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Title: A Broken Memory Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200461h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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The girl with hair the colour of heather honey came out of the cottage into the thin, spring sunshine and paused before a bed of daffodils nodding in the breeze. Behind her, a fitting background for beauty garbed in a cotton sun bonnet, the low house with its ancient thatch tanned to a dull brown by fifty years of storm and sunshine. In front the garden in which Gladys Brooke took such a pride and delight. A typical old world cottage garden in which was set the house which dated back to the days of the Merrie Monarch. Beyond that a sort of broad lane fringed by tall elms which straggled along until it reached the village street. A shop here and there, a public house in black and white, the smithy, and again the church, with the vicarage under its shadow fronting the Georgian residence of the doctor and again the entrance to the squire's domain.
It was not always that Gladys Brooke had lived in that ideal spot, remote even from the rush and fret of motors and sightseers. Three years before, she had been just the fortunate type of young woman with money to spend and no heed, save for herself and her own recreation. She and her brother, Wilfred, had been left alone in the world with more than sufficient for their wants, which had been modest enough, so far as Gladys was concerned. For she was essentially an open-air girl, keen on sport and quite content to spend a few days in town occasionally, with now and then a dance and dinner. And so it had gone on until the time came when Wilfred, who was three years her junior, began to cause her considerable anxiety.
Wilfred was not an idler, exactly, but headstrong and impatient of advice, going his own way and gradually getting into a fast, monied set, with the inevitable consequences. He had been wise enough to retain his position in a great mercantile house where his father had placed him before he died, but beyond that, he showed little sign of self-reliance and a proper sense of responsibility. It was some time before Gladys found out that Wilfred was spending a great deal more than he could afford in following the fortunes of the turf. She had no idea, until the crash came, how deeply he was involved in that insidious form of gambling, though there were occasions when he had borrowed money from her, which she considered that he had no right to do. With his salary and private income of some three hundred a year and sharing a flat with her in London, he ought to have been happy and comfortable enough and, no doubt, would have been but for his passion for horseflesh.
And then, like a bolt from the blue came the tragedy. Gladys was still thinking of it then, as she stood in the sunshine watching a bed of nodding daffodils and the narcissi that filled the air with fragrance. She could see it all as she stood there—the sullen look on that white, handsome face of Wilfred's, and the words that came from his lips as he told her of his shame. He had come back from the office early so that she had been surprised to see him in the sitting room of the flat. Wilfred had been dismissed and that in ignominy and disgrace by a kindly employer, who had told him that he had only retained Wilfred's services so long out of respect for the boy's dead father. And even he, the head of the firm, would be powerless to prevent a prosecution unless restitution was made.
"How—how much?" Gladys had ventured with pallid lips. It was characteristic of her that she uttered no reproach. "What is it that you have to find?"
"Six thousand pounds," Wilfred confessed sullenly.
"But your own money?" Gladys asked.
"Gone long ago," Wilfred said recklessly. "Not a penny of that left. If you only knew what infernal luck I have had you wouldn't look at me like that. If things had gone well I should have made a fortune, and now I don't know where to turn."
"We have got to face this," Gladys said steadily. "If I understand correctly, you will be prosecuted by the directors unless this sum is forthcoming."
"That is about what it comes to," Wilfred confessed. "I have until the end of the week and perhaps you——"
He paused and looked almost imploringly at his sister.
"Go on," Gladys interrupted with a touch of hardness. "You might just as well say it as leave it to me. I am to find the money to save our name from disgrace and keep you outside of a jail. Very well, I will do it."
"You always were a brick," Wilfred murmured.
"Oh, please don't," Gladys replied. "I don't want to do it, but I must, and you see that I must. You came back this afternoon on purpose to ask me to find it. Now, don't deny it. The money shall be found, and, when it is, I shall have little more than a few hundreds left. That means that I must find some way of getting a living and I dare say I shall manage that because I have always been told that I could turn my talent of painting to advantage. But there is one condition, Wilfred. If I get you out of this mess, you must leave England."
"Oh, come, I say!" Wilfred protested.
"On no other condition," Gladys said firmly. "So long us you stay in London and mix with the reckless lot who have helped to ruin you, it will always be the same. I will go round to-morrow morning and see Mr. Trevor. He seems to have behaved very well to you, and, for the sake of our own good name, I am grateful, and perhaps, with his connections all over the world he may be able to find you something to do somewhere. For the moment there is nothing more to be said."
So Gladys had gone to the head of the great firm in Billiter street and had found in him a kindly and sympathetic friend.
"Do I understand you will find this money?" he asked.
"Every penny of it," Gladys said. "I dare not go to relatives and I cannot see my brother disgraced."
"I am afraid this will cripple you," the great man said.
"It will take practically all I have," Gladys said quietly. "Not that I mind that, much, because, after all, mine is rather a selfish sort of life. On the whole, I think I should be happier getting my own living."
"And how do you propose to do that?"
"Well, you see, I have a certain talent with my brush. Really I am quite clever in designing. For instance, I design all my own dresses. More than once, I have sent coloured sketches to the Paris firms where I have occasionally been extravagant enough to buy a frock and they have invariably been accepted and paid for. Oh, I have no anxiety about the future."
The elderly man with the iron-grey hair looked admiringly at the pretty girl who sat opposite him. There was something about her rather unusual style of loveliness that appealed to the man of money. Besides, he had daughters of his own and he had forgotten the rigid calls of business for the moment.
"It is a great pity," he said grimly, "that your brother is not more like you. Now, my dear young lady, listen to me. I want to help you if I can. It isn't I who want the money, but I am merely the head of a great limited liability company, and my co-directors are very bitter against your brother. They regard it as a shameful thing that a young man like himself with no encumbrances and, ostensibly in the possession of a private income, should have got himself into this mess. They are not so much concerned with the moral side of the matter as with the material aspect. If I can assure them that the money will be paid, then you will hear no more about it. So we may regard that as settled. But you I want to assist. Now I have a good many irons in the fire. In confidence, I have very large interests in a great Paris dress house, the name of which I will give you. Moreover, I will give you a personal letter to the head of the firm. Perhaps, between us, we can find you regular occupation. No, I don't want any thanks. And now, as I am exceedingly busy——"
With that the kindly old gentleman bustled Gladys out of the office, and she went her way in a far happier frame of mind than that in which she had arrived. Moreover, Mr. Trevor was as good as his word. Within three months, Gladys found herself with more work, almost, than she could do, work, moreover, for which she was exceedingly well paid.
And there was something in this great misfortune that seemed to bring out all that was fine and noble in her nature. She turned her back upon the life she had been leading, purchased the thatched cottage in the country, where she settled down with an elderly servant who had been her nurse in the old days. And there, almost to her great surprise, she was wholly and entirely satisfied with her work and her garden and the flowers that had been so carefully tended by the previous tenant. And she had been as good as her word, so far as Wilfred was concerned. She had seen him off to South Africa, where she had managed to secure a post for him in a Cape Town bank. It was not a big opening, nor were the prospects particularly good. But it meant work and discipline and a strict supervision which she hoped in time would make another man of that weak-minded brother of hers.
Not that she didn't feel the separation. It had been a terrible wrench, but once it was over, she was good. And now Wilfred had been in Cape Town for the best part of two years and his letters were beginning to grow less frequent than they had been at first. It was two mouths, now, since Gladys had heard from him and, as she stood there in the sunshine, she was wondering if the post would bring her anything that morning.
The postman drifted down the lane presently and handed Gladys nothing more than a newspaper over the gate.
No letter from Wilfred, again, she thought. Still, the newspaper meant something. Gladys could see at a glance that it was a copy of the South African Banner, which came to her regularly every week as evidence that her brother was alive and well. Wilfred had taken out a subscription so that the journal in question arrived punctually every Monday morning. It was disappointing that another mail should have arrived without anything more tangible than that paper in question, and Gladys walked into the cottage a little depressed and, to tell the truth, just a little annoyed as well. She cheered herself with the thought that next Monday would probably bring the desired letter, so that she turned into that pleasant, beautifully furnished sitting room of hers where breakfast awaited her. An old woman with a cheery, apple face, and a pleasant smile hovered over the table with an air of expectation which Gladys did not fail to note.
"No Marta," she said. "No letter again this morning. But the paper has arrived, as you see."
"Yes, I see that, miss," the elderly retainer said with a sniff. "But there, Master Wilfred always was that careless. Not that he means to forget you. I'm sure."
Gladys finished breakfast leisurely and then, for the next hour or so, was busy in that little attic studio with her work. She came down just before lunch time and sat in the sunny porch of the cottage with the South African paper in her hand. She had nothing to do for the next half hour or so, and there was more than one item of interest in the news sheet which she spread out over her knee. She came presently to a story which was not badly told and evidently the work of some newspaper man who possessed a considerable literary faculty and the gift of telling a narrative in an attractive fashion.
It related to the adventures of three or four Englishmen who had gone up from Cape Town, right through to the wilds of Upper Rhodesia in search of treasure. There had been rumours to effect that precious stones had been found there, rubies as well as diamonds, but that the locality was in the hands of a certain none too friendly tribe that had spelt disaster to more than one pioneer in the past.
But these fresh adventurers seemed to have been more successful than their predecessors. They had not only contrived to make their way as far as Tom Tiddler's ground, where the treasure lay, but had managed to send letters down country describing their success. So far, there had been no sensational find of rare gems, but here and there, they had picked up a few stones which convinced them that they were on the eve of a discovery that was likely to prove of great advantage. Beyond doubt, the treasure lay there, and it was only a question of how soon the ground could be properly laid out and used to the great commercial benefit of the community.
All this was in the first part of the story. It was told in letter form without mentioning any names and merely retailed as an item of interest. Then a bit lower down in the column the drama began to develop itself. The three white men who formed the party, together with their native followers, had found themselves suddenly in great peril. They had contrived, some way or another, mortally to offend some native chief on whose land they had trespassed and, in the end, they had found themselves taken prisoners. One of the three Englishmen had met his death in an attempted escape and between the lines of the story, Gladys could see that the victim in question had been more or less callously abandoned by his two companions who were only too anxious to get away with whole skins. They had managed to fight their way down country with the aid of their rifles and camp followers and at length reached the outposts of civilisation where the story was told to a trader who had passed it on to the journalist who was responsible for the narrative.
And then and there, the tale more or less abruptly ended. There was the suggestion that more would follow next week, and with this Gladys had to be content.
It was nothing to her, she told herself, and, yet all the same, the story moved her strangely. Why had those two men stolen away under the cover of the night and abandoned their comrade to his fate? So far as Gladys could gather, each of the Englishmen had been a bound prisoner in separate huts. One of them had managed to escape his bonds and free his nearest neighbour before the alarm was given. Then they had contrived to secure a rifle each, and a plentiful stock of ammunition and collect a handful of their black followers. But they had not troubled about the third man, who was lying, bound, in a hut not half a mile away from the scene of the fight. Surely two Englishmen, fully armed, could have held their own against a whole tribe of savages whose only weapons were spears, and have made an attempt, at least, to rescue their unfortunate comrade whom they had so cruelly abandoned to torture by a savage tribe. It did not sound like British pluck and courage at all.
Gladys was about to throw the paper down in silent contempt when her eye caught a faint, badly printed paragraph opposite the leader page. It was the familiar item in what is called the stop press edition, and contained altogether but a few lines which ran as follows:—
"With regard to our adventure story on page five, some further information has come to hand. It appears that the three Englishmen concerned in the 'Through Upper Rhodesia in Search of Treasure' are named respectively Patrick French, Walter Bland, and Wilfred Brooke. It is the latter, who, unfortunately met his death at the hands of savages after he was apparently abandoned by his companions who were apparently, unable to effect his rescue. Mr. French is a wealthy young traveller and explorer, who came to South Africa some few years ago in search of adventure. Mr. Bland is also an Englishman, who, we understand, was connected with the theatrical profession, and who has been with many touring companies through the colonies for some considerable time. The unfortunate man who lost his life was until lately, a clerk in the Universal Bank, Natal. He was a comparatively newcomer."
The paper fluttered lifelessly from Gladys' hand. It was as if someone had struck her a blow in the face. So, then Wilfred was dead. He had perished miserably in a foreign land in circumstances that Gladys shuddered to contemplate. Perhaps it was all for the best, but Gladys was not in the mental condition to take this philosophical view of the case yet.
She sat there, trying to piece this extraordinary puzzle together. To begin with, what was Wilfred doing in that expedition? Why had he suddenly abandoned his post in Cape Town and gone off wandering into the wilderness so abruptly without writing a single line to his sister about it? It had been little less than a miracle that had put Wilfred on his feet again and turned his head in the right direction. And then, just as he had the chance of making good and wiping out the disgraceful past, he had wilfully flung to the winds the gifts the gods had sent him and become a mere wanderer on the face of the earth. Why had he done it—why? Gladys asked herself the question over and over again without arriving at any sensible conclusion.
And then there came another dreadful thought. Had Wilfred fallen away from grace again and lost his situation? Every circumstance pointed to that conclusion. Doubtless he had fallen into evil hands again and been led away by bad companions. Who was this man, Bland, for instance. Gladys had never heard of him before. An actor of no repute, evidently probably an adventurer touring Africa with a fifth-rate company, and ready for anything that came along.
But French—Patrick French was a different proposition altogether. Gladys knew all about him. In the early days when his correspondence was regular, Wilfred had spoken of French over and over again. He was a splendid chap—a top-hole fellow. One of the very best, generous and handsome, and a man of family besides. Any amount of money, and only wandering about to amuse himself. Never had there been such a man as Patrick French, according to Wilfred's account. Very impulsive, too, and candid to a fault. Why, had he not fallen in love with Gladys' photograph the first time he had seen it, and sworn by all his gods that hers was the face of the ideal wife of his dreams!
It all came back to Gladys with overwhelming force as she sat there with her face in her hands. Poor Wilfred, as usual the worst judge of a man in the world, had placed himself in the hands of this cowardly scoundrel who had deliberately left him to a cruel and quite unnecessary fate.
But it was idle to sit there brooding when there were things to be done. Gladys rose to her feet, and, putting on her hat, walked across the fields to the neighbouring town of Marwich, rather than send off a cablegram from the village post-office. She was not known at Marwich, and from there she could cable to Wilfred's late bank manager at Cape Town and prepay the reply, it was only a question of hours before the response came, and, in the meantime, she could only sit down and wait. She had to tell Marta, of course, but no more than it was necessary for that excellent gossip to know. Mr. Wilfred was dead, he had died on a hunting expedition, and Gladys had read all about it in the papers that she had received that morning. And Marta accepted the explanation without asking to see the account in print—which was, perhaps, just as well.
It was quite late in the evening before the telegraph boy came with the eagerly-expected message. It ran:—
"W.B. discharged over four months ago. Know nothing whatever of his whereabouts since."
It was not in Gladys' nature to lie down beneath a blow such as this. It had been bad enough to realise that Wilfred was dead, but to find that, for the second time, he had been unable to resist temptation hurt Gladys perhaps more than the knowledge of his death. In a queer, inconsequent way, the mere fact that Wilfred was no longer alive was a sort of relief. He might have gone on for years causing her grief and anxiety, and, what was just as bad, probably coming to her at short intervals for pecuniary assistance.
But she had hoped, at any rate, that the lesson he had learnt in London would have been a permanent one. Yet, here he was, at the expiration of a further two years, once more involved in disgrace and degradation. Still, he was dead now and, with all his faults, Gladys mourned him sincerely.
She had forgotten all about the man and his selfish pleasures—she only recollected the bright, happy boy he used to be and how she had shared in his youthful triumphs, because Wilfred had always been a good sportsman and, both at school and afterwards, had shone where athletic pursuits were concerned. But now that was all over, there was nothing but a bitter-sweet memory left and the knowledge that time would heal the wound.
All the same, Gladys would have given a good deal for a real friend. She had always been fairly independent since her parents had died when she was very young, and she and Wilfred had been left to the casual care of relatives and guardians. She had seen something of her relatives at intervals during the time she was in London, but after the disgraceful affair in Billiter Street, she had been inclined to shun her own flesh and blood. So far as she knew none of these had the least idea of why Wilfred had left the employ of his London firm and gone but to South Africa. One or two of them had expostulated with her when she had turned her back on the metropolis and elected to bury herself in what her smart relations called the dismal country. But she had done so and, from that moment, had led her own life. She knew the doctor's wife and the vicar and, on one or two occasions, had dined at their houses. But for the most part, she had kept very much to herself, with an occasional week-end on some distant golf links, or a flying visit to town to see some play, the account of which had interested her.
And here she was now, at a crisis of her life, practically alone in the world. Her first impulse had been to sell or otherwise dispose of the cottage and go out to South Africa to make inquiries. For a brief moment, she had entertained the wild idea of trying to find her brother's grave.
But that, she realised, was out of the question. Still, she would have liked to confront the two men who seemed to be entirely responsible for Wilfred's death and denounce them to their faces. It had been so unlike the unfortunate Wilfred to pick out the last men in the world as his intimates. No doubt these two scoundrels had made use of him and then, when the crisis came, turned their backs upon him without the slightest compunction. There was that man, Patrick French, for instance. Wilfred had spoken of him in his letters as if he were a sort of Admiral Crichton, a being sans peur et sans reproche. A gentleman of birth and fortune who would have scorned to do anything that suggested meanness or cowardice. A man who had dared to admire her photograph and pretend that he saw in it the ideal for whom he had been looking all through his manhood! The angry tears came into Gladys' eyes as she thought of it. And this was the man to whom Wilfred had offered his friendship!
Of the other individual she knew nothing, but she could imagine the class of man he was. A strolling actor, a bragging boasting liar, who lived like a parasite upon his acquaintances. Gladys dismissed him from her mind without another thought. She was never likely to meet him face to face, but perhaps, some day, she might meet this Patrick French and expose him for the coward and false friend that he was.
At any rate, she could make inquiries. If he belonged, as he had said, to a good English family, and if he was in the possession of means of his own, it would not be a difficult matter to look up his record; but that would have to remain for the moment and, in the meantime, she would have to wait as patiently as she could for further details. They would come to her, no doubt, in the course of time, through the medium of the same South African paper when the story of the excursion into Upper Rhodesia came to be concluded.
So Gladys hugged her grief to herself, saying nothing even to the faithful Martha as to the ugly side of the tragedy. Wilfred was dead, and there was an end of it. No occasion to let the faithful old serving maid know that he had died under the shadow of a double disgrace.
It was three weeks before the post brought further news from the Cape. There was the copy of the South African Banner which, strangely enough, contained nothing more of the adventure story but with it arrived two letters, both addressed in unfamiliar handwriting to Miss Gladys Brooke at Heatherthatch Cottage, near Marwich. Gladys turned them over in her hand, wondering who her strange correspondents could be. She broke the seal of one and began to read.
The heading was an address in Elizabeth st., Cape Town, and the signature at the end was that of one, Gerald Lewis. The name was utterly unfamiliar to Gladys, so that she turned wonderingly back to the opening lines.
"Dear Miss Brooke (it began)
"I dare say you will wonder why you are hearing like this from a total stranger and why I am addressing you so familiarly. But, the fact is, I was very friendly with your late brother and I conclude that you already know of his death, because it has already been recorded for some weeks in the South African Banner, which paper I have every reason to know is regularly sent you from the publisher's office.
"Now, I have been on extremely intimate terms with your brother ever since he came out here. He worked in one bank and I in another. We met in the ordinary course of business and, both being Englishmen, and knowing very few people in this part of the World, naturally chummed up together. As we were equally fond of sport and had learnt our games in the same public school, you can see that this was another bond between us.
"I should have written to you two or three weeks ago only, unfortunately I met with a rather serious accident which rendered such a course impossible and I am taking this very first opportunity, of placing before you certain incidents in your brother's life which I hope, will place him and his memory in a more favourable aspect in your mind. Because I am more or less the cause of all the trouble.
"I am taking it for granted, of course, that you have already learnt the exact circumstances in which Wilfred left the bank where he was employed. He was dismissed and, but for one or two little things that I shall allude to presently, would undoubtedly have suffered for what some people would regard as his criminal folly. But it was not as bad as that. There were circumstances that show Wilfred to be not only a good friend, but also one who never meant to do wrong.
"And now I come to what I really have to say. As I have told you, your late brother and myself were great friends and very fond of sport. If we had only left racing alone, nothing would have happened. And we should never have touched that if had it not been for a poisonous scoundrel called Walter Bland. At one time he was a gentleman, I believe—at least by birth. To-day he is a dissipated, drunken actor—a brilliant type of man who might have been anything if he had only kept straight. Just the sort of man to make a deep impression upon young fools like ourselves. He has been all over South Africa, and was full of stories about hidden wealth, especially in Upper Rhodesia, where he always boasted that he could put his hand upon unlimited treasure if he only had a little money, and one or two resolute men behind him. Of course, we believed this story, more or less, because Bland has a very convincing way of telling a narrative, and, more than that, he showed us a sort of rough map by means of which the scene of the treasure could be reached. We were rather impressed by that, and so was another man we knew. This is a chap called Patrick French, a rich young Englishman who had come out to South Africa solely in search of adventure. But I dare say you know all about him, because I am quite sure that your brother mentioned him in his letters home.
"And here I am, wandering again. That man, Bland, got me into a terrible mess in connection with a horse and a game of cards. Your brother was more or less in it, too, but I was the loser in that swindle, and when we came to balance up accounts, I found myself owing Bland over a hundred pounds. Of course, the whole thing was a bare faced swindle, but I could not prove it and so I was forced to pay.
"Now, at that time, I had not a hundred shillings in the world. I told your brother all about it and, to my great surprise he offered to lend me the money. This rather staggered me, because I knew that a week before he was as hard up as myself. Then he told me that his bank had been floating a new issue of mining shares and that he had contrived to buy a block of these himself, feeling sure that they would go up. Well, they did go up and he cleared over a hundred pounds. He hadn't actually got it, because he was working the commission through a local broker, but it was as good as in his pocket. The broker was a reliable man so that I felt quite safe. The next day Wilfred came to me and gave me a handful of notes which I duly passed over to Bland, and there I thought the matter ended."
Gladys laid the letter on one side for the moment and drew a long, deep breath of thankfulness. She knew instinctively that she had not yet reached the dramatic climax of the letter, but she had read enough to see that her dead brother had not wilfully fallen away from grace for the second time. At any rate, if he had, it was more for the sake of friendship than anything else, and he had nothing to gain by it.
She picked up the letter and resumed.
"And now comes the cruel part of the story. I, of course, was under the impression that Wilfred had gone to his stockbroker friend and drawn the money in advance. But, as a matter of fact he had anticipated things and taken the necessary cash from the coffers of the bank. He had done this being absolutely convinced that in a couple of days he would have been enabled to make good. But it is always in circumstances like these that fate chooses to play a spiteful part. The broker in question was waylaid coming home from his club late at night by gang of hooligans who treated him so cruelly that, when the police arrived on the scene, the unfortunate man was dead. Needless to say the money that Wilfred had expected, and which he had every intention of replacing in the bank drawer, did not arrive till many days after, with the inevitable consequences for poor old Wilfred. I could not raise a cent from anybody, and the only man who could have helped us had gone suddenly up country on a short shooting expedition. If Patrick French had remained in Cape Town, I should never have had occasion to write this letter."
Gladys frowned as she read this, and her lips curled scornfully. She could not see the man who had more or less led Wilfred to his death putting himself out a single inch to save the boy's good name. Then she went on with the letter.
"Well, there we were, both of us at our wits' end, not knowing what to do, and, whatever the world may say or Puritans may think I shall always maintain that Wilfred did a fine thing when he went to his bank manager and made a clean breast of it. And I am quite sure that the manager sympathised with him, more especially as the money was repaid within a month.
"But what could the manager do? In the eyes of the directors, Wilfred had been guilty of a serious crime, and, I suppose, from a banking point of view it really was a serious crime. There was no prosecution, because the money was voluntarily returned, but poor old Wilfred was dismissed, and that was the last I ever saw of him.
"He didn't even give me a chance to reproach myself, he never came near me, and the next thing I heard was that he had gone up country, together with French and Bland, with a view to finding those new diamond and ruby mines and making everybody's fortunes. The pity of it is that I had not an opportunity of warning either Wilfred or French as to the true character of the man with whom they were dealing. If I had, that expedition would never have taken place. As it is, I am compelled to regard myself more or less as the man who murdered your brother.
