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Title: Craven Fortune Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200871h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 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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"Out of the torrent of abuse, Wilfrid caught some suggestion as to a month's notice."
CONTENTS I. A Slave of Mammon II. A Fool and His Money III. A Friend in Need IV. Who? V. On the Brink VI. The White Glove VII. By Whose Hand? VIII. In Peril of her Life IX. In Darker Colours Still X. Anxious Moments XI. A Voice from the Grave XII. Comedy or Tragedy XIII. In the Toils XIV. Maid or Mistress? XV. Rogues in Council XVI. In Action XVII. Nearing the Dawn XVIII. Love's Resolve XIX. A Striking Situation XX. Marriott is Candid XXI. "From Information Received" XXII. The Cloak of Darkness XXIII. The Key of the Safe XXIV. Explanations XXV. A Modern Days XXVI. Coals of Fire XXVII. How it was Done XXVIII. Caught! XXIX. The Voice of Science XXX. Rest and Peace
The well-trained servants glided about the dining-room in the noiseless fashion peculiar to their class. It was a large perfectly-appointed room, filled with priceless pictures, bronzes and old furniture, and the arrangement of the electric light was a dream. For Stephen Morrison had been wise in his day and generation. A money-maker of the new type, he had no time to become a collector. He had engaged a clever artist who was a connoisseur in such matters, and had given him a blank cheque to furnish his house at Middlesworth. When money and taste go together there is only one result possible, and this result Morrison had obtained. Men of large estate and ancient pedigree envied Morrison his house.
The man sat at the head of his table, strong, resolute, self-satisfied. He had the bulldog face and the strong blunt nose that mark his fraternity. Who he was and whence he came nobody knew or cared. He had made a million or two in South Africa about the time of the war, and that satisfied most people.
Morrison had no wife, but two daughters managed the house. They were not present to-night, for it was a man's dinner with bridge to follow. Most of the guests were rich, with the exception of Wilfrid Bayfield, who was the son of a neighbouring baronet and a doctor practising in Middlesworth; the handsomest man in the town, so most of the women said, a fine tennis player, and a capital bat to boot. In fact, Wilfred Bayfield shone out of doors rather than by the bedside of his patients.
The dinner broke up presently and the men scattered about the room, some of them adjourning for coffee and cigarettes to the lounge hall where were the big palms and the pictures by Reynolds and others of his school. Bayfield stood contemplating an exquisite portrait by Romney. He half turned as a girl passed across the hall and smiled as he gazed at her. Though not tall, her figure was gracefully slim, but firm and athletic withal. The gleam of the electric light touched her gold bronze hair and lighted up her lovely grey eyes. It was a sweet yet strong and tender face, and Wilfrid's features softened as he looked after the girl.
"Who's that?" the man by his side asked. "Not one of the Morrison girls, I'll swear. Looks like a lady."
"So she is, Bentley," Bayfield said, a little coldly. "I have known her for a long time."
Bayfield spoke with some restraint. He had no liking for Horace Bentley, though he met him everywhere. Bentley was a Middlesworth solicitor, who had some time before succeeded to his father's practice and was reputed to be rich and not over-scrupulous. He was not bad-looking in a dark effeminate kind of way, only his eyes were shifty.
"But who is she?" the lawyer persisted. "And why did she smile at you like that? How do you manage these little affairs so well, Bayfield?"
Bayfield flushed with annoyance. He had no liking for jokes at the expense of women, and the suggestion of an intrigue with a salaried member of Morrison's household jarred on him.
"She is--as you know well enough--Miss Freda Everton," he said, "the daughter of old Josiah Everton, who at one time was one of the richest men in these parts. Miss Everton is a companion to the Morrison girls."
"I see," Bentley nodded. "Old Everton went off his head after losing his money in a somewhat peculiar way. Old man always was a bit queer in the upper storey. So is his brother, Jim. Lives alone in a dilapidated cottage in Middlesworth and does for himself. They say nobody is allowed to go near him. But you know all that."
Bayfield replied that he did. But he refrained from telling Bentley that he had known Freda Everton for years, and that in happier circumstances there might have been the sharing of a great happiness between them. He did not like the leer in Bentley's eyes as he looked in the direction in which Freda Everton had gone. Somebody called out to Bentley presently, and he returned to the dining-room, to Wilfrid's great relief.
The door leading to the garden was open and Wilfrid strolled out. It was a perfect spring evening and the air was soft and balmy. Wilfrid passed across the terrace and into the garden beyond. A white figure with a basket of roses fluttered towards him, and he gave a little cry of pleasure. Nobody appeared to be in sight.
"Freda," he said softly, "I did not hope for a bit of luck like this."
The girl held out her hands, a shy sweet smile on her face. The moonlight fell on her parted lips as Wilfrid bent and kissed her. Just for a moment he held the girl in his arms. There was nobody there and the half-darkness was full of subtle fragrance.
"Have they made you comfortable here, dearest?" Wilfrid asked.
Freda seemed rather to evade the question. She was fairly happy and contented. The Morrison girls were a little hard and exacting, but the salary was good and Freda had plenty of time to herself.
"They are not ladies, my dear old boy," she said, "and are inclined to regard me as a superior kind of maid. But I have all my evenings to devote to my story-writing. Do you know that for the last six months I have made over thirty shillings a week by my pen! And that is the very sum I require to keep my father happy and comfortable. It seems hard to think that a man once so rich should be now so dreadfully poor."
"The whole thing has always been a mystery to me," Wilfrid said thoughtfully. "Your father, one of the most prosperous men in the county, hard-headed and clear-minded, goes to his London office one day in the full possession of his faculties. He comes back the same night, saying that he is utterly ruined and has been a poor, broken-down, semi-imbecile ever since. Freda, did you never suspect----"
"No, Wilfrid," Freda said firmly, "I never suspected anybody. My father managed his own business entirely and trusted nobody. You may be certain that he was not the victim of anybody's cunning. He worked too hard and his brain gave way. And the strange part of the whole thing is that he is now as childishly and completely generous as he used to be mean and grasping. You remember the time when you----"
"I know," Wilfrid laughed unsteadily. "The time when I told him I wanted to marry you and he kicked me out of the house. And Heaven knows that I cared nothing for your money. Rich or poor, it was all the same to me, Freda. I love you far more now than I did then, and it is a bitter grief to me that I cannot offer you a home. People like me and I suppose I am popular in Middlesworth, but somehow they don't think much of my professional skill."
Freda nestled closer to her lover.
"Perhaps you are a little too fond of pleasure, darling," she suggested timidly. "I know that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but still----Yet it does seem hard. And you are in the wrong company, Wilfrid; these people are too wealthy for you. Don't play bridge to-night."
The girl's voice was seductive and pleading; the moonlight filled her liquid grey eyes. It was very hard to resist a face like that. It was Wilfrid's one failing that he liked to stand high in the estimation of his fellow-men.
"I am a good player," he said. "And, besides, the thing averages out in the long run, no matter what stakes you play. But I'll be very careful, darling."
"Indeed, I hope you will," Freda said timidly. "Some of the men who come here I mistrust. There is that Horace Bentley, for instance. He pretends not to know who I am and ignores me when the girls are by. And yet at other times the insolent familiarity of his manner----"
Freda paused, as if feeling she had gone too far. Wilfrid's face darkened and his hands clenched involuntarily. He detested Bentley and there were times when it cost him an effort to conceal his feelings.
"Do you mean to say," he asked, "that the fellow has dared to----"
"No, no," Freda cried. "He has said nothing whatever. Of course he knows me; was not his late father my father's solicitor? The elder Bentley was the only man my father ever confided in. But when that man is about I feel like a bird fascinated by a snake. I feel that he is casting a net for me; it is horrible. And yet there is nothing tangible----"
The girl paused and her lovely eyes grew a little darker. She had not intended to say so much, but the softness and glamour of the evening invited confidence. Wilfrid was palpably uneasy. He would have liked to pick a quarrel with Bentley, but opportunity was lacking. Ostensibly the two men were pretty good friends, but under the surface the antagonism was keen and bitter.
"You must let me know if anything happens, darling," Wilfrid said, as he took the slender figure to his breast. "You are too pure and beautiful to be at the mercy of a rascal like that. And it was brave of you to sacrifice so much for the sake of a father who never regarded you with the affection a parent should feel for a child. I'll turn over a new leaf, Freda; I'll work harder and think less of play in the future. And as soon as I can see my way to it----"
He stooped and whispered something in the girl's ear and her pretty face flushed.
"And yet it is in my own hands," she said. "Whilst my father is so poor his brother James is ever so rich. You know the lonely way in which he lives. Yet he has offered to provide a comfortable home for me if I will go and keep house for him--if I will abandon my father altogether. I wonder why Uncle James hates my father so."
Wilfrid was silent. The hatred between the brothers Everton was common talk in Middlesworth. Wilfrid had heard of an old story of a woman engaged to one brother and an act of treachery on the part of the other. And the woman in the case, Wilfrid understood, was Freda's mother. If the girl did not know, then it was a pity to tell her. Wilfrid looked sympathetic instead.
"I am the only one who is allowed in my uncle's cottage," Freda went on. "I have a latchkey and I go and come when I like. It is impossible to describe the confusion and discomfort there. Did ever any one hear of stranger situation than mine, Wilfrid?"
Wilfrid admitted the singularity of it all. He would have said more but for the sudden silken rustle of a dress across the lawn. The lovers had been too fondly wrapped up in themselves to notice that they were no longer alone in their paradise. A tall, handsome girl with strong well-cut features stood before them, trembling as if she had been running. There was an angry flash in her eyes and her lips were hard and resolute. Wilfrid perceived the sinister expression and wondered what it meant.
"This is very arcadian," Grace Morrison said, trying in vain to keep the sneer out of her voice. "Really, Miss Everton, it seems a pity that you should not have something better to do. My sister has been looking for you everywhere."
"Miss Everton and I are old friends," Wilfrid said pleasantly, though he was far from feeling as amiable as he talked. "We have known each other for years. I strolled out here to finish my cigarette and we fell into a chat about old times. I'm sorry I detained Miss Everton."
The speaker bowed to Freda, who turned and walked quietly towards the house. Miss Grace Morrison, in some vague way, seemed to feel that she had got the worst of the encounter. Why did Wilfrid Bayfield never look at her as he had looked at Freda? Grace Morrison would have bestowed herself and her splendid fortune on the young doctor and accounted herself the happiest of women if he had only shown her the slightest encouragement. Unasked and unsought, she had given the whole of her passionate heart to Wilfrid and was consumed with a raging jealousy. She would have stuck at nothing to get her own way. And now she had gone too far; she could see that in Wilfrid's grave face. The humiliation should have been Freda's, but she had made it all her own with her bitter tongue.
"The moonlight accounts for it all," she said, with a laugh. "Perhaps I was a little jealous to find Miss Everton monopolizing our pet bachelor. I hope I did not speak very sharply to the girl."
"Really, I don't know," Wilfrid said vaguely. "It was my fault at any rate, especially as I fancied I heard some one calling me from the house."
"It was Mr. Bentley," Grace Morrison said, glad to turn the conversation. "They are waiting for you to make up a second bridge table. I suppose we shall not see any of you gentlemen again to-night. That is why I hate this game of bridge."
Bentley was waiting in the hall with a significant smile on his lips. He winked at Wilfrid as the two walked towards the library together.
"I saw you," he said. "So that's the way the wind blows. My dear chap, it seems to me----"
Wilfrid haughtily cut the speaker short. Bentley's face darkened, but he did not pursue the subject. He led the way to the card-table.
"We cut in," he said insolently. "Play the same baby stakes as usual, I suppose?"
"Not necessarily," Wilfrid said, stung by the sneer at his poverty. "We'll play any stakes you please."
With that uneasy feeling that something was going to happen, Wilfrid Bayfield followed the others to the library where the card-tables were set out. He was as much annoyed with himself as with Horace Bentley. He had allowed the other to anger him in quite an unnecessary fashion, and had promised to play for any stakes the lawyer liked. He could not retreat very well now, though he felt that had he been firm at first there would have been no pressure on the part of the others, and no reflection on his decision.
But there was that cynical, meaning smile on the face of Bentley. It would be hard to back out of it altogether. There were not enough men to make up three tables, and Wilfrid hoped sincerely that he would be cut out in the turn of the cards for partners.
But his luck was not going to stand him in such good stead. Not only did he cut in with Bentley, but he was the latter's antagonist. Bentley smiled as he took his seat.
"Lucky in love, unlucky at cards," he said with a smile that caused Wilfrid to grip his fingers together. "Never knew the old saying to fail, eh? Better draw in your horns when you get the chance and play half-a-crown a hundred."
"Not I!" laughed Wilfrid's partner. "Not much fun in that. I'm not much of a player, but I like to get something for my money."
It was a rich young man who spoke; in fact they were all wealthy men at the table with the exception of Wilfrid. The others nodded approval.
"What do you say to £5 a hundred?" another of the players suggested.
Bentley replied that he left the matter entirely to Bayfield. The man seemed bent upon making himself as disagreeable as possible. It was hard luck, too, that Wilfrid should have a partner who was notoriously a bad and reckless player. Common sense dictated a frank protest to that effect, and a refusal to play for high stakes with so great a handicap. But Wilfrid merely nodded as if he had no care in the world for money, and the game began.
The rubber was a fairly long one and from the first the cards were all against Wilfrid. He played cautiously and prudently, but his efforts were frustrated with a partner who had no self-control and dashed madly to retrieve what the cards had scored against him. A no-trump declaration was promptly doubled by Bentley, only to be redoubled again by Wilfrid's partner, and doubled again by Bentley.
"Don't go any further," Wilfrid suggested. "This is pure and simple gambling, and my purse will not stand that kind of thing."
His partner growlingly refused; there was a further redouble and the hand was played. With ill-concealed satisfaction Bentley made five tricks in spades and then proceeded to play two more aces. His partner having the other ace, the game was easily theirs.
Wilfrid choked down a desire to assault his partner. Nobody who knew anything about the game would have gone no trumps on a hand like that. But Wilfrid said nothing as he made up the score and found he had lost over forty pounds already. He would never be caught like that again, he told himself. He would lose his money this time and there would be an end of it. But could Wilfrid have foreseen what the result of that evening's amusement would be he would have risen from the table and resolutely refused to touch another hand.
"By Jove, what a lucky chap you'll be in your love affairs!" cried Bentley. "Nobody else will be in it with you, my dear fellow. But you don't get a partner like Jackson every day. I shall have to hire him to be my antagonist always."
"Didn't see that I made any mistake," Jackson said sulkily.
"You did no more than throw away something like thirty pounds," Wilfrid replied coldly. "No child of average intelligence would have declared on a hand like that. If you had only left it to me, I could have easily made the odd trick by my hearts. Have a little more consideration for a partner who is not altogether in a position to fling money about."
Jackson sullenly declared that he would play as he liked. The cards were thrown out on the table once more, and Wilfrid hoped from the bottom of his heart that he would be cut out to make room for one of the men who stood by watching the game. But Wilfrid was not cut out; that fate befell the man who had been playing with Bentley. Another man came in and cards were drawn again. It was all Wilfrid could do to check down the rage within him when he saw that he had once more been drawn with Jackson.
The latter dashed recklessly into the fray; his declarations were wild and absurd. The rubber was more disastrous than the last, for there were plenty of doubles and redoubles, and when the score came to be made up Wilfrid was another fifty pounds out of pocket.
"Cut for partners once more," said Bentley, who seemed to be pleased about something.
"No occasion to do anything of the kind," Wilfrid remarked between his teeth. "I can tell exactly what is going to happen. In any case neither Jackson nor myself will cut out and I shall be his partner again. Fate is dead against me."
Everybody smiled but Jackson, as cards were drawn once more; then there followed a shout of laughter as things fell out exactly as Wilfrid had prophesied. By the time that Wilfrid had to leave the table from sheer exhaustion he had lost close on two hundred pounds. From the first he had agreed to pay to Bentley, on his left hand. The latter looked at Wilfrid a little suspiciously as he rose from the table. Bentley was reported to be a wealthy man, but he also had the reputation of looking after every farthing of his money. It was pretty well known that Wilfrid's resources were slender ones.
"You are not going altogether?" Bentley asked.
"I'm not going," Wilfrid said with a determined look on his face. "I'll just stroll as far as the conservatory and smoke a cigarette."
"Better settle up as we go," Bentley suggested. "It's only a matter of two hundred pounds, a mere trifle to a doctor in a large practice. Only don't let people know that you gamble like this--it may do you harm in business."
The speech and the manner were very offensive. Wilfrid had thought of asking for a little time to pay the debt. He offered a cheque now.
"A cheque," Bentley sneered openly. "One does not pay in cheques in affairs like this; at least, I don't unless I have had other dealings with my man. Always seems to me that such things are very unsatisfactory. Still, if you persist----"
All the blood had rushed to Wilfrid's face, and for a moment it looked as if there would be a scene between the two men. But with a great effort Wilfrid recovered himself. He thrust his hand into his breast pocket and produced a flat Russia leather case.
"As you please," he said coldly. "You have done me the honour to question my integrity and to insinuate that I am prepared to win if I win and not to pay if I lose. A man in my position does not usually carry large sums in his pocket, but it so happens that I have money on me to-night. Will you please take it out of that?"
Without the slightest suggestion of apology, Bentley extracted a packet of notes from the case. They were five-pound notes, and he took forty of them and handed Wilfrid two sovereigns back, which made the transaction complete.
"Much obliged to you," he said. "As a matter of fact, Jackson should have paid your losses. If he had recouped you every penny of your outlay he would have done no more than was his due. 'Pon my word, I should sue him for it."
Wilfrid walked out of the room and into the hall beyond. He looked aged and haggard as he stood by the table. Instinctively he had come out into the hall with a hand of cards in his grip. He could not have looked more miserable had he stolen the money to pay Bentley. His lips were compressed as if he suffered physical pain.
"What a fool I have been!" he muttered to himself. "Worse than a fool, a criminal. And yet I had completely forgotten Saxby. And my sacred promise I gave him, a promise that I had pledged myself to fulfil in eight-and-forty hours. And to think that the poor fellow's future may be wrecked before I can save him. Why have I allowed myself to gamble? If only Freda----"
Wilfrid crept to the front door. It seemed as if the household and the servants had gone to bed, but the door was open. Wilfrid passed out into the garden and to the side of the house. One of the upper windows was open, for the night was warm and a light was burning. It was Freda's window as Wilfrid knew. He gave a soft whistle after he had scribbled a message on one of the cards and tossed it through the window. Then Freda looked out and whispered something about the conservatory. Wilfrid crept back into the house again, a house now quite silent save for the shuffle of cards and the muttered comments of the players in the library.
It was dim and sequestered in the conservatory; the fragrance was soothing. Wilfrid had not long to wait, for Freda came in the next moment. She looked white and scared, and Wilfrid's heart smote him with a new compunction. He had no business to bring the girl down like this. Suppose that any of the family came in, Grace, for instance. Wilfrid told himself bitterly that he had lost his head to-night.
"What is it?" Freda asked. "Wilfrid, what has happened?"
"I'll tell you everything," Wilfrid replied. "My dearest girl, I am not fit to touch you. After all I promised you, I have been gambling in that room yonder. True, I was unfortunate in my partner, but the blame is mine. Bentley taunted me into it, and I played for high stakes. Since I was with you last I am the poorer by two hundred pounds."
Freda's face grew pale, but no word of reproach escaped her. She merely asked how the thing had happened and where the money had come from. Wilfrid groaned as he proceeded to explain.
"It was all I had," he said; "all that I had saved. The loss of it renders me penniless. I had drawn the money out of the bank to lend to Frank Saxby. Frank has been robbed by that rascally young brother of his and the money was a client's money. He has to pay it over the day after to-morrow to Bentley's people. Bentley hates Frank, as you know, and if he gets an inkling of this he will have no mercy, and Frank will be struck off the roll of solicitors and perhaps go to gaol. The worst of it is that Frank is relying implicitly on me. I forgot all about him; I ought to have been dishonoured myself before I betrayed Frank. But I was mad with rage and parted with the money without thought of Frank. It was only when I came out of that hated room that the thing struck me like a blow. It's a dreadful, shameful confession to make, dearest, but I know you love me and forgive me for----"
"Oh, yes, yes," Freda said with quivering lips. "It would be no use to blame you now. This money must be found; there is no time to lose. I must get it, Wilfrid."
Wilfrid stared at the speaker in surprise. He could hardly believe his ears. He had not expected to look to Freda for assistance.
"You, darling," he said. "This thing is impossible. I would as soon expect to retrieve my position----"
"Hush!" Freda said; "I will get the money, or its equivalent in value. Wait here till I come back. Anything rather than that your honour should be shamed."
And Freda vanished, leaving Wilfrid in a blind, staggering state of utter astonishment.
Wilfrid would have remonstrated, but Freda gave him no opportunity. She vanished in ghostly fashion from the conservatory, so that Wilfrid could not have followed her if he would. The whole thing seemed wild and ridiculous to a degree. Here was Freda, earning barely enough to keep her father and herself, talking of finding two hundred pounds as if they had been as many pennies. Just for a moment the grotesque idea that Freda was going to borrow it from one of the Morrison girls crossed his mind.
He was very uneasy and very uncomfortable. The shadow of tragedy seemed to loom vaguely but large before his eyes and the atmosphere of wealth by which he was surrounded appeared about to stifle him. The tropical luxuriance of the flowers suggested something false and artificial.
And, moreover, Wilfrid was heartily ashamed of himself. He had promised that money to an old school-fellow and friend to get him out of a grave difficulty. Wilfrid had drawn the money from the bank that afternoon for that very purpose. He would have found it difficult to explain why he had carried it here in his pocket. Anyway, it was gone now and a young life stood to be ruined, because the late owner of those notes had not enough strength of mind to decline a proposal of high stakes.
"What a criminal fool I have been!" Wilfrid muttered as he strode up and down between the banks of bloom. "I should have refused; what do the taunts of a blackguard like Horace Bentley matter? And I should have asked for time to pay. I should have had to submit to a few more gibes from Bentley and a suggestion that I did not pay my debts of honour, but better that than that poor old Frank should be disgraced. But it is too late now--too late!"
The words were none the less bitter because they were true. Wilfrid was still cogitating in the same sad strain when Freda returned. The girl was taking a great risk for the sake of her lover--she was perilling her reputation in the eyes of the Morrisons, who would not have scrupled to act had they only known what was taking place. And the girl had a father more or less dependent upon her.
Freda had uttered no protest; her eyes were still sweet and loving as she looked up at Wilfrid. Her face was flushed, but a suggestion of triumph played about her mouth.
"I told you I could manage it--and I have!" she said. "You must take this, Wilfrid. Sell it for me and pay the money to Frank Saxby. I believe the trinket is a valuable one. In one of his fits of generosity my uncle gave it to me, taking it from a box full of such things. I put it by for a rainy day. Do you think it will fetch the money?"
Mechanically Wilfrid held out his hand for the thing that Freda offered. It was a small brooch with an exquisite miniature in the centre, the whole surrounded by two rows of diamonds. Wilfrid had a love for beautiful things like this, and he had some little knowledge of them, too.
"It is lovely!" he said. "I never saw anything more perfect. I am pretty certain that the miniature is by Watteau; anyway, the setting is an old one. If I were asked to give an idea of its value I should say that four hundred pounds----"
"So much as that!" Freda cried. "I had no idea it was worth so much. Sell it, Wilfrid, and keep the balance of the money for me."
Wilfrid made no reply for a moment. The pure delight of the gem held him to the exclusion of more material things. Then he resolutely placed the thing in Freda's palm and closed her little pink fingers very tightly over it.
"My darling!" he said--"my dearest, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I cannot express what I feel when I think of your confidence in me. You ought to be hard and cold with me; as it is you heap coals of fire upon my head. But I can't take your brooch. If I could see the smallest prospect of paying you back I would not hesitate. But your poor afflicted father is dependent upon you. Suppose you fell ill, or found yourself out of a situation, you would then have nothing to fall back upon. And if I thought that I had been the cause of your suffering in a case like that----"
Wilfrid paused, feeling he had said enough. There were tears in Freda's eyes as she looked up at her lover. She liked him none the less for this refusal, though it was evident that it filled her with pain.
"It is not the time to think of oneself!" she said. "If ever there are times when one's bread should be cast on the waters, this is one of them. And your honour is at stake, Wilfrid."
Wilfrid inclined his head sadly. He was feeling the humiliation of the bitter truth. The temptation was a strong one, but he kept firm.
"Put it away, darling," he said. "I must bear my own burden. Why do you waste your favours and love on an object so unworthy as myself?"
Freda's only reply was an unsteady smile, but it was more eloquent than words. She laid down the brooch on the rustic seat by the fountain, so that the light might play upon its facets. For some little time both stood looking at it.
"It seems a pity," Freda said sadly, "especially as there is such an easy escape from the difficulty in that little thing there. My dear Wilfrid, what was that?"
A sudden snap close at hand caused them both to jump. Their nerves were at high tension. Wilfrid looked round him, but could see nothing. Just for a moment it seemed to him that somebody had crept into the conservatory and was spying on their movements. Wilfrid looked round, but could see no signs of anybody.
"We must have imagined it," he said. "My dear child, please put that in your pocket and go to bed. If you were found here with me like this----"
Wilfrid had no occasion to complete the suggestion. Freda's pretty face flamed.
"I quite understand," she said. "And yet there is no harm whatever. We are going to be married some day, and we love each other dearly. Wilfrid, I want to save you; I want to show you what a girl can do for the sake of the man she loves. Never mind me, think only of your duty to Frank Saxby."
The pleading wistfulness of the girl's voice assailed Wilfrid like a fierce temptation, but he managed to crush it down. It all seemed so strange and unreal to him; those lovely flowers mingling their sweet scent with the odour of cigarettes; the silence of the house broken every now and then by a voice from the library, where the card-playing was still going on.
"Once more I am forced to say no," Wilfrid replied. "Please put your diamond brooch away and----"
Wilfrid broke off suddenly and started. Somebody was calling him loudly from the library. There was a shuffle of feet and the sound of a disturbance. Some dispute seemed to have taken place over the cards, and one or two excited players came into the hall. Wilfrid was man of the world enough to know that Freda must not be found with him there. And those men in the hall were demanding his presence emphatically. As far as Wilfrid could see there was only one avenue of escape for Freda. At the far end of the conservatory was a door leading to the garden. Wilfrid could see that the key was in the door. He crossed over and opened it.
"Go outside," he whispered. "My dear child, don't hesitate. There is no harm in your being here with me, but these men will not appreciate the situation. Step into the garden whilst I go into the hall. They are calling for me as if they wanted my blood. I will return soon as possible."
Freda nodded; she understood perfectly well. With a smile she vanished into the garden, whilst Wilfrid strolled into the hall with a cigarette in his mouth, as if he had been half asleep amongst the flowers.
"It is a great tribute to my popularity, this," he smiled. "What has gone wrong?"
Half a score of excited voices began to babble. It appeared that Jackson had done something wrong. It was almost more than evident that Jackson had been drinking too much wine. He was understood to accuse Bentley of something like cheating.
"If he were sober I would pitch him out of the house," Bentley said with gleaming eyes. "As it is, I will ask him to pay up his losses like a gentleman. Eh, Wilfrid?"
Wilfrid flushed with annoyance. Bentley had never called him by his Christian name before and he resented it. When he spoke his voice was cold and cutting.
"The less one says about the ethics of this dispute the better," he remarked. "Jackson may not be behaving like a gentleman, but seeing that he is hardly in a fit state to play cards, it is strange you are so anxious to take his money. I do not suggest that it is sharping, but I would rather starve than take money from a man in Mr. Jackson's present condition."
Bentley started back as if somebody had stung him. He grew white to the lips. The thing was so true, the sarcasm so cold and cutting, that it touched to the quick.
"We can't all belong to your class," he sneered. "That kind of thing is decidedly fine in old families, however decayed they may be, but does not pay in business. And after the way that Jackson lost your money to-night----"
"That has nothing whatever to do with it," Wilfrid said. "I ought not to have allowed myself to be drawn into a game with so reckless a hand as Mr. Jackson. At any rate, he did not take an unfair advantage of any weakness of mine."
A murmur of approval from the other guests followed and Bentley turned away. But there was a glitter in his eyes that boded no good to Wilfrid. Bentley loved money and hated to be deprived of his plunder, however shabbily it was obtained.
"I'll tear up Jackson's I.O.U.," he said. "Come and play again, boys."
There was a general move in the direction of the library again. The host looked at Wilfrid in an inquiring kind of way. He had all the rich man's contempt for poverty, but did not forget that Wilfrid was the son of a baronet and his lead socially was worth following.
"I'll come directly I've finished my cigarette," Wilfrid said. "I'm looking at your flowers. But I will not play again this evening."
In a casual way Wilfrid returned to the conservatory. He had no fear of further molestation; they were settled at their game once more excepting Jackson, who had gone comfortably off to sleep in an armchair. Wilfrid meant to call Freda back and send her to bed at once. It would never do for these men to know anything of what had taken place. They were not the right class to understand the situation.
As Wilfrid opened the door he heard the flutter of Freda's skirts. She came in smilingly, though the look of trouble was still in her eyes. The look vanished as she turned her face towards the rustic bench where they had been sitting.
"Oh, I'm so glad," she whispered, "so pleased that you have changed your mind, Wilfrid. You put the diamond brooch in your pocket after all? I left it on the bench, you recollect, when I was outside. I am so glad."
Wilfrid stared at the bench and then at Freda in blank astonishment.
"Do you mean to say you did not put it in your pocket?" he asked.
"Of course not," Freda said. "I had no time. I left it to you. If you picked it up----"
"But I didn't," Wilfrid said, hoarsely. "Somebody must have crept in and stolen it."
Freda looked at Wilfrid in a vague kind of way as if she were not quite sure of his identity. The mysterious disappearance of the diamond brooch filled her with something more than uneasiness. And yet it seemed almost impossible to believe that the thing had been stolen; there must be some mistake. Wilfrid was first to speak.
"Didn't you snatch it up in the excitement of the moment?" he asked.
"I am certain I did not," Freda replied. "As you passed into the hall I looked back and caught the glint of the electric light on the stones. Hurried as I was, I recollect thinking how beautiful and artistic it was, and how much more charm there was in the old settings of jewels. I call that to mind perfectly."
"You were quite sure that that was after you had hurried to the door?" Wilfrid asked.
"Absolutely certain, my dear boy. I thought you were going to pick it up, and I was fiercely glad that you had given way to me in this matter. I was very glad for your sake and for the sake of poor Frank Saxby, and yet I was sorry for the loss of my one good gem. You know how strange women are in such matters."
Wilfrid touched Freda's hand caressingly. It seemed to him that he could understand her feelings quite easily. The sympathetic touch repaid Freda more than words could have done.
"Then the brooch must have been stolen," Wilfrid declared. "Somebody must have slipped into the conservatory as you passed out."
But that Freda declared to be impossible. She had merely slipped into the garden and closed the door behind her. She had never been more than a yard from the door and had remained at the side of it so that her figure might not stand out against the glazed half of the doorway. It was impossible that anybody could have entered that way.
"It must have been taken when you were engaged in that dispute," Freda concluded.
But Wilfrid was equally certain that that was out of the question.
"I thought of you all the time," he explained. "There was always a chance that somebody might pop into the conservatory and pass through the far door. That is why I never went beyond the hall and kept my back to the inner conservatory door, so that nobody could enter. The thought of you was uppermost in my mind the whole time. I never forgot you for a moment. Freda, this is a deeper and more mysterious affair than it seems."
Freda's face had flushed and there was a look of anxiety in her eyes.
"I quite understand that," she said. "Somebody was watching us; somebody hidden behind all those plants and flowers must have listened to our conversation. Not only have they surprised your secret, but they know how things stand between us. It is dreadful."
Wilfrid had lost sight of that side of the matter. But he recognized now how serious was the position in which Freda had placed herself. A feeling of impotent rage filled him.
"Perhaps we are imagining too much," he said with a feeble effort of consolation. "Probably we are the victims of some vulgar thief, after all, who cares nothing for anything but your jewel. If he listened he knew that it was worth £400, and that being so he would not try to dispose of it in Middlesworth at all. It's very unfortunate, but----"
Freda did not appear to be listening. Already she had ceased to think of herself. With sweet self-abnegation she was all for her lover and the promise that he had made. She did not believe that she had been the victim of a vulgar thief. She had her own anxious ideas on that score. The jewel was gone, however, and Wilfrid's chance of redeeming his promise lost, so far as the brooch was concerned. Another desperate plan was beginning to take shape in Freda's mind.
"How long are those men likely to play cards?" she asked suddenly.
Wilfrid shrugged his shoulders. It was impossible to say. They were all keen gamblers and it yet wanted a few minutes of half-past twelve. They would be pretty sure to go on till two. But why did Freda want to know?
The girl parried the question skilfully. Whatever reason she had to ask, she was not going to confide it at present to Wilfrid. She made a step towards the door.
"Don't go before the others," she said. "I may want to put another proposal before you. I am tired and my head is too hot to say more just now. I had better go."
"You had, most assuredly, dearest," Wilfrid said as he bent and kissed her hot lips. "What a brave little girl, and how loyal you are! And to think that all that love is for me."
Freda would have said something, but the tears rose to her eyes and the lump in her throat choked her. She returned the pressure of Wilfrid's lips and then flitted out of the conservatory and up the stairs.
With his brain whirling like a wheel Wilfrid returned to the others. Jackson was asleep in one corner, the others were deep in their game. A thick haze of tobacco smoke filled the room; the air was heavy with the smell of spirits. Fortunately there was no suggestion of Wilfrid coming in again; nobody wanted to go out, and he had declared that he should not play any more that evening. Stephen Morrison stood up and stretched himself at length and gave a significant nod in Wilfrid's direction. The millionaire had been winning, as usual. His big coarse face was beaming with satisfaction, his greedy eyes twinkled.
"Like to take my place for a rubber, Bayfield?" he asked.
"Not for a moment, sir," Wilfrid replied. "I play no more to-night. For the present I am quite cleaned out. Please don't stop the game on my account."
"Then make yourself useful," the millionaire said, in great good humour. "The servants have gone to bed. Never keep my servants up late for anybody. The cigars are the best that money can buy, ditto the champagne and the whisky. If you can't help yourself, go without, I say. Act the butler like a good chap."
Wilfrid complied willingly enough. There was no conversation now, for the stakes were high; those who had lost were anxious to recoup themselves and those who had won were only too eager to make their gains more. There was a lull presently and above it came the ripple of an electric bell.
"Somebody at the front door," Morrison suggested. "Cab for one of you fellows, perhaps. As you are acting deputy butler, would you mind going to see, Bayfield? If it is a cabman, let him come into the hall and help himself from the drinks on the side-table. I don't suppose that any of you want to chuck it yet."
Nobody expressed a desire to break up a table. With a cigarette in his lips, Wilfrid crossed the hall and opened the front door. There was no vehicle of any kind in sight, but on the steps stood a figure muffled to the eyes and covered with a soft flopping hat. In a hard, grating voice he asked to see the master of the house without delay.
"You can't see him," Wilfrid said curtly, nettled by the man's manner. "He's playing cards."
The man in the cloak chuckled harshly. A few playing cards lay on the mosaic floor in the hall, where they had dropped after the recent dispute. The stranger stepped in and picked one of them up. Close by his side was a silver-mounted telegraph-form holder with a pencil attached. On the card the intruder wrote a name in a bold hand.
"Show me into the morning room," he said, "and then lay that card before Mr. Morrison. He'll see me fast enough."
With a feeling of curiosity, Wilfrid did as the stranger suggested. Then he stole into the library and laid the card before Mr. Morrison, whose partner was playing his hand. There was a sudden gasp on the part of the millionaire, his big face turned white as ashes, then the red blood flamed into his cheeks again. The great diamond on his little finger flashed and shimmered as his hands trembled. He rose, breathing hoarsely.
"Where have you put him?" he asked. "In the morning room, eh? Levison will of course excuse me for a moment? It's a man on business to see me. I shall be back in time to play the next hand. How dry this game makes one!"
Morrison poured himself out half a tumbler of neat brandy, into which he dropped just a touch of water, and swallowed it. For a man who boasted that he had built up his fortune on water, this struck Wilfrid as suspicious. But it was no business of his, he reflected, as he stood watching the game. Morrison came back presently looking more subdued than was his wont; the rubber at his table was just over.
"Very sorry, but I can't play again to-night," he said. "I've got to leave by the 7.15 in the morning on business that has suddenly sprung up. It's a great bore, my dear fellows, but I must turn you out. I've come to the time of life when I can't get through a hard day's work without a good sleep."
There was no help for it and gradually the tables were broken up. Cigars took the place of cigarettes; in the hall the guests were getting into their coats. Wilfrid moved forward to say good-night to his host, when the latter detained him.
"Hang about till they have gone," he whispered. "I want to ask you a professional question."
Wilfrid was not altogether surprised to hear this. Morrison was a strong, healthy man, but there were certain signs on his face, and he seemed to have grown suddenly old and grey as he came back to Wilfrid after seeing the last of his guests depart.
"Never had a doctor in my life, Bayfield," he said, with a sudden defiance. "Always boasted that I was strong as a rock. Never drunk, either. Always got through the most trying business without turning a hair. But that has all changed."
"Every constitution has its limits," Bayfield murmured.
"So it seems," said Morrison grimly. "And that's what's the matter with mine. Latterly business has worried me. My heart flutters in a queer way and I get giddy and frightened. But to-night, it was alarming. No occasion for it, either. A man I had occasion to teach a lesson to some years ago turns up and I feel nervous about seeing him. In the hall I had a kind of mild fit--couldn't breathe and everything all queer before my eyes. Will you examine me?"
Wilfrid proceeded to do so as well as he could without his stethoscope. His face was rather grave when he had finished his diagnosis.
"It's just as well to tell you the truth," he said. "Your heart is in a very queer state, indeed. It is not only your heart either, but your brain, too. There is no question what you must do--you must go away at once for at least six months. During that time you must do nothing. If you follow my advice, I see no reason why you should not be yourself again by the end of a year; if you stick to business you will be a dead man in three months."
Morrison laughed in a queer dry way.
