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Title: The Nether Stone
Author: White, Fred M. (Fred Merrick)
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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[Illustration: frontcover]



THE NETHER MILLSTONE



[Illustration: She came slowly down the steps and stood between the two
men (Page 32.) _Frontispiece_]



THE NETHER MILLSTONE



BY
FRED M. WHITE
AUTHOR OF
"THE SLAVE OF SILENCE," "THE CRIMSON BLIND,"
"THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN," ETC.


_ILLUSTRATED_



BOSTON
LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY
1907



Copyright, 1905,
By WARD, LOCK, AND COMPANY.
Copyright, 1907,
BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
---------------------
_All Rights Reserved_



Published September 1907



Printers
S. J. Parkhill & Co., Boston, U.S.A.



CONTENTS

CHAPTER
        I. "The Caste of Vere de Vere."
       II. Dashwood Hall.
      III. Horace Mayfield.
       IV. A Leaf from the Past.
        V. The Sacrifice.
       VI. A Cruel Misunderstanding.
      VII. The Only Way.
     VIII. Found!
       IX. The Parting Guest.
        X. Skin Deep.
       XI. The Dowager Lady Dashwood.
      XII. Lady Dashwood Sees a Ghost.
     XIII. Desecration!
      XIV. A Fierce Temptation.
       XV. Not Quite Too Late.
      XVI. The Unfinished Word.
     XVII. Breathing Time.
    XVIII. A Flaming Sword.
      XIX. A Guardian Angel.
       XX. Half Told.
      XXI. Vincent Dashwood.
     XXII. Who Did It?
    XXIII. The Silver Clue.
     XXIV. A Fresh Calamity.
      XXV. Pride or Prejudice.
     XXVI. In Reckless Mood.
    XXVII. A Warning.
   XXVIII. Moral Force.
     XXIX. Strategy.
      XXX. The Heir of the House.
     XXXI. Under Which Lord?
    XXXII. Must This Thing Be?
   XXXIII. A Rebel Against Fate.
    XXXIV. Mistress Of Herself.
     XXXV. A Friend in Need.
    XXXVI. Connie Colam.
   XXXVII. The Unexpected Happens.
  XXXVIII. The Mystery Deepens.
    XXXIX. Homeless.
       XL. In Peril.
      XLI. The Lesson of Adversity.
     XLII. The Courage of Despair.
    XLIII. Getting Nearer.
     XLIV. The Dreary Way.
      XLV. The Walls of Pride.
     XLVI. The Head of the House.
    XLVII. "How Long, How Long!"
   XLVIII. Face To Face!
     XLIX. A Bolt From the Blue.
        L. Hard Put To It.
       LI. Cold Comfort.
      LII. The Spider's Web.
     LIII. The Web Tightens.
      LIV. "Eyes Clearer Grown----"
       LV. Not Dead.
      LVI. Found!
     LVII. A Clean Breast Of It.
    LVIII. "The King is Dead--"
      LIX. "Long Live the King!"
       LX. Open Confession.



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

_Page_ 32 (_Frontispiece_). "She came slowly down the steps and stood
between the two men."

_Page_ 15. "She playfully asked him not to be too long."

_Page_ 272. "Under the shade of a tree Mary laid down and closed her
weary eyes."

_Page_ 397. "He had Mary's hand in his."



THE NETHER MILLSTONE



CHAPTER I.
"THE CASTE OF VERE DE VERE"


There were tears in the girl's eyes--tears of futile anger and
despair. The danger was so great, and yet safety was so near. If only
the black horse would stumble or swerve, if only she could work the
bit into that iron mouth and bring him to a standstill altogether. Her
gloves were cut to ribands now; the blue veins stood out on the
slender white wrists.

And still the horse flew on down the rocky path leading to the
lych-gate. He would charge through the gate into the green old
churchyard beyond, but no longer with his rider fighting for life on
his back. The arch of the lych-gate would sweep her from the saddle
with a blow that would crush the life out of her. Mary Dashwood could
see that plainly enough; she knew that she had only a few more minutes
to live.

She set her teeth and blinked the welling tears from her proud blue
eyes. She was not afraid--no Dashwood was ever afraid--but the pity of
it! She saw the great beeches rising on either side of the path, she
saw the blue sky beyond, the song of the birds came to her ears. And
she was only twenty-two, and life was very dear to her.

The moment was coming ever nearer. The black horse was thundering
along the straight downward path; the lych-gate was in sight. Mary
discarded the idea of throwing herself from the saddle; she would have
only been dashed to pieces on the rocks on either side of the road.
She had been warned, too, not to take the black horse. She bent low to
escape an overhanging bough; her hat was swept away; the shining
chestnut hair began to stream from her shapely head.

There was a crackling of sticks in the wood on the right; surely, a
hundred yards or so ahead, a face looked over the high fence, the
figure of a man was holding on to the overhanging bough of an oak
tree. Mary Dashwood wondered if the man realised her danger. Perhaps
he did, for he crooked a leg over the bough and hung arms downward
over the roadway. He was saying something in a smooth, firm voice.

"Pull to the side of the road," said the voice. It almost sounded like
a command. "Drop the reins and clear your stirrup as you near me. And
have no fear."

The big horse thundered on. Despite her peril, Mary did not fail
to notice how strong and brown and capable the stranger's hands
looked. . . . It was all done so quickly and easily as to rob the
episode of romantic danger--two hands, warm and tender, and yet firm
as a steel trap, grasped the girl's slender wrists, she was floated
lightly from the saddle, and in the next instant she was swaying
dizzily on her feet in the road. The pride and courage of the
Dashwoods availed nothing now--it was but a mere woman who fell almost
fainting by the roadside.

She opened her eyes presently to the knowledge that a strong arm was
supporting her. A bright blush mounted to her proud, beautiful face.
The colour deepened as she saw the look, half admiration, half
amusement, on the face of her rescuer.

"Mr. Darnley," she stammered. "I--I hardly expected to see you here. A
little over two years ago, in Paris, you saved my life before."

"It is good to know that you have not forgotten it," Ralph Darnley
murmured. "And yet the coincidence is not so strange as it seems. I
did not come to these parts moved by any unaccountable impulse--I
simply had business here. And I was told that a walk through the park
would repay me for my trouble. As I was making a start out, through a
copse I saw your predicament and hastened to your assistance. A handy
tree did the rest. The only strange part of the affair is that you
should be here, too."

"Nothing strange about that," the girl smiled, "seeing that the Hall
is my home."

It was a commonplace statement of facts, and yet the words seemed to
hurt Ralph Darnley as if they had been lashes to sting him. The honest
open brown face paled perceptibly under its tan hue. A dozen emotions
changed in those clear brown eyes.

"I--I don't quite understand," he remarked. "When we met in Paris two
years ago, Miss Mary Mallory----"

"Quite so. Mary Dashwood Mallory. But, you see, the head of the family
was alive then. He died nearly two years ago without any children, in
fact, his only son died years ago somewhere abroad--it was a rather
sad story--and my father came into the title and estates. He is Sir
George Dashwood now. You can quite see why he changed his name."

"Of course. Only you can see that I could not possibly know this. What
a grand old place it is, and what a grand old house! You must have
grown very fond of it."

"I love it," Mary Dashwood cried. The look of haughty pride had faded
from her face, leaving it refined and beautiful. "I love every stick
and stone of it, it is part of my very life. You see, I have
practically lived here always. As my father was in the Diplomatic
Service, and my mother died young, it was necessary for somebody to
look after me. I spent my childhood here with old Lady Dashwood, who
has now gone to the dower house--such a wonderful old body!"

But Darnley did not appear to be listening. He made an effort to
recover himself presently. He was like a man who dreams.

"I can quite appreciate your feelings," he said quietly. "I understand
that the Dashwoods have ruled here for three hundred years. It is a
fine estate; they tell me the heirlooms are almost priceless. And yet
I am sorry."

The girl looked sharply up at the speaker.

"Why should you be sorry?" she demanded.

"Because it is the end of a dream," Darnley said. "I rather gathered
in Paris that your father was poor. The fact levelled things up a
little. It is just possible that you may remember our last evening
together in Paris."

"I recollect," Mary said, the delicate colour flushing her cheeks
again. "But I thought that we had closed that chapter finally, Mr.
Darnley."

"No. That chapter can never be closed for me. I loved you from the
first moment that we met, and I shall go on loving you till I die. I
asked you to be my wife, and you refused me. The future mistress of
Dashwood could not stoop to the son of a Californian rancher, though I
happened to be an English gentleman by birth. I hope I took your
refusal quietly, though it was a great blow to me. There can be no
other woman for me, Mary."

"I am sorry," the girl said, "but see how impossible it is. Perhaps I
am a little old-fashioned, perhaps it is the fault of my bringing up.
That like must mate with like has always been the motto of the
Dashwoods. These new people, with their wealth and noise and
ostentation can never cross the threshold of Dashwood Hall. My father
is fond of finance, but he never dreams of bringing his City friends
here."

Darnley smiled to himself. He recollected the days in Paris, when
Mary's father had been hand-in-glove with many a dubious French
financier.

"We are wandering from the point," he said. "In any case your
strictures do not touch me, for I have no money. My poor father left
me comfortably off, as he thought, but my mine of silver is ruined
now, ruined by a firm of City swindlers whom I was fool enough to
regard as honest men. It was a very bad thing for me when I came in
contact with Horace Mayfield."

It was the girl's turn to start guiltily. The beautiful face flushed
once more.

"I know Mr. Mayfield," she said. "He is the only one of my father's
business friends who comes here. We make an exception in his favour,
because he is so well connected. Frankly, I do not like him, but I
thought that he-----"

"That he is a cold-blooded and calculating rascal to the core,"
Darnley said. "I trusted him, and he left me almost penniless. Many
people will tell you I am saying no more than what is actually true.
And, because I am poor, I came down here thinking to find a little
something that belonged to my people years ago. And so I met you,
Mary, and discovered that I love you with the same old pure affection,
that will go on burning in my heart till I die. It may strike you as
strange that a poor man should speak to Miss Dashwood, of Dashwood,
like this. Mind you, I am young, and strong, and able, and I shall
come into my kingdom again. And love is worth all the rest; it is
better far than money, or position, or pride of birth. If I could hear
you say that you cared for me now! You are so beautiful; behind all
your pride the woman's heart beats true enough. May God grant that you
meet the right man when the time comes! I would give you up to him
willingly and shake his hand on it. But to think of your being the
wife of some brainless nonentity, of some brutal ruffian who has
nothing but an old title to cover his moral wickedness, why the
thought is unbearable. Mary, I think I could find it in my heart to
kill that man."

The words came slowly and clear as cut steel. Calm as he was,
Darnley's tones vibrated with passion. He drew the girl towards him,
and laid his hands on her shoulders so that he could look down into
the fathomless lake of her blue eyes. Strange as it was, Mary,
Dashwood did not resent that which would have been insolent
familiarity in anybody else. There was something so strong and
dominating about this man; she thrilled with a strange tenderness and
pride in the knowledge that he loved her. True, on his own confession,
he was penniless, but then he treated the loss of his money in a way
that only a strong man could assume.

"I love you, dear," he said, very gently and tenderly. "I love you,
Mary, and no words could say more. I shall live to see the ice and
pride melt from your heart, I shall live to see the beautiful
womanhood within you blossom like a rose. The day will come when you
will be prouder far to own a good man's heart than you will be to call
yourself a Dashwood. You may frown, but I feel certain that my words
will come true. And, meanwhile, I am afraid that there is no hope at
all for me, my dear."

"It is impossible," Mary said coldly. Yet her voice trembled and tears
came to her eyes. "Oh, I know that you are a good man and true, but
you must make allowances for me. And besides, love is only a name to
me. I owe my life to you, and believe me, I am too grateful for words.
And if the time should ever come--oh, how selfish I am. Look at your
arm. It is bruised and bleeding. It must have happened when you lifted
me from the saddle. You must come up to the house and have it attended
to at once."

"I don't think--" Darnley hesitated; "yes I will. It's really nothing.
Let me catch your horse for you and we will walk across the path
together."



CHAPTER II.
DASHWOOD HALL


There were the lodge-gates at last, with the arms of the Dashwoods
carved in mossy stone, and the great iron gates from the cunning hand
of Quentin Matsys himself. Beyond, the noble elms planted in the days
of Elizabeth led to the house, a great Tudor mansion with gabled and
latticed windows covered with ivy to the quaintly carved roof-tree.
The gardens spread wide on either side; there was a thick hedge of
crimson roses bounding the park, and in its purple shade the dappled
deer reposed. Ralph Darnley drew a great breath as he took in the
splendid beauty and serenity of it all. For three hundred years the
reign of the Dashwoods had lasted, and not a stain had shown itself on
the family escutcheon all that time. Darnley could excuse all Mary's
pride.

"It is exquisitely beautiful," he said, with a queer catch in his
voice. "How vividly it recalls Tennyson's line--'a haunt of ancient
peace.' I am trying to make due allowances for your feelings, Miss
Dashwood. If I had been brought up here, my views might be the same as
yours. I love old houses."

Mary smiled one of her rare tender smiles. Darnley's eulogy touched
her. She led the way through a great flagged hall, the walls of which
were a perfect dream of carving; from their frames dead and gone
Dashwoods looked down. There was oak carving everywhere, the ceilings
were panelled, in the stained glass windows masses of flowers stood.
Ralph would have stopped to admire it all, but Mary hurried him on.

"We will go into the breakfast-parlour," she said. "Then I will
endeavour to show you that I can be useful as well as ornamental.
Excuse me one moment--I must get rid of these torn gloves. Ring the
bell, please, for Slight, the butler, and ask him for warm water and
towels."

Ralph laid his hand on the bell as Mary flitted away. The old butler
came presently, a thin little man, pink and white, the embodiment of
what an old servant should be. Ralph gave his directions clearly
enough, but the man stood there shaking from head to foot. There was
joy and terror and amazement on his face; the tears gathered in his
rheumy eyes.

"Mr. Ralph!" he whispered, "Mr. Ralph come back from the grave! Come
back after all these years! What will the master say if he knows? I'm
dreaming, that's what is the matter; I've gone off my head or I'm
dreaming. And after forty years!"

The speaker came forward tremblingly and touched Ralph's hand.
Apparently the contact with warm flesh and blood reassured him, for
the pink apple bloom came back to his cheek.

"The same and yet not the same," he went on. "Stands to reason as
forty years must make a deal of difference. But you are Mr. Ralph over
again all the same. I loved him, sir. I mourned for him like a child
of my own. I taught him to ride; I taught him to use a gun. I had to
stand between him and Sir Ralph when the crash came. And you are his
son as sure as there is a Heaven above us."

"Not quite so loud," Ralph said. "Pull yourself together, Slight. I
take it you are old Slight about whom my father talked so often. He
did not forget you, Slight. On his deathbed he gave me a message for
you."

"And so my dear Mr. Ralph is dead. Dear, dear. What shall I call you,
sir?"

"You are to call me nothing for the present," Ralph said. "I am Mr.
Darnley, Slight, and you are to be discreet and silent. I had quite
left you out of my calculation when I came here today; in fact, I had
forgotten all about you. It never occurred to me that you would
discover the likeness to what my father was forty years ago. I
will ask you to meet me this evening, say, at half-past ten at the
lodge-gates, for I have much to say to you."

"And, meanwhile, is nobody to know anything about you, sir?"

"Not a soul. The present head of the house never saw my father. The
only one likely to recognize me would be the dowager Lady Dashwood,
who is at the dower house. I am placing myself and my happiness
entirely in your hands, my faithful old Slight, and I ask you not to
betray me. Rest assured that it will all come right in time.
Meanwhile, I have hurt my arm, and I require towels and soap and hot
water."

Slight went his way with the air of a man who dreams. He came back
presently, followed by Mary Dashwood. She dressed Darnley's arm
skilfully enough. The touch of her fingers was soft and soothing. She
was a tender and feeling woman now, without the slightest suggestion
of cold pride on her face.

"I think that is all," she said quietly. "How brave and strong you
are: how little you make of your courage. And yet few could have done
what you did for me today. But I am forgetting that my father will be
glad to see you. Let us go to the library."

A tall figure rose from a mass of papers heaped on a table. Here in
the library was the same restful air of calm repose, the same
patrician silence that brooded over everything like the spirit of the
place. A flood of sunlight, tempered by the amber and blue of the
stained glass windows filled the room; the rays centered upon the tall
figure with the thin white face and grey hair, standing by the table.

"My daughter has been telling me everything, Mr. Darnley," Sir George
said. "It was well and bravely done of you. . . . I am glad to see you
in my house."

Darnley murmured something appropriate; he hoped that the expression
of his face was not betraying his emotions. For the change in Sir
George since they had last met was startling. The old, jaunty, easy
manner was gone, the straight figure was lost, the iron-grey hair was
white as snow. There were deep lines o f care and suffering graven on
the pleasant face, a suggestion of fear, or fright, or remorse. This
was a man who carried some secret in his heart. Darnley felt that he
would have passed Sir George in the street unrecognized. And yet the
man appeared to possess everything that made life worth living. Ralph
ventured to offer some suitable comment on the house and the beauty of
the surroundings. A look of infinite sadness overcame the features of
Dashwood for the moment. The slender fingers clutched as if at
something unseen, as the fingers of a drowning man might clutch at a
straw.

"Yes, it is perfect enough," he said dreamily. "A perfect house in a
perfect setting. And Mary loves it even more than I do. It seems
almost impossible to connect this place with sin and suffering and the
sordid cares of life--what is it, Slight?"

"A telegram for you, Sir George," the old butler murmured. "Is there
any reply, sir?"

Sir George murmured that there was no reply. He dropped the telegram
in an unconcerned way upon the table, but his hand was shaking again,
and his features looked terribly white and worn.

"From Horace Mayfield," he said huskily. "He is coming down today, on
a rather important piece of business, and will probably stay the
night. By the way, Darnley, it would give me great pleasure if you
would dine with us this evening."

Ralph would have refused. It would have been an exquisite pleasure to
spend a long summer evening with Mary in that delightful old house,
but then it seemed impossible to be under the same roof as Horace
Mayfield. It appeared strange that that handsome, plausible, well-bred
scoundrel should be a friend of Dashwood. Ralph was framing a
courteous refusal when he became conscious that Mary was regarding him
with a pleading glance. Her face was weary and anxious-looking, her
eyes were alight with an appeal for help. She was asking Ralph to
come, and yet she did not want her father to see how eager she was.

"I shall be delighted," Ralph answered. "Half-past seven, I think. And
now I must be going."

Ralph turned away into the great dim hall followed by Mary. A ray of
sunlight fell upon her beautiful face and grateful blue eyes.

"That was very good of you," she murmured. "Mr. Darnley, Ralph, if I
should want a friend in the near future, I feel assured that I can
rely upon you."

"I love you with my whole heart and soul," Ralph replied. "And some
day you will give that love to me. I would give my life for you, if
necessary, and you know it."



CHAPTER III.
HORACE MAYFIELD


The cloth had been drawn in the old-fashioned way, so that the candles
in the ancient silver branches made pools of brown light on the
polished mahogany of the dining table. Here were palms and flowers,
feathery fronds, rays of light streaking the sides of blushing grapes
and peaches with the downy bloom on them. The candle rays glistened
sombrely on deep ruby red wines in crystal decanters; the table was as
a bath of silver flame in a background of sombre brown shadows. A
noiseless servant or two, gliding about, ministered to the wants of
the guests. How peaceful, how restful and refined it all was, Ralph
thought, the only jarring note being the person opposite him, a
clean-shaven, hard-featured man with a glass screwed in his left eye.
And what a hard, firm mouth he had. He was quite at his ease, too, in
Dashwood's presence; he chatted with glib assurance to the man whom he
had robbed as deliberately as if he had picked his pocket. Actually he
had met Ralph in the drawing-room an hour before, with a smile and a
proffered hand, as if they had been two men taking up the threads of a
desirable acquaintance.

Ralph's fingers had itched to be at the throat of the man, but he had
to smile and murmur the ordinary polite commonplaces. He shut his
teeth together now as he noted Mayfield's insolently familiar, not to
say caressing, manner towards Mary Dashwood. Sir George looked on and
smiled in a pained kind of way. He reminded Ralph unpleasantly of a
well-broken dog in the presence of a harsh master. It was almost
pathetic to see how Dashwood hung on any word of Mayfield. Surely
there was some guilty knowledge between the two, some powerful hold
that Mayfield had on his host. It was with a feeling of relief that
Ralph saw Mary rise at length. He opened the door for her, and she
playfully asked him not to be too long, it was so lovely a night.


[Illustration: "She playfully asked him not to be too long." _Page
15_]


"I'll come with you now," Ralph answered. "I don't care to smoke, and
I never touch wine after dinner. I fear Sir George wants to talk
business, which seems to me to be a desecration on an evening like
this. Shall we go outside?"

"I think it would be nice," Mary said. "No, I shall not need a wrap."

She stepped through the double French window that led to the lawn. The
full light of the moon flashed on her ivory shoulders and played in
gilded shadows on her hair. As she looked upwards, Ralph could catch
the exquisite symmetry of her face. A desire to speak possessed him, a
desire to tell the girl strange and wonderful things. Here was his
heart's object standing pale and beautiful by his side; he had only to
stretch out his hands and the flowers were his for the plucking. It
only needed a few words and the whole situation would be changed. But
Ralph was silent, he was too strong and masterful a man for that. What
he won he would win by sheer merit, by intrinsic worth alone. He could
have purchased the kisses and caresses for which his heart hungered,
but he knew that they would be no more than Dead Sea fruit on his
lips.

"You are very silent," Mary said at length. "What are you thinking
about?"

"About you," Ralph said boldly. "I was thinking how beautiful you
looked with the fuller moonlight on your face. It is only when you
recollect that you are Miss Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall, that I like
your expression least. And you are not always happy."

"What do you mean by that?" Mary asked. There was a startled look in
her eyes. "Why should I not be happy?"

"Why, indeed! But the fact remains that you are not. I do not want to
appear inquisitive, but there is a worm in the heart of the rose
somewhere. Mary, why do you allow your father to ask Mayfield here
when you dislike him so much? Though you are exclusive and can show
your pride, yet you allow that man to be insolently familiar with you.
He laid his hand on your arm tonight, and I could have struck him for
it. It is not as if you cared for him----"

"Oh, no, no," Mary said with a shudder. "I detest him. He is so cold
and calculating, you cannot chock him off. I thought that when I
refused to marry him----"

"Ha! I expected something of the kind. Mayfield is not the man to take
'No' for an answer once he has set his heart upon a thing. I told you
before that he was a scoundrel, and I am in a position to prove it.
Not that the fellow has done anything to bring himself within the grip
of the law--your City rascal is too clever for that. And your father
is afraid of him; he watches him as a dog watches his master. If he is
in the power of that man he must get out without delay. He must raise
money on the property----"

"He can't," Mary said sadly. "My father has not taken me into his
confidence. But you can see how much he has aged and altered lately,
and you looked quite shocked when you met this morning. I don't know
what it is, but I feel that some evil is impending over him. That is
why I asked you to be my friend. You see my father is not really a
rich man. He has the income of this fine estate, it is true. I believe
he could get rid of Horace Mayfield if he could raise money on the
property, but that is impossible. Old Sir Ralph, my great uncle, had a
serious quarrel with his wife--that is the present dowager Lady
Dashwood, you understand. It must have been all Sir Ralph's fault, for
she is the dearest old lady. The heir to the property took the side of
his mother when the separation came, and left Dashwood Hall, declaring
that he would never see the place again. There is only one man living
who knows the whole facts of the case, and that is Slight. But his
lips are sealed. The old man loved young Ralph Dashwood as if he had
been his own child. Ralph the younger went off to America, and has
never been heard of again. That was forty years ago. When old Sir
Ralph died two years ago, and my father came into the property, no
will could be found. So my father, being next of kin, succeeded to the
property and the rents of the estate. It is a settled estate, and each
possessor has only what is called a life-interest in it. Now it is
just possible that some day an heir will turn up. It is more than
likely that young Ralph Dashwood married in America, and left a
family. Or he may be still alive, and is waiting to claim, for his
son, that which he declined to touch himself. Most people know this,
and that is why my father could never raise a penny on the family
property. If he could, he would not long remain under the heel of
Horace Mayfield. Oh, if we could only find a way!"

"I begin to understand," Ralph said thoughtfully. "If old Sir Ralph
had died leaving a will, things might have been very different. Is
that what you mean?"

"Partly. Sir Ralph died leaving a good deal of ready money. That will
no doubt come to us in time, but for the present we cannot touch it in
the absence of proof of the death of the youngest Ralph Dashwood. I
mean the one who went to America. Old Lady Dashwood says she is sure
that her husband did leave a will, and that he had divided all his
money, with certain provisions. If that will could be found, we should
be in a position to get rid of Mayfield. What a hateful thing this
money is, and what misery it seems to bring everybody. But I am afraid
that I am very selfish and exacting. Why should I worry you with our
troubles?"

"My shoulders are broad, and I have very few of my own," Ralph smiled.
"Indeed, I am more interested than you imagine. As I told you today, I
am a poor man, thanks to one who is a guest here at the present
moment. But, still, don't forget the fable of the mouse and the lion.
I may find a means of freeing you from the net yet. But here come the
others."

Mayfield emerged from the window on to the lawn. His cigar seemed to
pollute the sweet-scented night; he was talking loudly to Sir George.

"We shall know presently," he said. "The worst of living buried in the
country is that one is out of touch with telegrams and telephones. I
told my secretary to wire directly he heard from Worham and his
partner."

"Don't let us talk about it," said Sir George in a voice that shook a
little. "Let us enjoy the beauty of the night . . . I began to wonder
what had become of you, Darnley. So you and Mary have been communing
with Nature together. You will have a cigar before you go?"

Darnley declined the offer. He did not care to stay any longer in
Mayfield's presence. And it was getting on to half-past ten, when he
had promised to meet Slight. He made his excuses and passed across the
lawn in the direction of the avenue. At the end of the rose garden he
paused to look back.

He saw the picture of the grand old house standing out in the
moonlight; he could see Mary, pale and silent, a dainty figure in
white and amber. He saw Mayfield bend familiarly to her, and the girl
draw coldly away. There was a fierce tumult in his heart, a desire to
go back and proclaim his story. He could stretch out a hand, and put
an end to all that without delay. But he preferred to wait. He was
going to win Mary, and wear her like a white rose on the shield of a
knight. He was going to bend down the barrier of her pride, and win
her for himself alone, _as_ himself, and not as a man who had the
advantages of fortune on his side.

These thoughts filled his mind as he walked down the avenue. He knew
that he had far to go before the goal was in sight. He almost walked
over a figure standing just inside the lodge gates, and his thoughts
came tumbling to earth again.

"I beg your pardon, Slight," he said. "I was miles away just now. Let
us sit on this tree stump in sight of the old house and talk things
over."



CHAPTER IV.
A LEAF FROM THE PAST


The old man stood there in the moonlight, his face agitated and his
lips quivering.

"I can hear the master's voice again," he murmured. "Time seems to
have gone back with me. It is as if you had come like a ghost from the
grave, Mr. Ralph. And it was close here that your father stood, after
the great quarrel, and swore that Dashwood Hall should see him no
more. . . . And so you have come back to claim your own, sir?"

"I must be very like my father, or what my father was like forty years
ago," Ralph said thoughtfully. "Sit down, Slight, please don't stand
looking at me like that. I did not expect to be recognized in this
way, and I am not here to claim my own, at least, not in the fashion
that you mean. My father chose deliberately to forfeit his
inheritance. My grandfather gave him the chance of coming into his own
again. But he always refused, as you know, Slight. And now Sir George
Dashwood reigns in his stead."

"The estate, the title--everything is yours, Sir Ralph," Slight said
doggedly.

"No, no. Forty years ago there was a great upheaval here. It was a
quarrel that could never be patched up or healed. At the bottom of it
was family pride, the accursed kind of pride that stifles every
feeling of humanity and turns hearts into flints as hard as the nether
millstone. The upshot of that quarrel was a permanent separation
between my grandfather and the present dowager Lady Dashwood; it drove
my father into exile. It broke the heart of one of the best and truest
women that ever lived. And all this to keep from so-called
contamination the blood of the Dashwoods. Before my father went away
he took steps to make his sacrifice complete. He executed a deed
cutting off the entail of the estate, so that the late Sir Ralph could
do what he pleased with it."

"I don't quite understand that, Sir Ralph," Slight said.

"Don't address me by that title," Darnley replied. "Let me explain.
Most people believe that a family estate like ours cannot be left
elsewhere. But if the heir likes to execute a deed for the purpose of
cutting off the entail as it is called, why, the holder for the time
being can do what he likes with the property. My father did this with
his eyes wide open, and you witnessed the deed, Slight."

"I recollect it," Slight said slowly. He made the admission
grudgingly. "It was my task to deliver it into the hands of old Sir
Ralph. If I had only known!"

"You would have destroyed it. You would have carried your loyalty to
my father so far. But the deed was delivered to my grandfather and
subsequently he made his will. For twenty years there was silence
between father and son, a silence which was broken at length by the
father, who wrote to the son and asked him to return. Then Sir Ralph
wrote once more to my father and said that he would give the latter
twenty years to decide. He had made a will at the same date as that of
the second letter, leaving everything to my father, provided that
within twenty years of that date he claimed his patrimony. If the date
passed, then everything was to go to the man nominated in that will. I
need not say that the man so indicated was Sir George Dashwood. In
other words, if I make no sign for six months, the property becomes
his irrevocably. I can claim the property as my father's heir, and I
can produce that will as proof of my claim."

"But the will was never found," Slight said eagerly. "We looked for a
will everywhere."

"It was hidden away. In old Sir Ralph's last letter to my father he
explained the hiding-place. I have only to let Sir George know where
the will is, and he is safe. For the will directs the finder to the
repository of the deed cutting off the entail, so that Sir George can
prove his claim then to everything. At present he has no more than the
income of the estate, and I have ascertained that he has many old
debts to pay off. In addition to this he is under the thumb of a
scoundrel."

"Ay, that he is," Slight muttered. "We servants learn a great deal
more than you gentlemen give us credit for. That Mayfield means
mischief. They say that he's rich. But riches don't content him. He
wants to marry Miss Mary. And she can't bear the look of him. If only
he can ruin Sir George, his path will be clear. Miss Mary would break
her heart if she had to leave this place. From a child she was brought
up here, she loves every stick and stone. And she was always led to
believe that some day it would belong to her, because her father was
the last of the old race, seeing that we all regarded Master Ralph as
dead and buried. And Miss Mary had dreams of being mistress here some
day, and, maybe, dreams, too, of a good husband and children of her
own. Ay, it's a terrible weapon this Mayfield has in his hands."

"So it seems," Ralph replied. "I know the rascal well, for he ruined
my father two years ago. Mind you, at that time, I had never heard of
Dashwood Park. I was merely the son of a Mr. Darnley who had done well
silver mining in California. Mayfield came to us in London and we
trusted him, trusted him to such an extent that nearly all we had
passed into his hands. It was only on his deathbed that my father
told me everything, told me what my birthright was, and how I could
secure it, if I did not wait too long. So I came down here to look
about me, and to my surprise I found that I had met Miss Mary before
in Paris. Is she a favourite here, Slight?"

"Ay, indeed she is, sir," Slight replied. There was a ring of
passionate sincerity in his speech. "We all love her dearly. Strangers
think that she is cold and distant. It may be so. But we all know the
heart of gold that beats under that placid breast. It is in times of
sickness and trouble that we know of the angel in our midst. I'm not
denying that Miss Mary is tainted with the curse of family pride. But
still. . . . Ah, sir, if you ever looked out for a wife, why there is
the very one for you. You the head, and she the mistress. It would be
a happy day for me."

"That is just what I mean," Ralph said quietly. "Slight, I have been
in love with your mistress for two long years. And I am going to marry
her some day. But I have my own idea and my own way of leading up to
that happiness. She must care for me for my own sake, and not because
I am Sir Ralph Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall, and she a--pauper. No, no.
My lady shall stoop to me, she shall tell me with her own sweet lips
that a good man's love is worth all the pride of place, worth a dozen
old families and a score of houses like this. _Then_ she shall know
everything, but not before."

"And that will be too late," sighed Slight. "Before that Mr. Mayfield
will have ruined Sir George, and Miss Mary will marry him to save the
old house. She would make any sacrifice and face any degradation for
the sake of her pride. Though every fibre of her body may call out
against the pollution of that man's touch, she would smile at him
before the world and pretend to be happy. It's a dangerous experiment,
Mr. Ralph, and don't you try it. I haven't lived in the world for nigh
on four-score years for nothing. If you love Miss Mary, and if she
comes to care for you, she'll care none the less because you are
master of this good old place. And if her father is ruined----"

"My good Slight, her father is not going to be ruined. Unless I am
greatly mistaken, he is exceedingly anxious to be rid of Horace
Mayfield. I presume it is a mere matter of money, and for the sake of
argument call it £50,000. Sir George owes Mayfield that sum. In the
present circumstances he could not hope to repay it. A disgraceful
bankruptcy may follow, a criminal collapse even, for Mayfield would
not hesitate where his desires and interests are concerned. But
suppose I could show Sir George a way to get this money? In that case
he could rid himself of that scoundrel at any sacrifice. I have only
to let Sir George know where the will is hidden and he is free."

"It would be wrong, sir, cruelly wrong to yourself," Slight cried.
"You could never appear after that and claim your own. Sir George
would be no more than an innocent impostor. And you, the real master
of Dashwood, would be compelled to earn your bread."

"I don't see it exactly," Ralph smiled. "My father never intended to
claim his inheritance. He cut himself off from England deliberately.
And after all these years, would it not be a cruel thing to deprive
Miss Mary of a home which she has come to regard as her own? But I
have made up my mind, Slight, and nothing shall deter me from it. You
may call me a visionary and a dreamer if you like, but my hands are
strong and capable, and I have been taught to use my head. I want you
to be discreet and silent; I want you to be my witness when the time
comes. I should not have taken you into my confidence, but that you
recognized me at once. All day I have been wandering about the dear
old place. I have studied all its ancient beauties. We can't wonder
that Miss Mary has come to regard it as part of her life. It has cost
me more than a passing effort to restrain my covetousness."

Ralph stifled a sigh as he looked about him. He could see the fine old
house clear cut against the sky; in the park the oaks and beeches hung
like great sentinels guarding the home of the ages. And it was so
still and peaceful, so suggestive of all that is worth having in life.
A cry from somewhere broke the perfect silence, the bleat of a sheep
from distant pastures.

"It shall be as you wish, sir," Slight said at length. "I could never
refuse your father anything, and I can refuse you nothing when you
look at me out of the past with his eyes. But sorrow and trouble will
come of this; you mark my words."

"No, no," Ralph cried as he rose to his feet. "True and sterling
happiness, the death and destruction of the family pride which has
been our curse for many generations. I am going my own way to work and
you are going to help me. Now come and show me the big window in the
staircase that my father used when he wanted to leave the house late
at night to visit poor Maria Edgerton, the child-wife, the child of
the people, who was killed by our family pride as surely as if she had
been murdered. My mother was a good woman, Slight, she had her
husband's respect and affection, but his heart was always with the
girl who suffered so much to become his wife. I hope that her grave
has never been neglected, Slight."

"No, sir," Slight said huskily. "We have seen to that--her ladyship
and myself between us. That is the window, sir, the big stained glass
one with the light behind it. You can get up on to the leads with the
aid of the ivy. At the bottom of the window is a brass knob. If you
press it, the window opens inwards, and there you are. But I hope you
don't need to burgle your own house, seeing that you are a welcome
guest there. And, as I was saying just now----"

The speaker paused, for the soft, rich silence of the night was broken
by a cry. The long drawing-room window leading to the lawn was still
open; the lamplight flooded on pictures and china and flowers. A
figure came to the window, a tall figure with upraised hands and hair
wild and dishevelled.

"You scoundrel," the figure cried. "You have done this to ruin me!"



CHAPTER V.
THE SACRIFICE


The speaker's tones rang out with passionate vehemence. He stumbled
down the steps, into the garden, and repeated his accusation loudly.
It all seemed strangely out of place there, Ralph thought; it was no
spot for sordid emotions, and angry passions. The words rang clear and
loud to the startled vault of heaven; a blackbird started from her
nest and flew across the lawn with nervous twitter. Then another
figure came from the drawing-room, the trim, immaculate figure of
Horace Mayfield.

"For goodness' sake, control yourself Dashwood," he said curtly.
"There is nothing in the world to make all this ridiculous fuss about.
It is all the fortune of war. We tried to get the best of these
fellows, and they looted us instead. It was no fault of mine that
these cablegrams miscarried. My manager has sold me--a thing that
sometimes happens in the City. All we have to do is to pay and look
pleasant."

"But I can't pay, and you know it. Nobody understands the tenure on
which I hold the property better than you do. If I wait for the money,
what happens?"

"I am afraid it will be very awkward," Mayfield said. "People will
refuse to believe that you have been a victim of a fraud. They will
actually regard the fraud as your own. Whereas, if you pay up
cheerfully, nothing can be said. Personally, I am all right. I kept my
name out of the business so that you could have all the credit.
Unfortunately, you will get all the blame as well. There may not be a
prosecution; of course, it is not an easy matter to get the Public
Prosecutor to interfere in these cases. The only thing for it is to
take the bull by the horns and get out of all by paying."

Sir George laughed in a bitter kind of way. He stood with his back to
the house, facing the man who had brought all this about. He seemed to
be almost beside himself with fury. The whole man was transformed.

"I have no money," he said, "and you know it. You have deliberately
brought me to this pass for purposes of your own. You have traded upon
my love of gambling to get me into your hands. And I might have been
happy and comfortable here. I was getting rid of my millstone of debt
so nicely when you came along once more. But for you, I should not
stand here now outside my own home, an honoured house for three
centuries, a ruined and desperate man with a vision of a prisoner's
dock before me. You are a rich man----"

"Possibly, Dashwood. At any rate, I am in a position to find money.
But there is no kind of friendship or sentiment when one comes to
business. You are not a child that you can accuse me of luring you to
your ruin. Still, I am not disposed to take offence. I will undertake
to settle the matter for you in time. But you must have a joint
guarantee and I want another person to become security for you. You
understand what I mean. If Miss Mary will be so good as to give me her
word----"

A sudden cry of passion broke from the older man. He seemed to lose
all control of himself. He dashed forward and smote Mayfield with fury
on the mouth. The latter staggered back a thin streak of blood
trickling from his under lip.

There was no outbreak, no display of passion, on the part of Mayfield.
He was surprised and shaken by the impetuosity of the attack, but he
stood there calmly, as he wiped the blood from his face. His features
might have been carved out of solid marble, and the full light of the
moon heightened the effect. In spite of his knowledge of the man,
Ralph could not but admire him at that moment. One who could keep his
feelings under such control would prove a dangerous foe.

It was a strange, weird scene altogether, terrible and repulsive by
very force of contrast. The environment was so quiet and peaceful, so
exalted and refined. Ralph stood as if rooted to the spot. He saw Sir
George advance again, he saw the hand upraised once more. All the
pride of rank and place had fallen from the man; he was transformed
for the moment to a savage. Then Mayfield caught the uplifted arm and
held it in a grip like a vice.

"You will gain nothing by this," he said quietly. "You seem to forget
that I am a guest under your roof. Would you alarm your servants,
would you have them know what their master is, when all his passions
are aroused? Come, sir, this is not what one has a right to expect
from the owner of Dashwood Park. You owe me an apology----"

The words were lost on Sir George. He wrenched himself free, he turned
and faced the house with uplifted arms. The demon of anger still
possessed him.

"I owe you nothing," he cried. "But for you I should be one of the
happiest men alive. If I had been content to pay off old debts by
degrees nothing would have happened. But I listened to you, with what
result you know. You are a trickster and a cheat, a liar and a knave.
You have laid a trap for me, and I have tumbled into it with my eyes
open. What you mean to say in as many words is this--unless I can
procure the sum of £50,000 in a few days I stand every chance of a
criminal prosecution. You know exactly how I am situated, you know
that I am helpless."

"You are not in the least helpless," Mayfield said sternly. "To a
certain extent the fault is mine, and I am prepared to do all that is
in my power. You have only to say the word and the money is yours.
Promise me that your daughter shall become my wife, get her to say the
word, and the situation is absolutely changed. I neither admit nor
deny your accusations. You could not prove them--a jury would give a
verdict against you, if you tried to do so. And if Miss Mary does me
the honour to become my wife----"

"Never," Dashwood cried. "Never in this world. Our women only wed
honourable men."

"Is that really so? And what manner of man will the world call you if
I fail to come to your assistance? Control yourself--listen to me for
a moment. Do you realise what will happen to you if I go away without
coming to some understanding? The police will come here and arrest
you, it may be when you are entertaining friends. They will take you
away, with handcuffs on your wrists. You will stand in the dock
charged with a vulgar conspiracy to defraud innocent shareholders,
_and the charge will be proved_. And if you ever come out of gaol
again, it will be as a broken and dispirited man. It will be useless,
when it is too late, to look for any consideration from me. I am not
likely to forget the blow you dealt me just now. And, whilst you are
raving like a lunatic, we might be settling the matter comfortably
over a cigar. You are a man of the world; at least you will be once
more when this fit of midsummer madness has passed. Explain everything
to your daughter if you like, put any face upon it that you please.
Agree to my conditions and you can sleep in peace tonight, and every
other night, for the matter of that. Listen to the voice of reason,
and I will forget the treatment I have had at your hands."

But Sir George was not listening. Apparently a terrible struggle was
going on in his breast. He could see now, how neatly and cleverly he
had been trapped, he could see that he had no remedy against the man
who had schemed for this position. And he was innocent himself of
anything dishonourable. And now to give his daughter to this man! The
mere idea was horrible. The meanest hound on the estate was far better
off than Sir George at this moment.

"Do your worst," he shouted. His voice rang out on the startled
silence. "Do your worst. If I could kill you now, I would do so. You
are not fit to live, your presence is an insult to any honest man. I
can see nothing, I am going blind. . . ."



CHAPTER VI.
A CRUEL MISUNDERSTANDING


Sir George clasped his hands to his eyes; everything for the moment
had faded from his sight. The blood was rushing wildly through his
head; there was a din like the clang of hammers in his brain. He was
beside himself with grief and passion. His voice uprose again and
broke the stillness of the night horribly. What were his title and his
old family worth now? It was all as nothing, in the presence of this
threatened calamity.

"Mary, Mary," he cried, "come to me. Come, whilst I have the strength
left to tell you the truth. Tomorrow I shall be too weak, tomorrow I
shall not dare to give all this up. Come, and tell him that you will
have none of him."

The speech ended in a yearning scream. It was a strange setting for so
peaceful a scene. Ralph Darnley made a step forward, with the impulse
to interfere, strong upon him. Then a figure came between the light
and the window, and Mary appeared. She stood there, tall and stately
in her white dress; her eyes were filled with stern disapproval. She
came slowly down the steps and stood between the two men. She did not
fail to notice Mayfield's cut lip and the spot or two of blood on his
gleaming shirt front.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked. "Father, you don't mean to
say----"

"Ay, but I do," Dashwood said doggedly. "I struck him. Would that I
had killed him! There would be far less disgrace for the family in the
end. I struck him, and he took it quietly like the cur and craven that
he is!"

"I hardly think that I deserve that," Mayfield said. "Whatever my
failings may be, you will not find a lack of physical courage amongst
them. Sir George has been very unfortunate in his speculations, and he
chooses to blame me for it. We only got the news late tonight. A man
in whom we trusted has played the knave, and Sir George is likely to
suffer for it. To put the matter quite plainly, unless your father can
find a very large sum of money in a few days he will probably be
prosecuted. One can make any allowance for his feelings in the
circumstances, but that is no reason why he should accuse one of
deliberately laying a plot to ruin him. As to the assault upon me, why
let it pass. In the excitement of the moment----"

"Pardon me," Mary said quietly, "I heard my name mentioned. My
father's voice was raised so loudly that I could not help hearing
something of what passed. You did me the honour to say that I might
avert the catastrophe."

"That is so," Mayfield retorted in the same self-contained manner. "In
certain circumstances I am prepared to stand by your father. I can say
that it is a misunderstanding so far as he is concerned, and that I am
prepared to take over the venture as it stands, and pay everybody who
has lost confidence in it. I could write to the Press and vindicate
the honour of the man who stood in the light of prospective
father-in-law to me."

The girl's face whitened in the moonlight. Ralph could see the heaving
of her breast. She had taken in the situation like a flash of
inspiration. There was none of the grinning triumph of the successful
rogue on Mayfield's face; it was all being quietly and decorously
done, but the grip of iron was there all the same, the iron hand in
the velvet glove. Mary essayed to speak, but words failed her for the
moment. Sir George stood between the man and his prey with trembling
hands outstretched as if to keep them apart. His lips opened, he
gabbled something too incoherent for understanding, then he collapsed
like a heap of black cloth on the grass. Something seemed to snap in
his brain, then a blank came over him.

Mary forgot everything else in the dictates of humanity. With a cry
she knelt on the grass by the side of the stricken man. Ralph came
forward, slowly followed by Slight. It seemed natural that he should
be there at that moment. Mary turned towards him instantly. Here was
the friend in need that she so sorely prayed for.

"It is some kind of seizure," she said. "My father had one two years
ago in Paris. He was warned then to avoid any undue excitement. Will
you please help me to carry him to his room? Slight, call a groom up
and send him to Longtown for a doctor."

"No occasion," Mayfield remarked. "Give me the key of the stables, and
I will take my car into Longtown and bring the doctor back with me. It
will take less time."

It was a weary two hours that passed before the doctor arrived. Still,
his account was a fairly cheerful one when it came. It was merely a
case of rest and quietness and careful nursing. Sir George had fallen
into a kind of troubled sleep.

Ralph turned to go. Mayfield had volunteered to take the doctor home
again. Slight was sitting with his master till Mary was ready to
return. She stood by the window leading to the lawn; that means of
exit was as good as any other, Ralph said.

"What were you doing outside tonight?" the girl asked keenly.

"We will go into that another time," Ralph suggested. "I did not mean
to listen, but I heard everything. Did I not tell you that Mayfield
was a villain?"

"I have felt it before now. Without any apparent cause for it, I have
detested that man. And he has always acted as if he had only to say
the word and I would consent to be his wife. On two occasions I have
refused him. To think that men should be such villains where innocent
girls are concerned! Of course, he has led my father into a terrible
position, and my hand is to be the price of his freedom. Ralph, I am
so dreadfully, horribly afraid of that man! How wonderfully he must
have controlled himself when my father struck him! And how cleverly he
insinuated that he might be allowed to appear as my future husband. I
tell you I would give up everything to be free of this tangle. What is
my pride, what is my home here, so long as the happiness of a lifetime
is at stake!"

"That is a lesson that I have tried to teach you before," Ralph said
quietly. "Mary, I love you. The time will come when you will love me.
If ever you needed a friend in your life, you need one at this moment.
I could show you a way out, but after that I should never dare to
claim my reward, because the obligation in your eyes would be too
great. I want you to care for me for my own sake. Still, you need have
no anxiety. Within the next few hours Mayfield will be powerless to
harm you."

"Ralph, you speak in enigmas. I pray you to be plain. Can't you trust
me?"

"My dear, in this matter I cannot trust anybody; by Heaven, I can
hardly trust myself. Ah, if you only knew how I love you and how great
the temptation is! But the reward that I am working for will be all
the sweeter when the time comes. Go sleep now with a calm mind, for I
pledge my honour that things shall be as I say."

Mary's two hands had fluttered out to Ralph. She was moved by the deep
sincerity of his words, for a broken smile, half respect and half
affection, quivered on her face. With an impulse that he could not
resist, Ralph drew the girl to him and laid his lips on hers. Then,
with a sigh, he put her from him and turned towards the window.

"There," he said, "I ask no pardon for my audacity. I could not help
it. And that kiss was as pure as if it came from your mother's lips."

"The first from any man," Mary murmured, a pink flush on her face.
"You are a good man, Ralph, and it is a pity I did not meet you before
the curse of the family pride fell upon me. Good night, and God bless
you for all your kindness to me."

The window closed and the blind fell, the lights in the house began to
vanish one by one, and still Ralph lingered there on the grass. He saw
Mayfield return, he saw the last ray extinguished, save for the
solitary glow in Sir George's bedroom. A clock over the stables struck
the hour of two, and still Ralph stood there oblivious of the flight
of time.

He was thinking of the dramatic scene of the evening. More than once
he mourned his lost opportunities. He had all the strings in his own
hand, the game was entirely his, and he felt, too, that in spite of
her fateful pride, Mary was beginning to care for him. If not, why had
she taken his kiss so sweetly? Ralph had only to proclaim his
identity, he had merely to prove his title to the estate, and at once
he would be in the position to free the present occupier of Dashwood
Hall of his peril. And Mary would not refuse to marry the man whose
blood was as pure as hers. But Ralph had made up his mind what to do.
He would win her love as Ralph Darnley, afterwards the truth could be
told. Why not tonight? he asked himself. There was no time like the
present. He would go and find the will, he would let Sir George know
where it was.

The house was still now, and Ralph knew the way . . . . He was in the
long corridor presently, here was the old oak dower-chest and the
panel below it. Here was the spring by which the panel was released.
The thing was ridiculously easy.

Ralph pressed in the spring and the panel came away. Within it was a
long manuscript written on thick white paper. Ralph thrilled as he
read the endorsement. Beyond doubt, here was the will of his
grandfather, Sir Ralph Dashwood. All this was quite plain in the
moonlight. It only needed now to put the will at the bottom of the
dower-chest and write a letter to Sir George anonymously, and tell him
where to seek for it. And Ralph had only to be silent henceforth, and
the deception would pass for all time. Verily Mayfield's triumph was
likely to be a very short one, and . . .

Somebody was speaking to Ralph: Mary, with her hair over her
shoulders, and a candle in her hand. Her face was cold and set, her
eyes filled with stern displeasure.

"Thief in the night," she said. "What is the meaning of this, Mr.
Darnley?"



CHAPTER VII.
THE ONLY WAY


A sense of blinding, unreasonable anger held Ralph for the moment. He
was doing nothing wrong. He was acting entirely for the best, and here
he was taken under the most shameful conditions--a miserable, degraded
thief in the night. From the coldness of Mary's voice, from the scorn
in her eyes, he could read the reflection of her thoughts. And yet he
was acting from the highest and most honourable motives. Surely no man
was ever impelled by a loftier idea of self-sacrifice.

"I ask what you are doing," Mary repeated. "Do not tax my patience too
far."

There was no mistaking the menace in those clear-cut tones. Thus would
the daughter of the house of Dashwood address a burglar or other
midnight intruder. Ralph felt that she would have been not in the
least afraid to face a felon of that type; his face tingled as he felt
himself set down in the same category. He cudgelled his brains for
some plausible explanation which should be anything but the right one.
The edge of the failing moon still left a shaft of pallid light
shining through the great stained glass window; it flung into high
relief the arms and motto of the family of Dashwood. And those arms
and that motto belonged to the man who stood there with the shamefaced
air of a boy caught in a fault.

"I am still waiting for you to speak," Mary went on. "It is possible
that there may be some explanation of this amazing conduct of yours."

The cold, proud voice seemed to doubt it all the same. And yet one
word would have swept all the clouds of suspicion away. Ralph knew
that it lay in his power to bring that white, haughty figure to her
knees; one inkling of the truth and the whole situation was changed.
For all this belonged to Ralph; Mary was no more than an honoured
guest in the house. Yes, it all belonged to him, the grand old house,
the matchless pictures, the furniture from the time of Elizabeth, the
great sweeps of upland country, and the farms lying snug under their
red roofs.

A few words spoken, and what a difference there would be! Those words
meant that Ralph would have held out his hands and asked Mary to come
and help him to reign here. Ay, and she would have come, too. Her
point of view would be entirely changed. And she must love him.
Indeed, he had more than a feeling that she loved him now, without
being aware of the state of her affections. Her heart would go out to
him, and there would be peace and happiness for evermore.

The temptation was great, so great that the beads of perspiration
stood out on Ralph's forehead. But he crushed the temptation down; his
pride came to his assistance. No, when Mary came to love, she should
love the man for his own sake, she should tell him so, and Dashwood
should be as nothing in comparison.

"I came here to look for something," Ralph said at length.

"Indeed! Judging by what you hold in your hand I should say that you
have found it. How did you manage to obtain entrance to the house?"

"Quite a simple matter," Ralph replied. "I climbed on to the leads
outside the big window. By pressing a knob outside, the window can be
made to open."

"Really! I have lived here practically all my life, and I was not
aware of that fact. For an absolute stranger, your knowledge of the
house is exceedingly comprehensive. May I ask if you have found what
you were looking for?"

"I have," Ralph said huskily. "Permit me to replace it in the old
chest. Tomorrow, if your father is well enough, I will see him and
explain. I beg to assure you that I have what criminal lawyers call a
perfect answer to the charge."

"And you ask me to believe this?" Mary burst out passionately. "How do
I know that you are not one of those who are in league against us? How
do I know that your indignation against Horace Mayfield is not all
assumed?"

"How do you know that I am a gentleman?" Ralph retorted. "You cannot
explain why."

"Indeed I cannot," Mary said bitterly. "I trusted you, I regarded you
as a friend. I asked for your assistance and you promised it to me. In
my heart I thanked God that I had a friend that I could rely upon.
Actually, you caused me to forget the difference between our stations
in life. And now!"

The girl paused, with something like tears in her voice. She looked
very sweet and womanly at that moment, Ralph thought. He could afford
to ignore the suggestion of the social gulf between them. The
temptation to tell the truth came over him again, but once more he
fought the impulse and conquered it.

"In spite of your distressful pride, you are a very woman," he said.
"I am your friend and more than your friend. For your sake, there is
nothing that I would not do. It is for your sake that I am here
tonight, strange as it may seem. A little time ago, fate placed me in
possession of certain information closely touching on the fortunes of
your house. Please do not ask me to explain, for I cannot do so
without spoiling everything. Call me a sentimentalist, if you
like--perhaps the air of the grand old place has affected me. Anyway,
there it is. I came here tonight to place you in possession of certain
information that would for ever have rid you of the hateful presence
of the man who calls himself Horace Mayfield. I did not want to place
you under any kind of obligation, so I chose this method----"

"But why?" Mary exclaimed. "Why? Have you not saved my life twice?
Could a million obligations like this increase the burden of my debt
of gratitude to you?"

"That is right," Ralph admitted. "Call me a Quixote if you like. I am.
The day will come when your eyes will be no longer blind, when love
will come before everything. I have my own way of getting my ends, and
am too proud to rely upon anything but myself. I am going to make you
happy, and you are going to be the mainspring of that happiness."

Ralph spoke almost with the spirit of prophecy upon him. It would all
come right some day, but he little dreamed of the trouble and
tribulation that were near at hand. All he could see now was that
Mary's eyes were growing dim and softer.

"My knowledge is going to save you," Ralph went on. "But I did not
wish you to know that I had any hand in the business. As I said
before, you must not ask me to explain. I want you to give me your
hand, and to say that you regard me as being still beyond suspicion.
Oh, I know that it is a deal to ask. But a long pedigree and the
possession of a grand old house are not necessary to the honour of a
man. I admit that I crept here like a thief in the night. If you
charged me, I should have nothing to say, my character would be
forever ruined. If you----"

Ralph paused, and his face flushed with annoyance. A petulant voice
calling for Mary broke the silence--shuffling feet came along the
corridor. Dishevelled and dazed, Sir George Dashwood stood there,
candle in hand, looking from the glorious white figure with the
rippling golden hair to the faint outline of Darnley. The old man was
haggard and trembling, yet a certain dignity sustained him.

"I have called you three times," he said. "I needed you, my child. I
woke up with my head better and a raging thirst upon me. Then I
thought that I heard voices here and I came out. The situation, Mr.
Darnley, is singular. Permit me to remind you that it is not the usual
thing----"

The speaker paused. He seemed to be struggling for words to express
his feelings.

"Quite so, Sir George," Ralph said eagerly. "I--came back for
something. I helped you into the house after your illness overcame
you. Forgive me if I seem to have stayed a little too long in my
anxiety to be of assistance. If you will take my advice you will go
back to your room without delay."

Sir George muttered something to the effect that he was very tired. He
babbled about cool springs in the woods, he accepted Mary's arm as a
weary child might do. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this
was the sprightly, gallant figure that Ralph had known in Paris so
short a time ago. But when Ralph had gone by the way in which he had
come, and once more Sir George was in his bedroom, a change came over
him. He eagerly drank the soda-water that Mary had procured for him.

"No, no," he cried, "tired as I am, I cannot sleep yet. I was half
asleep, I was between waking and dreaming, and I was dying of thirst.
I came out into the corridor and saw you standing there with Ralph
Darnley. There were certain words that seemed to be burned into my
brain with letters of fire. You were angry with him, and yet he was
going to be a friend to us. That was no common thief in the night,
Mary. What was it he found? What was it that was going to rid us of
the hateful presence of Horace Mayfield? Don't tell me that I was
dreaming, don't say that it was all a cruel delusion on my part. The
secret, the secret, girl."

The words came like a torrent. Out of his white and haggard face,
Dashwood's eyes gleamed like restless stars on a windy night. The
clutch on the girl's arm was almost painful in its intensity. Mary
wondered why she was trembling so.

"Hush," she said. "You must sleep now, or you will be really ill
again. Leave it till the morning, when you will be better able to
understand. I cannot tell you now; indeed, I know no more than you do
yourself. But now you must go to sleep!"



CHAPTER VIII.
FOUND!


Sir George lay back on the bed with weary eyelids closed. His last
effort had cost him more than he knew. Mary's will had conquered for
the moment, and he felt disposed to obey. All the same the strange
thread of logical reason was going on in his mind. The only thing that
could save him and preserve the proud traditions of the Dashwoods must
be something in the way of papers or documents of some kind. He lay
there, allowing Mary to make him comfortable for the night. He lay
there long after the girl had departed to her own room and the house
was wrapped in close slumber. But the quietness was soothing to Sir
George's brain. His mind was growing stronger and more logical; the
dazed dream of the scene in the corridor began to shape itself into
concrete facts.

