin Lawrence Hatton, whom my husband hates, and to humble and humiliate your grandfather at the same time. If all had gone smoothly my husband and his accomplice Doveluck would have succeeded in extorting something like a hundred thousand pounds from Sir Arthur. The scheme is by no means abandoned yet. But they reckon without me. If it had not been for this deliberate attempt to injure Mr. Hatton I should have said nothing. But the time has come now and I am bound to speak. If no one else comes forward to save Mr. Hatton, I must."
"And you can do it?" Ethel whispered.
"Do it! Of course I can. But it will be at the expense of Sir Arthur's pride. It may be at the expense of my own reputation. I can tell the whole story of that picture, though, as yet, I can only guess what has become of it and who took it from the Priory gallery. You look as if you have plenty of pluck and courage. Are you prepared to come with me now and hear the story told? Dare you leave the house in my company?"
Ethel hesitated, but only for a moment. It was impossible to suspect that this woman was actuated by anything but the best of motives. Her voice rang out sincere and true. She was moved by a genuine impulse to right the wrong and save Lawrence Hatton from the consequences of his folly.
"Do you want me to come now?" Ethel asked.
"Yes, at once, if you don't mind. There is no great danger. And besides, I will promise to see you safely home again. We shall not be much more than an hour away, and I have no doubt that Mr. Watney will still be with your grandfather when we return. I dare say you wonder why I know he is in the house. But that is easily explained. I have been walking up and down outside for the last hour trying to screw my courage to the sticking-point and call upon you. Come, I see you are moved by my story. I see you believe that the same blood flows in our veins. Have you confidence enough to come with me? You will not regret it."
"I AM not in the least afraid," Ethel said quietly. "And I am prepared to trust you. I am ready now."
"Spoken just as I expected you to speak," Charlotte said almost gaily. "I am glad that I made up my mind to tell the truth. I feel happier to-night than I have done for years. And now I am going to show you something of a life you have never seen before."
They left the house together and presently the actress called a cab, giving the address of a club which Ethel had never heard of. They came at length to a substantial-looking building leading out of one of the streets in the vicinity of the British Museum and here the cab was dismissed. Beyond a pair of folding-doors was a large lounge hall comfortably, almost luxuriously, furnished, the walls of which were covered with pictures. A score or two of men and women were chatting together and Ethel noticed with a sort of thrill that most of the women were smoking. There was a certain ease and abandonment in their attitude which chilled the girl at first, though she saw nothing in the least questionable when it came to be analysed. There were a frank freedom and bonhomie between the men and women, which, on the whole, were not displeasing. The sound of music came from somewhere overhead. In the corner of the lounge one man was painting a picture.
"This is the Omnium Club," Charlotte explained in a whisper. "Nobody is allowed to become a member who has not made a mark in one of the arts or sciences. You will be rather surprised if I tell you the names of all the people here, though you will recognize most of them for household words. And now that I have explained so much you will perhaps understand the freedom which exists between men and women here. But we did not come with the object of showing you a new phase in life. Waiter, will you be good enough to go upstairs into the smoking-room and tell Mr. Omley that I am here?"
The servant bowed and departed on his errand. Ethel forgot the strangeness of her surroundings at the mention of Omley's name. If she had any doubt before of Charlotte's good faith she changed her mind now. A minute or two later Omley came down the broad stairs and made his way to the place where the two girls were seated. There was an unmistakable change in his appearance for the better since he and Ethel had met last. His evening dress was neat and well cut. His shirt was clean and his tie immaculately knotted. His hair had been cut, his fair beard was closely trimmed. There was a clear look in his eyes, too, which denoted that for some little time, at any rate, he had been leading a wholesome life.
"I am very much at your service," he said. "Miss Blantyre, I am charmed to see you here. The last time we met——"
"I have not forgotten it," Ethel said coldly.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Omley said in his calm, cheerful way. "But please try to forgive me, for I am a creature of circumstance. I am sure that the Recording Angel keeps a special page for those who are endowed with the artistic temperament. But I am a reformed character now. I have vowed not to touch a drop of anything till Mr. Hatton is out of his trouble."
"You are interested in him?" Ethel exclaimed.
"Indeed, I am," Omley went on, "seeing that to a certain extent I am responsible for his misfortunes."
"I am glad you introduced the subject," Charlotte said, "because that explains my presence here with Miss Blantyre to-night. Now you know as well as I do that Mr. Hatton's entire future depends upon the production of the missing picture. If we can't find it, he is pretty certain to receive a sentence of penal servitude; therefore you will have to make a clean breast of the whole thing and produce the portrait without delay. Do you understand that?"
"I?" Omley cried. "What have I to do with it?"
"With all your faults, I have always found you fairly truthful," Charlotte said scornfully. "I don't want to betray you. I don't want to shame you in the eyes of your fellow-men. But if you don't do the fair and honest thing now, I will not hesitate for a moment. And then you know what will happen. With all your Bohemianism, you are proud of the fact that you are a member of the Omnium Club. You are proud of your popularity, too. And I have only to whisper whence George Omley gets his money and every soul here would turn away from you with scorn. You would be invited to take your name off the books of the club. If you refused to do so you would be expelled. And yet, knowing all this, you can look me in the face and say you don't know what has become of the missing portrait. Surely, the artist of such work as that——"
"Hush," Omley said with a remarkable change from his usual light manner. "I implore you not to speak so loudly. If I could help you I would, but my lips are sealed. For the present I dare not say any more. Oh, I dare say I look all right. I appear to be the same heedless, creedless, thoughtless Bohemian whom you know so well. And yet I swear to you that I am the most miserable man in London to-night. I gave a promise which I bitterly regret, because I see that sooner or later I shall have to break my word. I cannot speak more plainly. But this much I will promise you. Rather than Lawrence Hatton shall suffer, I will go back upon that undertaking and tell the truth. And when the shock kills Sir Arthur Blantyre, I hope that his granddaughter will not blame me."
"That is all you have to say?" Charlotte asked.
"For the present, yes. Surely it is enough. So far as I am concerned, that accursed picture——"
"Who speaks of pictures?" a voice asked from the background. "What does George Omley know of pictures? Mrs. Le Blanc, I have the honour to be your most humble servant."
Charlotte bowed coldly to the speaker, whilst Omley looked at him with quiet scorn and amusement in his eyes. Ethel drew back much as if she had been accosted by some impertinent stranger.
"Our friend Doveluck," Omley said in a mocking voice, "the only and original Doveluck, millionaire and patron of the arts. And he asks me what I know of pictures! I retort by asking him what he knows of pictures. Miss Blantyre, allow me to present to you one of our most distinguished and most brilliant members. What he has ever done to belong to this club is a fascinating mystery. But, still, here he is, and we have to make the best of him. I dare say there are greater scoundrels even than Doveluck."
There was a bitter sting in the last few words, but Ethel did not appear to notice it. She had risen to her feet and was moving towards the door. Doveluck watched her with a feeble grin upon his face. For once he appeared to be tongue-tied and lacking in his usual audacity.
"What is wrong?" Charlotte asked as she moved over to Ethel's side. "Have you met that man before?"
"That has been my privilege," Ethel said icily. "After all, he is a poor type of rascal. Two or three years ago he came to Glenallan with forged references with a view to buying certain works of art which my grandfather had to dispose of. He literally swindled him out of several pictures and other things, though it would have been difficult to prove his rascality. Audacious as the man is, you saw how disconcerted he was when he recognized me. I am surprised to find that you should be on friendly terms with such a man. I can hardly imagine you——"
"He was a friend of my husband's," Charlotte said with a dreary laugh. "And now, if you like, we will get back to Regent's Park. Our visit here to-night has been a comparative failure. Still, we have achieved something. We are pretty sure that George Omley knows where the missing picture is. He has promised to tell the truth if Lawrence Hatton's position becomes too perilous. And as to myself, my task is only beginning. You want to know who I am? Well, your curiosity is likely to be satisfied before the night is over. I am going to speak now if it costs my life."
"You are coming back with me to Regent's Park?" Ethel asked in astonishment. "What will you gain by that? If you want to see anybody there, why, in that case——"
"Oh, I do. But please don't say any more for the moment. Let me have time to collect my scattered thoughts. If you only knew the ordeal before me you would be sorry for me from the bottom of your heart."
So saying, Charlotte turned away and hailed a passing cab in which they were rapidly whirled back again to Regent's Park. It was getting late, so late that Ethel feared that most of the servants would be gone to bed. Therefore, she was relieved to find the front door open and a shaft of light from the house gleaming down the path. In the hall stood Sir Arthur, in heated controversy with Watney. The old man had thrown off his lassitude. His eyes were gleaming, his figure was upright and steady. As far as Ethel could judge, Watney had assumed a diplomatic and conciliatory attitude. His voice was low and persuasive.
