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The Unfolding Years:
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Date first posted: Dec 2022
Most recent update: Dec 2022
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A man was hanged for murder. Many years later his son, a medical man of some distinction, finding his father had been innocent, takes the law into his own hands and deals out vengeance to the real murderer who, by his lying evidence, had brought his father to the scaffold, but skilful and resourceful as he was, he had reckoned without Gilbert Larose, Scotland Yard's most brilliant investigator. There began a thrilling and deadly game of move and counter-move, with the avenger, however, just always one step ahead of the detective, until—
Another of those exciting yarns of mystery and detection for which Arthur Gask is deservedly acclaimed.
[The summary above appears on the first page of the book, before the title page. Larose is mentioned briefly in the Chapter 1, but is not mentioned again until Chapter 9, about eighty percent of the way into the book. The story is interesting enough, with many plot twists and turns. —Ebook editor]
SONS and daughters of the jungle we shall always be, and, as long as time lasts, neither civilisation, education nor culture can rend from us the impulses of that lowly origin which runs like a scarlet thread through every fibre of our beings. Cleansed from the promptings of the animal we are no longer normal, and with their undue repression a most dangerous class of men and women is loosed upon the community.
SURELY there is none among us who has not his secrets, none who has not those hidden chapters in his life he would care for no one to read. While, certainly, with some the secrets may be personal and trivial, with others they are of a more momentous nature, and their disclosure would bring terrible consequences to those who are hiding them. My secrets fall into this latter category.
A consulting physician in the West End of London, I am thirty-six years of age. Married to the daughter of a peer, Lord Carden of Ashdown Castle, and myself believed to be connected with another titled family, my practice is not unnaturally what would be called a fashionable one. I have a steadily increasing following among the best people in Society circles.
Among my professional brethren, too, I am regarded with some little esteem, and my researches into the diseases of the Fifth Nerve have already brought me something of a reputation, with one result: I am the youngest practitioner to have been admitted to the very exclusive Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians.
Indeed, I am regarded everywhere as a very fortunate man. My wife, who is ten years younger than I am, was undoubtedly the most beautiful débutante of her coming-out year, and she could not have given me three more lovely children. Not the faintest shadow of a cloud has come into our five years of married life, and we could not possibly be a happier or more devoted couple.
Yet—if everything about me were known, if certain pages of my life were turned, what a fall indeed would be mine, and what tragedy would overwhelm those near and dear to me!
I am directly connected to no great people! My origin is a lowly one, and, by a strange irony of Fate, both my father and my mother were once very humble employees of the parents of my wife. Also, my father was hanged for murder when I was eight years old.
Again, in the eyes of the Law I am myself one of the worst of criminals, as a little over five years ago I killed a man, under circumstances, however, where the crime could not be brought home to me. The killing may certainly not have been deliberate, but the thought of it had been long pleasing to my mind.
Still, it was no vulgar crime, no crime of passion, and not even one of revenge. It was an act of justice, carried out on the spur of the moment. It was punishment, punishment long delayed and many, many times lighter than that which the wretch deserved.
He was a vile man, one of the vilest, and his passing brought sorrow to no one. The world was well rid of him, and he died on the very spot in that lonely wood where three and twenty years before he had himself taken life. And he had taken it then in a most brutal manner and for the purpose of gain. Not content with his dreadful crime, with trickery and lies he had fastened the guilt on to another man and brought him to the scaffold. And that man had been the husband of my mother.
Oh, the amazement on his face when in those last moments of his life I told him who I was! No, his eyes do not haunt me, though I shall remember always—and I always want to—the blood which spurted as the bullet crashed into his forehead.
He had not whined for mercy because he had not been expecting death. He had not dreamed I would dare to shoot him. I had disclosed to him the secret of my birth, and he had gloatingly told me how he would broadcast it to the world, but when with a vile epithet he mentioned my mother's name, I cut him short with a bullet just above his eyes, and left him sprawled upon the ground.
And I had thought myself so safe, too, so secure from ever being found out but, oh, what a mistake was mine, and through what dreadful weeks of anxiety I was to pass! Larose picked up my trail, Gilbert Larose, the star detective of Scotland Yard, and the man who never failed!
Ah—but he did fail this time, he did just fail, though for the moment my fate trembled on the balance of a razor's edge. He was foiled—not because he had not been right in almost everything he had found out, but because a falsehood had been uttered and he could not prove its falsity, as the lips of the man who had spoken it had been sealed in death.
Now, I pride myself I am no hypocrite and have never been anything of a bad man. I make no pretence, however, that I have not done many things contrary to the conventions among which we all live, but I have always justified myself to myself for my actions, and if my worst enemy knew all I am sure he could not point to anything mean or craven about me.
I have tried to make my religion the religion of kindness and, as a medical man, have given of my best and never spared myself to do my utmost for those who have come to me in sickness or distress. The fee I was to receive—or many, many times was not to receive—has never counted with me in my work, and even in the days when I was poor and struggling the patient with scant means received just the same sympathy and care as those who were well-off. Always my profession has been a sacred calling to me, and I have scorned, foolishly many may think, to press or sue people for money.
Certainly, if all were known about me in my private life, it might be argued that at times I have had few scruples. I admit it, but contend—only when scruples would have been foolish, and often cowardly.
Why, for instance, should I disclose to my much-loved wife that I was born in the gardener's cottage of her father's castle and that my mother was one of her mother's maids? How am I harming anyone by not letting these things be known? I am sure my wife would not love me less if she knew them, but she comes of a proud patrician family, and all her life has been brought up among the prejudices of her class. So, quite apart from recalling the disgraceful nature of my father's death, it would be galling to her pride to think that her children, on their father's side, came from such humble stock.
Happily, she will never learn it, and when we visit the Castle, which will one day be hers, as she is the only child, she often remarks laughingly what a fitting background the beauty of the old place is for the beauty of her children, and that everyone can see they are real little aristocrats.
And why should I undeceive her? What good would come of it?
Then, about my being taken for the grandson of old Lord Roxborough—that has come about through a freak of pure chance. My mother married again after she came to Australia and that second husband, the Honourable Charles Hubert Fitz-Leonard, was a banished son of the old lord. He was a widower when he met her, and had lost his only son, who had been almost exactly my age and had the same Christian name, Charles. I stepped into the dead boy's shoes, took his surname, and in later life even made use of his certificate of birth.
Surely a very simple and quite reasonable excuse for the imposition, and whom does it harm? On the contrary, it pleases his lordship not a little. He is proud to have a grandson who is a successful West End physician, and often declares that he would not have thought it possible that banished son of his could have begotten such a clever and well-balanced fellow as he believes I am.
MY story is a strange one, and commences when I was just eight years old. My father, Reuben Baxter, as I have already mentioned, was one of Lord Carden's gardeners at the Castle, and my mother, Nellie Wand until she married, Lady Carden's sewing-maid. She must have been a very pretty girl, my mother, for I remember her as an exceedingly pretty woman when I began to take notice of such things. Of a refined and gentle nature, she was first married when not yet twenty.
I heard in later years she had been so pretty that Lady Carden had been glad when she was married and out of her care, as she had always been such a troublesome attraction to the men guests at the Castle. I heard, too, that there had been rumours of some scandal about her and one of the titled visitors and that she had been married rather hurriedly. However, I would not believe that, as my father was a strict, stern man, and I am sure he would never have married any girl who was not all she should have been.
As far as I remember, he was very fond of her in his quiet, undemonstrative way, and always kind to her. I hardly think, however, she could have been very fond of him, as he was plain-looking and rather commonplace, and when he was dead she destroyed the only photograph she had of him.
That August, a few weeks after my birthday, I had been sent to my mother's maiden sister for the holidays. She kept a little news agency and tobacco shop in the Pevensey Road, Eastbourne, and I remember I had been enjoying myself immensely except for the absence of my mother, whom I missed a lot. I had another small boy from the butcher's next door as a companion, and we paddled and caught crabs and built sand-castles on the seashore all day long.
I had been there about a fortnight when, coming home in the afternoon for tea, I was astonished to find my mother in the little room behind the shop. When I came in I thought she looked as if she had been crying, but she was very bright and smiling and made a great fuss of me. She said she had been ordered away by the doctor for a long holiday with me, and did not know when she should go back. I was delighted at the idea, because to me there was never anyone like her.
One thing, however, which even at that age puzzled me was that I was told never to mention to anyone that we came from Ashdown Castle. I was to say we came from Tunbridge Wells. I asked my mother why, and she said she hated people being inquisitive. Poor dear Mother! I was to learn in after years that my father was then awaiting his trial for murder.
August passed, and when September came I was sent to the board school nearest to us in Eastbourne. There I kept up the story that Tunbridge Wells was our home. The weeks passed on, and then one miserable day my mother was crying bitterly. She had stopped both the clocks the night before, so that, as I learned later, she should not know the exact moment when my father was being hanged. She would not tell me why she was crying, except that she had got a bad headache.
Not very long after that day the little house was suddenly all bustle and new clothes were bought. I could not understand it until one morning my mother broke the news that my father had died of pneumonia, and we were to sail for Australia the next week—to make our fortunes, she added sadly.
My father's death was not much of a blow to me, and soon forgotten in the excitement of going for the long voyage across the sea. One never-to-be-forgotten afternoon we left Tilbury on a P. and O. boat, travelling third class.
The long voyage was a continual delight to me and I made friends with everyone, my mother, however, having as little as possible to do with everyone. The men, of course, would have made a great fuss of her, but she avoided them and gave none of them any encouragement. All the day long she sat, a lonely, solitary figure in her chair on deck, either sewing or knitting industriously.
We arrived eventually at Fremantle, and just after we had left the harbour I fell over a coil of rope and almost stunned myself. My nose bled copiously. One of the passengers, a tall, bearded man, with piercing dark eyes, picked me up. His hands were rough and large, but he handled me gently.
"Don't be afraid, sonny," he said kindly. "You're not much hurt and will soon be all right again."
He carried me into his cabin and bathed the blood from my face. "Now where's your father?" he said. "We'll go up to him."
"I haven't got a father," I said, "but my mum's up on deck."
My mother was aghast to see my white face and the bloodstains on my clothes, but my new friend took off his cap with a great flourish and said reassuringly, "No harm done, madam. Just knocked his nose a bit. He's all right now."
My mother thanked him gratefully.
"What's his name?" he asked. "Charles!" he frowned. "I had a boy called Charles, but he's dead now. Lost him and his mother about six months ago, diphtheria. Eight he'd have been last July."
"I was eight last July," I said proudly. "My birthday was on the tenth."
"Ah, my boy's would have been on the day after!" he exclaimed. For a few moments he stared hard at me and then at mother. Then, lifting his cap again, he went oft without another word.
Later, at the evening meal, I saw him seated at a table not very far from us, and several times noticed he was staring at my mother. I thought he had a very fierce look, and felt rather afraid of him.
The next morning when I was with my mother on deck he came up to us and, with another lift of his cap, asked how I was. "Nice boy that," he said to my mother, nodding towards me. "That is, if you don't spoil him." There was a vacant chair close by, and pulling it up he sat down and asked, "Where are you going to get off? Oh, Adelaide! So am I. Going to friends?"
My mother got very red. "I have no friends in Australia," she said. "I don't know anyone."
He made no comment and a long silence ensued. Then he asked sharply, "What are you going to do?"
My mother showed her annoyance at his questioning her by her still more heightened colour, but, apparently remembering how kind he had been to me the previous day, replied politely enough, "Find some kind of work, of course."
"Oh!" he grunted, and there was another long silence. Then he rose abruptly to his feet, and went off with the remark, "Well, there's plenty of work for everyone in Australia if they want it."
Mother said afterwards she was most angry with herself at having answered his questions, but that his compelling manner had somehow made her do it. She consoled herself, however, that he was not a common, uneducated man. In spite of his rough clothes and abrupt way of speaking she could see he was a gentleman and of a class above ours.
After the midday dinner he came and sat down by us again. This time he didn't annoy mother so much, as he asked no more questions. Instead, he talked a bit about himself in sharp, jerky sentences, with long intervals of silence in between.
"My name's Leonard," he said, "Charles Leonard—English, like you. Come from Yorkshire...been out here nearly twenty years...Knocked about a good bit...been sheep-farming in Western Australia...Last year lost half my sheep from drought and this year the other half got drowned in the floods...Out of a job now... soon get one...good sheep man."
During the next three days before we reached Port Adelaide, he had a few talks with my mother, but never for longer than a few minutes at a time, and with the talking then almost entirely on his part. She thought he didn't notice her long silences, but he did, for at length he said sharply, "You don't like me, Mrs. Baxter?"
With all her gentleness my mother had plenty of character, and she replied quietly, "No, I don't very much."
"Why not?" he asked.
She looked him straight in the face. "Because you always smell of drink when you come to speak to me."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" he grunted. Another of his long silences followed, and then he added with a sort of wry smile, "Well, I must give it up then." He nodded. "It will be much better for me if I do," and he got up and walked away.
But if he had not had much to do with my mother, I had seen quite a lot of him and got to like him very much. He bought me chocolate at the barber's shop and told me lots of tales about what he called "out back" in Australia, about places so far away from towns that you never saw a stranger from one year to another, about emus and kangaroos and the dreaded dingo, so hated by all sheepmen. I soon lost all fear of him and thoroughly enjoyed his company. One thing I noticed, even as a little boy, he never swore or used coarse words.
The morning we arrived at Port Adelaide he came up and asked my mother where she was going to stay in Adelaide. When she told him she didn't know he advised her to go to Well's Coffee Tavern in Bourke Street, where she would be well catered for, very moderately. She thanked him, and he said he hoped he might be seeing her again later. He gave me two shillings as a parting present.
We put up at the Coffee Tavern and my mother spent some very miserable days looking for work and for a place where we could live. She found she could get work in a shop easily enough, with the wages high in proportion to those ruling in England. When, however, she came to look for lodgings the charges there were proportionately high. Indeed, so much so that she didn't see how we were going to live in any comfort on what she could earn. Added to that, she could find nowhere where she thought I could be properly looked after during the day.
One evening she was sitting with me in the lounge of the Coffee Tavern, very depressed and dispirited, when the swing-doors opened and Mr. Leonard came in. He smiled when he caught sight of us, and at once came over and sat down beside us. He didn't offer to shake hands, but patted me friendlily on the shoulder.
I thought what a fine gentleman he looked. He had had his hair cut and his beard trimmed and was wearing breeches and leggings. I was delighted to meet him again, as my mother could see.
"Well, and how are things going?" he asked her.
"Not too nicely," she replied, and then, as if it were a relief to tell someone her troubles, she explained the difficulty she was in.
He listened sympathetically, but made no comment. "I'm all right," he said after a few moments. "Nothing very much, but all I want, six pounds a week and my tucker. I'm to be the manager of a branch sheep station. It's in the North-east, and I go up next week."
"Oh, is it 'out-back'?" I asked eagerly. "Are there kangaroos and emus up there?"
He smiled his rare but very nice smile. "Plenty of them, sonny. I expect more than I shall like. No, it's not exactly outback, but it's three hundred miles from here." He seemed amused. "Would you like to come up with me? You'd have shooting, hunting, and riding a horse after the sheep. Something to do all day long. More than fifty miles from the next house. A glorious free life, and it'd make a fine strong man of you." He turned abruptly to my mother. "I'll take him if you'd let me. Oh, yes, I'm serious."
My mother gasped. "Oh, but I couldn't part with him! I couldn't let him go."
"Who said part with him?" he asked gruffly. "You could come, too. You want work, and I can give it you. I want a housekeeper and you'd just do. I shall be very lonely by myself."
My poor mother went red as fire and drew herself up haughtily. "I should have thought you would have seen I'm not a woman like that," she said angrily. "I—"
"Oh, I mean everything in quite a respectable way," he broke in quickly. "I mean—will you marry me, say to-morrow?"
My mother gasped again. "Marry you!" she exclaimed. "Certainly not! Why, I know nothing about you."
"And I don't know anything about you," he retorted. He nodded, "but I take you to be a decent woman, and you should be able to see that, away from alcohol, I'm a decent man." He went on persuasively, "Now, why not marry me, Mrs. Baxter? I should be a kind husband to you. I've never behaved badly to a woman in all my life. The house I am going to is quite a big one, and, of course, we would have different rooms until we got better acquainted, or as long as you preferred it."
"I wouldn't think of such a thing!" exclaimed my mother.
"But why not?" he repeated. "It would be a happy ending to all your troubles, and such a good thing for little Charles. A boy without a father is handicapped for life, and I'd be very kind to him."
"And he'd have such a good education, wouldn't he," scoffed my mother, "up in that lonely place? Fifty miles, I think you said, from the next house."
"But I'd educate him myself," he said quickly. "It would be like him having a private tutor. Oh, yes, I'm quite capable of it. I took my degree at Cambridge." He turned round to me. "Here, Charles, run away for a few minutes, please. I want to talk to your mother alone."
I left them, and while they talked went and sat at the other end of the lounge. For a long while they conversed, and at first my mother was continually shaking her head. Towards the end of the conversation, however, the shakings came more seldom and seemed less definite. At length Mr. Leonard beckoned me over to them.
"It's all right, Charles," he said briskly. "It's all arranged and I'm going to be your new father, but we'll have to call you Charlie now, as I'm Charles as well."
Two days later they were married at a registry office, and mother learned only when he was signing the register that his name was Fitz-Leonard. "I don't generally use the Fitz," he explained. "It's too much of a mouthful and some people might think I was trying to make myself important." He chucked me under the chin. "Charlie had better take on my surname now. It'll save us a lot of explanations," and I thought it a fine thing.
It had been a strange courtship, and a strange marriage. A strange honeymoon followed. When we left the registry office we went straight to the Zoo, for my benefit of course, and spent the afternoon there. After that we went to a good hotel for dinner, as my stepfather said, to celebrate the occasion. Afterwards he parted with us at the Coffee Tavern door and went somewhere else to sleep. Two days later we were taken up in a car to the station where my stepfather was going to start upon his duties.
Then commenced a very happy life for me, an almost ideal one for a strong and healthy boy. The station was a small one as sheep-farms go in Australia, about three hundred square miles. It was enclosed all round with a six-feet-high vermin-proof wire fence to keep out the foxes and the dreaded dingo, or wild dog. Situated in good sheep country, among my most vivid memories after all these years are the miles and miles of sweet-smelling salt-bush, stretching like a green and rolling sea as far as the eye could follow. In all the world there is no better feed for sheep than saltbush, and its powers of resistance to drought are wonderful. It can be eaten bare to the very ground and then, after a good rain, up it will come again and, in an inconceivably short time, be a foot and more high.
The surroundings were certainly most lonely, as our station on the north side was the last enclosed one before many hundreds of miles of practically uninhabited country, stretching right across to Northern Australia. The nearest inhabited place to us was another and much bigger station belonging to the same pastoral company, but we were nearly fifty-nine miles away from it. We drove there every other Sunday in a car to get our stores and any mail or newspapers which had come. The way was by a very ill-defined track over the saltbush, quite impassable if there had been a heavy rain.
But there were not often heavy rains, and, indeed, often for many, many months no rain at all. The average annual rainfall was barely six inches, and water was always our great anxiety. There were two three-thousand-gallon tanks which collected the rain from the roof of the homestead, and upon which we depended for the water for the house. They were, however, very seldom filled, and when they failed we had to fall back upon the water in the dams provided for the sheep. There were two of them, huge dams which, when full, were twenty feet deep, fifty yards long, and thirty yards across, but, as with the rain-water tanks they were seldom full, for the evaporation of their water under the burning sun was very great.
In the summer the heat was often terrific, more than a hundred and ten degrees in the shade for days and even weeks on end. Happily, however, it was mostly a clear, dry heat, and not, at any rate to my mother and me, uninvigorating. Indeed, after the cold dreary days in England it was a real delight to me, and I was out in it all day long.
Once a week, at least, my stepfather had to go round examining every foot of the high wire fencing, seventy-four miles round, to make sure it was intact everywhere. Emus were the great worry there, for, big heavy birds of poor intelligence, they would bang into it at night. As with the kangaroos, they could have jumped over it easily had they seen it, but neither they nor kangaroos would ever do so unless they were driven to by panic.
I always accompanied my stepfather on his rounds, either in the station motor-car or on horseback. I loved riding, and had taken to it at once. I always had my little .22 rifle with me, and at nine years old was a really good shot. Indeed, in my small way, I was a better one than my stepfather, and he was pretty good. He was very proud of me, for there were some rabbits on the station, happily not too many, and I seldom missed when I got the chance of a shot.
My stepfather always had his rifle with him, too, and a shotgun as well if we were about in the car. His rifle was a .303. He was on the look-out for eagles and foxes, both dreadful pests where the lambs were concerned. An eagle would swoop down and carry one off as easily as a cat would carry away a rat. The foxes were very cunning, and gave us a lot of trouble. They would dig for hours and hours to burrow under the fences, and we had always to be on the look-out for them. The dingoes, however, were dreaded most, though they didn't often get under the fence, but when one did, all work not absolutely essential was put aside until he had been either poisoned or tracked down and killed. Sometimes it was a matter of man days. We had three sheep-dogs, but they were always kept muzzled for at least ten days after any poison baits had been laid. Strychnine was the poison used, and, exposed to the air, it becomes ineffective after that time.
Crows were another pest, and there was continued warfare between us and them. They were clever, cunning creatures, almost, I often thought, with the intelligence of a human being. They could tell the difference between a man carrying a stick and one with a firearm, and they seemed to have got the exact ranges of both the shotgun and my little rifle, and so kept far enough away to be safe.
If they saw a hen squatting down anywhere and they thought she was about to lay, they would perch on the fence to watch her, and if, when she got up, there was an egg, provided no one was near to stop them, in a few seconds they had broken the egg and started eating its contents. Poisoned baits, placed high up on fences or the shed roofs, out of the reach of the dogs, were too dangerous to use, as after swallowing them they would fly off and vomit them up, with the dogs, perhaps, picking them up later.
There are no crueller creatures in Nature than the crows, and there are seldom in any mob of sheep one or more who have not had one of their eyes picked out. When a ewe is lying on the ground, lambing, there is nearly always a circle of crows waiting round her. Then, if she lies too quietly, or, with the lamb born, she does not get on her feet quickly enough to protect it, as likely as not either she or the lamb will lose one of its eyes.
We had always plenty to eat, though the meat part of our diet, except for parrots, pigeon, or rabbits that we shot, was rather monotonous. It was always mutton. A sheep was killed whenever we wanted one, and either hung up in the shade-house or, in very hot weather, salted. The weather was not always hot. Indeed, in winter it was occasionally bitterly cold, and some nights we were glad to sit round a good fire.
We never saw fresh milk from one year's end to another; powdered milk was always used. Also, the only butter we ever got came out of a tin. The pastoral company provided us with no fruit, but we had plenty of jam. Later on, when my stepfather had cashed his first cheque—he had been very short of money when he came up—he would send to the city for cases of apples and oranges, and it was a grand time for me. The nearest shop was ninety odd miles away, and incidentally the nearest doctor a hundred and twenty.
As for my education, my stepfather was as good as his word, and most nights of the week I had two hours of lessons. He sent for books from the city, and not only instructed me in good English, but also in mathematics, chemistry, physics, Latin, and French. Indeed, he grounded me so well that in after years I was able to take my preliminary medical examination in arts almost in my stride and with hardly any preparation.
Apart from his drinking habits, and he stopped those when he married my mother, my stepfather was a fine type of man, and I soon became devoted to him, loving him far more than I had my own father. In time my mother came to love him, too, and after some six months or so I am sure no wife could have been happier than she was, right up to the end of her association with him. He was always most respectful and polite, and treated her as if she were a queen.
As to their relations when they first came up to the station, of course, at the time I understood nothing. As he said they should, they occupied separate bedrooms, with me sleeping in my mother's, and he never once came anywhere near our part of the house. Then one night when I had gone to bed, leaving them together in the sitting-room, I woke up suddenly at the sound of gentle crying. Realising it was my mother, I jumped up instantly to see what was the matter and reached the end of the passage just in time to hear her say to my stepfather that she knew she had been very ungrateful and unkind, but she would not be so any more. Then through the crack in the door I saw him take her in his arms and start kissing her.
I know I was pleased, but, altogether too sleepy to be much interested, and seeing my mother was all right, I got back again into bed at once and dropped off to sleep. The next morning I saw my mother's bed had not been slept in. After that night I always had the room to myself. I remember, too, that my mother now took to laughing and smiling much more. Often, in the evenings, while I was busy with lessons, she and my stepfather would be sitting close together, holding each other's hands.
Up to then he had told us very little about himself, but now we learned much more of his early life, and among other things that his father had a seat in the House of Lords and that he himself was really the Honourable Charles Fitz-Leonard. I didn't know exactly what it meant and didn't think much of it, but it made my mother pleased, and she often told me that when I grew up I must become a great man and make the name of Fitz-Leonard famous. I always said I should like to be a doctor, so that I could look into people's insides. I was always very interested in helping to skin the kangaroos and foxes we shot.
Every year my stepfather had a fortnight's holiday and We went either to Adelaide or Melbourne, always stopping at a good hotel. I liked the excitements and luxuries of the cities, but somehow was always glad to get back home. The wide-open spaces had taken that strange hold of me which they do of so many people, and even to-day, when I am by myself, I often long for them.
Life on a station is always interesting, with each day bringing some fresh excitement. Perhaps we would go after a fox or stalk a wild turkey, or I would shoot a crow or make a long shot at a rabbit or a parrot, or I would catch an extra big yabby in one of the dams—yabbies are small fresh-water lobsters any size up to between three or four inches, and very tasty to eat. Or I would go looking for gold in the creeks, and come across a tiny, weeny nugget, or—great excitement always—we would kill a snake.
Snakes are horrible things, horribly beautiful, too, and though we might go months without seeing one, we had to be on the lookout for them by the creek-sides or among big stones and rocks. One thing, they are always as much frightened of you as you are of them, and when disturbed will glide off like streaks of lightning, at least so it seems. Really, however, they didn't glide off very fast. Their sinuous movements only made it appear so, and one can always overtake them easily on open ground. If you don't run behind them, and keep to one side, you are quite safe, because they can only strike backwards and forwards, and they are the easiest things in the world to disable and kill. One hit with a stick or stone, or better still with a length of fencing wire, and their fragile backbones are broken and they are helpless and can't move.
We had a black cat on the station once, and she became such a real source of danger to us that my stepfather took her to Adelaide on one of our yearly holidays and gave her away. She had taken to going after snakes and would bring them into the house, certainly often badly maimed, but still quite capable of inflicting a fatal bite.
I happened to see her catch one once. She had disturbed it when it lay coiled upon the ground, and, keeping well out of reach, she circled round and round it a great number of times, making no attempt at any attack. Then, pausing a moment, she gave it what it evidently thought was a chance to get back to its hole. It started off like lightning, but the moment it fully stretched she pounced and nipped it at the back of the head. It was a big snake, and its violent whirling made her drop it. She was, however, every bit as quick in her movements as was the snake, and sprang back out of danger. Eventually, I expect, the fight would have ended in her favour, but I stepped in with a piece of rock and killed the snake to save her running any more risks.
There is quite an interesting story all about that cat, one of the mysteries of animal life. We got her as a kitten from the parent station, and she grew up to be a fine big cat. It was very lonely for her, and we always regretted she had no mate. There was not a domestic cat nearer than that other station, those fifty-nine miles away, and we never came across a wild one the whole time we were on ours.
But one day my stepfather said suddenly, "Nellie, if it were possible, I'd swear Matilda was going to have kittens."
My mother laughed merrily and thought it was a good joke, but my stepfather turned out to be right, and in due time the kittens arrived. They were none of them pure black, and all had sandy markings on them. The mystery was that at the other station there was a big sandy-coloured Tom, all those fifty nine miles away.
We remembered then that when we went over to get our store and papers on those Sunday mornings old Sandy nearly always used to come and sniff about the car in which, when at home, our cat used often to take a nap.
Next time we went over we enquired if Sandy ever took leave of absence, and we were told he often did, and was sometimes away for so long that it was thought he must have met with an accident. So we were sure he must have been the father of our kittens.
After this first venture on her part it became a regular thing for our cat to produce a litter every six months or so, but never once did any of us set eyes on the father or learn in any way that he had been near our place, which was remarkable, because our dogs were keen-scented and would certainly have let us know if a strange animal had been about.
We noticed that occasionally our Matilda was away for a couple of nights or so, and Mother said laughingly that she and Sandy must have had a rendezvous somewhere, perhaps halfway along the track. It certainly was a mystery and always intrigued us.
With the coming of her families, however, I no longer worried so much when Matilda was away. Hitherto I had always feared she had fallen to a snake. Snakes were plentiful if you went looking for them, and it was always a wonder to me how they lived. They had to have water, and in dry times, when we had had no rain for many months, they were a real danger to us round the homestead, the rain-water tanks, and the dams. When, however, we had had a good rain they kept much farther away, and were to be met mostly by the creeks.
Those creeks were another wonder to me. Some of them were up to thirty or forty yards wide, with banks even up to six feet in height. For months and months they would be as dry as a bone, but with the coming of a good rain they would become raging torrents all in a few minutes, five feet and more deep from bank to bank, and sweeping everything before them. The mystery to me was that they filled so quickly.
There might have been rain in the far-away distant hills, but none near us. You could sit on the creek-side and not see a drop of water. Then would come a low rumbling, growing louder and louder, and almost in the twinkling of an eye down would come the torrent, not beginning as a little trickling stream, but almost straightaway in full force as a solid wall of yellow frothing water four to five feet high. Occasionally sheep were caught on the creek beds and drowned. They are stupid creatures and would try to run before the flood instead of climbing up the banks to safety.
To a good sheepman, as a good shepherd, sheep become almost the one great obsession of his life, and constant and unremitting care is needed in looking after them. They can't just be turned into a paddock—which may be very many square miles in extent—and just left to take care of themselves. They have to be continually shifted from one place to another as they eat up the feed, and it must be made certain they always have plenty of water and know where to go for it. They don't drink at all in winter, but in summer consume huge quantities of water.
Then the dreaded blow-fly has always to be guarded against, and, in hot weather particularly, every few days each sheep has to be looked over to see if it has been struck, and if so the proper remedies applied. A neglected fly-blown sheep is a most terrible sight. All its wool is denuded, and its body from head to tail becomes a mass of dreadful, wriggling worms.
We generally carried about six thousand sheep on our station, and, going among a mob of a couple of hundred or so, my stepfather, as an experienced sheepman, could pick out in one glance at them if any were fly-blown, because, when being rounded up by the dogs they walked and ran and held themselves differently. He would dart among them, grab hold of an afflicted animal, turn him on his back, clip off all the wool round the bad place and dab on a lotion, generally one of sulphate of copper, to destroy the worms. Then the sheep would be all right in a few days, but, if not attended, it would have died a dreadful death in a week.
The greatest dread of all sheepmen, however, is the dingo. Getting among a mob of sheep, he kills for the sheer love of killing, and will destroy even up to fifty or sixty in a single night.
I shall never forget an exciting experience we had once. One morning, going into a paddock a few miles from the homestead, we found forty-seven dead sheep lying about. They had all been seized by the throat.
"God," exclaimed my stepfather, in great consternation, "a dingo's got through the fence!" and we started feverishly to pick up its tracks. His consternation was increased when at last he found them and saw that the left foot was maimed in a peculiar way, with two claws missing.
"God," he exclaimed again, with a very white face, "it's Rufus!"
Rufus was known for two hundred and more miles round as a most cunning and dangerous animal. For longer than two years sheepmen had been looking for him, and the destruction he had caused had been so disastrous that there was a reward of £100 out for his dead body. Hitherto he had escaped all the huntings, refused all poison baits, and avoided all the traps but one which had been set for him. Once only had the jaws of any trap closed on him, and then he had escaped with the loss of two claws.
He was a big, gaunt animal of a reddish colour, and it was almost certain he had been sired by an Alsatian who had 'gone bush' some five years before. Some holiday-makers had been touring then along the Adelaide-broken Hill road, and had brought an Alsatian with them. The dog had got away when they had been camping for the night. An extensive search had been made, but he had not been seen for nearly a month, and then a prospector after gold had shot him on sight, running with dingoes up towards Lake Frome. He had been identified by the collar he still had on him.
Now no animal more dangerous to sheep can be imagined than the result of the mating of a wild dog with an Alsatian. Dingoes are at all times cowardly creatures, but of a most extreme cunning, and this cunning, reinforced with the Alsatian courage, as can well be imagined, produces a most deadly cross.
So, with the truant Alsatian's death, the owners of many sheep-stations had breathed deep sighs of thankfulness. Their relief, however, turned out to be short-lived, as about a year later an unusual-looking dingo with the head of an Alsatian was seen by several boundary riders, and within a few months the same animal had become notorious for his killings among the sheep. Contrary to the usual dingo way, he nearly always hunted alone, and there was little doubt whose son he was.
In a short time he was in the way of becoming an almost legendary character, with so many tales being told about him. He was swift as the wind, more cunning than any fox, and a fierce fighter. Several times, when he had been caught sight of, sheep-dogs had been loosed at him, but directly they were distant enough away from their masters to be beyond protection—he always seemed to know—he had turned on them and killed them, almost, so it was said, in a matter of seconds.
He never hunted for long in the same place. Tireless and of tremendous endurance, one day he would be seen in a certain district, and the next be recognised nearly a hundred miles away. This then was the animal we were up against, and my stepfather took instant steps to deal with him. He found where he had got through the fence by scraping underneath, and at once put that right. Then every night the sheep were driven into a comparatively small paddock, nearest to the homestead, and he camped out among them.
By day he and I, accompanied by two of our sheep-dogs, from dawn to dusk rode over the station in the hope of finding out where the dingo was hiding inside the vermin-fenced enclosure, but it was a big order, as there were so many creeks and collections of rocks scattered about, and he always managed to avoid us. Though we many times picked up his tracks on sandy patches, we always lost them again when coming to hard ground.
We knew he was still on the station, for with all our precautions he got among the sheep again and one night killed seven. Once my stepfather actually caught sight of him in the moonlight.
A week went by, and then an inspiration came to my stepfather. It happened we had our female dog tied up in one of the sheds, and he got her out and gave her a good soaking in one of the troughs. It was very hot weather, and she was delighted with the attention she was receiving.
Then all the water, poured into a small tank, was hoisted on to the car and we made off to a cluster of rocks about two miles from the homestead. From there we started to lay a trail with a four-gallon petrol tin, with a small hole punched in the bottom, lashed to one of the footboards of the car. My stepfather drove and I ladled out the water from the tank into the petrol tin.
We made a wide sweep and, with the water dripping out all the way, must have gone quite a dozen miles before we returned to the cluster of rocks.
"That ought to fetch him," said my stepfather. "With the wind favourable a dingo can smell out a man quite three hundred yards and he ought, certainly, to smell this water."
Stretching ourselves down among the rocks, we waited for nightfall. The sky was clear and the moon would rise about eleven o'clock. I was thrilled with excitement, but the hard straining of my eyes into the darkness soon made me very sleepy, and even before the moon rose I dropped off.
Just after midnight my stepfather woke me with his hand hard on my mouth. "He's coming," he whispered hoarsely. "He's over there, due north."
I could see nothing, but my stepfather had got field-glasses, and he kept them glued to his eyes. The beating of my heart was painful and I could hardly get my breath. "North-east now, on that rise," breathed my stepfather, and I could see a black shadow about four hundred yards away.
Nearer and nearer it came, until at last I could recognise it as a dog, a dog as big as a calf and with his head bent down nosing slowly along the ground towards us. Not a breath of air stirred; the night was as still and silent as the grave.
Suddenly the animal pulled up dead in his tracks, and, with head uplifted, for a long minute stared hard in our direction. He was about a hundred and fifty yards away, and though my stepfather's rifle was good up to four hundred yards he did not dare to risk a shot yet. My little rifle was good up to sixty or seventy yards, and he was depending upon me if he missed. We waited fearfully, and then, to our intense relief, the dingo dropped his head and began moving slowly forward again. It seemed to me hours passed, but it was really less than a minute, and the dingo was much closer. His big head and huge body stood out clear-cut against the moonlight.
Suddenly my stepfather fired, but, in his excitement, made what he always considered to be one of the worst shots of all his life. Aiming square at the huge shoulders, he missed the brute altogether, and, with the report of the rifle, the dingo, quick as a flash of lightning, began to streak away.
For a couple of seconds, though I had had him square in my sights, my finger seemed paralysed, and I could not pull the trigger.
"Fire!" shrieked my stepfather in an agony of disappointment, and with his cry my powers came back. I fired instantly, and, as my stepfather had done, completely missed. Mine, however, was a repeating-rifle, and with my second shot I broke one of his hind-legs. With my third, we found afterwards, I hit him in the fleshy part of the shoulder. Of course, neither wound was mortal, but instantly his pace was slowed down, and with a whoop of triumph we went after him.
From the way he was dripping blood—I had smashed his leg bone to smithereens—we were certain he would not be able to run far, but it was a good mile before we caught up to him, and then he had strength enough to snarl viciously, and, indeed, make an attempt to attack. However, a bullet in his head quickly stopped his misery and our fears.
Though it was the middle of the night, my stepfather would insist upon skinning him there and then, before we returned in triumph to the homestead. My mother had heard the firing and kept the kettle on the boil, all ready for the eternal Australian cups of steaming tea. We made a hearty meal of bread and butter and cheese, and it was much longer than an hour after we had returned that we thought of going to bed.
We received the £100 reward all right, and, with my agreement, it was banked in my mother's name. The money came in most handy the following year. I was a sturdy boy of getting on for fifteen when we shot the dingo, and, had I only known it, it was to be my last full summer on the station, for nearly a year later my poor stepfather was bitten on the face by a black snake and died within two hours.
It was an awful moment for my mother and me when, one evening, just as it was growing dusk, he staggered into the house and announced what had happened. Though bitten less than half an hour previously, he was already a dreadful sight. One side of his face was of an awful blackened colour, the eye had entirely disappeared in the folds of the puffed-up cheek and brow and his neck was already beginning to swell.
"Bitten just under the eye," he told us hoarsely. "I dropped my whip and, bending down to pick it up, stepped on a snake and it got me. No hope. I'll be gone in an hour or two. It was a big brute."
Although in dreadful pain, and only able to give directions in jerks, for the moment his mind was quite clear. We laid him on a blanket on the floor, so that, as he said, we could drag his body out in it to one of the sheds when he was dead. He was a heavy man, and knew it would be too much for us to carry him. Then he bade us give him a teaspoonful of laudanum and go on giving him one every ten minutes as long as he could swallow. That, he said, would make his death easier.
He had four teaspoonfuls in all, and by then he was unconscious and hardly breathing. His face and head had swelled tremendously, and he was swollen, too, on the neck, arms, and half-way down his chest.
It was an agony of agonies for us to kneel by, watching, and his appearance became so dreadful that I knew my mother was as relieved as I was when he finally ceased to breathe.
We were both beyond tears and almost on the verge of collapse in our emotion, but our affection and even reverence for him made us carry out his last orders in every detail.
Just as he was we dragged his body to the most distant shed, unhappily, however, not a hundred yards away from the house. He had foreseen it must be as far away as possible as we were in the middle of a January heat-wave, with the day temperature running up to hundred and twelve and even higher, in the shade.
With earliest daylight the following morning I started to carry out all the dying instructions he had given me, so that everything would be all right with the sheep when we left, as we were intending to do, by nine o'clock in the morning, for the parent station.
With everything done, I got out the car and started to drive it round to the front door of the house, but before I had gone half a dozen yards, to my horror and consternation I heard a loud bang under the chassis at the back, and the car immediately stopped. The back axle had broken.
Imagine our plight! Fifty-nine miles away from any help, no telephone connection, a blistering heat, the ground in which to dig a grave as hard as granite, and a dead body close to the house!
Certainly I could have tried to make the other station on horseback, but it was doubtful if any horse could have covered that distance in such heat and with no water in between. If the animal had broken down half-way my condition would have been a most dangerous one, but, apart from that, I had promised my stepfather not to leave my mother alone, and in no circumstances would I have done so. She was distraught with grief, and any further anxieties might easily have sent her out of her mind.
So there was no help for it. We must wait until someone came to us. There was, however, one bright spot in our gloom. It was on a Thursday night my stepfather died, and on the following Sunday we were due to go after our stores. When we did not arrive they would be thinking something had happened, and send over to us to find out what it was.
That is exactly what happened, but it was not until the Tuesday that a boundary rider appeared on a motor-cycle, and not until the following day that my stepfather was buried.
That same afternoon we left the station. It was a most sad ending to the seven happy years we had lived there, and I realise row what a tragic life my mother's was. She had had two husbands and both had died most dreadful forms of death. Both, too, had been in the very prime of life, and in both instances she had known they were to die. There had been no hope for either of them or her, and surely Fate had treated few women so unkindly.
ADELAIDE being the nearest city, it might have been thought we should at any rate have gone there first to find occupations for both of us. My mother, however, would not hear of it, as she said the memories would be much too painful for her, though she insisted that never again would she live in any lonely place. The dreadful nature of my stepfather's death she was sure would always haunt her and she wanted to be among crowds and mix with plenty of people, so that she would have less time and opportunity to brood over the unhappy past.
So it was to Melbourne we went, arriving there with only a few pounds more than the £100 reward we had received for killing that dingo. When we came to examine my stepfather's papers, to our consternation we found there was not a penny for us, all his savings, more than £1,500, having been invested in then worthless and unsaleable Western Australian gold-mine shares.
A strong, well-grown boy of nearly sixteen, I still wanted to become a doctor, but of course all idea of that was all quite hopeless, at any rate for the time being, and so I got work at a garage at fifteen shillings a week. My mother obtained employment with a dressmaker. In the ordinary way our prospects should have been quite good, as I was hard-working and ambitious and my mother, with her good looks, she was not yet thirty-six, could easily have obtained another husband had she wanted to. However, unhappily, she was altogether a broken woman and could not shake off her depression. Certainly, she tried always to be bright with me, but it was an effort and her expression in repose was always a sad one.
I passed as Charles Leonard at the garage, and, always speaking correct English and in the tone and manner I had unconsciously adopted from my stepfather, was soon known there, ironically, of course, as Prince Charles. It rather pleased me, for I knew I was anything but a rough bush boy, as perhaps might have been expected from the long and lonely years spent on the station. I had inherited not a little of her refinement from my mother, and after years with my stepfather, an educated English gentleman, as my constant companion it was only natural I should appear different in my ways from those whom I was now thrown among.
I got on well at the garage, and, quick and obliging, soon became something of a favourite with the regular customers. At first my work was mainly serving petrol and oiling and greasing the cars brought in for attention, but, a good and careful driver, within a few weeks I was entrusted with a lot of hire-work. Also when a car had to be taken back to a customer's house, it was nearly always I who drove it, and sometimes, too, I acted as temporary chauffeur when our customers' own chauffeurs were on holiday or ill.
In this way I became friendly with a Dr. Herbert Rainson, one of the kindest and gentlest-mannered men I have ever known. He was a bachelor in the middle forties, and had a large general practice in one of the suburbs. He always looked tired and, notwithstanding the number of patients he saw, did not seem at all well off, driving as he did a shabby, old-fashioned car. I learned later this was due to so many of his patients imposing upon him. Not only did they not pay his fees, but when in any pecuniary trouble many of them came to him for help. He would always listen to a hard-luck story, and in his kindness of heart could not refuse to help anyone in distress. In the end this was the cause of his downfall as a professional man in Australia.
One day I was in his garage with him making some small adjustment to his sparking-plugs, when something I said made him look at me curiously and ask at what school I had been educated. When he learned I had not been to any school since I was eight and had received all my education at home from my father, who had been a Cambridge University man and came from a well-to-do English family, the Fitz-Leonards, he was quite interested. "But I always thought you had some breeding in you," he said. He smiled. "You know, the Fitz before the Leonard means that you are a descendant of kings."
I smiled, too, thinking of my rightful father, the gardener at home, but of course did not enlighten him. Then he asked me if I had any ambitions, and I told him I intended to be a doctor some day. "That's right," he nodded, "and, if I'm any judge of character, you've got enough grit in you to work your way up and become one. You've a good head and facial angle."
Very soon after that conversation he asked me if I'd like to come to him as his handy-man and chauffeur. "And at odd times," he added, "you shall help me make up the medicines. That may turn out to be quite good ground-work for you later on."
I jumped at the offer, and went to him at twenty-five shillings a week. I was with him for about a year and a half, and during that time, at his suggestion, by working at night passed my preliminary examination in arts at the university. He was delighted when the results came out and it was found I had got credits in four subjects. I was quick to learn, and had a good memory.
My eventual parting with him was very sad. He thought he was faced with being put on trial for helping a young girl out of her trouble, and, a timid man, rather than face the proceedings he bolted away at a minute's notice.
As far as he was concerned, it was the old story. His kindness ruined him. A girl had come to him with a pitiable story of the trouble she was in. It was not a case of his getting any good fee out of her, as she was only earning a few shillings a week, but he was touched by her distress, and, against his better judgment, agreed to help her. Something of what he had done leaked out later, and he received a quiet warning from a friend that the police were coming to ask him some awkward questions.
In his own private life his moral code was a strict one, and he hated the idea of having to lie to save himself. Apart from his work, he was of a very nervous nature, too, and something of a moral coward. So, instead of facing out the matter with a bold denial, in which case, as it would have been only someone's word against his, he would almost certainly have got off, he resolved to fly to another State. Without the police wringing any admission from him, he was confident they would not have strong enough evidence to induce any magistrate to issue a warrant and have him brought back for trial.
I so well remember that afternoon he went off. He had been driving himself that day and I was in the little dispensary between the waiting-room and the surgery making up some bottles of medicine. I heard his car draw up outside, and he ran into the dispensary, looking very white and scared.
