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Title: - To be updated
Author: William Le Queux, - To be updated
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THIS HOUSE TO LET

By William Le Queux

Hodder And Stoughton Limited

London

1921



PROLOGUE


|Very early on a July morning in 1919 Constable Brown was on his beat in
Kensington, in the immediate neighbourhood of Cathcart Square.

Cathcart Square was an old-fashioned backwater of this highly
respectable suburb. It had not been built on any regular lines. Small,
narrow houses nestled comfortably by the side of what might be called
mansions. At the entrance to the Square itself, a narrow-fronted
milk-shop stood next door to a palatial residence. The dairy was very
old, and the Square, with its strange agglomeration of houses, had been
built round it.

Constable Brown, a tall, strapping young fellow, took his duties easily.
He was quite contented with his lot, and not thirsting for promotion; he
had no overweening sense of his own abilities. He was friendly with all
the cooks on his beat, and from them he received very choice tit-bits.
In his case, the policeman's lot was a fairly happy one.

The morning was a very bright one, a somewhat powerful summer sun had
just risen, and flooded the streets with light.

He had no need of his lantern, early in the morning as it was. He
strolled slowly round the Square, turning observant eyes on an the
houses. In his patrol, he met nobody. The busy world of commerce was not
yet astir. Only from afar he heard the distant rumbling of market-carts
on their way to Covent Garden, market-carts laden with fruit and
vegetables.

The Square was sleeping. In a few more hours it would wake to vigorous
life. The dairy shop would take down its shutters, and show signs of
animation. And when the dairy shop took down its shutters, Constable
Brown would be relieved, and go home to enjoy his well-earned rest.

All was quiet in the Square. Brown had patrolled it several times in his
nightly vigil, and had discovered no signs of marauders.

He paused opposite No. 10, one of the few big houses. He looked
contemplatively at the board announcing in large type--THIS HOUSE TO
LET: FURNISHED-with the agent's name displayed prominently at the foot
of the bill.

"Only house to let in the Square," ruminated Brown, as he stood reading
the bill for perhaps the hundredth time. "It's been empty now for over
three months. It ought to have been snapped up long ago."

He was right. Houses in Cathcart Square did not wait long for tenants.
Mr. Brown ruminated further, and provided his own solution.

"Old Miles, the caretaker, has got too comfortable quarters, he doesn't
want to flit. When people come to view, he talks to them about damp, or
ghosts or beetles, and chokes them off. Artful old devil, Miles, and a
bit too fond of drink."

Having finished his patrol of the Square itself, he passed along the
backs, abutting on a somewhat mean street, for a rather undesirable
neighbourhood had built itself around these somewhat stately houses.

His perambulations brought him to the back of No. 10, the house to let.
His trained eye, accustomed to take in the smallest details, noticed
a broken pane of glass in the scullery window. He climbed over the low
railing which shut off the back premises from the mean street on which
they looked, and peered at the broken window-pane. From a general point
of view there was not much in it. Window-panes are broken every day. But
this was an empty house, looked after by a somewhat bibulous caretaker
of the name of Miles. A hundred chances to one that Miles had stumbled
against it, and broken it with his elbow.

But although Constable Brown was not very brilliant, he was painstaking
and methodical; his mind was slow but tenacious. He did not accept facts
at their face value.

After peering through the broken pane, he proceeded to further
experiments. He lifted the window, and it went up easily. He drew his
deductions swiftly. Somebody had entered the empty house. That somebody
had smashed the pane in order to get at the latch, had entered the
house, later emerged through the window and forgotten to fasten it.

But why enter an empty house, where there was nothing to steal except
the heavy furniture left by the late tenant, a Mr. Washington, who was
abroad? Brown knew for a fact from the caretaker that all silver and
plate had been lodged at Mr. Washington's bank. It was a puzzle.

One thing was clear: his duty lay straight before him. He must go
over that empty house. A careful examination might reveal something or
nothing.

But he was a very cautious man, and with no great belief in his own
powers. He would not make the examination alone. He blew his whistle for
further assistance.

In a few seconds, a fellow constable, a smart young fellow, hurried up
to him. Brown pointed to the broken pane, the uplifted window. The smart
young man projected himself through the open space. Brown followed,
explaining as he went.

They searched the basement, the ground floor, and the floor above--with
no result.

"Now for the caretaker," said the younger and the more quick-witted of
the two policemen.

"He sleeps up at the top," answered Brown. "He generally comes home
half-seas over. If a regiment was hammering at the door he would not
wake till his sleep was done."

They went up to the caretaker's room on the top floor. The bed was
empty. Miles had evidently taken a holiday.

The young constable grunted. "Seems a reliable sort of chap, doesn't he?
I wonder how long he has been away? The house agents can tell us if
they have sent any clients to view the house during the last twenty-four
hours, and whether they have been able to get in or not. Anyway, for the
present, he seems out of this job."

Brown assented. He did not talk as much as his quicker-witted colleague,
but his rather slow mind was working at its normal speed.

"We've got to examine the other floors, you know. I've made up my mind
to one thing--whoever came in here, robbery wasn't the object."

"There I quite agree," remarked the younger man.

They made their way down from the top floor, which consisted of three
attics. On the floor beneath this, they searched every room and found
nothing.

But on the floor underneath their search was rewarded. In a small
dressing-room, leading off the bedroom which fronted the square, they
found a gruesome sight--the lifeless body of a man, comparatively young,
somewhere about thirty-five or so, a deep gash in his throat, in his
stiffened hand a razor.

The two men gazed, horrified. It was an early summer morning, the sun
was shining through the windows, the birds were twittering in the trees.
Shortly the whole world would be astir. And here, in the small room, lay
the senseless clay, oblivious of all these signs of awakening life and
vigour.

Brown was the first to speak. "Suicide!" he said hoarsely. "The poor
devil wanted to make an end of it, and crept in here, knowing it was an
empty house."

The younger man spoke less convincingly. "It looks like it. Suicide,
as you say." He paused a moment, and then spoke slowly: "I think
it's suicide, but it might be--mind you, I only say might be--a very
carefully planned murder. And now, let us overhaul his pockets, we may
find something to establish identification."

Together they bent down, and rummaged the dead man's pockets. They found
plenty of material for identification.

As they were engaged in their gruesome task, they heard the sound of a
latch-key being put in the front-door. They heard the door banged to,
and heavy footsteps ascended the staircase.

"Miles come back after his spree," whispered Constable Brown to the
younger man.

Miles, all unsuspecting of what had taken place during his absence, came
heavily up the stairs. It could not be said that he was by any means
drunk, but he was not absolutely sober. He was slowly recovering from
the previous night's debauch.

Arrived on the floor where the two policemen were conducting their
investigations, absolute sobriety came back to him. He saw the open
door of the dressing-room, two men in uniform kneeling by the side of an
inanimate object. His brain cleared as if by magic. He recognised in one
of the kneeling constables his old friend Brown.

He indulged in a little profanity, born of his emotion, which need not
be set down here. Shorn of certain expletives, natural to a man of his
class, he inquired of Brown what was the matter.

Brown on his side was cool and explicit, and instead of answering the
caretaker's questions, he preferred to put a few of his own.

"Nice sort of caretaker you are," he said in a contemptuous voice.
"You're paid to look after this house, aren't you? Where were you
all last night I should like to know? You can see what has happened.
Somebody has got in through the back, either to commit suicide, or with
a companion who brought him here to murder him. That's got to be found
out before the Coroner."

Miles pulled himself together. He was by no means a fool when sober, and
in sight of this ghastly object the fumes of last night's intoxication
had absolutely cleared.

"I can show an alibi right enough," he said doggedly.

The younger and readier-witted of the two constables looked up and spoke
sharply. "So far, my friend, we have not accused you, but you may as
well tell us the details of your alibi."

Miles's explanation, delivered in the somewhat halting way of his class,
bore the ring of truth. An old acquaintance of his, whose name and
address he gave, had looked him up the day before and asked him to spend
a day with him at Shepperton, where the said acquaintance kept a small
shop. Miles had succumbed to the temptation. .

"It drives a man fair off his blooming chump to be tied by the leg in a
hole like this," he interpolated in the midst of his narrative, "waiting
for would-be tenants who never call. I daresay you chaps do your eight
or ten hours a day, but you're out in the open air, not looking on four
walls. You see a bit of life, I don't."

Constable Brown cut across his narrative swiftly.

"Never mind your grievances, Miles. If you could get a better job, I
guess you would take it. Where did you spend the night?"

"At the same old show, down at Shepperton," replied the unabashed Miles.
"My old pal's a sport, I can tell you. When he shut up his shop, he plied
me with some of the best. I wasn't backward, I admit. I missed the
last train back, and slept on the sofa in the back room. When I woke, I
remembered things a bit, and got an early train home. Here I am. My old
pal Jack will tell you I'm speaking gospel truth."

Neither of the two men listening to him had any doubt that his narrative
was a true one. He was a poor, weak, bibulous creature, but by no
stretch of the imagination could he be an accessory to the gruesome
happenings at No. 10.

Even had he been at his post, as he should have been on this particular
night, he would have been sunk in a stertorous sleep, and have heard
nothing.

But to make everything sure, Constable Brown pulled him along and forced
him to look at the dead man.

"You have never seen him before, Miles? I mean he has not called to look
over the house or anything?"

"No." Miles, looking shudderingly at the ghastly sight, was ready to
swear he had never seen him before.

He turned his frightened gaze away. "It will be all over the town
to-night," he said ruefully. "We shall never let the house after this."

"It will still be a soft job for you, Miles," retorted Brown, a little
spitefully. "You won't have to play up the damp and the beetles. You are
here for life, old man."

"I know," said Miles in a gloomy tone. "But I shall see him staring at
me every minute of the day and night."

The body was removed to the mortuary. The evening newspapers had
flaring headlines: "Gruesome Discovery in No. 10 Cathcart Square." An
enterprising journalist had got hold of Miles, and speedily discovering
his weakness, had taken him to the nearest public-house, and plied him
plentifully with liquor, with a view to a sensational article.

The enterprising reporter made the best of his material, but it did not
amount to much.

The caretaker knew nothing about the dead man, he was armed at all
points with his alibi. As regards the house itself, invested with
so much tragedy, the present tenant was a Mr. Washington, a man of
considerable means, now abroad. Mr. Washington was prepared to let it
furnished. The furniture was very valuable.

To a public greedily anxious for the smallest details, the astute
journalist served up a nice little article, describing the expensive
furniture, and adding a short life-history of Mr. Washington, as
supplied by the reminiscent Miles. The public swallowed this article
eagerly and awaited further developments.

These came with the inquest, and there was a somewhat tame ending to
what had promised to be a very sensational case.

Some three months previously, a certain man named Reginald Davis had
been suspected of committing a murder while driving a motor-car
in Cornwall. The evidence, although circumstantial, had been very
convincing. The police had been on his track, but not quickly enough.
The man had eluded their vigilance, and run to earth somewhere.

On the body of the dead man in Cathcart Square, the two constables had
found three letters addressed to Reginald Davis. Also a letter,
signed Reginald Davis, addressed to the Coroner in which he avowed his
intention of committing suicide at the earliest opportunity.

It was fairly evident from this that the wretched man, hunted by the
police, and recognising that capture was imminent in the course of a few
days, had resolved upon the fatal step, had effected his entrance into
the lonely house in Cathcart Square, had found it even more deserted
than he imagined, and in that little dressing-room cheated the law.

But, in addition to this overpowering evidence, there was added the fact
of identification.

A tall, handsome young woman, giving the name of Caroline Masters, had
been to the mortuary, and identified the body as that of her brother,
Reginald Davis.

She gave her evidence before the Coroner with commendable composure,
broken now and again with a little natural grief. Her disclosures were
briefly as follows.

Reginald had always been the black sheep of the family, not naturally
vicious, but impetuous, fiery-tempered and ungovernable. If he was
guilty of the murder in Cornwall, it had been due to no natural criminal
instinct, but to a fit of unbridled passion. Her theory was that remorse
had weighed upon him for this unpremeditated crime, and that, through
remorse and the fear of justice overtaking him, he had crept into this
lonely house and passed sentence on himself.

She made a very great impression on the Court by the calm and dignified
way in which she gave her evidence. The Coroner put to her a few
questions. She was quite certain that the body was that of her brother,
Reginald Davis? Were there any other members of the family who could
support her in her identification?

No, there were no other members of the family alive. There was another
brother dead, and a sister of whose whereabouts she knew nothing. Her
father had been a strange man, he had quarrelled with all the members
of his family, and she had never known one of them. Her mother had died
some years ago. Her voice broke a little as she related these touching
circumstances of her domestic life, more especially when she added she
was a widow, her husband having been killed in the Great War.

There seemed but one possible verdict. The dead man, it was clearly
established, was Reginald Davis, first by the letters found upon him,
secondly by his sister's identification.

It was also clear that Reginald Davis, hunted by the police, and knowing
that it was only a question of days or weeks before he would be run to
earth, had considered the two alternatives of self-destruction or the
extreme penalty of the law--and that he had chosen the former.

The verdict was recorded. Mrs. Masters was complimented on the way
in which she had given her evidence. The Coroner assured her that the
sympathy of the Court was with her. The tears Welled into her eyes
as she listened to the Coroner's well-chosen phrases. She bowed her
grateful thanks.

Constable Brown was waiting in the corridor as she came out. Beside
him stood the younger policeman who had assisted him on that very
well-remembered night in Cathcart Square.

Brown touched his helmet. "A very trying time for you, ma'am," he said,
"a very trying time. You went through it bravely."

She smiled Wanly. "My poor brother! He had so many good points. But it
is better as it is. I shudder to think of what might have been, if he
had not done this dreadful thing."

"Much the best way, ma'am, much the best way," corroborated Brown.

She went out, a graceful figure, and Brown turned to his younger
colleague.

"A remarkable case, old chap. As we said all along, suicide."

The younger man paused a little before he replied. It may be mentioned
that a few months later he was promoted to the detective force in
consequence of some rather clever work connected with a gang of coiners
in an obscure corner of the West End.

"It looks like it, but I'm not quite as sure as you are," he said
laconically.

Brown stared, but made no comment. A verdict was a verdict. His young
colleague had the inexperience and the vanity of youth, and thought he
was more clever than other people, perhaps!

But on one thing the young constable had made up his mind, and that was
that Miles, the bibulous caretaker, had not told the truth when in the
witness-box. He came to this conclusion from his demeanour. Miles swore
that he had no knowledge of the dead man, but the constable believed
this to be a lie.

And with the tame ending of the Coroner's inquest, the mystery of No.
10 Cathcart Square ceased to hold the public interest. Plenty of other
things came on to attract their attention.



CHAPTER I

|In the year before the Great War, when to all appearance there was not
a cloud upon the horizon, when only a few statesmen felt "profoundly
uneasy," the secret of that uneasiness being carefully locked away in
their own breasts, and hidden from the general public--in that year of
1913, in the month of March, the Twenty-fifth Lancers were quartered at
the town of Blankfield, in Yorkshire.

The Twenty-fifth was a crack regiment. Most of the officers were
members of the aristocracy, a few of the plutocracy, that portion of
the plutocracy which on account of its wealth had been adopted into a
superior world by marriage with its aristocratic daughters.

They were a fine set of clean-minded, healthy living, sporting young
fellows. They rode to hounds, they played polo when there was any going,
they shot over the coverts of their friends, they made love to all the
pretty girls they came across in a gallant and desultory fashion, loving
and riding away.

It cannot be said that they took their professional duties in too
serious a fashion. But they were brave as lions, and when the time came
to prove their mettle, none of their relatives had cause to blush for
their record.

The memories of most of them were enshrined deeply in the hearts of
wailing mothers and weeping sweethearts, when the great holocaust came.

Foremost amongst this band of gay spirits and resolute sportsmen was
a certain Captain Murchison, "Hughie," as he was always called by his
intimates.

"Hughie" was not a pure aristocrat. His father, a man of fabulous
wealth, was the head of the great brewing firm of Murchison, Delaroyd &
Co., the fourth in succession, for the big brewery had been founded over
a hundred years ago.

It is supposed, in the case of self-made men, that it requires three
generations to make a gentleman. Anyway, the present Sir Hugh had won
his spurs by the fact of belonging to the fourth. And he had further
firmly established his position by marrying Lady Gertrude Marchmont,
a daughter of the Earl of Mounthaven. The Marchmonts had blue blood in
profusion, they ere one of the oldest families in the Kingdom, only just
being beaten by such superior people as the Howards, the Talbots, and
the Nevilles.

Captain Murchison was, therefore, plutocrat on the father's side,
aristocrat of aristocrat on the mother's. But he did not owe his
popularity to these adventitious circumstances. The fact that he was the
most popular man in his regiment was due to his own sterling qualities.

In the first place, he was a man of the most unbounded generosity and
the most serene good-humour. He had captained the Eleven at Eton, and
he was one of the best shots, also one of the best polo-players, in
England. Needless to say that he was a man's man. The fact that he was
also equally a woman's man can be easily explained. He boasted more than
ordinary good looks, and he had a charming, deferential way with women
that captivated them at once.

The Twenty-fifth had a very good time at Blankfield, on the whole. The
houses of the "county" were, of course, open to such a distinguished
regiment, but perhaps they had a rather jollier time amongst the rather
limited circle of rich townsfolk whom they condescended to visit:
the people who, at the best, had only a nodding acquaintance with the
"county."

Murchison was a born sportsman. Hunting, polo, shooting, cricket,
occupied nearly all his waking thoughts, except those few that were
claimed by his professional duties. Popular as he was with women, not
a single member of the weaker and more charming sex had made any real
impression on him up to the present.

He had had several flirtations with charming girls, of course: he might
have indulged in a few sentimental passages with certain more or less
detached, or semi-detached, married women. The latter very rarely, for
although by no means a saint he was a very clean-minded young man, and
held rather rigid notions as to what might be done, and what ought not
to be done.

Anyway at this particular moment he was quite heart-whole.

And then, one day, in this rather sleepy town of Blankfield, an
adventure befell him. It was not strictly a common or garden adventure,
for more than one reason.

The woman, or rather girl, who was concerned in it, for looking at her
in a severe light she did not appeal to be more than twenty, bore upon
her no marks of the shameless adventuress. It was easy to see that she
was not a member of his own world, the world of plutocracy mingled
into aristocracy by judicious intermarriage. The "county" would not,
of course, open their doors to her. According to her own account, the
respectable "villadom" of the sleepy old town had not called upon her,
on account of the absence of convincing credentials.

The meeting happened in this way. Hugh found himself with a blank
afternoon, an afternoon that had not been filled up. He could call
at lots of houses and get tea. But, at this period, he was becoming a
little fed-up with the Blankfield teas, the simpering girls, the astute
mothers who wanted to take the heir of the Murchison millions off his
guard, and hook him for a son-in-law.

Coming from a long line of successful tradesmen, Hugh had rather less
brains than he ought to have acquired by heredity. Still, he was no
fool. As long as a proposition was not too complex, he could size it
up pretty accurately. And he sized up the Blankfield hospitality at its
true worth.

He walked down the High Street, and turned into the first tea-shop.
It was a well-known establishment, and the dashing members of the
Twenty-fifth were wont to invite hither for tea some of the Blankfield
maidens who Were not too particular as to chaperonage.

He expected to find here a good few of his brother officers. To his
surprise, he did not see one. But the room was very full. To a casual
observer, every table seemed occupied. He was about to turn away, when a
waitress, who knew him well, touched him on the arm.

"It's quite all right, Captain Murchison,"--Hugh had arrived at
seniority very early: "there's a table up there at the far end. There's
only a young lady there, and she has very nearly finished her tea."

The young lady in question was quite young; Hugh decided from the first
swift glance at her that she could not be more than twenty. She was
exceedingly pretty, with wavy light hair and soft brown eyes. She wore
an air of composure remarkable in one so youthful.

The young man knew her well by sight, as did his brother officers. She
was frequently to be seen in the High Street, flitting in and out
shops, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a rather common-looking
person, some ten years her senior. It was said they were brother and
sister and their name was Burton.

They had arrived in Blankfield about a couple of months ago, and taken a
moderate sized house on the London Road, a little in the outskirts of
the town. But though they had been here for these two months, they knew
nobody. Not a soul had called upon them: for the villadom of Blankfield
was very select, and had to know something about newcomers before it
stretched out a welcoming hand. About the Burtons nothing seemed to be
known, and until some reliable information was forthcoming, they would
be ostracised.

The shop was very crowded, and most girls of her age might have felt
embarrassed by her loneliness. But, although many admiring glances
were levelled at her from the few masculine occupants, she seemed quite
unperturbed and unconscious, looking neither to the right nor the
left, but taking in everything that was going on, under lowered eyelids
veiling those pretty brown eyes.

She gave him one swift glance as he sat down, and then went on
composedly with her tea. There was nothing in the glance that was either
provocative or inviting. Of the two, Hugh felt much more embarrassed
than she did. He wondered if she was as stand-offish as she looked. If
he addressed a remark to her, would she snub him?

Anyway he determined to put it to the proof. "I do hope I am not
intruding, but it was Hobson's choice, you know; this is the only vacant
table."

No, she was not going to snub him. On the contrary, she gave him a very
pleasant smile, and he noted with satisfaction that her voice was a
refined and pleasant one.

"There is hardly any question of intruding in a public place like this.
I cannot expect them to turn customers away in order that I may sit by
myself."

It was not a bad beginning, thought Hugh. It was evident she was not
disinclined to enter into a little desultory conversation with a man who
she knew was a gentleman, and not likely to take undue advantage of her
absence of conventionality.

Hugh went on with growing boldness. He had often said to his great chum
Jack Pomfret that it was a thousand pities this pretty girl was not in
Blankfield Society, she seemed so much more attractive than the other
girls who were in it.

"We haven't been introduced, of course, but I know you very well by
sight. There is hardly a day that I do not meet you about here. And I
know your name, too. You are Miss Burton, are you not? And you live with
your brother at that nice little house on the London Road."

"Quite right." Miss Burton nodded her pretty head. She added with a
little silvery laugh: "we can't be introduced, unless the waitress took
the kind office upon herself, for I don't know a soul in the place.
we have been here two months, and we have been let severely alone. I
suppose if we stayed here for twenty years it would be the same. Of
course, we didn't expect to get into 'county' Society, but we must be
quite as good as heaps of people in the town and outskirts."

Hugh was a little embarrassed by these very frank remarks. He observed
lamely that it was a shame, and indulged in some rather inane remarks on
the snobbishness of provincial towns.

"You must find it awfully dull," he ventured after a brief pause. During
the short silence, Miss Burton had ordered herself some more tea. It was
evident that she was not desirous of abruptly terminating this pleasant
_tête-à-tête_. The waitress drew her own conclusions from the further
order, and smiled a little as she turned away.

"I should be a hypocrite if I pretended the contrary. Of course,
housekeeping takes up a good bit of my time, and I read a good deal, and
do a lot of fancy-work. But all the same, it is a state of isolation,
not an outside person to speak to from one week-end to the other. Of
course I hear all that is going on from the tradespeople, and I know
the names of the principal persons here whom I constantly meet and never
speak to. I know, for instance, that you are Captain Murchison. I think
I know the names of all your brother officers."

"What made you come here, if it is not a rude question?" asked Hugh
bluntly. "It was surely a risky experiment, landing yourself in a town
like this, without any introductions."

"I told my brother so when he first proposed it," replied Miss Burton
calmly. "But, although he is one of the best fellows in the world, he
is frightfully obstinate. He had stayed at an hotel here for a few days
some years ago, and he had taken a violent fancy to the place. He was
quite sure everybody would make a rush for us, the moment we arrived."

Miss Burton proceeded to draw on her gloves. During this explanatory
conversation, she had consumed her second cup of tea. She called the
waitress and paid her bill.

"I must be going now," she said. "I have quite enjoyed this little chat,
although I am sure you will think very badly of me for having confided
so much to a stranger. I really don't know what made me do it--I suppose
I got tired of having kept silence for so long."

Yes, he could understand that. Poor, pretty little girl, just at an age
when all the pleasures of youth should be open to her, and to have to
pass her life in the society of that rather common-looking brother, good
fellow as she declared him to be.

"I have enjoyed the meeting immensely, too," said Hugh heartily. "I only
wish we could come across each other at some of these Blankfield houses,
stupid and dull as they generally are."

And then, the pretty Miss Burton fired her last shot as she rose to
leave:

"I have been unconventional enough from the beginning, and if I can do
it without blushing, I am going to be more unconventional still. If you
cared to come up to Rosemount one afternoon, I am sure my brother would
be pleased to see you."

Murchison was very embarrassed by the suggestion, although she did not
proffer it in any bold fashion.

"I shall be delighted," he stammered. "I will run up one afternoon."
Of course when he said this he had very little intention of keeping his
promise. To enjoy a mild sort of flirtation with an exceedingly pretty
girl was one thing. To go to her house and make the acquaintance of her
brother, who he was certain was not a gentleman, was quite a
different proposition, and might land him in all sorts of unpleasant
complications.

He also had an uneasy conviction that Miss Burton was remarkably
self-assured for such a young woman. She had spoken of blushing when
she gave him the invitation, but she had not done so. Not the faintest
colour showed on her cheek, and the glance that met his was perfectly
steady and unwavering. She must either be very innocent, or, young as
she was, she had acquired the experience and self-possession of a much
older woman. He would like to think it all out.

The girl nodded in a friendly fashion, and tripped away, leaving Hugh
Murchison to finish his tea, and ponder over what had happened.



CHAPTER II

|When Hugh got back to his quarters the first thing he did was to
hunt up his great friend Jack Pomfret. He found that young gentleman
stretched in front of a blazing fire--ft was a very chilly March--and
smoking a cigar nearly as big as himself. Jack Pomfret, it may be
said, was quite a small man, of about the size and weight that would be
associated with the coxswain of a 'Varsity boat.

Next to Murchison, perhaps Pomfret was the most popular man in the
regiment. He was certainly the poorest, for although he came of an
aristocratic family, the said family had very little to bless themselves
with.

If it had been left to his immediate relatives, Jack would have had to
enter a line regiment, and subsist on his pay, supplemented by more or
less regular small remittances from his hard-up father.

But fortune had smiled on Jack when he was in his cradle. A rich
great-aunt had been his godmother, and from the date of his christening
had taken him under her wing. She had been crossed in love when quite
a girl, would never marry. Jack Pomfret had a handsome, but not an
extravagant, allowance now, and he would come into his great-aunt's
fortune when she died.

Jack always complained that his aunt was a bit thrifty, and did not
fully understand the imperative necessities of a young subaltern in an
expensive regiment like the Twenty-fifth.

As a matter of fact, Miss Harding, his mother's youngest sister,
suffered from acute indigestion, existed principally on soda-water and
biscuits, lived in a comparatively small house with one manservant and
two maids, and saved a great deal every year out of a large income. She
loved Jack very much, but she had little or no sympathy with the follies
and indiscretions of youth. She had a hazy sort of idea that an officer
should live within his pay, as she lived well within her income.
Needless to say that Jack had long disabused her of this silly idea.

"Great tidings, old man," cried Murchison, breaking in upon the
meditative little man, blowing great clouds of smoke. "I'll give you six
guesses."

"Not in a guessing mood," returned Jack shortly. "All my brain-power is
used up. I am trying to concoct a letter to the dear old aunt--God bless
her, she is one of the best!--insinuating gently that a cheque for a
couple of hundred would be very convenient at the present moment."

Murchison took a seat. "Silly old ass," he said in a kindly tone, "if
you want a couple of hundred have it from me, and don't worry about
the aunt. You can pay me when she stumps-up. From what you have told me
about your respected relative, it might be a lengthy business. I suppose
you will plead debts. She might offer to discharge them, and ask the
names of the creditors. In that case, old chap, you wouldn't handle much
personally, would you?"

Pomfret laughed genially. He was always very hard-up, but he was never
depressed for very long. There was always a silver lining to every
cloud.

"She's the sweetest, dearest soul on God's earth," he said in a tone of
conviction. "But you know, Hughie old man, she doesn't understand--I say
emphatically, she doesn't understand--you know what I mean. She is
early Victorian. As to your suggestion, I appreciate it very much, but
emphatically, no." He added, with a whimsical smile: "Yours is a loan,
I should have to pay back; Heaven knows when I could do so. The dear old
aunt, well, it is a gift, no question of paying back. I haven't thought
it all out yet, but in the early cool of to-morrow morning, I shall
write her a beautiful and touching letter. I know by experience it will
bring a cheque."

"You're an artful young devil, I know," said Murchison. Straight as
a die himself, he was not too appreciative of his friend's diplomatic
methods.

On the other hand, was he justified in criticising? He had a magnificent
allowance from his opulent father. Poor Jack, with a somewhat
puritanical and niggardly aunt at his back, had just to worry along, and
live in this expensive regiment from hand to mouth.

There was no more to be said on this subject.

"Well, Jack, are you in a mood to listen to my news?"

Pomfret leaned forward, and flicked the ash oft his cigar. "Yes, I
think I am. Begone dull care! I shall write that letter the first thing
to-morrow morning."

"Well, I have made the acquaintance of that pretty Burton girl, whom
nobody in Blankfield visits."

Mr. Pomfret emitted a little chuckling sound. "Lucky devil. How did you
do it? I thought she was unapproachable. She walks down the High Street,
'with a haughty stare, and her nose in the air,' and looks neither to
left nor right. How did you manage it, old man?"

Hugh laughed. "Oh, as easy as anything. Just dropped in to Winkley's,
expecting to see a lot of you fellows with your best girls. Not a soul
there I knew. Room full--every table full, save for one at which Miss
Burton was sitting alone--sat at the one table, _vis-à-vis_ with Miss
Burton. There it is in a nutshell."

Mr. Pomfret grinned broadly. "Oh, Hughie, what I would have given for
your chance. You know I am awfully gone on that girl, she is so sweet
and dainty, far and away the prettiest girl in Blankfield. What did you
make of your chance?"

"As much as could be made in five or ten minutes. She told me a lot
about things, her disappointment in finding that the Blankfield people
would not call upon her, and that, excepting her brother, she had not a
soul to speak to."

"Poor little soul!" said Mr. Pomfret, in a voice of the deepest
sympathy. "Poor little soul!" he repeated.

"Well, we talked for some little time, some ten minutes perhaps, I don't
think it could have been much longer. And then--then--you will never
believe it, Jack--she asked me to call, and be introduced to her
brother."

Mr. Pomfret was quite young, in fact he was the baby of the regiment.
But having been educated at a public school, he had learned a certain
amount of worldly wisdom rather early. He gave expression to it now.

"If she were living with her mother, or a maiden aunt, Hughie, the thing
would be so easy. But the brother, we have seen him walking beside that
lovely girl. It would be difficult to class him. It would be perhaps too
much to say he was either a bounder or a cad--he's not boisterous enough
for the one or common enough for the other. But clearly, he's not a
gentleman or the imitation of one."

"No," answered Hugh. "Your description of the brother quite fits. He is
neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red-herring, as the old saw has
it. Then the girl is so different. She is, to an extent, frank and
unconventional."

"She must be, or she wouldn't have asked you to call upon her,"
interrupted the astute Mr. Pomfret.

"Quite so, I perfectly agree. But upon my soul, Jack, she has the most
perfect manners. She does these sort of things in such a way that you
cease to wonder why she does them."

"I understand." Mr. Pomfret looked very wise. "There's a wonderful
fascination about the girl. She radiates it, even when you pass her in
the street. By Gad, there's not a young woman in Blankfield who can
hold a candle to her. Well, Hughie, what are you going to do about the
invitation?"

"I'm in two minds, old man, to go or stay away. There's the brother, you
see."

"There's the brother," repeated Mr. Pomfret, "and a dashed disappointing
sort of a brother, too. If it had only been a mother, or a maiden aunt!
what a priceless opportunity! And yet it seems a bit too good to be
lost."

"But the brother, what about him?" Hugh insisted.

"The brother is, of course, a stumbling-block. You can't ask him to
Mess. 'Old Fireworks' will stand more from you than anybody, but he
would never stand Burton. He would be calling him 'Your Grace' or 'Your
worship' or something."

"Old Fireworks," it may be explained, was the nickname of the respected
Colonel of the gallant Twenty-fifth Lancers. It had been conferred
upon him, on account of his explosive temper. He was also a rigid
disciplinarian.

"I shall not go," said Hugh after a brief pause.

Mr. Pomfret was thinking deeply. He pulled at his big cigar in a
meditative fashion. Then at length, out of his wisdom, he spoke:

"Let us reason this out, my well-beloved friend. A very pretty girl asks
you to go and see her, she is unfortunately hampered by an undesirable
brother. You accept their hospitality, but you know he is not a man
you can ask to Mess. But you can take him to an hotel, and feed him up
there. Tell him the Colonel's kicked up rough about guests, any lie you
like, to save his _amour propre_."

"A good idea, Jack. Have you anything more to say? Don't forget that
if I go to Rosemount, the news will be all over Blankfield in five
minutes."

Mr. Pomfret snapped his fingers. "Who cares a fig for the Blankfield
people? Everybody knows, or ought to know, that a soldier loves and
rides away. And the Blankfield girls are dull enough, Heaven knows, I
wouldn't give a thought to them."

"Then you advise me to call, and be introduced to the brother, eh?"

"Of course, we shall be off in another two months, and leave only tender
memories behind us." Mr. Pomfret was a practical person, if ever
there was one. "Let us seize the passing day. By the way, have you any
objection to taking me up to call with you, when you go? Say no, if you
have the slightest objection."

Hugh Murchison looked at him squarely. "No, old chap, not the slightest.
The girl interests me in a way, chiefly, I think, because I can't
quite make her out, can't determine whether she is very cunning or very
simple, but I am not attracted in the ordinary sense. I take it you
are."

Pomfret's look of indifference changed to one of gravity. "Yes, Hughie,
I am. I would like to see that girl at close quarters."

Hugh rose. "Right, we will call together, and in the meantime we will
keep it from the other fellows?"

"Good Heavens, I should think so, we should be chaffed to death," was
Jack's fervent answer.

A few days later, the two young men walked to Rosemount. It was a villa
sort of house, set in a small garden, very carefully kept. The windows
were ornamented with boxes of flowers. Small as the establishment was,
there was an air of elegance about it, an elegance perhaps of restricted
means but of refined taste.

Pomfret nudged his senior officer. "I say, they've turned it into a very
decent sort of little crib, haven't they? I should say that is due to
the girl."

Hugh laughed. "Perhaps it is the brother after all. He might be an
artist, you know. Artists are often very rum-looking chaps."

"Artist be hanged," said Pomfret emphatically. "I'll bet you a fiver he
isn't an artist, whatever he is. A 'bookie' or a 'bookie's' tout, more
likely."

At the end of this short colloquy, they had reached the hall door.
A very smart maidservant, in a becoming cap and apron, opened it. In
answer to their inquiry, Miss Burton was in.

They were shown into the drawing-room. The young mistress of the house
was reclining in an easy-chair; an open book lay on her lap.

She advanced towards them with that peculiar air of self-possession
which had so impressed Hugh on his first meeting in the tea-shop. A
hostess with years of social experience could not have been more at her
ease than this young girl.

"How nice of you to come, after that very vague invitation," she said,
in her clear, silvery voice.

She addressed Murchison first, and then turned swiftly to Pomfret, in
whose eyes she doubtless recognised frank admiration of her peculiar
attractiveness.

"I know your friend is going to introduce you in proper form. But it is
really quite unnecessary. I know you are Mr. Pomfret. I have learned the
names of all the officers from the tradespeople, also, my only friends
in Blankfield. Perhaps Captain Murchison has told you what I confided
to him the other day, that we are as isolated here as if we were on a
desert island."

Mr. Pomfret sat down beside her on a small Chesterfield. From his
vantage point he could gaze into the beautiful eyes, he could note the
lustre of that fair, wavy hair.

"A beastly shame," growled the young subaltern, at a loss for
appropriate words to express the enormities of Blankfield Society.

She turned away lightly, as if the subject interested her no further.

"I think we will have tea. My brother is engaged in scientific pursuits.
when he can tear himself away, he will join us. Captain Murchison, will
you kindly ring the bell?"

Truly, she had the manners of a woman of the world. She took the homage
of the two men as an accomplished fact. The villadom of Blankfield
could not produce such a hostess, so free from fussiness or exaggerated
hospitality. You would have to go to the "county" to find her parallel.
The two men exchanged appreciative glances. Whatever her origin, Miss
Burton could shine in any circle in which she found herself permanently,
or temporarily, located.

The tea was served, and over the tea-cups they chatted in desultory
fashion. Then the drawing-room door opened, and Mr. Burton appeared.
From the moment of his appearance, the atmosphere seemed to be changed.
He advanced towards them with outstretched hands. His manner was
extremely cordial, but it went beyond the limits of good taste. His
tones were breezy but blusterous. There was a rasping and a vulgar ring
in his voice.

"Welcome to our humble abode, gentlemen. It is very brave of you to come
and visit the boycotted ones."

Hugh and Jack Pomfret fidgeted in their chairs. This common-looking
young man was a bit too communicative about his private affairs. They
had a slight suspicion that he had been indulging in alcohol, his manner
was so unrestrained.

Mr. Burton sank down in his chair, and took a cup of tea from the hands
of his attentive sister. The visitors did not see it, but she shot a
warning glance at him, and in face of that warning glance, Mr. Burton,
by a strong effort, pulled himself together.

"You see, gentlemen, I feel very sore about this matter; my sister has a
calmer temperament, and she takes things as they come. Here we came from
the North of Ireland, from a little town where we were highly looked up
to, where we knew every man, woman and child in the place. We came here,
and, as I say, we are boycotted."

Miss Burton looked at him severely. "George, I do not think it is very
good taste of you to inflict your grievances upon these gentlemen, who
have just come to make an afternoon call. Don't you think you could
soothe your nerves better by getting back to your laboratory, or
whatever you call it?"

Mr. Burton accepted the hint, and rose. He waved a genial hand towards
the visitors.

"You will excuse me for a few moments. I have a most important
experiment on. But I shall be back very shortly: I shall see you again
before you leave."

The two young men devoutly wished that they might not see him again.
The man was a confirmed and innate vulgarian. Both he and his sister,
no doubt, felt very sore about their social ostracism, but how different
were the methods of expression indulged in by the two. She explained
the situation with a proud dignity, hiding her chagrin with a show of
indifference. He was exposing his gaping wounds to the public eye with
an air of ostentation.

"I must ask you to excuse my brother," said Miss Burton when
her ebullient relative had left the room. "He has the true Irish
temperament, it is impossible for him to conceal his feelings. He would
like to go down the High Street, trailing his coat behind him, and
inviting the residents to tread upon it, in real Irish fashion, so that
he could indulge in a free fight with them."

The young men laughed cordially. They felt that a somewhat awkward
situation had been saved by her ready tact, her rather humorous
explanation.

But Murchison, the more level-headed of the two, looked at her very
fixedly, as he said, "But you are Irish, too. How is it that you have
learned to control your feelings so successfully?"

At such a direct question, he would have expected her to flush a little;
at any rate, show some slight symptoms of embarrassment. But this
remarkably self-possessed girl of twenty or thereabouts was as cool as a
cucumber. She laughed her little silvery laugh.

"My brother and I are as wide apart as the North and South Poles," she
said lightly. "Many people have commented on the fact. Would you like to
know the reason?"

She directed a rather challenging glance in the direction of Pomfret,
whom she rightly judged to be more susceptible to feminine influence
than his friend.

"I should like to very much," was the subaltern's answer. That eloquent
glance had completely subjugated the young man.

"Well, listen. My father was a hard-riding, gambling, hard-drinking
Irish squire, who squandered his money and left little but debts behind
him. My brother takes after him in certain qualities, thank Heaven
not his least desirables ones. My mother was an Englishwoman, rather
a puritanical sort of woman, who fell in love, perhaps a little
injudiciously, and I think wore her life out in the attempt to curb my
father's unhappy propensities. I take after my mother. You understand?
George is really my half-brother by my father's first wife."

Pomfret nodded his head gravely. "I quite understand," he said, and his
tone was one of conviction. Murchison preserved a benevolent attitude of
neutrality. He was still thinking it all out.

Miss Burton was very pretty, nay, more than pretty, very charming, very
attractive, gifted with a marvellous self-possession, very clever,
very adroit. But was she as genuine and frank as she seemed? Pomfret
evidently thought so, but Murchison was not quite sure.

Mr. George Burton, who took after his Irish father in several respects,
according to his sister's account, made a re-appearance before the
visitors left. There had been just a little suspicion at first that he
had been indulging in the hard-drinking habits of his male parent. If
so, that suspicion must be at once removed. He was bright, breezy and
blusterous, but he was certainly master of himself. He advanced with the
most cordial air.

"Gentlemen, I feel I owe you an apology. I had no right to intrude my
private grievances upon you, even although I am very possessed with
them. Please put it down to my Irish temperament. You will forgive me, I
am sure."

He stretched out appealing hands, the hands of the plebeian as Murchison
was quick to notice, nails bitten to the quick, coarse fingers and
thumbs.

Murchison quietly ignored the outstretched hand. So did Pomfret,
subjugated as he was with the charm and attractiveness of Miss Burton.
He did not quite feel that he wanted to shake hands with this very
terrible brother, who took after his Irish father.

"I apologise most sincerely, gentlemen," he repeated, "for my outburst
just now. I had no right to inflict upon you a recital of my private
grievances against the inhabitants of this wretched town. But I am a
wild, excitable Irishman, whatever is in my mind has to come out. Please
forgive me; I know my sister Norah never will."

He looked appealingly at the girl who sat there, calm and self-possessed
as always, with a slight expression of contempt upon her charming face.

"I have already made excuses for you to Captain Murchison and Mr.
Pomfret," she said coldly.

The visitors were very much embarrassed. What could they say to this
dreadful person who seemed so utterly lacking in all the qualities
of good breeding? Hugh remained silent, Pomfret opened his lips and
murmured something about the whole affair being very regrettable.

But these somewhat incoherent remarks were quite enough to restore Mr.
Burton to his normal state of easy buoyancy. He smiled affably.

"So that is all over. Well, I am delighted to see you, and it will not
be my fault if your first visit is your last. Now, I propose you come
round and have a little bit of dinner with us soon, so that we may get
to know each other better. Any night that you are at liberty will suit
us. _We_ are not overwhelmed with invitations, as you can understand
from what I have told you."

