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Title: The Edge of the Sword Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304921h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Jul 2023 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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LIONEL HARVEY turned over the card with fingers that trembled slightly. There was nothing that he hated more than being disturbed in his study hours, when he was on one of his stories, and he had given strict orders that he was not to be disturbed.
The maid stammered something in the way of an apology. "I—I'm very sorry, sir," she said. "But the lady seemed so disappointed when I told her that you never saw anybody in the morning. She said it was a matter of life and death, that she must see you, that you would be angry if she went away, and—and, sir, she is such a beautiful young lady."
"I know that," Harvey said, absently. "Seeing that—but no matter. Did she ask for me by name or under my pseudonym of Rodney Payne?"
"Well, sir, she called you Mr. Payne. And, of course, I knew she meant you. She said she had managed to get your address from the Daily Record Office. She said, too, that she would be quite a stranger to you."
Lionel Harvey smiled grimly, yet his eyes were very sad. His hands were trembling again now as he pushed his copy-paper away from him. He half hesitated for a moment, as if struggling with some terrible emotion.
"Very well, Maria," he said, curtly. "I'll break my rule for once. Show the lady up."
There was a timid tap at the door presently, and the slim figure of a girl entered. The maid had made no mistake, the intruder on the privacy of the novelist was certainly very beautiful. One might have called her expression very sweet and spiritual as a rule, but now she was pale and drawn with some great trouble. But nothing could detract from the perfect contour of the features, or dim the liquid blue of those eyes, or take the warm gleam of sunshine from the golden hair.
"I am sure I beg your pardon," his visitor gasped. "My unaccountable intrusion—Lionel! Mr. Harvey! What does this mean? I imagined that I should find——"
The girl broke off and started back; she laid her hand on her heart; her breast heaved as if she had run fast and far. Then gradually the pink and white confusion of her face gave way to a frosty coldness and disdain. Harvey stood there like a statue. He had the advantage over the girl, for he had known what to expect.
"If I had only known," the girl murmured—"if I had only known!"
"You would have stayed away, Elsie. I beg your pardon, Miss Armstrong. I would remind you that this interview is no seeking of mine. Probably the maid told you that in no circumstances did I suffer callers in the morning."
"Oh she did. I came to see Rodney Payne. I had no idea——"
"That the author who calls himself Rodney Payne and your old—lover—Lionel Harvey were one and the same person. I guessed that when your card was brought up to me. It was my impulse to decline to see you. But I am not one of those who forget so easily. I have not succeeded in eradicating from my memory the recollection of the old days. I daresay you regard me as one of those men who deserved little or no consideration at the hands of a woman; and yet, if you knew everything, I am quite certain you would come to the conclusion that your own conduct is not beyond the reach——"
Harvey paused abruptly, and walked up and down the room with impatient strides. He was a great deal more upset by this sudden and dramatic meeting than he would have cared to own, and, manlike, he disguised this feeling as far as possible. He did not notice the shy and timid way in which the girl was looking at him. He did not heed the half-pathetic expression in her eyes. His mind had gone back to the past. He was living certain scenes and situations over again, and yet, though he was striving hard to keep up his coldness, it needed but little on the girl's part to break down the barriers of his pride had she only known it.
The silence became embarrassing, and at length the girl forced herself to speak. The words came hesitatingly from her lips.
"I hope you do not think," she said, "that I have any ulterior motive in coming here to-day. You see, it is hardly possible for me to have been aware of the fact that Rodney Payne and my old——"
The girl broke off abruptly, and a vivid crimson stained her face. Harvey guessed what word the girl was going to use, and a bitter smile trembled on his lips.
"Why not finish your sentence?" he said. "Why not be candid? Still, I am quite prepared to believe that you did not know who I was when you came here. You are the same, yet, not the same. You have grown older, but no less beautiful. Remember, I have not——"
"Don't you think you are speaking beside the point?" Elsie said, coldly. "I was under the impression that all that kind of thing was relegated to the past. I am only sorry to find that I have placed myself in so cruel a position. It is open for you to put the worst construction you like on my conduct. For instance, you might imagine that I came here with some trumped-up story, anything to get an interview with you. After all is said and done, though you disguise yourself under the pseudonym, it is not such a very difficult matter to ascertain the real name of a writer. I beg to tell you that nothing was further from my thoughts."
"Always suspicious," Harvey said, bitterly. "With the many beautiful points which I know exist in your character, it seems such a lamentable thing that you should be spoilt by that one little strain of hysterical jealousy. What do you take me for? Do you think because I am a soured and disappointed man that I impute the lowest of motives to all mankind? I don't wish to blow my own trumpet, but you know that all my life I have always been ready to help others. I would help even my bitterest enemy if he came to me and asked my pardon for the wrong he had done me. I am going to help you now. If I can be of the slightest assistance to you I shall only be too pleased. Your eyes tell me that you have some dreadful trouble. If you will tell me what it is——"
"You are very good," the girl said, humbly.
"Indeed, I am nothing of the kind," Harvey went on. "I never could refuse anybody in distress, and you must forgive me if I forgot myself for the moment and alluded to the past. After all, I cannot forget the fact that I have not set eyes on you for two years. And the maid said it was a case of life and death. Elsie, Elsie, if there is anything I can do for you——"
The girl flung out her hands with a passionate gesture. "You are cruel," she said. "You dare take that tone to me because you know that I am in deep distress. I came here prepared to humiliate myself——"
"But why? You must be perfectly aware that there is nothing I would not do for you. I am not the kind of man to change. We parted two years ago irrevocably. I accepted your decision as final, and bowed to it. But that did not cure me of my passion for you. Because you regarded me as a scoundrel and your brother as an injured man I loved you none the less. I love you just the same, you have the same power over me, Elsie. Oh, you may toss your head in proud scorn, you can turn from me, but the fact remains. And now you have come to me to assist you. What call I do?"
"I came to see Rodney Payne. How could I know that you were Rodney Payne! And yet if I had known I should have been compelled to come all the same. To come and stand here and let you insult me with words of love. If you had any feeling——"
"Stop! I have had enough of this. I was learning to forget, to be resigned, when you forced yourself on me in this fashion. Do I look like a liar?"
Elsie Armstrong turned her eyes upon the stern, clear-cut face, with its fine chin and clean-shaven, sensitive mouth. It was not precisely a handsome face, but it was a good one, and the eyes were pleasantly grey and honest. Elsie had not forgotten him in the old days. Children and dogs had always come quite naturally to Lionel Harvey.
"You—you don't," she admitted, grudgingly. "You never did. But I am merely wasting your time with these idle recriminations. What I want to know is why you are persecuting us in this way. At first I could not understand it at all. You see I did not know who Rodney Payne was. I was reading the serial story by 'Rodney Payne' at present appearing in the Daily Record, and it struck me that the author must know my brother and myself. His description of Dick was exact, his likeness of me a little flattering, but there were touches that enabled me to identify myself."
"But what has all this to do with your visit here?"
"Oh, I am coming to that in good time. As the Daily Record story developed so it grew on me. I was forced to the conclusion that the author knew both Dick and myself. Certain reference to discreditable episodes in my brother's past was made in the story. Then he escapes from a great danger, and finally becomes secretary to a newly-made nobleman, who is the possessor of a vast fortune. That is exactly what has happened to Dick. The peer in the story has a lovely daughter, and the secretary falls in love with her. That is precisely what has taken place in Dick's case!"
"Really!" Harvey murmured. "It is a rather remarkable coincidence."
"Coincidence! Do you ask me to believe that? But I have not gone far enough. It becomes pressingly necessary for the bold young secretary to procure a large sum of money to replace some which he has lost on the turf. He has forged a certain signature, and unless the money is forthcoming to cover the forgery he is lost. So goes your story, and so goes mine."
"Oh! Your brother has done that same thing," Harvey cried. "Well, there is nothing so very remarkable in that. Thousands of young men do the same thing every year. It struck me, too, as quite a commonplace plot when I was writing the story. I might have created something different, but I let it pass. So your brother is in immediate danger of losing his liberty. When I left the firm of Hudson and Co. two years ago there was a cloud over my name. I was suspected of robbing my employers. Had not my father been in the same bank for 40 years I should have been prosecuted. For your sake I refused to clear myself and point, as I could have done, to the real thief. I told you who the real thief was, and you ordered me out of your house. After what you have just told me are you prepared to take your brother's word in preference to mine still?"
The blue eyes filled with tears. Lionel could see the crystal drops hanging to the long dark lashes. A great wave of pity came over him.
"Forgive me," he said, gently. "Think how for two years I have suffered. For months I was on the verge of starvation. Until I discovered that I had the trick of imaginative writing I hardly earned my bread. I took the name of Rodney Payne because my story was known to more than one. Perhaps in writing the Record story my imagination was coloured by the recollection of your sweet self; perhaps, unconsciously, I drew my villain from your brother Dick. As to the rest I know nothing."
"But you must, you are bound to," Elsie cried. "How could this be mere coincidence? I am prepared to grant you the characters, but the rest is too great a strain upon my credulity. Can you say you didn't know that my brother had left the bank and taken up the position of secretary to Lord Manningtree? You have described the man, you have drawn an excellent portrait of his daughter, you have even indicated the position in the library where the safe stands—the safe containing his late wife's famous emerald!"
Lionel started. He was more interested than he cared to say. "I swear to you that it is mere coincidence," he cried, hotly. "Most of us dramatise the common incidents of life, with crime and cunning to add colour to the picture. These kind of things are happening every day, Elsie. There are scores of serial writers like myself, there are literally hundreds of sensational stories published every year. If you will consider the matter you will see how easy it is to hit upon a chain of events that is happening to somebody. I have heard of Lord Manningtree, of course, but I have never been in his library, and I have no idea that his safe contains his late wife's emeralds."
"But you mentioned those jewels in to-day's instalment of your story," Elsie Armstrong protested. "You actually speak of the emeralds! You accentuate the fact that the secretary—in other words, my brother Dick—means to get them. In your story there is a certain Kate Bradley, a mysterious, anaemic pensioner of the family. Are you going to make her responsible for the robbery that you foreshadow; and who is she?"
"Really, you try my patience," Lionel protested. "Did I not tell you that the whole thing was pure fiction and nothing else. Kate Bradley is a mere subordinate character——"
"Who exists in real life," Elsie interrupted, breathlessly. "I forgot what she is called, but there is a creature just like her who has a place in Lord Manningtree's household. It is absolutely impossible for me to stand here and believe that——"
"You may believe what you like," said Lionel, coldly. "I have already explained to you how these things come about. As to the prototype of Kate Bradley——"
"I have not finished," Elsie went on. "Please hear me to the end. I can't rid myself of the idea that you know far more than you are prepared to admit. I came to you, Rodney Payne, because you are a clever man, and because you might save me from a great unhappiness. You can get your characters into desperate situations, and you can get them out again. Nobody could do that better than a novelist. If I were a desperate criminal flying from justice, I should go to some writer like yourself and ask him to scheme me an avenue of escape. I would far rather have his advice than that of the greatest detective at Scotland Yard. But it is not for myself that I ask this favour, but for Dick's sake. In to-day's instalment of your story you indicate the fact that your nobleman is found in his library half-dead by the side of the safe, the key of which is missing. And here comes the most amazing part of my story. Lord Manningtree——"
"Elsie! For heaven's sake don't tell me that he was—was——"
"Found early this morning on the point of death, outstretched in his library before the safe. And the key is missing. That is exactly what I came to say!"
LIONEL had no words to say for the moment. He was a firm believer in the long arm of coincidence; he had seen too much of it to be a scoffer. Truth is ever stranger than fiction. There are mysteries, rejected of editors as too improbable, which find more than their parallel in the daily press. And yet here was a case that staggered a hardened offender. In his imagination he had actually drawn a series of true happenings. He had finished the story before they began.
"I begin to understand," he said presently. "You have come to regard the author, Rodney Payne, as a malignant foe who was gloating over your misfortune. And instead of that you find a man who used to be, nay, still is, your lover. Well, that accounts for certain things, but it does not account for everything. As I said before these coincidences frequently happen. They had done so in my case. I once hit upon what I considered to be a fine series of eventful happenings, and I placed them in the form of a long story. I had disposed of the story to a magazine, and it was going to be published, when I was attracted by the title of a dramatic book published by a well-known author. The title suggested my tale. I read the book, and I found that the other man had practically written my story. I don't think that the editor of that magazine has ever quite forgiven me, and he still cherishes the idea that in some way I picked the brain of the other man. Elsie, can it be that there is anything in the theory of mental telepathy? Could your brother's brain in some way have communicated his idea and plans to mine? In my story the nobleman's secretary half-kills his master and steals the gems. And your brother has apparently done this——"
Lionel paused; the stricken misery on Elsie's face forced him to silence. He had a shrewd idea of what was uppermost in her mind. She did not know what to think or how to act. She had come to him, half to save her, half to ask his advice.
"My mind is in a ferment," she said. "I half anticipated some attempt at blackmail on the part of Rodney Payne. He seemed to know so much of our doings, he seemed to take a malignant pleasure in letting me know that he was in advance of our ideas. And when I had a telegram from Dick this morning telling me what had happened, I could not contain myself any longer. I was bound to see this Rodney Payne without delay. For the sake of old times you will help us, you will try to get to the bottom of the mystery?"
"It looks as if we had already done so," Lionel said, sadly. "After what you have told me about your brother, after what I know——"
"Yes, yes. My eyes have been opened lately. It is a terrible thing. But I am sure that Dick had nothing to do with this outrage. He has fallen deeply and sincerely in love with Gladys Manningtree. For her sake he was going to do better. Of course, Lord Manningtree knew nothing of this; the engagement was a secret from him. You may argue that the whole business is slightly irregular, and I am not going to disagree with you. After reading your fiction, and studying the extraordinary parallel facts, I have come to a certain conclusion. You may laugh at me, but there it is. Now, in the story still to be finished, do you make the secretary steal the jewels?"
"No, I don't," Lionel admitted, with a faint smile. "My idea has been to keep up the mystery that surrounds the character of the girl Kate Bradley."
"Oh, I knew it, I knew it!" Elsie cried. "I thought that that anaemic woman was going to develop strangely. I have felt it from the first. What an extraordinary medley it all is—the jumbling together of fact and fiction. I am glad that I came to you now, Lionel, more glad than I can say. Supposing that the prototype of Kate Bradley, Lord Manningtree's pensioner, I mean, reads the Record story as well as other people. There is no reason why she should not do so. Don't you think that she would have felt nervous and anxious and frightened, as I have done the last few days?"
"Very likely she would, if she had a conscience, Elsie. My dear girl, you have interested me in spite of myself. The study of criminology has always had a certain fascination for me. These disclosures of yours appeal to me personally. I am going to devote myself to the case. I am going to act on your suggestion—I am going to try and get you out of the mess. There is no reason why the imaginative novelist should not beat the detectives. We will suppose for a moment that your brother is innocent——"
"Oh! he is, Lionel. I can prove that at once. He was in London last night, he only went back to Manningtree Hall by the early mail his morning."
"If he can prove that there is an end of the mystery as far as we are concerned."
A shade of anxiety crossed Elsie's pretty face. "I hope he won't be asked," she whispered. "He was not supposed to be in London. He came up in a secret way. Oh! I can't tell you why, I promised not to."
"Promised that you would not tell me?" Lionel asked.
"Tell anybody. Do not forget the fact that you—as you—had not entered into my calculations an hour ago. But you may take my definite assurance for it that Dick was not in the house at the time of that tragedy. He had nothing to do with it."
"Which proves nothing," Lionel said, thoughtfully. "He might have had the emeralds all the same. And there is a new danger that you have not considered. You were wondering if the alter ego of my Kate Bradley has read my story. If she has, and if she has anything to do with the tragedy, she would make suspicion point to your brother if she was a woman of that kind. On the whole I shall make it my business to meet this creature."
"I had not thought of that," Elsie said, with a pale face.
"Still," Lionel went on, "if the worst comes to the worst, Dick must tell the truth at all hazards and clear himself. Already an idea has occurred to me. I feel as if I was making up a new story which fascinated me. Where are you staying?"
"I am still at the old place." Elsie explained. "If you want to see me——"
"I will call. I will come and see you to-morrow night at half-past ten. It is a little late, but I have much to do in the meantime, Elsie. I am glad you came; I am glad to find that you are mistaken in 'Rodney Payne.' A little later, perhaps——"
Lionel checked the warm words that rose to his tongue. But Elsie understood, for her face flushed a dainty pink and her blue eyes sought the floor.
"I am detaining you," she said, coldly. "I have stayed too long already."
Lionel said no more; he felt, perhaps, that the time was not ripe for it. He sat and mused for a long time after Elsie had gone, and, on the whole, his reflections were not pleasant ones. Then, gradually, the extraordinary story that the girl had told took a grip on him. There was a fascination about it that precluded all idea of further work. He began fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, and then gradually the way to the solution of the problem came to him.
He took a hearty lunch and walked off immediately to the office of the Daily Record. The news editor, who was previously responsible for the story page, was in, and ready to see his visitor. Lionel's explanation was brief and to the point.
"I want to make a slight alteration or two in the instalment of my story for to-morrow There is a little discrepancy I have discovered, not much in itself, but it may be spotted by some lynx-eyed reader, who will write you on the matter."
"I know 'em," the editor growled. "Make the alterations if you like. I shall be glad of it. I'll ask Morris to bring down the copy of the story that was given out to-day. You can sit at that desk and work it out at your leisure."
The work did not take long; it was merely a few words added by a cunning hand, but it entirely altered the "curtain" of the instalment. The Record always insisted upon a strong "curtain" at the end of each portion of their serials, and it seemed to Lionel that he had added to the strength of his story. With a few words of apology he turned to leave the office. He began to feel pretty sure of his ground now; he had only to wait in patience for a day or so.
"By the way, there was a lady asking for you to-day," the editor said. "An exceedingly pretty girl, too. You might have been a long-lost brother by her anxiety. I told her that we did not give the names of our writers in a general way, but she looked at me so pleadingly that I couldn't resist. I hope you didn't mind my giving her your address?"
"Not at all," Harvey said, coolly. "As a matter of fact, the young lady in question is an old friend of mine, whom I had lost sight of for some time. She called on me to-day."
"Well, that's all right," the editor said, cheerfully. "We had a letter, too, to-day from a lady in Essex who desired your address. Said she was a relative of yours lately from Australia. I sent her a postcard. If you get a begging letter from somewhere in Essex, blame me. I'm afraid that I chucked the letter into the waste-paper basket."
Lionel went on his way, without giving further thought to the matter. He was pretty used by this time to getting letters from strangers by post asking for all kinds of things, from his advice on a manuscript to a request for an autograph. He had no time to ponder over these things now, he was far too busy for that. He decided to put away his work for the next day or two, and devote himself to the mystery that surrounded the assault on the Earl of Manningtree. The papers that came out late were full of the mystery. The noble victim was not dead—indeed, strong hopes of his recovery were held—but he was still unconscious and likely to remain so for some time longer. Nobody could say whether or not robbery was the motive; nothing appeared to be missing, but the safe was locked and the key was gone. Till the Earl grew better it was impossible for any definite steps to be taken.
Lionel went down to New Scotland Yard, but he could learn nothing new there.
He was bound to admit that he had not made much progress as he walked back to his rooms about ten o'clock the following night. He was going to call upon Elsie presently, but there was something he had to do first. He took his latchkey from his pocket, knowing that already his prim landlady and the prim maid had gone to bed. As there were no other lodgers, Lionel was surprised to find a key in the door. He was surprised also to see the landing gas was lighted, and that the pin-point of flame had been turned up in his room. A woman passed him hurriedly on the stairs, a young woman with a veil over her face. She was poorly dressed, but Lionel did not fail to note the valuable rings on her slim hands.
"May I ask," he began, "whether or not you have made——"
"It is all right," the stranger said. She did not stop to explain. "I—I used to lodge here. I came to see Mrs.—Mrs.——I used my old latchkey. I'll leave it in the door. You will please give it to the landlady to-morrow. I shall miss my train."
The slim figure flitted away before Lionel could say any more. He came back after closing the front door and wondered what it meant. On his table lay a flat box, and on the top of it a note addressed to himself. The note, was short, only a few lines:
"For heaven's sake cease to persecute me. If you knew my story you would pity me. Take these and keep silent. They are worth a queen's ransom."
Hastily Lionel tore the cover off the box. As the light flashed on the contents he staggered back.
"As I'm alive, the Manningtree emeralds!" he cried, hoarsely. "The gems from the safe! What a story—if you could only get an editor to believe it!"
BEYOND doubt Lionel Harvey was holding in his hand the Manningtree emeralds. He was no particular judge of such things, but even his untrained eye could see no flaw in these shimmering, shining stones. But why had they been sent to him like this? Why had the thief made so strong an appeal to him to keep silence? These jewels had been offered to him as a bribe.
Lionel sat himself down to think it all out. The motive by which the thief had been inspired became clear presently. Evidently more than one person had been reading the serial story in the Daily Record, evidently more than one person had appreciated the similarity between the story and the course of current events taking place at Manningtree Hall.
"I have succeeded in fairly frightening my prey," Lionel told himself. "It must have been the alteration in yesterday's instalment of the story that did it. Upon my word, I have a very great mind to go down to Manningtree to-morrow and investigate for myself. As I said before, what a story this would make! And yet one reads more extraordinary stories every day in the papers."
There was nothing more to be done for the present, and Lionel decided to sleep on it. When he came down to breakfast the following morning he found that a letter from the editor of the Daily Record awaited him. Would he go round to the office in the course of the afternoon? The request somewhat interfered with the plan that Harvey had laid out for himself, but Hilton was a power whom it was impossible to disregard. And Harvey was a journalist as well as an author of fiction. For once Hilton had abandoned his studiously calm manner. He seemed quite excited about something.
"Sorry to worry you," he said, "but there's a little thing that needs explaining. The matter was pointed out to me late last night. Do you know anything of Lord Manningtree?"
Lionel started and hesitated. There was no reason why he should tell Hilton anything.
"Only by name," he said. "He was made a peer the other day to the general surprise of most people, who regarded him as a mere city man who had made a large fortune in mines, or something of that kind."
"We know all that," Hilton said, impatiently. "I mean as to the inner life of the man. Do you happen to know his niece personally or his secretary?"
There was no fencing the question any longer. Hilton's eyes fairly burnt behind his gold-rimmed pince-nez. Nothing could be gained by concealment.
"I was not aware that he had a niece," Lionel replied. "The secretary I knew because I was at school with him, and afterwards we were together in the same bank. But I only knew the day before yesterday that Richard Armstrong was Lord Manningtree's secretary."
"Very strange," Hilton murmured. "But perhaps I had better tell you what I am driving at. Your story in our paper exactly forecasted the tragedy at Manningtree. It reads as if you know all the parties, and were in a position to say what was going to happen. There is the body in the library before the safe; there is the hint that the secretary could tell a story if he liked; there is the missing key of the safe, a safe which by jove! was supposed to contain emeralds. And what happens in your story in to-day's issue? Why, the safe is opened and the emeralds are gone! I took the trouble to look up the page of 'copy' that you altered yesterday, and I find that you have fitted the whole thing closer and closer into the crime. And yet you stand there and tell me that you know nothing whatever about Lord Manningtree!"
Hilton's voice had grown cold and suspicious. Lionel began to see that it would be necessary for him to speak. He fenced up to the point by asking if Hilton regarded him as in any way responsible for the matter under discussion.
"Well, not directly," the editor said. "But you can hardly expect me to believe that there is nothing more or less than coincidence in this. And, besides, you can help the paper; which brings me to my point. This crime has become a popular sensation. It has caught on with the British public. They are thirsty for any details, and Lord Manningtree is not in a position as yet to throw any light on the matter. He was brought up last night by road, on a specially quiet car, so that his case could be properly gone into in a hospital—X-rays, and all that kind of thing, such apparatus as could not be taken into the country. I have two special men down in Essex getting all the news they can. I've just had a wire to say that the key of the safe has been found, and that the safe has been opened in the presence of his lordship's lawyer. Now, I wonder if you can guess what was discovered inside the safe?"
"Probably nothing," Lionel smiled. "You are going to tell me that the emeralds are gone."
"Well, it does not require any vast amount of cleverness to guess that," Hilton went on. "The emeralds have vanished—just the same as they vanish in your story. Suspicion at once attaches to the people who are most nearly connected with his lordship's household. I am speaking, of course, of the niece or the secretary. On the whole, it is the most extraordinary complication that I ever came in contact with, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, you are in a position to solve the thing right away. Is not that so?"
"Well, it may be," Harvey admitted, guardedly. "But I tell you frankly that I am not going to stand here and be bullied into a confession that I have overstepped the bounds of fiction and given you a story that is taken from real life. That kind of thing is very dangerous, as I knew to my cost. Not so very long ago, I used some singular incidents that were told me by a friend, and found out afterwards that I had given great pain to some perfectly innocent people, who were suffering also from pecuniary loss owing to my unfortunate use of the facts. The whole thing proved somewhat expensive in the long run, and cost me a great deal more money than I could well afford. I am not very likely——"
"Why are you wandering from the point like this?" the editor asked. "Like yourself, I always have the fear of a libel action in my eyes; and that is the reason, or, at least, one of the reasons, why I sent for you this morning. If you mean to tell me that your story which is now running in our paper is nothing more than a mere coincidence, why, in that case——"
"I said nothing of the kind," Harvey interrupted. "What I said was that the coincidence followed the story, and when you come to talk of coincidences, in which you don't seem to believe, though you are a newspaper editor, allow me to tell you of one that happened to me not long ago. I had started a series of short stories, and sent in the first two for the inspection of the magazine editor, when, to my astonishment, I received them back with a curt intimation the effect that they had been borrowed, both of them, to put it mildly, from stories published only a few months before by one of our most prominent novelists. I give you my word of honour that I did not know of the existence of any stories similar to mine, and yet the plots in both instances were absolutely the same. I did not trouble my editor again; in fact, to this very day there is a coolness between us, and I don't suppose he will ever believe in the unfortunate coincidence. And now comes the strange part of my narrative. I destroyed those two stories, but I did not abandon my main idea, so, therefore, I wrote the whole series afresh and sent them to another editor, by whom they were promptly accepted. When the first story came to be published it appeared exactly the same month as a precisely similar narrative by another novelist, and in both instances the plot of the story turned on the poisoning or drugging of a horse that was a strong favourite for the Derby. Now, what do you think of that? But I have not told you everything yet. The next story of the series duly appeared, and related to the robbery of the gold plate at Windsor Castle. You may believe me or not, but the other novelist also in his series had a yarn all about the robbery of the gold plate at Windsor Castle."
"Wonderful," the editor said, drily. "But all this is not very interesting to me just now, though you seem to have proved your point pretty conclusively. Suppose we go back again to the subject which we started on. I was saying just now that the emeralds belonging to Lord Manningtree vanished. Suspicion at once attached to the niece or the secretary—the same as in your story. And you tell me that Lord Manningtree's secretary is an old friend of yours. I believe that you could tell me a great deal more, and I want you to do so. It would be a great scoop for the paper if we could solve the mystery. That's why I asked you to come and see me. If your story is nothing more than an amazing coincidence——"
"It isn't," Lionel hastened to say. "My dear fellow, it is not so amazing, after all."
"Oh, isn't it? Well, I beg to differ. And when I come to think of it a woman in Essex wrote and asked me for your address. You remember my telling you about it. I shouldn't be surprised to find that that woman was on the same track as myself. Keep on it, Harvey, forecast a little further. Tell us where the missing jewels are?"
"Certainly I will," Lionel said, on the spur of the moment. "They are at present locked up in a cupboard in my bedroom. They came into my hands last night."
It was one of the editor's boasts that nothing ever astonished him. He lost his record now. He stared at Lionel in blank amazement.
"You had better tell me the whole story," he panted. "My word! what a 'special' this will make! Let us have it from the beginning."
Lionel told his story word for word; he concealed nothing. He knew that he would have to disclose the facts to somebody sooner or later. And he did not want his editor to spoil everything by a premature disclosure of a portion of the facts. And when the plain unvarnished truth came to be told, Hilton could quite see that the coincidence played the greater part in the mystery. Besides, Hilton was on his honour now.
"I never heard anything like this in my life," he said. "We can't spoil the story by giving it to the public in small doses. We'll have the thing solved first. And what do you propose to do with those emeralds?"
"Upon my word, I don't know what to do with them," Lionel admitted. "You see, I have not the slightest evidence to prove that they belong to Lord Manningtree at all. My story may have played on the tender conscience of another set of people altogether. Of course, we know where those gems came from, but that is not evidence. I thought of handing the things over to the police. I can't keep them, of course."
"Of course not," Hilton agreed. "But I would not go to the police yet. As a proof of your bona fides you have confided your story to me, you have handed over the emeralds to be locked in the office safe for the present. What do you say to that?"
Lionel could see no objection whatever. So far as he was concerned he did not want the police in this business. And by handing over the emeralds he saved himself from what might sooner or later prove to be an awkward situation.
"Very well," he said. "I'll bring the stones here later on, say about half-past nine to-night. Do you want to employ me as your special commissioner in the matter?"
That was exactly what Hilton wanted, as he proceeded to explain to Lionel. He must put everything else aside for the moment. Feeling a little easier in his mind, Harvey returned to the office of the Daily Record later in the evening and passed over the gems to Hilton. The editor desired to see him later, but not much before midnight. As Lionel was leaving the office one of the literary staff touched him on the shoulder.
"Just the man I want to see," he said. "There is a telephone message come on the off-chance of your being here from the Central Theatre. A lady desires to see you there as soon as you can go round. She is in the last row of the dress circle, near the middle exit. Name of Armstrong, I fancy."
Lionel muttered his thanks, and made his way to the nearest cab stand. Surely Elsie had need of his services urgently, or she would never have sent a message like that. And, moreover, she had sent it direct from the theatre over the theatre's own telephone. Therefore it must have been something that had taken place after Elsie had reached the place of amusement in question. Also, it was good to look forward to seeing Elsie in any case. Perhaps the clouds that had come between them would be cleared away now and the old sweet relationship recovered. Lionel built up quite a pretty romance as he drove along the Strand.
He came to his destination at length and explained his errand at the box-office. As he knew the general manager of the place there was no difficulty. The curtain had just come down after the second act of the comedy, and the orchestra was playing. There was an odd seat by Elsie's side and Lionel stepped into it. The girl welcomed him with a tender little smile. She held out her hand impetuously, and Lionel kept the small palm in his own for a moment. He had never ceased to care for this girl, and he began to believe that she had never ceased to care for him. Her eyes told more than she would have cared to admit.
"This is very, very good of you," she said. "I hope you didn't mind. I got one of the assistants here to telephone to the office of the Record on the chance of finding you. I came here to-night, quite alone, to distract my thoughts. During the first act I saw nothing to attract my attention; I was quite absorbed in the piece. It was after the end of the first act that I began to look about the house. Do you see the box on the left-hand side of the stage—the upper box?"
The box was obvious enough, but it conveyed nothing to Lionel, for the simple reason that it was empty. He satisfied himself on that point by standing up to see.
"The box is there all right," he smiled. "But so far as one can judge there is nothing out of the common in that. Besides, the box is empty."
"Ah! that is because the girl has left it. I hope that she has not gone altogether. I don't know why she fascinated me from the first. She was dressed in green, and has a deathly-pale face and great black eyes that are terribly sad to look at. And I don't believe that she has glanced once at the stage."
"That is rather a weakness with society ladies, Elsie."
"You will be more interested before I have finished," Elsie said, quietly. "The curtain is going up again."
THE music of the orchestra died away, the house suddenly darkened, and the curtain once more rose. At the same moment a solitary figure came into the upper box and took a seat close to the stage. There was just enough light from the footlights to see the face of the stranger, who appeared to be all alone. As Elsie said, she was very pale, her dark eyes seemed to be frightened and startled, and she was evidently paying little attention to what was going on. She gave Lionel the impression that she was watching for somebody.
"She seems familiar to me," he whispered. "She identifies herself with one of my favourite characters in fiction. Elsie, is she not like the girl I drew in my present story in the Record? The niece of the nobleman, you know."