"I've got myself into a bit of a mess, Charles," he panted, "and I've got to go away for a while until it blows oven. At teatime get Dr. Turner on the phone and ask him to look after my urgent cases. Here's the list, and tell him I'll write to him. Here are your wages for a fortnight in advance. Get another situation, as I don't know when I shall be back. He stood listening intently for a few moments, and then went on quickly. The police may be here any minute now, but with half an hour's start I think I can get away clear. If they come soon, keep them waiting, and don't let them know I'm out. I shall leave my car where it is by the front door and that'll make them believe I'm still here. Good-bye, my boy! Good luck to you!" and he was off like the wind.
I was flabbergasted and, indeed, so upset that had any police come then they would have guessed at once that I had been put on my guard and was acting against them. However, no one came near the place for a good quarter of an hour, and then I hear the door of the waiting-room leading into the street open and quick, heavy footsteps coming across the floor. Quite composed now, and pretending to be busy with my bottles, for the moment I took no notice of an imperious tapping on the little window through which I used to pass the patients' medicines. Then, looking up, and seeing a man's face there, I opened it. There was another man standing behind the first one.
Want to see the doctor, snapped the first man curtly.
"Accident?" I queried.
"No," scowled the man, "but we must see him at once. Where is he?"
I jerked my head in the direction of the surgery. "With a patient," I frowned. "Wait till she comes out. Its not in his consulting hours, but I expect he'll give you a minute or two. Sit down."
They sat down, waiting, however, with most obvious impatience. They whispered together, they shuffled with their feet upon the floor, and then they took to walking up and down, all the while keeping their eyes upon the doctor's car, which they could see through the window.
A quarter of an hour passed, and then the same one who had spoken to me before came again to the little window.
"Here, I say," he asked, "are you sure the doctor's in?"
"I suppose so," I replied. "He took a patient into the surgery and she's not come out yet."
"But he's a long time, isn't he?" frowned the man.
"Oh, well," I said crossly, as though annoyed at being interrupted again in my work, "sometimes patients do take a long time. The doctor's got to find out what's the matter with them, hasn't he?"
For another quarter of an hour, until the doctor had had nearly fifty minutes' start, I managed to keep them at bay, and then they pushed roughly by me and, entering the surgery, found it empty. They were furious with me.
"We're from the police," the elder of them shouted, "and you've been obstructing us in the performance of our duty. You'll be summoned for it."
I put on a stolid, stupid look.
"How did I know you were police?" I retorted. "You didn't say so. If you had, I'd have told you to go through the front door. I thought you were patients."
The doctor got away all right, and was never brought to book for whatever he had done. A few weeks afterwards he wrote to me, but did not say where he was. I never expected to see him again, but fifteen years later ran into him unexpectedly at a medical congress in England. I recognised him at once, and went up to speak to him. Of course he looked much older, but he was obviously in good health, and now was much better dressed. He looked blankly at me.
"How do, doctor?" I said gaily. "Remember that girl, little Biddy Bonner, who was a patient of yours in Melbourne? The police came right enough that afternoon, but I managed to make them wait for nearly an hour and then they barged into the surgery to find you gone."
He looked the very picture of amazement, and not a little bit uncomfortable, too.
"Come, come, doctor," I went on reproachfully. "You don't say you've forgotten an old friend, do you? I'm Dr. Fitz-Leonard now."
Oh, the delight upon his face! He shook my hand as if he would never let it go. He told me he had married a girl half his age and had got three children. He was practising close by, and insisted upon taking me home to dinner that evening. His wife was very pretty and his children delightful, and I came away with the impression that theirs could not be a happier family. I learned he had built up another huge practice.
Looking back, I don't think he could ever have been anything of a first-class practitioner, but it was his kindness and charm of manner which carried him through. Still, I wouldn't say that, generally speaking, he was any the less successful with his patients than a much more clever man. For one thing, in cases of acute illness he could always muster every ounce of the patient's will to live, for, a great optimist, he always insisted they were going to get well.
And all this time my mother and I had been living out our own lives together, making no friends. My upbringing on the station had made me naturally reserved and self-contained, and my poor mother seemed to be always brooding over the past. Anyhow, we were quite content to live for each other in a little flat in a poor quarter, the rent of which we could just manage to pay.
My great solace was reading, and, joining a good library, I endeavoured to carry on the education my stepfather had started. I read serious books and did not neglect to do a certain amount of studying, with the view one day of trying for the entrance scholarship at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
With the loss of my kind doctor friend, I took a situation at thirty shillings a week with a chemist carrying on a one-man business in a poor suburb, and must admit I learned a lot from him which came in most useful in after years. Well over sixty, he was reserved and short-tempered except when he had gut a drop of whisky in him. Then he was bright and merry and confided to me quite a lot of his parlour tricks. I was astonished at the number of people who came to him for advice about their ailments and how successful his treatment often was.
Strongly of opinion that in most indispositions the secretions of the body are over-acid, his long suits were bicarbonate of soda or Epsom salts. A good teaspoonful of either of them, flavoured with peppermint and taken between meals three times a day, was his favourite remedy and he charged half a crown a bottle for it. He gave it for nearly everything, colds, indigestion, nerves, aching limbs, rheumatism, and all forms of skin diseases, and as the main cost was that of the bottle and the cork, it can be understood the transaction was a highly profitable one.
All round the district he was noted, too, for his famous pick-me-up for 'the morning after the night before.' They were invariably drunk in the shop, as in no case would he ever let one be carried away, and he never would tell me what exactly they contained. However, one day he let out, in a confiding alcoholic moment, that twelve minims of tincture of opium was the main ingredient. When I qualified as a doctor and got into active practice I often thought of that old chemist and came to the conclusion that medical men generally are much too timid about giving opium to their patients. Yet a few minims of it can ward off so much discomfort, let alone actual suffering—even in minor ailments such as the common cold or influenza. Even if the patient comes to learn what he is taking, the bogey of making a drug addict of him with a few doses can be disregarded altogether, particularly so, as the public cannot obtain opium.
I had been working for this chemist for just over a year, with my wages now raised to two pounds, when another great calamity came upon us. My poor mother died of pneumonia after only five days' illness. I was heartbroken, and the shock was not made any lighter by finding among her papers an envelope containing a short newspaper cutting, dated January the ninth, nineteen hundred and nine, announcing that Reuben Arnold Baxter had been hanged the previous morning for the murder of Gavin Helmer.
Learning what had happened to my father depressed me terribly, not only because of the manner of his death, but because I now realised what terrible unhappiness must have been my poor mother's lot. I wondered if my stepfather had ever been told, but I didn't think so. I wondered the more, however, at my mother having kept the cutting and if she had ever been intending to tell me the dreadful secret.
Of one thing I was fully determined. One day I would go back to England and learn all about it. It rankled in me that I was the son of a murderer, and I wanted to find out if there were any redeeming features about the crime. When my mother had spoken to me about my father—the few times she did—she had always given me the impression that he had been a good and very kind man.
Moving now to an inexpensive but quite comfortable boarding-house where I had a room to myself, I started to think hard and long about my immediate future. I realised I could no longer drift aimlessly along, but must do something at once to get out of the rut and better my position. However, I could think of no possible way to begin, and, week after week going by with no practical idea coming to me, I formed a desperate resolve and started to gamble.
Just before my poor mother had been taken ill she had been upon the point of buying a dressmaking business and setting up for herself. So, with this end in view, she had taken out what money she had in the Savings bank to have it all ready, and I had found £52 in notes among her things. Then, like the fool I was, I thought I saw a quick way of multiplying this money many times, so that I could enter myself at once as a medical student at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
I remembered a customer of ours when I was at the garage, Roxy bullock by name, coarse, common, and uneducated, but always with plenty of money. He was a bookmaker in a big way, and it was said a thousand-pound bet was nothing to him.
Less than twenty years before he had started as a tout on the racecourse side, and gradually worked his way up until he had capital to start as a bookmaker. His success had been quick and continuous, and now he owned racehorses himself, had a beautiful house in Toorak, and a Rolls-Royce car.
Well, I argued, if he had made money by the racecourse, why not I? So I started studying form and attending all the Saturday afternoon race-meetings. At first I made some lucky bets, but my success did not continue, and in three months I had lost all my capital and had not a penny to fall back upon.
I was disgusted with myself, but for all that had been bitten by the racing bug, and went on frequenting racecourses, betting, however, now in shillings instead of pounds. I was never without hope that some time or other I would strike it rich and then give up racing altogether.
At last one day I thought my opportunity had really come, with a probable winner in both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups. If I could strike the double event, even with only a pound bet, all my worries might be over.
I had been following a smart little four-year-old, backing him, at first, simply because his name was Little Charles. The first time out, an unknown quantity, he won at twenty to one, and my joy was great as I had had three shillings on him. He had won two more races after that, but, of course, at a greatly reduced rate of odds. Then, in the betting lists, he had been installed as a good second favourite for the Caulfield Cup, his outright price three weeks before the race being only seven to one. With him, I thought I had the most likely winner in the race, and so I started to look about for something good in the Melbourne Cup, hoping to obtain long odds for striking the double event.
Then Chance stepped in, as it so often does in our lives. One afternoon a rough-looking man called in at the shop for another bottle of medicine. My employer was out, but as the customer handed over his empty bottle I saw he had been having the famous Epsom salts and peppermint mixture. I filled up the bottle for him and charged the usual half-crown for it.
Going out of the shop, however, he dropped the bottle and broke it. I made him up another lot and, in the circumstances, charged him only a shilling. He was grateful, and whispered, as a great secret, "Here, son, I'll give you a good tip for the Melbourne Cup. Don't spread it about, but you just back Spiteful Lady. She's a corker and much better than anybody knows. You can get a hundred to one about her if you get on quick."
I thanked him and made up my mind to have a pound on Little Charles and her for the double event. I saw in the newspapers that the price on offer was a thousand to one. The great thing, of course, was to find a reliable bookmaker who would pay me if I won, and again chance seemed to be helping me, as the very next morning, coming out of a tobacconist's in Collins Street, I ran into Roxy bullock, the leviathan bookmaker. I stopped him and recalled myself to his recollection. "Ah, Charles, the garage boy!" he exclaimed jovially. "Yes, of course I remember you. It's many times you've driven me, isn't it? Well, what do you want?"
I told him, and, taking a chart out of his pocket, he ran down the horses' names and checked the odds offered against them for the double. "Yes, that's all right," he said, "a thousand to one Little Charles and Spiteful Lady."
I gave him a pound, and, asking for my address, he made a note of it in his little book.
"I'll post you on a voucher," he said, "but this'll show the bet's O.K.," and producing an old envelope from his pocket he scribbled on it:
"Charlie Leonard, £1,000 to one Little Charles and Spiteful Lady."
All that day I went about my work in a great state of elation. I should win the thousand pounds right enough, I told myself, and at once enter as a student at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. To my chagrin, however, when I went to take the bookmaker's envelope out of my pocket I could not find it. I must have dropped it in the street. I did not really worry, however, as he had told me the official voucher would he coming on the morrow.
But it did not come on the morrow, neither on that day nor the two following ones. On the fourth day I rang up the bookmaker. He said everything was all right and he couldn't understand why the voucher had not reached me, as he was sure his clerk had posted it.
"At any rate, you've got that envelope I gave you," he added, and like a fool I told him I had lost it. "Don't worry," he laughed. "I'm good for a hundred thousand and your little bet is nothing to me."
So I let things go. Little Charles climbed into absolute favouritism, and ultimately won easily, starting at only three to one. It was a big knock for the bookmakers, as I read he had been coupled with almost every horse in the Melbourne Cup, leaving out, I expected, Spiteful Lady, as the mare's price was still as high as sixty-six to one.
"I'll get my money all right if she wins," I nodded, "as, standing at that price, she can't have been included in many doubles, and the bookmakers will hardly have been hit at all. Old Roxy will be delighted to pay."
On the Saturday before the Tuesday when the race for the second Cup was going to be run I went down with influenza. Then on the Sunday morning, reading the newspaper in bed, to my great uneasiness I saw that Spiteful Lady had been heavily backed the previous night at the sporting clubs. Her price had dropped sensationally to only eight to one.
On the Monday morning I crawled to the phone and rang up Roxy. He was short and nasty with me. "Your bet's all right," he snarled. "Do you think I'm a welsher?" and he cut short the conversation before I could say another word.
Oh, the mingled joy and anxiety when the next afternoon I learned Spiteful Lady had won! There were no wirelesses in those days, but all over Australia the name of the Melbourne Cup winner travels with the speed of a lightning flash. I was still in bed, but my landlady brought me the news barely ten minutes after the time when the race had been due to start.
Then when the evening paper came I read she had won a desperate race by only half a head. Tons of money had been invested on her on the course, and in a big field she had started a co-favourite at only five to one. To my consternation it was mentioned the books had been hit heavily, many operators refusing to lay her long before the fall of the flag.
The excitement and worry made my 'flu worse and my temperature went up to a hundred and four. It was Friday before it was normal again, and, weak and shaky, I tottered to the phone and rang up Roxy.
"What about my double, Mr. Bullock?" I asked. "Will you send the cheque or shall I call round for it?"
"Your double!" he exclaimed, and my heart went into my boots at his nasty tone. "Why, it didn't come off. You backed Little Charles and Spendthrift."
"I didn't," I said angrily. "You know it was Spiteful Lady, I had. You know—"
"Well, bring me the voucher and I'll pay," he replied curtly, and again our conversation was cut short by the line going dead.
Now, strangely enough, I was not, as might have been thought, overwhelmed with grief. On the contrary, my feelings were mainly those of an intense anger. I gritted my teeth and swore that, one way or another, I would get the money out of him.
On the Monday morning I went to his club, where I knew he would be settling the previous Saturday's betting, and, giving my name, asked to see him. I was shown into the Strangers' Room and an attendant went to fetch him, returning, however, in a minute or two with the message that Mr. Bullock was busy and would not be able to come down.
"But I will see him," I said firmly. "I'll wait until he does come, if I have to wait all day," and for a solid hour I hung about the entrance hall and made myself so objectionable by my continual planting myself before the desk and asking when Roxy bullock was coming that, at last, I am sure only to get rid of me, an attendant went upstairs and told the bookmaker how things stood.
Bullock appeared, black with rage, and motioned me before him into the Strangers' Room. Then, closing the door carefully behind us, he began to damn and blast furiously. He said I was a blackmailing little swine and that he was quite used to such tricks as mine, but they never came off with him. Finally, he clenched his fists and threatened me with actual violence. I wasn't afraid, but, weak and tottering from illness as I was, I knew I should be no match for him if it came to blows. So I left him with the threat that I would get even with him one day.
Of course, I was young and inexperienced then and didn't go about things in the right way. I should have reported him to the committee of his club, though even then no notice might have been taken of my complaint, as he was one of the committee-men himself.
For several weeks I nursed my threat of vengeance and then, at last, made up my mind what I would do. I would get into his house one Saturday evening after he had come back from the races, and try to get hold of his betting bag. To my thinking, the idea was not nearly so hopeless as it may seem, as I had quite a good knowledge of his habits and ways of life. He was very careless, and it was quite likely he might not lock up his money the first moment when he got home.
Upon several occasions in the absence of his own man I had acted as his chauffeur, and twice I had driven him to the races. I had had refreshments with his three maids in the kitchen, and had a good idea of the lie of the home. In passing out through the garden I had even peeped through the window of his bedroom and seen the big safe in the corner by his bed.
Both times when he had come back from the races, with me driving him, he had been very tired, and rushed straight into his bedroom, not waiting a moment before tearing off his coat and waistcoat and his tie and collar. Then the girls told me he had gone into what he called his study, where he would soak himself with bottle after bottle of iced beer until his evening meal. One hot afternoon, too, when I had happened to come up to change some tyres on his car, I had seen him wallowing for an hour or more in his beautifully tiled swimming-pool under the trees, blowing and snorting like a huge grampus.
One Moonee Ponds Saturday race-meeting I determined to make my attempt. It was a baking hot day in mid-December and I was hoping he would make for the swimming-pool directly he got home. His expensive home in Toorak stood in quite large grounds, and by half-past five I had got over the wall and secreted myself among some rhododendron bushes, where I had a good view of the house, with about thirty yards of lawn and flower-beds between me and the window of what I knew to be his bedroom. The house was two-storied, but his bedroom was on the ground floor.
Intending to get in through the window, I had come provided with a stout chisel and a thin piece of steel, in case the window was latched. I knew it would be shut on account of the heat. I was wearing a pair of cotton gloves.
Nov, by no possibility could anything have gone better for me than it did that afternoon. It was exactly as if all along I was controlling the bookmaker's movements.
He arrived home about half-past six, driving the car, as he occasionally did, himself. He banged it into the garage without even troubling to close the door, and made straight for the house, swinging his bag as he strode up the path, puffing and blowing as he passed quite near to where I was. His face was as red as a tomato and glistening with perspiration.
With his disappearance into the house my heart sank. I realised how improbable any chance of success really seemed, as I could not make any move until I had located him. Certainly, if he went into his study, I could attack the window of his bedroom, but how could I tell that he was in the study with the windows shut and all the blinds drawn to keep out the awful heat? My only chance was that he would make for the pool, and my heart beat like a sledge-hammer when I saw that chance coming off.
Less than three minutes after he had gone into the house he reappeared in a dressing-gown and slippers, with a towel over his shoulder. I held my breath in excitement, and the instant I heard she splash of his diving into the pool started to run across the lawn.
All that followed was ridiculously easy. I whipped out the fly-wire frame and found the window unlatched. In a matter of seconds I was in the room and standing breathlessly, for my eyes to get accustomed to the gloom.
In a few moments everything in the room stood out clearly, and I saw his clothes lying anyhow in a heap upon the bed, just as he had thrown them off in his desperate hurry to get into the swimming-pool, and I darted over to search them for his keys.
Then imagine my excitement when, as I lifted up his trousers, I saw his betting-bag underneath. There it was, heavy, fat, and bulging. I tried to open it, but found, as I expected, that it was locked.
I didn't hesitate a second. Snatching it up, I darted to the window and climbed out into the garden again. I was so certain the coast was clear that, laying down the bag, I closed the window very gently and even stayed to put back the wire screen.
I had no mind to carry away the bag, and, once again among the rhododendron bushes, made a quick job of cutting through the leather with my chisel. I stuffed my pocket with handful after handful of notes, leaving what I judged to be many pounds in silver untouched.
Leaving the rifled bag where it was, I got back over the wall and made my way quickly to about a quarter of a mile away, where I had left my bicycle in the garden of an empty house.
It had all taken such a little time that by seven o'clock I was back home, had hidden the notes in my bed, washed my hands, and was down in the dining-room having my evening meal with the other boarders. I thought what a splendid alibi I had. The bookmaker had not arrived at his home until half-past six, and here was I, hardly half an hour later, more than two miles away, apparently in no excitement sitting down to the evening meal. It was an unusually good meal, too, fried cutlets of Murray cod. Still, I didn't enjoy it, as I realised quite well that as long as I had the notes in my possession I was in great danger.
Certainly, it was now longer than a month since I had gone to interview Roxy bullock at his club, but I didn't forget I had then threatened that I would one day get even with him, and so it was quite possible he might think of me at once as the possible thief and set the police on my track without a minute's delay.
The meal over, and up again in my room, in a lightning calculation I estimated that I had got slightly over £1,100, made up of about a hundred and fifty one-pound notes and the rest in fivers, tenners, and twenties. When I noted that the biggest notes were only twenties, for the moment I felt disgusted that I had not looked for the wallet in his breast-pocket, as, often taking bets running into hundreds of pounds, I knew he usually carried about with him notes of large dimensions.
However, my disgust quickly faded. I was no common thief I reminded myself, and £1,000 was all I was entitled to. Every penny beyond that I would send anonymously to some charity, directly I felt it safe to do so.
Now I had already made up my mind where I was going to hide the notes, among the roots of a tree I knew of in one if the public parks, about half a mile from our boarding-house. The park was a small one and not much frequented, and the tree was one of several by the fence and easily remembered. Some of its roots were partially exposed, and if I wrapped the notes carefully in a piece of my mackintosh and thrust the packet deep down it Would not only be well protected against rain, but I was also certain no one but myself would ever find it.
Oh, the thrill when a couple of hours or so later I had hidden the packet and got home again without hearing a stern voice behind me and feeling someone's hand upon my shoulder! I almost wanted to cry in my relief.
As can be well imagined, it was a long time before I got to sleep that night. Apart from the possibility of ultimately being found out, my conscience troubled me not a little and I had to argue with myself over and over again that I was quite right in doing as I had done. After all, the wretch had owed me the money, the law of the land would not get it for me, and so I had taken it myself. It was justice, bare justice, though it might be justice of an unlawful kind. At any rate, I concluded, I had done it, and there could be no looking back. I had now to use my wits to escape unpleasant consequences.
Then I turned to the bright side. When I felt quite safe I would start at once upon my medical career. It was, however, to England I would go to qualify, for there I could look up my aunt, my mother's sister, and as far as I knew the only relation that I had, and learn all about my father's death.
On Monday the newspapers were exciting reading. Bullock had lied heavily and told the police, no doubt to impress his clients, that it was upwards of £5,000 which had been taken from his bag. He had discovered his loss the moment he had returned to his bedroom to dress and had at once rung up for detectives to be sent round immediately. They had arrived post-haste and, searching the garden for clues, the mutilated bag had been found the same evening.
No mention was made in the paper that any idea had been formed as to who the thief could have been, except to state that he must have been someone well acquainted with the house. Bullock was offering a reward of £500 to anyone furnishing information that would lead to an arrest and the recovery of the stolen money.
The following few days passed uneventfully, and I was congratulating myself Roxy had given no thought to me when, by an evil chance, I came face to face with him and suspicion was aroused at once.
Late on the Friday afternoon I was in a tram and he came in and sat down on the seat opposite. His eyes roamed casually round and fell on me. He recognised me right enough and, with a contemptuous curl of his lips, turned his head and looked away. Only for a few moments, however, and then his eyes snapped back on me, his jaw dropped, and a startled expression came into his face.
"The devil!" I groaned. "He's got the idea it was me, at last!"
He glared furiously at me for just about the time you could count five, and half rose as if he were intending to come over to me. However, he at once thought better of it, and, with a quick of countenance, subsided back into the contemptuous expression he had put on when he had first caught sight of me.
I got out at the next stop without giving him another glance but I could feel his eyes following me and had no doubt about what he would do now. He would put the police on to me straight away.
I was quite right there, and he must have gone to the police at once, as when I arrived home at my boarding-house about half-past six, hearing my step in the hall, Mrs. Hunt, our landlady, came out from the kitchen at the end of the passage and called out to me that two gentlemen were waiting to see me in what was known as the little room. Exactly, I thought. The wretch had got my address from the memorandum he had mule in his notebook when he had taken down my bet.
I didn't, however, have time to get flurried, as one of the men, hearing what Mrs. Hunt had called out, came into the passage. He was big and stout, and somehow his face seemed vaguely familiar to me.
"Here, young man," he said sternly, "we want to have a word with you," and he made way for me to pass before him into the little room where his companion was. He shut the door carefully behind him.
"You're Charles Leonard, aren't you?" he asked, and then, without waiting for my reply, he exclaimed with some excitement, "Hell, I remember you! You were that young cub of a doctor's boy who prevented us getting hold of Rainson, a year or so ago." He shook his finger nastily at me. "I never forget a face. It's useful in dealing with such as you." He turned gleefully to his companion. "You remember him, Sid, don't you?"
"Sure!" replied the other man, eyeing me viciously. "He spoofed us all right then, but he's not going to this time."
I smiled as if at the recollection of our last encounter, and was most polite.
"Well, what's the matter now?" I asked.
"The matter is, my son," said the first detective grimly, "we want to know where you were last Saturday between half-past six and half-past seven in the evening."
I frowned and tried to look surprised.
"What for?" I asked.
He looked sneeringly at me.
"Of course, you would ask!" he said. "It's all in the game, isn't it?" He became cuttingly polite. "Still, you've a right to know." his voice hardened. "From information received, we have good reason to believe you robbed Mr. Bullock's house in Toorak that evening."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" I exclaimed. I spoke scoffingly. "From information received! From Roxy bullock himself, of course! So the old scoundrel's told you how he cheated me of a thousand pounds and he now thinks I helped myself to what he owes me? He's—"
"We don't want to hear anything of that," said the detective curtly. "That's between you and Mr. Bullock." He spoke fiercely. "Where were you that Saturday evening?"
"Here, in this house," I replied boldly. "I'd been to St. Kilda in the afternoon to have a swim, got home here about six, and had my tea at seven."
"Anyone see you come home?" he asked.
"I don't know," I replied, "but five other boarders saw me at tea because we were all there with Mrs. Hunt."
"All right," he snapped. "We'll check that in a minute. Now we want to look through your room. If there's nothing hidden there, you won't mind. Got a room to yourself?"
"Of course I have," I snapped back. "I don't just pig it here. Come on, then, I'll take you. It's up on the next floor," and I led the way out into the hall.
"Mrs. Hunt," I called out, "I'm going to take these two gentlemen up to my room, but I'll be down to tea sharp, when it's ready." She didn't appear, but called out, "All right, Charles!" and I started to mount the stairs with the detectives following close behind me.
Then, all suddenly, an awful thought came to me. That morning, before starting off to work, I had made some sort of calculation on a piece of paper as to how long the thousand pounds would carry me through the five and a half years' curriculum before I qualified as a doctor. It had been only a rough calculation and I had torn the paper up afterwards and put the pieces in the grate. Now, as I knew the grate was not cleaned out every day, I was terrified the pieces might be still there. If the detectives found them and put them together—Heavens! how suspicious it would look, my calculating up probable expenses to a thousand pounds!
Another thing, and my consternation was now worse still, that razor-sharp chisel was in one of my drawers! They might be able to prove that the bag had been cut open with a tool just such as that. Oh, why hadn't I got rid of it as I had so often thought of doing?
But I choked back my fears as a bold idea came to me. I would take them into someone else's room instead of mine. Bert Harvey's was next door, and his should be the one. Bert and I were on quite good terms and sometimes went out together. Also, we often swapped papers and lent each other books. He was a merry, light-hearted fellow, and, if he ever came to hear of what I had done, would only think it a good joke. I knew he would not be in his room then, as, working on a linotype machine on a morning newspaper, his day's work commenced at four o'clock every afternoon.
I threw open his door.
"Here we are," I said smilingly, "and see what you can find."
The big detective looked round suspiciously.
"This your room?" He asked.
Certainly my good fortune was in, as there were two books of mine on the table, ones I had lent to Bert only the previous day. I turned back the covers and showed my name written in them.
"Of course it is," I said, "and please don't make it too untidy. Mrs. Hunt is always grumbling about it as it is."
The room was small and did not take them long to search thoroughly. They gave little attention, however, to the chest of drawers and wardrobe, but quite a lot to the flooring, looking to see if any of the boards had been disturbed. Of course they found nothing, but it was quite a long time before they desisted from their search. Next they searched me, and made sure I had no note's hidden, even in the lining of my clothes.
"Now we'll have a talk with your landlady," said the elder detective. He eyed me intently. "But, first, tell me what you had for tea on Saturday evening. You remember that all right!"
I considered for a few moments.
"Yes, I remember," I said. "It was fish, Murray cod, a great treat because Mrs. Hunt had backed Helter Skelter that afternoon and directly she learnt it had won, went out and bought some. Yes, we had cod fillets that evening."
The detectives walked unceremoniously into the kitchen, where Mrs. Hunt was getting ready the evening meal. She looked very astonished, and angry, too, at their intrusion.
"Well," she began, "I do call this impudence! What on earth—"
"Oh, it's quite all right," laughed the elder detective, "and I apologise for us coming in, but we're in a hurry and just want to ask you two questions. For one thing, what time do you have tea on Saturday evenings?"
"Seven o'clock," she frowned. "What do you want to know for?"
He ignored the question.
"Are you always punctual?"
"Certainly I am," she replied sharply. "I run this boarding-house on proper lines, or I shouldn't keep my young people as long as I do."
He indicated me with his hand. "Well, was this young man in to tea last Saturday?"
She looked very puzzled at the question.
"Of course he was," she replied promptly. She half smiled. "He's always in to his meals."
"And how do you come to recollect so particularly," he went on, "after nearly a week has gone?"
"Because I should have remembered if he hadn't been," she retorted. "I should have had to give him some supper, instead." She bridled up. "I look after my boys and girls and they know I take—"
"Never mind that," interrupted the detective brusquely, "but you just tell us what you had for tea that night."
"What we had for tea!" she exclaimed. She turned her back crossly to end the conversation. "I don't remember. How should I?"
"Helter Skelter, Mrs. Hunt," I prompted laughingly, whereupon she immediately recovered her good humour and laughed back.
"Oh, yes, I remember," she said. Her eyes twinkled. "A dear friend of mine, a Mr. Helter Skelter, paid for three pounds of Murray cod and we had that for tea that evening. It was a great treat."
The detectives went off with grim faces and, to account for their visit, I explained to Mrs. Hunt they were accusing me of having been among a party of young fellows playing the highly illegal penny-tossing game of "Two Up" on the parklands. I said her evidence had cleared me and she was greatly amused.
I congratulated myself that the matter was ended and I was quite cleared of suspicion, but I was soon to learn to the contrary and that they had by no means given me up yet.
Two days later a newcomer arrived at the boarding-house. He was a quietly dressed man of about thirty and told Mrs. Hunt he was on holiday from Queensland. He gave his name as black and said he worked in a warehouse in Brisbane. An affable sort of chap, he was ready to be friends with everyone. To me, in particular, he seemed to have taken a great fancy, and, saying he was lonely and wanted a companion, was continually inviting me to come up with him. He was most generous in standing drinks and even insisted upon paying for me when we went to the pictures.
Then he took to pressing tobacco and cigarettes upon me to a most embarrassing extent. I didn't want to take them, but he said darkly they had hardly cost him anything.
"I've a lot of friends on the boats," he nodded with a sly wink, "and there's always a lot of smuggling going on."
He went on confidingly, "You know, I like to get even with anyone who's done me a dirty turn, don't you? Well, this blasted Government stings me for more income tax than I'm sure I ought to pay and I get even with them in that way."
One night he told me of several other shady things he had done and kept harping upon what many opportunities there were in life for a smart chap who had got all his wits about him. "Wits and a bit of capital," he added. He lowered his voice mysteriously. "For instance, if I could only lay my hands on a hundred quid next week I'd make a couple of thousand in a few days."
It struck me he had been on the beer too much, and I didn't believe him for a moment. For all that I was curious and asked wonderingly, "but how on earth would you manage it?"
"Opium!" he mouthed, and he looked round to make sure we were not being overheard.
"Opium!" I whistled. "Trafficking in dangerous drugs!"
"That's it," he nodded. "I'd get it from a Chink I know who'll be on one of the boats coming in next week."
"Gosh," I exclaimed, "that's dangerous! Working in a chemist's shop as I do, I know how sharp the police are about all dope."
"Oh, but I shouldn't peddle it," he said quickly. "Just take it off the Chink and pass it over to a big dealer, quick and lively. I shouldn't have it on me half an hour." He eyed me intently. "So if you've got any pal or know any customer at your shop who'd come down with a bit of ready, there's a small fortune waiting for him and us on the quiet."
Knowing, as I had said, how sharp the Customs' officers were, I didn't for a moment believe he could really get hold of all that amount of opium, and became half inclined to think he was trying to put some confidence trick over me to get any money I had. In consequence I began thoroughly to distrust him and determined in future to give him as wide a berth as possible. Also, I made up my mind to accept no more of his cigarettes.
Then—that night in bed, thinking over how he had tried so strongly to pal up to me and the indiscreet way he had talked of the shady things he'd done, I suddenly went cold in consternation. What a fool I'd been not to have realised it before! Why, the fellow was a detective planted here in the boarding-house to try to find out if I'd got bullock's money! Of course that was it! He was the very type of an ordinary, not too clever, police-station plain-clothes man, strong and muscular, holding himself erectly as if he had had plenty of drill, and with the proverbial policeman's big feet! The devil! What a simpleton I'd been not to have tumbled to it at once!
Then I grinned in amusement. I'd lead him on! I'd get everything I could out of him, and then turn on him and tell him I'd known all along who he was! I'd show him I wasn't the fool he had taken me for!
But very quickly I discarded those ideas. No, I mustn't appear to be too clever, or they'd keep on trailing me and try to catch me, over and over again. I should never know when I was safe. So I must make myself out to be stupid and quite incapable of having done what they suspected. I grinned again—still, I would have some fun out of the man.
The next evening after tea he came into my room and suggested our going to the pictures, but I said I had got a headache and didn't feel equal to it. Then I added hesitatingly, and as if I were a little nervous, "Now, about that speculation you were speaking of yesterday—of course, I haven't the money, but, if the proposition is really as good as you say, I think I can tell you how it could be got."
The man could hardly contain his delight. The fool thought that I was going to provide it, but in a roundabout way, as if it came from somebody else. He lowered his eyes to hide the triumph in them.
"Yes," I went on confidingly, "there's a chap I know of who'd take on any dirty work if there was money in it, but you'll have to look out he doesn't grab all the profits for himself, as he's an out-and-out blackguard. A little while ago he cheated me out of a thousand pounds." I spoke very quietly. "He's Roxy bullock, the big bookmaker, and his office is in Little Collins Street. You approach him on the quiet, but of course don't mention my name, as he knows I'd like to kill him."
The man's face was a study. All the pleasantness went out of it, and it looked black and sulky. He scowled and muttered that he couldn't trust a stranger, and a few minutes later left me without renewing the invitation to the pictures.
The next evening his place at the table was vacant, and Mrs. Hunt said he'd gone back to Brisbane. He had left without saving good-bye to any of us. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and was sure I was safe now. Events proved that I was correct, for as far as I ever learned the police took no more notice of me. However, it was a good three months before I dared to retrieve the notes from where I had hidden them.
WITH the abstracted—I would not call them stolen—notes again in my possession, I found they amounted to £1,123 10s., and I went through them most carefully to see if it were likely any record had been kept of their numbers. Of course, it was the £20 ones which gave me the most anxiety. There were twenty-seven of them, but with no consecutive numbers, and every one looked as if it had been in plenty of circulation. Still, I was taking no chances, and resolved to change them all, a few at a time, and certainly not in Melbourne.
So I gave notice to my employer and told the people at the boarding-house that, wanting a holiday and a change, I was removing to Sydney. Instead, buying a second-hand motor-bicycle, I rode over to Adelaide. There I got work with another chemist, and on the first Saturday afternoon went to a race-meeting at Victoria Park. I had bought a suit of good clothes—to my disgust having to pay eight guineas for it—so that I should pass muster in the grandstand, and flattered myself I looked anything but a young fellow who was earning only fifty shillings a week.
Now I had no expectation of making a profit on getting rid of those £20 notes, and would have been quite content to drop only twenty-five per cent. of their value. Instead, however, I was not a loser on any of the four Saturday afternoons it took to unload them. I betted carefully, looking for no long odds, and investing only upon well-supported horses, and in the end was up more than another £100.
Then on Monday morning I boldly opened a banking account under the full name of Charles Fitz-Leonard, with the excuse ready, if by any dreadful chance my movements were still being watched, that I had backed the double event, with a pound, the previous Saturday afternoon at the races at Morphettville. As it happened the double in the totalisator had been the huge one of £225 10s. for five shillings.
Everything event off all right, and that same day I booked my passage for London in a blue Funnel boat sailing a fortnight later. It was a one-class first-class boat, and I forgave myself the extravagance, as I wanted a cabin to myself so that I could study hard for the scholarship at St. Lazarus's Hospital. I had found out what were the subjects to be taken, and had chosen that particular hospital because it was the one from which Dr. Rainson had graduated, and he had spoken so well of it as his Alma Mater.
I did not tell my aunt I was coming, as I wanted to surprise her. She had always been a bad correspondent, and I had had only one scrappy letter in return for the one I had written her. Hers had been very badly written, and at the time I thought she must be a very uneducated woman. However, I was to learn later that the shocking handwriting was due to her fingers being crippled with rheumatism.
The voyage turned out to be a most unpleasant, and even humiliating, one for me, as within a few hours of our sailing I realised I ought never to have come on such a boat. All the other passengers had plenty of expensive clothes, and always dressed for dinner, whereas I had only my one suit, and had to wear it day after day the whole eight weeks the voyage lasted. Knowing nothing, too, of shipboard life, and never dreaming of the expenses there would be, I had actually brought only two pounds on board with me, all the rest of my money having been remitted to the London branch of my bank.
Fully aware what a squeeze it would be to make money last through my student days, I was purposely travelling so that I should not be tempted to spend anything on cigarettes or drinks, or go ashore when the boat stopped at Cape Town and Madeira. I reckoned I was carrying just enough to be able to give a few adequate tips at the voyage end—oh, my innocence of how much my table, cabin, and bath stewards would expect!—and get myself landed at some cheap hotel in London after the boat had arrived at Tilbury.
Imagine, then, my humiliating position when I had to refuse to subscribe to the games and had to keep out of everything. There were lots of pretty girls on board and a dance almost every night. Even there, however, I could not join in, for one thing because I had never learned to dance, and, for another, because I had only one pair of shoes with me, and walking ones at that.
The other passengers could not understand me. At first they thought I was something of a freak, and then, as I heard afterwards, the rumour got about that I had been shipped off suddenly by my family to escape the scandal for something I had done. No wonder everyone took to eyeing me so curiously.
The result was I withdrew more than ever into myself, speaking to no one if I could help it, and replying only in curt monosyllables when anyone spoke to me. I am sure people pitied me for being such a sullen and unpleasant fellow. One good thing, however, did eventuate, and that was, keeping myself hidden so much in my cabin, I was able to study hard and furiously, indeed to such purpose that a few months later I gained the coveted entrance scholarship against some good university-trained men.
At last the unhappy voyage was over and I carried my one slender suitcase off the boat, followed by the contemptuous looks of the three stewards to each of whom I had given five shillings.
One good lesson, however, I had learned from my experience on that voyage, and that was that success in life would be the harder for anyone who knocked at the door looking in any way needy and poverty-stricken. So the very first thing I did after I had got a room at a Y.M.C.A. hostel and drawn some money from the bank was to get fitted out at a good West End departmental store. Then, after I had interviewed the Dean of St. Lazarus's Hospital and made arrangements to sit for the entrance scholarship there, I went down to Eastbourne to see my aunt.
Now, after the lapse of all those years, and having last seen her when I was only a small boy, I had only a very hazy recollection of what she was like, and that not altogether a pleasant one. She was ten years older than my mother, and I sort of remembered her as being fidgety and sharp-tempered, and not extra kind to her sister.
So when I approached the little shop, which looked drab and dingy and as if doing a poor trade even for that mean neighbourhood, I wondered what my relation would be like now and what sort of reception I should get. As I went in a bent old woman was serving a little girl with a pennyworth of sweets, and it took a hard stare for me to recognise her as my mother's sister. She looked at least sixty, and her expression was frowning and querulous, as of one in poor health. Still, she was my aunt right enough, for I saw in her something of a faint resemblance to my mother.
"What can I do for you, sir?" she asked, looking, I imagined, a little surprised at having so well-dressed a customer.
"Give me a kiss," I replied laughingly. "Why, Aunty, don't you recognise me? I'm Charles, your nephew."
Oh, the amazement on her face!
"What! Nellie's boy?" she exclaimed, looking, I thought, really frightened.
"That's it, Aunty," I nodded. "Am I not something like my mother?"
Her lips trembled and her voice shook. "But what a handsome man you've grown!" she added. She could hardly get out her words. "Fancy you being Charlie Baxter!"
"Charles Fitz-Leonard," I corrected smilingly. "I've taken on my stepfather's name."
Her face grew hard at once. "And a good thing, too," she snapped. "I expect you've got as much right to that name as any other." Then, as if for some reason she was annoyed with herself, she went on hurriedly to remark how well I was dressed and to ask what I was doing in England "Are you only on a visit?" she frowned.
"Good gracious, no!" I replied. "I've come to live in London. I'm going to a hospital to become a doctor."
"But where's the money coming from?" she said sharply. "I've got none to give you, and I understand your mother had none."
"Oh, that'll be all right," I smiled confidently. "I've got plenty to go on with, at any rate for the present," and I added fibbingly, "Some gold-mining shares we had, turned out better than we thought."
"But how long are you going to stop in Eastbourne?" she went on. "Do you want to stay with me? No, no, of course I won't turn you away. I've got a little empty room at the back, though you mustn't expect to live high. Trade's bad, and I'm not doing well. I've very little money."
Her reception of me was certainly not a warm one, but it was arranged that I should get my bag from the railway station and come back for tea. She would be shutting up at six o'clock.
"That'll be splendid," I said, "as I want to have a long talk with you," and I thought she looked at me oddly, before she turned away her eyes.
We had kippers and bread and butter for tea, and when we sat down it promised to be a rather uncomfortable meal for both of us. My aunt was palpably uneasy, and her manner was strange. For minutes on end she would stare hard at me, and then, for some minutes, would avert her eyes and go on talking without looking in my direction.
Determined to learn everything about my father's death, directly the meal was over, and when we were still seated at the table, I said firmly:
"Look here, Aunty, I've come down here expressly to ask you some questions about my father." I cleared my throat. "I know he was hanged."
My aunt went a pasty white, her jaw dropped, and she put on that horrible stare again. She made no comment, however, and so I went on persuasively:
"Come on, Aunty. You'll have to tell me. Why did my father kill that man?"
She spoke huskily.
"Your mother told you?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"No, but after she was dead I found a newspaper cutting among her papers"—I felt my voice break—"and it said Reuben Baxter was hanged on January the ninth, 1909."
Her eyes blazed. "And your mother left it for you to find?" she cried angrily. "Oh, the fool, the fool! but then she always was a fool. She was the worry of our lives."
I should have liked to have thrown a plate at her, and it was only with an effort that I kept my temper.
"My mother was one of the best of women," I said quietly, "and her life was a horribly sad one."
"After she'd had her fling," sneered my aunt. "After she'd brought scandal wherever she went and been the death of two men." She seemed sorry for her outburst, and calmed down all at once. "You see, Charles," she said, "your mother was such a pretty woman. She attracted men wherever she went, but the pity was she didn't keep them at enough distance. That was her great failing."
"Leave my mother out of it," I said sharply, "and tell me exactly what happened."
"Oh, I'll tell you," she went on. "Now you have learnt he was hanged, I'll tell you everything. You've a right to know." She became bitter again. "I a few words—a man had taken a violent fancy to your mother, and she didn't discourage him in the way she should have done. Reuben Baxter told this man it must stop, or he'd kill him. It didn't stop, and he did kill him in a violent and terrible way."
And then, piece by piece, I got the whole dreadful story out of her. The murdered man was Gavin Helmer, Lord Carden's agent at Ashdown Castle, and, in front of a number of people, my father had threatened him. Then one afternoon Tony Andrea, horse-dealer and livery-stable proprietor from East Grinstead, had come upon this Helmer, terribly battered about the head, lying on a bridle path in beacon-Wood, close to the Castle. Helmer had been collecting rents, and his bag with a considerable sum of money in it was missing. Apparently he had been left for dead, but he lived just long enough to tell the horse-dealer it was Reuben Baxter who had attacked him.
Andrea had raced up to the Castle with his dreadful news, and when the police were phoned, they arrested my father at once. He, however, firmly protested his innocence, and declared he had never been near the wood that day. He said, too, that as my mother had gone off to East Grinstead directly after breakfast to do some shopping, he had brought his dinner with him, and not left the Castle again since he had arrived there to work, soon after eight o'clock in the morning.
However, dreadful evidence was forthcoming to incriminate him. Smears of blood were found by the sink in the cottage kitchen and faint traces upon a dish-cloth on which someone had evidently quite recently dried his hands. Also, the next day, when they dragged the pond close to his cottage, the police had brought up the agent's missing bag. All the money had been taken from it, and it had been weighted down with big stones. The money, more than a hundred pounds, mostly in small notes, was never recovered.
My father was tried at Lewes Assizes. After a very brief retirement the jury had brought in a verdict of guilty, and notwithstanding that a petition had been got up for his reprieve he had been hanged.
All through the story I could see plainly that my aunt was most bitter against my mother, making out she was vain and flighty and lived only for admiration. She said that even in her early girlhood days she had set all the village boys by the ears, and later, as a maid up at the Castle, caused endless quarrels amongst the menservants, making it very difficult for Lady Carden to keep the peace.
As can be imagined, the story was a dreadful one for me to listen to, and, seeing my distress, my aunt started at once to change her tune and make excuses for my mother, declaring that, after all, she had never been anything but a child and so pretty that everyone had spoilt her. Finally she burst into tears, and I could see then that, with all her bitterness, she had been very fond of her only sister. When I realised that, my anger died down, and I thought better of my first intention of bidding her a curt good-bye and never coming to see her again.
With the air cleared, we could both talk more calmly.
"And are you really certain in your mind," I asked, "that my father did murder the man?"
She looked troubled.
"I'm not quite sure," she said slowly, "though everything suggested he did." Her face brightened. "But your mother never thought so, because Reuben had not been one to tell her lies, and he swore to her he was innocent. When he was gone, too, something happened which made her more certain about it than ever, and she even thought she knew who the real murderer had been." She nodded solemnly. "She declared it was that Tony Andrea."
"The horse-dealer who found the dying man?" I gasped.
My aunt nodded.
"Yes, and the suspicious fact came to her in this very room, when Andrea came to see her here. Somehow he had ferreted out she was staying with me, and what do you think he came for?" Her voice rose in anger. "Why, he actually asked her to marry him—she whose husband had come to that dreadful end because of the evidence he had given against him!"
"Good God!" I exclaimed. "What did she say?"
"Say!" exclaimed my aunt contemptuously. "She didn't say anything, but she was so furious that she snatched a book off this table and threw it at him. It cut him over the eye, and he swore at her and called her a bad name. I heard the shouting, and came running in from the shop. He was mopping the blood from his face, and your mother sobbed out what he had asked her. I was in such a rage at the insult that I would have scratched his eyes out if he hadn't bolted from the room." She nodded significantly. "Then—you know how worked up these foreigners get—as he was going out of the shop, he shouted spitefully that at any rate he had paid her out for something she had done to him."
"What did that mean?" I asked.