"My dear Sir Arthur, I am exceedingly sorry," he murmured, "but, in the circumstances, what could I do? If we take any other course but this, Hatton is doomed."
The slim, tall figure by Ethel's side advanced a step or two. Her veil was thrown back. She stood there in the full blaze of the light. As Sir Arthur's eyes fell upon her he staggered back with a cry of mingled fear and apprehension.
"Perhaps I can help you," she said calmly. "Perhaps I can solve the mystery. If you will allow me to speak——"
"If you will tell me who you are," Watney said politely, "it is possible that we may——"
"Ask him," Charlotte interrupted with a gesture, pointing towards Sir Arthur. "Ask him to say who I am. It is only fitting that he should speak the first word."
ETHEL glanced anxiously at her grandfather to see the effect of these burning words. Charlotte had flung them at his head as if they were some weapon, and Sir Arthur might go down before them. But he showed no sign of fear, or horror, or resentment. He merely gazed long and fixedly at the speaker as if she had said something utterly beyond his comprehension. He might have been a child listening to a teacher whose words were over the head of his pupil. Then, gradually, the puzzled expression of his face gave way to a strange apprehension. His lips quivered. There was something almost pleading in his glance. From the bottom of her heart Ethel was sorry for him.
She turned swiftly towards Charlotte, but she could see nothing soft or yielding in her face. Surely there must be something very wrong, she thought. Surely Sir Arthur must have been guilty of some unheard-of crime to show such fear and agitation as this.
"Do not be too hard upon him," she whispered.
"Who wants to be hard?" Charlotte cried. "Who wants to do a poor suffering creature an injury? But there are times when the truth must be told at any cost, when we must not be nice as to the feelings of others. I asked Sir Arthur Blantyre to tell you who I am. Surely there is no cruelty in such a question."
Sir Arthur Blantyre let himself down slowly and steadily into a chair. His face was still turned to the stranger with the same half-imploring look in his dark eyes. He might have been a man under sentence of death listening to a judge holding out a faint hope of reprieve. He was long in speaking. Then very slowly, as if the words were dragged from him, he broke the oppressive silence.
"I don't know," he murmured. "You have taken me by surprise. There is something wrong with my head. When I begin to think my mind grows dazed. And yet your face is familiar to me."
"This is very painful," the actress answered. "It is all the more painful because I cannot draw back. If a life were not at stake it might be different. But a life is at stake, and so far as I know Sir Arthur Blantyre is the only man who can say the words necessary to release Lawrence Hatton. If he cannot or will not speak, I must. I am the wife of Victor Le Blanc. I married that man for my sins, against my better judgment and against the wishes of my family, and God knows I have been sufficiently punished for my folly. But I did not come here to-night to talk about myself and my troubles. I never expected to stand in the presence of Sir Arthur Blantyre again. I never thought that I should have to disclose my identity. But I cannot see an innocent person suffer when it is in my power to help him. As I said before, I am the wife of Victor Le Blanc. But that is not all. I call myself Charlotte Beaumont for stage purposes, but before I was married my name was Alice Blantyre."
"You are a relation of mine?" Ethel cried.
"Indeed, I am. I am your half-sister. Ask Sir Arthur if I am not speaking the truth. Oh, I implore you to say something. Try to recollect yourself. Try to remember what happened in the past. Tell these people that I am speaking no more than the truth."
The words rang out clear and true as a bell. They were at once imploring and commanding. They seemed to pierce the veil which hung over the misty mind of Sir Arthur and drew him upright in his chair. His words were feeble and halting, but there was a slur in them which would have been ominous to a doctor. But the sense was there; the sentences were coherent.
"It is right," he said. "She is my granddaughter, the elder child of my only son, who was your father, Ethel. It is a long story and one which I never expected to tell to anybody. I do not wish to give pain, but Alice's mother was by no means a desirable woman, and from the moment when my son married her I knew that he had said good-bye to his happiness. The expected happened and within two years husband and wife had separated, the woman to go back to the stage, whence she had come, the husband to become a morose, discontented being with all his ambitions dead within him. Things might have been far worse. There might have been a scandal, but my son's wife met with an accident which proved fatal. I am not going to say anything in palliation of my son's conduct towards his daughter, but he never seemed to care for her. I am afraid she grew up more or less neglected. Two or three years afterwards he married again, and you, Ethel, were the fruit of that marriage. After you were born your father seemed to take even a deeper dislike to his first child, and he was only too glad when a distant relative in Paris offered to adopt her. The years went on until my son and his wife were both dead. Meanwhile, I had heard little or nothing from Paris until the news reached me that my elder grandchild had gone on the stage. It was a great blow to me, and when it was too late I did all I could to repair the mischief. I saw my grandchild. I tired to dissuade her from her career. But she laughed at me and told me to mind my own business. It seemed a horrible thing that a Blantyre should become an actress, that she should bring disgrace upon the family. And it was all the worse because there was no holding the knowledge from the world. Everybody would know that Sir Arthur Blantyre of Glenallan had a near relative getting her living in a theatre. Think of the dishonour of it all! Think how it preyed upon my mind! And as if that was not enough that scoundrel Le Blanc found the poor, misguided creature out and induced her to become his wife."
The speaker seemed to be beside himself. His voice had risen almost to a scream. He pointed a shaking finger of horror at Alice Le Blanc, nee Blantyre, whose stage-name was Charlotte Beaumont. The man's pride of race had become more than a fetish. It was to him something in the nature of a monomania. Watney could see through it all. It was not lost even upon Ethel. Here was a man so wedded to family tradition, so eaten up with the conceit of race that he was prepared to take any risks and sanction any crime, to keep what he regarded as a blot upon the family from the public. He had brooded on this until his mind, never too strong, had warped and bent under the weight of it. Watney had seen other forms of mania very similar to this, but now that the full force of it burst upon Ethel she recoiled from Blantyre in horror and amazement. It seemed incomprehensible to her that a man could permit a foul wrong to continue so long as no one should point the finger of scorn at the Blantyres of Glenallan. With some diseased minds it was a love of money, with others a love of power, with others dishonesty and greed and deceit, but here it was no more than a mere sentiment, to gratify which the head of the family of Blantyre was prepared to sacrifice Lawrence Hatton to a gaol or even a worse fate. Ethel did not require any one to tell her that Sir Arthur knew everything if he cared to speak, that he could tell the story of the missing picture and its strange disappearance from the Priory galleries.
"There she stands," Sir Arthur went on in the same shrill voice. "There she stands with a smile upon her face, and no regret in her heart for the trouble she has brought upon me. And yet I was prepared to be kind to her. I was ready to study all her likes and dislikes, because, after all, she is my own flesh and blood, the child of the boy I built such hopes upon. We had met before, many times. We had come to something like an understanding. And because she was flesh of my flesh I purchased this house for her and furnished it, so that when she could stand the horror and shame of Le Blanc's company no longer, she might have an asylum here. I furnished this house according to her tastes. I filled the place with her favourite white blossoms. She knows now why Le Blanc married her. She knows what the scheme of vengeance was, and how my name and the name of my people was to be humbled in the dust. And why? Because Le Blanc conceived that on a certain occasion I had humiliated him, and because, in his hatred, he was little less than a madman. Even now she is not satisfied. She wants me to speak the truth, so that all the world can know. I shall never be able to hold up my head again. I cannot do it."
Sir Arthur's words trailed off into an incoherent whisper. He bent forward in his chair and covered his face with his hands. For a moment Alice Le Blanc's eyes softened.
"This is very deplorable," she whispered. "You can see for yourself how it is, Mr. Watney. Family pride has become a monomania with my poor grandfather. He thinks there is no race in the world like the Blantyres. He is prepared to make any sacrifice to hide what he calls his shame from the world. And yet, if I had gone on with my career, I might have been an honoured guest in houses where the Blantyres were looked upon as mere nobodies. It all depends upon the point of view. I expected something like this when I came here to-night. I knew that we should have trouble. I felt sure that I should be regarded as a creature without heart and feeling. But you understand the matter cannot rest here. You must feel that the truth will have to be told. Try to make him realize that honour and honesty, after all, may embrace something more than the fortunes of the Blantyres."
Watney approached the bent figure in the chair and laid his hand upon Sir Arthur's shoulder. The latter looked up at the touch, a sudden lurid light flamed into his eyes.
"I understand," he said, "I know what you want. I am to speak the truth. I am to be the laughing-stock of all the world. Never! Do you hear what I say? Never! Never! Never!"
The last word rang out clear as a trumpet-call. Sir Arthur stood erect and threatening on his feet. Then he shrivelled up as if a great fire had scorched him and dropped a helpless heap.