"Then I must run the risk," he said, "for at least a month, any way. To shut down the machine at present spells blue ruin. Are you going towards Middlesworth? Then I'll go with you and get a bed at the York Hotel. When I have to travel early I never worry about my breakfast at home."
Morrison extinguished the few remaining lights and dropped the latch of the front door to make all safe. Not that there was any cause for alarm, he explained, seeing that one of his bull dogs had the run of the passages all night.
"I hope you won't say anything about this," Morrison remarked, as he and Wilfrid passed through the grounds towards the lodge gates. "It would never do for it to be known that I was nearly on the shelf. I have too many enemies, which is the position of all rich men, and the fellow who turned up to-night with the expectation----"
Morrison paused as if conscious that he was saying too much. Something pattered on the path before the two men and a black nose nozzled Morrison's legs.
"Too bad of Masson," he said. "Here's one of the young bulldogs out again. I'll go and knock the fellow up and give him a piece of my mind. The cottage is close behind the lodge. You go on and I'll catch you up. That dog is worth a good four hundred pounds."
Wilfrid wished devotedly that the dog belonged to him, in which case his bother and the troubles of Frank Saxby would soon be over. As he walked along in the direction of the lodge he could hear Morrison thumping on the cottage door of the under-keeper. A figure in black flitted out of a bush and stood panting, white-faced, before Wilfrid.
"Freda," he gasped, "Freda, in the name of heaven, what does this mean? I cannot believe that----"
Freda dragged her lover aside into the bushes as Morrison passed. She panted so she could hardly get her words from her lips.
"I had to be out," she said. "I trusted those men would stay longer. The house is shut up and I cannot get in. What is to be done, Wilfrid? What is to be done?"
"Come along!" Morrison shouted. "Where the deuce have you got to, Bayfield?"
"I must get in," Freda said, half-fainting. "Oh, Wilfrid, I must--I must!"
It was an exceedingly critical moment, but Wilfrid did not lose his head. He saw clearly the necessity of getting Stephen Morrison out of the way. It was no time either to ask how this surprising meeting had come about. Nor did it occur to Wilfrid to doubt Freda's movements. Perhaps some great catastrophe had happened.
"Where have you been to at this time of night?" Wilfrid demanded. "I thought you were in bed long ago. My dearest girl, are you mad?"
"Then it is with anxiety and fright," Freda whispered. "Wilfrid, I have been into Middlesworth. I had to go; for many reasons it was sheer necessity. I felt quite sure that those men would go on playing till nearly daylight. But Mr. Morrison is calling again."
"Confound it, Bayfield," the raucous voice cried. "Why the deuce don't you come?"
Wilfrid called out that he was coming at once. He had dropped something, he said, and was very anxious to find it. At the present moment there was only one thing to do and that was to get rid of Morrison at once. Freda whispered a few hurried words to this effect in her lover's ear. Would not Wilfrid get rid of the man? He could easily find an excuse to get back, and then he would have to help Freda out of her difficulty.
Wilfrid acknowledged that as he snapped his teeth together. As he slipped from the shelter of the belt of shrubs he saw the figure of the impatient Morrison before him. It was necessary to lie now and to lie boldly. Wilfrid's manner was quite matter of fact as he came up with the fussy millionaire.
"If you are in a hurry I must ask you to go alone," he said. "In drawing my match-box from my pocket I pulled out a paper with some most important notes upon it. They are on very flimsy paper and came from a specialist in Berlin. They are vital to the treatment of a patient and must be found. If you will help me to look for them----"
Morrison declined curtly. He had plenty of worry of his own without troubling about other people he said, almost brutally, as he strode away. Wilfrid was welcome to stay there and search all night if he liked. As Morrison's figure vanished into the darkness, Wilfrid drew a sigh of relief. At the same time he felt ashamed of himself. He reflected how easily and glibly he had lied, he who always prided himself on being the soul of honour.
Freda's face lighted as her lover returned alone. Had Wilfrid been less perplexed and harassed he would have seen that Freda was suffering from more than anxiety. Her face was set and white; there was a rooted horror in her eyes.
"Have you really got rid of Mr. Morrison?" she asked anxiously.
"He has gone to Middlesworth without me," Wilfrid explained. "I am sure he does not know why I stayed behind. My lie was complete in every detail."
"Oh, yes, I know it must be horrible," Freda said. "I know how you hate prevarication, even for my sake. But it was for you that I----"
"That you did this imprudent thing. Freda, it was very foolish of you; I ought to be angry; indeed, I should be very angry if I had any right to express myself that way. But after my own stupendous folly it would be arrogance to scold you!"
"Don't!" Freda said unsteadily. The tears were on her pale cheeks now. "It was for your sake that I did what I have done--solely to save your name. I thought those men would stay until day-light. I have known them still gambling when the servants came down in the morning. I did not want to say anything to you--I only wanted to be able to tell you that to-morrow your promise to Frank Saxby would be fulfilled. Won't you believe that it was for your sake, Wilfrid?"
The stern look died out of Wilfrid's face. He could not resist the appealing tones and the wistful look of the beautiful speaker.
"How are you going to do it?" Wilfrid asked.
"I had rather not tell you, Wilfrid. When we discovered the mysterious loss of that jewel I was almost beside myself with horror and grief. A new idea possessed me--how wild it was I did not realise till this moment. It has practically failed. Oh, Wilfrid, no girl in the world is prepared to go farther for her lover than I am for you!"
Wilfrid's resentment collapsed. Though his own headstrong folly and want of moral courage had brought all this about, he was blaming the girl who was taking such risks to preserve his reputation. He stooped and kissed the trembling lips passionately. He was contrite enough now.
"Forgive me, darling!" he whispered. "My jealousy for your good name--but you cannot stop here. At all hazards I must get you into the house and in such a way that nobody will know that you have been absent."
Wilfrid spoke with the air of a man who has made up his mind what he is going to do. He had put his hand to the plough and had not the slightest intention of looking back. The situation was desperate--so desperate that there was almost an element of farce in it. Freda was outside and between her and safety there was no more than the thickness of a wooden door. When that door was passed the whole situation would be saved. If burglary were necessary, burglary it should be.
"You had better sit here under the old cedar tree," Wilfrid said. "Fortunately it is a warm night, and if the worst comes to the worst you can remain until morning, and then tell the servants that you have been for an early walk. Lucky, too, that you have a plain black dress on. But I'll see what I can do, dearest."
Freda waited there with a beating heart whilst Wilfrid explored the house. It was a long process and called for caution, but it was finished at length. As far as Wilfrid could see there was no chance of gaining admittance by means of the upper windows, as the building had no creepers over it and a ladder could be found nowhere.
"Carefully locked, of course!" Wilfrid said briefly. "The gardener would not go out of his way to provide ladders for intending burglars. Doors fast and the lower windows shuttered. There is a light still in the morning room. Morrison must have forgotten to put it out. I shall have to enter by the conservatory."
The glass doors leading to the garden were locked. The glass was beaded in small panes in imitation of stained-glass windows. If Wilfrid removed one of the panes close to the lock he could get in that way.
The process was a tedious one, but it was accomplished at last with the aid of a pocket knife. The beading was pressed back gently and a piece of glass some four inches square extracted, so that Wilfrid could thrust his hand inside and turn the key. To replace the glass and squeeze the beading back was no trouble. It would not do to leave any trace of the burglary.
Wilfrid was in the conservatory now and his mind grew easier. He strolled back to the spot where Freda was seated and beckoned her to follow him. The girl gave a gasp of relief as the warmth and heat of the place struck her. She was not actually in the house yet, but she was very near it and her natural courage began to rise again.
"I am going to try the far fastening now," Wilfrid whispered. "If I can manage that the thing is done. All you will have to do then will be to let me out and lock the doors behind me and go to bed. I'll find some way of seeing you in the morning."
Freda pressed her lover's arm gratefully. The crisis seemed at an end. But the second catch gave a great deal of trouble; it was an iron catch and the thickness of the knife prevented it from going between the sashes freely. There was nothing for it but to break the window.
"I'm going to adopt a desperate remedy," he muttered. "Is there a carpet on the other side of the window?"
Freda thought for a moment and then said that the vestibule beyond was carpeted. Wilfrid wanted to break the glass, so that the fragments would fall inside. The damage would be ascribed to a careless servant, the more readily, too, if the far door of the conservatory were found to be locked. In that case there would be no suspicion of attempted robbery. Wilfrid explained his plan rapidly to Freda.
"It is a risk," she said, "but there is no other way. Mind you don't cut yourself."
But Wilfrid had taken every precaution against that. He wrapped his handkerchief tightly round his fist and then gave a smart blow on the top left-hand corner of the lower sheet of glass. There was a dull sound, followed by the slight tinkle of dropping glass, and behold! a hole large enough for a hand to be inserted and pull back the catch.
"That's all right," Wilfrid said under his breath. "Now, I have only to place my hand inside like this, and when the door is open get you---- Hide behind that oleander, quick."
The last few words came with a startled whisper, for the scene had suddenly changed. In the vestibule beyond a light flashed out as somebody touched the electric switch. A passionate execration rose to Wilfrid's lips. Some one in the house was on the alert, and there would be trouble after all.
At any rate, he must save Freda, who was tugging at his coat. He would see that she escaped from the consequences of her indiscretion, even if he compromised himself. He would face the thing to the end.
"Hide where I told you," he commanded. "Never mind me. I am going to be invited into the house to explain myself and that will be your opportunity. If the worst comes to the worst I shall only be given into custody as a burglar."
Freda would have hesitated, but for the imperative note in Wilfrid's voice. Another light flashed out and she crouched behind the thick shade of the oleander. As the second light flared up and Wilfrid stood prepared for any evil that might happen, he saw a figure advancing towards the conservatory. All his fears gave way to intense surprise as he observed that the figure was none other than that of the little cloaked and hatted man he had admitted into the house to see Morrison an hour or so ago. The figure came along leisurely as if conscious of what had happened. Wilfrid could not see the whole of his face, but the mouth, which was small, was grim and yet smiling.
"So you had to come back for something, Dr. Bayfield?" the stranger said. "You would have been saved all this trouble had you only tapped on the morning-room window. Hadn't you better come this way and tell me what you want before Morrison returns? You fancy that Morrison is not coming back to-night, but he will be home within the hour. Can I help you?"
"Yes," Wilfrid said with sudden resolution. "In the first place, you can tell me whether I have made a neat job in replacing the pane of beaded glass that I had to remove. If you will come this way it is possible that the means of escape----"
"QUICK AND NOISELESS AS A CAT, FREDA FLITTED INTO THE VESTIBULE."
The little man followed. As he passed Wilfrid the latter made a sign with his hand. Quick and noiseless as a cat Freda flitted into the vestibule, kissing her hand to Wilfrid as she went. Her eyes were set and her face was pale; then she vanished like a dream.
"Excellent for an amateur," the little man croaked. "Quite excellent. There is a white kid glove on the floor by the rustic seat. Is it yours? No! Then it belongs to a lady. It is a long glove of the most expensive kind and supplied by Paquin. If I were you, Dr. Bayfield, I should put that glove in my pocket. If I am not mistaken it will be useful later in explaining the mystery of a loss which has been puzzling you all the evening."
THE little man nodded briskly as he spoke. His tone was gossipy and trivial, yet at the same time there was a ring in it that sounded ominous. He watched Wilfrid place the glove in his pocket approvingly, though Wilfrid would have been at a loss to say what use that dainty article was likely to be to him.
"I dare say you are wondering who I am," the stranger said. "Don't let that trouble you. In any case I am no enemy and it may be that I shall prove to be a very good friend. But I have no desire to waste your time. Morrison will be back soon and if there is anything that you want, I advise you to take it without delay."
Wilfrid drew a sigh of relief. Whoever the man was, he had not guessed why the amateur burglar had come back.
"You are very good and I am much obliged to you," he said. "I have already done what I wanted to do and there is no reason why I should stay longer. As to the glove----"
"As to the glove, keep it. Believe me, it will be of the greatest advantage to you. But I would not let Morrison find you here on his return. He told you that he was not coming back to-night, but that was not true. Allow me to show you out and fasten the door behind you. You made more noise in getting in than you imagined; hence my appearance on the scene. It is lucky I was not ill-disposed towards you."
Wilfrid smiled, having nothing particular to say. He was quite content to take the little stranger at his word, feeling that he was no friend of Morrison's. At all events he had succeeded in smuggling Freda into the house. His mind was much easier as he walked down the drive into the road once more, taking care to pursue a roundabout way into Middlesworth so that he might not meet Morrison. The town hall clock was striking one as Wilfrid reached his rooms. There was a light in the sitting-room, but he thought nothing of that. Presumably his landlady had gone to bed, forgetting to lower the gas.
Wilfrid let himself in with his latchkey, feeling in no mood for sleep. He had done a foolish and cowardly thing, and he could not get it out of his mind. What was he going to say to Frank Saxby? he asked himself a score of times. His old friend could not be ignored. So it was with a feeling of blunted surprise that Wilfrid saw the very man in question seated in his armchair smoking a cigarette. Saxby rose and extended a hand that Wilfrid pretended not to see. To shake hands with the man whom he had betrayed suggested a policy of Judas.
"Surprised to see me?" Saxby laughed. "Fact is I got my business in London finished much earlier than I expected, so I returned by the last train. It seems very selfish of me, but that sword of Damocles impelled me to come to you at once. I suppose that it's all right?"
"You mean in the matter of the loan I promised you?" Wilfrid said dully.
The story would have to be told here and now; there was nothing to gain by putting it off, which would be more cowardly still. And yet it was very hard with that smiling, anxious face before him. These two had been friends for years; they had shared rooms together in London whilst each was studying for his profession; they had few secrets from one another. Wilfrid turned his head away and groaned aloud.
"What's the matter?" Saxby asked anxiously. "Anything wrong? I'm such a beastly selfish fellow, never thinking of anybody but myself. You've lost your money, Wilfrid, old boy?"
The temptation to prevaricate was strong, but Wilfrid resisted it. It would have been easy to invent some plausible story with so good an opening as Frank Saxby had given him. But then Freda knew the truth and Freda had tried to make good the loss. How hard she had tried, Wilfrid had yet to learn when the story of her strange conduct that evening came to be told. Wilfrid motioned his friend to a chair and sat down opposite.
"I am going to make a very humiliating confession," he said. "I don't know what you will think of me when you hear the story. I got that money out of the bank intending to give it to you to-morrow. After the cheque was cashed, I hesitated to leave the money here because there have been so many mysterious robberies in Middlesworth lately. I was going to dine with Morrison, so I placed the notes in a case in my pocket."
Saxby listened with simulated indifference. He did not quite know what was coming, but he felt sure that the money was lost. He nodded encouragingly.
"Bentley was there," Wilfrid went on. "He was rude and overbearing as usual. He was rude about Freda, whom he greatly admires. He did his best to provoke a quarrel. I evaded that, but then he taunted me with my poverty and suggested that I could not play bridge for proper stakes. I lost my head and my temper. Can you guess what happened?"
Saxby nodded. It was very hard to control his feelings, but he managed it. He had no claim on Bayfield, who had merely promised to lend him a certain sum of money. Still, he was face to face with ruin and the thought haunted him.
"I fancy I can guess," he said. "The gambling was high and you had shocking bad luck. In such circumstances one always does have shocking bad luck."
"Bad luck and Jackson for a partner. The money was gone almost before I knew what had happened. I suggested a cheque to Bentley, for I thought of you before it was quite too late, but the fellow was so rude I had to pay over the cash. I'm dreadfully sorry, Frank; it is a most humiliating confession, but there it is. If you can show me any way to----"
Wilfrid stopped, feeling unable to go farther.
"I'm afraid there is no way out of it, old boy," said Frank quietly. "It is the kind of accident that might happen to anybody. Bentley must wait. He has managed to get an inkling of the truth and thinks he is going to get me under his thumb. There is some rascally business between him and Stephen Morrison, and I should like to get to the bottom of it. I fancy there is some intention to make a tool of me. That would not suit me, if only because I should be thrown over and ruined directly I had served Bentley's purpose. That money must be found."
"But how?" Wilfrid asked uneasily. "If there is anything that I can do----"
"My dear fellow, there is nothing that you can do beyond giving me your sympathy. There is one desperate chance and I am going to take it to-night."
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going to see James Everton, Freda's uncle. Not her uncle really, you know. James Everton is actually cousin to Freda's father. Calls him uncle for short, I suppose. But, of course, you know all about the relationship. As I daresay you've heard, the old man never goes to bed, at least that is the popular belief in Middlesworth. Freda and myself are the only people who are ever allowed in the house. He is a close-fisted, grasping old miser, but there is good in the man if you can only distil it out."
"How did you manage to get into his good graces?" Wilfrid asked.
"Oh, that was more or less of an accident. Some old ledgers came into my hands in the way of business and I found that there was money due to James Everton. I paid it over to him out of the estate of a man who left no heirs, and Everton was pleased to compliment me on what he called my honesty. He seemed to think that I might have kept the money and nobody been any the wiser. Probity in a lawyer struck him as a singular thing. Everton was pleased and asked me to go and see him when I had nothing better to do."
"You mean that he is a friend of yours?" said Wilfrid.
"My dear fellow, nobody could possibly be a friend of James Everton," Frank smiled. "I have been once or twice in that cottage of his and a more dreadful muddle you never saw in your life. I always take the old man a cigar or two, which he is fond of, though he says he can't afford to smoke unless somebody gives him a weed. I'm going down now to see James Everton and to ask him to lend me the money at a fair rate of interest. It is possible he may consent."
Wilfrid listened doubtfully. James Everton's reputation was by no means high in Middlesworth. But there was just a chance of Frank Saxby succeeding.
"Could you manage to let me know after you have seen Everton?" Wilfrid asked. "I know it's out of your way, especially as you have three miles to walk to your diggings. But I shall be very anxious to know whether or not you have succeeded in----"
"My dear fellow, I'm not going into the village to-night," Frank interrupted. "It's too late and I have an appointment early in the morning. I came to beg a shake down for the night, on the sofa, anywhere."
It was by no means the first time that this had happened, so that Wilfrid had no objection to raise. He had not the faintest desire to go to bed yet, so he would smoke a pipe until Frank returned from his very uncertain errand.
It was not a pleasant pipe that Wilfrid smoked after his friend had departed. The more he thought over the situation the more bitterly did he blame himself. A word in season would have changed everything. His false pride had precipitated this trouble; it had resulted in placing Frank Saxby in a very dangerous position, in the loss of Freda's jewel, and in risking her reputation with the Morrisons. That Freda had run further risk for the sake of her lover and the fulfilment of his promise Wilfrid did not doubt for a moment. He wondered where she had been and how she had managed to get herself in that mess. No doubt the girl would tell him in due course.
But for the moment this was not the point. The great thing was the salvation of Frank Saxby. He had gone off on a wild goose chase. It seemed horrible, he thought, that so good a friend should be ruined and so bright a career shattered by a man like Bentley. And yet the latter seemed to have matters entirely in his hands. Wilfrid was still painfully pondering the matter when there came a gentle tap at the front door. It might be a patient, a suggestion that Wilfrid was disposed to entertain favourably; action was better than sitting there brooding over his own selfish folly. He hurried to the door.
A ragged outcast stood there with a letter in his hands. There were plenty of vagrants of his class in Middlesworth, people without a home, and Wilfrid recognized the type at a glance. Probably the man had been sent to him by some distant patient and rewarded with a few coppers for his pains. The man touched his hat civilly enough.
"A gentleman gave me this for you," he said. "He came out of a cottage and asked me to bring this to you. He said as how when you got it, you would perhaps give me a sixpence, sir."
"Let's see if it is worth the money first," Wilfrid smiled. "Wait a moment."
He tore open the envelope and glanced hastily at its contents. His face changed slightly, but he took sixpence from his pocket and tossed it to the tramp blinking on the doorstep.
"Here you are, my man," he said. "There is no answer. Good night."
The door closed, but Wilfrid did not return to the sitting-room. On the contrary he put his boots on again and took down an overcoat. The letter was from Saxby, written on a scrap of note-paper and enclosed in a flimsy envelope of the cheapest kind.
"Something very wrong here," Frank had written in pencil. "I'm scribbling in Everton's cottage. I'd like you to come here as soon as you get this. Walk straight in and don't say a word of what you are doing to anybody."
There was an ominous ring about the message that Wilfrid did not like. The curt restraint made the matter all the more suspicious. With rapid strides Wilfrid made his way to the little cottage in Martin's Lane. There was a light burning in the window, and without knocking at the door Wilfrid walked in.
There was only one sitting-room and that was in the most utter confusion. Books and papers were scattered about everywhere; on a table stood the remains of a meal; and plates and knives and forks that had not been cleaned for months. A safe in one corner stood open and from it protruded a heavy mass of blue papers tied up with red tape. It seemed impossible to imagine that any man with a well-ordered mind could have lived there.
"Are you upstairs, Frank?" Wilfrid asked in a cautious whisper.
A voice from above replied in the affirmative and Wilfrid went up the dirty stairs. One bedroom was empty, but the other held a bed with a dirty coverlid, a chair and a broken chest of drawers, on which stood a fragment of looking-glass.
On the bed a white figure lay with the head thrown well back and the coverlid drawn up to the chin. Wilfrid started as he looked at the face.
"Dead," he said. "That man is dead. Let me examine."
Wilfrid paused as he pulled down the coverlid. He had touched something dark and sticky. The expression of his face turned to a look of sternness.
"Blood," he said curtly. "Blood! There has been foul work here."
Beyond all question the man in the bed was dead, though there appeared to be no great cause for agitation. James Everton was old and miserly; it was reported in Middlesworth that he denied himself proper food. Nobody ever came to look after him and for years he had done entirely for himself. An accident would have found him helpless. It seemed a fitting end for such a man. They usually died that way, as most people who study the newspapers know.
"It is an amazing coincidence," Saxby said with white lips.
"I don't think so," Wilfrid replied. In his professional capacity he was accustomed to sights like this, so that he did not lose his coolness. "Most people die with people looking after them. Mr. Everton chose to look after himself. If it had not been for you and me it might have been the milk-man's luck to find him in the morning. I only hope----"
Wilfrid was about to say that he only hoped the dead man had not made a will, in which case his property would go to Freda's father. But it was not the correct thing to utter such a thought and Wilfrid checked it in time.
"I'll see what was the matter," he said. "My profession gives me the privilege of making some investigation. I don't suppose any other doctor has been called in. Light those gas brackets, Frank."
After some trouble and with the aid of a pin, Saxby managed to clean the burners, and a great light flared up. As Wilfrid drew back the counterpane that covered the dead man to the throat he gave a sudden cry. He had made a discovery indeed.
"The man has been murdered," he exclaimed. "Look here, Frank."
Though the body had been covered up to the throat, it was fully dressed, even to the boots on the feet. For some extraordinary reason his hands had been tightly bound together with cords which were afterwards drawn up and securely tied round the brass rail of the bed. All this had taken time, for the murdered man had fought for his life, the drawn hard face still looking as fierce and grim as it had been in life. There was a deep wound in the left breast, from which the blood had gushed out and congealed on the shabby coat. The hands were tightly clenched.
"This is a ghastly business," Saxby stammered. "It never occurred to me----"
"Of course it didn't," Wilfrid put in. "It never occurred to me, though I have had experience in tragedies, till I pulled down the counterpane. But there is no occasion to inquire into the cause of death. The murderer's knife must have gone clean through the poor fellow's heart. Death must have been instantaneous."
"Before or after he was tied up?" Saxby asked.
"That I cannot say. This is a startling business, Frank. One would hardly think the assassin would take that trouble after he had committed the crime. And yet if it was done before, why are there no signs of a struggle?"
"Is it possible that drugs were used?" Saxby asked.
"That is a pretty good suggestion, my dear fellow," said Wilfrid. "After what we have found out, I don't think it would be prudent to take more upon ourselves. I'll stay here whilst you go for the police. You'd better go at once."
Saxby slipped out of the house without delay. He was back very soon with an inspector and two officers in plain clothes. Inspector Morran touched his laced cap. He remarked that this was a dreadful affair and then fell to business.
"I am bound to ask you a few questions, sir," he said at length, to Saxby. "Can you tell me the exact time that you made the discovery?"
Saxby replied that it was certainly within the last twenty minutes. He had called to see Mr. Everton on business, late as the hour was. Morran raised his eyebrows.
"It was very late," he said. "Did you tell anybody you were coming here, sir?"
"Yes, I told my friend, Dr. Bayfield. I was staying with the doctor to-night and I said I would go round and see Mr. Everton. I knew he was a man of peculiar habits; he frequently lay in bed all day and sat up working all night. I did him a small service some time ago and he has never forgotten it and gave me the privilege of calling when I liked."
"I see," the inspector said thoughtfully. "Did you find the door tampered with?"
"Not at all," Saxby replied. "The door was not fastened. Mr. Everton had the reputation--which was, I'm afraid, true--of being a miser, but he never fastened his front door. He was a sardonic kind of man in his way and wished perhaps to tempt people to try to rob him. Personally, I never saw any valuables lying about, as the big safe----"
"We'll get to that presently," Morran said. "Tell me what happened to-night."
"There is not very much more to tell," Saxby resumed. "I opened the door and walked in. I should not have done so had I not seen the gas burning in the sitting-room. This showed that Mr. Everton was about, for he would not have gone to bed and allowed the gas to waste like that. Nobody was in the sitting-room, so I went upstairs; Mr. Everton was lying on the bed apparently asleep. The whole thing was so unlike him that I became uneasy and suspicious. I touched the sleeper and it seemed to me instantly that he was dead. Then I decided to send for Dr. Bayfield, and I summoned him by a note which I gave to a loafer."
"Who was hanging about outside?" Morran asked sharply.
"No, I could hardly say that," Saxby went on. "I know the loafer by sight and am sure that he was passing the house quite by accident. I don't think you need worry about him. If there is anything more that I can tell you, why----"
But Morran had no further questions to ask for the present. The next thing to do was to make a thorough search of the house. All this took time and it seemed as if it were going to be labour wasted. Then one of the men in plain clothes pulled back the disturbed counterpane and something tinkled on the floor. As the man picked it up the light fell on the glittering trinket, and the room was full of trembling rays of fire.
"A diamond necklace," Morran explained. "And a marvellously fine one. Rather too heavy for the modern idea of comfort, but these enamels are wonderful."
"May I have a look at it?" Wilfrid asked. "Yes, it is remarkably heavy, Morran."
It was not only heavy, but, in some vague way, quite familiar. The necklace consisted of some twenty blue enamel medallions edged and set with magnificent diamonds, the whole threaded together with a slender gold wire twisted in a peculiar pattern, so as to keep the medallions just the fraction of an inch apart. As Wilfrid spread the gem out on the bed he noticed a thing that had escaped Morran's keen eyes--one of the medallions near the middle of the necklace had gone. He pointed this out to the inspector.
"Well, this may be a clue," the latter said. "At the same time it may only be an accident. That may have been missing for years. Still----"
"I don't think so," Wilfrid interrupted eagerly. "I fancy not. The colour of the wires by which the medallion was attached is brighter than the rest. If the thing had been missing for a considerable period the wires would have dulled. Besides----"
Wilfrid did not finish his sentence; the words stuck in his throat. He turned his head away, for he had no desire that Morran should see his face. Fortunately the latter was too busy examining the wires of the necklace. For Wilfrid had made a stupendous discovery; nothing less than the fact that the missing medallion was the same gem that Freda had tried to force upon him in Morrison's conservatory.
Wilfrid tried to think that he was mistaken, but the thing was impossible. The gem was so rare and so curious that he could not be in error. At the same moment one of the men in plain clothes came upstairs with a sheet of paper in his hand.
"We may get something out of this, sir," he said to his chief. "It is a letter I found on the table downstairs. It seems to have been written to-night."
Morran laid the letter on the bed so that everybody could see it. The address was plainly inscribed and the note ran as follows, the date being affixed so that there could be no mistake:--
"Dear Sir,--I received your letter by the last post to-night. I have carefully considered the matter and I cannot see my way to grant your request. I have not touched that kind of business for years and it is quite outside my line now. Anything more legitimate I shall be always pleased to entertain.--Yours faithfully."
There was no signature, but the letter was addressed to Mr. Edward Gibson. As there was no envelope with the letter it was impossible to locate the Mr. Gibson for whom it was intended.
"'Um, not much in that," said Morran thoughtfully. "It is just a typical business letter written to somebody who wants something--to borrow money probably. What does it prove, Jakes?"
"It proves that Mr. Everton was alive at ten o'clock and after, sir," Jakes said. "The last post does not get here till 9.45, and I don't suppose that Mr. Everton wrote the letter at once. It may be useful to know that later."
"It may," the chief admitted. "But why is it not signed? Perhaps the assassin appeared while the letter was being written. A very clear, almost effeminate, writing for an old business man like Mr. Everton."
Saxby pressed eagerly forward. He had not as yet looked at the letter itself.
"What's that you say?" he asked. "Mr. Everton write an affected hand! He had a precious hard fist that resembled a file of soldiers on parade. Let me look at it."
As Saxby looked he shook his head in a decided way. There was not the slightest hesitation in his manner.
"No more Mr. Everton's writing than it is mine," he pronounced. "That letter was dictated to somebody who was here just lately or at any rate between ten and twelve. It is an educated hand and what makes the thing more puzzling it is the handwriting of a lady. When I say a lady, I mean a lady. There is no suggestion of the tradesman's bookkeeper about that. And yet it seems impossible for----"
"A woman, to say nothing of a lady, committing a murder like that," Wilfrid exclaimed. "No woman ever tied up poor Everton's body to the bedstead in that way. When we find the mysterious lady she may be able to give us some useful information, but as to the crime, never."
Morran seemed to be of the same opinion. There was no more to be done for the present, so the house was locked up and the parties separated. Saxby and Wilfrid walked home silently to the latter's house; it was only in the sitting-room under the lamplight that Saxby saw how white and agitated his friend looked.
"This thing seems to have upset you, old man," he said.
Wilfrid seemed as if trying to pull himself together. Then he rubbed his hands over his eyes.
"It was that letter," he said. "By heavens, Frank, the discovery nearly stifled me. When I found out who it was that wrote that letter----"
"Who wrote that letter?" Saxby cried. "Do you mean to say that you know who wrote that letter----"
A deep sigh broke from Wilfrid. He dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper.
"I must tell somebody," he said. "That letter to some Gibson was written by Freda Everton--my Freda."
Stephen Morrison sat at breakfast, as if the disturbing news of the previous night had been blotted from his memory. His hard face was expressionless as he sipped his coffee whilst reading his letters. Freda sat opposite to him. It was part of her duty to see that Morrison had his breakfast all right, his daughters not caring to be down so early. The girl might have been absent for all the notice Morrison took of her.
Presently the secretary came quietly into the room. Morrison looked up at him eagerly.
"Well," he said, "is there any news to-day? Anything stirring in Middlesworth?"
The secretary stammered at the suddenness of the question. Freda did not fail to notice the eagerness of it, though she was immersed in her own troubled thoughts. Usually Morrison greeted his secretary with no more than a curt nod.
"Well, yes, sir," the latter said. "That is if you mean general news, sir."
"What else do you suppose I mean?" Morrison growled. "You look as if you were bursting to tell me something. Got some choice piece of scandal, I suppose. Out with it!"
It was only afterwards that Freda recollected how Morrison had forced his factotum to speak. At the time she was too amazed to think of anything but the startling intelligence.
"Well, not exactly scandal, sir," the secretary said. "Mr. James Everton is dead. I beg your pardon, Miss Everton. I had quite forgotten for the moment that--that----"
For Freda had risen to her feet with a little cry of dismay. Her face was very white and her eyes had the shadow of trouble in them. Everything seemed to be going wrong with her just now. It was not that she had any particular affection for her so-called uncle; James Everton was not the kind of man to inspire emotion of that kind. In a way Freda had clung to the hope that her uncle would lend her the money she needed for Wilfrid. It was a forlorn hope as she knew, but she clung to it in spite of everything.
"It is so sudden," she said. "When I saw him last night he was in the best of health and----"
"You didn't see him last night," Morrison said in his harsh over-bearing way. "You were not out."
Freda stammered that she had made a mistake.
The slip passed naturally enough and Freda was grateful for her escape. She asked no more questions.
"It was hardly a natural death," the secretary resumed, "in fact, it was quite otherwise. Mr. Everton was found dead in his bed early this morning or late last night by Mr. Frank Saxby. He called to see the old gentleman on business and walked in, as the gas was burning. Mr. Everton was dead in bed, so Mr. Saxby sent a messenger to Dr. Bayfield at once. And when Dr. Bayfield got there he found that Mr. Everton had been murdered."
Freda gasped again, but said nothing. She had the queer dazed feeling of one who wakes from a dream and is not yet fully in possession of sense and reason. At the same time the strange, hard expression on the face of Morrison and the flickering gleam in his eyes were not lost on her. She felt by a kind of instinct that this was no news to Morrison. It was very absurd, of course, but such was her impression. Morrison was, she knew, a man without the slightest feeling, but his present manner suggested something more than callousness. His mouth expressed satisfaction. Freda could see a half smile as he bent over his coffee cup.
"I'm not in the least surprised," the millionaire said. "Here is a very rich man, who is also old and feeble, living entirely alone. It is well known that there are many valuables in the house; it is also notorious that Mr. Everton never locked his door. The gas was burning for hours in the night sometimes. Why, a criminal could have popped in there and looted everything, and the police been none the wiser for days. His habits offered a premium on crime."
This was very reasonable and logical, as Freda was bound to admit, but at the same time it sounded cold and hard and calculated.
"Was there any sign of robbery?" Freda asked, by way of saying something.
"I don't quite know, Miss Everton," the secretary replied. "It seems that Mr. Everton was tied up with ropes to his bed, which looks as if the culprit did not want to be disturbed. Perhaps the poor old gentleman called out and came to his end that way. I did hear something about the finding of some wonderfully handsome enamel and diamond necklace, from which one of the medallions was missing. Beyond that the police will say nothing."
Freda nodded in a mechanical way, but her lips were very white. She knew perfectly well what had become of the missing medallion in the first instance, because it was the one she had pressed on Wilfrid the night before. Not that there was anything wrong about the way in which it had come into her hands. Her uncle had removed it from the necklace, from which it had become half detached, in a spirit of rare generosity. It struck Freda as strange that so valuable a thing should have been lying about when there was the safe where his treasures were kept. Freda wondered who had the missing medallion now.
But of this she could say nothing to Morrison. She would manage to get into the town presently and see Wilfrid; she must tell him. There was a good deal she ought to have told him the night before, but there had been no opportunity. The secretary finished his story and Morrison once more resumed the perusal of his letters. He frowned grimly as he tore one of them open and then a cry of rage or pain broke from him. Just for an instant he lay forward with his head on the table as if he were going to faint.
"It is nothing, absolutely nothing," he said, recovering himself with an effort as Freda darted forward. "Sort of all-gone, deathly feeling that goes as quickly as it comes. The fact is I have been working too hard lately. I asked Dr. Bayfield about it last night, and he gave me peremptory instructions to do no work for six months. I was to go away at once and think no more about business. As if the thing were possible just now. Perhaps in a few weeks I may see my way."
The man chatted with a freedom and amiability that Freda had never seen before. But it was quite obvious that he was talking for talking's sake. Also Freda did not fail to notice that the letter Morrison had been reading was torn into minute fragments and dropped very carefully into the heart of the wood fire. Nor did Morrison leave the room till every scrap was consumed.
"Don't say anything to the girls about this," he said. "No use worrying them about me, Miss Everton. Looks as if we were going to have a lovely day, doesn't it?"
And Morrison shuffled off after his secretary. Freda did not give him another thought. She was thinking too much about her own position and the position of Wilfrid and Frank Saxby. How was that money going to be found now?
Freda asked herself the same question a hundred times during the morning. She was exceedingly anxious also to see Wilfrid, but her employers were exacting and there seemed more than usual to do. It was with a thrill of gratitude that she heard Wilfrid's voice in the hall before luncheon. She flew down at once.
"I must see you, Wilfrid," she said hurriedly. "Go round by the billiard-room if you have finished here. It is very lucky that you came to-day."
"My dearest girl, I came on purpose to see you," Wilfrid explained. "My professional solicitude for the welfare of Mr. Morrison is only a sham. But it gave me a good excuse to get here. I'll be outside the billiard-room in a quarter of an hour."
Freda lingered in the billiard-room till the time was up. It was with a feeling of satisfaction that she heard the luncheon gong ring, for she did not have her meals with the family, and she knew she would be quite safe with Wilfrid. He had thrown off his professional manner and looked very grim and troubled as he stood under the shelter of a rose arch waiting for Freda.
"My dearest girl, I have some very grave news for you," he said.
"I am afraid that I know already," Freda replied. "My uncle is dead--murdered. I have always called him my uncle, you know. It seems an awful thing to say, but I hope that he left no will and that my father will have his money. Still, it is very shocking. I understand that Mr. Saxby found it out."
"Yes. He had been to me about the money I had promised to lend him and I had to tell the shameful truth. Frank took it very well. He said he would try to borrow the money from your uncle and he went off to see him. But if you have heard the rest----"
"Pretty well all of it," Freda explained. "I had it from Mr. Morrison's secretary. They say that the poor old man was tied up in bed. I suppose it was a case of robbery. Was anything missing?"
"My dear girl, that leads me up to the point. Actually in the bed we found a valuable diamond necklace of enamels set in stones. One of the medallions was missing and I should say had quite lately been removed from the setting. It was exactly the same as the one which you desired me to take last night and which was so mysteriously stolen from the conservatory."
"It was the missing medallion," said Freda quietly. "When I saw my uncle a few days ago that very necklace was lying on his table. It attracted my eye at once and I picked it up. It was so beautiful that I could hardly put it down again. When I was toying with it that particular medallion became detached from the setting and I pointed it out to my uncle. In a fit of generosity he gave it to me and I slipped it into my pocket."
Wilfrid listened to this with an exceedingly grave face. These facts would have to be told to the police. And he had by no means finished yet.
"It's very unfortunate," he said. "In fact, it could not have been worse. Freda, tell me, were you at your uncle's house last night?"
Freda looked up quickly; there was no prevarication in her big grey eyes.