"Oh, it was the old, old story," she snapped. "He had been an admirer of your mother and, a good-looking man, of course she had encouraged him. Then one day, coming upon her alone in the Castle grounds, he had got too fresh and she had slapped his face. Ah, and there was another thing which your mother said made her think a lot, directly she realised he wanted her badly enough to be so anxious to marry a woman whose husband had been hanged." She held up her hand impressively. "When the police had allowed her to go back to the cottage, which was not until they had searched it thoroughly, she looked about and noticed that a photograph of hers which had stood on the mantelshelf was missing. It had been in a small oval frame, which could easily have been carried away in anyone's pocket. She was too upset to mention it at once to the police, and afterwards forgot all about it. Then after Andrea had been here and asked her to marry him the idea suddenly came to her it was he who had stolen it, and if he had it meant that—"
"He had been in the cottage that afternoon," I broke in savagely, "and left those blood-marks there on purpose."
My aunt sighed heavily. "That's what your poor mother thought, and she cried all night thinking about it."
"But didn't she tell the police about him?" I asked, in a frenzy of exasperation.
My aunt shook her head.
"What would have been the good? Your father was dead, and it was only her suspicion."
The next day I hired a motor-cycle and rode over to Ashdown Forest, about thirty-five miles away. I wanted to go over the places of my early boyhood, and if possible see the cottage where I had been born. Coming to the village, I saw a man sweeping before the little inn, and guessed he was the landlord.
I went in for a drink, and he followed to serve me. We started chatting, and I soon brought round the conversation to the murder of fourteen years back. I said I had heard about it and thought how dreadful it was to have happened in such a peaceful-looking little place. I asked him if he had been there at the time. He nodded and said he had been one of the jury on the inquest, too. Then I asked casually if it were generally thought they had hanged the right man.
"Oh, yes, we are all pretty certain there," he replied, "though it wasn't what anyone would have expected of Baxter, as he was a quiet, inoffensive man. No one had taken his threat seriously."
"But from what I have heard," I said, "everything depended on the evidence of one man, that chap who found the agent as he was dying.
"At first it did," he agreed, "but then the blood-marks they found in the kitchen made things look very black, and finding that bag, too, in the pond so near to the cottage, didn't help Baxter either." He shook his head. "No, Baxter did it right enough. He didn't know how far Helmer had gone with his wife."
I hated asking the next question, but made myself. "Then you think Baxter's wife was a lot to blame for everything?"
"I think so. You see, she'd been causing talk ever since she was a little girl, though no one could say for certain how bad or good she'd been. Ay, she was a clever little party"—he smiled—"and as pretty as a picture as well, as good-looking as any of the smart Society girls who came to visit the Castle." He nodded again. "And before she was married to Baxter there was a lot of whispering going on, and afterwards plenty of people thought the baby they had wasn't Baxter's. He was a fine little chap and very different from Baxter. He came to town, too, when they had been married only eight months, and that didn't seem like Baxter, who was a very proper sort of man." He grinned. "Still you never know."
It was a long minute before I could steady my voice enough to speak.
"And who was supposed to be the father?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, no one ever had an idea! As I've told you, she was a clever little woman. Still, it wouldn't have been anyone common. She was much too particular for that, and if she had gone a bit wrong before she was married, depend upon it, it would have been with some aristocratic chap, none of your footmen or valets up at the Castle, nothing like that."
With a sickening feeling at the heart, I turned the conversation away from my mother.
"And that Andrea," I asked, "I suppose, of course, he was an Italian?"
"Italian father," said the landlord. "Andrea always made out he was a musician. Anyhow, we know his mother was English and worked in a laundry in London. Still, Tony's a smart chap, or he wouldn't be where he is to-day. Not that everyone likes him or that his reputation's too good."
"What is he?" I asked curiously.
The landlord looked most surprised.
"What, you don't know!" he exclaimed. "Never heard of Antonio Andrea, Esquire, one of our important owner-trainers, who bred Roman beauty and the Duke of Naples?"
I shook my head. "No, I've been living in the United States for a long time." I smiled. "And I'm not interested in racing."
"Well, he's a very important man in racing circles," went on the landlord, "and he's got a big place not much more than a mile from here, near the beacon, and lives in great style. He's been eery successful, and must be worth a pot of money."
"But I thought," I said, "he had only a small livery-stable in East Grinstead and hired out horses for people to ride?"
"Oh, that's years ago," said the landlord, "but he had wonderful luck. Soon after that murder we've been talking about he attended a sale at the Great Harker training stables in Wiltshire and for fifteen guineas bought a cast-out and apparently useless gelding called Charcoal. He renamed him Nellie's brat, doctored him up, and started training him over the jumps. The horse turned out a perfect marvel, and after winning an £80 steeple at the little meeting at Plumpton went on from success to success to win the Grand National at a hundred to one the next year. They say Andrea won £20,000 that day. After that he never looked back, and he has bred and trained scores of good winners, including Ravenscroft, who won the Ascot Gold Cup."
"How old is this Andrea now?" I asked.
"About forty, I should think; at any rate not much more. As I've told you, he's not well liked, and it isn't everybody who'll trust him. They say he'll do the dirty whenever he can. Still, he's managed so far not to fall out with the stewards, though more than once they've called upon him to explain the running of his horses. No, he's not married, and he's a terror for running after women."
I left the little village inn in a very depressed frame of mind.
God, Nellie was my mother's name, and perhaps, hoping she would come to hear about it, he had called his horse Nellie's brat as an insult to her! If I ever got the chance to get even with him! As for what this landlord had told me, I could not and would not believe anything bad about my mother, and comforted myself not a little with the thought that, all the world over, people loved scandal about women, particularly if they were good-looking.
Riding on, less than a mile farther I came to the low wooden fence which surrounded all the grounds of the Castle. It looked just as it had done all those years gone by, and, hiding my machine among some high bracken, I climbed over. I remembered everything perfectly, and was making my way round to get a peep at the gardener's cottage when I stopped at a small pond, just outside the fringe of the wood, to admire the swans swimming about. I remembered so well the swans which had been there in my time, and these now, I thought, might be the very same birds.
Suddenly I heard a small imperious voice just behind me, and turned in some dismay to see a young girl with a small basket on her arm, regarding me very sternly.
"Don't you know you are trespassing, man?" she asked. "Then what are you doing here?"
She was a slender slip of a girl, about eleven or twelve I judged, with long, slim legs like those of a newly-born colt, but I was always to remember in after days what struck me most. She had huge eyes set in a lovely little oval face, and their blueness was of a singular glorious forget-me-not colour. I know I stared at her open-mouthed until she asked me again what I was doing there. Then I lifted my cap politely and replied I was only admiring the beautiful swans.
"But you're trespassing," she repeated.
"Then I apologise," I said, and went on to ask smilingly, "And who might you be?"
"I'm Lady Margaret," she replied proudly, "and my father is Lord Carden. This castle belongs to him. How did you get in here?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Over the fence."
"Then you shouldn't have," she reproved. "You should have come in properly through the gates by the lodge. My father never minds people coming into the grounds if they behave themselves, but he doesn't like underhand ways."
"I'm very sorry," I repeated. I lifted my cap again. "I'll go now."
She became more gracious.
"Well, as you're here," she said, "if you like you can stop and see me feed the swans. But don't come too near. They don't like strangers, particularly now, when they've got a nest in the reeds."
So I watched her feed the birds. She chatted easily, asking me several questions about myself—where did I come from, where was I going, and had I seen the Castle before?
Then, her basket empty, she dismissed me with the air of a queen.
"I would show you round the grounds," she said gravely, "but I haven't the time now. We have visitors coming, and I must go in. Now don't climb back over the fence. Go out through the drive, and if anyone questions you tell them Lady Margaret gave you permission. Good morning."
Two long legs went off briskly with a slender little body and a perfectly poised little head.
How strange is Fate! That meeting by the pond-side was then for me but a chance encounter with a very charming little girl of unforgettable forget-me-not eyes! How little did I dream that later she was to become my wife, and the mother of my children!
MY hospital years were very happy ones, with the usual pleasures and amusements of young fellows intermingled with hard work. Innocently, I had imagined that when a medical student I should be keeping myself very much to myself, avoiding all entangling friendships and giving no thought to anything but obtaining my diplomas and degrees.
Very quickly, however, I realised that was not to be, for, with youth calling to youth, I soon found I was being irresistibly drawn into the life and gaieties of the many young men about my own age. It was impossible to keep aloof from them, for, established as I was in the residential student quarters attached to the hospital, it was like living in a big club, where almost everyone was always merry and good-tempered.
There was joking and laughter all day long, and, with every month I was there, it came home to me most forcibly that the social education I was receiving was every bit as important for success in after life as was the tuition received at the lectures and in the dissecting-room.
In spite of the good manners my stepfather had instilled into me, I found I had many rough corners to be rubbed away, and, looking back, I am sure that at first I must have seemed not a little of a hobbledehoy to my companions. Still, they were very nice to me and accepted me at once as being as good as any of them. I joined the hospital athletic clubs, I took dancing, and was always ready for a game of cards when I had got my work well in hand. I dressed quite well, and, taking good care of my clothes, made it one of my first rules of life to always look neat and tidy.
In one way I was greatly relieved in my mind. Prior to coming to England I had had nothing at all to do with girls, but to my great disgust had continually been finding myself both thinking and dreaming about them. If I saw a pretty girl anywhere my eyes would drop at once to notice what her figure was like and if she had a good pair of legs. I hated myself for doing it and was most depressed, thinking I must be cursed with an unusually animal turn of mind.
When, however, I came to mingle with the other students, to my amazement I found that all they seemed to think about was the other sex; at any rate, it was the chief topic of conversation and nearly all their jokes and stories were about girls. Fastidious and over-refined people might have called most of the stories dirty ones, but, speaking sensibly, that was not a true description, and indeed only a few of them were actually bordering on coarseness, with their coarseness even then being redeemed by their wit.
And the telling of these stories was by no means confined to the students. The staff attached to the hospital, the distinguished lecturers, physicians, and surgeons, many of whose names were as household words in the profession, seemed just as partial to this kind of story, too, and often a good one filtered down from them to us by way of the house surgeons and house physicians.
In particular, I remember one lecturer, a man of outstanding ability, whose reputation was world-wide. Most esteemed by the students, his lectures were perhaps better attended than anyone's, and he often brought in a racy story to add point to what he was saying. Once, when we had all had a hearty laugh at something he had told us, he remarked smilingly, "That's right! A good laugh is often better than any drug we can prescribe," and he added solemnly, "You know, gentlemen, in the course of many years of professional life, whenever I have come across a man who doesn't enjoy a witty story about the other sex I am always inclined to think he's not quite normal and must be something of an unpleasant fellow."
However, if the staff, generally, enjoyed racy stories, one of the senior physicians was very different from his colleagues in this respect. An elderly widower of a cold and frowning demeanour, all references to women except in matters relating to their diseases were strictly taboo, and he would indeed have been a bold man who ventured upon even the mildest of jokes about them in his presence. As, however, the wife of this particular gentleman man had presented him with eleven children in fifteen years, and her death vas generally supposed to have been brought about, or at any rate hastened, by excessive child-bearing, most people were not a little amused at his puritanical outlook on life.
I remember how black and scowling he had looked one night at a hospital smoking-concert when a story was told by one of his younger colleagues. The story was about one of the elders of a certain church in Glasgow, who had mislaid his favourite umbrella and was very upset about it.
On the following Sunday morning, during the course of the service at church, the minister was reading out the ten commandments, and when he came to the seventh this particular elder was noticed by his wife, who was sitting next to him, to start suddenly and snap his fingers together exultantly. When later they came out of the church together he was smiling so happily that she asked him why. "Nothing, nothing mooch, lass," he replied. "Only I ha' just remembered wha I left that umbrella I lost."
Far-fetched it may seem, but just a harmless little story, and certainly nothing "dirty" about it.
With their lively interest in the other sex, as can be well imagined, the students gave as much attention as possible to the nurses, though here they were hampered not a little by the vigilance of the argus-eyed matron, who was, seemingly, a sexless woman and as cold as a fish. Flirtations within the precincts of the hospital were most dangerous. If it came to the matron's ears that any nurse had been seen in the company of a student, outside, the poor girl came in for a bad time, and was harassed in those countless little ways in which only a woman would harass another of her sex.
The nurses themselves were a very nice class of girl. At the most joyous and passionate years of their lives, and brought in such close contact with so many boys, it was only natural they should not have been averse to receiving attention. Nurses, whose work among suffering humanity brings out the best qualities of womanhood, as a body I have always found the most broadminded, sensible, and sympathetic of their sex. It may be that many of them in their single days acquire certain secrets which they would not wish all the world to learn, but in such cases, discarding all hypocrisy and make-believe, the are no different from girls in other classes of the community, and, whatever they may have to hide, for the most part the are thoroughly good girls. I have always noticed that when a man marries a nurse he is pretty certain of a good wife and a happy home.
Regarding young people generally, the great failing of elderly strict moralists—and of course most strict moralists are elderly and have reached a time of life when that which they rail against has passed beyond their reach—is that they will not face truth. The yard-stick with which they are accustomed to measure goodness and badness in the relations of the sexes is a wholly unsatisfactory one. Old gentlemen may totter into the pulpit or on to the platform and, in the security of age and incapacity, deliver their windy homilies, but nothing they can say will turn back the tide, for it is against nature and all reason to expect perfection among young people under all circumstances.
No, the expectation of fulfilling ideals is mostly either for those whom age has sobered down or those who have never been thrown into the hurly-burly of life, who have lived in backwaters and never been exposed to the temptations of ordinary men and women. It is all very well to declaim "Hitch your wagon to a star," but in hard practice that is not a meaty bone and no one will get much of a meal from it.
Besides, to face that truth I am demanding and speak quite plainly, with girls dressing as they do now in such scanty clothing, and of such thin materials, is it to be wondered that when young people get on very friendly terms—things do occasionally happen? It is sheer hypocrisy to pretend or think they do not.
In regard to the matron of St. Lazarus's, everyone including the staff held her in some awe. She was big-framed and of commanding presence, and never omitted to let everyone know her brother had received the honour of knighthood. She glided about the wards like the Queen Mary going into dock, her great obsession apparently being to be present by the bed of every patient who was about to die. When she and the hospital chaplain were seen whispering together the nurses would nod ominously and regard them as birds of ill-omen.
The chaplain was much liked by the students. He was a good-natured, kindly man with a big, square face and huge stomach. He had, however, an irritating way of addressing people, not by their full surname, but by its first letter. "Good morning, Mr. A.," he would say. "How are you to-day, Mr. B?" This failing of his caused him to make a dreadful faux pas on one occasion, though I don't think anyone ever enlightened him about it.
One night he was helping to receive the guests at a social function connected with the hospital and Mr. Hoare, the secretary, was announced. It was generally known that Mr. Hoare's wife was ailing and would not be able to be present.
"Good evening, sir," said the chaplain, shaking hands, and he added in all innocence, "We are very sorry Mrs. W. has not come, too."
Imagine the covert smiles that went round, and the disgusted annoyance of poor Mr. Hoare.
Yes, my hospital days were very happy ones, though, when well into my fourth year, I became very worried lest my money should not quite last me out. I had tried to be most economical, but the calls of social life had made much greater inroads upon my resources than I had anticipated. There were nearly eighteen months still to go and I had less than £150 left.
I had kept on friendly, indeed quite affectionate, terms with my aunt in Eastbourne, and had often been down to see her. Still, to ask her to lend me money was a horrible idea, and I doubted, too, if she had any to lend. She was always very pleased to see me, and often told me, with that strange hard stare of hers, that I was growing into a distinguished-looking professional man. However, she never mentioned money, and seemed to think I had an inexhaustible supply.
Having dismissed her from my thoughts as a possible source of revenue, I considered every conceivable way in which I might make a few pounds, never, however, coming upon a feasible one. Then, suddenly, help came to me in a very extraordinary fashion, and I was freed of all anxiety.
One afternoon a casualty was brought in, a middle-aged man of the name of Melton, with a compound fracture of one of his legs. He had been knocked down by a bus. It fell to me to have a lot to do with him. I had trained myself to make a study of every patient I was brought in contact with, but although we often had long chats together, I could never exactly place him. Obviously not quite what the world would call a gentleman, he was evidently well off, and quiet and reserved in his manner. He never mentioned his occupation. He had a shrewd, intelligent face, with searching grey eyes, and, though not well-educated in a bookish way, seemed to have seen plenty of life and moved among a very good-class, and even high-class, people.
I had lent him a chess-board and men to work out problems, and in spare half-hours would have a game with him. When he was ready to leave the hospital he gave me his address, and invited me to come and see him on the following Sunday afternoon to have some chess and stay on for the evening meal.
More out of curiosity than anything else, I went, and learned that he was a bachelor with a roomy, well-appointed flat in Earl's Court, keeping two maidservants. He gave me an excellent meal of cold fowl and ham, with a bottle of delicious Burgundy. After that I went again on other Sundays, and we became quite friendly, though for several months he never made any enquiries about my circumstances or people, and I was as much in the dark as ever as to what his occupation might be.
Then one evening, pushing away the chessboard, he began, interestedly and quite nicely, to ask me questions about myself. Having no reason not to satisfy his curiosity, I told him all he apparently wanted to know. After a short silence he said suddenly, "Well, my young friend, I take it you are not too well off, so would you like to earn a little money?"
"But how do you know I haven't got plenty?" I laughed.
He smiled. "Though you are always neatly dressed, I've never seen you in any but that same suit. So I am thinking that perhaps you could do with a little extra cash, not very much, but just a few guineas every now and then. How about it?"
"It sounds all right," I said, "and certainly I shouldn't mind a little job, if it's nice work and doesn't interfere with what I've got to do at the hospital."
He shook his head. "No, it wouldn't interfere there. It would do you a lot of good and smarten you up"—he smiled—"for that high-class West End practice you're going to have one day.
"That's just what I need," I laughed. "Well, what's the idea?"
"Ever heard of Latrobe's Agency?" he asked, and when I reluctantly shook my head he picked up a newspaper on the table and pointed to a small advertisement.
"Latrobe's Agency. 77 Adelphi Street, Strand."
He nodded. "That's me, I'm Latrobe."
"Detective work?" I asked frowningly.
He shook his head. "No, not for you—at least, not exactly. It's like this. I provide attendants for big Society functions, wedding receptions, dances, etc. Watch-dogs, if you like to call them so—to see that no black sheep crash in among the guests, no people who have invited themselves. You understand—members of the whiz mob and anyone who's on the job after the valuables that women are wearing. And the men I supply have to look like the guests. No one must know they are not guests, and in appearance and manners they must be every bit as good as anyone present."
"But I shouldn't know," I gasped, "a black sheep or a mobs-man if I saw one."
"Of course you wouldn't," he laughed, "at first. To begin with you would go as an assistant under a very experienced man of mine who's been working for me for man years. He knows all the regulars, and, besides that, can spot a crook at once, almost by instinct. He's a remarkably clever man."
I felt not too happy about the idea, and probably showed it, but he went on.
"Now, it happens that, at the present moment, I'm in something of a hole, particularly as the season is just coming on. I've lost a very useful chap who's just died of pneumonia, and it struck me you might take his place. You're presentable and gentlemanly-looking, and properly rigged out"—he smiled—"might pass as a young aristocrat yourself."
"But I haven't the clothes," I began, "and I can't—"
"I didn't expect you would have them," he interrupted. "No, I shall supply everything, and if you please me, which I am sure you will do, it will remain your own private property. Now, what do you say to it?"
"It certainly sounds all right," I replied, "but what'll I get paid for it?"
"Two guineas and all expenses each time I call upon you, and if you have to go into the country and stay the night the fee will be doubled. And I can give you a fair amount of work, perhaps even three or four nights a week in the height of the season."
We chatted for some time, until he looked at the clock and said he was afraid he must ask me to go, as he had an important visitor coming at ten o'clock. It was arranged I should call at his office in the Strand at five o'clock on the following Tuesday.
I went back to the hospital that night in something of a great state of excitement. My financial worries seemed quite at an end, as Mr. Melton had told me the work should be worth more than £100 a year. Considering myself something of a judge of character, it never entered into my mind not to trust him. He had struck me as straightforward, business-like, and a kindly natured man, and later on I was to realise I had summed him up quite correctly.
On the Tuesday I went to his office, and was rather surprised to see how big it was. It occupied the whole of one floor and consisted of seven or eight rooms. Half a dozen typists were employed. I was introduced to a Mr. Roy Dane, whose assistant I was to be. About forty years of age, well-dressed and not undistinguished-looking, he had all the appearance of a professional man, and reminded me not a little of the professors at the hospital. He eyed me very keenly.
"Now, young fellow," he smiled, "I'll try you out a bit. Have you ever seen me before? Now, think. Don't be in a hurry. Have you ever spoken to me?"
I thought hard for a few moments. "Yes, last Sunday evening," I exclaimed, "just after I had left Mr. Melton's flat! You were standing outside and asked me the nearest way to the Albert Hall."
"Excellent!" he smiled. "A good memory for faces is essential in our work. I was waiting there for you on Sunday to catch you as you came out. Now you come into my room and I'll show you the most valuable piece of property we have on the premises, our private album, with sketches and photographs of more than a hundred black sheep in high life, men and women. You'll have to drop in here at odd times and study it. You'll find it most interesting."
And certainly, when it was produced from his safe, I did find it interesting. What, however, astonished me most was that there did not seem a really common-looking one among the whole collection of faces displayed; no face suggesting roguery and wrong-doing. Instead, they were the faces of refined men and women, and some really pretty girls.
"The cream of the underworld," remarked Dane, "and not a few of them of good birth and education." He shook his head, "but of course when you are on the job you may not come upon them looking quite as they do here. There'll certainly be no gross disguises, but these nice ladies and gentlemen have many little tricks of altering their appearance, so that with a quick once-over as they arrive at any function they may not be easy to spot."
"And do you mean to tell me," I asked incredulously, "that all these people here are criminals?"
"The greater part of them," he nodded, "though a few are only suspects. Yes, they are nearly all of them on the look-out for easy money." He pointed to a snap of a pretty girl, gummed on to one of the pages. "See that one? Well, she's the grand-daughter of a bishop, though that doesn't prevent her from being a decoy for a certain not too reputable night-club. A charming little creature to look at, isn't she?" He frowned. "Still, of late she's taken to pushing her way into places where she's not been invited, and I've twice had to tell her to get out."
"But isn't she afraid now, directly she sees you?" I asked.
"She doesn't know me," he replied. "I always keep as much as possible in the background, so that not even the servants know me, as we are never sure if one of them may be acting in collusion with these light-fingered gentry. We take nothing for granted in our work." He grinned. "So it'll be you, my young friend, who'll be doing the dirty work next time, when we go out together. You'll have to tell them to clear out."
"But they won't take any notice of me," I said uneasily.
"Oh, yes they will," he replied emphatically. "They'll go like lambs. They never dare make any fuss." He frowned. "The devil of it is that when they've been thrown out they're never finally squashed. They'll just alter their appearance a bit, and as bold as brass crash in somewhere else, perhaps only a week or two later, hoping for better luck. They trade on the knowledge that these Society folks would never prosecute them if they're caught, because of the publicity and scandal which would ensue."
"But at these swell affairs haven't the invitation cards to be shown at the door?" I asked.
"They're supposed to be, but it's never pressed, and no host or hostess would dare to insist upon it. Take, for example, this wedding reception at Lady Brent-Hughes's place we're going to next week. She's not likely to know half of the friends of the bridegroom who've been invited, amid just think how awful it would be if some important persons were held up at the doors while someone was fetched to identify them. Then there's the ticklish job of looking after the wedding presents. They daren't put up a notice 'Don't Touch' because that would look as if they were suspicious of their own invited friends. Consequently, small but most valuable little pieces of jewellery are sometimes picked up to be examined more closely. Oh, yes, I tell you ours is a most worrying job at a wedding, and I'm always glad when it's over."
The following week I was decked out in a well-cut, fashionable morning-suit of the best quality, and Dane expressed himself as satisfied with my appearance.
"You look all right," he said, "and no one would suspect"—he smiled—"that you come from the Australian bush. Now all you want is assurance, and that should come quickly. If ever I put you on to anyone, be firm and short of words and speak as if you had all Scotland Yard behind you. One thing, you look strong and athletic and quite capable, if it's necessary, of using physical force." He grinned. "I shall look forward to seeing you handle your first case."
Then, taking the name of Charles Hudson for agency purposes, commenced for me some very interesting experiences, mixing as I did, apparently, on equal terms with some of the best Society people. I must confess, however, that my first impression of them was most disappointing. I had expected to find them very different from ordinary people, but, taken as a whole, they were not beautiful women and aristocratic men I certainly did see, but many others, with great historic names, looked common and insignificant.
One night at a big dance, where many of the bluest blooded in the kingdom were present, as I looked round upon them all I thought to myself that I could go into almost any big departmental store and from the staff there pick up half a dozen or more of each sex who would look every bit as refined and aristocratic as any there now before me on the ballroom floor. But I will qualify that statement somewhat by adding it would apply more to the women than the men. The aristocratic-looking among the men would be harder to find.
Another thing which very much disappointed me was that so many of the recognised Society beauties, upon close inspection, looked really washed-out and even dissipated. I was mildly shocked, too, with the amount of alcohol these charmers could consume. One little dainty thing, whom I was sure could only be just out of her teens and with whom I had two dances one night, confided to me she never felt really braced up until after her third large glass of champagne.
The agency was given plenty of work to do during the London season, and in some weeks I was called out several nights. Almost at once I had two most interesting and amusing encounters. The first was when at a very swell affair in Mayfair I came face to face with the matron of St. Lazarus's. Of course, she had often seen me about the wards of the hospital, but I had been far too insignificant a person for her to take any but the very scantiest notice of, and a haughty nod of the head or a curt good-day had been all she had ever given me.
Now, I have mentioned that at the hospital I had always tried to look neat and tidy. There was, however, never much variety about this, making, as I did, the same suit last quite a long time. So, being continually seen about in it, it might quite naturally have struck people, as indeed it had Mr. Melton, that I was not too well endowed with this world's goods. They would probably argue from that, too, that my people had not much money either.
So imagine the proud matron's amazement when she found me a guest among the distinguished company at Lord and Lady Malpraison's. Her eyes popped like saucers and her mouth opened wide before she recovered sufficiently to give me a little nod and friendly smile. After that night, whenever she met me about the hospital she was always most gracious, often stopped to exchange a few words with me. She must, too, have told someone where we had met, for I soon found it had got round to the other students, as they started chipping me and calling me Lord Fitz-Leonard.
The other meeting was with Sir Meredith Vyne, a senior surgeon, and I ran into him at a dance given by one of our merchant princes in Piccadilly. It was a big affair, and the value of the precious stones worn by the women must have been fabulous. The agency had all their staff out and there were men from Scotland Yard as well. It was just after midnight, and, with everything going well, Dane and I were having some champagne at a buffet when Sir Meredith caught sight of me. With perhaps just the slightest raising of his eyebrow she came up to speak. He knew me quite well, as I had recently been one of his dressers in the operating theatre.
Handsome and distinguished-looking and a courtly polished man of the world, always impeccably dressed, in appearance he was something of the ideal professional man. A great surgeon with a world-wide reputation, he included among his patients some of the highest in the land. Though generally considered cynical in his views of life, and endowed with a caustic wit, he was quite a kind-hearted man and, perhaps out of perversity, would always be inclined to be more gracious to unimportant people than to those much higher up the social scale. Twenty years before he had married a woman much older than himself. It had been a marriage of convenience, and turned out a most unhappy union. However, it was rumoured he had often found consolation in other quarters.
He asked me if the champagne were all right, and when I replied that it was and almost gave one a pair of wings he warned me smilingly not to attempt to fly too far. Then after a few remarks he gave me a friendly nod and took himself away. It happened that I met him again a month or two later, in the Park Lane mansion of a multi-millionaire. There, however, we only just nodded to each other.
The first job, as he called it, which Dane gave me was not until I had been working with him for quite a month. In the middle of a dance, when I was only looking on, I suddenly found him by my side. Indicating a man who was on the floor with a stoutish woman, he whispered sharply:
"That fellow there! Wait till the dancing's stopped and then tell him to clear out instantly. His name's bent. No politeness. Just order him out. I'll be close handy if I'm wanted."
I felt most uncomfortable. The man seemed quite respectable and as harmless and inoffensive as anyone present. Waiting my opportunity, however, I touched him on the sleeve.
"Out you go, bent," I snarled, "quick and lively!" and I tried to look as menacing as I could.
The man was startled, his mouth opened, and he went an unhealthy colour. Then he grinned sheepishly.
"All right, all right," he said, "I'll go, but I was doing no harm. I only dropped in for a bit of sport and a glass or two of fizz."
I saw him off the floor and watched while he retrieved his overcoat and hat. He gave the cloakroom attendant a tip, and with his head held high walked jauntily out.
"We've nothing definite against him," said Dane, who had never been far away, "but I know him for a croupier in a certain gaming-club and was certain he wasn't a guest." He smiled. "You did very well, Fitz-Leonard. That's the way to deal with them. Enter into no explanations. Just bark out your order and give them an ugly look."
The next occasion when I did something to earn my money was a much more complicated one and, with my admiration for a pretty face, I might very easily have become involved in some unpleasantness.
It was at a dance at Lady H——'s in a big house facing the Green Park. Towards midnight Dane sidled up to me.
"Watch that girl with the blue orchid," he hissed. "A woman's lost a diamond brooch and she was standing up against her just before she lost it. I don't know who she is, but I'm going to try to find out. If she's got the brooch it's Pretty certain she'll start to clear off almost at once. Don't let her. Stop her with the excuse that Lady H—— wants to speak to her. If she refuses to wait you'll know she's the thief, so call one of the attendants to back you up, and wait until I come."
I watched the girl. She was exquisitely dressed and very pretty, with beautiful dark eyes. She seemed about two or three and twenty and apparently was by herself, as, seated upon a settee, she was in conversation with no one. Seemingly, she was only interested in watching the dancers, and I was just thinking there would be nothing for me to do when suddenly she rose to her feet and began to make her way quickly to the big folding doors.
She had a good start of me, and, hampered by the crush, I came out of the ballroom only just in time to see her turning into a room some little distance up a long corridor. Hurrying after her, I pushed open the door of the room and entered, pushing the door to again behind me.
She was alone, and in the act of adjusting a cloak round her shoulders, but the moment she caught sight of me her movements stopped, her eyes dilated and her face, under her make-up, paled. She looked horribly frightened.
"Whew, she's guilty!" was the instant thought which avalanched into my mind. "She's got the brooch on her!"
I spoke eery sternly.
"That brooch, please, young woman. Quick, give it to me and then clear out. You're lucky if we don't hand you over to the police."
She recovered herself quickly.
"But I haven't—" she began.
"The brooch," I reiterated. "Quick, or I shall call the police."
Without another word, and with the pathetic air of a child found out in something wrong, she plucked a big diamond brooch from somewhere in her dress, and handed it to me.
Oh, how exultant I felt! I had bluffed and brought it off! Then I noted again how very pretty the girl was—with her dainty little oval face, her glorious long-lashed eyes, her queenly little head and the satin sheen of neck, shoulders, and generously undraped bust. A great wave of pity surged through me.
"But why does a pretty girl like you do things like this?" I asked reproachfully. "Don't you realise it will surely land you in prison one day?"
Instantly she picked up her cue.
"I have no money!" she exclaimed brokenly. "I am desperate and all alone." Then, without doubt seeing the admiration in my eyes, she glided up close to me. "Give me back the brooch," she whispered, "and tell them you found I hadn't got it. Then you can kiss me now and come and see me tomorrow. I'll tell you where I live," and she accompanied her words by lifting up her face temptingly to mine.
Just in time I realised the pit into which I might fall, and pushed her roughly away from me.
"No, no," I ordered harshly. "You get off and go. Quick!" and I moved back towards the door to open it for her.
She saw I was adamant, and oh, the change in that lovely little face! It became contorted with fury, her eyes blazed, and I thought she was actually going to spit at me.
"You damned pup!" she panted. "You—"
But the door opened before I could reach it, and Dane stepped into the room. Instantly her expression altered to that of one suddenly relieved from a great terror, and she clutched fiercely to one of her shoulder straps.
"He was trying to assault me," she sobbed with horror-stricken eyes. "He was interfering with my dress."
I held out the brooch for Dane to see. Nodding smilingly, he turned to the lovely little actress. "No, my dear," he said, in a reproving, fatherly way, "don't try that on. We are used to all those tricks." His face hardened, and he went on sternly, "I'm Detective-Inspector Phillips and I know a lot about you, though you don't know me. Now you hop it, quick. You're lucky they say they won't lay a charge, but you get off before they change their minds."
For a few moments she regarded him in a bewildered, startled sort of way, and then she proceeded quietly to pick up the cloak she had thrown down and adjust it upon her pretty bare shoulders. Dane held open the door and, with a bow and nervous little smile, she passed out into the corridor. We watched her out of the house. Then Dane turned to me and asked what had happened. I told him with some glee, but my pride was somewhat dashed when he called me a young fool for shutting myself in a room alone with a girl like that.
"Gad," he exclaimed fervently, "she might have nipped that dainty flesh of hers and said you had done it! It's not known who she is, but I'll swear she's as bad as they make 'em." He laughed. "And given the opportunity, I wouldn't say she'd get round a much tougher guy than you, young man. You just take in my warning that if a girl's pretty as well as bad, she's doubly dangerous and heaps worse than one who has no good looks. I've always noticed that."
And within a short while I was to remember his warning. Two days later I came face to face with the girl again, in Oxford Street. I saw her first, and thought how smart and pretty she looked, but I was passing her by when she happened to catch sight of me, and pulled up at once.
"Hullo," she exclaimed smilingly, and as if we were the greatest friends, "how are you?"
"I'm all right," I said grimly, making my expression as cold and stern as possible.
She nodded in the direction of a café a few yards away.
"Then what about giving me a cup of tea? I'm just dying for one."
I almost gasped at the impudence of it. Here she was all smiles and friendliness, when not forty-eight hours back she had brought a vile accusation against me. She seemed to sense my thoughts, and added quickly, "Oh, that was nothing! You'd got me in a bad hole and I was only trying to get out of it as best I could. It was quite fair in the game we were playing. Come on now; be a sport and take me in there for a cup of tea." She spoke very seriously. "Besides, I want to tell you something to explain about that brooch."
I was so amused that I couldn't help smiling. I was curious, too, and so, turning with her, I let her lead me into the tea-shop.
When we were seated at a small table and I had given the order for tea and cake, she looked pathetically at me and heaved a big sigh.
"You know," she said earnestly, "I am so remorseful about taking that brooch, but it was quite unpremeditated and all done in the spur of the moment. I saw it on the floor and picked it up almost without knowing what I was doing."
Little liar, I thought, but I made no comment and, instead, asked, "but how did you get in? You had no invitation, of course!"
"Oh, hadn't I?" she said indignantly. "For sure I had. I am well-known to some of the family and that was why, when I had picked up the brooch, I was so desperate to get away. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself, and intended to send it back anonymously by post."
More lies, I was quite sure.
"But who are you?" I asked. "Have you any occupation, or are you a young lady of leisure?"
"Yes and no," she replied. "I have private means, but I make plenty of money by painting. I am an artist and my name is Velda Lintry. I have no parents and"—she dropped her eyes coquettishly—"am a single girl."
She chatted on so animatedly and with such pretty gestures that, though I was quite sure she was a thoroughly bad lot, I could not help admiring her. She was very intelligent, too, and discussed many High Society people as if she were on quite good terms with all of them. She made no attempt, however, to find out anything about me, asking not a single question. I was rather surprised there, until I realised it was in her mind that all that would come later on when I was visiting her at her house, for, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she asked me to call. She gave me an address in St. John's Wood.
"What about tomorrow night?" she asked. "Say at eight o'clock, and be punctual. I have no engagement then," and as I hesitated in my reply she added smilingly, "And don't say anything to your friend, Inspector Phillips, about it. You can tell him later I'm quite a nice girl. Now you'll be able to come, won't you?"
I regarded her with a smile, too. I certainly hadn't the slightest intention of going, and for a moment was upon the point of telling her so, with the added comment that she was a charming little liar and I didn't believe a word she had told me. However, remembering how quickly she had roused herself into fury those two nights back, and not wanting to precipitate any scene, I just nodded inscrutably and said that "I'd see."
We parted with a warm squeeze of the hand. She squeezed mine first, and hers was warm and soft and quite pleasant to squeeze in return.
Walking back to the hospital, to my vexation I found myself considering whether I should keep the appointment, as I told myself, just for a bit of fun. I was young and hot-blooded, and certainly she would make a charming little sweetheart. After all, I was over twenty-four and quite capable of taking care of myself. So perhaps I might go, if only to tell her I wasn't quite the sucker she thought I was. I would let her see that—
Then the folly of it struck me like a slap in the face. What a fool I was to give it even a moment's thought! Of course she was only a little tart, and if I went to see her, with all her prettiness and charming ways, goodness only knew what might happen to me. I gave myself a big damn and rang up Dane.
Dane was most amused.
"And you'd half like to keep the appointment?" he laughed. "Now wouldn't you, my boy?"
"Certainly not!" I protested indignantly. "Every day here at the hospital I'm seeing what happens to poor devils who keep appointments like that, and it steadies one a lot, I can tell you."
"I should think it would," he called back. "Well, at any rate, I'll send one of our men out to St. John's Wood to-morrow and he'll ferret out all he can about her. A pretty little piece like her is sure to be well talked about."
And the next evening he called round at the hospital to see me.
"She's a Mrs., not a Miss," he grinned, "or at any rate she's keeping house with a man known as Lintry. He makes a living on the race-course, but no one seems to know exactly how. They rent the ground floor of the small house, and at eight o'clock last night"—he chuckled—"the dainty little piece was standing at the front door looking up and down the road for the fly that was coming into the web. Oh, there was some sort of game on, depend upon it, and the chances are hubby would heave burst in just when things had got interesting." He shook his head. "You'd have been cooked, right enough, if you'd gone there, my boy. I expect she thought you were connected with Lady H——'s family and had got plenty of dough.
"What's her occupation?" I asked, with not a little curiosity.
"She says an artist's model"—he grinned-"but the neighbours think she's something more than that."
So ended that little adventure. I never saw her again, but "Latrobe's" tipped her off to the police as an interesting bird, and they kept a fatherly eye upon her until, as Dane heard later, she was caught, when staying at an expensive hotel in Brighton, stealing a diamond necklace from the bedroom of another guest. There was a man staying with her, passing, of course, as her husband, a different one Dane thought this time, and they both got three years' imprisonment.
I worked for the agency for nearly three years, and congratulated myself that nothing of my association with it ever leaked out at the hospital. However, it had gradually become general knowledge there that I was often to be seen at important Society functions, and in consequence it was assumed I must have some aristocratic connections. Still, never mentioning them, and laughing off all enquiries as to which millionaires I knew, the other students credited me with being anything but a snob, and thought quite a lot of me.
Looking back now upon my work at Latrobe's, I realise gratefully what a tremendous amount of good it did me. It gave me poise and assurance, and by learning the ways and manners of people high up in the social scale I was able in after years to hold my own in any company in which I found myself.
At the end of my student career I had not the slightest difficulty in obtaining my membership of the College of Surgeons and the licence of the College of Physicians, these conjoint diplomas known as the M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., being always the easiest ones to obtain and which, generally speaking, satisfy nine medical practitioners out of ten. However, I was much more ambitious, and after taking the degree of M.b. at London University, went on to study for my M.D. I would dearly have liked to have taken the degrees at Oxford or Cambridge, as Oxon. or Cantab. after them implies more general culture and a higher social status. London degrees can be worked for at home, but the Oxford and Cambridge ones mean you have spent terms of residence at those universities and therefore that your parents have been people of some means. Snobbery, one may say—but there it is. As against this, London degrees are always recognised as the best and hardest to obtain in all the world. They are the hallmark of learning.
Meanwhile, to keep myself going and obtain more experience, I was in turn House Surgeon and House Physician at St. Lazarus's. The salary was only £100 a year, but board and lodging was provided as well, and when this was added to the proceeds from my work at the agency I had ample means to carry on.
And now I come to Sister Marie Antoinette and all that followed upon my meeting with her.
SISTER Marie Favour, or Marie Antoinette as everyone called her, had trained at St. Lazarus's, but had left soon after she was certificated, to take up private nursing. Some four years later, however, she had returned to take on, among other duties, that of head sister in the operating-theatre, just a few months before I obtained my diplomas and became one of the house surgeons.
Everyone liked Marie, and, notwithstanding the disparity in their ages, for she was then nearly twenty-nine, the students almost to a man fell in love with her. It was not that she was extraordinarily pretty, for she was not, but there was a charm about her which no one in the hospital, except of course the proud and rather spiteful matron, seemed able to resist. She was so wholesome-looking, she always appeared to be so fresh and clean, and her colouring was so perfect.
Of medium height, she had a delightful figure, nice grey eyes, beautifully curved sensuous lips, perhaps with the mouth a trifle big, nice even teeth, a nose slightly retroussé, and—a charming smile. I always thought it was that smile which won people over. For the patients it was so cheerful and sympathetic, for those under her so friendly and encouraging, and for all of the other sex so provokingly challenging.
It was not, however, that she was a flirt exactly, though the students said she was always flirting with her eyes. It may have been she encouraged everyone to a certain extent, but not very far, and she so managed things that, apparently, it was never necessary for her to have to tell them when to stop.
She allowed certain favoured students to take her out to the pictures, to a theatre or a concert—she was a great lover of music—and went so far as to let them hold her hand, but that she ever gave them her lips in the darkness of the usual taxi-ride home I never for a moment believed. In consequence, some of them said that at heart she was cold and emotionless, but from the first moment I set eyes upon her, I judged her to be quite a passionate woman, holding herself, however, well under control.
She was most capable in her work, and by far the best all-round sister in the hospital. When she was in charge nothing seemed to go wrong, and in the theatre her personality was never quite eclipsed even by that of the operating surgeon.
She excelled in many other ways, too. She could cook like a chef, was splendid with her needle, and one night when a concert had been got up for the patients by some of the students and the accompanist had not turned up, to our amazement she offered her services. The vocalists said she was perfect, and then, in response to imperative demands, she gave us a piano-forte solo herself, one of Chopin's nocturnes. I thought it delightfully rendered, and apparently everybody else thought so too, as she was vociferously encored. However, the fish-like matron must step in to spoil sport and announce it was too late for anything more and the concert must close.
Such was Marie Antoinette when I first came to know her. As one of the senior students, I was brought a lot in contact with her, but with all my admiration it never entered into my mind to try to make our relations closer. For one thing, I was much too busy to give more than a passing thought to any girls. My final examinations were coming on, and I was devoting all my energies to them.
I passed, as I have already mentioned, with no difficulty, and the following week, as a fully-fledged doctor, was appointed one of the house surgeons. Then chance stepped in, and few days later Marie became one of my patients. Coming up the stairs, she tripped and sprained her ankle. As I happened to be on duty at the time, it was I who attended to her. I bound up the ankle and ordered her to stay in bed for a day or two, suggesting that perhaps she would like the visiting physician to see her when he came round the wards later in the morning.
"Certainly not, Dr. Fitz-Leonard," she said instantly. "I have absolute confidence in you." She smiled. "Does not everyone say you are one of the coming men at the hospital?"
Smiling in return, I lightly touched her cheek with my hand for the compliment.
The next day when I came to see her again the ankle was much less painful, and we had a few minutes' chat together. She had some violets in a bowl by the bedside and I remarked how fragrant they smelled.
"Yes, aren't they lovely?" she said. "The chaplain brought them for me." She smiled roguishly. "I'd give you some for a buttonhole if Matron didn't know I'd got them here."
"Never mind Matron," I laughed. "I'll take a few and put them in my room."
"Well, that'll have to be your fee," she laughed back, "for looking after me so nicely."
Then she said something more which, however, I could not catch as a big lorry in the street was making such a noise rumbling by. I bent my head lower to hear what she was saying, and it came close to hers. She smelt so nice and looked so pretty that, upon a sudden impulse and not really thinking what I was doing—I kissed her on the lips. It was quite a short kiss, and I drew my head up sharply. I was most annoyed with myself, though I knew I had not offended her as I had distinctly felt a faint kiss back. However, I said frowningly, "Now, that was not nice of me, only just starting upon my career and kissing one of my patients." I tried to excuse myself. "Still, you are not an ordinary' patient, are you? Anyhow, I make you a sincere apology."
She was blushing, I thought, divinely.
"Accepted," she laughed a little nervously. She shook her, head reprovingly. "You may be quite a good doctor, but you're certainly a bad man."
The following week I took her to a concert, and from then things progressed quickly. We soon became sweethearts, though we had poor opportunities for courtship. We had no place where we could meet indoors, and a few hurried kisses snatched in a taxi were all we could indulge in. She had no parents, and only one relation, a married sister who lived in Putney.
I found her a most agreeable companion. She was very well-informed and most intelligent. As I have mentioned, music was her great delight, and no wonder, as her father had been a bachelor of music and the organist at Lincoln Cathedral. We went out a lot together. However, we were careful never to meet or be seen anywhere near the hospital.
So things went on for some months, and then quite by chance, and with no premeditation, we became lovers. She was on a few days' leave from the hospital, and one Sunday I was to meet her at her sister's house. When I arrived I found her sister and her brother-in-law had gone out for the day and—oh, opportunity thy guilt is great—everything happened.
I know neither of us were the least bit sorry about it. It was just putting the natural seal to our affection for each other, and we both knew we could be married whenever we thought it practical to start housekeeping. After that I bought two bicycles, and on our free days we went for rides into the country. Richmond Park was our favourite rendezvous, and when the weather was good, there among the high bracken in its lonely places we had delightful picnics. We even took a small spirit stove so that we could have hot meals, which Marie prepared daintily.
Living only in the present, for one glorious summer we were supremely happy, and then everything came to an abrupt and, for me, startling conclusion.