"That is exactly how she struck me," Elsie whispered in reply. "That is why I have been watching her so closely. Why did she come here? I asked myself. What pleasure can she see in visiting a theatre alone? The same remark might apply to me, but I came to distract my thoughts, and she seems to be plunged in them. But this might or might not be a singular coincidence. Why I telephoned for you was this: A little time ago a man came into the box. He hardly stayed a moment and then he went. I could just see the light shining on his face. It was my brother Dick!"
The last words came in a thrilling whisper. Lionel was clearly startled. He had not expected anything so dramatic as this.
"You are absolutely certain of your discovery?" he asked, eagerly.
"Absolutely. I am as certain as if I had been in the box. It was after that that I thought of the telephone and that you might be found at the office of the Record. Oh! Lionel, you used to care for me at one time."
"I love you now and always, and you know that," Lionel whispered. "If you did not believe that I would do anything for you, you would not have sent for me to-night. Now tell me, what do you want me to do? You have only to command my services."
"You are very good," Elsie whispered, gratefully. "I want you to help me to get to the bottom of this dreadful business. I want you to find out who that woman is, and why Dick came here to see her. Dick pretends to confide in me, he swears that he is innocent, and yet he appears in a mystery like this. In the first place, do you think that you can find out who is the lady in the box?"
Lionel thought that it would be fairly easy. He knew the stage manager, and, indeed, he was acquainted with most of the people about the theatre. He would go off and make inquiries without delay. He came back presently and stepped into the seat by Elsie's side aflame with suppressed excitement.
"Well," Elsie asked, eagerly, "have you done any good?"
"I have, at any rate, made a most important discovery," Lionel whispered. "Your instincts were not far wrong, Elsie. The lady you are interested in is no less a person than Miss Ada Moberley, niece of Lord Manningtree!"
Elsie thrilled; she had not expected anything quite so exciting as this.
"What a strange thing!" she said. "I pictured your character in fiction as being very like her. And now she turns out to be the same being in the flesh. It seems now as if my brain could not grasp it altogether. Is this actually the girl who was in the house with Lord Manningtree? But he may have a great many nieces. And if it was the same girl she could not be here but with her uncle down in Essex."
"Lord Manningtree has been brought to London," Lionel explained. "And this is his favourite niece, the one who lives with him, for the manager told me so. Manningtree very often comes here, and the girl is generally with him. I call her a girl, but I'm told that she is a good deal older than she looks. And if ever I saw a woman who is suffering from some great mental strain, it is Miss Moberley at the present moment. On the whole, it was a very good thing you sent for me to-night, Elsie."
Elsie had no more to say. She was feeling a little faint and giddy, the heated atmosphere of the theatre was too much for her. She whispered something of this to Lionel, and they went out together. Once in the open air Elsie felt better.
"The matter can't rest here," she said. "Lionel, what are you going to do?"
"I am going to wait till Miss Moberley leaves the theatre," Harvey said. "I have a pretty shrewd idea that she will not go back to Cardigan Place, which is Lord Manningtree's London house, direct. When she comes out, I shall put you in a cab and send you home, and then I shall follow the lady."
It was very quiet in the open space in front of the theatre, so that the pair could stand and talk without attracting the notice of passers-by. A long row of cabs and carriages had already drawn up in one of the side streets.
"I want you to take this thing in hand," Elsie said. "I want you to help me to clear my brother's character of the accusation that sooner or later will be brought against him. I feel that he will be implicated in the business. I feel quite certain that when that safe comes to be opened the emeralds will be missing."
"They are missing," Lionel replied. "They told me so at the Record office to-night."
Harvey did not volunteer any further information. He was not disposed to tell Elsie anything about the amazing occurrence of the night before. Whatever might have been the impulse of the thief, the confidence had been more or less sacred. Nor was Lionel disposed to regard the thing as a mere vulgar robbery—something more than a desire for gain had actuated the person who took the stones. And if Elsie had known she would never have kept the secret from her brother.
"You seem very certain of your brother's innocence," he said.
"Oh, I am," Elsie exclaimed. "He has been very wild and foolish in the past, but all that has gone now. And he loves Gladys Manningtree sincerely."
"And yet you infer that he forged a document to get money," Lionel said. "He came very near to wrecking my career. There are a few people now who look the other way when I pass them in the street."
"What do you mean by that?" Elsie asked, with a pale face.
"I am going to tell you; it would have been better had I told you long ago. It is quite natural for you to regard Dick's faults with toleration. But in your own showing he is a gambler and a forger. He has adopted the latter course to clear himself in the eyes of the girl that he loves. But he had no mercy on me when I tried to clear myself in the eyes of the girl that I love. I tried to tell you, but you would not listen to me. When I left the bank I was in position to prove who the thief really was. But that would have killed your mother, who was very fond of me. She was in her last illness then. Before I take up the matter, and try and save your family honour, there is one thing you must promise me. You must demand that Dick tells you the truth, for there will be a great surprise in store for you."
Elsie looked up quickly. Perhaps she read the truth in Lionel's eyes. "Is this true?" she faltered. "Is it possible that my brother could be—Lionel, I could not believe it. You were so silent at the time that I took your silence for guilt."
"I know that," Harvey said, with some suggestion of bitterness in his tone. "You need not remind me of it. I won't say any more at present. Go home, and I will come and see you to-morrow. Perhaps then I may have something of importance to tell you. See, the people are coming out of the theatre, and I don't want to miss the young lady. Let me call you a cab. And don't you worry about me. I shall be all right."
Elsie might have said a great deal, only the words seemed to stick in her throat. All this had come with the force of a terrible surprise to her. She allowed herself to be placed in the cab, with merely a feeble handshake from her companion—Lionel had other and more pressing things to occupy his attention. He loitered on the steps till at length the woman for whom he was waiting emerged. As he had expected, no carriage was waiting for her. She walked alone to the end of the street, and then entered a cab. Lionel could not catch the address, but that did not matter in the least. He had only to call another cab and give his driver careful instructions not to lose sight of the conveyance in front.
It was not a long way they had to go, only as far as Arlington Gardens, where she got out of her cab at the bottom of the street. The houses were small but respectable, and most of them were dark by this time. Lionel followed suit, and, keeping quietly on the other side of the road, waited whilst his quarry approached the end house. He had half expected her to knock at the door, but she did nothing of the kind. She produced a latchkey and let herself into the house in the most natural way.
So far as Lionel could see the house was all in darkness. There was not so much as a glimmer of gas in the hall. Presently the door closed, but no rattle of chain or bolts followed. Evidently the street door had not been fastened. In ordinary circumstances Lionel would have gone home, satisfied with what he had discovered up to now. But, as the street door had not been fastened for the night, it was clear that somebody else was expected and he desired to find out who that somebody was.
Harvey waited there grimly and doggedly. He had to dodge a passing policeman now and then, but that was no very difficult matter. So far as he could see the house opposite was still in total darkness. Presently, in one of the upper windows, the light of a candle was dimly outlined against the blind. Then came two more candles standing on a lower level, so that the three of them formed a singular kind of pyramid. Lionel grinned with satisfaction, for here was evidently a signal of some kind.
He had barely time to jump back before the figure of a man emerged from the porch of a house opposite. Lionel could see now that the house in question was an empty one. So the man had been standing there for some time watching for the signal. Lionel hoped that his own suspicious movements had not been noted by the stranger. But apparently the stranger had not noticed anything, for he sauntered across the road with his hands in his pockets, looking neither to the right nor the left. As if the place belonged to him he ran up the steps of the house and opened the door. The door closed softly, but by no means in a way that suggested any attempt at concealment, and Lionel noticed that the latch was not fastened. Evidently, therefore, the stranger was not going to stay, but was here for the express purpose of keeping an important appointment. Almost immediately the living-room on the ground floor burst into a blaze of light.
"By jove!" Lionel whispered to himself. "Hang me if I don't try it."
He crossed the road and tried the door softly. It yielded to his touch. A minute later and he was standing breathlessly in the thick darkness of the hall.
LIONEL HARVEY stood there in the velvety darkness, half sorry that he had come at all. He turned his face in the direction of the doorway with an inclination to abandon the whole business. After all, this was rather a mean undertaking of his; it savoured of the spy and the eavesdropper. But Lionel thought of Elsie and his promises to her, and his heart was hardened.
As his eyes grew more accustomed to the gloom, he began to make out certain objects around him. A little light came from the transom over the door frame. So far as Lionel could judge, the house was well furnished. He could feel the thick pile of carpet under his feet, the dull gleam of great vases caught his eye, the air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers.
All this was very well, but it was not leading to anything. It was not helping in this quest that Elsie had so closely at heart. For Elsie's sake there must be no going back now. Lionel and Elsie had come together in the most dramatic manner, and there must be no separation again.
Lionel boasted no more than an average share of pluck, somewhat disconcerted in his case by a vivid imagination. And it is imagination more than anything else that makes the coward. He could feel that his heart was beating a little faster than it usually did.
But it was no use to stand there speculating. If any secret confidences were going on they most certainly would not take place in the hall. And Lionel had plenty of evidence of the fact that there were at any rate two people in the house. He had seen Miss Ada Moberley, Lord Manningtree's niece, come here, and she had been closely followed by what looked like the figure of a man. It was no discredit to Lionel that he remembered the slender proportions of this individual.
Lionel stood there quite long enough for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness of the place. He could make out now that three rooms led from the hall. Very quietly he tried the doors, one after the other, and all yielded to his touch. Was it imagination, or did he hear something like a woman's dress rustling? Certainly there was a sound like that, which gradually died in the distance.
Lionel dismissed the fancy from his mind. He could see right in front of him the velvet curtain that appeared to veil a passage. He pushed behind the curtain and looked down the corridor. There was a light at the end of it, a shaft of clear-cut light that came from an open door and cleft into the blackness of the night. Beyond the light came the murmur of voices.
"Now for it," Lionel muttered between his teeth. "Now the play begins. I wish that I did not feel quite so mean over it, but here goes. If I get caught it will take all my fertility of resource to pull me through."
Very quietly Lionel crept along the passage. The door of the room from whence the light came was open, and it was an easy matter to see inside. No man's form was visible, as Lionel had expected. Two girls were there, one whose face was familiar to him, and the other a stranger. The taller girl was Miss Moberley.
Even now, at the very last hour, Lionel hesitated. There was no getting away from the fact that he was doing an exceedingly mean thing in an exceedingly mean way, and the only excuse he had, the only salve for his conscience that he possessed, lay in the knowledge that he was doing everything for the best. Still, he was man enough of the world to know that good intentions very frequently lead people into serious trouble.
All the same, he could not find it in his mind to tear himself away since he had gone so far. From where he stood he could see the figures of the girls and dimly follow their conversation. He noticed that the occupants of the room seemed to be in some kind of trouble, so far as he could judge from the expression on their faces; they both seemed white and troubled, and, just for a minute or two, they spoke in tones so low that it was impossible for Lionel to follow, though here and there he caught certain words.
As he stood there he attempted to justify his line of conduct. He had half a mind on the spur of the moment to make himself known and offer his assistance in elucidating the mystery in which he had found himself compelled to act as a central figure. He was greatly taken with the appearance of the taller girl, whom he knew to be Miss Moberley. There was something about her face that he was inclined to trust. He could not imagine her for a moment engaged in any mean or underhand task. No woman with eyes like hers could be guilty of that kind of conduct. Lionel moved a little closer to the door, and as he did so the tall girl rose and advanced towards him. It was only for an instant or two, then she was back again in her seat. Lionel wondered if, after all, he might not be mistaken in his decision that here was "Kate Bradley."
Certainly she had some sort of a likeness to the Kate Bradley of the Daily Record story. Kate Bradley was the millionaire's niece of the tale, and the one who was to be implicated in the loss of the jewels. But Lionel felt that Elsie Armstrong would never have recognised the chance likeness in the theatre had it not been for Dick Armstrong's visit to Miss Moberley's box.
The girl was pale enough, and the dark, shining eyes suggested sorrow and tragedy, care and suffering—eyes of one who would do desperate things if driven too far. But it was not a bad face, and there was nothing of the furtive and distrustful in it. Lionel could easily have imagined the girl as the heroine of some fearful tragedy; he could imagine her making great sacrifices for others and paying the penalty herself alone. He had seen a face like that in a criminal court, the face of a woman who had killed her child to prevent the little one falling into the hands of a bad father. And those eyes were glowing now with some great emotion.
The other girl was different altogether; she was small, but exquisitely moulded, and she had lovely, regular features and brown liquid eyes full of courage. On the whole, Lionel liked the other girl's face.
"Why did you do it?" the girl with the brown eyes asked. "Ada, why did you do it?"
"I don't, know, Gladys," the taller one replied, dully. "You wouldn't understand."
But Lionel did, to a certain extent. The mention of the brown-eyed girl's Christian came came in the light of a revelation. She had been called Gladys. And Gladys was the name of Lord Manningtree's daughter, the one to whom Dick Armstrong was secretly engaged.
"I shall certainly not know unless you tell me," the girl called Gladys said, impatiently. "Why do you persist in treating me like a child? Surely I have come to years of discretion by this time, and if anything happened to you I should be left alone in this dreadful mist with not a soul in the world to advise me."
"I had not forgotten that," the other girl said, sadly. "You ask me why I did it, and I can only reply that I acted on the spur of the moment. I believe that my nerves are in such a dreadful state that I am afraid of shadows, and I am so terribly frightened of that man because it seemed to me that he was aware of everything."
"I don't agree with you at all," Gladys said. "Surely it is no more than a curious combination of circumstances. One hears cases of this kind happening every day. When you come to consider the hundreds of men who write stories for a living, and the hundreds of stories they publish, it is not very remarkable that one of them should hit upon a scheme which embraces a series of incidents which comes in our daily life. Of course, I know I am talking a little like a book at present, but I think you know what I mean."
"Impossible," the other girl cried. "The thing is too real, too absolutely true to life for one to try and close one's eyes to hard facts in this way. I shall not rest till I have got to the bottom of this thing. I shall know no peace until I have seen the author of this story and had it all out with him."
"You would never do that," Gladys cried. "He would regard you in the light of a mad woman."
"I shall risk it," Ada said. "You don't quite know even now why I am here this evening. But that we can discuss presently. You do not really understand exactly how things are."
Assuredly the plot was growing thicker. What was Miss Manningtree doing here so far from home at this time of night?
"It you tell me I will try to understand," Miss Manningtree said.
"I am not quite sure that I understand myself," Ada Moberley said, wearily. "All my lifetime I have been a creature of impulse. I do things on the spur of the moment and repent them afterwards. Sometimes my instinct plays me fairly, sometimes it plays me false. And I was so desperately afraid of that man. He seemed to know everything. Day by day, as I watched that story unfolding in the Daily Record, I felt quite sure that the author knew all of us, that he had learnt our secret. When he told of the loss of those jewels I felt certain of it. He was going to blackmail us, he knew that I had the emeralds in my possession. Oh, don't tell me that this is one of the stupid things we call coincidences! That man was—and is—an enemy in the guise of an author.... A sudden terror gripped me. I found out who the man was, and where he lived. And yesterday, when I had satisfied myself that he knew everything, I sent him the emeralds."
Lionel followed every word with the most breathless interest. So his surmises and anticipations had proved to be absolutely correct. This was more or less the scheme of the tragi-comedy that he had worked out in his mind. Ada Moberley had read with avidity every word of the Record story. She had sent him the jewels as the price of his silence. It was a strange tangle, but things quite as strange happen every day in real life. And in Ada Moberley he had the real passionate poetic nature to deal with.
"Ada, you must have been mad," Gladys Manningtree said.
"Mad! Of course I was mad. How could anybody with a nature like mine undergo all the hideous torture of the past few months without at least a temporary loss of reason! I felt that I was being followed, that all my movements were being observed, that there was some dreadful power near me reading my secret thoughts. Yet it might have been no more than coincidence. I have heard of two musicians composing the same piece of music, though they had been hundreds of miles apart and were total strangers. It might have been that the author had, by some strange chance, evolved from his brain a set of characters and circumstances that had a parallel in real life. But when those gems came into my hands, as they did into the hands of the girl in the story, I became frightened. I acted on the spur of the moment, and I sent those gems to the author of the story. They were to be the price of his silence."
"It sounds like a dream," Gladys Manningtree murmured. "And yet all the time you never told me a word about the Daily Record story."
"My dear, I was afraid to. I was fearful lest it should get on your nerves as it has gripped mine. I watched it develop, aroused at first, then curious, then alarmed, then frightened to death. And I only tell you now, when I have to account for the loss of the emeralds. If Mr. Harvey is an honest, man——"
"What did you say the name of the author was?"
"Harvey—Lionel Harvey. It is not possible that you are acquainted with——"
"Not possibly, Ada. But it so happens that I know a great deal about him. I have heard Dick—I mean Mr. Armstrong—speak of him. They were at school together, they were in a bank together. From what I can gather Mr. Harvey at one time was engaged to Mr. Armstrong's sister Elsie. Then there was something wrong over some money, and Mr. Harvey tried to fasten the guilt on to Dick. It was a dreadful business altogether, but finally it was hushed up. There was no prosecution, mainly because Mr. Harvey's father had been in the bank for over forty years. Ada, you might have found somebody more worthy of your folly, somebody with honourable ideals, at any rate."
Lionel clicked his teeth together. He was feeling very bitter against Dick Armstrong at that moment. Armstrong's conduct had been bad enough all along, but there had not been the slightest occasion to repeat the lie for the benefit of a stranger. It seemed to Lionel that it had been better had he not met Elsie again. And here he was now, working on behalf of the man who had so disgracefully traduced him.
"Perhaps I might have done better," Ada Moberley said, wearily. "As I said before, I acted on one of my uncontrollable impulses. And I am not altogether prepared to accept Mr. Armstrong's verdict on the question. I can give a very good guess what your feelings are, Gladys, but I do not like Mr. Armstrong. There is something furtive, about him. But we are wasting precious time staying here. If you were followed!"
"Oh, I was not followed. Nobody could have recognised me in that long Chesterfield coat and the bowler hat. I looked quite like a man as I came here. As I came to the top of the road a policeman touched his helmet and said, 'Good night.' I have no fears on that score, Ada."
Lionel began to understand that he had made a mistake. He saw that the slender figure he had taken for a man was Gladys Manningtree, after all. But what was she doing here, and why had she come so disguised? The conversation between the two girls so far had not thrown any light on that important point.
"We shall have to tell mother," Ada Moberley said.
"Of course," came the prompt reply. "Poor little gentle mother! What a shame it is to drag her into this sorry business. I'll go and fetch her."
The speaker turned suddenly and left the room with a light, swinging step. She came quick and agile as a fairy, so quick that Lionel had not time to get out of her way or avoid her. The widely-flung door shot a stream of dazzling light into the passage. It fell full upon Lionel's anxious, eager face!
THERE was no escape for Lionel now; indeed, he did not commit the folly of attempting anything of the kind. Besides, he was interested in these girls; it was in his heart to help them if he could. He stood there, a little surprised at his own coolness and audacity. Something like a cry was strangled on Gladys Manningtree's lips, but she was not afraid. With a quickness and resolution that aroused Lionel's admiration she pulled the door to and gripped his arm.
"This requires an explanation," she whispered. "Will you kindly come this way?"
Lionel raised no objection. The little hand lay on his arm with the detaining grip of a policeman in the execution of his duty, and with the consciousness of the weight of the law behind him. Lionel began to take enjoyment in the situation, it appealed to his imagination, it was quite a new situation for a story. He said nothing till at length Gladys Manningtree led him into a room in the front of the house, then there was little click, and the room was filled with light. Lionel turned and looked at the white, resolute face before him.
"I presume that you followed me here?" the girl asked.
"Not at all," Lionel replied. "As a matter of fact it was Miss Moberley whom I followed here. I saw you enter the house, but I mistook you for a man. I know now that I have the pleasure of speaking to Miss Gladys Manningtree."
"You have been listening to our conversation! How noble of you!"
"It was not vulgar curiosity," Lionel hastened to say. "Believe me. I am not actuated by such mean motives as that. If you only knew who I am!"
"Wait!" the girl said, holding up her hand with an expressive gesture. "There is no occasion to complicate the extraordinary chain of circumstances that has brought us together. This all comes of silly hysterical girls reading too much sensational fiction. My instinct tells me that you are Mr. Lionel Harvey."
"You have guessed correctly," Lionel said. "Please go on."
"No, sir. It is for you to go on. It is for you to explain why you are intruding here like this in a private house. If Miss Moberley and myself choose to come here in certain circumstances that demand secrecy, it is no affair of yours. Still, I am glad to have met you. You have come into possession of certain property."
"You are alluding now to the Manningtree emeralds, I presume?"
"Of course I am. You probably know now why those gems were sent to you. You will quite understand that they will have to be delivered up!"
"Stop!" Lionel said, curtly. "You are going a little too far. The expression of your face and the tone of your voice are too suggestive of the private detective, who is doing his best to get the better of the thief by the diplomatic process. Greatly as Mr. Dick Armstrong has traduced my character it is only his word against mine. As a matter of fact, Dick Armstrong is a particularly clever kind of blackguard. And I have not said that the emeralds are in my possession. To prevent accidents I have taken the precaution of placing those gems in safe keeping. When they are required they can be produced at any moment, Miss Manningtree."
"I—I beg your pardon," the girl stammered. "I have gone too far. Mr. Harvey, you don't look like a man who would do anybody an injury. Why, therefore, do you persecute us? Why did you write our family story? How did you learn that certain events were—but I am afraid I am asking you a great many questions."
"In the circumstances that is quite natural," Harvey said. "Practically the whole thing is nothing more than an amazing series of coincidences. I will not deny that I have the last day or so fitted my story to certain new developments. But we need not discuss that point. Perhaps I had better tell you the whole truth. I can't do that without alluding to the character of the man who was once my close friend—I mean Dick Armstrong. I understand that you are secretly engaged to him. Forgive my plain speaking. Dick Armstrong is a scoundrel. You need not start and look indignant; I am in a position to prove it. It was not I who robbed the bank, but he. And his sister Elsie took his side, and there was no more to be said. I let the thing pass; I did not care what became of myself after that. Besides, I was engaged to Elsie and I loved her passionately. After a time I prospered; I made a name for myself. Then I wrote that story in the Daily Record. It fitted in with your home life exactly. Perhaps my villain was a cleverer copy of Dick Armstrong than I knew. Do you know that he is in dire need of a large sum of money to cover a forgery?"
"Certainly not," Gladys said, indignantly. "That is where your story is pure fiction."
"I certainly meant it to be," Lionel went on. "But there I blundered on to the truth again. I know that what I say is true, because Elsie Armstrong told me so. Mind you, she had not the slightest idea who 'Rodney Payne,' the author, was. She sought him out to save her brother, and she found her old lover instead. She implored me to get to the bottom of this business; and that is why I am here to-night, why I followed Miss Moberley from the Central Theatre. Miss Armstrong was in the theatre to-night and saw her brother visit Miss Moberley's box. It was no great trouble to find out who Miss Moberley was. And now you will begin to understand why I am in this business. Against my better judgment I was asked to come in to save Dick Armstrong from the rest of his crime."
"His crime! What crime is that? Please do not let us have any further complications."
"Well, the inference is pretty obvious," Harvey went on. "I told you just now that Dick Armstrong is in dire need of a large sum of money to escape a charge of forgery."
"I don't believe a word of it," Gladys Manningtree cried indignantly. "Dick has been wild in the past, but that is all over. It was all over as soon as he met me."
The girl looked so greatly indignant that Lionel had little heart to proceed. It was a sorry thing to see so charming a creature with so perfect a faith in a rascal like Armstrong.
"I am afraid you will have to believe it," Lionel said, sadly. "We will assume that Armstrong is a different man since he met you. If you could not save him no power on earth could. But the mischief was done then. I know this is a fact, because Elsie told me so. It was a sad confession to have to make to me—the man whom Armstrong had so vitally injured. But there was no help for it. And to me has been allotted the task of saving that man from the results of his sinful folly. If you tax Armstrong with this you will hear him admit it. Nobody could view his sincere repentance with more pleasure than I should, especially as he has been the means of bringing his sister Elsie and myself together again. Imagine what Elsie divined—that her brother would steal your family emeralds. And at this moment she probably believes that he has stolen them. I have not told Elsie about the gems, but I shall have to tell her now, if only to relieve her anxious mind so far as her brother is concerned. If I could serve you in any way——"
There was a long pause before Gladys replied. She seemed to be studying Lionel's face with the deepest interest. And she was bound to admit that it was a very pleasant face—a face in which any girl might place her trust implicitly.
"What you say has come as a great shock to me," she said at length. "I had not expected anything like this. It seems rather strange for me to confide in a stranger like yourself; but, then, you already know so much about my feelings that——And then there is Dick. For good or ill my heart has passed into his keeping. I don't think I could give him up, for I feel that he is trying to be a better man for my sake. Those dreadful things you speak of had happened before we came together. Mr. Harvey will you not be our friend as well as Miss Armstrong's? Heaven knows that we need a friend. I daresay you wonder why I am here to-night, in this stealthy way, at a time when my father—but that secret is not my own. I daresay——"
Whatever Gladys Manningtree might have gone on to say was cut short by the opening of the door and the entrance of Ada Moberley. She paused with astonishment on the threshold, and turned, with dilated eyes, for explanation to her companions.
"Mother seems to think," she began, and then stopped. "This gentleman——"
"Is Mr. Lionel Harvey, at your service," the novelist said. "Miss Manningtree will explain presently exactly why I am here; we need not go into that now. Let me assure you that the parcel you entrusted to my keeping is in safe hands, and that you may have it back when you please. Let me assure you also that you are not dealing with a novel form of blackmail, and that the thing that has so frightened you is nothing more than a sheer set of coincidences. But, as I said before, Miss Manningtree will explain all this in due course. She has honoured me by asking my assistance, which I shall be pleased to give."
Ada Moberley's face changed from white to red, and then to a deadly grey. The dark eyes grew very reproachful as they were turned on Gladys.
"Oh! why did you do this thing?" she asked. "Surely our disgrace was deep enough without taking a perfect stranger into your confidence."
"No confidence whatever has passed as yet," Gladys said, coldly. "And you know how solely we need friends at this moment. When I tell you all that Mr. Harvey has told me you will not hesitate, Ada."
"I am doing my best to prove my worthiness," Harvey said.
"I have certainly been mistaken in you in one respect," Ada Moberley admitted. "That is in the matter of the gems. I beg your pardon, Mr. Harvey. And perhaps, after all, you could help us in our need. A novelist is so clever, he can always see so many ways out of the most hopeless troubles that——"
Harvey bowed. It was a little curious Elsie should have regarded the matter much from the same point of view. As he saw a quick, intelligent glance pass from one girl to the other, he could see that they had made up their minds. There was a certain suggestion of relief on the features of both.
"Will you please come this way, Mr. Harvey?" Gladys said, graciously. "We want to introduce you to one who is very dear to us. In short——"
The girl broke off and said no more. Lionel followed up a flight of stairs and into a room at the back of the house, where an elderly lady was seated reading by the light of a shaded lamp. Lionel noticed the quiet, placid beauty of the face, the dark eyes with the expression of chastened sorrow, the grey hair on the shapely brow. Altogether it was a charming picture of beautiful old age. And yet, at the same time, it seemed to Harvey that the lady was not really so old as she seemed.
"This is Mr. Lionel Harvey," Gladys said. "The friend who is needed so badly. We are going to place our faith in him, and do as he tells us implicitly. Mr. Harvey, let me present you to my mother, the Countess of Manningtree."
And Lionel stood there for a moment utterly at a loss for words.
LIONEL'S surprise was complete and absolute. As a journalist it was his duty to know something of the class of people who are prominent in the eyes of society; and it seemed to him that there were no details as to the life of Lord Manningtree that had escaped him. He would have been prepared without hesitation to say that Lord Manningtree had been a widower of many years' standing. He seemed to remember that the great financier and philanthropist had lost his wife abroad.
Yet it was just possible that the lady who sat before Lionel was the wife of a second, and perhaps secret, marriage. One glance at Gladys Manningtree settled that question. There was a strong likeness between the elderly lady and the girl by her side.
Lionel found his voice at last. "I am just a little confused," he stammered. "I understood that Lord Manningtree——"
"Quite so," the elderly lady said, as Lionel hesitated. "The world shares the same opinion. Only a very few people know that there is a Lady Manningtree in existence. But, my dear Gladys, why did you bring the gentleman here? Why should he be in the least interested in my little secret?"
Lionel turned an imploring eye on Gladys. It was not for him to explain how he had found himself in Arlington Gardens. It would be hard to induce anybody to believe his extraordinary story. There was the suspicion of a smile on the girl's face.
"Perhaps I had better go back to the beginning of the adventure," she said. "Mother, I ask you not to laugh at me or Ada. Remember that we did everything for the best. If you will give me your close attention for a few moments——"
The story was told at length. The look of sadness and affliction faded from Lady Manningtree's eyes, she became interested and excited. There was no suggestion of a smile on her face as the story was told.
"This is amazing," she said presently. "Ada, why did you act like that? What possessed you to send those jewels to Mr. Harvey?"
"I was frightened," Ada Moberley confessed. "I had stolen the emeralds—I stole them from the safe as Lord Manningtree lay there, as I thought, dead. I locked the safe again and hid the key. I wanted to save you from ruin. I thought that if I kept the emeralds for a time I should succeed in raising money on them. I knew how necessary it would be to obtain money before long. And the next morning it seemed to me as if the writer of that amazing serial story had discovered my secret. The awful trouble I have gone through lately and the anxiety unhinged my brain for the moment. Temporarily I was mad. I had obtained Mr. Harvey's address, and I sent the emerald's to him.... It was as if he were a blackmailer and I was paying the price of his silence. I blush to think of my folly now."
"It is not in the least likely to prove expensive," Lionel murmured.
"Not as things have turned out," Lady Manningtree said. "But why did you take my unhappy family for your models, Mr. Harvey? From what Gladys says you seem to have us all in your story. You take Lord Manningtree and make him a shrewd philanthropist, a financier who appears to be rich beyond the dreams of a miser, and yet who is on the verge of disgraceful ruin. Why did you do that?"
"Please don't ask me," Lionel said. "It is nothing more than a curious parallel. And surely the world has seen enough lately of these dignified, learned men of means who turn out to be forgers, and worse. One could mention a score of instances. It struck me as a new note to make my hollow fraud a peer of the realm. It never for a moment occurred to me that Lord Manningtree could be identified with the central figure of my romance. That is where the sharp division comes between my story and the reality of life."
Lady Manningtree shook her head with an air of sadness.
"That is just where you have hit the bitter truth," she said. "My unhappy husband is worse than any of the instances you could call to mind. I tell it you now, the whole world may know it to-morrow."
The words were quietly uttered, but they struck Lionel like a blow. If anything happened to affect the personal standing of Lord Manningtree thousands would be involved in utter ruin. It would be almost as bad as if the Government savings banks had suspended payment. At least a score of huge industrial undertakings had been floated with great success by Lord Manningtree. His name was one to conjure with; he was the great philanthropist among capitalists that the people trusted; he was the guardian of millions gathered together in small sums. Nobody had even suggested for a moment that his credit was shaky. And here was this elderly lady quietly stating that Manningtree's position was rotten to the core.
"It is past belief," Lionel cried. "I can't possibly believe it."
"Nevertheless, what I say is absolutely true," Lady Manningtree went on, in the same sad and helpless tone. "It is a very true proverb, one-half the world does not know how the other half lives. It is also true that the greater the house the greater is the skeleton that lies concealed in the cupboard. Whenever I travel about the country and see some magnificent family mansion, it is always forced upon me that the owner must have some great sorrow in proportion with the size of his domain."
"I believe that to be absolutely true!" Lionel said, thoughtfully. "It has often occurred to me to write a novel having that idea for the motif of the story. At the same time there are certain people whom one positively refuses to identify with scandal of the sort you mention. If there is one man in England whose name stands for purity and truth higher than that of any other individual, it is Lord Manningtree. Why, if I were to suggest to a single soul that his probity was doubtful, I should be laughed to scorn."