If Murchison had been by himself, he would have politely shelved the
invitation. Miss Burton, who took after her English mother, was quite
decent and ladylike. The brother was insufferable. Vulgarity, so to
speak, oozed from him. He was offensive even in his geniality. In short,
he was impossible.

But Pomfret took the wind out of his senior's sails.

"Sorry we are quite full up this week, but hardly anything on next.
Shall we say Monday?"

Miss Burton took the matter out of her brother's hands by turning
directly to Murchison.

"Monday, of course, will suit us. Will it suit you?" she asked him
pointedly.

Taken by surprise, the unhappy young man could only mutter a reluctant
affirmative. A few minutes later they left, pledged to partake of the
Burtons' hospitality on the following Monday.

When they were safely outside, Murchison spoke severely to his brother
officer.

"You've let us in for a nice thing. If you had left it to me, I would
have got out of that dinner somehow."

"But I didn't want to get out of it," replied the unabashed junior.
"We knew the brother was pretty bad all along. I don't know that on the
whole he is much worse than we imagined. But she's a ripping girl. I
want to see more of her."

"You silly young ass," growled Murchison; "I believe you've fallen head
over ears in love with her."

And Pomfret, one of the most mercurial and light-hearted of subalterns,
answered quite gravely:

"I rather fancy I have. I've never met a girl who appealed to me in
quite the same sort of way."



CHAPTER III

|As a result of his visit to Rosemount, Hugh Murchison was very
perturbed in his mind. He blamed himself severely for having been
tempted into that rather intimate conversation at the tea-shop. Miss
Burton was attractive enough, and lady-like enough, to excuse any man
for taking advantage of his obvious opportunities, but he had been a
fool to go farther. He ought never to have set his foot in the house of
people of whom he knew nothing.

It was all Jack Pomfret's fault, he decided hastily. It was his
influence, his keen desire to make the girl's acquaintance, that had
weighed down his friend's prudence. For, if left to himself, Hugh was
quite sure that he would have dallied and dallied till all inclination
to call at Rosemount had died down.

And Pomfret had owned to being greatly impressed with the fair young
chatelaine. He had admitted that he had never met a girl who had
appealed to him in quite the same sort of way. In fact, it was easy to
see he had fallen desperately in love with her.

And Jack was just one of those light-hearted, susceptible sort of chaps
who have not an atom of common-sense in their composition, who will obey
their impulses, regardless of consequences.

And he was not his own master. His career was practically at the
disposal of his somewhat puritanical aunt. It was just on the cards that
Jack would be mad enough to propose to this girl who had so bewitched
him. One could imagine how the aunt would receive such a communication.

There was one little ray of hope, however. If Jack did commit such a
crowning folly, he would be far too honourable not to acquaint Miss
Burton with his circumstances. Hugh was fairly convinced that the young
lady knew how to take care of herself. And, even if she did fall in love
with Jack, as he had done with her, and be inclined to make a fool of
herself, there was the objectionable brother to be reckoned with. He
would certainly not allow his sister to engage herself to a man, except
with the consent of that man's family.

All the same, it was as well to avoid any embarrassing entanglements,
if possible. It is easy to retrace your steps when you have only just
started.

With this object in view, Murchison sought his friend on the Sunday
preceding the day on which they were to present themselves at Rosemount.

"Jack, old man, I have been thinking----" he began.

Mr. Pomfret lifted a warning finger. "My dear friend and mentor, don't
indulge in such violent processes. It's very bad for you."

"Don't be an ass, Jack. You are not really funny when you say that sort
of thing. I've been thinking over this business to-morrow, and, frankly,
I don't relish the prospect. We had better cut it out."

Pomfret's face took on an obstinate expression. "You are speaking
for yourself, of course. For my part, I don't intend to break my
appointment. In my opinion, it would be an awfully low-down thing to do.
If you didn't want to go, you shouldn't have accepted."

It was evident the young man was not in a very reasonable frame of mind,
equally evident he would require very careful handling.

"Now, Jack, don't get off the handles. You know you are an awfully
impetuous chap, and that I have much the cooler head of the two. I have
been thinking it all out the last day or two, and I don't like the look
of it."

"You informed me just now that you had been thinking," replied Mr.
Pomfret in the same sarcastic strain. "There is no need to dwell upon
the fact. It is obvious."

But the elder man was not to be ruffled. If anything unpleasant came of
this sudden acquaintance he would lay the blame on himself for having
mentioned that little incident of the tea-shop, and inspired the
mercurial Jack's love of the daring and adventurous.

"I don't know that I did accept, as a matter of fact, except by
implication. I was about to return an evasive answer, leave it in the
air, so to speak, when you cut in and jumped at the invitation for
both."

This was true, and Mr. Pomfret's air lost a little of its jaunty
confidence. "Well, if you think I lugged you in, get out of it yourself.
Of course you will have to tell some beastly lie that they will see
through at once. Anyway I am going, and that's flat."

"If you go, I shall go," said Hugh firmly. "But I would like you to
listen to me for a few moments, and put things before you as they
present themselves to me."

"Fire away, then," was Pomfret's answer, but it was delivered in a very
ungracious tone.

"Of course we are both agreed about the brother," began Hugh mildly.

The other interrupted impatiently: "The brother be hanged. We are not
going to the house for the brother's sake, but because of the sister.
what's the use of blinking the fact? If you had met him in the tea-shop
instead of her, I don't suppose you would have wasted a word on him, no
more should I. But I don't see why that pretty girl should be ostracised
because of him."

"I don't quite see, under the circumstances, how you can separate them,"
pursued the obstinate Hugh. "I should like to turn off, just for a
moment to the sister, and consider her."

"Go ahead," said Mr. Pomfret in a somewhat sullen tone. He was keeping
his impulsive and fiery nature under control, out of his great respect
for his friend. But it was very doubtful if he would stand much
criticism even from one so respected.

"I have not a word to say against her appearance or her manners. I will
go further, and say there is not a girl in Blankfield, or for the matter
of that in the 'county' itself, who gives the impression of a thorough
gentlewoman more convincingly than she does." Pomfret's face brightened
at these words. "Oh, then you admit that, and you have knocked about the
world a few years longer than I have. I am of the same opinion, but if
you say it, it must be so."

"I do say it unhesitatingly, but mind you, I am only judging from
outside appearances. Now, how comes it that such a refined and ladylike
girl as that should have such a bounder of a brother? There is a mystery
there."

Jack Pomfret prepared to argue. "I don't quite agree that he is a
bounder, he is not quite boisterous enough for that. Let us agree on a
common definition--namely, that he is bad form. That fits him, I think."

"And the sister is very good form. You can't deny that there is a
mystery."

But the young subaltern developed a quite surprising ingenuity in
argument.

"She just simply calls him her brother," sharply, "but she has told you
he is her halfbrother by a first marriage--father a gentleman, mother a
common person, hence the bad form. A second time, the father married a
woman of his own class, hence Norah Burton. Norah knows him for a good
sort, if a bit rough, and sticks to him. That's a reasonable theory,
anyway."

"More ingenious than reasonable perhaps," commented Murchison with an
amused smile.

Pomfret went on, warming to his subject. "And, hang it all, if we speak
of bounders--and mind you, I won't admit he is a bounder in the strict
sense of the term--is there a family in England without them?"

"Quite the same sort, do you think?" was Hugh's question.

"Look here, I'm not going to be impertinent, and ask if you can point to
any amongst your own connections, but I know something of my own family.
I've got a cousin, good blood on both sides. He's been a bounder from
the time he learned to talk, sets your teeth on edge; as some fellow
said, every time he opens his mouth he puts his foot into it. By Gad,
this fellow Burton is a polished gentleman to him. If George showed his
nose in this regiment they would send him to Coventry in five minutes."

"As they did that chap last year," remarked Hugh, alluding to an
offensive young man who had been compelled to send in his papers, owing
to the fact that his general demeanour had not come up to the somewhat
exalted standard of the gallant Twenty-fifth.

"Precisely," assented Pomfret. "But you were going to give me some views
about the girl. Again I say, fire away."

"Well, to go back to that meeting in the tea-shop. It was, to say the
least, a little unconventional for a young girl to invite an utter
stranger to call upon her."

"You were not an utter stranger," retorted Jack doggedly. "She had
heard who you were, perhaps from the tradespeople. She knew you were a
gentleman, she knew your name, Captain Murchison. Hang it all, if you
had met her in one of these dull Blankfield houses, and she had been
introduced by a hostess about whom you both knew precious little, and
asked you to call, being the mistress of her brother's house, you would
have thought it quite the correct and proper thing. So would every man
in the barracks. Don't people strike up acquaintances in hotels, and
sometimes trains?"

"They generally find out something about each other before they pursue
the acquaintance," suggested Murchison. "Look here, old man, you know as
well as I do, you are arguing all round the point. It would be precious
easy for the Burtons to say who and what they were, and furnish some
proper credentials. If they did that, I daresay all Blankfield would
call upon them, and swallow the brother for the sake of the very
charming sister."

"Well, I'll pump her to-night, and get out all you want to know,"
retorted Mr. Pomfret confidently. "I don't go so far as to say they will
be able to refer us to Burke or Debrett. Decent middle-class people, I
expect."

It was useless to argue with such an optimist. "You've accounted for the
brother, I remember, by your ingenious theory. Well, you've made up your
mind to go then?"

"Most certainly I have. You do as you like, but while we are on the
subject of good form, it is not a pretty thing to accept an invitation,
and then excuse yourself at the eleventh hour by an obvious lie."

"Under ordinary circumstances, you would be quite right. It has not
occurred to you that we were rather rushed into this dinner, then--that
we were, so to speak, jumped at?"

"It might look like it at first blush," admitted Mr. Pomfret
reluctantly. "But here are two poor devils, marooned, as it were, in
this snobbish town, and they naturally jump at the first people who show
them the slightest civility. They must simply be aching to exchange a
word with their fellow-creatures. Well, I am going to exchange several
with them, I promise you."

Hugh felt it was useless. When Pomfret got in these moods, it was waste
of time to reason with him. He felt uneasy, however. He had promised his
family to look after him, and he felt a certain responsibility. It was
to be hoped the sudden infatuation for a pretty face would expire as
quickly as it had been born.

Perhaps a closer association with the bounder brother would produce a
chastening influence. But then Jack seemed bounder-proof. Had he not
alluded to a well-born cousin, beside whom Burton shone as a polished
gentleman?

Anyway, he must not desert his young and very impulsive friend. But it
was with considerable reluctance that he accompanied him to Rosemount on
the Monday night.



CHAPTER IV

|Eight o'clock was the hour appointed for dinner, this fact scoring
in the Burtons' favour, as evincing a knowledge of the habits of good
society. Even a few of the most select hostesses in Blankville, who
ought to have known better, made a base compromise with half-past seven.

The two men arrived about five minutes before the time. The young
hostess was awaiting them in the drawing-room, attired in some filmy
creation that made her look very charming and ethereal. Soft lights from
shaded lamps played about her, and lent a touch of perfection to the
picture.

Mr. Burton was attired in the usual conventional evening dress of the
English gentleman. One would have guessed him the sort of man who would
wear a ready-made tie. Not at all. He had tied the bow himself, and with
a masterly hand. Pomfret even, who was admitted to be the Beau Brummel of
his regiment, could not have done it better.

It is generally supposed that a common man looks more common still when
he dons evening attire. "George" was an exception to the rule. His black
clothes became him, and lent him a certain air of dignity, which was
wanting when he assumed everyday garments. Even Murchison, prejudiced
as he was against him, was forced to admit to himself that the "bounder"
for once looked quite respectable. Pomfret, ever leaning to the
charitable side, felt quite enthusiastic over him, and contrasted him
favourably with his own cousin, who could boast blue blood on both
sides.

Norah Burton played the hostess as to the manner born, greeting the
visitors with just the right degree of cordiality, quite free from the
effusiveness of most of the Blankfield hostesses. And Burton, taking his
cue from her, was hearty without boisterousness.

The young subaltern's heart warmed to her, she was so gracious,
so sweet, and about her there hovered such an air of calm dignity.
Rosemount, no doubt, was honoured by the introduction of such
distinguished visitors, viewed merely from the social point of view,
but she did not permit a suspicion of this to escape her. Rather,
judging by her demeanour, the visitors were honoured by being admitted
to Rosemount.

"Rather reminds me of a young queen entertaining her subjects," Pomfret
remarked afterwards to his friend in a rather enthusiastic outburst.
"I'm not speaking of the 'county' of course, but these Blankfield women
make you feel they are overwhelmed with your condescension in coming
to their houses, that they are hardly fit to sit at the same table with
you."

The dinner was plain, but well cooked. The appointments were perfect,
snowy napery, elegant glass and cutlery. One neat-handed maidservant
waited, and waited well. Mr. Burton carved the dishes that were
carvable, there was no pretence at an _à la Russe_ banquet. Their small
establishment could not cope with that, and they did not attempt it.
There was a generous supply of wines: hock, burgundy and champagne.

And Mr. Burton, strangely subdued, was quite a good host, hospitable but
not pressing. Murchison thought he must have been having some lessons
from his sister, who seemed intuitively to do the right thing Still
suspicious, he was sure that she had been steadily coaching him how to
comport himself on this important night.

For, after all, it must be a feather in their caps, that after having
been coldly cast aside by the _élite_ of Blankfield, they had captured
for their dining acquaintance two of the most popular officers of the
exclusive Twenty-fifth.

And Murchison, ever on the watch for any little sign or symptom to
confirm his suspicions, had to admit the pair were behaving perfectly.
Not the slightest sign of elation at the small social triumph manifested
itself in the demeanour of either. Dinner-parties like this might be a
common occurrence for all they showed to the contrary.

The substantial portion of the meal was over. Dessert was brought in,
with port, claret and sherry, all of the most excellent vintage. The
house was a small one, and not over-staffed, but there was no evidence
of lack of means. Perhaps the Burtons were wise people in not keeping
up a great show, but spending the greater part of their income on their
personal enjoyments.

While the men were still lingering over their dessert, Miss Burton rose.

"There are no ladies to support me, so I shall feel quite lonely by
myself," she said in her pretty, softly modulated voice. "Shall we have
coffee in the drawing-room? You men can smoke. It is quite Liberty Hall
here. My brother smokes in every room of the house."

Murchison noted the subtle difference between the brother and sister.
If Burton had given the invitation, he would certainly have said, "you
gentlemen." The beautiful Norah would not make a mistake like that.

Five minutes afterwards, the three men trooped into the pretty
drawing-room with its subdued, shaded lights. Norah was sitting at a
small table, on which were set the coffee equipage with an assortment
of liqueurs. Decidedly, the Burtons knew how to do things when they
received guests.

The "bounder" brother, as Hugh always called him to himself, had drunk
very heavily at dinner of every wine: hock, burgundy and champagne. But
evidently he could carry a big quantity. It would take more than a
small dinner-party like this to knock him over. When he entered the
drawing-room his mien was as subdued as when he had first received his
visitors.

They drank their coffee round the fair-sized octagonal table, and then
they broke up. Miss Burton retired to a Chesterfield, whither Pom-fret
followed her, as he was bound to do.

Burton bustled out of the room, and returned with a huge box of
expensive cigars. He offered the box to Hugh, who took one with a
deprecating look at the young hostess.

"We dare not, Miss Burton. Think of your curtains in the morning."

"Don't trouble, Captain Murchison," she said, with her charming smile.
"The curtains have to take what comes in this house. George doesn't
often sit in this room, but when he does he always smokes cigars. I told
you this was Liberty Hall, you know."

The box was offered to Pomfret, who took one. "Do you smoke, Miss
Burton?" he asked.

"Once in a blue moon. I think I will have one to-night, as a little
treat. It is terribly tempting, when I see all you men smoking." The
enamoured Pomfret fetched her a cigarette, hovered over her with a
match, till it was properly lighted, and settled himself again on the
Chesterfield. If that silly old Hugh didn't butt in, he was going to
have a nice little chat with this charming girl, who had played the
young hostess to such perfection.

But Hugh was safely out of the way. Burton had piloted him to a
comfortable easy-chair at the extreme end of the drawing-room, and
these two antipathetic persons were apparently engaged in an interesting
conversation. Anyway, Murchison's laugh rang out frequently.

Pomfret, it must be confessed, was not very great at conversation. If
the ball were opened, he could set it rolling, but he lacked initiative.
He looked at Miss Burton with admiring eyes, but although he had got her
comfortably to himself on that convenient Chesterfield, he could think
of nothing to say to her.

And then a brilliant inspiration came to him. "I say, how gracefully you
smoke." The young woman burst into a pleasant peal of quite spontaneous
laughter. She always had a ready smile at command, but her laughter was
generally a little forced. This time it was perfectly genuine.

"Oh, you are really comical," she cried. "How can any girl smoke a
cigarette gracefully? In the first place, it is a most unfeminine thing
to do. All people must smoke them in the same way, and there can never
be anything graceful in the act."

"Women don't smoke them the same way," replied the young subaltern, with
the air of a man who has observed and learned. "Most of them chew them,
and hold them at arm's length, as if they were afraid of being bitten."

"It's because they don't like smoking, really, and only do it to be in
the fashion. Now, when I am quite in the mood, I actually revel in a
cigarette. I am in the mood to-night."

Pomfret leaned forward, with a tender expression on his rather homely,
but good-humoured, countenance.

"That means that you feel happy to-night, eh?"

She nodded brightly. "Oh, ever so happy! It is seeing new faces, you
know, after weeks of isolation," she added with a touch of almost
girlish gaiety. "It seems such ages since we gave a dinner-party. And
you and Captain Murchison are so nice. It seems almost like a family
gathering."

"You like my friend Murchison, then? I am glad, because it is to him I
owe the pleasure of your acquaintance."

"I think he is a dear, he seems so honest, straightforward, and so
reliable." She spoke with apparent conviction. "Were you not dreadfully
shocked when he told you, for of course he must have told you, how we
got to know each other?"

"Not in the least," said Mr. Pomfret stoutly. "I explained to him that
people can become acquainted, without being properly introduced in the
conventional sort of way."

"Ah, then, he had some doubts himself?" flashed Miss Burton. "I expect
he was a little shocked, if you were not."

"Not in the slightest, I assure you," replied Mr. Pomfret easily. He was
not above telling a white lie upon occasions. He remembered too well
the remarks that his friend had made upon the girl's unconventional
behaviour, but he was not going to admit anything.

Miss Burton spoke softly, after a brief pause. "You and Captain
Murchison are very great friends, are you not?"

"Awful pals," was the genuine response. "You see, he knows all my
family. And when I joined the regiment, they deputed him to look after
me. He has got a hard task," he added with a laugh.

"Oh, not so very hard really, I am sure of that." Norah's voice was very
sweet, very caressing. "But you and your friend are of very different
temperaments."

"In what way?"

She smiled. "Oh, in half a hundred ways. Captain Murchison is as true as
steel, but also as hard as steel. You, now, are not in the least hard.
You are very kind and compassionate, you think the best of everybody."

"Don't flatter me too much, please," interjected the bashful Pomfret.

"Oh, pardon me, I know just the kind of man you are." The sweet face
was very close to his own, the beautiful, rather sad eyes were looking
steadily into his. "You are a rich man, or you would not be in this
expensive regiment. But, if you were a poor man, and you had only ten
pounds in your pocket, you would lend an impecunious friend five of
them, and not trouble whether he repaid you or not."

"I think you have fitted me, Miss Burton. My dear old chum Hugh is never
tired of telling me I am an awful ass."

"You are both right, really," answered Miss Burton.

"You see, we look at life from two different standpoints."

"I fancy you come from two different classes?" queried the charming
young woman.

Pomfret felt a little embarrassed. He did not want to give away his
particular chum. But there were no doubt certain inherited commercial
instincts in Hugh that sometimes offended the descendant of a more
careless and aristocratic family.

"You see, Hugh has come from the trading class, originally. His
ancestors, no doubt, were close-fisted people. Hugh is not close-fisted
himself: he is, in a certain way, the soul of generosity, but sometimes
the old Adam peeps out in little things."

He had a swift pang of remorse when he had said this. For he suddenly
remembered Hugh's generous offer of the two hundred which Pomfret, by
a very diplomatic letter, was going to cajole out of the octogenarian
great-aunt.

"Believe me," added he fervently, "Hugh is one of the best. He is a
little peculiar sometimes in small things. I ought not to have spoken as
I have done. I am more than sorry if I have conveyed a wrong impression
of him."

"But you have not," cried Norah Burton swiftly. "He would be hard in
some things: I am sure--for instance--he would never forgive a really
dishonourable action, even in the case of his best friend."

"No, I am sure he would not," assented Pomfret. "But I don't fancy he
has been much tried that way. We don't get many 'rotters' amongst our
lot."

"_Noblesse oblige_," quoted Miss Burton, lightly. Then she added more
seriously: "And I am sure he is very kind-hearted and thoughtful. I
was impressed with his reluctance to smoke because of the curtains. Of
course, he did not remember that it did not matter in the least, as we
never have callers."

She was getting on the theme of their social isolation, but Pomfret was
sure that, unlike her brother, strangely subdued to-night from his usual
boisterousness, she would handle the subject with her customary tact and
good taste.

"Ah, of course, all that is very regrettable. It is not so much your
loss, as the loss of Blankfield. I suppose you won't stay very long
here."

For a moment there came a blazing light in the soft, beautiful eyes.
"A few days ago, I advised my brother to pack up and clear out. The
snobbish plutocracy of Blankfield had beaten us, made up of retired
shopkeepers and merchants. To-night, with you and Captain Murchison as
our guests, I think we have beaten Blankfield with its fat mothers and
plain daughters."

She looked superb, as she drew her slender form up to its full height,
the glow of indignant triumph blazing on her cheek. At the moment she
was extremely beautiful. If Pomfret had been attracted before, he was
infatuated now.

"I will help you to beat the Blankfield people, for whom I don't care a
row of pins. I will come, whenever you want me."

"And your friend Captain Murchison, will he come, too?"

Pomfret smiled whimsically. "Oh yes, he will come, if I make a point
of it. Old Hugh thinks he leads me, but I really lead him." She leaned
forward eagerly. "Can you bring some of your brother officers, Mr.
Pomfret? Please don't think I am bold and forward and presumptuous. But
I do long to be even with these Blankfield people. I would love to make
a little sort of _salon_ of my own. I know it is useless to expect the
women at present, but they might come in time. Mind you, I don't want
them."

"I will try," said Pomfret slowly. "I think I may say that Hugh and I
are the two most popular men in the regiment; I say it without vanity.
And I don't suppose we care a snap of the fingers about the Blankfield
people. Still, I don't want to raise hopes that may never be fulfilled.
I can only say, I will try." There was a pause. Then she spoke, and
there was a far-away look in her eyes. "You hesitate, I see. Oh, I quite
believe you when you say you will try. But there is some stumbling-block
in the way, isn't there?" Pomfret had perforce to dissemble. "There is
no stumbling-block that I know of, except running the risk of offending
Blankfield. That is not a great one, as we shall be out of here in about
two months."

She leaned closer to him, and her voice sank to a whisper. "There is a
stumbling-block, I know. You are too kind and generous to state what it
is, you could not, as to-night he is your host. It is my brother."

And then poor, infatuated Pomfret sought no further refuge in
subterfuge. He blurted out the truth. "Some of our chaps wouldn't stand
him, you know," he said simply.

There was a little convulsive movement of the delicate hands. "And he
is such a dear good fellow at heart, wanting I know in the little
delicacies that mark a real gentleman. You see a great difference
between us, don't you?"

"A very distinct difference," assented Pomfret.

"I will explain it to you in a few words. My father was a harum-scarum
sort of person, as I told you last time you were here, hard-riding and
hard-drinking. When he was a boy of twenty-five he married a woman out
of his own class, a shop-girl or a barmaid, I am not quite sure which.
George is many years older than myself, as I told you he is really my
halfbrother. The first wife died, my father married again, this time
a lady. I am the daughter of the second marriage. Now, I think you
understand."

Pomfret was delighted at this avowal, it proved his own prescience.

"I am so glad you told me, but as it happens, it was just what I
guessed."

Miss Burton looked at him with admiring eyes. "You are really very
clever, you know. Well, I will not exactly say this is a secret, but you
will whisper it about discreetly. You need not be quite so frank as I
have been about details, but you can hint at a _mésalliance_. I hate to
have to tell you so much, for my brother has been so good to me."

"Ah!" Mr. Pomfret's air plainly showed that he was eager for further
information.

And Miss Burton was quite willing to gratify him. The young man was a
pleasant, comfortable sort of person to talk to. He was an admirable
listener, and never broke in with unnecessary, or irritating
interruptions.

"When my father died he left little behind him but debts; my mother had
preceded him some ten years. Poor George had gone into a stockbroker's
office, through the good offices of a distant connection. His salary was
very small, but he made a home for me. He would not hear of my earning
my own living."

"That could not have been very long ago," remarked Pomfret, "because you
are not very old now."

"No, it was not long," answered the girl, not committing herself to any
definite dates. "Well, we had a very hard time, as you can imagine. Then
suddenly our luck changed. An uncle of George's on his mother's side had
gone out to Australia as a boy, and amassed, we won't say a fortune from
your point of view, but what we should look upon as wealth. He had never
married, and when he died, a will was found in which he left all he was
possessed of to his sister's children. George was the only child, so he
took it all."

"So he threw up business and went in for a country life."

"Well, he has thrown it up for a time. I am not quite certain he will
not get tired of inactivity, and go back to it. Now that he has capital,
it would be easy for him to embark in something that would keep him
occupied, and pay him well."

"Not a sportsman, I suppose, he doesn't care for hunting or shooting?
The country is slow for a man if he doesn't do something in that line."

The pretty girl smiled; there was a faint touch of humour in the smile.
"Oh, he's not rich enough to indulge in luxuries of that sort. Besides,"
she added hastily, "he has such wretched sight, he would be no good at
sport."

Pomfret thought it had been a very pleasant, enlightening conversation.
Norah seemed to have been perfectly frank about their past and their
present position. She did not pretend to be anything but what she was,
the daughter of a spendthrift father, living on what was practically the
charity of a good-hearted brother. And that brother was indebted for his
good fortune to a relative who must have been a man of the people.

While the two young people were having this confidential chat, Mr.
Burton was making himself agreeable to the other guest, in his doubtless
well-meant, but somewhat undiplomatic, fashion.

"I do envy you young fellows when I see you walking about as if the
world belonged to you."

Hugh drew himself up stiffly. "I was not in the least aware that any one
of us conveyed that impression."

"No offence meant, I assure you." Hugh's tone showed him that he had
been guilty of bad taste: a blessing Norah had not heard--she would have
given him a bad quarter of an hour later on. "But all army men, I think,
get a certain kind of swagger. Oh, nothing overbearing or unpleasant
about it, of course. They are made so much of that there is no wonder
if they do fancy themselves a bit. I'm sure I should if I were one of
them."

Murchison made no comment on this frank statement, and the other man
rambled on in desultory fashion.

"It's the life I wanted. As a boy I longed to grow up quickly and go
into the army. There was a fair chance of it then, when the old man had
still got a bit of money left. But by the time I was old enough the idea
had to be knocked on the head. I had to go into a dingy stockbroking
office instead."

Hugh pricked up his ears at the announcement. He had not suspected that
the man would be so communicative about his past. Of course he had gone
as a clerk. If his father was not well-off enough to put him in the army
neither could he have afforded to buy him a share in a business.

"Yes," pursued Mr. Burton, "it was an awful come down after the dreams I
had indulged in."

"It must have been a very bitter disappointment," assented Hugh
politely, in spite of his firm conviction that the army was the very
last profession in the world suited to a man of his host's obvious
peculiarities.

"I should have been awfully keen on soldiering," pursued Mr. Burton,
under the impression that he had discovered a sympathetic listener.
"Don't you consider it a splendid life?"

"There are many things in its favour, certainly," was the rather frigid
reply.

"But, after all, I don't think I should have cared to be in the line;
there's not the same glamour about it, is there? You fellows in the
cavalry, in a crack regiment like yours, must see the rosy side of
life." He heaved a sigh. "And, of course, you've all got pots of money
to grease the wheels."

Hugh fidgeted perceptibly. How very vulgar the man was, with an innate
vulgarity that nothing would ever eradicate. But his host, absorbed in
his own reflections, did not observe the movement.

"Of course, we know all about you, about the great house of Murchison,
you are tiled-in all right." He lowered his voice to a confidential
whisper: "What about that young chap yonder? I suppose he's rolling in
money, too?"

It was growing insufferable. For two pins Hugh would have got up and
bidden him goodnight then and there, but he shrank from making a scene.
what a fool he had been to come here, to allow his kindly feeling for
that susceptible young donkey of a Pomfret to expose him to such an
ordeal as this.

"Really, Mr. Burton," he said in a cutting voice, "I do not discuss the
private affairs of my friends on such a brief acquaintance. If you
are really anxious to know, I believe Mr. Pomfret has considerable
expectations from an old aunt who is fairly wealthy. Those expectations
depend, I understand, upon his conforming generally to her wishes in all
respects."

"Ah, I understand," said the unabashed Burton. "Sorry if my question
gave you offence. What really put it in my head was the difference
between his position and mine when I was his age."

There was silence for some little time, while the two men applied
themselves steadily to their cigars. Then Burton jumped up suddenly.

"This must be a bit slow for you and your friend, and the night is
young. What do you say to a game at bridge?"

Yes, Captain Murchison would welcome a game of bridge, anything as a
relief to this vulgarian's conversation.

They played for over two hours, Murchison keenly alert from certain
suspicions that had been forming in his mind. At present there was no
foundation for these vague suspicions. They played for small stakes,
but the visitors rose up the winners, not by a great amount, but still
winners.

It was a fine night, the two men walked back to their quarters.

"How did you get on with the charmer? I saw you seemed very confidential
together," asked the older man.

"Splendidly, old chap. She told me a lot about her history." Pomfret
related all he had been told in full. "And how did you get on with the
brother?"

"Don't ask me," replied Hugh with a groan. "He's the most insufferable
creature I ever came across. I don't really think I can go there again.
At the beginning of the evening he started fairly well, but later he
reverted to type."

"Well, I may as well tell you straight, I shall. The next time we go
I'll take a share of the brother."

When Pomfret spoke in that tone he meant what he said, and Hugh knew he
would have his own wilful way.

There was one piece of information which the young subaltern had not
imparted to his friend.

It was this--that after much pressing, and more than one refusal, Miss
Burton had agreed to meet him to-morrow afternoon at a very sequestered
spot about a mile and a half from Blankfield, with the view of pursuing
their acquaintance.



CHAPTER V

|From the night of that dinner-party Murchison noted a subtle difference
in his young friend's demeanour. Pomfret had always been a harum-scarum
sort of young fellow, accustomed to follow erratic and injudicious
impulses, not absolutely devoid of brains of a certain order, but of
imperfect and ill-balanced mentality.

But in his wildest escapades he had always been frank and above-board.
And he was ever the first, when he had overstepped the border-line,
to admit that he was in the wrong. And on such occasions, far from
justifying his exploits, he had been ready to deplore them.

But his frankness seemed to have departed from that night. He seemed
rather to avoid than seek the society of his old friend and mentor. When
Hugh brought up the subject of the Burtons, Pomfret seemed anxious to
avoid it, to say as little as possible. He seemed to shut himself up
within his own soul.

Hugh, of course, was profoundly uneasy. Such a transparent creature as
Pomfret would not be likely to retire within his own shell unless there
were cogent reasons for the withdrawal. And the reasons were inspired
by the attractive personality of the fascinating siren at Rosemount,
the charming young woman who explained the presence of an undesirable
brother by the narrative of her father's first unfortunate marriage.

Pomfret had invited the brother and sister to a dinner at the principal
hotel in the place, and Hugh had been his friend's guest. Ladies, of
course, could not be asked to the Mess. It had been a happy solution
of a somewhat awkward position. Mr. Burton no doubt understood, but he
accepted the situation with alacrity.

From the dinner they had adjourned to Rosemount. Here they had played
cards as before, but they left off fairly even. Hugh's suspicions about
card-sharping were dissipated as before. At the same time, he was still
resolved to keep a watchful eye upon the pair. It was firmly engrained
upon his mind, and only, of course, from the purest instinct, that he
did not trust either of them.

Much to his surprise, they left without having been asked to a return
dinner. It was the turn of the Burtons. And judging from the haste with
which Burton had jumped at them on the first visit, the omission was a
little noticeable. It could not be that these new isolated dwellers in
Blankfield wanted to shelve an acquaintance which must have brightened
their dull and unvisited existence.

Another fact presented itself to Murchison's rather acute intelligence.
There seemed already established between Pomfret and the attractive
Norah a certain kind of freemasonry, a certain sort of easy relations.
And once in the course of the evening he was sure that he heard the
young man, in the course of a whispered conversation, address her by her
Christian name. They had been sitting together on the Chesterfield, and
their remarks to each other had been addressed in a very low tone. But
Hugh's hearing was wonderfully acute, and he had surprised a sudden
expression of rebuke in Miss Burton's eyes when Pomfret made the slip.

And here, for a moment, this story must leave Hugh Murchison with his
honest doubts and suspicions, while it follows the fortunes of his young
friend and the attractive Norah Burton.

For, truth to tell, at this particular juncture, young Pomfret, for
all his apparent guilelessness, was pursuing a double game. Madly,
overwhelmingly, in love with Norah, he was meeting her clandestinely,
sometimes at her own house, sometimes in sequestered spots in the
surrounding neighbourhood. And of these visits and meetings Hugh knew
nothing.

Pomfret was not free from a few pangs of self-reproach, from the fact
that he was not running quite straight with good old Hugh, to whom he
had always, hitherto, confessed all his difficulties and troubles.

But then Hugh, although one of the best, was such a practical old stick.
And if he told him the whole truth, there was no knowing what course
Hugh might not think it was his duty to take. He might write to his
family and bring them down in an avalanche on him, or even to the
octogenarian aunt.

Love taught him deep cunning, and what he lacked in this subtle quality
was ably supplemented by Miss Burton, this young girl with the
rather sad expression, and the candid eyes that always met your gaze
unfalteringly.

From the first clandestine meeting, arranged in whispers on the night of
the dinner at Rose-mount, Pomfret had made the running very fast. He had
given Norah to understand that he thought her the most desirable girl he
had ever met, that no other woman had appealed, would or could appeal,
to him as she did. There was a good drop of Irish blood in his own
veins, and he certainly made a most fervent lover.

Norah listened with a modest bashfulness that enchanted him. He was
sure from her demeanour that she had never been made love to before. She
seemed so overwhelmed that she could hardly say a word. If one were not
so much in love, one might almost have thought she was stupid.

She was not so stupid, however, as not to preserve her wits sufficiently
to make another appointment, this time at Rosemount. Pomfret consented
gladly, but he made a certain stipulation, which his companion was more
than pleased to agree to.

"We mustn't let old Hugh know about this, though, or he'll think he's
left out in the cold. You see, it was really through him I knew you. You
must tell your brother not to let it out."

Miss Burton promised that, so far as she and her brother were concerned,
Captain Murchison would be none the wiser. It only remained for Mr.
Pomfret--although entreated to do so, she could not at this early stage
address him as "Jack"--to surround his movements with a proper degree of
mystery.

When the two parted, and the meeting had been rather a brief one, for
it was always a little dangerous lingering long about the environs
of Blankfield, in case of unexpected intruders, Miss Burton made a
significant remark.

"I am quite sure your friend Captain Murchison does not like me. In
fact, I think his real feeling is one of dislike."

Mr. Pomfret was young enough to blush; he did so upon this occasion. He
guessed the real truth, that Murchison did not dislike her at all, on
the contrary, he rather admired her--but he had a certain distrust of
her.

"Fancy on your part, fancy, I'm quite sure," he answered glibly. "I
expect he is a little bit sore, you know, about the whole thing, thinks
I have cut him out with you."

"Perhaps," assented Norah, easily. But in her own heart she knew it was
nothing of the kind. She recognised at once the difference between the
two men. Murchison was a thorough gentleman, kind and chivalrous, but
he was a man of the world, with a certain hard strain in him, a man who
would submit everything to the test of cold, practical reasoning, not to
be hoodwinked or led astray.

This poor babbling boy, with his unrestrained impulses, that Celtic
leaven in his blood, would fall an easy prey to any woman who was clever
enough to cast her spells over him. He would never reason, he would only
feel.

After that first meeting, the precursor of many others, the affair
progressed briskly. Pomfret made love with great ardour, Norah received
his advances with a shy sort of acquiescence that inflamed him the
more. He was sure, oh very sure, he was the first who had touched that
innocent heart.

From these delightful confidences Murchison was shut out. It would not
be wise to ignore him altogether, for such a course of action would have
intensified his suspicions. But the invitations to Rosemount from either
host or hostess were few and far between.

He was not, however, so easily gulled as the three conspirators thought.
Pomfret's preoccupied mood, the air of a man who had much on his mind,
his frequent and unexplained absences, gave to his friend much food for
thought. He felt certain that the easy-going, irresponsible young
man was entangling himself. But in such a state of affairs he felt
powerless. Short of invoking the influence of the Colonel, or writing to
the elderly aunt, he could do nothing.

It cannot be said that the course of true love was running very
smoothly, even from the point of view of the ardent and enamoured suitor
himself. In spite of his impulsive temperament, his disinclination to
look hard facts squarely in the face, there was in him a slight leaven
of common-sense.

Save for the bounty and goodwill of this generous, if somewhat
narrow-minded, aunt he was an absolute pauper. There was no hope of
marrying without her consent. And he was quite sure that in a case like
this her consent would never be given. A _fiancée_, to be received by
her with approval, must present some sort of credentials.

And there was the difficulty. Poor Jack had exhausted all his
simple cunning to extract from them some convincing details of their
antecedents. But even he, infatuated as he was, had to admit that
they had parried inquiries with great adroitness. They maintained a
persistent reticence as to names and places. Even he was forced to
conclude that, for some reason or another, they did not choose to be
frank about their past.

These obvious facts, however, did not lessen his infatuation. To marry
her was the one dominating object of his life, in spite of all that his
few remaining remnants of common-sense could urge against such a step.

More than once the rash idea occurred to him that he would marry her in
secret, and when the marriage was an accomplished fact, throw himself
upon his aunt's forgiveness.

He mooted the idea to Norah, to whom, of course, he had already made a
frank statement of his position, as befitted the honourable gentleman
he was. But she did not receive the suggestion with enthusiasm, although
she professed to fully reciprocate his ardent affection.

"If I were a selfish girl, and only thought of my immediate happiness, I
should say 'Yes,'" she said with a little tremulous smile, that made
her look more desirable than ever in her lover's eyes. "But I could not
allow _you_ to run such a terrible risk. Old people are very strange and
very touchy when they think they have been slighted. Suppose she cast
you off."

"I suppose I could work, as thousands have to do," replied Jack, with a
touch of his old doggedness.

She shook her head. "My poor Jack! It is easy to talk of working, but
you have got to find an employer. And you have been brought up to an
idle life. What could you turn your hand to?" She paused a moment, and
then added as an after-thought: "And besides, my brother would never
sanction it."

Even to Pomfret's slow revolving mind, the worldly taint in her just
peeped forth in those sensible remarks.

"If I am prepared to risk my aunt's displeasure, you can surely afford
to risk your brother's?" he queried angrily.

But Norah disarmed him with one of her sweetest smiles.

"Be reasonable, dearest; we must not behave like a pair of silly
children. And besides, there is a certain moral obligation on both
sides. You owe everything to your aunt. I owe everything to my brother.
It would be very base to ignore them."

Jack was touched by the nobility of these last sentiments. "You are much
better than I am, Norah, much less selfish."

She caressed his curly head with her hand. "We must have patience, Jack.
You have told me as plainly as your dear, kind heart would allow you to
tell me that, for reasons which I don't want you to explain, your aunt
would never give her consent to your marriage with me. Well, we must
wait."

In plain English her meaning was that they must possess their souls in
patience till such time as this excellent old lady had departed this
life. The suggestion was certainly a coldblooded one, but in his present
infatuated mood Jack did not take any notice of that. Norah made a
feeble attempt to gloss over the callousness of her remarks by adding
that, although it was a very horrible thing to have to wait for the
shoes of dead people, a person of Miss Harding's great age must expect
to very shortly pay the debt of nature.

Two days later, Jack received a telegram which seemed to give a certain
air of prophecy to the young woman's forebodings. It was dispatched
to him from his aunt's home in Cheshire by the local doctor, who had
attended her for years. It informed him that she was seriously ill and
requested his immediate attendance.

He sought the Colonel at once and obtained leave. There was no time
to call at Rose-mount, but he scribbled a hasty note to Miss Burton
explaining matters. On his arrival, he found his aged relative very bad
indeed.

She had had a severe stroke, the second in two years, and Doctor
Jephson was very doubtful as to whether her vitality would enable her to
recover. He added that she had a marvellous constitution, and in such a
case one could not absolutely say there was no hope. Of a feebler woman
he would have said at once a few hours would see the end.

Pomfret stayed there as long as the result was in doubt. At the end of
three days the brave old lady rallied in the most wonderful way, and was
able to hold a little conversation with her beloved nephew. He did not
leave till the doctor assured him that she was out of danger.

"It's a wonderful recovery," said Doctor Jephson as he shook hands at
parting with the young man. "But it's the beginning of the end. I don't
give her very long now, a few months at the most. Well, she has had a
wonderful life, hardly an ache or a pain till the last few years, and
then nothing very severe. But, of course, the machinery is worn out."

All the way back to Blankfield those words kept repeating themselves in
his ears: "I don't give her very long now, a few months at the most."

And then an idea began to form in his mind. He was not so callous that
he wanted his poor old aunt to die quickly, but it was obvious the time
could not be long delayed when he would find himself possessed of her
fortune, the master of his own destinies. Was there any reason why he
should not forestall that period by the rather daring expedient of a
secret marriage? They were both young. Even if the doctor was wrong,
and they had to wait four or five years, it was not a great sacrifice
of their youth. At least that was his way of looking at it. Of course he
did not know how she would take the suggestion.

She appeared to listen to him with deep interest and attention when he
unfolded his plans.