One morning, in a hurried whisper, she asked me to take her out somewhere to dinner that night as she had something very important to tell me. She looked rather pale and was decidedly nervous in making her request, and I thought at once I knew what had happened. She had found she was going to have a baby. The idea was by no means displeasing to me, though, of course, it would mean a great upheaval in our lives. We should both have to leave the hospital; but that would not matter much as far as finances were concerned, as I should have no difficulty in obtaining a good berth somewhere as an assistant.
Believing, therefore, that secrecy would speedily be no longer necessary, I chose a good-class and well-frequented West End restaurant for our meeting-place, and I was there waiting for her when she arrived, looking as sweet and attractive as ever.
We had a table behind a pillar, and, looking as calm and self-possessed as ever, she refused laughingly to discuss business, as she called it, until the meal was over and I had lighted a cigarette. She herself did not smoke.
Then she said suddenly, and I could see now she was steadying her voice with an effort, "Charles dearest, this is our last meeting together. I am not going to have anything to do with you any more."
For the moment I was stunned into silence. Then I asked sharply, "but isn't your trouble, sweetheart, that you're going to have a baby?"
"Certainly not," she replied quickly. "If it were, for the child's sake, I should not be able to break with you." She spoke very quietly. "No, Charles, I'm going to give you up, or rather we're both going to give each other up, because it can't lead anywhere."
"Nonsense," I retorted instantly. "I intend to marry you. It's been in my mind a lot lately." I smiled. "I'm tired of kissing you only when you've got your shoes and stockings on. I want a proper wife."
"And one day you'll get one, dear," she said sadly, "but it won't be me." She spoke firmly. "I've thought it all out, and nothing you can say will alter me now. We must part when everything is easy, and I'm not going to have that baby you thought about. As things are now we are perfectly free and nothing hinders us from being sensible and—"
"But what the blazes do you mean?" I asked irritably. "Have you got sick of me? I haven't of you."
She shook her head, smiling that charming smile of hers.
"No, Charles, I haven't got sick of you. I'm fonder of you than ever, and it's because I'm so fond that I'm not going to marry you. No, no, don't interrupt. Hear me out first. Now, to begin with, I am nearly three years older than you. That mayn't matter now, but it will in ten years' time, when I shall be almost forty. If we married tomorrow, we should have several months of frenzied happiness before we settled down to the babies coming. We should probably still go on loving each other, but in a few years' time I should cease to be physically attractive to you and—"
"You wouldn't," I broke in savagely. "I'm not as fickle as that."
She shook her head again.
"My dear, you don't know what I'll be like at forty, and I do. I'm exactly my poor mother's type. At twenty she was adorable, and men said she was as delicious as a peach. At thirty she still had some attractions, perhaps such as I have now, but then she began to go off rapidly. At forty her face was florid and red-lined, and she waddled like a duck. Her hair had started to come out, her teeth were all getting loose and—"
"That's enough," I scowled. "You won't be like that, and I shouldn't mind if you were."
She ignored my interruption.
"And think of yourself when I am forty. You'll be thirty-seven and in the very prime of life. You'll be handsome and distinguished-looking, and all the women will be falling for you. Then do you think you'd stick to me? Out of gratitude and pity you might, perhaps, in body"—she smiled—"though some people might be inclined to doubt that, but you certainly wouldn't in thought. No, you'd be always longing for fresh thrills, for thrills with women younger and fresher than I. It would only be natural, and I should see it and be a miserable middle-aged wife, knowing I could no longer give you the happiness you wanted. Don't you see I'm right?"
"No, I don't," I said sharply, "and I think you're being horrid."
"I'm not," she retorted. "I'm only being sensible and looking things straight in the face. Physically I'm not the type of woman who should dare to marry a man younger than herself, and it would mean tragedy for us both if I did. If I ever marry it should be to a man much older than myself, one who would only want a mistress for a few years and then be content with a companion." She made a grimace. "Later on he would probably only want a nurse."
I didn't know what to say to her. In some ways I knew she was right, and yet, as I looked at her sweet piquant face, so flushed in its animation, I was willing to risk everything.
She went on quickly, "And there's another thing to consider. I know you are not well-off now, and have probably no influence to push you on. So a good marriage is what you must look forward to. It's just as important as if you were taking another degree. You can't afford to marry a poor woman like me."
"And have you only just thought of all this," I asked bitterly, "or have you been considering it all along?"
She looked at me reproachfully.
"Think, Charles, just think, and answer your own question yourself. Have I not been wife as well as mistress to you"—she smiled a sad little smile—"even with my shoes and stockings on, and done nothing to prevent my giving you a son and heir. It's a mercy for you there's not one on the way."
"And you make out you love me," I said bitterly.
"So I do, Charles," she said earnestly, "or I should not be speaking like this now. It tears my heart to do it, but I know I'm right." She affected a gaiety I could tell she did not feel and nodded smilingly. "So we've had our last kiss, dear boy, and tonight we go home in a bus and not in a taxi."
And nothing I could say would turn her. She had just made up her mind it was best for us both—and I knew she thought for me in particular—and there it was.
The weeks which followed were very miserable ones for us both, and certainly Marie showed it, with something of her beautiful colouring fading. However, she made no sign of wanting to relent, and I was much too proud to make any advances myself. So we just drifted away from each other, with me plunging savagely in my studies for the degree of doctor of medicine. Time, the great healer, however, gradually made things more bearable for us, and in three months or so I could chat to her with no feelings of bitterness, and she had quite recovered her good looks again.
Then imagine my curiosity when one day I found in my room a little note in her handwriting asking me to take her out to dinner somewhere, as soon as possible, as she had something very important to tell me. She suggested the restaurant where we had last met, as the meal there had been such a nice one.
Meeting her later in the hospital, I named that same evening, and accordingly seven o'clock found us sitting down opposite each other once again, strangely enough at the same table, which I had found vacant when we came in.
There was no beating about the bush this time, for before we had finished the first course she remarked a little nervously, "Charles, will you think me very horrid when I tell you I'm going to be married?"
Certainly I was very taken aback, but I shook my head with a smile, "Not if you've found the right man, girl. I should like to see you settled."
"He is the right man," she nodded, "just twenty years older than I am, a widower with no children"—she sighed—"and he can give me a position and a good home."
"And you love him?" I asked ironically.
"Hardly," she smiled, "but I respect him and"—she blushed—"he is not physically distasteful to me."
"And who is he?" I asked.
She looked amused.
"You know him." She paused a long moment and then, with her eyes holding mine, added, "He's Sir Meredith Vyne."
It was no good pretending I was not astounded, and undoubtedly I showed it.
"Good God!" I exclaimed, and for the moment I was too stunned to say anything more.
"Yes," she went on easily, "it was arranged yesterday, and the banns are to be put up tomorrow. We are going to be married at St. Albans, Holborn. He's not orthodox, of course, but he was brought up very High Church, and thinks I should like the music there."
"But his wife's not been dead more than three months!" I exclaimed.
"That's nothing," she said. "His wife's been in an asylum for ten years, and he's not scared, any more than I am, of what people will say."
She seemed anxious for my opinion. "You like him, don't you?"
"Certainly," I replied. "He can be bitter and caustic, and would make a bad enemy, still"—I nodded—"he will be a good friend." A thought struck me. "But I say, young lady, you won't be able to sail under false colours with him. Don't forget he's a medical man and—"
"Oh, he'll know," she interrupted, with a blush, "that I'm not without experience." She nodded. "Still, that'll be quite all right, as I've told him I've been married before."
Another amazing surprise! "You've been married before!" I gasped.
"Yes, when I was twenty-two. I didn't tell you, because I wasn't obliged to unless I was going to become your wife. The nice thing about our friendship was we never probed into each other's secrets. I asked you nothing, and you didn't cross-examine me. Besides, I wasn't too proud of that marriage. He didn't love me much. He was a lawyer and died in prison, where he had been put for appropriating his clients' money to spend on another woman. We weren't married six months."
Then with some humour she related to me how Sir Meredith's courtship had begun and progressed. She had noticed him looking at her a lot in the theatre. One day he presented her with an orchid, and the next invited her to come up to his house in Hampstead and go through his conservatory. She had replied laughingly that she didn't know whether she dared, as he vas supposed to be dangerous.
"But I won't be with you," he had laughed back. "I promise you there'll be no parlour tricks."
So she had gone up to his beautiful place, and, after admiring the orchids, had played to him upon what she considered was the most lovely piano she had ever touched. He had seemed very pleased, and she had gone there on two more occasions. The third time he had asked her to marry him, and with no pretence at hesitation she had agreed.
"And when are you leaving St. Lazarus's?" I asked.
"Next week," she replied. "I have told Matron, and she is furious at my giving such short notice, particularly as I would not tell her where I was going. The old dragon actually hinted that she would have to put in any future reference I wanted, how I had left her in the lurch." She laughed merrily. "Won't it be a shock for her when she learns what's happened."
And certainly it was a great shock for everyone at the hospital. Strangely enough, nothing leaked out, and the first intimation anyone had was the notice in The Times the morning after the ceremony. All her fellow-nurses and the staff generally were thrilled. As for the students, when in about a fortnight's time Sir Meredith made his reappearance in the operating theatre, notwithstanding the grave-like silence which custom had ordained should always prevail there, he was welcomed by a hearty round of applause from tier upon tier of the delighted medical students.
For the moment he pretended not to realise it was meant for him, and then, in spite of all his usual icy self-control, he could not altogether prevent showing how moved he was. He had composed his face to its accustomed grim sternness, but, looking up at the students, it broke into a pleased and happy smile as he made a jaunty little bow towards them.
About a month later Marie, or of course Lady Vyne as she was now, came to the hospital to pay a visit to some of her old colleagues. Then, at the special request of the Matron, who was all smiles and deference, she went round some of the wards to speak to a few of her old charges who were still there. Everyone remarked how radiant and pretty she looked.
A few weeks more passed, and poor Marie was faced with a dreadful crisis, all her married happiness narrowly escaping disaster. She and I had evidently not managed as cleverly as we had thought, for some vile beast sent Sir Meredith an anonymous letter telling him we had been lovers for a long while before he had married her.
In his pride he had thought it beneath his dignity to tell anyone about the letter, but quite by chance his sister, who was staying with them, had come across it in a drawer of his desk when she had been looking for some stamps. Not for one moment believing what had been written, she nevertheless warned Marie, of whom she was very fond, about the letter. Of course Marie herself could do nothing, though she could see how the letter was rankling in her husband's mind. Still kind and respectful, he had suddenly become cold, and seemed no longer to take much interest in her.
All this she told me one afternoon, after having rung me up to meet her at a café.
"Now, Charles," she said pleadingly, "you must try to put it right for me. Only you can do it, and I'm depending upon you."
"But what can I do?" I asked, very puzzled. "How can I set about it?" I spoke angrily. "As far as Sir Meredith is concerned, you and I are in no way guilty parties. What happened to you before you were married brings no dishonour upon him now, as there were no bonds between you then. You were a free woman, and under no vows to him." I smiled grimly. "Besides, if you only looked into his past, you would have many more reasons to be jealous of him than he has to be jealous about you. There's not the slightest doubt there."
"But that's not the point, Charles," retorted Marie instantly. "You know you men are judged by different standards from us women. Before you're married you can have your frolics in as many Gardens of Eden as you like, and no one thinks much the worse of you." She shrugged her shoulders. "But if we women only look over the garden walls we are damned for all time if anyone finds it out." She spoke briskly. "Now this is what I want you to do. Throw yourself purposely in his way. Find some excuse to speak to him, and let him see you are not one little bit embarrassed by the meeting. He's very sensitive, and probably thinks you're all the time laughing up your sleeve about him. Ask his advice about something, and be most respectful to him in doing it."
"All right," I said, "I'll find some way"—I smiled uneasily—"though I'll have to be devilish careful what I do, as you know he's no fool, and is as sharp as a needle."
With great good fortune the opportunity came the very next day. Sir Meredith was quite unexpectedly operating that afternoon, and, his usual anaesthetist not being on the spot, I was told off to give the anaesthetic instead. I thought he scowled as he saw me in attendance as the already unconscious patient was wheeled into the theatre, but he made no comment, and in a few minutes the operation commenced.
Now, it happened that in anaesthetic work I was considered quite out of the ordinary. Indeed, so much so, that I had been advised by several of the staff to specialise in that branch when I came to leave the hospital. When giving an anaesthetic, I seemed to have something of that extra sense which some anaesthetists do undoubtedly possess of anticipating by instinct, if only by a few seconds, when the patient is going to be taken with a bad turn, and so being prepared to deal with it the very moment it comes. This sense is a gift, and cannot be acquired. Also, I could manage to keep the patient only just sufficiently under for what was required, and anaesthetise him no deeper. In that way, there was no unnecessary soaking to bring on an unduly protracted coming out of the anaesthetic when the operation was over.
As a matter of fact, I loved the work, as it brought with it such a feeling of power and importance, for it is the anaesthetist who is primarily responsible for the patient's life or death when upon the operating table, and the surgeon himself, however eminent, must abide by what he says. It is he who determines when the patient is ready and, if necessary, with danger threatening, orders the operation to be suspended until everything is in a condition of safety again. In a word, the operating surgeon may be the captain of the ship, but the anaesthetist is the pilot who brings it into harbour.
So that afternoon, when Sir Meredith was removing a gall bladder, I gave the ether with perfect confidence and assurance, and I am sure as well as anyone could have wished. Everything went off nicely, and the great man gave me a curt nod of thanks when it was all over.
However, I had not finished with him yet, and, following him into his room where he was taking off his gown and cleaning up, asked him most deferentially if he were going to honour us with his presence—the only excuse I could think of—at the forthcoming students' smoking concert.
He eyed me with grim intentness, but I was all smiles and respect, and was quite sure he would find no signs of embarrassment about me.
"I'll see," he said coldly after a long stare. "I promise nothing," and I left the room, thanking him for considering the request.
Thinking of poor Marie, I was disturbed at his so obvious unfriendliness, but told myself I had done the best I could, and at any rate had not made matters worse. I doubted gloomily if I should be able to think of another way of bringing myself under his notice a second time.
However, chance was juggling with the dice again, and to my amazement, on the following Saturday afternoon a message was brought to me in my room that Sir Meredith was waiting to speak to me on the phone and that the matter was urgent.
"What the deuce is up now?" I asked myself, with not a little uneasiness, but, going into the telephone cabinet and picking up the receiver, I was reassured at once by the tone of Sir Meredith's voice.
"See here," he said sharply, "can you give an anaesthetic for me straightaway? Dr. Honey was to have given it, but he's just been mixed up in a slight motor accident and has phoned to say he feels too shaky. Can you come instead. You need bring nothing, as everything is all ready here."
In profound relief, and really very delighted he was asking me to take the place of this Dr. Honey, who was a noted specialist in anaesthesia, I replied I could manage it, and accordingly, with no delay, took a taxi out to a private hospital in Chelsea. I found Sir Meredith waiting impatiently for me.
"It's chloroform I want you to give," he said sharply. "Are you all right with it? Good! Then it's for a carcinoma of the rectum, and you'll have to push it deeply, as I want complete relaxation of the sphincters. You needn't examine the patient. He's been gone over thoroughly, and is quite O.K."
Now chloroform, at best, is the most dangerous of all anaesthetics, as it is not only a deadly heart poison, but also it depresses the respiratory centre and tends to induce an alarming fall in the blood-pressure. Indeed, it is so dangerous that the immediate risks attending its administration are ten times greater than those with ether.
On the other hand, with all these drawbacks, it has nevertheless several great advantages. Perfect quietness and immobility of the patient can be obtained; it is far less irritating to the lungs, and therefore can be administered with benefit in pulmonary diseases; its vapour is not explosive like that of ether, and therefore can be given when the electric cautery is being used; and finally, with its administration, because of the lowering of the blood-pressure, there is far less oozing of blood from the small arterioles.
All the dangers of this particular anaesthetic were well in my mind that afternoon, but not unduly, so as to make me nervous. To administer it as Sir Meredith had said he wanted was by no means easy, for to obtain the desired complete muscular relaxation I had to take the patient right down to the very borderland of the fourth and dangerous stage, with the pupils fixed and dilated, the respiration tending to become weak and sighing and the pulse feeble and irregular. However, for every moment it was needed I did keep him hovering on this very brink of the Valley of the Shadow, and only when the worst part of the operation was over did I bring him up to the safer stage to continue there until everything was finished.
And all this time, except for the clicking of the instruments against the tray, a perfect silence had prevailed. Sir Meredith took no notice of me, nor I of him. No words passed between us, but never once, even for one moment, did he have to desist from his work. At last it was all over and he thanked me warmly.
"Couldn't have had anyone better than you," he said. "You were every bit as good as Henley." When we had washed and changed he handed me two £5 notes and a ten shilling one. "Here's your fee," he said. "No, no, it's what they knew Horley should have, and as you did his work it's only fair you should have his fee."
It was the first money in private practice that I had received since I had qualified, and I was delighted. No doubt I showed it, and Sir Meredith smiled in a most friendly way. Then, looking at his watch, he exclaimed, "Oh, I had no idea it was so late! No wonder I'm beginning to feel peckish! Now, what are you doing this evening? Are you off duty? Well, what about coming home to dinner with me?" Then he half-frowned, as if he was regretting his hasty invitation.
"The devil," I thought, "that'll mean confronting us together! Well, so much the better! There's nothing between Marie and me now, and our sweethearting is as dead as if it had never been. No, we needn't act as if we had guilty consciences."
These thoughts coursed like lightning through me, and in no small degree comforted me, so I replied briskly enough:
"Thank you, sir, I shall be very pleased to come."
We spoke little during the short drive to his house. He was frowning and preoccupied, and I was considering in exactly what way I should greet Marie. She was in the big lounge hall when we entered the house, and most fortunately, as I learned later, had seen us through the window getting out of the car, and, from our expressions, obviously upon good terms together.
Still, she had all the appearance of being greatly surprised when he came in. "What, Charles!" she exclaimed. "Oh, I am pleased to see you," and she came forward to shake me warmly by the hand. She made a pretty little grimace. "But there—I suppose I must not call you Charles now. It must be Mr. Fitz-Leonard."
"No, no, Dr. Fitz-Leonard," I reproved smilingly. "Don't you remember, I'm qualified?"
With a grim intent smile Sir Meredith had been taking everything in, but now the suspicions of the husband were submerged in the politeness of the host. "Dr. Fitz-Leonard has been helping me with an anaesthetic," he explained to Marie, "and is going to give us the pleasure of his company at dinner." He turned back to me. "Now you'll have a cocktail, won't you? Then my wife shall mix us one." His next words might have been rancour or just badinage. "That's one thing about which I can always be sure of her."
The cocktails were mixed in a slightly embarrassed silence. Then we raised our glasses and drank to one another's healths. Sir Meredith was all smiles now, like a cat, I thought, who's got a nice fat mouse to play with. Still, I did not feel in any way nervous.
"And I understand you and my wife were great friends," he remarked with a cold, hard smile.
"Not as great as I should have liked," I commented, with a smile at Marie.
He raised his eyebrows. "Oh, how was that?"
I hesitated for a few moments, and then, as if regarding Marie with some reproach, went on:
"Well, she'd let me take her out to concerts and all that, but"—I pretended to sigh deeply—"things never got any more forward than that."
"Then you should have married her," he said grimly, "and—"
"Oh, I did suggest it," I broke in laughingly, "but she wasn't agreeable and turned me down." I nodded. "So I didn't take her to any more concerts." I looked at Marie. "Did I, Lady Vyne?"
Marie looked amused.
"No, you were rather a beast." She laughed merrily. "Still, there were plenty of others to take your place. You weren't my only admirer, were you?"
"Certainly not," I agreed, "you had the whole hospital at the end of a string."
Sir Meredith seemed puzzled at our candour.
"But why did she turn you down, as you say?" he asked. "Surely you were presentable enough, weren't you?"
I shrugged my shoulders smilingly.
"At any rate," I said, "she would have it that I was too young for her, and also—"
"I appeared on the scene," he suggested dryly, "and finally cut you out."
I shook my head.
"Oh, no, sir, our affair was months and months ago, before anyone had heard that you—"
"Look here, Meredith, and you too, Dr. Fitz-Leonard," broke in Marie sharply. "I won't have you talking about me like dealers discussing the price of a prize cow. I won't have it, I say. It isn't nice." She looked scornful. "There were plenty of men I could have had if I had wanted to. Why, even the old chaplain had taken to asking me about my spiritual state and when I went to—"
"All right, my dear, all right!" exclaimed Sir Meredith. "We wont hold any more post-mortems."
"I should think not, indeed," commented Marie. "Particularly as there are salmon and saddle of mutton for dinner."
"Splendid!" exclaimed her husband, now in great good humour. "And we'll have a bottle of champagne to drink to the speedy recovery of the patient to whom your old admirer administered the anaesthetic so nicely." He patted Marie affectionately on the cheek. "No, young lady, I see I must not be too jealous of your past conquests, for what was more natural with those eyes and that complexion of yours?"
I choked back a feeling of great exultation with a smile. There was no doubt that in future Sir Meredith would believe nothing he did not want to about his wife, and it was a great triumph for Marie and me. Still—I told myself it was a deserved and just triumph for us, as nothing Marie had done before her marriage was dishonouring to him now.
The dinner was a very merry one, with Marie's eyes shining like stars, and later in the evening I am sure I convinced her husband, utterly, that he had no reason to be jealous about me, and it happened in this way.
Something brought up the subject of a well-known Society beauty who had just married into the peerage, and I remarked she was probably not as lovely as her photograph made out. "But haven't you seen her in the flesh?" asked Sir Meredith. "I remember her being at one of those dances where I met you."
"Well, I don't remember her," I said. "Of course, I may have seen her and not known who she was," and then it came suddenly into my mind that I could play a last and, perhaps, best card to impress upon him that my relations with Marie had not been as close and familiar as that vile anonymous writer had made out.
I hesitated for just a moment, and then went on, as if I were feeling rather sheepish, "but I may as well confess to you how I came to be at those dances, for I'm sure I can trust you and Lady Vyne not to let it go farther." I grinned. "As a matter of fact, I was not present as guest at any of those swell social functions. I was just a paid official earning a little money for my hospital fees," and I proceeded to tell them all about my association with Latrobe's Agency.
Sir Meredith was greatly interested, but Marie, as I had rather expected she would be, was put out and inclined to be downright annoyed.
"And fancy your not telling me anything about it!" she exclaimed warmly. "I don't think it was at all friendly."
"But why should I have told you?" I argued. "I didn't do so, because as a medical-man-to-be I was rather ashamed of earning money in that way, and, also, how did I know you hadn't some bosom girl-friend you wouldn't confide in, and then she pass it on until in time everyone at the hospital had got to know about it?"
Marie continued to look cross, but Sir Meredith chuckled and thought it a good joke. "So you see, my dear," he said gleefully, "you hadn't as great a hold on all your admirers as you thought, for one to deceive you like that."
The evening passed very happily, and, though I had no idea of it at the time, when I left the house that night I had made a staunch friend of Sir Meredith, whose kindness to me later on was to bring so much success and happiness into my life. In saying good-night Marie had squeezed my hand, and, though she still looked a little bit annoyed with me, I knew she was not really so, but was thrilled with the way everything had gone off. Some two months later, quite by chance, I met her and Sir Meredith in the foyer of a theatre, and, while he was gone to the cloakroom to get his hat and coat, she whispered that she was supremely happy and—going to have a baby. Smiling that dear old fascinating smile of hers, she added slily, "And if it's a boy, perhaps my husband will allow me to have Charles for one of its names."
A FEW days after that eventful dinner at Sir Meredith Vyne's, I received a short and very shakily written note from my aunt, saying she had been very poorly, and asking me to come to see her. Accordingly, obtaining three days' leave from the hospital, I went down to Eastbourne and found her looking very frail and ill.
It appeared that about a month previously she had had a slight stroke, and was only now able to serve in the shop. She had got the same girl with her, a stupid, stolid-looking young woman of obviously poor intelligence.
Upon my chiding her for not having sent for me at once, she said she had not wanted to worry me, and, besides that, she had had the local doctor, who had been looking after her for many years and understood her constitution.
"But it isn't for that I've asked you to come and see me," she said. "It's this. I know I shan't last very long now, and I want to get things in order. Of course, I've left everything to you, but there's some money I want you to take charge of now. You can pay me a little interest on it if you like, and when I'm gone it's all yours. It's nearly £1,000, all my savings for quite thirty years, and I've been keeping it here in the house."
"But how risky, Aunt!" I exclaimed. "Suppose it had been stolen or the house burnt down!"
"It's only been the idea of fire which has worried me," she said, "for I'm sure no thief would find it, even if he knew it were here," and the innocent old soul went on to tell me how the banknotes were hidden in her mattress.
She made me take the money, and I put it in my bank, thinking what a wonderful help it would be for me one day when I came to buy a practice.
After that I went down to see her almost every other Sunday, when she was always alone in her little house. Each time I thought she looked shakier than ever. Things went on in this way for nearly three months, and then, one Sunday morning, when I pulled up before the little shop, with a foreboding of some disaster I saw the servant standing on the door-step in conversation with a middle-aged man. The girl at once pointed to me with some excitement and the man came up to speak.
"Excuse me," he said, "but are you Mr. Charles Baxter?"
The name of Baxter fell most unpleasantly upon my ears, and, having so long accustomed myself to being Charles Fitz-Leonard, I know I must have looked very startled. However, I shook my head.
"No, that's not my name," I said. "It's Fitz-Leonard."
"But you often visit Miss Wand, don't you," he asked, "and you know she's dead?"
"Good God!" I exclaimed, even more startled now. "No, I didn't know. When did she die?"
"Only yesterday morning," replied the man. "Her doctor rang me. He knew I was her lawyer. I'm Mr. Henry Luke."
We went into the house and the lawyer went on:
"Now, you were a friend of hers, weren't you?"
I had recovered my wits and replied at once, "Oh, yes, I've known her for some years."
"Well, my trouble is," said Mr. Luke, "that some months ago she sent me a sealed envelope containing a will she had drawn up herself. Opening it now, I see she has left all her estate to her nephew, a Charles Baxter. She didn't put his address in the will and I can't find it anywhere among her papers. Perhaps you'll be able to tell me where I can find him?"
I drew in a deep breath. What a tragedy! Inadvertently, of course, my poor old aunt had had my right name put down in her will, and what in heaven's name could I do? Not only had I just told the lawyer my name wasn't Baxter, but apart from that I daren't lay claim to the name for other reasons. As I have mentioned, I had been using Charles Fitz-Leonard's birth certificate as my own, and I had produced it upon entering the hospital and, later, before I sat for my examinations. I couldn't go back on it now, as I knew quite well I had committed a legal fraud. No, I must stick to the Fitz-Leonard surname, whatever I lost by doing so.
So I told the lawyer I was sorry I could not help him in any way, and said my aunt had never talked to me about any nephew called Baxter. Then, bringing the conversation round to the value of the estate, I drew out of him that my aunt had nearly £50 in the Post Office Savings bank, and owned the little house and shop, which he reckoned would be worth about £500. All he could do, he said, would be advertise for this Charles Baxter.
And that was how it ended. Years afterwards I heard he had somehow found out that my aunt had come from near Ashdown and sent an agent down to try to learn if there were any relations of hers living. No one, however, could be traced, and I suppose the estate eventually went to the Crown.
The terms of my appointments at St. Lazarus's having expired, I resolved to obtain a situation as assistant somewhere, thinking it wisest to make my early mistakes in someone else's practice, rather than on my own. Accordingly, I went to work for two men in partnership, Doctors Markem and Potts, in Whitechapel, in the East End of London.
I had purposely chosen this poor, and it might have been considered somewhat unsavoury district, because I wanted my experience to be based upon as wide a foundation as possible, and I was certain I should obtain it there.
These two doctors, besides having a fair amount of private practice among the better-off tradesmen in the neighbourhood, had an enormous panel one, running into many thousands. In a way they were the funniest-looking pair of medical men one could have ever expected to meet.
They were neither of them a bit like doctors to look at. Both a few years over forty, Dr. Markem, slightly the senior, was a big clumsy-looking man who dressed very badly. He always seemed to have on the same suit and, ill-fitting and of poor material, it had certainly been bought ready-made. In appearance he was picturesquely ugly, with a square, heavy face, a big Roman nose, and small light-blue eyes.
If, however, his looks were against him, in disposition he was lovable and almost charming. Most kind-hearted and good-tempered—the whole time I was with him I never once saw him put out or angry—he was full of humour and for ever making jokes, often against himself. He simply radiated health, and when he lurched what he himself called his big carcase into a sick-room, he always suggested recovery and the easing of pain. He was liked everywhere, with his patients comparing him to a big Newfoundland dog. He didn't live at the practice, but had a large, old-world house a few miles away in bow. He had seven children, the eldest of whom was only twelve, and had recently married again, a young wife in the very early twenties.
His partner, Dr. Potts, though in many ways different from him, was possessed of an equally good temper. He dressed neatly but flashily, and I thought looked more like a dealer in horses than anything else. He was partial to big checks and light colours, and was never seen without a gay-looking tie with a big gold horseshoe pin. Rather on the slim side, in a common sort of way he was undoubtedly handsome, with big, dark eyes, a nicely-shaped nose and beautiful white even teeth, which he showed whenever he smiled, and that was often.
He was a merry, care-free soul and was always buttonholing people to tell them a funny story. As full of jokes as his partner, he was always poking fun at him, generally addressing him as "You old buzzard," which pleasantry never seemed to fail to occasion Dr. Markem a lot of amusement. Though very fond of the ladies, Dr. Potts was a bachelor, and lived with me on the premises in Whitechapel Road, with a housekeeper and a little maid to look after us. Very fond of good things, Dr. Potts made sure there was always plenty to eat and drink—indeed, of alcohol, though he was never drunk, he took a great deal too much. I will say, however, this indulgence was only "after hours," and then, he grinned, patients called him out at their own risk.
In hobbies, the two partners had common tastes, and horse-racing, dog-racing, football, and, indeed, anything where they could get a bet on, filled them with a great and holy joy. I must say they were not without many successes, too, and I am sure it would have been harder to find keener judges of form than they. It was always their dream to own horses or track greyhounds themselves, and there were continual arguments as to what sires they would buy if they ever came to have the money.
Such were my two employers, and all along they were kindness itself to me, treating me as if I were a younger brother. "We'll 'larn' you, my boy," grinned Potts, upon the first night of my arrival. "After you've been with us six months, you'll be able to diagnose better than many a swell Harley Street Johnny, and when Mama brings in her demure, sweet seventeen little daughter, you'll be able to tell in one blink of your eye whether the young lady is suffering from morning bilious attacks or—has been loving unwisely and too well."
At first I was greatly amused with Dr. Potts, though inclined to feel very sorry for anyone he attended. Very quickly, however, I was to find that, with all his frivolity and horsey ways, in his dealings with all sorts of ailments he was as sharp as a weasel and as cunning as a fox. For sure there were no flies on him. "Suggestion," he told me, was one of his long suits, and certainly it would have been thought he must be possessing some hypnotic powers for his patients to put up with the casual way in which he treated them, and yet came back time after time with the most perfect confidence, as if they were receiving the best attention possible.
Not that Dr. Markem, too, did not very often seem to be most off-hand with some of his patients, but then he told me with a merry twinkle in his eye that most of them had really nothing the matter with them, particularly those on the panel.
"You couldn't find a more healthy lot of coots in all England," he once told me, and grinned. "They mayn't know it, but they're as healthy as trouts. Having nothing to pay, they just stroll round to us as a sort of constitutional when they've got nothing else to do." He became serious, and held up a warning finger. "And that, my boy, is where experience comes in. Potts and I need only give one glance at them when they come in to know if our job is just to fire them out as quickly as possible. Of course, when we see any of them are really ill, it's a different matter."
Certainly, however, "firing them out" and "buzzing them off" seemed to constitute the major part of the work of the partners, and at night they would often go gleefully over the extent of "the bag." Markem would perhaps have "fired out" forty in his two hours' of surgery work, but Potts might have beaten him by having "buzzed off" forty-five in the same time.
Out of date in so many of their ways, and never troubling to read the medical journals and learn new methods of treatment, it seemed to me they had absolutely no interest in their work, except for the money it brought them, and I could not for the life of me understand how it had come about so many people had in the first instance wanted to be enrolled upon their panel and, later, had been quite content to remain on it and not change their doctor.
Coming straight from the hospital as I had, and imbued with the high ideals of medical practice inculcated there, at first I was both shocked and contemptuous with the way they carried on with their panel patients, from whom, after all, the greater part of their incomes was derived. However, I had not been with them very long before I began to see things in a somewhat different light.
Regarding their apparent mercenary obsession to earn the most money with the least amount of treatment in return, I came to realise that it was quite true, as Dr. Markem had pointed out to me, that the great majority of patients who crowded the morning and evening surgeries really needed no treatment at all. It was only because, no matter how many times they came, it cost them nothing more, that they put in an appearance so often.
Another thing I came to learn, and that was that, however out-of-date they seemed to me, they could yet get the best of results when really needed. Dr. Markem, in particular, was very successful with pneumonias. Arguing that they were primarily brought on by a chilling down of the surfaces of the body, he was a strong advocate for constant heat to the same surfaces to assist in driving them away again. So continual hot packs and hot water bags and hot bottles were his great sheet-anchors, and I must admit the sufferers did not respond badly.
I liked Dr. Markem from the very first. In some ways he was so simple-minded and so like a big grown-up child, while in other ways he was so shrewd and amusingly crafty, and I know it gave him a lot of pleasure to try to make me, what he called, a practical practitioner.
During the first week I was with the firm he made me be present with him in his surgery to see how he handled the patients, and I found the lessons both amusing and profitable.
A poorly-clad man walked in.
"Well, what's the trouble with you?" asked Markem. "Oh, indigestion! Pain after eating, eh?" Out poked a long fat finger into the pit of the man's stomach. "That the spot? Good! I'll fix it," and he scribbled out a prescription for a good dose of bicarbonate of sodium and peppermint water. Then, as the man was going out, he'd add warningly, "And don't you eat so much new bread. That's the very devil for indigestion. Stale bread's the stuff for you."
"But how did you know he ate new bread?" I asked when the man had gone out.
"That's a sure thing with people down here. The poorer they are the more extravagant, too. Blast them, they won't eat bread even a day old if they can help it."
The next patient was a miserable-looking chap, tall and thin, with a yellow skin. Pains all over the stomach this time.
"Of course, of course," nodded Markem, "you're fond of fat, aren't you? Well, don't eat it, man. It turns into soap inside you. Bowel indigestion is what you've got, and you cut the fat right out for a spell," and down was scribbled another bicarb. and peppermint mixture.
The third patient was a middle-aged woman, shaky and with dark rings under her eyes. Her inside, she said, kept turning round inside her and sometimes she felt tight as a drum.
"And how much tea do you drink?" asked Markem. "Oh, you're drinking it all day long? Well, never take more than three cups a day. It's playing Old Harry with your nerves. I'll give you a tonic, and you'll be a different woman in a week," and he passed out a prescription for nux vomica.
The fourth patient was a red-haired, stocky, middle-aged man, looking rather scared.
"What, you've got a pain over your heart and across the top of your chest, and you think it heart disease, do you? And when does it come on? Oh, you have it always? No, no, it's not heart disease, man. It's rheumatism, and you'll have to cut out the beer. No help for you if you don't," and he was fired out with a prescription for ten grains of sodium salicylate and the inevitable bicarb, three times a day.
"Did you notice that chap's colouring?" Markem asked me, before the next patient came in. "Well, always suspect rheumatism with freckles and red hair. How did I know he drank beer? Didn't you see the bulge in his side-pocket? That's where he carries home the quart bottle." He chuckled gleefully. "You must be a detective as well as a doctor here, my boy."
And so on, and so on, but there Were times when he would spend ten minutes on a case, and then he seemed to have turned the patient's body inside out. His treatments, generally, were a sound mixture of common sense and simple drugs, and I am sure anything serious seldom got by him.
I have said he was very simple-minded in some ways, and so he was. He was never reticent about his private affairs, and one day, after something he had said, I asked casually if his father had been a doctor, too.
"Don't know," he replied. "Don't think I've seen him. Have no idea who he is." He grinned in some amusement. "I've never been able to learn who my parents are," and then he related to me the history of his life, as much as he knew about it.
From earliest memory he had been brought up by strangers; he had been sent to cheap boarding-schools, and at holiday times had had no home to go to. Twice a year, with great regularity, he had been visited by a lawyer from a firm in Lincoln's Inn Fields to enquire how he was getting on. He had always been treated fairly well, and when it was time for him to leave school had been asked what he would like to be. He had said a doctor and, accordingly, had been entered as a student at the London Hospital. All the fees had been paid, and he had been allowed £200 a year to live on. When he had qualified the lawyer had sent for him, and he had been given £,000 to buy a practice. He had been told that was the last money to be spent upon him. He had tried to find out who his parents were, but the lawyers had shaken their heads and said they had no information to give.
Some ten years afterwards, happening to be in the neighbourhood where the lawyers lived, just out of curiosity, he said, he had called on them, but, as before, they had refused to tell him anything. Asked, however, if he were in need of money, he had replied that he was, though that was not really the case as he was doing quite well in Whitechapel. Still, a week later, he had received their cheque for £200, with the stern intimation that he was not to apply again. That had been some seven or eight years ago.
"And I had a lovely holiday with that £200," he grinned. "I took the wife and kiddies to a good hotel in Brighton and stood treat to good old Potts, too. We had got two locums for the practice and were away a fortnight, blowing the whole £200. Still, that was rotten luck, as Potts and I dropped £30 at the races at Goodwood. We had backed a lovely little mare, Someone's Darling, in the Hunt Cup, at a hundred to one, to win us £2,000, and she was pipped in the very last stride to the post. It was the only time I have ever seen Potty-boy depressed."
I was most interested in his story.
"Quite a romance!" I commented smilingly. "Why, your pater may be a duke."
"That's what I'm always telling Potts!" he exclaimed, with some excitement. "Though I don't go higher than a simple lord. Who knows that my mum wasn't a great Society beauty?" He laughed gleefully. "I'm handsome enough, anyhow, and this old Roman konk of mine must mean I come of noble blood."
Apart from their huge panel practice, the partners had quite a good sprinkling of private patients, and occasionally people came from a long way to see Markem. In particular, I remember a wealthy City man, a stockbroker, who swore Markem knew more than all the doctors in Harley Street put together. He would insist, too, upon paying him a guinea every time he came, though all Markem ever prescribed for him were salicylate of soda and aromatic spirit of ammonia.
When I had been with them a little over six months, and was getting on well with the patients, it was my privilege to become one of the audience in as interesting a little drama in real life as can possibly be imagined, and it happened like this.
Dr. Markem went down with a bad attack of influenza, and when he was in the very worst of it he received a call to go into the country to attend a patient, a thing that had never happened before, and he was most excited about it.
"Look here, my boys!" he exclaimed gleefully to Dr. Potts and me when we had called in quite late at night, long after surgery hours, to learn how he was getting on. "See how my fame is spreading." He almost choked with laughter. "I'm taken for a crack heart specialist now." He held out a letter on fine quality notepaper with an important-looking embossed address. "Read it out, Potty-boy, and let young Fitz-Leonard realise what a great man I really am."
Dr. Potts read the letter slowly and with dramatic interest. It was as follows:
Lawley Hall, Epping.
To Dr. William Markem,
I understand you specialise in cases of heart trouble, and therefore I should like you to call and see me at your earliest convenience. Will you kindly telephone me when you are coming?
"And I can't go," groaned Dr. Markem. "It'll have to be you instead, Potts."
Dr. Potts looked dubious. "But she may refuse to see me. It's you she wants."
"Never mind that," said Markem. "You'll go as me, see? You won't tell her you're not me, and it'll be as safe as a house. Of course, we don't know how old she is, but, as you see, her handwriting is good. So she may be young and lovely, and there'll be a chance, Potty-boy, of your picking up a beautiful bride."
Then, as he went on to add that the woman might keep a good cellar, Dr. Potts at once agreed to go down in his place and say nothing about his not being the doctor she was asking for. Lawley Hall was rung up and informed that he was coming, and soon after ten the next morning he set off in his rather shabby-looking car in a perfect blaze of sartorial glory. That his apparel was gorgeous hardly described it. He had a light suit of large checks, so large indeed that quite a satisfying game of chess could have been played upon his back. His tie was of a beautiful lavender colour, and he had gloves to match. His patent-leather shoes were shaped to fashionable torpedo points, and his dove-grey trilby hat suggested a honeymoon tour.
I told him he looked like a bridegroom, and he said he felt like one, too.
"Gee, I can almost hear the wedding-bells a-ringing!" he grinned in huge delight, and he intoned, "I, Alfie Potts, take thee Theodora Lawley to be my one and only wedded wife, to acquire all thy cash, to drink up all thy cellar, and to be the father of thy bouncing boys."
Springing jauntily into his car, he waved me good-bye.
"Ta-ta, Fitz-Leonard, and kill off as many of the chronic panel patients as you can while I'm away."
He was back again in time for the midday meal, in a great state of jubilation, flourishing a cheque for seven guineas.
"That's what I stung her for," he said, "and she took it like a lamb. I'm to go down again the day after to-morrow, too." He pretended to sigh. "But the wedding's off. No blushing bride for Alfie Potts this time. She's seventy and as ugly as sin, uglier even than the old buzzard here."
"How did you find her condition?" I asked.
"Oh, her heart!" he exclaimed. "As crook as can be. Mitral stenosis and pronounced degeneration of the pericardium. Of course, I can do nothing, but I've ordered her some nux vomica," and then, with great glee, he proceeded to tell me everything.
Lawley House was a big old-fashioned mansion in extensive grounds, and an impressive butler had answered the door. Dr. Potts had given no name, but had just said in a haughty manner that he was expected. The man had bowed deferentially and immediately taken him to his mistress. She had been so very nervous at first that she had almost cried and hardly been able to speak. However, he had soon put her at her ease and won her confidence.
"But, oh, how she stared, boy!" said Potts. "One might have thought she had never seen a handsome man before. In the end, I had fair hypnotised her, and I reckon she will never change her doctor again."
Then in the ensuing weeks it became a regular thing for Dr. Potts to go down to Epping every other day, each time receiving the cheque for seven guineas, and patient and doctor could hardly have become more friendly. The old lady was always giving him little presents, great bunches of hot-house grapes, bottles of old vintage port from her cellar and brandy that was nearly a hundred years old. He had thought it best to keep up the deception, and not tell her he was not Dr. Markem himself.
She told him about her relations, and they had great laughs together about them. She had three nephews and three nieces, she said, and they were all waiting for her to die. Among them were Nephew John, who was a police-court lawyer, Nephew Thomas, a bookmaker, and Niece Evangeline, a Mrs. Hornbill with five children. In time he came to run into them all upon his visits to the Hall, but was never introduced to any of them. They glared at him in a most unfriendly way. Mrs. Hornbill in particular, whom he said looked "a most spiteful bit!"
"It's only my money they're after," Miss Lawley had explained, "and they're just waiting for me to die. They don't think I can see through them, but I do, and I know they're tipping this butler of mine to keep them informed how I am. If one day I'm a little bit off colour, down some of them come the next, like birds of prey. They're wild because I've changed my doctor."
So things went on with the old lady for about three months, and then one day Dr. Potts returned very late from his visit to her and came into the dining-room where Dr. Markem and I were just finishing our meal. Unusually for him, he was looking grave and unsmiling.
"Bill, I've some news for you," he said very solemnly, "and prepare for a great shock."
"Then is the old girl dead?" asked Dr. Markem.
"No, she's not dead, old chap"—he paused a long moment—"but she's told me she's your mother."
"Good God!" exclaimed Dr. Markem, aghast. "Do you think it's true?"
"Certain it is," nodded Dr. Potts. "She was very poorly to-day, and I think, knowing she's not going to last very long now, she broke down and confessed everything. Poor old thing, I was very sorry for her." He made a wry face. "She wept on my shoulder."
"And you told her who you were?" asked his partner shakily.
Dr. Potts was emphatic. "Not on your life! If I had, I'm sure the shock would have killed her." His face brightened, and he took a long envelope out of his pocket. "She altered her will soon after I started to attend her, and here's a copy for you to keep. The original's with those lawyers in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Oh, and to make it quite sure so that none of those darned nephews and nieces can dispute the will, I got her to enclose a covering letter here. It explains everything, and says how grieved she is she did not acknowledge you before. No, don't read it now. Read it when you're by yourself. It's very pathetic."
"She wasn't married?" asked Dr. Markem, with a catch in his throat.
Dr. Potts shook his head. "No, you were a love-child, but not born until she was over thirty. She was poor then." He looked at me. "But may I tell you everything in front of Fitz-Leonard?"
"Yes, go on," nodded Dr. Markem. "He's all right. He won't talk."
"Well, this is her story," said Dr. Potts. "Her father was a parson in Croydon and she was a school-teacher there. She got sweethearting with a man out of her own class and her parents wouldn't let her marry him, because he was what they called a common man. She found herself in trouble and your dad treated her very badly and cleared off. She never heard anything of him again, and when you were born had you registered as William Markem—she admits freely—to spite him if he ever came to hear of it, as he was a billiard-marker in a hotel."
"Good God!" exclaimed Dr. Markem, producing a rather sickly smile.
"She took up her work again," went on Dr. Potts, "but a few years later an uncle of hers died and left her Lawley House and all his money. That's how she was able to provide for you to become a medical man, though she admits she always hated you because of what your dad had done."
"And I don't wonder," commented Dr. Markem. He sighed heavily. "No, I think I ought to go down and see her. I shan't like it, but it's the proper thing to do."
"Not on your life!" exclaimed Dr. Potts again, very sternly. He gave a sort of grin. "She's some weeks of happiness in thinking a handsome chap like me is her son, and let her go on believing it. If you shake her now you'll make her miserable, and, as likely as not, she'll alter that will again."
"And I shall come into all that money?" queried Dr. Markem rather plaintively.
"Yes, she's left you every penny in the will. She told me that in the one before she'd left it all to the Zoological Gardens. It was a bit of grim humour," she said, "to leave it to the four-legged beasts of prey instead of the two-legged ones."
