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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. 19 (Supplemental Vol. 2) Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600221h.html Language: English Date first posted: Feb 2016 Most recent update: Feb 2016 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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"GOOD LORD!" said the young man under his breath. "Oh, good lord!"
Not that he was the least frightened, for he was not that sort of young man at all. He was broad of shoulder and lean of flank, and his clean shaven lips had a flickering suggestion of humor about them. Not that they were smiling now—far from it.
For the young man with the courage of an athlete and the litheness of a tiger was in a tight place. He had come into it partly out of curiosity, partly out of mere love of adventure, and wholly because a certain girl was in the business. The mere fact that he had not the remotest idea who the girl was gave zest to the situation. And now he was getting an idea.
The President had been speaking. Sad to say the President was exceedingly bloodthirsty. He looked small and mean and narrow, a little twisted scrap of humanity; but then he belonged to the half-delirious, half-mad class that provides copy for the daily papers. These men shake the steps of a throne sometimes.
The President was masked, like everybody else. There were a score or two of men in that dingy, ill-lighted cellar in Marenna that night, and two were women. It was when the girl that the young man had followed clapped her hands vigorously that the young man in question said "Good lord!" under his breath.
It may be asked why the young man was so obviously out of place, and how he found himself in the company of those dangerous outcasts at all. In the first place he was a writer of fiction, who was doing pretty well for himself; and in the second place, he had the means of going anywhere so far as Marenna and the Kingdom of Asturia was concerned. How he came by that privilege will be seen in good time.
The President was very angry. He had a grievance against the Grand Duke of Asturia, and was naturally anxious that the potentate in question should be "removed." That was why the Brotherhood of the Ruby Cross had met that night. The President was a chemist with some original views on the question of nitro-glycerine. He produced from his pocket a tiny glass tube no thicker than a lead pencil and no longer than his little finger, and proceeded to explain its potential abilities and scope. The tube, expelled by a peashooter for the distance of a score of yards or so, would destroy anything living within the radius of an average dining-room. The brother (or sister) upon whom the pleasing task of the "removal" fell would be quite safe. The thing might be done from a garret window as the Grand Duke took his daily ride along the Winterstrasse, and not a soul but the operator be any the wiser.
"This is very interesting," the young man muttered behind his mask. "It would be still more interesting if the task fell to me. Really, this is a matter for the police. It wouldn't be safe to let a joke like this go too far."
Generally speaking there was no opposition to the President's scheme. He appeared to be a man gifted with considerable persuasive powers. The simple idea was to draw lots. Once that was done the rest was comparatively easy. A room would be taken and the necessary weapon and charge handed over to the "martyr," who would "pot" the Grand Duke at his leisure. It all sounded very ridiculous, but then these things have been done in circumstances equally commonplace and sordid.
The atmosphere of the cellar was hot and sickly. The feeble rays of the lamp only rendered the shadows more black and sinister. From a box the President produced a number of wooden balls to the exact number of the assembled conspirators. All the balls were white save one. And the person who drew the black ball from the little hole in the box would do the needful. The whole thing was delightfully simple.
The young man took his ball with the rest and laid it on the table. It was a white ball, so that the charge of the martyr's crown was gone so far as he was concerned. He saw many other white balls laid on the table, but not one of them deposited by the girl, whom he was watching so closely. He was conscious of a tightening across the chest. Was it possible . . . . . ?
It was. There could be no doubt of it. For when the girl dipped her hand in the box she was the last to do so, and every other ball on the table was white. She held up the sinister sphere presently so that everybody could see it. The slim, white hand with its twin diamond rings looked dazzlingly fair by contrast.
"I am exceedingly fortunate," the girl said. "What is the next thing to do?"
"Very simple," the President said hoarsely. "Here is a piece of paper. To-morrow at a certain time you will be at the place denoted. At the stroke of noon a woman dressed as a nun will come out of the Church of All Angels. Follow her to her destination, but do not speak. She will enter a certain room in a certain tenement house, and you will enter the next room on the right. No questions will be asked, and everything will be ready for you. The room in question commands a full view of the Winterstrasse. The materials will reach you by post."
"And then I am to kill the Grand Duke?" the girl asked. "Why?"
A murmur of disapproval followed the question. The answer was so utterly obvious. The Grand Duke must be removed simply because he was the Grand Duke.
"He never did me any harm," the girl protested.
"Woman, you are a fool," the President said furiously. "You are one of us, or you would not have passed yonder door to-night. You have taken the oath, and you must abide by the consequence. If you refuse, well, you know what refusal means. If the man is a lover of yours——"
"You are—you are a—a horror!" the girl cried. "The Grand Duke is a good man. He is kind and considerate to his people. I don't like his views—well, really, I won't go into that. The police shall know of this."
The bombshell had fallen. A dozen men rose to their feet, yelling furiously. The other woman advanced on the girl and caught her rudely by the hair. It was obviously up to the young man to take a hand in the game. The spirit of tragedy was in the air. He leant on the table and softly blew out the lamp. He had focussed the whole scene in his mind first. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what to do. And, like the clever and audacious young man he was, he did it. In a vague kind of way the girl could hear the sound of the impact of flesh on flesh, could hear the groans and the curses of those who suffered in the cause as they went down before the furious onslaught of the young man. There was a faint shuddering suggestion of steel shimmering in the opalesque shadows, but the girl did not notice that, for she was too busy struggling with the lean, furious hands tangled in her hair. She was getting all the adventure she needed—and more.
Came then a buzzing sensation in her ears and a curious relaxation of her limbs. The suggestion that she was on the verge of fainting would have filled her with indignation, but there it was. The grip on her hair suddenly relaxed; she was caught up in a pair of strong arms and swept off her feet. And there was something in that grip that filled her with a sense of absolute security.
"Hold tight," a voice whispered in her ears. "Only let me have my right arm free. There's a little devil in the left-hand corner who has more fight in him than all the rest put together. Keep up your courage; we are nearly through."
They were through presently, and staggering up the rickety ladder leading to the street. At the corner of the vile lane the young man paused and panted.
"Well, that was a pretty close call, anyway," he said cheerfully. "Your mask has fallen off. Good thing it's so late and so few people about."
"I've lost one of my rings as well," the girl said.
"Well, that's better than losing your life," the young man responded. "If you will give me your address——"
The girl hesitated just for a moment.
"Why should I not?" she asked defiantly. "I am at 185 Gartenstrasse, Fraulein Anne Ketra. The elderly lady who is looking after me has had to go to Vienna on urgent business. I found myself in that den to-night looking for copy. I write, you know."
"I have seen Anne Ketra's stories," the young man said grimly. "I also am a novelist. Let me see you home and in the morning I will call and inquire after you."
The girl made no reply. She had her own good reasons why the young man should not call; and therefore there was no reason to inform him that she would assuredly leave Marenna to-morrow. She was sorry in a way to part with the young man, but then the reasons were so very urgent.
"I suppose I shall never see him again," she said with a sigh.
All the same, she was not destined to leave Marenna quite so soon as she had anticipated. Half an hour later came a polite inspector of police. He was full of regrets, but he had his orders. There were urgent state reasons why the lady should accompany him to the old Garden Palace, where a suite of rooms were being kept for the Fraulein's reception. A woman was downstairs and would help her to pack. No harm was intended the Fraulein—she would oblige him by replying to a few questions, and perhaps to-morrow——
"This," the girl cried, "is an outrage."
The polite official sighed feelingly. He was desolate. All the same, it was quite clear that he was going to carry out his instructions. The girl bit her lips furiously. The polite official had never seen such beauty and anger in alliance before.
"Send up your woman," the girl said. "Let her help me, and I will come with you."
The polite official was eager to do anything in reason. He was obviously impressed by the beauty and style of his prisoner. Also he had an odd idea that he had seen her before. He knew that lovely, wilful face and those blue eyes—eyes flashing with anger now, and yet with a suggestion of mirth and mischief in them. She was afraid, yet not afraid; just as a swimmer might be when he knows nothing of the temperature of the water. She came back presently to the police official all ready cloaked and hooded as it ready for a journey.
"You do not take ordinary prisoners to the Garden Palace?" she demanded.
The polite official signified that the girl was correct. As a matter of fact, the Garden Palace was not a prison at all. The place had been built by a dead and gone Grand Duke of eccentric habits who was a great lover of solitude. The place was a fortress with a lovely old garden inside the walls—a garden so beautiful that it was renowned through Europe.
"I have no doubt that I shall be comfortable there," the girl said demurely.
She was not mistaken in this sanguine estimate. She woke at daybreak in a rosy mist of old satin; she gasped with delight at the prospect before her windows. To her this was an adventure wild and exciting, and yet daintily delicate. She was a prisoner, perhaps; but then the prison was a palace, and the whole escapade had a legal flavour about it. Here was a story all ready made. There was an element of trouble of course, but this only added savor to the situation. Enquiries would be made and something like a scandal would be inevitable; but even this fact had its charms. The crowning tableau would round off the story beautifully.
Therefore the girl went down to breakfast in a pleased mood. She broke her fast daintily in a charming old room hung with the pictures of the dead and gone Grand Dukes who seemed to smile at her from the walls. She kissed the tips of her pink fingers to them as she passed out into the garden.
And such a garden! It lay there shimmering in the summer sunshine. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers; the bees murmured drowsily. It seemed to the girl that she could be content to remain here always. The mere fact that she was behind grim stone walls only gave her a pleased sense of isolation from the world. She found a little romantic glen presently, and under a tree there she fell asleep. She made a sweet and dainty picture as she lay there with her hands clasped behind her golden hair, the sweetest and daintiest picture in the world.
At any rate, the young man thought so. It was perhaps rude of him to sit down and watch the girl till the white lids lifted off the wonderfully tender blue of her eyes, and she smiled faintly.
"My preserver," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't move," the young man said, eagerly. "You are—well, you really are, you know. Are you not surprised to meet me again?"
"Not a bit," the girl said. "It's an odd feeling, but I quite expected you. But what are you doing here?"
"Well, I suppose I might say that I am here on business. At any rate I am attached to the Court. I am confidential adviser to the Grand Duke."
"Really! At your age? How nice! Do you like him? Is he really awfully decent? I got that phrase from a delightful Eaton boy when I was staying in England. But isn't your man conceited? Does he not think that all the girls want to marry him?"
"No, he doesn't," the young man said emphatically. "He never was what you call a ladies man. He only wants one girl, and she will not come near him."
"I know. You are speaking of Princess Rene, of Barataria."
"The same. The most wilful, lovely, and delightful of them all. But she won't look at him. I mean that literally. That's rather illogical of her—what?"
The girl sat up and regarded her companion with great gravity.
"Have you met the Princess?" she asked. "At any rate, you have seen her photograph?"
The young man made a gesture of contempt.
"Photograph!" he exclaimed. "They really convey nothing. And as to myself, I am not much of a traveller. I dare say I shall meet the Princess some day. She may change her mind as to the Grand Duke. In her position she will have to marry somebody one of these days."
"True," the girl said thoughtfully. "That's one of the drawbacks of being a princess. I've never seen your Grand Duke. Shall I have to do so now?"
"Probably. He knows you're here. In fact he knows all about last night's little adventure. As a matter of fact, you were brought here to keep you out of further mischief."
The girl pressed her lips into a whistle. Her thoughtful mood changed. She turned upon the young man with anger flashing in her eyes.
"I've got to thank you for this," she said.
"I think you have," the young man said quietly. "Since you put it in that way, you've also got to thank me for your life. How did you get into that den last night?"
"Oh, well, perhaps you are right," the girl said contritely. "I have a relative who possesses a certain influence with the police; and I'm rather sorry for those anarchists, you see. I've pretended to be one myself. And I learnt a good deal of their aims and ambitions. They never seem to realise that the police know all about them, poor dears. Really, I had no idea last night's business was so serious. And that is why I spoke so freely to them. I thought that if I scolded them a little they would be ashamed of their silly plans. And then I realised all at once that they were in earnest. It was a terrible shock to me. Do you know that I got my old governess out of the way so that I could attend that meeting. A friend of mine in—at home—obtained all the information about your anarchists for me. You see, I like to use my own eyes. I must have local color."
"So distinguished a novelist as yourself would," the young man said grimly.
"Of course. Then you came along and saved my life. They would have killed me had you not been there. It was brave of you, to take your life in your hands like that. But, tell me, my dear preserver, what were you doing there?"
"Oh, I frequently attend such meetings. You see, I am in a position to get all the information I need. I dress and rehearse for the part, so that I am quite safe. And I know—I mean I could see by a kind of instinct that you were not one of those people."
"What a story it would make!" the girl exclaimed.
"Wouldn't it?" the young man cried, enthusiastically. "I am a bit of a scribbler, and I should like to have the telling of it. Let us make a romance of it. Say you are a Princess—if you like we'll call you the Crown Princess——"
"The Half-Crown Princess," the girl laughed. "My escapades are too cheap for the full title. But go on. See what you can make of the story. And I'll put the finishing touches in."
"If you do that," the young man said meaningly, "I shall be the happiest chap in the world. Well, Half-Crown Princess, suppose you pose as Princess Rene, of——"
"If you say that again," the girl began, "I shall at once——"
"Princess Rene," the young man insisted politely, but firmly. "You came here to see our Prince, whom you have never met, despite the fact that he wishes to marry you. You wanted to have a look at him. And you wanted an adventure. And you got it. You came here in disguise, but you were found out and your movements were watched. And it turns out that you were not watched quite closely enough, and had I not come along you would have got into trouble. At my instigation you were conveyed here, and here you are at this moment. All you have to do now is to fall in love with the Grand Duke and marry him."
"Oh, really! And that is what you call the finishing touches to the story?"
"Indeed I should. You are too fine an artist to deny that. It is the inevitable climax."
"Not quite," the girl said. "For instance, what is to become of you? Now, if you had happened to be the Grand Duke——"
"My dearest Rene, I am," the young man said coolly.
The girl sat up with her hands clasped over her knees. There was a flame of carmine in her cheeks. Her eyes were moist and dewy.
"I ought to be furiously angry with you," she said. "But—but——"
"But you are nothing of the kind. Dear, don't you see for yourself that this romance can only end one way? Don't you see that destiny is shaping the ends for us?"
"How—how did you find out?"
"I knew last night. I knew by those twin diamond rings. Here is the other one that you lost in the scuffle. I should like to keep this one."
"You had better," the girl said. "I am trying to be angry, but still——"
"But still you can't. Rene, you are not going to spoil a story like this?"
A tear stole down the carmine cheek; the blue eyes were softly luminous.
"I don't think so," the girl whispered. "No, not yet dear—wait till I have finished. And, after all, as you said just now—I've got to get married some day, and as you seem to be——"
And it was here, where the hiatus came, that he kissed her.
"THE matter is quite simple," the head of the department said, "that is, of course, so far as the facts are concerned. Princess Stephanie of Austiria has quite lately celebrated her twenty-first birthday. There have been great rejoicings in Marena, the capital of Austiria, and the King has been doing the thing, what shall I call it——"
"Top hole," the Baroness Cora Levinski laughed. "You may not care for the phrase in high diplomacy, but it is on the tip of your tongue."
Sir Anthony Barrington smiled. He was very young for the position, and there were those who hinted at boudoir politics and the ridiculous assumption that because a man has figured in a test match he might, therefore, make an ideal Head of the Secret Service Department.
As a matter of fact, no harassed and badgered Prime Minister ever made a better appointment. There was not a single political spy in Europe who was not aware of it.
"Princess Stephanie is our especial care just now," Barrington went on. "She is of far greater importance than she imagines. Of course I can't say whether she is ambitious or not, or whether she is merely a girl who——"
"She is divine," the baroness exclaimed. "The most beautiful and accomplished princess in Europe to-day. She has character and individuality. If she makes up her mind to a thing, that thing is going to be done. My dear Anthony, I have known her ever since she was a child. I know the Court at Marena inside out. Stephanie is no royal puppet, she will not marry the first prince that your people push across the chessboard towards her."
"Precisely," Barrington smiled. "Because of these facts we are desirous of availing ourselves of your valuable services. Because we have every reason to believe that the princess is married already."
"I am not easily startled, Sir Anthony. But is this really so?"
"Well, that is our impression. And we had it from a source which has hitherto been absolutely reliable. The marriage took place near Paris eight months ago. At that time the princess was staying incognito in charge of an old governess. The bridegroom is Prince Arturo of Braxony. Now, mind you, I am all the more inclined to believe this because we cannot find the faintest piece of evidence of it."
"Sounds rather subtle," the baroness murmured.
"Not at all. Our man's proofs were curt and to the point. We made no very careful enquiries at the time because the marriage was exactly what we wanted. In a few weeks, the cowardly, dissipated King of Braxony will be pushed off the throne, and it is arranged that Prince Arturo will take his place. A marriage between the prince and Princess Stephanie—some time to be queen of Austiria—would consolidate two powerful States and give us the buffer we need so as to protect our interests in Persia. Now that is not the game of the King of Austiria at all. He has made up his mind that Princess Stephanie shall wed her cousin, Prince Karl, and Russia has given him her blessing."
"But if the princess is already married to your man——"
"Did I not say that no proofs exist? The cure who was supposed to have performed the ceremony was transferred to Austiria. A promotion, of course. But he has been promoted so high that he has disappeared in the clouds. Two peasants who witnessed the marriage have migrated, goodness knows where. Then there was a fire in the chapel and all records burnt. Now all that is very suspicious. It is quite evident that old Carlos of Austiria has done his work thoroughly. All proofs have vanished, there has been no fuss and bother, and the princess is safely back home again."
"My dear Sir Anthony, you speak as if she were a prisoner."
"And so she is," said Harrington drily. "She appears in public, she goes to all kinds of functions, she is cheered as she rides in public, there is a smile upon her lips. But she is a prisoner all the same. And so is Prince Arturo. He is supposed to be in Marena for the rejoicings. But he is not allowed to move a yard without being followed. His correspondence is tampered with, his frank letters to his friends are fakes and forgeries. I know the situation sounds impossible, but there it is. Unless something is done, it may go on indefinitely. One or other of these young people—or both preferably—must escape."
"And you are looking to me to bring it about, Sir Anthony."
"My dear baroness, you are absolutely essential. There is nobody I know whose services I would prefer. You have brought off some brilliant coups for us, and we have not been ungrateful—or mean. You know the Court of Marena, you will be received there with open arms. Nobody will suspect you, least of all the king, who flatters himself that we are in the deepest ignorance with regard to the romance. Who would suspect that you are in the pay of our Government? And you can name your own price. Whatever you need is yours."
The dark eyes of the baroness sparkled.
"I should just love it," she whispered. "Besides, I am fond of the princess. But it is going to be an expensive play to stage. I may need a regiment of soldiers."
"Oh, have an army corps if necessary," Barrington said eagerly. "We will open an account in your name through some big foreign house, and the Nationale Bank at Barena will be advised to honor your draft to any extent. Now, when can you go?"
"I can and will start to-morrow," Baroness Levinski said promptly, "I shall have to spend a day or two in Paris en route. But it is going to take time. I must not be hurried in the matter."
Barrington was prepared to give every assurance. The baroness would not be interfered with, the service would give her an entirely free hand. Whereupon Cora Levinski departed smilingly, and Barrington strolled down to Lord's to see how Middlesex were getting on against Kent.
By the end of the week the baroness found herself comfortably settled in Marena. She wrote a good many letters and despatched a good many parcels, but none of these went by post. The baroness had been too long engaged in the secret service for that. She had her subordinates everywhere, she kept very much to herself, and it was only a question of time before an invitation to the palace came, and it was more prudent to wait for that.
The whole city was given over to a state of gaiety; concerts, dances, gala performances at the opera, everywhere the public rejoicings were going on. And amongst it all, the admired of all admirers, the Princess Stephanie floated, light and happy as a butterfly, and a charming smile ever on her lips. Prince Arturo was a prominent figure also, but his smile was restrained, there were moments when he looked out on to the giddy, noisy world with moody eye and compressed lips. The chains were not visible to the casual eye, but Cora Levinski could see them. And the way to file those fetters was slowly forming in her mind.
She plunged lightly and deftly into the hive of pleasure; a few days later she was meeting the princess everywhere. They were very old friends, these two, and the greetings were cordial on both sides.
"Are you not getting just a little bit tired of it, princess?" Cora asked.
The red lips trembled, the blue eyes were moist.
"Sick and weary to my soul," the princess whispered. "Cora, all this is killing me. If you knew, if you only knew what I am suffering, what—-"
"My dear child, it is because I know that I am here. I have come from London to help you—I have all the resources of a great nation behind me. It is all a matter of patience and courage."
The dainty face flushed, a sweet confusion filled the moist blue eyes.
"It has been found out," she whispered. "The story is public property."
"Nothing of the kind. Your secret is absolutely safe, dear heart. You appear to do as you like here so long as you make no attempt to leave the capital. Can you manage to come and have tea with me at my hotel to-morrow?"
The princess came eagerly enough. As she dropped into a chair, the smile faded from her face, the beautiful features grew white as ivory. Then she dropped her head on the baroness's knee and burst into a torrent of tears.
"Don't be anxious," she said, "I shall be better presently. If you only knew the blessed relief of having somebody to confide in. Cora I am the most wretched girl in Marena. I am forced to smile and smile whilst my heart is breaking. Can't they realise that a princess is but flesh and blood after all? Can't they see that I am a girl with love and passion like the rest of them?"
"Tell me all about it, dear," the baroness said tenderly.
"Cora, there is little to tell. I have always loved Arturo. And I have always hated my cousin of Russia. All the more, perhaps, because I know that I am destined to be his wife . . . . It was more or less by accident that I met Arturo in Paris. And Madam Brandt gave us all our opportunity. She is fat and lazy, and loves good living ... And so we were married. My father pretends that it is not so, he says it is but a dream. But I know that they destroyed all the evidence, and got the witnesses away. Heaven knows how they found out. And my father came to Paris with a smile on his lips and he asked Arturo to accompany me here for my birthday festivities. Once we were in the palace the bomb exploded. We were told we were both prisoners. I am never to leave the city again, and Arturo must stay till he has signed some paper saying that I am not married to him, and that my claim to be his wife is no more than a delusion on my part. The audacity of it, Cora. If Europe knew then the Powers must intervene. But you know how hard and stern and merciless my father can be. What am I to do?"
"Escape from Marena and proclaim the marriage," the baroness suggested. "Any line of conduct would be justified in the circumstances."
"But I cannot," the princess cried. "I cannot. Once beyond the frontier and the whole world should hear of my wrongs."
"And you are prepared to place yourself entirely in my hands?"
"My dear Cora, I will do so gladly. Once beyond the frontier—but what is the use of speaking of that? I tell you I am a prisoner here. True my cage is roomy and the bars are made of gold, but it is a prison all the same. I am watched day and night. And so is Arturo, only his case is worse than mine. Think of the audacity of it. And things are going badly in Braxony, and Arturo's presence is sorely needed there."
The baroness nodded. All this she knew full well. But it was no business of hers to disclose what Barrington had said as to the fate in store for Arturo.
"But it can be done," she said. "Now listen. I came here on purpose to help you. We will pretend that we don't know which of the great Powers is behind us. But I am your friend, and the Power in question is your friend, and Arturo's, and money is no object, whatever. I have thought the matter out thoroughly. I have my subordinates here and they are ready to do anything I tell them. My scheme is audacious to a degree—it requires courage and patience. Will you put yourself entirely in my hands and do as I tell you? No, I am not going to tell you what my scheme is or the precise moment when it will be put into execution. All you have to do is to watch and take your cue from me. Once past the frontier and you are free. Think what it means. It means liberty and life and love."
"Anything," the princess cried passionately, "anything rather than a life like this. You shall not blame my courage when the time comes."