He explained that he had a very handsome allowance, which up to the
present he had generally exceeded. Now that could all be altered. He
would declare that he was sick of the army, and send in his papers.
Through his family influence, he would get some Government appointment
which necessitated his living in London. He would take inexpensive
chambers for himself, rent a small house for her in some pleasant and
not too remote suburb, and spend as much of his time as possible with
her.

"You don't think your aunt would reduce your allowance if you left
the army?" was the one pertinent question she put to him when he had
finished.

"On the contrary, she would be more likely to increase it," was the
confident rejoinder. "She would always have preferred that I should go
in for something that meant real work. She thinks the army is an idle
life."

Miss Burton, no doubt, rapidly calculated the pros and cons of such a
daring step. Jack had named a very handsome sum for her maintenance.
If she could put up with the clandestine nature of the connection, till
such time as a certain event happened, she would be better off than at
Rosemount. She begged for time to think it over, and of course she would
have to consult her brother before taking such an unusual step.

That was only natural; it was impossible for Jack to insist that she
should settle the matter herself without reference to the one person
who, whatever his social defects, had behaved to her with unexampled
kindness and generosity.

Brother and sister no doubt talked it over very thoroughly, for it was
three days before she told her lover that, although George would have
preferred a longer period of waiting, he trusted him sufficiently to
entrust Norah to his keeping, on the terms proposed.

She did suggest that they should wait till Jack had left the army and
settled himself in London. But he fought this idea stubbornly. He
was mad to tie her to himself, for fear that somebody else with
more immediate prospects might step in and carry her off. A little
common-sense, of course, might have told him that if she was as fatally
attractive to others as to himself, she would have been carried off
before this.

He was so terribly jealous of her, that he had never made the slightest
effort to bring any of his brother officers round to Rose-mount. He even
kept Hugh away as much as he could.

The lovers worked out their little plot very nicely. Miss Burton would
leave Blankfield for a couple of weeks, ostensibly to pay a visit to a
relative. Her destination would be London. Jack would take a few days'
leave of absence in due course, and procure a special licence. They
would return on separate days and resume their normal life, until such
time as they perfected their after arrangements.



CHAPTER VI

|Miss Burton arrived home on a Monday by a mid-day train; her attentive
brother met her at the station. She was one of those girls who look
smart and neat under the most trying circumstances. Although it was a
long journey, she bore no signs or stains of travel.

"When does Jack arrive, not too soon, I hope?" commented George, as he
assisted her into a cab, and sat down beside her.

"He wanted to come down to-night, but I vetoed that," responded the
girl. "I told him people might put two and two together. He will get
here mid-day to-morrow. I shall meet him casually in the High Street.
He is going to bring Murchison along with him. And I shall give them an
impromptu invitation to dinner."

"I don't know that I am very keen on having Murchison to dinner,"
remarked Mr. Burton in rather a growling tone.

Miss Burton shrugged her shoulders. "And, perhaps, of the two, I am less
keen than you are. But we have got to play it pretty quiet down here,
till the whole lot of us clear out. Better to let Murchison come. He
is pretty suspicious, as it is, but if we shut him out, he'll be more
suspicious still."

Mr. Burton chuckled in a grim fashion.

"Well, our inquisitive friend, the whole lot of them as a matter of
fact, can't do you much harm now. You've got him tight enough. And I'll
say this for him, he's a bit soft and all that sort of thing, but he'll
always play the game."

The girl did not reply for a moment, then she spoke in a voice that was
low and soft:

"Yes, he's a dear little chap, he'll always play the game."

"He can afford to," was the rather ungracious comment. Clearly Mr.
Burton was not in one of his best moods to-day.

Mr. Pomfret returned from his short leave on the following day, and at
once sought his friend.

"Glad to be back, old man, got fed-up with London," he cried cheerfully.
His excuse for his visit was that he had to go up to see his aunt's
solicitors, on some pressing affairs which the old lady had entrusted to
him, after her temporary recovery from her dangerous illness.

Now Murchison was pretty quick. He already had a shrewd suspicion that
Jack had been making a great many surreptitious visits to Rosemount,
that Hugh had been asked there now and again as a blind. And when he
happened to be present, he had noticed that Jack and Norah had taken
very little notice of each other. Jack had cultivated the brother, and
left his friend to entertain the attractive young woman. In itself, this
rather obvious attitude was suspicious. It confirmed his impression that
there was a private understanding between the young people, and that
they were throwing dust in his eyes.

He had already put two and two together, with regard to the concurrent
absences. Mr. Burton, meeting him in the High Street two days after
Norah's departure, had told him his sister was paying a visit to a
married relative who lived at Brighton. He would have not believed Mr.
Burton on his oath.

And Jack had taken his few days' leave, with the ostensible object of
attending to his aunt's affairs.

Hugh was pretty certain that the silly young ass, as he affectionately
designated Jack in his own mind, had arranged to meet Miss Burton for
a day or two in London, in order to enjoy her society, free from
interruption or espionage. Of course, he was far from guessing the
truth. He would not have thought Pomfret capable of any such daring
action.

Jack had just expressed himself fed-up with London, and yet his
demeanour was jubilant and hilarious. Of course, Hugh could not dream
his attitude was that of the exultant bridegroom, almost intoxicated
with the knowledge of having gained his heart's desire. There had been a
couple of lunches, perhaps a couple of dinners with a theatre thrown in.
The buoyant Jack was living on these blissful memories.

Later in the day, the two men walked down the High Street, of course in
accordance with a pre-arranged plan decided upon by the artful lovers.
The first person they met was Miss Burton, sauntering along slowly; Miss
Burton, now Mrs. Pomfret, as fast as the ecclesiastical law of England
could make her.

She welcomed them with her ready and charming smile. "What strangers
we are," she cried gaily. "And how nice to meet my only two friends in
Blankfield."

Pomfret did a little finessing on his own. 661 have been away for a few
days, too,'' he explained glibly. "Had to go up to London to look
after some business of my poor old aunt's; only got back by the mid-day
train."

"Did you enjoy your visit?" inquired Hugh of Norah, with that stiffness
which he could never quite dissociate from his manner when addressing
either brother or sister.

"Yes and No," was the answer. "On the whole, I had quite a good time,
but I am not sorry to get back to Rosemount, and my little household
gods. Knowing you both has made such a difference to my life here."

She was laying it on a little bit thick, Hugh thought, and he fancied
she looked more at Pomfret than himself, as she said it. But he made a
suitable and courteous reply.

She was just about to turn away, when a sudden thought seemed to strike
her.

"As Mr. Pomfret and I have been such wanderers, would it not be nice to
celebrate our return? will you both come to dinner to-night, and we can
relate our experiences?"

Pomfret jumped at the invitation, and Hugh had to follow suit. As a
matter of fact, he was rather eager to go. They were both playing their
parts very well, but he was quite convinced they _were_ playing a part.
He was more certain about Jack than about her. Jack had been a bit too
glib, had over-acted, as it were. They had met in London, if only for a
few hours; he would have bet a thousand pounds on that.

Jack declared that he would walk back to Rosemount with Miss Burton. He
did not now care a farthing what members of Blank-field Society he met.
Very shortly, the army would know him no more, and he would take up a
new life with this fearless girl whom he had married on the sly.

Hugh strolled on, and looked in at the various shops. The High Street
happened to be rather empty on this particular afternoon, the _élite_ of
Blankfield Society had not yet turned out for its usual promenade.

Turning away from a jeweller's shop window, where he was inspecting some
sleeve-links, he was confronted by a tall, sturdily built man of about
fifty years of age, who raised his hat.

"I believe I have the pleasure of addressing Captain Murchison?" he
inquired politely.

Hugh directed a swift glance at him. He was not exactly a common person,
on the other hand he was certainly not a gentleman. There was something
military in his bearing; he might have been a retired Sergeant-Major.

"That is my name," answered Hugh a little curtly. "And who are you,
please?"

The tall man took a card from his waistcoat pocket and presented it.
"Those are my credentials, sir."

Hugh ran his eye over it swiftly. He saw the name, Davidson, a common
one enough, and, in the corner, Scotland Yard. Why the deuce should this
agent of the police want to accost him? And how did he know his name was
Murchison?

"I think you are acquainted with a family of the name of Burton, brother
and sister they call themselves, who live at a house a little way out
called Rosemount?"

"Of course I know them, that is to say, in a casual sort of way."
Needless to say that Murchison had never been more surprised in his
life. "Why are you asking these questions?"

Mr. Davidson darted a keen glance up and down the comparatively empty
High Street. "This is rather an exposed place in which to talk, but I
have something to tell you which I am sure you will be interested to
listen to. I am staying at the 'Anchor,' in a side street from this. If
you will do me the honour to follow me, I can take you into a private
room there, where we shall not be observed nor overheard."

Like a man in a dream, Hugh found himself following Mr. Davidson to the
"Anchor," one of the second-class hotels in the town. He was quite
sure that this tall, military looking person was going to clear up the
mystery of the couple whom Blankfield, in its wisdom, had refused to
visit, and whose acquaintance he owed to a random meeting at a tea-shop.

There were only one or two idlers in the entrance-hall of the hotel,
which was of what is known as the "Commercial" kind. Murchison was glad
to find that he did not seem to attract their observation, as he rapidly
crossed over to where his new acquaintance was standing in a rather dark
corner.

Davidson piloted him into a little sitting-room which opened out of a
long narrow passage. He rang the bell, and ordered refreshments with the
manner of a man who was acquainted with the usages of polite society.

It would be quite safe to say that Hugh, the heir to a great fortune,
brought up in the lap of luxury, an aristocrat by adoption, if not
exactly by birth, had never found himself up till now in such an
environment. He could not truthfully declare that it was an experience
he wished to repeat.

Still, he could blame nobody but himself, his foolish action in taking
up with a couple of persons whom Blankfield, in its superior worldly
wisdom, had decided to ignore. As he was in for it, and nothing could
undo the past, it was better to go through with it. Let him accommodate
himself to the situation, drink his whisky-and-soda in this dingy little
parlour of a second-rate hotel, and treat the detective with genial
courtesy.

After the first mouthful of his drink, Davidson began to explain.

"Of course, sir, I quite understand this is not the sort of thing or
the sort of place to which you are accustomed," he said, waving
a deprecatory hand round the shabby little parlour. "But in this
particular case, I and my friend--that friend I may say at the moment
is elsewhere taking his observations--wanted to lie low. It didn't
enter into our scheme to put up at a swagger hotel, and run the risk of
gossip. It might have reached the ears of those we are after, and scared
them off." Hugh listened attentively. There was something very serious
in the wind now, and the dwellers at Rosemount were as yet unaware of
what was impending.

His surprise expressed itself in the direct question which he shot at
the detective: "I take it you are here to arrest them, then?"

"One of them, the man," corrected Mr. Davidson, quietly; "we know a good
deal about the girl, but we have no evidence that implicates her beyond
the fact of her association with him, and from our point of view that
means nothing in a Court of Law."

"What is his offence?" asked the startled Hugh.

"Forgery," was the laconic answer. "He belongs to a pretty well-known
gang, and we have had our suspicions of him for a long time now, but he
was devilish clever and cunning. Several of his pals were caught, but it
was always difficult to rope him in. We shouldn't have got him now but
for the fact of one of his pals peaching. And even now, although the
evidence is strong enough for us, I doubt if it is strong enough to get
him more than a comparatively light sentence. If he can lay hold of a
clever counsel, and there will be some money at the back of him, if not
a great deal, he won't come off so badly."

So Mr. Burton was a criminal, and had been living in Blankfield on the
proceeds of his nefarious calling. The rich uncle in Australia who had
left him a comfortable fortune was a myth.

"I suppose he has been on the 'crook' all his life?" queried Hugh.

"Ever since he has come under our observation," was the reply of the
detective. "Before he joined the present gang, a few of whom we have
collared from time to time, card-sharping was his lay. Once he rented an
expensive flat in Paris, and I believe made a tidy bit out of it. That
is where the young lady first appeared upon the scene."

"But how long ago is that? She doesn't look more than twenty."

"I know," said Mr. Davidson. "She looks wonderfully young, that is one
of her assets. As a matter of fact I should say she was twenty-four at
the least. The Parisian episode occurred about five years ago, making
her nineteen at the time. He was there about twelve months, at the end
of which time he got an introduction to the forging gang, and chucked
the cards in favour of a more remunerative game."

"She acted, I suppose, as a decoy and confederate?"

"So I am given to understand. She very seldom played herself, but used
to signal the opponents' cards to him."

"What a precious pair," groaned Hugh. He had long been doubtful of them,
but he had never anticipated this.

"Now, Captain Murchison, there is a little question I want to ask you,"
said the detective briskly, after a brief pause. "My pal and I only
arrived here yesterday, but we have not been idle, we have picked up
a good deal. We have discovered that nobody in Blankfield visits them,
except yourself and another officer, a Mr. Pomfret. That is true, is it
not?"

"Quite true," assented Murchison.

"You frequently go to their house together. But perhaps I may be telling
you something you don't know when I say that Mr. Pomfret more frequently
has gone alone."

"I have had my suspicions some time," was Hugh's answer.

"Now tell me, please; I suppose in the evenings you played cards, or
roulette, or some game of chance. I thought so. Did you lose much? Had
you any suspicions they were rooking you?"

"On my first visit, a suspicion that they might do so crossed my mind.
But nothing of the sort was attempted. I should say that, up to the
present, my friend and I stand a bit to the good. Evidently, that was
not their object."

"Clearly," assented the shrewd detective, "they had a deeper game than
that on. They wanted to catch this young friend of yours for a husband,
and failing that, to entrap him, so that they could blackmail him on the
threat of a breach of promise case."

"It looks as if that was their object."

"Now, Captain Murchison, may I ask you if your friend is a man likely
to fall into the trap? I saw him in the High Street this afternoon
with you: and if I may say so without offence, he doesn't give me the
impression of a very strong or self-reliant person."

Hugh shook his head. "I fear he is very weak, very impulsive, very
emotional, a ready prey for a designing woman."

"Have you any idea how far the thing has gone?"

To this question Hugh could only reply in the negative. His one hope was
that the foolish boy had seen her so often that there was no necessity
to write incriminating letters.

"Well, Captain Murchison, my object in asking you to grant me an
interview was two-fold. In the first place, I wanted to know if there
had been any card-sharping. Then, as I am aware you go to the house, I
wished to tell you that I and my friend are going to take him to-night.
It might happen that you would be going there, and of course, you will
not want to be on the stage when we play our little comedy."

"We have promised to go to dinner tonight. She asked us both when we met
her this afternoon."

"And of course now, you will not go. I will take him before dinner-time,
so you need not send round any excuses."

Poor Hugh felt very miserable. What he especially shirked was having to
tell this sordid narrative to Pomfret. He expressed to the detective his
shrinking from the unwelcome task.

"I quite understand, sir, but it's got to be done," replied the
detective, firmly. For a few seconds after he had spoken, he seemed to
be thinking deeply. Then he came out with a startling proposition.

"Look here, Captain Murchison, something has just occurred to me. I am
not sure whether you will think it a good plan. Just now I thought it
would be better for you not to be there. But if this young gentleman
is so gone on the girl, it might make a deeper impression on him, bring
home to him more strongly the sense of her unworthiness, if he were
actually present at the scene. And it would spare you any painful
explanations, beforehand. Afterwards you can tell him or not, as you
please, about our interview here."

Hugh made a gesture of disgust. "You propose that we should carry out
our original intention of dining there and of sitting at the table of a
criminal? I don't think I could bring myself to it."

If Mr. Davidson did not quite agree with the young man's scruples, he
was open-minded enough to see the matter from Hugh's point of view.

"I quite understand, sir. But I think I can manage it all right. You
say they dine at eight. Get there with your friend a quarter of an hour
before. I will be there with my friend at five minutes to, before the
dinner is served. You then won't have to sit at his table, you see."

Hugh was still hesitating. Mr. Davidson proceeded to clinch his
argument.

"You see, sir, it will be so much better for Mr. Pomfret to see with
his own eyes and hear with his own ears. When he has seen us clap
the darbies on Burton, and listened to what I can tell him about the
girl--you can just give me a lead there, if you don't mind--I think he
will be cured of his calf-love on the spot. As far as he is concerned,
we want to make a swift and sudden cure, to kill his affection at once."

Yes, on the whole, after a little further reflection Murchison was
disposed to fall in with this new suggestion. Pomfret, however deep his
infatuation, could not resist the evidence of his own senses. He would
be much more strongly impressed than by a mere bald narration of the
facts as conveyed to his friend by the detective.

So it was settled. Hugh would bring Pomfret to Rosemount at twenty
minutes or a quarter to eight. At five minutes to, Davidson and his
colleague would present themselves to execute their painful errand.

"Just a word before I go," said the young man as he turned towards the
door. "Is the man's name really Burton, or only an alias?"

"That is his real name. Of course he has had aliases. His family, I
understand, are respectable people of the lower middle-class. He was the
black sheep, born with crooked and criminal instincts."

"And the girl, is she really his sister?"

"On that point, I have no positive information," replied Davidson. "She
has passed as such ever since the Paris days. But I should very much
doubt it. I am informed that they are very unlike in manners and
appearance, that he is a rough sort of fellow, while she would pass
anywhere for a lady."

Hugh went back to the barracks, more than rejoiced at the fact that the
detective seemed to have appeared on the scene in the very nick of time.
If marriage was contemplated as the result of this clandestine wooing,
what a terrible tragedy would be averted from the unlucky Pomfret!



CHAPTER VII

|It was twenty minutes to eight as the two young men rang at the
door-bell of Rosemount. Pomfret was always a slow dresser. It was only
by extraordinary efforts that Hugh had got him off in time.

Brother and sister were awaiting them in the pretty drawing-room, lit
with softly shaded lamps. Miss Burton rose to meet them, she extended
a hand to each, in her pretty graceful way, as if she looked upon them
both as her dearest friends, and would make no difference between them
in her greeting.

But Hugh was very wide-awake, after his meeting with the detective, and
he did notice that the left hand which she extended to Pomfret lingered
a little longer in his responsive clasp than did the right which she had
given to him.

Yes, it was obvious that their acquaintance had gone far. There was
even, he fancied, an intelligent sympathy in their mutual glances.
Pomfret was the lover, Hugh Murchison was simply the friend.

Mr. Burton welcomed them heartily. "Just like old times," he cried in
his rough, breezy fashion. "I've been like a fish out of water during
Norah's absence. It was just like her to organise a little party, simply
us four, to celebrate her return."

It struck Hugh that his conviviality was just a trifle forced, that he
seemed "jumpy" and nervous. Had he by chance spotted those two strangers
in the High Street, and wondered what manner of men they were?

Pomfret settled himself on the chesterfield beside Norah, in spite
of her rather obvious signals to preserve a more discreet attitude.
Ignorant of what was going to happen a few minutes hence, her great
object was to conceal the fact that Jack should take the position of an
acknowledged lover.

In her secret heart, she was very apprehensive of Murchison. She knew he
was suspicious of her, and he had a sort of elder brother affection for
Pomfret. She was not by any means sure as to the lengths to which this
fraternal feeling might lead him. It might even inspire him to evoke the
assistance of the Pomfret family, and then the security of her present
position might be menaced.

The secret marriage was, after all, in the nature of a gamble. If things
turned out as she expected, if the old aunt died in reasonable time, the
odds were in her favour. She could twist Jack round her little finger.
But nobody knew better than this astute young woman of the world that
there is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip. Something that she had
not calculated, not foreseen, might happen at any moment, and her house
of cards might tumble to the ground. Her adventurous life had taught her
never to be too sure of momentary prosperity.

She was a little bit nervous and "jumpy," like her brother, to-night.
Her smile was a little forced, her high spirits rather assumed. The
wedding-ring, the marriage certificate hidden from sight, were great
assets. And yet, was it all just a little too good to be quite true?

Murchison talked with the brother, desultory sort of talk, hardly
conscious of what he was saying. His ears were straining for the sound
of that eletric-bell which would herald the arrival of Davidson and his
colleague.

And it came very quickly. There was a loud, imperative peal. Burton
started from his seat, and forgot his assumed good manners.

"Who the devil is that?" he cried fiercely. "Do they want to knock the
house down?" It was the vulgar exclamation of a very vulgar man.

Miss Burton was more mistress of herself, but Hugh observed that her
cheek went a shade paler. Well, it was only natural. These two had been
living in fear of the law for more years than they cared to remember.
And they had thought they were safely in harbour. Poor fools!

She turned to Pomfret, and forced a wan smile. "It is really quite
alarming, Mr. Pomfret, visitors at this time of the evening. And you
know so well that nobody in Blankfield, except yourselves, ever crosses
our threshold."

The happy Jack, the husband of a few short hours, was quite unperturbed.
He smiled back at her confidently.

"Somebody come to the wrong house, I should say. Why, you have gone
quite pale! What a nervous little thing it is!" He whispered the last
sentence in a lover-like tone.

Murchison felt every nerve in his body tingling. Jack was in a state of
ignorance. The brother and sister, he was sure, were filled with vague
and undefined alarms. He, alone out of the four sitting in that charming
little drawing-room awaiting the announcement of dinner, was sure of
what was going to happen.

He stole a look across at Pomfret with the happy, fatuous smile of the
successful lover on his face. Poor devil! In another couple of minutes
he would be terribly disillusioned.

There was a heavy trampling of feet across the hall. The visitors,
whoever they were, had pushed past the trim and ladylike parlourmaid.

The drawing-room door was flung open, and the two big men, Davidson and
his colleague, advanced towards Burton who was standing in the middle of
the room.

The detective spoke in a clear, ringing voice. "It's all up, Mr. Burton,
I won't trouble to recount your various aliases. I've a warrant here to
arrest you on a charge of forgery. You've gone free for some time, but
one of your old pals has peached upon you. Hard luck for you, otherwise
you might have been playing still, perhaps for ever, this nice little
'stunt' at Blankfield. I suppose you will come quietly?"

For a few seconds George Burton indulged in some horrible imprecations.
In the same breath he protested his absolute innocence, and denounced
the "pal" who had betrayed him. Mr. Davidson cut him short, as he
fastened the handcuffs on his wrist.

"Stow it, old man! Be a sport. It's a fair cop, isn't it? You knew the
risk you ran when you went into this business."

Mr. Burton subsided. "Yes, it's a fair cop," he growled. "I don't blame
you, you are only doing your duty. I've no grudge against you. But by
Heaven, when I come out, I'll do for that swine who has given me away,
if I have to swing for it."

Pomfret had risen from his seat on the chesterfield at the dramatic
entrance of the two strangers. Norah had risen also. In the few seconds
that elapsed between their entrance and the clapping of the handcuffs
on Burton, she stretched out appealing arms to him, and cried out in a
voice of despair:

"Stand by me, Jack, stand by me. I knew nothing of this. It is as great
a surprise to me as to you. Oh, my poor brother! He has done this for
love of me."

Murchison heard the impassioned tones, the despairing appeal. They
would have melted a heart of stone. What effect would they have upon the
unsuspicious Jack?

Pomfret withdrew himself, almost coldly, from the proffered embrace. In
a few seconds, as it seemed to Hugh, he had grown from a boy to a man.

He turned to the detective, and Hugh was delighted at the sudden dignity
that seemed to have come to him.

"You seem to know a great deal about this man whom you have handcuffed,
and who admits you are only doing your duty. Do you know anything about
his sister, Miss Burton?"

Mr. Davidson glanced significantly at Murchison. They had arranged
a little conversation between themselves, but Jack's frankness had
rendered this unnecessary.

"What I know of the young lady, sir, I am sorry to tell you, is not to
her credit. She has been associated with this man for some years. She
started with him in Paris some time ago, when he was a card-sharper, and
running a gambling-saloon. But to be fair, she is not in this business
with him, and I have nothing against her."

"Are they what they represent themselves to be, brother and sister?"
Pomfret's voice was very quiet, but there was in it a suppressed note
of agony. How he had loved this girl, and a few hours ago he had clasped
her in his arms as his wife!

The keen eyes of the detective softened as he looked at Jack, who was
hiding the most intense agitation under an apparently stoical demeanour.

"I have no accurate information on that point, sir, but I should very
much doubt the fact of their relationship."

While this brief conversation was taking place between Pomfret and
Davidson, Norah was still standing with arms outstretched.

Again there came forth the appealing, impassioned cry: "Jack, stand by
me! Jack, stand by me!" She sank down on the sofa, and put her hands
before her face. "Stay with me, wait till they have all gone, and I will
explain everything. I have nothing to do with this."

But Pomfret stood like a man turned to stone. Then suddenly, Norah gave
a little gurgling cry, and fainted. Pomfret made a step towards her, and
halted. His great love for her had been killed. Perhaps at this moment
he hated her more than he had ever loved her.

The parlour-maid, with a white face, was peeping in the room. Davidson
beckoned to her.

"My colleague will help you to take her up to her room. Look after her.
She's as game as they make them, but to-night's t been too much for her.
She has been playing for big stakes, and she has lost."

The maid and Davidson's burly assistant lifted up the recumbent form.
And when they had carried her out, Pomfret's self-control seemed to give
way. He suddenly clutched at his throat and turned to Hugh.

"Old man, I have had as much as I can stand. For Heaven's sake, take me
from this accursed house."

Hugh put his arm under his to steady him.

The boy's nerve had gone, he was trembling like a man stricken with the
ague. There was no cab or taxi to be got in this outlying district. They
had to walk back to the barracks.

Hugh planted him in an easy-chair in his own quarters, and mixed him a
stiff peg. Even Dutch courage was better than nothing. Pom-fret drank it
in two big gulps. Then he pulled himself together.

"I have been an infernal fool, old man," he gasped, "an infernal fool."

Hugh spoke soothingly. "Of course you have. But the folly is over. You
now know Norah Burton and her rascally brother for what they are, a pair
of criminals and adventurers."

"But you don't know all," groaned the unfortunate Jack. "Norah Burton is
my wife. I married her secretly the other day, by special licence, while
I was up in London."

Hugh leapt to his feet in astonishment. He had his own ideas of that
visit to London, coupled with Norah's absence. But that Pom-fret, weak
and impressionable as he was, should have made such a fool of himself,
was beyond the limits of his comprehension.

In a moment he pulled himself together. The poor lad was in a big mess
enough, it was no time to rub it in. "Tell me all about it, old chap,"
he said quietly.

And Pomfret told him. He made it clear, perfect gentleman as he
was, that Norah had been the least to blame in the matter, that
the suggestion had come from himself, that Norah had insisted upon
consulting her brother before yielding to his wishes.

Yes, of course, Hugh could understand all that. They had known just the
kind of man they were dealing with. They had hooked and landed their
fish well. To a woman in her uncertain state, a husband with some
prospects was better than her insecure position with a scoundrel like
George Burton.

Hugh filled a big pipe full up with a very strong and potent tobacco.
He thought better when he was smoking, and this was a situation that
demanded a good deal of thought.

After a while he spoke. "Well, Jack, let us look facts in the face. What
is done can't be undone. You have married this woman, and as long as she
lives she is entitled to call herself Mrs. Pomfret, and you will have to
keep her. There is no getting over that."

The unhappy Jack groaned. There was no getting over that. This
attractive, charming young woman, sister or confederate, or whatever
relationship she stood in to this wretched criminal, was his legal wife,
and, if she chose, she could make things very uncomfortable for him.

"Well, old man, you have made a hash of your life at the very beginning
of it. As I say, that can't be undone. You've got to make the best of
it. I suppose you have entered into some financial arrangements with
her."

"Seven hundred a year till I come into my aunt's money. After that,
of course, our marriage was to be acknowledged, and we would live
together."

"I see," said Hugh, assuming a cheerfulness he did not quite feel.
"Well, I should not say she would try for more than her seven hundred a
year at present. When your aunt dies she will of course fight for a bit
more. I take it, after to-night's work, you will never want to live with
her, cajoling and attractive as she is."

Pomfret shuddered. "After what that fellow said, my love for her died.
But, by Heaven, Hugh, I did love her while I believed in her."

"Of course, of course. Have you signed any document about that seven
hundred, by the way?"

"Not yet. My solicitor is sending me the document to-day, it will reach
me to-morrow morning."

"It will make it a little easier to deal with her, then. Are you going
to leave yourself in my hands? I don't think she will be very full of
fight for the next few days."

"Certainly I will, Hugh. Do your best for me. I never want to see her
again, of that you may be sure."

Murchison reflected deeply before he spoke again. "I doubt if she will
trouble you very much. It won't be very difficult to compromise with
her, she has too much to hide. And now for yourself."

"Yes," groaned the unhappy Pomfret, in a hollow voice. "And now for
myself. What do you suggest?"

"There's only one thing to do, and that is to put the past behind
you. As long as this woman lives, you can never marry. But many men go
through life and remain bachelors, and are not altogether unhappy. You
must make up your mind to be one of the bachelors, Jack."

But Jack looked very despairing. The shock had been a terrible one. In
spite of the stiff peg he had taken, his face was still livid, and his
hands were shaking.

Hugh looked at him anxiously. He was very weak; had the occurrences
of this terrible night driven him over the border line that separates
sanity from insanity?

Presently he muttered, almost as if to himself, certain disjointed
phrases. Hugh caught a few of them, repeated again and again.

"Tied to her for life, she will outlive me, tied to her for life. She
will never let me go. My poor family! I have always been a fool, but up
to now have never brought disgrace to them. And God forgive me, I was
reckoning on the death of my poor old generous aunt, it is idle to say
I did not speculate on it. And for what, for what?--the pretended
affection, the bought kisses of this adventuress, a card-sharper's
decoy, who told me lying tales about the way in which her criminal
associate had inherited his money."

He rambled on like this for some quarter of an hour, and Murchison
judged it was better to let him ease his mind in such a fashion.

In a way, the poor foolish boy's brain had cleared up to a point; he was
able to look the facts squarely in the face. His infatuation might have
been so deep that he might, under these damning circumstances, have
fallen a victim to her wiles a second time. She would no doubt have
been prepared, if he had given her the opportunity, to have sworn her
innocence, to have protested that she was the victim of circumstantial
evidence, that she had believed what her brother had told her, that she
had never been a partner in, or a confidant of, his criminal schemes.

No, so far the rude shock had cleared his brain, made him see and think
more clearly. But Murchison very much feared that the agonising remorse
for his folly was obscuring it in another direction.

He seemed to look upon himself as something unclean in having allowed
himself to be contaminated by association with such a wretched
adventuress. He was also acutely conscious that, at the best, he would
have to take this horrible secret with him to the grave, unless it
sprang suddenly to light, as such secrets have a knack of doing. Above
all, he keenly felt the disgrace he had inflicted on his family.

There was a great deal more desultory talk, and Hugh gave him the best
advice he could under the unhappy circumstances--a reiteration of the
"put it behind you and live it down" philosophy. This would have come
easy to a man of the rocky and stolid type to which Murchison belonged
by temperament. But Jack was highly-strung and impulsive. There was no
ballast in him.

Hugh almost had to push him out of the room. But, before doing so, he
mixed the boy another stiff peg, with the hope that it would induce
sleep and purchase him the oblivion of a few hours.

"Now then, old man, toddle off. Get a good night's rest, and when you
wake tomorrow, you will find things look pretty black, but not quite so
black as now. If this young woman contemplates a deep game, and wants to
insist overmuch on her rights as your wife, I will deal with her on your
behalf. I'll warrant I bring her to reason."

The poor distraught boy clasped his friend's hand convulsively. "Hugh,
old chap, you are the best friend a man could ever have, true as steel."

"Don't say that," replied Hugh with a little break in his voice. "I am
bound to do the best for you. It was owing to my infernal folly that you
ever set foot in that cursed house. I am older and stronger than you, I
ought to have known better. Well, good old Jack, good-night! I tell you,
things won't look quite as black to-morrow."

But to Hugh's intense grief and remorse, there was no morrow for the
unhappy boy, whose mind had been quite unhinged by the events of
that terrible night. One could only surmise that he had found sleep
impossible, and in a fit of frenzy had taken his life to escape from a
future so black and discouraging.

When his servant went to call him in the morning, he found his master
lying on the floor, with a bullet-hole in the middle of his forehead.
Everybody in the barracks had been fast asleep when the poor boy had
fired the shot that was to take him out of his troubles, and nobody had
heard the report.

At the inquest, the whole miserable story came out. Of course it came
through Hugh, the only person who was in possession of it. He narrated
the details of his acquaintance with the Burtons, the introduction
of Jack Pomfret to the house, the scene at Rosemount when the two
detectives had taken the man, Jack's confession that he had made the
girl his wife a few hours previously.

Hugh never forgot that interview with the Colonel, in which "Old
Fireworks" poured out his wrath in no measured terms. He roundly called
him an infernal fool for mixing himself up with people of whom he knew
nothing, and whom Blankfield in its ignorance of their antecedents had
declined to visit--and very wisely.

"If it had been poor Jack, a dear lad but a foolish, I could have found
it in my heart to forgive him," he ended. "But you are a man of another
sort, you have got your wits about you, if you choose to exercise them.
I will never pardon you that day's work. You can play with fire and not
be scorched, but he couldn't. That poor boy's death lies at your door,
sir. I hope you realise it."

Yes, Hugh did realise it. He stood with bowed head, and could not utter
a word in self-defence.

The news, of course, was all over the town the next morning, or rather
the double news--that George Burton had been arrested by two detectives
from Scotland Yard, and that in the early morning of the following
day Jack Pomfret had blown out his brains. The evidence at the inquest
explained the double event.

The news of her young husband's suicide reached Norah early in the
morning. She had gambled and lost. The old adventurous life was in front
of her again.

She took the buffets of fate with the stoicism of her kind and class.
She had a comfortable little nest-egg put by which stood between her and
present want. If only Jack had been less emotional, she would not have
troubled him much, been content with quite a little. It is to be feared
that, in her bitter disappointment, she felt a little sore against Jack
for his moral cowardice in getting comfortably out of it himself, and
leaving her in the lurch.

Anyway, she faced the situation with a courage that one could not refuse
to admire. By two o'clock that same day the servants had been paid their
wages, the keys of the furnished house handed over to the agent, and
Mrs. Pomfret had departed for London.

Murchison could never forget that terrible time till something came
that seemed to dwarf all other things. In August, nineteen hundred and
fourteen, there burst the first storm of the war which shook the world
to its centre. In the blood-soaked plains of France he forgot everything
except his country.

Jack Pomfret and Norah Burton seemed dim memories in those strenuous
times of the world's upheaval. And yet, when he had a moment's leisure
to think of the past, he felt a savage longing to be even with that
fair-faced, smiling adventuress who had driven his poor young friend to
a suicide's grave.



CHAPTER VIII

|It's a good proposition, old man. You couldn't employ a couple of hours
better. I have been in London Society of all sorts for the best part of
my life, and I tell you that Stella Keane is the most charming girl I
have ever met."

The speaker was little Tommy Esmond, short, genial, and rotund of
person. Tommy knew everybody who was anybody, and everybody knew the
mercurial Tommy.

Guy Spencer puffed leisurely at his cigar, and regarded his rotund
little friend with an amused smile. Spencer was about thirty, Tommy was
old enough to be his father. But he wore well.

"Most excellent Tommy, how many times have I heard you say the same
thing? Every girl you come across is the most charming you have ever
met--until one sees you the next week. And then, the last girl has the
super-charm--like the young lady you just mentioned, Miss Stella Keane."

But Esmond was not to be rebuffed by a clumsy attempt at humour on the
part of a young man so much his junior. Besides, Tommy was impervious
to humour. It fell off him, like water from a duck's back. In his way he
was a very strenuous little man, he had no time to frivol.

"Don't try to be funny, old man: it doesn't suit you. Be sensible, and
come round with me to Mrs. L'Estrange's flat and be introduced to Miss
Keane."

"It's an interesting suggestion, Tommy, but before I decide tell me
first--who is Mrs. L'Estrange, and secondly, who and what is Miss
Keane?"

And Tommy Esmond launched forth on a full flow of narrative. Mrs.
L'Estrange was the first cousin of a well-known Irish earl, and
was--well, in somewhat reduced circumstances, and had a snug little flat
in the Cadogan district.

"Mrs. L'Estrange is quite satisfactorily explained," remarked Guy,
interrupting his rather voluble friend. "Now what do you really know
about Miss Keane?"

Here, Esmond was a little less precise. Mrs. L'Estrange he knew quite
well, had known her ever since he had been in London; her ancestry and
connections were unimpeachable.

Miss Keane, it would appear, had been suddenly projected into the
L'Estrange household, as it were, from space. He understood that she
was a distant connection, a far-off cousin, but he could give no
particulars.

Tommy, with the born instinct of the true diplomatist, was always ready
to present everything in its best light, but he lacked the one essential
quality of the born diplomatist--he was not very successful when he came
to camouflaging facts.

Spencer's smile was more amused than ever, as he regarded his genial
friend. Spencer was only thirty, and Tommy was at least old enough to
be his father. But there were times when the younger man thought he saw
more clearly than the elder.

"Let us put it at this, Tommy. Mrs. L'Estrange, being in somewhat
straitened circumstances, supplements her meagre income by card-playing,
at which I have no doubt she is an adept."

And here, the usually placid Tommy interposed hotly: "You may say
of Mrs. L'Estrange what you like. But, if you propose to offer any
derogatory remarks about Miss Keane, I would rather not listen to them."

And Spencer kept a curb on his tongue. Was this fat, comical-looking
little man, a most unromantic figure, violently in love with Miss Stella
Keane, and her sworn champion? Far be it from him to disturb his faith
in this seductive siren, if it were so.

"It's all right, old chap," he said quietly. "I am not going to make any
remarks, derogatory or otherwise, about Miss Keane. I think I will adopt
your suggestion. Let us adjourn to Mrs. L'Estrange's flat. If one loses
fifty or a hundred one may have a good time."

"You will see the most charming girl in London," cried Esmond in
enthusiastic tones. It struck Spencer, as a peculiar phase of his t
friend's detachment, that, being in love with the girl himself, he
should be so anxious to introduce her to a younger man, who might,
presumably, be his rival.

For there could be no question of rivalry between the two men, apart
from their ages. Spencer was tall, athletic, handsome: Tommy
Esmond was--just Tommy Esmond--rotund, comical in appearance, and
insignificant.

Moreover, Spencer had other qualifications which are not without their
influence on the fair sex. He had a considerable fortune, and he was the
next in succession to an ancient earldom. If the Earl of Southleigh, a
widower, did not marry again, he would succeed to the title and estates.
He was, in every sense of the term, an eligible _parti_.

The long, weary war was drawing to its close. The two men were dining
at the fashionable "Excelsior" and were now about half-way through their
dinner.

Spencer had the bearing of a soldier, and he would have been at the
Front long ago, but no doctor could be found who would pass him. To all
appearance, he possessed the thews and sinews of an athlete, but the
stalwart, manly frame covered an incurably weak heart, which played him
strange tricks at times. He was serving his country in the best way open
to him, and doing good, sound clerical work in a Government Office.

"When do you suggest we should put in an appearance at Mrs.
L'Estrange's?" he asked presently.

"It will take us another half-hour to get through this abundant meal.
You will then have your coffee, and you will want a good and long
cigar. We began rather late, you will remember. By the time you have got
through your smoke, we will make a move. We shall then find them in full
swing."

Guy nodded, and went on with his dinner. He was quite willing to go to
the L'Estrange flat: he had no other engagement this evening, and
it would be something to do. But he was not greatly interested about
meeting the most beautiful girl in London. In spite of his friend's
almost lyrical outbursts, he expected that Miss Stella Keane would prove
a very ordinary young woman.

Suddenly Tommy Esmond uttered an exclamation. "Look, there they are," he
whispered excitedly across the table. "Mrs. L'Estrange and her cousin.
The man with them is Colonel Desmond, the man who won the Victoria Cross
in the Boer war."

Tommy's round face was red with pleasurable emotion. Was there any
doubt, thought Spencer, that the little man was tremendously smitten by
the beautiful Miss Keane? would it result in a marriage, he wondered?
Tommy was well-off, and a person of some importance in his little social
world. And if Miss Keane was as lovely as his fond imagination painted
her, it was quite evident that she was poor. Penniless young girls have
before now accepted the shelter of a safe home, even when offered by
comical-looking little elderly men.

The three newcomers moved to a vacant table; Mrs. L'Estrange, a woman of
middle age, dressed rather more youthfully than was quite in good taste,
their escort, a tall figure in khaki, very upright and soldierly in his
bearing, in spite of his sixty years, and last, but by no means least,
the beautiful Miss Keane.

Yes, at the first glance, the young man decided that she fully deserved
his friend's somewhat extravagant praise. If everybody in London was not
raving over her, it was simply due to the fact that her cousin's circle
was not important, and that she had found nobody of sufficient social
influence to launch her with the necessary _cachet_.

If she had made her _début_ at one of the great houses, stamped with
the approval of any one of London's distinguished hostesses, Society
journals would have gone into rhapsodies over her, and she would have
been one of the reigning beauties of the hour, far, far beyond the
aspirations of little Tommy Esmond.

His own special taste rather inclined towards fair women, his cousin,
Lady Nina, of whom he was very fond, being a charming specimen of that
type. But he was no bigot in the matter of feminine beauty, and he was
prepared to admit that there were some dark women who could compare
favourably with their blonde sisters.

But Stella Keane was not very dark. She had soft brown eyes, glossy
dark hair, and a beautiful creamy complexion, a mouth like Cupid's bow,
revealing when she smiled, teeth of a dazzling ivory. Her figure would
have been pronounced perfect by the most critical and fastidious artist.

"What do you think of her?" asked the delighted Tommy, after he had
given his friend a decent time for his inspection.

Tommy was a man whose friends had got into the habit of smiling at him,
even when they agreed with him. Spencer smiled at him quite as often as
any of his acquaintance, but at this moment he was perfectly grave.

"You are quite right, old man, this time," he said quietly. "She is
really beautiful, and her carriage is splendid. She looks like a young
Empress--or, rather, she fulfils one's idea of what a young Empress
should be."

Tommy beamed. He drank in the words of unstinted praise like wine. The
little blue eyes, usually devoid of expression, seemed suffused with
a soft emotion. There was something pathetic in his devotion to this
radiant young woman who looked like a youthful Empress.

"And she is as good and sweet as she looks," he murmured in a voice that
he could not keep steady. "When she talks to you seriously and lets
you know what she really thinks and feels, by gad, Spencer, it makes a
battered old worldling like myself feel unworthy to be in her presence.
For she has a beautiful soul and mind as well as a beautiful body."