A short silence followed, and then Dr. Markem took his partner's hand and squeezed it warmly.
"Well, I tell you this, Potty-boy," he said. "Of whatever money comes to me you shall have half. No, no, I will have it so. We've been good pals together all these years, and if it hadn't been for you I'm certain I should never be going to get a penny." He grinned. "Look at this old nose of mine. If I'd gone down she wouldn't have fallen for an ugly face like mine, and that first visit would have been the last."
They argued about it warmly, with Dr. Potts being most embarrassed. Then he said finally, "but, by Jove, bill, she is like you, and I wonder I never tumbled to it before! Anyone could tell you were related."
Of course, as can be well imagined, I had been listening to everything with great interest, but I really think that the most lasting impression I carried away was the sense of the loyalty between the two men. Money might mean a great lot to both of them, but their friendship was of greater value.
A few days after Miss Lawley's confession to Dr. Potts—it was one night about ten o'clock—an urgent call came from Lawley Hall for Dr. Potts to go there at once, as she was in some distress. Potts was out at a late party, but I managed to get in touch with him on the phone, and he said he'd go down at once. He sounded very lively, and I guessed from his voice that he'd had what he generally called "quite a drop of drink."
I put myself to bed, but about midnight his arrival home woke me up as he made such a lot of noise in moving about. He didn't come in to see me, but soon after seven the next morning, to my great surprise, he was in my room, fully dressed.
"Going to see the old darling," he said. "She was pretty crook last night, and I had to give her an injection of morphia to quiet her." He seemed most uneasy. "The devil of it is I'm not certain now how much I gave her. I thought the tabs. I was using were one-sixths, but I'm scared now they were halves." He looked sheepish. "You see, I was a little squiffy when I got there, and I'm not certain what I did. So I'm off now to see."
About three-quarters of an hour later Dr. Markem rang me up from his house in a great state of worry.
"Look her, Fitz-Leonard," he said sharply, "Potts has just rung me up from Epping. He says Miss Lawley is very bad, but he can't explain more fully over the phone. He says you can tell me what's up and he wants me to go down at once. What does he mean?"
"The devil!" I exclaimed. "He's found he gave her an overdose of morphia last night, that's it," and I told him what Dr. Potts had said to me. "But I'm the one to go down, and not you," I went on. "You keep out of it, for if the poor woman dies and by bad chance there's an inquest, your name had better not be dragged in at all. Remember, it is you who comes into her money."
However, he had plenty of courage, and I had some difficulty in making him see that I was right. It was Dr. Potts he was thinking of, and I am quite sure it was in his mind that he ought to stand loyally by his partner in any trouble.
I was off within five minutes and, arriving at the Hall, was met at the front door by Dr. Potts, who was looking desperately anxious.
"She's almost gone," he whispered, "and so collapsed that I'm afraid we can't do anything for her. I've given her a thirtieth of atrophine and strychnine, but it's not done the slightest good, and she's pulseless, with respiration about as bad as it can be."
And directly I got to the bedside, I saw the patient was actually in articulo mortis. Indeed, she passed away within five minutes of my arrival.
Now, however deserving of punishment was Dr. Potts for his carelessness of the previous night, looking back afterwards I had nothing but admiration for the way he acted from the moment the patient was dead. He seemed to recover all his nerve on the very instant. Of course, he realised that if all were found out he would be facing dreadful disaster, with, probably, his whole professional career being ruined, and possibly the erasure of his name from the Medical Register. But there was he—cool, calm, and self-possessed, the kindly sympathetic medical man in the presence of death, speaking so nicely to the servants when he announced to them their mistress had passed away. Still, at the same time, he was doing everything to safeguard himself.
"This butler and her personal maid are the great danger," he whispered to me, "for they were the only ones who saw me last night. Of course, they may have noticed nothing"—he looked most uneasy—"but there was no doubt I was a bit elevated, and so I'll have to fix them at once."
He talked to the butler first. "Now, barker," he said kindly, "you may just as well know at once that none of you staff are mentioned in Miss Lawley's will."
That the butler was startled there was no doubt. His jaw dropped, his eyes opened very wide, and he looked the very picture of disappointment.
"You have seen the will, sir?" he stammered, and when Dr. Potts nodded, he asked, "Then has it all been left to her nephews and nieces?"
"Not a penny," replied Dr. Potts. "She said she knew they were only after her money and she intended to disappoint them." He went on, "but about you and the other servants, it isn't fair. You ought to have all been left something. Now, how long have you been here? Oh, twelve years, and you've all been here over ten! Then you all deserve something substantial"—he nodded emphatically—"and I will take care that you get it. Now you just find out exactly how long they've all been here and put it down on a piece of paper for me. You can tell them I'll see they are none of them left out. Go and do it straightaway, and I'll give the paper to the lawyers this afternoon."
The butler looked greatly relieved.
"Thank you, sir. I'm sure it's very good of you."
"Not at all," said Dr. Potts. "As I say, it will be only just and fair." He smiled. "It's a good thing for you all that those nephews and nieces are not getting the money, as from what Miss Lawley has told me about them I don't think any of you would be getting a penny."
The butler smiled back and remarked he thought so, too.
Next, Dr. Potts went to the phone and, very solemnly, but certainly with no appearance of anxiety, told Dr. Markem the patient had just died. "Syncope," he added, "and nothing could have saved her. It's a mercy for her she's gone like this. She's been spared a lot of suffering."
Then he advised him to slip round at once to Mr. Aaronson, the firm's lawyer, who lived only a few doors away, and get him to come down at once to start taking an inventory.
"No, it's no good being squeamish," he said. "There are lots of valuable things of a portable nature lying about, and the moment they hear what's happened, depend on it, all those nephews and nieces will be down like a flock of vultures to snap all they can. So tell Aaronson to come down at once, and let him bring that copy of the will to show to anyone who turns up. I'll wait here until he comes."
I went back to Whitechapel straightaway, and comforted Dr. Markem as best I could. He made no pretence of grieving about his mother's death, but was most uneasy that her other relations, if only out of spite, would approach the coroner and demand an inquest.
"Then what will happen to poor old Potts," he asked miserably, "when it's found she died from an overdose of morphia?"
"But I'm not certain that could be proved," I said. "However much morphia he gave her, it couldn't have been a really large quantity, and remembering that morphia, even if hypodermically injected, is re-excreted into the alimentary canal—she must have got rid of a lot as she had been very sick all night. No, I think she died more from syncope brought on by exhaustion than from actual poisoning."
Dr. Potts was back much earlier than expected, having left Aaronson and his clerk in possession to make the required inventory. Upon Potts's suggestion, Dr. Markem rang up his mother's layers and, telling them she had died, asked them to make the arrangements for the funeral. To his amazement he learned the estate would be worth about £90,000. Early in the evening, Aaronson came in to tell him what had happened at the Hall during the day.
After a lot of delay, because he had been away from the office on police-court work, the lawyer cousin had heard about his aunt's death from the butler, and also that two strangers had been busy in the house making an inventory since about ten o'clock. Whereupon the lawyer, accompanied by Mrs. Hornbill, had driven down to the Hall with the utmost haste to find out what it all meant, arriving just before Aaronson and his clerk were getting ready to leave, having locked up those rooms they had not had time to go through.
Confronted with the two men who had been making the inventory, the police-court lawyer had been very astonished to see one of them was Mr. Aaronson, a brother practitioner, whom he knew quite well.
"And when I told him you were inheriting the estate," said Mr. Aaronson, "and showed him the copy of the will—of course, I did not mention she was your mother—he was thunderstruck, and shouted I must know the testament wouldn't hold good for five minutes in the Probate Court, as it had been obtained as the result of undue influence over the mind of a dying woman, with you having been her medical attendant for some months. I said I knew nothing about that and was only carrying out the instructions of my client. He left in a great state of rage."
When Aaronson had gone Dr. Markem related to us what he had just told him, and looked very troubled about it.
"I'll have to try to compromise with them," he said. "We must shut their mouths somehow. Now, Potts, you ring that butler up and get the lawyer nephew's home address. We mustn't lose a minute."
However, he was saved the trouble. Even as he was speaking the phone bell went and the maid Carrie to say a Mrs. Hornbill wanted to speak to him.
It appeared that, driving back from Epping, she and the police-court lawyer had come to the conclusion that there was something fishy in the way their aunt had died so suddenly after making the new will, and therefore they had arranged that all the nephews and nieces should meet first thing the next morning and agree upon joint action together.
However, Mrs. Hornbill, every bit as spiteful in disposition as her dead aunt, could not wait for the morning to vent her spleen on Dr. Markem, and accordingly, looking up his number in the phone book, had rung him up on her own to tell him what she thought of him.
"I'm Mrs. Hornbill, one of Miss Lawley's nieces," she announced acidly when he answered her call, "and I tell you straight you won't get one farthing of her money." Her voice shook with rage. "I'm sure you murdered her."
"My good lady," exclaimed Dr. Markem, "what an awful thing to say!"
"And we'll prove it," she went on fiercely. "We are going to approach the coroner to-morrow and—"
"One moment, please, Mrs. Hornbill," broke in Dr. Markem, and to her surprise he spoke quite pleasantly. "I'm very glad you rang me up, because I've been wanting to get in touch with you all, but didn't know where you lived. I have a particular reason for wanting to speak to you."
"What about?" asked Mrs. Hornbill, her curiosity getting the better of her rage.
"Well," said Dr. Markem earnestly, "I don't think that will's quite fair, and I'm willing to come to some settlement in which everyone shares. We don't want to go to law, because the lawyers will only run up tremendous costs, and I'm sure we can settle everything among ourselves."
Mrs. Hornbill gasped in her astonishment, but she managed to mumble something, and then quite a friendly conversation ensued. It ended in innumerable telephone calls all round, with the final arrangement being made that Dr. Markern was to meet all the nephews and nieces at the police-court lawyer's office in Chancery Lane at half-past nine the next morning.
Now what happened before his arrival in Chancery Lane that morning Dr. Markem did not learn until many months afterwards, when the will had long since been proved and he had become quite friendly with the bookmaker cousin.
It appeared that all the nephews and nieces had gathered there early and the police-court lawyer, Nephew John, in particular, had been in good spirits.
"He's got the wind up, right enough," he had laughed, "but we won't let him get away with much. I reckon a hundred or two will settle him. We won't give more." He had spoken warningly. "Still, we must avoid litigation if we can possibly get out of it, for one can never be sure what those damned old judges may do. It's possible one of the old fools will give him half the estate."
"I don't believe he'll come by himself," said Mrs. Hornbill. "He'll bring that greasy Jew lawyer with him. You see if he doesn't."
"And if he does," nodded the police-court lawyer with a frown, "we'll have to be darned careful, as old Aaronson is clever, devilish clever. Anyhow, we'll let them do all the talking until we've heard what they've got to offer, and then—"
But there was a knock upon the door and a clerk came in to announce that a Dr. Markem had arrived.
"Alone?" queried the lawyer, looking very surprised. "Then show him in," and he turned round to the others and grinned, "Easy meat!"
Then, to everyone's amazement, not the new doctor they had seen at the Hall, but a perfect stranger to them all entered the room. He bowed smilingly to the company, who with the exception of the lawyer had all remained seated.
"You represent Dr. Markem?" asked the lawyer sharply.
The newcomer looked amused. "No, I am Dr. Markem himself." His eyes twinkled. "I am the party Miss Lawley left all her property to."
The lawyer could hardly get his breath. "But you're not the doctor who's been attending Miss Lawley these last months?" he queried.
"Certainly not," replied the other. "He was my partner, Dr. Potts. I have never been near her once since she called us in." His heavy face lightened into a bright smile. "So no one can say it's been a case of exerting undue influence."
The other cousins were speechless in their surprise, with, somehow, a dreadful feeling of impending disaster now oppressing them. This man looked so confident, and seemed so very sure of himself. He went on smilingly, "You see, when Miss Lawley wrote me asking me to call at the Hall it happened I was laid up with influenza, and so my partner, Dr. Potts, went instead. Then, by the time I was well again, he had won her confidence so completely and had got such a good grasp of her case that it was thought best he should go on attending her. She was quite agreeable."
"Then if it were not out of gratitude to you for your professional services," asked the very puzzled lawyer, "why was it she left her estate to you in this extraordinary manner?"
"Ah, that's what I've come here to explain," nodded the doctor, and now he spoke very gravely. "Miss Lawley made me her heir"—his eyes roved round and took them all in in turn—"because she was my mother and I her only child."
For a few moments a stunned silence followed and Mrs. Hornbill said afterwards that she felt she wanted to scream. There was no doubt about the truth of what the man was saying and they all understood now the uncomfortable feeling they had experienced so soon after he had entered the room. Subconsciously they had recognised his likeness to their dead aunt. He had her dreadful nose, her beady eyes, and her heavy, beetling brows.
The lawyer recovered first. "But that'll want some proving," he exclaimed hoarsely. "What proof have you to give us?"
"As much as you want," nodded the doctor. "Her solicitors, Jarvis, Burton, and Holt, will substantiate everything. Their firm has been managing her affairs ever since her uncle left her that money, and were completely in her confidence about me. She paid for my education all along and enabled me to qualify as a doctor and buy a practice afterwards. She had, however, denied herself to me until lately, because of the unkind way my father had treated her. He had behaved very badly to her and she had come to hate me in consequence. Then, when those few months ago she realised she had not long to live, she wanted to make it up"—he shrugged his shoulders—"and so, as I have told you, sent for me to come and attend her."
"And when did you last see her?" snapped the lawyer.
Dr. Markem smiled sadly. "Forty-three years ago, I believe. She put me out to nurse when I was two days old, and we have not set eyes on each other since." He went on, "You see, I couldn't go down and see her at any time during those last few weeks, as her heart was so bad Dr. Potts wouldn't let me. He was afraid the shock would kill her."
A long silence followed, and then the lawyer asked curtly, "Well, what's the proposition you want to make us?"
Dr. Markem's answer was prompt and ready. "£5,000 for each of you if you behave in a friendly way towards me and the scandal of my poor mother being an unmarried woman does not become public property. I want to seal all your lips so that nothing leaks out."
"Not enough!" snapped the lawyer. "We shall want double that."
"Not enough!" exclaimed Dr. Markem, as if really surprised.
"And the lawyers in Lincoln's Inn Fields are against my giving a penny! They say my title to everything is absolutely indisputable!" He spoke very firmly. "Well, that's all the offer I'll make you, and no one will get a penny if any one of you is unpleasant and tries to make trouble in any way. Oh, and your agreement to my offer must be signed by you all, straightaway, before I leave this office." He took some papers from his pocket. "Here's the document drawn up by my solicitor last night, also a copy of the will my poor mother sent me and the covering letter from her she enclosed with it. Now, please make up your minds what you are going to do."
For the first time the lawyer spoke in a more conciliatory tone.
"But we must have time to consider this, Dr. Markem. We'll have to talk it over among ourselves."
"Quite reasonable," said the doctor. "So I'll get out and come back in, say, half an hour." He nodded. "You're quite at liberty to ring up Mr. Aaronson or those lawyers in Lincoln's Inn Fields."
With a bow all round, he let himself out of the room. The bookmaker described later what had happened after he had gone. They were all willing to agree to the terms except Mrs. Hornbill, and she kept on saying she was sure their aunt had been murdered.
"Don't be a fool, Evangeline," snapped the lawyer. "Why should they murder the old women when as doctors they knew she might die naturally any day. That Epping quack told us so a year and more ago."
"But why," insisted Mrs. Hornbill, "if his title is so indisputable, as he says, is he willing to give away £30,0000."
"Because he'll get more than another £30,000 for himself," argued the lawyer. "He looks needy and hard-up and the prospect of so much money dazzles him. No, I vote that we accept before he changes his mind."
"And be damned grateful to him for making it," commented the bookmaker. "God's truth, look what anyone can do with £5,000!"
So Mrs. Hornbill was over-ruled, the agreement signed, hands were shaken, more or less cordially, all round, and Dr. Markem returned to Whitechapel delighted there had been a friendly settlement.
"It cost us £30,000, Potty-boy," he said, "but anything was better than an inquest." He clapped him jovially on the shoulder. "And I reckon we shall both have nearly £30,000 each for ourselves."
"But I feel horrible about it," said the very remorseful Dr. Potts. "I don't deserve a penny for getting as squiffy as I did."
"No, you don't," agreed Dr. Markem smilingly. "But for all that you're going to get a good few."
The next morning he went down to the Hall to look at last upon the face of her who had been his mother, and, making himself known to the surprised servants, completely won them all over, as they told everyone afterwards, by their seeing him crying like a baby as he came out of the dead woman's room.
He thanked them brokenly for having looked after her for so long and, to their amazement, said he should be keeping them all on, at any rate for a little while, as he was coming down to live there with his family. He told them they were all to have £100 each.
Three days later Miss Lawley was buried in the churchyard of the little town, with her son and the bookmaker nephew as the only mourners. The police-court lawyer had stated he was much too busy to come, Mrs. Hornbill had said spitefully she would not waste shoe leather upon a relation who had treated her so badly, and the others had made no excuse at all, just contenting themselves with staying away.
So had passed an unhappy and unloved old woman, with the only tears shed for her those of the one she had wronged most. Strangely enough, too, I am sure this one never had any pangs of conscience for the deceit he had practised upon her. Indeed, I do not believe it ever entered into his mind that he had done anything wrong. If it had—then to his thinking it had just been that justice had been done, though it might have been in an unusual manner.
WHEN probate was granted for the Lawley estate, apart from the Hall, it ran to nearly £90,000, and then commenced a battle royal between the two partners. To his credit Dr. Potts refused to accept a penny more than £20,000, averring that he was darned lucky to be getting that, which indeed he was. Dr. Markem was, however, firm that the division should be fifty-fifty, and it was only after long wrangling that he eventually gave way.
Then came the matter of selling the practice, and both the partners wanted me to buy it, putting it in at a very moderate figure and saying I need pay nothing cash down. They suggested I should engage an assistant and pay off what I owed them at my own convenience. However, I considered the practice much too large for a man of my age and limited experience to handle, being sure I should not be able to keep it together.
So upon the sale of their practice to a stranger, at a figure nearly twice that they had asked of me, I invested the money my aunt had given me in a much smaller one in Upton Park, about four miles away and still in the East End of London.
To relate what happened to my old employers: Dr. Markem went into residence at Lawley Hall as a country gentleman, at the same time taking up, with the help of a competent manager, a little farming. With what was generally held by everyone to be his enormous family—twins were born within a few months of his arrival at the Hall—and his attractive young girl-wife, he was a source of great amusement to the neighbouring gentry. However, they took to him warmly and, as a retired medical man, his services were soon in great request on boards and public committees. He was made a Justice of the Peace and very quickly came to be generally regarded as a possible candidate for political honours, directly the time was auspicious.
Dr. Potts bought a small estate not very distant from that of his friend and started breeding greyhounds. A certain amount of success came to him almost at once, and it was his confident hope that before very long he would be owning a Waterloo Cup winner. Dressing more horsily than ever, he was considered a great character and good fellow. Everyone liked him and, before he had been established two years he married a clergyman's daughter. Not yet quite thirty years of age, she was a highly educated woman, a graduate of Cambridge, and the authoress of several popular novels.
At first she had only laughed at his attentions, but his perseverance and unfailing good-humour upon all her rebuttals had gradually worn her down, and at last she had given in. The marriage turned out to be a most happy one, and when the first baby arrived, which it did, as people put it, exactly dead on time, there was no prouder man in all the kingdom than Alfie Potts. Dr. Markem told me he went strutting about like a papa turkey-cock, as though he'd done something out of the ordinary, which no one else could possibly have achieved.
Strangely enough for so well-educated a woman, his wife was most particular not to tone down his style of dress, fearing people would say it was she who was wearing the trousers. So the only difference in his attire was that perhaps the colours now harmonised better.
In practice now by myself, I soon began to work up something of a better name than my predecessor, and the number of my patients, particularly the private ones, began to increase steadily. Still, I found that working on my own among uneducated or semi-educated people was sometimes very trying, and my experience soon told me never to judge the capacity of a brother medico by what the patients told me about him.
Once I was called into a pneumonia case when the man was within a few hours of death—indeed, he actually died the day after I had first seen him. Of course, I should have been sent for days and days earlier, as so late there was no hope of saving him. Imagine then how pleased I was when shortly afterwards, meeting a relation of the dead man, she remarked scowlingly, "So I hear you let poor George slip through your fingers, doctor," and I could have sworn at her in my disgust.
In another case one afternoon a patient came to me in some considerable pain from colitis, and as he was a private one, and not on the panel, I made him up an eight ounce mixture of tincture of opium and belladonna, with proper instructions about how much to take on the label of the bottle. Imagine my consternation when late that night his wife sent round an urgent message that my medicine had made him unconscious. Imagine again how the consternation was turned into anger when, upon arriving in great haste at the house, I learned the brute had drunk the entire contents of the bottle of medicine—as a beverage with his evening meal!
I had one very nasty experience, too, with strange consequences, and it shows into what dangers a wholly innocent and exemplary medical practitioner may be landed.
A mother brought her daughter, a young girl about seventeen, into my evening surgery. It was the old try-on. The girl had got herself in trouble and the mother wanted me to "fix it," adding in the same breath that a couple of pounds was all she could afford to pay.
I told her sharply that I did not do such operations, and the mother was very abusive, declaring that I was only refusing because the money was not big enough. Whereupon I rated her soundly, and almost pushed her out of the house.
As it came out later, the girl went somewhere else where the operation was performed. Returning home she became very ill, was rushed to the hospital, and died within a few hours. I, however, knew nothing of what had taken place until two detectives arrived at my surgery and said the mother had confessed I was the cause of her daughter's death. I denied it furiously, but it was of no use, and I received a summons to attend the coroner's court the next day.
I was in a great state of anxiety, but so sure of my innocence that I attended the court by myself, foolishly without employing any legal help. The woman repeated her accusation, but, fortunately for me, she was a bad liar, and also, perhaps more fortunate still, the coroner had medical qualifications. He started questioning her, made her contradict herself several times, and at last wrung from her the admission that as the girl had finally arranged the operation herself, she, the mother, had no absolute proof, but only thought it had been performed by me.
The coroner censured her most severely for having brought in my name, stating that there was not the slightest suspicion attaching to me, and that my attendance was no longer required. He adjourned the inquest for further investigations by the police.
Of course, I was greatly relieved, but later it came to my ears that the Superintendent of Police, a pig-headed man by the name of Wellington, had remarked privately that, though I was cleared in this case, there was no smoke without fire and he should keep a good eye upon me in future. His opinion was that the mother would not have come to me in the first instance if she hadn't known I dabbled in that kind of business.
There was a funny sequel to the case, and, unjustly enough, it was the Superintendent himself who benefited by it.
One morning, about a month or so later a well-dressed and good-looking young woman in the early twenties came into my surgery. With no beating about the bush, and speaking quite calmly, she told me she was in trouble, and asked if I would help her. As I say, she was pretty and attractive, but I told her very sternly I would do nothing for her.
"But I thought—" she began, and I noticed her lips were now trembling.
"You thought what?" I demanded peremptorily, as she had stopped speaking.
Controlling herself with an effort, she said chokingly, "but the police believe you do these operations and—"
"They sent you to trap me," I scoffed. She shook her head emphatically, but I asked with a grim smile, "Still, perhaps you know the Superintendent, don't you?"
She nodded miserably. "Yes, he's my father!"
I just gasped in amazement, but managed to get out, "And he knows you were coming to me?"
She looked horrified. "No, no, and he would kill me if he knew it. He is the last man to be told."
There was a long silence between us, and then the humour of it struck me. There was the Superintendent on the watch to catch me tripping, and here was his daughter wanting me to commit the very crime for which he was on the look-out. I burst into a hearty laugh, and the girl started to cry softly. Feeling very sorry for her, I soon checked my merriment and asked sympathetically, "but isn't the boy who is responsible for your condition willing to marry you?"
She crimsoned furiously. "I don't know who he is. I only knew him for a few hours," and then, as tactfully as I could, I drew the whole story out of her.
It appeared that she was a school-teacher, and about two months back, recovering from a bad cold, had got a week's leave of absence and gone down by herself to a boarding-house at Eastbourne. Everyone there was a stranger to her. One day her boarding-house had joined in with some other ones and, hiring a motor-coach, all the boarders had gone for a picnic. There were about thirty of them altogether. After lunch, they had wandered off in pairs, and she had gone with a very nice young fellow whom she had heard addressed as Olly. He was going to show her some ruins of a castle he knew of very near.
Quite alone, they had been overtaken by a dreadful storm, but had found shelter in a lonely hut in the middle of a wood. Then it began to thunder right overhead, and she was very frightened. She couldn't help it, she said. Thunder always affected her in that way. She started to cry, and the boy tried to comfort her. He put his arms round her, and began kissing her. Then—I spared her the rest of the recital by asking, "but you never heard his surname, and know absolutely nothing about him?"
"Except," she replied plaintively, "that he'll very soon be a qualified doctor, and at his hospital accidents come in every few minutes, all the day long. I heard him tell another girl it was a very large hospital."
"That sounds like the London Hospital," I said. "Now tell me what he's like."
"He's tall and dark and good-looking," she replied with a blush. "He has beautiful teeth, which he shows a lot when he smiles."
"Well, there's just a chance he may be found," I said. "We know his unusual Christian name, and, as I'm going up to the City on business to-morrow, I'll see what I can do."
"Oh, I am grateful to you," she exclaimed, "and do wish I could do something to pay you back!"
"Never mind that," I said. A thought struck me and I added smilingly, "but perhaps you can. Now are you any good as a cook?"
"Yes, I am," she replied instantly. "Domestic economy is what I teach at the school."
"Splendid, the very person I want," I said, "and I'd be very grateful if you would help me for a day or two. It's like this I'm absolutely by myself in this house at the present moment; no housekeeper and not even a maid. I have to do all the cooking myself, and I'm no good at it. Now, what about your cooking my meal this evening?"
She was all smiles at once. "I shall be delighted to do anything I can. It's the holidays now, and I'm free all day. No one will know what I'm doing."
So I took her in the kitchen and showed her where everything was kept. "I got in that leg of lamb only yesterday," I said. "So it's quite fresh, and there are plenty of vegetables. We can have our meal here in the kitchen at six o'clock."
At that hour I sat down with her to a dainty little meal, very nicely served, and after a few minutes there was no embarrassment between us. She seemed prettier even than I had thought her in the morning, and, wearing a big apron, looked altogether so clean and fresh that I was soon thinking any man who married her would be getting a good bargain.
She chatted easily and brightly, and it came to me with something of a thrill what trust she must have in me. A highly-strung emotional girl, who had been foolish once, she was alone in the house with a man of whose character she could know nothing, a man, moreover, who was aware of her lapse and who might not unreasonably suppose that with the hold he had on her, with some pressing, she might possibly be induced to give way again. And yet she did not show the slightest fear, and that very trust made me clamp down angrily upon my thoughts and feel very ashamed of myself.
Thanking her gratefully for her services, I went in to take the evening surgery. She was gone when I had finished. When, later, I went up to my bedroom, I saw she had found out where I slept, remade my bed properly, and left everything neat and tidy.
"Damn it," I swore with a smile, "if that boy doesn't take her, I'll marry her myself."
I thought seriously that in some ways perhaps, I could not do better.
She was back again in the morning, and we had our midday meal together, now quite as if we were old friends and had known each other for years.
Preparing to leave for the City in my car, I warned her not to be too hopeful, though I said I would, of course, do the best I could. "And if I can find him, young lady," I added, "it's just a chance I may bring him back with me for dinner. So look your nicest"—I smiled—"just as you do now, and mind and see the meal is a good one. There are some bottles of Burgundy in the cupboard in the hall, and you might get one out ready. Of course, we'll have the meal in the kitchen"—I smiled again—"so that you'll be seen in the proper domestic setting."
I had taken a long shot, but it turned out to be ridiculously easy to find the boy. After finishing my business in the City I drew up near the London Hospital shortly after five o'clock, and approached one of the porters standing in the entrance.
"I want to speak to one of the students," I said. "I don't know his surname, but the Christian one is Oliver, and he's generally called 'Olly.' He's a fifth- or sixth-year student and he's tall, dark and—"
"I know him, sir," interrupted the man. "It's Mr. Browning you want. You won't find him in the hospital now—he's been gone about ten minutes, I saw them go—but you'll catch him in the residential building at the back. He lives there."
So to the residential building I went and was given the number of his room. I knocked on his door, and it was opened by a good-looking, pleasant-faced young fellow. I knew at once I'd got the right man.
"I'm Dr. Fitz-Leonard from Upton Park," I said smilingly, "and I've come to see you about Miss Edith Wellington."
"Miss Wellington," he queried, smiling back, "and who is she?"
"You met her in Eastbourne," I said, "two months ago," and his face went as white as a sheet. "No, no," I went on in a light, easy way, "there's nothing to be scared about. It's only that she's pregnant and of course would like to see you."
He made not the slightest attempt at any denial, and looked the very picture of misery and contrition.
"Yes, yes, of course," he said hoarsely. "I've often thought about her and cursed myself for what I did. I'm sure I must have been quite mad at the time." He spoke earnestly. "You know, I'm not a man who usually does things like that."
"You don't look as if you are," I agreed readily, "but we are all liable to act like imbeciles at times"—I smiled—"and it is only that you two young people happen to have been very unlucky."
"Are you a relation of hers?" he asked rather nervously.
"No, I'd never seen her until yesterday," I replied, and I related to him how she had come to consult me and all that had happened after. I went on, "Now, I'm only about six or seven years older than you, but ever since I started as a student I've prided myself upon making a study of character, and if ever I saw a good girl I see one now in that Miss Wellington." I spoke emphatically. "I'm quite certain you are the only boy she's had anything to do with in that way. Before she went for that walk with you she was—-"
"Oh, I realised that," he interrupted, looking very shamefaced, "and that's why I've been kicking myself ever since for what I did to her. I would have tried to find out about her if I could, but they were all just chance acquaintances at that picnic and I had no idea where any of them lived."
"Well, this girl would make anyone, a good wife," I said. "She's as pretty as you could wish, she's well-educated, a little lady, and"—I gave him a good grin—"she's a splendid cook." I pointed to his hat on the table. "At any rate, put that on and come back with me to have a talk with her. I've got my car outside."
He came like a lamb and we drove away together. Arriving home, I pulled up outside my garage and motioned him to get out.
"Now you go in through the garden," I said, "you'll find her in the kitchen, and I'll give you ten minutes before I come in. Then we'll have our meal."
I gave them a quarter of an hour, and then went in to find them both looking flushed. The girl's eyes, however, were shining like stars, and the boy looked quite happy and pleased.
"Well, young lady, what's for dinner?" I asked. "Oh, fried soles and sweetbreads! Delicious! Oh, and pancakes, too! Really, I shall have to keep you on as my cook."
"And when are you going to get married?" I asked in matter-of-fact tones when the meal was well on the way.
"That'll be easy," said the boy. "I'll put up the banns to-morrow. The difficulty will be where my wile's going to live"—he'd got plenty of fun that young man—"until she makes me a proud father." He went on, "You see, with any luck, I shall be qualified in four months, and then I can give her a home at once, as I'll get good money as an assistant. Still, for the moment I'm in a bit of a quandary. I have no parents, and the aunt of mine who is seeing me through allows me only just enough to live at the residential college. She's very strict, too, and I don't just know how she'll take it when I tell her I'm spliced."
"Then don't tell her," I said. "I've got an idea. I want a housekeeper and this young lady would just do." I looked at the pretty smiling face opposite to me.' "Of course, I couldn't have her here as Miss Wellington, but I could as Mrs. Browning, with you living here, too. See? You could leave that residential college and come here, and your wife's housekeeping for me would pay for the board and lodging of you both. As you see, this is a rambling old house, and there'll be plenty of room for us all."
We talked it over, and they were delighted to fall in with the arrangement. The girl was to say nothing to her parents until after she was married. She would have to say that she was out visiting different friends every day. Then, when they were both installed at my place as man and wife, they were to go to Edith's people and break the news to them.
I left them together and went to carry through the evening's surgery. When I returned after I had finished with the patients, I found them both sitting in a big armchair before the fire, with the girl in the boy's arms. To my amazement I saw she was fast asleep.
"Probably not had a wink for nights," he whispered. "She was worn out with worry."
It was quite late when they left, and their gratitude to me was pathetic. However, I laughed it off and smilingly returned the squeeze of the hand the girl gave me on parting. She came round to look after me every day until they were married, and I was honestly glad when it was all over. Human nature is human nature, and it was positively disturbing to me to have a young and most attractive unmarried girl making the fuss over me that she did when we two were so much alone together in the house. After all, we were both in the passionate years of life, and I knew quite well she could not as yet have come to have much affection for her husband-to-be. Also, she was under such a great obligation to me that I was most probably something of a hero in her eyes. Yes, I am no hypocrite, and I was glad when the trial—I won't say temptation exactly—was over.
They were married at an old-world City church and I was best man. The verger of the church gave her away, and he and the pew cleaner were the only other witnesses of the ceremony. They were married on a Wednesday and, to account for her absence to her parents, she had made out she was staying with a friend in Margate. They were to go to see her parents on the following Sunday, and we were all hoping nothing would come to their ears before then.
However, it happened that someone had seen her hanging up some clothes in my garden and on the Saturday, as I was going out of my front door, her father came striding up to me looking simply black with rage.
"Here you, Fitz-Leonard!" he thundered savagely. "You scoundrel, you've got my daughter in there," and he raised his hand menacingly as if he were going to strike me.
"Keep back, you fool," I said angrily. "I don't want to have to knock you down."
"I want my daughter," he reiterated. "I wanted Edith.
"There's no Edith Wellington here," I retorted, "but there is a Mrs. Browning, who was a Miss Edith Wellington up to a few days ago." I held open the door for him to pass. "You can go in to speak to her. She's in the kitchen." Then, as he instantly stepped into the hall, I added, peremptorily, "And you wait here until I come back. I shan't be gone more than a quarter of an hour."
When I returned, even sooner than the time specified, he heard me open the front door and came into the hall to meet me. He looked very uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry and I apologise," he said. "My daughter's told me everything and I learn you have befriended here and not injured her." He added bitterly, "but I shall never forgive her."
"You not forgive her!" I exclaimed scornfully. "It looks as if she has to forgive you—for giving her that excitable, emotional nature she's got. She's done nothing wrong that hasn't been put right."
"And you think it excusable?" he sneered.
"Understandable is the better word," I retorted. I went on sharply, "You say she's told you everything. Then can't you realise she was terrified by that storm and in such a state she had lost all wish or power to protect herself."
"And the boy, her partner in sin," he asked scornfully, "are you defending him?"
"Certainly not," I replied. "He did very wrong because of the consequences which might—and actually did—come to the poor girl. Still, it was an act of the moment, with no premeditation about it and no one could have been more sorry than he." I spoke emphatically. "But put any young fellow in the same circumstances and it might happen to him. I tell you frankly I would not have liked to have trusted myself. Good God, man, go back to the time when you were his age, and remember your thoughts and longings. Why, the other sex was always in your mind in those days! The urge was always there, and it is almost certain that if you didn't fall for it it was only because of lack of courage and opportunity."
He looked rather bewildered, and I at once changed my tone and spoke persuasively.
"Now you look here, Superintendent," I said, "just be a sensible man, and, seeing it has happened, make the best of it." I smiled. "Not that there is any worst about it. He's a very nice boy and your daughter has done well for herself with an excellent marriage. She'll have a good position as a doctor's wife, and you'll be proud of her."
His face broke into a reluctant smile, and he held out his hand and shook mine warmly. "I'm glad you gave me this talking to, doctor," he said. "I'm afraid that sometimes I am a rather pig-headed man." His eyes moistened. "I think I'll go back to my daughter and give her a kiss."
"That's right, old chap," I laughed. "And you come back after six to-night and be introduced to your son-in-law. I promise you won't be disappointed."
So all ended happily. I got in a little maid to help the young wife, and the newly-weds remained with me, actually until after the baby was born. It was I who attended her in the confinement. I was genuinely sorry when, as a qualified doctor, her husband got an assistantship in Hampstead, and I lost them.
One word more about them. I went to see them quite often and they seemed very happy. Some two years later I had gone to a Flower Show in Chelsea and ran into the stately Lady Vyne there. As I was talking to her, the Brownings came up and I introduced them. After they had gone, Marie asked with a shrewd look, "I say, Charles"—she always called me Charles now—"was that girl ever an old flame of yours?"
"Good gracious, no!" I exclaimed. "She was a patient of mine once. That's all."
Marie looked sceptical. "Well, if she wasn't," she remarked dryly, "I'm sure she would have liked to have been. I could see it in her eyes, and I chided her smilingly for being such a cat."
I had kept up my friendship with the Vynes, and Sir Meredith was often upbraiding me for preferring to go on working in the East End.
"You have a distinct personality," he said, "and it doesn't pay a big enough dividend down there. You ought to be looking out for someone up West who will take you in to work with him. With your qualifications"—by then I had obtained my doctorate of medicine at London University and my membership of the Royal College of Physicians, the latter being a much more esteemed diploma than the simple licence—"you ought to be in a much better position than you are now."
"But look at the experience I am getting," I urged. "Some days I see fifty to sixty different patients, and I've been doing it now for nearly three years."
Sir Meredith shook his head. "The number of patients, as you call it 'seen,' may be altogether a false measure of experience gained. One man, such as I believe you to be, will get more experience from a dozen patients than another from a hundred. There are some terrible duds in our profession, and it's just a matter of how much experience can be absorbed."
Whenever I met him, he always talked in the same strain. One day in mid-week he rang me up to know if I would like—as he put it—a profitable jaunt into the country. "Another gall-bladder," he said, "and I'm removing it on Sunday. What about your giving the anaesthetic?"
I was quite agreeable, and accordingly, at seven o'clock on the Sunday morning, he called for me in his car, and my heart gave something of a jump when, as we were driving off, he told me it was for Ashdown Castle we were bound, with the wife of Lord Carden as the patient.
Whew, I whistled to myself, how the wheel of fortune has turned round! Just fancy the one-time gardener's son about to take charge of the great lady of the Castle, and for the time being hold her life in his hands! Now wouldn't it be a surprise for everyone if they only knew!
Sir Meredith went on, "They would have me do the operation down here, instead of her coming up to town, but I wouldn't hear of it until they'd got everything exactly as I wanted. Now, they've turned part of one wing into a private hospital and there are three nurses on the spot. Lord Carden is a rather pompous old gentleman and would have liked to arrange everything himself. However, I wasn't having it, and had to tell him so pretty sharply. For one thing, he wanted the local family doctor to give the anesthetic, because, he said, the man knew his wife's constitution so well. He was quite annoyed when I said I never operated without my own anaesthetist."
"But didn't you offend the village doctor?" I asked. He shook his head. "No, he's a nice old chap, and quite understood. I told him, too, I should be running down again one day next week to see how Lady Carden was getting on, and he didn't mind a bit."
"Has Lady Carden had many children?" I asked, thinking of the pretty little long-legged girl of those eight years back. "Only one, a daughter," replied Sir Meredith. He gave me a grim, hard look. "And when you see her, my friend, as a young unmarried man, won't your mouth just water that you are not in her circle! I think she's the most lovely girl I've ever seen." He nodded. "She's coming out this year, and'll make something of a sensation."
Arriving at the Castle, we were shown into Lord Carden's study by a gorgeous-looking footman in mulberry-coloured livery. His lordship was a tall, aristocratic-looking man in the middle fifties. His face was proud and, I thought, rather cold. He shook hands with Sir Meredith, but only inclined his head rather haughtily to me. The local doctor, named Jessop, came in, and while Lord Carden and Sir Meredith were engaged in conversation together he chatted most friendlily with me. He told me he had been practising in Ashdown for longer than forty years, and had almost had enough of it. Then, happening to mention he had qualified at St. Lazarus's and learning I had come from there, too, he was most interested and seemed quite sorry when we had to go up to the patient.
Lady Carden struck me as a charming woman. She was self-possessed and not a bit nervous. She said smilingly that, now she had seen me, she did not feel at all afraid, and was sure I should send her well off to sleep. When Dr. Jessop was away for a few moments she whispered she was very glad Sir Meredith had brought me down, as Dr. Jessop could not be getting much work in anaesthetics now.
The operation was a rather long one, as there were a lot of adhesions, but by half-past eleven it was over, with the patient coming nicely out of the ether.
Then at last Lady Margaret, for whom I had been watching, made her appearance in the room, and, although I had been expecting a lovely girl, I was certainly not disappointed. She was lovely. Everything about her—eyes, profile, colouring, and beautiful little figure—were flawless. In some ways she was like her father. Still, though her face was as proud as his, it lacked his coldness, and, with all its innocence of maidenhood, I thought the sweetly fashioned lips were both passionate and sensuous.
With something of a morbid fancy, however, it crossed my mind that one day, when in pomp and ceremony all that loveliness passed into some man's keeping, so soon might the cares and responsibilities of wedded life begin to take their toll. Child-bearing, and sickness perhaps, would mar her virginal beauty, and much that was so entrancing now would be no longer hers, for it would be she who would pay the price for every gift she gave.
Lord Carden, Sir Meredith, Margaret, and I had lunch together, with most of the conversation being monopolised by the first two. Thanks to my work for the agency I was in no way over-awed by the splendour in which I found myself, the great stately room, the rich and beautiful furnishings, and the footmen waiting upon us and anticipating all our wants. I had seen it all before and was content covertly to watch Margaret and speak briefly when drawn into the conversation.
Presently, however, when Sir Meredith, in saving something to me, had addressed me by name, Lord Carden looked searchingly at me and asked—in a bantering spirit it might have been, though certainly he did not show it—if I were connected with the Yorkshire Fitz-Leonards and any relation of his old friend Lord Roxborough.
Now hitherto, only to one person in all my life, and that one the Melbourne doctor for whom I had worked as chauffeur, had I ever claimed relationship to my stepfather's father, and I really think I had never had any intention of doing so. However, the off-hand manner in which Lord Carden had treated me upon first being introduced, and his almost ignoring me in the luncheon conversation now stung me to some sort of reprisal. Also, it may have been that to some extent I wanted to stand well in his daughter's eyes. So I replied carelessly enough, "Yes, he's my grandfather."
I dared not look at Sir Meredith, and dropped my eyes on to my plate.
"Oh, that is so, is it!" exclaimed his lordship, and there was no doubt from his tone that he was most surprised. "Then which of his sons is your father?"
"Charles Hubert Fitz-Leonard," I replied.
"The one who went to Australia." nodded Lord Carden. "He died very suddenly, didn't he?"
"Yes, from snake-bite," I nodded back. "He vas strong and healthy one minute and less than an hour later was dead."
"Do you mind telling me about it?" asked Lord Carden. "His father did not learn of it until long afterwards, and then he heard only the scantiest of details."
"Not at all," I replied. "It's more than thirteen years ago now, and, of course, time has toned down the bitterness."
I related how it had all happened and the dreadful position in which my mother and I had found ourselves.
He was most interested, and for the remainder of the meal I was certainly the star performer, with his lordship's manner now most friendly and affable. Presently he remarked. "You're not a bit like your grandfather, but, funnily enough. I see now you're devilish like his brother, General Sir Monkton Fitz-Leonard. At one time Sir Monkton used to be a frequent visitor here." I flushed hotly. So I was like this Sir Monkton who had been a frequent visitor at the Castle, was I? Then was he the one about whom there had been that scandal with my poor mother? God, I would never dare to ask! I would never believe anything wrong about her!
And all this time Sir Meredith had been eyeing me intently, with a puzzled frown. My story must have been even more of a surprise to him than to Lord Carden. However, he made no comment, and no doubt, I thought, was not wishing his lordship to become aware that he had known nothing of my parentage, though we were such good friends.
After lunch he and Lord Carden went up to see the patient again, and Margaret was left to entertain me. She took me into the grounds to look round and see the beautiful lines of the old Castle at a distance. Oh, even after all these years, how familiar everything seemed! The gardener's cottage looked just the same, the old walnut-tree I had so often climbed had hardly grown at all, and the very path upon which I had trotted with my little legs when going off to school seemed not to have changed one little bit.
Presently I asked smilingly, "And how are your swans? Have you still got them?"
She shook her head. "No, they became so savage that my father thought it best to get rid of them. Everyone except he and I were afraid to go near that part of the grounds." She looked puzzled and added, "but how do you know anything about those swans? They have been gone several years."
"Well, you showed them to me once," I laughed. "Of course, you won't remember now, but you caught me trespassing in the grounds one day and gave me a good talking to about it."
"Oh, then," she exclaimed, "you were that big boy who had got over the fence!"
I was very surprised.
"Fancy you remembering me!" I exclaimed. "Really, I ought to feel very flattered, as it is more than eight years ago."
"But you needn't pat yourself on the back," she laughed. "It just happens I remember you because the next morning the two cygnets were missing and I thought you had come back and stolen them."
"I hadn't," I exclaimed in great indignation. "I tell you honestly I—"
"You needn't protest," she interrupted merrily. "We found their dead bodies in the kennels. The dogs had killed them. So we knew my suspicions of you were unjustified."
I passed a delightful half-hour with her, and was very sorry when the time came for Sir Meredith and me to leave. Lord Carden was most gracious, and remarked he would always be pleased to see me any time I happened to be in the neighbourhood. Margaret said nothing, but gave me a very nice smile.
As soon as our car was well out of the Castle grounds I lost no time in explaining to Sir Meredith why I had told Lord Carden about my father.
"I have never mentioned it to anybody since I arrived in England," I said, "and I'm rather sorry I have spoken of it now, but his lordship seemed so off-hand with me that on the impulse I thought I'd like to shake him up."
"But why have you never claimed the relationship?" asked Sir Meredith, with a frown.
"Because my father had quarrelled with his father," I replied, "and he'd been packed off to Australia as a bad egg. He told me he was a bad egg, as he drank too much, but he stopped all that when he married my mother."
"But Lord Roxborough might have been a great help to you," said Sir Meredith. "You mean to say you've never even written to him?"
