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´╗┐Title: As We Forgive Them
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "As We Forgive Them" ***

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As We Forgive Them, by William Le Queux.

________________________________________________________________________



________________________________________________________________________
AS WE FORGIVE THEM, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.

CHAPTER ONE.

THE STRANGER IN MANCHESTER.

"Dead!  And he's carried his secret with him to his grave!"

"Never!"

"But he has.  Look!  His jaw has dropped.  Can't you see the change,
man!"

"Then he's carried out his threat after all!"

"By Heaven, he has!  We've been fools, Reggie--utter idiots!"  I
whispered.

"So it seems.  I confess that I fully expected he'd tell us the truth
when he knew that the end had really come."

"Ah! you didn't know him as I did," I remarked bitterly.  "He had a will
of iron and a nerve of steel."

"Combined with the constitution of a horse, or he'd been dead long ago.
But we've been outwitted--cleanly outwitted by a dying man.  He defied
us, laughed at our ignorance to the very last."

"Blair was no fool.  He knew what knowledge of the truth meant to us--a
huge fortune.  So he simply kept his secret."

"And left us in penniless chagrin.  Well, although we've lost thousands,
Gilbert, I can't help admiring his dogged determination.  He went
through a lot, recollect, and he's been a good friend to us--very good--
so I suppose we really oughtn't to abuse him, however much we regret
that he didn't let us into his secret."

"Ah, if only those white lips could speak!  One word, and we'd both be
rich men," I said in regret, gazing upon the dead, white face, with its
closed eyes and closely clipped beard, lying there upon the pillow.

"He intended to hold his secret from the very first," remarked my tall
friend, Reginald Seton, folding his arms as he stood on the opposite
side of the bed.  "It isn't given to every man to make such a discovery
as he made.  It took him years to solve the problem, whatever it was;
but that he really succeeded in doing so we can't for a moment doubt."

"And his profit was over a million sterling," I remarked.

"More like two, at the very lowest estimate.  Recollect how, when we
first knew him, he was in dire want of a sovereign--and now?  Why, only
last week he gave twenty thousand to the Hospital Fund.  And all as the
result of solving the enigma which for so long we have tried to discover
in vain.  No, Gilbert, he hasn't played the square game by us.  We
assisted him, put him on his legs, and all that, and instead of
revealing to us the key to the secret which he discovered, and which
placed him among the wealthiest men of London, he point-blank refused,
even though he knew that he must die.  We lent him money in the old
days, financed him, kept Mab at school when he had no funds, and--"

"And he repaid us every penny--with interest," I interposed.  "Come;
don't let's discuss him here.  The secret is lost for ever, that's
enough."  And I drew the sheet over the poor dead face--the countenance
of Burton Blair, the man who, during the past five years, had been one
of London's mysteries.

A strange, adventurous life, a career more remarkable, perhaps, than
half those imagined by writers of romance, had been brought abruptly to
an end, while the secret of the source of his enormous wealth--the
secret which we both had for the past five years longed to share,
because we were in a sense justly entitled to participate in its
advantages--had gone with him to that bourne whence none return.

The apartment in which we stood was a small, rather well-furnished
bedroom in the _Queen's Hotel_, Manchester.  The window looked out upon
the dark facade of the Infirmary, while to that chamber of the dead
there came the roar and bustle of the traffic and trams in Piccadilly.
His story was assuredly one of the strangest that any man has ever told.
Its mystery, as will be seen, was absolutely bewildering.

The light of the cheerless February afternoon was quickly fading, and as
we turned softly to descend and inform the hotel manager of the fatal
termination of the seizure, I noticed that the dead man's suit-case
stood in the corner, and that his keys were still in it.

"We had better take possession of these," I remarked, locking the bag
and transferring the small bunch to my pocket.  "His executors will want
them."

Then we closed the door behind us, and going to the office imparted the
unwelcome intelligence that a death had occurred in the hotel.  The
manager was, however, quite prepared to learn such news, for, half an
hour before, the doctor had declared that the stranger could not live.
His case had been hopeless from the very first.

Briefly, the facts were as follows.  Burton Blair had bidden his
daughter Mabel farewell, left his house in Grosvenor Square on the
previous morning, and had taken the ten-thirty express from Euston to
Manchester, where he had said he had some private business to transact.
Just before the train arrived at Crewe, he suddenly became unwell, and
was discovered by one of the luncheon-car attendants in a state of
collapse in one of the first-class compartments.  Brandy and
restoratives being administered, he revived sufficiently to travel on to
Manchester, being assisted out of the train at London Road, and two
porters had helped him into a cab and accompanied him to the hotel,
where, on being put to bed, he again lapsed into unconsciousness.  A
doctor was called, but he could not diagnose the ailment, except that
the patient's heart was seriously affected and, that being so, a fatal
termination of the seizure might ensue.  Towards two o'clock next
morning, Blair, who had neither given his name nor told the hotel people
who he was, asked that both Seton and I should be telegraphed for, and
the result was that in anxious surprise we had both travelled up to
Manchester, where on arrival, an hour before, we had discovered our
friend to be in an utterly hopeless condition.

On entering the room we found the doctor, a young and rather pleasant
man named Glenn, in attendance.  Blair was conscious, and listened to
the medical opinion without flinching.  Indeed, he seemed rather to
welcome death than to dread it, for, when he heard that he was in such a
very critical condition, a faint smile crossed his pale, drawn features,
and he remarked--

"Every man must die, so it may as well be to-day as to-morrow."  Then,
turning to me, he added, "Gilbert, you are very good to come just to say
good-bye," and he put out his thin cold hand and grasped mine, while his
eyes fixed upon me with that strange, intent look that only comes into a
man's gaze when he is on the brink of the grave.

"It is a friend's duty, Burton," I answered, deeply in earnest.  "But
you must still hope.  Doctors are often mistaken.  Why, you've a
splendid constitution, haven't you?"

"Hardly ever had a day's illness since I was a kid," was the
millionaire's reply in a low, weak voice; "but this fit has bowled me
completely over."

We endeavoured to ascertain exactly how he was seized, but neither
Reggie not the doctor could gather anything tangible.

"I became faint all of a sudden, and I know nothing more," was all the
dying man would reply.  "But," he added, turning again to me, "don't
tell Mab till it's all over.  Poor girl!  My only regret is to leave
her.  You two fellows were so very good to her back in the old days, you
won't abandon her now, will you?" he implored, speaking slowly and with
very great difficulty, tears standing in his eyes.

"Certainly not, old chap," was my answer.  "If left alone she'll want
some one to advise her and to look after her interests."

"The scoundrelly lawyer chaps will do that," he snapped, with a strange
hardness in his voice, as though he entertained no love for his
solicitors.  "No, I want you to see that no man marries her for her
money--you understand?  Dozens of fellows are after her at this moment,
I know, but I'd rather see her dead than she should marry one of them.
She must marry for love--love, you hear?  Promise me, Gilbert, that that
you'll look after her, won't you?"

Still holding his hand, I promised.

That was the last word he uttered.  His pale lips twitched again, but no
sound came from them.  His glassy eyes were fixed upon me with a stony,
terrible stare, as though he were endeavouring to tell me something.

Perhaps he was revealing to me the great secret--the secret of how he
had solved the mystery of fortune and become worth over a million
sterling--perhaps he was speaking of Mab.  Which we knew not.  His
tongue refused to articulate, the silence of death was upon him.

Thus he passed away; and thus did I find myself bound to a promise which
I intended to fulfil, even though he had not revealed to us his secret,
as we confidently expected.  We believed that, knowing himself to be
dying, he had summoned us there to impart that knowledge which would
render us both rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  But in this we had
been most bitterly disappointed.  For five years, I confess, we had
waited, expecting that he would some day share some of his wealth with
us in return for those services we had rendered him in the past.  Yet
now it seemed he had coolly disregarded his indebtedness to us, and at
the same time imposed upon me a duty by no means easy--the guardianship
of his only daughter Mabel.

CHAPTER TWO.

CONTAINS CERTAIN MYSTERIOUS FACTS.

I ought here to declare that, having regard to all the curious and
mysterious circumstances of the past, the situation was, to me, far from
satisfactory.  As we strolled together along Market Street that cold
night discussing the affair, rather than remain in the public room of
the hotel, Reggie suggested that the secret might be written somewhere
and sealed up among the dead man's effects.  But in that case, unless it
were addressed to us, it would be opened by the persons the dying man
had designated as "those scoundrelly lawyer chaps," and in all
probability be turned by them to profitable account.

His solicitors were, we knew, Messrs. Leighton, Brown and Leighton, an
eminently respectable firm in Bedford Row; therefore we sent a telegram
from the Central Office informing them of their client's sudden death,
and requesting that one of the firm should at once come to Manchester to
attend the inquest which Doctor Glenn had declared would be necessary.
As the deceased man had expressed a wish that Mabel should, for the
present, remain in ignorance, we did not inform her of the tragic
occurrence.

Curiosity prompted us to ascend again to the dead man's chamber and
examine the contents of his kit-bag and suit-case, but, beyond his
clothes, a cheque-book and about ten pounds in gold, we found nothing.
I think that we both half expected to discover the key to that
remarkable secret which he had somehow obtained, yet it was hardly to be
imagined that he would carry such a valuable asset about with him in his
luggage.

In the pocket of a small writing-book which formed part of the fittings
of the suit-case I discovered several letters, all of which I examined
and found them to be of no importance--save one, a dirty, ill-written
note in uneducated Italian, which contained some passages which struck
me as curious.

Indeed, so strange was the tenor of the whole communication that, with
Reggie's connivance, I resolved to take possession of it and make
further inquiry.

There were many things about Burton Blair that had puzzled us for years,
therefore we were both determined, if possible, to elucidate the curious
mystery that had surrounded him, even if he had carried to his grave the
secret of his enormous fortune.

We alone in all the world knew the existence of the secret, only we were
in ignorance of the necessary key by which the source of riches could be
opened.  The manner in which he had gained his great wealth was a
mystery to every one, even to his daughter Mabel.  In the City and in
Society he was vaguely believed by some to possess large interests in
mines, and to be a successful speculator in stocks, while others
declared that he was the ground-landlord of at least two large cities in
America, and yet others were positive that certain concessions from the
Ottoman Government had brought him his gold.

All were, however, mistaken in their surmises.  Burton Blair possessed
not an acre of land; he had not a shilling in any public company; he was
not interested in either Government concessions or industrial
enterprises.  No.  The source of the great wealth by which he had, in
five years, been able to purchase, decorate and furnish in princely
manner one of the finest houses in Grosvenor Square, keep three of the
most expensive Panhards, motoring being his hobby, and rent that fine
old Jacobean mansion Mayvill Court, in Herefordshire, came from a source
which nobody knew or even suspected.  His were mysterious millions.

"I wonder if anything will come out at the inquest?" queried Reggie,
later that evening.  "His lawyers undoubtedly know nothing."

"He may have left some paper which reveals the truth," I answered.  "Men
who are silent in life often commit their secrets to paper."

"I don't think Burton ever did."

"He may have done so for Mabel's benefit, remember."

"Ah! by Jove!" gasped my friend, "I never thought of that.  If he wished
to provide for her, he would leave his secret with some one whom he
could implicitly trust.  Yet he trusted us--up to a certain point.  We
are the only ones who have any real knowledge of the state of affairs,"
and my tall, long-legged, fair-haired friend, who stood six feet in his
stockings, the picture of the easygoing muscular Englishman, although
engaged in the commerce of feminine frippery, stopped with a low grunt
of dissatisfaction, and carefully lit a fresh cigar.

We passed a dismal evening strolling about the main streets of
Manchester, feeling that in Burton Blair we had lost a friend, but when
on the following morning we met Herbert Leighton, the solicitor, in the
hall of the _Queen's_, and had a long consultation with him, the mystery
surrounding the dead man became considerably heightened.

"You both knew my late client very well, indeed," the solicitor
remarked, after some preliminaries.  "Now, are you aware of the
existence of any one who would profit by his sudden decease?"

"That's a curious question," I remarked.  "Why?"

"Well, the fact is this," explained the dark, sharp-featured man, with
some hesitation.  "I have every reason to believe that he has been the
victim of foul play."

"Foul play!"  I gasped.  "You surely don't think that he was murdered?
Why, my dear fellow, that couldn't be.  He was taken ill in the train,
and died in bed in our presence."

The solicitor, whose face had now become graver, merely shrugged his
narrow shoulders, and said--"We must, of course, await the result of the
inquest, but from information in my possession I feel confident that
Burton Blair did not die a natural death."

That same evening the Coroner held his inquiry in a private room in the
hotel, and, according to the two doctors who had made the postmortem
earlier in the day, death was due entirely to natural causes.  It was
discovered that Blair had naturally a weak heart, and that the fatal
termination had been accelerated by the oscillation of the train.

There was absolutely nothing whatever to induce any suspicion of foul
play, therefore the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the
medical evidence that death was due to natural causes, and an order was
given for the removal of the body to London for burial.

An hour after the inquest I took Mr. Leighton aside and said--

"As you know, I have for some years been one of the late Mr. Blair's
most intimate friends, and, therefore, I am naturally very much
interested to know what induced you to suspect foul play."

"My suspicions were well based," was his rather enigmatical answer.

"Upon what?"

"Upon the fact that my client himself had been threatened, and that,
although he told no one and laughed at my suggested precautions, he has
lived in daily dread of assassination."

"Curious!"  I ejaculated.  "Very curious!"

I told him nothing of that remarkable letter I had secured from the dead
man's luggage.  If what he said were really true, then there was a very
extraordinary secret in the death of Burton Blair, equally with that of
his strange, romantic and mysterious life--a secret that was
inscrutable, yet absolutely unique.

It will be necessary, I think, to fully explain the curious
circumstances which first brought us into contact with Burton Blair, and
to describe the mysterious events which followed our acquaintanceship.
From beginning to end the whole affair is so remarkable that many who
read this record of facts may be inclined to doubt my veracity.  To
such, I would at the very outset suggest that they make inquiries in
London, in that little world of adventurers, speculators, money-lenders
and money-losers known as "the City," where I feel sure they will have
no difficulty in learning even further interesting details regarding the
man of mysterious millions whom this narrative partially concerns.

And certainly the true facts concerning him will, I do not hesitate to
say, be found to form one of the most remarkable romances in modern
life.

CHAPTER THREE.

IN WHICH A STRANGE STORY IS TOLD.

In order to put the plain, unvarnished truth before you, I must, in the
first place, explain that I, Gilbert Greenwood, was a man of small
means, having been left an annuity by an ascetic Baptist, but somewhat
prosperous aunt, while Reginald Seton I had known ever since we had been
lads together at Charterhouse.  The son of George Seton, a lace
warehouseman of Cannon Street and Alderman of the City of London, Reggie
had been left at twenty-five with a heavy burden of debt and an
old-fashioned, high-class but rapidly declining business.  Still,
brought up to the lace trade in a factory at Nottingham, Reggie boldly
followed in his father's footsteps, and by dint of close attention to
business succeeding in rubbing along sufficiently well to avoid the
bankruptcy court, and to secure an income of a few hundreds a year.

Both of us were still bachelors, and we chummed in comfortable chambers
in a newly-constructed block of flats in Great Russell Street, while,
being also fond of fox-hunting, the only sport we could afford, we also
rented a cheap, old-fashioned house in a rural village called Helpstone,
eighty miles from London, in the Fitzwilliam country.  Here we spent
each winter, usually being "out" two days a week.

Neither of us being well off, we had, as may be imagined, to practise a
good deal of economy, for fox-hunting is an expensive sport to the poor
man.  Nevertheless, we were both fortunate in possessing a couple of
good horses apiece, and by dint of a little squeezing here and there,
were able to indulge in those exhilarating runs across country which
cause the blood to tingle with excitement, and rejuvenate all who take
part in them.

Reggie was sometimes kept in town by the exigencies of his deal in
torchon, Maltese and Honiton, therefore I frequently lived alone in the
old-fashioned, ivy-covered house, with Glave, my man, to look after me.

One bitterly cold evening in January Reggie was absent in London, and I,
having been hunting all day, was riding home utterly fagged out.  The
meet that morning had been at Kate's Cabin, over in Huntingdonshire, and
after two good runs I had found myself beyond Stilton, eighteen miles
from home.  Still, the scent had been excellent, and we had had good
sport, therefore I took a pull at my flask and rode forward across
country in the gathering gloom.

Fortunately I found the river fordable at Water Newton mill, a fact
which saved me the long detour by Wansford, and then when within a mile
of home I allowed my horse to walk, as I always did, in order that he
might cool down before going to his stable.  The dusk of the short
afternoon was just deepening into night, and the biting wind cut me like
a knife as I passed the crossroads about half a mile from Helpstone
village, jogging along steadily, when of a sudden a man's burly figure
loomed out of the shadow of the high, holly hedge, and a deep voice
exclaimed--

"Pardon me, sir, but I'm a stranger in these parts, and my daughter here
has fainted.  Is there a house near?"

Then, as I drew near, I saw huddled upon a heap of stones at the
roadside the slim, fragile form of a young girl of about sixteen,
wrapped in a thick, dark-coloured cloak, while in the glimmer of light
that remained I distinguished that the man who was addressing me was a
bluff, rather well-spoken, dark-bearded fellow of about forty-five or
so, in a frayed suit of blue serge and peaked cap that gave him
something of the appearance of a seafarer.  His face was seamed and
weatherbeaten, and his broad, powerful jaws betokened a strength of
character and dogged determination.

"Has your daughter been taken ill?"  I inquired, when I had thoroughly
examined him.

"Well, the fact is we've walked a long way to-day, and I think she's
done up.  She became dazed like about half an hour ago, and when she sat
down she fell insensible."

"She mustn't stay here," I remarked, as the fact became plain that both
father and daughter were tramps.  "She'll get frozen to death.  My house
is over yonder.  I'll ride on and bring back some one to help carry
her."

The man commenced to thank me, but I touched my horse with the spur, and
was soon in the stableyard calling for Glave to accompany me back to the
spot where I had left the wayfarers.

A quarter of an hour later we had arranged the insensible girl on a
couch in my warm, snug sitting-room, had forced some brandy down her
throat, and she had opened her eyes wonderingly, and looked round with
childlike temerity upon her unfamiliar surroundings.

Her gaze met mine, and I saw that her countenance was undeniably
beautiful, of that dark, half-tragic type, her eyes rendered the more
luminous by the death-like pallor of her countenance.  The features were
well-moulded, refined and handsome in every line, and as she addressed
her father, inquiring what had occurred, I detected that she was no mere
waif of the highway, but, on the contrary, highly intelligent, well
mannered and well educated.

Her father, in a few deep words, explained our abrupt meeting and my
hospitality, whereupon she smiled upon me sweetly and uttered words of
thanks.

"It must have been the intense cold, I think," she added.  "Somehow I
felt benumbed all at once, and my head swam so that I couldn't stand.
But it is really very kind indeed of you.  I'm so sorry that we've
disturbed you like this."

I assured her that my only wish was for her complete recovery, and as I
spoke I could not conceal from myself that her beauty was very
remarkable.  Although young, and her figure as yet not fully developed,
her face was nevertheless one of the most perfect I had ever seen.  From
the first moment my eyes fell upon her, I found her indescribably
charming.  That she was utterly exhausted was rendered plain by the
painful, uneasy manner in which she moved upon her couch.  Her rusty
black skirt and thick boots were muddy and travel-stained, and by the
manner she pushed the tangled mass of dark hair from her brow I knew
that her head ached.

Glave, in no good mood at the introduction of tramps, entered,
announcing that my dinner was ready; but she firmly, yet with sweet
grace, declined my invitation to eat, saying that if I would permit her
she would rather remain alone on the couch before the fire for half an
hour longer.  Therefore I sent her some hot soup by old Mrs. Axford, our
cook, while her father, having washed his hands, accompanied me to the
diningroom.

He seemed half-famished, taciturn and reserved at first, but presently,
when he had judged my character sufficiently, he explained that his name
was Burton Blair, that in his absence abroad he had lost his wife ten
years before, and that little Mab was his only child.  As his appearance
denoted, he had been at sea the greater part of his life and held a
master's certificate, but of late he had been living ashore.

"I've been home these three years now," he went on, "and I've had a
pretty rough time of it, I can tell you.  Poor Mab!  I wouldn't have
minded had it not been for her.  She's a brick, she is, just as her poor
dear mother was.  She's done three years of semi-starvation, and yet
she's never once complained.  She knows my character by now, she knows
that when once Burton Blair makes up his mind to do a thing, by Gad! he
does it," and he set those square jaws of his hard, while a look of
determination and dogged persistency came into his eyes, the fiercest I
had ever seen in any man.

"But, Mr. Blair, why did you leave the sea to starve ashore?"  I
inquired, my curiosity aroused.

"Because--well, because I had a reason--a strong reason," was his
hesitating reply.  "You see me homeless and hungry to-night," laughed
Burton Blair, bitterly, "but to-morrow I may be a millionaire!"

And his face assumed a mysterious, sphinx-like expression which sorely
puzzled me.

Many and many a time since then have I recollected those strange,
prophetic words of his as he sat at my table, shabby, unkempt and
ravenously hungry, a worn-out, half-frozen tramp from the highroad, who,
absurd as it then seemed, held the strong belief that ere long he would
be the possessor of millions.

I remember well how I smiled at his vague assertion.  Every man who
falls low in the social scale clings to the will-o'-the-wisp belief that
his luck will change, and that by some vagary of fortune he will come up
again smiling.  Hope is never dead within the ruined man.

By dint of some careful questions I tried to obtain further information
regarding this confident hope of wealth which he entertained, but he
would tell me nothing--absolutely nothing.

He accepted a cigar after he had dined well, took brandy with his
coffee, and smoked with the air of a contented man who had no single
thought or care in the world--a man who knew exactly what the future
held for him.

Thus, from the very first, Burton Blair was a mystery.  On rejoining
Mabel we found her sleeping peacefully, utterly fagged out.  Therefore I
induced him to remain beneath my roof that night, in order that she
might rest, and, returning to the dining-room, her father and I sat
together smoking and talking for several hours.

He told me of his hard, rough years at sea, of strange adventures in
savage lands, of a narrow escape from death at the hands of a band of
natives in the Cameroons, and of how, for three years, he acted as
captain of a river-steamer up the Congo, one of the pioneers of
civilisation.  He related his thrilling adventures calmly and naturally,
without any bragging, but just in that plain, matter-of-fact manner
which revealed to me that he was one of those men who love an
adventurous life because of its perils and its vicissitudes.

"And now I'm tramping the turnpikes of England," he added, laughing.
"You must, no doubt, think it very strange, Mr. Greenwood, but to tell
you the truth I am actively prosecuting a rather curious quest, the
successful issue of which will one day bring me wealth beyond my wildest
dreams.  See!" he added, with a strange wild look in his great dark
eyes, as swiftly undoing his blue guernsey and delving beneath it he
drew forth a square, flat piece of soiled and well-worn chamois leather
in which there seemed to be sewed some precious document or other.
"Look!  My secret lies here.  Some day I shall discover the key to it--
maybe to-morrow or next day, or next year.  When, it is quite
immaterial.  The result will be the same.  My years of continuous search
and travel will be rewarded--and I shall be rich, and the world will
wonder!"  And, laughing contentedly, almost triumphantly within himself,
he carefully replaced his precious document in his chest, and, rising,
stood with his back to the fire in the attitude of a man entirely
confident of what was written in the Book of Fate.

That midnight scene in all its strange, romantic detail, that occasion
when the tired wayfarer and his daughter spent their first night as my
guests, rose before me when, on that bright, cold afternoon following
the inquest up at Manchester, I alighted from a cab in front of the big
white house in Grosvenor Square, and received word of Carter, the solemn
manservant, that Miss Mabel was at home.

The magnificent mansion, with its exquisite decorations, its genuine
Louis Quatorze furniture, its valuable pictures and splendid examples of
seventeenth century statuary, home of one to whom expense was surely of
no account, was assuredly sufficient testimony that the shabby wayfarer
who had uttered those words in my narrow little dining-room five years
before had made no idle boast.

The secret sewed within that dirty bag of wash-leather, whatever it may
have been, had already realised over a million, and was still realising
enormous sums, until death had now so suddenly put an end to its
exploitation.  The mystery of it all was beyond solution; and the enigma
was complete.

These and other reflections swept through my mind as I followed the
footman up the wide marble staircase and was shown ceremoniously into
the great gold and white drawing-room, the walls of which were panelled
with pale rose silk, the four large windows affording a wide view across
the Square.  Those priceless paintings, those beautiful cabinets and
unique _bric-a-brac_--all were purchased with the proceeds from that
mysterious secret, the secret which had in that short space of five
years been the means of transforming a homeless, down-at-heel wanderer
into a millionaire.

Gazing aimlessly across the grey Square with its leafless trees, I stood
undecided how best to break the sad news, when a slight _frou-frou_ of
silk swept behind me, and, turning quickly, I confronted the dead man's
daughter, looking now, at twenty-three, far more sweet, graceful and
womanly than in that first hour of our strange meeting by the wayside
long ago.

But her black gown, her trembling form, and her pale, tear-stained
cheeks told me in an instant that this woman in my charge had already
learnt the painful truth.  She halted before me, a beautiful, tragic
figure, her tiny white hand nervously clutching the back of one of the
gilt chairs for support.

"I know!" she exclaimed in a broken voice, quite unnatural to her, her
eyes fixed upon me, "I know, Mr. Greenwood, why you have called.  The
truth has been told to me by Mr. Leighton an hour ago.  Ah! my poor dear
father!" she sighed, the words catching in her throat as she burst into
tears.  "Why did he go to Manchester?  His enemies have triumphed, just
as I have all along feared they would.  Yet, great-hearted as he was, he
believed ill of no man.  He refused always to heed my warnings, and
laughed at all my apprehensions.  Yet, alas! the ghastly truth is now
only too plain.  My poor father!" she gasped, her handsome face blanched
to the lips.  "He is dead--and his secret is out!"

CHAPTER FOUR.

WHICH TRAVERSES DANGEROUS GROUND.

"Are you really suspicious, Mabel, that your father has been the victim
of foul play?"  I inquired quickly of the dead man's daughter, standing
pale and unnerved before me.

"I am," was her direct, unhesitating answer.  "You know his story, Mr.
Greenwood; you know how he carried with him everywhere something he had
sewed in a piece of chamois leather; something which was his most
precious possession.  Mr. Leighton tells me that it is missing."

"That is unfortunately so," I said.  "We all three searched for it among
his clothes and in his luggage; we made inquiry of the luncheon-car
attendant who found him insensible in the railway carriage, of the
porters who conveyed him to the hotel, of every one, in fact, but can
find no trace of it whatsoever."

"Because it has been deliberately stolen," she remarked.

"Then your theory is that he has been assassinated in order to conceal
the theft?"

She nodded in the affirmative, her face still hard and pale.

"But there is no evidence whatever of foul play, recollect," I
exclaimed.  "Both medical men, two of the best in Manchester, declared
that death was entirely due to natural causes."

"I care nothing for what they say.  The little sachet which my poor
father sewed with his own hands, and guarded so carefully all these
years, and which for some curious reason he would neither trust in any
bank nor in a safe deposit vault, is missing.  His enemies have gained
possession of it, just as I felt confident they would."

"I recollect him showing me that little bag of wash-leather on the first
night of our acquaintance," I said.  "He then declared that what was
contained therein would bring him wealth--and it certainly has done," I
added, glancing round that magnificent apartment.

"It brought him wealth, but not happiness, Mr. Greenwood," she responded
quickly.  "That packet, the contents of which I have never seen, he has
carried with him in his pocket or suspended round his neck ever since it
first came into his possession years ago.  In all his clothes he had a
special pocket in which to carry it, while at night he wore it in a
specially made belt which was locked around his waist.  I think he
regarded it as a sort of charm, or talisman, which, besides bringing him
his great fortune, also preserved him from all ills.  The reason of this
I cannot tell."

"Did you never ascertain the nature of the document which he considered
so precious?"

"I tried to do so many times, but he would never reveal it to me.  `It
was his secret,' he would say, and no more."

Both Reggie and I had, times without number, endeavoured to learn what
the mysterious packet really contained, but had been no more successful
than the charming girl now standing before me.  Burton Blair was a
strange man, both in actions and in words, very reserved regarding his
own affairs, and yet, curiously enough, with the advent of prosperity he
had become a prince of good fellows.

"But who were his enemies?"  I inquired.

"Ah! of that I am likewise in utter ignorance," was her reply.  "As you
know, during the past year or two, like all rich men he has been
surrounded by adventurers and parasites of all sorts, whom Ford, his
secretary, has kept at arm's length.  It may be that the existence of
the precious packet was known, and that my poor father has fallen a
victim to some foul plot.  At east, that is my firm idea."

"If so, the police should certainly be informed," I said.  "It is true
that the wash-leather sachet which he showed me on the night of our
first meeting is now missing, for we have all made the most careful
search for it, but in vain.  Yet what could its possession possibly
profit any one if the key to what was contained there is wanting?"

"But was not this key, whatever it was, also in my father's hands?"
queried Mabel Blair.  "Was it not the discovery of that very key which
gave us all these possessions?" she asked, with the sweet womanliness
that was her most engaging characteristic.

"Exactly.  But surely your father, shrewd and cautious as he always was,
would never carry upon his person both problem and key together!  I
can't really believe that he'd do such a foolish thing as that."

"Nor do I.  Although I was his only child, and his confidante in
everything relating to his life, there was one thing he persistently
kept from me, and that was the nature of his secret.  Sometimes I have
found myself suspecting that it was not an altogether creditable one--
indeed, one that a father dare not reveal to his daughter.  And yet no
one has ever accused him of dishonesty or of double-dealing.  At other
times I have noticed in his face and manner an air of distinct mystery
which has caused me to believe that the source of our unlimited wealth
was some curious and romantic one, which to the world would be regarded
as entirely incredible.  One night, indeed, as we sat here at table
after dinner, and while smoking, he had been telling me about my poor
mother who died in lodgings in a back street in Manchester while he was
absent on a voyage to the West Coast of Africa, he declared that if
London knew the source of his income it would be astounded.  `But,' he
added, `it is a secret--a secret I intend to carry with me to the
grave.'"

Strangely enough he had uttered those very same words to me a couple of
years before, when one night he had sat before the fire in my rooms in
Great Russell Street, and I had referred to his marvellous stroke of
good fortune.  He had died, and he had either carried out his threat of
destroying that evidence of his secret in the shape of the well-worn
chamois leather bag, or else it had been ingeniously stolen from him.

The curious, ill-written letter I had secured from my friend's luggage,
while puzzling me had aroused certain suspicions that hitherto I had not
entertained.  Of these I, of course, told Mabel nothing, for I did not
wish to cause her any greater pain.  In the years we had been acquainted
we had always been good friends.  Although Reggie was fifteen years her
senior, and I thirteen years older than she, I believe she regarded both
of us as big brothers.

Our friendship had commenced when, finding Burton Blair, the seafaring
tramp, practically-starving as he was, we clubbed together from our
small means and put her to a finishing school at Bournemouth.  To allow
so young and delicate a girl to tramp England aimlessly in search of
some vague and secret information which seemed to be her erratic
father's object, was, we decided, an utter impossibility; therefore,
following that night of our first meeting at Helpstone, Burton and his
daughter remained our guests for a week, and, after many consultations
and some little economies, we were at last successful in placing Mabel
at school, a service for which we later received her heartfelt thanks.

She was utterly worn out, poor child.  Poverty had already set its
indelible stamp upon her sweet face, and her beauty was beginning to
fade beneath that burden of disappointment and erratic wandering when we
had so fortunately discovered her, and been able to rescue her from the
necessity of tramping footsore over those endless, pitiless highways.

Contrary to our expectation it was quite a long time before we could
induce Blair to allow his daughter to return to school, for, as a matter
of fact, both father and daughter were entirely devoted to one another.
Nevertheless, in the end we triumphed, and later, when the bluff,
bearded wayfarer came to his own, he did not forget to return thanks to
us in a very substantial manner.  Indeed, our present improved
circumstances were due to him, for not only had he handed a cheque to
Reggie sufficient to pay the whole of the liabilities of the Cannon
Street lace business, but to me, on my birthday three years ago, he had
sent, enclosed in a cheap, silver cigarette case, a draft upon his
bankers for a sum sufficient to provide me with a very comfortable
little annuity.

Burton Blair never forgot his friends--neither did he ever forgive an
unkind action.  Mabel was his idol, his only real confidante, and yet it
seemed more than strange that she knew absolutely nothing of the
mysterious source of his colossal income.

Together we sat for over an hour in that great drawing-room, the very
splendour of which spoke mystery.  Mrs. Percival, the pleasant,
middle-aged widow of a naval surgeon, who was Mabel's chaperon and
companion, entered, but left us quickly, much upset by the tragic news.
Presently, when I told Mabel of my promise to her father, a slight blush
suffused her pale cheeks.

"It is really awfully good of you to trouble over my affairs, Mr.
Greenwood," she said, glancing at me, and then dropping her eyes
modestly.  "I suppose in future I shall have to consider you as my
guardian," and she laughed lightly, twisting her ring around her finger.

"Not as your legal guardian," I answered.  "Your father's lawyers will,
no doubt, act in that capacity, but rather as your protector and your
friend."

"Ah!" she replied sadly, "I suppose I shall require both, now that poor
dad is dead."

"I have been your friend for over five years, Mabel, and I hope you will
still allow me to carry out my promise to your father," I said, standing
before her and speaking in deep earnestness.

"There must, however, at the outset be a clear and distinct
understanding between us.  Therefore permit me for one moment to speak
to you candidly, as a man should to a woman who is his friend.  You,
Mabel, are young, and--well, you are, as you know, very good-looking--"

"No, really, Mr. Greenwood," she cried, interrupting me and blushing at
my compliment, "it is too bad of you.  I'm sure--"

"Hear me out, please," I continued with mock severity.  "You are young,
you are very good-looking, and you are rich; you therefore possess the
three necessary attributes which render a woman eligible in these modern
days when sentiment is held of such little account.  Well, people who
will watch our intimate friendship will, with ill-nature, declare, no
doubt, that I am seeking to marry you for your money.  I am quite sure
the world will say this, but what I want you to promise is to at once
refute such a statement.  I desire that you and I shall be firm friends,
just as we have ever been, without any thought of affection.  I may
admire you--I confess, now, that I have always admired you--but with a
man of my limited means love for you is entirely out of the question.
Understand that I do not wish to presume upon the past, now that your
father is dead and you are alone.  Understand, too, from the very outset
that I now give you the hand of firm friendship as I would give it to
Reggie, my old schoolfellow and best friend, and that in future I shall
safeguard your interests as though they were my own."  And I held out my
hands to her.

For a moment she hesitated, for my words had apparently caused her the
most profound surprise.

"Very well," she faltered, glancing for an instant up to my face.  "It
is a bargain--if you wish it to be so."

"I wish, Mabel, to carry out the promise I made to your father," I said.
"As you know, I am greatly indebted to him for much generosity, and I
wish, therefore, as a mark of gratitude, to stand in his place and
protect his daughter--yourself."

"But were we not, in the first place, both indebted to you?" she said.
"If it had not been for Mr. Seton and yourself I might have wandered on
until I died by the wayside."

"For what was your father searching?"  I asked.  "He surely told you?"

"No, he never did.  I am in entire ignorance of the reason of his three
years of tramping up and down England.  He had a distinct object, which
he accomplished, but what it actually was he would never reveal to me."

"It was, I suppose, in connexion with that document he always carried?"

"I believe it was," was her response.  Then she added, returning to her
previous observations, "Why speak of your indebtedness to him, Mr.
Greenwood, when I know full well how you sold your best horse in order
to pay my school fees at Bournemouth, and that you could not hunt that
season in consequence?  You denied yourself the only little pleasure you
had, in order that I might be well cared for."

"I forbid you to mention that again," I said quickly.  "Recollect we are
now friends, and between friends there can be no question of
indebtedness."

"Then you must not talk of any little service my father rendered to
you," she laughed.  "Come, now, I shall be unruly if you don't keep to
your part of the bargain!"

And so we were compelled at that juncture to cry quits, and we
recommenced our friendship on a firm and perfectly well-defined basis.

Yet how strange it was!  The beauty of Mabel Blair, as she lounged there
before me in that magnificent home that was now hers, was surely
sufficient to turn the head of any man who was not a Chancery Judge or a
Catholic Cardinal--different indeed from the poor, half-starved girl
whom I had first seen exhausted and fallen by the roadside in the winter
gloom.

CHAPTER FIVE.

IN WHICH THE MYSTERY BECOMES CONSIDERABLY INCREASED.

That the precious document, or whatever it was, sewn up in the
wash-leather which the dead man had so carefully guarded through all
those years was now missing was, in itself, a very suspicious
circumstance, while Mabel's vague but distinct apprehensions, which she
either would not or could not define, now aroused my suspicions that
Burton Blair had been the victim of foul play.

Immediately after leaving her I therefore drove to Bedford Row and held
another consultation with Leighton, to whom I explained my grave fears.

"As I have already explained, Mr. Greenwood," responded the solicitor,
leaning back in his padded chair and regarding me gravely through his
glasses, "I believe that my client did not die a natural death.  There
was some mystery in his life, some strange romantic circumstance which,
unfortunately, he never thought fit to confide to me.  He held a secret,
he told me, and by knowledge of that secret, he obtained his vast
wealth.  Only half an hour ago I made a rough calculation of the present
value of his estate, and at the lowest, I believe it will be found to
amount to over two and a half millions.  The whole of this, I may tell
you in confidence, goes unreservedly to his daughter, with the exception
of several legacies, which include ten thousand each to Mr. Seton and to
yourself, two thousand to Mrs. Percival, and some small sums to the
servants.  But," he added, "there is a clause in the will which is very
puzzling, and which closely affects yourself.  As we both suspect foul
play, I think I may as well at once show it to you without waiting for
my unfortunate client's burial and the formal reading of his will."

Then he rose, and from a big black deed box lettered "Burton Blair,
Esquire," he took out the dead man's will, and, opening it, showed me a
passage which read:--

Ten: "I give and bequeath to Gilbert Greenwood of The Cedars, Helpstone,
the small bag of chamois leather that will be found upon me at the time
of my death, in order that he may profit by what is contained therein,
and as recompense for certain valuable services rendered to me.  Let him
recollect always this rhyme--

"`_Henry the Eighth was a knave to his queens, He'd, one short of
seven--and nine or ten scenes_!'

"And let him well and truly preserve the secret from every man, just as
I have done."

That was all.  A strange clause surely!  Burton Blair had, after all,
actually bequeathed his secret to me, the secret that had brought him
his colossal wealth!  Yet it was already lost--probably stolen by his
enemies.

"That's a curious doggerel," the solicitor smiled.  "But poor Blair
possessed but little literary culture, I fear.  He knew more about the
sea than poetry.  Yet, after all, it seems a tantalising situation that
you should be left the secret of the source of my client's enormous
fortune, and that it should be stolen from you in this manner."

"We had, I think, better consult the police, and explain our
suspicions," I said, in bitter chagrin that the chamois sachet should
have fallen into other hands.