"I know that," Lady Manningtree replied. "And yet you cannot look me in the face and doubt that I am telling you the truth. It is a most shameful confession for me to have to make, and up to a few moments ago I never dreamt that I had strength of mind to mention it to anybody; but I have taken a liking to you. I admire the frank openness of your face, and, moreover, you have come into our lives in so strange a fashion that I honestly believe Providence has sent you here. I daresay you may smile at my sentimentality, but it is a privilege that all women possess, and without which we should be but colourless creatures."
"I will do all I can," Harvey said. "But when you speak of your husband in the way in which you have already——"
"Ah, I would give anything to know I was mistaken," Lady Manningtree continued. "Mr. Harvey, I am going to ask you to help me. You have come into our lives in the strangest possible way, you are clever and resolute. And your father was one of the best and noblest men that I ever knew."
"Was my father a friend of yours?" Lionel cried. "Truly this is a night of surprises."
"I can't say that he was exactly a friend," Lady Manningtree went on. "But for nearly forty years he held a most important position in Hudson's Bank. I have heard my father speak in the highest terms of yours. I was a Miss Hudson; when I married my husband I brought him a fortune of over £300,000. What you are pleased to term the Manningtree family jewels are mine; they used to belong to my mother. Therefore, so long as I do nothing, nobody can prosecute anyone who took those stones. But I am wandering from the point of my story. Ada seems to think that we are on the verge of ruin, but that is not the case. My own private fortune is considerably larger than it was when I left Lord Manningtree 15 years ago. But, large as that fortune is, I am afraid it will not be sufficient for my purpose."
"And if it is not an impertinent question," Lionel murmured, "may I ask——"
"I am coming to that. I want to save my husband's name and credit; I want to prevent the widespread misery that must overtake thousands of deserving people before long. Oh, you may ask me why I do not go to my lawyers, and the partners in my father's old bank. They could not help me, they would reply that it is impossible to interfere with a man in the position my husband occupies. It may be too late, and yet, on the other hand, we may be in time. If we are in time I am prepared to sacrifice every penny of my money to avert the coming disaster. If we could only get my husband out of the way for a time, if we could only wrest the power from his hands! You are a novelist, Mr. Harvey you are accustomed to work out problems like this in the way of your profession. Can't you think of some scheme?"
Lionel admitted that he might. It was not a little curious that Lady Manningtree and Elsie Armstrong should have approached him with the same idea. Elsie had come to him and asked him to save her brother, and now Lady Manningtree was looking to him to save her family honour. And there was the air of mystery about the latter that appealed to Lionel's imagination. There was something, too, about these people that he liked. He began to feel a certain exultation of spirit.
"Give me a little time," he said. "One must be clever and quick to grapple with such problems as these. Lady Manningtree, tell me, why do you speak with the suggestion that your husband is not capable of managing his own affairs?"
"Because that is nothing more nor less than the truth," was the startling reply. "That is where the danger lies. Lord Manningtree is a dangerous madman."
Lionel fairly started. It crossed his mind that perhaps the madness, after all, lay in the speaker. There was such an air of melancholy in her dark eyes. Lionel glanced at the two girls to see if they shared in his suspicion. Evidently they were of the same opinion as the speaker.
"You are surprised," Lady Manningtree resumed. "And now you know as much about the grim skeleton in the family cupboard as I do. You are a man of intellect and imagination, so, therefore, I can leave you to guess to what extent this dreadful misery has oppressed me. And the worst of it is that one has to suffer silently. I have always said that the sharing of grief with others is to relieve that grief of half its terrors. Even now, since I have told you this awful thing, I feel all the better for it. I am quite sure that you will understand my feelings."
"You touch me very deeply," Lionel said, with feeling. "Indeed, a lot of people come to me with their troubles. Perhaps they know that I am sympathetic, or, maybe, there is some magnetism about me which attracts trouble in my direction. But I will ask you to believe that I am speaking in all sincerity when I tell you that I will do anything to help you and relieve you of your burden. My own life has not been so happy that I am callous to the feelings of others."
Lionel spoke with a thrill in his voice which fairly brought the tears into the eyes of his listener. Just for a moment she could not speak. She held out her hands to him and pressed his fingers convulsively. It never seemed to occur to her that perhaps she was following an imprudent course in confiding her trials to this stranger. Probably Lionel's smile reassured her on that point.
"Won't you tell me a little more?" he asked. "Is there nothing that you are concealing from me?"
"I think not," Lady Manningtree replied. "Suffice it that you know where the great danger lies. And nobody suspects this—nobody knows. Ever and again it goes out to the world that Lord Manningtree has given this or that public building to some poor place, the press sings his praises, he makes a clear and lucid speech, and his intellectual air is commented upon. And yet he is a dangerous madman. Not even his doctor suspects it; only I know for certain. For ten years I lived side by side with that malignant farce, for ten years I bore my torture in silence. What age would you take me to be, Mr. Harvey?"
Lionel stammered something. If he had told the truth he would have said that Lady Manningtree was somewhere about seventy. But she did not press for a reply.
"I am 42," she said. "I was married at 18. At 28 my hair was as white as it is to-day. Ah, if you only knew! The only one who does know is my dear niece here, Ada Moberley."
As Lionel glanced at the girl he saw the shudder that ran over her frame.
"Even Gladys is more or less in the dark," Lady Manningtree went on. "My good and faithful Ada has shielded her well. But the time has come when it becomes necessary for Gladys to know everything. When I parted from my husband and refused to return to him, he punished me by taking my child away from me. It was Ada who kept me fresh in the memory of my daughter; it was Ada who induced me to come back to London from the obscure little German town where I was living; it was Ada who so planned it that Gladys can come here from time to time to see me. And it was Ada who tells me all about the desperate position into which my husband is drifting. Not that he imagines for a moment that she knows anything—he is too deeply immersed in his wild speculations for that. Gladys, it is time you went back to your own home; you will be missed if you stay any longer. Ada will go along with you. There is no need for any great secrecy for the present, now that we are assured that we are not being shadowed by a blackmailer in the person of Mr. Harvey. Besides, I should like a few words with Mr. Harvey alone."
"I will do all I can for you," Lionel said, when the girls had departed. "Fortunately we have a little breathing space. Lord Manningtree's accident is in our favour. It would be interesting to know who it was that found his way into his lordship's study and assaulted him so murderously the other night."
"Nobody did," Lady Manningtree said, quietly. "There were no burglars present. My husband brought his injury entirely on himself; it was practically self-inflicted!"
LIONEL waited for the speaker to proceed. Evidently she had more to tell him. Her face never changed from its look of resigned and gentle melancholy.
"You are waiting for the key to the situation," Lady Manningtree resumed. "It is necessary for you to hear the outline of the family skeleton. That may be summed up in one word. It has been the ruin of countless millions—drink!"
Lionel started. And yet he had half expected something of this kind. Like most people, he had heard of secret drinkers, the class of men and women who, with astonishing cunning, have contrived to keep their weakness concealed from those near and dear to them. And Lionel also knew of the fallacy that the dire madness always leaves its mark on its victims. They are bound, it is generally supposed, to be blotched of the face and blear of eye, with trembling hands that carry their story plainly written for the passers-by to see.
But such is not always the case, especially with the secret drinkers, who have long days and nights of senseless debauchery, followed by periods when they are clothed and in their right minds like other people. It is hard to tell them, though they are the most hopeless and pitiful of the whole tribe. This is the class of drinker who gradually loses his reason, and who fights to conceal the fact from the world to the end. This is the class from which usually springs the dangerous criminal, the murderer, the savage, the creature who makes the annals of sensational crime.
"I can see that you properly understand me," Lady Manningtree went on, in the same quiet, sad strain. "When I married I was one of the happiest girls in the world. I had a good and clever husband, one of the handsomest men of his time. I am told that he looks just as distinguished now. He was poor; but that mattered little, seeing that my fortune was so ample. But Edward was not the man to sit down quietly and enjoy the advantages of his wife's money. He kept on his own small business, and from the first he prospered. I expect my care helped him. Gradually he became absorbed in affairs.
"It was some time before I found out what was wrong. He had been restless and ill for a day or two; he declared that he suffered from neuralgia in the head, and that at such times it was far better for him to be alone. I left him in the dining-room. I awoke about two o'clock and he had not come to bed. Then I went down to see why. He was seated—oh, it is too terrible to speak of. One brandy-bottle was empty, and the other had nearly gone. And he sat there with a face as white as death and his eyes like coals of fire. If you ask me if I know what a murderer looks like, I can safely say that I do. He knew that I had found him out, and he was going to kill me.
"That was the first time—and there were many others. And yet, in his lucid intervals, a better and kinder man no woman could have desired. I asked questions of doctors who made a specialty of that kind of disease, and they all told me the same thing. It was bound to end some time in lunacy or murder or suicide. But I managed to keep my secret from everybody, even after the drug stage began.
"And now you know how this dreadful thing has been kept from the world. Powerful drugs have been called in to aid exhausted nature. A man cannot go on taking strong drink in great quantities without suffering for it in some way. And so it was with my husband, after a week of what he called neuralgia, when I warned him and kept others away. If I had refused him the brandy for which he craved, he would have obtained it some way, there would have been a dreadful scene, and all my care would have been wasted. Then the struggle between the man and the devil began, and the man in the end won. If the world could only have looked upon its idol then—a physical wreck, the mere shadow of himself.
"That was sometimes after a week without sleep. The blessed sleep was necessary, or else the fogged brain would go. And here came the drugs. I could not refuse those drugs. Then the sleep came, sometimes for eight-and-forty hours, and from that rose the splendid figure of the man whom the people idolise as Lord Manningtree. But am dwelling unnecessarily on a point that causes me pain and shame to speak of. The only mystery to me is that this thing has gone on so long—what a magnificent constitution he must have!
"The time came when I could stand it no longer, and I left him. I had to tell somebody, and so I told my noble Ada. She volunteered to take my place and look after Gladys, and right well has she done her duty. She tells me now that the madness is coming, that the end is very near. And that is why I want something done; why I ask you to try to work out some ingenious scheme by which we can save the exposure and preserve a name that, after all, has been fairly deserved."
"You are quite sure as to those mad speculations?" Lionel asked.
"Oh, quite. Ada can vouch for that. It may be that some of those speculations are not quite so insane as they appear to be on the surface. Edward has a wonderful brain. Still, you can see for yourself the danger of the situation. Fancy a man with a mind that is softening being entrusted with millions, sole arbitrator, the master of the trust, and all that. Mr. Harvey, surely you can think of some way to stop this? Treat the situation as if it were in one of your stories. If this were in the plot of a novel how would you act?"
"I am afraid that it is a different matter altogether," Lionel murmured. "You see, we novelists can juggle with coincidences, we can invent forces, and so cunningly plan out facts that they fit into the circumstances so naturally that the reader does not notice the craft of it. Then, generally, we have the command of unlimited means."
"So you have here," Lady Manningtree cried eagerly. "Don't forget that I am very rich. I will make arrangements so that you can draw on me to any amount in reason. But I will not ask you to settle the matter here and now—I see that you will have to turn it over carefully in your mind. If you will come and see me again——"
"Lady Manningtree," Lionel said, curtly, "I have every desire to serve you. He would be a hard man indeed who could listen to a story like yours unmoved. And there are other reasons why I am desirous of assisting you. If ever the end justified the means, it does in this case. May I come and see you to-morrow night?"
"By all means. Only do not ask for Lady Manningtree. Here I am Mrs. Curtis. Good night, and heaven bless you for your kindness to an unhappy woman."
Lionel sat far into the night, consuming many cigarettes over his cogitations. Here was a situation much more exciting and thrilling than anything he had ever evolved from the depths of his lively imagination; here was inspiration drawn from the fountain-head; but, for all that, Lionel could not see his way to a definite and logical solution of the problem. He tried to put it aside the next morning and do a little work, but presently he pushed his paper away and took out his cigarette case. Just then the door opened, and the servant came in. She hoped that Mr. Harvey would not blame her, but the young lady had called and said——
"Show her in," Lionel said, with alacrity. "I am really not very busy this morning, and—Elsie, I am very glad to see you. I was just thinking of calling."
"I know that it is very wrong of me," Elsie said, with a blush on her pretty face, "but I could not help coming. I have been consumed with curiosity. Did you discover anything last night—anything about that designing creature?"
"My dear Elsie, Miss Moberley is anything but a designing creature," Lionel said. "She is not a bit like her prototype in my Record story. As a matter of fact I spent some time in her company last night, and I found her charming. Oh, yes. I had adventures enough to fill a volume of the 'Arabian Nights.' But I am afraid that for the present I shall have to keep this a secret even from you."
"Oh, indeed!" the girl said coldly. "I presume that my anxiety over Dick will have to remain unsatisfied for the time being?"
"I must confess that I had forgotten all about our dear Dick," Lionel admitted, coolly. "Yet, now I come to think of it, it was more on Dick's behalf than anything else that I embarked upon my undertaking. All the same I can relieve your mind so far. Dick had nothing to do with the loss of the emeralds, for the culprit is ready to confess at any moment. Nor did any casual burglar break into the house, and assault Lord Manningtree. His injury was the result of an accident. The public have another theory; but, really, we are not concerned with the public for the present. So long as Dick is all right you should be satisfied. As I said before, Dick is a rascal and he has caused me a good deal of unnecessary suffering. I would have forgiven him that had he not come between me and the girl I loved, Elsie. We shall be able to judge later on whether or not your brother is the reformed character that he pretends to be."
Elsie's face flushed, and she appeared to be on the verge of making some hot reply. She checked herself with an effort, and the tears rose to her eyes. After all, this man loved her and she loved him. She had tried to convince herself to the contrary, without success. And she had sent him away coldly in the hour of his deepest affliction for the sake of a brother who stood self-confessed as a forger and a thief. Richard was a coward, too; he had proved that when he had cried out at the first flush of danger.
"I—I am very sorry," she stammered. "Lionel, I am afraid that I have made a great mistake. And Dick has admitted that he has been very weak. I will not ask you to tell me your secrets. I deliberately forfeited all right to share them."
Lionel crossed the room to Elsie's side. His face flamed, as hers had done, and there was a look in his eyes that caused Elsie's gaze to seek the floor.
"That may be remedied," he said. "You were very cruel to me once, Elsie, so cruel that I lost all my faith in humanity for the time. But my nature is not one to change; I shall always remain the same. And I can't think that we came together again as we have done entirely by accident. It will be for you to say whether we shall part again. But not yet; you must be quite sure in your mind that I am right and you are wrong. If you have altogether ceased to care for me——"
"Oh, Lionel! As if I could ever have quite—quite——"
The girl paused as the door opened and the trim maidservant entered the room. She laid a salver discreetly on the table, and on it lay the orange envelope of a telegram. Lionel tore it hastily open and shook his head at the maid.
"There is no answer," he said. "Elsie, I have to go out at once. Perhaps if you are doing nothing to-morrow night, and you care to come to a theatre with me——"
Elsie laughed as if pleased about something. She wondered what that telegram was about. She could not see, for it lay face downward on the table.
"come to cardigan place at once," it ran. "urgently need you. —ada moberley."
A SOLEMN footman admitted Lionel into the great house in Cardigan Place, and escorted him in a stately way as far as the library. Harvey was duly impressed by the signs of wealth that he saw around him. The pictures and the carpets, the gleaming marbles and the great spreading palms spoke eloquently enough of the position of the owner of the house. And yet the gorgeous setting was merely the frame for an abject atom of suffering humanity, a thing almost without a brain. It seemed to Lionel that there was something tragic about it.
He had not long to wait before Ada Moberley came in. Her face looked deathly white in the strong sunshine, the blue veins stood out on her temples, and her dark eyes had a tired expression in them.
"It was very good of you to come so soon as this," she said. "I am sure it is fortunate for us that we found to true a friend in you."
Harvey murmured something appropriate. He wondered at the stillness and silence of the house; it might have been a chamber of death by the want of sound.
"I came as soon as possible," he said. "How is your patient to-day?"
"Oh, he is much the same," Ada replied. "You think that he is suffering from some accident or hurt of some kind. Physically speaking, Lord Manningtree is as well as either of us."
"I am afraid that I don't quite understand," Lionel said.
"Then let me make the thing plain to you. There are occasions when we are inclined to rebel against the decrees of Fate. We regard our misfortunes as terrible disasters, never realising that Providence is behind even the most trivial incident in our lives, and that the things we call troubles may be the greatest blessings in disguise. It is not very long ago since a friend of mine was bewailing the missing of a train, which prevented her seeing her relative off to India. The relative in question was rich, and inclined to be eccentric. My friend was quite sure that she would never be forgiven, and that her carelessness was likely to cost her a fortune. And yet, when that train met with a serious accident and a great many people were killed, my friend was not in the least grateful, and still looks upon herself as an aggrieved person."
"I know exactly what you mean," Lionel said, smiling. "One of the most prominent men I know always says, when misfortune overtakes him, that he is going to turn it to the best advantage. So far as I am personally concerned, one of the greatest misfortunes that ever happened to me proved to be the source of my present prosperity. I had an appointment on a small paper, on which I practically lived, and I had not pluck enough to cut myself adrift from it and start in my present line as one or two people strongly urged me to do. I was terribly upset when that paper ceased to publish; but, you see, after all, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. But why am I talking in this egotistical way when there is so much to do? You were saying just now that physically Lord Manningtree is as well as either of us, to which I responded that I did not in the least understand what you meant by that remark."
"I had quite forgotten that. There are dramatic periods when misfortunes, as I said before, are blessings in disguise, and this is one of them. Nobody attacked Lord Manningtree in the study, nobody made the slightest attempt to rob him; at least, nobody but me. But, I need not go into the business of those emeralds again. As a matter of fact, my uncle fell and injured his head. He had had one of his worst fits of alcoholic craving. I let the thing go as an act of violence, because it was absolutely necessary that Lord Manningtree should attend some important business meetings this week. Usually he manages to keep himself in good condition for that kind of thing. But I suppose that the craving was too strong for him. Now there can be no suspicion of the real cause of his absence."
"Still, it must be very awkward," Lionel murmured.
"Awkward! That is a mild way of putting it. At the present moment it means something like ruin. I hate and detest what is called business, but during the years I have been with my uncle I have of necessity learnt something of it. Oh, you have no conception of the anxieties that beset a very wealthy man."
Lionel glanced around the magnificently appointed room, the contents of which would have been a fortune to the average man.
Ada smiled sadly. "I can see what you are thinking of now," she said. "But every rich man has bitter enemies. There is only a certain amount of money in the world, and when one man gains an abnormal proportion of it others have to suffer. You see what I mean. When Lord Manningtree started he was very poor, now apparently he is worth millions. And where have those guilty millions come from? Why, from others who have not been so successful in the race. In the city the war goes on. There are no dead bodies, no wounded lying in the streets, but it is war, terrible and merciless, all the same. There is no question of clemency, no mercy for the man who has been beaten to the floor. My uncle has fought his way to the top, although every company he has floated has been bitterly opposed. He has had to guard against the wrecking of many a splendid enterprise. There are scores of men even now who are waiting for a chance to catch him tripping. They would not care what happened, they would not heed the ruin of thousands, so long as they could drag Manningtree down. And more than once they have nearly succeeded. I have seen my uncle here in the last stages of despair, ready to sell his soul for a few thousands in money. I have known the nights when he has paced his bedroom unable to sleep. Oh, it is a dreadful burden this wealth, believe me. And, with all his faults, I am fond of my uncle. It is just possible that Lady Manningtree took you into her confidence last night——"
"I should say that she told me everything," Lionel replied.
"Yes? Then you know something of the danger that I have to face. Let me take you into my confidence in turn. A crisis has come when the master brain is quite incapable of grappling with it. The enemy is taking advantage of the situation. I sent for you because I needed your assistance. You may naturally ask why I don't go to the big firm of city solicitors who advise my uncle. I dare not tell them how things stand. There is one man whom I might have consulted—the cashier to the great parent trust that is at the head of all my uncle's ventures. All the money goes through this trust, it comes in a golden stream to water all the branch undertakings. Mr. Wilmer is a power under my uncle. I believe that he has been bought over by the enemy. That is why I sent for you to advise me. If you could devise some means of obtaining one hundred thousand pounds——"
"I can promise that if necessary," Lionel said, boldly.
He spoke on the spur of the moment, recollecting what Lady Manningtree had said. Ada looked at him with a profound amazement.
"I am not boasting," he hastened to say. "But why do you suspect this Wilmer?"
"Because he is keeping out of the way," Ada went on. "He is supposed to be confined to the house by a bad illness. I went down to his place and was told that he could not see anybody. It was night when I got there. I had to wait for my train some time in the station, and I saw Ernest Wilmer, muffled up to the eyes, enter a train that was bound for Kensington. I recognised him by a little limp he has. After that you cannot wonder that my suspicions are aroused."
"It certainly looked bad," Lionel said, grimly. "But if there is nothing the matter with Lord Manningtree why does he keep——"
"That brings me to the point. He is all right physically. He has seen some of the most eminent specialists in London. They all say that the fall has caused some mysterious injury to the brain. My uncle lies in bed, and looks at them stolidly without saying one single word. The surgeons talk about an operation in a day or two. But they are all wrong; that man has deceived them all. There has been no injury to the brain; it is going, getting soft and useless, and my uncle knows it. That is why he will not speak, he is afraid of betraying the truth. A chance word or two may do it. He has just enough sense left to know that his mind has nearly gone. He does not wish to spend the rest of his days in an asylum with keepers about him. When the doctors had gone this morning he implored me to keep them away from him. He rambled on in the most painful way with intervals of clear lucidity. It was very distressing. He wants to tell me something, and he can't recollect what it is—something to do with the business. And people are beginning to call, private people whose money is invested by my uncle. One girl has been to-day, and she is coming back presently, as I asked her to call again. I want you to see her, to tell me what you think of her. As a novelist you can read character. She is quite an innocent little blue-eyed thing, but my instinct tells me she spells danger. But, then, I have learnt to be suspicious of anybody."
And Ada turned away with a little gesture of weariness. Before Lionel could reply the door of the library opened, and a footman came in, followed by a visitor. Lionel recognised her from Ada's description—a little, timid-looking girl, blue-eyed, and pathetic. She half drew back as she saw that a man was there.
"This is Miss Cromarty," Ada said. "Mr. Harvey. You can speak before him."
"I—I am very sorry," the girl stammered, "but my need is so pressing. What is to become of me I really don't know. You see, this little sum of money——"
The speaker paused, and her blue eyes filled with tears. There was something very pretty and pathetic about her. She held in her hand an oblong strip of pink paper with which she was nervously playing. Altogether she appealed to Lionel.
"I hardly like to," the girl went on. "This is more or less private business in connection with some money which I had invested in one of the companies with which Lord Manningtree is connected. You see, I know so little about this kind of thing, and Lord Manningtree was so good as to——"
The girl paused, and her pretty blue eyes filled with tears. She looked so innocent and childlike that Lionel's sentimental heart was touched at once. It always distressed him to see women and children in trouble; and yet, though the girl looked so innocent, so young, and so utterly unfit to cope with the world, there was something about her which the novelist would have found it hard to describe. It was not exactly cunning that he could see in her face, but something more in the nature of impish mischief which had a sting of malice in it. Lionel felt pretty sure that here was a girl who would have done very well on the stage, had she chosen to adopt that profession for a living. All the same he repressed his feelings, telling himself that his suspicions were unduly severe. He tried to conquer his prejudice.
"Come, come, don't be upset," he said, kindly. "There is not the least occasion to be nervous or frightened in the presence of this lady and myself. I am quite sure that if there is any trouble we shall be able to settle it for you, so please dry your eyes and try and tell me what is the matter."
"This is very good of you," the girl sobbed; "but, really, I don't like to trouble you with my silly little affairs."
Once more Lionel saw the fleeting expression of mischief on the girl's face. Once more he fought down his prejudice.
"You can speak freely to me," he said. "As you are probably aware Lord Manningtree is very ill. I—I am looking after his affairs for the present."
The girl looked up swiftly, and a smile played over her baby face. "Then perhaps you can settle the difficulty about this cheque," she said. "You see, I am an orphan, with nobody to look after me. Lord Manningtree was so kind as to undertake the investment of some money that came to me a year or so ago. It was an understanding that I could get the money when I pleased. And I had a cablegram from my only brother in Australia, urgently asking for £2000. I am afraid that he is in dire need of that money. And I got a cheque from Lord Manningtree. I went down to his place in Essex for the purpose, and when I took the cheque to the bank to-day they would not give me the money. If I could only see Lord Manningtree!"
There was an impressive silence for a moment. Ada Moberley had turned her back, and was drumming with her fingers on a table. There was no mistaking what this innocently afforded information meant. It was some little time before Lionel began to see his way.
"May I ask when this was?" he suggested.
"Three or four days ago," the girl said. "The same day I got the cablegram. You see, I wanted to send the money to my brother at once——"
"Yes, yes. Let me look at the cheque. I daresay I can explain why—Ah! yes, it looks all right. But there is one little piece of information that I shall be glad to have from you, my dear young lady. If you were in all that hurry to send the money to your unfortunate brother, why did you not cash that cheque the next day? Why wait four days? Pardon me if my question suggests idle curiosity, but as one who has some small knowledge of business matters——"
The girl's expression changed for a moment. Her face grew hard and defiant. She seemed to be angry about something, she had the air of one who has been led on by another and then deceived as to the stability of her position. The innocence and sweetness vanished; only for a moment, but that sufficed for Lionel.
He had made up his mind exactly what to do. His keen imagination saw the danger that lay behind that innocent-looking piece of paper. He crossed over to the open window with the cheque in his hand. Then suddenly he tore it into a hundred pieces, and allowed the fragments to float in the breeze.
"That's done with," he said, genially. "I expect the signature was not quite in order. If you will come here again this evening I shall be able to do better for you than a badly-drawn cheque. It is a great shame that a pretty, simple little girl like you should be bothered in this unnecessary way."
THE girl's right hand went out in a clutching way, her face hardened. In the twinkling of an eye she had been transformed into a raging fury.
"You are a beast!" she hissed. "A cunning beast! With that cheque in my possession, I could——"
She paused, struggling for the mastery of herself. She cast her eyes down on the carpet, and when she looked up again her blue eyes were full of tears once more.
"Forgive me," she said. "I thought that I had rid myself of that awful temper of mine. I am quite alone in the world, and I get suspicious of everybody. So long as I had that cheque——"
"But it was informal," Lionel said. "If Lord Manningtree was all right, there would not be the slightest difficulty. How much money has he of yours? I am told that he is a kind of trustee to hundreds of people. He has four thousand pounds of yours? He gave you a receipt for it? Well, bring the receipt here at eight to-night and you shall have your money in Bank of England notes. Will that satisfy you?"
The girl's voice told her thanks, but her eyes had a greedy look in them. They reminded Lionel of the eyes of a cat after she has made an unsuccessful spring for a bird. He turned to Ada gravely after the visitor had left the room.
"It was a very good thing I was here," he said.
"It was very daring," Ada smiled. "I should never have had the courage to destroy that cheque as you did. Mr. Harvey, what does it all mean? I can see that you have solved it."
"My dear Miss Moberley, the solution is obvious. That designing little minx is acting on behalf of the enemy. Probably she was put up as a blind. Oh, I have no doubt that she holds Lord Manningtree's receipt for that money. That was a pretty weak story as to the brother who is in dire need of the money—you saw how foolish she looked when I asked her why, in the circumstances, she had delayed the cashing of the cheque."
"But why had she delayed the cashing of the cheque?"
"Can't you see? This is where the imagination of the novelist comes in. She did not cash the cheque the day after receiving it simply because it would have been honoured, and there would be the end of the incident. But she waits till to-day, acting on the sure and certain information that by now the cheque will be returned—and it is. She came here to make a scene both inside the house and out. The matter would have found its way into the papers. But that is not the worst; the novelist imagination in me carries me further than that. She can't get her money, so she goes to Bow-street, with that cheque in her hand, and applies for a warrant for the arrest of Lord Manningtree on the ground that he has embezzled her money. Now do you see?"
Ada nodded, her pale face was still more ashen. "I understand," she whispered. "Oh, I am quite certain that you are correct. And you coolly robbed her of her weapon, you drew her teeth for her. But when she comes here to-night——"
"She will get her money. I want her to be rendered quite harmless, and at the same time I want to make arrangements to have her followed. It will be exceedingly useful for us to know who is behind her in this matter. At the same time, the situation is a great deal more serious than I had expected to find it. The refusal to cash that cheque is very grave. It looks as if the end were nearer than we anticipated. I understand that something like seventeen thousand pounds is drawn every week to pay the many hands employed by the great industrial concern over which Lord Manningtree is the nominal head. Now, how can I possibly find out how matters stand at present?"
"Mr. Armstrong may be able to tell you," Ada replied. "As my uncle's private secretary, he has access to everything. He is probably in Fenchurch-street at the present moment. If Saturday comes and those poor people are not paid there will be an end of everything. It will be almost as bad as if that designing girl had succeeded with her plot."
"The money will be forthcoming," Lionel said, cheerfully. "Whatever happens, everybody is going to be paid. I'll see Armstrong at once, and I shall be back here at eight o'clock to-night as arranged. I am going to succeed over this matter."
Lionel went off citywards cheerful enough though he was by no means anticipating any pleasure from his interview with Dick Armstrong. He walked coolly enough into the latter's office without giving his name. Armstrong looked up from his book and papers with a sharp, angry glance, though his face turned red and sullen as he saw his visitor.
"If you think you can gain anything by this——" he began.
"I am not here for myself alone," Lionel said. "Do you suppose that I am here for the pleasure of the company of a blackguard like you? I am here to try and save Lord Manningtree from the ruin that hangs over him."
"Good heavens!" Armstrong cried, with a startled expression. "Is it as bad as that? I mean, is the thing being talked about by the man in the street already?"
"No, it isn't," Harvey said, curtly. "I am only on the inside track by a kind of accident. As a matter of fact, your sister was the indirect means of my being asked to come and take a hand in the mystery. You served me a blackguardly trick some years ago, and I am not likely to forget it. And, from what your sister says, you have not reformed."
"I have," Armstrong muttered, with the dull red spot still on his cheek. "Once let me get out of my present mess and I'll never swerve from the right path again. Still, we can talk personal matters another time. What do you know about Lord Manningtree's affairs."
"Perhaps more than you do. I know that a cheque of his for two thousand pounds was dishonoured only to-day. I know that you don't know where to turn for your wage money on Saturday. And if you can show me how to run the ship, I can find a lady who is prepared to advance money to do it to the extent of a quarter of a million. You need not ask who the lady is, because that is entirely a secret for the present. Now, tell me, has Lord Manningtree been speculating and overreaching himself? Has he been manipulating the shares of his properties?"
"Hanged if I know!" Armstrong said, sullenly. "All I can tell you is that lately everything seems to have vanished. It is only the last month or so. The large bank balance seems to have melted away, paid by huge cheques to people that I can't trace. There is the cheque for the Saturday wages sheets, but it won't be honoured. And the people at this bank will tell me nothing, urging, correctly enough, that it is no affair of mine."
"We need not worry about the bank at present," Lionel replied. "We know that only to-day a cheque for £2000 was refused payment, a fact that is full of eloquence. Has it never occurred to you that there is something wrong with Lord Manningtree mentally?"
Armstrong glanced at his companion with a startled expression of face. "You've guessed it," he said. "I have thought so for some time, but did not dare to put my suspicion into words. Look here, Harvey, you can believe me or not, but I am only anxious to go straight, so far as this business is concerned. I've turned over a new leaf, and I am going to try and prove it to you. We are both of us pretty shrewd, as far as money goes, and the years we served together in Hudson's Bank will stand us in good stead now. What do you think is the matter here?"
"Well, I have my own idea," Lionel replied. "Lord Manningtree is suffering from softening of the brain. He knows it quite well, and he is hiding the fact as long as possible. My belief is that he is hiding large sums of money away somewhere in the fear that the concern is more or less rotten. The thing is to find the hiding-place of the money. I am going to work that out as if it were part of the plot of a story. And unless my instinct is greatly mistaken there is an enemy in the camp. Before going any further I should like to have your private opinion of Mr. Ernest Wilmer, who has been head man in the counting-house for the last ten years."
"Wilmer is away ill at the present minute," Armstrong explained.