THERE was little more to be said or done save to gather up the stricken man and carry him gently to his room. When he was undressed and laid upon his bed he opened his eyes and gazed feebly around him. There was no trouble with his limbs or his power of speech, for he babbled incoherently about matters which happened long ago. There might be brain trouble; indeed, undoubtedly there was. But Watney was relieved to find that there were no symptoms of apoplexy or paralysis, which he had feared. He waited until a doctor who had been summoned pronounced his verdict.
"Evidently had a shock," the man of medicine said. "He is a pretty old man, too. I should say there is nothing physically or organically wrong, and perhaps a day or two's nursing will restore him to comparative health again. Not that the poor old gentleman will ever really regain his strength. He will want careful looking after in future. If Miss Blantyre does not mind, I will send a nurse for the present."
They returned to the dining-room to discuss what the doctor had said. A long and somewhat awkward pause followed, until, at length, Alice Le Blanc, as she may now be called, spoke.
"This is very sad," she said. "But I hope you will not blame me. It seemed to me that I was bound to take the course I did, though I would have been less emphatic if I had realized how ill my grandfather was. But, ill or not, you must both see that the truth will have to be told. It is preposterous that Mr. Hatton should he under an accusation like this when a few words from Sir Arthur would set him free."
"But are you sure of that?" Ethel asked.
"If I were not sure of it I should not be here to-night," the actress retorted. "My dear child, you must allow me to know a good deal, which, at present, you are ignorant of. But I presume you are aware that my husband was preparing a vengeance of his own which had the purpose of injuring Sir Arthur and putting money in his own pocket, too."
"Part of it I knew," Ethel said. "I knew that my grandfather was afraid of Le Blanc, and that this vengeance you speak of was in some way connected with the picture."
"With the portrait," Alice corrected. "A portrait of myself. I am not clear as to all the details, but I hope to know before very long. My husband was exceedingly anxious to get that portrait finished, and our grandfather was equally anxious that it should never be exhibited. It was exhibited, as you know, and subsequently disappeared. There was only one man in the world who could have had any interest in purloining that portrait, and that man was Sir Arthur Blantyre. That is why I came to-night, with the hope of inducing him to tell the truth."
"I begin to understand," Ethel said mournfully. "And now, it is possible that my poor grandfather may never be able to make a clean breast of it."
"Even then, we are not without hope," Alice went on. "There is another person who can help us."
"That is right," Watney said drily. "I think I could mention his name. In fact, evidence came into my hands to-night which would go very far to induce the person in question to speak. I think we are both thinking of the same man—it is George Omley."
"George Omley!" Ethel exclaimed. "What can he have to do with it? And yet, when I come to recall one or two incidents, it seems possible. . . Oh, if anything can be done to save Lawrence from his fate, I implore you not to hesitate. I shall know no peace of mind and no happiness till this thing is settled. And from what I have seen of Mr. Omley, I should say that he was by no means a bad-natured man. He may be weak and foolish, but he is not a criminal. Can't you see him to-night? Can't you try to find out before morning whether he can help you or not? In all probability he is still at the Omnium Club."
Watney looked inquiringly at Alice.
"That is exactly what I am going to suggest," he said. "There is no time like the present. And besides, there is another pressing matter which admits no delay. Of course, if you don't care to come with me, I will go alone."
Alice Le Blanc nodded her head resolutely.
"Oh, you are not going alone," she said tersely. "Most assuredly I am coming with you. It is possible you might fail. But I am able to ask a question or two of George Omley, which he will have to answer with respect. But we are wasting time. Let us get away at once."
As Watney anticipated Omley was still at the club, and in a gratifying state of sobriety. Evidently he had every intention of keeping his word. He met Watney and his companion with his usual easy volatile good-nature But he grew grave and anxious as he listened to what the journalist had to say. Watney did not mince his words either. He spoke plainly of certain discoveries he had made, notably in the matter of the missing latchkey. He had no hesitation in saying that Omley could lay his hand upon the missing picture at once.
"Now you see what I am driving at," he said. "That picture will have to be produced, and without delay. In the hands of an expert it can be proved to be Le Blanc's work, and if we can make a certainty of this, why the prosecution of Hatton falls to the ground, seeing that the picture was finished subsequent to Le Blanc's mysterious disappearance."
"There is only one weak spot," Alice Le Blanc said coldly. "The picture was not finished by my husband."
"You don't mean that?" Watney exclaimed. "Sir Arthur Seymour was so sure of his ground. Who put the finishing touches to the famous portrait?"
"He is sitting opposite to you now," Alice said in the same cold way. "The picture was painted by George Omley. Practically speaking, he has done every line my husband has passed off as his own for the past two years. Both my husband's pictures in the Paris Salon at the present moment were painted by him. If you ask him he will tell you that he finished the face—my face, in fact."
"I'll swear I didn't," Omley cried. "I plead guilty to the Salon pictures, and others besides, but I never touched the missing portrait except as regards certain details. I was going to do it, but Le Blanc's power had not quite deserted him, and he took it in hand himself. It was a kind of swan song in the way of art. With all his faults he was a brilliant artist, and it was a thousand pities that he should have taken to that diabolical morphia. He made many attempts to give up the habit, but without avail. Then he went in for a perfect orgy of it, but some little time afterwards grew himself again. As a matter of fact, that portrait was painted in morphia if I may so express it—doses of it administered at frequent intervals for which a fearful penalty was exacted later. If you don't believe me, ask Doveluck. He was with Le Blanc more than I was towards the last; indeed, it was that blackguard who plied Le Blanc with morphia and kept him up to the mark."
"Oh, that reminds me," Watney exclaimed. "I came here as much to see Doveluck as yourself. Can you tell me where he is? Does he happen to be in the club?"
"Not just now," Omley explained. "He had a telephone message a little while ago which took him off hotfoot up Regent's Park way. I know where he has gone, because I happened to be outside seeing a friend off, and I heard the direction given to the cabman. I guess I should know what has become of him in any case. And now look here, Watney, I am awfully sorry for all this business, because, to a certain extent, I am the villain of the piece. I did a foolish thing to please a man who is next door to an imbecile. But if I had known what was going to happen, I swear I would not have put a hand to it. And if the worst comes to the worst, you can rely upon me. When the time comes and it is necessary to speak, I shall not hesitate to do so. I know I am pretty much of a bad lot——"
"We are all aware of that," Watney said impatiently. "We will discuss that matter another time. What I want to know now is where Doveluck has gone to. I must see him before I sleep to-night, even if I have to intrude upon him in somebody else's house. Now if you can give me his address, I shall be obliged."
"Vernon House, Regent's Park," Omley said promptly. "Mrs. Le Blanc knows the place I mean."
A sudden exclamation broke from the actress. Her eyes were sparkling now. She half-rose to her feet.
"Do you know the place, then?" Watney asked.
"Indeed, I do," the woman said with a trace of bitterness in her voice, "I know it to my sorrow. Still, I have no objection to accompanying you there, which will, at any rate, give you an opportunity for getting inside the place."
With a curt nod to Omley, Watney intimated that he would see him on the morrow, and led the way from the club and called a hansom. In silence the pair drove along till they came to their destination. The cab was dismissed at Alice's suggestion. When they reached the house they saw that the place was in darkness save for a feeble light in the hall. Watney rang the bell, and after a long pause the door was opened by Doveluck himself. He was in evening dress, and had a cigarette in his mouth. He seemed surprised and a little uneasy as he admitted his visitors. Rather curtly he inquired their business. By way of reply Alice pushed forwards.
"Oh, we are coming in," she said. "Stand aside, please. We don't want to use force unless it is necessary."
DOVELUCK'S teeth came together with a snap. For the moment it looked as if he were going to show fight. He seemed to be measuring Watney with his eye. Then, apparently, he made up his mind that the game would be hardly worth the candle. There was a grimness and determination about the journalist which decided Doveluck. He bowed and smiled sarcastically.
"Don't mention it," he said. "I am only too pleased to see you. Won't you come inside? Your companion will show you the way. She has been here before. We have nothing to conceal. I may remark, however, that it is rather late to pay a call, but doubtless you have a good reason for coming at this time in the evening."
Watney thought the speaker was talking to gain time. His voice was raised, too, as if to warn somebody lurking in the background.
So far as Watney could see, there was nothing about the house calculated to arouse suspicion. As he led the way across the hall, Doveluck turned up the lights displaying a quantity of handsome furniture, though, for the most part, it was modern in type and not at all the class of thing he usually affected. Presently Doveluck came to the dining-room which had obviously been recently used, for two or three cigar ends reposed in an ash-tray, to say nothing of half a dozen butts of cigarettes, which showed that more than one person had been seated here. On the corner of the table was a tiny half-empty bottle which attracted Watney's eye at once. Then he averted his gaze scrupulously, as if the bottle were the last thing in the world he was anxious about. Doveluck, perfectly at ease now, flung himself into an armchair and signified to the others to be seated.