"I make no excuses, because, in a case like this excuses are puerile. I don't ask you to forgive me because you never will, and I don't ask you to see me because that would be too painful to both of us. But I have had to force myself to write this letter out of justice to the memory of poor old Wilfred. I want you to know that he had no criminal intent and that he sacrificed himself on the altar of friendship.
There were tears in Gladys' eyes as she laid down the letter. It was good to know, at any rate, that Wilfred had erred out of mistaken chivalry and with a desire to save the reputation of a friend. She liked to feel that he had been doing his best to repair the past, and that, but for an unexpected tragedy, he would have made good in his new sphere. And, in a way, she felt rather proud of him. She would have liked to have told the world all this, but there were reasons why she was compelled to keep it to herself. Then, with a lighter heart, she tore open the envelope of the other letter. It was more curt and business-like and signed by the manager of the bank in Cape Town where Wilfred had been employed during the last two years. In effect, it merely confirmed what Gerald Lewis had said, with a few expressions of personal regret. Thus:—
"Dear Madam.—I duly received your cablegram and replied as requested on the prepaid form. You will be glad to know that things were not so bad where your brother was concerned as might have appeared from my necessarily curt message in response to your inquiry. Personally speaking, if my directors had responded to certain suggestions I made, your brother would still be in the service of the bank. That his action was exceedingly wrong, not to say criminal, I do not attempt to disguise. But there were extenuating circumstances of an unusual nature and I think that it is my duty to disclose them.
"Your brother borrowed the sum of a hundred pounds from the bank without saying anything to me or asking anybody's permission. In fact, the law would say he stole it. This, of course, he did, but he had every reason to expect that he could pay it back within a day or two, and the money was necessary to preserve the good name of a friend. Unfortunately, through unforeseen circumstances into which I need not enter, the sum in question was not available by the expected date, which meant that within a few hours your brother's defalcation would have been inevitably discovered.
"Whereupon he acted very promptly, and, I think, very bravely. He came to me and made a full confession. Of course, I could not overlook so serious a matter and, consequently, I placed it before my directors. At my earnest solicitation, they abstained from prosecution, but naturally, they refused to retain your brother's services in the bank. He was accordingly discharged and, I regret to learn since then, that he lost his life somewhere in Upper Rhodesia. Assuring you of all my deepest sympathy.—
And so that was the end of it Gladys thought sadly. She would never see Wilfred again, but she would treasure his memory as that of one who was more sinned against than sinning. In her heart of hearts she knew that she had expected something much worse than this, some disgraceful episode that would linger in her mind to the end of her days. And yet, curiously enough, all the deep bitterness in her heart was against the man called Patrick French. She knew that this was absolutely illogical, but in a way she identified him with the rascal Bland and placed him in exactly the same category. She would make inquiries as to French, and if ever fate gave her the opportunity of meeting him face to face, she would know what to say.
Then she dismissed the whole thing. Well, thank heaven, she had her work to do, and her garden to attend to. There was no occasion, now, to call in the aid of friends, or to tell anyone the story which she regarded as sacred. With a much lighter heart she went about her duties, followed by Marta, who had not failed to notice the postmarks on the two letters.
"And is there any news, Miss Gladys?" the old woman asked.
"Indeed, yes," Gladys smiled. "I don't want to talk about it, Marta, but I know, now, what happened to poor Mr. Wilfred, and how well he behaved. Some of these days I will tell you all about it, but I really cannot bear to speak now. You go back to your work and leave me to mine."
Gladys finished the set of drawings she was making and dropped them in the letter box of the village post office. Then she came back to her tea, and, after that, sat in the porch in the fading sunshine of an early April day, trying to interest herself in the latest novel she had obtained from the library at Marwich. But it seemed rather a dull story after the living drama of the morning, so that she threw it aside and busied herself presently with a patch of late daffodils which were not coming on quite as quickly as she had hoped. It was practically dark before she had finished this task and she stood there just for a moment or two in the scented, violet night, whilst Marta was getting the supper inside.
It was a very still evening with the promise of a fine day on the morrow, so still indeed that every sound from far off carried to her ears. At the end of the garden, facing the road, she could just make out the dim outline of a row of elms bordering the road that led to the village. The peacefulness and silence were very soothing and Gladys was quite reluctant to turn away from it when, suddenly, the sound of voices broke on her ear. She heard the echo of two sets of footsteps, one slow and plodding, the other swift as if the owner were running in pursuit of some object in front. Then a voice cried out as if in pain. The voice was followed by heavy breathing, as if two people were engaged in a struggle.
"Here, what the devil——" one voice cried.
The words trailed off into nothing, and it seemed to Gladys as if the speaker had come heavily to the ground. Followed other heavy footsteps and, almost directly afterwards lighter footsteps moving with great rapidity and dying away in the distance. Gladys pushed her way out into the lane.
A man lay there with another standing over him. The upright figure Gladys could just recognise.
"What's wrong here, Walton?" she demanded.
The village blacksmith, for he it was looked up.
"I dunno, miss," he said breathlessly. "But if I ain't greatly mistaken, Miss Brooke, it's a case of murder. Would you mind bringing a light?"
Gladys own troubles and anxieties slipped from her shoulders like a cloak flung aside. The necessity for action acted upon her like a tonic. She flew up the garden and into her sitting room where, from a corner cupboard, she took a flashlight and turned to see old Marta standing in front of her.
"Is anything the matter, miss?" Marta asked. "Seemingly, I heard some sort of trouble going on in the lane."
"I am afraid it is serious trouble," Gladys said. "Even if it is not worse than that. Now, bustle about and get me hot water and bandages and anything you can think of that is likely to be of use in an accident. I am going into the lane. Tim Walton, the blacksmith, is there and he will help us. Now, be quick, Marta, there is no time to waste."
Marta rose to the occasion, as she always did. She began to bustle about in her methodical way, whilst Gladys hurried down the lane with the torch flaming in her hand. It was pitch dark now, so that the flashlight was a real necessity. Gladys could see the big form of the village blacksmith bending over an object that lay in the middle of the road, and, as the flare from the lamp concentrated on the spot, Gladys noticed the body of a man absolutely motionless on the ground.
"Is he dead?" she whispered.
"No, I don't think so, miss, but very nigh to it," Walton replied. "I dare not touch him till you came back. Now, what do you think we'd better do, miss?"
"There is only one thing to do," Gladys suggested. "We must get the poor fellow into the cottage. There is nowhere else he can go, and it is a good four miles from here to the hospital at Marwich. Can you manage it?"
"Oh, I can manage it easy enough, miss," the burly blacksmith replied. "He's a fine built chap, seemingly, but I could carry him in my arms as if he was a babby. All the same, miss, I'm more afraid of lifting him. And yet it might be dangerous to let him lie till the doctor comes."
"Turn him over on his back," Gladys demanded.
The injured man was lying on his face, absolutely motionless. A stick he had been carrying lay by his side and, a yard or two away, was a bulky suitcase, which was evidently the unfortunate individual's property. Very carefully the big blacksmith turned the stranger over, so that the light could shine on his face.
He was a youngish man, still in the early thirties, with, clean-cut features and all that suggestion of refinement that goes with birth and education. He was a fine figure of a man, Gladys thought, with the form and shape that goes to make up the athlete. Gladys could see that he was breathing still, and so far as she could make out, there was no sign of a wound anywhere. It was only when Walton touched the back of his head, accidentally, that a smothered groan came from the sufferer. Then, with all the tenderness of a woman, Walton carried his burden into the sitting-room of the cottage and laid it on the couch. There was something almost pathetic in the aspect of Gladys' unexpected visitor. He looked at once strong and capable and yet so pathetically weak and helpless. And there was something in that refined, pleasant face of his that seemed to touch a warm chord in Gladys' heart. Just for a moment, she hardly knew how to proceed. It was Marta, standing in the background, who made a really practical suggestion.
"Poor young gentleman," she said. "He do look mortal bad, I've done all I can, miss, and everything is ready. Don't you think I had better go down the village and fetch Dr. Carden?"
"Oh yes, yes," Gladys said. "Of course. We can do nothing until he comes. Don't wait even to put your hat on."
But Marta, had already vanished. The blacksmith slipped out of the cottage and came back a moment or two later with the wounded man's stick and suitcase. Then they could only watch him and wait until the doctor arrived.
The man of medicine came presently, a cheerful, breezy individual who asked no questions, but immediately got to work upon his patient. Dr. Carden Gladys knew fairly well, and his young wife was the nearest approach to a friend that she had in the village. She liked the capable way in which the doctor went to work and the skill with which he handled his patient. Then he stood up and smiled.
"Will he recover, Dr. Carden?" Gladys asked.
"Oh yes, I should say there is no doubt about that," Carden said breezily. "But he has had a nasty crack on the back of the head and there is more than a suspicion of a fracture. However, I can't say anything really definite about that for a day or two. Tell us all about it, Walton."
"Well, there isn't much to tell, doctor," the blacksmith replied. "I was coming across the fields and just getting over the stile that leads into the road when I see the outline of this poor gentleman come plodding along the road in the dark. A moment later, I heard footsteps, as if someone was running in the direction of the village. But it was all done in a flash, like. The poor gent, he takes no notice of the footsteps behind him, naturally thinking it had got nothing to do with him. Then, as if it had been a dream, I hears the sound of a dull blow, and the poor gent, lying on the couch down there just says 'Here, what the devil,' and down he goes as if he had been shot. Mind you, I heard the blow as felled him and it fair paralysed me for a few seconds. I've lived, man and boy, in the village for forty year and nothing like it's ever happened afore."
"Then you interfered, I suppose?"
"I did that, sir. I shouted out and ran forward just as the other man was bending over his victim as if he was looking for something in the poor gentleman's pocket. Then up he gets and off he goes down the lane like a hare. And that's all I can tell you. Only I did pick up a piece of lead pipe about eighteen inches long, as might have done the mischief."
"Ah, sandbagged, no doubt," the doctor said. "Sand bag or gas pipe, it is all the same thing. That is an American trick. The nearest thing to murder without actually accomplishing it. And that is all you have to say, Walton."
"Every bit, sir," Walton concluded. "Then Miss Brooke comes out in the road and asks what's the matter and she told me to bring the poor chap in here, which, of course, I did."
"Very properly, too," the doctor said. "But what are you going to do with him, Miss Brooke. He can't stay here."
"And why not?" Gladys asked. "Certainly there is nowhere else he can go. It would be cruel to move him to Marwich in his present state, and I should feel the same thing if he were a mere tramp, instead of one who is obviously a gentleman. Evidently he was on his way to see someone in the neighbourhood and probably came to Marwich by train and walked here. Someone will be sure to claim him within the next few hours. It is just possible that he is a guest on his way to the Hall."
"Not an unreasonable suggestion," the doctor agreed. "When I get home I will ring up the Hall and inquire. All the same, I don't like to leave you alone in the cottage with all this trouble on your hands."
"Oh, it is no trouble," Gladys said. "I am sure that I can manage quite well with Marta to help me. There is a very nice spare bedroom upstairs."
"That there is," the old servant agreed. "It's all ready, miss. I did everything you told me."
A little later the wounded man lay more or less comfortably in bed with Marta in attendance. There was very little to be done for the present, the doctor explained, and went on to say that all the patient needed was rest. He might recover consciousness at any moment and, on the other hand, he might linger on in his present state for days.
"That is why he ought to have a nurse," Dr. Carden concluded.
"But I am not going to do anything of the kind," Gladys said. "I don't see the slightest necessity. We can manage between us perfectly well, if you will only tell us just what to do and how the patient is to be fed. And if he does recover consciousness, I can send for you at once."
"Yes, you must do that," the doctor said. "That is most important. But I am perfectly certain that that event is not likely to happen for a good many hours yet."
Gladys followed the man of medicine downstairs, leaving the patient in the charge of Marta. The brawny blacksmith had already disappeared and, no doubt, the whole village knew by this time of the startling event which had come, like a cyclone, into their peaceful midst.
"I don't think there is anything more I can say," Carden went on. "Pity you haven't a telephone here."
"Why should I want a telephone," Gladys asked.
"Well, it is rather a handy instrument in times of stress," Carden smiled. "You seem to have forgotten that this unfortunate individual is not altogether our private business. Here we have something that looks like a deliberate attempt at murder on the high road and, in its best aspect, robbery with violence. Have you quite forgotten the police?"
"Oh dear," Gladys sighed. "I am afraid I had. Do you mean to say that we shall have to call them in?"
"Most assuredly I do. We ought to have done it before. Walton could have run down to my house and got my wife to call up the inspector at Marwich on the telephone. I suppose you would like to see the assailant arrested?"
"Why naturally," Gladys replied.
"Then I had better be off," Carden suggested, "Every minute is in favour of the scoundrel. I will call up Marwich from my house and come back again the first thing in the morning."
Evidently Garden had been as good as his word, for it still wanted a few minutes to 11 o'clock when a two seater car stopped outside the gate of the cottage and two men in uniform came up the path and knocked at the door.
"You are Miss Brooke, I think," the taller man of the two, with the black board, asked, as Gladys opened the door. "I am the inspector of police from Marwich, and have come over here, at once, in response to the telephone call from Dr. Carden. He tells me that your patient need not be disturbed, and there is no occasion for me to see him. But, if you don't mind, miss, I should like to examine the suit of clothes he was wearing and the contents of his kit-bag. We have already sent out a general call round the district, and that, for the present, is all I can do. May I see that wardrobe?"
Gladys came down to the dining-room with what was required, and the inspector made a thorough examination of the tweed lounge suit that the injured man had been wearing at the time of the outrage. But a careful search of the pockets revealed nothing beyond a plain gold cigarette case and a brown leather pocket book which contained a very large sum in Bank of England notes. The inspector shook his head gravely.
"Here, I think, miss, we have the motive for the assault," he said. "There is over £500 here. But not a sign of a letter so far as I can see. There is not even a tailor's name on the tab behind the collar of the coat. Yes, shirt and underclothing and soft collar are all practically new and none of it is marked. Soft collar has evidently been made to order, for it hasn't even the maker's name on it. But perhaps I shall find some identity mark on the suitcase."
There, again, he was disappointed. Beyond a railway label from Liverpool Street to Marwich, which had evidently been affixed quite recently, there was nothing likely to be of the slightest use. The suitcase contained further articles of clothing and enough linen and odds and ends of that kind to last the ordinary man for quite a long stay in the house which he had evidently intended to visit. Beyond that everything seemed to end in a sort of blind alley.
"The mystery deepens," the inspector murmured. "There is evidently a great deal more here than meets the eye. It is quite certain that the injured man came down from Liverpool Street to-day and got out at Marwich with the intention of seeing somebody in this neighbourhood. It is certain, moreover, that he meant to stay for a few days, at least, or he would not have brought all this stuff with him. Now, as you know miss, Marwich is at the end of a branch line which goes no further. So whoever your mysterious visitor wanted to see, it was someone within walking distance from Marwich station. I think, from what Dr. Carden said, your involuntary guest is a gentleman."
"Of that there is not the slightest doubt," Gladys agreed. "Unmistakably a gentleman of position, exceedingly nice-looking, with very attractive features."
"Ah, just as I was informed. Now, doesn't it strike you as rather strange that a man like that should come down here to stay with somebody who lives at least four miles from Marwich without either engaging a conveyance or having a car or something of that sort to meet him. He must have walked at least four miles, lugging that heavy bag."
"Yes, but he might have come down unexpectedly," Gladys pointed out. "Or there may have been some mistake about the time of the train."
"Yes, that is possible," the inspector agreed. "But it seems to me as if your guest didn't want anyone to know where he was going. At any rate, I feel pretty sure that the man who tried to murder him knew all about his movements. Otherwise, he would never have been attacked in the way he was in a lonely country lane. I haven't seen the blacksmith, Walton, but I understand he is prepared to swear that, almost directly the attack was made, he saw the assailant searching the body."
"That is perfectly true," Gladys said.
"Yes, and no doubt he was looking for these banknotes. However, we must put that possibility aside for the moment. What we have to do now is to circulate an account of this outrage in the hope that somebody in this locality will come forward and identify the poor fellow who is lying upstairs. Somebody is sure to be looking for him at the present moment."
The inspector went off a little later and Gladys repaired to the sick-room where, during the whole of the night, she shared her vigil with Marta. And then, for the next two days, the wounded man lay there, quite unconscious whilst the whole countryside was in a ferment of excitement regarding the crime which had taken place in its midst. But though the story was broadcast and appeared displayed in the press, strange to say, not a soul came forward who could throw light on the mystery. Nobody, even in the neighbourhood or anywhere else, for that matter, seemed to have lost a relative who had gone out from his home or his rooms or hotel with the object of spending a few days with friends in the vicinity of Marwich. The police were utterly baffled and the Marwich inspector, who came over to the cottage more than once in the hope of picking up some sort of a clue, confessed himself beaten.
"Why not call in Scotland Yard?" Gladys asked.
"Well, you see, we don't quite like to do that, miss," the inspector explained. "And the Yard doesn't like it either. Of course, if we can't get hold of something within a few days, our chief constable might think it his duty to ask advice and help from headquarters and only then if some relative comes forward and desires additional aid. By that I mean somebody who has lost a relative and goes straight to the Yard about it. All we can do is to wait and hope that the injured man will come round and tell us all about it."
It was two days later, however, before the man lying upstairs in the spare room showed the slightest signs of life. Then, one afternoon, he opened his eyes and gazed dreamily round him. They were very pleasant, frank-looking eyes, which held a strong attraction for Gladys, who happened to be on duty at the moment. She moved anxiously forward.
"Yes?" she asked. "Yes? What is it you want?"
The man lying on the bed stared at her blankly, as if he had just come out of another world, which, probably he had.
"I don't know you," he whispered.
"Quite naturally," Gladys smiled. "You met with an accident. You were going along the road here in the dark and something struck you on the back of the head. I know that, because I was almost near enough to hear it. But please don't talk unless you want to. There is plenty of time."
The eyes closed rather wearily and then, after the interval of a few minutes, opened again in the blank, helpless way that reminded Gladys of those of a child.
"I don't know you," he repeated. "I don't know who you are or how I got here...... pretty girl, very pretty girl. Reminds me of someone I used to know.... I don't know. I want to go to sleep. Let me go to sleep, pretty girl."
Still, it was not sleep so much as torpor that seemed to overcome the patient, because, presently, the heavy fit passed and he was, once more, looking into Gladys' face.
"Tell me your name," she asked gently.
"My name," the sufferer echoed. "I haven't got a name. I must have had one once, but I forget what it was. Forget everything, just as if I had been born yesterday. What's the matter with me? Why am I lying here when I am quite all right? Why, why did—oh, I've forgotten again."
This time the eyes seemed to close finally, and, once more, the patient slept in earnest. Gladys slipped out of the room and hurried from the cottage into the road.
"I am going to fetch the doctor," she explained to Marta. "That poor fellow has spoken, and I think Dr. Carden ought to know. You go upstairs, Marta, and take my place."
"That's all right, miss," Marta said cheerfully. "That sick room wants a bit of tidying up, and it's about time that suit of clothes the poor gentleman was wearing were brushed and folded. Why, I haven't even unpacked the things out of the suitcase. Nor hung them up as I ought to have done. You go your way, Miss Gladys, and leave it all to me."
It was some time before Gladys returned. The doctor was on his way to a pressing case, for she met him at his gate, but he promised to come along in the course of an hour or so.
"That's good news you've brought," he said. "I was beginning to get a bit frightened. Still, now that consciousness has come back, the odds are all in favour of a recovery."
"But his memory seems to have gone," Gladys said.
"Um, that is not too satisfactory. This might be a long job. Now, you go into the house and ask Joan to give you a cup of tea. You look absolutely fagged out."
So Gladys entered the doctor's house, where his wife gave her the needed cup of tea, and it was over an hour before she got back to the cottage again. There she found Marta in a state of what might be called mild excitement.
"I think I have found something, miss," the old servant exclaimed. "Leastwise, I might have done so. When I was brushing that poor gentleman's trousers, I felt something hard like a bit of metal inside the turn-up of the leg. So I took the liberty of unpicking it and I found this."
Marta held up a bright piece of steel which might have passed for a Yale latch-key, stamped on it on a lozenge-shaped shield were the figures 255, K.R. Co. C.T.
"But it doesn't tell us much, Marta. Still it's something, at any rate."
Gladys was not disposed to make too much of the discovery of the mysterious key. It was possible that a clue lay there but, for the moment, very difficult to see in which direction it lay. But Marta was inclined to take a different view altogether.
"Depend upon it, miss," she said, "if we knew what this meant, we should know all about this poor gentleman upstairs. He must have had some object in hiding the key in that queer place, and he must have put it there himself."
"But how do you know that," Gladys asked.
"Well, you see, miss, the stitching inside the turn-up had been unpicked clumsily and sewn up again by a man who was not used to that sort of work. Any woman would have done it much better, but perhaps the police——"
"I don't think I will say anything to the police about it for the moment," Gladys said. "I should like to show the key to our mysterious visitor in the hope that it may jog his memory. For the time being, at any rate, his memory has gone, though it may come back at any moment. However, I can try. So don't you say anything about it to anybody, Marta."
Marta gave the desired assurance and Gladys knew that there would be no gossip, so far as the strange key was concerned. She would show it to her patient presently, and perhaps, when he caught sight of it, it might touch some chord of memory and thus lead to a solution of the mystery.
Gladys was more encouraged in this view when she went up to see her patient the following morning and saw that he was marvellously changed for the better. The ruddy glow had come back to his cheeks again and the red to his lips. There was still that vague, puzzled look in his eyes; but there was no mistaking the fact that his fine constitution was shaking off the effects of that crushing blow.
He looked up at Gladys with a sort of apologetic smile and began to stammer some excuses for the trouble he was giving. It was plain enough that he knew that he was giving trouble and that he was quite aware of the fact that he ought not to have been in the cottage at all.
"I still feel very dazed, Miss—that reminds me, I don't even know your name."
Gladys enlightened the speaker on this point.
"I am only sorry I cannot respond," the stranger said. "I know I feel wonderfully better this morning and, if you will allow me, I think I am quite well enough to get up."
"You may be," Gladys said firmly. "But I can't hear of that until the doctor gives permission. I will see him after breakfast and if he says it will do you no harm, then I shall be delighted. But not just yet, please. Now, tell me, can't you recollect anything?"
"Absolutely nothing," the stranger sighed. "The past is a perfect blank. Every now and then things flash through my mind, as they do when one dreams, but they are vague and shadowy and gone almost before they come. I am like one who has been born in his manhood. I dare say it will all come back sooner or later, but, just now you see how miserably helpless I am."
"Perhaps I can help you," Gladys murmured, as she produced the key. "Have you over seen this before?"
The man lying there clutched eagerly for the key and, for an instant, real intelligence illuminated his eyes.
"Where did you get that from?" he demanded loudly. "You ought not to have it. I thought it was safe."
"Then it really is of importance?" Gladys asked hopefully. "My servant found it quite by accident when she was brushing your clothes. It was in the turn-up at the bottom of one of your trouser legs. Stitched in."
"Gladys could see by the strange workings of her visitor's face that he was greatly moved. Then he shifted uneasily in the bed and a groan broke from his lips.
"It's all gone again," he said. "I almost had it then. I don't know what it means, and, at the same time, I know that that key is of the most vital importance. Everything seems to hang upon it, and yet, to save my life, I couldn't tell you why. Take care of it. Miss Brooke. Hide it securely somewhere and for goodness sake, don't speak a word of it to a soul."
It was some little time before the strange, unnatural excitement passed, and the patient grew calm again. Gladys was only too glad of the chance of leaving him alone while she went into the lane and ran across the field footpath opposite in the direction of the doctor's house. He had not yet gone on his round, so that she found him at home and he listened eagerly to all that she had to say.
"It is very remarkable," she said. "Your patient seems to be almost well. That is, so far as his physical state is concerned. He looks quite alright, except for that pathetic puzzled expression on his face, and he actually wants to get up. Do you think the mind injury is permanent?"
"No, I don't," Carden replied emphatically. "All the same it may be a long business and may necessitate a slight operation. There is some tiny pressure on the brain, perhaps no bigger than a pinprick, which has broken the continuity of the memory cells and obliterated the past. The man has a wonderful constitution and a remarkably thick skull. I will come over and see him in the course of the morning and if he is as well as you say, there is no reason why he shouldn't get up. If he feels fit enough to stroll about, I should let him. He may see or hear something that will touch the right chord and bring back everything. But I am afraid it is going to be a job for a specialist."