"I entirely agree with you, Mr. Greenwood.  We will go together to
Scotland Yard and get them to institute inquiries.  If Mr. Blair was
actually murdered, then his assassination was accomplished in a most
secret and remarkable manner, to say the least.  But there is one
further clause in the will which is somewhat disturbing, and that is
with regard to his daughter Mabel.  The testator has appointed some
person of whom I have never heard--a man called Paolo Melandrini, an
Italian, apparently living in Florence, to be her secretary and the
manager of her affairs."

"What!"  I cried, amazed.  "An Italian to be her secretary!  Who is he?"

"A person with whom I am not acquainted; whose name, indeed, has never
been mentioned to me by my client.  He merely dictated it to me when I
drafted the will."

"But the thing's absurd!"  I exclaimed.  "Surely you can't let an
unknown foreigner, who may be an adventurer for all we know, have
control of all her money?"

"I fear there's no help for it," replied Leighton, gravely.  "It is
written here, and we shall be compelled to give notice to this man,
whoever he is, of his appointment at a salary of five thousand pounds a
year."

"And will he really have control of her affairs?"

"Absolutely.  Indeed, the whole estate is left to her on condition that
she accepts this fellow as her secretary and confidential adviser."

"Why, Blair must have been mad!"  I exclaimed.  "Has Mabel any knowledge
of this mysterious Italian?"

"She has never heard of him."

"Well, in that case, I think that, before he is informed of poor Blair's
death and the good fortune in store for him, we ought at least to find
out who and what he is.  We can in any case, keep a watchful eye on him,
and see that he doesn't trick Mabel out of her money."

The lawyer sighed, wiped his glasses slowly, and said--

"He will have the entire management of everything, therefore it will be
difficult to know what goes on, or how much he puts into his own
pocket."

"But whatever could possess Blair to insert such a mad clause as that?
Didn't you point out the folly of it?"

"I did."

"And what did he say?"

"He reflected a few moments over my words, sighed, and then answered,
`It is imperative, Leighton.  I have no other alternative.'  Therefore
from that I took it that he was acting under compulsion."

"You believe that this foreigner was in a position to demand it--eh?"

The solicitor nodded.  He evidently was of opinion that the reason of
the introduction of this unknown person into Mabel's household was a
secret one, known only to Burton Blair and to the individual himself.
It was curious, I reflected, that Mabel herself had not mentioned it to
me.  Yet perhaps she had hesitated, because I had told her of my promise
to her father, and she did not wish to hurt my feelings.  The whole
situation became hourly more complicated and more mysterious.

I was, however, bent upon accomplishing two things; first, to recover
the millionaire's most precious possession which he had bequeathed to
me, together with such an extraordinary injunction to recollect that
doggerel couplet which still ran in my head; and secondly, to make
private inquiries regarding this unknown foreigner who had so suddenly
become introduced into the affair.

That same evening at six o'clock, having met Reggie by appointment at
Mr. Leighton's office, we all three drove to Scotland Yard, where we had
a long consultation with one of the head officials, to whom we explained
the circumstances and our suspicions of foul play.

"Well," he replied at length, "of course I will institute inquiries in
Manchester and elsewhere, but as the medical evidence has proved so
conclusively that the gentleman in question died from natural causes, I
cannot hold out very much hope that out Department or the Manchester
Detective Department can assist you.  The grounds you have for supposing
that he met with foul play are very vague, you must admit, and as far as
I can see, the only motive at all was the theft of this paper, or
whatever it was, which he carried upon him.  Yet men are not usually
killed in broad daylight in order to commit a theft which any expert
pickpocket might effect.  Besides, if his enemies or rivals knew what it
was and how he was in the habit of carrying it, they could easily have
secured it without assassination."

"But he was in possession of some secret," remarked the solicitor.

"Of what character?"

"I have unfortunately no idea.  Nobody knows.  All that we are aware is
that its possession raised him from poverty to affluence, and that one
person, if not more, was eager to obtain possession of it."

"Naturally," remarked the grey-haired Assistant-Director of Criminal
Investigations.  "But who was this person?"

"Unfortunately I do not know.  My client told me this a year ago, but
mentioned no name."

"Then you have no suspicion whatever of any one?"

"None.  The little bag of wash leather, inside which the document was
sewn, has been stolen, and this fact arouses our suspicion of foul
play."  The hide-bound official shook his head very dubiously.

"That is not enough upon which to base a suspicion of murder, especially
as we have had all the evidence at the inquest, a post-mortem and a
unanimous verdict of the coroner's jury.  No, gentlemen," he added, "I
don't see any ground for really grave suspicion.  The document may not
have been stolen after all.  Mr. Blair seems to have been of a somewhat
eccentric disposition, like many men who suddenly rise in the world, and
he may have hidden it away for safe-keeping somewhere.  To me, this
seems by far the most likely theory, especially as he had expressed a
fear that his enemies sought to gain possession of it."

"But surely, if there is suspicion of murder, it is the duty of the
police to investigate it!"  I exclaimed resentfully.

"Granted.  But where is the suspicion?  Neither doctors, coroner, local
police nor jury entertain the slightest doubt that he died from natural
causes," he argued.  "In that case the Manchester police have neither
right nor necessity to interfere."

"But there has been a theft."

"What proof have you of it?" he asked, raising his grey eyebrows and
tapping the table with his pen.  "If you can show me that a theft has
been committed, then I will put in motion the various influences at my
command.  On the contrary, you merely suspect that this something sewn
in a bag has been stolen.  Yet it may be hidden in some place difficult
to find, but nevertheless in safety.  As, however, you all three allege
that the unfortunate gentleman was assassinated in order to gain
possession of this mysterious little packet of which he was so careful,
I will communicate with the Manchester City police and ask them to make
what inquiries they can.  Further than that, gentlemen," he added
suavely, "I fear that my Department cannot assist you."

"Then all I have to reply," remarked Mr. Leighton, bluntly, "is that the
public opinion of the futility of this branch of the police in the
detection of crime is fully justified, and I shall not fail to see that
public attention is called to the matter through the Press.  It's simply
a disgrace."

"I'm only acting, sir, upon my instructions, conjointly with what you
have yourself told me," was his answer.  "I assure you that if I ordered
inquiries to be made in every case in which persons are alleged to have
been murdered, I should require a detective force as large as the
British Army.  Why, not a day passes without I receive dozens of secret
callers and anonymous letters all alleging assassination--generally
against some person towards whom they entertain a dislike.  Eighteen
years as head of this Department, however, has, I think, taught me how
to distinguish a case for inquiry--which yours is not."

Argument proved futile.  The official mind was made up that Burton Blair
had not fallen a victim to foul play, therefore we could hope for no
assistance.  So with our dissatisfaction rather plainly marked, we rose
and went out again into Whitehall.

"It's a scandal!"  Reggie declared angrily.  "Poor Blair has been
murdered--everything points to it--and yet the police won't lift a
finger to assist us to reveal the truth, just because a doctor
discovered that he had a weak heart.  It's placing a premium on crime,"
he added, his fist clenched savagely.  "I'll relate the whole thing to
my friend Mills, the Member for West Derbyshire, and get him to ask a
question in the House.  We'll see what this new Home Secretary says to
it!  It'll be a nasty pill for him, I'll wager."

"Oh, he'll have some typewritten official excuse ready, never fear,"
laughed Leighton.  "If they won't help us, we must make inquiries for
ourselves."

The solicitor parted from us in Trafalgar Square, arranging to meet us
at Grosvenor Square after the funeral, when the will would be formally
read before the dead man's daughter and her companion, Mrs. Percival.

"And then," he added, "we shall have to take some active steps to
discover this mysterious person who is in future to control her
fortune."

"I'll undertake the inquiries," I said.  "Fortunately I speak Italian,
therefore, before we give him notice of Blair's death.  I'll go out to
Florence and ascertain who and what he is."  Truth to tell, I had a
suspicion that the letter which I had secured from the dead man's
blotting book, and which I had kept secretly to myself, had been written
by this unknown individual--Paolo Melandrini.  Although it bore neither
address nor signature, and was in a heavy and rather uneducated hand, it
was evidently the letter of a Tuscan, for I detected in it certain
phonetic spelling which was purely Florentine.  Translated, the strange
communication read as follows:--

"Your letter reached me only this morning.  The Ceco (blind man) is in
Paris, on his way to London.  The girl is with him, and they evidently
know something.  So be very careful.  He and his ingenious friends will
probably try and trick you.

"I am still at my post, but the water has risen three metres on account
of the heavy rains.  Nevertheless, farming has been good, so I shall
expect to meet you at vespers in San Frediano on the evening of the 6th
of next month.  I have something most important to tell you.  Recollect
that the Ceco means mischief, and act accordingly.  _Addio_."

Times without number I carefully translated the curious missive word for
word.  It seemed full of hidden meaning.

What seemed most probable was that the person known as the "blind man,"
who was Blair's enemy, had actually been successful in gaining
possession of that precious little sachet of chamois leather that was
now mine by right, together with the mysterious secret it contained.

CHAPTER SIX.

CONCERNS THREE CAPITAL A'S.

The function in the library at Grosvenor Square on the following
afternoon was, as may be supposed, a very sad and painful one.

Mabel Blair, dressed in deep mourning, her eyes betraying traces of
tears, sat still and silent while the solicitor drily read over the
will, clause by clause.

She made no comment, even when he repeated the dead man's appointment of
the unknown Italian to be manager of his daughter's fortune.

"But who is he, pray?" demanded Mrs. Percival, in her quiet, refined
voice.  "I have never heard Mr. Blair speak of any such person."

"Nor have I," admitted Leighton, pausing a moment to readjust his
glasses, and then continuing to read the document through to the end.

We were all thoroughly glad when the formality was over.  Afterwards,
Mabel whispered to me that she wished to see me alone in the
morning-room, and when we had entered together and I had closed the
door, she said--

"Last night I searched the small safe in my father's bedroom where he
sometimes kept his private papers and things.  There were a quantity of
my poor mother's letters, written to him years ago when he was at sea,
but nothing else, only this."  And she drew from her pocket a small,
soiled and frayed playing-card, an ace of hearts, upon which certain
cabalistic capitals had been written in three columns.  In order that
you shall properly understand the arrangement and position of the
letters, it will perhaps be as well if I here reproduce it:--

"That's curious!"  I remarked, turning it over anxiously in my hand.
"Have you tried to discover what meaning the words convey?"

"Yes; but it's some cipher or other, I think.  You will notice that the
two upper columns commence with `A,' and the lower column ends with the
same letter.  The card is the ace of hearts, and in all those points I
detect some hidden meaning."

"No doubt," I said.  "But was there an appearance of it being carefully
preserved?"

"Yes, it was sealed in a linen-lined envelope to itself, and marked in
my father's handwriting, `Burton Blair--private.'  I wonder what it
means?"

"Ah!  I wonder," I exclaimed, pondering deeply, and still gazing upon
the three columns of fourteen letters.  I tried to decipher it by the
usual known methods of the easy cipher, but could make nothing
intelligible of it.  There were some hidden words there, and being
utterly unintelligible, they caused me considerable thought.  Why Blair
had preserved that card in such secrecy was, to say the least, a
mystery.  In it I suspected there was some hidden clue to his secret,
but of its nature I could not even guess.

When we had discussed it for a long time, arriving at no satisfactory
conclusion, I suggested that she should go abroad with Mrs. Percival for
a few weeks so as to change her surroundings and endeavour to forget her
sudden bereavement, but she only shook her head, murmuring--

"No, I prefer to remain here.  The loss of my poor father would be the
same to me abroad as it is here."

"But you must endeavour to forget," I urged with deep sympathy.  "We are
doing our utmost to solve the mystery surrounding your father's actions,
and the means by which he came by his death.  To-night, indeed, I am
leaving for Italy in order to make secret inquiries regarding this
person who is appointed your secretary."

"Ah, yes," she sighed.  "I wonder who he is?  I wonder what motive my
father could possibly have in placing my affairs in the hands of a
stranger?"

"He is probably an old friend of your father's," I suggested.

"No," she responded, "I knew all his friends.  He had only one secret
from me--the secret of the source of his wealth.  That he always refused
point blank to tell me."

"I shall travel direct to Florence, and discover what I can before the
lawyers give this mysterious person notice of your father's death," I
said.  "I may obtain some knowledge which will be of the greatest
benefit to us hereafter."

"Ah! it is really very good of you, Mr. Greenwood," she answered,
lifting her beautiful eyes to mine with an expression of profound
gratitude.  "I must admit that the idea of being closely associated with
a stranger, and that stranger a foreigner, causes me considerable
apprehension."

"But he may be young and good looking, the veritable Paolo of romance--
and you his Francesca," I suggested, smiling.

Her sweet lips relaxed slightly, but she shook her head, sighing as she
answered--

"Please don't anticipate anything of the kind.  I only hope he may be
old and very ugly."

"So that he will not arouse my jealousy--eh?"  I laughed.  "Really,
Mabel, if our friendship were not upon such a well-defined basis, I
should allow myself to act the part of lover.  You know I--"

"Now don't be foolish," she interrupted, raising her small finger in
mock reproval.  "Remember what you said yesterday."

"I said what I meant."

"And so did I.  To tell you the truth, I like to think of you as my big
brother," she declared.  "I suppose I shall never love," she added,
reflectively, gazing into the blazing fire.

"No, no; don't say that, Mabel.  You'll one day meet some man in your
own station, love him, marry and be happy," I said, my hand upon her
shoulder.  "Recollect that with your wealth you can secure the pick of
the matrimonial market."

"Some impoverished young aristocrat, you mean?  No, thanks.  I've
already met a good many, but their disguise of affection has always been
much too thin.  Most of them wanted my money to pay off mortgages on
their estates.  No, I'd much prefer a poor man--although I shall _never_
marry--never."

I was silent for a moment, then I remarked quite bluntly--

"I always thought you would marry young Lord Newborough.  You both
seemed very good friends."

"So we were--until he proposed to me."

And she looked me straight in the face with that clear gaze and those
splendid eyes wide open in wonderment, almost like a child's.

Her character was a strangely complex one.  As a tall, willowy girl, in
those early days of our acquaintance, I knew her to be high-minded and
wilful, yet of that sweet affectionate disposition that endeared her to
every one with whom she came into contact.  Her nature was so calm and
so sweet that in her love seemed an unconscious impulse.  I had often
thought she was surely too soft, too good, too fair to be cast among the
briers of the world, and fall and bleed upon the thorns of life.  The
world is just as cold and pitiless and just as full of pitfalls for the
young and unwary in Mayfair as in Mile End.  Hence, to fulfil my promise
to that man now silent in his grave, it was my duty to protect her from
the thousand and one wiles of those who would endeavour to profit by sex
and inexperience.

Her early privations, her hard life in youth while her father was absent
at sea, and those weary months of tramping the turnpikes of England, all
had had their effect upon her.  With her, love seemed to be scarcely a
passion or a sentiment, but a dreamy enchantment, a reverie which a
fairy spell dissolved or riveted at pleasure.  So exquisitely delicate
was her character, just as was her countenance, that it seemed as if a
touch would profane it.  Like a strain of sad, sweet music which comes
floating by on the wings of night and silence, and which we rather feel
than hear, like the exhalation of the violet dying even upon the sense
it charms, like the snow-flake dissolved in air before it has caught a
stain of earth, like the light surf severed from the billow which a
breath disperses--such was her nature, so full of that modesty, grace
and tenderness without which a woman is no woman.

As she stood there before me, a frail, delicate figure in her plain
black gown, and her hand in mine, thanking me for the investigation
which I was undertaking in her behalf, and wishing me _bon voyage_, I
shuddered to think of her thrown alone amid harsh and adverse destinies,
and amid all the corruptions and sharks of society, perhaps without
energy to resist, or will to act, or strength to endure.  Alone in such
a case, the end must inevitably be desolation.

I wished her farewell, turning from her with a feeling that, loving her
as I admit I did, I was nevertheless unworthy of her.  Yet surely I was
playing a dangerous game!

I had entertained a strong and increasing affection for her ever since
that winter's night down at Helpstone.  Still, now that she was
possessor of vast wealth, I felt that the difference in our ages and the
fact that I was a poor man were both barriers to our marriage.  Indeed,
she had never exerted any of the feminine wiles of flirtation towards
me; she had never once allowed me to think that I had captivated her.
She had spoken the truth.  She regarded me as an elder brother--that was
all.

That same night, as I paced the deck of the Channel steamer in the teeth
of a wintry gale, watching the revolving light of Calais harbour growing
more and more distinct, my thoughts were full of her.  Love is the
teacher, grief the tamer, and time the healer of the human heart.  While
the engines throbbed, the wind howled and the dark seas swirled past, I
paced up and down puzzling over the playing-card in my pocket and
reflecting upon all that had occurred.  The rich fancies of unbowed
youth, the visions of long-perished hopes, the shadows of unborn joys,
the gay colourings of the dawn of existence--what ever my memory had
treasured up, came before me in review, but lived no longer within my
heart.

I recollected that truism of Rochefoucauld's: "Il est difficile de
definer l'amour: ce qu'on en peut dire est que, dans l'ame, c'est un
passion de regner; dans les esprits, c'est une sympathie; et dans le
corps, ce n'est qu'une envie cachee et delicate de posseder ce que l'on
aime, apres beaucoup de mysteres."  Yes, I loved her with all my heart,
with all my soul, but to me I recognised that it was not permitted.  My
duty, the duty I had promised to fulfil to that dying man whose
life-story had been a secret romance, was to act as Mabel's protector,
and not to become her lover and thus profit by her wealth.  Blair had
left his secret to me, in order, no doubt, to place me beyond the
necessity of fortune-hunting, and as it had been lost it was my duty to
him and to myself to spare no effort to recover it.

With these sentiments firmly established within my heart I entered the
_wagon-lit_ at Calais, and started on the first stage of my journey
across Europe from the Channel to the Mediterranean.

Three days later I was strolling up the Via Tornabuoni, in Florence,
that thoroughfare of mediaeval palaces, banks, consulates and chemists'
shops that had been so familiar to me each winter, until I had taken to
hunting in England in preference to the sunshine of the Lung' Arno and
the Cascine.  Indeed, some of my early years had been spent in Italy,
and I had grown to love it, as every Englishman does.  In that bright
February morning as I passed up the long, crooked street, filled by the
nonchalant Florentines and the wealthy foreigners out for an airing, I
passed many men and women of my acquaintance.  Doney's and Giacosa's,
the favourite lounges of the men, were agog with rich idlers sipping
cocktails or that seductive _petit verre_ known in the Via Tornabuoni as
a _piccolo_, the baskets of the flower-sellers gave a welcome touch of
colour to the grim grey of the colossal Palace of the Strozzi, while
from the consulates the flags of various nations, most conspicuous of
all being that of the ever-popular "Major," reminded me that it was the
_festa_ of Santa Margherita.

In the old days, when I used to live _en pension_ with a couple of
Italian artillery officers and a Dutch art-student in the top floor of
one of those great old palaces in the Via dei Banchi, the Via Tornabuoni
used to be my morning walk, for there one meets everybody, the ladies
shopping or going to the libraries, and the men gossiping on the kerb--a
habit quickly acquired by every Englishman who takes up his abode in
Italy.

It was astonishing, too, what a crowd of well-known faces I passed that
morning--English peers and peeresses, Members of Parliament, financial
magnates, City sharks, manufacturers, and tourists of every grade and of
every nation.

His Highness the Count of Turin, returning from drill, rode by laughing
with his aide-de-camp and saluting those he knew.  The women mostly wore
their smartest toilettes with fur, because a cold wind came up from the
Arno, the scent of flowers was in the air, bright laughter and incessant
chatter sounded everywhere, and the red-roofed old Lily City was alive
with gaiety.  Perhaps no city in all the world is so full of charm nor
so full of contrasts as quaint old Florence, with her wonderful
cathedral, her antique bridge with rows of jewellers' shops upon it, her
magnificent churches, her ponderous palaces, and her dark, silent,
mediaeval streets, little changed, some of them, since the days when
they were trodden by Giotto and by Dante.  Time has laid his hand
lightly indeed upon the City of Flowers, but whenever he has done so he
has altered it out of all recognition, and the garish modernity of
certain streets and piazzas surely grates to-day upon those who, like
myself, knew the old city before the Piazza Vittorio--always the Piazza
Vittorio, synonym of vandalism--had been constructed, and the old
Ghetto, picturesque if unclean, was still in existence.

Two men, both of them Italian, stopped to salute me as I walked, and to
wish me _ben tomato_.  One was an advocate whose wife was accredited one
of the prettiest women in that city where, strangely enough, the most
striking type of beauty is fair haired.  The other was the Cavaliere
Alinari, secretary to the British Consul-General, or the "Major," as
everybody speaks of him.

I had only arrived in Florence two hours before, and, after a wash at
the _Savoy_, had gone forth with the object of cashing a cheque at
French's, prior to commencing my inquiries.

Meeting Alinari, however, caused me to halt for a moment, and after he
had expressed pleasure at my return, I asked--

"Do you, by any chance, happen to know any one by the name of
Melandrini--Paolo Melandrini?  His address is given me as Via San
Cristofano, number eight."

He looked at me rather strangely with his sharp eyes, stroked his dark
beard a moment, and replied in English, with a slight accent--

"The address does not sound very inviting, Mr. Greenwood.  I have not
the pleasure of knowing the gentleman, but the Via San Cristofano is one
of the poorest and worst streets in Florence, just behind Santa Croce
from the Via Ghibellina.  I should not advise you to enter that quarter
at night.  There are some very bad characters there."

"Well," I explained, "the fact is I have come down here expressly to
ascertain some facts concerning this person."

"Then don't do it yourself," was my friend's strong advice.  "Employ
some one who is a Florentine.  If it is a case of confidential
inquiries, he will certainly be much more successful than you can ever
be.  The moment you set foot in that street it would be known in every
tenement that an Inglese was asking questions.  And," he added with a
meaning smile, "they resent questions being asked in the Via San
Cristofano."

CHAPTER SEVEN.

THE MYSTERIOUS FOREIGNER.

I felt that his advice was good, and in further conversation over a
_piccolo_ at Giacosa's he suggested that I should employ a very shrewd
but ugly little old man named Carlini, who sometimes made confidential
inquiries on behalf of the Consulate.

An hour later the old man called at the _Savoy_, a bent, shuffling,
white-headed old fellow, shabbily dressed, with a grey soft felt rather
greasy hat stuck jauntily on the side of his head--a typical Florentine
of the people.  They called him "Babbo Carlini" in the markets, I
afterwards learned, and cooks and servant-girls were fond of playing
pranks upon him.  Believed by every one to be a little childish, he
fostered the idea because it gave him greater facilities in his secret
inquiries, for he was regularly employed by the police in serious cases,
and through his shrewdness many a criminal had been brought to justice.

In the privacy of my bedroom I explained in Italian the mission I wished
him to execute for me.

"Si, signore," was all he responded, and this at every pause I made.

His boots were sadly cracked and down at heel, and he was badly in want
of clean linen, but from his handkerchief pocket there arose a small row
of "toscani," those long, thin, penny cigars so dear to the Italian
palate.

"Recollect," I impressed upon the old fellow, "you must, if possible,
find a way of striking up an acquaintance with this individual, Paolo
Melandrini, obtain from him all you can about himself, and arrange so
that I have, as soon as possible, an opportunity of seeing him without
being myself observed.  This matter," I added, "is strictly
confidential, and I engage you for one week in my service at a wage of
two hundred and fifty lire.  Here are one hundred to pay your current
expenses."

He took the green banknotes in his claw-like hand, and with a muttered
"Tanti grazie, signore," transferred it to the inner pocket of his
shabby jacket.

"You must on no account allow the man to suspect that any inquiry is
being made concerning him.  Mind that he knows nothing of any Englishman
in Florence asking about him, or it will arouse his suspicions at once.
Be very careful in all that you say and do, and report to me tonight.
At what time shall I meet you?"

"Late," the old fellow grunted.  "He may be a working-man, and if so I
shall not be able to see anything of him till evening.  I'll call here
at eleven o'clock to-night," and then he shuffled out, leaving an odour
of stale garlic and strong tobacco.

I began to wonder what the hotel people would think of me entertaining
such a visitor, for the _Savoy_ is one of the smartest in Florence, but
my apprehensions were quickly dispelled, for as we passed out I heard
the uniformed hall-porter exclaim in Italian--

"Hulloa, Babbo!  Got a fresh job?"

To which the old fellow only grinned in satisfaction, and with another
grunt passed out into the sunshine.

That day passed long and anxiously.  I idled on the Ponte Vecchio and in
the dim religious gloom of the Santissima Anunziata, in the afternoon
making several calls upon friends I had known, and in the evening dining
at Doney's in preference to the crowded _table-d'hote_ of English and
Americans at the _Savoy_.

At eleven I awaited old Carlini in the hall of the hotel, and on his
arrival took him anxiously in the lift up to my room.

"Well," he commenced, speaking in his slightly-lisping Florentine
tongue, "I have been pursuing inquiries all day, but have discovered
very little.  The individual you require appears to be a mystery."

"I expected so," was my reply.  "What have you discovered regarding
him?"

"They know him in Via San Cristofano.  He has a small apartment on the
third floor of number eight, which he only visits occasionally.  The
place is looked after by an old woman of eighty, whom I managed to
question.  Discovering that this Melandrini was absent and that a cloth
was hanging from the window to dry, I presented myself as an agent of
police to explain that the hanging out of a cloth was a contravention of
the law and liable to a fine of two francs.  I then obtained from her a
few facts concerning her _padrone_.  She told me all she knew, which did
not amount to much.  He had a habit of arriving suddenly, generally at
evening, and staying there for one or two days, never emerging in the
daytime.  Where he lived at other times she did not know.  Letters often
came for him bearing an English stamp, and she kept them.  Indeed, she
showed me one that arrived ten days ago and is now awaiting him."

Could it be from Blair, I wondered?

"What was the character of the handwriting on the envelope?"  I
inquired.

"An English hand--thick and heavy.  Signore was spelt wrongly, I
noticed."

Blair's hand was thick, for he generally wrote with a quill.  I longed
to examine it for myself.

"Then this old serving-woman has no idea of the individual's address?"

"None whatever.  He told her that if any one ever called for him to say
that his movements are uncertain, and that any message must be left in
writing."

"What is the place like?"

"Poorly furnished, and very dirty and neglected.  The old woman is
nearly blind and very feeble."

"Does she describe him as a gentleman?"

"I could not ask her for his description, but from inquiries in other
quarters I learned that he was in all probability a person who was in
trouble with the police, or something of that sort.  A man who kept a
wine-shop at the end of the street told me in confidence that about six
months before, two men, evidently agents of police, had been very active
in their inquiries concerning him.  They had set a watch upon the house
for a month, but he had not returned.  He described him as, a
middle-aged man with a beard, who was very reticent, who wore glasses,
spoke with just a slight foreign accent, and who seldom entered any
wine-shop and who scarcely ever passed the time of day with his
neighbours.  Yet he was evidently well off, for on several occasions, on
hearing of distress among the families living in that street, he had
surreptitiously visited them and dispensed charity to a no mean degree.
Apparently it is this which has inspired respect, while, in addition, he
seems to have purposely surrounded his identity by mystery."

"With some object, no doubt," I remarked.

"Certainly," was the queer old man's response.  "All my inquiries tend
to show he is a man of secrecy and that he is concealing his real
identity."

"It may be that he keeps those rooms merely as an address for letters,"
I suggested.

"Do you know, signore, that is my own opinion?" he said.  "He may live
in another part of Florence for aught we know."

"We must find out.  Before I leave here it is imperative that I should
know all about him, therefore I will assist you to watch for his
return."

Babbo shook his head and fingered his long cigar, which he was longing
to smoke.

"No, signore.  You must not appear in the Via San Cristofana.  They
would note your presence instantly.  Leave all to me.  I will employ an
assistant, and we shall, I hope, before long be shadowing this
mysterious individual."

Recollecting that strange letter in Italian which I had secured from the
dead man's effects, I asked the old fellow if he knew any place called
San Frediano--the place appointed for the meeting between the man now
dead and the writer of the letter.

"Certainly," was his reply.  "There is the market of San Frediano behind
the Carmine.  And, of course, there is the Church of San Frediano in
Lucca."

"In Lucca!"  I echoed.  "Ah, but it is not Florence."

Nevertheless, now I recollected, the letter distinctly appointed the
hour of meeting "at vespers."  The place arranged was therefore most
certainly a church.

"Do you know of any other Church of San Frediano?"  I inquired.

"Only the one in Lucca."

It was evident, then, that the meeting was to take place there on the
6th of March.  If I did not ascertain any further facts concerning Paolo
Melandrini in the meantime, I resolved to keep the appointment and watch
who should be present.

I gave Carlini permission to smoke, and, seated in a low easy-chair, the
old fellow soon filled my room with the strong fumes of his cheap cigar,
at the same time relating to me in narrow details all that he had
gathered in that Florentine slum.

The secret connexion between Burton Blair and this mysterious Italian
was a problem I could not solve.  There was evidently some strong motive
why he should appoint him controller of Mabel's fortune, yet it was all
an utter enigma, just as much as the mysterious source from which the
millionaire had obtained his vast wealth.

Whatever we discovered I knew that it must be some strange revelation.
From the first moment I had met the wayfarer and his daughter, they had
been surrounded by striking romance, which had now deepened, and become
more inexplicable by the death of that bluff, hearty man with a secret.

I could not help strongly suspecting that the man Melandrini, whose
movements were so mysterious and suspicious, had had some hand in
filching from Blair that curious little possession of his which he had,
in his will, bequeathed to my keeping.  This was a strange fancy of
mine, and one which, try how I would, I could not put aside.  So erratic
seemed the man's movements that, for aught I knew, he might have been in
England at the time of Blair's death--if so, then the suspicion against
him was gravely increased.

I was feverishly anxious to return to London, but unable yet to do so
ere my inquiries were completed.  A whole week went by, and Carlini,
employing his son-in-law, a dark-haired young man of low class, as his
assistant, kept vigilant watch upon the house both night and day, but to
no avail.  Paolo Melandrini did not appear to claim the letter from
England that was awaiting him.

One evening by judiciously bribing the old servant with twenty francs,
Carlini obtained the letter in question, and brought it for me to see.
In the privacy of my room we boiled a kettle, steamed the flap of the
envelope, and took out the sheet of notepaper it contained.

It was from Blair.  Dated from Grosvenor Square eighteen days before, it
was in English, and read as follows:--

"_I will meet you if you really wish it.  I will bring out the papers
with me and trust in you to employ persons who know how to keep their
mouths shut.  My address in reply will be Mr. John Marshall, Grand
Hotel, Birmingham_.

"_B.B_."

The mystery increased.  Why did Blair wish for the employment of persons
who would remain silent?  What was the nature of the work that was so
very confidential?

Evidently Blair took every precaution in receiving communications from
the Italian, causing him to address his letters in various names to
various hotels whither he went to stay a night, and thus claim them.

Mabel had often told me of her father's frequent absences from home, he
sometimes being away a week or fortnight, or even three weeks, without
leaving his address behind.  His erratic movements were now accounted
for.

Consumed by anxiety I waited day after day, spending hours on that
maddening cipher on the playing-card, until, on the morning of the 6th
of March, Carlini having been unsuccessful in Florence, I took him with
me up to the old city of Lucca, which, travelling by way of Pistoja, we
reached about two o'clock in the afternoon.

At the _Universo_ I was given that enormous bedroom with the wonderful
frescoes which was for so long occupied by Ruskin, and just before the
Ave Maria clanged away over the hills and plains, I parted from Babbo
and strolled tourist-wise into the magnificent old mediaeval church, the
darkness of which was illuminated only by the candles burning at the
side altars and the cluster before the statue of Our Lady.

Vespers were in progress, and the deathlike stillness of the great
interior was only broken by the low murmuring of the bowed priest.

Only about a dozen persons were present, all of them being women--all
save one, a man who, standing back in the shadow behind one of the huge
circular columns, was waiting there in patience, while of the others all
were kneeling.

Turning suddenly on hearing my light footstep upon the marble flags, I
met him next second face to face.

I drew a quick breath, then stood rooted to the spot in blank and utter
amazement.

The mystery was far greater than even I had imagined it to be.  The
truth that dawned upon me was staggering and utterly bewildering.

CHAPTER EIGHT.

IN WHICH THE TRUTH IS SPOKEN.

The fine old church, with its heavy gildings, its tawdry altars and its
magnificent frescoes, was in such gloom that at first, on entering from
the street, I could distinguish nothing plainly, but as soon as my eyes
became accustomed to the light I saw within a few yards of me a
countenance that was distinctly familiar, a face that caused me to pause
in anxious breathlessness.

Standing there, behind those scattered kneeling women, with the faint,
flickering light of the altar candles illuminating his face just
sufficiently, the man's head was bowed in reverence and yet his dark,
beady eyes seemed darting everywhere.  By his features--those hard,
rather sinister features and greyish scraggy beard that I had once
before seen--I knew that he was the man who had made the secret
appointment with Burton Blair, yet, contrary to my expectations, he was
attired in the rough brown habit and rope girdle of a Capuchin lay
brother, a silent, mournful figure as he stood with folded arms while
the priest in his gorgeous vestments mumbled the prayers.

In that twilight a sepulchral chill fell upon my shoulders; the sweet
smell of the incense in the darkness seemed to increase with that world
of incredible magnificence, of solitude gloomily enchanted, of wealth
strangely incongruous with the squalor and poverty in the piazza
outside.  Beyond that silent monk whose piercing mysterious eyes were
fixed upon me so inquiringly were dark receding distances, traversed
here and there by rainbow beams that fell from some great window, while
far off a dim red light was suspended from the high, vaulted roof.

Those columns beside which I was standing rose straight to the roof,
close and thick like high forest trees, testifying to the patient work
of a whole generation of men all carved in living stone, all infinitely
durable in spite of such rare delicacy and already transmitted to us
from afar through the long-past centuries.

The monk, that man whose bearded face I had seen once before in England,
had thrown himself upon his knees, and was mumbling to himself and
fingering the huge rosary suspended from his girdle.

A woman dressed in black with the black _santuzza_ of the Lucchesi over
her head had entered noiselessly, and was prostrated a few feet from me.
She held a miserable baby at her breast, a child but a few months old,
in whose shrivelled little face there was already the stamp of death.
She was praying ardently for him, as the tapers gradually diminished,
the penny tapers she had placed before the humble picture of Sant'
Antonio, this sorrowing creature.  The contrast between the prodigious
wealth around and the rags of the humble supplicant was overwhelming and
cruel; between the persistent durability of those many thousand Saints
draped in gold, and the frailty of that little being with no tomorrow.

The woman was still kneeling, her lips moving in obstinate and vain
repetitions.  She looked at me, her eyes full of desolation, divining a
pity no doubt in mine; then she turned her gaze upon the hooded
Capuchin, the hard-faced, bearded man who held the key to the secret of
Burton Blair.

I stood behind the ponderous column, bowed but watchful.  The poor
woman, after a quick glance at the splendour around, turned her eyes
more anxiously upon me--a stranger.  Did I really think they would
listen to her, those magnificent divinities?

Ah!  I did not know if they would listen.  In her place I would rather
have carried the child to one of those wayside shrines where the Virgin
of the _contadini_ reigns.  The Madonnas and Saints of Ghirlandajo and
Civitali and Della Querica who inhabited that magnificent old church
seemed somehow to be creatures of ceremony, hardened by secular pomp.
Strange as it may seem, I could not imagine that they would occupy
themselves with a poor old woman from the olive mill or with her
deformed and dying child.

Vespers ended.  The dark, murmuring figures rose, shuffling away over
the marble floor towards the door, and as the lights were quickly
extinguished, the woman and her child became swallowed up in the gloom.

I loitered, desiring that the Capuchin should pass me, in order that I
could obtain a further view of him.  Should I address him, or should I
remain silent and set Babbo to watch him?

He approached me slowly, his big hands hidden in the ample sleeves of
his snuff-coloured habit, the garment which men of his order have new
only once in ten years, and which they wear always, waking or sleeping.

I had halted before the ancient tomb of Santa Zita, that patroness of
Lucca whom Dante mentions in his _Inferno_.  In the little chapel a
single light was burning in the great antique lantern of gold, which the
proud Lucchese placed there ages ago when the black plague was feared.
As I turned, I saw that, although watching me narrowly, he still seemed
to be awaiting the appearance of the man who was now, alas! no more.
Yes, now that in a better light I could see his features, I had no
hesitation in pronouncing him to be the same man I had met a year ago at
Burton's table in Grosvenor Square.

I recollected the occasion well.  It was in June, in the height of the
London season, and Blair had invited me to dine with several bachelor
friends and go to the Empire afterwards.  The man now in a religious
habit, shuffling along in his worn-out sandals, had presented the very
different figure of the easy-going prosperous man-of-the-world, with a
fine diamond in his shirt-front and a particularly well-cut dinner
jacket.  Burton had introduced him to us as Signor Salvi, the celebrated
engineer, and he had sat at table opposite me and chatted in excellent
English.  He struck me as a man who had travelled very widely,
especially in the Far East, and from certain expressions he let drop I
concluded that, like Burton Blair, he had been to sea, and that he was a
friend of the old days before the great secret became so profitable.

The other men present on that occasion were all acquaintances of mine,
two of them financiers in the City whose names were well known on the
Stock Exchange, a third the heir to an earldom to which he had since
succeeded, and the fourth Sir Charles Webb, a smart young Guardsman of
the modern type.  After a dinner of that exquisite character of which
Burton Blair's French _chef_ was famous, we all drove to the Empire, and
afterwards spent a couple of hours at the Grosvenor Club, concluding the
evening at the Bachelors, of which Sir Charles was a member.

Now as I stood within the hushed gloom of that grand old church,
watching the dark mysterious figure pacing the aisle in patience and
awaiting the person who would never come, I recollected what had, on
that evening long ago, aroused within me a curious feeling of resentment
against him.  It was this.  Having left the Empire, we were standing
outside on the pavement in Leicester Square calling cabs, when I
overheard the Italian exclaim in his own language to Blair, "I do not
like that friend of yours--Greenwood.  He is far too inquisitive."  At
this my friend laughed, saying, "Ah, _caro mio_, you don't know him.  He
is my very best friend."  The Italian grunted, replying, "He has been
putting leading questions to me all the evening, and I have had to lie
to him."  Again Blair laughed.  "It is not the first time you've
committed that sin," was his answer.  "No," the other responded in a low
voice, intending that I should not overhear him, "but if you introduce
me to your friends be careful that they are not quite so astute or so
inquisitive as this man Greenwood.  He may be a good fellow, but even if
he is he surely must not know our secret, if he did, it might mean ruin
to us, remember!"

And then, before Blair could make response, he mounted into a hansom
which at that moment had pulled up at the kerb.

From that moment I had entertained a distinct dislike of the man who had
been introduced to me as Salvi, not that I hold every foreigner in
suspicion as some insular Englishmen so foolishly do, but because he had
endeavoured to poison Blair's mind against me.  Yet after a week the
incident had entirely slipped my memory and I had never recollected it
until that strange and unexpected re-encounter.