MARENA was getting just a little satiated with pleasure. Marena began to note with concern that the beloved princess was growing thin and pale. Her very amusements were becoming a trial to her. And Marena would be glad to get back to work. There was only one other great social function, and Marena would not participate in that. Only some five hundred guests had been invited to the Baroness Levinski's al fresco lunch and dinner in the ruins of Alozo. There would be bridge after luncheon for those who liked it, and for the rest archery and such Arcadian joys. The whole party would be attired in mediaeval dress. The King and Princess Stephanie and the Court generally would be there, indeed His Majesty had been graciously pleased to place the royal train at the baroness's service. Half a dozen saloon carriages would be sufficient for the party—a brilliant gathering on the most luxurious train in the world. There were vestibule carriages, and it was possible to promenade the train from end to end.
Cora Levinski was dressed and ready for the fray. It still wanted an hour before she was due at the station, and there was much to be done. She stood in her mediaeval dress before the window of her drawing-room idly watching the crowd on the Linderstrasse below. She looked a little tired and languid, as if quite weary of it all, a creature who had utterly used up her emotions. There was no suggestion of the fire that raged so fiercely under the ice. Down below a green motor with drawn blinds threaded its way through the traffic. The muffled and goggled chauffeur just touched his cap as if by accident. Then at intervals of a minute or two other green motors passed, and each driver made exactly the same sign at the same spot.
"That makes ten," the baroness murmured as she turned from the window. "Fritz is doing his work well, it is time we were moving."
A glittering mob thronged the railed-off portion of the big station. They seemed strangely out of place in that busy terminus. The baroness was greeted with laughter and applause as she appeared. She had thrown aside her languor now, she was the brilliant, fascinating, charming host, she marshalled her guests with infinite tact and discrimination. The great scarlet and gold train formed a quaint background to the picturesque costumes of the middle ages, it was progress and pastoral comedy side by side. They were waiting only now for the arrival of the Royal party; they came presently in semi-regal state and guards of honor on either side saluted. The baroness could see the commanding figure of the King as he strode across the crimson carpet. His great red beard hid the decorations on his chest.
The baroness bowed low so that the King should not see the mocking mischief in her eyes. Behind him came the Princess Stephanie and Prince Arturo. They had been the King's only companions in the state coach. He had a fine sense of the irony of the situation. He was the type of humorist who prefers to keep his humor for his own consumption. He would have felt less grimly amused, perhaps, could he have seen what was passing in the mind of the baroness.
She marked Stephanie's drooping lips and pathetic blue eyes, she marked the troubled gloom of Arturo's brow. The train was filling up now and there was no time for speculation. Just eighty miles that scarlet and gold train was going to travel without a stop, and an hour and twenty minutes was the schedule time. By midday the famous old ruins would be reached. What surprise awaited the brilliant company on their arrival had yet to be declared. The Baroness was a past mistress in the disclosure of unexpected pleasures. And Princess Stephanie's pale face flushed as the journey proceeded.
"I am going to try and enjoy myself," she said to the baroness. "I am going to try and forget for one day at least."
"You will never forget this day as long as you live, princess."
"My dear Cora, what do you mean by that?"
"I cannot tell you. Talk to me as much as you like. If I do not answer you, no matter. My mind will probably be far away."
She shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed idly out of the window. But all the same her glance was keen and shrewd. She seemed to be going over some plan in her mind. Her eyes grew more eager and brilliant as the train shot through each station. There were small roadside stations that interested her but faintly, the larger ones held a firmer fascination. Just before the train drew near each signal box a chauffeur lounged as if waiting for his employer. As the train passed he just touched his cap. The baroness slipped one of the plate-glass windows up and looked out languidly.
There stood the telephone and telegraph posts, but of wires there was no sign to be seen. The train roared through a large station presently, a station with crowded platforms, where gold-laced officials seemed to be besieged by angry passengers. Some of them yelled and threw up their hands as the train flashed by.
"What is the trouble all about?" the King asked indifferently.
"It looked to me more like loyalty, your Majesty," the baroness answered. "The people have evidently gathered to see you go through."
The King smiled as if satisfied with the explanation. The miles were reeled off one by one, the telegraph and telephone posts staggered by, and yet nobody seemed to heed the fact that the wires had vanished. And here at long intervals lounged chauffeurs, idle and indifferent, who touched their caps as the great gold and scarlet dragon flashed along.
"Behold the classic ruins," one of the guests observed. "In ten minutes we shall be there. Baroness, when will the first surprise accost me?"
"One never can tell, prince," the baroness smiled. "It may come at any——"
From the back of the train came the sound of a shot. There can be no mistaking the sharp, whip-like crack of a revolver. Then came another and another, a shrill scream from the lips of a woman. The sound of tumult and strife came along the train like a wave, it spread from carriage to carriage in a flash.
A young man, pale and bleeding, staggered into the Royal saloon.
"I care little for your comedy, madame," the King said coldly.
"It is none of my making, sire," the baroness replied. She was pale and troubled, her eyes were dark with terror. "What has happened I know no more than your Majesty. If some of these gentlemen——"
The men started to their feet. Only Princess Stephanie was unmoved. Here was a hideous plot of some kind directed against the sacred person of the King. Or were those rascally brigands from the hills at work again?
"Are we going to take this like children," the King cried. "Is there nobody here who is man enough——"
"It is too late, sir," Prince Arturo said coldly. "The weight of power is against us. Look and see for yourself, your Majesty."
At either end of the saloon a trio of masked figures appeared. Each man carried a rifle with bayonet fixed. From the end next the engine a voice spoke.
"There is no great occasion for alarm," the voice said. "But we warn you that resistance would be madness. The train is in our possession, and what our plans are you will know all in good time. And if there is any bloodshed, please understand that it is none of our seeking."
"If this is a plot against my throne," the King cried, "then——"
"We have no concern with your Majesty at all," the voice interrupted. "The contents of your pocket are far more interesting to us than your crown—mainly because you don't happen to be wearing it. Our policy is far more sordid than you imagine. We are financiers, not politicians."
"In other words, you are a set of cowardly brigands."
"If your Majesty likes to put it that way. We belong to no country and boast no patriotism. We are out for the spoil. In the guise of guests we mingled with the throng, at a given signal we slipped off our disguises. That was the easiest part of the plot. To obtain possession of the signal boxes and telegraph offices was quite another matter. But we have got the train signalled through to Varsar, and that is where we are going to stop. There is not one single telephone or telegraph man between here and Marena. We have seen to all that."
Princess Stephanie glanced at the baroness, but there was no expression save that of fear and terror on the latter's face. Certain hopes beat high in the heart of the princess, but she could read nothing even though the book lay open before her.
"You shall answer for this with your lives," the King cried.
"Very likely, sire," the voice said coolly. "That is all on the lap of the gods. You will excuse me if I go now and give my directions to the engine-driver. As yet he is in blissful ignorance of what has happened."
The glass sliding doors at each end of the saloon were banged to, the three grim sentinels stood outside patiently. There was no help for it, no possible escape from the difficulty. They were caught like rats in a trap, and the trap had been most cunningly contrived and baited. Evidently the gang of desperadoes had worked out the scheme to the last decimal. It had been a costly process no doubt, but the reward was likely to be a valuable one. The men of the party groaned and swore, the women huddled together tearfully. From the van there came the muffled sound of a shot or two, the speed of the train slackened perceptibly until it came almost to a standstill. A whistle screamed long and shrill, then the crimson and gold snake began to creep on once more.
Again the Princess Stephanie turned to the baroness.
"Varsar is on the frontier," she whispered. "My dearest Cora, if—if we could only reach that our troubles are over. Oh, these men can have anything of value that belongs to me if they leave me my greatest possession—Arturo."
"You must wait and see," the baroness replied, "it may be that these ruffians are a blessing in disguise. I will help you if I can."
The train pulled up presently on an open plain far away from town or habitation. The luxurious saloon had been turned into a deserted siding hidden from the main line by a belt of trees. The sliding-doors of the saloon were pushed back, and the whole party unceremoniously commanded to alight. A white-faced guard and an equally pallid engine-driver looked out with armed men behind them. A big man in a mask seemed to be in command.
"Keep the train there," he said, "till your passengers are ready to return. Now, your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, follow me this way."
Again there was no help for it. Angry, sullen men and frightened, pallid women surged forward like a mob in a state of panic. The baroness lingered behind with Princess Stephanie by her side. She smiled as she saw that Prince Arturo was close at hand. All her simulated terror had vanished.
"Now is your time," she whispered. "Now is your time when you are both together. Do you see what that object is over there behind those oleanders! Can't you see that it is a car?"
"And waiting for us, Cora," the princess cried. "Oh, my dearest friend, my sweet preserver! And you have done all this for us."
"Hush, hush, or somebody will hear you. For myself, I say nothing. And you have no right to point to the evidence that I am at the bottom of the outrage on the sacred person of the King. As if I should dare to take such a liberty! No, no, you must not associate me with brigands and desperadoes. And perhaps the owner of the car is there by accident and will refuse to help you, till——"
The princess snatched at the hand of the baroness and kissed it fervently. Arturo caught her round the waist, and hurried her away. There was a breathless moment or two, and then from the distance came the purring of the car as she gathered speed. It came down the road between the discomfited revellers, Stephanie and Arturo on their feet, their faces wreathed with happy smiles. It was only for a moment before the mocking triumphant faces had vanished from sight.
"My daughter!" the King cried. "My child! And Arturo! Get them back, bring them to me, and I forgive everything. A thousand crowns reward, a million."
"Too late," the man behind the mask thundered. "In a few moments, sire, your daughter and her husband will be beyond the frontier. To-morrow all Europe will be ringing with her story. The whole world will know how your daughter and her husband have been detained as prisoners here. They will be informed of the most audacious thing that ever happened in history. And before long they will be securely seated on the throne of Braxony."
"This—this was planned," the King stammered.
"It was planned sire, yes. We are the prince's countrymen and future subjects, and we got to know. It was a difficult task we had before us, but when we heard of her baroness' party we began to see our way. Nothing succeeds like audacity. And that is the whole of the story. In a few moments we shall also cross the frontier where you will be powerless to touch us. And now you can go back to your train, and explain to your engine-driver. By this time Marena knows what has happened, and steps are being taken to restore the dislocated traffic. Sire, we beg to take leave of you with profound apologies."
There was nothing for it but for the Royal party to struggle back as best they could. And fear had given place to an all-devouring curiosity. Even kings must bow the knee to popular opinion at times, and he of Austiria condescended to explain, indeed scandal and disgrace would have followed on silence. The story travelled from lip to lip as the train steamed back slowly to the capital. It was only when the outskirts of the town were reached that his Majesty approached the baroness.
"You were always fond of my daughter," he suggested.
"I would do anything to help her, your Majesty," she said.
"And also, I have a pretty shrewd idea that you have done so."
"Your Majesty! Do you dare to assume that I have had any hand——"
"Tut, tut. Don't be so impatient. I was about to say—but I have no proofs. I doubt if ever I shall have any proofs. And, upon my soul, I begin to believe that things are turning out for the best after all."
IT is not, as a rule, an asset in favour of promotion for an obscure country policeman to succeed where the shining lights of Scotland Yard have failed. But this is precisely what happened in connection with the death of Mr. James Mirriton, of The Orchard House, Westborough. From the very first the Chief Constable had made up his mind that it was a case of suicide, and the people in London saw no reason to quarrel with this view. As a matter of fact, it was Constable George Cowtan who first viewed the body. He had been summoned hastily to the Orchard House by a frightened housekeeper, who aroused him with the information that her master was locked in the bathroom, and that she could get no reply. On Cowtan entering the house and breaking open the bathroom door, he found the unfortunate Mr. Mirriton lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood, which apparently flowed from a severed carotid artery, the wound had evidently been inflicted while the deceased was in the act of shaving, for his chin was covered with lather and a blood-stained razor lay upon the floor. Seeing that the bathroom door had been locked from the inside, there was only one conclusion to which to come. Further investigation confirmed the authorities in their view, Mr. Mirriton committed suicide, and there was an end of the matter so far as the Yard was concerned.
But it so happened that Constable George Cowtan possessed a clear grey eye, and something remarkable in the way of a chin. He had entered the police force with the deliberate intention of becoming a detective. He preferred the life in question to the dull routine of a village general shop, and he had read a vast deal of literature on the subject of crime. There were very few authorities that he had not at his finger-tips. Thus it came about that he took the liberty of calling on his district superintendent and asking for an opportunity for going further into the matter.
"You've got your work to do," the superintendent said.
"Then put me on night duty," Cowtan urged. "If you do that I shall have a few hours a day to myself. I honestly believe, sir, that I can clear this mystery up."
The superintendent nodded sympathetically. If there was any mystery here, and Cowtan could clear it up, then the reflected glory would be his.
"Very well, Cowtan," he said. "But what makes you think that there has been foul play here?"
"Well, sir," Cowtan said, modestly, "I've read a goodish bit of criminology. I know my Galton and Collins by heart. And I've got all the French text-books at home. When I came to think over that business of Mr. Mirriton's, it struck me that I'd read something like it before. And so I had, sir. Of course, some of the details are different, but the main outlines are the same. Now, why should Mr. Mirriton commit suicide? He was a vigorous old gentleman, a good sportsman, and he was getting a handsome income from his business in London. He was in the habit of going to town twice a week by the 8.30 train from here. In winter-time like this, when he was going to town he invariably got his own breakfast, which he cooked by means of a spirit stove, as he did not like to get his housekeeper up so early. On the morning of his death he was going to London as usual, and nobody was up at the time, when he ought to have left the house. Besides the housekeeper, Mr. Mirriton had his niece, Mrs. Glynn, staying with him. This is the young married lady with a husband who is rather delicate, and Mrs. Glynn came down here to borrow sufficient money for a tour on the Continent. This I got from the housekeeper. I also discovered that Mr. Mirriton derived most of his income from his business. At his death the business devolves upon a distant relative of his, a Mr. Patrick Hayes. Mr. Hayes is a bachelor, and spends a good deal of time down here. He is the little lean man who gave evidence at the inquest. He has been in the habit of spending two or three nights a week at The Orchard House—in fact, was more or less one of the family. He should have been here at the time of the tragedy, but he missed his train at Westborough Town, and telephoned that he could not get back that night.
"I hope I'm not wasting your time, sir, but these details are important. You see, sir, Mr. Mirriton was very fond of his niece, and being a somewhat extravagant man, spent his income. As he would have no share in the business to leave, he insured his life many years ago for twenty thousand pounds in favour of Mrs. Glynn. It was one of the old-fashioned policies, and, on the ground that he committed suicide, the insurance company naturally declines to pay."
"This is very interesting, Cowtan," the superintendent muttered.
"Indeed it is sir," Cowtan said, eagerly. "And it should have come out at the inquest. Mr. Mirriton was devoted to his niece and her child, and I am sure he would have never committed an act that would have deprived her of all that money. You may depend upon it, sir, that Mr. Mirriton was murdered."
"Have you got anything else?" the superintendent asked.
"Yes, sir, I have," Cowtan said, quietly. "If you will only give me an opportunity——"
So Cowtan went on his way with the assurance that he had a superior officer behind him. An hour or two later and he was seated in the dining-room of The Orchard House, discussing the matter with Mrs. Glynn. She was dressed in deep mourning, her pretty face was white and careworn.
"I will tell you all I know," she said, eagerly. "This has been a terrible shock to me. I cannot believe that my uncle took his own life. Apart from the loss of the money, I would give anything to remove this stain from my uncle's character. And goodness knows we need the money badly enough. It is absolutely essential that my husband should spend the winter in France. And now we cannot go. Please do not think me unduly selfish."
"I think I can alter things, madam," Cowtan said modestly. "If I can prove my theory then you will get your money. Would you mind answering a few questions? On the night before the tragedy who slept in the house?"
"The housekeeper and myself," Mrs. Glynn explained. "Mr Hayes ought to have been down here, only he missed the connection."
"And came on in the morning, I suppose?"
"No, I think he went back to town. He telephoned rather late in the evening from Westborough Town, explaining the reason why he could not get here. I took the message myself."
"You did? Trunk call, of course?" Cowtan asked.
"Oh, yes. Westborough must be at least ten miles. I remember the exchange telling me that we were on the trunk. But, really, I quite fail to see——"
Cowtan did not argue the point. He jotted down a few heads in his note book, and went away with an intimation that he would call later in the evening with a view to seeing Mr. Hayes, who was expected by the last train. The young detective was feeling fairly pleased with himself as he mounted his bicycle and made his way in the direction of Westborough Town. He had his official permit in his pocket, and there was no difficulty therefore in obtaining an interview with the superintendent of the local telephone exchange. Half an hour later, Cowtan came out of the office carrying a compact leather case in his hand. He rode back to Westborough and pulled up at the roadside where the telephone lines branched across the fields in the direction of The Orchard House. Apparently Mr. Mirriton's telephone had been an expensive luxury, for the wire from the main road to the house extended quite 800 yards. Cowtan took from his pocket a small but powerful pair of binoculars, and, walking along under the wires, examined them carefully inch by inch. By the third post, which was almost hidden in a clump of firs, he paused and scrutinised the copper threads minutely. A tiny pin point gleamed in the setting sun, and Cowtan closed his glasses with a triumphant snap.
It was a little after nine when the young detective called upon Mr. Patrick Hayes. These two had met before during the inquest, so that Cowtan had little to learn as to the outward and visible appearance of the man whom he had come to see. Hayes was small and slight, his left leg dragged painfully, and his hands shook in a manner that suggested some natural infirmity. His eye was clear enough, there was no trace of dissipation on his features, so that it was difficult to assign a reason for that palsied tremor in the long, slim fingers. In his own quiet way, Cowtan made a mental photograph of these characteristics for future reference. There was one little thing he noticed, and this pleased him more than all the rest. He had a tiny scrap of paper in his pocket-book which he intended to produce with deadly effect a little later on. He was wondering how Hayes with that terribly shaky hand, managed to shave himself so effectually. He did not fail to see that Hayes's cheek and chin was as soft and velvety as that of a little child. He looked as if he possessed a strong beard, too, if his coarse black hair and moustache counted for anything.
"I would like to ask you a question, sir, if you don't mind," Cowtan said. "You see, the insurance company are disposed to do something if we can only show a reasonable doubt——"
It seemed to the speaker that Hayes's manner became somewhat less guarded.
"I'll do all I can," he said. "Of course, between ourselves, the jury's verdict was a correct one."
"My chief is certain of it, sir," Cowtan said. "It's a great pity you weren't here the other night, sir."
"A thousand pities," Hayes agreed, heartily. "But I missed the connection at the junction, so that I had to put up at Westborough Town for the night."
"Not a pleasant place to stay in, sir," Cowtan said, genially.
"Oh I found the Railway Hotel passable enough," Hayes replied. "No bathroom or anything of that kind, of course——"
"And no shaving water," Cowtan smiled respectfully. "But when a man hasn't got his razors, it doesn't much matter."
Hayes responded pleasantly enough that his natural infirmity prevented him from shaving himself. Cowtan asked a few more questions of a trivial nature, and then rose to go.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir," he said. "But before I leave I should like just to have a minute or two in the bathroom, if I may. And if you happen to be down here again this week——"
"Couldn't possibly manage it," Hayes interrupted. "I have neglected the business this last week or so. Now go and amuse yourself—I mean, go up in the bathroom and have a look round if you like."
He gave a gesture of dismissal, and Cowtan respectfully saluted and left the room. The bathroom was a small slip of a place over the kitchen, and had been obviously adapted for the purpose. The window was a casement one of the old-fashioned type, with an iron upright against which the two sashes closed. There was a looking-glass here, a shaving-table, and a fire-place, from all of which it was evident that the unfortunate Mirriton had used the place as a dressing-room. The windows were open now; indeed, it was only fair to assume that Mr. Hayes invariably preferred them that way, seeing that he was a strong advocate for fresh air, and had often boasted that never had he slept or breathed in any room with the window closed. Cowtan stood pondering here for a few minutes until an object caught his attention, and he took it eagerly in his hand.
"Two of them," he muttered. "Now, I wonder if I dare take this, or shall I leave it behind? Perhaps I had better leave it, seeing that I have evidence enough already. Yes, I think I'll risk leaving it."
Once at home in the seclusion of his own room, Cowtan began to fit his facts together. He went over all the ground carefully and thoughtfully, then he produced from his pocket book a scrap of paper which apparently had formed a portion of an envelope. It must have been an exceedingly small envelope, scarcely more than an inch and a quarter by three quarters. It was made of some thin tough paper, which apparently had been smeared with grease or vaseline on the inside. On this fragment, in faint brown letters, a portion of an address was printed. Cowtan made it out thus:
"... plane Co., Ltd., ...pector, 0125."
"So far so good," Cowtan muttered. "It's only a tiny clue, of course, but unless I'm greatly mistaken, it's going to hang a man before I've finished. The great weakness of the clever criminal very often is that he is too clever. When a man's tracks are practically blind, there is no occasion to make them appear blinder still. And that's where my man has been so foolish. Now, I'll just send this to London, and see what they say about it. And if my suspicions are correct, I shall have no trouble in getting a search warrant both here and in London."
Cowtan sat down and concocted a somewhat cautious letter, the address of which sounded prosaic enough, but at the same time, perhaps, destined to produce a reply which would go far to solve the mystery of The Orchard House. As a matter of fact, the letter was addressed as follows:
The Monoplane Safety Razor Co. Ltd.,
"Gentlemen,—I am desired by a Superintendent Gregory of Westborough, to call your attention to the enclosed envelope, which has obviously contained a blade for use in connection with one of your safety razors. You will notice that though the fragment is torn it still contains the number of your inspector who passed the parcel from which the blade came, and certified them for use. I understand that your system enables you to trace the retailer or private individual to whom all blades are sold. I quite appreciate the difficulty there will be in the case of a sale over the counter, but I understand these blades are frequently faulty, and that if customers write to you direct you are always willing to supply fresh blades. It may happen that you are in a position to inform us the name of the person to whom the blade originally wrapped in the enclosed envelope was sent.
If you can accommodate us in this respect you will be rendering the police a distinct service. If you will communicate with me by telephone to the Police-station, Westborough, I shall be obliged.—Yours respectfully,
George Cowtan, Constable.
It was fine and sunny in the morning as Cowtan made his way in the direction of The Orchard House. He did not call this time, but made his way round to the garden on to which the bathroom looked. For the next two hours he searched with marvellous patience amongst the mass of shrubs and vegetables, within a radius of twenty yards from the house. His search was rewarded at length, for he seemed to be perfectly satisfied with an oblong scrap of rusty iron, which he put away as carefully as if it were made of gold. As he came round to the front of the house again he encountered Mrs. Glynn.
She came eagerly forward with questioning eyes. "Have you done anything?" she asked.
"I think I've done a good deal, madam," Cowtan said, quietly. "Within a few days you will have no further anxiety on the subject of your future. And you can help me, if you will be so good. I should like to go over the bedrooms, if I may; but I want to go without the knowledge of the housekeeper. She is rather a talkative woman, and I dare not take any risks just now."
"Then you'd better come in at once," Mrs. Glynn urged. "The housekeeper has just gone down to the village, and she is certain to be away for an hour."
But it was far less than an hour that served Cowtan's purpose. There was a smile of quiet triumph on his face as he left the house. Mrs. Glynn was awaiting him.
"You have discovered something?" she asked, eagerly.
"I have discovered a great deal, madam," Cowtan said, quietly. "I am certain now that Mr. Mirriton did not commit suicide. It is only a question of a few days, and I am sure that the insurance company will be perfectly satisfied. I can't tell you any more at present, but by the end of the week everything will be cleared up."
It was fully three days before Cowtan received his telephone message from the manager of the Monoplane Safety Razor Company. They had had no difficulty in tracing the purchaser of the blades in question, because it so happened that he had bought them from the head branch direct.