"I shall be glad if you will state your business," he said. "Of course, there is no hurry. I presume that the lady brought you here, Mr. Watney."
"That is so," Alice said coldly. "But there need not be any mystery about it. Mr. Watney knows who I am, and it will simplify matters if you address me by my proper name as Mrs. Le Blanc. We are here to clear up a mystery which has puzzled Mr. Watney for so long. He desires to learn why Sir Arthur Blantyre stands in such terror of my husband. I have told him as far as I can, but there are one or two details in which you can help me."
Doveluck flicked the ash from his cigarette.
"Is that so?" he asked. "Well, I will do all I can to accommodate so brilliant a journalist as Mr. Watney. But I am afraid my evidence will be of little use, for I have not the honour of Sir Arthur's acquaintance."
The actress laughed scornfully.
"You don't give us credit for much intelligence," she said. "Either that, or your memory is lamentably short. Let me refresh it for you. A few years ago a plausible stranger called upon Sir Arthur Blantyre on the pretext of buying certain pictures and articles of furniture which the baronet was anxious to dispose of. It doesn't matter how the thing was worked, but the baronet was swindled out of some thousands of pounds of valuable property, and from that day to this he has never set eyes upon the man who robbed him. I only heard the story to-night from Miss Ethel Blantyre after we left the Omnium Club where we met you. Do you want me to be more explicit, or have I spoken plainly enough? Do you wish me to put a name to the man who defrauded Sir Arthur Blantyre of that property? Would you like me to inform the police that we have found the man whom they are in search of? It would be exceedingly awkward for Mr. Doveluck, the millionaire, if I were to bestir myself."
Once more Doveluck's teeth closed with a click. Once more the fighting look crept into his face. Then he laughed and inclined his head in the speaker's direction.
"We will admit, for the sake of argument," he said, "that the first trick goes to you. Pray continue. You have no idea how you interest me. I have known you as a beautiful woman and a brilliant actress, but you are disclosing qualities now which move me to fresh admiration."
"Perhaps we had better begin at the beginning," Alice said. She ignored Doveluck's sarcasm altogether. "We will go back, if you please, to the morning when Mr. Lawrence Hatton came out of gaol. He was met by a person in disguise who pretended to represent some friend of Mr. Hatton's, who could not manage to get to Wandsworth in time. That friend was my husband, Victor Le Blanc, and you were the disguised person. What you intended to gain by affecting to consider the interest of Mr. Hatton I don't know. Anyway the plot failed, and more by luck than guidance Mr. Hatton found his way into the house of Sir Arthur Blantyre. I will be candid with you and tell you why Sir Arthur decided to confide in his young friend. He was being blackmailed by my husband and yourself. Your idea was that by pursuing a certain policy you could put something like a hundred thousand pounds in your pocket. At one time the plot looked extremely promising; indeed, I have not the slightest doubt it would have been successful but for the disappearance of my portrait from the Priory galleries."
"One moment," Doveluck said. "I must ask you to be more explicit. I fail to see what your portrait had to do with inducing Sir Arthur Blantyre to part with so large a sum of money. Don't you flatter yourself?"
"I do not flatter myself in the least," Alice said in the same cold self-possessed way. "It is not difficult for two scoundrels to get the upper hand of an honest man, especially if the poor gentleman happens to be crazy on some points. You were going to trade upon Sir Arthur's family pride. In his case, that pride amounts to monomania. It seems an extraordinary thing, but Sir Arthur would actually have sacrificed his fortune to conceal the fact that he had a relative on the stage. He has the greatest horror of the theatre. He regards an actor as the most depraved of creatures. He had brooded and brooded over this matter till his brain had become seriously affected. I am not accounting for this pitiable weakness, but what I have stated is literally true, as you are very well aware; indeed, but for the turn of events you would have benefited materially by your knowledge of an old man's folly. But we are not here to warn you. We are actuated by no friendliness towards you; indeed, if I consulted my own inclinations I should go to Scotland Yard and tell the authorities all I know. But what we do wish is to prevent this thing from going any farther and to free Mr. Hatton from the position in which he stands. If you like to help us, well and good. If you choose to place obstacles in our way, you must take the consequences."
To all of this Doveluck listened with a smile. He did not appear to be in the least alarmed or put out.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Surely, the question is superfluous," Alice said impatiently. "Once for all, we must settle definitely who it was that finished my portrait. If the thing was done by my husband——"
"Who has disappeared, remember," Doveluck said in a silky voice; "who, beyond question, has met with foul play. Surely, you don't suppose the picture was finished by a man who is no longer in the flesh? You are not going to tell me you believe in spiritualism or anything of that kind? Now, my dear Mrs. Le Blanc, do be reasonable. What has become of your husband is a mystery, a mystery which may never be cleared up."
"It would be cleared up in five minutes if you chose to speak," Alice exclaimed. "And that is why we are here to-night. I intend to go over the house——"
"Really," Doveluck sneered. "By what right do you——"
"Oh, don't talk about right. If the worst comes to the worst, might shall be right on this occasion. And, besides, I have as much title as you have to use the premises as I please. If you are wise you will make no further objection, but show Mr. Watney over the place. My impression is that he will make a startling discovery."
Doveluck reached out for a fresh cigarette, lighted it coolly and laughed with cynical amusement.
"The longer I live," he said, "the more I am convinced of the impossibility of understanding woman's moods and ways. What on earth do you expect to gain by coming here and making these accusations against me? If I did the proper thing, I should ring the bell for the servants and ask them to show you the door. If Mr. Watney were indiscreet enough to refuse, then I should be under the painful necessity of having him put out. But I won't do anything of the kind. I will convince you that you are under a delusion, and that there is nothing here which will help you in the slightest degree. Public opinion has already condemned Lawrence Hatton for the crime with which he is charged, and in my view public opinion is right. Now, if you will come this way, Mr. Watney, I shall be happy to show you over the house. When you have found out your mistake, I shall be ready to accept your apology."
"And I shall be ready to make it," Watney said.
"SPOKEN exactly as I expected you to speak," Doveluck said gaily. "My dear sir, you are not the first wise man who has been made a fool of by a pretty woman. And now let us proceed with our investigations. There are a drawing-room and a morning-room and a library on this floor, and domestic offices beyond. Perhaps you would like to see these?"
"Not in the least," Watney said drily. "I could not dream of giving you so much trouble. It would save time if you took me upstairs. The front bedroom on the left side of the house overlooking the cedar tree would be likely to interest me more than any other place."
A queer dry chuckle broke from Doveluck's lips.
"Ah, you are a foeman worthy of one's steel," he said. "You are more astute than I had imagined. In the language of the turf, you know something. I have underrated your intelligence. It is an error one makes sometimes."
"Yes, rogues often do fall into errors of that kind," Watney said coolly. "They are prone to believe that honest men are mostly fools. Shall we try the bedroom?"
"Oh, by all means, my dear fellow. But, tell me, seeing that the game is more or less up, how did you manage to learn so much?"
"Partly by good fortune, partly as the result of hard work," Watney explained. "I was looking for an address in this neighbourhood an hour or two ago and went into a chemist's shop in search of information. Whilst I was there a man came in who struck me as being disguised. He was lame. He had a peculiar cast in one eye, and he carried a penny whistle. On the whole, his disguise was artistic; though he bore the aspect of a street musician, he looked as if he had seen better days. Then instantly it flashed across my mind that he answered to Lawrence Hatton's description of the man who had met him outside Wandsworth Gaol. To speak by the card, we had previously recognized you at a restaurant where you were dining one night, so I was satisfied that the admirably made-up person before me was none other than Mr. Doveluck, the millionaire."
"Excellent," Doveluck murmured; "pray go on."
There was something confident in the manner of the speaker which should have warned Watney, but the latter felt sure of his ground. He concluded that the millionaire had recognized the futility of further resistance and was going to yield to superior force, as wise men ever do.
"There is little more to tell," he went on. "As soon as I recognized you I was curious to know what you were buying. I was still further impressed when I saw that your purchase consisted of a small phial of morphia. I know you do not use the stuff yourself. You are too astute for that. But there are others. And when I made that discovery I put two and two together. Then I followed you here, and from the lane by the side of the house I made certain investigations. A careless maid helped me by throwing a lot of rubbish outside presently, amongst which was an empty morphia bottle. Once more I put two and two together, and the sum seemed to work out correctly. When I called upon you just now I noticed the morphia bottle you had purchased standing on the dining-room table. I recognized it by the name of the chemist on the label. I also noticed that the bottle was half empty, which told its own story. And what was that?" Watney continued. "That some one during the last hour or two had been taking a tremendously heavy dose. But, really, I need not say more to so luminous-minded a man as yourself. You will understand now why I want to see the bedroom that looks out on the cedar tree."