Gladys went back to the cottage a little easier in her mind. She took the field path again and walked with her light swift stride across the yielding turf until the path skirted a deep depression in the ground in which sprawled the figure of a man, who was holding up to his eyes something that Gladys recognised as a pair of binoculars. So intent was he upon his work that he did not hear the girl's footsteps, which was not surprising, considering that the ground was soft from recent rain and the spring grass was growing thickly under foot. Gladys cautiously skirted the hollow and, keeping under the shadow of the hedge, entered the lane presently and crossed to the cottage. From her bedroom window she could see the grassy hollow in which the man lay, and even make out the rings of the pair of prisms which appeared to be pointing straight in her direction.
There was no questioning the fact that the watcher was looking at the cottage and nothing else; indeed, there was nothing else for him to see. It was rather a strange, disturbing experience, and one that afforded Gladys food for considerable thought. Who was this man, she wondered, and what was he doing down here? Certainly he could have no concern with her personally. But then, what about the man upstairs. Yes, that was it. It might even be the would-be murderer himself slinking back into the neighbourhood to study the result of his handiwork. Whilst Gladys was still debating this point in her mind, she saw the watcher rise stealthily from his hiding place and disappear into a spinney a few yards away. She would mention this fact presently to the doctor and, if necessary, inform the inspector of police at Marwich. She wished now that she had taken a little more notice of the man with the binoculars with a view to subsequent identification. But unfortunately, she had not even noticed the sort of clothing he was wearing.
It was all very worrying and disturbing, but it slipped away out of Gladys' mind when the postman came along the lane and delivered the morning letters. There were only one or two which called for no particular attention, but with them came a copy of the 'South African Banner,' which Gladys opened eagerly. It was just possible that this particular issue of the journal in question would contain some further details in connexion with Wilfred's tragic end.
There was nothing of this, however, but something that was not unlike a sequel to that sorry business. On one page of the paper there bulked the name of Walter Bland. Above this name were various outstanding headlines which contained allusions to some ingenious and far-reaching fraud. And when Gladys came to read, she saw that an actor, giving the name of Walter Bland, had been arrested at Natal in connection with a robbery through the medium of forged bonds which appeared to have deprived a considerable number of people of a large sum of money. Only formal evidence, so far, had been given and, in the end, the defendant had been remanded in custody, though the magistrates had expressed their willingness to accept bail to a substantial amount. As this was not forthcoming when the Court rose, the prisoner was detained by the police for a week.
This was not quite all, however, for in another part of the paper, there was a statement to the effect that the prisoner had been able to find sureties and that he himself, had immediately disappeared and was nowhere to be found. This, then, was the sort of man, Gladys thought bitterly, that her brother's particular friend, Patrick French, had chosen to associate with. As a man of the world, he must have known the class of individual he was dealing with, indeed it seemed impossible to think otherwise. It was a sordid story from start to finish and Gladys sincerely hoped that this would be the end of it.
She was glad enough to put the paper on one side presently when she heard the doctor's car coming down the lane, and that breezy individual bustled cheerfully into the dining room with a demand to know how his patient was getting on.
"I haven't seen him since I came across to you this morning," Gladys said. "You had better go upstairs and judge for yourself. And if he wants to get up I hope you will let him. I suppose you have heard nothing from the police?"
So far as the police were concerned, Carden had not heard a single word. It was very strange, he said, that no one had turned up to claim the injured man. Here was an individual walking about the country with five hundred pounds in notes in his pocket, and obviously coming into the neighbourhood to stay for a comparatively long while and moreover, a man of position. And yet nobody had missed him and no resident in the locality had come forward with a view to further inquiry.
"But, mind you, these things have happened before," the doctor said. "Take the case of a man who has been staying on the Continent, Monte or Cannes, or any of those places. I mean an unmarried man without encumbrances. He is expected by his friends to stay abroad for a considerable time and then circumstances compel him to change his mind. The people he knows in foreign parts would naturally think he is staying out there. Let us imagine for a moment that he is the sort of type who writes very few letters. Wealthy bachelors moving about on their own very seldom do indulge in correspondence. Can't you see how a thing like this might happen to anybody? Of course, the mystery could not go on for very long without somebody asking questions. There have been cases in the English papers quite lately concerning persons of lost memory who have been wandering about within a few miles of their homes for weeks, and nobody apparently any the wiser. Depend upon it, somebody will turn up before long and establish your visitor's identity. But, in the meantime, isn't it rather rough on you? Why should you be put to all this trouble for the convenience of a perfect stranger? Why not send him to Marwich?"
Gladys resented the suggestion quite hotly. She would not dream of such a thing. Besides, there was no great trouble, and the expense was merely nominal. It did not occur to her to ask herself why she was taking so deep an interest in this stranger. It was not altogether the romantic side of the mystery as the physical attractiveness of the man who was lying overhead. There was something about him that had appealed to Gladys from the very first. As a rule, she took but little interest in the opposite sex, save in an ordinary way, especially where sport was concerned. She had never been in love in her life, though more than one man had made love to her. Perhaps it was the maternal instinct that was aroused, perhaps it was some deeper feeling, but Gladys did not stop then to consider the psychological aspect of the case.
"You doctors are all alike," she said with a half-indignant laugh. "But don't let us quarrel about it. You run upstairs and see how your patient is getting on."
Carden discovered the fact that his patient was getting on surprisingly well; indeed, from the physical point of view, there was very little the matter with him.
"Oh, yes, you can get up if you like," he said. "Get out of doors in the sunshine. It's a lovely morning and there is nothing like sunshine for a case like yours. If you feel like walking, why walk, but don't overtire yourself. I suppose there is nothing stirring? I mean as far as your head is concerned?"
"Nothing whatever," the patient sighed. "Little flashes now and again, just like lightning on a very dark night. But beyond that, I am up against a blank wall. Look here, doctor, I am rather worried. I have no right to be here at all. Why should I, a perfect stranger, intrude myself upon that charming girl downstairs? Why should she and that old servant of hers be at my beck and call all day? And yet, what can I do? If I had any money to speak of——"
"But my dear chap, you have," Carden replied. "They found some five hundred pounds in notes in your pocket. I suppose you had quite forgotten that fact."
"Had I?" the patient asked. "I wonder where I got all that money from. And what am I going to do with it? A funny thing, don't you think, that I should come down to this place at night and drag a heavy suit-case for nearly four miles without in the last knowing where I was going or why I came. And those notes, Doctor. The average man doesn't stroll about the country with that amount of money loose in his pocket. And yet I must have obtained it from somewhere."
"From your bankers, probably," Carden suggested. "At a guess, you cashed a cheque the day you came down here and brought the notes for some specific purpose. It must have been a specific purpose, or you would have paid away that money by cheque. Now, can't you think why you didn't bring your cheque book? If you had done that we should have been able to trace who you are. Through your bank, you know."
"But suppose I haven't got a banking account?"
"My dear chap, don't be ridiculous. A man of your appearance and general bearing is bound to have a banking account somewhere. Without being able to put one's finger on any definite point, your whole ego suggests prosperity."
"No good," the patient sighed. "I am no better off than I was before. Evidently I came down here for some good reason and I should suggest that that reason was a strictly private one. Otherwise, why my suitcase? Otherwise, why all that sum of ready money in my pocket?"
"Oh, there, there," Carden said soothingly, for he could see plainly enough that his patient was getting worried. "Don't think any more about yourself for the moment. Get up and walk about. Enjoy the sunshine. And here, have a cigarette. I don't suppose you will care about my gaspers, because I am told there were a hundred fine Turkish in your kitbag. Go and get into a nice hot bath and don't try to think, whatever you do. You are quite all right for the moment, and so far as money is concerned, you have nothing whatever to worry about. Get Miss Brooke to take you for a walk. She is a most charming and delightful girl and the most beautiful I have ever met. Really you ought to consider yourself very fortunate."
With that, Carden chaffed himself out of the room, and, presently, out of the house. The stranger came downstairs at length, a fine picture of clean, healthy manhood with the stamp of breeding upon him and the hall mark of a gentleman in every line of his athletic figure. A curious sort of tender thrill ran through Gladys as she turned to greet him.
"I am glad you are so much better," she said. "Now, I have positive instructions from the doctor to see that you don't worry yourself. I want you to look upon the cottage as your home for the time being and to regard me as a personal friend."
"You are very wonderful," the stranger said. "And I am not going to try to find words to thank you. I ought not to stay here a moment, but if you can put up with me for a day or two, I shall be most grateful. I dare say I shall be claimed sooner or later, like so much lost luggage. Meanwhile, I would rather remain here than go anywhere else. I wonder if you could find me comfortable lodgings in the village?"
"Oh, that will be quite an easy matter," Gladys smiled. "There is the old postmistress, for instance. She lives in a cottage very like this and, in the summer, always has visitors. You would be very comfortable indeed there. I will see about it if you like. But, meanwhile, wouldn't you like to walk round and look at the neighbourhood! There is a favourite stroll of mine across the common and through the gates of the Hall and along the woods, coming back by the river. There is nobody at the Hall at present because Mr. and Mrs. Marony are on a long trip round the world. But I have the run of the place and go in and out as I please."
"That I am sure, will be delightful," the stranger said. "When you are ready, I am yours to command."
They set out presently in the sunshine, across the fields, and from thence into the woods and again by a bridle path into the main road. Just opposite them was a thatched lodge behind a pair of magnificent hammered iron gates with a family device surmounting each wing in the centre. The stranger paused before them and a smile trembled on his lips.
"The Clifford coat of arms," he murmured. "But I thought you said that the name was Marony."
Gladys looked up wonderingly.
"It is Marony," she said. "And has been for the last five years. They are very nice people, but they are what you call new. Since the War, you understand."
"War?" the stranger asked. "What war! Oh, yes, I seem to remember a kind of disturbance and I can see a dim vision of a lot of men struggling together—ah, it's gone! But the Cliffords. Surely I knew somebody named Clifford at one time. A very fine old family, but poor for their position. Yes, yes, Cullendon Hall. That's it."
"Why, it is Cullendon Hall before you," Gladys cried.
"Of course," the stranger said. "At the end of the avenue of limes. A stone terrace in front and a large lake at the back. The lake is covered with water lilies and beyond is a sort of Grecian Temple. At least—I don't know——"
Gladys drew a sharp breath. For it was exactly as the stranger had described it. They pushed through the open gates. Gladys lingering purposely a pace or so behind and allowing her companion to lead the way, which he did without the slightest hesitation, until they came to the silent lake with the great pads of water lilies beginning to show signs of bloom.
"Ah, the temple," the stranger murmured. "And there was a woman, a young and beautiful woman that I was very fond of. What was her name? Leonora, Gloria, Dorinda. Some such classical name as that. She and I together——"
The speaker broke of suddenly. The glow left his face, and, for a long time afterwards, he was silent.
For the moment, at any rate, Gladys did not dare to ask any further questions. She could see that her companion was deeply troubled in his mind and that old memories were stirring underneath the surface in a vague, nebulous way that could find no adequate expression. The pleasant smile had vanished from the stranger's face, leaving behind it a certain moody suspiciousness that rather alarmed the girl. At the same time, she could see that her companion was worried and anxious, so that she refrained from saying anything and walked by his side for a long time in absolute silence.
In a way, Gladys was as much surprised as was her companion. There was something almost sinister in the way in which the stranger had passed through the gates of the Hall and led her along to the lake with the air of one who knew every inch of the ground. Most assuredly, he had been here before, but it must have been a long time ago. Gladys knew that the present owner of the estate had been in possession of the Hall for at least five years, in fact, ever since the Cliffords had sold it, after the death of the then head of the family, and that Sir Godfrey Clifford, the present baronet, was somewhere in Australia, sheep farming. But it was rather strange that this unfortunate outsider should have come down to this quiet part of the country to visit a house when he must have known—before his accident—that the Cliffords had long since departed and that, already, they were almost forgotten. Not one of the old servants or attendants of the family was left, indeed, old Mrs. Easton, who kept the village post office, deplored the fact unceasingly. So far as Gladys could gather, the Marony family was neither popular nor unpopular in the district. They were a middle-aged childless couple without family, and very fond of travelling, so that, from time to time, the Hall was closed and the servants, who had all been engaged in London, placed on board wages.
Some of these facts must have been known to the stranger long before this and it was hard to believe that he had come down to Cullendon village to see anybody by the name of Marony. And yet he must have journeyed down to that part of the world to see somebody, and, when that somebody was found, then the mystery would be solved. But who was that somebody and why was he, or she, hiding in the background when the local paper and the London press had had so much to say about the man with the lost memory. The more Gladys thought it over, the more puzzled she became. Only one fact she had established beyond question and that was that her visitor had been to Cullendon before.
She led the way back to the cottage and, a little time later, went across the fields in the direction of Dr. Carden's house. She had left the patient in an almost sullen mood, though she saw that he was doing his best to throw off the black cloud that enveloped him and, from time to time, glanced at her with the pathetic expression of a dog who thinks that, in some way, he has offended a beloved master. It was a positive relief to Gladys when the stranger said he was absolutely tired out and thought that he would be better in bed.
Perhaps she had walked him too far, but Dr. Carden had not warned her against that. At any rate, she would consult him and tell him the strange event of the afternoon.
To all of this Carden listened gravely.
"No, I don't think you did wrong," he said. "I dare say your visitor has a little overdone himself, in which case the tired body would react on the tired mind. But it is strange to think that this poor fellow should have been in this neighbourhood before. Mind you, I don 't think he came down to see anybody at the Hall, unless he happened to know the Maronys as well as the Cliffords. But then it would be absurd to suggest that highly respectable and humdrum people like the Maronys could have been in any way connected with such underhand business."
"Of course not," Gladys agreed. "But I had another idea as I came along. Supposing my patient had been lured down here say by blackmailers. On the other hand, it may not have been blackmailers, but some other sort of criminals. It is evident that the poor fellow made his way to Cullendon with a large sum of money in his pocket for some specific purpose and that he was waylaid on the road and nearly murdered."
"Well, there certainly is something in that," Carden said thoughtfully. "He was waylaid on the road and nearly murdered. Moreover, we have it on the evidence of Walton that the would-be assassin was searching the body of his victim for something as that unfortunate individual lay senseless on the ground."
A sudden idea flashed into Gladys' mind. Was it the mysterious key that the culprit was looking for? And should she tell the doctor all about her discovery? But she could not very well do that in view of the promise that she had given to her involuntary guest. That must wait, at any rate, for the moment.
"There is a good deal in what you say," Carden went on. "The criminal, for reasons of his own, lured the stranger down here. Probably made an appointment, giving a false address. And very likely urging secrecy. When I say a false address, I mean an address the scoundrel had made up and to which your visitor was under the impression he was coming. Then he was waylaid in a lonely spot and nearly killed. I shouldn't be at all surprised if that murderous individual were still lurking about in the neighbourhood. You see, whatever he wanted, he didn't get. He would see in the papers the story of the outrage and learn that his victim had lost his memory. He would naturally conclude that this would be a longish business, in which case he would have plenty of time to try and obtain the thing he was after. Yes, we are not far off the mark."
"I am quite sure of it," Gladys said decisively. "And unless I am greatly mistaken, I have actually seen the man myself. It was very stupid of me not to notice him closely. But perhaps I had better tell you of the incident."
Carden listened with grave attention to the story of the man with the field glasses that Gladys had seen more or less hiding in the hollow in the meadow opposite her house.
"You ought to have told me this before," he said. "And in any case, you ought to have told the police. I am going into Marwich to-morrow and, if you like, I will call on the inspector."
"I wish you would," Gladys said. "And don't you think the police might have done something in connection with those notes which they found in the stranger's possession? They are Bank of England notes, and I was under the impression that they could always be traced, through banks."
"Well, they can and they can't," Carden said. "Some banks take the numbers of the notes when they are cashing a cheque for any amount and others don't. It isn't certain that your man got the notes from a bank at all."
"But they are perfectly new," Gladys pointed out.
"Oh, yes, I know that. And I know, also, that the inspector took the numbers before he handed them back to the owner. You frequently get new notes on a racecourse. I don 't know if you have ever backed a horse, or not."
"Frequently in the old days," Gladys smiled. "Yes, I see what you mean. My visitor might have been racing a day or two before he came down here and won a substantial stake. But I feel convinced that those notes came from a bank. You might suggest this when you see the inspector to-morrow."
The suggestion was duly made some hours later by Carden in the police station at Marwich.
"The point has not been overlooked," the man in authority said. "I took the numbers of those notes and I have been making inquiries ever since. I could do that through Scotland Yard, without actually calling them into the case. I rang up headquarters on the telephone and gave them the numbers, asking them to make inquiries of every bank in London if any of those notes had passed through the clearing house. But we drew a blank there. Then we tried the Continent, and there we made a discovery. Practically the whole of those notes were paid by a commissionaire of an hotel in Monte Carlo. He had exchanged a large number of francs into English money on the instructions of one of the hotel customers who was about to return to England. So far as we can gather, the customer in question had won heavily at the tables the night before his departure and wanted English money. There is no reason to doubt this story because the commissionaire is a respectable man and has been in the employ of his hotel for years. If necessary, we will bring him to England to see it he can identify your patient. But there is no occasion to do that for the moment so you can take it for granted, doctor, that the mysterious individual at present under Miss Brooke's care was at Monte Carlo a few days before his accident."
"Well, you haven't done so badly in the time at your disposal," Carden remarked. "All the same, it doesn't carry us very much further, does it?"
"Perhaps not," the inspector agreed. "But it does give us something to go on. Unless, of course, the mysterious stranger happens to be one of a gang of international thieves, who is suffering at the hands of an accomplice whom he has treated none too well. That is only a mere suggestion, mind you, but it is worth considering. If you take my advice, Doctor, you will get your patient out of Miss Brooke's house as soon as you can."
Carden looked a trifle uneasy.
"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "Anyone looking less like a criminal would be hard to imagine. But then, you never know, do you? Your gentleman crook to-day is able to look any man in the face."
"That is true enough," the inspector agreed. "But you take my advice and get that man moved."
"I most certainly will," Carden agreed. "But, in justice to my patient, I must say that he is as anxious to get away himself. He doesn't want to leave the neighbourhood and there, I think, he is right. In his present state of health he is far better off than he would be in a town, or even a nursing home, for that matter. You see, his bodily health is satisfactory enough and I don't want him to be in an environment of doctors and nurses. He may find his memory at any moment, or it may be five years before he gets normal. We shall probably have to operate. You see, the poor fellow has plenty of ready money to go on with and he doesn't like the idea of being a burden on Miss Brooke's hands. I understand that he contemplates taking rooms at the village post office."
"Couldn't be better," the inspector agreed. "If friends come forward and identify him, then the case is more or less finished as far as we are concerned. But if he is a member of an international gang of crooks, handicapped by a lapse of memory, then it is just as well he should be under our eye."
All of which Carden duly reported to Gladys when he got back to Cullendon. It was something, at any rate, and pointed to an ultimate solution of the mystery, though there was much to be done before that point could be reached.
"I don't agree with the police at all," she said. "It is impossible to look at my unknown visitor and suggest that he should have anything in the way of a past."
"Ah, that is how the sentimental woman speaks," the doctor laughed. "I admit he is extraordinarily handsome and all that sort of thing, and that he has evidently mixed in good society. Public school and that sort of thing. But you never can tell. Now, before I set up in practice here, I had a couple of years' experience with the police. I was a sort of subordinate medical officer. I have seen a good many criminals of the modern type, and quite a lot of them just as attractive as your visitor, with a most pleasant manner and a charm that would fascinate anybody. These men belong to a class of their own. They are all educated and know their world thoroughly. They are to be met at the fashionable resorts and stay in the best hotels. I knew one who was a first-class tennis player and a great favourite on the Riviera before he was laid by the heels and put away under his right name. Now, that man would not have hurt a fly. I don't suppose he ever carried a firearm in his life, because your swell crook despises that sort of thing. So, on the whole, it would be just as well to get your visitor out of the house."
There was a certain amount of wisdom in what Carden had to say and Gladys was not disposed to argue the point. All the same, she was quite sure the doctor was mistaken. Nothing would induce her to believe that there was a criminal strain in her visitor—it seemed impossible to look into his face and harbour such a suspicion for a moment. Still——
There was no occasion for her to raise the question of a change of domicile, because the man with the lost memory alluded to it himself next morning.
"I really ought not to stay here any longer," he said. "You have been more than good to me and I shall never forget your kindness. You have treated me wonderfully, without asking a single question. I might be one of the biggest blackguards that ever breathed. For all you know I might be wanted in half-a-dozen countries."
"I don't think you are," Gladys smiled.
"I am inclined to share your opinion," the stranger said. "But then, you never know. I don't feel like a criminal anyway, but I can't prey upon you any longer. These changeable moods of mine must be very trying, but I can't help them, because every now and then I seem to have a real grip on my identity and then it eludes me as quickly as it has come. I should like to go down to the village and see the old lady you spoke about."
"Don't let me influence you either way," Gladys said. "You are quite free to stay if you like; indeed, I shrill be really sorry to lose you."
"You are an angel," the stranger said passionately. "An angel of beauty and goodness. Ah, if I could only get myself back again! If I could only prove to you that I am what I appear to be! Then, perhaps I could show you how grateful I am for all your kindness. Grateful, did I say? Ah, that is a poor way to express my feelings. I think about you all the time. I wake up in the night and see your face before me, and then I feel that you are the only girl in the world."
There was no mistaking the meaning that lay behind those burning words. A thrill ran through Gladys' veins and the colour rose to her cheeks.
"You must not talk like that," she said. "There may be another waiting for you. In your present deplorable state, you must not speak as if Gladys Brooke represented the universe, because, I assure you, she doesn't. When your mind comes back——"
"When my mind comes back, ah, when!"
"Oh, it will, sooner or later and then perhaps some other girl may appear on the horizon. Do you remember what you told me by the lake in the Hall grounds?"
"Yes, I remember that," the stranger said sadly. "I remember everything that has happened since my accident. There must have been a girl somewhere, some girl called Leonora or Victoria or something like that, but there, it's all gone again."
Gladys changed the subject rather abruptly. In some vague way, she was a little ashamed of herself. It was ridiculous that she should feel the twinge of jealousy for this unknown woman with the name like that of some Greek goddess. What had she herself to do with this stranger whom she would probably never see again when once he was restored to health.
"Come along," she said. "Put on your hat and let us go down and see Mrs. Easton now. It is a beautiful morning and the walk will do you good. Now then, come along."
Down at the far end of the village stood the picturesque cottage where a pleasant-faced woman combined the duties of post-mistress with the keeping of a general shop. It was a roomy, well-furnished cottage, with a small garden in front and a large one behind. It was in a sitting-room facing the rambling old-world garden behind the house into which the old lady ushered her visitors. She looked at the stranger with approving eyes and a motherly expression not to be mistaken.
"This would be the sitting-room, Miss," the old lady said. "And the bedroom is overhead. Both the same size. You, see I'm accustomed to do for visitors in the summer, and I am a bit proud of my new bathroom. It won't be my fault if the gentleman is not quite comfortable here."
"I am quite sure of that, Mrs. Easton," Gladys agreed. "Of course, you know all about this gentleman?"
"Oh, yes, I've heard all the village says and a good deal more besides. But that won't make any difference to me. I'll look after you sir, and see to your comfort and your meals, and though I say it myself, there isn't a better cook in the village. If you'd like to see the bedroom——"
"I am sure that there is no reason for that," the stranger said smilingly. "This is a charming cottage of yours, and I am quite certain I shall be most comfortable here. And when will it be convenient for you to have me?"
"Well, as to that, sir," the old lady said, "most any time. Suppose we say the day after to-morrow, being Monday. That begins a week and gives me time to get a few things together. And we shan't quarrel about terms."
The stranger intimated that terms were a minor consideration and suggested a sum for board and lodging at which Mrs. Easton held up her hands in almost horrified protest.
"Bless and preserve us, sir, you certainly do want someone to look after you," she said. "Why I never get half as much as that, even from my rich city visitors who come in the summer. I couldn't take it, indeed I couldn't; it would be downright robbery. Let's knock two pounds a week off and I will both board and lodge you and see that you are properly looked after. My niece will wait upon you and you can come and go just when you like. Good morning sir, and thank you."