What had Ralph Darnley been saying? Yes, it was all coming back now.
Darnley had learned certain facts somewhere, bearing on the fortunes
of the house of Dashwood. Surely there was nothing so wildly
improbable in this, seeing that Ralph Darnley had passed the best part
of his life in America. The late Ralph Dashwood, the original heir to
the property, had lived in America, too. Of course, America was a
large continent, but that was no reason why Ralph Dashwood and
Darnley's father should not have been friends. Had not Ralph Darnley
admitted that he had business in the neighbourhood of Dashwood Hall?
Perhaps he had come to make money out of his information. But then the
young fellow was a gentleman, and would not stoop to that kind of
thing.

Still, he knew there was no getting away from the fact, for had not
Dashwood heard it from the younger man's lips? A means whereby it was
possible to get rid of Horace Mayfield for ever! The mere idea sent
the blood throbbing through the sick man's veins, and brought him in a
sitting position in bed. That meant documents or papers of some kind;
it could really mean nothing else. Dashwood remembered vividly now
that Ralph had been standing by the old dower-chest in the corridor
and that he had had a paper in his hand. So far as Dashwood knew, the
old chest had not been opened for years. It was by no means a bad
hiding-place. Perhaps----

Slowly the sick man dragged himself to his feet. He had promised Mary
that he would lie quietly there till the morning, but he could not
find it in his heart to keep that promise. Sleep was out of the
question. Dashwood looked at his watch to find that it was only just
half-past three, five hours before it would be time to rise. It seemed
like an eternity. And all the while that fiend, Horace Mayfield, was
sleeping under the same roof. Suppose he had been listening to what
was going on. Suppose that he had had his suspicions attracted to the
dower-chest! The mere thought was intolerable; it was impossible to
lie there with such a torture praying on his mind. And the house was
as still as death.

Sir George lighted his candle, though the bright summer dawn was
creeping up from the east and the birds were beginning to twitter
outside in the garden. The long corridor was getting pink and saffron
with the strengthening colour from the great window. And under it lay
the object of the sick man's search. Here it was with the lid
unfastened and a mass of papers on the top. The first document was
long in shape, neatly folded, and bearing an endorsement in a legal
hand. The paper was yellow and faded, but the ink was quite plain for
the eye to read. Yes, here it was, right enough, the yellow paper that
meant happiness to all and the full splendour of the house of
Dashwood.

"How did he know, how did he discover it?" Sir George muttered. "My
hands are so shaky that I can hardly hold the paper. The will of Sir
Ralph Dashwood, dated 1877, and duly witnessed by the family lawyer
and his clerk. . . . Provided that for the space of twenty years after
this date my son Ralph does not appear either by himself or by the
heir or heirs male of his body. . . . Ah, six months more and the
property comes to me absolutely! Strange that the will should come to
light so near to the time appointed by Sir Ralph for--but that hardly
helps me, seeing that my danger is so close at hand. . . . What is
this? A deed executed by Ralph Dashwood the younger cutting off the
entail. . . . I wonder where that is? Perhaps the yellow sheet of
parchment lying by the side of the will. . . . By Heavens it is! Oh,
this is a direct interposition of Providence to save the good old name
from disgrace. And this is what Ralph Darnley was looking for as a
pleasant surprise for me. Armed with these documents, I can raise all
the money necessary. I can kick Horace Mayfield out of the house, I
can----"

The speaker staggered to his feet and pressed his hands to his
throbbing, reeling head.

He was nearer to collapse again than he knew. He would have denied the
fact that he was terribly afraid of Mayfield, but it was true all the
same. The aim of the financier had never been quite hidden from his
eyes; for some time past he had an instinctive knowledge of what
Mayfield was after. His family pride had bidden him to have no more of
Mayfield, but he had not listened. Proud as he was, he had not
hesitated to stoop to gambling transactions, with the risk that he
would not be able to pay his debts if he lost. Surely he deserved a
sharp lesson and a cruel awakening.

But he was free now, fortune was on his side. His great good luck sent
him trembling from head to foot like some amazed criminal who has been
discharged by a stupid jury. He would have to give up nothing. He was
still Sir George Dashwood with a grand estate, and a house with a
history of three hundred years behind it. He would go to London
tomorrow with those papers in his possession and his bankers would be
ready to accommodate him to any amount in reason. He would pay the sum
that Mayfield had mentioned, and wash his hands of the whole
transaction. He would show the world how a country gentleman deals
with these things. It never struck Dashwood that he was a feeble
creature who had juggled with the good name that he proposed to hold
so highly; he little realized the deep self-abnegation that had led to
this dazzling piece of good fortune.

"Kick Mayfield out," he repeated, "after breakfast. Let him see that I
am not in the least afraid of him; make him understand that we are
little better than strangers for the future. Ah, that will be a
triumph."

He hugged the papers to his breast, like a mother with a child. There
were weak and senile tears in his eyes. He had lost nothing after all;
the fine old house, the wide and well-kept estate, the great timber in
the park and the deer there, were all his. He started as the sound of
a footstep fell upon his ears. It seemed to him that somebody was
creeping along the corridor. Perhaps it was Mayfield, who had found
out what had happened. Mayfield was strong and unscrupulous, and he
might try to gain possession of those papers by force. Sir George
would have hidden himself, but it was too late, and besides it was
broad daylight now.

The first rays of the morning sun shone on the old man as he stood
there huddling those precious papers to his breast. He might have been
some clumsy thief detected in the act. With a sigh of relief he
recognized the figure of Slight coming in his direction. The old
butler only looked a shade less distracted than his master, and his
eyes were drawn and haggard; obviously he had not been to bed.

"What--what are you doing here?" Sir George stammered. "Why are you
spying upon me like this? Why are you down so early?"

Slight made no reply. His gaze was fixed in a dazed kind of way on the
papers which Sir George was still hugging to his breast. There was
something like horror in the old man's eyes. There might have been the
proofs of murder there.

"So you've got them," he said in the voice of one who talks to
himself. "So he has carried out his threat and they have passed into
your possession. Take and burn them, take and pitch them on the fire,
and watch them till the last ash has vanished. You will be a happier
man for it, Sir George, and a great wrong will be averted."

"What does the man mean?" Sir George cried in astonishment. "Slight,
what are you talking about? Say it all over again. If you are mad or
drunk----"

"Not mad," Slight said mournfully. He seemed to have come to his
senses suddenly. He spoke now as one does when acting under a great
restraint. "Not mad, Sir George, and as to the other thing, why. . . .
But the secret is not mine. I promised solemnly not to open my lips. I
have given you the best advice one man can give another, but more I
dare not say. Burn them, burn them, burn them, for the love of
Heaven!"

Slight turned away and seemed to totter down the corridor. The full
light of the strong morning sun was shining through the gold and
crimson glories of the great stained glass window now, the birds were
singing sweetly outside. The park grew fair and green as the dew
rolled back across the fields; the garden blazed in the sunshine. Sir
George saw all this as he looked through his bedroom window. The
fierce joy and pride of undisputed possession were upon him;
everything was safe now.

"Slight is mad," he murmured. "What does that old man know? What can
he know? Let me put these papers away where they will be safe. How
shaky I feel; how my head swims! If I could only get an hour or two of
sleep. . . ."



CHAPTER IX.
THE PARTING GUEST


The big clock on the breakfast-room mantelpiece was chiming the hour
of ten as Sir George came downstairs. He was a little later than
usual, and he apologized to his guest for his want of punctuality with
a courtly air. He was not accustomed to country hours, he said; he
doubted if he ever should be. He made no allusion whatever to his last
night's quarrel, his manner was perfectly natural and easy. If
anything, there was a suggestion of bland patronage in his tone.

Mayfield glanced keenly at his host from time to time. There was
something here that he quite failed to understand. He had expected to
find Sir George apologetic and rather frightened. On the contrary, he
was more like a bishop who entertains a curate than anything else. And
Mayfield could get nothing from Mary, who sat at the head of the
table, cold and stately, yet serenely beautiful, in her white cotton
dress. Mayfield ground his teeth together and swore that Dashwood
should pay for this before long. He held the fortunes of the baronet
in the hollow of his hand; his passion for Mary was the more inflamed
by her icy coldness. It would be good to humble her pride in the dust,
to compel her to come to his feet and do his bidding. All the same,
Mayfield had made up his mind to have an explanation after breakfast.
He smiled and talked, though his anger was hot within him.

"Mr. Mayfield will want a timetable presently, my dear," Sir George
was saying in his most courtly manner. "I am afraid that we have
intruded too long already on his valuable time."

"I have always time to spare for you," Mayfield said with a snarling
smile. "And Miss Mary need not trouble about the timetable. You
forget that I have my car here which will get me to London by mid-day.
Before I go I should like to have a few words with you, Sir George.
You will pardon me for mentioning it, but we left matters in rather an
unsatisfactory condition last night."

The little shaft passed harmlessly over Sir George's head. He smiled
blandly.

"To be sure we did," he said. "You are quite right, we will settle
things up before you go. What do you say to a cigar on the terrace
after breakfast? No, you need not go, Mary. I have a reason for asking
you to listen to our business conversation. We had a quarrel last
night, when I regret to say I lost my temper. For that exhibition of
unseemly and vulgar violence I sincerely beg your pardon, Mayfield. I
apologize all the more humbly because we are not likely to meet very
often in the future. Henceforth our business transactions promise to
be slender, for after this week I am determined that the City shall
not see me again. You will quite see, Mayfield, that in future our
intercourse must cease. It is rather painful to talk to a guest like
this, but you will understand me."

Mayfield's face expressed his astonishment. He wondered if Sir George
had taken leave of his senses, and deluded himself into the belief
that he was the possessor of a vast fortune. And yet the speaker was
absolutely calm and collected. What could possibly have happened since
last night to change him like this?

"Perhaps I am rather dense this morning," Mayfield said slowly, "but I
cannot follow you at all. Yesterday I explained to you the position of
affairs fully. We had been deceived by a trusted servant of mine, and
you were called upon to pay £50,000. Failing this, you would perhaps
have to face a criminal charge. Unfortunately, your hold upon the
estate is so slender that it would not be possible for you to borrow
any large sum of money. Not to speak too plainly, your position was,
and is, a desperate one. Partly because I was in a measure
instrumental in bringing about this lamentable state of affairs, I
offered to advance you the money. In other words, I offered to give
you £50,000. It is true there was a condition, but I merely allude to
that in the presence of Miss Dashwood."

Mary's face flamed. Her heart was heavy within her. So far as she
could see, this was the master of the situation. He held the demons of
Disgrace and Bankruptcy at bay. What was the cherished possession of
Dashwood worth so long as the shadow of dishonour lay across the
threshold? For the sake of the grand old home and the grand old name,
Mary would have to listen to Mayfield's proposal. She glanced from him
to the smiling face of her father, who had risen from the table and
produced his cigar case.

"Quite so," he said genially, "you are perfectly correct. You made
that proposal, and, like a cur, I forgot myself and insulted you. I
went so far as to say that you had planned deliberately to bring this
thing about. It was ruin on the one hand and the sacrifice of my dear
child on the other. Pray take one of my cigars. There are chairs on
the terrace, let us continue our discussion there."

"Why go over the old ground again?" Mayfield asked impatiently. He
flung himself into one of the big basket chairs on the terrace. "Has
there been any material change in the position since last night? Not a
bit of it. If you could find this money----"

"There is no if about it, my good Mayfield," Sir George replied. "I
can find the money. It will be paid over to my creditors by the end of
the week, and I will take care to let the world know what a victim I
have been. The money will be paid."

A quick angry cry came from Mayfield's lips. The mask had fallen from
his face for the moment. His disappointment was clear and hideous.

"What?" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Do you mean to say that you have found
the wi----"

He paused and shut his lips together with a vicious click. He was
going to say too much. He glanced at Sir George to see if the
imprudent words had had any effect on him, but the head of the
Dashwoods seemed to be immersed in his own pleasant thoughts. Only
Mary noticed, but it was not till many days afterwards that she was to
attach any significance to the speech.

"The money is going to be paid," Sir George went on. "By the end of
the week I shall have finished with the City forever. I am not going
to make any accusation, but in the clearing of my own name I shall not
give any heed to others. Amongst the 'others' I need not say I am
alluding to you."

"And there I am kicked downstairs," Mayfield said bitterly.

"If you like to put it so. I could speak a little more freely if you
were not my guest at the present moment. But you quite understand me."

"Your patience will not be unduly taxed," Mayfield said grimly. "If I
am not mistaken there is my car under the portico at this moment. But,
before I go, I have something to say. You will not forget your
personal obligation to me."

"A matter of £5,000. I assure you it had not escaped my memory. By the
end of the week----"

"Quite so. By the end of the week. You wanted that money badly at the
time. I lent it you on the condition that you allowed me to take a
judgment for the debt. I brought a friendly action against you to
recover the money, and you allowed judgment to go by default. It is a
little formula that is sometimes gone through in the City, Miss Mary,
to enable one or more fortunate creditors to have the preference over
the rest. When I signed judgment I was in a position to levy execution
as it is called. That is another technical expression that means that
I am in a position now to place men in possession here and to hold
everything till the debt and costs are paid in full. In vulgar circles
this is called 'having the bailiffs in.' It happens with such people
as struggling tradesmen and the like who cannot pay their rent. It is
held to be a terrible disgrace amongst the poor. Common men come in
and take possession of the drawing-room, where they smoke clay pipes
and drink beer. Try to imagine a dirty creature of this kind with his
feet on your Louis Quinze furniture, Miss Mary. The very idea causes
you to look pale and ghastly. And yet such things have happened, and
history is always repeating itself."

The speaker paused and smiled, his words were horribly slow and
grating. Mary laid her hand on her heart as if some sharp fear
thrilled her.

"Is--is it possible for you to do this thing?" she asked.

"Indeed it is," said Mayfield with the same hard smile. "I could do it
today--as soon as I reach town, in fact. Quite like a scene from a
modern melodrama, is it not? Well, goodbye, Sir George; goodbye, Miss
Mary. I see my luggage is on the car and my chauffeur is waiting. I
will not intrude myself on you any longer. When my slaves of the law,
with their clay pipes and dirty boots arrive, there will be no
necessity to ask them to have dinner at the same table as yourself.
Goodbye."

With a sign of his hand, Mayfield motioned to his chauffeur. The great
car came along with a fuss and a clatter, and Mayfield sprang to the
side of the driver. He pulled off his hat with a gesture of mocking
humility and the car dashed away. Sir George sprang up, but too late.
The car was disappearing now in a cloud of dust down the drive. With a
face white as death Mary turned to her father.

"Is this thing true?" she asked hoarsely. "Are you still in that man's
power? Is it quite impossible for you to get the money today?"

"Quite," Sir George groaned. "I--I had forgotten that judgment. I
should have waited; I should not have shown my hand so soon. But he
will never do it; he was dismayed to find my position so strong; he
merely meant to frighten me."

"He _will_ do it," Mary cried. "I saw it in his face, in his wicked
eyes. A disgrace like that would break my heart, father. What is to be
done to avert this awful calamity? No sacrifice could be too great.
And I can think of absolutely nothing!"



CHAPTER X.
SKIN DEEP


Mary spoke as one who is moved to the very core of her being. It was
not merely a painful and unpleasant incident that faced her, but
something in the nature of a great and overwhelming tragedy. The
girl's pride was part of her being. She accepted it naturally, as in
the order of establishing things. Usually she was brave enough. She
would have encountered any physical danger with coolness and courage,
but the mere suggestion of this outrage frightened her.

Well, she could look to her father for assistance. He had behaved with
great fortitude during the recent interview with Mayfield; indeed, it
might be said that he emerged from the combat victoriously. Doubtless,
he could find some way out. The old blood had asserted itself before,
and it could do it again.

"Why are you so silent?" Mary asked. "Tell me what is to be done. A
disgrace like that would be horrible--after such contamination,
Dashwood would never be the same to me again. Father, you have found a
way?"

But Sir George made no reply. The bland and easy dignity had vanished,
the suave smile with which he had greeted Mayfield was not to be seen.
He had suddenly become a poor feeble wreck of a man again, and he
burst into senile tears. They were real tears, for Mary could see them
trickling down his face. She trembled with an alarm and anger that she
had never felt before.

For tears formed no part of her woman's armour; she left them to
children and the fretful mothers of the poor. In all the traditions of
the house, there was no mention of tears. Both men and women had met
their misfortunes with hard faces and dry eyes. It had been left to
Mary to be ashamed of a male Dashwood. Perhaps there was something in
the bitter scorn of her face that caused Sir George furtively to
remove the tell-tale drops.

"I'm not myself," he whined. "I have had a deal of trouble and
Mayfield is a great scoundrel. I had to have that money hurriedly--a
disastrous speculation. If I had not been high up in the service of my
country, it would not have mattered so much. But my creditors were
pressing, and Mayfield offered to help me. Of course, he wanted what
he called security. It seemed so natural when he explained to me. And
all the time he wanted to get me into his power."

"Oh, why go over the same ground again?" Mary cried. "Something must
be done without delay. Those horrible men must not come here."

"Perhaps it was only a threat on Mayfield's part," Sir George said
feebly.

"It was nothing of the kind and you know it, father. There was deadly
malice in every word that he uttered. And before then you had got the
better of him. You acted like a true Dashwood--I was proud of you. And
now you sit there, and, oh, I cannot bring myself to say the hateful
word. Why did you behave so nobly a little while ago, and so cowardly
now? You seemed to have found a way out."

"I had," Sir George whispered. "Last night you left me in the depths
of despair. I could not sleep, I could think of nothing but what you
told me about Ralph Darnley. I wondered if perhaps he was secretly my
enemy. Then it occurred to me that he was looking for some papers in
that old chest. I could not rest till I was satisfied; I also searched
the old chest. And what did I find? I found the late Sir Ralph
Dashwood's will and I found his unhappy son's deed cutting off the
entail. If no son of the second Ralph turns up within the next six
months, everything is mine. You can understand how the full force of
that discovery overwhelmed me. Here was a way out of all my
difficulties. That is why I was in a position to face Mayfield
fearlessly this morning. Within a week at the outside I could raise
the money to be clear of him. I had quite forgotten the smaller item.
I should have remembered it, I ought to have been smooth and smiling
before Mayfield's face until I was ready to be clear of him for ever.
And now he can strike me a deadly blow before I am ready to meet it.
Of course the inconvenience----"

"Inconvenience! Can you speak of so disgraceful a thing by such a
name? Dearly as I love the old house, I would rather see it and all
its treasures burnt to the ground. I could put the match to it
myself."

Mary's voice rang out with passionate anger. Her blue eyes blazed.
There was no trace of exaggeration in what she said, she would have
been ready to carry out her threat.

"It won't last long," Sir George muttered. "I'll go to London tomorrow
and take those papers with me. As soon as they have been verified, the
bank will advance me all I need. But business of this sort takes time.
People are very chary of parting with their money unless it is well
secured. Probably by the end of the week----"

"The end of the week! And the blow may fall tonight! We must have that
money now."

"Impossible, my dear child. I'm afraid you do not appreciate the
situation. When I came into the property I was heavily in debt. I had
to pay off those debts; also I had to keep up the house in a way that
befitted the traditions of the family. The consequence is that I am
constantly overdrawn at my bank as far as the people there allow it.
They don't like it, because they feel that if anything happened to me,
or some son of young Ralph Dashwood came along, I should find myself
not in--er--a position to meet all my liabilities. Therefore, to go to
them to raise this money would be worse than useless. I am afraid that
we shall have to put up with the inconvenience till the end of the
week, when those papers I found will have been properly verified."

Mary restrained the passionate anger that flamed within her. It was a
cruel blow to find her father so wanting in courage when the critical
moment came. He was prepared to sit down and weep, when hourly the
danger was drawing nearer. Instinctively Mary's thoughts went out to
Ralph Darnley. He would not have taken the blow like this, though he
had not the good fortune to call himself a Dashwood. He would be up
and doing. Perhaps it would be as well to consult him and ask his
advice. She felt ashamed of herself as the thought occurred to her.
And yet she had no other friend in the world. Despite her exalted
position, Mary was a very lonely girl.

What was the use of all her pride? This splendid isolation faded to
ashes now that she was face to face with the task before her.
Evidently her father meant to do nothing, he would submit tamely to
the degradation and wait for it to pass.

There were dead and gone Dashwoods smiling, or simpering, or frowning
from the walls--soldiers and statesmen, scholars, famous beauties, and
not one of them had ever seen the tainting of the family name. It was
left to Sir George to submit tamely to that. Mary could see that his
eyes were still wet.

"Something must be done," she said. "Are there no jewels that one
could turn into cash? Strange that I have never given a thought before
to the family jewels! But surely in a family like ours there must be
historic diamonds and the like. Did I not hear once from somebody that
the Dashwood emeralds are unique? I am told that it is no uncommon
thing for great ladies to take these jewels to men in London who
advance money on them. I have listened to such stories with
incredulity--I begin to see now why things like this have to be done.
Let me have them and I will go to London this afternoon. My cheeks
flame with shame when I think of it; but I suppose there are harder
tests of one's endurance. Where are they, father?"

"They are not here," he said. "I believe there are some magnificent
heirlooms in the way of family gems, but they are not in my
possession. You see we are merely a collateral branch of the old tree,
so we have nothing to do with the jewels. At present I understand they
are in the possession of the dowager Lady Dashwood. They came to her
as a matter of right on her marriage, and I am told that she has
retained them ever since. If her son had lived and come to the title
and married, then his wife would have taken the stones as a matter of
right, being the wife of the reigning head of the family. Whether or
not they would come to you on your marriage is another question.
Anyway, you would have the right of wearing them after the dowager
dies. But this is a matter about which I know really nothing. As you
are aware, my dear, Lady Dashwood does not like me. For some reason or
another she has a violent prejudice against me, and she never asks me
to the dower house if she can help it. Of course with you the thing is
different--she brought you up and regards you more or less as her own
child. It is just possible that she may tide us over the difficulty."

"Which means that you will go and ask her," Mary said eagerly.

"By no means, my dear," Sir George responded. "I could not stoop to
ask a favour of that kind from any woman, however pressing the
necessity. It seems to me to be more a question between one woman and
another. Now from you, the request would seem quite natural. If you
care to undertake it----"

But Mary heard no more. She could not trust herself to reply. Slowly
and coldly she walked from the room, her hands locked convulsively
together. Truly the family pride was a shattered reed to lean on, a
skin deep thing after all. And the strong capable face of Ralph
Darnley rose like a warm vision before her.



CHAPTER XI.
THE DOWAGER LADY DASHWOOD


The silent moody dinner was over at length; Slight was placing the
dessert on the shining mahogany. Mary rose presently and walked over
to the open window. Over the park the moon was gleaming like a silver
shield against the pallid sky; the deer moved like ghosts in the
pearly dew. It was more sweet and peaceful than ever, and yet Mary
dwelt bitterly on the mockery of it all. What an enviable mortal she
appeared to be, and yet how little did she deserve that envy. The
hours had crept on and the thunderbolt had not yet fallen. Perhaps the
blow would be delayed till tomorrow, which was a soothing reflection,
for nothing had as yet been done, though Mary had made up her mind to
invoke the aid of Lady Dashwood. She had not been across to the dower
house yet, for Lady Dashwood had gone out on one of her rare visits to
a neighbour, and at seven o'clock had not returned. There would be
plenty of time afterwards, and Mary stood by the window, drinking in
the full beauty of the night. She had made up her mind to tell Lady
Dashwood everything and throw herself upon the elder woman's mercy.
She turned to her father, who was gently complaining to Slight of the
quality of the claret he was pouring out.

"I am going to the dower house now," the girl said coldly. How could a
man be so trivial at such a moment, she wondered. "I may be late,
father."

Sir George murmured something in reply. He was still absorbed in the
contemplation of his glass. He had evidently forgotten the importance
of Mary's errand. The girl was very chill and her heart very cold and
empty and lonely as she passed down the old elm avenue and through a
path leading by a great belt of evergreens to the grounds of the dower
house beyond. It was a Tudor mansion a little older than the Hall
itself, and it boasted some wonderful gates and a rose garden famous
throughout the county. The whole façade of the house was covered with
roses, too, and the night air was heavy with their fragrance. The back
of the house looked on a green forecourt, and a long conservatory led
to a set of cloisters, which made a deliciously cool spot in the hot
weather. There Mary usually found her aged relative, but she was in
the drawing-room tonight. She rose as the girl entered, a tall figure
with a mass of white hair done up in some old fashion that was not
without its charm. Lady Dashwood's face was white as her hair, and it
bore the impress of some great and lasting trouble that never would
fade away on this side of the grave. Her eyes had the same haunting
care in them, the same suggestion of remorse. A keen observer might
have been justified in regarding Lady Dashwood as a woman who was
being weighed down with the burden of a terrible secret.

But her smile was sincere enough as Mary came forward; her slim hands
shook as she laid them on the girl's shoulders and kissed her. Then
she seemed to discern that something was wrong, for she sighed as she
looked into Mary's face.

"Sit down, dearest," she said tenderly. "It is very good of you to
come and see me so late. But there is something the matter, Mary. I
have not known and loved you all these years without being able to
read that transparent mind of yours. What is it dear? You know that I
will do anything in the wide world to save you from unhappiness."

"Dearest of foster mothers, I know it," Mary whispered. She blinked
away the rare tears that would rise to her eyes. "It is selfish of me
to come and worry you at this time of night, but there is no help for
it. We are in great distress."

"Does that mean your father as well as yourself, or rather that you
are worrying about him? What has he been doing now to cause you all
this anxiety? Something to do with those speculations over which I
have helped him more than once in the past."

"Have you?" Mary asked with a startled blush. "He never told me. He
wrote to you----"

"More than once, my dear. As heir presumptive to the estate, I suppose
he thought he had a right to do so. But I am afraid that I can't help
him again--at least, not just at present. But then I don't suppose it
is so very serious."

"It is disgrace," Mary said in a low voice. "It means the intrusion of
strangers, men sent down to take what is called possession till the
debt is paid. It is a matter of £5,000, and it must be obtained at
once--before mid-day tomorrow. Perhaps I had better tell you all about
it, but it would break my heart to see this disgrace fall on Dashwood.
Dearest, tell me that you will find me the money or the means to get
it!"

Lady Dashwood made no reply for a moment. A still more ashen pallor
crept over her white face. She placed her hand to her heart as if to
still some poignant pain there, her rings shimmered and trembled in
the lamplight.

"Tell me everything," she said huskily. "My punishment is coming, my
sin is finding me out at last."

"Your sin?" Mary cried. "If ever there was a good woman in the world,
you are one. I hate to hear you speak like that, my more than mother.
Surely you must know how good and pure your life has always been. And
you talk like this! If there is any mystery here, any secret that lies
like a shadow over our house----"

"Was ever a great family without its trouble?" Lady Dashwood asked.
"You must not take my foolish words quite so seriously, child. Perhaps
by brooding over them, one is apt to magnify troubles. So your father
has discovered this will and the deed by which my unhappy boy cut
himself off from his inheritance. Strange that the papers should be
found just now."

"Why?" Mary asked. "Why just now? Did you know of their existence?"

But Lady Dashwood made no reply. She seemed to be lost in a sea of
troubled thoughts. Mary did not repeat the question. After all, it
mattered very little either way. Lady Dashwood came to herself with a
start.

"But we have the present to think of," she said. "Your father will be
able to do as he likes now, therefore the trouble caused by this
hostile creditor is all the more to be deplored. He is some business
man, I presume?"

"Yes," Mary explained. "By birth a gentleman. His name is Horace
Mayfield."

A startled cry came from Lady Dashwood's lips, the grey pallor was on
her face again.

"Do you happen to know the man?" Mary asked.

"Oh, yes; I know him and his family. A bad man, a hateful man. Never
mention his name to me again. Mary, he must be got rid of at all
costs. I have no great head for these things, but I see the necessity
of getting out of the hands of Horace Mayfield. As you say, in a
week's time it would not matter. As it is the thing is urgent. Is it
so utterly impossible to find this money?"

"It is out of the question for us," Mary said haltingly. Her face was
burning now that she was coming to the pith of her errand. "My father
could not place his hand on a fifth part of the sum. I racked my
brains to find the way out. Then it occurred to me that there were
certain people who lent money on the security of jewels and valuable
plate, and things like that. I had never heard our family jewels
mentioned, but I felt quite sure that they existed. My father told me
that they were in your possession, that they belong to you so long as
I remain single. Dear mother, do you see what I mean? Do not put me to
the pain of having to speak more plainly. And it is only for so short
a time! By the end of the week the stones will be in your hands again.
I could go up to London in the morning and take the jewels to one of
the big dealers who do business of this kind. . . . The disgrace would
be averted. I hate to come here with a proposal like this, but I can
think of no other way. You are not going to refuse me this great
favour?"

"You want me . . . to lend you . . . my jewels?" Lady Dashwood gasped.
There was no trace of anger or displeasure in her voice. She looked
strangely white and drawn, as if suddenly, years had been added to her
life. "How do you know I have any?"

"I asked my father. No, he did not suggest it. He told me that our
family collection of stones was a famous one; he said that everything
was in your possession. Then in shame and agony of spirit I dragged
myself here to ask you to do this thing. My own proper pride held me
back, my family pride urged me on."

"The curse of the race," Lady Dashwood cried. "The besetting sin of
the family will ruin us all yet. Heavens! the mischief that it has
brought about already. It made my wedded life a long intolerable
bondage, rendering me old before my time. It was responsible for the
great sin which caused my son to leave home for ever. And yet I fed
you on the family pride, I held it before you day by day until you
have grown so cold and hard that I alone know of the kind and generous
heart that beats within you. . . . But enough of this. You want me to
lend you some of my jewels. If I tell you I have none, what then?"

"My father told me that they were in your possession, Lady Dashwood."

"My child, you must not speak to me in that tone. It hurts me
dreadfully. Suppose the stones are gone, suppose that I have parted
with them one by one to preserve a fearful family secret! Suppose that
I parted with the last diamond yesterday! What would you say if I told
you that?"

Lady Dashwood had suddenly lost her reason. Mary could see no other
explanation for this extraordinary speech. And yet the speaker looked
guilty enough, there was a shamed flush on her withered cheeks. She
rose from her seat and moved to the door.

"Wait a moment," she said. "I may find a way yet. But my sin is going
to find me out and my sacrifice shall be all in vain."



CHAPTER XII.
LADY DASHWOOD SEES A GHOST


With faltering hesitation Lady Dashwood made her way into the dark
hall beyond the drawing-room. She bore little resemblance to the grand
dame that her friends knew. In spite of her silks, her laces and her
flashing rings, she looked like the ordinary woman who is suffering
from the burden of a great affliction. There were tears in her eyes as
she walked along. The house was strangely silent; no servants were to
be seen anywhere as Lady Dashwood reached a door leading to the green
forecourt with the cloisters beyond. She stepped out into the
moonlight slowly, she passed across the garden under the brown stone
archway that led to the cloisters.

There she paused and looked about her furtively. There was nothing to
be seen but the shadows made by the moonlight. Like a thief in the
night Lady Dashwood crept along till she came at length to the end of
the cloisters, where there was a stairway leading to some dilapidated
apartment overhead. Once again there was a pause, and after that the
aged lady began to climb the stairs. At the same time there came the
unmistakable sound of voices overhead.

Lady Dashwood started and almost lost her balance. The sound was so
unexpected, so utterly unlooked for. The voices were quite clear and
distinct, too, on the still air. Lady Dashwood had no desire to play
the eavesdropper, but it was impossible not to hear everything. The
one voice was low and pleasant, and yet clear and commanding.

"I tell you it is impossible," the pleasant voice said. "You must
allow me to conduct this business in my own way. I have already given
you my word that everything will come out right in the long run. There
is still six months of the time to expire, remember, so that you need
do no violence to your conscience."

"Yes, but you have not taken Lady Dashwood into your calculations,
sir," the other voice said.

"Indeed I have, my good fellow. I have forgotten nothing. Everything
has been most carefully mapped out. As Lady Dashwood is more or less
of a recluse, there is nothing to be feared from her. It will be a
very easy matter to keep out of her way."

The listener fell back, clutching at her heart wildly. She was
compelled to lean against the brown walls of the cloisters for
support.

"I am dreaming," she murmured. "I shall awake presently and find
myself in bed. I am getting old and fanciful, and my mind is playing
me strange tricks. The owner of that voice has been dead for many
years; it is a mere chance resemblance. And yet it is as real as if I
had gone back over the wasted years. Is it possible----"

The speaker paused. It seemed to her that the two men overhead were
coming down and she had no mind to be caught listening. She turned
away swiftly, her slim ankle in its satin slipper gave a turn and a
cry of pain escaped her. A moment later and Slight was by her side,
looking at her with mingled sympathy and suspicion.

"Your ladyship has hurt yourself," he said. "Permit me to take you
back to the house. What are you doing here at this time in the
evening?"

There was something almost masterful in the tone of the question. In
spite of the pain that she was suffering, Lady Dashwood turned a cold
displeased eye on the speaker.

"You sometimes forget yourself, Slight," she said. "It is a failing of
old and privileged servants. Your place is over at the Hall. What are
you doing here? You were ever a man to do strange things in a strange
way. Have you some secret here?"

"We have had many secrets together, my lady, and we may take most of
them to the grave with us," said Slight coolly. "I have been too long
a friend of the family to be treated like this. And your ladyship must
just come back to the house at once. You are in pain."

"Pain or not, I am not going back yet, Slight. I came here for
something that I had left in one of the cloister chambers, and I heard
your voice. I should have thought little of that, for you are
permitted to come and go as you like. But you were not alone, you had
a companion with you. And I heard his voice, too, Slight."

The withered old servant looked slightly confused. Then his dry face
grew hard and dogged.

"I am not going to deny it, my lady," he said. "A--friend of mine,
who----"

"Is a gentleman. No mistake about that, Slight, And the voice was so
like that of my poor dead boy that I almost died of the sound of it.
What does it mean, Slight; who are you hiding up there? I am going to
see."

"Indeed, your ladyship is not going to do anything of the kind," said
Slight hastily. "Besides, my friend has gone. There is another way
from the cloister chamber, remember. And your ladyship has just got to
come back to the house."

Lady Dashwood sighed impatiently. Slight had been her own servant for
nearly forty years, and she knew the dogged obstinacy of the man. She
knew his sterling honesty, too, and how faithful he could be to a
trust.

"Very well," she said. "If there is anything to tell me, you will tell
it in your own way. But that voice startled me--it was like a voice
from the grave. It was as if my boy had come back to me once more.
Slight, if you are deceiving me----"

"I'm not deceiving anybody," Slight said in an aggrieved voice. "I
leave that to my betters. If your ladyship will lean on my arm, I will
try to ease your foot as much as possible. The shortest way is to cut
across the grass."

It was rather a slow process, for Lady Dashwood's foot was getting
painful. She came at length to the great stone doorway leading from
the forecourt into the house; she looked back over her shoulder, and
as she did so she grew almost rigid.

"Look!" she whispered. "What did I tell you? Don't you see it,
Slight--the figure standing over there by the laurels in the
moonlight? See, the rays on his face. Don't tell me that my eyes
deceive me, Slight. It is my boy come back again."

Slight muttered something under his breath. In reality he was
objurgating Ralph Darnley for his careless imprudence in standing
there with his face turned to the dower house. Yet the old man's frame
never moved a muscle.

"What does your ladyship mean?" he asked. "I can see nothing."

"That is because you are not looking in the right direction, Slight.
Over there by the laurels. Do you dare to tell me that a man is not
standing there? It is my son Ralph come back from the grave! The fine
figure, the gracious open face, the determined eyes. Has time stood
still with him that he looks so young? And yet it is forty years
since. . . . Ralph, Ralph, it is your mother who calls to you."

The words rang out with startling stillness in the great cloister. The
young man standing there started and turned round. He had been
absolutely lost in a deep study, contemplating the old house. He came
tumbling down to earth again, and became conscious of a white-haired,
richly-dressed old lady who was holding out a pair of arms in his
direction. He could see the pleading, loving look on her face, he
noticed the menace and anger in Slight's eyes. Without further ado
Ralph stepped back into the bushes, his feet making no sound on the
mosy turf. It was like the slow diminishing of a dream.

"He has gone," Lady Dashwood cried. "I have frightened him by my
notice. Did you not see him, Slight? Did you not observe the
extraordinary likeness?"

"I saw nothing but a young man who was trespassing," Slight said
evasively. "Your ladyship is full of fancies tonight. You will laugh
at yourself in the morning."

Once more Lady Dashwood sighed impatiently. She managed to drag
herself back to the drawing-room without the aid of Slight. She
dropped into a chair white and quivering, whilst Mary regarded her
with eyes filled with deep concern.

"Something has happened to you," she said. "What is it? Can I do
anything?"

"Nobody can do anything," Lady Dashwood whispered. "Mary, I have
seen a ghost. I not only saw the ghost, but I heard the vision speak.
And they wanted to persuade me that it was an old woman's foolish
fancy. . . . I meant to have done something for you tonight, but I
forget what it is and where I put it. I can think of nothing but my
ghost. And I want to be alone, my dear, you cannot think how much I
want to be alone! Ring for my maid now and go. Don't think me unkind,
my child. Come back in the morning, and I will try to help you in the
way you need. Kiss me and say goodnight."

Mary bent down obediently and kissed the faded, unsteady lips. Her
errand had been more or less of a failure, but she could not pursue
the subject now. She could only ring the bell and depart as she had
come. To press the matter nearest her heart would have been wanting in
tact and delicacy. Very sorrowfully Mary took her way across the park
in the direction of the Hall. She would come back and see Lady
Dashwood after breakfast, and then if she could get what she required,
she would go to London at once and get matters settled by the family
solicitor. She might be an hour or two too late, but she had to risk
that.

The drawing-room windows were open; on the terrace in front Sir George
was passing up and down with a distracted air. Mary could see that his
tie was ruffled and that his hair had been stirred as if by a high
wind. He paused as the girl spoke to him.

"What is wrong?" she asked. "Has anything happened?"

"The very worst," Sir George groaned. "They came soon after you had
gone . . . three of them. One in the servants' hall, one upstairs, and
one in there, the drawing-room. A foul man with a foul pipe. Look and
see the creature for yourself!"



CHAPTER XIII.
DESECRATION


A feeling of almost physical sickness held Mary for the moment. She
had dreaded this thing, and at the same time she had hoped against
it--it had seemed almost impossible that such a calamity could happen
to Dashwood Hall. Mary would have scoffed the idea that she regarded
ordinary humanity as different clay to herself, but it was so all the
same. It did not seem right that one in her station of life should be
called upon to suffer an indignity like this.

And yet here it was, blatant and hideous, and so transparently vulgar!
Mary knew the full significance of the disaster; she had seen
something of it, two years before, in the house of one of the estate
farmers who had fallen into the hands of a money-lender. She had seen
the mother of the family bowed and distracted, whilst a gin-soddened
wretch sat in a priceless oak chair and puffed some dreadful tobacco.
And the man had been quite insolent when Mary had spoken to him.

That was bad enough, but to have the same thing at Dashwood was a
thousand times worse. It seemed to Mary that she could catch the reek
of that vile tobacco now. But something had to be done; it was useless
to stand there idle.

"Have you spoken to the people?" Mary asked. "The servants----"

"Are all in bed except old Slight," Sir George whined. "Slight managed
that. The other servants don't know anything for the present."

"Well, that is something gained. I have been to see Lady Dashwood. It
was the most shameful moment of my life, but I managed to ask for the
jewels. No, I did not get them--I don't believe that Lady Dashwood has
them. I believe that she has some secret trouble of her own; I begin
to believe that there is something terribly wrong with our family.
There is no hope from Lady Dashwood."

Sir George whined in a feeble kind of way. Mary's heart overflowed
with bitter contempt. This was the head of the family, the man to be
relied upon to uphold the traditions of a long line of glorious
ancestors! The girl steeled herself to face the inevitable; she knew
now that she would have to rely solely on her own exertions. She
passed through the open window into the drawing-room, which would
never be quite the same to her again. Nothing appeared to be altered;
the soft shaded lamps were here, the mellow subdued light playing on
old furniture and pictures, and the flowers artistically arranged in
their priceless vases. Surely sorrow and shame and humiliation would
not touch the picture with chill fingers!

There he was, lounging back on a Chippendale couch, with his muddy
boots on a hassock of Gobelin tapestry, his sullen face half-ashamed
and half-defiant. His profession would have been apparent to anyone
who had ever met one of the tribe before. Those men were of a race
apart, idlers and loafers, who can face sorrow and suffering and the
breaking up of homes without a spark of human feeling. The man looked
up at Mary's pale haughty face, with a certain dumb admiration in his
bleared eye.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Mary demanded. "Tell me
that."

"It's all right," the object said, without removing his pipe. "There's
the docyment on that little marble table. Suit of Mayfield and Co.,
£5,193 17_s_. 4_d_., debt and costs. If you pay within seven days, all
right; if you don't then the auctioneer comes in. No use making a fuss
about it. Pay us and we go, don't pay us and we stay. Treat us well,
and we'll treat you well. It isn't the first time I've been in swell
houses like this."

The man was so coolly, unconsciously insolent that Mary could make no
reply for a moment. It seemed incredible that she, who had always had
the reverence of every man and boy in the village, could be treated
like this. Nothing seemed to pierce the creature's dull hide.

"But you can't stay here," she said. "That is impossible. I suppose
the idea is to see that nothing is taken away. Nearly all the
furniture belongs to the family; most of the things are what are
called heirlooms. We could not dispose of them if we wanted to. We
could make you all comfortable in one of the empty lodges."

"Won't do," the man on the sofa said huskily. "Had that game tried on
me lots of times. I sit up here all night, whilst my mates get a rest.
We take it turn and turn about. Better keep your breath to cool your
porridge. You can go to bed now without any fear of burglars. I'll see
that nothing goes away from here."

Mary turned away, sore and helpless and sick at heart. She, who
despised tears so heartily in others, felt like bursting into
hysterical weeping now. The humiliation was almost more than she could
bear. She would have welcomed any calamity that was likely to
overwhelm the old house and lay it in grey ashes at her feet.
Fiercely, angrily, she grasped her father by the arm and led him from
the room. Sir George trotted along feebly, muttering in a small voice.
He was as useless as a woman in a storm at sea. He sat down in the
library with his hands folded in his lap, and looked anxiously for any
suggestion from Mary.

"Is there nothing you can do?" she demanded impatiently. Could this
feeble, white-faced creature be the same jaunty, debonnaire figure
that had been so popular in the Paris salons? Mary asked herself. "Is
there no way out of the difficulty?"

"I--I am afraid not," Sir George stammered. "I am so dazed and
confused that I can think of nothing. Most unfortunate that business
about Lady Dashwood and the diamonds. Wonder what she has done with
them. Very selfish of her."

Mary suppressed a desire to scream. Ralph Darnley flashed into her
mind suddenly, and she wondered why. Anyway she could not ask him to
help her, even if he had the means to do so. She had repelled his
advances more or less scornfully, and one does not borrow money from a
man in conditions like that.

"Lady Dashwood is powerless to help us," she said with an effort.
"Unless I am greatly mistaken, she has a sorrow far deeper than
ours----"

"Impossible," Sir George said testily. "You are talking nonsense, my
dear. What blow could be heavier or harder to bear than ours? But I
trust that we shall meet it with proper dignity. Nothing can deprive
us of our dignity."

Mary laughed aloud. The echo of her mirth came back mockingly in the
silence and almost frightened her. Heavens! was it possible that Sir
George had no idea of the pitiable figure he presented at that moment?
He went on to suggest fortitude and calmness. He had heard of the same
thing happening in the castle of a duke. Worse things had taken place
in the chateaux of the aristocracy in the French Revolution.

"Ay, but they knew how to live and die like gentlefolk," Mary said
bitterly. "I understand that you are going to sit down and tamely
submit to this thing?"

"My dearest child, how impetuous you are! There is nothing else to do.
By the end of the week I shall have more than enough for all my needs.
Still I think, I think that there is a way to get out of the
difficulty, without anybody being any the wiser. The remedy, however,
lies in your hands. Of course, it requires a certain amount of
self-sacrifice on your part. I am bound to confess that I could desire
other channels for the amelioration of the situation. Still, as I said
before----"

The voice was cringing and fawning; there was something mean and
furtive on Sir George's face as he spoke his polished periods. A
certain sickness of heart gripped Mary; she was conscious of a
sensation of absolute fear.

"Pray do not be diplomatic with me," she said. "I have seen so much of
that kind of thing in Paris. What are you concealing from me?"

"Your tone is not filial," Sir George complained. "I did not mean to
tell you; I was going to spare you the pain. I thought perhaps you
would agree with me that patience was the best line to take. But I see
that you desire to strike a decisive blow; at any cost you long to get
those impossible creatures out of the house. Our boats are not
entirely burnt as you seem to imagine--one slender plank of safety
remains. Not to elaborate the thing too much, I may say I have had a
note from Mayfield. I should like you to read that note and consider
its inner meaning carefully. Mayfield has come down from London in his
car tonight, and is staying at his old fishing quarters at Swainson's
farm. He more or less apologizes for the course that he has taken, and
reminds me that friendship must not be mixed up with business. He does
not allude to the way in which I so flagrantly assaulted him, which
strikes me as being generous on his part----"

"But he has come here to gloat over our misfortune," Mary cried. "I
see that my instinct did not play me false when I estimated the man."

"There you go, there you go," Sir George said testily. "I gather from
the letter that Mayfield regrets his precipitate action. But, on the
other hand, he fears to lose his money. He wants a substantial
security for it. He says in his letter, which is an exceedingly
gentlemanly one, that an amicable understanding is quite easy. He
suggests that if you like to send for him and discuss the matter, he
has no doubt that affairs may be arranged."

Mary started forward and laid a hand upon her heart. She was conscious
of a fierce pain there, as if the organ of her being had suddenly
stopped its beating. So this was the way out! She had only to smile,
to raise one pink finger, and the horrid miasma in the drawing-room
would fade like some unspeakable nightmare. Mary dropped into a chair
shaking in every limb.



CHAPTER XVI.
A FIERCE TEMPTATION


"And so that is what you mean!" Mary said slowly when at length she
had found sufficient breath to speak. "Stripped of empty phrases and
diplomatic trappings, I am to make a bargain with Horace Mayfield to
save the honour and reputation of our house."

"Let me point out to you that the thing can be done tonight," Sir
George whispered.

"Oh, I know that. That is why Horace Mayfield is here. He has returned
on purpose. He has carefully calculated the place where the wound is
likely to hurt most. He knows the full extent of my pride, my idolatry
for the old house and the old name. And I am to make a bargain with
him. I am to exchange myself for freedom from the disgrace and
humiliation. And that is a course that you seriously suggest."

"I have not said so," Sir George muttered. He held his head down. He
could not meet the flashing blue scorn in his child's eyes. "These
things happen every day. Look at Lady Cynthia Greig. She married
Newman the financier, who started life goodness knows where. And she
was supposed to be the proudest girl in London."

"Oh, I know. There was some whisper of a terrible family scandal
involving a deal of money. And the last time I saw Cynthia, she looked
like a beautiful white statue. There was a fierce, hard gladness in
her voice when she told me that she was dying of consumption. Yet, so
far as I know, Mr. Newman is an honest man."

"Does not the same remark apply to Horace Mayfield?"

"Certainly not. I judge him from your own lips. You declared that he
had robbed you of a large sum of money, that he had deliberately
worked it so that it appeared as if he had been defrauded by a
dishonest servant. And all this to get me in his power. And you did
not reply to that letter of Mr. Mayfield's with the scorn that it
deserved; you waited to hear what I had to say about it."

Sir George protested mildly that he could do nothing else. But Mary
was not listening. She glanced at the familiar objects about her; she
passed over to the window and pulled up the blind. The moon was
shining peacefully upon the rose garden and tinting with silver glory
the old gates beyond, as it had done many times the last two hundred
years. It all looked so sweet and graceful, so refined and restful. No
shadow of disgrace had ever rested on the house before, no slander had
ever made a target of the house of Dashwood. And now the tongues of
the whole county would be wagging. The price to pay was a terrible
one, but Mary did not hesitate. It never occurred to her that she was
deliberately estranging the very pride that she hugged so closely to
her heart, that trouble and misfortune could be borne with dignity and
fortitude, that the gossip of the idle mattered nothing. She reached
out a hand to her father, and he understood. He took a note from his
pocket and passed it over to the girl. It was only a few lines that
Mayfield had written, but there was no mistaking their meaning. Mary
felt that the words had been written for her alone; very clearly the
issue had been thrown into her hands. She crossed over to a table and
began to write. She was burning and trembling from head to foot;
therefore she was surprised to see that her handwriting had never been
bolder and firmer. Without heading or ending of any kind she wrote
this message to Mayfield:--

"It is getting late now, but it is not too late to talk business to a
business man. I am sending you this at once, so that you may get it a
little after eleven. If you will be so good as to come over tonight we
may settle matters at once."

She read the letter aloud and folded it calmly. Sir George nodded a
sort of shamefaced approval. Under his brows he had been watching Mary
with the keenest anxiety all the time. He knew that the girl's
scruples were justified; that he ought to have torn up Mayfield's
letter and treat it with the contemptuous silence that it deserved.
But he merely smiled and nodded his head.

"I have done it," Mary said. "God knows the price that I am likely to
pay for my sacrifice, if the sacrifice is worthy of the occasion.
Where is Slight?"

Slight replied to the bell in person. His small red face had an angry
flush; his grey hair stood up all over his head like a clothes brush.

"Take this over to Swainson's farm," Mary said, "and wait for an
answer. The letter is for Mr. Mayfield, as you will see, Slight."

The old butler drew back a few paces. He regarded the letter as if it
had been something noisome to sting him; his face grew obstinate and
dark and almost murderous. Slight was a fanatic in his way, as Mary
had noticed many times.

"Beg pardon, miss," he said doggedly, "but I respectfully decline to
do anything of the sort."

It was no time to argue with the old servant. And Slight was something
more than an ordinary butler; he was a friend of the family. Despite
his blunt refusal, his manner was as respectful as the most exacting
could have wished. Then he seemed to forget everything; his passion
broke out and burst all bonds.

"I've been here for more than forty years," he said. "I was bred and
born on the estate, and on the property I hope to die. I know the
Dashwoods better than they know themselves. It's all pride, pride, and
nothing else matters. And it's part of your pride, Miss Mary, to make
terms with Mayfield, who is one of the greatest rascals that ever drew
breath. You may be surprised to hear me say this, but it's true. That
man has brought all this about. He's done it for his own ends. He's
waiting for you to own that he is master of the situation, and he
dictates his terms. And that he shall some day come here and lord it
over us is one of them. And it's your pride in the old house that is
going to play into his hands. Don't you do it, Miss Mary, don't you
let that scoundrel come here. If it happens----"

"Silence," Mary cried. "Slight, you are forgetting yourself."

"Maybe," Slight responded; "but I'm not forgetting you. And I won't
take that letter; not if I lost my place for it. Besides, I've got
something else to do. I've got to save you from yourself if possible."

Slight turned quickly and left the room. With an exclamation of
annoyance, Sir George crossed the lawn in the direction of the
stables, with a view of calling upon one of the helpers there. By the
time he had succeeded, Mary was ready with her letter. She looked very
white and stern and proud as she stood there in the moonlight. The
fading light fell upon her neck and shoulders and turned them to
ivory. A fitting mistress for that grand old house, truly! She was
like one of Tennyson's cold and immaculate heroines, she had a sort of
fierce satisfaction in the knowledge that she came without a pang to
the altar of the family sacrifice. She was quite blind to her own
insensate folly; she would have been astonished to know that she was
doing a wrong thing.

"Please take this note to Swainson's Farm for me, Walters," she said
in her sweetest manner. "It has been forgotten, and I am exceedingly
sorry to give you all this trouble. There is no occasion for you to
wait for an answer."

Walters stammered something to the effect that it was a pleasure, and
went his way. In the distance, old Slight was stumping off across the
park with evident determination. A shade of annoyance crossed Sir
George's face.

"We must get rid of that fellow," he said. "Really, the insolence of
these family retainers is past all bearing. You will see to this
tomorrow, Mary!"

Mary made no reply. She was not in the least angry with old Slight.
She understood the old man's feelings exactly; she knew his love and
affection for her. Sir George's vapid attempts at conversation almost
drove her mad. She wanted to be alone to think. She passed into the
drawing-room, muttering that she had forgotten something. The lamps
were still burning, the great bronze clock chimed the hour of twelve.

The dreadful object on the satin couch had fallen asleep; his shock
head was thrown back, and from his lips came a long and regular snore.
A poisonous scent of foul tobacco filled the air. Surely no sacrifice
would be too great to get rid of this, Mary told herself. Mayfield
would come along presently like some malignant fairy; he would wave
his wand, and this terrible invasion would disappear as if it had
never been at all.

But Mayfield would demand his price. Of that Mary had no doubt. For a
long time now the girl had known that he cared for her. He had made no
effort to disguise his feelings from the time that they had met in
Paris two years ago, when Mary was paying one of her visits to her
father in the French capital. And Mayfield was of the class of men who
always get their own way. Sooner or later Mary would be absolute
mistress of Dashwood Hall, and it was no mean thing for a man to have
the chance of sharing such a home with his wife.

But the cost of it all; the sacrifice entailed! From the bottom of her
heart Mary loathed and despised the man who was plotting to make her
his wife. She knew him to be an utterly unscrupulous rascal, a fitting
instrument to sway the dishonour of the Dashwoods. A few days more of
this unspeakable degradation and Mayfield would be powerless. It was
only a matter of making the neighbours talk, of tittle-tattle at tea
tables. And in a few days it would all be forgotten. Other people had
gone through the same humiliation and had come out of it as if nothing
had happened, but they were not Dashwoods. . . . A long snore came
from the figure on the couch, and the man stirred uneasily.



CHAPTER XV.
NOT QUITE TOO LATE


Mary seemed to flame from head to foot. The momentary hesitation
passed. No, it was quite impossible to support this kind of thing for
the best part of a week; the thought of slanderous, wagging tongues
was unendurable. At any cost these creatures must be removed; even the
servants must know nothing. So far as Slight was concerned, he was
absolutely to be trusted. Mary's mind was made up for good and all.

Time was passing more quickly than she knew. As she stood there the
clock chimed the half-hour after midnight. A few minutes later and
Mary heard her father calling her. She understood him to say that
Mayfield had arrived.

"Let him come here," the girl said independently. "I am quite ready."

Sir George shuffled off again in the direction of the library, where
Mayfield stood on the mat before the fireplace smoking a cigarette.
There was not the slightest suggestion of triumph about him, his
face was calm and set. He looked like some under-secretary who is
about to read statistics to a House of bored listeners. He had left
his eye-glass behind him, so that the cynical expression was absent.

"She's in the drawing-room," Sir George said. His manner was almost
cringing. "She--she prefers to discuss the matter with you alone.
Perhaps she thinks that you are more likely to listen to her than to
me--Mayfield."

"She's right there," Mayfield said almost brutally. "It is a matter
between ourselves. Sorry to put you to all this inconvenience,
Dashwood, but there was no other way of teaching the lesson. But you
need not worry, half an hour will see the whole matter settled, and
even your servants will not be any the wiser. I arranged the thing so
that you should have the maximum of experience at the minimum of
inconvenience."

Sir George muttered something to the effect that his companion was
very thoughtful. There was not an atom of fight left in him, and he
took no heed of anything but his own personal comfort. The sooner
Mayfield and Mary came to an understanding and those cattle were
cleared out of the house, the better. After that Sir George could go
to bed.

Without undue haste or eagerness, Mayfield passed into the
drawing-room. There was just a sardonic touch in his smile as he
noticed the snoring hog on the yellow satin lounge. He quite
understood why a sight like that could touch Mary's pride to the
quick. Strange what queer pawns in the game of life a clever man had
to use at times! Mary was standing in the window-frame looking out
into the night. Everything seemed so still and peaceful; there was no
jarring note save the snore of the man in possession. Mayfield just
touched Mary on the arm and she turned. Her face flushed for an
instant, and then it became deadly pale again.

"Not in there," she said, "I cannot breathe in the house tonight. Do
you know what I should have done had this happened a century or two
ago?"

Mayfield did not know, but he could give a pretty shrewd guess as he
glanced at the steely blue glitter in Mary's eyes. A certain pride of
possession thrilled him.

"I think you know," Mary went on. "I should have asked you here to
discuss the matter, to appeal to your better nature. And when I failed
I should have killed you first and myself afterwards. I could do it
now if I had the weapon to my hand."

Mayfield nodded. Far better to let Mary talk herself out, he told
himself cynically. She was not the sort of girl to yield without a
struggle, she was no frightened child to sue for terms. But in the
letter she had written to Mayfield she had sounded the note of
surrender. He was here now as conqueror; to see her walk out with all
the honours of war. And surely she was worth all the strategy if any
woman was, the tall, fair beauty with those flashing eyes and the skin
of alabaster glistening in the rays of the moonlight. A prize worth
the winning, a daughter of the gods, if ever there was one.

"But these methods are out of date," Mary went on in the same bitter
strain. "I am told that they do things in different fashion today. You
have done me the honour to ask me to share your future life and I
refused the offer."

"Why?" Mayfield asked. "My family is equally as good as your own."

"I know it. But _noblesse oblige_. You are what you are. And so you
planned and plotted for this; with diabolical cunning you saw where
you could strike me in a fatal spot. You came here tonight in a
position to make your own terms."

"Not quite," Mayfield said quietly. "There is another way for you. So
far as I understand your father is in a position to make his holding
sure in a few days. The house is large and the presence of a few
guests, however undesirable, makes little difference. It is, I admit,
not a nice thing to have one of the great unwashed smoking shag
tobacco in the drawing-room, but it is only a matter of days. The
matter is in your hands for you to decide as you please. I am not
going to coerce you."