Doveluck gave way to hearty laughter.
"I would rather have you for a friend than an enemy," he said admiringly. "I wish I had known you had been engaged on the side of the prosecution, so to speak. You would not have found me so easy a victim. But since you know everything there is nothing to be gained by further concealment. And you shall see everything for yourself. There is a door opposite you. Lead the way, please."
Watney crossed the corridor and opened the door which Doveluck had indicated. He half turned as he saw the room was in darkness, but before he could recover from his surprise Doveluck was upon him like a madman. Watney reeled from the effect of two blows in the face. His head was spinning and he went sprawling to the floor.
A moment later he was on his feet, full of pluck and resolution, but it was too late. In staggering back he had fallen inside the room. The door had been rapidly pulled to and the latch fastened with a click. Watney was a prisoner in the darkness, cursing his stupidity and want of caution.
"I think you will do there for the present," Doveluck said with a chuckle. "You will find the windows barred, and I may add that there is a steel-lining to the door. It will amuse you to fumble about till you discover the mantelpiece, where you will find a box of matches. When the gas has been lighted you will find a box or two of cigarettes on the table. In the morning breakfast will be provided; in fact, you will be treated with every consideration. I shan't want to detain you more than four-and-twenty hours, but in the interval I regret I must deprive you of your liberty. I hope, by then, that we shall have settled matters with Sir Arthur, in which case I will drop the authorities a line asking them to call and release you. Meanwhile, patience is recommended. Bon soir!"
Watney made no reply. He was too angry to speak. He had no desire to betray his feelings to the man who had outwitted him in this simple fashion. Doveluck paused a moment or two, and then went quietly downstairs to the dining-room. He appeared dejected and forlorn like a man who is utterly crushed.
"It is no use carrying the game any farther," he said, "I know when I am done, and I have been done to-night. Perhaps you would like to go upstairs and see for yourself. I don't know whether you will be surprised or not."
"Not in the least," Alice said coldly. "I have a fair idea what to expect. I came prepared for this."
"Then lead the way," Doveluck said, "and whatever you do, be discreet and silent. Don't say a word until you are spoken to."
Alice gave the desired assurance. She walked quietly up the stairs until she came to the room where Watney was confined. With his finger on his lips and a warning look in his eyes, Doveluck took a latchkey from his pocket and proceeded to open the well-oiled lock. He opened the door a little and beckoned Alice forward. No sooner was she by his side than he swung her deftly into the room and snapped the door to behind her. His hands were trembling a little, and something seemed to interfere with his breathing; but there was a grin of triumph on his face, and a quick laugh broke from his lips as he realized how successful his simple scheme had been. Without wasting time upon taunt or gibe, he crept downstairs and helped himself to another cigarette. He helped himself, too, to a liberal dose of brandy and soda which he seemed to need.
"I think that will be all right," he muttered. "They are safe for the present, if I can only get the servants out of the way. By this time to-morrow night the money will be paid."
Meanwhile, the two prisoners were looking at one another with blank faces. Watney first perceived the humour of the situation. He laughed softly to himself.
"So we are both prisoners," he said. "It seems incredible that one should be deceived by so simple a trick. It is like the fool's mate at chess deceiving the most skillful player because he least expects it. Now what is the best thing to be done? Doveluck doesn't mean to keep us long, because the game is ripe and the coup is going to be made within the next few hours. By the time we are released. Sir Arthur Blantyre will find himself the poorer by many thousands of pounds."
Alice had no reply for the moment. She was devoured with anger and disappointment. Tears of vexation rose to her eyes. She could only sit down and watch whilst Watney made a careful examination of the room in the faint hope that he might find some means of escape. But an hour or more passed without any sign or hope. The windows were closely barred. Nobody but a professional burglar could have opened the door. Watney threw up the blinds presently and opened the windows behind the steel bars. He lowered the gas to a pin's point till his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, but he could make out nothing beyond except a belt of fir-trees, moaning and tossing in the night breeze. It was useless to expect help from that direction, for no one was likely to pass that way. Watney turned the gas up again. There was nothing for it but to sit down philosophically and try to devise some way out of the difficulty. Time was passing. The house was silent, save every now and then when something like a groan seemed to emanate from one of the adjacent bedrooms. Alice rose presently and walked to the window. Some one seemed to be whistling outside; she thought she could hear a stealthy footstep on the gravel underneath. Then a figure hove in sight and she darted back joyfully.
"Here is a wonderful piece of luck," she exclaimed. "It is George Omley. He is standing under the window."
Watney dropped his cigarette on the carpet. He let it lie there smouldering and unheeded.
"Not so loud," he whispered. "We will turn the tables upon Doveluck and have the laugh of him yet."
"WHAT are you doing up there?" Omley whispered.
"Hush! Speak softly," Watney said vehemently. "Can't you understand what has happened? We are prisoners."
Despite Watney's caution Omley burst into a smothered laugh. It seemed impossible for him to ignore the humorous side of things. He leant back against a tree and gave way to his mirth.
"I didn't expect a comedy like this," he said, "though I am not surprised that Doveluck should treat you in this fashion. But what do you want me to do? How can I help you?"
"Well, you can go for the police, for one thing," Watney said between his teeth. "Man alive, can't you grasp the seriousness of the situation? Doveluck tricked us up here and has secured us as if we were in a gaol. There are bars to the windows, as you see, and the inside of the door is lined with steel. Oh, it's no laughing matter."
Omley surreptitiously wiped his eyes. Even yet he could not bring himself to be serious. That so astute a man as Watney should walk into so childish a trap struck him as irresistibly funny. As patiently as he could, Watney waited for the artist to come to his senses.
"When you have quite enjoyed the joke," he said, "I should like to know what you propose to do. If you go down the road you will find a policeman who will summon assistance. Now get along like a good fellow. We don't want to be here all night."
But Omley made no attempt to move.
"Do you think that would be wise?" he asked. He was speaking quite seriously now. "The less scandal over this matter the better. We can checkmate Doveluck without taking that extreme step. Though the man is a cold-blooded scoundrel, I am under obligation to him, and came to warn him that there is a warrant out for his arrest. I was a little anxious on your account, too. But if I hadn't been desirous to serve Doveluck I shouldn't have come. He has got himself into a fine mess at last. I don't understand the rights of it, but it has something to do with a collection of antique jewels which he managed to get hold of from some young fool of quality. Anyway, Doveluck is in danger of arrest. In fact, if he returns to his flat he is certain to be picked up. I have been trying to get in for the last quarter of an hour. But something seems to have gone wrong with the front-door bell. I don't suppose the police know that Doveluck is tenant of this house, under another name."
Watney listened to this tirade with growing impatience. It mattered little to him what might happen to Doveluck when he and his companion were safely off the premises.
"Oh, come to the point," he said. "You've got to release us some way or other. As you seem to be pretty well acquainted with the premises, I dare say you can find your way in. I suppose you were wandering round the house to see if you could find a light anywhere. What do you propose to do?"
"You've guessed it," Omley chuckled. "I suppose you haven't such a thing as a box of matches. If you have, throw them out of the window. I can force an entrance by the scullery. If I do, your release will be a matter of a few moments. Meanwhile, possess your soul in patience, my journalist."
Watney pitched his silver matchbox out of the window and Omley caught it dexterously. Then he made his way to the back premises, where he examined the windows. There was nothing for it, so far as he could see, but to break one of the panes of glass and force back the catch. The glass fell with an ominous crash which sounded all the more startling in the stillness of the night, and Omley stood a moment or two cursing his clumsiness. But there was no sign, either from outside the house or inside, and he placed his hand through the broken pane and pushed back the catch. A minute or two later he was in the house making his way along the passage with the aid of a match. He tripped over an unseen box containing coal which was placed on the steps leading to the hall, and the whole thing went down with a hideous crash. Almost immediately a light flashed out from the top of the stairs and Doveluck appeared. Whatever his faults, he did not lack physical courage, for he made an instant dash for Omley and caught him by the throat. Down went the two men together, rolling over and over. It was some time before Omley could shake off that tenacious grip and proclaim his identity.
"Here, hold hard," he said good-humouredly.
"This is nice treatment of a friend who comes out of his way at dead of the night to help you. Let go, I say!"
Doveluck recognized the voice and his grip relaxed. He turned up the gas in the hall and stood there breathless waiting for Omley to speak. There was an uneasy grin on his face. He seemed to scent danger.