"That's the very point that I was coming to. It is an amazing piece of misfortune that both the principal and the chief of the money-spending department should be laid up at the same time. It is so unfortunate that it has made me suspicious. Now, as you are probably aware, Miss Moberley is no fool. She knows as much of this business as anybody. She went to Wilmer's house to try and see him, but he was too ill. Fortunately Miss Moberley had some time to wait at the station for her train, and she declared to me that she saw Wilmer get into a train for Kensington. She says that she is quite sure, and that she recognised him by his limp. Assuming that this is correct what do you make of the circumstance? Suspicious, to say the least of it, eh?"
Armstrong nodded thoughtfully. He quite appreciated the importance of the discovery.
"We must try and get at Wilmer's books," he said. "It looks as if Wilmer knew that the head of the concern was queer and recognised the chance of making a little pile for himself. If we could get hold of Wilmer's keys——"
"Why worry about that? I daresay we could manage to get a letter from Lord Manningtree to some eminent firm of safe-makers, asking them to come here as soon as possible and open a safe the key of which is lost. As Wilmer is not likely to show up for a day or two there is little chance of discovery. The thing would be done after the other clerks had left for the day, and we should be the richer for a way to Wilmer's private ledgers. It is no time to stand on ceremony. And there is another little thing that you can do for me."
"I'll do anything you like for the sake of Gladys' father," Armstrong declared.
"That's the right spirit in which to speak," Lionel replied. "I want you to be at the corner of Cardigan Place, just opposite Lord Manningtree's house, at ten minutes past eight to-night. Take care to see everybody who comes out of the house without attracting attention yourself. About a quarter-past eight you will see a little girl with a baby face and blue eyes emerge. Unless I am greatly mistaken she will call a cab, and you had better have a cab ready to follow. I want you to discover all about the girl, where she goes and who she calls on, where she lives, and all the rest of it. I'll give my reasons later on; for the present moment I've got my hands full."
Armstrong nodded his acceptance of the offer. At the time appointed he stood on the pavement by the side of his cab, as if he were waiting for somebody to come out of a house close by. It was getting dark, but it was not too dark to see the faces of passers-by. The quarter-hour past eight struck, and then a dainty little figure came down the steps of Cardigan House opposite, and stood as if waiting for a cab. A hansom dashed up presently, and the dainty little lady gave an address that Armstrong could not quite catch. The girl turned and looked doubtfully at the cloudy sky. As she did so her profile was so clear and sharp cut that Armstrong could see it perfectly.
"By jove! I know that face," he muttered. "It's Kitty Cromarty, who used to be on the variety stage in Cambridge five years ago. She hasn't altered a bit. Now, how did she manage to find her way into this galley?"
ARMSTRONG'S surprise might have been greater had he known why he had been deputed to follow the form of the fascinating Miss Cromarty. He was just a little astonished to see this favourite of the lighter stage emerge from the respectable and solid house in Cardigan Place; but, after all, there was very little in it. Probably the lady in question had called to inquire after Lord Manningtree, perhaps to ask his advice over the settlement of her money matters. Thousands of people did that every year. Thousands of letters came by post. And very few of those letters remained unanswered.
Still, Armstrong had been told to follow this woman, and he was ready to do so. He had stepped into a cab, and was giving his driver directions, when a footman came from the house opposite and approached the cab breathlessly.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "This letter came for you just now, and as it is marked 'urgent' Miss Moberley said you were to have it directly you came."
Armstrong took the missive in silence. Probably Ada Moberley had noticed him from one of the windows. With a curt nod he urged the cabman forward. He would be able to read the letter presently at his leisure. He had recognised Elsie's handwriting on the envelope, therefore he could see no need for hurry. He lit a cigarette and then proceeded to open the envelope. His face grew a little paler, his lips tightened as he read the pregnant words:—
"My Dear Dick.—There has been a man here looking for you twice this afternoon. He said he had been to the office, and that you were not there; he is coming again after dinner. I understood him to say that he came from some solicitor firm, and that he desired to see you in relation to some document on which you had borrowed some money from a firm called Schreiner and Co. He said you would know what he meant. Something is wrong with the document in question. I am afraid that there is something serious the matter here, as the man had a friend who was waiting for him in the street. There are other circumstances that have made me feel very frightened. I am writing both to the office and to Cardigan Place. If you get this, don't come home, but telegraph me where I can meet you later on. Whatever you do, please don't return to our rooms.—ELSIE."
There was a queer fluttering of Armstrong's heart and a dry feeling at the back of his throat as he read the letter for the second time. He had deemed himself to be quite safe over this business for another six weeks at least. Schreiner and Co., were a firm of discounting financiers of whom he had borrowed the money to relieve himself from the pressing gambling debts. And the securities were forged. No doubt these people had found it out; they were going to press him for payment, though the day of redemption had not yet come. Perhaps they had already issued a warrant for his arrest. The mere idea sent a cold shiver down Armstrong's spine.
Schreiner and Co. were reputed to be rich, but they had a bad reputation. So long as they made money and kept out of the grip of the law, they cared nothing for their probity. But, in his need Armstrong had thought little of this. It had occurred to him at the time that Schreiner and Co. had lent him that money in a casual kind of way. When he came to put the pieces of the transaction together it seemed to him as if one of the touts of the firm had actually taken him there. Armstrong wondered if he had been drawn deliberately into Schreiner's net on purpose to become a tool of his.
Well, he would keep out of the way for the present, and try to ascertain what was the matter before he met the agent of the enemy. He put the letter back in his pocket, and looked moodily out at the cab in front of him. The other cab stopped presently, and the girl got out. Armstrong's driver began to walk his horse slowly, so that the occupant of the second cab could see and hear all that was going on.
The street was a gloomy one filled with solid, respectable houses, most of which had large, brass numbers on the doors. Before one of these doors Kitty Cromarty stopped and held up a coin to the driver. He appeared to be duly impressed by it, for he asked if he could wait for the lady.
"If you like to wait till ten," she laughed, "by all means."
"I'll come back for you then, never fear, lady," the cabman said. "No. 19, is it?"
The cab drove away, and Armstrong dismissed his own man. He had already ascertained that his quarry was staying at No. 19, and a glance at the wall opposite showed that this was Stonehouse-street, W.C. Also Armstrong knew that he was free till ten o'clock. He had not yet dined, and there was plenty of time to spare. A passing policeman directed him to the nearest telegraph office, whence he despatched a message to Elsie asking her to meet him at the Globe Cafe in half-an-hour. A London directory lying on the counter of the post office gave Armstrong an idea.
At this late hour the branch post office was not particularly busy, so that Armstrong was enabled to get in a little conversation with the lady clerk on the other side of the grille. After a few opening compliments he began to draw towards the object which he had in his mind. Here was an excellent chance of learning something about the people in the neighbourhood.
"Have you been here very long?" he asked.
"Well, no," the girl replied. "Only a few months. You see we get moved about pretty frequently, so that one does not get much chance of knowing what is going on in the locality."
"I suppose that can't be helped," Armstrong replied. "Still, I daresay that, busy as you are, you get to know something about the neighbours. Now, for instance, do you happen to know anything about Stonehouse-street, which is only round the corner? You see, I am looking for a friend of mine, who, I believe, lives somewhere near by. As far as I recollect I think the number is 19."
The lady clerk responded that she was quite unable to afford Armstrong the desired information. In fact, she intimated pretty plainly that she usually minded her own business to the exclusion of other people's affairs. There was nothing for it now but for Armstrong to fall back on the directory lying on the table. A sudden rush of business put an end to further conversation, so that Armstrong had no further opportunity of seeking information, except by the aid of the directory, which, fortunately, happened to be an up-to-date one, a thing that one does not always obtain in a branch post office. He was not altogether prepared for the startling discovery which the directory was about to disclose.
"It would be just as well," he told himself, "to find out who Kitty Cromarty is visiting at 19, Stonehouse-street. It may help us later on."
Rapidly Armstrong fluttered over the leaves of the bulky volume. He came at length to the place he wanted. There was 19, Stonehouse-street, and, opposite it, the name of Hermann Schreiner, head of the notorious firm of that name.
Armstrong went out puffing at his cigarette thoughtfully. It was hard to dismiss this very startling discovery as a mere coincidence. Kitty Cromarty had come direct from the residence of Lord Manningtree, and had gone to see Hermann Schreiner. Also she was likely to stay with the latter for some time. Obviously, there must be some mischief in hand here. Schreiner and Co. were noted as wreckers of other commercial undertakings; they liked to bring about the ruin of sound concerns, to buy them at a small price, and set them going again. It was a very old firm of shady reputation, but few firms were as successful as Schreiner and Co. Was it possible that Hermann Schreiner had an eye upon Lord Manningtree's colossal undertakings?
The more Armstrong thought over the matter the more convinced he was. Schreiner had obtained exclusive information, as he frequently did. After all, there was nothing very wonderful in the fact that Lord Manningtree's deplorable state of mind had become more or less public property; indeed, the wonder was that the secret had been kept so long. Mr. Schreiner was always on the ferret for that kind of information, and had his spies out everywhere. And here was the glorious opportunity of a lifetime. It would be easy work to bring Lord Manningtree's colossal structure down with a resounding crash, to buy the millions of shares at paper price, and then to build up the business that was there all the time. That was the kind of philanthropist that Schreiner was.
Beyond doubt Kitty Cromarty was one of the puppets in the game. Armstrong knew the girl to be an exceedingly clever actress, capable of filling many parts. He made up his mind to find out what was the desired point. And no doubt Lionel Harvey could tell him a great deal more than he already knew, or he would not have asked him to have the woman so carefully watched.
The matter was still occupying Armstrong's mind to the exclusion of everything else when Elsie arrived at the restaurant. She looked pale and anxious, and there were big dark rings under her eyes.
"Oh, I suppose I had better try and eat something," she said, wearily. "Only please don't get anything expensive for me, Dick. I am glad you got my letter. Tell me, is it as bad as I imagine it to be?"
"I am afraid so," Armstrong replied. "You see, I owe those fellows a lot of money. It is not due for another six weeks, and I reckoned I had plenty of time to turn round. Now I expect they have discovered that the security I gave them is—is——"
The speaker paused; he did not dare utter the proper word.
Elsie regarded him with a sorrowful expression in her eyes. "A forgery," she said. "You told me that some time ago. It is no use to reproach you, no use to try and recall the fact. You say that you are leading a better life now——"
Elsie paused, fearful lest she should say too much and perhaps wound the feelings of her brother. Bad and reckless as Armstrong had been the girl could not forget the fact that they were joined by ties of blood, and that it was her duty to help and shield him as far as possible. Armstrong gazed at her moodily, for it was quite plain for him to see what was uppermost in her mind.
"Go on," he said. "Don't be afraid to say it. I know perfectly well that I have been an utter blackguard, and that I have brought misfortunes on you which you should never have suffered. What a strange thing it is that men of my type always find women ready to make sacrifices for them. The womenkind of a good man seem to take his nobility and generosity as a matter of course, and he gets no credit from anybody. On the other hand I never knew a blackguard yet who had not some girl passionately attached to him. It is much the same with the street ruffian who knocks his wife about in the disgraceful manner of his kind."
"I don't think you need ally yourself with anything quite so bad as that," Elsie replied. "You know perfectly well I am prepared to forgive the past if I could only see any signs of reformation in the future. But in your case I am sadly afraid that a reformation of that kind could never be made."
"Give me a chance," Armstrong said, between his teeth. "The mere fact that I am here to-night should prove to you that I am in earnest so far. If you do not believe me——"
"I want to," Elsie cried. "There is nothing I should like better. I have prayed for it night and day. If you could only convince me that I am not mistaken——"
"I swear it, Elsie," Armstrong cried, passionately. "For the last few months I have been as straight as any fellow could possibly be—ever since I found out that Gladys cared for me. I had to get money to put myself straight; I plunged on the first opportunity, and at that time I could see my way to get the money. If Lord Manningtree had kept all right I should have succeeded to a dead certainty."
"Why don't you get him to help you?"
"Because he is not in a position to help anybody. The poor man's mind has already gone; he is getting worse every day. And the dreadful part of it is that he has muddled matters in a most deplorable way. Goodness knows where all the money has gone. Lionel Harvey and myself had a long talk over it to-day."
Elsie looked up swiftly at the mention of her lover's name. "So you have met again," she exclaimed. "Did you quarrel?"
"No. On the whole the interview was quite a friendly one."
"And yet Lionel declared that you once did him a great injury, Dick. He swore to me that the affair at Hudson's Bank was all your doing. Perhaps you may be surprised to find that I have met Lionel again, but the story is too long to tell now. Besides, I daresay you would laugh at me if I told you everything. Dick, is this shameful thing that Lionel told me quite true?"
Armstrong wriggled in his chair uncomfortably. He could not meet his sister's eyes. "I had better tell you everything," he muttered. "It wouldn't be leading the life I spoke of if I didn't. I was entirely to blame; I could have cleared Lionel if I liked. But I let him accept the blame that was all mine, and he had to leave the bank. And then you took my part, and Harvey disappeared for a time. I daresay you will never forgive me, Elsie. When I look back on the past and see what a cur and thief I have been, I wonder at my good luck at keeping out of gaol. And here am I, with a good girl giving her heart to me just as if I had a name as clean as hers! But I always meant to put matters right between Lionel and yourself, Elsie. Perhaps some day——"
"I am glad, and I am sorry," Elsie said, with tears in her eyes. "I am glad for the sake of Lionel and sorry for you. I think that you should——"
"Don't," Armstrong groaned. "Don't rub it in. It looks as if I were going to get my punishment, after all. I'm coming back home with you presently, but I have a little very important business to do first. Goodness knows what time I shall finish. Will you wait for me here or go back home?"
"WHY should I do either?" Elsie asked. "Of course, I could not stay here alone with all these men about, but at home I shall be miserable. If I am along with you I shall know that nothing has happened to you. Dick, I feel that great events are in the air. Let me come along with you and share your danger, if there is any."
"Oh, there is no danger," Dick replied. "I have only to go back to a certain house and watch there till a woman comes out, and after that to track her home. She is a figure in the plot to bring all Manningtree's concerns to the ground. If you like to come with me, we'll walk as far as Stonehouse-street and wait there."
Elsie was quite willing to do anything that Dick asked. Nor was the vigil a long one, for punctually at ten o'clock the cab drove up and the door of No. 19 opened. First came the graceful form of Miss Cromarty, followed by a short, enormously fat man, with a bald head and a heavy, hooked nose. He was in evening dress, and his jewellery was gorgeous and striking. Prosperity shone all over him.
"The Folly Music Hall," he said, in a rich, oily voice. "Get along sharp."
"That is our destination also," Dick whispered. "We shall find a cab at the corner. I will explain what all this means to you later on."
The Folly was reached at length, and Elsie found herself presently in the stalls. As Dick had confidently expected nothing less than a box was suited to Schreiner's importance. He sat there facing the stage, his oily face shining with self-satisfaction.
"A rat!" Dick whispered. "A veritable sewer rat, who has caused more misery and suffering than all the rest of his tribe put together. But try and enjoy the performance, Elsie. I daresay it will be some time before anything happens. I should like to change places with you, so that I can be partly hidden behind that pillar. Nobody will recognise you, but probably someone in that box presently may spot me."
Elsie made the desired change, and Armstrong invested sixpence in an opera-glass. In spite of his troubles he was more less interested in the stage, and an hour or so passed without any sign from the box. It looked as if nothing more was expected to-night. Dick raked the box with his glass from time to time; he saw the door open at length and a man enter. He gave a violent start.
"What is the matter?" Elsie whispered. "Have you discovered anything?"
"Rather!" Dick said, under his breath. "The plot thickens. Do you see the benevolent-looking man with the glasses who has just come in? That is Manningtree's chief cashier, the man who looks after the firm and keeps the private ledgers. He is supposed to be too ill to leave his bed; I have a doctor's certificate to that effect. And yet he is here, looking the picture of health! The head of our staff in company with the wrecker Schreiner! A daring thing to do."
"Perhaps he does not expect to be recognised," Elsie suggested. "It is very dark in the back of the box. I can see nothing without glasses."
But behind the friendly shelter of his pillar, Dick could see quite plainly. He noted that the newcomer had greeted Miss Cromarty with a familial touch on the shoulder, and he noted that the little actress had pulled her chair to the front of the box so that she had effectively shielded the two men behind. They had their heads close together and were talking very earnestly. Armstrong would have given a great deal to know what mischief they were plotting. For the best part of an hour they talked on without paying the least attention to the affairs of the stage. Presently they appeared to come to some arrangement, for they shook hands heartily. Then they rose.
"Come along," Dick whispered to Elsie. "They're going. They will probably disperse outside, and I don't want to lose sight of the woman. Let us get outside before they come. It is very dark under the portico, and we can perhaps catch a valuable word or two."
Elsie followed without protest. As Dick had said it was very dark under the portico, and nobody else had yet left the house. Presently the dazzling expanse of Schreiner's shirt appeared at the top of the steps.
"Well, good night, sir," the cashier, Wilmer, was saying. "I don't see that we can do any more for the present, not till after Saturday, at any rate. In the meantime I'll lay me down on my couch of pain. Oh, oh! Come along, Kitty."
"Stop!" said Schreiner, in his oily voice. "There's Bates. We have not done anything yet in regard to Bates. And I don't quite trust him. He promised to be here to-night, and he has never turned up, you see."
"Probably because he could not get here this evening," Wilmer said. "But if you like I will drop him a line and ask him to call."
"My friend, you will not do anything of the kind," Schreiner responded. "The less you put your hand to paper just now the better. As I said before, I am not so sure of Bates. He is a clever fellow, far more clever than you imagine. You take him just for an ordinary gentleman's servant. I say he is more than that. It is the ambition of Mr. Bates to make ten thousand pounds. He thinks that he is going to make the money out of us, also he is quite capable of betraying us if he is certain of a more secure bargain with anybody else. It is possible that the good Mr. Bates has mistaken his instructions and gone to Stonehouse-street, instead of coming to meet us here. If that is so then you must come with me back home. It will only mean an extra shilling or two on your cab fare."
Elsie could feel her brother thrill as her arm lay on his. He did not offer to move until the two at the bottom of the steps were moving off in their cab.
"Does that talk convey anything to you?" Elsie asked.
"Well, I should say that it does," Dick replied. "They were speaking of a man called Bates. As a matter of fact, Bates is Lord Manningtree's valet. He is the only one besides members of the family and myself who has any inkling of true state of his lordship's mind. I begin to see now where Schreiner's information comes from. But I did not think this of Bates."
"You would not have expected it from Mr. Wilmer, either," Elsie said.
"Well, no," Dick admitted. "But Bates seemed to be especially attached to his master. And I have had many opportunities of seeing a great deal of Bates lately. He is just as clever as Schreiner says. Come along and let us find a cab. If you are tired——"
"My dear Dick, I am not in the least tired. The excitement of a little adventure like this takes one out of oneself. Please don't suggest that you are going to put me into a cab and send me home. I want to see the thing through."
Dick shrugged his shoulders, and made no further protest. So far as he could judge the adventure was practically finished. There was nothing now but to go back once more to Stonehouse-street, and wait there patiently till Miss Cromarty came out, and follow her to her destination. On the opposite side of the street was a fringe of grass and stunted trees that was dignified by the name of a garden. It was possible to sit on the low wall that fringed the garden and rest whilst waiting for the coming of the woman, who was presently to be followed to the end of her journey.
Just for a little time after Dick and Elsie arrived the house opposite was quite dark. Then a brilliant light shot up in the dining-room, and a thick squat figure was shadowed on the blind. The figure had a glass in his hand.
"Champagne," Dick muttered. "That class of rat always drinks champagne at all hours of the day and night. I wonder why it is, and how they would get on without it. I hope they won't keep us waiting much longer, for I'm dead tired."
Elsie was tired too, though she would not have cared to admit the fact. She was quivering with excitement now, with the instinct that something out of the common was going to happen. From time to time the shadow crossed the blind, first that of Schreiner, then that of Wilmer, and after a time the slender outline of Miss Cromarty. So far as Dick could make out there was nobody else present. Bates had not put in an appearance. A moment later and the shadow of the girl appeared again, her hands about her head in a dramatic attitude. A sound like a muffled scream reached the ears of those opposite.
"They are quarrelling about something," Elsie exclaimed. "I feel sure that the woman reeled back as if somebody had struck her a blow. Dick, I am certain that——"
Whatever Elsie might have said was cut short by the sudden flinging open of the door of No. 19, and the unexpected appearance of the little actress on the doorstep. Her hand was tightly pressed to her head, and a sharp cry escaped her. She stood just for a second in the road, then she darted across and plunged into the garden beyond. There was the sound of a falling body, followed by a moan, and then silence.
By this time Schreiner and his companion were in the road also. They looked up and down the street in utter perplexity. Something like an oath escaped the lips of the respectable Wilmer. He seemed annoyed about something.
"She's vanished," he said. "Probably ran to the corner for a cab. There's no doing anything with Kitty when she gets in one of her tantrums."
"You should not have struck her," Schreiner replied, uneasily. "No good comes of that kind of thing. And an angry woman is a dangerous thing to deal with. You had better get after her as fast as you can and make your peace with her. She'll do anything we want her to do in time, but you sprung it on her a little too quickly to-night."
The financier turned into the house and closed the door behind him, whilst Wilmer hurried down the road till he was out of sight. Armstrong sprang over the wall.
"Come along," he whispered. "It's a shame to let that poor woman lie there; but we could do nothing till those fellows had gone. If Wilmer had spotted me it would have been all up with my little scheme. I've got some matches."
Elsie said nothing. She was thrilling from head to foot. Not far off the slender little figure lay, face downwards, on the grass. There was a cut over her right eye, from which the blood was slowly trickling down her face. She opened her eyes in a faint, dazed way, and Dick struck a match and held it down.
"Can't you manage to get up?" he asked. "Are you much hurt?"
"He struck me," the woman whispered. "He has often threatened me, but he has never done it before. I can feel the blood on my face. He struck me."
"Shall we call a cab for you?" Elsie asked. "We can see you home."
A queer laugh came from the stricken woman, a laugh that had a suggestion of misery in it.
"I have no home," she said. "Could I go back to a man like that after he had treated me in that cowardly way! Who is my husband? Well, I don't suppose you have ever heard the name, but he is called Ernest Wilmer."
IT was evident that the woman was more hurt than had at first appeared. She sat on the short, dusty grass with her head in her hands, apparently without the slightest idea that she was talking to strangers. It was just as well, perhaps, that she did not see the expression of amazement on Dick Armstrong's features.
"Do you know her?" Elsie asked. She had not failed to notice her brother's face. "Have you met the poor creature anywhere before?"
"She was on the stage," Dick whispered. "She used to be at the Folly. After that she made a considerable success on the variety boards. She had a fine career before her. I used to do a lot of theatre-going in those days, but we never met previously. What astonishes me is the fact that Wilmer—the staid, ostensibly prim Wilmer, who professes never to have seen the inside of a theatre—should be married to a light of the stage. It is almost incredible."
"But you have been following her," Elsie urged.
"That's quite right. Still, I never expected to make a startling discovery like this. So Wilmer is a brutal bully as well as a hypocrite. I am sorry for the poor woman, but this ill-treatment looks like proving a rare slice of luck to us. Elsie, we must get her to some place of safety."
"But where?" Elsie asked. "We ought to take her to a hospital, I think."
"Hospital be hanged! Unless I am greatly mistaken, fortune has placed a rarely useful weapon in our hands. I begin to see something like daylight at last. The whole of the hideous plot is coming to light. We must get Harvey into this without delay. Mrs. Wilmer will not go into any hospital if I know it. She is going to prove wonderfully useful to us. I thought when I started out to-night that I was on more or less of a wild-goose chase, but now I know better. We must play the thing boldly, and I am quite certain that I shall not repent it. If only you do as you are told we shall have a startling story to tell our friends a little later on."
Elsie could not make it out at all. All she could do was to stand and gaze at the semi-conscious figure on the dusty grass, and wonder if there was nothing that she could do. The woman looked up once or twice in a dazed kind of way. It was quite evident that she did not recognise the onlookers. Indeed, from the vacant expression of her blue eyes it was extremely doubtful as to whether she knew where she was or what was taking place about her. Elsie stooped down, and whispered some words of pity which were entirely lost on the object of her commiseration.
"We really ought to do something," she whispered to her brother. "Of course, I have not the remotest idea what scheme you have in your mind; but to let her lie there, when she may be suffering from some fatal injury, is mere cold-blooded cruelty. Don't you think it would be just as well if we called the police?"
"Call the police by all means," Armstrong replied, "if you want to ruin the whole thing. You must be content to leave matters in my hands for the present, and you shall have a proper explanation later on. We must wait until she is in a position to speak."
"But what can we possibly do with her," Elsie asked.
"Oh, I have settled all that," Armstrong responded. "As soon as she is quite herself again she is coming along with us. Mrs. Wilmer shall have my room to-night, and, if necessary, I will sleep on the sitting room sofa; unfortunately, we shall have to have a doctor. Don't make any objections, he will do exactly as I say."
Elsie made no effort to demur. Her woman's heart reached out to the poor creature sitting on the dusty grass and reproached herself for her neglect of the actress. A cab was called, and a matter of an hour later Kitty Cromarty was lying safely in bed.
"Well, that's all right so far," Dick said. "Now I will have to ask you to remain here while I step outside and get a doctor. After that I was going down to the Record Office, on the chance of finding Lionel Harvey there still. Unless I am greatly mistaken that quick imagination of his will turn this incident to good account. I won't be long."
The doctor came at length, a general practitioner, from a neighbouring street. Dick had already explained the circumstances in which the unfortunate woman had been found, but certain incidents were judiciously omitted from the story. It was some little time before the doctor pronounced his opinion.
"There is nothing very serious the matter," he said. "The cut over the eye is quite a minor detail. I should say that was caused by a blow. The cut was probably made by a ring on a man's finger. The unfortunate creature seems to have had a concussion——"
"But tell me," Elsie interrupted, "is there any danger? What I mean is this: Would it not be just as well to find out where the poor woman's friends are and communicate with them at once? It is a terrible thing to think of the anxiety of her friends, who, no doubt, are expecting her home at any moment."
Elsie world have said more, only Armstrong gave her a warning glance. It was no cue of his to rouse the suspicions of the doctor, who might, for his own protection, insist upon going off to the police station, and telling them all about it without delay. Armstrong was surprised, also, that Elsie should have apparently forgotten the dramatic incident which immediately preceded the girl's startling introduction to Mrs. Wilmer. It was more than probable that Elsie, in her kindness of heart and her consideration for others, had overlooked everything else.
"But don't you know who her friends are?" the doctor asked, in some surprise. "I was quite under the impression that she was in some way connected with you, and that I had been called in——"
"Oh, that's right enough," Armstrong interrupted, hastily. "We know perfectly well who the woman is. She is a Mrs. Wilmer, and the wife of an employee who holds a position of trust in the office of Lord Manningtree. I, also, am in his lordship's employ. My sister is naturally anxious to know if there is anything really serious, and you will quite understand her feelings in the matter."
The doctor nodded, as if he perfectly appreciated the situation, and Armstrong breathed freely again. He turned to the medical man and signified that he should proceed.
"The patient must have fallen violently backwards," he said, "and hurt her head on some hard substance—that is the cause of the mischief. There is an undoubted concussion, which may give trouble and perhaps cause a slight delirium for a day or two. I'll look in again to-morrow."
The doctor vanished as quietly as he had come; little incidents like these were all in the day's work. No sooner had he gone than Dick resumed his hat again.
"I'm going to try and find Lionel," he explained. "I'm afraid that this business is going to cause you a deal of trouble, old girl. But you will be well repaid."
An hour passed without any signs of Dick. Then Elsie heard the welcome rattle of his latchkey in the door. The patient had fallen into a deep sleep, the result of a drug which had been administered to her by the doctor. Elsie sprang to meet her brother, but she stood surprised and bewildered. It was not Dick who stood there, but Lionel Harvey. There was a stern look on his face.
"Lionel!" Elsie faltered. "What is the meaning of this? Has anything happened to Dick? Where did you get his latchkey from?"
"Dick is all right," Harvey explained. "He had some difficulty in finding me. When he did find me I gave him a little task to do. He won't be long. My dear Elsie, this is a wonderful night's work that you have done. But you don't quite understand what it all means, I fear. Have patience, it will all come clear at last.'
"Won't you sit down?" Elsie said, timidly. She felt very shy and awkward in the presence of her lover to-night. Dick's confession was uppermost in her mind. "Do sit down."
"I'm a bit too excited for that," Lionel smiled. "Haven't you something to say to me? I thought you were going to say it this afternoon when my servant interrupted us."
Elsie's pretty face flushed crimson. Lionel was taking it very nicely, far more gently than the girl had expected. And evidently he knew everything.
"I can tell you far more than I would have done this afternoon," she exclaimed. Once she had spoken, she seemed to gather courage. "Lionel, can you ever forgive me?"
She looked up with pleading eyes, her hands trembling. And in those eyes Harvey could see the love for him that had never died. He came a step closer, and took her hands in his.
"That all depends," he said. "It all depends on how much there is to forgive. But so long as you look at me like that I could forgive you anything."
"I might have known," Elsie went on. "No, Lionel, you are not to—to kiss me yet. I want you to know how dreadful I have been. What a strange thing it is that I should be making this confession at this hour of the night."
"Oh, never mind that so long as the confession is made, Elsie. After all, I can quite understand why you preferred your brother's word to mine."
"Lionel, Dick has been making a full confession to you?"
"Well, yes, if you like to call it a confession. He wronged me terribly, and for your sake I chose to take my punishment in silence. Now Dick has admitted the wrong to me. Of course, there was little in that, seeing that we already knew all about it. But Dick has gone a step further, I understand, and has told everything to you. He seems genuinely anxious to begin a new life, and he has started in the right way. It is a great happiness to me to know that the path is clear before us again."
Elsie, suffered herself to be drawn to Lionel's side now. She laid her head on his shoulder, and the tears rushed to her eyes.
"How good and noble you are," she whispered. "Not one word of reproach for me after the awful way in which I treated you. Lionel, there is not another man like you in the world."
Lionel laughed gently, and kissed the quivering lips. "There are scores," he said—"thousands. I simply have to forgive you because I could not possibly help it. It was a bad time for me, dear. So bad that I nearly gave it up altogether and drifted abroad. But once let us get clear of this Manningtree business, and we can make up for the last two years. Here's Dick at last."
Armstrong came quietly into the room. He held a mass of papers in his hand, which he gave to Harvey. He seemed excited about something.
"I've got all the information that you require," he said. "I don't know what idea you've got in your head, but those I figures ought to help you."
"Coupled with your story of the night's adventures, they will help me materially," Harvey replied. "You had no trouble at the office?"
"None whatever. We shall be able to get the best of Mr. Wilmer now, thanks to your happy idea about the safe. But fancy us having Mrs. Wilmer actually here."
"A wonderful piece of good fortune," said Harvey. "If you can only detain her here for a day or two I fancy that I can turn the circumstances to good account. We will give Wilmer a fright. Elsie, I am going to put your courage and endurance to the test. Dick tells me the doctor says there is likely to be some delirium on the part of the patient. Remember, she knows everything; she is up to her neck in the plot to ruin Lord Manningtree and bring thousands to the verge of starvation. Wilmer has made use of his wife's dramatic talents in the most cunning way. It is for us to pit our skill against his. I want you to watch that woman night and day, to listen carefully to all that she has to say. Take note of everything; the most trivial word may have its importance."
"I will do anything you like," Elsie exclaimed. "You can count on me. But are you not afraid that the police may make inquiries?"
"I don't think so," said Harvey, thoughtfully. "At any rate, we must take the risk of that; if necessary, we must make up some ingenious piece of fiction in case the scruples of the doctor have betrayed us."
"What do you suggest?" Armstrong asked. "I see you are getting quite along with your scheme. Upon my word, I should be a novelist, I should rather enjoy it."
"The situation is not without its fascination," Lionel laughingly admitted. "Now that I know the foe I have to grapple with I feel that the ground is getting firmer. The gist of my idea is to mystify and alarm these people, to let them know that somebody is aware of their scheme without disclosing who that somebody is. As soon as your patient is fit, I am going to have her moved to the residence of Lady Manningtree."
The others looked at the speaker with blank surprise.