It was on the Sunday night following that Gladys came back rather late across the fields from the doctor's house, where she had been spending the evening. It had been rather a trying day for her, with her visitor in one of his depressed moods, and she had been thankful when he announced his intention of going to bed early and, indeed, had done so before she left the cottage. She came back to find the house in darkness and everybody apparently asleep. From under a stone outside the front door she took the hidden key and let herself silently in. As noiselessly she crept up the stairs towards her own room where she knew exactly where to find her candle and, as she turned into the door, she was a little surprised to see a thin pencil of light under the tiny dressing-room door adjoining the apartment where her visitor was sleeping. She could almost hear his regular breathing. Then what was the matter with the light? Taking her courage in her hands, she flung the door open and looked into the room.
A man was standing there, a man with his face hidden behind a mask, a man who was evidently ransacking the stranger's kit bag. He looked up and in the mirror opposite him caught sight of Gladys standing just inside the doorway. Their eyes met for a moment and Gladys felt her heart miss a beat.
"Stand still," came a hoarse command. "Don't move an inch till I give you the word or I'll blow your brains out."
With those dark, menacing eyes reflected in her own from the mirror, Gladys stood hesitating what next to do. Just for an instant, a deadly fear swept over her, but that sensation had vanished as soon as it had come and she was her own courageous self again, without actually realising it. In an odd, detached sort of way there flashed into her mind the recollection of something that she had heard from a soldier after the war. She had asked him how he felt before some desperate attack and sprawling over the top of a trench with the enemy machine guns in front. And he had told her that his prevailing sensation was one of amazing clearness of vision, both mental and physical, in which he had noticed everything that was going on around him, even to a wild flower that he had crushed under foot.
And at that moment of peril, Gladys was experiencing exactly the same thing. Her mind was crystal clear. She noted involuntarily certain peculiarities about the man facing her, the shape of his head, the sinister curve about the left corner of his mouth, these little things that were to come back to her later on. She noted, too, that the intruder had but recently arrived, because the kitbag at his feet was barely opened, and only one or two articles, so far, had been removed. No doubt, he had approached the house from the back under the impression that everybody was in bed and asleep, and had no doubt learnt his bearings by a pretty thorough inspection of the premises. Probably with a pair of field glasses, such as Gladys had seen in his possession not very long ago. For, without being definitely certain, she was fairly confident that this was one and the same man.
As to how he got into the room, that was an easy matter. The pitch of the cottage was low and the magnolia outside afforded an easy way of reaching the window and opening it from the outside. All these things raced through Gladys' mind as she stood there, hot and indignant and yet with a certain cautiousness that bade her be extremely careful.
She could have turned away and hurried off for assistance, but there was danger in that. If she woke the man in the bedroom beyond the dressing-room, he might appear half dazed with sleep and so invite a tragedy more potent than the one which had gone before. For this ruffian was armed, and if pressed he might use his weapon with deadly effect. There was only one thing for it and that was to face the situation alone.
"Who are you and what do you want?" Gladys demanded.
By way of reply, the man reached the door of the dressing room with one bound and caught his frail opponent by the shoulders. Then he threw her aside with a violence that left her sick and dizzy for the next few seconds. When her eyes cleared and the world ceased to revolve around her, the stranger had vanished. He had flung himself onto the window ledge and, from thence, had dropped to a flower bed below. Rushing to the window, Gladys could just make out his dim outline and hear dull footsteps until they died away in the distance.
Not that she was satisfied to leave things as they were. If possible the man must be caught. Without the slightest hesitation, Gladys made her way down the stairs and out into the room. Then she raced across the fields towards the village and, ten minutes later, was ringing Dr. Carden's night bell.
He came down in his pyjamas and dressing gown and listened to all that Gladys had to say.
"Well, there is nothing the matter with your nerve," he said. "Yes, I think I know what you want me to do. You want me to ring up the police at Marwich and tell them exactly what has happened. Is that the idea in the back of your mind?"
"Of course," Gladys said. "The sooner the police are on the track of that scoundrel the better. He can't be very far off, as yet. Oh, do get to the telephone."
Carden went to the telephone promptly and, in a few brief words, told the man at the other end of the wire exactly what had happened. When he had finished speaking he replaced the receiver and turned to his late visitor.
"That is all right," he said. "I got the sergeant in charge and he promised me to send out an alarm at once. The whole countryside will know all about it in a few minutes. I expect you will have a visit from the inspector in the morning."
However, it was fairly late the following afternoon before the inspector put in an appearance. He came, moreover at an inconvenient time, just as Gladys had made final arrangements for the transporting of her involuntary guest from the cottage to the village post office. So far, she had said nothing of the events of the previous night so that even the faithful Marta was in ignorance as to the visit of the midnight intruder.
The inspector came into the dining-room where Gladys awaited him. He had very little to say and no news to impart. He had done his best according to his lights, but up to the time of his leaving Marwich, no news had come to hand as to the movements of any stranger in the locality.
"How annoying; I did hope you would have got on the track of that man. Of course, you know all that happened last night. You know how I caught the ruffian in the dressing-room upstairs rifling my unfortunate visitor's kitbag. I feel quite convinced that he is the same individual who made that murderous attack in the lane. You know, Mr. Inspector, this business is getting on my nerves. Can't you suggest anything?"
"I am afraid I can't," the inspector said. "One thing I can do, and that is to protect you from further annoyance of this kind. I will put a man on duty outside the cottage with instructions not to lose sight of the house."
"Oh, I am not afraid," Gladys said. "The only thing I am afraid of is that you will play with this business until it is too late. We evidently have a most dangerous criminal to deal with, and one who will stick at nothing to gain his ends. He hasn't even left the neighbourhood, though he runs a great risk in remaining in this locality. Of course, he is looking for something, something that he wants very pressingly indeed. Perhaps I can suggest what it is, though nothing would be gained by doing so at the present moment. Now, Mr. Inspector, can't you get your Chief Constable to do something?"
The inspector smiled non-committally.
"Well, you see, it's like this, miss," he said. "Our chief, Captain Creston, is comparatively new at his job. He is a gentleman, who spent three years at Scotland Yard training for his present position. I dare say you know that his people are an important item in the country and very influential. They knew the late chief would resign before long and that our present one would step into his shoes. He is clever, is Captain Creston, and he does not mean to stay here all his life. And that is why he doesn't want to call headquarters to his assistance until he is obliged."
"Then, in that case I will see him myself. I will come into Marwich this afternoon and call upon Captain Creston."
The inspector took his leave presently and for the time being Gladys put him out of her mind. She went back into the morning-room where her guest sat patiently awaiting her return. There was nothing for it now but to walk with him down to the village and hand him over to the care of Mrs. Easton.
"I shall be very sorry to go," he said. "I shall miss you very much indeed. But, of course, I can't be a burden on you any longer. May I come and see you sometimes?"
"Of course," Gladys cried warmly. "I want you to come in at any moment you feel inclined. You know that my mornings are devoted to work, but, apart from that, I shall always be glad to see you. And you will be missed, too."
"Ah," the stranger smiled sadly. "I am glad to hear you say that. I could be quite happy in this lovely little cottage all my life. But, there is one thing I shall miss almost as much as I shall miss you. It has been a great companion and consolation to me, especially during your working hours."
The speaker indicated the wireless set that stood in the comer of the room. Gladys understood without his saying any more. She had noticed that the music and melody that came flowing from the Daventry Station had soothed the stranger's restlessness and acted like some beneficent drug upon the frayed edges of his nerves.
"Yes, I quite follow," she said. "There are times when a wireless is a positive blessing to me. But I think that Mrs. Easton has a small set. I seem to remember her telling me that she had put one in for the benefit of her summer guests. But, whenever you feel that a little music will do you good, come here and use my installation. You can walk into the house as if the place were your own."
"You are more than good to me," the stranger said gratefully. "But I must not detain you any longer."
The two moved off together presently in the direction of the village and Gladys returned later on, feeling that she had done something to make that unfortunate man happy. And now that he was more or less off her mind, she began to revert to the other side of the business. Had she acted wisely in allowing the stranger out of her sight? Would he not have been safer if he had remained in the cottage because, sooner or later, Gladys felt certain that the mysterious scoundrel hiding away in the background would make a further attempt to get that which he so urgently required, and which he was running so great a risk to get into his possession. Still the police were on the alert now and possibly the next move would end in disaster to the man who played so important a part in the mystery. And there, for the moment, Gladys was fain to leave it. There was nothing that she could do that she had left undone.
As events turned out, it was two days before Gladys was in a position to meet Captain Creston, the Chief Constable of the county. She found him at length in his office ready to meet her and discuss the mystery in all its bearings.
"You have found out nothing fresh?" she asked.
"Absolutely nothing, Miss Brooke," the tall, soldierly man seated at the desk was loth to admit. "But, of course, we are only in the initial stages at present. We are bound to lay that man by the heels sooner or later—bound to. As a matter of fact, I have a little scheme of my own which you will quite understand I cannot discuss with anybody. I appreciate your interest in the affair and the really splendid way in which you have acted, especially as your late guest was an absolute stranger to you."
"But the whole thing is horrible—horrible," Gladys protested. "Here is a gentleman who has lost his memory owing to a dastardly attack on the part of some delinquent who obviously followed him for the purposes of robbery."
"That, I think, is pretty clear, Miss Brooke."
"Oh, it is nice to find that you agree with me so far." Gladys said a little sarcastically. "It seems almost incredible that a gentleman of position like my late guest should be murderously assaulted and the assailant allowed to escape with no more trouble taken to capture him than if he had been a village labourer who had hurt some neighbour in a drunken brawl. It is amazing to me that no one has come forward to claim the poor man. He must have friends and relatives in a high position in this country who are evidently under the impression that no harm has come to him. There are lots of men of leisure who never write letters at all. Put yourself in the place of my guest. Put yourself in the place of his relatives. They are under the impression that he is enjoying himself somewhere abroad, when, all the time, he might be within a mile or two of them. I think he must be, or he would not have come down to this neighbourhood at all."
With that, Gladys went on to tell Captain Creston all that happened within the lodge gates of Cullendon Hall. It was a story that seemed to impress the listener.
"I am glad to have that information," he said, "because it rather helps me. At the same time, don't you think that it cuts the ground from under your theory that your late guest was lured down here by a ruse?"
"Well, perhaps it does," Gladys admitted. "Oh, I don't know what to think or what to do. If I were a man I am sure I could think of something. I hope you won't think I am intruding or trying to advise you, Captain Creston, but it seems to me that here is a case where the Scotland Yard people ought to be consulted. Do say that you agree with me."
"I should be only too glad, if I could," Creston said. "But it is early days yet, and I am afraid you are a little impatient. There is one thing, however, that I can do without allowing the strings to leave my hands altogether. Would you mind giving me an accurate description of your guest."
"But surely that has already appeared in the papers," Gladys pointed out. "I don't suppose there is a newspaper in England that has not had something to say about the Cullendon mystery. Still, if you require the information, I will give it you."
"Thank you!" the chief murmured. "And please don't forget little points—trifling peculiarities that the average person overlooks, but which may immediately impress some friend or acquaintance who happens to have noticed it. You know what I mean. A man picks up the paper and casually reads all about an individual who has lost his memory. But if the description of this party is photographic, then he may pick out some little thing, such as a mole or a spot, and say to himself, 'By jove, that sounds like old George Smith.' In ninety-nine cases out of hundred he might be wrong, but in the hundredth case he would be right. Now, bearing in mind what I say, Miss Brooke, will you try and give me what I am asking? You need not dwell upon his clothing or his boots or his hat, or anything of that sort, because these things convey nothing to anybody. Now, you run over all the points, and I will carefully jot them down in my notebook."
Very carefully and accurately Gladys gave the required details. But there were no outstanding peculiarities. Captain Creston shrugged his shoulders when she had finished.
"I am afraid that does not help much," he said. "You could meet hundreds of men just like that at the Oxford and Cambridge or Eton and Harrow cricket match or in the enclosure at Ascot. It is wonderful how our English upper classes remain true to type. Still, I will do what I can."
Taking this as a gentle hint of dismissal, Gladys left the office and made her way back to the cottage. It seemed rather an empty place without the stranger, and Gladys told herself that she felt very much like a woman who had lost her baby. Old Marta put the same thought in other words.
"The house doesn't seem the same, like," she said. "I've met a lot of gentlemen in my time, but never one I took such a fancy to as the gentleman as 'as just left us. And he was a gentleman, too, if ever I saw one."
"I think so, too, Marta," Gladys smiled. "But there are others who are not so charitably disposed as we are. It has been suggested to me that our Mr. Nobody might possibly be a gentlemanly scoundrel who met his accident after a quarrel with one of his accomplices. I think the police are under that impression."
"Fiddle-de-dee," Marta cried. "You don't get over me like that. It is all very well for them police to talk, but it strikes me as that's all an excuse to hide their own ignorance. Scoundrel indeed! Why, you've only got to look in the poor gentleman's face to see as he was a gentleman. Drat the police."
With which Marta moved off indignantly to her work. The day seemed to drag slowly on to its close, so that the mere prospect of a morning's work on the morrow came like a consoling balm to Gladys. During those morning hours, at any rate, she could forget all about what happened, but when the next afternoon came, leaving her at a loose end with no sign of the stranger, she began to grow restless and uneasy. She could not read and she could not write, even the library book in which she had taken a passing interest, was slung aside. It was nearly nine o'clock and the dinner was over when she turned into the morning room and switched on her wireless set. At any rate, she would listen to the news, and, perhaps get some music from one of the excellent orchestras playing under the auspices of the B.B.C.
She touched the nob of her set, and, almost immediately the mysterious voice out of the ether began to speak.
"London calling the British Isles," it said. "Before the weather forecast, I have an announcement to make. The police are anxious to trace the friends and relatives of a gentleman, name unknown, who was found lying dangerously ill in a lane at Cullendon village, near Marwich, on the night of April 5th. The police are convinced that this man was the victim of a deliberate attempt at murder. He has entirely lost his memory and is quite unable to give an account of himself. About thirty-five years of age, tall, and of athletic build, with blue-grey eyes and a clipped, military moustache. Very good teeth and a pleasant smile. No peculiarities to speak of, with the exception of a small depression just above the point of the chin. Brown, curly hair and rather small, well-set-back ears. Speaks with a refined accent and manners exceptional. Any person who can give information as to the identity of the injured man should communicate with the Chief Constable of Marshire, County Hall, Marwich, telephone 1875 or any police station."
Gladys thrilled as she heard this message coming over the wire. She was glad to recognise that Captain Creston was doing something at last. He might or might not have called in Scotland Yard, but, at any rate, he had evoked the powerful aid of the British Broadcasting Company. The appeal would go out to the far corners or the kingdom and even to British residents abroad. No doubt such a universal appeal as this would result in something definite before long.
Perhaps some English resident on the Riviera would pick up the broadcast. Gladys was aware that many of such people had installed wireless sets in their villas for the purpose of listening to news from home, and there was hope in this direction, more especially because the unfortunate stranger had been closely connected with the Riviera quite recently. At any rate, he was in possession of a large quantity of bank notes which had lately been in the possession of a money changer at Monte Carlo, which fact the police already knew.
Still, it was very thrilling to hear all this going out to the country at large, and the realisation of it brought a comfort to Gladys which she would have been hard pressed to explain. She had not yet asked herself how far she was interested in her late visitor, beyond the usual meed of pity which the average woman would feel for anyone in distress. She did not realise that her feelings were more than really sympathetic, nor did she want to inquire into herself too far at this point.
She felt now that something was being done, she felt that the police were really awake at last, and that great events were likely to spring from that appeal to the ether. She sat there listening and turning things over in her mind to the accompaniment of soothing strains of music, though what the wireless orchestra was playing she had not the remotest idea.
She did not hear a ring at the bell, nor was she conscious that Marta was in the room until the latter spoke.
"What's that?" she asked vaguely. "Someone to see me at this time of night. Who is it?"
"I don't know from the dead, miss," Marta said. "It's a lady, and what's more, she has sent her car away."
Gladys hurried into her little sitting room where a young woman in black rose to meet her.
"You won't know who I am, of course," the stranger said. "But my name is Cora Brooke. Your sister-in-law."
Gladys stared at the speaker in undisguised astonishment. She was conscious of a certain feeling of unreality, just as if she were in the grip of some ugly dream that she could not shake off. It seemed almost incredible that these amazing happenings should take place one after the other, in so peaceful and serene an atmosphere. A few days ago, she was happy enough with her work, and the contemplation of the future, and then, all at once, the avalanches had begun to fall in such bewildering succession. It seemed impossible to struggle against them.
And yet there was nothing in the aspect of the woman who stood, smiling before her to raise alarm, even in the most timid breast. The woman was not unduly girlish, nor, on the other hand, was there any suggestion of maturity about her undeniable charms. She was small and beautifully featured, fair with blue eyes and a mischievous mouth that somehow suggested firmness behind that easy and natural smile. One of the sort of women who might be any age between eighteen and thirty-five. She spoke with a nice, unaffected accent which had, at the same time, a distinction of its own, and her clothing was modest and sensible. A tweed suit of tailor cut, and a neat hat set off what was altogether a decidedly attractive figure. And yet, to Gladys' trained eye, the costume suggested a modesty of means, and the rather thin shoes were splashed with mud. All this Gladys took in almost without knowing that she was ignoring the other's outstretched hand.
"My sister-in-law," Gladys contrived to say at length. "Surely there is some mistake. I have no sister-in-law."
"Ah, then I suppose Wilfred never told you," the woman said with a shake of her head. "I never could quite understand why he wanted to keep our marriage a secret, because there was nothing to be ashamed of about it. Of course, he knew that I should return to England one of these early days, and he always pictured to himself what a surprise it would be when I came down here and told you my name was Cora Brooke."
"Won't you sit down," Gladys said rather wearily. "At any rate, let us talk this matter over. Wilfred never mentioned your name in any of his letters. Please sit down. Can I get you anything? I don't wish to appear abrupt, but I suppose that before you came here you made certain arrangements."
"As to my movements, I suppose you mean," the woman asked. "I am afraid I didn't. You see, Wilfred met me in Cape Town when I was on the stage. I have been on the stage all my life. My father and mother were acting before me. I dare say you will think it very silly of us, but our marriage was a secret one. I expect you have noticed that stage people are rather prone to that sort of thing."
"You mean that, you want to stay here?" Gladys asked.
"Well, that certainly was the idea," the other laughed easily. "I managed to get home when our company broke up and when I landed at Southampton I hadn't a bean—I mean I hadn't any money. But for a providential meeting with a friend who motored me down here, I don't know how I should have reached this village."
Gladys inclined her head with polite interest. Marta had informed her that this unexpected visitor had arrived in a car but the comparatively fresh mud splashes on the thin shoes did not altogether tally with the statement.
"What a strange thing," Gladys said. "You must pardon me if I appear a little bewildered in the circumstances. You say that you are my brother Wilfred's wife——"
"You are not doubting it?" the other asked swiftly. "Oh, well I have nothing to prove it, at least, not in my possession. But that will be an easy matter. Only a question of writing to Cape Town for a copy of my marriage certificate. Meanwhile, my dear Gladys, I will be perfectly frank with you. Our company came to grief up country in South Africa and a defrauding manager left us stranded. That was only a week or two after I was married. You see, I had to fulfil my engagement which I should not have done if I had known what was going to happen. I should have stayed in Cape Town and then Wilfred would never have gone on that ill-fated expedition where he met his death. He would never have started on that wild goose chase at all if he had not been convinced that the bank people were going to prosecute him. As things turned out afterwards they had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Poor dear Wilfred. How generous he was and how loyal to his friends! I don't know whether you have heard the circumstances in which he got into trouble with the bank, but if not I will tell you."
"I don't think we need go into that," Gladys replied. "I learnt all about my brother's death from the South African paper, which reaches me regularly. Also, I had a letter from the bank manager, and a further communication from Wilfred's friend, Mr. Gerald Lewis, telling me everything."
"Ah, Lewis was the man who was the cause of all the trouble, wasn't he?" Cora said. "The man Wilfred helped, fully believing that he could replace the money he had borrowed."
"In that case, we need not go any further into these painful details," Gladys said rather coldly. "Wilfred is dead now, and it is not for us to judge him. Whatever his faults, he always meant well. Do I understand that you want to stay here for the night?"
Cora Brooke looked up with mingled anger and sorrow clouding those fine blue eyes of hers.
"Not if you speak like that," she sad sadly. "It is not my fault that I am in my present position. My idea was to come down here and ask your hospitality for a few days whilst I could find another engagement at home. That won't be long, because I have so many friends in the profession. And, after all, I am your brother Wilfred's destitute widow."
Gladys softened before the appeal. Indeed, there was nothing else for her to do. Her feelings towards the woman who sat opposite her were absolutely negative. She neither liked nor disliked her, but her story seemed to carry the stamp of truth upon it and in any case, it was impossible to turn her out in the road.
"You must pardon me," Gladys said. "You can understand how this revelation of yours took me by surprise. Of course you can stay here for the present. If you will excuse me a minute or two I will consult my servant as to your bedroom."
"Oh, anything will do," the fair-haired woman said. "I am used to roughing it. I daresay if the positions were reversed I should feel exactly as you do. Still, it is too bad to put you to all this trouble when you have another visitor in the house at the same time."
"Another visitor?" Gladys echoed.
"Yes, the gentleman with the lost memory. Now, I dare say you wonder how I know anything about that. As a matter of fact, I read something of it in one of the daily papers. And I thought what a strange thing that I should be on my way to the same house. That is why I hesitated."
"There was no occasion," Gladys said. "My nameless guest is no longer under this roof."
"Then his relatives have identified him?"
"Unfortunately, no. But he felt he could not remain here any longer, especially as he was amply provided with means, so he has taken rooms in the village post office. But let me go and make arrangements for your comfort."
A day or two passed without Gladys feeling herself drawn any further towards the newcomer under her roof. She was sensitive enough to Cora's attractiveness, but there was some vague, intangible something that kept the two at arms length. Still, it would not be for long, Gladys told herself, because already the newcomer was engaged in a considerable correspondence which she declared to be letters she was writing to various theatrical agencies. Beyond that, Mrs. Wilfred Brooke proclaimed the fact that she was not in the least averse from studying the beauties of the neighbourhood alone.
"I know something about it," she explained. "Some years ago, when I was touring with an English company we put in a whole month at Marwich and I covered the ground for miles around. I recognised this cottage directly I got here. And those beautiful lodge gates at the Hall and the park beyond. I have rambled by the side of the lake there many a time. Don't you trouble about me, you go your way and I will go mine. Of course, I know that I am an intolerable nuisance to you and what a lot of gossip goes on in a country place like this. Thank goodness you didn't have to tell your neighbours the details of poor Wilfred's death."
"I was certainly spared that," Gladys murmured. "But I have had to explain you, and that has aroused a great deal of talk in the neighbourhood."
"Well, so long as I don't disgrace you, it doesn't matter much," Cora laughed. "And I don't think I shall do that."
With that, Cora changed the subject and began to ask questions about the neighbourhood when the inspector of police from Marwich was announced. He came into the little morning room, closely followed by a tall man with a rather refined face and hair that was turning grey at the temples.
"I am sorry to intrude," the inspector said. "But there is a question I should like to ask you. My friend here is Sergeant Wilcroft of Scotland Yard. He has been lent to us for the moment and he has an idea that he can help."
"If I am in the way," Cora suggested. Then she stopped suddenly. She was looking at the man from Scotland Yard with a queer, strange interest in her eyes, and he was regarding her with a puzzled expression on his face.
"I am afraid you will think me rather rude, madam," he said to Gladys. "But this lady's face seems familiar to me."
Cora laughed with frank unrestraint. There was no trace of embarrassment about her as she looked at the man with the grey hair and seemed to enjoy his confusion.
"I suppose that is rather a compliment, in a way," she said. "I don't expect Sergeant Wilcroft is aware of the fact that I am an actress. I have played in many London theatres and all over the provinces, and perhaps——"
"Please don't say another word," the sergeant interrupted. "Of course, I remember now. I saw you five years ago at Birmingham in pantomime unless I am greatly mistaken."
"Well, that is a compliment," Cora smiled. "And what a memory. But then I suppose you detective gentlemen are noted for your recollection of faces. Gladys, I think I had better leave you to these gentlemen—they might want to speak to you in private."
The inspector waved the suggestion on one side, but Cora had already made her graceful exit. The man from Marwich asked Gladys a few questions then turned to go. It was quite evident that he had come over to Cullendon on some errand which he had no intention of dilating upon or perhaps he had merely come to the village with the idea of making his colleague familiar with the ground. Gladys detained him for a moment.