I shook my head. "Not a line. I tell you I've told no one."
He smiled. "Well, it's something to your credit anyhow. It shows you're not a snob." He changed the conversation. "Well, what do you think of the Lady Margaret?"
I pretended to sigh heavily. "A lovely girl, but I won't think of her, for, as you said, she's beyond my reach."
"Not at all," he rejoined quickly, "now we have learned your grandfather is Lord Roxborough."
"And a struggling doctor in the East End," I laughed, "visiting patients, with a bottle of medicine thrown in, at two shillings a time, if they don't happen to be on the panel! What would Lord Carden say to that?"
"Never mind Lord Carden," he said sharply. "It would be the pretty Margaret who would have the final say. As you must have seen, the old gentleman is crazy about her, and she gets her own way whenever she wants it. Still, you'd be aiming high if you went awooing her, as she's a big heiress as well as a peer's daughter. An aunt of hers left her a lot of money and she'll come into it when she's twenty-one." He smiled. "But I'll give you a good chance. If you can manage it you shall go down instead of me during the week to see how Lady Carden is getting on."
Of course I managed it, and was not disappointed to find Lord Carden was away for the day. The patient was getting on well, and Margaret and I had afternoon tea together in the lounge.
She looked as lovely as ever and was quite friendly. We talked of lots of things—music, books, and plays. Then she asked me where I had my practice, and I told her, adding I lived alone in a big gloomy house, with only a daily housekeeper to look after me.
"Then you are not married?" she asked.
"No, and not engaged either," I replied. I smiled. "I am still heart-whole."
"So am I," she smiled back, but when I added with something of a grin, "Or at least, I was up to a little while ago," she showed no embarrassment and only looked rather amused. Of course she was accustomed to compliments, I thought, and there would be no thrill in them for her.
Dr. Jessop arrived presently, and when he had finished with his patient suggested I should call at his home on my way back, as he had an old photograph of St. Lazarus's he would like to show me. So I bade good-bye to Margaret, thinking very sorrowfully it might be the last time I should see her.
When I arrived at Dr. Jessop's he mixed me a whisky and soda and then said with something of a little embarrassment in his manner, "Now, young man, I've been thinking of you quite a lot since last Sunday and wondering how you are fixed. To come straight to the point—I am shortly taking a partner, and you would just about fit the bill."
He went on to say that he was getting no younger and was going to retire in a few years. He had a high-class practice among the best county people, received good fees, and made about £3,000 a year. He would sell me a half-share for £1,500, and later on I could buy the other half at the same figure.
Great Scott, I thought, it was a good offer! With something of a quickening of my pulse I realised that if only I could accept it I should be near Margaret. However, I had no £1,500 and knew of no way in which I could raise it. Still, I didn't tell him so, and just said I would think the offer over.
"Yes, do," he nodded. "With your connections, of which Lord Carden has spoken to me, you'd go down well, and it would be a splendid opening for you. There's no hurry, but let me know one way or the other in, say, a few weeks time."
In the ensuing days, Margaret was a lot in my thoughts. Of course, I was in love with her, but then what man wouldn't be? Still, I held out no hope to myself, and I was angry for wasting my emotions in thinking of her. As for the Ashdown doctor's offer of a partnership, I could not consider it, though for all that I kept on putting off my writing to tell him so.
About a fortnight passed, and one morning, when I was half-way through my surgery patients—mostly panel ones of course—as I opened the waiting-room door to beckon in the next, I saw a well-dressed and rather fine-looking old man had taken a seat among them to await his turn, and I wondered curiously who he was.
It happened he was the last patient to put in an appearance, and when I invited him into the surgery he walked in leisurely, with his eyes fixed intently upon me.
"Good morning," I said. "What can I do for you?"
"Not all I would wish," he replied with a grim smile, "as you cannot bring back the dead." He held out his hand. "I'm your grandfather, young man, Lord Roxborough, and I've come to find out why the devil you have not been to see me all these years. My friend Carden has told me about you." He became red and angry-looking. "You young fool, I'd have been ready to help you."
I felt myself grow hot in horrible confusion and cursed myself for my vanity. Of course, I ought to have realised that my foolish admission to Lord Carden would not end there, and now I was faced with either having to retract what I had said or going on with the fraud to where it might land me in prison. Hitherto, I had been an impostor for no bad ends, and only to escape the ignominy of my father's death, but it would be quite a different matter to trade on the fraud and get something out of wealthy supposed relatives. I just looked at him blankly.
"Yes," he went on, waving his arm round my shabby, cheap appointments, "to think of one of my family coming down to this and waiting upon the commonest of people for a few pence at a time."
Recovering my composure, I picked up my cue. "But mine is a noble profession, sir," I said with a smile, "whether one earns guineas or only the humble shilling."
His face brightened. "Ah, making the best of it, are you, like your poor father?" He nodded. "With all his failings, he was a well-plucked one, and never whined." He looked reproachful. "But you should have come to me, my boy, if only to tell me about your father's death. Though we fell out a lot, I always had a soft corner in my heart for him, and would have helped him much more if he had let me, and not been so deuced proud."
Sitting down opposite me, he proceeded to ask a lot of questions, not, I realised at once, with the object of making me prove my relationship, but simply to know about his son.
"But see here," he said presently, "can you come back to my hotel to lunch with me? No—then what about to-night? Can't you dine with me?" He frowned. "Make an effort. Haven't you got any friend who'll take on your work for a few hours?"
It happened I had, a brother practitioner who lived only a few streets away, and whom I had occasionally helped. It was, therefore, quickly arranged I should meet him at the Hotel Metropole in Northumberland Avenue at six o'clock, and after I had rung for a taxi to take him back he left me with a warm shake of the hand. He had said he could see I was a Fitz-Leonard, for though I was not like my father, as Lord Carden had told him, I was very like his brother Monkton, the General.
Now, between Lord Roxborough driving off in the taxi and my meeting him again in the evening, I had made up my mind definitely what line of action I should follow. I would stick to my story, as there was no possible chance of my being found out, and if my supposed blood relationship with the Fitz-Leonards proved to be of benefit to me, then well and good. It would be poetic justice for the harsh way my stepfather had been treated. At the back of my mind, too, though out of loyalty to my mother I kept thrusting it away, was the thought that after all I might be of Fitz-Leonard blood. I would not believe it and yet—I knew it might be true.
Uncertain as to how to dress to meet his lordship, after some hesitation I put on a dinner jacket, and was very glad I had done so when I found him in evening dress too. He expressed his approval of my appearance, remarking with a smile that, however dreadful my surroundings in what he called "that awful East End practice," the moment he had set eyes upon me that morning he had seen he would have no reason to be ashamed of his grandson.
The dinner was a very happy meal, and he questioned me again and again upon the happenings of his son's life in Australia, asking me why the latter had never really made good and been in such a subordinate position at the time of his death. I explained that at one time he had quite a flourishing sheep station in Western Australia, but had lost everything in two consecutive years, drought taking half a his sheep in the first year and floods the other half in the second one.
"It is often like that in Australia," I said. "One year there is no rain and the next far too much. Both sheep and wheat are a terrible gamble all along."
Presently he declared I must get out of the East End practice and find something better.
"I'm not a rich man," he said, "but I can put up enough cash for that. Now, have you any idea what you would like to do?"
So I told him about the offer of Dr. Jessop, and he said at once that it was a good proposition. A man of action, he made me ring up Dr. Jessop straightaway and say I would come as soon as I had settled up affairs in Upton Park and had a short holiday. That holiday I was to spend in Yorkshire, at Roxborough Towers.
Then things happened very quickly. I got rid of the practice with no difficulty and spent a very happy fortnight with my new-found grandfather. He made a great fuss of me and introduced me all round to his relations and friends, but the highlight of everything to me was, of course, the meeting with his youngest brother, the General.
Oh, how my heart beat when we were introduced! General Sir Monkton Fitz-Leonard was a distinguished soldier of the Great War and, alas! there was no doubt about my resemblance to him. We had the same eyes and forehead and our heads were of the same shape.
A typical soldier, he was a fine-looking man in the middle fifties, with a stately wife and five children. Of a carefree disposition, he was merry and full of fun, and I thought with something of a pang how fascinating and debonair he would have appeared in the eyes of a young girl in those tragic days, nearly thirty years ago.
He lived not very far from his brother, and one night I went to dine at his home, and was introduced to his family, including a very pretty daughter of twenty-two, whom, in the vanity of a young man, I thought made herself particularly agreeable to me.
With us all talking and laughing at the table, and with Lord Roxborough there, too, I thought with some uncomfortable amusement what a bombshell I could have thrown amongst them had I but voiced my secret thoughts. But that is Life all over. In the most ordinary surroundings so often does tragedy lurk close at hand, and if we were all to pool our knowledge what consternation would result!
A few weeks later I was installed in old Dr. Jessop's house in the little village of Ashdown, and now opens what must surely be the most exciting chapter of my not uneventful life.
RIGHT from the very early days of my coming to Ashdown I was thrilled with the very different conditions of medical practice in which I found myself. Medicine was no longer a slap-dash way of making money in the speediest way and by giving the least amount of attention possible. It had become a calling to me in the real sense of the word, and one had leisure enough to consider the patients in a friendly as well as a professional way.
One could be a healer of the mind as well as of the body, and I was soon realising what a veritable tower of strength was the family doctor to so many people in their troubles, with him regarding himself first as their medical adviser and friend—and then, a very long way behind, as their creditor.
There was, however, one rather annoying happening upon my arrival in the village, and that was that, when called in to attend the village publican, he recognised me instantly as the young man who had once had a chat with him about the murder. And he recognised me so unhesitatingly and with such confidence that, on the instant, I thought it wisest not to contradict him.
"You see, doctor," he smiled, "I have an amazing memory for faces, as before I became the publican here I was for more than twenty years a ticket-collector at Liverpool Street Station, and I had trained myself to memorise all the faces, so as not to bother the regular season-holders to show their tickets every time they came to the barrier." He went on to tell me how a few years back an enquiry agent had come to the village to try to learn if anyone knew anything about Reuben Baxter's son, who had been left some property by his aunt. They had not, however, been able to find out where he was.
I pretended to be mildly interested, at the same time feeling rather uneasy that I had undoubtedly left a trail which, if anyone were after me, might be picked up and followed.
Dr. Jessop certainly did his best to pass over to me as many patients as possible, but, as was only natural, a good number preferred that he should go on attending them. Still, I was occasionally sent up to the Castle to see Lady Carden, and if Margaret were anywhere about generally managed to get a few words with her.
She was not nineteen yet, and I was very careful that there should not be in my manner the very slightest hint of paying particular attention to her. We were just good friends, though I took encouragement in the thought that as time went on the friendship certainly did not become any cooler. By now she had made her debut into Society and had been presented at Court, and I often saw her name among those who had been present at big Society functions. Of course, she was regarded everywhere as a great beauty, and her photograph from time to time appeared in several of the Society journals. I sighed heavily to think what little chance I really had against the many titled young fellows much nearer her own age, though I was somewhat comforted that as yet rumour had not coupled her name with any one of them.
One thing I knew was heavily against me. Her father was a proud, ambitious man, and I realised with what scorn he would regard an alliance of his daughter with an obscure country doctor. I thought I had clear evidence of this, as once, when at the County ball in Lewes, Margaret had danced three times with me and I had, moreover, taken her into supper, I had caught him regarding me with what I imagined to be a frowning, annoyed look.
However, one bit of good fortune certainly did come my way. Strangely enough, as once Marie Antoinette had done, Margaret sprained her ankle, and, with Dr. Jessop attending a confinement, it was I who went up to the Castle to attend her Oh, how divinely she blushed when I was handling her dainty little foot, and I know she saw with some amusement that, at first. I was distinctly nervous. But she was very gracious to me, and thanked me so prettily for having taken such pains when I had strapped it up. Just as if, I sighed to myself, I would not have loved to linger over the business for hours!
Lady Carden, too, could not have been nicer to me, asking me, most pointedly, about what time I should be coming up again in the morning, as if to make it quite understood I was to carry on with the treatment. Years afterwards I learned that when I had left that afternoon she had teased Margaret about the new conquest she had made.
"Or is it new, dear?" she had laughed. "Ever since we've known him I've always noticed he's looked at you as much as he could when he thought it wasn't being noticed."
So time drifted on, and I had been in Ashdown getting on for two years when tragedy entered my life and I passed through as anxious a time as any man could have experienced.
Now, although there was no doubt that in the main Margaret had been the magnet drawing me to Ashdown, there had unquestionably been another reason for making me glad to come there, as it was never altogether out of my mind that there might be something of an account to settle with the one-time livery-stable proprietor, Antonio Andrea.
From all my aunt had told me about him in connection with my mother, I thought it more than possible he might have been responsible for the misery brought upon her by the shameful nature of my father's death. Obstinately, and out of loyalty to my mother, I still continued to regard Reuben Baxter as my father, and, even if he were not, I told myself, he had nevertheless been her husband, and, as such, for all wrong which might have been done to him the punishing of it was the heritage which had been handed down to me.
Of course, after the lapse of twenty years, it seemed fantastic to imagine that if there were anything to be found out it would be found out now. Many, many times, too, it seemed ridiculous to imagine that the murderer of that agent could have been anyone other than my father. His trial would certainly have been a fair one, with everything that was in his favour being brought forward, and if he had been found guilty, then it could have been only because the weight of the evidence had been overwhelmingly against him.
Still—I remembered the jury at that trial had not known that within a few days of the capital sentence being carried out this Andrea, the chief witness for the prosecution, was to rave in his fury at being rebuffed by my mother that, at any rate, he had well "paid her out" for once slapping his face. Then how could he have paid her out? How could he have done it except by giving false evidence at the trial? Surely, then, there had been something behind his spiteful taunt, and he had not just thought of it on the spur of the moment! No, it seemed rather that its uttering had been wrung from him in an unguarded moment of rage—and can anyone wonder I was therefore curious about him.
Within a week or so of arriving at Ashdown I had started making discreet enquiries about him, and no surprise was evinced at my interest, as he was by way of being quite a notorious character in the district. He had been pointed out to me going by in his beautiful Rolls-Royce car, a frowning, arrogant-looking man full of his own importance and one who would care nothing about what people thought of him. It was his boast he could buy up half the stuck-up snobs in the district and not know he had spent anything.
"Let them cut me," he sneered. "It's a relief to me not having to nod back to them."
And there was certainly some need for him to be contemptuous of public opinion, as it was not often one heard a good word spoken of him, for if his reputation had been bad when I had discussed him with the village publican those eight years previously, it was much worse now, with no people of any standing having anything at all to do with him.
With racing still one of the passions of his life, he was no longer a trainer. His training licence had not been absolutely cancelled, but it was common knowledge he had been given the hint not to apply for its renewal. With no absolute proof against him—he was much too cunning for that—the racing authorities were yet of the opinion he was an undesirable in racing circles and therefore had curtailed his activities as much as they were able.
There had been too much in-and-out running with his horses, and not a few times when they had been heavily supported by the public the latter had been let down badly. It had been rumoured, too, that he had been hand in glove with some big but shady members of the bookmaking fraternity, and twice within one year a horse of his which had been a strong ante-post betting favourite had become mysteriously sick on the very eve of the race. Its sudden and totally unexpected scratching had meant a considerable loss to the long-suffering public.
Of late, also, he had acquired something of an equally unsavoury reputation in financial circles, having brought ruin to a number of shareholders in a small but popular country brewery. It had been said—though here again there was no actual proof—that he had conspired with its head brewer to lower the quality of the beer, with the result that many people had stopped buying it, and the shares in consequence had fallen almost to zero. Then Andrea had immediately bought up as many as he could get hold of, the beer had been restored to its former good quality: and a rich harvest had been reaped by him when it had regained its one-time popularity.
Though married to a good-looking woman many years younger than he, his infidelities were a by-word in the district, and the wonder was that she continued to live with him. There were two children, a boy aged six and a girl four. Though no one had ever seen him the worse for drink, he was reputed to be always tippling champagne and giving way to almost uncontrollable bursts of temper in his worst alcoholic moods.
He lived about half a mile from the village, in a large modern house which he had built himself and called Ormonde Hall. The house was beautifully furnished, and some of the paintings and statues he possessed were said to be of considerable value. He employed a butler, a gardener, and three maids.
Many of these details I learned from Dr. Jessop, who was what he called with a smile his regular medical attendant. Sometimes he called him in and sometimes a doctor from East Grinstead. At the present time Dr. Jessop believed the latter was the ruling favourite, otherwise he would have taken me up at once to the Hall and introduced me.
One day, however, Andrea acquired a carbuncle, and sent for Dr. Jessop to attend him. Upon the third visit Dr. Jessop thought it a good opportunity for me to make his acquaintance, and accordingly one afternoon I went up to the Hall with him.
Andrea was in what he called his study when we arrived, and I had at once to admit to myself that, for good or evil, he was a man of undoubted personality, giving an impression of courage and mastery. Tall and dark, he had a handsome if somewhat dissipated face, with good features and shrewd, piercing eyes. His lips, however, were full and sensual, and it was evident he was something of a boaster.
He appeared to take little interest in me, addressing himself almost wholly to Dr. Jessop, and, even then, speaking to him in a proud and condescending sort of way, almost as if he thought he had conferred a favour by calling him in.
As Dr. Jessop had said, the house was well furnished, and it was apparent no money had been spared to carry out the owner's undoubtedly artistic ideas. Looking round the study, however, it was easy to determine in what direction most of his tastes lay, as horses and women predominated in the paintings, photographs, and even statuettes, everywhere.
There was a big oil of the mighty Ormonde, the horse of all the ages, and one of the Tetrarch, the spotted wonder who could outrun every horse up to a distance of five furlongs, but who beyond that was never once victorious. On the mantelshelf was an exquisite little statuette in the whitest marble, portraying Virginity, a young girl in the nude and of lithe and lissom form bending forward poised upon one foot, as if eager to hunch herself into the adventures of her life.
Occupying the place of honour on the wall was a six-foot painting of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, rising in glory from the foam-tossed waves of the sea to bring longing and desire into the hearts of all men who set eyes upon her.
Noticing me admiring this last, Andrea condescended to grunt, "That cost me three thousand guineas, and I've never regretted one penny of it." Some warmth crept into his voice. "Though I've had it for seven years now, I'm never tired of looking at it." His face took on a horrible look. "I'd give ten years of my life, even now, to meet her in the flesh."
"Well, what do you think of him?" smiled Dr. Jessop as we drove away.
"A satyr and a very beast," I nodded. I smiled in my turn. "But a very interesting man in spite of his beastliness and boasting."
My partner agreed with me.
For many days after that meeting with him, Andrea loomed largely in my thoughts, but I realised how hopeless it would be to find out anything about him when he did not want it known. He would have covered all his tracks with infinite cunning, and it would be very difficult to worm oneself into his confidence.
The months went by, with me fluttering like a moth round the candle in Ashdown Castle, and finding every chance I could to see Margaret. Sometimes it came to me that Lady Carden had some idea as to what was in my mind, and that, notwithstanding how different was my position to that of her daughter, she was not wholly averse to it. At any rate, she often invited me up to the Castle to dinner, and nearly always included me in the little card-parties they used to give.
The memory of one night I dined there was always impressed into my mind, not because Margaret had looked as sweet and alluring as she always did, but because Lord Carden brought up the happening of the murder of his agent those many years gone by, and related to all of us present the facts about it.
Colonel Mayne, who was a Chief Constable, was among the few guests, and, the recent mysterious and undiscovered murder of a farmer living near Guildford having been discussed, he remarked casually to Lord Carden, "but you had a murder here once, didn't you, about twenty years ago, in your own grounds?"
"Twenty-three to be exact," said his lordship, "though it wasn't actually in the Castle grounds. Yes, my agent was done to death within a quarter of a mile from where we are now sitting, in a wood which is on my own property, just beyond the fence through which you pass when you come up. He was killed on a path which I allow the public to use as a short cut from the East Grinstead road to the village here."
"And your head-gardener was hanged for it, wasn't he?" remarked the Chief Constable.
Lord Carden nodded. "Yes, he was hanged for it, as the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming, and yet"—he frowned—"I am certain he never did it." He shook his head. "He wasn't the type who would batter anyone so murderously as my poor agent had been done."
He went on to relate the whole story, and I had to listen to my poor mother's reputation being torn to shreds. I listened patiently, however, hoping to pick up some new information, and I had a new idea. It was this. There would certainly have been some suspicion of Andrea himself being the murderer if it had not been for the blood-marks found in the sink and on the towel in the kitchen of my father's cottage and the realisation by everyone that by no possibility could he have put them there after having committed the crime.
He would not have had the time. After hearing what the dying agent had told him in his last breath, there was evidence that he had at once climbed the fence as quickly as he could to get into the Castle grounds and obtain help in the speediest way possible. He had been so quick about it, too, that when Lord Carden himself had heard him shouting, and, accompanied by his chauffeur and an under-gardener, had reached the agent's side, the man was barely dead then, as the blood was still oozing from his dreadful wounds.
The dinner over, and the ladies having left the room, Lord Carden went to a bureau and brought out to show us a sere and yellow page of a London newspaper containing a photograph of the spot where the agent had died. Marked with a cross, it was within a few yards of an old shed which I had often noticed when I had been using the path itself. With something of a shudder I thought I should never pass that way again without thinking of what had happened there.
A couple of months went by, and I had nothing more to do with Andrea until one day he broke his leg, and, with Dr. Jessop away at the Brighton races, I went up with all haste to attend him.
He scowled when he saw it was I and not Dr. Jessop who had come, but it was an easy fracture to set, and, handling him most carefully, I gave him very little pain. He was pleased and remarked not ungraciously, "Not the first broken leg you've set, I can see.
"Good heavens, no!" I laughed. "Sometimes at the hospital I'd set three or four a day. I got plenty of practice there."
Of course, I had to go up and see him a good many times, and I found that, with any suffering, he was a querulous and exacting patient. I was disgusted, too, by the way he spoke to his wife. A good-looking woman in the middle thirties, I took a liking to her at once, and felt most sorry for her. She was very patient with him, but got nothing save abuse, and I did not wonder her expression was such a sad one.
With the pain of the fracture passing, Andrea became quite amiable with me, though I disliked him the more every time I saw him. As I surmised upon my first meeting him, he was a great boaster, and I soon saw that was the fatal chink in the armour of all his cunning and shrewdness. He was always wanting to make out to me how clever he had been in all his transactions and, directly he started to boast, would disclose things about himself of which at other times I am sure he would have kept a prudent silence. This was particularly evident after he had been livening himself up with a pint or more of champagne.
Learning I was interested in racing, one day he ordered me to bring to his bedside a portfolio containing the photographs of the good horses he had owned, and my heart beat a little quicker when he handed me one with the name Nellie's brat written underneath it.
"That commonplace little runt," he said solemnly, "laid the foundation of my fortune. He cost me only fifteen guineas and I won more than £70,000 with him." He looked scornful. "Bah, how they laughed when I bought him, and how they sneered when I saddled him up for the first time at a tin-pot little meeting for a £60 stake! Yet I won nine races in a row with him over the fences and one of them was the Grand National." He laughed hoarsely. "And the fools let her start that day at a hundred to one! Think, of it—a hundred to one—and I'd have been glad to take tens." His face took on a cunning look. "But a devilish smart little jock was going to ride him that day, and what do you think we had done between us?" He dropped his voice into a whisper, as if not wanting even the walls to hear. "We had taught Nellie's brat a little trick and, when he was saddled up, he went down limping to the post." He chuckled delightedly at the recollection. "Oh, how everyone gaped when, directly the starter let them go, the poor lame-looking little devil darted out with the lead and cleared every fence like a bird. He was never headed, and won by ten lengths."
Though thinking what a thorough rogue he'd been, I made out to join heartily in his merriment, and then asked, with something of a husky feeling in my throat, why he had given the horse the queer name of Nellie's brat.
"A-ah, that's a secret!" he laughed. "Or rather it's connected with a secret and a very great secret, too, the greatest one of all my life. No one must ever learn it, or I don't know what would happen to me."
Becoming grave all at once, he turned the conversation and began talking of the paintings he possessed.
I left the house with something of a grim feeling in my heart. So the naming of the horse as Nellie's brat was connected with the greatest secret of his life and, on his own admission, its disclosure would bring most unpleasant consequences in its train! Then, with his unsocial, adventurous life, chock full of guilty secrets as it undoubtedly was, surely the greatest secret of them all must be a very grave one? Good God, then it was possible my poor mother's surmise that he had given false evidence at the trial, he himself being the real murderer, was correct! It seemed possible—nay, more, it almost seemed probable.
And this conviction which was now taking definite form in my mind was strengthened by a happening at my very next visit to him. He was reading a detective story when I called and, drawing my attention to the book, he began to belittle the way the author had drawn up his plot.
"This fool writer here," he sneered, "makes a silly ass commit a murder and then—after he had done it—start laying a trail that would lead the police to someone else." He raised his voice contemptuously. "That was a rotten idea. He should have laid it before. He should have had it all cut and dried before he put a finger on the man he'd been intending to kill."
"What exactly do you mean?" I asked, wanting to draw him on.
"Well," he replied, with a crafty leer, "he should have waited for an auspicious time to make the kill and then, when he saw it coming, should have bloodied the innocent man's clothes before any hanky-panky tricks were started."
"But the blood mightn't have been handy," I suggested.
"Bah, it's always handy if you look for it!" he scoffed. "He could have pricked his finger or scratched his skin or given his nose a bit of a knock. My nose, for instance, is very sensitive, and all my life it has started bleeding slightly if I blow it too hard."
That night I thought hard over what he had said. Years back I had been to the office of The Times and read carefully through the whole report of the trial, and once again I weighed up all the facts which had brought about my father's conviction. They were, first, his quarrel with and threats against Lord Carden's dead agent; second, Andrea's story that the dying man had said it had been he, Reuben Baxter, who had attacked him; and, third, the blood-marks found upon the kitchen sink and towel in Baxter's cottage.
Certainly, Andrea, as the chief witness for the prosecution, had been sharply cross-examined by the counsel defending my father, but his evidence had not been shaken anywhere and, on the face of it, he had told a simple and straightforward story. There was nothing to suggest he bore any grudge against my father, or that he had the slightest reason for telling an untruth about what the dying agent had told him.
So the evidence against my father had been very strong, quite apart from the blood-marks found in his cottage, and his inability to account for these had made his evidence overwhelming.
Upon my last professional visit to Andrea I found him in his study, looking very bright and smiling. He was seated at his desk rubbing up a little automatic pistol.
"What on earth have you got that for?" I asked.
"Oh, I always keep it by me!" He nodded. "I've carried it about for years. I'm never without it." He made a grimace. "I've had lots of threatening letters in my time." He grinned. "I've never been able to please everybody, and when some silly ass has lost a few bob on my horses he's reckoned I was about ripe for the kill."
"Have you ever fired it?" I asked.
He looked quite hurt. "Good Lord, yes! Why, I'm a splendid shot with it." He pulled open a drawer in his desk. "See, this goes with it, a lovely little silencer, and I'll show you something."
Affixing the silencer, he threw open the window and peered round.
"Bad luck!" he exclaimed. "Nothing to kill! Still, see that white stone at the end of the rockery? Well, it's a good twenty yards away, but I'll hit it bang in the middle. Note what a little noise the pistol makes. You couldn't hear it even in the next room."
He hit the stone squarely enough, and there was no doubt the pistol made very little sound. It was wonderful how quiet it was.
"And that's what any bloke'll get," he laughed, "if ever he tries any dirty tricks on me."
He was certainly in a good humour that morning and, though it was not eleven o'clock, I guessed he had been livening himself up with the usual champagne. Then, as usual with him in such a genial mood, he started patting himself on the back and boasting of his cleverness.
"Now you know I'm a good photographer," he said, "and I've told you every darned photo about the house I've taken myself—horses, dogs, women, and all. Well, as you say this is your last visit, I'll show you something else, something very private, and which not half a dozen people have ever seen. It's one of my little masterpieces, and I've never dared to show it to my missus." He grinned his horrid, satyr-like grin. "It's a multiple photograph of some of the sweethearts I've had. Not of them all, by cripes! but, still, of quite a few of them."
Unlocking a cupboard, from a well-wrapped round brown paper covering he drew out a large photograph about eighteen inches square. He had grouped a number of smaller photographs, between thirty and forty I judged at first glance, and photographed them altogether as a single picture. They were all of girls or young women, of some the heads only, of others the heads and busts, and of not a few the entire figure in the nude. The photo had been beautifully done, but its beast-like lustful nature filled me with disgust. Whatever a man had done, I thought, there were some happenings in his life it was only decent to keep to himself.
He chuckled delightedly. "Aren't they a good-looking lot, not one among them who is not more than pretty, but I say, I say," he grinned, "wouldn't some of the little dears be surprised that I'd, so to speak, introduced them to one another like this? Why—"
But I was no longer listening. My heart was beating violently, the blood was thundering in my ears, and I could feel I was holding in my breath.
In one corner of the photograph I had recognised the face of my mother!
I clenched my hands so tightly that it was positive pain, every muscle in me was tensed and strained, and my very feet seemed to be gripping the floor. Surely never in all his wicked life had this vile beast beside me been so near to being throttled. My mouth was too dry to speak.
I do not know how it would have ended, and my self-control would have given way, but at that moment Mrs. Andrea came into the room to ask me if I would come and look at her little boy, who was not eating well and who, she was afraid, had contracted some illness.
As Andrea furtively covered over the photo, without a word to him in parting, I followed his wife out of the room. As I have already mentioned, I had always liked Mrs. Andrea. She was not exactly what you would call a lady, she was nevertheless of an undoubtedly refined nature, and I often wondered how she had ever come to marry the man she had. I examined the little boy, assured her there was not much the matter with him, and, prescribing a tonic, left the house as quickly as possible. In the mood I was in then I dared not trust myself to speak to Andrea again.
Looking back later, I could never exactly determine what my state of mind had been in the ensuing hours. I knew Andrea had been a liar in making out my poor mother had ever been a mistress of his, but to have seen her crucified, as I put it to myself, among all those trollops and wantons filled me with as great a rage as I imagined I could ever contain.
It was not, however, so much of that I was thinking, but how to deal with the man now. That he was the one who had killed the agent was perfectly evident to me, as the possession of that photograph of my mother proved. As she had surmised, he had been in the cottage that dreadful day, and therefore had undoubtedly left those blood-marks there. He had known the agent would be coming with his bag of money, as was his usual custom, through Bolton Wood that afternoon, and had laid his plans accordingly. First, to incriminate my father and, later, to carry out the dreadful crime.
Then what could I do to him? I had no proof, not the slightest that would hold good in a court of law, and, apart from that, to give any information to the police would mean exposing myself as an impostor under a name that was not my own. No, he was secure from any legal punishment—but what about private vengeance? I sighed heavily. There again I was without hope.
So it ended in my doing nothing, except to avoid him as much as possible. When I did meet him I gave him the curtest of greetings possible, but I don't suppose he noticed it, as with all his money, as I have said before, he considered himself as a person of such importance that what other people thought of him was of small moment.
If I had had any doubts as to his being the real murderer in that lonely wood those twenty-two years gone by, they would certainly have been dispelled by a meeting I had with an old St. Lazarus's nurse at an East Grinstead hospital. I had been visiting a patient I had put in there, and the nurse and I had some conversation together, recalling the times when I had been a student and she a probationer.
Presently, upon my remarking how beautiful the surroundings of Ashdown Forest were, she rather surprised me by stating she knew them quite well, as some two years or so previously she had been nursing a patient there.
"It was a pneumonia," she said, "and though the patient was wealthy and most generous, for all that he was a horrid man. He was an Italian called Andrea. Do you know him?"
"Certainly," I nodded, "he is a patient of ours."
I asked why she thought him horrid.
"He treated his wife so badly," she replied, "and, though I'm no prize packet for good looks, when he was getting better he tried to make up to me. And another thing," she went on, "he must have lived a horribly wicked life by what he talked about when he was only semi-conscious and didn't know what he was saying."
"Girls and women," I smiled. "That's all he thinks about."
"Yes, he spoke a lot about them," she said, "but I remember one night he was killing a man, battering in his head with a stick. And he talked about it several times, always the same, so I'm almost sure he had really done it."
Driving away, I thought what a case I had built up against him, and yet how hopeless it would be to try to bring him to book. No, he would just live on enjoying the fruits of his wicked life and never receiving any punishment, unless by chance one day he overstepped himself and came within the reach of the law—a happening which, with his cunning, I hardly thought likely.
Very shortly after this conversation about Andrea with the nurse, his wife came to consult me one morning. She was troubled with a slight peculiarity in appearance and pains in her left breast, and had a haunted look in her eyes which at once betrayed to me what her fear really was.
I examined the breast carefully. Certainly, there was not much to see, but the nipple was drawn in and there was a slight hardening underneath. Upon learning she was thirty-six, I asked her as casually as I could if she had ever knocked herself there or had a blow.
Her voice trembled. "Yes, my husband struck me there about three months ago."
I choked back an oath, but my grave face must have voiced my suspicions, as she began to cry.
"No, no, don't distress yourself," I said quickly. "It may be the beginning of a growth, but we have got it so early that even if it turns out to be one I can promise you a complete cure. I'll send you to a specialist in town."
Then she told me something of her life, and how with all the luxuries which surrounded her she was a most miserable woman because of the way Andrea treated her.
"He's quite tired of me," she sobbed, "and upon the slightest provocation, if he's in one of his evil moods, he'll pummel me and twist my arm. Some days I'm afraid to go near him, and the children are, too." She spoke angrily. "And he's always been unfaithful. He's keeping a young girl now in Earl's Court and doesn't think I know it, but I do. I've intercepted letters from her."
"But why don't you get a divorce?" I asked, and when she turned away her eyes and made no reply I went on, "Isn't he fond of the children?"
"No, they're a nuisance to him," she replied fiercely, "and I have to keep them out of his way. Fortunately the house is big enough, and I manage so that he doesn't see them from one week's end to another."
"Why don't you leave him?" I asked. "If you don't divorce him you can get a separation and the court will see that he provides for you." I pointed to her breast. "That would get you a separation without any difficulty."
She laughed scornfully, and turning up her sleeve showed me a horrid-looking bruise upon her arm. "And this, too." she said bitterly. She pulled down her stocking and exposed a second bruise on her shin. "And this as well. He kicked me there in one of his rages last week."
"Then, good God," I exclaimed, "leave him! Why don't you? What is there to prevent you?"
She looked me straight in the face. "Because I'm not his wife, doctor. We've never been properly married, and I should have no legal claim on him."
I was shocked. "But why then does he keep you living with him," I asked, "if, as you say, he is tired of you?" She laughed mirthlessly, "because I'm a good housekeeper, because I keep his house well, because I can cook and see he has the things he likes to eat, because I manage the servants, and because I can nurse him after he has had his drunken bouts." She spoke bitterly. "Oh, yes, I earn my keep, and he doesn't want to lose a good servant!"
"But what if anything happens to him?" I asked. "What if he dies suddenly? You will be left destitute then."
She shook her head. "No, for when our little boy was born and things were much better between us he made a will leaving me the house in which we now live and everything in it, also one of his farms. He showed me the will and gave me the title deeds of both places to hold. So I think I'm all right as long as I don't offend him and tell no one about his ill-treatment."
She told me her story. Her real name was Unley. She was Doris Patricia Unley, a young widow. When she first met Andrea she was the manageress of a high-class tea-shop in Old bond Street. She thought she had fallen in love with him, and he told her they would be married directly the divorce he had obtained from his wife was made absolute, which would be, he said, in less than three months.
Very foolishly she had come to live with him at Ashdown, announcing, of course, that they were married. Then she found it was all a lie about his divorced wife, and that he had never been married at all. However, he still promised to marry her, but kept on putting it off and off, and at last said brazenly that he had no intention of doing so. He declared he wouldn't be bound by any ties to her, and would keep her only as long as she behaved herself. That was the position, and for her children's sake she had to put up with all the ill-treatment he gave her.
"Have you any affection for him?" I asked.
She flared up. "Not a shred! I hate him, for he's so brutal in his bad moods, which come pretty often now." She shrugged her shoulders. "Still, between them he can still be quite pleasant. But that's just like him. One day he'll work himself up into a dreadful rage and say and do the most horrible things he can think of—then, the next, he'll behave as if nothing had happened."
"And your people," I asked "what do they think of your unfortunate position here?"
"They don't know I'm not properly married," she replied, looking very shame-faced, "and are very hurt because they've never been invited down. But Mr. Andrea won't let them come, and insists I am to have nothing to do with them." Her voice broke as she indicated her breast, "but I can't go on living as I've been doing any longer after this, and I'll have to tell them everything now." She looked most distressed. "Oh, I shall hate worrying my father, as he's in very poor health."
"Then you'll tell him to-morrow," I said, "after you've seen the specialist I'm going to send you to?"
She shook her head. "No, I daren't go to any new doctor until I've told Mr. Andrea what you've said. He would be furious if I did. Still, I can go up to town to see my father tomorrow, as Mr. Andrea will be away all day, and won't know anything about it."
It was left at that, with me feeling terribly sorry the poor woman was so evilly circumstanced. More than ever, I thought Andrea deserved the worst punishment which could be given him, but yet, here again, I was afraid he would get off scot-free.
I was expecting to have a ring from him, but I learned nothing of what was going on for three days, and then ran into him in the road just as I had come out of my house. It appeared he had been coming to call on me. He looked in a towering rage and, catching me outside, his excitable temperament was such that he could not wait a minute before unburdening himself of what was on his mind.
Not caring who heard, and there were people passing, he began shouting I was a young fool to frighten his wife, and he didn't believe she had anything the matter with her. No, he wouldn't come inside to talk it over! He would have nothing more to do with me, and his wife shouldn't either! He smiled a horrid smile—she was much too fond of coming to my place as it was, and he was going to put a stop to it. He would take her to someone else, not to a stupid boy-doctor, but to a man who had had some proper experience.
I spoke back as tersely as I could and, not intending to provide the villagers with any further entertainment, turned on my heel and left him still abusing me.
The encounter had been a most unpleasant one, and things were made even more unpleasant when Dr. Jessop received a curt letter from the man, ordering that an account for what he owed us be sent in to him at once, as he was intending to have nothing more to do with us. He added that I had frightened his wife quite unnecessarily, and he did not believe she had anything serious the matter with her.
I wondered what was going to happen next, and hoped to goodness that if the poor woman had told her father the latter would come down and murder him. I reflected that, in that event, if I were called in I would cheerfully perjure myself that the death had all signs of being an accidental one.
Then chance stepped in, and it was I who cut short his wicked lustful life, bringing upon myself, however, days of most terrible anxiety and danger.
Now I have already made known that the path through Bolton Wood was a short cut through part of Lord Carden's property from the main East Grinstead road to Ashdown village and that quite a lot of people used it. When on foot or bicycle I often went that way myself, never omitting to have a good stare round when I came to the shed in the middle of the wood, near where I knew the agent had been killed all those years ago.
I had the unpleasantness with Andrea on a Thursday, and on the following Saturday afternoon had a patient to see not far from where he lived, and, thinking a little walk would do me good, did not run out the car but went on foot through the wood. I had just turned round a bend in the path which opened into the little clearing in which the shed stood when, to my disgust, I came face to face with Andrea. He was accompanied by his little fox-terrier, and I noticed subconsciously that she was soon going to have pups.
Andrea was standing still and, as I came up, giving me a grim nod, he laid down the stick he was carrying and brandished his little automatic pistol.
"Be quiet now! Don't you make a sound!" he ordered peremptorily. "See that squirrel over there on that branch? Then watch me pot him." He stealthily raised his arm to take aim.
At that moment, however, the little fox-terrier gave a short excited bark and the squirrel disappeared as quick as a flash of lightning.
Andrea's face went black with rage. "You damned little beast!" he shouted and he lunged out a vicious kick at the dog, happily, however, just missing her. She crouched down in terror as he drew back his leg for another kick, but I gripped him by the collar and hurled him away so roughly that he measured his length heavily upon the ground. I bent down to pick up the little animal to protect her but she slipped out of my hands and ran off for a few yards where she stood miserably regarding her master.
"You brute!" I cried furiously to Andrea. "And the poor little beast in pup, too!"
Andrea sprang to his feet. "You dirty young thug to have laid your paws on me!" he shouted. "Just wait a minute and I'll deal with you." He threw up his pistol arm. "I'll give the dog a taste of this first. I'll kill her."
But I snatched pistol out of his hand and held it behind my back.
"No, you don't," I said sternly. My anger was rising every second. "If there's any killing it'll be for you."
He was spluttering in his fury, and, snatching his stick off the ground, made as if he would attack me with it, but, stepping back a few paces, I brought the pistol round and held him covered with it.
"Steady, steady," I cried hoarsely, "or you'll get a bullet yourself! I mean it, too."
Breathing heavily, he stood hesitating as if in doubt whether or not I would dare to carry out my threat. Then he lowered the stick to his side.
"I'll pay you out for this," he hissed, "you, you"—he was evidently thinking hard what to call me—"you poor fool to dream you're ever going to get that little Carden slut." He wreathed his lips to a sneering smile. "Do you think we're all blind?"
It was my turn now to breathe heavily, but I could not find words to answer him. My amazement that he should have brought in Margaret's name was quite choked in my fury at the way he had referred to her. He gritted his teeth together and went on. "Yes, and you're a fool, too, to have dared to manhandle me. I'll not forget it, I tell you, and I'll murder you for it, sooner or later."
"You will, will you?" I retorted grimly. The pent-up hatred of all those months overwhelmed all thought of prudence and I added, "It wouldn't be the first murder you'd done, would it? And in this very wood, too!"
His jaw dropped and he looked startled, as if he could not believe his ears. Then he exclaimed hoarsely, "You're a liar, and I don't know what you mean."
My rage was beyond all bounds now. "Do you know who I am?" I thundered. I just managed to get out my words. "My name's Baxter, and my father was Reuben Baxter whom you—you damned murderer—sent to the scaffold." I laughed mockingly. "I'm Nellie's brat."
He was fairly knocked out now. His face had gone a horrid colour under the olive skin and his eyes had opened very wide. He kept opening and shutting his mouth and swallowing hard. He glared and glared until I almost thought he was trying to hypnotise me.
But he was game, the blackguard, and began to recover very quickly. His colour ebbed back, he stopped that horrid swallowing, and at last he spoke slowly, but quite steadily.
"So you're an impostor, are you," he nodded, "a fraud on your own admission? Then you're no grandson of Lord Roxborough, but just a common cheat." He laughed mockingly. "That'll be a nice tale for me to spread round, won't it?" His voice rose to a shout. "And I'll spread it sure enough. I'll shout it about so that everybody hears."
In a flash I saw the dreadful pit I had dug for myself. I had given him my secret and would get nothing for it. I had no proof he was the murderer, and once again he would get off scot-free whilst I—great God I might be prosecuted for fraud! I could feel the sweat burst out on my forehead and all my body shivered as if I were in a chill. Oh, what a fool I'd been!
He must have seen the consternation on my face, and went on in sneering, mocking tones, "And people will believe it, too, for I see now you're something like your mother. Yes, as you say, you're Nellie's brat—no, not Reuben Baxter's too, but with a father"—he shrugged his shoulders—"well, God alone knows who!" My thoughts coursed like lightning through me. I thought of the man he had once murdered within a few steps of where we now stood, of my poor mother's misery, of her husband's dreadful death, and—last—the face of the woman to whom this brute before me had given a cancer of the breast rose up before my eyes.
I must shut his mouth, I must kill him, and if ever a man had deserved death it was he. But still—I hesitated. I was not quite blind to the consequences it might mean to me.
He went on jeeringly. "So you're Nellie's boy, are you, the son of that little—" and he called my mother a vile name.
Up went the pistol in a lightning movement and the bullet crashed fair between his eyes. He just sagged down sideways, kicked perhaps twice, and then lay quite still—a poor stricken thing which would do evil no more.
I shuddered violently. I was a murderer and I would hang for it!
And then it seemed that all in the passing of a few seconds both my prudence and courage came back, prudence to tell me how to try to escape the awful consequences of my crime, and courage to carry everything through. My shuddering stopped, warmth stirred through my body once again, my limbs felt steady as a rock, and I could reason quickly, coolly, and clearly.
I looked up and down the path and on every side. No one was about, and no one could have seen us. Good—then I would get away before anyone came!
I took out my handkerchief, and hurriedly wiped the pistol until it was perfectly clean. Then I laid it down in the dirt by the side of the path and kicked more dust over it, not so that it would not be easily seen, but to make sure it would yield no finger-marks.
Then, with another glance all round, and just a quick, fleeting one at the dead man, I set off briskly in the direction I had been going when I had met Andrea. I was intending that everything I did now would be exactly as if I had not encountered him. To my intense relief I met no one on my way through the wood, and, indeed, it was not until I was well out on to the main road that I saw anyone at all, and then a man upon a bicycle passed me.
I called on my patient and stayed chatting with her for about twenty minutes. The time might even have been longer if, when feeling for my fountain-pen to write out a prescription, to my consternation, I found I had lost it. A dreadful feeling of apprehension came over me when I thought it might have fallen out of my pocket when I had stopped to pick up Andrea's little dog.
I went cold in horror, knowing it had my initials, C.F.L., engraved on its gold band. It had been a parting present from Dr. Markem.
Cutting short my visit, I started to go back along the path through the wood. Up to the moment of realising the loss of my fountain-pen I had been hoping someone else would be the first to find Andrea's body, but now I was all haste to get there myself before anyone had come upon it.
All at once, with a horrid sickening feeling in my stomach, it came to me that my previous good fortune was deserting me, as the moment I turned into the path through the wood I saw the Ashdown vicar walking along in front of me. Happening to glance back, he saw who it was, and waited for me to come up.
In my dismay it was only with an effort that I managed to pull myself together and return his cheery greeting. For the moment it was in my mind to make out I was in a desperate hurry and dash on in front of him, but, though well on into middle age, he was most active and energetic and known everywhere to be a quick walker. So I realised with a pang that nothing short of an undignified and, in the circumstances, suspicious run would enable me to outdistance him. Accordingly, I set my pace to his and we walked on chatting casually together.