Spencer could only look sympathetic. Poor little Tommy, he certainly
seemed to talk like a lover. And what did Miss Keane think of it all?
She must have more than a mere tolerance for him, or she would not have
allowed him those peeps into her mind and soul to which he alluded with
such unrestrained rapture.

It was some time before Esmond's intense gaze attracted the attention
of the party, and when it did, he was rewarded with a most affable smile
from Mrs. L'Estrange, and one of quite pronounced friendliness from Miss
Keane. The Colonel also bestowed a genial nod.

After a pause, Tommy spoke somewhat ruefully. "I'm afraid this rather
upsets our little plans. Mrs. L'Estrange is a most conscientious diner:
she will be here, at the lowest calculation, for an hour and a half,
counting the coffee and cigarettes. They won't be back at the flat under
a couple. You wouldn't care to wait so long."

He looked rather wistfully at his companion. He, for his own part, would
have waited half the night.

"Don't let us commit ourselves, old man, but await events. We haven't
finished our dinner yet, and the service is deucedly slow. We can put
in a lot more time. You can pay your respects at a fitting moment, and
perhaps they will ask us to their table. I must confess I should like
to see Miss Keane at closer quarters, and talk to her. Although I don't
expect she will reveal as much to me as she does to you."

Tommy looked pleased again; he was very bent upon introducing Spencer to
his beautiful young friend. It would come about presently: if not here,
in the lounge. Already, Mrs. L'Estrange had sent a few covert glances
in the direction of their table. There was little doubt she knew who
his companion was, and would be quite pleased to number him amongst her
acquaintance.

"Has Miss Keane many admirers? She should have," remarked Spencer
presently. He noticed that Esmond's eyes were always turned in the
direction of that particular table.

"Not any serious ones, I fancy. A few young fellows send her flowers,
but nothing more. It is quite an unsuitable _ménage_ for a girl of her
attractions. The majority of the _habitués_ are middle-aged men who
go there simply to gamble. The few young ones come for a flutter, and
disappear when they have had enough."

"Does the young lady play?"

"I have never seen her. She has told me scores of times that she loathes
gambling. Her father ruined himself by it. I believe she is really very
unhappy there. And I gather Mrs. L'Estrange has not the best of tempers,
particularly when she has had bad luck."

"Hobson's choice, I expect," suggested Spencer sympathetically. Miss
Keane was facing him, giving him ample opportunity to examine the
beautiful countenance, and it struck him that there was an underlying
expression of sadness on the perfect features, especially when in
repose.

"I fear so," was Esmond's answer. "She is very reticent about her own
affairs, as any gentlewoman would be. But from certain things she has
let drop, I make out her own means are very slender, and her cousin's
hospitality is a boon to her."

Half an hour passed, and Spencer lit a big cigar. The two men chatted
on various topics. Mrs. L'Estrange and the Colonel were still doing full
justice to the excellent dishes offered them. Miss Keane was apparently
satisfied, and sat quietly watching her companions, and throwing in an
occasional remark.

And suddenly came the loud sound of maroons. Everybody started. A few
seconds later the clamour and roaring of our own guns burst forth. There
was no doubt as to what was happening. The Germans were making one of
their unwelcome visits.

"By heavens, it's a raid, and we are in the thick of it," cried Tommy
Esmond, rising excitedly. He was a nervous little man, and his face had
grown a shade pale at the sound of the first boom.

In a few moments there was a stampede from the dining-room. The guests
hurried as fast as they could to the basement and cellars.

Tommy, in his progress, was impeded by two burly men who were making
their way leisurely. Spencer was a few feet in front of him, making for
the crowd that surged round the doors. As he looked around the deserted
tables, he saw Miss Keane standing alone, her eyes almost rigid with
terror, her hands clutching convulsively the back of the chair on
which she had been sitting. It was evident that the Colonel had quickly
removed Mrs. L'Estrange from the scene of danger, and she had been too
panic-stricken to follow them.

He crossed over to her. "Excuse me," he said gently. "I am a friend of
Mr. Esmond's. How is it you are alone? Did your companions desert you?"

"Colonel Desmond took my cousin, and told me to keep close behind them.
when I got up, my limbs seemed unable to move. I feel as if I were
paralysed."

He took her arm and put it through his. It was evident she had been
rendered immobile by terror.

"I will take care of you," he said soothingly. "Downstairs you will be
quite safe. But we will let this crowd get through first."

Tommy Esmond came bustling up, all anxiety. Truth to tell, he did
not feel over brave, but his anxiety for himself was lost in the
contemplation of her white face and stricken eyes.

Slowly, cheered by the presence of the two men, a little colour flowed
back into her cheeks, and she smiled wanly.

"I am a fearful coward," she explained. "I go all to pieces in even the
mildest thunderstorm."

And it was in this wise, amid the crash of falling bombs, and the roar
and clamour of our own guns, that Guy Spencer made the acquaintance of
Stella Keane.



CHAPTER IX

|They found shelter in one of the big cellars of the Restaurant, and
Miss Keane by degrees got back some of her courage. There were about
twenty other persons in the same refuge, and she probably derived
fortitude from their temporary companionship, and common danger. Tommy
Esmond recovered himself very quickly, and hastened to observe the
conventions.

"It is a queer time and place in which to make introductions," he
remarked genially. "But even in times of peril, one should preserve
the usages of good society. I don't suppose you know the name of
your gallant rescuer. Let me make you known, in a formal fashion. Mr.
Spencer--Miss Keane."

The beautiful Stella bowed her dark head, and the ghost of a smile
flitted over her still pale face.

"I know Mr. Spencer very well by sight. When I have recovered my wits, I
will thank him properly and prettily. Perhaps he will come and see us at
my cousin's flat."

"I was bringing him on there to-night, as a matter of fact," explained
Esmond. "But I presume all that is knocked on the head, even supposing
we get out of this disgusting hole in reasonable time. Mrs. L'Estrange
won't be in a mood to receive visitors, after this disquieting
experience, I am sure."

"I am afraid you don't know Mrs. L'Estrange," replied the girl, with a
little mocking laugh. Her tones were not yet quite steady, but she
was rapidly recovering herself. "The card tables were laid before we
started, and we intended to be back early. If we get out safely from
this disgusting hole, as you call it, my cousin will resume her ordinary
pursuits, as if nothing had occurred to disturb them."

Desultory conversation, the irresponsible chatter of the drawing-room
kind, was almost impossible under the circumstances. And although Miss
Keane did her best to assume a brave front, it was easy to see that
she was inwardly quivering. At every roar of the guns, she shivered all
over, and her cheek alternately flushed and then grew deadly pale with
her inward terror.

"Poor child," whispered Spencer to his companion; "she must be a bundle
of nerves. Every second, she is experiencing the pangs of death in
anticipation. By the way, the gallant Desmond doesn't seem to have
troubled himself much about her. If I hadn't taken her forcibly away, I
believe she would be rooted to that chair now."

Esmond shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, a chap like Desmond doesn't
know the meaning of fear, and he can't understand the sensation in
others. The other woman took possession of him, and dragged him away.
No doubt, he thought she was following. Mrs. L'Estrange, so far as I can
judge, would never think of anything but number one."

And as Spencer's glance stole to the fair face, he felt a strange
feeling of pity for her. The poignant happenings of the last few moments
had revealed to him her loneliness, the tragedy of her dependence upon
others. In a supreme moment of peril, she, who ought to have lovers
and friends by the score, was left by herself, and thrown upon the
compassion of a stranger.

An anxious half-hour passed, and then messengers came down with
tidings of a reassuring nature. The raiders had been driven off, after
inflicting considerable damage. Gay London was free to pursue its
natural course of pleasure.

At once the tension was relaxed. Drooping forms resumed an erect
carriage, the roses bloomed again in the pale cheeks of the women. There
was a flutter, a stir. They all moved away from the refuge which had
been so welcome, and now had become unbearable.

In the hall they encountered the Colonel, cool and collected, as if he
were on parade, Mrs. L'Estrange fluttering and full of protestations.

"Oh, my poor Stella! I have been distracted about you. Why did you not
follow us? I thought you were close behind us all the time, till we got
to one of these abominable cellars, and looked back to find you were
missing."

The Colonel pulled at his moustache a little nervously.

"I shall never forgive myself, Miss Keane, not to have assured myself
you were with us at the start. I would have come back to search for you,
but Mrs. L'Estrange was in such a nervous state I could not leave her."

Miss Keane answered him very coldly, and to her cousin she did not
vouchsafe any reply.

"Please do not apologise. It was a question of _sauve qui peut_.
Fortunately, I found some kind friends who took compassion on a forlorn
damsel, shaking and terror-stricken." She turned to Mrs. L'Estrange.
"Mr. Esmond is, of course, an old friend. But you do not know Mr.
Spencer who got to me first."

Mrs. L'Estrange was quite equal to the occasion; she extended her
perfectly-gloved hand with an air of effusive cordiality.

"A thousand thanks to you both. My darling Stella was fortunate in
finding such protectors. We are both terrible cowards, I don't know
which is the greater."

"I, without question," flashed out Miss Keane. "Otherwise I should have
had the sense to scurry away like yourself. We were both frightened
rabbits, but you could run to a place of safety while I stood
paralysed."

Mrs. L'Estrange turned away the awkward thrust with a charming smile.
"I have made up my mind to one thing," she remarked with an air of
conviction. "Never, so long as the War lasts, will I dine out of my own
home. This night's experience has taught me a lesson. I don't want a
second one."

At this juncture, Tommy Esmond interposed. "I was going to bring my
friend Spencer round to you to-night. But I suppose you feel a bit too
shattered, eh? You would like to get home and rest."

"Oh dear, no!" replied the lady vivaciously. "I never alter my habits
for anything or anybody. Let us all go along at once. I will go with
Colonel Desmond. You and Mr. Spencer can continue your charge of
Stella."

But Guy had a small duty to perform. "I think if you will excuse me,
I will join you a little later. I want to go round to inquire after my
uncle and cousin. He is a very old man, and I should like to know he is
quite safe."

So it was arranged. The others drove off to Mrs. L'Estrange's flat, and
Spencer, finding he would have some time to wait for a taxi, walked to
Carlton House Terrace, where Lord South-leigh had his town house.

The footman who opened the door informed him that his lordship and Lady
Nina were still in the dining-room with a small party. The earl had
taken it all very calmly, and his daughter, who, unlike poor Stella
Keane, was a young woman of remarkable courage, had not been disturbed
at all.

"Are they alone, Robert?"

"No, sir, two old friends of his lordship's came to dinner to-night and
are still with them. But, of course, they will be glad to see you."

However, his duty being performed, and learning that all was
satisfactory, Spencer thought he might as well get along to the flat.
He had been strangely attracted by the beautiful girl, whom even her
obvious terror and lack of self-control could not deprive of her charm.

"No, I won't come in. Tell them I called round to make sure they were
all safe. And say to her ladyship I will look in to-morrow afternoon
about tea-time."

He went into his club for a few moments to see if there were any
letters, and half an hour later was at Mrs. L'Estrange's door.

She occupied the first floor of an imposing block of flats, recently
erected in one of the semi-fashionable quarters of London. She might not
be in very affluent circumstances, as Esmond had hinted, but she would
have to pay a very handsome rent for her abode.

The door was opened by a decorous-looking butler, with the air of one
who had served in good families. A man passed out as Spencer entered. He
was a good-looking young fellow of about twenty-five, in khaki. Spencer
knew him well by sight as the eldest son and heir of a rich brewer.

His face did not wear a very happy expression. It did not require a
Sherlock Holmes to surmise that his visit had been an expensive one, and
that he was hurrying away to avoid further temptation.

In the centre of a rather spacious hall, Stella Keane and Tommy Esmond
stood chatting.

She greeted the newcomer with a bright and friendly smile. She no longer
looked pale, in fact he thought there was a slight suspicion of rouge
on the fair cheeks. She was too goodlooking to need the aid of art, but
perhaps she wanted to conceal the ravages inflicted on her beauty by
that terrible time at the "Excelsior."

"You are not very long after us. I conclude you found your friends were
quite safe."

She had gathered from the garrulous Tommy what she had not known before,
that Spencer was next in succession to the earldom, also that Lord
Southleigh had a very pretty daughter, who was an accomplished young
sportswoman, a daring rider to hounds, an adept at golf, fishing, and
other pastimes of a strenuous nature.

She had pricked up her ears at mention of the cousin. Artfully she
pumped Tommy as to whether there was any tender feeling between the
relatives.

But Tommy could give no information on this point. Spencer was a very
reticent man about his private affairs, he explained. Personally, he
should not consider him particularly susceptible to female influence.
But he had heard that the old earl, who had a shockingly weak heart, and
was likely to go off at any moment, would have viewed a marriage between
the cousins with favour.

She mused over his words. He did not think him particularly susceptible
to female influence. And yet she was sure there was admiration,
open, undisguised admiration, in the glances he had bestowed upon her
to-night. He was evidently not deeply in love with his pretty sporting
cousin, or she would have been Mrs. Guy Spencer before now, assuming, of
course, that she was ready to obey her father's wishes.

It was after a short silence that Miss Keane put a somewhat abrupt
question to him: "Are you fond of play, Mr. Spencer? Everybody is who
comes here."

"Not really. I am a very lukewarm gambler. I don't mind a little flutter
now and then, as a diversion. I always enjoy a small gamble at Monte
Carlo, for example, but I never get carried away. When I have lost
enough, I stop. Nothing could induce me to stake another _sou_."

"Can you stop as easily when you are winning? That, I fancy, is where
the selfcontrol comes in. But I think I am rather glad you are not one
of the infatuated ones. I was brought up in an atmosphere of gambling."

There was a pathetic shadow in the beautiful brown eyes as she spoke.
Spencer's interest in her, a girl he had only known for a couple of
hours, quickened. The glance he turned on her was full of sympathy,
although he did not utter a word. It said as plainly as if he had
spoken: "Tell me more about yourself, you will find an attentive
listener."

"My father and mother were both desperate gamblers. They staked and lost
everything they had at cards, on the race-course, at Monte Carlo. My
poor cousin, Mrs. L'Estrange, has the same fever in her veins."

Now that he had invited her confidence, he was a little embarrassed
by it. He did not know her well enough to condole with her. By way of
relieving the tension, he uttered a few trite remarks on the subject of
gambling generally.

"Very sad when people are bitten by it to that extent. In my small
experience, and I am only speaking of cards, I have found that, at the
end of twelve months, you leave off pretty well where you started, good
players or bad. You lose a hundred this week, you win a hundred the
next, and so on, and so forth. If you are a good player, you get bad
cards; if a duffer, you get good cards. And so the bad player has a
pretty even chance with his more skilful opponent."

Miss Keane threw aside her momentary sadness, and laughed at his
scientific exposition.

"You have evidently thought it all out," she said brightly. "But please
don't inflict these cheerful theories on my cousin. She is a most tragic
being when she loses. She thinks herself, and I believe is, one of the
most scientific bridge-players in England, and she cannot be brought to
understand why the duffers should have a look in."

At this juncture Tommy Esmond interposed. It may have occurred to him
that they were wasting precious time. They had come here for the special
purpose of gambling.

"What do you say to joining the others? We are in the very temple of
gambling, and I know my young friend would like a little flutter."

"Certainly. When I last peeped in, Amy looked the spirit of despair. I
think she must have been losing heavily."

She turned to lead the way, but at that instant the door-bell rang, and
she halted, in readiness to greet the visitor, whoever it might be; and
there entered a florid-looking, stout man, who advanced towards her with
effusion, and both hands outstretched.

"My dear Stella, I have been thinking of you ever since the raid began;
I know how terribly you suffer when they are on. And I knew you were
dining out to-night. I am rejoiced to see you safe and sound. I came
round here the moment I could get away."

Miss Keane flushed slightly as he took her hands and wrung them
impressively to show his gratitude at her escape from peril. Tommy
Esmond had given him a cool nod. But she felt Spencer's calm, critical
gaze upon this ebullient expression of young English manhood.

It was not so much what he said, as his manner of saying it. Bounder was
written all over him, in his appearance, his manners, his gestures.

She answered him very briefly, almost curtly, as if she were
administering a cold douche. Then the flush deepened as she turned to
Spencer.

"May I introduce my cousin, Mr. Dutton?"

The florid man bowed with an exaggerated air of cordiality. Spencer,
who had taken a violent dislike to him from the first second he saw
him, acknowledged the salutation with chilling gravity; and Stella Keane
could almost read his thoughts, as his gaze travelled from one to the
other.

How could this imperial-looking girl have such an unmitigated bounder
for a relative? What was the mystery about her that could make a
creature like this claim kinship with her?



CHAPTER X

|Mrs. L'Estrange was evidently a great believer in light: the electric
bulbs glowed softly, but brilliantly, over the two rooms devoted to the
service of the card-players.

On the sideboards were arranged decanters of whisky, and soda-water in
bottles and syphons. Whether he lost or won, the gambler, triumphant or
despairing, could quaff to his success, or solace his despair.

The elderly, youthfully-dressed woman advanced towards the new visitors,
with a beaming expression of countenance.

"Mr. Spencer, you will join us. What is your favourite game?"

"Bridge," said Spencer, shortly. He was already a bit in love with
Stella Keane, but he was by no means favourably inclined to her gushing,
elderly cousin.

He soon formed a party of four, and became absorbed, for the moment,
in the game. Tommy Esmond was playing the same game, at a table
some distance from him. Tommy was not supposed to be wealthy, but he
evidently had money enough to indulge in a quiet gamble now and then.

He remembered every incident of that night. His partner was a
subordinate member of the Government, and a good sound player, lacking
a little perhaps in the qualities of initiative and rapid decision.
His opponents were a young man in the Foreign Office, and a slender,
hawk-nosed young woman of about thirty.

All through he held abominable cards, but, truth to tell, he was not
very interested in the game. Whether he won or lost a hundred pounds did
not interest him very greatly.

But what did interest him, to every fibre of his being, was that Stella
Keane hovered about his table. His eyes continually sought hers, and she
did not seem to avoid his glance. At times he was sure he could detect
a slight smile of intimacy. After all, had he not rescued her, half dead
with fright, in the dining-room of the "Excelsior"?

Once she bent over him and whispered, her cool, fragrant breath fanning
his cheek: "You are having shocking bad luck. You haven't held a single
decent card."

He whispered back: "What did I tell you a little time ago? I flatter
myself I am a fairly good bridge-player, but what could one do with
those cards of mine?"

She fluttered away, with still the shadow of that intimate smile upon
her beautiful mouth, the smile that seemed to say they had only known
each other for a few hours, under romantic and dramatic circumstances,
but there was between them an affinity of spirit.

He played on steadily for over an hour, and then a halt was cried. The
young gentleman from the Foreign Office and the hawknosed young woman
had scored. Guy Spencer rose from the table, the poorer by a hundred
and fifty pounds. He wrote his cheque with a light heart. A hundred and
fifty pounds was not a great price to pay for the introduction to Stella
Keane.

Mrs. L'Estrange came impressively towards him.

"Oh, Mr. Spencer, I hope you have not lost. If so, I fear you will never
come near me again." His glance roved in the direction of Stella,
talking, as it appeared earnestly, to that bounder of a cousin. There
came a steely look into his clear, resolute eyes.

"If you will allow me, I shall be delighted to come here often to see
you and Miss Keane. I suppose I had better pick up my old friend Tommy
Esmond, if he is not too engrossed." But when he approached Esmond, that
little rotund gentleman waved him away, in most genial fashion.

"Run away, dear boy. It is Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere. I am
winning hands down." Certainly he bore the mien of a conqueror. And
there, behind his chair, stood Stella Keane.

She welcomed Spencer with that faint, intimate smile which had already
stirred his pulses.

"I fear I brought you bad luck," she said, in her low, caressing voice.
"But to Mr. Esmond I have been the harbinger of good fortune. Are you
really going?"

"I always go when I have won enough, or lost enough. You remember I gave
you a little homily on gambling generally, not so long ago."

She took her hand off Esmond's chair. "Well, I will leave my good
influence behind, and look after the parting guest."

She walked leisurely with him in the direction of the hall. It was
deserted, but the light was brilliant, as it was in every other corner
of the flat.

She held out her hand impulsively. "Mr. Spencer, I have not thanked you
properly for your kindness to me to-night. Terror-stricken, paralysed
with fear, I should have been clinging to that chair now, if you had not
rescued me in time. How can I thank you?"

Spencer laughed lightly. "One would think from your excessive gratitude
that you had not experienced a great deal of kindness in your life. And
yet that would be impossible."

She flushed a little; his gaze was perhaps more full of admiration, of
frank and open compliment than could be justified by the briefness
of their acquaintance. And yet it only expressed what he was inwardly
thinking.

Here was a girl who had only to look at her mirror to learn she was
endowed with singular beauty. She must also know that she combined with
her more than ordinary fairness an unusual charm of manner.

How had it come about that one with such striking qualifications should
exhibit a certain underlying sadness, as if the world had already proved
a very disappointing place? Youth and good looks usually secure for
their owner a good time. Girls with half her attractions could find
plenty of admirers. What evil fate dogged her that she had to regard
a perfectly common act of kindness as something to be exceptionally
grateful for?

"I have never been petted nor spoiled, even as a child," she answered
gravely. "My father and mother were ignorant of the duties, as they were
of the instincts, of parenthood. And since my poor pretence of a home
was broken up, I have been a derelict and a wanderer, sometimes a
tolerated guest, rarely, I fear, a very welcome one in the houses of
other people."

"But you are happy here, surely?" he suggested. After saying so much,
she could hardly regard the question as an impertinent one. He longed to
hear her history. Well, if he came and cultivated her, and let her see
how sympathetic he could be, one day she would tell him.

She shrugged her shoulders with an air of indifference.

"My cousin is peculiar in many ways, and her devotion to play is an
obsession. We have very little in common; still, it would not be fair to
say she was difficult to get on with. I have been with her now for more
than eighteen months, and although we have often held totally different
opinions, I cannot remember that we have ever had a real quarrel. And,
anyway, it is a home and a shelter, and that is something."

Not much enthusiasm here, certainly. Mrs. L'Estrange had been dismissed
with a very negative kind of faint praise. Her excellence seemed to lie
rather in the absence of bad qualities than the possession of good ones.

And yet, he could not bring himself to believe that Miss Keane was an
ill-natured girl, or of an unresponsive temperament. He had to admit
that his impressions of his hostess were not too favourable.

She was outwardly genial, and at times gushing. Yet he fancied he could
read behind this plausible exterior the signs of a hard, worldly nature.
There was no softness in her glance, no tenderness in her rather hard,
staccato tones.

A girl with those glorious eyes, and mobile face, with the delicate
complexion that flushed and paled by turns, must surely be sweet and
sympathetic, and responsive to affection. How her voice had thrilled
with emotion when she thanked him. If she was disappointed in her
cousin, it must be the fault of the elder woman, who could not give what
was demanded by the younger and more ardent temperament.

He would have lingered longer, trying to pierce the riddle from these
disjointed remarks, but they were interrupted by Tommy Esmond, who came
bustling into the hall, flushed with victory.

"Never had such luck in my life. Just wiped the floor with them," he
explained excitedly. "You left your good influence behind, Miss Keane. A
few minutes sufficed for victory."

"I am very glad, but I think my powers for good must be very limited,
for I brought bad luck to your friend," was her smiling rejoinder.

He turned briskly to the young man. "It is a perfect night, Spencer.
Shall we walk down to the Club to get a breath of fresh air, and turn in
there for a quiet smoke?"

Spencer nodded assent, and held out his hand to Miss Keane.

"Well, good-bye for the present."

"And I hope you will come and see us again soon. Don't wait for Mr.
Esmond to bring you: after our thrilling experiences of tonight, we are
more than ordinary acquaintances. We are at home nearly every night,
if you want to gamble. And, if you would like a little rational chat
instead, come in one afternoon to tea."

"Thanks, I will. My card-playing fit has passed for a little time. Once
again, goodbye."

And, as soon as they were in the street, Esmond burst in with the
question he was longing to ask.

"Well, what do you think of her? Did I exaggerate?"

"Not in the least," answered Spencer, speaking less seriously than he
felt, he did not quite know for what reason, unless it was that with a
man of his friend's calibre, he always had a tendency to discuss things
lightly. "No, I don't think you have exaggerated a bit this time; so
many of your swans have been geese, but this is a real swan, at last.
She is very lovely; even in her terror she looked beautiful, and she has
a peculiar, elusive charm. She makes you want to know more of her, and
penetrate the mystery which seems to hover around her.59

"I can't say I see any mystery, myself." Esmond spoke rather sharply,
for such a good-natured little man.

"Perhaps it is too strong a word. But I take it, you know something
of the ménage, and can enlighten me on one point. What is her position
there: paid companion, a passing guest, or does she share the flat with
her cousin on some sort of terms?"

It was a little time before Esmond answered. "I have never rightly got
at that myself. Sometimes I have thought one thing, sometimes another.
But I am pretty sure she is poor: in fact, she has admitted as much."

"Poverty is relative after all, and it depends on how she was brought
up. She seems to dress well, and that cannot be done without money."

Yes, Esmond admitted that she was turned out well. But he either could
not, or would not express any positive opinion upon the delicate subject
of Miss Keane's finances.

"Does she ever play? She didn't touch a card while we were there, only
flitted about from table to table."

No, Esmond had never seen her play since he had frequented the house. It
was clear, therefore, she did not make any pocket-money out of gambling.
He had to admit that she seemed to act as deputy hostess, and, he
believed, wrote most of her cousin's notes; in other words, made herself
useful.

All this information, such as it was, he imparted, as it seemed to
Spencer, with some reluctance. Perhaps his keen admiration prompted him
to hide anything that served to show her in a dependent position. And
Spencer desisted from any further crossexamination on this head.

On one point, however, he was determined to elicit a positive expression
of opinion from the cautious little man.

"What is the mystery of the bounder cousin? You must admit he has cad
stamped all over him, his speech, his person, his gestures."

Tommy could establish no defence for the gentleman in question. "No, he
is past criticism, I allow. The result of some _mésalliance_, I suppose;
his mother a very common person doubtless. But then, many highly
respectable people have skeletons like that in their cupboards."

"The mystery is that he finds his way, cousin as he may be, into any
decent house. Mrs. L'Estrange we know to be a woman of good family. You
would think she would lock and bolt the door against a creature like
that. What is he supposed to be, if he has any profession beyond that of
his intense bounderism?"

"Something in the City, I am told," replied Esmond shortly. "Something
connected with finance; stockbroker or something."

"It must be a shady kind of finance, if he has anything to do with it,"
growled the young man. "To think of his claiming relationship with that
exquisite girl."



CHAPTER XI

|It would be idle to assume that a man of Guy Spencer's natural
advantages had reached the age of thirty without experiencing a few
affairs of the heart. But he had never been deeply touched, and
his friend Tommy Esmond was right when he described him as not very
susceptible to feminine influence.

The one feeling which had lasted for some years, was a pronounced
affection for his cousin Nina. He felt as much at home with her as he
would have done with a favourite sister, had he possessed one. But the
regard had a warmth in it that is lacking in fraternal relations.

He knew that Lady Nina was not indifferent to him, that she allowed him
to assume a certain air of proprietorship in the disposal of dances, in
the claim to her society when he was disposed to enjoy it. He knew also
that it was a match which would be warmly approved of by his invalid
uncle.

Without being guilty of undue vanity, he felt pretty certain that if he
proposed he would be accepted. And once or twice he had been very near
to taking the decisive step. He never could quite understand what it was
that made him hesitate.

The fact of his hesitation proved to himself, as well as to the young
lady concerned, that much as he might like his cousin, he was certainly
far from being deeply in love with her.

She was a pretty, winsome girl, possessing an upright, straightforward
nature, and quite attractive in a simple, frank fashion. There was
nothing subtle or mysterious about her, you could read her like an open
book. She was a good daughter, she was the type of girl who could not
help making a good wife.

Some day, no doubt, he would put the fateful question, and by her
acceptance be made, in conventional parlance, the happiest of men. But
although he would know he had chosen very wisely, and look forward to
a placid kind of happiness, he was doubtful if Nina's smiles and kisses
would ever thrill him, if with her he would ever learn the meaning of
real love.

He was not by any means sure that he was capable of very strong
attachment. He had indulged in a few fancies, but they had only
exercised a very small portion of his thoughts. Up to the present, he
had certainly not experienced the wild ecstasies, the mingled joy and
pain of the true lover.

For the first time in his life, he had been seriously perturbed by the
advent of Stella Keane. He had not fashioned in his imagination any
particular ideal, any special type of woman who would make to him an
irresistible appeal. But, if she had been Lady Nina, if he had met her
in his own world, he would have owned at once this was the girl for whom
he had been waiting.

Her image pursued him persistently in his waking and his leisure hours.
He could recall every word she had spoken during the short time they
had spent together. He could see her a dozen times a day standing in the
"Excelsior" dining-room, paralysed with terror.

He remembered the break in her voice, the mist in her beautiful eyes,
when she had thanked him. And ever and again, he longed to fathom the
mystery of her loneliness, the cause of that sadness that was always
lurking underneath.

Was it wise to pursue the acquaintance, with the pretty certain result
of intensifying the interest he already felt in her? He had no liking
for Mrs. L'Estrange, a woman merely on the fringe of his world, or her
gambling circle. If he wanted to lose or win money, there were plenty of
other houses where he could indulge his fancy.

And he knew nothing of Miss Keane's antecedents. The only thing he did
know was that she had a cousin who was obviously a bounder of the first
water. Tommy Esmond knew nothing about her either, or, if he did know,
would not tell.

For three days he wavered, one moment eager to rush off to the flat,
the next determining that it would be better not to renew the brief
acquaintance.

On the fourth day, his impulse conquered his prudence. He told himself
soothingly that his visit was due to curiosity, that he merely wanted to
penetrate the mystery of her loneliness, her unprotected position.

The bounder cousin was coming out as he entered. Mr. Dutton nodded
affably to him with a greasy and familiar smile. Spencer acknowledged
him in the coolest fashion compatible with bare civility. Why were
there people, he wondered, whom you instinctively wanted to kick, for no
apparently sufficient reason?

Miss Keane was alone. Mrs. L'Estrange, she explained, was in bed with
a racking headache. She had lost heavily the night before, and this was
the usual penalty she paid for losing.

"Hardly worth the candle, is it?" he said lightly, as he took his cup of
tea from her. A slight frown crossed his brow as he observed the empty
cup of "the bounder" on the table. Did he come here often? was his
thought. Perhaps he was in love with her. But it was surely beyond the
limits of possibility that she could ever return the affection of such a
creature.

He would see what he could get out of her. "I met your cousin as I came
in. I suppose he is a frequent visitor?"

She did not look in the least conscious or embarrassed by the question.
"Oh yes, he comes very often. He is about the only one of my relatives
I have any acquaintance with. My father's mode of life estranged all the
others."

Spencer thought it would have been a good thing if Mr. Dutton had been
as sensitive to the disqualifications of the late Mr. Keane as the rest
of her connections. But, of course, he could not say so.

"He is not in the least like you." Then, after a pause, he added boldly,
and perhaps a little rudely: "I should never have dreamed you were
related."

She quite understood what he meant, and there was a lurking humour in
her smile, as she answered:

"Poor old George, he is a good sort, but quite a rough diamond. His
mother married a self-made man, of course, for his money. That may
account for a great deal you have noticed."

Spencer had the grace to look confused. It was evident he had conveyed
his private impression of Mr. Dutton very distinctly to her clear young
vision. But she did not seem offended, only slightly amused, at the poor
figure cut by Cousin George in the estimation of a person in a superior
world.

Anyway, that little mystery was explained. There was nothing unusual
in poor gentlewomen marrying self-made men, for the sake of money. The
noble family of Southleigh had many such _mésalliances_ amongst its
aristocratic records.

But it was a relief to find Stella herself under no delusions concerning
the young man in question. He did not think it possible she could, but
as diplomatically as was possible, she admitted that Mr. Dutton was not
what is, technically called, a gentleman.

"He is the only relative with whom I am on speaking terms," she added,
after a pause, "for reasons of which I have already given you a hint.
And I think I have grown rather to look forward to his visits."

Her observant eyes noticed a quick stiffening in his manner. She could
guess his thoughts. How was it possible for a refined young woman to
ever look forward to the visits of a person like Mr. Dutton, cousin
though he might be?

"You, of course, have heaps of relations; you can pick and choose," she
went on, as if eager to explain to his fastidious taste her toleration
of a man, so obviously the denizen of an inferior world. "You cannot, I
daresay, imagine the loneliness of a girl of my age, debarred, through
no fault of her own, from the society of her own kith and kin." Here
was an opportunity to engage her in personal talk. He had not hoped she
would take him into her confidence on his first visit.

He leaned forward, and there was an eager note in his voice. "I formed
an idea of you in the first few moments of our acquaintance, that you
were not happy, that you were, in a sense, isolated, and that you had
known more of sorrow than joy in your short life."

She mused a moment, and then answered him in grave tones:

"You were quite right. I feel it is the impression I must convey to
either friend or stranger, an impression I shall always convey. For, if
a great and overwhelming happiness were to come to me to-morrow, I could
never forget the past years of sadness."

"But, surely, you must have some happy memories? There were gleams of
brightness in your childhood?"

"No," she said, and there was a fierce vehemence in her voice. "They
were the most miserable--an indifferent mother, a careless father, a
roof and a shelter, food and clothing sufficient, if not in abundance,
but no home, as it is understood by more fortunate children."

"And when that home, or the wretched pretence of it, was broken up,
you were thrown upon the mercy of the world," he questioned, "with no
kindred, no friends to stretch out a helping hand?"

"Our relatives had long before ceased to take any interest in the
daughter of a ruined gambler. I was thrown, in a certain sense, on the
mercy of the world. But for a small pittance, which my father could not
deprive me of, I should have starved, for he left nothing behind him but
debts."

She was not, then, absolutely penniless. Something had been saved from
the wreck. He wondered if Esmond knew this. And yet, if she told a
comparative stranger this at their first real interview, she must have
told him, who seemed to be on the footing of a friend of the house.

"I had no real friends," she went on; "but in the course of a wandering
life--when my father owed too much in one place he removed to another--I
had picked up a few acquaintances. With these I made a home, on and off,
for longer or shorter periods."

"And you have come to anchor here with Mrs. L'Estrange, who is your
cousin, one of the few relatives who did not visit the sins of the
fathers on the children."

Her voice was a little scornful. "The cousinship is a very distant one.
And, as she is an inveterate gambler herself, but more lucky than my
father, she could hardly look upon gambling in another as a deadly sin."
He nodded his head in agreement. He did not want to talk himself,
for fear he should interrupt the flow of her reminiscences; she was
evidently in a confidential mood this afternoon.

"I saw her a few times when quite a child, and then she vanished like
the others. A couple of years ago, we met in Devonshire at the house of
a mutual acquaintance. She seemed to take a fancy to me. In the end, she
proposed that I should, for the present, make my home with her. She has
only one interest in life, _play_. She is a very lazy woman. She hates
writing the briefest note, and housekeeping is abhorrent to her. I
attend to her correspondence, I order the dinner and look after the
servants. I am not exactly eating the bread of charity," she concluded
with a little mirthless laugh, "because I give some work in exchange for
my food. My own little pittance provides me with clothes."

He wondered what the little pittance represented in annual hard cash.
She was dressed quietly but in good taste, and he was judge enough of
woman's apparel to know that the material of her dress was expensive. On
her slender fingers glittered a few valuable rings, heirlooms probably
saved from the clutches of the gambling father. She did not convey the
impression of poverty, but perhaps she was clever, and knew how to make
the best of a small income.

There was a long silence, and it almost seemed as if she had forgotten
his presence. For she sat with a musing look in her beautiful eyes,
her thoughts evidently in the past, conjuring up Heaven knows how many
painful memories.

Then she came back to herself, and turned to him with an apologetic
smile. "I am afraid I have bored you to tears with my stupid personal
history, but I will finish by telling you one little thing that may
amuse you."

He protested, of course, that he had not been in the least bored, only
too painfully interested.

"Well, I am not a person easily crushed, and although a physical coward
and frightened of raids and thunderstorms, I am not a moral one. When
I began to review my position, I tried to hit upon some way of making
money."

Was she fond of money, he wondered? Well, perhaps, like most women, she
wanted money to buy herself pretty things. There was nothing unusual in
that.

"When I was a schoolgirl, I was supposed to show some artistic talent; I
got several prizes. So I set to work and painted some half-a-dozen small
things, in what I conceived to be a popular style, and took them
round to as many dealers. In a week my hopes were shattered. One
straightforward creature told me frankly that they just attained the
school-girl level of excellence, but that I should never become an
artist. It was not in me."

"A crushing blow, indeed," said Spencer sympathetically.

"I then turned to writing. Here, at any rate, was a profession that
required no previous painful training, only powers of observation, some
imagination, and a certain fluency of expression. I wrote some short
stories which I thought good, which I still think good. History repeated
itself. I sent them to a dozen editors, one after another. In every
case, they were declined with thanks."

"I daresay they were quite good, and they were not taken because you
didn't happen to be in the ring," was Spencer's consoling comment.

"Well," she exclaimed brightly, "there is an end of my reminiscences for
to-day. Let us talk of anything and everything else. Have you seen Mr.
Esmond lately? He has not been near us since the night he came with
you."

Shortly afterwards he took his leave, he had stayed unconsciously long
as it was.

"I shall come again soon, if I may, to listen to some more
reminiscences," he said, as he shook hands. And she had given him
permission, with the brightest of smiles.

He had not learned half as much as he wanted, but he had gathered
something. The bounder cousin was the son of a self-made man, a
_parvenu_. And Stella Keane was not absolutely penniless, she had enough
money to buy herself clothes. Did Tommy Esmond know as much as this? And
if he did, why had he not said so?



CHAPTER XII

|Although unsuspicious by nature, Guy Spencer had mixed much in the
world and seen a good deal of life. Attracted as he was by the charming
Stella, there was a something about the atmosphere of that flat in
Elsinore Gardens which created an unfavourable impression.

Of Mrs. L'Estrange's antecedents there was no question. She was a woman
of good family, she could produce chapter and verse for her ancestors.
And yet, why was she not in a better environment?

Clearly, she was on the downward slope. But was there anything
remarkable in that? Heaps of members of aristocratic families were
in the same sort of predicament, from various causes, through certain
circumstances.

Had he not received a letter a few days ago from the daughter of a
well-known earl, imploring him for a loan of ten pounds, for the sake of
old friendship?

The writer was some twenty years his senior, and she had tipped him when
he was at Eton. She now dated her letter from a suburb in the extreme
west of Kensington. If she, with all her advantages of birth and
connection, had fallen by the wayside, why not a comparatively obscure
person like Mrs. L'Estrange?

It was very easy to see it. Mrs. L'Estrange was of a Bohemian
temperament, and probably a great spendthrift. She had made considerable
inroads into whatever fortune she originally possessed, and had
developed into an adept card-player, with a view to supplementing the
little income that was left to her.

And Stella Keane, that beautiful, sad girl, with the tragic history of
worthless parents behind her, was the victim of fate. She was not happy
in her cousin's home, amidst this gambling, card-playing set. She, at
least, was pure, whoever else might be defiled. On that he would stake
his existence.

For a few days he thought a great deal about the subject, and during
those few days he kept away from Elsinore Gardens and denied himself
the pleasure of listening to a further instalment of Miss Keane's
reminiscences of her unhappy history.

If he were going to fall in love, he told himself sternly, he would
fall in love with a woman of his own world, not with a girl, however
beautiful and interesting she might be, who was only a hanger-on of a
woman well-born, but evidently _déclassée_, a woman no longer moving in
the sphere to which she had been accustomed. In these reflections, he
showed sound sense.

But for a certain event that happened in the course of the next few
days, he might have adhered to his good resolutions and have finally
dismissed Miss Keane from his serious thoughts. And, in that case, this
story would not have been written.

And then the event happened. Returning home to his rooms one night,
about twelve o'clock, his man told him that Mr. Esmond was waiting for
him in the sitting-room.

He found the little rotund man sitting in an easy-chair, white-faced,
the marks of agitation written all over his countenance.

Wondering at this unusual spectacle--Tommy was frequently fussy, but
always self-contained--Spencer advanced, and held out his hand.

"What's up, Tommy? You're a late visitor, but always welcome." He
pointed to the decanters standing on the sideboard. "I hope you have
helped yourself?"

To Spencer's great surprise, the little man did not take the proffered
hand. He spoke in a hoarse, choking voice, his lips twitching.

"I've helped myself once too often, Spencer. And I can't take the hand
of an honest man, for reasons. You've got it at once."

Spencer had average brains, but he was not very quick to realise the
meaning of unexpected situations. At first, he thought the little man
had been drinking.

"Sit down, Tommy, and get it off your chest. What in the name of wonder
is the matter?" he said kindly. He was rather fond of Tommy in a casual
sort of way.

Esmond did not sit down at once, but went over to the sideboard, and
mixed himself a stiff tumbler of whisky-and-soda. He gulped it down at a
draught, and then took an armchair.

"You won't begrudge me that, I know," he said, speaking in the same
strained, hoarse voice. "It's the last drink I'll have in your rooms,
the last drink in any house in England, I should say. I'm done for, old
man, tomorrow I clear out, eat my heart away in some beastly foreign
hole."

No, Spencer's first surmise had been incorrect. The man was not drunk,
not even elevated. His face was chalk-white, and he was trembling all
over as if he had been stricken with palsy. But he was perfectly sober.

Spencer took a chair himself, and spoke a little sternly. "Pull yourself
together, old man, and speak out. At first I thought you had had a
drop too much. But I see that's not the case. Out with it. You've been
waiting some time, my man informs me. You want to tell me something.
Tell it."

Tommy Esmond moistened his dry lips with his tongue, and spoke.

"I don't quite know what instinct prompted me to come to you. We haven't
known each other so very intimately, after all, but I always felt you
were a bit more of a Christian than the other chaps I have known, less
of a Pharisee--that you would be more likely to find excuses for a poor
devil who had yielded to temptation."

"Do get on," said Spencer a little impatiently. He did not at all like
the turn the conversation was taking.

Tommy spoke brokenly, he could not put his words together very
coherently, it appeared. But his halting utterance was simply due to
emotion.

