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´╗┐Title: Devil's Dice
Author: Le Queux, William, 1864-1927
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Devil's Dice
By William Le Queux
Published by Rand, McNally and Company, Chicago and New York.
This edition dated 1897.

Devil's Dice, by William Le Queux.

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________
DEVIL'S DICE, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.

CHAPTER ONE.

QUEEN OF THE UNKNOWN.

Let me gaze down the vista of the tristful past.

Ah! there are things that cannot be uttered; there are scenes that still
entrance me, and incidents so unexpected and terrible that they cause me
even now to hold my breath in horror.

The prologue of this extraordinary drama of London life was enacted
three years ago; its astounding denouement occurred quite recently.
During those three weary, anxious years the days have glided on as they
glide even with those who suffer most, but alas!  I have the sense of
having trodden a veritable Via Dolorosa during a century, the tragedy of
my life, with its ever-present sorrow, pressing heavily upon me
perpetually.  Yet my life's journey has not always been along the barren
shore of the sea of Despair.  During brief moments, when, with the sweet
childlike angel of my solitude, heaven and earth have seemed to glide
slowly into space, I have found peace in the supreme joy of happiness.
My gaze has been lost in the azure immensity of a woman's eyes.

In this strange story, this astounding record of chastity of affection
and bitter hatred, of vile scheming, of secret sins and astounding
facts, I, Stuart Ridgeway, younger son of Sir Francis Ridgeway, Member
for Barmouth and banker of the City of London, am compelled to speak of
myself.  It is indeed a relief to be able to reason out one's
misfortunes; confession is the lancet-stroke that empties the abscess.
The Devil has thrown his dice and the game is up.  I can now lay bare
the secret of my sorrow.

Away south in the heart of the snow-capped Pyrenees, while idling away a
few sunny weeks at Bagneres-de-Luchon, that quaint little spa so popular
with the Cleopatras of the Boulevards, nestling in its secluded valley
beneath the three great peaks of Sacrous, de Sauvegarde, and de la Mine,
a woman first brought sweetness to the sadness of my melancholy days.
Mine was an aimless, idle life.  I had left behind me at college a
reputation for recklessness.  I was an arrant dunce at figures, and
finance had no attraction for me.  I had lived the semi-Bohemian life of
a law student in London, and grown tired of it I had tried art and
ignominiously failed, and, being in receipt of a generous allowance from
an indulgent father, I found myself at the age of twenty-eight without
profession, a mere world-weary cosmopolitan, wandering from place to
place with the sole object of killing time.

Having taken up my quarters alone at the Hotel des Bains, that glaring
building with its dead-white facade in the Allee d'Etigny--the
magnificent view from which renders it one of the finest thoroughfares
in the world--I soon became seized by ennui.

The place, filled with the _haut ton_ of Paris, was gay enough, but
somehow I met no one at the table d'hote or elsewhere whom I cared to
accept as companion.  Sick of the utter loneliness amid all the mad
gaiety, I was contemplating moving to Biarritz, where a maiden aunt
resided, when one evening, while seated in the picturesque Casino Garden
listening to the band, I saw in the crowd of chattering, laughing
promenaders a woman's face that entranced me.  Only for a second in the
faint light shed by the Chinese lanterns, strung from tree to tree, was
I able to distinguish her features.  In that brief moment, however, our
eyes met, yet next second she was gone, lost in one of the gayest crowds
in Europe.

The next night and the next I sat at the same little tin table taking my
coffee and eagerly scanning the crowd passing and re-passing along the
broad gravelled walk until once again I saw her.  Then, held in
fascination by her marvellous beauty, attracted as a needle by a magnet,
I rose and followed her.  Like myself she was alone, and a trivial
accident, of which I eagerly availed myself, gave me an opportunity of
introducing myself.  Judge my joyful satisfaction when I found that she
was English, although her dress and hat bore the unmistakable stamp of
the Rue de la Paix, and her chic was that of the true Parisienne.  As we
walked together in the shadows beyond the public promenade, she told me
that her home was in London; that on account of her father having been
compelled to return suddenly, she had been left alone, and she admitted
that, like myself, she had become dull and lonely.

Apparently she had no objection to my companionship, although she strove
to preserve a British rigidity of manner and respect for the
convenances.  Yet after the reserve of the first half-hour had worn off
we sat down together under a tree near the band-stand, and I gave her a
card.  She, however, refused to give me one.

"Call me Sybil," she said smiling.

"Sybil!"  I repeated.  "A name as charming as its owner.  Is your name
Sybil--only Sybil?"

"My surname is of no consequence," she answered quickly, with a slight
haughtiness.  "We are merely English folk thrown together in this place.
To-morrow, or the next day perhaps, we shall part, never to meet
again."

"I trust not," I said gallantly.  "An acquaintanceship commenced under
these strange conditions is rather romantic, to say the least."

"Romantic," she repeated mechanically, in a strange tone.  "Yes, that is
so.  Every one of us, from pauper to peer, all have our little romances.
But romance, after all, is synonymous with unhappiness," and she drew a
long breath as if sad thoughts oppressed her.

A moment later, however, she was as gay and bright as before, and we
chatted on pleasantly until suddenly she consulted the tiny watch in her
bangle and announced that it was time she returned.  At her side I
walked to her hotel, the Bonnemaison, and left her at the entrance.

We met frequently after that, and one morning she accompanied me on a
drive through the quaint old frontier village of St Aventin and on
through the wild Oo Valley as far as the Cascade.

As in the bright sunshine she lounged back in the carriage, her fair,
flawless complexion a trifle heightened by the pink of her parasol, I
gazed upon her as one entranced.  The half lights of the Casino Garden
had not been deceptive.  She was twenty-two at the most, and absolutely
lovely; the most bewitching woman I had ever seen.  From beneath a
marvel of the milliner's art, tendrils of fair hair, soft as floss silk,
strayed upon her white brow; her eyes were of that clear childlike blue
that presupposes an absolute purity of soul, and in her pointed chin was
a single dimple that deepened when she smiled.  Hers was an adorable
face, sweet, full of an exquisite beauty, and as she gazed upon me with
her great eyes she seemed to read my heart.  Her lithe, slim figure was
admirably set off by her gown of soft material of palest green, which
had all the shimmer of silk, yet moulded and defined its wearer like a
Sultan's scarf.  It had tiny shaded stripes which imparted a delicious
effect of myriad folds; the hem of the skirt, from under which a dainty
bronze shoe appeared, had a garniture in the chromatics, as it were, of
mingled rose and blue and green, and the slender waist, made long as
waists may be, was girdled narrow but distinctive.

As I sat beside her, her violet-pervaded chiffons touching me, the
perfume they exhaled intoxicated me with its fragrance.  She was an
enchantress, a well-beloved, whose beautiful face I longed to smother
with kisses each time I pressed her tiny well-gloved hand.

Her frank conversation was marked by an ingenuousness that was charming.
It was apparent that she moved in an exclusive circle at home, and from
her allusions to notable people whom I knew in London, I was assured
that her acquaintance with them was not feigned.  Days passed--happy,
idle, never-to-be-forgotten days.  Nevertheless, try how I would, I
could not induce her to tell me her name, nor could I discover it at her
hotel, for the one she had given there was evidently assumed.

"Call me Sybil," she always replied when I alluded to the subject.

"Why are you so determined to preserve the secret of your identity?"  I
asked, when, one evening after dinner, we were strolling beneath the
trees in the Allee.

A faint shadow of displeasure fell upon her brow, and turning to me
quickly she answered:

"Because--well, because it is necessary."  Then she added with a strange
touch of sadness, "When we part here we shall not meet again."

"No, don't say that," I protested; "I hope that in London we may see
something of each other."

She sighed, and as we passed out into the bright moonbeams that flooded
the mountains and valleys, giving the snowy range the aspect of a
far-off fairyland, I noticed that her habitual brightness had given
place to an expression of mingled fear and sorrow.  Some perpetual
thought elevated her forehead and enlarged her eyes, and a little later,
as we walked slowly forward into the now deserted promenade, I repeated
a hope that our friendship would always remain sincere and unbroken.

"Why do you speak these words to me?" she asked suddenly, in faltering
tones.  "Why do you render my life more bitter than it is?"

"Because when your father returns and takes you away the light of my
life will be extinguished.  Don't be cruel, Sybil; you must have seen--"

"I am not cruel," she answered calmly, halting suddenly and looking at
me with her great clear eyes.  "During the past fortnight we have--well,
we have amused each other, and time has passed pleasantly.  I know,
alas! the words I have arrested on your lips.  You mistake this mild
summer flirtation of ours for real love.  You were about to declare that
you love me--were you not?"

"True, Sybil.  And I mean it.  From the first moment our eyes met I have
adored you," I exclaimed with passionate tenderness.  "The brightness of
your face has brought light into my life.  You have showed me at all
times the face of an adorable woman; you have peopled my desert, you
have filled me with such supreme joy that I have been lost in profound
love."

"Hush! hush!" she cried, interrupting me.  "Listen, let me tell you my
position."

"I care naught for your position; I want only you, Sybil," I continued
earnestly, raising her hand to my lips and smothering it with kisses.
"I have adored you in all the different forms of love.  You, who have
sufficed for my being; you, whose wondrous beauty filled me with all the
chastity of affection.  Between you and the horizon there seems a secret
harmony that makes me love the stones on the very footpaths.  The river
yonder has your voice; the stars above us your look; everything around
me smiles with your smile.  I never knew until now what it was to live,
but now I live because I love you.  Each night when we part I long for
morning; I want to see you again, to kiss your hair, to tell you I love
you always--always."

Her bosom rose and fell quickly as I spoke, and when I had finished, her
little hand closed convulsively upon mine.

"No, no," she cried hoarsely.  "Let us end this interview; it is painful
to both of us.  I have brought this unhappiness upon you by my own
reckless folly.  I ought never to have broken the convenances and
accepted as companion a man to whom I had not been formally introduced."

"Ah! don't be cruel, Sybil," I pleaded earnestly; "cannot you see how
madly I love you?"

"Yes; I think that perhaps you care more for me than I imagined," she
answered, endeavouring to preserve a calmness that was impossible.  "But
leave me and forget me, Stuart.  I am worthless because I have
fascinated you when I ought to have shunned you, knowing that our love
can only bring us poignant bitterness."

"Why?  Tell me," I gasped; then, half fearing the truth, I asked.  "Are
you already married?"

"No."

"Then what barrier is there to our happiness?"

"One that is insurmountable," she answered hoarsely, hot tears welling
in her eyes.  "The truth I cannot explain, as for certain reasons I am
compelled to keep my secret."

"But surely you can tell me the reason why we may not love?  You cannot
deny that you love me just a little," I said.

"I do not deny it," she answered in a low, earnest voice, raising her
beautiful face to mine.  "It is true, Stuart, that you are the only man
I have looked upon with real affection, and I make no effort at
concealment; nevertheless, our dream must end here.  I have striven to
stifle my passion, knowing full well the dire result that must accrue.
But it is useless.  Our misfortune is that we love one another; so we
must part."

"And you refuse to tell me the reason why you intend to break off our
acquaintanceship," I observed reproachfully.

"Ah, no!" she answered quickly.  "You cannot understand.  I dare not
love you.  A deadly peril threatens me.  Ere six months have passed the
sword which hangs, as it were, suspended over me may fall with fatal
effect, but--but if it does, if I die, my last thought shall be of you,
Stuart, for I feel that you are mine alone."

I clasped her in my arms, and beneath the great tree where we were
standing our lips met for the first time in a hot, passionate caress.

Then, panting, she slowly disengaged herself from my arms, saying:

"Our dream is over.  After to-night we may be friends, but never lovers.
To love me would bring upon you a disaster, terrible and complete;
therefore strive, for my sake, Stuart, to forget."

"I cannot," I answered.  "Tell me of your peril."

"My peril--ah!" she exclaimed sadly.  "Ever present, it haunts me like a
hideous nightmare, and only your companionship has lately caused me to
forget it for a few brief hours, although I have all the time been
conscious of an approaching doom.  It may be postponed for months, or so
swiftly may it descend upon me that when to-morrow's sun shines into my
room its rays will fall upon my lifeless form; my soul and body will
have parted."

"Are you threatened by disease?"

"No.  My peril is a strange one," she answered slowly.  "If I might tell
you all my curious story I would, Stuart.  At present, alas!  I cannot
Come, let us go back to the hotel, and there bid me farewell."

"Farewell!  When do you intend to leave me?"  I cried dismayed, as we
turned and walked on together.

"Soon," she said, sighing, her hand trembling in mine--"it will be
imperative very soon."

"But may I not help you?  Cannot I shield you from this mysterious
peril?"

"Alas!  I know not.  If your aid will assist me in the future I will
communicate with you.  I have your London address upon your card."

There was a long and painful pause.  But in those silent moments during
our walk I became conscious of the grand passion that consumed me.

"And you will think of me sometimes with thoughts of love, Sybil?"  I
said disconsolately.

"Yes.  But for the present forget me.  Some day, however, I may be
compelled to put your affection to the test."

"I am prepared for any ordeal in order to prove that my passion is no
idle midsummer fancy," I answered.  "Command me, and I will obey."

"Then good-night," she said, stretching forth her hand, for by this time
we were in front of the Bonnemaison.  I held her hand in silence for
some moments, my thoughts too full for words.

"Shall I see you to-morrow?"  I asked.

"Yes, if--if my doom does not overwhelm me," she answered with a choking
sob.  "If it does, then adieu, my love, adieu forever!"

"No, not adieu, Sybil," I said, drawing her beneath the shadow of a tree
and once again imprinting a passionate kiss upon her lips.  "Not adieu!
Let as at least meet tomorrow, even if it must be for the last time."

She burst into a flood of tears, and turning from me walked quickly to
the steps leading to the hotel, while I, mystified and full of sad
thoughts, strode onward along the silent moonlit Allee towards my hotel.

Little sleep came that night to my eyes, but when my coffee was brought
in the morning a perfumed note lay upon the tray.  I tore it open
eagerly, and read the following words hastily scribbled in pencil and
blurred by tears:

"I am in deadly peril and have been compelled to leave unexpectedly.  Do
not attempt to find me, but forget everything.--Sybil."

I dashed aside the curtains and, like a man in a dream, stood gazing
away at the white mountains, brilliant in the morning sunlight I had
lost her; the iron of despair had entered my heart.

CHAPTER TWO.

SIN OR SECRET?

Six months passed.  Left forlorn, with only the vivid memory of a
charming face, I had travelled to rid myself of the remembrance, but in
vain.  Sometimes I felt inclined to regard my mysterious divinity as a
mere adventuress; at others I became lost in contemplation and puzzled
over her words almost to the point of madness.  I knew that I had loved
her; that, fascinated by her great beauty and enmeshed in the soft web
of her silken tresses, she held me irrevocably for life or death.

Unhappy and disconsolate, heedless of London's pleasures or the
perpetual gaiety of the "smart" circle in which my friends and relations
moved, I spent the gloomy December days in my chambers in Shaftesbury
Avenue, endeavouring to distract the one thought that possessed me by
reading.  My companions chaffed me, dubbing me a misanthrope, but to
none of them, not even Jack Bethune, the friend of my college days and
greatest chum, did I disclose the secret of my despair.

Thus weeks went by, until one morning my man, Saunders, brought me a
telegram which I opened carelessly, but read with breathless eagerness,
when I saw the signature was "Sybil."

The words upon the flimsy paper caused me such sudden and unexpected
delight that old Saunders, most discreet of servants, must have had some
apprehension as to my sanity.  The telegram, which had been despatched
from Newbury, read:

"Must see you this evening.  In Richmond Terrace Gardens, opposite the
tea-pavilion, is a seat beneath a tree.  Be there at six.  Do not
fail.--Sybil."

Almost beside myself with joyful anticipation of seeing her sweet, sad
face once again, I went out and whiled away the hours that seemed
never-ending, until at last when twilight fell I took train to the place
named.

Ten minutes before the hour she had indicated I found the seat in the
Terrace Gardens, but there was no sign of the presence of any human
being.  It was almost closing time, and the Terrace was utterly
deserted.  All was silent save the rushing of a train, or the dull
rumbling of vehicles passing along the top of the hill, and distant
sounds became mingled with the vague murmurs of the trees.  The chill
wind sighed softly in the oaks, lugubriously extending their dark bare
arms along the walk like a row of spectres guarding the vast masses of
vapour spreading out behind them and across the valley, where the Thames
ran silent and darkly in serpentine wanderings, and the lights were
already twinkling.  Even as I sat the last ray of twilight faded, and
night, cloudy and moonless, closed in.

Suddenly a harsh strident bell gave six hurried strokes, followed by
half a dozen others in different keys, the one sounding far distant
across the river, coming, I knew, from Isleworth's old time-stained
tower, with which boating men are so familiar.

It had seemed years full of sad and tender memories since we had parted,
yet in ecstasy I told myself that in a few moments she would be again at
my side, and from her eyes I might, as before, drink of the cup of love
to the verge of intoxication.

A light footstep sounded on the gravel, and peering into the darkness I
could just distinguish the form of a man.  As he advanced I saw he was
tall, well-built, and muscular, nearly forty years of age, with a slight
black moustache and closely cropped hair that was turning prematurely
grey.  He wore the conventional silk hat, an overcoat heavily trimmed
with astrakhan, and as he strode towards me he took a long draw at his
cigar.

"Good evening," he said courteously, halting before me as I rose, "I
believe I have the pleasure of addressing Mr Stuart Ridgeway, have I
_not_?"

"That is my name," I answered rather brusquely, not without surprise,
for I had expected Sybil to keep her appointment.

"I am the bearer of a message," he said in slow, deliberate tones.  "The
lady who telegraphed to you this morning desires to express her extreme
regret at her inability to meet you.  Since the telegram was sent,
events have occurred which preclude her attendance anywhere," and he
paused.  Then he added with sadness: "Anywhere--except before her
Judge."

"Her Judge!"  I gasped.  "What do you mean?  Speak!  Is she dead?"

"No," he answered solemnly, "she still lives, and although overshadowed
by a secret terror, her only thought is of you, even in these very
moments when she is being carried swiftly by the overwhelming flood of
circumstances towards her terrible doom."

"You speak in enigmas," I said quickly.  "We are strangers, yet you
apparently are aware of my acquaintance with Sybil.  Will you not tell
me the nature of her secret terror?"

"I cannot, for two reasons," he replied.  "The first is, because I am
not aware of the whole of the circumstances; the second, because I have
given her my promise to reveal nothing.  Hence my lips are sealed.  All
I can tell you is that a great danger threatens her--how great you
cannot imagine--and she desires you to fulfill your promise and render
her your aid."

"Whatever lies in my power I will do willingly," I answered.  "If she
cannot come to me will you take me to her?"

"Upon two conditions only."

"What are they?"

"For your own sake as well as hers, it is imperative that she should
still preserve the strictest incognito.  Therefore, in driving to her
house, you must allow the blinds of the carriage to be drawn, and,
however curious may appear anything you may witness in her presence, you
must give your word of honour as a gentleman--nay, you must take oath--
not to seek to elucidate it.  Mystery surrounds her, I admit, but
remember that any attempt to penetrate it will assuredly place her in
graver peril, and thwart your own efforts on her behalf."

"Such conditions from a stranger are, to say the least, curious," I
observed.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, smiling, "your reluctance to accept is but natural.
Well, I can do no more, I have fulfilled my mission.  The woman you love
has staked her young life--and alas! lost.  She has counted upon your
aid in this hour of her extremity and despair, yet if you withhold it I
must return and tell her."

"But I love her," I said.  "Surely I may know who she is, and why she is
haunted by this secret dread!"

For a few seconds he was silent.  Then he tossed his cigar away with a
gesture of impatience.

"Time does not admit of argument.  I have merely to apologise for
bringing you down here to a fruitless appointment, and to wish you
good-evening," he said in a tone of mingled annoyance and
disappointment, as turning on his heel he walked away.

His words and manner aroused within me a sudden dislike, a curious
hatred that I could not describe, yet ere he had gone a dozen paces I
cried:

"Stop!  I have reconsidered my decision.  I must see her, for I promised
her assistance, and am ready to give it in whatever manner she desires."

"You know the conditions," he said, sauntering carelessly back to me,
"Do you accept them absolutely?"

"Yes."

"Then swear."

He had drawn from his pocket a Testament, and held it towards me.  I
hesitated.

"You may be tempted to break your word.  You will never violate your
oath," he added, in the same slow, deliberate tone in which he had first
addressed me.  Still I was not prepared for this strange proceeding, and
not until he urged me to hasten and declared that my oath was
imperative, did I move.

Taking the book, I slowly raised it until it touched my lips.

Next second I regretted my action.  I had a vague, indefinable feeling
that I had subjected myself to him; that I had foolishly placed myself
under his thrall.

Yet, as we walked together up the steep path and gained the Terrace, he
chatted gayly upon various topics, and the strange presage of evil that
I had first experienced was soon succeeded by lively anticipations of
seeing once again the beautiful woman I adored.

In Hill Rise, close to that row of glaring new semi-aesthetic houses
known as Cardigan Gate, a neat brougham drawn by a magnificent pair of
bays was in waiting, and before we entered, the footman carefully drew
down the blinds, then saluted as he closed the door.

The interior of the carriage would have been dark had not a tiny
glimmering lamp been placed there, and this showed that, in addition to
the blinds drawn down, heavy curtains had also been arranged, so that to
see outside was impossible.  My strange companion was affable, even
amusing, but the drive occupied quite an hour and a half, although we
travelled at a pretty smart pace.

Presently my companion turned to me, saying: "There is still one small
thing more.  Before we alight you must allow me to tie my handkerchief
across your eyes."

"In order that I may not note the exterior of the house--eh?"  I
suggested, laughing.

He nodded, and a strange cynical smile played upon his lips.

"Very well," I said.  "It is useless, I suppose, to protest."

He did not answer, but folding a silk handkerchief he placed it over my
eyes and tied it tightly at the back.  Almost at the moment he had
completed this the conveyance stopped, the door was opened, and, led by
my mysterious companion, I alighted.

Taking his arm, we crossed the pavement and ascended a short flight of
steps.  There were three.  I counted them.  I could also hear the wind
in some trees, and found myself wondering whether we were in town or
country.

A door opened, and we stepped into a hall, which, owing to the echo of
my conductor's voice, I concluded was a spacious one, but ere I had time
to reflect, the man whose arm I held said:

"Just a moment.  You must sign the visitors' book--it is the rule here.
We'll excuse bad writing as you can't see," he added with a laugh.

At the same moment I felt a pen placed in my fingers by a man-servant,
who guided my hand to the book.  Then I hastily scrawled my name.

It was strange, I thought; but the events of the evening were all so
extraordinary that there was nothing after all very unusual in signing a
visitors' book.

Again he took my arm, leading me up a long flight of stairs, the carpet
of which was so thick that our feet fell noiselessly.  In the ascent I
felt that the balustrade was cold and highly polished, like glass.
Confused and mysterious whisperings sounded about me, and I felt
confident that I distinctly heard a woman's sob quite close to me, while
at the same moment a whiff of violets greeted my nostrils.  Its
fragrance stirred my memory--it was Sybil's favourite perfume.  Suddenly
my guide ushered me into a room and took the handkerchief from my eyes.
The apartment was a small study, cozy and well furnished, with a bright
fire burning in the grate, and lit only by a green-shaded reading-lamp.

"If you'll take off your overcoat and wait here a few moments I will
bring her to you," he said; adding, "you can talk here alone and
undisturbed," and he went out, closing the door after him.

Five eager minutes passed while I listened for her footstep, expecting
each second to hear her well-known voice; but gradually the atmosphere
seemed to become stifling.  In my mouth was a sulphurous taste, and the
lamp, growing more dim, at last gave a weak flicker and went out.
Rushing to the door, I found, to my astonishment, it was locked!

I dashed to the window and tried to open it, but could not.  In despair
I beat the door frantically with my fists and shouted.  But my muffled
voice seemed as weak as a child's.  I doubted whether it could be heard
beyond the walls.

Flinging myself upon my knees, I bent to examine the small fire, glowing
like a blacksmith's forge, and discovered to my horror that the chimney
had been closed, and that the grate was filled with burning charcoal.
Quickly I raked it out, but the red cinders only glowed the brighter,
and, even though I dashed the hearthrug upon them, I could not
extinguish them.

In desperation I tried to struggle to my feet, but failed.  My legs
refused to support me; my head throbbed as if my skull would burst.
Then a strange sensation of nausea crept over me; my starting eyes
smarted as if acid had been flung into them, my tongue clave to the roof
of my parched mouth, my chest seemed held in contraction by a band of
iron, as half rising I fell next second, inert and helpless, a sudden
darkness obliterating all my senses.

What time elapsed I have no idea.  Gradually I struggled back to
consciousness, and as I made desperate endeavour to steady my nerves and
collect my thoughts, I suddenly became painfully aware of a bright light
falling full upon me.  My eyes were dazzled by the extraordinary
brilliancy.  I closed them again, and tried to recollect what had
occurred.

"Pull yourself together, my dear fellow.  You are all right now, aren't
you?" asked a voice in my ear.

I recognised the tones as those of my strange guide.

"Yes," I answered mechanically.  "But Sybil--where is she?"

He made no reply.

I tried to open my eyes, but again the light dazzled me.  About me
sounded soft sibilations and the frou-frou of silk, while the warm air
seemed filled with the sickly perfume of tuberoses.  My left hand was
grasping the arm of a capacious saddle-bag chair, wherein I was
evidently sitting, while in my right I held something, the nature of
which I could not at first determine.

My trembling fingers closed upon it more tightly a moment later, and I
suddenly recognised that it was the hand of a woman!  Again opening my
heavy eyes, I strained them until they grew accustomed to the
brightness, and was amazed to discover myself sitting in a spacious,
richly-furnished drawing-room, brilliant with gilt and mirrors, while
two men and two women in evening dress were standing around me, anxiety
betrayed upon their pale faces.  In a chair close beside mine sat a
woman, whose hand I was holding.

Springing to my feet, my eyes fell full upon her.  Attired in dead white
satin, a long veil hid her face, and in her hair and across her corsage
were orange blossoms.  She was a bride!

Behind her--erect and motionless--was the man who had conducted me
there, while at her side stood a grave, grey-haired clergyman, who at
that moment was gabbling the concluding portion of the marriage service.
The veil failed to conceal her wondrous beauty; in an instant I
recognised her.

It was the woman I adored.  A wedding-ring was upon the hand I had held!

"Speak, Sybil!"  I cried.  "Speak! tell me the reason of this!"

But she answered not.  Only the clergyman's droning voice broke the
silence.  The hand with the ring upon it lay upon her knees and I caught
it up, but next second dropped it, as if I had been stung.  Its contact
thrilled me!

Divining my intention, the man who had brought me there dashed between
us, but ere he could prevent me, I had, with a sudden movement, torn
aside the veil.

Horror transfixed me.  Her beauty was entrancing, but her blue eyes,
wide open in a stony stare, had lost their clearness and were rapidly
glazing; her lips, with their true _arc de Cupidon_, were growing cold,
and from her cheeks the flush of life had departed, leaving them white
as the bridal dress she wore.

I stood open-mouthed, aghast, petrified.

Sybil, the woman I loved better than life, was dead, and I had been
married to her!

CHAPTER THREE.

GHOSTS OF THE PAST.

Horrified and appalled, my startled eyes were riveted upon the flawless
face that in life had entranced me.

"See!  She's dead--dead!"  I gasped wildly, when a few seconds later I
fully realised the ghastly truth.

Then throwing myself upon my knees, heedless of the presence of
strangers, I seized her clammy hand that bore the wedding ring, and
covered it with mad, grief-impassioned caresses.  In her breast was a
spray of tuberoses, flowers ineffably emblematic of the grave.  Faugh!
how I have ever since detested their gruesome, sickly odour.  There is
death in their breath.

The despairing look in her sightless eyes was so horrible that I covered
my face with my hands to shut it out from my gaze.  The secret terror
that she had dreaded, and to which she had made such veiled, gloomy
references, had actually fallen.  Her incredible presage of evil, which
in Luchon I had at first regarded as the fantastic imaginings of a
romantic disposition, had actually become an accomplished fact--some
dire, mysterious catastrophe, sudden and complete, had overwhelmed her.

The woman I adored was dead!

In those moments of desolation, stricken down by a sudden grief, I bent
over the slim, delicate hands that had so often grasped mine in warm
affection, and there came back to me memories of the brief joyous days
in the gay little mountain town, when for hours I walked by her side in
rapturous transports and sat with her each evening under the trees,
charmed by her manner, fascinated by her wondrous fathomless eyes, held
by her beautiful countenance as under a spell.  There had seemed some
mysterious rapport between her soul and mine.  The sun shone more
brightly for me on the day she came into my world, and my heart became
filled with a supreme happiness such as I, blase and world-weary, had
never known.  Heaven had endowed her with one of those women's souls
embodying pity and love, a ray of joy-giving light from a better world,
that consoled my being, softened my existence, and aroused within me for
the first time the conviction that in this brotherhood of tears there
existed one true-hearted, soft-voiced woman, who might be the sweet
companion of my future life.  Through those few sunny days we had been
forgetful of all earth's grim realities, of all the evil thoughts of the
world.  We had led an almost idyllic existence, inspired by our
love-making with great contempt for everything, vainly imagining that we
should have no other care than that of loving one another.

Ah! how brief, alas! had been our paradise!  How sudden and complete was
my bereavement! how bitter my sorrow!

True, Sybil had spoken of the mysterious spectral terror which
constantly held her in a paroxysm of fear; yet having been satisfied by
her declaration that she was not already married, I had continued to
love her with the whole strength of my being, never dreaming that her
end was so near.  Dead!  She could no longer utter those soft,
sympathetic words that had brought peace to me.  No longer could she
press my hand, nor smile upon me with those great eyes, clear and
trusting as a child's.  Only her soulless body was before me; only her
chilly form that ere long would be snatched from my sight forever.

No, I could not realise that she had departed beyond recall.  In mad
desperation I kissed her brow in an attempt to revivify her.  At that
moment her sweet voice seemed raised within me, but it was a voice of
remembrance that brought hot tears to my eyes.

A second later I sprang up, startled by a loud knocking at the door of
the room.  The unknown onlookers, breathless and silent, exchanged
glances of abject terror.  "Hark!"  I cried.  "What's that?"

"Hush!" they commanded fiercely.  For a few seconds there was a dead
silence, then the summons was repeated louder than before, as a deep
voice outside cried:

"Open the door.  We are police officers, and demand admittance in the
name of the law."

Upon the small assembly the words fell like a thunderbolt.

"They have come!" gasped one of the women, pale and trembling.  She was
of middle age, and wore an elaborate toilette with a magnificent necklet
of pearls.

"Silence!  Make no answer," the man who had conducted me from Richmond
whispered anxiously.  "They may pass on, and we may yet escape."

"Escape!"  I echoed, looking from one to the other; "what crime have you
committed?"

A third time the knocking was repeated, when suddenly there was a loud
crash, and the door, slowly breaking from its hinges, fell, with its
silken portiere, heavily into the room as three detectives, springing
over it, dashed towards us.

"See! there she is!" cried one of the men authoritatively, pointing to
Sybil.  "Arrest her!"

The two others dashed forward to execute their inspector's orders, but
as they did so the clergyman stepped quickly before her chair, and,
raising his bony hand, cried:

"Back, I command you!  Back!  The lady for whose arrest I presume you
hold a warrant has, alas! gone to where she is not amenable to the law
of man."

The men halted, puzzled.

"What do you mean?" cried the inspector.

"Look for yourselves, gentlemen," the man answered calmly.  Then, in a
voice full of emotion he added, "She is dead!"

"Dead!  Impossible!" all three echoed dismayed, as next second they
crowded around her, gazed into her calm, sweet face, and touching her
stiffening fingers, at last satisfied themselves of the terrible truth.
Then they removed their hats reverently, and, aghast at the sudden and
unexpected discovery, stood eagerly listening to the grave-faced man who
had made the amazing announcement.

"Yes," he continued, preserving a quiet demeanour.  "Such an occurrence
is undoubtedly as unexpected by you as it is bitterly painful to us.
This intrusion upon the death-chamber is, I know, warranted by certain
unfortunate circumstances; nevertheless it is my duty, as the
officiating priest, to inform you that shortly before this lady expired
she was united in matrimony by special licence to this gentleman, Mr
Stuart Ridgeway, and of course if you wish you can inspect the register,
which I think you will find duly in order."

"The marriage does not concern us," the red-faced inspector answered,
murmuring in the same breath an apology for causing us unnecessary pain
by forcing the door.  "The lady is dead, therefore we must, of course,
return our warrant unexecuted."

The others also expressed regret at their hasty action, and, having
quite satisfied themselves that Sybil was not merely unconscious, they
consulted among themselves in an undertone, and afterwards withdrew with
disappointment plainly portrayed upon their features.

"What is the meaning of this?"  I demanded angrily of the clergyman when
they had gone.

"Unfortunately I can make no explanation," he replied.

"But while I have been unconscious you have, without my knowledge or
consent, performed the ceremony of marriage, uniting me to a dead bride.
You have thus rendered yourself distinctly liable to prosecution,
therefore I demand to know the reason at once," I exclaimed fiercely.

Unconcernedly he shrugged his shoulders, answering: "I regret extremely
that it is beyond my power to satisfy you.  No doubt all this appears
exceedingly strange; nevertheless, when the truth is revealed, I venture
to think you will not be inclined to judge me quite so harshly, sir.  I
was asked to perform a service, and have done so.  This lady is your
wife, although, alas! she no longer lives."

"But why was I entrapped here to be wedded to a dying woman?"

"I have acted no part in entrapping you--as you term it," he protested
with calm dignity.  "I had but one duty; I have performed that
faithfully."

"Then I am to understand that you absolutely refuse to tell me the name
of my dead wife, or any facts concerning her?"

"I do."

"Very well, then.  I shall invoke the aid of the police in order to
fully investigate the mystery," I said.  "That all of you fear arrest is
evident from the alarm betrayed on the arrival of the officers.  What
guarantee have I that Sybil has not been murdered?"

"Mine," interposed one of the men, bald-headed and grey bearded, who had
until then been standing silent and thoughtful.  "I may as well inform
you that I am a qualified medical practitioner, and for two years have
been this lady's medical attendant.  She suffered acutely from
heart-disease, and the hurry and excitement of the marriage ceremony
under such strange conditions has resulted fatally.  I think my
certificate, combined with my personal reputation in the medical
profession, will be quite sufficient to satisfy any coroner's officer."

Approaching my dead bride as he spoke, he tenderly closed her staring
eyes, composed her hands, and, taking up the veil I had torn aside,
folded it and placed it lightly across her white face.

I was about to demur, when suddenly the man who had acted as my guide
placed his hand upon my shoulder, saying in a calm, serious tone:

"Remember, you have taken your oath never to attempt to elucidate this
mystery."

"Yes, but if I have suspicion that Sybil has been murdered I am
justified in breaking it," I cried in protest.  "She has not been
murdered, I swear," he replied.  "Moreover, the doctor here stakes his
professional reputation by giving a certificate showing natural causes."

This did not satisfy me, and I commented in rather uncomplimentary terms
upon the unsatisfactory nature of the whole proceedings.

"But before coming here you accepted my conditions," the man said,
thrusting his hands deep into his pockets.  "Sybil sought your aid to
save her from a deadly peril, and you were willing to assist her.  You
have done so, although alas! all our efforts have been unavailing.  You
have had the unique experience of having been a bridegroom and a widower
within ten minutes.  Although I admit that there are many mysterious
circumstances surrounding your tragic union, yet for the present it is
impossible to give my explanation.  Indeed, as I have already told you,
any inquiries must inevitably increase your burden of sorrow and
unhappiness.  Therefore preserve silence and wait until I am able to
render you full satisfaction.  When the true facts are exposed, you will
find that the only safeguard to ourselves lies in the present
preservation of our secret."

I observed that he was fully alive to my suspicions, that he divined
them, and anxiously followed my words.  I surprised a swift gleam in his
eye that revealed the instinctive terror of the animal attacked at the
moment of its fancied security.  I felt convinced that a crime had been
committed.  At thought of it my heart-beats were quickened, and my
nerves thrilled.  Again he placed his hand upon my shoulder, but I
shrank with unconquerable repugnance from that contact.  "I intend to
elucidate this mystery," I said firmly.  "Neither threats nor oaths
shall deter me from seeking the truth."

"Very well," he replied hoarsely; "if you intend to violate your oath,
taken before your Creator, do so.  Nevertheless, I and my friends warn
you of the penalty for so doing."

"Well, and what is the penalty, pray?"

He shrugged his shoulders, but no answer passed his lips.

His face had strong individuality and vivid expression.  As he stood
there between the two handsomely-dressed women, in his grey furtive
eyes, too wide apart, and always seeming to shun observation; in his
prematurely grey hair, in his mouth set round with deep wrinkles; in his
dark, blotched, bilious complexion, there seemed to be a creature of
another race.  What passions had worn those furrows?  What vigils had
hollowed those eyeballs?  Was this the face of a happy man who had known
neither the wearying cares of ambition, the toil of money-getting, nor
the stings of wounded self-love?  Why did all these marks of trouble and
exhaustion suddenly strike me as effects of a secret cause, and why was
I astonished that I had not sooner sought for it?

"Then you threaten me?"  I said slowly, after a moment's pause.

"I threaten nothing," he answered, raising his dark eyebrows, and
adding, "There is no reason, as far as I can see, why we should be
enemies, but rather let us be friends.  Sybil's death has brought to my
heart grief quite as poignant as that which you are suffering; therefore
in our mourning for one who was pure and good, should we not be united?
I have given you my word that I will elucidate the mystery as soon as I
feel confident that no catastrophe will follow.  I consider that this
should satisfy you for the present, and that your own discretion should
induce you to wait at least with patience."

As he spoke there were some little details--the quick flutter of the
eyelids, the rapidly dismissed expression of disagreeable surprise when
I announced my intention of breaking my oath--that did not escape me.
But was it not the same with myself?  I could have sworn that at the
same moment he experienced sensations exactly similar to those which
were catching me at the breast and in the throat.  Did this not prove
that a current of antipathy existed between him and me?

Why had the police held a warrant for Sybil's arrest?  Why had such care
been taken to conceal her identity?  Why had I been married to her so
mysteriously?  Why had she so suddenly passed to that land that lies
beyond human ken?  Had a fatal draught been forced between her lips; or
had she, too, been placed in that room where I had so narrowly escaped
asphyxiation?

"Since I have been in this house," I said, "an attempt has been made to
kill me.  I have therefore a right to demand an explanation, or place
the matter in the hands of the police."

"There was no attempt to injure you.  It was imperative that you should
be rendered unconscious," the man said.

"And you expect me to accept all this, and make no effort to ascertain
the true facts?"  I cried.  "Sybil feared an unknown terror, but it
appears to me more than probable that she lived in constant dread of
assassination."

The man frowned, and upon the faces of those about him settled dark,
ominous expressions.

"It is useless to continue this argument in the presence of the dead,"
he said.  "I have your address, and, if you desire it, I will call upon
you to-morrow."

"As you wish," I replied stiffly.  "I have no inclination to remain in
this house longer than necessary."

Crossing to where the body of Sybil reclined, I slowly raised the veil,
gazing for some moments upon her calm, pale face, as restful as if
composed in peaceful sleep.  Bending, I pressed my lips to her clammy
brow, then taking a piece of the drooping orange-blossom from her hair,
I replaced the veil, and, overcome with emotion, walked unsteadily out
over the fallen door, followed by the man whom I felt instinctively was
my enemy.

Together we descended the fine staircase, brilliantly lit by a huge
chandelier of crystal and hung with large time-mellowed paintings, into
a spacious hall, in which a footman with powdered hair awaited us.  Half
dazed, my senses not having recovered from the shock caused to them,
first by the charcoal fumes and secondly by the appalling discovery of
Sybil's death, I remember that when the flunkey threw open the door a
hansom was awaiting me, and that my strange companion himself gave the
cabman my address.  I have also a distinct recollection of having
refused to grasp my enemy's proffered hand, but it was not until I found
myself seated alone before the dying embers of the fire in my chambers
in Shaftesbury Avenue, my mind troubled to the point of torment, that it
suddenly occurred to me that in leaving the mysterious mansion I had
been culpably negligent of the future.

I had actually failed to take notice either of the exterior of the
house, or of the thoroughfare in which it was situated!

I had, I knew, driven along Oxford Street eastward to Regent Street, and
thence home, but from what direction the conveyance had approached the
Marble Arch I knew not.  In blank despair I paced my room, for I saw I
should be compelled to search London for a house, of which all I knew of
the exterior was that it had a wide portico in front and was approached
from the pavement by three steps.

My omission to take notice of its aspect overwhelmed me with despair,
for there were thousands of similar houses in the West End, and I knew
that, while I prosecuted my inquiries, those responsible for Sybil's
death would be afforded ample time to effect their escape.

That such a search was beset with difficulty I was well aware.  But
nervousness gave way to determination, at once feverish and fixed, and
it was in a mood of perfect self-mastery that, after a long period of
mental conflict, I flung myself upon my couch with my plan of operations
clearly laid out, and lay thinking over them until the yellow light of
the wintry dawn struggled in between the curtains.

CHAPTER FOUR.

A DEEPENING MYSTERY.

As the cheerless morning wore on, I sat after breakfast gloomily
smoking, trying to verify my first impression that Sybil had been the
victim of foul play in the hope of dispelling it.  But it was, on the
contrary, deepened.

Either I was wrong to think thus; and at any price I was determined to
convince myself by facts that I was wrong, or I was right.  The sole
resource henceforth remaining to me for the preservation of my
self-respect and the unburdening of my conscience was ardent and
ceaseless search after certainty.

Each hour as I pondered I was plunged more profoundly into the gulf of
suspicion.  Yet the very position of the intricate problem which I had
before me seemed to forbid all hope of discovering anything whatsoever
without a formal inquiry.  With foolish disregard for the future, I had
taken an oath to seek no explanation of what I might witness within that
mysterious house; I had placed myself irrevocably under the thrall of
the strange, cynical individual who had acted as Sybil's messenger!
Yet, now that Sybil was dead and everything pointed to a crime, I was
fully justified in seeking the truth, and had resolved upon bringing the
assassin to punishment.

During this debauch of melancholy the door opened and my old friend and
college chum, Captain Jack Bethune, burst into the room exclaiming:

"Mornin', Stuart, old chap.  That ancient servitor of yours, Saunders,
told me that you're a bit seedy.  What's the matter?"

"Nothing," I said, languidly grasping his hand.  "Sit down.  To what
good or evil fortune do I owe the honour of a visit at this unearthly
hour?"

"Good fortune, old chap, good fortune!" he laughed, flinging off his
overcoat and throwing himself back in the capacious arm-chair.  "The
best fortune that could befall a man.  Congratulate me, Stuart."

"Upon what?  Have you finished a new book, or has your publisher been
unduly generous?"

"Neither.  It isn't a book; it's a woman!"

"A woman?"  I inquired, puzzled.

"I'm engaged to be married, old fellow."

"To Dora Stretton?"

"To Dora Stretton, the most adorable girl in the world."

I sighed; not because I regretted his choice.  Far from it.  Truth to
tell, I envied him his happiness.

"With all my heart I congratulate you, Jack," I cried next second,
springing up and grasping his hand.  "I wish you every prosperity.  I
have known Dora ever since a child, and although she may move in a smart
set, yet I have had opportunities that you have not of observing her
true-heartedness and--what shall I say?--her hatred of the hollow shams
and artificiality by which she is surrounded."

"Yes, you know her far better than I do," he admitted, lighting a
cigarette and adding, "I'd take your opinion upon a woman's character
before anybody else's.  As a novelist, I have gained a reputation for
portraying female character, yet I assure you my ability in that
direction only exists in the imaginations of my reviewers.  I can write
about women, but, hang it, old chap, I'm absolutely ignorant of them in
real life.  You, a calm philosopher, can analyse a woman's nature and
lay every fibre of it bare as if by the scalpel; while I, finding my
conclusions always hopelessly at fault when attempting to study from
life, have written merely what I have believed to be artistic."

"Your books are popular, so I suppose your confession proves that pure
fiction pays better without an admixture of fact," I laughed.

"Yes," he said; "I'm afraid that is so," and then went on smoking with
an expression of joyful contentment.

John Bethune, known as the "soldier-novelist," was a handsome,
well-built fellow about thirty-two, with dark hair, a carefully-trimmed
moustache, and a pair of merry brown eyes that were an index to the
genuine bonhomie which was the chief trait of his character.  Though he
entertained none of the idiosyncrasies or eccentricities of dress common
to many writers, he was, although a smart officer, nevertheless a true
Bohemian--always gay and light-hearted and the most popular man in his
regiment.

A thoroughly good fellow, he deserved every bit of the success he had
attained.  The son of a struggling barrister, he had graduated, then
joined the army, afterwards becoming an anonymous contributor to a
Scotch review of hypercritical trend, edited by the distinguished
critic, Mr Goring.  Having turned his attention to novel-writing in
combination with soldiering, he had made a brilliant success with his
first book, which had been increased by each other that had been issued.
On both sides of the Atlantic the newspapers were full of paragraphs
regarding his sayings and doings, many of their writers being fond of
alluding to him as "one of Mr Goring's young men," and for the past
three years he had been recognised as one of the leading "younger
novelists," whose wondrous insight into the complexities and
contradictions of woman's nature had earned for him a world-wide
reputation.

As he chatted about the woman to whom he had become engaged, I expressed
genuine satisfaction at his announcement.  The honourable Dora Stretton,
although sister of the Countess of Fyneshade, one of the smartest women
in England, was altogether sweet and adorable, with a winning manner and
a face voted pretty wherever she appeared.  She hated town life, for,
being a splendid horsewoman, she loved all outdoor sport, and was never
so happy as when riding with the Fitzwilliam pack, or driving her
spanking bays over the broad level Lincolnshire highways.  Outwardly she
was a smart woman of to-day, but, as her childhood's friend, I knew that
beneath her tightly-laced Parisian corset and the veneer that she was
compelled to assume, there beat a true heart that yearned for the honest
love of a man.

So I congratulated Jack, explaining how Blatherwycke, old Lady
Stretton's estate in Northamptonshire, joined that of my father, and how
Dora, her sister Mabel, now Countess of Fyneshade, and myself had known
each other ever since the time when our nurses gossiped.  Cruel-tongued
scandalmongers had said that her ladyship, finding her estates
impoverished on the death of her husband, the Viscount, gave Mabel in
marriage to the Earl of Fyneshade, a widower nearly twice her age, in
exchange for a service he rendered her by paying off a certain mortgage
upon the property.  But, be that how it might, Dora had five thousand a
year in her own right, and this, together with Jack's fair income from
his royalties, would suffice to keep them in comfort, if not in
affluence.

"I had heard that Dora was likely to become the wife of old Lord
Wansford," I observed at last.

"Yes," he answered in a low tone.  "Don't mention it to anybody, but her
ladyship is simply furious because Dora and I love each other.  She had
set her mind on her daughter marrying a peer."

"Then you haven't yet obtained her ladyship's consent--eh?"

"No.  We love each other, and Dora says she intends to marry me,
therefore we have agreed to defy the maternal anger."

"Quite right, old chap," I said.  "Under the circumstances you are
justified.  Besides, knowing the unhappiness in the Fyneshade menage,
Dora is not likely to marry anybody she does not love."

"True," he said.  Then tossing his cigarette into the grate he rose, and
declaring he had a business appointment, he struggled into his overcoat
and, grasping my hand in adieu, said:

"You seem confoundedly glum to-day.  Shake yourself up, old fellow.  We
shall soon be hearing of your marriage!"

"My marriage!"  I gasped, starting.  His jovial words cut me to the
quick.  They had an ominous meaning.  "My marriage!"

"Yes," he said.  "We shall soon be hearing all about it."

"Never, I hope--never."

"Bah!  I was of the same mind until a month ago.  Some day you, like
myself, will discover one woman who is not a coquette.  Ta-ta for the
present," and he strode airily out, whistling a gay air, and leaving me
alone with my bitter sorrow.

Once or twice during our conversation I had been sorely tempted to
disclose the whole of the dismal circumstances and seek his advice, but
I had hesitated.  He was perhaps too full of his newly-found joy to
trouble himself over my grief, and, after all, he might consider me a
fool for allowing myself to become fascinated by a mere chance-met
acquaintance about whom I knew absolutely nothing, and whose principal
efforts were directed towards enveloping herself in an impenetrable veil
of mystery.  No; I resolved to preserve my own secret and act upon the
plans I had already formulated.  With bitterness I sat and brooded over
Burns' lines:

  Pleasures are like poppies spread.
  You seize the flower, its bloom is shed.
  Or like the snowflake on the river,
  A moment white--then gone forever.

At noon I roused myself and started forth on the first stage of a search
after truth, a search which I swore within myself I would not relinquish
until I had learnt Sybil's true history; nay, I had resolved to make the
elucidation of the mystery of her tragic end the one object in my life.

It occurred to me that from the police I might at least ascertain her
name and the nature of the information upon which the warrant had been
issued; therefore I walked to New Scotland Yard and sought audience of
the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department.  For half an hour I
aired my heels in a bare, cheerless waiting-room at the end of a long
stone corridor on the first floor, until at last a secretary entered
with my card, and an intimation from the Chief that he regretted he had
"no information to give on the subject."

Argument with the secretary proved unavailing, therefore I left, feeling
that I could hope for no assistance from the police.

Next it occurred to me to search the record of special marriage licences
at Doctors' Commons, and, taking a cab there, I was not long in
obtaining what appeared to be the first clue, for at the Faculty Office
I was shown the affidavit that had been made in application for a
special licence, which read as follows:

"Canterbury Diocese, December 8, 1891.

"Appeared personally, Sybil Henniker, spinster, of Hereford Road,
Bayswater, and prayed a special licence for the solemnisation of
matrimony between her and Stuart Ridgeway, bachelor, of 49, Shaftesbury
Avenue, London, and made oath that she believed that there is no
impediment of kindred or alliance, or any other lawful cause, nor any
suit commenced in any Ecclesiastical Court, to bar or hinder the
proceedings of the said matrimony according to the tenor of such
licence.