Almost at once we met Andrea's little fox-terrier coming along at a quick run and with her tail down, looking as if she were frightened. God, I thought, then someone's found the body!
"Ah, Mr. Antonio Andrea's dog!" exclaimed the vicar. He frowned. "A cruel man that, and most probably he's been here shooting at the squirrels. He does it often and Lord Carden ought to be told about it. Poor harmless little creatures!" A few paces farther on he shot his arm out and exclaimed disgustedly, "Yes, see, there is one!"
Picking up the poor little furry body, he tut-tutted several times. "Yes, that's his work, sure enough!" he exclaimed disgustedly. "It's quite warm, and he's killed it to get a little amusement out of that horrid pistol of his!"
The path was a short one, less than a quarter of a mile from end to end, and a minute or so after the dead squirrel had been picked up, turning a slight bend, we came in sight of the spot where I had left Andrea. My mouth went dry as I saw a little group of men bending over the body.
"An accident?" queried the vicar, in some excitement. "Now, I wonder what's happened."
He quickened his pace to find out what it was.
In a single glance I took in who was there. There were three men—Hanson the blacksmith, Fred Hunter who worked on the roads, and the third I didn't know.
"Thank goodness you're here, doctor," called out the blacksmith as we came up. "It's Mr. Andrea, and he's been shot in the face. He's dead"—he held up the pistol—"and this is what killed him."
With an assumed exclamation of horror I bent over the body, but after one quick glance straightened myself up again. His face was a horrible sight, but there was not much blood about, as he had died instantly.
"Who found him?" I asked quickly, "and how long—"
But the man I did not know had suddenly stooped down near me and picked something off the ground.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I saw this just fall out of your pocket." To my amazement he handed me my mislaid fountain-pen.
"Thank you," I nodded as I pocketed the pen, and I could feel my voice trembling in a very agony of relief as I repeated my previous question as sharply as I could.
"We all found him together, doctor," said the blacksmith. "Ted Hunter here and I walked up first, but"—he indicated the stranger—"this man was just behind us, not five yards away." He pointed to the body. "Mr. Andrea can't have been dead long, as when I touched his cheek it was quite warm."
"Of course, he's not been dead long," I said. "From the look of the congealed blood it must he only ten minutes at most." I frowned at the blacksmith. "But you shouldn't have touched that pistol. There may be most important finger-prints on it." The man at once laid the pistol back on the ground again, as if it were a red hot cinder.
"But it looks like his own pistol, Dr. Fitz-Leonard!" exclaimed the vicar. "It's exactly like the one he showed me the other day. So it couldn't have been anything but an accident, could it?"
"Oh, we can't be certain of that," I said frowningly. "At any rate, he could hardly have shot himself, as there are no marks of burning on his forehead, which there would have been if the pistol had been held close." I turned to the three men again. "Now you didn't meet anyone as you came through the wood?"
The blacksmith and the road-mender shook their heads, but the stranger exclaimed excitedly, "I saw someone, just before these two overtook me on the road. A bicyclist came out of this path. He was a young man riding very quickly and passed me in a flash."
"Can you describe him?" I asked. "Well, you'll have to tell the police. Now, I'll go and ring them up, and you three must wait here until they come. Don't approach the body and don't move about much. The police may see something we haven't." Proceeding home as quickly as I could, I rang up both the local constable and the county headquarters. Within half an hour a police surgeon, photographer and plain-clothes men picked me up by arrangement, and I guided them to the scene of the tragedy. One of them was a young plain-clothes man named George Bailey, whom I knew quite well, as his parents lived in the village and were patients of mine.
When their investigation was completed the body was taken into East Grinstead in an ambulance, and I arranged with the police surgeon to do the post-mortem with him the following morning.
Then, I thought, acting exactly as if I were not responsible for Andrea's death, I must go to see the poor woman who was passing as his wife. I knew the vicar would have already rung her up as he had said he would do so while I was summoning the police.
I found her looking very frightened. "Do you think it was an accident?" she cried, and she went on, "but it must have been, for him to have been killed with his own pistol."
I took the most hopeful view I could. "It might have been," I said. "It is possible he may have slipped and fallen to the ground, with the pistol going off as he lay there."
"But he had so many enemies," she wailed, "and had received so many threatening letters. Oh, what a dreadful end for him!"
I slept badly that night, but all the same was confident I was quite safe. The matter of the fountain-pen was, however, puzzling me, as I could not understand how I had failed to find it when feeling in my pockets.
NOW from first to last I had not the very slightest feelings of remorse for having killed Andrea, and no pangs of conscience ever troubled me. With normal persons conscience comes in only when an unkindness has been done, something mean and bringing suffering upon someone who has not deserved it. Then it is quite natural for a man to despise himself and lose his self-respect.
With the passing of Andrea, however, there was no occasion for any regret. He had been a thoroughly bad man, and had deserved everything he had got. I was glad I had punished him and, in a way, pleasurably excited at the risk I had run in doing it. So all my thoughts were now only for myself, to make sure I should escape the consequences of my act.
The inquest was opened in the village parish hall upon the following Monday afternoon, but with the proceedings lasting a bare ten minutes, as at the request of the police an adjournment for a fortnight was granted.
Of course, Andrea's death in the very mysterious circumstances of having been brought about by a bullet from his own pistol stirred intense interest and reporters were rushed from all directions to pick up a good story. To begin with the public, generally, were inclined to accept the idea that he had died as the result of a freakish accident. He had slipped and fallen, the pistol had been jerked from his hand and gone off and shot him!
However, when it was realised that the blacksmith had picked up the pistol a good twelve feet distant from where the body was found lying—and the two men with him agreed most emphatically that he was making no miscalculation there—it was seen how impossible such an accident could be. If Andrea had, indeed, slipped on to the ground, the pistol could not have fallen all that distance away. It was impossible, too, that in going off, as it would have done in that case at ground level, its barrel could have reared itself up to discharge the bullet to strike him at a good many inches higher. The police exploded any idea of suicide, as the face was not scorched in any way. They asked, too, how could a man give himself an instantaneous death and yet manage afterwards to hurl his pistol so far away?
Still, Andrea had only recently taken out an accident policy for £10,000, and with all haste the insurance company had sent down an inspector to learn everything he could, as if suicide could be proved the policy would be invalidated automatically and no money have to be handed over to the heirs.
I was soon to learn that almost from the very first the police had quite made up their minds it was a case of murder. When I had led them to the body, and while we were all standing round and before they had laid a finger on it, they had noted that the collar of the jacket was rumpled and in part turned up at the back. When later the body had been taken to the mortuary and undressed, it had been found that the linen collar round the neck had been pulled off the back stud in the shirt.
So the police argued, and quite logically, too, that before being shot with his own pistol, Andrea had received some rough handling, with somebody grabbing hold of his clothes at the neck. That brought them up against a hard puzzle, for if someone had been dealing out violence to Andrea, why had he been content to interfere only with his clothes? Why did his face and body show no signs of having received even a single blow?
All this I heard from the young detective, George Bailey, who called in for a few minutes' chat one evening when he had been visiting his parents in the village. He was by way of being very grateful to me for having, he was sure, saved his mother's life when about a year previously she had been dangerously ill with pneumonia. He had no hesitation in confiding in me, being sure that anything he told me would go no further.
Another reason for the police being so certain Andrea's death was murder was the fact that he was known to have had many enemies, and from time to time had received anonymous threatening letters, which he had always sent on to police headquarters, "for what they were worth," he used to say.
Of course, they were very interested in the bicyclist whom the third man, at the finding of the body, had stated he had seen coming out from the path through the wood and riding away so quickly. This third man, elderly, and by name of Harry brown, had turned out to be a holiday-maker from Ilford, and was a printer by trade. He had stated he was cycling down to Seaford, but arriving at Ashdown, had broken his journey there, with the intention of putting up for the night at the village inn.
Going for a stroll in the afternoon, he said his attention had been particularly drawn to the cyclist because the latter had seemed to be in such a hurry. He had been bending over his handle-bars, almost as if he had been engaged in a race. Extending their enquiries along the Lewes road, in which direction the cyclist had gone, the police had found several people who remembered having seen him, but, as with the man brown, all the description they could give was that he was young-looking and probably of a good height.
Myself, I was very puzzled about that cyclist, and hoped he would not be traced. Could he have been the man, I wondered, whom I had met on the East Grinstead road, after I had come out from the path through the wood? Had he then turned into the path and, seeing the dead body lying there, become frightened and bolted away, so that he should not be called to give evidence? Many people did not like notoriety, and if the cyclist had been of a nervous disposition, his riding off so quickly was quite understandable.
Naturally, it was remarked by many that this was the second murder which had taken place in Bolton Wood, and that Andrea had been mixed up in both, but, after the lapse of nearly two-and-twenty years, no one thought there could be any connection between the two crimes, and considered the second to be just one of those strange coincidences that do occur so often.
For several days I was quite happy about my own position, but then suddenly I got quite a nasty shock when I heard people were bringing up my quarrel, as they called it, with the dead man and his public abuse of me in the village street. Dr. Jessop told me about it, first, and added that Lord Carden had mentioned it to him.
I was horrified, as, with their usual exaggeration and love of scandal, certain ill-natured people were now nodding and grinning that it had been my attentions to his wife to which Andrea had been objecting. And for these rumours to have reached the Castle was almost catastrophic to my mind, as of course Margaret would have heard of them, and exactly what she would now be thinking of me I hardly dared to imagine.
It happened, however, that Lady Carden was then under my care for some slight bouts of palpitation. I put them down to digestive trouble, and assured her she had nothing to worry about. She and I had always got on so well together that she always preferred me to attend her.
So upon the morning when Dr. Jessop told me these rumours were going about, and that Lord Carden had heard of them, I determined to take my courage in my hands and go boldly up to the Castle and face things out. In the course of our usual chat about things in general, I would find an opportunity of mentioning the matter to Lady Carden and saying how unpleasant it was for me.
Things could not have happened better, as Lord Carden came into the room just as I had finished my professional talk with his wife. He shook hands with me, but I imagined his manner was a little more distant than usual.
Taking a sudden resolution, I said earnestly, "Forgive me troubling you, sir, but, of course, you have had much more experience of life than I, and I would very much like to have your advice."
His eyebrows went up a little and he looked rather puzzled, but he said in a friendly enough way to encourage my confidence, "Certainly! How can I advise you?"
I came straight to the point.
"Its about that man Andrea," I said. "Less than a week before he was killed, his wife came to see me professionally, and I insisted she must go up to town and consult a specialist. Andrea was furious that I was alarming her unnecessarily, and a few days later started abusing me in public on the footpath in front of my house. Now it is going about that he was intensely annoyed because he considered his wife had been coming to see me much more often than she should have done, which is absurd, as her visit to me that week was the only one she had ever made." I smiled what I was sure must have been an uneasy smile. "Now, sir, as you can realise, this is a very awkward matter to handle, and so what would you advise me to do?"
Lord Carden hesitated, but Lady Carden broke in at once, "Take no notice, Dr. Fitz-Leonard." She smiled reassuringly. "People's talk will soon die down."
But her husband shook his head emphatically. "No, no, dear," he said. "The doctor can't afford to do that, or next, everyone will be saying he had a motive for killing the man. That will make things look bad for him, as it is known he had been using that path in the wood not very long before Andrea was shot." He turned to me and asked sharply, "Now, which lawyer is going to watch over your interests at the adjourned inquest?"
I was flabbergasted. "But I wasn't going to have one," I said.
"You must," was his instant retort, "particularly now they're coupling your name with Andrea's wife."
"But won't it look as if I'd got something to hide?" I asked in some trepidation, it just dawning upon me how really awkward for me things might become.
"Not at all," he replied. "It'll only be regarded as the usual thing. May I ask who your lawyer is? You've not got one!" He laughed. "Lucky man." He went on, "Now, you don't want to employ an expensive man from town, and if you like I'll give you an introduction to a very clever young fellow in East Grinstead. He's about your own age and as smart as paint." He cut short my thanks. "No, I'll be very pleased to. You go to him as soon as possible. That's my advice."
"And my advice, Dr. Fitz-Leonard," supplemented Lady Carden with a smile, "is to go and see Mrs. Andrea. If a quarter of what we've heard is true she can't have had much affection for her husband, and I'm sure she'll want to put you right with everyone."
I thanked them warmly, leaving the Castle, however, with a rather sickly feeling in my stomach that I was not going to get out of everything as easily as I had thought. At a dead end as far as everyone else was concerned, the police might want to probe hard to find out if, meeting me in that wood, Andrea had tried to fasten another quarrel on me and, then when he had started to attack me with the big walking stick he was carrying, I had lost my temper and, snatching his pistol from him, had fired the fatal shot.
Still, calming myself down and reasoning coolly I saw that whatever their suspicions might be the could bring nothing home to me unless I was caught out in some clumsy untruth. I told myself that the line of action I must follow was to be absolutely truthful, except in the one matter of having encountered Andrea on that path. That, of course, I would deny strenuously, and how they could prove to the contrary I did not see.
I went straightaway to the young lawyer Lord Carden had recommended and was very pleased with him. He seemed to get a grip of everything at once, and assured me he would soon be able to nip everything in the bud if the police tried to make any capital out of Andrea's abuse of me in the street.
I was much heartened, too, with the visit I paid to Mrs. Andrea. She was no weakling, and made me understand quite clearly I should not suffer because of the advice I had given her about her condition. I already knew she had been to the specialist, because in accordance with medical etiquette, he had written me about her. She was going to be operated upon directly the inquest was over, not before, as she had been subpoenaed to attend.
Talking confidentially together, she made no pretence that she was in any way grieved about Andrea's death, the last sparks of affection or respect having long since been extinguished by his brutality.
Of course she knew that eventually it would have to come out that she had not been his legal wife, but she was not worrying about that, as she hoped to have left the neighbourhood before it became known. With plenty of courage, against her lawyer's advice, she was, however, going into the witness-box as Mrs. Andrea, being quite prepared to risk any consequences which might follow.
The will was quite all right. Andrea had not made another and she would be very comfortably off. The residue of estate went to a younger brother somewhere in the United States. When last heard of he had been a waiter in a hotel in New Orleans. Now he would find himself a rich man.
The days before the inquest were decidedly disquieting for me, as I learned from several sources how busy the polite had been in all directions, particularly in their efforts to try to narrow down to within a very few minutes the exact time when Andrea must have received the fatal shot. They had not questioned me again, as I had already told them all I was supposed to know.
Now some personalities and incidents of that inquest naturally stand out in my memory much clearer than others. The coroner for the district in which Ashdown village was situated was a lawyer practising in Horsham. He was an alert, business-like little man, as sharp as a razor and standing no nonsense from anyone. He kept the evidence well within its proper bounds and cut short anything which he considered was not relevant to the enquiry.
The Superintendent who represented the police was shrewd and capable, also I thought him most fair when I stepped into the witness-box and he proceeded to question me. He asked me straight out at once if it were a fact that a state of ill-feeling had been existing between me and the deceased, and I replied that what ill-feeling there was was all on his side, as I was quite indifferent about what opinion he held of me.
"Well, what caused that quarrel you are said to have had with him in the street?" he asked.
"There was no quarrel," I replied, "and the high words were all on his side. I had made a diagnosis of the state of health of a member of his family, and he had disagreed with it. He was a very excitable man and started to abuse me. I didn't argue with him, and left him as quickly as I could."
"And that member of his family was his wife?" said the Superintendent.
"Yes, she had consulted me only three days previously," I replied.
The Superintendent spoke very quietly. "Now, is it in any way true, Dr. Fitz-Leonard, that the deceased had reason to be jealous of your attentions to his wife?"
"Certainly not," I replied equally as quietly. "That remark of his that Mrs. Andrea had been coming to my surgery more often than he liked was just thrown in as an after-thought for something disagreeable to say. As a matter of fact, I made that diagnosis to which he objected on the one and only occasion on which she had been to see me."
The Superintendent seemed satisfied, and, after glancing down at his notes for a few seconds, asked, "Can you tell us at approximately what time in the afternoon of deceased's death you left your house to take that path through Bolton Woods?"
"Shortly before twenty minutes to four," I replied. I can be quite certain there, as I had been waiting to know the result of the Brighton Cup, and the race was due to be run at 3.30 and it came through very quickly.
"And you went to see a patient on the East Grinstead road, within a hundred yards or so of where the deceased lived?" was the next question.
"Yes, Mrs. Mannering of Avon Lodge."
"And the distance being within a few yards of a mile, it would have taken you, say, twenty minutes to get there?"
"Or perhaps even less," I said. "I am a quick walker."
"Then if deceased left his house," went on the Superintendent, "as both Mrs. Andrea and his butler will testify, within a few minutes of half-past three, to come along that path, too, you should both have met at a spot not far from where he was found dead?"
"Approximately," I agreed. "That is, of course, if he had not stopped on the way."
"To shoot at those squirrels, you mean?" queried the Superintendent. "Well, if he had taken things leisurely you should have met him somewhere in the wood if he had, all the time, been keeping to the path?"
"Certainly, if he had been keeping to the path," I replied.
"But you didn't meet him?"
I shook my head and uttered my first untruth.
"No, I didn't see him at all."
"And arriving at your patient's house, how long did you stay with her?"
"About twenty minutes. It might have been a little more."
"That would bring us up to about twenty minutes past four. So upon your return journey through the woods you overtook the Reverend Mr. Henson, the Ashdown vicar, about four to five minutes later, and arrived where the body lay at almost exactly half-past four?"
"That is so," I said. "Certainly, I didn't look at my watch, but Mr. Henson did at his, almost directly after we reached the body, and he said it was half-past four."
"And you at once gave it as your opinion that deceased could not have been dead for even ten minutes?"
"Yes, what little blood there was about was barely congealed. With the ordinary person coagulation sets in within four minutes of the blood being exposed to the air, but I judged it would take a little longer with deceased, as he was an alcoholic and a heavy smoker of cigars. Also it was a hot afternoon, and that would tend to retard coagulation, too."
A short silence followed, and then the Superintendent dismissed me with a smile. His examination had been so fair that my lawyer did not think it necessary to put to me any supplementary questions, neither did the coroner ask me one.
Mrs. Andrea had been sitting outside in her car, waiting until she should be called in. She had said she couldn't bear the stuffy atmosphere inside and, besides, did not want to be stared at more than could be helped.
I am sure everyone present felt extremely sorry for her as she stood in the witness-box, but she was quite cool and self-possessed in her replies to the questions put to her. She corroborated what the butler had said about her husband having left the house within a few minutes after having his usual half-past-three cup of tea and, as the butler had already done, identified the pistol as having belonged to Andrea by the scratches on the butt. Asked how long he had had it, she said she could not say for certain, but it must have been for at least two years. He had bought it after receiving one of the threatening letters he occasionally received, and always carried it about with him.
"He was a man who had made enemies, wasn't he?" suggested the Superintendent very politely.
She nodded. "Yes, he was not afraid of anyone and never careful of what he said when he was angry."
"Now I must ask you," went on the Superintendent in an apologetic tone, "had you ever given him any special reason to be jealous because of your friendship with Dr. Fitz-Leonard?"
She looked scornful. "Dr. Fitz-Leonard is not a friend of mine, and I do not suppose I have spoken to him a dozen times. I have never been alone with him, either, except for that one visit I paid to his surgery which annoyed my husband so much."
The Superintendent sat down and my lawyer rose to his feet.
"And that one visit you have just referred to, madam," he asked, "was the only reason for your husband being offended with Dr. Fitz-Leonard?"
"The only one," she replied.
"And will you explain to the court exactly why he was offended?" he went on.
She did not hesitate. "Because Dr. Fitz-Leonard was insisting I must go up to town at once to consult a specialist, as I should have to undergo an operation."
"But could you not explain to us," he said gently, "a little more fully why that advice had so annoyed Mr. Andrea?"
She touched her left breast. "I have trouble here and Dr. Fitz-Leonard asked me if I had ever had a blow. I told him I had, about three months ago, and he said he was afraid I had got the beginning of a cancer." She spoke quite calmly. "It was my husband who had given me that blow."
A gasp of real horror thrilled through the court, followed by a long, deep silence.
At last my lawyer asked, a little huskily, "And did your husband send you to another doctor?"
"No, he refused to let me go to one." Her voice trembled for the first time. "But last week I went to the specialist Dr. Fitz-Leonard had recommended, and he is to operate upon me on Thursday, unless I am wanted here again." She looked towards the coroner.
The latter answered her implied query instantly. "Thank you, Mrs. Andrea," he said, and it was obvious he was speaking as kindly and sympathetically as he could, "but we shall not require you any more." He rose to his feet and bowed. "And we are greatly obliged to you for the frank and unhesitating way in which you have given your evidence. I am sure it is the earnest hope of us all here that you may soon be restored to perfect health again."
She left the court, calm and impassive, and taking no notice of anyone.
The coroner's summing up was brief and very much to the point. He told the jury they should have no difficulty in determining what their verdict should be. The deceased must have come to his death through one of three causes—suicide, accident, or homicide. From the evidence put forward they could at once discard the first two. Suicide was impossible, and so was accident. It was quite clear from his disarranged clothing that the deceased had first been engaged in some sort of scuffle with an unknown assailant, and then, in some way which could not be explained, he had been shot with his own pistol. So fat not the slightest suspicion was attached to any known person, and it must be left to the authorities to continue to pursue their enquiries. It was the duty of the jury to record a verdict of murder.
A very brief whispering among the jury followed, and then without an of them leaving their seats, the required verdict was brought in—murder by some person or persons unknown.
As can be well imagined, I was greatly relieved when the inquest was over. I thought I was quite safe now, and that very soon the feverish speculation as to who had killed Andrea would die down and cease to be the main topic of conversation in the district. Lord Carden, who had been present at the inquest, had shaken hands quite warmly with me afterwards, and assured me I had come out of everything with flying colours. The evidence of Mrs. Andrea, he said, would have closed the mouths of even the most hardened scandal-mongers. His lordship, too, was most enthusiastic about the courageous way in which the poor wife had disclosed everything.
"I have always regarded it as very strange," he remarked, "how ashamed people are to admit that either they or any of their family are suffering from cancer. Tuberculosis and heart disease they don't seem to mind, but cancer is somehow considered a shameful thing, and, if it is mentioned, it is talked about in whispers."
"Well, it probably is, sir," I rejoined, "because cancer, generally speaking, is incurable and those who are stricken with it do not like it to be known they are virtually under sentence of death and such a horrible form of death, too. They know, also, that their friends are wanting and waiting for them to die. We are told that life is sacred, but it is monstrous to preach that disease should be regarded as sacred, too."
His lordship smiled dryly. "But you doctors do not always quite regard disease as sacred, do you?" When I shook my head, he nodded. "And I'll stake my life that at times many of you are more merciful than bigotry and the law allow. Now, is that so? Hasn't almost every one of you given an overdose of morphia in some case of incurable suffering?"
"But we would never admit it," I said, "not even to the patient's closest relations."
My happy state of mind continued on for about a fortnight, and then bad news came to me from, of all people, the girl I was so worshipping. I met Margaret in the village street and, of course, stopped to talk to her.
After a few remarks about nothing in particular had passed between us, she said suddenly, "Oh, here's something that will interest you! Father had a talk with Colonel Mayne yesterday. You remember him, the Chief Constable? He was dining with us one night when you were there. Well, he told Father that he's asked Scotland Yard to help find out who killed that horrid Tony Andrea, and they're sending down one of their best men, that Inspector Gilbert Larose. You've heard of him, haven t you?"
I swallowed hard. So all my dreadful worry was to be revived again, and now there would be no set time, as at an inquest, when it was to end! Once Scotland Yard was given a trail to pick up, there was no knowing how long they would be about it. It might be for months and months, and then the first intimation I might get as to how they were getting on might be when a stern hand was laid upon my shoulder, and I was told that I was "wanted."
I conjured up some sort of smile as I replied that of course I had heard of Larose, and then, for the moment, the sweet and piquant face of Margaret was no longer the only consideration in my mind. Indeed, I was relieved when at length, with one of her charming smiles, she tripped blithely away.
Had I heard of Gilbert Larose? Good God! He was reckoned as the star detective of the Yard, the man who by-passed all lack of clues and worked on his imagination! The man who never failed and of whom it was supposed he could see the very shadow that a murderer had left upon the wall!
It was a long while before I recovered my equanimity, but then I took heart in thinking that no amount of imagination would be of any use here. No matter what might come to be suspected of me or anyone else, no one had seen Andrea killed, and therefore nothing could be brought home to anyone. There was no need to worry myself! I was quite safe, and I went about my daily life as usual, with my thoughts continually on Margaret—Margaret.
It had come to me in some subtle way that I, really, was making some headway with her, and that at last she was more than casually interested in me, and, indeed, perhaps almost ready for a bolder advance upon my part.
With a glorious thrill of happiness I had noticed that if no one was by when we met, as we shook hands, which we always did, she had taken to blushing, ever so little it might have been, still a distinct heightening of her normal lovely colour. Then, when we met in company, sometimes she avoided her eyes meeting mine, not for a moment, I thought, because she was disinterested in me, but as if—and my hear always beat quicker at the ides—for some reason something was making her feel shy.
And another thing I noticed too. When her father was in the room, she kept much more away from me than when he was not there. With only her mother present, she was always smiling and most friendly, often coming so close and looking up at me so provocatively that it was I who had to turn away my eyes, lest she should read too clearly what was passing in my mind, and, perhaps, become frightened.
Yes, they were dear, delicious days, their sunshine, however, to be soon overcast by the darkest and most lowering clouds of all my life. Oh, if I had only known then when those evil times first came to me that, in the end, the great and mighty Gilbert Larose would retire from the fight, if not actually licking his wounds, at any rate congratulating himself that he had only just escaped from making one of the worst blunders of his whole career—what misery I should have been spared!
But I could not foresee that ending, and suffered accordingly, though I always take pleasure in the remembrance that I never lost heart and had patiently prepared to have every card ready for him when it came to the great show-down. It was my great fortune that I knew every step he was taking and—he knew none of mine.
The irony of it all was that it was I myself who, at a chance meeting in that so haunted wood, had awakened his interest in me, which interest was, later, actually to start him upon my trail. It was like this. One day I was going by that pathway through Bolton Wood to attend the same patient I had gone to see upon that fatal afternoon and, coming almost to the exact spot where I had met Andrea, I saw a man standing quite motionless and peering with great intentness among the trees.
He was so absorbed in his preoccupation that he did not notice me coming until I was almost level with him. Then he started as one does when surprised out of a reverie. A few years older than I, he was a good-looking man with a clean-cut profile and very dark blue eyes. I was passing with a slight nod of good-day when he stopped me by asking very politely if I happened to know where the body of that man who had been killed a few weeks ago had been found.
"Over there, on the other side of the path," I replied, indicating the spot with my hand, "not half a dozen yards from where you are now standing."
"But I thought it was right in the middle of the path," he frowned.
"Well, it was not," I said, and then, in my stupidity, I added sharply, "I ought to know, as it happens I was here within a minute or so of its being found."
His face broke into a pleased smile.
"Ah, then you are Dr. Fitz-Leonard of the village here?"
I smiled back. At the same time, for some reason, I could not have explained not being too pleased that he should have guessed who I was.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
He seemed amused. "By the process of elimination. You are not the clergyman, or the blacksmith, or the roadmender, and not that stranger to the village, the man called brown, as he was small and elderly. Therefore, as there were only five people present, you must be the fifth, the doctor." He nodded, as if quite pleased with himself. "Very simple, isn't it?"
"And you are a sightseer," I suggested, with some sarcasm, "come to see our beauty spots?"
"No, no," he protested at once. "I am here on business." He shook his head. "There is no reason why I shouldn't tell you, as everyone will be sure to find it out quickly enough, but I have been sent down to make a few enquiries about this killing. I come from Scotland Yard. I am Inspector Hunt."
It was well Margaret had told me what she had, as I was able to show no surprise, and comment casually enough, "Inspector Larose, you mean," and I looked as amused as he had done when he had identified me.
"How do you know that?" he asked sharply.
"By the process of elimination," I grinned, quoting his own words, and then when he grinned back I added, "No, a friend of mine heard last week in town that you were coming and passed on the news to me."
"The devil!" he exclaimed, with a grimace. "That Colonel Mayne, of course! That's the worst of making a man who's had nothing to do with the police a Chief Constable. Outsiders don't know when to hold their tongues." He nodded. "I am Inspector Larose, and this killing looks as hard a little problem as I've ever had to solve. It's most interesting the man being shot with his own pistol."
"Which rather suggests," I remarked, "that the murder was not premeditated."
He shook his head.
"Not necessarily! Murder with that pistol, no doubt, but the killer may have followed him to murder in another way, and then was lucky enough to get hold of it."
"But what do you expect to find here now," I asked, "after all this time has gone by?"
He smiled his pleasant, happy smile. "Not exactly the murderer's card with his name and address all nicely engraved upon it. No, I don't expect to be as lucky as that." His face sobered down. "Still, I always like to get the atmosphere of the place where a crime has been committed. It has often helped me quite a lot. Now, in this quiet spot in this lovely wood, I have been trying to call up what happened in those very few minutes before the man was murdered. There he was armed with a thick stick in one hand and a deadly little gun in the other, and yet—with these advantages upon his side, he let himself be butchered like a sheep. I ask myself, why did he?"
"Perhaps he was taken by surprise!" I suggested.
Larose shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Rather I think he knew the man who had approached him and never gave it a thought that there was any danger. So it follows he did not regard the newcomer as an enemy of his—indeed, he might have been a pretended friend. No, I shan't look for any enemy"—he smiled—"and that lets you out, as, after his treatment of you, he would be quite sure you were anything but a friend."
We talked on for a few minutes before I bade him good-bye, leaving him with the uneasy feeling that, if it were possible to find anything out, he would be the very kind of man to do it.
Now, the knowledge of all that followed and how, so patiently and carefully, Larose had started to weave the net about me came to me very gradually and, indeed, many months were to pass before I learned everything. I picked things up bit by bit, all the absolutely vital information, however, happily coming in sufficient time to allow of my taking counter-measures, and being prepared to meet it when at last the blow fell. Larose was never to know that when he was working so assiduously against me I was working equally as hard to safeguard myself. I followed the age-old principle that when an accusation is hovering over a man he should tell the truth as much as he possibly can and bring in falsehood most sparingly and then only on the main and vital issue.
Things began to move the evening of the day following my meeting with Larose in the road. It happened I was again attending the mother of the young plain-clothes man for bronchitis, and almost every night he used to ride over to Ashdown to see how she was. Then he would generally call in afterwards at my surgery and, if I were not busy, have a few minutes' chat with me. He was a nice young fellow, a mixture of shrewdness and simplicity, and, knowing how I had been mixed up in the Andrea affair, it never entered into his mind that I should not be kept posted about everything that was going on. There was a mutual but unspoken understanding that neither of us would pass on what the other told him.
That night he called in and, with some amusement, informed me that Larose had given the County police, as he called it, something of a good blow-up. He had told them they had no imagination and should have gone much farther back than present happenings to discover who had killed Andrea. He was annoyed that they had not mentioned to him what he had had to find out for himself from conversations with people in the village and surrounding district—namely, that Andrea had once been mixed up in another murder case, and one that had actually occurred almost in the same spot in the same wood.
It was Andrea's evidence then, his own unsupported story, which had caused another man to be hanged. No matter if it were twenty-two years back. Indeed, that rather clarified matters now, for nothing appeared to have been known of Andrea's character in those days, whereas the twenty-and-two years had uncovered him to everyone as a scoundrel, a thoroughly bad man, absolutely unscrupulous and, added to that, of a bold and enterprising nature. In criminal history courage and wickedness were the most dangerous combination possible.
So if it were known that Andrea was both bold and bad now, it should have been realised by everyone to-day that he would have been the same when he was giving that evidence which brought Reuben Baxter to the scaffold.
Larose had laughed mockingly. If now with his life of known lies and cheating and cunning Andrea had given that same evidence to-day, who would have believed him? Would not everyone have said his evidence was tainted, and what jury have hanged a dog upon it?
Then Larose had let his imagination go and stated that, taking a very long view, his opinion was that Andrea's death might turn out to be a crime of vengeance, and, if that were so, it had been carried out by someone near and dear to the hanged Reuben Baxter. With that peculiar kink, too, which was so often met with in those taking the law in their own hands and carrying out a private vengeance, the avenger had staged his punishment upon the selfsame spot where the wrong he was avenging had been done. Surely it could not be a coincidence that murder had struck twice in the same place, with the same man being involved in both killings?
Asked why, if it were a case of vengeance, the avenger had waited all these years until he was growing old, Larose had retorted he might have been waiting until he had grown up—not grown old.
That was all I heard from young Bailey that night, but, as can be imagined, it was sufficiently disquieting to me. Still, I comforted myself that, however cleverly he might deduce and whatever suspicions he might come to have, Larose could bring nothing definite against me.
Next, a few days later I learned that following up his idea that the murder had been an act of vengeance and, casting round to consider who might have had good cause to carry it out, he had fastened upon one person in particular, and him Reuben Baxter's son. What was more likely, he argued, than that the son would be wanting to punish the one witness upon whose evidence his father had been hanged, particularly if this son had been brought up in the belief that his father had been innocent of the crime?
Then, with this idea firmly established in his mind, Larose set about locating where the son of Reuben Baxter now was, but no one could enlighten him there, or indeed tell him where the boy and his mother had gone after they left the village when the father had been committed for trial as the murderer of Lord Carden's agent.
However, he did soon hear that only a few years previously an agent from a lawyer in Eastbourne had appeared in Ashdown to make the same enquiries he was now making, because the boy had been left some property by his aunt.
Then with something of a shudder I heard from the local detective that Larose was ferreting about in Eastbourne, but later was greatly relieved to find he had not been able to find out anything. The lawyer he had been so wanting to interview had died suddenly only the previous year and his successor in the practice could only say that the property, still unclaimed, had been left by a Miss Elizabeth Wand, who for nearly thirty years up to the time of her death had kept a little newsagent's shop in Seaside Road. No one, however, seemed to know anything more about the woman, as, very reserved and with no friends, she had always been most reticent about her private affairs and never discussed them with anyone.
At a dead end, Larose had returned to Ashdown and with infinite patience resumed his enquiries in the district, hoping that he might still in some way light upon a clue which would point to the beginning of the trail which would lead him to where we had gone.
By an evil chance for me, having heard that the local publican had been upon the coroner's jury at both the inquest on Lord Carden's agent and that of Andrea, he had contacted him. In the course of the conversation my name had cropped up and Larose had mentioned he had met me. Whereupon the publican, intensely proud of his memory for faces, had told him that when I had been installed in Ashdown as Dr. Jessop's partner he had recognised me at once as the young man who, seven or eight years before had come to his inn and had a long chat with him about the first murder in Bolton Wood.
Larose had pricked up his ears at once. "Oh, he was interested in it, was he?" he asked.
"Very," nodded the publican, "and after he had had a bit of a meal here he even went through the wood to have a look round. I understood him to say he had heard about the murder in America, but I think now I must have made a mistake there, as I learned later he is an Australian."
"An Australian?" queried Larose, with great interest. "Why, I come from Australia, too!"
"Yes, sir, we all know that," said the publican. "You're Inspector Larose, aren't you?" and he went on to tell him that though I was Australian I was very highly connected, with my grandfather being Lord Roxborough, of Roxborough Towers, in Yorkshire.
Back to Eastbourne like a bullet from a gun went Larose. He had been certain he had found out something at last, and his enquiries now in that beautiful seaside town must be of a most searching nature, with no time or labour spared. So he proceeded to visit every shop in Seaside Road, to try to learn more about my aunt, but, as before, got nothing for his pains. Next he tried the postmen, and struck oil at once, for one, pensioned off now and living at the other end of the town, remembered my aunt quite well. He said she very seldom received any letters, but he did remember her receiving one occasionally from Australia, as she had always given him the stamps. He knew nothing about any relations of hers, but thought, perhaps, the girl who had helped her in the shop might know something. She was married now to a Pevensey bay fisherman, and he gave Larose her name and told him where he would find her.
Larose got hold of the girl easily enough and learned all he could from her. As I have remarked before, she was not very intelligent. As with the postman, she knew nothing about any of her employer's relations, but remembered a young man coming down occasionally, on a motor bicycle, to see her. She did not know his name, but the description she gave of him convinced Larose, without a shadow of doubt, that the young man was me.
Larose was thrilled to the core. For sure he had uncovered Reuben Baxter's son, Charles, at last, and he was now passing as Charles Fitz-Leonard! How exactly everything fitted in, with both of us being about the same age and with the same Christian name! Undoubtedly it was I who had killed Antonio Andrea! I had a motive for the crime, and I had, admittedly, been in Bolton Wood within a few minutes of the man meeting with his death!
Ah—but he had not the actual proof yet! Even if he could produce the most definite evidence that I was indeed Reuben Baxter's son, he still lacked the proofs which would satisfy a court of law that I was the murderer. So he contented himself with telling the rather astonished Superintendent that he had recently picked up some very valuable clues and was now pretty certain who the murderer was. However, he had not finalised everything yet, and a little more time must elapse before any arrest could be made.
All this the Superintendent passed on to the subordinates, and in due time it reached me. The news was most disquieting, because, upon a chance encounter with the publican, the latter told me of his conversation with Larose and how interested the great detective had been in learning I was a fellow-Australian. To my great dismay I had no doubt the publican had boasted of his memory for faces and stated how he recollected that, all those years ago, I had discussed the murder of Lord Carden's agent with him.
Naturally, I was now plunged into a most depressed state of mind, but, for all that, I resolutely prepared myself to be ready for Larose when he should at last put down all the cards he had in his hand.
As the days passed, I heard Larose was still in the district, but did not see anything of him until one afternoon I came upon him on the footpath outside my house, just as I was returning from my round of visits to my patients. Of course he made out it was only by chance we met, but an instinct told me he had been on the look-out for my coming home, which it was well known to everyone would be as near as I could manage it to 4.30. Like every Australian, I like my afternoon cup of tea.
We shook hands and he exclaimed smilingly, "but I didn't know you were an Australian! I only learned it the other day."
"And the same about you with me," I smiled back. I nodded in the direction of my house. "Come in and have a cup of tea."
He complied readily, and, sitting down opposite to each other no one would have judged we were not the best of friends, instead of Larose regarding me as a future candidate for the gallows, and I, inwardly, feeling like a mouse before a snake. One thing however, quickly revived my courage. He couldn't be certain of much about me or he would not be approaching me now in quite a friendly way. Still, I knew I was in for some subtle questioning and must be very careful in my replies.
"I come from Sydney," he began. "From what part of Australia, may I ask, do you come?"
"I was born near Carnarvon, in Western Australia," I replied, "but spent most of my boyhood in South Australia, with a few years of them, however, in Melbourne."
"Oh, I know South Australia well!" he exclaimed. "In what part were you?"
"North-east," I nodded, "about three hundred miles from Adelaide, towards Lake Frome."
"Your people still in Australia?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No, my parents had both died before I came to England, about ten years ago, when I was twenty-one. I have no relations at all in Australia."
He eyed me very intently. "Was your father a doctor, too?"
"Good gracious, no!" I smiled. "He was in sheep, and was very unlucky with them, too. He had twenty thousand once in Western Australia, and one year the drought killed half of them and the next year the floods drowned the other half." I grinned. "Nice country ours at times, isn't it?"
He grinned back, and then asked, "but what made you come over here to be a doctor? Why didn't you become one in Australia?"
I shook my head. "Australia has such sad memories for me that I was glad to get away from it. My poor mother, to whom I was very attached, died after four days' illness, when she was quite young, and before that my father had died a most dreadful death."
I went on to relate to him all that had happened on the sheep-station my stepfather had been managing.
He listened sympathetically, and then remarked, "Well, at any rate, you've made good over here. I hear your degree are very high ones."
"I've had to work for them," I laughed, "and very hard, too." I spoke impressively. "Do you know, Mr. Larose, to get enough money to come over here and pay the hospital fees, I worked in a garage in Melbourne and then as a doctor's chauffeur, and last of all in a chemist's shop? Then with what I'd been able to save and with what my mother left me, and striking a lucky double in the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups, directly I had got together a thousand pounds I made tracks for London at once."
"And your grand relatives over here," smiled Larose, "must have been a great help to you. I understand your grandfather is Lord Roxborough."
"But I didn't depend on him," I said quickly. "You should know quite well that we Australians are much too independent a lot to scrounge on our relations. No, I had nothing to do with my grandfather, and he didn't even know of my existence until about a couple of years ago. Quite by chance, Lord Carden learned of the relationship and wrote about it to him. Then he came looking for me at once, and found me"—I smiled—"in an East End practice, attending patients and giving them a bottle of medicine at two bob a time."
"You had told Lord Carden?" asked Larose with a frown.
"Oh, yes, but not until he asked me point blank. He said I looked like a Yorkshire Fitz-Leonard, and asked me if I were any relation to them."
"But how is it your grandfather didn't know of your existence, as you say?" was the next question, with Larose boring at me with his eyes.
I hesitated for a long moment, as if, at last and for the first time, unwilling with my reply.
"Well," I said slowly, "my father and he were not good friends, and hadn't written to each other for more than twenty years. As matter of fact, Dad, as a young man, had been bundled off to Australia as a bit of a bad egg and, later, he had been too proud to make any advances to try to re-establish himself in his family's eyes."
It was obvious Larose was very puzzled at my seeming candour, and a short silence followed. Then he forced a smile and asked, "Well, how do you like this country?" He nodded emphatically. "For one thing, at any rate, the bathing isn't as good as ours."
I agreed and he went on, "Do you know the South Coast? Do you know the Isle of Wight?" and when I shook my head, he continued, "Know Brighton or Eastbourne?"
I became enthusiastic. "Yes, Eastbourne," I said. "It's my favourite place, and I often motor down there when I've got a free afternoon."
"Then I suppose you've got plenty of friends there?" he suggested.
I shook my head. "No, I don't know a single soul in Eastbourne. I used to have a friend there once, but she died, poor old soul, a few years ago."
Larose frowned again, and then I asked curiously, "but what about this Andrea business? Have you found out anything yet?"
He gave me another of his hard, intent stares. "Not much," he replied, and smiled, "but I still live on hopes and am working at it."
Believing I had well held my own with him, I thought I would let him see I was in good spirits and had no reason to be anything but in a merry frame of mind, so when finally he got up to go, I raised my hand warningly.
"And as a medical man, my friend," I said with mock gravity, "I strongly advise you to do no more poking about in damp woods, particularly at night, as it will do your lumbago no good."
His eyes opened very wide. "My lumbago!" he exclaimed. "How do you know I've got lumbago?"
I looked very solemn. "Ah, I'm a bit of a detective, too!" I replied. "We doctors have to be." Seeing he was still looking very puzzled, I laughed merrily as I explained. "For one thing," I said, "I noticed you sat down very gingerly when you came in, and, for another, the pupils of your eyes are slightly bigger than they ordinarily should be. Therefore I guess you are taking belladonna, which is nearly always prescribed for lumbago. Very simple, isn't it? Just like your own process of elimination."
"A good hit," he smiled. "You are quite right. I have got lumbago and the damned medicine I'm taking is making my mouth dry."
We chatted on for a few minutes, and then, looking at me very thoughtfully, he bade me good-bye and took his leave.
"So you've not got much out of me, old chap," I nodded cheerfully as I stood watching him go up the street, "and, whatever you may have nosed out with such trouble in Eastbourne, you may now be thinking I would have told you myself for the asking."
Another three days went by, and then early one morning, so early that it was the ringing of the phone which made me jump out of bed, the matron of a private hospital in West Kensington asked to speak to Dr. Fitz-Leonard.
"Oh, you're the doctor himself!" she said. "Well, we've got a very sick patient here, doctor, and he wants to speak to you. He's a Mr. Harry brown, and he says the matter is very urgent or he would not ask you to come to see him. He's very sick indeed, and he can't last many hours. Its heart failure, and he's sinking fast."
I hesitated. Of course it was the man brown who had been with the other two when they had all come upon Andrea's body! but what on earth could he want with me? Then, remembering I was due to go up to town to have a look at Andrea's supposed wife, who was now nearly well from her operation, I thought I would kill two birds with the one stone, and so promised I would come that same afternoon.
"As quickly as you can, please, doctor," said the matron, "or you may not be in time. He says he has something to tell you which it is very important you should know."
As can be imagined, I thought a lot about the man during the morning, and it was with great curiosity that I was taken to his bedside that afternoon. He looked desperately ill, with the greyness of impending death very much apparent.
There was no doubt, however, that he was still mentally quite alert, as he smiled weakly at me and told the nurse to go away.
He spoke slowly, but quite clearly, in disjointed sentences, and his very first words almost froze every drop of blood in my body in my amazement.
"I saw you shoot that man," he whispered, "am so grateful to you for doing it—was after him, too, myself—should have killed him if you hadn't—you came up to him just as I was getting ready—after you had gone I picked up your fountain-pen—gave it back to you—so that you should not worry." He tried to nod. "No one—will ever know anything—except me."
He stopped speaking and his eyes closed. God, what amazement was mine! And what consternation, too! This man had been watching us all the time, and a word of his could have me hanged!
Startled as I was, it never yet for a fraction of a second entered my mind to question whether he was speaking the truth, and an overwhelming curiosity now flared up in me.
I bent down low, over him and whispered hoarsely, "but why do you thank me?"
He opened his eyes again and, with all his weakness, there was amusement in his smile. "I—am—Pat's—father," he whispered back, "the father—of the woman—that beast—gave the cancer to."
Amazement was piling up upon amazement, and for the moment I could find no words to speak.
He was watching me with something of that same amused smile still upon his face. Then he whispered very softly, "They—are—not—suspecting you—any more—are they?"
"Just a bit," I nodded slowly. I smiled perhaps a little ruefully, "but I don't think they'll be able to get me whatever they suspect. I'll manage to wriggle out of it."