Was it possible that this monk with the sun-bronzed, bearded face was
the same man who rented that apartment in the Florence slum, and whose
visits there were so surreptitious and mysterious?  Perhaps so, because
all the secrecy of his habitation would be accounted for by the fact
that a Capuchin is not allowed to possess any property outside his
monastery.  Those infrequent visits to Florence might be made at times
when, being a lay brother, he would no doubt be sent out into the
country to collect from the _contadini_ alms and presents in kind for
the poor in the city.  Everywhere throughout Tuscany, in peasant's hut
as in prince's palace, the humble, patient and charitable Capuchin is
welcomed; a flask of wine and a crust is ready for him at the house of
every _contadino_, and in the villas and palaces of the rich there is
always a place for him in the servants' hall.  How many of the Italian
poor are saved annually from sheer starvation by the soup and bread
dispensed daily at the door of every Capuchin monastery, it would be
impossible to estimate.  Suffice it to say that the Order in their
snuff-coloured habits and their black skull-caps is the greatest and
truest friend the starving poor possesses.

Babbo Carlini was no doubt idling outside upon the steps of the church
awaiting my reappearance.  Would he, I wondered, recognise in this monk
the description he had obtained of Paolo Melandrini, the unknown man who
was to be Mabel Blair's secretary and adviser?

The last loiterers in the antique Chapel of the Holy Sacrament had left,
their footsteps echoing away across the flags to the exit, and I found
myself alone with the silent, almost statuesque, man beside whom I had,
only one year before stood in the Grand Circle at the Empire watching
and criticising a ballet.

Should I address him and claim acquaintance?  His openly-expressed
disapproval of myself caused me to hesitate.  It was quite apparent that
he had held me in apprehension on that night at Grosvenor Square,
therefore in the present circumstances his suspicion would undoubtedly
become increased.  Should I boldly address him and thus show my
fearlessness, as well as my acquaintance with his subterfuges? or should
I withdraw and watch his subsequent movements?

I at length decided on the former course--for two reasons.  The first
was that I felt confident he had recognised me as Burton's friend; and
the second because in dealing with such a man the open declaration of
knowledge is always the more advantageous in the end than the careful
concealment of such facts as I already knew.  If I set a watch upon him
his suspicions would become heightened, whereas if I acted openly I
might succeed in disarming him.

Therefore, turning upon my heel, I strolled straight towards where he
had halted as though he were patiently awaiting Blair's arrival.

"Pardon me, signore," I exclaimed in Italian, "but if I mistake not we
have met before--in London, a year ago--was it not?"

"Ah," he exclaimed, his face relaxing into a pleasant smile as he
extended his big, hard hand, "I have been wondering all this time,
Signor Greenwood, if you would recognise me is this dress.  I am very
pleased to resume our acquaintance--very."  And he emphasised his words,
meant or feigned, by a strong, close grip.

I expressed surprise at finding the erratic traveller and
man-of-the-world to be, in reality, an inhabitant of the cloister, to
which in a low voice, in reverence that we were within that sacred
place, he responded--

"I will tell you all about it later.  It is not so remarkable as it no
doubt strikes you.  As a Capuchin I assure you my quiet, reflective life
is far preferable to that of the man who, like yourself, mixes with the
world and is compelled to live the fevered life of to-day, wherein
fortunate unscrupulousness is accounted meritorious and the greatest of
sins is that of one's evil living being found out."

"Yes, I quite understand," I replied, surprised nevertheless at his
assertion and wondering whether, after all, he was merely attempting to
mislead me.  "The life of the cloister must be one of a sweet and
infinite calm.  But if I mistake not," I added, "you are here by
appointment to meet our mutual friend, Burton Blair."

He raised his dark eyebrows slightly, and I could have sworn that my
words caused him to start.  Yet so cleverly did he conceal any surprise
I had caused him that he replied in a quiet, natural tone--

"That is so.  I am here to see him."

"Then I regret to tell you that you will never see him again," I said in
a low, earnest voice.

"Why?" he gasped, his black eyes wide open in surprise.

"Because," I answered, "because poor Burton Blair is dead--and his
secret has been stolen."

"What!" he cried, with a look of abject terror and in a voice so loud
that his exclamation echoed along the high, vaulted roof.  "Blair dead--
and the secret stolen!  _Dio_! impossible--impossible!"

CHAPTER NINE.

THE HOUSE OF SILENCE.

The effect of my words upon the burly Capuchin, whose form seemed almost
gigantic on account of the thickness of his inartistic habit, was as
curious as it was unexpected.

My announcement of Blair's death seemed to completely unnerve him.
Apparently he had been waiting there, keeping the appointment, all
unconscious of the untimely end of the man with whom he had been on
terms of such secret and intimate friendship.

"Tell me--tell me how it happened," he gasped in Italian in a low,
hushed voice, as though he feared that some eavesdropper might be
lurking in those dark recesses.

In a few brief words I explained the truth, to which he listened in
silence.  Then, when I had finished, he muttered something, crossed
himself, and, as the approaching footsteps of the sacristan aroused us
both, we walked forward and out into the dusk of the broad piazza.

Old Carlini, was was lounging upon a bench smoking the end of a cigar,
noticed us in an instant and I saw him open his eyes in wonderment,
although further than that he betrayed no sign.

"Poverino!  Poverino!" repeated the monk as we strolled together slowly
beside the old red walls of the once-proud city.  "To think that our
poor friend Burton died so suddenly--and without a word!"

"Not exactly without a word," I said.  "He gave several directions, one
of which was that he placed his daughter Mabel beneath my care."

"Ah, the little Mabel," he sighed.  "Surely it is ten years since I saw
her in Manchester.  She was then about eleven, a tall, dark-haired,
rather pretty child, a striking likeness of her mother--poor woman."

"You knew her mother, then?"  I asked in some surprise.

He nodded in the affirmative, but gave no further information.

Suddenly turning to me as we walked towards the city gate, the Ponto
Santa Maria, where the uniformed officers of the _dazio_ were lounging
ready to tax every pennyworth of food-stuff entering there, he
demanded--

"How did you know that I had an appointment with our friend to-night?"

"By the letter which you wrote him, and which was found in his bag after
his decease," I responded frankly.

He grunted with distinct satisfaction.  It struck me indeed as though he
were apprehensive that Burton had before his death told me some details
regarding his life.  I recollected that curious cipher upon the
playing-card, although I made no reference to it.

"Ah!  I see!" he exclaimed presently.  "But if that little wallet, or
whatever it was, that he always wore either concealed within his clothes
or suspended around his neck, is missing, does not it point to a
tragedy--theft and murder?"

"There are distinct suspicions," was my reply.  "Although, according to
the doctors, he died from a purely natural cause."

"Ah!  I don't believe it!" cried the monk, fiercely clenching his fist.
"One of them has succeeded at last in stealing that sachet of which he
was always so very careful, and I'm positive that murder has been
committed in order to conceal the theft."

"One of whom?"  I inquired anxiously.

"One of his enemies."

"But are you aware what that little bag contained?"

"He never would tell me," was the Capuchin's reply, looking me straight
in the face.  "He only said that his secret was concealed within--and I
have reason to believe that such was a fact."

"But you knew his secret?"  I said, my eyes full upon him.

I noted, by the change in his dark countenance, how my allegation caused
him quick apprehension.  He could not totally deny it, yet he was
certainly seeking some means of misleading me.

"I only know what he explained to me," he responded.  "And that was not
much, for, as you are aware, he was a most reticent man.  He has long
ago related to me, however, the somewhat romantic circumstances in which
you met, what a good friend you were to him before his stroke of
fortune, and how you and your friend--I forget his name--put Mabel to
school at Bournemouth, and thus rescued her from that weary tramp which
Burton himself had undertaken."

"But why was he on tramp in that manner?"  I asked.  "To me it has
always been an enigma."

"And also to me.  He was, I believe, in search of the key to that secret
which he carried with him--the secret which, you say, he has bequeathed
to you."

"Did he reveal to you nothing more?"  I inquired, recollecting that from
this man's remarks regarding Mabel's youth, he and Blair must have been
old friends.

"Nothing.  His secret remained his own, and he revealed it to nobody
always fearing betrayal."

"But now that it is in other hands, what do you anticipate?"  I
inquired, still walking at his side, for we had passed out of the city
and were out upon that wide, dirty road that led away to the Moriano
Bridge and then fifteen miles up into the mountains to that leafy and
rather gay summer resort well known to all Italians and some English,
the Baths of Lucca.

"Well," responded my companion, very gravely, "from what I learned in
London on the occasion we met, I anticipate that poor Blair's secret has
been most ingeniously stolen, and will be put to good account by the
person into whose possession it has now passed."

"To the detriment of his daughter Mabel?"

"Most certainly.  She must be the principal sufferer," he replied, with
just a suspicion of a sigh.

"Ah, if he had only confided his affairs in some one who, knowing the
truth, might have combated this cunning conspiracy!  But, as it is, we
seem all utterly in the dark.  Even his lawyers know nothing!"

"And you, to whom the secret is left, have actually lost it!" he added.
"Yes, signore, the situation is indeed a most critical one."

"In this affair, Signor Salvi," I said, "being mutual friends of poor
Blair, we must endeavour to do our best to discover and punish his
enemies.  Tell me, therefore, if you are aware of the source of our
unfortunate friend's vast wealth?"

"I am not Signor Salvi here," was the monk's quiet reply.  "I am known
as Fra Antonio of Arezzo, or Fra Antonio for short.  The name of Salvi
was given to me by poor Blair himself, who did not wish to introduce a
Capuchin among his worldly friends as such.  As to the source of his
wealth, I believe I am acquainted with the truth."

"Then tell me, tell me!"  I cried anxiously.

"For it may give us the clue to these persons who had so successfully
conspired against him."  Again the monk turned his dark, penetrating
eyes upon me, those eyes that in the gloom of San Frediano had seemed so
full of fire and yet so full of mystery.

"No," he answered in a hard, decisive tone.  "I am not permitted to tell
anything.  He is dead--let his memory rest."

"But why?"  I demanded.  "In these circumstances of grave suspicion, and
of the theft of the secret which is my property by right, it is surely
your duty to explain what you know, in order that we may gain a clue?
Recollect, too, that the future of his daughter depends upon the truth
being revealed."

"I can tell you nothing," he repeated.  "Much as I regret it, my lips
are sealed."

"Why?"

"By an oath taken years ago--before I entered the Order of the
Capuchins," he responded.  Then after a pause, he added, with a sigh,
"It is all strange--stranger perhaps than any man has dreamed--yet I can
tell you nothing, Mr. Greenwood, absolutely nothing."

I was silent.  His words were highly tantalising, as well as
disappointing.  I had not yet made up my mind whether he was actually my
enemy or my friend.

At one moment he seemed simple, honest and straightforward as are all
men of his religious order, yet at others there seemed within him that
craft and cunning, that clever diplomacy and far-seeing acumen of the
Jesuit, traits of a character warped into ingenuity and double-dealing.

The very fact that Burton Blair had always hidden from me his
friendship--if friendship it were--for this stalwart monk with the
bronzed and furrowed face, caused me to entertain a kind of vague
distrust in him.  And yet, when I recollected the tone of the letter he
had written to Blair, how could I doubt but their friendship, if secret,
was a real and genuine one?  Nevertheless, I recollected those words I
had overheard on the pavement of Leicester Square, and they caused me to
ponder and to doubt.

I walked on beside this man, heedless of our destination.  We were quite
in the country now.  The immobility of everything, the luminous
brilliancy of the tints of that winter afterglow gave the grey,
olive-clad Tuscan hills something of sadness.  That great, calm silence
over everything, that unchanging stillness in the air, those motionless
lights and great shadows gave one the impression of a pause in the dizzy
movement of centuries, of a reflectiveness, of an intense waiting, or
rather a look of melancholy thrown back on a past anterior to suns and
human beings, races and religions.

Before us, as we rounded a bend in the road, I saw a huge, white old
monastery standing high upon the hillside half hidden by the grey-green
trees.

It was the Convent of the Cappuccini, he told me--his home.

I halted for a moment, gazing upon the white, almost windowless
building, scorched by three hundred summers, standing like a stronghold,
as once it was, against the background of the purple Apennines.  I
listened to the clanking of the old bell that sent out its summons with
the same note of age, the same old voice as in centuries gone.  It was
then, in that moment, that the charm of old-world Lucca and her
beautiful surroundings became impressed upon me.  I felt, for the first
time, stealing up from everywhere, an atmosphere of separateness, as it
were, from the rest of the world, of mystery--a living essence of what
the place is--destructible, alas! but still impregnating all things,
exhaling from all things--surely the dying soul of once-brilliant
Tuscany.

And there beside me, overwhelming all my thoughts, as the shadow of the
giant Sphinx falls lengthening upon the desert sands, stood that big,
bronzed monk in the faded brown habit, his feet bare, his waist bound by
a hempen cord, his countenance a mystery, yet within his heart the great
secret which no power could induce him to divulge--the secret of wealth
that had been bequeathed to me.

"Poor Blair is dead!" he repeated again and again in fairly good
English, as though almost unable as yet to realise that his friend was
no more.  Nevertheless, I was slow to become convinced that he spoke
seriously.  He might be misleading me, after all.

At his invitation I accompanied him up the steep, winding road until we
came to the ponderous gate of the monastery, at which he rang.  A solemn
bell clanged loudly, and a few moments later the little grille was
opened, revealing the white-bearded face of the janitor, who instantly
admitted us.

He took me across the silent cloister, in the middle of which was a
wonderful mediaeval well of wrought ironwork, and then along endless
stone corridors, each lit by its single oil lamp, which rendered the
place only more gloomy and depressing.

From the chapel at the end of the great building came the low chanting
of the monks, but beyond, the quiet was that of the grave.  The dark,
ghostly figures passed us noiselessly and seemed to draw aside into the
darkness; the door of the refectory stood open, showing by the two or
three dim lights magnificent carvings, wonderful frescoes and the two
long rows of time-blackened oak benches at which the Brothers sat at
meals.

Suddenly my conductor stopped before a small door, which he opened with
his key, and I found myself within a tiny, carpetless cubicle containing
a truckle bed, a chair, a well-filled bookcase and a writing-table.
Upon the wall was a large wooden crucifix before which he crossed
himself on entering.

"This is my home," he explained in English.  "Not very luxurious, it is
true, but I would not exchange it for a palace in the world outside.
Here we are all brothers, with the superior as our father to supply us
with all our worldly wants, even to our snuff.  There are no jealousies,
no bickerings, no backbitings or rivalry.  All are equal, all perfectly
contented, for we have each one of us learnt the very difficult lesson
of brotherly love."  And he drew the single chair for me to seat myself,
for I was hot and tired after that long, steep ascent from the town.

"It is surely a hard life," I observed.

"At first, yes.  One must be strong in body and in mind to successfully
pass the period of probation," he answered.  "But afterwards the
Capuchin's life is surely one of the pleasantest on earth, banded as we
are to do good and to exercise charity in the name of Sant' Antonio.
But," he added, with a smile, "I did not bring you here, signore, to
endeavour to convert you from your Protestant faith.  I asked you to
accompany me, because you have told me what is a profound and remarkable
mystery.  You have told me of the death of Burton Blair, the man who was
my friend, and to whose advantage it was to meet me in San Frediano
to-night.  There were reasons--the very strongest reasons a man could
have--why he should have kept the appointment.  But he has not done so.
His enemies have willed it otherwise, and they have stolen his secret!"
While he spoke he fumbled in a drawer of the little deal writing-table,
and drew forth something, adding in deep earnestness--

"You knew poor Blair intimately--more intimately, perhaps, than I did of
later years.  You knew his enemies as well as his friends.  Tell me,
have you ever met the original of either of these men?"

And he held before my gaze two cabinet photographs.

One of them was quite unfamiliar to me, but the other I recognised in an
instant.

"Why!"  I said, "that's my old friend Reginald Seton--Blair's friend."

"No," the monk declared in a hard, meaning tone, "not his friend,
signore--his bitterest enemy."

CHAPTER TEN.

THE MAN OF SECRETS.

"I don't understand you," I exclaimed, resenting this charge against the
man who was my most intimate friend.  "Seton has been even a better
friend to poor Blair than myself."

Fra Antonio smiled strangely and mysteriously, as only the subtle
Italian can.  He seemed to pity my ignorance, and inclined to humour me
in my belief in Seton's genuineness.

"I know," he laughed.  "I know almost as much as you do upon the one
side, while upon the other my knowledge extends somewhat further.  All I
can say is that I have watched, and have formed my own conclusions."

"That Seton was not his friend?"

"That Seton was not his friend," he repeated slowly and very distinctly.

"But surely you make no direct charge against him?"  I cried.  "You
surely don't think he's responsible for this tragedy--if tragedy it
really is."

"I make no direct charge," was his ambiguous reply.  "Time will reveal
the truth--no doubt."

I longed to ask him straight out whether he did not sometimes go under
the name of Paolo Melandrini, yet I feared to do so lest I should arouse
his suspicion unduly.

"Time can only reveal that Reginald Seton has been one of the dead man's
best friends," I said reflectively.

"Outwardly, yes," was the Capuchin's dubious remark.

"An enemy as deadly as the Ceco?"  I inquired, watching his face the
while.

"The Ceco!" he gasped, instantly taken aback by my bold remark.  "Who
told you of him?  What do you know regarding him?"

The monk had evidently forgotten what he had written in that letter to
Blair.

"I know that he is in London," I responded, taking my cue from his own
words.  "The girl is with him," I added, utterly unaware however of the
identity of the person referred to.

"Well?" he asked.

"And if they are in London it is surely for no good purpose?"

"Ah!" he said.  "Blair has told you something--told you of his
suspicions?"

"Of late he has gone about in daily dread of secret assassination," I
replied.  "He was evidently afraid of the Ceco."

"And surely he had need to be," exclaimed Fra Antonio, his dark,
brilliant eyes again turned upon mine in the semi-darkness.  "The Ceco
is not an individual to be dealt with easily."

"But what took him to London?"  I demanded.  "Did he go with harmful
intentions?"

The burly monk shrugged his shoulders, answering--

"Dick Dawson was never of a very benevolent disposition.  He evidently
discovered something, and swore to be avenged."

His remarks made plain one very important fact, namely, that the man who
went by the nickname of the "blind man" in Italy was really an
Englishman of the name of Dick Dawson--an adventurer most probably.

"Then you suspect him of complicity in the theft of the secret?"  I
suggested.

"Well, as the little sachet of chamois leather is missing, I am inclined
to think that it must have passed into his hands."

"And the girl, what of her?"

"His daughter, Dolly, will assist him, that's plain.  She's as shrewd as
her father, and possesses a woman's cunning into the bargain--a
dangerous girl, to say the least.  I warned poor Blair of them both," he
added, suddenly, it seemed, recollecting his letter.  "But I am glad you
have recognised one of these photographs.  His name is Seton, you say.
Well, if he is your friend, take my advice and beware.  Are you certain
you have never seen this other man--a friend of Seton's?" he asked very
earnestly.

I carried the picture in my hand to where the dim oil lamp was burning,
and examined it very closely.  It was a vignette of a long-faced,
bald-headed, full-bearded man, wearing a stand-up collar, a black
frock-coat and well-tied bow cravat.  The stud in his shirt front was
somewhat peculiar, for it seemed like the miniature cross of some
foreign order of chivalry, and produced a rather neat and novel effect.
The eyes were those of a keen, crafty man, and the hollow cheeks gave
the countenance a slightly haggard and striking appearance.

It was a face that, to my recollection, I had never seen before, yet
such were its peculiarities that they at once became photographed
indelibly upon my memory.

I told him of my failure to recognise who it was, whereupon he urged--

"When you return, watch the movements of your so-called friend Seton,
and you will perhaps meet his friend.  When you do, write to me here,
and leave him to me."  And he replaced the photograph in the drawer, but
as he did so my quick eye detected that within was a playing card, the
seven of clubs, with some letters written upon it very similar to those
upon the card in my pocket.  I mentioned it, but he merely smiled and
quickly closed the drawer.

Yet surely the fact of the cipher being in his possession was more than
strange.

"Do you ever travel away from Lucca?"  I inquired at last, recollecting
how I had met him at Blair's table in Grosvenor Square, but not at all
satisfied regarding the discovery of the inscribed card.

"Seldom--very seldom," he answered.  "It is so difficult to obtain
permission, and then it is only given to visit relatives.  If there is
any monastery in the vicinity of our destination we must beg our bed
there, in preference to remaining in a private house.  The rules sound
irksome to you," he added with a smile.  "But I assure you they do not
gall us in the least.  They are beneficial to man's happiness and
comfort, all of them."

Again I turned the conversation, endeavouring to ascertain some facts
concerning the dead man's mysterious secret, which I somehow felt
convinced was known to him.  But all to no avail.  He would tell me
nothing.

All he explained was that the reason of the appointment in Lucca that
evening was a very strong one, and that if alive the millionaire would
undoubtedly have kept it.

"He was in the habit of meeting me at certain intervals either in the
Church of San Frediano, or at other places in Lucca, in Pescia, or
Pistoja," the monk said.  "We generally varied the place of meeting from
time to time."

"And that, of course, accounts for his mysterious absences from home," I
remarked, for his movements were frequently very erratic, so that even
Mabel was unaware of his address.  He was generally supposed, however,
to be in the North of England or in Scotland.  No one had any idea that
he travelled so far afield as Central Italy.

The monk's statement also made it plain that Blair had some very strong
motive for keeping these frequent appointments.  Fra Antonio, his secret
friend, had undoubtedly also been his most intimate and most trusted
one.

Why had he kept this strange and mysterious friendship from us all--even
from Mabel?

I gazed upon the Italian's hard, sunburnt face and tried to penetrate
the mystery written there, but in vain.  No man can keep a secret like
the priest of the confessional, or the monk in his cell.

"And what is your intention, now that poor Blair is dead?"  I asked at
length.

"My intention, like yours, is to discover the truth," he replied.  "It
will be a difficult matter, no doubt, but I trust that we shall, in the
end, succeed, and that you will regain the lost secret."

"But may not Blair's enemies make use of it in the meantime?"  I
queried.

"Ah! of course we cannot prevent that," answered Fra Antonio.  "We have
to look to the future, and allow the present to take care of itself.
You, in London, will do your best to discover whether Blair has met with
foul play and at whose hands, while I, here in Italy, will try to find
out whether there was any further motive than the theft of the secret."

"But if the little chamois-bag had been stolen, would not Blair himself
have missed it?"  I suggested.  "He was quite conscious for several
hours before he died."

"He might have forgotten it.  Men's memories often fail them completely
in the hours preceding death."

Night had fallen before the great wooden clappers, used to arouse the
monks to go to prayers at two o'clock in the morning, resounded through
the cloister as a reminder that I, a stranger, must take my departure.

Fra Antonio rose, lit a great old brass lantern, and conducted me along
those silent corridors, out across the small piazza and down the
hillside to the main road which lay straight and white in the darkness.

Then, having directed me on the road, he grasped my hand in his big
palm, rough through hard toil at his patch of garden, and said--

"Rely upon me to do my best.  I knew poor Blair--yes, knew him better
than you did, Signor Greenwood.  I knew, too, something of his
remarkable secret, and therefore I am aware how strange and how
mysterious are all the circumstances.  I shall work on here, making
inquiries, while you return to London and pursue yours.  I would,
however, make the suggestion to you that if you meet Dick Dawson strike
up a friendship with him, and with Dolly.  They are a strange pair, but
friendship with them may be profitable."

"What!"  I exclaimed.  "Friendship with the man whom you declare was one
of Blair's bitterest enemies?"

"And why not?  Is it not diplomacy to be well received in the enemy's
camp?  Recollect that your own stake in this affair is the greatest of
any one's.  The secret is bequeathed to you--the secret of Burton
Blair's millions!"

"And I intend to recover it," I declared firmly.

"I only hope you will, signore," he said in a voice which to me sounded
full of a double meaning.  "I only hope you will."

Then wishing me "_Addio, e buona fortuna_," Fra Antonio, the Capuchin
and man of secrets, turned and left me standing in the dark highway.

Hardly had I advanced fifty yards before a short dark figure loomed out
from the shadow of some bushes, and by the voice that hailed me I knew
it to be old Babbo, whom I had believed had grown tired of awaiting me.
He had, however, evidently followed us from the church, and seeing us
enter the monastery had patiently awaited my return.

"Has the signore discovered what he wished?" inquired the old Italian,
quickly.

"Some of it, not all," was my rejoinder.  "You saw that monk whom I
met?"

"Yes.  Since you have been in the convent I have made some inquiries,
and find that the most popular Capuchin in the whole of Lucca is Fra
Antonio, and that his charitableness is well known.  It is he who begs
from door to door through the city for contesimi and lire in order that
the poor shall have their daily soup and bread.  Report accredits him
with great wealth, which on entering the Order of the Capuchins he made
over as a gift to the fraternity.  He is also known to have a friend to
whom he is very much attached--an Englishman who has one eye so badly
injured that he is known by the townspeople as the Ceco."

"The Ceco!"  I cried.  "What have you discovered regarding him?"

"The keeper of a little cheese-shop close to the gate by which we left
the city proved very communicative.  Like all her class, she seemed to
greatly admire our friend the Cappuccino.  She told me of the frequent
visits of this one-eyed Englishman who had lived so long in Italy that
he was almost an Italian.  The Ceco was in the habit, it seemed, of
staying at the old albergo, the _Croce di Malto_, sometimes accompanied
by a young and very pretty lady, his daughter."

"Where do they come from?"

"Oh!  I've not yet been able to discover that," was Babbo's reply.  "It
seems, however, that the constant visits of the Ceco to the monastery
have aroused the public interest.  The people say that Fra Antonio
nowadays is not so active in his searches after money for the poor now
he is too much occupied with his English friend."

"And the girl?"

"It is evident that her beauty is remarkable, even in Lucca, this city
of pretty girls," answered the old man with a grin.  "She speaks Tuscan
perfectly, and could, they say, easily pass for an Italian.  Her back is
not straight like those Inglese one sees in the Via Tornabuoni--if the
signore will pardon the criticism," the old fellow added apologetically.

This proof that Dick Dawson, against whom the monk had warned Burton
Blair, was actually the friend of the Capuchin brother rendered the
situation more puzzling and more complicated.  I recognised in these
frequent consultations a secret plot against my friend, a conspiracy
which had apparently been carried to a successful issue.

The girl Dolly, whoever she was, had of course never been to the
monastery, but she had evidently been in Lucca as a participator in the
plot to obtain Burton Blair's valuable secret, the secret that was now
mine by law.

We there and then resolved to make inquiries at the _Croce di Malto_,
that antique old hostelry in a narrow side street peculiarly Italian,
and which still prefers to be designated as an albergo, in preference to
the modern name of hotel.

Dick Dawson, known as the Ceco, was undoubtedly in London, but with the
connivance and aid of that crafty and ingenious man of secrets, who had
so cleverly endeavoured to establish with me a false friendship.

Was it actually this man who hid his evil deeds beneath his shabby
religious habit who was responsible for the death of poor Blair and the
mysterious disappearance of that strange little object which was his
most treasured possession.  I somehow felt convinced that such was the
actual truth.

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

WHICH EXPLAINS THE PERIL OF MABEL BLAIR.

From inquiries made by old Babbo next morning at the _Cross of Malta_,
it appeared quite plain that Mr. Richard Dawson, whoever he was,
constantly visited Lucca, and always with the object of consulting the
popular Capuchin brother.

Sometimes the one-eyed Englishman who spoke Italian so well would
journey up to the monastery and remain there several hours, and at
others Fra Antonio would come to the inn and there remain closeted in
closest secrecy with the visitor.

The Ceco, so called because of his defective vision, was apparently a
man of means, for his tips to the waiters and maids were always
generous, and when a guest, he and his daughter always ordered the best
that could be procured.  They came from Florence, the _padrone_ thought,
but of that he was not quite certain.  The letters and telegrams he
received securing rooms were dispatched from various towns in both
France and Italy, which seemed to show that they were constantly
travelling.

That was all the information we could gather.  The identity of the
mysterious Paolo Melandrini was, as yet, unproven.  My primary object in
travelling to Italy was not accomplished, but I nevertheless felt
satisfied that I had at last discovered two of poor Blair's most
intimate and yet secret friends.

But why the secrecy?  When I recollected how close had been our
friendship, I felt surprised, and even a trifle annoyed that he had
concealed the existence of these men from me.  Much as I regretted to
think ill of a friend who was dead, I could not suppress a suspicion
that his acquaintance with those men was part of his secret, and that
the latter was some dishonourable one.

Soon after midday, I crammed my things into my valise, and, impelled by
a strong desire to return to safeguard, the interests of Mabel Blair,
left Lucca for London.  Babbo travelled with me as far as Pisa, where we
changed, he journeying back to Florence and I picking up the
sleeping-car express on its way through from Rome to Calais.

While standing on the platform at Pisa, however, the shabby old man, who
had grown, thoughtful during the past half-hour or so, suddenly said--

"A strange idea has occurred to me, ignore.  You will recollect that I
learned in the Via Cristofano that the Signor Melandrini wore
gold-rimmed glasses.  Is it possible that he does so in Florence in
order to conceal his defective sight?"

"Why--I believe so!"  I cried.  "I believe you've guessed the truth!
But on the other hand, neither his servant nor the neighbours suspected
him of being a foreigner."

"He speaks Italian very well," agreed the old man, "but they said he had
a slight accent."

"Well," I said, excited at this latest theory.  "Return at once to the
Via San Cristofano and make further inquiries regarding the mysterious
individual's eyesight and his glasses.  The old woman who keeps his
rooms has no doubt seen him without his glasses, and can tell you the
truth."

"Signore," was the old fellow's answer.  And I then wrote down for him
my address in London to which he was to dispatch a telegram if his
suspicions were confirmed.

Ten minutes later, the roaring Calais-Rome express, the limited train of
three _wagon-lits_, dining-car and baggage-car, ran into the great
vaulted station, and, wishing the queer old Babbo farewell, I climbed in
and was allotted my berth for Calais.

To describe the long, wearying journey back from the Mediterranean to
the Channel, with those wheels grinding for ever beneath, and the
monotony only broken by the announcement that a meal was ready, is
useless.  You, who read this curious story of a man's secret, who have
travelled backwards and forwards over that steel road to Rome, know well
how wearisome it becomes, if you have been a constant traveller between
England and Italy.

Suffice it to say that thirty-six hours after entering the express at
Pisa, I crossed the platform at Charing Cross, jumped into a hansom and
drove to Great Russell Street.  Reggie was not yet back from his
warehouse, but on my table among a quantity of letters I found a
telegram in Italian from Babbo.  It ran:--

"Melandrini has left eye injured.  Undoubtedly same man.--Carlini."

The individual who was destined to be Mabel Blair's secretary and
adviser was her dead father's bitterest enemy--the Englishman, Dick
Dawson.

I stood staring at the telegram, utterly stupefied.

The strange couplet which the dead man had written in his will, and
urged upon me to recollect, kept running in my head--

"King Henry the Eighth was a knave to his queens.  He'd one short of
seven--and nine or ten scenes!"

What hidden meaning could it convey?  The historic facts of King Henry's
marriages and divorces were known to me just as they were known to every
fourth-standard English child throughout the country.  Yet there was
certainly some motive why Blair should have placed the rhyme there--
perhaps as a key to something, but to what?

After a hurried wash and brush up, for I was very dirty and fatigued
after my long journey, I took a cab to Grosvenor Square, where I found
Mabel dressed in her neat black, sitting alone reading in her own warm,
cosy room, an apartment which her father had, two years ago, fitted
tastefully and luxuriously as her boudoir.

She sprang to her feet quickly and greeted me in eagerness when the man
announced me.

"Then you are back again, Mr. Greenwood," she cried.  "Oh, I'm so very
glad.  I've been wondering and wondering that I had heard no news of
you.  Where have you been?"

"In Italy," I answered, throwing off my overcoat at her suggestion, and
taking a low chair near her.  "I have been making inquiries."

"And what have you discovered?"

"Several facts which tend rather to increase the mystery surrounding
your poor father than to elucidate it."

I saw that her face was paler than it had been when I left London, and
that she seemed unnerved and strangely anxious.  I asked her why she had
not gone to Brighton or to some other place on the south coast as I had
suggested, but she replied that she preferred to remain at home, and
that in truth she had been anxiously awaiting my return.

I explained to her in brief what I had discovered in Italy: of my
meeting with the Capuchin brother and of our curious conversation.

"I never heard my father speak of him," she said.  "What kind of man is
he?"

I described him as best I could, and told her how I had met him at
dinner there, in their house, during her absence with Mrs. Percival in
Scotland.

"I thought that a monk, having once entered an Order, could not
re-assume the ordinary garments of secular life," she remarked.

"Neither can he," I said.  "That very fact increases the suspicion
against him, combined with the words I overheard later outside the
Empire Theatre."  And then I went on to relate the incident, just as I
have written it down in a foregoing chapter.

She was silent for some time, her delicate pointed chin resting upon her
palm, as she gazed thoughtfully into the fire.  Then at last she asked--

"And what have you found out regarding this mysterious Italian in whose
hands my father has left me?  Have you seen him?"

"No, I have not seen him, Mabel," was my response.  "But I have
discovered that he is a middle-aged Englishman, and not an Italian at
all.  I shall not, I think, be jealous of his attentions to you, for he
has a defect--he has only one eye."

"Only one eye!" she gasped, her face blanching in an instant as she
sprang to her feet.  "A man with one eye--and an Englishman!  Why," she
cried, "you surely don't say that the man in question is named Dawson--
Dick Dawson?"

"Paolo Melandrini and Dick Dawson are one and the same," I said plainly,
utterly amazed at the terrifying effect my words had had upon her.

"But surely my father has not left me in the hands of that fiend--the
man whose very name is synonymous of all that is cunning, evil and
brutal?  It can't be true--there must be some mistake, Mr. Greenwood--
there must be!  Ah! you do not know the reputation of that one-eyed
Englishman as I do, or you would wish me dead rather than see me in
association with him.  You must save me!" she cried in terror, bursting
into a torrent of tears.  "You promised to be my friend.  You must save
me, save me from that man--the man whose very touch deals death!"  And
next instant she reeled, stretched forth her thin white hands wildly,
and would have fallen senseless to the floor had I not sprang forward
and caught her in my arms.

Whom, I wondered, was this man Dick Dawson that she held in such terror
and loathing--this one-eyed man who was evidently a link with her
father's mysterious past?

CHAPTER TWELVE.

MR. RICHARD DAWSON.

I confess that I was longing for the appearance of this one-eyed
Englishman of whom Mabel Blair was evidently so terrified, in order to
judge him for myself.

What I had gathered concerning him was, up to the present, by no means
satisfactory.  That, in common with the monk, he held the secret of the
dead man's past seemed practically certain, and perhaps Mabel feared
some unwelcome revelation concerning her father's actions and the source
of his wealth.  This was the thought which occurred to me when, having
raised the alarm which brought the faithful companion, Mrs. Percival, I
was assisting to apply restoratives to the insensible girl.

As she lay, her head pillowed upon a cushion of daffodil silk, Mrs.
Percival knelt beside her, and, being in ignorance, held me, I think, in
considerable suspicion.  She inquired rather sharply the reason of
Mabel's unconsciousness, but I merely replied that she had been seized
with a sudden faintness, and attributed it to the overheating of the
room.

Presently, when she came to, she asked Mrs. Percival and her maid Bowers
to leave us alone, and after the door had shut she inquired, pale-faced
and anxious--

"When is this man Dawson to come here?"

"When Mr. Leighton gives him notice of the clause in your father's
will."

"He can come here," she said determinedly, "but before he crosses this
threshold, I shall leave the house.  He may act just as he thinks
proper, but I will not reside under the same roof with him, nor will I
have any communication with him whatsoever."

"I quite understand your feelings, Mabel," I said.  "But is such a
course a judicious one?  Will it not be best to wait and watch the
fellow's movements?"

"Ah! but you don't know him!" she cried.  "You don't suspect what I know
to be the truth!"

"What's that?"

"No," she said in a low hoarse voice, "I may not tell you.  You will
discover all ere long, and then you will not be surprised that I abhor
the very name of the man."

"But why on earth did your father insert such a clause in his will?"

"Because he was compelled," she answered hoarsely.  "He could not help
himself."

"And if he had refused--refused to place you in the power of such a
person--what then?"

"It would have meant his ruin," she answered.  "I suspected it all the
instant I heard that a mysterious man was to be my secretary and to have
control of my affairs.  Your discovery in Italy has only confirmed my
suspicions."

"But you will take my advice, Mabel, and bear with him at first," I
urged, wondering within my heart whether her hatred of the man was
because she knew that he was her father's assassin.  She entertained
some violent dislike of him, but for what reason I entirely failed to
discover.

She shook her head at my argument, saying--"I regret that I am not
sufficiently diplomatic to be able to conceal my antipathy in that
manner.  We women are clever in many ways, but we must always exhibit
our dislikes," she added.

"Well," I remarked, "it will be a very great pity to treat him with open
hostility, for it may upset all our future chances of success in
discovering the truth regarding your poor father's death, and the theft
of his secret.  My strong advice is to remain quite silent, apathetic
even, and yet with a keen, watchful eye.  Sooner or later this man, if
he really is your enemy, must betray himself.  Then will be time enough
for us to act firmly, and, in the end, you will triumph.  For my own
part I consider that the sooner Leighton gives the fellow notice of his
appointment the better."

"But is there no way by which this can be avoided?" she cried, dismayed.
"Surely my poor father's death is sufficiently painful without this
second misfortune!"

She spoke to me as frankly as she would have done to a brother, and I
recognised by her intense manner how, now that her suspicions were
confirmed, she had become absolutely desperate.  Amid all the luxury and
splendour of that splendid place she was a wan and lonely figure, her
young heart torn by grief at her father's death and by a terror which
she dare not divulge.

There is an old and oft-repeated saying that wealth does not bring
happiness, and surely there is often a greater peace of mind and pure
enjoyment of life in the cottage than in the mansion.  The poor are apt
to regard the rich with envy, yet it should be remembered that many a
man and many a woman lolling in a luxurious carriage and served by
liveried servants looks forth upon those toilers in the streets, well
knowing that the hurrying millions of what they term "the masses" are
really far happier than they.  Many a disappointed, world-weary woman of
title, often young and beautiful, would to-day gladly exchange places
with the daughter of the people, whose life, if hard, is nevertheless
full of harmless pleasures and as much happiness as can to obtained in
this our workaday world.  This allegation may sound strange, but I
nevertheless declare it to be true.  The possession of money may bring
luxury and renown; it may enable men and women to outshine their
fellows; it may bring honour, esteem and even popularity.  But what are
they all?  Ask the great landowner; ask the wealthy peer; ask the
millionaire.  If they speak the truth they will tell you in confidence
that they are not in their hearts half so happy, nor do they enjoy life
so much, as the small man of independent means, the man who is subject
to an abatement upon his income-tax.

As I sat there with the dead man's daughter, endeavouring to induce her
to receive the mysterious individual without open hostility, I could not
help noticing the vivid contrast between the luxury of her surroundings
and the heavy burden of her heart.