"I was at Elsinore Gardens to-night, playing cards. You know Elsinore
Gardens, Mrs. L'Estrange's flat?"

He was quite sober, but his agitation made him wander a bit, or he would
not have put the question.

"Of course I know Mrs. L'Estrange's flat. It was you who took me there,"
said Spencer.

"Yes, we went there on the night of the raid, but I was not playing at
your table. I remember you lost, and I won. Well, somebody has to lose,
and somebody else has to win."

Spencer made no comment on this obvious truism. Tommy Esmond again
moistened his dry lips with his tongue. He was a long time in coming to
the point, but he came to it at last.

"Well, old man, I was playing with an old pal of mine, with whom I have
been in business for years. We had a nice code of signals arranged. I
was as cautious as I could be, but my partner had been dining out, and
he was a bit indiscreet. There were three or four men watching us, they
caught us both, although, as I tell you, I was cautious. But I made one
slip, and they were down on me like a knife. You don't know my partner.
It is the end of him. But it is the end of Tommy Esmond also."

To say that Spencer was disgusted would be to convey a faint idea of his
feelings. And yet, as he looked at the huddled, trembling form in the
chair, his sentiment was rather one of compassion than loathing.
what was there behind? what tragedy of circumstance had driven this
apparently lighthearted, butterfly little creature to such crooked ways?

"You're an old hand, then? It's not the first time you've cheated?"

Tommy Esmond smiled wanly. He did not answer the question at once.

"What age do you guess me, Spencer?"

"At a casual glance, a little over fifty. You may be older. Looking at
you closely, you do seem a bit made up, dye and all that sort of thing."

"My dear sir, I am old enough to be your father. I shall never see sixty
again."

"And when did you take to this game?" Esmond thought a little before he
replied, he was evidently counting the years.

"When I was twenty-two I got an _entrée_ into society. I was then
enjoying an income of two pounds a week, I was a clerk in an insurance
office. At twenty-four I left the insurance business and started
cheating for a living."

Spencer uttered a horrified ejaculation. He had never come across
anything quite like this, at any rate, in actual experience.

"Would you like to know something of my history, or would you like to
kick me out at once, and have done with it?" asked Esmond quietly.

But there were still some remnants of compassion in Spencer. And he was
also a little curious. He was dealing, after all, with a human document.
Tommy's revelations would add to his experience of life.

"Tell me all you would like to say," he said.

"It will be a relief to unbosom myself, after the years I have led this
life," was Esmond's answer. "When I left Elsinore Gardens with my life
in ruins, I felt I could have shrieked it all out to the policeman
standing at the corner. I came on here, because I thought you would
listen to me, because I felt sure you were not a Pharisee."

Spencer motioned him to the sideboard. "Mix yourself another stiff peg,
and steady your nerves. Then tell me as much as you like."

Esmond went over and helped himself. After a few seconds the ague-like
trembling ceased, and he was able to speak in a fairly steady voice.

"My father was a solicitor in a small way of business in an obscure town
in the west of England. There were three children--an elder brother,
myself, and a sister. My elder brother succeeded to the practice and is
still in the same place, making both ends meet on a microscopic income.
My sister is dead.

"My father was a God-fearing, deeply religious man, and did more
than his duty by his family. He scraped and pinched to give us a good
education, that being the only capital he could leave us. I was placed
in an insurance office, the head of which was a distant connection of my
mother's.

"If I had chosen to be content with my lot I daresay in time I might
have done fairly well, as I had more than average abilities, and gave
complete satisfaction in the performance of my duties.

"Unfortunately, I ran across, by the purest accident, a young man some
couple of years my senior. His father, a man of very good family, had
died a short time previously and left him a very decent income of about
two thousand a year. He had been at a private school with me when we
were boys.

"This young man took a violent fancy to me, I was slim and not bad
looking in those days. He had the _entrée_ to some of the best houses
in London through his aristocratic connections. He took me with him
everywhere, as his bosom friend. I had certain social instincts, derived
from Heaven knows where, and I soon found my feet. In twelve months I
was able to run alone, sometimes I was able to get into houses where
even he could not gain a footing. He laughingly declared that I had
beaten him in the social race, but he was a good-natured fellow, without
a particle of envy or meanness in his nature, and he was rather proud
than otherwise that the pupil had outstripped the master."

He paused for a moment. It was evident, that having kept silence for so
many years, it was an enormous relief to unbosom himself.

In spite of his disgust, Spencer could not but feel interested in this
bit of life-history. He had often felt curious as to Tommy Esmond's
past, and now that curiosity was going to be satisfied. He understood
now why the little man had never made any but the most distant allusions
to his home or his relatives.

"The life suited me down to the ground, but there was always the
terrible problem of ways and means, good clothes, travelling, expensive
flowers, etc., etc. I had got to three pounds a week, but that doesn't
go far in the circles to which I had been transplanted. It began to dawn
upon me that, delightful as the life was, I was playing the fool, and
neglecting the substance for the shadow. People asked me to their big
parties, often to their dinners and to week-ends, but there was no
money in it. In fact, I was getting out of my depth. I had already been
obliged to borrow small sums from money-lenders to cover my expenses.

"Bitterly I made up my mind that sooner or later I must cut it, and take
life seriously, like the poor man I was. I belonged to a good club
where I had all my letters addressed. I lodged in a little street in
Bloomsbury, in cheap apartments. My friend alone knew this address.

"He would have helped me to a considerable extent, but, strange to say,
considering what I did afterwards, I shrank from accepting actual cash
from him."

Spencer interrupted him for a second. "You would not sponge upon your
friend, instead you took to cheating your acquaintance. I take it that
is what you are going to tell me."

Esmond nodded. "Quite right. I had made up my mind to cut it, and
disappear from a world in which I had no right to intrude. I had even
made up my mind as to the exact date at the close of the season when
I would disappear, and return to the humdrum life from which my friend
roused me.

"A few days before that date, something very strange happened; my life
has always been full of surprises. A few weeks before the fixed date,
I had made the acquaintance of a young nobleman, a member of one of the
best-known families in England. He was then about thirty, very handsome,
very popular with both men and women. He is dead now, but, of course, I
shall not mention his name, which would startle you if you heard it.

"As I have said, his family was a very distinguished one, but poor for
its position. My friend, whom for the sake of convenience I will call
Lord Frederick, lived in good style, never seemed short of cash, and
paid his debts promptly. Those who knew were sure that he got little or
no help from his family, yet he betted at race-meetings, played cards
nearly every night, and lived generally the life of a man with a fair
income.

"His own explanation was, that he had some intimate friends on the Stock
Exchange who put him on to any good thing going. In the course of the
year, according to his own account, he made a considerable sum out of
racing.

"Lord Frederick, like my first friend, took considerable notice of me
after we had become acquainted. Several times he invited me to his club.
Afterwards he told me that he had a premonition I should be useful to
him.

"I shall never forget that night when the deadly temptation came to me,
when I learned what manner of rascal he was. It was the close of the
season. In a very few days more I should have looked my last on this gay
and alluring existence, should have ceased to lead this double life of a
poor clerk by day, a young man of fashion by night."

Spencer suddenly interrupted. "But was there not a great risk of
detection? were you never recognised in the City by some chance west End
acquaintance."

"Up to then, no. Of course, I must have been found out in time, if
only from the suspicious circumstance that I could never accept any day
invitations. This was one of the reasons that weighed most strongly with
me in the resolve to give it up. I could not bear the thought that
the Tommy Esmond who bore himself so bravely in his new world, who
had managed to outlive all curiosity as to his antecedents, should
be discovered in his true colours, a poor City drudge in an insurance
office.

"To return to my story. I had dined with Lord Frederick at the---- No, I
will not give the name of the club, one of the most exclusive in London:
it might put you on his track. He had ordered a choice dinner, and he
plied me liberally with wine. My heart was very full at the prospect of
having to say good-bye to this luxurious life, in a very few days' time.

"After dinner we went into the smoking-room, which was nearly empty,
as most of the members had left London. There were only two other
occupants, and they were at the far end of the apartment. Practically,
we had the place to ourselves.

"He urged me strongly to take a trip over to Paris as his guest. I
should have loved to go, but the wrench had to be made some time, it
might as well be made now. Besides, I was heavily in debt, for a poor
man, and I had not the cash to purchase the necessary outfit for such a
trip.

"He would not accept my first refusal, but tried to persuade me into
reconsidering. When I still persisted, he bluntly asked me my reasons.

"As I have said, I was very depressed that night at the prospect of all
I was saying goodbye to. This mood was responsible for my blurting out a
great portion of the absolute truth.

"I explained to him that I had already accepted too much of his
hospitality, which my circumstances did not enable me to return, that I
could no longer take advantage of his generosity.

"After this avowal, he did not speak for some little time, all the while
regarding me with an intense gaze that embarrassed me very much.

"'Thanks for telling me the truth,' he said at length. 'Your confidence
is quite safe with me.' He added after a pause, 'So you are a poor man,
in spite of the fact that your appearance does not suggest the fact.
well, I may tell you that from the first moment I made your acquaintance
I was pretty certain you were.'

"I told him a little more. 'I am so poor,' I said frankly, 'that I
cannot afford to keep up appearances any longer. In a few days I shall
leave a world I ought never to have entered. Anyway, it is the last time
I shall dine with you, and I don't suppose we shall ever meet again,
unless we run across each other by chance in a very different sphere.'"

"'You have absolutely made up your mind to do this, for the reasons you
have given?' he asked presently.

"'Absolutely,' I replied. 'I may say it is Hobson's choice. I am heavily
in debt. If I cut my wants down to next to nothing, it will take me a
year to pay off what I owe.' I laughed bitterly--'Unless I turned thief,
I could not possibly go on.'

"'I don't want to force your confidence,' was Lord Frederick's next
remark. 'But having had a taste of this rather glittering world, I
presume you will leave it with considerable regret.'

"'I dare not say what I feel,' I said with conviction. 'It seems to me
that in the old life to which I am returning I shall suffer the tortures
of lost souls.'

"Then he shot at me an extraordinary question. 'I wonder whether you
would care to become a partner in my business?'

"My heart suddenly grew light. Was there a chance that I could still
keep on, that through his assistance I could find a decently paid
occupation? After all, I only wanted a few hundreds a year more. A
bachelor can live in the best society on comparatively little, but he
must have that little, and the insurance office did not furnish it.

"'If I were competent enough,' I faltered.

"He smiled; I thought there was a little touch of a sneer in that smile.
'Oh, I think you would be competent enough. But I am not at all sure
that you would like the business sufficiently.'

"'I can't say positively, of course, till I know the nature of it. But
I don't think I should be very difficult to please, nor do I want any
extravagant remuneration, just enough to keep up a decent appearance.'

"'The share would be half, neither more nor less,' he said curtly; then
he relapsed into a long silence, as if he were thinking very hard.

"When he spoke it was in a low, strained voice. 'Look here, Esmond, I
don't know very much of you. But I believe you to be a gentleman. The
business I am engaged in is a very peculiar one, and it is more than
probable it will not appeal to you. If you refuse, you are to give
me your word of honour that this conversation between us shall be
forgotten.'

"I gave him more than my word, I added my solemn oath that I would never
divulge a syllable.

"I had for some little time felt that there was a mystery about him.
I hazarded to myself that he was perhaps engaged in some spying work
repugnant to any man of fine susceptibilities but quite remunerative.

"I was startled, and to an extent horrified, by what he told me. He
was a professional card-sharper, made his living by robbing his rich
acquaintances. He had been at the game since he was twenty-five.

"'I do pretty well, as you can guess, by the way in which I live,' he
remarked at the conclusion of his strange confession. 'But with a smart
confederate, and I am sure you would prove one, I could quadruple my
gains. One is hampered by working alone. It's a scoundrel's business, of
course. But I can always persuade myself I am not really doing very much
harm, certainly not as much as the swindling sort of company-promoter.
I win money from rich fools, rob them, if you like; it does at least as
much good in my pockets as theirs.'

"I suppose there was already some moral kink in me waiting to blossom
forth under proper encouragement. For though I was very much startled, I
cannot say that I was profoundly shocked, as I might have been by a less
subtle form of robbery.

"I did not accept or refuse that night, I wanted to think. I knew it
was the turning of the ways. On the one hand well-paid roguery, with the
accompanying delights of the fashionable world, on the other the deadly,
drab life of the poor City drudge. In the morning my mind was made up. I
went into partnership with my new friend."

"And you made a fortune, I suppose?" asked Spencer, in a very cold
voice.

Esmond shook his head, and Spencer was not at all sure that the next
words were truthful ones.

"No, a comfortable living, nothing more. We made a good deal, but we had
to lose a good deal, too, in order to avert suspicion."

"Your friend is dead, you say. So you went on with it after his death?"

"Yes, for a little time alone. Then I, too, got in a partner, the man
who was with me to-night."

There was a long silence between the two men. Spencer broke it first.

"And what are your plans?" he asked.

"I shall sneak out of the country to-morrow morning and make my way to
France. I shall hide myself in some little out-of-the-way village under
an assumed name, and rust out." The little man rose and looked at his
former friend with an embarrassed air. "Well, thanks for having listened
to me so patiently. It has been a tremendous relief to me to pour it all
out."

He did not offer his hand, for he felt certain it would not be taken.
Spencer stopped him as he was at the door.

"You have money, I suppose, something put by out of your--your
winnings?"

Esmond's voice was hesitating. Again it was very doubtful if he was
speaking the truth. "Hardly a _sou_ out of them. It was lightly come,
lightly go, all the time. But my father left me a little bit which will
keep me going in a cheap place."

Spencer did not believe him. The probability was he had put away safely
a snug little nest-egg, in view of the detection which might come at any
moment of such a hazardous occupation.

"One word before you go," said the young man finally. "Is there much
cheating going on at Elsinore Gardens?"

Esmond turned and looked the speaker straight in the face. This time
he certainly seemed to be speaking the truth, but he might be a most
accomplished liar.

"None at all, except when I and my partner were there. If there had
been, I should have spotted it. I'm awfully sorry for Mrs. L'Estrange,
for it having happened at her house, for I daresay people will hint
nasty things."

"She didn't suspect anything, then?"

"Not a bit," replied Esmond. "We didn't play there more than about twice
a week, and we never went in for high stakes. And, of course, we had to
lose pretty often, to make things look square."

"And Miss Keane suspected nothing either." As he remembered the girl's
beautiful face, and sad history, Spencer felt almost ashamed of himself
for putting the question.

"Bless your soul, no, a thousand times no." The little rogue seemed to
speak with unusual warmth. "Why, she loathes cards, she never can be got
to join in. She has suffered too much from gambling."

He went out of the room slowly and into the night. Spencer half pitied
the poor devil who had made such a hash of his life through his desire
to step out of his own class. He sat down and ruminated a long time over
the strange history which had been unfolded to him.

The next morning, the fugitive, Tommy Esmond, caught the morning train
from Charing Cross. He looked very sad and woebegone, a pitiable figure,
friendless and alone.

But not quite friendless. A young woman closely-veiled and dressed very
plainly rose up from one of the seats as he came on the platform, and
touched him lightly on the arm. He recognised her, and glanced round
anxiously.

"It was very dear and sweet of you to come, Stella, but very imprudent.
You might be seen by half a dozen people."

"I know," answered Miss Keane, for the closely-veiled woman was she. "I
got your letter this morning and could not bear you should go without a
last good-bye. Well, I can see you are anxious. I will say it, and get
back."

She lifted the veil for a second, and held up her face. The little man
kissed her hastily, and then made for his train.

It was evident he had one friend left in the London he was flying from
as a fugitive and outlaw, one woman who pitied him.

And, at the same time that Stella was walking swiftly from the station,
Guy Spencer was making up his mind that he would pay a visit to Elsinore
Gardens in the afternoon, to see how the land lay there.



CHAPTER XIII

|About five o'clock on the afternoon of the day following Esmond's
confession, Guy Spencer rang the bell at Mrs. L'Estrange's flat in
Elsinore Gardens.

The decorous-looking butler opened the door. He seemed to wear a sad
and chastened demeanour, as if overborne with the tragic events of the
previous night. Of course, all servants know what is going on in the
house of their employers. A scandal such as this must have quickly
penetrated to them.

"Is Mrs. L'Estrange at home?"

The sad-faced butler answered at once; he could tell a lie with as much
grace as anybody, but here there was no need to lie.

"Mrs. L'Estrange is at home, sir, in a manner of speaking, but she
is very ill, as a matter of fact in bed. Of course she cannot see any
visitors."

"Oh, I quite understand," said Spencer hastily. "Is Miss Keane in? If
so, I would like to see her for a few moments."

The melancholy man in black opened the door a few inches. "Miss Keane is
in, sir, but I am afraid she is not very well, either. Will you kindly
step in, sir, and I will find out if she can see you?"

It was evident that Tommy Esmond and his equally nefarious partner had
cast a gloom over the whole establishment. Spencer was ushered into the
pretty drawing-room. In a few moments, Stella Keane came in. She was
evidently under the stress of great emotion. There were dark shadows
round the eyes, as if she had passed a sleepless night. Even her perfect
mouth had a listless droop.

But, in spite of her pallor, the dark shadows round her eyes, and that
pathetic droop, she was still very beautiful. Pathos became her. Guy
Spencer's heart gave a great leap as he saw her. There was about her an
overpowering, an irresistible fascination.

She advanced towards him with outstretched hands. She spoke in a broken
voice, the perfectly moulded lips trembled:

"It is so sweet of you to come. Of course you have heard? It is all over
the town by now. Oh, this thrice-accursed gambling, the love of which
induces decent men to cheat, and become outcasts from their world."

She spoke with the deepest emotion, her bosom heaving, her voice broken
by the catchings of the breath.

"He was such a good little man, he was always so kind to me," she went
on. "And last night those awful happenings. Branded a cheat, he and his
friend, and they could not deny it. They had to slink out. I have
hardly closed my eyes during the night, Mr. Spencer; my poor cousin is
prostrated." She added with a shudder: "My girlhood was passed amidst a
gambling set, but I never had an experience like this."

She collected herself, and rang for tea. "You will sit down," she said.
"You can understand I should have denied myself to anybody but you, I am
so terribly upset. It is still like a nightmare."

Spencer sat down as he was bidden. "I had a visit from Esmond last
night," he said briefly. "He came straight on from Elsinore Gardens. He
told me what had happened, he told me the whole history of the terrible
thing, how he has been making his living by cheating at cards, since he
was a young man." Miss Keane raised her hands in mute deprecation. "How
awful! That, of course, I did not know. I had a letter from him this
morning, apologising, if one can apologise for such a thing, telling me
he was going to live abroad under an assumed name. It was a very short
letter. His chief concern seemed to be that he had, incidentally, made
it unpleasant for Mrs. L'Estrange."

"How does Mrs. L'Estrange take it?"

Miss Keane shrugged her shoulders. "She is a little bit hysterical, you
know. One moment, she vows she will shut up the flat and go abroad, for
fear of the nasty things that people will say. The next moment, she says
that, confident in her perfect innocence, she will stay and face the
music, and give her parties as usual."

"Has she asked your advice?" queried Spencer.

"She has, and my advice is to go on as usual. It is not her fault that
blacklegs have crept into her circle. They creep into the best houses,
the best clubs. So long as this curséd gambling goes on, there will be
sharpers."

"That's true," remarked Spencer, remembering a few episodes that had
occurred in his time. "And, I suppose, you will still cast in your lot
with her?"

The look on the beautiful face grew more pathetic than ever.

"What can I do, Mr. Spencer? I have told you my position. I wish
my cousin were a different woman altogether, I wish she were not so
infatuated with this horrible gambling. But I cannot influence her. She
is too old and set to turn over a new leaf."

Every moment the girl's fascination took a deeper hold of him. She
was so very beautiful, so very seductive. But he still kept himself in
check.

"Tell me what actually happened last night. How were Esmond and his
partner found out?"

There was a little interruption by the solemn-faced butler who brought
in tea. Miss Keane busied herself amongst the cups before she replied.

"It is, as I told you, all a nightmare to me. I was wandering aimlessly
about; as I have told you before, I never play, I loathe cards too much.
Suddenly there was a scene at the table where Mr. Esmond and his partner
were playing. Three men were standing watching the game, they had come
here often, I knew their names."

"They were friends of Mrs. L'Estrange?" queried Spencer.

Just a faint shade of hesitation crept into the low voice.

"Oh yes, friends of my cousin."

"Straight sort of chaps, of course."

"I have no doubt of that. They accused Mr. Esmond and his partner,
Major Golightly, of cheating. Of course the charge was denied, but
very half-heartedly. These three men were backed by others who had seen
something suspicious. It seems Mr. Esmond and his partner had aroused
suspicion before. Finally they confessed, and slunk out of the house."

She paused a moment, and then laid her hand impulsively on his arm.

"That first night you came to our house, you lost. Did you play at the
same table with Tommy Esmond? I forget."

The answer came straight. "No, I lost something, what was it?--something
about a hundred and fifty. But Tommy Esmond did not rook me that time,
he was playing at another table. I remember he was very cock-a-hoop,
he was winning hand over fist. I say, I know I am putting a very
impertinent question, but were Tommy Esmond and his partner, this
Major Golightly, the only sharpers who came to this flat? Did I lose my
hundred and fifty, or whatever it was, quite honestly?"

Miss Keane covered her face with her hands for a few seconds, and when
she took them away, he could see that tears were slowly trickling down
her cheeks.

"Heaven knows, Mr. Spencer, I don't. My cousin is a strange woman. She
is fond of gaiety, of excitement. She asks people about whom she knows
nothing to her flat, I think," she added with an hysterical laugh; "she
fancies she is making herself a queen of Society. If she can get her
rooms full that is all she wants. When she does that, she fancies
herself the Duchess."

"I think I understand," said Spencer gravely. "And I take it you would
give heaven and earth to get out of this environment?"

"If you only knew how I loathe it," she cried, in a fervent tone.
"Sometimes I think I would rather run away and be a shopgirl or a
waitress, to get rid of this horrible atmosphere."

Guy Spencer was very perturbed. He rose and walked up and down the
room--it was his habit to walk about, even in confined spaces, when he
was in an emotional mood.

At length he turned, and faced her squarely. "Look here, Miss Keane.
It's rather nonsense talking about being a waitress or a shop-girl. You
told me you had a small income saved from the wreck. How much is it?
I am asking in no spirit of impertinent curiosity. I have a reason for
asking."

She hesitated for a moment before she replied: "Something like a
hundred a year--paid to me quarterly by my cousin, Mr. Dutton, who is my
trustee."

"Then you are not exactly a pauper. Shopgirls and waitresses don't earn
that."

"But it would help," said Miss Keane, in a stifled voice. "A hundred a
year does not go far; with clothes and everything."

He longed to take her in his arms there and then and ask her to be his
wife, so far was he subjugated by her subtle fascination. But certain
things occurred to him. He thought of his old ancestry, his uncle whose
heir he would be, even a faint idea of his cousin Nina flashed through
his mind. What would his relatives say to a marriage like that, the
marriage with a girl, however beautiful, picked up in a flat, owned by a
woman of good family but doubtful reputation?

But he could not afford to lose her. He was rich, he could indulge any
passing whim. Out of his new-born ideas he spoke.

"Miss Keane, I am very interested in you. Will you agree to look upon me
as a friend?"

She looked up at him from under downcast eyes.

"Mr. Spencer, somehow I have always looked upon you as a friend, as
something different from the ordinary man I meet in a place like this."

"You want to get out of this atmosphere, away from your card-playing
cousin, who cannot keep her parties free from disgraceful scandals."

"I have told you how fervently I long to say good-bye to it all."

Spencer had made up his mind as to what he was going to do. It was
quixotic, but then he was a quixotic person. And, anyway, he was marking
time. He would ask her to marry him in the end, but, at the moment, he
did not clearly see his way to do so.

"Suppose a woman friend offered to lend you five hundred pounds, to
enable you to get clear of this stifling atmosphere, what would you say?
You could go and live where you like and look around."

"If a woman friend asked me that I think I should say, yes."

"You have agreed that I am your friend, true, a man friend," said Guy.
"Suppose I made you the same offer, what is your answer?"

"From a man friend I fear my answer must be an unhesitating 'no,' even
to you."

He admired her answer. He could gather from it that she respected
herself too much to snatch at any offer that came along.

But he would play with her still. "Why?" he asked.

The beautiful eyes, still a little clouded with her tears, met his
unfalteringly.

"You know as well as I do," was her answer. "I am poor, Mr. Spencer, but
I am very proud."

He sat down beside her, and took her hand in his.

"I admire you for that answer, Stella. I may call you Stella, may I not?
But I am not quite the ordinary type of man. I am going to speak quite
plainly to you. If you accept that five hundred pounds, I am not going
to ask you for any return. I want you to understand that."

She shot at him a swift glance from under the downcast eyes.

"You are a man out of a thousand, nay, out of ten thousand," she said,
and in her voice there was a note of great appreciation. If Stella Keane
ever felt a good impulse in her life, it was towards this man who was
doing his best to befriend her.

"Listen to me," said Spencer persuasively, her delicate hand still lying
in his. "I don't know that I have done much good to other people in my
life, but I do want to help you. I should like to get you out of
this beastly hole. My proposal is, that I shall take for you a little
furnished flat and supplement your income, or give you the five hundred
pounds down, to do what you like with. It is for you to choose."

"You would do this for me?" said Stella softly. "You must really like
me, then! Men don't do this sort of thing for women unless they like
them."

"I like you very much, Stella, and I want to help you."

He knew that he could take her in his arms and kiss her at his will. But
he forebore. He was not going to spoil this somewhat idyllic wooing.

"It cannot take place for a week or so," she said presently. "I cannot
quite leave my cousin in the lurch. I must give her some sort of notice.
Of course, I can make the excuse that the events of last night have
completely shattered my nerve."

"I don't wonder," was Spencer's comment. "Now, about this little matter
we have been speaking of. I think it would be better if I paid this
money into your bank, and left you to make your own arrangements. I
suppose you have a bank?"

Yes, Miss Keane had a banking-account, a very small one. She smilingly
remarked that it would give the manager a shock when such a large sum
was paid into it.

"I will draw the money in cash to-morrow and bring it to you," said
Spencer. "Then nobody will be able to guess from whom it comes."

He rose, he could not trust himself to stay very much longer. At any
moment his reserve might break down. He might be impelled to change the
rôle of the benevolent friend into that of the ardent lover.

And for a long time after he had left, Stella Keane sat absorbed in the
most serious thoughts.

There was no doubt he was ardently in love with her. But he was not yet
quite prepared to screw up his courage to the sticking place.

It was easy to understand. The obligations he owed his family were
weighing on his mind.

The woman he made his wife would one day be the Countess of Southleigh.
He had to think of all this. And all he knew about her was learned from
her own statement, and she had a cousin who was, from his point of view,
certainly not a gentleman.

Above all things, Stella Keane was a very business-like young woman, and
never shrank from looking facts squarely in the face. She must play
a waiting game. Guy Spencer was very deeply in love, but he was not a
hotheaded, impetuous boy, the sort of amorous youth who runs off with a
chorus girl, regardless of consequences. Lovers of this kind were very
rarely met with.

If Guy Spencer did marry her, and she could not at the moment be sure
he would, he would be fully conscious of the disadvantages to himself
entailed by such a marriage. Would her fascination be strong enough to
conquer his better judgment?

At any rate, for the present he was prepared to advance her five hundred
pounds, and ask nothing but her friendship in return. It was an offer
that she would have been a fool to refuse.

Presently she rose and went up to Mrs. L'Estrange's bedroom. That sorely
perturbed lady had risen, flung on a dressing-gown, and was reclining on
a sofa.

"I can't sleep, I only fidget and fidget about," was the explanation.
"So I thought I might as well get up."

"Very wise," said Stella calmly. "You're a little bit too hysterical,
you know. You should keep your nerves in order as I do mine."

"Not always," was the sarcastic rejoinder. "They go to pieces in
thunderstorms and air raids, don't they?"

"The exception proves the rule, my dear lady. Well, I haven't come up
here to indulge in a sparring match. I have some very great news for
you. Mr. Spencer called this afternoon; he hasn't left me very long."

The elder woman became interested at once. "You don't mean to say he has
asked you to marry him?"

Stella laughed. "No, he hasn't, although it will not be my fault if he
doesn't later on. It seems Tommy Esmond called on him last night, and
made a clean breast of his whole history."

Mrs. L'Estrange frowned. "Then I think he was a great fool. Everybody,
of course, will know what actually happened, that he was discovered
cheating. But he need not go and tell him more than he would learn from
general rumour.'"

Stella's face hardened a little. "You must make some allowances for him.
He must have been in a terrible state of tension when he felt that his
career was ended. He was so very proud, you know, of the position in
society that he had won for himself. He must have felt like a man on the
eve of execution. He was hardly responsible for his thoughts or actions.
He is very highly-strung."

Mrs. L'Estrange spoke more gently. "Yes, of course. I am sorry I said
that, my dear. And after all, it doesn't make any difference how much
he told or how little. The result to him is the same. And now for your
great news, what are they? You say Spencer has not asked you to marry
him."

Stella told her of Guy's suggestion, and her acceptance of it. "It is
too good a chance to refuse. So, my dear, I shall have to leave you at
the earliest possible moment."

It was some time before the elder woman seemed quite able to grasp it.
when she did, her astonishment seemed unbounded.

"Of all the strange things I have ever heard," she began, but Stella cut
her short with a little mocking laugh.

"Not quite so strange when you think it quietly out," she said. "If
he really knew anything about me, if I could produce a few respectable
relatives, if I had some of your blue blood in my veins, he would have
proposed this afternoon."

Mrs. L'Estrange nodded her rather dishevelled head. "I think I see."

"He is very much in love with me," went on Stella quietly. "Anyway, so
much so that he doesn't want to lose sight of me, while he is making up
his mind. Hence his offer."

"But he could see you here."

Stella shook her head. "He would loathe this house after what occurred
last night, and he thinks I am in an unholy set. He really is an awful
dear, you know, so high-minded and upright. His great aim is to get me
away from the environment."

Mrs. L'Estrange settled herself comfortably amongst her sofa cushions.
She was an excitable and fussy person about trifles, but she took the
great things of life with a calm and equal mind.

"Well, my dear, go as soon as it suits yourself. You have been a good
pal to me, and I shall be sorry to lose you. But if you have got a
decent chance you would be a fool not to take it."

Miss Keane was strongly of the same opinion. Anyway she was glad the
interview was over, that Mrs. L'Estrange had taken everything in such
good part. She might have turned nasty if the mood had seized her.

Later on, Miss Keane wrote a long letter to Tommy Esmond to an address
which he had communicated to her in his note of the morning.

The same evening, she held a long conversation with her cousin and
trustee, Mr. Dutton, who came to Elsinore Gardens in obedience to an
urgent summons on the telephone.



CHAPTER XIV

|Lady Nina Spencer sat in the drawing-room of the big house in Carlton
House Terrace, awaiting the few guests who had been invited to a small,
informal dinner-party. Her father, very infirm for his years, sat
opposite to her in a big easy-chair.

The Earl spoke in his low, quavering voice: "I have nothing to say
against the woman herself, judging from what little we have seen of her.
She has very perfect manners, just a trifle too perfect. I can quite
understand that for the average man she possesses considerable charm,
and she has great good looks. Many people would call her beautiful.
But I can only repeat what I said on the day I received Guy's letter
announcing his clandestine marriage: 'The pity of it.'"

Lady Nina was a quiet, robust and practical young person, fond of
looking facts in the face, and looking at them very squarely.

She had been as much shocked at her cousin's rash marriage as the Earl
himself, but it was an accomplished fact. Only two courses were open:
the first to have nothing more to do with Guy and his wife, the second
to admit the wife to a guarded intimacy.

Lord Southleigh had declared warmly, in his first disgust, that he would
never look upon his young kinsman's face again. But Nina had prevailed
with milder counsels. Guy was his heir, and in the course of Nature
would succeed to the family honours. They would not cut themselves
adrift from him, and they must make up their minds to tolerate this
wife, of whose antecedents he could give no satisfactory account. The
one fact he did mention, that she was a cousin of Mrs. L'Estrange, did
not weigh much with them.

Mrs. L'Estrange came of a fairly good family, so far as birth counted,
but it was both impecunious and addicted to making unfortunate
alliances. One of her sisters had run away with a good-looking young
fellow who had been her father's valet. She was a woman who would have
a good many undesirable relatives knocking about. Miss Stella Keane, the
daughter of an impoverished Irishman, might well belong to this band of
undesirables. More especially as Guy's statements about her antecedents
were of the most bald and unsatisfactory nature.

It was all very sad and regrettable from every point of view, but,
as Nina calmly pointed out, several young heirs to peerages had been
running amok lately, in the matrimonial sense, and taking their wives
from very questionable quarters. Guy might have married some coarse and
common creature from the music-halls. It was unfortunate, in a way, that
he had a considerable fortune of his own, and could snap his fingers at
the displeasure of his relatives, if they presumed to show it.

But, somehow, knowing Guy as well as she did, Nina did not believe that
the future Countess of Southleigh, who would, in due course, wear
the family jewels, was likely to be coarse or common. Guy was too
fastidious, too innately a gentleman, to be snared by a creature of that
kind.

And, on her first introduction, the young wife made a much more
favourable impression than might have been anticipated, considering the
prejudices arrayed against her.

She was not in the least servile or obsequious in the presence of these
two very aristocratic persons, but she bore herself with a certain kind
of shrinking modesty, as if asking pardon for having intruded into the
family. Her attitude to her husband appeared to be one of shy adoration,
tempered with perfect good taste. Her deep affection for him, while
not obtrusive or ostentatious, seemed to express itself in her tender
glances, the soft cadences of her voice when she addressed him.

Nina made up her mind to one thing, that, if she was not genuinely
and devotedly in love with him, she must be one of the most perfect
actresses to be met with off the stage.

And Guy was still infatuated. When he had made her that strange offer,
he knew that he was drifting, but he had still left some small remnant
of self-control. But her fascination had proved too strong. Every day
she wove the chains more strongly round him.

And then there came a time when absence from her was unbearable, when he
took to counting the hours that elapsed between their next meeting. The
end was inevitable. The moment came when he definitely made up his
mind that he could not break away; that existence without her would be
intolerable.

They were married quietly before the registrar, a strange wedding for
the heir to the Southleigh earldom. No relatives of his were present,
as he had foreborne to give them any notice of his intention. She
was unattended also. Even her cousin, Mr. Dutton, did not put in an
appearance. Knowing her future husband's dislike of the young man, she
had not paid him the compliment of requesting his attendance.

The day before the marriage, she spoke to him in a tremulous voice and
with tears in her eyes.

"Guy, darling, I have said very little about this before, but you must
not think I am blind to the sacrifices you are making. From to-morrow
I bid adieu to my past life, to all the few friends and acquaintances I
have made; I know that you will be happier by my doing so. Henceforth
I devote my whole life to you. Your people shall be my people, if they
will forgive me and have me."

He clasped her to his breast with a lover's rapture. How sweet and
womanly she looked as she uttered those words in her low, broken tones.
He understood what she meant. For his sake she was going to give up all
that shady L'Estrange crew, to see as little of her objectionable cousin
as possible. She explained, later on, that she could not ignore him
altogether, as he had the management of her small affairs in his hands.
But all this could be conducted by correspondence.

Guy was delighted. He knew well enough that his own world would not
accept his marriage kindly, that they would never take his wife to their
offended bosom. But they would rub along somehow. There were plenty of
men he could bring to their house, and perhaps a few decent women who
were perfectly respectable, but not too strait-laced. And, anyway, the
world was well lost for love like this.

It cannot be said that, on the social side, their existence was a very
brilliant one. It did not matter so much to Guy, he had never been
over-fond of society. He liked his men friends, and having been a
bachelor so long, he was fond of club life. He got quite as much
amusement and distraction as he wanted.

His wife had many lonely hours, but she was wise in this respect that
she never sought to chain him to her side. Whenever he came home he
found her there waiting for him, affectionate and welcoming. Perhaps,
after her stormy and chequered past, what would have been dullness to
others seemed to her the peace she had been longing for.

She got on very well with her husband's male friends, most of whom
openly expressed amongst themselves their admiration for her.

If she had been a woman of a flirtatious temperament she could have had
a good time without overstepping the bounds of decorum. But she never
exceeded the limits of strict friendship. She never indulged in an
intimacy that could have the least element of danger in it. The general
vote was, that she was very beautiful, very charming, in a quiet,
elusive way, but naturally of a cold and unimpassionable nature. Only
for her husband did her glance take on a warmer expression, her voice a
tenderer tone.

The few women who came to the house found her unsatisfactory. The
impression made upon them--and women are pretty shrewd when dissecting
one of their own sex--was that she was a person who lived too much
within herself, had a rooted disinclination "to let herself go" in
those little confidential chats which are indulged in when no men
are present. And for that studied reticence there must be some cogent
reason. Above all, she never referred to her girlhood, never made any
allusions to her family. The general impression was that Mrs. Spencer
had something to hide.

Anyway, after many months of married life, Guy was still as much in love
with her as ever, and he was always profoundly touched by the pretty and
impressive way in which she insisted that all the advantages were on her
side, that she could never repay him sufficiently for the sacrifices he
had so cheerfully made.

Of course Guy knew nothing of what his friends were saying; the men
who admired her beauty, and were disappointed at the negative qualities
which accompanied it; the women who found her unsatisfactory and were
determined that she had something to hide.

All he knew, and was content in knowing, was this--that after many
months of matrimony, for they had been married few weeks before the
Armistice was proclaimed--that Armistice which was to be the precursor
of a golden era--he was quite happy. She was a perfect wife, from his
point of view, and he never looked back with the faintest misgiving.
What he had done then, he would do again to-day, in spite of the fact
that her reticence with regard to the past was as profound with him as
with the various acquaintances who occasionally visited her.

Not even the close intimacy of married life had elicited any of those
allusions and confidences which enable one to piece together, in some
measure, the life-history of the person who makes them. But Guy had
a generous nature, and was one of the least suspicious of men. He
attributed this strange reticence to the fact that the past contained
nothing but painful memories, that even to the man she loved she could
not reopen the old wounds.

On this particular night, Lady Nina was awaiting her guests. It was a
little dinnerparty to meet the young married couple, six in all, herself
and father, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer, a young woman friend of the hostess,
and an old friend of the Southleigh family, Hugh Murchison, already met
with in the early chapters of this history.

Murchison was the first arrival. He walked with a slight limp, the
result of a bad wound in the leg. He had been laid-up for a very long
time at his own home with the effects of shell-shock. He had only been
in London for a few days, and it was ages since the Southleighs had seen
him. They welcomed him warmly.

After a little desultory conversation Nina spoke:

"You know from my note that you are here to-night especially to meet
Guy and his wife, the wife that he sprang upon us in such a sudden and
dramatic manner."

"Yes, I understood that. You know I have been out of the world so long,
and more than half the time not in my right senses, that I had heard
nothing of the details till, a day or two ago, I picked it up from club
gossip. Then I was told that Guy had picked up a girl from nowhere,
about whom nothing was known, and married her on the sly at a
registry-office. I suppose it would be too unkind to assume that Guy had
gone off his head?"

Lord Southleigh growled out from his easy-chair. "Of course he was off
his head when he did it. And the devil of it is he seems just as much
off his head now. They are like turtle-doves, my dear boy, after several
months of marriage."

Lady Nina laughed. "My dear father gets more cynical every day. He
insinuates as a general proposition, anyway it can be deduced from
his remarks, that every man who marries a girl for love ought to be
disillusioned shortly after the honeymoon. Well, certainly Guy is as
much in love as ever, and, to be quite fair, she seems just as much in
love with him."

"She's putting it on, I suppose," suggested Hugh, who in a less
obtrusive fashion was nearly as cynical as his host. "If she came from
nowhere, and nobody knows anything about her, we may safely assume
that she married him for his money, and that he was too infatuated to
recognise the fact. Is she very bewitching?"

"She is certainly very good-looking," was Nina's reply. "Many people say
she is beautiful. From a man's point of view, she would be considered
very charming in a subtle and elusive sort of way. Of course, my father
hates her, it is a terrible shock to his pride to think she is going
to inherit the family honours. Guy could have married anybody, although
there would always have been still the danger that he would have been
married for his money. When it comes to this point, there is not much
difference between the well-born and low-born adventuress."

From which remarks it will be gathered that the Lady Nina Spencer was
a young woman of independent opinions, and not too strongly imbued with
caste prejudices.

Hugh reflected for a few moments. His thoughts had travelled back to
those days at Blankfield, which now seemed so very far oft. What folly
will not a certain type of man commit for the sake of a pretty woman?
Jack Pomfret, in a moment of frenzy, had taken his life when he found he
was tied up to a girl the accomplice and the decoy of a criminal.

And Guy Spencer, a man of a very different type from the easy-going,
pleasure-loving Pomfret, had made a hash of his opportunities, flouted
his family obligations, to pursue the desire of the moment, to marry out
of his own class.

"What I hear is, that there is something very mysterious about her, that
she preserves a strange reticence as to her past, makes no allusion to
family or relatives. Does Guy know what other people do not know, and
is he keeping his mouth shut? It is strange. Even if a man marries a
ballet-girl, it comes out sooner or later that her father was a railway
porter, or something of that sort." He pulled himself up suddenly,
and added, awkwardly: "I say, you know, I am afraid I have been very
indiscreet. I forgot for the moment that she is one of the family now."

A deep growl came from the Earl's armchair: "She is not one of the
family, she never will be. If the young fool had not been left that
money by his godmother he would never have dared to do this disgraceful
thing. By gad, Hugh, it is over a hundred years since there was such a
_mésalliance_ in our family: please Heaven it will be a hundred years
before there is another."

Nina took up the conversation at the point where her angry father left
it.

"Of course, Hugh, you can say what you like. You are our old friend;
you are Guy's for that matter, and we are prepared to discuss this thing
with you quite frankly. Guy may know more than we imagine; personally, I
think he knows very little, and only what she has told him."

"But surely, she must have given some particulars of herself," cried
Hugh, in amazement that a man like his friend Spencer, endowed with a
fair share of common-sense, should take a wife upon trust, as it were.
To be sure, Pomfret had done the same thing, but then poor old Jack,
possessor of many excellent qualities, was singularly deficient in
brain-power. He was one of those who never looked before they leaped.