"What an extraordinary fellow you are!" he growled. "You never behave like anybody else. Why couldn't you come to the front door like a decent Christian and ring the bell?"
"I did," Omley explained. "Something has gone wrong with the battery. Come into the dining-room and I will explain why I am here. . . . No, I am not going to have anything to drink. I have done with that altogether. Now I find how easy it is to do without the stuff, you don't catch me taking anything again. But I am wasting time. It's all up, my friend. You've come to the end of your tether. Lord Kesterton has found out how you have done him over his family jewels, and has placed the matter in the hands of the police. Within a few minutes of getting back to your flat you will be arrested. You've had a long innings and you've been very lucky. But you've gone too far. The papers will soon tell the life-story of Doveluck, the millionaire, who is no better than a common swindler after all. That is what I came to tell you, and you can make the best or worst of it."
Doveluck did not flinch. A lurid light gleamed in his eyes. There was no sign of fear on his face. He looked like a hound at bay. He drew a long, deep breath, then coolly helped himself to a cigarette and lighted it. The action in its way was superb.
"So it has come at last," he said. "You are right, Omley; I have been too lucky. My good fortune has made me reckless. And, besides, I never expected that his lordship would have so much sense. What a fool I have been! I don't suppose those jewels are worth more than ten thousand pounds, and I must needs run such a risk as that when literally I had my grasp upon ten times the money. You know what I mean. You can go to your friend, Sir Arthur Blantyre, and congratulate him on his lucky escape. You can congratulate that young fool, Lawrence Hatton, too. It was a sheer bit of bad luck that he didn't fall into our hands the day he came out of gaol. Still, it is no use crying over spilt milk, and the sooner I am off the better."
"What are you going to do?" Omley asked. "And what is going to become of your unfortunate wife?"
Doveluck puffed at his cigarette calmly.
"Don't you have any anxiety about me," he said. "I have always been ready for a misfortune of this kind. It is a poor lookout if a man of my brains can't baffle a lot of stupid police. In a couple of hours I shall be safe. There is plenty of scope for talents like mine on the other side of the Atlantic."
Doveluck spoke calmly enough. There was a suggestion almost of levity in his tones. He crossed the room and rang the bell, and presently there appeared the neat-looking maid whom Watney had seen a few hours before. She looked anxiously at Doveluck, who laid his hand with almost a loving gesture on her shoulder.
"The game is up, Nell," he said. "I have come to the end of my tether. I know you never liked the part you have had to play lately, and you can cease to be housemaid from this moment. The police are on my track and I must leave at once. You know where I am going. You will leave this house as soon as possible and take the keys with you. Then you will cross to Paris and wait for me at the old place. I will join you about the end of the week, and we will get away to New York as we got there five years ago. Fortunately we are not short of money. Now don't waste a moment. Go and change immediately and leave the house, which may be watched now for all I know to the contrary."
The woman smiled in Doveluck's face.
"On the whole, I am not sorry," she said. "But what about your prisoners?"
"Upon my word, I had forgotten them," Doveluck exclaimed. "But since Omley is here, he can look after them. Now you be off, my child. By the by, Omley, I have a couple of friends of yours here—Mrs. Le Blanc and Watney the journalist. It became necessary to keep them prisoners a few hours, but unfortunately the necessity no longer exists. You will find them in the second bedroom on the left of the corridor. You will be able to release them with this key. And now, if you will excuse me, I will leave you. The best of friends must part, Omley. Stick to your resolution and you may make a name for yourself, yet."
WITH a nod and a smile Doveluck vanished, leaving Omley alone. He could hear the noise of tramping footsteps overhead. Presently the front door opened and closed gently, and the artist knew that he was more or less alone in the house. He had deemed it discreet to say nothing himself to Doveluck about the two prisoners. It would be as well to maintain silence on that point. When he had assured himself that Doveluck and his wife had departed, he walked quietly upstairs and turned the key in the door.
"Here I am," he said. "There is no necessity for further caution. Doveluck and his chief accomplice have departed and England will know them no more. You think it a pity that Doveluck should escape? But this is a case of the least said the soonest mended. Neither of you hanker after scandal—all you want is the mystery cleared up and Hatton set free. We shall be able to manage that without laying Doveluck by the heels. Besides, if we had taken steps against him the matter would have kept the newspapers going for weeks. As it is, I see a way to keep the thing almost private. But there is a great deal to be done first. Before we go farther, I shall be glad if you will see Mrs. Le Blanc to a cab and send her home. It is necessary that this should be done. All I ask of Mrs. Le Blanc is to restrain her curiosity till to-morrow afternoon, till I can explain the whole affair in the presence of Sir Arthur Blantyre at his residence in Regent's Park."
"I should be sorry to be in the way," Alice said. "I will do anything you ask me."
"That is very good of you," Omley murmured. "I promise that you shall know everything to-morrow. Now, Watney, will you be good enough to see the lady to a cab, and come back here afterwards? There are many reasons why I should stay in the house to-night. But we will talk about that presently. The drama is nearly finished."
Watney came back in a few minutes eager to hear what Omley had to say. The latter was pacing up and down the dining-room impatiently. He was smoking vigorously as if seeking to soothe his excitement. He seated himself in a chair.
"Now I am going to ask you to do certain things," he said. "I want you to be at Sir Arthur Blantyre's house to-morrow afternoon at three o'clock. But you must first go to Scotland Yard and see Inspector Middlewick, and obtain his permission and that of Messrs. Priory to remove the substituted picture for a few hours to Sir Arthur's place. I don't think you will have any difficulty in doing that, especially when you tell the Inspector that what I want is essential for a solution of the mystery."
"You will be there as well?" Watney asked.
"Most assuredly. In point of fact, you couldn't get on without me. You quite understand what you have to do? You must be at Sir Arthur's house with the picture before three o'clock, and I want you to take care that Mrs. Le Blanc is present. Miss Blantyre must be there as well, and I should like Hatton also. But I am afraid that is out of the question. Still, if you will ask Inspector Middlewick to look in about half-past three, I think I can promise that Lawrence Hatton will be a free man to-morrow evening. Now, don't ask questions, but promise that you will do exactly what I want. I give you my word that you will find it worth your while. I have much to account for, but I think you will be disposed to forgive me when you know everything."
"Is there anything else?" Watney asked.
"Not at present. I will telephone you to-morrow if anything fresh occurs. Meanwhile, I am going to remain here. This house contains more secrets than you are aware of, though I did not guess until to-night that the key of the puzzle lay within these four walls. Now, if you will take my advice, you will go home and have a rest. You won't get more out of me till to-morrow."
"In that case, I had better be off," Watney said. "Good-night, Omley. We shall meet at three o'clock."
Watney went away slowly. He made no attempt further to solve the problem. He was content to wait till the morrow. He had hoped for something startling for his newspaper, but he began to understand that the promised tidbit was not likely to be forthcoming. He slept soundly and well, and was up betimes in search of Inspector Middlewick. He found the latter at Scotland Yard and laid Omley's proposal before him.
"This is very unusual," Middlewick said gravely. "I hardly like to accede to your request on my own responsibility. You see, many things have happened since yesterday, Mr. Doveluck, whom we looked upon as quite a Society personage and a millionaire, turns out to be a common or uncommon swindler. At any rate, I don't mind telling you we have a warrant out for his arrest, and we intend to bring against him several charges of fraud on a large scale. Unfortunately, our man seems to have got a hint of what is in the wind, for he failed to return to his flat last night, and we can't hear anything of him this morning. It is very strange how these things get abroad."
"Extraordinary," Watney said innocently. He had not the slightest intention of enlightening Middlewick, though he could have startled that astute person had he been disposed to do so. "You may depend upon it that Doveluck has bolted. But how does his disappearance affect my application for the substituted picture?"
"Well, you see, the picture belonged to Doveluck. He bought it from Le Blanc. And I shouldn't be surprised to find that the extraordinary affair was part of some ingenious swindle. Still, you have helped me on occasion, Mr. Watney, and I am not disposed to be ungrateful. I know you will take great care of the picture, and I will try to induce my chief to let you have it. The painting must be returned to the gallery in the course of the day. That must be a sine qua non."
Watney gave the desired assurance and Middlewick went off to make inquiries. He came back presently with the necessary permission, and shortly after two o'clock Watney drove up to the house in Regent's Park with the picture. The situation was not without its awkwardness, but a few words of explanation to Ethel Blantyre sufficed, and presently the painting was set up against the wall in the dining-room. Watney was in the midst of a supplementary explanation when the door opened and Sir Arthur came in. He seemed put out about something. He muttered to himself words which sounded more or less uncomplimentary to Watney, whose intrusion appeared to be resented. The old man was growing eloquent when suddenly his eyes fell upon the picture. He stopped. His face grew paler, his hands trembled. He was strangely moved. Then, in a sudden frenzy of passion, he snatched up a jewelled paper-knife from the table and made a dart for the canvas. His voice rose to a scream.