She suggested that the house should be sold and that she should retire
to Mayvill and there live quietly in the country with Mrs. Percival, but
I urged her to wait, at least for the present.  It seemed a pity that
Burton Blair's splendid collection of old masters, and the fine
tapestries that he had bought in Spain only a few years ago, and the
unique collection of early Majolica, should go to the hammer.  Among the
many treasures in the dining-room was Andrea del Sarto's "Holy Family,"
for which Blair had given sixteen thousand five hundred pounds at
Christie's, and which was considered one of the finest examples of that
great master.  Again, the Italian Renaissance furniture, the old
Montelupo and Savona ware and the magnificent old English plate were
each worth a fortune in themselves, and should, I contended, remain
Mabel's property, as they had been all bequeathed to her.

"Yes, I know," she responded to my argument.  "Everything is mine except
that little bag containing the sachet, which is yours, and which is so
unfortunately missing."

"You must help me to recover it," I urged.  "It will be to our mutual
interests to do so."

"Of course I will assist you in every way possible, Mr. Greenwood," was
her answer.  "Since you've been away in Italy I have had the house
searched from top to bottom, and have myself examined all my father's
dispatch-boxes, his two other safes, and certain places where he
sometimes secreted his private papers, in order to discover whether,
fearing that an attempt might be made to steal the little bag, he left
it at home.  But all in vain.  It certainly is not in this house."

I thanked her for her efforts, knowing well that she had acted
vigorously on my behalf, but feeling that any search within that house
was futile, and that if the secret were ever recovered it would be found
in the hands of one or other of Blair s enemies.

Together we sat for a long time discussing the situation.  The reason of
her hatred of the man Dawson she would not divulge, but this did not
cause me any real surprise, for I saw in her attitude a desire to
conceal some secret of her father's past.  Nevertheless, after much
persuasion, I induced her to consent to allow the man to be informed of
his office, and to receive him without betraying the slightest sign of
annoyance or disfavour.

This I considered a triumph of my own diplomacy.  Up to a certain point
I, as her best friend in those hard, dark days bygone, possessed a
complete influence over her.  But beyond that, when it became a question
involving her father's honour, I was entirely powerless.  She was a girl
of strong individuality, and like all such, was quick of penetration,
and peculiarly subject to prejudice on account of her high sense of
honour.

She flattered me by declaring that she wished that I had been appointed
her secretary, whereupon I thanked her for the compliment, but
asserted--

"Such a thing could never have been."

"Why?"

"Because you have told me that this fellow Dawson is coming here as a
matter of right.  Your father wrote that unfortunate clause in his will
under compulsion--which means, because he stood in fear of him."

"Yes," she sighed in a low voice.  "You are right, Mr. Greenwood.  Quite
right.  He held my father's life in his hands."

This latter remark struck me as very strange.  Could Burton Blair have
been guilty of some nameless crime that he should fear this mysterious
one-eyed Englishman?  Perhaps so.  Perhaps the man Dick Dawson, who had
for years been passing as an Italian in rural Italy, was the only living
witness of an incident which Blair, in his prosperous days, would have
gladly given a million to efface.  Such, indeed, was one of the many
theories which arose within me.  Yet when I recollected the bluff,
good-natured honesty of Burton Blair, his sterling sincerity, his
high-mindedness, and his anonymous charitable works for charity's sake,
I crushed down all such suspicions, and determined only to respect the
dead man's memory.

The next night, just before nine o'clock, as Reggie and I were chatting
over our coffee in our cosy little dining-room in Great Russell Street,
Glave, our man, tapped, entered, and handed me a card.

I sprang from my chair, as though I had received an electric shock.

"Well!  This is funny, old chap," I cried turning to my friend.  "Here's
actually the man Dawson himself."

"Dawson!" gasped the man against whom the monk had warned me.  "Let's
have him in.  But, by Gad! we must be careful of what we say, for, if
all is true of him, he has the cuteness of Old Nick himself."

"Leave him to me," I said.  Then turning to Glave, said, "Show the
gentleman in."

And we both waited in breathless expectancy for the appearance of the
man who knew the truth concerning the carefully-guarded past of Burton
Blair, and who, for some mysterious reason, had concealed himself so
long in the guise of an Italian.

A moment later he was ushered in, and bowing to us exclaimed with a
smile--

"I suppose, gentlemen, I have to introduce myself.  My name is Dawson--
Richard Dawson."

"And mine is Gilbert Greenwood," I said rather distantly.  "While my
friend here is Reginald Seton."

"I have heard of you both from our mutual friend, now unfortunately
deceased, Burton Blair," he exclaimed; and sank slowly into the
grandfather armchair which I indicated, while I myself stood upon the
hearthrug with my back to the fire in order to take a good look at him.

He was in well-made evening clothes, over which he wore a black
overcoat, yet there was nothing about him suggestive of the man of
strong character.  He was of middle height, and his age I judged to be
nearly fifty.  He wore gold-framed round eye-glasses with thick pebbles,
through which he seemed to blink at us like a German professor, and his
general aspect was that of a sedate and studious man.

Beneath a patchy mass of grey-brown hair his forehead fell in wrinkled
notches over a pair of sunken blue eyes, one of which looked upon the
world in speculative wonder, while the other was grey, cloudy, and
sightless.  Straggling eyebrows wandered in a curiously uncertain manner
to their meeting-place above a somewhat fleshy nose.  Below the cheeks
and beard and moustache blended in a colour-scheme of grey.  From the
sleeves of his overcoat, as he sat there before us, his lithe, brown
fingers shot in and out, twisting and tapping the padded arms of the
chair with nervous persistence, and in a manner which indicated the high
tension of the man.

"My reason for intruding upon you at this hour," he said half
apologetically, yet with a mysterious smile upon his thick lips, "is
because I only arrived back in London this evening and discovered that
my friend Blair has, by his will, left in my hands the control of his
daughter's affairs."

"Oh!"  I exclaimed in pretended surprise as though it were news to me.
"And who has said this?"

"I have received information privately," was his evasive answer.  "But
before proceeding further, I thought it best to call upon you, in order
that we might from the outset thoroughly understand each other.  I know
that both of you have been Blair's most intimate and kindest friends,
while owing to certain somewhat curious circumstances I have been
compelled, until to-day, to remain entirely in the background, his
friend in secret as it were.  I am also well aware of the circumstances
in which you met, of your charity to my dead friend and to his
daughter--in fact, he told me everything, for he had no secrets from me.
Yet you on your part," he continued, glancing at us from one to the
other with that single blue eye, "you must have regarded his sudden
wealth as a complete mystery."

"We certainly have done," I remarked.

"Ah!" he exclaimed quickly in a tone of ill-concealed satisfaction.
"Then he has revealed to you nothing!"

And in an instant I saw that I had inadvertently told the fellow exactly
what he most desired to know.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

BURTON BLAIR'S SECRET IS REVEALED.

"Whatever Burton Blair told me was in strictest confidence," I
exclaimed, resenting the fellow's intrusion, yet secretly glad to have
that opportunity of meeting him and of endeavouring to ascertain his
intentions.

"Of course," answered Dawson with a smile, his one shining eye blinking
at me from behind his gold-rimmed glasses.  "But his friendliness and
gratitude never led him sufficiently far to reveal to you his secret.
No.  I think if you will pardon me, Mr. Greenwood, it is useless for us
to fence in this manner, having regard to the fact that I know rather
more of Burton Blair and his past life than you ever have done."

"Admitted," I said.  "Blair was always very reticent.  He set himself to
solve some mystery and achieved his object."

"And by doing so gained over two millions sterling which people still
regard as a mystery.  There is, however, no mystery about those heaps of
securities lying at his banks, nor about the cash with which he
purchased them," he laughed.  "It was good Bank of England notes and
solid gold coin of the realm.  But now he's dead, poor fellow; it has
all come to an end," he added with a slightly reflective air.

"But his secret still exists," Reggie remarked.  "He has bequeathed it
to my friend here."

"What!" snapped the man with one eye, turning to me in sheer amazement.
"He has left his secret with you?"

He seemed utterly staggered by Reggie's words, and I noted the evil
glitter in his glance.

"He has.  The secret is now mine," I answered; although I did not tell
him that the mysterious little wash leather bag was missing.

"But don't you know what that involves, man?" he cried, and having risen
from his chair he now stood before me, his thin fingers twitching with
excitement.

"No, I don't," I said, laughing in an endeavour to treat his words
lightly.  "He has left me as a legacy the little bag he always carried,
together with certain instructions which I shall endeavour to act upon."

"Very well," he snarled.  "Do just as you think fit, only I would rather
you were left possessor of that secret than me--that's all."

His dismay and annoyance apparently knew no bounds.  He strove hard to
conceal it, but without avail.  It was therefore at once plain that
there was some very strong motive why the secret should not be allowed
to fall into my possession.  Yet his belief that the little sachet had
already passed into my hands negatived my theory that this mysterious
person was in any way connected with Burton Blair's death.

"Believe me, Mr. Dawson," I said quite calmly, "I entertain no fear of
the result of my friend's kind generosity.  Indeed, I can see no ground
for any apprehension.  Blair discovered a mystery which, by dint of long
patience and almost superhuman effort, he succeeded in solving, and I
presume that, possibly from a feeling of some little gratitude for the
small help my friend and myself were able to render him, he has left his
secret in my keeping."

The man was silent for several moments with that single irritating eye
fixed upon me immovably.

"Ah!" he exclaimed at last with impatience.  "I see that you are in
utter ignorance.  Perhaps it is as well that you should remain so."
Then he added, "But let us talk of another matter--of the future."

"Well?"  I inquired, "and what of the future?"

"I am appointed secretary to Mabel Blair, and the controller of her
affairs."

"And I promised Burton Blair upon his deathbed to guard and protect the
young lady's interests," I said, in a cold, calm voice.

"Then may I ask, now we are upon the subject, whether you entertain
matrimonial intentions towards her?"

"No, you shall not ask me anything of the kind," I blazed forth.  "Your
question is a piece of outrageous impertinence, sir."

"Come, come, Gilbert," Reggie exclaimed.

"There's surely no need to quarrel."

"None whatever," declared Mr. Richard Dawson, with a supercilious air.
"The question is quite simple, and one which I, as the future controller
of the young lady's fortune, have a perfect right to ask.  I
understand," he added, "that she has grown to be very attractive and
popular."

"Your question is one which I refuse to answer," I declared with
considerable warmth.  "I might just as well demand of you the reason why
you have been lying low in Italy all these years, or why you received
letters addressed to a back street in Florence."

His jaw dropped, his brows slightly contracted, and I saw my remark
caused him some apprehension.

"Oh! and how are you aware that I have lived in Italy?"

But in order to mislead him I smiled mysteriously and replied--

"The man who holds Burton Blair's secret also holds certain secrets
concerning his friends."  Then I added meaningly, "The Ceco is well
known in Florence and in Lucca."

His face blanched, his thin, sinewy fingers moved again, and the
twitching at the corners of his mouth showed how intensely excited he
had become at that mention of his nickname.

"Ah!" he exclaimed.  "He has played me false, then, after all--he has
told you that--eh?  Very well!"  And he laughed the strange hollow laugh
of a man who contemplates revenge.  "Very well, gentlemen.  I see my
position in this affair is that of an intruder."

"To tell you the truth, sir, it is," exclaimed Reggie.  "You were
unknown until the dead man's will was read, and I do not anticipate that
the young lady will care to be compelled to employ a stranger."

"A stranger!" he laughed, with a haughty touch of sarcasm.  "Dick Dawson
a stranger!  No, sir, you will find that to her I am no stranger.  On
the other hand you will, I think, discover that instead of resenting my
interference, the young lady will rather welcome it.  Wait and see," he
added, with a strangely confident air.  "To-morrow I intend to call upon
Mr. Leighton, and to take up my duties as secretary to the daughter of
the late Burton Blair, millionaire," and laying stress on the final
word, he laughed again defiantly in our faces.

He was not a gentleman.  I decided that on the instant he had entered
the room.  Outwardly his bearing was that of one who had mixed with
respectable people, but it was only a veneer of polish, for when he grew
excited he was just as uncouth as the bluff seafarer who had so suddenly
expired.  His twang was pronouncedly Cockney, even though it was said he
had lived in Italy so many years that he had almost become an Italian.
A man who is a real born Londoner can never disguise his nasal "n's,"
even though he live his life at the uttermost ends of the earth.  We had
both quickly detected that the stranger, though of rather slim built,
was unusually muscular.  And this was the man who had had those frequent
secret interviews with the grave-eyed Capuchin, Fra Antonio.

That he stood in no fear of us had been shown by the bold and open
manner in which he had called, and the frankness with which he had
spoken.  He was entirely confident in his own position, and was inwardly
chuckling at our own ignorance.

"You speak of me as a stranger, gentlemen," he said, buttoning his
overcoat after a short pause and taking up his stick.  "I suppose I am
to-night--but I shall not be so to-morrow.  Very soon, I hope, we shall
learn to know one another better, then perhaps you will trust me a
little further than you do this evening.  Recollect that I have for many
years been the dead man's most intimate friend."

It was on the point of my tongue to remark that the reason of the
strange clause in the will was because of poor Burton's fear of him, and
that it had been inserted under compulsion, but I fortunately managed to
restrain myself and to wish the fellow "Good-evening" with some show of
politeness.

"Well, I'm hanged, Gilbert," cried Reggie, when the one-eyed man had
gone.  "The situation grows more interesting and complicated every
moment.  Leighton has a tough customer to deal with, that's very
evident."

"Yes," I sighed.  "He has the best of us all round, because Blair
evidently took him completely into his confidence."

"Burton treated us shabbily, that's my opinion, Greenwood!" blurted
forth my friend, selecting a fresh cigar, and biting off the end
viciously.

"He left his secret to me remember."

"He may have destroyed it after making the will," my friend suggested.

"No, it is either hidden or has been stolen--which is not at all plain.
For my own part, I consider that the theory of murder is gradually
becoming dispelled.  If he had any suspicion that he had been the victim
of foul play, he surely would have made some remark to us before he
died.  Of that I feel absolutely convinced."

"Very probably," he remarked, rather dubiously, however.  "But what we
have now to discover is whether that little bag he wore is still in
existence."

"The man Dawson was evidently in England before poor Blair's death.  It
may have passed into his possession," I suggested.

"He would, in all probability, endeavour to get hold of it," Reggie
agreed.  "We must establish where he was and what he was doing on that
day when Blair was so mysteriously seized in the train.  I don't like
the fellow, apart from his alias and the secrecy of friendship with
Blair.  He means mischief, old chap--distinct mischief.  I saw it in
that one eye of his.  Remember what he said about Blair giving him away.
It struck me that he contemplates revenge upon poor Mabel."

"He'd better not try to injure her," I exclaimed fiercely.  "I've my
promise to keep to poor Burton, and I'll keep it--by Heaven, I will!--to
the very letter.  She sha'n't fall into the hands of that adventurer,
I'll take good care."

"She's in fear of him already.  I wonder why?"

"Unfortunately she won't tell me.  He probably holds some guilty secret
of the dead man's, the truth of which, if exposed, might, for all we
know, have the effect of placing Mabel herself outside the pale of good
society."

Seton grunted, lolled back in his chair, and gazed thoughtfully into the
fire.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed, after a brief silence.  "I wonder whether that
is so?"

On the following morning, as we were seated at breakfast, a note from
Mabel was brought by a boy-messenger, asking me to come round to
Grosvenor Square at once.  Therefore without delay I swallowed my
coffee, struggled into my overcoat, and a quarter of an hour later
entered the bright morning-room where the dead man's daughter, her face
rather flushed by excitement, stood awaiting me.

"What's the matter?"  I inquired quickly as I took her hand, fearing
that the man she loathed had already called upon her.

"Nothing serious," she laughed.  "I have only a piece of very good news
for you."

"For me--what?"

Without answering, she placed on the table a small plain silver
cigarette-box, upon one corner of the lid of which was engraved the
cipher double B, that monogram that was upon all Blair's plate,
carriages, harness and other possessions.

"See what is inside that," she exclaimed, pointing to the box before
her, and smiling sweetly with profound satisfaction.

I eagerly took it in my hands and raising the lid, peered within.

"What!"  I cried aloud, almost beside myself with joy.  "It can't really
be?"

"Yes," she laughed.  "It is."

And then, with trembling fingers, I drew forth from the box the actual
object that had been bequeathed to me, the little well-worn bag of
chamois leather, the small sachet about the size of a man's palm,
attached to which was a thin but very strong golden chain for suspending
it around the neck.

"I found it this morning quite accidentally, just as it is, in a secret
drawer in the old bureau in my father's dressing-room," she explained.
"He must have placed it there for security before leaving for Scotland."

I held it in my hand utterly stupefied, yet with the most profound
gratification.  Did not the very fact that Blair had taken it off and
placed it in that box rather than risk wearing it during that journey to
the North prove that he had gone in fear of an attempt being made to
obtain its possession?  Nevertheless, the curious little object
bequeathed to me under such strange conditions was now actually in my
hand, a flat, neatly-sewn bag of wash-leather that was black with age
and wear, about half-an-inch thick, and containing something flat and
hard.

Within was concealed the great secret, the knowledge of which had raised
Burton Blair from a homeless seafarer into affluence.  What it could be,
neither Mabel nor I could for a moment imagine.

Both of us were breathless, equally eager to ascertain the truth.
Surely never in the life of any man was there presented a more
interesting or a more tantalising problem.

In silence she took up a pair of small buttonhole scissors from the
little writing-table in the window and handed them to me.

Then, my hand trembling with excitement, I inserted the point into the
end of the leather packet and made a long sharp cut the whole of its
length, but what fell out upon the carpet next instant caused us both to
utter loud exclamations of surprise.

Burton Blair's most treasured possession, the Great Secret which he had
carried on his person all those years and through all those wanderings,
now at last revealed, proved utterly astounding.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

GIVES AN EXPERT OPINION.

Upon the carpet at our feet lay scattered a pack of very small, rather
dirty cards which had fallen from the little sachet, and which both of
us stood regarding with surprise and disappointment.

For my own part I expected to find within that treasured bag of
wash-leather something of more value than those thumbed and half
worn-out pieces of pasteboard, but our curiosity was instantly aroused
when, on stooping, I picked up one of them and discovered certain
letters written in brown faded ink upon it, similar to those upon the
card already in my possession.

It chanced to be the ten of diamonds, and in order that you may be able
to the more clearly understand the arrangement of the letters upon them,
I reproduce it here:--

"How strange!" cried Mabel, taking the card and examining it closely.
"It surely must be some cipher, the same as the other card which I found
sealed up in the safe."

"No doubt," I exclaimed, as, stooping and gathering up the remainder of
the pack, I noticed that upon each of them, either upon the front or
upon the back, were scrawled either fourteen or fifteen letters in a
treble column, all, of course, utterly unintelligible.

I counted them.  It was a piquet pack of thirty-one, the missing card
being the ace of hearts which we had already discovered.  By the
friction of having been carried on the person for so long the corners
and edges were worn, while the gloss of the surface had long ago
disappeared.

Aided by Mabel I spread them all upon the table, utterly bewildered by
the columns of letters which showed that some deep secret was written
upon them, yet what it was we were utterly unable to decipher.

Upon the front of the ace of clubs was scrawled in three parallel
columns of five letters each, thus:--

  E H N
  W E D
  T O L
  I E H
  W H R

Again, I turned up the king of spades and found on the reverse only
fourteen letters:--

  Q W F
  T S W
  T H U
  O F E
  Y E

"I wonder what it all means?"  I exclaimed, carefully examining the
written characters in the light.  The letters were in capitals just as
rudely and unevenly drawn as those upon the ace of hearts, evidently by
an uneducated hand.  Indeed the A's betrayed a foreign form rather than
English, and the fact that some of the cards were inscribed on the
obverse and others on the reverse seemed to convey some hidden meaning.
What it was, however, was both tantalising and puzzling.

"It certainly is very curious," Mabel remarked after she had vainly
striven to construct intelligible words from the columns of letters by
the easy methods of calculation.  "I had no idea that my father carried
his secret concealed in this manner."

"Yes," I said, "it really is amazing.  No doubt his secret is really
written here, if we only knew the key.  But in all probability his
enemies are aware of its existence, or he would not have left it
secreted here when he set forth on his journey to Manchester.  That man
Dawson may know it."

"Most probably," was her reply.  "He was my father's intimate
acquaintance."

"His friend--he says he was."

"Friend!" she cried resentfully.  "No, his enemy."

"And therefore your father held him in fear?  It was that reason which
induced him to insert that very injudicious clause in his will."

And then I described to her the visit of the man Dawson on the previous
night, telling her what he had said, and his impudent, defiant attitude
towards us.

She sighed, but uttered no reply.  I noticed that as I spoke her
countenance went a trifle paler, but she remained silent, as though she
feared to speak lest she should inadvertently expose what she intended
should remain a secret.

My chief thought at that moment, however, was the elucidation of the
problem presented by those thirty-two well-thumbed cards.  The secret of
Burton Blair, the knowledge of which had brought him his millions, was
hidden there, and as it had been bequeathed to me it was surely to my
interest to exert every effort to gain exact knowledge of it.  I
recollected how very careful he had been over that little bag which now
lay empty upon the table, and with what careless confidence he had shown
it to me on that night when he was but a homeless wanderer tramping the
muddy turnpike roads.

As he had held it in his hand, his eyes had brightened with keen
anticipation.  He would be a rich man some day, he had prophesied, and
I, in my ignorance, had then believed him to be romancing.  But when I
looked around that room in which I now stood and saw that Murillo and
that Tintoretto, each of them worth a small fortune in themselves, I was
bound to confess that I had wrongly mistrusted him.

And the secret written upon that insignificant-looking little pack of
cards was mine--if only I could decipher it!

Surely no situation could be more tantalising to a poor man like myself.
The man whom I had been able to befriend had left me, in gracious
recognition, the secret of the source of his enormous income, yet so
well concealed was it that neither Mabel nor myself could decipher it.

"What shall you do?" she inquired presently, after poring over the cards
in silence for quite ten minutes.  "Is there no expert in London who
might find out the key?  Surely those people who do cryptograms and
things could help us?"

"Certainly," was my answer, "but in that case, if they were successful
they would discover the secret for themselves."

"Ah, I never thought of that!"

"Your father's directions in his will as to secrecy are very explicit."

"But possession of these cards without the key is surely not of much
benefit," she argued.  "Could you not consult somebody, and ascertain by
what means such records are deciphered?"

"I might make inquiries in a general way," I answered, "but to place the
pack of cards blindly in the hands of an expert would, I fear, simply be
giving away your father's most confidential possession.  There may be
written here some fact which it is not desirable that the world shall
know."

"Ah!" she said, glancing quickly up at me.  "Some facts regarding his
past, you mean.  Yes.  You are quite right, Mr. Greenwood.  We must be
very careful to guard the secret of these cards well, especially if, as
you suggest, the man Dawson really knows the means by which the record
may be rendered intelligible."

"The secret has been bequeathed to me, therefore I will take possession
of them," I said.  "I will also make inquiries, and ascertain by what
means such ciphers are rendered into plain English."

I had at that moment thought of a man named Boyle, a professor at a
training-college in Leicester who was an expert at anagrams, ciphers,
and such things, and I intended to lose no time in running up there to
see him and ascertain his opinion.

Therefore at noon I took train at St. Pancras, and about half-past two
was sitting with him in his private room at the college.  He was a
middle-aged, clean-shaven man of quick intelligence, who had frequently
won prizes in various competitions offered by different journals; a man
who seemed to have committed Bartlett's _Dictionary of Familiar
Quotations_ to memory, and whose ingenuity in deciphering puzzles was
unequalled.

While smoking a cigarette with him, I explained the point upon which I
desired his opinion.

"May I see the cards?" he inquired, removing his briar from his mouth
and looking at me with some surprise, I thought.

My first impulse was to refuse him sight of them, but on second thoughts
I recollected that of all men he was one of the greatest experts in such
matters, therefore I drew the little pack from the envelope in which I
had placed them.

"Ah!" he exclaimed the moment he took them in his hand and ran quickly
through them.  "This, Mr. Greenwood, is the most complicated and most
difficult of all ciphers.  It was in vogue in Italy and Spain in the
seventeenth century, and afterwards in England, but seems to have
dropped into disuse during the past hundred years or so, probably on
account of its great difficulty."

Carefully he spread the cards out in suits upon the table, and seemed to
make long and elaborate calculations between the heavy puffs at his
pipe.

"No!" he exclaimed.  "It isn't what I expected.  Guess-work will never
help you in this solution.  You might try for a hundred years to
decipher it, but will fail, if you do not discover the key.  Indeed, so
much ingenuity is shown in it that a writer in the last century
estimated that in such a pack of cards as this, with such a cipher upon
them, there are at least fully fifty-two millions of possible
arrangements."

"But how is the cipher written?"  I inquired much interested, yet with
heart-sinking at his inability to assist me.

"It is done in this way," he said.  "The writer of the secret settles
what he wishes to record and he then arranges the thirty-two cards in
what order he wishes.  He then writes the first thirty-two letters of
his message record, or whatever it may be, on the face or on the back of
the thirty-two cards, one letter upon each card consecutively,
commencing with the first column, and going on with columns two and
three, working down each column, until he has written the last letter of
the cipher.  In the writing, however, certain prearranged letters are
used in place of spaces, and sometimes the cipher is made still more
difficult or a chance finder of the cards to decipher by the
introduction of a specially arranged shuffle of the cards half way
through the writing of the record."

"Very ingenious!"  I remarked, utterly bewildered by the extraordinary
complication of Burton Blair's secret.  "And yet the letters are so
plainly written!"

"That's just it," he laughed.  "To the eye it is the plainest of all
ciphers, and yet one that is utterly unintelligible unless the exact
formula in its writing be known.  When that is ascertained the solution
becomes easy.  The cards are rearranged in the order in which they were
written upon, and the record or message spelt off, one letter on each
card in succession, reading down one column after another and omitting
the letter arranged as spaces."

"Ah!"  I exclaimed fervently.  "How I wish I knew the key."

"Is this a very important secret, then?" asked Boyle.

"Very," I replied.  "A confidential matter which has been placed in my
hands, and one which I am bound to solve."

"I fear you will never do so unless the key is in existence," was his
answer.  "It is far too difficult for me to attempt.  The complications
which are so simply effected in the writing, shield it effectually from
any chance solution.  Therefore, all endeavours to decipher it without
knowledge of the pre-arrangement of the pack must necessarily prove
futile."

He replaced the cards in the envelope and handed them back to me,
regretting that he could not render me assistance.

"You might try every day for years and years," he declared, "and you
would be no nearer the truth.  It is too well protected for chance
discovery, and is, indeed, the safest and most ingenious cipher ever
devised by man's ingenuity."

I remained and took a cup of tea with him, then at half-past four
entered the express and returned to London, disappointed at my utterly
fruitless errand.  What he had explained to me rendered the secret more
impenetrable and inscrutable than ever.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN.

CERTAIN THINGS WE FOUND AT MAYVILL.

"Miss Blair, sir," announced Glave next day just before noon, while I
was sitting alone in my room in Great Russell Street, smoking
vigorously, and utterly bewildered over the problem of the dead man's
pack of cards.

I sprang to my feet to welcome Mabel, who in her rich warm furs was
looking very dainty and charming.

"I suppose if Mrs. Percival knew I had come here alone, she'd give me a
sound lecture against visiting a man's rooms," she said, laughing after
I had greeted her and closed the door.

"Well," I said, "it's scarcely the first time you've honoured me with a
visit, is it?  And surely you need not trouble very much about Mrs.
Percival."

"Oh, she really grows more straight-backed every day," Mabel pouted.  "I
mustn't go here, and I mustn't go there, and she's afraid of me speaking
with this man, and the other man is not to be known, and so on.  I'm
really growing rather sick of it, I can tell you," she declared, seating
herself in the chair I had just vacated, unloosing her heavy sable cape,
and stretching a neat ankle to the fire.

"But she's been an awfully good friend to you," I argued.  "As far as I
can see, she's been the most easy-going of chaperons."

"The perfect chaperon is the one who can utterly and effectually efface
herself five minutes after entering the room," Mabel declared.  "And I
will give Mrs. Percival her due, she's never clung on to me at dances,
and if she's found me sitting out in a dim corner she has always made it
a point to have an urgent call in an opposite direction.  Yes," she
sighed, "I suppose I oughtn't to grumble when I recollect the snappy old
tabbies in whose hands some girls are.  There's Lady Anetta Gordon, for
instance, and Vi Drummond, both pretty girls out last season, but whose
lives are rendered perfect tortures by those two ugly old hags who cart
them about.  Why, they've both told me they dare not raise their eyes to
a man without a snappy lecture next day on polite manners and maiden
modesty."

"Well," I said frankly, standing on the hearthrug, and looking down at
her handsome figure: "I really don't think you have had much to complain
about up to the present.  Your poor father was most indulgent, and I'm
sure Mrs. Percival, although she may seem rather harsh at times, is only
speaking for your own benefit."

"Oh, I know I'm a very wilful girl in your eyes," she exclaimed, with a
smile.  "You always used to say so when I was at school."

"Well, to tell the truth, you were," I answered quite openly.

"Of course.  You men never make allowance for a girl.  You assume your
freedom with your first long trousers, while we unfortunate girls are
not allowed a single moment alone, either inside the house or out of it.
No matter whether we be as ugly as Mother Shipton or as beautiful as
Venus, we must all of us be tied up to some elder woman, who very often
is just as fond of a mild flirtation as the simpering young miss in her
charge.  Forgive me for speaking so candidly, won't you, Mr. Greenwood,
but my opinion is that the modern methods of society are all sham and
humbug."

"You're not in a very polite mood to-day, it seems," I remarked, being
unable to restrain a smile.

"No, I'm not," she admitted.  "Mrs. Percival is so very aggravating.  I
want to go down to Mayvill this afternoon, and she won't let me go
alone."

"Why do you so particularly wish to go there alone?"

She flushed slightly, and appeared for a moment to be confused.

"Oh, well, I don't want to go alone very particularly, you know," she
tried to assure me.  "It is the foolishness of not allowing me to travel
down there like any other girl that I object to.  If a maid can take a
railway journey alone, why can't I?"

"Because you have the _convenances_ of society to respect--the domestic
servant need not."

"Then I prefer the lot of the domestic," she declared in a manner which
told me that something had annoyed her.  For my own part I should have
regretted very much if Mrs. Percival had consented to her going down to
Herefordshire alone, while it also seemed apparent that she had some
secret reason of her own for not taking her elder companion with her.

What, I wondered, could it be?

I inquired the reason why she wished to go to Mayvill without even a
maid, but she made an excuse that she wanted to see the other four
hunters were being properly treated by the studs-man, and also to make a
search through her father's study to ascertain whether any important or
confidential papers remained there.  She had the keys, and intended to
do this before that odious person, Dawson, assumed his office.

This suggestion, evidently made as an excuse, struck me as one that
really should be acted upon without delay, yet it was so very plain that
she desired to go alone that at first I hesitated to offer to accompany
her.  Our friendship was of such a close and intimate character that I
could of course offer to do so without overstepping the bounds of
propriety, nevertheless I resolved to first endeavour to learn the
reason of her strong desire to travel alone.

She was a clever woman, however, and had no intention of telling me.
She had a strong and secret desire to go down alone to that fine old
country house that was now her own, and did not desire that Mrs.
Percival should accompany her.

"If you are really going to search the library, Mabel, had I not better
accompany and help you?"  I suggested presently.  "That is, of course,
if you will permit me," I added apologetically.

For a moment she was silent, as though devising some means out of a
dilemma, then she answered--

"If you'll come, I'll of course be only too delighted.  Indeed, you
really ought to assist me, for we might discover some key to the cipher
on the cards.  My father was down there for three days about a fortnight
before his death."

"When shall we start?"

"At three-thirty from Paddington.  Will that suit you?  You shall come
and be my guest."  And she laughed mischievously at such utter break-up
of the _convenances_ and the probable chagrin of the long-suffering Mrs.
Percival.

"Very well," I agreed; and ten minutes later I went down with her and
put her, smiling sweetly, into her smart victoria, the servants of which
were now in mourning.

You perceive that I was playing a very dangerous game?  And so I was; as
you will afterwards see.

At the hour appointed I met her at Paddington, and putting aside her sad
thoughtfulness at her bereavement we travelled together down to Dunmore
Station, beyond Hereford.  Here we entered the brougham awaiting us, and
after a drive of nearly three miles, descended before the splendid old
mansion which Burton Blair had bought two years before for the sake of
the shooting and fishing surrounding it.

Standing in its fine park half-way between King's Pyon and Dilwyn,
Mayvill Court was, and is still, one of the show places of the county.
It was an ideal ancestral hall.  The grand old gabled house with its
lofty square towers, its Jacobean entrance, gateway and dovecote, and
the fantastically clipped box-trees and sun-dial of its quaint
old-fashioned garden, possessed a delightful charm which few other
ancient mansions could boast, and a still further interesting feature
lay in its perfectly unaltered state throughout, even to the minutest
detail.  For close on three hundred years it had been held by its
original owners, the Baddesleys, until Blair had purchased it--
furniture, pictures, armour, everything just as it stood.

It was nearly nine o'clock when Mrs. Gibbons, the elderly housekeeper,
welcomed us, in tears at the death of her master, and we passed into the
great oak-panelled hall in which hung the sword and portrait of the
gallant cavalier.  Captain Harry Baddesley, of whom there still was told
a romantic story.  Narrowly escaping from the battle-field, the captain
spurred homewards, with some of Cromwell's soldiers close at his heels;
and his wife, a lady of great courage, had scarcely concealed him in the
secret chamber when the enemy arrived to search the house.  Little
daunted, the lady assisted them and personally conducted them over the
mansion.  As in so many instances, the secret room was entered from the
principal bedroom, and in inspecting the latter the Roundheads had their
suspicions aroused.  So they decided to stay the night.

The hunted man's wife sent them an ample supper and some wine which had
been carefully drugged, with the result that the unwelcome visitors were
very soon soundly asleep, and the gallant captain, before the effects of
the wine had worn off, were far beyond their reach.

Since that day the old place had remained absolutely unchanged, with its
rows of dark, time-mellowed family portraits in the big hall, its
Jacobean furniture and its old helmets and pikes that had borne the
brunt of Naseby.  The night was bitterly cold.  In the great open hearth
huge logs were blazing, and as we stood there to warm ourselves after
our journey, Mrs. Gibbons, who had been apprised of our advent by
telegraph, announced that she had prepared supper for us as she knew we
could not arrive in time for dinner.

Both she and her husband expressed the deepest sympathy with Mabel in
her bereavement, and then having removed our coats we went on into the
small dining-room, where supper was served by Gibbons and the footman
with that old-fashioned stateliness characteristic of all in that fine
old-world mansion.

Gibbons and his wife, old retainers of the former owners, were, I think,
somewhat surprised that I had accompanied their young mistress alone,
nevertheless Mabel had explained to them how she wished to make a search
of her father's effects in the library, and that for that reason she had
invited me to accompany her.  Yet I must confess that I, on my part, had
not yet formed any conclusion as to the real reason of her visit.  That
there was some ulterior motive in it I felt certain, but what it was I
could not even guess.

After supper Mrs. Gibbons took my pretty companion to her room, while
Gibbons showed me the one prepared for me, a long big chamber on the
first floor, from the windows of which I had a wide view over the
undulating lawns to Wormsley Hill and Sarnesfield.  I had occupied the
room on several occasions, and knew it well, with its great old carved
four-poster bed, antique hangings, Jacobean chests and polished oaken
ceiling.

After a wash I rejoined my dainty little hostess in the library--a big,
long, old room, where a fire burned brightly and the lamps were softly
shaded with yellow silk.  Over the fireplace were craved in stone the
three water-bougets of the Baddesleys, with the date 1601, while the
whole room from end to end was lined with brown-backed books that had
probably not been disturbed for half-a-century.

After Mabel had allowed me a cigarette and told Gibbons that she did not
wish to be disturbed for an hour or so, she rose and turned the key
behind the servants, so that we might carry out the work of
investigation without interruption.

"Now," she said, turning her fine eyes upon me with an excitement she
could not suppress as she walked to the big writing-table and took her
father's keys from her pocket, "I wonder whether we shall discover
anything of interest.  I suppose," she added, "it is really Mr.
Leighton's duty to do this.  But I prefer that you and I should look
into my father's affairs prior to the inquisitive lawyer's arrival."

It almost seemed as if she half-expected to discover something which she
desired to conceal from the solicitor.

The dead man's writing-table was a ponderous old-fashioned one of carved
oak, and as she unlocked the first drawer and turned out its contents, I
drew up chairs and settled with her in order to make a methodical and
thorough examination.  The papers, we found, were mostly letters from
friends, and correspondence from solicitors and brokers regarding his
investments in various quarters.  From some which I read I gathered what
enormous profits he had made over certain deals in Kaffirs, while in
certain other correspondence were allusions to matters which, to me,
were very puzzling.

Mabel's eager attitude was that of one in search of some document or
other which she believed to be there.  She scarcely troubled to read any
of the letters, merely scanning them swiftly and casting them aside.
Thus we examined the contents of one drawer after another until I saw
beneath her hand a blue foolscap envelope sealed with black wax, and
bearing the superscription in her father's handwriting:--

"To be opened by Mabel after my death.--Burton Blair."

"Ah!" she gasped in breathless haste.  "I wonder what this contains?"
And she eagerly broke the seals, and drew forth a sheet of foolscap
closely written, to which some other papers were attached by means of a
brass fastener.

From the envelope, too, something fell, and I picked it up, finding to
my surprise that it was a snap-shot photograph much worn and tattered,
but preserved by being mounted upon a piece of linen.  It was a
half-faded view of a country crossroads in a flat and rather dismal
country, with a small lonely house, probably once an old toll-house,
with high chimneys standing on the edge of the highway, a small strip of
flower-garden railed off at the side.  Before the door was a rustic
porch covered by climbing roses, and out on the roadside an old Windsor
armchair that had apparently just been vacated.

While I was examining the view beneath the lamp-light, the dead man's
daughter was reading swiftly through those close lines her father had
penned.

Suddenly she uttered a loud cry as though horrified by some discovery,
and, startled, I turned to glance at her.  Her countenance had changed;
she was blanched to the lips.

"No!" she gasped hoarsely.  "I--I can't believe it--I won't!"

Again she glanced at the paper to re-read those fateful lines.

"What is it?"  I inquired anxiously.  "May I not know?"  And I crossed
to where she stood.

"No," she answered firmly, placing the paper behind her.  "No!  Not even
you may know this!"  And with a sudden movement she tore the paper to
pieces in her hands, and ere I could rescue it, she had cast the
fragments into the fire.

The flames leapt up, and next instant the dead man's confession--if such
it were--was consumed and lost for ever, while his daughter stood,
haggard, rigid and white as death.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

IN WHICH TWO CURIOUS FACTS ARE ESTABLISHED.

Mabel's sudden action both annoyed and surprised me, for I had believed
that our friendship was of such a close and intimate character that she
would at least have allowed me sight of what her father had written.