"Sworn before me,--

"John Hatchard (Registrar)."

The special licence had, it appeared, been granted on the following day,
but the clerk said the applicant had been seen by his colleague, now
absent.

Feeling that at least I should know the whereabouts of the strange
company who held in their charge the lifeless form of the woman I loved,
I drove rapidly to Bayswater, but when the cab turned from Westbourne
Grove into Hereford Road, and I saw that the house for which I was
searching, the number of which appeared in the licence, was a small
tobacconist and newsvendor's, my heart again sank within me.

I alighted and made inquiry of the shopkeeper, but she knew of no young
lady named Sybil, nor of any person named Henniker.  Once again, then, I
was foiled; the address given in the affidavit was false.

For hours I drove aimlessly about the streets and squares lying between
Praed Street and Oxford Street, vaguely looking for a house I had never
distinctly seen, until at last it grew dark; then, cold and wearied, I
returned to my chambers.

As day succeeded day I continued my search, but could not grasp a single
certainty.  At Somerset House I could discover no facts regarding either
the marriage or the death, and advertisements I inserted in various
newspapers, inquiring for the cabman who drove me home on the fatal
morning, elicited no reply.

Jack Bethune dropped in to see me daily and pestered me with inquiries
regarding the cause of my gloominess.  Little, however, did he imagine
that I had been engaged through a whole fortnight in searching patiently
and methodically the registers of the great metropolitan cemeteries.  To
Kensal Green, Highgate, Abney Park, Nunhead, Dulwich, Brompton, Norwood,
Crystal Palace, Lee, and elsewhere I went, always searching for the
names of Sybil Henniker or Sybil Ridgeway.  This investigation proved
long and, alas! futile.  I could obtain no clue whatever, all trace of
her had been so carefully hidden as to defy my vigilance.

At last, however, a month after that fatal night and just when the
prospect of misery which my future offered seemed too terrible for
endurance, I suddenly made a discovery.  It was in the London office of
the Woking Cemetery Company that I found in the register an entry of an
interment on the second day following the midnight ceremony, of "Sybil
Ridgeway, wife of Stuart Ridgeway, of Shaftesbury Avenue."  The address
whence the body was removed was not given, but, taking the next train
from Waterloo to Woking, I was not long in finding, by aid of the
cemetery-keeper's plan, away in a far corner of the ground a newly-made
grave.

Overcome with emotion, I stood before it in the fast-falling wintry
twilight, and saw lying upon the mound of brown earth a magnificent
wreath of white immortelles.  Attached to it was a limp visiting-card.
Eagerly I took it up and inspected it.

Upon it, traced in ink that had become blurred and half-effaced by the
rain, there appeared some words.  As I read them they seemed to glow in
letters of fire; they held me spell-bound.

I lost courage to pursue my cold, calm, reasonable deductions; a kind of
hallucination came upon me--a mental picture of her tragic end--and I
felt my reason reel.

A vertigo of terror seized me, as though the breath of destiny swept
over my brow.

The card secured to the great wreath was my own--the one I had given
Sybil on the first evening we had met in the Casino Garden--but the
words written upon it amazed me.  I stood breathless, dumbfounded,
holding it between my trembling fingers, utterly unable to realise the
truth.

A portion of the writing upon it was in a well-formed man's hand, the
remainder in a heavy calligraphy totally different.  The rains had
rendered the writing faint and brown, yet in the fast-falling gloom I
was enabled to decipher that one side bore the inscription--

"From your heart-broken husband--Stuart."

Then, turning it over, I read in a distinctly feminine hand the strange
exhortation--

"Seek, and you may find."

What did it mean?  Was it an actual message to me from the grave?  Did
it not appear like a declaration from my dead love herself that some
mysterious crime had been committed, and that she left its elucidation
in my hands?  I became lost in bewilderment.

The inscription, purporting to be written by myself, was not in my
handwriting, and I was puzzled to divine its meaning.  That it had been
penned at a date prior to the mysterious woman's words appeared certain,
as the lines were almost obliterated.  Yet on reflection I saw that this
fact might be accounted for if that side of the card had been uppermost,
and thus more exposed.  But the mysterious words, "Seek, and you may
find," were written in a different ink, upon which the action of the
weather had had but little effect.  The exhortation stood out plainly
before my wondering eyes.  By whose hand had it been traced?  True, it
was not addressed personally to me, yet so ominous were the words that I
could not rid myself of the conviction that they were meant as an appeal
to me.

Why the wreath had been so carefully placed upon the grave, as if it
were a tribute from myself, was an inscrutable mystery; and the five
firmly-written words on the reverse of the card contained a mystic
meaning that I could not follow.

For a long time I remained there until night closed in and the wintry
mists gathered; then, detaching the card and placing it in my
pocket-book, I wended my way between the white, ghostly tombs towards
the cemetery gate, plunged deep in thought.

Suddenly, as I turned a corner sharply, I came face to face with an
ill-dressed man, who had apparently been lurking behind a great marble
monument.  In the gloom I could not distinguish his features, and as he
turned and walked in the opposite direction I concluded that he was a
grave-digger or gardener, so dismissed the incident from my mind.  Yet
half an hour later, while waiting on the platform of Woking Station, a
man who passed me beneath a lamp gave me a swift inquisitive look.  His
strange expression attracted my attention, and as I turned and watched
his retreating figure it seemed familiar.  Then I remembered.  It was
the same individual who had apparently been watching my movements beside
Sybil's grave.  Was he "shadowing" me?

Again I passed him, but he was wary, and bent feigning to eagerly scan a
time-table, thereby hiding his features.  Nevertheless, before the train
arrived I managed by means of a ruse to obtain an uninterrupted view of
his pale, sad-looking countenance.

At first I was prompted to approach him boldly and demand the reason he
watched my actions, but on reflection I became convinced that my
suspicions were groundless, and that after all he was merely a lonely
mourner like myself.  Perhaps he, too, had come from London to visit the
last resting-place of some dearly-loved friend; perhaps, even while I
viewed him with unjust suspicion, he had actually been sympathising with
me.  No, I felt certain that my apprehensions were absurd, and that the
man had no sinister motive.

Alone in my room some hours later I placed the card carefully in the
fender to dry, and sat smoking and thinking over the strangely ominous
words upon it.

I could not rid myself of the conviction that my well-beloved had been
the victim of foul play.  The words "Seek, and you may find" rang for
ever in my ears, yet in face of the declaration of the doctor I had no
proof that murder had actually been committed.  I could discover no
report of an inquest having been held, and as the police had declined to
assist me I knew that I must work single-handed and unaided.

Noticing that the card was now dry, I knocked the ashes from my pipe,
then slowly stooping, picked it up.  I turned it over to re-read the
mysterious words of entreaty, but a cry of dismay escaped me when next
instant I found the back of the card a perfect blank.  On that side not
a trace of writing remained.

The puzzling mystic sentence had faded.  The words had been wholly
obliterated as by some unseen hand.

The card fell from my nerveless fingers.

Presently it occurred to me that by again damping it the mysterious
entreaty might be rendered visible, and, taking the ewer that Saunders
had placed beside the tantalus stand, I dipped the precious document in
water.  For half an hour I alternately wetted it and carefully dried it
with my handkerchief, but all effort to restore the writing proved
unavailing.  The surface became rubbed by continued immersions, but the
words had utterly vanished, as if by magic.

Some hours afterwards I found myself doubting if I had ever actually
seen those strange words, and wondering whether after all they were not
a mere chimera of my disordered imagination.  So strangely ominous were
they that I could not help feeling a trifle uncertain that they had
actually existed, and I remember that as I sat brooding over my sorrow I
feared lest I had been the victim of one of those strange hallucinations
which I had heard were precursory of insanity.

Twice I visited the grave of my dead love, but inquiries of the
cemetery-keeper elicited no clue.  Times without number I felt prompted
to explain the strange circumstances to Jack Bethune, but always
hesitated, deeming silence the best course.  Whether this secrecy
regarding my heart-sorrow was beneficial to my interests, I cannot
say, but the occurrence of at least one incident caused me
self-congratulation that my friends were unaware of the strange drama
that wrecked my happiness and overshadowed my life.  It is, alas! true,
as Francois Coppee has said, "_Pour le melancolique, le soleil se couche
deja le matin_."

CHAPTER FIVE.

DORA'S ENGAGEMENT.

One night Jack dashed into my chambers and carried me off to a reception
at the house of John Thackwell, the well-known Lancashire millionaire,
at Hyde Park Gate.  He would hear no excuses, for Dora was to be there,
and he pointed out that I had not yet congratulated her upon her
engagement.  This fact alone induced me to accompany him, but, truth to
tell, I had only once before accepted Thackwell's hospitality, and on
that occasion had been terribly bored.

Thackwell had risen from a carding-hand to be sole proprietor of
extensive mills at Oldham, and a dozen other great spinning mills in the
neighbourhood of Manchester.  This Lancashire cotton-king was bluff,
honest, and unassuming, and still retained all the peculiarities of the
dialect of his youth.  He had tried to enter the gate of Society by the
Parliamentary pathway, but the electors of Bamborough had returned a
young sprig of the aristocracy by a narrow majority, notwithstanding the
fact that the cotton-king had built a fresh wing to one of the
hospitals, and presented the town with a brand new redbrick free
library.  In chagrin he had come to London, bought one of the finest
mansions overlooking Hyde Park, and was now endeavouring to enter the
charmed circle by entertaining all and sundry on a scale lavish even for
millionaires.

Although the bluff old bachelor was fond of placing his "J.P." after his
name, dropping his "h's," and referring on inopportune occasions to the
fact that when a lad he had assisted to build his great mill at Oldham
by carrying hods of mortar up a ladder, he was nevertheless popular
among a certain set.  Many scheming and impecunious mothers with titles
and marriageable daughters coveted his wealth, and it was no secret that
several of the men registered in "Debrett," who "looked in" at his
monthly functions, were indebted to him for substantial financial
assistance.

On arrival, we found the great magnificently-furnished rooms crowded
almost to suffocation by a brilliant but decidedly mixed throng.  Some
of the men who nodded to us were high-priests of Mammon, officers who
lounged in clubs without any visible means of subsistence, and idlers
about town; but there was also a fair sprinkling of those leisurely
well-dressed people who constitute what is known as London, and I
noticed at once that on the whole the guests were of a much better set
than when I had before partaken of the millionaire's hospitality.
Society resembles a bal masque, where the women never unmask themselves.

At the moment we were announced, Thackwell, a burly, florid-faced,
grey-bearded man in ill-fitting clothes, and with an enormous diamond
solitaire in the centre of his crumpled shirt-front, was talking loudly
with old Lady Stretton, who was congratulating him upon the completion
of the beautiful frescoes by the Italian artists he had employed.  As I
approached, I heard the millionaire reply:

"It's shaping gradely weel, but after all I get no more pleasure out of
life than when I wor a journeyman.  Yet a chap with any spirit likes to
get on, and when he has put his heart into a job, feels as if he would
rayther dee than be bet.  It's cost me a sight o' money, but it doesn't
pay to scamp."

Then, noticing me, he gripped my hand heartily, and to Bethune cried:

"Well, Jack, lad, how goes it?"

"Jack, lad," smiled as he made polite reply, but did not seem to greatly
admire this style of greeting, albeit the soldier-novelist knew the
cotton-king intimately.  Truly, old Thackwell was an incongruity in
Society.

Lady Stretton smiled pleasantly, and bowed to us as we pushed our way
forward among the crowd, and we were not long in discovering the
Honourable Dora, Jack's adored, comfortably ensconced in a cosy-corner,
chatting with three men we knew.

"Halloa, Ridgeway!" cried one, a club acquaintance.  Then dropping his
voice he added: "Unusual to find you in the cotton-palace, isn't it?"

"I've been here once before," I replied briefly, as, turning to Dora, I
sank into a low chair near her and began to chat.  Soon the others left,
and Jack and I were alone with her.  When I offered her my
congratulations, she clutched my arm quickly, whispering:

"Don't let anyone overhear you.  Remember, no announcement has yet been
made, and Ma is quite inexorable."

"I'm looking for it in the Morning Post each day," I laughed, while as
punishment she playfully tapped me with her ostrich-feather fan.

Though three years had elapsed since she had kissed the hand of her
Sovereign, Society had not spoiled her.  She was just as fresh,
light-hearted, and ingenuous as I remembered her in her hoyden days at
Blatherwycke, and as she sat talking with her lover and myself I saw how
thoroughly charming and brilliant she was.

Her fund of vivacity was, I knew, inexhaustible.  When she wished to do
honour to a melancholy occasion, her vivacity turned any slight sorrow
she had into hysterical weeping; when the occasion was joyful, it became
a torrent of frivolity that is delightful when poured forth by a happy
girl of twenty-two.  This evening the occasion was distinctly joyful.
Men had complimented her upon her dress, and she had a large sense of
success.

When she spoke to Jack there was a love-look in her dark brilliant eyes
that was unmistakable, and she was altogether handsome and fascinating.
Small-featured, hers was a delicately-moulded oval face with pointed
chin and pouting lips, while at the back of her well-poised head, her
maid had deftly coiled her wealth of dark-brown hair, wherein a diamond
aigrette glittered.  Her smart gown was of pale pink chine silk,
patterned in green and darker pink.  The coat bodice of darker pink
moire boasted diamond buttons, kilted frills of ivory lace, the sleeves
of kilted pale green chiffon, and a large bow of green chiffon with
draped ends to the waist over a jabot of ivory lace.

Many turned and looked at her as they passed.  The glow of excitement
and success burned brightly in her cheeks, and no one accused Dora of
using rouge.  Lady Stretton eyed us viciously once or twice;
nevertheless, Jack held in conversation the girl he loved, and they
laughed happily together.  He was telling us of an amusing incident that
had occurred during the exercise of the troopers on Hounslow Heath that
morning, and I was feeling myself de trop when Dora, looking up
suddenly, exclaimed:

"Why, here's Mabel!"

Turning quickly I found her elder sister, the Countess of Fyneshade, in
a marvellous creation in yellow, leaning over my chair.

"I've come across to talk to you, Mr Ridgeway," she exclaimed, smiling.
"I saw that Jack had quite monopolised Dora.  Their public love-making
is really becoming a scandal."  Then she seated herself in a dimly-lit
corner close by, and motioned me to a chair near her.

CHAPTER SIX.

THE COUNTESS OF FYNESHADE.

Three years Dora's senior, the Countess was dark, strikingly handsome,
an accomplished horsewoman, and accredited one of the smartest women in
Society.  Wedded to an elderly peer, she flirted outrageously, and
always had one or two younger cavaliers in her train.  Fyneshade was
scarcely ever seen with his wife, and many were the stories afloat
regarding the serious differences existing between them.  Outwardly,
however, the Countess was always gay, witty, and brilliant.  She
displayed exquisite taste, and men voted her "capital company."  It is
true that beside her pretty women seemed plain and middle-aged, and
well-dressed women looked dowdy, but since her marriage she had become
just a trifle too smart for my taste.

Dora was no doubt pleased that her sister had taken me off, so that she
might exchange confidences with Jack, but I confess I was not one of the
drivelling crowd that admired Fyneshade's wife.

When I had known her at Blatherwycke, in the days before her
presentation, she had been as frank and merry as her sister, but since
her union with the Earl she had sadly changed, acquiring an
artificiality and a penchant for flirtation, apparently living only to
be flattered and admired.  True, she moved in one of the most select
circles, and no really smart house-party was complete without her; but,
knowing her as intimately as I did, it was not surprising perhaps that I
had long ago arrived at the conclusion that her gaiety and recklessness
were feigned, and I felt some sorrow for her.

She was lounging back talking nonsense at the highest possible speed,
for ever exchanging greetings and salutations in the same breath, and as
I calmly contemplated her I wondered whether her domestic unhappiness
was the sole cause of the secret trouble which she strove to mask.

"Jack and Dora are really too absurd," she was saying, glancing over to
them.  "They are childishly fond of one another, but what the result
will be I dread to think."

"The result?  Why, marriage," I said laughing.

She shrugged her shoulders, causing the diamonds at her white throat to
sparkle, elevated her dark arched brows, and exclaimed:

"Of course Jack is popular, and has a fair income, and everybody likes
him, but Ma is absolutely determined that Dora shall marry a title."

"Which means a loveless union with an elderly husband, and no happiness
within her own home--eh?"

She looked at me inquiringly, and her lips quivered slightly.

"You are cruel, Stuart," she answered seriously.  "You mean that I am an
illustration of the victim of a loveless marriage."

I nodded.  Then I said: "We are such old acquaintances, Mabel, that I
feel myself permitted to speak candidly.  I have watched you for a long
time, and I know that you do not, you cannot love Fyneshade; you are
unhappily married, and all the pleasure of life lies beyond your own
home.  Gossips' tongues try to wound your reputation--well, that's not
my affair, but--"

"Gossips' tongues!" she echoed hoarsely.  "What care I for the lies of
scandalmongers?  True, men admire me, flatter me, and say pretty things
that please me, but surely I am mistress of my own actions?  If I chose
to flirt with my coachman it would be of no concern to anybody except
Fyneshade."

"You misconstrue my meaning," I said quietly.  "It was my intention to
ask you whether you would desire Dora to lead a life similar to yours,
or whether you would allow her to seek happiness with the man she
loves."

In hesitation she opened and closed her fan.  At last, in a harsh,
strained voice, quite unusual to her, she answered:

"Now that you have spoken so plainly, Stuart, I am compelled to admit
the truth," and with a sigh she continued: "You are quite right when you
say that mine was a loveless marriage, but even you cannot imagine how
bitter is my misery.  Once I was as happy as my sister there, and
believed that I could love a man as devotedly as she does Jack, but my
mother led me to believe that wealth brought love, and I sacrificed
myself to rescue her from her creditors.  The result has been three long
years of wretchedness and duplicity, of sorrow, misery, and despair.
Wealth and luxury are mine, it is true, and my diamonds are the envy of
the feminine half of London, but--but I have no happiness, no object in
life, no love.  I hate everything, and most of all I hate myself."

"And why do you hate yourself?"  I asked sympathetically.

"For reasons known only to myself," she answered evasively.  "Ah! you
little dream, Stuart, what a life mine is--at least, the life I am
leading now.  Another year of it will kill me, or drive me mad."

"Am I then to understand by your words that there is truth in this
gossip about Prince Starikoff and yourself at Royat?"  I asked
seriously.

She drew a deep breath and bit her lip.  I saw I had approached a
delicate subject.  Her words had aroused my suspicions that there was
some foundation for the scandal freely circulated regarding a fracas
that had taken place at the little French watering-place of Royat, a
month or so before, between Fyneshade and a Russian Prince named
Starikoff.

"You have no right, Stuart, to question me upon my private affairs," she
said frigidly.  "_Les calomnies n'ennuient jamais_.  I know the Prince,
it is true, but I had no intention that my words should convey the
meaning you choose to put upon them, and I have no wish that we should
pursue the subject further."

"I bow to your desire, of course," I said.  "My sole object in speaking
to you thus was to urge you to plead Jack's cause with your mother.  I
know well enough that Lord Wansford admires Dora, and that Lady Stretton
looks upon him with favour.  But surely his is an unenviable reputation.
If you were a man I could speak more plainly, but to you I can only say
that I would never allow a sister of mine to become his wife.  I would
rather see her marry an honest working man."

The Countess' seriousness suddenly vanished, and she laughed lightly as
she answered:

"I really believe that after all, dear old boy, you are in love with
Dora yourself.  I know you used to be rather fond of her in the old
days, and am inclined to think that in reality you are Jack's rival."

"No, not at all," I said.  "Bethune is my friend; so is Dora.  I merely
desire to see them happy, and if I can save your sister from a life of
wretchedness with Wansford, I shall feel that at least I have acted as
her friend."

"Rubbish!" the Countess exclaimed impatiently.  "Marriage nowadays is a
mere commercial transaction; very few people marry for love.  An
affectionate husband is apt to be jealous, and jealousy is decidedly
bourgeois.  Besides, Jack hasn't the means to keep Dora as she should be
kept.  It would mean a red-brick villa in a remote suburb with a couple
of servants, I suppose.  Why, she would leave him in six months."

"No," I said.  "Surely love and sufficient to provide comfort is better
than loathing and thirty thousand a year!  Scarcely a man in England or
America is better known than Jack Beaune."

"I was only aggravating you," she said with a tantalising smile a moment
later.  "I quite admit the force of your argument, but to argue is
useless.  Mother has set her mind upon Lord Wansford, and, although I
should like to see Dora marry Jack, I'm afraid there's but little chance
of the match--unless, of course, they throw over the maternal authority
altogether and--"

The words froze upon her lips.  With her eyes fixed beyond me, she
started suddenly and turned deathly pale, as if she had seen an
apparition.  Alarmed at her sudden change of manner, and fearing that
she was about to faint, I turned in my chair, and was just in time to
come face to face with a tall military-looking man who was sauntering by
with a fair, insipid-looking girl in pink upon his arm.

For an instant our eyes met.  It was a startling encounter.  We glared
at each other for one brief second, both open-mouthed in amazement.
Then, smiling cynically at Mabel, he hurried away, being lost next
second in the laughing, chattering crowd.

I had recognised the face instantly.  It was the mysterious individual
who had met me at Richmond and conducted me to Sybil!  My first impulse
was to spring up and dash after him, but, noticing the Countess was on
the point of fainting, I rushed across to Dora and borrowed her
smelling-salts.  These revived my companion, who fortunately had not
created a scene by losing consciousness, but the unexpected encounter
had evidently completely unnerved her, for she was trembling violently,
and in her eyes was a wild, haggard look, such as I had never before
witnessed.

"That man recognised you," I said a few moments later.  "Who is he?"

"What man?" she gasped with well-feigned surprise.  "I was not aware
that any man had noticed me."

"The fellow who passed with a fair girl in pink."

"I saw no girl in pink," she replied.  "The heat of this crowded room
upset me--it caused my faintness."  Then, noticing my expression of
doubt, she added, "You don't appear to believe me."

"I watched him smile at you," I answered calmly.

"He smiled!  Yes, he smiled at me!" she said hoarsely, as if to herself.
"He is the victor and I the vanquished.  He laughs because he wins,
but--" She stopped short without finishing the sentence, as if suddenly
recollecting my presence, and annoyed that she should have involuntarily
uttered these words.

"Tell me, Mabel, who he is," I inquired.  "I have met him before, and to
me he is a mystery."

"To me also he is a mystery," she said, with knit brows.  "If he is your
friend, take my advice and end your friendship speedily."

"But is he not your friend?"  I asked.

"I knew him--once," she answered in a low voice; adding quickly: "If I
remain here I shall faint.  Do take me to my carriage at once."

She rose unsteadily, bade good-night to her sister and Jack, then taking
my arm accompanied me downstairs to the great hall.

It was an entirely new phase of the mystery that the Countess of
Fyneshade should be acquainted with my strange, sinister-faced
conductor.  That she feared him was evident, for while there had been an
unmistakable look of taunting triumph in his face, she had flinched
beneath his gaze and nearly fainted.  Her declaration that she had
recognised no man at that moment, her strenuous efforts to remain calm,
and her subsequent admission that he was her enemy, all pointed to the
fact that she was well acquainted with him; and although, as we stood
while her carriage was being found, I asked her fully a dozen times to
disclose his name or something about him, she steadily refused.  It was
a secret that she seemed determined to preserve at all hazards.

When she grasped my hand in farewell she whispered, "Regard what I have
told you as a secret between friends.  I have been foolish, but I will
try to make amends.  Adieu!"  Then she stepped into her carriage, and I
went up into the drawing-room in search of the mysterious dark-visaged
guest, whose appearance had produced such a sudden, almost electric
effect upon her.  Through several rooms, the great conservatory, and the
corridors I searched, but could neither discover my strange companion on
that eventful night, nor the pale-faced girl in pink.  For fully half an
hour I wandered about, my eager eyes on the alert, but apparently they
had both disappeared on being recognised.

Did this strange individual fear to meet me face to face?

Though my mind was filled with memories of that fateful night when I had
been joined in matrimony to my divinity, I nevertheless chatted with
several women I knew, and at last found myself again with Dora, "Jack,
lad," being carried off by our energetic old host to be introduced to
the buxom daughter of some Lancashire worthy.

Dora pulled a wry face and smiled, but we talked gayly together until
the soldier-novelist returned.  Soon afterwards, however, old Lady
Stretton came up to us and carried off her daughter, while Jack shared
my cab as far as his chambers, where we parted.

CHAPTER SEVEN.

ON LIFE'S QUICKSANDS.

At home I cast myself in my chair and threw myself into an ocean of
memories.  I did not switch on the light, but mused on, gazing into the
darkness, now and then lit up by the ruddy flames as they shot forth
from the grate and cast great quivering shadows, like dancing spectres,
on the walls and ceiling.  Ever and anon a momentary flash would hover
about the antique silver ewer or glint along the old oak sideboard,
which, like a vague dark mass, filled up an angle in the room, or play
about the set of old china or the pair of antique vases on the
mantelshelf.  This prevailing gloom, penetrated by fitful gleams, was
soothing after the glare and glitter of what had irreverently been
termed the cotton-palace, and as the fickle light fell in spectral
relief about the gloom-hidden furniture, I mused on in coldest
pessimism.

As I sat thinking what I had lived through, scenes in many climes and
pictures of various cities rose before my mind, but one face alone stood
out boldly before me, the sweet countenance of the woman I had loved.

I recollected the strange events of that fateful night of grief and
terror, and reflected upon the recognition between the Countess and the
unknown man whom she had admitted was her enemy.  How suddenly and
completely he had disappeared!  Yet it was apparent that he held some
strange influence over Fyneshade's wife, for she feared to tell me his
name or disclose her secret.  Even though he had brushed past me and his
cold, glittering eyes had gazed into my face, he had again eluded me.
The expression of triumph upon his dark countenance was still plainly
before me, a look full of of portent and evil.

I met Dora several times, once riding in the Park, once at the theatre
with Lady Stretton, and once in Park Lane with her lover.  From her I
learnt that the Countess had been very unwell ever since that evening at
Thackwell's, and had not been out.  Her doctor had recommended complete
rest for a week, and suggested that she should afterwards go to the
Riviera for a change.

Was this extreme nervousness from which she was suffering the result of
the unexpected encounter with the man she held in dread?  I felt
inclined to call at Eaton Square, but doubted whether, if she were ill,
she would receive me.

One bright dry morning, about ten days later, I was strolling aimlessly
along Regent Street with Jack Bethune, who, knowing that Dora would be
out shopping, had come out to look for her.  About half-way along the
thoroughfare some unknown influence prompted me to halt before a
photographer's window and inspect a series of new pictures of
celebrities, when suddenly my eye fell upon an object which, placed in
the most prominent position in the centre of the window, caused me to
utter a cry of surprise.

Enclosed in a heavy frame of oxidised silver was a beautifully-finished
cabinet portrait of Sybil!

The frame, a double one, also contained the portrait of a young
pleasant-faced man of about twenty-five, who wore his moustache
carefully curled, and about whose features was a rather foreign
expression.  The picture of my dead love riveted my attention, and as I
stood gazing at it with my face glued to the glass, Jack chaffed me,
saying:

"What's the matter, old chap?  Who's the beauty?"  His flippant words
annoyed me.

"A friend," I snapped.  "Wait for me.  I'm going in to buy it."

"On the stage, I suppose?" he hazarded.  "Awfully good-looking, whoever
she is."

"No, she's not on the stage," I answered brusquely, leaving him and
entering the shop.

At my request the frame was brought out of the window, and in response
to my inquiries regarding it the manager referred to his books, an
operation which occupied considerable time.  Meanwhile Jack, who had
found Dora, had rushed in, announced his intention of calling on me in
the evening, and left.

At last the photographer's manager came to me, ledger in hand, saying:
"Both photographs were taken at the same time.  I remember quite
distinctly that the young lady accompanied the gentleman, and it was at
her expense and special request that they were framed together and
exhibited in our window.  The prints were taken hurriedly because the
gentleman was going abroad and wanted to take one with him."

"What name did they give?"

"Henniker."

"And the address?"  I demanded breathlessly.

The photographer consulted his book closely, and replied: "The prints
appear to have been sent to Miss Henniker, 79 Gloucester Square, Hyde
Park."

Upon my shirt cuff I scribbled the address, and having paid for both the
portraits, was about to leave, congratulating myself that at last I had
probably obtained a clue to the house to which I had been conducted,
when it suddenly occurred to me to ask the date when the photographs
were taken.

"They were taken on January 12th last," he replied.  "Last year, you
mean," I said.

"No, the present year.  This ledger was only commenced in January."

"What?"  I cried amazed.  "Were these portraits actually taken only six
weeks ago?  Impossible!  The lady has been dead fully three months."

"The originals of the portraits gave us sittings here on the date I have
mentioned," he said, handing me the packet courteously, putting aside
the frame, and leaving me in order to attend to another customer.

The announcement was incredible.  It staggered belief.  Emerging from
the shop, I jumped into a cab and gave the man the address in Gloucester
Square.  Then, as we drove along, I took out the photograph of my
well-beloved and examined it for a long time closely.  Yes, there was no
mistake about her identity.  The same sweet, well-remembered face, with
its clear, trusting eyes looked out upon me, the same half-sad
expression that had so puzzled me.  I raised the cold, polished card to
my lips and reverently kissed it.  Presently the cab drew up suddenly,
and I found myself before a wide portico extending across the pavement
to the curb, in front of a rather gloomy, solid-looking mansion.
Alighting, I crossed to the door, and as I did so counted the steps.
There were three, the same number that I remembered ascending on that
eventful night I had raised my hand to ring the visitors' bell when
suddenly a voice behind me uttered my name.  It sounded familiar, and I
looked round hastily.  As I turned, the Countess of Fyneshade, warmly
clad in smart sealskin coat and neat seal toque trimmed with sable,
confronted me.  Standing upon the pavement beneath the wide gloomy
portico, she was smiling amusedly at the sudden start I had given on
hearing my name.

"I declare you've turned quite pale, Stuart," she cried with that gay,
irresponsible air and high-pitched voice habitual to her.  "You gave
such a jump when I spoke that one would think you had been detected in
the act of committing a burglary, or some other crime equally dreadful."

"I really beg your pardon," I exclaimed quickly, descending the steps
and raising my hat.  "I confess I didn't notice you."  Then, for the
first time, I observed standing a few yards from her a slim,
well-dressed young man in long dark overcoat and silk hat.

"Gilbert," she said, turning to him, "you've not met Mr Ridgeway
before, I believe.  Allow me to introduce you--Mr Gilbert Sternroyd,
Mr Stuart Ridgeway, one of my oldest friends."

We uttered mutual conventionalities, but an instant later, when my eyes
met his, the words froze upon my lips.  The Countess's companion was the
original of the photograph that had been exhibited at my dead love's
request in the same frame as her own.

Of what words I uttered I have no remembrance.  Bewildered by this
strange and unexpected encounter, on the very threshold of the
mysterious house that for months I had been striving in vain to
discover, I felt my senses whirl.  Only by dint of summoning all my
self-possession I preserved a calm demeanour.  That Mabel should have
admitted acquaintance with the strange and rather shady person who had
met me at Richmond was curious enough, but her friendship with Sybil's
whilom companion was a fact even more incomprehensible.

An hour ago I had discovered the picture of this man called Sternroyd,
yet here he stood before me in the flesh, accompanied by the one person
of my acquaintance who knew that nameless man who had inveigled me to
this house of shadows.  Heedless of Mabel's amusing gossip, I surveyed
her companion's face calmly, satisfying myself that every feature agreed
with the counterfeit presentment I carried in my pocket.  The portrait
was strikingly accurate, even his curiously-shaped scarf-pin in the form
of a pair of crossed daggers with diamond hilts being shown in the
picture.  He was tall, fair, of fresh complexion, aged about
twenty-four, with grey eyes rather deeply set, and a scanty moustache a
little ragged.  Lithe, active, and upright, his bearing was distinctly
athletic, although his speech was a trifle languid and affected.  What,
I wondered, had been the nature of his relations with Sybil?  The
horrifying thought flashed across my mind that he might have been her
lover, but next second I scorned such a suggestion, convinced that she
had been devoted to me alone.

Yet how could I reconcile the statement of the photographer that the
portrait had only been taken a few weeks with my own personal
investigation that she at that time was dead?  Had I not, alas! kissed
her cold brow and chafed her thin dead hands, hoping to bring back to
them the glow of life?  Had I not raised her gloved arm only to find it
stiffening in death?  The remembrance of that fateful night chilled my
blood.

"Who are you calling upon, Stuart?" the Countess asked, her light words
bringing me at last back to consciousness of my surroundings.

"Upon--upon friends," I stammered.

"Friends!  Well, they can't live here," she observed incredulously.

"They do," I answered.  "This is number seventy-nine."

"True, but the place is empty."  She laughed.

I glanced at the doorway, and my heart sank within me when I noticed
that the unwhitened stones were littered with drifting straws and scraps
of paper, the flotsam and jetsam of the street, that the glass of the
wide fanlight was thickly encrusted with dirt, and that the board fixed
over the door, announcing that the "imposing mansion" was to let, had,
judging from its begrimed, blistered, and weather-stained appearance,
been in that position several years.

To reassure myself, I glanced at my cuff and inquired of the cabman
whether the house was not Number 79 Gloucester Square.

"Quite right, sir," answered the plethoric driver.  "This 'ere's Radnor
Place, but these 'ouses fronts into the square.  This row 'ain't got no
entrances there, but the front doors are at the back here.  I've known
these 'ouses ever since I was a nipper.  This 'ere one's been to let
this last four years.  A French gentleman lived 'ere before."

"I fancy you've mistaken the number," drawled the Countess's companion,
putting up his single eye-glass to survey the place more minutely.  "So
confoundedly easy to make mistakes, don't yer know," and he laughed, as
if amused at his witticism.

I resented this apparent hilarity, and with difficulty restrained some
hot words that rose quickly to my lips.  It had occurred to me that if I
preserved silence and gave no sign, I might perhaps discover the
identity of this foppish young man.  The mansion, silent, dismal, and
deserted, was drab-painted and of unusually imposing proportions.  The
drawing-room on the first floor was evidently of vast extent, running
the whole width of the house and commanding in front a wide view across
the square, while at the rear it opened upon a fine domed conservatory
constructed over the great portico.

"If you can't find your friends, Stuart, I'll give you a lift homeward.
My carriage is at the corner," Mabel said, evidently anxious to get
away.  "I'm going down to the Reform, to fetch Fyneshade."

In this invitation I saw an opportunity of obtaining some further
knowledge of her mysterious companion, and, after settling with my
cabman, lost no time in embracing it.  A few moments later the
Countess's smart victoria drew up, and entering, I took the place beside
her, while Sternroyd seated himself opposite.

As we drove around Southwick Crescent in the direction of Park Lane,
Mabel, in the course of conversation, let drop the fact that Gilbert, a
protege of her husband's, was spending a few days at Eaton Square prior
to returning to his studies at Oxford.

"Yes," he drawled.  "A fellow appreciates town after poring over musty
volumes, as I unfortunately am compelled to do.  Beastly bore!"

Then he told me he was at Balliol--my old college--and our conversation
afterwards turned mainly upon dons and duns.

"I always have such jolly times with Mab--Lady Fyneshade--each time I
come to town," he said.  "Whenever I go back I feel absolutely
miserable."

"Yet memories of the past are sometimes painful," I observed, smiling.
At the same time I glanced at Mabel, knowing that the strange
circumstances in which we had parted at the cotton-king's reception must
still be fresh in her mind.  Darting at me a swift look of inquiry, she
picked at the buttons of her pearl-grey glove, laughed lightly, and
exclaimed flippantly:

"We have no memories when we arrive at years of discretion.  Idle memory
wastes time and other things.  The moments as they drop must disappear
and be simply forgotten as a child forgets.  Nowadays one lives only for
the future, and lets the past be buried."

"And if the past refuses to be interred?"  I asked.

She started visibly, and a frown of annoyance rested for a brief moment
upon her handsome countenance.  I fancied, too, that her companion
looked askance at me, but not waiting for either to reply, I said:

"I myself find it difficult to altogether forget.  Some incidents in
each of our lives are indelibly engraven upon our minds, and there are
some tender memories that in our hours of melancholy we love to linger
over and brood upon.  At such times we find solace in solitude and sup
on vain regrets."

"That's only when we have been in love," the Countess laughed, patting
the large pug beside her.  "Gilbert has never been in love; have you,
Gilbert?"

"Never," he answered, grinning.

"With one exception," she observed with mock gravity.  "Yourself, you
mean?" he drawled, twirling his flaxen moustache and smiling.

"Certainly not," she cried with feigned indignation.  "How dare you
attempt to be complimentary at my expense?  No, if I remember aright
there was one woman who in your eyes was a veritable angel, who--"

"Ah!" he said gravely, in a tone quite natural and unaffected.  "Yes,
you are right.  There was one woman."  And he sighed as if painful
memories oppressed him.

One woman!  Did he allude to Sybil?  If so, it was apparent that Mabel
must be well aware of his acquaintance with the woman I had loved.
Silent I sat while the conversation quickly turned from grave to gay, as
it always did when the Countess chattered.

Suddenly, as we were passing into Piccadilly, it became impressed
vividly upon my mind that they were hiding some secret from me.  Two
prominent facts aroused within me suspicion that their conversation was
being carried on in order to mislead me.  The first was, that although I
had asked them what had brought them to Radnor Place neither of them had
given any satisfactory reply; the second was, that although Sternroyd
must have been associated in some mysterious way with that silent house
to which the photographs had been sent, he had made no allusion whatever
to it, nor did he make any observation when he noticed my dismay at
discovering it untenanted.

It was evident some secret understanding existed between them, and the
more I reflected upon it the more probable did it appear that they had
actually called at this house, and had only just left it when I arrived.
In order to ascertain my object in visiting it, and to learn the extent
of my knowledge regarding it, the Countess had greeted me with her usual
gaiety, and was now carrying me triumphantly back.  I had, of course, no
proof; nevertheless, I had an intuition, strange and distinct, that in
close concert with my dead love's whilom friend, Sternroyd, she was
playing a deep mysterious game with considerable tact and consummate
ingenuity.  But she was a most remarkable woman.  Always brilliant and
fascinating, always sparkling with wit and bubbling with humour, she was
thoroughly unconventional in every respect.  Society had long ago ceased
to express surprise at any of her eccentric or impetuous actions.  She
held licence from Mother Grundy to act as, she pleased, for was she not
admitted on all hands to be "the smartest woman in London?"  She had a
watchful confidence not only in a multitude of men, but in a multitude
of things.

She dropped me outside the New Lyric Club, close to Piccadilly Circus,
not, however, before she had expressed regret at Dora's unhappiness.

"What has occurred?"  I asked concernedly.

"Oh! there has been a terrible upset at home about Jack Bethune," she
answered.  "I've done my level best with Ma, but she absolutely forbids
Jack to pay his addresses to Dora."

"Because, as you have already told me, she wants her to marry a man she
can never love," I said gravely.

"Yes," she said hurriedly.  "But here's your club.  Captain Bethune is
certain to tell you all about it.  Goodbye!  I shall be at Lady
Hillingdon's to-morrow night, then we'll resume our chat."

"Good-bye!"  I said, alighting and grasping her hand; then as the
commissionaire swung the club door open her companion raised his hat and
the carriage was driven rapidly away.

CHAPTER EIGHT.

SECRET UNDERSTANDING.

Idle memory shortens life, or shortens the sense of life, by linking the
immediate past clingingly to the present.  In this may be found one of
the reasons for the length of time in our juvenile days and the brevity
of the time that succeeds.  The child forgets, habitually, gayly, and
constantly.  Would that I had never acquired the habit of recall!

Jack, in a well-worn velvet lounge coat, was seated at his writing-table
absorbed in his work when I entered, a couple of hours after I had left
Mabel.  His small den, lined with books, contained but little furniture
beyond the big oak writing-table in the window, a heavy old-fashioned
horse-hair couch, and several easy chairs.  Littered with newspapers,
books, magazines, and those minor worries of an author's life,
press-cuttings, the apartment was nevertheless snug, the bright fire and
the green-shaded reading lamp giving it a cosy appearance.

"Halloa, old chap!" he cried, throwing down his pen gayly and rising to
grip my hand.  "So glad you've looked in.  Have a weed?" and as we
seated ourselves before the fire he pushed the box towards me.

"I met Mabel to-day," I said at last, after we had been chatting and
smoking for some minutes.

"Did you?  Well?  What's the latest fad?  Teas for poor children,
bicycling, golf, old silver, or what?"

"She's much concerned regarding Dora," I answered.  "And she has hinted
that there are strained relations between Dora's mother and yourself.
I've come to hear all about it."

He hesitated, tugging thoughtfully at his moustache.

"There's not very much to tell," he replied, rather bitterly.  "The old
lady won't hear of our marriage.  When I mentioned it yesterday she went
absolutely purple with rage, and forbade me to enter her house again, or
hold any further communication with the woman I love."

"Which you will disregard, eh?  Have you seen Dora to-day?"

"No.  I've been waiting at home all day expecting a note, but none has
arrived," he said disappointedly; adding, "Yet, after all, there is no
disguising the fact, old chap, that I really haven't enough money to
marry a girl like Dora, and perhaps the sooner I recognise the truth and
give up all hope of marriage, the better for us both."

"No, no.  Don't take such a gloomy view, Jack," I said sympathetically.
"Dora loves you, doesn't she?"

"Yes.  You know well enough that I absolutely adore her," he answered
with deep earnestness.

I had known long ago that his avowed intention had been never to marry.
Until he became noted as a novelist his periods of life in town had been
few and fleeting.  Not that he felt awkward or ill at ease in society;
his name was a passport, while his well-bred ease always insured him a
flattering welcome; but for the most part Society had no charm for him.
Sometimes, when among his most intimate friends, he would give the reins
to his high spirits, and then, gayest of the gay, he would have smoothed
the brow of Remorse itself.  Private theatricals, dinner-parties,
dances, or tennis-matches, he was head and front of everything.  Then
suddenly he would receive orders to remove with his regiment to another
town, and good-bye to all frivolity--he was a cavalry officer again, and
no engagement had power to keep him.

If he ever made any impression on the fair sex, he had remained
unscathed himself until a few months ago, and the eagerness with which
he obeyed each call to duty had been proof of the unfettered state of
his heart.  His ardent love for his profession was, he used to be fond
of declaring, incompatible with domestic life.  "The first requisite for
a good officer," he had told me dozens of times, "is absolute freedom
from all ties;" but now, having entered the profession of letters and
having discovered the power of the pen, he had paid Dora Stretton a
chivalrous attention that had developed into ardent and passionate
devotion.  She was his goddess; he worshipped at her shrine.

"Well, having received the maternal conge, what do you intend doing?"  I
inquired after a long silence.

"What can I do?" he asked despondently, gazing sadly into the fire.  "I
love her with all my heart and soul, as you are aware, yet what can I
do?"

"Why, marry her all the same," cried a musical voice gayly, and as we
both jumped up, startled, we were surprised to find Dora herself
standing in the doorway, laughing at our discomfiture.

"You!" cried Jack, gladly rushing forward and grasping her hand.  "How
did you get in?"

"I forbade your woman to announce me, because I wanted to surprise you,"
she laughed.  "But I--I had no idea that Mr Ridgeway was with you.  She
ought to have told me," she added, blushing.

"I'm surely not such a formidable person, am I?"  I asked.

"Well, no," she answered.  Then looking round the little book-lined room
rather timidly, she said, "I don't know that I ought to have come here,
but I wanted to see Jack.  I'm supposed to be at Mabel's, dining.  I
drove there in the brougham, and then came along here in a cab."

"Won't you sit down?" her lover asked.  "Now you are here we must try
and make you as cosy as possible, providing you'll excuse the
Bohemianism of my quarters."

"Why apologise, Jack?" she asked, as he unclasped her cape, revealing
her handsome dinner-dress cut a trifle decollete.  "If Ma will not let
us meet openly, then we must see each other surreptitiously."

"Well spoken," I exclaimed, laughing, and when she had seated herself in
Jack's arm chair, with her little satin shoes placed coquettishly upon
the fender, she told us how she had ingeniously arranged with her sister
to return to Eaton Square in a cab, and then drive home in the carriage,
as if she had been spending the whole evening with Mabel.

We laughed, and as I sat gazing at her, memories of Sybil, the woman I
had loved and lost, crowded upon me.  Even though Lady Stretton's
consent was withheld, they were nevertheless happy in each other's love.
The love-look upon their faces told me how intense was the passion
between them, and I envied my friend his happiness.  Dora was indeed as
charming to the sight as eyes could desire.  Her bare shoulders, well
set-off by her black bespangled dress trimmed with pale-green chiffon,
were a trifle narrow, but that lent her a childish grace, and it was the
one fault that could be found with her; all the rest was perfect, and
the greatest charm of all that, unlike her sister, she was totally
unconscious of her loveliness.

In the warm atmosphere of their love and confidence their characters had
unfolded, and they had learned to know one another perfectly.  Jack,
although he held a world-wide reputation for keen analysis of character
on paper, had been amazed at all the delicate susceptibilities cherished
in Dora's heart, at the freshness and innocent pleasures of which it was
capable, and not a little at the vein of malicious fun he had wholly
unsuspected.

I sat silent while they chatted, reflecting upon the strange discovery
of the photograph of my lost love, and the more remarkable encounter
that afternoon, I had called on Jack for the purpose of making a clean
breast of the whole affair, but Dora's arrival precluded me from so
doing.  My sorrow, however, lost none of its bitterness by keeping, and
I resolved to return to him on the morrow, show him the portraits, and
ask his advice.

Jack had been admiring her gown, and the conversation had turned upon
the evergreen topic of dress.  But she spoke with the air of a
philosopher rather than of a Society girl.

"Everyday life needs all the romance that can be crowded into it," she
said.  "Dress, in my opinion, is a duty to ourselves and to others--is a
piece of altruism unsoured by sacrifice, a joy so long as it may last to
wearer and beholder, doing good openly nor blushing to find itself
famous."

"Your view is certainly correct," I said, smiling at her sedate little
speech.  "You are a pretty woman, and without committing yourself to
affectation or eccentricity, you may choose the mode that shall best
become you, whether born of Worth's imagination or founded on some
picturesque tradition.  You may be severe or splendid, avenante or
rococo, with equal impunity."

"Really you are awfully complimentary, Mr Ridgeway," she answered, with
just the faintest blush of modesty.  "You are such a flatterer that one
never knows whether you are in earnest."

"I'm quite in earnest, I assure you," I said.  "Your dresses always suit
you admirably.  On any other woman they would look dowdy."

"I quite endorse Stuart's opinion," said Jack with enthusiasm.  "In
writing it is often my misfortune to be compelled to describe feminine
habiliments, therefore I've tried to study them a little.  It seems to
me that the ball-dress may be festal, the dinner-dress majestic, and the
outdoor frock combine the virtues of both; but romance must always
centre in the tea-gown.  Before the advent of the tea-gown, the indoor
state of woman was innocent of comfort and beggared of poetry."

"Yes," she replied, clasping her hands behind her head and looking up at
him with her soft brown eyes, "the tea-gown is always ingenuous in
sentiment and not wanting in charm, even though its hues may be odious
or sickly.  Once it was looked upon with disfavour as a garment too
graceful to be respectable, and stern parents, I believe, forbade its
use.  But time, taste, and the sense of fitness have put Puritanism to
shame, and the useful tea-gown; bears witness now to our proficiency in
the long-lost art of living."

Her reference to stern parents caused me to refer to what Mabel had told
me regarding the attitude of her mother.

"Ah!  I remember that you were discussing it when I interrupted you as I
came in," she said frankly.  "Ma wants me to make a rich marriage, it is
true, but I love Jack, and I'm determined not to have any other man.
I've seen enough of the tragedy of rich unions."

"I know you are true to me, Dora," my old friend said, grasping her
hand, and looking into her eyes as he stood beside her chair.  "I've
waited all day expecting a note from you, for I felt confident you would
write or see me after last night's scene."

"Don't refer to that again," she said quickly, putting up her little
hand as if to arrest his words.  "It was too cruel of Ma to speak as she
did.  She tried to wound my feelings, because I told her I would marry
the man of my own choice.  She wants me to be smart, with a penchant for
flirtation, like Mabel," and her lips quivered with emotion.

"If you marry me, darling," he said, with an utter disregard for my
presence, "I will strive to provide you with fitting supplies, but if
you were poorer than Mabel you would at least love your husband dearly
and be his idol."

"I do not doubt it, Jack," she answered, her love-darting eyes fixed
earnestly upon his.  "I love no man but yourself."

"Then nothing shall part us, dearest--nothing," he declared.

I sat gazing into the fire, thinking of some excuse whereby I might
leave them alone.  The memories of my own love were too vivid, and this
passionate scene was to me painful.  Alas! all that remained of the
ashes of my own romance was the photograph in my pocket.  I had not torn
aside the veil of mystery that had surrounded Sybil; I did not even know
her true name.

"Stuart, old fellow, you will excuse us speaking in this manner," my
friend said apologetically.  "If you had ever loved you would know the
depths of our feelings in this hour when estrangement seems probable."

If I had ever loved!  The thought was galling.  Was he taunting me?

"Ill go," I stammered, stifling with difficulty a sob that very nearly
escaped me.  "Though your exchange of confidences may be made before me,
your old friend, without fear of their betrayal, it is best that you
should be alone," and stretching forth my hand I bade Dora adieu.

"No, don't go, Mr Ridgeway," she exclaimed concernedly.  "As children,
you and I often played at being lovers.  When I was a child you were
like a big brother, and I confess I then admired you.  I regard you now
as Jack's firm and sincerest friend--as my own friend."

"I am gratified by your esteem," I said; "that you both may be happy is
my heartfelt desire.  If I can be of any assistance to Jack or to
yourself, command me."