Nina shrugged her shoulders. "All we know is that she was a Miss Stella
Keane, the daughter of a man who gambled away his fortune at cards
and on the race-course. As for relatives, she has for cousin a Mrs.
L'Estrange, a woman of good birth, but of somewhat shady reputation, who
no longer mixes with her own class. There is another cousin, a man whose
name I forget. I gather more from what has been omitted than what is
actually said, that he is not a very desirable person, and has not
visited Mrs. Spencer since her marriage. That is all I have learned
during these many months."

"Not much, certainly. And I suppose the lady dries up when you try to
approach her on the subject."

"Oh yes, her manner then is very marked," was Nina's answer. "At the
slightest question she seems to become frozen, to shut herself up within
her shell. You know, Hugh, I was prepared to make the best of it all
for Guy's sake, although, of course, I quite sympathise with my father's
resentment. I have nothing to say against her manners or her appearance.
If not a lady, she is most ladylike, and she never offends. But all
the same, I can't take to her. To me there seems something about her
secretive and underhand. She appears to adore Guy, but, as you have
suggested, that may be very accomplished acting."

At this point, Miss Crichton, Lady Nina's friend, was announced. She
was not in the inner counsels of the Southleigh family, so no further
allusion was made to Guy's wife.

A few moments later the Spencers arrived. Guy shook his old friend
Murchison warmly by the hand, they had met of late years only once or
twice during Hugh's brief leave from the Front. When they had exchanged
a few mutual inquiries, the young husband turned to his wife, looking
very slender and elegant in a filmy cream confection.

"Stella, one of my oldest friends, Hugh Murchison. We were boys
together. You must have heard me speak of him."

The young woman held out her hand with a charming smile that lighted up
the rather sad face, and made her look what so many of her admirers said
she was, quite beautiful.

"Yes, Major Murchison, I have heard of you from my husband, and how much
you have suffered in this cruel war. You must come and see us, and renew
your old friendship."

For a moment Hugh could not speak. The room seemed suddenly peopled with
ghosts of the past, summoned by the soft tones of that charming voice,
so low and sweetly modulated. Then, collecting himself with a great
effort, he dropped her hand, and made some formal answer. And at that
moment the butler announced that dinner was served.



CHAPTER XV

|Small and informal dinner-parties can be either very lively or very
dull, depending, no doubt, upon the careful selection of the guests,
also on the personality of the host and hostess, who can sometimes
exercise magnetic influence.

Nina was, as a rule, a very vivacious hostess. Her father was uncertain.
If he were in a congenial atmosphere, amongst his old friends and
comrades, he would radiate geniality. But if there was one guest who
did not quite hit it off with him, between whom and himself there was an
undefined spirit of personal antagonism, he dried up at once, and became
gloomy and morose.

To-night, as his guest of honour, sitting at his right hand, he had the
niece-in-law whose entrance into the family he had so bitterly resented.
During the long courses he hardly spoke a word. He was rude almost to
boorishness.

But although Stella was fully conscious that she was there on
sufferance, her admirable self-control enabled her to comport herself
with unruffled demeanour. If this spiteful old man hoped that he was
annoying her with his churlish behaviour, she would not give him the
satisfaction of knowing that she was hurt. She ignored him, as he
purposely ignored her.

Miss Crichton, a cheerful, chatty young woman, whose flow of good
spirits made her welcome at many houses, sat on the other side of the
host. Finding Lord Southleigh disinclined to conversation, and guessing
the reason of it, she divided her remarks between Stella Spencer and
Murchison, who sat next her.

A good-hearted girl, she felt just a little bit sorry for Stella.
Lord Southleigh was not playing the game. His attitude was altogether
illogical. It was open to him to refuse to receive his unwelcome niece
at all, that would have been perfectly comprehensible. But having
admitted her to his house, it was in the worst possible taste to so
openly proclaim his dislike and detestation.

Lady Nina talked brightly to her cousin Guy, in the random flashes of
her conversation, taking in the others, with the solitary exception of
her father, who sat there glum and silent, in one of his blackest
and most unapproachable moods. And Miss Crichton did her best, really
working very hard to counteract the sombre influence of the taciturn
host.

But in spite of the brave efforts of the two young women there was no
exhilaration in the air, only a sort of well-defined depression, such as
is felt in the atmosphere before the faint rumblings of a thunderstorm.
Nobody really felt comfortable, not a single guest would feel anything
but relief when the tedious evening drew to a close.

Guy Spencer was relieved, in a way, that his uncle had ostensibly buried
the hatchet, but still he never felt happy in that uncle's house. The
strong disapproval was there, if suppressed for the sake of politeness.

These little informal dinners, given at long intervals to impress upon
him that he was still a recognised member of the family, bored him
extremely. They were always strictly limited as to numbers, and the
other guests were generally people of no importance, on the outer fringe
of that society in which the Southleighs moved.

It was difficult to know what Stella was feeling, for she had such
admirable self-control. But if she was a sensitive woman she must have
been cut to the heart by the behaviour of her elderly relative. And
her suffering must have been more poignant from the fact that this
contemptuous behaviour must be apparent to every other member of the
party.

While the two young women were chattering away, battling, as it were,
against the general depression, Hugh Murchison was trying to collect his
thoughts.

Strange that his recollections had harked back to that tragedy at
Blankfield while Nina was speaking of the young Mrs. Spencer. And, if
his memory and his eyesight were not playing him false, he was sitting
opposite to the unhappy Pomfret's widow.

Six years make a considerable difference in the personal appearance of
any man or woman, and they had made a difference in her. If he had met
her in the street, he would not have known her. Perhaps he would not
have known her to-night, but for that sudden accidental throwing back
of the memory of old times. In other words, if his mind had not been
accidentally diverted to Jack Pomfret, he would have failed to recognise
the woman whom he once knew under the name of Norah Burton.

And yet could he be sure? Let him think a little. Six years ago Norah
Burton looked twenty, and Davidson the detective assured him she was at
least four years older than she looked--the appearance of youth, he had
added, was one of her assets.

This young woman did not look a day older than twenty-six, and taking
the computation of the years, she must be at least thirty. But if she
were Norah Burton, and had retained that priceless asset of youth, she
would still have that four years' advantage.

Then Norah Burton's hair was fair and wavy, Stella Spencer's was dark.
Still it is easy for a woman to alter the colour or the appearance
of her hair. If Stella Keane had arisen, like the phoenix, from Norah
Burton, she would alter herself in every detail, so far as Nature
permitted her.

Still, it is said that everybody in the world has a double. Often in
his own experience he had claimed acquaintance with somebody whom he
had mistaken for an old friend, and smilingly apologised for his error.
Norah's good looks had been of a rather uncommon kind, but there must be
dozens of women in the world more or less like her.

Then, as Miss Crichton's harmless chatter flowed on, he thought of other
things. Norah had an obscure past, on which such guarded confidences as
she permitted herself to indulge in threw little or no light. It would
appear that Stella Keane's history moved much on the same lines. There
were only vague intimations, nothing definite, nothing satisfactory.

There was another point of resemblance. Norah had one male relative who
came out into the open for inspection, in her case a brother, afterwards
discovered to be a criminal. Stella Keane had one male relative also,
in her case a cousin, of whom nothing was known, except that he was an
undesirable person who had not visited his relative's house since her
marriage, no doubt for reasons well known to himself and Stella.

_Ergo_ the undesirable cousin was lying low, as George Burton would have
lain low, when Jack Pomfret had openly acknowledged Norah as his wife.

And yet--and yet--was there anything in these suspicions? was he
not allowing himself to be misled by a chance resemblance, by random
coincidences?

He stole a look at Guy Spencer chatting amiably with his cousin, the
cousin whom rumour had persistently designed as the future Countess of
Southleigh. He seemed the happy contented young married man; there was
no hint of trouble or regret in his assured, placid demeanour. Evidently
he was suffering from no self-reproach, no suspicion of the beautiful
young woman he had made his wife. The calmness of his aspect gave the
lie to any such disquieting suggestions.

And the current of Murchison's thoughts ran swiftly along. They had been
married some time now. If Stella Keane was the impostor Hugh suspected
her to be, from that striking resemblance to Norah Burton the heroine of
that tragic Blankville episode, surely in the close intimacy of wedded
life something would have escaped her that would have aroused her
husband's suspicions, have set him inquiring more closely into the past.

Granting that she was a clever actress, still the most accomplished
performer in the world could not wear the mask all day. There must
come one moment, if not several moments, when that mask would be
inadvertently dropped.

No, he must be mistaken. The resemblance must be accidental. The brother
in the one case, the cousin in the other, were equally accidental
coincidences.

He had got to this frame of mind when the men joined the ladies after
dinner. In the spacious drawing-room, the atmosphere seemed to have
cleared, the tension to be relaxed, with the change of scene.

This was readily comprehensible. During dinner, Lord Southleigh,
frowning and morose, in close juxtaposition with his guests, had in a
very real sense dominated the scene, and communicated a sense of his
hostility and displeasure to all round him, not least to the unhappy
young woman who had inspired those wrathful feelings.

Upstairs he was less in evidence. He retreated to the far end of the
room, flung himself in a deep armchair, and, in a way, removed
himself from the proceedings. There was nobody to whom he felt himself
constrained to be civil. Murchison he had known from a boy; he could
afford to be uncivil, to play the rôle of churlish host. Miss Crichton
was more or less a social hanger-on, grateful for invitations to good
houses; she did not count. Guy had forfeited all claim to consideration.
His wife ought to be made to feel her position every moment of her life.

Murchison gravitated to Miss Crichton. Well born, she was very poor, and
by no means proud. She accepted in a meek spirit the social crumbs that
were thrown at her by her wealthy superiors. She was always obliging and
amiable. She never grumbled at being asked to join a dinner-party at
the eleventh hour, when some other guest had failed. She never resented
being put in a small bedroom at a country house-party, while a rich girl
with no ancestry was given a luxurious apartment.

On account of this excessive amiability, this indifference to studied
and unstudied slights, she was immensely popular. All her friends
declared her not only to be amiable, but "so sensible!"

Hugh had known her for years, and in a way he pitied her, much more
really than she pitied herself, for she had long since grown accustomed
to her lot. But what he did know was, that she was as shrewd as she was
amiable, that under that gay and smiling exterior she concealed a very
acute intelligence.

He wanted particularly to know her opinion of Mrs. Spencer, if she were
frank enough to give it, for she had especially developed the bump of
caution. She heard a great deal, but what she heard she generally kept
to herself. It would have been fatal to her somewhat insecure position
if it could have been said of her, with regard to any particular
scandal, "Of course, you will never give me away, but Laura Crichton was
my informant."

He replied in a general way, "I was very interested, to-night, in my old
friend Guy Spencer's wife. She is a little bit on the quiet side, but
she is very beautiful, and there is certainly a wonderful charm about
her. Of course, Lord Southleigh behaved abominably. I rather wonder she
did not fling herself out of the room. One can understand his feelings,
in a certain way. But why does he not take one attitude or the other?
If he elects to receive her, for the sake of avoiding an open breach, he
ought to put his hostility in his pocket."

Miss Crichton smiled her worldly and diplomatic smile: "Dear Lord
Southleigh is never very successful at hiding his real feelings."

"Do you see much of her?" asked Hugh presently.

"Oh, very little. I have met her a few times here, at these little
informal gatherings. Lord Southleigh won't have her at their big
parties, as I daresay you know. I have called on her a few times, and
she has called back. That is all."

"Well, you have seen enough to form some opinion of her. I should dearly
like to know what that is."

Miss Crichton looked at him quizzically. "Oh, the artfulness of you men!
Do you think I don't see that you are trying to draw me? Well, I have
formed the same conclusion that you have--she is very beautiful, and,
from a man's point of view, has a subtle charm. Will that content you?"

Hugh regarded her with a smile as quizzical as her own. "No, I'm
afraid it won't. Now, look here, we are very old friends," he said
persuasively, "and I am pretty near as discreet as you are, I never
repeat what is told me in confidence. I should like to put a plain
question to you."

"Put it: I don't promise to answer it, you know."

"Of course not. But I am very much interested in this strange marriage
of Guy's. And, please don't think I am laying it on with a trowel, but
I have very great faith in your judgment, I would trust it more than I
would that of nine-tenths of the women I know."

Of course she knew he was flattering her to obtain his purpose; but
then--was the most sensible woman absolutely impervious to flattery?

"Ask me your question," she answered briefly.

Hugh sank his voice to a whisper. "We hear a great deal about her
reticence as to the past. Do you think, in a few words, that Stella
Spencer is a good and straight woman in the general sense in which we
understand the expression?"

For a moment Miss Crichton hesitated, then she looked him straight in
the face. He had compelled her to a most unusual frankness.

"You will, of course, never breathe a word of this to anybody. Suppose
I say I refuse to reply to your question. Will you take that refusal as
the answer you really want?"

"I will--a thousand thanks. The subject is closed between us," was
Hugh's grateful reply.

A diversion was caused by the approach of Guy Spencer.

"Hugh, old man, I am aching for a long crack with you. Come and dine
quietly with us next week. I suggest Tuesday if that will suit you?"

"Perfectly; I am free on Tuesday, Guy."

"Right, then. But to make sure, if Miss Crichton will excuse us, we will
go over to Stella and see if I have forgotten something, if we are free
that night. I can't always carry these things in my head."

They crossed over to the beautiful young woman, who was sustaining a
somewhat listless conversation with her young hostess.

"Stella," cried her husband, "I have asked Hugh to dine with us on
Tuesday. My recollection is that we have nothing on for that night. But
I thought you had better confirm it. You carry these things in your head
so much better than I do."

Young Mrs. Spencer smiled at Hugh her sweet smile, and as she did so
her likeness to Norah Burton was overwhelming, the Norah Burton who had
smiled at him in just the same way six years ago, in the tea-shop at
Blankfield.

"We are quite free, Major Murchison, and shall be delighted to see you."

For a few moments he sat down beside her; and very shortly another
coincidence happened.

Mrs. Spencer made use of a certain word which is always pronounced in
a certain way by educated people, and in another way by people who are
only partially educated. Norah Burton had pronounced this particular
word in the same way as Stella.

Hugh had commented upon the fact to Pomfret, and that easy-going young
man had remarked to him that he failed to see it much mattered, that she
was at liberty to pronounce the word as she thought fit.

When he got home, he passed a very restless night. When he had gone up
into the drawingroom after dinner, he had been half prepared to dismiss
the matter from his mind as a mere fantasy. And then had come his
brief interview with Laura Crichton, in which she gave him plainly to
understand that, in her opinion, Stella Spencer was not a good or a
straight woman.

And then had come that corroborative little piece of evidence of the
mispronunciation of a certain word, establishing another link in the
chain of evidence that Stella Keane and Norah Burton were one and the
same person.

And if it were so, what was his duty? If he could prove her to be Norah
Burton, and her undesirable relative, George Burton, now freed from
jail, could he permit such an adventuress to pass another day in the
house of this honest gentleman whom she had so skilfully entrapped, as
six years ago she had entrapped the guileless and trusting Jack Pomfret?

The morning dawned and found him still in the throes of anxious thought.



CHAPTER XVI

|As Murchison thought over matters in the cold, clear light of the
morning, when the brain is at its freshest, he cursed the fate that ever
seemed to mix him up in the private affairs of his friends. First had
been that unhappy episode of poor Jack Pomfret, who had not strength
of mind to survive the disgrace he had brought upon himself by his
impetuous folly.

Now there was this affair of Guy Spencer's, which he felt he must
go through with and prove to the bottom. He must find out definitely
whether the likeness to Norah Burton was accidental, or whether that
scheming adventuress had, for the second time, ensnared a trusting and
unsuspicious man.

On Tuesday night when he dined in Eaton Place with the Spencers, he
would seize an opportunity of putting to her a few leading questions.
They would be of such a nature, that if his suspicions were correct,
they would shake her self-possession.

Certainly, she had betrayed no embarrassment at the sight of him, and
that was a point in her favour. For, assuming that she was Norah Burton,
the name of Murchison would be quite familiar to her, even if she had
forgotten his appearance after the lapse of those six years.

In the meantime he would get as much information about Stella Keane as
he could before the date of the dinner. There was a man at his club,
Gregory Fairfax, a middle-aged gossip, who was to be found in the
smoking-room every day at a certain hour.

Fairfax was a man of leisure and means, who had the reputation of
knowing more people, and all about them, than anybody in town. He mixed
in a dozen different sets: smart, fast, and Bohemian. He was equally
at home in Belgravia, Mayfair, South Kensington, and several other
quarters. He belonged to most of the best clubs, and many more that
had no pretensions to social distinction. His knowledge of the various
phases of London life was wide and extensive. He had also a marvellous
memory. He never forgot a face or the minutest details of a scandal.

To this gentleman, with whom he was on quite intimate terms, having
known him from his first introduction to the London world, Hugh
repaired, in the hope of getting to know all there was to know about
this mysterious young woman who had so suddenly and clandestinely
projected herself into the Southleigh family.

After a few casual remarks, he opened the ball. It was an easy task,
for there was nothing pleased Fairfax more than to place his extensive
social knowledge at the service of any friend or acquaintance who was in
search of details.

"I say, Fairfax, I think you can help me in a little matter, because you
have the reputation of knowing everything about everybody."

Mr. Fairfax smiled genially. He was very proud of his profound social
knowledge, and nothing pleased him more than to have his well-earned
reputation alluded to in flattering terms.

"Fire away, my young friend. I think I have picked up a bit in my
twenty-five years of London life. Who is it you want to ask me about?"

"I dined last night with my old friends the Southleighs; and there, for
the first time, I met Mrs. Guy Spencer. I had heard of the marriage,
of course, but no particulars of the young lady until I came to town
a little while ago. All I have learned is that she was a Miss Stella
Keane, and that she gives no very detailed account of her family
history. I gather the general impression is that there is a mystery
about her, which she refuses to allow anybody to penetrate. Do you know
anything about her yourself?"

Fairfax assumed an air of great gravity and importance. He was now in
his element, about to pour out his stores of knowledge to an interested
and grateful listener.

"There may be one or two people who know as much as I know--always
remembering that there is no first-hand knowledge, but the chances are
a hundred to one you would not come across them. It happens that I was
a good deal in that rather queer set which frequented Mrs. L'Estrange's
flat."

"She was supposed to|be a well-bred woman, was she not?"

"Oh, certainly, so far as family went. But, judging in the light of
subsequent events, there is no doubt she was a wrong'un. The place, from
the start, was simply a gambling saloon. Sometimes, the play was very
moderate. I am fond of a bit of a flutter myself, but I must own that I
never lost very much, and for a long time I never had any suspicions of
foul play."

"Ah, but you had later on?" interrupted Hugh.

"I'll come to that before we get on to Miss Stella Keane. Then one night
something happened. Do you remember a little chap named Esmond, who used
to go about everywhere?"

Yes, Hugh remembered Tommy Esmond, although his acquaintance with him
had been of the slightest.

"He was a funny little man, very genial and popular with everybody. Like
myself, he didn't stick to any one particular set, but went into a dozen
different ones. One night he would be dining at a swagger club with a
peer, the next he would be hobnobbing at a pot-house sort of a place
with a fifth-rate actor. Very eclectic was Tommy, and nobody ever knew
where the deuce he came from. He had been so long about that people
forgot to inquire, and looked upon him as a sort of institution, and
took him for granted, as it were.

"Well, one night, one dreadful night, Tommy was discovered cheating by
a couple of chaps who were too sharp for him. They were common sort of
fellows, might have been crooks themselves for all I know, and kicked up
a deuce of a row. They went so far as to insinuate that Mrs. L'Estrange
was not altogether innocent, and had a hand in the plunder. Result,
Tommy had to make a bolt of it."

"What was your own opinion about it? Was it an accident?"

"I might not have believed it, but a similar thing took place about a
couple of months later. Another man was found cheating, and this
time Mrs. L'Estrange refused to face the music. She closed down, and
disappeared from London. I have never met anybody who has seen or heard
anything of her since. I expect she's to be found on the Continent like
her friend Tommy."

"And Miss Keane was an inmate of this suspicious household?"

"Yes, ever since I went to the house, up to a few days after Tommy
bolted. She left suddenly, and Mrs. L'Estrange was very reticent as to
where she had gone to. The next I heard was that she had been married
quietly to Guy Spencer."

"Did any suspicions attach to her?"

"No, it would not be fair to say that they did. She never played
herself, but she had a great knack of hovering about the tables. And
after the Esmond episode one or two men whispered that she had been
hovering about them too much, and that Mrs. L'Estrange thought she had
better get rid of her, might be so or not."

"Did you ever come across a cousin of hers there, a man named Dutton?"

"Oh yes, a dozen or more times, for I went to the flat pretty
frequently. A common, under-bred fellow, not in the least like her, for
in addition to being remarkably good-looking, her manners and appearance
were those of a lady."

"Do you know what has become of him?"

"Yes, he's an outside stockbroker, with a small office in the City. I
ran against him only last week. I don't know whether he recognised me
or not, but I looked the other way. With one or two exceptions, the
L'Estrange _clientèle_ was not one that you cared to recognise when
outside the flat."

Fairfax had finished his narrative. Hugh thanked him warmly. Still, he
had not learned anything really of importance. There was no evidence
that Miss Keane had cheated, or helped others to cheat. The hovering
round the card-table was not a particularly suspicious action if taken
by itself. She might be signalling to her confederates, of course, but
there was no evidence on which to convict her.

A sudden thought struck Murchison which prompted him to put a question
to Fairfax.

"She might have been a decoy, to lure rich men to this gambling place,
in order that they might be rooked by her accomplices." The middle-aged
man shook his head. "I don't think so. She had no scope for that sort of
game. Mrs. L'Estrange hardly knew anybody in her own world, for reasons
which I daresay could be very satisfactorily explained, I should guess a
not too clean or reputable past. She could not get the girl into houses
where she would pick up rich men."

"But you say some men came there who played heavily."

"A few," answered Fairfax. "But I always had a notion that Dutton picked
those up, in the course of his shady business, a mug here, a mug there,
who had a few thousands to throw away either on the Stock Exchange or
in gambling. If the flat was run on the crook, and it is even betting
it was, I should say the proprietors--or the syndicate, call it what
you like--were contented with quite small profits. I daresay a couple of
thousand a year would keep Mrs. L'Estrange in luxury, and I suppose she
must have had a bit of money of her own."

"And, assuming that they were all in league, Tommy Esmond and others
would want their bit," suggested Hugh.

"Certainly," assented Fairfax; "but always granting that the show was
run on the crook, it wouldn't be difficult to romp in thirty or forty
pounds a night, with even the small players and the occasional mugs
who were well-lined. Quite a decent amount to divide at the end of the
week."

"Well, I am awfully obliged for all you have told me, Fairfax."

"But it doesn't help you much, eh?" queried the elder man, who detected
a certain note of disappointment in his companion's tone.

"Well, candidly, it doesn't, but of course, that is no fault of yours.
We may dismiss the L'Estrange business, there is no evidence there. She
might have signalled to her confederates or not. It might have been a
perfectly innocent action. She didn't play herself, she just hovered
round the tables to kill the time."

"Of course, either theory will fit," remarked the shrewd man of the
world, who had picked up so much knowledge of life in his forty-five
strenuous years.

He paused for a few moments before he spoke again.

"Now look here, Murchison, I can read you like a book. I haven't
told you very much more than you know yourself, or could have pieced
together. You are disappointed because I couldn't tell you anything of
her history prior to her appearance in the L'Estrange household. Well,
there, I am at fault. And you have a particular reason for wanting to
know. In other words, you have some suspicions of your own."

Hugh felt he must be cautious. In connecting Mrs. Spencer with Norah
Burton he might be on the wrong track altogether, have been deceived
by a striking, but purely accidental, resemblance. He could not be too
frank with a man of Fairfax's temperament. Rumour had it that he would
always respect a confidence, but his general reputation was that of a
chatterbox. He spoke guardedly.

"Yes, certain undefined ones, quite undefined, please understand that."
Then, speaking a little more frankly, "What I dearly want to know is,
was she a straight woman before she charmed my friend Guy Spencer into
marrying her."

Fairfax smiled his slow, wise smile: "I am glad you have put your cards
on the table. Of course I guessed from the beginning that it was what
you were after. Well, I shan't breathe a word of this to anybody; I
can hold my tongue when I have a mind. You have a deep interest in the
matter for the sake of the Southleigh family, eh?"

Hugh had to admit that it was so.

"Well, I am going to tell you something that, up to the present, I have
not told to anybody else, and, to tell you the truth, I was not in the
least interested in Guy Spencer's marriage. If he chose to marry a girl
without a past, that was his affair. But I see you are keen."

"Yes, I am very keen."

"Good! well, I will give you a little information, from which you can
draw your own inferences. They are as open to you as to me, and I
shall just state the bare facts. As you know, Esmond had to bolt to the
Continent. On a certain morning I came up from the country by an early
train, landing at Charing Cross. I went to the bookstall to buy a few
papers. I must tell you that I am one of those persons who have eyes at
the back of their head, and see everything going on around them."

Yes, Hugh knew that Fairfax had a wonderful gift of observation, in
addition to his many other gifts.

"As I turned away, I saw Esmond slink into the station, glancing
furtively from right to left, as fearful of being seen. Of course, I
had not heard the news, and I was not present at the _débâcle_, but I
guessed something was up from his furtive appearance. As he slunk along,
a young woman heavily-veiled walked swiftly forward, and laid her hand
upon his arm. They were only together for a few seconds, Esmond was
evidently urging her to leave him for fear of recognition. When they
parted, she kissed him affectionately. In spite of the heavy veiling, I
recognised her."

"Stella Keane, of course," cried Hugh.

"Stella Keane. Fortunately, neither of them saw me, I expect they were
both too agitated. Well, there is the fact; as I said just now, you can
draw your own inferences, and perhaps answer the question whether she
was a good woman before she married your friend."

"It is answered," said Hugh sternly. "A good woman would not trouble to
go to the station to say good-bye to a derelict card-sharper, and kiss
him affectionately, unless there had been some close and dishonourable
relationship between them."



CHAPTER XVII

|Murchison arrived at Eaton Place about twenty minutes before the dinner
hour. His expectation was that he would find Mrs. Spencer alone in the
drawing-room, and in this hope he was not disappointed.

Stella, beautifully gowned, was seated in a luxurious easy-chair,
reading. As he was announced, she rose and threw her novel down. She
advanced to him with outstretched hand and that ever-charming smile.

"Oh, how sweet of you to come in good time, not rush in just a moment
before dinner is served. We can have a comfortable chat before Guy
comes. He takes an awful time to dress, you know. His ties bother him
really; he discards about half a dozen before he gets the proper bow.
Isn't it silly?"

She was very girlish to-night, quite different from what she had been at
the Southleigh party, staid, demure, a little resentful, and averse from
conversation.

Murchison's thoughts flew back to that day at Blankfield when he had met
a certain girl by chance at the tea-shop. Norah Burton had been just
as girlish then as Mrs. Spencer was now, allowing for the six years'
interval.

She crossed over to a Chesterfield, and motioned him to a seat beside
her. Hugh obeyed her invitation, but he felt sure that she had done this
with a motive. She was about to exercise her subtle fascination on her
husband's friend.

"Now, please tell me all about yourself," she said. "You are Guy's
friend, and I have a right to know. His friends are mine. I know what
you have done in the war: you have suffered very terribly. But before
that; please enlighten me."

It was a challenge. Did she desire to know as much of his past as he
desired to know of hers? He looked at her very steadily.

"You know, Mrs. Spencer, it is a little difficult to go back to anything
before those awful years of war. But I remember, as in a sort of dream,
that, quite as a young man, I was gazetted to the Twenty-fifth Lancers."

"A crack regiment, was it not?" queried Mrs. Spencer. "My dear father
was in the Twenty-fourth."

She was keeping it up bravely, he thought. He remembered Fairfax's
story. The woman who had said good-bye to a fugitive card-sharper at
Charing Cross Station, and kissed him affectionately, was hardly likely
to be the daughter of an officer in the Twenty-fourth Lancers. He
was not sure of very much, but of this one incident he was absolutely
positive: Fairfax was a man who was always certain of his facts.

"I can't remember much about the early years; I expect I went through
the usual trials and troubles of a young subaltern, was subjected to
a good deal of ragging. Well, somehow, promotion came: I was Captain
at quite a youthful age. The one thing that sticks in my mind, in those
pre-war days, is the fact that we were quartered at Blankfield."

Mrs. Spencer lifted calm, inquiring eyes. "At Blankfield! And where is
that?"

"You don't mean to say you haven't heard of Blankfield?"

Mrs. Spencer shook her dark head. "No; I dare say it shows great
ignorance, but I was never good at geography. I was brought up so
quietly; I have never travelled. I know next to nothing of my own
country, and nothing of any other."

She uttered these remarks with a disarming and appealing smile, as if
asking pardon from a man of the world for having led such an uneventful
and sequestered life--she, as he thought sardonically, the mysterious
cousin of Mrs. L'Estrange, the affectionate friend of the card-sharper
Tommie Esmond.

"Blankfield is rather a well-known town in Yorkshire; it is also a
garrison town. As I said, it was my lot to be quartered there."

"Was it a nice place?" queried Mrs. Spencer with an air of polite
interest.

"In a way, yes; we had a good time. But my recollections of it
are distinctly unpleasant. For I had the misfortune to assist at a
tragedy--nay, more, to play a part in it--which has left an ineffaceable
record upon my memory." Stella Spencer leaned forward. There was no
momentary change of expression upon the clear-cut, charming face; her
eyes met his own with a calm, steady gaze. But he thought--and after all
that might be fancy--he detected a restless movement of her hands.

"I shall like to hear about that tragedy, if it is not too painful for
you to recall it," she said softly. If she were really what he
believed her to be, she was playing the rôle of sympathetic listener to
perfection.

"I had a young chum of the name of Pomfret, a mere boy, impulsive,
high-spirited, generous, unsuspicious, little versed in the ways of
the world, absolutely unversed in the ways of women. I had promised
his family to look after him. Looking back at this distance of years,
I realise how badly I fulfilled my trust; how, in a sense, I was
unwittingly the cause of the tragedy that befell him. I wonder if you
ever came across my friend, Jack Pomfret."

"Never; but, of course, I have met so few people. And you know the
truth, as well as everybody else, I was not brought up in my husband's
world, in your world and that of the Southleighs. I could never claim
to be more than respectable middle-class. I take it, your friend was a
member of some old family."

The voice was steady, but he thought he noticed an increased
restlessness in the movements of the hands. And the admission that she
was a member of the respectable middle-class struck him as conveying a
false note intentionally. If what she alleged was true, that her father
had been an officer in the Twenty-fourth Lancers, she was a grade higher
than the respectable middle-class. Clever as she was, she had made a
false step there.

"You want to hear the history of that tragedy, of the terrible
circumstances which cut short the life of my poor young friend. Well, it
is hardly necessary to say that a woman was the cause. Women, I suppose,
have been at the bottom of most of the tragedies that have happened to
men ever since the days of Eve."

"I know that is the general opinion, but I have always been very
doubtful as to whether it is a true one."

She spoke lightly, but it seemed to him her tone was not quite so
assured as it had been a moment ago. Anyway, she was evidently intensely
interested in the forthcoming narrative.

"At Blankfield I happened to make the acquaintance of a very charming
young woman, who was not received in the Society of the place, for the
reason that nothing was known about her. The acquaintance was made in
the most unconventional fashion. She asked me to call upon her and her
brother. I told all this to Pomfret, who knew the girl by sight, and
he asked me to take him along with me. He had met her very often in the
High Street, and was immensely attracted by her appearance."

"And were you attracted, too, by this formidable young lady, Major
Murchison?" interrupted Stella.

"In a way. But, honestly, more curious than attracted. Well, to cut my
story as short as I can, Pomfret soon arrived at an understanding with
the young woman, to a great extent without my knowledge. They were
married secretly; there were family reasons why he could not marry her
openly."

"But this--but this"--was she speaking a little nervously, or was it
only his fancy?--"was quite romantic and charming. No doubt they were
deeply in love with each other. Surely there was no tragedy to follow
such a delightful wooing?"

"But there was. This innocent-faced, charming girl was an adventuress
of the first water. She was the accomplice of her criminal brother, if
brother he was. A day or two after the wedding, Pomfret and I went
to dine with this wretched pair. Before we sat down to dinner, two
detectives entered the room and arrested the so-called brother on a
charge of forgery."

Mrs. Spencer shuddered. "How horrible, how appalling! And what happened
to the girl? was she arrested, too?"

"No; she fainted, and I dragged my friend away. At the time I did not
know he had married her. When I got him back to the barracks, he told me
his miserable story. That same night, or some time in the next morning,
he shot himself. It was perhaps a cowardly way in which to avoid the
consequences of his folly, but then he was always rash and impulsive."

Mrs. Spencer spoke, and there was a far-away look in her eyes. "Your
poor friend! No wonder that memory haunts you. And yet, he was not very
wise. This poor adventuress might have been easy to deal with; she
might not have troubled him any further if he had made her some small
allowance; would, so to speak, have slunk out of his life. And she might
have been innocent herself, unable to break away from this wretched
criminal of a brother."

"You are very charitable, Mrs. Spencer," said Hugh coldly. "But I fear
I cannot agree with you. If the girl had been naturally and innately
honest, she would rather have swept a crossing than have lived upon the
gains of that creature--brother, or lover, or whatever he was."

Stella spoke with dignity. "You are, I see, very much moved, Major
Murchison, and you can judge better than I. I cannot pretend
to understand the mentality of adventuresses and their criminal
associates," she added with a light laugh, "but I should say that
sweeping a crossing is a most uncongenial occupation, especially in the
cold weather."

"In other words, if you had been in her place, you would have preferred
to live on the earnings of a rogue?" queried Hugh, perhaps a little too
warmly. As soon as he spoke, he regretted his words. He had given her an
advantage, of which she was not slow to avail herself.

She drew herself up proudly. "Major Murchison, are you not saying a
little too much in presuming to place me on the level of the adventuress
you have spoken of? I think it will be more consistent with my
self-respect to leave your question unanswered."

And then suddenly her proud mood vanished, and a softer one took its
place. Her voice trembled as she spoke; there was a suspicious moisture
in her eyes.

"I see that I was very wrong when I suffered Guy to persuade me to marry
him. I have alienated him from his friends and family, and, alas! I have
none of my own to bring him in exchange. His uncle loathes me; Lady Nina
is polite and tolerates me. And you--you, his old friend, who have known
him from boyhood--you dislike me also. But--" and here her voice swelled
into a proud note--"my husband loves and trusts me. While he does that,
Major Murchison, I can snap my fingers at the rest of the world."

Murchison bowed respectfully; he felt he had got to recover a good deal
of lost ground. So far the woman had the advantage, but he did not fail
to notice the vulgarity of the last phrase, "snap my fingers."

"I am very sorry if I have offended you, Mrs. Spencer, by my indiscreet
remarks. If you are secure in Guy's love, as I am sure you are, you have
a very happy possession."

She sank back on the sofa, and in a second recovered the composure which
had been momentarily disturbed.

"Forgive me if I have spoken a little warmly," she said, "but I could
not overlook what you said just now."

And then Hugh shot at her his last bolt. "I have not yet told you the
name of the girl who drove my poor young friend Pomfret to his death."

"Tell it me, if you please, but I shall be no more likely to know it
than the name of your friend, Mr. Pomfret. As I told you, I am a member
of the respectable middle-class; I cannot boast that I am acquainted
with the aristocracy, except through my husband."

"And yet your father, you told me just now, was an officer in the
Twenty-fourth Lancers. Those officers were all recruited from the
aristocracy, or at worst the upper middle-class."

"Oh, you are trying to cross-examine me and trap me," she cried
bitterly.

But Hugh was inexorable. "The name of that woman was Norah Burton; her
accomplice, her brother as she called him, was George Burton; he had
other aliases," he thundered.

He had shot his last bolt, but Stella was not shaken. She rose up,
quivering a little. He noticed that, but it might be due to the
agitation of wronged innocence.

"The name conveys nothing to me. Your attitude during these few minutes
has been very strange. You have insinuated that I am an adventuress on
the same level with your Miss Norah something. Well, so far, poor dear
Guy has not shot himself, and I will take good care he doesn't."

"You have much to gain by his living, if you love him--the title and
everything. I have no doubt he has made his will. You would gain a good
deal by his death. I cannot say, at the moment, which alternative would
suit you better."

"You are intolerable, you are insulting. If I tell my husband this when
he comes down, he will kick you out of the house."

"But I don't think you will tell your husband," retorted Hugh coolly.

"And why not? My word will outweigh yours. I have only to tell him that
you brand me as an adventuress, of the same class as this Miss Nora
Burton, and you will see what he will say."

"But you will not tell him," repeated Hugh. "Mrs. Spencer, I did not
think we should go so far as we have done. But I will put my cards
on the table at once, and I do so from certain indications in your
demeanour to-night. I will not say all I have in my mind; I am going to
collect further evidence first. But I will say this: you are not what
you seem." He had touched her now. Her calm had gone, her breast was
heaving, her hands were moving more restlessly.

"Put your cards on the table and have done. I was Stella Keane when I
married my husband. I defy you to disprove that."

"At present, no. You are the same Stella Keane who saw Tommie Esmond,
a discovered card-sharper, off at the Charing Cross Station, and kissed
him an affectionate farewell. If you were on such intimate terms with
that man, you are no fit wife for my friend Guy Spencer."

He had touched her at last. "How did you find that out?" she gasped, and
her face for a second went livid. She was surprised beyond the point of
denial.

And at that moment the door opened and Guy Spencer entered. She
recovered herself immediately; went up to her husband and laid a
caressing hand on his shoulder.

"A perfect tie, dearest; it was worth the time. Your friend, Major
Murchison, has been distressing me with a terrible story of some tragedy
that happened when he was quartered at Blankfield."

Guy Spencer smiled cheerfully. "Dear old Hugh is good at stories. He
must tell it me after dinner."

As she looked up into her husband's face, Hugh noticed the tender light
in her eyes. Lady Nina had said that if she was not devotedly in love
with Guy, she must be the most consummate actress off the stage. Loving
wife or consummate actress, which was she?



CHAPTER XVIII

|When Hugh reflected over that interview in the drawing-room before
dinner, he came to the conclusion that he had not played his cards very
well, that he had been a little too precipitate. Whether she was Norah
Burton or not, she was a very clever young woman, and he had just put
her on her guard by that rather indiscreet allusion to Tommy Esmond. If
he had no further evidence to go on than that incident, she would give
her husband a plausible explanation of it. And Hugh believed his old
friend Guy was still deeply in love enough with his wife to believe
anything she told him.

He could imagine her telling that convincing story to Guy, probably with
her arms round his neck, and her pretty eyes looking up to his with the
love-light in them. Esmond had been a kind friend to her, had done her
many a good turn. Much as she deplored his baseness, she could not bear
the thought of his slinking out of the country, a branded fugitive,
without a forgiving hand stretched out to him.

Backwards and forwards he revolved the matter in his mind, till he came
to the conclusion that the problem was one he could not solve himself.
And then he suddenly thought of his old acquaintance, Davidson of
Scotland Yard, the tall man of military aspect who had arrested George
Burton on that memorable night at Rosemount.

He went round to Scotland Yard, presented his card, and inquired for Mr.
Davidson. His old acquaintance was dead; a man named Bryant had taken
his place. Would Major Murchison care to see him?

In a few seconds Hugh was ushered into Bryant's room. To his surprise
and relief Bryant was the man who had accompanied Davidson to
Blankfield. It was pretty certain he would recall to the minutest detail
the circumstances of that visit.

"Good-day, Mr. Bryant. You know my name by my card, of course, but I am
not so sure you remember anything of the time and place where we last
met."

But the detective was able to reassure him on this point.

"In our profession, sir, we remember everything and everybody, and we
never forget a face. It is some years ago, it is true, but I recall
the incidents of our meeting as if they had happened yesterday. Poor
Davidson and I came down to collar that slim rascal George Burton,
who, by the way, got off with a light sentence. Davidson saw you in the
afternoon and gave you the option of staying away. You talked it over,
and came to the conclusion that, for certain reasons, you would rather
be in at the finish. Those reasons were connected with your young friend
Mr. Pomfret, who was infatuated with the young woman."

"You remember everything as well as I do, Mr. Bryant. I must
congratulate you on your marvellous memory, for I suppose this is only
one out of hundreds of cases."

Mr. Bryant smiled, well pleased at this tribute to his capacity.

"We cultivate our small gifts, sir, in this direction. Well, we took the
slim George. The girl fainted. You dragged Mr. Pomfret out of the house,
and he shot himself in the small hours of the morning. It came out that
he had married the young woman a day or two before, and could not face
the exposure." Hugh paid a second tribute to the detective's marvellous
memory. "And now, Mr. Bryant, have you any knowledge of what has
become of them? People like that are never quite submerged: some day or
another, like the scum they are, they will be found floating on the top
again."

Bryant shook his head. "No, sir, I cannot say I have. They have not
come under our observation again. Probably they are abroad under assumed
names, engaged in rascally business, of course, but doing it very much
_sub rosa_."

"Mind you, at present I have very little to go on," said Hugh. "I
may have been deceived by a chance resemblance. But I have a strong
intuition I am on their track."

Bryant's attitude became alert at once. "You say you have no evidence.
well, tell me your suspicions, and I will tell you what weight I attach
to them."

"First of all, before I do that, let me know if you would recognise
Norah Burton and George Burton again, in spite of the passage of years.
Norah had fair hair; the one I am on the track of has dark hair. The man
I have not seen; this time he is a cousin, not a brother."

"Ah!" Mr. Bryant drew a deep breath. "If they are the people you think,
sir, and I once saw them, no disguises would take me in. Now tell me all
you know."

Thus exhorted, Murchison launched into a copious narrative. He explained
that on the night of the dinner with the Southleighs at Carlton House
Terrace, he had met for the first time the wife of his old friend Guy
Spencer, that he had detected in her an extraordinary likeness to Norah
Burton. The marriage had been hastily contracted; next to nothing was
known about the young woman's antecedents, apart from the very vague
details with which she furnished them.

In the background was a cousin, by all accounts a very common fellow,
who had never visited the house since the marriage. Then there was the
episode of Tommy Esmond being found cheating at cards at the L'Estrange
flat, and Stella Keane's farewell meeting with him at Charing Cross
Station.