Yet when, next second, I reflected that the envelope had been specially
addressed to her, I saw that whatever was contained therein had been
intended for her eye alone.

"You have discovered something which has upset you?"  I said, looking
straight into her white, hard-drawn face.  "I hope it is really nothing
very disconcerting?"

She held her breath for a moment, her hand instinctively upon her breast
as though to still the wild beating of her heart.

"Ah! unfortunately it is," was her answer.  "I know the truth now--the
awful, terrible truth."  And without a word of warning she covered her
face with her hands and burst into a torrent of tears.

At her side in an instant I was striving to console her, but I quickly
realised what a deep impression of dismay and horror those written words
of her dead father had produced upon her.  She was filled with grief,
and utterly inconsolable.

The quiet of that long, old-fashioned room was unbroken save for her
bitter sobs and the solemn tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock at
the further end of the apartment.  My hand was placed tenderly upon the
poor girl's shoulder, but it was a long time ere I could induce her to
dry her tears.

When she did so, I saw by her face that she had become a changed woman.

Walking back to the writing-table she took up the envelope and re-read
the superscription which Blair had written upon it, and then for the
first time her eyes fell upon the photograph of that lonely house by the
crossways.

"Why!" she cried, startled, "where did you find this?"

I explained that it had dropped from the envelope, whereupon she took it
up and gazed, for a long time upon it.  Then, turning it over, she
discovered what I had not noticed, namely, written faintly in pencil and
half effaced were the words, "Owston crossroads, 9 miles beyond
Doncaster on the Selby Road.--B.  B."

"Do you know what this is?"

"No, I haven't the least idea," I answered.  "It must be something of
which your father was very careful.  It seems to be well worn, too, as
though carried in somebody's pocket."

"Well," she said, "I will tell you.  I had no idea that he still
preserved it, but I suppose he kept it as a souvenir of those weary
journeys of long ago.  This photograph," she added, holding it still in
her hand, "is the picture of the spot for which he searched every
turnpike in England.  He had the photograph but nothing else to guide
him to the spot, and we were therefore compelled to tramp all the main
roads up and down the country in an attempt to identify it.  Not until
nearly a year after you and Mr. Seton had so kindly placed me at school
at Bournemouth did my father, still on his lonely tramp, succeed in
discovering it after a search lasting over three years.  He identified
it one summer evening as the crossways at Owston, and he found living in
that house the person of whom he had been all those weary months in
search."

"Curious," I said.  "Tell me more about it."

"There is nothing else to tell, except that, by identifying the house,
he obtained the key to the secret--at least, that is what I always
understood from him," she said.  "Ah, I recollect all those long
wearying walks when I was a girl, how we trudged on over those long,
white, endless roads, in sunshine and in rain, envying people in
carriages and carts, and men and women on bicycles, and yet my courage
always supported by my father's declaration that great fortune must be
ours some day.  He carried this photograph with him always, and almost
at each crossroad he would take it out, examine the landscape and
compare it, not knowing, of course, but that the old toll-house might
have been pulled down since the taking of the picture."

"Did he never tell you the reason why he wished to visit that house."

"He used to say that the man who lived there--the man who used to sit on
summer evenings in that chair outside, was his friend--his good friend;
only they had been parted for a long time, and he did not know that my
father was still alive.  They had been friends abroad, I fancy, in the
days when my father was at sea."

"And the identification of this spot was the reason of your father's
constant wanderings?"  I exclaimed, pleased that I had at last cleared
up one point which, for five years or so, had been a mystery.

"Yes.  A month after he had made the discovery he came to Bournemouth,
and told me in confidence that his dream of great wealth was about to be
realised.  He had solved the problem, and within a week or two would be
in possession of ample funds.  He disappeared, you will remember, almost
immediately, and was away for a month.  Then he returned a rich man--so
rich that you and Mr. Seton were utterly dumbfounded.  Don't you
recollect that night at Helpstone, after I had come from school to spend
a week with my father on his return?  We were sitting together after
dinner and poor father recalled the last occasion when we had all
assembled there--the occasion when I was taken ill outside," she added.
"And don't you recollect Mr. Seton appearing to doubt my father's
statement that he was already worth fifty thousand pounds."

"I remember," I answered, as her clear eyes met mine.  "I remember how
your father struck us utterly dumb by going upstairs and fetching his
banker's pass-book, which showed a balance of fifty-four thousand odd
pounds.  After that he became more than ever a mystery to us.  But tell
me," I added in a low, earnest voice, "what have you discovered to-night
that has so upset you?"

"I have nearly found proof of a fact that I have dreaded for years--a
fact that affects not only my poor father's memory, but also myself.  I
am in peril--personal danger."

"How?"  I asked quickly, failing to understand her meaning.  "Recollect
that I promised your father to act as your protector."

"I know, I know.  It is awfully good of you," she said, looking at me
gratefully with those wonderful eyes that had always held me fascinated
beneath the spell of her beauty.  "But," she added, shaking her head
sorrowfully, "I fear that in this you will be powerless.  If the blow
falls, as it must sooner or later, then I shall be crushed and helpless.
No power, not even your devoted friendship, can then save me."

"You certainly speak very strangely, Mabel.  I don't follow you at all."

"I expect not," was her mechanical answer.  "You do not know all.  If
you did, you would understand the peril of my position and of the great
danger now threatening me."

And she stood motionless as a statue, her hand upon the corner of the
writing-table, her eyes fixed straight into the blazing fire.

"If the danger is a real one, I consider I ought to be aware of it.  To
be forewarned is to be forearmed!"  I remarked decisively.

"It is a real one, but as my father has confessed the truth to me alone,
I am unable to reveal it to you.  His secret is mine."

"Certainly," I answered, accepting her decision, which, of course, was
but natural in the circumstances.  She could not betray her dead
father's confidence.

Yet if she had done, how altered would have been the course of events!
Surely the story of Burton Blair was one of the strangest and most
romantic ever given to man to relate, and as assuredly the strange
circumstances which occurred after his decease were even more remarkable
and puzzling.  The whole affair from beginning to end was a complete
enigma.

Later, when Mabel grew slightly calmer, we concluded our work of
investigation, but discovered little else of interest save several
letters in Italian, undated and unsigned, but evidently written by Dick
Dawson, the millionaire's mysterious friend--or enemy.  On reading them
they were, I found, evidently the correspondence of an intimate
acquaintance who was sharing Blair's fortune and secretly assisting him
in the acquisition of his wealth.  There was much mention of "the
secret," and repeated cautions against revealing anything to Reggie or
to myself.

In one letter I found the sentences in Italian: "My girl is growing into
quite a fine lady.  I expect she will become a Countess, or perhaps a
Duchess, one day.  I hear from your side that Mabel is becoming a very
pretty woman.  You ought, with your position and reputation, to make a
good match for her.  But I know what old-fashioned ideas you hold that a
woman must marry only for love."

On reading this, one fact was vividly impressed upon me, namely, that if
this man Dawson shared secretly in Blair's wealth he surely had no
necessity to obtain his secret by foul means, when he already knew it.

The clock on the stables chimed midnight before Mabel rang for Mrs.
Gibbons, and the latter's husband followed, bringing me a night-cap of
whisky and some hot water.

My little companion merrily pressed my hand, wishing me good-night, and
then retired, accompanied by the housekeeper, while Gibbons himself
remained to mix my drink.

"Sad thing, sir, about our poor master," hazarded the well-trained
servant, who had been all his life in the service of the previous
owners.  "I fear the poor young mistress feels it very much."

"Very much indeed, Gibbons," I answered, taking a cigarette and standing
with my back to the fire.  "She was such a devoted daughter."

"She is now mistress of everything, Mr. Ford told us when he was down
three days ago."

"Yes," I said, "everything.  And I hope that you and your wife will
serve her as well and as faithfully as you have done her father."

"We'll try, sir," was the grave, grey-haired man's response.
"Everybody's very fond of the young mistress.  She's so very good to all
the servants."  Then, as I remained silent, he placed my candle in
readiness on the table, and, bowing, wished me good-night.

He closed the door, and I was alone in that great silent old room where
the darting flames cast weird lights across into the dark recesses, and
the long, old Chippendale clock ticked on solemnly as it had done for a
century past.

Having swallowed my hot drink, I returned again to my dead friend's
writing-table, carefully examining it to see whether it contained any
secret drawers.  A methodical investigation of every portion failed to
reveal any spring or unsuspected cavity, therefore, after glancing at
that photograph which had taken Blair those many months of weary
tramping to identify, I extinguished the lamps and passing through the
great old hall with the stands of armour which conjured up visions of
ghostly cavaliers, ascended to my room.

The bright fire gave the antique place with those rather funereal
hangings a warm and cosy appearance in contrast to the hard frost
outside, and feeling no inclination to sleep just then, I flung my self
into an arm-chair and sat with arms folded, pondering deeply.

Again the stable-clock chimed--the half-hour--and then I think I must
have dozed, for I was awakened suddenly by a light, stealthy footstep on
the polished oaken floor outside my door.  I listened, and distinctly
heard some one creeping lightly down the big old Jacobean staircase,
which creaked slightly somewhere below.

The weird ghostliness of the old place and its many historic traditions
caused me, I suppose, some misgivings, for I found myself thinking of
burglars and of midnight visitants.  Again I strained my ears.  Perhaps,
after all, it was only a servant!  Yet, when I glanced at my watch, and
found it to be a quarter to two, the suggestion that the servants had
not retired was at once negatived.

Suddenly, in the room below me, I distinctly heard a slow, harsh,
grating noise.  Then all was still again.

About three minutes later, however, I fancied I heard low whispering,
and, having quickly extinguished my light, I drew aside one of my heavy
curtains, and peering forth saw, to my surprise, two figures crossing
the lawn towards the shrubbery.

The moon was somewhat overcast, yet by the grey, clouded light I
distinguished that the pair were a man and a woman.  From the man's back
I could not recognise him, but his companion's gait was familiar to me
as she hurried on towards the dark belt of bare, black trees.

It was Mabel Blair.  The secret was out.  Her sudden desire to visit
Mayvill was in order to keep a midnight tryst.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

MERELY CONCERNS A STRANGER.

Without a moment's hesitation I struggled into an overcoat, slipped on a
golf cap and sped downstairs to the room below my own, where I found one
of the long windows open, and through it stepped quickly out upon the
gravel.

I intended to discover the motive of this meeting and the identity of
her companion--evidently some secret lover whose existence she had
concealed from us all.  Yet to follow her straight across the lawn in
the open light was to at once court detection.  Therefore I was
compelled to take a circuitous course, hugging the shadows always, until
I at length reached the shrubbery, where I halted, listening eagerly.

There was no sound beyond the low creaking of the branches and the
dismal sighing of the wind.  A distant train was passing through the
valley, and somewhere away down in the village a collie was barking.  I
could not, however, distinguish any human voices.  Slowly I made my way
through the fallen leaves until I had skirted the whole of the
shrubbery, and then I came to the conclusion that they must have passed
through it by some bypath and gone out into the park.

My task was rendered more difficult because the moon was not
sufficiently overcast to conceal my movements, and I feared that by
emerging into the open I might betray my presence.

But Mabel's action in coming there to meet this man, whoever he was,
puzzled me greatly.  Why had she not met him in London?  I wondered.
Could he be such an unpresentable lover that a journey to London was
impossible?  It is not an uncommon thing for a well-born girl to fall in
love with a labourer's son any more than it is for a gentleman to love a
peasant girl.  Many a pretty girl in London to-day has a secret
admiration for some young labourer or good-looking groom on her father's
estate, the seriousness of the unspoken love lying in the utter
impossibility of its realisation.

With ears and eyes open I went on, taking advantage of all the shadow I
could, but it seemed as though, having nearly five minutes' start of me,
they had taken a different direction to that which I believed.

At last I gained the comparative gloom of the old beech avenue which led
straight down to the lodge on the Dilwyn road, and continued along it
for nearly half-a-mile, when suddenly my heart leaped for joy, for I
distinguished before me the two figures walking together and engaged in
earnest conversation.

My jealous anger was in an instant aroused.  Fearing that they might
hear my footsteps on the hard frozen road I slipped outside the trees
upon the grass of the park, and treading noiselessly was soon able to
approach almost level with them without attracting attention.

Presently, on the old stone bridge across the river which formed the
outlet of the lake, they halted, when, concealing myself behind a tree,
I was enabled, by the light of the moon which had fortunately now grown
brighter, to clearly see the features of Mabel's mysterious companion.
I judged him to be about twenty-eight, an ill-bred, snub-nosed,
yellow-haired common-looking fellow, whose hulking form as he leaned
against the low parapet was undoubtedly that of an agriculturist.  His
face was hard-featured and prematurely weather-beaten, while the cut of
his clothes was distinctly that of the "ready-made" emporium of the
provincial town.  His hard felt hat was cocked a little askew, as is
usual with the yokel as well as with the costermonger when he takes his
Sunday walk.

As far as I could observe he seemed to be treating her with
extraordinary disdain and familiarity, addressing her as "Mab" and
lighting a cheap cigarette in her presence, while on her part she seemed
rather ill at ease, as though she were there under compulsion rather
than by choice.

She had dressed herself warmly in a thick frieze driving cape and a
close-fitting peaked cap which, drawn over her eyes, half-concealed her
features.

"I really can't see your object, Herbert," I heard her distinctly argue.
"What could such an action possibly benefit you?"

"A lot," the fellow answered, adding in a rough, uncouth voice which
bore the unmistakable brogue of the countryman, "What I say I mean.  You
know that, don't yer?"

"Of course," she answered.  "But why do you treat me in this manner?
Think of the risks I run in meeting you here to-night.  What would
people think if it were known?"

"What do I care what people think!" he exclaimed carelessly.  "Of course
you've got to keep up appearances--fortunately, I ain't."

"But you surely won't do what you threaten?" she exclaimed in a voice of
blank dismay.  "Remember that our secrets have been mutual.  I have
never betrayed you--never in any single thing."

"No, because you knew what would be the result if you did," he laughed
with a sneer.  "I never trust a woman's word--I don't.  You're rich now
the old man's dead, and I want money," he said decisively.

"But I haven't any yet," she replied.  "When will you have some?"

"I don't know.  There are all sorts of law formalities to go through
before, so Mr. Greenwood says."

"Oh! a curse on Greenwood!" the fellow burst forth.  "He's always with
you up in London, they say.  Ask him to get you some money from the
lawyers.  Tell him you're hard up--got to pay bills, or something.  Any
lie will do for him."

"Impossible, Herbert," she answered, trying to remain calm.  "You must
really be patient."

"Oh, yes, I know!" he cried.  "Call me good dog and all that.  But that
kind of game don't suit me--you hear?  I've got no money, and I must
have some at once--tonight."

"I haven't any," she declared.

"But you've got lots of jewellery and plate and stuff.  Give me some of
that, and I can sell it easily in Hereford to-morrow.  Where's that
diamond bracelet the old man gave you for a present last birthday--the
one you showed me?"

"Here," she replied, and raised her wrist, showing him the beautiful
diamond and sapphire ornament her father had given her, the worth of
which was two hundred pounds at the very least.

"Give me that," he said.  "It'll last me a day or two until you get me
some cash."

She hesitated, evidently indisposed to accede to such a request and more
especially as the bracelet was the last present her father had made her.
Yet, when he repeated his demands in a more threatening tone, it became
plain that the fellow's influence was supreme, and that she was as
helpless as a child in his unscrupulous hands.

The situation came upon me as an absolute revelation.  I could only
surmise that a harmless flirtation in the years before her affluence had
developed into this common fellow presuming upon her good nature, and,
finding her generous and sympathetic, he had now assumed an attitude of
mastery over her actions.  The working of the rustic mind is most
difficult to follow.  To-day in rural England there is so very little
real gratitude shown by the poor towards the rich that in the country
districts, charity is almost entirely unappreciated, while the wealthy
are becoming weary of attempting to please or improve the people.  Your
rustic of to-day, while perfectly honest in his dealings with his own
class, cannot resist dishonesty when selling his produce or his labour
to the rich man.  It seems part of his religion to get, by fair means or
by foul, as much as he can out of the gentleman, and then abuse him in
the village ale-house and dub him a fool for allowing himself to be thus
cheated.  Much as I regret to allege it, nevertheless it is a plain and
bitter truth that swindling and immorality are the two most notable
features of English village life at the present moment.

I stood listening to that strange conversation between the millionaire's
daughter and her secret lover, immovable and astounded.

The arrogance of the fellow caused my blood to boil.  A dozen times as
he sneered at her insultingly, now cajoling, now threatening, and now
making a disgusting pretence of affection, I felt impelled to rush out
and give him a good sound hiding.  It was, indeed, only because I
recognised that in this affair, so serious was it, I could only assist
Mabel by remaining concealed and using my knowledge of it to her
advantage that I held my tongue and stayed my hand.

Without doubt she had, in her girlish inexperience, once believed
herself in love with the fellow, but now the hideousness of the present
situation was presented to her in all its vivid reality and she saw
herself hopelessly involved.  Probably it was with a vain hope of
extricating herself that she had kept the appointment; but, in any case,
the man whom she called Herbert was quick to detect that he held all the
honours in the game.

"Now come," he said at last, in his broad brogue, "if you really ain't
got no money on you, hand over that bracelet and ha' done with it.  We
don't want to wait 'ere all night, for I've got to be in Hereford first
thing in the morning.  So the least said the better."

I saw that, white to the lips, she was trembling in fear of him, for she
shrank from his touch, crying--

"Ah, Herbert, it is too cruel of you--too cruel--after all I've done to
help you.  Have you no pity, no compassion?"

"None," he growled.  "I want money and must have it.  In a week you must
pay me a thousand quid--you hear that, don't you?"

"But how can I?  Wait and I'll give it to you later--indeed, I promise."

"I tell you I ain't going to be fooled," he cried angrily.  "I mean to
have the money, or else I'll blow the whole thing.  Then where will you
be--eh?"  And he laughed a hard triumphant laugh, while she shrank back
pale, breathless and dismayed.

I clenched my fists, and to this moment I do not know how I restrained
myself from springing from my hiding-place and knocking the fellow down.
At that moment I could have killed him where he stood.

"Ah!" she cried, her hands clasped to him in a gesture of supplication,
"you surely don't mean what you say, you can't mean that, you really
can't!  You'll spare me, won't you?  Promise me!"

"No, I won't spare you," was his brutal reply, "unless you pay me well."

"I will, I will," she assured him in a low, hoarse voice, which was
eminently that of a desperate woman, terrified lest some terrible secret
of hers should be exposed.

"Ah!" he sneered with curling lip, "you treated me with contempt once,
because you were a fine lady, but I am yet to have my revenge, as you
will see.  You are now mistress of a great fortune, and I tell you quite
plainly that I intend you to share it with me.  Act just as you think
best, but recollect what refusal will mean to you--exposure!"

"Ah!" she cried desperately, "to-night you have revealed yourself in
your true light!  You brute, you would, without the slightest
compunction, ruin me!"

"Because, my dear girl, you are not playing straight," was his cool,
arrogant reply.  "You thought that you had most ingeniously got rid of
me for ever, until to-night here I am, you see, back again, ready to--
well, to be pensioned off, shall we call it?  Don't think I intend to
allow you to fool me this time, so just give me the bracelet as a first
instalment, and say no more."  And he snatched at her arm while she, by
a quick movement, avoided him.

"I refuse," she cried with a fierce and sudden determination.  "I know
you now!  You are brutal and inhuman, without a speck of either love or
esteem--a man who would drive a woman to suicide in order to get money.
Now you have been released from prison you intend to live upon me--your
letter with that proposal is sufficient proof.  But I tell you here
to-night that you will obtain not a penny more from me beyond the money
that is now paid you every month."

"To keep my mouth closed," he interrupted.  And I saw an evil, murderous
glitter in his black eyes.

"You need not keep it closed any longer," she said in open defiance.
"Indeed, I shall tell the truth myself, and thus put an end to this
brilliant blackmailing scheme of yours.  So now you understand," she
added firmly, with a courage that was admirable.

A silence fell between them for a moment, broken only by the weird cry
of an owl.

"Then that is absolutely your decision, eh?" he inquired in a hard
voice, while I noticed that his face was white with anger and chagrin as
he recognised that, if she told the truth and faced the consequence of
her own exposure, whatever it might be, his power over her would be
dispelled.

"My mind is made up.  I have no fear of any exposure you may make
concerning me."

"At any rate give me that bracelet," he demanded savagely, with set
teeth, grasping her arm and trying by force to undo the clasp.

"Let me go!" she cried.  "You brute!  Let me go!  Would you rob me, as
well as insult me?"

"Rob you!" he muttered, his coarse white face wearing a dangerous
expression of unbridled hatred, "rob you!" he hissed with a ford oath,
"I'll do more.  I'll put you where your cursed tongue won't wag again,
and where you won't be able to tell the truth!"

And, unfortunately, before I was aware of his intentions he had seized
her by the wrists and, with a quick movement, forced her backwards so
violently against the low parapet of the bridge that for a moment they
stood locked in a deadly embrace.

Mabel screamed on realising his intentions, but next second with a vile
imprecation he had forced her backwards over the low wall, and with a
loud splash she fell helplessly into the deep, dark waters.

In an instant, while the fellow took to his heels, I dashed forward to
her rescue, but, alas! too late, for, as I peered eagerly down into the
darkness, I saw to my dismay that the swirling icy flood had closed over
her, that she had disappeared.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

THE CROSSWAYS AT OWSTON.

The sound of the assassin's fast-receding footsteps, as he escaped away
down the dark avenue towards the road, awakened me to a keen sense of my
responsibility, and in an instant I had divested myself of my overcoat
and coat, and stood peering anxiously into the darkness beneath the
bridge.

Those seconds seemed hours, until of a sudden I caught sight of a flash
of white in mid stream, and without a moment's hesitation I dived in
after it.

The shock of the icy water was a severe one but, fortunately, I am a
strong swimmer, and neither the intense coldness nor the strength of the
current interfered much with my progress as I struck out towards the
unconscious girl.  Having seized her, however, I had to battle severely
to prevent being swept out around the bend where I, knew that the river,
joined by another stream, broadened out, and where any chances of
effecting a rescue would be very small.

For some minutes I struggled with all my might to hold the unconscious
girl's head above the surface, yet so strong was the swirling flood,
with its lumps of floating ice, that all resistance seemed impossible,
and we were both swept down for some distance until at last, summoning
my last effort I managed to strike out with my senseless burden and
reach a shallow, where I managed by dint of fierce struggling, to land
and to drag the unfortunate girl up the frozen bank.

I had once, long ago, attended an ambulance class, and now, acting upon
the instructions I had there received, I set at once to work to produce
artificial respiration.  It was heavy work alone, with my wet clothes
freezing stiff upon me, but still I persevered, determined, if possible,
to restore her to consciousness, and this I was fortunately able to do
within half an hour.

At first she could utter no word, and I did not question her.
Sufficient was it for me to know that she was still alive, for when
first I had brought her to land I believed that she was beyond human
aid, and that the dastardly attempt of her low-born lover had been
successful.  She shivered from head to foot, for the night wind cut like
a knife, and presently, at my suggestion, she rose and, leaning heavily
upon my arm, tried to walk.  The attempt was at first only a feeble one,
but presently she quickened her pace slightly and, without either of us
mentioning what had occurred, I conducted her up the long avenue back to
the house.  Once within she declared that it was unnecessary to call
Mrs. Gibbons.  In low whispers she implored me to remain silent upon
what had occurred.  She took my hand in hers and held it.

"I want you, if you will, to forget all that has transpired," she said,
deeply in earnest.  "If you followed me and overheard what passed
between us, I want you to consider that those words have never been
uttered.  I--I want you to--" she faltered and then paused without
concluding her sentence.

"What do you wish me to do?"  I inquired, after a brief and painful
silence.

"I want you to still regard me with some esteem, as you always have
done," she said, bursting into tears, "I don't like to think that I've
fallen in your estimation.  Remember, I am a woman--and may be forgiven
a woman's impulses and follies."

"You have not fallen in my estimation at all, Mabel," I assured her.
"My only regret is that the scoundrel made such an outrageous attempt
upon you.  But it was fortunate that I followed you, although I suppose
I ought to apologise to you for acting the eavesdropper."

"You saved my life," was her whispered answer, as she pressed my hand in
thanks.  Then she crept swiftly and silently up the big staircase and
was lost to view.

Next morning she appeared at the breakfast-table, looking apparently
little the worse for her narrow escape, save perhaps that around her
eyes were dark rings that told of sleeplessness and terrible anxiety.
But she nevertheless chatted merrily, as though no care weighed upon her
mind.  While Gibbons was in the room serving us she could not speak
confidentially, but as she looked across at me, her glance was full of
meaning.

At last, when we had finished and had walked together across the great
hall back to the library, I said to her--

"Shall you allow the regrettable incident of last night to pass
unnoticed?  If you do, I fear that man may make another attempt upon
you.  Therefore it will surely be better if he understands once and for
all that I was a witness of his dastardly cowardice."

"No," she replied in a low, pained voice.  "Please don't let us discuss
it.  It must pass."

"Why?"

"Because if I were to seek to punish him he might bring forward
something--something that I wish kept secret."

I knew that, I recollected every word of that heated conversation.  The
blackmailer held some secret of hers which, being detrimental, she
dreaded might be revealed.

Surely it was all a strange and most remarkable enigma from beginning to
end!  From that winter night on the highway near Helpstone, when I had
found her fallen at the wayside, until that very moment, mystery had
piled upon mystery and secret upon secret until, with Burton Blair's
decease and with the pack of tiny cards he had so curiously bequeathed
to me, the problem had assumed gigantic proportions.

"That man would have murdered you, Mabel," I said.  "You are is fear of
him?"

"I am," she answered simply, her gaze fixed across the lawn and park
beyond, and she sighed.

"But ought you not to assume the defensive now that the fellow has
deliberately endeavoured to take your life?"  I argued.  "His villainous
action last night was purely criminal!"

"It was," she said in a blank, hollow voice, turning her eyes upon me.
"I had no idea of his intention.  I confess that I came down here
because he compelled me to meet him.  He has heard of my father's death
and now realises that he can obtain money from me; that I shall be
forced to yield to his demands."

"You may surely tell me his name," I said.

"Herbert Hales," she replied, not, however, without some hesitation.
Then she added, "But I do wish Mr. Greenwood, you would do me a favour
and not mention the painful affair again.  You do not know how it upsets
me, or how much depends upon that man's silence."

I promised, although before doing so I tried my level best to induce her
to give me some clue to the nature of the secret held by the uncouth
yokel.  But she was still obdurate and refused to tell me anything.

That the secret was something which affected herself or her own honour
seemed quite plain, for, at every suggestion of mine to bring the fellow
face to face with her, she shrank in fear of the startling revelation he
could make.

I wondered whether that document, for her eyes only, which had been
written by the man now dead, and which she had destroyed on the previous
night, had any connexion with the secret known by Herbert Hales.
Indeed, whatever the nature of that fellow's knowledge, it was potent
enough to compel her to travel down from London in order, if possible, I
supposed, to arrange terms with him.

Fortunately, however, the household at Mayvill was unaware of the events
of the previous night, and when at midday we left again to return to
London, Gibbons and his wife stood at the door and wished us both a
pleasant journey.

The house steward and his wife of course believed that the object of our
flying visit was to search the dead man's effects, and with the natural
curiosity of servants, both were eager to know whether we had discovered
anything of interest, although they were unable to question us directly.
Inquisitiveness increases with a servant's trustworthiness, until the
confidential servant usually knows as much of his master's or mistress'
affairs as they do themselves.  Burton Blair had been particularly fond
of the Gibbonses, and it almost seemed as though the latter considered
themselves slighted by not being informed of every disposition made by
their dead master in his will.

As it was, we only told them of one, the legacy of two hundred pounds
apiece, which Blair had left them, and this had of course caused them
the most profound gratification.

Having deposited Mabel at Grosvenor Square, and taken lingering leave of
her, I returned at once to Great Russell Street and found that Reggie
had just returned from the warehouse in Cannon Street.

Acting upon my sweet little friend's appeal I told him nothing of the
exciting incident of the previous night.  All I explained was the
searching of Blair's writing-table and what we had discovered there.

"Well, we ought I think to go and see that house by the crossways," he
said when he had seen the photograph.  "Doncaster is a quick run from
King's Cross.  We could get there and back to-morrow.  I'm interested to
see the house to discover which poor Blair tramped all over England.
This must have come into his possession," he added, handling the
photograph, "without any name or any clue whatever to its situation."

I agreed that we ought to go and see for ourselves, therefore, after
spending a quiet evening at the Devonshire, we left by the early train
next day for Yorkshire.  On arrival at Doncaster station, to which we
ran through from London without a stop, we took a fly and drove out upon
the broad, snowy highroad through Bentley for about six miles or so,
until, after skirting Owston Park we came suddenly upon the crossroads
where stood the lonely old house, just as shown in the photograph.

It was a quaint, old place, like one of those old toll-houses one sees
in ancient prints, the old bar being of course missing.  The gate-post,
however, still remained, and snow having fallen in the night the scene
presented was truly wintry and picturesque.  The antique house with its
broad, smoking chimney at the end had apparently been added to since the
photograph had been taken, for at right angles was a new wing of red
brick, converting it into quite a comfortable abode.  Yet, as we
approached, the old place rising out of the white, snow-covered plain
breathed mutely of those forgotten days when the York and London coaches
passed it, when masked gentlemen-of-the-road lurked in these dark, fir
plantations which stood out beyond the open common at Kirkhouse Green,
and when the post-boys were never tired of singing the praises of those
wonderful cheeses at the old _Bell_ in Stilton.

Our driver passed the place and about a quarter of a mile further on we
stopped him, alighted and walked back together, ordering the man to
await us.

On knocking at the door an aged old woman in cap and ribbons, opened it,
whereupon Reggie, who assumed the position of spokesman, made excuse
that we were passing, and, noticing by its exterior that the place was
evidently an old toll-house, could not resist the inducement to call and
request to be allowed to look within.

"I'm sure you're very welcome, gentlemen," answered the woman, in her
broad, Yorkshire dialect.  "It's an old place and lots o' folk have been
here and looked over it in my time."

Across the room were the black old beams of two centuries before, the
old chimney-corner looked warm and cosy with its oaken, well-polished
settle, and the big pot simmering upon the fire.  The furniture, too,
was little changed since the old coaching days, while about the place
was a general air of affluence and comfort.

"You've lived here a long time, I suppose?"  Reggie inquired, when we
had glanced around and noted the little lancet window in the
chimney-corner whence the toll-keeper in the old days could obtain a
view for miles along the highroad that ran away across the open
moorlands.

"I've been here this three-and-twenty years come next Michaelmas."

"And your husband?"

"Oh! he's here," she laughed, then called, "Come here, Henry, where are
you?" and then she added, "He's never left here once since he came home
from sea eighteen years ago.  We're both so very attached to the old
place.  A bit lonely, folks would call it, but Burghwallis is only a
mile away."

At mention of her husband's return from sea we both pricked up our ears.
Here was evidently the man for whom Burton Blair had searched the
length and breadth of England.

CHAPTER NINETEEN.

WHICH CONTAINS A CLUE.

A door opened and there came forward a tall, thin, wiry old man with
white hair and a pointed grey beard.  He had evidently retired on our
arrival in order to change his coat, for he wore a blue reefer jacket
which had had but little wear, but the collar of which was twisted,
showing that he had only that moment assumed it.

His face was deeply wrinkled with long, straight furrows across the
brows; the countenance of a man who for years had been exposed to
rigours of wind and weather in varying climates.

Having welcomed us, he laughed lightly when we explained our admiration
for old houses.  We were Londoners, we explained, and toll-houses and
their associations with the antiquated locomotion of the past always
charmed us.

"Yes," he said, in a rather refined voice for such a rough exterior,
"they were exciting days, those.  Nowadays the motor car has taken the
place of the picturesque coach and team, and they rush past here
backwards and forwards, blowing their horns at every hour of the day and
night.  Half the time we have a constable lying in wait in the back
garden ready to time them on to Campsall, and take 'em to the Petty
Sessions afterwards!" he laughed; "and fancy this at the very spot where
Claude Duval held up the Duke of Northumberland and afterwards gallantly
escorted Lady Mary Percy back to Selby."

The old fellow seemed to deplore the passing of the good old days, for
he was one of what is known as "the old school," full of narrow-minded
prejudices against every new-fangled idea, whether it be in medicine,
religion or politics, and declaring that when he was a youth men were
men and could hold their own successfully against the foreigner, either
in the peace of commerce or in the clash of arms.

To my utter surprise he told us that his name was Hales--the same as
that of Mabel's secret lover, and as we chatted with him we learned that
he had been a good many years at sea, mostly in the Atlantic and
Mediterranean trades.

"Well, you seem pretty comfortable now," I remarked, smiling, "a cosy
house, a good wife, and everything to make you happy."

"You're right," he answered, taking down a long clay pipe from the rack
over the open hearth.  "A man wants nowt more.  I'm contented enough and
I only wish everybody in Yorkshire was as comfortable this hard
weather."

The aged pair seemed flattered at receiving us as visitors, and
good-naturedly offered us a glass of ale.

"It's home-brewed, you know," declared Mrs. Hales.  "The likes of us
can't afford wine.  Just taste it," she urged, and being thus pressed we
were glad of an excuse to extend our visit.

The old lady had bustled out to the kitchen to fetch glasses, when
Reggie rose to his feet, closed the door quickly, and, turning to Hales,
said in a low voice--

"We want to have five minutes' private conversation with you, Mr. Hales.
Do you recognise this?" and he drew forth the photograph and held it
before the old man's eyes.

"Why, it's a picture o' my house," he exclaimed in surprise.  "But
what's the matter!"

"Nothing, only just answer my questions.  They are most important, and
our real object in coming here is to put them to you.  First, have you
ever known a man named Blair--Burton Blair."

"Burton Blair!" echoed the old fellow, his hands on the arms of his
chair as he leaned forward intently.  "Yes, why?"

"He discovered a secret, didn't he?"

"Yes, through me--made millions out of it, they say."

"When did you last see him?"

"About five or six years ago."

"When he discovered you living here?"

"That's it.  He searched every road in England to find me."

"You gave him this photograph?"

"No, I think he stole it."

"Where did you first meet him?"

"On board the _Mary Crowle_ in the port of Antwerp.  He was at sea, like
myself.  But why do you wish to know all this?"

"Because," answered Reggie, "Burton Blair is dead, and his secret has
been bequeathed to my friend here, Mr. Gilbert Greenwood."

"Burton Blair dead!" cried the old man, jumping to his feet as though he
had received a shock.  "Burton dead!  Does Dicky Dawson know this?"

"Yes, and he is in London," I replied.

"Ah!" he ejaculated, with impatience, as though the premature knowledge
held by the man Dawson had upset all his plans.  "Who told him?  How the
devil did he know?"

I had to confess ignorance, but in reply to his demand I deplored the
tragic suddenness of our friend's decease, and how I had been left in
possession of the pack of cards upon which the cipher had been written.

"Have you any idea what his secret really was?" asked the wiry old
fellow.  "I mean of where his great wealth came from?"

"None whatever," was my reply.  "Perhaps you can tell us something?"

"No," he snapped, "I can't.  He became suddenly rich, although only a
month or so before he was on tramp and starving.  He found me and I gave
him certain information for which I was afterwards well repaid.  It was
this information, he told me, which formed the key to the secret."

"Was it anything to do with this pack of cards and the cipher?"  I
inquired eagerly.

"I don't know, I've never seen the cards you mention.  When he arrived
here one cold night, he was exhausted and starving and dead beat.  I
gave him a meal and a bed, and told him what he wanted to know.  Next
morning, with money borrowed from me, he took train to London and the
next I heard of him was a letter which stated that he had paid into the
County Bank at York to my credit one thousand pounds, as we had arranged
to be the price of the information.  And I tell you, gentlemen, nobody
was more surprised than I was to receive a letter from the bank next
day, confirming it.  He afterwards deposited a similar sum in the bank,
on the first of January every year--as a little present, he said."

"Then you never saw him after the night that his search for you was
successful?"

"No, not once," Hales answered, addressing his wife, who had just
entered, saying that he was engaged in a private conversation, and
requesting her to leave us, which she did.  "Burton Blair was a queer
character," Hales continued, addressing me, "he always was.  No better
sailor ever ate salt junk.  He was absolutely fearless and a splendid
navigator.  He knew the Mediterranean as other men know Cable Street,
Whitechapel, and had led a life cram-full of adventure.  But he was a
reckless devil ashore--very reckless.  I remember once how we both
narrowly escaped with our lives at a little town outside Algiers.  He
pulled an Arab girl's veil off her face out of sheer mischief, and, when
she raised the alarm, we had to make ourselves scarce, pretty quick, I
can tell you," and he laughed heartily at the recollection of certain
sprees ashore.  "But both he and I had had pretty tough times in the
Cameroons and in the Andes.  I was older than he, and when I first met
him I laughed at what I believed to be his ignorance.  But I soon saw
that he'd crammed about double the amount of travelling and adventure
into his short spell than ever I had done, for he had a happy knack of
deserting and going up country whenever an opportunity offered.  He'd
fought in half-a-dozen revolutions in Central and South America and used
to declare that the rebels in Guatemala, had, on one occasion, elected
him Minister of Commerce!"

"Yes," I agreed, "he was in many ways a most remarkable man with a most
remarkable history His life was a mystery from beginning to end, and it
is that mystery which now, after his death, I am trying to unravel."

"Ah!  I fear you'll find it a very difficult task," replied his old
friend, shaking his head.  "Blair was secret in everything.  He never
let his right hand know what his left did.  You could never get at the
bottom of his ingenuity, or at his motives.  And," he added, as though
it were an afterthought, "can you assign any reason why he should have
left his secret in your hands?"

"Well, only gratitude," I replied.  "I was able on one occasion to
render him a little assistance."

"I know.  He told me all about it--how you had both put his girl to
school, and all that.  But," he went on, "Blair had some motive when he
left you that unintelligible cipher, depend upon it.  He knew well
enough that you would never obtain its solution alone."

"Why?"

"Because others had tried before you and failed."

"Who are they?"  I inquired, much surprised.

"Dick Dawson is one.  If he had succeeded he might have stood in Blair's
shoes--a millionaire.  Only he wasn't quite cute enough, and the secret
passed on to your friend."

"Then you don't anticipate that I shall ever discover the solution of
the cipher?"

"No," answered the old man, very frankly, "I don't.  But what of his
girl--Mabel, I think she was called?"

"She's in London and has inherited everything," I replied; whereat the
old fellow's furrowed face broadened into a grim smile, and he
remarked--

"A fine catch for some young fellow, she'd make.  Ah! if you could
induce her to tell all she knows she could place you in possession of
her father's secret."

"Does she actually know it?"  I cried quickly.  "Are you certain of
this?"

"I am; she knows the truth.  Ask her."

"I will," I declared.  "But cannot you tell us the nature of the
information you gave to Blair on that night when he re-discovered you?"
I asked persuasively.