"What is that doing here?" he yelled. "Take the accursed thing away, or let me destroy it. Why do you come here tormenting me like this? Why can't you leave me alone with my shame and sorrow? What have I done to be treated in this fashion?"
He darted forward with upraised hand so quickly that Watney had some difficulty in restraining him. There was a short, sharp struggle between them. Then the old man collapsed into a chair and covered his face with his hands. His mood had utterly changed. He seemed to have grown aged and gentle again, and tears trickled through his fingers.
"You are going to ruin me," he moaned. "I know you are. You have no pity for my years and my troubles. Ah, here they come. Where the carcass is, there shall the eagles be gathered together. I pray you not to mind me. Do not give me the smallest consideration. Sit down, please."
The old man looked up with transient vehemence as Alice Le Blanc came in. Once more his expression became weak and pitiable as Omley followed close behind. Evidently something out of the common was in the wind, for even Omley was grave, not to say sombre, and his cheeks appeared to have lost their ruddy hue. There was an awkward pause for a moment; then Omley cleared his throat.
"For many reasons," he said, "I am very loth to speak. I do not fear to show myself up in a bad light. I am mainly concerned on behalf of Sir Arthur. But I have done the best I can to keep this matter quiet, and that is why I have asked you to meet here to-day. I am taking an unwarrantable liberty, I know. But, still, I thought you would like to hear the history of an intrigue which, at one time, threatened——"
"He is going to tell the truth," Sir Arthur screamed. "Oh, the scoundrel! After you had promised never to mention this subject to a soul; even if that rascal Le Blanc were here. I am certain that he would not——"
"That reminds," Omley interrupted. "One moment, please. Pray excuse me. I will not keep you long."
The speaker strode from the room and came back a moment later with a limp figure on his arm, a man with a white haggard face and dreadful staring eyes.
"Here is Le Blanc to speak for himself," he said.
LE BLANC stood winking and blinking, turning from one to the other as if he feared his reception. All his old truculence and arrogance were gone. He seemed to be the mere wreck of a man, broken down and dilapidated, a veritable derelict. There was no one in the room who was unacquainted with his past. There was certainly nobody in the room, with the exception of Sir Arthur, who did not feel at once pity and contempt for the man who had brought this upon his own head by his own folly.
He clung to Omley's arm as if needing both moral and physical support. His face was ghastly in the light. Every now and again his features twitched horribly. Altogether his appearance was far worse than that of a man who is going headlong down hill from the effects of drink. He seemed conscious, too, of the sensation he was creating, for, with just a flash of his old spirit, he turned and muttered something to Omley to the effect that the sooner the ordeal was over the better.
"A little patience, please," Omley replied. "Mr. Watney, will you kindly hand me a chair? My friend will be better seated. When he has recovered himself he will have something to say. Perhaps you will be seated, too, Sir Arthur?"
For Blantyre had risen from his seat and was standing a pace or two away from Le Blanc, regarding him with smouldering passion in his eyes. At the same time he seemed to be suffering from some strange fear, much as a criminal in the dock might who sees some dreaded witness move forward to bear testimony against him.
"Why did you come?" Sir Arthur cried. "Haven't you done mischief enough to me and mine already? Not that it matters, for you are incapable of telling the truth. Take him out of my sight I say! See that he does not return! What are you all doing here? Why do you come to torture me in this fashion? I am a poor, miserable old man that have done no harm to any of you. And yet you play on my feelings like this!"
"It is necessary," Omley said with a certain dignity. "The truth must be told. And as for Mr. Le Blanc, he is not here from any choice of his own."
"That is true enough," Le Blanc said with a bitter laugh. "I had to come. Omley made me. And since the truth must be told, perhaps I had better tell it."
"Go on," Omley said encouragingly. "Take your time. You may not be friendly disposed towards Mr. Le Blanc, but I ask you to bear with him because he is very weak and ill."
"You lie," Le Blanc snarled with a touch of his old fierce manner. "I am not ill at all. I am merely suffering from the effects of my own insane folly. Oh, don't think I was coerced into coming here. Don't suppose for a moment that you would have got a word from me unless I had chosen to speak. But the mood is on me to make a full confession, and to save others who have suffered at my hands. I am only doing this because I am so utterly broken down that even the will of a man like Omley dominates me. If I could get so much as a grain of morphia now, I would be man enough to defy the whole lot of you, and I would do it. But because I have no strength of purpose I am acting as the villain always does in the goody-goody books. But I am not so blind that I fail to see the end. I know perfectly well that I can't go on like this, but that sooner or later that infernal drug will fail me, and I shall take my own life as many a better man has done before me. My plot has failed and it doesn't matter who knows it. And yet, a day or two ago, it looked as if I had a fortune in my grasp."
Le Blanc paused for a moment and glared wildly about him. Once more a trembling fit shook him from head to foot. He appeared on the verge of collapse. Then, with some effort of his shattered will, he shook the feeling aside and resumed.
"I have to go back," he said, "to the time when I was a boy living at Glenallan. I was always proud and self-possessed. Ay, my pride, in its way, was just as tender a plant as yours, Sir Arthur. Even in those days I squirmed under your infernal patronage. Even then I meant to make you feel the weight of my punishment some day, and my father encouraged the spirit of revenge within me. He deliberately played upon it until, apart from my artistic career, my one object was to get even with the Blantyres. And in time fortune threw the opportunity in my way. It was in Paris that I first made the acquaintance of the young actress who called herself Charlotte Beaumont. I was one of the few who recognized the great career which lay before her. She always attracted me. I was as much in love with her as it is possible for a man of my temperament to be in love with anybody. But I don't think I should have married her, even with all her prospects, had not I discovered who she really was. Here, then, was my chance. I knew all about Sir Arthur Blantyre's pride. I knew that admiration of his family was a monomania with him. I devoted myself heart and soul to the winning of his granddaughter, and eventually she became my wife. It was about this time that she fulfilled all the prophecies I had made for her, that her name was on the lips of everybody in Paris. I began to see my way now. Here was a weapon to my hands wherewith I could cut Sir Arthur to the heart. I came to England, bringing my wife with me. I went down to Glenallan and saw Sir Arthur. I satisfied him that I had it in my power to say whether his grandchild should be the greatest actress in England or not. Most heads of families in England would have been proud to own relationship with Charlotte Beaumont, but not such a poor creature as Sir Arthur yonder. He saw here the greatest disgrace that could overtake his house. He was in a pitiable state of terror and distress. He offered me money to avert the catastrophe. But the offer was not tempting enough, and I refused it scornfully. I will tell you what I intended to do. I was going to paint a portrait of Charlotte Beaumont and exhibit it so that all the world might see. That is the threat that hung over his head. A man who was not eaten up with pride, who was not absolutely mad on the subject of his twopenny ha'penny family, would have laughed in my face and bade me do my worst. Not so Sir Arthur. He saw exactly what I wanted him to see. He saw that scores of people whom he knew would recognize the portrait and commiserate with him. He saw now that my revenge would be complete and absolute. The recognition of the fact drove him mad. And that is why he made up his mind to meet my cunning with cunning of his own. That is why Lawrence Hatton was engaged to try to checkmate me."
Le Blanc broke off suddenly, writhing in physical and mental agony. It was some time before he had mastery enough of himself to proceed with his story.
"I must cut it short," he said with chattering teeth. "If I don't I shall never finish. What was I saying? Ah, yes, I remember. Lawrence Hatton came to see me. I saw through the manoeuvre from the first. In fact, he was ingenuous enough to betray himself. It was only by a pure accident that Hatton wasn't on my side. But we need not go into that. I need not trouble to tell you what I wanted Hatton to do. I did him a great injury once, and I begin to feel sorry for it now. If there is time before the end comes I may make amends.
"As I said, Hatton came to me and I knew at once what he was driving at. After he had left the studio I had a violent quarrel with my wife over that self-same picture. The upshot was that she wiped out the nearly completed features of the portrait with a dash of red paint. I don't recollect altogether what happened that night, because I had had a strong dose of morphia, and my brain was in a state of chaos. I must have had a bad fall and lain insensible for some time. When I came to myself again Doveluck was bending over me, and when I was sensible enough to know what had happened he told me all about Lawrence Hatton's second visit to the studio. Here was a chance, according to Doveluck, to give a tremendous advertisement to the portrait, and subsequently blackmail Sir Arthur to an unlimited extent. Therefore, I disappeared. I went to the house on the other side of the park which Omley will tell you of presently, and Lawrence Hatton was arrested on the charge of being concerned in my death. Doveluck was right. We had advertisement enough and to spare. Still, the picture had to be finished, and I did it myself in the course of a few hours. Despite the mysterious surroundings the matter was easily managed. I was judiciously primed with morphia for the occasion, and Doveluck smuggled me into the studio by the back entrance. There was no difficulty seeing that I had the keys. Then all I had to do was to hide myself whilst Doveluck came forward and claimed the picture. He had it conveyed to the Priory gallery, knowing perfectly well that there would be a wild rush on the part of the public to see it."