"You promised me a day or two ago," she said, "that you would place a constable on duty in the vicinity of this cottage. But there is no necessity as far as I am concerned. What I really want you to do is to transfer your man to the village post office, where my late visitor is living at present. I may be altogether wrong, but I have an uneasy feeling that the poor man is not altogether safe where he is."
"I am not sure that you are wrong," the inspector agreed. "It shall be done and done at once."
With that, the men of law departed and walked down the village in the direction of their car.
"I wanted you to see Miss Brooke," the inspector said. "I have a very high regard for her, and I should be more than sorry if she came to any harm. Now, that other woman. Very fascinating and attractive, don't you think."
"There is no doubt about that," Wilcroft agreed heartily.
"Um, perhaps you admire that type. Bit too florid for my taste. I suppose she is an actress!"
"Beyond the shadow of a doubt," Wilcroft said drily. "Anybody could see that. And when I said that I had met her before I was not paying her a mere compliment."
"Met her in the course of business, do you mean!"
"Well, that I can't quite tell you. It may be, or, on the other hand, I might have seen her on the stage. I have had a good deal of experience with stage criminals, as you know."
"Are you suggesting that she is one of them!"
"Well, I won't go so far as that," Wilcroft said. "But I have met that woman before, though, for the life of me, I cannot think where, or in what circumstances. But I didn't want her to know it, and that is why I made that shot as to seeing the lady in pantomine in Birmingham. It happened to hit the bull's eye as things turned out, so there is no harm done. But what is a woman of that type doing under Miss Brooke's roof?"
The inspector proceeded to explain.
"Sister-in-law," he said. "Though I only knew that last night. Turned up here quite unexpectedly, more or less on her uppers. She is the widow of Miss Brooke's brother, and he married her not very long ago in South Africa."
Meanwhile, Gladys, glad to be alone for the moment, finished her letters, and a little later, set off in the direction of the post office. Before leaving the house she ascertained that Cora had obtained a packet of sandwiches from old Marta and had gone off for one of her long, rural rambles. Not displeased to have the afternoon to herself, Gladys went along in the direction of the post office with a certain sense of freedom which she had not enjoyed during the last few days.
She stamped and posted her letters and then turned for a few moment's chat with Mrs. Easton. The place was deserted, as it usually was at this time of the day, so that they could talk freely.
"And how is your lodger getting on," Gladys asked.
"Well, to tell you the truth, miss, I don't know what to make of him. Some days he's so bright and cheerful that if you didn't know the circumstances you wouldn't believe that he'd lost his memory at all. He does all sorts of rational things. He even writes letters."
"Letters," Gladys exclaimed. "Letters!"
"Yes, miss," Mrs. Easton shook her head mournfully. "But he doesn't post 'em. He writes pages and pages and puts them in envelopes, and then he can't think of the address. All sorts of names I've seen on letters, but nothing more. Then he gets one of his moody fits and burns them. I don't want you to think as I've been spying on him, miss, but I naturally take a lot of interest in the poor, dear gentleman. He is the nicest lodger I ever had. He was writing letters all last evening and as cheerful as could be, but this morning you could hardly get a word out of him. He went off about twelve o'clock and he hasn't been back since. I am beginning to feel quite anxious about him."
"Which way does he generally go?" Gladys asked.
"Well, in his present mood he always goes through the Hall gates and along by the lake. It's a lonely spot and one that makes even me melancholy. I wish he'd come back."
"I will go round that way and see if I can meet him," Gladys said.
She went down the village street and, passing the great iron gates in front of the Hall lodge, entered the park half a mile further down the road, by a green door that gave entrance thereto. By doing this she cut off a long detour and approached the lake by a narrow winding path between dense masses of shrubs so that presently she found herself some thirty or forty yards away from the ruined Greek temple on the far side of the sheet of water. There the lake narrowed so that when Gladys emerged into the open with the gloomy thickness of the laurels behind her, she had a full view of the temple, which was really more of a summer house, rather than a marble shrine.
She looked about her, but no sign of the mysterious stranger was to be seen. Then, just as she was about to retrace her footsteps, voices broke on her ear and, to her amazement she saw her sister-in-law seated on one of the half-ruined benches within the temple in conversation with a tall stranger whose features were plainly visible at that short distance.
He was a man, apparently, of some fifty years of age, handsome and picturesque, and carrying certain marks of distinction upon him. Gladys had never seen him before and, assuredly he was a stranger to the district. But who was he, she wondered, and what possible connection could there be between her sister-in-law and this man. Certainly Cora had never suggested for a moment that she knew anybody in the locality or that she was going to meet anybody in the afternoon. And even if she were going to keep an assignation, there was no reason why she should have made a secret of the fact. If some friend of Cora's had come down to that locality, she should have mentioned the circumstances openly and invited him to see her at the cottage.
Moreover there was an air of furtive underhandedness about this business that Gladys did not like at all. If those two wanted to talk, why not have met in the open, instead of that secret place which suggested something sinister in the background. Gladys restrained a natural instinct to retire, but, with all her suspicions aroused, she merely slipped deeper into the background and watched them from where she was standing.
Up to a certain point the interview appeared to progress pleasantly enough until Cora said something to which her companion took exception. He blazed out in an expression of wrath, but in an undertone that failed to reach Gladys' ears. He bent over Cora so threateningly that Gladys half started in alarm.
But Cora, apparently, was not in the least afraid. She rose to her feet with a light laugh and a gesture of mocking courtesy after which she came lightly down the steps of the temple and turned in the direction of the drive. The man followed her, protesting as he went, and in a few minutes they were lost to view.
What did this mean; what was going on? Gladys asked herself. Perhaps she would learn presently, but, meanwhile, she was going to wait for Cora to speak. She knew that she had not been seen by those two so, without hesitation, she retraced her footsteps and returned to the post-office again.
"Well, Mrs. Easton," she said. "I can't find my late visitor. Has he returned by any chance?"
"Oh lor, yes, miss," the old lady cried, "Fact is, he has never been away. Just been sitting in the alcove at the end of the back garden all the time. He's there now. But perhaps you would like to see him. I am sure it would cheer him up to have a chat with you, so you just step into his sitting room, while I fetch him. I can't ask you into the kitchen because I've got all my washing about. I'll be back in a minute."
Gladys turned into a nicely appointed sitting room which had been allotted to her late visitor. On a table was the book he had been reading, and between the two latticed windows a writing desk on which lay an envelope partly addressed. Half ashamedly, Gladys stepped across the room and read the superscription—just one line and part of another unfinished.
"Wilfred Brooke, Esq. 151, Avenue Ant——"
Gladys stood there gasping for breath. A letter actually addressed to her own dead brother. In the writing of her late visitor, beyond doubt. What, what did it mean?
Gladys looked at the envelope again to make quite sure that she was not mistaken. But there it was plainly enough, with her brother's name in full and that partially written address which pointed to some foreign destination. It might be French or, on the other hand, it might be Italian. And possibly, again, somewhere in Latin America. But why had the visitor so suddenly broken off? Possibly he had been disturbed and, what was far more likely, he had forgotten the latter part of the address. Gladys was taking it for granted, of course, that the handwriting was that of her unknown visitor, otherwise it would not have been lying there on the table at all. All she had to do now was to wait until the stranger came in out of the garden.
He strolled in presently, listlessly enough, though his eyes lighted up as they fell on his caller.
"It's very good of you to come like this," he said. "But please don't bother about me, because I am not in the least likely to come to any harm. Mrs. Easton says she has been looking for me all over the place. But I was close by all the time. I was coming up to see you this evening."
"I hope you will do that in any case," Gladys smiled. "Do you know, I have been guilty of an unpardonable piece of curiosity. I took the liberty of inspecting your writing table, and on it I found an envelope addressed to my brother."
"Your brother," he echoed. "Oh, yes, you told me you had a brother. Dead, isn't he, poor fellow?"
"I have every reason to believe so, is that your writing on this envelope?"
The stranger took the square of paper in his hand and regard it in a sort of amused amazement.
"Yes, that is my writing," he said wearily. "But I don't know in the least what it means. Every now and then, little flecks of light come into my mind and, in flashes, I see things clearly. Then, as quickly as they come, they vanish. I must have put that name on the envelope half unconsciously. Your brother's name came to my mind and I wrote it down. What the address means I really can't tell you. Another flash of memory, perhaps, mixed up with the first, like a sort of compound photograph. Very likely at one time I knew a man who lived in the Avenue something or other. But I don't know. I never know anything. Directly I begin to think, I get worse than ever."
"Then, don't try," Gladys said cheerfully. "I ought not to have mentioned the matter at all, because, of course you could not possibly have known my brother. Please forget it."
Gladys almost forgot it herself when she found herself a few minutes later on her way back to the cottage. The envelope was puzzling and disturbing enough, but not half so disturbing as the recollection of that mysterious interview between Cora and the man in the alcove by the lake.
Strange that Cora never mentioned the fact that she knew somebody in the neighbourhood. But, given time, she might allude to the subject.
But tea came to an end, and an hour passed without a single word from Cora on the subject. Evidently she was going to keep the matter to herself. But Gladys had not the slightest intention of letting it pass in that casual fashion.
"Where did you go this afternoon?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't know," Cora said casually. "Across the fields and round by the back of the Hall."
"Of course, it is no business of mine," Gladys said quite coldly. "But I don't think you are being quite candid with me, Cora."
"And what does that mean?" Cora asked.
"Well, you see, I was in the neighbourhood of the Hall myself this afternoon. I was looking for my mysterious visitor, because I was feeling a bit anxious about him. He is fond of wandering about the grounds round the Hall; it is quiet there now that the family is away, and he seeks the solitude which is none too good for him. So I looked for him there this afternoon, and though I failed to find him——"
"I know exactly what you are going to say," Cora interrupted with a fine show of candour. "You went along by the lake, and you happened to see me there talking to a stranger. Well, I was. But you would be none the wiser if I told you the curious circumstances in which I met him. You musn't mind my having a secret of my own, about which I will tell you in due course. It is purely a business matter."
"I am very sorry," Gladys said coldly. "I am sorry now that I mentioned the matter at all."
With that, pleasantly, but none the less firmly, she changed the conversation. Still, she felt sure in the back of her mind that Cora had not the slightest intention of telling her anything, and that she would hear no more about the stranger by the lake side. But the whole thing was very disturbing and only added to that feeling of helplessness that had been growing on Gladys for the last two or three days. She felt like some hapless fly that has been flung headlong into a clinging web of intrigue from which there is no possible escape. Only a few days before she had been free and happy in her work and looking forward with pleasure to the future. But now, all that was changed.
To begin with, she had the unfortunate stranger on her mind. He had fallen into her life out of the blue, and though he asked nothing at her hands, every instinct in that fine nature of hers called aloud upon her to assist him. Worse than that, she was taking more than a sympathetic interest in him. She wanted to fight for him, to shield him from the world as a mother shields a child from danger. And yet the feeling was not altogether motherly—there was something deeper in it than that. There would be trouble yet, Gladys felt, and perhaps tragedy. And one of the elements of tragedy was not remote from the fair-haired, smiling woman who sat opposite her. Gladys was not sorry when, half-an-hour later, the stranger appeared.
He came across the room and then turned quickly as he saw Gladys was not alone. His eyes met those of the woman who rose from her seat and smiled vaguely. But behind the smile Gladys could see a strange expression that was partly amusement, partly mischief, mingled with interest and something that seemed to Gladys actually on the verge of fear. But only for an instant, and then Cora held out her hand frankly.
"I have heard of you," she said. "I am very sorry and I hope you will let me help you if I can."
The stranger stood still without speaking. Just for an instant, his eyes became clear with the full light of reason in them. But the mood passed swiftly.
"Leonora," he murmured. "Victoria. No, that's not right. There, it's all gone. I thought for a moment that I knew you, but I am afraid that it is a mistake. Of course, you are Miss Brooke's sister-in-law."
"That is quite right," Cora said. "People are always mistaking me for somebody else. But then, you see, I have been on the stage for some years. Many see me there and forget my features until we meet again, and then they think that we have come together at some time which they have quite forgotten. I dare say that once, when you were quite yourself, you watched me from the stalls and that is why I remind you of myself now."
"I expect that is it," the stranger said. "I was rather fond of going to the theatre at one time—at least, I think I was. But please don't let us talk about my troubles any longer. I am perfectly happy here—or as happy as a man in my position can be, and the doctor says it is only a question of time before my memory comes back. I try to be patient, but there are times when this blankness is past endurance."
Gladys moved across the room in the direction of the piano.
"Wouldn't you like me to sing to you?" she said.
"Ah, yes!" the stranger exclaimed. "Music always makes me feel more resigned. Do please sing."
Gladys chose some simple melody, during which the stranger closed his eyes, like a contented child about to sleep. The song had hardly finished before Marta appeared in the door way.
"A gentleman to see you, miss," she announced.
"Ask him in here," Gladys directed.
"So I would have done, miss," Marta replied. "Only when he found you had friends he preferred to wait for you in the morning room. He says he will only detain you a few minutes."
Gladys went into the morning room where, to her surprise, she found her visitor was none other than Captain Creston.
"I told your servant not to mention my name," he said, "because I don't want anybody to know I have been here. I would much rather not come into the drawing room where your visitor and sister-in-law are. I suppose you heard the broadcast appeal on the wireless regarding your unfortunate guest."
"Oh, of course. Everybody heard it, I think."
"Well, that was my idea. Nothing has come of it yet, but I am not without hope. What I came here this evening to ask you is this. When I saw you on the first occasion in connection with this unfortunate affair, are you quite sure that you told me everything. No little clue overlooked?"
Gladys shook her head, then, suddenly, the recollection of that mysterious key flashed into her mind. She had not intended to tell anybody that, but it seemed to her now that she might be withholding something of more than ordinary importance.
"I am afraid I was not altogether candid," she admitted. "I did keep something back. But perhaps I had better tell you in what circumstances I found it."
"Ah," Creston murmured, when the story was finished. "I think I shall have to trouble you for that key, Miss Brooke."
With the key in his pocket, Creston strolled down the garden path and into the road and made his way to the spot at the end of the village where his two-seater car awaited him. It was not yet dark as he lingered with his hand on the steering wheel until two figures appeared coming in his direction. He made them out presently as those of the Marwich inspector and the man named Wilcroft, who had come down there from Scotland Yard.
"Ah, here you are," he said. "I have just been talking to Miss Brooke and I have obtained something that may be of considerable use to us. I ought to have had it before, but in Miss Brooke's eyes it was so casual that she forgot to mention it. We will go into all that later on, and, in the meantime, have either of you got anything to report?"
"Absolutely nothing, sir," the inspector admitted. "We have been following your instructions all day without the slightest results. If there is anything else——"
"Not for the moment," Creston replied. "I am going back now and I will see you both in the morning. You had better get along in the other car."
There was a second car standing by the roadside a little way off and in this the inspector and Wilcroft made their way slowly in the direction of Marwich. They were silent for a moment or two and not particularly happy after a long, fruitless search for an elusive clue which Creston thought he had discovered.
"What sort of a man is he?" Wilcroft asked, as if reading the other's thoughts. "I mean your boss."
"Oh, the captain. He's all right. A bit young and impetuous, perhaps, but he has got his head screwed on. Good many people round here think it was a put-up job when he got that chief constableship, and so it was in a way, he being one of the county. But he did very well in the war, and he had two years with the Yard afterwards. A real nice gentleman to work under, too. There is nothing the matter with the captain."
"Yes, I had forgotten all about that," Wilcroft observed. "But then, I haven't been at the Yard so very long myself. Now, what do you know of this business, Irwell?"
Inspector Irwell did not know what to make of it, and frankly said so. It was not a big business but, on the other hand, it was not a small one. There were features about the case that gave it a distinction of its own.
"In my humble opinion," he said. "Miss Brooke's guest is a gentleman and a man of position. Plenty of money and all that kind of thing and, no doubt, plenty of friends if we could only find them. You have only to look in his face to see there is nothing wrong with him. There are one or two of us at Marwich who argue that he belongs to some criminal gang, and he got biffed on the head in consequence of a quarrel. But I don't hold that theory at all. He either came down here on business or was hired here and followed. It doesn't matter which way you look at it. The rogues in the play wanted something that poor chap had got and that was their way of getting it."
"But they didn't get it," Wilcroft pointed out.
"No, they didn't," Inspector Irwell smiled. "That is where we get a bit of a pull. But they would have got it if the blacksmith had not come up just in the nick of time. And I don't think it was the money in that unfortunate man's pocket that was the main attraction. They were after something much more important. And, if I am not greatly mistaken, they will have another shot yet. Nobody but we know of the attempt made the other night to burgle Miss Brooke's cottage, and nobody is going to know for the present. But the man who tried that game on belonged to the same gang that knocked the mysterious gentleman on the head. I should not be surprised if it wasn't one and the same person. He is somewhere in the neighbourhood still and he won't go till he gets what he wants."
"Ah, that is where we come in," Wilcroft said. "It will be our business to see that he doesn't get what he wants."
"You have hit it," Irwell agreed. "But, as to laying our hands upon him, that is another matter. I have been scouring the neighbourhood for miles around looking for strangers at the various farmhouses, whilst you stayed in the village. I want to find some man who is taking a holiday and pretending to fish or something of that sort. You know the idea."
"Without finding anything, of course."
"Well, not directly," Irwell replied thoughtfully. "But I did spot one chap a mile or two away who was evidently at a loose end. Nice-looking chap who reminded me very much of the man who had something to do with those Hasford turf frauds some years ago. The man who called himself Ezra Gotto. If I hadn't known that he was out of the country for good and dared not show his face in England I would have sworn to him. The same, but altogether different if you understand what I mean. Perhaps you don't remember the case I mean."
"Yes, I do, now that you come to mention it," Wilcroft said. "It was worked by telegraph, wasn't it?"
"That's right," Irwell replied. "I was at Hasford at the time. And that is only about thirty miles away as the crow flies. I did a good deal of the donkey work in that case, but we could not bring it home to the man who called himself Ezra Gotto, or to his woman accomplice for that matter. They were never seen together. There was not a local witness or even a London one who could couple them up in the slightest way. And when an unusually astute bookmaker tumbled to the fraud that was going on and gave us the office, those two suddenly vanished as if the earth had opened and swallowed them."
"How was the game worked?" Wilcroft asked.
"Well, it was like this. The man called Ezra Gotto posed as a Yankee who had plenty of money. He betted heavily and was trusted by the bookmakers because he always paid his losses promptly, and, therefore, had no difficulty in opening credit accounts. He was one of the last minute fraternity. You know what I mean. A man who wired his bets from the course, or from some country house where he was staying, sometimes within a minute or two minutes of the race. Being well in with the turf accountants, the thing went all right. Of course, it can't be done now, because the swindle has been exposed and the bookmakers are too wide awake. But, at that time, it was rather new and Ezra was working on a big scale. What he really did was this. He laid his plans months ahead. He would stay somewhere close to a big race meeting and wire his bookmaker within a few minutes of the race up to hundreds of pounds of wagering. He would get the result by telephone and then cross over to the local post office and back the winner, sometimes to win thousands of pounds."
"But the time figures on the telegram?" Wilcroft asked.
"Yes, I was coming to that," Irwell went on. "That was where the ingenious part of the scheme came in. I told you just now that the whole plot was worked out months beforehand. Well, the woman that Gotto was never seen with, but who was his confederate all the same, would go down and take rooms in the local post office. She posed as a lady clerk or something of that sort who wanted a holiday badly. Her story was that she had just come into a goodish legacy and was inclined to take it easy. Her game was to get friendly with the girls in the village, and especially with a girl who was attached to the local telegraph service. Of course, in the circumstances, this was easy, being so friendly and generous, she was all over the telegraph girl in no time. Then she let slip the fact that in her early days she had been in the post office herself, which wasn't quite true, although she could work a Morse instrument perfectly. Sometimes, just for fun, she would slip into the post office and help the operator at her work. Just to make it look natural you understand. Then, suddenly, a nice-looking man in a car would turn up and take the girls for joy-rides, making himself exceedingly attentive to the telegraph girl, as you can imagine. Then, on the day before the big race, the immaculate young man would offer to take the girls over to Rothfield to see a matinee at the theatre there. It wouldn't matter whether there was a matinee or a theatre or not, because the girls would not know that. You can imagine how eager she was to go, and how disappointed she would be to have to say that her duties would prevent her. You see what is coming!"
"I think so," Wilcroft grinned. "I begin to remember the circumstances now. Of course, the pretty adventuress who had seen practically every actor or actress in London, offered to do the generous thing and take over the operator's duty in the post office. Nobody would be the wiser, and it was only for an hour or two in any case. And of course, the temptation was too great with the result that the fascinating swindler was left in charge of the telegraph department, also the telephone. All she had to do was to wait for Gotto to phone the result of the big race and send off the arranged telegram in his name to the bookie with the winner, and put back the time on the wire by five or six minutes. Very smart, wasn't it? Smart enough, at any rate, to do the bookmakers down to the extent of thousands of pounds."
"Yes, that is exactly how it was," Irwell agreed. "We could have laid the woman by the heels in one case, but she vanished just as completely as the man, and the warrant for her arrest still lies in the office, and is likely to remain there. The only clue we had was a snapshot photograph of the woman which she was foolish enough to allow one of her victims to take. I will show it to you when we get back to the office."
Irwell produced the photograph presently and Wilcroft studied it carefully. Then his eyes lighted up.
"Why, don't you see," he cried, "making an allowance for a year or two, that is the woman over at Cullendon."
"What. Miss Brooke's sister-in-law?"
"Got it for a million," Wilcroft cried.
The glorious April days went on with a mild west wind and a sunny sky, and Gladys' well-attended garden had grown into a thing of living, breathing beauty. And yet, despite the fact that she had no trouble of her own and that she had more work than she could conveniently manage, she could not shake off a certain feeling of uneasiness and the fear that something was going to happen. It hung over her like a cloud and in vain did she try to laugh it off. But there it was and it grew rather than lessened as she watched the woman who had come under her roof in such strange circumstances. For Gladys was not getting on well with her sister-in-law and it was useless to attempt to deceive herself into a belief that this was merely a passing phase.
There was something about Cora that did not ring true. Not that she was in the least common, or that she did anything to outrage Gladys' nice sense of the proportion of things. But she was shallow and artificial, and a score of times, at least, Gladys had detected her in some quite superfluous lie.
To begin with, she appeared to be no nearer an engagement than she had been when she first appeared, now some three weeks ago, though she had confidently boasted that it was only a matter of writing a letter or two. She was not going to be a burden to Gladys, she said, and Gladys, after the first struggle to be loyal to her brother, was quite content that it should be so. Nor did Gladys so much mind the fact that Cora was without means. That might have happened to anybody, especially to the woman who had married so improvident an individual as Wilfred Brooke. But then, she had spoken about her wardrobe and the big cabin trunk which she had brought from South Africa. There was still no sign of this, meanwhile her entire outfit was borrowed from Gladys, who also supplied her sister-in-law with money from time to time. It was all very disturbing, none the less so because Cora had never mentioned her own relatives.
As if this were not bad enough, there was the case of the mysterious stranger. It seemed amazing to Gladys that no one had turned up to claim him. Day after day went by without the slightest response to that broadcast appeal which had been initiated by Captain Creston. Yet perhaps it was not so very remarkable, after all, Gladys had read cases in the paper of men who have been eagerly sought by their relatives after only a few hours' disappearance, whilst these unfortunate victims of lost memory were wandering about the country for two or three weeks without, apparently, attracting the least attention. She would have to go on possessing her soul in patience.
Meanwhile the mysterious one was a constant visitor to the cottage. He had quite recovered his physical health, but memory was no nearer than it had been from the first trouble and Dr. Carden was still hesitating as to whether or not he should call in some specialist with a view to a subsequent operation.
This was the state of things that afternoon when Gladys and her late visitor set out for one of their afternoon rambles. She was not best pleased when Cora joined them.
"Oh, I am not going to worry you," the latter laughed. "I shall leave you on the common, because I want to see if I can find some more of those anemones I was telling you about."
On the edge of the common Cora turned away with a smile and a wave of her hand, and disappeared towards the valley at the foot of the hill. The stranger gazed after her with a peculiar look in his eyes that Gladys did not fail to notice.
"I don't like her," the man said. "I ought not to say so, but I don't. And yet I did at first. Then she seemed as if she were part of my life, if you understand what I mean."