Mary laughed scornfully. The mirth sounded harshly against the silence
of the night; the man on the satin cushions stirred and made a
gurgling noise in his throat. Mary's mood suddenly changed and she
shuddered. She was bitterly conscious of her complete inability to do
anything. She had expected Mayfield to take his triumph openly; she
was just beginning to understand what a strong and dangerous foe he
could be.

"You know how to gloss it," the girl said. "But there is going to be
no tacit ignoring of the real truth between you and me. You have
brought this all about to force my hand. You have calculated upon my
pride of race, and my pride of place. You know--nobody better--what
suffering this is likely to afford me. And you are in a position to
remove the pain and the humiliation with the stroke of a pen."

"Yes, I could do that," Mayfield said, speaking as if the suggestion
threw an entirely new light on the situation. "As a matter of fact
the thing is absurdly simple. I have only to send a telegram to my
lawyer--one of your servants could take it to Longtown and despatch it
even at this late hour. My lawyer could come down by the morning mail,
getting here before six o'clock, and send those fellows packing. Then
the incident would be forgotten as one forgets an unpleasant dream.
You see, my resource is practically without a limit. I can meet you in
any way that you please."

"I have felt that for some time," said Mary coldly. "And in return for
this--kindness!"

"Surely there is no occasion for me to repeat my conditions! Besides,
'conditions' is not a pretty word to use in dealing with a lady. You
will not find your bonds irksome, you will not find in me a very
exacting lover. It can go out to the world that there is an engagement
between us and in due course a marriage will follow."

Mayfield spoke quietly enough, but his looks belied his tone. There
was a fierce volcano under that placid exterior, a strong, consuming
passion, and a will to lead Mary when once Mayfield had the power over
her. Some instinct told the girl this.

"It sounds prosaic enough," she said. "I suppose I must take you at
your word. And yet all the time I know perfectly well that I am doing
myself a great wrong in the eyes of God and man. I am not so strong as
I think--I am not strong enough to place my happiness before
humiliation. I must have time to think this over."

"Take as much time as you like. I will come again tomorrow, if you
please. You shall not throw it in my teeth afterwards that I have
hurried you in any way."

Mary sighed helplessly. The man was so strong and she was very, very
weak. She might have gained the full advantage of her pledged word and
broken it deliberately afterwards. It was the code of honour that
Mayfield would have possessed himself if he had seen any advantage by
so doing. "And suppose I play you false?" Mary asked.

"You will never do that, I am not in the least afraid; I trust you
implicitly."

Mary turned back, baffled and defeated at every turn. The night seemed
to have grown suddenly chill, for she shivered as she made her way
into the drawing-room. It wanted but a feather in the scale now, to
make up her mind for good and all. Her eyes were drawn by magnetic
attraction to the sprawling figure on the cushions. The harsh note
smote her like a thong.

"Look at him," Mayfield whispered, "does it not fill you with pain?
And there he is likely to remain till the sight of him drives you
beyond endurance. One word from you and the loathsome episode is past.
Why do you not say the word and finish it?"

The words seemed to sink into Mary's soul. Ralph Darnley flashed into
her mind, but she put his image resolutely aside. She pointed towards
the door.

"You had better go," she said huskily, "go before I change my mind
again. You will find some telegram forms in the silver case on the
library table. Need I say any more than that? You can come back and
show me what you have written."

Mayfield bowed and departed without showing the faintest indication of
his victory. Mary staggered across to the window, with her hands to
her dry, hot head. A shadow seemed to rise from the gravel of the
terrace, a shadow with a white face framed in grey hair, the form of
Lady Dashwood, limping a little, but otherwise strong and resolute.

"You have been there long?" Mary asked. "You have been listening."

"Yes, yes," Lady Dashwood said in a strange thrilling whisper,
"listening, and waiting for my chance. It is not too late yet, my
child. Thank God, I am in time. You must not do it, you must not heed,
for the sacrifice would be all in vain. Come, let me tell you what I
mean. You are not used to dealing with scoundrels--I am!"



CHAPTER XVI.
THE UNFINISHED WORD


Mary placed her hand to her head in utter bewilderment. The world
seemed to have changed in the last few hours. Hitherto, life at
Dashwood had progressed on oiled springs, calm and peaceful. There was
the regular decently appointed day, with its routine of refined
duties, the dinner and the pleasant contemplation of placid evenings.
Mary had swung like a proud planet in the still atmosphere. And now
everything had passed into the wildest topsy-turveydom.

Even Lady Dashwood had altered. The quiet, self-contained woman, whose
very restfulness had been one of her greatest charms! The sweet
expression of her face had vanished; she looked aged and anxious,
almost fierce.

"What does it all mean?" Mary asked. "What has come to everything and
everybody? It seems almost impossible to believe that here at
Dashwood----"

"Trouble comes; but trouble comes everywhere. It enters the palace as
easily as the cottage, my child. And my fault, all of it. But come
outside and talk to me. Mary, you must have nothing to do with that
man!"

"But how do you know?" Mary asked. "I--I am not yet certain myself.
Who could have told you anything?"

"But you are certain, child. You had made up your mind. The misery of
your face tells me so. And you sent a note to that man. Would you have
done so unless you had made up your mind to surrender?"

Mary looked down, and the red of shame flamed into her face. Come what
would, she could not turn to either side and escape humiliation.

"Slight told me," Lady Dashwood went on. "He came to me at once. My
dear, you must not be angry with old Slight. He worships the very
ground you walk on; he would lay down his life for you. And he knows
everything; I shrewdly suspect that he knows even more than I do.
Slight is something more than a servant, he is a valued friend of the
family. And he came to me as I have said. He tells me that Horace
Mayfield has got his wicked fingers in here; that he has plotted to
make you his wife. That must not be, Mary, that must never take place.
Surely you can defy that man, can order him out of the house."

"I could," Mary said slowly, "I am not afraid of him. As yet I have
not pledged my word. Still, I am quite helpless. Look into the
drawing-room and see for yourself. . . . That is what we have to put
up with, three of them for the best part of a week. By eight o'clock
tomorrow morning the servants will know everything; before the day is
out we will be the talk of the county. I could not show my face after
that. The degradation would make me old before my time. It is not as
if I cared nothing for Dashwood. I love every stick and stone of it,
the place is part of my being. It was your house for nearly forty
years. Can't you understand my feelings?"

"I ought to," Lady Dashwood said bitterly. "It was I who first
fostered those feelings. I tended them; day and night I watered them
and fed them till they grew like a plant. With the lesson of the past
before my eyes, I encouraged your pride. And now it is the master
passion of your life. Everything has to be sacrificed to the old name
and the old place. As for me, I should not hesitate for a single
moment."

"And never know the feeling of happiness again!" Mary cried.

"Oh, my dear! happiness and I parted years ago. The old never expect
happiness; there are too many ghosts, too many gaps, and too many
memories. Peace is the greatest possession that one can expect at my
time of life. And if you do this vile thing, then I shall have to go
down to the grave without it. I am a wicked old woman; I am suffering
now because I dare not tell the truth; but rather than this wrong
shall be done, I will speak, though I made a death-bedside promise not
to do so. Suppose I told you that you have less right at Dashwood than
I have!"

The last words came with a fierce whisper that struck a cold chill to
Mary's heart. Had Lady Dashwood suddenly lost her reason? But that
white quivering face had no dull insanity upon it; the dark eyes were
full of horror but not of madness.

"What do you mean?" Mary asked.

"I--I cannot tell you. I was sorry to say as much. Do you suppose that
Horace Mayfield loves you in the ordinary sense of the word?"

"I believe he does, if that has anything to do with the question."

"Dear child, that man is incapable of any such feeling. Love is a
sacred thing. Horace Mayfield is a cold-blooded and designing
scoundrel. Your beauty may inflame him, but there is no love behind.
He calculates that it will be no bad thing to call this his home. He
plays upon your sinful pride as a master plays the violin. He knows
that you would do anything, even to marrying him, to keep the scandal
away."

"It is the only way," Mary said; "Horace Mayfield is too strong for
us. What is that?"

Something stirred in the bushes close by, a crooning song was but half
audible.

"It is your old nurse, Patience," Lady Dashwood explained. "She was
sitting with me tonight when Slight came over hot-foot with the news.
Patience has one of her lucid moods tonight. And Patience knows
everything. The secret is hers, too."

"I am tired of this mystery," Mary said; "why is Patience Ray hiding
there?"

A thin, bent figure emerged from the bushes; a dark withered face in a
frame of thin grey hair looked out. It was an old woman, toothless and
haggard, yet the eyes were sharp and shrewd now. For some years past
the aged creature had been suffering from decay, but there were
moments when her wit was as sharp and shrewd as ever.

"I couldn't stay away, dearie," the thin piping voice said. "It was
like a mercy that God gave me back my mind tonight. The wicked old
woman may do a lot of good before she dies yet. Don't you do it,
dearie. Tell him that the proper owner is coming back to Dashwood, and
that your face is your only dowry. Because I've seen the heir, as I
knew that I should do before I die."

"What is she talking about?" Mary asked in utter astonishment.
"Patience, explain yourself."

But the old woman shook her head and refused to say any more. She
muttered to herself something about disgrace and the house of
Dashwood.

"Smoke the rats out!" she cried shrilly and suddenly, "smoke them out!
It is the only way to clear Dashwood of such vermin. Put the match to
the faggot and burn them out. That's what I would do if I had my way.
And to think that it should come to this after all these years.
Mistress, mistress, what a couple of wicked old women we are."

"We are that," Lady Dashwood said mournfully. She did not chide the
wild speaker's words as Mary had expected. "Our sin is going to find
us out, Patience. Mary, I implore you to do what I ask you. I implore
you to spare me the pain of a full confession. Send the man about his
business and have none of him."

There was passionate entreaty in Lady Dashwood's tone, so that Mary
was troubled in more ways than one. The heart pulled her one way,
pride and reason another. And behind it all was a haunting sense that
something was terribly wrong here. There was some dreadful meaning
underlying the wild words of old Patience. As Mary stood there, cold
and dispassionate in the moonlight, Horace Mayfield emerged with a
telegram form in his hand.

"I have been some little time," he explained, "the forma were mislaid.
But what is the meaning of this, Miss Mary? Surely it is late for Lady
Dashwood to be abroad."

Mayfield spoke calmly enough, but his eyes looked troubled. He glanced
from one to the other of the group anxiously.

"I came to see Mary," Lady Dashwood said coldly. In some magical way
she had recovered her self-possession. She was cold and collected, a
veritable _grande dame_ in the presence of an inferior. "I had
received certain information as to what has recently taken place here.
It seems that Sir George Dashwood is under obligations to you, and
that as these obligations have not been satisfied, you have put the
law in motion. In the language of unfortunate people in a lower walk
of life, you have 'put the bailiffs in.' It probably occurred to you
that this would cause Miss Dashwood a deal of suffering!"

Mayfield bowed with exaggerated politeness.

"We have known each other a long time, Lady Dashwood," he said. "We
have had some business transactions together, and you have never been
at any great pains to conceal your opinion of me. Therefore, I should
gain nothing by an endeavour now to appear in a more favourable light
in your eyes. To be candid, when I set the law in motion, I was not
blind to the fact that my action would cause Miss Dashwood a certain
anxiety."

"Shameless!" Lady Dashwood cried, "more shameless than I expected."

"Smoke them out!" came shrilly from the lips of the old woman, "Burn
the rats out! Put the firewood and the candle together and burn out
the vermin! Burn Horace Mayfield! Burn him and the other rascals in a
pile together!"

Mayfield started, he seemed as if about to say something, then
apparently he changed his mind, and ignored the speaker altogether.

"As you please," he said, "I shall be glad to have your views on the
matter."



CHAPTER XVII.
BREATHING TIME


"I had no intention of seeing you," Lady Dashwood said. "To think that
you are the son of my dearest friend! It is well that she died before
she knew. I came here to see Mary, because I knew exactly how you had
played on her feelings. For purposes of your own, you have been diving
into the family history. Many things you have discovered, but many
things remain a secret to this day. Clever as you are, you have no
inkling of the shameful truth. If I chose to speak now, I could
disperse several of your pleasant dreams. I took an oath by the
bedside of a dying man to say nothing, and I have regretted my promise
ever since. A promise like that is a sacred thing; to break it is a
deadly sin. Yet there are some promises that God never intends one to
keep. Mine is one of them. So long as I alone suffer, it matters
little. But when others are to suffer for my silence, others whom I
love more than I love myself, then it is time to break the vow and let
the world know everything. By my silence I doom yonder beloved child
to lifelong misery. If you cared for her----"

"Pardon me," Mayfield interrupted, "that is what I am trying to prove.
My methods may not commend themselves to you, but I hold that
everything is fair in love and----"

"Hold," Lady Dashwood cried; "you pollute the word with your tongue.
What can you know of love in its better and higher sense? Would you be
standing here tonight if Mary were a pauper instead of heiress to
Dashwood Hall?"

Mayfield had no reply for the moment. Clever man of the world as he
was, the question found him dumb. He could only fall back on the
commonplace.

"Why put an impossible case?" he asked. "If it comes to that,
why are you here at all? Miss Mary and myself have come to an
understanding--the understanding will be complete as soon as I have
dispatched this telegram. We are going to stifle the voice of scandal
between us. Where is the young footman who was going to take the
message to Longtown?"

"The message is not going to Longtown," Lady Dashwood whispered
hoarsely. "I can guess what that message means to my beloved child.
Mary, fetch your father here. The hour has come when God tells me that
I may break my word and speak."

The flimsy telegram form crumpled in Mayfield's grip. His face had
turned deadly white with baffled fury. He fought down the anger in his
heart and forced a smile to his lips.

"I am afraid we are all going too far," he said. "Let us wait till the
morning. Lady Dashwood gives me no credit for magnanimity, I know. I
am going to prove that she wrongs me. After all, I have other
resources. There are other ways than this."

He tore up the telegram deliberately, and dropped the fragments on the
terrace. He must conciliate the old woman at any cost. It would not be
difficult, once she had gone, to get Mary to pledge her word. Deep
down in his heart, Mayfield was angrily wondering what secret Lady
Dashwood had to disclose. He could tell by the expression of her face
that it was something dramatic. He turned to Mary who was regarding
the fragments of the telegram with anxious eyes.

"I am afraid I do not understand," she said, "I am so worn out and
tired that my brain seems incapable of grasping anything. I thought
that that telegram was going to be the means of removing those men and
averting scandal. If there is any other way of saving our house from
such a calamity----"

"That can be managed," Mayfield smiled, "nothing easier. Come with me
a moment and I will show you how it is done. Perhaps Lady Dashwood
would also like to see----"

"No, I am quite satisfied for the present," Lady Dashwood said coldly.
"Thank God, I have been able to save the situation. I understand that
you are staying at Swainson's Farm for tonight. As the farm is on my
way home, I shall be glad of your company so far, as there is
something that I wish to say to you. I will wait for you at the bottom
of the rose garden. Come along, Patience."

The old bent woman muttered something and shook her head. She stood
there with her cunning, beady eyes fixed on the noble façade of the
old house. There broke from her a dry chuckle, as if her inmost
thoughts were not displeasing.

"You let me alone, my lady," she said. "It isn't often as my mind is
as clear and bright as it is tonight. And don't you worry about Miss
Mary. I'm an old woman, and I'm not good for much, but I can prevent
that."

A haggard, shaking hand was pointed to the entrance of the
drawing-room where Mary's figure stood out under the soft light of the
shaded lamps. Then Patience turned away and plunged into the bushes.
Again and again Lady Dashwood called softly, but no answer came. It
was peaceful and silent once more under the light of the waning moon.

Mary had passed back into the drawing-room with Mayfield. The girl's
head was in a whirl. At the same time she could not forget Lady
Dashwood's warning and the strange hints she had dropped. Mayfield had
been impressed also, or he would not have been in such haste to tear
up the telegram. Why was he afraid of Lady Dashwood? How could he tell
that there was something under the surface?

"Perhaps you had better explain to me," the girl said. "The events of
the past hour have puzzled me. You went to the library to procure a
telegram form. You were going to send a message to your solicitor
asking him to be here in the morning with authority to remove those
men. As they are your creatures, is it not possible for you to get rid
of them?"

"No," Mayfield explained, "these people represent the sheriff. My
solicitor is acting for me in the matter, and there would be certain
formalities to go through before I could take matters out of his
hands. But there are ways of keeping such matters quiet that you
little dream of. . . . Wake up."

The snoring creature on the yellow cushions turned over uneasily at a
vigorous application of Mayfield's foot and opened his eyes. He sat up
presently and demanded to know why he had been interfered with. There
was no civility in the man's manner; he evidently had no sympathy with
misfortune.

"Speak in a proper manner," Mayfield said sternly. "I happen to know
that you will be out of this house in a few hours. There is nothing to
grin about, fellow. I suppose that you would not have the slightest
objection to earning £5?"

"So long as it's all right, mister," the other growled, "but if you've
got some little game on and think that you are going to get me out of
the house----"

"Nothing of the kind. Do I look like that kind of person?"

"Never can tell, mister. I've had the dodge tried on with me by them
what has handles to their names. Still, there is no objection to
hearing what you've got to say."

"That is very nice and obliging of you," Mayfield said grimly. "I am
going to make no effort to undermine your virtue. We do not want the
servants to know who you are or what you are doing. There's £5 cash
for you if you can manage this. I'm told it is often done. What do you
suggest?"

As he spoke, Mayfield played thoughtfully with some sovereigns. The
big man grinned.

"Now you are speaking fair," he said. "If people meet us all right and
don't regard us as convicts or bushrangers, why, we can meet other
people. The three of us have been in many a good house together. The
last time we came down to go over the place to give a proper estimate
for electric light. You've only got to look wise and potter about with
a foot rule and a notebook, and there you are! We can pretend to be
measuring outside when the servants come down in the morning, and I
daresay Sir George can arrange for our food to be given us somewhere
handy. Bless your life, there's many a way of doing it, if you'll give
me the brass for the other two chaps and settle it at once."

Mayfield handed over a little pile of sovereigns and the man shuffled
off in the direction of the kitchen. Mayfield smiled at the success of
his errand.

"There," he said; "I fancy that is all right. Only you must tell Sir
George exactly what has happened so that there is no confusion in the
morning. Sir George is thinking of having the electric light
installed. The men are here to take measurements. They will keep the
joke to themselves. You ought to be very much obliged to me."

But no protestation of gratitude came from Mary's lips. The light of a
great scorn was still in her eyes.

"Lies and prevarication and deceit," she said. "I seem to have found
myself in a very network of falsehood. The poorest girl on the estate
is happier than I am. It may be as you say, it may be that we shall
escape the tongue of scandal. But what are you going to do--how long
is the deception to go on?"

"That depends on yourself," Mayfield said coolly. "You can defy me if
you like, and take the consequences. But it shall not be said that I
have treated you unfairly. That is why I am giving you another night
to think the matter over. Now go and tell Sir George what has
happened."

Mary turned on her heel and left the room without another word. There
was a sinister smile on Mayfield's lips as he watched the girl's
drooping figure.

"The thing will pass as far as she is concerned," he muttered. "And
now to tackle Lady Dashwood and have matters out with her."



CHAPTER XVIII.
A FLAMING SWORD


Mary dragged herself as far as the library. Sir George was pacing up
and down the room, trying to soothe his nerves with a cigar.

"What a time you have been!" he said impatiently. "Why did you not
return before, knowing how anxious I should be? Mayfield came for a
telegram form, so I presume he has made matters right with you? Did
Walters take it?"

"So far as I know, Walters has gone back to bed," Mary explained. "The
telegram was not sent, for reasons best known to Mr. Mayfield. There
is no occasion to be angry. It was no fault of mine--and has nothing
to do with me. Mr. Mayfield suggested that I should have another night
to think it over. It is not his code of honour----"

"Code of honour! The fellow hasn't got one! There is no trusting him!
And now everybody will know of this disgrace of ours."

"They won't. Mr. Mayfield has arranged all that. He seems to be clever
at this kind of thing. But perhaps I had better explain."

The anger and irritation died out of Sir George's face as he listened.
He expressed no feeling of disgust or abhorrence at the trick to be
played upon his household; on the contrary, a suppressed chuckle broke
from him, a chuckle instantly smothered as he noticed the white scorn
on Mary's face.

"I beg your pardon, my dear. Of course, it is all very wrong, but in
the circumstances, what else could we do? I have not the slightest
doubt that Mayfield will make it all right tomorrow. And now we must
go to bed."

Mary turned aside and went wearily in the direction of the hall.
Usually, she gave her father a warm and dutiful kiss before retiring,
but she really felt that she could not do so tonight. She had always
freely expressed her contempt for tears as a woman's weapon and as a
solace in the hour of trouble. But the tears rose to her eyes now as
she thought of her father and the sorry part he had played. It seemed
almost incredible that the head of the house of Dashwood could act so
meanly.

And she herself! How much better was she behaving in the hour of
trial? The girl's face flamed as she thought of it. In her heart of
hearts she knew that the proper thing would have been to face the
matter and see it out to the end. Yet her pride had impelled her to
make an appalling sacrifice to silence tongues that did not matter in
the least. What would Ralph Darnley have thought of it all had he
known? How strange that Ralph should come into Mary's mind now, she
told herself, strange that she should revert to him when danger
threatened.

"You need not wait on me tonight, Kelly," Mary told her maid. "It is
so very late and I want to be alone. Have you been asleep in my chair
all this time?"

The pretty little maid admitted that she had. She went her way
presently and Mary began slowly to undress. But tired as she was she
felt that somehow sleep tonight could not be for her. Usually, she
dropped off directly her head touched the pillow; the silence of the
old house was very soothing. But not tonight, for the place seemed
full of weird noises, the noises that the invalid hears when pain
prevents slumber. Mary lay there, but she could not sleep. It seemed
to her that somebody was moving about the corridor. Surely she heard a
footstep, and something like the scratch of a match.

Mary rose and slipped on a dressing-gown. Candle in hand, she opened
the door. And, surely enough, she was not mistaken. A dark figure was
there, a figure that muttered and crooned, as if seeking something.
Mary approached the intruder.

"Patience!" she exclaimed, "what are you doing here? And how did you
get into the house? I thought that you had returned to the dower house
with her ladyship."

Patience looked up and smiled in a weak, watery kind of way. She was
not in the least afraid, and there was just a suggestion of slyness in
her aged, faded eyes.

"I forgot something, my dearie," she said. "There was something that I
made up my mind to do and then I forgot clean about it. It was one of
my good nights, and my head was as clear as yours. Her ladyship told
me everything. But she didn't tell you everything because she dared
not. Ay, we are two sinful old women for certain."

"Never mind about that," Mary said soothingly, "I daresay it will all
come right in the morning. But you should not have come here like
this. You had better lie down on the couch in my dressing-room and go
to sleep."

"But there was something that I wanted to do," the old woman whined.
"I thought of a way of saving you, of saving everybody. And then it
clean went out of my head."

Patience wrung her hands and the tears stood in her faded eyes. She
appeared to be deeply distressed about something. She stopped
suddenly, and stood alert and listening.

"Did you hear that?" she demanded. "They are in the kitchen. All three
of them together! I saw them just now, but they did not see me. They
were laughing together, and one of them had gold, which he was
dividing with the rest. And they have come here to bring disgrace on
this noble house. And there was I standing close by with a way to get
rid of them in my head. . . . There was something that I wanted, and I
couldn't find it. So I came to look, and I forget what it was. Such a
beautiful plan, too, so very simple and yet perfect. My dearie, can't
you help me to think what it was? If you can only help me we shall get
rid of these men, and the trouble and disgrace will vanish, never to
return. It isn't often that I get a good idea in this poor head of
mine, and to forget it like that is cruel, cruel!"

Patience wept a little, and began to wring her hands again. Mary's old
nurse had been in this state now for some years, though there were
times, for longer or shorter periods, when she was in possession of
all her faculties. She was not in the least dangerous; as a privileged
old servant she had been allowed to wander from one house to the other
at her pleasure. But Mary had never seen her so wild and excited
before, and the thing troubled her.

"What do you know of our trouble?" she asked.

"Her ladyship told me. It was something to do with some money that Sir
George owed to Mr. Mayfield, and which those men had come to get. And
her ladyship could not help you, for Mr. Vincent has made her sell all
her jewels already."

Mary fairly started. Was it possible that she was on the track of
another family trouble, some new and black disgrace of which she had
hitherto known nothing? It seemed hardly fair to take advantage of a
weak-minded old woman in this, and yet--

"Who is this Mr. Vincent that you speak of?" Mary asked.

"Her ladyship told me. It was something to do with some money that Sir
George owed to Mr. Mayfield, and which those men had come to get. And
her ladyship could not help you, for Mr. Vincent has made her sell all
her jewels already."

Mary fairly started. Was it possible that she was on the track of
another family trouble, some new and black disgrace of which she had
hitherto known nothing? It seemed hardly fair to take advantage of a
weak-minded old woman in this, and yet--

"Who is this Mr. Vincent that you speak of?" Mary asked.

"Mr. Vincent--that is all I can tell you. He is young and handsome,
and yet so wicked and unscrupulous. And it is to prevent him from
speaking out that my lady has sold all her jewels. They are not hers
to sell, but they have been disposed of all the same. I really do know
who Mr. Vincent is, and why he has such a hold over her ladyship, but
something gets in the way of my brain and I can't think what I ought
to say. And I'm so tired."

The old woman suddenly dropped into a chair and began to whine like a
child that has walked too far. Mary was accustomed to these sudden
changes and knew how to humour them. She fairly lifted the old woman
from her seat and led her to the dressing-room. Obedient as a child
now, Patience lay down and closed her eyes. A moment later and she had
fallen into a placid sleep. Mary regarded her with eyes of envy.

"After all she is better off than I am," she murmured, "and her
troubles are nearly over. What a blessing it is to be able to sleep
when you want to! And here am I on the brink of a fresh and darker
mystery than my own! I begin to understand now why Lady Dashwood looks
so haggard and worried. And what does this Vincent know, who can
blackmail my poor old second mother in this way! All the family
jewels, over £30,000. Oh, how sad it is to be almost without a friend
in the world! And yet Ralph Darnley promised me----"

The colour rose to Mary's face as she pronounced Ralph's name. It was
the one reflection that sweetened her thoughts as she lay on her bed
waiting for the sleep that would not come. She turned from side to
side; she could see by the saffron gleam on the blind that the summer
dawn was close at hand.

Then at last she fell off into a kind of fitful slumber that was a
mass of confused and hideous dreams. She was in some vague, indefinite
kind of trouble, tangled up with a scheme of Mayfield's, and across a
yawning gulf Ralph Darnley was holding out his hands to save her. And
then it seemed to her that Ralph kissed her, and that she did not in
the least mind it. After that they drifted apart again, and once more
the baleful influence of Mayfield was uppermost. They were falling
together down a deep pit with flames at the bottom; the fumes were so
great that Mary could not breathe.


She woke up with a gasp and a cry, struggling for breath. The whole
thing had been so vivid that Mary could not realise for a moment that
she was sitting up in bed. Yet there she was, with the early morning
sun shining through the blinds, and still she held her hand to her
throat and fought for the breath that would not come.

Surely there must be something wrong here! Why was the room so
insufferable, where did that stifling air come from? Then a draught of
air came from somewhere, and the bedroom was almost instantly filled
with a maze of thin smoke and vapour. There was no longer room for
doubt. With a quick cry Mary sprang from her bed, for the Hall was on
fire!



CHAPTER XIX.
A GUARDIAN ANGEL


There was no longer any question as to the house being on fire. Very
rapidly Mary proceeded to don her clothing; her idea afterwards was to
alarm the house. The girl was not conscious of any feeling of fear,
though she was trembling from head to foot. She had had but a poor
night's rest, and the strain of the previous day had tried her. And
now as she huddled into her clothing, she was conscious of a kind of
relief, the feeling that if the house was burnt down a way had been
found out of her troubles.

There was an emotion almost of gladness in the thought. But the pride
of race and place came back, and Mary hastened to her task. Dashwood
Hall must be saved at any cost--the historic house must not be allowed
to perish. There were pictures and works of art there that had almost
a national interest.

Mary flung the door open and strode boldly into the corridor, but she
did not gain a yard before she was driven back by a dense mass of
suffocating smoke. The corridor was filled with it, thick, black, and
overpowering. It was absolutely impossible to force a way through that
blinding cloud. Mary screamed at the top of her voice, but no reply
came. Already her brain began to reel, already her lungs almost ceased
to work. There was only one thing for it--to shut the door and seek
for some other exit.

Back in the bedroom the air was comparatively pure. The window looked
on to a green court with a high hedge of clipped yew trees beyond. It
was one of the quietest and most shady rooms in the house, and Mary
had chosen it for that very reason. In the winter she occupied another
apartment. But its very quietness frightened the girl now. As she
looked out of the small diamond casement in the great stone mullion,
she realised that it would be impossible for any grown figure to
squeeze through. She might have taken the risk of jumping down on to
the grass, but the bars of the mullion window were too close together
to permit of the attempt. And already the draught from the open window
was drawing the smoke into the room.

Listening intently, Mary could hear the sound of shouts and the
tramping of feet; now, she caught the echo of horses' hoofs as mounted
messengers galloped down the drive. She shouted aloud, but nobody
appeared to hear her. The thick high hedge of yews seemed to smother
her voice. It was dreadful to be caught in a trap like that, but Mary
resolved to meet her fate bravely.

Probably the volume of smoke would cause unconsciousness long before
the dreaded fire reached its victim. There would be no pain or
suffering. It seemed to Mary that she had heard people speak of such
things before. Well, she would die alone, and nobody would know how
the end had come.

Not quite alone! Suddenly Mary remembered that old Patience was in the
dressing-room and looked towards the couch there.

She rubbed her eyes in astonishment. Patience was no longer there.
Perhaps she had not been able to sleep, probably she had aroused
herself very early and gone about her business. At any rate, she was
not in the dressing-room, and Mary felt glad of it. The horror of the
situation was lessened by the absence of the demented woman.

Greatly daring, Mary opened the window and screamed for help once
more. She could hear yells and calls, and presently the steady throb
of what she knew to be an engine. But all the time the smoke was
growing thicker and denser in the room. So far Mary could not hear the
crackling of flames, she was not sensible of the fact that the room
was getting any warmer. There was always the hope that the fire might
be subdued before it got a good hold of the building. A great deal of
timber had gone to the building of Dashwood Hall, but the walls were
of the most solid masonry, and it was quite possible for the fire to
burn out a room or two without going any farther.

Something like an hour passed, an hour that seemed like eternity. The
shouting and the tramping and the thudding were still going on. Then
came a lull for the moment, and it seemed to Mary that somebody was
calling her by name, somebody inside the house. She waited a moment,
thinking perhaps that it was her excited fancy, but once more the call
came, and this time from the corridor.

Mary thrilled as she heard the voice. At last they had discovered her
absence. She opened the door and called in reply. The smoke was thick
as ever, but there was no sign of flame. Out of the dense whirling
mass a figure emerged and staggered breathlessly into the bedroom. It
was the figure of a man with his handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He
gasped for breath and closed the door behind him. His face was
blackened and grimed with smoke, but Mary had no difficulty in
recognising Ralph Darnley.

"Again," she said unsteadily, "you are like a guardian angel to me.
This is the third time that you have come to save my life. Had they
forgotten me?"

"It was all a misunderstanding," Ralph gasped. "In the confusion it
was assumed that everybody was out of the house. Somebody professed to
have seen you going off in the direction of the dower house. My
landlord woke me up, saying that the Hall was on fire. And Lady
Dashwood sent a message to ask if you were all right, and then we
understood. It occurred to me that it would be impossible for you to
escape by way of the window, and whilst the rest were discussing the
best thing to be done, I made a dash for it. The house is full of the
most blinding, suffocating smoke, but I can see no flames anywhere."

"And so you took your life in your hands like this for me?" Mary
faltered. There was something almost of affection in the eyes which
she turned on the stalwart figure by her side. "I was actually
thinking of you at the very moment that you appeared. But how did you
manage to find the way to this wing so easily?"

"I suppose by instinct," Ralph said. The question seemed to confuse
him. "How brave and calm you are! But we are wasting time here. Mary,
there is only one way for it. We shall have to fight our way through
that smoke. There is no other chance. It will be quite a blindfold
labour. But perhaps you could pick your way----"

"In the dark, with my eyes shut," Mary cried. "If I am to die, then at
least I shall die in good company, with a brave, true man by my side.
I shall not perish alone."

"You will not perish at all," Ralph said between his teeth. "You are
reserved for a better and a sweeter fate than that, my darling. Heaven
is going to rescue us for one another, despite your pride and despite
anything that Mayfield may do. But these heroics are out of place in
the face of the common danger. You have water here and towels?"

"Plenty of both in the dressing-room," Mary said. "What do you want
them for?"

But Ralph made no reply. He had a stern task before him, and no time
to waste in words. He took a couple of the largest towels and dipped
them in the water jugs. Then he wrung out the moisture and wrapped the
cold wet fabric round Mary's head. After he had led her to the door,
he did the same for himself. Then he took Mary by the hand, and
whispered that she was to lead the way.

The task was no easy one, well as Mary knew every inch of the house.
She felt her way to the top of the stairs at length, but her head
seemed like bursting now. Still, the pressure of Ralph's hand gave her
courage. With him by her side, she felt like daring anything. As
presently the air began to grow cooler and sweeter, it seemed to Mary
that she was conscious of the scent of the roses.

Then the cloth was pulled from her face, and she felt the full delight
of her lungs again. A great crowd had gathered on the lawn, the people
burst into a torrent of cheers. It was all like a dream to Mary. She
saw that Ralph was standing by her side breathless and triumphant.

"Do not crowd us like that," he said. "Please let Miss Dashwood have
as much air as possible. Neither of us is the least hurt by the fire;
indeed, so far as I can see, this is no fire at all. Has anybody a
conveyance that will take Miss Dashwood as far as the dower house? It
is only a little way, but still----"

There were scores of people ready to comply with the request. Then the
crowd parted as if by a kind of instinct, and Lady Dashwood appeared.
She was pale and breathless, but not for one moment did she forget
herself or her position.

"My dear child," she said, "you must come with me at once. Fancy you
being in that house all the time and nobody any the wiser! And they
tell me that a gentleman who is a stranger here volunteered for your
rescue in the bravest possible manner. If he is here I should like to
thank him warmly for----"

"This is Mr. Ralph Darnley," Mary explained. "He is not a stranger,
for we met in Paris two years ago. Let me introduce Mr. Darnley to
you."

Ralph bowed and moved towards the hand that Lady Dashwood held out to
him. There were gracious words on his lips.

"It is impossible to thank you," she said, "but if you will come as
far as the dower house with me, I dare say that I shall be able
to--to----"

The words seemed to freeze as Lady Dashwood's glance travelled over
Ralph's face. Lady Dashwood took a step forward and would have fallen
if Ralph had not put out an arm and supported her. Then there was an
awkward silence.



CHAPTER XX.
HALF TOLD


The meeting was quite an unexpected one for Ralph. He had his own
powerful reason for not wishing to come in contact with Lady Dashwood,
but the thing was done now, and there was no help for it. Ralph was
the first to recover his self-possession. He saw that the colour was
coming back to Lady Dashwood's face, and that it was very far from her
intentions to make a scene. That would probably come later.

"There seems to be no conveyance here," Mary said. "And really it is
not worth while to make all this fuss about me. I am quite myself
again and capable of walking as far as the dower house with Lady
Dashwood. Meanwhile, there is other work to do."

The excitement of the moment had passed, and willing hands were back
once more at the task of putting out the flames. Of the little group
of principal actors in the scene, nobody was more calm or more
collected now than Lady Dashwood.

"Perhaps we had better walk," she said. "We can take the short cut
through the shrubbery. And I shall be very glad if Mr. Darnley will
accompany us. I presume, sir, that you have not had any breakfast?"

"I haven't," Ralph said. "Sir George has gone over to one of the farms
for his. If you will be so good as to give me a mouthful of something,
I will come back here and do my very utmost to save the old house. It
would be a great pity to lose it."

"Indeed I am glad to hear that you are so anxious about the place,"
Lady Dashwood said with a significance that puzzled Mary, though it
was by no means lost on Ralph. "The Hall is one of the finest places
of its kind in England."

Ralph ate his breakfast in silence; Mary was silent too and pleaded a
headache. She had had no sleep, she said, and was in need of rest. She
ate little and drooped like a lily over her plate. When at length she
rose, Ralph rose also.

"Please don't go yet," said Lady Dashwood in a voice with a touch of
command in it. "I will just see that Mary is made comfortable, and
then I should like to have a word with you, sir. There are so many
willing workers at the Hall that one more or less will make no
difference."

Ralph bowed. Lady Dashwood would be glad if he would go as far as the
drawing-room. He waited there till his hostess returned, proud and
white, with a stern expression in her eyes. She shut the door behind
her and pointed to a seat.

"Pray do not stand," she said. "We may be some little time. Did I not
understand my--Mary, to say that you are Mr. Ralph Darnley?"

"That is quite correct," Ralph said quietly. "Miss Mary made no
mistake."

"Possibly not. The mistake is on your side. I do not wish to seem in
the least curious or impertinent, but have you no other name?"

"For the present, none," said Ralph. "Will not your ladyship oblige me
by leaving matters just as they are for the moment? My happiness, the
happiness of everybody, depends upon a complete and absolute
discretion. I did not desire to see you----"

"No! I gathered that when I saw your face a night or two ago in the
shrubbery. The moon was shining on your features, and it seemed to me
that I was face to face with a ghost. But let me show you something,
Mr. Darnley. It is a miniature of a man whom I have not seen for
nearly forty years, the picture of my son. He left home for reasons
which I need not go into, I never looked on his face again. I have
never before shown the picture to anybody, but I have my very good
reasons for showing it to you. What do you think of it?"

With trembling hands the old lady passed a miniature in a small gold
frame over to Ralph. He gazed at the picture long and intently, with a
flush on his face and something that was very like moisture in his
eyes. He was silent for so long that Lady Dashwood felt constrained to
speak.

"Well?" she asked. "I will try to restrain the natural curiosity of my
sex and not ask too many questions. Did you ever see that face
before?"

"You force me to reply," Ralph said slowly. "You have the advantage
over me, Lady Dashwood."

"Please do not call me Lady Dashwood. Oh, I am not going to try to
force your confidence; that will come to me in time. Only you have not
yet replied to my question. I asked you if ever you have seen that
face before?"

"Many a time and oft," Ralph said. "Is it very like me?"

"Like you! It is a speaking likeness. When I came face to face with
you today, it required all the seventy years of my social training to
keep me from bursting into tears and throwing my arms about your neck.
And nobody recognised you! But I forget that forty years have elapsed
since my boy was in the midst of us. And now tell me, why do you
persist in calling yourself Ralph Darnley?"

"I have never been known by any other name," Ralph replied. "Perhaps
the time may come some day when I--but we need not discuss that.
Please do not think me churlish or wanting in courtesy to you, Lady
Dashwood."

Lady Dashwood shook her head mournfully. Something like tears stood in
her eyes.

"I have no right to ask anything," she said. "I forfeited my right
years ago. But, unless I am greatly mistaken, you could call me by a
sweeter name than Lady Dashwood. My dear boy, I do not wish to pry
into your secrets--you could not act in anything but a straightforward
manner, I am certain. Your face tells me that. Nearly forty years ago
I lost a son like you. How like he was to you I have proved by showing
you that miniature. My son left Dashwood Hall vowing that nobody
should ever see his face again there, and he kept his word. The blame
was mine, and only mine, but I have been terribly punished for my
treachery and deceit."

"I can hardly believe you guilty of those things, Lady Dashwood."

"Oh, but I was. It was the cruellest wrong, and he found me out. From
that day to this I have known no happiness. Why do I talk like this to
a stranger? I think you can guess. When I saw your face in the
cloister the other night it seemed as if God had forgiven my sin and
given my son back to me. Is that so?"

"This is very painful," Ralph stammered. "Will you trust me and be
patient?"

"I can be patient. I have been patient for forty years. And your face
speaks for you. Go on."

"There is little more for me to say," Ralph resumed. "For the present
I can tell you nothing. If the son you speak of came back tomorrow not
a soul would recognise him but you."

"And old Slight," Lady Dashwood said meaningly. "Pray do not forget
him."

"And old Slight. Quite true. And I am the image of the Ralph Dashwood
who left his home nearly forty years ago. There were reasons,
therefore, why I did not desire to meet you, Lady Dashwood, till the
time was ripe. But circumstances were too strong for me; sooner or
later it had been my hope that--that----"

"I begin to understand," Lady Dashwood said as Ralph hesitated. "For
the present you desire to be just Ralph Darnley. But the deception
cannot continue for long."

"For long enough," Ralph smiled. "Let me confide in you to a certain
extent, Lady Dashwood. I am a sentimental man as my father was before
me."

"I know he was," Lady Dashwood said absently. "If he had not been, my
punishment might have been less--but I am assuming too much. Please go
on."

"I am a lonely man. My mother died early, and my father and myself
were thrown a great deal together. We spent most of our time in
California, where the population is not great. You can understand how
it was that I became so retrospective. And when I came to hear of the
mystery that my father had kept till the end, I began to have dreams
of my own. I began to see myself the master of a lovely place, like
Dashwood Hall, for instance. . . . You see that I am speaking from my
heart to you now, and I know that you are going to respect my
confidence and sympathise with me."

"As long as you look at me with those eyes of--yours," Lady Dashwood
murmured. "We are going to be great friends, thank God. But please go
on."

"Well, I had my dreams of the kind of wife who would make my home a
Paradise for me, and two years ago I met her in Paris. She was proud
and reserved and haughty, but all the same I knew that my instincts
had not played me false. The girl likes me--of that I am certain. It
sounds egotistical, but I believe that she loves me without knowing
it. Had I told her of the fine old house and the good old name, there
would have been no obstacles in the way. But I gave the curb to my
inclinations, and my secret remained untold. . . . For nearly two
years I did not see that girl, not till I came down here less than a
week ago. Can you guess who it is?"

"Mary," Lady Dashwood cried. "My dear, dear Mary! And she does not
know, she does not dream--indeed, how should she? You want her to----"

"To care for me, Ralph Darnley. Mary has a terrible curse, her family
pride comes before her duty, and even before her religion. It is the
idol that she has come to worship. Mind, I am by no means blind to the
girl's virtues; I should not love her as I do otherwise. But I want to
break down that family pride, I want to show Mary and prove to her
that it is a mere nothing by the side of love and duty and common
humanity. That is why it is merely Ralph Darnley who speaks to you
today. When Mary owns her love for Ralph Darnley, and holds that love
better than her pride of race, then I can speak. It may be that there
is a hard lesson to be learned first, but I shall not shrink from
that."

"That is how your--my son used to speak," Lady Dashwood murmured. "So
gentle and firm, and yet so kind and considerate! You are going to
make Mary happy despite herself."

"That is my intention," Ralph went on. "Look how she is acting now.
Sir George has come within the grip of a scoundrel. I am alluding to
Horace Mayfield. He has schemed out all this trouble and disaster so
as to get Mary in his power. The girl's senseless pride has been
Mayfield's strongest weapon. You know all about those sheriffs men, of
course. Rather than have a whisper of the trouble spoken, Mary is
ready to marry Horace Mayfield and condemn herself to lifelong misery
and humiliation. It seems almost incredible that a girl should be so
frozen into the ice of her family pride. But Mary is not going to
marry Horace Mayfield, she is destined for me. The lever to remove the
stone from the path is mine, and I shall know how to use it when the
time comes. Already I have so brought it about that Sir George can be
free of Mayfield in the course of a few days, but there is still Mary
to deal with. I do not quite see my way clearly with her, but fate may
play into my hands and find me an instrument which----"

Ralph paused hurriedly, for another man came noisily into the room. He
was rather like Ralph as regards figure and feature and trick of
expression, but his face was effeminate, and his very black eyes a
little shifty and sinister. In dress and manner he had the air of a
gentleman, but at the same time there was a suggestion of loudness and
hardness about him that belied the description. He did not see Ralph,
for he advanced noisily into the room.

"I've been looking for you everywhere," he said. "Why are you hiding
here, old lady?"



CHAPTER XXI.
VINCENT DASHWOOD


Ralph's face grew stern as he stared at the intruder. The newcomer
returned the stare with insolent audacity. The pleased and softened
expression had left Lady Dashwood's features, she looked white and
anxious, and Ralph could see that her hands were trembling. It was
quite evident that she was greatly afraid of the man with the cold
black eyes.

"Beg pardon," the newcomer muttered. "Didn't know you were engaged.
Friend of yours?"

"Mr. Ralph Darnley," Lady Dashwood said. "A very old friend of the
family, or, at any rate his father was. Let me introduce you to Mr.
Vincent Dashwood."

"I have heard of you," said Ralph, with a queer vibration in his
voice. "I understand that one time your father had some idea of
claiming the succession to the property. I have heard my father speak
of your branch of the family."

Dashwood muttered something that Ralph could not quite follow.

"We could tell a different story, the old lady and self," he went on
suggestively. "I shall have a pleasant surprise for Sir George some of
these days. I'm only waiting for some papers from the other side and I
shall move. My father married a Californian lady, you see, and they
are pretty careless there in their keeping of records. Still, it is
only a matter of time."

"That is very strange," Ralph said grimly. "My father also married a
Californian lady. Oh, you need not look so uncomfortable; I am not
likely to interfere with your claim. Indeed, I may be in a position to
assist you a little later."

Just for the moment there was a queer grey tint on Vincent Dashwood's
face. He seemed to be horribly frightened about something. But the
expression passed, and his old saturnine look returned. Ralph was
smiling, too, as if something amused him. Lady Dashwood glanced from
one to the other furtively, as if she feared some outbreak of
violence. There was no means of reading Ralph's thoughts from the
expression of his face, or Dashwood would not have been standing there
so utterly at his ease. For he was a scoundrel of the vilest type, the
class who do not hesitate to blackmail women.

"Well, I'll just go and look round till you have finished with the
gentleman," Dashwood said airily. "Then mind that you are ready for
our little business, old lady. I've got to be in London this evening,
and no mistake about it. By the way, the Hall is in the hands of the
firemen and police, but I'm told that no great damage has been done."

The speaker swaggered from the room with his hands in his pockets,
whistling as he went. Ralph's expression grew _stern and hard_.

"So this is one of the crosses that you have to bear," he said. "At
the risk of being curious, I must ask you a question. Is this the man
for whose sake you have been raising money on the family jewels? How
long has it been going on?"

Lady Dashwood clasped her hands and the tears came into her eyes.

"Nearly two years," she whispered. "Thank God, you have come to me,
for my strength would not have borne the burden much longer. Nobody
knows anything; nobody suspects but Slight. And he pretended to be my
grandson. We were both utterly deceived. He knows everything, he told
me all about the original quarrel, he had letters which I had written
from time to time to your--to my son. And he is an infamous scoundrel.
He desired me to keep his presence and his claim a secret, and for the
credit of the family I did so. The few who know him think he comes
from the Yorkshire side of the house. He traded on my fears; he knew
what I thought of him. And when he had drained me of thousands, and in
sheer despair I pressed him to push on his claim, he always pleaded
that he could not get certain papers--his mother's marriage
certificate, I think it was. Mind you, I believed in him implicitly;
with all the sacred private information he had, I could do nothing
else. And Slight also was equally deceived. He has had nearly
everything of mine that he could lay his hands on. You see that I am
powerless to protest; if I had forced him to speak, there would only
have been a scandal. He has been getting bolder lately or he would not
have spoken so freely to you just now. And directly I saw your face
today I knew at once that it had all been a hideous mistake. You will
free me from that man, Ralph?"

"Not quite yet," Ralph replied. "You must play your part a little
longer. If, as you say, you have nothing more to bestow, you need not
be afraid of him. That man has given me a new idea for bringing about
the object that I have most closely at heart. I am going to make use
of him, if necessary. If it is not necessary, then I shall make very
short work of Mr. Vincent Dashwood. But before that you must tell me
everything. Mind, I say everything as regards my--your son's marriage
with Maria Edgerton. I believe that marriage was the cause of all the
mischief."

"Indeed it was," Lady Dashwood said. Her voice was filled with the
deepest sadness. "What will you think of me when you hear of the part
I played in that unhappy affair? But I cannot tell you now, I am unfit
to go into the matter at present. The shock of meeting you has been
almost more than I can bear. Come and dine with me here on Saturday
night, and I will tell you everything. My dear Ralph--if I may call
you so in private--is it possible that your coming is the augury of a
happier time for me? Happiness I won't ask for, but I should like to
go down to the grave in peace."

"It shall be no fault of mine if you do not," Ralph replied. "I have
planned out my scheme and I am going through with it to the end. There
may be troubles and trials to come, but everything is going to end
happily for us all. Goodbye."

Ralph held out his hand, but Lady Dashwood drew him down to her chair.

"Give me a kiss, my bonny boy," she whispered. "It may be as well for
us to keep up the formality and play the drama till the time comes,
but it is no harm to kiss an old woman and let her look into the eyes
that she has seen in her dreams for forty weary years. God bless you,
Ralph, and prosper your schemes, for nothing you do will be wrong."

Ralph went on his way presently through the shrubbery in the direction
of the Hall. A great crowd of people still lingered there, but the
police had kept almost intact the trim lawn and the beds of brilliant
flowers. Inside the house were a posse of police and a few firemen
from Longtown. In the stable yard the scarlet fire engine glittered in
the sun. So far as it was possible to see, no great harm had been
done.

Nobody was allowed in the house except the firemen and police, an
inspector informed Ralph, who had asked for Sir George. None of the
structure had been much damaged, none of the furniture had suffered
anything except from smoke and water. There was just a suspicion that
one of the great beams under the hall floor was still smouldering, and
the firemen were going to stay until they were absolutely sure on the
point.

"Most extraordinary thing, Darnley," Sir George said. "There seemed to
be nothing but smoke. Slight will tell you that there was nothing but
smoke. At the present moment an expert in this kind of things is
making an examination with a view to discovering the cause of the
outbreak. Nuisance to have these people here, but it can't be helped."

"Better these, Sir George, than Mr. Mayfield's friends," Slight
croaked. "At any rate, we have got rid of them for the present. If
somebody set the house afire on purpose, they could not have done us a
better turn, seems to me."

Slight spoke loudly as a man in a kind of uniform came up. He touched
his cap to Sir George, and looked fixedly at the old butler. Evidently
he had overheard what was said.

"Many things more unlikely than that," he said. "Sir George, I think
that I have discovered the origin of the mischief, if you will kindly
come this way."

"Of course I was joking," Slight said indignantly. "You don't suppose
that I mean to imply that the fire was anything but an accident, Mr.
Sayers?"

"All the same it was no accident," the official said grimly. "If you
will come this way, I will prove to you that the fire was a wicked and
deliberate act on the part of somebody."



CHAPTER XXII.
WHO DID IT?


There was a smile on Slight's face, as if he rather enjoyed the
situation. After all was said and done, the culprit had been
successful in bringing about the thing the old butler most desired.
Fortunately no harm had been done to the house; there was nothing the
matter beyond the damage caused by smoke and water, nothing that the
work of a day or two could not put right. At the same time this
attempt to destroy the house had been the means of removing from it
the trio whose presence had been so great a humiliation. The police
had cleared everybody out of the house, indeed the Hall was likely to
remain empty now till they had investigated the causes of the fire.

"It might have been worse, sir," Slight whispered to Ralph. "It's a
good way of getting rid of those fellows till Sir George is ready to
pack them off altogether. Whoever did this was a sort of friend of
ours."

Ralph started. Slight's suggestion had given him a sudden idea.

"That may be," he said, "but you will admit that the experiment is a
risky one. The place might have been utterly destroyed. Still, it is
yet to be proved that this is the work of an incendiary. I can hardly
believe that it is."

The inspector led the way to the Hall. So far as the eye of a novice
could judge, it was here that the fire had burst out. The floor was
black and scarred and a few beams were still hot from the effects of
the flames. The floor was littered with some crisp ashes.

"Now I want to call your attention to this, Sir George," the inspector
said. "Nothing has been destroyed here, nothing but the floor and a
portion of the ceiling. There must have been a very fierce blaze here,
and yet there is nothing for the flames to feed on. Then where did all
those crisp short ashes come from? See what a pile there is of them!
What was it that burnt here so fiercely?"

"It certainly is a strange thing," Sir George murmured.

"Very strange, sir.' There was nothing left on the hall floor last
night, I suppose? No packing cases or anything of that kind, Sir
George?"

"There was not," Slight exclaimed. "I can answer for that, nothing
whatever."

"Which renders my suspicions all the more certain," the official went
on. "The short crisp ashes represented straw, a large bundle of straw
dumped down on the floor and set fire to by some person or other.
Please look at this."

The speaker stooped down and gathered up a handful of the crisp ashes,
smoothing them out on the palm of his hand. At intervals there were
yellow shining specks in the grains.

"Will you kindly look closely?" he said. "Amongst the charred mass you
can plainly see specks of straw that have escaped the fire. It seems
to me an amazing thing that anybody could carry straw into the house
like this without being found out. But there it is, and there is an
end of it. You are quite sure as to the straw, Sir George?"

"Quite," Dashwood muttered. "Most amazing. We did not go to bed till
very late, which makes it all the more remarkable. It must have been
practically daylight before the miscreant could have begun to work."

"It certainly is a novelty," the Inspector replied, "but I want to
convince you fully that I am right in my conclusion. You will see that
parts of the ashes, very minute parts, are plastered together as if
they were wet. Also you will see that the floor has been burnt in a
kind of channel nearly as far as the door. It is only a narrow
channel, but at the same time it is perfectly well defined. Now, what
caused the floor to burn in that erratic manner? I am going to tell
you. Let us follow that track up as far as the door. There is a large
stone with little cracks at the side into which a liquid of some kind
has fallen or run rather."

The speaker bent down and rolled a scrap of paper into the moisture
which lay shining in the crack of the stone. Then he handed the paper
to Sir George.

"Will you kindly smell that, sir," he asked, "and tell me what you
make of it?"

"No trouble at all about that," Dashwood exclaimed; "the stuff is
paraffin beyond a doubt."

"Precisely. The straw was dumped on the floor and then saturated with
paraffin. If the straw was slightly damp, that would account for the
dense quantity of smoke. The paraffin ran into little ripples over the
floor, which accounts for the strange track of the flames. But we can
ascertain that to a certainty."

A question or two being asked, it was discovered that a large can of
petroleum was missing from one of the toolsheds. A little later the
empty tin was discovered in one of the flower-beds. The discussion was
at its height when Mary appeared. She looked very pale and shaky,
otherwise she maintained her self-possession. But as she listened to
the strange story it seemed to Ralph Darnley that she was disturbed
about something. The pallor of her face became more marked, her eyes
filled with something like fear. Did the girl know anything about it,
Ralph asked himself? If not, why did she appear to be so strangely
moved by the plain recital? The thought was ignoble and unworthy, but
Ralph could not free himself from it altogether. He drew Mary a little
apart from the rest; he could see that she was trembling with some
strong emotion.

"The old house has had a very narrow escape," he began. "All Horace
Mayfield's carefully prepared plans were very nearly in vain. If the
house had been destroyed----"

"I--I did not look at it in that light," Mary stammered. "As you say,
nothing could have mattered had the house perished. Where are those
men now?"

"I don't know. It does not in the least matter. As things stand at
present, the police will not permit anybody to be in the house except
one or two like ourselves. Until their investigations are complete and
they have gathered all their evidence, nobody will be permitted to
sleep in the house. The men you speak of will be treated just like
anybody else. It seems as if Fate were fighting on your side, Mary.
You have no occasion to fear Horace Mayfield now."

Mary smiled faintly. It was evident that she was deeply troubled about
something.

"I think I understand you," she said presently. "The loss of the house
would have been a dreadful grief to me. But, still, these natural
misfortunes happen to all of us, and I daresay I could have suffered
the loss as well as most people. And the blow would have possessed
many compensations. To be free from Horace Mayfield, ah!"

Mary finished her speech with a deep, long-drawn sigh. But the
whiteness did not leave her face, the look of fear still lurked in her
blue eyes. Ralph took a step forward and bent down so that he could
whisper his words into Mary's ear.

"Your pride would have carried you through that," he said. "At the
same time, your position had driven you almost to despair. You know
more than you care to say, Mary, you know more than the rest of us how
the fire came about. Can you look me in the face and deny it? Are you
going to tell me the truth?"

Mary's face flamed with anger. She stepped back, and her passionate
eyes flashed in Ralph's direction. He could see the crimson mounting
to her temples.

"Perhaps you would like to accuse me of the crime?" she asked
breathlessly. "Perhaps you would like to suggest that I did it to save
a scandal? That I risked my own life, and the lives of other people,
because I was afraid of a paltry disgrace? Is there anything else that
you would like to imply, Mr. Darnley?"

"You are talking nonsense," Ralph said coldly, "and you know it. I am
not insinuating anything of the kind. But you know quite well who the
culprit is."

Suddenly Mary's manner changed. She grew quiet and docile. Ralph could
see that her lips were trembling, and that she found it hard to keep
back the tears.

"Forgive me," she whispered. "Think how hard, I am tried, how hard it
all is for me. If I were a man I should probably take a more rational
view of the case. Remember how my whole heart and soul are wrapped up
in this house. I could fight to save it from contamination as a mother
would try to shield an erring son. If I lost it I should die!"

"You would not," Ralph said. "If, by any trick of fortune, Dashwood
Hall passed out of your possession, it would be the very best thing
that ever happened to you. If you had to go out into the world to get
your own living it would be the making of your character. It would
bring out all the natural nobility of your nature--you would look back
to the past with remorse. Of that I am certain."

"Indeed," Mary said coldly. "Perhaps you would like to bring that
misfortune about?"

"I should," Ralph retorted. "If I could be cruel to be kind like that,
I should not hesitate for a moment. But we are getting a long way from
the point. I said that if you had no hand in this business, you know
who did it."

"I have my suspicions. But, until I can verify them, it would be wrong
to speak. Even if I knew for certain, I should hesitate to tell
anybody what I had discovered. One thing I can promise you--the
attempt will not be made again. . . . What are those people so excited
about? Have they made some fresh discovery? Let us go and see."