"We--we may want assistance," she said.  Then she paused, plainly
stopped by the beating of her heart, for her breast rose and fell
convulsively as tears forced themselves up to her long eyelashes.

Bethune was leaning over her.  The light of those brown eyes, seen
through the bright brimming tears, affected him in a manner strange and
touching.

"If we ask Stuart to help us I know he will do all in his power," he
assured her.  "Ours must be a secret marriage if her ladyship will not
consent.  Do you trust me?"

"Implicitly, Jack.  I trust you because--because I love you."

"Then after all I have no need to be jealous of Gilbert Sternroyd," the
soldier-novelist said smiling.

"Gilbert Sternroyd!"  I cried amazed.  "Who is Gilbert Sternroyd?"

"Dora will answer your question," my friend replied.

I looked eagerly at her, and her eyes met mine with a look full of
surprise and mild reproach.

"He admires me, and because he is wealthy, Mabel has suggested that a
marriage is possible," she answered.

"He admires you!"  I echoed.  "Who is he? what is he?"

With some surprise she regarded me, perhaps alarmed at the fierce manner
in which I had demanded an explanation.

"I really know very little except that his income is fabulously large,
and that he is regarded by many mothers as a substantial matrimonial
prize," she replied, adding, "I really don't know his--well, I--"

"Suppose we go into the next room," Jack interposed, evidently to hide
Dora's embarrassment.  "There is a piano there, although I'm afraid
you'll find it sadly out of tune."

"A piano!  I really can't play to-night."

"Oh, but you must," I said laughing.  "Remember, you came here to spend
the evening, and the penalty for coming to a man's chambers is to bring
brightness to his life."

We had both risen.  With seeming reluctance she also rose, and together
we went into an adjoining room, well furnished with a few handsome
pieces of old oak, a quantity of bric-a-brac, and many strange arms and
curios which their owner had picked up in out-of-the-way corners of the
world.

The apartment was half dining-room, half drawing-room, with dark
upholstered chairs, the walls papered a dull red, the effect of the
whole being so severe that the shaded lamps seemed to cast no radiance
around, but to die out like water drunk up by sand.

Jack, noticing the inconvenient position of the piano, dragged it toward
the fire, then bringing a music-stool, he placed a fire-screen behind
it, and falling back into an easy-chair, said, "Now we are ready to
listen."

She blushed again, overcome with proof of his solicitude, but sat down
with murmured thanks; then, after a moment's pause, she turned to me,
exclaiming:

"It is not enough for you to say you like music.  What is your favourite
style?  Classical or modern?--grave or gay?"

"Whatever you please," I answered.

She thought for a moment, reviewing in her mind the works she knew, then
began a nocturne by Chopin.  Then another and another, passing on
abruptly to the celebrated impromptu whose tempo agitato and vehement
bursts suddenly tone down into a movement of exquisite softness.

After the first few bars, Jack, rising, had gone to lean over the end of
the piano, attracted alike by the charm of the caressing touch and by
the strangeness of the music that pleased his ears.  From where he stood
his eyes wandered over her, from the brown of her hair, softened still
more by the shaded light of the candles, to her bust, so white, frail,
and elegant.  Even to me it seemed that what she was playing was as much
her own as her loveliness, and I fell into a reverie until her rich
contralto voice suddenly broke forth in Tosti's song:

"If in your heart a corner lies that has no place for me.  You do not
love me as I deem that love should ever be."

Then, when she had concluded and risen, and I had thanked her, Jack
suddenly stooped over her tiny hand and kissed it, as he said in a low,
tender voice, "Thanks to the little fingers that have charmed me."

Chancing to glance at my watch, I found it was already past eight
o'clock.  Enchanted by our fair visitor, neither of us had thought of
dinner, but a private room at Verrey's was quickly suggested by Jack,
and we went thither in a cab without waiting to dress and there
concluded an enjoyable evening, Dora's lover afterward escorting her
back to Eaton Square, while I strolled home.

Alone in my chambers that night I carefully examined the portraits of
Sybil and Gilbert Sternroyd, but the mystery surrounding them grew
hourly more puzzling.  That Jack knew something of Sternroyd was
evident, therefore I resolved to call on him on the morrow, show him the
pictures, and seek his advice.

CHAPTER NINE.

WHO IS HER LADYSHIP?

When I sought Jack on the following morning I was informed by the
hall-porter that he had left a message for any callers that he had been
compelled to go to Barracks unexpectedly, and would be back from
Hounslow in the evening.  Disappointed, I went into the City and had a
long talk with my father at the bank on the subject of finances, then
finished the day gossiping in the club and strolling in the Park.  At
night, remembering the Countess' promise to be at Lady Hillingdon's
dance, I went there, but, in a marvellous gown of old rose, she was the
centre of a gay crowd of admirers, and I could obtain but few words with
her.  I wanted to learn more of Sternroyd, but alas!  I saw that
anything like a private conversation was out of the question, and was
compelled to content myself with waltzing and chatting with various
women I knew, for the most part gay, brainless butterflies.

In my state of mind the glare and glitter were nauseating and the music
jarred upon my nerves, therefore soon after one o'clock I left and drove
to Jack's chambers, anxious to seek the truth.

The outer door was shut, for the hall-porter had retired, but, as the
key of my own chambers had on many previous occasions opened it, I
quickly gained admittance.  Mounting the great staircase to the door of
his flat, I rang twice, but Mrs Horton did not reside there and my
summons was not answered.  Jack had evidently not returned, therefore
the thought suggested itself to enter with my key and leave a note, as I
had done many times before.  Acting upon this suggestion, I went in,
groping my way down the small passage to his den, where the glimmering
light told me that his reading-lamp was burning; but just on the
threshold of the room my feet struck something in the darkness, and,
grasping wildly at air, I fell forward on my face, unable to save
myself.

I knew it was the prostrate body of a man, and a wild cry escaped me
when next second I raised myself and found my hands smeared with
something damp and sticky.

"Jack!  Speak, old fellow, speak!"  I cried, but in the darkness there
was neither sound nor movement.

Rushing into the study, I snatched up the light, and as its soft
radiance fell upon the blanched features I made a discovery so startling
that the lamp nearly fell from my trembling hand.

The man lying there was not Jack Bethune, as I had believed, but Gilbert
Sternroyd.  He had been shot through the heart!

Placing the lamp upon the floor, I knelt and thrust my hand eagerly
beneath his shirt-front, but there was no movement of the heart.  His
hands were cold; he must have been dead several hours.

His coat and vest were disarranged, as if the murderer had hurriedly
searched his victim's pockets, and on the mat outside the bedroom door
lay the shining weapon.  I recognised the army revolver as Jack's.

Horrified, I took up the lamp again and stood gazing into the white
drawn face of the mysterious friend of the Lady Fyneshade, utterly at a
loss how to act.  My first impulse was to raise an alarm, but I saw that
such a course must imperil my friend.  I could not realise the terrible
truth, yet all the evidence pointed to the person who had perpetrated
the crime.  Had he not, only on the previous night, admitted himself
jealous of this young man?

With uneven steps and scarce daring to tread lest I should create a
noise and betray my presence, I returned to the study.  As I entered I
noticed for the first time that some of the drawers in the writing-table
were open, and that many letters were strewn about, evidently tossed
aside in rapid search.  There was a strong smell of burnt paper in the
room, and as I bent toward the grate I found it full of dead, black
tinder.

The murderer, before his flight, had destroyed a number of documents.
Examining the drawers, I discovered to my surprise that they had been
forced.  If Jack had destroyed any implicating evidence would he not
have used his keys?  Some of the papers in the grate were not quite
consumed, and, picking them up, I examined the fragments under the lamp.
They were portions of letters in feminine handwriting, the
characteristics of which were unfamiliar to me.

I gathered them up, together with a whole letter that was lying at the
side of the table, evidently overlooked, and thrust them into my pocket.
In presence of the murdered man the darkness seemed filled with a
spectral horror, and even the noises I myself created startled me.  The
reading-lamp gave scarcely sufficient light to illuminate the corners of
the room, and I knew not whether the murderer might still be lurking
there.  Appalled by the ghastly discovery and at the sight of blood, I
knew that if discovered there I might be charged with the crime,
therefore, after a final glance at the dead man's face, I extinguished
the light and stole softly out, hurrying down the stairs and gaining the
street in fear lest any of the other tenants might encounter me.

But all was quiet.  I escaped unobserved.

On arrival at my own chambers I cleansed my hands of Sternroyd's blood,
and entering my sitting-room turned up the gas.  My eyes caught sight of
my own face in the mirror.  It was pale and haggard as that of the
victim of the secret tragedy.

Having gulped down a stiff glass of brandy to steady my nerves, I
proceeded in breathless eagerness to examine the fragments of private
papers which effort had been made to destroy.

The first I inspected were apparently portions of a legal document.  In
a firm clerk's hand were the words "...and the said John Arthur Bethune
on this fourteenth day of..." upon one, and on the other "...undertake
to preserve this secret knowledge until after my death..."

The other scraps were parts of letters, but the words I deciphered
conveyed to me no meaning.  They contained no endearing terms, and were
evidently not billets-doux.  One of them contained the passage "...to
give credence to these absurd rumours which I assure you are totally
unfounded..." and another, "...I look to you as my friend to preserve
the reputation of a defenceless woman..."  The name "Markwick" occurred
several times, and once it was "that vile, despicable coward, Markwick."

"That vile, despicable coward, Markwick," I repeated aloud.  I reflected
deeply, but remembered no one of that name.  I could find no signature
upon these scraps of yellow, half-charred paper, neither was there
anything to show when they had been written.  On both sides of each
portion there were words, but very few of them had context, and
consequently Conveyed no knowledge of their purport.

One of the scraps, however, held my eyes in fascination.  It bore my own
name.  The writing was a hand I knew, and the words decipherable were
"...desire that your friend Stuart Ridgeway should remain in ignorance
of the fact.  He is your friend and mine, therefore I..."

"Great Heaven!"  I cried aloud, "the writing is Sybil's!"  I recognised
the hand.  It was the same in which she had written me the cruel note of
farewell in Luchon, and this had been in Jack's possession!  Even these
half-charred words brought back to me memories of those few days when we
were happy in each other's love.

At last I took up the letter that had been overlooked by the murderer in
his mad haste.  The envelope bore a superscription in a fine regular
Italian hand and showed that it had been sent to Hounslow Barracks, the
post-mark being dated three days before.  Taking out the sheet of
note-paper in eager expectancy, I opened it and read the following
words--"Tuesday--Dear Sir,--Her ladyship wishes me to write and say that
she will arrive at Feltham Station by the train leaving Waterloo at 3:08
on Friday afternoon.  She desires to see you on a most important matter,
and hopes you will make the meeting apparently accidental, in case there
may be at the station any person known to her.  Her ladyship also urges
that you should keep this appointment in order to avoid some
unpleasantness that appears imminent.  If, however, you cannot meet her,
kindly telegraph to me personally.--Yours truly, Annie Ashcombe."

Thrice I read the letter through and stood holding it between my fingers
silent and puzzled.  Who, I wondered, was "her ladyship?"  Was it old
Lady Stretton, or was it Mabel?  The writer was evidently a lady's maid,
and, as she signed her name, it seemed to me that she might be traced by
means of an ingeniously-worded advertisement.  But this would
necessarily occupy time.

I had never heard of any maid named Ashcombe.  Old Lady Stretton's maid,
Frewen, I had known for years, while Mabel's was a French girl, named
Celestine, all vivacity, frills, and ribbons.  Feltham was, I
remembered, a small old-world village about a mile and a half from
Hounslow Barracks, on the line between Twickenham and Staines, a quiet,
unfrequented place whereat few trains stopped.  On several occasions
when I had visited Jack in Barracks, I had returned to town from there,
and its choice as a place of meeting, combined with the words of Jack's
correspondent, showed that "her ladyship," whoever she was, took every
precaution to conceal her movements.  What could be the important matter
upon which the fair patrician desired to consult him; of what nature the
unpleasantness that seemed imminent?  Again, if he could not keep the
appointment he was urged to communicate not with her ladyship, but with
her maid.  Was Jack Bethune this woman's lover?  Was he playing a double
game?

I stifled these thoughts instantly.  No!  Although it was apparent that
he was aware of my love for Sybil and was her confidant, I would not
believe ill of him until I held absolute proof.

"Proof," I murmured aloud.  "What greater proof can I have than the
evidence of the fearful tragedy I have discovered?"

I flung myself into my chair and thought over the strange discovery of a
portion of Sybil's letter.  Apparently a secret had existed between
them.

From whatever standpoint I viewed the crime and its mysterious
surroundings I could not rid myself of the terrible suspicion that Jack
Bethune, the popular officer and celebrated writer, had fired the fatal
shot.  If he were innocent why had he hurriedly destroyed his papers?

He had admitted himself jealous of Gilbert Sternroyd, and had betrayed
his hatred of the young man by his refusal to explain who he was and his
eagerness to avoid discussion regarding him.  The words he used recurred
to me, and I now detected in his manner how intensely bitter was his
feeling.

Again and again I examined the scattered fragments that lay upon my
table, but from them could gather no further information.  The message
from the mysterious lady seemed to contain some important clue, yet its
true significance was unintelligible.  Somehow I felt confident that the
meeting at Feltham had some direct connection with the tragedy.  Mabel
was Sternroyd's friend, for while driving me from Gloucester Square he
had inadvertently referred to her as "Mab;" therefore, after all, it
seemed highly probable that she was the mysterious woman who spoke in
such veiled terms of "unpleasantness."

The fire died down and went out, the clock upon the mantelshelf chimed
hour after hour on its musical bell, but I heeded not time.  I was
wondering who was Markwick, the "vile, despicable coward," and dreading
the result of the discovery of the crime.  I feared to telegraph to
Hounslow to ascertain Jack's whereabouts, lest by so doing I should
betray my knowledge of the tragedy.  I held in my possession what might
perhaps prove to be evidence of a most important character, evidence
that might convict him of a foul murder, and I was determined to keep it
secret, at least for the present, and by that means assist my friend,
even if he were guilty, to escape.

In a few hours, I told myself, Mrs Horton and her daughter would go
there to do the cleaning, and would find the body.  Then the police
would raise a hue and cry, and by noon the gloating gutter journals
would be full of "Another West-End Mystery."

I felt that by preserving my secret I was shielding an assassin, perhaps
assisting him to escape, but, dumbfounded at the overwhelming evidence
of Jack's guilt, I sat shuddering, awe-stricken, inanimate.

I dropped off to sleep in my chair and did not awake until Saunders
entered, and I found it was morning.  My breakfast went away untouched,
but I scanned the paper and was gratified at my inability to find
mention of the ghastly discovery.  Neither telegram nor letter came from
Jack, though I waited at home until afternoon.  Oppressed by my terrible
secret, inactivity maddened me and I went out, feeling that I wanted air
or the companionship of friends.  After a short walk I turned into the
club and ascended to the smoking-room, panelled in black oak, on the
first floor, where I expected to find someone with whom to gossip and
pass the time.  When I entered I found several city men had grouped
themselves around the fire, and, lounging back in their chairs, were
discussing some deep scheme of company-promoting, in which I had no
interest.  I sat down to scribble a note, caring not for their Stock
Exchange jargon, until suddenly the name of Fyneshade caused me to prick
up my ears.

"Bah! he'd become one of our directors at once if we made it worth his
while," an elderly man observed, sitting with hat tilted back and a long
cigar between his lips.

"I doubt it," another voice exclaimed.  "His name carries weight, but
he's not in want of fees."

"If he isn't at this moment he very soon will be," the other answered
knowingly.  "He's now got scarcely a fiver to bless himself with."

"I don't believe that," the others cried in chorus.

"My dear fellows," answered the elder man.  "His pretty wife has
absolutely ruined him.  Another year, and he'll be in the Bankruptcy
Court."

"Well, she's cutting a pretty brilliant figure just now," exclaimed one.
"I saw her at the Gaiety the other night and she looked simply
magnificent.  She had some young fellow in her box, a fair,
insipid-looking youth.  Nobody knew who he was."

"The latest lover, I suppose," laughed the man who had announced the
Earl's impending bankruptcy.  "If report speaks true she's rather
addicted to flirtation."

"No doubt," observed one of his companions.  "But we're discussing
business just now, not scandal.  The virtues or shortcomings of the
Countess don't concern us; what we want is to get Fyneshade on our
board.  Can it be done?"

"Yes," promptly answered the man who had first spoken.  "I'll manage
it."

"If you do, then we need have no fear as to the future of the Great
Watersmeet Mining and Exploration Company.  The Earl's name carries
weight, and, bankrupt or solvent, his influence will be extremely
beneficial to us."

"Very well.  I'll call on him to-morrow," the man said, blowing a cloud
of smoke upward.  Then their conversation quickly turned upon some
technicalities regarding the property they had acquired somewhere in
Mashona-land.

Their suggestion that Mabel had already caused her husband financial
difficulties was new to me.  If true, it was certainly a startling fact,
and as I sat making pretence of continuing my letter, I could not help
feeling that there might be a good deal of truth in what I had
overheard.  That Mabel was recklessly extravagant; that her
entertainments were among the most popular in London; and that her smart
circle included many of the Royalties and the wealthiest, were facts
known to everybody.  She was a leader of fashion, and her bills at
Worth's and Redfern's since her marriage must have been as large as
those of an empress.  Toward women she was unmerciful.  With her,
dowdiness was a crime, and the wearing of a hat or gown a little out of
date an unforgivable offence against Society's laws.  She had lately
been living at such a terrific rate that her extravagance had become
notorious; but I had always believed the rent-roll of Fyneshade to be
enormous, and such an eventuality as the Bankruptcy Court had never once
entered my mind.  This man, a Jew company promoter, apparently had good
grounds for his assertion, and his words caused me to ponder deeply, as
I descended the stairs and went out with the intention to call at Lady
Stretton's, and ascertain whether Dora had heard from her lover.

Who was this mysterious Sternroyd who had admired Mabel and who now lay
dead, shot by an unknown hand?  What connection could he have had with
my adored one, or with that grim untenanted mansion in Gloucester
Square?  I took the portrait from my pocket and in the fading light
glanced at it as I slowly walked.  Yes, there was no mistaking the
features, nor the oddly-shaped scarf-pin.  It was undoubtedly the same
man.

CHAPTER TEN.

TATTLE AND TRAGEDY.

When half-an-hour later I sat drinking tea _en famille_ with Lady
Stretton and her daughter, I confess I felt ill at ease, notwithstanding
their light and pleasant gossip.

"I really don't think you are looking very well, Stuart," the old lady
was saying, as the footman handed her her cup.  "Town life does not
agree with you, perhaps."

"No," I said.  "I always prefer the country."

"So do I.  If it were not for dear Dora's sake, I think I should live at
Blatherwycke altogether."

"You would very soon tire of it, mother," her daughter laughed.  "You
know very well when we are down there you are always wanting to see your
friends in town."  Lady Stretton looked always stiff and formal in her
rich satins.  Nearly sixty, with a profusion of white hair and a rather
red face, she brimmed over with corpulence, and still preserved some
remnant of the beauty that was half sunken beneath her grossness.  To me
she was always complimentary and caressing.  But she said "My dear" to
everybody, spoke in a high-pitched voice, and played the child with that
doleful languor characteristic of corpulent persons.  She loved secrets,
made everything a matter of confidence, talked gossip, and was fond of
speaking in one's ear.  She pitied others; pitied herself; she bewailed
her misfortunes and her physical ills.  Nothing could have been more
pathetic than her constant attacks of indigestion.  She took a very real
interest in the career of her friends, for it was part of her
completeness to be the centre of a set of successful people.

"We are going to Blatherwycke the day after to-morrow," she said.  "The
hunting this season has been excellent.  Have you been out yet?"

"Not once," I replied.  "I haven't been home this season, but I mean to
go down in a week or so and have a run with the hounds."

"Oh, that will be awfully jolly," Dora exclaimed, gleefully.  "We're
having a house-party, so we shall hope to see something of you."

"Thanks," I said.  "Memories of our many runs are distinctly pleasant,
so I hope we may be companions again."

"Of course.  Why, the papers always speak of you as one of the familiar
figures in the field," she said.  "The hounds are out three days a week
now, and foxes are awfully plentiful about Rockingham Forest and away
beyond Apethorpe."

"Let's hope we shall obtain a few brushes," I said, and then our
conversation was mainly upon past recollections of rapid runs, of the
artfulness displayed by various reynards, and of spills, amusing and
serious.

No woman who rode with the Fitzwilliam hounds sat her horse so
magnificently as Dora Stretton.  Even my old friend William Raven, of
King's Cliffe, for many years one of the most prominent figures in
hunting circles in North Northamptonshire, but now of venerable age,
white-bearded, and unable to ride to the meet; a thorough hunting man of
the old school, who, when the hounds pass his window, rises from his
warm armchair, thrusts his hands deep into his pockets, and sighs
wistfully because he is not longer agile enough to take part in the
sport that he loves; an outspoken critic of all things pertaining to the
hunt, and never tired of comparing the splendid riding of twenty years
ago with the sloppy form now displayed by foppish youngsters who come
down from town and hunt "because it is the thing, you know," was
compelled to acknowledge the grace, daring, and firmness always
displayed by Lady Stretton's youngest daughter.  Her pace was usually a
hot one; she took dangerous leaps with a recklessness that was
astounding, thought nothing of fatigue, and was almost invariably in at
the death.

The prospect of mad, exhilarating gallops with her was to me very
pleasant, for I was passionately fond of the saddle.  But alas! my
anticipations were chilled by the knowledge of the fearful secret in my
inner consciousness.

Dora sat in her low chair, bright, radiant, and happy.  Her hair was a
trifle disarranged, but it is the prettiest hair that sheds the most
hairpins.  What if I told her the terrible nature of my discovery, of
the awful suspicion that the man who was her hero was a murderer, and
had fled?

But I chatted to them about mutual acquaintances, discussed Jack's
latest book, "The Siren of Strelitz," which the reviewers were declaring
to be the novel of the season, and talked of art at the Grosvenor and
the New, without scarcely knowing what words I uttered or what opinion I
endorsed.  The mention of "The Siren of Strelitz" caused Lady Stretton
some little annoyance, and I could not help feeling amused.  What, I
wondered, would this haughty woman of the world say when in a few brief
hours, the papers raised a hue and cry for the popular soldier-novelist,
in whose room a man had been found shot dead?

Even as I sat calmly gossiping over the tea-cups the police wires might
already be at work and the detectives lounging at the ports of departure
aroused from their cat-like lethargy to stand with keen eye, watching
every person embarking on Channel and other steamers.  I had no interest
in her ladyship's idle talk; I was only waiting for her to go out of the
room so that I might ask a hurried question of her daughter.

At last, the corpulent old lady rose with an effort and a rustling of
silk, and left us.

"Well," I said, rising and taking up a position before the fire, "have
you seen anything of Jack to-day?"

"No," she replied, a faint blush suffusing her cheeks.  "I was in the
Row this morning and looked out for him, but he was not there.  I expect
he is still at Hounslow."

"Did he tell you he was going to Hounslow?"  I asked.  "Yes, he sent me
a note yesterday morning, saying that one of his brother-officers had
been compelled to obtain leave unexpectedly, and that he was going down
to do duty for him."

"For how long?"

"He said he would be back again last night," and placing her hand in her
pocket she drew forth the letter, and read it to reassure herself that
she had made no mistake.

"I want to see him on a most important matter; if he does not return I
shall have to run down to Hounslow," I said.  Then, as if suddenly
remembering, I added, "Oh, by the way, do you know any maid named
Ashcombe--Annie Ashcombe?"

"Ashcombe," she repeated, puzzled.  "Why do you want to know the names
of servant-maids?  What interest have you in her?"

"I--er--well, I want to find her, that's all.  If I can discover her
she'll hear something to her advantage, as the solicitors'
advertisements say."

"I'm sorry I can't help the young person to her good fortune," she
laughed.  "However, I'll bear the name in mind, and if I come across her
I won't fail to let you know."

"Thanks," I said.  "It is most important that I should find her as
quickly as possible, so you might render me a real service if you would
make inquiries among your friends."

"Of course, I'll do anything to oblige you," she said frankly.
"Ashcombe--I shall remember the name."

"And you will let me know as soon as you hear from Jack?"

"Certainly," she answered.  "I'll send you word at once."

At that moment our tete-a-tete was interrupted by the reappearance of
Lady Stretton, who said:

"Dora and I are going to the Lyceum first night.  If you'll join us in
our box we shall be charmed."

"Thanks very much," I replied.  "I shall be delighted."  I had no
especial desire to witness an Irving play, but in my gloomy frame of
mind any diversion seemed better than the loneliness of my own chambers.

"Very well.  Run home and dress, return and dine with us, and we will go
along together.  We shall meet Mr Gilbert Sternroyd there.  Do you know
him?" her ladyship asked.

The mention of the name caused me to start, and I felt that a sudden
pallor overspread my face.

"Mabel introduced me," I stammered.

"Charming young fellow!  So wealthy, too," exclaimed Lady Stretton, a
remark which was received with a little grimace by Dora, at that moment
standing behind her mother.

"I know very little of him," I said in a strained voice.  "I only met
him once."

Then I left, went home, dressed and returned.  Dinner was served with
that old-fashioned stateliness that characterised everything in the
Stretton household, and I was thoroughly glad when dessert was reached.
Afterward, we drove to the theatre, and found in several boxes and
scattered over the stalls many mutual acquaintances.  Several men and
women came to us and exchanged greetings, and more than once her
ladyship observed:

"I wonder why Mr Sternroyd does not come, Dora?  He promised me
faithfully."

"I don't know, mother," answered her daughter unconcernedly.  "I suppose
he is better engaged at his club, or elsewhere."

"Well, it is decidedly ungentlemanly not to have sent a line of regret,"
the old lady observed, sniffing angrily.

Did they perceive by my silence and my face that their talk was
torturing me?  Did they expect a dead man to seat himself in the vacant
chair awaiting him?  These constant references to the victim of the
tragedy unnerved me.  What would they think if they knew that the young
man who had promised to escort them was now lying stiff and cold?

The play proceeded, the calls were taken, the curtain fell, and when the
usual bouquets had been presented to Miss Terry, the great actor
addressed a few well-chosen words to his admirers.  All was brilliant,
everyone was enthusiastic; the play was voted an unqualified success.
Yet I, the most lethargic, conscience-stricken wretch amid that gay,
well-dressed, bejewelled throng, was oppressed by the knowledge of an
awful secret, for upon me had been forced by Dora's words increased
suspicion that one of the most popular writers of the day was an
assassin.

Outside, under the portico, the vendors of "extra specials" were
shouting the latest news, varying their strident cries with the
monotonous question, "Keb or kerridge?"  In eagerness I listened to
their words and glanced at the contents-bills--pink, green, amber, and
white--thrust under my nose, but in a few moments reassured myself that
the tragedy still remained undiscovered.

The Stretton carriage quickly drew up, and as the ladies were handed in
I thanked them for a pleasant evening and bade them good-night, not,
however, before I had managed to whisper to Dora, "If you hear from
Jack, telegraph at once to my chambers."

"You don't seem quite yourself to-night," she had replied.  "I believe
something has happened."

"No," I stammered, "nothing unusual has occurred."  Then I excused
myself by adding, "The heat of the theatre has been rather oppressive,
that's all."

The night air refreshed me, and as I strolled along the Strand westward
I suddenly overtook Thackwell, the cotton-king, also returning from a
theatre.  His greeting was as usual, bluff and hearty, and we had supper
together at the National Liberal Club, of which institution he was one
of the shining lights.

I congratulated him upon the success of his recent reception, but he
smiled rather sadly, saying:

"Ay, ay, lad, it's only because aw've got a bit o' brass.  Creawn a foo,
an' folk'll goo deawn o' their knees to him.  Society's all very well,
if it's nobbut to see heaw th' nobs carry'n on, but a man is a sight
more happy as a journeyman than when he can reckon in millions.  What
saysta?"

"But money makes the world hum," I said.

"Aw'll tell thee what, lad, for me it hums the wrong tune," he said, and
upon his frank, wrinkled face there settled a look of despondency.
"It's true the fine folk flatter me and teem warm wayter deawn my back,
makkin' it itch where it has no' been bitten, but my gowd is mixed wi'
brass and pain wi' pleasure.  Awm a lonely mun, and aw find cross looks
among smiles and friendship wi' a bit o' suspicion o' booath sides."

I described minutely the strange man I had encountered in his rooms on
the night of the reception, and his girlish companion in pink, hoping to
obtain some clue to their identity, but although he was unusually,
confidential, his mind at this point seemed a perfect blank.

"Aw never know who's invited," he declared smiling.  "They're all
welcome, all the folk, but they come to meet each other, and doant care
a bobbin for their host.  Half of 'em come out o' sheer curiosity to see
my place, because they've 'eard from th' papers heaw mich it cost me.
Hawe, lad, awm baffled in every effort to improve my social standing;
while in business--in business everything aw touch turns to gowd."

When we entered the great smoking-room a little later I felt for my
match-box--a small gold one with my initials engraved upon it, that I
wore suspended from my watch-chain--but it was gone.  I valued it
highly, as it was a present from my mother, and was much concerned
regarding its loss.  On reflection I could not remember having used it
that day, and suddenly the possibility occurred to me that I might have
dropped it when I had stumbled and fallen over the body of Gilbert
Sternroyd.  If it were found beside the corpse, I might be suspected of
the crime.  I had no clear proof that I had dropped it there, but an
impression of dread gripped my heart.  There is an infinite distance
between our fancies, however precise they may be, and the least bit of
reality.  The discovery of the crime had stirred my being to its utmost
depths, and summoned up tragic pictures before my eyes.  Even after I
had read the letter, and the half-burnt writing in Sybil's hand
repeatedly, I had cherished a secret hope that I was mistaken, that some
slight proof would arise and dispel suspicions that I denounced as
senseless, perhaps because I had a foreknowledge of the dreadful duty
which must devolve upon me when the body was discovered.

Excusing myself by lame apologies, I left the millionaire and went
straight to my chambers.

"Saunders," I cried as I entered, "you handed me my watch and chain this
morning.  Did you notice anything remarkable about it?"

"Yes, sir," my man answered promptly.  "I noticed your match-box was not
there."

"Then, confound it, I've lost it--I must have lost it last night," I
gasped.  "I remember distinctly using it once or twice during the
evening."

"I thought you had taken it off and put it in your vest pocket," he
said.  "You do sometimes."

"Yes," I answered.  "But look here, the swivel has snapped from the
box," and taking off the chain I handed it to him to examine.

On my sitting-room table lay a note, and as I took it up I saw the
envelope bore a coronet and the wyvern's head couped at the neck vert,
the crest of the Strettons.

"That came by boy-messenger a quarter of an hour ago, sir," Saunders
said, as I eagerly tore it open.

It was a hurried scribble from Dora in pencil, and read as follows:
"Dear Mr Ridgeway,--I have found on my return a letter from Jack.  I
must have your advice at once, and will therefore call at your chambers
at eleven o'clock to-morrow.  The letter was posted at Dover this
morning.--Yours sincerely, Dora Stretton."

"I shall want nothing more, Saunders," I said, as calmly as I could, and
the man wishing me good-night withdrew.

"Posted from Dover!"  I echoed.  "Then he has decamped.  Jack is a
murderer!"

I sank into my chair and re-read Dora's note carefully.  What should my
course be if he were guilty?  I put this question to myself plainly, and
perceived all the horror of the situation.  Yes, I must see Dora and
ascertain the nature of this letter, but how could I bear to tell her
the truth, to strike her such a cruel blow, bright, fragile being that
she was?  The first glimpse of the double prospect of misery and scandal
which the future offered, if my suspicions proved just, was too terrible
for endurance, and I summoned all my strength of will to shut out these
gloomy anticipations.  I dreaded to meet Dora; I was already shrinking
from the pain that my words must inflict upon her.

What if detectives found my match-box beside the corpse?  Might I not be
suspected?  Might they not dog my footsteps and arrest me on suspicion?
If the slightest suspicion attached itself to me, I should be precluded
entirely from assisting my friend.

It was clear that I had lost it on that fatal night, for I now
remembered distinctly that as I fell my stomach struck heavily against
some hard substance.  I could indeed still feel the bruise.  That my
lost property was in Jack's chambers was evident.  If I intended to
clear myself and assist him I should be obliged to act upon a
resolution.

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

THE LOCKED ROOM.

At first I dared not look the exigency in the face.  For fully an hour I
paced the room in nervous agitation, but the imperative necessity of
recovering the box impressed itself every moment more deeply upon me.
The crime was, as yet, still undiscovered; therefore, might I not enter,
search, find the piece of evidence that would link me with the terrible
tragedy, and return in the same manner as on the previous night?
Undoubtedly the body was lying silent and ghastly where I left it, and
if only I could get in and out of the flat unobserved, I should be free
to assist the wretched man who was my friend, and who had held in his
possession the extraordinary letter from Sybil.

The mantel-clock told me it was nearly three.  At that hour there would
be little likelihood of meeting anyone on the staircases, therefore I
decided to go.

Taking one of the candles from the piano and a box of matches, I put on
my overcoat and walked quickly along the deserted streets, avoiding the
gaze of each constable I met, and eagerly scanning every dark nook as I
went forward to the entrance of the imposing pile of flats in which
Bethune resided.

My heart beat quickly as I placed my key in the lock and gained
admittance.  Then, scarce daring to breathe, I sped swiftly upstairs,
and carefully unlocking the door of the flat, entered and closed it
again.  For a moment I stood breathless.  A piano sounded somewhere
overhead.  The darkness unnerved me, for I knew I was in the presence of
the ghastly dead.

With trembling hands I drew forth the candle and lit it, afterwards
creeping silently forward toward the room in the doorway of which I had
discovered the body of the man whose association with my dead love was
so mysterious.  By death his lips were sealed.

A loose board creaked ominously, and as I passed down the small narrow
hall a long grandfather's clock vibrated and startled me.  In those
moments of terror every sound became magnified, and I could hear the
rapid thumping of my own heart.

Dreading to gaze upon the corpse, I held my breath and at last peered
round the corner to the study door, but judge my amazement when I
realised that the body was no longer there!

The crime had been discovered!

I dashed forward into the little book-lined den.  It presented the same
appearance as when I had left it.  Nothing had been disturbed.  Only the
body had been removed, and all trace of the tragedy obliterated.

I bent to examine more closely the spot where the victim had fallen,
when suddenly the sound of someone moving appalled me.  There was a
stealthy footstep in the hall.

Instantly I blew out the candle.  But too late!  I had been discovered.

In the impenetrable darkness the footsteps approached with soft
stealthiness.  Drawing myself up I placed my back resolutely against the
wall, prepared to defend myself.  The body of young Gilbert Sternroyd
had been secretly removed, but I had been detected in the act of
examining the spot, and had therefore betrayed knowledge of the crime.
The murderer might commit a second crime to hide the first.  The
suggestion held me motionless.

Unarmed, I stood helpless against the unseen assassin, with only my
clenched fist uplifted to ward off a blow.

"Who are you?" cried a voice.  "Speak! or by Heaven, I'll fire!"  The
voice was that of my friend Bethune.

"Jack!"  I gasped.  "Don't you know my voice--Stuart?"

"You--old chap!" he exclaimed laughing.  "What on earth do you mean by
frightening a fellow out of his senses at this hour?  I thought you were
one of--" and he hesitated.  "I thought you were a burglar," he added
quickly.

Then in a few moments we entered the study, and I saw how pale and
haggard he looked.  His coat was off, and his sleeves were rolled up as
if he had been at work.  There were dark rings about his bright fevered
eyes, and his complexion seemed a yellow clay-colour.  In his trembling
hand gleamed a deadly weapon--the revolver that had caused the death of
Mabel's mysterious friend.

Startled by this sudden discovery I stood staring at him, unable to
utter a word.  He laid the revolver upon the table, and gazed at me with
eyes in which was an expression of abject terror.  In those brief
moments it flashed through my mind that some violent exertion had caused
the beads of perspiration that stood upon his cold, pale brow; that the
body might be still lying in the flat, and that I had entered just at a
time when he was in the act of concealing it Guilt was betrayed upon his
face; he appeared suspicious and utterly unnerved.

Yet he was my friend, and although I could scarce believe he had stained
his hands with blood, I nevertheless resolved to ascertain the truth at
all hazards.  For a single instant I felt inclined to turn and leave him
abruptly, but I quickly realised the necessity of not betraying
suspicion if I desired to penetrate the mystery.

We had discovered each other in compromising attitudes.  Neither of us
dared to speak.

"Well," I said at last, after a desperate effort to remain calm, "how is
it that you bring out a revolver to welcome your visitors--eh?"

"Visitors!" he echoed bitterly.  "At this hour?  You let yourself in
with your own key?  Ah!  I had never thought of that," he gasped, as if
the sudden recollection that my key fitted his door terrified him.

"Yes.  I have been out late to-night, and not having seen or heard
anything of you for a couple of days, I dropped in just to see if you
were alive."

"Why shouldn't I be alive?" he snapped.  "I've been down to barracks.
Thatcher got leave on account of his father's illness, and I had to do
duty for him.  I wrote to Dora."

"I had no line from you.  That's why I looked you up," I said, as
carelessly as I could.

"Then all I've got to say, Stuart, is that you might have waited until
morning, and not creep in and frighten a fellow just as he's going to
roost."

"I had no intention of frightening you.  In fact, I did not know you
were at home."

"Then why did you come in?" he asked, with emphasis.  I at once saw I
had inadvertently made a declaration that might arouse his suspicions,
and sought to modify it.  "Well," I said, "I came in order to leave a
note for you.  In the passage I heard something fall, and was looking
for it.  I am leaving town early in the morning."

"You are?" he cried eagerly.  "Where are you going?"

"To Wadenhoe, for some hunting.  My object in leaving the note was to
ask you to run down and stay with us for a week or so.  My people will
be awfully glad to see you, and as Dora and her mother are going to
entertain a house-party at Blatherwycke, you won't be lonely."

"Well, thanks, old fellow, it's exceedingly good of you," he answered,
evidently reassured.  "I should be charmed to have a few runs with the
Fitzwilliam, for I've most pleasant recollections of three weeks last
season in your country.  When shall I come?"

"Next Saturday."

"Very well.  Give my compliments to your mother, and thank her for her
kind invitation.  I'll be down on Saturday."

"But why were you so scared when you discovered me?"  I asked, leaning
on the edge of the table and regarding him with feigned amusement.

"I don't think I was very scared, was I?" he asked, with a hollow laugh.
"There's a bit of a scandal in the regiment that has upset me, and I
don't feel quite myself just now.  A night's rest, you know, will set me
right.  Besides, I've been writing a good deal lately and it always
takes the nerve out of me."

He drew forth the spirit stand and poured out some whisky.  At first I
could not bear the thought of drinking with a murderer, but again it was
impressed upon my mind that, to successfully solve the mystery of the
murder of Gilbert Sternroyd, I must act with discretion and arouse no
suspicion that I had actually discovered the body.  Therefore we drank
together, while Jack's demeanour quickly became calmer.  It was apparent
that he had no idea of my previous visit, and it was also equally
manifest that the light-hearted gaiety succeeding his intense
nervousness was forced and quite unnatural.  He was striving to hide
from me his terrible secret!

He flung himself into a chair while I stood upon the hearthrug, and our
conversation drifted mainly upon our proposed runs with the hounds.  I
had not expected to find him at home nor to meet him with a revolver in
his hand, but now I had made the discovery I understood all its
importance.  Yet his demeanour had in a few minutes so entirely changed;
he seemed so calm and reassured that I relapsed into discouraging
uncertainty.

Nevertheless, if he came to Wadenhoe I should have better opportunity of
observing him, and of ascertaining whether the murdered man was an
acquaintance.  I could then test him by making observations and watching
his face; I could worm from him his secret.  I had trusted this man as
my best friend, but now that I was half convinced he was an assassin I
was filled with a feeling of revulsion, and was determined that Dora's
life should never be wrecked by an alliance with one whose hands were
stained with blood.

Lying back in the American rocking-chair, with his hands clasped behind
his head, he was laughing tightly as he told me an amusing story he had
heard at mess that night, entirely forgetting the strange circumstances
of our meeting, and having apparently overlooked the extreme lameness of
my excuses.  His appearance had been so unexpected that I had been quite
unprepared to answer his questions and my invitation had been given
entirely without previous contemplation.  But I knew I had acted wisely,
and that I had entirely allayed any suspicions I had aroused.

Then I thought of my missing match-box.  He had no doubt not yet
discovered it, and if he found it subsequently he would believe I had
lost it during my present visit.  Good!  I was in the position of a
detective holding an important clue, upon which I might work, and either
clear or convict him.

Presently, when I announced my intention to depart, he rose, exclaiming
with a laugh:

"When you call next time, old chap, you might ring, and not enter with
your key.  It was a narrow squeak that I didn't wing you."

"Are you so fond of shooting at people?"  I asked meaningly.

"Shooting!  What do you mean?" he asked with a sickly smile.  "As a
soldier I have to practice with the revolver, of course."

"But not upon your visitors, I hope," I said laughing as we were passing
along the narrow hall.

We were outside the door of the dining-room, which, being ajar, showed
there was no light inside, when suddenly there came from the room a
distinct sound.

"Halloa!"  I cried gayly.  "Who have you got in there?  Let's have a
look."

I placed my hand upon the door to push it open, but with an agile
movement he sprang towards me and stood resolutely with his back to the
door, deathly pale in alarm.

"No, Stuart," he gasped.  "You must not enter."

"Why?  Who's your friend?  You arouse my curiosity," I said.

"I forbid you to enter," he replied firmly, standing with his arms
akimbo and brows knit in determination.

"What's the meaning of this confounded secrecy?"  I asked seriously.

"It means--well, it means that I have a visitor who has called to see me
privately."

"Male or female?"

"I refuse to answer any such question regarding my personal affairs," he
replied brusquely.

"Come, don't humbug.  Let me go in and ascertain who it is," I said,
trying to push him aside and enter.  But within a second he shut the
door, locked it, and removed the key, saying:

"I absolutely decline to allow you to enter that room, Stuart.  Indeed,
your actions this evening are so strange and extraordinary that I'm
almost inclined to think you are not accountable for them."

"Then you refuse absolutely to tell me who your mysterious visitor is?"

"I do.  It is neither my desire nor intention to compromise any person
who endeavours to do me a service, even to gratify this idle curiosity
of my best friend."

Such caustic words, uttered in a tone of bitter resentment, showed
plainly that he was resolved to preserve the secret of his visitor's
identity.

Was it some person who was assisting him to get rid of the hideous
evidence of the crime?

His hands trembled perceptibly as he stood before the locked door, and
there had returned to his ashen face that wild, haggard expression of
intense fear so noticeable when he had first discovered me.

"You speak of the person being compromised if discovered by me," I said.
"Then I presume your visitor is a woman?"

"You are at liberty to entertain whatever conviction you please.  I
shall, however, tell you nothing."

"You refuse?"

"Yes, I refuse."

"Even though I should tell Dora that I found, in the middle of the
night, a mysterious woman in your rooms?"

"Even then I shall refuse to compromise my visitor," he answered, with
firmness that completely astounded me.

"Very well," I said abruptly.  "Good-night.  Remember your appointment,
and come down to Wadenhoe next Saturday."

"Good-night.  Next time we meet I hope you will not be quite so
inquisitive," he replied, as he closed the door after me and I descended
the stairs.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

IN STRICT CONFIDENCE.

My first impulse was to remain outside and watch for any person who
might emerge, but I knew that his front windows commanded a wide view of
the street and he would soon detect me; and again, if anyone did come
out, I should not know whether they came from one of the other flats in
the same building.  Slowly I walked round to my chambers, contemplating
the best course to pursue, and at length came to the conclusion that a
midnight vigil would be useless, for it might possibly further arouse my
friend's suspicions and so thwart my own efforts.

His refusal to disclose the identity of his guest and his firm
determination to keep the visit a secret, convinced me more than ever
that by his hand Gilbert Sternroyd had fallen, and that he was
endeavouring to get rid of the evidence of his crime.  That night I
slept but little, and in the morning, remembering Dora's appointment, I
resolved to run round and see him before she called.  It was my
intention to make pretence that I had a conviction that his visitor was
a woman, and wished to give him a chance of explaining to me.  If he
again refused, then I would impart my suspicions to the woman who loved
him.  I had no desire to cause her pain, but felt it best that she
should know the truth.  Sooner or later the blow must fall, and I knew
alas! that it would crush her.

Just before ten I stood again outside Bethune's door and rang.  My
summons was answered by Mrs Horton, who in reply to my question whether
Captain Bethune was in, answered:

"No, sir.  The Captain hasn't been home these three days, sir.  He's at
barracks, I believe."

"For three days!"  I echoed.  It was evident that he had returned and
again left unknown to this woman.  Then I asked whether she had been
there every day.

"No sir.  I've been down in Hampshire, sir, to bury my poor niece.  The
Captain said he would be away, so my daughter went with me."

In answer to further questions she told me that she had returned to work
at eight that morning, and that the Captain was still absent.  It was
evident, too, that she had no suspicion of the tragedy, every trace of
which had now been carefully removed.

Making an excuse that I wanted to obtain a paper from the rack in the
dining-room, I entered and looked around.  Nothing had apparently been
disturbed, but on the mantel-shelf I saw a plain gold signet ring that
had evidently been overlooked.  Taking it up, I examined it, and found
engraved on the inside the initials "G.S."  It was evidently a ring from
the dead man's finger.

I put it down, scrutinised the room carefully, looked in the grate, but
saw nothing, then taking up a paper, went out, wishing Mrs Horton
"good-day."

Punctually at the hour appointed, Saunders ushered Dora into my room.
She was elegantly dressed in a smart tailor-made gown of dove-grey cloth
with a large black hat with feathers, and wore a flimsy veil that rather
enhanced than concealed her beauty.

"I feel I'm becoming awfully reckless in making this visit," she
commenced with a laugh when she had seated herself in my chair, "but
when I got home last night I received such a strange letter from Jack
that I felt compelled to seek your advice."

"If I can be of any service I shall be delighted," I said.

She seemed nervously agitated, and her eyes were, I thought, unduly
heavy, as if she were unusually anxious.

"Thanks, you are always kind," she said.  "Both Mabel and myself always
look upon you as our big brother.  We often wonder why you never marry.
We shall hear of it, however, some day."

"Never, I hope," I answered with a forced smile, remembering the grim
tragedy of my marriage, and recollecting that her lover had once made
the very same remark to me.

"Why never?  If you had a wife you would be far happier.  At present you
have only your man to look after your personal comforts, and surely your
dinners at your club can never be so pleasant as if you dined at home in
company with a pretty wife."

"Upon my word," I cried, laughing, "I shall believe that you actually
intend to propose to me next, Dora.  I think if it were not--well, if it
were not for an obstacle whose name is Jack Bethune, I should be
inclined to offer you marriage."

"Oh!  Don't talk like that," she protested with a demure look.  "You
quite misconstrue my words.  Once you and I were lovers, when we were in
our teens, but all that is past.  We have both seen the world now, and
have met others whom we could love better."

"I don't know that I have," I said reflectively.  She was one of the
most charming girls of the season, and I believe were it not for the
fact that I had already loved and lost, and that my feelings toward the
opposite sex had become sadly embittered by what I felt was unnecessary
pain that had been heaped upon me, I should have asked her to renounce
her lover and let me take his place.

But only during a few moments did I entertain such foolish thoughts, for
I quickly saw that she adored the soldier-novelist, and that I had no
right to be disloyal to a friend, even though that friend might be a
murderer.

"I'm afraid our conversation is drifting towards a rather dangerous
topic," she said.  "But you are such a confirmed bachelor that I always
feel I can talk to you without fear that you will go down on your knees
or perform some other equally absurd antic."

"I'm sure I'm greatly gratified to know that I'm held in such high
esteem," I observed laughing.  "But under the eyes of a pretty woman
like yourself, men are sometimes fascinated, you know."

"Yes, but fascination is not love.  When a man is fascinated by a woman,
either the latter is an adventuress, or the former a fool."  And she
threw back her handsome head and laughed at my discomfiture.

I had been fascinated by Sybil.  Had she been an adventuress, I
wondered; or had I been a fool?

"True," I answered, earnestly.  "But woman's beauty exercises a most
powerful influence over man."  Then I added--"I confess that if I was
not aware of your love for Jack I should think of you tenderly, and very
possibly I should perform one of those gymnastic antics you denounce as
absurd."

"Then I'm very pleased you know of our attachment," she answered with a
coquettish laugh.  "I mean to marry Jack, as you are aware, therefore I
can never be any more to you than a friend, but friend I will be always,
if you will allow me?"

"Of course," I said.  "The many years we have known one another--I
mustn't count them or I shall mention your age, which won't be polite--
give us licence to talk with freedom without falling in love--eh?  But
there, a truce to joking, what about this extraordinary letter from
Jack?  Where is he?"

"Well, he writes from Dover," she said, drawing a note from her perfumed
muff.  "Shall I read you an extract?"

"Certainly.  I suppose I mustn't read it myself because it is all
`darling' love and kisses."

She blushed, saying: "I have read somewhere--in one of Jack's books, I
think--the proverb, _Les hommes aiment par jalousie, mais les femmes
sont jalouses par amour_.  If you loved a woman, you too would call her
darling, and I know you would kiss her.  Every man does."

"Your own experience--eh?"  I laughed.  "Perhaps I should make crosses
in representation of kisses.  But if you intend to convey the idea of
male impossibilities I think those of your own sex are certainly more
numerous.  It has always occurred to me that feminine impossibilities
would make a very remarkable and interesting study.  For instance, woman
can't for the life of her make head nor tail out of a time-table; she
can't be jolly and appreciate the most enjoyable function if she thinks
her hair is a little out of curl; she can't help gauging a woman by her
clothes, even though experience has taught her that beggars sometimes
ride in fine carriages, and she can't, when it's a question between
Cupid and herself, help saying `No' where she means `Yes' and vice
versa."

"And man, when he sees a woman's pretty face, no matter if the
complexion is added by the hare's foot or the glorious tresses false,
must straightway flirt with her if he has a chance, just as you are
doing now."