"I know what you are going to say," Lionel went on. "You will say that Lady Manningtree's presence in England is a secret. Do you suppose that it is a secret to a scoundrel like Wilmer? Not a bit of it. He knows all about Lady Manningtree. And when he hears, as if by accident, that his wife is under her ladyship's roof his craven soul will be like water within him. Directly he begins to feel the sides of the trap he will be ready to do anything to save his skin, and will betray Schreiner also. Also I should like to get to the bottom of Bates' connection with this matter."
"You will find that rather difficult," Dick suggested.
"Not at all," Lionel said, cheerfully. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, I shall have Mr. Bates in the jaws of the trap in 24 hours from this minute."
AS Lionel stepped on to the pavement, immaculately clad in a grey suit and glossy hat, he certainly did not present the appearance of a man who had been up all night smoking innumerable cigarettes, and poring over a mass of papers. Perhaps the fact that his labours had not been in vain accounted for the resolute gleam in his eyes.
As a matter of fact, he was enjoying the game thoroughly; it was as if the pages of one of his own thrilling romances had come to life. Yesterday he had been fumbling about in despair, to-day he had most of the threads in his hands. He had not all the threads yet, but he hoped to grasp the lot before long. He hoped to save the great firm of Manningtree and Co. from collapse, and so avert the ruin of thousands, while he had a sanguine expectation of landing the rich and prosperous Schreiner in gaol.
A little time later he was asking to see "Mrs. Curtis." Probably the footman was informed that he was likely to call, for he was ushered into Lady Manningtree's boudoir at once. She rose to greet him, holding out her hand with a smile.
"You are here so soon," she said. "I take that as a good sign. There is something in your face that tells me you have done well, Mr. Harvey."
"Indeed, I have done a great deal," Lionel returned. "Has Miss Moberley been here to-day? If so, did she tell you all about the visit paid to Lord Manningtree yesterday by a person who calls herself Kitty Cromarty?"
"Why, you told me yourself," Lady Manningtree explained. "You came here yesterday afternoon when you were in need of £2000 to meet the lady's claim. You told me all her story about the brother in Australia, and how you had upset her by asking why the cheque had not been presented before. What was the upshot of it?"
"I had forgotten," Lionel replied. "There has been such a lot to occupy my attention. I had that young person watched, with the most gratifying results. She is an actress, it seems; but that is not the point that greatly concerns us. The point is that she has turned out to be the wife of Lord Manningtree's head cashier, Ernest Wilmer. Need I go into any further details on that point? You can see the plot for yourself?"
"I think so," Lady Manningtree said, thoughtfully. "Oh, yes, it is quite clear. And so this Ernest Wilmer is an enemy in disguise. He is in the plot too; how did the woman take it when you gave her the notes?"
"Well, she was frankly disappointed. Clever actress as she is, she could not disguise that from me. And now I had further better tell you what great events are likely to spring from the fact of Mrs. Wilmer being followed."
And Lionel proceeded to go into elaborate details. He was followed with the most flattering interest. Lady Manningtree had no occasion to ask superfluous questions.
"So my poor husband's secret is known to these people," she said presently. "I have no doubt that Wilmer found it out. And he is the tool of the man Schreiner. If we could only find what their next move will be!"
"I am afraid that will be a difficult matter," Lionel replied. "But it will not be so very difficult to prepare a counter-stroke. With your permission I should like to try a really bold and daring move now. As soon as Kitty Cromarty—or Mrs. Wilmer—is in a position to leave her room I should like to bring her here."
"To bring her here, Mr. Harvey? What could you possibly gain by that?"
"Well, it would strike a certain amount of terror into the heart of the foe. I should let it come as if by accident to Wilmer's ears that his wife is here. I am taking it for granted that Wilmer knows that you are in London, as he probably knows everything that there is to know. And the fellow is a coward to the soles of his boots. It has occurred to me, too, that the woman may need revenge, and that she will tell us all we want to know; but I don't think it would be wise to rely upon that. Still, if she were here, and Wilmer knew it, he would be frightened out of his wits. And if I could get to the bottom of the facts I should know how to handle that rascally cashier. Still, if your ladyship does not care for the plan——"
"I am entirely in your hands," Lady Manningtree cried. "I will do anything you ask. You are so strong and capable that I have every trust in you. I would give all my fortune. I would give my life, to save the family name. It would be the greatest comfort to me if you would find out what money is needed to put matters right. I wish you would investigate that without delay!"
"I am doing so," Lionel said. "I am blessing the business training I had in your father's bank every hour of my life. I have discovered that the bank balance is nil, and that we shall need quite twenty thousand pounds to-morrow. Still, so long as I can rely upon your promise to pay that sum into the chief account I shall have no anxiety over that. Nine-tenths of that money will be paid away in wages. It is to prevent any questions being asked that Wilmer is shamming a dangerous illness. He has all the private ledgers and the keys of the private safe. Nobody knows besides ourselves how near we are to a crash. You see how necessary it is to get at the private papers."
"Can't you see some way of remedying it?" Lady Manningtree asked, anxiously. "My poor husband is helpless, it is no use to look to him. It is the moment for daring action——"
"Which has already been taken," Lionel said, coolly. "It was taken last night. I got a letter from Lord Manningtree—a forged letter—to a big firm of safe-makers to come down to the office last night and open the safe and supply a fresh key. The cool audacity of the thing succeeded admirably. None of the clerks were there, nobody knew anything at all about the matter, and at the present minute I have the key of the private safe in my pocket. And Lord Manningtree's private secretary, Mr. Armstrong, can come and go and no questions asked; but last night, as he was busy elsewhere, I took his place. I may say at once that my time was not lost, especially after Armstrong had translated some cypher figures for me. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I am on the track of the missing millions, Lady Manningtree. More than that I dare not say for fear of subsequent disappointment."
"You mean to say that the great firm is not insolvent after all?" Lady Manningtree asked, with an anxious, white face. "You have discovered that the money——"
"Really, I have discovered nothing as yet," Lionel went on. "It is merely surmise on my part. Mind you, I have important data from the ledgers to go on. I am figuring out this thing as if I were making a story of it. I am trying to put myself in the position of other people, and to act as they might do in a certain set of circumstances. I am following the workings of Lord Manningtree's mind for the minute. I am going to put one of my theories to the test this afternoon at four o'clock precisely. It is a daring thing that I am about to do, and I tremble at the idea of failure. Still, I have been sitting up all night, and I am not in the least afraid of a breakdown. I will come and report progress as soon as there is anything definite to tell. Will you be prepared to have Mrs. Wilmer in the house at any moment?"
Lady Manningtree was willing to fall in with this suggestion. She had come to have quite a firm belief in the novelist and his methods; she had a feeling that he was making for success. He was so cool and resolute, so full of resource.
"I will place myself implicitly in your hands," she said. "I will do anything you tell me, so long as you succeed in saving that dreadful disgrace that hangs over us. As I said before, I am prepared to sacrifice all my fortune rather than that those poor people should suffer for their trust in my husband. It is not as if he were a felon."
"Lord Manningtree is no felon," Lionel said, with decision. "If his brain were all right this thing could not possibly have happened. But we are going to defeat those scoundrels yet, we are going to lay them by the heels. I shall not feel that I have scored a victory unless I can land Schreiner in gaol. And now I really must be leaving. I am going as far as Cardigan Place to have a little chat with Miss Moberley."
Miss Moberley was at home; in fact, she had been expecting Lionel. She would not have been out in any case, she explained, as the faithful Bates was taking an hour or two off, and Lord Manningtree required careful attention. Lionel smiled grimly at the mention of Bates; he would have something to say about that individual presently. He proceeded to tell Ada Moberley all that had happened on the previous night.
"So, you see, we have not been idle," he concluded. "The situation is going to be saved, and I flatter myself that I am the one to do it. And now pardon me if I ask you just a few questions about the movements of your household. How is his lordship?"
"Much the same as usual. The doctors can make nothing of him. He will not speak a word to them. But he recognises them, and he knows his own mental condition. Of course he can't possibly go on like this for much longer."
"He can walk about, I presume? Can get from one room to another?"
"Certainly he can. But he does not like anybody to know it. I don't believe that that blow on the head did him the slightest harm; it was only an excuse to sham speechlessness."
"Good!" Lionel cried. "This is better than I had expected. Now, tell me, when does the faithful Bates go out, what days in the week?"
"He has only one afternoon off and two nights in the week. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, we shall come to that presently. May I hazard a guess and suggest that Bates goes out on Friday afternoon; This is Friday afternoon, by the way. Is it possible that Mr. Bates is taking his pleasures abroad at this very moment?"
"He certainly is," Ada Moberley replied. "But what has this to do with the matter?"
"You are going to see for yourself at once," Lionel replied, grimly. "Now, will you be so good as to take me up to his lordship's bedroom? I am going to try a drastic remedy. If I fail I am quite prepared to take all the blame on my own shoulders. But I am not going to fail, and you are not going to get into any trouble. Come along."
Ada Moberley stared at the speaker, but she obeyed. They stood outside the silent room, the blinds of which were drawn, and Lionel peeped in. He could make out the outline of a figure on the bed, a figure with the sheets drawn up close. But the figure did not move as Ada spoke to it. She came to the door presently, and whispered to Lionel that his lordship was asleep.
"I think not," Lionel said, with cynical calmness. "On the contrary, I am quite sure that he is very much awake. Will you kindly wait here till I call you?"
Lionel strode into the room and pulled up one of the blinds with a click. Then he strode to the bed and dragged the clothing rudely away.
"Come out of it," he commanded. "Come out of it at once, or I'll pitch you neck and crop on the floor. This is no time for ceremony."
ADA stood outside the bedroom door shivering with apprehension. The cold, contemptuous ring in Lionel's voice fairly frightened her. There was something brutal about the whole thing. Perhaps Lionel was putting into force some theory of his own as to the way to deal with one of feeble mind. Certainly no one had ever dared before to address Lord Manningtree in that fashion.
But there was worse to come, the sound of struggling in the bedroom followed by something that sounded like a blow, and then an appeal for mercy. Before Ada could make up her mind what to do Harvey summoned her into the room. He was standing by the side of the bed on which sprawled the figure of a man fully dressed, with the exception of his boots.
"You will be good enough to tell me," Lionel said, "whether my measures have been too stringent after all. If this is Lord Manningtree——"
"Bates!" Ada cried. "What is the meaning of this? And where is your master?"
The figure on the bed made no reply for a moment. He was a typical specimen of the ideal body servant, neat, clean, more or less featureless. His self-possession had gone now, his sullen face was a dull red.
"This is just what I expected," Lionel went on. "I should not have acted in this way had I not felt quite sure of my ground. So this is Bates. Get up!"
The valet obeyed slowly. He stood in the centre of the room, glaring sullenly at Lionel and Ada, and yet, at the same time, the man did not look in the least like a criminal. He was the absolute embodiment of the typical gentleman's servant of the better class. From the expression of his face he seemed to regard the whole thing as an intrusion on his privacy. Lionel eyed him sternly. He was determined to get to the bottom of this queer business.
"Now listen to me," he said. "I am not going to have any nonsense with you. You are going to tell me the whole truth."
"I beg your pardon, sir," Bates said, with some effort to be respectful, "but I do not recognise your right to ask me any questions, or to come in here at all. I have been in service all my lifetime, and no one can ever say that I have been wanting in respect to any gentleman of my acquaintance. This is a matter where I had better drawn the line, and if you will excuse me, sir, I prefer to say nothing. Miss Moberley knows——"
"Miss Moberley has got nothing whatever to do with it," Lionel responded. "You are going to tell us everything, and that without delay. Where is Lord Manningtree?"
Bates shook his head. The sullen expression had departed from his face, but he appeared to be no less grim and determined for all that. He turned a half-imploring eye on Ada Moberley, as if asking her to get Lionel out of the room. She seemed to understand what he was driving at, and shook her head resolutely.
"Mr. Harvey is quite right," the girl said. "You had better make a clean breast of it, and tell us everything."
But Bates refused to say another word for the present, at any rate. The neat, usually soberly-dressed servant suddenly became painfully conscious of the fact that he was without shoes, and that, in the presence of a lady. In all his discreet career he had never felt so foolish.
"I can't understand it," Ada cried. "What are you doing here, Bates? And what has become of your master? I know that you have been carrying on this deception for two hours at least, perhaps more, for I have been in the room under the full impression that I was looking after your employer. Is this a common thing?"
"Well, no, miss," Bates found his voice at last. "I am not so much to blame as you think for, miss. It was his lordship who made me do this thing. It appears that he wanted to keep some appointment without anybody in the house knowing that he had gone out. One of his whims, miss."
"You had no right to allow this," Ada cried. "In his lordship's painful state of health it might be fatal. You should have come to me."
Bates stammered something in extenuation of his conduct. Lord Manningtree had promised not to be long, and appeared to be much better than usual. He had some very powerful reasons for secrecy. No doubt the whole thing looked very foolish, but——
"It is worse than foolish," Ada cried. "Has this happened before?"
"Indeed no, miss. It is the very first time, I'll swear."
"You are ready to swear anything, then," Lionel put in. "Now you had better be careful, Bates. Is it not a fact that this thing has been going on every Friday for some weeks. I mean, every Friday afternoon since Lord Manningtree has been unfitted for regular business? Now, do not speak hastily, take your time. I want to know if this has not been a regular thing for the past few Fridays."
Bates opened his mouth to speak, but the words did not seem to come. He looked at Lionel with a dropped jaw; his face turned ghastly white, then grew red again.
"Thank you, Bates," Lionel went on, quietly. "You need not trouble to answer my question—your face has done that for you already. So we may take it for granted that this is a regular Friday afternoon recreation of his lordship's. You occupy his bed, and pretend to be asleep whilst he is elsewhere. I suppose it never occurred to you as a sacred duty to tell Miss Moberley and have his lordship watched?"
The wretched Bates stammered out something about being very fond of his master, and about his master not being nearly so ill as some people made out.
"Perhaps not," Lionel went on. "But you know that, mentally speaking, his lordship is not capable of looking after himself. You know his exact condition. And now I am going to ask you a few questions. You had better tell me the truth, or it will be the worse for you. Let us go down as far as the library. Perhaps Miss Moberley will permit us to be alone together for a little while."
Ada took the hint and retired. Lionel's manner grew a little sterner as he closed the door of the library and turned to his companion.
"I am going to remind you of something," he said. "First, will you tell me how long you have been in service with Lord Manningtree, Bates?"
"Man and boy, pretty well all my life, sir," Bates replied. "I'll swear to you, sir, that I have served his lordship faithfully. I've done nothing wrong——"
"Oh, we shall come to that presently. You were with his lordship up to the time of his marriage?"
"Yes, sir. I was with him on the Continent, at the time when her ladyship, you see——"
"Quite so—left him. Do you know where her ladyship is now, Bates?"
Bates hesitated, but only just for a moment. There was something in the fixed, eager look in Lionel's eyes that seemed to fairly drag the truth from him.
"I do, sir," he said. "Her ladyship is in London, and I can give you the address. I know that Miss Gladys goes to see her mother at times, but that I kept from his lordship. I was very fond of her ladyship, and I was sorry when the parting came. But I daresay you know that that parting was inevitable, sir."
"Yes, I know that, Bates. Now let us get a little further. Lord Manningtree is a very rich man, but he is involved in many companies in which millions are invested by the poorer, thrifty classes. Lord Manningtree's name is one to conjure with, and if anything happened to him financially thousands would be ruined. Nobody guesses that he is suffering from brain trouble, nobody guesses that he might be speculating in the maddest way. If the truth leaked out it would be a fine chance for the professional wrecker who makes his money by the wrecking of concerns like these. You have heard of such men, Bates?"
"Indeed I have, sir," Bates replied. "All my savings are in my master's big company. And I don't think that any of the wreckers would dare to tackle him."
"There are one or two who might—Mr. Hermann Schreiner, for instance. Do you happen to know anything about Mr. Schreiner, Bates?"
Bates gasped again. But there was no longer a guilty look on his face. His expression was one of astonishment, judiciously blended with admiration.
"You're a bit too clever for me, sir, and that's a fact," he said. "I didn't know anything about the gentleman in question till a month or so ago. My master mentioned it in one of his lucid intervals. He wrote the name on a piece of paper. Then he got me to write an anonymous letter to Mr. Schreiner telling him that he would hear something to his advantage if he got into contact with John Bates, which is me, sir. I did not know what it meant, any more than the dead, sir; but I wrote that letter and posted it. I thought it was some trap his lordship was laying for Mr. Schreiner."
"My word! I had not thought of that," Lionel exclaimed. "You've got it, Bates. That magnificent intellect of his lordship's seems capable even now of flashes of genius. I have no doubt that Mr. Schreiner is going to get his lesson. But go on. What happened?"
"Well, nothing, sir, as far as I can judge. I got a letter asking me to call at No. 19, Stonehouse-street, and that letter I showed to his lordship. It was one of his bad days, and he clearly had forgotten all about it—said he never heard of anybody called Schreiner. And there the matter stands for the present."
Lionel turned the matter over very slowly and carefully in his mind. It would have been quite an easy matter for one of Schreiner's spies to discover which member of Lord Manningtree's household had written that anonymous letter; indeed, that information had already been obtained, or the attempt to get at Bates would not have been made. And at the critical part of the whole pretty scheme Lord Manningtree's memory had failed him. But the problem was not quite so obscure as it appeared to be.
"I am going to trust you," Lionel said, after a long pause. "Bates, you are not to say anything to anybody as to my visit here; let Lord Manningtree imagine that you have been playing his part all along. Next Friday afternoon the same thing will happen. Let it happen. The story of his lordship's unhappy mental condition is known to his foes, including the man Schreiner, who is the worst of the wrecker type in London. He means to smash up Lord Manningtree altogether; if I can prevent it I shall. That man will certainly approach you again, and if he does go and see him. Listen to what he has to say, let him imagine that you have pryed into Lord Manningtree's secrets till you know everything. If he offers you a bribe take it. You have acted very foolishly in the matter of this concealment, but it is not too late to mend matters. And now go back to the bedroom, so as to be there when his lordship returns. I will see you later on."
Bates departed, promising to do anything that was desired of him. Lionel found Ada waiting for him eagerly in the drawing-room. Her curiosity was aflame. She could not rest until she had heard everything that had happened.
"I am sure that you are going the right way," she said. "I am certain that you are making important discoveries. How did you guess about Bates?"
"It was no guess," Lionel smiled. "It was all part of a theory that I built up from the finding of a little scrap of paper. It was an idea that could only have come to a novelist. No police officer would have had imagination enough. A doctor friend of mine has been giving me some lessons in the workings of diseased brains. When you told me that Lord Manningtree was in bed I knew whom I should find there. I expected to discover that Bates was a traitor, but apparently he is nothing of the kind. Bates is going to prove valuable as an ally later on."
"But these mysterious absences of my uncle must be stopped, Mr. Harvey."
"By no means," Lionel explained. "You are not to stop them. Next Friday I hope that exactly the same thing will happen again; indeed, I shall be greatly disappointed if it doesn't. I can't say any more at present, for, really, I am still in the stage of theory. Up to now my theory has worked out perfectly in practice, and that fact encourages me to proceed on the same lines. After next Friday I believe that I shall be able to tell you everything."
"Very well," Ada said, resignedly. "I must wait, I suppose. But tell me, have you managed to get anything out of Wilmer's wife? Is she still with Miss Armstrong?"
"She is to-day," Lionel explained, "but she is equal to being moved. After dinner to-night we are going to take her to Lady Manningtree's."
THE progress made by Mrs. Wilmer, née Kitty Cromarty, was not so rapid as Armstrong and Elsie had expected. There was nothing radically wrong, the doctor said, the worst feature being a loss of memory caused by the blow at the back of the head. Apart from that, Mrs. Wilmer was pretty well herself again. She would get better, of course, no doubt about that; at the same time, it would be a question of another week or two.
The patient made no demur when she was told that it had been considered advisable to move her elsewhere. She took to her new quarters under Lady Manningtree's roof quite naturally. She seemed to be happiest when Elsie was near her. But as yet she had said nothing that was likely to prove of the slightest use to the conspirators.
"Elsie is with her now," Dick explained to Lionel, who had called late the same evening. "We have moved her from our rooms here for a time; at least, Elsie has. Lady Manningtree asked me to come round and see her to-night."
"I heard that you were here," Lionel said. "That's why I called. Let us walk as far as Fenchurch-street and go into those books again—I mean private ledgers."
"I've got them here," Armstrong explained. "I knew that you would come to-night. Why not have a dig at the books at once?"
Lionel was quite agreeable, and, indeed, that was exactly what he required. For an hour or more he was deeply engaged in making extracts from the ledgers, and comparing them with a set of voluminous notes entered in a pocket-book. On the whole, he seemed to be quite satisfied with the result of his investigations.
"What a fortunate thing it is that we both had a previous business training," he said. "It makes the matter so much simpler. By the time we have been all through these books I have not the slightest doubt that we shall be in a position to expose a very pretty conspiracy. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we shall find that most of these ledgers have been tampered with."
Dick Armstrong was by no means so sanguine. He pointed out to Lionel that the latter of recent years had not been in the way of dealing with business matters, and that there were nowadays variations in the way of keeping books with which he was not acquainted. Lionel saw the logic of this at once.
"Perhaps you are right," he said. "Then it is more than possible that we have a much larger task before us than I have anticipated."
"There is no doubt whatever about that," Dick said. "We have two at least of the most cunning scoundrels in London to cope with. Wilmer probably is working on some system of his own, and you may depend upon it there is not a single link in the long chain of Lord Manningtree's transactions with which he is not acquainted. However, we can only do our best to get to the bottom of it. Upon my word, I am almost afraid to tackle anything in which Schreiner and Co. are concerned. They are a vindictive lot, and more than one man in the city has paid a heavy price for getting in their way. If only we could get hold of Lord Manningtree in one of his lucid intervals we could do more good in five minutes than we shall do with these books in five weeks. But I suppose that is out of the question?"
Lionel thought that it was. He turned over a ledger thoughtfully, as if seeking for some unexpected development.
"As I remarked before," he said, "it is a most fortunate thing that both of us have had a business training. Commercial knowledges simplifies matters and makes it easy for us. Speaking of that, by the way, have you contrived to find out anything about this mysterious Elias Smyth to whom all those large sums of money were paid?"
Dick confessed that he had no information to give on the subject. A close examination of the private ledgers and the bankbook had declared the fact that large sums of money had been paid out during the last year to the credit of some Elias Smyth. There were the cheques as returned from the bank lying on the table. The face of the cheque had been type-written and the draft signed by Lord Manningtree himself. They represented sums of money to the extent of nearly half a million pounds.
"Most extraordinary thing," Lionel mused, thoughtfully. "There seems to be no consideration for the cash, and no goods declared or anything of that kind. More than that, I can't find a single firm of the same name in London."
"What bank was the money paid into?" Dick asked. "I mean where does this Elias Smyth keep his account? That may help us."
Strange as it may seem, Lionel had not thought of that. Any cheque payable to this Elias Smyth would bear the blue rubber stamp with the name of his bank upon it and the day on which the cheque was paid in. And there it was plainly enough—the North German Alliance Corporate Bank.
"It is a comparatively new concern, at any rate so far as London is concerned," Dick proceeded to explain. "This points to the fact that our friend Elias Smyth is not English. The name has a German flavour of its own. But we can soon ascertain as to who is responsible for this banking firm in London. Hand me that Bankers' Directory."
Dick turned over the pages of the big volume for a little time. Then his face lightened as he ran his forefinger down one of the columns.
"By Jove! this is interesting," he cried. "I don't say that it means anything, but it is more than a coincidence. The chairman of directors of the bank in question in England is our friend Schreiner. Does that convey anything to you?"
"Well, it is a startling discovery, any way," Lionel muttered. "From all appearances this Elias Smyth is the biggest customer the bank possesses in London. More than enough money to keep the Manningtree affairs at the flood-tide of prosperity actually finds its way into the coffers of the very man who is most interested in bringing us to the ground. It's certainly strange, Dick."
Dick was fain to admit that it was. For some little time Lionel sat there moodily frowning at the little pile of cheques drawn in favour of Mr. Elias Smyth. If only Lord Manningtree could speak, if only he had the wit to explain this. If only——
A sudden inspiration came to Lionel. He sorted out the cheques and placed them on the table before him in date order. Then he asked Dick if he could tell him where it was possible to put his hand on an almanac.
"An almanac!" Armstrong cried. "What on earth do you want an almanac for? There's one at the beginning of this directory. What are you going to do?"
"I am going to read you the dates of all these cheques," Lionel explained. "And I'll get you to tell me the day of the week on which each is drawn. Now, let us begin with the one on January 17 last. What day was that?"
"Thursday," Dick said after a minute's pause. "Pass on to the next one. Funny thing that that should be Thursday also..... And this one, too. We seem to have struck upon a fine run of coincidences to-night, Lionel they are all drawn on Thursday."
"I expected as much," Lionel said, quietly. "I am gratified beyond measure to find that my inspiration has worked out so logically. And you are quite wrong, Dick, in suggesting that we are on a run of coincidences; we are working a series of startling and valuable discoveries. I begin to believe that I have solved the whole problem. I shall have a pretty good idea before I go to bed. Give me one of those cheques, it does not matter which. And don't say anything about this to a soul."
"You are not going yet?" Dick asked, as Lionel rose. "Elsie wants to see you."
"Then she will have to be quick, because I am going as far as the British Museum to see a friend of mine there," Lionel smiled. "I'll call round at your rooms as I return, though I daresay I shall be a little late. Well, how is the patient?"
Elsie had come smilingly into the room. The cold, sad look had gone from her face, and she seemed to be quite a different girl the last day or two. She went across to Lionel and kissed him, whilst Dick pretended to be very busy getting his papers and books together. There might have been just a tinge of shame behind his mind, for his face coloured slightly. There was the happiness that he had come very near to wrecking by his criminal cowardice and selfishness.
"She is much the same," Elsie explained. "She does not seem to take the slightest interest in anything; she believes that she is back in our lodgings again. So long as I am near her she seems perfectly happy."
Lady Manningtree entered the room at that moment. She had one of her rare smiles for Lionel, and pressed his hand warmly. But she sighed and her face clouded as her glance fell on the litter of books and papers on the table.
"I fear you have a hopeless task there," she said. "So long as my fortune is sufficient to make up for what is lost it does not much matter. Have you found out anything to justify your going on with the investigations?"
"Indeed I have," Lionel replied. "I have found out a great deal. I am sanguine that I am on the eve of getting to the bottom of the mystery. Before I go to bed to-night I shall be quite certain on the subject. And I shall be greatly disappointed if we do not put matters on their old footing without calling on you for another penny. Your cheque last Friday saved us; it is appalling to think what would have happened without your assistance."
"Can't you say any more than that?" Lady Manningtree asked, anxiously.
"I dare not," said Lionel. "I do not want to raise false hopes. Let it stand that I am very sanguine. And perhaps to-morrow——"
Lady Manningtree let it go at that. She had great faith in the clear-eyed, resolute young man with the strong face and ample jaw. And she knew that he had had the advantage of a good business training. She suffered Lionel to depart presently, and he took his way at once in the direction of the British Museum, where he asked to see Mr. George Cross.
Cross was there, as it turned out; he had nothing particular to do for an hour, and he showed his pleasure in walking as far as Lionel's rooms and smoking a pipe with him.
"Got something you want to show me?" he asked, looking out of a heavy face through a pair of thick, gold-rimmed glasses. Cross had seriously damaged his eyesight at one time by dabbling amongst old and scribbled manuscripts, on which he was a great authority. "Some clever forgery that you want to work into a story, eh?"
"Well, something of that kind," Lionel admitted, with a smile. "Only it isn't a forgery. I've got a cheque in my pocket that I should like to have your opinion upon. There is concealment as to the holder of the cheque and as to the identity of the drawer thereof. What I want you to do is to try and tell me something of the man to whom it was paid. I've heard you boast that you could tell the difference between the fist of a German and a Frenchman, even if they had quite an English name. Now the signature on the back of the cheque is Elias Smyth, who might be any nationality."
"I never boast," Cross said quietly. "And I've no doubt that I shall be able to tell you anything you desire to know. All the same, you are quite right. Elias Smyth may be German or English or American."
The cheque lay on the table presently under the strong light of Lionel's writing-lamp, and Cross bent over it with a powerful glass to his eye. For a long time he gazed at the pink surface of the slip, his glass searching it from side to side.
"The signature is all right," he said. "I don't know Lord Manningtree, but I could swear that that is his signature. A bold one, but a little shaky, as if he were not quite himself at the time. The typed figures and words convey nothing to me, but all the same this Elias Smyth seems to be a lucky man, for the cheque is for upwards of £70,000. Now let us have a look at the endorsement on the other side..... Here also we have a bold signature, clear and strong. Mr. Elias Smyth does not seem to lack strength of character, but he also is a little shaky. Perhaps he drinks. Let us have a good look at the letters under my glass. Well, the man is an Englishman; no doubt of that. The man is also—ah!"
Cross paused abruptly, and turned the sheet over. Then he proceeded to fold it so that both signatures lay uppermost at the same time. A little chuckle escaped him; he seemed to be very pleased about something. He turned to Lionel abruptly.
"You would like to know who this Elias Smyth is?" he asked. "Is that it?"
"Precisely," Lionel replied. "I would give a good round sum of money to know. But, clever as you are, you could not tell me that unless perhaps you happened to know——"
"Indeed I don't. I never heard the name before. But if you want to know I can tell who Elias Smyth is beyond all shadow of a doubt."
LIONEL looked at Cross without speaking. He had some faint idea of what was going to happen. He had figured out some tremendous development, and here it was close at hand. And assuredly Cross had solved the problem.
"The thing is ridiculously simple," Cross went on. "To put this quite plainly, Lord Manningtree and Elias Smyth are one and the same person. My experience in such matters teaches me that this is by no means an unusual occurrence. I am not what you may call a professional expert in handwriting; that is, I don't keep an office, and I don't do law court work and that kind of thing. All the same I am frequently consulted on matters of this kind. If you take three leading men in this line as your witnesses I can procure three others to go against you. But my position here has compelled me to reduce the thing to an exact science. I shall prove to you that I am quite correct in what I say."
"I shall be greatly obliged if you will do so," Lionel said, gravely.
"The thing is easy. You see I have folded the cheque so that the signature and the endorsement are both uppermost. Now just for one moment look at the tolerably bold name of 'Manningtree' at the foot of the cheque. Observe the long, strong, peculiar, sword-like curve of the tail of the 'g.' It is a most original and characteristic curve. Now let us look at the 'l' in the word 'Elias' on the endorsement. Here we see the same bold curve, only it is an upward curve instead of a downward one. But it is the same thing reversed, the same size and everything. Turn the 'g' upside down to fit the 'l' and you have the same thing. But I've got a little apparatus here of my own invention that will carry conviction to you. We will pick out those two letters and photograph them on an enlarged card. Then we will turn one of those two letters upside down and superimpose one loop over the other."
It was an interesting experiment, and it proved Cross to be absolutely correct. When the two curves were superimposed on the card they practically looked like one loop. There was no longer any doubt in Lionel's mind. He was all the more inclined to believe because he had come prepared for some discovery of this kind.
"I fancy that is quite sufficient for your purpose," Cross said. "If you like I will go into the whole thing and make a thorough analysis of the two signatures. But you may rest assured that you have discovered the identity of 'Elias Smyth.' I hope there is nothing wrong with the dual individual?"
"Nothing whatever," Lionel hastened to say. "On the contrary, you have relieved my mind of a great anxiety. It is no unusual thing for men in a large way of business to have several accounts and be at the head of several businesses. I suspected treachery on the part of certain individuals, and that is why I came here. I am sure that you will understand why I am so reticent."
"Quite right," Cross laughed. "Never betray the secrets of the prison-house. And I am only too glad to have been of the slightest service to you."
"You have been a service to humanity generally, if you only knew it," Lionel said, as he rose to go. "If you don't mind I will take those cards as well as the cheque with me. It's getting very late, Cross."