Sir George and the Inspector were closely examining some shining
object that the latter held in the palm of his hand. There was a grim
look on Slight's face.

"What is it?" Ralph asked. "What is the latest sensational development
of the mystery?"

"This, sir," the Inspector exclaimed. "We have found this matchbox
under the burnt straw."



CHAPTER XXIII.
THE SILVER CLUE


The silver matchbox was a peculiar one and quite out of the common run
of such things. It had a spring lid deeply engraved with a hunting
scene, in the centre of the medallion a pair of initials were
ingeniously woven together in small stones. The Inspector asked Sir
George if he could identify it as part of the family property.

"Never saw it before," Dashwood said promptly. "I am certain that the
thing does not belong to anybody in my house. What do you make the
initials to be?"

"'V.D.' or 'D.V.'", sir, the Inspector said. "That is perfectly plain.
Now does anybody know a person who bears those initials? I should say
that the matches are of foreign make, for they are flat, wooden ones,
such as one rarely sees in this country. The first thing we have to do
is to find out who is this 'V.D.' or 'D.V.' is. He seems to have
dropped his matchbox into the fire. Probably, the blaze startled him
by its suddenness. But I don't suppose we shall find much difficulty
in proving who the owner is."

Sir George shook his head: evidently the puzzle was utterly beyond
him. Slight crossed over to one of the windows as if the whole subject
had ceased to interest him. He made a sign to Ralph and the latter
joined the old servant. He could see that Slight was suppressing a
certain excitement.

"What is the matter?" he asked. "Have you solved the problem?"

"No, Mr. Ralph, I've only made it worse," Slight whispered. "I know
quite well who that box belongs to, for I've seen it in his possession
a score of times, to say nothing of the initials. Did you not meet a
Mr. Vincent Dashwood at the dower house today?"

Ralph started in his turn. Vincent Dashwood's initials were on that
box surely enough. And, that being the case, what did Mary know of the
man? Was she shielding the man who gave out more or less directly that
he was the proper owner of Dashwood Hall? Mary was not the girl to
show any clemency to an impostor, and if, on the other hand, she did
not regard him as an impostor she would be the last person to pretend
to a position that she had no right to occupy. But Slight would know.

"I did meet that man you name, but I can't understand how you came to
know it so soon," Ralph said. "A tiger, if I ever saw one, Slight. And
he let me know pretty clearly that he had more than a passing claim to
_a deal_ that other people are enjoying. Is Mr. Vincent Dashwood
pretty well known to people here, Slight?"

"Not to anybody but her ladyship and myself," Slight replied. "Mind
you, I can't make out whether he's an impostor or not; at least, I was
very uncertain in my mind until you came along, sir. He claims to be
the son of the late Ralph Dashwood and he has proofs that would
satisfy any court in England; and anyone except me. As yet he can't
produce the certificate of marriage of his mother and father. But he
has any number of private papers,--letters from her ladyship to her
son and all the rest of it, to say nothing of being familiar with the
place. He didn't want to make a fuss about his claim; he wanted to
have it quite plain first. He's been here for a long time."

"Blackmailing Lady Dashwood, I suppose? The fellow is too cowardly to
claim the property out and out. In that case he would either have to
substantiate his claim or run the risk of a long term of imprisonment
if he failed. And, meanwhile, Lady Dashwood displays a weakness that
is almost criminal. She half doubts this rascal, and yet at the same
time she allows him to take the proceeds of the disposal of the family
jewels. Half of the weakness is dictated by the dread of Miss Mary
finding out the truth. If there are other reasons----"

"Ay, there are other reasons, Mr. Ralph," Slight said in a broken
voice. "If you only knew everything, you would pity her ladyship. She
has kept this secret as well as she has kept the rest. Miss Mary knows
nothing; she was meant to know nothing."

"And now she will know everything, everybody will know everything. The
story of the matchbox will have to be told, and the owner will have to
explain how it came here and who he is. You should have known better,
Slight, than try to keep a secret like this. Sooner or later the
explosion was bound to come. What are you going to do about it now?"

"I'm not going to do anything, sir," Slight said bluntly. "It is not
for me in my position to push myself forward. Let the police hunt the
matter up for themselves. If Mr. Vincent Dashwood likes to lie low it
makes no difference to us."

Ralph smiled at the suggestion. It was so like the policy of the house
to leave things to chance like this. In a vague way, Ralph began to
see that Fate was playing into his hands. He would let the rod fall.
He would be cruel to be kind. As to the rest, it was in Mary's hands;
all would depend upon how she behaved for the next day or two. It all
stood out clearly in Ralph's mind now like the thread of a connected
story.

"I'll go as far as the dower house," he said thoughtfully. "I should
like to say a few words to Mr. Vincent Dashwood. Am I likely to find
him there?"

"You are that, Mr. Ralph," Slight snapped. "When he isn't spending the
money that does not belong to him, he is generally to be found not far
from her ladyship. And this game has been going on for the last two
years. I'm an old man, and hope I know my position in the place to
which God has called me, but I've come very near to shooting that man
more than once. Calls himself a Dashwood, and he has all the papers to
prove himself a Dashwood, and yet he is no more a chip off the old
block than I am. And yet you can't trip him up in anything, only in
one way."

"And what is that?" Ralph smiled.

"Well, he wasn't astonished to see you, sir. He pretends to be the son
of the late Ralph Dashwood, and, as such must have a pretty good idea
of his father's physical appearance. Now you are the very image of
what Mr. Ralph used to be. And this Vincent does not comment upon your
likeness to my late young master. Why don't you step in, sir, why
don't you step in and drive the blackguard away?"

"All in good time," Ralph replied. "You may rest assured that I shall
speak out to some purpose when I am ready. Now I'll go as far as the
dower house. I take it that the family will sleep there tonight."

Ralph crossed the lawn thoughtfully in the direction of the dower
house. He understood the footman to say that her ladyship was
somewhere in the garden.

Lady Dashwood was found at last, seated under a spacious cedar tree,
which was one of the ornaments of the garden. She was not alone, for
Vincent Dashwood was by her side. The man seemed to be hot and angry
about something, and it was evident that Lady Dashwood had been
weeping. A quick anger possessed Ralph, and it was all he could do to
refrain from laying hands on this impostor, who was causing such
trouble and misery here. A few words and the bubble would be pricked.
Still, there was always the great plan before Ralph's eyes, the plan
of his life with which nothing must interfere. He would have withdrawn
now, only Lady Dashwood caught sight of him and beckoned him to her
side. Vincent Dashwood scowled openly at the intruder.

"I was just coming over to see you," Ralph said. "You will be pleased
to hear that the fire has done no particular damage, nothing that a
little soap and water and some paint can't put right. But for the
present the police and the fire people prefer that the house should
not be used. As to the servants----"

"They can all come here," Lady Dashwood said. "I will go over and see
Sir George without delay. But, seeing that the house is all right, why
do the authorities interfere in this unreasonable way?"

"They think that they have made an important discovery," Ralph
explained. "They are under the impression that the fire is not an
accident, and, really, I have been converted to the same opinion. It
seems almost incredible, but somebody brought a lot of straw into the
house and set it on fire, after saturating the mass with paraffin.
There is no doubt about the straw, for fragments of it can be seen in
the ashes, and distinct traces of paraffin can be found. Had not the
floor and the walls been as hard as iron, a great tragedy might have
taken place. But, to make matters certain, the police found a silver
matchbox with a monogram in the ashes."

"The blackguards!" Vincent Dashwood cried. "I'm glad of that. Let us
hope that the box will lead to the discovery of the culprit."

"That is not quite likely," Ralph said drily. "I came over here on
purpose to get at the bottom of that matchbox business. It is rather a
novelty in the way of a box, for I have seen it--even the matches are
original. The monogram on it is 'V. D.,' which happens to be your
initials, Mr. Dashwood. To go further, old Slight says the box is
yours. Can you account for this strange happening?"

Dashwood started and changed colour. He plunged his hands into his
pockets apparently in search of something he was unable to find.

"I've lost it," he cried. "There is no denying the fact, Mr. Darnley,
that I had just the kind of box you describe. It is possible that I
dropped it, and the culprit picked it up. I should hardly be
likely--to----"

The speaker paused, and Ralph filled in the rest of the speech for
him.

"I perfectly understand," he said drily. "It is hardly likely that Mr.
Vincent Dashwood would go out of his way to destroy a property which
sooner or later he looks forward to enjoying as his own. I think that
is what you mean to convey?"



CHAPTER XXIV.
A FRESH CALAMITY


Dashwood nodded sulkily. He had a vague idea that Ralph was making fun
of him in some way. Still, he was understood to say that such was his
precise meaning. Lady Dashwood rose and walked off in the direction of
the house; she had to see to the comfort of her expected visitors.

"I hope you will dine with us tonight, Mr. Darnley," she said. "Just
Sir George and Mary, with Vincent here--nothing more than a quiet
family party."

"Too quiet and too family for me," Dashwood muttered. "You can count
me out. Besides, I have the most important business in London tonight."

Lady Dashwood looked relieved. There was no mistaking the expression
of her face as she turned away. Dashwood noticed it, and his face
flushed dully. He made a motion to follow, but Ralph laid a strong
hand upon his arm.

"One moment, if you please," he said, "I should like to have a few
words with you on the subject of that matchbox. The police are pretty
certain to ask you a great many questions concerning it, as you can
see for yourself?"

"Let 'em ask," growled Dashwood, "it's nothing to do with me. I
dropped that box, and the chap who set fire to the house picked it
up."

"But suppose that chap, as you call him, happened to see you hanging
about the house at a very early hour in the morning, a groom or
somebody of that kind, who was prepared to swear to your identity?
What then, my dear sir?"

Ralph was only drawing a bow at a venture; he was really working out a
little theory of his own, but the arrow went home to the feather.
Dashwood's face turned to a dull grey; he seemed to be utterly
unnerved for the moment.

"Look here," he blustered presently, "what do you think you are likely
to gain by asking me all these prying questions? Suppose I _was_
hanging about the place last night. What then? Isn't it natural? Can't
you understand the interest I take in my own property? You don't
suppose that I should be likely to burn down a house of my own that
contained some fifty thousand pounds worth of artistic treasures?"

"Your logic is too strong for me," Ralph smilingly admitted. "As the
claimant to the property and the title you are hardly likely to
destroy the house. But there is one thing that puzzles me--if things
are as you say, why do you not press your claim?"

"Because I am short of a certain document. It is rather an important
document for it happens to be my mother's marriage certificate. But I
am informed that the proper will comes into my possession soon, and
then I can move. Till that time I have decided to let sleeping dogs
lie."

"Meaning that Sir George is to remain in blissful ignorance, I
presume?"

"That's about it. Let him make the best of his reign. And that
stuck-up daughter of his! She'll get her face to the grindstone before
she is much older. Besides, there is another matter. Lady Dashwood has
to be considered."

With difficulty Ralph disguised his contempt. A fine consideration the
speaker had for Lady Dashwood! He was trading cunningly on her
weakness and her desire to avoid scandal. It was his cue to pretend
that he did not care to take any steps during the lifetime of the
unhappy old lady. He had stripped her pretty well of all she had,
without any risk to himself. So long as the golden stream flowed he
need never fear.

Directly he came to make his claim he would be asked searching
questions and would have to satisfy keen legal minds of the honesty of
his proofs. Meanwhile, he preferred to blackmail an innocent old lady
who was too ill and broken down to protest. Ralph read the fellow like
an open book, but he was going to make use of him later, if needs be.
Therefore it was that he disguised his feelings now.

"That sounds very creditable," he said. "It is very good of you to
consider Lady Dashwood's feelings in this way. I hope she is
correspondingly grateful."

"She isn't anything of the kind," Dashwood protested. "She fairly
hates me. Every bit of affection that she has is centred on Sir George
Dashwood's girl. Everything must be made smooth for Mary. Maybe her
pride will have a bit of a dash before long. I don't know why I am
telling you all these things, except that you seem a good sort. For
all I know to the contrary, you may be a police spy inquiring into my
past. All the same, I don't think the old lady would stoop to that
kind of thing."

"You are quite right," Ralph said drily. "I'm sure she couldn't. I
must be going now. I shall not have the pleasure of seeing you at
dinner tonight?"

Dashwood winked significantly. There were better attractions
elsewhere. The air seemed to be all the sweeter and purer after he had
gone. Very slowly and thoughtfully Ralph made his way across the
fields in the direction of his temporary abode. Fate seemed determined
to place all the threads in his hands; everything was arranging itself
just as he could have wished. His plan of action became quite clear
and plain. There were certain circumstances to be taken into
consideration, more particularly the way that Mary would act in the
future. And Vincent Dashwood would be an important pawn in the game.
By the time that it became necessary to dress for dinner Ralph had
worked it all out.

He walked across the fields in the direction of the dower house. It
was a lovely night, clear and bright, with no breath of air stirring.
Ralph could see the red gables of the Hall beyond the noble elms and
beeches, and a pleasant picture rose before his eyes. He could see
himself as master of the place with Mary by his side--not the Mary of
the proud, cold face and haughty eye, but another Mary, soft and
beautiful, as she emerged chastened and purified from the furnace of
the family pride. There would be trouble and humiliation first, but it
should all come about, or Ralph would know the reason why.

He was still debating the matter as he reached the dower house and a
well-trained footman took him as far as the drawing-room. The blinds
were not down yet, so that the room was filled with the saffron glory
of the sunset. It was all so refined and homelike, so different to
anything that Ralph had ever seen before. It was the thing that Ralph
had dreamt of, the home life that had occupied much of his waking
dreams. It lay before him now, but there was much to be done first.

Lady Dashwood came stately and smiling into the room. The look in her
eyes was warm and affectionate as Ralph took her hand. Mary was not
down yet, she explained, but the girl was dressing for dinner, and she
was much better for a long sleep. Then Mary came into the room, serene
and calm, with a flush on her beautiful face as she caught sight of
Ralph.

"You have heard all the good news?" she asked. "The Hall has not been
in the least damaged by the fire. My father ran in to tell me a little
time ago, and he has gone back, preferring to dress at home. I
understand that we shall be back home on Saturday."

"So I am told," Ralph replied. "It has been a great inconvenience, of
course, but it most opportunely rid you of very undesirable visitors.
By the time that Saturday comes you will be in a position to defy
them."

"Indeed, I hope so," Mary said, with the deep flush still on her face.
"My father intends to bring those documents so marvellously recovered
here with him tonight, and tomorrow he will take them to London. Mr.
Mayfield is a clever man, but circumstances have been too strong for
him this time. Mr. Darnley, you are our good fairy; without you I have
not the least idea what we should have done."

"Don't be so sure of that," Ralph smiled. "The fairy of my time
always seemed to want something in return for past favours, and you
may find that I am keeping very closely to precedent. But is not Sir
George very late?"

A big clock over the carved oak mantel chimed the hour of eight. Lady
Dashwood shook her head, and explained that one must make allowances
just now. There would be no great harm done if the dinner waited for
five minutes. It was all the same to Ralph, who asked nothing better
than to sit in that perfect atmosphere and contemplate the beauty of
the girl before him. He had to wait some time for the prize, but he
knew that it would fall into his fingers at last. There was one
shortcut to victory, but he wasn't going to take that way. He watched
the sunshine playing on Mary's face, he seemed to see clean through
the mask of pride to the pure white soul below.

"I am going to ask you a question," the girl said. "You have never
told me what was your business here, except that you had lost your
money and that you had come into these parts to pick up something from
the wreck. Is everything gone, Mr. Darnley?"

"Everything," Ralph smiled, "save honour. My father trusted Horace
Mayfield, and the result is that when I leave here I shall have to get
my living. I don't quite know what I am going to do, but I am strong
and capable and steady. I may say----"

"Here is Sir George at last," Lady Dashwood exclaimed. "What a hurry
he seems to be in. Mary, my dear, will you please to ring the bell and
tell Seddon we are ready for dinner. . . . Why----"

Sir George had come hurriedly into the room. The white tie had come
unfastened and hung in two streamers down his shirt front, but he did
not seem to notice it. His face was as white as his tie; his forehead
was damp with moisture.

"I've lost them," he cried; "stolen out of my desk! All those precious
papers! And now I am more in the power of that scoundrel Mayfield than
ever! I--I----"

He dropped into a chair and burst into a flood of maudlin, senile
tears.



CHAPTER XXV.
PRIDE OR PREJUDICE


Ralph's first feeling was one of contempt. It was almost incredible
that a man of Sir George's position could behave in so childish and
weak a fashion. Here was the diplomatist who had been so popular in
Paris, so bland and dignified, assuming the _rôle_ of a silly girl who
had lost some foolish ornament. For the time being he had cast his
manhood entirely behind him. He sat on the couch with the tears
streaming down his cheeks, great sobs burst from his chest.

"Gone!" he wailed. "Absolutely vanished. I locked them up in a desk
last night, or the night before, and now they have disappeared. Don't
tell me they have not been stolen, because I know better. Besides,
nothing else is disturbed. And those papers were there to prove my
absolute claim to Dashwood Hall. With those documents in my possession
I could have raised as much money as I needed. I could have returned
here in a day or two and rid myself of that scoundrel, Mayfield, for
ever. He meant to cover me with ignominy and disgrace, but the fire
prevented that. And now he has managed to get those papers stolen."

"That is impossible," Ralph cried. "He did not know of their
existence."

"Why not! How can you prove that he didn't know? He is one of the
cleverest scoundrels in the world. He gets to know everything, and he
was actually under my roof on the very night that the papers were so
marvellously recovered. It is just possible that he was spying about
all the time."

"It does not seem at all probable," Lady Dashwood said in a faint
whisper.

"Oh, yes, it does," Sir George replied. "I'm quite ready to argue it
out either way. We will admit that Mayfield didn't know till later,
till the next morning, in fact, when I told him what had happened, and
practically ordered him out of the house. He saw at once then that he
no longer held me in his grip; he wanted nobody to tell him that those
precious papers were close at hand. He made up his mind to obtain
possession of them without delay. Therefore, he invented the idea of
the fire--a fire that would cause a deal of smoke and confusion and
yet not do much harm. Under cover of the fire he stole the papers."

Ralph was listening with a kind of painful toleration of the snuffling
speaker. A startling idea came into his mind now. He glanced at Lady
Dashwood, who seemed to read his thoughts. In the light of their
especial knowledge, facts pointed to quite another individual as the
culprit. If the fire had been the work of an incendiary, then that
criminal was undoubtedly Vincent Dashwood, whose matchbox had been
found in the ashes. Vincent Dashwood had palpably been uneasy when the
missing matchbox had been mentioned, he was still more uneasy at
Ralph's suggestion that he had been hanging about Dashwood Hall within
an hour or so of the outbreak. Was there some deep and powerful reason
why Vincent Dashwood desired to see the old house burnt to the ground?
Was it to bury some secret in the ashes?

The more Ralph pondered over this, the deeper the mystery became. He
could see quite clearly how Mayfield's scheme would benefit by
possession of those papers. What he could not fathom was what Vincent
Dashwood had to gain by a disastrous fire. He would go into this
without taking anybody into his confidence, Ralph thought. There was
yet another danger that struck much closer at the root of his
happiness--the position in which Mary stood in the face of this
catastrophe.

He glanced across at the girl, who stood on the far side of the
drawing-room with the light of the shaded lamps on her face. He could
see that her features were pale and drawn, that there was a hunted,
haunted look in her eyes. It was quite evident that she fully
appreciated the danger of the situation. And yet the feeling uppermost
in her mind was the feeling of bitterness and sorrow for the sorry
part her father was playing.

"I should like to understand the position fully," she said. "What
difference does the loss of those papers imply? Cannot you do without
them, father?"

"I am helpless, my dear," Sir George groaned. "I am the head of the
family, and the man who enjoys the revenue of the estates, and I shall
probably continue to do so until I die. But for the next six months or
so I could not raise a penny on the property, not till the time
mentioned in the late owner's will expires, when I become legally
possessed of everything, even though a direct heir of Ralph Dashwood
appears. Then I can borrow as much money as I please. Now, I am
absolutely at the mercy of Horace Mayfield."

The pallor on Mary's face deepened; hope faded from her heart. She was
in the toils again and made no attempt to disguise the fact. It was
quite immaterial to her who had those papers, so long as they were
gone.

"Let me make the position quite clear," she went on, in a hard, level
voice. "Let us revert to the condition of affairs existing before
those papers were found; let us assume that they never existed at all.
You owe a very large sum of money, father, a sum that it is impossible
for you to pay. If you fail to raise the amount, which we may take for
granted, something like disgrace and dishonour falls on you. That is
not your fault, I know, but other people will not think so, and the
head of the house of Dashwood will stand before his fellow men stamped
as little better than a felon. Is that so?"

"That is the way in which the world will regard it," Sir George
groaned.

"Quite so, father. You can't find the money, and nobody will find it
for you. As I know already, it is useless to appeal to Lady Dashwood."

"Quite, my dear," Lady Dashwood murmured. "I would give anything to
avert the disgrace, but I have nothing. I am a wicked old woman, and
my sins are finding me out. I have parted with everything, even to my
jewels, to keep a certain secret, and I see now that the sacrifice is
going to be all in vain."

Mary turned and laid a soothing hand on the speaker's arm. There was
something sweet, almost affectionate in the action.

"A fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind," she said bitterly. "After
all there is a way out of the trouble, there has been a way out all
along. Our blessing in disguise in the matter seems to be Mr.
Mayfield. We will ignore for the moment that he has himself brought
the situation about for his own ends. The fact remains that he can
keep the disgrace away. He has offered to avert the catastrophe at a
price. I am the price. By saying one simple word everything is
changed. And in six months, you, my father, are master of Dashwood
absolutely. I have only to say, 'Yes,' and the thing is done. It is a
simple little word, which has been the cause of untold misery to
thousands of poor girls. But, after all, there have been greater
sacrifices for less satisfactory results. And now let us go into
dinner."

The girl spoke quietly enough, but nothing could disguise the
bitterness and scorn that rang in every word. It was all very wrong,
it was dictated by motives clearly open to question, but in spite of
everything, it seemed to Ralph that he had never admired Mary more
than he did at that moment. He knew of the anguish of disappointment
and despair that filled her cup to overflowing; he could realise the
difference that the last half-hour had made to her outlook on life; he
knew how much she hated and despised the man to whom she was once more
tied by the hands of Fate.

He knew also that filial love and affection had nothing whatever to do
with the fatal resolve. It was family pride that was the mainspring of
the action. Mary stood there, proud and defiant now, with the
lamplight streaming on her face, and Ralph knew now that the time was
coming for him to act. The lesson would have to be learned, the bread
of affliction must be eaten to the last sour crust.

"Will Mr. Darnley please to ring the bell?" Mary went on evenly. "We
shall have the servants wondering what is the matter. It is already
half-past eight, and punctuality is one of the cardinal virtues at the
dower house. If you will look into the mirror opposite, father, you
will see that your tie is all disarranged. . . . Give me your arm, Mr.
Darnley?"

There was not a trace of any emotion now about Mary. She watched her
father rearranging his tie with a critical air; she began to discuss
the flowers on the dinner table as if nothing had happened out of the
common. She bore the brunt of the conversation all dinner time, for
the others were strangely silent. From time to time Mary flashed a
challenge from her eyes to Ralph, as if defiantly ignoring his views.
And yet she dreaded her next meeting with Darnley. She knew him to be
poor and friendless, she believed him to be of no particular family,
but still she valued his good opinion deeply. She would have denied
that if it had been put to her directly, but in her heart of hearts
she could not disguise the true state of her feelings.

"Why are you looking at me so?" she said.

"Was I?" Ralph asked. "I had no idea that my looks betrayed me so
badly. But I will discuss the matter with you when we are alone."

It was an audacious speech, but it sounded quite naturally from
Ralph's lips. Mary could feel the colour rising to her cheeks; she
felt annoyed that she could not better control her feelings. For the
rest of the meal she was silent like the rest, and said no more till
Lady Dashwood gave the signal for departure.



CHAPTER XXVI.
IN RECKLESS MOOD


Once the ladies had departed, Sir George brightened visibly. He
reached out eagerly for the claret and drank two glasses rapidly.
Ralph declined the decanters, and also the cigar that his host handed
him. He contented himself with a cigarette; he replied more or less
vaguely to Sir George's idle chatter. It seemed almost incomprehensible
to him that a father could sacrifice a daughter to a scoundrel like
Mayfield, and accept the situation as if it had been the most natural
thing in the world.

"I feel bound to have a few words with you, Sir George," he said
presently. "More by accident than anything else I seem to have been
dragged into your family secrets. We will not go into the reason why I
was in a position to render you a service a night or two ago. It is
unfortunate that that service should have proved useless, but it is
more than probable than those papers will turn up again."

"Never," Sir George said emphatically. "Mayfield will take care of
that. He knows that so long as he holds the papers I am quite in his
power. He will lend me the money to put me right in the comfortable
assurance that at the expiration of six months it will come back to
him again. Take him all in all, Mayfield is perhaps the most clever
scoundrel that I have ever come across, which is saying a great deal."

"You are convinced that Mayfield is a finished scoundrel, then?"

"My dear fellow, what other conclusion could I come to? His
every action proves it. He has worked this thing out in the most
cold-blooded way. The fellow ought to be hounded out of society and
kicked out of every respectable house. No club should tolerate him.
He's a rascal clean through."

There was honest indignation ringing in every word that Sir George
said. Ralph listened with cynical amusement.

"And yet you are going to give your only child as a hostage to the man
who has planned your social ruin," he said. "You are going to sell
your daughter, and the price is to be the silence of a scoundrel! Good
heavens, man, can't you realise the enormity of your crime? To save
yourself from unpleasantness, you permit your daughter to give herself
up to a lifetime of horror and degradation. Is this a specimen of your
family pride? You are so fond of the race, so passionately attached to
it, that you are paving the way for that rascal Mayfield eventually to
succeed you as the head of the house! If you do this thing you will be
judged for it, as sure as we are face to face at this moment. If you
permit it, then you are a greater rascal by far than even Mayfield
is."

Ralph's words rang out clear and true, his voice vibrated with anger.
A dull flush mounted to the face of the elder man, a feeble anger
filled his eyes.

"I can't permit you to speak to me like this," he protested. "I--I
must be the best judge of what is right and proper for my child. And
Mary is pretty certain to have her own way in the end. My good fellow,
you speak as if Mary's future was in your special keeping. Anybody
would think that you had fallen in love with the girl."

"I have," Ralph said calmly. "I love Mary with my whole heart and
soul. I can see the beauties of her mind as clearly as I can see the
beauty of her face under that crust of pride and arrogance. It will be
my task to remove the husk so that the flower can be seen in all its
loveliness. It may not trouble you much, it may be no particular
satisfaction to you, but Mary is not going to marry Horace Mayfield.
When the time comes, Mary will marry _me_. But I fear that there is a
time of humiliation and suffering and poverty before her first,
poverty in which you will have your share, Sir George. It rests
practically in the girl's own hands; she can take up the sunshine of
the future when she chooses."

"The fellow's mad," Sir George muttered. "Clean mad. My dear Darnley,
you are talking the most abject nonsense. On your own confession you
are a poor man; you have lost everything as I did by trusting to that
scoundrel. I mean to Mayfield, who----"

"Precisely. We both know that man to be what he is. And in spite of
what you know, you are going to let your daughter marry him and give
her your blessing. Truly the family pride of which you boast is a poor
thing! You are prepared to commit a crime to support it. Now tell me
your honest opinion--do you suppose for a moment that Mayfield would
marry Mary if she came to him empty-handed?"

Sir George shook his head; he was man of the world enough to see
Ralph's point.

"I don't think he would," he said. "Mayfield is sufficient of a
business man to know the value of money. Of course he's fond of the
girl, which is quite natural. But I fail to see what your question has
to do with the matter."

Ralph was not blind to the hopelessness of his task. Truly it is
difficult to know the real standard of even one's closest friend. Up
to a certain point, Ralph had regarded Sir George as an honourable
man, who would have shrunk from any act calculated to pain or harm any
fellow creature. Dashwood would probably have protested himself that
such was the case. And yet here he was, prepared to sacrifice his only
child on the altar of his sinful selfishness.

A bitter contempt filled Ralph; he would have liked to turn on this
man and tear him to tatters with sharp-edged words. Were all people
alike when it came to the test? Ralph wondered. He half rose from his
seat, and then sat down again. It was impossible to quarrel with
Mary's father; there was nothing to gain by such a course. And Sir
George seemed to divine little of what was passing in the mind of his
young companion.

The elder man had regained his equanimity now. He was sure that Mary
would do what he called the right thing. It was rather a nuisance, and
so forth, but then it was absurd to imagine that any girl could
imperil the good name of such a family as the Dashwoods. As Sir George
sipped his wine, he caught sight of his own head and shoulders in a'
Florentine mirror on the far side of the room, and, unconsciously
almost, set his tie straight. It seemed incredible to Ralph that the
man could think of such things at such a moment. But there it was. Sir
George poured out for himself another glass of wine.

"I can see that you are vexed," he said in his polished easy way. "As
a friend of ours you naturally would be. In addition, you are
naturally prejudiced against our friend, Horace Mayfield. So am I, but
we must make the best of it. After all, there are many standards of
honour. Mayfield is a business man; he has been trained to methods
which are not in accordance with our views. All is fair in love and
war, he would argue. We must not be too hard on our fellow creatures,
Darnley."

"The fellow is a scoundrel," Ralph said hoarsely. "He is bad to the
very core of his being. He would never see the inside of Dashwood Hall
again if you could be free of him. And when I think of your daughter
as that man's wife----"

Ralph paused. He was unable to proceed. His quick imagination
travelled on ahead of him; he could picture Mary's future in the
darkest colours. He knew only too well the fire and force and passion
that lay under the cold exterior. He could guess at the unspeakable
humiliation to come from Mayfield's very touch. And this would go on
not for days, but for years. And Mary would never murmur, she would
confide in nobody, she would hug the galling chains to her breast
until the canker entered the heart of the flower and killed it ...

But Dashwood was talking again. Ralph was so lost in his own gloomy
thoughts that he had some difficulty in picking up the thread.

"And there is another thing, my dear fellow," Sir George murmured.
"You will excuse my saying so, but you are taking on yourself a little
too much. Mary owes her life to you on two different occasions. I am
sure that we are both of us exceedingly grateful to you. And you have
proved yourself to be a real friend in other ways. Still, that does
not give you the right to harp upon this topic quite so freely. When
Mary marries Mayfield----"

"She never will do so," Ralph cried, forgetting himself for the
moment. "Rest assured that this hateful marriage will never take
place. You may look surprised, but wait and see. I have not finished
with Mayfield yet. After this evening is over, and I have heard Miss
Dashwood's decision for the last time----"

"I decline to discuss the matter any further, really I do," Sir George
protested. "My dear fellow, your remarks are in bad taste. As a
gentleman, you must see that such is the case. I must ask you to
change the subject."

Ralph placed a firm bridle upon his tongue. He had almost forgotten
himself; he had come very near to betraying the great secret.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "As you say, I am going too far. I shall
not err in that way again, but will leave you in peace to your cigar
and your claret. Perhaps I shall be able to get some music in the
drawing-room. The quietude of this house fascinates me, all the more
because I have not been accustomed to this kind of thing."

Sir George smiled in a benign manner.

"I can understand your feelings," he said. "By all means leave me to
my cigar. It has been a very disturbing evening."



CHAPTER XXVII.
A WARNING


Ralph crossed the great hall in the direction of the drawing-room. He
had made up his mind what to do. So far as he could judge, the blow
would have to fall before long. When once Mayfield had an inkling of
the truth, Ralph felt pretty sure that Mary would be no longer under
the necessity of submitting to his persecutions. Mayfield posed as a
rich man, and indeed he seemed to have the command of money when he
needed it, but Ralph had reason to know that there was a deal of
tinsel mixed up with the gold. If it could be proved to Mayfield that
Mary was no longer an heiress he would refuse to carry out his part of
the contract. He would recognise at once that the whole scheme was a
failure, and his cautious philosophy would do the rest.

There were two ways of getting rid of Mayfield, the first being for
Ralph to declare his own identity. But by doing so he would go far to
defeat his darling ambition of winning Mary's love on his own merits.
Still, he had been prepared to run this risk if Mayfield's
persecutions continued. But now Fate had placed in his hands another
weapon by which it was possible to be rid of Mayfield and carry on the
love campaign at the same time. Whether this alternative would have to
be used without delay depended on Mary. Ralph meant to see her now and
force her to say what she was going to do. There was no time like the
present. In the silence and the moonlight this thing should be done.

Just for a moment it seemed to Ralph that the drawing-room was empty.
There were the shaded lamps throwing a subdued light on the old
furniture and the panelled walls. Ill at ease as he was, Ralph was
conscious of the refined, soothing air of the place. Then a gentle
voice called him, and he crossed to a distant corner of the room where
Lady Dashwood was seated. Her face was white and troubled.

"My dear lad," she whispered, "I felt certain that you would come to
me. Sir George cares nothing so long as he has his comforts. Mary is
out of the room; she has gone up to see old Patience, so that you can
speak freely. This is a terrible catastrophe; it places that poor
child absolutely in the grip of the scoundrel. She recognises that;
she is prepared to bow to the inevitable. You have only to look into
her face to see what she is going to do. And I am to blame for the
whole miserable crime."

"My dear Lady Dashwood, how could you possibly avoid it?"

"Oh, you will know some day when the truth is told. Ah, if you had a
bare idea of what a miserable, wicked old woman I am. . . . But there
is no occasion to go into that here. The question is, can you help me,
can you do anything to prevent this thing? I used to pride myself on
the fact that I had a great deal of influence over Mary. But when it
comes to a question of family pride, I am helpless. Still, this
marriage must be prevented at any cost. If you will not speak out, I
shall be compelled to do so."

"There is no occasion," Ralph said. "I pray you to leave me to do this
in my own way. Mary will never become the wife of Horace Mayfield."

A murmur of relief came from the aged listener. Her face cleared
somewhat, but the tears were still dim in her eyes. At the same time,
Ralph's words were a great comfort to her. She laid her fingers on his
hand lovingly.

"I like to hear you speak like that," she whispered. "It reminds me of
your--of my dear son. Ralph, are you sure that you can carry out your
boast?"

"Quite, Lady Dashwood. As surely as I am standing here before you, I
can prevent this hateful marriage. I can prevent it even if Mary tries
to thwart me. But I must have her decision from her own lips first. I
am going to be very cruel to be very kind in the long run. And
whatever happens, I am going to ask you to trust me implicitly. Even
if things look very dark for us all, you are not to lose your faith.
Remember, if events seem to point to the triumph of one who is hateful
to you, it is all being done with one end in view. Now promise."

"My dear boy, I promise freely. When you look at me with those brown
eyes and speak to me with that voice from the other side of the grave,
I could promise you anything. I feel that you have come to save me;
that my life is destined to end in peace. But I am afraid that Mary is
going to suffer yet."

"Oh, she is," Ralph said almost sternly. "It is good for her that she
should suffer. But I shall have no fear for the result after she is
tried in the furnace. Maybe I am no better than a Quixotic fool, but I
have my aim clear before me. And now I must see Mary for some moments
alone."

"I will send her to you," Lady Dashwood murmured as she rose from the
chair. "Ralph, you fill me with new hope and courage. I feel that I am
going to do some good with the remainder of my life yet. But do not be
too hard on the child, remember that she is more or less what I have
made her. And may she listen to the voice of reason!"

It was a little time later that Mary came in. She looked white and
weary; her eyes had a metallic gleam in them. All the same, she
flushed under Ralph's steady gaze. She murmured something to the
effect that she had no idea Lady Dashwood was not there.

"Never mind about Lady Dashwood for the present," Ralph said. "In
fact, I asked her to leave us together for a time. I have something
important to say to you, Mary. Come out on the terrace with me."

It was not so much a request as a command and Mary felt the hot blood
rising to her face. And yet she could not decline coldly with Ralph's
eyes on hers. He seemed to possess some magnetic influence over her.
Without a word they passed side by side out on to the terrace.

It was a perfect night, with a full moon swinging high overhead. In
the distance the silver light played on the roofs and chimneys of the
Hall. Ralph stood in rapt contemplation of the scene for a moment.

"It is absolutely perfect," he said. "A good old house in a grand old
English landscape. And for three hundred years a Dashwood has reigned
here. Truly a thing to swell the heart with honest pride. No wonder
you are fond of it, Mary; no wonder you would make any sacrifice to
retain possession of it. But the price is too heavy. Tomorrow you must
send Horace Mayfield about his business."

"It is too late," Mary said coldly. "I have made up my mind. Other
women have made far heavier sacrifices than this. And I shall get used
to it."

"Never! You are not going to do it. I will not permit you to commit
this sin."

The girl's face blazed with anger, then her cheeks grew white again.
She would have liked to turn upon Ralph with passionate scorn, but her
sense of truth and justice held her back. For what he said she knew to
be dreadfully, hopelessly true.

"Yes, a sin," Ralph said quietly. "The deliberate violation of a
sacrament. You will go to the altar with a lie on your lips, your
whole life will be a lie. To my mind, one of the most horrible things
is the sight of a young girl who has married an old man for the sake
of his money. To me it is hideous. And your sin will be worse than
that, far worse. Picture it, think of it, Mary, before it is too
late."

The girl's head drooped, in spite of her pride and her courage, the
tears streamed down her face, her frame was shaken by passionate sobs.

"Too late," she said. "Oh, I cannot draw back."

"Because you sacrifice everything to your foolish pride," Ralph
replied. "I see that it is quite useless for me to plead any longer.
Therefore, I must take my own way to prevent your wasting your life in
this fashion. Would Horace Mayfield care for you if he heard that you
had lost your fortune?"

"The question is needless," Mary whispered. "Of course he wouldn't."

"Let us argue the matter out from that point of view, then. Say that a
merciful Providence interferes to prevent this sin of yours. You lose
your fortune. Mind, there are many less likely things than this. Your
fortune takes wings and flies away. You are free from Mayfield, and
also you lose the Hall. What would you do then?"

"But you are picturing an almost impossible case. Such a thing is not
the least likely."

"Indeed, it is. The late heir to the estate vanished and never
returned. There was a violent quarrel, the facts of which are only
known to Lady Dashwood. Her son died far away without even
communicating with his relatives again. So far as we know, he may have
left a son behind him. He may have told that son everything or
nothing. But suppose that son finds out the truth. What is to prevent
his coming back and claiming everything? He would get the title as a
matter of course; he would get the estates also if he puts in an
appearance before another six months have gone by. If this happens,
you are no better than a pauper, Mary. What do you say to that?"

"I do not believe in the existence of the man."

"No, but I do. Mary, that young man lives. He will declare himself and
bring in his proofs before many days are over. He is the instrument
chosen by Providence to prevent this deliberate sin of yours. Your
reign at Dashwood is over; within a few days you will be as poor
as--as myself. Thank God, we shall save you yet."

A little cry came from the girl's lips and she stood like a white
statue in the moonlight.



CHAPTER XXVIII.
MORAL FORCE


It was some time before Mary spoke again. Ralph wondered if she had
any inkling of the real truth. He had perhaps said a little too much,
and perhaps, on the other hand, he had not said quite enough. Suppose
that Mary jumped to the immediate conclusion that he was the heir.
What then? She would ask him the question point blank, and he would be
compelled to speak the truth.

But Mary's perception was at fault for once. As her eyes sought
Ralph's face it was evident that she had not the remotest idea who he
was. And this was just as it should be, from Ralph's point of view.

For he was doing what the world would call a foolish and Quixotic
thing. He loved this girl with his whole heart and soul; he knew that
she was the one woman for him. But not yet; until that sinful pride
was humbled in the dust there would be no happiness for Mary. Her
character would have to be cleansed and purified in the fire of
adversity first. Ralph knew quite well what noble qualities lay under
that mask of pride and ice.

He could have called the girl his; he knew it. He had only to proclaim
his identity, and Mary Dashwood would have asked no better fate than
to become the wife of the head of the family; she might have given her
heart into the bargain.

But Ralph would have none of it that way. Mary should come to him and
sue for pardon; she should proclaim in all sincerity that love was
best of all. She should feel that there was something far better than
being mistress of Dashwood Hall. Then the truth might be told and the
old order of things re-established.

All this Ralph had worked out in his mind as a novelist works out a
plot. And Fate had played into his hands. A stern, hard time was
coming for Mary, but it would be the making of her in the end. Ralph
could see it all in his mind's eye as he stood by Mary's side and
looked into her troubled eyes.

"I don't understand," she said slowly. "I am afraid that I am not so
hard and resolute as I believed myself to be. And things have moved so
rapidly lately, that I am dazed. First comes the knowledge that my
father is--is----"

The girl hesitated and broke down. Ralph completed her sentence for
her. It sounded harsh and unkind, but the lesson had to be learned.

"Is not the man you took him for," Ralph said. "His family pride is
not a durable article. To play his part properly he should have coldly
and politely told Mayfield to do his worst, and ordered him out of the
house. That is the course one has a right to expect from the head of
the house of Dashwood. But, alas, for the weakness of poor human
nature! Your father knows Mayfield to be an abandoned scoundrel, and
yet he makes a compact with him. A bargain is arranged between them,
and you are the price to be paid, Mary. And, upon my word, your pride
seems to me to be as hollow a thing as that of your father."

"That is false," Mary cried passionately. "I am sacrificing everything
for the honour of the house."

"Not from my point of view. As I said before, you are committing a
great and deadly sin with your eyes open. At the altar you are
prepared to soil your lips with a horrible perjury. You are going to
promise to love, honour, and obey the man whose very presence makes
you shudder. But, fortunately, there is no need for that. To all
practical purposes you have ceased to be mistress of Dashwood, and
when Mayfield knows this, he will dismiss you as a mere incident in
his career. The new heir will take possession of the title and the
property."

"I am glad we have got back to him again," Mary said coldly. "Your
personal remarks are exceedingly distasteful to me. Who is the man you
speak of?"

"Vincent Dashwood. Did you not guess it before? Has it never occurred
to you that he had some powerful motive that kept him here all this
time? You must be aware how Lady Dashwood dislikes him----"

"Oh, yes, yes. Several times lately I have asked who the man was, but
I could not succeed in getting a satisfactory reply. I knew that Lady
Dashwood was afraid of the man. He is not a bit like a gentleman, but
seeing that he was a Dashwood, I have always been more or less civil
to him."

"He does not think so," Ralph said with a smile. "In fact, he thinks
that you have treated him very distantly and haughtily. He hinted to
me that he was going to make you pay for it later. Still, a most
objectionable creature."

"I seem to be surrounded with them lately," Mary said bitterly. "But
why all this mystery and secrecy? If the man is the person he claims
to be, why did he not make his identity known long ago? Oh, he is an
impostor, defrauding Lady Dashwood. So long as he can get money out of
her he will do nothing."

"Perhaps Lady Dashwood will enlighten us on that point," Ralph said.
"I may say that in California I knew the late Ralph Dashwood very
well. Had I not done so, I should not have been here on private
business today----"

"Then you know if the late heir to the property had a son?" Mary
interrupted.

"Certainly he did. And Vincent Dashwood claims to be Ralph's son. If
he can prove this, then he takes the estates and the title. I have
talked the matter over with him, and I gather that he is waiting for
one particular document before claiming the property. The document is
his mother's marriage certificate. You may say that that is easy to
obtain. Not so in California, where records of that class are not kept
so rigidly as they are here. Lady Dashwood will tell you that the
young man came with the strongest proofs of his identity, letters that
she had written to her son, and other papers of that kind. He knows
all the secrets of the House. Lady Dashwood never catches him
tripping."

"Very strange!" Mary said. "And yet he makes no claim!"

"For the reason that I told you. He led me to understand that he is
loth to disturb existing arrangements during the lifetime of her
ladyship. On the whole, I regard this as an exceedingly fortunate
business for you!"

"Fortunate?" Mary exclaimed. "An incident that renders my father and
myself penniless!"

"Yes. It prevents you becoming the wife of Horace Mayfield. Directly
he hears of this thing he will turn his back on you for ever. He is
too much a man of the world to waste time in idle regrets; he will
look out for another to take your place. On the whole, it seems to me
that Fate has been very kind to you."

"Indeed." Mary's voice was very cold, her face colder still. "You seem
to be glad."

"I _am_ glad. I am rejoiced to find that Providence is not going to
allow you to wreck your happiness and imperil your future in this way.
Nothing could please me better than to see you dependent upon your own
exertions for a living. You will be all the better for it; it will
cleanse and purify you. And then you will discover that the best thing
in the world for a good woman is a good man's love. It is my love for
you, Mary, that makes me take this view of things, that impels me to
rejoice in the fact that you are nearer to me tonight than you have
ever been before. And some day you will own it."

"Never!" Mary cried passionately. "Oh, you make me hate you, you make
me forget how much I owe you. I could never become your wife."

Ralph smiled. There was something very soothing in the sweetness of
the night. Many a time afterward that scene rose up before his mind.

"You _shall_ be my wife," he said in tones of quiet power. "The scales
will fall from your eyes and you will ask me to forgive you. Oh, my
dear, I know the beauty of your true nature better than you know it
yourself. I can see it all before me as clearly as if I were endowed
with the gift of prophecy. We all have our lesson to learn, and it is
no fault of yours that the lesson has come so late. And when my
confession has followed yours, we shall know the meaning of true
happiness, but not before."

As if he had said the final word, Ralph turned in the direction of the
house. A world of passionate scorn, defiance, anger trembled on Mary's
parted lips. How dare this man, how dare any man, talk to her like
this? And yet at the same time the girl was fully aware of the power
and masterful purpose behind Ralph's words. She was glad in her inmost
heart to know that he cared for her so much. After all, Mary had her
dreams of love and romance like other girls. She was dimly conscious
of the sweet and tender womanhood that underlay her pride and ice. And
she knew that no scorn or invective could turn Ralph from his purpose.

"Very well," she said resignedly. "You are a strong man, and I am a
weak woman. I daresay you imagine yourself to be paying me a
compliment. But I should put that dream aside if I were you, for it is
never likely to come true."

"It is no dream," Ralph smiled. "Nor is the happiness so very far off.
Now let me take you back to the house again, for it is getting late."

As Mary slipped her hand under the proffered arm, a gentle sigh
escaped her. She wondered why she could not be angry with this man,
why every word of his thrilled her and filled her with such happiness
as could not be expressed in words.



CHAPTER XXIX.
STRATEGY


Meanwhile the police were pushing on their investigations into the
causes leading up to the fire at Dashwood Hall with great energy. The
clue of the matchbox was held to be an important one, and now that the
owner of the toy had been discovered, important developments were
expected. In the _interim_, Vincent Dashwood returned from London,
having forgotten all about his loss. It was brought back to his mind
with unpleasant force after luncheon the following day by a visit from
the inspector of police.

Dashwood was lounging at the table, smoking a cigarette. Lady Dashwood
sat opposite to him, her slim hands folded in her lap. She was looking
white and worn; her eyes seemed to seek her companion in weary misery.

"I don't see what you have to complain of," Dashwood was saying. "I've
done everything to please you. Here I am, a kind of mystery in the
house, living more or less on your bounty, whilst all the time I might
have been Sir Vincent Dashwood, with a fine property behind me. And
any time I want a few pounds you grumble."

"That is not a true statement of the case," Lady Dashwood said in her
resigned way. "You told me you could do nothing till you received the
certificate of your father's marriage. As to the rest, I accepted you
implicitly as my grandson. After the proofs that you placed in my
hands, I had no alternative."

"Much as you would have liked one," Dashwood sneered.

"Yes, if you will force me to speak plainly. Many a time I have prayed
that a child of my son's should be sent to me. But you are not in the
least like your father. He was wild and headstrong, and he never
forgave the shameful way we treated him, but he was a gentleman."

"Meaning that I'm not one, eh? Well, hard words break no bones. For
the sake of peace and quietness, I've kept my claim from everybody but
you; to please you I have suppressed the truth till I can get that
certificate. And in return you promised me that I should not suffer.
And now you refuse me a paltry £500."

"I have not refused it you. I have not the money. And you have had all
my jewels, jewels valued at nearly £30,000. In my weakness and folly I
parted with the property which does not belong to me. £30,000 in the
space of a year! Where has the money gone?"

"Now if that isn't just like a woman," Dashwood growled. "I daresay
those stones were valued at the sum you mention, but to get that for
them is a different matter. To be candid, I pawned your gems for less
than a third of that money. And when I tried to raise a further loan
on the same security, I was met with a pointblank refusal. So you see,
I have not been so very extravagant after all."

Lady Dashwood sighed bitterly. She was getting used to vulgar scenes
like this. And yet there was hope that before long she would be freed
from the bloodsucker. She watched him now as he sat sprawling in his
chair, flicking the ashes of his cigarette into a priceless Sevres
dessert dish. How could she ever have taken him for her grandson, she
wondered? Why had she been so weak and feeble?

A servant entered at the same moment with an intimation to the effect
that somebody desired to see Mr. Dashwood. The gentleman was waiting
in the dining-room. A dull flush of annoyance came over Dashwood's
face.

"Some meddling creditor," he muttered. "A London tradesman, who has
managed to get my address from somewhere. Goodbye to all peace if once
my retreat has got known. Tell the man to call again, Charles. I can't
see him."

"Begging your pardon, sir," the footman said respectfully, "it is not
a tradesman, and he said he must see you on the most important
business. The gentleman is Inspector Drake, the head constable from
Longtown."

Dashwood's teeth clicked together; his face turned to a dull ashen
hue. He had been suddenly stricken by some mortal fear; he could not
disguise the fact from Lady Dashwood. Her heart sank within her as she
glanced fearfully at the white set face on the other side of the
table. She wondered what new disgrace was here.

"I--I'll come in a minute," Dashwood muttered thickly. "This room is
so hot that it makes one feel quite faint. Charles, give me a glass of
brandy from the sideboard. A large glass without water. Ah!"

The white face resumed a little of its colour and the teeth ceased to
chatter as the potent spirit got in its work. With an uneasy swagger,
Dashwood crossed over to the door, but his heart was beating thick and
fast and there was a great lump in his throat that he could not quite
succeed in swallowing. But the inspector of police knew nothing of
this as he responded curtly enough to Dashwood's insolent salutation.

"And what can I do for you?" the latter asked. "This is a very
inconvenient hour for me."

"Very sorry for that, sir," the official said coolly. "But my duty is
plain. I should like to have a few words with you as to the fire at
Dashwood Hall."

A strange sense of relief, almost of exultation, came over the
listener. He could breathe more freely now; all his swagger came back
to him. The visit of the officer had nothing to do with any episode
out of a dark and dubious past.

"What can I tell you about that?" he asked. "I know nothing of it."

"Well, it's like this, sir," Drake proceeded to explain. "We have
established beyond all shadow of a doubt that the fire was not caused
by accident. Straw was laid deliberately on the floor of the hall, and
as deliberately soaked in petroleum. We found the rest of the straw,
and also we found the empty drum of oil, which had been taken from one
of the outhouses. All this must have happened in the early hours of
the morning. It was a very good thing that the timbers of the house
are so sound, or nothing could have saved the place. As it is, the
fire burnt itself out."

"But what has all this got to do with me?" Dashwood asked impatiently.

"Half a minute, sir. I was merely telling you that this was the work
of an incendiary. Once having established the fact, we will get to
business. We searched in the ashes, and we were so fortunate as to
find this."

Drake held up the familiar matchbox and handed it to Dashwood. He
looked just a little uneasy, but there was no suggestion of guilt
about him.

"We found this peculiar matchbox in the straw, sir," Drake went on.
"The theory is that it was dropped by somebody who was connected with
the fire. Suppose that the culprit was disturbed, or perhaps the
sudden blaze was so fierce that the box fell and could not be
recovered. I want to know if you have seen this box before?"

Dashwood turned the silver toy over in his hands for a moment. There
was nothing to be gained by concealing the truth.

"I understand your insinuation," he said. "As a matter of fact, that
box belongs to me, and, as I dare say you are aware, my initials are
engraved upon it. The box is a novelty in its way; I bought it some
years ago in America. Do you mean to say that this was found in the
ashes of the fire?"

"It was, sir. I picked it up myself. The butler, Slight, recognised it
as belonging to you. Now you will see why I came to you."

"Oh, of course. So your beautiful intelligence suggests that I had
some hand in that fire. If you only knew the true position of affairs,
you would know that I am the very last person in the world to want
anything to happen to the Hall. But that is a detail which we may come
to presently. Meanwhile, I am prepared to accept the responsibility of
calling myself the owner of the box. I must have been careless enough
to drop it and somebody picked it up--the somebody who tried to set
fire to the Hall. I'm afraid that I can't tell you any more than
that."

"All the same, I'm afraid I must go a little farther, sir," Drake
said. "That box is yours and it was found in the ashes of the fire. It
appears that some time before the fire broke out one of the servants
at the Hall was called up to take a message to Mr. Mayfield, who is
staying in a farmhouse not far from here. The servant's name is
Walters. He went back to his quarters over the stables, and as it was
a fine night and he did not feel in the least sleepy, he sat by the
open window and smoked a cigarette. He says that a little before
two--close to the time when the fire broke out--he saw somebody come
from the direction of the house and cross the lawn. The figure was
moving rapidly, and apparently desired to escape observation. When
Walters was asked if he could recognise the figure in question, he
said positively that he could. I asked him to give it a name, and, to
make a long story short, he said it was you, sir."

There was no mistaking the dry suggestiveness in Drake's manner. He
was not in the least apologetic now, he made his statement with the
air of a man who is sure of his ground. Dashwood changed colour
slightly.

"This is ridiculous," he cried. "The idea that I should have any
motive for destroying the old house is out of the question. If you
knew who I really am----"

"That is not the point, sir. The question is were you there?"

"Yes, I was," Dashwood said in a kind of sullen desperation. "I was
out at that hour. The best thing I can do is to come as far as the
Hall and have it out with Walters. I see that the time has come when I
must tell the truth."



CHAPTER XXX.
THE HEIR OF THE HOUSE


Sir George Dashwood sat in the Gothic library at Dashwood Hall
bewailing his hard fate in a manner which would have been called
peevish in a less distinguished man. He wanted to know when he was
going to get back the full possession of his house again; he desired
to be informed why Horace Mayfield had not been to see him. He did not
appear to be listening to what Mary had to say. Also he was full of
the fact that the more or less mysterious Vincent Dashwood had made a
dastardly attempt to reduce the old house to ashes.

"You don't seem to understand," Mary said with some impatience. She
was standing in the window of the library with the sunshine full on
her face. Through the great mullion, with its crested devices, she
could see the deer in the park beyond. "You do not seem to comprehend
that this is a blessing in disguise. So far as I can see, the house is
not a bit the worse for what might have been a terrible disaster. I am
bound to confess that I don't like Mr. Dashwood, but at the same time
I am quite sure that he had nothing to do with the fire--the fire
which prevented anybody from knowing of the disgrace that had fallen
upon us."

"No thanks to that young man," Sir George grumbled. "I tell you he was
responsible for the fire. His matchbox was found there. Walters saw
him by the house. Why Lady Dashwood doesn't get rid of the fellow
passes my comprehension."

"But I have just been trying to explain to you, only you won't
listen," Mary responded with some show of impatience. "There are the
most powerful reasons why Mr. Vincent Dashwood does not desire the
destruction of the house. Mr. Darnley told me all about it last night.
Vincent Dashwood claims to be the son of Ralph Dashwood."

Sir George started as if something had stung him. He had been so
wrapped up in his own selfishness up to now that he had no ears for
anything else. Mary's statement almost overpowered him. Many things
suddenly became plain to the baronet's understanding.

He rose to his feet and paced up and down the room in terrible
agitation.

"Is this really a fact?" he demanded. "I cannot believe it, and yet,
and yet, I have met that fellow a good many times, and the oftener I
see him, the more does he impress me unfavourably. I see now that
there must have been some powerful reason why Lady Dashwood should
tolerate the man. But why did she not tell us at once, why did she go
on feeding him with money? for I can now quite see why she was not in
a position to do me a favour the other night. If what you say is
correct, Mary, then we are little better than beggars. Still, the
reason for all this mystery----"

"Is not so strange when one comes to understand, father. It appears
that Ralph Dashwood married an American lady somewhere in the wildest
part of California. There has been a great difficulty in finding the
marriage certificate. Lady Dashwood is quite convinced that the man we
are speaking of is her grandson."

Sir George broke out into feeble whinings, he grew almost tearful. And
as he became weak and sentimental, so did Mary grow harder. If this
crowning blow had to fall, then nobody should hear a word of weakness
from her. For her part she could have fought this man, even if it had
left her penniless before the world. She clenched her teeth upon her
lip to keep down the rising tide of bitter reproaches. Then she turned
to see that Vincent Dashwood, together with Inspector Drake, had
entered the room. The former looked heated and indignant, for he had
been giving a piece of his mind to the policeman.

"I am glad to find you here, Sir George," he shouted. "The police are
making all kinds of accusations against me. They say, forsooth, that I
have tried to burn the house down, and all because a matchbox of mine
was found in the ashes. I suppose I am not the first man in the world
who has lost a matchbox. And I've been telling Drake here that I have
every reason that the house should not be injured."

"So my daughter informs me," Sir George replied in the same whining
voice. "Seeing that you claim to be the son of Ralph Dashwood----"

The other man laughed defiantly. All the same 'he could not meet the
glance that Mary turned upon him. His bold eyes were turned to her
face, then they dropped as if looking for something on the floor.

"I'm very sorry," Drake put in, "but this is a serious matter. The
finding of that box, the mere fact that Mr. Dashwood was seen here at
the hour of the fire, all make it necessary for me to take certain
steps----"

"I must speak," Vincent Dashwood broke out. "I did not mean to
proclaim the truth, because I was not ready to do so. And there was
Lady Dashwood to be considered. Still, as I see that Mr. Drake is
prepared to go to the extreme length of arresting me for the alleged
act of arson, I am compelled to declare the truth for my own
protection. Drake tells me that he has lived in the adjacent town of
Longtown all his life, so he must be more or less acquainted with the
family of Dashwood. He knows, for instance, that Mr. Ralph Dashwood
left here forty years ago, and that his friends have seen nothing of
him since. I suppose that statement is not too much for your
intelligence, Drake?"