"Of course I was," she said. "I was going to explain that, but I had no opportunity. The idea came to me directly I missed my medallion. You thought that I had gone to bed and I did not see why I should tell you of my scheme. You might have forbidden it. You recollect my asking you how long those men would go on playing cards?"
"I recollect that, of course. And I thought it rather strange."
"I wanted to know if I should be safe, it seemed all light on the face of it. I knew my uncle's late habits, and that I should be sure to find him in. Then I went to borrow the money from him and get back here before the house was closed. In that I failed, as you know. But for you, I tremble to think what the consequences of my rash act might have been."
"Hadn't you better stick to what happened in Middlesworth?" Wilfrid suggested.
"Well, I saw my uncle," Freda resumed. "He was not very well and was just going to bed. He was not quite so grumpy as I had expected and did not give me a distinct refusal. He asked me to come again this afternoon, when he would think the matter over."
"I don't think that was quite all," Wilfrid said. "Did you write some letter for him?"
"I had forgotten that," Freda said. "I wrote four or five letters which were stamped and I dropped them in a pillar box as I came home."
"You did not post the whole of the letters that you wrote?"
"No, one of them was not signed. After it was written my uncle changed his mind and said he would think the matter over. I put it on the table. I stayed chatting for a little longer and then came away, as it was getting very late."
"You did not see signs of anything valuable left about?"
"No, dear. I noticed that the safe was shut and presumably locked. You see, I was too agitated to think about much besides myself and the fear that my absence might be discovered. Wilfrid, I hope there is nothing wrong?"
"Not precisely wrong, though I believe you will be compelled to put up with a great deal of unpleasantness," Wilfrid explained. "You see, the police found the letter and are disposed to regard it as an important piece of evidence. I am afraid that the truth must be told, little girl, and that your escapade will have to become known to your employers here. If I had been in time I should have destroyed that letter, because it has nothing to do with the case, whatever Morran may say to the contrary."
Freda's face had suddenly grown white and drawn. It did not occur to her to blame Wilfrid as the main cause of all this trouble. He did that for himself bitterly enough until Freda placed her hands over his lips and refused to hear any more.
"I had better ask for the afternoon off," she said, "and go as far as the station and tell the police everything. It is a dreadful business altogether, Wilfrid, but we shall gain nothing by concealing the truth. And I am afraid that I shall lose my situation. My dear old boy,----"
Freda paused as a shadow loomed across the path and presently the erect figure of Morran stood before them. He grimly saluted and asked Freda formally what her name was.
"Then I will ask you to accompany me to the station," he said. "I have not the slightest doubt that the matter will be explained in a satisfactory manner, but in the meantime I had better----"
"Good heavens, Morran," Wilfrid burst out. "What is the meaning of this? Do you mean to say that you are actually going to arrest Miss Everton for the--the----"
The word stuck in Wilfrid's throat. Morran bowed in his cold, official manner.
"I did not care to put it plainly and I have no warrant under a magistrate's signature," he said. "Let us say that I am going to detain Miss Everton on suspicion of being concerned in her uncle's death, or, rather, of her father's cousin's."
Involuntarily Wilfrid stepped between Freda and the inspector. She placed her hand on his arm in a blind, trusting way and seemed to look to him for further information. The absurdity of the whole thing occurred to Wilfrid and he laughed scornfully.
"You can hardly be serious, Morran," he said. "Why, the mere suggestion is farcical. Miss Everton guilty of murder! Miss Everton so strong that she could tie that old man to his bed with knots worthy of the most expert sailor! Ridiculous!"
Morran flushed slightly. He had an unpleasant task before him and he had to do it as best he could. And Wilfrid had hit upon the weakest part of the case. The way in which Everton had been tied up puzzled the police entirely.
"I am not acting solely upon my own responsibility, sir," Morran said. "The instructions were from the chief constable. Of course if Miss Everton can prove that she was not in Middlesworth last night, then I shall be glad to hear it."
Wilfrid flushed uneasily. It was exceedingly delicate ground that Freda stood upon. By some means or other the police had obtained possession of certain valuable information or this arrest would never have been thought of, and if Freda denied her visit to Middlesworth!
But Freda had no intention of doing anything of the kind. It was the last thing she wished for, but the truth must be told. It would mean the loss of her situation to a certainty, but there was no help for that. The colour had come back to her face now and her eyes were firm and steady. She put Wilfrid aside for a moment.
"How did you know that I was in Middlesworth last night, Mr. Morran?" she asked.
"It was the matter of that letter, miss," Morran replied. "A telegram from Castleford was sent in a little time ago. We don't know who sent it, but the message was to the effect that the letter was written by you. Somebody who heard the story in Middlesworth must have gone over to Castleford and sent that telegram. I don't defend that kind of thing for a moment, but we were bound to act on the information. We took the letter to certain people who knew you and they recognized the writing at once. But I don't want you to commit yourself----"
"I am much obliged to you for the warning," Freda said haughtily. "But I am going to tell you everything just as it happened. I wrote that letter. I went quietly away from here to my uncle's last night, when they were all playing cards. Let me call him my uncle, because it saves complications. If you want to know why I went I will also tell you that. I had pressing need of a considerable sum of money and I thought that my uncle might lend it to me. He did not give me a decisive answer one way or another. He said he was not very well and asked me to write a few letters for him. I did so and posted most of them. The one that you found was not sent on due consideration, but was allowed to stay on the table. After that I returned here."
Morran nodded thoughtfully. As far as he could judge Freda was saying no more than the truth.
"What time did you get back here?" he asked.
"I got back about a quarter to one," Freda explained. "I am sure it was no later than that. I----"
She would have said more only the figure of Stephen Morrison loomed on the party. He came from the billiard-room and it was evident that he had been listening.
"Well, this is a fine business," he exclaimed, in his harsh, overbearing way. "I've heard pretty well all that you have had to say, Morran. Fancy a young woman in my employ going in and out of the house at that time of the morning! How can you prove that you got home at a quarter to one, eh?"
Freda turned from white to red and then to white again. The proof was easy enough, but it would be tendered at a price. It was Wilfrid who came to the rescue.
"You seem to forget that you are talking to a lady, Mr. Morrison," he said. "Her conduct was very irregular, but it was not a crime. Miss Everton has been perfectly candid."
"Oh, yes!" Morrison growled. "Candid enough. But she's not telling the truth all the same, as you know. Why, the house was locked up at half-past twelve, and you and I were on our way to Middlesworth together. That being so, Miss Everton couldn't have got into the house at a quarter to one. I don't see much use in telling that sort of lie."
Wilfrid's hands tingled. Yet he hesitated to speak. He wanted, if possible, to keep the story of his successful attempt at burglary a secret. A sudden inspiration came to him.
"It seems to me that we are not going to the proper quarter for proof of what Miss Everton says," he remarked. "Don't you think that the little man in the soft hat and the glasses--the little man whom you left behind you in the morning--could tell us something on that head?"
The effect of this speech on Morrison was little short of marvellous. His great coarse features turned ashen grey; he clung to the back of a chair for support.
"What do you know?" he asked hoarsely. "What is your authority for--don't presume to play with me. Try that on and I'll crush you like a worm."
In spite of the truculence of Morrison's manner his voice was weak and shaky. Wilfrid felt that his bow, though drawn at a venture, had not been drawn in vain.
"Did a little man in glasses let you into the house, Freda?" he asked.
"A gentleman answering to that description opened the door leading into the conservatory," Freda said. It seemed to her that in the circumstances the prevarication was justified. "I was very much upset and went to bed at once. I have no more to say on that point."
"Is this thing possible, Mr. Morrison?" Morran asked crisply. "Was the gentleman spoken of here?"
Morrison hesitated, but Wilfrid's eyes were upon him. Before the millionaire could reply, Wilfred burst in:
"Of course he was here," he cried, "or how would Miss Everton have entered the house? But as to that, it was I also who admitted the mysterious little man into the house. When I left the place with Mr. Morrison, I concluded the stranger had gone, but I was mistaken."
The whole thing was wrong as Wilfrid very well knew, but he could not resist the temptation to shield Freda as much as possible. And it was pleasant, too, to see the moneyed bully so disconcerted.
"You left your visitor behind when you started for Middlesworth?" Morran asked. "What time did you return?"
"I did not return until past two, well past two," Morrison said, as if the words were dragged from him. "And I did leave my visitor behind. I told Dr. Bayfield that I was going to sleep in Middlesworth, but that was not the fact. Still, I don't see why I should be examined and bullied in this way, considering that my late visitor has no more to do with the case than one of my dogs."
"It fixes the time, sir," Morran said mildly. "I dare say that you will be able to give me a chance of a few words with your elderly visitor."
Again Morrison changed colour and shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.
"If you positively desire it," he said. "My visitor is a man who travels about a great deal and is not always to be found when he is wanted. However, I will write to him and ask him to communicate with you. You can't ask me to say more than that."
Wilfrid felt he had gained something. There was an awkward pause and Morran suggested a move to Middlesworth. He would like a conveyance of some kind if it was convenient. The inquest on the body of Mr. James Everton would be held in an hour's time and Miss Everton's evidence would be of importance. So far as the public were concerned, it need not become known that Miss Everton was being detained by the police.
"That is very good of you," Freda said gratefully.
"If Mr. Morrison will let me have a brougham----"
"You shall have anything you please," Morrison growled, "so long as you are quickly off the premises and don't come back again. Ring that bell, Morran. Here am I, in a weak state of health and positively ordered to avoid excitement, dragged into this matter and pestered as if it were my fault. James, tell Carter to bring the single-horse brougham at once."
It was some relief to be out of that house and Freda breathed more freely when the lodge gates were passed. Wilfrid had elected to go back with them; indeed, Freda seemed to need his presence. He did not say much during the drive, for he was busy with his own painful thoughts. It was he alone who was to blame for this deplorable condition of things. Freda had run this risk for his sake; his senseless act of folly seemed to have caused the catastrophe. Not that Freda had anything to do with the crime--the mere thought was treason--but the fates were against her.
A great crowd had gathered round the cottage where the dead man lay and where he had spent his miserable existence. Only a few of the public could be accommodated in the cottage, but those behind pressed forward and fought as if at a place of amusement. A score or so of spiked helmets bobbed up and down in the crowd and kept order. It was with difficulty that a couple of policemen made the way clear for the brougham.
"I am coming in with you, dearest," Wilfrid said. "Freda, will you ever forgive me for the awful trouble that I have brought upon you? When I think of my asinine folly----"
"There is nothing to blame yourself for," Freda said, with a pleasant smile. "What harm can come to me from this preposterous charge? And it was no fault of yours that some wretch chose to kill my poor uncle just after I had been visiting him."
"It is very good of you to say so," Wilfrid murmured. "Still, if I had refused to play for high stakes at bridge you would not have been mixed up in this affair at all."
Inside the cottage were a few of the public, the reporters, the jury and the coroner, who had taken his place at the head of the table. After a few preliminary remarks the coroner proceeded to open the inquest. The first person called was Frank Saxby, seeing that it was he who had discovered the murder. His evidence was plain and straightforward. He had come to see Mr. Everton on business and had found him dead.
"Did you discover the front door open, then?" asked the coroner.
"I did," Saxby replied. "The front door was never locked. It is common knowledge in Middlesworth that the door of Mr. Everton's house was never locked."
"Then you called in Dr. Bayfield?"
Saxby gave a plain statement of what had happened; how he sent for Bayfield and how the latter had discovered that murder had been done. Wilfrid's evidence was equally unimportant and when he had finished, Inspector Morran stepped into what stood for the box.
He had not much to say, but there was something like a stir in the audience when the inspector was asked if he had found any motive for the crime.
"The outer safe door was open," he said, "but as far as I could see the great mass of papers seemed to be intact. Of course, there might have been jewels in the safe which had gone. Mr. Everton had not a friend in the world and, I believe, never employed a solicitor, so that deeds or notes or valuables may have been stolen without anybody being the wiser. The only thing we found that suggested robbery is the necklace that I produce. That was found on the bed of the deceased gentleman. One of the medallions is missing; it seems to have recently been forced from the setting, as you will see, sir."
The necklace was handed round for inspection and greatly admired. Even in the dim light it was plain that the missing medallion had quite lately been removed from its setting.
"You didn't find the other part of it?" the coroner asked.
"No, sir," Morran said. "It is a very strange thing altogether. Why the thief should have taken that and left the rest is a puzzle."
Freda stood up as if eager to say something. Then she met an anxious warning look in Wilfrid's eyes and sat down again and gazed steadily at her feet.
There was an uneasy shuffling amongst the spectators. They seemed to feel that something was going to happen. It appeared so odd that the assassin should have stolen one medallion and left the rest of the necklace intact.
"You feel quite sure that the missing medallion is not to be found in the bedroom where the deceased lay?" the coroner suggested. "The question may seem superfluous, but it may have an important bearing on the case."
Morran was certain that he had made a thorough search. He was sure that nothing had been over-looked. He was still protesting when the crowd parted and one of the plain-clothes detectives came into the room with the air of a man who has a story to tell when the time comes. He pushed still closer as the coroner turned the necklace to the light. Then he whispered to Morran, who started and turned a pitiful gaze in Freda's direction.
"My man here tells me that the missing medallion is found, sir," he said. "He has it in his pocket at the present moment."
The audience gasped, again eyes were turned on the detective. Freda half rose again, feeling that further calamity was awaiting her. Else why had Morran looked at her in that half-pitying fashion?
"I ought to have told the truth at once," she whispered to Wilfrid. "I am afraid that I shall have to do so now when it is too late."
Wilfrid said nothing; he did not even appear to hear. He was looking at the plain-clothes policeman with strained eyes. He saw the missing medallion produced and handed up to the coroner, who fitted it to the space, into which it dropped naturally.
"This is the thing we are looking for, beyond doubt," he said. "Where did you find it?"
"I found it at the residence of Mr. Stephen Morrison, sir," the detective said. "I had proceeded there with a search warrant, and under my powers I made an examination of the room where Miss Everton sleeps. One of the servants there gave me a clue quite accidentally. In a little box in a chest of drawers I found that medallion."
Freda could not grasp it all at once. When she did so there was a look of proud defiance on her face. Beyond all doubt some enemy had done this thing. She and Wilfrid had been watched in the conservatory that night when the gem had been stolen. It was impossible to imagine why the gem had been stolen, for the thief could not have guessed at the death of James Everton. Evidently the wickedness of the plot had been thought of later.
Freda rose to her feet, the gleam from Wilfrid's eyes no longer restraining her. She would speak now and tell the truth at all hazards.
"I should like to give my version of the affair," she said in a perfectly steady voice. "I admit that the medallion is mine, that it was given me by my uncle; but it was stolen from me on the night of the murder, before I went into Middlesworth and before I had any idea that my uncle was dead."
To most of the eager listeners the statement sounded like a deliberate lie. And yet Freda did not look as if she were telling falsehoods. Her face was calm and set and her eyes were steady. Even the coroner felt disposed to believe her, old hand as he was at this kind of thing.
"I think that would be the better course to take," he said. "You will give evidence on your oath and everything will be held against you. You are not bound to say anything unless you like."
"I must speak," Freda cried passionately. "I cannot allow this terrible accusation to hang over me one day longer than is necessary. I know that appearances are against me. If you don't mind I shall be glad to be sworn at once."
The Testament was presented to Freda; she touched it with her lips. Then she went on very quietly and clearly to tell the story of how the medallion came into her possession. Her uncle had given it to her in a fit of generosity, at which certain people in the court smiled; the suggestion of James Everton being generous was more or less amusing.
"That sounds well enough," the coroner said when Freda had finished her plain statement. "And now I must ask you a few questions. If the medallion was given you, why did you not tell the court directly the medallion was produced?"
"Because I wished to avoid gossip," Freda said. "Besides, the medallion was stolen from me. I should have gained nothing and not helped you at all if I had said that the medallion was given to me and afterwards stolen."
The coroner shook his head in an unconvinced kind of way.
"You must remember that you are on your oath," he said. "How could this thing have been stolen from you when it was actually found in your possession?"
"It was stolen from me all the same," Freda cried. "Whether the thief got frightened and put the medallion back again I cannot say. I must for my own sake prove that I had that medallion in my possession before the murder, before I went into Middlesworth last night."
"If you could prove that by a witness," the coroner said, "why, it would go a long way to----"
"I saw the medallion in Miss Everton's possession at eleven o'clock," Wilfrid said.
An excited murmur rose from the listeners. The case became at once dramatic and promising. The coroner frowned on the spectators and demanded silence.
"This is very irregular," he said. "We will hear what Dr. Bayfield has to say presently. Meanwhile Miss Everton will continue her story."
"Dr. Bayfield's remark gives me the opportunity that I needed," Freda went on. "When I have finished my statement you will see why I did not speak until it was necessary. It was about eleven o'clock that I went into the conservatory at Mr. Morrison's and Dr. Bayfield was there. Everybody had gone to bed except Mr. Morrison and his guests."
"Excuse me, but was that an appointment?" the coroner asked.
"It was," Freda said with a flushed face. "I had something particular to say to Dr. Bayfield."
"As a matter of fact Miss Everton and I are engaged to be married," Wilfrid said quietly. There was another murmur and another demand for silence from the coroner.
"You must not interrupt, Dr. Bayfield," the latter said sternly. "I appreciate the feeling that impelled you to speak, but you must not interrupt."
Wilfrid apologized. Seeing that he had gained his point, he could afford to do so.
"My time is fully occupied and I do not get many chances to see Dr. Bayfield," said Freda. "I found him waiting for me in the conservatory. He was very depressed and downcast. He had been playing bridge for very heavy stakes and had lost a large sum of money. It was a very foolish thing to do, especially as Dr. Bayfield had need of the money, which he wanted for a friend."
"Wanted to lend it to a friend?" one of the jury asked. "For what purpose?"
"This is mere idle curiosity," the coroner said curtly. "Pray proceed, Miss Everton."
"Dr. Bayfield naturally told me everything," Freda proceeded. "It was a very trying and difficult position. Then it occurred to me that I might be able to obtain the money. I thought of the medallion that my uncle had given me, though I had no idea that the value of it would exceed the £200 that Dr. Bayfield required. I ran up into my room and fetched the brooch down and offered it to Dr. Bayfield, who pronounced it to be of great value. But he refused to take it and we had a warm argument over the matter."
"There being nobody else present, of course?" the coroner asked.
"No, the conservatory was empty. When we were still disputing one of the card party came into the hall. They were asking for Dr. Bayfield to settle some dispute. Another moment and they would have found us in the conservatory together. I need not tell you, sir, that neither of us wanted that. I had compromised myself enough----"
"You need not go into the point," the coroner interrupted. "I quite understand. And then?"
"Then Dr. Bayfield opened the door leading into the garden and put me outside. He went as far as the hall to settle the dispute and in less than five minutes was back again. When I returned to the conservatory the gem had disappeared. That is all I know about it."
The coroner was understood to say that the whole thing was extraordinary. He wanted to know if there was any other way into the conservatory, but Freda was emphatic on that point. Nobody could have passed her for she was close to the outer door all the time. She had discussed the matter with Dr. Bayfield, who was equally sure that nobody had passed him, for he had stood with his back to the conservatory to prevent anybody from entering.
"You mean to say that the medallion was stolen in this singular way?" the coroner asked. "Are you quite sure that this is the one that Mr. James Everton gave to you?"
As a mere matter of form Freda asked to see the medallion. She looked at it carefully and nodded. Beyond doubt that was the one James Everton had given her.
"I recognize it at once," she said, "there can be no question about it whatever. There is a little chip in the centre of the enamel that looks like a cross, and one of the gold wires is so bent that it curls round one of the diamonds. It is assuredly the same."
"Therefore you lost it and somebody placed it in a box of yours again. A most extraordinary story. Do you mean to suggest that some enemy----"
Freda turned her big grey eyes on the coroner's face. She shook her head gently.
"I am not going so far as that," she said. "I am inclined to think that the thief became frightened and knowing the thing belonged to me, placed it in the box, where the detectives found it. That is the only explanation that I can think of."
"And all this you have sworn to on your oath?" the coroner asked.
Freda replied emphatically that she had. As she stepped from the box Wilfrid stood up and desired to be sworn. He had not much to say seeing that the dramatic side of the story had already been told by Freda, but his evidence was in strong support of what she had said.
"I am entirely to blame in the matter," he said. "But for my folly this would not have happened. It was solely Miss Everton's desire to save me that has brought all this trouble about. Miss Everton would have told the truth as soon as the necklace was produced, and long before the discovery made by the detective was public property, but I persuaded her to be silent. I fancy it will be obvious to everybody here why I induced her to say nothing."
Something like a sympathetic murmur followed from the eager audience.
"There is one thing I should like to ask," Wilfrid said in conclusion. "The detective told us that he gathered a clue from one of the maids. I should like to know how that clue came and how the maid in question knew where to direct the search. This may have some bearing on the case."
The coroner nodded approvingly. The plain-clothes policeman came forward.
"The matter is simple enough, sir," he said. "Of course, I asked a great many questions of the servants. I mentioned a medallion set in diamonds, and a servant--a lady's maid, I think--told me that she had heard that Miss Everton had something of the kind."
"Who had told her?" Wilfrid demanded. "Where did she get her information from?"
"I'll ask all the questions if you will tell me what you require," the coroner said. "Had the girl seen this for herself or how?"
"I don't fancy so, sir," the witness went on. "I rather gather that the girl got her information from something that she had heard her mistress let fall. It was either Miss Grace or Miss May Morrison, but I am not quite sure, for it would not have been a very pleasant task to inquire about the family."
Wilfrid stood up as if to speak again. Then he suddenly changed his mind and sat down. Quite unwittingly the witness had started a theory in his own mind. It seemed wild and impossible and involved the belief in so vile a thing that Wilfrid fairly staggered before it. He dared not as yet argue the thing even in his own mind, but the germ was there and gradually the darkness was growing clearer. As yet Wilfrid would say nothing of it to anybody. He did not see that Saxby, wildly excited, had come into the court again. "Have you any further questions to ask the witness?" the coroner asked.
Wilfrid pulled himself together and, stammering, apologized for his inattention. He felt that he must say something--something that would not clearly indicate his train of thought.
"Only one thing, sir," he remarked. "At some future time I should like to see the lady's maid in the box where a lawyer might ask a few questions. It seems to me that there is nothing more to be done for the present. If the inquiry is adjourned----"
"I think that is what Inspector Morran is asking for?" the coroner said interrogatively.
Morran nodded his head. Saxby stood up excitedly. He held a slim marble-covered book in his hand.
"Not yet," he cried. "I appear on behalf of Miss Everton, and I suggest that the inquiry should take a step farther. I have a most important piece of evidence in my hand--nothing less than the dead man's diary."
The little audience thrilled again. Every eye was turned upon the slim, common-looking object that Saxby held in his hand. There was suppressed excitement about the young solicitor that bred excitement in others. Even the coroner was moved out of his wonted dignity.
"Did I understand you to say that you had found a diary belonging to Mr. Everton?" he asked.
"That is a plain statement of facts, sir," Saxby replied. "There were certain formalities to go through, as you know, before the funeral can take place. I was asked to go upstairs with the undertaker with a view to seeing that everything was quite regular. When the body came to be removed the diary was found underneath. It is an interesting document."
"It has been written up quite lately?" the coroner asked.
"Quite recently, sir," Saxby replied with a certain significant manner. "May I call your attention to the last few paragraphs? When you have read them I am quite sure that you will see the necessity of adjourning the case."
Public expectation was on tiptoe once more; curiosity was all the more rife because there was just a chance that it would not be gratified. The coroner adjusted his glasses and looked eagerly at the page in the diary indicated by Frank Saxby. He was a man who was old to this kind of work, but he started and looked impressively at Morran.
"God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "This--this is remarkable. Inspector Morran, have you looked at this volume? You will find it exceedingly interesting."
Morran appeared to be little less moved as he glanced at the shabby diary. The three men in the secret glanced from one to the other.
"You are quite right, sir," Morran said at length. "It would be unwise and contrary to the highest interests of justice to carry the case farther for the present. I will ask you, sir, to adjourn these proceedings for a week."
The coroner nodded, disregarding the murmur of the spectators, who seemed to feel that they were being done out of the best part of the entertainment. It was as if they had paid for a melodrama which was subsequently cut short at the third act.
"This day week at ten o'clock," the coroner said. "Meanwhile the court is adjourned."
"And what about Miss Everton?" Wilfrid demanded.
"Surely you don't mean to say that----"
The speaker paused, feeling that there was no reason to say any more. Inspector Morran and the coroner exchanged glances. It was evident that they were both puzzled. To Wilfrid's astonishment and indignation, Saxby came quite glibly to the rescue.
"I appear for Miss Everton," he said. "It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the adjournment should be necessary, because I can see a perfect case before me. At the same time these new developments prevent me from asking for bail. I have no doubt that the authorities will see that Miss Everton has all she needs. It is merely a case of being detained on suspicion."
Wilfrid would have said something, but Saxby almost forcibly held him down. Freda drew up her head and looked proudly around her. After all, she was innocent; she had done what she could on behalf of her lover and had failed. She blamed nobody; she felt sure she should act in exactly the same manner again.
"It is a matter of indifference to me what course is taken," she said. "I am innocent of this crime, as will be seen when the time comes. Perhaps I shall be best off in the hands of the police. There is only one thing that troubles me."
Freda's voice broke slightly, but her steady gaze never wavered. A couple of policemen were busy clearing the room of the public. Saxby had disappeared for the moment. Morran had drawn aside so that Wilfrid could speak freely to Freda. No attempt was being made to detain the girl and she could have walked out had she liked.
"What does it mean?" Wilfrid asked. "And why did Frank turn against you like that? He might have been no more than a paid advocate by the way he talked."
"It was part of some scheme," Freda whispered. "I am sure there is something that Frank and the police want to keep to themselves. I fancy they are trying not to arouse the suspicions of somebody else. And what does it matter? I have nowhere to go."
Wilfrid caught the speaker's hand and pressed it tenderly. He dared not venture on any more affectionate demonstration there. The fault was his, be his the blame.
"I know what you are going to say, Wilfrid," Freda went on rapidly. "I can see it in your eyes. You are not going to blame yourself for a mere indiscretion. How could you have foreseen the trouble that was coming from that imprudence? I am all right and I shall be well cared for. There is only one thing that gives me anxiety."
"I know," Wilfrid said--"your father. I will try to make him understand what has happened, though I fear it is a hopeless task. And you may be sure that he shall have everything he needs. Poor as I am, I shall manage that. Is there anything else, darling?"
Freda thought for a moment and decided that there was nothing else. Morran came up at the same time. His manner was different--it had grown almost halting and apologetic.
"I am afraid that I must proceed with my duty," he said. "I am sorry to have to detain you, Miss Everton, but circumstances would not permit of anything else. We have made certain discoveries that must be kept quiet; certain people must be lulled into security. As to your detention here, it is only a matter of form. You shall have comfortable quarters and everything you need. Believe me, nobody deplores this necessity more than myself."
It was very polite and soothing, but Wilfrid felt that the words implied his dismissal. It meant that Morran was going to carry out his duty without further delay. A policeman came in with the information that there was a cab at the door. A good many people were waiting outside and Freda's face grew pale as she passed through them. It was Wilfrid who shut the cab door and held Freda's fingers to the last.
"Good-bye, darling; and mind that you keep up your courage!" he whispered.
"I am certain to do that," Freda smiled back. "I have nothing to fear. And so long as you are going to look after my father, why----"
She smiled and waved her hand as the cab drove off.
Wilfrid went down the street to his rooms, seeing nobody and heeding none of the many curious glances turned in his direction. He had something else to think of. The future looked very black and dark as he sat moodily smoking the long afternoon away.
It was about five o'clock when Saxby came in, looking on the best of terms with himself. He did not in the least resemble a man who has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. His manner was cheerful; he looked full of reliance and self-confidence.
"I wonder you have the impudence to come here," Wilfrid said passionately. He was glad to have somebody to vent his feelings upon. "But for you I verily believe that Freda would have been free at this moment. If you had taken the proper course and insisted upon having that diary read----"
"Miss Everton would be free at this moment," Saxby admitted quite coolly. "I am with you there. And what would have become of her when she was free?"
For the life of him, Wilfrid had no reply ready. He saw what Saxby meant.
"That had never occurred to you," the latter went on. "Freda Everton is dependent upon herself for her living. The mere fact of having her father to keep renders her poor indeed. And suppose she had walked out of court without a stain on her character, what then? She has no friends. If she had gone back to the Morrisons, Grace Morrison would have turned her out neck and crop. All the good people of Middlesworth would have turned up their eyes at the thought of a girl who meets her lover surreptitiously at midnight. It's a hard world, Wilfrid!"
"It is, indeed!" Wilfrid groaned. "I had not thought of that. Your legal mind has hit the blot at once. But you would have raised the cloud----"
"I could have raised the cloud. But in the interests of everybody it is better that Freda Everton should bear the burden a little longer. When the truth comes to be told she will be regarded as a heroine. Before heaven, Wilfrid, we are going to unmask the greatest set of wretches who ever disgraced the name of humanity! A few pencilled words in a battered old diary will hang the lot of them. And those few pencilled words will prove Freda's innocence beyond the shadow of a doubt. To think of all this network of crime in a place like Middlesworth!"
"Why talk in enigmas?" Wilfrid asked eagerly. "Tell me the story at once."
Frank shook his head as he helped himself to a cigarette. His face was rather grave.
"I am not going to do anything of the kind," he said. "As a matter of fact, my dear boy, you are not to be trusted. You are too impetuous and self-willed. Nor are you any good at disguising your feelings. If I only gave you an inkling of what I have discovered, you would be sure to ruin everything. Now, could you face the real murderer, shake hands with him and partake of his hospitality, knowing him to be the murderer?"
"No," Wilfrid said curtly. "I couldn't. I should want to strangle him forthwith."
"Precisely; and that is why I am not going to tell you anything. You will have to possess your soul in patience for a few days. And as to another point. You heard that detective say to-day that he got a clue from a lady's maid."
Wilfrid nodded moodily. His vanity had not been flattered, though he was bound to admit that there was much in what Frank Saxby had said.
"Did you not wonder who told the maid?" Saxby went on. "She derived her information from Miss Grace Morrison, which is strange when you think of it. For the Morrisons are new people and not the sort that are civil to their servants. Only a lady knows how to be friendly with a maid without allowing her to go too far. You know what I mean. They are friends as well as mistress and servant. Now why did Grace Morrison tell her maid about this medallion? We've got to find that out."
"And why must we worry ourselves about such senseless tittle-tattle?"
"My dear boy, if I am not mistaken, this is going to prove of the greatest importance. You are not a conceited man, yet you are perfectly well aware that you could marry Grace Morrison to-morrow. That girl throws herself at your head in a ridiculous manner. Now, has she ever seen you and Freda together?"
"Well, she has," Wilfrid admitted. "She saw us in the garden on the night of the card party. She was rude and insolent to Freda into the bargain."
"Oh!" Saxby said with a triumphant note in his voice. "I thought we should get to this. It's rather unfortunate to-day that you had to proclaim the fact of your engagement to Freda, but we can trade on that at the adjourned inquest. Now, when we dine with the Morrisons to-night take Grace into dinner. Make much of her and flatter her."
"My dear fellow, I had forgotten that we were going to a mixed party at the Morrisons to-night," Wilfrid burst out, "but I shall write a note to say----"
Saxby pitched the end of his cigarette into the fire.
"You are not going to do anything of the kind," he said firmly. "You are coming to the dinner. My dear fellow, you owe me something and I am not asking you much to pay the debt with. However repugnant the idea is, you are going to dine with Morrison to-night."
Wilfrid adjusted his tie with a feeling of contempt that he took an interest in such frivolous trifles. Owing entirely to his own weak folly he had placed Freda in a hideous position. A simple 'No' at the right time, and all would have been well. He had not the slightest desire to dine with the Morrisons to-night; indeed, he looked forward to the ordeal with considerable dread. But Frank Saxby had strongly wished it, and in the circumstances Wilfrid felt that he could not refuse. Something was going to happen that night, and Wilfrid had a feeling that he was to be a puppet in the game.
The feeling was not lessened when the house-keeper put a note into Wilfrid's hand, saying that it had just arrived by express with an intimation that it was to be delivered to Wilfrid at once. Outwardly there was nothing to indicate the contents. The oblong business envelope had a type-written address and the body of the communication had been typed also.
"You are dining with Morrison to-night," the strange note ran. "You may not want to go, but you are to be there all the same. A night or two ago the little man in the slouch hat--the man who let you into Morrison's house--handed you a glove. Place that glove in your pocket to-night and produce it when you are asked to do so."
There was nothing else, no signature or anything of that kind. It was curt and perhaps inclined to be impertinent, and yet the whole thing gave Wilfrid a feeling of hope. Still it was puzzling and Wilfrid decided to show it to Saxby when he had the chance. Saxby could make nothing of it.
"Sounds mysterious," he observed. "Sort of melodramatic flavour about it. At the same time our modest friend means well. He can do Freda Everton no harm and I fancy he means to do her good. At any rate, put the glove in your pocket."
Wilfrid placed the glove in his pocket and by-and-by forgot all about it. He had other things to occupy his attention when he reached Morrison's house. The hall and the drawing-room were brilliantly lighted up; there was a vision of splendid pictures and beautiful furniture and the like, the kind of setting for a great artist. There was not a single spot to which the fingers of good taste could point and indicate that something was missing. Wilfrid admitted as much with a certain sense of personal grievance.
And yet the company hardly fitted the picture. There was Morrison, big and loud and overbearing as ever, with no trace of the nervous hesitation that Wilfrid had noticed on the night of the tragedy. Bentley was there, too, his heavy features worked into astonishment as he saw Wilfrid. One or two other guests also suggested money. Wilfrid advanced to Grace Morrison, who acted as hostess. He was not quite sure of his reception, but whatever the girl felt she kept to herself.
"I am very glad to see you," she said. "You are going to take me in to dinner. We are only waiting now for one belated guest."
As in duty bound, Wilfrid expressed his pleasure. Mentally he was contrasting Grace Morrison's charms with those of Freda. Grace Morrison was by no means bad-looking, but was large, slow, and had a little of the coarseness of her father. The mouth, too, was thin and cruel, and the eyes looked as if they could flash with anger at times. Beautifully dressed, Wilfrid thought, tastefully dressed in the most expensive mode de Paris. And yet Grace Morrison was not a lady. Wilfrid would have found it hard to detect any shortcoming, but he knew intuitively it was there. Freda in the plainest of dresses looked infinitely more charming.
"Ring the bell, May," Morrison snorted, as he turned to his second daughter. "This is past a joke. Ten minutes late and it's well known that I wait for nobody. If Clifford likes to lose his dinner, he must take the consequences."
A minute later and the butler announced that dinner was served. In the dining-room the same perfect good taste and artistic spirit was pursued--the shaded lights, the lovely flowers, the chaste simplicity of spotless damask and silver. It was a case of every prospect pleasing and only man round the table vile, Wilfrid thought. He drank his soup in silence, pleased to find that Grace Morrison had turned her attention to the neighbour on the other side. But it was not for long. She suddenly veered round and turned the battery of her eyes on Wilfrid.
"I am going to speak candidly to you," she said. "What is to become of Freda Everton?"
"I don't quite understand you," Wilfrid said, quite coolly. He had expected something of this kind. "You don't for a moment suggest that she is guilty?"
Grace Morrison shrugged her white shoulders. There was just a tinge of colour on her face.
"One can only judge by appearances," she said. "It was very good of you to try to save Freda. But were you not a little quixotic?"
There was a jealous ring in the question that Wilfrid did not fail to notice. That Freda had a dangerous and unscrupulous enemy here, he felt absolutely certain.
"I could do nothing less," he said evasively, "Miss Everton came to see me after every one had gone to bed--I mean after the family had retired. Her good name is very dear to me; indeed, the good name of any woman would be dear to a man with any sense of honour."
"Then what you said," Grace began eagerly, "all you hinted as to Miss Everton and you being engaged was----"
"What else could I say?" Wilfrid protested. It was a weak remark, but Wilfrid had a feeling that he must win this enemy over to his side. "There is one thing that I am sure of. Miss Everton would not marry me or anybody else with this cloud hanging over her."
Wilfrid saw the dark eyes flash and the white teeth show in what, though intended for a smile, looked like a snarl. It was only for an instant and then the evil expression was gone. But it spoke volumes to Wilfrid. It told him that Grace Morrison could have thrown light on the mystery, and that she had made up her mind to do nothing of the kind. All Wilfrid's scruples vanished. He would play this woman; he would not hesitate any longer.
He was still casting about for a good opening when the door opened and the belated guest came in. With a start, Wilfrid recognized the little man who had played so important a part on that wretched night. He was short and bent and had a queer hooked nose and an eye bright and beady as that of a cat. At the same time his dress clothes were fashionably cut and there was a suggestion of power and strength about him. As those dark steady eyes flashed round the table, they met those of Wilfrid. The stranger winked at him and tapped his breast pocket in a significant manner.
"The devil," Morrison broke in hoarsely. "What is the meaning of this--this confounded----"
"Don't worry," the stranger said, quite coolly. "At the last moment Clifford could not come. So I came instead. He desired me to make his apologies to Miss Morrison. I knew that you would only be too delighted to have me, my dear Morrison. Bentley, too! This is charming! charming! Don't bring back the soup, fish I never touch. Plain food, my dear fellow, plain food for me."
Morrison subsided with a grunt into his chair. He seemed to take no further interest in his dinner, Wilfrid thought; neither did Bentley, whose hand trembled as he toyed with his bread. But the little stranger did not seem to notice anything; he chatted away with great good humour and allowed the table to know that his name was Joseph Marriott, and that he had recently come from abroad.
All the loud, booming hospitality had gone out of Morrison; he looked unsteady and aged, just as he looked on that tragic night. Bentley, too, had lost all his bullying manner. He was watching the stranger from under his eyebrows. A silence fell at length upon the company. It was Wilfrid who broke it. He felt attracted to the stranger, with whom, in a sense, he shared a secret.
"Had you been long away from England, Mr. Marriott?" he asked.
"Well, yes," the little man replied, "I have not been in England for twenty years. I have been busy making money in various parts of the globe. There have been frequent periods when I have not seen a woman's face for months at a time. You good people who live at home cannot understand what that means. My dear Morrison, men like yourself have much to be thankful for. So has my friend Bentley."