It was getting very late indeed, too late to call on Dick Armstrong. In a very thoughtful frame of mind Lionel went back to his rooms. He sat before the fire smoking cigarettes till the dawn began to break. He was no longer restless and uneasy and uncertain of his ground. From the first he had some dim idea of what was taking place; he had worked out the situation with the novelist brain as if the whole thing had been a dramatic story. As to the rest he was greatly aided by his business training.
It all lay before his eyes now as clear as daylight; he knew exactly what had happened. But that was not sufficient, he would have to find some way of guarding the future. He fully realised the cunning and guile of the people he had to deal with. If Lord Manningtree had been in his right mind the weapons to hand would have sufficed. But, then, Lord Manningtree was worse than useless. It would be necessary to set a trap to catch the knaves who were taking advantage of untoward circumstances to bring about one of the most sensational crashes of modern times. This part of the programme was still unfinished when Lionel put out the light and went to bed.
It was quite early the next morning when he called upon Dick Armstrong, only to find that the latter had not been home all night. The circumstance was strange, and a little alarming to boot. Lionel wondered if Schreiner and Co. were putting the pressure on their unfortunate debtor. He had heard all about Dick's connection with these people. And Dick was a most valuable ally at the present moment.
Lionel thought the matter over for some little time, and decided that though there was something disturbing in the knowledge that Dick had been up all night, that fact alone did not necessarily point to trouble for the latter. It was just possible that he might have gone off on some clue of his own, and that, a little later on, he might come along with some startling and useful information. No doubt Dick would be found at the office in the course of the day, and some little time after breakfast Harvey set out with the intention of calling on him there.
He was agreeably surprised before he had reached his destination to come in contact with Elsie. The girl was looking more than usually bright and animated, though, in answer to Lionel's questions, she had no particularly cheerful intelligence to impart. Perhaps the fact that she and Lionel had drawn so much closer together of late had filled her with a quiet happiness.
"Have you nothing particular to tell me?" she asked.
"On the whole, I think not," Lionel responded. "For the present I prefer to keep my discoveries to myself."
"Oh, then there are discoveries," Elsie smiled. "Come, that is good news, at any rate. I should not be surprised to hear that you are getting on famously. What a nice thing it must be to be so clever that you can read other people's thoughts though they never so much as utter a word! I am positively afraid of you."
"I don't think you have any need," Lionel responded. "At any rate, it appears that for over two years I was not in the position to read your thoughts, and they were far more to me than the thoughts of anybody else—even the concealed plans of the scoundrels who are doing their best to ruin Lord Manningtree."
Elsie looked up in some alarm. "But surely that is not really going to happen?" she said. "My dear Lionel, that must be prevented at any cost. Oh, I know that the danger is very imminent and terribly close, but I have had a feeling for some time that you are absolutely certain to succeed where others have failed. Every day I become more and more convinced of the fact that it was a blessed thing for me when I called upon 'Rodney Payne' and found instead the man——"
"Well, go on," Lionel said, with a tender smile. "You were going to say you had found the man you loved, and who had never ceased to love you in turn during the past two years, dark and troublous as they have been to both of us."
A warm flush rose to Elsie's cheeks, but her eyes were steadfast and tender as she turned them on Lionel's face.
"You should not make such speeches in public," she said. "Really, you are most audacious."
They laughed happily together. Just for the moment they had forgotten their surroundings and all the trouble and misery in the world. For a little while Lionel walked along by Elsie's side, until it suddenly occurred to him that he had forgotten all about Lord Manningtree's affairs, and the stern necessity for seeing Dick Armstrong without delay. He turned guiltily and held out his hand.
"You are making me oblivious to my duties," he said. "Positively, I must get away to the city at once, and have an interview with that brother of yours. If the fates are kind to me, I will try and see you this evening, and we may even go so far as to try a little dissipation in the way of a musical comedy or something of that kind."
There was nothing for it now but to go down to the office of Manningtree and Co. and see Dick there. He had not yet arrived. Without wasting time Lionel took a cab and drove away to the residence of Lady Manningtree. She glanced anxiously at Lionel's face as he came in.
"I can see that you have news for me," she said.
"Indeed I have," Lionel responded. "And most important news too. I have discovered what has become of the enormous sums of money missing lately from your husband's business. I have half-expected something of the kind, but I hardly hoped to hit upon the truth quite so soon. We have been going through all the cheques that have come back to the office in due course through the bank. Both Armstrong and myself were much struck by the fact that cheques for large sums were periodically drawn by Lord Manningtree in favour of an individual called Elias Smyth. These cheques were usually drawn on a certain day, and they were paid into the credit of the North German Alliance Corporation Bank. I was naturally anxious to find out who this Smyth was. I became still more suspicious on finding that our friend Hermann Schreiner is the managing director of the banking company in question."
"You mean that those cheques were forgeries?" Lady Manningtree cried.
"No; both Dick and myself came to the conclusion that the signature of his lordship on the cheque was genuine. But that did not dispose of the fact that large sums of money were drifting from our side virtually into the hands of the man who is trying to ruin us. He could have ruined us by this time had not you come so nobly to the rescue. I took one of those cheques to an expert friend of mine, and he has convinced me that Lord Manningtree and this Elias Smyth are one and the same man. It looks like a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. At any rate, practically all the money belonging to Lord Manningtree's firm lies in that German bank to the credit of Elias Smyth, i.e., Lord Manningtree himself."
"If we could only induce him to draw it out again."
"You have hit upon the exact point. That is the great difficulty, and at the same time the great danger. Suppose we get some specialist to certify what Lord Manningtree's mental state is. Suppose he boldly declares that the bank has no such account, and that the account has been closed."
"I see," Lady Manningtree said, thoughtfully. "That means the ruin of thousands, the very thing that we are most anxious to avoid. What do you propose to do?"
"There is only one thing to do, Lady Manningtree. We must manage in some manner to get a cheque from his lordship drawn on the account of 'Elias Smyth,' and payable to somebody who is in our secret. It need not be a large cheque, it need be only a matter of a pound or two, so long as it is done. Once that cheque is cashed over the counter of the German Alliance we have proofs to go on. If I could only induce Lord Manningtree to sign such a cheque!"
Lady Manningtree sat there thoughtfully, with her hands in her lap. The weary, handsome face had grown very pale, but the fire and resolution were still in her eyes. She rose presently and paced up and down the room, seemingly torn by convicting doubts.
"You are right," she said. "Your quick mind has grasped the situation. It is my duty to save all those poor people if I can; it is impossible that even my fortune can quite save the situation. Goodness only knows what induced my husband to do this thing, to hide all this money away, to play into the hands of his enemies!"
"He practically did not know anything about the enemy," Lionel said. "He wanted a foreign bank where he stood a good chance of not being known. It is probable that he had not the least idea of Schreiner being connected with the German corporation."
"I had not thought of that," Lady Manningtree murmured. "There is only one thing to be done. I dread the bare idea, I shrink from it with loathing, but it has to be done. Will you come round as far as Cardigan Place with me?"
"Certainly I will. But surely your ladyship does not intend——"
"To see Lord Manningtree? Indeed, I do. If he has one glimmering of reason left he will do as I desire. I have one hold upon him, of which nobody knows but myself. If there is one person in the world who can get the document you want, I am the person. Let us get along to Cardigan Place before my courage fails. Kindly call a cab."
Lady Manningtree came down a moment later, ready for the journey. She was quite calm and collected now, her face was pale and set. She evidently desired silence, so that Lionel said nothing till Cardigan Place was reached. The door was answered by Bates himself, who fairly staggered back as he caught sight of the pale, cold face of his mistress. He stammered something as Lady Manningtree passed into the hall.
"Go and tell your master I am here," she said. "Say that I desire to see him for a few minutes on most important business. You must make him understand, Bates. And I am going to see him whether he likes it or not."
Her voice rang clear and cold. Apparently it penetrated the library, for the door opened and Gladys came out. A little cry broke from the girl's lips.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "I was just coming to see you. Dick had called on me; he is in deep distress, poor fellow. And I was going to bring him along. I do not quite, as yet, understand what Dick's trouble is, but——"
"Stay where you are," Lady Manningtree said, in the same cold way. "I came here to see your father—it is a matter of life and death. Bates, I will wait here till you are ready. And, on second thoughts, you had better come along with me, Mr. Harvey. It is more than likely that I shall need your valuable assistance."
BEWILDERED and troubled in her mind Gladys returned to the library. Armstrong was there, moodily pacing up and down. His despairing look had given way for the moment to one of curiosity and excitement. He also had heard Lady Manningtree's voice.
"Surely that was your mother," he exclaimed. "Whatever is she doing here?"
"I don't know," Gladys said. "Something of terrible importance apparently. I daresay we shall know after she has seen my father. Oh! Dick, when is all this misery and mystery to end? We all of us seem to be in bitter trouble. And you were just telling me about yourself. Is it as bad as you make out?"
"It could not be worse," Dick groaned. "Never was a dearer and more loyal sweetheart in the world than you, Gladys. You came into my life to make me a better and nobler man. I said that for your sake I would mend my ways. It was a cowardly thing of me to come here and make love to you, Gladys."
Gladys laughed gently, and her pretty face grew crimson. "I am afraid that I encouraged you, Dick," she whispered. "My life was so sad and dull here, with nobody but my father, and he seemed to care for nothing but business. And when you came it was all different, Dick. You always seemed so cheerful, always so ready to enter into my little pleasures. And then that night we had been to the theatre——"
"Oh! I shall never forget that night. And I had come to love you passionately and sincerely for two whole months. And somehow I could not help speaking; how it came about I shall never be able to tell. But somehow you were in my arms, your kisses were warm upon my lips. And so we were secretly engaged. But even then—even now, you do not realise what a shameless blackguard I am."
"Dick! How can you say such things? How can you expect me to believe them? You will be telling me next that there is some other girl."
"No, darling. My conscience is quite clear in that way. I had never cared much for women until I met you. I came to tell you everything to-day. Do not interrupt me, Gladys, but let me get the shameful confession made, and then deal with me as you like. I am going to make a clean breast of it. I have been walking about all night; I was ashamed to go home for fear of being arrested——"
"Arrested! Dick, do you mean to tell me that you—that you——"
"My dear, I can't tell you anything if you interrupt me so. What I say is the shameful truth. Let me tell it in full—the story of the man who let the lover of his sister suffer for him, who ruined another man's name to pay his gambling debts. And then if you refuse to forgive me, I shall not blame you."
Gladys dropped into a seat without another word. She listened in a dull kind of way to the story that Dick had to tell—everything from the moment when Lionel Harvey had been driven from the bank to the moment when the danger from Schreiner and Co. threatened to land the speaker within the walls of a gaol.
"And now you know it all," Dick concluded. "I have concealed nothing from you, I have not said a single word in my own defence. And this is the sorry blackguard who made love to a pure and innocent girl, who allowed her to get fond of him without her knowing what he was. I suppose it is all over between us now; I suppose I shall suffer for my folly. It is very hard, because I love you, for your own sake. I have become a different man for you, Gladys. I had better go now——"
"No," Gladys whispered. "You are not going, Dick. All this is very terrible to me; I do not pretend that is not a great shock to my feelings. But I believe that you mean every word that you say, and it is my duty to encourage you to proceed in the way you are going at present. I don't want to preach, Dick, only I love you from the bottom of my heart; I could never change, and I want you now as badly as I have wanted you all along. You have been very weak and foolish, but you have always been tender and kind to me, and I can't forget it. Whatever happens, Dick, I shall always be the same to you."
Dick stood there biting his quivering lip to keep it steady. In this the hour of his deepest despair he fully realised what he was losing. Gladys crept to his side and timidly placed her arm about his neck. He stooped and kissed her passionately.
"I can't give you up," he said. "I will fight my way through this thing, and win yet. And I am glad you know, dearest, it seems such a weight off my mind. I was going to tell your father, I had always intended to tell him. He might have helped me. And since I have nobody to help me now——"
"Oh, yes, you have, Dick. There is not a nobler, kinder, sweeter woman in all the world than my mother. She will not weigh a few thousand pounds against my happiness. Let us make a confidante of her. Those vile scoundrels you told me of are holding their terrors over your head, so as to get you into their power and make you a tool in this disgraceful thing that they are doing. I feel certain of it. If you are bold and resolute you may escape yet. If you tell Mr. Harvey that——"
"Lionel Harvey knows already. I am waiting for a chance to speak to him. He promised to call at my rooms last night, but I dared not go home. He was on the verge of some very important discovery, I could judge that by his manner. I should not wonder if he had been successful. Lady Manningtree must have felt the force of it, or she would never have come here to-day. I think I'll stay and see what has happened. Oh, little Gladys, how good you are to me! If I could only prove my deep love for you."
"I think that I understand, dear," Gladys said, simply. "Perhaps the opportunity may come sooner than you anticipate. I am sure that courage and resolution are the things you want indeed. But I fancy that I hear the others coming downstairs."
Gladys kissed her lover once more on the cheek, and drew away from him. Lady Manningtree came in just a little pale and resolute, as before, though her breath was coming fast, and she had her hand upon her heart, as if some terrible pain lay there. Harvey followed, quite as cool and deliberate, though he could not disguise the light in his eyes. In his right hand he held a piece of paper that looked like a cheque.
"It's fortunate that you are here, Dick," he said. "I shall want you, I have been looking for you everywhere, both last night and this morning."
"There were reasons why I could not go home," Dick stammered. "I have been explaining those reasons to Gladys—in fact, I have told her everything. There has been no concealment between us, Lionel. She knows all about Schreiner and Co."
"It is absolutely necessary that Lady Manningtree should know also," Lionel said, with just a shadow of hardness in his voice. "You must tell her your story, and let her know exactly the relationship that exists between Miss Gladys and yourself. When that is done I have a proposal to make to you. I am very sorry, Dick, but really I must trouble you to go over that miserable recital again."
"My mother must know sooner or later," Gladys cried. "But before Dick speaks, I will say that nothing can alter my affection for him."
The story was told once more without the slightest prevarication. Lady Manningtree listened with the same cold, expressionless face; she seemed as if she had turned to stone.
"We are truly an unfortunate family," she said presently. "We will talk about this at some other time, and, meanwhile, there is important work to be done. Perhaps Mr. Harvey will be so good as to explain the events of the last few hours."
Lionel plunged eagerly into his explanation. For the most part he addressed his remarks to Dick, who followed him with rapt attention. He had forgotten his own troubles for the moment, and was anxious and eager to be up and doing something.
"This is amazing," he said. "If we could only pin those fellows down. If we could only get a cheque drawn by 'Elias Smyth,' and cashed——"
"I am glad that you see the point," Lionel said, drily. "That step also occurred to me as a vital necessity. I have laid it before Lady Manningtree, and she came to my assistance. As you have not witnessed the painful events of the last half-hour, you are not in a position to admire the courage and noble devotion of Lady Manningtree. But that is not the point. Let it be sufficient to say that I have here in my hand a small cheque drawn in my favour by 'Elias Smyth' on his account at the North German Bank. My idea is to get it cashed within the next hour."
"You are going off at once to do it?" Dick asked, eagerly.
"By no means," Lionel said, brusquely. "I have a far better plan than that. I begin to see my way now right to the end of this business. You will cash the cheque."
"I?" Dick faltered. "I—I don't understand. At the present moment it would be madness for me to go anywhere near a concern where Hermann Schreiner——"
"Oh, but there will be a great deal of method in your madness," Lionel went on, in the same dry and caustic manner. "The cheque is payable to bearer. You will write your name on the back and present the cheque yourself. In all probability no cheque has ever been drawn on the account of Elias Smyth, and you may be asked a question or two about it. Possibly you may be asked to go and see the manager; I hope you will."
"I don't quite see the point yet," Dick muttered.
"The point is quite clear. The mere presentation of the cheque will show that you, Lord Manningtree's private secretary, know all about this Elias Smyth' business. You have only to be cool, to decline to answer questions, to demand to know whether you are going to get the money for the draft or not. And one thing you may be certain of, so long as you don't say too much, and display your power cautiously, Schreiner and Co. dare not do you any harm—least, not till they know what you know. Don't you see that I am showing you a way to draw their teeth? Still, if you are afraid to go——"
And Lionel paused significantly. Dick looked from the cold, expressionless face of Lady Manningtree into the eager, pleading eyes of Gladys. He said nothing, but those eyes were haunting in their pathetic glance. And, after all, the girl had been so good to him.
"Give it me," he cried. "I will go at once. Wait here till I return."
Without another word Dick flung out of the room and into the street. A fast hansom took him as far as the city. He hardened his heart, he was not going to turn back now. In the bank he took a pen and wrote his name across the back of the cheque. A clerk took it and handed it to somebody else. There was a whispered consultation, and then the second clerk vanished with the pink slip in his hand. Dick's heart was beating fast, his throat was dry, but his face was resolute.
"A—a little irregularity with the cheque," the clerk stammered. "Will you be so good as to come as far as the manager's office, sir?"
Dick swallowed a big lump in his throat, and his courage came back to him.
"Very well," he said. "Will you be so kind as to lead the way?"
ARMSTRONG no longer felt nervous; he had braced himself for the coming struggle, and, besides, he had the advantage of knowing whom he was going to meet. He followed the clerk to the back of the big office to a small room beyond, the doors and sides of which were ground glass, thus making the place quite private. At a desk there sat a short, fat man with a big oily face and a huge hooked nose. He was frowning over a slip of paper in his hand. If he had expected to see any expression of timidity over Dick's face he was mistaken.
"Good morning," he said, in his oily way. "This cheque has been paid over to you, Mr.—Mr.—I am afraid I did not quite catch your name."
Dick did not offer the desired information. He smiled as if something amused him.
"The brain pressure of a huge business like yours must be enormous, Mr. Schreiner," he said coolly. "It is hardly to be expected that you should remember the names of everybody with whom you come in contact. Still, I can scarcely believe that you do not know who I am. May I take a seat?"
Dick spoke slowly and deliberately. He was a little astonished at his own audacity. He was playing as if he had all the cards in his hands. Schreiner paused, obviously puzzled for a moment.
"I have no time for badinage of that kind," he said slowly.
"That is precisely why you might save trouble by remembering me," Dick retorted. "I shall be glad to save you further trouble. Also, I shall be glad of the cash for that small cheque on Mr. Smyth's account. Has the account been closed? Am I to understand that it is overdrawn, and that you decline to——"
"You are rather an impetuous young man," Schreiner smiled viciously. "I may as well remind you of the fact that—you see—Mr.—Mr.——"
"You can call me Jones if you like," Dick said. "Is that cheque in order?"
Schreiner laid the cheque on the desk before him, and regarded it quite affectedly. For once in his life the big financier was nonplussed. He knew perfectly well who his visitor was, but he had not expected to be treated like this. He knew to the uttermost farthing exactly what Dick owed him; he knew perfectly well that the foolish young man's papers were a forgery of Lord Manningtree's name; he was quite aware of the fact that he could send his visitor to penal servitude if he liked. But he had not dragged Lord Manningtree's secretary into his net for that; he had a much more cunning scheme on hand. It seemed to him that the pear was pretty nearly ripe, and that the time had come to pluck his unhappy victim. He was going to force Dick to turn traitor to his employer. He had argued, not unnaturally, that a servant who will commit forgery will be ready for any kind of treachery. There was a certain amount of delicate ground to be trodden on before the great Manningtree fortress could be destroyed, and it was just possible that the ground in question was mined. Dick had, so to speak, been taken prisoner on purpose to be squeezed of the information. He ought to have been in mortal fear of Hermann Schreiner, but here he was in the lion's den, without the slightest signs of trepidation. And, moreover, he had come to present a cheque on an account that Schreiner had watched with peculiar fascination. In fact, the financier was contemplating seriously a gigantic fraud, and was reckoning on the loss of Manningtree's reason to repudiate the possession of that strange account altogether. He had made up his mind to use Dick's brains to see how far it was safe to go. He had meant to send for Dick this very day, and hold the terror of the law over him. And here he had come on his own account as if nothing had happened!
Like a flash it had occurred to Schreiner to pretend ignorance of Dick's identity. But Dick had swept away that cobweb directly. He seemed very sure of his ground.
"Are you not Mr. Richard Armstrong?" the financier asked, with sudden change of front.
"You know that I am," Dick responded. "What then?"
"Well, I understand that we are creditors of yours to a large amount. I recollect it all now. Pray excuse my temporary forgetfulness. In the pressure of a great business——"
"Oh, I quite understand," Dick said, contemptuously. "I borrowed some money from your own firm in Fenchurch-street. I deposited certain securities bearing the name, of Lord Manningtree——"
"And purporting to bear his signature, eh?"
"You speak as if you doubt the signature. Will it not be time to raise that question when the money becomes due, and when Lord Manningtree——"
"I am coming to that," Schreiner grinned. "You are an exceedingly clever young man; indeed, I quite regret that you are not on my staff. I understand that Lord Manningtree is not in a position to say whether a certain autograph is his signature or not. I regret to hear that his mental condition is so bad that—in short——"
"That, unfortunately, is an exact description of the case," Dick said gravely. "But that will not prevent the security of mine you hold being duly met and paid off when the time comes. If you are in the least doubt as to your money, I shall be glad to give you a cheque for the whole amount to-morrow. I know a few of your methods, sir; in fact, I know a great deal more than you imagine. You have made a certain accusation against me, and I have a great mind to put you to the test. Will you be so good as to call a policeman and give me into custody without further delay?"
"Bless my soul! what for?" Schreiner demanded. His jaw had dropped slightly. He had lost his assured grin. "What is the boy talking about?"
"Surely you know what I mean," Dick went on. "You have practically accused me of obtaining a large sum of money from you by a forged document. I ask you to prove it. I declare that the signature on that paper is genuine. You say it is not. If it is not, why have you refrained from proceeding against me? Your name is not exactly a philanthropic one; in fact, your name stinks in the nostrils of the city. Let us have this thing out in court; it is only your word against mine! And I am prepared to discharge your debt this very day if you think fit."
Schreiner was clearly puzzled. He had all the audacity and rapacity of his tribe, but he had the cowardice of his class, too. He knew perfectly well that the power he had over Dick lay within the four corners of a forged document. He knew that the paper was forged. But it was impossible to prove it. To do so it became necessary to call Lord Manningtree, who was not in a condition to get into the witness-box. Nor did he himself desire to come in such close contact with Manningtree. The whole thing was maddening and disappointing to a degree. Schreiner had expected to meet Dick in his private office in the course of a day or so, and dictate his own terms. He was going to have Armstrong for his own, body and soul. And here was the young secretary defying him, and offering to put down ten thousand pounds within the next few hours, as if he had been a millionaire. And Armstrong was not bluffing either—no single man in London could bluff Schreiner. Then, who was finding the money? Perhaps Manningtree himself. The German financier was unusually restless and ill at ease.
"We are getting on too fast," he said. "Now, let us discuss the matter, Mr.—Mr.——"
"Armstrong, you hound!" Dick cried. "Why try and blind me in this way? I thought you were a busy man, that you had other work to do. Why do you keep me here like this? Why do you pretend that that cheque is not in order? The point is this. Are you going to give me the money for it or are you not?"
Still Schreiner hesitated. He did not know which way to turn, and the worst of it was that he had no time to make up his mind, no chance of scheming for safety.
Schreiner lay back in his chair and regarded Dick with an eye of almost fatherly kindness. As a matter of fact, the great financier was absolutely nonplussed and utterly at his wits' end what reply to make. Never before, in the course of his life, had he been pushed so hard, and that by a young man whom he had hitherto regarded as little removed from a fool. He had expected to make Dick one of his tools, and to send him out of the office presently pale and trembling, and utterly at the mercy of the man who held his safety in the hollow of his hands.
And yet, strange as it seemed, this little programme was not working out in the least as Schreiner had intended. With his knowledge of the world and mankind generally he realised now that he had a strong force to deal with, and must lay his plans accordingly. But that wily brain refused to act now.
Dick lay back in his chair, studying the ceiling and whistling softly to himself. He did not notice that Schreiner's bland gaze had suddenly turned to one of deep malignity. If the financier could have murdered his antagonist and got rid of his body without fear of detection he would have done so at that moment with the greatest possible pleasure; but the unconscious object of his wrath sat there as if nothing were the matter, and he was just waiting for an expression of opinion on the part of Schreiner.
"You need not hurry," Dick said coolly. "Take your time, my dear sir. I always find myself that matters of this kind are all the more satisfactory for a little profound thought. My time is more or less my own this morning, so you will not inconvenience me."
Schreiner's yellow hand crushed on the paper on the table. The blood rose to his face until the veins in his forehead stood out like cords. Only by the greatest effort did he restrain his passion and the rage that filled him.
"You are a clever young man," he contrived to say, though his voice was hoarse and thick—"an exceedingly clever young man, and in a business like mine I always have vacancies for promising youths with brains like yours. There are thousands of young fellows in London who would give their ears for a chance such as I am disposed to offer to you at this moment. Do you understand?"
"I think so," Dick responded. "You are offering me a position in your office at an exceedingly good salary."
"That's it," Schreiner said eagerly. "An excellent salary. In fact, you can nominate your own, and what is more, I am prepared to take you without a character—you heard what I said—'without a character'—and no questions asked as to your past. I think that would be a very nice way out of the little trouble which has arisen between us. Do I make my meaning quite clear?"
"Brutally clear, if it comes to that," Dick replied, with a little extra colour in his cheeks. "I see exactly what you are driving at; but then, you see, I already have an excellent situation, in a great firm which enjoys a reputation which is, well, let us say, a little different from yours. I have no desire to hurt your feelings, but, painful as it is to me, I must decline your offer. Now let us get back to business. Are you going to give me this money? I have detained you quite long enough."
An ugly look came over Schreiner's face again, and still he hesitated. He could not but admire the cool way in which Dick was taking it all. His voice was thick and husky.
"Do you care much whether I refuse or not?" he asked.
Dick smiled at the amazing ineptness of the question. It was not worthy of the great reputation of his antagonist. It spoke so terribly of a disposition to climb down.
"I don't care two straws," Dick said. "You see, the amount is so very small."
The amount was small enough, but the issue was tremendous. And this young man appeared to have such great reserve forces behind him. For all he knew to the contrary, he might be standing at the mouth of a terrible trap.
"You are so impatient," he said. "That is the worst of dealing with you young men. You should take a loaf out of the book of that excellent chief cashier of yours, Mr.—what is his name? A most exceptional man, Mr.—Mr.——"
"It must be a terrible thing to have a memory for names like yours," Dick said drily. "I presume you are alluding to Mr. Wilmer. Unfortunately, Mr. Wilmer is not at the office just now; he is confined to the house by a dangerous illness. But Mr. Wilmer is not quite the staid old gentleman you take him to be. A few years ago he was quite a confirmed theatre-goer. I daresay it would surprise you to know that he is the husband of one of the cleverest of our actresses."
"Indeed!" Schreiner muttered uneasily. "You surprise me. The name of the lady?"
"Oh, that dreadful memory of yours! Of course you have heard of Miss Kitty Cromarty?"
"They are still living together, I presume?" Schreiner asked. His oily face oozed, the hand that held the cheque was trembling slightly.
"I don't think so," Dick replied. "These marriages seldom prove a success. And our saintly Wilmer has a temper of his own; has been known to indulge in violence, I believe. But, really, this pitiful scandal cannot interest you, Mr. Schreiner. That little cheque——"
Schreiner rang his bell with unnecessary violence, and a clerk entered. Schreiner pointed to the cheque on the table and asked Dick how he would have it, in notes or gold.
"Notes," Dick snapped, promptly. "Always take notes for everything over five pounds, Mr. Schreiner. One can trace notes, one can prove where they come from. That is a lesson that every boy should learn as soon as he mounts the office desk."
Schreiner brought his yellow teeth together with a click. He would have given half his worth at the present moment to look into the back of Dick's mind. The clerk vanished, and an awkward silence followed. It was destined to be broken presently in a striking and dramatic manner. Another clerk appeared, his shadow on the ground glass followed by another and more portly one. Then the door opened and the clerk announced the name of the new visitor with becoming reverence.
"The Earl of Manningtree to see you, sir," he said.
Schreiner sprang to his feet with a snarling oath that was instantly suppressed. He was too agitated to notice Dick's white, scared face. There in the doorway stood Manningtree, a little pale and drawn, but with the fine, intelligent face full of vigour and all the light of reason in the keen grey eyes.
"This is a surprise," he said. "What are you doing here, Armstrong?"
"I CAME here on a little matter of business, my lord," Dick said, as coolly as possible. "It was in connection with a small cheque that had come into my hands. The cheque was drawn in favour of someone by a certain Elias Smyth. You may know the name."
"I seem to have heard it before," Lord Manningtree said, indifferently. "If you have quite finished here. I should like to have a few words with Mr. Schreiner."
"Half a minute," the German gasped. He began to see his way to strike a blow. "There was another little matter that Mr. Armstrong has forgotten. He is a creditor of mine to the extent of some ten thousand pounds. I have the security here where I keep all my valuable papers. The signature purports to be yours, Lord Manningtree. Would you like to see it?"
Lord Manningtree nodded in an absent kind of way, and Schreiner struck noisily on the bell again. Dick stood there with his eyes on the floor. Why had he not gone before—why had he waited after the victory had been his? He knew now that he was undone, that in a few minutes he would stand confessed as a trickster and a cheat. He forced himself to raise his eyes and look the sneering Schreiner full in the face. His heart seemed to stand still as the blue slip of paper was produced and handed over to Lord Manningtree, who glanced at it once and laid it with a suggestion of dismissal on the table before him.
"Well," he asked coldly, "have you anything to say in the matter?"
"Of course," Schreiner stammered. "If your lordship is satisfied with the signature——"
"I have seen better specimens of the family handwriting," Manningtree said, in his cold, polished way. "But it will suffice. So long as my name is good in the city that paper is a valuable asset. If you like to mention a liberal discount I will be prepared to buy, Mr. Schreiner. Armstrong, be so good as to go to the office and wait for me. I shall not be long."
Dick crept away through the bank and into the street, with the haziest notion as to how he got there. He was conscious of a feeling of amazing exultation, a great reaction of spirits. He had expected something so very different from this. He had not looked forward to seeing Manningtree in the city again. And here he was, apparently strong and mentally elastic as ever. For some time Dick sat in the private office of his chief trying to work the tangled problem out. He was still engaged with the puzzle when Lord Manningtree came in. He dropped into a chair and hid his face in his hands for a moment.
"Bolt the door," he whispered. "Don't let anybody come in. I am exhausted to the verge of utter collapse. Put your hand in my left breast pocket; you will find a little bottle there. Pull the cork out and pour the contents down my throat. I shall be better presently."
Dick did as desired without question. He saw the grey tinge fade from the intellectual face, he saw the vacant eyes clear and resume their light of reason. He waited for his chief to speak. His voice was still weak, but it recovered as he proceeded.
"I saved you from gaol to-day," he said, with a certain sternness. "In all the city of London at the present moment there is no luckier young man than you."
"I—I know it," Dick stammered. "My lord, if you only knew how sincerely sorry I am——"
"Yes, yes. I believe that firmly. If I had not believed it I would not have put out my hand one inch to save you. I heard all your story a little while ago. But we need not go into that at present, for I need all my strength for other things. Do I look like a madman, Armstrong?"
Armstrong could, with truth, deny this suggestion. Manningtree smiled sadly.
"I am a madman," he said. "As a matter of fact, I have been mad for years. For years I have had a soft spot in my heart for the average madman, for I am one myself. But the world never knew, the world never guessed it. The truth was known only to my poor wife, my man Bates, and, latterly, to Wilmer. And do you know what was the bottom of it all?"
"I have not the least idea, my lord," Dick stammered.
"Drink. The hereditary curse that came to me from my father. Mind you, I was no weak fool who loved the bottle, and who could not keep from it. For months at a time I was as rabid a teetotaller as the wildest enthusiast who ever sported the blue ribbon. But the curse was in my veins; I could not rid myself of it. My wife had to leave me and save her life—I punished her by taking away her child. If she had gone into a court of law and exposed me she could have resumed a mother's rights, but she was too loyal a wife for that. Then I threw myself heart and soul into work; I built up the business that I have about me. I was the great philanthropist, the admirable Lord Manningtree, to the world—to myself I was the savage drunkard, who only kept body and soul and reason together by the aid of drugs. That those drugs would absolutely sap my reason I never for a moment doubted.