"It was a new razor," the manager went on. "It was purchased with the customary twelve from Diamond and Co., in Oxford-street. Unfortunately, the blades were faulty, and the gentleman who bought the razor wrote to us direct. He was very angry, and, of course, we were only too pleased to send him twelve fresh blades."
"One moment," Cowtan interrupted. "Let me clearly understand. Am I to take it that one of these changed blades was actually wrapped up in the envelope, a portion of which I sent you?"
"Most emphatically you can," the manager replied. "You see, we kept the letter of the gentleman who complained. We should do so in the ordinary course of business. We never like to offend customers. Especially a customer who has purchased two of our razors within the last year. If you would like to know his name and address, I shall be happy——"
"Not on the telephone," Cowtan interrupted, hastily. "I'll come to London this afternoon and see you. Then perhaps you won't mind making a statement in writing and lending me that letter for a day or two."
The manager was perfectly willing, and, with a feeling of pride in his work, Cowtan rang off. Outside in the corridor he came in contact with his superintendent.
"Running the office, eh," the latter said, jocularly. "What's all that telephoning about? And what are you going to London for?"
"I'm going to London, sir," Cowtan said, crisply, "to get the last piece of evidence which will enable you to arrest the person who murdered Mr. Mirriton. Oh, I've worked it all out, sir. By the time I come back this evening I'm quite certain that I shall be able to convince you that I am right. You will be able to get your warrant and arrest the murderer without any fuss."
The superintendent whistled softly. "I suppose you know what this means for you?" he asked.
"Promotion, I hope, sir," Cowtan said, modestly. "I'm sanguine that they may give me a chance at Scotland Yard. I expect to be back by the seven o'clock train, and I should like to come round, if I may, to your house and discuss the matter afterwards."
"Come and have some supper," the superintendent said, heartily. "I hope this will be a good thing for you; and it won't be a bad thing for me if it comes to that. Well, good luck to you, and may you not be mistaken."
There was nothing wild or excited about Cowtan as he entered the superintendent's sitting-room at eight o'clock the same night. He ate his supper heartily, and took the cigar which his superior officer proffered to him.
"Now, in one word," said the latter, "who is the man?"
"The man who murdered Mr. Mirriton is his cousin, Patrick Hayes," Cowtan explained. "I have the proofs here."
"But the man was away at the time. He telephoned from Westborough Town saying that he had missed his connection. All that came out in the evidence at the inquest."
"I'm glad you mentioned that, sir," Cowtan said, "because that's exactly what Mr. Hayes did not do. You see, I was the first person to see the body. While they were sending for you, I spent my time in looking about. And I dropped upon what occurred to me to be a clue. I had to deduce one or two points. But I was quite justified by results."
"Stop a bit," the superintendent said. "Give me a pointer or two. What did you discover in the bathroom?"
"Well, sir, I discovered that Mr. Mirriton had not cut his throat with the razor that was found close by the body. I didn't say anything of this at the inquest, because if I had I should certainly have scared my man away. Now, Mr. Mirriton was an old-fashioned type of English gentleman—the sort of man that hates change. If you look at the razors in this case you will see that they are of a very antiquated type. The razor he was supposed to be shaving with had blood smeared all along the edge. If it had been used to sever the artery, the blood would have been sprinkled over it. I had that razor in my hand, and I made a startling discovery at once. The blade had been smeared with vaseline. The edge was so dull that it would not even cut a bit of paper. The other razor in the case was in fine fettle. I contend that one of the razors went wrong, and that Mr. Mirriton had smeared it with vaseline, intending to take it to London some of these early days and get it properly set. Therefore, I felt sure that he could not have cut his throat with that weapon, and, as the other razor was folded in the case, some other means of destroying life had been adopted. Now, having established my theory of the murder, I had to decide whether the guilty party had entered the bathroom from inside the house or from without. The bathroom window was some sixteen or seventeen feet from the ground, and as I could find no marks of a ladder, I decided that the murderer was in the house at the time Mr. Mirriton entered the bathroom."
"Go on, Cowtan," the superintendent said, encouragingly.
"Thank you, sir. It couldn't be the housekeeper or Mrs. Glynn. And I found something else in the bathroom which I will mention presently. You will see just now how my second discovery turned my attention towards Mr. Patrick Hayes. I put a few adroit questions to Mrs. Glynn and elicited the fact that Mr. Hayes ought to have been here on the night of the murder, but that he unfortunately missed his connection at Westborough Town, and telephoned from there that he could not get back. This struck me as being rather a clever alibi in its way."
"If the exchange people were in collusion."
"There was no occasion even for that. I don't suppose that you've noticed that the telephone wires extend eight hundred yards from the road across the fields to The Orchard House. It would be an easy matter for Hayes to come here and cut the wires, and thus obtain contact with the house by means of what telephone linesmen call a "tapper." As a matter of fact, Hayes did this. He spoke in an assumed voice as if he were a trunk operator, and then, in his natural tone, told Mrs. Glynn that he could not get back. The repairing of the wire was an easy matter, and that is exactly how he established his alibi. I can show you to-morrow, if you like, exactly where the wire was cut and a fresh piece connected up with the insulator. More than this, I have it from the exchange at Westborough Town that there was no trunk call from there to The Orchard House on the day in question. Hayes informed me that he spent that night at the Station Hotel, though, as a matter of fact, they had not a single guest in the house."
"That doesn't prove much," the superintendent said—"I mean, it doesn't actively connect Hayes with the crime."
"I'm coming to that, sir," Cowtan went on. "This is what I found in the bathroom."
He took from his pocket-book a scrap of paper, in which the blade of the safety razor had been enclosed, and proceeded to unfold that side of the story.
"That's interesting," the superintendent murmured.
"I thought it would be," Cowtan said. "I picked up that bit of paper in the bathroom grate, and I found the blade that came out of it in the garden. Hayes was cunning enough to tell me he did not shave himself, but in his bedroom I found a Monoplane Safety Razor with the blade in use. There were ten blades in the case, and this one I now produce from my pocket makes a dozen. I can produce evidence to prove that those actual twelve blades were purchased from the Monoplane people, and his letter to them ordering the same I have on me now. I have not the slightest doubt that Hayes came back to The Orchard House very late on the night of the murder and let himself in with his latch-key. A little later—and that prying housekeeper will tell us how deeply in debt he is. But that's a digression, sir. I don't profess to say exactly how the murder was committed, but probably Hayes followed his employer into the bathroom and attacked him from behind. A blow might have rendered him partially insensible, and while he was on the floor the deed was done. I expect, if we knew the truth, Hayes had a fresh blade for his razor in his hand—indeed, he must have done so, or I should not have found the envelope in the grate. All he had to do was to draw the blade across the throat of his victim, and the thing was done. After that he locked the bathroom door, and dropped lightly through the window to the ground. And that's about all I've got to tell you. It is for you to say, sir, whether I've given you enough to justify you in applying for a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Patrick Hayes."
The superintendent pitched his cigar into the fireplace. "Excellent, Cowtan, excellent!" he cried. "I'll just go across to the nearest magistrate and swear an information. You shall go with me to London to-morrow, and help me to effect the arrest. And it won't be my fault if they don't hear a good deal about this at Scotland Yard."
MARSDEN was listening more or less mechanically to the small boy who was trotting along the frosty road by his side. For it wanted only a few days to Christmas, and there was a keen frost in the air, and a thin powder of dry snow along the hedges and on the bare trees in the woods. Marsden noticed all this in the same drab mechanical way as he had noticed it many a time before in happier days when he had come down from London to spend a fortnight or so in the neighbourhood where he was born. He had come again this year without knowing why, probably because he had nothing else to do, and though he had found it difficult to keep away, he was beginning to regret his decision, all the more because every inch of the ground there filled him with bitter associations. And it had bee so different a year ago.
Then everybody had been glad to see him, his own people had welcomed him with open arms, and over there at the Manor House he had been received with every manifestation of delight. And there was another attraction in the shape of Mamie Lang, Squire Formby's niece, who usually came into the neighbourhood at that time of the year.
But all that was over now. It had been a sill quarrel altogether, one of those stupid misunderstandings that neither of them could explain, and neither wanted to explain for the matter.
Why had he come down this time at all, he asked himself. He could have gone over to Paris for Christmas with one or two of those lively Bohemian friends of his, but for some reason for which he could not account he had come down to Longmarsh instead, and already he was bitterly regretting it.
To begin with, he was utterly unexpected. His married sister and her brother-in-law had gone off to keep Christmas with her husband's people, and only one servant had been left in the house. Therefore, it was likely to be a quiet Christmas, though that did not matter much to Marsden, because it would be quite in keeping with his present mood.
He knew very well that if he only said the word a warm invitation would have reached him from the Manor House without delay. But he had kept out of the way on purpose, he had deliberately avoided the small Manor House children and intended to do so until Christmas Day was over, more especially because he had a very shrewd idea that Miss Mamie Lang would be spending the festive season there, as usual.
So he spent his time roaming about the frozen roads in an aimless sort of way, and doing certain work he had brought down with him. This policy of concealment had served him very well till a few minutes ago, as he emerged into the road by a fieldpath, he had run bang into the arms of little Jimmy Formby, who hailed him with delight.
"Where have you been?" he asked.
"Oh, up in London town, as usual, Jimmy," Marsden said. "Seeking my fortune."
"Oh, you don't look as if you had found it," the small boy lisped. "You look as if you had lost something."
"Perhaps I have, Jimmy," Marsden said.
"Well, never mind about that now," the small boy went on. "Are you coming to us for Christmas?"
"I'm afraid not this year, Jimmy. You, see, I am very busy. Christmas is all very well for little boys and girls, but even on Christmas Day certain people have to work, and this year I happen to be one of them."
"Where are you going now?" Jimmy asked.
"Well, I was going for a walk," Marsden explained.
"Then I'll come with you," Jimmy said amiably. "I am going to have lots of presents, Phil. But not so many as Grace, because she is a little girl, and they always have more presents than little boys. Do you have many presents?"
"Not one, Jimmy. You see, there's no one at home this year. It doesn't matter about me, because I'm a man, you know. Are you going to have a big party, this Christmas?"
"Oh, ever so big, Phil. Just the same party we had last year. Aunt Mamie's come."
"Has she? How long is she staying?"
"Well, only over Boxing Day this time. Because before long she's going to Australia."
"Oh, indeed," he said. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Jimmy looked up through his clear eyes.
"I thought you would be," he said. "You were very fond of Mamie, weren't you? Mother thinks so."
"Ah, mother's a wise woman," Marsden laughed. "Well, I hope you'll have a good time, Jimmy. And I'm only sorry I shan't be there myself."
"Well, I don't think we're going to have quite so good a time as we had last year," the small boy said. "The presents are all right, but Mr. Santa Claus isn't coming."
"That's bad," Marsden said gravely.
"What's the matter with him?"
"I don't know," Jimmy said gloomily. "But I think that he has sprained his ankle."
Marsden was beginning to comprehend. On the last happy occasion, just a year ago, Santa Claus himself had materialised at the Manor House in all the glory of scarlet robe and white fur and venerable beard to the great delight of the young people, and to the entertainment of the old ones who knew, of course, that the great personage in question was none other than that popular local bachelor and practical joker, Tom Kelly, a sportsman and landed proprietor, who lived close by. But to the children Santa Claus had been real indeed, and that this misfortune was a serious one was testified, too, by Jimmy's solemn countenance and unsteady underlip.
"I am sorry," Marsden said. "He was such a jolly old Santa Claus last year. Now I wonder if I wrote him a letter——"
Jimmy's eyes gleamed.
Jimmy went on his way presently, his small breast swelling with self-importance, and himself almost bursting to tell Grace, his small sister, that perhaps after all—but no, he wouldn't do that, Phil trusted him, and he was very fond of Phil.
Meanwhile Marsden, with a certain project at the back of his mind, went back to the lonely house, and got out a small runabout car. Twenty-minutes' brisk run took him to a long grey stone house lying back in a wood, which was the bachelor abode of the popular Tom Kelly.
"Well, old chap," he said. "This is a nice business, isn't it. Here am I laid by the leg in Christmas week with nothing on earth the matter with me, and a dozen invitations downstairs waiting to be answered. I was out with the gun a day or two ago and put my foot into a confounded rabbit hole with this result. Yet I'm as fit as a fiddle. I've got a couple of pals coming to dine with me on Christmas Day, and I am going to try and hobble downstairs——"
"Where had you intended going?" Marsden asked.
"Oh, to the Manor House, as usual. I always prefer to spend Christmas with the kids. I was going to be Santa Claus, but all that's been knocked on the head now. Formby has told the children that Santa Claus is laid up, and that he is quite as disappointed as they are. And that's a fact, old man. Unless perhaps—by Jove, I've got it."
"Yes, I know what you're going to say," Marsden replied. "You think I might take your place. Well, that's just what I've come to suggest. I suppose you've got the dress and all the rest of it?"
"Oh, lor, yes. It's very good of you, Phil. You may not like it at first, but you will enjoy it in the end. Now, ring the bell, and my man will get you what you want. I wish to goodness I could go myself, but that's impossible."
Christmas morning came, and the early Christmas dinner which they held at the Manor House for the sake of the children was a thing of the past. Evening came at length, and with it a note for Mr. Formby, which he read before the assembled mob of excited children with due gravity.
"A most remarkable thing," he said, solemnly. "Here's a letter from Santa Claus. He apologises for the delay, but in consequence of his lamentable accident his business has been neglected. But he says that he has managed to get hold of a brother of his who will undertake——"
"Then he's coming," Jimmy shouted excitedly. "I knew he would. I've known it for some time!"
"Who told you, Jimmy!" Mamie Lang asked.
She was standing, a pretty picture of youth and grace and beauty by Jimmy's side, and she smiled down at him now as he spoke. He looked up at her with an air of importance that caused her eyes to dance.
"Never mind," he said. "I knew."
"I hope everybody has had something," Santa Claus said. "I hope no one has been forgotten. You see, I had to come here in a great hurry at the last moment, and perhaps my list isn't complete. Now, if I have left anybody out——"
Jimmy looked up eagerly.
"Yes," he cried. "There is Aunt Mamie."
"One of your little friends?" Santa Claus asked.
"No," Jimmy screamed. "She's grown up. That's her, Santa Claus, the pretty girl with the blue eyes standing by the door. And if you haven't got anything for her, I must give her one of my toys."
"Oh, never mind about me," Mamie said smilingly. "I don't suppose Santa Claus knew that I was in the house."
"I ask your pardon, Madam," Santa Claus said, gravely. "But on occasions like this I always carry an extra present or two in case of emergency. Jimmy, will you be good enough to give this to the lady by the door. And ask her not to look at it till she's alone. She might be disappointed with it, and I know she wouldn't like to hurt my feelings. And now, let's go into the hall and I'll show you a new game."
It was Jimmy who solved the mystery. They were giving Santa Claus a rest a little later on, and a cigar which he seemed to strangely appreciate, when Jimmy, with a solemn face, crept up to him and whispered something in his ear.
"Eh, what's that?" Santa Claus asked.
"Yes, in the library," Jimmy whispered with portentious gravity. "She's there all by herself, almost in the darkness, and she's been crying. She said she hadn't, but I know better. I know that sniffy noise people make when they've been crying. I think she's disappointed in that present of yours. Else why should she have it in her lap and sniff over it?"
"Jimmy," Santa Claus said excitedly, "you just stay here and say nothing to anybody, and I'll go and speak to her myself."
"Will you!" Jimmy said, hopefully. "Perhaps you can give her another present, and take the old one back."
"Well, I might give her another present, but I'm hoping she'll keep the old one. And if I'm right you shall have the best present you ever had in your life."
Very quietly Santa Claus crept out of the room and made his way to the library. He stood in the doorway with his wig no longer on his head and his beard discarded. He was watching Mamie sitting there in an attitude of dejection, he could just see that she was holding something in her hand that glittered.
"I couldn't help it, Mamie," he said. "I was bound to let you have the chance of getting your ring back. I didn't intend to do so at first, but when I arranged this thing with Tom Kelly, so that the children should not be disappointed, I thought I would take the chance of giving you the ring with my message. It was Jimmy who gave me the opportunity I wanted. It's no use, Mamie, I couldn't stay away, I can't forget you. And when I came here to-night and remembered how happy we were this time last year—won't you forgive me?"
Mamie rose to her feet and came towards him, with eyes shining, and an unsteady smile on her lips.
"There's nothing to forgive," she said. "We have both been proud and foolish, and there is no more to be said."
PETER RAND was an artist in his profession. He knew every detail of his business, he had nerve and courage and practically nothing in the way of scruples. He trusted nobody, and had an utter contempt for good faith in others. With these valuable assets he should have made money. But, unfortunately, his one abiding weakness lay in Peter's delusion that there was money to be made by the backing of horses. And, as a natural consequence, there were times when Peter was very hard up indeed.
It was at one of these crises that Peter abandoned his usual cautious methods and took an unnecessary risk in connection with a safe and a solitary house at Hampstead. A day or two later it became painfully evident that Peter would have to retire for a time—that is, a period of seclusion was essential, if anything in the nature of a logical alibi was to be proved. Peter would have to disappear from his usual haunts for at least six months.
He would have found it difficult to explain how it was that the idea of a trip to the Klondike first occurred to him. It mattered nothing that he was a child as far as mining was concerned, because Peter had not the slightest intention of winning a fortune from the frozen ground by the sweat of his brow. On the contrary, the plan of campaign was to collect the dust from the tents and huts of confiding prospectors. But the confiding miners in question proved to be few and far between, and Peter's one attempt in the direction of unearned increment met with disastrous failure. Within an hour or two he found himself bruised and battered outside one of the camps, and with a very hazy knowledge in the matter of local geography. To put it plainly and bluntly, Peter Rand would have died in the snow of starvation, had it not been for the friendly assistance of a tourist who was returning from that bleak and inhospitable country.
There was nothing in common apparently between rescued and rescuer. The latter was a slender little man, with dark, restless eyes, and much vivacity of manner. He appeared to be possessed of ample means, he had a servant or two, and his travelling appointments were quite luxurious. So far as Rand could gather the other man who gave his name as Eli Magnus, was travelling entirely for pleasure. He had every appearance of being a rich man, so that, before long, Peter began to entertain hopes that the acquaintanceship might bring something lucrative his way. For, to tell the truth, Peter was in sore case. He was a derelict in a strange land, he did not possess a single coin, and he was anxious to get back to London as soon as possible. He dismissed the idea of doing a little fancy work in New York with a sigh. He had no tools, and no knowledge of where to obtain them. Perhaps, when the city was reached, chance might throw in his way an opportunity of robbing his benefactor. But, as it turned out, there was no necessity for doing anything of the kind.
They came to a depot at length, and for the first time in his life Peter found himself travelling first-class. It was a long journey to New York, and Magnus must have paid good money for his companion's ticket, to say nothing of the food and drink consumed on the journey. Peter began to grow a little uneasy and suspicious. This sort of generosity disturbed him.
"This is costing you some money," he muttered.
"Bread on the waters," Magnus smiled. "Now, look here, partner. I suppose you'll think I'm a moneyed guy just out for pleasure. Well, I guess you're barking up the wrong tree if you do. I went to the Klondike with a light heart and a deck of marked cards, and—well, I calculate I've come back with neither. Now, say old man, what did you go to the Klondike for?"
"To get gold, like the rest of them," Peter growled.
"Yes, I know. But you didn't mean to get it with a pick, sonny. When you made that mistake and got into the wrong hut, and they fired you out into the trackless prairie, you left a little black bag behind you. Your line is not exactly mine, but I can appreciate a really fine set of tools when I see them."
"They cost me over a hundred quid," Peter groaned; "I feel quite lost without them. Only let me have that little lot back, and I'll not grumble at New York for a bit."
"Oh, no, you don't, Peter," Magnus said, with his most charming smile. "You mean exactly what you say. Because, you see, I know something of London. I once had a little argument myself at the Old Bailey, and at the same time they were giving you a deal of unnecessary worry. I recognised you the first day you came into the camp, and, as to those tools of yours, you needn't give yourself any further anxiety, because they happen to be at the bottom of one of my packing-cases. It occurred to me that we might do a little business together. Now, did you ever happen to hear of Cyrus J. Brott, the multi-millionaire?"
Peter nodded. Brott was one of those plutocrats of New York, and his name was equally familiar to both hemispheres. He was a bachelor who occupied a mansion in Fifth avenue, and although he was given to hospitality on a lavish scale, his own habits were believed to be exceedingly simple.
"What about him?" Peter asked.
"Well, he might be pretty useful to us. Cyrus lives all alone in a great big house that cost a few million dollars to build. He is a collector of all sorts of things, and they say that his safe is crammed with a dozen fortunes, each of which one might stow away in a waistcoat pocket. Cyrus is frequently away from home, and, as a matter of fact, he's out west now on some mining business. I happen to know that he's not expected back to New York until the fall. The house is crammed with a small army of useless servants, and they are the people we have to deal with. You know how little occasion there is to worry about the servants. And, now, Peter, is it a deal or is it not?"
Peter drew a long breath of pure delight. It sounded like an ideal crib to crack, and the knowledge that his beloved tools were safe filled him with joy.
"Oh, you can count me in!" he muttered.
All that Peter would have to do for the present, Magnus informed him, was to live in New York on the fat of the land, and pass his evenings in music halls and the like. Peter was inclined to dream as to the time when he could turn his back upon his profession, and retire to a little farm in the country. Therefore he hailed with satisfaction Magnus's announcement to the effect that all was ready, and that the fateful night was at hand.
At a few minutes past 12, Peter strolled down Broadway, according to directions, and stopped in front of the house which had been previously pointed out to him. He stood there grinning pleasantly, and pictured to himself what Mr. Brott would look like when he heard of his loss.
He stood waiting for the signal, and he was surprised and somewhat uneasy to see lights flitting about the house. This was by no means an auspicious start, but, still, if trouble did come, then Peter had the consoling reflection that it would fall entirely on the shoulders of Magnus. The lights disappeared at length, and Peter could see that the hall door was being cautiously opened. He caught a glimpse of Magnus in immaculate evening dress.
"It's all right," he whispered. "Here's the lift. I can work it. The servants are all safely in bed, and we shall have a clean run for hours."
"What did all those lights mean?" Peter asked suspiciously.
"Oh, don't you trouble about them. If anybody turns up, I shall know exactly what to do. I'm not wearing these glad rags for nothing."
Peter raised no further objection. All the same, he was still feeling a little uneasy. After all, he knew little or nothing about Magnus. The latter had been particularly careful not to bring him in contact with any of his friends.
The lift was moving swiftly upwards in the intense darkness—a darkness so thick that Peter could not distinguish a single object about him. The lift stopped at length, and Peter stepped out on to the thickest carpet his adventurous feet had ever trodden upon. He was no foe of darkness, but then he did not know a yard of the house, and, if the unexpected happened, he would be taken like a rat in a trap. He had no arm of any kind—indeed, he despised revolvers.
They threaded their way down what appeared to be an incredible long corridor, and Magnus turned into a big room at the back of the house. He produced from his pocket a small but powerful electric torch, and flashed it upon a smooth steel door, which appeared to be the entrance to the strong-room. On the floor stood a little black bag, which Rand recognised with gleaming eyes. He took a little ivory measure from the bag and proceeded to go over the door with it. He gave a grunt of satisfaction presently.
"No great complications here," he said. "He hasn't got so much as an electric alarm. It's a Kastner safe with eight bolts, and it's carbide steel two-sixteenths thick. I guess this job will take me about a couple of hours."
"Well, go ahead," Magnus said cheerfully. "I'll sit here and watch you."
For the next hour or more Peter worked steadily at the safe, until the perspiration poured down his face. And presently the delicate mechanism of the lock lay exposed to view. Magnus bent eagerly over the bewildering tangle of little shining ratchets and tumblers.