"I am quite aware that you are quoting facts, sir," Drake said grimly.

"Very well. I'm glad to hear that you believe something I say. It is
not generally known, but it will be clearly established before long
that Mr. Ralph Dashwood married an American lady, by whom he had one
child, a son. To go farther, I may say that that son now stands before
you. I am the only son of Ralph Dashwood, born in lawful wedlock, as
Lady Dashwood perfectly well knows, and therefore the property belongs
to me. There is no such person really as Sir George Dashwood; as a
matter of fact, Sir Vincent Dashwood--in other words, myself--is head
of the family and owner of the place. There is only one proof
necessary, and that I hope to have in my hands in a few days. I allude
to the certificate of my parents' wedding. And now, Mr. Drake, after
hearing all this, can you suggest that I should gain anything by
burning this house down? If I had had an impulse in that direction, I
could easily have waited for an opportunity of committing that folly
in a safer fashion."

Drake was bound to admit that the astounding revelations made all the
difference in the complexion of the case. Sir George Dashwood listened
with a dark look on his face. Mary turned to the door to see that
Ralph Darnley was standing there. The mere knowledge of his presence
seemed to support and comfort her in this trying hour. Yet she did not
feel the poignant sorrow and sense of loss as keenly as she should.

"Mr. Darnley will tell us if this is true," she cried.

"Lady Dashwood will tell you so, at any rate," Ralph responded. "I
have taken the liberty of listening to what this gentleman had to say.
It so happens that I can throw considerable light on the story. As I
told you last night, I knew the late Ralph Dashwood very well, though
I had not the honour of meeting the man who claims to be his son.
Perhaps Mr. Dashwood will reply to a few of my questions. Will he tell
me, for instance, in what part of California his mother lived?"

"Certainly I will," Vincent Dashwood replied without the slightest
hesitation. "It was in Jackson County; I understand the town was
Courville."

"I should say that is perfectly correct," Ralph said. "In fact, I have
every reason to know that it is correct. And the name of your mother?"

"Alice Montrose. But where the wedding took place, I can't say just
now."

"That is also correct," Ralph went on in the same solemn way. "I am in
a position to prove that Alice Montrose was the wife of Ralph
Dashwood. It is the legal verification of the marriage that you seek?"

"That's it," Dashwood cried eagerly. "Once that is in my possession,
the rest is easy. As I said before, I did not desire to proclaim my
identity just yet for several reasons. But I have been compelled to
speak for the sake of my honour. And if you, Mr. Darnley, who seem to
know so much, can help me to discover that particular document, I
shall be eternally grateful to you. Anything that I can do for you by
way of reward----"

"I shall make use of you, no doubt," Ralph replied. "Your claim
appears to be a very strong one, and everything is going in your
favour. So far all you say as to the marriage of Ralph Dashwood and
Alice Montrose has been correct. You are in urgent need of the
certificate. Let me make the dramatic situation complete by presenting
you with the paper that you most desire. If you will look at this long
slip of paper, you will see that it is a copy, certified, of the
marriage in question. As you seem to be the person most entitled to
the paper, it is with pleasure that I place it in your hands."

Vincent Dashwood's face turned from grey to red, and then to deadly
white. Then he suddenly burst out into a hoarse whoop of triumph and
he danced round the room with every manifestation of extravagant joy.
He would have shaken hands with Ralph, only the latter did not seem to
see the trembling moist palm extended to him.

"Is this real?" Sir George groaned, "or is it all some hideous dream?"

"It is real enough," Ralph said. "It is a case of 'the King is dead,
long live the King.' Pray allow me to offer you my congratulations,
Sir Vincent."



CHAPTER XXXI.
UNDER WHICH LORD?


Vincent Dashwood seemed to expand, he stood there smiling benignly, he
had lost his strange uneasiness of manner altogether. And yet Mary did
not fail to notice the furtive look in his eyes. There must be
something wrong here, she thought; it was impossible to regard this
man as the head of the family. For three hundred years Dashwood had
been ruled by a gentleman, a man of honour.

And this smirking creature, with the red, grinning face and cunning
eyes, was neither. Mary knew him to be little better than a
blackmailer. And if he was the person he claimed to be, why had he not
come forward and proclaimed his identity before? She could not believe
that Vincent Dashwood had hidden his light under a bushel merely
because he was short of one particular document.

The girl did not believe that he would have spoken now had not the
awkward incident of the matchbox compelled him to do so. And here was
Ralph Darnley actually pushing forward the cause of the new claimant
and giving him the one proof that he needed.

And yet the thing was impossible; surely the walls of the house would
collapse about the head of so poor a ruler as Vincent Dashwood. The
old familiar objects around Mary filled her with a kind of dumb pain.
She was going to lose them all--the pictures and the gardens, the
horses in the stables, and the very deer that loved her. What the
future held for her, Mary had not considered. She brought herself back
to the present with an effort; she became aware that Vincent Dashwood
was speaking.

"This--this is really extraordinary," he cackled. "Like a scene from a
play. I had my own good reasons for not proclaiming my identity for
the present, but you all see that circumstances have been too strong
for me. And then at the critical moment Mr. Darnley comes along with
that paper. How it came into his possession----"

"That is easily explained," Ralph said in his grave way. "It was given
to me by Mr. Ralph Dashwood in circumstances that I need not go into
here. Primarily, the certificate was to have been forwarded to the
solicitors of this estate."

"Quite so, quite so," Dashwood said loftily. "Really, it doesn't
matter. The point is that my proofs are now complete. My idea was to
do nothing and say nothing till Lady Dashwood--my grandmother--had
become resigned to the change in the condition of affairs. It is
perhaps natural that the good lady should look coldly on me and that
all her affection should be for Mary here. And I am bound to say that
Mary has not treated me with the friendliness that I could have
wished."

Hot words rose to the girl's lips, but she checked herself with an
effort. Doubtless the new heir was doing his best to be agreeable,
perhaps he did not know how offensive he was.

"But I am not going to be vindictive," he resumed. "It is only natural
that you should feel a little sore and hurt. One doesn't turn out of a
snug crib like this without turning a hair. As a matter of fact, there
is no reason why you should go at all, at least, not for some time to
come. I don't suppose I shall ever marry--I'm not that kind of chap.
There is no reason why Mary and the old gentleman and myself shouldn't
be very snug here together. Mr. Dashwood wants little more than the
run of his teeth at his time of life."

Mary's cheeks flamed at the unconscious humiliation. She was being
offered a home as a pauper and a dependent; it was infinitely worse
than going into a workhouse. Mary had never dreamed of being humbled
and crushed in the dust like this. Before she could reply, Slight
looked into the doorway, his dry, red face screwed up into the
semblance of respect. He announced Horace Mayfield in a loud voice.

Mayfield came in, glass in eye, serene and self-confident, his hard
mouth looking more like a steel trap than ever. The quiet triumph in
his eyes was not lost on Mary; she did not fail to note the gleam of
possession as he glanced at her. There was cold consolation in the
knowledge that after all Mayfield was powerless to hold her soul and
body in thraldom any longer.

"I beg your pardon," Mayfield said, "I seem to be intruding on a
family conference or something of that kind. Slight did not tell me,
though I have every reason to believe that he was listening outside
the door. What are you doing here?"

The question was flung headlong at Vincent Dashwood, who had started
and changed colour as Mayfield came in. Evidently these two knew one
another, for Mayfield was rudely contemptuous, Dashwood cringing yet
defiant. Was there yet another vulgar mystery here? Mary wondered
wearily.

"Perhaps I had better explain," Ralph said. "This, Mr. Mayfield, is an
unexpected, but nevertheless dramatic situation. Let me present you to
Sir Vincent Dashwood, only son and heir of the late Ralph Dashwood,
who died some time ago. Sir Vincent had some natural hesitation in
declaring his identity; he was loth to upset existing arrangements. We
must all respect proper feeling of that kind. One reason Sir Vincent
had for keeping his personality a secret was the fact that he lacked
the legal proof of his parent's marriage. By a fortunate chance I was
able to supply the omission. Still, we need not go into that. The fact
remains that Sir Vincent has now established his claim, as the family
solicitors will admit without unnecessary delay. Unhappily, this new
condition of affairs makes it very awkward for Sir George--I mean, Mr.
George Dashwood. By this cruel stroke he finds himself practically a
pauper. And on Miss Dashwood the blow falls with the same heavy
weight. The heiress becomes dependent upon the charity of the head of
the family."

As Ralph spoke his eyes were fixed on Mayfield's. He was searching
keenly for any sign of anger or emotion. But Mayfield did not betray
himself. There was a red spark in his eyes and the big veins stood on
his forehead, but nothing further. And as Ralph proceeded a faint
smile grew at the corners of the cruel mouth.

"This is exceedingly interesting," he said, "and to think that Sir
Vincent should have kept this from so old a friend as myself."

There was mocking bitterness in the speech and Dashwood fairly writhed
under it. He seemed to hang in a kind of agony on the next word. His
sigh of relief as Mayfield turned from him was not lost on Mary.
Mayfield turned abruptly to the girl.

"This will make a great difference to you," he said. "For my own part,
I am disappointed at the strange turn of affairs. Still, I am
philosophic enough to take my chances. In reality I came here to say
goodbye to you. I will not see you for some time to come."

The whole thing was so cool, so icily audacious, that Mary had no
words for reply. This man had accepted the change in the situation
with instant readiness, there was not so much as a shade of regret in
his voice. Mary had gone out of the sphere of his affection, and he
was prepared to drop her like an old glove. The blood flamed into her
face at this fresh humiliation; the pride of the family was serving
her badly now. Her trembling hands went out to Ralph. He saw what was
passing in her mind.

"Take me away from here," she whispered. "Take me out into the fresh
air or I shall die. What have I done to deserve this degradation? And
get my father to come, too. Has he lost all his manhood that he stays
here?"

They went out into the sunshine and the air at length, and Dashwood
was alone with Mayfield. The latter closed the door and lighted a
cigarette. There was a grim ferocity in his eyes that caused Dashwood
to turn sick.

"So you've done it, you rascal," Mayfield muttered. "I daresay you
will tell me that your hand was more or less forced. Perhaps it was.
And yet if I raise my little finger you will pass the next ten years
of your life in gaol."

"Don't," Dashwood said with difficulty, "don't talk like that. The
cards were all of them literally forced on me. Why should you mind?"

"Why should I mind? Why, man alive, you have 'queered my pitch' as
some of your dissolute companions would say. I was going to marry Mary
Dashwood, the great heiress, everything was ready to my hand. A little
later and the thing would have been accomplished. Only one thing
bothered me--I am at my wit's ends for some ready money, which I must
have before long. And, as things stand at present, Mary Dashwood could
not raise anything on her expectations. But I was going to play the
bold game and risk everything, even my liberty, on this stake. I was
never more surprised in my life than when that fellow Darnley
explained the situation. I nearly gave you away."

"I saw that," Dashwood said hoarsely, "my heart was in my mouth. It
was very good of you to remember an old pal who----"

"Old pal be hanged," Mayfield cried. "I'd have betrayed you fast
enough had it been to my interest to do so. I saw my game like a
flash. They are going to let you into the thing without a fight. But
not for very long, my boy, so you had better make the most of your
time. As Sir Vincent Dashwood you are all right, you can play ducks
and drakes with the estate if you please; in fact, you are going to
start with a mortgage of £50,000. That sum of money you will pay over
to me."

"What for?" Dashwood asked uneasily. "Why should I do it?"

"Call it what you like. Call it blackmail. But I'm going to have it
all the same."



CHAPTER XXXII.
MUST THIS THING BE?


Mr. George Dashwood staggered into the hall at the dower house with an
exaggeration of grief that filled Mary with contempt. The dethroned
head of the house seemed to have no thought for anything but himself.
His eyes were filled with tears, his voice was weak and tremulous with
selfish emotion.

"This is dreadful," he moaned. "Really, I had expected something
better at your hands, Darnley. Still, I suppose you are merely here to
fulfil a promise to Ralph Dashwood. Most selfish of a man to keep in
the background all these years and then spring a mine on one like
this. And here am I, at my time of life, with nothing to fall back on,
not even a pension, for I commuted mine when I left the Service.
Still, that young fellow did not behave at all badly. Don't forget, my
dear that he offered us the free use of the Hall for the present, at
any rate. And he said that he was not a marrying man. Well, if you
play your cards properly, Mary----"

Mary turned her face away and hid her hot cheeks in a great bowl of
dewy roses standing on the hall table. It was no use, she could not
keep the tears back any longer. This was the crowning humiliation of
an unspeakable day. For her father to deal her this blow in the
presence of the one man whose respect she valued so highly was the
refinement of cruelty. She rushed from the hall with choking words to
the effect that she must go and tell Lady Dashwood everything.

"What's the matter with the girl now?" Dashwood asked peevishly. "Not
one word of sympathy has she uttered. Children have no feelings
nowadays, Darnley. I suppose she was angry about the new head of the
house. What better arrangement could be made? It would settle all the
difficulties at once, especially now Mayfield is out of the way. I
thought that our young friend put it very nicely."

"Did you?" Ralph responded coldly. "I may not be a judge of these
matters, but I fail to see how you could accept that invitation. Of
course, a few days' residence at Dashwood to get your personal
belongings together would be another matter."

"But what am I to do?" Dashwood asked feebly. "I am an old man, I have
been accustomed to the best of everything all my lifetime, and here I
am cut off from all my pleasures and not a penny to call my own. I
can't starve, my good fellow, and I couldn't stay here with Lady
Dashwood; she gets on my nerves terribly. What am I to do? Really, I
feel in absolute need of a cigar and glass of champagne. It is not my
habit to drink at this time of the day, but my condition calls for
it."

Dashwood crept away with many a sigh and groan, and Ralph was left to
his own by no means pleasant thoughts. He had deliberately struck the
blow, and now that it had fallen, he was inclined to be dismayed at
the result. It was very hard upon this feeble old man, it was very
hard upon Mary, but Ralph steeled himself for the fray. Things were
going to be worse yet, the lily was going to pine upon the stem.
Still, it would never do now to become infirm of purpose, let the
consequences be ever so bad. Yet, if the worst came to the worst, it
would be easy to sweep away the whole network of intrigue and fraud by
the raising of a finger. It was necessary that Mary should learn her
lesson to the last letter. That the girl would fight hard against her
misfortunes Ralph did not need to be told. That she would refuse to
eat the bread of charity at another person's expense he was perfectly
sure. He was still debating the problem when Mary entered the hall
again. Her face was very white; there were dark rings under her blue
eyes, which were now swollen with tears. The girl flushed as she saw
the sympathy in Ralph's face.

"Do not think me weak," she pleaded. "I am finding out that I am only
human after all. I have always despised tears, but the pain at my
heart was so great that tears brought the only cure for it. But I did
not come here to talk about myself. I have been telling Lady Dashwood
everything, and she has expressed a desire to see you. What have you
done with my father?"

"He has gone to the dining-room. He declared that exhausted nature
required a stimulant in the form of champagne. I am afraid that you
will not find your father much use to you in the dark hours to come,
Mary."

"I'm afraid not," Mary sighed, "but won't you go and see Lady
Dashwood? She is upstairs in her sitting-room. Of course, she is
upset; in fact, she has been saying all sorts of strange things which
are beyond my comprehension. Why has she taken such a strange fancy to
you, I wonder?"

But Ralph did not appear to be listening. There was every prospect of
a painful interview before him. He passed up the stairs to the
pleasant room looking over the gardens which Lady Dashwood had made
her own. She signed for the door to be shut; as Ralph came towards
her, she advanced with both hands outstretched.

"You will guess why I sent for you," she said. "Mary has been telling
me everything. So the man who calls himself Vincent Dashwood has made
a bold move at last."

"He really didn't," Ralph smiled. "But had we not better sit down? My
dear grandmother, you are going to become a party to the conspiracy.
Let us no longer keep up the pretence of not knowing the relationship
in which we stand to each other."

Lady Dashwood extended a shaking hand, and Ralph touched it with his
lips.

"Perhaps I had better make a full confession," he said. "I am your
grandson. I knew that you would recognise me by the likeness to my
father. Old Slight did so at once and very nearly betrayed me. I had
forgotten Slight. I pledged him to secrecy, I had nobody to fear but
you, and it seemed to me that it was quite easy to keep out of your
way. But circumstances were too strong for me. Then I saw that you
were going to respect my wishes and I was safe. Forty years have gone
by since my father left the Hall, so that nobody was likely to guess
my identity."

"Yes, but who is this Vincent Dashwood?" Lady Dashwood asked. "Oh, I
am not quite so foolish over that man as you may think. He came here
and declared himself to me. He had the most absolute documentary
evidence. He had many of the letters which I had written to your
father--letters to which I never received any reply. Old Slight
was more mistrustful, and submitted the claimant to a rigid
cross-examination. The man was not to be shaken in a single detail. We
were bound to accept his statements. But one proof was lacking, the
certificate of his parents' marriage. He desired to have his claim
kept quiet till that proof was forthcoming. This was after Mary and
her father came into possession. You can imagine my distress and
grief, seeing that I loved Mary so, and I hated the intruder in
proportion. He preyed upon my weakness, he seemed to read me like an
open book. If you had not appeared, he would have gone on blackmailing
me till the end. But when that man came face to face with you, I knew
that he was an impostor, that he had never seen my son Ralph. And now
he has decided to play the bold game, seeing that nothing more is to
be expected from me."

"Not quite that," Ralph explained. "Fate played into my hands. The man
was more or less forced to disclose his identity. Let me tell you all
about the matchbox. . . . Now you see exactly how it is."

"But this is monstrous," Lady Dashwood cried, "you have only to speak
and the wicked scheme collapses. You will not let this go on, Ralph?"

"For the present, grandmother. For the present we are going to say
nothing. A little time before my father died he told me who I was. We
had lost our money, but that did not matter as my father was provided
for here. When I came to find out how the land lay, to my surprise I
discovered that the only woman I could ever care for was installed at
the Hall as mistress. I had no idea that this was going to happen when
I met Mary two years ago in Paris. Her father had not assumed the
family name then. And when I came face to face with Mary and held her
in my arms, I knew that the old love was stronger than ever. And here
was a solution. Those people were occupying my place, the place that
belonged by birth to me, Sir Ralph Dashwood. If I had proclaimed and
asked Mary to marry me, she would have consented. She would have
regarded it as her duty to do so. But that is not the marriage of my
dreams. Perhaps I am romantic: I want Mary to marry me, me, plain
Ralph Darnley, for love of me, and deem the family pride well lost for
a good man's affection. It is the living, breathing woman I want, not
the lovely mistress of that family who puts the pride of the Dashwoods
in front of everything else. Suffering and trouble and poverty shall
be her portion. She shall go out into the world and see what noble
souls are there who rise superior to fierce temptation though they
have no family pride to boast of. Then, when the scales have fallen
from Mary's eyes, and she sees as I do, then will I ask her to share
my life with me. My dream is to come back here with a bride who deems
love and pity and sympathy to be far above the steady sentiment that
says, 'I am a Dashwood, and the rest are as dirt under my feet.' You
see what I mean, don't you? And that is why I am asking you to help me
in the matter. Let this little imposter strut his passing hours on the
stage; let him be our puppet. I shall know how to punish him when the
time comes."



CHAPTER XXXIII.
A REBEL AGAINST FATE


Lady Dashwood smiled through her tears. She had eyes of affection for
this tall, handsome, earnest man who paced up and down the room now
with the burning words on his lips. He was moved to the very heart; it
seemed to him that his scheme was the only way. Lady Dashwood felt
that she could hesitate no longer.

"You are very eloquent, Ralph," she said, "and whatever the faults of
your scheme may be, you are terribly in earnest. It is not for me to
stand in the way. God knows the family pride that I did so much to
foster has done harm enough. It drove your father away from home, it
came between me and my son and my husband, and rendered all the best
years of my life a blank and a desolation. Some day, when I have the
courage, I will tell you why your father left home, and the shameful
deceit that I put upon him. And all to save the family dignity! And
now Mary is as hard as I ever was. Still, the good that lies in that
girl of mine----"

"I know it," Ralph cried. "Mary's is, in reality, a beautiful nature.
But the fires will go out one by one if the cinders are not cleared
away, so that by the time Mary comes to middle age she will be a cold
and distant woman with none to love her. This is why I have
practically turned her out of house and home. Her proper pride will
not permit her to be dependent upon anyone; you may offer her a home
here, but she will never accept it. She will elect to go, out into the
world and get her own living."

"Which she is not the least fitted to do, Ralph."

"Of course she isn't," Ralph exclaimed. "With all her courage and
pride and beauty, she has no equipment to battle with the world. And
yet it is the best thing that could happen to her. She will realise
her own helplessness, she will come to acknowledge that the
typewriting girls and the shop assistants have qualities and virtues
that she does not possess. Oh, those lovely blue eyes will come to see
at last, the mind come to learn that there is dignity in labour and
cheerfulness in the struggle that put family pride to shame. And then
Mary will be the bride for me, the noblest and sweetest mistress that
ever yet ruled at Dashwood. You may laugh at me, grandmother, but that
is my dream. Wherever Mary is, I shall not be far off, she will have a
friend in me."

Lady Dashwood's tears were falling fast now. For the first time she
fully understood the breadth and beauty of Ralph's scheme. It seemed
hard that the misfortune should fall upon Mary, and yet it was all for
the best. Still, tradition and training are not to be put lightly
aside, and the idea of Mary taking her place with the working women of
the county was a vision that caused Lady Dashwood a pang.

"Let us hope that everything will turn out right," she murmured. "I
will not betray your secret, Ralph; I am an old woman, and you are a
strong, masterful man. Still, I shall be bound to offer Mary a home
here, and I am afraid that I shall be glad if she accepts it."

"She won't," Ralph said confidently, "she is too proud. Besides, after
what has happened, she could not stay so near to Dashwood Hall.
Remember, she has reigned there, she has looked for homage as
naturally as a queen. She will go away; probably she will try to
obtain some occupation in London. Anyway, I will see that she does not
starve. And when the lesson is learned and the clouds have cleared
away----"

Ralph paused, there was a strange, tender thrill in his voice. Lady
Dashwood seemed to catch some of his enthusiasm, for a smile lighted
her face.

"You are a clever lad, my dear," she said, "you are one of those who
compel Fate to work for them. Well, it shall be as you desire, so far
as I am concerned. And now let us go down and see what the others are
doing."

Mary was nowhere to be seen, but Mr. Dashwood was in the library. He
seemed more calm and resigned now; he was reading a letter which
appeared to give him some satisfaction.

"From--from Sir Vincent," he said, getting the name out with some
difficulty. "I suppose we must call the young fellow by his proper
title now. Still, he will of course, have to satisfy the family
solicitors first."

"I have one or two further proofs that will induce the family
solicitors to maintain a policy of silence," Ralph said. "The best
thing to do is quietly to accept the new situation. People will talk
for a day or two, and then the incident will be forgotten."

"I suppose so," Dashwood muttered. "Anyway, this is from--er--Sir
Vincent. I am bound to confess that it is not at all a bad letter.
Between ourselves, the fellow is by no means a gentleman. Still,
that's not quite his own fault, probably his mother was quite a common
sort of person. I beg your pardon, Lady Dashwood."

"We need not go into that," Ralph said hastily. "Sir Vincent has
written to you----"

"Really quite a nice letter. He has a suggestion to make. It appears
that he is by no means disposed to stay quietly here and live the life
of a country landlord. He does not care for sport to begin with, in
fact, he dislikes a rural life. And he seems to think that marriage
is--is not good enough. He therefore proposes that Mary and myself
should look upon Dashwood as our present home, that Mary should take
her place as mistress there. Really, this gets us out of a great
difficulty. I have no money beyond a pittance of a hundred or so a
year, and Mary has nothing whatever. As a sensible girl, she will
accept this offer."

Ralph said nothing. It was not for him to persuade George Dashwood one
way or another. He rather despised the weak creature who had posed as
the head of the family. But Ralph could give a shrewd guess at Mary's
answer.

Mary came back presently a little before tea-time. She had been over
at the Hall, she said, looking after certain belongings of her own.
The trace of tears was still on her face, but her small mouth had a
steely purpose. She lay back in her chair in the great hall, sipping
her tea, and looking out into the garden beyond. Ever and again there
came a yearning look in her eyes. She said nothing, and vouchsafed no
information, when a footman brought her a telegram presently. With a
guilty air her father placed Vincent Dashwood's letter in her hand.

"I want you to read that, my dear," he said blandly. "To my mind, it
is an admirable letter and the sentiments in it are beyond question;
in fact, I may admit that I was quite touched by it. The fellow is
evidently a gentleman at heart. I want you to read the letter
carefully and send a reply on behalf of both of us."

Dashwood spoke glibly enough, but he was obviously ill at ease. He
seemed to have lost all his dignity, his haggard face looked almost
mean as he glanced furtively at Mary as she read the letter through,
very slowly. Her face grew hard and bitter, though something like a
contemptuous smile flickered over her lips.

"This is generosity indeed," she said. "So the beggars are to be
offered a home, with board and lodging and perhaps wages. I am to be
mistress of the house where for two years I have had my own way, in a
house where you have been master. We are to humble our pride and take
the place of the housekeeper and steward, to be polite to a man whom,
from the bottom of my heart, I loathe and despise. Oh, the situation
would be farcical but for the note of bitter tragedy in it. So you
want me to answer this letter. So far as I am concerned I answer
thus."

With fierce energy Mary tore the letter across and then across again,
and flung the fragments amongst the flowers on the great hearthstone.

"My dear," Dashwood protested, "really, Mary. Have you considered what
you are going to do, that you are practically penniless?"

"There is always a home for Mary and her father here," Lady Dashwood
murmured.

"That--that is very good of you," Dashwood stammered, "but I could not
think of putting you to so much inconvenience. Mary may do what she
pleases, but for my part I am going to accept the offer so kindly made
by the new--er--head of the family. I presume that Mary means to stay
here for the present, at any rate, and----"

"No," Mary cried. She had risen to her feet, and was glaring from one
to the other of the little group with eyes filled with resolution. She
was very pale, her lips were trembling, but she contrived to keep her
voice steady. "No, I will not remain here, I will not stay anywhere to
eat the bread of charity. Dear Lady Dashwood, you will forgive me if I
seem to be harsh or ungrateful after all your loving kindness to me.
But I have been troubled and humiliated enough, and I could not stand
any more of it. My father can do as he chooses: if he likes to humble
himself in this way it is no business of mine. But I am going away to
London; everything has been arranged. The telegram I had just now
confirms it. And I have got my belongings together. My plans are made,
and it only remains for me to say goodbye."

Lady Dashwood rose hastily to her feet. She felt vaguely alarmed and
agitated, now that matters had come to this pass. She gripped Mary by
the hand.

"Going," she faltered, "going, and when and where? Oh, do nothing
hastily."

"There has been nothing hasty about it," Mary said as she kissed the
speaker. "Believe me, I am not doing anything that is rash. And as to
the rest, I am going very soon indeed. In fact I expect to sleep in
London tonight."



CHAPTER XXXIV.
MISTRESS OF HERSELF


It was all working out now exactly as Ralph had hoped and wished for.
Never had he admired Mary quite so much as he did at that moment. And
yet his heart smote him as he realised that after all there was
something akin to harshness in his action. Still, the case would have
been very much the same had he declared his identity and proclaimed
the fact that he was the proper owner of Dashwood Hall.

Mary would in that case have remained in much the same position,
though the situation would have perhaps lacked its present dramatic
features. Mary stood there with a proud look on her face; she was
ready to meet the world and conquer it single-handed. How many bright
strong young lives had set forth with the same cheerfulness and
failed! Still, it was a step in the right direction, Ralph thought.

"Had you not better give the thing further consideration?" he said.
"In the ways of the world you are little better than a child. Of your
courage and resolution there is no doubt. But there are other
qualities needed to make a living today. You must have a good
knowledge of some business or profession."

"I can paint," Mary said. "Many people have told me that I should have
made an artist if I had had to earn my own living."

Ralph nodded grimly. He had seen several of the girl's drawings. There
was no necessity to point out the vast difference between the best
efforts of the amateur and the finished work of the professional,
tricks of the trade learned frequently after years of bitter
struggling.

It seemed a pity to discourage Mary at the outset of her career. And
Ralph was not anxious for the girl's success. He turned the situation
over rapidly in his mind.

"You can try," he said. "There is a friend of mine, the daughter of a
once famous general officer who gets her living by working for the
cheap illustrated papers. She has no great talent, but she manages to
get a living. If you like, I will write to her and ask her to----"

"It will be too late," Mary cried, "I am going tonight. I could not
stay here a day longer after what has happened. The mere sight of the
old house brings the tears to my eyes and makes me feel weak and
irresolute. I have something like thirty pounds in money and a little
jewellery. And my maid has given me the address of a respectable woman
who lets lodgings.

"Oh, I shall be happy enough when I am away from here and have plenty
of hard work to do. Only the other day I was reading a story about a
girl, like myself, who went to London and began to work for the
magazines. It made a different creature of her; for the first time in
her life she was really happy."

"She made a large income from the start," Ralph smiled, "and presently
she had a great hit with an Academy picture. Subsequently she married
the editor--proprietor of a popular paper--and he bought the old home
for her?"

"You have read the story?" Mary asked.

"Indeed I haven't," Ralph replied. "There are so many stories like
that that I had no difficulty in imagining the plot. Oh, if you only
knew how different the real is from the ideal! Still, I would not
dissuade you from your ambition for a moment. It will do you all the
good in the world. But you shall not go alone."

Mary glanced haughtily at the speaker. There was an air of command, a
suggestion of possession, about the speech that the girl resented. Who
was Ralph Darnley that he should adopt this tone towards her? And at
the same time Mary knew that he was the one friend she had, if she did
not count Lady Dashwood.

It was a melancholy confession, but Mary had made no friends. For the
most part members of her own sex did not like her, she was too cold
and self-contained for them. She did not enter into their sentiments
and pleasures. It had not been the girl's own fault so much as the
fault of her environment.

And now she was going out into the world alone with a few pounds in
her possession, and with not a soul to give her a helping hand. There
was something very pathetic about it, Ralph thought. She knew so very
little as to what lay before her.

"I wish you would wait till tomorrow," he murmured.

"No," Mary said with a proud toss of her head. "It is not the
slightest use trying to break my resolution. I tell you I could not
remain here, I could not stay even with Lady Dashwood, knowing that my
father was sponging on the good nature of the man at the Hall. It
seems a dreadful thing to me----"

"That is a most improper observation to make," Dashwood said
peevishly. "A most impertinent remark to address to a father."

"I am very sorry," Mary said penitently, "it seemed the only word to
use. And it does hurt me so dreadfully to see how coolly you have cast
your pride aside. If you will come with me, father, I will work for
both. We should at any rate have the consolation of knowing that we
have done nothing to sully the name of Dashwood."

The girl spoke pleadingly, with a yearning tenderness in her voice
that Ralph had never heard before. He was rejoiced to see the lesson
of adversity working so soon. For his own part, he could not have
resisted that seductive invitation.

"Certainly not," Dashwood replied. "Nothing of the kind. I have no
desire to make the acquaintance of what people call apartments. I went
to see a poor friend of mine in apartments once. I saw his dinner.
Good heavens! what a repulsive mess it was. Served up by a red-headed
maid-of-all-work, with a black smudge on her face. No, no, I prefer
the graceful hospitality of my friend--er--Sir Vincent Dashwood."

Mary turned in the direction of the door as if the discussion were
closed.

"I am disappointed," she said. "But there is nothing to be gained by
standing here talking over my determination. I am going as far as the
Hall to say goodbye to some of the old servants, and hope to catch the
7.05 train to London. As I said before, I know where to go when I
reach my journey's end."

Mary passed out into the peaceful sunshine of the garden. Lady
Dashwood looked imploringly at Ralph, who smiled in reply. From the
bottom of his heart, he was feeling for the girl, but he did not
falter in his purpose. It was very brave of Mary, but at the same time
very pathetic. Ralph stole after the lonely figure; he found her
standing by the old sundial in the garden. Her fingers were tracing
idly over the quaint inscription on the stone. Ralph could see that
her eyes were filled with tears.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" he asked.

"I'm afraid not," Mary whispered. "And you are the only friend I have,
besides Lady Dashwood. I have not the art of making friends: I never
had sympathy with the pastimes and pleasures of the ordinary girl of
my class; I did not feel lonely here, because it was so lovely a
place. Dashwood Hall was always sufficient for me. And now when I come
to leave it, it breaks my heart to go. You will laugh at me perhaps,
but I have a strange feeling as if I had the whole world to myself and
that there was nobody else in it. It is as if everybody had turned
away from me. There was even something that hurt me today in the way
that Mr. Mayfield let me know that I was free as far as he was
concerned. I dread the thought of living by myself in London, the idea
makes me tremble. I, who have been so cold and proud, will have to
approach people and ask favours at their hands. I hope you understand
me; it is dreadful when nobody understands me."

Ralph made no reply for a moment, he was afraid to trust his own
voice.

"You are a very woman," he said at length. "With your pride and your
coldness there are the same impulses and passions common to yourself
and the meanest of us. As to this pride of yours, I regard it as a
hateful thing. What is a Dashwood living on a fortune that none of you
have ever earned, compared with the man or woman who has risen
superior to circumstances and made an honoured name in the world? The
girl who goes out and gets her own living, or to support a widowed
mother, is far superior to you. But I say these things loving you with
my whole heart and soul and being, and hope that some day I shall call
you my wife. I want to see all that harshness and coldness of yours
cast to the wind, I want to see your face sweet in sympathy with poor
humanity. But you are not going the lonely way as you seem to imagine.
I am going to look after you; I will not be far away. For the present
my work is finished here, and there are powerful calls that take me to
London also in a day or two. You will let me see you, Mary; you will
let me bring you and my young artist friend together?"

"I shall be glad indeed to see you," Mary cried, holding out her hand
with an impulse that she would have found it hard to account for. "Oh,
I am not so strong and self-reliant that I need nobody to confide in.
The more my mind dwells on the future, the more I seem to dread it.
And you have been so good and kind to me, I owe so much to you. I
begin to see that there are gentlemen in the world, though they boast
of no pedigree, and----"

"Well, that is a good lesson learned," Ralph smiled. "Let me walk with
you as far as the Hall, for I have a telegram to send from the
village. And then, if you will allow me, I will return to the dower
house with you. There are one or two things that I have to say before
you go."

Mary smiled through her tears; for a second her soul seemed to show in
her eyes.



CHAPTER XXXV.
A FRIEND IN NEED


It was a long telegram that Ralph despatched from the village, for he
only received a few pence out of the half-sovereign that he placed on
the counter. The operator sighed at the prodigious task before him.
Then Ralph went off in the direction of the Hall to wait for Mary in
the park. It was some time before she came; the children of the
villagers passed on their way from school, and presently Slight came
along, with something like a frown on his rosy, wrinkled little face.
He eyed Ralph with marked disfavour.

"What's this about Miss Mary, Sir Ralph?" he asked. "Perhaps I
shouldn't have called you by that name. But Miss Mary has been up to
the Hall to say goodbye. She says she is going to London for good, and
that she is not coming back again. Going to try to get her own living,
or some such foolishness."

"Your manner is not respectful, Slight," Ralph said coldly.

"I can't help it, sir," Slight replied. "Really, I can't. I love Miss
Mary as if she had been a child of my own. I taught her to ride, I
taught her--but there! If you only knew what a heart of gold she has!
And now to go and soil those pretty hands with work. And you could
prevent it by holding up your little finger. Thank God, there is no
occasion for me to stay at the Hall, for I've saved enough for my old
age, though I don't deny that it will be a wrench. And tomorrow the
whole lot of us are going to hand in our resignation in a body."

"Indeed, you are not going to do anything of the sort," Ralph said
sternly. "Don't let me hear any more of this folly. If you _do_ go,
you will not come back again when this present head of the family has
gone his way, which will be only a matter of a few months at the
outside. I look to you to stop the silly action, Slight. I have given
you my word before that this thing is not likely to be permanent. And
when you come to know everything, you will see how wisely I have acted
in the matter."

Slight's indignation cooled as quickly as it had heated. He scratched
his white head in some perplexity. And the look he turned upon Ralph
was one of fatherly affection.

"How like your father you do speak, sir," he said. "I suppose you must
have your own way as he used to. And if I hadn't been a wicked old
rascal these things would never have happened at all. My sin has found
me out sorely."

"I am getting tired of this," Ralph said impatiently. "What sin are
you alluding to? And Lady Dashwood is always harping on the same
string. What wickedness were you two up to in the old days? What does
it mean?"

"So her ladyship has not told you, sir?" Slight asked in a whisper.
"She never told you about the old Squire and your father's first wife
Maria Edgerton? She was the daughter of a farmer across the valley.
The most beautiful creature that I ever set eyes on. Well, well, to
think that you didn't know."

"I don't know," Ralph said. "My father never spoke of his first wife.
And yet I always felt that his love for her was the passion of his
life. He was a good husband to my mother, but still--and now you are
going to tell me that story, Slight."

"Begging your pardon, sir, I'm not going to do anything of the kind,"
Slight said shortly. "I couldn't dream of doing anything of the kind
without her ladyship's permission. You ask her, and she will tell you
everything; indeed you have the right to know. And don't you worry
about the servants at the Hall, because they will do exactly as I tell
them. Make it as soon as you can, sir, for the old place doesn't seem
the same without the lovely face and the blue eyes of Miss Mary
looking after us. I'm an old man, and for over fifty years I've served
the Dashwoods faithfully, and it does seem rather hard to think that I
shall have to go on fawning and cringing to an impostor like the man
who calls himself Sir Vincent Dashwood. There won't be much of the
fine old cellar left if he stays here any time, I can tell you."

"Patience, Slight," Ralph replied. "It is only a matter of months.
Here is Miss Mary coming down the avenue. I shall look after her, I
would not have one hair of her head injured. And some day perhaps,
Slight, if the fates are good to me, you will be serving me as you
served my grandfather, with Miss Mary as mistress of Dashwood by my
side. That is my desire. Slight, that is the one great ambition of my
life. And you can keep that secret with the rest."

Ralph turned away and joined Mary as she came down the avenue. She
tried to smile, but her lips were white and unsteady.

"That is finished," she said, with a brave attempt at cheerfulness.
"It is awful to think that I shall never see the dear old place again.
But I am not going to give way, I am going to show the world how a
Dashwood can behave when trouble comes."

The girl drew up her head with an air of pride, she never seemed
quite to forget what the family required of her. It was in moments
like these that Ralph loved her least. It was this very foolish
self-consciousness that he desired to conquer.

"It does not require a Dashwood to do that," he said. "Thousands of
people make these noble sacrifices every day, and take no credit to
themselves for it. When you get out into the world you will see
another kind of pride and courage and devotion that will put your
fetish to shame. If I were to say that this is the best thing that
could happen to you, you would laugh the idea to scorn. Nevertheless,
it is absolutely true. What money have you?"

"Perhaps thirty pounds," Mary explained; "and certain articles of
jewelry. But I am not going to part with them like the girl in the
story did."

Ralph felt by no means so sure of that, but he said nothing. He was
very silent till the dower house was reached, silent and a little
guilty too, for he it was who had brought this about. He was sending
Mary into the world to battle for her life alone. On the whole, he was
not sorry that the girl had refused Lady Dashwood's offer of a home;
_that_ was a specimen of the right kind of pride at any rate. And yet,
now that the hour of Mary's departure drew near, he dreaded the
parting. After all, the experiment was a cruel one, it was not yet too
late to save the situation.

Lady Dashwood was crying now; the dogcart stood by the great stone
porch; Dashwood fidgeted about in a half-shamed kind of way, yet
frowning disapproval of the whole business.

"Really, we are making a deal of fuss about nothing," he said.
"Anybody would think that Mary was being led away to instant
execution, instead of behaving in a way that makes me thoroughly
ashamed of her. It is my clear duty to exercise my parental authority.
As it is I am not going to do anything of the kind. Mary shall have
her lesson. She will very soon get tired of playing the part of the
unattached female. She will be back in a week."

And this was Mary's farewell greeting as she drove away from the dower
house. She kept her face steady, and looked neither right nor left,
not that she could see anything, for her eyes were blinded with tears.
Behind the tears, one vision stood out bright and clear--the strong,
reliant face of Ralph Darnley, the warm pressure of whose grip still
tingled on Mary's fingers. It was good to know that she had one true
friend.

The station was reached at last, and Mary was alone. She dismissed the
dogcart; she did not want the groom to see that she was going to
travel third class. It was rather a snobbish idea, and Mary despised
herself for it accordingly. The porter and the ticket officer looked
astonished as Mary asked the third-class fare to Victoria. How little
things seemed to remind her of what had been!

"I am going third," she said firmly. "Will you please to see that my
two baskets are placed in the luggage van, Gibbons?"

Gibbons touched his cap respectfully. It was the last outward
recognition of her social station that Mary was destined to receive
for some time to come. She had a vague idea of a carriage to herself,
where she could have an hour or so to regain her composure. She had
never had any difficulty in this way when travelling before. But
first-class passengers, liberal towards the guard, and third-class
trippers, are different things, as Mary speedily discovered. The train
was very full, so full that Mary was content at last to find herself
packed with nine other people in a stuffy compartment, including a
crying child and a surly workman, who smoked a foul pipe and spat
liberally on the floor. One window was closed for the benefit of the
fretting infant and the poisonous atmosphere of the place caused Mary
to turn faint and giddy. Long before she reached Victoria her head was
aching, her temples throbbing horribly.

_Noblesse oblige!_ It was by no means a promising start, but Mary was
not going to take her hand from the plough yet. And that dreadful
journey could not last for ever. Victoria was reached at length, and
it was possible to breathe a little comparatively fresh air again.
Mary saw her two dress baskets placed on the platform and looked at
them in a helpless kind of manner. Hitherto a maid or a footman had
done all this kind of thing for her. An impatient porter wanted to
know whether the boxes were to go on a cab or whether they were to be
left in the cloak room.

"Make up your mind, miss," he said rudely. "I can't stand here all
day."

"A four-wheeler," Mary gasped. "I--I'm sorry, but my head aches so
dreadfully that I can't even think properly. Will you call a cab for
me?"



CHAPTER XXXVI.
CONNIE COLAM


The porter summoned a cab gruffly and the baskets were placed on top.
Mary's proffered coppers purchased a certain amount of civility so
that the porter asked the address. Mary gasped and stared in a blank
kind of way. She had absolutely forgotten the address. She recollected
now that she had left the card on the hall table at the dower house.
How she longed from the bottom of her heart to be back there again in
that cool shadow. But the grimy face of the cabman recalled her to her
senses.

"I have stupidly left the address behind me," she said. "I remember
the street, and I daresay you can inquire when you get there. I am
very sorry----"

"Miss Dashwood, I think," a cool, firm voice, with a subtle suggestion
of laughter in it, smote on Mary's ears. "So you have forgotten the
address. Not that it matters in the least, for you are coming with me.
You haven't taken your room?"

"No," Mary stammered. She was utterly taken off her dignity by the
easy manner of the stranger. "I had the address given me, the address
of a respectable woman near the British Museum who had apartments to
let. Unfortunately, I left the paper behind me. But you will excuse me
if I say that I have not the pleasure----"

"Oh, that is all right," the stranger said. "I'm a friend of Ralph
Darnley's. He sent me a very long telegram today to a certain extent
explaining the position of affairs, and asking me to meet you and
place my services at your disposal. Perhaps you have heard Ralph speak
of me, Connie Colam."

"Only today," Mary said; "and then he did not allude to you by name.
Still, it is very kind of you to take all this trouble, especially for
a stranger like myself. How did you recognise me?"

"There were what the Americans call 'pointers' in the telegram," Miss
Colam laughed. "But please get in or we shall have the cabman
abusive, and that is a consummation decidedly _not_ to be wished.
Please drive to 16, Keppel Terrace."

The rickety vehicle got under way at length to Mary's great relief.
She laid her aching head back against the dirty cushions, wondering if
in the whole weary world there was another girl as miserable and
heartsick as she was. She raised her hot lids presently to the face of
her companion. The critical edge was already dulled, but in no
circumstances could Mary have disapproved of her companion. A very
dainty and refined face was Connie Colam's, with a pleasant frank
expression and a sensitive mouth. At the same time she did not lack in
certain suggestions of courage and resolution.

"I hope you approve of me," she said demurely.

"I like your face, if that is what you mean," Mary replied. "I shall
be able to thank you presently for all your spontaneous kindness.
Meanwhile, I have the most dreadful headache. After we have found my
rooms----"

"Oh, your rooms are found already. For the present you are going to
stay with me. We are going to join forces. My late chum has gone to
Paris for a year, and you are going to occupy her bedroom. That is all
arranged."

Mary murmured something that was intended for gratitude. She had
always professed a profound contempt for the helpless type of girl who
lets things drift, but she was letting herself drift now with her eyes
wide open. And though she was not prepared to admit it, she was almost
hysterically glad of the companionship and sympathy of the stranger.
As she stood on the platform a little time before, the horrible sense
of desolation had gripped her, the awful feeling of loneliness that
comes to the friendless in London.

Yes, she was passionately glad of this companion. She did not even
desire to know whether Connie came of a good family or not, her one
idea now was to lie down and get rid of a wretched wearing headache.
Where was her pride of race and station now? Where were the force and
courage that rose above circumstances and fought physical weakness
under? Mary was content to leave everything to her companion--the
paying of the cabman, the arranging of her boxes, the setting out of
her various treasures.

"Now you are going to lie down at once," Connie said. "I'll bathe your
head with Eau de Cologne, and as soon as I have settled you
comfortably, I'll make you a cup of tea. It is one of my great
accomplishments. I make my own tea from my own private supply. You lie
there and think of nothing."

Mary closed her aching eyes; the touch of those deft kindly hands was
very soothing. The air was full of the faint scent, and gradually Mary
dropped into a sleep. It was an hour later before she opened her eyes
again; the stinging pain had gone. Connie stood by the side of the bed
with a cup of tea in her hand.

"You are better," she cried. "I can see that in your eyes. And what
beautiful blue eyes they are. A little cold, perhaps, but they won't
be so cold when they have looked at the world through our spectacles.
Now drink your tea, and when you feel up to it you can come and look
at the sitting-room."

Mary was almost herself again when she entered the sitting-room. It
was a fairly large room, with a dining-table in the centre and a large
table, littered with brushes and paints and panels, which stood in the
window looking on to the street. A score of sketches in black and
white faced Mary. So far as she could see, it was clever work, but not
the kind that appealed to her. The sketches partook of the light and
frivolous kind, some of them had more or less feeble jokes attached.

"Are these yours?" Mary asked. "Are they studies of some kind?"

"Not at all," Connie said cheerfully. "They are translations from the
Yankees. The originals are very clear, but a little too trans-Atlantic
for our stolid English taste. So I more or less copy them and my
editor adapts the jokes. I do six of them every week for _The
Wheezer_, which is a very useful commission for me."

"But that sounds like piracy almost," Mary exclaimed.

"Perhaps it is," Connie said in the same cheerful way. "It is pretty
easy work, and I get six shillings a drawing. That is an average of
thirty-six shillings a week. I know artists who have exhibited in the
Academy who are glad to accept such a commission. It is better than
working for the _Razzle Dazzle_ anyway."

Mary shuddered. In a way the _Razzle Dazzle_ was familiar to her. She
had once caught one of the stable boys deep in that appalling mass of
bad printing and worse literature.

"So you have actually worked for that paper?" she managed to say.

"Oh, yes. Two shillings a drawing, and pay once a month. Do you know
that the _Razzle Dazzle_ is a property worth £10,000 a year? Their
serials are imported from America, and dressed up by hacks, who get
two shillings a column for their work. The _Wheezer_ is far better
than that. Besides, it is practice. Some day I hope to drop this kind
of thing and get regular commissions for the better-class weekly
papers. The illustrating of stories in the sixpenny magazines is the
goal of my ambition."

All this was so frank and open that Mary could not resent the tone of
the speaker. And yet she paled at the degradation of the class of
labour.

"It must be very trying work for a lady," she said. "I mean for a lady
born."

"Perhaps it is," Connie said thoughtfully. "But it is not so trying as
your landlady in the room demanding her back rent, coupled with a
threat that if it is not paid tomorrow she will put your boxes into
the street. And that has happened to me more than once, though my
father was a general officer and my mother the daughter of an
archdeacon. I was quite alone in the world then; I will never
forget it. Try to fancy what it means for a young friendless girl
to be turned into the streets of London! I dream of it at night
sometimes. . . . That afternoon I walked into the office of the
_Razzle_ and told one of the assistant editors how I stood. It was
like dragging the words from me. And he gave me some work to do, and I
sat up all night over it. Soon after that I was carrying just one
solitary sovereign. But what a lot that little coin meant to me! And
that is why I have a tender spot in my heart for that unspeakable old
_Razzle_. But I don't know why I am worrying you with all these sordid
details."

"Go on," Mary said in a hushed, awed voice. "You are opening up a new
world to me. You are making me feel ashamed of what I had hitherto
regarded as an exemplary life."

"We'll go into that presently," Connie said. "I've got to go and see a
friend of mine who is ill. We take her work and try to sell it. If it
sells, well and good. If not, we say that it has gone, and make up the
money amongst us. It sounds wrong, but it is meant in the proper
spirit. I shan't be long. Ring the bell and ask the landlady to clear
away."

Connie vanished from the room, apparently taking all the sunshine with
her, and Mary proceeded to ring the bell. She wondered vaguely how
many years it was since she had entered that house. She did not hear
the landlady address her at first.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said. "Yes, I am going to stay here for
the present with Miss Colam. You are Mrs. Speed. . . . Where have I
seen you before? Your face is so very familiar to me. It brings back
recollections of my early childhood. You make me feel as if all this
has happened before."

"I know the feeling, miss," the landlady said. "But I don't suppose
you have ever seen me. My very early days were spent on the estate of
Sir Ralph Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall. Maybe you have heard of it,
miss?"



CHAPTER XXXVII.
THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS


Just for a moment Mary felt inclined to disclose her identity. It
warmed her heart and brought tears to her eyes to hear this kind of
voice from the past. The wound of separation was too recent for Mary
not to feel it keenly. The woman's face was so familiar, too; it
reminded the girl oddly of somebody else, somebody that she did not
like, but to whom for the moment she could not give a name.

Then Mary's pride came back to her and the natural impulse to confide
in the woman was crushed down.

"I suppose I made a mistake," she said. "After all, it is not an
uncommon thing to find chance likenesses to your friends in other
people. You must find London a great change after being brought up in
the country."

The woman sighed deeply and a look of pain came into her eyes. It was
evident that she had felt the change far more cruelly than Mary had
imagined. The girl longed to ask further questions, but she restrained
her curiosity. Nor could Connie Colam throw any light on the subject
after she returned. She knew very little about Mrs. Speed, except that
she was a widow with a grown-up son, who had been a great trouble to
her. The son appeared occasionally, and Mrs. Speed always seemed to be
in deep distress afterwards. Mary was still debating the matter in her
mind at bedtime. After breakfast the following morning there were more
important matters to occupy her attention.

"Now you are going to show me what you can do," Connie said
cheerfully. "I take it that you have come up here with a view to
getting your own living. If you have any money----"

"You may get that idea out of your mind altogether," Mary smiled. "I
have a very few pounds to keep me going for the present, and a little
jewellery to fall back upon. I have not been used to this kind of
life, and I shall probably find it trying at first. But I am going to
succeed. We have lost our position socially and financially, and I
would not be beholden to those who have taken our place. I need not
say more than that."

"That is just as you please," Connie said somewhat coldly. "I see you
are terribly proud and reserved, but you will grow out of that. And I
like your face. But please don't make up your mind that it is a very
easy thing for a girl to get her living in London. When you come to
know the inside of a pawnshop, and share the last sixpence with a
friend, you will be all the sweeter and better for it. Now show me
your work."

Not without some pardonable pride, Mary displayed her drawings. There
were pretty landscapes in water colours, studies of groups of flowers
in oils, and the like, all the conventional kind of stuff that girls
produce at finishing schools under the eye of some discreet and clever
master. But they did not seem to impress Connie, who handled them with
some contempt. Mary's sensitive face flushed.

"You do not seem to care for them," she said with a challenge in her
voice.

"Oh, it isn't that," Connie replied. "It's the uselessness of the
things. I daresay that a good many of your friends have seriously
advised you take up art as a career."

"Two or three people," Mary protested, "who are in a position to
judge."

"Oh, I know all about that," Connie said without ceremony. "It was
just the same with me in the happy days. My dear Mary, that pretty,
pretty stuff of yours is all very well to bring you in flattery from
bazaar managers, but the milk-stool school of art is no good when you
get into the market. Painters, real painters, mind, not daubers like
us, find colour work dreadfully hard to sell. There isn't a dealer who
would give you five shillings for what you have there. Could you do
work like mine, for instance?"

"I'm afraid that I should not care to attempt it," Mary said coldly.

"There you go! Too vulgar for you, of course! You would never get the
price of your lodgings out of your class of work, believe me. I know,
because I tried it myself. But you will need to have your lesson like
the rest of us, and I will give you the names of a few of the most
likely dealers in London. You start off directly after breakfast and
go the round of them. I shan't be back to luncheon because I've got an
hour or two on one of the evening papers getting out sketches of a
fashion plate for a lady's page."

Mary grasped eagerly at the suggestion. She wanted to prove that
Connie was wrong. With her head high and heart full of hope, she set
off presently.

On the whole, it was a morning to be remembered. It was hot and
stuffy, and Mary was not accustomed to the blistering, trying heat of
London pavements. She was tired and worn out and her head ached
terribly by the time she got back. Nor was there any difference in the
weight and contents of her portfolio.

Alas, for the blood of the Dashwoods! It was all the same to those
flinty-hearted dealers. Mary might have been the meanest beggar in
London for all the reception she met with. Struck by her distinguished
appearance and haughty beauty, a cringing shop assistant or proprietor
would probably ask her business, but what a change when the portfolio
was produced! It was the same in one shop after another, contemptuous
inspection, rude denial, a suggestion that the shopkeeper had more
rubbish already than he knew what to do with. The tears were at the
back of Mary's eyes now; unconsciously her voice grew soft and
pleading. One dealer, a little kinder than the rest, did suffer the
drawings to be laid out before him.

"No use, my dear," he said with a sympathetic familiarity that,
strange to say, Mary could not bring herself to resent. "Bless your
soul, cheap lithographs and German reproductions have driven them out
of the market. If you offered me the lot at half-a-crown each I
couldn't take them. It'll save you a lot of trouble and disappointment
if you put the whole batch on the fire. Why should I buy that group of
flowers for five shillings when I can sell you a photogravure of
Watts's for half the money? Your work has been out of date since the
mid-Victorian period."

It was the same everywhere, not so kindly expressed. At one o'clock
Mary returned to her lodgings utterly tired out and ready to cry in
the bitterness of her disappointment. How hard people were to one
another, she thought. It never occurred to her that this hardness had
been her own great besetting sin in the past. She was even inclined to
quarrel with Connie because the latter's prophecy had come so cruelly
true.

But Connie was not in yet, and therefore Mary had to fight out her
trouble alone. Still, she had learned already a deeper and more
important lesson than she was aware of. She began to see that there
was a world beyond the narrow limit of the Dashwood horizon. There
were other men and women living in the world quite as worthy of
respect. Mary took her sketches and dropped them one by one slowly
into the empty grate. Then she put a match to them and watched them
burn away to ashes. It was a full and complete confession of failure,
and Mary felt all the better for it. She rang the bell for a glass of
milk to drink with her frugal meal that was already set out on the
table.

Nobody came in reply to her ring. Mary was not aware that it was an
understood thing in a general way that nobody rang the bell except at
stated times such as just after breakfast and the like. In houses of
that class the lodgers were expected to be away all day more or less.
Otherwise, they were really obliged to look after themselves. After
the third ring Mary went downstairs to investigate.

So far as she could judge the house was deserted. The dingy first
floor smelt horribly of cheap, stale, cigar smoke. The sordidness of
the whole thing struck Mary with peculiar and unpleasant force. It was
all so totally different to what she had been accustomed to. She
wondered where Mrs. Speed was to be found.

Then voices came from the dining-room, voices raised in anger. A man
and a woman there were quarrelling violently. It seemed to Mary that
the man's voice was familiar to her, but she could not be quite
certain as yet.

She made up her mind to go down into the basement--the dark, warm
basement that seemed to reek with the ghastly smells of bygone meals.
Mary wondered how people could live in an atmosphere like that. She
was standing in doubt at the head of the kitchen stairs when from the
dining-room she heard her own name.

There was no mistaking the allusion to Dashwood. Quite naturally Mary
stood to listen. It was the man in the dining-room who was speaking.

"I tell you I must have it," he said. "What reason have you got to be
fond of the name of Dashwood? It never brought us any good. If Ralph
Dashwood had not been a fool, and you had played your cards right, you
might be living at the dower house now, with a handsome income and a
staff of servants to wait upon you."

The woman made some kind of reply that Mary could not quite catch,
though she knew by the choke in the voice that she was sobbing. The
man resumed.

"I tell you I must have it," he said. "No use to tell me that you
haven't got the letters; for I have seen them in your possession. It's
a letter sent from Lady Dashwood to her son and the date is 9th
September, 1884. Now you make a note of that, please. If I don't have
it, I shall find myself in serious trouble. What game am I playing?
I'm playing for more money than you ever dreamed of."

"Money!" the woman said bitterly, "that is always your cry. But it has
not prevented you from taking all mine. And I owe three quarters'
rent, which has to be paid tomorrow. If it isn't paid tomorrow, I
shall be sold up and turned into the street."



CHAPTER XXXVIII.
THE MYSTERY DEEPENS


No reason to tell Mary now that it was Mrs. Speed who was speaking.
She recognised the tired, faded voice by this time. But the other
voice was still more familiar.