Then she laughed heartily, and clapped her small gloved hands gleefully,
knowing that she had successfully turned my own sarcasm against myself.

This I was compelled to admit.  She was apparently in the highest
spirits.  Little, alas! did she dream of the terrible truth that the man
she loved was an assassin.  After more good-humoured banter she pursed
her lips in pretty affectation, then opened the treasured letter,
saying:

"Now, this is what puzzles me.  Jack, who gives no address, the postmark
only showing that it was posted at Dover, says: `I came up from Hounslow
intending to call and see you.  I only had sufficient time, however, to
drive to Charing Cross and catch the night mail to the Continent.  I am
writing this in the train, and shall post it at Dover before crossing.
I may be absent only a week, or I may be away a month or so.  If I can I
will write, but I can give no address for I shall be constantly moving.
Therefore if you love me do not attempt to communicate with me.  I am
sorry it is not possible for me to see you and explain, but immediately
you receive this letter destroy it, and if anyone inquires after me--
whoever they may be--tell them you know nothing.  Do not mention my
letter to a soul.  Trust in me, and when I return I will explain.
Good-bye.'"

"What else?"  I asked.

"Good-bye, darling," she said in a low voice, blushing deeply.

"Certainly it is very strange--very strange," I said.  "But if I were
you I should not trouble about it.  It may be that he has been sent on
some special mission abroad."

"Oh, I shall not worry," she answered reassuringly.  "In a week or two
he will return and explain."

It was upon my lips to tell her the sad news that he would never return,
but I stifled the words, and said instead:

"Of course.  There is nothing very extraordinary in his omission to give
an address.  If he is travelling quickly to an uncertain destination, as
I have done sometimes, letters are quite out of the question."

"Yes, I know.  But there is yet a stranger fact," she said.  "Last night
when we got home Lord Wansford came to supper with some other people,
and he told me he had a few hours before seen Jack at Victoria Station
talking to a lady who was leaving with a quantity of luggage."

This new feature was startling, but I saw it was best to scout the idea.

"Old Wansford is rather short-sighted," I observed.  "No doubt he was
mistaken.  Jack would not wilfully deceive you like that."

"No.  I feel confident he wouldn't," she replied, toying with the
letter.  "My opinion is the same as yours, that he mistook someone else
for Jack."

"No doubt.  I've been round to his chambers half an hour ago, and seen
Mrs Horton.  She says he has not been home for three days and that
fully bears out his letter."

"Do you think," she said hesitatingly a few moments later, "do you think
that if I went down to Hounslow I could find out where he has gone?  I
know Major Tottenham quite well."

"No.  If I were you I would not go.  Had he known his destination he
would certainly have put it in his letter.  I will endeavour to find out
for you, but in the meantime do not let his absence trouble you.  I have
invited him down to Wadenhoe, so you will meet, and--"

"Oh, what a good angel you are," she cried joyously.  "I've been
wondering how I could get him down there for the hunting now that Ma
declines to ask him."

"Well, I have asked him because I knew you wanted to have him near you.
So do not let your spirits flag nor trouble yourself regarding his
journey.  He will be back soon, and you can have some jolly spins across
country together."

"I don't know how to thank you sufficiently," she said, rising slowly
and stretching forth her small hand.  "You are an awfully good friend
both to Jack and to myself.  But I must go, for I have to call at the
dressmaker's with Ma at twelve, and I've only just time to get back."

"Good-bye, Dora," I said earnestly.  "If we do not meet again in town I
shall call on you at Blatherwycke.  Then we can arrange plans."

We shook hands and she left, leaving behind her a delightful breath of
some subtle perfume that stirred my senses.  Her beauty always brought
back to me sad memories of Sybil, the adorable woman who came into my
life, the one ray of happiness, brief and fleeting, as sunshine on an
April day.  Like Dora, she had been bright, radiant, and happy, but the
grave, alas! had claimed her, and she had left me alone, gloomy and
forgotten.

I took her portrait--the one I had bought in Regent Street--from its
hiding-place, and as I gazed upon the pictured face, my throat
contracted and a mist rose before my eyes--the tearful mist caused by
life's bitterness.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

BETWEEN THE DANCES.

I delayed my departure for nearly a fortnight in an endeavour to learn
something of Bethune but could glean no tidings, so at last went down to
the home of my childhood.  My grandfather had purchased it in the early
part of the century because the county was a hunting one and the
neighbours a good set.  I had spent the greater part of my youth there,
and my parents still resided there at frequent intervals.  Situated
midway between Oundle and Deenethorpe, near Benefield village, Wadenhoe
Manor was a great rambling old place, a typical English home, half
hidden by ivy, with quaint gables and Elizabethan chimneys.  As in the
fading sunlight I drove up to it I thought I had never seen the old
place looking so peaceful.  Perhaps it was because my own mind was so
perturbed by recent events that the solitude seemed complete.  From the
old mullioned windows the yellow sunset flashed back like molten gold
and the birds in the chestnuts were chattering loudly before roosting.
On the hill-slope farther down lay the quiet hamlet, a poem in itself.
By the grey tower of its church stood two tall poplars, like guardian
angels, the golden green of their young foliage all a-shimmer in the
sunlight Beneath them was the sombre shade of one old yew, while a line
of dark cypress trees, marshalled like a procession of mourners, stood
along the grey old wall, and here and there showed the brown thatch of
cottage roofs.

At home I found quite a party of visitors and the warmest welcome
awaited me.  My parents, who had not enjoyed good health, had remained
there nearly all the winter, my father only coming to town now and then
on pressing business, so I had not seen my mother for several months.
The visitors, mostly friends from London, were a gay and pleasant
company and dinner was bright and enjoyable, while there was plenty of
brilliant chatter in the drawing-room afterwards.

Every one was full of expectancy of the meet on the morrow at Glapthorn,
and the ball that was to be given by Lady Stretton at Blatherwycke in
the evening, therefore all retired early, and were about again betimes.

The meet was a great success, and at night I accompanied our party to
the dance, not because I felt in any mood for dancing, but because I
wanted to get a chat with Dora and hear if she had received news of her
lover.

Blatherwycke Hall was situated at a beautiful spot.  I knew the place
almost from the time I could toddle.  It was a very ancient house.  Its
massive walls and dark oak timbers, its open hearths and spacious
chimneys, its heavy doors with their antique locks and bars and hinges
went back to the Armada days when the Stretton who held it was, in the
words of a ballad of the time, "A hard-riding devil."  As old as the
Hall, too, were the barns that clustered around it, the thatch of whose
pointed gables was weathered to every shade of brown and grey, green
with moss and golden with clinging lichens.  Beyond was the green
woodland, musical with streams, its stately pine trees springing
straight and tall, its noble oaks just breaking into leaf, its larch and
elm and hawthorn in all the pride of their young beauty.

From without it looked warm and cheerful with its brightly-lit windows,
and within all was warm, comfortable, and brilliant.  The party was a
large one, for all the best people in the county came to Lady Stretton's
dances, and as I entered the great oak-panelled ballroom with its stands
of armour and its quaint old chiming clock, I looked eagerly around and
saw Dora in a ravishing toilette with skirt and sleeves of soft white
satin, a bodice of rose-pink velvet, with the front lightly traced with
jet, talking to several men, while at that moment I heard my name
uttered by a well-known voice and turned to greet Mabel who, standing
with her husband, the Earl, was attired in a marvellous gown of palest
heliotrope.

As soon as dancing commenced, however, I managed to speak with Dora, and
found she had saved me several dances.  Many of the guests were my
friends, and we spent altogether a most delightful night.  Lady Stretton
always entertained in first-rate style, and this was no exception.
Outside, in the old-world garden, Chinese lanterns were hung in the
arched walks, and in the smaller paths similarly arched crossing the
central one at intervals those who desired air could find cool alleys,
where the starlight filtered through the trees.

Along one of these I wandered with Dora after we had been waltzing, and
finding a seat, we sat down to rest heedless of the chill air.

"Well," I exclaimed at length, "have you heard from him?"

"Yes," she answered rather gloomily.  "Only three lines.  I have brought
it in my pocket so that you may see," and producing a crumpled envelope,
she handed it to me.

Striking a vesta I opened the note and read the few words it contained,
written hurriedly in pencil; the message ran: "I cannot return yet, but
tell no one you have heard from me.  I still love you, darling, better
than my life.  Jack."  Then I looked at the postmark, and found it had
been posted at Bardonnechia, an obscure village on the Italian frontier.

"He reassures you," I said, after a moment's silence.  "We must wait."

"Wait," she echoed, sadly.  "We can do nothing else.  It is strange that
he desires his absence to be concealed," she continued.  "Curiously
enough only this morning a well-dressed man called just as I was going
to the meet and saw me privately.  He gave his name as Captain Allen, of
Jack's regiment, and said he had come from London to ask me his address,
as he wished to send him a telegram on some important business.  I told
him I did not know.  Then he asked if I had heard from him, and I told
him--"

"You told him what?"  I gasped, starting up.

"I told him that the letter I received yesterday was posted at
Bardonnechia."

I sank back upon the seat, nerveless, paralysed.

"Did he not tell you that if you loved him you must remain silent?"  I
demanded, fiercely.  "Don't you know what you've done?"

"No," she gasped, alarmed.  "What--what have I done?  Tell me.  What
will happen?"

But I knew I had nearly betrayed myself, and quickly recovering my
self-possession, said:

"You have--well, if he is on a secret mission, as I expect he is, it may
be that you may have placed those who desire to thwart its success in a
position to do so."

"Ah!  Heaven!  I never thought of that," she cried in despair.  "Now, I
remember, the man spoke with a rather foreign accent."

"Yes," I said, severely.  "By disobeying his injunctions you may have
placed him in the hands of his enemies!"  She sat silent, her hands
clasped before her, and sighing heavily, she shuddered.

Then rising slowly she left me.  I did not follow, for I saw she walked
unevenly with bent head, in order to hide her emotion.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

THE DEEPER INDISCRETION.

During a quarter of an hour I sat alone smoking a cigarette in
thoughtful silence under the trellis, when suddenly I heard the sound of
passionate voices on the other side of the ivy.  Two persons had
evidently seated themselves in close proximity to myself, and I was, so
to speak, in the middle of a scene before I realised that I was
listening.

"You shall not do this thing," cried a woman's voice.  "By God! you
shan't--you shall listen to reason.  He has been murdered, foully done
to death, and--"

"Well, what of that?  Can't you whisper, you fool?" and I heard an
imprecation from between a man's set teeth.

Stealthily, in order not to attract attention, I turned and parting the
foliage saw directly behind me the gleam of a light dress in the
darkness.  At first I could not distinguish its wearer, but almost at
that moment her companion struck a match to light his cigar, and its
fickle flame illuminated both their faces.

The woman in the light dress was the Countess of Fyneshade, and the man,
wearing a heavy fur travelling-coat, and with several days' growth of
beard on his dark, frowning face, was the mysterious individual who had
met me on the night I had been married to Sybil.

"So you have come from Marseilles, for what purpose?" exclaimed Mabel
angrily.  "Merely to run risk of compromising me, and to tell me
absolutely nothing.  You must think me an idiot?"

"Have I not already told you the result of my inquiries into the
movements of Bethune?"

"I have surreptitiously read each letter that Dora has received from
him, and I was well aware of your devilish cunning, for I have already
had experience of it myself."

"So you entertain a suspicion that Gilbert Sternroyd has been murdered--
eh?" he said, with a low laugh, not deigning to remark upon the
uncomplimentary terms in which she had spoken.  "Surely a young man
may--er--disappear for a week or so, without any great harm coming to
him?"

"Mine is not a mere suspicion," she declared quickly.  "I am absolutely
certain he has met with foul play."

"Why?"

"Because three days before his disappearance he told me in confidence
that an enemy, whom he would not name, had threatened him."

"But if he had really been murdered, surely his body would have been
found by this time?" he observed.  "You have, I am well aware,
communicated your suspicions to the police, and they have made every
inquiry, but without avail.  In passing through London this morning I
called at Scotland Yard on your behalf and was informed that they had
succeeded in tracing the missing man to the Army and Navy Club on the
night of his disappearance.  He left there at midnight to walk home, but
since that moment nothing has been heard of him."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing except the curious fact that on the following morning a check
for five thousand five hundred pounds in favour of some mysterious
individual, named Charles Collinson, was handed in at the Temple Bar
branch of the London and Westminster Bank, endorsed in an illiterate
hand by the bearer, and duly cashed.  After that all traces are lost.
He has disappeared as completely as if the earth had opened and
swallowed him."

"I care nothing for police theories," Mabel said firmly.  "I feel
convinced that he has been brutally murdered."

"But who were his enemies?"

"As far as I am aware, he had none," she answered.  "The discovery of
the check, however, is a curious fact, and if this Collinson could be
found he could, no doubt, give the police a clue."

"I think not," her companion replied dubiously.  "The check was dated
three days before, and therefore, in all probability, had no connection
whatever with his disappearance."

"But now, with regard to Bethune.  Where is he?"

"At the Trombetta at Turin, under the name of Harding.  I had a telegram
concerning him this morning.  At your instigation a detective has
followed him, but I confess I can see no object in this, because no
warrant can be obtained, for the simple reason that the police have no
knowledge that Sternroyd is actually dead.  He may, after all, be
keeping out of the way for some purpose or another.  The most exhaustive
inquiries have been made, but have failed to elicit any solution of the
mystery.  Even a careful examination of Bethune's chambers, made by two
most expert officers, has failed to show that any tragedy has been
enacted.  It is true that the Captain destroyed some papers before
leafing, but they were mostly billets-doux which he apparently thought
might prove compromising to some of his fair correspondents.  Thoughtful
of him, wasn't it?"

"Very.  He was a friend of Sybil's, I believe?"

"Yes, and was very much attached to her at one time, if reports are
true," the man answered, with a low, coarse laugh.

Sybil!  The mention of her name thrilled me; the words pierced my
strained ears, causing me to remain dumbfounded and open-mouthed in
expectation.

"Were any of her letters discovered?"  Mabel asked in a low tone.

"None.  Fortunately all were carefully destroyed."

"But why should he have left so mysteriously if he were in no way
connected with Gilbert's disappearance?  I suspect him of murder,
therefore I gave instructions to have him watched.  I care nothing for
the cost, or for any scandal that may accrue, so long as I bring the
assassin to justice.  Gilbert entrusted me with the secret of his fear,
and it is therefore my duty to seek out the murderer."

"Even at the risk of Dora's happiness?" he inquired.  "Yes.  At risk of
her happiness.  At present she must know nothing--nothing beyond the
fact with which she is already well acquainted, namely, that marriage
with Bethune is entirely out of the question.  But listen!  Someone is
coming!  It's Fyneshade!  Go! he must not see you.  Quick!"

The man jumped up quickly and slipped away in the darkness, while the
Countess also rose with a frou-frou of silk, and went forward to meet
her husband, laughing aloud, saying:

"Ah! you dear old boy, I knew you would be looking for me.  The rooms
are so awfully hot that I came out to get a breath of air.  It's simply
delightful out to-night."

"Yes," he answered dryly, turning and walking back with her, uttering
some rapid, earnest words that I could not catch as they crossed the
lawn.

That the Countess had been acquainted with Sybil was a fresh revelation.
The strange sinister-looking individual whose identity was enshrouded
in mystery, and with whom she appeared to be on such intimate terms, had
aroused in my heart fresh suspicions that I had been duped.  He had
declared that Jack Bethune, the man I had trusted as a friend, and whom
I was now striving to shield, had been one of Sybil's lovers!  The
thought was maddening.  I sprang to my feet, clenched my fists, and
walked forward in a sudden outburst of fury.  If Mabel had known her,
was it not highly probable that she was fully aware of the secret of my
marriage and the true story of her fate?  The strange words inscribed
upon the wreath that had been so mysteriously placed upon the grave
recurred to me.  "Seek and you may find."  Those words danced before my
eyes in letters of fire.  The whole enigma was one which grew more
puzzling daily, and, try how I would, I was unable to solve it.

From what I had overheard I had learnt more than one fact of the highest
importance.  If no warrant had been issued against Bethune why should
not this be communicated to him; why indeed should I not seek of Mabel
the truth about the woman I had loved?

This course, after some consideration, commended itself to me, and I
walked on with firm resolve to obtain from the smart Society leader some
facts regarding Sybil's tragic end.  With that object I again wandered
among the dancers in search of the striking study in heliotrope.  I
could not, however, find her, but discovering Dora flushed by waltzing,
fanning herself, and enduring the inane chatter of an insipid young
sprig of the Stock Exchange, I managed to take her aside.

"Now, Dora, tell me," I said, when we were standing together alone on
the veranda, "do you really want Jack back again?"

"Want him back!" she cried in wistful tones.  "If you can induce him to
return you will render me a service that I can never forget--a service
that will bring happiness to us both."

Happiness!  I sighed, remembering the man who had fallen cold and stiff
in the narrow passage in Bethune's chambers.  How could I allow her,
bright, pure and good, to marry a murderer?  But was I not selfish?  I
confess that in those moments of anguish and suspicion I cared for
nought save myself.  I was determined to know the truth regarding his
relations with Sybil, and intended with that object to bring him back,
even at risk of his subsequent arrest.

"Very well," I said quietly, "within a week he shall be with you."

"But how will you induce him to return?  Besides, we cannot communicate
with him."

"Leave all to me," I answered.  "In a week he will be at your side, and
I--I--"

"And you will receive my most heartfelt thanks," she said in low,
earnest tones, laying her hand upon my arm and looking into my face.
"You know, Stuart, how I have suffered these long dreary days; how
intensely I love him.  You are my friend.  Yes, you have always proved
yourself my friend, although I fear I have on more than one occasion
ridiculed you as a confirmed bachelor with a heart of adamant."

"I also loved once," I said.

"Who was the woman?"

"Ah! it is a secret," I answered.  "But I sympathise with you, because
I, alas! have experienced all that poignant bitterness, the dregs of
life's unhappiness that are too often the lot of the lover.  I loved,
ah!  I adored, one woman.  She was my life, my very soul was hers, but
she has gone, gone, and I am left alone with nothing but the memory of
her face that comes back to me constantly in my day-dreams."

"She married someone else, I suppose?" she observed gloomily.

"Death parted us," I answered huskily, for the memory of her sad, sweet
countenance always caused a lump to rise in my throat.

Dora echoed my sigh and was silent, deeply absorbed in thought, gazing
away to where the moonbeams shimmered on the lake.

"Dead! then all is of the past," she said presently.  "I never suspected
that you had really loved.  I never knew that you had been guilty of any
deeper indiscretion than the mild flirtation which used to be carried on
between us in the old days.  Now that you have told me your secret, I
can well understand why pretty women have no longer attraction for you,
and the reason you have become something of a misanthrope."

"Misanthrope.  Yes, you are right, Dora.  I am not old in years, but
unfortunately I have grown world-weary early, and have been overwhelmed
by a catastrophe that has warped my life and sapped my youthful spirits.
But do not let us discuss it further.  You are young, and Jack Bethune
is deeply attached to you.  Therefore I will do my best to induce him to
return."

She turned to me, and taking my hand in hers went on: "I can only
express my gratitude, and--and hope that into your life may enter some
other woman who may be as worthy honest love as the one whose sad death
has struck this chord of tragedy in your heart."

"Thank you, Dora," I answered with earnestness, looking into her eyes.
"But I am afraid I am doomed to bachelorhood.  As I have observed on a
previous occasion, if it were not for Jack's existence I should, in all
probability, go down on my knees and kiss this hand of yours."

"How foolish!" she cried in a strained voice.  "I love Jack!"

"For that very reason I have not endeavoured to perform what you once
dubbed as an absurd antic," I said gallantly.

"And for that reason also you ought not to speak quite so frankly," she
replied coquettishly.  "But, nevertheless, you will be a perfect angel
if you really bring Jack back again.  Indeed, I almost feel prompted to
kiss you now."

"I am sure I have no objection," I answered laughing.  "It wouldn't be
the first time."

"No, but now I'm a woman kissing isn't proper," she answered, with a
little _moue_, and laughing brightly, added: "I think our conversation
is drifting as usual into a dangerous channel.  Come, let us go back."

We turned, and as we re-entered the room, which buzzed with the soft
sibilation of Society small-talk, a partner claimed her for a waltz at
that moment commencing, and as she was whirled away she laughed lightly
at me across his shoulder.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

BENEATH THE ROUGE.

In no mood to participate in the gaiety, I went to the library and wrote
a long telegram which I addressed to "Harding, Hotel Trombetta, Turin,"
explaining that if he feared arrest for any crime his fears were
groundless, as no warrant was out, and urging him to return to Dora if
only for a few days.  This I despatched by my own man to Gretton
station, to be transmitted the first thing in the morning.  Afterward I
again sought Mabel.

When I found her I brought her to the library, closed the door, and as
she sank into a comfortable armchair and opened her great fan, she
regarded me, I think, with some little surprise.

"Well," she said, lifting her fine eyes to mine with an undisguised
expression of amusement, "why all this secrecy?  Don't you think it
would be best if we allowed the door to be open?"

"No, Mabel," I answered.  "What I am about to utter is for no other ears
than yours."

She started, and I fancied I detected a slight paleness beneath the
faint suspicion of rouge upon her cheeks.  Next second, however, she
recovered her self-possession and declared that she was all attention.
She was always an admirable actress.

"We have been friends, Mabel, for many years, and this fact allows me to
speak with greater freedom," I said, seating myself carelessly upon the
edge of the table before her.  "To-night I have made a discovery.  I
discovered the Countess of Fyneshade speaking with a man who--"

"And you overheard!" she gasped, starting to her feet.  "You--you
listened to what I said?"

"I certainly did hear.  But pray calm yourself, for I am neither your
enemy nor a blackmailer.  Your secret, I assure you, is in safe
keeping."

Sinking back in her chair she sat pale and silent, gazing fixedly into
the dying fire.

"You will remember," I continued, "that you introduced me to young
Sternroyd, the man who is missing--the man who has been murdered."

"Murdered?  How do you know?" she snapped.

I saw I had nearly betrayed my knowledge, but quickly correcting myself
I said: "Murdered, according to your belief.  Well, it strikes me as
curious that you should take such an intensely keen interest in the
missing man; that you have thought fit to urge the police to arrest my
friend, Captain Bethune; nay, that you yourself should employ a private
detective to watch his movements.  When you told me, on the occasion on
which you introduced us, that Sternroyd was a protege of your husband's,
you lied to me!"

She frowned, bit her lip, but no word escaped her.  "Fyneshade knows no
more of Sternroyd than he does of this man whom you have met in the
garden to-night," I continued.  "Therefore, when the mystery surrounding
the young man's disappearance is cleared up, no doubt it will make some
exceedingly interesting matter for the newspapers."

"You insinuate that I love Sternroyd!" she cried, starting up again
suddenly, and facing me with a look of defiance.  "Well, all I can say
is, Mr Ridgeway, that you are very much mistaken in your surmise.  You
are quite at liberty to go to my husband and explain the circumstances
under which you were introduced to Gilbert.  Tell him that Gilbert was
my lover, and see what he says," she added laughing.

"If he were not your lover I scarcely think you would take so much
trouble to ascertain his present whereabouts," I observed with sarcasm.

"He is not my lover, I say," she cried angrily.  "I hated and detested
him.  It is not love that prompts me to search for his assassin."

I smiled incredulously, saying: "Your denial is but natural.  If it is
not love that causes you to seek the truth regarding Sternroyd's
disappearance, what is it?"

"I refuse to answer any such impertinent question," she replied
haughtily.  "I am absolute mistress of my own actions, and my husband
alone has a right to inquire my reasons."

"Very well," I said calmly, surprised at her denial and sudden defiance.
"I have no desire whatever to ascertain facts that you desire to
conceal; on the other hand, you must admit that I have acted quite
openly in telling you that I overheard your conversation with your
strange visitor, who, if I am not mistaken, I have met before."

"Where?" she answered quickly.

"Have you already forgotten that evening at old Thackwell's, where you
met him with a thin, scraggy girl in pink?"  I asked.  "On that occasion
you were deeply embittered against him, and urged me to avoid him.  You
said that you knew him `once.'  I presume your friendship has now been
resumed?"

"Only because it has been imperative," she declared, speaking
mechanically, her face hard set and haggard.

"But is he a desirable acquaintance for a woman like yourself, whose
every action is chronicled by Society gossips, and who is surrounded by
jealous women who would ruin your reputation if only they had half a
chance?"

"I do not seek him," she answered.  "He comes to me because my interests
are his."

"In what direction?"

"I cannot tell you.  It is really unfair to ask.  You are aware of my
acquaintance with this man, and I merely tell you that it is absolutely
compulsory."

She was standing before me, with jewels upon her neck and arms flashing
in the lamplight, one of the handsomest of women, yet upon her face was
a wild and wearied expression such as I had never before seen.
Assuredly some great and terrible secret lay hidden in her heart.  "I
heard you mention to your friend that Jack Bethune once knew a woman--a
woman named Sybil.  Who was she?"  I asked at last.

"Sybil!  Sybil!" she repeated, with a puzzled look, as if trying to
recall the conversation.  "Oh, yes! you mean Sybil Houston."

"Who was she?"

"The daughter of a retired naval officer, I believe.  I never met her,
but I understood that she acted as Jack's amanuensis.  She was, however,
engaged to some impossible person or other, whom she married."

"Are you sure he knew no other woman named Sybil?"  I asked eagerly.

"My dear Mr Ridgeway, however should I know?  Jack did not tell me all
his little affairs of the heart, for, remember, I am Dora's sister, and
he feared probably that I might tell her," and she gave vent to a harsh,
discordant laugh.

I remembered, with a sudden pang, that the letter I had discovered was
undoubtedly in my dead bride's handwriting, and felt half inclined to
disbelieve her; yet she had spoken so frankly that it seemed as though
she had told all she knew.  It was only her strange laugh, almost
hysterical, that aroused doubts within me.

"If anyone should know something of Jack Bethune's female friends it is
yourself.  I know you are his confidant," she added.

"He has no female friends now but Dora," I observed, "and he loves her
dearly."

"Yes, I know, but they must both see the absurdity of it all," she said
petulantly.  "They can never marry, so I cannot see why Dora should
trouble her head about him.  I declare she has been going about looking
quite pale and wretched during the past week.  People are beginning to
talk."

"And why can't they marry?"  I asked.

"We've discussed the question before," she replied impatiently.  "First,
he hasn't sufficient money, for Dora would ruin him in a year;
secondly--" and she paused.

"Well--secondly?"

"Secondly, my sister shall never marry a murderer!" she said in a hoarse
half whisper, first glancing at the door to ascertain that it was still
closed.

"But if he returns, and is able to prove that he has had no hand in the
sudden disappearance of Gilbert Sternroyd?"

"He cannot.  I shall be able to prove to the contrary.  Let him return
to England, and each step he takes will be towards the gallows," she
declared vehemently.

"Your words betray you," I said severely.  "Although you have pretended
that Sternroyd is merely missing, you know he has been murdered!"

She started violently, clutching at the edge of the table to steady
herself.

"And--and your words also show that you are aware! of the truth, that he
has been foully done to death, and that your friend Bethune is guilty of
the crime!" she gasped when, in a few moments, she recovered her
self-possession.  "Let him come, let him face me if he can."  There was
a wild look in her bright eyes, an expression of terrible murderous
hatred as her fingers worked convulsively, and her bare chest with its
diamonds heaved and fell quickly, causing the gems to glitter with
dazzling brilliancy.  Her face was that of a woman haunted by the shadow
of a crime.

"Very well," I said, quickly.  "We will not prolong this very painful
interview.  He will return, either to prove his innocence or be
convicted; either to pay the penalty or marry Dora."

Walking to the door I threw it open, and as I did so she tottered across
the room towards it and almost fell.  I caught her quickly, but she only
laughed hysterically, saying:

"I am a little faint and shall not dance again.  If you see Fyneshade,
tell him--say that I have gone to my room," and, with a cold, haughty
bow she swept suddenly past me with hurried, uneven steps.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR MARKWICK.

The daily ride was a regular institution at Wadenhoe, whither Dora came
frequently to visit my mother, and during the few days following the
dance we went out each morning.  We chose early hours for riding;
starting betimes to enjoy to the full the poetry of those bright
mornings, and often the sounds of our horses' hoofs were the first to
awaken the echoes along the roads and lanes.  From the brown fields
would be rising in white clouds the filmy mist, gossamers would be
gently waving, reflecting all the colours of the rising sun, while on
every tuft and blade of grass stood glistening dewdrops.  Then as we
reached the woods the air would become fresher, and from all sides would
arise the pleasant smell of damp moss and wood, of wild thyme, and of
the many little spring flowers that filled the air with woodland
fragrance, seeming to blossom out altogether as if anxious not to lose
an instant of the opening day.

It was then that I felt mostly under her influence, the influence of a
true, honest woman.  The way was narrow, and we had to go in single
file--Dora going first, entirely absorbed in holding up her horse, who
would occasionally stumble over the slippery stumps; I following,
leaving my horse to follow his own way, my attention fixed upon the
lithe, graceful figure in straw hat and perfectly-fitting habit before
me.

Alas! an undefined sense of trouble remained to me, and now that I was
questioning myself and trying to read my heart, I was so astonished at
my own feelings that I endeavoured to give them any name, to explain
them by any possibility, rather than resolve them into a single word.

I knew that my admiration was almost akin to love.  That instinctive
feeling which attends all affection, the need of reciprocity, had
awakened in my heart.  The only event that could save me from falling
actually in love with her would, I knew, be the advent of Jack Bethune.
Six days had already passed, but I had received no word from him.
Possibly the fugitive had left Turin before my telegram arrived, or,
more likely, he had regarded it as a ruse on the part of the police to
induce him to return, and thus save the complicated process of
extradition.

Yet each morning as we rode together she discussed the prospect of
seeing him, and wondering why he had neither arrived nor telegraphed,
while I endeavoured to console her by anticipating his arrival each
evening.  Foolishly I clung to those hours of ignorance, and, like a man
who shuts his eyes because he will not see, I forced my mind and heart
not to remember or forebode.  I would snatch from Fate yet one more day,
one single day longer of that vague, ill-defined uneasiness which I
could treat as foolishness until the voice of authority had pronounced
it to be well-founded.  Once more I would feel without alloy that I was
young, happy, beloved.

She, too, was happy in the expectation of having the man she loved again
by her side.  She was ignorant that he was suspected of murder; and I
felt myself utterly unable to begin attacking so deep and tranquil a
happiness, linked so firmly into what seemed an endless chain of bliss.

We were riding together one morning on the road between Thrapston and
Aldwinkle, and when near the cross-road that leads to Titchmarsh, Dora
suddenly uttered an exclamation of joy and pointed on before.  I looked,
and saw upon the road a familiar figure in a tweed suit and grey felt
hat.  With one accord we galloped forward, and in a few minutes were
shaking Jack Bethune heartily by the hand.

But in those glad moments I could not fail to notice how changed he was.
His unshaven face was pale and thin, and in his eyes was a curious
expression; indeed, he seemed to avoid my gaze.  Then again there fell
upon me the suspicion that this man had been Sybil's lover.  Yet I
gripped his hand in welcome.

"I received your telegram, old fellow," he said, turning to me after he
had greeted the woman he loved.  "How did you ascertain I was in Turin?"

I laughed, but vouchsafed no satisfactory reply, and as we all three
walked towards Wadenhoe the conversation grew animated.  Jack,
suppressing the truth that he had feared arrest, made it appear to Dora
that he had been sent abroad on a secret mission and had been compelled
to move rapidly from place to place.  At breakfast he related how he had
received my telegram late at night, after travelling to Asti, and had
packed up and left immediately.

"But why have you not written oftener?"  Dora asked.  "Your letters were
couched so strangely that I confess I began to fear you had done
something dreadfully wrong."

I watched the effect of those innocent words upon him.  He started
guiltily, his thin lips compressed, and his face grew pale.

"You are not very complimentary, dearest," he stammered.  "I have never
been a fugitive, and I hope I never shall be.  I suppose the papers have
been saying something about me.  They always know more about one than
one knows one's self.  The statements I read in my press-cuttings are
simply amazing."

"As far as I am aware the papers have not commented upon your absence,"
she answered.  "It was merely a surmise of my own, and, of course,
absolutely absurd.  Forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive," he answered, rather dryly.

"No, nothing," I said; then turning to him I added: "Dora has been
talking daily of you, and wondering when you would return."

"I obeyed your commands immediately," he observed, with an expression
that was full of mystery.

"And you have acted wisely," I said.  I saw it was not judicious to
continue the conversation further, therefore we rose from the table, and
during the morning I left Dora and her lover to wander in the garden and
talk together.

After luncheon, on the pretext of playing billiards, I took Jack alone
to the billiard-room, where I knew we should be undisturbed.  Instead of
taking up the cues we sat together smoking in the deep old-fashioned
bay-window that overlooked the broad pastures and the winding Nene.

"Well," I said at length.  "Now be frank with me, Jack, old fellow; what
does all this mean?  Why did you leave the country so suddenly and cause
all this talk?"

"What has been said about me?  Have the papers got hold of it?" he
inquired quickly.

"Not to my knowledge."

"Thank Heaven!" he gasped, with a sigh of relief.  "Then I am safe up to
the present."

Up to the present!  He feared the future.  This was a confession of his
guilt!  The fingers that held his cigar trembled slightly as he spoke.

"But you have not told me the reason of your flight.  What is it you
fear?"  I inquired.

"The reason is a secret," he said, as if speaking to himself, looking
away fixedly across the meadows and the sun-illumined river.  "Some
incidents have occurred that, although they have happened in real life,
are even more startling and extraordinary than any I have ever imagined
in fiction."

"Cannot you explain them to me, your friend?"

"No.  I cannot--I--I dare not, believe me.  For the present I must
preserve my secret," and he shook his head sadly.

"Why?"

"Because my whole future depends upon my ability to remain silent."

For some minutes I did not speak; my bitter thoughts were wandering back
to the conversation I had overheard in the garden at Blatherwycke.  At
last I resolved to attack him point blank.

"Jack," I exclaimed earnestly, looking into his pale, pained face.
"Answer me one question.  Did you ever know a woman named Sybil?"

For an instant his brow contracted, and his breath seemed to catch.  His
hand again trembled as he removed the cigar from his mouth.

"Sybil!" he echoed, his face paler than before.  "Yes, it is true, I--I
once knew someone of that name.  You have discovered the secret of--"

"Captain Bethune," interrupted my father's man, who, followed by Dora,
had entered the billiard-room unobserved, and who stood before us
holding a card on a salver.

"Yes," answered Jack, turning sharply.

"A gentleman has called to see you, sir."

Jack took the card, glanced at it for an instant, and then starting
suddenly to his feet, stood with clenched fists and glaring eyes.

"My God, Stuart!  He is here!  Save me, old fellow!  You are my friend.
Save me!"

Next second he sank back again into his chair with his chin upon his
breast, rigid and motionless as one dead.

Noticing Dora's look of surprise at the words he uttered, he set his
teeth, steadied himself by dint of great effort, and turning to the man
ordered him to show the visitor in.  Then, addressing the woman he
loved, he added hoarsely:

"I must see this man alone, dearest."

"You wish me to leave?" she inquired, her pretty face clouded by a
sudden expression of bewilderment.  He nodded, without replying, and as
she moved slowly towards the door, I followed.

"No, Stuart," he cried anxiously.  "No, stay, old fellow, stay!  You are
my friend, stay!"

Dora turned, glanced at her lover and then disappeared through the
doorway, while I returned slowly to where he was standing, staring like
one fallen under some occult influence.

"Who is this visitor?"  I asked, but before he could reply, the man
appeared at the door, and announced:

"Mr Francis Markwick."

At the same moment there advanced into the room the mysterious
individual who had been my conductor on the night of my marriage; the
man whose intimate acquaintance with Lady Fyneshade was so puzzling!  He
was well-groomed and sprucely-dressed in a well-cut frock-coat, tightly
buttoned, and wore a flower and grey suede gloves.

"Ah! my dear Bethune!" he cried, walking towards him with extended hand,
without apparently noticing me.  "I heard you were back, and have taken
the earliest opportunity of calling.  Where have you been all this
time?"  But Jack, thrusting his hands into his pockets, made no reply to
this man's effusiveness.  His greeting was frigid, for he merely
inclined his head.  Suddenly the remembrance of those partially charred
letters I had found in Jack's chambers on the night of the murder of
Sternroyd flashed through my brain.  In them the name "Markwick"
occurred several times, and the writer of one had referred to him as
"that vile, despicable coward."  Who had penned these words?  Sybil had
no doubt written one of the letters I had discovered, but did this
condemnation emanate from her?  I stood watching him and wondering.

When he found Bethune disinclined to enter into any conversation, he
turned to me and with a slight start recognised me for the first time.

"I believe, Mr Markwick, we have the pleasure of mutual acquaintance,"
I said, bowing.

He looked at me in silence for a few seconds, then, with an expression
of perplexity, replied:

"You really have the advantage of me, sir.  I cannot recall where we
have met before."

I was certainly not prepared for this disclaimer, but his eyes were
unwavering, and there was no sign of confusion.  His sinister face was a
perfect blank.

"Come," I said, rather superciliously, "you surely remember our meeting
one night at Richmond, our strange journey together and its tragic
result!"

"Strange journey--tragic result!" he repeated slowly, with well-feigned
ignorance.  "I confess I have no knowledge of what you mean."

"Complete loss of memory is advantageous sometimes," I remarked dryly.
"But if you deny that you did not meet me one night in the Terrace
Gardens at Richmond, that you did not induce me to go to a certain house
to have an interview with the woman I loved, and that while in that
house an event occurred which--"

"How many whiskies have you had this morning?" he asked with a laugh.
His impassibility was astounding.

"I tell you if you deny these facts you lie!"  I cried angrily.

"I certainly do deny them," he answered firmly.  "And what is more, I
have never set eyes upon you before today."

"Then you will deny that Lady Fyneshade had a visitor who met her
clandestinely--in the shrubbery at Blatherwycke the other night--and
that that visitor was yourself?  You will deny that you have acted as
the Countess's inquiry agent; that you followed my friend, Captain
Bethune, to the Continent, dogged his footsteps through France, Germany
and Italy, and made such arrangements that he could be arrested at any
moment--"

"What for?" cried Bethune, amazed.  "What crime is alleged against me?"

There was silence.  Markwick flashed a rapid glance at me.

"None," I said at last I saw that this man Markwick was too wary to show
his hand.

"Then if what you say is true, why should this man act as spy upon me?"
demanded Jack fiercely.

"Ask him," I replied.  "From his own lips I heard him report to his
employer, Lady Fyneshade, the result of his investigations."

"Mabel! then she, too, is my enemy," he exclaimed furiously.  "She has
endeavoured all along to part me from Dora, but she shall not--by God!
she shan't."

"And what proof have you?" asked Markwick, addressing me.  "What proof
have you, pray, that I had been employed--as you so delicately put it--
by the Countess?"

"Your own words.  I overheard you.  It was highly interesting, I assure
you," I answered, smiling as I watched the effect of my words.

Suddenly Jack, pale with anger, started with a sudden impulse towards
him, crying:

"You have spied upon me and endeavoured unsuccessfully to give me into
the hands of the police.  Well, it is a fight between us.  Were it not
for the fact I am a guest in a friend's house I would horsewhip you as a
cad and a coward.  As it is, you shall go free.  I shall, however, be
armed against you; these revelations by my friend Ridgeway have proved
what I long ago suspected, and--"

"This friend of yours, who desires to claim acquaintance with me, lies!"
he said with calm indifference.

"Go!  Tell the Countess, whose lover you may be for aught I know, that
the man she suspects is innocent, and that if necessary he will prove
it," Bethune answered bitterly.

"I knew you were innocent, Jack!"  I cried.  "Prove it, old fellow!
Don't delay a moment."

He turned quickly, and asked me frigidly: "Then you also suspect me--of
what?"

I saw that my involuntary exclamations had again betrayed my suspicions.
Ere I could reply, Markwick, who had flung himself into an arm-chair
and was sitting in an indolent attitude with legs outstretched, had
cried:

"Innocent--bah!"

"What crime then do you allege?"  Jack demanded.  His face blanched as
he strode up to his strange visitor with clenched fists.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

ATTACK AND DEFENCE.

Springing to his feet and tearing open his coat, Markwick, the man
designated by one of Bethune's fair correspondents as "that vile,
despicable coward," drew from his breast-pocket a folded newspaper,
saying:

"This newspaper, the Daily News of this morning, will perhaps refresh
your memory.  Listen while I read.  I promise not to bore you," and
opening the paper quickly a cynical smile played about his thin lips as
he read as follows:--

"`Yesterday, at Bow Street Police Court, Mr J.  Arthur Price,
barrister, made an extraordinary application to the magistrate.  He
stated that three years ago Sir Henry Sternroyd, Knight, the well-known
Wigan ironfounder, died at Cannes, leaving his entire fortune, amounting
to about three millions, to his son Gilbert.  Two years ago Gilbert
Sternroyd, who had been educated at Bonn, received the property, and
took up his residence in London.  He was a member of several good clubs,
and soon became well-known and popular with a rather smart set.  On
March 12 last he went to the Empire Theatre alone, had supper with a
friend at the New Lyric Club, and from there went to the Army and Navy.
He left there about half-past twelve alone, and walked in the direction
of his chambers.  Since that hour nothing whatever has been seen or
heard of him.  On the following morning a check for a rather large
amount was presented for payment, but, as this check was drawn three
days before, it is not thought by the police to have any connection with
his mysterious disappearance.  One fact, counsel pointed out, was
strange, namely, that although the check was dated three days before,
the check-book containing the counterfoil had not been discovered in his
chambers, and it is therefore presumed that he had it upon him at the
time of his disappearance.  The case, counsel continued, presented many
extraordinary and even sensational features, one of which was the fact
that a will had been discovered, properly executed by the missing man's
solicitors, by which the whole of his extensive fortune is bequeathed to
a lady well-known in society, the much-admired wife of a peer.  It is
feared that the young man has met with foul play, and it was counsel's
object in making the application on behalf of the relatives to direct
public attention to the case, and express a hope that any person
possessed of information as to his whereabouts would not fail to
communicate with the police.  The magistrate observed that the Press
would no doubt take notice of counsel's application.'"

Markwick paused, his small eyes glistening with a revengeful fire as he
gazed at Jack Bethune.

"Does not this statement bring back to your memory the incidents of that
night?" he asked slowly, without taking his eyes off him.

With sinking heart I saw that my friend visibly trembled, and noticed
that he started as each mention of the name of the murdered man stabbed
his conscience.  His face was bloodless; the dark rings around his eyes
gave his ashen countenance an almost hideous appearance.  The statement
about the will was a new and amazing phase of the mystery, for it
pointed conclusively to the fact that the dead man had left his wealth
to Mabel, a fact that accounted for the seemingly unreasonable interest
which the Countess had taken in his disappearance.

"I--I really don't know why the report of the sudden disappearance of a
man whom I knew but very slightly should be of paramount interest to
me," Jack answered, but the haggard expression on his face told only too
plainly the effect caused by the mine his enemy had suddenly sprung upon
him.

"It may one day be of vital interest to you," Markwick said menacingly,
as he carefully refolded the paper and placed it again in his pocket.

Jack gave vent to a dry, hollow laugh, saying: "It is certainly a
strange affair altogether, but surely this is not news to you.  I heard
of Sternroyd's disappearance weeks ago."

"You were perhaps the first person aware of it--eh?" observed Markwick
caustically.

"By that remark you insinuate that I possess knowledge which I have not
disclosed," Jack answered brusquely.  "Both the Countess and yourself
have perfect liberty to form your own conclusions, and they would be
amusing were it not for the gravity of the question involved, namely,
whether or not Gilbert Sternroyd has met with foul play."

"He has met with foul play," cried Markwick sternly.  "And you alone
know the truth."

This direct accusation startled me.  I glanced at my friend.  He was
standing upright, rigid, silent, his terrified eyes gazing fixedly into
space.

But for a moment only.  Suddenly, he again sprang towards his accuser,
and facing him boldly, cried:

"You're endeavouring to fasten upon me the responsibility of young
Sternroyd's disappearance!  Well, do what you will.  I do not fear you,"
and a strange laugh escaped his lips.  "Arrest me, put me in a
criminal's dock, bring forward your array of counsel, your evidence, and
the results of your accursed espionage, then, when you have finished I
will speak.  But before you do this, before you advance one step further
upon the dangerous course you are now pursuing, remember that slander is
an offence against the law; remember that in such evidence as must be
given in an assize court certain persons must be seriously compromised,
and do not forget that the very weapon by which I shall defend my own
honour will be one that must prove disastrous to yourself.  I have said
enough.  Go!"

Markwick was amazed at this unexpected outburst.  He, like myself, had
apparently expected Jack to confess to the crime of which we both
suspected him, but by this firm declaration of innocence it almost
seemed as though we were both mistaken.  Yet in that brief moment I
remembered his refusal to allow me to enter the room in which he had
undoubtedly concealed the body.  I reflected upon the many suspicions
that had been aroused within me.  No!  I was still convinced of his
guilt, notwithstanding his denial.  The fact seemed apparent that he
possessed a secret of Markwick's, and felt secure because he knew that
this man dare not risk the dire consequences of its revelation.

"Then am I to understand that you absolutely defy us?" asked the
mysterious friend of Sybil.

"Us?" echoed Bethune indignantly.  "By that word you mean Lady Fyneshade
and yourself.  Yes, I defy you both!  Act if you dare; but I warn you
the peril will be yours."

"Very well," the man answered, bowing haughtily with a coolness that was
astounding.  "Defiance is of little avail in a criminal's cell."

Jack placed his hand upon the bell and rang it violently.

"I have endeavoured to save the honour of more than one person in this
affair, but if you wish for exposure you can, of course, make known many
ugly facts," he said.

"But you declare emphatically you are innocent," Markwick said hastily.

"Neither you nor Ridgeway have alleged any specific charge against me,"
he answered.  "If any crime is alleged to have been committed by me,
then after my arrest it will be time for me to prepare my defence.
Until then I shall remain silent."

"And the day is not far distant when you will be compelled to speak,"
the other said in a tone of impatience and annoyance, while at that
moment my father's man appeared in answer to Jack's summons.

"No further discussion is necessary," my friend said in a tone more
quiet than before.  "I decline to enter into details."  Then, turning to
the servant, he said:

"Show this gentleman out."

Markwick uttered not a word.  Biting his lip viciously, he glanced
threateningly from my guest to myself, drew a deep breath, and turning
on his heel followed the man out, and a few moments later passed below
the window and disappeared down the drive.

The interview had been an extraordinary one.  Markwick, who had with
such well-feigned ignorance declared himself unacquainted with me,
possessed a most remarkable personality.  The mystery that surrounded
him was as impenetrable as that which had enveloped Sybil, but I was
compelled to admit within myself that I shared his suspicion as to
Bethune's guilt.  Yet my friend's open defiance was absolutely
bewildering.  He had engaged his enemy with his own weapons, and for the
present, at any rate, had vanquished him.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

A REVELATION AND ITS PRICE.

No word was exchanged between Jack and myself regarding the interview
with Markwick.  It was a subject we both avoided, and, as he was happy
with Dora, I hesitated to inquire into the antecedents of the mysterious
individual who had repudiated all knowledge of me with such consummate
impudence.  Among my letters one morning a week later, however, I found
a note from Mabel dated from her town house, asking me to run up and
call upon her at once, and requesting me to keep the fact a strict
secret.  "I want to consult you," she wrote, "about a matter that
closely concerns yourself, therefore do not fail to come.  I shall be at
home to you at any time.  Do not mention the matter to either Jack or
Dora."

During my ride with our two visitors I pondered over this summons, which
was rather extraordinary in view of our last interview, and at length
resolved to take the mid-day train to town.

Soon after five o'clock that evening I was ushered into the Fyneshade
drawing-room, a great handsome apartment resplendent with gilt furniture
and hangings of peacock-blue silk, where I found Mabel alone, seated on
a low chair before the fire reading a novel.

"Ah!  I received your wire," she exclaimed, casting her book aside, and
rising quickly to meet me.  "It is awfully good of you to come."

She looked very handsome in a wondrous tea-gown of silk and chiffon, and
as I sat down opposite her and she handed me a cup, I reflected that the
journalistic chroniclers were not far wrong in designating her "one of
the prettiest women in London."

"On the last occasion we met, on the night of the ball at Blatherwycke,
you uttered some rather bitter personalities, Stuart," she commenced,
resting her elbows on her knees and her chin upon her palms as she
crouched by the fire.  The evening was chilly, and when I had shaken her
hand I noticed how icy it seemed.  "I've been thinking over your words,"
she added after a short pause.

"Well, I only said what I thought," I answered.  "I'm often accused of
abruptness."

"Yes, but it was not to scold you that I asked you to call," she went
on.  "The fact is I'm in a terrible difficulty," and she hesitated as if
half fearing to admit the truth.

"Of what nature?"  I asked.

"Fyneshade has left me!" she answered suddenly, in a strange
half-whisper.

"Left you!"  I cried.  "Why, whatever do you mean?"

"I mean that I have acted foolishly, and that he has left this house
with a declaration upon his lips that while I inhabit it he will never
again cross its threshold.  Today, I have had a letter from his
solicitors suggesting that I should have an interview with them for the
purpose of coming to some financial arrangement.  He offers me Fyneshade
Hall for the remainder of my life."

"Where is he?"

"In Paris, I believe."

"And the cause of this disagreement?  Tell me."

"No.  For the present I must say nothing.  It will get into the papers
soon enough, I expect, for the public gaze is as acute upon a
fashionable woman as upon a prime minister in these days of scurrilous
journalism and irresponsible personal paragraphs," she answered rather
sadly.

I felt sorry for her, but I knew that the open manner in which she had
carried on flirtation had been a public scandal, and after all I was not
really surprised that at last Fyneshade should resolve to end it.

"When did he leave?"  I inquired.

"Four days ago.  I have not been out since, and am at my wits' ends how
to act so as to allay any suspicions of the servants.  He took his valet
with him."