"It looks all infernally complicated," he muttered.
Peter smiled grimly. All that delicate, shining, bewildering mechanism was as plain as a child's illustrated alphabet to him. He touched a bolt here and a lever there, and, behold, the whole fell together, as easy as the pieces of a puzzle in the hands of an expert. Peter appeared to press something with a tiny pointed instrument, and the great door of the strong-room fell back on its oiled hinges without a sound.
"What's the matter with that?" Peter grunted triumphantly.
He switched on the electric bulb hanging from the roof of the strong-room, and staggered back with a cry of admiration and astonishment.
The walls were absolutely lined with treasure, the rays of light gleamed on silver and gold gems. In his mind's eye, Peter could see the little farm expanding into an estate. Suddenly there was a click of a switch, and instantly the whole place was bathed in brilliant light. Seated in empire armchairs on either side of the fireplace were two men in evening dress. Peter would have described them without the least hesitation as "nobs." He saw a smile flash from one to the other; he saw a look of malicious mischief in the twinkling eyes of Magnus.
"What's the game?" he demanded.
"Oh, I'm afraid it's too bad of us," Magnus said. "But, perhaps, in the first place, I'd better tell you who I really am. Or you might ask one of my friends by the fireplace."
"Guess I thought that everyone knew Cyrus J. Brott," one of the audience drawled. Peter gasped.
The pseudo Magnus smiled. "Very sorry to take advantage of you, my dear man, but really I couldn't help it. That little fairy story I told you about the Old Bailey was only partially true. I went there once merely as a visitor, and you happened to be on trial at the time. I never forget a face. Now, a few months ago my secretary skipped, taking a good deal of liquid stuff with him, and, incidentally, the key of my strong-room. I had reason to keep the thing secret at the time, but, all the same, I was anxious to run my wandering Willie to earth, and, when I heard he was in Dawson City, I lit out in search of him. I didn't find Van Stein, but I hit upon you instead. When they fired you out, the idea came to me that I might get you to open the safe without having a lot of talk amongst people whom it did not concern. If I had told you the truth, you wouldn't have come. You would have suspected some trap, and probably given me the slip. That's why I posed as a sharp."
Peter grunted. "And, now, what do I got out of this little lot? You can't hand me over to the police, because, in a manner of speaking, I'm your servant. And I don't deny that it's a bitter disappointment. When I saw that fine lot of boodle in there, I felt for a moment like murdering you and collaring the lot."
The man called Magnus laughed pleasantly.
"You've had a pretty good time for the last few weeks," he said, "and, according to your own showing, the air of New York is still more healthy for you than that of London. Now, what do you say to five hundred dollars and your passage home to England?"
A dismal groan broke from the unhappy Peter. It was deplorable to stand there with all that priceless wealth dazzling his eyes, and to know that none of it was coming his way. And he was absolutely helpless. If he declined to take the proffered sum, he might be kicked ignominiously into the street, and, in addition, the New York police might be invited to take an interest in his future. His host, with a wave of the hand, indicated a table upon which a dainty and attractive supper had been laid out. The meal in question was flanked by an array of bottles. At the mere sight of them Peter's jaundiced philosophy took on a healthier tone.
"Well, it's dashed hard," he said. "Yes, sir, I will have some of that pie, Champagne? Why, certainly! And if you can make that five hundred dollars into a thousand, I'll take it kindly of you. Oh, I know when I'm done—no man better. And if I had had a chance, and asked a few questions——"
The host patted Peter on the back patronisingly.
"You'd have laid your own little scheme," he said. "It cuts me to the heart to say so, Peter, but I didn't trust you, my boy. That's why I asked my friends here to come round and take part in the performance. By the way, I must apologise for my omission in not introducing my friends. Like yourself, they are both artists. Mr. Patrick Whelan, the distinguished weaver of plots, and Captain Hood, of the American army."
The two individuals in question bowed pleasantly, and the supper proceeded amicably. Under the influence of the meal and its concomitant liquids, Peter was fast regaining his equanimity. After all, he had not done so badly. He had been rescued from almost certain death outside the Klondike, he had been conveyed in luxurious splendour across the American continent, and, at his host's expense, he had gained a useful insight into life as it is understood in New York. In addition to these blessings, he was returning to England with a free passage and something like a hundred pounds in the pocket. Half an hour later he took an affectionate farewell of the trio on the doorstep, and staggered home to his lodgings, at peace with all the world.
Some 15 hours later, with an aching head and a dim sense of the proportion of things, he crept into a barber's shop with the intention of having a shave. There were several customers in front of him and he picked up an evening paper.
And there he found something that made him forget that dull pain at the base of his brain.
"It was a daring piece of work altogether, and had evidently been prepared by an expert hand. Beyond all question, the thieves had been aware of the fact that Mr. Brott was away from home. The servants received a letter, giving them permission to hold a dinner party in the servant's hall, from their master. The forger had enclosed a draft for a hundred dollars for the necessary festivities, and the butler had been invited to help himself from the wine cellar. In the midst of the rejoicings, three masked men had appeared and whilst one of them held up the alarmed domestics, the other two proceeded to gag and bind them in a thoroughly workmanlike manner. They were all discovered late this morning by one of Mr. Brott's secretaries when he called at the house in the usual course of his duties. The telephone wires had been out, and the thieves had gone to work with the comfortable assurance that they had many hours before them.
"The door of the strong-room had been forced, and valuables to the amount of nearly a million dollars taken away. Mr. Brott's priceless collection of rubies was in the safe, and these have disappeared with the rest. And as the rubies are for the most part uncut stones, but faint hopes are entertained of their recovery. Further particulars of this audacious robbery will be found in our 6 o'clock edition."
Peter wiped the moisture from his forehead.
"A cruel swindle!" he groaned. "Here, I'd better be getting back home. This New York is no place for me!"
THERE was no suggestion of tragedy in the little garden, no breath of trouble stirred the leaves of the almond trees. The whole place would have been fair and beautiful enough had it not been for the handiwork of man himself. Here and there along the valley were huge black mounds, like festering sores on the sloping hillside, and beyond these again broken derricks and the old-time machinery associated with pit-shafts.
Before the search for coal had began the valley had been a mass of tender green larches and birches light and feathery as thistledown; but now the mines had gone, too—failed—and all that remained here and there were the gigantic piles of "slack" which hovered over the valley like some dingy avalanche.
They were quiet, law-abiding folk, these people of the valley, hard working and lacking in imagination. They had no hobbies and no outdoor pursuits, though the slopes of the valley belonged to nobody in particular, and might have made cheap allotment gardens. But the soil was poor and harsh, and the attempt had been abandoned in despair. It was nothing to them that Paul Trevelyan had succeeded where they had failed.
But, then, Trevelyan only cultivated flowers. He was different from the rest. His speech was clearer, his dress better; it was known that he spent most of his money on books.
And his system of gardening was contemptuously spoken of as "French." The villagers did not see the sense of growing lettuces in February and turnips and beans before Easter. And as to the flower culture, it seemed rather effeminate for a strong man. But Mary Tretise did not think so; the flowers were a dream of delight to her. She had blossoms on her tea-table in March that a duchess might have envied.
Mary did not work down at the cloth mills with the rest of the women. She had her own hand loom, and it was her province to design fresh patterns for the Waylan tweeds that found so much favour in the South. She also lived alone in a little cottage up the valley, not far from Trevelyan's. For sole company she had a little girl of two, the child of her dead sister Nell. Nell's husband had been killed in a machinery accident, and his young wife had never held up her head afterwards. A little above her class was Mary Tretise, and highly respected by her neighbours, who, nevertheless, regarded her as a fool. A girl must be that who had promised herself to a drinking, swaggering fellow like Tom Pengelly when, as everybody knew, Paul Trevelyan was over head and ears in love with her. She would learn wisdom some of these days perhaps.
As a matter of fact, Mary was learning her wisdom already. It had been a great shock to her to discover that he was a drinker. He had promised the reformation that never came, and now those reckless grey eyes were growing red and bloodshot, and the handsome features were coarsening. There had been something of a scene the previous Saturday night, and Mary had not ventured out on the Sunday. On the same evening she had posted Pengelly's ring to him, and in fear and trembling sat down to wait upon events. Not that it much mattered. As far as she was concerned, life was at end. She could devote the measure of her ripe years to the upbringing of her little Nell. This was Mary's outlook at three-and-twenty.
Pengelly had not come as she had expected. She had looked forward to a stormy meeting; she had steeled herself to face the inevitable. In her sweet and gentle way she could be firm enough if she chose. But Pengelly apparently accepted his dismissal. For the rest of the week he did not go near the mills; most of his time was passed in the village public-house, drinking savagely.
He had a grievance, of course, Mary was a heartless flirt; she cared nothing for him, and she had set her cap at Paul Trevelyan. The more Tom Pengelly brooded over this, the deeper grew his sense of wrong. There was murder in his heart, and tragedy in his glassy eye, as he staggered up the valley this lovely April evening. The caressing touch of the sun lay like liquid gold on the lurches; here and there a birch stood out flickering like loam in the amber light. Somewhere in a thicket a blackbird piped his evensong. Surely there could be no evil in such a world as this!
But Pengelly's heart was black and bitter enough as he slouched past Mary's cottage. He was a little more sober now, but no less firm of purpose. He made his way up the slope to the spot where Paul Trevelyan's cottage stood, and where the tiny garden lay like an oasis in a desert of black stag and coal dust. There was just a suggestion of frost in the air, and Paul was feeling anxious about his Parma violets. He did not want to cover the frames this spring, but it looked as if he would have to. Anyway, he would wait till bedtime before deciding.
He had in his hand a bunch of carnations, on their slender spiky stems. He was tying them deftly as Pengelly came along. The sight of these clove-scented blossoms sent the blood flaring and humming in Pengelly's hand. He snatched furiously at the glowing petals, and tore them in fragrant fragments.
"She won't get those, anyway," he said thickly. "How are you going to take it, my lad?"
Trevelyan made no reply for a moment. He knew perfectly well what was passing in Tom Pengelly's mind; he could read him like open print. The whole village knew exactly what had happened, and because of this Paul had not seen Mary since. Those carnations had been for her, of course. Pengelly had guessed that.
"I shall know how to take it when the proper time comes," Paul said quietly. "If you were sober you would not behave like this."
"Well, I'm not sober," Pengelly said, with a certain savage pride. "I haven't been sober for a week. I've been drinking all the time. And you know why, and everybody in the valley knows why. Lor' what a fool I've been! I thought she cared for me!"
"She did care for you. You have nobody to thank but yourself."
"That's a lie," Pengelly cried. "I'm not good enough for the likes of her. She's got her ambitions, dear Mary has. She don't want me any longer when she knows that she's only got to put up her little finger and you'll go crawling to her feet."
A dangerous light danced for a moment in Trevelyan's eyes.
"Take care," he said hoarsely. "Take care, or, drunk as you are, I'll teach you a lesson. You are lying in your throat, and you know it. You had your chance and lost it. A true true woman like Mary Tretise doesn't play with a man like that. Do you suppose she hasn't suffered? Do you suppose that she has done this without pain and grief and bitter tears? You said just now that you were not good for her. That was true; you're not."
"And you think that you are?" Pengelly sneered.
"Possibly," Paul retorted. "I am going to give her the chance of deciding, anyway. She won't have me, I know. Still, there never has been another girl for me."
The blood was humming in Pengelly's head again. A red mist blinded him. There was something bitter in that feeling of helpless inferiority to Trevelyan. Murder was in the air as Pengelly dashed forward. His hands clutched for Paul's throat.
Trevelyan was ready; he had seen exactly what was coming. In point of physique he had some little advantage over his antagonist. He was cool and collected. His perfect health and strength were too much for the man spent and exhausted by his excesses. Pengelly went down presently, limp and helpless, the blood pouring from a cut in his forehead. The punishment had sobered him somewhat, but the livid hatred in his eyes was undimmed, the flame of vengeance burned as strongly as ever. If he could only get even with the man! If he could do him some deadly mischief! There might be some way in which he could wreak his revenge upon the dual causes of his unhappiness. To get these two out of the way, to overwhelm in common destruction! Ah! that would be fine! That would be talked about in the village for many a long day. Children in years to come would shudder as they listened to the tale of Tom Pengelly's revenge!
He rose from the ground.
"You shall be sorry for this," he said hoarsely. "You shall repent it."
"I am sorry for it now," Paul said bitterly. "Sorry for Mary Tretise's sake."
"Aye, and your own, you treacherous dog! I know a way—I know a way to be rid of the pair of you, I've only got to take a good stout——"
He broke off abruptly, and his eyes grew hard and cunning. He turned and left the garden, all the sweeter and more peaceful for his going. It had been a sorry scene with all that brutal violence, and Paul was feeling somewhat ashamed of himself. Still, the quarrel had been none of his seeking. He had merely defended himself against an attack that had meant something more than mere mischief. There was just the chance, too, that Pengelly might turn his vengeance on Mary herself. The mere thought of it filled Paul with uneasiness. It was only about two hundred yards farther down the slope that Mary's cottage stood, and Paul strolled that way. The little house was quiet enough; the gleam of the lamplight filled the window of the sitting-room. So there was no evil to anticipate in that direction.
When midnight came Paul stood in the garden still. His thoughts were with the cottage down below. Still, as far as he knew, there was no living, tangible danger. Nothing less than an earthquake could bring disaster for the moment. There were no earthquakes in Wayland Valley, of course, but there had been landslides fruitful of disaster now and then. The great mounds of slag and cinder at the brow of the disused pits gave way sometimes, and more than one cottage had been buried in the avalanche. But precautions had been taken as far as the dingy mountain above Paul's cottage was concerned. There were big struts and baulks of timber here and there laced firmly together so as to form a barrier. Paul forced a smile at his own uneasiness.
"I'm like some timid girl tonight," he told himself. "I'll go to bed."
He stood there just for a moment looking up to the stars. It was intensely still. Not a breath amongst the larches moved. Then something went off with a snap like the sound of a beam of wood cracked in halves. The noise was repeated twice in quick succession as Paul stood there wondering. He could hear something cracking and groaning much as if some creature were in pain; then a great fragment of rock came with a bound down the hillside and crashed through the garden. Paul could hear it as it smashed into one of the violet frames.
There were other rocks and fragments hurling themselves down the slope now; then a dull, sullen rumbling, followed by a wild, despairing cry for help in a human voice. The cry was snapped off short, as if someone had clapped a hand over the callers mouth. It came to him like a flash. The barricades of timber had given away, and the great avalanche of slag and stone and rubbish piled up there by the labours of half a century had fallen, and the whole of the hillside was in motion. A wild fear gripped Paul's heart.
Mary! Mary Tretise and the child in the cottage! They were all alone there, and sleeping peacefully, utterly unconscious of the danger. With the terror creeping on behind him, gathering force as it came, Trevelyan bounded down the hillside, and beat frantically on the door of the cottage. A thin red light gleamed in one of the windows, and a frightened voice began to ask questions.
"Come out at once," Paul yelled. "The barricade has given way, and the top is sliding down the side of the valley. For God's sake, come now!"
"Don't wait for me," Mary said. "It's very good of you, Paul, but you can do no good by waiting. And there is the child. I couldn't come without the child."
Paul hurled himself against the door, and the frame cracked and splintered off its hinges. Mary had huddled on some clothing; she had the still sleeping child in her arms. She was pallid to the lips, but there was no sign of fear in her eyes. Paul caught the child from her arms and dragged her to the door. Already the cottage was rocking and trembling to its foundations. Trevelyan made for the doorway, only to draw back again. He was white as his companion now.
"It's too late," he said quietly. "The avalanche is upon us. To try and get out of the way now would be sheer madness. We may save the child."
Mary stood there watching Trevelyan. What a man he was! Strange that she should care nothing for him, and that she should give all her pure affection to——What was Paul going to do? He placed the child in a corner of the room, and upturned the stout oak cradle upon it. Then the force of the great landslide shook the cottage, and it crumbled like so much broken bread. The tiles and rafters slid away, the great square oak beams came tossing to the ground. One of them struck Trevelyan on the shoulder, and he fell prostrate on the floor. The mass pinned him there; all the feeling in his right leg seemed to have gone. A quivering sigh escaped him; he caught his lip savagely between his teeth.
"Are you there, Mary?" he asked.
"Yes," the girl whispered. "I am close by you, Paul. But I can't get up. One of the beams has fallen on my leg. I fancy the danger is over now."
The garden was gone, and the carnations and violets were no more, but Paul was not worrying about them as he sat out there in the sunlight a month afterwards. He was reading a letter which had just come for him, and he was wondering how much longer Mary was going to be. She came presently, her face glowing with happiness. At the same time there was a certain gravity in her eyes.
"They have found out all about it," she said. "Last night they discovered Tom Pengelly's body just behind the broken barricade. It was just as you imagined, Paul. They found him with the lever for raising the timber still grasped in his hand. He must have been mad that night, Paul. Nobody but a madman would have deliberately sacrificed his own life for a revenge like that."
Paul was silent. He had known all this from the first; he had known it the very moment that he had heard that strange, broken cry on the night of the disaster. On that point he had made up his mind to remain silent, but the secret was out now.
Trevelyan passed the letter over to Mary.
"We shall have something better than that," he said. "Here is a renewed offer that was made to me two years ago. I am to manage a factory like this in Devonshire. I have seen the house—a delightful old place, where my pet blossoms will grow out of doors nearly the whole year round. It's a paradise, Mary. But I didn't take it, because I could not leave you, dear. I always had a feeling in my heart that if I stayed here I should get you in time. Shall we take it?"
Mary bent down and kissed Paul tenderly.
"I shall be glad," she whispered, "very glad."
ACCORDING to all the rules of the game the party on board the deck of the yacht Fireflight, lying off Corfu that sunny afternoon, ought to have been at Epsom, for it was Derby Day, and they were all sportsmen to a man.
But then, as everybody who is acquainted with him knows, and they are legion, Sir Nichols Brancaster was a law unto himself, and had been all through that long and somewhat shady career of his. Doubtless he would have been at Epsom but for a little misunderstanding with the Jockey Club over the running of a horse some twenty years ago, after which, in the language of Mr. Robey, he had been informed that his appearance on Newmarket Heath—and elsewhere—was superfluous, and that if he did not abstain from attending classic fixtures in future, the consequences might be unpleasant. And Nicholas Brancaster had been wise enough to lay the warning to heart, and though he still took the keenest interest in racing generally, the stewards' enclosure knew him no more.
It had not been exactly an open scandal, for Brancaster was rather too rich and powerful for that, but everybody knew it and nobody minded, least of all Brancaster himself.
He was quite an old man now, as years went, a wicked, cynical old heathen without heart or conscience, who lived entirely for his own amusement, a sort of perpetual occupant of the stage-box, who was quite prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege of looking on at the comedy of life, and even subsidising the incomes of the actors themselves if he found them sufficiently amusing. He rather gloried in his rascality, and when, on one occasion, a famous diplomat spoke of a certain colleague as the biggest rascal in Europe, Brancaster asked him whimsically enough what was the matter with the reputation of Nicholas Brancaster. There was not much in the story, but it indicates the man.
Therefore Brancaster turned his back on London, as usual, and had gone yachting down the Mediterranean with a selection of choice spirits, which was his usual custom at that time of the year. There were one or two old friends of his, a couple of Guardsmen on leave, a young social aspirant of dubious origin, but vast wealth, called Clayton-Green, "and," as the playbills, say, Mr. Samuel Kilgobbin.
Not that anybody ever called him anything but Sammy Kilgobbin, the middle-aged Irishman who was known wherever the English language was spoken from China to Peru. Indeed, there is not a man of any social aspirations at all who does not speak familiarly of Sammy Kilgobbin, even though he only knows that celebrity by sight. Samuel was big and round and fat of face, with the manners of a sporting stockbroker and the morals of a South Sea Islander. He was, perhaps, on the whole, a bigger rascal than Brancaster himself, which is saying a good deal. But there is a well-known axiom to the effect that one man can steal a horse where another can't look over a hedge, and Sammy was one of those fortunate individuals. What he lived on nobody knew, and no one seemed to care. There was nothing the matter with his pedigree, of course, for he came of a good old Irish family, and, from the day he left Eton he had ruffled it with the best of them on an income that represented precisely nothing. But he was always exquisitely turned out, always to be seen in the best company, a popular visitor of the most exclusive country houses, and, strange to say, he had the approval of all his tradesmen, whom he made a point or paying regularly.
He was a fine shot, a wonderful hand in the schooling of hunters, a golfer on the plus mark, and an amateur comedian in the very front rank. He was noisy and witty, perfectly frank in his views of life, which were luridly predatory, and, in fact, was a magnificent specimen of the popular scamp whom every man of the world kept at arm's length and yet was on the friendliest terms with at the same time.
The great big red-faced and highly amusing Irishman was an exceedingly useful chap to know, don't you know. It you wanted a yacht he could find you one. If you craved for something especially choice in the way of cigars, Sammy knew where to find them. If you were a promising actor, needing financial backing, Sammy could produce it; and if you wanted a theatre wherein to install some frivolous favorite of the footlights, then Sammy could arrange that, too. Always at a price, of course, but that was generally understood.
But the backbone of Sam Kilgobbin's income was undoubtedly Sir Nicholas, appropriately called "Old Nick" Brancaster. Something like affection existed between the two men, for they had no illusion on the subject of each other's weaknesses, and, to all practical purposes, Sam was a sort of glorified stage-manager who took a considerable salary for arranging the comedy of life for his patron. Not that Sam was paid any regular stipend, but that sort of thing was understood. It was Sammy who had arranged the present trip, and who had been more or less responsible for the company on deck. For the most part they were cheerful and congenial spirits, with the solitary exception of the somewhat offensive Clayton-Green, and even at that moment Sir Nicholas was lying back in his deck chair contemplating that diminutive bounder under his thick black eyebrows, and wondering why the deuce he had been invited. There would be comedy later on, no doubt, and Brancaster knew the game much too well to spoil it by asking questions.
For the last half-hour or more they had been sitting round the tea-table, and now they had reached the stage of cigars and whiskys and sodas, and had fallen to discuss, in a lazy, inconsequent fashion, what might be the result of the classic race and when they were likely to hear the name of the winner.
"Oh, you'll get that fast enough," Kilgobbin said in that big, oily voice of his. "Ye'll get it at any moment."
"What's that?" Brancaster asked.
"Ye mean to say ye don't understand," Sammy retorted. "Then perhaps you'll tell me why I went to the trouble of having the Fireflight fitted up with wireless."
"I noticed that," Brancaster said. "What did you get out of it, Sammy? Of course I know I shall have to pay, and, I hope you've got a thundering lump in the way of commission."
The little man, Clayton-Green, laughed offensively as he polished his eyeglass. If that mean soul of his was capable of any deep feeling, it was a perfect hatred of the Irishman, who ridiculed him on every possible occasion. And he had never forgotten the time, two years ago, when, by some strange chance, he had found himself the guest of a Scotch duke in his shooting box and when enquiring of Sammy Kilgobbin what he should lay out in the way of tips to the keepers, had been recommended by Sammy to give them nothing on the ground that he was never likely to be asked to that shoot again. It had been rather a cruel and offensive remark to make, but there was no doubt in the keen sardonic humor of it, and Clayton-Green was not likely to hear the last of it. He turned to Sammy now and grinned.
"What do you make out of Brancaster a year, Sammy?" he asked offensively. "He must find your acquaintance expensive."
"And so would ye, ye little divil if ye was half as generous," Kilgobbin retorted good-humoredly. "Bedad, it isn't every one of us whose grandfather made a fortune in the rag trade. What do I cost you a year, Nick, my boy?"
Brancaster smiled and chuckled.