"That's bad," the man was saying, "why didn't you let me know that
things had got to this pass? I daresay I could have helped you."

"No, you would have promised to," Mrs. Speed cried, "and disappointed
me at the last moment. All my savings have gone into your pocket; you
have wheedled everything out of me till I haven't so much as a penny
left. And now you come here for more of those letters! That you are up
to no good I feel certain. I know by your dress and style that you
have had the command of money. What are you doing there?"

"Never you mind," the man said sulkily, "you'll know all in good time.
I'm playing for a big stake, and for once in a way it has turned up
trumps. Only; I want that particular letter. When I get the letter I
can answer certain questions. Give me the letter, and I'll pledge my
word that within a week you shall have all the money you require. Only
you are to ask no questions, and you are not to move away from here,
mind that!"

"Oh, if I could get away from here!" Mrs. Speed sobbed. "Give me a
chance of earning my living, and that is all I ask for. I'll ask the
agent to give me another week, though I am afraid he won't do it. I've
put him off too often."

It was perhaps wrong of Mary to stand listening, but some fascination
held her to the spot. She had a strong desire to see who the man with
the familiar voice was.

"Then you are going to let me have the letter?" he said.

"I suppose so," came the weary response. "Never a thing yet that you
made up your mind to have that you didn't coax out of me. But the
letters are hidden in a box at the top of the house, and they will
take some finding. Come again tomorrow at the same time, and I'll see
what I can do for you. But if I consulted my own inclination I should
go and see Lady Dashwood and tell her everything. I am sick of this
intrigue and mystery."

The man said something in a soothing kind of voice, and then followed
a sound like a kiss. Then a match was struck, and the heavy, dense
atmosphere became impregnated with the smell of fresh tobacco, after
which the dining-room door opened and the man came into the hall.

Mary walked swiftly back to the foot of the stairs. Without being
noticed now, she had a good view of the man's face. She started, but
managed to check the exclamation that rose to her lips. No wonder that
the voice had been familiar to her. For she was gazing at the dark,
sinister features of Sir Vincent Dashwood!

It was only for a moment, and then the front door opened and the man
swaggered out. Without troubling any further about her milk, Mary
crept up the stairs again. She had plenty now to occupy her thoughts.
What was that man doing here, and what letter was it that he was so
anxious to obtain? And why had he so powerful an influence over Mrs.
Speed? It was open to Mary to ask the question, but she decided to do
nothing of the kind.

After all, questions of this sort would be worse than useless. They
would only arouse the suspicion and perhaps incur the curiosity of
Mrs. Speed. Still, the whole thing was a most extraordinary
coincidence--not quite so much of a coincidence perhaps if Mary had
looked into the mind of Ralph Darnley?

But as the girl could not do so, she had to figure out the problem as
best she could. She recalled vividly to mind now the strange
suggestions made by Lady Dashwood as to a great sin in the past with
which she was intimately connected. And here, according to Mrs. Speed,
the latter was an accomplice either before or after the fact. And why
did the man who came here in such urgent need of a certain letter
require that document, seeing that he had been accepted all around as
Sir Vincent Dashwood?

Mary was still pondering the problem when Connie came back. The latter
was her own bright and cheerful self again, she had done a good
morning's work, and she had been paid for it to the extent of nearly a
sovereign. She was inclined to take a light view of life. She made no
allusion to the portfolio, for which Mary was grateful.

"I am very hungry," she said. "How nice this pressed beef is, and the
lettuce, too! I have had better, but as things go in London they are
very good."

Mary was silent. The beef was stringy and a little dry, the lettuce
wilted and yellow. In her mind's eye the girl could see the luncheon
table of the dower house at this particular moment; she could see the
dusky, cool room, with the breeze coming off the flowers in the
garden. She could see the snowy cloth and the crystal and the salad,
cool and refreshing in the great silver bowl. There would be
nectarines and peaches too from the ripe south walls of the garden.
The whole atmosphere of it flooded Mary's soul and brought the tears
to her eyes.

"You are homesick," Connie said softly; "I used to be the same at one
time. And, of course, this luncheon is not at all nice, only I like to
pretend that it is. But you shall tell me all about yourself when you
come to know me better. And you shall also tell me what luck you had
with the portfolio this morning."

"I had no luck at all," Mary said presently, "nothing but slights and
insults, rebuffs and bitter humiliations. I might have been a servant
girl for all the civility I received. And even one man, who seemed to
have a heart in his breast, told me to come home and burn the lot."

"Wherefore you bounced out of the shop indignantly," Connie laughed.

"Indeed I didn't, I was too utterly crushed and sorrowful for that. I
crept here and made a bonfire of my precious drawings, and I am ready
to ask your pardon for the cold way in which I accepted your good
advice this morning. There!"

It was a great deal for Mary to say, a confession that she had failed,
that she was utterly wrong, the like of which she had never made
before. Her face was flushed now and her lips were all trembling.
Connie looked at her with undisguised admiration.

"You have won a greater victory than you know," she said quietly. "It
is very hard for anyone brought up as you have been to admit a
failure. I had a letter from Mr. Darnley this morning in which he told
me a good deal about you. I hope the day will come when you will learn
to appreciate Ralph Darnley properly."

"I think I do," Mary said, with the red mounting to her cheeks. "He is
a good man, and I owe him a great deal--my life itself on two
occasions. But he--he did not quite understand."

"Didn't he?" Connie asked, her eyes dancing with mischief, "he is an
audacious man. He thinks that he is good enough for any girl. And so
he is, bless him! Oh, you will learn your lesson in time, my dear. And
when you do, you will be one of the luckiest girls in the world. To be
the wife of a man like that, ah!"

"You think so highly of him as that?" Mary asked.

"Ay, I do, indeed. Oh, how I could love that man if only he cared for
me! I could open my heart to him tomorrow, and thank God fasting for a
good man's love. Fancy the sweet rest and peacefulness of it all,
fancy laying down the weary struggle, the fearful dread of the needs
of the morrow with the assurance that you had that man to protect you!
But your eyes will be opened in time, you will come to see that love
is the best of all things."

Connie had dropped her voice almost to a whisper and her dark eyes
were moist. Then she seemed to wipe away the tears with a smile and
was her sunny self again.

"Please don't laugh at my sentimental manner," she said. "Let us talk
about you and your affairs. We may take it for granted that you have
abandoned all idea of making a fortune out of the milk-stool order of
art. You feel quite sure that you could make nothing of my kind of
work."

"I should absolutely hate it," Mary shuddered. "Please don't be
offended."

"Oh, I am not in the least offended. I felt just like you at first.
Did you ever try your hand at designing? One or two girls I know do
well at that."

Mary didn't know; as a matter of fact, she had never tried her hand at
anything of the kind; but she was perfectly willing to try. A horrible
feeling of helplessness was growing upon her; she wondered what she
would have done if Fate and Ralph Darnley had not thrown Connie and
her together. For the next hour or two she tried her hand at designs
of various kinds, only to feel that she made but a poor hand at the
business. By tea-time her head was aching terribly and she dropped
into the armchair with a sigh of misery.

"They are pretty bad," Connie said in her candid way; "we shall have
to wait a little longer before we find your proper vocation. For the
present you will have to fall back upon colouring cards--Christmas
cards, and post cards, and the like. That pretty chocolate-box type of
work of yours will do admirably for that class of thing. You shall do
a few specimen cards tomorrow, and I'll give you the address of a man
who will commission more. Only it is terribly hard, you will get paid
at the rate of half-a-crown a hundred."

Mary's heart sank within her. Half-a-crown a hundred! At that rate it
would be impossible for her to make more than fifteen shillings a
week. She pointed out the fact to Connie, who agreed with a cheerful
nod.

"You have worked it out pretty accurately," she said. "There are
hundreds of girls who do it, and the worst of the thing is that so
many girls can earn pocket-money that way who have no need to do
anything at all. It is the same with typewriting, the same with
everything. And, after all, it is quite possible to live on fifteen
shillings a week."



CHAPTER XXXIX.
HOMELESS


Connie refused to be drawn into further conversation for the present.
She was very busy touching up certain sketches which she informed Mary
were intended to illustrate the pages of a popular lady's novelette,
the published price of which was a halfpenny. They were dreadful
drawings, as Mary could see, grotesque exaggerations of the work of
George Du Maurier, impossibly tall females, with regular doll-like
features and long lashes, with men of the same type. Five drawings
went to each novelette, and the price paid was thirty shillings.

"As a matter of fact they are not mine," Connie explained, as she put
the finishing touches to the figure of a severely classical duchess;
"they are the work of a friend. She has been very ill lately and her
work has fallen off in consequence. This lot would have been rejected
by the editor, only I happen to know his assistant, who suggested that
I should take them back and patch them up before they came under the
eagle eye of the proprietor. I can get the money for them this
evening, and tell Grace that the editor asked me to bring it along."

"That does not seem quite--quite the right thing," Mary suggested.

"Oh yes it does," Connie said bluntly. "Grace Cameron is a lady, and a
great friend of mine. This commission is all that she has to live on.
I happen to know that last night she spent her last two shillings on
the peculiar tonic medicine that is needful to her. Can't you imagine
the poor girl's state of mind if those drawings had been returned?
What would _you_ do if you were the Recording Angel?"

Mary was silent. She had not looked at it in this light before. The
delicacy and tactfulness of it, the fine self-abnegation, appealed to
her strongly. With Connie, time was money, every hour she wasted
represented the loss of some necessary of life. And here she was
cheerfully spending her own golden minutes so that a poor invalid
should not lack the peace of mind necessary to her recovery. This was
a practical sermon for Mary, worked out to a womanly and logical
conclusion. If Ralph Darnley could have looked into Mary's mind now he
would have been pleased with the success of his experiment.

"Oh, how good of you," she cried, "how womanly and sweet! You are
actually sacrificing yourself for the needs of others. I should never
have thought of it."

"I shouldn't at one time," Connie admitted frankly, "but I was a
spoilt child in those days, and gave no heed to anybody but myself.
And when I came to London alone and penniless and friendless, it was
Grace Cameron who first held out a hand to me. And Grace is capable of
doing really good work. She is very different from me. If she could
only get into the country for a time and regain her strength she would
be heard of. But that is impossible!"

"Why?" Mary asked. She was deeply interested now. "Why can't she?"

"Because she helps to keep a widowed mother. One pound a week goes to
the poor old mother who is so proud of her girl's success. It is one
of the most pathetic and charming stories in the world. Mrs. Cameron
is the widow of a clergyman who left her very badly off, and Grace
came to London to gain a name with her brush. She did not succeed, but
she never let her mother know, she has always sent her something. And
that 'something' makes all the world to the dear old lady. You may
call it a deception if you like, but I call it one of the grandest
things I have ever heard of. And all the while Grace is hoping for the
name that does not come, the name that will enable her to go into the
country and turn her back upon those impossible duchesses for ever.
The story is known to a few of us, and we take it in turn now that
Grace is ill to do her work for her. I am going down to Grace's rooms
after supper, and you can come along with me if you like."

"Oh, yes, yes," Mary cried, "I should love to go with you. You may
think that I am very foolish and ignorant, but you are opening up a
new world to me. Positively I did not know that there were such things
as these; even you are a new type to me. And here am I, who have been
living with my head in the clouds, regarding the universe as being
made up of people like the Dashwoods and others, whose privilege and
duty it is to serve them. How selfish!"

"Well, you are not selfish now," Connie said. "You had the pluck to
turn out and get your own living rather than eat what you call the
bread of charity."

"Pride," Mary exclaimed, "every bit of it pride. I was bitterly
wounded with a trick that Fortune had played upon me; in my arrogance,
I left home, though one kind heart bleeds for me. I only had my narrow
point of view. And I hate this kind of thing, I could cry aloud at the
sordidness of it. I can't endure it patiently as you do."

Connie laughed unsteadily. A mist crept into her eyes.

"It is because I have schooled myself," she said. "It is so weak to
complain. But there are times when I should like to die and make an
end of it all."

Again Mary had nothing to say. She was learning to plumb the depths of
her own selfishness by comparison with others. She was beginning
dumbly to understand what Ralph Darnley must think of her. And yet he
had made no secret of his love and affection. She was strangely silent
as she walked along with Connie in the darkness of the evening. They
came at length to a mean little street leading off Tottenham Court
Road, and before a fairly respectable house there, Connie stopped.
Presently Mary found herself shaking hands with a tall, thin girl, who
gave her the strange impression that her new acquaintance was made of
some fragile china. Her clear skin was deadly pale, and the dark eyes
seemed to burn in the face like sombre flames. The slender frame was
racked now and then by distressing fits of coughing.

Yet there was a subtle strength and power about the girl that appealed
to Mary. Here was a girl after her own heart, one who would struggle
to the end, and if she had to die she would fall in her tracks without
a murmur.

Yet everything was against her. She had no natural advantages like
Mary. There was more shame for the latter. Hitherto she had lived
entirely for herself; her bounties had been dispensed with a haughty
hand.

She had never dreamed of a kingdom inhabited by such brave, pure souls
as these. Despite the shabby little sitting-room it was impossible to
mistake Grace Cameron for anything but a lady. She had a smile of
sweet sympathy as Connie made the necessary introduction, and spoke of
Mary as another of the elect who had come into the arena.

"You have my sympathy," the girl said with a pleasing smile, "I could
wish a woman foe of mine no harder fate. Anybody can see that you have
not been used to this kind of thing--you are too recently a commander
to know the bitterness of being commanded by the _canaille_ we
frequently have to deal with. We cannot all meet our misfortunes as
cheerfully as Connie does. But you will learn your lesson in time.
Tell me, have you heard anything as to those last drawings of mine?"

"I have the money for them at any rate," Connie said without looking
at the speaker. "Mr. Scudamore was very kind."

Grace Cameron drew a deep breath of relief, a wave of pink rose to her
cheeks.

"They were dreadful," she whispered. "But I was so ill on Monday and
Tuesday that I had to drag myself to the work. My hand shakes terribly
still, and I have some kind of a commission that I must finish
tomorrow. It is a design for the cover of a new penny weekly. I have
the scheme sketched out, but I am afraid that I shall not be able to
finish it. And I know that my mother is in great need of a few pounds.
How hard it is to be like this."

The last few words rang out passionately. Connie patted the speaker's
shoulder.

"Don't despair," she said, "give me the rough design and I will put in
the colour. Take at least five hours! Well, what of that. Give us some
supper presently--it matters little what time we get home in the
morning. Mrs. Grundy has no terrors for the true and tried children of
Bohemia."

Connie's cheerfulness seemed to be unflagging and unfailing. She had
no great aptitude for the brush, but she had the great gift of
patience. The hours wore on, supper came and went, and presently a
clock somewhere struck the hour of two. Then at last Connie held up
the coloured design in triumph.

"There," she cried, "I guess they will be satisfied with that. I wish
I had some of your boldness and originality, Gracie. I think we've
done it this time. What a shame it is that good stuff should go for so
little money! And now I really must be off. Mary looks tired to death.
I'll post this for you, if you like."

Mary was tired and worn out, but she was not thinking of herself as
she dragged along by Connie's side. She had learned a great deal in
the last four-and-twenty hours.

In a vague, disturbed way she felt ashamed of herself. She did not
notice the little cry that broke from Connie as they stood before the
house where their rooms were. The place was all in pitch darkness, a
litter of straw lay before the door. As Connie applied her latchkey
and pushed back the door the house sounded curiously hollow. Footfalls
clanked on a bare floor. Connie struck a match and held it aloft.

"The house is empty!" she cried, "the people have gone. These things
happen with the struggling poor when they are threatened over their
rent. Let us go and see if they have packed our belongings in the
confusion."

The little sitting-room was empty of everything, the bedroom the same;
nothing was left.

"My writing-case!" Mary cried, "my purse, too, in my box. And in the
case--my jewels. Connie, Connie, what will become of us?"



CHAPTER XL.
IN PERIL


Connie was the first to recover herself. She knew far better than Mary
how great the danger was, how great the need for coolness and
judgment. And she had been in dire straits like this before. She held
the flaring match above her head and looked round the deserted room.
On the mantelpiece stood a fragment of candle stuck in the neck of a
bottle, and this Connie proceeded to light.

"Now we can go over the house and see if they have placed our
belongings anywhere," she said cheerfully. "I have been in one or two
strange predicaments, but never anything quite so bad as this. Still,
I am sure that Mrs. Speed is an honest woman. It is more than likely
that she has placed our goods and chattels somewhere."

But though the house was searched from top to bottom, nothing could be
found. Mary did not give way, though she was tired out and weary, and
sinking for the need of food. She had not yet lost her robust country
appetite; she had not brought herself down to exist on weak tea and
bread and butter, as Connie did.

"It is downright cruel," she cried. "That woman knew that we should
come back, that you are in the habit of entering the house with a
latch key. And to go off with all our wardrobe like this; to take
everything. What are we to do?"

"It must have been some terrible mistake," Connie said. As usual, she
seemed loth to judge anybody harshly. "The poor woman could not pay
her rent. No doubt the landlord had threatened to come in tomorrow and
take everything. And Mrs. Speed has a young family. She probably went
to the agent and asked for time----"

"Oh, I know she did," Mary cried, recollection suddenly coming back to
her. "As it happens, I overheard the conversation. There was some man
here, a man I know something about, though we need not go into that.
And Mrs. Speed seemed to be terribly short of money. I heard her say
what was going to happen. Oh, Connie, my head is so confused that I
cannot think, I shall wake up presently and find myself at the dear
old dower house again. I did not dream that there were things like
this in the world; I did not think it possible."

"There are worse things," Connie said sadly. "It is very
terrible--very indeed; but what can poor people do? And yet there are
others who waste thousands on their dress and amusement and pleasures,
little dreaming of the sort of hell that forms half the life of the
poor. Mrs. Speed sees that her household is in danger--her furniture
is the one thing that stands between herself and the workhouse. The
poor creature is so distressed that she has no thought for anybody
else--she forgets our existence. She finds another house to go to, and
she hires a man to come late at night and remove the things. I
understand that there is a contractor who holds himself ready for this
kind of thing. He employs very rapid workmen, and he uses vans with no
name on the cover. The thing is easily done in this stony-hearted
town, where your next door neighbour is a matter of indifference to
you.

"Mrs. Speed is in the new house waiting to receive her goods. In the
haste and confusion everything is packed, sent away. I have no doubt
we shall get our belongings back again."

"And meanwhile, we have lost everything," Mary protested. "We have
exactly what we stand up in. And every penny of my money, to say
nothing of my jewels, has gone. We ought to go straight to the
police."

"No," Connie said firmly. "A year or two ago I should have done so
without hesitation, but not now. Ah, my dear I know how the poor live,
how fierce are their temptations. When the great Day of Judgment comes
God will be tender to His poor."

The fierce flame of Mary's anger died away, and a feeling of shame
succeeded it. She was forced to recognise the many ways in which her
companion was the superior of herself. Should she ever grow soft and
sympathetic like that? Would her misfortunes render her more lenient
to the failings of others? And yet Connie had said that she had been
at one time the child of hard selfishness.

"Perhaps you are right," Mary admitted. "But what are we going to do?
Where are we going to sleep tonight? And have you any money?"

"Two shillings," Connie replied. "Two shillings in my pocket, more by
accident than anything else. My bank has vanished with my tin box. We
can't go back to Grace's lodgings at this time of night. But that is
not the worst."

Mary's heart sank within her. Could there be any worse than this?

"It is that very question of lodgings," Connie explained. "Nobody will
take us without belongings. They would regard us as a pair of
swindlers."

"Swindlers!" Mary's face flamed at the new word. The late mistress of
Dashwood Hall regarded by a common Cockney landlady as a swindler!

"It seems so cold, so hard-hearted," she protested. "And just now you
were speaking of the virtues of the poor, their kindness to each
other, and----"

"My dear Mary, there is no kindness like it in the world, because
generally it is the very essence of self-sacrifice. But there is
another side to the matter. They _have_ to be careful, they are
compelled to look coldly on outsiders, they--but why am I preaching
social sermons to you at this time of night? We must make the best of
it till morning and then try to find Mrs. Speed."

It seemed a hopeless kind of business to Mary. Something like looking
for a needle in the proverbial truss of hay. But the girl's wits were
sharpened now by this sudden contact with adversity. She began to see
a way.

"It may be possible to find Mrs. Speed," she said. "It will be weary
work, but the thing has to be done. The man I was speaking about, the
man who was here yesterday--he is calling here tomorrow for a certain
letter. I could force him to . . . but that shall be my business. The
question is where shall we sleep? Not on these bare boards. And I
shall drop if I don't have something to eat."

The dawn was breaking in through the shutterless windows now--the red
dawn of the summer day that gives London an added touch of beauty. It
would be broad daylight before long. The presence of the light gave
Mary a new courage.

"It is useless to think of sleeping anywhere," Connie said. Her face
was pale and downcast, all the colour had gone out of her eyes. Mary
had not before seen her friend on the verge of despondency, and the
knowledge spurred her to new efforts.

"Let us go for a walk before the place gets hot and stuffy and full of
struggling humanity. A London crowd always makes me so sad--it is
awful to think that every man and woman streaming past you is engaged
in the struggle for bread."

"Come out of this," Mary said hoarsely. "Let us feel the sunshine.
This is heart-breaking, nerve-destroying work, but I am not sorry that
I came. Let us go and watch the sun rise, and if there is any place
where we can get something to eat----"

There was, at the end of the Embankment, a coffee stall, the
leaden-eyed proprietor of which regarded the girls without emotion.
He had served all classes of customers in his time, and these
well-dressed girls, with an unmistakable air of class about them,
inspired him with no curiosity. He filled up the thick cups of muddy
coffee and cut the stodgy bread and the debatable butter. It was
hideous stuff altogether, but Mary was astonished to find with what
zest she was devouring it. A flashy woman, terrible in her cheap
finery, staggered up and demanded tea. A man, unmistakably a
gentleman, with a well-cut suit of clothes, partook of cocoa and a
slice of bread. His coat collar was turned up, and Mary surmised that
this was to hide the absence of a shirt. The girl was learning her
lesson with terrible swiftness. Another man, with a bag in his hand,
hurried up and breathlessly asked for tea. His face was white and pink
by turns, he looked about him a furtive kind of way. From behind the
barrow a powerful figure shot out and grabbed at the shoulder of the
man with the bag. The latter showed fight for a moment, then his white
face broke into a profuse shower of moisture.

"Better come quietly," the powerful man said. "You can have a cab if
you like, though it does not matter much at this time of day. You've
given me a long chase."

The two vanished in the direction of the Strand, where now the houses
and spires were all golden in the purple mists. Mary shuddered.

"What does that mean?" she asked. "Was--was he some criminal?"

"That is it," Connie explained quietly. "And the other man was a
detective. Oh, it is a horrible place, this London, if you come to see
it from the underside. I long for millions of money to turn this city
into a paradise. You think I am always cheerful and careless, but my
two years here have left a mark upon me that I will never get rid of.
Let us walk along the Embankment as far as Westminster, and then
strike West for the Park. I feel a perfect longing for flowers and
green grass. We will go through Park Lane, and speculate as to what
the millionaires there are dreaming about--the people who have a
hundred times as much as they can spend, and are yet greedy for more.
Oh, my dear, if you only knew how tired I am, so utterly worn out."

Connie sat down on a seat on the Embankment and burst into tears.



CHAPTER XLI.
THE LESSON OF ADVERSITY


Hitherto Mary had been entirely dependent upon her newly-found friend.
She had come up to London with the proud intention of making her own
living, a Dashwood ready to defy Fate and overcome it from the first
onset. On the contrary, she had been a living example of the weakness
of the unemotional when confronted with the problem of existence. If
it had not been for Connie, she shuddered to think of what might have
become of her by this time. But there was stirring within her now
those high attributes and noble qualities that Ralph Darnley had
discovered behind the armour of selfishness and ice of pride. It
behooved her to act now that Connie had failed.

That poor Connie's breakdown was only temporary made very little
difference. Mary must become the head of the expedition now. She
placed her arm around the other girl's waist and kissed her tenderly.
Mary had never done such a thing in her life before. She would have
found it physically impossible. And here it seemed the most natural
thing in the world.

"You must not give way," she whispered. "Dear Connie, you can't tell
how much I admire and respect you. We are going to be friends as long
as we both live. You have taught me more in the last two days than I
ever learned before."

"I shall be better presently," Connie sobbed. "I am so tired. Let me
put my head on your shoulder and rest a little. Only don't let me go
to sleep, as we shall have some horrid policeman making us move on,
and I have not come quite to _that_."

The weary head fell back on Mary's shoulder and the weary eyes closed.
Five minutes later, and Connie had passed into the land of dreams. It
was not much past three yet, and the Embankment was very quiet, save
for the passing of the wretched wanderers, who seem to find nowhere
rest for the soles of their feet. There were evil-looking creatures,
both men and women, slouching along and hideous faces once human
leered at Mary, but the daylight seemed to take all the audacity out
of this. There were others, too, who had fairer faces, and who turned
aside with proper respect as they saw the sleeping girl with her head
on Mary's shoulder. A policeman came along like the head of the
universe and paused before the seat.

"This isn't quite the thing," he said. "Hope there's nothing wrong,
miss?"

The man was gruff, but utterly sympathetic. Mary took heart of grace.
Fancy her the heiress of the Dashwoods, explaining the sordid
situation to a London policeman!

"We have had a great misfortune," she said. "When we got back to our
lodgings tonight our landlady had vanished, taking all her furniture
along. And everything of ours had vanished also; we could do nothing
till today. And my friend is so worn out that she has fallen asleep,
as you see."

The red-faced policeman whistled. He needed nobody to tell him that he
was face to face with a lady of the real West End type. He was a
policeman of experience. That Mary was telling the truth he could see
from the look in her eyes.

"Very sorry, miss," he said. "Don't disturb the other lady. I'll keep
an eye on you till I go off my beat at seven o'clock."

The man touched his helmet and passed silently on. The incident
touched Mary and brought the tears to her eyes. She was surprised to
find how the once unwonted tears rose to her lids. She did not realise
perhaps how steadily the ice was melting from around her heart. But
she did realise what a great palpitating thing the life of the town
was, its cruelties and its misfortunes, and the tender touches that
spring from the impulses of a common humanity. Mary was learning her
lesson.

She sat there till the sun glinted on the bosom of the Thames; she saw
the barges gliding down with the tide; she watched the first rush of
cabs from the stations. And ever and anon the cool vision of Dashwood
rose up before her. If she were at home now she would be out in the
garden gathering roses to decorate the huge bowls in the drawing-room.
She wondered if the Blois was out under her window, and whether Clegg,
the head gardener, had looked after the new phloxes properly.

She could see it all now as it would be in the dewy sunlight. Well, if
the worst came to the worst, she could go back to the dower house
again, but she would not go alone. Connie should accompany her and
Grace Cameron. It would be a glorious thing to take the pallid,
hollow-eyed painter down there, and send her back to her beloved work
with an elastic step and the light of health glowing in her brown,
ambitious eyes. Mary was beginning to understand what wealth could do
and what glorious privileges it possessed. She began to understand
what Ralph Darnley had been thinking about her. Well, the time would
come when Ralph should learn his mistake. All these things, and more,
Mary dreamed of as she sat patiently there with Connie's head on her
shoulder. The latter stirred presently, and opened her eyes to the
glory of the day. It was past seven now, and the greatest city in the
world was awake to the struggle for existence. It was some little time
before Connie's mind was clear enough to grasp the situation.

"I have been asleep for three hours," she exclaimed. "What an
intolerable burden you must have found me. Why didn't you wake me?"

"Perhaps I have been dreaming myself," Mary smiled. "Anyway, I did not
seem to notice. And there was a policeman who was very kind. I was
watching the day break over the river, and it took me back to the old
home. It seemed to me, Connie, that I had not been as frank with you
as I might. Let me tell you why I left home. It will be a new
experience for me to have a girl friend to love and confide in."

They sat for an hour longer, and Mary told her story. She was
surprised at the ease and fluency with which the narrative came from
her. And she was surprised, too, to find how much better she felt for
the telling.

"Oh, well, nothing can deprive us of the pleasures of memory," Connie
said. "I like to dream of the old home sometimes, though there is a
deal of pain with the joy in it. And you have the consolation of
knowing that you can go back when you like, and find a real loving
welcome waiting you in the bargain."

"I shall never really go back under present conditions," Mary said.
"But I see now that this is no reason why I should not visit my dear
Lady sometimes. Wouldn't it be a glorious thing to have a nice holiday
down there! To take you with me for a fortnight, to take Grace also,
and leave her with Lady Dashwood till she was quite herself again. Now
I know that you have been scheming and planning for a long time to get
a real chance for Grace. If I told Lady Dashwood she would never
hesitate for a moment--it would be as good as done. That is the plan I
have in my mind."

Connie caught at Mary and, heedless of passers-by, kissed her
affectionately.

"An angel unawares," she said with an unsteady laugh. "That is what
you are. Oh, my dear, you must not put these temptations in my way,
you must not try to make me discontented with my lot. For two years I
have not seen a green field, or caught a sight of the sea. It is two
years since I was so extravagant as to go to Hastings for the day. I
took my lunch and passed the whole afternoon in the glen at Fairlight.

"I met a doctor there, he was just recovering from a dangerous
illness--such a nice fellow! And it seemed the most natural thing in
the world that we should tell our story to one another. I wonder if I
shall see that young doctor again?"

"I wonder," Mary laughed. "But what are we going to do now?"

"Have a proper breakfast at a place I know of," Connie said. "Then we
are going to sit on the grass in the Park, and you will have a sleep
whilst I look after you. Grace does not get up till about mid-day, so
we won't bother her just yet. Perhaps she will be able to find us
another lodging. My dear Mary, your white face is quite a reproach to
me. Let us go to breakfast at once."

The breakfast was plain, but good, and eaten in a clean room, which
was something. Then the two wandered into the Park, given over at this
hour to nursemaids and children, and under the shade of a tree Mary
lay down and closed her weary eyes. The warmth was soothing. Mary
found herself wondering what they would have done had it been a wet
day. . . . Her mind began to wander now . . . she was back again in
the garden at Dashwood, she was rambling the summer woods with the
breeze in the old elms overhead. Then gradually the world seemed to
grow dark, and she slept.

The sun was high overhead when she came to herself again. She felt
fresh and vigorous now, ready for anything. Then the humorous side of
the thing struck her and she laughed. The idea of a Dashwood sleeping
out all night like a common tramp! And yet Mary did not quite realise
how near the most prosperous of us is to the workhouse. A trick of
Fate, misfortunes over money matters, a long illness, and the thing is
done. There are thousands of such instances every year.

"Do you feel equal to moving yet?" Connie asked.


[Illustration: "Under the shade of a tree Mary laid down and closed
her weary eyes." (Page 272.)]


"My dear, I feel equal to anything." Mary cried. "My courage has come
back to me. And now what do you propose to do next?"

"The next thing is to call on Grace and tell her of our misfortunes.
We must not repeat last night's experiment if we can help it. Besides,
there are those drawings for the _Wheezer_ which are promised for
tomorrow. They were all finished and lying on my table when the
catastrophe happened. I must get them back today."



CHAPTER XLII.
THE COURAGE OF DESPAIR


Grace Cameron was making a pretence of breakfast when Mary and Connie
arrived. Her pallid face was more flushed than usual, her cough very
distressing. But she had no thought for herself directly the story
came to be told.

"You poor dears!" she cried. "What a cruel misfortune! To have lost
everything in this way is doubly terrible. Oh, if it were only
possible for you to stay here! The house is almost full up, and my
landlady is independent accordingly. I am expecting every day that she
will ask me to go--the breakfast in bed and my late rising give a
great deal of trouble. There seems to be nothing that I can do."

"Oh, yes, there is," Connie said cheerfully. "You can help us
wonderfully. For the moment we are absolutely penniless. Our idea is
to take a bed sitting-room together, for a few shillings a week, and
restore confidence, in lieu of personal belongings, by paying the rent
in advance. I want you to lend me a sovereign for about a week."

"But my dear, I haven't got it," Grace said in deep distress. "I only
kept a few shillings out of the money you gave me yesterday, the rest
I posted to my mother not an hour ago. If I had only known! And I
suppose you can't possibly draw any more money from the _Wheezer_ till
the end of the week!"

"I might have done so," Connie said. "I had the week's drawings
finished. They must be in tomorrow or I shall certainly do no more
work in that quarter. They were all lying ready on my table when I
came round here last night."

"Oh, this is dreadful," Grace cried, with the tears in her eyes. "If
you had not returned here then, this dreadful thing would never have
happened. To think that your kindness and goodness to me should have
produced a result like this! Oh, Connie, what are you going to do,
what can you do?"

"Oh, please don't," Connie said unsteadily. "It was no fault of yours.
I daresay we shall manage to muddle through some way or another. It is
a great pity that so many of our circle are so hard up just at
present."

"And Miss Dashwood is as badly off?" Grace asked.

"Please don't call me Miss Dashwood," Mary said. "It makes me feel as
if I were not one of you. Yes, I am in the same boat. Still, I dare
say----"

Mary's voice trailed off into a whisper. An idea had come to her. She
was quite ready to humble her pride now; she no longer shrank from the
idea with a pain that was almost physical. If the worst came to the
worst, she could telegraph to Lady Dashwood and ask for a few pounds
by wire. And yet that seemed a weak thing to do, seeing that she had
left the dower house so short a time before, determined to make her
way in the world. But that would have to be done before nightfall,
unless----

Unless! There was yet another way out of it. The recollection of the
dramatic scene between the so-called Sir Vincent Dashwood and Mrs.
Speed came with vivid force to Mary. The man had come for some
important letter. What the letter was and what it had to do with the
Dashwood succession mattered nothing at that moment. At any rate the
letter was needed, and Vincent Dashwood had promised to come back for
it. And Mary did not fail to remember now what Mrs. Speed had had to
say about the trouble she was in over her rent. That trouble had
culminated with disastrous swiftness, and to save her furniture the
woman had vanished in the night.

With a mind full of her own troubles, she had probably given no heed
to Vincent Dashwood. But it was necessary to his success that he
should find her.

No doubt he was hanging about now somewhere in the locality of Keppel
Terrace waiting for a sign. And here was the desperate chance that
Mary needed.

She, too, would spend the next few hours in the neighbourhood of
Keppel Terrace. Her mind was made up and she resolved to act without
delay. She rose to her feet with a smile and made her way towards the
door.

"Where are you going?" Connie asked.

"I have a little idea of my own," Mary said. "I can't tell you
everything, because it is in a way mixed up with my private affairs.
But I think that I shall be able to get everything back before we
sleep tonight. I am not going to be a helpless burden on you two poor
dear things. I want you to feel that you have been entertaining the
proverbial angel unawares. I may not be back till late, but you need
not be anxious. After my experience of last night, I am not afraid of
anything."

"Let her go," Grace said, as Connie would have detained the speaker.
"She is anxious to do something, and I feel that she will succeed."

Mary went down stairs with a firm, steady tread. She was not in the
least afraid now. Whatever she lacked, there was no question of her
courage. And she was going off now on an errand of mercy and relief.
The knowledge thrilled her, she was conscious of emotions and feelings
now that she had never felt before. The warm hot blood was coursing
through her veins; there was a gladness about her heart that made her
feel strangely young and buoyant. She would have liked to meet Ralph
Darnley now and tell him many things that had not occurred to her
before. She was ashamed of the way that she had treated that man. And
he was good enough for her; as Connie had said, he was good enough for
any girl. What did birth matter, what did anything matter, so long as
the man was good and true and the woman sweet and tender? It came to
Mary with a crushing force that the Dashwood pride was a poor and
feeble thing by comparison.

She was still turning these new sensations over in her mind when she
arrived at Keppel Terrace. The empty house seemed to look at her with
blank, mocking eyes. For a long time she walked up and down before the
house. An hour, two hours, passed before Mary noted anything to
attract her attention. Then she thrilled as she saw Vincent Dashwood
come swaggering along the terrace. He paused at the step of No. 16,
and looked up at the house. Mary could see his gesture of passion. As
he stood there, evidently nonplussed by his discovery, a boy came up
to him and handed him a card, which he read and then tore up.

Greatly daring, Mary came along the pathway. She pulled her veil down
and pretended to ring the bell at No. 17. Her back was to Dashwood;
she calculated that he would not notice her, that she would be the
last person in the world he was likely to meet. But Mary was trembling
from head to foot.

"All right," she heard Dashwood say. "I suppose the lady told you what
I was like?"

"That's it sir," the boy said. "The lady knew as you would come. She
gave me a shilling for this job. I've been hanging about here since
dinner time."

"Well, here's another shilling for you," Dashwood said in great good
humour. "Tell the lady that you delivered the card properly and that
I'll call after dark. As it happens, I know the address on the card
you gave me."

The boy went whistling off down the road and Dashwood swaggered away.
Here was a piece of luck that Mary had not expected. She had made up
her mind to loiter about the street till she saw Dashwood, provided
that he had not come and gone already. But she knew perfectly well
that Dashwood and early hours did not go together, and upon that fact
she had acted. Her idea was to follow the man, knowing that sooner or
later he was certain to look for Mrs. Speed. But here was a piece of
real good fortune on which she had not reckoned at all. Dashwood had
read the address, and then, with his usual carelessness, had torn up
the card. Mary was off the doorstep as soon as it was safe, and the
pieces of torn card were in her hand. She had only to put them
together and the address was here.

This was splendid! Here was a way of proving to Connie and Grace
Cameron that she was a friend to be relied upon. Mary's heart warmed
at the idea of it. Her fingers trembled as she pieced the fragments of
the card together and read the address. It was clearly set out in a
neat handwriting.

No. 24 Hamerton Gardens, N.W.--surely the new house was some distance
away. Mary had yet to learn that these midnight flittings necessitated
a change of neighbourhood at a considerable distance as to locality. A
friendly policeman directed Mary into the Strand, and another told her
which 'bus to take. By the time the girl arrived at her destination
she had fourpence in her possession.

But she did not care about that. She was on the right track now, and
if luck were dead against her she could walk home. Here was Hamerton
Gardens at length, and the litter of straw and refuse before the house
testified to the fact that somebody had recently occupied the house or
left it. With a courage that was all her own, Mary walked up the steps
and rang the bell. As nobody responded to the summons, she opened the
door and walked in. She had made no mistake, she recognised the
umbrella stand at a glance. There was no linoleum down in the hall as
yet and the stair carpets were rolled up on the floor.

Somebody crossed the hall and entered a little room on the right. Mary
fairly gasped as she noted the tall figure in the grey silk. She
wondered if she could credit her eyes. For the tall figure in the grey
silk was Lady Dashwood!



CHAPTER XLIII.
GETTING NEARER


Mary drew back a moment to see what was going to happen. She ought to
have been utterly taken by surprise at her discovery, but she felt no
emotion of that kind. She was past the feeling--life had been too full
of thrilling incidents during the last few hours for that. It never
occurred to the girl that she had made a mistake. In an instant her
mind was made up. Very swiftly and silently she darted after Lady
Dashwood, and followed her into a room at the back of the house. There
was a grimy specimen of the London charwoman on the floor, scrubbing
the dirty boards apparently in readiness for the laying of a roll of
linoleum that stood in one corner. A bottle half filled with beer
ornamented the mantelpiece, and from this the worker on the floor
frequently refreshed herself, as her red face testified.

She looked up angrily as Lady Dashwood entered. The intruder had to
ask her question twice before she drew a reply.

"Mrs. Speed isn't in," the woman said, "and if she was, she would not
care to see any visitors as yet. We only moved in here last night, and
not so much as an odd man to help for love nor money, and me fit to
drop."

"I am sorry to hear that," Lady Dashwood said in her gentle manner, "I
have come up from the country especially to see Mrs. Speed. Can you
give me any idea what time she is likely to be back again?"

"No, I can't," was the surly reply, "not before tea-time anyway. If
you like to wait in the dining-room, you can do so--you don't look the
sort to go off with anything. And there's an armchair or two in
there."

As Lady Dashwood turned she came face to face with Mary. She stood
quite still, too utterly surprised to speak. Mary took her by the arm,
and led the way to the dining-room. She pushed one of the chairs
forward, and invited Lady Dashwood to sit down. Then Mary closed the
door. She smiled at the helpless amazement of Lady Dashwood's face.

"Mary, my dear child, what are you doing here?" the elder lady gasped.

"I might ask you the same question," Mary said. "What you regard as a
most strange coincidence has a very prosaic explanation. Oh, my
dearest, if you only knew how glad I am to see you again! If you only
knew how I have missed you. But I need not go into that now; there
will be plenty of time presently. My dear, I have been learning things
the last two days and have been making discoveries. You may not
believe it, but I am glad that I came here, yes, glad, glad!"

"You are looking fairly well," Lady Dashwood observed. "A little pale
and drawn, but there is something in your eyes that I never noticed
before. A sort of new strength and tenderness combined, not so hard
and proud. But you seem pale and tired."

Mary laughed. She had good reason to be pale and tired. She wondered
what Lady Dashwood would say when she heard last night's adventure.

"I am utterly worn out," she said frankly, "and yet I am glad I came
to London. You can't tell how much good it is doing me. Strange as it
may seem, I am quite happy, and all the more so because I am fighting
for the good of other people. Hitherto, I have never thought of
anybody but myself. As you know, I came up to London with an idea of
getting my own living. I was going to be very proud and independent. I
had a vague idea that being a Dashwood would make the ground clear for
me. I blush now to think of my ignorance and folly. But I am wandering
from the point. You will recollect that Mr. Darnley offered to ask a
friend of his in London to assist me.

"I refused the offer, of course, in my stupid way. But Connie Colam
met me at Victoria. What I should have done without her, goodness
knows. She was kindness itself to me. And in a very short time we
became fast friends. Fancy me, _me_, giving my heart to a girl who
lives in Bloomsbury, and gets her living by doing horrible drawings
for a low-class paper!"

"It seems strange," Lady Dashwood murmured, "I hope that she is----"

"My dear, Connie is a lady. Oh, if you only knew how my eyes have been
opened! And there is another girl, a lady, too, called Grace Cameron.
But you are going to meet them and satisfy yourself that I am not
degrading the great house of Dashwood. Grace Cameron is an invalid,
and last night we stayed at her house very late finishing some work
for her. We did not get home till past two in the morning. What do you
think of that for a Dashwood?"

Lady Dashwood could not repress a smile. It seemed very dreadful and
unconventional, but there was a glad, tender ring in Mary's voice that
the elder lady liked.

"We walked home through the streets at that hour," Mary went on, "and
when we reached our rooms the house was empty. Everything had gone!
And that brings me to the cause of my presence here at this moment.
Our landlady was Mrs. Speed, the woman who has just moved in here. She
had got into trouble over her rent; she was afraid that her furniture
was going to be sold up, and when we were out last night she had taken
everything away. No doubt the poor woman was half distracted, but it
was a cruel thing to do with us. She might have given us a hint. She
might have left our belongings behind. But she didn't and there we
were bereft of everything that we possessed in the world at two
o'clock in the morning."

"Oh, my darling," Lady Dashwood cried, "what did you do then?"

"There was nothing to do. We had very little money and nowhere to go.
So, as it was a fine night, we slept on the Thames Embankment and
breakfasted at a coffee stall in the morning. Mary Dashwood sleeping
in the streets! Fancy it! Today I discovered where Mrs. Speed had
gone, and I am here to demand the return of our goods and chattels.
But I can quite understand why you are here."

"What do you mean?" Lady Dashwood faltered.

"Well, I will tell you. When I went to Mrs. Speed's to share rooms
with Connie I was struck by the appearance of the woman. It seemed to
me that I had seen her before, and in some strange way she recalled my
very early childhood. I seemed to recollect the creature years and
years ago sitting in your boudoir and crying. She was wearing a black
dress. It is one of the fragments of memory that cling to one long
after the surrounding circumstances are forgotten. I could not get rid
of the feeling, and I asked the woman about it. She said I must be
mistaken, because she came from a place called Dashwood, near Dashwood
Hall. I doubt if she knew my name. I had my own reasons for not
betraying my identity as you can imagine, but when Mrs. Speed told me
that I knew that I was not mistaken. And knowing that she came from
the old place, I was not surprised to see you here after all."

Lady Dashwood's agitation deepened. Mary could see that she was
greatly moved.

"The woman spoke the truth," the elder lady whispered, "her people
lived on the estate for many generations. And for years I have lost
sight of her. I can't tell you the story, Mary, because it is not all
mine to tell. And this morning I received a telegram from Mrs. Speed
at this address saying that she was in great trouble and asking for an
interview. I did not send any answer to the telegram because I decided
to come in person. When things are explained, they always become more
simple."

"Not in this case," Mary said boldly. "My dear, I have found out
something far more important than that Mrs. Speed comes from Dashwood.
I was going to the kitchen to get a glass of milk yesterday morning
when I heard what sounded like a quarrel in the dining-room between
Mrs. Speed and some man. The man's voice sounded so familiar to me
that I stopped to listen. He was after some letters, the name of
Dashwood was mentioned--one letter was of the greatest importance. And
then the man came out; he did not see me, but I recognised him. Can
you guess who he was?"

Lady Dashwood made no reply for the moment. Her face had grown very
pale and her long, slim hand shook so that the rings on her fingers
shimmered in the light.

"You had better tell me," she ventured to say at length. "I fancy I
can guess, though I had not expected treachery as black as this. The
man was----"

"Sir Vincent Dashwood. Oh, there is no mistake about it. I saw him as
plainly as I see you at this moment. He had called at Keppel Terrace
to threaten and bully. It seems that he had had all Mrs. Speed's
savings. And he told her that if he could have that particular letter
he would let her have as much money as she needed. She spoke then of
the danger in which she stood in regard to her rent. She was going to
see the agent of the property the same day. Probably he would not wait
any longer, and hence the sudden flitting in the night. What does it
all mean, Lady Dashwood? Why should this Sir Vincent want that letter?
And how much longer are we all going to remain under the tyranny of
that man?"

Lady Dashwood made no reply. There was a sound of voices close by, and
in one of them Mary recognised the querulous tones of Mrs. Speed.

"Go and see her," Mary said, "I will wait here. But please do not
disclose my identity. And when you have finished, wait in the street
for me. My business with Mrs. Speed will not take long. After that, I
want you to come and see my new friends, I want you to know what
manner of life I am living. There are other things that I shall want
to know too, but they will keep for the present."



CHAPTER XLIV.
THE DREARY WAY


Mary's patience was fairly well tried before she had an opportunity of
seeing Mrs. Speed. She heard the latter cry out in astonishment at the
sight of Lady Dashwood; she heard the two take their way up the
uncarpeted stairs; she could hear restless footsteps overhead. It was
quite an hour before they came down. Mary could not quite hear what
was passing, but she heard enough to know that Mrs. Speed was in
tears.

The tears gave way to a sullen red as Mary came out of the
dining-room. She said nothing as the girl beckoned her into the room
and shut the door.

"We need not waste any time," Mary said, "you will guess what I came
for."

"Who told you where to find me?" was the terrified question in a
whisper. "You don't mean to say that in Keppel Terrace they know
already----"

"I am not concerned as to what Keppel Terrace knows or thinks," Mary
said coldly. "I came back to our rooms last night very late with Miss
Colam. To our great surprise and consternation we found the house
empty. Our own things had gone with the rest. You might have left
them, as they did not belong to you. Miss Colam, who has had more
experience in the seamy side of life than I have, says that this
midnight flitting is quite usual with a certain class of people. She
gave me an experience of a friend of hers, but in that case her
belongings were left behind. What did you suppose that we were going
to do?"

The woman shook her head sullenly. With her wider knowledge of the
world she seemed to think that she had an easy prey in Mary.

"_I_ don't know," she said, "and I didn't care. I've been too badly
used by the world to have much sympathy left for other people. And I
had to move. The agent told me that he was going to put an execution
in today, and I had no time to lose. I don't want to keep your traps
and things; I daresay they are here somewhere. Come again in a few
days' time, and I will see what I can do for you. I'm busy now."

The speaker advanced half threateningly towards Mary, with an
intention of bustling her out of the room. Mary's eyes flashed angrily
as she stood before the door.

"Now listen to me," she said in clear, incisive tones. "As a landlady
of experience in such matters you must know that it is almost
impossible for Miss Colam and myself to obtain other lodgings without
our boxes and things. Last night we slept out of doors because we had
nowhere to go. You think that because you live so far away from Keppel
Terrace you can do as you like. If I go from here now without our
belongings I shall at once see the agent of the Keppel Terrace
property and tell him where you are to be found. I can easily get the
address of the agent from the people next door to your last house. I
don't know much about the law, but you can be punished for this kind
of thing, I feel quite certain. Now what are you going to do?"

The battle was over almost as soon as it had begun. The woman lost her
threatening air and her face became pleading. The easy tears fell from
her cheeks. "I'm sure I don't want to do anything wrong," she said,
"only you don't know all the trouble and anxiety that I've been put
to. When I came to London first I had money in the bank and a good
house of furniture, very different from the miserable sticks I have
about me now. I was doing well. Oh, you think you know what trouble is
and misery, but wait till you see the son you have loved and slaved
for grow up to be a curse and a blight to you; I sacrificed everything
for that boy and he has ruined me. He gets money from everybody, he
has had all mine, and I go on giving him more. He never comes near me
unless he wants something. If you knew everything, you would be sorry
for me."

Mary made no reply for the moment. She was piecing the puzzle rapidly
together in her mind. She was wondering what the connection was
between the erring son and the man who called himself Sir Vincent
Dashwood. She would have asked a question or two, but it did not seem
discreet to do so at this moment.

"At present I need all my sympathy for Miss Colam and myself," Mary
said coldly. "You will be good enough to find our boxes. There is a
desk of mine that I need, a little desk in a leather case. I shall be
glad to know that it is safe."

"I think I saw it a little while ago," Mrs. Speed said eagerly. She
seemed quite anxious to make amends now. "I fancy it was in one of the
bedrooms. I hope you will believe me, miss when I tell you that I had
clean forgotten all about you two young ladies. You see, I had to get
away at a moment's notice. There was the house to find and the van to
arrange for. One way and another I was fairly worked off my feet. If
you'll come along with me now, I'll see what I can do for you. There's
a great pile of boxes upstairs."

Most of the missing boxes were identified at last, but they were more
or less buried under a great heap of things. Mary gave a sigh of
relief to find that the precious writing-case was intact and the lock
unbroken. And there was a box of hers on the top of the pile, and in
that she knew was all that she would require for a day or two. If she
could get that away she would be able to supply Connie with what was
necessary in the way of linen. And it would be as well to leave the
rest until she had procured fresh lodgings.

"Get your woman to call a cab," she said, "I'll take this box with me
and the others can remain till we are ready for them. Directly we have
somewhere to go I will send you a telegram with the address, and you
will give our belongings to one of the carriers."

"You may depend on that, miss," Mrs. Speed said eagerly, "I'm sorry
this happened, I am indeed. If I had only thought of it I would have
given you a hint before. Now I'll go and see if I can get a cab for
you."

The cab was procured at length and the precious box hoisted on the
top. Lady Dashwood was patiently waiting at the end of the road. The
cab pulled up, and Mary hailed her friend eagerly. A great weight had
fallen from her mind, she could see the way clear for the future now.
If misfortune dogged her, she had made up her mind to go back to the
dower house. But now she was spared that blow to her pride.

She wondered, with a tender smile on her lips, if Ralph Darnley would
call this the proper kind of pride. In her mind Mary decided that he
would. It would be possible now to arrange to stay for the present
under the same roof with Grace Cameron. Then Mary remembered with
dismay that her ready cash had been locked up in a box, and that the
box in question was not on the top of the cab. Not that she was afraid
of anything happening to the money; still, money was urgently needed.

The jewels were safe anyway--they reposed in the cab on the seat
opposite to Mary. And Lady Dashwood was seated by her side. The girl
was in high spirits: tired as she was, she was happier than she had
been for years. It came to her now that she had an object in life,
something definite to live for. She was doing good in the world; her
eyes had been opened to the nobility of life as lived by the brave
poor. What a poor thing the Dashwood pride seemed by comparison.

"You must know that I have been entirely successful," Mary said gaily.
Lady Dashwood had never heard her speak in this tone of voice before.
"I have bearded the lioness in her den and actually got the better of
her. I am more than pleased with the success of my scheme and the way
in which I have worked it out, Lady Dashwood. Please don't tell me
that you are going back home by an early train."

"I should like to go back at once and take you with me, child," Lady
Dashwood said. "You don't know how lonely I am without you! And yet I
am quite sure that you are learning a valuable lesson in these sordid
surroundings."

Mary's face flushed with pleasure. A few days before she would have
resented a suggestion like that from Lady Dashwood or anybody else.
Her mind had been closed to everything, had been too proud to learn.
And now Lady Dashwood's remark was a compliment.

"Yes," she said softly, "I am learning a great lesson--the lesson of
humanity. It is astonishing how my mental vision has cleared already.
I blush with shame to think of the uselessness of my past life. But
you will come with me and see the dear companions who have taught me
this lesson?"

"I think I will," Lady Dashwood said, "I need not get home till the
last train. I have half promised to dine informally with an old friend
of mine in Stratton Street. I shall have plenty of time to see your
friends. I am quite sure that they are ladies; you could not be happy
with them otherwise."

"Oh, they are," Mary cried, "and now I am going to tell you all about
them and their hopes and ambitions. Grace's story is quite a pretty
romance in its way. It will tell you all about her, so that you need
not betray your lack of knowledge."

Mary rambled on in a pleasant way until the cab reached its
destination. There was a pure, womanly ring in her voice that Lady
Dashwood noted with gladness. She had always deemed Mary too hard and
cold, too unsympathetic to the weaknesses and failings of other
people. The elder lady's eyes were moist as she descended from the
cab, and Mary guessed the reason. And then it came to her, too, that
she would have been glad if Ralph Darnley had been with them.



CHAPTER XLV.
THE WALLS OF PRIDE


"Now I must get you to pay for the cab," Mary went on in the same gay
voice, "for I haven't the money, at least, not in my pocket. You will
find the place very small and mean, but it is not quite so bad as some
of the cottages on the Dashwood estate. If ever good fortune took me
back there as mistress I should do a great deal with the cottages on
the place. I begin to understand now how trying is the lot of the
poor. But I am dreaming again. Please come this way."

Grace Cameron lay on a couch in the window getting as much fresh air
as possible. Towards her Lady Dashwood looked with special interest,
for Mary had told Grace's story at some length. The girl flushed as
she noted the striking personality of her visitor. She essayed to rise
from the sofa.

"No, don't you move, my dear," Lady Dashwood said. "Quite by accident
I met Mary here, and she insisted upon bringing me to see you both. I
think she has told me everything about you. And it was quite natural
that I should like to see you. So this is Connie Colam. I think you
are a couple of very brave girls."

And Lady Dashwood proceeded to kiss them both in the most natural
manner. She found her way into their hearts at once.

"You are a darling," Connie said in her candid manner. "It is good of
you, Lady Dashwood. We were eating our hearts out with anxiety when
Mary came in. And Mary looks quite the conquering hero, I declare."

"Victory!" Mary cried, "my clever detective scheme has been quite
successful. I have brought all we need with me, and the rest will
follow on the despatch of a telegram. I have had a long interview with
Mrs. Speed, and so far as I can see----"

"I hope you gave her what she deserved," Connie cried.

"I'm ashamed to say I didn't," Mary confessed. "The poor woman
appeared to be in distress. She said that she had forgotten all about
us, and I believed her. It seems that she has a dissipated, selfish
son who has brought her to this pass--Lady Dashwood, what is the
matter?"

"The London heat always tries me like this," Lady Dashwood murmured
faintly, "I daresay I shall be quite myself when I have had a cup of
tea. Connie shall make it for me--Mary says that she has the real art
of tea-making. So this is the place where you work. You look as if a
good rest would do you good, Grace."

Grace Cameron smiled wearily. It was one of her bad days, and the heat
had affected her. Her mind was filled now with pictures of the sea
breaking cool over the rocks; she thought of deep woods where the
breeze played in the trees.

"I can't afford to rest," she said; "if I did not go on working I
should lose my reason. And I do hate London so. Still, I have a mother
more or less dependent upon me, and for her sake I have to go on. If I
could manage to get into the country for a few weeks I think I could
regain strength. Connie is an angel of goodness, but I can't let her
do my work for me much longer."

"That's sinful pride," Connie said with something between a laugh and
a sob. "What vexes her is that her substitute is so poor a workman.
Still, there is a deal in what Grace says, and if she could be in the
country, not too far away from London, where----"

Lady Dashwood glanced up and met Mary's pleading eyes. She understood
exactly what the girl meant without asking a single question. She
crossed over to the couch and took Grace's thin white hand tenderly in
her own.

"There is nothing easier," she said, "let me be the fairy godmother. I
am a very lonely old woman, since Mary made up her mind that she would
go out into the world and earn her own living. I was very sad about it
at the time, but I am not so sad now. Because the day is coming when
Mary will return to her old home, and be happier by far than she has
ever been before. Still, I am very lonely now, and I should welcome
some bright young face to gladden the whole home and make life more
tolerable to me. The dower house is a grand old place, and any artist
would soon fall in love with it. Bring your work down there, Gracie,
come and live in the open air and forget your anxiety for the future.
When I looked at Mary just now, her eyes asked me to do this thing.
But I am not doing it to please Mary so much as to please myself. It
is very selfish of me. I know----"

"Selfish!" Grace cried, "I could love you for what you say. The mere
thought of it makes my heart beat all the faster. But for the sake of
others----"

"Never mind the others," Connie cried, "go away and get well. I dare
not think what I should do if I had the same opportunity. Go away and
do your own work. How can you have the face to stay here and allow me
to do your drawings for you? It is the most selfish thing I ever heard
of in my life, and I decline to put up with it any longer. . . . Oh,
my dear, it is the very thing that I have been praying for. Don't
hesitate, Grace--think of your mother, of the grand future. If I loved
you less than I do----"

The smile faded from Connie's face, she had hard work to keep back the
tears. Lady Dashwood's smile, too, was watery and unsteady. She was
glad to find that Mary had fallen in with companions like these. She
could understand now why the girl had softened and improved. Hitherto
she had regarded Mary as perfect, but this was a chastened and
purified Mary of whom she had never dreamed. She could see the working
of Grace's mind in her face.