"But why make me your confidant?"

"Because I want you, if you will, to render me one small service," she
answered with deep earnestness.  Then after a pause, during which time
she took down a feather hand-screen and held it between her face and the
fire, she said: "I have already heard that Jack and Dora are together
again, and--"

"And you desire to part them," I hazarded seriously.  "No, I think you
misjudge me," she answered with a winning smile.  "I am merely anxious
that my sister should not make a disastrous marriage."

"Then you think marriage with Bethune would prove disastrous?"

"Unfortunately, yes," she answered, sighing.  "Already I know what
transpired at the interview between Jack and Francis Markwick on the day
of the former's arrival at Wadenhoe."

"You have again seen your mysterious friend, I suppose, and he has told
you everything, eh?"

"Yes, and further, let me confess that it was owing to this interview
that Fyneshade, who has suddenly become outrageously jealous, took
umbrage, and went away in a passion."

"I should have thought," I said, "that the narrow escape you had of
detection in the shrubbery at Blatherwycke ought to have already served
as warning."

"Ah!  That is the matter upon which I want especially to consult you,"
she said suddenly.  "Markwick has related to me how you told him of your
presence in the shrubbery on that night.  It is evident also that
Fyneshade suspected that I met someone there clandestinely, and if the
truth comes out and our conversation repeated, you must recognise how
very seriously I may be compromised."

I nodded, and slowly sipped my tea.

"Now," she continued in an earnest, appealing tone.  "You, Stuart, have
always been my friend; if you choose you can shield me.  Before long you
may be cross-examined upon that very incident, but what is there to
prevent you from saying that it was you yourself and not Markwick who
was sitting with me?"

"You ask me to lie in order to save you?"  I exclaimed severely.

"Well, to put it very plainly, it amounts to that."

"But who will cross-examine me?  In what form do you dread exposure?"

"I only dread the scandal that must arise when it becomes known that I
am acquainted with this man," she answered quickly.  "As I have before
told you, there is no thought of affection or regard between us.  While
hating him, I have been compelled to seek his assistance by untoward
circumstances."

"When do you anticipate these attempted revelations?"  I asked calmly.

She was silent.  The flames shot high in the grate, illuminating the
great handsome apartment and were reflected in the many mirrors, while
outside a neighbouring clock slowly struck six.  The mansion seemed
strangely quiet and dismal, now that its master, the Earl, had parted
from his smart wife.

"Bethune will be tried for murder.  Some awkward questions will then be
asked," she answered at last.  "Markwick is quite resolved, then," I
cried, starting up.  "Quite.  I, too, have every reason to believe that
Gilbert fell by Bethune's hand."

"Yet you have no proofs," I observed.

"I did not say that Certain proofs will be forthcoming at the trial."

"But I presume you are aware that Jack strenuously denies the
allegation?"

"Of course.  It is but natural.  He fancies himself secure and is
confident we dare not cause his arrest for fear he should make a
revelation regarding a strange and startling incident that occurred
recently.  But he is quite mistaken.  I intend to establish the fact
that Gilbert was murdered, and further, that he fell by the hand of your
friend."

"And the reason for this, Mabel," I exclaimed, bitterly; "the reason for
this is because you have received information that the foolish youth
executed a will under which, in the event of his death, you inherit
three millions.  This fact is already common gossip, although your name
has not yet transpired in the newspapers.  It is but natural that you
should wish to prove his death, even though you may have loved him."

"He was a foolish boy, and pretended to admire me, but I swear, on my
honour, that I gave him no encouragement.  I treated him kindly, as the
married woman usually treats a love-sick youth."

"And he has left you three millions because you were kind to him," I
said.  "Well, of course you are anxious to prove that he is not merely
ill or abroad and likely to turn up again; in fact, it is to your own
interest to show that he was murdered."

"I will prove it, even if I have to face a cross-examination in the
witness-box," she exclaimed with firm determination.  "All I ask you is,
for the sake of our long friendship, not to reveal the conversation you
overheard in the shrubbery."

"You wish me to assist you against my friend?"  I said.  "No, Mabel, I
cannot give you my promise.  What I overheard was suspiciously like a
conspiracy formed to convict Jack of murder, and if I am asked I shall
speak the truth."

Her lips quivered.  With a pretty woman's wilful egotism she had
anticipated that I would perjure myself to shield her, and her
disappointment and chagrin were apparent.  Her face was turned toward
the fire, and for a long time neither of us uttered a word.

"Because my husband has gone and I am defenceless," she said at last
with much bitterness, "all my whilom friends will, I suppose, now unite
in maligning me.  You, of all men, know the tragedy of my marriage," she
continued appealingly.  "I married for money and a coronet, but ere my
honeymoon was over, I discovered that to love my husband was impossible,
and further that his reputed wealth existed entirely in the imagination;
for truth to tell he has been on the verge of bankruptcy ever since our
marriage.  No, my life during these past three years has been a
wretchedly hollow sham; but because I am Countess of Fyneshade, and am
considered smart, I have been flattered and courted.  Put yourself for a
moment in my place, and see whether you would prefer the misery of your
husband's great, empty, comfortless home to the many happy, well-filled,
and brilliant houses always open to you, houses where you are deemed the
centre of attraction, and where admiration and flattery greet you on
every hand.  Think, think deeply for a moment, and I feel assured you
will not condemn me so unmercifully as you have."

"I do not condemn you, Mabel," I said quietly, "On the contrary, you
have my most sincere sympathy.  If there is anything I can do that will
induce Fyneshade to return and thus avoid the scandal, I will do it
willingly, but, understand, once and for all, I will not perjure myself
in a court of justice."

"Ah, you are cruel and hard-hearted, for you refuse to allay his
suspicions, even though you must know from the character of our
conversation that at least there is not one iota of affection between
Markwick and myself.  Is it because of Jack that you refuse?"

"Yes," I answered point-blank.  "It is because I don't believe he is
guilty."

Slowly she rose from her low chair and stood before me, tall and erect,
a bewitching figure against the fitful firelight.

"Then let me tell you one fact that may induce you to alter this
opinion," she said.  "You will remember that you went to his chambers
alone in the darkness, and met him there.  You suspected him, but gave
him no inkling of your suspicions, yet when you wanted to enter one of
his rooms he refused to allow you."

"Yes," I said, amazed.  "How do you know that?"

"It matters not by what means I have gained this knowledge; but I tell
you further that in that room at the moment you desired to enter, there
was stretched upon the floor the body of Gilbert Sternroyd!"

Her words came upon me as a bolt from the blue.  How she had become
aware of my visit was an entire mystery, but her allegation fully bore
out my horrible suspicion that the murderer was at that moment hiding
the ghastly evidence of his crime.

"Such, then, is the nature of the evidence you intend to adduce against
him," I said, when I had fully contemplated her startling announcement.
"You will, however, be compelled to prove that he committed the crime.
If you are aware that the body was concealed in that room, you probably
know where it is at the present time."

"My proofs I retain until the trial," she said.  "Gilbert has been
murdered, and I am but doing my best to bring the culprit to justice.
You think I am acting strangely; that my husband perhaps is, under the
circumstances, justified in leaving me to face a scandal and the
derision of the women who have envied me.  Well, you are welcome to your
opinion.  I can tell you, however, that when the truth is out, although
my reputation may be blighted, some revelations will be made that will
amaze you."

"I do not blame you for endeavouring to solve this mystery, Mabel," I
said rather sympathetically, "but remember Jack Bethune is my friend,
and Dora loves him dearly--"

"Because, poor girl, she is ignorant of the terrible truth," she
interrupted.

"Then let her remain in ignorance until his guilt be proved," I urged.
"She is happy; do not disturb what unfortunately may be but a brief
period of joy."

"You may rely on me," she answered.  "I shall tell my sister nothing.
But if Bethune is arrested do not be surprised."

"I do not anticipate his arrest," I observed.  "For when he is brought
to trial, the revelations of which you have spoken will implicate too
many people."

"How do you know?  What has he told you?" she inquired quickly.

"Nothing.  I have learnt much from my own observations."

"Now, tell me," she said, suddenly placing her hand softly upon my arm.
"Will you not take upon yourself the identity of Markwick for that brief
quarter-of-an-hour in the shrubbery--that is, of course, providing you
are asked?  I--I appeal to you," she added in a low tone, panting with
emotion.  "I appeal to you, as a woman clinging to one last hope, to
remove this unfounded suspicion attaching to me.  Speak, Stuart.  Tell
me you will remain my friend!"

I was silent.  The darting flames showed her hand some face upturned to
mine, pale, haggard, anxious.  Her breast rose and fell beneath its silk
and chiffon, and her white hand grasped my arm convulsively.

"I--I have been reckless," I admit, she went on, brokenly.  "My
recklessness has been caused by an absence of love for my home or my
husband, but I swear that Fyneshade's suspicions are utterly groundless.
Ah!--if you knew the terrible secret in my heart you would pity me--you
would shield me, I know you would," and some other words that she
uttered were lost in a sudden fit of hysterical sobbing.

"What is your secret?"  I asked calmly, when struggling with her
emotion, she again looked up to my face.

"You will remember when we were in the library at Blatherwycke, you
asked me if I ever knew a woman named Sybil."

"Yes," I cried eagerly.  "Yes.  Did you know her?"

"I--I lied to you when I denied all knowledge of her," she answered.  "I
am well aware of the strange manner in which you became acquainted with
her and of your marriage, but even though these incidents are startling,
the secret of her life and death is far more astounding."

"Tell me, Mabel.  Tell me all," I cried breathlessly.  "No," she
answered.  "No, not until you have promised to swear that you sat with
me in the shrubbery, and that Markwick was not present.  Only in
exchange for your aid will I reveal to you the secret."

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

THE EARL'S SUSPICIONS.

"Will you--will you swear?" she implored, grasping my hands, her white
agitated countenance still lifted to mine in earnest appeal.

I had felt confident long ago that she must know something of Sybil,
from the fact that Sternroyd's photograph had been placed with that of
my dead wife, but was entirely unprepared for this strange offer.  I was
to commit perjury and thus shield this mysterious scoundrel Markwick as
well as herself, in order to learn some facts about the woman I had
loved.  At first, so intense was my desire to obtain a clue to the
inscrutable mystery that had enveloped Sybil, that I confess my impulse
was to give my promise.  But on reflection I saw the possibility that
she desired to shield Markwick, and not herself; and I also recognised
the probability that her promised revelation might, after all, be
entirely untrue.  These thoughts decided me.

"No," I answered with firmness.  "I will not commit perjury, even though
its price be the secret of my wife's life."

"You will not?" she wailed.  "Not for my sake?"

"No," I answered, gravely.  "Much as I desire to solve the enigma, I
decline to entertain any such offer."

"Then you, too, are my enemy!" she cried wildly, with a sudden
fierceness, staggering back from me a few paces.

"I did not say so.  I merely refused to be bribed to perjury," I
answered as she released my hands.

"And you will not help me?" she said, hoarsely, standing before me and
twirling the ribbons of her gown between her nervous bejewelled fingers.

"I will assist you in any way I can, but I will not swear that I have
not seen that man," I replied.

"Ah! you are prejudiced," she said with a deep sigh.  Then in a meaning
tone she added, "If you knew the secret that I am ready to divulge in
exchange for your silence, you might perhaps have cause for prejudice."

She uttered these words, I knew, for the sole purpose of intensifying my
curiosity.  It was a woman's wile.  Fortunately, however, I remained
firm, and answered a trifle indifferently perhaps:

"If I can only learn the truth at such cost, then I prefer to seek a
solution of the mystery from some other source."

"Very well," she said, her eyes suddenly flashing with suppressed anger
at my blank refusal.  "Very well.  You refuse to render me a service,
therefore I decline to impart to you knowledge that would place your
enemies within your power.  Speak the truth if you will, but I tell you
that ere long you will regret your refusal to enter into the compact I
have suggested--you will come to me humbly--yes, humbly--and beg of me
to speak."

"Of what?"

"To tell you the truth," she said quickly, a heavy frown of displeasure
crossing her pale brow.  "I am fully aware of the many strange
adventures that have occurred to you during the past few months; those
incidents that have puzzled and mystified you, as indeed they would any
person.  I could, if I chose, give you an explanation that would astound
you, and place in your hands a weapon whereby you might defeat the evil
machinations of those who seek your ruin--nay, your death."

"My death!"  I echoed.  "Who seeks my death?"

"Your friends," she replied with a low cynical laugh, as taking up an
unopened note that lay unheeded upon the table, she glanced at its
superscription and eagerly concealed it in the pocket of her tea-gown.

For a moment she paused, walking slowly toward the fireplace, but
suddenly turning back to me, stretched forth both hands, and with a
quiver of intense emotion in her voice, made a final appeal urging me to
hide from everyone all knowledge of the interview in the garden at
Blatherwycke.

My mind was, however, made up.  I shook my head, but no word passed my
lips.  I regretted deeply that I had responded to her summons.

"You are not more generous than the rest," she cried suddenly between
her set teeth.  "No.  You would ruin me, drive me to a suicide's grave!
But you shall not.  Ha! ha! ha!" she laughed hysterically.  "We are
enemies now; you and I.  Well, let it remain so."

"It must be so if you desire it," I answered briefly, and not desiring
to prolong the interview, I bowed and turning upon my heel, strode from
the room, closing the door behind me.

As I stepped into the hall I encountered a person so suddenly that I
almost stumbled over him, yet so quickly did he motion me to silence,
that my expression of surprise died from my lips.  The appearance of the
man under these circumstances was certainly as unexpected as it was
puzzling, for it was none other than the Earl of Fyneshade.  It was not
surprising that he should loiter in his own house, attired in hat and
coat, but it was more than passing strange that while his wife was
deploring the fact that he had deserted her, and that a scandal would
thereby be created, he had actually been standing at the door, and in
all probability listening to a conversation which must have been
intensely interesting.

This thought flashed in an instant upon me.  If he had overheard his
wife's appeal would it not convince him more than ever that his
suspicions were justifiable?  Yet a few moments later, when he motioned
me to step into an adjoining room, the door of which he closed quietly
and turned to me in a manner quite friendly and affable, these fears
were at once dispelled.  Evidently he had heard nothing, for in
explanation of his mysterious conduct he told me that he wished his wife
to believe he was out of town, and that he had entered with his
latch-key in order to obtain some money.

"I was afraid you would greet me aloud," he said laughing.  "Fortunately
you didn't.  The fact is Mabel and I have had some little differences,
and for the present our relations are rather strained.  Did she ask you
to call?"

"Yes," I replied; adding, "she wanted to speak to me about Dora."

"Ah! poor Dora!"  Fyneshade exclaimed rather sadly.  "Most lamentable
affair that engagement of hers.  She's a charming girl, but I'm afraid
the course of true love will not run very smoothly for her!"

"Why?"

"Well, Bethune is hardly the man one would wish for a husband for one's
daughter," he answered.  "There are ugly rumours afloat regarding his
sudden disappearance."

"But he has now returned to face his traducers," I answered hastily.

"Yes, yes, I know.  But does not his uneasiness strike you as--well, at
least as curious?"

His words were an admission that he suspected Jack.  Had Mabel, I
wondered, told him of her suspicions?

"I really don't know," I said, with affected indifference.  He smiled
rather incredulously, I thought, and lowering his voice, evidently
fearing that he might be overheard, he inquired--

"There is a question I want to ask you, Stuart.  Are you acquainted with
a man named Markwick?"

"He is not an acquaintance of mine," I answered promptly, determined to
show no sign of surprise.  "I have seen him at Thackwell's, but have
only spoken to him twice."

"Do you know who he really is?" he asked, with a strange intensity of
tone that surprised me.

"I've known him as Markwick, but if he has another name I am utterly
unaware of it.  To me he has always appeared a rather shady individual
whose past is veiled by obscurity."

"And to me also.  For weeks I've been trying to discover who the fellow
really is, but no one knows.  He has been living at the Victoria
recently, and before that he made the Savoy his headquarters.  He
appears to have plenty of money, but according to the information I have
gathered, his movements are most erratic, and their object a profound
mystery.  He met my wife at some reception or another and called on her
the other day."  Then, bending toward me he asked: "Do you think--I
mean--well, would you suspect him of being a detective?"

I regarded him keenly.  His question was a strange one.

"No," I replied.  "From my observations I feel perfectly confident that
he is not a detective.  He is more likely an adventurer."

"Are you absolutely sure he is not connected with the police?"

"I feel certain he's not," I answered.  "From one fact that came under
my notice I have been led to the conclusion that he is an adventurer of
the first water."

"A criminal?"

"No, I don't go quite so far as that.  All I know is that he has an
utter contempt for the law."

"Then he has, to your knowledge, committed some offence?"  Fyneshade
cried quickly, with undisguised satisfaction.

"Not exactly.  His action might, however, bring him within the pale of
the law."  I had no desire to impart to this thin, dark-faced peer the
wretched story of my marriage.

"What was the nature of his action?" he demanded eagerly.  "Tell me."

"Oh, it was really of no interest," I replied quite flippantly.  "I may
have been mistaken after all."

"In other words, you refuse to tell me--eh?" he observed with a sickly
smile.

"I cannot explain any matter of which I have no knowledge," I retorted,
well knowing that he was endeavouring to worm from me facts to use as
weapons against his enemy, and at the same time feeling convinced that
in order to discover the secret hinted at by his wife, I must act
warily, and with the most careful discretion.  This strange encounter
with the Earl, his curious actions in his own house, and his eagerness
to learn something detrimental to the mysterious Markwick, formed a
bewildering problem.  Nevertheless by some intuition I felt that by
silence and watchfulness I should at last succeed in finding some clue
to this ever-deepening mystery.

While we listened we heard the Countess emerge from the drawing-room and
call to her pug as, with a rustle of silk, she mounted the stairs.  Then
Fyneshade's conversation drifted into other channels.  But he made no
further mention of his disagreement with Mabel, and never once referred
to the strange disappearance of Gilbert Sternroyd.  Though I exerted all
my ingenuity to lead up to both subjects, he studiously avoided them,
and having waited until all seemed quiet and none of the servants were
moving, we both crept out, the Earl closing the front door silently by
means of his key.

In the street he glanced swiftly around in order to see if he had been
observed, then suddenly gripping my hand, he wished me a hurried adieu,
and walked quickly away, leaving me standing on the curb.  His usual
courteous manner seemed to have forsaken him, for he offered no excuse
for leaving me so abruptly, nor did he apparently desire my company any
longer.  Therefore I turned and pursued my way engrossed in thought
Truly the Earl and Countess of Fyneshade were an ill-assorted pair, and
their actions utterly incomprehensible.

CHAPTER TWENTY.

AN EVENING'S AMUSEMENT.

Saunders met me on entering my chambers with the surprising announcement
that a lady had called during my absence, and had desired to see me on
pressing business.

"Did she leave a card?"

"No, sir.  She hadn't a card, but she left her name.  Miss Ashcombe,
sir."

"Ashcombe?"  I repeated.  "I don't know anyone of that name," and for a
few moments I tried to recollect whether I had heard of her before, when
it suddenly burst upon me that on a previous occasion I had been puzzled
by a letter bearing the signature "Annie Ashcombe."  The note I had
found in Jack's room on the night of the tragedy and which requested
Bethune to meet "her ladyship" at Feltham, had been written by someone
named Ashcombe!

"What kind of lady was she, Saunders?"  I inquired eagerly.  "Ancient?"

"About thirty-five, I think, sir.  She was very excited, dark, plainly
dressed in black, and wore spectacles.  She seemed very disappointed
when I said you had only just returned from Wadenhoe, and had gone out
again.  She wanted to write a note, so I asked her in and she wrote one,
but afterward tore it up and told me to mention that she had called to
see you on a matter of the most vital importance, and regretted you were
not in."

"Did she promise to call again?"

"She said she was compelled to leave London immediately, but would try
and see you on her return.  When I asked if she could make an
appointment for to-morrow, she replied, `I may be absent only three
days, or I may be three months.'"

"Then she gave no intimation whatever of the nature of her business?"

"Not the slightest, sir.  I think she's Irish, for she spoke with a
slight accent."

"You say she tore up her note.  Where are the pieces?"  He went to the
waste-paper basket, turned over its contents, and produced a handful of
fragments of a sheet of my own notepaper.  These I spread upon the
table, and when he had left the room I eagerly set to work placing them
together.  But the paper had been torn into tiny pieces and it was only
after long and tedious effort that I was enabled to read the words,
hastily written in pencil, which as far as I could gather, were to the
following effect:--

"Dear Sir.--The matter about which I have called to see you is one of
the highest importance both to yourself and one of your friends.  It is
not policy, I think, to commit it to paper; therefore, as I am compelled
to leave London at once I must, unfortunately, postpone my interview
with you.

"Yours truly,--

"Annie Ashcombe."

I unlocked the little cabinet and taking therefrom the strangely-worded
letter I had found in Jack's room I compared minutely the handwriting
and found peculiarities identical.  The "Annie Ashcombe" who had called
to see me was also the writer of the message from the unknown lady who
had taken the precaution of journeying to Feltham in order to secure a
private interview with Jack Bethune.  Annoyed that I had been absent,
and feeling that I had been actually within an ace of obtaining a most
important clue, I cast the fragments into the grate with a sigh and
replaced the letter in the cabinet.  The situation was most tantalising;
the mystery inexplicable.  From her I might have learnt the identity of
Jack's lady friend, and she could have very possibly thrown some light
upon the causes that had led to the tragedy, for somehow I could not
help strongly suspecting that "her ladyship" referred to in the note was
none other than Mabel.  But my visitor had gone, and I should now be
compelled to await her return during that vague period which included
any time from three days to three months.

A fatality seemed always to encompass me, for my efforts in search of
truth were constantly overshadowed by the jade Misfortune.  I was
baffled at every turn.  To discover the identity of "her ladyship" was,
I had long recognised, a most important fact in clearing or convicting
Jack, but, at least for the present, I could hope for no further
explanation.

Having dressed, I went to the Club, dined with several men I knew, and
afterward descended to one of the smoking-rooms, where I accidentally
picked up an evening paper.  The first heading that confronted me was in
bold capitals the words, "Sternroyd Mystery: Supposed Clue.  The Missing
Man's Will."

Breathless with eagerness I devoured the lines of faint print.  They
seemed to dance before my excited vision as I learnt from them that a
reporter who was investigating the strange affair, had ascertained that
a clue had been obtained by the detectives.

"The mystery," continued the journal, "is likely to develop into one of
the most sensational in the annals of modern crime.  We use the word
crime because from information our representative has obtained, it is
absolutely certain that the young millionaire Sternroyd met with foul
play.  How, or where, cannot yet be ascertained.  At Scotland Yard,
however, they are in possession of reliable information that Mr
Sternroyd had for some time actually anticipated assassination, and had
confided this fact to a person who has now come forward and is actively
assisting the police.  Another extraordinary feature in the case is,
that although Mr Sternroyd has a mother and a number of relatives
living, he made a will, only a few weeks before his disappearance,
bequeathing the whole of his enormous fortune to a lady well known in
London society.  The police are most actively engaged in solving the
mystery, and now that it has been ascertained that the missing man
anticipated his end at the hand of another, it is confidently believed
that in the course of a few hours the police will arrest a person
suspected."

The secret was out!  Mabel had evidently placed her theory before the
police and explained what Gilbert had told her regarding his fears.  She
was Jack's enemy, and had placed the detectives on the scent.  This,
then, was the reason she had endeavoured to silence me regarding her
interview with Markwick at Blatherwycke.  When she had striven to induce
me to swear secrecy, she had without doubt already informed the police
of her suspicions, and well knew that ere long I should be called as a
witness to speak as to Bethune's movements.  Our friendship had been
broken.  Fortunately I had promised nothing, and was free to speak.

The pink news-sheet I cast from me, congratulating myself that I had not
fallen into the trap the Countess had so cunningly baited.

Even at that moment some men opposite me were discussing the mysterious
affair, and as I smoked, my ears were on the alert to catch every
syllable of their conversation.  It was only now that I fully realised
what widespread sensation Sternroyd's disappearance had caused.  Having
been absent in the country, I was quite unaware of the intense public
interest now centred in the whereabouts or fate of the young millionaire
whose little peccadilloes and extravagances had from time to time
afforded food for gossip and material for paragraphists in society
journals.

"There is a woman in the case," one of the men was saying between
vigorous pulls at his cigar.  "I knew Gilbert well.  He wasn't a fellow
to disappear and bury himself in the country or abroad.  Whatever he
did, he did openly, and no better-hearted young chap ever breathed.  He
was awfully good to his relations.  Why, dozens of them actually lived
on his generosity."

"I quite agree," said another.  "But I heard something in the Bachelors'
last night that seems to put quite a different complexion on the
affair."

"What is it?" inquired half-a-dozen eager voices in chorus.

"Well, it is now rumoured that he admired the Countess of Fyneshade, and
that he was seen with her on several occasions just prior to his
disappearance.  Further, that the will about which to-night's papers
give mysterious hints, is actually in her favour.  He's left everything
to her."

The other men gave vent to exclamations of surprise, but this piece of
gossip was immediately seized upon as a text for many theories of the
weird and wonderful order, and when I rose and left, the group were
still as far off solving the mystery to their own satisfaction as they
had been half an hour before.

Wandering aimlessly along to Piccadilly Circus, I turned into the
Criterion expecting to find a man I knew, but he was not there, and as I
started to leave, I suddenly confronted a tall, well-dressed man who had
been lounging beside me at the bar, and who now uttered my name and
greeted me with a breezy "Good-evening, Mr Ridgeway."

Unnerved by the constant strain of excitement, this suddenness with
which we met caused me to start, but in an instant I told myself that I
might learn something advantageous from this man, therefore called for
more refreshment, and we began to chat.

The man's name was Grindlay.  He was a detective who owed his position
of inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department mainly to my
father's recommendation.  About six years previous a great fraud,
involving a loss of something like thirty thousand pounds, was
perpetrated upon my father's bank by means of forged notes, and
Grindlay, at that time a plain-clothes constable of the City Police,
stationed at Old Jewry, succeeded, after his superiors had failed, in
tracing the manufacturer of the notes to Hamburg and causing his arrest,
extradition, and conviction.  The ingenuity of the forger was only
equalled by the cunning displayed by the detective, and in consequence
of a question my father addressed to the Home Secretary in the House,
Grindlay was transferred to Scotland Yard and soon promoted to an
inspectorship.  Therefore it was scarcely surprising that he should
always show goodwill toward my family, and on each occasion we met, he
always appeared unusually gentlemanly for one of his calling, and full
of genuine bonhomie.

Immediately after the strange adventures of that memorable night on
which I had been married to a lifeless bride, I had sought his counsel,
but had been informed that he was absent in South America.  It was now
with satisfaction that I again met him, although I hesitated to speak to
him upon the subject.  Truth to tell I felt I had been ingeniously
tricked, and that now after the lapse of months, even this astute
officer could not assist me.  No, as I stood beside him while he told me
briefly how he had had "a smart run through the States, then down to Rio
and home" after a fugitive, I resolved that my secret should still
remain my own.

"Yes," I said at length.  "I heard you were away."

"Ah! they told me at the Yard that you had called.  Did you want to see
me particularly?" he asked, fixing his dark brown eyes on mine.  He was
a handsome fellow of middle age, with clear-cut features, a carefully
twisted moustache and upon his cheeks that glow of health that seems
peculiar to investigators of crime.  In his well-made evening clothes
and crush hat, he would have passed well for an army officer.

"No," I answered lightly: "I happened to be near you one day and thought
I would give you a call.  What are you doing to-night?"

"Keeping observation upon a man who is going to the Empire," he
answered, glancing hurriedly at his watch.  "Come with me?"

For several reasons I accepted his invitation.  First because I wanted
some distraction, and secondly because it had occurred to me that I
might ascertain from him something fresh regarding the murder of Gilbert
Sternroyd.

We lit fresh cigars, and, strolling to the Empire Theatre, entered the
lounge at that hour not yet crowded.  As we walked up and down, his
sharp, eager eyes darting everywhere in search of the man whose
movements he was watching, I inquired the nature of the case upon which
he was engaged.

"Robbery and attempted murder," he answered under his breath so that
passers-by should not hear.  "You remember the robbery of diamonds in
Hatton Garden a year ago, when a diamond merchant was gagged and nearly
killed, while the thief got clear away with every stone in the safe.
Well, it's that case.  I traced the stones back to Amsterdam, but failed
to find the thief until three weeks ago."

"And he'll be here to-night?"

"Yes, I expect him.  But don't let's talk of it," he said under his
breath.  "Somebody may spot me.  If you chance to meet any of your
friends here, and am compelled to introduce me, remember I am Captain
Hayden, of the East Surrey Regiment."

"Very well," I answered smiling, for this was not our first evening
together, and I had already been initiated into some of the wiles of
members of the Criminal Investigation Department.

For fully an hour we lounged at the bars, watched the variety
performance, and strolled about, but my friend failed to discover his
man.  While standing at one of the bars, however, several men I knew
passed and repassed, among them being the Earl of Fyneshade accompanied
by Markwick and another man whom I had never before seen.  The latter,
well-dressed, was apparently a gentleman.

"Do you know that tall man?"  I asked Grindlay as they went by, and we
happened to be looking in their direction.

"No," he answered.  "Who is he?"

"The Earl of Fyneshade."

"Fyneshade?  Fyneshade?" he repeated.  "Husband of the Countess, I
suppose.  She's reckoned very beautiful, isn't she?  Do you know them?"

"Yes," I replied.  "They are friends of my family."

"Oh," he said, indifferently.  "Who are the other men?"

I told my companion that the name of one was Markwick, and our
conversation then quickly drifted to other topics.  Presently, however,
when the Earl repassed along the lounge, he said--

"Have you met his lordship recently?  He doesn't appear to have noticed
you."

"I saw both the Earl and the Countess this afternoon," I said.  "I
called at Eaton Square."

Almost before the words had left my lips, Fyneshade and his friends
entered the bar, the trio speaking loudly in jovial tones, and in a
moment he recognised me.  Markwick and I exchanged glances, but neither
of us acknowledged the other.  It was strange, to say the least, that he
of all men should be spending the evening with Mabel's husband.

"Hulloa, Ridgeway!" cried the Earl, coming forward.  "Didn't expect to
see you here.  Where did you dine?"

"At the club," I answered, and turning, introduced Grindlay as Captain
Hayden.

"Good show here, isn't it," Fyneshade exclaimed enthusiastically to the
detective.  "Juniori is excellent tonight.  Her last song, `Trois Rue du
Pan,' is immense.  It's the best thing she has ever sung, don't you
think so?"  Grindlay agreed, criticised the vivacious dark-eyed
chanteuse with the air of a blase man-about-town, and chatted with his
new acquaintance with well-bred ease and confidence.  In a few minutes,
however, Fyneshade returned to rejoin his friends at the other end of
the small bar, while Grindlay and myself strolled out again on our
watchful vigil.

At last, after a diligent search, my friend suddenly gripped my arm,
whispering--

"See that man with the rose in his coat.  You would hardly suspect him
of a diamond robbery, would you?"

"No, by Jove!"  I said.  "I never should."  As we passed I looked toward
him and saw he was aged about fifty, with hair slightly tinged with
grey; he wore evening clothes, with a fine pearl and emerald solitaire
in his shirt, and upon his hands were lavender gloves.  In earnest
conversation with him was a short, stout, elderly man, with grey scraggy
beard and moustache, about whose personality there was something
striking, yet indefinable.

"Oh!" exclaimed Grindlay, when we were out of hearing.  "I had not
suspected this!"

"Suspected what?"  I asked, eagerly; for tracking criminals was to me a
new experience.

"I did not know that our friend there was acquainted with the little
man.  I've seen his face somewhere before, and if I'm not very much
mistaken, we hold a warrant for him with the offer of a reward from the
Belgian Government."  Then placing his cigar in his mouth and puffing
thoughtfully at it for a moment, he added, "Let's saunter back.  I must
get another look at him."

We turned, strolling slowly along, and as we passed, Grindlay left me
and went close to him to take a match from the little marble table near
which the pair was standing.  Leisurely he lit his cigar, then returning
to me, said briefly:

"I'm not yet certain, but I could almost swear he's the man.  If he is,
then I've fallen on him quite unexpectedly, and shall arrest him before
he leaves this place.  But I must first run down to the Yard and refresh
my memory.  Come with me?"

I assented, and we went out, driving to the offices of the Criminal
Investigation Department in a hansom.  Through the great entrance hall,
up two wide stone staircases and down a long echoing corridor, he
conducted me until we entered a large room wherein were seated several
clerks.  He had thrown away his cigar, his keen face now wore a strange
preoccupied look, and as he approached a shelf, took down a large
ledger, and opened it before him, he glanced up at the clock remarking
as if to himself--

"I've got an hour.  They are certain to remain until the end."

His eye ran rapidly down several columns of names, until one arrested
his attention and he closed the index-book, replaced it, and left me for
a few moments, observing with a laugh--"I won't keep you long, but
here--there's something to amuse you."

Taking from one of the unoccupied desks a large, heavily-bound volume,
he placed it before me, adding--"The people in there are mostly
foreigners wanted for crimes abroad, and believed to be living in free
England."  And he went out, leaving me to inspect this remarkable
collection of photographs.  Each portrait, mounted in the great album,
bore a number written in red ink across it, and I soon found myself
highly interested in them.  Presently Grindlay returned hurriedly with a
similar album, the leaves of which he turned over one by one, carefully
scrutinising each picture on the page in his eager search for the
counterfeit presentment of the man who, unsuspicious of detection, was
calmly enjoying the ballet at the Empire.

"Anything there to interest you?" he inquired presently without looking
up, as we stood side by side.

"Yes," I answered, "Are these all foreigners?"

"Mostly.  They are wanted for all kinds of crime, from fraud to murder,"
he replied.

They were indeed a most incongruous set.  Many were photographs taken by
the French and German and Italian police after the criminal's previous
conviction, and the suspects were often in prison dress; but the
portraits of others were in cabinet size, bearing the names of
well-known Paris, Berlin, and Viennese photographers.

"Have any of these people been arrested?"  I inquired.

"No.  When they are, we take out the picture and file it.  If there is
any reason why they should not be arrested it is written below."

And he went on with his careful but rapid search while carelessly I
turned over leaf after leaf.  A few of the men appeared quite refined
and gentlemanly.  Some of the women were quiet and inoffensive-looking,
and one or two of them stylishly dressed and exceedingly pretty, but it
could be distinguished that the majority bore the stamp of crime on
their brutal, debased faces.

I had glanced at a number of leaves mechanically, and had grown tired of
inspecting the motley crowd of evildoers, when suddenly an involuntary
cry of abject amazement escaped my lips.

My eyes had fallen upon two portraits placed side by side among a number
of others whose physiognomy clearly betrayed the fact that they were
malefactors.  Stupefied by the discovery I stood aghast, staring at
them, scarcely believing my own eyes.

The two portraits were those of Sybil and myself!

Sybil's picture was similar to the one I had purchased in Regent Street,
and was by the same photographer, while mine had evidently been copied
from one that had been taken in Paris two years before.

Of what crime had we been suspected?  Here was yet another phase of the
inexplicable mystery of Sybil's marriage and death.  Some words were
written beneath her portrait in red ink and initialled.  I bent to
examine them and found they read--"Warrant not executed--Death."

I raised my head slowly and turned to Grindlay.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

GRINDLAY'S TACTICS.

The detective, bending over the album, was so deeply engrossed in
contemplating a photograph he had just discovered, that he failed to
notice my exclamation of surprise, or if he heard it he vouchsafed no
remark.

I turned to him for the purpose of seeking some explanation regarding
the portrait of myself and my dead bride, but in an instant it occurred
to me that he knew nothing regarding the strange circumstances of my
marriage, or of the fact that Sybil was "wanted," otherwise he would not
have been so indiscreet as to give me this book of photographs to
inspect.  By directing his attention to it I should be compelled to
explain how ingeniously I had been tricked.

No.  Again silence was best.

I decided that I would keep my own counsel, at least for the present,
and watch the progress of events.  At the other portraits on the page I
glanced, then turned over leaf after leaf in search of another face I
had cause to remember--that of the mysterious Markwick.  But he was not
included.  Only Sybil and myself were suspected.  What, I wondered,
could be the crime for which our arrest was demanded.  Why, indeed, if I
had been "wanted," had I not been arrested long ago?

The discovery was astounding.

Grindlay, extracting the photograph from the book, left me hurriedly
with a word of apology, and while he was absent I again turned to the
strange assortment of foreign criminals, among whom I figured so
prominently.  Again and again I read the endorsement beneath Sybil's
photograph.  Her bright eyes looked out at me sadly.  Her beautiful
countenance bore the same strange world-weary look as on that evening
when she had first passed me in the half-lights of the Casino Garden in
the far-off Pyrenean valley.  But alas! the one word "death" written
below was a sad reality.  She was lost to me, and had died with her
inscrutable secret locked within her heart.

Presently the detective returned, thrusting some ominous-looking papers
in his breast-pocket as he walked, and closing the book I followed him
out a few moments later.

"I have the warrant," he said calmly, as we entered a cab together.  "I
shall make the arrest at once."

"Shall you arrest both men?"

"No," he replied, laughing.  "The situation is rather critical.  I don't
want to arrest the first man at present, only his companion.  If I
arrest the latter the diamond thief will no doubt abscond.  I shall
therefore be compelled to wait until they have parted."

"What's the charge against the other?"  I inquired, much interested.

"Jewel robbery," he answered sharply.  "He's one of a gang who have
their head-quarters in Brussels.  I must keep him under observation, for
he's a slippery customer, and has already done several long stretches.
Where he's been lately, goodness knows.  The police of Europe have been
looking out for him for fully two years, and this seems to be his first
public appearance.  It was quite by a fluke that I spotted him, for he
can't hide the deformity of his hand, even though he is wearing gloves."

"What deformity?"  I inquired.  "I did not notice any."

"No," he laughed.  "You are not a detective.  The deformity consists in
two fingers of his left hand being missing.  It was this fact that first
attracted my attention toward him."

Across Leicester Square we dashed rapidly, and, pulling up before the
Empire, were soon strolling again in the lounge, having been absent
about three-quarters of an hour.  The crowd was now so great that
locomotion was difficult, nevertheless the detective, having lit a fresh
cigar, walked leisurely here and there in search of the pair of
criminals, while I confess my interest was divided between them and the
Earl of Fyneshade.  Why the latter should now fraternise with the man of
whom only a few hours ago he had been so madly jealous was
incomprehensible, and my eyes were everywhere on the alert to again
discover them and watch their actions.  Fyneshade had left his wife
because of her friendship with this sinister-faced individual, yet he
was actually spending the evening with him.  It was a curious fact, and
one of which Mabel evidently did not dream.  What, I wondered, could be
the motive?  Had Markwick sought the Earl's society with some evil
design?  Or had the Earl himself, determined to ascertain the truth,
stifled his feelings of jealousy, and for the nonce extended the hand of
friendship to the man he hated?

The performance was drawing to a close, the bars and foyer were crowded,
and the chatter and laughter so loud that neither song nor music could
be heard.  Although we struggled backward and forward, and peered into
the various bars, Grindlay could not discover the men for whom he was in
search, neither could I find the Earl and his companions.

"I'm very much afraid they've left," the detective said to me presently,
when he had made a thorough investigation.

"What shall you do?"

"Oh, I know where I can find the first man, therefore the second; being
in London, it will not be a very difficult matter to get scent of him
again," he answered lightly, adding, "But I haven't seen your friend the
Earl.  He's gone also, I suppose."

"I believe so.  I haven't noticed him since we returned."

"You said you knew that man who was with him," he observed.

"The tall man," I repeated.  "You mean Markwick.  Yes, I've met him once
or twice.  But I don't know much of him."

"Foreigner, isn't he?"

"I don't think so.  If he is, he speaks English amazingly well."

"Ah!  I thought he had a foreign cast in his features," he said,
striking a vesta to relight his cigar.  "I've seen him about town of
late, and wondered who and what he was; that's why I asked."

"Well, I don't exactly know what he is.  All I know is that he is a
friend of the Earl and his wife, and that he visits at one or two good
country houses.  Beyond that I am ignorant."

The detective did not reply.  He was too occupied in searching for the
jewel thieves.  Time after time we strolled up and down, descended to
the stalls, ascended to the grand circle, and had peered into every
nook, but without success, until at length we entered one of the bars to
drink.  While we stood there, I inquired whether he had the warrant for
the arrest of the man in his pocket, to which he replied in the
affirmative.

"Let me have a look at it," I urged.  "I've never seen a warrant."

But he shook his head, and laughing good-naturedly replied:

"No, Mr Ridgeway; you must really excuse me.  It is a rigid rule in our
Department that we never show warrants to anybody except the person
arrested.  The ends of justice might, in certain cases, be defeated by
such an injudicious action; therefore it is absolutely forbidden.  The
warrant is always strictly secret."

I smiled, assured him that it was only out of curiosity I had asked to
see it, and then, mentioning the strange disappearance of Gilbert
Sternroyd, asked him whether he had been engaged in that inquiry.

"Yes," he said, "I have--in an indirect manner.  It's an extraordinary
case, most extraordinary.  Murder, without a doubt."

"With what object?"  I asked.

"As far as we can ascertain, there was absolutely no object," he
answered.

"Do they expect to make an arrest?"

"They hope to, of course," he replied vaguely.  "Personally, I know but
little about it beyond what I've read in the newspapers.  It is a
strange feature in the case that the body has not been found."

"What about the will?"

"Ah! another very curious point; but I don't attach much importance to
it.  Many hare-brained, wealthy young fools make wills in favour of
women they admire.  It is an everyday occurrence, only they generally
revoke or destroy the will, or else spend all their money before they
die.  No; there is little in that, and certainly no clue.  By the way,
the lady to whom he has left his money is the wife of your friend the
Earl.  You knew Sternroyd, then?"

I was unprepared for this, but, affecting ignorance, answered:

"I saw him in the street one day.  Lady Fyneshade introduced me.  That
is all I knew of him."

The detective, apparently satisfied, did not press his question further;
but a few minutes later, the performance having concluded and the
theatre rapidly emptying, he suggested it was time to go, and outside,
in Leicester Square, we shook hands and parted.

"Good-night," he said heartily, as he turned to leave.  "I shall be
astir early to-morrow, and see if I can find the man who has eluded me
to-night."

"Good-night," I laughed.  "I shall look for the case in the papers."

Then he buttoned his overcoat and strolled rapidly away along Cranbourne
Street, while I made my way home in the opposite direction, my mind full
of strangely dismal forebodings.

Somehow--I know not by what means--it had been impressed upon me during
the last quarter of an hour I had been with Grindlay, that this shrewd
police officer was not searching for the diamond thief, for, on
reflection, I had a faint suspicion that, as we alighted from the cab
and entered the vestibule, one of the men he suspected had actually
passed us, and that my friend had stared him full in the face.  I was
too excited at the prospect of witnessing an arrest in the theatre to
notice the incident at that moment, and, strangely enough, it was only
when walking home absorbed in thought I remembered it.

Why had Grindlay allowed these men to thus slip through his fingers?

No!  I felt absolutely convinced that the detective was searching for an
entirely different person.  Indeed, the suggestion passed through my
mind, as I recollected his apparently artless questions, that after all
I might be suspected.  Perhaps someone had seen me leave Jack's chambers
on that fatal night; perhaps the name upon the warrant, which he refused
to show me, was actually my own.

Again, the discovery of my portrait in that gallery of criminals was
amazing, and seemed to have some hidden connection with the
disappearance of the young millionaire.  Perhaps Grindlay had purposely
given me the album to inspect in order to watch how I was affected by
the discovery.  In any case, the curious events of that evening had
rendered the problem even more complicated than before.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

A HOUSE OF SHADOWS.

My mother, I ascertained from a letter a few days later, had invited
Dora to remain with her a week, and Jack, still my father's guest, was
therefore basking in the smiles of the woman he loved.  How long would
this continue, I wondered.  Suspected and surrounded by spies and
enemies, Jack Bethune must, I felt certain, sooner or later betray his
terrible secret, either by word or deed, and then the assize court would
be the portal to the gallows.  I pitied Dora, well knowing what a
crushing blow must sooner or later fall to dispel her day-dreams and
shatter her air-built castles.  I pitied Jack, because I had seen in his
haggard, care-worn face only too plainly the terrible pangs of
conscience that, torturing him by day and night, were goading him
towards his doom.

Beauty is one of the rarest and most desirable things in nature.  Dora
Stretton, with her calm beauty, with its hints of animation and passion,
with her accomplishment of form and sweetness of voice, was one of those
ravishing creatures for whose smiles men do great deeds, for whom men
fight and die, through whom they feel that sudden throb of the heart
that lifts them beyond the common round.  The sweet, bright-eyed woman
who loved this murderer was one of those who make the joy, the poetry,
the tragedy of life.  Alas! that it should have been so.

The papers were full of laudatory reviews of Bethune's new book, "The
Siren of Strelitz," and while everywhere the opinion was expressed that
the "soldier-novelist" had never done better work, the popular author
himself was clinging to the last hours of his happiness with Dora,
trembling at each approaching footstep, and expecting arrest at any
moment.  A dozen, nay, a hundred, times I sat and calmly reflected
whether I had the slightest shadow of doubt in my own mind that he was
Gilbert's murderer; but I could find none.  I alone had, by strange
mischance, discovered the body, and when I had returned he refused to
allow me to enter one of the rooms.  He had locked the door in my face.
In there the body had been hidden, and thence, by the exercise of some
deep cunning, the nature of which I was unaware, he had removed it and
disposed of it in such a manner that discovery was impossible.  He had
hidden every trace of this terrible deed, and there remained only myself
as witness against him.

I had seen the body.  My evidence alone might send him to a murderer's
grave.

But if, finding himself cornered, he wove a web about me, in what plight
should I find myself?  This startling thought impressed itself upon me
one morning as, sitting alone in my chambers, I had been reading a
half-column of "Latest Details" hashed up by an enterprising reporter
who had carefully "written around the facts" without carrying his reader
any further.  There was just a chance that Bethune might give
information against me and cause my arrest.  In such circumstances it
would, I realised not without alarm, be very easy for him to give some
damning circumstantial evidence.  Yet he could not allege that he had
found me searching the spot where the body had lain, otherwise his
evidence would show that he had previous knowledge of the crime, and
some awkward cross-examination would follow regarding the disposal of
the body.  No!  Careful consideration of any evidence that might be
given against me brought me to the gratifying conclusion that he dare
not adopt the bold course of accusing me of firing the fatal shot I had
determined to seek a solution of the mysterious link that I felt more
than ever convinced connected the tragic end of Gilbert Sternroyd with
my strange marriage and Sybil's death; yet I knew not in what direction
to seek.  The Countess had admittedly been acquainted with her; Markwick
had, I knew from personal knowledge, held some mystic influence over
her; and the murdered man had known her so intimately that, at her own
desire, their photographs had been exhibited together in Regent Street.
Either Mabel or Markwick could, if they chose, tear aside the veil and
present the facts undistorted; but from neither could I hope for any
assistance, for the man had disclaimed all knowledge of me prior to our
formal introduction at Wadenhoe, while Lady Fyneshade made perjury the
price of her secret.

I had, therefore, to act on my own initiative, as before, and again at
this time the strange words written on my card that had been attached to
the wreath in Woking Cemetery urged me to still prosecute my search
after truth.  The mysterious message, apparently from the dead and
intended no doubt for me, had read, "Seek and you may find."  That hour
I renewed my search with increased vigour and a keen desire to revenge
the death of Sybil, which I felt convinced had been brought about by
foul play.

For many days I wandered aimlessly about London, expecting to hear of
Jack's arrest, and scarcely daring to glance at the contents bills of
the evening papers lest my eyes should fall upon the words I dreaded
there to see.

Since my meeting with Sybil and the inexplicable and startling events
that had followed I had become so utterly world-weary that I cared
nothing for the festivities I attended.  I accepted invitations merely
out of habit, but truth to tell, had it not been for the keen desire to
elucidate the ever-deepening mystery I should have returned to the
country or gone abroad.  I felt, however, that in London alone a clue
might be discovered, therefore I remained; but, although day after day,
I racked my brains in an endeavour to form some plan of action, I could
see no ray of light through the impenetrable veil.  On several occasions
I had met Grindlay accidentally, and had tried in vain to learn from him
whether any further evidence had been obtained against Bethune.  He
always affected ignorance, and the only point on which he deigned to
enlighten me was that the two men he had pointed out to me at the Empire
had successfully succeeded in eluding him.

Dora, having remained three weeks at Wadenhoe, had returned to Lady
Stretton at Blatherwycke, and was daily expected in town for the season;
Jack had left and gone to North Wales, for the purpose of getting local
colour for a new historical romance dealing with life in Wales in the
sixteenth century; and, as far as I could ascertain, the Earl of
Fyneshade had gone to the Continent.  I had not seen Mabel for nearly a
month, and had not the slightest desire to meet her, but I heard rumours
that she went about a good deal with Markwick, who was a constant
visitor at her house.  The Earl's friendship with this man on that
memorable evening at the Empire was extraordinary.  There was some deep
motive underlying his feigned good-nature, but what it was I was utterly
unable to discover.  That it must be of a sinister character I knew, but
further I could surmise nothing.

Alone, my brain ever racked by the torments of this tantalising mystery,
I strove with every endeavour to learn something of the movements of the
polished adventurer who had been designated as a "vile, despicable
coward," but could hear little beyond the fact that Mabel and he were
close friends.

She had distinctly denied the insinuation that there was a liaison
between them, and I confess I believed her words were true.  If he had
not been attracted by her beauty then his friendship meant conspiracy.
The conversation I had overheard at Blatherwycke was sufficient proof of
this.