There was a kind of mocking challenge in the speaker's words that struck Wilfrid at once. He saw Bentley's face darken and a scowl knit his brows. Morrison muttered something that did not sound in the least friendly. What was this man's power over the other? Wilfrid wondered. Certainty he was master of the situation. He went on talking as if nothing whatever out of the common was taking place.
"It is only when we get back to civilization that one appreciates its blessings," he said. "I came to see my friend Morrison the other night; the first time I had been in a well-appointed house for years. I cannot tell you how I enjoyed it; I began to plan something like it for myself. It was a very great shock to me to find that an inmate of the house was so closely associated with a tragedy. By the way, I suppose that nothing further has come to light?
"There is very little more to ascertain," said Saxby quickly. "Of course, it is absurd to assume that Miss Everton has anything to do with the matter. Anybody who knows her believes that she was telling the simple truth about that medallion."
The little stranger looked up and winked deliberately at Wilfrid. Once more he tapped his breast pocket.
"I am exceedingly glad to hear it," he said. "So young and so beautiful! It is only when you have been abroad so long that you thoroughly appreciate the young and beautiful. Now, the other night--the night of the tragedy, in fact--I was in this house. My esteemed host had to go out and he left me alone for a time. It was a perfect treat to study the many beautiful things. I wandered about the place; I went into the garden. I was in a soft, sentimental mood. I thought that I had done with all that kind of thing, but I was mistaken. I began to weave romances. I was a kind of Prince looking for my Cinderella and I should not have been surprised to pick up the glass slipper. You know what it is to be sentimental, Morrison?"
Again Wilfrid noticed the mocking sardonic ring in the speaker's voice. Morrison said nothing, but writhed and twisted in his chair as a wild animal does when teased through the bars of its cage.
"I found no glass slipper," Marriott went on, "but I found something quite as sweet and as romantic. Just outside the conservatory door I picked up a glove. Gloves are generally held to be romantic things, and often play a considerable part in romances. And this was quite the glove of fiction--a long, slender gay affair with gold embroidery up the back. I stood till I had woven quite a pretty idyll out of that glove. It made me feel young again. And then and there I formed a resolution. What do you think it was?"
"To go to bed at the proper time and take a cooling draught," Morrison growled.
"By no means," Marriott said, with a pleased smile. "I made up my mind to find the owner of the glove and give her a present. I have by me a most beautiful card case worked in Indian gold and set with diamonds. I bought it in Delhi. And as a thank-offering for my good fortune and for my return to regions where such gloves are worn, I made up my mind that the owner of the glove should have that case. Which shows what a sentimental man I am."
"But where is the glove?" May Morrison cried. "Did you keep it?"
"As if I should throw it away, my dear young lady!" Marriott said reproachfully; yet all the time the mocking ring was in his voice. "It is here, in my pocket."
Wilfrid held his breath, as deeply interested as any of the women. He saw the glove produced and handed round the table. When it reached Grace Morrison she gave a little cry of delight.
"It is mine," she said. "May, you recognize the glove; it is mine. I have won the prize."
"Evidence, evidence," Marriott chuckled. "Produce the fellow to this pretty piece of femininity and your case is complete. It would never do to have a fair rival in the field."
"I am afraid that is impossible," Grace Morrison said. "I dropped the glove in the garden. I had been over to the Paytons for an hour on the night of the tragedy. They were giving a reception and I had promised to look in for an hour. I came back about twelve and let myself into the house. I pulled my gloves off as I came along and must have dropped them. Anyway I could not find them again."
"And how did you get into the house?" Marriott asked carelessly.
"By way of the conservatory. There is a small door behind the mimosa bushes. It would be about half-past eleven or so, if I must make my case out in detail. But please let the matter stand over for the present to give me a chance to find the other glove."
Marriott gave Wilfrid a rapid glance and touched his breast pocket significantly. Wilfrid seemed to understand what was wanted, for he produced the glove and handed it to Grace Morrison.
"Let me help you," he said. "I found that glove in the conservatory immediately after the card dispute and just before I opened the conservatory door for Miss Everton to come back. You must have dropped it near the spot where the medallion was lying."
"Ah, ah!" Marriott cried in a loud, strident voice, startling after the softness of his earlier speech. "We are getting to the root of things. Miss Morrison knew where the medallion was to be found."
The girl's face paled, her lips turned ashen grey. Then the red flamed into her face again.
"How dare you?" she cried passionately. "How dare you, a stranger, insult me like that?"
Marriott glanced at Wilfrid and his lips formed one single word----"trapped."
A thrill ran round the assembled company. Grace Morrison had flared out so suddenly and passionately that everybody was surprised. A strained silence followed, whilst everybody regarded the flushed, rather handsome face of the girl, who repelled so violently an accusation which had not been made against her.
"I am afraid we have all gone too far," Wilfrid said smoothly. Marriott gave him a glance of approval. "But you must admit that it is a strange coincidence that you should have been in the conservatory at the time the medallion was stolen. Of course some people pay no heed to circumstantial evidence."
Grace Morrison forced a smile to her lips. The natural colour was creeping back into her face again as she toyed with a peach. That her hands were still trembling the sharp eyes of Marriott did not fail to see.
"Personally I don't believe the medallion was there at all," she said. "I shall always feel that it was stolen from Mr. James Everton's cottage some time before and hidden where my maid--I mean, where it was found."
Wilfrid held his temper down with an iron will. In the circumstances the speech was cold and cruel, all the more so because here was the thief herself, which she had as good as admitted with her own lips.
"You seem to forget that I saw the gem," Wilfrid said. "It was fetched downstairs on the night of the murder to give to me--I had it in my hand, but refused to accept it. We were still disputing the matter when the interruption came. If Miss Everton is not telling the truth, then I am party to the deception."
Grace Morrison bit her lip and the tears rose to her eyes. This mistake was more crushing than the last one.
"I am very unfortunate to-night," she said. "I think we had better not discuss this dangerous topic any longer. Will you have coffee here, or not, father?"
Morrison, roused from a gloomy reverie, suggested coffee in the billiard-room and the ladies rustled away. The conversation was desultory and uninteresting; the night outside looked warm and tempting and the French windows were open to the lawn. Wilfrid strolled across the room and looked out. Morrison had fallen on the eternal topic of money again, a sufficiently dry subject to a poor man like Wilfrid. He lighted a cigarette and passed down the marble steps leading to the grass. He had barely reached the end of the terrace when Marriott joined him. The old man slipped a familiar hand under Wilfrid's arm.
"I flatter myself we did that very nicely between us," he said. "I suppose you know now who took Freda's--I mean Miss Everton's jewel, eh?"
"I don't fancy there is much doubt on that score," Wilfrid replied. "Miss Morrison walked very innocently into your trap, sir. She had practically admitted everything before she saw what we were driving at. But it will cost you that gold case you spoke about."
"And cheap at the price," said Marriott with the same diabolical chuckle. "Make a nice wife for a poor man, eh? Chance for a struggling doctor like you."
"I'm afraid I am not ambitious," Wilfrid smiled. "Besides, I could never care for any one but Freda, I am responsible for this trouble and must get her out again. It was a vile act on the part of Grace Morrison. Why she did it beats me."
"Well, it doesn't beat me," Marriott said coolly. "The girl is over head and ears in love with you. She thought she was going to buy you with her confounded money. She's going to receive an eye-opener about that money before long, but that is another story. She came into the conservatory by that door, which you knew nothing of, and heard all that passed. It was rather a touching interview, I take it, pathetic and tender and so on."
"That is so," Wilfrid said with a little colour in his face, "though idle curiosity----"
"My dear boy, there is no idle curiosity about me, I assure you," Marriott said with a sudden force and sincerity that astonished his companion. "I am deeply interested. There is great danger for us all, too. But to resume the thread of the argument. Grace Morrison overheard everything, she saw everything. And she knew why Miss Everton wanted you to take that jewel."
"You mean to say," Wilfred explained, "that my promise to Frank Saxby----"
"Precisely," Marriott said coolly. "Don't worry about Saxby. By this time to-morrow he will have no cause to fear Bentley. Grace Morrison stole that gem, so that she could put you in a corner. It was done in an insane fit of jealousy. But when the opportunity came to get Freda Everton out of the way, even at the risk of her being hanged, the temptation was too much. Grace Morrison herself and somebody in her employ hid that medallion where it was certain to be found."
"It was the maid," Wilfrid said. "The maid gave the detective a hint. Didn't you hear that slip of the tongue about the maid to-night? We shall find it is a conspiracy. But I am amazed at your knowledge of this matter. If you will tell me who you are----"
The old man chuckled and shook his head; his eyes were very bright in the gleam of the light coming from the open billiard-room. In the room Wilfrid could see Bentley and Morrison, talking with great earnestness. The old man chuckled again.
"Plot on, you scrofulous red rats," he said in a hissing whisper. "Your time has nearly come. I can't tell you who I am, my boy, but you shall know before very long. My word! It is a thing that Morrison would give half his money to solve, or half somebody else's money, rather."
"You will find me willing to do anything to assist," said Wilfrid.
"Of course. I am glad to hear it. Oh, there are some pretty revelations coming soon, perhaps this very night. I want you to stay here and keep your eyes open. Walk up and down and note anything that you see that strikes you as suspicious. You can easily justify your action by saying that you are enjoying the beauty of the evening. Only keep your eyes open."
Without further words the little old man disappeared through the dining-room window, leaving Wilfrid to make the best of what he had heard. Not that he was to be alone for long, for presently there was the swish of silks behind him and Grace Morrison appeared. She had thrown a shawl around her head and her eyes looked dark and anxious.
"I was wondering what had become of you," she said with uneasy gaiety. "I did not see you playing bridge in the dining-room with the rest of them, so I----"
"I will never play bridge again--at least, not for money," Wilfrid said. "Are we never going to be free from that game in future? It is much more pleasant out here."
"I quite agree with you," the girl said as she slipped her hand familiarly under Wilfrid's arm. He could feel that her eyes were turned upon him languidly. It was by no means a pleasant moment.
"I am tired of that kind of thing; I am afraid I behaved very foolishly to-night."
The words were pleading, as if the speaker looked confidentially for a denial of the suggestion. Wilfrid felt that he could not draw his arm away, but this compulsory love-making made him feel hot all over. He tried to conceal his lack of interest and his intense dislike.
"The blame was mine," he said; "my remark was unfortunate. Of late I seem unable to do anything that is right and proper. It is all my fault that Freda Everton----"
The hand on Wilfrid's arm gripped it firmly, though involuntarily. Hate and passion spoke in the grip and Wilfrid did not fail to notice it.
"Don't let us speak of her," she said. "I suppose she will be all right. Your evidence over that medallion should make all the difference. But people will talk; they will always point her out and whisper as she passes--the taint will never be removed. It was noble of you to take her part and pretend that you cared for her. It was like you, Wilfrid!"
"Was it--really?" Wilfrid asked, half angry, half amused. "Don't you think that a great many people would regard Miss Everton as a very fascinating girl?"
"Oh, I dare say they would. She's pretty in a simple, buttercup sort of fashion, and I don't deny it. But she is not the kind of wife for you, Wilfrid. You are ambitious; you are of good family. You want a wife with money--a girl who knows the world. If you were not so proud----"
The pressure on Wilfrid's arm was quite loving now. The girl's eyes were turned to him with invitation in them. Was she going to propose to him? Wilfrid wondered. It had occurred to him that Grace Morrison cared for him, but he had refused to believe that the girl was flinging herself at his head. He would have been very blind had he not seen it now.
"Perhaps I do," he said. "It is only one's friends who see where one's best interests are. But I should not care to marry any one I did not love. You said just now that I am ambitious and you spoke the truth. That being so, I should like to make my way by my own efforts--I should not like to feel that I owed everything to my wife."
Grace Morrison drew a quick fierce breath. Wilfrid was far more dense than she had anticipated. Once more the fingers on his arm pressed tenderly.
"That is mere modesty!" the girl laughed unsteadily. "My dear Wilfrid--what was that!"
They had walked along until they had reached the rose garden. A thin moon was rising and making little lanes of light on the flowers. There was a rustic seat here on which two people had taken their places. The one was a man with dark hair and beard, the other a pretty girl with flashing eyes and saucy expression. She looked piquante and attractive in her black dress and white cap and collar. She looked up as Grace paused.
"What's the meaning of this?" Grace asked sharply. "Why do you bring a man here, Ella? I have told you about it before. Go into the house immediately and I will speak to you in the morning. Really, I don't know what servants are coming to!"
The girl's face flamed a mutinous red, her eyes sparkling angrily.
"Perhaps it is the force of example, miss!" she said flippantly. "I'm doing no harm here and I've got nothing to do until you go to bed. Nice evening, isn't it, miss!"
Grace Morrison flamed out passionately. The man on the seat rose in a shamefaced kind of way and muttered something to the effect that he had better be going. Wilfrid noticed that he turned into the bushes instead of keeping to the path. Wilfrid noticed, too, how vulgar his companion was in her anger. She looked less like a lady than the maid who listened with her head in the air. Out of the torrent of abuse Wilfrid caught some suggestion as to a month's notice.
"Who says so?" the maid cried. "I'll go when I like and I'll stay as long as I like, and you'll have to put up with it. I've always served real ladies before and you can't teach me what's right and proper. No character! You dare to talk to me like that--you whom I could crush if I only held up my little finger. If I speak the truth----"
The girl pulled up suddenly, panting and trembling. She had suddenly caught sight of Wilfrid; it seemed as if she had stopped herself in time. She turned away with a toss of her head and walked back to the house again. Grace laughed unsteadily.
"That is the worst of Ella," she said. "Her temper is so bad. Usually she is a good girl, but when she gets angry she has such dreadful nervous headaches. She'll come to me crying before she goes to bed. I must say a word to her if you will excuse me."
Wilfrid bowed. He felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Ella for ridding him of his companion. He had read a good deal between the lines. He turned down a side path and came face to face with the man who had been the maid's companion.
Here at any rate was cause for legitimate interference. The man was loafing in private grounds where he had no business to be; there was a possibility that he was a man of indifferent character. He touched his hat with a grin.
"You get out of this at once," Wilfrid said. "You heard what Miss Morrison said; you have no right to be here. I don't want to turn you off the premises, but it's probable you----"
"No need to worry, Dr. Bayfield," the other said coolly. "I'm here on business, sir. Look here."
The speaker glanced swiftly around him and then raised his beard and moustache. To Wilfrid's surprise he beheld the features of Jakes, Inspector Morran's right-hand man. The latter grinned as he noticed Wilfrid's amazement.
"I've been making love to her, sir," Jakes said. "Been doing it for the past two days. I'm supposed to be down here for a holiday; servant out of collar knowing the people where Ella came from before. Only she did not call herself Ella last time."
"Looks to me like a bit of a flirt, Jakes?"
"Lord bless you, sir, flirt isn't the word for it. There's nobody good enough for Miss Ella down here. I try my best to fill the bill and I daresay I'm a moderate success. Probably you wonder why I have been sent to this job, sir. Inspector Morran knows what he's about."
"Something reminiscent, perhaps," Wilfrid smiled. "Investigating the lady's past history."
"We know her past history right enough," the other grinned. "More than one neat little burglary has been arranged by Ella, as she calls herself at present. Why she came down here I can't make out. She chatters free enough, but when you come to sift all out she's told you nothing."
"Then what are you after?" Wilfrid asked. "Is it a side development of the Everton mystery?"
"That's about it, sir," Jakes admitted candidly. "It has to do with that medallion. Depend upon it, sir, that young woman could tell a story if she liked. It was she who gave my mate a hint as to where it was to be found. But I did learn something just now and so did you, sir."
"I learnt that you were talking to a very pretty girl," Wilfrid laughed. "I saw nothing more."
"Oh, that's because it's not your business to keep your eyes open. Didn't you see that Miss Morrison was afraid to call her soul her own in the presence of her maid? Do you suppose that a girl who hadn't some hold over her employer would dare to speak as she did? She fairly lost her head and her temper for once and gave herself away. It's the first bit of luck I've had since I handled this business. But I had better not be seen talking to you here. Good-night, sir."
Jakes touched his hat and went his way, which did not lead to the gates, Wilfrid noticed. He had plenty of food for thought and did not care to return to the house as yet. There rose to his mind Marriott's suggestion that he should keep his eyes open. He was back again now at the front of the house, where he could see into the billiard-room. To Wilfrid's surprise both Morrison and Bentley were still there. Nobody else was in the room and they were talking earnestly. A footman came in presently and laid a tray with whisky and soda-water on a side table. Bentley tapped the decanter significantly and looked at Morrison, who scowled and nodded in reply.
"Are you coming to join us, Marriott?" Bentley called out. "Come and have a whisky and soda."
Wilfrid could just catch Marriott's reply that he was coming in a minute. Then he saw a strange thing happen. From a little drawer Morrison produced a tiny bottle containing some grey solution, which he proceeded to rub on the edge of one of the glasses. At the same moment Marriott entered the billiard-room. He seemed to be on good terms with himself, for his face was smiling. Both Morrison and Bentley were busily engaged in filling their glasses so that the third tumbler was left to Marriott. Just for a moment it occurred to Wilfrid to interfere, but he saw the futility of doing so. To call out now would be to betray the fact that he had seen what had happened. It would have been easy to prevent Marriott from drinking the whisky and soda, but not without telling the others that their game had been detected. Goodness knows what harm would have happened from that course. There was only one thing for it and that was to watch and wait as Marriott had commanded him to do.
"I shall be glad of a drink," Marriott said. "I can't think what makes me so thirsty to-night."
He poured out a modest quantity of whisky and filled the glass with soda. He placed the tumbler to his lips and drank the contents at one long pull. Wilfrid saw the signs of sardonic satisfaction on the faces of the confederates.
"A cigarette," Morrison suggested. "A game of billiards if you like. Bentley and myself have been talking business for the last hour and business is dry work. What do you say to a game?"
Marriott took the cigarette but he declined the billiards. He lay back on his chair and presently closed his eyes, murmuring that he was very sleepy. The cigarette ash dropped down his shirt front unheeded, and by-and-by the cigarette itself fell to the ground. The figure in the chair seemed to shrivel up; the grey head dropped on one side.
"Got him," Bentley whispered hoarsely. "That stuff always does the trick. But I did not expect to see him walk into the trap like that."
"Even that old fox doesn't know everything," Morrison growled. "Well just make him comfortable on the sofa and leave him to his own devices for a couple of hours. Nobody is likely to come in here as long as that blessed bridge playing goes on. When the old chap comes to himself he will merely think that he has been asleep, and in the meantime we'll get our little job finished."
"Put the clock back an hour and a half and shove his watch back the same time. Then we'll call in at the old chap's lodgings and put his clock there back. He'll never know then but that he has been having a short nap here."
The clock was put back accordingly, as was also the sleeper's watch. Wilfrid stood outside looking on intently and pondering in his mind a plan to get even with the rascals. They had some deep scheme afoot which was going to be played out within the next two hours, and it was evident that the unconscious figure there knew what it was.
There was no time to lose and Wilfrid began to see his way. The man had been drugged with some simple preparation that was not intended to last very long, and in the hands of a doctor he might soon be restored to consciousness. But this would take time and before restoration was accomplished the rascals would be on their way to success with their scheme.
"I've got it," Wilfrid told himself triumphantly. "The very thing. We'll baffle them yet."
Wilfrid turned quickly and made his way into the rose garden again. Once there he called cautiously for Jakes. At the third cry Jakes appeared from a clump of bushes.
"There's no time to be lost," Wilfrid said hurriedly. "You must put off whatever you are doing and take up something for me. Within a few minutes Mr. Morrison and Mr. Bentley will be leaving here to carry out some nefarious scheme which I feel certain is more or less connected with the Everton murder. They have drugged Mr. Marriott to get him out of the way; I saw the thing done. The thing is to be rapid because the conspirators will be back in a couple of hours. Can you put your own little job off and help me to detain these people for an hour or so?"
"My job will keep, sir," Jakes said. "I see what you mean. Yes, I daresay it can be managed. I'll go straight to my chief and tell him what has happened. As those gentlemen come into Middlesworth--by the way, are you sure they are coming to Middlesworth?"
"Absolutely," Wilfrid replied. "They are going to call at Mr. Marriott's lodgings and put his clock back."
"Excellent, sir," Jakes exclaimed. "I can see my way clearly now. They shall be stopped and taken to the office and kept there for an hour. Would you like them followed afterwards?"
"No," Wilfrid said, after a pause. "I should say not. By that time I shall have Mr. Marriott quite himself again and he will be able to deal with these men. You can send me a telephone message directly Mr. Morrison and Mr. Bentley have left the office. A telephone message to a doctor never arouses suspicion. You know what to do--ask for me at the telephone and give no name."
"You ought to have been in the force, sir," said Jakes with admiration. "I'll see to it all right, sir."
Jakes proceeded rapidly to the lodge gates and Wilfrid returned to his hiding-place, where he could see all that was going on in the billiard-room. Marriott was lying on the lounge now and both Morrison and his companion had donned dark overcoats over their dress clothes.
"Better come out this way," Morrison suggested. "There will be less chance of being seen."
Wilfrid stepped back into a clump of bushes just in time to avoid detection. Once the two men were out of sight, he went into the billiard-room. Marriott was lying on his right side, sleeping as peacefully as a child. Wilfrid smiled as he recognized how easy was his task. He passed into the drawing-room and stood in the doorway trying to attract the attention of Frank Saxby, who was fortunately not playing cards at the moment. The latter looked up presently and Wilfrid signalled. A minute later and the two friends were in the billiard-room together.
"What's the matter?" Frank asked. "Old gentleman seems to be very sound asleep, my boy."
"Drugged," Wilfrid said tersely. "Saw the whole thing from the garden and could not interfere without spoiling everything. Morrison and Bentley at the bottom of it to get the old fellow out of the way whilst they are up to some wicked mischief. Go into the dining-room and bring me the mustard pot. Then get one of the footmen to provide you with a glass of warm water. But do it quietly, so as not to attract the least attention."
Saxby wasted no time in words, but went off immediately. He came back presently with the things that Wilfrid needed; the contents of the mustard pot were poured into the hot water.
"Now get him on his legs and lead him outside," Wilfrid said. "Then thump him and push him about till he shows signs of consciousness. After that I'll see that he drinks that stuff. Don't be too tender, a great deal depends upon our success."
The rough treatment and the cool air speedily brought Marriott to something like reason. He stared sleepily about him and asked where he was. But Wilfrid would not be contented till the whole of the horrible mixture had been swallowed.
A quarter of a hour later and Marriott was seated on the grass asking questions. His mind seemed to be quite clear again; he picked up the thread of Wilfrid's story rapidly.
"So the reptiles drugged me, eh?" he asked. "I am bound to confess that I did not expect it. They are moving more rapidly than I imagined. If it had been to-morrow night I should have been more cautious. How long have they been gone? I hope you made a careful note of that."
"Oh, they are all right," Wilfrid proceeded to explain. "Fortunately there was a police officer handy. I got him to act for me. Those two fellows will be met in Middlesworth and taken to the police station, where they will be detained on some pretext or another. Directly they leave them Jakes has given me a promise to send me a telephone message. Being a doctor, you see----"
"I see perfectly well," Marriott chuckled. "You are a clever young fellow and have your head screwed on the right way. I might want you both to-night."
"Do you feel up to going through anything trying to-night, sir?" Saxby asked.
"Oh, I am all right," was the cheerful reply. "Barring a slight humming in the head and a dreadful taste in my mouth, I am quite myself. Will one of you go as far as the dining-room and get me a peach or a pear or some fruit?"
The peach was consumed and then Marriott asked for his coat. He had ceased chuckling now and looked very grave and determined as he turned to go down the drive.
"I'll telephone to you," he said, "if I need your services. You are both young and strong and you both seem to be in good order. If I do need your services to-night it will be for no mere child's play, I can tell you. Keep near the telephone."
The old man nodded and was gone. Saxby frankly hoped that an adventure was near at hand. He had the dread thought of the morrow before his mind. They stood talking for some little time when from the house came the shrill tinkle of the telephone bell. As Wilfrid sauntered carelessly into the hall a footman approached him with the intimation that he was wanted at the instrument.
"That you, sir," Jakes asked. "Dr. Bayfield? Yes. The two gentlemen have just gone. I kept them for a little over half an hour and could not detain them any longer, sir. If you would like to have them followed it is not too late. You have only to say the word."
"No, no," Wilfrid said. "The doctor has gone on from here with a careful diagnosis of the case in his head. Keep the patient cool and the temperature not above sixty, and see that he has his medicine regularly. I'll come round in the morning. You quite understand me?"
A chuckle came from the other end of the telephone and the connection was cut off. There was nothing to be done now, but to hear if anything came from Marriott. It was an anxious, weary time broken by the chatter of voices and the sound of laughter in the drawing-room. Presently the footman came again to say that Dr. Bayfield was wanted once more.
The voice at the telephone was loud and shrewd, so hard that Wilfrid had some difficulty in recognizing it as that of Marriott at all.
"That is Dr. Bayfield," the voice asked. "You are sure? Give me a sign. Thank you. Come into Middlesworth at once. Take your stand opposite the cottage of James Everton and see that you are not observed. Wait till you get the signal--a flash of light in the bedroom window--and then enter the cottage. If you----"
The voice ceased, the connection was cut off and there was silence only.
Saxby's eyes gleamed as Wilfrid transmitted the message. Here was the chance for action at last. He wanted to be up and doing anything to prevent him from thinking of the morrow. Wilfrid seemed to understand, for he gripped his friend by the arm.
"You make me feel ashamed of myself," he whispered. "I know what you are thinking about; indeed, the thing is never absent from my mind. But I am going to trust in that wonderful Marriott. He knows everything, Frank; he is quite aware what is likely to happen to you to-morrow if that money is not forthcoming and he promised me that no harm should come to you. I wonder who he is."
But it was no time for idle speculation. The young men slipped off presently. It was easy for Wilfrid to make his excuses, seeing that he was a doctor who had had a call over the telephone, and nobody wanted particularly to detain Saxby.
Half an hour later they were at Wilfrid's lodging where they changed into garments more suitable for the coming adventure. They were both hot and keen upon the work now.
It was fairly dark in the street where the late James Everton's cottage was situated. There was an empty house opposite with a small strip of garden containing a few bushes, and behind these it was possible to hide and keep a keen eye on the cottage at the same time. They had not long to remain, for presently on the blind of the upstairs window in the cottage a light flashed for the fraction of a second.
Saxby rose to his feet with a deep sigh of satisfaction. He buttoned his coat close.
"Time to be moving at last," he said. "Come along, Wilfrid. What was the message? To go under and wait there in the dark for a possible signal. I suppose the old man knows what he is doing."
"Nobody better," Wilfrid said, as the two cautiously crossed the road, taking care to see that they were not observed. "Hope we shan't find the door of the cottage locked."
But the door of the cottage was not locked; on the contrary it was not closed. Wilfrid pulled the door to and stood in the little passage waiting. It was pitch dark, absolutely nothing could be seen, and the place was very silent. Five minutes passed away, and the newcomers were getting dreadfully restless when suddenly a brilliant light flashed from the top of the stairs with a brightness that dazzled the adventurers.
"That's all right," the voice of Marriott whispered. "I had to make sure of my ground. It was just possible that you might have been somebody else, if I may put it that way. Good boys, both of you. Come up here and come quietly."
They mounted the stairs with the aid of the light, and then the black velvetty darkness shut down upon them again. Marriott was breathing hard and chuckling as if pleased with himself.
"You gave me plenty of time," he said. "That dodge of getting those fellows detained was a very clever one. It enabled me to get everything ready."
"What are we going to do?" Wilfrid asked.
"That I can't explain as yet," Marriott said. "It will depend a great deal on circumstances. We may finish our task to-night or we may not go very far. The main object is to expose and bring to justice a nest of poisonous scoundrels."
Marriott spoke with a deep indrawing of his breath. He was going to say more, but paused abruptly and gripped Wilfrid by the arm. Somewhere down below somebody was moving about. There was the shuffle of feet and the click of a latch and then a muttered voice.
"They are coming," Marriott said, with his driest chuckle. "They are coming, as I felt sure they would. They were too cunning to try to enter from the street; their means of entry was by the back door leading to Deal Lane. Not that it matters in the least."
There were two men down below as their voices proved. They came presently into the little sitting-room; to the watchers upstairs the smell of cigar smoke carried pungently. Marriott muttered that the rascals were not quite so clever as they deemed themselves to be, otherwise they would not have come there with those tell-tale cigars.
Evidently they deemed themselves to be quite safe, for they no longer talked in whispers. They moved about the cottage sitting-room, tumbling over one object and another and expressing their annoyance freely.
"Why don't you fasten up that cloth?" Morrison asked. "Pin it over the window, so that we can turn the gas on. This is a pretty situation for a millionaire!"
"Millionaires be hanged," Bentley retorted. "I wouldn't give twopence for your million if this little business miscarries. Hand me over those drawing-pins."
It was a difficult matter, but the thick cloth was pinned over the window at length and then there was no further reason why the gas should not be lighted. When this was done it was possible to see most of the sitting-room from the staircase. The room was just in the same disordered state that it had been in when the police were summoned.
The two rascals looked about them curiously; it was the safe that seemed to be the great attraction. The big doors were open and a litter of papers showed, but evidently these had no fascination for Morrison and his companion.
"Nothing likely to be there," Bentley suggested. "A waste of time to look over the first lot of papers."
"Of course it would be," Morrison growled. "The old fox was too cunning for anything like that. It's the inner safe we want. Many a time have I seen the key of this inner safe when I have been here on business, you understand?"
"Oh, I understand," Bentley said with an unpleasant laugh. "Your business being to borrow money on those forged bonds of yours. That was before Everton found you out."
"Well, you need not put it quite so plainly as that," Morrison said sourly. "We are both in the same boat. How the old man ever found out the deception puzzles me. He was half mad despite his money and the way he clung to it. I know that he kept everything here and I regarded those forged bonds as safe things, feeling sure that he would never part with them. If those silver mines had turned out all right I should have redeemed the bonds and----"
"Oh, never mind what might have been. Everton found you out and wrote and told you so. And he gave you a week to make your robbery good. What we have to thank is the kind friend who stepped in and got old Everton out of the way for us."
Marriott chuckled and pressed the arm of his companion on either side. There was no need to guess now why those marauders were here. They had come to save their faces and recover what might have become a deadly danger later.
"What we want," said Morrison, "is to get into that confounded safe."
"Which I am not in the least sanguine about," Bentley growled. "You should have taken every tip and saved every possible risk of discovery. If you had employed my man and paid him the sum I suggested he would have burgled the safe for you and brought the papers directly to us. If he had failed he could never have given us away, so that we should have been just as well off. But you always were an absolute beggar and would ever have your own way."
"No occasion to put yourself in the power of a chap like that," Morrison said. "Even if he had succeeded, he would have been blackmailing us afterwards. Besides, I've got the tools here all right, and it's odds if a man like myself can't do as much as a mere burglar. It's only a matter of tools."
"And experience, plus a pair of hands as hard as iron," Bentley sneered. "You've run a greater risk to get that kit than we should have done in employing Joe. Let's see what you make of it. It's a hundred to one that we shall have to call Joe in before the night is out."
"Can you get him if you want him?" Morrison asked anxiously.
"Of course I can. The whole thing was done by correspondence. Joe had had £20 on account, but he is naturally anxious to have the balance, if we can't do without him. He does not know either of us from Adam, so there's no danger. If I want Joe I go out into the lane and stop by the corner and sneeze three times. If he does not get the signal before one o'clock he will know that we do not want his services."
"Well, you are sure to have managed that all right," Morrison growled. "Also there is plenty of time between now and one o'clock. Let me see what I can do. A capitalist does some queer things, but I never heard of his trying burglary before."
So saying, Morrison produced a flat case from his pocket and proceeded to lay the contents out on the floor before him. They formed a complete burglar's outfit, beautifully fashioned; altogether the cost of them could not have been less than a hundred pounds. With clumsy and unaccustomed fingers Morrison proceeded to put the various implements together.
"This looks like a drill," he muttered. "I'll try it on the lock anyway. I wonder where you start. I wish I had not forgotten what those steel wedges are for."
"Hang me if I know and hang me if I care," Bentley retorted. "Have your own way and when you have failed, as I feel pretty certain you will, I'll go and get Joe in and he'll knock off the job in about ten minutes. Meanwhile I'll smoke another cigar."
All this was being followed with interest by the three watchers on the staircase. There was a certain amount of noise, so it was possible to speak.
"I've just thought of a strong point in Miss Everton's favour," Wilfrid said. "When she left here on that fatal night she says that the safe was fully open. She can distinctly recollect all the papers streaming out of the safe. And now the inner safe is locked. If she had anything to do with the crime, who locked the safe afterwards?"
"Possibly it was done by the police," Marriott suggested.
"No," Wilfrid went on. "They could not find the keys. As a matter of fact the keys have never been found at all; Morran told me so. They thought that they might find some sort of a clue in the safe, but there was nobody in Middlesworth who could open it. They are waiting for an expert to come down from the makers for that purpose."
"I see your point," Marriott said thoughtfully, "and it is by no means a bad one. You mean that James Everton must have been moving about the house for some time after his niece left him. For instance, he locked up the safe and placed the key where nobody could find it. Yes, that is all right. But those fellows will never get into that safe; I know that make and I know that particular safe."
"Couldn't I slip out and get the police to surround the house?" Saxby suggested.
Marriott brought his teeth together like the click of a trap. He shook his head vigorously.
"And ruin all my deep-laid plans," he said. "No, no, I daresay we could get those two fellows five years apiece, but there would be an end of it. There is a far deeper villainy here than the mere vulgar burglary of a dead man's safe, and if we are cautious and take our time we shall get to the bottom of it. What did I tell you? Listen!"
Morrison was swearing vigorously as he withdrew from the safe and looked at his hands. Bentley stood smoking his cigar and jeering at him.
"Confound it!" Morrison said, "no kind of effect made at all. You may depend upon it that drill is a rank bad one. Those fellows knew that they had to deal with an amateur and gave me the first rubbish that came to hand, feeling certain that I should have no kind of remedy against them. What do you make of it?"
Bentley examined the point of the drill in a casual manner. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Nothing the matter with it," he said. "The point is as hard and as true as a diamond. It's only because you don't understand what you are doing."
"It's the front of the safe that's too hard," Morrison growled.
"Well, aren't they made on purpose? Do you suppose that the makers work with a view to saving a poor burglar unnecessary trouble? Let me see what kind of a hash you have made of it."
With the aid of a vesta Bentley looked into the interior of the safe. He emerged presently with a scornful expression and a flash of anger in his eyes.
"And you call yourself a man of business," he said. "You might just as well try to get into your house with the aid of a toothpick. All you've succeeded in doing is to make holes and scratches round the lock so that the veriest dolt who ever donned a policeman's uniform can see at a glance that the safe has been tampered with. Once the police spy that, there will be no more chance of getting here. Take the match and look for yourself."
"It is a bit of a mess," Morrison admitted. "If we had a little green paint handy----"
"That's right. Ask for green paint and gold leaf and all the rest of it. Here we are wasting our precious time when Joe could have done the whole thing and we could have been back at your house and nobody a bit the wiser. If you are afraid of Joe----"
"I'm not afraid of anybody," Morrison said, stung into retort. "I thought I could have managed it myself and thus save the risk of another accomplice. I find that I have taken on more than I can manage. Call in Joe by all means."
Bentley pitched his cigar into the grate and gave a grunt of satisfaction. So did Marriott as he watched them between the banisters.
"We are going to move on to the next act," he said. "I am glad the fool pitched his cigar into the grate. A little bit of evidence like that has hanged a man before now."
Bentley appeared to be quite ready for the emergency. From his pocket he produced two little scraps of crape, one of which he handed to Morrison, the other he kept in his hand.
"Put that on," he said. "It's a mask. As soon as Joe responds to my signal I shall use mine. As I told you before, friend Joe has never seen me and does not even know my name. There is not the slightest reason why he should know your name either. If he is successful with the safe he gets the balance of his money and he goes his way without further ado--departs without knowing either of us from Adam, and there is an end of the business. If you had adopted my plan first we should be home by this time."
"Oh, don't stand there jawing!" Morrison said impatiently. "Go and fetch your Joe. Have you done what I told you about the other man? Is he handy also?"
"Oh, he's all right, Morrison. No occasion to worry about him. He's asleep on one of the seats at the end of the park and he's going to get a shilling for his trouble. He looks upon a shilling as a vast deal of money now. Don't suppose he'd recognize a sovereign if he saw one."
Morrison waved an impatient hand and his confederate departed by the back door. The trio on the stairs had not long to wait, for there was a cautious cough from the back premises presently, and Morrison immediately put on his mask. Then Bentley appeared similarly disguised, followed by a slight man with a mass of black hair and a furtive grey eye that seemed to take in everything at a glance. As the newcomer had no mask he was easily studied by the watchers on the stairs.
"A local man," Marriott muttered. "I could tell you his proper name if I thought a moment. Not that it matters. We can lay our hands on him when the time comes."
"Touching that little bit of business, gentlemen," Joe said, in a husky voice. "Safe, isn't it? Just as well for you gentlemen to be on the right side. That safe over there?"
Morrison intimated that it was. He did not say a word more than was necessary, seeing that a disguise is often useless when a man's voice can betray him. But Joe did not seem to have any curiosity at all. He held out a hard horny hand significantly.
"There was something said about a few of the canary birds on account," he muttered.
"That is quite right," said Bentley, proceeding to fill the hard palm with shining sovereigns. "Business is business, Joe, in all professions. There is half of your money, the other half to be paid over as soon as you show us the inside of the safe. Now get to work."
Joe grinned as he pocketed the gold and immediately proceeded with his task. It was a long job, for the safe was by one of the best makers in the world and for some time it defied the efforts of the expert. But there was a crack and a rip presently, and the hand of the expert burglar came from the inner safe with a grin of triumph on his face. The features were shining with moisture, making channels down the grimed dirt on his cheek.
"I've managed it, governors," Joe panted. "I never had a much tougher job in all my life. And I don't seem to have got anything much for my pains either."