"You are very good to me," the girl said slowly, "everybody is good to
me. I never knew how much goodness there was in the world till my
health began to fail. It made me hard and bitter to see those
frivolous society people roll by in their carriages, and think that
the money they wasted on one abandoned toy would have sufficed to give
me back the strength I needed. Mary knows what I mean."

"I do, indeed," Mary said with a flush on her face, "but I had to pay
for my knowledge of my selfish folly by the loss of everything that I
held most dear. And now that I have learned my lesson, I have nothing
to put it into practice with. Still, the point does not refer to Lady
Dashwood, who is quite sincere in what she says. If you hesitate any
longer, Grace, I shall regard myself as a murderess. You will not
carry your pride so far as to endanger your life."

"No, no," Grace cried, "you are all right and I am wrong. I know
perfectly well that if I stay here like this I shall die. Therefore,
with the deepest gratitude, I have decided to accept Lady Dashwood's
offer. Oh, if you only knew how I long for the sight of a green
tree----"

"Then that is settled," Lady Dashwood said, "you are to come and take
Mary's place without delay. I will come up on Saturday and fetch you.
And I decline to hear a single word of thanks--it is a mutual
pleasure, Grace. Now, let us have the cup of tea, and then I must be
going. And I am very glad that Mary has made friends with you girls."

Lady Dashwood departed presently, and for a little time the girls were
silent. Grace lay there looking out of the window, her eyes filled
with happy tears. Already in her imagination she could hear the murmur
of the trees over her head.

"I can't help it," she said presently, "I feel as if a great doctor
had told me to live after another surgeon had passed the sentence of
death. An hour ago I did not seem to care what happened, now I can
feel the joy of life in my finger tips. My ambition is singing a tale
of hope in my ears. . . . But what about you both? What are you going
to do?"

"Yes, what are we going to do?" Connie said in tones of dismay, "we
have no money. Mary was too proud to ask her relation for any, which
was quite right. Unless, perhaps, Mary has recovered her purse, in
which case----"

"Well, I haven't," Mary explained, "I forgot all about it. Still, it
is only a matter of a day or so, and, meanwhile, I have something that
will do quite as well. I daresay Grace's landlady will find us a spare
bedroom."

"I believe there is such a thing in the house," Grace said dubiously,
"but my landlady is by no means a nice person, and she has done very
well lately. She is sure to ask to see your boxes, and if you tell her
the truth she will not believe you. Still, you must find quarters
somewhere for tonight, and it would do no harm to have the woman up
and see her."

The landlady came, hard of face and none too pleasant of manner. She
listened in grim disapproval. She did not wish to insinuate anything,
but she had suffered in the past. She attached a value to the
possession of personal belongings, she had little faith in lodgers who
came without them. To all this Mary listened with a heightened colour
and a rising temper.

"I suppose a week, or say a fortnight's rent in advance would do for
you?" she asked. "It seems the likeliest arrangement for a woman of
your stamp."

"Nothing better, miss," the woman retorted, "money talks. Pay a
sovereign on account, and I shall have no more to say. Pay me, and
I'll treat you well; on the other hand----"

"There is going to be no 'other hand,'" Mary replied with her head in
the air. "Perhaps you will be so good as to change me a five-pound
note?"

The woman gasped. She could not possibly do such a thing.

"Very well," Mary went on, serene in her victory, "you need not stay
any longer. I'll go out and get change, and let you have the sovereign
without delay."

The woman vanished with a respectful salutation. Mary crossed over to
her writing-case.

"My education is growing apace," she laughed, "my dearest Connie, will
you be so good as to tell me the way to the nearest pawnbroker's?"



CHAPTER XLVI.
THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE


The lights in the great silver candlesticks at the dower house shed a
soft radiance over the dinner-table where Lady Dashwood sat alone. It
was not yet dark, the saffron glow of the setting sun still struggled
with the candles. Most of the dishes had been removed, and little
remained but the peaches and the nectarines and the great bloom tinted
grapes in the silver baskets.

Lady Dashwood sat there alone. She had peeled one of the russet and
golden peaches, but the fragrant luscious fruit lay neglected on her
plate. Her mind was far away from her surroundings.

The peacefulness of the night suited her more or less painful
meditations. The same spirit of refinement and rest seemed to brood
over the house; it seemed hard to associate a place like that with
misery. And, perhaps, on the whole, Lady Dashwood was not altogether
unhappy.

She had more or less expected Ralph Darnley to dinner, but he had
declined at the last moment. He had written to say that he might have
the pleasure of coming later, but even as to that he was not quite
certain.

And so it came about that Lady Dashwood was alone. She had plenty of
food for thought. There was yesterday's adventure, for instance, the
finding of Mary in that unexpected way, and the visit to Grace
Cameron's rooms.

Well, Lady Dashwood was not sorry that she had been, she was not sorry
either that Mary had made up her mind to try her future in London. In
some subtle way Mary had vastly improved. She had always shown a
proper affection for Lady Dashwood, she loved her passionately, but
she had always been somewhat reserved. She had not thought it right
for a Dashwood to be demonstrative like other people. And she had
cared very little for the sufferings of other people.

And now all this was changed. Mary had made the great discovery that
she was only human after all, and had begun to take an interest in
sorrow, suffering and gladness, and pleasure. Lady Dashwood was glad
of that. Her own life had been one of constant self-repression.
Perhaps that was all the more reason why she longed for an open
display of affection now.

She was pleased to find that Mary was learning her lesson and that
Ralph Darnley had been right. Ralph had prophesied from the first that
all Mary needed was the fire of adversity to burn the alloy out of her
system, and leave nothing but the pure gold behind. And his policy had
been wonderfully successful.

But how much longer was this to continue? was the question that Lady
Dashwood asked herself.

How long before Ralph would declare himself, and sweep away the blight
that hung over Dashwood Hall at the present moment. Already people
were beginning to talk, already the servants had strange tales to
tell. Dubious men were staying at the Hall, a class of beings quite
unknown to that historic house.

Sir Vincent Dashwood was entertaining a party at dinner tonight; he
had brought his friends down from London with him earlier in the day.
As yet nobody had called upon the new owner of Dashwood Hall, for
people were holding aloof. They wondered, too, why the deposed head of
the house had cared to stay on there. What Mary was actually doing in
London was not known to anybody outside the home circle, but her
action was approved of. Lady Dashwood hoped that the present state of
things was not likely to last; she was going to ask Ralph to see Mary
and judge for himself whether the punishment had not already gone far
enough. Mary had had her eyes opened and would never be her cold,
proud self again.

The peach was finished slowly, and Lady Dashwood was thinking of
rising from the table. This solitary dining in state was a terrible
trial to her. She had reached the time of life when she craved for
young people to be about her. The house was very quiet, so quiet that
the loud clang of the front door bell fairly startled Lady Dashwood.
She placed her hand to her heart in some alarm.

Surely something dreadful had happened! No friend of the family would
ever ring the bell like that. It was, perhaps, a late telegram to say
that Mary--but the noisy voices in the hall did not suggest any
catastrophe. Two or three people were talking at once; Lady Dashwood
was sure she could smell tobacco smoke. Somebody laughed in a loud,
vulgar way. What could it all mean?

The staid butler came into the dining-room, his manner respectful as
always, but there was a flush on his face.

"My good Charles," Lady Dashwood exclaimed, "what is the matter?"

"Your ladyship may well ask that question," the aggrieved butler
replied, "but I beg your ladyship's pardon, I am forgetting myself. We
were sitting down to supper in the housekeeper's room when that ring
startled us. I went to the door. Sir Vincent Dashwood was there, and
those other men,--I mean gentlemen, together with Sir George,--I mean
Mr. Dashwood. And they want to see your ladyship."

"At this time of night! Are they mad, Charles? Is it possible that
gentlemen who are perfect strangers to me--are smoking in my hall? Are
they--are they--sober?"

"I think so, your ladyship," Charles said dubiously. "Mr. Dashwood is
all right. As to the rest, I really cannot say. But they are bent
upon seeing you, at least Sir Vincent is. He--he seems to think that
you would find it nice and informal."

"Informal, certainly," Lady Dashwood said frostily. "Ask them into the
library."

The speaker was outwardly calm. But she was shaking with a righteous
indignation; a brilliant red spot flamed on either cheek. It was a
very haughty, stately figure that entered the library, a few moments
later.

"This is an unexpected pleasure," she said. "You will pardon my
old-fashioned ways, but I am not accustomed to entertain strangers at
this hour."

"That's all right;" the head of the house laughed unsteadily. His eyes
were slightly glazed and he had some difficulty in balancing himself.
"It's all right, grandmother. Mr. Dashwood did not want to come; he
said it wasn't quite the thing."

"I'm glad of that," Lady Dashwood said haughtily. Her cold eyes swept
over the figure of George Dashwood, who stood by the doorway a picture
of confusion. "Mr. Dashwood was right, and as to these friends of
yours----"

"They're all right," the head of the house went on. "Mr. Cotton and
Mr. Newfell, my grandmother. Cotton is something in the City, made a
pile of money there. When he isn't making money he spends his spare
time in going over old houses. I told him about this one, and he is
anxious to see it. It is just the kind of place he wants to buy, and
if he offers me a fancy price for it, you will have to find somewhere
else to go, old lady."

Lady Dashwood stood there trembling. She had no words to meet this
unpardonable insult. And the speaker was quite within his right. He
was in a position to sell the dower house if he chose. The head of the
family had that privilege, seeing that the little property formed no
part of the settled estate.

"I am afraid Lady Dashwood objects," the man called Cotton said.

"Indeed I should, sir," Lady Dashwood replied. "I am afraid I can't
blame you so much as my--my grandson for this unpardonable intrusion."

The City man flushed, but he had the grace to say nothing. The head of
the house fairly tingled.

"Insult be hanged," he cried, "what are you talking about? We only
looked in just to give my friend Cotton some idea of the place. _I'm_
not anxious to sell. It's a thirsty night, you fellows. Ring the bell,
somebody, and ask the butler for a whisky and soda."

"Better not," Cotton said, "it isn't quite the thing. Besides, you
have had enough already. I can see that we ought not to have come here
at all."

Lady Dashwood felt almost grateful to the speaker. There was silence
for a moment, and then from the hall came the sound of Ralph Darnley's
voice. Here was somebody at any rate who could grapple with the
situation. Forgetful of her real dignity, Lady Dashwood turned away
and crossed over to the hall. She was shaking from head to foot now
and the tears had gathered in her eyes.

"You poor dear soul," Ralph whispered, as he kissed the trembling
lips. "Charles has been telling me all about it. He was so full of the
matter that he almost forgot himself. So you are already enjoying the
fruits of the change of proprietorship. Go back to the drawing-room
and compose yourself. I will soon get rid of those men for you."

Ralph strode into the library. His fingers were itching to be at the
throats of the men. But that could not be. He was so angry that his
politeness was exaggerated.

"Lady Dashwood is very sorry," he said, "but you will have to excuse
her tonight. She is not accustomed to visitors, especially at this
time in the evening. Sir Vincent, your display of family affection is
a little too exuberant."

"_I_ did not want to come, sir," Cotton said sulkily.

"Thank you; therefore you will not mind going. Goodnight, gentlemen.
Goodnight, Mr. Dashwood. You will pardon me, I am sure. Well?"

For the head of the family sat sullenly in his chair though the rest
had got beyond the shadow of the front door by this time. He looked up
defiantly at Ralph.



CHAPTER XLVII.
"HOW LONG, HOW LONG!"


"If it isn't a rude question," he said, "who are you? What do you mean
by interfering in this way?"

"It does not matter in the least who I am," Ralph replied. "To put it
bluntly, Lady Dashwood has asked me to get rid of you. Until you have
disposed of this portion of the property, the house belongs to her
ladyship. Your dissolute companions have already gone. I don't blame
them, however. I have no doubt that they expected a congenial welcome
here. They probably drew a wrong picture altogether of Lady Dashwood.
They had the grace to be ashamed of themselves."

"Once more," Dashwood said with drunken gravity, "who are you?"

"As I said before, it does not in the least matter," Ralph replied.
"At the present moment I am acting on behalf of Lady Dashwood. I know
that it is not the slightest good to appeal to your better feelings,
for the simple reason that they don't exist. Will you be so good as to
go, or am I to resort to force?"

Dashwood laughed. The hot blood mounted to Ralph's face and the full
force of his passion tingled to his finger-tips. He threw open the
long window that led to the lawn; then he advanced to the figure
lounging in the chair. He wasted no time in argument, but bent over
the chair and dragged Dashwood out by the throat. A moment later the
latter was flung violently on to the grass, where he lay dazed and
confused for a moment. Presently he picked himself up, and loafed
after his companions, who were noisily walking down the avenue. It was
a relief to Ralph to know that the fellow was not seriously hurt.

As if nothing had happened, he made his way to the dining-room. Lady
Dashwood was pacing up and down the room, her face white and set, her
eyes full of flaming anger. All the fiery blood of the race was raging
in her veins now.

"So they have gone," she cried. "A pretty outrage indeed! I shall have
the villagers here next dropping in on their way from the inn of a
Saturday night. Have men of that class no manners, no respect for the
feelings of others?"

"You can't altogether blame them," Ralph said soothingly. "Probably
they took you to be what that drunken ruffian yonder would call 'a
good sort.' They judged you by him, and I am quite sure that Mr.
George Dashwood did all he could----"

"He didn't," Lady Dashwood flashed out. "He is a coward and a
poltroon. He is not worthy to be the father of a girl like Mary. Fancy
him cringing and fawning on a man like that for the sake of a good
home and the dainty food that he loves better than his independence!
But I don't blame him and the man who calls himself Sir Vincent
Dashwood so much as I blame _you_."

"_Me!_" Ralph asked in some surprise, "what have I done?"

"Everything. You have brought all this about. If it had not been for
you, this disgraceful scene could not have happened. For purposes of
your own, you have placed a puppet on the throne at Dashwood--a
disgraceful, drunken image, that is not worthy to be called a man. Why
do you do it?"

"I think you know perfectly well," Ralph, said gently. "I am very,
very sorry; I could not have foreseen anything like this. Won't you
forgive me?"

All the hot, rebellious anger died out of Lady Dashwood's heart.

"I must, when you speak to me like that," she said. "When you look at
me with your father's eyes, and speak to me with his voice, I could
find it in me to forgive you anything. But you must own that it is
very hard to bear, Ralph. When you came back here like a figure from
the grave, I began to hope that God was going to be good to me in my
declining years. I have sinned heavily, but I have paid the penalty.
When I saw you that day at the fire I recognised you at once, as
Slight had done. My prayers had been answered, and one of my flesh and
blood had come back to claim the old inheritance. And you had come to
free me from the hateful attentions of the impostor who so grievously
insulted me tonight. But you did nothing of the sort; you tried to
hide yourself from me as if you were guilty of something shameful."

"But, my dear grandmother, I told you why," Ralph protested. "I had to
work out my life's romance in a way that seemed best to me. And Fate
played into my hands--the little affair of the silver matchbox forced
the so-called Dashwood to speak. Still, it will not be for long. I saw
the family solicitors yesterday--are by no means disposed to let
matters remain as they are. Have you any idea as to the real identity
of the man who calls himself Sir Vincent Dashwood?"

"I _had_," Lady Dashwood said. "But I was certain yesterday. I saw his
mother. Oh, but yesterday was a day of surprises."

"His mother," Ralph cried. "Is she still alive? She was Agnes
Edgerton, sister of my father's first wife. Is not that so?"

"Absolutely correct, but I did not know it till yesterday; I thought
that she was dead long since. I have never heard a word of her since
she left the village seventeen years ago. And because she knew of my
crime, because she knew of the great sin that hangs over the house,
she wrote to me and asked me to help her. It appears that she had been
residing in London at a place called Keppel Terrace, where she has
tried to live by letting lodgings."

"That much I know," Ralph said. "She wrote to my father from time to
time. What I did not know is that she had a son. Please go on."

"It was a most pitiful letter she wrote me. She was going to lose her
home if she did not receive a certain sum by a certain time. The
letter came too late for me to help. It was followed by a telegram
asking me to send the money to another address. Had you not come into
my life, had things been different, I should have sent the money and
thought no more about it. But things came into my mind and a vague
suspicion that I felt bound to verify. I went to London yesterday and
I saw Mrs. Speed. She told me that it was her son who had brought her
to this pass. Of course, up to that time I had no idea she had a son.
I asked her to show me his photograph, and she did so. You can guess
whose likeness it was?"

"I can guess now," Ralph said. "Of course, it was the man who is at
present master of Dashwood Hall. Did the woman know that?"

"Oh, dear, no. She has not the least idea. But you can see now where
the impostor got all his knowledge, and how he came into possession of
so many documents."

"Not quite," Ralph said, "I want a little light on this particular
spot."

"Well, that is easy. When your father fell in love with his first
wife, Maria Edgerton, they took the sister Agnes, now Mrs. Speed, into
their confidence. She received and kept all the letters, at least, she
seems to have kept the letters after Maria Edgerton died. Of course,
when the affair came to the ears of your grandfather and myself we
were terribly annoyed. Mind you, I had nothing whatever to say against
Maria Edgerton. She was very good and beautiful, but very simple
indeed, and ignorant of the ways of the world. We thought that we had
put an end to the affair, but we failed, and your father and Maria
Edgerton were secretly married. Even then we had hopes of hushing up
the scandal. Your father had to go away with his regiment, and we
persuaded his wife that he was dead. I did that, and old Patience
helped me. And so did Slight--we were all in the disgraceful business.
Don't ask me why I did it; call it the curse of the family pride if
you like. We thought the woman would go away and forget. Instead of
that she pined and died. When the news came to me I felt like a
murderess. I have never been the same woman again, I never shall be.
And your father found it all out, he came home, and there was a
dreadful scene. He went away declaring that he would never come home
again, and he kept his word. I dared not write to him directly, but
sent my letters through Mrs. Speed. Now you can understand how her son
has come to be so well posted in the secret history of our house. He
must have read and re-read those letters till he had them by heart.
But his mother did not know, she does not guess. How much longer is
this state of affairs to continue, Ralph?"

Ralph shook his head. These revelations came as a surprise to him. And
it was a very sad and very dreadful confession that Lady Dashwood had
made to him.

"All that I have heard confirms me in my opinion that I have acted for
the best," he said. "I cannot absolve you from blame, grandmother,
indeed I cannot. For the sake of the family pride, you have suffered
this remorse for nearly forty years. And yet, in the face of it all,
knowing that Mary was coming into the property some day, you fostered
the same spirit in her. I love Mary, and the one great object in my
life is to make her my wife. But I wanted to be loved for my own sake,
and not for the sake of the family fetish. My plan----"

"Is succeeding," Lady Dashwood cried. "Nay, it has succeeded already.
Go and see Mary, call on her and ascertain for yourself whether I am
speaking the truth or not. She has only been gone a few days, but
already the change has worked wonders. Put your future to the touch,
and you will not be disappointed. Only end this dreadful state of
affairs, turn that man out of the Hall, let me see the place sweet and
wholesome again before I die."

Ralph hesitated. It was a tempting picture that Lady Dashwood had
drawn for him. But he could not quite entertain the idea that already
Mary had changed her nature entirely, as a grub turns to a butterfly.
At the same time Lady Dashwood's plea was not one to be turned from
lightly.

"I will see Mary," he said, "I will go to her tomorrow. I must see
Mrs. Speed also, for I have a message to deliver to her from my
father. You see, I had no idea where to look for her. Patience my
dear, dear lady, patience. After the lapse of forty years you will not
mind waiting for a few days longer."



CHAPTER XLVIII.
FACE TO FACE


"You are getting on," Connie cried, "after a time you will become a
Radical. Already you are fast forgetting the caste of Vere de Vere,
especially after your visit to the pawnbroker's yesterday. Tell me,
did you feel very much afraid?"

"Well, no, I didn't," Mary laughed. "It was not such a dreadful
experience after all. You see, I had the face of our landlady before
my eyes. I tried to think of nothing but the fact that we had another
night out of doors before us. I don't believe I even trembled as I
placed a diamond ring on the counter and asked a loan of five pounds
on it. Perhaps I was just a little afraid of being given in custody on
a charge of dealing with stolen goods. Ah! the glow of satisfaction
when I found that money in my pocket! Will you believe me, Connie
dear, I was thinking nothing about myself, but about you and Grace.
And when I got back here and saw your faces it was the happiest moment
in my life."

Connie kissed the speaker affectionately. She was genuinely touched,
though she did not care to own it. She pointed to the brushes and
paints on the table.

"Well, don't be prodigal," she said. "I've managed to get you five
hundred cards to paint and they will take you a whole week. And now
I'll go and find some fresh work to do. Thanks to Mrs. Speed's exit, I
have lost my _Wheezer_ job. As the drawings were not on time I've been
told that I need not ask for any more work. It is such a pity, because
it was such regular, steady employment."

Connie spoke lightly, but Mary could see she felt it. She painted on
at her cards till nearly luncheon-time, until her back ached and her
fingers were almost too stiff to hold a brush. But there was peace and
contentment in her heart, a feeling of happiness and gladness that she
had never felt before. She took a glass of milk and a bun presently,
and then put on her hat to go as far as Mrs. Speed's. Though the
promised telegram had been sent, the necessary boxes had not turned up
yet. And Mary was getting anxious. She would go and fetch the boxes;
in the circumstances, the luxury of a cab would be justified.

Mary swung along the street with a free step and a sense of joyful
elation. She had not gone far before somebody touched her lightly on
the shoulder. She started and turned to find herself face to face with
Ralph Darnley. He looked bronzed and well. The tan on his handsome
face brought with it a whiff of the country. There was no mistaking
the genuine pleasure that shone in his eyes as he held Mary's hand in
his.

"I called at your rooms," he said, "and they told me that you had just
gone out. I followed quickly with wonderful luck. Where are you
going?"

"Off to the wilds of North London," Mary laughed. She felt a strange
sense of gladness in the presence of Ralph; a certain shy happiness
possessed her. "Our late landlady went off with our boxes. We had to
sleep out the night before last."

"So Lady Dashwood told me," Ralph replied. "It must have been a
dreadful experience. And yet you look very well and happy, Mary."

The girl laughed in a shy kind of way.

"I really believe I am," she confessed. "Mind you, it was very
dreadful at first. I felt so utterly lost and sad that I very nearly
came back and proclaimed my defeat."

"At the expense of the family pride?" Ralph laughed.

"Yes," Mary said quietly with a flush on her face. "I am coming to the
conclusion that the family pride is a great mistake. It made me so
cold and self-contained. I never seemed to know what it was to have
sympathy for anybody. To be a Dashwood is a great thing, of course.
But there are far higher and nobler aims. Those two girls I live with
made me thoroughly ashamed of myself. They are ladies who get their
own living by art work--but, of course, you know all about Connie
Colam. What a nature she has!"

"One of the noblest in the world," Ralph said quietly. "Mary, I hoped
that you would grow like her. I hoped that her example would be a
benefit to you. With your beauty and her disposition, you would be one
of the most perfect women that God ever made. Ah, the man will be
lucky indeed who calls Connie Colam his wife."

Mary assented warmly enough, and yet at the same time she was
conscious of just a tinge of passing jealousy at the high praise of
her friend. Ralph had told her all along that he loved her, that there
was no other girl in the world for him. Had her coldness killed that
love? Then she told herself that it did not matter, seeing that the
affection was not returned in the way that Ralph meant. All the same,
she could not rid herself of the impression that such a thing would
take all the light out of her life, and leave her alone and desolate
indeed.

"Connie thinks very highly of you," she said shyly.

"That is very good of her," Ralph replied with something like a sigh,
"but we are too good friends ever to care for each other in any other
way. Still, she is doing you good, Mary. There is something about you
that I can't describe, some subtle change for the better. I never
noticed till now that you had such a sweet and tender smile and there
is a thrill in your voice that makes you pure and womanly. My
experiment has been a success."

"What experiment is that?" Mary asked innocently.

"What am I saying?" Ralph laughed. "I have a confession to make later,
but it is not the time to go into that. It is good to be by your side
again, listening to your voice. Now, tell me all that you are doing."

Mary did not need to be asked. She fairly bubbled over with delight.
The deep thrill that Ralph had noticed in her voice touched him and
caused a chord to throb in response. It seemed almost impossible to
believe that this was the Mary of the old days, the proud, distant
creature whose head was in the clouds contemplating the glory of the
family. She was tender and warm and confiding, and the flush on her
face gave the one thing needed to make her fair and radiant beauty
complete. _This_ was the girl that Ralph loved, the woman of his
fondest dreams. He felt as if he could walk by her side for ever.

"But you will think me conceited," she said presently; "I have talked
of nothing but myself for half an hour or more. Please do not laugh at
me."

"Certainly not," Ralph said indignantly. "I have no intention of
laughing at you, Mary. It is a positive joy to me to hear you talking
like this! And so there are better, truer things than the Dashwood
pride and the family pedigree. You have seen what noble womanhood can
do for itself, what a dignified thing honest labour is. Do you
remember what I said to you the night that you came to London, Mary?"

"I recollect," Mary whispered softly. "You prophesied for me. You said
that I should be better and purer for the sacrifice. You said that I
should see life as it is, and learn what a poor thing the family glory
was by the side of humanity. And I have learned the lesson, Ralph, I
am quite content now to work for my living; I am trying to forget
Dashwood and all its glories. Why, I have even become accustomed to
London bread and butter."

The girl burst into a merry laugh in which Ralph joined from pure
sympathy. Here was the model wife for which he had been looking.

"That is important," he said, "but there is another lesson that I am
anxious about. You have become a child of the people now, a recruit in
the great army of labour. But with your new womanhood has there not
come another and sweeter dream to you, Mary? Have you not pictured
someone by your side to help in the struggle?"

The girl's face flushed crimson, but she bravely met Ralph's eyes.

"Yes," she said frankly, "we were only talking about it last night.
Oh, I have gone a long way indeed since I saw you last."

"That is good to hear. And when the right man comes along you will not
refuse him simply because he does not have a long pedigree?"

"Please do not say too much about it," Mary pleaded. "If you only knew
how dreadfully ashamed you make me feel! As if it mattered, as if
anything mattered, so long as the woman loved the man and he was
worthy of her affection. There, Ralph, do you need me to say any more
than that! A man does not need a long pedigree or a fine estate to be
a gentleman. But, really, you are making me false to my creed, and I
shall not tell you anything else till I have seen Mrs. Speed. This is
the house. Will you wait outside?"

"Certainly not," Ralph said, "I have something to say to Mrs. Speed as
well as you. You will perhaps be surprised to hear that she is an old
friend of my father's. Come along."

Mrs. Speed came up from the kitchen very hot and very red, and
inclined to be angry at being disturbed at this time of the day. She
began to explain volubly to Mary why the boxes had not yet been sent
off. In the hall a man was calling for the landlady. She broke off in
her exclamations and stared at Ralph. She seemed terribly agitated,
her face grew white, her eyes astonished, as Ralph held out his hand.

"A ghost!" she said, "a ghost from the grave. And yet it could not be;
after all these years, it is impossible that the form of--well, what
is it?"

The man in the hall came swaggering into the room. He glanced at
Ralph, and would have vanished had not the latter detained him.

"This is an unexpected meeting," he said. "I did not expect to see you
here so far away from home, Sir Vincent Dashwood."

"Sir Vincent Dashwood!" Mrs. Speed cried. "Then who, sir, are _you_,
I'd like to know?"



CHAPTER XLIX.
A BOLT FROM THE BLUE


Just for a moment it looked as if Ralph's pretty scheme was destined
to fall to the ground. Naturally, Mary had the haziest idea of what
was taking place. She could only see that the man whom she knew as Sir
Vincent Dashwood was looking most terribly uneasy and casting
imploring glances at Mrs. Speed.

It seemed strange that anybody should in any way be craving the good
favours of the faded-looking woman, but such was the case. If she had
had lie so-called baronet's life in her hands he could not have
regarded her with more entreaty. And, as to her part, Mrs. Speed
looked from one man to the other in a dazed kind of way, as if she had
not the slightest idea what was taking place. Her face turned from red
to white and then to red again; she seemed to have some difficulty
with her breathing.

"I--I don't understand," she gasped. "You are asking for me. It must
be wrong to say that this gentleman is Sir Vincent Dashwood."

Ralph had recovered his equanimity by this time. His obvious course
now was to prevent Mary from guessing at the true nature of the
situation. She must not know yet. And she had been so sweet and frank
and candid with Ralph that not for the world would he have her know
the trick that had been played on her, yet. That confession would have
to come at the proper hour, with the proper setting, say the rose
garden at the dower house on a moonlight night.

"Nevertheless, I am quite correct," he said. "I assure you that the
gentleman who has just come in is no other than Sir Vincent Dashwood,
of Dashwood Hall. As a matter of fact, I was in the fortunate position
of placing a valuable proof of his identity in his way. But the matter
has developed itself so recently that it is possible few people know
of the change."

"Sir Vincent Dashwood!" Mrs. Speed repeated, as if the words had some
fascination for her. "And so he is Sir Vincent Dashwood. And who, sir,
may you be?"

The question came about in the form of a challenge. Mrs. Speed moved a
step forward as if to stand between Ralph and the other man. There was
just the suggestion of protection in the movement. Ralph smiled in
reply.

"It does not much matter who I am," he said. "As a matter of fact, my
name is Ralph Darnley, and I came to you with a message from the late
Ralph Dashwood, who, at one time, was married to your sister."

"You knew him very well?" the woman asked in the same dazed way.

"I knew him very well indeed," Ralph replied, "but that we will go
into presently. In the meantime, this young lady desires a word with
you. Perhaps you will be so good as to settle with her first, my
business will keep till afterwards."

And Ralph moved off in the direction of the passage. Dashwood could do
no more than follow him in the circumstances. He looked restless and
anxious and whistled rather ostentatiously to cover his agitation.

"Upon my word you have made it very awkward for me," he said. "I never
dreamed of seeing you here. Mrs. Speed is an old friend of yours, I
presume."

"I have never seen her before today," Ralph said, aroused by the
eagerness of the question, "I came to bring her a message as you
heard. She appeared to be surprised to see me, but not more than she
was surprised to hear of your new dignity."

"She didn't know it, you see," Dashwood explained. "I--I haven't told
her yet. She was very good to me in my poorer days, and I am grateful
for it. Still, she knows the truth now, and there is an end of it. Odd
that I should find you mixed up like this with quite a different phase
of my life. Don't you think so?"

"Not at all; it is not in the least odd if you knew everything. Still,
it does not matter. You can afford to disclose your identity now."

"But I can't," Dashwood replied, "those lawyer people are making a
great fuss. Anybody would think that they had the title and estate to
dispose of. All the family recognise my position, nobody makes the
least objection, and yet those solicitors ask for all kinds of
additional proofs. I don't half like it."

Ralph made no reply. He knew all about the objection raised by the
family lawyers and was in a position to enlighten Dashwood's mind to a
painful degree.

But all this would come in time; meanwhile, the puppet must play his
part in the comedy. Any further conversation was cut short by the
entrance of Mary. In a tentative kind of way Dashwood wanted to know
what she was doing here.

"No getting away from the old faces and the old places," he said. "I
come to see Mrs. Speed, so does Mr. Darnley, and you turn up at the
same time. What are you after?"

"It does not in the least matter," Mary said coldly. "I happened to be
staying under Mrs. Speed's roof at the time she had the misfortune to
change houses; in her hurry she took away with her certain things
belonging to me. I came to fetch them. It is very simple. Are you
quite ready to go, Mr. Darnley?"

"I think I will come," Ralph said impulsively. "What I have to say to
Mrs. Speed will keep till another day. She seems to be very unsettled
here as yet. Perhaps you will take that message to Mrs. Speed for me,
Sir Vincent?"

Dashwood's anxious features cleared wonderfully. His air had hitherto
been one of guarded suspicion. He had a vague idea that Ralph was
concealing something. It would be no fault of his if Mrs. Speed and
Darnley met again.

"Certainly, certainly," he said. "Is that your cab at the door, Mary?
Let me lend you a hand with those boxes. We shall have the pleasure of
seeing you down at Dashwood before long, I hope. Independence of
spirit is all very well, but you will find your new life a little
trying after a bit. And there is always a home for you at the Hall.
Drop me a line to say when you are coming. Goodbye."

The speaker fairly bundled Mary into the cab. Ralph followed with a
grim smile on his face. He was just as anxious to get away himself; it
would be a pity if his scheme broke down just as everything was going
on splendidly.

"What does it all mean?" Mary demanded as the cab drove away. "What
connection is there between that man and Mrs. Speed? And why did she
look at you as if you had been some accusing ghost? And why was our
friend so afraid that Mrs. Speed should know his new title?"

"What a list of questions!" Ralph laughed. "Would you mind if I
deferred the reply for a few days? Do you suspect that anything is
wrong?"

"Of course I do," Mary exclaimed. "That woman has some guilty
knowledge on her mind. So has Sir Vincent Dashwood. And you looked
angry and confused as he came in. I know that Mrs. Speed came
originally from our part, that she is the sister of Ralph Dashwood's
first wife. She knows all about the family quarrel and the tragedy
that followed. And she is in possession of certain papers that Vincent
Dashwood needs."

"How do you know that?" Ralph asked.

"I overheard the conversation at Keppel Terrace. Vincent Dashwood came
here to get those papers; I heard him say so. And he is at yonder
house today for the same purpose. If that man turns out to be an
impostor, why, my father----"

"I implore you not to build up on that," Ralph said warmly, "pray
don't. Your father will never be Sir George Dashwood. If you come back
to the Hall again in the same capacity as before, your experience----"

Mary laughed good-naturedly. Her face cleared; she discerned exactly
what was passing in the mind of her companion.

"Very well," she said, "I will dismiss that contingency from my mind.
Notwithstanding, I should dearly like to come back into my kingdom
again. But you need not be afraid that I should revert to the old
order of things. The change in me is permanent; the old pride and
coolness have gone; I have learned to love and feel for my kind. Do
you know what I would do if the property were mine? I would turn the
dower house into a retreat for broken-down artists and authors and the
like, where they could regain their strength and rest at no expense to
themselves. Oh, I would do so many things to render the lives of
deserving people happy."

Mary's cheeks glowed and her blue eyes sparkled with a tenderness that
Ralph had never seen in them before. There was soul in the girl's face
now, the soft expression without which woman's beauty counts for
nothing. And from the bottom of his heart Ralph was glad. It was hard
work to keep from Mary the fact that the kingdom she so longed for was
in her grasp.

"It does me good to hear you speak like that," he said. "No, I must
not come in, for I have a great deal to do. Give my kind regards to
Connie, and say that I shall call the next time I am in town. I am
very anxious to see Miss Cameron also. But you say she is coming down
to the dower house on Saturday. Goodbye."

Mary's hand lay in Ralph's for a moment and their eyes met. And then
the girl knew that Ralph still loved her, and the knowledge thrilled
her with a sudden happiness. She did not dare to stop and analyse her
feelings, but deep down in her heart she knew that when the time came
Ralph would have his own way.



CHAPTER L.
HARD PUT TO IT


With a sigh of passionate relief Vincent Dashwood watched the cab
drive away. He hardly knew what he had to fear, and yet he discovered
the fact that he had got rid of some great danger. True, Ralph Darnley
had more or less betrayed his secret to Mrs. Speed, but then that
discovery might have been made at any moment.

Dashwood called impatiently to the tenant of the house. No reply came.
He walked into the dining-room muttering to himself. Mrs. Speed stood
there by the fireplace, her hands clasped convulsively together, her
face hard and grey. Once in his life Dashwood had been in court and
heard a woman sentenced to death. It came back to him now that the
face of the criminal had looked exactly like Mrs. Speed's.

"What on earth is the matter with you?" he asked brutally.

"Wait a moment," the woman said hoarsely. "I was thinking, I was
trying to get it all clear in my brain. It seems impossible,
altogether preposterous. He told me that you were Sir Vincent
Dashwood. He wasn't mad, was he?"

"Perhaps not," Dashwood grinned, "but I shall think you are if you go
on like this. I didn't dare to tell you at first because you do such
foolish things. You are quite good enough to have written to the old
girl and told her everything. It is a very fortunate thing that Lady
Dashwood regards you as being no longer in the world."

"Is it? Are you sure that Lady Dashwood thinks me dead?"

"Of course she does. I got that out of her by judicious pumping. Now
that Ralph Darnley has given me away I can tell you the whole truth. I
got sick of plodding in the City on small pay and hard work. One or
two things you told me gave me an idea of the game. I got hold of all
those letters and things and learned them by heart. Gradually, the
whole story was mine. Then I pretended to you that I had something to
do in the north. I didn't go north at all; I went down to Dashwood and
introduced myself to the old lady. She asked me a lot of questions,
and I replied to them satisfactorily. Of course, she did not recognise
me as the boy I was when we left the parish seventeen years ago. And
she put old Slight on me, too. Well, I satisfied old Slight, too,
though at the first go-off he also regarded me as an impostor. Still,
I hadn't the nerve to go the whole thing, and pretended that I desired
to wait till the old lady was dead. And she was so much in love with
the girl who was here just now that she allowed me to have my own way.
It was only when I looked like getting into trouble over a charge of
burning the Hall down that I had to speak. And blest if Ralph Darnley
did not come forward and produce the very marriage certificate that I
needed. It was as easy as falling off a house. Everybody gave way to
me without a struggle, I stepped into the estate and the title. That
is not more than a week ago. The only people who made a fuss were the
lawyers. That is why I came to you for those letters. But I shall soon
stop the mouths of those old landsharks, and then we shall have a good
time. No more dodging about and worrying over your rent in the future,
mother."

But Mrs. Speed shared no joy in the prospect of her emancipation. The
grey look had not left her face and the strained terror was still in
her eyes.

"I didn't mind it," she said. "At any rate, I have tried to be honest.
And so you claimed the estate of the Dashwoods on the ground that you
are the son of Ralph Dashwood, and all the time Ralph Darnley, as he
calls himself, was looking on. Has the man any bitter grudge against
you?"

"Why should he? I never saw him in my life till a little less than a
month ago."

"And he permits this farce to go on! Why? What strange scheme has he
in his mind? Oh, why did he not turn up before, and prevent this great
temptation from being forced on you?"

The listener stared in astonishment at Mrs. Speed. A feeling of danger
troubled him. He caught the woman almost roughly by the shoulder and
shook her.

"What is the matter with you?" he demanded. "Why can't you speak out?
Who is this Ralph Darnley that you should be in such mortal fear of
him?"

"There is no Ralph Darnley," Mrs. Speed cried. "That man is Ralph
Dashwood, the son of the Dashwood who married my sister and then
disappeared. How do I know? Why, he is the very image of his father,
as the latter was as a young fellow. Directly he came into the room
just now I recognised him. You could have knocked me down with a
feather. I have a portrait of Ralph Dashwood upstairs--I only turned
it out last night. And when I show you that photo you will have no
doubts as to who this Ralph Darnley is. Why he is allowing you to
stand in his shoes is a mystery. When he comes to declare his identity
he will make very short work of _you_, Vincent."

"Go up and get that photograph," the listener said hoarsely, "I'll get
to the bottom of this."

The photograph was a faded one, but there was no comfort in it for the
man who chose to call himself Vincent Dashwood. It was exactly as his
mother had said. Making due allowances for the change in fashion and
dress, it was Ralph Darnley who smiled out of the photograph into
Vincent Speed's terrified eyes.

"You're right," he said, "right as rain. No use disputing the thing in
the face of evidence like that. But what is that chap waiting for, why
is he making a cat's paw of me like this? No wonder that he could
supply me with a copy of the marriage certificate of his father's
second matrimonial venture when he was the offspring of the alliance.
The question is, How much longer is he going to keep me on the string?
Still, nobody else knows. The best thing I can do is to push a
mortgage through and make myself secure with as much money as I can
lay my hands on. Perhaps I may manage to bamboozle Lady Dashwood out
of a bit more. At any rate, she does not know anything of this
business, for----"

"Fool," Mrs. Speed cried, "of course she knows. Hasn't she seen Ralph
Darnley?"

"Well, yes, he seems to be a prime favourite at the dower house."

"Naturally. Why, as soon as her ladyship set eyes upon the young
fellow who chooses to call himself Ralph Darnley she would recognise
him. Do you suppose that you could deceive a mother over a thing like
that? She recognised him instantly. So did old Slight. So would
anybody who knew his father."

"Then why on earth didn't he kick me into the street?"

"Who can tell? Perhaps he came back to see how things were before he
disclosed himself. At any rate, he has fooled you. Oh, why do you stay
here like this, when at this very moment there may be a warrant out
for your arrest?"

Vincent Speed, to call him by his proper name, started and changed
colour. It seemed hard to lose everything just as the whole world was
in his grasp. At any rate, he would not go empty away, he would bluff
it a little longer. Let him have a week or so, and then the foe could
do as he pleased. It would be an easy matter to raise a vast sum of
money on the family estates.

"I can't go back now," he said, "I must carry on the game till I have
made it worth while. And it is a strange thing to me if Lady Dashwood
knows anything. She is too simple-minded to be able to keep up the
deception. She would show it in her manner if she had made the
discovery that I am an impostor. She is just the same to me as she
ever was. Swells of that sort are not given to conceal their feelings.

"Oh, are they not?" Mrs. Speed said bitterly, "I know better. They can
stoop like the rest of us when it suits their book to do so. Well, go
your own way, and see what you can do, Vincent. It is just possible
that when the time comes, I can find a way to win Lady Dashwood over
to our side; at least, I can use her as an advocate for clemency as
far as you are concerned."

"What do you mean by that?" Speed asked eagerly.

"I will not tell you," Mrs. Speed said with some show of firmness, "I
have let you learn too much already. And the secret is not entirely
mine. Now you go your way, and let me hear from you how things are
going. But they can only go in one way. Badly as you have used me, bad
son as you are, I can't forget that you _are_ my son. It is no fine
thing to be a woman----men never suffer as we do."

Vincent Speed went away with a troubled mind and an uneasy feeling
that some disaster was hanging over him. The more he thought over the
disclosures of the past hour, the more they puzzled him. Well, he
would have to struggle on a little longer, until he had a large sum of
money at his disposal. He drove down to Bedford Row, where the office
of the family solicitors was situated, and sent in his card to the
head of the firm. The latter received him with somewhat cold
politeness--he would like to know what he could do for Sir Vincent.

Speed went on to explain. But no response came from the clean-shaven
man on the far side of the table. Mr. Morley shook his head.

"We can't do it," he said. "In the present circumstances it is
impossible. Of course, we have many clients who would be prepared to
lend money on the Dashwood property, but we are not yet satisfied as
to--er--the legal aspect of your claim. Till that point is cleared up
to our satisfaction, we must decline both to arrange the mortgage or
even to part with the deeds relating to the property."

Speed protested, but protested in vain. And nothing moved the
iron-faced man from his purpose; he might have been a statue for all
he heeded those threats and expostulations.



CHAPTER LI.
COLD COMFORT


In an aimless kind of way Speed stepped into the street and turned his
steps in the direction of the City. It had occurred to him almost in
the light of an inspiration that Horace Mayfield might be of use at
this juncture. Mayfield's office was full of clients; the place had an
air of prosperity. But the head of the firm looked tired and jaded as
Speed came into his private room; the fingers on his cigarette shook
terribly.

"Sit down," Mayfield said curtly, "I have been wondering what had
become of you. I have been expecting to hear about that sum of money
we spoke of. Now that you have come so easily into the estate there
can be no difficulty. The man who calls himself Ralph Darnley
evidently is not aware of his own identity."

"Oh, isn't he?" Speed sneered, "that's just where you make the
mistake. I have had no end of an eye-opener this morning, in fact,
what you might call a regular staggerer. It came from my mother. I
wish that I had taken her into my confidence from the first. But
perhaps I had better tell you all about it."

"It would perhaps be as well," Mayfield said grimly. "Go on."

Speed proceeded to tell his story. Long before he had finished
Mayfield's grey face became still more ashen and the fingers on his
cigarette trembled visibly.

"So the ship has foundered," he said. "I've got a shrewd idea as to
the game that Darnley is playing. I took that man for a fool. As a
matter of fact, he is the cleverest chap I ever came across. To be
candid, I did his father out of a lot of money. I played much the same
game with Sir George Dashwood. And it seemed to me that Ralph Darnley
was going to take it lying down. He made no face; he took no
proceedings. And then it came upon me like a thunderbolt. At the time
he was working up a case against me. He put it into the hands of the
cleverest firm of criminal lawyers in London. He arranged such a
damning lot of facts before me that I was bound to sacrifice
everything to save a prosecution. I scraped the money together from
all kinds of sources. I robbed other clients to get it. At the moment
all my speculations go wrong, of course. I'm in a desperate hole,
Speed; there isn't a man in London who is in such a hole today. If I
don't get £30,000 by Monday I shall have to bolt--and there is no safe
place to bolt to nowadays. You will have to get me this money on
mortgage."

"But I can't," Speed protested. "I went to the family lawyers just
now, and they refused to have anything to do with it. Said they were
by no means satisfied as to my legal position. They went so far as to
declare they not only decline to raise money on the estate, but they
refuse to give up the deeds."

Something like a groan came from Mayfield's lips, but his busy brain
was working all the time. He saw where the difficulty lay. With Ralph
out of the way he could, and would, crush Speed like a fly. He would
expose the impostor without mercy, and then things would revert to the
old order as they were before Ralph Darnley appeared.

An accident to Ralph Darnley! The real owner of the estate out of the
way! Properly manipulated, this might mean the recovery of that money
from Darnley's solicitors. It would at any rate mean the return of
George Dashwood to his own once more, the putting of the screw on
Mary. The idea whirled in Mayfield's mind like a dazzling wheel. He
did not dare to look at Speed; he was afraid of the tale his eyes
might tell.

"I must have time to think this over," he said. "Meanwhile, you had
better return to Dashwood as if nothing out of the common had
happened. I'll come down and dine with you tomorrow night and stay
till the morning. Then get hold of this so-called Darnley, and see if
you can pump any further information out of him. If you could possibly
induce him to dine with us so much the better. Only, if I were you, I
should not say that you had asked me. I've got a scheme working in my
mind, but it is not quite safe as yet, so we need not discuss it."

"All right," Speed said moodily, "you are a much cleverer chap than I
am, and I shall rely on you to find some way out of the trouble. When
I think what is slipping through my fingers like this, I could commit
murder."

Speed spoke vehemently, with a voice that rasped hoarsely. Mayfield
started, to find that his thoughts and Speed's were running in such
parallel grooves. He made a gesture of impatience, indicating that he
should like to be alone. Speed lounged out, lunched freely, and, with
the courage that is born of wine, took his way to the station with a
resolve to return to Dashwood without delay.

Everything seemed just the same there; there was no suggestion that
anybody knew of the deceit which had been practised on the old house.
Even Slight appeared to be more respectful than usual, but this was
all prearranged; Ralph had travelled down by the same train as Speed,
and Slight was fresh from an interview with the man whom he called his
master. It was after tea that Speed went over to the dower house. His
heart was beating a little faster than usual; he felt his colour come
and go as Lady Dashwood came into the garden with a basket and a pair
of scissors in her hand. Her greeting was cold and formal as usual;
but Speed could not detect any change in her manner.

"Let me hold the basket for you," he said graciously. "You are going
to get some roses?"

"Yes," Lady Dashwood replied, "I prefer to arrange my own flowers. And
I have a young friend coming to stay with me tomorrow, an acquaintance
of Mary's."

So far all was well, for the speaker did not refer to Mary as Miss
Dashwood; it was evident to Speed that he was still regarded as one of
the family. He wondered if Lady Dashwood had any idea as to his real
identity.

"I saw Mary today," he said. "She had been lodging with a woman I
know, a Mrs. Speed. She has been very unfortunate of late, and----"

"I know Mrs. Speed quite well," Lady Dashwood replied. "Her father
was a tenant on the estate many years ago. And I have heard all about
the misfortune. In fact, I was in London yesterday, and called upon
Mrs. Speed, who had written to me. What is the matter?"

"A thorn from one of the roses," Speed said in some confusion, "in my
finger."

He was staggered at the information delivered in Lady Dashwood's
quiet, level voice. Why had his mother not told him? Why had she
withheld this fact from him? Perhaps she had forgotten it in the
agitation of the startling disclosures of the morning. But Speed took
fresh heart of grace from the news. That Lady Dashwood was not talking
at him he felt certain; her voice was too matter of fact for that.

"That's a strange thing," Speed continued to say in a fairly steady
voice. "I did not know it before. Let me get the roses for you from
the top of the tree, they are so much finer. Have you seen anything of
Ralph Darnley lately?"

"Not for a day or two," Lady Dashwood replied. "He has been in London,
but I believe that he is coming back some time today, and I should not
be surprised if he came over here later."

As a matter of fact Ralph put in an appearance before the basket of
roses was filled. If the suspicions of Speed had been rocked to sleep,
they were awakened now, when he saw the way in which Lady Dashwood
smiled at the newcomer. There was real affection in her glance; the
pressure of her hand was warm and clinging.

"So you have come back again," she said, "I have quite missed you. And
I have felt so lonely all day. Won't you take pity on me and dine with
me tonight?"

Ralph expressed his gratification at the request. There was no fault
to find with his manner towards Speed. The latter was puzzled and
worried.

"You have not dined with me yet," he said. "What do you say to coming
in tomorrow at half-past seven? Positively, I won't take a refusal."

Ralph hesitated just for a moment. Perhaps a feeling of curiosity
moved him, for he inclined his head presently with a smile.

It was hard work to keep up appearances with this man, but it was not
going to be for much longer. Ralph had made up his mind to that as
soon as he had parted with Mary that morning.

"I shall be pleased," he said, "Lady Dashwood, won't you let me come
into the house and help to arrange those flowers? I have a woman's
weakness for that sort of thing. You should see how the roses grow in
California."

The pair walked towards the house and Speed lounged away. On the whole
he had no cause to be dissatisfied with the afternoon's work. He was
still puzzled and uneasy, but Lady Dashwood's manner had gone a long
way to reassure him. But he was frightened over Lady Dashwood's visit
to his mother. He was inclined to be bitter against the latter because
she had not told him. The problem still filled his mind as he reached
the Hall and stumbled into the dining-room. He poured himself out a
large glass of whisky and soda, and took a cigarette from the silver
box on the table. And there on the table beside the cigarettes lay a
telegram. Speed tore it open and rapidly cast his eye over the
contents:--

"Make no mistake as to Darnley tomorrow night. He must dine
with you. All arrangements made and plan complete. Wire reply
immediately.--Mayfield."

Speed chuckled to himself as he filled in the reply form. If Mayfield
had laid his plans after his own fashion then success was bound to
follow.



CHAPTER LII.
THE SPIDER'S WEB


Speed rose next morning with a sense of his dangers and
responsibilities. He had sat up late the night before, thinking things
over to the accompaniment of much whisky and soda. Therefore, his head
was heavy and his eyes were dull as he crept down late to breakfast.
He was inclined to take the gloomiest view of the situation; the
cheerfulness of Mr. George Dashwood irritated him.

Whatever Dashwood's faults were, he did not number dissipation of
that degrading kind amongst them. He looked cheerful enough as he
sat before the open window reading the paper and smoking an
after-breakfast cigarette. He greeted Speed heartily.

"Why do you smoke here?" the latter growled. "You know I can't stand
the smell of tobacco before I've had my breakfast. Go outside and
finish it."

"All right, my dear fellow," Dashwood said politely. There was
something almost cringing in his manner. "Sorry to annoy you. Fine
morning."

The speaker appeared anxious to please. He wanted to ignore the
unpleasant feeling that Speed despised him. There was little chance
now of burning incense on the altar of family pride; Speed took care
of that. He was at no pains to conceal the fact that he regarded
Dashwood as a pensioner, dependent upon his bounty, and to be treated
accordingly. Dashwood had fallen a long way indeed when he accepted
the hospitality of his supplanter.

"What a confounded nuisance that old beggar is," he muttered, heedless
of the fact that Slight stood by the sideboard. "I shall have to get
rid of him altogether. If he had the spirit of a man he would not stay
here. And they talk of the pride of the Dashwoods. Slight, why aren't
there any curried eggs and some devilled kidneys? Am I always to be
telling you about it? What a fine thing it is to be a pampered, lazy
lout of a man-servant. What are you gaping at?"

"The eggs are under the silver cover, sir," Slight replied. "The
kidneys are here over the spirit lamp, sir. The rest of your remarks
are unnecessary, sir."

"Oh, are they? Did you behave in this insolent way in Sir Ralph's
time?"

"Sir Ralph was a gentleman, sir. He knew how to speak to his
dependents."

"Oh, did he?" Speed roared, "I suppose I don't. If I like to swear at
my confounded flunkeys I'll do it. They can take it out in extra
wages. If this kind of thing goes on we shall part, Slight."

"Very good, sir," Slight responded. "You have only to say the word.
You may be interested to hear that only last night I had great
difficulty in preventing the whole of the servants from resigning in a
body."

Speed had no more to say. He was half afraid of a quarrel to the end
with Slight. The latter knew too much. The studied insolence that
underlay his respectful manner proved that. He moved about the room
now with the air of a man who is depriving himself of the decencies of
life. He poured out the coffee in a lordly way, as if under protest.
Speed made advances towards conciliation.

"Mr. Mayfield is coming down tonight," he said, "he will dine here and
probably stay till tomorrow. Tell the housekeeper this. Mr. Darnley
will dine here also. I should like the cook to be sure of something
extra. I can leave you to see to the wines."

"Mr. Darnley dining here, sir?" Slight asked with a rising inflection
of voice. "Coming here tonight to meet that--I mean, Mr. Mayfield?"

"Well, why not? Any objection to make, Slight? Any little alteration
to suit you? You have only to mention it."

Slight muttered a hasty apology. He had come very near to betraying
himself. As he looked into Speed's bloodshot eyes he saw something
there that filled his heart with a sudden fear. For the old man knew
everything; there was not a single move in the game with which he was
not acquainted.

But Speed had forgotten all about Slight and his little slip. A small
liqueur and a cigarette put him on good terms with himself once more.
It was a beautiful day, too, with a soft breeze and brilliant
sunshine. Across the park the deer were moving in a dappled line; the
fine old gardens were looking their very best. As Speed paced up and
down the terrace one gardener and another touched their hats to him.
It filled him with a feeling of pleasure--flattered self-importance.
It was worth the risk to be the head of a place like this, to feel
that it was all his own. And only two years before he had been the
slave of the pen, the toady of a sweating employer.

Speed felt that he could never give it up again. In his heart he was a
murderer, so far as Ralph Darnley was concerned. He had read somewhere
that there were several different kinds of poisons that left no trace
behind. One of these was the virus of the cobra. No doubt that could
be obtained in London, where money could procure anything. A drop of
that, and Ralph Darnley was a dead man. Nobody would be any the wiser,
it would be assumed that he had died of heart failure. A comparatively
small outlay might procure the poison. It would be worth while going
to London to see.

In these circumstances Speed knew that he would not have hesitated. He
really could not give up the place. He had always naturally been of
extravagant, luxurious tastes, and now he was in a position to gratify
them to the full. The new West End tailor grovelled before him;
jewellers and wine and cigar merchants laid their stocks at his feet;
he had only to choose the list. If he rang the bell a score of
servants were ready to wait on him; the costliest wines were at his
disposal.

No, it would be impossible to give it up. Speed's mind kept harping on
the matter of those poisons. He must try to find out where they could
be procured. Once Ralph Darnley was out of the way, nobody would
trouble him any more. Once that event happened nobody would dispute
his claim. But then perhaps Mayfield had an idea. Mayfield was a
clever, long-headed chap, who was not disposed to be scrupulous. On
the whole, perhaps it would be as well to leave things to Mayfield.

There would be plenty of time to discuss matters before dinner. There
was more than time as it turned out, for Mayfield arrived unexpectedly
before luncheon. He looked drawn and worried, Speed thought, but there
was a grim determination in his eye that Speed liked. Mr. Dashwood met
Mayfield in the friendliest possible manner. If he felt any disgust
towards the newcomer he disguised it very effectively. He went off
presently under a strong hint that his host and Mayfield had some
important business to discuss. He was going as far as Longtown, he
said, and should not be back before dinner.

"That's the way to get rid of him," Speed said as he lay back in his
chair, a large cigar between his lips. Slight had placed the wine on
the table and vanished. "What a useless old encumbrance he is about
the house. I shall have to get rid of him, Mayfield. When I wrote my
generous offer I hoped that Mary would come, too. Those confounded
servants want keeping in hand, and, besides, nobody seems to care
about calling here, so long as there is nothing in the shape of a
mistress about the place."

"Everybody has been wise," Mayfield said cynically. "Anyway, I am glad
you have not got rid of old Dashwood yet. He is going to be a puppet
in the play. We shall be able to make a very effective use of him
before the day is out. Nothing happened yet, no kind of move on the
part of the foe, I suppose?"

"No," Speed explained, "nothing. I saw Lady Dashwood last night. She
treated me just in the same way as usual, which is all the more
strange if she knows who I really am."

"I don't suppose for a moment that she knows who you really are,"
Mayfield said. "She may know who you are not--and that's her grandson.
But if Darnley was out of the way things would be quite different.
Nobody would worry you any longer. How did you manage to get him to
come and dine here tonight?"

"The thing worked out easily enough. I simply asked him and he said
yes. He hesitated just for a moment, and then he smiled in a queer
kind of way. But one thing you may be sure of--he would not have come
had he known that he was going to meet you."

"Perhaps not," Mayfield grinned. "Shall we dine here tonight?"

The question was put so abruptly that Speed started. He could see that
something evil was brooding in the mind of his companion. Mayfield's
eyes were taking in the arrangements of the room as a general might
survey a field of battle. There were three long windows in the room,
leading to a kind of balcony outside. In front of one of the windows
was a double screen in carved oak, which shielded the window and made
it into a kind of alcove. Mayfield noted all this with grim
satisfaction, for a smile played about the corners of his hard mouth.