"When I saw the grim shadow so near it was my obvious duty to transfer this vast undertaking of mine to other hands. But I could not do so! I could not rob myself of the one thing that kept me from the grip of the fiend. And gradually I developed what might be called a dual mind. There was the invalid Lord Manningtree on the one side and the creature Elias Smyth on the other. We are two separate creatures in one body. Elias Smyth was crafty and cunning; he drew large sums of money out of the business and opened an account at that rascal Schreiner's bank. Mind you, my alter ego did not know that Schreiner had an interest in the German Bank; it was chosen because of its foreign nature. Just for the moment I am in full possession of my senses, and I really can't tell you what that cunning Smyth was going to do with that money. And I allowed this Smyth not only to nearly wreck my glorious ship, but to play into the hands of my deadliest foe. I tell you that I, Edward Manningtree, am not in the least responsible for what Smyth did. I should have become a mere helpless wreck, a mere husk of humanity, had not my wife come to see me to-day. For the time being the shock pulled me together. Your friend Harvey told me everything. That is why I resolved to see Schreiner and ascertain how things stood. I did not expect to find you there, but when I did I lost no time in telling a good sound lie for your benefit."
"The clerks of that bank now recognise you as Elias Smyth?" Dick inquired.
"I think not; Elias Smyth wore glasses and a wig. At least, that seems to occur to me, as if I saw him so in a dream. Mind you, the name of Elias Smyth was not mentioned by me to Schreiner to-day. That rascal knows all about my weakness; he thinks that my mind is diseased, so to speak, on some points, and that Lord Manningtree knows nothing at all about the other man who lives in the same body. In the course of a few hours I shall lapse back into my old condition. I know as well as possible that this is a last expiring effort on my part. I think I can keep up long enough to do the work that is before me. The great thing is to get all that money out of Schreiner's clutches. If I had died, or utterly collapsed before the secret of my miserable double life was found out, Schreiner would never have parted with a penny of that money. He would have declared that the account had never existed. You see, till to-day I had never drawn a cheque on the account; it was all paying in. It was a clever idea of your friend Harvey to get me to give him a cheque. Did Schreiner dare to say that there was no account to meet it?"
"He was afraid to," Dick explained. "He played with the thing for a long time. But I managed at last to get the money—in notes."
"Oh, that was clever of you. Notes can be traced. But we are wasting precious time, hours that will never be the same to me. As far as I can judge, Wilmer is at the bottom of all this. It is he who has been playing into Schreiner's hands; that is proved by what Harvey told me of that scene in Stonehouse-street. It was probably Wilmer who put the idea of using the North German Alliance into my head. It was a bold idea of yours to open the private safe, but the end has justified the means. Armstrong, you and your friend have saved the good old ship between you."
"I pray you not to give any credit to me," Dick cried, in genuine distress. "Consider how I have abused your trust in me, consider how I have robbed you. And, knowing what a scoundrel I am, I allowed your daughter to give her heart to me. If you bade me go now and never come here again it would be no more than I deserve."
"You have saved the ship," Manningtree repeated, in a shaking voice. "Who am I to judge others? But for you thousands of poor people would have been involved in ruin. They may be involved in ruin now if we are not quick to act. I am going to strike quickly, before my mind plays me false once more. We are going to force a confession out of Wilmer. I am not going to think of anything else for the present. That drug is beginning to create in me a strong desire to sleep. And on the result of that sleep everything depends. My carriage is down the street; take me to it. To-night you will go down and see Wilmer. Please understand that you are to see him at any cost; you are to force your way into his bedroom, if necessary. Ask him, from me, for the keys of the private safe. I can't say any more at present. I am far too tired."
It was getting late the same evening before Dick reached Brompton, where Wilmer resided. The house was all in darkness, save for a light at the back. Looking into the kitchen, the blind of which was up, Dick could see a charwoman at work. He knocked at the door and inquired for the master of the house. The slatternly charwoman said Mr. Wilmer was in bed and could not see anybody. All the servants were out and would not be back till late. Pretending to be satisfied Dick returned to the front garden, where he proceeded to hide himself behind a bush. He saw the light in the kitchen go out at length, and watched the exodus of the untidy goddess of the scrubbing-brush. Here was proof positive that nobody was in the house, especially as the charwoman took the key of the back door with her. Doubtless Wilmer had dismissed his servants, and in all probability he had his meals out. A thrill of dismay agitated Dick, as it occurred to him that perhaps Wilmer had quietly left the country altogether.
But why was that spot of light in the hall, he wondered. He crept round the house, and found presently that the pantry window was not fastened. It was all done on the spur of the moment; Dick was inside the house regarding the dining-room by the light of the small spot of gas in the hall. The fire was burning, a pair of slippers stood close by, and on the table stood a decanter of whisky and some soda-water, with a box of cigarettes.
"He's coming back right enough," Dick muttered. "On the whole I fancy I will wait and give him something in the way of a surprise. Not at all a bad room this, and evidently the good Wilmer is fond of flowers, judging from the condition of that little conservatory. I'll have a little tobacco to keep me company while I am waiting. I——"
Dick paused, and dropped the cigarette he had taken up. The next moment he had cause to congratulate himself in not lighting the cigarette, for there was a rattle of a latchkey in the door followed by the sound of voices.
So Wilmer had come home with a companion! Dick rose from the armchair and crept quietly into the little conservatory at the end of the room. He was going to give no chance away!
IT seemed to Dick that he was in for a real adventure now. But he was looking forward to it with a courage and resolution to which he had long been a stranger. To begin with, he no longer had the fear of disgrace before his eyes, the haunting shadow of a gaol no longer sapped his courage. He had told his story and had been forgiven. The sweet words that Gladys had uttered still lingered soothingly in his memory, and he was not likely to forget how cleverly and promptly Lord Manningtree had rendered Schreiner's efforts to wound him harmless. And Lady Manningtree also had not a word of reproach for the man who had, so to speak, come into the family with such a record against him. He was indeed fortunate far beyond his deserts. Instead of the gaol that he most thoroughly deserved he had won the love of a girl who, one of these days, would be one of the greatest heiresses in England. It was an instance of the blind luck that fortune brings to some people. But, to do him justice, Dick was thinking nothing of Gladys' money. He honestly and sincerely desired to lead a better life, and he was going to do so.
And here was a chance to show his gratitude. So far as he knew the fortunes of the house of Manningtree still hung in the balance. Hermann Schreiner was not done with yet; he might have many cunning cards left to play. Therefore, it behoved Dick to keep his eyes open now, and act with courage and resolution if occasion arose. He drew back behind a screen of green leaves and waited.
He saw the gas flash out in the sitting-room, and from his hiding-place he could follow everything that was going on. He saw the respectable, smug figure of Wilmer, and the rotund form of Hermann Schreiner. The door of the tiny conservatory was open, so that it was possible to hear all that was going on. Schreiner dropped into a chair and wiped his greasy face. He promptly helped himself to whisky and soda and cigarettes.
"Funny thing that we should meet at the corner of the road like that," he said. "Isn't it rather risky for you to go out just at present?"
"Not a bit of it," Wilmer responded. "I've got rid of the doctor now; once we had his certificate nothing else was necessary. Then I've discharged all my servants, and only have a charwoman in by the day. I lie in bed till dark and then I go and dine somewhere. I've got to do something to amuse myself."
"Well, mind you be careful," Schreiner uttered. "And now let's talk business. I didn't get your telegram till an hour ago, and then I came along——"
"Wait a bit," Wilmer interrupted. "What telegram? I sent you no wire."
Schreiner paused with his glass half way to his lips. The smug, self-satisfied expression vanished for a moment; there was an uneasy gleam in his eyes.
"That's queer," he said. "I wish I had brought the message with me. It was signed with your initials, and requested me to come here to-night, however late."
Wilmer looked uneasy in his turn. Just at that moment the mystery was disconcerting.
"I'll bet a hundred I know what it means," Wilmer cried. "It's that wife of mine. Never was there a more aggravating creature! Just because I had occasion to box her ears she behaves in this mysterious fashion. She disappears as if the earth had swallowed her up, she takes no notice of my advertisements for her to return. And I can't find that she has taken a fresh engagement on the stage. The night she vanished in Stonehouse-street she had no money in her pockets. But she is at the bottom of this."
"I wish that I could think so," Schreiner said, with a puzzled frown. "You were a great fool to strike your wife that night. Suppose she had gone off and told everything to the other side? Suppose the Manningtrees know?"
"Suppose your grandmother, if you ever had one!" Wilmer cried, contemptuously. "She's simply keeping out of the way to frighten me. Manningtree is all right—at least he is all right from our point of view. Never was a thing more carefully managed. I found out that his mind was going long before anybody else. He used to hide little moneys, such as sovereigns and small notes; he knew that his brain was going, and his idea was to escape to some distant part before they could lock him up. It was I who put the idea of making a nest-egg in his mind; it was I who cunningly lured him to open an account with your precious bank. Never a man worked anything more cunningly than that. And now there's half a million to cut up between us, to say nothing of the plunder from the wreck of Manningtree and Company! And not a soul knows where that half-million is. And now you are in a position to compel that young ass Armstrong to say anything that you please."
"Oh, am I?" Schreiner sneered. "I'm glad you have worked it all out so carefully. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we've got all our trouble for our pains. The enemy is awake, my good Wilmer, and the enemy is being well advised. It's true we've got Manningtree's half-million locked carefully away in the name of Elias Smyth; it's also true that up to-day not a penny of that money had been drawn out. To-day a small cheque was presented for payment. It was a precious good thing that I happened to be on the bank premises."
"What difference does that make? You refused the cheque, of course?"
"Of course I didn't, you fool! What would the clerks think, knowing all about the account, as they do? We couldn't juggle with that money until Manningtree was dead or in an asylum. You wouldn't have me take the bank staff into my confidence, would you? And, after all, we've got the money to play with later on—at any rate, I thought so till to-day. I had given the cashier orders to let me know if a cheque was presented drawn by Elias Smyth, and one was presented to-day. I asked to see the holder of the cheque, and he came into my office. Guess who it was?"
"No good at riddles," Wilmer growled, "Get on with the story, confound you!"
"It was young Armstrong. Came into my office as bold as brass; wanted to know what was wrong with the cheque, and gave me two minutes to pay it or not. It was a kind of ultimatum. I tried to gain time, but he would not listen. He let me know that he did not care two straws whether I cashed the cheque or not. And there was I in a position to clap him into gaol at any moment!"
"Well! It seems to me that you had the game in your hands, Schreiner."
"So you appear to think," Schreiner said. "But if you will give the matter a little consideration, you will see that I shall gain nothing whatever by taking that course."
"What better course could you have taken?" Wilmer growled. "You know, as well as I do, that Armstrong is an utter young ass and a coward to boot. If you had tackled him straight away, as I expected you would, he would simply have grovelled at your feet and howled for mercy. Oh, I know the fellow only too well."
Schreiner grinned uneasily as he thought of his recent interview with Armstrong, and wondered what Wilmer would have said had he been present.
"Now let me just tell you what happened," he said. "Like you, I always regarded young Armstrong as a craven and a cur, and all the more contemptible because he was too fond of drink. I expected him to come in white and shivering, and implore me to give him time to find the money. But, really, he did nothing of the sort. He was just as bold as brass, and, for some reason which I can't altogether satisfactory explain, he does not in the least mind what steps I take. Mind you, the fellow was in earnest too."
"Bluffing," Wilmer said, uneasily. "The man's conscience was troubling him, the fear of being found out was ever present before his eyes. The mere fact that Armstrong should behave in this fashion was in itself a cause for alarm. I expect you pretty soon brought him to his knees, or you are not the man I take you for."
"I didn't bring him to his knees at all," Schreiner growled. "I literally couldn't do it. I don't mind telling you that he got the best of me from start to finish."
"I never heard such a thing in my life," Wilmer cried, in genuine alarm. "But you didn't let him off in that easy way? Why didn't you try bribery? With a man of that class a few pounds means everything. I know he is in urgent need of funds——"
"I tried everything I could," Schreiner went on. "I even went so far as to offer him a position in my office, leaving him to name his own salary. I intimated that we were prepared to take him without a character and ask no questions about the past."
"And that wasn't good enough for him?" Wilmer asked.
"Even that wasn't good enough for his lordship. He simply laughed in my face, and told me pretty plainly that he already had an excellent position in a firm which bears a very different reputation from mine."
"But surely you did not let him down like that? You had the ace of trumps up your sleeve, and I expect you played it. A mere allusion to a certain little forgery we know of should have done the trick and brought our friend to his knees without delay. Don't tell me that the forgery business was a failure."
"I thought as you did," Schreiner responded, with an uneasy grin. "I let him know that pretty plainly. He simply defied me, and so astonished was I that I let him have that money. Then he offered to redeem his debt in twenty-four hours, and merely laughed when I suggested that his security was a forgery. I tell you I did not half like it, but I liked it a great deal less when the door opened and Manningtree came in."
"Manningtree?" Wilmer fairly screamed. "Manningtree? Man, you are mad! My late esteemed employer is out of his mind, utterly incapable of doing anything. Did you send for a doctor or call in the police? If you didn't, you lost a fine chance."
"Oh, did I? If Manningtree is mad, he has his lucid intervals. He was as right as you are this evening. Very pale and shaky, but quite clear in his head. And I could get nothing out of him, nothing at all. He acknowledged his signature to that forgery of Armstrong's in the coolest possible way, and never turned a hair when I spoke to him."
"Amazing!" Wilmer muttered. His face was white and damp. "Did he give any kind of hint as to the business of Elias Smyth?"
"Not a single word. And, of course, I did not dare to allude to it."
"Of course not. In his sober senses, Manningtree would know nothing about this Smyth affair. All the same, I can quite see why you are ashamed. Still, Manningtree has nothing to prove that he is Elias Smyth, with a big balance in your hands."
"Oh, yes, he has. However mad Elias Smyth may be, he could not quite shake off the business training of his other self, Lord Manningtree. The first deposit he made with us he asked for a passbook, and that we gave him. The passbook was made up each time he called until quite lately, when he forgot to bring it."
Wilmer broke into a chuckle. He seemed to be very pleased with himself. "Now we are getting on safe ground," he said. "I happen to know where that bank passbook is. It is locked up in the private safe at the office. Manningtree has not been at the office for some time, he is afraid to go there. And he could not open the private safe without my key. Two keys are necessary, as you know. That is why I stayed away and pretended to be ill—so that the private safe could not be touched."
"You should have thought of this before," he said. "Isn't it rather foolish to leave that book there? Something might happen to cause the opening of the safe; somebody night take the bull by the horns and do so. And we have enemies all round us who are up to every move of the game. I should sleep a great deal more soundly to-night if we had that book out of the safe."
"There's a good deal in what you say," he muttered. "It's very possible that my wife has been making mischief. Women are queer creatures when you put them out. And somebody certainly seems to have an idea what is going on. I've got the master key and the second key of the private safe in my possession, and I could use it if necessary. I mean to say that it is possible for me to get into the office at any time of the day or night. It is no new thing for me to be there very late. What do you say——"
Schreiner jumped to his feet with a wonderful alertness. "Then come on," he said. "There is no time to lose. I tell you those people are on the move, and they've got a master mind behind them. It may not be Manningtree, and I am pretty sure that it is not young Armstrong, but the directing force is there all the same. And if they tumble on that passbook I am as good as done."
Wilmer gulped down a strong dose of whisky and soda, pulled on his overcoat, and turned down the gas. As he passed out he turned the key in the dining-room door, leaving Dick a kind of prisoner. He dared to strike a match and look round the tiny conservatory. There was a little door at the back leading into the garden. So far everything had gone quite smoothly. But, as Dick stepped into the garden, somebody rose suddenly behind him and clutched him savagely by the throat.
DICK uttered no cry, though the onslaught was as savage as it had been unexpected. There was nothing for it but to make as good a fight as possible. As the two men rolled over in the grass a ray of light from a street lamp disclosed to Dick the features of his assailant.
"Drop it, Lionel!" Dick panted. "Why are you trying to kill me like this?"
"So it's you," Harvey gasped. "What a fool I am! I came down here at the instigation of Lord Manningtree to help you. I don't quite know what his idea is, for he got back home fairly late this evening in a state of utter collapse. He muttered something about a telegram, and that you were here looking for Wilmer. That's a bad case, Dick, and the end cannot be very far off. I came down here to see Wilmer and Schreiner enter the house, and I waited in the garden. I felt quite sure that you were somewhere near, and I hung on. When you came out of that glass box I was so startled that I went for you. However, there is no damage done so far. Did you hear anything?"
"I heard every word that passed," Dick replied, drily. "I burgled the house, and waited for our friend Wilmer to come home. I was all the more delighted to find he had brought his fellow conspirator along. It was Manningtree who used Wilmer's name and telegraphed to Schreiner. It was part of some plan of his lordship's. I daresay Bates will be able to tell us all about it."
"I daresay," Lionel replied. "I doubt if Manningtree will ever be in a position to help us again. But what are those fellows after at this time of night? They have just gone out of the gate. I hardly expect they will get a cab at this time of night."
Dick proceeded to explain. The two friends were walking along the road together by this time. Harvey chuckled from time to time as Dick told his story.
"We must see how we can turn this matter to the best advantage," he said. "Between ourselves, Messrs. Wilmer and Schreiner are going to have their journey for their pains. I look the liberty of going over the private safe the night we had the locksmith there, and I found the passbook that those fellows are after; I have it at my rooms. Still, there is no reason why we should not follow those fellows and see what they are up to."
Dick was emphatically of the same opinion. It was a somewhat tedious journey, but it was safely accomplished at length. It was an easy matter now to shadow the culprits until they had reached the city and then follow them to the offices of Manningtree and Co. No sign of the caretaker could be seen; probably he was sleeping peacefully after the manner of his tribe. From the glass of the counting-house Dick and his companion could see Schreiner and Wilmer in the inner office before the doors of the great safe. There was room for a dozen men inside. The watchers could hear the rustle of papers and signs that declared a certain agitation on the part of the burglars.
"I'm afraid it's gone," Wilmer stammered. "It seems to have vanished."
"Are you quite sure that you put it in that particular drawer?" Schreiner asked.
"Absolutely certain. I never make mistakes in matters of detail. Heavens! the mere thought of it turns me hot and cold all over. I tell you I'm frightened, Schreiner."
"Of course you are!" Schreiner said, with a snarl of contempt. "You have the heart of a rabbit. I daresay you poked the thing in some other drawer and forgot it. Didn't I see a pair of wax candles on Manningtree's desk? Go and get them. The electric light is all very well, but it does not give much light in the small drawers."
Obedient to the request of his leader, Wilmer crossed the floor in the direction of the office of the head of the firm. Harvey slipped quietly behind him. His hand went over his mouth, his knee caught the unhappy individual in the small of the back.
"Not a single word, as you value your life," Lionel hissed. "Dick, go and close the safe door and lock it. Schreiner has plenty of light in there and plenty of air. We've got him now in a tight place that he will have to exercise his wits to get out of. Bring the keys away and leave him there till morning."
With a grin of approval, Dick hastened to obey. The door of the great safe shut with a click, there was a jingling of keys, and the muffled roar of the rascal within. Then the door of the office closed once more, and Wilmer was slogging down the street like a thief between a pair of policeman. The wretched man was too dazed and confused to make any attempt to get away, so he walked sulkily between his captors.
"We had better go to my rooms," Lionel suggested. "They are nearer than yours, and much more convenient. I am glad, Mr. Wilmer, to see you are much better. Never was your presence at the office more sorely needed than now."
The miserable Wilmer made no attempt at response; he was utterly crushed and beaten. An arrant coward at heart, the situation, so far as he was concerned, was rendered all the more alarming by reason of the fact that he had not the least idea of Lionel's identity. And the latter seemed to know all about him and his ways.
Arriving at length at Lionel's rooms, they deposited their victim in a chair and gave him his choice in the way of refreshments. He asked pitifully for brandy, and a little colour crept into his moist, pallid cheeks as the generous spirit acted. He even made some feeble attempt to recover his lost dignity.
"This is an outrage, gentlemen," he protested. "Mr. Armstrong I know, but the other gentleman is quite a stranger to me. What does it all mean? I am violently assaulted and dragged here as if I were a criminal. If I chose to call in the police——"
"Which you can do in exactly four minutes," Lionel said, politely. "At midnight precisely a policeman passes by on the other side of the road. You will notice that the window is open. You have my full permission to call out for assistance."
Wilmer promptly abandoned that line of argument. The grim politeness of Harvey's manner frightened him. He wanted to hear what the latter had to say.
"I am very glad to find that you are fit for business again," said Harvey. "You find a little relaxation of assistance to you. But was it not rather rash on your part to visit a music-hall at the time when you were supposed to be in bed suffering from a dangerous illness? People might put quite a wrong construction on that action."
"I did not," Wilmer stammered. "Nothing of the kind, sir. If you mean to insinuate——"
"Don't try and threaten. You will gain nothing by it. You were seen to enter the Central Music Hall the other night in company with your friend Hermann Schreiner. Your friend will be able to explain matters, perhaps, to-morrow morning when he is released from his prison. But, surely you have not forgotten the night I mean? If so, let me refresh your memory. You went back with Mr. Schreiner to Stonehouse-street, and then you had an unfortunate difference with your wife."
"I have no wife," Wilmer managed to say.
Harvey laughed aloud. There was something in the situation that amused him.
"Very well," he said. "We will let that declaration stand for the moment. But there is one thing that you can't deny—you can't deny that you have been shamming illness at a time when the house you serve sorely needs your best attention. You can't deny that you are in the pay of Hermann Schreiner, and that you are doing your best to bring the great firm of Manningtree and Co. to the ground. You can't deny that you have taken every advantage of your master's mental affliction, and that you are quite aware where all the money of the firm has gone. You went also to look for the passbook given by that German bank to Elias Smith, otherwise Lord Manningtree. But you might have saved yourself the trouble, for the book is in my possession. If may be some consolation to you to know that you did not make a mistake, and that you did put that book in the drawer where you expected to find it. As you boasted just now, you do not make errors in trifles. Have you anything to say to that?"
"I shall be able to explain everything," Wilmer said, with some dignity.
"I am very glad to hear it," Harvey replied drily. "There are two sides to every story—even to yours. At the present moment you are doubtless congratulating yourself on the fact that that passbook is not fully made up, and that you may possibly juggle some of the late payments—at least, that Schreiner may. But that consolation will be denied you. For that book is going to be made up the first thing in the morning, before Schreiner has a chance to leave his hiding-place. You might just as well save your skin by making clean breast of it. There is no possible chance of your conspiracy being successful."
Wilmer made no response, he had grown dogged and sullen. After all, there was just a chance that the clever stranger was trying to trap him into a confession.
"I decline to say anything, sir," he said. "I don't know who you are to dare to treat me in this way. I am not in the least likely to run away, and, in any case, you will always know where to find me. Be good enough to open the door——"
"Certainly I will open the door," Lionel said, as he rose from his seat. "But if I do it will most assuredly be to call in a policeman and explain the circumstances of the case to him. You can have the choice in the matter, and take either course you like. Otherwise——"
Wilmer collapsed again. He looked from Dick to Lionel with appealing eyes. There was something more behind this, more unseen danger that frightened him terribly. He would have given a great deal to know what it was.
"I am in your hands," he said. "What am I to do? If you will tell me——"
"Don't keep on interrupting, and your anxious mind will be relieved, all in good time. In your delicate state of health, a night journey could not be anything but injurious. Therefore, I propose that you shall stay here till the morning. In case you should suffer from any tendency to walk in your sleep, I will lock the door of your room. After that, you will breakfast with me, and subsequently will have the pleasure of an interview at the house of a lady who is well known to you. I daresay that you have not quite forgotten Lady Manningtree, Oh! I see that you have not done so."
Wilmer started, and appeared as if about to say something. But he held his peace, and sat there regarding his tormentor with eager eyes.
"If I had asked what you know of Lady Manningtree," Lionel went on, "you would probably have told me that she was dead, knowing better all the time. But I am thankful to say that her ladyship is not dead, and that it was mainly by her efforts that her husband's firm managed to get over the difficulty of the big money demand of last Saturday. I tell you this, because I know how pleased you will be to hear it. I tell you this, also, so that you may have a chance to save your face by making a full confession of your part in the great conspiracy. There is another lady at present staying with Lady Manningtree who may help you to come to a decision to do the right thing."
"You don't mean to say," Wilmer burst out, "that—that—my—I mean Miss——"
"Miss Kitty Cromarty. Precisely. She is at present the guest of Lady Manningtree. It is a great happiness to me to bring two loving hearts together!"
WILMER'S collapse was complete and absolute. There was nothing more to be said. It had been impossible to foresee a disaster like this. All there remained to him now was to wait and see the best terms he could make for himself. He no longer doubted that his wife had betrayed the whole conspiracy.
"It is getting late," he said, sullenly. "And I am very tired. Where is my room?"
"I will show you," Lionel said. "On second thoughts I shall not lock you in. Our position is so strong that there is not the least need to fear your escape. If you do try that kind of thing on, you will have the detective force on your heels before many hours are over your head. We shall have no mercy in that case."
Wilmer made no reply; indeed, there was no reply to make. He knew now that he was absolutely at the mercy of these foes of his, these alert enemies who seemed to have come unexpectedly from nowhere. He followed Lionel to a little room on the other side of the corridor, where he threw himself down, dressed as he was, and tried to sleep.
"I think we've settled him," Dick said. "He is quite under the impression that his wife has betrayed the whole business. As a matter of fact, that woman has not been of the slightest assistance to us, though she may prove to be a valuable witness before we have finished. Is she in a position to speak yet?"
"I understand she is much better," Lionel explained. "Probably by this time she knows where she is, and who is looking after her. Lady Manningtree told me all this earlier in the evening. But you can ascertain for yourself the first thing in the morning. I shall be glad if you will go round to Lady Manningtree as soon as it is convenient, and see how the little actress is progressing. I have a little surprise for Schreiner, if the lady is in a position to play her part. You can come back here before ten o'clock and tell me. Now you had better be off to bed."
Dick was of the same opinion. It had been a tiring day, not to say an exciting one, and the strain was beginning to tell. Nevertheless, Armstrong was up betimes in the morning, and it was not long past eight when he called on Lady Manningtree. The mistress of the house was not down yet, but Gladys came into the room looking very bright and fresh. The light of happiness shone in her eyes.
"You are early," she cried. "I hope there is nothing wrong?"
"On the contrary, everything is exceedingly right," Dick smiled. "Gladys, did you see your father any time after yesterday morning? He went home to rest. I am very anxious to know how he is."
Gladys' pretty face clouded for a moment.
"He was far from well last night," she said. "The long sleep did not seem to do him much good. He sent for me before dinner and we had a long talk together. Dick, my father may be a bad man in many respects, but he has been very good to us. And, after all, that dreadful curse of his is most to blame."
"Lord Manningtree is an object of deepest pity," Dick said, gravely. "I had no idea that he had such a fierce struggle going on always. And most people regard him as a man distinctly to be envied! If we only knew the troubles of others!"
"Dick, do you know what the trouble is? Has he ever hinted at the matter?"
"Never till yesterday. Then he told me practically everything. I understand that the craving for drink was a black madness. Sometimes the demon could be conquered, but not for long. And the mental strain was terrible. Fancy a man so prominently before the public, so trusted and respected, being a victim to that habit! No wonder that he had to fall back on drugs to save his reason. Oh, the pitiable tragedy of it, Gladys! My heart went out to him when he told me. And his goodness to me!"
"Tell me about it, Dick. I see that there is something that I do not know."
"It was yesterday. You know how I went off with that cheque, you know what the idea was. I saw Schreiner himself; he alluded to that disgraceful forgery of mine. I don't quite know how I managed it, but I treated him with contempt. You see, I knew that I could find the money to meet my crime. Schreiner wanted to get me in his power, to force me to become his accomplice. And when he was still playing with his fish, the door opened and your father came in."
"Dick! We thought he had gone back to Cardigan Place."
"No, he was at Schreiner's office, Gladys. I have never seen him more alert and vigorous. Perhaps Schreiner lost his head, perhaps he allowed his anger against me to get the better of his judgment. Any way, he spoke of the forgery. I have had many anxious moments in my life, but never a more distracting one than that. And your father never betrayed himself by so much as the raising of an eyebrow. He appeared to know all about it. Even when the forged document was produced he did not repudiate his signature. I went away with the feeling that I was treading on air, I was the happiest man in London. And when your father saw me again he never gave me one word of reproach. And I told him everything—even that I had abused my position by making love to you."
"I am glad of that, Dick," Gladys murmured. "Very glad of that. Go on."
"Even then there was not one single word of reproach for me. I made a clean breast of it, Gladys. I did not try to defend myself for a moment. And your father took it all in the best and kindest way. He wanted to know who he was that he should reproach anybody. He recognised the fact that we had saved his name and reputation. It makes me feel quite queer to think of what might have been."
Gladys' face grew a shade paler. Truly, the exertions of Lionel Harvey and Dick had averted what might have proved to be a national calamity. If the great house of Manningtree had gone down, the ruin would have been widespread.
"Are you quite sure the situation is saved?" Gladys asked.
"Oh, quite. Within an hour or so, that vast sum of money deposited with the German Bank will be withdrawn and the capital replaced in the proper channel. You may safely leave that to Lionel Harvey."
"But you have a cunning scoundrel in the form of Mr. Schreiner still to deal with."
"I had really forgotten Schreiner for the moment," Dick laughed. "But he is quite safe for the present until we let him out again. It seems like a page from some sensational story, but Schreiner is locked up in the private safe at the office."
"Dick How can you be so absurd at so serious a moment. As if it were possible——"
Dick laughed at the scared expression on Gladys' face. She seemed to be genuinely alarmed that he should have undertaken so desperate a step; but Dick was looking quite pleased with himself, and appeared to think that he had only done what was perfectly justifiable in the circumstances.
"I daresay it sounds like a page from some extraordinary romance," he said. "One of the things we used to read about in the cheap, sensational stories of one's boyhood. Yet, if you come to think of it, stranger things happen every day. For instance, Lionel was telling me of an incident in one of his novels which was very much questioned by the critics at the time it was published. For the purposes of his story it became necessary that a man should lie for some considerable time dead in a public place, where people were constantly passing. It was held that such a thing was out of the question, that with the vigilant eye of the police all around nothing of the sort was within the bounds of reason. And yet only within the last day or so I read in a daily paper of the highest class that a well-dressed man sat dead in a public park for over a week without the fact being discovered. You see, he was well dressed, and leaning back in his seat holding a newspaper in front of his face. Of course, it seems absolutely incredible; but as the account of the inquest was given with names and dates, one is bound to believe it. After an amazing incident like that I don't quite see why you should discredit my statement that Schreiner is at present beyond the reach of mischief."
"But what did you do it for?" Gladys demanded.
"We shall come to that presently. It is absolutely necessary that that man should be tied up for the present. He has managed to tumble pretty deeply into the pit that he has prepared for others. Oh, my dearest girl, I shall be so pleased when all this tangle is unravelled and we can be all happy and comfortable once more. I am longing for the time to come when I can prove to you that I am an entirely changed man and that I am worthy of your affection. When I look back to the past and think how badly I behaved, I am filled with shame and remorse. In my darker moments I fail to see how you could ever really trust me after the disgraceful——"
Gladys laid her hand on her lover's lips with gentle tenderness, so as to stop his impassioned speech. "I don't want you to say another word," she murmured. "It is only a woman who can understand a woman's feelings in such matters. Man's love is a different thing altogether. Does not Byron say 'Man's love is of his life a thing apart, 'tis woman's whole existence.' I always think how true those words are. If we are ever going to be happy and peaceful once more, I shall be able to show you in a thousand little ways how I trust you and how the past is forgotten. Do not, I pray you, let these morbid considerations weigh upon your mind. Is it not sufficient pride and happiness to me to know that I have been the means of your reformation and the channel by which you have come back into good society?"
Dick kissed the speaker passionately. For a long time neither spoke, then a little laugh came from Gladys' lips.
"I was thinking of the man in the safe," she said. "Even after your explanation the thing seems impossible."