"Don't say that the safe is empty!" Morrison cried. "Nothing there at all?"
"Well, precious little at any rate," Joe said, as he held up a small ledger covered with parchment. "Beyond this I can't see anything. Strikes me I've got the best of the bargain."
Morrison clutched eagerly at the volume as if it had been some precious thing. No drunkard suffering from the dreadful effects of his awful poison ever snatched more feverishly at the fatal bottle.
"Oh, yes, you have got the best of it entirely," he said in a voice that shook strangely. "Of course we are greatly disappointed, but you never can tell. Still we shall not be illiberal because things have not turned out quite as we expected. And I daresay you are anxious to be off."
Joe indicated that he never wasted his time on premises when his work was done. That kind of thing had more than once proved fatal to distinguished members of his profession. All he asked for was the balance of his reward so that he could make himself scarce. Bentley counted out the rest of the gold and the burglar departed.
"Well, that job's done anyway," Bentley said as he flung his mask aside. "And I don't imagine that we are going to see any more of our friend Joe. He has gone off perfectly satisfied, and we have obtained the very thing that we require."
"Yes, this is the ledger right enough," Morrison said. He was trembling from head to foot, so greatly agitated that he had to sit down. His face was ghastly pale, too; he placed his hand on his heart as if in pain. "Let me pull myself together."
Bentley regarded his companion with some anxiety. Morrison looked like death.
"Got one of your old attacks?" he asked. "Shall I open the door and give you more air?"
"No, brandy," Morrison gasped. "I don't seem able to stand any excitement now, and yet there was a time when I didn't know what nerves meant. A drop of brandy, for God's sake."
Bentley pulled a little flask from his pocket. He knew the limits of his own courage and what help a little stimulant was in circumstances like these.
The silver cup clicked against Morrison's teeth, his breath came in quick fitful gasps so that he found it hard to coax the liquid down his throat. Presently a little colour crept into his face and the fit of trembling passed away. He reached out his hand for the parchment-covered volume.
"Your friend Joe has earned every penny of his money," he said. "I would have sold my soul, if such a thing exists, to gain possession of this volume. When this is out of the way you and I are safe. No more risk or bother or anxiety, nothing but a clean field and no favour. If it only tells where we can lay our hands upon Everton's securities or where the lost million is. Malediction on it----"
Morrison broke off suddenly into a fit of cursing. So violent was his language and so great his passion that Bentley was forced to lay a restraining hand on his arm.
"Be careful," he whispered, "in the name of common sense, control yourself. You'll have a fit or something of the kind if you don't hold up. Your face is crimson and the veins in your forehead look like knotted string. What on earth is the matter?"
Morrison pulled himself together with a great effort. When he spoke again he did so more or less in his natural voice. He held the offending volume above his head.
"The confounded thing is in cypher," he said. "The same cypher that the other one used."
"Well, didn't you expect something of the kind? Let us try what we can get out of the poor fool who is asleep in the park waiting for his precious shilling."
"Why not bring him to my house?" Morrison suggested.
"With that fellow Marriott or whatever his name is spying about the place! Not likely. I'd give a good round sum to know who that fellow really is."
"Ay, and so would I," Morrison said with what sounded like a groan. "And I'd give something for what he knows into the bargain. Perhaps it will be just as well for us to try our experiment here and get it done with. I'll wait whilst you fetch him."
Wilfrid and Saxby on the stairs could feel the old man between them chuckling till his shoulders shook. From the evidence they concluded that all was going well. Bentley crossed the passage now, and as he did so one of the stairs creaked and unfortunately attracted the attention of the man below. He paused, listening intently and then, as if impelled by some sudden impulse, began to climb the stairs.
The watchers were too quick for him, however, and they reached in safety the room where Marriott had originally been hiding. They could just discern the face of Bentley as he peered into the room.
"I suppose it must have been my fancy," he muttered. "But I could have sworn that I heard somebody moving on the stairs. My nerves are getting as frayed as those of Morrison. Heavens, if there is anything wrong here! I'll just make things sure."
He left the room and locked the door, so that the watchers were alone in the darkness. Marriott crept across the room and tried the door, but it was fast locked. If the others had expected an explosion from the little man they were mistaken. He merely clicked his teeth together.
"This is a contingency that I did not look for," he said. "We have done very well so far, but I confess that I am anxious to see the man who was going to do so much for a shilling. I must take a risk and examine our bearings with my lantern."
The lantern flashed out for a moment so that it was possible to get some idea of the lie of the room. Then the light vanished and Marriott gently pulled up the blind. Quite as softly he raised the window.
"I am afraid that I shall have to trouble one of you to go down that way," he said. "I am a little past that kind of exercise or I would do it myself. The jump is not far."
"Isn't there some cord or rope of any kind here?" Frank Saxby asked. "Isn't this the very room where poor old Everton was killed? Yes! Well, what has become of that cord with which he was tied up to his bed? I don't suppose the police took that away."
Marriott made an approving sound with his lips. Once more the lantern was turned cautiously along the floor with satisfactory results, for under the bed was a coil of stout rope. As gently as possible Wilfrid passed it round his shoulders and under the arms.
"There's no time to be lost," he said. "Lower me out of the window before Bentley comes back and whilst Morrison is so deeply engrossed with that parchment-covered ledger. The coast is clear."
A minute later and Wilfrid was cautiously feeling his way down the wall. The rough brickwork tore his knuckles and frayed his knees, but it did not matter as the drop was not very great. He saw the cord drawn up again and the window softly closed, and then gently made his way back into the house by the front door.
Everything was perfectly quiet inside; as Wilfrid passed the sitting-room he could see Morrison with a pondering brow bent over the ledger. Very cautiously Wilfrid stole up the stairs and turned the key in the lock just as Bentley returned. He had somebody with him, who seemed to be dragging his tired limbs after him; a queer quavering voice was saying something.
"Come along," Bentley remarked, "just a little faster. Remember your shilling. Shut the door after you, and don't forget that you are to have a shilling for your pains."
Wilfrid had the bedroom door open by this time so that the conspirators were again free. But the door of the sitting-room was shut so that nobody could hear what was going on. They were still uncertain what to do when from below came a long piteous cry for help. It seemed as if somebody was being murdered. The shrill voice was at its last gasp.
"No time for hesitation," Marriott said. "Down both of you at once. I had better not show except in case of necessity. There is something worse than murder on hand."
Once again came the cry. With a yell of encouragement, Wilfrid and Saxby charged down the stairs and into the sitting-room. But they were too late. The noise of their coming had been heard and the gas had been immediately extinguished so that the place was in total darkness. Wilfrid groped for a figure that was flying from him and Frank went for another. Just for an instant there was a surge of struggling bodies, the sounds of flesh on flesh, a groan and a curse or two, and then the lamplight from the streets shining in the opening passage.
"Got away as I expected, as I almost hoped," Marriott said as he came into the sitting-room. "I have closed the front door so that there need be no suspicion aroused. Will one of you light the gas and see what we have here?"
On the floor lay the figure of an old man who appeared to be insensible. Wilfrid bent over him and felt his heart, which was still beating, though very feebly.
"He hasn't been hurt," he said. "Looks like a case of fright more than anything else. If you will note the strange colour of his face you will see that it is--Good heavens! why it is Josiah Everton, Freda's father! What on earth was the poor old man doing here?"
No word was spoken for some time, for Marriott and his companions could only gaze in mute astonishment at the man lying on the floor. That he was not hurt Wilfrid was able to assure the others; it was evident that he had not been subjected to outward violence. And that being the case why had he cried out so pitifully?
"Is he in some kind of fit?" Marriott asked. "If you think he is dying----"
"I don't think anything of the kind," Wilfrid replied. "If I had any theory to advance I should say the poor old gentleman is suffering from exhaustion produced by want of proper food. There are all the symptoms present. He has had a shock, too."
"Then you don't think he was in pain when he called out just now?"
"No--I don't. I fancy that something frightened him. If I had a few drops of brandy--why, there is the very thing on the table--the flask that Bentley gave to Morrison."
Surely enough, the two rascals had forgotten the flask in their hurried flight. A few drops of this rubbed over the lips of the prostrate man produced a speedy effect. He opened his eyes and looked feebly around him. He was rather a pathetic figure of an old man in his frock coat and seedy trousers, more like a broken-down clerk trying to live up to his old position than anything else. His eyes were wandering but not exactly vacant, much as if some twist of the brain had deprived him of the full measure of reason. The frame was bent and sunken and yet it suggested strength at one time. Marriott pressed forward eagerly and stood before the form of Josiah Everton.
"Try to pull yourself together," he commanded. "Have a good look at me. Tell me if my face is familiar to you? Have you ever seen it before?"
The old man shook his head slowly as his eyes roamed over Marriott restlessly. It was quite clear that Marriott conveyed nothing to his clouded understanding.
"I don't know you," Everton said. "We have never met before. Why should you feel glad to hear that?"
The question was so sharp and shrewd that Marriott was taken aback. His face had expressed satisfaction, but he had not expected Everton to notice it.
"Not much the matter there," the latter muttered. "Strange how small a thing unhinges the brain. The loss of his money, perhaps. Dr. Bayfield, if you take that case seriously in hand I have no doubt you could effect a cure. What were you frightened about?"
The question was addressed to Everton, who shivered and turned pale.
"It was the cypher!" he said. "They showed me the cypher. And I read some of it. I daresay I could have read it all, only it was too terrible. It was the same cypher that I used to use when James Everton and myself were in business together before we quarrelled. I had quite forgotten how to read it and suddenly it all came back to me. I fancied that I had not lost my money at all. Then I got frightened and cried out!"
"Worse than I took him to be!" Marriott muttered. "Gleam of reason for a moment, too. What did those men give you to come here?"
"They promised me a shilling," Everton said, as a child might have spoken. "I had been sitting out of doors all day and a shilling is a lot of money. I was to try whether I could make anything out of the cypher. Certain words came to me and I was frightened. If you ask me why I was frightened I can't tell you. Then somebody came and the lights were put out and my friends ran away. It was a pity about the shilling, because I wanted it very badly!"
"Oh, you wanted the shilling," Saxby said encouragingly. "What did you want a shilling for?"
"Because I have no money at all," Everton replied. The voice had grown quite natural and the eyes had lost their misty expression. "I know all about the present; it is only when I begin to think of the past that I get misty and confused and feel so dreadfully old. You see my daughter has got into trouble. Of course she never stole the medallion from that old rascal, James Everton, but people choose to think so and there you are. She will lose her situation and there will be no more money coming to me. Mind you, she is a good girl--the best girl that ever lived. And when my head was all right I treated her badly. I would have turned her out of the house if she had married Dr. Bayfield here, and yet she deprives herself of everything so that I can have my comforts. But, unfortunately, there was a week's money owing to my landlady, and she turned me out of the house this morning and told me not to come back again. I had nothing in my pocket and have been walking about all day without food."
The statement was plain and simple without the slightest whining or pleading for sympathy.
"That is a most infamous thing to do," Saxby cried hotly. "That woman shall be prosecuted."
"Not at all, my dear sir," Everton said mildly. "Why should she keep me? That isn't the way to make money. Think of yourself, always of yourself, take the last penny due to you, even if the other man is starving. That is the way I made my fortune."
"Hard, grasping, heartless as ever," said Marriott, with a certain stern pity in his voice. "He cannot even feel for himself. And yet we cannot leave him here to starve. It is very unfortunate that Freda's--I mean Miss Everton's--little indiscretion should have borne so hard on this poor man. He must go to the workhouse for the present and to-morrow we will see what can be done."
"He will do nothing of the kind," Wilfrid said. "I look upon myself as responsible for this strange state of affairs. A refusal to gamble on my part would have obviated everything. I could not see the father of the girl I love eating workhouse fare. Let me tell you what I am going to do, Mr. Marriott, as you are interested in the family."
"I am more deeply interested in the family than you can be aware of," Marriott said with the first suggestion of a catch in his voice. "You are going to do something good and noble, I am sure."
"No, I am only going to do what is just and right. I am going to take Mr. Everton to live with me. He will stay with me always until he dies or gets better. It is just possible that I may cure him, but that has nothing to do with the case. I am poor and struggling, but I manage to make a living one way or another. There will be enough for both of us; indeed, there must be enough for three in a small house with rigid economy."
"Where does the third come in?" Marriott asked.
"I thought you would have guessed that. The third is Freda Everton. In a day or two she must be free; she will stand with her head high before good people. But until the real culprit is discovered there will be many who will shake their heads and whisper in corners. If I know anything of the world, Freda will find it almost impossible to get anything to do. It is obvious that she cannot be allowed to starve. She will refuse my offer to marry her at once; she will decline to hamper me, but she will be powerless in the matter. Freda will become my wife and the three of us will live together. It will be a struggle, I know. But when the truth comes to be told, the struggle will be over. There will be a great swing of the pendulum the other way."
Marriott grasped Wilfrid's hand heartily. He seemed to be wiping the moisture from his eyes.
"Miss Everton is a lucky girl," he said. "This is a noble thing of you and you will be rewarded for it before long in a way that you little expect. And now you will excuse me if I drop sentiment for a time. The night's work has by no means been wasted, as you will see later. Carry out your part of the programme and let me finish mine. Take Mr. Everton quietly away to your rooms and give him something to eat. I am going back to Morrison's house for the present. If I have any luck I shall be back apparently asleep on that sofa before Morrison and Bentley return. I am going to assume that I have merely forgotten myself and fallen asleep. It is of the greatest importance that Morrison should know nothing of what I have done to-night."
Wilfrid nodded. Vaguely he felt that he was on the verge of a great discovery. A minute or two later the lights were extinguished and the cottage was left behind. There was nobody about, so that it was clear that no suspicions had been aroused. When on the road Marriott made his way to Morrison's house with a quick easy step that struck Saxby as remarkable in a man of his age.
"I wonder who our mysterious friend is," he asked. "And why is he so interested in us? And how is he going to get me out of that mess with Bentley to-morrow?"
"That is more than I can say," Wilfrid replied. "But he is a man of great power and determination, and not likely to fail where he has once pledged his word. You may be sure that when to-morrow comes you will find yourself in a position to meet Bentley with your hands free."
"I am dreadfully hungry," Everton said in a feeble childish voice. "I should like some bread and cheese."
Wilfrid replied that the bread and cheese would be forthcoming in a short time. The old man appeared to be as delighted as a boy who has been promised a holiday. He chattered on in a childish kind of way, but now and then there came a shrewd remark from him and the sense of power in his limbs was very marked at intervals. He was not nearly so old as he looked. Wilfrid knew that Josiah Everton could not be more than fifty-two at the outside.
He was laughing and cackling at length as he sat before the bread and cheese and the glass of beer that Wilfrid poured out for him. He had no sooner finished it than he expressed himself as tired and desired to be shown to his bedroom.
"There will be no bedroom for you to-night in the proper sense of the word," Wilfrid said. "I am going to put you on a sofa bed in my little surgery. You will have to sleep as you are. In the morning I will send round to your lodgings and bring your belongings here."
Everton had no objection to make and followed Wilfrid like a dog into the little surgery. He flung himself down on the sofa and was asleep at once. Wilfrid left the light burning and returned to his sitting-room, where Saxby was smoking a cigarette.
"I think I'll be off now," said the latter. "It has been a busy day. I'll look you up in the morning early. Go to bed yourself, for you must need sleep."
But Wilfrid was not in the least sleepy; his brain was too excited. The rapid events of the evening passed through his mind in a perfect whirl. Then he smoked a cigarette or two, hoping for the sense of rest and tiredness that did not come. He came to himself by-and-by with a sense that something was stirring in the surgery. It was possible some foe had discovered that Everton was there and Wilfrid was alert in a moment. He crept to the next room and looked in. To his surprise Everton was sitting up in bed poring over a little white-backed volume that might have been a bank pass-book by its appearance.
"I must have dreamt it," Everton muttered. "It was so clear in my dream. And now it has gone from my memory altogether. Oh, dear!"
The speaker yawned and fell back on his bed again. It was not clear to Wilfrid whether he was awake or not. Certainly he seemed to sleep again, for the book fell to the floor and lay there unheeded. In a fit of pardonable curiosity Wilfrid crossed the room and gently took the book from the floor. There would be no harm in seeing what it was. He was back under the reading-lamp a moment later.
The book contained rows of figures and many entries against them, but the entries were a perfect jumble of closely printed letters that might have meant anything. They might have implied vast transactions involving millions, or they might have been merely the outcome of a disordered brain. Still it struck Wilfrid as strange that he should have come upon two lots of commercial cypher in the same evening. He decided to take care of the volume and show it to Marriott on the first opportunity.
He had not long to wait for that chance. He had not time to put the book away in the drawer before there came a tapping at the window. With a feeling that something might be wrong, Wilfrid rushed to the front door and opened it. Marriott stood there with a smile on his face.
"I managed it," he said. "I was back before them and when Morrison approached I was asleep on the sofa. I did not let him know that I suspected anything."
"Did he look as if anything had happened?" Wilfrid asked.
"Well, he was not a picture of languid composure," Marriott chuckled. "By the way, tell Mr. Saxby that he need not worry about to-morrow. Bentley has met with an accident. Morrison's story is that he was walking with his friend beyond the lodge gates talking, and that Bentley was knocked over by a motor car that never stopped to see what it had done. Of course, it was a lie, but the fact remains that Bentley has had a rib broken, to say nothing of an arm and his right hand badly smashed. How it happened goodness only knows. Bentley is not likely to be out of bed for some time to come."
"Is it possible that we were responsible for that in our struggle in the dark?" Wilfrid asked.
"I daresay. Not that it matters. Any news of your interesting guest?"
Wilfrid produced the little white volume and proceeded to explain. He could not complain that Marriott was not a flattering listener. He seemed to be greatly excited.
"This is important," he said. "I want you to trust that volume into my hands for a little. You need not be afraid of my losing it. May I take it?"
"By all means," Wilfrid said. "But it seems to me to be no more than a madman's rubbish."
Rather to Wilfrid's relief his visitor made no allusion to the little parchment-covered volume on the following morning. He saw that Everton's wardrobe was tidy and clean, and that he had a good breakfast. He wanted to know how Everton generally passed the day.
"In the park," Everton replied. "I help the boys to sail their boats. It is a very fine amusement."
Wilfrid nodded and presently gave himself up to the business of the day. It was in the middle of the morning before he found time to go and see Freda. Though the girl was detained, she was not exactly a prisoner, and Wilfrid had little difficulty in gaining a private audience. Morran seemed pulled up with the case; certain developments had taken place and it had been decided to hold a further hearing of the adjourned inquest that very afternoon, as a certain witness was about to leave the country.
"Miss Everton knows that," Morran said. "I think you will be justified in telling her that she will be free after the new evidence is given; in fact, she ought not to have been detained at all. I made a great mistake; I was on the wrong tack altogether, but it seemed to me that Miss Everton's detention would have soothed the anxieties of the parties I had my eye on. I find now that those parties had nothing whatever to do with the case, which has become more mysterious than ever."
Wilfrid thought differently, but it was no business of his to say so. It was very pleasant to know that Freda was within measurable distance of her release. His face was smiling and eager as Freda came to meet him. She was looking a little drawn and anxious.
"You have something to tell me, Wilfrid," she said. "My dear boy, it is so lonely here."
Freda tried to fight back the tears which would come despite her efforts. Wilfrid had his arms about her at once and she sobbed out her troubles on his shoulder. It was good to feel that loving pressure and to know that Wilfrid's heart beat as truly for her as ever.
"There, I have done with my folly," Freda smiled through her tears. "I expect the strain was greater than I knew. Inspector Morran tells me I shall probably be allowed to go this afternoon. Though where I shall go to I cannot see for a moment. Not back to Morrison's."
"Certainly not," Wilfrid said between his teeth. "I'd rather you slept in the park. You will say the same when you hear what I have to say of Grace Morrison."
It was not a pretty story; and it involved what seemed conceit on Wilfrid's part, but it was told at last down to the adventure on the previous evening. Freda listened with eager face and glowing eyes; a sigh of great relief came from her when Wilfrid had finished.
"I am so glad you found my father," she said. "I have been worrying about him dreadfully. I felt sure that the landlady would turn upon him directly she found her money in danger. If you don't mind my poor father staying with you a few days, Wilfrid----"
"My darling, your father is going to stay with me altogether," Wilfrid said. "The whole thing is certainly my fault, and I must do my best to make amends. But even if I were not in the least to blame it would be just the same. So long as you are anything to me, I would not let your father want. And when you come out you are coming to me, and we three are going to face the world together till better times come. There is no help for it, Freda--you must marry me."
The tears came into Freda's eyes again. She stroked her lover's hair tenderly.
"My dearest, I cannot," she said. "Why should I drag you down like this, why----"
Wilfrid placed a hand on the speaker's quivering lips. His voice was very low and tender.
"I had anticipated that," he said. "I know exactly what you are going to say. Why should you be a weight on me and all the rest of it? But you are not going to be a weight upon me and we are going to fight the world together. It may be months, it may be years before the mystery of James Everton's death is solved. And in that interval what are you going to do? You will never get employment. And I could not see you starve. The truth is that I want you, darling. I am lonely without you. We will take a little house and be very careful of our money. You will have no more anxiety about your father. Don't you see that it must be so, Freda, that there is no other way out?"
Freda seemed to be struggling for speech, but no words came. She was profoundly grateful and deeply touched by the rare advance of Wilfrid's devotion. Surely there was never such a lover in the world before.
"I am glad that you listen sensibly." Wilfrid pursued his advantage. "When you are free this afternoon I am going to ask Frank Saxby's sister to take you to her cottage for a week or two during which we can have the banns put up and get married as soon as the law allows. Time up, is it? Thank you for your kindness, Morran. What time did you say the hearing was this afternoon?"
Morran said that the hour fixed was three o'clock and Wilfrid bustled out before Freda had time to say any more. Freda was agitated, but there was a warm glow at her heart that she had not felt for a long time. There was trouble enough and to spare, but the future would never be very dark and hopeless so long as the girl had such a heart as Wilfrid's to rest on. Freda was still contemplating her own good fortune when the door of her room was opened and Morran entered. He had come to request Miss Everton's presence before the coroner.
"And I sincerely hope that it is for the last time, miss," he said heartily. "There will be nothing for you to say."
Freda was accommodated with a seat by the reporters' table. There were not many people present, for few had come to hear of the special sitting. Frank Saxby was there and gave Freda a smile of encouragement as she took her seat. Then he rose and began to speak.
"Representing Miss Everton, sir," he said, "I have a few questions to ask. I understand that the police are in a position to produce some important new evidence touching on this case."
The coroner admitted that such was the fact. There was a whispered conversation between the coroner and Inspector Morran, and then the name of Gilbert Maybolt was called. The witness proved to be a stout thick-set man of the small tradesman class. He looked like a sailor; indeed, the thick hands and the tar under the nails proved it.
"My name is Maybolt," he said. "I keep a shop in Castleford, which is only a few miles from Middlesworth. I deal in ropes and twines and such-like things. There is a special kind of rope that I make from a pattern of my own; I make it with my own hands."
"I understand that you are not in business now?" Morran asked.
"That is a fact, Mr. Inspector," the witness went on. "I have been out of business since yesterday. My business in Castleford did not pay, so I disposed of it to a friend. I had made all my arrangements to sail for America to-morrow when my attention was attracted to this case."
"What particular feature was it that attracted you?" Morran asked.
"Well, it was the matter of the rope. One of the reporters had gone into the rope question carefully. It was a mere matter of detail, but the reporter had seen the rope and he had never noticed anything like it before. He described the fibre minutely and as I read the paper I felt quite sure that it was some of my patent rope. It struck me as being very strange."
"Why did it strike you as being so strange?" the coroner asked.
"I was just coming to that," the witness resumed. "You see I had never been able to sell any of that rope in England. It was too expensive for ordinary use. Every yard I made was taken up by a big firm of mining engineers in Johannesburg. On the day of the murder I was in my shop when a customer came in for four or five yards of good rope. He wanted it smooth and very hard and I did not seem to have just what he required. He was on the point of leaving when he caught sight of a sample of my patent rope. He declared that that was exactly the thing, so I went into the warehouse and cut him a piece."
"Would you recognize the customer again?" the coroner asked.
"Well, I'm afraid not," the witness replied. "My shop is very small and rather below the street, and it is very dark into the bargain. My customer took off his right glove to test the cord and as he did so I saw that he had a peculiar freckle on his knuckles, a kind of pear-shaped blotch. But there are plenty of men who have freckles like that."
"Then you are quite certain that you would not recognize your customer again?"
"Absolutely," the witness said. "I didn't notice what he was wearing. You see, sir, there was no reason at all why I should notice the gentleman."
"He was a gentleman, then?" Saxby asked when his turn came to speak. "But at any rate you would recognize your piece of rope. Is that it in Inspector Morran's hand?"
The witness smiled with the air of one who finds himself on familiar ground at last. He took up the piece of rope and drew it through his strong thick fingers.
"This is mine, sir," he said. "It was the very piece that I sold. I could swear to that because I cut it from a fresh length and you can see the frayed end here and the clean cut there. The cord is hard and yet smooth, and made to bear very heavy work. It will almost stand up by itself."
"Very difficult to knot?" Saxby asked. "Suppose we try and turn it round that ruler which lies on the coroner's desk: I mean to knot it as the dead man was knotted up. Now I am going to ask you a very important question, Mr. Maybolt. You have read the murdered man was tied up in bed. Do you suppose a woman could have made those knots in rope so stiff? Do you think that Miss Everton could have made those knots?"
The witness so far forgot himself as to laugh aloud at the absurdity of the question.
"Never in this world, sir," he said. "The thing is impossible. Just you try it for yourself. And if you are not satisfied, let Inspector Morran have a go at it."
A trial convinced Saxby that it was beyond his strength, and even Morran had to admit that it was all he could do to draw the knot as tightly as had been drawn about the body of the unfortunate Everton. Saxby smiled as if on good terms with himself.
"That goes a long way to prove the absurdity of the charge against my client," he said. "We know that the murder was deliberately planned beforehand, and seems to be a peculiarly cold-blooded business. And now I will ask for a little further evidence; I call for the dead man's diary, which singularly enough I was more or less instrumental in finding."
Wilfrid sat up and looked eagerly at Morran. He had clean forgotten all about the diary for the moment. There was something there that Saxby had refused to speak of. Morran produced the diary and Saxby took it up and opened it at the last page before he gave it to the coroner.
"This is the dead man's diary, sir," he said. "You will see that he has posted it day by day carefully. Look at the page within a day of the murder. All the business of the hour is noted there. You will see that Mr. Everton mentions he received letters by the last post at 9.30 that night. All is under the printed heading of a certain day. You will see that deceased had certain letters dictated by him to Miss Everton though she is not mentioned by name. Does not that prove that the diary was written after Miss Everton had departed? Now turn from that page to the 14th. What do you see? There is more writing proving that deceased was alone after midnight, for he began a fresh day. He says 'B came to me and laid his suggestions before me----"
"If it is a B," the coroner said. "So far as I can see it is an R."
"In my humble judgment I should say that it is a P," Morran put in. "Surely it is a P."
"What on earth does it matter for the present?" Saxby said irritably. "Call it what you like. I admit the letter is not distinct, but the context is. It is clear that somebody came to Mr. Everton after midnight with certain proposals. Those proposals were refused. Will you please to read the writing aloud, sir?"
"Certainly," the coroner said. "It reads as follows: 'B,' or P, or R 'came to me this after-midnight (14th) and asked me to carry out his suggestion. Refused his and Morrison's requests.'"
A strange silence followed the reading of this remarkable sentence.
The few spectators followed this strange revelation breathlessly. There was a certain sense of disappointment at the back of it all. Middlesworth had made up its mind that a young and beautiful girl was at the bottom of the Everton tragedy, and Middlesworth had already begun to speculate whether Freda would be hanged or not. And here was her innocence as good as proved. Yet the mystery was still there and in a more tangible form than ever.
"I should like you to examine this entry carefully, sir," Saxby went on. "You must see for yourself that it was made after midnight. Mr. James Everton was a most precise man and he turned over the next page of the diary after the midnight hour had passed. He began the entry of another day in fact. But that is not the only fact to which I call your attention. If you will look at the entry carefully you will see that it is in darker ink than is usually used in this diary. The explanation is that copying ink was used. I have looked at Mr. Everton's ink-stand, and I find that the writing fluid is practically dry whilst there is a good supply of copying ink still in the reservoir. We have also found spots of copying ink on the bed, so that the entry was made whilst the deceased was lying on the bed. At that point he was evidently disturbed and the diary was tucked away between the mattresses. The little smear of the words gives colour to my theory."
"Have you any theory as to the rope business, Mr. Saxby?" the coroner asked.
"Only that the previous evidence on that head goes far to prove my case," Saxby replied. "There is one other little matter that I should like to allude to."
"Go on, Mr. Saxby, I beg to say that I am giving you my most careful attention."
"Well, it is only a small thing, but it may prove of the utmost importance later," Saxby said. "With the permission of the police I made a most thorough examination of the bed. On it I found the tiny piece of skin that I now produce. It is not more than half an inch square and it looks as if it had been torn from the back of the hand by a nail, I mean a human nail--torn from the back of the murderer's hand by Mr. Everton. Of course I may be wrong, because my medical or rather surgical knowledge is not great, but there it is."
The very subtlety of this last discovery rendered it all the more fascinating. The small object was handed up to the coroner, who shook his head over it as if the thing were beyond him. Sitting in the body of the court, Wilfrid asked to see the thing. He laid it flat on the palm of his hand and produced a magnifying-glass from his pocket.
"The contention of my friend is quite right," he said. "Beyond all doubt this is human skin, but it is not easy to say from what part of the body it came. The colour is very dark, Mr. Coroner. I should not like to say that this came from the epidermis of a European at all. It looks to me more like the skin of a Chinaman or perhaps a Cingalee. At any rate it must have come from an Oriental."
The audience murmured and nodded together. The more this mystery was probed the deeper it became. Asked if the skin could be preserved Wilfrid replied that it could. It was only a matter of keeping it in spirits. At the suggestion of the coroner the police promised to get this done. Then there was another pause.
"I presume you do not propose to go much farther to-day." Saxby took up his advantage again. "It seems to me what the police have to do now is to find the 'B' mentioned in the diary. When they have found this man 'B' it appears to me that their trouble will be over."
"Provided that the letter is a 'B,'" the coroner said. "I should not like to say that it is. It is rather a pity that Mr. Everton was so careless in the formation of that particular letter. Nobody could say for certain whether 'B' or 'P' or 'R' was meant. We can't solve that."
"There is a way, sir," said Saxby. "The method of photography. A photograph of the paragraph can be taken and thrown on a screen. The experiment has been tried very successfully in one or two forgery cases. It would be easy to have the matter tested by the next hearing."
The coroner was inclined to fall in with this suggestion and Morran intimated that he did not wish the inquiry to go any farther to-day. Saxby rose once more.
"That being so, there is one thing I am going to ask you to do, sir," he said. "I am going to ask you to release my client at once. I'm not going to ask you to say that she leaves the court without a stain on her character, because that must be patent to the meanest understanding. We have proved by evidence that cannot be shaken that James Everton was alive in his usual health of body and mind after Miss Everton posted those letters for him on that fatal night, and we have proved that no woman could have tied those knots. If my friend Dr. Bayfield's evidence is to be believed, that medallion was in Miss Everton's possession hours before the murder. This being so I ask you to discharge your prisoner."
"Have you anything to say in the matter, Inspector Morran?" the coroner asked.
"I have no objection to make to the application, sir," Morran replied. "I quite see now that the police have made a mistake. Circumstances have been against Miss Everton, but in the face of the evidence produced on her behalf, I am compelled to admit that we have done her a great injustice."
The coroner intimated that he perfectly agreed with this statement and Freda was free. Not till Wilfrid had taken her by the arm and led her into the sunshine did she realize this. She was free again and yet at the same time what different surroundings they were to those of a day or two ago. Then she was fairly happy and comfortable, with her marriage to Wilfrid to look forward to; and now she was homeless and penniless, and did not know which way to turn. Already the story of her release had spread like wild-fire and a great crowd of people stood outside the cottage. But their attitude was more that of puzzled curiosity than open sympathy. Somebody raised a cheer for her, but it was only feebly responded to. The people of Middlesworth were not quick-witted, and it would be a long time before they could make up their minds that Freda was innocent of this charge.
"Get me away from here," Freda whispered. "I cannot stand these people staring at me. Where shall I go and what shall I do, Wilfrid? I am helpless!"
"You are coming to my rooms in the first place, and then Saxby's sister Ethel is going to have you with her for a few days till we can see how things go. Your father is waiting for you. Don't forget that it is my business to look after him in future."
Freda pressed her lover's arm, but she did not say anything. She dared not trust herself to words with all these people looking on. It was only when she had reached the solitude of Wilfrid's sitting-room that she broke down and cried bitterly.
It was futile to try to make Josiah Everton understand. He babbled that his new lodgings were far better than his old ones and that he had better food. He was going out at once with two boy friends to sail a new yacht on the lake in the park. It seemed incredible that only two years ago this man had been a millionaire of the hard type--a man of fine intellect.
"We had better let him go," Wilfrid whispered. "He does not understand anything. Strange that he should lose his money and his mind together in that queer way."
"How good you are to him, Wilfrid!" Freda whispered. "What would he do without you? I must try to look for some situation, not in Middlesworth--I could not stand that, but somewhere at a distance, so that I can help relieve you of this burden----"
"I am not going to be relieved of the burden," Wilfrid said cheerfully. "Now listen and do not interrupt me, for Ethel will be here very shortly. You are not going away to any situation--you are going to stay with me and help me in my profession. In one way and another I can manage to make £170 a year. If I have a wife to look after me and keep me out of mischief I shall get on rapidly. I shall take a small house and the three of us will live together. Why should we part, dearest? I cannot do without you--I should be miserable to feel that you are dependent upon the whims and fancies of other people. With your father under my eye I have hopes that I shall be able to cure him."
"But I shall be such a drag upon you," Freda murmured. "People will be sure to say----"
"People may say what they like--what does it matter to us what they say? This mystery may never be solved at all. And you hope to marry me some day, I suppose?"
A deep loving light rendered Freda's eyes still more beautiful.
"I ask for no greater happiness," she murmured. "The thought that I was one day going to be your wife has always spurred me on, Wilfrid. Heaven knows that my life at the Morrisons was no bed of roses. But I did not complain, because the money I earned enabled me to look to my father's comfort. Now that has all changed and the burden has fallen on your shoulders, Wilfrid. I must get something to do."
"Then do it here, my darling," Wilfrid cried. "Come and help me instead of helping other people. Why waste the precious years when you can help me? And how many times have you said that you could do more literary work if you had not so much to occupy you in other ways? I will look after your father and the small addition to our income will be of the greatest service in the household. It looks like your duty, Freda."
Freda wiped her moist eyes and a smile dawned on her face. She had not looked at it in that light before. Perhaps Wilfrid was right. Would it not be better for them to stand together and face the world? Of Wilfrid's many gifts, Freda had not the smallest doubt. And how much better it would be for her father. She was half yielding as Wilfrid took her in his arms and covered her face with his kisses.
"I see that you are coming round to my way of thinking, darling," he said. "I won't press you just for the present. Go to Ethel's and think it over. And you will try to decide as I wish, won't you?"
Freda said no more, but the glorious smile in her eyes deepened. After all it looked as if the main part of the sacrifice was going to be on Wilfrid's part. Was there another lover in the world who would have saddled himself with the burden of a poor creature like Josiah Everton? It was not as if he had been a good man in the days of his prosperity either. There had never been anything lovable about him; he had never cared for anybody but himself.
"You are making me see with new eyes, Wilfrid," Freda said. "I suppose my life has been so narrow that I could not see more than a certain distance. It must be awful for you to be here with my poor father and have to listen to his senseless chatter when you are worried. And I shall be out of it. When I come to give the matter consideration, I see that it must be as you say. I will go away with Ethel when she comes for me and as soon as you can manage it we will be married. I daresay there are bright days in store for us yet."
Wilfrid said no more, for the victory was won. So long as he had Freda in the house the rest mattered nothing. Ethel Saxby came at length, bright and cheerful and amiable as usual, and when she went back Freda went with her. On the whole Wilfrid felt happier than he had done for years. He was still building up golden plans for the future when Marriott came in. The old man was rubbing his hands with secret satisfaction and chuckling to himself.
"Well, young man," he said, "so things are going all right now. I met Miss Everton just now looking the picture of happiness. So you are going to marry and saddle yourself with that old father of hers. Not a wise thing to do."
"It is my duty and I shall get my reward sometime," Wilfrid said quietly.
"Ay, that you will," Marriott said, with sudden energy. "But there is plenty of stern, hard work to be done first, my dear boy."
"Who are you?" Wilfrid asked, speaking on a sudden impulse. "Why do you take so keen an interest in this case? I often wonder if your name is Marriott at all."
"Well, then, it isn't," Marriott said coolly. "And as to who I am, why, a good many people would give something handsome to know--including Morrison. Of course I am speaking to you in the greatest confidence. There is a foul wrong to be righted here and I am the man to do it. Not that I have any cause to love either of the Evertons. Now I am going to ask you a question. You were quite of opinion that you had obtained a fragment of the skin of the man who committed the murder. Can you tell me what part of the body it came from?"
"Certainly I can," Wilfrid said. "I could not do so in every case, but as the fragment of cuticle came from the knuckle there cannot be much difficulty."
"Are you of the opinion that the owner of the skin was an Oriental?"
"Well, you see, I find a difficulty in coming to any other conclusion. An Englishman or a German or a Frenchman may be sallow, but that skin was yellow Mongolian, beyond a doubt, I should say. It only complicates the mystery."
"It doesn't. If you look at the matter from my point of view it simplifies it. No Mongolian could come into a place like this without being observed. I have made careful inquiries and I can find no trace of such a man anywhere."
"That may be so," Wilfrid replied. "But for a few days before and after the murder Hackett's Grand Travelling Circus was at Castleford. Mind you, I don't suggest that the fact has anything to do with our engrossing mystery, but there it is. It is not a far cry from Middlesworth to Castleford. In a circus as large as Hackett's, they have people of all nationalities. I merely make the suggestion for what it's worth, Mr. Marriott."