"No," he replied in a decisive tone, "it was a confidential matter and
must remain as such.  I was paid for my services, and as far as I am
concerned, I have wiped my hands of the affair."

"But you could tell me something concerning this strange quest of
Blair's--something, I mean, that might put me on the track of the
solution of the secret."

"The secret of how he gained his wealth, you mean, eh?"

"Of course."

"Ah, my dear sir, you'll never discover that--mark me--if you live to be
a hundred.  Burton Blair took jolly good care to hide that from
everybody."

"And he was well assisted by such men as your self," I said, rather
impertinently, I fear.

"Perhaps, perhaps so," he said quickly, his face flushing.  "I promised
him secrecy and I've kept my promise, for I owe my present comfortable
circumstances solely to his generosity."

"A millionaire can do anything, of course.  His money secures him his
friends."

"Friends, yes," replied the old man, gravely; "but not happiness.  Poor
Burton Blair was one of the unhappiest of men, that I am quite certain
of."

He spoke the truth, I knew.  The millionaire had himself many times
declared to me in confidence that he had been far happier in his days of
penury and careless adventure beyond the seas, than as possessor of that
great West End mansion, and the first estate in Herefordshire.

"Look here," exclaimed Hales, suddenly, glancing keenly from Reggie to
myself, "I give you warning," and he dropped his voice to almost a
whisper.  "You say that Dick Dawson has returned--beware of him.  He
means mischief, you may bet your hat on that!  Be very careful of his
girl, too, she knows more than you think."

"We have a faint suspicion that Blair did not die a natural death," I
remarked.

"You have?" he exclaimed, starting.  "What causes you to anticipate
that?"

"The circumstances were so remarkable," I replied, and continuing, I
explained the tragic affair just as I have written it here.

"You don't suspect Dicky Dawson, I suppose?" the old fellow asked
anxiously.

"Why?  Had he any motive for getting rid of our friend?"

"Ah!  I don't know.  Dicky is a very funny customer.  He always held
Blair beneath his thumb.  They were a truly remarkable pair; the one
blossoming forth into a millionaire, and the other living strictly in
secret somewhere abroad--in Italy, I think."

"Dawson must have had some very strong motive for remaining so quiet," I
observed.

"Because he was compelled," answered Hales, with a mysterious shake of
the head.  "There were reasons why he shouldn't show his face.  Myself,
I wonder why he has dared to do so now."

"What!"  I cried eagerly, "is he wanted by the police or something?"

"Well," answered the old man, after some hesitation, "I don't think he'd
welcome a visit from any of those inquisitive gentlemen from Scotland
Yard.  Only remember I make no charges, none at all.  If, however, he
attempts any sharp practice, you may just casually mention that Harry
Hales is still alive, and is thinking of coming up to London to pay him
a morning call.  Just watch what effect those words will have upon him,"
and the old man chuckled to himself, adding, "Ah!  Mr. Dicky-bird
Dawson, you've got to reckon with me yet, I fancy."

"Then you'll assist us?"  I cried in eagerness.  "You can save Mabel
Blair if you will?"

"I'll do all I can," was Hales' outspoken reply, "for I recognise that
there's some very ingenious conspiracy afoot somewhere."  Then, after a
long pause, during which he had re-filled his long clay, and his eyes
fixed thoughtfully upon mine, the old man added, "You told me a little
while ago that Blair had left you his secret, but you didn't explain to
me the exact terms of his will.  Was anything said about it?"

"In the clause which bequeaths it to me is a strange rhyme which runs--

  "`King Henry the Eighth was a knave to his queens.
  He'd one short of seven--and nine or ten scenes!'

"and he also urged me to preserve the secret from every man as he had
done.  But," I added bitterly, "the secret being in cipher I cannot
obtain knowledge of it."

"And have you no key?" smiled the hard-faced old seafarer in the thick
reefer.

"None--unless," and at that moment a strange thought flashed for the
first time upon me, "unless the key is actually concealed within that
rhyme!"  I repeated the couplet aloud.  Yes, all the cards of that
piquet pack were mentioned in it--king, eight, knave, queen, seven,
nine, ten!

My heart leapt within me.  Could it be possible that by arranging the
cards in the following order the record could be read?

If so, then Burton Blair's strange secret was mine at last!

I mentioned my sudden and startling theory, when the tall old fellow's
grey face broadened into a triumphant grin and he said--

"Arrange the cards and try it."

CHAPTER TWENTY.

THE READING OF THE RECORD.

The envelope containing the thirty-two cards reposed in my pocket,
together with the linen-mounted photograph, therefore, clearing the
square old oak table, I opened them out eagerly, while Reggie and the
old man watched me breathlessly.

"The first mentioned in the rhyme is king," I said.  "Let us have all
four kings together."

Having arranged them, I placed the four eights, the four knaves, the
queens, aces, sevens, nines and tens, in the order given by the
doggerel.

Reggie was quicker than I was in reading down the first column and
declared it to be a hopeless jumble entirely unintelligible.  I read for
myself, and, deeply disappointed, was compelled to admit that the key
was not, after all, to be found there.

Yet I recollected what my friend in Leicester had explained, how the
record would be found in the first letter on each card being read
consecutively from one to another through the whole pack, and tried over
and over again to arrange them in intelligible order, but without any
success.  The cipher was just as tantalising and bewildering as it had
ever been.

Whole nights I had spent with Reggie, trying in vain to make something
of it, but failing always, unable to make out one single word.

I transcribed the letters backwards, but the result upon my piece of
paper was the same.

"No," remarked old Hales, "you haven't got hold of it yet.  I'm sure,
however, you are near it.  That rhyme gives the key--you mark me."

"I honestly believe it does if we could only discover the proper
arrangement," I declared in breathless excitement.

"That's just it," remarked Reggie, in dismay.  "That's just where the
ingenuity of the cipher lies.  It's so very simple, and yet so
extraordinarily complicated that the possible combinations run into
millions.  Think of it!"

"But we have the rhyme which distinctly shows their arrangement:--

  "`King Henry the Eighth was a knave to his queen,
  He'd one short of seven and nine or ten--'

"That's plain enough, and we ought, of course, to have seen it from the
first," I said.

"Well, try the king of one suit, the eight of another, the knave of
another--and so on," Hales suggested, bending with keen interest over
the faces of the pigmy cards.

Without loss of time I took his advice, and carefully relaid the cards
in the manner he suggested.  But again the result was an unintelligible
array of letters, puzzling, baffling and disappointing.

I recollected what my expert friend had told me, and my heart sank.

"Don't you really know now the means by which the problem can be
solved?"  I asked of old Mr. Hales, being seized with suspicion that he
was well aware of it.

"I'm sure I can't tell you," was his quick response.  "To me, however,
it seems certain that the rhyme in some way forms the key.  Try another
assortment."

"Which?  What other can I try?"  I asked blankly, but he only shook his
head.

Reggie, with paper and pencil, was trying to make the letters
intelligible by the means I had several times tried--namely, by
substituting A for B, C for D, and so on.  Then he tried two letters
added, three letters added, and more still, in order to discover some
key, but, like myself, he was utterly foiled.

Meanwhile, the old man who seemed to be fingering the cards with
increased interest was, I saw, trying to rearrange them himself by
placing his finger upon one and then another, and then a third, as
though he knew the proper arrangement, and was reading the record to
himself.

Was it possible that he actually held the key to what we had displayed,
and was learning Burton Blair's secret while we remained in ignorance of
it!

Of a sudden, the wiry old seafarer straightened his back, and, looking
at me, exclaimed, with a triumphant smile--

"Now, look here, Mr. Greenwood, there are four suites, aren't there?
Try them in alphabetical order--that would be clubs, diamonds, hearts
and spades.  First take all the clubs and arrange them king, eight,
knave, queen, ace, seven, nine, ten, then the diamonds, and afterwards
the other two suites.  Then see what you make of it."

Assisted by Reggie, I proceeded to again resort the cards into suites,
and to arrange them according to the rhyme in four columns of eight each
upon the table, the suites as he suggested, in alphabetical order.

"At last!" shouted Reggie, almost beside himself with joy.  "At last!
Why, we've got it, old chap!  Look!  Read the first letter on each card
straight down, one after the other?  What do you make it spell?"

All three of us were breathless--old Hales apparently the most excited
of all--or perhaps, he had been misleading us and pretending ignorance.

I had, as yet, only placed the first suite, the clubs, but they read as
follows:--

  King.  B O N T D R N N C R O A U I T
  Eight.  E I T Y G O J T A E N N W N H
  Knave.  T N H J E N T Y N D J O I D E
  Queen.  W T E S J T H F D T O L L T C
  Ace.  E W J I W H E O E H N D L H R
  Seven.  E H L X H E F U F E E E F E O
  Nine.  N E E P E F I R E R W O I O S
  Ten.  T R F A R I F J N E I N N L S

"Why!"  I cried, staring at the first intelligible word I had
discovered.  "The first column commences `Between.'"

"Yes, and I see other words in the other columns!" cried Reggie,
excitedly snatching some of the cards from me in his excitement, and
assisting me to rearrange the other suites.

Those moments were among the most breathless and exciting of my life.
The great secret which had brought Burton Blair all his fabulous wealth
was about to be revealed to us.

It might render me a millionaire as it had already done its dead
possessor!

At last the cards being all arranged in their proper order, the eight
diamonds, eight hearts and eight spades beneath the eight clubs, I took
a pencil and wrote down the first letter on each card.

"Yes!"  I cried, almost beside myself with excitement, "the arrangement
is perfect.  Blair's secret is revealed!"

"Why, it's some kind of record!" exclaimed Reggie.  "And it begins with
the words `Between the Ponte del Diavolo!'  That's Italian for the
Devil's Bridge, I suppose!"

"The Ponte del Diavolo is an old mediaeval bridge near Lucca," I
explained quickly, and then I recollected the grave-faced Capuchin, who
lived in that silent monastery close by.  But at that moment all my
attention was given to the transcript of the cipher, and I had no time
for reflection.  The letter "J" was inserted sometimes in place of a
space, apparently in order to throw the lettering out, and so conceal it
from any chance solution.

At length, after nearly a quarter of an hour, for certain of the faded
letters on the cards were almost obliterated, I discovered that the
decipher I had scribbled was a strange record as follows:--"Between the
Ponte del Diavolo and the point where the Serchio joins the Lima on the
left bank, four hundred and fifty-six paces from the foot of the bridge,
where the sun shines only one hour on the fifth of April and two hours
on the fifth of May, at noon, descend twenty-four foot-holes behind
where a man can defend himself against four hundred.  There two big
rocks one on each side.  On one will be found cut the figure of an old
`E.'  On the right hand go down and you will find what you seek.  But
first find the old man who lives at the crossways."

"I wonder what it all means!" remarked Reggie, who, turning to old Mr.
Hales, added, "The latter indicates you," whereat the old fellow laughed
knowingly, and we saw that he knew more of Blair's affairs than he would
admit.

"It means," I said, "that some secret is concealed in that narrow,
romantic valley of the Serchio, and these are the directions for its
discovery.  I know the winding river where through ages the water has
cut deeply down into a rocky bed full of giant boulders and wild leaping
torrents and deep pools.  Of the pointed Ponte del Diavolo are told many
quaint stories of the devil building the bridge and taking for his own
the first living thing to pass over it, which proved to be a dog.
Indeed," I added, "the spot is one of the wildest and most romantic in
all rural Tuscany.  Strange, too, the Fra Antonio should live in the
monastery only three miles from the spot indicated."

"Who is Fra Antonio?" asked Hales, still gazing upon the cards
thoughtfully.

I explained, whereupon the old fellow smiled, and I felt certain that he
recognised in the monk's description one of Blair's friends of days
bygone.

"Who actually wrote this record?"  I inquired of him.  "It was not
Blair, that's plain."

"No," was his reply.  "Now that it has been legally left to you by our
friend, and that you have succeeded in deciphering it, I may as well
tell you something more concerning it."

"Yes, do," we both cried eagerly with one breath.

"Well, it happened in this way," explained the thin old fellow, pressing
down the tobacco hard into his long clay.  "Some years ago I was serving
as first mate on the barque _Annie Curtis_ of Liverpool, engaged in the
Mediterranean fruit trade and running regularly between Naples, Smyrna,
Barcelona, Algiers and Liverpool.  Our crew was a mixed one of English,
Spaniards and Italians, and among the latter was an old fellow named
Bruno.  He was a mysterious individual from Calabria, and among the crew
it was whispered that he had once been the head of a noted band of
brigands who had terrorised that most southern portion of Italy, and who
had only recently been exterminated by the Carabineers.  The other
Italians nicknamed him Baffitone, which in their language is, I believe,
Big Moustache.  He was a hard worker, drank next to nothing, and was
apparently rather well-educated, for he spoke and wrote English quite
well, and further he was always worrying everybody to devise ciphers,
the solution of which he would set himself in his leisure to puzzle out.
One day, on a religious feast, made excuse by the Italians for a
holiday, I found him in the forecastle writing something on a small pack
of cards.  He tried to conceal what he was doing, but, my curiosity
aroused, I detected at once how he had arranged them, and the very fact
told me what a remarkably ingenious cipher he had discovered."

The old man paused for a moment, as though he hesitated to tell us the
whole truth.  Presently when he had lit his pipe with a spill, he
resumed, saying--

"I left the sea, came back to my wife here, and for fully six years saw
nothing of the Italian until one day, looking well and prosperous in a
suit of brand new clothes and a new hard hat, he called upon me.  He was
still on the _Annie Curtis_, but she was in dry dock, and therefore he
was, he said, having a bit of a spree ashore.  He remained here with me
for two days, and with his little camera, evidently a fresh acquisition
he snapshotted every conceivable object, including this house.  Before
he went away he took me into his confidence and told me that what had
been suspected of him on board the _Annie Curtis_ was true, that he was
none other than the notorious Poldo Pensi, the brigand whose daring and
ferocity had long been chronicled in Italian song and story.  He had,
however, since the breaking up of his band, become a reformed character,
and rather than profit by certain knowledge that he had obtained while
an outlaw, he worked for his living on board an English ship.  The
knowledge, he said, was obtained from a certain Cardinal Sannini of the
Vatican whom he had held to ransom, and was of such a character that he
might become a rich man any day he wished, but having regard to the fact
that the Government had offered a large reward for his capture either
dead or alive, he deemed it best to conceal his identity and sail the
seas.  But he told me, here in this room, as we sat smoking together the
night before he departed, that the secret was on record, but in such a
manner that any one discovering it would not be able to read it without
possessing the key to the cipher."

"Then he left it on these cards!"  I cried, interrupting.

"Exactly.  The secret of Cardinal Sannini, obtained by the notorious
outlaw Poldo Pensi, whose terrible band ravaged half Italy twenty-five
years ago, and who compelled Pope Pius IX himself to pay tribute to
them, is written here--just as you have deciphered it."

"Is this man Pensi dead?"  I inquired.

"Oh yes, he died and was buried at sea, somewhere off Lisbon, before
Burton Blair came into possession of the cards.  The secret, I
ascertained, was wrung from Cardinal Sannini, who, while on his way
across the wild, inhospitable country between Reggio and Gerace was
seized by Pensi and his gang, taken up to their stronghold--a small
mountain village about three miles from Nicastro--and there held
prisoner, a large ransom being about to be demanded of the Holy See.
For certain reasons, it seemed, the wily old Cardinal in question did
not desire that the Vatican should be made aware of his capture,
therefore he made it a condition of his release that he should reveal a
certain very remarkable secret--the secret written upon the cards--which
he did, and in exchange for which Pensi released him."

"But Sannini was one of the highest placed Cardinals in Rome," I
exclaimed.  "Why, at the death of Pio Nono, he was believed to be
designed as his successor to the Pontificate."

"True," remarked the old man, who seemed well versed in all the recent
history of St. Peter's at Rome.  "The secret divulged by the Cardinal is
undoubtedly one of very great value, and he did so in order to save his
own reputation, I believe, for from what the outlaw told me, they had
discovered that he was in the extreme south in direct opposition to the
Pope's orders, and in order to stir up some religious ill-feeling
against Pio Nono.  Hence Sannini, so trusted by His Holiness, was
compelled at all hazards to keep the facts of his capture an absolute
secret.  Pensi related how, before releasing the Cardinal, he went
himself in secret to a certain spot in Tuscany, and ascertained that
what the great ecclesiastic had divulged was absolutely the truth.  He
was then released, and given safe escort back to Cosenza, whence he took
train back to Rome."

"But how came Burton Blair possessed of the secret?"  I inquired
eagerly.

"Ah!" remarked the old fellow, showing the palms of his hard brown
hands, "that's the question.  I know that upon these very cards, Poldo
Pensi, the ex-brigand of Calabria, inscribed the Cardinal's directions
in English.  Indeed you will note that the wording betrays a foreigner.
Those faded capital letters were traced by him on board the _Annie
Curtis_, and he certainly held the secret safely until his death.  What
he told me I never divulged until--well, until I was compelled to by
Burton Blair on that night when he recognised this house from Poldo's
photograph, and rediscovered me."

"Compelled you!"  Reggie exclaimed.  "How?"

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.

"WORSE THAN DEATH."

The tall old fellow looked at me with his grey eyes and shook his head.

"Burton Blair knew rather too much," he answered evasively.  "He had, it
seemed, been raised to chief mate of the _Annie Curtis_, when I left
her, and Poldo, the man who had held dukes and cardinals and other great
men to ransom, worked patiently under him.  Then after a bad go of fever
Poldo died, and strangely enough gave--so Blair declared--the pack of
cards with the secret into his hands.  Dicky Dawson, however, who was
also on board as bo'sun, and who had lived half his life on Italian
brigs in the Adriatic, declares that this story is untrue, and that
Blair stole the little bag containing the cards from beneath Poldo's
pillow half an hour before he died.  That, however, may be the truth, or
a lie, yet the facts remain, that Poldo must have let out some portion
of his secret in the delirium of the fever and that the little cards
passed into Blair's possession.  Three weeks after the Italian's death,
Blair, on landing at Liverpool, carrying with him the cards and the
snap-shot photograph, set out on that very long and fatiguing journey up
and down all the roads in England, in order to find me, and learn from
me the key to the secret of the outlaws which I held."

"And when at last he found you, what then?"

"He alleged solemnly that Bruno had given it to him as a dying gift, and
that his reason for seeking me was because the old outlaw had, before he
died, requested to see the photograph from his sea-chest, and looking
upon it for a long time, had said to himself reflectively in Italian,
`There lives in that house the only man who knows my secret.'  For that
reason Blair evidently secured the picture after the Italian's death.
On arrival here he showed me the cards, and promised me a thousand
pounds if I would reveal the Italian's confidences.  As the man was
dead, I saw no reason to withhold them, and in exchange for a promise to
pay the amount I told him what he wanted to know, and among other
matters explained the rearrangement of the cards, so that he could
decipher them.  The key to the cipher I had learnt on that festival when
I had discovered Poldo writing upon a pack of cards a message, evidently
intended for the Cardinal himself at Rome, for I have since established
the fact that the outlaw and the ecclesiastic were in frequent but
secret communication prior to the latter's death."

"But this man Dawson must have profited enormously by the revelation
made by Blair," I remarked.  "They seem to have been most intimate
friends."

"Of course he profited," Hales replied.  "Blair, possessing this
remarkable secret, went in deadly fear of Dicky, the bo'sun, who might
declare, as he had already done, that he had stolen it from the dying
man.  He was well aware that Dawson was an unscrupulous sailor of the
very worst type, therefore he considered it a very judicious course, I
suppose, to go into partnership with him and assist in the exploration
of the secret.  But poor Blair must have been in the fellow's hands all
through although it is plain that the gains Blair made were enormous,
while those of Dicky have been equal, although it seems probable that
the latter has lived in absolute obscurity."

"Dawson feared to come to England," Reggie remarked.

"Yes," answered the old man.  "There was a rather ugly incident in
Liverpool a few years ago--that's the reason."

"There is no negative evidence regarding the actual gift of the pack of
cards to Blair by this reformed outlaw, is there!"  I inquired.

"None whatever.  For my own part I believe that Poldo gave them to Blair
together with instruction to return ashore and find me, because he had
showed him many little kindnesses during repeated illnesses.  Poldo, on
giving up his evil ways, had become religious and used to attend
sailors' Bethels and missions when ashore, while Blair was, as you know,
a very God-fearing man for a sailor.  When I recollect all the
circumstances, I believe it was only natural that Poldo should give the
dead Cardinal's secret into the hands of his best friend."

"The spot indicated is near Lucca in Tuscany," I remarked.  "You say
that this outlaw, Poldo Pensi, had been there and made an investigation.
What did he find?"

"He found what the Cardinal had told him he would find.  But he never
explained to me its nature.  All he would tell was that the secret would
render its possessor a very wealthy man--which it certainly did in
Blair's case."

"The connexion of the Church between the late Cardinal Sannini and Fra
Antonio, the Monk of Lucca, is strange," I observed.  "Is the monk, I
wonder, in possession of the secret?  He certainly had some connexion
with the affair, as shown by his constant consultations with the man
Dawson."

"No doubt," remarked Reggie, turning over the little cards idly.  "We've
now got to discover the exact position of both men, and at the same time
prevent this fellow Dawson from obtaining too firm a hold on Mabel
Blair's fortune."

"Leave that to me," I said confidently.  "For the present our line of
action is quite clear.  We must investigate the spot on the bank of the
Serchio and discover what is hidden there."  Then turning to Hales, I
added, "In the record it is, I notice, distinctly directed `First find
the old man who lives at the house by the crossways.'  What does that
mean?  Why is that direction given?"

"Because I suppose that when the record was written upon these cards I
was the only other person having any knowledge of the Cardinal's
secret--the only person, too, possessing the key to the cipher."

"But you affected ignorance of all this at first," I said, still viewing
the old fellow with some suspicion.

"Because I was not certain of your _bona-fides_," he laughed quite
frankly.  "You took me by surprise, and I was not inclined to show my
hand prematurely."

"Then you have really told us all you know?"  Reggie said.

"Yes, I know no more," he replied.  "As to what is contained at the spot
indicated in the record, I am quite ignorant.  Remember that Blair has
paid me justly, even more than he stipulated, but as you are well aware
he was a most reserved man concerning his own affairs, and left me in
entire ignorance."

"You can give us no further information regarding this one-eyed man who
seems to have been Blair's partner in the extraordinary enterprise?"

"None, except that he's a very undesirable acquaintance.  It was Poldo
who nicknamed him `The Ceco.'"

"And the monk who calls himself Fra Antonio?"

"I know nothing of him--never heard of any such person."

It was upon the tip of my tongue to inquire whether the old man had a
son, and if that son's name was Herbert, recollecting, as I did, that
tragic midnight scene in Mayvill Park.  Yet, fortunately perhaps, I was
prompted to remain silent, preferring to conceal my knowledge and to
await developments of the extraordinary situation.

Still a fierce, mad jealousy was gnawing at my heart.  Mabel, the calm,
sweet girl I loved so well, and whose future had been entrusted to me,
had, like so many other girls, committed the grievous error of falling
in love with a common man, rough, uncouth, and far beneath her station.
Love in a cottage--about which we hear so much--is all very well in
theory, just as is the empty-pocket-light-heart fallacy, but in these
modern days the woman habituated to luxury can never be happy in the
four-roomed house any more than the man who gallantly marries for love
and foregoes his inheritance.

No.  Each time I recollected that young ruffian's sneers and threats,
his arrogance and his final outburst of murderous passion, which had
been so near producing a fatal termination to my well-beloved, my blood
boiled.  My anger was aflame.  The fellow had escaped, but within myself
I determined that he should not go scot-free.

And yet, when I recollected, it seemed as though Mabel were utterly and
irresistibly in that man's power, even though she had attempted
defiance.

We remained with Hales and his wife for another hour learning few
additional facts except from a word that the old lady let drop.  I
ascertained that they actually had a son whose name was Herbert, but
whose character was none too good.

"He was in the stables at Belvoir," his mother explained when I made
inquiry of him.  "But he left nearly two years ago, and we haven't seen
him since.  He writes sometimes from various places and appears to be
prospering."

The fellow was, therefore, as I had surmised from his appearance, a
horsekeeper, a groom, or something of that kind.

It was already half-past seven when we arrived back at King's Cross, and
after a hasty chop at a small Italian restaurant opposite the station,
we both drove to Grosvenor Square, in order to explain to Mabel our
success in the solution of the cipher.

Carter, who admitted us, knew us so well that he conducted us straight
upstairs to the great drawing-room, so artistically lit with its shaded
electric lights placed cunningly in all sorts of out-of-the-way corners.
Upon the table was a great old punch-bowl, full of splendid Gloire de
Dijon roses, which the head gardener sent with the fruit from the house
at Mayvill daily.  Their arrangement was, I knew, by the hand of the
woman whom for years I had secretly admired and loved.  Upon a side
table was a fine panel photograph of poor Burton Blair in a heavy silver
frame, and upon the corner his daughter had placed a tiny bow of crape
to honour the dead man's memory.  The great house was full of those
womanly touches that betrayed the sweet sympathy of her character and
the calm tranquillity of her life.

Presently the door opened, and we both rose to our feet, but instead of
the bright, sunny-hearted girl with the musical voice and merry, open
face, there entered the middle-aged bearded man in gold-rimmed glasses,
who was once the bo'sun of the barque _Annie Curtis_ of Liverpool, and
afterwards had been the secret partner of Burton Blair.

"Good evening, gentlemen," he exclaimed, bowing with that forced veneer
of polish he sometimes assumed.  "I am very pleased to welcome you here
in my late friend's house.  I have, as you will perceive, taken up my
quarters here in accordance with the terms of poor Blair's will, and I
am pleased to have this opportunity of again meeting you."

The fellow's cool impudence took us both entirely aback.  He seemed so
entirely confident that his position was unassailable.

"We called to see Miss Blair," I explained.  "We were not aware that you
were about to take up your residence here quite so quickly."

"Oh, it is best," he assured us.  "There are a great many matters in
connexion with Blair's wide interests that require immediate attention,"
and as he was speaking, the door again opened and there entered a
dark-haired woman of about twenty-six, of medium height, rather showily
dressed in a black, low-cut gown, but whose countenance was of a rather
common type, yet, nevertheless, somewhat prepossessing.

"My daughter, Dolly," explained the one-eyed man.  "Allow me to
introduce you," and we both gave her rather a cold bow, for it seemed
that they had both made their abode there, and taken over the management
of the house in their own hands.

"I suppose Mrs. Percival still remains?"  I inquired after a few
moments, on recovering from the shock at finding the adventurer and his
daughter were actually in possession of that splendid mansion which half
London admired and the other half envied--the place of which numerous
photographs and descriptions had appeared in the magazines and ladies'
journals.

"Yes, Mrs. Percival is still in her own sitting-room.  I left her there
five minutes ago.  Mabel, it seems, went out at eleven o'clock this
morning and has not returned."

"Not returned," I exclaimed in quick surprise.  "Why not?"

"Mrs. Percival seems to be very upset.  Fears something has happened to
her, I think."

Without another word I ran down the broad staircase with its crystal
balustrade and, tapping at the door of the room, set apart for Mrs.
Percival, and announcing my identity, was at once allowed admittance.

The instant the prim elderly widow saw me she sprang to her feet in
terrible distress, crying--

"Oh, Mr. Greenwood, Mr. Greenwood!  What can we do?  How can we treat
these terrible people?  Poor Mabel left this morning and drove in the
brougham to Euston Station.  There she gave Peters this letter,
addressed to you, and then dismissed the carriage.  What can it possibly
mean?"

I took the note she handed me and tremblingly tore it open, to find a
few hurriedly scribbled lines in pencil upon a sheet of notepaper, as
follows:--

"Dear Mr. Greenwood,--You will no doubt be greatly surprised to learn
that I have left home for ever.  I am well aware that you entertain for
me as high a regard and esteem as I do for you, but as my secret must
come out, I cannot remain to face you of all men.  These people will
hound me to death, therefore I prefer to live in secret beyond the reach
of their taunts and their vengeance than to remain and have the finger
of scorn pointed at me.  My father's secret can never become yours,
because his enemies are far too wily and ingenious.  Every precaution
has been taken to secure it against all your endeavours.  Therefore, as
your friend I tell you it is no use grinding the wind.  All is hopeless!
Exposure means to me a fate worse than death!  Believe me that only
desperation has driven me to this step because my poor father's cowardly
enemies and mine have triumphed.  Yet at the same time I ask you to
forget entirely that any one ever existed of the name of the ill-fated,
unhappy and heartbroken Mabel Blair."

I stood with the open, tear-stained letter in my hand absolutely
speechless.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

THE MYSTERY OF A NIGHT'S ADVENTURE.

"Exposure means to me a fate worse than death," she wrote.  What could
it mean?

Mrs. Percival divined by my face the gravity of the communication, and,
rising quickly to her feet, she placed her hand tenderly upon my
shoulder, asking--

"What is it, Mr. Greenwood?  May I not know?"

For answer I handed her the note.  She read it through quickly, then
gave vent to a loud cry of dismay, realising that Burton Blair's
daughter had actually fled.  That she held the man Dawson in fear was
plain.  She dreaded that her own secret, whatever it was, must now be
exposed, and had, it seemed, fled rather than again face me.  But why?
What could her secret possibly be that she was so ashamed that she was
bent upon hiding herself?

Mrs. Percival summoned the coachman, Crump, who had driven his young
mistress to Euston, and questioned him.

"Miss Mabel ordered the _coupe_ just before eleven, ma'am," the man
said, saluting.  "She took her crocodile dressing-bag with her, but last
night she sent away a big trunk by Carter Patterson--full of old
clothing, so she told her maid.  I drove her to Euston Station where she
alighted and went into the booking-hall.  She kept me waiting about five
minutes, when she brought a porter who took her bag, and she then gave
me the letter addressed to Mr. Greenwood to give to you.  I drove home
then, ma'am."

"She went to the North, evidently," I remarked when Crump had left and
the door had closed behind him.  "It looks as though her flight was
premeditated.  She sent away her things last night."

I was thinking of that arrogant young stable worker, Hales, and
wondering if his renewed threats had really caused her to keep another
tryst with him.  If so, it was exceedingly dangerous.

"We must find her," said Mrs. Percival, resolutely.  "Ah!" she sighed,
"I really don't know what will happen, for the house is now in
possession of this odious man Dawson and his daughter, and the man is a
most uncouth, ill-bred fellow.  He addresses the servants with an easy
familiarity, just as though they were his equals; and just now, he
actually complimented one of the housemaids upon her good looks!
Terrible, Mr. Greenwood, terrible," exclaimed the widow, greatly
shocked.  "Most disgraceful show of ill-breeding!  I certainly cannot
remain here now Mabel has thought fit to leave, without even consulting
me.  Lady Rainham called this afternoon, but of course I had to be not
at home.  What can I tell people in these distressing circumstances?"

I saw how scandalised was the estimable old chaperone, for she was
nothing if not a straightforward widow, whose very life depended upon
rigorous etiquette and the traditions of her honourable family.  Cordial
and affable to her equals, yet she was most frigid and unbending to all
inferiors, cultivating a habit of staring at them through her square
eyeglass rimmed with gold, and surveying them as though they were
surprising creatures of a different flesh and blood.  It was this latter
idiosyncrasy which always annoyed Mabel, who held the very womanly creed
that one should be kind and pleasant to inferiors and cold only to
enemies.  Nevertheless, under Mrs. Percival's protective wing and active
tuition, Mabel herself had gone into the best circle of society whose
doors are ever open to the daughter of the millionaire, and had
established a reputation as one of the most charming _debutantes_ of her
season.

How society has altered in these past ten years!  Nowadays, the golden
key is the open sesame of the doors of the bluest blood in England.

The old exclusive circles are no longer, or if there are any, they are
obscure and dowdy.  Ladies go to music halls and glorified night-clubs.
What used to be regarded as the drawback from the dinner at a restaurant
is now a principal attraction.  A gentlewoman a generation ago
reasonably objected that she did not know whom she might sit next.  Now,
as was the case at the theatre in the pre-Garrick days, the loose
character of a portion of the visitors constitutes in itself a lure.
The more flagrant the scandal concerning some bedizened "impropriety"
the greater the inducement to dine in her company, and, if possible, in
her vicinity.  Of such is the tone and trend of London society to-day!

For a quarter of an hour, while Reggie was engaged with Dawson _pere et
fille_, I took counsel with the widow, endeavouring to form some idea of
where Mabel had concealed herself.  Mrs. Percival's idea was that she
would reveal her whereabouts ere long, but, knowing her firmness of
character as well as I did, I held a different opinion.  Her letter was
one of a woman who had made a resolve and meant at all hazards to keep
it.  She feared to meet me, and for that reason would, no doubt, conceal
her identity.  She had a separate account at Coutts' in her own name,
therefore she would not be compelled to reveal her whereabouts through
want of funds.

Ford, the dead man's secretary, a tall, clean-shaven, athletic man of
thirty, put his head into the room, but, finding us talking, at once
withdrew.  Mrs. Percival had already questioned him, she said, but he
was entirely unaware of Mabel's destination.

The man Dawson had now usurped Ford's position in the household, and the
latter, full of resentment, was on the constant watch and as full of
suspicion as we all were.

Reggie rejoined me presently, saying, "That fellow is absolutely a
bounder of the very first water.  Actually invited me to have a
whisky-and-soda--in Blair's house, too!  He's treating Mabel's flight as
a huge joke, saying that she'll be back quickly enough, and adding that
she can't afford to be away long, and that he'll bring her back the very
instant he desires her presence here.  In fact, the fellow talks just as
though she were as wax in his hands, and as if he can do anything he
pleases with her."

"He can ruin her financially, that's certain," I remarked, sighing.
"But read this, old chap," and I gave him her strangely-worded letter.

"Good Heavens!" he gasped, when he glanced at it, "she's in deadly
terror of those people, that's very certain.  It's to avoid them and you
that she's escaped--to Liverpool and America, perhaps.  Remember she's
been a great traveller all her youth and therefore knows her way about."

"We must find her, Reggie," I declared decisively.

"But the worst of it is that she's bent on avoiding you," he said.  "She
has some distinct reason for this, it seems."

"A reason known only to herself," I remarked pensively.  "It is surely a
_contretemps_ that now, just at the moment when we have gained the truth
of the Cardinal's secret which brought Blair his fortune, Mabel should
voluntarily disappear in this manner.  Recollect all we have at stake.
We know not who are our friends or who our enemies.  We ought both to go
out to Italy and discover the spot indicated in that cipher record, or
others will probably forestall us, and we may then be too late."

He agreed that the record being bequeathed to me, I ought to take
immediate steps to establish my claim to it, whatever might be.  We
could not disguise from ourselves the fact that Dawson, as Blair's
partner and participator of his enormous wealth, must be well aware of
the secret, and that he had already, most probably, taken steps to
conceal the truth from myself, the rightful owner.  He was a power to be
reckoned with--a sinister person, possessed of the wiliest cunning and
the most devilish ingenuity in the art of subterfuge.  Report everywhere
gave him that character.  He possessed the cold, calm manner of the man
who had lived by his wits, and it seemed that in this affair his
ingenuity, sharpened by a life of adventure, was to be pitted against my
own.

Mabel's sudden resolution and disappearance were maddening.  The mystery
of her letter, too, was inscrutable.  If she were really dreading lest
some undesirable fact might be exposed, then she ought to have trusted
me sufficiently to take me entirely into her confidence.  I loved her,
although I had never declared my passion, therefore, ignorant of the
truth, she had treated me as I had desired, as a sincere friend.  Yet,
why had she not sought my aid?  Women are such strange creatures, I
reflected.  Perhaps she loved that fellow after all!

A fevered, anxious week went by and Mabel made no sign.  One night I
left Reggie at the Devonshire about half-past eleven and walked the
damp, foggy London streets until the roar of traffic died away, the cabs
crawled and grew infrequent and the damp, muddy pavements were given
over to the tramping constable and the shivering outcast.  In the thick
mist I wandered onward thinking deeply, yet more and more mystified at
the remarkable chain of circumstances which seemed hour by hour to
become more entangled.

On and on I had wandered, heedless of where my footsteps carried me,
passing along Knightsbridge, skirting the Park and Kensington Gardens,
and was just passing the corner of the Earl's Court Road when some
fortunate circumstance awakened me from my deep reverie, and I became
conscious for the first time that I was being followed.  Yes, there
distinctly was a footstep behind me, hurrying when I hurried, slackening
when I slackened.  I crossed the road, and, before the long high wall of
Holland Park I halted and turned.  My pursuer came on a few paces, but
drew up suddenly, and I could only distinguish against the glimmer of
the street lamp through the London fog a figure long and distorted by
the bewildering mist.  The latter was not sufficiently dense to prevent
me finding my way, for I knew that part of London well.  Nevertheless,
to be followed so persistently at such an hour was not very pleasant.  I
was suspicious that some tramp or thief who had passed me by and found
me oblivious to my surroundings had turned and followed me with evil
intent.

Forward I went again, but as soon as I had done so the light, even
tread, almost an echo of my own, came on steadily behind me.  I had
heard weird stories of madmen who haunt the London streets at night and
who follow unsuspecting foot-passengers aimlessly.  It is one of the
forms of insanity well known to specialists.

Again I recrossed the road, passing through Edwarde's Square and out
into Earl's Court Road, thus retracing my steps back towards the High
Street, but the mysterious man still followed me so persistently that in
the mist, which in that part had grown thicker until it obscured the
street lamps, I confess I experienced some uneasiness.

Presently, however, just as I was turning the corner into Lexham Gardens
at a point where the fog had obscured everything, I felt a sudden rush,
and at the same instant experienced a sharp stinging sensation behind
the right shoulder.  The shock was such a severe one that I cried out,
turning next instant upon my assailant, but so agile was he that, ere I
could face him, he had eluded me and escaped.

I heard his receding footsteps--for he was running away down the Earl's
Court Road--and shouted for the police.  But there was no response.  The
pain in my shoulder became excruciating.  The unknown man had struck me
with a knife, and blood was flowing, for I felt it damp and sticky upon
my hand.

Again I shouted "Police!  Police!" until at last I heard an answering
voice in the mist and walked in its direction.  After several further
shouts I discovered the constable and to him related my strange
experience.

He held his bull's eye close to my back and said--

"Yes, there's no doubt, sir, you've been stabbed!  What kind of a man
was he?"

"I never saw him," was my lame reply.  "He always kept at a distance
from me and only approached at a point where it was too dark to
distinguish his features."

"I've seen no one, except a clergyman whom I met a moment ago passing in
Earl's Court Road--at least he wore a broad-brimmed hat like a
clergyman.  I didn't see his face."

"A clergyman!"  I gasped.  "Do you think it could have been a Roman
Catholic priest?" for my thoughts were at that moment of Fra Antonio,
who was evidently the guardian of the Cardinal's secret.

"Ah!  I'm sure I couldn't tell.  I couldn't see his features.  I only
noted his hat."

"I feel very faint," I said, as a sickening dizziness crept over me.  "I
wish you'd get me a cab.  I think I had better go straight home to Great
Russell Street."

"That's a long way.  Hadn't you better go round to the West London
Hospital first?" the policeman suggested.