It was in a despairing, uncertain state of mind when, alone in my room
one afternoon, I reverently drew Sybil's portrait from its hiding-place
and looked lingeringly at it.  Her grave eyes peered forth with just
that sweet expression of sadness that had puzzled me in that gay little
mountain town where we had first met.  What strange secret was hidden in
her mind?  What suspicion, deep rooted, terrible perhaps, had caused
that woeful look upon her flawless countenance?  Through my brain there
floated memories of the past--sweet, tender memories of the few
brilliant sun-lit idle days among the mountains; sad, bitter memories of
a never-to-be-forgotten night, each event of which was photographed
indelibly upon my memory.  All recurred to me.  The meeting with
Markwick at Richmond, his devilish cunning, and the weird and tragic
ceremony in that mysterious mansion.  The recollection of the house in
Gloucester Square caused me to deeply ponder.  I remembered that I had
set out to inspect the place on one occasion, and the persons who had
prevented me had been Mabel and her murdered admirer, Gilbert.  Was
there any reason why she had met me at the door?  Could it have been
possible that she had followed me with the determination that I should
not enter there?  On calm reflection it certainly seemed as if such had
actually been the case, even though I remembered there was a board up
announcing that the great house was to let.

I locked the photograph away and sat motionless for a long time
thinking, at last resolving to revisit the house.  I had a morbid desire
to again stand in that great drawing-room wherein I had been married,
and where Sybil had died; I wanted to inspect the house and refresh my
memory as to its details.  The solution of the mystery was now the sole
object of my life.  All previous effort having failed, I determined to
revert again to the very beginning.

That afternoon I drove past the house in a cab, and taking notice of the
address of the firm of estate agents who, according to the notice-board,
had the letting of it, went on to their office in Sloane Street,
arriving there just as they were closing.  I ascertained that the house
had been let six months before to an Indian merchant, named Fryer, who
had signed an agreement for five years.  I observed that the house was
still empty and the board had not been removed, whereupon the clerk told
me that the new tenant had, before returning to India, said it was
probable that he would not return to take possession for perhaps another
year.

"I have a very keen desire to go over the place," I said disappointedly,
after he had told me that they had given up the key.  "Some relatives of
mine once lived there, and the house has so many pleasant memories for
me.  Is it absolutely impossible to obtain entrance to it?"

"I'm afraid so, sir," the man answered.  "The tenant has possession.  It
is his own fault that the board has not been removed."

"Come," I said, bending over the counter towards him, "I feel sure the
tenant would not object to me going over the place.  Here is my card,
and if there are any little out-of-pocket expenses I'm prepared to pay
them, you know."

He smiled and glanced at me with a knowing air, as if calculating the
amount of the "tip" that I might be expected to disburse, and then
exclaimed in a low tone so that his fellow-clerks should not overhear:

"The case is rather peculiar.  Although this Mr Fryer has taken the
house and we have given up the key, yet to effect an entrance would
really be easy enough.  You must keep secret from the firm what I tell
you, but the fact is when the house was first put into our hands, some
years ago, we had a caretaker who did not live on the premises, and as
we required to keep a key here in case anyone called to go over the
house, we had to have a duplicate key made for him.  We have that key
still in our possession."

Slowly I drew from my vest-pocket a sovereign and slipped it unobserved
into his palm, saying: "Lend me that key until to-morrow."

He walked away with a business-like air in order to disarm any suspicion
that he had been bribed, returned with a ledger, commenced to recommend
other houses, and subsequently gave me a latch-key, with one
stipulation, that it must be returned to him at 9:30 next morning.

While hurrying along Knightsbridge I met Fyneshade unexpectedly, and
wishing to hear about Mabel and Markwick, accepted his invitation to
dine at the St Stephen's Club, instead of going on direct to Gloucester
Square.  During the meal I learnt that since the evening I had left him
stealing from his house like a thief, he had not returned there.  Only
that morning he had arrived back from Rome, and knew nothing of Mabel or
of the man who, according to her statement, had been the cause of their
estrangement.  Finding that he could give me no information, I excused
myself soon after dinner, and purchasing a cheap bull's-eye lantern and
a box of matches in a back street in Westminster, entered a hansom.

Had it not been for the fact that I had promised to return the key to
the house-agent's clerk at that early hour in the morning, I would have
gladly postponed my investigations until daylight, but hindered as I had
been by Fyneshade, it was nearly half-past nine when I alighted from the
cab at the corner of Hyde Park and walked to Radnor Place, where the
front entrance of the houses forming one side of Gloucester Square are
situated.  Halting under the great dark portico of number seventy-nine,
I glanced up and down the street.  The lamps shed only a dim sickly
light, the street was deserted, and the quiet only broken by the
monotonous tinkling of a cab-bell somewhere in Southwick Crescent, and
the howling of a distant dog.

I am not naturally nervous, but I confess I did not like the prospect of
entering that great gloomy mansion alone.  This main entrance being at
the rear, only one or two staircase-windows looked out upon the street
in which I stood, and all were closely barred.  About the exterior, with
its grimy conservatory, mud-bespattered door, and littered steps, there
seemed an indescribable mysteriousness.  I found myself hesitating.

What profit could an intimate knowledge of this place be to me?  I asked
myself.  But I answered the question by reflecting that the place was
empty, therefore there was at least nothing to fear as long as I got in
unobserved.  If the police detected me I should, in all probability, be
compelled to go to the nearest station and submit to a cross-examination
by an inspector.

All was quiet, and, having no time to lose, I therefore slipped out the
key, inserted it in the heavy door, and a few seconds later stood in the
spacious hall with the door closed behind me.  For a moment the total
darkness unnerved me, and my heart thumped so quickly that I could hear
its beating.  I remembered how, while on a similar night search, I had
discovered the body of Gilbert Sternroyd.

Quickly I lit my lantern, and by its welcome light stole along, making
no sound.  The darkness seemed to envelope me, causing me to fear making
any noise.  There was a close, musty smell about the place, a combined
odour of dirt and mildew; but as I flashed my lamp hither and thither
into the most distant corners, I was surprised to discover the size of
the hall, the magnificence of the great crystal chandelier, and the
beauty of the crystal balustrades and banisters of the wide handsome
staircase.  The paintings in the hall were old family portraits, but
over them many spiders had spun their webs, which also waved in festoons
from the chandelier and from the ceiling.  Years must have elapsed since
the place had been cleaned, yet it was strange, for on my visit on the
night of Sybil's death I had not noticed these signs of neglect.

The place had then been brilliantly lit; now all was dark, squalid, and
funereal.

Room after room on the ground floor I entered.  The doors of most of
them were open, but all the apartments were encrusted by the dust and
cobwebs of years.  The furniture, some of it green with mildew, was
slowly decaying, the hangings had in many places rotted and fallen,
while the lace curtains that still remained at the closely-shuttered
windows, were perfectly black with age.

It was a house full of grim shadows of the past.  The furniture, of a
style in vogue a century ago, was handsome and costly, but irretrievably
ruined by neglect.  Fully half an hour I occupied in exploring the
basement and ground-floor, then slowly I ascended the wide staircase in
search of the well-remembered room wherein I had unwittingly been one of
the contracting parties to as strange a marriage ceremony as had ever
been performed.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

IN SILENT COMPANY.

As I ascended, my feet fell noiselessly upon the thick carpet, raising
clouds of dust, the particles of which danced in the bright ray from my
lamp, like motes in a streak of sunlight.  The ceiling of the hall had
been beautifully painted, but portions of it had now fallen away,
revealing ugly holes and naked laths.

The first room I entered on reaching the landing was, I discovered, the
small study into which I had been ushered on that night.  It was much
cleaner than the other apartments, but, on going to the grate and
bending to examine it, I found the chimney still closed by an iron
plate, and in the fireplace there remained a quantity of burnt charcoal.
It was covered with dust, and was no doubt the same that had been used
to render me unconscious.  The window, too, was shuttered and barred,
and on the door-lintel I could still trace where the crevices had been
stopped.

As I turned, after examining the room thoroughly, I saw, standing on a
small table near the window, a cheap photograph frame in carved white
wood.  The portrait was of an old lady, and did not interest me, but the
frame riveted my attention.  I recognised it.  Across the top it had the
single word "Luchon" carved.  I took it up and examined it closely.
Yes!  It had belonged to Sybil.  I had been with her when, attracted by
its quaintness, she had purchased it for three francs.

As I put it down there surged through my mind a flood of memories of
those pleasant bygone days.  Suddenly a sound caused me to start.

Not daring to move, I listened.  It was the rustle of silk!  Some one
was ascending the stairs!

In an instant I blew out my light, and waited just inside the door.  The
noise approached rapidly, and in a few moments a slim, graceful woman,
in an evening gown, and carrying in her hand a red-shaded lamp, passed
the door.

As she went by the crimson glow did not sufficiently illuminate her
face, but her appearance gave me a sudden start.  Had she entered with
sinister design; or was this weird, neglected place her home?  Thinking
only of the elucidation of the mystery that had surrounded Sybil, I
crept on noiselessly after her.  Apparently she was no stranger to the
place, for, passing the first room on the left, she entered the second,
which proved to be the great drawing-room where I had once stood beside
my lost bride.  Passing to the end, her thin evening shoes making no
noise on the thick dust-covered carpet, she crept like a thief to the
opposite end of the spacious apartment, and placed the lamp upon a
little table.  Then, for the first time, I saw that behind it was a
door, and I crept back into the shadow so that she could not detect my
presence.

For a moment she hesitated, placing her hand upon her breast, as if to
stay the wild beating of her heart.  Then, slowly and noiselessly, she
turned the handle of the door, and a flood of brilliant light streamed
forth.

She peered in, but next second drew back terrified.  The scene within
the room had held her spellbound with horror, which seemed to grasp her
heart as if with icy fingers.  Her trembling hands tightly clenched, she
prepared to enter.  One long, deep breath she drew, and set her teeth in
desperation; but at that moment, as with her hand she pushed back the
hair from her clammy brow, her face was turned full towards the lamp.

I looked, and stood stupefied.  It was Dora!

I sprang forward to arrest her progress, but at that instant a frightful
blow fell upon the back of my skull, crushing me, and I fell senseless
like a log.

How long I remained unconscious, or what events occurred during the
oblivion that fell upon me, I have no idea.

My only recollection is that I felt the presence of some person near me,
and I heard words uttered.  But upon my ears they fell as if spoken so
far away as to be indistinguishable.  Scenes strangely distorted, sad
and humorous, pleasing and horrible, flitted through my mind as I lay
dozing, half-conscious, striving to think, but unable even by the dint
of greatest effort, to sufficiently collect my senses to reflect with
reason.

In this half-dreamy stupor I must have remained a very long time.  Hours
passed.  I lay as one dead--unable to move, unable to think.

Gradually, however, I found my mind growing clearer.  Thoughts, that at
first were hopelessly mixed, slowly shaped themselves; and I remember
trying to recall the startling events that had preceded the cowardly
blow dealt me by some unknown hand.  Thus, painfully and with the utmost
difficulty, I struggled to regain knowledge of things about me.

Opening my eyes at last, I found myself in darkness, save for a glimmer
of faint grey light that crept in over the top of what I imagined to be
heavy closely-barred shutters.  It was about ten o'clock at night when I
had been struck down; it was now already morning.  Stretching forth my
cold, nerveless fingers, I groped to feel my surroundings on either
side, discovering myself still lying on the floor, but whereas the
drawing-room in which I had encountered Dora had been well-carpeted,
this room seemed bare, for I was lying upon cold flags.  With a sudden
movement I put out my hands and raised my head, in an endeavour to
regain my feet.  But this action brought vividly to my mind that the
injury I had received was serious.

A pain shot through my head.  So excruciating was it that I fainted.

During the hours that followed all was again blank.  When I reopened my
hot fevered eyes I saw that the streak of dawn--the one welcome ray that
inspired hope within me--was now a thin golden bar of sunshine, that
gave just sufficient light to enable me to distinguish my strange
surroundings.  Endeavouring to reflect calmly, my eyes were fixed upon
the blackened ceiling.  At first I wondered what had caused it to become
so sooty, and calculated the number of years during which spiders had
festooned their dust-laden webs upon it, when suddenly my eyes clearly
distinguished that the ceiling was arched--that it was unplastered, and
of bare begrimed brick.

Eagerly I looked on either side.  The walls also were of bare brick I
was in a cellar!

Struggling unsteadily to my feet I stood amazed.  Who, I wondered, had
conveyed me to this place?  Surely not Dora!  If I had been murderously
attacked, might not she also have fallen a victim?  But why had she come
here; by what means had she obtained an entrance?  As I recalled the
startling encounter of the previous night I recollected that she had
been dressed as if for a dance, and it was therefore probable that she
had slipped away from home on some errand that was imperative.  Her
visit there placed a new complexion upon the remarkable current of
circumstances.

These and a thousand other puzzling thoughts filled my brain as I stood
in that gloomy, subterranean, vermin-infested place into which I had
been thrust.  It was not large, but half filled by a great heap of
lumber piled up to the roof.  There was something about the place that I
could not understand.  I felt stifled; my nostrils were filled by a
strange sickening odour.  Towards the window I walked to obtain fresh
air, but found what I had at first imagined to be shutters were not
shutters at all; the streak of welcome light came through a little
barred aperture about three inches wide in the pavement above.  The
pains in my head caused me giddiness and nausea.

What if I had been imprisoned here?  The horrifying prospect of slow
starvation in an empty, deserted house appalled me, and I sprang towards
the heavy door, that had at some time or other been strengthened by
bands of iron.

I turned the handle.  It was locked!

Staggering back, I gave vent to an exclamation of despair.  The pain in
my skull was terrible, and as I placed my hand at the back of my head I
felt my hair stiff and matted by congealed blood.  One thought alone
possessed me.  I knew that my life depended on my escape.  Again I tried
to recollect minutely every incident of the previous night, but it all
seemed like some terrible nightmare.  In fact, in my nervous anxiety to
free myself, I was unable to realise that Dora had actually been
present, and tried to convince myself that it had been merely some
strange chimera produced by my unbalanced imagination.

Yet so vividly did it all recur to me that there seemed no room for
doubt.  The one fear uppermost in my mind was that Dora herself had met
with foul play.  I remembered the firm look of desperation upon her
face, and I tried to imagine what scene of horror she had witnessed in
that brilliantly-lit inner room that should cause that look of horror
upon her countenance.  Evidently she had entered this weird, neglected
house with a firm resolve, but what her purpose had been I failed to
imagine.

Had I been placed in that cellar by my assailant, who, finding me
unconscious, had been under the apprehension that he had committed
murder?  This seemed at least a reasonable surmise.  Yet it was utterly
inexplicable.

But the necessity for freedom impressed itself upon me.  The nauseating
odour that filled the place choked me; I gasped for fresh air.  The
small opening in the further wall, near the roof, did not admit any air,
as there was a piece of thick, dirt-begrimed glass before it so high up
that I could not reach to break it.  The door was the only means of
exit, but when I again endeavoured to open it I found all efforts
unavailing.  True, the great thickly-rusted lock with its formidable
socket was on the inside, but it was of such dimensions that to break it
was utterly impossible.

I knew that I had been conveyed to that place by some unknown enemy, who
had either believed me dead, or who intended that I should remain there
to starve; therefore, to escape without delay before darkness fell was
absolutely imperative.  By the meagre light afforded by the single ray
of sunshine I made a careful examination of the lock, but was compelled
to admit that in order to break it I should require a heavy hammer or a
chisel.  Both lock and hinges had evidently been freshly oiled, probably
in order that the door could be opened and shut without creaking.

For a considerable time I was engaged in searching among the lumber for
some instrument with which to effect my escape, but could discover none.
There were a large number of empty wine cases, old books, broken
furniture, discarded wearing apparel, a table with one leg missing, and
a variety of miscellaneous domestic articles; but none of these could I
utilise for the purpose of breaking out of my prison.  At last, hidden
away beneath a pile of old boxes, I discerned a large black
old-fashioned travelling trunk, with long iron hinges.  Pulling away
some of the rubbish piled about it, I felt the iron clamps, and it
occurred to me if I could only detach one of them they were heavy enough
to use as a hammer to break off the socket of the lock.  Unlike the
other boxes, which were dry, the wood of this trunk was damp, mildewed
and rotting.  Along the side was a great crack, into which I could have
placed my hand, and the side had bulged as if the trunk had been burst
open by some terrific force.  With care I felt one of the iron
fastenings, and before long came to the conclusion that to remove it
would be an easy task.  Therefore, without delay, I threw down the boxes
piled above it; but in doing so, the big heavy trunk also lurched over,
and before I could steady it, fell with a crash upon the flags.

The fall loosened the iron clamp, and kneeling upon the box, exerting
all my efforts, I succeeded at last in tearing it bodily from the wet
decaying wood.

As I did so, however, my weight upon the trunk caused part of the
damaged side to fall out, and thus the lid, that had once been securely
locked, became unloosened.  Out of sheer curiosity to see what it
contained, I pulled it aside and gazed in.

"My God!"  I cried next second, thrilled with horror.

I had recklessly thrust my hand into the trunk, thinking it to contain
some old wearing apparel, and my fingers had, with startling suddenness,
come into contact with a cold, lifeless human hand.

The sun had been obscured, and there was not sufficient light to enable
me to discern distinctly the lifeless form therein concealed.  I could,
however, see that it was a body, the clenched hand of which, stretched
above, pointed to the suggestion that the person had been doubled up and
placed there before the spark of vitality had been extinguished.  The
fingers showed in what terrible paroxysm of agony the victim's last
breath had been drawn.

This discovery appalled me.  I stood with the long iron hinge still in
my hand, gazing awe-stricken at the box in which the body was concealed.
I now realised how, by decomposition of the contents, the wood had
rotted; how, by the accumulation of gases, it had been rent asunder, and
that the sickening stifling odour that nauseated me emanated from this
hidden evidence of a crime.

Around this cellar that had been converted into a charnel-house I gazed
half fearfully, my eyes penetrating its darkest recesses, dreading to
meet some spectral form or to face the unknown person who had made such
a violent attempt upon my life on the previous night.  Once again I
summoned courage to peer into the decaying trunk, but could distinguish
little in that tantalising darkness.  Repugnance prevented me from
turning over the box, and emptying its gruesome contents on the flags;
therefore, I replaced the lid and waited a few moments to recover
myself.  The appalling discovery had filled me with an indescribable
fear, and weakened as I had been by the injuries to my head, my senses
reeled.

At last, summoning a firm resolution to arm myself against this terror
and misfortune, I doubled the hinges back together so as to strengthen
them, and walking to the door, made a carefully directed but frantic
attack upon the socket holding the lock.  Although old and very rusty,
it seemed that no effort of mine was strong enough to break it, for it
withstood all attack, and the damage I did consisted in merely knocking
off a little of the incrustation.  Again and again I rained blows upon
it with my improvised hammer, but the iron itself was strong, and four
large screws that secured it to the woodwork remained unloosened.

Presently my weakness compelled me to pause to regain breath, as with
failing heart I was forced to acknowledge myself utterly baffled.  Again
I examined it long and earnestly.  After another quarter of an hour's
effort, however, the thought momentarily flashed through my mind that by
the exercise of patience I could utilise one end of the hinge which was
narrow and thin, as a screw-driver, and by its aid remove the screws.

This had not before occurred to me, but in a few moments I was kneeling
at the lintel, and, using the hinge deftly, had half removed the first
screw.  Within ten minutes I succeeded in extracting them all, and,
taking off the socket, emerged into the passage, afterwards closing the
entrance to the gruesome place.

Passing down the stone passage in the basement, which I remembered
having explored on the previous night, I ascended at last into the
spacious gloomy hall and walked towards the street door.  As I did so an
unusual noise startled me.  I halted, listening with breathless anxiety.

It came from above.  Through the deserted mansion it once again
resounded, clearly distinct and dismal.  It was a wild, shrill cry--a
woman's despairing shriek!

My first impulse was to rush upstairs and resume my investigations, but,
a sudden fear seizing me, I opened the door and fled precipitately from
the weird house of hidden mysteries.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

A CONFESSION.

Hatless, hungry and half fainting, I drove in a cab to my old friend Dr
Landsell in Kensington, who examined my wound, pronounced that it was
not dangerous, bathed and dressed it.  I accepted his invitation to
lunch, but, although he expressed surprise how I could have received
such a blow, I did not deem it wise to satisfy his curiosity.  We parted
about three o'clock, for I had resolved to see Grindlay, and was anxious
to tell him of my discovery and seek his aid.

I was compelled, however, to call at my chambers to obtain a hat and
exchange my torn coat for another, and as I alighted in Shaftesbury
Avenue I recollected that before consulting the detective I ought first
to ascertain whether Dora had returned home.  The mysterious shriek of
despair I had heard might have been hers!  She might still be imprisoned
in the house!

Ascending the stairs, I entered my chambers with my latch-key, and
strode straight towards my sitting-room.  To my amazement two persons
were awaiting me.  Upon the threshold I stood gazing inquiringly at
them.

Ensconced in my arm-chair sat Lady Fyneshade, while on the opposite side
of the room, his bony hands clasped behind his back, stood her companion
Markwick.

As I entered Mabel gave vent to a cry that betrayed alarm, and rose
quickly to her feet, while her companion stood staring at me
open-mouthed, with an expression of mingled fear and astonishment.  Both
glared at me as if I were an apparition.

But only for a single instant.  Markwick's face relaxed into a forced
smile, while Mabel, laughing outright, stretched forth her hand frankly,
exclaiming:

"Here you are at last, Stuart!  How are you?"

I greeted her rather coldly, but she chattered on, telling me that
Saunders had asked them in, saying that he expected me to return every
moment.  They had, it seems, already waited half an hour, and were just
about to depart.  Few words I addressed to the man who had first led me
to the mysterious house in Gloucester Square.  I merely greeted him,
then turned again to Mabel.  The strange expression on both their faces
when I had entered puzzled me.  There was, I felt certain, some deep
motive underlying their call.

But successfully concealing my suspicions and addressing Mabel, I said
as pleasantly as I could:

"It is not often you favour me with a visit nowadays."

"My time is unfortunately so much taken up," she answered, with a smile.
"But I wanted to see you very particularly to-day."

"What about?"  I asked, seating myself on the edge of the table, my back
towards her silent escort, while she in her turn sank back into her
chair.

"About Fyneshade," she answered.  "You remember all I told you on the
afternoon when you called on me.  Well, I have discovered he is back in
London, but he has not returned home, and a letter to his club has
elicited no reply."

"You want to see him?"

"I do.  If he will hear me I can at once clear myself.  You are one of
my oldest friends and know the little differences that exist between us,
therefore I seek your assistance to obtain an interview with him.
Invite him here, send me word the day and hour, and I will come also."

I hesitated.  Her request was strange, and more curious that it should
be made before the very man who, although hated by Fyneshade, was
nevertheless his friend.

"I have no desire to interfere between husband and wife," I answered
slowly.  "But if any effort of mine will secure a reconciliation, I
shall be only too pleased to do my best on your behalf."

"Ah!" she cried, a weight apparently lifted from her mind.  "You are
always loyal, Stuart; you are always generous to your friends.  I know
if you ask Fyneshade he will call on you.  A letter to White's will find
him."  Markwick, his hands still clasped behind his back, seeming taller
and more slim than usual in his perfect-fitting, tightly-buttoned
frock-coat, had crossed to the window, and was gazing abstractedly out
upon the never-ceasing tide of London traffic below.  He took no
interest whatever in our conversation, but fidgeted about as if anxious
to get away.

Mabel and I talked of various matters, when I suddenly asked her about
Dora.

"Ma is coming to town with her this week," the Countess answered.  "I
had a letter from her a few days ago, and it appears that the
house-party at Blatherwycke has been an unqualified success."

"Bethune has been there, I suppose," I hazarded, laughing.

"Bethune!" she echoed.  "Why, haven't you heard of him lately?"

"Not for several weeks.  He is somewhere in Wales."

"I think not," she said.  "From what I have heard from Ma, he arrived
late one night at Blatherwycke, met Dora clandestinely somewhere on the
Bulwick Road, and, wishing her farewell, left next day for the
Continent.  Since that nobody has heard a single word about him."

"Not even Dora?"  I inquired, greatly surprised that Jack should have
left again without a word to me.

"No.  Dora, silly little goose, is crying her eyes out and quite
spoiling her complexion.  Their engagement is absolutely ridiculous."

"She loves him," I observed briefly.

"Nowadays a woman does not marry the man she loves.  She does not learn
to love until after marriage, and then, alas! her flirtation is not with
her husband."

I sighed.  There was much truth in what this smart woman of the world
said.  It is only among the middle classes that persons marry for love.
The open flirtation in Belgravia would be voted a scandal if it occurred
in Suburbia.  There is one standard of morals in Mayfair, another in
Mile End.

By dint of artful questioning I endeavoured to glean from her whether
she knew the reason of Jack's departure, but either by design or from
ignorance she was as silent as the sphinx.

"The only other fact I know beyond what I have already told you," she
replied, "was contained in a paragraph in the Morning Post, which stated
that Captain Bethune, the well-known soldier-novelist, had left London
for the Balkan States, in order to obtain material for a new romance
upon which he is actively engaged.  Really, novelists obtain as much
advertisement and are quite as widely known as princes of reigning
houses."

Markwick at that moment turned quickly and expressed a fear that he must
be going, as he had an appointment in the City, while Mabel, rising,
stretched forth her small hand in farewell, and urging me not to forget
to arrange a meeting with Fyneshade, accompanied her companion out.

When they had gone I stood for a long time gazing down into the street,
pondering deeply.  I could not discern the object of their visit, nor
why that curious expression should have crossed their faces when I
appeared.  The reason they had called was, however, quite apparent half
an hour later, for, to my abject dismay, I found that the little cabinet
in which I had kept the fragments of paper I had discovered in Jack's
chambers on the night of the tragedy had been wrenched open, the papers
turned over hurriedly, and the whole of the letters abstracted.

Markwick had stolen them!  I now recollected, quite distinctly, that at
the moment I entered he had his hands behind his back endeavouring to
conceal something.

I started forward to go and inform the police, but remembering that ere
long I should place Grindlay in possession of all the tangled chain of
facts, I rang the bell for Saunders instead.

"What time did Lady Fyneshade arrive," I asked, when he had responded to
my summons.

"About half an hour before you returned, sir."

"Were they alone in this room the whole time?"

"Yes, sir.  Her ladyship went to the piano and played several songs."

His words convinced me.  Mabel had strummed on the piano in order to
drown the sound of the breaking open of the cabinet.

For what reason, I strove to imagine, had Markwick obtained the letters?
How, indeed, could he have known their hiding-place, or that they were
in my possession?

I felt absolutely certain that, having satisfied themselves of my
absence, they had entered in order to obtain possession of those
half-charred letters, and that on my unexpected return Mabel, in order
to cover their confusion, had skillfully concocted an object for their
visit.  She had tricked me cleverly, and although half mad with anger at
my loss, I could not help admiring her extraordinary self-possession and
the calm circumstantial manner in which she had lied to me.

Business London had drawn its whirling fevered day to a close when I
entered one of the bare waiting-rooms at New Scotland Yard, and sent my
card to Inspector Grindlay.  I had not long to wait, for in a few
minutes he came in, greeting me bluffly with a hearty hand-shake,
expressing pleasure that I had called.

"I want to consult you, Grindlay," I said seriously.  "I have made a
discovery."

"A discovery!" he laughed.  "What is it, some mechanical invention?"

"No.  A body!"

"A body!" he echoed, arching his thick, dark brows, and regarding me
keenly.

"Yes," I said.  "I want to tell you all about it, for I've come to seek
your assistance.  Shall we be disturbed?"

He crossed the room, locked the door, and then, motioning me to a chair,
took one himself on the opposite side of the small table, and announced
his readiness to hear my story.

Commencing at the beginning, I described my meeting with Sybil at
Bagneres de Luchon, my love for her, the midnight marriage, and her
death.

"What name did she give you?" he inquired interrupting me.

"I understood that her name was Henniker," I replied.  "Sybil Henniker."

He inclined his head.  Proceeding I told him of the subsequent strange
events, the finding of the wreath upon her grave with my card, whereon
was written the words, "Seek and you may find," of the discovery of her
photograph in the shop in Regent Street, together with that of Gilbert
Sternroyd.

"Ah!  Sternroyd!" he repeated, as soon as I mentioned the name.  "And
you bought those portraits.  Have you still got them?"

I drew them from my pocket and handed them across to him.  As he gazed
at Sybil's picture he twirled his moustache, thoughtfully knitting his
brow.

But my tongue's strings were now loosened, and I confessed how I had
discovered the young millionaire lying dead in Jack Bethune's flat, and
how, on my second visit to the place, I found the body removed, and
afterward encountered my friend, who would not allow me to enter one of
his rooms.

"You think he was concealing the body there?" he asked, glancing up from
the paper whereon he had scribbled some brief memoranda.

"I fear to think anything, lest it should add to the evidence against
him.  He has left England again."

"Yes," the detective replied; "we are aware of that.  He has eluded us."

"Then you also suspect him?"  I cried.

For answer he only shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows.

Continuing my story, I detailed the conversation I had overheard at
Blatherwycke between Markwick and the Countess, described my visit to
the house in Gloucester Square, my encounter with Dora, the subsequent
discovery of a body, and the theft of the half-burnt letters from my own
room.

When I had concluded he was silent for a long time.  My story was
evidently more startling and complicated than he had expected, and he
was apparently weighing the evidence against the man suspected.

"You say you still have the key of this house in your possession."  I
nodded.

"Very well.  We will search the place as a preliminary."

"When?"

"At once.  I must have a few words with the Chief first; but if you
don't mind waiting ten minutes or so.  I'll be ready to go with you."

He brought me a newspaper, and for about a quarter of an hour I idled
over it, until he again returned, accompanied by one of his men, who
carried in his hand a small crowbar, a police bull's-eye, and a box of
matches.  These he placed carefully in his pocket, while Grindlay
glanced through some papers, and in a few minutes we all three entered a
cab, and drove rapidly to Radnor Place, alighting at some little
distance from the house.

Noiselessly I opened the great hall-door and we entered.  When I had
closed the door again, the inspector turned to his companion, saying:

"Remain here, and make no noise.  It seems to me probable that some
person may be concealed here.  Detain anyone who attempts to get out."

"Very well, sir," the man answered, giving his superior the crowbar,
lantern, and matches; and in a few moments I led Grindlay down to the
cellar in which I had been imprisoned.

We found it without difficulty, and on entering I saw that the trunk
containing the body was in the same position in which I had left it.
Eagerly the detective advanced, pushed the lid aside, and directed the
light upon its contents.

"It's been put in face downwards," he said, as I stood back, dreading to
gaze upon a sight that I knew must be horrible.  "It's a man, evidently,
but in a fearful state of decomposition.  Come, lend me a hand.  We must
turn the box over, and get out of this place quickly.  The smell is
enough to give anybody a fever."

Thus requested, I placed my hand at the end of the box, and together we
emptied it out upon the flags.

The sight was awful.  The face was so terribly decomposed that it was
absolutely unrecognisable; but the detective's keen eye noticed a gleam
of gold amid the horrible mass of putrefaction, and, stooping, drew
forth from the mass of decaying clothes a watch and chain.  He rubbed
the watch upon a piece of old rag lying on the rubbish heap, then held
it close to the light.  The back was elaborately engraved, and I saw
there was a monogram.

"Initials," exclaimed the detective calmly.  "This watch has already
been described.  It is his watch, and the letters are `G.S.'--Gilbert
Sternroyd."

"Gilbert!"  I gasped.  "Can it really be Sternroyd?"  I cried, my eyes
fixed upon the black awful heap.

"No doubt whatever.  The man is in evening dress.  On his finger,
there--can't you see it glittering?--is the diamond ring that Spink's
supplied him with six weeks before his disappearance.  This discovery at
least proves the theory I have held all along, that he has been
murdered."

"By whom?"

"We have yet to discover that," he rejoined.  "Do you know what
connection your friend Bethune had with this house?"

"None, as far as I am aware," I replied.

"It is apparent though, that he was well acquainted with the lady to
whom you were married here."

I admitted the truth of these words, but he did not pursue the subject
further.

Kneeling beside the body he took from its withered hand the ring he had
indicated and slipped it into his pocket, afterward examining the
remains rather minutely.  Then, rising, he made a cursory examination of
the heap of lumber, looked at the narrow crevice above, and at last
suggested that we should set forth to make a thorough search of the
place.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

MOST REMARKABLE.

My former experiences had unnerved me, so I armed myself, with the
crowbar, and together we went through the basement rooms, where only
rats and dirt attracted our attention.  Regaining the hall, Grindlay
urged the necessity for making no noise, and having whispered the query
"All right?" to his subordinate, receiving an assurance in the
affirmative from the man on guard, we together ascended the great flight
of stairs.

The place was silent as the grave, but our footsteps awoke no echoes as
we gained the staircase and softly crept into the once handsome, but now
faded, moth-eaten drawing-room.

Crossing the great apartment we came to the small door that Dora had
opened at the moment I had been struck down.  The crimson-shaded lamp,
now burned out, still stood upon the table, but the door leading to the
inner chamber, wherein some unknown sight had so strangely affected her,
was closed and secured by a wide, strong iron bar placed right across in
the manner that window shutters are barred.

"Hulloa!  What's this?" whispered the detective when he noticed it.
"There's some mystery here.  Hold the lamp and lend me the jemmy."

I handed him the tool, and inserting the pronged end between the
wood-work and one of the great sockets he gave it such a sudden wrench
that the socket snapped.

In an instant he had unbarred the door, and, throwing it open, dashed
forward.

I followed, but a cry of amazement escaped my lips.  The room into which
the detective and myself effected a forced entrance was small and
shabby.  It had apparently once been a boudoir, but the greater part of
the furniture had long ago been removed, and what remained was dusty,
faded and decaying.  The shutters were closed, and secured by a heavy
padlocked bar, and the cheap white-shaded lamp that burned dimly upon
the table did not shed sufficient light to fully illuminate the place.

Suddenly, as Grindlay took the bull's-eye from my hand and turned its
light upon the opposite side of the room, we were both amazed to
discover lying upon one of those cheap convertible chair-bedsteads that
are the delight of lower-class housewives, a female form in a light
dress.  With one accord we both advanced toward her.  The woman's face
was turned from us, but our entrance apparently aroused her, and she
slowly moved and raised her head.

From my lips there escaped an anguished cry of amazement.

The blanched features were familiar, but upon them was such a strange,
wild look that I stopped short to assure myself that this strange scene
was not merely imaginary.

"My God!"  I cried.  "Dora, is it you?"

Raising herself upon her elbow with a sudden movement she pushed her
hair from her white brow, glared for a few moments at me with an
unnatural fire in her eyes, then, without replying to my question, gave
vent to a long, loud, discordant laugh.

"Speak!"  I urged, rushing toward her, grasping her hand.  "Tell me how
it is that we discover you here, locked in this room?"

But she answered not.  The light in her clear eyes grew more brilliant
as she fixed her gaze inquiringly upon me.  She did not recognise me.
Her face was drawn and haggard, around her eyes were dark rings, and her
features that had been so admired seemed now almost hideous, while the
dress she wore, soiled and tumbled, was the same handsome evening gown
in which I had seen her determinedly entering that room.

"Go!" she screamed suddenly.  "Do not torture me, you brute!  Let me
die, I say!  Let me kill myself!" and as she uttered the words she tore
at her throat with both hands in an attempt to strangle herself.

Grindlay flew to her side and with difficulty gripped her hands.  But
she seemed possessed of demon strength, and even the detective, muscular
and athletic as he was, found he had a hard task to hold her down.

"Do you know her?" he gasped at last, turning to me.  "Who is she?"

"An old friend," I answered, with poignant sorrow.  "Her name is Dora;
she is younger daughter of Lady Stretton."

"Lady Stretton--Stretton," the detective repeated thoughtfully.  "The
name is familiar.  Ah!  I remember.  The lady who benefits so largely by
the murdered man's will is eldest daughter of her ladyship, isn't she?"

I nodded in the affirmative, but the violent struggles of the would-be
suicide interrupted our conversation, and our combined efforts were
necessary in order to prevent her from accomplishing her purpose.

The melancholy fact could not be disguised that Dora, whose beauty had
been so frequently commented upon by Society journals, and whose
appearance in ball-rooms since she "came out" had never failed to cause
a sensation, was actually insane.  The bright fire of madness was in her
eyes as she wildly accused me of unknown crimes.  She did not address me
by name, but evidently in her hallucination believed me to be an enemy
of whom she had just cause for the bitterest hatred.  When I tried to
seize her hands she shrank from me as if my contact stung her, and when
I gripped her determinedly she fought and bit with a strength of which I
had never believed a woman capable.

In the fierce straggle the lamp was nearly overturned, and at length
Grindlay, finding that all attempts to calm her proved futile, slipped a
pair of handcuffs from his pocket and with a murmur of apology for
treating any friend of mine, and especially a lady, with such indignity,
he locked them upon her slender wrists.

"It is the only way we can manage her," he said.  "We must, however, be
careful of her head."

Already she was swaying her head from side to side, uttering strings of
wild, incoherent words, and after brief consultation it was arranged
that the detective should call up his assistant, who had remained on
guard below, and we should then convey the unfortunate girl to her home.

After two shrill blasts upon the inspector's whistle we were quickly
joined by his assistant, who, without betraying any surprise at this
discovery, recognised the position of affairs at a glance, and at once
held Dora's head, in order to prevent her injuring herself.

"Remain here, and keep a sharp eye on her while we search the place,"
Grindlay commanded; and taking up the lantern and jemmy we returned
together to the spacious, faded room wherein the strange marriage
ceremony had taken place.  The boudoir had no other door leading out of
it, except the one communicating with the larger apartment that we had
burst open, and with its window closely shuttered, the cries of any
person held captive were not likely to be heard, for the window
overlooked the garden, and there were no passers-by.

From the floor whereon we had made this amazing discovery we ascended,
searching diligently, even to the garrets, but found nothing noteworthy.
Each room was dusty, neglected, and decaying, but they showed plainly
that the mansion had once been furnished in luxurious tasteful style,
and that its splendour had long ago departed.

When we had arrived at the topmost garret, Grindlay, who had moved
quickly, almost silently, poking into every corner, and leaving no place
uninspected large enough for any person to conceal himself, paused, and,
turning to me, said:

"This affair is, I confess, a most remarkable one!  In the same house,
to all appearances closed and uninhabited, we find the body of the
murdered man concealed, and the sister of the woman he admired insane,
apparently held captive."

"By whom?"  I queried.

"Ah!  We must ascertain that," he said, flashing his lantern suddenly
into a far corner, but finding nothing.  "There must be some
exceptionally strong motive for keeping your young lady friend away from
her home.  Has she, as far as you are aware, ever before shown signs of
insanity?"

"Never; I have known her ever since a child, and her mind has been
always normal.  She was particularly intelligent, an excellent pianist,
and a fair linguist."

"Some sight unusually horrible, a paroxysm of bitter grief, or some
great terror, may have temporarily unhinged her mind.  Let us hope it is
not incurable," he said, sympathetically.

"Do you think she is really demented?"  I asked eagerly.  "Will she
never recover?"

"I really can't tell you; I'm not a mental specialist," he answered.
"It's true that I've seen two similar cases among women."

"And did they recover?"

He hesitated, then looking at me gravely he answered: "No; unfortunately
they did not One woman, whose symptoms were similar, had murdered her
child.  The other had so severely injured her husband by throwing a
lighted lamp at him that he is incurable.  Both are now at Woking
Asylum."

"Is there no hope for them?"

"None.  In each case I made the arrest, and the doctor afterward told me
that their condition of mind was consequent upon the realisation of the
enormity of their crimes."

Dora's symptoms were the same as those of murderesses.  Such suggestion
was appalling.

"Do you then suspect that Lady Stretton's daughter, Mabel, is--has
committed a crime?"

"Hardly that," he replied, quickly.  "We must, I think, seek for the
guilty one in another quarter."  He seemed to speak with conviction.

"In which quarter?"  I eagerly inquired.

"I have formed no definite opinion at present," he replied quietly.  "If
we can induce your lady friend to speak rationally for a few minutes she
may confirm or dispel my suspicions.  Our discoveries this evening have
made one fact plain, and they will be the cause of the withdrawal of one
warrant," he added, looking at me with a curious smile.

"For whose arrest?"

"Your own."

"A warrant for my arrest!"  I cried in dismay.  "What do you mean?  I
have committed no offence."

"Exactly.  I have already proved that to my entire satisfaction, and
that is the reason the warrant in my pocket will to-morrow be
cancelled."

"But why was it ever issued?"  I demanded.

"Because certain suspicions attached themselves to you.  Did it never
occur to you that it was you yourself upon whom I was keeping
observation on that evening we spent together at the Empire?"

"It did; but the suggestion seemed so preposterous that I cast it aside.
Now, however, I see that the reason you took me to Scotland Yard was to
show me two photographs in your book.  One was a picture of myself, and
the other that of a woman I loved--"

"You loved her--eh?" he interrupted.

"Yes.  But why do you speak in that tone?"  I inquired.  "You seem to
suggest that my affection was misdirected."

"Pardon me," he said politely.  "I suggest nothing--nothing beyond the
fact that it was an indiscretion, as was surely proved by later events."

"Later events!"  I echoed.  "Then you know the truth, Grindlay!  Tell
me--tell me all, if you are my friend."

"Before we make an arrest our clues are secret," the inspector said, not
unkindly.  "By divulging any of them the ends of justice may be
defeated.  All I can tell you at present is, that we held a warrant for
the arrest of that lady whose portrait adorns our collection, and it was
not executed, for the reason stated below it in red ink."

"Because she died.  Yes; I am aware of it," I said.  "I was present when
she breathed her last, when the police burst into this house, and when
they retired on finding the person `wanted' was no longer alive.  But
for what offence was that warrant issued?  Surely I, her husband, have a
right to know?"

"I regret, Mr Ridgeway, I am unable to tell you," he replied evasively.
"You must be well aware that I was abroad at the time, and the warrant,
therefore, did not pass through my hands."

I saw in this a polite refusal to give me the information I sought, and
was piqued in consequence.  Soon we descended the stairs to the room
where Dora remained, still uttering incoherent sentences, and after
consultation the two police officers called a cab, and having placed the
unfortunate girl in it we all drove to Lady Stretton's, the inspector
having first taken the precaution to send to the nearest police station
for a "plain-clothes man" to mount guard over the house wherein the body
of the murdered man was lying.

Our arrival at Lady Stretton's caused the greatest consternation among
the servants, her ladyship, and her two lady visitors.  Lady Stretton
herself fainted, the family doctor, a noted mental specialist, was
quickly summoned, and Dora taken to her room.  From the servants I
gathered that Dora had only been absent from home for two days, and that
very little anxiety had been felt on her account, for it was believed
that having had some disagreement with her mother, and having announced
her intention of visiting some friends in Yorkshire, she had gone
thither.

It was, however, a most severe blow to all when she returned in the
custody of two police officers a raving lunatic.

The doctor, who could obtain no rational reply to any of his questions,
summoned another great specialist on mental ailments, who quickly
pronounced the case as extremely grave, but not altogether incurable.
Insanity of the character from which she was suffering frequently, he
said, took a most acute form, but he was not without hope that, with
careful and proper treatment, the balance of her mind might again be
restored.  The family were instructed not to allow, on any account, any
question to be put to her regarding the manner in which the attack had
commenced.  The strain of endeavouring to recollect would, the doctor
assured us, do her incalculable harm.

Grindlay remained with me at Lady Stretton's for an hour or more, and
when we left we drove together as far as my chambers, where I alighted,
while he went on to Scotland Yard.

"Remember," he said, before I wished him good-night, and promised to see
him on the morrow, "not a word to a soul that we have discovered the
body.  Only by keeping our own counsel, and acting with the greatest
discretion and patience, can we arrest the guilty one."

"Grindlay, you suspect my friend, Captain Bethune," I said.  "It's
useless to deny it."

"It is the privilege of a man in my profession to suspect, and his
suspicions often fall on innocent persons," he said, with a faint smile.
"The body has now been discovered, and we know a crime has been
committed.  Therefore, we can obtain a warrant against any person upon
whom suspicion may rest."

I pursued the subject no further, but sat back in the cab, fully
convinced by these words of his intention to arrest Jack on a charge of
murder.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

THE FUGITIVE.

In my own room I sat for a long time silent in deep reverie.  Saunders
glided in and out, brought me a brandy-and-soda that went flat,
untasted, and placed at my elbow my letters, with a deferential
suggestion that some of them might be important.  Glancing at their
superscriptions, I tossed them aside, in no mood to be bothered with
cards of invitation or tradesmen's circulars.

Two hours passed, and the ever-watchful Saunders retired for the night.
Then, after pacing the room for a long time in hesitation, I at last
determined to write to Jack, who had returned home, warning him of his
peril.  I knew that by shielding a murderer from justice I accepted a
great moral responsibility; nevertheless, I had formed a plan which I
meant at any hazard to pursue.  It was, I felt certain, my last chance
of obtaining the knowledge I had so long and vainly sought, therefore I
sat down, wrote a hurried note to him, in which I urged him to fly and
hide himself for a time; but, after obtaining a hiding-place, to
telegraph to me, using the name of a mutual friend, as I desired to see
him at the earliest possible moment.  This note I took across to the
Club, and gave it to the commissionaire, with strict injunctions to
deliver it personally.

Three-quarters of an hour later the old pensioner returned, saying that
he had placed the letter in Captain Bethune's hand, and as I strolled
again homeward I pondered over the serious responsibility of my action.
In my heart I felt convinced that my friend had killed Sternroyd.
Indeed, every fact was plain.  I knew that he was a murderer, and my
previous esteem had now been transformed into a deep-rooted repugnance.
If he were innocent he could never have been so suspicious of me as he
had been since that memorable night when he found me in his chambers.
Within myself I admitted that I had no right in his rooms; nevertheless
the old adage, "Murder will out," forcibly occurred to me.  If there was
one witness who could bring Captain Bethune to the gallows it was
myself.

Ah, how quickly things had changed!  A few brief weeks ago Jack was the
popular soldier and brilliant writer hailed by the Press as one of the
greatest living novelists; while Dora, charming and radiant, was
courted, flattered, and admired at home, in the Park, in the ball-room--
everywhere.  Now the one was a murderer, hounded by the police; and the
other, alas! demented.

Patience and discretion.  It was Grindlay's motto, and I would take it
as mine.  Already, as I walked through the silent, deserted streets,
Bethune was, I knew, preparing for hurried flight somewhere out of
reach.  I alone had frustrated Grindlay's plans, but only as a means to
attain my own end.

Next day passed, and in the evening Saunders brought in the Inspector's
card.  When Grindlay entered his first words were:

"Your friend Bethune has returned and again bolted."

I feigned surprise, but in the course of the conversation that ensued he
sought my advice on the most likely places to find him.  I suggested
Hounslow, but the detective had already made inquiries there, and could
glean nothing.

"The curious part of the affair is that he should, after his recent
extraordinary show of bravado in returning to England, suddenly become
suspicious just at the moment when we meant to take him," he said, after
we had been discussing the matter.  "I suppose you have no further
suggestions to offer as to any likelihood of his whereabouts?"

"None.  I should not expect him to try and escape abroad again after his
last futile attempt to elude you."

"No.  The ports are watched, and he might as well walk into the Yard at
once as to attempt to cross the Channel," remarked the detective,
smiling.  "But I must be going.  If you hear anything let me know at the
Yard at once."

I promised, and the inspector, taking one of my cigars, lit it and left.

A week went by, but no word of the discovery of the ghastly evidence of
the crime found its way into the papers.  For reasons of their own the
police obtained the postponement of the inquest, although the body had
been removed to the mortuary, and the house still remained in the
possession of a plain-clothes' man.  The theory of the Criminal
Investigation Department was that the house would be visited by someone
who, unaware of the discoveries that had been made, would walk straight
into the arms of an officer of the law.

But it proved a waiting game.  Another week passed.  Several times I
called at Lady Stretton's, only to learn, alas! that Dora had not
improved in the slightest degree.  She recognised no one--not even her
mother.  Her ladyship was prostrate, while Mabel, whom I met one morning
when I called, seemed haggard and particularly anxious regarding her
sister.

The thought did not escape me that Mabel herself had, at least on one
occasion, most probably visited that strange house that had its entrance
in Radnor Place, and I was on the point of mentioning it to her, but
decided to wait and see whether she alluded to it.  She, however, did
not.  When I asked her for news of Fyneshade she replied, snappishly,
that she neither knew nor cared where he was.  In fact, she treated me
with a frigid reserve quite unusual to her.

About noon one day Saunders brought me a telegram.  Opening it, I found
the words:

"Tell Boyd to sell Tintos.--Roland.  Post, Alf, Moselle."

It was from Bethune.  Roland was the name we had arranged.  So he had,
notwithstanding all the precautions taken by the police, succeeded in
again escaping to the Continent, and was now in hiding at the post-house
of the little riparian village of Alf.  I knew the place.  It was far in
the heart of the beautiful Moselle country on the bank of the broad
river that wound through its vine-clad ruin-crested hills, altogether a
quaint Arcadian place, quiet, restful, and unknown to the felt-hatted
horde of tourists who swarm over the sunny Rhineland like clouds of
locusts.

Three days after receiving the telegram I alighted from a dusty,
lumbering fly at the door of the building, half post-house, half inn,
and was greeted heartily by my friend, who spoke in French and wore as a
disguise the loose blue blouse so much affected by all classes of
Belgians.  Alone in the little dining-room he whispered briefly that he
was going under the name of Roland, representing himself to be a
land-owner from Chaudfontaine, near Liege.  None of the people in the
inn knew French; therefore, his faulty accent passed unnoticed.  When
there were listeners we spoke in French to preserve the deception, and I
am fain to admit that his disguise and manner were alike excellent.

Together we ate our evening meal with the post-house keeper and his
buxom, fair-haired wife; then, while the crimson sunset still reflected
upon the broad river, we strolled out along the bank to talk.