"It was well thought of," Marriott said, with his peculiar smile. "But all the same it does not upset my theory in the least degree. Let us for a moment revert to the evidence that we had before us to-day. You examined that diary carefully. What conclusion did you come to as to that much disputed initial letter?"
"I couldn't come to any," Wilfrid admitted. "It might have been either of the three letters that the coroner suggested. What do you think about it?"
"I am certain that B will be found to be the correct solution," Marriott went on thoughtfully. "However, we shall know in a day or two when the photographic test is applied. Let us suggest that B is the letter. This mysterious B went to see James Everton on behalf of a certain person whose name was mentioned in the diary. That person was Morrison. Nobody seems to connect the name with the millionaire, but you may be sure that they are both the same men. And the B in question who called on his behalf was Bentley. Why? Because Morrison needed something at the hands of Everton. We have heard those two scoundrels talking together, and we know that Morrison's circumstances are in a parlous state. Why, if you and I told our evidence as to the burglary that we saw committed we could have turned the tables altogether. But it is no part of my policy to do that--there are other things to be done besides proving that Morrison and Bentley had a hand in the death of James Everton."
"What is there remaining beyond that fact?" asked Wilfrid. "We only want to establish that fact and----"
"Motive, my dear sir, motive," Marriott said with one of his chuckles. "It is always important in cases like this to prove your motive. On the face of it, the motive was to obtain possession of that white-covered ledger, which I was greatly disappointed not to get hold of myself. But I have a weapon which I can use for that purpose later. Now you let me into Morrison's house the first time I called there. Did you see Morrison after our interview?"
"I saw him," Wilfrid said. "He came back to the card players and said that he was bound to get rid of them as some important business had cropped up."
"Precisely," Marriott said drily. "I was that important business. Morrison walked into Middlesworth, saying that he was going to spend the night there. You know he did not spend the night there. He went to get something for me which I knew quite well that he could not find. How did he strike you?"
"He struck me as being very nervous and shaky. He seemed upset and frightened and very near to an utter collapse. I know that it was no passing fit because I examined him. I told him that he would have to give up work and go away for a long holiday."
"And that was after he had seen me," Marriott grinned. "I don't suppose you noticed any of these distressing symptoms before I called?"
"I didn't," Wilfrid said. "There was nothing of the kind to be seen."
Marriott laughed as if pleased at something. He walked up and down the room puffing at his cigarette; he had the air of a man who was perfectly satisfied.
"It was a nasty jar for Morrison," he muttered. "But we must get along. Do you ever act as locum tenens for doctors here, for Dr. Bell for instance?"
"For most of them," Wilfrid replied. "You see I am the man with the smallest practice, and I may say without conceit I am pretty well in with my brother medicos. If any man is going away or is called out he generally sends for me. Bell always does."
Marriott chuckled and laughed as he took a fresh cigarette. Evidently things were going his way.
"Glad to hear it," he said. "Bell is attending Bentley, who is reported to be lying very ill at Morrison's house. Now I have some very pressing reasons why you should see Bentley. If Bell should be called away very shortly, don't lose the opportunity of seeing Bentley, and above all things don't lose the chance of seeing that damaged right arm of his. I don't fancy that there is any more to be said for the present. I'll look in again later."
Marriott rambled off, leaving Wilfrid to his own reflections. Marriott had been more puzzling and more mysterious than ever, and yet Wilfrid was convinced that the man was not vapouring. He knew a great deal more than he cared to say evidently. Wilfrid felt himself more or less of a puppet in the little man's hands, but he was sure that he had in him a powerful ally. Josiah Everton came in later and asked for supper; he took his bread and cheese like a child and retired obediently to bed, though it was not quite eight o'clock. A moment later a man in evening dress bustled in.
"I want you to do me a favour, Bayfield," he said. "I've got a telegram calling me over to Rathfield to see old Lady Bryant. Nothing whatever the matter with the old lady except nerves and too much dinner, but I'm bound to go. Generally I have to stay the night. Would you mind looking round this list of people? I know that you won't object."
"Not in the least, Bell," Wilfrid said heartily. "When I run a brougham and a pair of horses and dress for dinner I'll get you to do the same for me."
Dr. Bell expressed his thanks and retired. Wilfrid glanced casually at the list which his confrere had left behind. They were simple cases for the most part and Wilfrid in the capacity of locum tenens had attended many of them before. At the foot of the list was Bentley's name. Whilst Wilfrid was smiling to find how soon fate had intervened in the way of the fulfilment of Marriott's wishes, that individual came excitedly into the room.
"So Bell has been with you," he said. "Got you to take his work, I expect. Curious, isn't it?"
"Well, it does seem a bit of a coincidence," Wilfrid admitted. "What are you laughing at?"
"My dear boy, when you have been in the world as long as I have and know the ropes as well, you will find out that it is possible to force these kind of coincidences as a conjurer does a card. I have taken the liberty of making a few inquiries about Dr. Bell. I found out all about that selfish old gourmand Lady Bryant. She frequently telegraphs for Bell or her companion does for her. Therefore, I had a telegram dispatched from Rathfield to Bell, asking him to come over. I left it late, so that he would have to stay the night. The ruse will never be found out because Lady Bryant will think that her companion sent the telegram, and the companion will think that it emanated from her ladyship. Even if the truth does come out it won't matter. And that is the way the conundrum has been worked."
"Mysterious as ever," Wilfrid smiled. "But I can't quite see the need for all this--diplomacy."
"You will presently. As I said before, I particularly desire that you should have a chance of seeing Bentley. The opportunity has come and the sooner you avail yourself of it the better. If you don't mind, I think I will walk part of the way with you. Put that bit of epidermis in your pocket; if it isn't wanted I shall be greatly mistaken. You and your Mongolian, indeed. Ha, ha!"
And Marriott laughed as if in the enjoyment of some extraordinary piece of humour. He dropped back at Morrison's lodge gates, saying that he would wait there and smoke a cigar till Wilfrid returned.
It was with mingled feelings that Wilfrid took his way to the house. Mr. Morrison was not in and a footman informed him that the ladies were at home. Wilfrid explained his errand and suggested that he had better see Miss Morrison and was accordingly conducted into the drawing-room.
There was nobody there or in the conservatory, as far as Wilfrid could see. He waited some little time before he heard the sound of voices, which seemed to proceed from the conservatory. A door was opened and closed again and the noises became louder.
"I tell you I shall do as I please," one of the voices said. It was a woman's voice, raised to a high pitch of anger. "You dare not stop me."
"I can send you away at a minute's notice, Ella," the other voice, which Wilfrid recognized as that of Grace Morrison, said. "Nobody would credit your story."
"Oh, wouldn't they indeed! I've got proofs, miss, proofs that you don't dream of. Just look at this--no, you don't. If I go to your father and ask him to examine his cheque-book----"
"Don't," the voice of Grace Morrison said in a frightened tone. "How did you manage--I tell you it is all a mistake. And I'm--I'm sorry that I was so angry with you. It is all a mistake."
"So is everything," Ella, the maid, said in a highly mollified tone. "It was a mistake about that medallion that brought Miss Everton into such trouble. Maybe that was no more than a mistake on your part. And Miss Everton was a real lady, she was. It's a good thing for you that your jealous scheme failed, because I should have told the truth, so help me heaven, if----"
The speaker paused as she advanced into the drawing-room followed by Grace and both of them caught sight of Wilfrid standing there. It was impossible to guess from the expression of his face whether he had heard anything or not. Grace was white and agitated, but the maid passed out of the room into the hall as if nothing had happened.
"This is an unexpected honour," the girl said. She tried to speak coldly and naturally, but her voice was very unsteady still and she was shaking from head to foot. She would have given a great deal to know what Wilfrid had overheard. "I thought that you had quite deserted me. My maid was telling me----"
The speaker paused. She wanted to give Wilfrid an opening.
"She was telling it you in a very loud voice," he said. "That maid of yours seems to be a very privileged member of her class, Miss Grace. Is she generally so rude?"
"She has a temper," Grace sighed. It was clear to her that Wilfrid had not heard anything that was of the least importance. "And she knows her worth."
Wilfrid waived the subject aside. There was nothing more to be got out of him. If he had heard anything there was no suggestion of it on his face.
"I came here on behalf of Dr. Bell," he said. "Bell has been called to Rathfield to see Lady Bryant and he is not likely to be back here to-night. I have come to see Bentley."
Grace Morrison bowed coldly. Bentley was no favourite of hers and she said so. She also expressed an opinion that Bentley's accident was a mysterious affair and that her father had some reason for concealing the truth about it. Wilfrid suggested that he had better go upstairs, to which his hostess made no objection. She would like to see Wilfrid for a moment afterwards, she said.
Bentley lay on his bed, apparently fast asleep. There was a shaded lamp on the table close by the bed and with the aid of it Wilfrid examined his patient.
It seemed to him that the latter was sleeping in an unusually heavy way. No touch aroused him. As Wilfrid pulled back the bedclothes he stared as he saw a certain tiny puncture on the left arm.
"Morphia," he muttered. "So Bentley is in the habit of taking drugs. There is no doubt that those marks are caused by a hypodermic syringe. Wonder how he managed to get hold of the stuff? Doesn't look as if he were seriously hurt. Here's a chance that Marriott would not have me miss. Ill take off those bandages from the right arm, and--ah!"
The bandages came off quite easily and Wilfrid started again. The right hand that was supposed to be smashed was not in the least injured. It lay brown and freckled against the white bedclothes, so that one or two scars on the knuckles stood out in high relief. From his pocket Wilfrid took the tiny fragment of torn skin, and fitted it over one of the scars on the back of the hand. His fingers trembled slightly, as he replaced the bandage. He had made a great discovery.
"Oh," he said softly. "Here is a fine piece of evidence indeed. Now, if I can--what's that?"
Somebody in the room was breathing hard, and the sound came distinctly from under the bed!
Wilfrid stood bending over the prostrate figure on the bed as if he were thinking of nothing except his professional duties, but in reality making up his mind how to act. He was not in the least surprised to find that something out of the common was going on; indeed, nothing seemed to be normal at present. Should he pull up the valance of the bed and drag out the intruder? The man under the bed was evidently no friend of either Morrison or Bentley, or he had not been there at all.
But Wilfrid was saved the trouble of deciding. A voice whispered to him to shut the bedroom door. Wilfrid crossed the room and did so, and the face of Jakes, the detective, looked up with a grin on his features.
"I couldn't quite make you out, sir," he said. "I guessed that you were the doctor, but I thought that you were Dr. Bell. I dared not look out to see."
"Dr. Bell is away for the night and I am taking his place," Wilfrid explained. "What does this mean?"
"What our people call information received," Jakes grinned. "I dare say you wonder why I am here and how I managed it. Well, you know that I am paying attention to the maid Ella. She thinks that I belong to a London gang and that I am working a plant here. And when I asked her to smuggle me into the house she made no objection. Whilst she got the nurse out of the way I came in through the window."
"In the name of goodness, why?" Wilfrid asked.
"Well, I can't tell you everything, sir, of course," Jakes went on. "Still, you know a good deal, and you are very interested in getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the death of James Everton. This is all part and parcel of the business, I may say, though I can't put the pieces together as yet. What I want to know is how far Mr. Bentley's illness has gone. Is he really ill or is he only shamming? When I came in I thought he was dead."
"I don't see anything the matter with him," Wilfrid said. "At any rate, there is nothing the matter with that right hand of his, the hand that was supposed to be smashed."
"Then why does he lie like a log, sir? Just for all the world as if he were drunk?"
"To all practical purposes he is drunk," Wilfrid said. "Physically I don't believe there is anything the matter with Mr. Bentley at all. The illness is a sham. As a matter of fact, Mr. Bentley is suffering from a dose of morphia. I have discovered that he is addicted to the drug. We should find the syringe now if we looked for it."
"Well, that puzzle is solved," Jakes muttered. "I tell you that I felt pretty sure that the illness was a fraud, and why? Our friend Bentley is wanted. He has got into a mess with some London firm and a warrant is out for his arrest. I got that out of a detective from town who came down here last night. But there is nothing to gain by arresting a sick man and they were going to wait till Bentley was about again. Bentley has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen; hence this illness of his. You see it would ruin everything if he were arrested now, and if the great 'coup' comes off Bentley will be in a position to square matters."
"What great 'coup' are you alluding to?" Wilfrid asked.
"That is more than I can tell you, sir," Jakes admitted. "We are coming to that presently. As a matter of fact, I am acting on the spur of the moment. I was in the garden with Ella just now and she told me that Mr. Bentley's nurse had gone home suddenly. I mean the professional nurse who was called in to take charge of the case. Well, knowing what I do, this struck me as being very suspicious, so I kept my eyes open. Then I saw Mr. Morrison talking in his study to another professional nurse. Funny if they had another one to take the place of the absent one for a night only, isn't it? Especially as the proper nurse has been sent out of the way. So I hatched a little scheme for getting into the house and here I am. And if we don't see something suspicious before long my name's not Jakes and I'm no detective."
"Will it help you if I wait outside?" Wilfrid asked.
"Well, sir, it might," Jakes said, after a moment's reflection. "If you are not too busy."
But Wilfrid was not too busy and he had a burning desire to take part in the coming drama. He was about to leave the room when he heard voices outside, one of which he recognized as belonging to Stephen Morrison. Jakes dipped under the bed again.
"Get into that wardrobe, sir," he said. "On the whole it would be just as well that Mr. Morrison didn't know that you were taking the place of Dr. Bell."
On the impulse of the moment Wilfrid did as Jakes suggested. There was no reason why he should have done so, save that he was filled with a burning curiosity to know what was going forward. He stepped into the recess of the big wardrobe, so that from the darkness he could see everything without seen.
Morrison came into the room followed by a nurse in a dark uniform. The door was closed again; evidently the drama was just going to begin.
"Now, Cox," Morrison muttered, "you know exactly what you have to do. Nobody is to come into the room and I don't suppose anybody will want to for the matter of that. But it is just as well for us to be on the safe side. Do you understand that, nurse?"
"I quite understand," the nurse said in a deep, baritone voice. There was a grin on the face of the speaker. "I have come to take the place of the regular nurse, who has been called away on urgent private business--in other words, the good old expedient of a bogus telegram. Upon my word, I look the part to the life."
"Especially if you will only keep your confounded mouth shut," Morrison growled. "That voice of yours would betray you anywhere. Still, you are not likely to be found out; all you have to do is to stay here till we come back and then you can quietly vanish and resume your proper vocation in life again. Wake him up."
The so-called nurse shook Bentley vigorously. But no response came. The man on the bed might have been dead for any motion on his part. Morrison took a hand in the game, but the result was just the same. The millionaire swore passionately.
"He's been at his old games again," he said. "He promised me that he would leave that confounded stuff alone till this job was finished at any rate. I wonder where----"
The speaker proceeded to search the bedclothes hurriedly and presently a little bottle and a syringe dropped to the floor. Once again Morrison swore fluently.
"Now how did he manage to get these?" he asked. "I have destroyed the old one. These drug maniacs have the cunning of the devil. Pull him out on to the floor."
Without any particular tenderness, the disguised Cox dragged out the inert Bentley and let him down heavily on the floor. Nothing more than a moan escaped him. It was not until Morrison turned on a pretty liberal supply of cold water that Bentley opened his eyes.
"What's the matter?" he demanded--"what are you doing? Stop that mess, I say."
The speaker struggled to his feet. Morrison caught him by the shoulders and shook him passionately.
"You heedless, senseless fool!" he cried. "You drunken dog, who cares for nothing so long as you can get hold of that drug of yours. For two pins I would knock your teeth down your throat. Where did you get it from?"
Bentley managed to throw off his infuriated assailant and sat on the edge of the bed. The cold water had not been without a salutary effect. He shivered in his shirt and socks.
"You gave me your word that you would not touch that stuff again," Morrison said.
"Well, I never do while there is anything of importance going on," Bentley growled. "How would you like playing the sick man in bed when there is nothing whatever the matter with you? Besides, the dose is getting stale by this time and not a heavy one--for me. How could I possibly tell that you wanted me?"
"And little you cared," Morrison sneered. "You know quite well that you might be wanted at any moment. And the moment has come."
Bentley pulled himself together. He was very white and shaky, but he seemed ready for anything by the time that he had fully dressed himself.
"Is the game altogether safe?" he asked. "If any London policemen come along----"
"You may make your mind quite easy about that," Morrison said. "You are supposed to be here still; we shall not leave the house by the usual way. We are going to get out through the window. If anybody comes, your devoted nurse has orders that you are not to be disturbed."
"That isn't the nurse that I had this morning," Bentley said, his mind yet a little muddled with the effect of the morphia. "And yet I seem to know the features."
"Cox!" Morrison said curtly. "Cox, got up for the occasion. Cox in his time has played many parts, as we both know. I fancy that we can leave matter to Cox."
"'Before taken to be well shaken'," the pseudo-nurse said with a grin. "Depend upon it I will keep the castle till our interesting invalid returns."
Bentley nodded as if he knew everything now. He turned eagerly to Morrison and demanded if anything of importance had come to light lately.
"Importance!" Morrison said scornfully. "Why, the whole thing has come to light--most extraordinary affair I ever heard of and one of the luckiest. Here we have been for days puzzling over the cypher in the ledger that we obtained from old Everton's safe, and yet the solution has been close to us the whole time. Josiah Everton had it the whole time the other night when the old lunatic carried on in that mad way and those mysterious chaps came out of nowhere to help him. What do you think of this?"
Morrison produced a dirty sheet of paper evidently torn from a small account book from his pocket. Bentley looked at it eagerly.
"A page of the key to the cypher, as I am a living man!" he said.
"Of course it is!" Morrison responded with a note of triumph in his voice. "And what's more, it is a page of the book. You'll never guess how it came into my possession. The coachman's little boy cut his finger whilst he was sailing a small yacht on the big pond here. I happened to be close by at the time and I bound up the boy's hand. I don't take much interest in that class of small boy as a rule, but I stopped to look at the boat which had a paper sail. And hang me, if that paper sail wasn't this very sheet of paper that I have in my hand!"
"Where on earth did the lad get it from?" Bentley asked.
"I got to that, of course. It appears that the boy sometimes goes as far as Middlesworth to sail his boat on the lake with the other boys. Something had happened the last time he was there to the sail of his boat and a man who was looking on mended it for him with that very piece of paper. I wanted to know if the man picked up the piece of paper there and then or if it came out of his pocket. It cost me a small stock of pennies to get that boy's memory into working order. Then he recollected that the old gentleman had taken the paper from a little book that he carried in his pocket. He had torn the leaf out and put the book back in his pocket again."
"But didn't you ask who the man was?" Bentley demanded.
"Of course I did, you fool. And what do you suppose the lad said? Said that it was a mad gentleman who often helped the boys to sail their boats. Pressed to recollect the name, my young hero said that the gentleman was called 'Softy Everton,' and that he used to have a great deal of money at one time."
Bentley grinned triumphantly. From the expression in his eyes he was deeply interested, but not more so than the one listener under the bed and the other in the wardrobe.
"Well, the devil has looked after his children to-day," he said hoarsely. "Of all the marvellous luck! And yet I can't make Everton out. He is scared to death and yells for help when he is shown that cypher and still he carries the key to it about in his pocket. I suppose the game is to get hold of that cypher without delay?"
"Ay, and by force, if necessary," Morrison said. "That is why I want your assistance. Cox will stay here and guard the fortress whilst you come with me. You can get out through the window and I will be waiting for you below with a motor coat and cap and goggles. Disguised like that, nobody will know you from Adam. If we can get what we want we will take the car to Castleford at once and see Lester. When the solution to the mystery is in our hands we can play the game as if we had a million behind us; indeed, all that money will be as good as ours."
"I quite see that," Bentley said eagerly. "Where is old Everton to be found?"
"At Bayfield's rooms at present. Case of good Samaritan. I'll manage to get Bayfield out of the way if he is at home and you must rob Everton--I'll provide you with chloroform, and the rest I can leave safely to you. Get Cox to help you out of the window."
So saying, Morrison vanished, and Cox proceeded to lower Bentley into the garden below. It was not a long drop and presently a voice came from below intimating that it was all right. From a distance somewhere came the puffing snort of a motor car.
So far the listeners felt that they had by no means been wasting their time. The importance of the information they had picked up could not be over-estimated. But there was one thing that stood in the way of using the information so kindly afforded before Bentley and Morrison could put it in execution. Both Wilfrid and Jakes were in their hiding-places, and it was impossible to come out without betraying themselves to the watchful eye of the man Cox.
The fellow was still looking out of the window and Wilfrid peeped out of his retreat. Simultaneously Jakes put his head from under the bed and the eyes of the two men met. It was evident without words that they were both thinking of the same thing--how to get away without being seen. And at the moment time was of the utmost importance. The precious minutes dragged on, the noise of the motor faded away and still the two men were waiting for what fortune was to do for them. Cox found that time was dragging on his hands, for he produced a cigarette case and played with it in an undecided way.
"Probably I shall be here all night," he muttered. "Nobody likely to come in. Don't see why I should not have a cigarette. If anybody does come in I can say that my patient has a fancy to smoke. If I put the light out I can smoke by the window."
The listeners thrilled. No sooner was the light out than Jakes crept from under the bed. It was not a very dark night, and the figure of Cox could be seen outlined against the window. Jakes crept across the floor; Wilfrid could see his crouching figure and wondered what was going to happen next. His curiosity was not destined to be painfully strained.
Suddenly the figure of Jakes uprose, his powerful arms passed round the legs of the unconscious Cox, and before he was fully alive to the situation, before he could cry out, he was flung headlong out of the window. A smothered groan came from below, but Jakes was not wasting any sympathy.
"Come along, sir," he whispered excitedly. "We have no time to lose. I don't suppose that chap will be very much hurt seeing that he fell into a flower bed. He dare not make any fuss about it; he will come back here without saying anything. Let us bolt for the hall quickly."
The two men flew downstairs, making no noise at all on the thick carpet. They were across the hall and outside the front door without meeting anybody. From the shelter of the garden they could see Cox painfully making his way into the house again.
"We must get to your rooms at once, sir," Jakes suggested. "At least you had better go. If you hurry along I dare say you will be in time. Meanwhile it's my game to stay here and keep watch. Who's that standing behind the cedars yonder?"
Wilfrid explained that there was no suspicious figure under the cedars: it was no less a person than Marriott who was waiting Wilfrid's return. Marriott was anxious and impatient; he wanted to know why Wilfrid was so long.
"I began to think that something had happened to you," he said. "Morrison has gone off in a motor car with a friend. They had goggles on, too. Did you find anything out?"
"It seems to me that I have found everything out," Wilfrid said. "But I will explain to you as we go along, for there is no time to be lost. I am afraid that I shall have to bustle you along at a pretty goof pace. Can you manage it?"
Marriott responded with one of his dry chuckles. But he grew quite grave as he listened to all that Wilfrid had to say. They came at length to Wilfrid's rooms, but there was no light in the front of the house, only down in the basement. Wilfrid dashed into the house and from there into the surgery where he had made up Everton a bed. Not a sign of the old man could be seen. Wilfrid rang the bell furiously.
"Where has Mr. Everton gone?" he asked the servant. "How long has he been out?"
"Please, sir, he has gone as far as Lee village," was the reply. "The old gentleman told me to say that he had forgotten a very particular message he had for Miss Everton. He said that he should not be back till very late this evening. I told the other gentlemen the same thing."
"What other gentlemen?" Wilfrid asked, trying to keep his voice under strong control.
"Why, the gentlemen who came in the motor car a little time ago, sir.... No, sir, I should not be able to tell them again. They both had their glasses on. They seemed disappointed at not seeing Mr. Everton, but they didn't wait a minute."
So far no great harm had been done. Wilfrid turned to his companion.
"We may be in time yet," he said. "Can you ride a bicycle? If so I can provide you with one. You ride on, and I will come up with you in good time."
"I know the way to Lee village quite well. Is there anybody at home with the girls?"
"Well, no, unfortunately," Wilfrid said. "Saxby has gone to London to-day. Miss Saxby does not keep a servant; she only has an old woman who comes in by the day. I don't feel easy in my mind when I think of those two girls and what that choice pair of scoundrels are after."
Meanwhile the choice pair of scoundrels aforesaid were proceeding on their way to Lee village, having been baffled at the outset of their search. It was no great distance, and despite a temporary breakdown they reached their destination in half an hour. The little cottage stood back in the garden; a light shone from one of the windows. The blinds were drawn and nobody was about. It was altogether an ideal spot for a robbery of that kind.
"What shall we do?" Bentley asked when the pair stood on the tiny strip of lawn. The motor had been shut down and backed into a ditch at the end of the road. "We have plenty of time before us. Shall we wait for our man and smoke meanwhile? Or shall we go and fetch him out?"
Morrison debated the matter in his mind for a moment or two.
"I don't want to wait," he said. "The old fool may stay there for hours. He may take it into his head, as it is so very late, to stay all night. If we had the luck we could go right away to Castleford and fix up matters then and there. We could afford to play the bold game. We----"
Bentley laid a finger on the lips of his companion. The door of the cottage opened and Freda stood there with the bright light behind her. She was calling to somebody to come out, saying the night was too fine to remain in the house.
"Come to the end of the lane, Ethel," she said. "Bring my father with you."
"This looks like good business," Bentley whispered. "It's only a matter of patience. They are coming."
Another girl came into sight, followed by the bent figure of old Josiah Everton. The elderly man was muttering to himself as if he had lost something.
"You go on," he said. "I will follow you. I have lost my apple. I put it down somewhere and now I have lost it. I am always losing something. First it was my money and then it was my memory. If I could get my lost memory back I could find the box with all my money in. I hid it away somewhere when those fellows began to threaten me, and I have forgotten it and I can't even read the cypher. Where is the cypher?"
"Really, I can't tell you, father," Freda said gently. She was used to that kind of babble, which was meaningless in her ears. "Never mind about your apple. We will walk on as far as the main road with you and to-morrow we'll send you a basket of apples."
"That is very good of you," the old man said, "very good indeed. But that does not excuse my carelessness. You are all very good to me; everybody is very good to me. There is Dr. Bayfield, for instance. I never liked Dr. Bayfield, and yet when I lost my money he took me into his house. Funny that some people have ideas beyond money, isn't it?"
"Let him stay and look for his apple," Ethel Saxby said. "Let him stay all night if he likes!"
"I can't do that," Everton said with the eagerness of a child. "I must get back. You see I may find my lost memory at any moment. Then it is important that I should be on the spot. And I shall not be happy till I have found my apple."
The girls strolled on into the garden and from there to the road. They passed down close to Morrison and Bentley without being conscious of their presence. At length their figures merged into the darkness of the night and their voices could no longer be heard.
"Now's the time for it," Bentley said. "Walk right into the house and take the old man by the throat and force that book out of him. Come along."
The front door stood invitingly open and the two men entered. Everton was in the little sitting-room engaged in a futile search for the missing apple. At a touch from Morrison he stood up. The latter, like Bentley, still wore his goggles and motor coat, so that it was a fearsome pair who stood before the frightened old man, who seemed to scent danger in spite of his clouded brain.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" he asked in a trembling voice. "Please go away."
"In a minute," Morrison said. "There is something that you will have to do for us. If you don't do it, we will take you out and throw you into the mill pond. Give us that little book of yours, the book from which you tore the bit to mend the little boy's boat. Hand it over."
To the surprise and disgust of the intruders Everton's fear vanished. He seemed possessed of a strength that gave the lie to his bent form and feeble appearance. He grasped a chair, which he proceeded to flourish round his head, bringing it down on Morrison's shoulders with a force that drew a cry of pain and anger from him.
"Part with the cypher!" Everton cried. "Never! If I can't understand it myself, I swear that nobody else shall. You are the men who took me to my cousin's house; one of you promised me a shilling. If you dare touch me I shall cry for help."
"Knock him down at once," Morrison said, angrily. "Do it before the girls come back. He is a dangerous lunatic and ought to be locked up."
The two men made a dash forward and the chair was broken in the struggle. Bentley got a swinging blow in on the old man's face and he went down with a crash, striking his head with stunning force against the corner of the steel fender. He lay there like a log, without a word.
"'HOOK IT,' MORRISON SAID, 'HERE IS SOMEBODY COMING.'"
"Faugh, the old fellow is bleeding," Bentley said as he fumbled with the body. "Where the dickens does he keep that book? Here is a key, but the book----"
"Hook it!" Morrison said. "Here is somebody coming. Put the lamp out and let's go through the window."
Morrison suited the action to the word as footsteps came along the passage. As Wilfrid dashed in, followed by the two women, Bentley struck the cheap lamp to the floor, where it broke and immediately the place was filled with flames. It was no time to look to the capture of the scoundrels. Wilfrid snatched up the hearthrug and beat the flames out with it. By the light of a vesta he could see the extent of the damage and the figure of Everton lying insensible. Beside him was the little volume for which Bentley and Morrison had risked so much.
"This is a nice mess," Wilfrid muttered. "We must find another lamp somewhere. I daresay there is one in the kitchen. And where has Marriott got to?"
Marriott had just reached the spot in the road where the motor car was hidden when Morrison and his companion came up running rapidly. Marriott drew aside. If their ruse had been successful he would hear of the fact at once. The motor car was pulled into the road again.
"Curse it all," Morrison said savagely. "I did think we should succeed this time. I suppose it is no use asking if you got that book?"
"No, I didn't," Bentley admitted sulkily. "I only got this key. Funny-looking key, too--by Jove, it's a Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Key--No. 4116a. Now what the deuce----"
Marriott waited for no more. He suppressed a wild desire to laugh boisterously. Then he pushed on his way to the cottage, feeling that his night's work had been well done.
Marriott waited till the motor car had made a start before he crept out of his hiding-place. So far as he could gather the two rascals had pretty well nothing for their trouble. After all there was not much to gain in the finding of a safe key, which Josiah Everton had probably used in the days of prosperity. No doubt he looked upon it now in the light of a toy. Morrison and his ally were welcome to all they had got.
Marriott pushed his way along till the cottage was reached. He regretted that he had been unable to keep up with Wilfrid, but nobody appeared to heed Marriott for the moment. Wilfrid was bending over a heap of clothing and grey hair lying on a couch. It did not need any perspicuity on Marriott's part to see that the unconscious figure was Everton's.
"Can I do anything?" he asked quietly. "I hope it is not a very bad case?"
"Well, it is and it isn't," Wilfrid explained, as he went on with his bandages. "Freda, give me an old handkerchief and, Ethel, wash out that sponge for me. So far as I can see, there has been a fracture of the skull. The poor gentleman must have gone down with great force. Really, Mr. Marriott, we shall have to place this matter in the hands of the police. Those two poisonous scoundrels have had their way long enough."
Marriott made no reply. He had his own very good reasons for keeping the police out of the affair for the moment. He looked from one to the other of the girls who were quietly doing what Wilfrid asked of them. But they were pale and trembling, though as yet they had very little idea of what had taken place.
"Perhaps we had better get Mr. Everton upstairs," Wilfrid suggested. "If there is a bedroom----"
"My brother's," Ethel said; "it is at the back of the house. I will show you the way."
It was a little time later that Everton was safely placed in bed. He was unconscious still; indeed, he was likely to remain in that condition for some time, Wilfrid said. It was possible he might not be quite so bad as he appeared, in which case he would be delirious later.
"Oh dear, I hope not," Ethel said. "What should we do then? If those men came back----"
"I don't think there is the slightest fear of their coming back," Wilfrid said. "And in no case could I dream of leaving you two girls here alone. I shall stay with my patient all night and in the morning a nurse shall be sent for. And it seems to me that you cannot do better than go to bed."
A minute or two later and Wilfrid was alone in the little sitting-room with Freda. She looked at him for an explanation of this strange thing.
"What does it mean?" she asked. "Who were those men? And why did they make that murderous attack on a poor old man like my father?"
"Those men were Morrison and Bentley," Wilfrid explained. He told Freda all that had happened earlier in the evening. "Your father has a little volume of business cypher which those fellows are anxious to obtain for some reason. I fancy Marriott knows, but he declines to speak as yet. It has something to do with your uncle's fortune, seeing that your father had nothing of his own."
"But why attack a defenceless man in that manner?" Freda repeated.
"I don't fancy that the attack was murderous," Wilfrid said. "We must give the devil his due. Your father looks old and feeble, but a few years ago he was as vigorous as I am. Some of the old thoughts came back to him and he practically made a pretty stout resistance. The wound in the head was not caused by a blow, but by a fall on the fender. I am afraid that your father will have to undergo an operation later. Now go to bed, dearest."
Freda went off obediently enough and Wilfrid began his vigil by the bedside of his patient. Marriott had declined to return to Middlesworth, electing to sleep on the sitting-room sofa instead. It was two o'clock in the morning before the figure on the bed showed any signs of life. He began to toss and fret, and presently his eyes opened.
"Have they got it?" he asked. "Did they manage to steal my book?"
The question appeared to be addressed to Wilfrid, but there was no recognition in those staring eyes. Wilfrid said something soothing, but without effect.
"The book," the sick man said again. "Where is the book? Two pages out of the back which are of no importance at all. If they have the book I am ruined. All my money is gone. Where did I put that money to? Where is the book?"
The man's fever was rising; it was necessary to keep him quiet. Wilfrid would have administered a sleeping draught, but he had no drugs handy. He found the little white volume and placed it in the hands of the sick man. The hands clenched it eagerly. Wilfrid noticed what strong-looking hands they were.
"Saved!" the man on the bed whispered. "Saved once more. Baffled the scoundrels, eh? Baffled as they were baffled three years ago when I had that fall in the Caledonian Hotel. I was frightened then. I don't know why I was frightened. But where is the key?"
Wilfrid knew nothing of a key, so there was little to say. Evidently Marriott slept lightly, for he came up the stairs at the same moment.
"I heard voices," he said, "and I guessed what had happened. I have been asleep for some time and I'll take your place if you like. Is he very delirious?"
"Very," Wilfrid whispered. "He asked for his book, so I gave it him. Mr. Marriott, is that book so very precious or is it a relic of what was once of importance?"
"I should say that the value of that book could not be over-estimated," Marriott said with one of his queer, dry smiles. "I am going to borrow it, and if I fail to make a most important discovery by its means I shall be greatly disappointed. That cypher is the key to the cypher in James Everton's private ledger--the ledger which we saw Morrison take from the safe. We must get that ledger."
"That will be a bit of a task," Wilfrid said thoughtfully.
"Not a bit of it," Marriott smiled. "In the first place I know where it is. In the second place I have a pretty scheme for obtaining the solution of the hiding-place."
"The key!" came from the bed in a quick voice. "Where is the key? A flat key with a number in the middle. What is the number? What is the good of a head like mine?"
Everton grinned and was silent for a moment. Wilfrid looked to Marriott for explanation.
"Can you tell me anything about the key?" he asked.
"As it happens, I can," Marriott said. "Coming here, I naturally fell a long way behind you. I was a quarter of a mile away while the outrage was being committed. I spotted the motor car belonging to our friends in the hedge and whilst I was making sure of it they came back. I had just time to get out of the way and pop into the ditch where I could listen to their conversation. I could see that they had failed in their main object, because one asked the other the question. The chief plunder they had was a key of a safe, I expect----"
"That's it," the quick voice came from the bed. "The key of the safe. Lost and gone! And for the life of me I cannot remember the number."
The voice trailed into a rambling groan again and Marriott proceeded in whispers.
"That key came out of the pocket of the poor fellow lying there," he said. "From what I could gather, it was the key to one of the safes in the Chancery Lane Deposit. Probably used by our friend in the days of his prosperity, though why Morrison should take it----"
"Is it possible that Mr. Everton has the safe still?" Wilfrid suggested. "They tell me that some of those safes are frequently unopened for years. If Everton has anything there----"
"I very much doubt it. Probably the key is a duplicate one. Those Chancery Lane people----"
"I may be wrong, of course," Wilfrid interrupted. "Still I must confess that I should very much like to know the number of that key."
"I can tell you," Marriott said. "The number was mentioned in my hearing. I have a mathematical head--I never forget a line of figures. The number was 4116a."
"Better make a note of it in your pocket-book in case your memory fails," Wilfrid said. "The first time I happen to be in town I shall make inquiries about that key."
"As it falls out, I am going to town in the morning," Marriott said, "and I will take the inquiry off your hands. I know the solicitor who did most of Josiah Everton's legal work and he may be of assistance to me. Do you notice anything about your patient?"
"I have not noticed anything special," Wilfrid admitted.
"Well, I was particularly struck just now by the sharpness of his voice. For all he is so badly injured I note a timbre of firmness that has been lacking for--ever since I have known him. All that feeble hesitation seems to have gone. Mark the curt way in which he asked for that key, for instance."
"Why don't you bring it?" the voice came from the bed. "Don't be all night."
The voice from the bed was certainly impatient and rasping. It was the voice of the successful business man. Wilfrid could not ignore it when it was pointed out to him by Marriott.
"It is exactly as you say," he said, "as if the brain had found new vigour. He spoke just now about a fall he had some years ago at the Caledonian Hotel."
"Which was his headquarters in town," Marriott explained. "This grows interesting. How long is the delirium likely to last?"
"On and off for a day or two," Wilfrid said. "I fancy there is pressure. To-morrow I shall have my patient removed to the Middlesworth Hospital, and see if an operation is necessary. In my humble judgment I fancy it is."
"Well, don't say anything of the circumstances," Marriott advised. "The poor gentleman had a nasty fall and brought his head against a fender. I daresay you are tired of all this mystery, but a little more patience and the whole thing shall be solved. I have great hopes that when I come back from London to-morrow night I shall have news for you."
Marriott said no more, and with that Wilfrid was fain to be content. Towards morning his patient fell into an uneasy sleep, which became more regular as daylight advanced, so that Wilfrid was enabled to take a needed rest in an armchair. It was early when Saxby came back, and, after learning the events of the previous evening, he was sent into Middlesworth for the hospital ambulance in which Everton was taken away.
As Wilfrid had anticipated, an operation was pronounced necessary. The anaesthetic was administered at once and shortly after breakfast the thing was done. A small splinter of bone pressing on the brain had done all the mischief. An hour later Marriott waited upon Wilfrid to hear the news of the successful operation.
"I am glad of that," he said. "Is there any chance of a permanent recovery?"