"No," I decided.  "I'll go home and call my own doctor."

Then I sat upon a doorstep at the end of Lexham Gardens and waited while
the constable went in search of a hansom in the Old Brompton Road.

Had I been attacked by some homicidal maniac who had followed me all
that distance, or had I narrowly escaped being the victim of foul
assassination?  To me the latter theory seemed decidedly the most
feasible.  There was a strong motive for my death.  Blair had bequeathed
the great secret to me and I had now learnt the cipher of the cards.

This fact had probably become known to our enemies, and hence their
dastardly attempt.

Such a contingency, however, was a startling one, for if it had become
known that I had really deciphered the record, then our enemies would
most certainly take steps in Italy to prevent us discovering the secret
of that spot on the banks of the wild and winding Serchio.

At last the cab came, and, slipping a tip into the constable's palm, I
got in, and with my silk muffler placed at my back to staunch the blood,
drove slowly on through the fog at little more than foot's-pace.

Almost as soon as I entered the hansom I felt my head swimming and a
strange sensation of numbness creeping up my legs.  A curious nausea
seized me, too, and although I had fortunately been able to stop the
flow of blood, which tended to prove that the wound was not such a
serious one after all, my hands felt strangely cramped, and in my jaws
was a curious pain very much like the commencement of an attack of
neuralgia.

I felt terribly ill.  The cabman, informed by the constable of my
injury, opened the trap-door in the roof to inquire after me, but I
could scarcely articulate a reply.  If the wound was only a superficial
one it certainly had a strange effect upon me.

Of the many misty lights at Hyde Park Corner I have a distinct
recollection, but after that my senses seemed bewildered by the fog and
the pain I suffered and I recollect nothing more until, when I opened my
eyes painfully again, I found myself in my own bed, the daylight shining
in at the window and Reggie and our old friend Tom Walker, surgeon, of
Queen Anne Street, standing beside me watching me with a serious gravity
that struck me at the moment as rather humorous.

Nevertheless, I must admit that there was very little humour in the
situation.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.

WHICH IS IN MANY WAYS AMAZING.

Walker was puzzled, distinctly puzzled.  He had, I found, strapped up my
wound during my unconsciousness after probing it and injecting various
antiseptics, I suppose.  He had also called in consultation Sir Charles
Hoare, the very distinguished surgeon of Charing Cross Hospital, and
both of them had been greatly puzzled over my symptoms.

When, an hour later, I was sufficiently recovered to be able to talk,
Walker held my wrist and asked me how it all happened.

After I had explained as well as I could, he said--

"Well, my dear fellow, I can only say you've been about as near to death
as any man I've ever attended.  It was just a case of touch and go with
you.  When Seton first called me and I saw you I feared that it was all
up.  Your wound is quite a small one, superficial really, and yet your
collapsed condition has been most extraordinary, and there are certain
symptoms so mysterious that they have puzzled both Sir Charles and
myself."

"What did the fellow use?"

"Not an ordinary knife, certainly.  It was evidently a long, thin-bladed
dagger--a stiletto, most probably.  I found outside the wound upon the
cloth of your overcoat some grease, like animal fat.  I am having a
portion of it analysed and do you know what I expect to find in it?"

"No; what?"

"Poison," was his reply.  "Sir Charles agrees with me in the theory that
you were struck with one of those small, antique poignards with
perforated blades, used so frequently in Italy in the fifteenth
century."

"In Italy!"  I cried, the very name of that country arousing within me
suspicion of an attempt upon me by Dawson or by his close friend, the
Monk of Lucca.

"Yes; Sir Charles, who, as you probably know, possesses a large
collection of ancient arms, tells me that in mediaeval Florence they
used to impregnate animal fat with some very potent poison and then rub
it upon the perforated blade.  On striking a victim the act of
withdrawing the blade from the wound left a portion of the envenomed
grease within, which, of course, produced a fatal effect."

"But you surely don't anticipate that I'm poisoned?"  I gasped.

"Certainly you are poisoned.  Your wound would neither account for your
long insensibility nor for the strange, livid marks upon your body.
Look at the backs of your hands!"

I looked as he directed and was horrified to find upon each small, dark,
copper-coloured marks, which also covered my wrists and arms.

"Don't be too alarmed, Greenwood," the good-humoured doctor laughed,
"you've turned the corner, and you're not going to die yet.  You've had
a narrow squeak of it, and certainly the weapon with which you were
struck was as deadly as any that could be devised, but, fortunately, you
had a thick overcoat on, besides other heavy clothing, vests and things,
all of which removed the greater part of the venomous substance before
it could enter the flesh.  And a lucky thing it was for you, I can tell
you.  Had you been attacked like this in summer, you'd have stood no
chance."

"But who did it?"  I exclaimed, bewildered, my eyes riveted upon those
ugly marks upon my skin, the evidence that some deadly poison was at
work within my system.

"Somebody who owed you a very first-class grudge, I should fancy,"
laughed the surgeon, who had been my friend for many years and who used
sometimes to come out hunting with the Fitzwilliams.  "But cheer up, old
chap, you'll have to live on milk and beef-tea for a day or two, have
jour wound dressed and keep very quiet, and you'll soon be bobbing about
again."

"That's all very well," I replied, impatiently, "but I've got a host of
things to do, some private matters to attend to."

"Then you'll have to let them slide for a day or two, that's very
certain."

"Yes," urged Reggie, "you must really keep quiet, Gilbert.  I'm only
thankful that it isn't so serious as we at first expected.  When the
cabman brought you home and Glave tore out for Walker, I really thought
you'd die before he arrived.  I couldn't feel any palpitation of your
heart, and you were cold as ice."

"I wonder who was the brute who struck me!"  I cried.  "Great Jacob! if
I'd have caught the fellow, I'd have wrung his precious neck there and
then."

"What's the use of worrying, so long as you get better quickly?"  Reggie
asked philosophically.

But I was silent, reflecting that in the belief of Sir Charles Hoare an
old Florentine poison dagger had been used.  The very fact caused me to
suspect that the dastardly attack had been made upon me by my enemies.

We, of course, told Walker nothing of our curious quest, for the present
regarding the affair as strictly confidential.  Therefore he treated my
injury lightly, declaring that I should quickly recover by the exercise
of a little patience.

After he had left, shortly before midday, Reggie sat at my bedside and
gravely discussed the situation.  The two most pressing points at that
moment were first to discover the whereabouts of my well-beloved, and
secondly to go out to Italy and investigate the Cardinal's secret.

The days passed, long, weary, gloomy days of early spring, during which
I tossed in bed impatient and helpless.  I longed to be up and active,
but Walker forbade it.  He brought me books and papers instead, and
enjoined quiet and perfect rest.  Although Reggie and I still had our
little hunting box down at Helpstone we had not, since Blair's death,
been down there.  Besides, the season in the lace trade was an unusually
busy one, and Reggie now seemed tied to his counting-house more than
ever.

So I was left alone the greater part of the day with Glave to attend to
my wants, and with one or two male friends who now and then looked in to
smoke and chat.

Thus passed the month of March, my progress being much slower than
Walker had at first anticipated.  On analysis a very dangerous irritant
poison had been discovered mixed with the grease, and it appeared that I
had absorbed more of it into my system than was at first believed--hence
my tardy recovery.

Mrs. Percival, who at our urgent request still remained at Grosvenor
Square, visited me sometimes, bringing me fruit and flowers from the
hothouses at Mayvill, but she had nothing to report concerning Mabel.
The latter had disappeared as completely as though the earth had opened
and swallowed her.  She was anxious to leave Blair's house now that it
was occupied by the usurpers, but we had cajoled her into remaining in
order to keep some check upon the movements of the man Dawson and his
daughter.  Ford had been so exasperated at the man's manner that, on the
fifth day of the new _regime_, he had remonstrated, whereupon Dawson had
calmly placed a year's wages in banknotes in an envelope, and at once
dispensed with his further services, as, of course, he had intended to
do all along.

The confidential secretary was, however, assisting us, and at that
moment was making every inquiry possible to ascertain the whereabouts of
his young mistress.

"The house is absolutely topsy-turvy," declared Mrs. Percival one day,
as she sat with me.  "The servants are in revolt, and poor Noble, the
housekeeper, is having a most terrible time.  Carter and eight of the
other servants gave notice yesterday.  This person Dawson represents the
very acme of bad manners and bad breeding, yet I overheard him remarking
to his daughter two days ago that he actually contemplated putting up
for the Reform and entering Parliament!  Ah! what would poor Mabel say,
if she knew?  The girl, Dolly, as he calls her, the common little wench,
has established herself in Mabel's boudoir, and is about to have it
re-decorated in daffodil yellow, to suit her complexion, I believe,
while as for finances, it seems, from what Mr. Leighton says, that poor
Mr. Blair's fortune must go entirely through the fellow's hands."

"It's a shame--an abominable shame!"  I cried angrily.  "We know that
the man is an adventurer, and yet we are utterly powerless," I added
bitterly.

"Poor Mabel!" sighed the widow, who was really much devoted to her.  "Do
you know, Mr. Greenwood," she said, with a sudden air of confidence, "I
have thought more than once since her father's death that she is in
possession of the truth of the strange connexion between her father and
this unscrupulous man who has been given such power over her and hers.
Indeed, she has confessed to me as much.  And I believe that, if she
would but tell us the truth, we might be able to get rid of this
terrible incubus.  Why doesn't she do it--to save herself?"

"Because she is now in fear of him," I answered in a hard, despairing
voice.  "She holds some secret of which she lives in terror.  That, I
believe, accounts for the sudden manner in which she has left her own
roof and disappeared.  She has left the fellow in undisputed possession
of everything."

I had not forgotten Dawson's arrogance and self-confidence on the night
he had first called upon us.

"But now, Mr. Greenwood, will you please excuse me for what I am going
to say?" asked Mrs. Percival, settling her skirts after a brief pause
and looking straight into my face.  "Perhaps I have no right to enter
into your more private matters in this manner, but I trust you will
forgive me when you reflect that I am only speaking on the poor girl's
behalf."

"Well!"  I inquired, somewhat surprised at her sudden change of manner.
Usually she was haughty and frigid in the extreme, a scathing critic who
had the names of everybody's cousins aunts and nephews at her fingers'
ends.

"The fact is this," she went on.  "You might, I feel confident, induce
her to tell us the truth.  You are the only person who possesses any
influence with her now that her father in dead, and--permit me to say
so--I have reason for knowing that she entertains a very strong regard
for you."

"Yes," I remarked, unable to restrain a sigh, "we are friends--good
friends."

"More," declared Mrs. Percival, "Mabel loves you."

"Loves me!"  I cried, starting up and supporting myself upon one elbow.
"No, I think you must be mistaken.  She regards me more as a brother
than a lover, and she has, I think, learnt ever since the first day we
met in such romantic conditions, to regard me in the light of a
protector.

"No," I added, shaking my head, "there are certain barriers that must
prevent her loving me--the difference of our ages, of position and all
that."

"Ah!  There you are entirely mistaken," said the widow, quite frankly.
"I happen to know that the very reason why her father left his secret to
you was in order that you might profit by its knowledge as he had done,
and because he foresaw the direction of Mabel's affections."

"How do you know this, Mrs. Percival?"  I demanded, half inclined to
doubt her.

"Because Mr. Blair, before making his will, took me into his confidence
and asked me frankly whether his daughter had ever mentioned you in such
a manner as to cause me to suspect.  I told him the truth of course,
just as I have now told you.  Mabel loves you--loves you very dearly."

"Then for the legacy left me by poor Blair, I am, in a great measure,
indebted to you?"  I remarked, adding a word of thanks and pondering
deeply over the revelation she had just made.

"I only did what was my duty to you both," was her response.  "She loves
you, as I say, and therefore, by a little persuasion you could, I feel
convinced, induce her to tell us the truth concerning this man Dawson.
She has fled, it is true, but more in fear of what you may think of her
when her secret is out, than of the man himself.  Recollect," she added,
"Mabel is passionately fond of you, she has confessed it to me many
times, but for some extraordinary reason which remains a mystery, she is
endeavouring to repress her affection.  She fears, I think, that on your
part there is only friendship--that you are too confirmed a bachelor to
regard her with any thoughts of affection."

"Oh, Mrs. Percival!"  I cried, with a sudden outpouring, "I tell you, I
confess to you that I have loved Mabel all along--I love her now,
fondly, passionately, with all that fierce ardour that comes to a man
only once in his lifetime.  She has misjudged me.  It is I who have been
foolishly at fault, for I have been blind, I have never read her heart's
secret."

"Then she must know this at once," was the elderly woman's sympathetic
answer.  "We must discover her, at all costs, and tell her.  There must
be a reunion, and she on her part, must confess to you.  I know too well
how deeply she loves you," she added, "I know how she admires you and
how, in the secrecy of her room, she has time after time wept long and
bitterly because she believed you were cold and blind to the burning
passion of her true pure heart."

But how?  The whereabouts of my well-beloved were unknown.  She had
disappeared completely, in order, it seemed, to escape some terrible
revelation which she knew must be made sooner or later.

In the days that followed, while I lay still weak and helpless, both
Ford and Reggie were active in their inquiries, but all in vain.  I
called in the solicitor, Leighton, in consultation, but he could devise
no plan other than to advertise, yet to do so was, we agreed, scarcely
fair to her.

Curiously enough the dark-faced young woman, Dorothy Dawson, otherwise
Dolly, also betrayed the keenest anxiety for Mabel's welfare.  Her
mother was Italian, and she spoke English with a slight accent, having
always, she said, lived in Italy.  Indeed, she called upon me once to
express her regret at my illness, and I found that she really improved
on acquaintance.  Her apparent coarseness was only on account of her
mixed nationality, and although she was a shrewd young person possessed
of all the subtle Italian cunning, Reggie, I think, found her a bright
and amusing companion.

All my thoughts were, however, of my sweet lost love, and of that
common, arrogant fellow who, by his threats and taunts, held her so
irresistibly and secretly in his power.

Why had she fled in terror from me, and why had such a dastardly and
ingenious attempt been made to kill me?

I had solved the secret of the cipher only to be plunged still deeper
into the mazes of doubt, despair and mystery, for what the closed book
of the future held for me, was as you will see, truly startling and
bewildering.

The truth when revealed was hard, solid fact, and yet so strange and
amazing was it that it staggered all belief.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.

CONTAINS A TERRIBLE DISCLOSURE.

Many long and dreary weeks had passed before I had sufficiently
recovered to leave the house, and, accompanied by Reggie, take my first
drive.

It was mid April, the weather was still cold, and gay London had not yet
returned from wintering in Monte Carlo, Cairo or Rome.  Each year the
society swallows, those people who fly south with the first chill day of
autumn, return to town later, and each London season appears to be more
protracted than before.

We drove down Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner, and then, turning along
Constitution Hill, drove along the Mall.  Here a great desire seized me
to rest for a brief while and enjoy the air in St. James's Park;
therefore we alighted, paid the cabman, and, leaning upon Reggie's arm,
I strolled slowly along the gravelled walks until we found a convenient
seat.  The glories of St. James's Park, even on an April day, are a joy
for ever to the true Londoners.  I often wonder that so few people take
advantage of them.  The wondrous trees, the delicious sheet of water,
all the beauties of English rural scenery, and then the sense that all
around you are the great palaces and departments, and offices in which
the government of our great Empire is carried on--in other words, that
commingling of silence at the core of feverish and tumultuous life
outside--all these make St. James's Park one of the loveliest retreats
in England.

These things Reggie and I repeated to each other, and then, under the
soothing influence of the surroundings, there came musings and
reminiscences and the long silences which come between friends and are
the best symbols of their complete accord of feeling and opinion.

While we were thus seated I became conscious of the fact that we were in
the spot above all others where one was certain to see pass, at that
time of day most of the prominent political figures of the hour on their
way to their various Departments, or to Parliament where the sitting was
just commencing.  A Cabinet Minister, two Liberal peers, a Conservative
whip, and an Under-secretary passed in rapid succession away in the
direction of Storey's Gate.

Reggie, who took a great interest in politics, and had often occupied a
seat in the Strangers' Gallery, was pointing out to me the politicians
who passed, but my thoughts were elsewhere--with my lost love.  Now that
Mrs. Percival had revealed to me the truth of Mabel's affection I saw
how foolish I had been in making pretence of a coldness towards her that
was the very opposite to the feeling which really existed in my heart.
I had been a fool, and had now to suffer.

During the weeks I had been confined to my room I had obtained a
quantity of books, and discovered certain facts concerning the late
Cardinal who had divulged the secret--whatever it was--in return for his
release.  It appeared that Andrea Sannini was a native of Perugia, who
became Archbishop of Bologna, and was afterwards given the Cardinal's
hat.  A great favourite of Pius IX, he was employed by him upon many
delicate missions to the various Powers.  As a diplomatist he proved
himself possessed of remarkable acumen, therefore the Pope appointed him
treasurer-general, as well as director of the world-famous museums and
galleries of the Vatican.  He was, it appeared, one of the most powerful
and distinguished figures in the College of Cardinals, and became
extremely prominent for the part he played on the occasion of the entry
of the Italian troops into the Eternal City in 1870, while on the death
of Pius IX, eight years later, he was believed to be designated as his
successor, although on election the choice fell upon his colleague, the
late Cardinal Pecci, who became Leo XIII.

I was reflecting upon these facts which I had established after a good
deal of heavy reading, when Reggie suddenly cried in a low voice,--

"Why, look! there's Dawson's daughter walking with a man!"

I glanced quickly in the direction indicated and saw, crossing the
bridge that spanned the lake and approaching in our direction, a
well-dressed female figure in a smart jacket of caracul and neat toque,
accompanied by a tall thin man in black.

Dolly Dawson was walking at his side leisurely, chatting and laughing,
while he ever and anon bent towards her making some remarks.  As he
raised his head to glance across the water I saw that above his overcoat
showed a clerical collar with a tiny piece of Roman purple.  The man was
evidently a canon or other dignitary of the Catholic Church.

He was about fifty-five, grey-haired, clean-shaven and wore a silk hat
of a somewhat ecclesiastical shape, a rather pleasant-looking man in
spite of his thin sensitive lips and pale ascetic face.

In an instant it struck me that they had met clandestinely and were
sauntering there in order to avoid possible recognition if they walked
the streets.  The old priest appeared to be treating her with studied
politeness, and as I watched him I saw from his slight gesticulations as
he spoke that he was no doubt a foreigner.

I pointed out the fact to Reggie, who said--"We must watch them, old
chap.  They mustn't see us here.  I only hope they'll turn off the other
way."

For a moment we followed them with our eyes, fearing that, having
crossed the bridge, they would turn in our direction, but fortunately
they did not, but turned off to the right along the shore of the lake.

"If he really is Italian then he may have come specially from Italy to
have an interview with her," I remarked.  For ever since I had met the
monk, Antonio, there had seemed some curious connexion between the
secret of the dead cardinal and the Church of Rome.

"We must try and find out," declared Reggie.  "You mustn't remain here.
It's getting too cold for you," he added, springing to his feet.  "I'll
follow them while you return home."

"No," I said.  "I'll walk with you for a bit.  I'm interested in the
little game," and, rising also, I linked my arm in his and went forward
by the aid of my stick.

They were walking side by side in earnest conversation.  I could tell by
the priest's quick gesticulations, the way in which he first waved his
closed fingers and then raised his open hand and touched his left
forearm, that he was speaking of some secret and the possessor of it who
had disappeared.  If one knows the Italian well, one can follow in a
sense the topic of conversation by the gestures, each one having its
particular signification.

Hurrying as well as I could we gradually gained upon them, for presently
they slackened their pace, while the priest spoke earnestly, as though
persuading the daughter of the ex-boatswain of the _Annie Curtis_ to act
in some way he was directing.

She seemed silent, thoughtful and undecided.  Once she shrugged her
shoulders, and half-turned from him as though in defiance, when in a
moment the wily cleric became all smiles and apologies.  They were
talking in Italian without a doubt, so as passers-by might not
understand their conversation.  His clothes, too, I noticed were of a
distinctly foreign cut and he wore low shoes, the bright steel buckles
of which he had evidently taken off.

As they had come across the bridge she had been laughing merrily at some
quaint remark of her companion's, but now it appeared as though all her
gaiety had died out and she had realised the true object of the
stranger's mission.  The path they had taken led straight across to the
Horse Guards' Parade, and feeling a few moments later that my weakness
would not allow me to walk farther, I was compelled to turn back towards
the York Column steps, leaving Reggie to make what observations he
could.

I returned home thoroughly exhausted and very cold.  Even my big frieze
overcoat, which I used for driving when down at Helpstone, did not keep
out the biting wind.  So I sat over the fire for fully a couple of hours
until my friend at last returned.

"I've followed them everywhere," he explained, throwing himself into an
armchair opposite me.  "He's evidently threatening her, and she is
afraid of him When they got to the Horse Guards they turned back along
Birdcage Walk and then across the Green Park.  Afterwards he drove her
in a cab to one of Fuller's shops in Regent Street.  The old priest
seems mortally afraid of being recognised.  Before he left the Green
Park he turned up the collar of his overcoat so as to hide that piece of
purple at his collar."

"Did you discover his name?"

"I followed him to the _Savoy_, where he is staying.  He has given his
name as Monsignore Galli, of Rimini."

There our information ended.  It, however, was sufficient to show that
the ecclesiastic was in London with some distinct purpose, probably to
induce the Ceco's daughter to give him certain information which he
earnestly desired, and which he intended to obtain by reason of certain
knowledge which he possessed.

The days passed with gloom and rain, and Bloomsbury presented its most
cheerless aspect.  No trace could I discover of my lost love, and no
further fact concerning the white-haired monsignore.  The latter had, it
appeared, left the _Savoy_ on the following evening, returning, in all
probability, to the Continent, but whether successful in his mission or
no we were in complete ignorance.

Dolly Dawson, with whom Reggie had struck up a kind of pleasant
friendship, more for the purpose of being able to observe and question
her than anything else, called upon us on the day following to inquire
after me and hear whether we had learnt anything regarding Mabel's
whereabouts.  Her father, she told us, was absent from London for a few
days, and she was about to leave for Brighton in order to visit an aunt.

Was it possible that Dawson, having learned of my solution of the
cipher, had returned to Italy in order to secure the Cardinal's secret
from us?  I longed hour by hour for strength to travel out to that spot
beside the Serchio, but was held to those narrow rooms by my terrible
weakness.

Four long and dreary weeks passed, until the middle of May, when I had
gathered sufficient strength to walk out alone, and take short strolls
in Oxford Street and its vicinity.  Burton Blair's will had been proved,
and Leighton, who visited us several times, told us of the recklessness
with which the man Dawson was dealing with the estate.  That the
adventurer was in secret communication with Mabel was proved by the fact
that certain cheques signed by her had passed through his hands into the
bank, yet strangely enough, he declared entire ignorance of her
whereabouts.

Dawson had returned to Grosvenor Square, when one day at noon the
footman, Carter, was ushered in to me by Glave.

I saw by his face that the man was excited, and scarcely had he been
shown into my room before he exclaimed, saluting respectfully--

"I've found out Miss Mabel's address, sir!  Ever since she's been gone
I've kept my eyes on the letters sent to post, just as Mr. Ford
suggested that I should, but Mr. Dawson never wrote to her until this
morning, by accident I think, he sent a letter to the post addressed to
her, among a number of others which he gave to the page-boy.  She's at
the Mill House, Church Enstone, near Chipping Norton."

In quick delight I sprang to my feet.  I thanked him, ordered Glave to
give him a drink and left London by the half-past one train for
Oxfordshire.

Just before five o'clock I discovered the Mill House, a grey,
old-fashioned place standing back behind a high box hedge from the
village street at Church Enstone, on the highroad from Aylesbury to
Stratford.  Before the house was a tiny lawn, bright with tulip borders
and sweet-smelling narcissi.

A broad-spoken waiting-maid opened the door and ushered me into a small,
low, old-fashioned room, where I surprised my love crouched in a big
armchair, reading.

"Why?  Mr. Greenwood!" she gasped, springing to her feet, pale and
breathless, "you!"

"Yes," I said, when the girl had closed the door and we were alone, "I
have found you at last, Mabel--at last!" and, advancing, I took both her
small hands tenderly in mine.  Then, carried away by the ecstasy of the
moment, I looked straight into her eyes, saying, "You have tried to
escape me, but to-day I have found you again.  I have come, Mabel, to
confess openly to you, to tell you something--to tell you, dearest,
that--well, that I love you!"

"Love me!" she cried, dismayed, starting back, and putting me from her
with both her small, white hands.  "No! no!" she wailed.  "You must
not--you cannot love me.  It is impossible!"

"Why?"  I demanded quickly.  "I have loved you ever since that first
night when we met.  Surely you must long ago have detected the secret of
my heart."

"Yes," she faltered, "I have.  But alas! it is too late--too late!"

"Too late?"  I exclaimed.  "Why?"

She was silent.  Her countenance had suddenly blanched to the lips, and
I saw that she was trembling from head to foot.

I repeated my question seriously, my eyes fixed upon her.

"Because," she answered slowly at last in a tremulous voice so low that
I could scarce distinguish the fatal words she uttered, "because I am
already married!"

"Married!"  I gasped, standing rigid.  "And your husband!  His name!"

"Cannot you guess?" she asked.  "The man you have already seen--Herbert
Hales."  Her eyes were cast down from me as though in shame, while her
pointed chin sank upon her panting breast.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

THE SACRED NAME.

What could I say?  What would you have said?

I was silent.  I knew not what words to utter.  This scoundrelly young
groom, the ne'er-do-well son of the respectable old seafarer who spent
the evening of his days at the crossways, was actually the husband of
the millionaire's daughter!  It seemed utterly incredible, yet, on
recollecting that midnight scene in Mayvill Park, I at once recognised
how powerless she was in the hands of that low, arrogant cad, who, in a
moment of mad frenzy, had made such a desperate attempt upon her.

I recognised, too, that the love between them, if any, had ever existed,
had disappeared long ago, and that the man's sole idea was to profit by
the fact of his union with her, and blackmail her just as so many
wealthy and upright women are being blackmailed in England at this very
moment.  It flashed through my mind that the reason she did not follow
and punish the fellow for that dastardly attempt on her life was now
made plain.

She was his wife!

The very thought convulsed me with jealousy, regret and hatred, for I
loved her with all the passion, honest and true, of which a man is
capable.  Since Mrs. Percival had revealed to me the truth, I had lived
only for her, to meet her again and openly declare my love.

"Is this the truth?"  I asked her at last in a voice the hardness of
which I could not control.  I took her cold, inert hand in my own and
glanced at her bowed head.

"Alas for me it is," was her faltering response.  "He is my husband,
therefore all love between us is debarred," she added.  "You have always
been my friend, Mr. Greenwood, but now that you have forced me to
confess the truth our friendship is at an end."

"And your husband, is he here with you?"

"He has been here," was her answer, "but has gone."

"You left London in secret to join him, I suppose?"  I remarked
bitterly.

"At his demand.  He wished to see me."

"And to obtain money from you by threats as he attempted on that night
at Mayvill?"

The broken, white-faced girl nodded in the affirmative.

"I came to this place," she explained, "as a paying-guest.  A girl I
knew at school, Bessie Wood, lives here with her mother.  They believe I
made a runaway match, and have been extremely kind to me these last two
years."

"Then you've been a wife for two whole years!"  I exclaimed in blank
surprise, utterly amazed at the manner in which I had been deceived.

"For nearly that time.  We were married at Wymondham in Norfolk."

"Tell me the whole story, Mabel," I urged, after a long pause,
endeavouring to preserve an outward calm, which certainly did not
coincide with my innermost feelings.

Her breast heaved and fell beneath its lace and chiffons, her great
wonderful eyes were filled with tears.  For fully five minutes she was
overcome by her emotion and quite unable to speak.  At last, in a low,
hoarse voice, she said--

"I don't know what you must think of me, Mr. Greenwood.  I'm ashamed of
myself, and of the manner in which I've deceived you.  My only excuse is
that it was imperative.  I married because I was forced to by a chain of
circumstances, as you will realise when you know the truth."  Then she
was silent again.

"But you'll tell me the truth, won't you?"  I urged.  "I, as your best
friend, as indeed the man who has loved you, have surely a right to
know!"

She only shook her head in bitter sorrow, and looking at me through her
tears, answered briefly--

"I have told you the truth.  I am married.  I can only ask your pardon
for deceiving you and explain that I was compelled to do so."

"You mean that you were compelled to marry him?  Compelled by whom?"

"By him," she faltered.  "One morning two years ago I left London alone
and met him at Wymondham, where I had previously been staying for a
fortnight while my father was fishing.  Herbert met me at the station,
and we were married in secret, two men, picked at haphazard from the
street, acting as witnesses.  After the ceremony we parted.  I took off
my ring and returned home, no one being the wiser.  We had a
dinner-party that evening.  Lord Newborough, Lady Rainham and yourself
were there, and we went to the Haymarket afterwards.  Don't you
recollect it?  As we sat in the box you asked me why I was so dull and
thoughtful, and I pleaded a headache.  Ah! if you had but known!"

"I recollect the night perfectly," I said, pitying her.  "And it was
your wedding evening?  But how did he compel you to marry him?  The
motive is, of course, quite plain.  He wished either to profit by the
fact that you could not afford to allow the truth to be known that you
were the wife of a groom, or else his intention was to gain possession
of your money at your father's death.  Yours is certainly not the first
marriage of the sort that has been contracted," I added, with a feeling
of blank dismay.

At the very moment when my hopes had been raised to their highest level
by Mrs. Percival's statement the blow had fallen, and in an instant I
saw that love was impossible.  Mabel, the woman I loved so fondly and so
well, was the wife of a loutish brute who was torturing her to madness
by his threats, and would, as already had been proved, hesitate at
nothing in order to gain his despicable ends.

My feelings were indescribable.  No words of mine can give any adequate
idea of how torn was my heart by conflicting emotions.  Until that
moment she had been beneath my protection, yet now that she was the wife
of another I had no right to control her actions, no right to admire, no
right to love.

Ah! if ever man felt crushed, despairing and hopeless, if ever man
realised how aimless and empty his lonely life had been, I did at that
moment.

I tried to induce her to tell me how the fellow had compelled her to
marry him, but the words stuck in my throat and choked me.  Tears must,
I suppose, have stood in my eyes, for with a sudden sympathy, an
outburst of that womanly feeling so strong within her, she placed her
hand tenderly upon my shoulder and said in a low, calm voice--

"We cannot recall the past, therefore why reflect?  Act as I asked you
to act in my letter.  Forgive me and forget.  Leave me to my own
sorrows.  I know now that you have loved me, but it is--"

She could not finish the sentence, for she burst into tears.

"I know what you mean," I said blankly.  "Too late--yes, too late.  Both
our lives have been wrecked by my own folly--because I hid from you what
I as an honest man, should have told you long ago."

"No, no, Gilbert," she cried, calling me for the first time by my
Christian name, "don't say that.  The fault is not yours, but mine--
mine," and she covered her face with her hands and sobbed aloud.

"Where is this husband of yours--this man who tried to kill you?"  I
demanded fiercely a few moments later.

"Somewhere in the North, I think."

"He has been here.  When?"

"He came a week ago and remained a couple of hours."

"But he shall not blackmail you in this manner!  If I cannot remain your
lover.  I'll nevertheless still stand your champion, Mabel!"  I cried in
determination.  "He shall reckon with me."

"Ah no!" she gasped, turning to me in quick apprehension.  "You must do
nothing.  Otherwise he may--"

"What may he do?"

She was silent, gazing aimlessly out of the window across the broad
meadow-lands, now misty and silent in the dusk.

"He may," she said, in a low, broken voice, "he may tell the world the
truth!"

"What truth?"

"The truth he knows--the knowledge by which he compelled me to become
his wife," and she held her hand to her breast, as though to stay the
wild beating of her young heart.

I tried to induce her to reveal that secret to me, her most devoted
friend, but she refused.

"No," she said in a low, broken voice, "do not ask me, Gilbert--for I
know now that I may be permitted to call you by your Christian name--
because I cannot tell you of all men.  It is for me to remain silent--
and to suffer."

Her face was very pale, and I saw by her look of determination that her
mind was made up; even though she trusted me as she did, nevertheless no
power would induce her to reveal the truth to me.

"But you know what reason your father had in appointing his friend
Dawson to be controller of your fortune," I said.  "I felt confident
that a word from you would result in his withdrawal from the office he
now holds.  You cannot affect ignorance of this mysterious motive of
your father's?"

"I have already told you.  My poor father also acted under compulsion.
Mr. Leighton also knows that."

"And you are aware of the reason?"

She nodded in the affirmative.

"Then you could checkmate the fellow's plans?"

"Yes, I might," she answered slowly, "if I only dared."

"What do you fear?"

"I fear what my father feared," was her answer.

"And what was that?"

"That he would carry out a certain threat he has many times made to my
father, and later to myself.  He threatened me on the day I left home--
he dared me to breathe a single word."

Yes, that one-eyed man held power complete and absolute over her, just
as he had boasted to Mrs. Percival.  He also knew the truth concerning
the Cardinal's secret.

We sat together in that small, low, old-fashioned room, until dusk
darkened into night, when she rose wearily and lit the lamp.  Then I was
startled by discovering by its light how her sweet face had changed.
Her cheeks had grown wan and pale, her eyes were red and swollen, and
her whole countenance betrayed a deep, burning anxiety a terror of what
the unknown future held for her.

Surely hers was a strange, almost inconceivable position--a pretty young
woman with a balance of over two millions at her bankers, and yet
hounded by those who sought her ruin, degradation and death.

The fact that she was married had struck me a staggering blow.  To her I
could now be no more than a mere friend like any other man, all thoughts
of love being bebarred, all hope of happiness abandoned.  I had never
sought her for her fortune, that I can honestly avow.  I had loved her
for her own sweet, pure self, because I knew that her heart beat true
and loyal; that in strength of character, in disposition, in grace and
in beauty she was peerless.

For a long time I held her hand, feeling, I think, some satisfaction in
thus repeating the action of other times, now that I had to bid farewell
to all my hopes and aspirations.  She sat silent, troubled sighs
escaping her as I spoke, telling her of that strange, midnight adventure
in the streets of Kensington, and of how near I had been to death.

"Then, knowing that you have gained the secret written upon the cards,
they have made an attempt to seal your lips," she said at last, in a
hard, mechanical voice, almost as though speaking to herself.  "Ah! did
I not warn you of that in my letter?  Did I not tell you that the secret
is so well and ingeniously guarded that you will never succeed in either
learning it or profiting by it?"

"But I intend to persevere in the solution of the mystery of your
father's fortune," I declared, still with her hand in mine, in sad and
bitter farewell.  "He left his secret to me, and I have determined to
start out to Italy to-morrow to search the spot indicated, and to learn
the truth."

"Then you can just save yourself that trouble, mister," exclaimed the
voice of a common, uneducated man, startling me, and on turning
suddenly, I saw that the door had opened noiselessly, and there upon the
threshold, watching us with apparent satisfaction, was the man who stood
between me and my well-beloved--that clean-shaven, skulking fellow who
claimed her by the sacred name of wife!

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.

FACE TO FACE.

"I'd much like to know what your business is 'ere?" demanded the
coarse-featured fellow, whose grey bowler hat and gaiters gave him a
distinctly horsey appearance.  And as he stood in the doorway, he folded
his arms defiantly and looked me straight in the face.

"My business is my own affair," I answered, facing him in disgust.

"If it concerns my wife, I have a right to know," he persisted.

"Your wife!"  I cried, advancing towards him, with difficulty repressing
the strong impulse within me to knock the young ruffian down.  "Don't
call her your wife, fellow!  Call her by her true name--your victim!"

"Do you mean that as an insult?" he exclaimed quickly, his face turning
white with sudden anger, whereupon Mabel, seeing his threatening
attitude, sprang between us and begged me to be calm.

"There are some men whom no words can insult," I replied forcibly.  "And
you are one of them."

"What do you mean?" he cried.  "Do you wish to pick a quarrel?" and he
came forward with clenched fists.

"I desire no quarrel," was my quick response.  "I only order you to
leave this lady in peace.  She may be legally your wife, but I will
stand as her protector."

"Oh!" he sneered, with curling lip.  "And I'd like to know by what right
you interfere between us?"

"By the common right every man has to shield an unprotected and
persecuted woman," I replied, firmly.  "I know you, and am well aware of
your shameful past.  Shall I recall one incident, that, now you attempt
to defy me, you appear to have conveniently forgotten?  Do you not
recollect a certain night in the park at Mayvill not so very long ago,
and do you not recollect that you there attempted to commit a foul and
brutal murder--eh?"

He started quickly, then glared at me with the fire of a murderous
hatred in his eyes.

"She's told you, damn her!  She's given me away!" he exclaimed, with a
contemptuous glance at his trembling wife.

"No, she has not," was my response.  "I myself chanced to be witness of
your dastardly attempt upon her.  It was I who succeeded in rescuing her
from the river.  For that action of yours you must now answer to me."

"What do you mean?" he inquired, and from the lines in his countenance I
saw that my outspoken manner caused him considerable uneasiness.

"I mean that it is not for you to attempt defiance, having regard to the
fact that, had it not been for the fortunate circumstance of my presence
in the park, you would to-day be a murderer."

He shrank at that final word.  Like all his class, he was arrogant and
overbearing to the weak, but as easily cowed by firmness as a dog who
cringes at his master's voice.

"And now," I continued, "I may as well tell you that, on the night when
you would have killed this poor woman who is your victim, I also
overheard your demands.  You are a blackmailer--the meanest and worst
type of criminal humanity--and you seem to have forgotten that there is
a severe and stringent law against such an offence as yours.  You
demanded money by threats, and on refusal made a desperate endeavour to
take your wife's life.  In the assize court the evidence I could give
against you would put you into a term of penal servitude--you
understand?  Therefore I'll make this compact with you; if you will
promise not to molest your wife further, I will remain silent."

"And who the deuce are you, pray, to talk to me in this manner--like a
gaol chaplain on his weekly round!"

"You'd better keep a civil tongue, fellow, and just reflect upon my
words," I said.  "I'm no man for argument.  I act."

"Act just as you like.  I shall do as I think proper--you hear?"

"And you'll take the risk?  Very well," I said.  "You know the worst--
prison."

"And you don't," he laughed.  "Otherwise you wouldn't talk like a silly
idiot.  Mabel is my wife, and you've no say in the matter, so that's
enough for you," he added insultingly.  "Instead of trying to threaten
me, it is I who have a right to demand why I find you here--with her."

"I'll tell you!"  I cried angrily, my hands itching to give the impudent
young blackguard a sound good hiding.  "I'm here to protect her, because
she is in fear of her life.  And I shall remain here until you have
gone."

"But I'm her husband, therefore I shall stay," sneered the fellow,
perfectly unmoved.

"Then she leaves with me," I said decisively.

"I'll not allow that."

"You will act just as I think proper," I exclaimed.  Then, turning to
Mabel, who had remained white, silent and trembling, in fear lest we
should come to blows, I said, "Put on your hat and coat at once.  You
must return to London with me."