"Upon my word, I never troubled to enquire, Sammy," he said. "Two or three thousand, I suppose. But you're worth it my boy, oh, yes, you're worth it. But what about that wireless? Do you mean to say——"
"I do. I arranged it the day before we sailed. It was one of my happy ideas as I was walking down Bond-street one day. Two or three times they have worried me to equip the Fireflight with wireless, and here was tangible proof that the chance to make a hundred or two in the way of commission, and, bedad, I did. And, thinks I, we'll try it for the first time on Derby Day. And so we shall."
"That's a rattling good notion of yours, Sammy," one of the Guardsmen said. "What you call a paying proposition, eh?"
It was some ten minutes later before the steward came on deck with a sheet of paper in his hand. There had been signs overhead for some little time that something was going on in connection with the wireless, and here was tangible proof that Sammy had not been exaggerating. He took the paper in his hand and bent his big red face over it.
"Well, here ye are," he said. "I'll just read it aloud. Uncas first, Machine Gun second, Bon Enfant third. Wait a minute, here's a bit more. International golf match, Sandwich, 4 o'clock. Taylor and Vardon 3 and 1. Braid did 'The Maiden' in one stroke. Now I call that nice and friendly on the part of those people in Bond-street to throw that last bit of information in. Sort of a gift, perhaps. Well, if it isn't, Brancaster will have to pay."
"Brancaster always does," that individual murmured. "Well, thank God I didn't back anything for this year! It was too open a race for my taste. But who the deuce is Uncas? I never heard of him. He certainly wasn't amongst the starters when we left Southampton. If I had had to make a choice, I should have said that Bon Enfant was a snip. Anybody on the winner by any chance?"
No response came from the little group round the table except from Sammy Kilgobbin, who shook his head solemnly with the air of a man who declines to be deceived by appearances.
"Oh, it's a drame," he said. "Nothin' but a drame. I refuse to belave it. Shure, such a bit of blazin' luck couldn't happen to me."
"You backed him, Sammy?" Clayton-Green asked.
"I did, my boy, I did," Sammy said, still shaking his head almost sorrowfully. "I did it as you might say by accident. It was three months ago that one of 'the boys' gave me the tip, one of 'the boys' that I done a good turn to. 'Have a century on, Captain,' he said, 'ye'll never regret it. Besides, the horse will sure to come to a short price, an' ye'll get some good hedging.' And to make a long story short, and havin' a century I didn't quite know what to do with——"
"One of Brancaster's centuries, I suppose," Clayton-Green said pleasantly.
"It was not," the imperturbable Sam responded. "I won it over a dead certainty betting with a little snipe who was rather like you to look at. But it doesn't matter. I put that money on Uncas and forgot all about it. He never came into the betting at all, and it's any odds that he didn't carry a shilling besides stable money. But it's a drame, I tell ye, nothing but a drame. It's a hideous mistake. If it isn't I've won ten thousand pounds. And I don't believe that the fates would ever allow me to get away with a little wad like that. It's wrong, all wrong. The man who sent off that message has made a bloomer, me boys, if he hasn't he's got the names mixed up. I never was a lucky man, and never shall be. All the money ever earned in my life I've got by my own industry and the exercise of the talents that Providence has given me. And that's why I refuse to believe that I'm in over this."
"Oh, nonsense, Sammy," Brancaster said, encouragingly. "Virtue rewarded occasionally though it seldom starts favorite. Here, let's have another round of liquor up to drink Sammy's good health."
But Kilgobbin still shook his head. "Did ye ever hear tell of a banshee?" he asked.
"An American drink?" Clayton-Green suggested.
"It is not. It's a female spirit that hovers, in times of misfortune, round the house of the real gintry, and so ye'll not have to worry yourself about it, ye little shrimp. The noight me father died, and his father before him, the banshee was heard, for, you see, it's the tradition of my family that death always follows what appears to be a stroke of good fortune. And the night me father died he'd sold a big string of hunters to a bit of a lieutenant who was buying cavalry horses for the British Government. And, bedad, that was his bit of good fortune, but by the same token he died before morning, rest his soul, and that was an end of him."
"And what's the moral of it all, Sammy?" Upton, of the Guards, asked.
"Well, it's loike this me boy. Here's a bit of good fortune come to me, and, bedad, I don't want to die not so long as old Nick here is alive, and I can make a bit out of him. So I'll just tell ye that I'll do. We'll have a bit of hedgin' and get the better of the family banshee this way. I'll wager any of ye a cool thousand pounds that those names are all wrong and that Uncas hasn't won the Derby after all. If he has, then here's a chance for some of ye to make a thousand, and if I am right then I stand on velvet. Now, don't all speak at once."
They didn't. The idea of Sammy Kilgobbin paying any of them, or anybody else for that matter, a thousand pounds if he lost struck them all as a peculiarly exquisite piece of humor. For Sammy made it his invariable rule to pay no one except tradesmen, and therefore there must be a trap somewhere. It was only Clayton-Green who sat up and began to take notice.
From the bottom of his miserable little soul he hated and loathed the big Irishman, and would have paid away a good sum of money he loved so well to get even with him. But he was not blind to the advantage of keeping on the right side of Kilgobbin. It had been a source of perpetual wonder to him ever since he had begun to make his way in society that these men whom he envied so tolerated the exuberant Sammy at all. They all knew, for instance, what he was, they all knew that he was utterly unscrupulous, that he had not a shilling of his own, and that he made no secret of the fact that he was out to get the best of everybody by any means in his power. But, all the same, Sammy was to be seen everywhere. He belonged to some of the best clubs, mainly because his father had belonged to them before him; he was received in the most exclusive houses, and with Cayton-Green's own eyes he had seen that irrepressible Celt hammering a duke in the region of the liver and addressing him without reproof as "Toko." And Clayton-Green would have given a thousand pounds gladly for the privilege of calling any duke by his nickname in the presence of a mixed company.
He knew, too, that Sammy would do anything for money, and he was not blind to the advantage of having Kilgobbin on his own side. Strange as it seemed, it meant so much socially. And here was a possible chance of making money and scoring off the Irishman at the same time. And even if he lost, Sammy would be in his debt, and this fact, doubtless, would render him more civil in the future. He would take the bet, and even if he won and Sammy refused to pay, then he would be none the worse off, and the moral advantages would be all on his side.
"I'll take you," he cried eagerly.
"I wasn't talking to you," Kilgobbin said. "I was offerin' that privilege to me own friends."
"They don't seem anxious," Clayton-Green grinned.
"No, they're not," the second Guardsman observed. "Who would take advantage of a simple soul like Sammy?"
"Well, he offered the bet," Clayton-Green protested. "But one might have known that he didn't mean it."
"Well, then, I do," Kilgobbin said, with a gleam in his eyes. "Never shall it be said that a Kilgobbin went back on his word. Maybe it's a good thing for you and maybe it isn't—not that I meant it for you in any case. When I scatter my hard-earned gold I always do it amongst the right sort. Still, as none of these chaps seem anxious, you can have the bet if you like, and there's an end of it. An even thousand that Uncas has not won the Derby, and another thousand, if you like, that Bon Enfant has. It's upside down those names are, and I'm betting big money on it. And I ain't a philanthropist either. If I'm wrong I win eight thousand, and if I'm right I'm about fifteen hundred in."
"All right," Clayton-Green drawled.
He took from his pocket an elaborate gold-mounted betting book and solemnly made an entry. It was characteristic of Kilgobbin that his record of the transaction was made on the back of an old envelope. He did not appear to be in the least elated, on the contrary, he was quite quiet; and, for him, almost depressed. It was only Brancaster, lying back in his deck chair watching the others from under those thick bushy eyebrows of his, who appeared to extract any sort of amusement from the situation. He made one or two sarcastic remarks to the effect that he would like to know what Clayton-Green proposed to do with the money when he'd got it, a comment that produced a shout of unfeeling laughter, but which did not appear to disturb the serenity of Kilgobbin in the least.
"Well, why not find out if you're right or wrong, Sammy?" Brancaster asked. "Wire back to your sporting pal and ask him to repeat the message."
"And what's the good of that?" Sammy retorted. "The thing is done now, and there's an end of it. Besides, it's past six o'clock, and that place in Bond-street will be closed long before the message gets through. We're sure to pick up an English paper this side of Gib."
Brancaster carried the suggestion no further, and presently the party on deck adjourned for dinner. They turned the yacht homewards in the morning, cruising leisurely along the Mediterranean until they fetched up at Gibraltar at the end on the week and there took their mail and newspapers on board. It was one of the Guardsmen who first got hold of the "Times" and tore the cover off impatiently. He turned the pages over to the sporting columns and laughed unfeelingly.
"Here you are, Sammy, my boy," he said. "Whatever happens, you always fall on your feet. What will you take for that old family banshee of yours? By Gad, I should like to run her permanently as a sporting prophet."
"What are you giving me?" Sammy asked as he helped himself liberally to ham and eggs. "What's doin'?"
"Oh, nothing, old boy, except that you are right and our friend Clayton-Green here is wrong. That pal of yours in Bond-street muddled things up just as you said he had, and somehow got the news of the first three in the Derby all wrong."
"Then, bedad, I'm the poorer by eight thousand pounds," Kilboggin exclaimed. "But I knew it all the time, I felt it in my bones. It wasn't to be expected that an unlucky divil like Sammy Kilgobbin would ever pull off a coup like that. If I had I should have been sorry for it. I should have certainly had a visit from the banshee, and probably by this time should have found a watery grave in the Mediterranean. So I suppose that Bon Enfant won after all?"
"He did. He was first and Uncas was third, just as you said they would be. Still, it's hard luck!"
"Bedad, it's nothing of the koind. Ye see, my boy, I should never have lived to enjoy me good fortune, which means that me friend Clayton-Green would never have been paid. As it is, he's got to pay me. Well, I think I deserve it. Shure, a man ought to be paid for a bit of fine foresight like mine. An' I'll trouble ye for that cheque at your earliest convenience. An' it's glad I am ye can afford to part with it."
On the whole, Clayton-Green took it with a fairly good grace. It was absolutely gall and wormwood to him to know that instead of placing Kilgobbin under an obligation that volatile Irishman had got the better of him, and that in any case, he was some hundreds of pounds in pocket over the whole transaction. Still, the chaff and the laughter went deep enough under Clayton-Green's epidermis, and he was glad enough to make an excuse presently that he had letters to write, and retired to think the thing over in the seclusion of his own cabin. There rankled somewhere in the back of his mind that suspicion that he had been "had" by the wily Sammy, indeed, he was half-inclined to believe that he had been inveigled on to the yacht for that very purpose, but though he turned the matter over in his mind again and again he could find nothing tangible upon which to act. After all, probably it had been a bit of blind chance on Kilgobbin's part, and by the same perverse fate he had been selected as the victim. Well, it served him right; he had rushed in like a fool where angels, in the shape of the other guests, had feared to tread, and he had paid the penalty. He handed over his cheque later on in the day with an air of simulated cheerfulness. He even attempted to congratulate Kilgobbin.
But there was one man on board the Fireflight who was not quite so satisfied, and that man was Brancaster. Later in the evening he crept in his bunk, where he sat up, a pleasing picture in pink silk pyjamas smoking a cigarette and regarding Sammy Kilgobbin shrewdly from under those deep eyebrows of his. They were quite alone together in the cabin.
"Now tell me all about it, Sammy," he said.
"All about what?" Sammy asked innocently.
"My dear chap, you mustn't suppose that I am going to pay for the theatre and the limelights and all the stage essentials without being trusted with the plot of the play. I mean, how did you do it?"
"Niek, old man," Sammy said quite seriously. "Did it ever occur to you that some day I shall be a back number, that some day the bright young spirits in the clubs will shrug their shoulders when my name is mentioned and speak of me as that confounded old bore. Sammy Kilgobbin? 'Quite a good sport in his day, but getting dotty now, don't you know.' And I've got to provide for that time. You may provide for me, on the contrary, you may not. Not but what I've done thundering well out of you, but still——So I've saved up a few thousands, and when I get hold of a mug like Clayton-Green I take out another thousand or two in Government annuities. When I'm fifty-five I reckon I shall have about two thousand a year, which is as much as I shall need then. I don't mind being blackguarded, but I'll be hanged if I live to be pitied."
"You old ruffian, I felt sure you were up to one of your tricks when you told me that you had asked Clayton-Green to join us. Now, come out with it.
"It wasn't so might bad, was it?" Sammy grinned. "The idea occurred to me when that agent asked me to get you to fit up the Fireflight with wireless. And when I thought it all out. I picked on Clayton-Green as the most likely ass for my purpose. Mind you, I arranged to have those names transposed, or, at any rate, placed in wrong order. That little touch about the golf match was a stroke of genius. Hidden underneath it is my code, and in that code I had to have a capital V, and knowing that the International Golf Match was taking place at Sandwich the same day. I chose that because it gave me the V in question. Besides, it made everything look natural. But, Lord bless ye, me boy. I could have had the whole lot of you if I'd liked, but Noblesse Oblige, Nick, Noblesse Oblige."
"A very proper sentiment," Brancaster grinned. "Good-night, Sammy, old man, and many thanks for the comedy."
THE big dining-room at Heronsmoat was all in dusky shadow, save for the glow-lamps burning incense before the pair of Holbeins on the west wall, and the twin Rembrandts opposite, and the shaded points of filtered electric gleams half hidden beyond the pink and gold and blue orchids that twined lovingly around them. In the centre of the fine old room, a small oblong table carried those priceless blooms and the matchless Waterford glass and Cellini silver which formed some of the treasures of Sir Bryan Goldworthy's house. And in it he and his forebears had lived and died any time this last four hundred years. Soldiers they had been, and statesmen and diplomats, with never a one to bring any stain on the family escutcheon.
But Sir Bryan was none of these. He was quite content to stay at home and manage the broad estates and look after his shooting and the famous herd of Shorthorn cattle which was a household word far beyond Heronsmoat. He had come back after a great day with the hounds, he had bathed and changed into his perfectly cut evening dinner-suit, and was now dining with his wife, at peace with all the world. It was a wonderfully mild and soft November night, so that the big log fire had been allowed to smoulder down, and the curtains over the two French windows, that gave on to the terrace, were open, and the silken folds were drawn back showing a purple patch of wintry sky powdered with a clutch of misty stars. A decorous silence reigned everywhere.
The man seated at one end of the table was young, not more than five and thirty, with a finely-cut face and a short upper lip that denoted not only his power and determination, but pride of race as well. If Bryan Goldworthy had a weakness—and few people had noticed such a fault—it was his pride of birth and family and the consciousness of the cleanness of the ancestral record. But for the most part it was a handsome, kindly face enough, with generally a smile for all he met and a look of almost adoring affection for the woman who sat facing him on the other side of the table.
She was worth it, too, every divine inch of her. Tall and slight, all graceful curves and bewildering lines under her silken sheath of a dinner gown, Betty Goldworthy fitted into the picture as a fine piece of imagery fits into the masterpiece of some famous poet. Her wine-colored hair wound round her small head and white brows, with its one diamond star, seemed the dominating note that gave inspiration to the room. And when she smiled and those red lips of hers parted over the gate of pearls, then Bryan Goldworthy lay back in his chair and told his intimate gods that he had nothing else in the world to want for.
Yet she had not been of his world, and she had told him so very plainly when he had sought an introduction to her after hearing her sing one night at Harrogate, where he had taken his invalid mother for treatment some few months before the proud old dowager had died. All this had happened nearly three years ago, when the critics were raving over the new contralto and vowing that she had all the world at her feet, which was true enough, and a great singer can go anywhere, even in circles where a Goldworthy might have found it hard to follow. She had not a single relative in the world, she told Goldworthy; she owed her education and her musical training to a stranger, who was now dead, and her art sufficed. All this with the smile that went to Goldworthy's heart and even melted some of the ice of pride and tradition that had collected in the course of years, round the heart of Lady Goldworthy, and told Bryan that in spite of her brilliant promise she was very lonely.
Within a month Sir Byran was at her feet, and within six months even the dowager, with all her pride and prejudice, was brought to believe that her immaculate Byran might do worse. She came to understand what Bet was sacrificing when she gave up her career to marry the master of Heronsmoat, which she did because Bryan wanted her and because she was one of those fine natures that finds life's happiness in giving royally where her heart was in question. But there was one thing she had never told Bryan, because she shrank from doing so as long as the dowager Lady Goldworthy lived, because—well—because we shall see, all in good time. And nothing seemed to matter now when they had nothing but themselves to think of, and perfect happiness is a fine anodyne for a dead trouble.
She was not thinking about this crumpled roseleaf now, as she sat there opposite her husband, with the soft light touching her ivory tints and making lakes of her dark eyes with the little flecks of gold in them. She was lapped just then in a warm sea of happiness, and the tide of life was at the flood.
Bryan Goldworthy struck a match and lighted his after-dinner cigarette; the lantern clock over the big carved mantelpiece struck ten on a drift of silver bells. A footman crept into the room and spoke to his master with due respect.
"Can Vellacot speak to you a moment, sir?" he asked. "He thinks he has captured one of the Maudesley poachers."
Goldworthy was on his feet in a moment. Vellacot was his head keeper, and the Maudesley poachers were a sore thorn in the flesh of all at Heronsmoat. Up to now they had laughed at all sorts of authority, and never yet had one of them appeared before a bench of magistrates. And Goldworthy was very sore about it.
"You don't mean that Parsons!" he cried. "Where?"
"Vellacot's cottage, Sir Bryan," the man said. "With two of the helpers looking after him."
With a word of apology to his wife, and a smile, Goldworthy vanished. Betty sat there calmly waiting. She was feeling just a little sorry for that unfortunate poacher, and all the more because her sympathies were instinctively democratic. She could never quite understand the sacredness of anything that flew and had the freedom of the woods. And what difference did a bird more or less make when a man might need a meal? Still, perhaps it was part of the traditions of the house, like the rest of the family pride, and Bryan had all that to the full. There was pride in everything that he did, from the way he treated his servants to the manner in which he passed the humblest woman on the estate with uplifted hat. And here was his wife, who ought to have been behind him in all these things, wishing that the unhappy poacher might make his escape. She had watched a poacher once.... years ago.
SHE was conscious of a step on the stone terrace outside. It was a hurried step past the open windows, then the silken curtains parted, and a man stepped into the room.
He was big and broad, a magnificent figure of humanity, dark to swarthiness, with a romanesque face in a setting of black hair sprinkled with grey. He carried with him the breath of the woods and the freedom of the broad highway. A man like that could never have lived in the atmosphere of a town.
Dress him properly and put him down in the Carlton or the lobby of the House of Commons, say, and he would have been marked and his identity demanded by the curious in personal psychology; dressed as he was, in a deerstalker cap and rabbit-skin waistcoat, with cord trousers strapped at the knees, he was just one of those wandering Romany nomads who swing along country lanes on the front of a caravan, swaying with the basketwork peculiar to the tribe.
"Ham!" Lady Goldworthy whispered. "What does this mean?"
The man smiled, a broad, benevolent smile with the spirit of kindliness shining behind it. Yet there was trouble in those clear dark eyes, and an appeal that brought Lady Goldworthy instinctively to her feet. She was beginning to understated.
"I didn't aim to do it," the man said, in the soft accent of the countryside, that sounded strangely out of place on his lips. "I never meant to come disgracing the little girl as I carried in these arms of mine many a mile. We seen you, me and Luke, to-day, in your car, we did. And we knowed this two years as our little gal were her ladyship in these parts. And didn't Azoubah always say as you would come to great things?"
They made a fine contrast as they stood there, the woman in her clinging silk with the diamond flashing in her dusky hair, and the shaded table with its artistic confusion of plate and glass and warm, red fruits behind her. She stood there, a perfect picture in a perfect frame, as if she had been born to the part. And over against her the big man in his moleskins, and his atmosphere redolent of the soil.
"What is the trouble, Ham?" Lady Goldworthy asked.
She was perfectly at her ease, quite cool and collected, and with no fear of what might happen any moment now. Here was fate taking a hand in the unfolding of her life, and she would know how to meet the crisis when it came.
"I couldn't help it," the big man said, with a sob in his voice and hanging his head like a child. "I come to see Sir Bryan, and they told me it was not possible at this hour, and if there was anything particular I'd better come in the morning. But by that time Luke will be in gaol."
"Go on," Betty whispered. "I am beginning to understand, Luke has been arrested on a charge of poaching. He is detained at the cottage of our head keeper, Vellacot. And you came to see Sir Bryan before the police were called in."
"That's it, little girl, that's it," the big man said. "It was but a rabbit as Luke took, but he'd scared off those Maudesley poachers and they dropped a silk partridge net as Luke picked up. And him never in trouble in his life afore. If he gets six months, as is certain, it will kill him. We're a rough lot, we Stanleys, but none of us has even been in gaol before, and we has our pride same as the gentlefolks. There's royal blood in our veins, as you know, little gal, though I ought not to call you that."
"I, at any rate, am pleased to hear you call me so," Bet smiled. "How did you find your way here?"
"When they refused me at the big door, I came along the terrace on the way to the main road, and I see you sitting here, and on the impulse I came in. Because Luke's going to prison and it will break the heart of him. Him what loves the smell of the good red earth and never slept under cover since he were at his mother's knees. You got to save him, Bet. You got to."
As Lady Goldworthy turned, she saw her husband standing in the doorway. She smiled as she saw the doubt and anger and outraged pride struggling for the dominant mastery on his face.
"What—what does all this mean?" he stammered.
By a sort of blind instinct he closed the door behind him and drew the curtains across the open window. All that fine, intimate, exclusive world of his lay crumbling at his feet; he could sense the scandal that hung threateningly over his house.
"Bryan," Bet said quietly, "this is Mr. Ham Stanley. He is one of the last of the real Stanleys, and there is royal blood in his veins. It is his only son who is detained at Vellacot's cottage on suspicion of being connected with those Maudesley poachers. Mr. Stanley says that his son picked up that partridge net when he surprised the gang, and if Luke says so, then it must be so. Luke is incapable of telling a lie. We were brought up as children together, and I know."
"And by what right does Mr. Stanley intrude here?" Goldworthy asked frigidly. "Has the whole world suddenly gone mad? What claim has this man on you, Betty?"
"As the only father I ever knew," Betty said.
Goldworthy dropped into a chair like another Marius seated amidst the ruins of Carthage. The thing was preposterous, farcical. Betty and this man! That beautiful, smiling creature, and a wandering seller of basket work! Oh, madness, certainly!
"You are actually asking me to believe this?" he gasped.
"Only because it is true," Betty said. "I told you that, so far as I knew, I had not a single relative in the world, and that was also true, Mr. Stanley will explain."
"Perhaps you had better be seated," Goldworthy said wearily. "This business looks like being a long one."
"I'd rather stand if your honor don't mind," Stanley said, with a rugged dignity that sat well on him. "And, mind you, I didn't come here meaning to intrude, though I knew as the little gal were mistress of this great house, and happy, as she deserves to be. But, Lor' bless you, sir, me and Azoubah—that's my wife sir, as is dead and gone—always knew as the little gal would come to big things. And that's why, after she'd gone out into the great world and made a name for herself I never answered her letters. But never forgotten, little maid, never forgotten."
A fine, rugged natural affection glowed in Stanley's eyes. There was something great and noble in this simple man that appealed to all the proper pride in Goldworthy's heart.
"Tell my husband everything," Betty said. "He should have known long ago. Ham, you have done me a kindness by coming here to-night. Everything, mind you, from the start."
"It was like this, sir," Stanley went on in his direct simplicity. "We had no little gal for ours had died, and Azoubah was pining for another. Prayed for one, she did, and the Lord He up and answered her prayer.... We come across her by the roadside in a silk shawl and a note, asking the finder of the little mite to be good to her.... and we was. Brought up as our own child she were, until she come to be about twelve, maybe. Then Azoubah, she makes up her mind to send the little gal to school, she being that forward with her knowledgement. And different from us, as you could see from the first. Look at me, sir, and tell me could you make anything but a pure Romany of Ham Stanley?"