Wilfrid replied that there was. In operating the surgeon found traces of another fall which had resulted in the dislocation of a small tissue quite in itself sufficient to account for the loss of brain power that Everton had manifested.
"So there is one mystery on the way to be solved," Marriott said. "The other one----"
"Is the mystery of yourself," Wilfrid smiled.
"Who are you, Mr. Marriott?"
"Well, I'll tell you," Marriott said coolly, "only it is a secret at present. My name is Joseph Everton, and I am James Everton's only brother, and cousin to Josiah. So Freda can call me uncle, too."
Wilfred was left to puzzle over the strange piece of information that Marriott had imparted to him. He recollected now that James Everton had had a brother who had gone away years before. He was supposed to have got into trouble in Middlesworth, and his disappearance was accounted for as a necessity. The Evertons had been a wild lot at one time before they settled down to money-making.
Freda came in later to see how her father was progressing. Wilfrid had good news for her. The operation had been entirely successful and the sick man was going on very well indeed. The hospital authorities hoped that in a week's time the patient would be able to give a good account of himself.
"I trust that your father's reason will be quite restored, dearest," Wilfrid said. "He may not be capable of doing anything for months to come, but he will be able to understand everything. He will be able to understand, for instance, that he is going to live with us and that you and I are going to be married in a few days."
"As soon as that, Wilfrid?" Freda blushed. "It seems almost impossible."
"At any rate it is true," Wilfrid said. "I am going to make the arrangements to-day. It will be a quiet wedding, dearest, with no bridesmaids and no honeymoon. But it is the proper step to take, and I am sure that we shall be very happy. My old housekeeper is so extravagant that you will be a necessity in the household."
Freda nodded and smiled and said nothing; she was quite of Wilfrid's way of thinking. They would fight the battle side by side and conquer the world. When Wilfrid had settled down steadily to business, she was quite sure the practice would grow.
"So that everything is arranged," Wilfrid said with his arm round Freda's waist and his lips on her cheek. "Let us say this day week. A licence will not be an extravagance in the circumstances. Then we can begin life together and perhaps later your father may find something to do. Not that I am counting on that for a moment. Did your father ever have a bad fall before?"
"Some years ago," Freda said. "It was at the Caledonian Hotel. He was engaged in some very anxious business at the time and made little of it. But he seemed to be moody and vague afterwards and a week later he came down from London looking an old man and saying that he was ruined. Since then he has been what you know him to be."
There was nothing more to be said on that head, so Freda made her way back to the village. It was just after tea-time that Marriott returned from London, on the very best of terms with himself. His journey had not been wasted.
"I'm on the track of great things," he said. "I found the lawyer who used to transact such legal business as my brother required and he told me something of importance. It seems that my cousin had a safe, or rather a strong room at the Chancery Lane Deposit. I asked if the lawyer could give me the number of that key----"
"And he told you that number was 4116a?" Wilfrid cried.
"Precisely. The key was in the hands of the lawyer once for a night and in his methodical way he noted the number in his diary. Well, I determined to follow this up and went to Chancery Lane. I found my cousin's name on the books and also that the rent of the safe had been regularly paid every year; in fact, it was only paid the week before last."
"The week before last?" Wilfrid said. "You say it was a strong room. I suppose the rent of places like that is very heavy. What was the amount of the rent?"
"Seventy pounds," Marriott proceeded to explain. "It was paid by cheque. Now, my dear young friend, that struck me as a pretty odd thing. We know my cousin has not a penny to bless himself with, and yet he seems able to spend £70 a year on a fad like this. I ascertained that the money was paid by cheque, and after some trouble I found the cheque was drawn on the City branch of the Cosmopolitan Bank. When there I tried a little dodge that has been successful before. I said that I wanted to pay a credit to the account of Mr. Josiah Everton. If they said there was no such account I could easily say that I must have made a mistake in the bank."
"And had you mistaken the bank?" Wilfrid asked eagerly.
"Not a bit, my boy. The account was there right enough and it cost me £20 to show that I was not a fraud. Now it struck me that my cousin could not have an account unless one had been opened in his name, so I had to go a little farther. I went to a friend of ours in London who knows all the bank people. I got him to take me to where the cashier of the Cosmopolitan lunched and introduce me to him. Then I pumped the man for information. I ascertained that the bank's client Josiah Everton was a tall man with a dark face and a dark moustache, a man about thirty-five. What do you think of that, my dear young friend, for a discovery?"
Wilfrid could only express his utter astonishment and wait for Marriott to proceed.
"You begin to see something of the game, don't you?" he said. "From a City point of view Josiah Everton is out of the way for all time; he is absolutely ruined; he has gone out of his mind. Somebody, for some reason or other, wants to use his name. Somebody about thirty-five with a black moustache deems it a good thing to be called Josiah Everton. The name passes because it is not so very uncommon after all. This gentleman has an account at the Cosmopolitan Bank and every year is philanthropic enough to pay £70 to the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit to keep up No. 4116a, which should have something of value inside, or why this generous outlay?"
"Do you suggest that there are valuable securities there?" Wilfrid asked.
"Well, no, I don't," Marriott replied. "Diaries and ledgers, perhaps, or something of that kind, but whoever our generous friend is, he is trying to get that key. He may or may not know where it is, but the fact remains that he goes on paying the money. In a day or two I shall know all the history of the gentleman, for I have placed the matter in the hands of a private inquiry agent. But I have discovered a little more than that. This morning a certain individual required a strong room in the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit, and he pitched upon No. 4116a as the very one that he required. Naturally I wanted to know who the individual was, and what do I find? It is Stephen Morrison!"
"I see," Wilfrid cried. "He thought, perhaps, that the strong room was empty. Did he take the next one? You see he has the key to 4116a in his pocket."
"My word! But that point escaped me," Marriott exclaimed. "I see the game. It's rather dangerous, but then Morrison is so desperately placed he must take risks."
On this point Marriott suddenly became grave and thoughtful, and Wilfrid could get no more out of him. Marriott took his departure a little later, saying that he would return in the evening. He had a little business to do, he said. He went away to the police station, where he asked to see Jakes. Jakes, it appeared, had been out on a case all night and had gone home to bed. The detective was having a kind of breakfast-dinner when Marriott arrived. He was quite ready to do anything that Marriott required.
"It's about time we brought matters to a head," the latter said. "I suppose you are in a position to dictate terms at any time to Miss Morrison's maid, Ella, eh?"
Jakes intimated with a grin that he was. There was probably nothing in the career of that interesting young lady that Jakes did not know. He was going to see her that evening, he said, and was ready to do anything that Mr. Marriott asked.
"My chief has given me a free hand in this matter," he said. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to bring that young woman to her knees," Marriott explained. "At the same time, I don't particularly want her to be prosecuted. Is there anything that you can hold over her head?"
"Well, yes," Jakes grinned. "I should say that there is a good deal. She'll fight and she will very likely scratch, but she will have to give in in the long run. What are you after, sir?"
"I want the truth about that medallion. Of course, you and I know that it was stolen by Miss Morrison, who, when she saw a chance of doing Miss Everton deadly harm, concealed it among her belongings. That must be told, and I must be in a position to prove it when I have a little interview with Miss Morrison later to-night. As to the rest you must be guided by what I tell you."
Jakes nodded. He had a profound respect for Mr. Marriott's judgment and he said so. He was prepared to do anything the latter wished.
"I think I can manage it," he said. "Ella is a clever one, but I have been too many for her this tune. She little knows that the man she meets at night is the detective whom she helped to find the medallion in Miss Everton's box. You want her to tell the truth and force Miss Morrison to do the same?"
"That's exactly it, Jakes. She must go to Miss Morrison and let her know that the police are aware of what has taken place. I'll be in the house on pretence of waiting to see Morrison, who is coming back from London by the last train. You shall give me the tip through the drawing-room window when you have done your part of the business, and that is where I come in. A few hours will, I hope, see the solution of the Everton mystery."
So it came about that after dinner the same night Jakes in his disguise was loafing in the grounds of Morrison's house to see the maid Ella. She came at length, pretty and pert as usual. It was a fine evening and Ella's services would not be required till late at night.
"I want to have a serious talk with you," Jakes said. "Let us go down to the rose garden; I don't suppose that there is any chance of being disturbed there. That's all right. And now, my dear Alice Maitland, we had better understand one another."
The girl's face grew pale, but her dark eyes were steady as the face of her companion. Jakes proceeded to remove his beard and whiskers, which he stuffed carefully into his pocket.
"It's too warm an evening for that kind of thing," he said. "Alice, you are a clever girl, but I fancy that you have not shown your usual cleverness this time."
"That is so, Mr. Jakes," the girl said slowly. "I recognize you now for the detective who came here searching Miss Everton's boxes. Well, what have I done?"
"My dear girl, why ask such a question? I know all about you, from the time you were in that little game at Streatham down to the present time. There was that Haida Vale business, for instance. I have only to open my mouth a little and where are you, my pretty charmer?"
"If I had only known," the girl said quietly; "if I had only guessed I would have poisoned you! I would have got you out of the way as if you had been a rat!"
"I don't doubt it for a moment!" Jakes said coolly. "You always had the pluck of a dozen men and the wit to carry everything through. Why you came down here I don't know and I don't care. But if you listen to reason, my child, and do a simple thing that I ask you, I am prepared to forget that I ever heard of the name of Alice Maitland and go on thinking that I am more or less in love with the prettiest Ella that I've ever had the good fortune to meet!"
Something like a smile dawned on the girl's face. She was furiously angry with this man; she was ready and willing to murder him, for he had got the upper hand of her. But she had not looked for any clemency on the part of Jakes, and would have scorned to ask for it. From the moment that she spoke she expected to end the evening in a prison cell.
"I'll do anything in reason!" she said. "What do you want!"
"I want to know the truth about that medallion," Jakes said. "I want to know how it found its way into Miss Everton's box. Now I know something of the truth, but I want the whole story. And if you are fair to me we'll kiss and part friends!"
"Well, that isn't much," Ella said quite gaily. "Miss Grace stole the medallion and put it in her drawer. When I heard of the murder I found it there and taxed Miss Grace with stealing it. She lost her head and confessed the whole story to me. You see she was over head and ears in love with Wilfrid Bayfield and madly jealous of Miss Everton. It was I who suggested the dodge of placing that medallion where it came to be found--in fact, I did it myself."
"Well, you are a cool hand!" Jakes said. "I didn't think you could have played that dirty trick on a young lady who had never done you any harm."
"True," Ella said. "Quite right--it was playing it low down. But, you see, I'm not here to play at marbles, and I wanted a good grip of Miss Grace Morrison and I got it. But that game is up--I suppose I shall have to move from here. If you ask me why I came, I shall not tell you. But I'll play fair and I'll make Grace Morrison own up over the medallion on condition that you and I cry quits over the business."
Jakes rose to his feet with the air of a man who has finished his business.
"Good!" he said. "Go and do it at once. And when you have finished--no; by the way, the best thing is to go into the drawing-room and tax Miss Grace right away with the thing. On the whole, I desire you to do it that way. Good-night, Ella--give me one more kiss before----"
The girl laughed lightly and touched her lips to those of her companion. Jakes watched her as she flitted away through the drawing-room over to the piano where Grace Morrison was playing. At the same instant Marriott's shadow stole across the lawn. He paused by the window as if in the act of listening. Angry voices from the drawing-room broke the stillness of the air.
The lights were half-down in the drawing-room; there was no suggestion of trouble or tragedy. As far as the room went, everything was perfect--the beautiful pictures, the old French furniture, the flowers and the palms, and the statues formed a soothing and harmonious whole. Marriott thought so as he stood in the shadow looking in, though he had sterner matters to occupy his attention. It seemed almost strange that a man like Morrison should have so tasteful and refined a home. But how long was it going to last?
Marriott cynically asked himself the question as he stood there admiring that perfect interior. Grace Morrison sat at the piano playing softly. She was not generally in that attitude and the mood seemed to suit her. At the same moment Ella came in. She walked slowly and coolly into the room and dropped into a chair. On a Chippendale table lay an old ivory carved fan. This the girl took up and began to fan herself.
Jakes had forced the girl's hand, of that Marriott felt certain. She would never have behaved as she was doing otherwise. Her face was a little white, but hard and defiant. Marriott smiled to himself as he thought how he would change all that presently. It was some time before Grace Morrison saw what had happened.
She rose from the piano and shut down the lid with a crash.
"How dare you?" she cried. "Is there no limit to your audacity? Do you want me to fetch a whip from the hall stand and thrash you out of the room? Oh! this is too much. You must be mad or have taken to drink!"
The maid made no motion to rise. She continued to fan herself quite coolly.
"You are wrong!" she said. "I am as sober and clever as you are. I would not like to change places. The game is up, my dear!"
Grace Morrison had no reply for a moment. If the girl were mad, then there was plenty of method in her madness. A creeping fear turned the girl by the piano cold. Rude and impertinent she had seen her maid before, not to say defiant, but this was quite a new mood. Something had happened that spelt danger. In spite of the beauty of her surroundings, Grace was conscious of a feeling of inferiority to her dependant.
"Stand up," she said with a sudden change of tone. "I don't like your speech, and your manner is detestable. The windows are open and the blinds are up. Suppose anybody should see you sitting there! What would they think?"
Ella rose with a slight toss of her pretty head.
"Very well," she said. "Not that it much matters. It's all over for me as far as this house is concerned, and it will be all over for you before long. It's always been a boast of mine that no man could ever get the better of me yet, but that's a mistake. I have been fooled by a man and the consequences are as bad for you as for me."
"What is the girl talking about?" Grace asked impatiently. "What can it have to do with me? I suppose the young man with whom I saw you in the garden----"
"That's it. Innocent-looking man, wasn't he? Rather superior for his position and all that kind of thing. Well, he turns out to be a detective."
"A detective! Really! But, my good girl, I have nothing to fear from a detective."
"Oh, yes, you have, my lady," Ella laughed. "I had to tell the whole truth. The detective came here and made love to me in disguise. I rather liked him. I let him kiss me, and that is a thing that I don't permit every one to do. The detective's name is Jakes."
Grace Morrison started. The name was familiar to her. She knew that Jakes was the man who had found the medallion in Freda's possession. Dimly she began to see the danger that lay ahead.
"The man made love to you in disguise," she faltered. "Why should he do that?"
"Why, to get at the truth, to be sure. What else do you suppose he came for? And I had to tell him everything--how you took me into your confidence, and how at your instigation I placed that medallion so that Miss Everton should be compromised. It wasn't a pleasant thing to have to do, but all the same I did it."
A sudden spasm of rage filled the listener. She strode across the room and gripped the maid by her shoulders. She would have shaken her had not the steady glint in Ella's eyes told her that the deed was likely to prove dangerous.
"Keep cool," the girl said. "I understand your feelings. I should be like that myself if I stood in your shoes. You think that I played the coward, eh?"
"Of course you did," Grace whispered. "There was no chance of being found out. You had only to defy the man and there had been an end of the matter."
"Which shows how much you know about it. Dear mistress, that wretched detective knows all my past. I am by no means the innocent, confiding maid you take me to be. As a matter of fact, my detective could send me to gaol if he liked. Oh, you need not look so shocked--there are others in this house who ought to be in gaol, too, if they had their deserts. You know what I mean."
All the angry colour died out of Grace Morrison's face, leaving it ashy pale. Her limbs were trembling violently; she leant on the piano for support. If she had been detected in some terrible crime she could hardly have been more agitated.
"What do you mean?" she whispered hoarsely. "I swear to you that I----"
"Well, you need not swear at all. Dreadfully bad form, you know."
But the flippant tone was lost upon Grace; it was doubtful whether she heard it. She could only hold on by the piano and ask why Ella had ever come there.
"I came because business pointed this way," the girl said. "There was a fine coup to be worked here, and so I came. Oh, I was not after your plate or your pretty bit of jewellery. We were flying at higher game than that. But the last day or two I have learnt that it will be wiser for me to leave things alone. So now you know who I am; an adventuress that sticks at nothing to gain her ends. I have been identified and I'm going to have a lucky escape on condition that I tell the truth. I have told the truth and you'll have to do the same. You must own up over that medallion business."
"You mean that I must tell the police everything. It will ruin me----"
"You will be still more utterly ruined if you refuse," Ella said coolly. "You will be dragged into the witness box and examined by one of those clever lawyers who will be sure to expose your very soul. You don't know what that experience is--I do. You'll wish yourself----"
"But why do they want to drag me into this business?" Grace cried passionately. "Your hand has been forced and you have confessed to your share in the conspiracy. What have I to add to your testimony? And I would get into the box and deny the whole thing."
"And perjure yourself up to the eyes," Ella said with fine contempt. "And when you had done that, they would place me in the box and I should tell my story. They would believe me because my story would be quite simple and straight-forward, whereas yours would be all stammering and stuttering. And there's another force behind it all--that hook-nosed old man who calls himself Marriott. That old friend knows much more than you give him credit for. Look how he trapped you over that gold box and how you admitted the ownership of that glove of yours. Why, even the butler and the footman saw it. In the servants' hall they have been talking about it. And the opinion downstairs is that you stole the medallion."
Grace paced the room like a bird in a cage. Turn which way she would there was no getting away from the truth of what Ella said. She would have to stand up in public and confess to the shameful thing; there was no escaping from the maze at all.
"Can't you take it on yourself?" she said hopelessly. "Say that it was all your doing. Write to your friend the detective and tell him so. Then you can disappear. Ill give you my jewels, and they are a handsome lot, as you know. Write the letter now and take the midnight train to town where they cannot find you. Is not that a tempting offer?"
"It would be to a fool who knew nothing of the world," Ella said. "Do you suppose that the police will relax their watch over me for a moment until the matter is settled one way or another? Not they! We are all mixed up in it, you and I, and there is no escape. That medallion business is only a side issue of the big mystery, and when one is solved the other will be solved also. And when that is done, mark me, this house will come down with a crash."
Grace said nothing for a little time. Her dazed confused brain was trying to grapple with the problem. A certain wild hope came into her mind and a little colour crept into her cheeks.
"What am I to do?" she asked. "Go and confess everything to the police?"
"Do what you like," Ella said callously. "It's all the same to me. If I were not so foolishly good-natured I should have vanished, seeing that the scheme that brought me here has fallen through, and left you to get out of the mess as best you could. If you don't go to the police they will come to you, and there's an end of it. Don't say I didn't warn you!"
Ella tossed the fan that she was still holding in her hand on to the table and walked out. There was no more to be said as far as she was concerned. On the whole Jakes had let her down very easily and she was not indisposed to be grateful. He might have put the London police on her trail and then she had the prospect of a term of imprisonment before her. A great scheme had failed, but it was not the first time schemes of the kind had gone wrong and Ella took a philosophical view of the situation. She could afford to wait here till the crash came; indeed, Jakes had given her a pretty plain hint that he expected her to do so.
"Good-night!" she said. "Think over all I have said carefully. Make a clean breast of it. The more you lie about it the worse will it be for you in the long run."
The watcher in the shadow saw Ella depart and noted the keen anguish on the face of the girl who had brought about all this mischief. She sat for a little time with her face buried in her hands.
Then she rose as if she had come to a sudden resolution.
"I'll do it," she said. "It is the only way out. It will be a bitter pill to swallow, but not so bitter as standing in court and having the truth dragged out of me----"
With a firm step Grace left the room. She came back presently in a dark dress with a short skirt. She passed out of the house in the direction of the stables. Marriott followed cautiously. He wondered what was going to happen and wished he had a companion so that Grace Morrison might be followed. She came from the stables a moment later with a cycle.
Marriott watched her out of sight, and then he came back again to the shadow by the dining-room window. A few moments later and Grace was flying along in the direction of the village. She came at length to the cottage where Freda was staying; a light was burning in the little sitting-room window; the blind was up. Inside Freda sat sewing before the lamp. With a steady step Grace went into the room. Freda rose and regarded her visitor with silent astonishment.
"This is quite unexpected," Freda said. "What can I do for you?"
Grace Morrison bent her head and burst into a passionate fit of weeping.
"You can save me," she said. "I have behaved disgracefully to you--I have tried to ruin you. But you are so good and kind--so very different to me. Will you be my friend over this? Say you will--put out a hand to save a fellow-creature from disgrace."
Freda's heart was touched at once. Badly as she had cause to think of this woman, she could not bear to see her in such bitter trouble. At the same time she was not in the least blind to the sufferings she had sustained at the hands of her visitor. She touched her gently on the arm.
"Had not you better sit down and try to compose yourself?" she said. "My friend has gone into Middlesworth and I am quite alone in the house. Be sure, I will help you if I can."
The kind words touched the listener as no lash of contempt would have done. Without in the least meaning to do so, Freda had shown her what a poor and inferior creature she was. Here was a girl whom she had brought under the shadow of the hangman's rope treating her almost as a friend. The sting of it caused Grace's tears to flow the faster.
She sipped the water that Freda brought to her and presently grew calmer. With the same pleasant smile on her face Freda motioned for the other to proceed.
"I came here entirely of my own accord," Grace began. "I have done you a great wrong. Perhaps you do not appreciate the extent of the wrong that I have done you."
"I think I do," Freda said quietly. "In fact, I am sure that I do. It was you who stole the medallion and caused it to be hidden in my room."
"Yes--I confess it. I stole it on the impulse of the moment, and----"
"Pardon me, you did nothing of the kind. If I am to help you there must be no prevarication. You came into the conservatory--you listened to the conversation between Wilfrid Bayfield and myself. You heard everything. Surely, you are not going to begin by denying that?"
The girl, with her head still cast down, admitted the correctness of the statement. She began to see what Freda was coming to. She was drinking humiliation in long bitter draughts.
"You surprised our secret," Freda said. "You knew then what you were beginning to suspect before--that Wilfrid had given his heart to me and that we loved one another. And you loved him, too, in your fierce headstrong way; you were prepared to do anything to come between us."
"Wilfrid did not tell you this," Grace said at if in pain. "Surely, he did not boast that----"
"He did not mention it, I saw it for myself. You have never taken much pains to keep your feelings under control, Miss Morrison. I have seen for a long time that you cared for Wilfrid; loving him myself, there are signs that are unmistakable. It was your passionate jealousy that caused you to do that dreadful thing. And now you have been found out."
Ready as Freda was to help her visitor, she looked for no gratitude from that quarter. She had from the first recognized that it was no remorse, no prompting of conscience, that brought Grace Morrison to her. The girl's crime had somehow brought her into trouble and she had taken this deliberate way of getting out of it. Grace nodded her head.
"The police have discovered everything about it," she said. "My maid was in the conspiracy with me and it appears that Ella has a most undesirable past. The police found that out and they forced her to tell the truth. And I am told that I shall have to admit it in public."
"And why should you not?" Freda asked a little coldly. "That act of yours might have hanged me. And you would not have held out a finger to prevent it. Why should you not be the very one to come forward and clear my name of the last vestige of suspicion?"
There was no reply to such merciless logic. Grace Morrison could only hold her head down in red sullen shame. She was paying for her crime in hard coin now.
"You want me to help you and I will," Freda went on. "You want me to spare you this unspeakable humiliation. I am innocent. So long as those I care for are convinced of that, the opinion of the rest of the world counts for very little. The police themselves admit that they have no case against me. All the same, I can quite see why they want to clear up the mystery of the medallion. I will do what I can for you; I will do my utmost to prevent you from having to tell in public what you have told me to-night. I will get others to help me as well. More than that I cannot say."
Grace rose to her feet and stammered out something that Freda did not understand. She held out her hand in a tentative way and Freda took it freely.
"I don't think I need say any more," she murmured. "Good night. No, you need not try to thank me."
Grace was glad to find herself once more in the friendly cover of the darkness. Her red cheeks were flaming, her eyes were hot and sore. The night breeze was very grateful to her. And as she rode along the sense of shame and humiliation fell from her and a feeling of exultation took its place. She had baffled the police after all and the true story of the medallion would never become public. Marriott, still standing in the shadow of the drawing-room window and waiting patiently for the return of Morrison, wondered what had taken place when he saw Grace's excited face. He had been about to enter the house; then he changed his mind. He saw Grace cross the room and ring the bell. In a voice that she tried sorely to keep steady she asked the footman who replied to the summons to send her maid to her. Ella came a little later with signs of impatience.
"Now, what do you want?" she asked. "I thought that I had done with you till bedtime. We were having a game of bridge in the servants' hall. Anything else gone wrong the last hour?"
"So bridge has penetrated to the servants' hall!" Grace said scornfully. "Really, the progress of modern culture is surprising. I should very much like to see you play."
"Well, you may have a chance before long," Ella said coolly, "when the crash comes. You are not fit to go out as a governess and you'll have to get your living some way. What do you want?"
"I came to tell you that I have solved the problem," Grace said. "I thought it all out and I decided to take the bull by the horns. I have been to Lee and seen Miss Everton. I told her everything and threw myself on her mercy. And she gave me a promise that this thing should not be mentioned in public. There is not the least reason to be afraid of the police any longer."
Ella looked at her mistress with an expression in which contempt struggled for the mastery with blank astonishment. Her eyes lighted contemptuously.
"Well, you are a clever one," she said. "I should never have thought of that. And bad as I am, I wouldn't have done it, not to save my right hand. And Miss Everton promised to make things easy for you. Good thing for you that I wasn't Miss Everton. Why, I should have enjoyed your humiliation and when I had had enough of it I should have ordered you out of the house."
"As I shall have the pleasure of ordering you in the morning," Grace retorted.
"Will you? You think you have finished this thing when it is only just beginning, my lady. If I were to hold up my little finger I could bring the whole fool's paradise tumbling about your ears. I have only to say one word, mind--one little word."
"Perhaps on the whole that little word had better be said."
The maid turned with a start as the cold rasping words cut into her speech. Marriott stood behind her chuckling, his hands clasped behind his back. There was something so cynical and sardonic about him that even the pert maid's tongue was subdued. Grace stared at the intruder haughtily.
"Where did you come from, Mr. Marriott?" she demanded. "And what is all this to you?"
"One question at a time," Marriott chuckled. "In the first place I came through the window. I have been outside in the air enjoying the evening for some time. I came to see your father, but his train appears to be very late. So I waited in the garden with the flowers for company. As to your second question, you will find that the matter has a great deal to do with me, young lady. Which reminds me that I owe you a little present. I put it in my pocket so that I might give it you. Here it is."
As if he were doing the most natural thing in the world in the most natural circumstances, Marriott produced a small cardboard box from his pocket. Out of the tissue paper he displayed a magnificent specimen of the goldsmith's art and presented it to Grace with a low bow. Her admiration of the thing was tempered by a feeling of awe, by a sense that impending disaster lay in the box.
"Don't hesitate," Marriott said in his most genial manner. "You have fairly won the jewel; it belongs to you and nobody else. It is in return for that glove of yours. You recollect?"
Grace nodded; she could not have spoken then for a kingdom. There was a great lump in her throat and she shook from head to foot. Then she motioned Ella from the room.
"I had rather that Ella stayed," Marriott said. "She will be useful presently. So I understand that you are not disposed to accept my little gift?"
"In the circumstances it is an insult," Grace cried. "I know exactly what you mean. It was a very clever trap that you laid for me the other night and I walked into it with my eyes open. In so many words you forced me to the confession that I stole the medallion and that I had concealed it in Miss Everton's room."
"I am charitable enough to believe that that was an afterthought," Marriott said.
"Well, as a matter of fact it was," Grace went on. "I thought of that when I saw my way to get Miss Everton into serious trouble. I shall show you presently how I can afford to be candid with you. I did all that you say. But the police got on the track and they forced the secret out of my maid here."
"Trading on her past," Marriott chuckled. "Like Sam Weller's knowledge of London, Ella's acquaintance with crime is extensive and peculiar. Ella came down here on business bent, and Jakes discovered who she really was. Is that so, my dear?"
"That is so, sir," Ella said demurely. "The police forced my hand and I told Miss Morrison. That is why she went on her hands and knees to Miss Everton--I wouldn't have done it."
"Well, let us hope not," Marriott said with a grin. "So you have been to Miss Everton and in her kind-hearted way she has promised that no harm shall come to you. But, my dear young lady, you must see that the matter cannot rest here. The medallion business is a mere side issue of the main problem, which is to discover who killed James Everton. And we are going to make that discovery to-night."
A queer cry came from Grace Morrison's lips. All the colour had gone from her face. She dropped into a chair and stared blankly at the speaker.
"You know," she gasped. "You really know."
"Yes, I really know," Marriott said curtly, "and what's more, you know also."
Grace Morrison closed her eyes and lay back in her chair. Just for a moment all the world was whirling round her. She struggled hard to keep her consciousness. Ella was strangely silent, too. Marriott turned upon her in a quick way, his eyes searching the girl's face.
"Perhaps you could tell us a thing or two also," he said. "Not necessarily about the murder, but about the cause that led up to it. Did you ever hear of one George Mason?"
The girl started, but she shook her head. The start was only for an instant, but Marriott's sharp eyes detected it. He did not seem in the least put out by the denial.
"Your memory is not very brilliant to-night," he said. "There is nothing like being face to face with people to refresh a faded memory. And that being so I shall ask you to see Mr. Mason and then you can tell me whether or not he is a friend of yours."
Marriott crossed to the window and whistled softly. Almost immediately there came into the room a man in a seedy frock coat and frayed trousers, who looked like a broken-down City man who had seen better days. One glance at his red eyes and his shaky fingers told the story of his downfall.
"You called me, Mr. Marriott," he said. "I don't know what you--hallo, Ella."
The last words came tripping from the man's tongue. Ella flashed him a furious glance, at which Marriott smiled. He saw the word 'fool' framed on the girl's lips.
"Mr. Mason has betrayed nothing," Marriott said, "because I know the whole story. At one time our friend here was a clerk in the employ of Josiah Everton and then he drifted into the London Office of Mr. Morrison. Then he drifted here. Come, Miss Ella, you are not going to be so foolish and pretend that you don't know why George Mason is down here!"
"I prefer to know nothing," Ella said sullenly.
"Very good. Perhaps it is best to be on the side of caution. It is my intention to ask Mr. Mason a few questions, and I am quite sure that he will see that it is to his interest to answer them. He will tell me----"
What the broken-down stockbroker would have told the listeners was lost for the moment, for Morrison, loud of voice and threatening as usual, came into the room. He was followed by Bentley, who would have drawn back only Marriott was too quick for him.
"What the deuce is the meaning of this?" Morrison demanded. "The maid, too!"
"We are just having a most interesting investigation," Marriott smiled. "I am glad to see that my friend Bentley has recovered so marvellously from his accident. I thought that he was upstairs in bed, with a nurse looking after him. The advantages of a fine constitution unimpaired by drink, my dear fellow, are not to be exaggerated. You are quite sure that the night air is all right?"
Bentley muttered something and sat down sullenly. Morrison angrily asked what it all meant.
"It is in the way of a puzzle," Marriott said, in the same silky voice. "The name of the game is: 'Who killed James Everton?' The answer seems difficult on the face of it, but there is a man here who has got the correct reply."
Morrison's face hardened and he seemed to have a difficulty in his breathing. Bentley sat there the while and set his lips twitching in a strange, jerky manner.
"And who is going to tell us that?" Morrison asked hoarsely. "The mystery will never be solved."
"You are quite wrong," Marriott said. "This discharged clerk of yours, George Mason, is going to tell us who killed James Everton and exactly how he died."
The man called Mason grovelled in a sickly kind of way. He looked from Marriott to Morrison, and back again as if seeking to read something from the faces of the two men. His shabby form wriggled like an eel out of the water.
"What is the meaning of all this?" Morrison demanded once more, "and who is that fellow? Mr. Marriott we know very well indeed; he has become more or less one of the family. But there is no need for him to bring in his blackguard acquaintances."
"I doubt if you know Marriott quite as well as you think you do," that individual said quietly. "We shall come to that part of the story presently. As to my blackguard acquaintances, why you know this man Mason better than I do. He was once in your employ."
"I swear that I have never cast eye on the fellow before," Morrison protested.
"You may say so, but what is the use of that? George Mason was in your London office for some years. He came to you after the split between Josiah Everton and James Everton, when they dissolved partnership. You took Mason into your employ, because you thought that he might be in a position to give you certain information as to the affairs of the Evertons. When you made all the use you could of that information you discharged Mason and he went to America. That is where I met him."
Morrison shuffled about uncomfortably. His face was red, as if fierce passion were moving inside him, but he kept it down. Now and again he pressed his hand to his heart as if some pain troubled him. Marriott noted the curious chalky whiteness of his lips.
"I recognize the fellow now," Morrison said. "But why do you bring him here? I had to get rid of him for downright dishonesty. I did not prosecute because----"
"Because you dared not, my dear sir," Mason said in his cringing voice. "You did not prosecute me because I knew too much. And I dared not speak because you knew too much about me. So we parted quits. But I waited my time, I waited my time, and I should have got the best of you if it had not been for this gentleman here. Mr. Joseph Everton was too much for me."
A strange half-strangled cry broke from Morrison's white lips.
"Joseph Everton?" he said, hoarsely. "So you are James Everton's brother. I fancied there was something familiar about you, though you called yourself Marriott. So that is where all your intimate information came from, Mr. Everton."
"Call me Marriott," the other said. "I am whom you say I am, but I changed my name to Marriott and I am going to stick to it. My idea was to stay in America, where I have done very well, but I met Mason, who did not remember me, and he began to talk. He let me into a very pretty conspiracy and that is why I returned to England. We need not go into what we know of our mutual doings in America. Most men have something to be ashamed of in their time and there is a time in my life that I don't care to think of. But what I did learn in those days enabled me to get the pull of you, to make you cringe before me and give me the run of your house. What use I made of my power you know now. But you are going to suffer in another way and I shall never disclose what I know of your dead past. So you thought that you were going to get hold of everything belonging to my brother James and divide the plunder between you? There is no need for denial, because I happen to know everything. You are wasting your valuable time, let me tell you, because my brother has no money at all. He never had any. The only asset I find he possessed takes the form of some forged bonds deposited with him by you, Morrison, to secure an advance on them. As you are never likely to be in a position to pay that money my brother died a pauper."
Morrison looked round him with a sneer. He indicated the treasure in his house.
"Does not look like the residence of a poor man," he sneered.
"No, but men of the world like myself don't judge by appearances," Marriott retorted. "Every thing here is a hollow sham. In a day or two it will all belong to your creditors. You thought to lay violent hands upon my brother's possessions, but there was nothing to take. That cypher ledger that you risked so much for is no use to you, and the money that you paid to that burglar Joe to force the safe when you failed to force it yourself is wasted. So was that senseless attack upon Josiah Everton at Lee village the other night, when you were after the key to the cypher. So was the money you spent to pay the rent of Josiah Everton's strong room in Chancery Lane. The key of the safe stolen the other night by Bentley is quite useless now."
Morrison ceased to protest; all the anger appeared to have died out of him. He sank into a chair and signified to the speaker to proceed.
"Really, there is very little more to say," Marriott went on. "The rest is a matter for the police. I shall be able to strengthen my testimony when the time comes. On the whole you had better hand me that key and the little ledger which belongs to me. I shall have a surprise for you there."
Bentley came forward for the first time. He seemed to have been nursing himself for an effort.
"Are you going to put up with this kind of thing?" he cried. "Why don't you kick the fellow out of the house? Have him expelled by the servants."
Morrison signified that he could not. He was evidently in pain. He watched Marriott in a fascinated kind of way. The latter merely smiled at Bentley's bluff. Though the man spoke boldly, he was a pitiable, abject wretch to look at. Marriott pushed him aside much as if he had been a troublesome fly.
"I can have nothing to say to you," he murmured. "Your time is coming. If I make no mistake it is close at hand. I hear somebody pulling the front door bell. That somebody is for you."
Bentley fell back with all the fight gone out of him. He looked round wildly as if seeking for some avenue of escape. The whiteness of his face turned to a sickly green as Morran entered. By instinct everybody there seemed to know what Morran had come for with the exception of Grace Morrison. All eyes were turned upon the man as Morran advanced.
Suddenly Grace flew across the room and stood before her father.
"You shall not take him!" she cried. "I swear that he never did it. He might have known afterwards, but he did not do it--no, no. I was in the conservatory and I listened. I say he did not do it. He may be bad and wicked, but he would never have committed the crime of----"
Marriott grabbed the arm of the girl and pulled her almost roughly aside.
"You little fool," he hissed. "You are spoiling everything. I want to spare you if I can--I want to spare a man who is dying, though he has done nothing but harm to me and mine. Morran has not come after your father at all. It is Bentley he wants."
Morran had watched the little scene with some curiosity. He did not understand it. He crossed the room and touched Bentley on the shoulder.
"Consider yourself my prisoner, sir," he said. "I am sorry to have done this, but my time is valuable and I have to go elsewhere almost immediately. You will have to come with me, please."
"What is the charge?" Bentley managed to say in a voice that was little above a whisper.
"Fraud and forgery on Messrs. Wilcox and Co., of Limehouse Street, City," said Morran curtly. "I will read the warrant over to you if you think there is any necessity."
But Bentley had nothing further to say. Without another word to anybody he prepared to follow Morran from the room. A strained silence ensued.
Then Marriott picked up the thread again as if he had been master of the situation.
"I don't fancy I shall want you again to-night, Morran," he said. "If I do, come to my rooms in an hour's time. You had better go and take Ella, the maid, with you. I fancy you will see the advisability of saying nothing of this till I give you permission."
The others retired, leaving Morrison alone with his daughter and Marriott. The last-named was the only one who had any coolness about him. He carefully closed the window.
"We don't want eavesdroppers," he said. "So you thought, Miss Grace, that Morran had come to arrest your father for the wilful murder of James Everton. A nice mess you made of it."
"But I thought," Grace stammered--"I felt quite sure from what I have heard that--that----"
"That your father knows all about it," Marriott said coolly. "So he does. On the night of the murder after you had stolen the medallion you could not sleep. So you came downstairs and you heard something. You heard that your father was not in ignorance of the crime."
"It is a lie!" Morrison groaned. "I know nothing whatever about it."
"It is true!" Marriott said. "Bentley came back and told you. I am as certain of it as if I had been here and listened to the conversation. James Everton was putting pressure on you and you dared not play with it. That is why you went to the cottage after the murder----"
"Prove it. That is all I say to you, man--prove it!"