"My dear girl, everything is possible. One speaks of this story or that story being utterly impossible, and yet we take the most amazing happenings in the daily press as quite in the ordinary course of events. I tell you Schreiner is locked up in the office safe—Lionel Harvey is looking after Wilmer. But perhaps I had better tell you the history of our exciting adventures last night."
It was a lengthy recital, but Gladys did not find it a word too long. There were many questions to be asked and answered before Dick came to the object of his visit.
"Now it is for you to tell me things," he said. "Really, I came here to see how Mrs. Wilmer was getting on. Of course, we have practically all the evidence we need, but in dealing with a man like Schreiner it is just as well to have as many strings to the bow as possible. I understand that Mrs. Wilmer is much better."
"In a way, she is," Gladys explained. "She is quite clear in her mind now, she knows where she is and who is about her. When she found that out she seemed worried about something. She cried a good deal. And she refused to give any account of herself. Perhaps you would like to see her after breakfast? Have you had any breakfast?"
Dick replied quite cheerfully that he had not had time to think of it even. So far as he could see, there was no particular hurry for an hour or so. He would be very pleased to join Lady Manningtree and Gladys at breakfast. Lady Manningtree was very kindly and gracious, and was profoundly interested in the adventures of the previous night, while there was something like a tear in her eye as she heard of the business of the forged security.
"Gladys is none the less dear to me because I have seen so little of her," she said. "And you are a very fortunate young man, Dick—I suppose I shall have to call you Dick for the future. You are not the ideal match I should have picked out for Gladys, but in this world one never gets all one wants. Still, my troubles and misfortunes have made me very tender to the faults of others. You have your chance now, Dick; if you betray your trust it will be a matter between your Maker and yourself."
Dick kissed the hand of the speaker. "Heaven helping me, I'll do my best to wipe out the past," he said. "I ought to have been punished, I should have suffered for all my guilt, whereas it is others who have suffered and I have escaped altogether. But I won't talk, I won't promise. I'll try and perform. And, now, don't you think that I might see Mrs. Wilmer?"
A few minutes later Dick was ushered into a little sitting-room upstairs. It was his desire that he should see Kitty Cromarty alone. She was lying back in a chair, a look of sadness in her blue eyes. All her vivacity seemed to be gone. She regarded Dick with an expression of doubt and some tinge of suspicion, too.
"I am afraid I am going to be a little troublesome," Dick said. "You will forgive me because I was indirectly the means of bringing you here. You see, I happened to be outside No. 19, Stonehouse-street, the night you quarrelled with your husband. I do not want to give you unnecessary pain, but your illness was the result of a blow."
"It was," the woman replied. "But how could you possibly know that——"
"I do know it, you see. In fact, you told me. You also told me who your husband was. I need not say that I was considerably surprised to get the information. I should never have associated the vivacious and popular Miss Kitty Cromarty with so prosaic an individual as Mr. Ernest Wilmer, of Fenchurch-street. But if you desire to be avenged for that cowardly blow, you are likely to get your wish. In all probability, Mr. Wilmer will find himself in gaol before the day is out."
There was a queer, pathetic look in the woman's blue eyes. "I don't quite understand," she stammered. "What has my husband done?"
"Let me ask you a question before I reply to yours," Dick said, gravely. "Do you know where you are? Do you know the names of the people who have been kindness itself to you? Do you know what would happen to thousands of people if the great firm of Manningtree and Co. were involved in ruin? Is that all plain to you?"
"Yes," said the woman, in a whisper. "I know all that. And your point is——"
"That you were a party to a conspiracy to bring that ruin about. The least you owe to Lady Manningtree is the truth, and nothing but the truth."
The blue eyes flashed just for a moment, there was a suggestion of demureness in them.
"You will have to be a little more explicit," the actress said. "What have I done?"
"You have been a party to the conspiracy. Have you forgotten all about the money of yours that was deposited in the hands of Lord Manningtree? You were a poor, friendless orphan who appealed to his lordship to take your little money and see that it was not stolen by the countless thieves who are always looking out for that kind of spoil! Have you forgotten how you asked for your money back for the sake of your unfortunate brother in Australia? Have you forgotten that after that cheque was paid to you you kept it for three days? Why did you keep it for three days? Shall I tell you, or will you be so good as to save me the trouble?"
"The bank would not cash it," Mrs. Wilmer said, demurely. "Don't forget that."
"I am not likely to," Dick said, drily. "You were greatly disappointed, no doubt?"
The listener laughed; it was impossible to take her too seriously. Hers was not the nature to feel anything deeply. Her emotions were all on the surface.
"I want you to tell me everything," Dick went on. "My friends have been very kind to you, and you certainly owe them something. Confess it now, did not Mr. Hermann Schreiner give you the money that you, the poor orphan, paid over to Lord Manningtree?"
The woman hesitated just for a moment. She was evidently thinking of herself. "I am afraid it is no use protesting my innocence with you," she said, slowly. "You seem to know too much. Mind you, I'm not quite so guilty as you imagine. And if I tell you everything, you will not use the information against me afterwards?"
"I give you my word of honour that you shall not suffer at all," Dick declared. "You shall leave this house to-day, if you choose, and we will not make the faintest effort to follow you. To be perfectly candid, I was following you the night of your accident. Mr. Harvey, whom you met in Cardigan Place, suspected your ruse over that cheque, and he got me to follow you. I did follow you; I saw you go to the music-hall with Schreiner, and I saw you all go back to Stonehouse-street. It was yourself who told me all about your marriage name. You were in a plot to ruin Lord Manningtree, the cheque was to be held back until it was impossible for it to be met, and you were going to make a scene. Mr. Harvey prevented that, and you had to go back to your friends for another plan of action. I suppose it never occurred to you that you were party to a scheme which was likely to involve thousands of helpless people in utter ruin."
The listener opened her blue eyes to their widest extent. "I'll swear I didn't," she said. "I didn't know that. I understood that Lord Manningtree had slighted Schreiner, and that the latter wanted his revenge. I was to get a hundred pounds if I carried out a certain programme. And I was prevented by Mr. Harvey, as you call him. I was very vexed, because I don't like to be beaten. And then they suggested another scheme that I did not like, and I refused to have anything to do with it. I don't know anything at all about the business, and that jargon did not interest me. I had failed in my comedy, and I had lost my hundred pounds. When the other proposal was made I refused to touch it, and my husband lost his temper and struck me. After that I don't recollect anything."
Dick listened critically to this recital. On the whole, he was disposed to believe it. There was an air of truth in the statement.
"You would not remind repeating this before your husband and Schreiner?" he asked.
"Not at all," was the eager reply. "Let me come face to face with those men, and you will see. So far as my husband is concerned, I've done with him. He is a hypocrite and a spendthrift, and I can get my living on the stage quite independently of him."
"Have you been married long, may I ask?" Dick ventured.
"About four years. I laugh at myself as I think of my folly. It is my great curse that I always act on the spur of the moment. I was just a little sick of the stage and at the flattery one gets from fools; perhaps I was not quite myself. When I met my husband, he gave me the impression of being very rich; at least, he said he should be rich before long. And he promised me a place in the country where I could grow flowers and live in the open air. As if I could stand a life like that for very long! But I honestly thought that I could then, and I married Ernest Wilmer. Of course, the marriage was a failure from the very start; we were both utterly miserable. And that is about all that I can tell you. Only I want you to believe that I would not do anything to hurt anybody, spiteful as my nature is sometimes."
Dick replied truthfully enough that he believed every word of this. After all said and done, he appeared to have attached too much importance to the doings of the little butterfly. And, after all, through her he had stumbled on the track of the great conspiracy.
"I won't worry you any more just now," he said. "You said you would like to stand face to face with your husband and Mr. Schreiner, and, indeed, I am anxious for you to do so. If I called a cab, do you think that you would be strong enough to go into the city to get this interview over?"
Mrs. Wilmer had not the slightest objection; indeed, she seemed only too anxious for the chance of vindicating her somewhat flimsy character. She would be ready to go out at any moment, she said.
"All right," Dick replied. "I'll be back in half an hour. You are fond of comedy, and I shall hope to gratify your sense of humour in that direction. Meanwhile I'll leave you to rest yourself against the coming ordeal."
There was a quaint, mock-tragic look on the face of the actress as she waved Dick away. He could see that she was looking eagerly forward to the fun of the thing; she had utterly forgotten everything else in the desire for amusement. Down in the dining-room Lionel was waiting. A cab stood ready at the door.
"Oh, I can assure you that I have not been idle," Lionel said. "I have seen Lord Manningtree, and he insists upon coming down to the office. It is a dangerous experiment, but he will not be easy in his mind till everything is straight."
"Have you done anything about that North German Bank?" Dick asked.
"That is all settled. I got the passbook made up as soon after nine as possible, and a cheque for the whole amount will be drawn within an hour and the money transferred to the account of the company. There may be a scene, Dick; Lord Manningtree may break down before the whole thing is over, and if he goes wrong again it will be for good and all. He told me just now quite seriously and calmly, that he is certain that the next attack will be the last one. He is only too thankful to know that everything is left in order. You are likely to have a heavy burden on your shoulders for the next few years, Dick. You can marry Gladys, but you won't be able to settle down to an idle life yet."
A look of determination came into Dick Armstrong's eyes. "I shall take life easy when I feel that I have earned my leisure," he said. "Providence has been very good to me, Lionel, far better than I deserve. And I'm going to do my best to prove myself worthy of all these mercies. But I don't want to cant and preach; I'll allow my deeds to speak for themselves. Did you tell Lord Manningtree what we have done in the matter of Schreiner?"
"No, I didn't," Lionel laughed. "I am keeping that for a glad surprise. I've got Wilmer outside in a cab in a state of tearful penitence. I only hope that Lord Manningtree will deal severely with that canting humbug. And how is Mrs. Wilmer?"
"Mrs. Wilmer is quite ready to meet her husband. After all, she is quite an innocent party, at least, so far as being in the fraud is concerned. I have had a long talk with her, and I am quite satisfied on that point. She is ready to come with us."
"Then we will all go down to the office in the same cab," Lionel declared. "Let's get along."
Wilmer's long, lean face grew still more cadaverous as his wife's graceful little figure came tripping down the steps to the cab. He looked red, and hot, and awkward; he turned his face away and groaned slightly. If he had expected a torrent of reproaches he was doomed to disappointment. The feather-headed actress was out for enjoyment now, and was only anxious to get it. She pointed a scornful finger at her unhappy spouse.
"Look at him," she cried. "Look at the pillar of respectability. So you thought to make use of me in your dirty schemes. You thought that my talent would come in useful. Well, I am not going to scold you, I am going to take my revenge in quite another way. I am going to see the meeting between yourself and your employer. That will repay me for all the disgrace you would have put upon me."
Wilmer groaned and turned his head away once more. He was utterly beaten, and was in a state bordering on collapse. His face grew whiter and more lank as the city grew near, and he had to be helped out of the cab at the finish. He staggered along the passage to the private office at the end, and crawled to a chair under the eyes of Lord Manningtree, who sat there stern, and calm, and cold, awaiting the coming of the others.
"Well, you scoundrel," he cried, "what have you to say for yourself? To think that I should have harboured a reptile like you all these years! Stand up!"
"I can't," Wilmer whined. "There is something wrong with my legs. If you only knew, my lord, how deeply and sincerely sorry I am that I have been——"
"Found out," Lord Manningtree said, curtly. "Oh, you can keep your seat. I shall have nothing to say to you until the arrival of your fellow-conspirator, who, I am informed, will be here at any moment now. Is that not so, Mr. Harvey?"
"That is quite correct, my lord," Harvey said. "As a matter of fact, Mr. Schreiner is here already. I took special precautions to ensure his presence on this important occasion. There is a little ceremony to go through, a little ceremony that may be more graciously performed by a lady than by a mere man. I am going to ask Mrs. Wilmer to undertake that little task for us. She need not be frightened; as she possesses so strong a fund of humour I am quite sure that she will not fail to enjoy the situation. Dick, the key of the safe."
Very solemnly Dick handed over the key. With a bow Lionel tendered it to the actress, and indicated the private safe that was let into the wall.
"Will you kindly unlock that?" he asked. "In that safe is the solution of the problem. If you listen carefully you will hear the solution moving. Don't be afraid."
The key clicked in the lock, the great door rolled back, and from out the brilliantly lighted interior Schreiner staggered, his face white and set, his eyes rolling with a strange fear. A peal of laughter came from the lips of the actress.
"Splendid!" she cried. "Dramatic, as I well as humorous. Really, Mr. Harvey, you are a genius in your way. Let us hear what the problem has to say."
FROM the woman's point of view, here was a comedy arranged for her special benefit. She had forgotten everything else in the enjoyment of the moment. Probably no more remarkable episode had ever taken place in the city of London.
"Quite a Palais Royal flavour about the situation," the actress exclaimed. "I did not expect to meet you like this, Mr. Schreiner."
Schreiner wiped the moisture from his face. The prison house had not lacked air, but it had proved unpleasantly warm, and the German financier was not slender. He glanced about him angrily, his little eyes flashing.
"Who is responsible for this outrage?" he demanded. "Lord Manningtree, I demand an explanation. A man in my position——"
"It certainly is an unfortunate one just at present," Manningtree said, coldly. "As for myself, I know nothing. I came down here to meet you, and my friend Mr. Harvey told me that you would not fail to keep the appointment. He seems to have taken special precautions to that end. How came you in that safe?"
"I repeat, that it is a gross outrage," Schreiner muttered. "You will hear more of this, my lord; it will be a matter for the police."
Lord Manningtree smiled coldly. Nobody looking at him at that moment would have possibly guessed that here was a man whose mind was utterly gone. His face was pale and set, his eyes had a steady light in them. And yet he knew himself that the end was very near. The craving for the drink had gone, the desire for the potent drugs was no longer there. The next bad turn would be the last.
But Schreiner knew nothing of this. All he could see for the present was his own ridiculous position and the great danger that lay behind it. He little realised how near Lord Manningtree was to his end, or that, though his eye was clear and calm now and his manner collected, the final collapse might come at any moment. Lord Manningtree stood there appearing, as he always did, a born leader of men. Never had his brain been more luminous. Not that he had any doubts himself as to the final issue, but he was concentrating himself now entirely upon the business in hand. It was the last recompense he could pay for his conduct in the past.
Schreiner raved up and down the room, waving his arms and gesticulating wildly. He was full of savage threats, which had not the least effect upon those about him.
"If there is a law in the land," he screamed, "I will make you all suffer for this outrage. A man in my position is not to be treated with impunity. There was a time when an apology might have been sufficient, but when—what are you laughing at, woman? Do you see anything to amuse you in the fact of a man being half stifled in a safe and generally treated as if he were a clown?"
"I see a great deal that is amusing in it," Mrs. Wilmer responded, quite coolly. "Speaking from a long stage experience, I don't think I have ever seen anything much more comical. If you could only see the expression on your face, I am perfectly sure that you would share in the general mirth."
Schreiner turned in disgust to Lord Manningtree, and furiously demanded an apology. The great financier looked at him with cold, critical eyes which never blinked or varied.
"I am afraid I don't quite understand you," he said. "In the first place, I should like an explanation of your presence in my private safe. For a rich man, with a large holding in the country, you must admit that the circumstances are suspicious. Do you allege that you were drugged and made a prisoner?"
Schreiner blustered and said something utterly inconsequent. Now that his first wild anger had left him, he began to see how seriously he had compromised himself.
"Let us get to the bottom of it," Manningtree said. "How long have you been there?"
"I have been there all night, my lord, as you are perfectly well aware," Schreiner spluttered. "And it shall be a matter for the police, I tell you."
"Quite so; I am quite with you on that head. We will certainly call in the police as soon as we have had an understanding. How did you get there? It is a simple question, and it can be answered in a few words."
A sullen red flushed Schreiner's cheeks. It was impossible for him to explain how he had got there. All his cleverness could not save the situation. And Mrs. Wilmer was quietly laughing at him all the time. It was maddening.
"Is there nobody who can explain?" Manningtree appealed to the company generally.
"Perhaps I had better set the situation going," Harvey remarked. "One of the leading characters in the play seems to have forgotten his lines. As a matter of fact, Mr. Schreiner came here last night in the company of Mr. Wilmer. I may perhaps be allowed to congratulate Mr. Wilmer on his sudden recovery of health. Those two came here last right. It was an easy matter for Mr. Wilmer to get into the office, and it was an equally easy matter to get into the safe. If you will appeal to Mr. Wilmer, I have no doubt that he will confirm the story."
"That—that—is a fact, my lord," Wilmer stammered. "I was looking for something."
"He was looking for something," Harvey went on. "He was looking for a passbook which is the property of one 'Elias Smyth'—in other words your lordship's. But we need not elaborate that story, because it is known to us, all of us. It was a waste of time to look for the passbook, seeing that it was in my possession. I may as well tell Mr. Wilmer now that we had the safe opened a day or two ago, and that all the papers are in our hands. Also, I need hardly tell Mr. Schreiner that the whole of the money paid into the North German Bank in the name of Elias Smyth has been drawn out and returned to its proper place. There will be no further opportunity of wrecking Manningtree and Company."
"Had we better not keep to the safe episode?" Manningtree suggested.
"I beg your pardon; perhaps I was wandering from the point," Harvey resumed. "To make a long story short, Mr. Armstrong and myself followed these men here last night. The whole scheme had been overheard by Mr. Armstrong, who was hiding in Wilmer's house—concealed in the little conservatory, I understand. They came here to get that passbook. As Mr. Schreiner happened to be inside the safe when we got here I could not resist the temptation of locking him in. You see, it kept him out of mischief till we were ready for him. I don't know what your lordship is going to do in regard to the matter, but if you want to give the fellow a lesson, all the materials are at your hand. I should say that a burglary like this would not be punished with less than five years' penal servitude."
"I have already thought that out," Manningtree said, in his even way. "I understand this conspiracy now, from one end to the other. For years Wilmer has been in my confidence, I trusted him with everything. Strange that I should make such a mistake in a man, I who am so good a judge. Wilmer knew all about me; he must have seen that my mind was beginning to go. He knew also of my great weakness. I can see everything quite clearly now, though probably for the last time. Wilmer began to conspire against me, and led me on to place money in that German bank. That he knew everything connected with that strange, mental weakness of mine is proved by his knowledge of that passbook. At the time that I was depleting the capital of my business and bringing it nearer and nearer to ruin he watched my career. Why? So that he could share in the plunder with Schreiner here.
"The plan of campaign appears to have been ridiculously easy. It was rendered all the more so by the way in which I played into the hands of the foe. It was only a question of how long the firm could stand the strain. The strain would have broken it down before now but for the efforts of my good friends here, and another friend who found the money in the hour of need. But these knaves were not content to wait, they tried to hurry matters on. That is why the young lady here came to me and played the part of the poor orphan. I suppose you thought nothing of the ruin which you were bringing about?"
The woman's face flushed rosy red, and she suddenly forgot the comedy of it.
"Please do not put it to me like that," Mrs. Wilmer said. "It is perhaps a feeble excuse to make, but I am not in the least like other people. All my life through I can never resist a comedy when I see it. All my friends will tell you that I am more or less irresponsible for my actions in that way, and when these people came to me I quite thought I was taking part in some little play off the stage. It is only since I have discovered everything that I see how criminally foolish I have been. I am quite aghast when I come to understand that I have played off more or less of a practical joke on such a great man as Lord Manningtree."
"Do you regard it in the light of a practical joke?" Manningtree asked, gravely. "I am afraid your friends are right in declaring that you are too frivolous to understand the serious side of life. But in my experience of the world I have met many butterflies like you, and it is always a mistake to judge them too harshly. Still, you have undone as much harm as you did, and therefore, in a way of speaking, we must be grateful to you. I don't think that it is likely anyhow that you will ever fall into the same error again."
"I am certain I shan't," Mrs. Wilmer cried. "I could sit down and cry when I think of the trouble my heedlessness might have caused. Whatever my faults may be, I am always loyal to my friends, especially to my women friends. It is my greatest regret that in this matter I caused those of my own sex to suffer."
"Quite needlessly, too," Dick said, severely. "You might have thought of that before. So far as I am concerned, I can hardly swallow your story that you had not the remotest notion that the scheme was anything else than a foolish practical joke."
"I didn't know," she cried. "I swear to you that I didn't know. I was tricked, like the rest. I am always daring, always eager for an adventure. And you were pictured to me as a solemn donkey who deserved to have a lesson. I was to play a certain part, and if I succeeded I was to get a hundred pounds for my pains. I enjoyed the acting part of it, but I did not know what I was doing. I never asked. They told me plausible lies; it was only on the night that I quarrelled with my husband that I learnt the truth. I was to find out whether your man Bates could be trusted. Then I understood what was going on."
"I had forgotten all about Bates," Lord Manningtree murmured. "In one of my flashes of reason I was going to get Bates to do something. For the life of me I can't recollect what it was now. If Bates had not been so blindly obedient the thing would never have happened at all. Will you please to go on, Mrs. Wilmer?"
"I want you to believe what I say," Kitty Wilmer cried. "I may be foolish and selfish, I may be inclined to like my own way, but I am not utterly bad; and when I really understood what was going to happen I refused to have any more to do with it. Then we quarrelled, and my husband struck me. I fell and hurt my head. I don't know what happened after that. I believe I was going to find a policeman and tell him everything. As a matter of fact, Mr. Armstrong found me."
"I had been following you," Dick explained. "I had my sister with me. We took you to our rooms, and you were subsequently removed to Lady Manningtree's house. Our idea was to try and get the truth from you when you got better. But you were a long time, and things were very pressing, so we had to manage without you. Still, the knowledge that you were the wife of Ernest Wilmer helped us wonderfully."
All the time Schreiner had remained seated; there was no anger and indignation about him now. He was looking for some way out of the difficulty. It had always been his boast that no living man could put him in a tight place, but he began to see now that the boast was a wrong one. He could read no mercy in Lord Manningtree's keen eyes.
"No use to stay here any longer," he said, with a pitiful attempt at speaking easily. "The plot has failed and there is an end of it. Nobody is any the worse off."
"The plot has failed," Manningtree said, slowly. "Therefore my house will be stronger than ever. When the truth is told people will understand better."
"When the truth is told?" Schreiner stammered. "What do you mean by that? Surely you are never going to let the world know that the condition of your mind——"
"Why not? The condition of my mind matters nothing now. I shall be past people's pity and condolence before many days are over my head. It will matter nothing to me. It may be that I shall not be in a condition to give evidence against you in the dock, but there will be plenty of others to take my place. You may go now, Mr. Schreiner, there is nothing more to detain you for. You know as well as I do that this has been a vile conspiracy between yourself and Wilmer, and that the thing is punishable by law. So far as I am concerned, you can go from here a free man. But I have a certain duty to society, and that duty is going to be done. You will not be permitted to wreck any more good businesses, you will bring ruin to no more homes. I spent half-an-hour at Scotland Yard before I came here, and at the present moment there is an officer at your office waiting with a warrant for your arrest. There is no use in your blundering and threatening, the thing is done."
But there was no blustering about Schreiner, for his oily face grew to a dull green and he opened his mouth as if to say something, but no words came. Wilmer literally grovelled at the feet of his employer.
"Spare me!" he moaned. "Give me another chance. For all these years——"
Manningtree spurned the writhing form on the floor. There was no mercy in his glance. "The same remark applies to you," he said. "At your house another officer is waiting. It is impossible that you may make good your escape—I shall not try to hide you. I am sorry for your wife, here, who may need——"
"Nothing, my lord," Kitty Wilmer exclaimed. "I can take care of myself. In any case, I could never go back to that coward again."
WITH a gesture more of the tragedian than the comedy actress, Kitty Wilmer rose and departed from the office, there being no occasion for her to stay any longer. Once he had resumed his nerve and his self-possession Schreiner made for the door. There was just a chance yet that he might save his skin. It would not do to go to the office, while to return to Stonehouse-street was equally dangerous. The one thing in Schreiner's favour was that he did not lack money. It would be an easy matter for him to procure a disguise somewhere and hide in some obscure locality whilst he waited for his clerk, whom he could send a telephone message for. Schreiner ground his teeth as he thought of what he had lost. He was comparatively rich, he had more money than he wanted, but his greed for more had been his undoing. He would have to disappear from England altogether. He turned to find Wilmer beside him.
"What do you want, curse you?" he snarled. "Go your own way and I'll go mine."
"I have no money," Wilmer replied. "I'm desperate. We are both in the same boat together, Schreiner. I am your partner in this affair. If you try and shake me off now, I'll follow you all day and give you in custody at night. If I go, you go."
Schreiner groaned inwardly. At the same time he could not get rid of the incubus. Wilmer had spoken no more than the truth—he was desperate.
"All right," Schreiner said, heavily; "come along with me. There's a place I know—a place where I stayed many years ago when I first came to London. We'll get a couple of disguises later on, and then slip off to the Continent. When I get my money, though, I'll give you a few hundreds and you can go to America. Heavens! how unluckily this has turned out. And to think that I should have to fly and leave a business like that behind me! I could sit down on the pavement and howl to think of it!"
The two struck presently into a shabby street leading off the docks. So far as England was concerned, they were never seen again. There was a nine days' wonder in the city, and then the incident was forgotten. These things happen so frequently.
Meanwhile, Lord Manningtree, with his friends, remained in the office. There was not much to be said and done now; the others had resumed their usual routine; the great machine was running on oiled wheels once more. The house was as firm as ever.
"I have so arranged matters that you will have a high position here," Manningtree said, as he turned to Dick. "I planned out the whole thing last night. It is the best piece of work I shall ever do, and it is one of my last. Take a pride in the place and see that it does not suffer. And now call my carriage and let me get home. Come with me, Dick, and will you, Mr. Harvey, be so good as to go round to my wife's house and ask her to call at Cardigan Place as soon as possible. I fear that the air——"
The speaker paused, and slowly made his way to the door. Once in the carriage his head sank forward on his breast and he appeared to sleep. By the time he got home he did not recognise his companion. He had only just a glimmering idea who Bates was. And there was moisture in the eyes of the faithful servant. Dick decided to remain till Lady Manningtree came. They placed the unhappy head of the household on a couch in the library, and left him there at Bates' urgent suggestion.
"He is best left alone, sir," he said. "He's going, sir. I know all the signs, for the doctor told me what to look for. The morning's business was too much for him. And I've been a fool, too; I humoured him too much. I let him go out on secret expeditious whilst I stopped in his room and took my master's place. But he had a way with him when he pleased."
Bates slipped out of the room as Gladys came in. She looked anxious and uneasy, for she could not make anything of the grave face of Dick. Was anything wrong, she asked.
"No," Dick replied. "Everything has gone off very well. The old house is on its feet again as firm as ever, thanks to Harvey entirely. He has worked splendidly; by his own efforts he has beaten those scoundrels. And your father went through with it to the finish. He is very ill now, and Harvey has been sent for your mother."
"Oh, I am glad of that," Gladys murmured. "I should like them to be together again. In spite of all his faults she has never ceased to love him. And, after all, he was more the victim of a malignant disease than anything else."
It was some half an hour later before Lady Manningtree appeared. She sat for some time by the side of her husband waiting for him to speak. Ada Moberley was by her side. Presently the sick man stirred and opened his eyes.
"You know me, uncle?" Ada whispered. "You recognise me? And Lady Manningtree is here. You sent for her. Try and recollect. It is only half an hour ago."
The effort was a great and exhausting one, but it was made. A weary smile came over the face of the sufferer. Ada crept quietly away. It was no place for her. Then Manningtree put out his hand and laid it over that of his wife.
"I am glad you are here," he said, with a voice a little above a whisper. "I knew that you would come. It is not for long, and it is good-bye. Don't you talk; let me do the speaking. You will not reproach yourself because you left me—the wonder to me is that you stayed as long as you did. At one time you were afraid for your life, and you had occasion to be. In those days I was dangerous. I was mad because I could not do without that accursed drink. Latterly I have not needed it. And I loved you with my whole heart and soul. That is why I think that I should have killed you—to prevent you from knowing and learning to despise me. And all the time I had the refined cruelty to keep your child from you.
"Well, you have forgiven me all that, I can read your forgiveness in your eyes. It was you who saved the old house from destruction. It is quite safe now. If I were you I should trust young Armstrong implicitly. He is going to be useful in the future. I am quite sure that he has a genuine desire to be honest and good. And he loves Gladys.... If you will be so good as to kiss me once more——"
The feeble voice stopped. Lady Manningtree bent down and laid her lips on those of the speaker. He sighed faintly and closed his eyes. The eyes remained closed. There was an ominous stillness about the figure that caused Lady Manningtree's heart to beat a little faster. She touched the tired, white forehead and started back. Then, very quietly, she rose and rang the bell. Her eyes were heavy with tears, her voice was weak and unsteady.
"Your master is dead, Bates," she said. "Please to send one of the footmen for the doctor. And you can draw all the blinds now. The end was very peaceful."
* * * * * *
The nine days' wonder was being gradually forgotten. Bit by bit the whole story had found its way into the newspapers. Everybody had been talking of the disappearance of Schreiner and Wilmer, the history of the great conspiracy had been told in all the press. Everybody knew now of the strange life that Lord Manningtree had been leading, and how the great house had recovered its missing capital. As Dick had more or less expected, the story had done the firm more good than harm. Never had its credit stood higher than it did at that same moment. And within a fortnight of the funeral of the great philanthropist the whole machine was moving quite smoothly again.
Lady Manningtree had gone off to a quiet little place in the country. She was not coming back to London for the rest of the summer. And she was happy in her way. She was looking forward to peaceful declining years.
It was Saturday evening, and she had all the young people with her. Gladys and Dick had wandered off to look at the sunset, and Lionel and Elsie remained on the verandah.
"Are you going to take a holiday this year?" Gladys asked.
"Impossible," Dick said, with a business air that caused Gladys to smile. "Too much to do. I daresay I could manage a fortnight in September. I have been talking over matters with your mother, Gladys; she will give us the house in Cardigan Place. I have suggested that she should come and live with us, but she will not hear of that. All the same, she is very anxious to see us married. Of course, it will have to be a very quiet wedding, but it will not be any the less happy for that. Then we could come back to Cardigan Place for the winter, and perhaps have a good long extra honeymoon in the summer of next year. Gladys, I am a fortunate man, far more fortunate than I deserve. That makes me long for more. Shall it be in September, or shall we wait for a year?"
"It shall be just as you please, dearest," Gladys whispered. Her face was turned to the west, so that the amber light of the sunshine flooded her features. Dick caught her to him and kissed her lips passionately. Truly, he was a fortunate man, fortunate beyond his deserts. "Dick, let us go and tell mother. I know she will be glad, and I shall be glad, too, for a chance to make the old house less gloomy. How I used to hate it in the bygone days, and declare that I could never be happy there. And now——"
Gladys paused and smiled at her lover. There was no occasion to say any more. And there was no occasion either to say anything to Lady Manningtree. She could judge of what had happened by the faces of the pair.
"So that is settled," she laughed. "Come and let us discuss details. I need not ask if Dick has got his way about September."
Elsie and Lionel strolled away, feeling that their services were no longer needed. Elsie stopped to pick a rose and held it to her dainty face.
"I love the country," she said. "I wish that we could stay here always."
"Why not?" Lionel asked. "We can do as we please. My book is done, and my good name is my very own once more. I feel quite sure that Dick and Gladys have settled affairs to their mutual satisfaction. I can do my work as well here as anywhere, I have plenty of money to furnish my house, and a good prospect before me. Why shouldn't we have a quiet double wedding down here early in September?"
"Lionel!" Elsie said severely. "You have been conspiring with Dick. I hoped there were not going to be any more conspiracies and all that kind of thing. And I should like it immensely. I little thought at one time that we should ever come together again. It was a blessed day for me—it was a blessed day for all of us when I set out on that mad expedition to see the novelist, 'Rodney Payne.' We will be married when you like, Lionel."
"Then let me tell you a secret," Lionel laughed. "I settled it with Dick last night. Give me one of your sweetest kisses as a sign of forgiveness. You shall both be married at the same time, and you shall wear white for the auspicious occasion. And, as a present for the other bride, guess what I shall give her?"
Elsie burst into a merry laugh, her eyes shining with happiness. "I know," she said. "I have guessed. I had forgotten all about them for the time being. You are going to make her a present of the family—the—emeralds."
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