Goldworthy nodded vaguely. He was trying to visualise this big, strong man, with his simple dignity and pride of freedom, in the garb, black and white, that he wore himself. There was breed in every line of the man, as Goldworthy could frankly admit.
"I thank you, sir," Stanley went on. "And it was the same with the little lass. You can't make an Arab out of a moorland pony, and you can't make what you see there out of a pauper's child as you find on the roadside, unless the right blood is there. Do you see what I mean, sir?"
Goldworthy nodded again. The right blood must be there. He could see it in every line and curve of Bet's figure, in the easy carriage of her head and the smile on her lips. It was the sort of smile one sees at great railway termini and on the wharves whence ocean-going liners sail, the smile of one who parts with a loved object bravely, and hides the tear behind a smiling mask. She had no fear or shame, either, nor did the diamond in her hair tremble or the flowers on her corsage vibrate unduly. But a foundling! Goldworthy swallowed hard as he thought of it. There had been one other such instance in the history of the house, but she had turned out to be the kidnapped daughter of a noble knight. Her portrait loomed vaguely over Goldworthy's head with much the same smile on her lips that he could read on Bet's now.
"So we sent her to school. The money didn't matter, because we have more than we want, we Stanleys, though we do live in a caravan. And she did well; took scholarships, and went on to college. It was her music master who found out she had a voice and showed her the way to get to Italy. And she became a sort of queen as Courts raved over, and our little lass was famous at twenty-three. But she got to love a man and stepped down from her throne and married him, and honored him by doing it."
Goldworthy started. This was a new point of view to him, a sort of electric mental shock, but his innate sense of fairness told him that perhaps Stanley was right. Patti had had her court, and Lind had hers, and who would ever have asked a question as to the birth of either? And Patti was the intimate friend of a great and powerful queen. Truly. Goldworthy was learning things.
"She came and seen us just the same, when she could spare the time, and once we went to the Albert Hall and heard her sing. Ah! But when she married, which we heard of just befor Azoubah died, we makes up our mind to leave her to her new life and see her no more. 'Twasn't fit like. And we didn't."
"That was not my fault, Ham," Betty spoke for the first time. "I wrote you more than one letter."
"I know it, my dear," Stanley smiled, "and those letters be in my pocket at this very moment. But you was her ladyship, and we was only wanderers on the face of the earth, and Luke and me was of the same mind. You would never have seen us now, but for the bitter trouble as Luke fell into. And we come this long way out of our beat just to get a secret look of your face once more. I wish I had cut off my right hand first."
"Is all this true, Bet?" Goldworthy asked.
"Every word of it," Bet responded proudly. "But don't you think, Bryan, that there is something else before we consider our own intimate matters? Ham comes here in great trouble, to right what he considers to be a great wrong. He is concerned for his son, who was my playmate until I was twelve, and if you believe him—"
"I most certainly do," Goldworthy said evenly. "The word of a gentleman is always to be accepted."
"Meaning me?" Stanley asked. "Me, as isn't too proud to sit on a cottage doorstep and mend a broken basket!"
"I should like to see this boy of yours, Mr. Stanley," Goldworthy went on, "and if you like I will come along with you now. As a matter of fact, I have been telling my keeper that he has no kind of right to detain his prisoner. It ought to have been a matter of a summons before magistrates—"
"And what difference would that make, sir?" Stanley asked. "They would have convicted him just the same. Ah, I know these county gentlemen where the game is concerned. Six months for any man caught with a net in his possession. But if you see the boy, sir, and believe what he says, then you can decline to go any further, and we can get on the high road again."
"Very well," Goldworthy said, "I will come at once."
"I think I will come along," Bet said evenly. "It is a fine, dry night, and I shall take no harm."
Goldworthy raised no objection, and, with a wrap over her shoulders, Bet set out with the others on the way to the keeper's cottage. There, presently, they found themselves in a dimly lighted outhouse, where a young man, a finer counterpart of Ham Stanley, raged up and down, with hair dishevelled, and a cold, despairing fury in his dark eyes. The wild hostility which he turned on Goldworthy died as he met Bet's steady gaze.
"You!" he gasped. "Our Bet! Father, it's you as done this thing. Why drag the little lass into it? She ought never to have known. It was mother's wish on her dying bed. Gone out of our lives, had Bet, into the place as God Almighty intended for her, and there was an end of it. You shouldn't have done it, father."
It seemed to Goldworthy that he was groping like a child in a new world. Was he the same man who, an hour or so ago, had surveyed the plains of life from the horizon of his dining-room with the atmosphere of refinement and aloofness from the common herd? The dim light, the white washed walls, the wild-eyed young man fighting for his liberty and yet prepared to sacrifice all that the lover of the wild holds most dear rather than bring trouble on to a girl who has gone out of his sphere for all time! Here was something calculated to bring even a Goldworthy to his knees. His fine sense of justice rose to it.
"Believe me," he said, almost eagerly, "believe me, I only want to see justice done. Your father did the only thing possible in the circumstances."
"I'd rather have gone to gaol," Luke Stanley muttered.
"Upon my word, I believe you would," Goldworthy cried, with a sudden admiration. "But tell me your story, my boy."
"I had the rabbit all right," Luke explained. "But the net I found. The Maudesley lot mistook me for a keeper, as I was gathering firewood in the big meadow, and took to their heels. Then the keeper comes up and I was done. But, Lord bless you, sir, who is going to believe the mere word of a gipsy?"
"Well, I'm going to, for one," Goldworthy said. "And as it rests entirely with me, there is an end of it. We old families must stick to one another, you know. What is to become of all the old blood in Europe if we don't?"
Bet listened with a queer feeling at her heart. In her eyes there was something fine in the way her husband was behaving. He had had a great shock that night, and yet nobody but herself could possibly have guessed it. But what of the aftermath, when he and she were alone together? But be this as it might, she had never loved him as much as she did at that moment....
They were outside presently, under the shadow of the darkness. There was a powder of stars adrift on the purple velvet of the sky. A great silence brooded everywhere. A little way along the road the caravan loomed in the murk. Ham Stanley paused before it.
"I thank you, sir," he said, in his fine, simple way. "But, after all, it's no more than I might have expected from the man as the little lass chose as a mate. Ah, she'd know, she would. And to-night you go your way and we go ours, and we shall never meet again. It's better not, sir, and, besides, I promised Azoubah on her dying bed. And she knew. There was no wisdom like hers. Harness up old Pete, Luke, and let's be moving."
"Not quite like that, Ham," Bet cried; "not quite like that, if you please. Come here."
She held out one hand to Luke, but the other went round the broad shoulders of the elder man. Then she laid her lips on his swarthy cheek and broke away presently with a cry in her throat that sounded like a sob.
"The little lass," Stanley said dreamily. "The little lass as we was both so fond of.... But it's better that way."
The caravan, with its swaying load and ancient horse, plunged slowly down the road, and was presently lost to sight and hearing down the high road. Bet watched it with the tears streaming freely down her cheeks. In that battered old caravan some of the happiest years of her life had been passed. She was back in the old days now, and the man at her side was almost forgotten for the moment. Without a word, he touched her on the arm, and in silence they made their way along the road until the house was reached. The great secret was still their own, and never a one would be any the wiser, unless either chose to proclaim it to the world. It would be sacred so far as the Stanleys were concerned.
It seemed almost strange to Bet that nothing had changed since she had last turned her back on Heronsmoat; she did not find the old house in ruins about her feet. The cloistered order of the place was moving on oiled wheels all the same, the servants in the great hall, the pictures on the walls, the clock in the tower, with its leisured chimes. They both turned by instinct into the small library where they sat after dinner when alone and made their plans for the morrow. The shaded lamps burned low; a pleasant wood fire spluttered and crackled on the wide hearth. Goldworthy dropped into a chair with his face half in shadow. Almost mechanically Bet sat on a stool at his feet as she was in the habit of doing most evenings. It was she who spoke first.
"This has been a great shock to you," she suggested.
"Naturally," Goldworthy replied. "Let us try and discuss it calmly, if you please. You first, I think."
With a childlike confidence, Bet laid her elbows on her husband's knee, and the familiar gesture touched him.
"What am I to say," Bet asked. "Oh, I know—why didn't I tell you in the first place. But I think I did, Bryan. At least, I told you that I had not a single relative in the world and that I owed everything to a stranger, who was dead. You knew about my schooldays and my scholarships, and how I managed to get to Italy, and how I completed my training there. I told you that my father and mother died before I could recollect them, and—"
"But was that strictly true, Bet?"
"Perhaps not, but it did not seem to matter much then. Nothing seemed to matter to a girl who found herself famous at my age. But I don't think they spoilt me, Bryan."
"They didn't," Goldworthy conceded almost eagerly.
"That remark is like you, Bryan. Well, I had the whole world at my feet; I was another Titian. What mattered it what I was? Who would have cared had I been born in a workhouse? They accepted me for my gift, and, I hope, a little for myself."
"Everybody did," Goldworthy murmured. "Go on, Bet."
"You are very just," Betty said, with a little catch in her voice. "Bryan dear, my position was as good as yours. There is more than one sort of aristocracy, you know. When we first met amongst your friends, no questions were asked. If I had told you the truth then, the great world would have been just as glad to take me as I am. And then you loved me. I did not realise it at first, but when I did I was just the happiest girl in all the world. Because, Bryan, I was very lonely. No man, least of all a man like you, with a position like yours, can ever know how lonely a girl can be who has no relatives. And I was so glad, so glad to find that you loved me for myself. But it was a struggle, Byran, a terrible struggle. I loved my art, I loved to stand there on the platform and feel that I could hold a vast audience with my voice. And I worked so very hard before I got there. Disraeli must have felt like that the first time he found he could compel a hostile House of Commons in spite of itself. For my dreams had come true and the world was all my own. Do you understand, Bryan?"
"Go on," Goldworthy murmured. "I am beginning to understand many things. We men are blind fools in all sorts of ways."
"It was a great fight, Bryan. My darling career on the one side and my love for you on the other. Oh, Bryan, only an artist can realise what I was asked to sacrifice, though you may smile—"
Goldworthy sat quite still, with his face shielded from the light of the fire. Bet could see no more than his shadow.
"I am not smiling," he said. "I am learning things."
"I was like a princess happy amongst her people, who had been asked to step from one throne to another. I lay awake all one night and fought it out. And when the dawn came I knew that love had conquered. I knew that my woman's instinct had prompted me to do the only thing. Then I slept for a long time, and when I awoke I was in a sort of paradise."
Her voice was vibrating now, and the tears were in her eyes. But Goldworthy's face was still hidden in the shadows.
"But if you had told me then," he suggested. "If only—"
"Please don't interrupt me yet, Bryan. Then you introduced me to your mother. She was a—"
"Woman who loved you from the first."
"You are wrong, Bryan. You men never see these things, but the other woman knows them by instinct. You were everything to your mother. There is never a girl in the world who, in a mother's eyes, is good enough for an only son like you. She never showed it, like the grande dame that she was, but the antagonism was there, and I had to fight it, as women do. And I won, Bryan, not so much because of my own qualities, but because your happiness was the one thing in the world a woman who was dying most valued. Remember the school she had been brought up in, remember that she was related to most of the great houses in England. She grew to be proud of me and my voice, she delighted when I gave up my career to become your wife; but if I had told her the truth, and she had turned from me, what would you have done, Bryan?"
"A man's life happiness—"
"Ah, precisely. You would have gone your own way, and I should have had it on my conscience that I had driven your mother to her grave before her time. That's why, Bryan."
"Well afterwards nothing seemed to matter. I have been too happy to think of the past. If you had made one sacrifice, I had made another. I don't regret mine, Bryan; and now that you know, perhaps you won't regret yours."
Goldworthy's face suddenly emerged from the shadow? He drew Bet closely to him and smiled down tenderly into her eyes.
"Forgive me," he whispered, "my other self, my alter ego, my own, dear wife."
Bet slipped her arms about his neck.
"Oh, my dear," she whispered. "I didn't know that there could be such perfect happiness as this."
HAD it not been that circumstances forced John Treherne to take his holidays very late that year he would never have gone to Cwmwyan at all. In the ordinary way he preferred to get away from the office in Lincoln's Inn Field in June or preferably, in May, for he was a mighty fisherman and could not resist the lure of the trout and the salmon.
All that summer John's partner in the thriving legal firm of Clement & Treherne had been away ill, and it was well into November before John was free to get away for any considerable time.
It was too late for the little brown bird, and also for the outlying pheasants, and far too early for the big Christmas shoots. The salmon rivers were closed to anglers, and the trout streams were equally out of the question. But angling of some sort Treherne must have, and his choice settled eventually on Cwmwyan, and the mighty pike in the chain of miniature lakes there. In his younger days he had taken some fine fish there, and on one red-letter day a monster of eighteen pounds.
Anyway, he would go to Cwmwyan and put up once more with Betty Rees, despite the fact that Miss Llewellyn would be in residence at the big house, and probably as antagonistic as ever to the man with whom she had quarrelled over the sacred subject of pike fishing, and who had taken his revenge over that matter of that right of way along the far bank of Cwm.
It had been a trivial dispute to begin with. Ever since he could remember Treherne had been pike fishing at Cwmwyan without let or hindrance. He was perfectly aware that the left bank of the Cwm was the private water of old Lewis Llewellyn of the big house, but Llewellyn had been a recluse and had cared nothing about his fishing rights, so that anyone was welcome to troll for pike there so far as the lord of the manor was concerned. There was an ancient right of way along the left bank which had fallen into desuetude.
After the old owner died, and Miss Llewellyn came into the property, things were very different. She was a distant relative of the late Llewellyn, and a lady who had passed most of her twenty-five years in India, where her father had been a commanding officer, and her ideas of the importance of the Llewellyns were out of all proportion to the size of the property and the revenues thereof. English people who spend much time in the East are apt to be like that.
There is no doubt that Miss Gwen Llewellyn made herself very unpopular in the early days of her reign. She was an orphan when she came into the property, which may account for a lot. She had autocratic ideas which did not commend themselves to the fierce liberalism of the Welsh hillsmen among whom she now found herself, and in six months her unpopularity was complete. This was a source of much grief to her, for she meant well, despite her arrogance. She was an exceedingly pretty girl and would be charming when she forgot that she was the lady of a pinchbeck manor. Unfortunately she made the mistake of regarding the villagers and small tenants as she had viewed the natives in the compound at Jellalabad. This had been the cause of all the mischief.
John Treherne had come to Cwmwyan one autumn for a week-end with the pike, and had arrived in the midst of the feud. Innocent of any trouble, he had crossed the river and cast his phantom minnow into the Llewellyn water under the eyes of its outraged mistress, who had immediately ordered him off as if he had been some vagabond poacher. Refusing to listen to one word of explanation, she had been exceedingly rude and personal, which is the way of angry young women. Treherne had retreated with a feeling of smallness that rankled. He was by no means blind to the beauty of his antagonist; but when, in addition, he was ordered off the footpath, which had been a right of way from time immemorial, he protested. He was informed with great haughtiness that the path was closed to foot traffic, that he was trespassing, and that if he offended again he would find himself forcibly removed.
"Iss, sur, her be like that," old Betty Rees told Treherne, when he mentioned the matter to her after his early dinner in the cottage where he had his quarters. "A great lady whateffer, look you! But she's not so bad when you come to know her. She started wrong and we started wrong, and its never been put right sir. Wants a husband to manage her."
"But surely you folks here are never going to sit still and have that path filched from you?" Treherne protested. "Why, it has been public property for ages!"
"Pleases her and don't hurt us," Betty said placidly. "And you can catch all the fish you want from this side, sir."
Treherne abandoned the unequal contest. This placid attitude was characteristic of the peasantry, and any attempt to stir them to a fight for their rights was so much beating of the air. Still, the autocrat with the shining hair of spun gold and the scornful violet eyes needed a lesson, and Treherne was minded to give her one.
Single-handed he fought an action in the local County Court against the last of the Llewellyns and won hands down. This little encounter cost Miss Llewellyn over a hundred pounds she could ill afford, and her rage against the impudent intruder was bitter.
The action had been fought two years ago, and the antagonists had not met since. Treherne had scarcely given the matter a further thought, but it was in his mind now as he travelled into Wales for his belated holiday and his campaign against the giant pike in the chain of miniature lakes that made up the Cwmwyan water. He would have much preferred to have spun his phantom minnow or live dice from both banks, but that was a mere midge in the amber, and if Miss Llewellyn was in residence it would be easy to avoid her. The weather was just right; it was crisp with a touch of frost in the air, and there had been much water down from the hills of late. With any sort of luck he ought to have a month of topping sport.
"Well, Betty, how goes it?" he asked as he finished an excellent dinner in the snug cottage which had been his head-quarters for the last ten years, and where he had a cosy sitting-room and a bedroom redolent of thyme and lavender. "My fair enemy still about?"
"Meaning Miss Llewellyn, whateffer?" Betty asked. "Iss, sure. And things is better that they used to be, look you! Ever since you lass take the law of her. She have not forgiven you, whateffer, Mr. Treherne; but as for the rest of us it is different. And she fish her water, look you, like a man, iss sure!"
Treherne smiled broadly at the picture of that dainty wisp of haughty humanity manipulating a double-handed hickory rod and a live bait on the end of a hundred yards of silk line and gimp. He was still musing over the vision when he sauntered out after breakfast the following morning to inspect the river and wet his new lines. It was in fine condition, as he could see at a glance. A stream running bank high, but fine and clear, met his delighted gaze, and Miss Llewellyn was forgotten.
Four miniature lakes, connected by narrow necks, reached back to the foothills over the purple shoulder of Gwyntor, whose mighty watershed fed the lakes.
There were two miles of these lagoons ending some way below in a narrow gorge and a waterfall ten feet in height. Below that, again, the rapids had a fall of one foot in four, and a half a mile further down was a waterfall enclosed on either side by sheer black weed-covered rocks, forming a gorge in which anything that lived would have been drowned long before the cascade was reached. To plunge down between those granite walls would have been suicide. The strongest swimmer would not have lived there two minutes without artificial aid, and even if he had, the twenty-foot cascade at the end of the rapids would have provided the inevitable finish.
At the head of the water-shoot before the rapids lay the giant fish. In the clear water Treherne could see a brace of the gaunt fresh-water harks lying still and motionless, with their long, wolfish heads up-stream, and now and again a lazy motion of fins that sent them darting as if they had been propelled by some unseen howitzer. These were the fathers of the lake—great brown fellows, long and lean and hungry, but wily as a fox, and almost as difficult to land as an elephant. If they broke away down-stream, as they did invariably, then the weight of surging water and the impetus of the heavy rush proved fatal to even the stoutest tackle, as Treherne knew to his cost many a time. It was a game of skill and strength on both sides, with long odds on the born fighter at the other end of the line. But Treherne was going to try.
On the other side of the last miniature lake he was startled to see his fair enemy—a double split hickory rod in her small hand—making a cast with a silver minnow, and not a bad cast either.
Treherne marked the slim, graceful figure, the dainty face and the haughty carriage of the head. She was as much the same as he had seen her last on the steps of the courthouse in the little Welsh town of Prestin, where the famous action over the right-of-way had been fought, and a certain sense of pity filled Treherne as he watched her. Well, she had learned something since then, if Betty Rees was to be believed! She had come to realise her responsibilities. Certainly the once disputed path across the river was no longer weed-grown, but clean and neat, with boundary stones along the edge.
She saw Treherne, of course, but he might have been no more that one of the white clouds on the dappled sky. She stood poised on a big shelving rock not far from the edge of the lasher, just above the rapids, clean-cut against a background of leafless trees. A lovely picture, Treherne thought as he prepared his cast and laid out his tackle on the sloping bank. As his reel began to scream when the line was being drawn out and the heavy rod fitted for the fray, the figure opposite suddenly threw up her point and addressed him.
"I shall be greatly obliged," Miss Llewellyn drawled in the iciest tones, "if you will be gentlemanly enough to take the next pool above. It is too much to expect perhaps, but——"
She finished with a shrug of the slim shoulders and waited for her antagonist to wilt. The insinuation that she was treating him as a man of honour, even in these unpromising circumstances, brought a smile to Treherne's lips. She was clearly offering him the benefit of the doubt that did not linger in her own mind for a moment.
"Why?" he asked. "There is ample room for both of us. As a matter of fact, I am only out this morning to wet a new line and test a patent swivel I have had recommended to me. I am sorry to have disturbed you."
Rod in hand he passed up-stream smiling. So that was her little game, was it? She had heard of his coming and had stolen a march on him which would not be repeated. He would be first in the field next morning, even if he had to sit up all night. Pretty girl all the same, and looked rather lonely. Not much fun for her in that remote valley, with no congenial society and playing at being the lady of the manor on an inadequate income! Treherne knew all about that. Still, he was on a fishing holiday, and his time was too precious to be wasted by the caprices of a silly girl.
He was down at the lower pool above the lasher betimes in the morning. There was no sign of the foe to be seen. With a phantom minnow of his own make he was busy almost at once. A long, wide, dexterous cast dropped on the face of the pool as gently as thistledown, and almost instantly a long, arrow-headed ripple and the thin, cutting wave over a brown fin showed the rush of a big one. The fish struck short and was away up-stream almost before Treherne realised that he had a rise.
He made another wide cast with a ball of line in the hollow of his hand, like a master of the craft as he was, then suddenly something dropped in his swim with the flop of a frog, and a score of arrow heads proclaimed the fact that as many of the big fellows were off up stream, alarmed by the splash in their midst. On the other bank, posed perilously on the shelving, unstable rock on the edge of the lasher, stood the fair foe, obviously intent on casting in Treherne's water.
Acknowledging his defeat by slightly raising his cap, Treherne wound up and, rod in hand ready for a cast on the next pool, moved slowly up the river. Ah well, it was only a woman, and an angry one at that, who would have been guilty of such unsportsmanlike conduct. Yet he taught her something.
He held the rod short-lined in his right hand and the phantom in his left. A quarter of a mile higher up was another pool, where he might hook a big 'un. At the bend he looked back to see how the enemy was progressing, just in time to see the shelving rock on which she stood tilt and almost before he realised what had happened Miss Gwen Llewellyn was struggling in six feet of water. And the rock on which she had been standing was no longer there! Half a minute later and the white figure in the close-fitting sweater and cheviot skirt had vanished over the lasher and was being carried rapidly down the broken waters to the waterfall below.
Treherne raced back with his rod still in his hand. He carried it quite mechanically, and it was sheer instinct that caused him to keep the point upright. He knew that nothing short of a miracle could save the unfortunate girl now. She was in the grip of those cruel rapids, with a sheer wall of rock some thirty feet high on either side and a waterfall some twenty feet down at the end of the deadly passage. She would be carried over that to a mercifully sudden death below. There was no way of getting down to her, nothing he could throw in the shape of a buoy, and even if there had, it would have been useless. To plunge over that rocky rampart to her assistance would have been worse, it would merely have entailed the loss of two lives instead of one.
But he must do something! He could not let her drown. And, yet, what? There was nobody in sight, and it was a mile to the nearest cottage. Nothing moved except a flock of frightened sheep that baa-ed noisily as Treherne sped past them. It was nothing to Treherne now that the doomed girl had paid the penalty of her own childish conceit in standing too far over that treacherous rock merely to show him that she could make a cast as far as his. He raced along breathlessly with the rod in his hand.
He came up with her at length. So far she was uninjured. She had managed to steer clear of the jagged rocks under the surface of the rapids. But at any moment she might strike one of them beneath the treacherous smoothness and fracture a limb. So far she was holding her own, swimming deliberately and slowly, and holding back against the rush of waters. Her face was pale and set, but not so ghastly as the one that looked down on her from the ramparts above.