"I am afraid I don't," Gladys said gently. "But if you would rather not talk about her, we won't."
Meanwhile Cora had gone on her way alone. She came to a lonely spot and sat on the grass and waited. A little time later, a motor cycle appeared on the by-road and stopped a hundred yards or so away. The rider, who was clad in mackintosh and goggles, pushed his machine into a gorse bush, and then came along to the spot where Cora was seated. He took off his spectacles and helmet and disclosed the thin, rather distinguished face, with greying hair, of the same individual Gladys had seen Cora talking to in the ruined temple on the lake.
"Ah, this is a new idea," Cora said with a certain mocking imitation in her voice. "Why this disguise?"
"All very well for you to talk like that," the man said. "You are all right. You've got a comfortable roof over your head and a confiding friend ready to find you all you need. Very different from me. Nobody suspects you."
"Now, my dear man," Cora said calmly. "I am not quite so sure about that, I am too close to the police force to be altogether comfortable."
"Yes, but they are not after you."
"In the first place, perhaps, no. But they are always buzzing about in connection with what my sister-in-law calls the mysterious stranger. And one of them is a Scotland Yard official. He told me a week or two ago that my face was quite familiar to him. And he wasn't altogether satisfied when I told him that he must have seen me on the stage at some time. He said that must be it, but I could see that he didn't altogether believe that story. So we both have our troubles, my boy."
"Yes," the man grumbled. "Look at me. I don't know where to turn for a shilling, and that motor-cycle doesn't belong to me. I got hold of it by a trick."
"You mean to say that you stole it," Cora suggested.
"Well, that is about what it comes to. And now, as to that business for next week. I dare not go near the Hall, but there is no reason why you shouldn't. Did you do what I told you!"
"Oh, of course," Cora said with a sort of mocking humility, "I always do, don't I? I have actually been in the house itself. Most of the servants are on board wages and there is only a sort of butler man and his wife on the premises just now. The plate chest is at the back of the hall. And in the drawing-room I noticed two or three large cases of ancient gold coins. Of course, we couldn't sell them as they are, but they represent a considerable sum for old gold."
"That's the idea," the man said. "I want you to do just as I told you when the evening of Friday comes. I have put it all down on paper so that there shall be no mistake. You will have to creep out of the cottage after the Brooke girl and her servant are asleep, and meet me inside the lodge gates of the Hall as the clock strikes twelve. Oh yes, I know what you are going to say. Wouldn't it be better to wait until we have dealt with the mysterious stranger. I know that, but I am at my wits' end to know how to pay my lodgings next week. I can bluff it out for a day or two longer, but I must have some money. We don't seem to have any luck at all with—you know who."
"We certainly have been unfortunate," Cora sighed. "If that blacksmith man had been just a few minutes later, we should have got away with what we wanted without all this masquerade. And then, just as you are on the verge of the discovery, Gladys comes back to the cottage and catches you in her guest's dressing-room. Of course, you thought she was in bed and asleep, which is where you made a fatal mistake. However, it is no use throwing stones at one another. You give me that paper and I will follow out instructions to the letter. But when you get this money we shall be none the nearer our objective."
"No, but we shall have some funds to go on with," the man growled. "Well, here is the paper. Now, you cut along and I will get back to my lonely lodgings on the moor."
The two parted a little later and Cora retraced her footsteps in the direction of the cottage. She found that Gladys had already returned and was sitting down to tea alone, the mysterious stranger having gone back to his lodgings. Barely had Cora taken her place at the tea table when Marta came in with the announcement that a man wanted to see her.
"What sort of a man?" Cora asked.
"Well, ma'am, he isn't a gentleman and he isn't just a workman," Marta replied. "But you've seen him before. He is one of them two as come over from Marwich the other day. The same day as Captain Creston was here."
"That sounds like the police," Cora replied.
She rose from her seat and went into the morning room with a cheerful face, but some misgiving at her heart. As she entered Wilcroft rose and confronted her.
"I am afraid that my visit is not a very pleasant one, madam," he said. "I want to see you with regard to a matter that happened some five years ago. I think that you will not deny the fact that you were in England somewhere about that time."
"Why should I deny it," Cora demanded.
"Well, it doesn't much matter. It is just five years ago within a month or so that the Hasford turf frauds were occupying a good deal of attention. There was a woman in the case, no doubt acting at the instigation of the man who called himself Ezra Gotto, and I have every reason to believe you are that woman. Therefore, I have a warrant for your arrest."
"And the specific charge?" Cora asked.
"Certainly," Wilcroft said. "On a certain date at Hasford Minor you, in connection with a post office employee——"
Cora's face lighted up suddenly.
"Oh, really," she said. "I knew you had made a mistake. I have never been in Hasford in my life. There is a witness not very far off who can prove it. That is, of course——"
She broke off abruptly and her expression changed from one of smiling contempt to something like blank despair.
Naturally enough, it was a great shock to Gladys to find that she had been sheltering one suspected of being a criminal under her roof. She was not going to make up her mind yet; but all the same, something told her that this disgrace was not going to be wiped out by the discovery that it was merely a matter of mistaken identity. Cora protested passionately that she had never seen the village of Hasford Minor, but the police seldom take a step like that without being sure of their ground.
Anyhow, this was all part and parcel of the sea of trouble into which Gladys had been plunged. A little while back and her life had been that which is passed in a pleasant backwater, and now, here she was, plunged to the hilt in an atmosphere of crime and intrigue. What manner of woman was it, she wondered, had her brother married? He was just the sort of rash, headstrong youth who would give his heart without asking a single question and believe all that she had to say in conflict with every demand of ordinary common sense. Still, Gladys was going to do her best. An hour after Cora had gone off in company with Wilcroft, she hastened across the fields to tell Dr. Carden all that had happened and to ask his advice.
"Well, this is a nice mess," that cheery individual said when he had listened to the story. "What do you think about it yourself? Are you very indignant?"
"Well, I ought to be perhaps," Gladys admitted. "But I am afraid I am not. There is nothing I can put my finger on, but, from the first, I have felt that there was something wrong with Cora. Something mysterious and underhand. I shall not be at all surprised if it turns out that she is just a worthless adventuress. But that will not prevent me from doing what I think is right. Cora has no money and no friends, and I must help her to the best of my ability. I wonder if you will be good enough to motor into Marwich and engage a solicitor to defend her. From what the detective told me she will appear before magistrates in the morning, when only formal evidence will be offered. She will be remanded for some time, and I don't want Cora to stay in jail if we can possibility help it. No woman ought to remain in jail under remand. My idea is to apply for bail, which I shall be prepared to find. Now, if you will do this for me, I shall be most grateful. I can think of nobody else."
"Of course I will go," Carden said. "You leave it to me. I am only too sorry that this has happened."
The cheery little doctor was as good as his word, so that when Cora appeared before magistrates the following morning she was represented by a local advocate who had taken her instructions in prison an hour or so before and was prepared to do his best on behalf of an attractive client. Inspector Irwell in the witness box outlined the story of the turf frauds, which most people in Court had forgotten. He went on to tell the Bench exactly how the turf accountants had been defrauded and how the chief criminals had disappeared within a few hours of their fraud coming to light. More than that, for the moment, he was not prepared to say. As he turned to leave the box, Cora's advocate stopped him.
"One moment if you please," the latter said. "You have no witnesses here, inspector, have you?"
"We have no witnesses here for the moment, sir," Irwell replied. "You see, it has not been an easy matter to gather up the threads after all this lapse of time."
"Quite so," the lawyer smiled. "Your witnesses, I take it are the female telegraph operators, whom you allege entered into a criminal conspiracy with my client to rob the bookmakers of a large sum of money. Is that so?"
"Practically," Irwell said. "But I did not say that my female witnesses were active accomplices. They were more or less innocent, although, of course, they knew they were doing wrong when they allowed themselves to be made the tools of the woman in the case. From their point of view they were running a risk which was not a very dangerous one."
"I quite agree with you there," the lawyer said. "But have you anyone in Court to-day who can identify my client?"
Irwell was bound to admit that he had not. He turned to the bench to make an explanation.
"It is like this, your worships," he said. "It is a long time ago and I need not tell you that those telegraph operators lost their jobs. They were not prosecuted because it was felt that they had done nothing seriously wrong, but were dismissed from the service and one of them married and went abroad, and I fear never will be traced. Another met with a motor accident, which ended fatally. These frauds took place in three rural post offices within twenty miles of Hasford. One of them was worked through the office of Hasford Minor. That is, the operator there at the time is the only one of the three female post office officials with whom I have come in contact. And when I say contact, I don't mean that I have seen the girl. But I have found out where she is, and I hope, before long, to be able to bring her here and put her in the witness box."
"And that is all you have to say?" the defending counsel asked. "That is your case so far?"
"That is my case so far," agreed Irwell. "And on that I ask the Bench to remand it for a fortnight."
"Any objection, Mr. Waterford?" the chairman asked.
"No objection whatever, your worship." Cora's advocate smiled blandly. "But I think you will admit that, so far, the police story is pretty weak. At any rate, I am prepared to consent to a remand on the understanding that bail is allowed."
The Bench glanced at Irwell, who stood there with stolid indifference.
"It was not for him to decide," he said. "The matter was entirely in the hands of the magistrates. And if they liked to accept bail he had not the slightest objection. But it would have to be bail to a substantial amount."
"Yes," the chairman said. "Two sureties of five hundred pounds each and the parties to be approved. Now, Mr. Waterford, are you prepared to give this undertaking."
"Certainly," Waterford said. "I propose my client's sister-in-law. Miss Gladys Brooke, and Dr. Carden."
"Quite satisfactory," Irwell said.
The recognisances were entered into and signed, and a few minutes later Cora left the Court and was rapidly whirled away in Carden's car towards Cullendon. The two detectives crossed over from the police court to the station opposite, where they sat down to discuss the morning's proceedings.
"I suppose it is all right," Irwell said. "But I think I should have liked it better if we had waited another week or two. We have got the right woman, but I am afraid we might have scared the man off. He is not very far away."
"Of course he isn't," Wilcroft agreed. "You were not wrong when you said that that chap you met two or three weeks ago reminded you of Ezra Gotto. But will you be prepared to swear to him if we venture on an arrest?"
"Oh, I think so," Irwell said. "You see, I have met the man personally. I know it is five years ago and that makes a lot of difference. Again, chaps like Gotto can alter their appearance. All really clever criminals can. I am pretty observant; and there is not much the matter with my memory. When that man was here five years ago, staying at a country house, he had occasion to call upon me in connection with a slight motor smash. Some young fool on a cycle had driven into his car and sustained certain injuries. As Gotto wanted to clear himself, he came to see me about it. He was with me for the best part of an hour or more. Mind you, I am not talking about this station; I mean the one at Hasford, where I was a sergeant in those days. And, after due consideration, I feel quite certain it was Ezra Gotto I met the other day near Miss Brooke's cottage."
"Ah, well, I was only testing you," Wilcroft said. "Because, you see, I have been keeping my eye upon young Mrs. Brooke, as she calls herself. I was close behind her yesterday when she was taking her afternoon walk, and in hiding not very far off when she met a man on a motor cycle, who was obviously using goggles and helmet this warm weather as a disguise. I had a pair of field glasses with me, as usual, when I am on this work, and I watched those two. From what you say, I haven't the least doubt that the man in the goggles was Ezra Gotto."'
"Well, we seem to be getting on a pretty warm track here," Irwell said. "It is a bit vague and shadowy at present, but if Gotto and this woman ain't mixed up with the murderous attack upon that strange gentleman, then you can write me down an idiot. If we could only find out who Miss Brooke's late visitor is, I think we should unearth a pretty conspiracy."
Before Wilcroft could reply, the door opened, and Captain Creston came eagerly into the room.
"Well, you two," he said, "anything fresh? You haven't had a bad morning on the whole. And I have got something to tell you. You both know about that key that Miss Brooke's maid found sewn up in the bottom of a pair of trousers that the mysterious man was wearing on the night he was nearly murdered? That key has a good deal to do with the mystery. I have been making wide inquiries about it, not only in London and the big provincial towns, but in the colonies. Of course, it is the key to a safe in some big repository, and those are not too many. As a matter of fact, I have just had a cable from Capetown. That key belongs to a compartment in the National Safe Deposit, and the owner is registered as Walter Bland."
"Walter Bland!" Irwell cried. "Why that is one of the aliases that Ezra Gotto sailed under."
"Good heavens!—is that a fact?" the captain asked. "Ah, I begin to see daylight now, indeed."
It was not in Gladys' fine, courageous nature to sit down and allow her troubles to overwhelm her. Not that she did not feel the disgrace, although it had not been brought upon her by her own flesh and blood. Still, this woman was her brother's wife and, as such, brought a certain amount of shame and humiliation upon the owner of the cottage at Cullendon. Nor was Gladys any the less disturbed because she had already come to the conclusion that there was something wrong about the other woman and that, sooner or later, there would be a scandal of some kind.
She did not believe for a moment that Cora was making the slightest attempt to get anything to do. Not that it mattered much now, in the face of that dreadful accusation, whether Cora could clear her character or not. Gladys was determined that she should not stay in Cullendon much longer. Meanwhile, there was nothing for it but to keep a brave face to the world and tell the village gossips that they must not judge by outward appearance, but wait until Cora had had an opportunity of clearing her name from the charges that had been brought against her.
And this was not the only side, because Gladys was as greatly perturbed about the mysterious stranger. It seemed almost incredible to her that a man of his type and of his obvious social standing should remain in the village without even so much as a chance acquaintance coming forward to identify him. Surely there must be somebody in the world in a position to put an end to all this suspense and anxiety. A mother, perhaps, or even someone closer. But it was all in a fog of doubt and mystery and Gladys was beginning to despair. She would not admit to herself how deep an interest she took in the stranger, but there were moments when certain questions flashed into her mind only to be resolutely dismissed as they arose. And there was another thing—something which old Mrs. Easton had told her. Her lodger had taken to wandering about at night. He would go out quite late, when he thought his landlady had gone to bed, and returned all hours of the morning. Gladys ventured to remonstrate with him.
"You ought not to do it," she said. "Don't forget that you have an enemy somewhere who might still be watching you. And if you go on these solitary walks so late you may be giving him the very opportunity that he desires."
"I hadn't thought of that," the stranger said mildly. "You see, it's like this, Miss Brooke. Sometimes I feel that I can't stand it any longer. My brain, such as it is, seems to take fire. And then I hardly know what I am doing. I am so close to the realisation of everything and yet so far away that I don't know what to do with myself. And then I wander about in the lanes and fields when the whole world is quiet, and you have no idea how soothing it is. And then I come back home and I can sleep. Sometimes I sleep till well into the afternoon. But if you like I won't do it any more."
There was something so trustingly confiding in this promise that Gladys felt the tears rising to her eyes. Moreover, there was some consolation in the recollection that the police were keeping a close eye on the village post office in case of another attack upon Mrs. Easton's lodger. No doubt he was closely followed wherever he went on his nocturnal expeditions so that, with this comforting reflection in her mind, Gladys went back home with the full intention of having a thorough explanation from her sister-in-law.
So far, Cora had been exceedingly reticent. Beyond a statement to the effect that the charge against her was ridiculous, she had said nothing in her defence.
"But surely I am entitled to know more than that," Gladys said. "I am doing my best for you and I am bound to believe that you are innocent until I am convinced to the contrary. Let us look the facts in the the face. You come to me, like a bolt out of the blue, and tell me that you are my brother's wife."
"Do you doubt it," Cora challenged.
"It is not a question as to whether I doubt it or not," Gladys retorted. "Though I might remind you that, so far, you have shown me no proof that Wilfred ever married you. And, further, you have shown me no proof that you have ever met him."
"Oh, well, perhaps you are right," Cora said carelessly. "But the proof is on the way. I told you I was going to write to Cape Town for a copy of my marriage certificate, and I have done so. But don't forget it takes six weeks to write and get a reply. A few days more and you will know all about it."
"I am content to wait," Gladys said. "I am quite prepared to believe that all you say about yourself and Wilfred is true. But the matter neither begins nor ends there. I want you to be candid with me. A serious charge has been made against you to the effect that five years ago you were concerned in a series of disgraceful frauds with a man named Ezra Gotto. Am I to understand that this is entirely a mistake. Are you going to tell me that five years ago you were not in England at all?"
"Oh, dear no," Cora admitted. "I was in England. But I told you I have been, since my childhood, connected with the stage. As a child I had no friends and no one to look after me. I was very young when I first met Ezra Gotto, and he made a great impression on me in those days. He was an actor, too, and a very handsome and fascinating man. We were in the same travelling company for a long time, doing indifferently well, but with periods when money was exceedingly scarce. And when one company broke up and neither of us could get an engagement, Ezra Gotto came to me and told me a wonderful scheme for making our fortunes. Don't forget that I was very young then, and very much under the influence of a man of the world like Gotto. It all sounded so simple, too. I was to do nothing whilst he worked out the scheme which was to bring him a fortune. Really I didn't understand quite how it was to be done, but I was told it was a new way of backing horses. From somewhere or other, Gotto managed to get hold of a few hundred pounds and set up as a man of means. He pretended to be a rich American who had come to this country with the intention of starting a racing stable. Of course, a polished man of the world like that, with the apparent command of considerable wealth, soon began to make influential friends. Then he sent me to a sort of school where I learnt the art of receiving and despatching telegrams. I am what is called a quick study and, at the end of three months, I had learnt all there was to know. After that, I was coached in my part, which was to go to a certain village and make friends with the telegraph girl there. I posed as a girl of some means who was taking a holiday. Then, on a certain date, I was to lure the girl from her post and take her place. It was not a very difficult matter, as you can imagine."
"And after that?" Gladys asked.
"Oh, after that I has to wait for a telephone message with the name of a horse on it. This in Ezra Gotto's name I telegraphed to a firm in London that makes and receives bets, taking care, at the same time to mark the hour and minutes on the form about a quarter of an hour back. In other words, to send a telegram with the figures 3.45 marked on it."
"It seems simple," Gladys said coldly. "What you mean, I suppose is that the bookmaker was to be deceived into believing that the wire was sent off a quarter of an hour before it really was. Yes, I know quite enough about racing to understand that. You were quite successful, I suppose?"
"For a long time, yes," Cora said. "Then, by some means or other, the bookmaker discovered the trick. I think he must have got suspicious over losing so much money and laid a trap for us. At any rate, I had an urgent telephone message one day from Ezra Gotto telling me to disappear at once, and, of course, I lost no time in obeying. I was pretty well provided with money so I had no difficulty in getting out of the country. I went to South Africa and remained there until Wilfred died and I had to come back to this country and ask your assistance or starve."
"It is a most disgraceful story," Gladys said coldly. "And what about your confederate? I mean this man Gotto. Have you ever seen him since?"
"Never," Cora cried. "Neither do I want to."
"Then you are quite sure he is not the same man you met the other day by the lake in the Hall grounds?" Gladys asked.
Cora darted a swift glance at the speaker. "Oh dear no," she said. "And now I have told you pretty well everything. At least, I think so."
"But you don't seem to realise the serious position you stand in," Gladys protested. "If the police can prove what they say then I don't see how you can escape punishment."
"But I don't think they can," Cora said coolly. "You see, there are only three places from which those telegrams were sent off. It doesn't much matter about two of them, because in those villages the regular telegraph operators are not available as witnesses against me. One was killed in a motor accident and the other married and went abroad, since when she has been lost sight of. So I am safe in those cases."
"Yes, but what about the Hasford Minor village?" Gladys asked. "I suppose the girl there whom you deceived can be found?"
Cora smiled shrewdly. She seemed quite at her ease by this time and not in the least ashamed of herself.
"Ah, that is where the police are on the wrong track," she said. "I never was at Hasford Minor. I was seriously unwell at that time and my place was taken by a sister who is now dead. She was very like me, but she was not me, that makes all the difference in the world. And it so happens that I can prove by a reliable witness that I was at Brighton on that day."
"You can actually prove that?" Gladys cried.
The question seemed to throw Cora into a state of confusion. She seemed to be troubled in her mind.
"Yes," she said. "I can and I can't. Oh, I don't know how to explain. You see my witness is seriously ill. And, even if I called him, then he might not be in a condition.... Oh, it's a horrible mess altogether."
Gladys eyed the speaker keenly. She could not make up her mind as to whether Cora was telling the truth or not, or partially revealing facts that actually happened and, at the same time, keeping back material information.
"I am afraid I don't understand you," she said coldly.
"I can quite appreciate that," Cora laughed unsteadily. "It is a most frightfully complicated business. It is strange if you do anything wrong how it always rises up against you. But please don't ask me any more questions now, because I can't stand it. You have been very good to me, Gladys, and I am deeply grateful to you for all you have done. I want time to think this matter over and see if I can find some way to act for the best without hurting anybody else. If you knew everything, I know that you would be sorry for me. Let me go now, please."
Gladys said no more but sat there thinking after Cora had left the room. She was still thinking when she locked up for the night and went to bed. She lay for a long time turning that strange confession over in her mind until she fell into a troubled, uneasy sleep, during which Cora's door opened cautiously, after which she crept down the stairs and, quietly unbolting the door, let herself out of the cottage and plunged into the night.
Once in the road, she turned her feet in the direction of the village, walking cautiously and keeping an eye open for anybody who was likely to be passing. She reached the gates of the Hall presently and slid into the drive. There a shadow emerged from beneath one of the big trees in the avenue and Gotto stood before her. He spoke in a subdued whisper.
"So here you are," he said. "Now you know exactly what to do. You wait here whilst I go on as far as the house. I am going to get into the Hall by one of the back windows, the latch of which is easily pushed back. I have studied the plan you gave me and I don't think it will be difficult to find a way to the blue drawing-room without disturbing anybody."
"There is one thing you have to be careful about," Cora said. "You can't use any of the electric lights. There are only the old man and his wife and a boy on the premises and they use nothing but candles and lamps. After the family went abroad in the autumn something happened to the engine that generates the electric power and it has never been repaired. The mechanic who looks after it went away to London and I don't suppose he will trouble to come back until the family and the town servants return. So you can't light yourself at your work, except by means of a pocket torch. What are you doing about the plate chest?"
"Ah, that is on the lap of the gods," the man called Gotto chuckled. "If it is one of the old-fashioned sort of things I think I shall be able to manage. That is with the cold steel. If otherwise, we will postpone that operation till I can think of some way of drugging the old man and his wife so that we can use explosive without attracting attention. We needn't trouble about the boy, he sleeps in a garret at the top of the Hall and nothing short of an earthquake would wake a lad of that age when once he had got firmly asleep. Now, what I am going to do is this. I am going to get hold of those coins and everything else of value that we can put in a small space. Then I shall bring them back to you and you can slip off to London tomorrow and turn them into money. You know where to go."
"Yes, I know where to go," Cora said with a tinge of bitterness. "I always have to do the dangerous part of the work when it comes to handling the swag. And what do you think the police at Marwich will say when they find out that I have gone to London."
"Egad, I had forgotten that," Gotto growled. "But it will be all right. Go in to Marwich and tell them that you have to be in London for a day to see one of your witnesses. If you are above board about it, the police won't object. Only you will have to promise to be back to-morrow night. Now, then, no more talk. You just stay where you are till I come back. With any luck I shan't be more than half-an-hour."
Cora took her place in the shadows and waited. She waited so long there in the darkness that she began to wonder if something had not happened to her companion in crime. She paced up and down restlessly as the minutes dragged on.
Meanwhile, down in the village, Gladys was sleeping more or less fitfully and dreaming that she was at some meeting, where a crowd of men was making a great noise. She struggled into consciousness presently, to the realisation of voices in the lane outside and the rush of heavy feet. Then a big horse-drawn vehicle thundered heavily past.
Gladys threw the bedclothes on one side and, after a hurried glance at the clock, which pointed to an hour after midnight, went to the window and looked out. From somewhere in the distance came a shout, then another and another.
"The Hall's on fire!" Gladys made out at length from the babel of din. "The Hall's on fire!"
Gladys hurried into some clothing and turned to go down the stairs. Then it occurred to her to wake Cora and tell her what had happened. But Cora's bedroom was empty.