Mr. Bryant made copious notes. When the narrative was finished he made
his comments.

"There are, of course, coincidences that may mean nothing or a great
deal, Major Murchison. However, assuming that the lady in question is
not our old friend Norah Burton, she is evidently not a very estimable
member of society. She was in a shady set at Mrs. L'Estrange's, and
Tommy Esmond must have been a pretty close pal."

"Well, I want you to take this case on for me, and find out what you
can."

But Bryant shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but in my position I can't take
on private business. It is not a public matter, you see, unless you can
accuse them of anything." Hugh's face fell. "I forgot that. What am I to
do? Can you recommend me to a private detective?"

"Half a dozen, sir, all keen fellows. But you can't stir very much
without me, in the first instance. You want me to identify them. Well,
I will go so far as that, in memory of the time when we were together
in the original job. Mrs. Spencer, you say, lives in Eaton Place. I will
keep a watch on that house till I see her coming out or going in. If I
agree that she was Norah Burton, we have got the first step. Now, what
do you know about this cousin, Dutton?"

"Only that he is an outside stockbroker, with an office, or offices, in
the City."

"Good." Mr. Bryant opened a telephone book and rapidly turned over
the pages. "Here he is, right enough--George Dutton--George, mark
you--share- and stock-broker, Bartholomew Court. Well, sir, to oblige
you, I will run down to the City and get a peep at Mr. George Dutton.
If my recollection agrees with yours, I will put you on to one of my
friends, and you can have the precious pair watched. If they are the
persons you think they are, you may depend upon it they won't keep long
apart; they will make opportunities of meeting each other. Anyway,
they must be pretty thick together, or he would not put up with being
excluded from the house."

Hugh left with a great sense of relief. He felt that the matter was
in very capable hands. If Bryant told him that he was following a
will-o'-the-wisp, then the whole matter could drop. The fact of Mrs.
Spencer's relations with Tommy Esmond were hardly important enough to
justify him in disturbing his friend's domestic felicity.

At the end of three days the detective rang him up. The message was
brief: "Come and see me."

Bryant received him in his room. "Well, Major Murchison, your suspicions
are quite correct. I have been very close to the interesting pair. Mrs.
Spencer has camouflaged herself very well, but beyond doubt she is Norah
Burton. Our gaol-bird, George Burton, has been less particular. He
has not disguised himself at all; the few years have made little or no
impression on him. He has hid himself in the City, trusting that nobody
he ever knew would come across him."

"Then I was right, after all, Mr. Bryant. And now what would you advise
me to do? This woman is the worst type of adventuress card-sharper all
through--at least a confederate, in Paris with Burton, in London with
Tommy Esmond. To be fair, we cannot say how much or how little she knew
of his forgery business."

"Your idea is to turn her out of her husband's house, with or without
scandal?" queried the detective.

"Without scandal, if possible. I would prefer that. I suppose you would
back me up by saying that you have recognised her and this scoundrel who
was yesterday her brother and is to-day her cousin?"

"If you push me to it, I will, Major Murchison, for the sake of our old
acquaintance. But, for reasons which I stated last time we met, I don't
want to mix myself up in a purely private affair. The woman caught hold
of a fool in your friend Pomfret; she has caught hold of another equally
silly fool in your friend Mr. Spencer. Please forgive my blunt language,
but it is so, is it not?"

"You are quite right, Bryant," groaned poor Hugh. "I seem fated to be
mixed up in these matters. At the present moment I have a little stunt
on, in which I don't require any help. A younger brother of mine has got
mixed up with a young harpy in the chorus of a third-rate theatre. The
young fool has written compromising letters to her. I am trying to buy
these letters. I need hardly tell you she is asking a high price. I
can't see her at my own place, for fear of my brother popping in. I have
taken rooms in a suburb where I see her to carry on the bargaining."

Mr. Bryant raised his hands. "Well, sir, when a woman once begins to
twist a man round her little finger there is no knowing to what length
he will go."

"Profoundly true, Mr. Bryant. Well, what do you advise me to do?"

"For the moment, nothing. Get a little more evidence. When I watched
this couple, I took my old friend Parkinson with me. He knows them now.
Get him to watch them. He will tell you where they meet, and how often.
Here is his card. He will wait on you at your convenience."

"I quite see," said Hugh, as he took the proffered card. "If I can prove
that they are meeting on the sly it will strengthen my hands, eh?"

"That is the idea. Of course, at the moment, I don't know which you are
going to tackle first, the husband or the wife."

"I can't say myself, my mind is in such a whirl. But I feel I must
avenge poor Jack Pomfret's death."

Mr. Bryant rose. "You will excuse me, Major Murchison, but I have a very
busy day. Make use of Parkinson; he is as keen as mustard. And if it
comes to this, that you want me for purposes of identification, I am at
your disposal, in Eaton Place or elsewhere."

Murchison left, but not before he had pressed a substantial cheque into
Bryant's somewhat reluctant hand.

The next day he interviewed Parkinson, a lean, ascetic-looking man of
the true sleuth-hound breed. He took his instructions.

"Give me a fortnight, if you please, sir; a week is hardly long enough.
I'll warrant, from what our friend Bryant has hinted to me, I will have
something to report."

And he had. At the end of the fortnight he appeared. He produced a small
pocket-book.

"I'm glad you didn't stipulate for only a week, sir; it was rather
a blank one--only one meeting. I expect the lady couldn't get away
comfortably. But the week after I was rewarded. Three meetings in that
second week."

"Ah! where do they meet?"

"At quite humble little restaurants and queer places in the City. I
fancy the bucket-shop business is not very flourishing just now. For on
the last two occasions when I followed them in, and sat at a table
where I could observe them, I saw Mrs. Spencer slip an envelope into his
hand."

"Good Heavens!" cried Murchison in a tone of disgust. "She is keeping
this criminal with her husband's money."

Mr. Parkinson shrugged his shoulders. "A common enough case, sir, if you
had seen as much of life as I have."

Hugh shuddered. The woman was depraved to the core. She could leave her
house in Eaton Place, where she had been installed by her devoted and
trustful husband, and journey down to some obscure eating-house in the
City to meet this criminal who lived upon her bounty.

Well, the chain of evidence was complete. Bryant would swear to the
identification, and Parkinson would swear that Mrs. Guy Spencer, once
Norah Burton, had met George Burton clandestinely four times in a
fortnight, and had supplied him with money.



CHAPTER XIX

|It was in his blackest and most grim mood that Hugh Murchison walked
to Eaton Place, for the purpose of paying an afternoon call upon Mrs.
Spencer. He had not been near her since the night of the dinner, had
only left cards. And, very fortunately, he had not come across Guy in
the interval.

On that particular night he had reproached himself with indiscretion.
He had availed himself of Fairfax's information to tax her with meeting
Tommie Esmond at Charing Cross Station on the morning of his flight to
the Continent.

And at the moment that he had made that dramatic announcement, the
drawing-room door had opened to admit the unsuspecting husband. Hugh had
left shortly after dinner, on the plea of another engagement. Had Mrs.
Spencer tried to take the wind out of his sails by volunteering some
plausible explanation about her meeting with Esmond? She was a clever
young woman; she might try to forestall him. On the other hand, she
might sit tight till he forced her hand. Anyway, he was going to force
it to-day, armed with the new evidence that had been furnished to him.

Mrs. Spencer was not looking well. Her eyes had lost their brightness,
her once charming smile was forced and mechanical.

She rose as he was announced, and advanced to him with outstretched
hands, with an exaggerated air of cordiality.

"I thought you had forgotten us." She seated herself on the Chesterfield
and motioned him to sit beside her. "Major Murchison, I fear I was a
little rude to you the other night, you remember, just before Guy came
in." She clasped her hands nervously together. "I do trust we are going
to be friends."

Hugh looked at her grimly. He had no compassion for this shameless
adventuress who had driven the poor foolish Pomfret to his grave, who
had ensnared Guy Spencer, a man of stronger fibre, but equally powerless
in the hands of an unscrupulous woman.

"Mrs. Spencer--to call you by one of the many names by which you are
known--we were not friends the last time I was at this house. To-day we
are bitter enemies."

"What do you mean?" she faltered. "You are speaking in riddles. Why
should you, the old friend of my husband, be the bitter enemy of his
innocent wife?"

"His innocent wife!" repeated Hugh sternly. "Dare you look me in the
face and say that my name, even if you fail to recognise me after these
years, does not recall to you certain tragic episodes at Blankfield?"

"I know nothing of Blankfield." The voice was low but very unsteady.
"You put that question to me the other night in a roundabout sort of
way. My answer is the same--I know nothing of Blankfield."

There was a long pause. Hugh continued to look at her with his steady
and disconcerting gaze. Suddenly she rose, and paced restlessly up and
down the long drawing-room.

"Major Murchison, put your cards on the table. You have come into this
house, an old friend of my husband's; I have done my best to make you
welcome. But you have some spite against me. Of what do you accuse me?"

"I will put my cards on the table," answered Hugh in his inflexible
voice. "On the night I met you at Carlton House Terrace I had my
suspicions; no two women could be so exactly alike. Since that night
I have been picking up information here and there. I have now got a
complete chain of evidence."

"Evidence of what?" she gasped, still pursuing her restless walk up and
down the room. "Of my having met Tommie Esmond at Charing Cross Station?
would you like to hear the true history of that?"

"I shall be pleased to hear any explanation you like to offer, with the
reservation that I must please myself as to whether I accept it or not."

"You are very hard, Major Murchison. As you are not prepared to believe
me, perhaps it would be better if I did not embark on this history. But
Tommie Esmond is really my uncle, my mother's brother. When I was in
low water he was very kind to me. I could not turn my back on him in
his distress." She spoke with sudden passion. "Of course, you, with your
pharisaical way of looking at things, would say I should have forgotten
all his previous kindness."

"The Tommie Esmond affair is, comparatively, a trivial one, Mrs.
Spencer. I am coming in a moment to graver issues. You still say that
the name of Murchison conveys nothing to you. Oh, think well before you
answer! Remember, I have told you I have overwhelming evidence. And,
believe me, the task I have set out upon is far from a welcome one."

"I still say that the name of Murchison conveys nothing to me." She
spoke with a certain air of assurance, but he could see that she was
quivering all over.

"Carry your memory back to that night at Blankfield when your so-called
brother, George Burton, was arrested on a charge of forgery. You had
been his decoy and accomplice in a gambling saloon in Paris. You had
inveigled my poor friend, Jack Pomfret, into a clandestine marriage a
few days before. Jack, unable to survive his folly and disgrace, blew
his brains out. If not in the eyes of the law, you were, morally, a
murderess."

"You are mad, raving mad!" she cried, but her voice seemed strangled as
she made the bold denial.

"Not mad, Mrs. Spencer, but very sane, as I will show you in a few
seconds. As I told you, I recognised you that night at the South-leigh
dinner-party, in spite of the pains you had taken to camouflage
yourself. But I waited for corroborative evidence. The detective who
arrested your so-called brother, George Burton, has seen you and is
prepared to swear to your identity as Norah Burton."

Then suddenly she gave way, fell on her knees before him, and stretched
out appealing hands.

"Oh, you are very clever; I see you have found it all out. But you will
be merciful, you will not drive an unhappy woman to despair, just when
she has got into safe harbour. Will you be kind enough to listen to my
miserable history?"

"I will listen to anything you have got to say."

"My childhood and girlhood were most wretched and unhappy. At a time
when most girls are tasting the sweets and joys of life, I had to live
by my wits. I fell under the influence of a good-natured, but very
wicked man."

"In other words, George Burton?" queried Hugh.

"In other words, George Burton," she repeated in the low, strangled
voice that did not move Hugh very much. "I was starving when he met me
and took me up. He was genuinely sorry for me. Mind you, I knew nothing
of his nefarious schemes. He hid those very carefully away from me."

"But you were his decoy, if not his confederate, in the gambling saloon
in Paris?"

"His decoy, perhaps, unconsciously, but never his confederate."

"And when did Tommie Esmond appear on the scene?" queried Hugh.

"Oh, much later. George got into low water and had not enough for
himself. I then hunted up my uncle, who received me with open arms."

Hugh was developing the instincts of a crossexaminer. "And Tommie
Esmond, I suppose, introduced you to the card-sharping crew at the
Elsinore flat, and you were launched as the cousin of Mrs. L'Estrange,
who presided over this delectable establishment?"

"I was a distant cousin of Mrs. L'Estrange on my dear mother's side,"
was the answer.

She was lying terribly, he felt assured. But he had a card or two up his
sleeve yet. Still, it was wise to see how far she would go.

"And when did you part with the so-called brother, George Burton?"

"Oh, very shortly after he came out of prison. I had one interview with
him; I could not do less after his kindness to me. And in the meantime I
had hunted up poor old Tommie Esmond."

"And what did you do after that night at Blankfield? I think you cleared
out the next day. I heard you had paid everything up."

"Thank Heaven, yes. There was just a little money left. My life after
that was a nightmare. Amongst other humiliations, I was a waitress in
a tea-shop." A smile of vanity broke over the charming face. "The wages
were very small, but I got a lot of tips." Perhaps in this particular
instance she was not lying, if it was true that she had been in a
tea-shop at all.

There was a little pause, and then Murchison spoke in his stern,
inflexible voice:

"And how long is it since you saw George Burton?"

She had answered the question before, but he was hoping to entrap her
into some unguarded admission. He could see that she was considerably
thrown oft her balance, clever and ready as she was, by the extent of
his knowledge.

"I told you just now, soon after he came out of prison."

And then Hugh rose in his wrath. And then she, seeing in his face that
he had another and a stronger card to play, got up from her kneeling
position and watched him with an agonised countenance.

"I am sorry to use such harsh words to a woman, even such a woman as you
are, Mrs. Spencer. But when you say that you are lying miserably, and
you know it as well as I do." Her face went livid. She assumed a tone of
indignation, but her voice died away in a sob. "How dare you say that?"

"I am not the sort of man to make a statement unless I can prove it up
to the hilt. Your so-called cousin, George Dutton, keeps a bucket-shop
in the City; from certain evidence in my possession, I should say it was
not a very paying business."

Stella did not attempt to reply to this last shot, but she recognised
that he had gone about the business very thoroughly.

"George Dutton, the bucket-shop keeper, is George Burton, the forger,
come to life again, still, I take it, on the same criminal tack, perhaps
in a lesser degree. Do you admit," he cried vehemently, "that George
Burton and George Dutton are one and the same?"

"Yes, since you seem to have proof, I admit it," was the somewhat sullen
answer.

"That is as well; it clears the ground, up to a certain point. You say
you parted from Burton soon after his release from prison, and have not
seen him since. When was that--how long ago? You met him frequently as
George Dutton at Elsinore Gardens."

The courage of despair seemed to come to her, and she ceased to tremble.
"I will answer no more questions. Tell me what you allege and I will
admit or deny. Of course, you have employed a detective; you have had me
watched."

"Of course. I should not presume to cope single-handed with a clever
woman like yourself. You have met George Dutton, alias George Burton,
four times within the last fortnight at obscure restaurants in the City,
and there is a strong presumption that you were handing to him envelopes
containing money."

She seemed now to recognise that the game was up. Her self-possession
returned to her. She sat down, and motioned to him to seat himself.

"You are much too clever for me, Major Murchison. You have handled the
matter very well, so well that you have turned your vague suspicions
into absolute certainty. Well, what action are you going to take? As a
matter of course, you intend to turn me out of my husband's house?"

"If not at the moment, very speedily. You will admit, I think, with
your clever brain, that you should not remain under the roof of such an
honourable English, gentleman as he is a day longer than necessary."

"I will admit it, from your point of view, if you like. Oh, believe me,
I can see your side," replied this remarkable young woman. "But you will
forgive me, Major Murchison, if I say that, from my point of view, I
would have preferred that you had never been born. Guy is very happy; he
believes in me and trusts me. It will be a great blow to him as to me."

"I know. I wish it were in my power to spare him this misery. But, in
common honesty, I cannot."

"And have you thought of what is to become of me when I am turned out of
my husband's house?" she inquired in a composed voice. Her adroit mind
had evidently adapted itself to the altered circumstances, and was now
busied in turning them, as far as possible, to her own advantage.

"You have George Dutton to fall back upon, also Tommie Esmond," was
Murchison's retort.

She snapped her fingers in a fashion that was almost vulgar, and she was
so free from vulgar actions.

"George is thankful that I can, from time to time, fling him a ten-pound
note; his luck has deserted him. Tommie Esmond, I believe, saved a bit
out of the wreck, but he has not more than enough to keep body and soul
together."

"Guy is not a man to behave ungenerously, however deeply he has been
wronged," said Hugh, after he had reflected a few moments. He added more
hesitatingly, "And if Guy should take an obdurate attitude, it is
possible I might come to your assistance. I have hunted you down, but I
do not want to drive you into the gutter."

"But a man must support his wife, even if her past has not been quite so
respectable as it might have been," she cried defiantly.

Hugh directed upon her a searching look. "Mrs. Spencer, it is in my mind
that you may not be Guy's wife after all. If I probed a little deeper,
I might get at your real relations with this George Dutton, or rather
Burton."

"Oh, this time you are really pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp, I assure
you. George has never been anything to me but brother or cousin, as the
occasion demanded."

She paused a second, and there was a terrified look in her eyes as she
added, "But even if your suspicions were correct, which they are not,
you would not go back from your own promise. If Guy proved obdurate, you
would not drive me to the gutter. You promised me that."

"I shall keep my promise, Mrs. Spencer, and I will give it you in
writing, if you wish."

"It would be as well. And you will want something from me in writing
also, I expect," she concluded shrewdly.

"Certainly I shall," said Hugh steadily. "I shall draw up a full
confession for you to sign, to prevent you from ever troubling your
husband again--if, as I suggested just now, he is your husband."

Mrs. Spencer rose. It seemed that there was a sense of relief in the
fact that the interview was ending so amicably.

"I would have preferred to remain as I am, but, on the whole, the life
doesn't suit me, luxurious as it is. I am very fond of Guy really, he
has been so good to me, but I have alienated him from his friends. And
I have to sit here hour after hour by myself, with only my thoughts for
company."

"Let us say one week from now I will have that confession ready to
sign."

"And you will bring it here?" suggested Stella.

"I think not. It will take some time to read through, and we might be
interrupted," was Hugh's answer.

"At your hotel, then, I suppose?" was the young woman's next suggestion.

"The same objection applies."

He scribbled down an address on a piece of paper. "Meet me there this
day week at the hour I have appointed. Nobody will interrupt us, I will
take care of that."

And Mrs. Spencer lay awake half the night, working out a problem that
had suggested itself to her in a flash.

The next day she lunched with George Dutton in the City. The detective
might be watching her, but did it matter? whatever happened at the end
of the week, she had burned her boats.



CHAPTER XX

|Two months had elapsed since the meeting between Major Murchison and
Stella Spencer, recorded in the last chapter.

A handsome, well-set-up man of about thirty was travelling up from
Manchester to London. The reason of his journey was his desire to
visit his sister, Caroline Masters, who occupied a small flat in the
neighbourhood of King's Cross.

Up to a short time ago this handsome, well-set-up man had been leading a
very quiet life in the busy city of Manchester. He was an electrician
by trade, and a very clever one. He was civil, well-spoken, intelligent
beyond his station, but he had not forgathered much with his
fellow-workers, had kept himself very much to himself. And yet, strange
to say, this self-isolation had not provoked suspicion or resentment on
the part of his daily associates.

Reginald Davis, for such was his name, had been unjustly suspected of
murder, and the police had been hot on his track. Then had come the
suicide in No. 10 Cathcart Square, and his sister, Caroline Masters, had
identified the dead body as that of her brother.

Caroline Masters had always been a plucky, resourceful girl, and devoted
to him. The dead man, no doubt, bore some resemblance to himself,
and she had taken advantage of the opportunity to swear to a false
identification, and remove from him the sleepless vigilance of the
police. This much she had conveyed to him in a guarded letter.

Reginald Davis, the man falsely accused of murder, was dead in the eyes
of the law: in a sense, he had nothing further to fear. But at the same
time, caution must be observed. The few friends he had were in London;
at any time he might run across one or more of them. So, taking another
name, he had hidden himself in Manchester, and corresponded secretly
with the one of the two sisters he could trust, Caroline Masters.

And then, suddenly, the burden had been lifted from his soul. There was
a small paragraph in the evening newspapers, afterwards reproduced in
the morning ones, which told him that he need not skulk through the
world any longer.

A man lying under sentence of death for a brutal murder and without hope
of reprieve, had confessed to the crime of which Davis had been falsely
accused. In the paragraph, which was, of course, essentially the same
in all the papers, were a few words of sympathy for the unfortunate
Reginald Davis who had stolen into No. 10 Cathcart Square and committed
suicide, under a sense of abject terror. The police had carefully
investigated the statements of the condemned man, with the result that
they found the late Reginald Davis absolutely innocent.

The late Reginald Davis, very alive and well, knocked at the door of
his sister's flat. She had been apprised of his coming, and greeted him
affectionately. She sat him down before a well-cooked supper. He was
hungry and ate heartily. She did not disturb him with much conversation
till he had finished. Then she spoke.

"Well, Reggie, that was a bit of luck indeed." She was, of course,
alluding to the confession of the real murderer. "Now you are as free as
air. You were always a bit of a bad egg, old boy, but never a criminal
to that extent."

"No, hang it all, I am not particular in a general way, but murder
was not in my line," he answered briefly. "It was hard lines to get
scot-free of the other things, and then to be suspected of that at the
end."

He looked at her admiringly. "By Jove! Carrie, you were always the
cleverest of the lot of us. That was a brain-wave of yours, walking in
and identifying me as the suicide." Mrs. Masters smiled appreciatively.
"Yes, it came to me in a flash. I read the account in the papers. It
struck me I might do something useful. I went up to the court with the
tale of a missing brother. I saw the body; the poor creature might have
been your twin. Of course, I swore it was you, and gave you a new lease
of life." She added severely, "I hope you have taken advantage of what
I did, and become a reformed character." Davis spoke very gravely. "Yes,
Carrie, I swear to you I have. That shock was the making of me. I have
lain very low, worked hard, and put by money."

He pulled out an envelope from his breastpocket, and thrust it into her
hand; it was full of one-pound notes.

"Fifty of the best, old girl, for a little nest-egg. I have not
forgotten my best pal, you see."

The tears came into Mrs. Masters' eyes. He had been a bad egg, but he
had a good heart at bottom.

"That is very sweet of you, Reggie; it will come in very useful. And now
to go back for a moment to Cathart Square. Who was the poor devil
who killed himself there? He was as like you as two peas are like each
other."

"I think we have got to find that out," said Reginald Davis gravely.
"Nor, reading the account in the papers, am I quite sure that it was a
suicide."

"But that was the verdict," interrupted the sister.

"I know, but there are peculiar things about the case. Letters addressed
to Reginald Davis were found on him; there was a letter signed Reginald
Davis, addressed to the Coroner, announcing his intention to commit
suicide. Those letters had been placed there by the person who murdered
him, and that person who murdered him was somebody who knew me, unless
it was the accidental taking of a common name."

"But the razor was clutched in his hand, Reggie!"

"Quite easy," replied Davis, who, if not a murderer himself, could
easily project himself, apparently, into the mind of one. "We will
assume, for the moment, it was a man. He cut the poor devil's throat,
and then thrust the razor into his stiffening hand, to convey the idea
of suicide."

"It might be," agreed Mrs. Masters.

"Well, Carrie, one thing I have fixed on, and it is one of the things
for which I have come up. I go to Scotland Yard to-morrow, tell them
straight I am Reginald Davis, without a stain upon my character, explain
to them that you were misled by a close resemblance. We will have that
body exhumed. I am firmly convinced it was a murder."

"Let sleeping dogs lie, Reggie," advised Mrs. Masters, who had a horror
of the law and its subtle ways. "Never mind who was the poor devil who
was found there, whether he was murdered or committed suicide. It is no
affair of yours."

"It is an affair of mine in this way," replied Davis in a dogged tone.
"The person who murdered the poor devil, as you call him, knew something
about me, and took a liberty with my name."

"It served you a good turn, Reggie, anyway."

"I know; I admit that. But the murderer did not know he was doing me,
thanks to you, a good turn when he killed the other fellow."

Mrs. Masters thought deeply for a few moments. "Reggie, you have been a
very bad egg, I am sure. I shall never guess a quarter of what you have
been guilty of."

He laid his hand affectionately on her arm. "Well for you, old girl, you
can't. That is all past and done with. By the way, that letter found on
the poor chap, announcing his intention to commit suicide, did they ask
you to identify my handwriting? Of course, the others addressed to him
didn't matter much. Anybody could have written them. But my letter was a
forgery. Did they ask you to identify that particular letter?"

"They did, Reggie, and my brain was in such a whirl that I could hardly
read it. I said that I believed it was in your handwriting. It was
certainly very like, although, as you can imagine, I looked at it
through a sort of mist. Anyway, it was as like your handwriting as the
dead man was like you." Davis ruminated for a few moments. "That letter
was forged by somebody who knew me and could imitate my hand to a
nicety. I am thinking of all the wrong'uns I knew in the old days. I
think I can fix him."

"Yes," said Mrs. Masters breathlessly. She was capable of great daring
in the cause and the service of those she loved, but she was not
habituated to the ways of hardened criminals.

"A man I was a bit associated with in the old days; luckily he didn't
drag me in far enough. He was an expert forger. We used to call him
'George the Penman.'"

Mrs. Masters shuddered. "Oh, you poor weak soul, you were so near it as
that?"

"Very near, Carrie. The shock of the false accusation of murder pulled
me up straight. I saw where I was drifting, and made up my mind that
the straight path was the surest." At the moment that Mr. Davis gave
utterance to this honourable sentiment there was a ring at the bell.

Mrs. Masters rose at once. "It is Iris. I dropped her a note to say you
were coming. She will be so pleased to see you."

There floated into the small sitting-room a very dainty and ethereal
figure, Miss Iris Deane, a charming member of the chorus at the
Frivolity Theatre.

She flung her arms round the neck of her handsome brother. "Oh Reggie,
dear, what a treat to see you! And all this dreadful thing is lifted
from you."

Iris was not his favourite sister. She was clever in a worldly way, and
had made good. But she had not the sterling loyalty of Caroline.

Davis gently checked her enthusiasm. "And how have you been getting on,
Iris? Always floating on the top as usual?"

Miss Iris showed her dimples. "Always floating on the top, as you
say, dear old boy. A silly, soft chap fell in love with me; wrote most
impassioned love-letters. Well, he was too soppy for me to care much
about him, and when his rich brother came along, offering me a price for
his love-letters, I can tell you I just jumped at the chance."

"Did you get a good price?" queried her brother.

"I stuck out for ten thousand," explained the capable Iris; "but this
chap was a good bargainer, and I let them go at seven. It was better on
the whole. If I had married Roddie, I should have been so fed-up in a
month that I should have run away from him, and then Heaven knows where
I might have ended."

Davis looked at his sister approvingly. There was enough of the old Adam
left in him to entertain a slight envy of his sister's chances. Seven
thousand pounds, a little fortune in itself, was a good bit of work, a
handsome reward for the display of her dimples.

"Roddie who, dear? You might tell us his other name," queried Mrs.
Masters, who perhaps was also smitten with a sense of envy.

"That's telling," answered the sprightly Iris, who was not given to be
too frank about her own affairs. "But if either of you two dear things
want a little ready, apply to me. Of course, you will remember I have
got to take care of myself, to make provision for my old age."

Davis and Carrie exchanged glances. They knew the volatile Iris of old.
As a child she had always been mean and grasping. Not much of the seven
thousand would come their way, if they were on the verge of starvation.

Carrie spoke in cold accents. "You are really too generous, Iris. But
we shall not have to trespass upon your generosity. I have enough for my
humble wants. And Reggie has been able to put by, so much so that he has
been kind enough to make me a very handsome money present to-night."

"Dear old Reggie," said the sweetly smiling Iris. "I am so glad you have
made good."

And then Davis spoke: "Thanks, in great part, to Carrie, who told that
splendid lie about the suicide, or murder, at 10 Cathcart Square. You
remember that, of course?"

"Suicide, wasn't it?" said Iris, but her cheek had grown a little pale.

"I don't think so. There was a forged letter purporting to be written by
me. I am going to Scotland Yard to-morrow, stating frankly who I am,
and urging them to exhume the body. We will find out who the man, buried
under the name of Reginald Davis, really was."

And then the agitation of his younger sister became extreme. She
clutched convulsively at his arm.

"Reggie, you will not do this. What does it matter to you who the man
was? Go under some other name, and let sleeping dogs lie." Unconsciously
she had used the same expression as Mrs. Masters, but from different
motives.

"I have been under a different name for a longer time than I care to
remember," answered Davis doggedly. "I have a fancy to resume my own,
and make a clean breast of it to the police. They have nothing else to
charge me with."

Iris fell on her knees, and the tears rained down her cheeks.

"For my sake, Reggie, if not for your own."

"And why for your sake? Tell us what you mean," demanded her brother
sternly.

And Iris spoke as clearly as she could speak amidst her strangled sobs.

"If you try and unearth that mystery at Cathcart Square, I might be
dragged in, and it might be very awkward for me."



CHAPTER XXI

|Davis directed a keen glance at his elder sister over the bowed head of
Iris. The younger woman was by no means of an emotional nature. Light,
frivolous and volatile, she had danced through life, and, on the whole,
had had a good time. One could not picture her in a tragic mood.

And yet, she was the personification of deep emotion now. She could
hardly speak for those convulsive sobs, and in her frightened eyes
there was a deep and haunting terror. At what point, and through what
circumstances, had tragedy touched this little selfish, self-centred
butterfly, gifted with a certain amount of cunning and sharpness, but
utterly brainless.

"What do you know of No. 10 Cathcart Square, except what you gleaned
from the newspapers?" demanded her brother sternly. "How can you be
implicated in the murder of the unknown man whom Carrie mistook for me?"

"But Carrie did not mistake him for you," wailed Iris. "She told me
afterwards that the idea suggested itself in a flash, and when she
read the newspaper she was not sure whether it was you who had crept in
there, according to the evidence, and made away with yourself, through
fear of the police."

"Leave Carrie out of it for the moment," said Davis. "Whatever she did
was well thought out. Of course, we both know her object was to identify
me, if possible, and put Scotland Yard off the scent. What we want to
know is, how did you come to be acquainted with the house? what do you
mean by saying that, if further investigations are made, you might be
dragged in?"

"I was there on four occasions: on the last a few days before the
murder, or suicide, whatever it was."

Davis gasped, and Carrie lifted her hands in horror. What did this
confession mean? It was impossible that this slim, weak girl had herself
been the murderess, could have killed a big, powerful man of the same
build as the supposed Davis, with those slim, weak hands.

She saw the horror in their faces, and hastened to reassure them. "Oh
no, not that, I swear to you. I am no more a murderess than you were a
murderer, Reggie. But if the whole thing is raked up, and the man whom
I believe it to be, accurately identified this time, things might look
very black for me."

Davis lifted her from her kneeling position, and placed her in an
easy-chair. "Calm yourself, and tell us the whole story of why and how
you came to be in Cathcart Square at all."

Iris waited a few moments till the convulsive sobbing ceased. She spoke
with little occasional gasps, but it was very evident it was a relief to
unbosom herself.

"It is a very long story," she began tremulously.

"If the telling of it lasts till midnight, we must have it," said her
brother in an inflexible voice.

And compelled by his resolute manner, the girl, whom they had always
regarded as a frivolous butterfly, embarked upon her strange and
thrilling narrative.

"It all arose out of the sale of those letters I spoke to you about.
Carrie just now asked me the name of the man who wrote them. Well, I
didn't get further than Roddie, which doesn't carry you very far. If it
had not been for your threat of going to Scotland Yard, I should have
stopped at that. A still tongue makes a wise head, you know."

They could quite believe that. In spite of her ceaseless chatter, Iris
had always been very reticent about her own affairs. She had seen next
to nothing of her brother for a few years, not very much of Carrie
Masters. And, on these occasions, she had always avoided, in a marked
manner, any allusion to her private affairs.

"I told you of a soppy young chap who started to make love to me last
year. I didn't care a snap for him, but he was very persistent, and at
last wrote me most urgent letters imploring me to be his wife. His full
name was Roderick Murchison, a member of the great brewing family; his
father has been dead for some time, he died during the war, and Roddie
came in for tons of money, although he was not the eldest son. I don't
know if you have ever heard of him?"

No, neither Davis nor Carrie had known of the existence of such a young
man. They had a hazy idea that there was a big brewing firm of that
name, that was all.

"Well, as I say, I didn't care a snap for him, although he was awfully
good and generous, overwhelmed me with, all kinds of lovely presents:
rings, bracelets, fur coats, etc. In our life, you know, one accepts
these things from the mugs who are gone on us without attaching very
much importance to the fact."

It was evident that Miss Iris had struck out her own line of life, and
made a very good thing out of it.

"Well, then, Roddie began to grow desperate, and declared he couldn't
live without me. It was all so genuine that at last I began to think
seriously of it. There were tons of money, and although I didn't cotton
much to the sort of life I should have to lead as his wife, still there
were worse things than being Mrs. Roderick Murchison, with the future
well assured, and a handsome settlement."

Davis and his elder sister exchanged wondering glances. So this
butterfly little girl, whom they had always regarded as rather shallow
and feather-brained, had had this wonderful chance of marrying a
gentleman and a rich man.

"It was difficult to bring myself up to the scratch, in spite of the
advantages, for he was so soft and soppy that he irritated me in a
thousand-and-one ways, and I knew in a very short time I should grow to
hate and despise him. Then one night, after a very excellent champagne
supper at the 'Excelsior,' he got me in a yielding mood, and I promised
to marry him."

Brother and sister could only marvel at the girl's extraordinary good
fortune, reluctant as she seemed to avail herself of it.

"He told me that before he went to bed that night he wrote to his family
acquainting them with the news, anticipating fully their objections,
but expressing his strong determination to brook no interference or
remonstrance. You see he was his own master, nobody could take his money
away from him, and he didn't care whether his relatives were offended or
not."

"And how did the family take it?" queried Davis.

"I am coming to that," replied Iris. She was growing much calmer now. It
was a relief to unburden her secret to an audience whom she could trust.
For she was sure that neither her brother nor sister would ever allow
her to put herself into real danger.

"I am coming to that," she repeated. "A few days after he had written
those letters, one to his widowed mother, one to his elder brother, who
had inherited the bulk of the big fortune, the elder brother called upon
me in my flat. He was a very handsome, well-set-up man, although he had
been through a good deal in the war. He was very like you, Reggie."

"Ah," ejaculated Mr. Davis. He looked at Carrie, keenly watching her
sister, with a glance that suggested they would soon be coming to the
real pith of this rambling confession.

"He begged the favour of a short conversation. He was perfectly open and
above-board. He told me straight he was Roddie's elder brother, and that
his name was Hugh Murchison. He pointed out to me very kindly that
his brother was an impetuous young ass--a judgment which I privately
endorsed--that Roddie had been infatuated, in his short day, with quite
a number of other girls, although, perhaps, not to the same extent
as with me." Iris, getting back rapidly into her light mind, let her
volatile and easily impressed nature peep out in her next words.

"Oh, Hugh Murchison was a darling, so quiet, so sensible, and so strong.
If he had been fool enough to ask me to marry him, I would not have
given him up for seven thousand pounds."

"But you were prepared to chuck Roddie for that?" suggested her brother
quietly.

"I think I let him go a bit too cheap," answered the fair Iris in
a reflective voice. "Many girls have got more than I asked for
compromising a breach of promise. But to tell the absolute truth, Hugh
Murchison hypnotised me a bit. He was so quiet and yet so strong that I
felt he could twist me round his little finger."

"We want to get to Cathcart Square," interjected Davis a little
impatiently. "We don't seem to be near it yet."

"I must tell my story my own way, it is no use driving me," replied
Iris, pouting a little. "Well, as I tell you, he called that day at my
flat--that was the beginning of negotiations. Where were we to meet
to discuss details? I couldn't have him at my flat, because Roddie was
always popping in and out. He couldn't have me at his hotel, because
nobody knew whom we might come across, and Roddie was always coming
there. He said he would think out a plan and telephone or wire me."

"Ah," said Carrie, with a sigh of relief: she was a very practical
person. "Now, I suppose we are coming to it."

Iris, heedless of the interruption, went on with her story.

"Next day he 'phoned me up, and after ascertaining that I was quite
alone, told me to meet him at 10 Cathcart Square to resume our
conversation."

"Why, in the name of all that is wonderful----" began Reginald Davis,
but his sister motioned him to silence.

"Don't interrupt, please, you will know everything in a few minutes. I
went to No. 10 Cathcart Square at the time appointed. He opened the
door himself. It was a big house in an old-fashioned square, ages old, I
should say, and in the front court was an agent's board, intimating that
this particular house was to let, furnished."

"I know Cathcart Square well, it's in an old-world quarter of
Kensington," interrupted Davis. He added grimly, "I know it well,
although I did not have the misfortune to commit suicide there."

"He told me a very funny story. The afternoon of the day before, he had
been up to Kensington to visit an old nurse of the family who lived
near by. He had strolled round to Cathcart Square to fill up an idle
half-hour. He had been struck by the appearance of the house, and
loitered before it, when suddenly the door opened, and a somewhat
bibulous-looking caretaker came out."

Davis indulged in a sigh of relief. "We are really coming to it now,
then?"

"Yes, you are coming to it. He told me a sudden idea had occurred to
him. Here would be a quiet little spot for our meetings, a place where
Roddie would never dream of following us. He accosted the caretaker,
evidently a drunken and corrupt creature. He explained that he wanted to
rent a couple of rooms where he could receive a certain visitor he was
expecting in the course of the next week or fortnight. It was no
use going to the house agents for that, they would turn down such a
proposition. The caretaker, with a couple of five-pound notes in his
hand, took an intelligent view of the situation. He gave Hugh a key,
and intimated that, if he had sufficient notice, he would make himself
scarce on the occasions when the visitor was expected."

"Of all the mad things----" began Davis, but his sister for the second
time motioned her brother to silence.

"Not quite so mad as you think. I fancy I can see into his mind. We
could have met at a dozen different restaurants in London, but Roddie
was here, there and everywhere: at any moment he might have come across
us. He would never get as far as Kensington." David nodded his sagacious
head. "I think I see. Go on."

"I met him there, in all four times, the last meeting was a few days
before the tragedy."

"And what took place at that meeting?"

"He paid me the seven thousand pounds in notes. I signed a paper
agreeing to give Roddie up. I carried out my bargain. I wrote Roddie
that same night, giving him his dismissal, and assuring him that nothing
he could urge would induce me to reconsider my determination. He sent me
frantic telegrams the next day, but I replied to the same effect. After
taking his seven thousand pounds, I could not break faith with Hugh,
could I?"

Davis was not quite sure that Iris would not break faith with anybody if
it suited her purpose. But clearly Hugh Murchison had subjugated her to
the extent of respecting an honourable bargain. No doubt she had fallen
in love with him, so far as a person of her shallow temperament could
fall in love.

"And what has become of Roddie?"

"I don't know, and I don't care. He has bored me to extinction for over
nine months. I am glad to be shut of him."

Davis put a question. "You say Hugh Murchison paid you in notes. What
have you done with them? His bank will have the numbers."

"Will they?" cried Iris, the frightened look again coming into her eyes;
she knew nothing of business methods. "I paid them into my own account.
Now, you see, if you rake this up I might be implicated."

"Your opinion is, then, that the man found in No. 10 Cathcart Square was
Hugh Murchison?"

"I am as nearly sure as I can be, after reading the caretaker's
evidence. He had some other stunt on beside my own. I was not the only
visitor he received."

Davis thought deeply before he spoke. "If I have him dug up, and he is
identified by those who know him, a lot will come to light. Your notes
will be traced, for one thing."

"I am afraid of everything, Reggie. For the love of Heaven, let him rest
where he is." Caroline Masters breathed softly to herself. "You were
half in love with him, or perhaps three-quarters, and you don't want to
know the real truth. Oh, you miserable little, paltry soul!"

And then a sudden thought came to Davis. "Now, Iris, you could never
think very clearly about things when they got a little bit complicated.
You are quite sure the last occasion on which you saw him was a few days
before the discovery of the body?"

"I will swear to it," cried Iris firmly.

"The date of his cheque, which the Bank has, will show that. He probably
cashed it himself on the day he paid you, any way the day before. Now,
on the day preceding and the day following that tragedy, can you prove
where you were?"

Iris began to see light. "Of course I can. The day after I had the
notes, I got up a sprained ankle, an obliging doctor, an old (or rather
young) friend of mine, sent a certificate to the theatre. I motored down
to Brighton with Johnny Lascelles--who, by the way, used to make Roddie
fearfully jealous. We joined a jolly little party at 'The Old Ship.' I
came back the day after the discovery in Cathcart Square."

Davis rose and gave a great shout: "You have witnesses who can swear to
that?"

"Of course," answered Iris, not even yet comprehending the full drift of
the question. "Johnny Lascelles motored me there and drove me back. Then
there was Cissy Monteith, Katie Havard, Jack Legard and others who were
with me all the time."

"You silly little idiot," cried Reginald Davis. "And what the deuce do
you mean by saying that you might be implicated?"

"The notes," she faltered. "My meeting him alone in that empty house.
They might suggest I murdered him, if you say he was murdered."

Davis smote his forehead in impotent anger at her denseness. "How could
you have murdered him when you were at Brighton all the time?"

He smote the palms of his hands together.

"I will find out who the dead man was, and also the man who forged my
name to that letter to the Coroner."

He turned to his sister: "As for you, young woman, it may be you will
have a bad quarter of an hour, if it all comes out about Roddie. But
never mind, you will have a splendid advertisement. The next bunch of
letters you get hold of, the price will be twice seven thousand pounds."



CHAPTER XII

|The following morning Reginald Davis, resolved to unearth the mystery
of 10 Cath-cart Square, stood in the private room of Mr. Bryant of
Scotland Yard.

He had easily overcome his younger sister's scruples, her terror at
having to give evidence in a court of justice, and being forced to
disclose certain transactions not too creditable to herself. She had
come to see from the point of view artfully suggested by Davis, that, on
the whole, it would be a very good advertisement. It might even take
her from her place in the chorus to a small acting part, and then her
fortune would be made. She might be able to come across another rich man
whom she would like well enough to marry, a man quite different from the
somewhat invertebrate Roddie.