All the land around on this south side is orchard--great pear and cherry
trees linked together by low-growing vines, and in the spring months
they make a sea of blossom stretching to the river's edge.  The noise of
the weir is loud, but the song of the myriad birds can be heard above
it.  Away eastward, down the widening, curving stream, above the vines
there arise, two miles off, the blackened, crumbling towers of mediaeval
strongholds.  To the north lies the Eifel, that mysterious volcanic
district penetrated by few; to the south the Marienburg and the
ever-busy Rhine.  The vale of the Moselle on that brilliant evening was
a serene and sylvan scene, glorious in the blaze of blood-red sunset,
and when we had walked beyond the village, cigar in mouth, with affected
indifference, Bethune turned to me abruptly, saying:

"Well, now, after all this infernal secrecy, what in the name of Heaven
do you want with me?"

"You apparently reproach me for acting in your interests rather than in
my own," I answered brusquely.

"I acted upon your so-called warning and left England--"

"Without seeing Dora?"  I inquired.

"She's away in the country somewhere," he snapped.  It was evident that
he was entirely ignorant of the dire misfortune that had befallen her.

"My warning was justified," I said quietly.  "That a warrant is out for
your arrest I am in a position to affirm, and--"

"A warrant issued on your own information, I presume," he interrupted
with a sneer.

"I have given no information," I replied.  "I obtained the truth from
the detective who held the warrant, and sent word to you immediately."

"Extremely kind, I'm sure.  You've done all you can to prejudice me, and
now it seems that for some unaccountable reason you have altered your
tactics and are looking after my interests.  I place no faith in such
friends."

"My tactics, as you are pleased to term them, are at least legitimate,"
I answered, annoyed.  "I deny, however, that I have ever acted in
opposition to your interests.  During these past weeks of anxiety and
suspicion I have always defended you, and show my readiness to still do
so by contriving your escape thus far."

"Bah!  What have I to fear?" he exclaimed, turning on me defiantly.

I looked straight into his face, and with sternness said--"You fear
arrest for the murder of Gilbert Sternroyd."  He frowned, and his eyes
were downcast.  There was a long silence, but no answer passed his
tight-drawn lips.  Presently I spoke again, saying--

"Now listen, Bethune.  We have been friends, and I regret to the bottom
of my heart that it is no longer possible under these circumstances to
again extend to you the hand of friendship."

"I don't want it," he growled.  "I tell you plainly that you are my
enemy--not my friend."

"I have never been your enemy.  It is true that the police of Europe are
searching for you; that your description is in the hands of every
official charged with criminal investigation from Christiania to
Gibraltar, and that the charge against you is that you murdered a young
millionaire.  It is true also that it lays in my power to shield or to
denounce you.  Think, think for a moment the nature of the evidence
against you.  One night I entered your flat with my key, stumbled across
something, and discovered to my horror that it was the body of
Sternroyd, who had been shot."

"You lie!" he cried, turning upon me fiercely, with clenched fists.
"You lie! you never saw the body!"

"I tell you I did," I replied quite calmly, as in the same tone I went
on to describe the exact position in which it lay.

My words fell upon him as a thunderbolt.  He had entertained no
suspicion that the body had been actually discovered before its removal,
and never before dreamed that I had entered his flat on that fatal night
and witnessed the evidence of the crime.  By this knowledge that I held
he was visibly crushed and cowed.

"Well, go on," he said mechanically, in a hoarse tone.  "I suppose you
want to drive me to take my life to avoid arrest--eh?"

"Think of the nature of my evidence," I continued.  "I entered your flat
again on the following night to find you present, the body removed, and
you met my request to search one of the rooms by quickly locking the
door and pocketing the key.  I ask you whether there is not sufficient
circumstantial evidence in that to convict you of the crime?"

He remained silent, his chin almost resting upon his breast.

"Again," I said, "in addition to this, I may as well tell you that the
body you sought to hide has been discovered."

"Discovered!" he gasped.  "Have they found it?"

"Yes.  It was carefully hidden, but traces of murder are always
difficult to hide."

"Who searched?  Who discovered it?"

"The police."

"And they therefore obtained a warrant for me?"

I nodded.  We walked slowly on, both silent and full of bitter thoughts.
Now that I had convinced myself of his guilt I felt certain of the
success of my next move.

Turning to him presently, I said: "I have a confession to make, Bethune.
On the night of the tragedy I found that you had torn up and destroyed
a number of letters before leaving, and among them I discovered one from
a woman named Sybil.  Now tell me frankly who and what she was.  I have
no wish that you should reveal to me anything regarding her relations
with you that you desire to keep secret, but I merely ask you to act
openly and tell me what you know of her."

"I know nothing--nothing," he answered, in a low tone.

"That's a lie!"  I exclaimed angrily.  "She wrote to you on apparently
the most intimate terms, yet you declare you are not acquainted with
her."

"Well, I was acquainted with her."

"And with Sternroyd?"

"And with Sternroyd."

"Then you can tell me something of her parentage, her social position,
and why the police desired her arrest?"

"No; I cannot tell you that," he answered firmly.  "Why?"

"Because I refuse."

"You know that I hold your liberty in my hand, and you fear to tell the
truth because it would incense me?"

"I do not fear to tell the truth," he retorted.

"Then why do you decline?"

"Because I respect the confidences she made to me, and in preserving
silence I am but obeying the command contained in that letter."

His reply nonplussed me.  I remembered the puzzling, disjointed words I
had read a hundred times before.  They were: "...desire that your
friend, Stuart Ridgeway, should remain in ignorance of the fact."  Yes;
he was correct.  By refusing, he was obeying her injunctions.

"Will you tell me nothing regarding her?"  I asked persuasively.

"I am not at liberty to say anything."

"Remember, Bethune, I was married to her.  Surely if any man has a right
to know who and what she was, I have," I urged.

"I'm well aware of your strange marriage.  You were fascinated by her
extraordinary beauty, as other men had been, and--"

"Is that meant as an insinuation against her good name?"  I cried
fiercely.

"Take it as you please, the truth is the same," he answered, with a
sneering smile.  "You fell in love with her, and were caught, like a fly
in a trap."  And he laughed harshly at my discomfiture.

"Then you will tell me nothing about her?"  I exclaimed angrily.  "You
refuse to assist me in recognition of the service I have done you in
avoiding your arrest.  Help me, and I will help you.  If not, well--
there is already within hail one into whose hands if you once fall you
will never extricate yourself."

"Death?"

"No; an officer of police."

"Bah!  I fear the former no more than the latter," he cried, in a tone
of banter.  "Denounce me--let them arrest me.  I am ready to face my
traducers; but even in exchange for my liberty, I will tell you nothing
of Sybil."

"Very well," I said.  "Then the warrant shall be executed without
delay."

And I turned and left him.

What his blank refusal portended I had yet to learn.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

MABEL'S PENITENCE.

My first impulse had been to give information to the German police of
Bethune's whereabouts, and thus cause his arrest; yet somehow I could
not bring myself to do so.  Grindlay and his men would, sooner or later,
trace the fugitive; therefore I left the work to them, and returned to
London.

As I calmly contemplated the affair in all its phases I became convinced
of the strange fact that the mystery surrounding Sybil was the one pivot
upon which the whole circumstances revolved.  Once I could penetrate the
veil, the motive for Sternroyd's murder would, I felt certain, become
apparent.  But with tantalising contrariness, all my efforts during
these dark, anxious days had been absolutely futile.  Even though I had,
on more than one occasion, to work with the care and caution of a
trained detective, I had failed to glean anything further than what my
well-beloved had told me herself at the little Pyrenean spa where first
she had brought brightness to my life.

Later events had rendered the enigma increasingly bewildering, rather
than simplifying it, and I was compelled to acknowledge myself baffled
in every attempted elucidation.

When I arrived home about eight o'clock one morning, having travelled by
the night service via Antwerp and Harwich, the industrious Saunders,
who, wearing his apron of green baize, was busy cleaning some plate,
handed me my letters, and told me that Lady Fyneshade had called on the
previous evening.  She had desired to see me on some important matter,
and had expressed great disappointment at my absence.  She, however,
left a message asking me to telegraph to Eaton Square the moment I
returned, and make an appointment for her to call upon me.  This I did,
and about eleven o'clock the same morning she was ushered in.  She was
quietly dressed in black, and her face bore unmistakable traces of a
restless night.  She looked more anxious and worried than I had ever
before seen her, and as she seated herself in her armchair and raised
her veil, I felt inclined to ask her to give some explanation of her
extraordinary conduct on the occasion of her last visit.  But she
allowed me no time to question her, for with a light laugh she burst
forth--

"I'm glad you're back so quickly.  Your man told me you were away, and
that the date of your return was quite uncertain."

"So it was," I replied.  "Very uncertain."

"You have, I suppose, been following your friend Captain Bethune?"

"How did you know that?"  I asked, surprised, believing myself the only
person aware of his escape.

"I have certain sources of information that are secret," she laughed,
shrugging her shoulders.

"But you suspect him of the crime," I said.  "Why, if you know his
whereabouts, have you not caused his arrest?"

"Like yourself, I have certain reasons," she answered carelessly,
readjusting one of the buttons of her glove.

"And your reason is that you fear exposure if he were placed in a
criminal's dock--eh?"

She winced visibly as my abrupt words fell upon her.  "You are generous
to everyone except myself, Stuart," she observed presently, pouting like
a spoiled child.  "We have known each other since children and have
always been the best of friends, yet just at the moment when I am most
in need of the aid of an honest man, even you forsake me."

"You have never rendered me any assistance whatever," I exclaimed
reproachfully.  "Indeed, on the last occasion you visited me, your
companion committed a mean, despicable theft, which makes him liable to
prosecution."

"A theft!" she echoed, with unfeigned astonishment, "Of what?"

"Of certain fragments of private letters that were in my keeping," I
answered angrily, adding, "Surely it must throw discredit upon any lady
to be the associate of a thief?"

"Mr Markwick would never descend to such an action," she cried
indignantly.  "I am absolutely certain that he never took your papers,
whatever they were."

"And I am equally convinced that he did," I said in as quiet a tone as I
could command.  I had suspected her of complicity in the tragedy, and
her words and demeanour corroborated my worst suspicions.

"But what motive could he have to possess himself of them?  Were they of
any value?"

"To me, yes.  To others they were utterly worthless," I replied,
standing with my hands clasped behind me regarding her closely.
Evidently she was ill at ease, for her gloved fingers toyed nervously
with the ribbon decorating the silver handle of her sunshade and her
tiny shoe peeping from beneath her plain tailor-made skirt impatiently
tapped the carpet.  "You are a strange woman, Mabel, as variable as the
wind," I added after a pause.  "One day you declare that man Markwick to
be what he really is, an adventurer, while on the next you defend him as
strongly as if he were your lover."

"Lover!" she cried, her face crimsoning.  "You are constantly making
reflections upon my character and endeavouring to destroy my good name."

"Remember I assert nothing," I declared.  "But your extraordinary
friendship for this man must strike everyone who is aware of it as--
well, to say the least, curious."  During a few moments she was silent;
then, lifting her face to me, said in faltering tones:

"I--I admit all that, Stuart.  People may misjudge us as they will.  It
is, unfortunately, the way of the world to play fast and loose with a
smart woman's reputation, and I have, therefore, long ago ceased to care
what lies my traducers may amuse themselves by uttering.  To you I have
on a previous occasion spoken the truth of my relations with Markwick.
Can you never believe me?"

"You admit, then, that Fyneshade was justified in his notion that he is
your lover?"

"I tell you he is not my lover!" she cried fiercely.  Then hoarsely she
added: "I--I fear him, it's true.  I am fettered to him because--well,
truth to tell, I am powerless to rid myself of his attentions because he
has possessed himself of a great and terrible secret that is mine alone,
one that if betrayed would crush me."

I regarded her steadily.  Her face was a trifle paler, and in her eyes I
thought I detected signs of tears.

"Is this really the truth, Mabel?"  I asked with earnestness.  She had
deceived me before, and I was determined not to accept any of her
statements without verification.

"It is the absolute truth," she declared huskily.  "I swear I am unable
to treat the man as I should wish because I fear he may make known the
truth."

"Is it so serious, then?  Is yours a secret of so terrible a nature that
you dare not face exposure?  It is not like you, Mabel, to flinch," I
said.

"But I cannot let this man speak--I dare not."

"You do not love him?"

"I hate him, but must treat him with tact and discretion.  Did I not
tell you when we met him unexpectedly at Thackwell's to beware of him?
Already I knew how he and certain accursed parasites who surround him
had misled you, and had entrapped you into an impossible marriage.  I--"

"Impossible?"  I echoed.  "Why do you use that word?  Do you insinuate
that Sybil was an impossible person?"

"Yes; when you know the truth about her it will amaze you.  Indeed, were
it not for the fact that I have witnessed certain things with my own
eyes I myself would never believe the story if related to me."

"But tell me, Mabel; tell me more of her," I urged.  "Ever since my
strange marriage, under circumstances of which you are apparently well
aware, I have been groping in the dark, seeking always, but finding
nothing.  I have tried to penetrate the mystery of her past, but, alas!
cannot."

"Ah! that is not surprising.  The precautions taken to prevent you
ascertaining the truth are indeed elaborate, every possible contingency
having been provided for."

"Do you mean that I am never to obtain the knowledge I seek; that I am
always to remain in ignorance?"

"With Markwick's sanction you will never know.  He is implicated far too
deeply."

"How implicated?"

"I am not yet in possession of the whole of the facts.  If I were I
should not be compelled, as I now am, to purchase his silence by risking
my own reputation.  But it is for that very reason I sought you this
morning.  If I dared, I would tell you all I know of Sybil; but by doing
so I should bring upon my head the exposure that I dread."

What, I wondered, was the nature of the secret which she feared Markwick
would betray?  Only one solution of the problem occurred to me, and it
rooted itself firmly in my mind.  The secret was none other than the
fact that she had either lured young Sternroyd to his death or had
actually fired the fatal shot herself.  The thought was startling, but
her words and manner showed conclusively her guilt, and in those brief
moments, during which a silence fell between us, I told myself that two
persons must be associated in the murder of the young millionaire, and
that their names were Mabel, Countess of Fyneshade, and Captain John
Bethune.

Hers was unmistakably the face of one whose conscience was borne down by
a guilty secret, and I felt instinctively to shrink from her as next
second she stretched forth her gloved hand and laid it gently on my arm.

"I am powerless, Stuart, utterly powerless to tell you what you desire
to know about the woman who was so strangely married to you," she said.
"For reasons already explained I am forced to remain silent; but
further, I cast myself upon your generosity.  I beseech you once again
to help a woman friendless among enemies, who seek her degradation and
social ruin."

"Well, what do you want?"  I asked rather roughly.

"I have told you why I am compelled to still remain friendly with this
man Markwick, a person hated by both of us.  He has threatened me; he
has declared that he will disclose my secret if I cannot obtain your
silence regarding that interview in the garden at Blatherwycke.  To-day
I come to you to beg, nay, to pray to you to reconsider your decision."
She spoke so earnestly that I confess myself surprised.

"Upon that interview there apparently rests some very important
development," I observed, thoughtfully, after a pause.  "He must have
some exceedingly strong motive if he attempts to secure secrecy by such
means.  What is it?"

"I have no idea," replied the Countess, quickly.  "He does not desire
that his friendship should compromise me, I suppose."

"But has it not already compromised you in the eyes of Fyneshade?"  I
suggested, in a tone of suspicion.

"True; but your testimony, the word of a man of honour, will go a long
way toward dispelling whatever absurd notions my husband has got into
his head," she urged.

"His notions, viewed by the light of later events, are not altogether
surprising.  To say the least, the circumstances are suspicious."

"Ah!  I quite admit that.  It is for that very reason I cast myself upon
your generosity and beg of your assistance.  If I do not secure your
silence, he--the man who holds me in his power--will not hesitate to
denounce and crush me.  Your promise may save me."

"Save you?  I cannot see how," I said, mechanically, for I was thinking
of the probability that she was the actual culprit.

"Ah! you do not--you cannot, understand," she cried, impatiently.  "I
would prefer death to exposure.  If he betrays my secret, then I--I will
kill myself."

"Come, come," I said, sympathetically.  "This is wild talk.  Suicide is
mere cowardice."

"But it would avert the greater scandal.  If you knew everything you
would not be surprised at my rash words, nay, you would wonder how I
have endured all this mental anguish so long, rather than yield to the
temptation of taking at one draught the contents of a tiny bottle I have
locked away in my room."

I saw that she was genuinely in earnest; she spoke with a gesture that
told me plainly she had confessed the truth.  Was it that, seized by
bitter remorse at the consequences of her act, she preferred suicide to
arrest?  This was but natural, I argued.  She knew that if Jack Bethune
fell into the hands of the police, revelations must ensue that would
implicate her deeply, and that she would be placed in the dock beside
him.  I loathed her for the vile, despicable part she had played in the
death of her young admirer, yet I felt an indescribable pity for her as
she sat trembling before me in an attitude of utter dejection, her fate
hanging upon my words.

For a brief moment I looked into her great tearful eyes, then gravely I
said--

"It is not within my province to judge you, Mabel, for I am unaware of
your offence, still, although I will never swear that Markwick was not
with you on that night, I will grant your request.  I promise to assist
you in concealing the truth you wish to hide."

"And you will say I was with you?" she cried eagerly, jumping to her
feet joyfully, grasping my hand with a sudden impulse.

"I will not swear it, remember," I said.  "I will, however, let it be
understood that you and I met clandestinely."

"Ah! you are a real, generous friend, Stuart," she cried, smiling
through her tears.  "I knew when you had heard the truth about my misery
you would not fail to render me help.  Mine has been an existence full
of wretched, hollow shams; but in future I mean to act without
duplicity, to abandon the schemes I had long ago formed, and to try and
lead a better life.  To the world I am gay and happy, for am I not
acknowledged one of the smartest women in England?  Yes, alas! and the
penalty for all this is an agony of mind that is torturing me hour by
hour, moment by moment, while the temptation to destroy myself allures
me until I fear that, sooner or later, I must yield."

"No, no; do nothing of the kind," I exclaimed pityingly.  "Your
confession has pained me, but arm yourself against your enemies, and at
the same time count upon my friendship.  If you have spoken falsely to
me--if I find that you have lied--then ask no further favour, for
assuredly I shall be your most bitter enemy, and seek to bring upon you
the punishment merited by your acts."

"Punishment!" she gasped, gazing fixedly across the room with wild,
wide-opened eyes.  Her lips moved, but she was voiceless.  The single
word transfixed her.

"Is it the absolute truth that you were unaware of the theft committed
in these rooms by Markwick?"  I demanded, after a brief, painful pause.

"I swear I knew nothing of it," she replied frankly, without hesitation.
"He invited me to play the piano while we waited for your return, and
while my back was turned he must have abstracted them.  But you will do
one thing further to appease him, won't you?  You'll give me a line
assuring him of your intention not to betray his presence at
Blatherwycke?"

I hesitated.  My promise was verbal, yet she desired an undertaking in
writing.  This was a fresh development of the affair: there was a strong
element of suspicion in it.

She argued, coaxed and urged me until, as the only way of satisfying
her, I took a sheet of notepaper and upon it made a declaration of my
intention.  Having watched me sign it, she placed it carefully in an
envelope, transferred it to her pocket, and, after a further brief
conversation, thanked me and withdrew, leaving me leaning against the
mantelshelf absorbed in thought.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.

A PROMISE.

While in the Club that afternoon the page-boy handed me a card, uttering
the stereotyped phrase, "Gentleman to see you, sir."

I took it, and, to my surprise, found it was Markwick's.  When he
entered, a few moments later, he was wearing a crimson flower in the
button-hole of his grey frock-coat, and carrying his cane with a jaunty
air.  His swift glance ran round the room, to assure himself that we
were alone, as he greeted me with an air of gay nonchalance.

My recognition was, I am afraid, very frigid; but, tilting his hat, he
cast himself into one of the saddle-bag chairs, and, comfortably
settling himself, tapped the sole of his varnished boot with his cane,
exclaiming:

"I was just passing, don't you know, and thought I'd look you up.  We
haven't met for an age," and taking out a silver case, he selected a
cigarette and lit it.

"I think," I said dryly, "it would have been better for me had we never
met at all."

He smiled sardonically, moved uneasily, and, turning towards me,
exclaimed:

"My dear fellow, you entirely misjudge me.  I was, I admit,
unconsciously the cause of a rather grave catastrophe in your life; but
surely that is all of the past.  Why think more of one who is dead?"

"Then, at last, you do now admit that you enticed me to that house?
Once you denied it."

"I know," he said, smiling.  "From diplomatic motives I was compelled;
nevertheless, no blame attaches to me, I assure you.  This I shall prove
to you before long, I hope."

"Why not now?"  I urged eagerly.  "Why not tell me what you know of
Sybil?  That you were intimately acquainted with her is certain; and if
you wish to assure me of your honesty of purpose, there can be no better
way of doing so than explaining who and what she was."

"Ah! unfortunately I am unable, at least for the present," he said,
watching his cigarette smoke curl towards the dark oak-beamed ceiling.
"I may add, however, that, in return for your assistance in the little
matter concerning Lady Fyneshade, I will before long render you a
service of a character that will, perhaps, astonish you."

"Then she has already seen you?"  I exclaimed.

"She has," he said, nodding.  "And she has given me your note.  It is
for that I looked in to thank you."

We exchanged glances.  His thin pimply face wore an expression of
perfect composure.  There were no signs of mental agitation, but rather
confidence and extreme self-satisfaction.

"Will you not, in return for my silence, tell me something of the woman
to whom I was so strangely wedded?"  I asked at last.

"No.  If it were possible I would, but I am precluded by certain
circumstances, the nature of which you shall be later on made aware.  At
present be patient.  The mystery that puzzles you will before long be
elucidated, and I will keep my promise made to you on the night we met."

"To tell me all?"

"To explain everything.  But, by the way," he added suddenly, "have you
any knowledge where your friend Bethune is?"

"Why?"

"Surely you've seen the morning papers, haven't you?"  Replying in the
negative I took up the Standard that lay within reach, and found it
opened at one of the inside pages.  Almost the first thing that caught
my eyes were the startling head-lines, "The Murder of a Millionaire:
Discovery of the Body."

The papers had obtained knowledge of the truth at last.

Eagerly I read the jumble of distorted facts which the representative of
a press agency had gathered from an apparently unreliable source, and
found to my amazement a statement appended, to the effect that after the
discovery of the remains a warrant had been issued against a well-known
person who had absconded and was now in Germany.  The police, however,
were fully cognisant of his whereabouts, and his arrest was only a
matter of a few hours.

When I lifted my face from the paper my glance met the calm face of my
visitor.

"Well," he asked, "what do you think of it?  It points to Bethune.  The
police seem at last to be on the right scent.  They've muddled the whole
thing, or they would have arrested him long ago."

"Upon that point I can express no opinion," I observed.  "He has
evidently, however, failed to get away unnoticed."

"If ever there was a cowardly crime it was the shooting of Gilbert
Sternroyd," the man said bitterly.  "His generosity kept a whole school
of bounders and hangers-on, and only because he refused to be
blackmailed and bled they spread damning reports about his admiration
for Lady Fyneshade.  Truly the life of a millionaire, young or old, is
not exactly a bed of roses."

"Then you believe implicitly in Bethune's guilt?"  I inquired.

"Most decidedly; no sane man who watched him as I watched him when he
fled immediately after the crime can doubt that he is the culprit.  It
is written on his face."

With this opinion I was unfortunately compelled to agree, and although I
endeavoured by dint of some artful questions to "draw" him upon several
points, he parried my attacks with consummate skill and tantalising
smiles, and left me after promising to see me again in a few days.

The reason he had called was only too evident.  He desired to ascertain
what facts I knew regarding the crime, for he, like others, was unaware
that I had actually been the first to discover it, and although one or
two of his questions were artfully directed, I detected the trend of his
strategy, and combated all his crafty efforts to "pump" me.  He was
admittedly an adventurer of the worst type, and his presence always
filled me with anger which I found difficult of control.

That day was one of interviews, for shortly after four o'clock, while
writing a letter at the club, Saunders brought me a note, observing that
as Miss Stretton's maid had delivered it, stating that it was very
urgent, he had come with it at once.  An excellent man was Saunders.  I
paid him well, and he was untiring in his efforts to secure me comfort
and freedom from the minor worries of life.  Having dismissed him I
opened the letter, finding to my surprise and intense satisfaction that
it was a sanely-worded note from Dora saying that she had been
dangerously ill, but was now very much better, and desired to see me
without delay if I could make it convenient to call that afternoon.

Almost instantly I set forth to respond to her invitation, and half an
hour later found her in her mother's drawing-room, radiant and quite
herself again.  Lady Stretton was not present, therefore she greeted me
in her frank, hoydenish way, as of old, led me to a seat, and taking one
herself, proceeded to describe her malady.

"But, of course, you have heard how unwell I've been, so I need not tell
you," she added.  "I'm quite right again now.  For days my head was
strangely muddled, and I had no idea that I was at home.  I fancied
myself in some queer horrid place surrounded by all sorts of terrors;
but suddenly, early yesterday morning, this feeling--or hallucination it
was, I suppose--left me, and the doctor today said I was recovering
rapidly.  Where is Jack?  Have you seen him?"

This was a question I had been momentarily expecting and feared to
answer.

"Yes," I said hesitatingly; "I have seen him."

"Then tell me quickly," she cried excitedly; "tell me, is it true what
the papers say, that the police are trying to arrest him, and that he
has fled abroad?"

She had read in the papers what I had feared to tell her, lest her mind
should again become unhinged.

"Yes, Dora," I said sympathetically.  "I am afraid it is true."

She knit her brows, and her nervous fingers hitched themselves in the
lace trimming of her dress.

"They would arrest him for the murder of Gilbert Sternroyd, I
understand," she said.  "The police think that Jack shot him."

"They have, unfortunately, evidence in support of their theory, I
believe."

"Do you suspect him?" she asked, looking seriously into my eyes.

"I am his friend, Dora.  I cannot give an impartial opinion."

"Ah!  I understand; you, like the others, think he is guilty," she said
in a tone of bitter reproach.  "Some enemy has denounced him and set the
bloodhounds of the law upon him.  They will follow the scent, and soon
discover him.  But is he guilty?"

"I can only tell you one fact, Dora, much as I regret it," I answered.
"The detective who has the case in hand, one of the most renowned
experts in his profession, holds evidence against him of a most
conclusive character."

"In what way?  What is the nature of the evidence?" she demanded.

"There is a witness," I replied slowly.  "A person discovered Gilbert
lying dead in Jack's chambers immediately after the crime.  On the
following night the same person visited the place secretly, and there
met Jack, who was apparently engaged in getting rid of all traces of the
murder.  This witness desired to enter one of the rooms, but Jack locked
the door in his face.  In that room it will be proved the body of the
murdered man was still lying."

"It will not be so easy to prove that last fact as you imagine," she
said very seriously.

"Then Jack has already told you the truth!"  I exclaimed.

"He told me something before--before I fell ill," she answered.

It was on my lips to ask her for an explanation of the cause that led to
her brain trouble, but, remembering the strict injunctions of the great
specialist, I deferred my question.

"Then you believe he is innocent?"  I asked eagerly.  "The police may
bring forward an array of whatever witnesses they choose, but I will
show them that Jack is no murderer," she said firmly.  "I do not wonder
that you, in common with others, suspect him, but when the truth is made
clear you will be amazed at the villainy that has been resorted to by
those responsible for Sternroyd's death."

"Do you, then, allege that there was more than one person?"

"That point will be made clear at the trial," she answered briefly.
"But tell me, you know something of Jack's movements.  When do you
anticipate he will be arrested?"

"To-night most probably," I said.  "Perhaps he is already detained."

"He is at some little out of-the-world place in Germany, isn't he?"

"Yes; how did you ascertain that?"

"I had a letter from him to-day," she replied; "but we have no time to
lose.  Ah!"  And she stood with both hands suddenly pressed to her brow.
"My head throbs so painfully now and then.  Sometimes it seems as if my
forehead must really burst."

"Can I assist you?"  I asked, rising quickly and standing beside her,
but as I did so the door opened and the Earl of Fyneshade was announced.

"Ah! my dear Dora," he cried effusively, as he strode into the room.  "I
only returned from Paris this morning, and hearing you were unwell came
along to inquire.  The account I had of you was that you were delirious,
with all sorts of other complications, but I'm glad you are not so ill
as reported."

"Thanks very much," she said, shaking his hand.  "I'm very much better
to-day."

Then I exchanged greetings with the Earl.  He looked spruce and well,
and by his casual question whether Mabel had been there often during his
absence, no one would have suspected him of any serious disagreement
with his young wife.  For a quarter of an hour we chatted, when, finding
Lady Stretton was out driving, he rose and left.

"I'm so thankful he's gone," Dora exclaimed with a grimace, as soon as
the door had closed.  "He's such a dreadful old bore.  I wonder Mabel
ever fell in love with him; but there, ill-disposed persons say she
didn't."

And we both laughed.

"But we haven't any time to gossip," she exclaimed, rising with a sudden
impetuosity.  "You will go with me, won't you?"

"Where?"

"Not far.  I want to convince you that what I have said regarding Jack's
innocence is the absolute truth."

"I am, of course, open to conviction," I said eagerly.  "If I could only
see him cleared of this terrible suspicion I should be happy."

"Then you shall," she said, laying her hand tenderly on my arm, and
adding with earnestness, "Stuart, you told me on one occasion that you
had loved a true, honest woman, and that your life had been blighted by
her death."

"Yes," I said, "I remember I spoke to you once of her."

"Have you ceased to remember her?" she asked mysteriously.

"Never.  Daily, hourly she is in my thoughts.  There has, alas! been no
brightness in my life since the well-remembered day when I lost her," I
exclaimed fervently.

"If what I hear be true, she puzzles you.  You knew nothing of her
parentage, of her past, of the reason for the strange ceremony of your
marriage," she said in a soft voice.

"Nothing.  I have ever since sought to penetrate the mystery and
ignominiously failed in every effort."

She paused and, looking steadfastly into my face, exclaimed in a strange
voice full of suppressed excitement: "Then to-night I will take you to a
place where you may ascertain the truth.  At all hazards I will save
Jack the indignity of falling into the hands of the police, and at the
same time reveal to you certain facts that will astound you."

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.

RECONCILIATION.

Of her French maid, who appeared in answer to her summons, Dora ordered
her hat and coat, but ere these could be brought she again placed her
hands convulsively to her brow and, pacing the room in feverish haste,
complained of the recurrence of excruciating pains.

Not knowing how to relieve her I stood watching, fearing lest she should
be seized with another attack of mental aberration.  She pushed her hair
back from her brow, and suddenly halting before me, said:

"It is as I feared.  My head is reeling and I cannot think.  My mind is
growing as confused as it was the other day.  I--I cannot imagine what
ails me."

"Shall I send for Dr Fothergill?"  I suggested anxiously.  She had
promised to make a revelation, and I foresaw the possibility that if her
mind became unhinged I should learn nothing.

"No," she answered, wearily sinking into a chair.  "Forgive me.  I am
afraid I miscalculated my strength.  I thought I had quite recovered,
but the slight exertion of trying to recall the past brings back those
fearful pains that have of late so tortured me.  The blow must have
injured my brain."

"The blow!  What blow?"  I cried.

"Cannot you see?" she said, placing her hand to her hair and parting it
at the side.

I bent to examine, and there saw, half concealed by the skillful manner
in which her hair had been dressed by her maid, unmistakable signs of a
terrible blow that had been dealt her.  It was strange.  I also had been
felled at the moment I had discovered her creeping silently into that
mysterious room in Gloucester Square.  Had she also fallen by the same
unknown hand?  Evidently the injury to her brain was the result of the
crushing blow she had received.

"Who caused this?"  I inquired.  "You have been struck from behind!"

"Yes, by an enemy.  But ask me nothing, ask me nothing," she groaned.
"I--cannot think--I cannot talk.  The place goes round--round."

The neat maid entered with her young mistress's hat at that moment, but
seeing her mistress lying back in the chair pale and motionless, the
girl halted on the threshold, scared.

"Send a messenger at once for Dr Fothergill," I commanded.  "Miss Dora
has been taken ill again," and while she flew to execute my orders I
crossed to the recumbent invalid and tenderly chafed her hands.  They
seemed cold and clammy.  Her wild staring eyes were fixed upon me and
she shuddered, but to my questions she gave incoherent replies, lapsing
gradually into a state of semi-insensibility.

On the eve of revealing the secret of Sybil, she had been thwarted by
mental weakness.  Full of pain and anxiety I watched her, reflecting
that this added one more to the string of misfortunes consequent upon my
strange union.  Even my friends seemed by the conspiring vagaries of
Fate prevented from rendering me any aid.

Within a quarter of an hour the great specialist arrived, being followed
almost immediately by Lady Stretton, haughty, fussy and rapidly fanning
herself.  The doctor, after hearing from me how Dora had suddenly been
attacked, and having examined her carefully, said, with a sigh:

"Ah!  Just as I expected; just what I feared.  She has had a relapse,
and a very serious one.  But she will always be subject to these
spasmodic attacks, unless by chance she experiences some great
unexpected joy or sorrow, which may restore her mind to its proper
balance.  We can only hope," he added, turning to Lady Stretton who
stood beside him.  "Hope!"

"But cannot you cure her?" her ladyship asked.  "Surely hers is not such
a very serious case?"

"The injury to the brain was very serious," he answered slowly.  "Her
case is a most perplexing one and full of the gravest complications.
Speaking with candour, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that
she will ever completely recover."

"Oh, my child!  My poor child!"  Lady Stretton exclaimed with a sudden
outburst of maternal love quite unusual to her, as she bent over her
daughter, imprinting a fervent kiss upon her cold brow.  The face was
bloodless, the eyes closed, the cheeks sunken; she seemed inanimate, as
one dead.

"There is, I cannot help thinking, some great weight upon her mind," the
doctor presently exclaimed, speaking in dry businesslike tones.  "Once
or twice during the past week, in her more lucid moments, she has
expressed anxiety regarding a mysterious crime recently committed, in
which a wealthy young man was murdered.  Did she know that young man; or
is she a diligent reader of the newspapers?"

"She has, I believe, taken an unusual interest in the mystery, for the
young man was a personal friend of her sister, Lady Fyneshade, and I
think she met him at dinner on one occasion at Eaton Square," her
ladyship answered.

"Ah! then that would account for her morbid fascination towards the
details of the mysterious affair.  In her frame of mind any such event
would absorb all her thoughts.  I will call again after dinner," and
rising, he took leave of her ladyship, an example I also followed a few
minutes later.

Dora's object had been to prevent Jack's arrest, but her plans, whatever
they were, had been frustrated by this sudden attack.  Without doubt she
had gained knowledge of my curious marriage.  But how?  Her promise to
take me to some place where I could ascertain the truth was remarkable,
yet throughout that evening I found myself half convinced that her words
were merely wild, hysterical utterances precursory of the attack that
had followed.  No!  It was absolutely impossible to place any credence
in such a promise, for the probability would be that when she regained
her normal condition she would immediately disclaim all knowledge of
uttering those words.

Next day was Sunday.  In the afternoon I called at Lady Stretton's, only
to ascertain that Dora, having recovered consciousness, was found to be
light-headed and distracted.  She had spoken no rational sentence since
those she had uttered to me on the previous day.  I left the house
sadly, walking alone in the Park for a long time; then returning I dined
and spent the evening at home.  A cloud rested upon me always, dark and
palpable; it entered into my life; it shadowed and destroyed all my
happiness.

The next day and the next passed uneventfully.  Eagerly I scanned the
papers morning and evening to ascertain whether Jack had been arrested,
but there was no news of the fact, and I began to believe that my friend
had after all succeeded in eluding the vigilance of the police.  That he
was guilty I could not doubt.  Dora's words were but passionate
utterances, such as might have been expected of a woman who loves an
accused man.  Indeed, as time went by I reproached myself for my
egregious folly in giving her declaration credence and listening to it
attentively.  It was, however, impossible to let the matter stand as she
had left it.  Her mention of my lost well-beloved had whetted my
curiosity, and some further inquiry must take place, although I saw that
so long as she remained in her present state I could do nothing.

Impatient, with head full of cogent arguments I had raised against
myself, I waited in agony of mind indescribable.  I lived for one
purpose alone, to solve the inscrutable mystery.

A discovery I made accidentally struck me as curious.  One afternoon,
while in the Park, I saw Fyneshade and his wife driving together.
Sitting beside her husband, with an expression of perfect contentment
and happiness, Mabel's attention had been attracted in the opposite
direction, therefore she did not notice me.  That there had been a
reconciliation was apparent, and it gave me intense satisfaction, for I
knew that no questions would now be asked me regarding that clandestine
meeting in the grounds of Blatherwycke.

Curiously enough, on the following day I received an invitation from
Mabel to dine _en famille_ at Eaton Square, and believing that she had
some strong motive in this I accepted.

The meal was served with stateliness even though the Earl and his wife
had no other visitor.  It had been a breathless day in London, and was
still light when dinner ended and Mabel rose and left us.  The eastern
sky was growing from blue to a violet dusk, and even then the
crimson-shaded candles upon the table were merely ornamental.

We had been smoking and gossiping some time, and as I sat opposite my
host I thought I somehow observed a change in him.  Some anxiety seemed
reflected in his clear-cut features, the expression upon which was a
trifle stern and moody.  It had softened a little while his wife kept up
her light amusing chatter, but when she left there again settled upon
his countenance the troubled look that puzzled me.  It was caused no
doubt by his suspicions of Mabel's faithlessness.

He had been describing a new play he had seen produced in Paris, when
suddenly he turned to me, exclaiming, as he wiped his single eye-glass
and readjusted it: "Dora's illness is most unfortunate, isn't it?  The
whole thing seems enshrouded in mystery.  Even Mabel is either ignorant,
or desires to keep the cause of her sister's affliction a secret.  What
do you know about it?"

I removed my cigar from my lips very slowly, for I hesitated whether I
should unbosom myself and explain the strange circumstances in which I
had discovered her.  But in that brief moment I saw that if I did so I
might become an unwilling witness in the tragedy.  I knew the Earl as an
inveterate gossip at his club, and having no desire that my name should
be bruited all over London in connection with the affair, I therefore
affected ignorance.

He plied me with many questions regarding Bethune's movements, but to
these also I remained dumb, for I could detect the drift of his
conversation.

"Well," he said at length, "he killed young Sternroyd undoubtedly,
though from what motive it is impossible to imagine."

"I suppose it will all come out at the trial," I observed.  "All come
out!  What do you mean?" he asked, moving slightly to face me.

"I mean that his motive will then be made clear."

"Ah! yes, of course," he said smiling.  "You see this wretched business
is most unfortunate for us; it so closely affects my wife, and therefore
worries me beyond measure.  Even now there are many people evil disposed
enough to couple Mabel's name with his, merely because of the will; but
he was a mad-brained young fool, and only those who knew him personally
can imagine the irresponsibility of his actions."

"Were you acquainted with him?"  I asked, eagerly seizing upon this
opportunity to dear up a point on which I had been in doubt.  "Oh, yes!
I knew him quite well.  His father was my friend when a young man, but
what induced Gilbert to leave all his money to Mabel I really cannot
understand."

"Perhaps he did it in accordance with his father's instructions.  He may
have been under some obligation to you.  Had not Gilbert any relatives?"

"I believe he had some direct relatives; but by some means they
seriously offended him before his father's death.  Of course, one cannot
disguise the truth that such a large sum would be very acceptable were
it not for the melancholy facts surrounding it," and an expression of
sadness crossed his heavy brow as he added with a touch of sorrow: "Poor
lad--poor lad!"

"Yes, he seemed a good-hearted young fellow," I said.  "I met him on one
occasion with Mabel."

"Where?" he inquired, quickly.  "Where were you?"

"In Radnor Place."

"Radnor Place?  What took you there?" he demanded with undisguised
anxiety.

"I went there to try to find a certain house."

"And did you discover it?"

"Yes."

"And you met them there!" he cried, as if a sudden amazing thought
occurred to him.

"Certainly, I met them there.  The carriage was waiting, and together we
drove towards the Reform to call for you.  I alighted, however, at
Piccadilly Circus."

"They--they gave you no explanation--I mean you did not enter this house
you speak of?" he added, bending towards me, restlessness portrayed on
his countenance.

"On that occasion, no.  But I have been inside since."

"You have!  And--and you found her there--you saw her!"

"No," I replied calmly; "I have never seen Mabel in the house.  But why
are you so upset at these words of mine?  Was it not within your
knowledge that Gilbert was seen in public with your wife, that--"

"Of course it was.  I'm not an idiot, man," he cried, as, crimson with
anger, he rose and paced the room in feverish haste.  "But I have been
misled, fooled, and by heaven! those who have deceived me shall pay
dearly.  I won't spare them.  By God!  I won't," and he brought down his
fist so heavily upon the dining-table that some flowers were jerked from
the epergne.

Then halting unsteadily, and pouring out some brandy into a liqueur
glass, he swallowed it at one gulp, saying:

"Let us go to the drawing-room, but remember, not a word to her.  She
must not know that you have told me," and he led the way to where his
wife awaited us.

He entered the room jovial and smiling as if no care weighed upon his
mind, and throughout the evening preserved a pleasant demeanour, that
seemed to bring full happiness to Mabel's heart.

I knew she longed to declare her contentment, now that a public scandal
was avoided and they were reconciled, and although she was unable, I
recognised in her warm hand-shake when I departed an expression of
thanks for my promise to conceal the truth.

CHAPTER THIRTY.

ONE THOUSAND POUNDS.

The enigma was maddening; I felt that sooner or later its puzzling
intricacies must induce mania in some form or other.  Insomnia had
seized me, and I had heard that insomnia was one of the most certain
signs of approaching madness.  In vain I had striven to penetrate the
mystery of my union and its tragic sequel, at the same time leaving
undisturbed that cold, emotionless mask which I had schooled myself to
wear before the world.

Days had passed since my visit to Eaton Square, and through all my pain
the one thought had been dominant--I must obtain from Dora the
revelation she had promised.  It seemed that blindly, willingly I had
resigned every hope, joy, and sentiment that made life precious; I had,
like Faust, given my soul to the Torturer in exchange for a few sunny
days of bliss and fleeting love-dreams.

Wearied, despondent, and anxious I lived through those stifling hours
with but one thought, clinging tenaciously to one hope; yet after all,
what could I expect of a woman whose mind was affected, and whose lover
accused of a capital offence?  In this distracted mood I was wandering
one evening along the Strand and arriving at Charing Cross Station
turned in mechanically to purchase a paper at the bookstall.  The hands
of the great clock pointed to half-past eight, and the continental train
stood ready to start.  Porters who had wheeled mountains of luggage
stood, wiped their brows and pocketed the tips of bustling tourists
about to commence their summer holiday.  City clerks in suits of cheap
check and bearing knapsacks and alpenstocks were hurrying hither and
thither, excited over the prospect of a fortnight in Switzerland for a
ten-pound note, while constant travellers of the commercial class strode
leisurely to their carriages smoking, and ladies already seated peered
out anxiously for their husbands.  The scene is of nightly occurrence
after the London season, when everyone is leaving town, and I had
witnessed it many times when I, too, had been a passenger by the night
mail.  As I stood for a moment watching I heard two men behind me
engaged in excited conversation in French.

"I tell you it's impossible," exclaimed one in a decisive tone.

"Very well, then, you shall not leave London," the other said, and as I
turned I was surprised to find that one of them was Markwick, the other
a short, rather elderly, shabbily-dressed little Frenchman, whose grey
beard and moustache were unkempt, whose silk hat was sadly rubbed and
whose dark eyes were keen and small.  In an attitude of firm
determination he held Markwick by the arms and glared for a moment
threateningly into his face.  The latter, too occupied to notice my
presence, retorted angrily--

"Let me go, you fool.  You must be mad to act like this, when you know
what we both have at stake."

"No, no," the irate Frenchman cried.  "No, I am not mad.  You desire to
escape, but I tell you that you shall not unless you give me the money
now, before you go."

"How much, pray?"  Markwick asked with a dark, severe look.

"What you promised.  One thousand pounds.  Surely it is not a great
price."

"You shall have it to-morrow--I'll send it to you from Paris."

"Ah! no, m'sieur, you do not evade me like that!  You are playing a deep
game, but you omitted me from your reckoning.  The ticket you bought
this morning was not for Paris, but for New York via Havre."

"How--how do you know my intentions?"  Markwick demanded, starting.
"You confounded skunk, you've been spying upon me again!"

But the little Frenchman only grinned, exhibited his palms, and with a
slight shrug of his shoulders, said:

"I was not at the police bureau in Paris for fifteen years without
learning a few tricks.  You are clever, M'sieur, shrewd indeed, but if
you attempt to leave to-night without settling with me, then you will be
arrested on arrival at Dover.  Choose--money and liberty; no money and
arrest."

"Curse you!  Then this is the way you'd blackmail me?"  Markwick cried,
his face livid with rage.  "I secured your services for a certain fixed
sum, which I paid honourably, together with three further demands."

"In order to secure my silence," the Frenchman interrupted.  "Because
you were well aware of your future if I gave information."

"But you will not--you shall not," answered the man who had met me in
the garden at Richmond on that memorable night.  His face wore a
murderous look such as I had never before seen.  It was the face of an
unscrupulous malefactor, a countenance in which evil was portrayed in
every line.  "If it were not that we are here, in a public place, I'd
wring your neck like a rat."

"Brave words! brave words!" exclaimed the other, laughing
contemptuously.  "A sign from me and the prison doors would close behind
you for ever.  But see!  The train will leave in a few moments.  Will
you pay, or do you desire to stay and meet your accusers?"

Markwick glanced at the train wherein all the passengers had taken their
scats.  The guards were noisily slamming the doors, and the
ticket-examiners, passing from end to end, had now finished their work.
He bit his lips, glanced swiftly up at the dock, and snatching up his
small bag said, with a muttered imprecation:

"I care nothing for your threats.  I shall go."

Shaking off the Frenchman's hand he moved towards the barrier, but his
opponent, too quick for him, sprang with agility before him, barring his
path.

This action attracted the attention of several bystanders, who paused in
surprise, while at the same moment the engine gave vent to a whistle of
warning and next second the train slowly moved away.  Markwick, seeing
himself thus thwarted and the centre of attraction, turned to the little
foreigner, and cursing him audibly strode quickly out of the station,
while his irate companion walked away in the opposite direction.

In the yard Markwick jumped into a hansom and was driven rapidly away,
and as I watched I saw almost at the same moment a tall, well-dressed
man spring into another cab, give the driver rapid directions, and then
follow the conveyance Markwick had taken.

As the stranger had mounted into the cab and conversed with the man his
face was turned full towards me, and in that instant I recognised him.
It was Grindlay!  He, too, had evidently watched unseen.

That this ex-detective held Markwick's secret was evident, and as
Grindlay--whom I had imagined far away in Germany--was taking such a
keen interest in the doings of the man I hated, the thought occurred to
me that by following the Frenchman I might be of some assistance.  I
therefore turned suddenly on my heel, crossed the station-yard, and
hurried along the Strand citywards in the direction he had taken.
Before long I had the satisfaction of seeing him walking rapidly before
me muttering imprecations as he went.  By his own admissions he was a
blackmailer and had had no doubt a hand in Markwick's schemes, yet it
occurred to me that if judiciously approached he might possibly throw
some light upon the events of the past few months.  Markwick, himself an
adventurer, was not the kind of man to submit to blackmail unless his
enemy held him beneath his thumb.  The scene I had witnessed proved
conclusively that he went in mortal fear of this Frenchman, otherwise he
would have treated his importunities with contempt, and left in the
train by which he apparently had intended to escape by a roundabout
route to America.  Therefore, in order to learn more of this latest
denunciation of the man whose presence always filled me with hatred and
loathing, I kept close behind the angry foreigner.  The Strand was
crowded with theatre-goers at that hour, but this facilitated my
movements, for according to his own statement he had had experience in
Paris as an officer of police, and I saw it might be somewhat difficult
to follow him without attracting his attention.  I had a strong desire
to accost him then and there, but on reflection felt certain that it
would be best to find out where he went, and afterwards leave him to the
tactful Grindlay.  A single impolitic question might arrest any
revelation that he could make; or if he found himself followed his
suspicions might be aroused, and he himself might fly ere I could
communicate with my friend the detective.  So, exercising every caution,
I carefully dogged his footsteps.  It was not yet dark and I was
therefore enabled to keep him well in view, although at a respectable
distance.  At the same rapid pace he passed along the Strand, up Bow
Street and Endell Street to Oxford Street, which he crossed, continuing
up Gower Street.  When near the Euston Road he turned into a short
dismal thoroughfare bearing the name of University Street, and there
entered one of the rather dingy blackened houses by means of a latch
key.  When he had disappeared I passed and repassed the house several
times, taking careful note of its number and of the appearance of its
exterior, then, determined to communicate as early as possible with
Grindlay, I returned home and wrote him a note which I sent to Scotland
Yard by Saunders.

Shortly before eleven o'clock that night a messenger brought me a
hastily-scribbled note from him asking me to come round to his office at
once.  I went, was ushered into his presence without delay, and related
what I had witnessed at the railway station, and what I had overheard.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "their altercation when I arrived had almost ended.
I had been keeping close observation on Markwick all the afternoon, but
he had eluded me, and it was only by the merest chance that I went along
to Charing Cross to see if his intention was to decamp.  So you tracked
down that wild little Frenchman, did you?  Excellent.  Why, you are a
born detective yourself," he added, enthusiastically.  "Nothing could be
better.  Now we shall know something."

"Did Markwick elude you again?"  I inquired.

He smiled.  "Scarcely," he answered.  "But his acquaintance with Jules
De Vries is quite unexpected, and puts an entirely different complexion
on affairs."

"You know the Frenchman then?"

"Yes.  He was, before his retirement last year, one of the smartest men
in the Paris detective force.  During eighteen months before he was
pensioned he was head of the section charged with the inquiries into the
anarchist outrages."

"But he was apparently endeavouring to levy blackmail!"  I observed.

"Oh! there's a good deal of corruption among the French police," he
answered, laughing.  "Perhaps, living retired, he is seeking to make
money out of the secrets entrusted to him in his professional capacity.
That is often the case."