Very strange, Gladys thought. But then perhaps Cora had heard the noise first and slipped out of the house without waiting for her hostess. At any rate it was a small matter in the crisis of the moment and Gladys raced off down the road in the direction of the Hall. In front of the house it seemed as if all the village had gathered facing the west wing where the fire seemed to have got a good hold. On the lawn was the Marwich fire engine manned with its crew, but more or less helpless because of the shortage of water. True, the lake was there, but it was nearly half-a-mile from the house and the hose pipe was barely sufficient to reach it. The firemen were doing their best with axes and ladders. They might or might not get the blaze under control, but it was very doubtful as a fair breeze was blowing and the flames, which appeared to have started somewhere on the ground floor, were rapidly eating their way up to the storey above and the annexe beyond, as Gladys pushed her way through the crowd until she found herself standing close by the village post mistress.
"Ah, Mrs. Easton," she said. "Perhaps you can tell me something about this. How did it happen? Do you know what has become of the caretaker and his wife? I hope they are not inside."
"Oh, they ain't inside, Miss," Mrs. Easton said cheerfully. "They got away all right. With all this noise and talking going on I don't quite know where I am. But I did hear somebody say something about a lamp as exploded, and there's talk as a burglar was at the bottom of it. But I don't know for sure."
In the hurly-burly none seemed to know anything. It was only when the crowd parted slightly and Dr. Carden emerged from their midst, that Gladys received authentic information.
"Ah, here you are, Doctor," she said. "Do tell me all about it. What has really happened?"
"A few minutes ago I couldn't have told you," Carden said. "But I have just been down to the head gamekeeper's cottage to attend the caretaker, who has got his hands pretty badly burnt. When I had dressed his wounds and given him an injection he began to talk more or less coherently. It appears that he had locked up the house for the night and gone to bed with his wife, when some time later he thought he heard someone moving down in one of the reception rooms. He lighted a paraffin lamp, which he keeps in his sitting-room, and went with this to locate the trouble. He found a burglar in the blue room, and, old as he is, went for him. But the intruder knocked him on one side and swished the lamp off the table, where it exploded on the floor. That, in a few words, is the cause of the trouble, and now you know as much about it as I do. Unfortunately the burglar has vanished."
Gladys stood there for some time watching the flames eating their way upwards and slightly checked every now and then by a few buckets of water which had been brought up from the lake. Then one or two carts, with barrels filled, arrived, but the united efforts of willing workers were not sufficient to keep the blaze under proper control. Somebody in the crowd made the statement that a car had gone into Marwich to bring a further supply of hose, and that another local brigade was on its way. Meanwhile, the firemen were working heroically with ladders and axes, doing their best to cope with an overwhelming task.
But still the flames crept upwards until the ground floor of the east wing was one sheet of vivid flames. Unless help arrived speedily the whole of the wing was doomed.
And then, above the din, arose another cry, this time with a thrill in it. The boy—had anyone seen the boy? The boy who helped the caretaker, and whose bedroom was in one of the attics. Nobody had seen the boy anywhere. Beyond question, he had been forgotten entirely in the confusion, and was, no doubt, sleeping peacefully in his bed, utterly unconscious of his peril. A long ladder was raised to one of the attic windows, but the heat below was so intense that no one could face the task of climbing it. Then out of the crowd a figure darted across the lawn and through the front door into the blazing house. There were those who called upon him to stop, but he took no heed. A few intense minutes that seemed like hours passed, and then the unknown individual was seen to throw up one of the attic windows and lean out.
"I've found him," he cried above the roar of the blaze. "He is quite unconscious—overcome by the smoke. I'll let him down with a sheet as far as I can. Spread out a tarpaulin and catch him. Now then, are you ready?"
The crowd seemed frozen into silence, There was no sound but the roar of the flames. Doubled in a sheet the unconscious body hung perilously, then dropped straight into the outstretched tarpaulin below. Then the man climbed through the window and came steadily and slowly down the ladder. His grip relaxed on the scalding hot wood, and he fell crashing to the ground.
"By heaven!" Carden breathed heavily as he turned to Gladys. "It's your late guest—our mysterious stranger."
In all the welter of flame and danger with the shadow of tragedy behind it, Gladys had forgotten Cora entirely. She might be somewhere near the scene of trouble, but, just now, Gladys had other things to occupy her mind.
But Cora was not far off. She had waited with what patience she could under the shadow of the great trees in the avenue for her confederate to return. And then, just as she had made up her mind that something had happened to him, she saw a thin tongue of flame flickering behind the spring foliage and, a few moments later, a man pelting down the avenue crying out that the Hall was on fire.
That the man calling himself Gotto had had something to do with this unexpected development, Cora felt sure. But she could do nothing but wait there for Gotto's return. Perhaps he would not come back at all, perhaps something had happened to him. But be that as it might, Cora was not going to return to the cottage until she had something definite to go on. She stood there, shaking with excitement until, presently, a row villagers began to straggle into the park through the lodge gates, and, later on, the fire engine from Marwich. And yet no sign of Gotto. So that Cora crept back with the rest and stood amongst the crowd on the lawn watching the progress of the fire until she almost forgot the real errand which had brought her there.
It was when the blaze was at its fiercest and the confusion was at its height that somebody touched her arm. In the light of the burning building, she recognised Gotto. He put his finger to his lips as he turned away and made a sign to Cora to follow him into the shadows. There, in a quiet spot, he paused and in the red reflection Cora could see the anger in his eyes and the moody frown between his brows.
"Well, you've made a nice mess of it," she said. "Now don't you think you are foolish to hang about here?"
"Oh, I am not afraid of being recognised," Gotto said. "I had my mask on when I was interrupted."
"Better tell me all about it," Cora suggested.
"Well, it was like this," Gotto explained. "I got into the house all right, without any trouble. I didn't worry about the safe for the moment but made my way directly into the blue drawing-room where I found the gold coins. As a matter of fact, most of them are in my pocket at the present minute. Just as I was about to creep along to the butler's pantry on my way to the safe, it seemed to me that I heard footsteps creeping softly down the stairs. And it wasn't fancy, either, because suddenly the room was filled with light and an old chap came in carrying a paraffin lamp in his hand."
"And what happened then?" Cora asked eagerly.
"Well, then the man put the lamp on the table and went for me. Never hesitated for a moment. I was surprised to find one of his age so strong and active. I couldn't shake him off, and I was mortally afraid of the mask slipping from my face and exposing my features. So I made a grab for the lamp, which slipped from my hand and exploded on the floor. You never saw anything like it in your life. I would not have believed that a pint of oil could have made such a conflagration. Before I could realise it, the whole room seemed full of flame. Luckily for me, perhaps it was, because the other man was paralysed for a moment, and that gave me a chance to slip away. I went down to the place where I left you, but you weren't there, so I guessed you had come back to see what was going on."
"Which I did," Cora smiled. "Well, here we are, very little better off than we were yesterday. All you have got for your pains is a few gold coins. And let me remind you that we didn't come down here to commit a vulgar burglary. What about the big thing?"
"Oh, don't ask me," Gotto said moodily. "It looks as if that is going to be a failure altogether. When I made my second attempt to get hold of that key, I got you to come down here, because I had a scheme for putting you under the same roof as Miss Brooke's involuntary guest——"
"Yes, just a day too late," Cora interrupted.
"Well, that was not my fault, was it? Unless I am greatly mistaken, somebody else has found that key by this time, and probably handed it over to the police. I tell you, Cora, we are done. I am off the first thing in the morning and, if you take my advice, you will vanish as well. Go off into hiding somewhere, and wait until you hear from me. Probably, in the meantime I can work out another scheme. As things have turned out it would have been a great deal better if we had stayed in Cape Town. But I was so sure of getting hold of that key that I took the risk of coming back to England and bringing you with me, though I was running my head into the lion's mouth."
"Yes, but what about me?" Cora demanded. "It is all very well for you to talk like that. You are going to get away with enough money to carry you on from the sale of those coins until you can find another pigeon to pluck. But here am I, tied by the leg, a prisoner on bail, with every chance of finding myself in a convict prison. You are going to run away and leave me to face that, are you?"
"Oh, you will squeeze out of it all right," Gotto said. "Besides, how are they going to prove that charge against you? You told me yourself that you could see your way clear."
"I know that," Cora admitted. "I did say as much. But I hate the idea of being left all alone to fight my battles by myself. Gladys Brooke is very good to me, but would she be so if she knew everything!"
"Is there any reason why she should ever know anything?" Gotto demanded. "In a way things have turned out very luckily. It was a piece of real bad fortune that you should have been recognised, but that is all in the game. And you know that you were not at Hasford Manor during that particular raid on our bookmaker friends. It so happened that you were laid up at the time and your sister took your place. Of course, the under-study did her work all right and now that she is dead the law cannot touch her."
"Yes, that is all very well in its way," Cora said impatiently. "But you know how alike we were to one another——"
"Yes, that is just why I chose your sister," Gotto said coolly. "But there are points of difference and I shall be very much surprised if that Hasford Minor witness they have dug up will be able to swear to you as the girl who came down to her village and managed to get her out of the way on the day when I pulled off that big coup. Now, cheer up."
"It's all very well for you to talk like that," Cora said angrily. "But I have got to face the music. I know it all happened five years ago and I dare say I have changed in that time. But suppose that woman swears to me? I shall be in a nice mess if she is one of the positive kind."
"Oh, I don't know," Gotto muttered. "And I don't think you have changed a bit. You are one of those extraordinary women who look as young at thirty-seven, which is your present age, as you did when we first met, fifteen years ago. Now, don't be silly, but do as I tell you. I will write you the first opportunity. But you can see why I don't want to hang about here now, with a chance of being questioned by the police with those coins in my pocket. Now, go back and see it anything turns up."
With that, Gotto turned coolly away and disappeared under the cover of the night. Hardly knowing what to do, and which way to turn, Cora went back to the scene of the trouble just at the very moment that the excitement was at its height. She saw a figure dash into the burning building and heard the cry of protest that went up as the man vanished behind a cloud of smoke and flame. She turned eagerly to a woman near her and asked what it meant.
"There's a boy left in the house," the woman explained. "Up in the attic. I couldn't quite make out who it was who went to his rescue, but, as far as I can make out it's the poor gentleman that met with an accident and who is now lodging with Mrs. Easton at the post office. I wouldn't give a penny for his chance of coming back again."
Cora slipped quietly into the background. Her face was white and her lips trembled as she glanced up at the flaming building. The last thing in the world she wanted had happened and she could see the ground she had prepared so elaborately being cut from under her feet. There was a reason and a vital reason why she was so anxious as to the safety of the mysterious guest. She stood there, half frozen with fear until she saw the rescuer standing before the attic window with the unconscious boy in his arms. Even then, with his face begrimed with smoke as it was, she could not fail to recognise the stranger. She watched the process of the rescue and drew a long, sobbing breath of relief as she saw the mysterious guest coming down the ladder. Then he seemed to lose his hold and crash headlong on the terrace, where he lay in a tangled heap.
With a cry Cora rushed forward, only to find herself anticipated by Carden. With willing hands to help, the injured man was lifted on to an impromptu stretcher and carried away.
"Take him to my house," Cora heard the doctor say.
"Is he dead?" a voice in the crowd asked.
"No, I don't think so," Carden replied. "I can't say anything at present. Now, please stand aside and give us a chance to start."
The crowd parted, and the stretcher bearers disappeared down the avenue, leaving a painful suspense behind them. Cora would have followed too, but a hand on her arm detained her. She turned to find herself face to face with Gladys.
"You had better go back to the cottage," the latter said. "I am going to Dr. Carden's to hear his verdict."
As matters turned out, the damage at the Hall was not as great as had been expected. The arrival of another brigade that turned up with a fresh supply of hose at the critical moment made all the difference in the world, so, that, an hour later, the flames were quenched and only the blue dining-room and part of a bedroom overhead were destroyed. Beyond that, there was a certain amount of damage by smoke and water and, gradually, the tumult died away and the villagers straggled back to their homes.
Meanwhile, Cora had returned to the cottage, whilst Gladys remained seated in Dr. Carden's dining-room until she had an opportunity of speaking to him quietly. He came down presently from the bedroom where the injured man lay and, at the first sight of his face, Gladys was conscious of a feeling of relief.
"No, he is not so very bad," Carden said cheerfully "Very much shaken, of course, and still unconscious. But, so far as I can see, no bones are broken and the blow on the head is not likely to cause much anxiety. Still, you never can tell and I am going to take the responsibility of asking one of the specialists to come down from London and make a thorough examination. There is every evidence of concussion which I am not very afraid of; indeed, it might be the means of removing the brain pressure from which our friend has been suffering. Personally, I should suggest a minor operation, but I could not undertake that on my own responsibility. When Catterel comes down here tomorrow, I am going to put the question to him and I think he will agree with my diagnosis. It will only be a small affair and can take place here. Now, you get back home. You look absolutely worn to a shadow."
As Carden had anticipated, the specialist was of the same opinion as himself. In a day or two they were going to operate and the big man from London told Gladys that he was sanguine as to the result. There was a strong probability that within a few days the patient would recover his memory.
"There is a tiny pressure on the brain," the specialist said. "This is caused by a slight indentation on the back of the skull which is almost imperceptible. But it is there, right enough, and if I can remove it, then, within a week, your mysterious friend ought to be as right as either of us."
So the stranger lay there until the time came for his operation and the day arrived when Cora had to appear once more before the magistrates at Marwich. She was accompanied into the Court by Gladys, who took her seat in the Public gallery and watched the proceedings with the keenest interest.
It was inspector Irwell who first came forward.
"I have been making inquiries, your worships," he said, "and I have found the witness I alluded to at the last hearing. She is Miss Jane Marfell who was telephone operator in the post office at Harsford Minor five years ago. The date, to be precise, was the fifteenth of April. It was on the day of one of the classic races, the name of which I need not mention. On that day Miss Marfell had arranged to go to London with an individual called Underwood. I have not the remotest notion who this Underwood is because I have never been able to trace him. He might have been a criminal himself or some society friend of the prisoner in the dock, and made use of her to get my witness out if the way. At any rate, this man Underwood had offered to take my witness somewhere for the day with a lunch at a London restaurant and a matinee to follow. My contention is that Miss Marfell was deliberately lured away by the prisoner with the intention of taking her place. Your worships will see how cunningly the whole scheme was devised. The telegraph operator was removed and her place was to be taken by a woman who professed once to have been a telegraphist herself, but, subsequently, in possession of ample means, was now in the neighbourhood for a holiday. In the end Miss Marfell went away, suspecting nothing, and the prisoner took her place. Of course it was very wrong of the telegraphist to leave her post, but she was quite innocent of any evil design, and it was only for an hour or two in any case. The rest of the scheme was easy."
Irwell went on at some length to explain all that had taken place, and when he had finished Jane Marfell stepped into the witness box and confronted the defiant Cora.
"Now, Miss Marfell," said the prosecuting counsel. "You have heard all that Inspector Irwell has to say. Am I to take that as substantially correct?"
"Quite correct," the witness said. "I did leave my post on a certain date in April, and it was filled by the woman in the dock. Of course, I had no idea there was anything wrong or I should never have gone away that day."
"I quite understand that," the lawyer said. "What I want you to tell me is this. Is the prisoner the same woman who came posing to your village as a lady of means?"
It was a direct question, and the witness hesitated. She glanced long and earnestly at the attractive figure in the dock and then stammered an incoherent reply.
"I—I think so," she said. "In fact I am almost sure. But then, five years make a good deal of difference. Yes, I am pretty certain that she is the woman."
Cora's counsel jumped up in protest.
"Will your worships kindly note the fact that the witness is a long way from being positive?" he pointed out. "I am going to prove presently, that my client was not in Hasford Minor at all. She was in Brighton at the time."
"Oh, well," counsel for the prosecution retorted. "If you can prove that, there is an end of my case. I take it that my learned friend is not without his witnesses."
"I think your learned friend knows how to look after himself," was the retort. "I am not prepared to produce witnesses this morning, but no doubt, they will be forthcoming in due course. Meanwhile, I should like to ask the witness a question or two."
The figure in the witness box stiffened slightly.
"Now then, madam," the speaker went on. "Do you positively identify my client as the woman who played that trick on you five years ago? I don't want you to think, I don't want you to even feel almost sure, I want you to know definitely if you can say without the slightest hesitation that your false acquaintance and my client are one and the same person."
Again the witness hesitated and faltered.
"It is five years ago, sir," she almost pleaded.
"I don't care if it is five hundred years ago, or five minutes. You were brought here by the police to make a certain statement, and, so far, you merely think that my client is the woman you came here expecting to see. Now, let me remind you that an oath is a very serious thing. Let me also remind you that you might be swearing away the liberty of an innocent woman. If you decide to declare definitely that you have met my client before, then it is inevitable that she will be faced by a long term of imprisonment. Come, just think of that. There is nobody to support you, there is nobody to contradict you. If I can't shake your evidence, then my client must inevitably suffer."
The witness faltered and began to sob.
"Oh, you are making it difficult for me," she pleaded. "I don't know what to say. I think it is the same woman, in fact, I am really sure it is, but I won 't swear."
On that, the advocate sat down with a significant smile, and Inspector Irwell looked uncomfortable. The chairman of the bench turned to him and asked a question.
"Not a very satisfactory witness, I think, Inspector," he said. "Are you calling anybody else?"
"Not for the moment, sir," Irwell replied.
"Then, in that case, what are we to do?" the chairman asked. "We seem to have come to a standstill."
"In the circumstances, I must apply for a further remand," Irwell said. "I have no doubt there are other witnesses at Hasford Minor who remember what happened five years ago, and I should like the opportunity of calling some of them. I suggest that the case should be adjourned for another fortnight and that the prisoner be allowed the same bail as before."
"I am not going to oppose that course," Cora's advocate said. "But, at the same time it is rather hard on my client. I was going to put her in the witness box, but I think, in the circumstances, I can wait. All the same, I should like to make a short statement. I handled the inspector's witness as gently as I could because I know why she hesitated. Undoubtedly there was a woman very much like my client at Hasford Minor when those turf frauds were perpetrated by the man calling himself Ezra Gotto. At that time my client had a sister alive. That sister knew Gotto intimately and was very much under his control. Moreover, there was a striking likeness between my client, and her late sister and that is where the witness went astray. All this I shall be prepared to prove at the next hearing of the case."
Having made his point the speaker sat down and the spectators began to file out of the court. Gladys came down from the gallery, pleased to be once more in the fresh air, for the atmosphere of that dreadful place seemed to stifle her. As she stepped into the road a stranger accosted her, raising his hat politely as he spoke.
"You are Miss Brooke, I think," he said. "May I be allowed to detain you for a minute or two? Thank you very much. I am a friend of your late brother and recently I wrote you a letter from Cape Town. I suppose you remember it?"
"Mr. Lewis?" Gladys cried. "Is that so?"
"Yes," the stranger responded. "Gerald Lewis."
Gladys stood there, outside the court house at Marwich, confronting the man whom she regarded from the first as the source of nearly all her troubles. It might have been involuntary, perhaps, but if Gerald Lewis had never come upon the scene probably the weak minded Wilfred would still have been pursuing his lawful vocation in Cape Town.
If Gladys had consulted her first inclination she would have turned her back upon this man with a curt intimation to the effect that she never wanted to see him again.
But there was something about the pleasant-faced individual with his appealing smile that touched the womanly side of her nature. She hesitated and was lost.
"Indeed! You are my Cape Town correspondent. I am not likely to forget that."
"No, I suppose not," Lewis said, with heightened colour. "It is very good of you to speak to me at all. And, because you have done so, I am going to ask you a further favour. Would you mind affording me an opportunity for a personal explanation? There is a good deal that you ought to know."
"Quite a reasonable request," Gladys said. "If you have the time to spare perhaps you will be good enough to come over to Cullendon this afternoon and talk the matter over. My cottage is about four miles away, and——"
"That I understand," Lewis interrupted. "You see, I only reached Marwich last night, intending to try and see you this morning. At the moment, I am staying at the White Hart Hotel. It is a very quiet place, and having nothing to do in the evenings I began to ask a few questions of the landlord. He told me a great deal about you."
"Yes," Gladys said with a slight air of contempt. "I suppose he did. Everybody is gossipping about my affairs at the present moment. Well, it saves a lot of explanation."
"So I thought," Lewis went on. "I heard all about your mysterious guest—and a great deal more. It all came as a shock to me. When I heard you were coming in this morning on this painful business, I waited until the police proceedings were over with the intention of speaking to you."
"I suppose somebody pointed me out."
"There was no occasion," Lewis said with one of his pleasant smiles. "I recognised you immediately from your photograph—the one that you sent to your brother, you know."
"Oh, yes, I remember. And now, perhaps, you will come over to Cullendon some time this afternoon."
Lewis professed himself to be only too delighted at the opportunity. It was shortly before four o'clock when he arrived, and was shown into the drawing room. Gladys had said nothing about this meeting to Cora, neither did she intend to do so for the moment. Cora had come back from Marwich, and immediately after lunch had gone up to her room to rest. She would not require any tea, she said, because she would try to get a little sleep after what had been a broken night.
So therefore Gladys was free to receive her guest without much chance of interruption. She installed Lewis in a comfortable chair and turned towards him eagerly.
"Now, will you please tell me everything," she asked.
"That is exactly what I want to do, Miss Brooke. A month ago I had no idea I should be in England so soon, but an unexpected opening offered itself in our London headquarters, and I was offered the chance. I jumped at it for more reasons than one, and on my arrival in England, and finding myself with a day or two to spare before taking over my new duties, I resolved to come down here and see you to try and convince you that I am not quite what you think me."
"I don't think I ought to judge you at all," Gladys said with her usual candour. "At first I felt very bitter. But you were not doing anything wrong."
"Indeed I wasn't," Lewis said eagerly. "I assure you I had not the remotest notion where your brother got the money from when I asked him to help me. I daresay a few moment's thought would have shown me that he could not have found it himself. And then there was the business of those shares. It all sounded so convincing and besides it was all true. Poor old Wilfred was rather fond of the grand gesture, especially where his friends were concerned. You know what I mean."
"I know by bitter experience," Gladys murmured.
"Well, there it was, Miss Brooke. I was in a frightful mess, due, entirely, to my own folly, and Wilfred professed himself ready to help me. But I explained all that in my letter. The tragedy doesn't lie in the fact that Wilfred lost his employment and was turned away in disgrace because he could not resist acting in the grand manner. The pity of it lies in the realisation that Wilfred's firm had no intention of prosecuting him."
"So you told me in your letter," Gladys said. "But I don't see how this fact makes things better."
"Oh, but indeed it does. The bank people would have been quite satisfied to let Wilfred go. But he worked himself up into a state of nervous tension until he was on the verge of collapse. So, instead of staying to face the music, as he should have done, he looked up our friend Patrick French, and, to put it bluntly, absconded. If he had only remained in Cape Town another forty-eight hours, nothing would have happened to Wilfred beyond being asked to send in his resignation. That is where the tragedy comes in. Instead of doing that he went off on that excursion of theirs and paid for his haste with his life. I never saw French afterwards and that scoundrel Bland kept out of the way. When I realised what had happened, I wrote to you because I felt that I could do nothing less. And I think that is about all."
"Not quite," Gladys said faintly. "I should like to hear some more about that mad expedition."
"I am afraid I can't tell you much," Lewis went on. "You see, the rogue in the plan was that man Bland. He was an actor fairly well known in South Africa and he and his wife had been touring round there for years. By some means or another he managed to get hold of a rough map of that wild track of country in Upper Rhodesia where somebody had found diamonds. With this he induced Patrick French, who was always ready for any sort of adventure, to take a trip up country. And because poor Wilfred was in fear of hourly arrest he was only too ready to join the expedition. He disappeared from Cape Town and that is all I knew about him or the others until I came to read the account of Wilfred's death in the 'South African Banner.' But you know as much about that as I do, because you had the paper sent you. Before I came home I tried my best to get in touch with French without avail. He seemed to have vanished. I did hear rumours to the effect that the expedition had been more or less successful and that Bland had managed to get hold of all the diamonds that were found and left his companions in the lurch. I got that information from a C.I.D. detective at Cape Town who has been waiting for years to lay Bland by the heels. I suppose Bland is one of the most poisonous scoundrels that has ever left his country for his country's good. There was talk amongst a certain set in Cape Town that he was 'wanted' at home in connection with some big turf frauds. But that might be only hearsay."
"I don't think so," Gladys said. "I wonder if this man Bland you are speaking about ever used the name Gotto."
"Gotto, Gotto. The name seems familiar. Oh, yes, of course, I remember now. You see, I am very fond of the theatre and I have done a lot of amateur acting myself. So I spend a lot of my evenings amongst stage people. And one night at a supper party when Bland and his wife were present, some stranger came in, who immediately hailed Bland as Gotto. How funny you should mention it. Do you know the man?"