The smile left his face at once, and the expression it now held was something of an uneasy one. It seemed he was trying with all his strength to concentrate his thoughts. Then he jerked out suddenly, and strangely enough with much more strength in his whisper, "Good-bye! Go away, please! Send the sister to me at once."
I left the hospital in a very disturbed frame of mind. When, all those weeks ago, I had put paid to Andrea's wicked life five minutes afterwards, with all the confidence in the world. I had been sure no one would ever have the slightest suspicion that it was I who had done it. And now—why, there was one man as yet a living witness of my crime, and another, with all his experience of criminals, hot upon my trail and, not without good reason believing he would ultimately succeed in laying me by the heels.
What a fall indeed for me, who had thought once he could commit murder so easily and get away with it!
I duly paid my other visit, that to Patricia Unley, and her gratitude to me for insisting that she must see a specialist without the slightest delay was most touching. She told me the surgeon had said they had taken the growth so early that she need not have the slightest fear of any recurrence. She added that Andrea's paintings and art treasures, according to the valuers who had been sent down, would bring such a lot of money when sold that she would be much better off than she had first thought. She went on that she was going to insist that I accepted as a present that best painting of all, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, rising from the sea. She was very worried, as she had heard her father was so ill, but of course I did not tell her I had just come from seeing him.
It had indeed been an exciting day for me, and I got little sleep that night. In the morning, even earlier than the previous one, I was called to the telephone. It was my local detective friend ringing up from a call office, but he did not give his name.
"You know who is speaking?" he asked, and there was such excitement in his voice that a dreadful feeling of apprehension swept over me like a wave. He went on, "Well, we know who shot Andrea now. It was that fellow brown. He has been very sick in a private hospital in West Kensington, and last evening he sent for the police and they took his dying deposition. He made a full confession that he had done the killing because he was Mrs. Andrea's father and had taken revenge upon the wretch for giving his daughter a cancer."
Pulling myself together, I asked hoarsely, "but will he say the same thing this morning?"
"There was no this morning for him," said the detective gravely. "He died during the night. Oh, yes, he was quite in his right state of mind. The doctors were certain of it. Good-bye! See you again this evening, and I'll tell you everything."
I felt choking in my relief, and it was as much as I could do to breathe. So—when I had admitted to him I was still under suspicion, in his last moments he had perjured himself to make things safe for me!
OF COURSE the morning newspapers were full of brown's confession, under big headlines, "The Mystery of the Murder in the Wood Solved," "Wild justice," "Father Avenges his Daughter's Wrongs," etc., but it was not until young Bailey called in the evening that I got the fullest details.
The previous evening he had happened to be preset, along with Larose, in the Superintendent's room when the news had come through.
He said Larose had evidently been most surprised, but he had not admitted, one way or the other, that brown had been the man he had all along had in mind. He had just remarked he very much regretted he had not been present when the dying deposition was being taken.
From his confession it appeared that brown had been on the look-out for Andrea all that fatal day, and, at last seeing him come out of his house, had followed him at a distance, along the path through the wood. He had been going to shoot him with a little.22 rifle, but had had to wait until he got up close, because the rifle had no magazine and he would have to be sure to get him with one shot.
Dodging from tree to tree, he had watched Andrea taking pot-shots at several squirrels and had at last got close behind him. Then Andrea had seated himself upon a bank and, laying down both his walking-stick and his pistol, had started to light a cigarette. That had been his, brown's, opportunity. Snatching up the pistol, when Andrea had sprung to his feet in his surprise, he had fired straight at his face. He had preferred to use the pistol because sometimes his little rifle, being old and having the pin rather worn, would not go off with the first pulling of the trigger.
Then, with Andrea dead, he had started to drag the body off the path and deeper in the mood, but he had found it too heavy for him, and, getting frightened lest someone might come along, after hurriedly pushing his rifle under the back of the shed, had run out of the wood on to the road.
He had waited there for a few minutes, and then, seeing those two men entering the path through the wood, had considered it quite safe to follow after them. He had thought it would turn away any possible suspicion the police might come to have of him if he remained on the spot and did not run away. He had seen the cyclist, as he had testified at the inquest, but the latter had not come out of the wood, as he had stated. He had appeared from a different direction.
I listened to the detective's story, marvelling how the dying man had gathered strength enough to tell the police so much soon before he passed away. Commenting upon it to young Bailey, the latter said everyone at the hospital had been surprised, too. However, the two doctors who had been summoned hurriedly to the bedside, explained it as being all due to the fierce urge the man had had to confess everything and the amazing will-power he had been able to call into play.
"And there's no doubt every word he spoke was true," said the detective finally, "as we have found the little rifle where he said he had hidden it. It was rushed at once up to the Yard and this afternoon the finger-prints on it were found to be those of brown. Also, as he stated, the firing-pin was very worn and would certainly have made the weapon unreliable."
That night I thought a lot about Larose, and wondered what he would do now. Brown's confession had certainly made it impossible for the killing of Andrea to be fastened upon me, and it would be a horrible smack in the face for the star detective of Scotland Yard.
Still, I was by no means easy in my mind, as, balked in one direction, it would be a great feather in Larose's cap and to a large extent save his face, if he could expose me as the son of the humble gardener, Reuben Baxter, laying claim to aristocratic birth and making myself out to be the grandson of Lord Roxborough. But, even then I told myself, no charge could be laid against me. I had not deceived for pecuniary gain, but simply to escape the odium of my father's shameful death.
I sighed heavily and smiled a bitter smile. Even if the law could not touch me—what about Margaret? The slightest breath of scandal about me, and she would be lost to me for ever. What would the proud Lord Carden say if even the faintest rumour got about that there were doubts whether I was Charles Hubert Fitz-Leonard's son? Would it not dawn upon everyone's mind, too, that I had arrived in England with no absolute proofs to substantiate that I was the person I claimed to be? They had taken everything for granted and I had just slipped, unchallenged, into my position of Lord Roxborough's grandson.
And now here was this Larose about to raise doubts as to my identity, doubts which if once voiced would sweep like a prairie fire into everybody's mind. Ah, but Larose was a most shrewd and clever man, and he would not dare to speak in public until he were sure! And how could he be sure? None would realise better than he the missing links in his chain of evidence and the damage to his reputation if he spoke too soon.
No, any accusation he launched against me would not be a public one! To begin with, he would make it in private. He would make it to me alone, in the hope, no doubt, that I should commit myself and fall into some clever pit he had dug for me.
Good, then let him try, and, with the sweet and lovely face of Margaret rising before my eyes, my courage all came back. I would be prepared for him in any game he liked to play, and, for any card he put down, would be ready to produce one better. I was not going to allow myself to be afraid of him.
The following afternoon, on my way home as usual soon after four o'clock, I came upon Margaret just coming out of the Castle grounds, and, of course, pulled up to offer to drive her the short distance to the village. It was, indeed, a very short distance and I was thrilled when she accepted my offer, for it could only mean, I told myself, that she liked my company.
I drove very slowly, just as a connoisseur would sip drop by drop a most delicious glass of rare old wine. Naturally, she brought up the matter of brown's confession to the police and remarked that it was like an exciting story in a book.
"But do you know, Dr. Fitz-Leonard," she smiled roguishly, "a most extraordinary idea about that shooting would keep coming into my mind, and I hope you won't be angry if I tell you."
"Nothing you said or did would make me angry," I smiled back. "I would forgive you anything. But what was this idea? It must have been something bad about me if you think it might make me angry."
She became grave.
"No, it wasn't exactly bad. Indeed, a lot of people would have praised you for it. It was"—she hesitated tantalisingly—"that it might have been you who shot that horrid man."
"Good gracious!" I exclaimed, in mock horror. "Now, what on earth made you think of that?"
She considered her words.
"Well, no one would take you for a man who had not got plenty of courage, and you must have been dreadfully sorry for that poor wife of his. So you looked for an opportunity to punish him, and when it came to you, in spite of the risk of being found out—you took it and shot him."
"With his own pistol?" I queried smilingly.
"Well, I didn't work everything out," she laughed. "I just thought of you as a gallant knight killing the dragon."
"Thank you for your nice opinion of me," I bowed, "but, really, so far from being a gallant knight, I'm beginning to think I must be a very timid person. For instance"—I pretended to look frightened—"I'm afraid of telling your father something because I am sure it would make him very angry."
"Telling father something that would make him angry!" she exclaimed. "Why—"
But she suddenly stopped speaking and what I thought was a divine blush suffused her lovely face.
To my intense annoyance we had now reached the village shop, and I had to pull up the car. She alighted, I thought rather hurriedly, but then stopped to ask me if I were going to a certain dance the following week. We talked on for a minute or two, and suddenly, out of the tail of my eye, I caught sight of Larose watching us from the other side of the street.
We said good-bye at last, and then I drove the few yards farther to my house, leaving my car in the road, as I was intending to go out again later. I was not at all surprised when Larose came over to speak to me, but my heart sank a little at the stern look upon his face.
"Here, sir," he said sharply, "I want to speak to you. Can I come inside?"
I nodded, and then without a word led the way into my surgery, making for the mantelshelf, where I kept a large box of cigarettes. Evidently thinking, as upon his previous visit, I was going to ring for tea, he broke in quickly, "No, thank you, I won't have any tea"—his tones were very grim—"and after you've heard what I'm going to say you won't be wanting to offer me any."
"Ho, ho!" I exclaimed, turning to regard him with mock solemnity. "Then have you come to say you suspect me of another murder?"
For the moment he seemed quite taken aback, but then he rapped out, "So you thought I was suspecting you of already having done one, did you?"
"Thought?" I exclaimed scoffingly. "There was no thinking about it. I was quite sure." before he could make any comment, I went on quickly, "Good gracious, man, you can't go running about a little village like this and showing your particular interest in one person without that person coming to hear about it almost at once." I looked scornful. "Why, if you suck a cough lozenge here one day—the next everyone has heard about it."
"Well, whatever I thought about you and the murder of Tonio Andrea," he said stiffly, "I know I shall have to drop now, as after that man's confession I shan't be able to bring it home to you."
"Thank you," I bowed ironically, "and this next charge—what is biting you now?"
He spoke very quietly. "You are a cheat, an impostor, sir, and living here under a false name. You are no more Charles Fitz-Leonard than am I." He hesitated just for a moment for dramatic effect. "You are Charles Baxter."
I made no pretence of any surprise, and just frowned thoughtfully. "The son of the man who was hanged, eh?" I asked. I spoke as quietly as he. "Then that was your crime of, vengeance, was it, the son coming back after twenty-two years?" I nodded approvingly. "A very pretty little drama in real life."
Quite a long silence followed, and he didn't seem to like it. In fact, I thought he looked positively rattled.
"You don't deny it?" he rapped out at last.
I shrugged my shoulders. "Why should I? If, as you say, it is true, then I must have been a changeling at birth, though how the change was effected I can't for the life of me see—with twelve thousand miles between us when we were born."
"Stop this fooling," he snarled. "Come down to facts."
For the first time I showed some temper. "And you stop your fooling, too, Mr. Damn-Clever Detective, and tell me exactly how you come to make it out. A-ah"—my voice rose in some excitement—"ah, I know!" I wagged my finger mockingly at him. "Then that's what you meant when you asked me about Eastbourne the other day. Of course, you've been down there and found I had known Miss Elizabeth Wand, Charlie Baxter's aunt."
"Then you don't deny that?" he scowled.
"Certainly not." I replied promptly. "There's not the slightest reason for my doing so." I spoke warningly. "See here, Mr. Larose, I laugh at your trying to make out I am not Charles Fitz-Leonard, but for my own sake I am not going to defy you and tell you to go to hell. I am not going to taunt you to do your worst"—I raised my hand warningly—"for if the slightest rumour ever gets about that I am not a real Fitz-Leonard, people will never forget it and it may ruin some of the best prospects of my life."
Larose smiled grimly. "One concerning that young lady you have just been talking to, I suppose." He nodded. "Yes, I've heard you are setting your cap there."
I could feel myself grow hot.
"The devil!" I exclaimed. "But that only shows how people talk!" I went on, "but about this other matter, I'll tell you everything you want to know and"—I spoke with the utmost firmness—"it will save you from making the most ghastly blunder of your whole life." I lit a cigarette. "Fire away. Ask me any question you like."
"Then how is it," he asked coldly, "that if you are not a Baxter you came to know the only member of that family believed to have been in England?"
"It's very simple," I replied. "I met her sister, Nellie, once in Melbourne. She was the wife of that Reuben Baxter and the mother of the son, Charles. She was my mother's dressmaker, and, as there was some talk then of our coming to England, she suggested we should go to see her sister, Miss Elizabeth Wand, who had a newsagent's shop in Eastbourne. But we didn't come to England then as expected, because my mother died and I had to remain on in Australia afterwards for the reasons I gave you the other day. I had to get together sufficient money for the voyage and to support myself when over here."
"And directly you arrived in England," snapped Larose, "as a young man not yet twenty-one, as you told me the other day, you came down here to this village to ask a lot of questions about the murder for which Reuben Baxter had been hanged." He spoke with intense sarcasm. "I suppose his wife over in Australia had told you all about it?"
"Certainly not!" I replied warmly. "Is it likely she would have told anyone of the family disgrace? No, it was old Miss Wand who related the dreadful story and—"
"How pleased her sister would have been," scoffed Larose, "that she was spreading it all about, now, wouldn't she?"
"Her sister was dead," I retorted sharply. "She had died about six months before my mother. I believe also that her boy was dead, too, as he had gone to the opal mines in Queensland and had never been heard of after."
"Very convenient for you that they were all dead," commented Larose dryly.
"I can't help that," I smiled. "Now can I? That's certainly no fault of mine. Another thing, I did not come to this village, as you say, on purpose to learn more about the murder. I came to please Miss Wand. She suggested it. More than twenty years before, she had been in service with her sister at the Castle, and since she had left there she had heard little about anyone. She was curious to know if Lady Carden had had many children, who was the clergyman here, who kept the village shop, and a lot of other things it was only natural she should want to hear about."
"Very plausible," nodded Larose "but I don t believe it. I still say you are Charles Baxter."
"But, good God, man," I argued, "if I were Charles Baxter, why didn't I claim the property the old woman had left him when she died?"
"Perhaps you didn't hear about it?" suggested Larose.
"Didn't hear about it!" I exclaimed. "Why, it happened I went down to see Miss Wand the very day after she had just died, and met her lawyer standing on the doorstep. I learned from him she was dead and he asked me if I was the nephew. I told him no, and who I was. Then he said all her estate had been left to this nephew, but he had no idea where to find him. I told him I couldn't help him and—"
"Of course, you feel you are safe in telling me this now," interrupted Larose dryly, "as you know you can't be contradicted because the lawyer is dead."
"I don't know it," I denied sharply. "I have never had anything to do with the man since that day, and have been so little interested in him that I have not even troubled to remember his name."
Larose went on doggedly. "Well, perhaps you didn't dare to claim the estate"—he regarded me intently'—"because it would have interfered with your plans down here."
"But I wasn't down here then," I retorted angrily. "Miss Wand died years before I came here or had any thought of coming here. I was one of the house surgeons at St. Lazarus's Hospital at the time." I shook my head. "Don't be so obstinate! You know you haven't scored a single point yet. Now, have you?"
He ignored my question, and asked, "How is it you ever came to practise down here? Don't tell me it wasn't of set purpose."
"Of set purpose!" I laughed. "You mean to say that it is in your mind that, as Charles Baxter, the son of the Reuben who was hanged, I so manoeuvred things that I got myself established here on purpose to get revenge upon the man whose evidence brought my father to the gallows? Good Lord, what an imagination you have!"
"And it's proved very useful more than once," nodded Larose darkly.
"Well, it's come a cropper this time, at any rate," I rejoined, "as it was chance—blind chance—that led me here. Between two and three years ago Sir Meredith Vyne, one of the surgeons of my old hospital, St. Lazarus's, was coming down to perform an operation upon one of the household of Lord Carden and he brought me with him to give the anaesthetic. In passing, it was then Lord Carden asked me if I were one of the Yorkshire Fitz-Leonards, as he said he thought I looked like one. Well, that day I met Dr. Jessop, the doctor of the family. We two became friendly and, ultimately, he asked me to join him in partnership with a view to later succession. I considered the offer for a couple of weeks or so and then, disposing of my practice in the East End, accepted it." I regarded him mockingly. "Such a simple explanation, isn't it?"
"And you got acquainted with Tony Andrea," said Larose thoughtfully.
"Got acquainted with him!" I exclaimed. "Why, I mended a broken leg for him and saw him, day after day, for weeks and weeks." I scoffed. "Had I wanted to, I could have poisoned his leg any time, made it become septic and let him die a dreadful death." I snapped my fingers together. "That would have been revenge, if you like!"
Larose turned the conversation.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Thirty on the tenth of July," I replied.
"The same age as Charles Baxter—exactly," he nodded dryly.
"No, not exactly," I retorted. "Charles Baxter was a day younger than me. He was born on the ninth."
He raised his eyebrows. "Oh, you know that, do you? How does that come about."
"Again a most simple explanation," I said. "His mother was greatly interested in me, at first because I had the same Christian name as her son, and then, upon her enquiring my age, she learned we were both born within a few hours of each other. And it was that interest which led her to suggest we should seek out her sister in Eastbourne when we did go to England."
There was no doubt I had been telling a whole string of untruths, but I had had to tell them to save myself, and I was not the least conscience-stricken for having done so. Surely there are times when falsehoods are admissible, though only when they do no one wrong. Certainly I had killed Andrea, but it was not murder. It was justice, punishing a thoroughly wicked man whom the law could not reach. Then, again, for claiming I was a Fitz-Leonard as I have all along insisted, at first my reason had been a harmless one, bringing neither gain to me nor hurt to anyone. Later—and, as I thought of my poor mother, I sighed heavily here—was there not good reason to believe I was speaking the truth?
Larose broke into my reverie. "Of course, you've got your certificate of birth?" he asked.
"Of course," I nodded. "Why, I couldn't have entered the hospital or sat for any examinations over here without producing it. I'll show it to you."
I unlocked one of the drawers of my desk. "Here it is," I said, "and other papers which should interest you as well. This is the certificate I got for passing my examination in arts at Melbourne University when I was seventeen, and the admission card to the Examination Hall, with my signature upon it. Here are my London medical diplomas, all with my signature again, and you can compare them with the Melbourne one. Yes, and here is the passport I had to get before I could leave Australia."
Spreading them out upon the table, he prepared to go through them carefully, and at that moment the telephone bell rang sharply and I picked the receiver off my desk. It was General Sir Monkton Fitz-Leonard speaking.
"Hullo, Charles is that you, my boy?" he said. "Well, it's your Uncle Monkton. I'm speaking from Lewes, about fifteen miles away. Look here! I've been meeting your cousin John, my second boy, on the Newhaven boat. As you know, he's been in South Africa and we haven't seen him for eight years. Now, I've something extraordinary to show you and I'm sure it will interest you. We're motoring up to town and can pass your way if you'll be in, say, in about half an hour. No, we shan't be able to stop more than five minutes. We're due in town at six o'clock. All right, my boy. See you in a few minutes."
The line went dead.
I turned back to Larose, and with great difficulty masked exultation that I felt. Fate was, indeed, dealing me good cards that afternoon! My likeness to Sir Monkton was considered by everyone who saw us together as remarkable. And now the detective would see him and, it might be, all his suspicion of me would instantly pass away.
"See here, Mr. Larose," I said, "that was my Uncle Monkton, speaking from Lewes, and he says he'll be here in less than half an hour. He's motoring through on his way up to town, and only be able to stay about five minutes. Will you wait to see him?"
"But what for?" asked Larose, looking rather puzzled. "Are you going to get him to substantiate your story?"
"Great Scot, no!" I exclaimed. "You mustn't say a word about it to him," and I looked horrified enough to cause the detective to smile broadly. I held up my hand impressively. "I want you to see the likeness between us. All we Fitz-Leonards are as alike as peas from the same pod. Monkton is really my father's uncle, and he is bringing one of his boys with him, one whom I have not as yet seen, as he's been abroad for some time."
"All right," nodded Larose, "I'll wait."
"But aren't you convinced already," I asked sharply, "that you are making a mistake? Don't that certificate of birth and those other papers make you certain you are wrong?"
He shook his head. "Not quite! To be frank with you, they half incline me to think so, but to be truthful—I've come to form such a high opinion of your cleverness that I'm more than doubtful still."
I bowed ironically.
"Thank you," I said. I gave him a good hard scowl. "But what makes you doubtful?" I asked.
"Instinct," he nodded.
"Oh, and will this instinct of yours," I asked, "cut any ice in a court of law?"
"Perhaps not," he admitted. He shook his head again. "But you've been much too ready with your answers to please me. It's just as if you've been preparing yourself for every question you've been thinking I should put to you." He nodded. "Your replies, doctor, smack of the midnight oil."
I laughed mockingly. "You're a stubborn man, Mr. Larose, and you just won't admit that you are wrong."
He eyed me very intently. "You know it almost seems as if while I've been looking into your affairs, you've been shadowing me the whole time and all along been learning what I've been doing. You appear to know exactly how much I have found out and"—he shrugged his shoulders—"you admit it too plausibly."
"But I can't help admitting it," I protested warmly, "as you've found out nothing about me which I would not have told you for the asking." I rose to my feet and pushed upon the bell. "Well, I'm going to have my cup of tea, and if you won't join me"—I grinned—"you can sit and watch me."
He did join me, and we talked interestedly about Australia—indeed, so absorbed were we that I did not hear a car draw up outside and did not know the expected visitors had arrived until the maid actually showed them into the room.
"This is Mr. Larose, Uncle," I said. I gave the detective a sly smile, and added, "he's a friend of mine, and—"
But I stopped speaking, and, with startled eyes, regarded the young man who had come in with the General.
Why, his face was as familiar to me as my own! Where had I seen him before? I had seen him often and—but the realisation of what my recognition of him meant came like a flash of lightning before my eyes.
The young fellow before me was the living image of myself!
The General was laughing uproaringly.
"Now did you ever see anything like it before?" he asked Larose. "Cousins! And yet they might both pass as the same man, except that my son is more bronzed than my nephew. Same shaped head, same hair, same eyes, same nose, and, by Jingo, showing the same teeth when they smile!"
He grabbed the two of us by the arm and pulled us to the looking-glass over the mantelshelf.
"Now, have a good look at each other," he shouted in his delight, "and see if you can tell which is which." He wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes.
"You must come up and let your aunt see you, Charles. Won't she just be amazed?"
For the moment I had forgotten all about Larose and my hope that he would see the likeness between me and the General. I was too absorbed in staring at our reflections in the mirror. Our resemblance was certainly most remarkable, and after a few moments we turned from the mirror to regard each other sheepishly. Then my eyes fell upon Larose, standing just behind my cousin, and my thoughts jerked back to him.
Was he seeing the likeness, too? Of course he was. The expression on his face showed it! What a triumph for me! I had expected to take the odd trick, but, instead, I was now scoring a grand slam!
It was all over in a few minutes, and the General had bustled his son into the car and driven off towards town.
I offered Larose a cigarette, which he accepted, and then asked, "Well?"
"It's quite well!" he nodded. "I'm quite convinced now." He held out his hand for me to shake. "I apologise, doctor. As you say, I nearly made a fool of myself"—he made a grimace—"and ridicule is one of the things I can't stand. Some of them at the Yard are always a bit jealous of me, and how they would have laughed!"
He picked up his hat to go, and then, in parting upon the door-step, remarked, "Yes, you're no impostor, doctor. That's certain"—he smiled—"and leave the court without a stain upon your character, but"—and his smile changed to a frown—"I still cannot bring myself to believe in that fellow brown's confession."
"But why not?" I asked.
"Because," he said slowly, "it is against all common sense that he could have crept up close enough to Andrea to grab hold of that pistol without Andrea's dog having heard him coming. It's impossible to believe it."
I shook my finger at him.
"Oh, into what dreadful pits," I exclaimed, "you great detectives, even with all your cleverness and experience, can fall!" I laughed merrily. "That dog, Mr. Larose, has been stone-deaf from the moment she was born!"
It was quite ten seconds before he seemed able to take it in. Then he put on the most dejected look possible. "Help, help!" he exclaimed. "Where's the nearest pond, where I can go and drown myself?"
With a wave of the hand he passed up the street.
A great thankfulness filled me as I returned to the house. I was safe at last, and, if my much-loved mother were now watching anywhere in the spirit world, she would know that whatever fault had once been hers, after the passing of all these years, it had undoubtedly helped to save her son from as great a calamity as had once fallen, so unmeritedly, upon the man who had taken her for his wife.
THINKING things over during the next few days, I realised many times I had had a most narrow escape, and that it had been only the timely but untruthful confession of Patricia Unley's father which had saved me, almost as it were at the very last moment. It had knocked Larose completely out of his stride and undoubtedly stopped any enquiries being made about my mother and me in Australia.
The proved son of Reuben Baxter as the probable avenging murderer of Antonio Andrea was worth going for to the extreme limit, but the exposure of the same individual for simply now living under an assumed name was quite a different matter, and certainly would not have justified the expensive setting in motion of the elaborate machinery of Scotland Yard. Even if the adoption of my stepfather's name could have been proved up to the very hilt, I did not see how any charge of fraud could be laid against me, as I had made no attempt to obtain anything from anyone under the false pretences.
I was relieved beyond measure that my anxieties were over now, but how close the dreadful danger had been was brought home to me only a few days later when I was making a professional visit to the Castle. It was Lady Carden's wish that I should see her at least once a week, and one afternoon when I called she happened to be going through a chest of put-away clothes to make sure the moth were not getting at them.
A homely person, when I was taken into her room she motioned me to come closer and see the things she was inspecting. Most of them seemed to be baby garments and I was thrilled when she told me they were those Margaret had once worn.
"But they weren't made for her in the first instance," she said sadly. "They were intended for the little one who came before her, but he, dear little soul, died at birth." She held up one of the tiny gowns for me to examine. "Isn't it exquisitely made? I've never been able to get anyone since who could do such beautiful work. The girl who made them used to be my sewing-maid here, and also after she was married she came in and worked for me, too." She sighed. "Poor Nellie, her life was a very unhappy one!"
I started, and almost gasped in my amazement! The girl had been her sewing-maid and called Nellie! God—then it had been my mother, and I was now looking at her handiwork! The same dear fingers which had made so many of my boyhood's clothes had also done these little garments here! I choked back a feeling of dreadful grief, and swallowed hard.
"Yes, they're very lovely, aren't they?" went on Lady Carden. She looked up at me and smiled. "I take such care of them, as I am keeping them for Margaret's babies."
Then suddenly a startled look came to her face and her eyes opened very wide.
"Oh, what a strange thing!" she exclaimed. "I have just remembered something which has been puzzling me from the very first moment I set eyes on you." She spoke with animation. "Do you know, Dr. Fitz-Leonard, I've always been puzzled about whom you remind me of, but I could never remember, and now I've just found it out. When you smile, you smile exactly as this poor Nellie used to. Oh, no, you needn't get red and look uncomfortable, as if I was disparaging you! On the contrary, it's a great compliment I am paying you, for this Nellie was a very pretty girl, as pretty a girl as you could see anywhere," she sighed, "much too pretty for her station in life."
I really do not remember what comment I made, but I am sure it was as brief a one as possible, for, thinking of my mother, I wanted to cry, and then the face of Larose, flashing up before my eyes, I went cold in horror, visualising what would have happened to me if he and Lady Carden had pooled their knowledge and ideas.
I was greatly relieved when she put back the little garments, and we began to talk of professional matters. When we had finished she invited me to come to dinner the following Saturday.
"Sir Meredith and his wife are staying the week-end," she said, "and I'm sure they'll want to see you. They're bringing their two babies and the nurse with them, and it will be most interesting to see what the little ones are like. You'll be able to come, won't you?"
Of course, I was able to come! And I had a delightful evening, too. Not only was Margaret very sweet and friendly, but I had not seen Sir Meredith and his wife for some time, and was very interested in them. Marie Antoinette was as good-looking as ever, and had not coarsened, as she had told me she would, in the slightest degree. She looked in every way the stately lady, and it was obvious how proud her husband was of her. After dinner we had a few minutes' chat alone in the conservatory.
She was most interested, too, to learn all about me and asked slyly how many lovers I had had since I came to live in the country, and I told her none.
"I don't believe you," she laughed. She nodded significantly in the direction of the drawing-room, where we could hear the others talking. "Well, at any rate, there's one waiting for you here whenever you have impudence enough to ask her to take you." Then, noticing my embarrassment, she went on quickly, "but why don't you? It's quite plain she more than likes your and I wonder the old man doesn't notice it. I know the mother does, and she's quite pleased about it."
"You imagine things, Marie dear," I said, but for all that my heart was thumping quickly.
"I don't," she retorted. "Why, Lady Carden told me to-day she didn't want Margaret to marry a Society dandy and perhaps have no babies because of the rush of a fashionable life. She said, too, she wanted the husband to be one who would live not far away and not take Margaret altogether from her." She tapped me on the arm. "And I'm sure, Charles, she was thinking of you."
I turned the conversation and asked her if she was happy. She said she couldn't be more so, as she had grown to love Sir Meredith most dearly. Her voice trembled as she added it was quite pathetic how he had come to let her mother him and wanted her every hour of the day. He was continually telling her he had never known real happiness until he had married her.
Then she brought up the murder of Andrea and asked, "Do you know what I said to my husband when he and I were talking over the evidence at that inquest?" She didn't give me a chance of replying, and went on laughingly, "I said, 'Charles did it. That would be just like a piece of his work,' and Meredith said that if you had, then you had done a fine piece of work." She made a grimace. "So we were both disappointed when we heard someone else had confessed."
At home again that night I went over in my mind what Marie had declared were my chances with Margaret, and thought impudence was just the right word for her to have used about any resolve of mine to ask the daughter of the Castle to become my wife. It was all right for anyone to talk glibly about faint heart never winning fair lady, but surely in my case colossal impudence was needed to make good the lack of courage.
Not only did Margaret come from one of the proudest families in the land, but, also, it was well known she was a great heiress and upon attaining her majority, which was very close now would come into a large fortune left her by an aunt.
Arid who was I and what had I to offer in return? I was just a country doctor, and could offer practically nothing but myself. If ever I came to marry her, people would say I was only a fortune-hunter who had married her for her money. Then it came to me it mattered nothing what anyone said, and that I should not only be a coward but a fool as well if I let slip the chance of such great happiness because I was frightened by the probable nodding and whispering of a few ill-natured people.
Still, there was another side to the matter, and I had to realise that if Lord Carden definitely refused to give Margaret to me.—then it would mean an end to all my friendship with the family. As a rejected suitor I could hardly continue to be received at the Castle on the same friendly footing as before.
Nevertheless, I determined to put my fortune to the test with as little delay as possible, though I would not do so until after the coming-of-age ball. I certainly did not want to miss that.
With all my planning, however, the climax came in a totally unexpected way, with Lady Carden, Margaret, and me all being involved in a conspiracy against the lord of the Castle.
Some ten days before Margaret's twenty-first birthday Lord Carden was laid up with a bad attack of sciatica, and every day I was up at the Castle in attendance. Holding strongly to the opinion that with him it was a disorder of rheumatic origin, I treated it as such, and some saline injections into the sheath of the nerve brought such great relief that he was delighted with me and I was in high favour with him. I promised him he would be about again for the great event.
One morning a week later, after having attended to him, I was having a little chat alone with Lady Carden in her room when Margaret entered.
"Oh, have you heard about Father's great mushroom adventure?" she asked. "He is thrilled about it," and she went on to tell me how he had a mushroom bed laid out in one of the underground chambers of the Castle.
"Yes, and I expect every mushroom he raises," smiled Lady Carden, "will have cost about ten pounds before it comes to the table. He's had electric light installed and gone to no end of expense and trouble." She looked at her daughter. "Take Dr. Fitz-Leonard down to see what's been done. I am sure he'll be interested."
So the apparently quite willing Margaret led me to a big iron-studded door at the far end of the Castle and turned down an outside switch before opening it. "Mind the steps," she warned. "There are eighteen of them. The beds are in one of the dungeons. Most romantic, isn't it, raising mushrooms where, perhaps, hundreds of years ago poor prisoners were being tortured?"
Closing the door behind us, we went along a well-lighted narrow passage, quite a hundred yards in length, which opened into a wide, low-vaulted chamber where the mushroom beds were. We were just inspecting them when suddenly the lights went out and everything was plunged into an inky darkness.
"Oh, somebody must have switched off outside," exclaimed Margaret, "not knowing anyone's down here! Father will be horrified if we tread on his precious beds. Strike a match, quickly!"
But after much feeling about in my pockets I said I couldn't find one. "Then give me your hand," she ordered. "I think I can keep off the beds all right if we go slowly."
Feeling for her hand, I clasped it gently. I was thrilled—it was so warm and soft. We advanced a few steps, and then she gave a cry of dismay. "Oh, I felt a rat run over my foot!" she cried out. "Stamp hard to frighten it away or it may run up my legs."
But I did better than that, as I put my hand under the back of her knees and lifted her bodily into my arms. My heart was beating wildly. Her lithe and supple body was pressed close to mine, and its perfume was as a draught of heavy wine. For a few seconds I stood perfectly still, thrilled through and through with the glory of my burden.
Then, completely overcome in my emotion and hardly thinking of what I was doing, I bent down and felt for her lips with mine. I found them and, soft, warm, and clinging, to my ecstasy they were not unresponsive. The kiss was very gentle, but it was quite a long one and, looking back in after-years, never, I am sure, have I been more profoundly thrilled than I was in those deep, silent moments.
There we were in that dark and chilling chamber, as alone as if we were the only people in the world, with the smell of the dank earth in our nostrils and with, perhaps, unnumbered rats running all about us, and yet, as man and woman, we were in one of the supreme moments of our lives. For is there anything, when one loves and is beloved, that can exceed the rapture of a first kiss? All that it may promise, all that it may hold out to us to happen in the days to come, and all of which it may be the forerunner—surely lack something of that divine awakening to the glory life can hold.
I have said the kiss was a long one, but it would have been longer if Margaret had not pushed my face gently but imperatively away.
"That's enough now," she whispered, "and please put me down. And no more nonsense, either. Find your matches at once."
I found them meekly enough and, with Margaret's arm linked in mine, struck them, one after another, until we regained the end of the passage. Then with the steps climbed and the big door opened again, she remarked with a nervous little laugh, "And you're a nice man, aren't you, for a young girl to trust herself to in the dark?" She frowned. "Now I wonder who turned out that light." For a few moments she stood stroking the ruffles out of her dress and then, looking up at me, asked with an arch smile. "And, Dr. Charles Fitz-Leonard, pray what is going to happen now?"
"Why, you'll be marrying me," I laughed in a surge of great happiness, "and—"
"But don't you dare to ask me," she said sharply, "until you've spoken to Father first." Her smile took all the sting out of her sharpness. "I don't want to have to tell more stories than are absolutely necessary, and he'll be sure to want to know."
She gave my hand a squeeze before darting away in front of me, with the stern order not to tell anyone, not even her mother, until she gave me permission to.
We went back to the room where her mother was and Margaret, at any rate, was saved from showing any embarrassment by the opportune appearance of the butler, who announced that she was wanted on the phone.
When she had left the room Lady Carden eyed me curiously.
"Well?" she asked, and when I looked at her, very puzzled, she went on in a hurried whisper, "It was I who turned out those lights. Did you take advantage of it? You're not the man I believe you to be if you did not. Tell me what happened."
I was struck dumb, and felt myself colouring up hotly, but I was spared from whatever reply I would have made by Margaret bursting back into the room. "Only an appointment for me at the hairdresser's," she said. "I am to go—" but she suddenly stopped speaking and looked suspiciously, first at her mother, and then at me. "Mother," she exclaimed in assumed indignation, "you look a guilty woman! So it was you who turned out those lights!" Her expression changed in a lightning flash, and, moving over to me, she gave her mother a challenging look, as she linked her arm affectionately in mine. "Then, Mother darling," she went on sweetly, "the blame is yours, and you'll have to take all the consequences."
I spent a deliriously happy half-hour with the mother and daughter. Lady Carden kissed us both and said she was delighted about it. Next we went on to discuss my speaking about it to Lord Carden, and it was arranged I should not do so until after Margaret's birthday. In the meantime Lady Carden said she would, as she called it, be preparing the ground.
"He likes you very much, Charles," she said, "but if he's a little bit surprised at your asking for Margaret, it will be only because some folks, such as we, are inclined to be hidebound in our ideas that money must go to money." Then obviously seeing how uncomfortable I felt, she added quickly, "but that won't apply to you, Charles. It's a good husband for Margaret we want, and I'm sure you'll make her one."
What happened later in our campaign against Lord Carden I heard from Margaret and her mother afterwards. That night at dinner, after a long stare at his daughter, her father asked suddenly:
"And what makes you look so perky to-night, young lady? What visitors have you been having to-day?"
Her mother answered quickly for her that there had been no visitors to the Castle that day, except, of course—spoken very casually—the doctor. His lordship for a few moments stared hard at Margaret again, but made no comment.
The next day, however, the day but one before the ball, he said frowningly to his wife, "See here, dear, you'd better tell Margaret not to give more than one dance to young Fitz-Leonard, or it may set people talking."
"They're talking now, I expect, John," his wife replied carelessly, "and the mischief, if you call it mischief, is already done."
"What do you mean?" he asked sharply.
"Well, everyone can see where Margaret's heart is," nodded Lady Carden. "For a long time now I know she's been thinking there's no one like that young man."
"But he's not spoken to her, surely?" exclaimed his lordship with some heat. "He's not made any advances? He wouldn't dare to do so without coming to me first?"
"Of course he wouldn't, John," said his wife. "He's not that sort of man."
"Well, if he does," was his lordship's grim comment, "I shall have to turn him down at once, though it'll certainly be most unpleasant having to lose him as a doctor. He won't like to come up here professionally afterwards."
"But why should you turn him down at all?" asked his wife. "Margaret couldn't have a better husband, and she certainly doesn't need one with plenty of money. Besides, if she marries him we shan't be losing her, as we should if she married someone who lives far away."
"But he's only a country doctor," frowned Lord Carden.
"He won't be that long," she nodded, and she went on to tell him what Sir Meredith Vyne had been saying about me.
The ball was a. magnificent affair, with more than a hundred dancers on the floor, and I felt most uncomfortable at the thought that I was wanting to push myself into a family that could afford such a display. Margaret and I were most circumspect in our behaviour, and, under the eagle eye of her father, she gave me only two dances, but he appeared to be quite friendlily disposed, and it heartened me not a little as Margaret whispered smilingly to me that her mother had, as she had promised, been "preparing the ground."
With some trepidation, as I admit quite frankly, the following day I went to have my interview with Lord Carden, and the butler showed me into the library where he was.
"I have come, sir," I said gravely, "on something most important. I am asking you to—"
"I know, I know," he interrupted a little testily. "Do you think I'm doddery in my wits and quite blind?" He eyed me thoughtfully and went on slowly, "Sir Meredith Vyne says that, with your high qualifications, you are wasting your talents down here. He tells me there is a vacancy on the staff of St. Lazarus's and that you would certainly be appointed if you put in for it. Now, why don't you?"
I know I must have got very red. "Well, sir," I began, "I would like to, but—"
He interrupted me again.
"See here, my boy," he said, and a great thrill surged through me at his kindly tone, "if you marry my daughter, and, upon considerable thought, I don't say I'll stand in your way, there's going to be no nonsense about your financial position. If you are not going to be well-to-do at first, she will have ample means straightaway. If you can't afford a house in town, she can, and I don't want any tomfoolery from you that you're unwilling to profit by it. She will help you to establish yourself and you can repay her later."
The talk which followed was a most business-like one on his part and the kind but sensible way in which he put things detracted not a little from the natural humiliation I felt. His contention was that if I had been enterprising enough to come courting a wealthy girl, having won her I must take the inevitable consequences and make no pretence of being ashamed at profiting by her money. I should have to come up to her standard of living and not she come down to mine.
So Margaret and I became affianced and, if I had thought her loveliness was her only asset, I was very quickly shown I was mistaken. She had a most decided will of her own, and was as shrewd and business-like as her father. Inspired, no doubt, by Sir Meredith's promptings, the family said I must specialise. Sir Meredith had advised my taking a post-graduate course at the Hospital for Nervous Diseases and then setting up in the West End. Of course, it would be some years before I got together a consultant's practice, but in the meantime I could go in for research work.
I laughed somewhat ruefully at the way my future was being planned and I got another shock when Margaret announced something of what she intended our after-marriage domestic life should be. Part of a wing of the Castle was going to be arranged for our exclusive use and, both there and at the house in town, she insisted we must have separate bedrooms.
"I don't want you ever to take everything about me for granted," she said, "and you're not going to get too much accustomed to me so that the romance of our being fond of each other wears off too quickly." She smiled. "I'm not going to let you think I'll always be at your beck and call. When I'm nice to you, you'll just have to regard yourself as a privileged and favoured lover."
"Goodness gracious," I exclaimed, "you've got some decidedly original views for a young maiden lady!"
"Oh, I'm all that." she laughed with a blush. "But I'm thinking of Father and Mother." She became grave. "I always remember what happened once only a few years ago and before Mother was quite fifty. You know what a beautiful little figure she has now. Well, it was even more to be admired then, and one morning when I was alone with her in their bedroom, as she was standing in her negligee brushing her hair before the mirror, Father came in for something and his glance passed over her without the slightest interest, as if she were a block of wood. He found what he was looking for and went off with a grunt." She nodded emphatically. "Now, that's not ever going to happen with you and me."
"Of course it won't," I agreed at once. "I shall never be tired of looking at you."
Her eyes danced with amusement as she went on "And yet if it had been any strange woman standing before the mirror only half clothed Father would never have acted like that. If it had been even, say, the vicar's very plain daughter, with her chest as flat as a board, her red flannel petticoat, and her thick woollen stockings—just because she'd have been a different woman to dear old Dad, with all his primness and he being so easily shocked, he'd have been all eyes and making any old excuse to stay longer in the room."
"Shameful!" I exclaimed smilingly. "I wouldn't have thought it of him."
"Yes, and I know another instance," she laughed. "A very pretty girl friend of mine was married not two months ago, and she told me the other day, as a joke of course, that her husband had already got so accustomed to her that sometimes he wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her to stop snoring."
"Disgraceful!" I laughed back. "He ought to have been delighted to listen, however many hours of sleep he lost."
Two months later we were married, and what can I say of our honeymoon? Is the summit of all earthly joy climbed only in the imagination and does the realisation of anything ever quite come up to its anticipation?
Margaret was everything to me which a wife can be to her husband, tender, loving, and passionate. Still, does not a twinge of regret linger with most of us when we remember drinking too quickly of the cup of the happiness of life, instead of sipping it slowly drop by drop?
When I grow old, maybe, I shall often think of that pithy French saying, "When one is young, oh, if one knew—when one is old, oh, if one could."
In conclusion, I met Gilbert Larose in the Strand the other day and we had lunch together. He was as bright and merry as ever. In the course of the meal he brought up the death of Andrea and remarked smilingly, "You know that stupid instinct of mine which I once told you about? Well, it still insists that it was you who killed that man. I am sure that fellow brown never did it, as he was of much too nervous a disposition to have shot so straight." He shook his head. "No, doctor, you never quite succeeded in pulling the wool over my eyes as you thought you had done, and I keep to my old opinion, still."
"Oh, and what have you found out now," I asked with some amusement, "something fresh?"
"Not exactly," he replied, "but a few weeks after brown died I happened to meet a brother detective, and he mentioned to me—the first time I had heard of it—that you had been fetched hurriedly to the sick man's bedside barely a couple of hours before he made that dying deposition."
"Well, what of it?" I asked. "He just wanted to thank me for what I had done for his daughter."
Larose looked sceptical. "And he sent for you to come at once all that way," he asked, "just to thank you?" He shook his head. "No, no, doctor, that's not plausible, particularly as he at once ordered the nurse away from the bedside so that she should not listen to what he was intending to say to you."
I made no comment, and assumed as wooden an expression as I could. I wasn't going to allow myself to be caught.
Larose went on.
"And you spoke together about Andrea's death?" he asked. "Come, come, doctor, don't put on such a wary look. The whole matter is closed and nothing you admit now can do you any harm. Now, did you, or did you not, talk about that murder?"
"We mentioned it," I nodded.
"Of course, you did," he laughed. "I am quite certain about that." He went on. "Now, this is something of what I think happened that afternoon in the wood. Because of the finding of that little rifle under the shed, there can be no doubt that brown had been intending murder himself, but he arrived upon the scene just a few seconds too late and caught you red-handed, standing over the body with the smoking pistol in your hand."
"Very ingenious," I commented dryly, "but it happens to be quite wrong."
"Mind you, I don't say the shooting was premeditated," continued Larose. "I think it was more or less accidental and followed after a threatened attack by Andrea upon you. At any rate, with him dead, you and brown made a compact together. Then you rushed off in one direction and he in the other, with him, however, coming back later with those two men and making up the story of his having seen that cyclist coming out of the wood." He laughed merrily. "Now is not that something of what happened?"
"Nothing like it," I laughed back. "It's all one of your fairy stories."
"And then," went on Larose, elaborating his tale, "when brown heard from his daughter that you were still under a cloud, knowing he himself was on the point of death, he sent for you to tell you he was going to confess to having done it, so that you would be under suspicion no longer."
"Nothing of the sort," I said vehemently. "I swear to you I was astounded when I heard the next morning about his confession."
Larose snapped his fingers together exultingly.
"Caught, doctor!" he exclaimed, in great glee. "So at least part of my little story turns out to be true! Guilty on your own admission! 'Astounded' was the word you used, and you had cause to be astounded when you heard that he'd said he'd done it, when you knew it had been your own work!"
I dare say that for a few seconds I looked sheepish, but I managed to laugh it off.
"You're too clever," I said. "No, I'll not admit it, but I tell you what I will do. I'll give you a lift in my car if you're going back to the Yard"—I grinned—"that is, if you don't mind being driven by a criminal," and the smiling detective said he had no objection at all and would feel quite at home in my company.
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