Our conversation then turned upon the inquest upon the body of Gilbert
Sternroyd, which had now been fixed, and to which I was summoned to give
evidence regarding the discovery of the body at Gloucester Square.
Grindlay, in answer to my question, admitted that Jack had not yet been
arrested, but that as soon as certain inquiries then in active progress
were complete the German police would detain him for extradition.

"Then you still believe him guilty," I observed with sadness.

"Can anyone doubt it?" he asked.  "I ought to say nothing about the
matter, but as you are a witness I may as well tell you that our
inquiries show conclusively that your friend Bethune committed the
murder, although the circumstances under which the fatal shot was fired
were of such an astounding character that I leave you to hear them
officially.  It is sufficient for me to say that the murder of young
Sternroyd is the strangest and most complicated crime that in the course
of my twenty-four years' experience I have ever been called upon to deal
with.  But I must be off.  I am due at eleven-thirty at Shepherd's Bush,
so you must excuse me.  We will meet again soon.  Good-bye."

A moment later we parted, and I returned to my chambers.

Soon after eleven o'clock next morning Saunders entered my sitting-room
and announced a visitor.  I took the card.  It was Dora's!

Rushing forward I greeted her gladly, and bringing her in, enthroned her
in my big arm-chair, the same in which she had sat on a previous
occasion when she had called upon me.

She was dressed simply but with taste in light grey alpaca with a large
black hat and veil, but the face which was disclosed when the veil was
raised was pale as death, lit by two large lustrous eyes.  For a moment
she regarded me with a sad, wistful expression, as if imploring me not
to reproach but to pity her.  Then a sad, quiet smile slowly dawned upon
her countenance, and she stretched forth her hand towards me.

"Stuart," she murmured, in a low voice like the subdued wail of an
aching heart.  "Stuart, are you displeased with me?  Are you angry that
I should come to you?"

"Displeased!  Angry!"  I exclaimed, quickly grasping her extended hand
between my own.  "No, no!  Dora.  I only hope you have recovered, that
you are now strong and well again."

"Yes.  I--I feel better," she said.  "But what of him--tell me.  Has he
yet cleared himself?  At home they affect ignorance of everything--
everything."

I shook my head sadly, remembering Grindlay's words.  "No, alas!  He has
not cleared himself, and to-day, or at least to-morrow, he will, I fear,
be arrested."

"Then it is time to act--time to act," she repeated excitedly.  "I
promised I would reveal some strange facts--facts that will amaze you--
but I was prevented by illness.  Now, while there is still time you will
help me, will you not?  You will come with me and see with your own
eyes, hear with your own ears.  Then only can you justly judge.  I
confess that long ago," she added in a low half-whisper bending towards
me, "long ago I loved you, and wondered why you never uttered words of
love to me.  But now I know.  I have ascertained the wretched duplicity
of those about you, their evil machinations, and the purity of the one
beautiful woman whom you loved.  There has been a conspiracy of silence
against you, rendered imperative by strange circumstances, but it shall
continue no longer.  You shall accompany me and know the truth.  Come."

She rose suddenly.  Obeying her I sought my hat, and together we
descended the long flight of stone stairs into the busy thoroughfare
below.

At last the promised revelation was to be made.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.

THE SCENT OF VIOLETS.

In accordance with Dora's instructions I hailed a cab, and although she
would give me no inkling of our destination, she ordered the man to
drive with all haste to Paddington.  At the station she told me to book
to Didcot, the junction for Oxford, and about an hour later we alighted
there.

From a neighbouring inn we obtained a fly, and together drove out across
a level stretch of country some two miles, until we passed a crumbling
stone cross, and turning suddenly entered a peaceful old-world village,
which I understood by her order to the driver to be East Hagbourne.  It
consisted of one long straggling street of cottages, many of them
covered with roses and honeysuckle, with here and there some good sized,
quaint-gabled house, or lichen-covered, moss-grown barn, but when nearly
at the further end of the little place the man pulled up suddenly before
a large, rambling house of time-mellowed red brick, half hidden by ivy
and creepers.  It stood near the road with a strip of well-kept lawn in
front and an iron railing, quite an incongruity in those parts.  When we
alighted our summons was responded to by a neat maid whom Dora addressed
as Ashcombe, and who at once led the way to a long, low room,
oak-beamed, panelled and very comfortably furnished.

"Who lives here?"  I inquired in a half whisper when the domestic had
gone, but my question was answered by the sudden appearance of its
occupant, who next second stood silent upon the threshold, motionless,
statuesque.

Astonishment held me dumb.  I sprang from the chair whereon I had been
seated agape, amazed, my eyes riveted upon the figure standing silent
before the dark portiere curtain.

Words froze on my lips; my tongue refused to articulate.  Had insanity,
the affliction I most dreaded, at last seized me, or was it some strange
chimera, some extraordinary trick of my warped imagination?  It was
neither.  The figure that had passed into the room swiftly and
noiselessly while I had for an instant turned to question Dora was that
of a living person--a person whose presence roused within my heart a
tumult of wonder and of joy.

It was Sybil!

Yes, there was the delicately-poised head, the same flawlessly beautiful
face that had entranced me in the little Southern mountain town, the
same candid forehead, the same half-parted lips, the same dimpled cheeks
that I had so often kissed with a mad passion such as I had never
experienced before or since.  She wore a grey silk gown; at her throat
was one simple rose of deepest crimson.  Her little white hand bore a
wedding ring--the one I had placed upon it--the lace on her skirt and
bodice, the delicate pale tint of her face, bore testimony to the
elegant and opulent indolence of her existence.

Yet was she not dead?  Had I not been present when her soul and body
parted?  Had I not stood before the spot where she slept beneath a
willow planted years ago by pious hands that had raised a neighbouring
tomb?  That willow had, I remembered, never grown vigorous and free in
the strength of its sap.  I knew how sadly its yellow foliage drooped,
the ends of its branches hung down like heavy, weary tears.  I
recollected how, when first I saw it, I had thought that its roots went
down and absorbed from my dead love's heart all the bitterness of a life
thrown away.  And the roses near her grave bore large blossoms as white
as milk and of a deep red.  The roots penetrated to the depths of the
coffin, the sweet-smelling blooms took their whiteness from a virgin
bosom and their crimson from a wounded heart.

I had held her cold hand and kissed her icy lips.  Yet here she stood
before me in the flesh, grave-eyed, dove-robed, and something wan and
pale, an inner beauty shining from her face.

At last my tongue's strings became loosened.  I stammered her name.  For
answer she uttered in a well-remembered voice, one word:

"Stuart!"

Next instant with a shriek of joy she was locked in my embrace, and my
eager lips pressed passionately her dimples, those nests for kisses.  In
those joyful, dreamy moments we left remembrances unuttered, and nothing
mingled with the sound of our kisses but a whispered word from Dora.
When one finds living and well one's love who was long ago lowered to
the grave there is no need for the voice; a single look says more than a
long speech.

Through the open windows the garden looked quite gay.  The lawn grew
thick and strong with its well-kept beds of crimson, white, scarlet and
blue.  Fresh air came in abundance from the open country, with puffs of
all the pleasant perfumes of the flowers.  The sweet scents seemed to
fill Sybil with lassitude.  She leant upon my arm quite faint, as if the
smell had sent her off to sleep with love.

I glanced at her pale cheek and shell-like ear as her handsome head
pillowed itself upon my breast.  So delicate they seemed that, were it
not for the rising and falling of her bosom, I should have believed she
was of wax.  But presently, struggling with the emotion that she had
striven in vain to suppress, she raised her blue eyes to mine.  They
were still clear and trustful, child-like in their purity.  I fancied I
could read her reverie in their blue depths as she smiled upon me with
sad sweetness.

"At last!" she murmured dreamily, her little hand gripping my arm
convulsively.  "At last you have come, Stuart!"

Her words caused a flood of memories to surge through my brain, and as
she stood before me still pre-occupied, still mysterious, I felt myself
doubting, even then, the reality of my joy.  But, no! her presence was a
tangible, inexplicable fact.  Even at that moment a breath of violets
filled my nostrils and again stirred my memory.  Away in the Pyrenees
long ago her chiffons had exuded that odour.  Was it not her favourite
perfume?  The violets of spring, those modest blossoms snatched from the
woods to droop and die in the hands of London flower-sellers, had always
brought back to me memories of brief summer days when we had wandered up
those distant mountain paths side by side, hand in hand, like children.
I had thought of those distant things amidst the dust and clatter and
gaiety of the great city, and ofttimes bought a bunch of those flowers,
offspring of the dew and rising sun, and wore them in my coat so that I
might feast my full on the bitter recollections of those days bygone
when I had first seen the sun of a woman's wondrous beauty.

But in my sudden ecstasy at finding her actually in my embrace,
enraptured by her beauty and transported by her passionate kisses, I
trod enchanted ground, knowing not what words fell from my lips.

Our questions were naive and tender, our explanations brief and full of
regrets and surprises.  Happy in each other's love, we uttered no word
of reproach.

Suddenly I was conscious that Dora had approached, and was speaking.

"I bring him to you, Sybil, because the secret may not be longer
preserved," she said slowly, with emphasis.  "It has been sought to fix
guilt upon an innocent man who, fearing to betray you, has allowed the
newspapers to adjudge him a murderer.  Speak, then; tell Stuart, who
has, I know, never ceased to love you and revere your memory, the secret
that has sealed your lips, the secret which when revealed will bring a
terrible Nemesis upon the guilty ones."

In a moment Sybil withdrew herself from my embrace; then with a sudden
impulse she took a few hurried steps forward, and grasping the hand of
the woman who had thus spoken, exclaimed:

"Dora, forgive me!  I had imagined that you were my rival.  I was told
that Stuart was your lover, and had positive proof that you had on more
than one occasion gone to his rooms alone.  I believed that after he had
supposed me dead he loved you, but I find that the same lying,
scandalous tongue that wounded my reputation tried to wound yours.
Instead of my enemy, I know you are still my devoted friend.  Forgive
me, Dora--forgive me!"

"Say no more, Sybil," the other answered sympathetically.  "All that is
now of the past.  Stuart and myself have, it is true, been friends--
true, platonic friends--and were it not for his exertions on my behalf
you would not to-day be in a position to ruthlessly cast off the
trammels that have fettered you, preventing you occupying your true
position as his wife.  Without fear you may now lay bare the secret of
your life and divulge facts that will thwart the evil machinations of
your enemies.  You have waited long and been faithful, both of you, but
your triumph will be swift, crushing, complete."

"Yes," said my well-beloved, "I have already heard of the suspicion that
has fallen upon Captain Bethune, and--"

"Bethune!"  I cried, remembering her letter that I had found in his
rooms.  "Tell me, do you know him?"

"I do, Stuart," she answered, turning her soft eyes to mine.  "He has
been my friend, and from time to time has brought me here, in my lonely
retreat, news of the one man I loved--yourself."

"But Markwick is trying to escape," Dora exclaimed quickly.

"Then he has again deceived me!"  Sybil cried.  "He shall not elude us!
No! the day of denunciation has dawned, and I will lay bare the strange
facts so that punishment may fall upon the guilty ones," and she placed
her hand upon her breast where her heart throbbed wildly.  "It is a
wretched story of duplicity and crime, Stuart," she added, standing
before me with eyes downcast.  "When you have heard my confession,
perhaps--perhaps you will spurn and hate me for bringing upon you all
this terrible anxiety and unhappiness; but I swear before Heaven that
secrecy was imperative, that I have been under the control of one evil
and unscrupulous, who has held my destiny for life or death.  Yes, yes,
it is the ghastly truth," she said, her voice dropping to a
scarcely-audible whisper.  "I deceived you even though I loved you, yet
since that time I have lived tortured by a remorse that knows no night,
driven almost to desperation by a knowledge of your unhappiness and an
inability to tell you that I still lived."

"Why were you unable to communicate with me?"  I asked in wonder.

"Because I dared not.  Ah!  Do not judge me prematurely!" she pleaded,
clutching my arm.  "When you know the truth, you will see there are
extenuating circumstances.  Tell me that you will hear me to the end
before you condemn me as an adventuress."

"Sybil," I said, as calmly as I could, my fingers closing over hers, "I
love you as I have always loved you.  Explain everything, let me act for
you in settling accounts with those who have held you in bondage, and
then, when all is plain, when the secret of this strange life of yours
is explained, then will we resume that perfect but abruptly terminated
happiness of the old never-to-be-forgotten days at Luchon."

"Ah, Stuart!  I knew you loved me!" she cried, dinging to me
passionately.  "I knew that you would hear me, because you are loyal and
generous to a woman, as you always were.  Yes; now, owing to a
combination of circumstances, I am at last free to speak, and will
conceal nothing.  Our enemies parted us cruelly, deceiving us both, and
acting with a cunning that was amazing.  Therefore you, the principal
sufferer, shall have the satisfaction of exposing their trickery and
bringing them to justice.  Even upon you, at one time, they heaped
suspicion so that you might be made their scapegoat, while against
myself the police also held a warrant for an offence I committed without
the least criminal intent.  Ah! my story is a strange one; stranger than
any have imagined."

"Yes," observed Dora, "the little I know of it astounds me.  When the
true facts are made known and the murderer of Gilbert Sternroyd
arrested, what a scandal it will cause!"

"Then who is the culprit?"  I inquired, in breathless anxiety to solve
the inscrutable mystery that had so long puzzled me.

"Be patient for a moment," Sybil answered, "and I will explain events in
their sequence.  Then you will see plainly by whose hand Gilbert fell."

"You knew him, did you not?"  I asked.

"Ah!" she said smiling.  "You purchased my photograph--the one I had
caused to be placed in the shop-window in Regent Street, so that you
should notice it, and on buying it, as I knew you must, you would learn
that I still lived."

"Yes.  But I could not believe the truth," I said hastily.  "It was so
incredible that I came to the conclusion that the photographer had made
some mistake about the date."  Then I added: "Why was Sternroyd placed
beside you?"

"There was a reason, which you will shortly see," she replied.  "I knew
Gilbert, it is true.  Do not, however, for a moment imagine he was ever
fond of me.  He was engaged to someone else."

She had taken a few steps backward and sunk upon a low chair, while Dora
had crossed to the fireplace and ensconced herself in a corner, where
she sat in silence, watching us with undisguised satisfaction.  I, too,
had seated myself in an arm-chair, so near that of Sybil that I could
hold and caress her tiny hand.

"Your ring," I exclaimed, noticing her wedding-ring, "is that the one I
placed upon your finger?"

She smiled and sadly shook her head, replying:

"No, you did not place it there."

"What!"  I cried amazed.  "Are you not my wife?  Is not that your
wedding-ring?"

"No, Stuart," she answered very gravely.  "This is my wedding-ring, it's
true, but you are not my husband."

"Then you have--you've married someone else!"  I gasped, starting up.
But she gripped my wrist, forcing me firmly back into my chair, saying:

"Did you not, a moment ago, promise you would hear me without question?
Have patience, and you shall know everything--everything."

Then, sighing heavily, she pushed the tendrils of fair hair from her
white, open brow, while I sank back among the cushions impatient and
perplexed.

"Only to-day, a few hours ago, the chains of the thraldom under which I
have lived were drawn so tightly around me, galling me to the quick,"
she said, in a low, hurried voice, after sitting a few moments silent
and agitated.  "Only this morning I saw how hopeless was the effort to
elude that thraldom in the smallest degree that my whole being ached in
torture, and I hated the world and wished to escape from it; yet the two
events for which I have longed through all these dreary, wearying days
have now occurred.  I am free to speak, and you have come to me with
forgiveness on your lips."

I waited expecting her to continue, but she remained silent.

"Speak, why do you pause?"  I asked, impatiently I am afraid.

"I paused, Stuart, because I am doubtful as to how you will take what I
am about to say."

"As you mean it, be assured," I answered.

"Then listen, and I will tell you."  Again she hesitated, pressing her
hand upon her eyes, the while her soft bust heaved with a troublous
emotion.  Presently, in the same low, faltering voice as before, she
said: "You will remember, Stuart, that I fled from you in Luchon with a
cold formal note of farewell.  On that day, blindly, willingly I took
upon myself the burthen of another's sin.  Blindly I resigned myself to
a fate worse than that of the doomed.  Although I loved you fondly, I
was forced to bow my head calmly and submit to be branded with a very
leprosy of guilt.  Because I loved you and permitted your attentions I
was to be a painted puppet, to move about with a curse riveted around my
life, to move about and even feel that curse fretting and gnawing at my
soul, and yet without the power to win a moment's peace save in the
grave.  There, only there, might I find rest."

"This is terrible," I cried.  "Surely you deceive yourself.  There is no
power on earth that could have held you thus."

"Ah! yes.  The chain was there--there, clasped around my heart, crushing
out every gleam of hope.  I was lighthearted and heedless; I could not
see the life of torture to which I was yielding myself, so innocently I
fell into the trap my enemies had cunningly baited, that ere I realised
the truth the bonds were irrevocably welded around my life.  At first
they sat lightly upon me, and I scarcely felt them; but slowly I became
conscious that there hung a deep shadow upon my every step; slowly I
became conscious that my every act and word must be in unison with the
thraldom under which I moved.  At last I knew that I had passed beyond
your ken; I knew that I must renounce all thought of you, and I became
cold and, I sometimes think, callous.  But I prayed, I begged of Heaven
that I might lose the feelings of a woman since I had lost her
privileges."

She spoke in a hot, dry feverish tone--a tone that I would not have
recognised as that of the low, musical voice of my love.  Dora, rising
from her seat, stood near her, gazing in wonder at her friend from whose
agony these revelations were wrung.

"When I met you, Stuart, I was giddy and thoughtless," she went on,
feverishly.  "Towards you my whole soul yearned.  Heart, soul and life
were all yours; for I loved, I loved!  But, alas! our supreme happiness
was not for long.  In fear of my liberty, I was compelled to fly from
you and allow you to believe I had forgotten.  Thus in the first moment
almost, when a sweet vision of joy flashed upon me, the door of my
dungeon was closed, the chains were clasped tightly around my soul, and
I was wrenched back from happiness."

Low tremulous sobs interrupted each word, and every moment it seemed as
if she were about to lose control over herself.

"Those who needed me knew well when they might best use me to their
advantage.  They had seen me waver in my allegiance under the influence
of that mad love for you, and they dreaded lest some accident should
make me betray their trust.  I had entered the closet of their secret,
and once in, they were resolved that there should be no loophole for my
escape.  But I must begin at the beginning, and tell you who and what I
am.  First, the name I gave you was not assumed, as you must have
believed.  I am Sybil Henniker, a French subject, born in Paris of a
French father and an English mother.  My father, a wealthy Deputy, was
killed while hunting, and my mother shortly afterwards married an
Englishman, but she, too, died within a year, leaving the whole of her
fortune to my sister Ethel, who was a year my senior.  Another
Englishman, a crafty, sycophantic lickspittle of my stepfather, married
her, having made a secret compact, by which the two men shared the
estate.  At that time we were living in Paris, and there came to our
house Gilbert Sternroyd, a rich young Englishman of Socialistic
tendencies.  He had become imbued with Anarchist ideas, and soon
developed into an ardent disciple of Ravachol.  His theories he
expounded to me almost daily, until at length I joined their brotherhood
and furnished small sums of money when required.  Ah! you will condemn
me, I know.  It was, I admit, foolish, but remember I did not dream that
they would use my money in their attempts to take the lives of innocent
persons by means of bombs.  It was represented to me that money was
required to diffuse Anarchist literature.  With secret murder I had no
sympathy, I swear.  I was in Luchon with my stepfather when he was
suddenly recalled to Paris; then I met you and we spent some happy days
together, until--until a telegram in cipher reached me one night and the
blow that I feared fell--a warrant was out for my arrest.  There had
been on the previous afternoon a terrible Anarchist outrage at the
Chamber of Deputies, and the police, in make some domiciliary visits to
suspected Anarchists, had discovered one of my letters which was
undoubtedly incriminating.  I scribbled you a hasty line of farewell,
packed my trunk and left by the first train in the morning, travelling
first to Bayonne, then to Madrid and Seville, whence some weeks later I
went to London.  I thought to escape by getting to England, and intended
to at once write to you, but in London I found my brother-in-law and
stepfather awaiting me.  Then, for the first time, I realised the truth.
I had been caught in the net they had so cunningly prepared!"

Again there was silence, broken only by her sobs.  I saw only Sybil
before me, with all the old love warm upon her pale tear-stained face.
I saw her struggle with the secret that held her aloof from me.  I
witnessed the struggle and knew its meaning.  I knew that she was
suffering even as I suffered.

There was another pang thrust into my heart in knowing of her torture.

"My stepfather and his unctuous confederate, cowards that they were,
claimed my help, claimed it in the name of all that had been done for me
in effecting my escape, and--and I could not deny them."  As she spoke
she clung tremblingly to Dora, as if fearful of her own words.  There
was a bewildered expression in her eyes as her gaze was fixed beyond me,
staring blankly through the open window.

"Well," I questioned softly, "why did you not follow the true impulse of
your heart?"

She started, her eyes glistening, her whole frame convulsed, as she
answered wildly:

"I was hunted by the Paris police as a dangerous Anarchist, and they
would have sent me to New Caledonia to work among criminals for the
remainder of my life.  The two knaves under whose thrall I had fallen
knew this, but they had a deeper game to play.  It was part of their
scheme to entrap me thus, and then coerce me into assisting them.  They
took me to that dismal, neglected house in Gloucester Square that had
belonged to my mother, and there unfolded plans that for perfidious
ingenuity were assuredly unequalled.  First, they impressed upon me the
impossibility of eluding the police for any length of time, and I was
compelled to admit that I feared arrest.  Then they explained their
infamous scheme, well-knowing that my offence made it imperative for me
to obediently assist them in their shameful fraud and preserve a silence
begotten of fear.  My sister Ethel, who was almost the image of myself,
was mortally ill, dying slowly, poor girl! of consumption, and knew
little of what was transpiring.  The miscreant pair, however, knew that
when she died the revenue from the vast estates in Savoy would pass back
to some relatives of my mother in France; therefore they resolved at all
hazards to continue to divide the money, and had formed an ingenious
plan to that end.  Briefly, they had told me that I must die instead of
Ethel."

"Die?"  I ejaculated.

"To the world," she went on quickly.  "My stepfather told me that on
Ethel's death I must pose as the wife of his friend, that I must
preserve their secret at all costs, at least for a year or eighteen
months, until they could devise some other plan to preserve the fortune
to themselves.  On their part they promised, on their oaths, to free me
and allow me to again seek you.  At first I refused with indignation to
be party to such an imposition, but they convinced me that the police
were already at my heels, and in return for rendering them this service
promised to secure me immunity from arrest.  My stepfather was powerful,
with many influential friends in Paris, and I believed he could do this
if he chose.  They did not tell me the means they intended to employ to
secure this end, but urged me to consent.  For a long time I held out,
but they pictured to me on the one hand arrest and transportation to a
Pacific island, with common murderesses and the scum of Paris; on the
other, my return to you after eighteen months, marriage and happiness.
So at last--at last I agreed to the compact--I allowed them to fasten
the bonds upon me and draw me under their terrible thraldom," and she
bent forward sobbing bitterly, while Dora, kneeling quickly at her side,
threw her arms around her, endeavouring to console her.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.

THE SECRET.

Presently she resumed in a sad voice full of emotion, lifting her face
to mine, saying: "I did not dream, Stuart, of the trickery to which they
resorted in order to change my personality and secure me from falling
into the dragnet of the police, but my lips were already sealed when I
afterwards learnt how my stepfather exerted his influence, and obtained
a special licence from the Archbishop to allow your marriage to take
place in that weird old house in Gloucester Square, how you were
conducted there, and how you and the police were imposed upon by the
body of my unfortunate sister being passed off as that of myself.  It
was not until weeks after that eventful night, when by bribery and
influence the pair had buried my identity, that I learned the truth.
Then, unable to come to you, fearing even to make my existence known, I
could only watch and wait."

"But why did they marry me in that manner?"  I asked, amazed at her
remarkable story.

"There were reasons," she answered.  "The police had tracked me, and it
was imperative for the success of their scheme that I should remain
free.  Again, although Ethel was dying it was uncertain what time would
elapse ere the spark of life would flicker and die out.  They therefore
resolved, in order that failure should be rendered impossible, upon
effecting a master-stroke by marrying Ethel in my name, because by
marriage with you I should change my nationality, and as a British
subject it would be impossible to arrest me for a political offence
committed in France.  This they did, with the result you are already
aware, but further, my poor sister expired during the ceremony; thus the
police, in bursting in, were doubly baffled.  Afterwards, they caused
her to be buried as your wife, and upon the grave actually placed a
wreath bearing your card, with an inscription purporting to have been
written by you.  Upon the back of that card I also wrote a message,
urging you to prosecute inquiries, hoping that it would fall into your
hands."

"It did," I said.  "I found it, and your words have ever since been
uppermost in my mind."

"It was part of the compact that, posing as the wife of my dead sister's
husband, I should remain here and not visit London.  As this man's wife
I was compelled to revive some of my late mother's relatives, whom I had
never before seen.  These were the rightful owners of her wealth now
that Ethel was no more, but to them I was forced to keep up the wretched
deception that I was Ethel, and they, never having seen her since a
child, returned to France with any suspicions they had entertained
entirely allayed.  I remained here alone with my maid Ashcombe as sole
companion, and with the cold mask of honesty and indifference upon my
face, thinking always of you.  If they would only have let me tell you
that I was innocent of that cruel deception, only let me show you that I
was not the base adventuress you must have imagined, I think--I think I
could have borne the rest.  When I could not bear it any longer I prayed
to them to let me see you, I prayed for one little grain of pity.
Circumstances, however, seemed to conspire to thwart their plans, for a
person whom they feared threatened to denounce them.  Therefore they
became desperate and would show me no mercy.  At this time, too, I made
the astounding discovery that my stepfather had married again unknown to
me, two years before, a vain haughty girl young enough to be his
daughter.  He had kept this fact from me because he knew I had been
acquainted with her in my girlhood days, and feared I might reveal his
villainy.  When I heard of this I wrote to Captain Bethune, who had been
a mutual friend, and from him learned facts about yourself and her.  I
heard of your anxiety, of your futile search after the truth, and of
your continual inquiry to fathom the mystery of my life.  But our
enemies had taken every precaution to prevent your discovering anything,
and by threatening to give me up to the police they kept me still
enthralled and silent.  They, however, saw that the one man who had, by
some unknown means, discovered their chicanery, might sooner or later
expose the fraud; therefore, they grew reckless, and on one occasion my
stepfather threatened my life if I gave you a single sign of my
existence.  It was after that, that I discovered the crime."

"The crime!"  I cried.  "What crime?"

"I had but one friend, Captain Bethune," she said in the same low,
faltering tones, "and after this threat I went to his chambers late one
night to seek his counsel and aid.  I wanted to give you a sign that I
still lived, but I was held powerless by fear of the terrible vengeance
they threatened.  I--I found him at home with two other men in his
company--one was my stepfather, the other Gilbert Sternroyd.  There was
no quarrel, no word of anger, but I was witness to the terrible crime.
Gilbert, happy and unsuspecting, was shot dead by a coward's hand--he--"

"You actually saw the shot fired?"  I cried, starting up quickly.  "Then
you also saw the murderer?  Speak! name him!  Let me know the truth."

"The man who shot Gilbert Sternroyd," she said in a hard, firm voice,
"the man who drew a revolver secretly from his pocket and fired full
upon him as he stepped from the room, was my stepfather!  I gripped his
arm, but too late.  Gilbert fell, and the coward fled."

"His name?"  I demanded.

"He is known to you," she replied, slowly twisting her handkerchief
between her fingers, and with a manner of subdued, fierce vengefulness
she laughed a little hard laugh; but it was more significant of inward
agony than any words could have been.  "He is known to you, to the
world, as the Earl of Fyneshade!"

"Fyneshade!"  I gasped dumbfounded.  "And he is your stepfather?"

"Yes," she answered.  "Seek him, and give him into the hands of the
police, for he is the assassin."

"But the motive?"  I cried.  "What was it?"

"Twofold.  Sternroyd had obtained knowledge of the fraud perpetrated by
substituting my personality for Ethel's, and came to me declaring his
intention of exposing it.  Besides this he was an ardent admirer of
Mabel, my stepfather's young wife, and although she gave him no
encouragement he was infatuated, and had made a will leaving his immense
wealth to her.  Fyneshade knew this, and saw that by getting rid of him
he would preserve his guilty secret, and at the same time enrich his
wife and consequently himself.  He suggested this to my pseudo-husband,
Francis Markwick, who--"

"Markwick!"  I gasped.  "Was it that scoundrel who assisted in the fraud
and posed as your husband?"

"The same.  I myself overheard the two men in consultation upon the
benefits to be derived from the young millionaire's death, and
afterwards warned him and also told Mabel.  Therefore, from the first,
Lady Fyneshade and your friend Bethune knew the truth."

"But why did not Bethune inform the police instead of acting so
suspiciously?"  I queried in doubt.

"Because he feared to compromise me.  He swore he would not speak until
I gave him permission.  This I could not give until assured of my own
immunity from arrest."

"How would this disclosure compromise you?"

"In the first place, I was present when the murder was committed.
Secondly, you will remember you entered Jack's chambers by stealth on
the following night and found the body removed."

"Yes," I said quickly.  "He locked one of the rooms and would not allow
me to enter."

"Because I was in that room, Stuart," she explained.  "I had again
called upon him to ask his advice, not knowing how to act.  Suddenly you
entered, and to conceal me became imperative."

"But the body was also concealed there, was it not?"

"No, it had been removed to Gloucester Square early in the morning
following the murder, after which Jack, in accordance with his promise
to shield me, fled from England in order that suspicion might fall upon
himself.  If he had at once caused the arrest of the murderer I should
have been compromised.  But Markwick denounced Jack to Mabel, who, of
course, already guessed the truth, and very soon your friend was amazed
to find circumstantial evidence woven around him in a most serious and
amazing manner."

"But I had all along been aware of his innocence," Dora interrupted,
sick at heart for her friend's misery.  "Sybil had told me."

"Yes," continued the woman I loved, turning to her.  "Even when the
police were hunting for him I feared to speak, knowing that by so doing
I must implicate myself, and that the part I had innocently played in
the dynamite affair and in the subsequent fraud would inevitably be
disclosed.  Once," she continued, again turning to me, "once I sent my
maid Ashcombe to you to ascertain secretly how you fared, but you were
out, and as it was imperative that she should leave that night for Paris
to prosecute some inquiries, she failed to see you and you therefore
remained in ignorance."

"My sister, too, has suffered terrible anguish," Dora said.  "She knew
from the first that her husband was an assassin, yet to remove suspicion
from him and avoid the terrible scandal, she was compelled to act a part
that was to her revolting.  That she had no thought for Gilbert and that
she was faithful to her husband I am confident, yet in order to obtain
confirmation of her suspicions of Fyneshade's schemes she was compelled
to court the friendship of Markwick, the man she most hated, while her
husband, to avert suspicion that he had murdered Sternroyd, affected to
be jealous of his confederate."

"But my marriage," I said, "it is astounding."

"The plans of this base pair were indeed deeply laid and ingeniously
formed," she went on.  "The crafty manner in which you were entrapped
and wedded is but one illustration of their marvellous ingenuity and
utter unscrupulousness.  In securing the handsome revenue from my
mother's estates they provided for every eventuality, but by a
conspiracy of circumstances Gilbert Sternroyd obtained knowledge of
their secret, of how they had compelled me to pose as Markwick's wife,
and how they had married you to my dead sister.  He sympathised with
Mabel as wife of this titled adventurer, and, in order to rid her of
him, intended to give him up to the police.  My stepfather saw that only
by death could he be silenced, and he therefore foully murdered him.
Yes, Stuart, your marriage was an amazing one, secured by a scoundrel
whose influence was far-reaching; but even that event was not one whit
more astounding than those that followed."

"True," I said, amazed and bewildered at her disclosures.

"Towards me, also, Fyneshade has acted desperately, with double
cunning."  Dora exclaimed fiercely, turning to me.  "You remember on
that night when, for the first time after your strange marriage, you
visited the ghostly deserted house in Gloucester Square, I was there
also.  I knew that Fyneshade, supposed to be in Paris, was in hiding
there, so I entered determined to face him and obtain liberty for Sybil,
for Jack, nay for all, by compelling him to fly from the country and
renounce all claim to return.  I was prepared to offer him secrecy in
exchange for this.  But he detected us.  He felled you from behind and
dragged you down to the cellar, while he also stunned me, causing
concussion of the brain; then locked me in that inner room.  Probably I
should have gone hopelessly insane and eventually starved had you not
discovered me."

"His villainy is revolting," I exclaimed angrily.  "His own action led
to my discovery of the body, but I confess these disclosures put a
complexion on the affair such as I had never dreamed;" and turning to
Sybil, who had slowly risen and passed to the window, I asked, "Tell me
the reason you are now constrained to make this confession."

The air from the garden fanned her pale cheeks soothingly.  She was
leaning forward gazing fixedly across the lawn, but turned slowly at my
words, and I saw her face was as beautiful as when we had first met.

"Because I no longer fear," she answered calmly, and one would have
doubted that this was the same woman who had been so wildly agitated
only a few moments previously, she spoke so quietly.  "Yesterday the
French Government adopted an amnesty to political offenders, therefore
the warrant cannot now be reissued against me.  As to the ingenious
fraud to which I have been a party, I can prove that I was merely a tool
in the hands of these two malefactors who held me in their toils.  From
this moment I renounce the name of Markwick, to which I have no right,
and again resume my maiden name, Sybil.  I may be prosecuted--well, I am
ready to take my trial--I--I am ready to face all, if only I can think
that you believe me innocent, Stuart--if only I may dare to hope we may
even be man and wife."

Next second she was in my embrace, sobbing again with her head upon my
shoulder.

"Rest assured," I said tenderly, "that the innocent shall not suffer,
and upon the guilty shall fall punishment swift and certain.  If it
becomes necessary for you to face a criminal trial, remember that I love
you just as fondly as I have ever done."

"Then you do not hate me for the despicable part I have been forced to
act?" she cried joyfully, raising her earnest, tear-stained face.

"No, Sybil.  Like myself, you have suffered at the hands of these
merciless scoundrels, and before Heaven I swear they shall pay for it,"
I cried with fierce anger.  Turning to Dora, I added, "This has indeed
proved that Jack, loyal and true-hearted, is in every way worthy the
affection of the pure honest woman who has befriended us both."

"I have but endeavoured to repay you for the small services you have
rendered to Jack and myself," she answered with a sweet smile.  "I know
that at one time you suspected him, but that was only natural, for he
intended that you should.  Already he is on his way home, and tonight
will be in London.  He will be present to bear witness with Sybil as to
the tragic end of Gilbert Sternroyd."  Then, with a lingering glance at
us, Dora rose and discreetly left on pretence of speaking to Ashcombe,
while Sybil and I, alone, clasped in each other's arms, repeated those
vows of undying love we had exchanged far away at that little southern
spa, overshadowed by its purple mountains with their eternal snows.

During several hours I remained joyful and content with my loved one,
and the sun had already disappeared when we all three entered the fly to
drive back to Didcot and catch the train for London.  The earth, veiled
in a soft shadow, seemed half slumbering, pensive and melancholy.  A
white opaque sky overhung the horizon, and lucent haze of colourless
pearl-grey filled the valley.  A time of palpable sadness comes each
evening, when although not yet night the light is fading slowly, almost
regretfully; and each of us in this silent farewell feels strange
anxiety, a great need of hope and faith in his heart Song comes to one's
lips with the first rays of morning, tears to one's eyes with the last
ray of evening light Perhaps it is the dispiriting thought of labour
constantly resumed, unceasingly abandoned; the eager wish, mingled with
dread, for eternal rest.  Perhaps, indeed, it is the resemblance of
everything human to that agony of light and sound.

Sybil was seated beside me as we sped along the straight open road.  A
star shone above the dark line of distant trees amid the evanescence of
earth and sky.  We both looked at this consoling light.

It pierced with a ray of hope the mournful veil of twilight.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.

A FAMILY COUNCIL.

From Didcot station I sent a telegram to Grindlay making an appointment
with him to meet us at Lady Stretton's later that night, and when we
arrived there we found both the Inspector and Jack Bethune awaiting us.

Closeted together, Lady Stretton being present, Sybil told her story to
the astonished police officer in a plain, matter-of-fact manner,
describing minutely the circumstances of the tragedy as she had
witnessed it, and eulogising Jack for the self-sacrifice he had made in
order to shield her.  Her confession was much the same as that she had
made to me, and when she had concluded the detective turned, offered his
hand to Jack, apologising for regarding him with undue suspicion, to
which the other responded generously, saying:

"It was my fault; entirely my fault.  I intended you should believe me
guilty.  But arrest the culprit; do not let him escape."

"No, he shall not," Grindlay said with a mysterious smile.  "Very soon
we shall have him under lock and key.  But this affair is simply
astounding," he continued, turning to me.  "I felt certain there must be
some very suspicious circumstances connected with your secret marriage,
but the intricacies of this extraordinary plot never occurred to me.  I
knew that only by the exertion of great influence could such a marriage
as yours be procured, and certainly the substitution of Miss Henniker's
sister for herself was one of the most ingenious and neatly-executed
pieces of trickery that has ever come under my notice.  Indeed, the
truth is even more remarkable than the mystery.  The Earl and his
precious confederate must be an inventive pair, otherwise they would not
have succeeded in tricking us so neatly.  When perpetrating the fraud
and the murder, the Earl secured the silence of witnesses by devices
evidently carefully planned.  Since I last saw you I have learnt the
truth from De Vries, the French ex-detective, who endeavoured to levy
blackmail upon Markwick.  It appears as though their scheme would never
have been exposed had not he, while making inquiries into the causes of
the Chamber of Deputies explosion, found himself balked by the strange
marriage.  The relatives away in Savoy, to whom the estate rightly
belonged, had had their suspicions aroused by some slight incident, and
had caused inquiry to be made by the police.  De Vries, having both
matters in hand, at length understood that an important object was to be
attained by preventing Ethel from dying.  This, however, was after his
retirement from the Paris police.  Nevertheless, an adept at criminal
investigation, he prosecuted his inquiries out of sheer curiosity, and
possibly with the hope of a reward, until he obtained confirmation of
his suspicion that Miss Sybil was not dead.  Finding he could glean
nothing further he therefore resolved to obtain money for his silence,
and blackmailed Markwick, compelling him to part with various sums of
money.  De Vries was, it appears, a friend of Sternroyd's, and in a
moment of expansiveness imparted to him the secret.  Thereupon Sternroyd
set diligently to work, discovered Sybil, and would--if not foully done
to death--have exposed the whole conspiracy.  But I have sent a
messenger for De Vries, and expect him here every moment."

Almost as he spoke the diminutive Frenchman was ushered in by one of the
stately, powdered footmen of the Stretton household.  He entered,
smiling and bowing, and when Grindlay had explained what he had told us
he turned to me, and in broken English, reiterated with much
gesticulation how he had been commissioned by Monsieur Goron, the head
of the Paris police, to investigate the dynamite explosion in the
Chamber, and how, at the house of the noted Anarchist Mercuvel, an
incriminating letter signed by Sybil Henniker had been discovered.  She
was traced, application was made to the London police for her arrest and
extradition, and he himself came over and had actually accompanied the
officers when they burst into the room wherein the marriage ceremony had
taken place.  Returning to Paris, baffled by the death of the woman
supposed to be one of the guiding spirits of the apostles of dynamite,
another inquiry was soon afterwards placed into his hands.  It was made
by a family named Langon, living near Chambery, regarding the sister of
Sybil Henniker.  This aroused his suspicion, but having fallen into
disfavour at headquarters he found himself compelled to resign his
official appointment Afterwards he returned to London, investigated the
matter thoroughly, and arrived at the conclusion that it was Sybil who
was passing herself off as the wife of Markwick, and that the Langon
family were entitled to claim the late Madame Henniker's property.  The
detective's shrewdness had obtained for him hush-money to the extent of
over a thousand pounds when, fearing Markwick would escape and thus his
source of income might disappear, he coolly claimed another thousand in
return for his liberty, a request which was refused.

When this family council terminated, and the bell was rung that
refreshments might be served to Grindlay and the Frenchman, it was
already near midnight.  The footman on entering that abode of garish
luxury passed at once across to Lady Stretton, saying in a low tone:

"Lord Fyneshade called an hour ago, your ladyship, and--"

"Fyneshade!" all echoed in a tone of awe.

"And what did you tell him, Stebbings?" cried Lady Stretton, growing
crimson with excitement.

"I told him your ladyship was engaged with Captain Bethune, Mr Ridgeway
and a French gentleman," the flunkey answered, astonished at the
sensation his announcement had produced.

"Well, what then?"

"He glanced at Monsieur's card lying in the hall, and then left
hurriedly, first asking me whether a strange, fair-haired young lady had
accompanied Mr Ridgeway.  I told him that she had, and he then said I
was not to disturb you or mention that he had called."

"By Heaven!  He's bolted!" cried Grindlay, springing to his feet.  "But
he must not escape.  Come with me, De Vries.  We must find him before he
has time to leave London."

"But Markwick!"  I cried.  "What of him?"

"He has unfortunately already gone," the Frenchman answered as he passed
through the door.  "I missed him this morning, after watching his
lodgings at Notting Hill for nearly three weeks.  He has eluded me, and
I fear got clean away."

A few moments later Grindlay and his companion jumped into a cab, and I
heard a voice shout to the driver:

"Scotland Yard.  Quick!"

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.

GUILT.

A last beam of the sun gliding over the surface of the river transformed
it into a ribbon of creamy gold as, accompanied by Sybil and Grindlay, I
was driven over the old moss-grown bridge on the way from the station to
Fyneshade Hall, one of the most historic mansions in Sussex.

Throughout the length and breadth of the land telegraphic information
had reached the police that the Earl of Fyneshade was wanted on a charge
of murder.  In every town, in almost every village, constables and
detectives were on the alert.  The search in London during the day had
proved futile, for after leaving Lady Stretton's all trace of his
lordship had been lost, and it was supposed that, finding De Vries
present, he had become alarmed and had hidden himself.  At Eaton Square,
Grindlay had ascertained that Mabel had been away at the country seat
during the past three days, and nothing had been seen there of the Earl
for a week.  Inquiries at his clubs and elsewhere elicited no clue to
the direction he had taken, but about five o'clock Grindlay had called
upon me hurriedly, saying that he intended to go to Fyneshade, whereupon
I resolved to accompany him, and Sybil, being also present, pleaded that
she might be taken also.

Therefore we had left Victoria, and two hours later found ourselves at a
small wayside station with four miles to drive.  It was an anxious
journey, and during those last four miles scarcely a word was exchanged
between us, so full were our thoughts, for the Inspector had ascertained
from the station-master that his lordship had arrived from London by the
first train that morning, and, no fly being available, had walked up to
the Hall.

At last we were gaining upon him.

Was it any wonder, then, knowing the fate awaiting him, that we were
silent?

When, having passed the lodge-gates and driven up through the spacious,
well-wooded park wherein the birds were gayly chattering, we alighted
before the great stone portico of the quaint, rambling, ivy-covered
mansion, a man-servant came forward.

"I wish to see Lady Fyneshade!"  I said.

"Yes, sir.  Her ladyship is at home, sir.  Please step this way," and
taking my card he led us through the great hall of polished oak, with
its windows of stained glass and stands of armour, into a pleasant
sitting-room with diamond panes and deep window-seats commanding a wide
sweep of the park and lake beyond.  Here, as through the mansion, there
was a lulling quietude, and an atmosphere of voluptuous luxury.  The
sense became oppressed with the richness of the surroundings, and the
quietude added to the oppression.

Almost before the door had closed a rustling of silk reached our ears,
and when it opened again Mabel stood before us.  Her face was deathly
pale; around her eyes, swollen as if by tears, were dark rings that told
only too plainly the distressing anxiety of that breathless day.

"You?" she gasped, steadying herself by clutching at the handle of the
door, and gazing fixedly at Sybil.  Then, turning her haggard eyes upon
Grindlay, she said half reproachfully:

"You have come for him!"

The Inspector, standing by the window, advanced a few steps, and bowing
answered:

"It is unfortunately my painful duty, my lady."

"Ah!  I knew it--I knew it!" she wailed, with a wild passion, bursting
again into a torrent of hot tears.  "He arrived here at ten o'clock this
morning--and--and--"

"Did he leave again?"  Grindlay quickly asked.

"No," she replied, in a harsh discordant tone, her pallor becoming more
apparent.  "He is still here.  He came home, and without seeing me went
to his room.  My maid--my maid told me that he--"

She had almost become calm, but the marks of a storm of agitation were
very palpable in her pale countenance and her disordered dress.  She
paused, her words seemed to choke her, and she started with a cold
shudder, as if some unseen hand had touched her.  Then with a fierce
effort she drew herself up and continued:

"My maid, whom I sent to him asking him to see me, returned with a
message that he was busy, and when I went to his room a few minutes
later I found he had again gone out."

For an instant she paused, then as if a sudden wild impulse seized her
she rushed across the room and threw open wide the door leading to an
adjoining apartment.

"An hour later he returned," she cried hoarsely.  "See!"

We all three dashed forward, but an instant later, with one accord,
uttered cries of horror.

Lying upon a couch in a room that had been almost cleared of furniture
was the Earl of Fyneshade, fully dressed.  From his wet, slime-covered
clothes water still dripped slowly, forming a pool upon the carpet, and
even as we looked his wife withdrew the handkerchief reverently placed
upon the upturned face, so that we gazed upon the closed eyes, white
sunken cheeks, and muddy lips.

"They brought him home to me dead," Mabel said in an agonised tone, that
told of the terrible pent-up anguish in her breast.  "One of the
gardeners saw him deliberately throw himself into the lake, and although
he tried to save him was unable."

Then, as slowly as she had removed the covering from the rigid features,
she carefully wiped some of the green slime from his lips and replaced
it.

A long, deep-drawn sigh was the only sound that broke the silence, and,
by the crumpling of paper next moment, I knew that Grindlay had crushed
the warrant in his hand.

No word was spoken, but as we passed slowly back into the comfortable
sitting-room, Mabel fell upon the neck of my well-beloved and they both
wept bitterly.

The scene was intensely painful, and Grindlay, with a murmur of excuse,
withdrew, leaving me alone to whisper sympathy and courage.  The
assassin's end, though tragic, was merciful, for, at least, his young
wife would be spared the torture of being branded as the unhappy widow
of a man who had been executed.

He had thrown dice with the Devil, and lost.  By his own volition he had
released Mabel from a hateful marital tie, at the same time paying the
penalty for his sins.

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.

CONCLUSION.

Leaving the house of mourning, where the grave-faced servants moved on
tip-toe, I walked slowly at Sybil's side, feeling in each breath of
fresh wind puffs of inspiring youth.  Once again, after our long and
gloomy separation, we were at last alone, confiding lovers, full of all
the joyful hopes of life.  I knew that I belonged to her, to her alone,
to her tenderness, to her dream.

Together, as we slowly strolled along that endless avenue through the
great park, it seemed as though we were both advancing towards the
unknown, indifferent to everything, finding our pleasure as in bygone
days in losing ourselves in the depths of the discreet darkness, where
each leafy recess hid our kisses and smothered our love chat.

Though months, nay, years had passed--years of bitterness, anxiety and
doubt, shattered hopes and blank despair--her remembrance, the only joy
on which my heart reposed, had unceasingly urged me on and given me
courage.  The glamour of love mingled with the soft moonbeam reflected
in her eyes until they twain seemed the only realities.

"Do you remember, dearest," I exclaimed, halting and pressing her in
fond embrace, "do you remember that bright summer evening at Luchon, the
evening of our farewell, so full of love and sadness?  You despatched me
to the fight with a kiss upon the brow like a fond sweetheart who
desires to see the soldier she loves conquer.  That kiss I have ever
remembered.  Lonely and mystified through those long weary days I only
thought of you, I could only speak of you, for you lived within me."

"Oh, Stuart!" she answered, her beautiful, calm face upturned to mine,
"I, too, thought ever of you.  In those dark hours when, fearing that
finding me dead you loved another, those charming rambles among the
mountains were fresh in my memory.  Hour by hour, day by day, my mind
was filled by those recollections of a halcyon past, yet I feared to let
you know of my existence lest you should attempt to claim me from the
man whose wife I was forced against my will to represent.  That
ever-present thought of you wore my life away; I became heavy with
weariness, and some nights so broken down that I felt a cowardly desire
to die.  Yet that sweet thought that past delight leaves within one
urged me to hope, even though ours was a dark night to be followed by an
unknown dawn.  You, dear one, seemed but a shadow that had disappeared
in the solitude where the dear phantoms of our dreams reside, but I
hoped and hoped, and ever hopeless hoped."

Then upon my breast the pent-up feelings of her heart found vent in big
tears and quick spasmodic sobs.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

And the rest--well, the rest is that happiness is mine.  I have laid my
conscience quite bare, being anxious to conceal nothing, and now having
found my well-beloved the days seem an eternity of joy.

Yes, we have married.  My father has died and Wadenhoe has passed into
our possession, while our near neighbour at Fotheringhay is Captain Jack
Bethune, who, on his marriage with Dora, resigned his commission in
order to devote himself entirely to her and to literature.  Her
brain-trouble is now completely cured and her happiness complete.  The
newspapers teem with eulogistic paragraphs about her husband's life and
work, for he is at the present moment one of the most popular of our
writers of romance.  As for Francis Markwick, although he succeeded in
escaping to Rio de Janeiro he did not live long to enjoy his freedom,
for within a few weeks of landing in that malarial city he was attacked
by yellow fever, to which he succumbed.

Sometimes when day is dying the fresh breeze rises from the river and a
soft light falls from the sky, the open valley stretching before our
windows expands peaceful and transparent like a dark, shoreless ocean.
It is in those idle, restful moments of adoration, when earth and sky
are fathomless, that the pure sweet voice of my well-beloved, the voice
that recalled me to the joys of life, raises a recollection within me, a
remembrance that ofttimes brings tears to my eyes--the remembrance of
the strange inviolable secret of Sybil.

The End.





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