"Please, please don't do it!" she said bravely, as she read a desperate resolve in Treherne's eyes. "So long as you are alive and up there I have a chance. If you come down here, we shall both be drowned."
She was wonderful, thought Treherne; terribly afraid, no doubt, but she was not going to show it. If she had to die, then she would cross the borderland as a true Llewellyn should. It was no time for little things. There were no tears in her own eyes, but she could see them on Treherne's cheeks.
"Is there nothing I can do for you?" he cried. "Nothing? Then I shall have to come down to you! If I don't I shall never be able to look a man in the face again!"
"You must not," the girl commanded. "Something may happen yet. If we are both here—somebody with a rope may come. I can hold back a little if I turn and swim—and slowly——"
It was all very fine, the tortured Treherne reflected. He stood there, miserably helpless, with the rod still in his hand. And as the girl in the water looked at him something like the inspiration he was feverishly praying for came to his mind in that strange way that, in times of stark peril, such inspiration does come.
He had recalled a holiday in the Gulf of Florida—the great adventure of his fishing career—a whole gorgeous month when he was after the giant bass off Palm Beach—huge fellows running to four hundred pounds in weight and game to the last ounce, yet taken on a twelve-ounce rod and a three-ply line of cotton thread. It was a miracle in which Treherne had shared. Something never to be forgotten. Wonderful how the lightest hand, even that of a little child, can move heavy objects in live water. Like a tiny tug with a lumbering Dreadnought in its wake! He had seen a little girl guide a laden barge on the canal at Rochester. One could hold up almost any object that floated with a thread of hair! Heavens! If he had only had a ball of string in his pocket—or a spare line!
Suddenly, with a flash, he was awake to the fact that he was still carrying the rod in his hand. He wondered how it got there. The rod, with a stout line and the six feet of gimp and the big triangle of hooks at the end of it! A great shout burst from his lips.
"Got it!" he yelled. "It's a chance anyway. There's a bit of a shelf of rock sticking out just above the waterfall where I used to find the kingfisher's nest when I was a boy in these parts. I am going to guide you there Miss Llewellyn. I am going to play you like a fish that has broken down-stream. If you can endure it for half an hour——"
"I must," replied the girl bravely.
Treherne wished he had been less hasty over that right-of-way affair. Silly to think of such things at such a tense moment, but there you were.
"I will!" added Miss Llewellyn. "Only I wish—it was not—so cold!"
Here was another peril that Treherne had not foreseen. There are limits to the endurance of even a Llewellyn! He blessed the foresight which had inspired Betty Rees to slip his flask into the sandwich case he always carried on these occasions. It was going to be touch-and-go in any case, and if the cold water proved too much for the struggling girl, he would have to suffer the agonies of defeat. And if the worst happened, what would the world say about him? That he had not risked anything to save the life of an unfortunate woman! He could imagine the paragraphs in the newspapers. A coward—no less!
He swung the triangle, weighted with lead, across the narrow neck of the stream, and nursed it back with little dexterous turns of the wrist and liftings of the point of the rod. Then he worked the mass of weighted hooks cunningly in the girl's direction. He had his mind sternly concentrated on this to the exclusion of everything else. Inch by inch, nearer and nearer to the figure struggling in the water, he drew the mass of hooks until he had it just between the shoulders and high in the neck of the white sweater that Gwen Llewellyn was wearing. Then he lifted his point and struck.
The tangle of hooks went home. They bit into the woolly surface and held tenaciously. With a fine feeling of uplift, Treherne set the reel of the rod going. He was not afraid of the hooks giving now; he was too fine a workman for that.
As the line tightened Gwen's head came up, and the strain on her limbs slackened. All she had to do was to float gently and leave the rest to the man on the bank. She realised exactly what was in the back of his mind. He was playing her easily and dexterously as he would have played a big fish. With her head well out of the water now as the line grew taut she could cease to fight against the downward rush and allow her numbed limbs to relax.
Her confidence in the man on the bank was increasing. It was exactly as Treherne hoped—the body in the water was as a featherweight under his practised hand. He had seen a three-hundred-pound bass come to the gaff as easily as this with a fisherman at the working end of the enterprise with a ten-ounce rod and a three-ply cotton line. He could have moved a barge with tackle such as he was using now.
"Be calm!" he cried. "Courage! You are safe now if you only keep your head. Are you so very cold?"
The girl looked up with a thin, wan courage, but the water was deadly cold and, despite her youth and virility, she was fast growing numb and chilled. But she was not going to give up; that was not the Llewellyn way.
So they worked yard by yard down-stream, fighting every inch until the roar of the waterfall began to boom menacingly in Treherne's ears. He knew that it was here where the real stern fight would begin. Very, very gradually he worked his precious burden nearer to the bank at the foot of the precipice until he could see her immediately underneath. He had her presently just below a ledge of rock a foot or two above the level of the stream.
The pull of the waterfall, which was not twenty yards away now, was beginning to tell; and when at length Treherne paused, his rod was bent in a bow and the girl below was lying almost flat on the surface with the tear of it.
"It is nearly finished!" Treherne whispered in a voice tense with anxiety. "I am going to tie up here and come down to you."
"Do—be careful!" gasped Miss Llewellyn. "If—anything happens to you now—we are both finished."
Treherne proceeded to tighten the line as far as he dared and to attach it with a looped knot to the pronged horn of a pollarded willow standing on the bank. It was much as if he had a great pike on the hooks of a trimmer. When all was made secure he begun to make his way cautiously down the broken surface of the cliff until he reached the jutting ledge. Every fatal inch brought the heart into his mouth. One false step and there was an end to both of them!
At last he was down. Very cautiously now, lest the hooks should give way, he reached for the taut line and drew it to the bank. A second later and he had a firm grip under the arms of the exhausted girl. He had saved her within a few yards of the waterfall. She was past thanking him.
Without ceremony he stripped off her white sweater and cut the hooks free with the big blade of his fishing knife. Whipping off his heavy sports coat and cardigan he wrapped them about his almost unconscious burden. He filled the cup of his flask with a generous measure of raw whisky and forced her to drain it to the last drip. He felt her shudder in his arms and caught a faint dash of color in her cheeks. She smiled into his eyes.
"Come, that's better," he cried cheerfully. "Now if you are feeling up to it put your arms around my neck and I will carry you. Festina lente here, I think."
It was accomplished at length. Not an heroic rescue after the best traditions of the sensational school of fiction, but an entirely new and ingenious one and equally satisfactory.
"That was really clever and thoughtful of you!" Miss Llewellyn panted. "Not one man in a million would have dreamed of it. Only a fisherman could. Without you I should have drowned miserably. If you had plunged to save me from the consequences of my folly and idiotic conceit, you would have perished too. I knew that it was dangerous to stand on that stone, but I wanted to show you that I, too, could make a cast as long as yours, knowing all the while that I couldn't. And I—I was all wrong about that right-of-way, too——"
It was a pretty amende and one made with wet, pleading eyes, but Treherne cut her short.
"None of that now!" he growled. "My task is to take you as far as old Betty's cottage, and you will have to run—run, mind you! Your own place! Not on your life. It's half a mile farther, and in a race with pneumonia, it is the yards that count. Come on!"
Half dragging, half carrying her, Treherne began the memorable journey. When the cottage was reached Gwen Llewellyn was in a glow. But Treherne was not satisfied until he saw her seated in a nest of hot blankets before a roasting fire in his sitting-room and drink with some more spirit in it. Later on after a change of clothing had been fetched from the Manor House, Treherne accompanied her home and, at her earnest request, stayed to dinner.
When they parted both were astonished to realise how far the new friendship had progressed.
Gwen stood in the dimly lighted hall with her hand in that of her guest. Her eyes were shining in a way that Treherne had never seen before.
"And you will show me how to catch the big fish to-morrow?" she asked. "But you will never catch a bigger one than you caught to-day, Mr. Treherne—or one that gave you so much trouble!"
Treherne looked boldly into her eyes.
"Don't try and turn a mere fisherman into a hero," he said laughing. "And it's not so difficult to hook the big fish, the fish of one's dreams—the difficulty is to land them! And I haven't landed mine yet, Miss Llewellyn."
"Haven't you?" she whispered. "If—but isn't there a whole month to talk about—about fish whatever?"
Treherne was outside a moment later and the door was abruptly closed upon him. But the stars gave fine promise of good—fishing on the morrow.
IT was an affectionate, almost family, farewell that Dick Fenton took of Mrs. Lee Watson and her daughter Clytie when he saw them off from Cape Town in the late summer. As a matter of fact, he had seen a good deal of that exceedingly pleasant lady and her only child during the time they had been pleasuring in South Africa. And he had diverted a great deal of his leisure to seeing that they properly enjoyed themselves. That leisure had been rather pronounced lately, because Fenton was leaving South Africa for good within a month or so of Christmas, and, indeed, he would have more than willingly accompanied his friends but for one or two outstanding matters that called for his personal attention.
It would be his first visit home for ten years. He had gone out there more or less in his youth to build up the family fortunes, and had succeeded beyond his most sanguine expectations, so that, at the age of thirty-four, he was a rich man.
Not that there was any particular lure for him at home, since he was one of a dwindling family, and now that his father was dead he would have been hard put to it to find a single relative left in the old country. Still, that didn't matter very much to a man whose ambition it was to settle down in the land of his birth, where he fully intended to purchase one of the fine, old sporting estates that so often came into the market, and live the life of a gentleman of leisure upon his own property. A stable of horses, some good shooting, and all that sort of thing.
He had pictured within the background a vague image of some really nice girl. But that had been nebulous enough until fate had brought Clytie Watson into his life. And now, there was no longer any doubt as to who was to share the roseate picture he had conjured up and the more he saw of her, the more certain he was there could never be anybody else.
That there was no obstacle in the way he had already ascertained; indeed, Mrs. Lee Watson, like the good mother that she was, had been at some pains to assure him on this point, because she liked Dick, who was a clean, manly sort of individual, and one of the products of an English public school. He had become, perhaps, a little raw and careless of his personal appearance during the years of the struggle for fortune, but a few months in the society of the Lee Watsons et hoc would soon rub that off.
And so it was that the parting at Cape Town had come about in the most pleasing of circumstances.
"Then you will be back before Christmas?" Mrs. Watson said, as she shook hands warmly. "And you will come and spend at least a month with us at Claygates Hall?"
Dick murmured his gratitude. He wanted nothing better. He had heard enough about Claygates Hall to know that Claygates was one of those fine, old Elizabethan houses where the old tradition prevailed. He knew that it meant a big house party, with the usual Yuletide gaieties, and, even apart from Clytie, he would have accepted the invitation with alacrity.
"Of course," he said heartily. "You have no idea how grateful I am to you for giving me this opportunity. After ten years in this part of the world I should simply love to find myself spending Christmas in one of England's ancestral homes."
"That will be topping," Clytie said, a little shyly.
Her hand lay in his for a fraction of a second longer than convention called for, and Dick was conscious of the warm pressure of the little, pink fingers. Also, he was almost dizzily aware of a certain light in a pair of sapphire eyes which had haunted him to the exclusion of everything else for some months.
"I will be there," he said. "I will be there if I have to walk. But perhaps you wouldn't mind leaving the exact date open. There is a friend of mine, who was out here with me until fairly recently, who is going to be married somewhere about Christmas week, and if I am in London at the time, I must go. Indeed, Tony Bassett would be very much hurt if I didn't."
"Tony Bassett," Mrs. Watson exclaimed. "Oh, yes, we know all about that. Didn't he come into a fortune?"
"That's right," Dick laughed. "Some distant relative from whom he expected nothing. He bolted off home without even stopping to say good-bye to me, and I haven't heard a word from him since, except what I have gathered from the English newspapers. Of course, I knew that he was engaged."
"Oh, we know the Bassett family quite well. Also, Vera Trent, the girl Tony is going to marry. We haven't had an invitation to the wedding, though I dare say we should have done if he had been at home. And now, Mr. Fenton, we really must say good-bye. You know our address, so there will be no excuse for you not writing to us directly we reach London, and fixing up the day for your visit."
Fenton turned away at length, feeling that the world was a good place to live in, and that he was one of the most fortunate of men. His only regret was that he had not put his fortunes to the test before Mrs. Watson and her daughter left South Africa. Like most young men very much in love, he was lost in wonder that Clytie, with her beauty and fascination, had not been snapped up long ago. But these miracles are constantly happening. At any rate, it would not be Dick's fault unless he knew exactly where he stood before Christmas Day arrived. He would get to London now as soon as he possibly could and look up Tony Bassett.
But December was half over before Dick found himself in the chilly atmosphere of the metropolis and more or less at home in the modest hotel to which he had been driven on his arrival. And then, after a quiet dinner and a pipe, he went down to the smoking room and took up a morning paper. Almost the first thing he saw there was a paragraph in the society news relating to the marriage of Tony Bassett and Vera Trent.
With an exclamation of dismay, he saw that the happy event was fixed to take place in St. Olive's Church the following afternoon at half-past two.
Here was a pretty state of affairs! He would have to be present, at any rate at the ceremony, and, no doubt afterwards at the reception given by the bride's uncle, Sir John Lester in Eccleston Square. And he hadn't a garment in the world fit for such an occasion. It was the kind of thing he had not troubled about until he had reached London, where he had intended to spare a few days in close confabulation with the family tailor. All he had in his trunks was a seedy morning suit, and in this he would, perforce, have to mingle with some of the cream of England's society. Nor could he get hold of Tony in the meantime, because he had not the remotest idea as to where that individual was to be found.
"Well, there's no help for it," he told himself. "I shall have to make the best of it. They will probably take me for some shady chap after the wedding presents. By Jove, I haven't even got a card of invitation. Oh, well, I can send my name in to Tony, and I dare say it will be all right directly we meet."
FOR eight and forty hours, subsequent to Dick's visit to St. Olive's and the marriage of his old friend, he had been seated moodily in a police cell in Holloway Gaol. Also, he had been charged before a distinctly unfriendly magistrate with entering certain premises in Eccleston Square and there unlawfully possessing himself of a certain diamond ornament, which had been found in his pocket by a detective employed to look after the wedding presents. At the end of the somewhat brief proceedings, he had been remanded for a fortnight for inquiries, and that was exactly how matters stood at the moment.
He did not want to think too much of that exceedingly unpleasant scene in which he had been marched off, under the eyes of some two hundred guests, but he was essentially a man of action, and he had lost no time in getting at the fountain head. In other words, he had written a somewhat compelling letter to Sir John Lester, the uncle of the bride, and was now waiting for the next move on the part of that somewhat impulsive gentleman.
But two further days elapsed before the cell door was opened, and a warder escorted two visitors into the narrow apartment in which the prisoner was confined. The elder of the two was a typical Englishman of the better sporting class, and the younger belonging to the same type, and unmistakably class. He gave one glance at the man in the cell, and then fell back in astonishment.
"Dick," he cried. "What the devil?"
"Yes, what the devil," Dick Fenton said. "This is a nice way to treat an old pal. I reach London just in time to attend your wedding, and I come on to the reception afterwards with a present in my pocket, expecting to find you cutting the cake and making speeches and all the rest of it. But not a sign of you, or the bride, either. Nothing but Babel and confusion. I suppose that is how I managed to slip in without being challenged. But not knowing a soul there, I pottered about looking for the presents, and all that sort of thing, and then found myself in the custody of a detective sort of chap who finds a South African blue diamond in my pocket. So, despite all my protests, they dragged me here and charged me with stealing one of the wedding presents. Stealing my own property, mind! Well, here I am, and unless you do something speedily, here I am likely to stay."
"Good Lord," the man called Tony Bassett cried. "I wouldn't have had this happen for anything. And do you mean to say that you were present at my wedding?"
"I was," Dick said grimly. "Just as I told you. And in the shabby suit and tired looking spats I am wearing at the present moment. If I had had time to visit Savile Row and get a proper rig out this could never have happened. But because we are such old pals, I came along in this scarecrow kit to Eccleston Square meaning to ask one of the servants to give me an opportunity of speaking to you, when, of course, everything would have been all right. And then, when that unlucky present was found in my pocket, everything was all wrong. I suppose that is why Sir John Lester here decided to give me into custody. At any rate, he might——"
"Oh, quite, quite," the elderly gentleman said in confusion. "But, of course, I acted in good faith. I had no idea that my niece's husband had a friend called Fenton. And when I got your letter two days ago, I immediately cabled to the South of France for this,—this idiotic young bridegroom and brought him back hot foot from his honeymoon. And serve him right."
"Yes, I am afraid it's true, Dick," Tony Bassett confessed. "Look here, Sir John, Dick Fenton is a very old pal of mine. We were together in South Africa for years, and when I came into my money and made a dash for home and Vera, I asked Dick to come to the wedding. And as he was on the point of retiring from business, I hoped he would be back in time. And I'm dashed if he wasn't."
"I assure you that I wouldn't have had this happen for worlds," Sir John said. "Tony is entirely to blame. The way he upset the household on the day of his marriage was unpardonable."
"But what happened?" Dick asked.
Sir John majestically indicated the culprit by his side.
"Ask him," he said. "Ask him."
"Really, I am awfully sorry, old chap," Bassett said contritely. "You see, it was a little joke that Vera and I put up between us. We never wanted to have all that fuss over our wedding. Our idea was to slip quietly off to a registry office and get spliced on the sly, just like all the nuts are doing now-a-days. You know what I mean 'Society romance,' and all that sort of thing. Portrait of the bride, badly done and about a column of descriptive matter. See the idea? But what I really funked most was cutting the cake and the infernal speech-making afterwards. So when we got back, Vera sneaked up to her bedroom and changed, and I bunked into a room and climbed into my sports suit, and we sort of eloped by the back way in my two seater and got off on our own, without telling a soul where we were going. We didn't even travel to the house in the country which a pal had placed at our disposal. A bit rough on the villagers, with their arches and flags; but there you are, there's no use apologising. So we quietly sloped off to the South, and Vera sent Sir John here her address on a post card. We had hardly settled down to humdrum married life before I got a telegram from Sir John that made me sit up and purr. So I came back actually leaving Vera behind me to see what all the trouble was about. And upon my soul, old chap, it's dashed funny, isn't it?"
"Oh, very," Fenton said drily. "My name in all the papers. Three days in a cell like this and the prospect of coming before magistrates again in the course of a week or so. Perhaps I shall be able to see the humor of it later on, but, for the present—yet, perhaps, I am not altogether blameless. I ought not to have gone to Eccleston Square at all in this mouldy old kit. But I didn't think that the mere fact that I was going to give you a wedding present would be the means if making me into a criminal."
"Oh, criminal be hanged," Bassett cried. "'Pon my word, old chap I hardly know what to say about it. You see that little stunt of mine was quite innocent, though I admit it was a silly trick to do. And now, Sir John, what about it?"
"You are not blaming me, I hope," Lester said, a little stiffly.
"Well, to a certain extent I am," Bassett went on. "You gave poor old Dick into custody. You, it was, who wouldn't listen to a single explanation, and you it was who refused to believe my old friend when he said that that diamond was his offering to the bride. Dash it all, you might have given him the benefit of the doubt. I mean, you could have had him watched and all that sort of thing whilst you sent for me. I suppose he told you he was a friend of mine?"
"That," Sir John said uncomfortably, "I am bound to admit. I did not believe him. And that fool of a detective said he was quite sure he had seen Mr. Fenton's face before."
"Yes," Tony said impatiently, "but what about it?"
"Eh?" Sir John asked. "Do you suggest——"
"Suggest nothing. Look here, this thing has got to be stopped. Poor old Dick can't stay here another hour. And he can't go before magistrates again, either. What's the good of your being Lord Lieutenant of your county if you can't pull a string or two? You know the Home Secretary and all those legal nuts, don't you?"
Sir John Lester admitted that he did.
"Very well, then," Tony went on. "Let's take a taxi and go off at once to the Home Office and set the ball rolling. What's become of that blue diamond, by the way?"
Sir John was understood to say that it had been packed away with the rest of the wedding presents, and was at the bank.
"Well, there you are, then. Nobody else sent a blue diamond solitaire, and I know that nothing else was missing or we should have heard about it. Now, come on, let's get down to the Home Office and explain the whole thing. Tell the chaps there that it has been a ghastly mistake and that you are entirely to blame. By Gad, if old Dick was a different sort of man, he'd bring an action against you and recover heavy damages."
"I am not in the least likely to do that," Dick smiled. "Nor am I blaming Sir John at all. You are the culprit, Tony, and don't you forget it. And that's about all there is to be said."
IT was quite late in the evening before Dick found himself free to go his own way and returned to his hotel, comforting himself as best he could with the knowledge that to-morrow's papers would see him publicly exonerated from the ridiculous charge which had been made against him. He was still feeling very sore and angry, though logically there was no one to whom he could attach any particular blame. It was all very well to read in the papers the following morning the story which had been sent out to the Press, which pungent incident had been made the most of by certain of the cheaper papers with headlines all across the page. So that, altogether, Dick was very far from seeing ahead of him the Christmas that he had so delightfully anticipated on his way home from the Cape.
Nor, in the circumstances, did he feel disposed to communicate with Mrs. Lee Watson. There was, of course, no reason why he should not, but a certain shyness held him back. Besides, if there was one thing he hated more than another, it was publicity. He would go as far as Savile Row and replenish his wardrobe, after which he would set about the purchase of his Christmas presents. At any rate, he need not be shy of sending these to the ladies of Claygates Hall. That he could do.
It was a fine, crisp morning when he set out on his errand, and the streets were crowded with shoppers. And then, presently, in one of the big emporiums in Oxford-street he ran in Clytie Watson. There was absolutely no avoiding recognition.
She looked at him with a startled expression on her face.
"Oh, Mr. Fenton, oh!" she exclaimed.
Dick was quick enough to appreciate what was passing in her mind. It was quite evident she had read of his trouble which the society paragraphs in the papers had made the most of, and the sequel.
"You didn't expect to see me here," he said as coolly as possible. "I wonder if you would like to hear what I have to say."
"Of course I should," Clytie said, warmly, at the same time looking at him with something more than pity in her eyes.
"Then perhaps, if we had a little lunch together——"
"Well, why not?" Clytie asked. "I am in Town for a day or two shopping with my mother, and she has gone off to the Ritz to see some friends. And, oh, I don't believe a word of it."
"You don't believe that I am—I am——"
"Guilty of that ridiculous business? Of course not. Do let's go somewhere where we can talk about it quietly."
And so it came about, half an hour later, that they were sitting at a secluded little table in the corner of the dining-room of a West-End hotel, with Clytie listening eagerly to the story that Dick had to tell. When he had finished, her face was flushed and rosy and there was more than a suspicion of tears in her eyes. Then she laughed wholeheartedly, like a child that is pleased.
"What an extraordinary thing," she said. "When I read the first account in the papers, I didn't know what to think. But, mind you, I didn't think for a moment that you could possibly have done anything wrong. And my mother agreed with me. And you say it's all in this mornings papers. Well, I'm rather glad I didn't see it. I wonder if you can guess why?"
"Give it up," Dick said rather briefly.
"Oh, how silly of you! Don't you see it's because I am able to meet you like this and shake hands with you before I heard the explanation? Now, you will never be able to think that I had the slightest doubt about you. You must take me back to our hotel so that we can have tea with mother, and if you can arrange to come down to Claygates with us to-morrow it would be lovely."
"I am afraid I can't come to-morrow," Dick said audaciously. "You see I must stay in town a few days until my wardrobe is replenished. And I haven't even a decent dress suit. And in any case, I am afraid I could only come down to Claygates on one condition. I wonder if you can guess what that is, Clytie."
"Perhaps I can, Dick," the girl said demurely.