"One moment," Watney put in. "I don't understand where my friend Omley figures."
"That is easily explained," Omley said. "As a matter of fact, I painted the greater part of that portrait. And the last three important pictures which came from Le Blanc's easel were my handiwork. Up to a certain point Mrs. Le Blanc's portrait is mine. But I want you to believe that I did not understand till recently that I was taking part in this infernal conspiracy. I hadn't the least idea what the scheme was. All I knew was that with occasional very brief intervals Le Blanc had become incapable of doing good work, and hence my appearance on the scene. Had I known the facts I should have refused to carry out the contract. I am sure that Le Blanc will hold me exonerated in this matter."
"THAT is right," Le Blanc took up the story again. "For a considerable time that deadly drug had deprived me of the power of doing work worthy of my reputation. At first my work proceeded from a real source of inspiration, but I paid the penalty afterwards. Not for many months till the night that I crept back to the studio had I felt myself master of my brush. But on that occasion, inspired by hate and greed and love of revenge, I painted like one who is gifted beyond his usual abilities. Sir Arthur Seymour was quite right—nobody could have imitated that face. There was only one thing to wait for now, and that was for Sir Arthur Blantyre to come forward and buy the picture at our own price. But he did nothing of the kind. He chose a way of getting even with us which neither Doveluck nor myself had expected. Where he got his idea from I don't know, but it was successful. And, then, just at the critical moment, Doveluck must needs entangle himself for the sake of a paltry sum when thousands were at stake. When Doveluck had disappeared Omley came to me where I was in hiding and insisted upon bringing me here, so that I should make a clean breast of it. I should not have done so if I had not broken down, if I could have got out and purchased a mouthful of the drug which alternately wrecks me and makes me a man again. But, weak and ill as I am, I was powerless to resist. And now you know everything—there is no more for me to say, and if you want any further information Omley will give it you. I have finished."
Le Blanc rose unsteadily from his chair and moved off towards the door. No one attempted to stop him. He murmured that if he were wanted again he would be found in Doveluck's hiding-place. But the others did not appear to heed. There were certain things to be explained yet; for instance, there was the strange story of the substituted picture to be told. Sir Arthur appeared to take no heed of what was going on. He sat with his head buried in his breast noticing nothing, his eyes weak and wandering. It was Omley who took up the tale.
"I must say something in extenuation of my own conduct," he said. "I did not really know what was going on. But when I realized what was in the wind I came here to see Sir Arthur at once. You must know that I have been on fairly friendly terms with him for years. I have been employed in looking after the pictures at Glenallan; in fact, as Mrs. Le Blanc knows perfectly well, my mother was born on the estate. That is why when Mrs. Le Blanc separated from her husband she went to live with my mother. This will explain what has been a source of mystery both to Mr. Watney and Mr. Hatton. I discussed the matter at length with Sir Arthur, and I showed him a way whereby we could effectually checkmate Le Blanc and his fellow-conspirator. I knew the run of the galleries well and remembered that I still had a latchkey whereby I could enter them in safety. And now, to cut a long story short, I will show you how it was that we got the better of the conspirators, and puzzled the police and the general public as they had not been puzzled for years. Will you be good enough, Mr. Watney, to take this hammer and chisel and remove the picture from the frame? Perhaps Miss Blantyre will ring for a basin of hot water and some towels."
A tense, exciting moment followed whilst the picture was being removed from the frame and the water procured. Omley next proceeded to apply the liquid liberally to the face of the picture until the canvas began to blister and rise, and the corners to peel back. Then, with one dexterous wrench the canvas came away revealing to the astonished gaze of the spectators the lifelike portrait of Alice Le Blanc below. It only needed a vigorous application of one of the towels to show the portrait in all its brilliancy and beauty.
"There," Omley exclaimed with triumph, "you see how simple it is. I had this portrait of a nonentity by me, a person who no longer exists. I knew that it was exactly the same size as the canvas which was exciting so much attention at the Priory Gallery. All I had to do was to cut my portrait away from the frame at the edge of the stretcher and convey it to the gallery. I got in easily enough with the aid of the latchkey which Mr. Sladen gave me so many years ago. I worked at the canvas for an hour or two, using a certain amount of secotine, and when I had finished—behold Mrs. Le Blanc's portrait was no more, and that of the nonentity smiled on the stranger instead. It never struck the authorities to examine the canvas. As I expected, they took it for granted that one portrait had been substituted for another, which was exactly what I wanted. I don't suppose the truth would ever have come to light if I had not felt it my duty to expose the trick and ask your forgiveness at the same time. I have behaved badly in the past but I am going to try to make amends in the future. Perhaps it is Sir Arthur himself to whom I owe the most sincere apology. If he will overlook my conduct——"
Omley paused and waited for a reply. Non came from the bowed figure in the armchair. Watney ventured to lay his hand upon the old man's arm and shake it gently. Sir Arthur looked up with the same lacklustre smile, the same wandering look in his eyes.
"It doesn't matter," he murmured. "Nothing matters. There is nothing like flowers. Let us have an early lunch, my dear, and go out into the meadows and pick primroses. I saw a lot this morning after breakfast. There is nothing in the world like a primrose."
He babbled on in the same meaningless fashion. It was plain to all that merciful oblivion had come at last, and that Sir Arthur's reason was gone. His pride and his family were of no consequence now. Everything would be alike to him henceforth.
"We had better get away," Watney said quietly. "This is no place for us, Omley. If you take my advice, Miss Blantyre, you will send for a doctor. Not, I am afraid, that he will be able to give you any comfort. You will have little trouble with Sir Arthur in the future."
The two men were out of the house at length, and on their way to Scotland Yard. For the next hour or to events moved quickly. A little later in the afternoon Inspector Middlewick had a long interview with Omley in the house in Regent's Park, where a thorough investigation of the portrait was made. When this had been done they went to Doveluck's late retreat, where they found Le Blanc.
He was lying on a sofa in the dining-room, still and placid in death, with an empty phial of morphia in his right hand. Without doubt he had deliberately taken a large overdose of the drug. In his other hand was a bundle of papers with a few pencilled words hurriedly scrawled on the outside. Middlewick spread the papers out on the table and perused them in silence.
"Our friend does not appear to have been wholly bad," he said presently. "At any rate, he has made what amends he could. Mr. Omley has always said that Mr. Hatton was innocent of the charge of which he was accused, and here is ample evidence to prove his contention. As far as I can gather, Le Blanc appears to have been the rogue himself. What a poisonous rascal the fellow must have been. Still, I suppose we must give him credit for this last act. After reading his papers and seeing the portrait, to say nothing of the finding of the body of Le Blanc, it would be absurd to go on with the case against Mr. Hatton. I will go at once and lay all the evidence before the Commissioner, who will doubtless order Mr. Hatton's release. We must do our best, too, to whitewash him as regards his previous conviction. I have had some strange cases in my hands, but never one so strange as this."* * * * *
THE best part of a year had passed away, and the story of the "Crime on Canvas" was almost forgotten. All these months Sir Arthur had been at Glenallan. He had regained his strength to a certain extent. He was able to take some sort of interest in the affairs of his estate. But, as to the past, his mind was a perfect blank. He had grown almost childish. His pride and his folly had given way to a vague amiability. There was no longer any anxiety on his account, and Ethel and her half-sister were happier than they had been for years. There were times when they discussed the past; indeed they were talking over it now as they sat on the terrace one June evening after dinner. Lawrence made some allusion to the future, and Alice Le Blanc turned to him with some impatience on her face.
"The future lies in your hands," she said. "How blind you are! Here is Sir Arthur relying entirely upon you, looking to you as if you were his son. The estate is unentailed, and we are the last of the Blantyres. How much longer are you people going on like this? You are both over head and ears in love, and yet you waste your time and opportunities because Lawrence is too proud to speak. Surely, we have had pride enough and to spare."
Alice gathered up her skirts and marched majestically into the house. Lawrence glanced at his companion. He saw that the colour had risen to her face, that her eyes were soft and luminous.
"Don't you think Alice is right?" he ventured.
Ethel met his eyes bravely.
"Of course, I do," she said. "Don't let there be further misunderstanding between us. I know you care for me as I care for you. And if you would only—only——"
She held out her hand and Lawrence drew her to his side.
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