"She shall not!" he cried, unflinchingly.  "If my curses could blast yer
you'd have 'em thick."

"Mabel," I said, taking no notice of the ruffian's words, but drawing
back to allow her to pass out, "please get your coat.  I have a fly
waiting outside."

The fellow made a movement as though to prevent her leaving the room,
but in an instant my hand was heavily upon his shoulder, and by my face
he saw that I was strong and determined.

"You'll repent this!" he hissed threateningly, with an imprecation,
between his teeth.  "I know what you are searching for--but," he
laughed, "you'll never obtain that secret which gave Blair his millions.
You think you've a clue to it, but before long you'll discover your
mistake."

"In what?"

"In not uniting with me, instead of insulting me."

"I have no necessity for the assistance of any man who would kill a
helpless woman," I responded.  "Recollect that in this affair you hold
aloof from her, or, by Gad! without further ado, I'll seek the aid of
the police, when your past history will prove rather unwelcome evidence
of character."

"Do what you like," he laughed again defiantly.  "By giving me over to
the police you'll only be doing her the worst turn possible.  If you
doubt me, you'd better ask her.  Be careful how you act before you make
a fool of yourself and a victim of her."  And with this harsh, hollow
sneer he threw himself into the armchair and placed his feet on the
fender in an attitude of carelessness and calmly lit a cheap, rank
cigar.

"There will be only one sufferer, never fear," I said meaningly.  "And
that will be yourself."

"All right," he said, "we shall see."

Then turning I left the room, and meeting Mabel, who stood ready dressed
in the hall, whispering a hurried adieu to Bessie Wood, her old
schoolfellow, I hurried her out, put her into the station fly, and drove
with her back to Chipping Norton.

Even then, however, I could not understand the exact position of that
young ruffian, Herbert Hales, or the true meaning of his final ominous
words of open defiance.

For the present I had rescued my love from the arrogant, cold-blooded
brute and blackmailer, but for how brief a space I dreaded to
anticipate.  My own position, utterly in the dark as I remained, was one
of uncertainty and insecurity.  I loved Mabel, but now had no right to
do so.  She was already the wife, alas! the victim, of a man of low type
and of criminal instinct.

Our journey up to Paddington was uneventful, and in almost complete
silence.  Both our hearts, beating sadly, were too full for mere words.
The insurmountable barrier had fallen between us; we were both
grief-stricken and heart-broken.  The hopeful past had ended, the future
was one of dull and dark despair.

On arrival in London she expressed a desire to see Mrs. Percival, and as
she declined to return beneath the same roof as Dawson, I took her to
the _York Hotel_ in Albemarle Street, then, re-entering the cab, I drove
to Grosvenor Square, where I informed the chaperon of my lost love's
whereabouts.

Not an instant did Mrs. Percival delay in seeking her, and at midnight,
accompanied by Reggie, I called again at the hotel, giving her certain
injunctions to refuse to see her husband, even if he discovered her, and
taking a lingering farewell of her, as we had arranged to leave Charing
Cross for Italy by the mail at nine o'clock on the following morning.

Both Reggie and I had arrived at the conclusion that, now I was
sufficiently recovered to travel, we should not lose an instant in going
out to Tuscany, and investigating the truth regarding that cipher
record.

So she bade us both farewell, and urging us not to worry further upon
her account, although we did not fail to detect her wild anxiety as to
the result of my defiance of her ruffianly husband, she wished us all
good fortune and Godspeed in the exciting venture we were about to
undertake, with success and a safe return.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.

THE DIRECTIONS OF HIS EMINENCE.

The green, winding valley of the Serchio looks its brightest and best in
the month of May the time of flowers in old-world Italy.  Far removed
from the great routes over which the English, Americans and Germans
swarm in winter, unvisited, unknown and unexplored by any save the
simple _contadini_ of the hills, the rippling river winds with tortuous
bends around sharp angles and beneath overhanging trees, great cliffs
and huge grey boulders worn smooth by the action of the water of ages.
In those lonely reaches of the river as it dashes on with many cascades
from the giant Apennines to the sea, the brilliant kingfisher and the
stately heron are in possession, and live their lives undisturbed by
human intrusion.  As we walked on, having left the carriage that had
brought us up from Lucca at the quaint mediaeval bridge called the Ponte
del Diavolo, the rural, quiet and picturesque beauty of the scene became
impressed upon us.  The silence was unbroken, save for the hum of the
myriad insects in the sun, and the low music of the water which at that
point is shallow, running over its rocky bed.

On arrival at the _Universo_ in Lucca, my first impulse was to go up to
the monastery and see Fra Antonio.  Yet so intimate did he appear to be
with Blair's partner, the ex-boatswain Dawson, that we resolved to first
explore the spot and take some observations.  Therefore at eight that
morning we had entered one of those dusty old travelling Tuscan
carriages, the horses of which bore many jingling bells, and now, as
noon was approaching, we found ourselves on the left bank of the river,
counting the four hundred and fifty-six foot-paces as directed by the
secret record upon the cards.

To avoid being watched by our driver, to whom we had given instructions
to go back to a little wayside trattoria, or eating-house, which we had
passed, but who we knew would endeavour to secretly watch our movements,
we were at first compelled, on account of the absence of a path, to make
a detour through a small wood, rejoining the river bank at some distance
further up.

Therefore, as we reached the water, standing amid the high undergrowth
that grew upon the banks, we could only look back at the bridge and
guess that we were about one hundred foot-paces from it.

Then, tramping steadily forward in single file we pushed our way with
difficulty through the tall grass, briars, giant ferns and tangled
creepers, slowly onward towards the spot indicated.  In places the trees
met overhead, and the sun shining through the foliage struck the
rippling water with pretty effect.

According to the record the spot must be in the open, for the sun shone
upon it for one hour at noon on the fifth of April and for two hours on
the fifth of May.  It was now the nineteenth of May, therefore the
duration of the sunshine would, we roughly calculated, be about a
quarter of an hour longer.

In some places the river was open to the sun, while in others, so high
were the banks on either side, the light could never penetrate there.
From the crevices of the overhanging rocks, mountain pines and other
trees had taken root and grown to huge size, bending over until their
branches almost swept the stream, while our progress was made slower and
more difficult by the unevenness of the bank and the wild tangle of the
undergrowth.

One fact was proved--no one had approached the spot for a considerable
time, for we found not a twig severed or a leaf disturbed by previous
intruders.

At last, after we had climbed high along a rocky cliff that descended
sheer into the water, and had calculated four hundred and twenty steps
from the old pointed bridge, we suddenly rounded a bend in the river and
came upon a space where the stream, still a hundred feet or so below,
broadened out, so that it lay open to the sky for forty yards or so.

"It must be here!"  I cried in eager anticipation, halting and quickly
surveying the spot.  "The directions are to descend twenty-four
foot-holes.  I suppose that means steps cut in the rock.  We must find
them."  And both of us began to search eagerly, but in that tangled
growth we could discover no trace of them.

"The record says that we go down behind where a man can hold himself
against four hundred," exclaimed Reggie, reading from a copy of the
transcript which he took from his pocket.  "That appears as if the entry
is in some narrow crevice between two rocks.  Do you see any such likely
spot?"

I looked eagerly around but was compelled to admit that I discerned
nothing that coincided with the description.

So sheer was the grey limestone cliff, going down to the water, that I
approached its edge with caution and then, throwing myself upon my
stomach, I crept forward and peered over its insecure edge.  In doing so
a huge piece of rock became loosened and fell with a roar and splash
into the stream.

I took careful observations, but could distinguish absolutely nothing to
correspond with what the old outlaw, Poldo Pensi, had recorded.

For a full half-hour we searched in vain, until it became plain that, as
we had not measured accurately the foot-paces from the Devil's Bridge,
we were not at the exact spot.  We therefore retraced our steps slowly
and laboriously through the tangled briars and undergrowth, our clothes
suffering considerably, and then restarted from the actual base of the
bridge.  So completely had we been out of reckoning that at the three
hundred and eighty-seventh pace we passed the spot where we had made
such minute search, and continuing our way forward we halted at the four
hundred and fifty-sixth foot-pace in the top of a high encampment very
similar to the other, only wilder and even more inaccessible.

"There seems nothing here," remarked Reggie, whose face was torn by
brambles and was bleeding.

I gazed around and was reluctantly compelled to endorse his statement.
The trees were large and shady where we stood, some of them overhanging
the deep chasm through which the river wound.  Cautiously, we both crept
forward, flat upon our stomachs, to the edge of the cliff, taking that
precaution as we knew not whether the edge might be rotten, and
presently we peered over.

"Why, look!" cried my friend, pointing to a spot about half-way down the
deep swirling stream as it came round the sudden bend, "there's steps
and a path leading down just a little higher up.  And see! what's that?"

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.

DESCRIBES A STARTLING DISCOVERY.

I looked and saw that upon a kind of natural platform on the rock was
built a small stone hut, upon the grey-tiled roof of which we were
gazing down.

"Yes, there are the `twenty-four foot-holes' mentioned in the record, no
doubt," I said.  "I wonder if anybody lives down there."

"Well, let's descend and investigate," suggested Reggie anxiously, and a
few moments later we had struck a narrow track leading from the chestnut
wood direct to the roughly-cut steps that went down to a narrow opening
between two rocks.  Upon the right hand one we found deeply graven an
old-fashioned capital E, about a foot long, and passing by it we saw
that a rough and perilous track led zigzag down to the small hut, the
closed door and small barred window of which caused us the wildest
curiosity as to what was within.

Next moment, however, the truth was plain.  The front of the little
place was pointed, and upon the apex was a small stone cross.

It was a hermit's cell, like so many similar ancient places of retreat
and contemplation in old-world Italy, and an instant later, as we passed
the rocks and came cautiously down the path, the door opened, and there
issued forth the hermit himself, who, to my surprise, I recognised as no
other person than the burly, dark-bearded monk, Antonio!

"Gentlemen," he exclaimed, speaking in Italian, as he greeted us, "this
is certainly an unexpected meeting," and he indicated the stone bench
that ran along the outside of the low little hut, which I saw was so
cunningly concealed by the overhanging trees as to be invisible either
from the river or from the opposite bank.  As we seated ourselves at his
direction, he hitched up his faded brown habit beneath his waist-cord
and himself sat down beside us.

I expressed surprise at finding him there, but he only smiled, saying--

"You are disappointed at discovering nothing else--eh?"

"We expected to reveal the secret of the Cardinal Sannini," was my frank
response, well knowing that he was in possession of the truth, and
suspecting that, with the one-eyed Englishman, he had been partner with
Blair.

The monk's strongly-marked, sunburnt features assumed a puzzled
expression, for he saw that we had gained some knowledge, yet he
hesitated to make inquiry lest he should betray himself.  Capuchins,
like Jesuits, are wonderful diplomatists.  Doubtless, the monk's
personal fascination was somewhat due to his splendid presence.  A man
of fine physique, he had a handsome, open face, with clean-cut, powerful
features, softened by eyes in which seemed the light of perpetual youth,
with a candid, unassuming expression, brightened by a twinkling humour
about the lips.

"You have recovered the record, then," he remarked at last, looking
straight into my face.

"Yes, and having read it," I answered, "I am here to investigate and
claim the secret bequeathed to me."

He drew a long breath, glanced for an instant at both of us, and his
shaggy black brows contracted.  It was hot where we sat, for the
brilliant Italian sun beat straight down upon us, therefore, without
replying to me, he rose and invited us into his cool little cell, a
square bare room with boarded floor, the furniture consisting of a low,
old-fashioned wooden bedstead, with a piece of old brown blanket for
coverlet, a Renaissance _prie-dieu_ in old carved oak, black with age, a
chair, a hanging lamp, and upon the wall a great crucifix.

"Well, and the Signor Dawson?" he asked at last, when Reggie had seated
himself on the edge of the bed, and I had taken the chair.  "What does
he say?"

"I have no necessity to ask his opinion," I responded quickly.  "By law
the Cardinal's secret is mine, and no one can dispute it."

"Except its present holder," was his quiet remark.

"Its present holder has no right to it.  Burton Blair has made gift of
it to me, and it is therefore mine," I declared.

"I do not dispute that," answered the dark-faced monk.  "But as guardian
of the Cardinal's secret, I have a right to know the manner in which the
record upon the cards came into your hands, and how you gained the key
to the cipher."

I related to him exactly what he wished to ascertain, whereupon he
answered--

"You have certainly succeeded where I anticipated that you would fail,
and your presence here to-day surprises me.  Apparently you have
overcome every obstacle, and are now here to claim from me what is
undoubtedly yours by right."  He seemed fair-minded, yet I confess I was
loth to trust men of his stamp very far, and was therefore still
suspicious.

"Before we go further, however," he said, standing with his hands in the
wide sleeves of his habit, "I would ask whether it is your intention to
continue the methods of the Signor Blair, who allotted one-eighth part
of the money derived from the secret to our Order of Capuchins?"

"Certainly," I answered, rather surprised.  "My desire is to regard in
every particular my dead friend's obligations."

"Then that is a promise," he said with some eagerness.  "You make that
solemnly--you take an oath?  Raise your hand!"  And he pointed to the
great crucifix upon the white-washed wall.

I raised my hand and exclaimed--

"I swear to act as Burton Blair has acted."

"Very well," answered the monk, apparently satisfied that I was a man of
honour.  "Then I suppose the secret, strange as it will strike you, must
now be revealed to you.  Think, Signore, at this moment you are a
comparatively poor man, yet in half an hour you will be rich beyond your
wildest dreams--worth millions, just as Burton Blair became."

I listened to him, scarcely believing my ears.  Yet what was the
possession of riches to me, now that I had lost my love?

From a little cupboard he took a small, rusty old hurricane lamp, and
carefully lit it, while we both watched with breathless interest.  Then
he closed the door and securely locked and barred it, afterwards placing
the shutters to the iron-barred window, so that we were quickly in
darkness.  Was some supernatural illusion about to be shown us?  We
stood open-mouthed in expectation.

A moment later he dragged his low ponderous bedstead away from the
corner, where we saw that in the floor was a cunningly-concealed
trap-door, which, on being lifted, disclosed a deep, dark, well-like
hole beneath.

"Be careful," he cautioned us, "the steps are rather difficult in
places," and holding the lantern he soon disappeared, leaving us to
follow him down a roughly-hewn spiral flight of foot-holes in the stone,
deeper and deeper into the solid rock, damp and slimy in places where
the water percolated through and fell in loudly-sounding drops.

"Bend low!" ordered our guide, and we saw the faint glimmer of this lamp
lighting our path along a narrow, tortuous burrow which ran away at
right angles and sloped down still further into the heart of the cliff.
In places we went through a veritable quagmire of mud and slime, while
the close atmosphere smelt foul and earthy.

Suddenly we emerged into a great opening, the dimensions of which we
could not ascertain with that one single glimmering light.

"These caverns run for miles," explained the monk.  "The galleries run
in all directions right under the city of Lucca and over towards the
Arno.  They have never been explored.  Listen!"

In the weird darkness we heard the distant roaring of tumbling waters
far away.

"That is the subterranean river, the stream that divides the secret from
all men save yourself," he said.  Then he went forward again, keeping
along one side of the gigantic cavern through which we were passing, and
we followed, approaching nearer those thundering waters, until at last
he told us to halt, and appeared to be examining the rough walls upon
which shone great glittering stalactites.

Presently he found a large white mark similar to the letter E on the
rock upon the cliff-side, and placed his lantern on the floor.

"Don't move another step forward," he said.  Then he produced from a
hole, where it appeared to be well hidden, a long, roughly-made
footbridge, consisting of a single plank, with a light handrail on each
side.  This he pushed before him while I held the lantern, until he came
to the edge of a deep chasm and then bridged it across so that we could
pass over.

When in the centre, he held aloft the lantern, and as we peered down a
hundred feet we shuddered to see, deep down in the chasm, the rushing
flood of black water roaring away into the bowels of the earth, a
terrible trap to those who ventured to explore that weird, dank place.

Having passed safely over we again skirted a wall of rock to the right,
traversed a long, narrow tunnel and at last emerged into another open
space, of the dimensions of which we could gather no idea.

Here the monk set down his lantern in a niche wherein stood several
candles stuck upon rude boards and secured between three nails.  When
they were lit and our eyes grew accustomed to the light, we saw that the
chamber was not a large one, but that it was long, narrow and somewhat
drier than the rest.

"See!" exclaimed the Capuchin, with a wave of his hand.  "It is all
there, Signor Greenwood, and all yours."

Then I realised to my utter amazement that around the walls of the
place, piled high, one on the other, were sacks of untanned hide filled
to bursting.  One pile close to my hand I touched, and found that what
was within them was hard, angular and unyielding.  There were many
small, old-fashioned chests which, from their strong appearance, banded
with rusted iron and studded with nails, must, I knew, contain the
mysterious riches that raised Burton Blair from homeless wayfarer to
millionaire.

"Why, surely this is an actual hoard of treasure!"  I cried.

"Yes," answered Fra Antonio in his deep, bass voice.  "The hidden
treasure of the Vatican.  See," he added, "it is all here except that
portion taken out by the Signor Blair," and opening one of the massive
chests, he held his lantern above and displayed such a miscellaneous
collection of golden chalices, monstrances, patens, jewel-embroidered
vestments and magnificent gems, such as had never before dazzled my
eyes.

Both Reggie and I stood utterly dumbfounded.  At first I seemed to be
living in some fairy world of legend and romance, but when a moment
later the rugged, bearded face of the Capuchin recalled to me all the
past, I stood open-mouthed in wonder.

The secret of Burton Blair was disclosed--and the secret was now mine!

"Ah!" exclaimed the monk, laughing, "no doubt this revelation is, to
you, an amazing one.  Did I not, however, promise you that in half an
hour you would become many times over a millionaire?"

"Yes; but tell me the history of all this great wealth," I urged, for he
had cut open one or two of the leathern bags, and I saw that each of
them was filled with gold and gems mostly set in crucifixes and
ornaments of an ecclesiastical character.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.

IN WHICH A STRANGE TALE IS TOLD.

"I suppose it is only just that you should now know the truth, although
a most strenuous effort has been made to keep it from you," the monk
remarked, as though to himself.  "Well, it is this.  You, as a
Protestant, probably know that the treasures in the Vatican in Rome are
the greatest in the world, and also that each Pope, on his jubilee or
other notable anniversary, receives a vast number of presents, while the
church of St. Peter's itself is constantly in receipt of quantities of
ornaments and jewels as votive offerings.  These are preserved in the
treasury of the Vatican, and constitute a collection of wealth
unequalled by all the millions of modern millionaires.  Well, in the
early part of 1870, Pope Pius IX received, through the marvellous
diplomatic channels our Holy Church possesses, secret information that
it was the intention of the Italian troops to bombard and enter Rome,
and sack the Palace of the Vatican.  His Holiness confided his fears to
his favourite, the great, Cardinal Sannini, the treasurer-general, who,
having lived in this district when a peasant lad, was aware of the
existence of this safe hiding-place.  He, therefore, succeeded, during
the months of June, July and August 1870, in secretly removing a vast
quantity of the Vatican treasure from Rome and storing it in this place
in order to save it from the enemy's hands.  True to the fears of His
Holiness, on September 20 the Italian troops, after a five days'
bombardment, entered Rome, but, fortunately, no serious attack was made
upon the Vatican, while the treasure removed has remained here ever
since.  Cardinal Sannini was, it appears, a traitor to the Church, for
although he induced Pio Nono to allow the treasure to be removed in
secret, he never told him the exact spot where it was concealed, and
curiously enough the two members of the Swiss Guard who had assisted the
Cardinal, and alone knew the secret, both disappeared--in all
probability, I believe, precipitated into that subterranean river we
have just crossed.  Originally, the small entrance to these galleries
was only hidden by brambles, but, directly after the treasure had been
safely secreted, His Eminence the Cardinal suddenly discovered that the
spot on the cliff-side was well adapted for a hermitage, and he built
the present hut over the small opening in the rock in order to conceal
it, having first closed the hole with his own hands so that the
stone-masons should not discover the entrance.  For many months, during
the struggle between, the Italian Government and the Holy See, he doffed
the purple and lived in the cell, a hermit, but in reality guarding the
enormous treasure he had so cleverly secured.  But, as you know, he was
captured by the terrible Poldo Pensi, dreaded down in Calabria, and was
compelled, in order to save his life and reputation, to betray the
existence of his hoard.  Upon this, Pensi came here in secret, saw the
treasure, but being extremely superstitious, as are all his class, he
dare not touch one single object.  A man who had once served in his band
and who had entered our monastery, a certain Fra Orazio, he sought out,
and to him gave the hermitage, without, however, telling him of the
secret tunnel and caves beneath.  Both Sannini and the Pope died, but
Fra Orazio, in ignorance of the fact that he resided over a veritable
mine of wealth, continued here sixteen years, until he died, and I
succeeded him in the occupancy of the cell, spending nearly six months
each year here in meditation and prayer.

"In the meantime, however, the secret of His Eminence inscribed in the
secret cipher used by the Vatican in the seventeenth century, seems to
have passed through Poldo Pensi into the hands of Burton Blair, his
shipmate and intimate friend.  The first I knew of it was about five
years ago, when one day my peace was disturbed by a visit from two
Englishmen, Blair and Dawson.  They told me a story of the secret being
given to them, but at first I would not believe that there was any truth
in the hidden hoard.  We, however, investigated, and after a very long,
difficult and perilous search we succeeded in revealing the truth."

"Then Dawson shared in the secret, as well as in the profits?"  I
remarked, astounded at the amazing truth.

"Yes, the three of us alone knew the secret, and it was then mutually
arranged that it having been given by the repentant brigand to Blair, he
was entitled to the greater share, while Dawson, to whom Pensi had
apparently spoken before his death concerning the treasure, and who had
been in possession of certain facts, should be allotted one quarter of
the annual out-take, and to myself, appointed guardian of the
treasure-house, one eighth to be paid, not to myself direct, as that
would arouse suspicion, but by Blair's bankers in London to the
Vicar-General of the Order of the Capuchins at Rome.  Through five years
this arrangement has been carried out.  Once every six months we entered
this chamber in company and selected a certain amount of gems and other
articles of value which were sent by certain channels--the gems to
Amsterdam for sale and the other articles to the great auction-rooms of
Paris, Brussels and London, and others into the hands of renowned
dealers in antiques.  As you may see for yourself, this collection of
gems is almost inexhaustible.  Three rubies alone fetched sixty-five
thousand pounds in Paris last year, while some of the emeralds have
realised enormous sums, yet so ingeniously did the Signori Dawson and
Blair arrange the channels by which they were placed upon the market
that none ever guessed the truth."

"But all this is, strictly speaking, the property of the Church of
Rome," remarked Reggie.

"No," answered the big monk in his broken English; "according to
Cardinal Sannini, His Holiness, after the peace with Italy, made a free
gift to him of the whole of it as a mark of regard, and knowing too that
with Rome in the occupation of the Italian troops it would be difficult
to get the great collection of jewels back again into the treasury
without exciting suspicion."

"Then all this is mine!"  I exclaimed, even then unable to fully realise
the truth.

"All," answered the monk, "except the share to me, or rather to my
Order, for distribution to the poor, as payment for its guardianship,
and that to the Signor Dawson--with, I suppose," and he turned towards
Reggie, "some acknowledgment to your friend.  I warned you against him
once," he added, "but it was owing to what Dawson told me--lies."

"I have already pledged myself to continue to act towards your Order as
Burton Blair has done," I replied.  "As to Dawson that is another
matter, but certainly my friend Seton here will not be forgotten, nor
you personally, as the faithful holder of the secret."

"Any reward of mine goes to my Order," was the manly fellow's quiet
reply.  "We are forbidden to possess money, our small personal wants
being supplied by the father superior, and of this world's riches we
desire none save that necessary to relieve the poor and afflicted."

"You shall have some for that purpose, never fear," I laughed.

Then, as the air exhausted by the lights seemed to grow more foul, we
decided to return to the cell so cunningly constructed at the mouth of
the narrow outer gallery.

We had reached the brink of that terrible abyss where the black flood
roared deep below, and I had passed over the narrow hand-bridge and
gained the opposite side safely, when, without warning, a pair of strong
hands seized me in the darkness, and almost ere I could utter a cry I
was forced backwards to the edge of the awful chasm.

The hands held me in an iron grip by the throat and arm, and so suddenly
had I been seized that for the first instant I believed it to be a joke
on Reggie's part--for he was fond of horseplay when in jubilant spirits.

"My God!"  I however heard him cry a second later, as I suppose the
flickering lamplight fell upon my assailant's countenance, "why, it's
Dawson!"

Knowledge of the terrible truth that I had been seized by my worst
enemy, who had followed us in, well knowing the place, aroused within me
a superhuman strength, and I grappled with the fellow in a fierce death
struggle.  Ere my two companions could reach and rescue me we were
swaying to and fro in the darkness on the very edge of the abyss into
which it was his intention to hurl me to the same death that the two
Swiss Guards had probably been consigned by the wily cardinal.

I realised his murderous intention none too quickly, for with a fierce
oath he panted--

"You sha'n't escape me now!  That blow in the fog didn't have the
desired effect, but once down there you'll never intrude again upon my
affairs.  Down you go!"

I felt my strength fail me as he forced me back still further, locked in
his deadly embrace.  In the darkness one of my companions gripped me and
saved me, but at that instant I had recourse to an old Charterhouse
trick, and twisting suddenly, so that my opponent stood in my place, I
tripped him backwards, at the same moment slipping from his grasp.

It was the work of a second.  In the uncertain glimmer from the lamp I
saw him stumble, clutch wildly at the air, and with an awful cry of rage
and despair he fell backwards, down into the Stygian blackness where the
rushing waters swept him down to subterranean regions, unknown and
unexplored.

My escape from death was assuredly the narrowest man had ever had, and I
stood panting, breathless, bewildered, until Reggie took me by the arm
and led me forward in silence more impressive than any words.

CHAPTER THIRTY.

THE MOTIVE AND THE MORAL.

On the following night we took leave of the strong, big-handed monk on
the railway platform in Lucca, and entered the train on the first stage
of our journey back to England.  He was to return at once to his hermit
cell above the swirling Serchio, and remain, as before, the silent
guardian of that great secret which, had it been revealed, would have
astounded the world.

Anxiety consumed us, knowing not how Mabel had fared.  Yet with the
knowledge that the baneful influence of the adventurer Dawson had been
now removed, we returned home somewhat easier in mind.  I was wealthy,
it was true, rich beyond my wildest dreams, yet the hope of the
possession of Mabel as my wife, that had been the mainspring of my life,
had been snapped, and in those pensive hours as the sleeping-car express
tore northward across the plains of Lombardy and through Switzerland and
France, my despairing thoughts were all of her and of her future.

A cab took us direct from Charing Cross to Great Russell Street, where I
found a note from her dated from Grosvenor Square, asking me to call
there on the instant of our return.  This I did after a hasty wash, and
Carter showed me unceremoniously and at once up to that big
white-and-gold drawing-room so familiar to me.

In a few moments she entered, looking sweet and charming in her
mourning, a smile upon her lips, her hand extended to me in glad
welcome.  Her face, I thought, betrayed a keen anxiety, and the pallor
of her cheeks showed how sorely her heart was torn by grief and terror.

"Yes, Mabel, I am back again," I said, holding her hand and gazing into
her eyes.  "I have discovered your father's secret!"

"What?" she cried in eager surprise, "you have?  Tell me what it is--do
tell me," she urged breathlessly.

I first obtained from her a promise of secrecy, and then, standing with
her, I described our visit to the lonely hermit's cell, our reception by
the monk Antonio, and our subsequent discoveries.

She listened in blank amazement at my story of the hidden treasure of
the Vatican, until I described the attack made upon me by Dawson, and
its tragic sequel, whereupon she cried--

"Then if that man is dead--actually dead--I am free!"

"How?  Explain!"  I demanded.

"Well, now that circumstances have combined to thus liberate me, I will
confess to you," she responded after a brief pause.  Her face had
suddenly flushed and glancing across at the door, she first reassured
herself that it was closed.  Then in a deep, intense voice she said,
looking straight into my face with those wonderful eyes of hers, "I have
been the victim of a foul, base plot which I will explain, so that,
knowing the whole truth, you may be able to judge how I have suffered,
and whether I have not acted from a sense of right and duty.  For
devilish cunning and ingenuity the conspiracy against me surely has no
equal, as you will see.  I have only now succeeded in discovering the
real truth and the deep hidden motive behind it all.  My first meeting
with Herbert Hales was apparently accidental, in Widemarsh Street,
Hereford.  I was only a girl just finishing my schooldays, and as full
of romantic ideas concerning men as all girls are.  I saw him often, and
although I knew that he picked up a precarious living on race-courses, I
allowed him to court me.  At first I confess that I fell deeply in love
with him, a fact which he did not fail to detect, and during that summer
at Mayvill I met him secretly on many evenings in the park.  After we
had thus been acquainted about three months, he one night suggested that
we should marry, but by that time, having detected that his love for me
was only feigned, I refused.  Evening after evening we met, but I
steadfastly declined to marry him, until one night he showed himself in
his true colours, for to my abject amazement he told me that he was well
acquainted with my father's life-story, and further he alleged that
there was one dark incident connected with it--namely that my father, in
order to possess himself of the secret by which he had gained his
wealth, had murdered the Italian seaman, Pensi, on board the _Annie
Curtis_ off the Spanish coast.  I refused to hear such a terrible
allegation, but to my surprise he caused me to meet my father's friend,
the man Dawson, by appointment, and the last-named declared that he was
the actual witness of my father's crime.  When we were alone that same
night as we walked by a bypath across the park he put his intentions to
me plainly--namely, that I should be compelled to accept him as my
husband, and marry him is secret against my father's knowledge.
Otherwise he would give information to the police regarding the
allegation against my father."

"The blackguard!"  I cried.

Continuing, she said, "He pointed out how Dawson, my father's closest
friend, was the actual witness, and so completely did I find myself and
my father's reputation in his unscrupulous hands, that I was compelled,
after a week of vain resistance, to accept his condition of secrecy and
consent to the odious marriage.  From that moment, although I returned
home the instant we were made man and wife, I was completely in his
power, and had to pay blackmail to him at every demand.  After he had
secured me as his victim, his true passionate instincts--those of a man
who lived by his wits and to whom a woman's heart was of no account--
were almost instantly revealed, and from that moment until the present,
although believed to be a single girl, and chaperoned to all sorts of
functions in the brightest set in London, yet I lived in mortal terror
of the man who was by law my husband."

She paused to gain breath, and I saw that her lips were white, and that
she was trembling.

"Fortunately," she went on at last, "you were able to rescue me,
otherwise the plot would have been successful in every particular.
Until yesterday, I was entirely unaware of the real motive of forcing me
into that marriage, but now it is revealed I can see the deep cunning of
the master mind that planned it.  Herbert Hales, it seems, first sought
me out because of a chance remark of old Mr. Hales regarding my father's
great and mysterious fortune.  An adventurer, he saw that he might
contract marriage with myself, as heiress to my father's possessions.
When we had been acquainted about a month, Dawson chanced to be over
from Italy, staying with us at Mayvill for a few days, and one evening
while out shooting wood pigeons he discovered us walking together at the
edge of the wood skirting the park.  The instant he saw us he formed a
devilish design, and next day, set about making inquiries regarding
Hales, and, ascertaining the character of the man, met him and made a
curious compact with him to the effect that if he, Dawson, so arranged
matters that a secret marriage was contracted between myself and Hales,
the latter was, in the case of my father's death, to receive the sum of
two thousand a year in lieu of any claim against the estate on his
wife's behalf.  He pointed out to Hales that by a secret marriage with
me he would obtain a source of continual revenue, as I dare not refuse
his demands for money, because if I, on my part, exposed the secret of
our union, he could at once take up his correct position as the husband
of the millionaire's daughter.  This having been arranged, he told Hales
many true facts concerning my father's life at sea in order to mislead
me, but added an allegation which, being corroborated by himself, I
unfortunately believed to be true, that my father had committed murder
in order to obtain that little pack of cards with the cipher upon them.
Dawson, who had quickly judged the character of Hales, secretly aided
him to get me completely in his power, although, of course, I was
entirely unaware of it.  His motive in securing my marriage in such
compulsory circumstances was a far-seeing one, for he recognised that
had I married the man I loved, my husband would, on my father's death,
see that my rights as heiress were properly established, while if, on
the other hand, I were Hales' wife, afraid to acknowledge my matrimonial
_mesalliance_, and Hales was by the compact entirely in his power, he
would in the end obtain complete possession of my father's money.  He
knew, of course, that his position as one of the holders of the secret
of the Vatican treasure, as it now turns out to be, made it imperative
for my father to leave the management of my affairs in his hands, and
therefore he took every precaution to secure complete possession upon my
poor father's death.  The ingenious manner in which he secretly placed
Herbert Hales in possession of certain facts which, I believed, were
only known to my father and myself, the subtle manner in which he
corroborated his own untruth, alleging that my father was guilty of a
crime, and the secrecy with which he aided Hales to marry me under sheer
compulsion were, I can now see, marvels of clever conspiracy.  I feared,
nay, I felt convinced all along, that the terrible secret of my father
as known to Hales was the awful truth, and it is only yesterday that,
with the aid of old Mr. Hales, I succeeded in discovering in a back
street in Grimsby a man named Palmer, who was seaman on board the _Annie
Curtis_ and present at the Italian's death.  He tells me that the
allegation against my father is absolutely false, and that on the
contrary he was the man's best and kindest friend, and in acknowledgment
of this, the Italian gave him the little chamois leather bag containing
the cards.  My fears as to the secret having been obtained by foul play
are therefore entirely set at rest; and the stain removed from my poor
father's memory."

"But the mode of your father's death?"  I said, amazed at this
remarkable revelation of craft and deception.

"Ah!" she sighed, "my opinion has altered.  He died from natural causes
just at a moment when a secret attempt was to be made to assassinate
him.  By that same train up to Manchester, Herbert Hales--who was, of
course, unknown to my father--and the man Dawson travelled in company,
and I have no doubt that it was their intention if opportunity was
afforded, to strike a blow with the same fatal knife with which the
attempt was later made upon you.  Death, however, cheated them of their
victim."

"But this villainous scoundrel who is your husband?  What of him?"

"The judgment of Heaven has already fallen upon him," was her low,
almost mechanical answer.  "What!"  I gasped eagerly.  "Is he dead?"

"He quarrelled here with Dawson on the night you left London, and again
the one-eyed man exhibited that remarkable craft he possessed, for, in
order to rid himself of Hales and the ugly facts of which he was in
possession, he appears to have given confidential information to the
police of a certain robbery committed about a year ago after Kempton
Park races, in which the man from whom a large sum of money was stolen
was so severely injured that he died.  Two detectives went to Hales'
lodgings in Lower Seymour Street about two o'clock in the morning.  They
demanded admittance to his room, but he, realising that Dawson had
carried out his threat and that the truth was out, barricaded himself
in.  When they at last forced the door, they found him stretched dead
upon the floor with a revolver lying beside him."

"Then you are free, Mabel--free to marry me!"  I cried, almost beside
myself with joy.

She hung her head, and answered in a tone so low that I could hardly
catch the words--

"No, I am unworthy, Gilbert.  I deceived you."

"The past is past, and all forgotten," I exclaimed, snatching up her
hand, and bending until my hot, passionate lips touched hers.  "You are
mine, Mabel--mine alone!"  I cried.  "That is, of course, if you dare to
trust your future in my hands."

"Dare!" she echoed, smiling through the tears which filled her eyes.
"Have I not trusted you these past five years?  Have you not indeed been
always my best friend, from that night when we first met until this
moment?"

"But have you sufficient regard for me, dearest?"  I asked, deeply
touched by her words.  "I mean, do you love me?"

"I do, Gilbert," she faltered, with eyes downcast in modesty.  "I have
loved no man except yourself."

Then I clasped her to me, and in those moments of my new-born ecstasy I
repeated to my love the oft-told tale--the tale that every man the world
over tells the woman before whom he bows in adoration.

And what more need I say?  A delicious sense of possession thrilled my
heart.  She was mine! mine for ever!  I was convinced that in those
terrible sufferings through which she had passed, she had been always
loyal and true to me.  She had, poor girl, like her father, been the
innocent victim of the ingenious adventurer, Dawson, and the
unscrupulous young blackguard who was his tool, and who had inveigled
her into marriage in order to subsequently possess themselves of the
whole of Blair's gigantic fortune.

The wheel of fortune, however, ran back upon them, and instead of
success their own avarice and ingenuity resulted in their defeat, and at
the same time placed me in the position they had intended to occupy.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.

CONCLUSION.

Mabel and I are now man and wife, and surely no couple in London are as
perfectly happy as we are.

To us, after the storms and stress of life, has come a calm and blissful
peace.  The faithful Ford is back as my secretary, while we frequently
chaff Reggie, who has sold his lace business, about his profound
admiration of Dolly Dawson, who, even though the daughter of an
adventurer, is, I am compelled to admit, a modest and most charming
girl, who would, I feel sure, make my old chum an excellent
life-partner.  Indeed, the other day he inquired in strict confidence of
Mrs. Percival, who has apartments with us at Mayvill, whether she
thought Mabel would take it ill were he to propose.  Therefore his ideas
are evidently now running in the direction of matrimony.  Old Hales
still lives at the Crossway at Owston, and recently came with his wife
to London to visit us.

As regards the Cardinal's secret, no word of it has ever leaked out to
the public, it being far too carefully guarded by us.  Over the entrance
to that great storehouse of wealth the grave, black-bearded monk in the
frayed habit, Fra Antonio, the friend of the poor of Lucca, still lives,
dividing his lonely life between solitary meditation and attending to
the wants of the destitute in that crowded city away down the green
valley.

The Church of Rome has a long memory.  For years, it seems, active steps
have been in progress to search and recover the great treasure given by
Pius IX to his favourite Sannini.  The presence in London of the
well-known cleric, Monsignore Galli, of Rimini, and his clandestine
interview with Dolly, was, according to her own avowal, in order to
ascertain some facts regarding her father's recent movements, it being
known that he had a few months before sold to a dealer in Paris the
historic jewelled crucifix worn by Clement VIII which was placed in the
Vatican treasury after his death in 1605.

Many men in the City are aware of the great fortune that has come to me,
and you yourself are perhaps acquainted with the white exterior of one
house in Grosvenor Square, yet none assuredly know the strange facts
which I have here for the first time put on record.

A month ago I was seated in that silent little cell which so cunningly
conceals the vast wealth of which I am now possessor and which has
placed me among the millionaires of England, and in relating to him in
detail Mabel's tragic story of how cruelly she was victimised, I was
expressing my mind freely upon the dastardly action of that man who had
been engulfed in the subterranean flood, when the kindly monk with the
furrowed face raised his hand and, pointing to the great crucifix upon
the wall, said in that calm voice of his--"No, no, Signor Greenwood.
Hatred and malice should not rankle in the heart of the honest man.
Rather let us remember those Divine words: `Forgive us our trespasses as
we forgive them that trespass against us.'  As we forgive them!
Therefore let us forgive the `One-Eyed Englishman.'"

The End.





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