Gladys shook her head. She did not, of course, know the man personally, but she was perfectly sure now that Gotto and Bland were one and the same individual and that the person she had seen Cora talking to in the temple by the lake was identical with the creature that Lewis was talking about.
"It doesn't matter for the moment," she said. "I was only struck by a coincidence. And now you might tell me what manner of man is Mr Patrick French."
"One of the best," Lewis cried enthusiastically. "A splendid fellow. I'd trust my life with him."
"And yet he betrayed my brother," Gladys said sadly. "He and the man Bland abandoned Wilfred to his fate and thought only of their own safety. That must be so, because we have it on record in print. How do you account for that?"
Lewis shook his head sadly.
"I can't," he said. "I was absolutely staggered when I read that account in the paper. Miss Brooke, you may rely upon it that there is something wrong somewhere. And I am not going to rest until I get to the bottom of it. That scoundrel Bland left French somewhere up country and, after coming down to Cape Town, vanished into thin air. Otherwise, I should have sought him out and dragged the truth from him. But I cannot see Pat French turning his back on my friend, especially in the moment of danger. He would have taken every risk to save Wilfred. Some of these days I hope to be able to tell the rest of the story. When I see Pat French——"
"But where is he?" Gladys asked.
"Ah, that I can't tell you. Nobody seems to know. What beats me is why he didn't come home and tell you the story himself. I dare say if he had done that——"
Lewis broke off suddenly and rose to his feet as the door opened and Cora came into the room.
"My sister-in-law," Gladys said. "Cora, this is Mr. Gerald Lewis, who has just returned from South Africa."
"Your sister-in-law?" Lewis cried.
"Yes," Gladys smiled. "I suppose you didn't know that Wilfred was married. In fact, I didn't know myself until Cora turned up after the poor boy's death, and she has been here ever since. It is just the sort of headstrong thing that a romantic minded boy like Wilfred would do."
Lewis murmured something in reply. Under Gladys' unconscious eyes he shot a swift glance at Cora who seemed to be regarding him appealingly so that Lewis decided, for the moment, at any rate, to be silent. He could only murmur something about his pleasure and surprise and a few words to the effect that Wilfred had kept his secret only too well.
It was only after tea was over that Lewis found himself alone in the drawing-room with Cora.
"I am afraid I shall have to leave you for a little while," Gladys said. "I must go as far as Dr. Carden's and see how the mysterious patient is getting on. I always make a point of doing that every afternoon. Please don't hurry away, Mr. Lewis, if you have nothing else to do, you might stop and have dinner with us."
"That is very good of you," Lewis said gratefully. "I am quite at a loose end for the next few days. Indeed, I thought of coming over here and staying at that picturesque old inn of yours. Please don't stand on ceremony with me. I am sure Mrs. Wilfred will be a charming substitute."
Only when Gladys had left the room did Lewis turn suddenly upon his white faced companion.
"Now what on earth is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Why do you come here pretending to be Wilfred Brooke's wife. Kindly answer me that. Cora Bland, alias Gotto, alias heaven knows how many other things."
All Cora's nervousness seemed to have left her. She smiled into Lewis' face with perfect unconcern.
"This is a bit of bad luck for me. Who would have thought of anybody turning up from the Cape and coming straight to this cottage to identify me?"
"I think you had better cut all that out," Lewis said sternly. "Now, look here, Mrs. Bland. Indirectly, I was the cause of poor Wilfred's trouble and subsequent death. And your rascally husband had a hand in that, too. But for him that Rhodesian expedition would never have taken place. And when it did come off successfully Bland turned his back upon his companions and robbed them, as he robs everybody he comes in contact with. He got away with the spoil, and that would have contented most men. But I suppose he had other plans in view, or he would never have come to England where he was in danger of losing his liberty and brought you with him. I'll bet he is not very far off. He never is when you are about. I don't know what vile scheme you have hatched between you, but I know that there is one, and I am going to get to the bottom of it. Sooner or later you will have to tell Gladys the reason why you have so grossly imposed upon her, and, if you don't do so, I must."
"Not just yet," Cora pleaded. "You don't know everything. None of us is as bad as the world is inclined to think. I should have been a very different woman to-day if I had not met Walter Bland. I was young and romantic then and regarded him as a prince of men. But I was soon undeceived, and because he has such a magnetic personality I was like wax in his hands. I had to obey as if he had hypnotised me. And that is how I began a life of crime. I implore you not to say anything to Gladys until I am ready to speak. My husband has turned his back on me, and goodness knows when we shall meet again. He knows that I am penniless, but that won't prevent him leaving me to my own resources to struggle through this business as best I can. Meanwhile I have nowhere to go and not a penny in my pocket to pay a night's lodgings. You said just now that Walter Bland got away with all those diamonds and so he did. But not for long. He came to Cape Town and deposited them there in a safe, under his own name. But though you were not aware of the fact, Patrick French was on his track. He managed to find out what had happened, and one night he followed my husband through a lonely part of the town and there, violently assaulted him. His job was to get possession of the key of the safe and he did so. That was all he wanted, because he knew my husband dare not go to the police about it, and there he was, without anything for his pains. You see what a pretty position it was. Here was Walter Bland, beaten at the last possible moment, and Patrick French walking about Cape Town with that key in his pocket, I need not tell you that Walter Bland is not the man to sit down quietly under a reverse like that. He was prepared to commit murder to get that key back again, and he laid his plans for doing so. But Patrick French put an end to that by taking an unexpected step. What he did——"
Cora broke off suddenly, and began lightly to touch on some other topic as Gladys unexpectedly came into the room.
"I dare say you are surprised to see me back," she explained. "But I met Dr. Carden a little way down the road and he asked me not to call at his house until to-morrow. He had had the specialist down again this morning, and they decided to embark on that small operation at once. It was only a small matter, but very important to the patient. The doctor was quite enthusiastic about it. He says it is the neatest bit of surgery he has ever seen. At any rate he told me that the patient almost immediately fell into a profound sleep, and that he would not be in the least surprised to find, when the poor man wakes up, that he will have regained his memory. There was some tiny pressure upon one of the cells of the brain. I only hope the doctor is right."
Cora sat there, listening with rapt attention. She alone knew what all this meant to her. The others would hear it in due time, but, for the moment, Cora was not going to speak. She merely murmured something that sounded like pleasure.
"You must be very gratified," Lewis said.
"Oh, I can't tell you how pleased I am," Gladys exclaimed. "Just one moment, while I go out and speak to my servant. I quite forgot to tell her about dinner."
"Well, go on," Lewis said. "Tell me what you can of your story before Miss Brooke comes back."
"There is not much more to tell," Cora said. "I suppose you have been here long enough to learn the mess I am in."
"Yes, I know all about that," Lewis agreed.
"Very well, then, I tell you that on the particular occasion with which I am charged with being party to Gotto's turf frauds I was not in that village at all. I was laid up in Brighton and my sister took my place. You know that I had a sister."
"Yes, I knew that," Lewis said. "Very like you, wasn't she? At least, that is what the theatrical set I was in in Cape Town used to say. But surely, if your statement is correct, you can bring witnesses from Brighton."
"It is such a long time ago and people forget. But there is one witness and I was a party to rendering it impossible for him to come forward and help me. You see how things recoil on the heads of the guilty. It is just as if fate had gone out of her way to show me my wrongdoings. Still, perhaps in the course of a day or two the witness will speak."
There was no more to be said for the moment, because Gladys returned and conversation became more or less general. Lewis departed with the intention of bringing his bag with him and putting up at the village inn for a day or two, which project he put into effect on the morrow. Then, for the next two or three days, things drifted on. The mysterious patient up at Carden's house was much better. He was resting peacefully and sleeping well during the night and, on more than one occasion he had spoken to Carden in a manner that showed he was fast approaching the normal.
"It only needs a little something now," Carden told Gladys, "to set the mental wheels rolling. You know, sometimes a clock will stop when it is over-wound and refuse to move. Then it gets a sudden jolt, the machinery wakes into life. And that is how it is going to be with your late guest. You come in to-morrow morning and I may have something good for you."
Accordingly, Gladys went up to Carden's residence, meeting Lewis on the way. He walked as far as the front gate and was turning away when Carden came out and called him.
"Look here, Lewis," he said. "You are more or less in this business so I can tell you a few things without betraying any confidences. Miss Brooke tells me you know a lot about these mysterious happenings and that you came over to England mainly with the intention of setting everything right. Come with me, because I want you to see my patient. He is sitting up this morning in his bedroom and you will find him quite cheerful. He is sleeping exceedingly well, and, consequently, resting his overwrought brain. There is just the off chance that you might have seen him before because—never mind about 'because,' but come along with me, and you, Miss Brooke, as well."
With that, Carden led the way upstairs into the cheerful, sunny room where his patient was seated in an arm-chair. He was so wonderfully changed for the better that Gladys could only watch him with foolish tears of thankfulness in her eyes. He looked at her and smiled and passed his hand over a forehead which was no longer hot, but cool and moist.
"This is very good of you," he murmured. "I——"
He broke off as Lewis darted eagerly forward and stood before the arm-chair as if transfixed.
"Good heavens," he cried. "Don't you know me? Come, you must have met me before. Gerald Lewis. Miss Brooke, this is my missing old friend, Patrick French."
Just a few seconds elapsed before Gladys grasped the full purport of what Gerald Lewis was saying. Then the whole force of it came upon her and she could only gasp in astonishment as she contemplated the pallid face of the man lying back in the arm chair with the pillows behind him. But no longer in his eyes was that tired, worried, pathetic look that had touched Gladys with an almost divine pity from the first.
So here was the man she had befriended and over whose head she had poured all that sweet sympathy of hers, actually the very individual she had the most reason to dislike and despise. And she couldn't do it. She could not do it, even at that very moment when she ought to have recoiled with disgust and horror from her late guest. It seemed impossible to look into that frank face and those clear, honest eyes and believe that Patrick French could even have thought of treachery and deceit, much less have been guilty of either.
He looked, up with the full light of comprehension in his eyes and smiled at Gerald Lewis.
"That's right," he said. "Of course I am Patrick French. I have known that all along, only something seemed to prevent me from telling anybody. Yet I don't know. I was doing something, going somewhere. For some purpose or other. Ah!—yes, I've got it. I was going to London. And I went to London, and then I was coming down her to see Wilfred Brooke's sister. Oh, there you are, Miss Brooke. I wonder if I shall ever be able to thank you for all your kindness and sympathy. It would have been all right if somebody hadn't hit me on the back of the head.... in the darkness, that was when I was trying to find my way to the Cullendon Arms where I intended to stay for the night. And then—and then—Oh, Lord how tired I am."
The speaker closed his eyes and lay inert in his chair. A white-capped figure, hovering in the background, came forward and brushed the visitors aside.
"I must ask you to leave my patient for the present," she said in the cool, capable way that one always associates with a well-trained nurse. "Don't you think so, Doctor?"
"Certainly, certainly," Carden said. "Come along, you people. He is asleep again and may sleep for the rest of the day. When he wakes, he will be quite himself."
With that, Carden ushered his guests out of the room and down the stairs into the garden.
"Now you know all about it," he said. "It was quite a shot of mine in suggesting that Mr. Lewis should come upstairs. Of course, I knew that he had just got back from South Africa. It is impossible for a stranger to come into the village without everybody knowing a great deal more than he does about himself within a few hours. Late last night and early this morning my patient was babbling a lot about South Africa and that is why I took a long shot, and when you turned up just now with Mr. Lewis, it occurred to me to ask him to see my patient on the off chance that there might be a recognition."
"Very smart of you, Doctor," Lewis said. "I have known Patrick French for a long time."
"Glad to hear it," Carden said cheerfully, "You gave him just the fillip he wanted. Now, suppose you leave him alone for to-day and if he is all right in the morning, as I expect he will be, I will send for you. It was a splendid operation," the doctor went on enthusiastically. "And the specialist diagnosed it right to a fraction of an inch. However, you don't want to listen to the surgical details. Wait till I send for you and take Miss Brooke home again. She looks rather done."
"And, indeed, Gladys was feeling the strain. She didn't know what to do or what to think. She was relieved, beyond measure and, at the same time, troubled by haunting doubts. But these she felt, she must keep to herself.
"It is all very amazing," she murmured. "And yet I have felt all along some subtle connection between Mr. French and myself. He must have been coming down here to see me when he was attacked that night."
"I haven't the slightest doubt about it," Lewis said. "Miss Brooke, I want you to get any idea out of your head that Pat. French played the coward where your brother was concerned. Reserve your judgement until you have heard what he has to say. I am certain he will clear himself, as certain as I am that you have been made the victim of a conspiracy. For some hours now, I have been keeping a secret from you. I shouldn't have done so if there had not been a woman in the case, but everything will come out now and you might just as well hear the main details from my lips as anybody else's. You think that your brother was married. Well, he wasn't. Of that I am assured."
"But Cora?" Gladys cried. "Cora?"
"Yes, Cora. Cora is the wife of a man whose real name is Ezra Gotto, but who has been known practically all his stage life as Walter Bland. You know the man I mean. The third party in the ill-fated excursion on which your brother met his death."
Gladys sat down on a stile and appeared utterly overcome. "If you don't mind, I will remain here and listen," she said. "I am utterly bewildered. Why should that woman come here and pass herself off as Wilfred's widow?"
"Ah, that we shall discover all in good time," Lewis said. "If you ask me, I can't explain that side of it, but I have my suspicions as to what really happened. As I told you, the base of the Rhodesian expedition was a rough map that Bland had obtained from somebody and, on the strength of it, he persuaded your brother and French to accompany him on a dash to what appeared to be a new diamond field. Then the inevitable happened. They found some treasure and Bland got hold of it, and, leaving his companions in the lurch, made his way back to Cape Town. It was just the sort of blackguardly thing he would do. Then, after your brother's death, French came down in pursuit of Bland, with the object of getting the treasure back. He is the sort of man who wouldn't allow anyone to put it across him in that way. Very loyal and kind-hearted but merciless when he has been wronged. My idea is that he did get the stuff back and that he came to England with it. He returned home to see you. And Bland followed him. I feel as sure as I am standing here that Bland was the man who attacked French in the dark and nearly killed him. He was looking for something, probably a deposit note, or something of that sort. He would have found it, perhaps, but for the arrival of the blacksmith."
"I am sure he would," Gladys cried. "Listen."
She went on to tell Lewis the story of the mysterious key, which was now in the possession of the chief constable.
"That's it," Lewis cried. "That is what he was after. The key unlocked a safe in some deposit, probably. No, perhaps I am wrong in my first suggestion. That treasure was hidden in a safe by Walter Bland, and, by some means or other, Pat managed to wrest the key from him, knowing perfectly well that Bland would never dare to go to the police about it. Instead of doing that, Bland followed old Pat home and dogged his footsteps with the object of getting the key back. It was a pretty safe move because if he had killed Pat, and recovered the key it would have been very hard indeed to have traced the murderer. Then Bland could have gone back to South Africa and removed the diamonds from where he had placed them, and there would have been another mystery added to the long list of undiscovered crime. Then, by a sheer fluke, Bland failed. That was owing to the blacksmith. After that, he made another attempt when he tried to burgle your house, as you told me just now. When he was foiled for the second time, he thought of another idea. He got his wife to come down here and pose as your brother's widow, feeling sure that the key of the safe was under your roof. It was Cora Bland's task to get hold of that key, which ought not to have been difficult, seeing that the woman had the run of your house and was entirely unsuspected. That is why she came down here and pretended that she was Wilfred's widow. An extraordinarily complicated, mix-up altogether and I don't know what to advise you to do. But you can see for yourself that things can't go on as they are."
"Of course they can't," Gladys agreed. "I must have it out with Cora and perhaps, some time in the course of the evening, you will come round and we can discuss this affair further. Do you know, Mr. Lewis, in spite of everything, I feel sorry for that poor woman. And I will help her, in spite of everything. It must be an awful thing to be tied up to a man like Bland."
"Ah, there I agree with you," Lewis said. "But for him, she would probably have been different altogether. He had an extraordinary influence over her and her sister. I mean, the sister who died some three or four years ago."
Gladys went up the garden path presently with the full intention of forcing some sort of a confession from Cora without any further delay. She found the latter seated in the drawing-room over a book and, directly the eyes of the two women met, Cora knew that some crisis had been reached.
"Well, what is it?" she demanded. "Why do you look at me like that? What has happened?"
"I have been up to Dr. Carden's house with Mr. Lewis," Gladys explained. "When we got there, we found that the patient had recovered his memory. He recognised Mr. Lewis, who spoke to him by name. The name is Patrick French. And now, Cora, what have you to say to me? Don't lie and prevaricate, because Mr. Lewis has told me about you. Your name is Cora Bland, and your husband is the man who made that murderous attack on Mr. French a few nights before you came here. Believe me, I want to be your friend and help you if I can."
To Gladys' great surprise, Cora buried her face in her hands and burst into a flood of passionate tears.
"I am glad you know—glad," she sobbed. "Glad from the bottom of my heart. I am sick and tired of all this deception. I didn't want to come here, and when I found how kind and sympathetic you were, I had the greatest difficulty in preventing myself from telling you the whole truth. But you don't realise what it is to be under the domination of a man like Walter Bland."
"I think I do," Gladys said gently. "But we need not go into that side of it because Mr. Lewis has already explained. I want to know for what purpose you came here."
"I came to get possession of the key of a safe," Cora said. "It is a safe in a big building in Cape Town, in which my husband had hidden some stolen property which partly belonged to Mr. French and your brother, and partly to my husband himself. But you know all about that expedition in Rhodesia. My husband betrayed his comrades and bolted with the plunder. But, as soon as he could, Mr. French was on his track, and after a personal encounter, wrenched the key from my husband's possession. That is why we followed him to England, because Walter dared not call in the police. He followed Mr. French down here, and the rest you know. I dare say you have guessed by this time that my husband was the man I was meeting secretly by the lake inside the Hall domain. And it was my husband who tried to burgle the Hall. He managed to get away with a pocketful of gold coins, and then turned his back upon me and left me to my own resources. When he wants me again he will come and seek me out; meanwhile, he cares little whether I starve or not. But this is the end; never again will I go back to him. And now I am going to tell you something which will astonish you. You heard me say before magistrates that it was my sister and not myself who was in that business at Hasford Minor. That was no more than the truth. It would have been me, but I was down at Brighton just before, and I met with a bit of an accident. I had gone down there with an idea of borrowing money from Patrick French."
"Oh, then you knew him in the past," Gladys cried.
"Certainly I did—over five years ago. And I didn't tell him I was married. The name Cora Bland conveyed nothing to him, because he thought it was my stage nom-de-plume, and I let him make love to me. He was very much in love with me at the time, or thought he was, and I behaved shamefully. Even long after, when he found out, he treated me as if nothing had happened, and he helped me more than once in South Africa, because he knew what a life I was leading with Walter Bland. And even then I wasn't above deceiving him. And then Nemesis took a hand in the game. By a bit of bad luck I fell into the hands of the police, and though I was innocent of that particular charge I couldn't prove it, because my one witness had lost his memory owing to a murderous attack made upon him by my own husband. I was more or less a party to that assault. What a situation! Here was the very man I had more or less helped to kill prevented from securing my freedom by an act of my own. You remember when I met Patrick French under this roof; he half recognised me and spoke of Victoria or Leonora or something like that, when, all the time, I could see he meant Cora. Then the cloud shot down again, and I could see that the chance had passed."
"Where did you first meet," Gladys asked.
"Well, strangely enough, at the Hall here," Cora explained. "That is nearly seven years ago. I came down for some private theatricals, and I grew friendly with Pat French, also a guest there. If I hadn't been married then, I think I should have allowed myself to fall in love with him; but, bad as I am, I could not commit bigamy."
Gladys was silent for a moment or two. She was beginning to understand now how it was that her late visitor had been so familiar with the grounds at the Hall. But, by degrees, the clouds were rolling away and all was growing clear.
"We must do what we can for you," she said. "You have behaved very badly, but still it is not for me to judge. I am sure that when the time comes Patrick French will be only too pleased to give his testimonial before magistrates, and, after that, you ought to be free to go where you like."
"I don't know how to thank you," Cora said. "You don't know how I have been suffering the last week or so, and all the more, because you have been so good to me. And now, would you mind if I went to my room for a bit?"
It was the best part of a fortnight later before Gladys found herself alone with the man who had been occupying her thoughts to the exclusion of everything else for so many weeks. Meanwhile French had made rapid strides towards perfect health; he had seen fit to appear before magistrates at Marwich and, after hearing what he had to say, there had been no alternative but to dismiss the charge against Cora Bland though the chief constable and his assistants naturally regarded her escape as a lucky one. But, on the whole, they were not dissatisfied, because they had a deal of sympathy for Gladys and no disposition to probe the scandal further. Bland had disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up and there was little doubt that he had managed to make his escape from England.
"Not that it much matters," Irwell told Wilcroft when they were discussing the case. "He will surely be picked up for something, sooner or later. Of course, we might have detained him on a charge of trying to murder Patrick French but I think we should have had a job to prove it against him."
So there was an end of that side of the drama and it was only a question of time before Marwich and the village of Cullendon began to forget a highly sensational story. Cora departed, having contrived to obtain a part in a company that was about to tour New Zealand, so that Gladys hoped she was permanently outside the influence of the man who had been such a menace and an evil to her during the past few years. And now, for the first time in her own garden, on that perfect May afternoon she was in a position to hear all that Patrick French had to say and how the sad business had come about.
"There is not very much to tell, after all," French said. "When your brother came to me, he was in great trouble and I, of course, did what I could for him. He was perfectly certain that he was going to be prosecuted and he wanted to avoid the disgrace of a sentence which he thought would reflect upon you as much as himself. And yet, if he had remained a few days longer, he would have discovered that the bank had no intention of taking proceedings at all. Still, he was so sure to the contrary that he impressed me with the same belief. It was just about this time that Bland came to me with that map of his. I wanted adventure, in fact, I always wanted adventure, so I jumped at the chance. I did so for another reason, too. My idea was to get your brother to join me and so escape beyond the borders of Cape Colony before he could be arrested.
"He was duly too willing. So we started and, for a time, all went well. Then Bland began to show his hand. But that was not until we had found some diamonds. I knew he was up to some trick or other and I ought to have stopped him when I had the opportunity. But I didn't. And then we had a big find. The stones were hidden away in my tent, and I suppose Bland found them. One day they were missing and Bland, too. But I said nothing, though I meant to follow him and, later on, I did.
"But not till I had worked out a little scheme I had got in the back of my mind. You see, I wanted to make your brother absolutely sure. So I invented that story about the natives and their attack on our camp, and how your brother had met his death. You see, I was particularly anxious——"
"Then my brother is not dead!" Gladys exclaimed.
"Of course he isn't," French said. "That is what I have been trying to tell you for weeks. A dozen times I was near it and then it all faded away."
"I am beginning to understand," Gladys said. "You were always writing letters and never finishing them. One day when I was waiting in your room I saw an envelope actually addressed to my brother, or rather, an unfinished address, evidently to some foreign part. That fairly startled me."
"Yes, I suppose it would," French agreed. "That was a street in a town in British Honduras. Your brother is there now, with instructions not to communicate with you until he has heard from me. He need not have gone at all as things turned out, but we did not know that at the time. My idea was to come home, and tell you myself, with what result you know.
"You see, when I invented that story, I went down country a little way and ran into a local correspondent of the 'Banner.' I gave him my little bit of fiction and embroidered on it by the hint that Bland and myself had left our colleague in the lurch. I thought that would make the thing more convincing. But I am much afraid that I overdid my part."
Gladys flushed up to the roots of her hair.
"I am afraid you did," she said. "Because, even against my better judgement, I was inclined to condemn you. Oh, you don't know what a relief it was to find I was mistaken. When I looked at you I could not make myself really feel that you were anything else but the man you appeared to be. Do please forgive me. You see, I was very sorely tried."
"There is nothing to forgive," French murmured. "When we part, as I suppose we must before long, then I want you to think of me as one who tried his best to be Wilfred's friend and yours. I may have done wrong, but——"
He turned away and for a moment neither spoke. Then Gladys put her hand in his and he placed it to his lips.
But Gladys' heart was warm and soft within her, because something in it told her that there would be no parting and that the future was in her hands to decide.
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