"Ah! you snarl and show your teeth! Prove it! Why, I was there and saw it done. I don't mean the murder, but the burglary of the safe. I was watching everything from the top of the stairs. Dr. Bayfield was with me and so was Frank Saxby. Bentley locked us in the bedroom, but Bayfield got out of the window by means of the very rope with which my poor brother was tied up. It was he who released us again. We saw you try the safe, we saw you fail. And we stood there whilst the burglar Joe successfully did the trick. We have our eyes on Joe and could produce him at any moment. We saw Josiah Everton come and it was the three of us who rescued him from your hands. We also saved him on a second occasion when you raided Saxby's cottage in search of the key to the cypher. I say again that Bentley was responsible for my brother's death and that you know it!"
Morrison made no attempt at denial. He looked very old and bent and worn as he rose from his chair and asked Marriott to accompany him as far as the library.
"You had better go to bed, Grace," he said. "There is nothing to gain by your sitting up. You may do what you like, Mr. Marriott, but the gaol is not built that will hold me long. I should be dead before I was committed for trial. My only chance is to get away and rest. Even then I don't think anybody would give a year for my life."
Marriott said nothing, but followed his host to the library and closed the door behind him. For a little time the two men sat in silence, looking at each other.
"What do you want me to do?" Morrison said at length.
"Not very much," Marriott replied. "A long-headed man like you will see that the game is up. You have nothing to gain by further concealment. Mason has given you away. As a matter of fact, he came over here himself to try to work a scheme against my brother. That maid of your daughter's is in the conspiracy--she is Mason's confederate. If she liked to speak she could tell us a great deal of what is going on in this house. But I got rid of my business and having very little to do I followed Mason to Europe. It seems that I came just in time, because you also had started at the same game. I am going to give you a great surprise presently and I only hope you will live to enjoy it. All you have to do is to give me that key and the little parchment-covered ledger that you wot of."
"Haven't got them," Morrison growled. "Haven't got either of them, in fact."
"That is a lie. The key is in your pocket at the present moment, or why did you clap your hand to your chest as I spoke? Give me both. If you don't hand them over at once I shall take them by force. I am a stronger man than I look, believe me."
Morrison rose with a cry; the last despair was upon him. He lunged at Marriott, who caught him by the shoulders and forced him to the ground. There was a short fierce struggle, then with a gurgling sigh Morrison collapsed and lay back like death on the floor. Quite coolly Marriott went through his pockets till he came to a bunch of keys. In a corner of the room the safe stood. As coolly Marriott opened the safe and took from it the key of which he was in search and the small ledger. Not till then did he bend over the prostrate form on the floor.
"He'll come round presently," he muttered. "I thought I had killed the scoundrel. Yes, he is opening his eyes again. I'd better go before there is any fuss."
So saying Marriott passed from the room into the hall and thence into the friendly cover of the night. And he whistled softly as he walked along.
Middlesworth was happy in the enjoyment of a new sensation. Though Bentley had only been arrested late on the previous night, everybody knew about it in the morning. The thing came as a great surprise seeing that Bentley had always passed for a rich man. The court was crowded as he took his place in the dock. There was not much to learn, seeing that the statement of the prosecuting solicitor only amounted to a bald statement of facts. The prisoner had had large dealings of a speculative nature with the prosecuting firm and latterly he had had considerable difficulty in meeting his cheques. One of the recent cheques would prove to be a forgery and certain securities that the prisoner had deposited with them had turned out to be stolen. On this evidence the prosecution asked for a formal remand for a week.
The solicitor who represented Bentley had nothing to say in opposition. It was a serious charge, to which, of course, he had a perfect answer when the proper time came, but meanwhile his lips were sealed, with more of the jargon usually talked on such occasions. There could be no objection to a remand which would be as beneficial to the prisoner as to the prosecution, but the counsel demanded bail. He was prepared to offer bail to the extent of £10,000 if necessary.
The magistrates could see their way to bail in half this amount, and Mr. Morrison was tendered for one. Marriott, who was in court, smiled as he heard the name mentioned.
"Valuable security," he said to Saxby. "Why the man hasn't a penny to his name. Middlesworth has not had its fill of sensations yet, for there are more to come. I'm going as far as the hospital to see how Josiah Everton is getting on. Bayfield gives a fair account of him."
Bayfield had every reason for giving a fine account of Everton. The operation had been entirely successful, so successful indeed that at the end of three days the patient was sitting up and taking a keen interest in things--such an interest as he had not taken for a long time. At first he had talked as if he were in his old position again, but as Wilfrid explained matters to him, he asked fewer questions and spent a deal more time in silent thought. He would laugh to himself from time to time as if amused by something. He was deeply interested in the story that Wilfrid had to tell.
"So I am so poor that I am quite dependent upon my child," he said as he sat up fully dressed a week later and talked to Wilfrid. "Well, thank God, I have my head clear again, so that I shall not be a burden to anybody in the future. That fall I had some years ago in the Caledonian Hotel did me serious mischief--kind of softening of the brain, I suppose. So I managed in my dangerous state to get rid of all my money, eh? Did they trace any of my securities?"
"They vanished as if they had been destroyed," Wilfrid explained.
"Oh, indeed. Do you know that it is all coming back to me? I recollect precisely what happened. But we need not talk of that at present. The fact is that I am a pauper living on my daughter's bounty. And latterly I have been living on yours. What was your programme?"
"Freda and I are going to be married," Wilfrid said. "It will be a tight fit at first, but we shall manage it and you are going to live with us."
Everton said nothing for a little time; he did not even thank Wilfrid, but there was a moist look in his eyes. When he spoke again his voice was soft.
"Do you know that you have given me a lesson?" he said. "There was a time when I said that Freda should have nothing to do with you. Then I thought that money was the only thing in the world. Now that I have lost it all I seem to see with a much clearer vision. I used to scoff at friendship, saying that it could only be bought and that there was no such thing as gratitude. I treated my daughter abominably; I did everything I could to alienate her love and she makes this noble sacrifice for me. I treated you as if you had been a mean fortune-hunter, and you take me in and keep me when you haven't enough for yourself. My dear fellow, if ever I make money again, I will use it differently."
"Don't you worry about that," Wilfrid said cheerfully. "We shall be quite happy, poor as we are. As if I ever gave a thought to Freda's money. I wanted her alone. Mind you, I don't despise money. But I am glad that you have come back to your senses again, if only because I can prove to you that my love for Freda is a pure and holy thing."
Freda came in at this moment, looking brilliant and charming with the glow of happiness on her face. She kissed her father quite tenderly, as if he had been the best of parents. Never once had she alluded to the dark unhappy past, nor would she hear a word of it from her father.
"So you are going on splendidly," she said. "I am so glad of that. When Wilfrid and I are married you will have to come and act as general servant to us, because as far as I can see we shall not be able to keep one at present."
"I think you will," Everton said gaily. "I'm not going to sit and see those pretty hands spoilt by hard work. I shall be able to go to town this week and see certain people who are under obligations to me. Before long I shall be on my legs again. I'm going out to-morrow."
Freda kissed her father tenderly and said no more. It was wonderful to see how the years had fallen from Everton's shoulders and how much younger and more vigorous he seemed.
He was out a few days later as he had prophesied. He looked up his wardrobe and appeared presently in the glossy hat and frock suit of the typical City man. Gaily he borrowed a sovereign from Wilfrid for his journey, with a promise that it should be returned the same night. The sovereign was returned, to Wilfrid's surprise, though he said nothing. He noticed also with surprise that Mr. Everton was wearing a handsome gold watch and chain. They fell to talking of the charge against Bentley that was coming on again in the morning, and Mr. Everton expressed a determination to be present.
The court was crowded, as before, but there was no fresh evidence. It appeared that a certain witness who had been expected from South Africa had missed his boat and could not be present for another week. That was all and the adjournment was granted. As Bentley stepped out of the dock on the same bail as before, Morran touched him on the shoulder. The inspector's face was very grave.
"I have another warrant for your arrest," he said. "I arrest you for the wilful murder of James Everton on the night of June 14th last."
All this was done in the full sight of interested spectators. They had turned to leave the court, but they flocked eagerly back. Without further ado the prisoner was placed in the dock again. He asked presently for a glass of water; he hung half fainting over the rail.
It was Marriott himself who was the first witness. As soon as he had finished all he had to say, Morran proceeded to call George Mason, a name not familiar to people in Middlesworth, nor was the witness known to any of them as he stepped into the dock, save perhaps to a few older people.
"My name is George Mason," the witness said. "I was born here. I came back to Middlesworth some twenty years ago as clerk to Messrs. James and Josiah Everton when they were in business together. I became confidential clerk to the firm and learnt all their secrets. After the partnership was dissolved I became clerk in London to Mr. Stephen Morrison. By him I was discharged and went to America."
"You were discharged for dishonest practices, I believe?" counsel for the Crown asked.
"Yes, sir," the witness said, without the slightest hesitation. "Mr. Morrison simply sent me away. For some time after that I was in America. A few months ago I received certain information that caused me to return to England."
"Perhaps you will tell the court what you came back to England for," counsel suggested.
"I came back to make money out of the Evertons," the witness said. "I was still acting on the same information which I obtained in America. I had to come down here to work the thing and when I got here, to my surprise I found that Mr. Morrison was doing much the same thing. The first step to take was to get a confederate into Mr. Morrison's house and I managed that quite easily. My confederate in the matter was Miss Morrison's maid, Ella. With her assistance, I learnt all I required and that I must act quickly. It was almost half-past ten on the night of the murder that I went to see Mr. James Everton."
"Did you go by appointment?" asked counsel.
"No, sir, I didn't," the witness said in the most glib way. "I did not want to see Mr. Everton like that. I knew that Mr. Everton did not keep the door locked, so I found my way into the house."
"In point of fact you went there with the idea of stealing something, eh?"
"You may put it that way if you like, sir. At any rate I was in the house without the owner's knowledge. I hid in the kitchen that leads from the sitting-room and watched him. I should think that I had been there the best part of an hour before the prisoner came in."
A profound sensation followed this apparently simple statement. Very curtly the Crown solicitor asked Bentley to hold up his head and look the witness in the face. With a certain dogged defiance the prisoner did so.
"The witness will remember that he is on his oath, and a life is at stake. Do you still say that that is the man?"
"That is the man," Mason said slowly. "You will please remember, sir, that I have known Mr. Bentley on and off for a great number of years and I could not be mistaken. Besides, I did not have a mere casual glance, I was sitting in the darkness of the kitchen and I could see and hear everything."
"So not a word escaped you? Pray proceed."
"They talked business. It appeared that both the prisoner and Mr. Morrison were indebted in a considerable amount to Mr. James Everton. They had paid him in a fashion, or rather given him security, but Mr. Everton had discovered that the securities were forged. There was a long and acrimonious dispute between the parties and finally the prisoner went away with an intimation that he would not come back again. After that the deceased went to bed and took his diary with him."
"Was that the last you saw of him and his diary, eh?"
"By no means, sir. He came down again with a box of matches to look for a pen and ink. He muttered to himself because he could only find copying ink, and then he went upstairs again."
"And in the course of time you followed, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir. You see, I could not find what I wanted downstairs, so I went upstairs. My intention was to drug Mr. Everton and bind him. I had brought in with me the piece of rope that I purchased in Castleford, but you had all that from the rope-maker at the inquest. I may put it to the court that it is a strange fact that both the prisoner and myself have large freckles on the back of our hands."
"But there is no scar on yours," the Crown solicitor said. "We shall prove presently that the small piece of skin found in the bed came from the back of a man's hand."
The prisoner gave a strange startled cry and then checked himself. In a half-fainting tone of voice he asked for more water. It was noticed that he was hiding his right hand.
"I think that the witness had better proceed with his evidence," the lawyer said.
"I am coming to that, sir," the witness resumed. "I crept upstairs with my lantern and Mr. Everton fully dressed was lying on the bed. He was in the act of putting down his diary when he caught sight of me. Before he could get up I was upon him and had my pad of chloroform over his mouth. The dose was so severe that I thought I had killed him. To make sure I tied him up to the bed as he was found and proceeded to make my search. All this time my victim was insensible. But look where I would I could not find the one thing that I wanted. I was in the midst of it when I heard a stealthy footstep coming up the stairs. In the twinkling of an eye I was under the bed. Peeping from the valance I saw that Bentley had come back. He also appeared to be searching for something, for he produced a big clasp knife and tried to prise open a box on the dressing-table. I suppose Mr. Everton was coming round, or perhaps the noise disturbed him, for he tried to sit up in bed, crying. He called to Bentley."
"Can you recollect what he said?" the lawyer asked.
"Yes, sir, he said 'You poisonous dog,' or something of that kind, 'I'll have no mercy on you, for that. You shall have ten years as sure as you are alive.' I fancy those were the words. But the poor gentleman did not have any chance to say more."
"Perhaps you will tell us what happened after that," the lawyer said quietly.
"Mr. Bentley seemed to be possessed with a sudden passion. He darted across the room and plunged the knife into the heart of the man on the bed. It was just one thrust, so far as I could hear, but it seemed to be sufficient. Mr. Everton made one grab as far as he could and caught Bentley by the hand, or so it seemed. But it was the only chance he had. He gave a sigh and there was nothing more. Then the prisoner darted from the room."
There was no more to be said; the simple evidence was thrilling to the last degree. No florid sentimental statement would have been half so effective.
The counsel for the Crown turned to the lawyer who was defending Bentley and asked if he wished to ask any questions; the other shrugged his shoulders.
"Not at present," he said; "my cross-examination will keep. So far as I can see it has to deal at present with a witness who on his own confession is utterly discreditable."
"Then I will take the case a step farther," the prosecuting solicitor said, "and after that I shall apply for a further adjournment. I will ask the police to put in the dead man's diary. There has been a good deal of dispute over a P or an R or a B. We know that it is a B and refers to Bentley and to his call on that night. But I think that I shall be able to give a startling proof that it was Bentley and nobody else who was referred to. The page of the diary has been photographed and enlarged, and I propose to throw it upon a screen. We have all the appliances in court and I should like to have the thing displayed here and now. With the permission of the Bench the assistants will put up a sheet and the court will be darkened. Is there any objection to that course?"
The court was darkened, the white sheet hanging on the wall opposite the bench. As the white disc of light showed out dazzlingly every eye was turned eagerly in its direction.
There was something more thrilling than the most exciting novel. There was a rustle and a stir in the darkness and the sound of deep breathing. On the far wall opposite the magistrates the great white disc stood out. Somebody behind the bench was manipulating the lantern.
"The whole thing is very simple," the prosecuting lawyer said. "What we have to do is to determine the initial letter in Mr. James Everton's diary. It may appear a trivial matter on the face of it, but we attach great importance to the solution. The same means have been tried before--notably in the famous Galloway Will Case, where enlarged photographs proved the forgery beyond a doubt. The first plate shown on the screen will be an enlargement of the disputed initial letter."
The audience followed with breathless interest. For days Middlesworth had done little else but dispute over that initial letter. There was a click, the white disc was obscured for a moment, and then a big straggling cypher that might have been written by a Titanic hand stood out black against the dazzling whiteness.
There was no doubt about it any longer, the letter looked very ragged at the edges and very sprawling now on account of its huge size, but it was a 'B' beyond question. The lawyer who represented the prisoner was fain to admit as much, remarking that it proved nothing. But it was felt to be an additional fetter on the man in the dock.
"Another picture," the Crown attorney said. "A reproduction of the whole paragraph taken from the diary. Not quite so large as the other, but more pregnant. I particularly call the attention of your worships to the double line of writing, the faint suggestion of pencilled words under the written ones. Once more I must allude to the famous Galloway case. In that case it was alleged that a will had been written on a piece of notepaper at the end of which was a genuine signature. It was contended that there had been originally a letter in pencil written on the paper, and that the letter had been signed by the testator in ink. The pencil letter was rubbed out and the forged will had been written over it. In the course of time the fibres of the sheet of notepaper gradually replaced themselves, and distinct words indented on the paper by the pencil began to show. When photographed, those words were quite distinct, though they were illegible under even a powerful microscope. There is something of this kind here."
As the photograph was exposed, the whole passage from the diary stood out. Surely enough, underneath the words could be seen the suggestion of other words in pencil.
"There is one more photograph." the monotonous voice came out of the darkness. "My theory is that Mr. James Everton wrote the entry in pencil and, not being satisfied, went down and procured ink, with which he went over the pencil and subsequently altered the entry. The third photograph is without the written words at all, merely showing those straggling lines that everybody can see under the inked words."
The last photograph flashed out and everybody exclaimed in surprise. The words were not strong, but they were perfectly plain for all to see:--
"Bentley came, refused his and Morrison's request."
Further doubt appeared impossible. The thing was so swift and mysterious, so damning in its simple eloquence. When the shutters were opened again, every eye was turned upon Bentley. He had fallen forward in the dock, his face set and white, his jaw hanging down as if he had suddenly been afflicted with paralysis. If ever a man carried guilt written all over him, Bentley was that man.
It was in vain that the solicitor asked questions; the more he struggled with his task the more difficult did it become. The suggestion that the photographic plates had been tampered with was disproved by the artist who was responsible for them. As counsel went on, the case against Bentley was slowly and gradually forged to a finish.
He was proved to be a man whose affairs were in a desperate state; the evidence of Morran was dead against him. Look which ever way he would, he could see no avenue of escape. But the pitiless lawyer who was responsible for it all had not yet finished.
"I am going to call Mr Saxby," he said. "It will be in the recollection of most people here that Mr. Saxby found the diary which has played so important a part in this case. Mr. Saxby it was who suggested that the diary had been written in ink after the pencil sentence had been scribbled there; it was Mr. Saxby who found ink stains on the bed where the murdered man lay. He also found something else in the shape of a small piece of human skin which Dr. Bayfield was inclined to think had come from the hand of an Oriental. We have made every possible effort to find anybody answering that description without success. Mr. Saxby and Mr. Marriott, who have taken great interest in this matter, held another theory. They suggested that the yellow skin had come from the hand of a man who was very freckled. We shall prove presently by medical evidence that such a theory is quite tenable. At first we were disposed to think that little fragment of skin had come from the hand of the witness Mason, and that it had been torn off his hand in the struggle with the murdered man. But the evidence of the witness in question tended to prove that there was no struggle and that the drug acted instantaneously. But it was possible that the deceased found his hands sufficiently free to grapple with his second antagonist. There is no scar on the hands of the witness Mason; therefore the fragment of skin could have nothing to do with him. But even from where I stand now I can see that there is a healing scar on the knuckle of the prisoner's third finger that may correspond in shape to that of the piece of skin."
Bentley's jaw came together with a click. So deeply fascinated was he with what the lawyer was saying that he had forgotten everything else. He stood with his right hand tightly clenching the rail of the dock, so that in the strong light, the scar on his knuckles stood out in full view of everybody. The lawyer pointed to his hand dramatically.
"There is the freckled hand," he cried, "there is the scar. Will the prisoner complete the theory by placing the fragment of skin over the scar? But there is no occasion. We have evidence enough without that. We need not go too far."
The attorney representing Bentley protested feebly. But he did not offer to try the experiment that his colleague suggested and the audience did not deem it to be necessary. The prosecution had proved their case up to the hilt; they had only now to outline the motive. There was another thrill of excitement as the name of Josiah Everton was called.
"What could he possibly have to do with it?" the audience wondered. For some time Josiah Everton had moved amongst the people of Middlesworth, an object of pity and aversion and contempt. Everybody remembered the grasping millionaire, the man who had cared for nothing but himself. And again they had known him as the ruined speculator, whose trouble had turned his brain. Curiosity was fairly agog as Everton came forward; then everybody looked up eagerly.
Here was the old Everton back again surely enough, tall, well set up, and slim, immaculate as to his dress and linen, the embodiment of prosperity. And yet there was a subtle change, there were no hard lines to the mouth now, no knitted frown between the eyes.
"Is the witness competent to give evidence?" Bentley's lawyer asked with a shrug.
"I think you'll find him so," the other attorney said. "Since his operation, Mr. Everton has become his old self again. It appears that he had a fall some years ago in the Caledonian Hotel, London, which caused all the mischief. It was not discovered until lately, and the source of the mischief has been removed. But my friend can judge for himself."
Which the defending solicitor subsequently did. He was fain to admit that nothing would be got out of the witness by cross-examination and Everton was permitted to tell his story. He seemed to remember everything that had happened.
"My mind is quite clear now," he said. "I recollect everything as one calls to mind the happiness of childhood. It was a case of arrested growth. I recall clearly that I was not wholly responsible for what had happened. But it will not be necessary to go back farther than the night following the murder of my cousin. In consequence of certain facts that came to light in connection with my daughter and the medallion, I found myself without a roof over my head. In other words my landlady had turned me out of the house. Though I am as sane as any man now in this court, I recollect exactly what my clouded brain did for me. The prisoner found me out where I was sleeping in the park and offered me a shilling if I would do something for him. I promised. I was to wait till I was fetched. I am speaking of the night after the murder. I was fetched presently to the house of my unfortunate cousin, and found myself in the sitting-room with the door of the safe opened."
"Was there anybody there besides the prisoner?" the chairman of the bench asked.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Stephen Morrison was there. He and the prisoner were looking over a little volume which I recognized even in my clouded mental condition as my cousin's private ledger. The ledger was in cypher and I was asked to try to translate it. The mere sight of that cypher after such a lapse of time unhinged me and I cried aloud for help. If you ask me why I cried for help or what I was frightened at I cannot tell you, but the fact remains. Then the lights were turned out and somebody came to my assistance. I found afterwards that my friends were Mr. Saxby, Mr. Marriott, and Dr. Bayfield."
"And that was the end of the adventure?" the prosecuting lawyer asked.
"Not quite, sir. The sight of that ledger gave my brain an impulse and I recollected that I had hidden the little book which held the key of the cypher in my possession. I locked it up and in some way Mr. Morrison and the prisoner found it out. They came to Mr. Saxby's cottage late one night to gain possession of it and there was a struggle. The thieves were not successful, but in the turmoil I was knocked backwards and injured my head against the fender. The injury was a blessing in disguise, for it led to the operation which subsequently restored me to health."
Everton had very little more to say and his cross-examination only strengthened his statement. Moreover he was backed up by both Wilfrid and the detective Jakes, who told the story of what had passed at Morrison's in the room where the prisoner was shamming illness and the subsequent adventure with the motor car. As each witness came forward the prisoner sank lower and lower in the dock. He had long since abandoned any hope of escape. All these stories tallied fatally.
"It seems to me," the chairman of the bench said after a pause during which he had been discussing with his colleagues--"it seems to me that we are going too fast. This is a serious business, and most grave charges have been made against a prominent citizen here--I mean Mr. Morrison. I don't know what Inspector Morran thinks, but it seems to me that Mr. Morrison should have an opportunity on oath of denying the charges in which he has so suddenly been implicated."
Inspector Morran and the lawyer representing the Crown took the same view. If Morrison were not actually the criminal, it looked as if he were an accessory after the fact. There was a further consultation and the chairman briefly remarked that the case was adjourned till the next day at ten o'clock, whereupon Morran asked for a warrant for the arrest of Stephen Morrison. It was all over the town in a few minutes.
"He will never stand in the dock," Wilfrid whispered to Saxby as they left the court together. "The shock will kill him. He was not shamming when he asked me to examine him. Stephen Morrison will escape the hangman yet."
Morrison sat in his study turning over a pile of documents and tearing them up one after another. A Bradshaw lay open by his side, a fitted kit bag stood on a side table. The ruined man was making preparations quite coolly to escape. He little dreamt of what was going on at the same moment in the courthouse at Middlesworth. He had promised Bentley to go down and give him the support of his presence, but he had dreaded it too much at the last moment. It seemed as if he had got everything in order at last, for he sighed and looked at his watch.
"So that's settled," he muttered. "London first and then to Jersey, and book to--what's that?"
The speaker started as a well-known voice broke in on his ear. Half mechanically his hand stole to an open drawer and his fingers touched the handle of a revolver. The contact caused him to shiver.
"Morran!" he whispered. "What can he want with me? Surely Bentley has never been such a cur as to----"
But Morran, cold and polite, as usual, was in the room. Morrison gave him an interrogative glance.
"It's not a very pleasant errand, sir," Morran said, "but I daresay you half expected me. I have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of being accessory to the fact of the murder of James Everton. Would you like to drive to Middlesworth in your carriage? I have a cab here."
Morrison sat down quite calmly. There was no hope whatever; he knew that perfectly well. He was not the man to try to buoy himself up with false illusions. He was collected enough now that the blow had fallen. He asked Morran to ring the bell.
"I'll get you to wait a few minutes," he said. "I am expecting a message. Take a cigarette. No? Well, I'll have one and a glass of champagne. Parsons, a bottle of champagne--opened. I suppose the less I say about it the better, Morran. If you like----"
Morrison paused, for the knife-like pain was through his heart again. He turned grey to the lips; the room seemed to spin round him. He finished his cigarette and most of the bottle of champagne, and then he signalled to Morran that he was ready. Again the pain struck him and he fell into a chair.
"I shan't trouble you, Morran," he said. "My luck is in again. You will want no conveyance for me until I go out of the house feet first. Open my collar for me and----"
Morrison never spoke again. He lay back in his chair a huddled heap of clothes with a grey set face looking out of them. Morran called for a doctor. But when the doctor came he had only to say that Morrison must have died where he had fallen.
It was all over Middlesworth like wildfire. Never had the little town enjoyed such a sensation before. But the sensation was over, for the following morning the charge against Bentley was speedily completed by the act of the prisoner in making a full confession of his crime and asking to be committed without further suffering. It was a very sordid business after all. The murder had been committed just in the way that the witness Mason had described it. It was some days before Middlesworth began to settle down to business again.
"But men must work and women must weep," as the song has it, and things were not standing still with Wilfrid and Freda. There was nothing to delay their marriage and Everton was taking the keenest interest in the welfare of his daughter. For some reason or other he asked that the marriage should be delayed for another fortnight. He had various plans to prepare at the end of that time which, he said, would add materially to the welfare of the young people.
The man was changed, too. His intellect was as hard and brilliant as it had been. He looked forward with every certainty of getting on terms with the world again, he said, but he displayed a keen sympathy and kindness that surprised as much as it delighted Freda. It seemed to her that she had gained not only a lover but a father as well.
"He'll make a fortune for us!" Freda laughed. "And then we can go and live at Hillcrest, our old home. I always loved that house and could never understand why my father's creditors never took it. And it has stood vacant all this time. Wilfrid, if ever you get rich I wish you to promise that you will take me to live at Hillcrest. I never had a home in the proper sense of the word; but I loved that place all the same. Is that to be a promise, my dear boy?"
"My darling, I promise it!" Wilfrid said. "But I am not looking forward with very sanguine hopes of being able to accomplish it. Meanwhile I shall have to work hard and we shall have to live very frugally. Your father seems pleased with his outlook, but he is getting old and the world has gone past him. Whilst he is dreaming about fortunes I am trying to make our little home as comfortable for him as possible."
But Everton was not without his resources, as he set about showing. A day later he called on Marriott, and the pair had a long chat together.
"I know who you are now," Everton said, "though you call yourself Marriott. It seems to me that I owe you a good deal one way and another. But what I came for now was to get that key--the key of the safe in Chancery Lane, you understand. I suppose you don't happen to be going up to London to-day, do you?"
"That all depends upon circumstances," Marriott laughed. "I have had a difficult and dangerous task before me and I have completed it successfully. Therefore, I am an idle man now and idleness does not suit me at all. And, as I am anxious to solve the mystery of that safe, I will accompany you."
Everton expressed his satisfaction. There were other things to think of, and one of them was a means of providing for Morrison's two daughters who were left penniless by their father's death. Marriott, however, had already been moving in that direction; he had provided a sum of money for the girls' going to Australia, where they had friends who would find them a home. Grace Morrison had found Marriott a very different kind of man in the hour of her trouble.
"I have been through my brother's affairs," he said; "and I find that there is practically nothing left. He seems of late to have embarked his money in all kinds of wild-cat schemes; indeed, I could have papered his cottage with useless securities. By the time everything is settled only a few pounds will remain."
"I'm afraid that I am to blame," Everton said. "James's first idea was to ruin me. Everything that I went into he opposed in the most insane manner. As I was generally successful, he, of course, was just the opposite. And, mind you, I never did him a real injury. It is true I married the only woman that he had ever cared for."
"And made her utterly miserable for life!" Marriott retorted.
"Well, I am afraid I did," Everton admitted. "We both thought too much of money, Joe. I can see when it is almost too late what I might have done. But it is not altogether too late, for I must not forget that I have a daughter."
"Who is one of the best and sweetest girls in the world."
"Isn't she?" Everton said with a sudden outburst of fatherly joy. "But we will discuss Freda a little later. Come to town with me and solve the mystery of the Chancery Lane Safe."
This Marriott was nothing loth to do. A few hours later and the safe was opened. There was not much inside save a quantity of fine old jewellery and a big bundle of papers. Marriott's eyes gleamed as he looked them over; then he gave vent to one of his old chuckles.
"Why on earth did you play the fool like this?" he asked. "You were madder than you seemed."
"I was quite mad," Everton said as he locked up the safe again and proceeded to convey his parcel of papers to his pocket. "The fall I had at the Caledonian Hotel was responsible for all this mischief. It took all the nerve out of me and filled me with delirium. I tell you I was the most frightened man in England. I imagined that everybody was in a conspiracy to ruin me. That is why I brought everything here and hid it for safety. Then I proceeded to forget all about it. How Morrison found out some of the truth I shall never understand. But he had an inkling of the facts, and that is why he took up an account in my name and paid the rent. I don't want you to say anything about this for the present. Come up to Hillcrest to-morrow night."
It was news to Freda that her father was back in Middlesworth again and that somebody at length had taken Hillcrest. The house was open and a staff of servants had been engaged. It was just before dinner two nights later that Everton came in and told Freda to put on her best gown and also said that Wilfrid should dress. A carriage with a pair of horses stood at the door waiting. With a feeling that something good was going to happen, Freda allowed her father to hand her into the carriage.
The carriage drove away through the town and up the hill to the old house. A butler ushered them into the drawing-room, where Marriott awaited them. Nobody else was there till Frank Saxby and Ethel arrived, looking as puzzled as the rest. Presently dinner was announced, and Everton took his place at the head of the table with the butler behind him. It was rather a silent meal, but a good one for all that. Nothing seemed to have been altered in the house. When the dinner was cleared away and the servants had left the room, Everton rose to his feet.
"I have a little confession to make," he said. "And when it is made I am sure that you will forgive me for my deception. My friends--I am not a pauper at all; in fact, I have more money than ever. It seems that I was mad. And when I went mad I did what people of small intellect always do--I hid my money. I not only hid my money, but I forgot all about it. It was only after my accident and the subsequent operation that it all came back to me. I have been in London for the last two days arranging my affairs. I find that I have nearly a million of money. I have this beautiful house from which Freda and Wilfrid are going to be married to-morrow. It is to be a quiet affair to please them, but they are going to have a long honeymoon, which is a thing they did not expect. And when they come back this will be their home. I daresay they will let me come and see them sometimes."
Freda was out of her place in a moment with her arms about her father's neck. She was laughing and crying together. How beautifully true the fairy tale had been!
"How can I thank you?" she said. "But, father, Wilfrid and I could never afford to live in this house when----"
"Yes, you can, for you are both rich," Everton said. "I have settled £8,000 a year on you both. My darling, do you suppose that I had forgotten what you did for me out of your poor means? And Wilfrid here was going to support me out of his slender income. I never said a kind word to him in my life. I never treated him with anything like the respect due to him. It is good for me to find that there are people in the world who are above sordid considerations. You must not refuse to take this present from me, because I shall feel hurt if you do. To the bride and bridegroom!"
Everton raised his glass to his lips and emptied it at a draught. The others did the like. Then somebody opened the window and exclaimed that it was the most perfect night the world had ever seen. The air was filled with the scent of roses, the lawn looked like velvet in the moonlight. It seemed as if Hillcrest had never been closed at all, but that everybody had been dreaming about it, and had at length awakened once more to the delightful reality.
"I am a lucky man, darling," Wilfrid said, as he and Freda parted from the rest and drifted down the garden. "I am the most fortunate man in the world. I have the woman that I love and I have the fortune that so many dream of but never attain. What more could any man want? And when I look at you and think that those dear little hands of yours are not going to be soiled and spoilt by hard work----"
Freda laughed as she placed one of the little hands through her lover's arm. She looked up into his face and smiled. The moonlight was in her eyes and made them glorious.
"You are quite content?" she said. "Are you sure? Is everybody quite content?"
Wilfrid kissed the beautiful, uplifted face passionately. He held the slender figure in his arms.
"Not quite, darling," he admitted. "I shall be content, absolutely content, and at peace with all the world, but that will be after we are married--to-morrow."
BY THE SAME AUTHOR (Uniform with this Volume).
A FATAL DOSE.
IRISH Independent says:--"A work in Mr. White's best style, so brimful of action and excitement that the reader would fain finish it at a sitting if possible."
THE STANDARD says:--"One of Mr. White's skilfully constructed stories of love, crime, intrigue, temptation. This novel will rank amongst the brightest that Mr. White has given us."
HEREFORD TIMES says:--"One of the most successful novels of the season. The story abounds in those exciting incidents and sensational episodes, which are characteristic of all Mr. White's works."
THE ROAD says:--"The Author has excelled himself in this, his latest work, which is a love story with just sufficient mystery in it to make it so enthralling that when once begun it is impossible to lay it aside till the end is reached."
THE SLAVE OF SILENCE.
THE DAILY Express says:--"Mr. White has provided a full measure of thrills. It is an excellent story."
THE MANCHESTER NEWS says:--"The story is most absorbing, and the reader, once he has begun it, cannot fail to be excited and interested in its extraordinary developments."
THE SCOTSMAN says:--"A book which will in no way lessen its author's reputation for first-class work."
THE MORNING LEADER says:--"It is really desperately exciting."
THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER says:--"A clever plot, complicated and mysterious, and supplying in its unravelment many exciting and unexpected incidents."
THE SPORTSMAN says:--"The story is full of marvellous twists and turns, the ingenuity of it must have cost considerable pains."
THE CRIMSON BLIND.
THE SHEFFIELD INDEPENDENT says:--"'The Crimson Blind' is one of the most ingeniously conceived 'detective' stories we have come across for a long time. Each chapter holds some new and separate excitement, and the pace is kept with such vigour that the reader arrives breathless at the last page."
THE GLOBE says:--"It will be found a mine of delight by lovers of the sensational in fiction. The author has planned a most intricate plot, and deserves credit for the care with which he has brought its tangled threads to an effective ending."
THE BIRMINGHAM POST says:--"The author's originality and ingenuity raise the book above the level of the ordinary detective story."
LLOYD'S NEWS says:--"The plot has the advantage of being quite a novel one, and is most admirably worked out."
THE CARDINAL MOTH.
THE GLASGOW HERALD says:--"The story is, as Mr. White's readers have learned to expect from him, a record of an extraordinary mystery, worked to a satisfactory conclusion in a very spirited manner."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says:--"Mr. White is endowed with a very vivid imagination. Anything more startling, more blood-curdling, more provokingly mystifying, and more sensationally contrived than the story he tells we have never come across."
THE MORNING POST says:--"Mr. White is a past master of the art of writing sensational fiction, and his 'The Cardinal Moth' is an excellent example of the class to which it belongs. The interest is never allowed to flag."
THE LIVERPOOL COURIER says:--"The best tribute which can be paid to the merits of this story is to say that the reader, having once dipped into its pages, will be unwilling to lay it down until he has fathomed the mystery."
THE SCOTSMAN says:--"Mr. White is a worthy exponent of the art of Mr. Wilkie Collins."
THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN.
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THE DUBLIN DAILY EXPRESS says:--"Mr. F. M. White is one of the princes of fiction. A stirring tale, full of the spice of adventure, breathless in interest, and skilful in narrative. Who could refrain from reading such a story?"
THE ABERDEEN JOURNAL says:--"Mr. White's capacity for framing a complicated plot and working it out satisfactorily is shown to full advantage in this book. The interest of the reader is captured at once and held throughout, and that without any sensational improbabilities."
THE CORNER HOUSE.
THE NEWCASTLE CHRONICLE says:--"Mr. White has written nothing more ingenious or more consistently exciting than this sensational tale."
THE FINANCIAL TIMES says:--"This story fully maintains the Author's reputation as a past master in the art of writing sensational fiction. As in his previous works, he has planned an intricate plot, and has worked it out in an effective manner. There is no lack of excitement, as there are surprising developments in almost every chapter, and interest in the story increases so that the reader is disposed to finish it at a sitting."
THE GRAPHIC says:--"The story is really a breathless detective story without a detective in it. It is certainly entertaining."
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WARD, LOCK & CO.'S POPULAR FICTION
FRED M. WHITE
THE CRIMSON BLIND. 6s.
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THE CARDINAL MOTH. 6s.
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THE CORNER HOUSE. 6s.
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THE SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH:--"Attention is arrested at the outset, and so adroitly is the mystery handled that readers will not skip a single page."
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THE TRIFLER. 6s.
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MR. WINGRAVE, MILLIONAIRE. 6s.
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A MAKER OF HISTORY. 6s.
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AS A MAN LIVES. 31. 6d.
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A DAUGHTER OP THE MARIONIS. 3s. 6d.
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MR. BERNARD BROWN. 3s. 6d.
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A MONK OF CRUTA. 3s. 6d.
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MYSTERIOUS MR. SABIN. 3. 6d.
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THAT PREPOSTEROUS WILL. 6s.
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HOPE, MY WIFE. 6s.
THE GENTLEWOMAN says:--"Miss Moberly shows the same nice skill in sketching character in 'Hope, My Wife' as in her earlier novel, 'That Preposterous Will.' She interests us so much in her heroine, and in her hero, that we follow the two with pleasure through adventures of the most improbable order."
THE SCOTSMAN says:--"So cleverly handled as to keep its interest always lively and stimulating; and the book cannot fail to be enjoyed."
DAN--AND ANOTHER. 6s.
THE DAILY NEWS:--"Must be considered one of the best pieces of work that Miss Moberly has yet produced."
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