Bryant looked up from his papers, and regarded the young man with his
keen and steady gaze. Davis's good looks, and frank air impressed him
favourably.

"Well, my man, what do you want with me? I don't usually see strangers
who approach me in such a mysterious fashion. You would neither state
your name nor business, only said vaguely that you wanted to interview
me on a matter of great urgency."

"I wished to keep my business for your private ear, sir. Can you throw
your mind back to a certain gruesome affair that happened at 10 Cathcart
Square?"

"Certainly, although I was not in charge of the matter. The man was
identified as Reginald Davis, who was wanted on a charge of murder,
the circumstantial evidence against him being very strong; the verdict
returned was one of suicide. If I recollect rightly, he had broken a
pane of glass in one of the back windows of the house, unhasped the
latch of the window, and cut his throat upstairs after he got inside.
The facts were accepted at the time as conclusive evidence of his
guilt."

"And you recollect, sir, what happened a short time ago with regard to
the crime of which Reginald Davis was accused?"

"Perfectly. The real criminal has confessed. And this poor devil,
overwhelmed no doubt by the circumstantial evidence which told so
strongly against him, acted too hastily."

"If the police had caught him, he would probably have been hanged by
now," said Davis a little bitterly.

Mr. Bryant looked a little uneasy. "I should say it is more than
probable from what I remember of the case; well, you know, the law makes
mistakes at times, I will admit."

"And juries at inquests make mistakes at times, also," remarked Davis
quietly. "This particular jury made a mistake. The dead man was no more
Reginald Davis than you are."

It was not easy to startle Mr. Bryant, he had been through too many
strange experiences for that, but he exhibited a mild surprise as he put
the question: "And what authority have you for saying that?"

"I think you will admit the best. I who stand before you am the Reginald
Davis who was wanted on that false charge of murder, and branded by that
intelligent jury as a suicide."

"You can prove this, of course. I mean that you are the real Reginald
Davis."

"Of course I can, sir; I can bring a dozen witnesses, if necessary, half
of whom have known me since a boy."

Needless to say that a man of Bryant's experience did not, as a rule,
believe one quarter of what he was told. But this man's face--this man's
tones--convinced him that he was listening to the truth.

He rose from his chair. "Wait here a moment, please, while I hunt up the
particulars of this case. As I told you just now, I was not in charge of
it, and I should like to refresh my memory as to certain details."

He came back after a few moments. "I know it all now, from A to Z.
You were identified by a married sister, a Mrs. Masters, who gave some
details of your career, which did not seem to have been a very healthy
one. She was also shown a letter which you were supposed to have written
to the Coroner, and she believed it to be in your handwriting. This
wants some explanation, I think, Mr. Davis, to call you by the name
which you say is your right one."

"Quite so, sir," answered Reginald composedly. "It certainly requires
a good deal of explanation, but if you will listen to me with a little
patience, I think I can convince you that the thing is more natural than
it appears." The Inspector threw himself back in his chair: "I have no
doubt it was your sister who identified you, but how did she come to
mistake the actual suicide for you?"

And Mr. Davis gave the explanation which Bryant might believe or not, or
believe in part, as he chose.

"My sister Caroline was deeply attached to me. She was in despair when
she heard that I was suspected of murder, and was being hunted by the
police. As day after day, week after week, went by, and there was no
news of my capture, she got it firmly fixed in her mind that I had
committed suicide. She hunted the newspapers every morning to find some
paragraph that would confirm her fears. And then one day she read about
what had happened at Cathcart Square."

Mr. Bryant was now deeply interested. He leaned forward in his chair,
and his attitude betokened his eagerness.

"It is possible that her mind had become a little unhinged by her
anxiety. She expected to find me, and she found a man who might have
passed for my twin brother. So she tells me now that I have revealed
myself, for, of course, I lay very low until this belated confession of
the real murderer."

Bryant only made a brief comment on this particular portion of the
narrative which Davis was twisting about with some skill. Of course,
Mrs. Masters had not been deceived by the accidental resemblance, but in
pretending to be she had given that brother a new lease of life.

"You say that the man was so like you that the sister, who had known you
from childhood, was ready to swear he was her brother?"

"There is no doubt, sir, that at the time her mind was clouded. She went
there expecting to find me, and as a not altogether unnatural result,
she found what she expected."

"We will let that pass," said the Inspector drily. "No doubt, under
extraordinary circumstances, strange hallucinations are apt to occur. It
was very fortunate for you that your sister made that mistake, and that
it was accepted. As you admitted just now, if you had been caught and
tried it would have gone very hardly with you."

Whatever Bryant thought in his own mind, it was evident that he was
prepared to admit that Mrs. Masters had acted in good faith when she
swore that the dead man was her brother. Davis could see there would be
no trouble on that score.

"Now we come to the letter," pursued Davis. "I questioned my sister very
closely about that last night. She says she was so overwhelmed with the
discovery that she read that letter through a mist, as it were, but she
is positive that it closely resembled my handwriting."

"Another hallucination, I suppose, or an accidental resemblance. Well,
if you will leave a specimen of your own caligraphy with us, we can
compare them," said Bryant.

"And I suppose, sir, you will have the body exhumed, for the purpose of
discovering who the man really was?"

"I suppose so," replied the Inspector a little unwillingly. "Although
I don't expect we shall ever find out. Nobody came forward at the time
when your sister made that mistake. Is it likely anybody will come
forward now? Some poor derelict, weary of life I suppose, without kith
or kin to claim him at the end. There are scores of suicides in the
year, Mr. Davis, who are buried unidentified."

He added, after a moment's pause: "Of course, before taking any such
steps, we must formally prove, from unimpeachable testimony, that not
only are you Reginald Davis, but the particular Reginald Davis who was
falsely accused of murder."

"I quite understand," answered Davis a little stiffly. "Before I
leave this room, I will indicate the quarters where you can obtain the
information you want."

"Then, when I have verified that, I will ask you to come and see me
again." Bryant's manner as he said these words, indicated that the
interview was at an end.

But Davis kept his seat, he had not finished yet.

"May I take the liberty of detaining you for a few moments longer, sir,
to impress upon you the importance of having that body exhumed? You may
be correct in your theory it is that of some poor derelict, but I have a
different theory altogether."

The Inspector looked sharply at him, and drew a deep breath. "Ah, then,
you have some knowledge of something: your visit to me has been leading
up to this, eh?"

"No actual knowledge, sir, but a surmise that has, I venture to think,
some foundation. I have two sisters. The elder one I have already spoken
of to you."

There was a slight note of sarcasm in the Inspector's voice as he
replied, "Yes, Mrs. Masters, whose fortunate mistake was of such
excellent service to you, during the time you were waiting for the real
criminal's confession." Davis did not suffer himself to resent this.
Of course, a man of the world like Bryant did not believe in this
camouflaged story. Mrs. Masters was a clever young woman, and had
taken advantage of an accidental resemblance to get her brother out of
jeopardy.

"My other sister, Iris Deane, is in the chorus of the Frivolity Theatre.
I don't suppose you have ever heard of her?"

Mr. Bryant shook his head. He knew a great deal about all classes of
criminals, but young ladies in the chorus of the Frivolity, or any other
theatre, were not in his line.

"She was at Mrs. Masters's house last night. She came over especially
to welcome me, on my reintroduction to the world which I was supposed
to have quitted. She made to us a very startling confession, and that
confession is intimately associated with the events at Cathcart Square."

And this time, Bryant was genuinely surprised, and was at no pains to
conceal it. Reginald Davis--he was beginning to believe in the man's
identity now--was evidently a member of a very remarkable family.

"You astound me, Mr. Davis. Yourself and both your sisters mixed up with
what happened there! It sounds like a romance. Pray proceed!"

Davis told the story as Iris had told him, carefully concealing the
names of the two men concerned in it for the moment. He was careful
to point out that on the night of the suicide she could establish a
complete and unquestioned alibi.

Bryant turned on him sharply. "It occurs to me that you don't think it
was a suicide, Mr. Davis."

"I don't, sir, and at present I can't quite tell you why."

"But you must have some reason for thinking that," said Bryant in the
same sharp tone.

"My only reason is this--if the man who was buried under the name of
Reginald Davis is the man I believe him to be, there was no earthly
reason why he should commit suicide. To the best of my belief, he was
murdered for some motive that I cannot guess, and the murderer, after
cutting his throat, put the razor in his stiffening hand."

"It is a theory worth thinking about," said Bryant, who was beginning to
appreciate his visitor very much. "And now, Mr. Davis, the name of the
man whom your sister met in the empty house?"

"I have kept that to the last, to surprise you. You will know the name,
but I don't suppose you ever came across the man. It was Major Hugh
Murchison."

At this startling announcement, the Inspector literally jumped from his
chair.

"But I do know Major Hugh Murchison," he cried. "He was in my office not
so very long ago. Let me see, when was it?"

He turned to his diary and verified the date, and gave it to Reginald
Davis. It was longer back than he thought.

"And you have not seen him since that day?"

"No," answered the Inspector. "Wait a moment till I ring up my friend
Parkinson. I couldn't undertake the job he called on, as it was quite a
private matter. I handed it over to Parkinson."

He rang up his old friend and former colleague. Davis could gather
enough from the conversation on Bryant's side to be sure that a
considerable interval had elapsed since Parkinson had seen his client.

Bryant sat down in his chair. "Mr. Davis, I cannot say how much obliged
I am to you for your visit, and the information you have given me. Now,
I know a great deal more than you do about the proceedings and movements
of Major Murchison, I know on what business he was engaged, in addition
to that little matter of your sister's. I will go into the inquiries
concerning yourself, and please hold yourself at my disposal, give me an
address where I can communicate with you readily."

Davis did so, and said good-bye to the Inspector.

After he had left, Bryant gave instructions he was not to be disturbed
for an hour. And during that hour he did the hardest bit of thinking he
had ever done in his life.

And now that Davis had mentioned it, the man did bear a superficial
resemblance to Hugh Murchison.



CHAPTER XXIII

|It was a very hard nut he had to crack. Thanks to his peculiar
position, he was in possession of reliable and exclusive information
from more than one quarter. He held several threads in his capable
hands, but would he be able to weave them into a net wide enough for his
purpose?

His recent interview with Davis had established the fact that four
persons were connected with the mystery of Cathcart Square--Davis
himself, Caroline Masters (the elder sister), Iris Deane (the younger
sister), and, most important of all, Hugh Murchison.

He dismissed, for the moment, the first three from his mind. But Hugh
Murchison, with his resemblance to Reginald Davis, was the connecting
link between them and another set of actors.

Murchison had consulted him with the view of identifying Mrs. Spencer
and George Dutton with the Norah and George Burton of those far-off days
at Blankfield, and he had identified them as the same persons. He had
then handed over the Major to the astute Parkinson, who would find out
as much as he could with regard to the present relations between the
precious pair.

Bryant had been very busy of late, and he had almost dismissed the
Murchison episode from his mind. But when the Major had completed his
investigations he would undoubtedly take steps to turn such a scheming
and unscrupulous adventuress out of her husband's house. As to the way
in which he would proceed to accomplish that purpose, Bryant, of course,
had no knowledge. Neither did he know which Murchison would approach
first, the husband or the wife. Perhaps both together.

One thing stood out pretty clearly, from the evidence of Iris Deane,
that she had met Murchison alone at the house in Cathcart Square a few
days before the discovery of the dead body.

Another thing also stood out equally clearly, that the dead man bore a
remarkable likeness to Reginald Davis. If not, Caroline Masters would
not have dared to perjure herself as she had done. And he himself had
recognised the superficial resemblance between the two men.

Assuming that it was a murder, and not a suicide, and Bryant was
beginning to incline, like Davis, to the former theory, why had the
murderer fixed upon the name of Reginald Davis, and forged a letter
to the Coroner? He must have been somebody who had known Davis at some
time, and was acquainted with his handwriting. Like Caroline Masters, he
must have been inclined to do the hunted fugitive a good turn, and have
trusted to his gratitude to keep a silent tongue.

An hour's steady thinking had cleared his brain. The conclusions
he arrived at were as follows: Hugh Murchison had been murdered by
somebody, and buried as a suicide under the name of Reginald Davis.
The next question was who was the murderer, and what was the motive
for committing the murder? Here he could make a pretty shrewd guess. If
Murchison had gone about his mission in a straightforward, but rather
blundering, fashion the motive was clear enough.

With Bryant to think was to act. Davis was having a week's holiday in
London, staying with his sister, Mrs. Masters. That same afternoon the
young man was again in the Inspector's room, in response to an urgent
summons on the telephone.

"Now, Mr. Davis, I have been thinking deeply over this rather
complicated affair of Cathcart Square, and I am beginning to see a
streak or two of daylight. I told you this morning I know a bit more
about Major Murchison than you do, and there is just a chance you might
help me. I take it you have had a somewhat adventurous career, your
sister admitted as much at the inquest. She said in fact that you had
been the black sheep of the family."

Davis hung his head in a shame-faced fashion. "I have to admit it, sir.
It's no use attempting to deny it, when Carrie gave me away like that."

"I have no desire to pry into your past, except so far as it helps me in
my present quest. But I expect, in your time, you have associated with
a few undesirable characters." Reginald Davis admitted the fact quite
frankly.

"Now, of course, it is only just a chance. But did you ever come across
a man named George Burton, and a young woman who passed as his sister?
My first knowledge of them is that they ran a gambling saloon in
Paris, she a good-looking girl, acting as decoy. Then he quitted the
card-sharping game and went in for more criminal pursuits."

"I did know them, sir. If I tell you what I do know, am I letting myself
in for anything?" queried Mr. Davis cautiously. "You see, since that
awful thing happened, I have turned over a new leaf. Nobody could tempt
me to go the least bit on the crook."

"Make your mind quite easy, Davis. We have nothing against you. You know
that, or you would have hardly dared to come to life again."

"Well, sir, I did know George Burton pretty intimately at one time,
after he left Paris. He was in the forgery business and he tried to drag
me in, but I was clever enough to keep out of it. They used, in his own
set, to call him 'George the Penman.'"

"Good," said Bryant; "and what did you know about the girl?"

"Not very much, sir. She passed as his sister, but one or two of his
pals believed her to be his wife, although there was no evidence of it."

"Did you ever learn anything of her origin?"

"Well, one chap who seemed to know more about them than their other
pals, told me that she was by way of being a lady, the illegitimate
daughter of a man well-known in London Society."

"Do you know the name of the man?"

Davis tapped his forehead in the effort of recollection.

"It's on the tip of my tongue, sir: it will come to me in a moment--a
man who was mixed up in a gambling scandal, and had to leave the
country. Ah, I have got it now, he was known familiarly as Tommie
Esmond."

Mr. Bryant rose. He had got all he could out of his new acquaintance.
The threads in his hand were drawing closer into a web.

"Well, Mr. Davis, good-day. Many thanks for the information you have
given me, it has been very helpful. I will keep in touch with you."

"And you think, with me, it was a murder, and not a suicide?" questioned
Davis as he left.

But Bryant was not the man to express a decided opinion until he was
fully justified by the facts. He kept his thoughts to himself till the
last moment.

He smiled pleasantly. "Time will show. I shall have that body exhumed,
as soon as I have made a few further inquiries."

Davis had to be content with this oracular utterance, and bowed himself
out. He solaced himself by narrating all that had occurred to the
wondering Carrie.

The matter had now become one for the activities of Scotland Yard.
The first thing to be done was to ascertain the whereabouts of Hugh
Murchison, that is to say, if he was still in the land of the living.
Some time had elapsed since he had communicated with Parkinson. Of
course, in itself, there would be nothing strange in that. Parkinson had
got the information that was required, been paid for it, and with that
payment, their relations had ended.

Bryant went to the hotel where the Major had stayed, at any rate up
to the time that the detective had last seen him, and interviewed the
manager, whom he had known for some years in his professional capacity.
This person, a genial and cosmopolitan Italian, readily answered his
questions.

Yes, the Major had stayed there for some little time. When he came,
he explained that he was only paying a flying visit to London. Had he
brought a servant with him? No, he had not. A somewhat strange omission
for a man in his position, was it not? The circumstance was easily
explained. The Major had had to dismiss his late valet for theft, and
was not in a hurry, for the present, to suit himself with a fresh one.
This he had told the manager and he was valeted at the hotel.

He had left some time. How long? The manager would find out the exact
date. This he did. On the afternoon of the fourth of July.

The Major had taken his things down to Victoria Station in a cab with
the view of depositing them there, as he was going to take an evening
train to Brighton.

Bryant brightened up at this information. The discovery of the dead body
at Cathcart Square had taken place early on the morning of the fifth.

Now arose the question, had the Major got through his business with the
Spencers before the fourth of July? In that case Mrs. Spencer was hardly
likely to be still living at Eaton Place with her husband.

Inquiries at Eaton Place soon established the fact that Mrs. Spencer was
still there. What had happened? Had the Major communicated the result of
his research to the husband, with the result that, infatuated with his
wife, that husband had refused to credit the story and accepted Stella's
denials?

It was a fairly plausible theory. When men are deeply in love, women
can twist them round their little finger. In that case, it was easy to
understand that, disgusted with the failure of his intervention, the
Major had made up his mind to leave London at once.

One other thing was to be done, to ascertain if the Major had intimated
to any of his friends his intention of leaving London so abruptly. For
this purpose, Bryant sought out the brother Roderick, who had rooms in
Jermyn Street.

Yes, Roderick had met the Major in Bond Street in the morning, and
learned of the proposed journey to Brighton. The young man added that
his brother was very erratic in his movements, and sometimes would
disappear for weeks at a stretch without communicating with any of his
friends or relatives.

There was now one of two theories that stood out: the first one that Guy
Spencer had been told, and refused to believe the true facts about his
wife. The second was, that the Major had shirked the unpleasantness of
a personal interview of such a delicate character, and had gone down to
Brighton intending to write privately to Spencer from there.

Further inquiries elicited the fact that the Major had never made that
projected journey to Brighton. His belongings had never been claimed,
they were still lying in the cloak room at Victoria Station.

There was now no further doubt as to what steps had to be taken.
The Major had disappeared at a date practically coinciding with the
discovery of the dead body at Cathcart Square, the dead body which had
been wrongly identified as that of Reginald Davis, whose likeness to the
Major was so pronounced. Of that fact, Bryant himself was aware.

The authorities were applied to, and gave permission for the body to be
exhumed. As the living Reginald Davis had established his identity to
the satisfaction of Scotland Yard, it was necessary to find out, if
possible, that of the man who had been mistaken for him.

The body was exhumed and pronounced by half-a-dozen people, including
Guy Spencer, to be that of the Major.

It had now become clearly a case of murder, and although those in charge
of the case had little or no doubt as to the guilty persons, it might
have been very difficult to prove, but for one convincing fact, supplied
by the murdered man himself.

But this evidence, which was overwhelming, the police kept to themselves
for some little time, for their own good reasons.



CHAPTER XXIV

|The luggage which had been left at Victoria Station on the fatal day
was, of course, seized by the police. They searched it thoroughly in
the hope that they would find something useful to them in the shape of
letters or memoranda.

Of letters there were only two, brief ones from Iris Deane, in which she
expressed her determination of sticking out for her ten thousand pounds.
As we know, in the end she gave way and accepted seven.

But they did find one priceless thing, and that was a diary, bound in
red leather, a small volume as to the size of the page, but very bulky.
It had evidently been the dead man's habit to keep a fairly close record
of his doings, for it was numbered, and contained entries from some
date in May 1919 up to July 3rd, the day before he left the hotel,
and announced to the manager that he intended to take a late train to
Brighton.

For the twentieth time since he had discovered this important piece
of evidence, Mr. Bryant sat in his room at Scotland Yard, reading and
re-reading the entries which he knew almost by heart.

With the entries, before the visit to London, Bryant had no concern.
They recorded trifling events which had no reference to the tragedy
at Cathcart Square. There was, of course, allusion to the letter from
Roderick which had so startled his family, the letter announcing his
engagement to the chorus girl, Iris Deane, and his fixed resolve to make
her his wife. There was a note of a family council, in which the elder
brother was deputed to approach the young woman herself, with the object
of buying her off.

There were a few records of his first days in London, after a long
absence, his visits to his clubs, his meeting with old pre-war
acquaintances, his first interview with Iris Deane, the difficulty of
arranging further interviews either at his hotel or her flat, owing to
the fear of Roddie popping in unexpectedly.

Then came the whimsical record of his strolling round Kensington,
halting opposite the house with the board announcing that it was to be
let furnished, his interview with the accommodating caretaker who, in
return for a very handsome _douceur_, gave him a duplicate key to enter
the house at any time he liked. He had casually mentioned to Miles that
his name was Sanderson.

The Major seemed childishly pleased over what he considered a very
astute move, especially the giving of another name. Here in this quiet
backwater of the world, for so it would seem to a man of his wealth and
position, he could continue his negotiations with the somewhat obstinate
Iris. In the portion of the diary concerned with the grasping and
frivolous young chorus-girl, Bryant was not greatly interested. He had
learned this already from Iris Deane, whom he had interviewed a few
times, and Reginald Davis.

He turned from the bulky little volume, the pages of which were covered
with the Major's small, rather methodical handwriting, to a slenderer
book lying beside him. Into this had been copied all the extracts
bearing on the relations between the dead man and Mrs. Spencer,
otherwise Stella Keane, otherwise Norah Burton.

The first entry recorded the dinner-party at Carlton House Terrace, when
he had been struck by the remarkable likeness of his friend's wife to
the pretty adventuress at Blankfield, who had driven his old friend,
Jack Pomfret, to his death; his endeavours to startle her by allusions
to that garrison town.

An important entry was that of his interview with his old acquaintance
at the club, Gilbert Fairfax, from whom he had learned something of the
atmosphere of the L'Estrange flat in Elsinore Gardens, the branding of
Tommie Esmond as a card-sharper, the flight of the fat little man to the
Continent, the visit of Stella Keane to Charing Cross Station to bid the
detected cheat farewell. There was a comment upon this fact: "Whether
she is Norah Burton or not, her intimacy with the L'Estrange set, her
solicitude for Tommie Esmond, are sufficient to make her unfit to be the
wife of a straight, honest fellow like my old friend Guy Spencer."

There followed further entries, relating his interview with Bryant, the
confirmation by the detective that Stella Keane was Norah Burton, that
George Dutton, the keeper of the obscure little bucket-shop in the City,
was the same George Burton who had been arrested at Blank-field on a
charge of forgery, and who, thanks to one of the cleverest advocates at
the criminal bar, had got off with a very light sentence.

There was a full record of the long interview with Mrs. Spencer, in
which she had been finally confounded, and forced to confession, of her
acceptance of his terms, of the words she had uttered when, while rather
regretting that things could not go on as they were, lamenting the fact
that her accuser had ever been born, she was not at all satisfied with
her present environment, and would experience a certain measure of
relief in quitting it for a more congenial sphere.

On the day he had parted from her, the day on which she had yielded to
his inflexible determination that she must remain under her husband's
roof as short a time as possible, he recorded the fact that, up to the
present moment, he had not made up his mind as to the precise way in
which he was going to bring about the separation. He wanted to choose
the way which would least hurt Guy.

There had flashed through his mind that, in addition to the confession
she was about to make to him of her whole career, she should confess to
her husband that she was not legally his wife, being in reality the wife
of George Burton, alias George Dutton. There followed here a note. "I am
convinced she and this rascal were married, the sister and cousin dodges
were always a fake. I must see Parkinson to find out if he can ferret
out anything on that point. But the time is short. In a week I must be
ready for action."

A further entry showed that he had called on Parkinson with this object,
only to learn that the detective had gone on an important mission
abroad, and could undertake no further work till his return, which would
be some ten days hence. That idea therefore had to be dismissed. He must
think out some other plan.

Then came the last and most important entry of all, dated on the fourth
of July, written no doubt a few hours before he took his luggage to
Victoria Station.

"I meet Norah Burton, I always think of her by that old name, at
Cathcart Square at six o'clock to-night. I have given the caretaker a
holiday to keep him out of the way. I have drawn up two copies of
the confession, one of which she is to sign. I have also drawn up an
undertaking on my part to keep her from want in case Guy should prove
obdurate. But this I am sure he will not do. Besides, if she is his
wife, and thinking it over, I have my doubts as to whether she was ever
really married to Burton, he would have to support her, in spite of her
unsavoury associations."

Bryant paused for a moment as he finished this paragraph to reflect a
little. Personally, he did not believe that she was the wife of George
Burton; in his opinion, their association had been the result of mutual
interests. With this knowledge hanging over her head, she would hardly
have been daring enough to go through the ceremony of marriage with two
other men. Anyway, it was a debatable point.

Moreover, Burton, like most criminals, would be very wide awake and
calculating. To marry her would be to handicap himself. He could get
more out of her by marrying her to a rich man.

Then came the last paragraph of all.

"Now, for my action after the final interview of to-night, when she has
signed the confession. I may do one of two things, forbid her to return
to her husband's house, and go myself straight to Eaton Place, and break
the news to Spencer without any preamble. In that case, I shall take
with me some ready money to hand to her, as she will probably have very
little upon her.

"And yet I rather shrink from this course; it would be painful for me to
watch his agony while I struck such a terrible blow. I will run down
to Brighton, drop him a note telling him that an important letter will
reach him at his club by registered post to-morrow, that he is on no
account to let his wife know he has heard from me till he has read the
contents of that registered packet.

"I shall post him the copy of the confession, telling him he can inspect
the original at any time he likes, meeting me either in Brighton or
London, leaving him to deal with her as he chooses. After all, his is
the right to dispose of his private affairs, my duty really ends when I
have put him in possession of the facts. My first method must have the
effect of creating open scandal at once, by my insisting upon her not
returning to Eaton Place.

"He may wish to devise some plan that will create a scandal less open,
to save, as far as he can, the disgrace to himself and his family. If I
know the man, and here, perhaps, I am arguing from the knowledge only of
my own temperament, I should say his love would turn to hatred after he
reads that confession. Jack Pomfret was a weaker man than Guy, but he
acted as I should have done under the circumstances, and refused all
further communication with her, refused to give her the opportunity of
denial or explanation.

"Still, there is no knowing to what lengths a deep-rooted infatuation
for a fascinating woman will lead a man. In this respect, Guy may be
less adamant than Pomfret, although I am sure he will never imitate poor
Jack's final weakness. He is too sturdily built for that.

"When confronted with that confession she may plead artfully, and,
perhaps to him, convincingly, that while she admits everything contained
in it, she was more sinned against than sinning, that she tried to
escape from her odious bondage by marrying Jack, and that with his
suicide and the frustration of her hopes, she was compelled to return
to an environment which she loathed. He might consent to believe and
forgive, although to me such a thing seems incredible, impossible."

Bryant closed the book on the last entry. That little red-leather volume
threw a lurid light on the mystery of Cathcart Square. The exhumed body
was found to be that of Major Murchison, wrongly identified in the first
instance as that of Reginald Davis. It was all very clear.

That meeting had taken place, and the unfortunate man had been done
to death by the precious pair, Norah Burton and the scoundrel brother,
cousin or life-long lover, whichever he was. Reginald Davis was an old
acquaintance of theirs, had been possibly a more intimate one than
the cautious Davis was prepared to admit. They took with them letters
addressed to their old friend, they forged a letter from him intimating
his intention to commit suicide.

If Davis read of all this in the papers, he was too concerned with his
own danger to emerge from his hiding-place and publish the truth to the
world. He would be thankful that, through the villainy of others, he
could take a new lease of life, unmenaced by detection. Of course, they
had never thought of the possibility that Davis would be cleared by the
confession of the real criminal. Like Scotland Yard, they were sure he
was guilty, and his silence was a matter of certainty.

And slowly Bryant, drawing from the stores of his vast experience, began
to construct in his own mind the details of the murder, executed by
two desperate criminals, almost driven to the verge of madness by the
knowledge that their carefully-laid plans were about to be frustrated by
the action of one man.

The woman, the weaker of the two, was probably more disposed to yield to
the force and strength of circumstances. Once before, in her marriage to
Jack Pomfret, she had had the cup snatched from her lips, and bowed
to the inevitable. From the few words recorded in the Major's accusing
diary, it would seem that, secured of a modest competence, she was ready
a second time to accept her fate.

And then, in that week's interval, it was easy to guess what had
happened. She had consulted her old partner in crime, George Burton. He
had reasoned, as it turned out, a little shallowly, remove Murchison,
and the danger will be past. The resemblance of Murchison to Reginald
Davis had occurred to the pair, hence the cunningly prepared letters.

And how was the actual murder accomplished? Had they gone to Cathcart
Square together, or had Burton followed her, getting in by means of that
broken window-pane at the back? And did they know the Major was alone?
In that last interview with Mrs. Spencer, had he let out the fact
that he had given the caretaker a holiday, so that they should not be
disturbed?

These were side problems that could not be solved at the moment. Only
two persons could solve them, and those two, in all probability, would
never speak.

But how had they killed him? The Major was a strong, muscular fellow who
would fight tenaciously for his life. Norah Burton was a slender woman,
almost verging on frailness, George Dutton, to call him by his latest
name, was certainly of a muscular build, although of only average
height.

Well, of course, they had foreseen and prepared for all that.
while talking to him, she had sprayed over him the essence of some
overpowering and stupefying drug, and while he was staggering about,
dazed and blinded, the man had stepped in and done the rest.

Owing to the absence of the caretaker, they had plenty of time. They had
rifled his pockets, taking out of them the money which, according to
his diary, he had brought along with him, his personal belongings, the
ticket which he had received at the luggage room of Victoria Station,
and, of course, the confession which Norah Burton had or had not signed.
No doubt, they had also examined his linen and underclothing to make
sure that his name was not on them. If it had been, they would have
dealt with it by stripping the body.

They had carried it out pretty well, on the whole. There were two things
they had not reckoned on. One was the resuscitation of Reginald Davis.
The other was the fact that Murchison kept a diary, one of the last
things that a man of his sort was likely to do.

Bryant, although not a very emotional man, felt very depressed as he
came to the result of his meditations. He felt sure that, if Norah
Burton could have had her own way, she would have accepted her fate,
gone forth on the world again with the slender pittance that either of
the two men, her husband or his friend, would have allowed her.

She had suffered herself to be dominated by a more reckless and criminal
spirit, with the result that the life of an honourable man had been
taken, and she was already standing at the foot of the gallows.

The pair, only knowing that the body had been exhumed and proved to
be that of Hugh Murchison--a terribly disturbing thought to them--but
ignorant of the discovery of that incriminating diary, were being
closely watched. But they felt sure that nothing could be traced to
them, they had hidden their tracks so cleverly, as they thought.

It was now only a question of a few hours as to when they should be
taken. And Bryant felt that Guy Spencer should know the truth before
anybody else. Poor fellow! He would soften the blow to him as much as he
could.

That same evening he went round to Eaton Place, about seven o'clock.
He reckoned that he would catch Spencer before he went up to dress for
dinner. "Poor devil," thought Bryant, "he won't have much appetite for
dinner after he has read through that diary!"

Spencer was in the library, and the detective, whom he had met before
in connection with the mystery of Cathcart Square, was shown in. Spencer
welcomed him with his usual cordiality.

"Good-evening, Mr. Bryant. Any fresh light upon this terrible thing?"

The footman had left the library door slightly open, after showing
Bryant in, and had retired swiftly to his quarters.

He was hardly out of the hall when Stella opened the front-door with
her key, and glided noiselessly in. All her movements were noiseless,
suggesting, as somebody had once remarked of her, the silent motions of
a snake. She always carried a key, declaring that she could not be kept
waiting for servants to answer the door.

The library door was open, through the aperture she heard voices, and
one of them she recognised. It was that of the Scotland Yard detective,
who had cross-examined her very closely as to her various meetings with
the dead man. She had been afraid of Bryant. He had looked at her so
searchingly, and his manner always conveyed that he knew so much more
than he was prepared to disclose.

Bryant was speaking in a low, but very clear voice. Her hearing was
singularly acute, and she could catch every word.

"I am come on a very painful errand, Mr. Spencer. There is a small
volume here which throws a very clear light on what happened at Cathcart
Square on that fatal evening of July the fourth."

Guy's cheerful accents rang out. "You mean you have got a clue, Mr.
Bryant. But why painful to me? If you are on the track of the murderer
of my poor old friend, nobody will be more rejoiced than I."

Again the low, grave tones of Bryant:

"Mr. Spencer, you will be a very stricken man when you have read through
it. Your poor friend left behind him a very copious diary, made up to
the morning of the day on which he was murdered. The original is at my
office, you can inspect it at any time you like. This is a copy of the
entries relating to Cathcart Square. It touches your domestic life very
closely, in addition to proving why and by whom he was murdered."

Stella waited to hear no more. Her face had gone livid, she felt shaking
in every limb. That her old enemy, Murchison, had left a diary! They
had never thought of that possibility. The game was up. She had staked
something on her marriage as Norah Burton with Jack Pomfret, and had
lost. This time she had staked everything and lost again, but now she
had lost liberty and life in addition. There was but one end. She must
seek at once the man who had, in a way, been a good and faithful friend,
but also her evil genius.

She stole as quietly out of the hall as she had entered it, and hailed
a passing taxi. She knew she would never enter the house at Eaton Place
again.



CHAPTER XXV

|Mrs. Spencer had plenty of money in her pocket. She was always
accustomed to carry a large sum about her. Her adventurous life had
taught her that it was always wiser to have a good amount of cash in her
possession. The time might come at any moment when you were in a tight
corner. She had promised a handsome reward to the taxi-cab driver if he
could get to a certain destination within the speed limit.

That destination was Kew Bridge, where it abuts on a little-known
neighbourhood called Strand-on-the-Green.

At the foot of Kew Bridge, the wretched and hunted woman halted, and
paid the driver his extravagant fare. What did it matter what she paid
to-night? To-morrow she might not be able to pay. She shuddered as she
thought of that to-morrow.

The taxi-driver drove slowly out of sight. She waited, from a sense of
habitual caution, till he was well out of the way. And then, remembering
everything, she smiled bitterly. Was there any need of caution now?

She went down a narrow lane, halted at the door of a small cottage, and
rang the front-door bell. As she did so, she was aware of a man a few
yards away from her, who seemed to be strolling aimlessly about, a man
dressed in ill-fitting clothes, and heavy boots.

A detective certainly! This man had followed her from Eaton Place in a
taxi almost as swift as her own. Bryant knew his business, he was not
going to lose sight of her, or of her reputed cousin, George Dutton.

The door was opened cautiously by George Dutton, alias George Burton.

It was a small furnished cottage that he had rented for some months
past, at a rent commensurate with his means. He kept no servant; a
feeble old woman came in the morning to clean him up and prepare his
breakfast. When he came back at night from the not very prosperous
bucket-shop, he looked after himself, and cooked over a gas-stove his
evening meal.

The evenings were drawing in, and it was rather a dark night. He peered
for a moment at his visitor, before he recognised her.

"Stella, by all that is wonderful." He called her by the new name,
not the old one of Norah. "Come in, dear, but your arrival in this
unexpected fashion does not suggest good news."

She passed hastily through the open doorway. "Shut it quick," she said,
in a low, hoarse voice. "There is a man watching outside, I am sure he
is a detective."

As a matter of fact, there were two detectives within a few feet of each
other, but in her agitation she had not observed the second man, who was
deputed to keep watch on the movements of Mr. George Dutton.

George Dutton was an old hand, and not to be lightly disturbed by small
incidents. But he recognised the significance of this visit. His ruddy
colour died away.

"You have bad news," he said quietly.

"The worst, George. Bryant, the detective, paid a visit to Guy this
evening. I came in just in the nick of time. The library door was ajar,
I heard what Bryant said. The Major has left a diary behind him, and, of
course, he had put it all down, up to the arranged meeting in Cathcart
Square. The game is up, you will recognise that."

Dutton's mentality was a little bit slower than her own. "Did you hear
any extracts read from the diary?"

"What a fool you are!" she cried indignantly. "Why should I wait to
hear? If the man kept a diary, is it not easy to guess that he would
have related every incident connected with me, from our first meeting at
the Southleigh dinner-party? Bryant is watching me, there is a detective
waiting outside. No doubt he is watching you, too. He is just waiting to
pounce."

"Then why has he gone to your husband?"

"Oh, you are too dense for worlds. Just to soften the blow. Can't you
understand that he wants to warn him beforehand of the shame that is
going to fall upon him, the discovery that his wife is a murderess?"

And then Mr. Dutton understood. He stretched out appealing arms to her.
"My poor little girl, my ever faithful pal! And I have brought you to
this!"

"You have brought me to this," she said bitterly. "Did I not implore you
upon my knees to accept the Major's terms, and you were so obstinate,
so set. You would insist upon the other way because it seemed better to
you. And I, fool that I was, always yielding to your sinister influence,
gave way as I always have done."

Scoundrel and criminal as he was, hardened by years of evil-doing, the
man's self-control gave way at that accusation. He drew her to him, and,
strange to say, she did not shrink from his embrace..

"My poor Stella, I have tried to do my best for you always, even
sacrificed myself. But the end has come."

He recognised that, as she did.

"Yes," she said stoically, "as you say, the end has come. You have
always been very adept in falling into holes, and then digging yourself
out again. How are you going to dig yourself and me out of this hole, in
the face of that incriminating diary?"

Dutton walked up and down, his face working, his hands and his body
trembling. He was up against the gravest problem of his adventurous
career. The shadow of the prison had always hovered over him, but now
there was a more ghastly menace, the shadow of the gallows. From the
prison, he could return. There was no return from the other.

He paused in his restless pacing, and came to a halt before the stricken
woman. He had recovered himself to a certain extent. He had gambled and
lost, he was prepared to accept the fate of the unsuccessful gambler.

"You are brave, old girl?" he asked briefly.

She looked up at him with a wan smile.

"Yes, I think I am brave. I can guess what you are about to suggest,
with the detectives watching us outside." She burst into a little sob.
"Oh, you always thought you were so clever, and yet, if I had had the
management of affairs, things might have been so different."

He spoke humbly. "I think you are right, Norah. I was always full of
arrogance and self-conceit. You were weaker in character than I was, but
you had always more brains. And I was a blind fool not to admit it. Many
a time you gave me your advice, and I rejected it."

"And what do you suggest now?" she asked, in a voice that had sunk to a
whisper.

He looked at her steadily. He had screwed up his courage to the sticking
point. Could he count upon an equal fortitude in her?

"It is the finish, old girl. You say the detectives are waiting outside.
Bryant has got a good case, and the diary will hang us. There is no
getting over that."

"You propose----" she said falteringly.

He spoke quite steadily. The end had come, he had made up his mind, so
far as regards himself.

"We neither of us want to hang for the murder of Hugh Murchison?"

She shuddered, and hid her face with her hands. "Oh, that awful evening!
It has been like a nightmare ever since."

"I know," said Dutton soothingly. "It was one of my fatal mistakes. But
it is no use crying over spilt milk. To-night we are face to face with
facts. We have gambled, and we have lost, and we have got to pay the
penalty."

The wretched woman rose up, and wrung her hands. "And to think I might
have been the Countess of Southleigh."

"I know; don't think I am not reckoning up all that," replied Dutton.
"But we have got to deal with facts to-night, with the detectives
waiting outside. The game is up, you know that as well as I do. We have
only a few hours before us, perhaps a few minutes, in which to make the
choice."

"I know," she answered. "You mean our only alternative is to cheat the
law."

He looked at her steadily. "That is the only way. If we suffer ourselves
to be taken, we have not got a dog's chance."

Weak woman as she was, she gathered something of his iron resolution.
Yes, they must die and die together, to cheat the law. Such was to be
the end of the brilliant adventuress who had inveigled two men into
marriage, Jack Pomfret and Guy Spencer, with her subtle and elusive
charm.

"And what do you suggest, George? You have thought of these things more
than I have."

"I have always thought of them," said Dutton gloomily. "Well, there are
various ways I can suggest to you. I can shoot you first, and myself
afterwards."

She shuddered. "Some other way than that."

"I can give you some tabloids."

"Is there any pain?" she queried.

"Hardly any."

She shuddered again. "Hardly any. That does not sound very convincing."

He proposed a third alternative. "You can come up to my room, and lie on
the bed. I will paper up all the doors and cracks and turn up the gas.
You will simply go to sleep and never wake."

"That is the best," she said.

"If we had plenty of time. But they may take us in a few minutes. Bryant
has seen your husband, he will not wait long after that interview."

"The tabloids, then," she said firmly.

Yes, it had come to this, she must cheat the law. Twice, she had had
her chance, once as the wife of Jack Pomfret, again as the wife of Guy
Spencer. And twice had the cup of triumph been snatched from her lips.

She must die, like a rat in a hole, in this obscure little cottage at
Strand-on-the-Green, in the company of the man who had always been her
evil genius.

Dutton went across to a small cupboard built in the wall of the shabby
parlour, and brought out a little bottle filled with capsules. He
extracted one and handed it to the shrinking woman.

"Take yours first, dear, I will take mine after." There was a look of
infinite compassion in the scoundrel's face as he offered it to her.

Bravely she took it, and swallowed it with a great gulp, sitting in the
shabby easy-chair. The effect was almost instantaneous, and when Dutton
had made sure that she was beyond human aid, he took a similar tabloid
himself, with the same result.

An hour later there was a thundering knock at the door of the cottage.
One of the detectives had gone to a telephone office and informed Bryant
that the woman had come to Strand-on-the-Green, and was with Dutton. The
order came back from Bryant, who had only stayed a few minutes at Eaton
Place, that the pair were to be arrested at once.

Of course there was no response. After waiting for a few moments, the
men broke in the frail door. But they were too late.

Norah Burton, and the man who had been so long associated with
her--brother, cousin, lover, whatever he might be--had gone to their
judgment.

It was a nine-days' wonder, and while his friends and acquaintances were
still discussing it at clubs and over tea-tables, Guy Spencer slipped
quietly abroad. When he returned to England, at the end of twelve
months, these tragic happenings had become little more than a memory to
his world.

He stayed a week with the Southleighs at their ancestral home in Sussex,
and at the end of that week their friends read an important announcement
in _The Morning Post_:

"A marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Mr.
Guy Spencer and his cousin, Lady Nina, only daughter and child of the
Earl of Southleigh."

THE END





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