"Ah, well, I think we understand one another. It wouldn't be a really happy Christmas to me unless I could—er—kiss you under the mistletoe. And I, I don't mean as a matter of custom but as a right. Am I presuming too far Clytie?"
She looked into his face, her eyes sparkling gaily.
"Won't you come down and see?" she asked.
And Dick said, in a matter of fact sure enough that it was good enough for him. Just for a moment he regretted that the conventions, to say nothing that the crowd about him, prevented him from advertising his reply in a more emphatic manner.
"I'll come down on the 21st," he said. "I can't possibly manage it earlier, and you shall meet me with the car at the station and the next day we'll go out in the woods and cut the Yule log together. I can do pretty well everything with an axe, and I have been longing for years to spend an English Christmas and help to bring in the Yule log. And, I say, Clytie, you might lend me that little ruby ring of yours."
"What do you want it for?" Clytie murmured.
"Just as if you couldn't guess. When I give it to you back, I will give you another one as well—diamonds and pearls, eh?"
And so, in due course, the Yule log was cut and carried, and Dick and Clytie sat down to the enjoyment of the most perfect Christmas dinner that either ever remembered, and on Clytie's left hand was a ring of pearls and diamonds of which she seemed to be inordinately proud.
SIR JOSEPH BOSLEY, Bart., of Garton Street and eke Marley Grange, in the County of Kent, and some time of the diplomatic service, was taking one of his morning ambles in the direction of Campden Hill prior to an hour at his club, the Senior Forum. He was a most amiable old gentleman, beautifully spatted and upholstered, rosy as the sunny side of a pippin, and exuding bland amiability from every pore of his clean little body. That he was spoken of in his club as a man breaking up fast and a victim of senile decay troubled him not at all, for the simple reason that he did not know it; but he was vague and absent-minded to a degree, and accordingly a mark for all the artists in the craft of "tale pitching" within a mile of his town residence. He wore no watch for the simple reason that on one occasion a predatory craftsman had by chance fenced for an opening towards the "tale" by asking if Sir Joseph would kindly "give him the time," whereupon he had found himself presented with a quite valuable watch in Sir Joseph's best mental-dementia manner, since when his daughter Patricia had made it her business to see that he carried no timepiece.
He doddered on at peace with all mankind until he reached the gates of Eversdene House, the property of Lord Eversdene, a nobleman with whom he was not on particularly good terms owing to some rather ridiculous dispute over a boundary fence down in Kent, which ran between the properties of the respective protagonists, a dispute that caused a great deal of uneasiness to his lordship's heir and nephew, Kenyon Waldron, and Sir Joseph's daughter Patricia. Not that there had been any open rupture, but Lord Eversdene had made unpleasant remarks on the budding romance, and had hinted at all sorts of things if his successor married into a family showing symptoms of congenital insanity. He could not will away the title or the Kent property, but he could otherwise dispose of the bulky fortune he had inherited from his late spouse; and therefore, it behoved young Kenyon, like Agag, to walk delicately.
But nothing of this was disturbing the pink serenity or Sir Joseph as he paused before the big iron gates. The sudden sight of a placard bearing the legend "On View" brought him up all standing, and the recollection that his lordship was disposing of the property in response to a tempting offer from a firm of speculative builders slowly trickled through the grey matter of his absent-mindedness. In the course of a week or two everything in the house would be sold; meanwhile intended purchasers were free to inspect the goods by ticket, which fact did not deter Sir Joseph from passing beyond the iron gates. A policeman, recognising a distinguished local inhabitant, touched his helmet, and Sir Joseph passed on into the house.
It was all quite familiar, just as it had been in the old days before the unfortunate misunderstanding about the boundary fence. A few people of the better class wandered more or less aimlessly round with catalogues in their hands. In an inner room Sir Joseph found himself presently bending attentively over a small collection of curios spread out on long tables supported by trestles. On these he browsed ruminatively until his absent eye lighted upon a small brass box, in which was an oval object packed in cotton wool, and held in place by little points of india-rubber. It might have been a remarkably fine specimen of the ova of the common or garden hen mottled and splashed in some idle moment, but inside the lid a label neatly printed proclaimed the fact that here was the egg of that extinct fowl the Little Auk, and that the specimen in question had been captured in the year 1851 somewhere in the Hebrides.
"Ah! Remarkable! So it is!" Sir Joseph muttered. "Used to collect birds' eggs myself when a boy. Remember reading about the Little Auk. Worth £100, perhaps more. Dear me."
He placed the specimen down on the edge of the table and ambled away oblivious to the fact that the box had slipped to the floor and, falling, the lid had closed. One of those fussy strangers who appear to be ubiquitous at such gatherings hurried after Sir Joseph with the box in his hand.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I think you have dropped something. It seemed to fall from your pocket."
"Eh, bless my soul, did it?" Sir Joseph cried. "Very likely, very likely, always dropping things from my pocket. Must have done it pulling out my handkerchief. Very kind of you, sir."
In his dreamiest fashion Sir Joseph thrust the brass box under the tails of his immaculate morning coat and passed on. That he was stealing a curiosity of value and rarity he did not realize for a moment. He had already forgotten that there was such a thing as a Little Auk's egg on the face of creation.
He wandered on in a misty, kindly world of his own until, without in the least knowing how he got there, he arrived at his club and pottered into the reading room. The room was almost empty, but fortunately The Times was disengaged. Sir Joseph grabbed it and sank into the depths of a big armchair. The brass box in the coat tail pocket made its presence felt. Sir Joseph sat up with a jolt and proceeded to remove the offending object, which he placed on the table by his side.
"Now how on earth did that get there?" he murmured. "And where did it come from. However??"
With that he forgot the strange incident altogether. He was walking off presently, suddenly conscious of a desire for lunch, when a fellow clubman who had watched the whole incident came after him with a humorous smile on his face and the brass box in his hand.
"A small present for you, Bosley," he said. "I had intended giving it you for some little time. An egg the Little Auk. As an old collector of birds' eggs perhaps??"
Sir Joseph rose just as the licensed club joker imagined he would, knowing the other's absent-mindedness.
"Now that is kind of you, Jorkins, very kind," Sir Joseph cried excitedly. "A Little Auk's egg. Really! Funny, but I seem to have seen another one quite recently. I wonder where."
"South Kensington, probably," Jorkins said solemnly.
"Ah, of course, of course, though I don't remember being there for years. Memory, Jorkins, memory. What a blessing it is."
The romance of the Little Auk's egg would probably have ended there and then save as a club joke but for the fact that for the second time the flattered recipient placed it in his coat tail pocket and once again it made its presence felt as Sir Joseph sat down to lunch with his daughter Patricia. That highly desirable divinity in pink and white with the eyes of heavenly blue and the charming dimples in her peach-like cheeks was none the less dutiful a child because she knew her father and his little ways, and when he started with a painful "ouch" and dived into his pocket to produce the little brass box she quietly waited developments.
"What is that and where did you get it from?" she asked.
Sir Joseph stared at the box with the air of a man suddenly confronted with the evidence of a crime.
"Now, where did I get it from?" he asked himself vaguely. "My dear child, I haven't the faintest? Oh, yes, of course, how stupid I am. Do you know, Pat, there are times when I begin to fear that my memory is not all it was; in fact??"
"Where did you get it from?" Patricia asked inflexibly.
Sir Joseph's eye beamed on her with mild innocence and no consciousness of a hairsbreath from the paths of rectitude. Like most men of his type, he could be rashly obstinate at times, witness the tragedy of the boundary fence in which he was utterly in the wrong, and all the more obdurate in consequence. He was in the habit of coming home with these unconsidered trifles, and much diplomacy was needed to avoid scandalous consequences.
"I was just going to tell you," he said. "Jorkins gave it to me in the club. An egg of that extinct bird the Little Dodo. No, the Great Auk. Ticha, Little Auk. Most valuable curio, and just the thing for my museum."
In the the back drawing room Sir Joseph had a collection of nice-looking rubbish which he was pleased to call his museum, but beyond a set of Apostle spoons of dubious antiquity the rest was beneath contempt. And even those species he would have entirely forgotten long since save for the fact that he was in daily contact with them. He knew that his name was Bosley and that he was a baronet, because his equals and dependants frequently reminded him of the fact, and he was aware of the fact that he was a landowner with a respectable rent roll, since he employed a secretary who did not allow him to forget, but in all probability within a week, if any one asked him a question about Little Auks' eggs, he would have enquired what a Little Auk was. Patricia, however, was interested in the dusky shell and its brief biography, and it was she who placed it in the litter of rubbish that constituted the museum. All the same, she was not altogether easy in her mind, and she mentioned the subject to Kenyon Waldron when he dropped in for tea two days later.
"Dad has added to his museum," she smiled. "It was given him by a man called Jorkins at the Forum Club."
The fortunate youth with the adoring eyes and perfectly creased trousers pricked up his ears. As a member of the Forum himself, he knew something of the sporting qualities of the club jester, so he waited with a certain curiosity.
"Something quite fresh, darling," Pat beamed. "The egg of an extinct bird called the Little Auk."
Kenyon Waldron jumped to his feet with a yell.
"Ken!" Patricia cried. "If there is a nail in that chair??"
"Nail be hanged! I beg your pardon, darling, but this is a serious matter. Fact is, the day before yesterday the very thing you mention was missed from a sort of collection in Eversdene House, and no trace of it can be found. The contents of the mansion are on view, as you know, and I am more or less supposed to be looking after things, as my uncle is in Paris. Fact is, he hated to part with the place after all these centuries, and went to Paris to be out of the way until the sale of the furniture was over. But an egg of the Little Auk is missing, and the matter was put into the hands of the police yesterday. Nothing public, of course, but I feel it in my bones that Sir Joseph is at the bottom of it."
"You think that he sto—took it, dear?"
"'Fraid so. Thing's, unique, you know. None in existence outside museums. What infernal luck, darling. That dad of yours must have pottered into the house, attracted by the notice of the private view, and in one of his absent fits put the egg into his pocket. Where that funny ass Jorkins comes in dashed if I can see. I'll go round to the club presently and pump him cautiously. But, anyhow, if this gets to the ears of my uncle it will be all over so far as we are concerned. Let's have a look at the thing."
It needed no more than a glance to convince Waldron that the little brass box contained the missing treasure.
"Now what on earth's to be done," he asked forlornly.
"It's dreadful," Patricia sighed. "Of course, you might take the egg away with you, but dad is sure to miss it, at any rate, for the next week or two, before he forgets all about it, and there would be a great fuss and the servants would be suspected. Dad can be quite nasty when the mood is on him, and I hate the idea of having to tell, well, downright lies to him. And if he was told what he had done pointblank, it would break his heart. He would never get over it. He hasn't the least idea that he does these sort of things, and the truth would prevent his ever appearing in public again. Is it possible that that horrid Mr. Jorkins was playing a practical joke on dad? A man with a name like that might."
"Oh, Jorkins is by no means a bad chap," Kenyon said, judicially. "However, I shall have to see him in the matter. If I go now I shall probably catch him before he starts his afternoon bridge. If I do, I will come back at once."
As luck would have it, the genial joker was still full of his little jeu d'esprit, and Waldron was able to get full particulars without having to ask for them. He returned presently to the beloved object in a properly chastened frame of mind.
"So that's that," he said, moodily. "Dashed if I know what to do. We must restore the egg somehow before my uncle comes back, or Lord knows what will happen. And I'd hate Sir Joseph to suffer; also, I'd hate for you to have to tell him a lot of lies. At the end of a week, according to what you say, the dear old man would forget he ever had the egg if it disappeared in a way that seemed natural. There must be some way, Pat, dear."
"I'm sure I don't see one," Pat said, despairingly, "unless some providential burglar comes along and clears out the museum. Ken! Oh, Ken! Why shouldn't we have a burglary here?"
"What, a real one?" Waldron cried. "Do you know any burglars who would take the job on with a commission? Got one on your visiting list, by any chance?"
"Don't be absurd." Patricia flashed a glorious April smile behind something suspiciously like tears. "But what about your friend Roger Pennington, the novelist? He knows all sorts of queer people. His last book was all about that class. And didn't he have a burglar in his section when he was serving in France?"
"True, oh queen," Waldron said. "But if we take on this mad stunt Pennington will have to be told the truth."
"Well, why not? Roger Pennington is a gentleman, and one of ourselves. Don't you see that there is no other way, Ken, darling."
Now youth is ever sanguine and ever daring, and not over prone to discount the tricks of fate. Moreover, the virus of adventure is as quicksilver in its veins.
"It would be rather a lark," Waldron said with enthusiasm. "Anyway, I'll see Pennington and ask him."
That somewhat erratic genius Roger Pennington was a scion of the older nobility who had developed an intellect, to the utter astonishment of his progenitors, so instead of going into the church and propping up a family living or starving genteelly in the army, he had adopted the profession of a novelist and done exceedingly well at it with his works of pathos and humour depicting the lives as lived in the underworld. A brief hiatus between 1914-18 had seen him elsewhere in a humble capacity as a section commander, and he held that the time had not been wasted. Now he was back again in London, where he had picked up the broken threads, and his novels were selling by the thousand. He spent a great part of his time in lodgings down Wapping way, where he had a room, and mixed freely with the proletariat in picturesque rags; and, when not engaged in that congenial occupation, he pervaded a flat in Pont street, and it was here that Waldron ran him to earth.
He listened to the tale of woe languidly at first; then he threw off his inertia and proclaimed the fact that he could see a dashed fine short story in the offing. Also, he was quite prepared to take a hand in the adventure.
"I've got the very man you want," he said eagerly. "Chap named Spragster—Reuben Spragster. Once a burglar, and a jolly good burglar, too. He's out of business now, and, I believe, in a regular job, though I haven't seen him for months. He was in my section over yonder, and I had lots of yarns with him, and he provided me with no end of stunning 'copy.' When the shindy was over I persuaded him to drop what he called 'the aside game' and try a little honesty. But if he knew that this was a put-up job requiring an appearance of the genuine artist at work involving no risks, I fancy he would take it on for a tenner. I'll see Spragster if you like."
Waldron assented with marked enthusiasm. Mr. Reuben Spragster was found by Pennington after a long search evidently suffering from severe commercial depression. He had been out of a (sanguinary) job for five weeks and was seriously thinking of going back to the old love if only to keep him on the sunny side of the workhouse.
There was nothing of the Cockney about Spragster. He was a little red man with a west-country accent and in the happy past he had been assistant to a father who lived in a fashionable village of the old thatched type, where the progenitor had made for a long time a handsome living selling spurious antique furniture to guileless tourists, mostly of transatlantic extraction. A particularly bold forgery on the grand scale had resulted in a prosecution, and Spragster pere had paid a penalty which occupied him five years, so that the once flourishing business wilted, and Reuben Spragster drifted to London, and there fell into evil courses. His line was antiques, particularly old silver, of which he possessed a considerable knowledge, and, moreover, he knew where to dispose of it.
"I'm broke to the wide, Guvnor, I mean Captain," he explained. "There ain't no bouquets in this 'ere straight path as you put me an to, and if a cully 'adn't offered me a sort of shop in New York I'd been back at the old game again. However, if you got somethin' on as 'ul 'elp in the pasage money, chuck it off yer chest."
"These are bad times for all of us," Pennington said. "Even we authors are reduced to taking in one another's ideas, the same as a certain community was supposed to support existence by taking in each other's washing."
"Like them there politicians," Spragster grinned, "alias stealin' the policy of the other side."
"Assimilate, I think, is the proper word," Pennington delicately suggested. "It sounds so much better." Spragster grinned his appreciation of the point, for he was a whimsical rascal. "I gather, Cpl. Spragster, that you need money, and, moreover, are not daintily particular how you get it."
Almost passionately Spragster assured his visitor that he had not exaggerated the case. But now that it came to the point Pennington hesitated. He was not quite to sure that this jeu d'esprit was going to make the ripping story he had anticipated. In the first place, he had to guarantee Spragster immunity, and, if matters did go wrong, he couldn't see how he was going to do that without a public explanation, in which case an unfeeling press would have the humorous story and not the chief propagandist—himself. A flaming article, entitled, for instance, "Strange Conduct of a Novelist," did not make a strong appeal to him, and for the first time he was regretting that he had not devoted his ingenious mind to a solution of the problem in some fashion that did not involve this attempt to sap the comparatively tender morality of a converted burglar. But, on the other hand, the thing was pressing, and if the fateful egg was not in its place before Lord Eversdene returned from Paris two lives would be wrecked. Moreover, Pennington had made rather a careful study of Sir Joseph Bosley and his little ways, and if the egg had simply been removed by Waldron or his inamorata a wholesale sacking of the servants would probably follow, for Sir Joseph was given to those impulsive outbreaks which is the way with mild absent-minded people sometimes. But if was too late to draw back now, and Pennington proceeded to unfold the story.
"Twenty pounds," he said. "That is the sum we can give you. In the back drawing room of Sir Joseph Bosley's house, in Garton street, Kensington, you will find a little box containing a bird's egg. 'Only that and nothing more,' as the poet says. That you will procure and leave at my rooms the same day, when I shall hand you what is picturesquely called the boodle. The number of the house is 16. Everything will be made as easy as possible for you, and you will find the area door none too secure. But you must give the thing an artistic finish, so that if the police are called in by any chance they will regard it as the work of a professional. You see it's a sort of practical joke, and if you do get into trouble I shall be prepared to come forward and speak for you. What do you say to tackling the job to-morrow night?"
"Guvnor," Spragster said, almost tearfully, "I'm on."
Sir Joseph sat on the side of his bed ruminating in that rambling way of his instead of getting into bed and sleeping like any other old gentleman with a clear conscience and the solid respect of his bankers. A wandering mind like his rarely concentrated on any disturbing subject did not call for such sleep, and therefore ruminating in his bedroom for hours after the household had retired had become a fixed habit known to nobody but himself.
At 1 o'clock he was still sitting there with the egg of the Little Auk uppermost in what was by courtesy his mind. He was quite vaguely aware as to where he was, then, by some queer mental process he became aware of his bed and proceeded to rise and brush his teeth. The sudden jolt of the brush on a gum where undoubtedly a tooth ought to have been brought him to a certain degree of coherent consciousness. The molar with its gold plate was missing. Most assuredly that specimen of dental artistry had been performing its accustomed function at dinner time or Sir Joseph would have known it. But what had become of it? Annoying, most annoying.
Sir Joseph proceeded to put a powerful strain on his memory. It was painful, but the thing had to be done. Then the inspiration came. He had been sitting in the inner drawing-room pottering over his treasures when he had noticed a sort of swelling in the region of the gums behind the gold plate. He had removed the impediment and placed it on a table where it lay entirely forgotten.
"Must go and get it, go and get it," Sir Joseph muttered. "Not a nice thing for the servants to find in the morning."
He crept quietly down the stairs in his bedroom slippers and felt his way into the drawing-room with the ease of a man who knows his way in the dark. The door of the inner room was ajar and from it came a long slit of light. As if this were quite a customary thing at an hour when the household slept, Sir Joseph pushed his way in. He saw a small figure with a flaming mop of hair bending over the large table which held what Sir Joseph called his treasures, and in the act of slipping something in his pocket. The brass box containing the precious egg was not to be seen. But Sir Joseph was not interested in that. He was wondering who this man was and what the dickens he was doing there.
"My good fellow," he said, blandly, "what is the meaning of this unexpected visit? Surely you are in the wrong house. Unless, perhaps it is the telephones. But you don't look like telephones."
Reuben Spragster said something lurid under his breath. This most emphatically was not what he had expected in the way of treatment. The ingress had been easy enough and the subsequent progress to the drawing-room presented no difficulties, but he had not been prepared to encounter one who obviously was the master of the house in the initial, or indeed any other, stage of the proceedings. Still, the idea of a "plant" was out of the question, and Spragster, conscious of the strength of the position, began to see his way. He was a humorous rascal and the situation had possibilities. Moreover "mug" was written in large letters all over the little mild-eyed gentleman in the striped silk pyjamas.
"I'm a bit of a collector like yourself, guvnor," he said. "Born and bred to it like my father, only we used to sell what we found. Poor lot of stuff you got 'ere."
"Bless my soul," Sir Joseph cried, "you're a burglar."
He appeared quite pleased with his own astuteness.
"I'm afraid that I shall have to hand you over to the police," he went on. "Bless my soul, I never had occasion to do anything of the kind before. Regrettable, most regrettable. Ah!"
He gave a gasp of relief as he noted the missing molar and, making a dart, placed it in his mouth. Spragster began to understand the reason for this unfortunate interruption. Nice thing for people to go shedding their teeth about in this fashion. Still, there might be something to be made out of this amiable lunatic with proper handling. And Spragster was the man to do it.
"I ain't a burglar in the proper way of speakin'," he said, whiningly. "You see it's like this, sir. My father, before he got himself into trouble, was a dealer in antiques. A fine judge he were and loved them things as if they were his kids. But he did wrong and they put him away for a long stretch."
"I beg your pardon. A long stretch?"
"Yus, quod, you know, sir. So the business was broke up and I was sent into the world with no prospects. And me as dead set on them pretty things as the pore old man. Can't keep away from 'em. Can't work fer hangin' round museums. But private collections is me mark, only there's no chance for a poor bloke like me seein' of 'em. So I 'its upon this stunt. Sort o' burglary when the coves as owns the stuff are asleep. Not as I does any 'arm, sir, and I never been caught afore."
"Amazing," Sir Joseph cried, "simply amazing. What a story to tell at the club. But they'll never believe me."
"——'When I tell them how wonderful you are, they'll never believe me,'" Spragster warbled under his breath thoughtfully. "Beg your pardon, sir. Now this 'ere little show of yourn——"
"Yes, yes," Sir Joseph asked eagerly. "As a judge now, come! I am a mere child in such matters."
Spragster did not in the least doubt it, and moreover, he was banking on the fact. This thing was going to be dead easy without calling on his patron, Mr. Pennington, after all.
"Punk, absolute punk, and I won't deceive yer," he said.
"Punk," the bewildered baronet cried, "what is punk?"
"Punk, junk, or chunk, it's all the same. Lord, wouldn't my old man have chucked a customer like you the glad eye. Now, I dessay as you think them Apostle spoons is O.K."
"You mean to say they are not?" Sir Joseph asked in dismay.
"Course not. Gotter a magnerfyin' glass 'andy?"
Sir Joseph had a magnifying glass handy, and produced it.
"Now look fer yerself," Spragster went on. "See them little scratches on the back? That's the mark of the bloke in Amsterdam what made 'em. Put there so as the snide dealers what sell this muck to fools like—well fools, anyway—shan't make awkward mistakes and do themselves. Take my tip and chuck this stuff in the gutter if you don't want yer pals to laugh at yer. 'Ere, I'll take the lot and bury 'em meself."
Sir Joseph was quite visibly moved. This evidence of disinterested kindness on the part of a mere stranger was almost touching.
"Greatly obliged to you, my dear sir," he murmured. "Quite right, too, quite right. Snobbish idea keeping things that are not what they appear to be, very. Now is there anything I can offer you? A glass of wine? A whisky and soda?"
Spragster was touched in his turn. He watched Sir Joseph disappear in the direction of the dining-room, then, quite firmly, he mastered his emotion, and without ostentation, vanished unobtrusively in the direction of the basement stairs....
The egg of the Little Auk was back again in its original home (per Kenyon Waldron), presumably returned by the conscience-stricken thief, and once more the flowers in the garden of romance were blooming. Spragster, happy in the possession of 20 unexpected pounds, was making his simple preparations from his native shores, and Sir Joseph had entirely forgotten that such a phenomenon as the Little Auk had ever existed. And Spragster was not the least happy of the chief protagonists.
"I told him it was punk, and punk it was," he murmured, patting his breast pocket tenderly. "But them there Aspostles was a bit of all right and no error."
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