"I asked you if we dined here tonight?" he said again.

"Oh, yes. Why not? We generally dine here--it is so much more pleasant
a room than the big dining hall. Why do you ask?"

"We will come to that presently," Mayfield replied. "I take it that
those windows open to the terrace outside. Is there a seat behind that
screen? I mean a seat that one could lounge in."

"A big armchair," Speed whispered. "What are you driving at?"



CHAPTER LIII.
THE WEB TIGHTENS


"We shall get to the point all in good time," Mayfield said
deliberately. "That screen forms a kind of cosy corner and entrance to
the terrace. If a good dinner gave you a headache, and you could not
stand the light, you might do worse than sit in the big chair and
smoke there whilst the others sat around the table. I planned it all
out coming along, with the recollection of this room in my mind. But
the geographical situation is even better than I anticipated."

"What on earth are you driving at?" Speed asked with nervous
irritation.

Mayfield laughed. There was something hard and grating in his mirth.

"Well, I'll put it in the form of a parable if you like," he said.
"Suppose that you and I found ourselves in a very tight place. It
wants no imagination to conceive that, you say. Very well, the
situation is granted. We are in the warm corner, and the same man is
keeping us there. I need not say I am alluding to Ralph Darnley. If I
don't get him out of the way, I am a ruined man. Another few days, and
I shall have to fly the country in disgrace; I shall be brought back
and put on my trial. The result of that trial is a foregone conclusion
and society will be deprived of my presence for some years to come. My
only hope is in help of a substantial nature from you."

"That's all right," Speed whispered hoarsely, "you shall have as much
as you like, if you will only show me the way to raise the money."

"That's precisely what I am going to do. Darnley must be got of the
way. Then you will have all the money you need. Listen to me. Darnley
dines here tonight. He will not stay late because of my presence. When
the dinner is practically finished you will plead a headache, and go
and sit in that big chair with the window open. From time to time you
will put in a remark to show that you are still there. When Darnley
rises to go I shall walk as far as the hall with him and help him on
with his coat. It may happen that he will smoke a cigar that I shall
select for him--a fresh cigar to carry him home. A few whiffs of that
cigar will make him very giddy, for my cigars are strong. I have made
arrangements for a message to come to Darnley about half past ten
saying that Lady Dashwood desires to see him at the dower house
tonight.

"Now, if my memory serves me correctly, the quickest way to the dower
house is along the terrace here. Darnley will go that way. He will be
very giddy and sleepy. You are in the alcove whilst I am talking to
old Dashwood. This is where Dashwood comes in, where he will be a
witness for me. As Darnley staggers along, you get out on to the
terrace. You happen to have a loaded stick handy. I don't wish to
suggest any connection between the two events, but it is just possible
that Darnley will be found in the park tomorrow morning, with his head
split open and his pockets empty. That would be a fortunate accident
for us."

"Yes," Speed said with chattering teeth, "it--it would. But I don't
quite----"

"Oh, the rest is quite easy. I call to you directly I fancy things are
safe, and you come into the room grumbling at the light. I only want
you to answer a question, and so prove that you have been in the room
all the time. We don't lose sight of one another after that, not till
everybody has gone to bed, when I slip out and place the body so that
it can be found to look as if robbery had been the motive. Can you do
it?"

Speed nodded without reply. The room had grown suddenly dark, for a
thunderstorm had come up from the west. There was a lurid flash of
lightning followed by a clap of thunder, and then the rain came down
in torrents. It was only a matter of ten minutes before the light came
back again. Speed nodded once more.

"All right," he whispered, "I am a fairly powerful man, and
physically, I have nothing to fear from Ralph Darnley. Besides, you
say he will not be in a condition. . . . It's a dreadful thing to
think of, Mayfield, but I can't give this up. I really couldn't go
back to the old life of drudgery again. Only please don't revert to
the subject. Let us have another glass of wine and forget all about it
for the time being."

The afternoon wore on; evening came at length, and presently with it,
Ralph Darnley. He entered the big dining-room where the others awaited
him. His easy manner changed as he caught sight of Mayfield. Just for
the moment he felt a desire to walk out of the room and leave the
house. He had not expected an insult like this. But, on the other
hand, he had asked no questions; he had accepted the invitation as
much out of curiosity as anything else, and, besides, Mary's father
was there. And Ralph had been in more questionable circumstances
before now.

"I think you know Mayfield," Speed said carelessly.

"We have met on several occasions," Ralph said quietly, "we have had
business relations together. But I hardly expected the pleasure."

"Well, you have nothing to regret as far as the business relations are
concerned," Mayfield said with a laugh. "Still, it is possible to
forget all about that for the moment. My friend, Sp--I mean, Sir
Vincent, has asked me to stay here for a night. Upon my word, he is a
man to be envied! It isn't often that a place like this tumbles into a
man's lap. With most of us virtue is its own reward."

Ralph made some suitable reply. He was annoyed and angry with himself
for coming. But there was no getting out of it now; he would have to
go on till half-past ten at least. It was a relief in its way when
Slight came in with the announcement that dinner was ready. That meal
would occupy two hours at least.

There was everything set out just as it had been in the old days, and
yet there was a subtle difference. The house lacked the presence of a
mistress; it needed the refining influence of a woman. And, in his
mind's eye, Ralph saw the woman there, smiling and tender at the head
of the table, her eyes looking into his. It was worth all the
discomfort and unpleasantness of such a meal to know that the time
would not be long now. The puppets had nearly finished their parts,
and the hour for their removal was close at hand.

But the dinner dragged all the same; only Mr. Dashwood made spasmodic
efforts at keeping up the nagging conversation. He was fitfully gay,
perhaps he noted the look of displeasure in Ralph's eyes.

The cloth was removed at length and the wines sparkled red and white
under the soft, shaded lamps. Mayfield slipped out of the room
presently under pretence that he had forgotten his cigar case.
Directly he entered he turned to Ralph.

"A message has come for you," he said. "Lady Dashwood would like to
see you at the dower house on your way home. She will not detain you
long."

"In that case I must not be late," Ralph replied. He was glad of the
excuse to get away a little sooner than he had expected. "What is the
matter with our host?"

For Speed had started, the cigar fell from his fingers. The false
message was a signal to him that the tragedy had begun, and he was
expected to play his part when the time came. He placed his hand to
his head and groaned.

"A bilious headache," he said, "they give me a lot of trouble from
time to time. This one has been coming on all day. The light hurts my
eyes fearfully. If you will excuse me, I'll go and sit in the shade
behind the screen. I shall be able to hear all that is going on from
there."

Ralph murmured his sympathy. All he wanted to do now was to get away.
He was heartily sorry that he had come at all. Half an hour slipped
away, half an hour's talk about mining speculation, to which Mr.
Dashwood listened eagerly. Everything in the nature of gambling always
appealed to him.

"I am afraid I must be going," Ralph said. "It is necessary for me to
get away early if I am to see Lady Dashwood tonight."

"Don't go without a cigar," Mayfield urged as he proffered his case.
"There are no finer cigars in the world, though I say it myself. Do
try one."

Ralph held out his hand for the case. It certainly was an excellent
cigar. There was something very soothing about it. Mayfield followed
Ralph into the hall, only to return a moment later with the
information that the visitor had departed. Then came the sound of a
movement from behind the screen, followed by what might have been a
moan of pain.

"Poor chap," Mayfield said with ready sympathy. "Now let me go on, Mr.
Dashwood, and explain to you what I meant about those South African
shares. I want to prove to you what a good thing they are, if only you
have the pluck to take them and hold them."

"Provided that you've got the money," Dashwood laughed, "but, as you
are aware, I have no money; fortune has been very unkind to me lately.
Still, on the other hand--but you do not seem to be listening to me."

"I--I beg your pardon," Mayfield stammered, "I am listening to
something outside. Let us ask Sir Vincent if his head is well enough
to offer an opinion. I say, Dashwood, would you mind coming here for a
moment. Your relation here says----"

"All right," came a little voice from behind the screen, "I'm coming.
Why can't you leave a fellow alone? I declare I'm shaking from head to
foot with cold. Let us sit here out of the draught. . . . I'm fairly
stung with the cold."

The speaker's teeth were chattering, his face was a ghastly blue
colour. And, for a long time afterwards, nobody spoke besides Mr.
George Dashwood!



CHAPTER LIV.
"EYES CLEARER GROWN--"


"I'm glad she's gone," Connie exclaimed as the cab drove away and the
last flutter of Grace's handkerchief had vanished. "Let us hope she
will have a happy time with Lady Dashwood. But why didn't your dear
relative fetch her as arranged? Why that telegram? I hope there is
nothing wrong at the dower house?"

"Of course there is nothing wrong," Mary laughed. "It is not like you
to imagine things. What is the matter with you this morning, Connie?"

Connie remarked tearfully that she did not know. For once in a way she
was on the verge of tears. Perhaps she missed Grace, for her manner
had changed, directly the cab was gone.

"Now I am going to know all about it," said Mary. "You are the dearest
friend I have ever made as yet, and it hurts me for you to keep a
secret from me."

"What a change!" Connie said, a smile flashing through her tears.
"What has become of the cold, reserved girl that I met some days ago
at Victoria Station? Well, I'll tell you what is the matter. You know
that I lost those sketches the night Mrs. Speed went away and left us
in the lurch. They were badly needed, and I could not supply them.
They had to fake up some old blocks and it caused no end of trouble.
The long and short of it is that last night I had a curt intimation
that I need not expect to get any more work for the _Wheezer_. It
means that my poor little weekly income has vanished for the present.
It's very hard just at a time when----"

"Oh, my dear," Mary cried, "how dreadful! And this is why you kept up
before----"

"Before Grace. I could not possibly tell her, it would have been
hateful to spoil her pleasure like that. But it has been hard work,
Mary. Two or three times today I have had to struggle to keep from
positive blubbering. I hate to snivel, but I suppose we are all prone
to that at times. What to do I don't know."

Mary looked up from the packs of postcards she was engaged upon.

"Please don't worry," she said, "it isn't as if we were penniless. I
am certain that you will get something to do before long."

"My dear girl, don't forget that the rent and the bread and butter go
on just the same. And don't forget either that whilst the grass grows
the steed starves."

"Not when the other steed has plenty of oats to spare," Mary laughed.
"What do you think of that for an epigram? If painting fails, I shall
take to literature. I'm quite sure that I shall be as good an author
as an artist. Don't think me hard or unsympathetic, Connie. I know how
good you are, I know that you would cheerfully share your last
shilling with me, little as I deserve it. And I am going to do the
same by you. I have some three pounds left of the money I borrowed
from that convenient relative at the pawnshop, and I calculate that I
can raise quite two hundred pounds altogether. Within a short time you
will find fresh work to do."

Connie's tears were falling freely now. The burst of grief seemed to
do her good, for the sunny April smile flashed out again.

"You shall do as you like, dearest," she said. "Pride is a very sinful
luxury for people in my position. And I had forgotten all about that
Pandora's box of yours. It is just possible that on the strength of my
_Wheezer_ work I may get a commission from the _Honeysuckle Weekly_. I
believe they pay a slightly better price than the other papers. Let us
have an early lunch, and then I can go the round of the offices. Don't
worry if I am back late. And you can have a good long afternoon at the
postcards."

Mary had a long afternoon at the postcards indeed, for tea had been a
thing of the past for some time, and as yet Connie had not returned.
Her head was aching now and her hands were stiff with the toil. How
hot and stifling it was, how different to the coolness of the dower
house. And Grace was there by this time, doubtless.

Mary's day-dreams vanished suddenly at the sound of a cab outside.
Connie stepped out of the cab, followed by a talk, manly figure in a
frock coat. From his quiet air and manner Mary put the stranger down
at once as a doctor. She had little time to speculate as to that, for
she saw to her distress that Connie's hat was off and that her head
was bandaged up with a handkerchief. She staggered as she reached the
pavement, and would have fallen but for the man by her side. Mary flew
to the door with words of quick sympathy on her lips. She could see a
curious tender smile on Connie's lips; her face was red; her eyes were
shining with some great happiness.

"Not much the matter," she said. "I got jumbled up in the Strand, and
the side-slipping of a motor threw me under a dray. The wheels did not
go over me, and I have not come home to die or anything of that kind.
I got a blow on the head, and I suppose I fainted. When I came to
myself I was in Charing Cross Hospital. Dr. Newcome was very kind to
me, and insisted on seeing me home in a cab. Strange as it may seem,
Dr. Newcome is an old acquaintance of mine, Mary. This is Miss
Dashwood."

"I am very happy to see you," the doctor said in a pleasant voice. "I
am also glad to say that there is very little the matter with Miss
Colam. I am almost glad of the accident because it has brought Miss
Colam and myself in contact once more. I met her two years ago at
Hastings, when I was getting over a bad illness."

"Then Dr. Newcome is your doctor, Connie," Mary cried.

Connie flushed to her eyes. The stranger dropped his _Evening
Standard_ on the table and affected to fold it neatly.

"I wish I could think so," he said. "We only met for a day. Dreadfully
unconventional, was it not? But I was very lonely at that time and
very ill. My outlook was rather gloomy, too. But I wanted to see Miss
Colam again, and when I got back to London I called at her rooms only
to find her gone. I hope she will believe me when I say that I have
been looking for her ever since."

"The fortune of war," Connie said with a red face. "Nomads like
ourselves are always changing quarters. And here I am just as poor as
I was that day at Fairlight. I hope you can say more for your
prospects, Dr. Newcome?"

"I have been very fortunate," Newcome said gravely. "A distant
relative died and left me some money. The money arrived just in time
to enable me to buy an exceedingly good practice. I was calling on a
house surgeon friend of mine at Charing Cross, when Miss Colam came
in. And I do hope she won't change her lodgings again without letting
me know."

There was no mistaking the significance of the last few words. Clearly
Connie had found the haven of rest for which her tired soul at times
longed for. Mary remembered what she had said as to the man to cling
to for protection in the hour of need, and what a blessed thing the
man's love was for the lonely and depressed. In her mind's eye Mary
could see herself alone in those dingy lodgings, painting her
postcards and waiting for, what? It was, perhaps natural that the
figure of Ralph Darnley should rise before her now.

"I won't," Connie promised. "You will come and see me again, Dr.
Newcome?"

Newcome promised eagerly. He would be in town again in a day or two.
Would the girls dine with him, and go to the theatre afterwards? He
had an aunt in London, who he was sure would join the party. He would
ask her to call on Connie.

"So this is an end of _your_ trouble," Mary laughed, when Newcome had
departed. "It is quite plain to me that you will very soon have the
share of that practice at your disposal, dear. And if the happy
expression of your face means anything, it tells me that you are not
going to refuse the offer."

Connie hid her blushing face and laughed. She remarked that Dr.
Newcome had left his paper behind him. With some show of interest, she
turned over the paper. Then she stopped, and a little cry broke from
her.

"Oh, Mary, listen to this!" she exclaimed. "'Mysterious outrage in
Dashwood Park. Only this morning the body of a well dressed man was
found lying in the avenue of Dashwood Park, the residence of Sir
Vincent Dashwood. Robbery appears to have been the motive, for the
pockets of the unfortunate man had been turned out, and his watch and
chain were gone. As the sufferer was in evening dress, and had every
appearance of being a gentleman, inquiries were made, with the result
that the gentleman has been identified as Ralph Darnley. He is at
present lying at the dower house in a precarious condition!'"

With a broken cry Mary rose to her feet. Her face was white as death
and her hands were convulsively locked together. In a faint voice she
asked for a time table; she wanted to know what time the next train
went.

"You are going down to Dashwood?" Connie asked.

"Oh, of course I am," Mary wept. "I could not stay away. I must be
near him so that I may know how he is progressing. I must help to
nurse him back to life again. I owe him everything--my very existence,
my new self, my womanhood that has come as such a precious thing to
me. And to think that once I was fool enough to prefer pride to the
affection of a man like that, who----"

"Mary, Mary, you love him. You love Ralph Darnley like that!"

Mary's eyes shone with a strange light. She flung her hands above her
head despairingly.

"I know it now," she said, "now that it is perhaps too late. Yes, ever
since I first met Ralph I have loved him with my whole heart and
soul."



CHAPTER LV.
NOT DEAD


Mayfield's face was grim and set; there was just a flash of contempt
in his eyes for Speed, who was breathing hard. The dramatic part of
the situation was lost on Mr. George Dashwood, who could think of
nothing else beyond the speculative possibilities that Mayfield had
been holding out to him.

"You don't seem to be any better," Mayfield said to Speed, "you look
ghastly. Anybody would think that you had been caught in some crime."

Behind the contemptuous words there was a note of warning to Speed.
Anybody less blind than George Dashwood would have noticed how
agitated he was. Speed caught just a glimpse of his own features in a
quaint old mirror over the fireplace. He could see that he was green
and grey by turns; he started at his own haggard face. Small wonder,
then, that Mayfield had given him a warning.

"I'm feeling like a corpse," he said. "It's agony for me to sit up any
longer. If you don't mind, I think I'll go to bed."

"Why not try the fresh air?" Dashwood suggested. "It is a cure
sometimes."

"Drizzling with rain," Speed replied. "Darnley turned up the collar of
his overcoat as he passed the window. I could see him from behind the
screen. On the whole, I should be far better between the sheets."

As he spoke Speed shot a questioning glance at Mayfield. The latter
nodded.

"Perhaps it would be as well," he said; "if you feel as seedy as that.
I must not be long, either, as I have to leave pretty early tomorrow.
I'll just finish my discussion with Mr. Dashwood over a cigar, and
then I'll follow your example. I suppose the butler comes around and
fastens up all the windows?"

"The rest of the house," Speed explained. "I generally fasten the
windows here myself. I'll leave you to do it tonight, Mayfield. Don't
forget. One never knows what sort of person is hanging about a house
like this."

Speed crept out of the room and across the hall, on the way to his
room. He was shaking from head to foot still and his legs were hardly
equal to his weight. He lighted a candle with a trembling hand, taking
several matches to do so. Out of the shadow came Slight, who watched
his master with a curious expression.

"Perhaps you will permit me to do that for you, sir?" he suggested
politely.

"Go away," Speed cried. "Go to bed. Think that I'm too drunk to light
a candle? Why do you follow me like this? Send my man to me. Gone to
Longtown for the night, has he? Oh, I recollect giving him permission
now."

Speed staggered up the stairs, and into his own room. Once there, he
opened a cupboard and produced therefrom a bottle of brandy. He poured
out half a tumbler and drank it greedily. He placed his hands over his
eyes as if to hide some horrible vision. He was free now to give way
to his feelings; he was no longer under observation. He would have
given ten years of his life to recall the last half hour.

He sat there, gazing into space and making no effort to remove his
clothes. An hour passed; then there was a tap on the door. Speed
started violently; he was half afraid that the arm of the law was
groping for him already. His face cleared a little as Mayfield came in
and closed the door very carefully.

"Well?" the latter said. "Are you getting over it? I'm more than sorry
I started this little business. If Dashwood had had any power of
observation he would have seen that there was something worse than
illness the matter with you tonight."

"It was awful," Speed groaned, "you would feel just the same if you'd
done it. All the time I was pretending to be ill behind the screen, I
was standing by the open window. I heard Darnley say goodnight to you.
I stood with the loaded stick in my hand. And as he passed by the
window under the veranda I struck him down. . . . He fell stone dead
without a single groan. He lay there absolutely still. And I would
have forfeited all I had to recall those last few moments. If you
could have seen his face----"

"Oh, never mind that," Mayfield said brutally. "The thing is done and
there is an end of it. And you know perfectly well that you would do
the same thing again tomorrow. So he lies there in the verandah, does
he? What about the stick?"

"The stick is hidden in the laurel bushes. We can burn that when there
is time."

"To-night. Our work is not finished. Darnley must not lie there. We
shall have to carry him as far as the drive. It is a bit risky, but
the thing must be done. Everybody has gone to bed now. Dashwood and
old Slight can testify that neither of us have been out of the house
since dinner time, so we are quite safe."

"Let him lie where he is," Speed whispered, with chattering teeth.
"People will think that he came back for something after we had gone
to bed, and that he had encounter with some prowling burglar. That's
just as good as your plan."

"No, it isn't," Mayfield said impatiently. "Mine is much more artistic
and reasonable. We have saved our own necks; now we want to put
suspicion upon somebody outside. We've got to carry the body of Ralph
Darnley as far as the avenue; we've got to turn out his pockets as if
he had been robbed. We can bury what he has on him and destroy the
loaded stick at the same time. Everybody has gone to bed. Come along."

Speed protested and groaned. But it was all the same to Mayfield. He
contemptuously indicated the brandy bottle, and suggested that Speed
should derive a little fleeting courage from it. Another strong dose
and Speed declared himself to be ready.

They crept down into the hall and from thence into the darkened
dining-room. In the hall Speed hastily snatched a big Inverness cape
from the stand. His intention was obvious. He wanted to throw this
over the body. . . . It lay there quite still under the shelter of the
verandah; outside the rain was gently pattering on the grass. With
half averted head, Speed flung the cloak over the still black form.

He was heedless of the rain; both were heedless of the rain by this
time. It was not a tiring work, for the night was warm, and Mayfield
had caught a little of Speed's nervous excitement. He did not notice
that it was raining at all. They staggered on for some five hundred
yards along the avenue. Speed declared that he could not go any
farther.

"This will do," he panted in a hoarse whisper. "Under the oak tree.
It's just the very spot where a man would stop to light a cigar. You
do the rest, Mayfield."

Mayfield did the rest cautiously enough. It was the dark before dawn;
the birds were not yet awake. A rabbit dashed across the road, and
Speed started. Mayfield was only at work a moment; it seemed like ages
to Speed. They stole quietly back to the house without meeting
anybody; they gained the dining room at length. It was just as they
had left it, nothing to show that anybody had been there. Then they
were back once more in Speed's bedroom.

"I must have some more brandy," he said. "I believe I could drink the
bottle. You are not looking quite so cool and self-possessed as usual,
Mayfield. Take a drop."

"I hate the stuff," Mayfield growled. "All the same, I don't mind
confessing that I am just a little bit shaky. I could do it with some
whisky. I suppose I could find a decanter of it on the sideboard?"

"Always there," Speed explained. "There must have been some rain when
we were out, for my coat is quite damp. So is yours. Better take it
off."

Mayfield peeled off his dress coat carelessly. He took the candle and
proceeded to make his way down the stairs once more. Surely enough the
big glass bottle of whisky stood on the sideboard. Mayfield helped
himself liberally, and filled up the glass with a spurt of soda from a
syphon. Somebody behind him coughed.

"It's only me, sir," the thin respectful voice of Slight said. "I've
got a touch of neuralgia, and couldn't sleep, sir. And just now it
seemed to me that I heard somebody about. Got the idea of burglars
into my head, sir."

"Oh, that's all right," Mayfield said with a suggestion of relief in
his tone. "I couldn't sleep either, so I came down for a drink."

Slight bowed respectfully. But his old eyes had not overlooked the
fact that little beads of wet glistened on Mayfield's trousers, and
that his dress shoes were spotted with mud. Very silently and
respectfully he crept away up the back stairs, and so to the room of
one of the menservants--a young protégé of his. He was sleeping
soundly enough as Slight laid a hand on his shoulder. He struggled to
a sitting posture.

"Mr. Slight," he said sleepily. "What is the matter? Is the house on
fire? Why you do look serious! What is the matter?"

"I don't know," Slight replied. "It may be murder for all I know. And
I thought that I was too clever for those two chaps. Get up and dress
yourself, Walters. As soon as ever it is light we've got something to
do. Don't sit there asking a lot of foolish questions. How did they
manage it when he went so early?"

Walters stared at the speaker, who pulled up abruptly.

"I dare say you think I am talking nonsense," he said. "Nothing of the
kind, my lad. Just put your clothes on and come as far as my room. If
anything has happened to that bonny lad of mine, I'll never forgive
myself."



CHAPTER LVI.
FOUND!


The morning was just breaking as Slight and his companion left the
house. By the time that it was possible to see they began their
search. By this time too, Walters had more than an inkling of what was
wrong. They went first in the direction of the dower house and then
back again to the avenue. It was broad daylight now, and the sun was
climbing up over the hills behind the river. Nobody was to be seen
yet, nothing heard but the mad song of the birds welcoming the glory
of the morning. Presently Walters paused and pointed to a black
huddled object under one of the great oaks.

"What's that?" he whispered with a blanched face. "It looks like a man
sleeping there."

A cry half of anger, half despair, broke from Slight. He crossed the
drive and fell on his knees by the side of the limp figure. His tears
ran without restraint down the old man's withered face. He was beside
himself with grief.

"It's Master Ralph," he moaned. "I knew that I should find him like
this. But when he went off so early last night I felt that that
message had done those two ruffians. It made me feel easier in my
mind. If I'd told him of my suspicions he would only have laughed at
me. And to think that I should find him dead like this."

"Perhaps he isn't dead," Walters suggested in a whisper.

"Perhaps, not. You are a sensible young chap Walters. He isn't dead,
either. I can feel him breathing. Good job it was a warm night. Good
job, too, he lay under a tree so that the wet couldn't get at him.
There's blood all over the back of his head. A nice murderous crack he
got there. And here am I doddering like a silly old woman, whilst
there is work to be done. Go over to the corner of the wood yonder,
and pull up one of those gorsed hurdles there. Be sharp, boy."

Walters returned presently, dragging after him a hurdle which was
filled with gorse. And then on this, with their coats and vests under
his head, they laid their unconscious burden. A faint groan broke from
Ralph; he opened his eyes for a moment.

"It's concussion of the brain, that's what it is," Slight said, with
tears running down his face freely. "I've helped once or twice in the
hunting field before now. Just you get hold of the other end of the
hurdle, and start off on the left foot. We'll get Mr. Ralph as far as
the dower house and send for a doctor."

It was not far away to the dower house, the inmates of which were
speedily aroused. A little time later and one of the footmen was
riding for a doctor. They made Ralph as comfortable as possible. Lady
Dashwood came into the dining-room presently, where Slight was waiting
to see her.

"This is a very dreadful business, Slight," she said. "Mr. Ralph was
robbed and half murdered on his way from the Hall, they say. Strange
that you found him."

"Not so very strange, my lady," Slight replied, "seeing that I
set out early to look for him. I thought last night when your message
came----"

"What message do you mean? I sent no message to the Hall."

"Well, that's very strange! Mr. Mayfield is staying at the Hall. He
told Mr. Ralph that you wanted to see him very particularly last
night, and he left early in consequence. Call me an old fool if you
like, my lady, but I had a fancy that those two men meant mischief to
Mr. Ralph. I couldn't sleep for thinking of it. I came downstairs very
early this morning, and I found that Mayfield, not yet undressed,
helping himself to whiskey and soda. And there was mud on his dress
shoes. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I set out at daybreak to
look for I didn't quite know what. And I found Mr. Ralph. How those
fellows managed it, I can't say, but they did manage it. And it is no
fault of theirs that they're not a pair of cold-blooded murderers."

The doctor came presently. He was upstairs for a long time, but when
he came down again his face was not so grave as might be expected.

"A bad blow," he explained. "A bad concussion, but no brain injury as
far as I can judge. And the patient is going on as well as I could
expect. Oh, no, he isn't going to die. He has too good a constitution
for that, and he has taken good care of himself. I'll come back in the
course of an hour or so and report again."

There was nothing for it now but to wait and hope for the best and
keep the patient quiet. Well satisfied with his efforts, Slight
returned to the Hall. When he got back there he found that Mayfield
had already departed. Speed, restless and irritable, and giving the
impression that he had breakfasted on something potent, demanded to
know where Slight had been. Mr. Dashwood had not come down to
breakfast yet.

"Where have you been gallivanting to?" Speed demanded imperiously.
"I'll put a stop to this. Pack up your traps and go. You'll not serve
me any more."

"You never spoke a truer word than that," Slight said coolly. "I
sha'n't serve you any more, for the very good reason that you won't be
here to serve. If you raise a hand to me I'll break your head with
this hot water jug, old man as I am. I was out early this morning
looking for a murderer's work, and I found it. It was I who found the
body of Mr. Ralph, and took it to the dower house. And he is not dead;
and what is more to the point he isn't going to die, you cold-blooded
assassin."

Speed's face turned a ghastly grey. His bluster had left him.

"I know now how it was done," Slight went on. "I guessed it all as
soon as I heard that Lady Dashwood sent no message as to wanting to
see Mr. Ralph last night. The dodge was to get him to leave the house
and pass along the verandah. You shammed being ill, and pretended that
the light was too strong for you. That enabled you to lie and wait
till Mr. Ralph came along. Then you hit him with a loaded stick, the
one that used to hang in the gun room. James missed that stick just
now and told me so. And there poor Mr. Ralph lay till everybody had
gone to bed. Then you stole out and carried him as far as the big oak
tree, and left him there with his pockets all turned out as if robbery
had been the motive. But one thing gave you away. Mr. Ralph left the
house when it was raining. He walked under the balcony out of the rain
till he was struck down by you, so that he lay sheltered.

"If he had walked from the house to the oak tree, under which we found
him, his clothes would have been all wet. Whereas they were perfectly
dry. Therefore, his body must have been carried to the old oak after
the murderous assault had been committed. Probably you threw some kind
of wrap over the body in case you met anybody--rabbit poachers or the
like. Oh, you are very clever, sir, but you didn't work your plans
quite so secure as you might. You have so arranged it that you can
call Mr. Dashwood as a witness to prove that you had not been outside
the house after Mr. Ralph left; but there are other things. I came
down early this morning to find Mr. Mayfield here at the whisky and
soda. His dress shoes were covered with mud. I've got those dress
shoes, for I sent Walters home to get them."

Speed started again. He recollected now that Mayfield had made a fuss
before starting over the loss of his evening slippers.

"And I've got yours," Slight went on. "I've got proof that you were
both out in the rain last night, after everybody had gone to bed. And
Mr. Ralph isn't dead. And before very long I shall have the pleasure
of giving evidence against you both, and seeing that you don't either
of you do any harm to society for some years to come. And I don't
altogether absolve Mr. Ralph from blame. If he had spoken out in the
first place, all this trouble would have been saved. If he had said
openly, 'I am Sir Ralph Dashwood,' why----"

"He isn't," Speed said feebly. "I am Sir Vincent----"

"Vincent fiddlestick," Slight cried shrilly. "Just as if I didn't know
who you were after seeing Sir Ralph for the first time after his
return. I was a blind old fool not to have guessed from the start. I
might have known where you learned all the family secrets. And when
Sir Ralph came home my eyes were opened. He would not let me say
anything, for he had his own reasons for concealing the truth for the
present. But I knew who you were when I spotted who your mother was,
Mr. Vincent Speed."

The wretched listener made no response. It was hopeless to continue
the fight in the face of such evidence as this. Slight still held the
hot water jug in his hand, ready for anything in the shape of an
assault, but he need not have been alarmed.

"You are not so clever by half as you think you are," Slight went on.
"You have only been the cat's paw of Mayfield all along. _He_ knew all
about Sir Ralph, though he may not have known my young master's
reasons for concealing his identity. If this murder had been
successful, and you had not been found out, what would have happened?
Mayfield would have had you betrayed and kicked out of the house, and
Mr. Dashwood, as Sir George, would have come into the title and
estates again. And Mayfield would have married Miss Mary. _That_ was
Mayfield's little game as far as I can see it. I may be an old man,
but I'm not quite devoid of wit for all that. And that's why I am no
longer in your service, and so you can make the best of it."

Slight marched out of the room, feeling that he had vindicated his
position and his manhood. Speed stood there gnawing his nails, sick at
heart, fearsome of every sound. He was a fugitive now, ready to fly,
eager to be away, but with no settled plan of action. His one idea was
to be off to London now and see Mayfield.



CHAPTER LVII.
A CLEAN BREAST OF IT


There were strange rumours in the air; the servants at the Hall were
asking thrilling questions in whispers. Nobody seemed to know anything
but Slight, who kept his counsel. Everything was going to come right
in a day or two; all they had to do was to go about their business
quietly. Late in the afternoon it became known that Sir Vincent had
vanished, and within an hour or two, strange men with an air of
authority were calling at the Hall and asking questions. Mr. Dashwood
had gone over to the dower house to see what was really wrong. He
found Lady Dashwood in the dining-room in deep discussion with the
family solicitor, Mr. Morley.

"What is all this I hear?" Dashwood asked. "The new head of the family
has vanished, and I'm told that he and Mayfield tried to murder Ralph
Darnley last night. Slight has told me a great deal, but he will not
say anything as to the motive for the extraordinary crime. He says he
prefers to leave me to hear the truth from Lady Dashwood."

"Or from me," Mr. Morley said grimly. "As I have said all along, you
have been the victim of a most impudent imposter--the son of a woman
called Speed. Lady Dashwood has just been telling me the whole history
of the painful case. I need not go into that at length, Mr. Dashwood,
as it is a confidential matter. She was a sister of the late Mr. Ralph
Dashwood's first wife, which accounts for many things that that
impudent imposter knew. I hear that the police have taken out a
warrant for the arrest of this Speed and his companion in crime,
Horace Mayfield. In any case, they are not likely to trouble us
again."

George Dashwood responded suitably. He hoped that Mr. Ralph Darnley
was in no danger. At the same time he could not be blind to the fact
that the amazing change in the condition of affairs made a great
difference to his own position. He had suffered the most from the
machinations of the rascal who had so deceived them all. Also, he
could see now that he was free for ever from the persecutions of
Horace Mayfield. He felt quite proud and self-important; his position
took definite shape before him.

"In that case," he said, "we revert to the old condition of affairs.
As a matter of fact, I have never had any occasion to drop the title
to which----"

"Pardon me, sir," Morley said drily. "You never had any more right to
it than the wretched criminal who at the present moment is flying
from justice. The young man you know as Ralph Darnley is really Sir
Ralph Dashwood. Lady Dashwood has just given me the most absolute
proofs of his identity. Besides, just before his death, the last Ralph
Dashwood wrote to me and explained everything. It was the new head of
the family who asked me to let Vincent Speed have his lead for a time.
I believe there was some quixotic and sentimental reason to account
for this conduct on Sir Ralph's part. On that head Lady Dashwood can
speak more definitely than I can."

"When the time comes," Lady Dashwood murmured. "It is exactly as Mr.
Morley says, George. And I am glad to say the doctor reports very
favourably of Ralph this afternoon. If you had ever known my son,
George, you would not have doubted the identity of young Ralph
directly you cast eyes on him. I would rather not tell you as yet the
real reason why he wished to be known as Ralph Darnley."

George Dashwood was very disappointed. Yet, on the whole, things might
have been worse. He had never disguised from himself that the deposed
impostor was anything but a gentleman. And his position at the Hall
might have been a comfortable one, but it was full of humiliation.
These things Dashwood spoke of as he walked with Morley down the
avenue.

Meanwhile Lady Dashwood was spending her time between the dining-room
and the bedroom wherein Ralph lay. She was sorry for all the anxiety
and misery on the very day that Grace Cameron had arrived, but she had
found the girl a great comfort to her, she was so quiet and
resourceful, so ready to help. The doctor had called again for the
third time just before dinner, and his report was as favourable as
before. Lady Dashwood and Grace were sitting down to something in the
way of dinner.

"I have been thinking," Grace said. "Mary ought to know of this."

Lady Dashwood started and laid down her knife and fork. She had
forgotten all about Mary.

"She had quite escaped my memory," she confessed. "She will be very
distressed because she rather likes Ralph, and he saved her life on
more than one occasion. But Ralph is masterful and Mary is proud. Of
course, I know what Ralph's feelings are, and I may say that he was
instrumental in getting her out into the world. Oh, my dear, I think
you can guess what the dream of my life is as to those two people."

Grace smiled with ready sympathy. Her delicate face flushed.

"It will not be a dream much longer or I am greatly mistaken," she
said. "Mary loves that man. I know by the way she speaks of him. And
Connie Colam has told me. I don't want to be inquisitive, Lady
Dashwood, but I should like to hear the story of that romance. Connie
says that I should hardly know Mary if I had met her on the first day
in London. She was hard and proud and distant, and she deliberately
allowed the ice to grow round her heart; she was eaten up with family
pride. And she learned her lesson in two days. I could see her change,
as a butterfly newly out changes in the sun. I dare say you may call
that a ridiculous simile, but I can't think of a better. And when
Connie spoke to her of love and the advantages of love over everything
else she came to guess. I am sure that Ralph Darnley has told her that
he cares for her."

"That is so," Lady Dashwood smiled. "He is a very masterful young man,
as I told you before. And I fancy he told Mary that he would win her
in spite of everything. He has taken his own way of doing it, as you
may hear some day. But if all you say is true, I am not going to spoil
Mary's pleasure in the telling of her pretty love story. So you think
that Mary ought to know what has happened? You think that if we send
her a telegram she will come down here at once?"

"I am certain of it," Grace cried. "She will be displeased with us
that we had forgotten. It is all going to come right, Lady Dashwood.
Your dream is coming true, and Mary will be a happy girl yet."

Lady Dashwood smiled as she reached for the telegram forms. She
wondered if it would be possible for Mary to reach the dower house
that night. Presently a cab crept along the drive; no doubt it was the
doctor coming to call once more. Then Grace gave a cry of pleasure as
the cab door opened and a slender figure in black jumped out.

"She is here, Lady Dashwood," the girl exclaimed. "Mary! She must
have heard. These things find their way into London evening papers
directly."

The door of the dining-room opened and Mary came in. She was pale and
agitated; she had her hand to her heart. It was some time before she
could speak. She glanced from one to the other, as if not daring to
ask what was trembling on the tip of her tongue. Her eyes filled with
relief as she noted the welcome on the faces of the others.

"He is better?" she gasped. "He is not dead. I--I was afraid to ask.
Oh, if you only knew the gnawing agony of the last hour! I saw it in
one of the evening papers. I flew down here as soon as possible. And
how is he--how is Ralph?"

Deeply touched as she was, Lady Dashwood smiled. She was glad to hear
Ralph's name come so naturally off Mary's tongue. It showed that she
thought of him by his Christian name.

"He is much better," she said. "The doctor gives a very good report.
And he is not in the least likely to die this time."

"You might have let me know," Mary said reproachfully. "It would have
saved a deal of anxiety. And I am quite sure that in his heart you
know that----"

"You loved the man who is lying upstairs," Grace said gently.

Mary's pale face flushed; a yearning look came into her eyes.

"You have finished the confession for me," she cried. "I did not know,
I could not guess till I saw that dreadful paper. And then it came to
me that a great blank would come into my life if Ralph died. He said
that I should learn my lesson, and I have done so. It has not taken me
long to learn the difference between the false and the true, and that
love is everything, and money and position are nothing by the side of
it. And then as if some veil had been lifted from my eyes, I saw that
I had cared for Ralph all the time. He told me once that I should come
to him on my knees and ask forgiveness. I am ready to do it now."

The girl's voice rose loud and clear; she looked very sweet and
womanly in her self-abnegation. She felt all the better for her
confession, as if a weight had been lifted from her soul. Lady
Dashwood would have said nothing in reply, but the door opened at the
same moment and the nurse came in.

"Mr. Darnley is conscious, my lady," she said. "He asked for you. It
will do no harm if you see him for one moment. He seems troubled to
think that he is in your room----"

Mary darted for the door. Before anybody could interfere she was
half-way up the stairs. In the darkened room Ralph lay; he could catch
the rustle of a dress; he noted the faint fragrance of a woman's hair.
Then Mary was kneeling by the bedside, her cool, wet face pressed to
Ralph's hot flushed one.

"I have come to you," she said. "My darling, I have come to you. My
lesson has been learned. My eyes have been opened. And I love you,
Ralph. I have come to tell you, and make my confession. On my knees,
dear, on my knees, dear heart, as you prophesied, I make it!"



CHAPTER LVIII.
"THE KING IS DEAD.----"


Mr. George Dashwood was of opinion that things at the Hall were not as
they used to be in the old days. In the first place he had been
compelled to walk up from the station after ordering a trap to meet
him on his return from Longtown, and now he could see no sign of
dinner. He had come downstairs in a temper, and had looked into the
dining-room as he passed.

It was eight o'clock to the moment; there was no sign of dinner. The
banks of ferns and the great silver bowls of roses were there, but
nothing else. Dashwood forgot for the moment that he was no longer
master of the house, and rang the bell. Slight came in presently. He
was still wearing his morning coat.

"What is the meaning of this?" Dashwood demanded. "I ordered a trap to
meet me at the station and no trap appears. Then I came back here to
dinner, of which I see no sign. Have the servants left the house in a
body?"

"No, sir," Slight replied. "We have had a trying day. In the first
place the police----"

"Oh, the police, have they been here? Is there any clue to the
mysterious attack upon Mr.--er, Ralph Darnley? I had to go into
Longtown today; I did not expect to get back here till late. If your
master has suddenly been called to town----"

"He has vanished, sir," Slight said, "you may not be so very much
surprised to hear that he was at the bottom of the attack on Mr.
Ralph--leastways I'll speak of him as Mr. Ralph for the present. In a
manner of speaking, it was I who found the whole thing out. Perhaps it
was foolish of me to do so, but I couldn't help letting that rascal
know all about it. He went off in a great hurry this morning, and
I for one shall be very much surprised if we ever see him again.
In a manner of speaking, we are like a lot of servants in bear
cages--nobody to look after us or give any orders. Me and the
housekeeper are doing what we can, sir, in the hopes that Lady
Dashwood will come over tomorrow and take charge. And that's why your
dinner is forgotten."

"We will let it pass," Dashwood said with great magnanimity. "In the
present extraordinary circumstances, I suppose that I cannot complain.
If you could get me some cold chicken and salad, Slight, I dare say I
could manage. And perhaps you will be so good as to wait on me
yourself, seeing that you are so far in the confidences of the family.
And perhaps you will give me an idea of what has happened."

The salad and chicken were served presently, and the meal together
with the champagne, went far to salve Dashwood's wounded dignity. A
cigarette completed the process.

"Now tell me everything," he said. "Mind you, you must be wrong as to
our late host having anything to do with the outrage on Ralph
Darnley."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Slight replied. "Why, the thing was as
good as admitted. To call him by his proper name, Vincent Speed saw
that the game was up. Mind you, servants hear a great deal more than
their employers give them credit for, and I know that in some way
Speed was under the thumb of that scoundrel Mayfield. How you could
ever have tolerated him in the house, beats me, sir."

"_I_ was also under the thumb of Mayfield," Dashwood murmured. "He was
the sort of man who always got his own way, and he was not in the
least scrupulous as to his methods. Possibly he knew who Speed really
was."

"That's it, sir," Slight said eagerly. "He was after money. Well,
Speed found out that Mr. Ralph was the real heir, and that his time
here was limited. I dare say Speed got that information from his
mother. I suppose it never occurred to the fool that both Lady
Dashwood and myself knew who Mr. Ralph was."

"How did you know?" Dashwood asked. "I'm sure I didn't."

"Because you never met Mr. Ralph's father, sir. The likeness is a
speaking one. The very first day that Mr. Ralph arrived here, I knew
that you had no right to be in this house at all, sir. The same when
Speed came along--though I'm bound to admit that he took me in at
first."

"But the whole thing is inexplicable," Dashwood said irritably. "Why
this masquerade? Why was Speed permitted to oust me at all? And why
did I remain here?"

Slight had his opinion, but it was not his plan to utter this. He
shook his head with an air of wisdom. Perhaps Miss Mary could explain
that part. At any rate, if she could not do so, Lady Dashwood could
solve the problem.

"Well, it really doesn't matter," Dashwood exclaimed. "Get on with
your story. What had Speed to do with the disgraceful attack on Ralph
Darnley?"

"He struck the blow, sir," Slight proceeded. "The murderous plot was
arranged between Speed and Mayfield. It was necessary to get Mr. Ralph
out of the way, and they determined to do it. For that purpose Mr.
Ralph was invited to dine at the Hall. The game was to get him out of
the way in such a manner as would not throw the slightest suspicion on
those ruffians. They picked out you, sir, to be their witness as to
the fact."

"But they were not out of the house," Dashwood protested. "Neither of
them left the dining-room till bedtime, and we all went to bed
together. And Speed had such a dreadful bilious attack that he was
good for nothing. I have no reason to love either of those fellows,
but I should be compelled to exonerate them."

"It _was_ clever," Slight admitted. "At the same time, it was Speed
who did it. He sat behind the screen over yonder, sir, but the window
leading to the balcony was open. Perhaps you will call to mind how
Mayfield left the table to fetch his cigar case. Then he came back
with a message to the effect that Lady Dashwood wanted to see Mr.
Ralph on his way home. I have had it from her Ladyship's lips that she
sent no message of the kind. Still, the supposed message had the
desired effect for it took Mr. Ralph past the balcony; Speed had only
to pop out and knock him on the head, which he did. All the time you
thought that He was simply sitting in the armchair behind the screen."

"Incredible, but possible," Dashwood murmured. "Go on, Slight."

"Well, sir, I was frightened. I felt that there was something dark
going on, and I didn't go to bed. I came downstairs and found Mayfield
drinking whisky and soda not long before daylight. And his dress
slippers were all over dirt. I got hold of Speed's pumps, too, and
they were as bad. That told me a story. I made Walters get up, and
together we began a search. At the foot of one of the oak trees in the
park we found Mr. Ralph. Though it had been raining at the time he
left here, his clothes were quite dry, though we found him nearly half
a mile from the house. Then I knew quite well that the body had been
carried there. The pockets being turned out was only to make it look
like robbery. And I taxed Speed with it. I gave him chapter and verse
for everything, and he's gone. And, what's more, I know what his game
is. I got that from the telegrams he sent and the timetable he left
about. He's gone to Weymouth on his way to Jersey. When he reaches
Weymouth, he'll charter a fishing boat to take him as far as Jersey.
It's no great distance, and for a little time he will be safe there.
From Jersey he can easily get across to Granville by a sailing boat."

The more Dashwood thought this over the more was he disposed to
agree with the old servant. It was good, at any rate, to know that
he was no longer likely to suffer at the hands of Mayfield, for
that rascal would have to fly also. No doubt Speed had given his
fellow-conspirator a hint of what had happened, and that by this time
he, too, was on his way to some place of safety. With these thoughts
uppermost in his mind, Dashwood walked across the park in the
direction of the dower house.

It was not yet dark, and Lady Dashwood was walking in the garden.
There was a look of peace and happiness on her face that Dashwood had
never seen there before. It was, at any rate, a good omen as to the
progress of the patient.

"I have been having a long talk with Slight," Dashwood explained. "He
has been giving me some astounding information. I have been in
Longtown all day, and when I came back Speed had vanished. And Slight
had afforded very cogent reasons for his disappearance. Only I am.
utterly in the dark as to why Ralph Darnley has behaved in this way.
Slight suggests that you know."

"I do," Lady Dashwood smiled. "It is a very pretty story, and I think
that even you will be touched when it comes to be told. In the
meantime, there is one thing that I will ask you to do--please say
nothing to Mary as to who Ralph really is till you have permission."

"I can promise that all the more readily because I am not likely to
see Mary," Dashwood said in a grieved tone. "The child has behaved
very badly to me; she seems to forget that I am her father. So long as
she remains in London----"

"She is not in London, George. She has come back, and so far as I can
judge, is not in the least likely to return to London again. Directly
she heard of Ralph's accident, she came here at once to nurse him. Do
not forget that she owes her life to Ralph. And do not forget that he
loves the very ground she walks on. If my memory serves me correctly,
he told you as much when you were doing your best to sell your child
to that scoundrel Mayfield. If you refrain from interfering, that
romance will end happily."

"By Jove, you don't mean it?" Dashwood cried. Visions of himself,
comfortably housed and fed at Dashwood, rose before his eyes. It was
not quite like being the master of the house, but it was the next best
thing. "What a fortunate circumstance! Really, my dear lady, I appear
to be luckier than I deserve."



CHAPTER LIX.
"LONG LIVE THE KING!"


On the whole it was a most marvellous recovery. The nurse had been a
little severe on Mary; she had had no business to fly to the bedroom
of the patient in that way. But Ralph was most emphatically of the
opinion that Mary's action had hastened his convalescence. At the end
of the week he was in the drawing-room with the windows open, so that
he could catch the sweet fragrance of the summer air, and the doctor
was jokingly congratulating him on the thickness of his skull. The
London police had been very busy during the past week, but as yet no
success had rewarded their efforts. Ralph had said nothing; it was
deemed far wiser not to allude to the attack at present, and old
Slight had remained silent in the presence of the detectives. Their
superior air irritated him and, therefore, he kept his knowledge to
himself.

As to the rest, George Dashwood was in Paris. He had been sent there
on an errand by Lady Dashwood, who wanted him out of the way. The
chatelaine of the dower house was afraid lest George Dashwood should
speak out and spoil everything. And Mary had more or less made her
peace with her father, who had forgiven her.

"I've no doubt you thought that you were acting for the best," he
said. "You are not quite old enough fully to appreciate what is due to
the family pride. Still, as nobody knows that you have so far
forgotten yourself as to try to earn your own living, it does not much
matter. I suppose you have done nothing to be ashamed of."

Mary replied with becoming meekness that she hoped so. Only a little
time before she would have flung back the suggestion with passionate
scorn. But lately she had become more cheerful and gayer in her
disposition. Still, the situation was not without its humorous side.
It was not for Mary to point out to her father what a humiliating
position he had occupied when he had accepted the impostor's offer of
a home at the Hall. But as yet Mary knew nothing of the impostor's
downfall, or the real story of the outrage on Ralph. All that was to
come. So George Dashwood departed on his errand to Paris, and the
mistress of the dower house breathed more freely.

The nurse had gone now; her services were no longer required. And
tomorrow the doctor had told Ralph that he could walk across the park
if he liked. The next day was a wet one, however, so there was no
opportunity. The third day broke gloriously fine, and Ralph came down
to breakfast, a little pale and shaky, but almost himself again. Lady
Dashwood was reading the paper with a grave face. It was not until the
meal was over that she drew Ralph aside.'

"I am going to speak freely to you," she said. "It is a strange thing
that you have never asked if we had found anything out about your
accident."

"I was waiting for you to speak," Ralph said. "As for myself, I
remember nothing. The night I was dining at the Hall, Mayfield gave me
a cigar. Almost as soon as I reached the open air, I became so drowsy
that I could have fallen down and gone to sleep. A sudden pain darted
through my head, and I recollected no more till I came to myself here,
and found that Mary was on her knees by the side of my bed. Did I
dream that, or did Mary come then and say that she loved me? It was
only for a few minutes that I was conscious."

"I have no doubt that _that_ was real enough," Lady Dashwood smiled
tenderly. "Mary did rush up to your room, and a fine scolding she got
from the nurse for it. But you can settle all that with our dear girl
later. Let us get one thing over at a time. You have not the slightest
idea who made that attack on you?"

Ralph confessed that such was the case, and Lady Dashwood proceeded to
enlighten him. She told Ralph everything that she had gleaned for
herself, and that Slight had acquainted her with. Ralph's face was
very grave and stern as he listened to the story.

"A very pretty plot," he said. "I can see it all quite clearly now. It
was invented by Mayfield. It never occurred to me till now that
Mayfield guessed who I was. You see he had seen my father. Very lately
Mayfield had been in dire need of money. _I_ had seen to that. He
could guess why I stood aside and let it appear as if Speed was the
heir of the property; he could see that I did this to save Mary,
knowing that I could stop it later and claim, my own. But this gave
Mayfield a chance to blackmail Speed whilst he had a grip on the
family exchequer. After that was done, Speed could go hang, as far as
Mayfield was concerned. The whole thing was spoiled by my chance
meeting with Speed in his mother's house. She could tell him who I
really was. Hence the plot that nearly killed me. Perhaps I have been
a little bit too clever. If ever I come across my friend Vincent Speed
again----"

"You will never do that," Lady Dashwood said. "The man is dead. He
perished in yesterday's storm, crossing from Jersey to Granville in a
rickety boat. There is a paragraph here in the papers. The man seems
to have assumed his own name again, for his linen was marked Vincent
Speed. And old Slight told me that he meant to escape in that way. On
the whole, my dear Ralph, it will be just as well to save scandal as
much as possible. Of course, the neighbours will naturally want to
know a great deal, but we need not talk too much."

"I quite agree with that, though I fancy that the family pride will
get short shrift from me," Ralph laughed. "You had better put it down
to the fact that I had a democratic mother. But have you heard
anything of Mayfield?"

"He has gone, Ralph, nobody knows where. There was a good deal about
him in yesterday's papers--the disappearance of a City man, and
strange stories of his swindled clients. I understand that a warrant
on some charge or another has been obtained for his arrest. But he
will never be found, Ralph; he is too cunning for that. On the whole,
it will be better for you to tell the simple truth, that you had not
the slightest idea who caused your accident."

"Well, as a matter of fact, I haven't," Ralph said. "But, of course,
Mary must know all these things. I can only rejoice in the misfortune
that has brought us together, and opened her eyes to the truth that
love is best of all things. I suppose she has no idea----"

"None whatever," Lady Dashwood said eagerly. "Slight will say nothing,
and George Dashwood has been got out of the way on purpose. But is it
not time, my dear boy, that Mary should be told the whole story? You
need not fear any longer that her heart is given to Ralph Darnley, and
that Sir Ralph Dashwood is quite a secondary consideration."

Ralph laughed with a tender inflection in his voice.

"I was going to do it after lunch," he said. "And positively I feel
quite nervous about it. You are very anxious to see us married,
grandmother?"

"It will be the crowning happiness of a miserable life," Lady Dashwood
said. "I have already told you the story of my past, of the sin that
cost one life and wrecked the happiness of two others. For that sin I
have fully atoned; I fancy that my punishment is ended, and that is
the one thing that you are never to tell our dear Mary."

Ralph promised solemnly. After a pause Lady Dashwood proceeded:

"Now you know everything," she said. "I want to see my boy soon back
in his proper place; I want to see the best ruler that Dashwood ever
had. We have been too proud and cold in the past, and have thought
more of our dignity than of the comfort and happiness of those
dependent upon us. But I see that that is not going to be your way,
and I rejoice in the knowledge. And in future I know that it is not
going to be Mary's way, either. And if the evening of my life is
going to be finished in the sunshine, I shall not regret the past. All
I want to do now is to see a child of yours and Mary's on my lap, and
. . . that's all, Ralph."

Ralph rose and kissed the speaker tenderly. He quite understood her
feelings.

"God grant that it may be as you say," he murmured. "But I feel so
anxious. And till now I have been quite strong in the knowledge that I
should win Mary in the long run. She could never have married
Mayfield; I had only to declare myself, and that was finished. But I
saw the way to open the eyes of my dear one, and I did it. Still, I
wish it was all over, the confession made, and my forgiveness freely
offered. By tea time I shall know."

It was a quiet but very happy little party that gathered presently at
the luncheon table. Mary was soft and subdued; she had not forgotten
the night of her return, and the way in which she had knelt by Ralph's
bedside, and told him of her love. From that day the subject had not
been alluded to between them, for Mary had rather avoided Ralph save
in the presence of others. But when she met his glance from time to
time, she knew that all was well, and that the sacrifice she had made
was the crowning blessing of her life.

"How sweet those roses are!" she said, as she plunged her heated face
into a bowl of blossoms. "I used to smell those roses all the time I
was in London. Really, I pretended to be very independent and all that
kind of thing, but I'm afraid I should never have been able to stand
the life. I should have run down here, and pretended that I was not
well enough to return."

"Not you," Grace laughed. "Now, with me the case is different. It is
essential to good art that we should have congenial surroundings. Do
you know that I have done three solid hours' work today without
feeling the least fatigue! If I had attempted such a thing in London,
I should have been knocked up for a week."

"A few days have worked wonders in you," Ralph said. "In honour of the
occasion, we will go and have tea at the Hall. Mary and myself will go
and make all the arrangements, and you can follow with Lady Dashwood.
What do you say, Mary?"

"We are trespassers," the girl said, with a laugh and a blush. "Still,
the owner is away, and I am quite sure that Slight will give us a
warm welcome."


[Illustration: "He has Mary's hand in his." (_Page 397_)]



CHAPTER LX.
OPEN CONFESSION


They had been very quiet for a long time as they sat in the rose
garden looking over the park. They could see the dappled deer under
the great oaks; the shadow of the fine old house lay behind. There was
something very soothing and peaceful about the picture. It was Ralph
who spoke presently; he had Mary's hand in his, and she did not draw
it away.

"It is a pity to lose this," he said, "to know that it has gone for
ever. Mary, you were better and braver far than you knew, when you
turned your back on Dashwood Hall."

"Was I?" Mary asked absently. "It will always be a sadness and a
sorrow to me, more from the knowledge of what I might have some day
made the place than anything else. But I need not dwell on that. I
have my living to get now."

"And I suppose I have mine," Ralph said. "Mary, you know what is on
the tip of my tongue. Could you share that lot with me? But I know
that you would; I know what your feelings are. You told me the night
you came back here; you said that my prophecy had come true; that you
had returned to ask my pardon on your knees. Do you regret that?"

"No," Mary said resolutely. "I do not regret it for a moment. Because
it was true then, and it is truer now. It was Connie who taught me
that lesson, I think. She pointed out to me what a good thing a man's
love was. And when I thought that I had lost you, why, then I knew
what my mind was. If I am worth the taking, Ralph----"

"My darling, you were always worth the taking," Ralph cried. "Even in
the days of your pride I had dreams of the sweet Mary that would like
you to love her, and behold, here she is! And you are prepared to
share the lot of a poor man without even a pedigree?"

Mary swayed towards her lover, and he caught her in his eager arms.
The next minute her face was hidden on his breast, happy tears rolling
down her cheeks.

"Don't," she whispered. "Oh, please don't remind me of that, Ralph.
From the bottom of my heart I love you; I must have loved you from the
very first. What does it matter what you are, so long as you are what
you are--a good man, with a kind heart for a foolish girl like me? I
am prepared to share your lot, and go where you like, Ralph; anywhere
you choose to take me. We shall be very poor, I suppose, but that does
not matter. I am glad, _glad_ that the day came when I had to leave
the Hall."

"And if you never return you will not regret it, Mary?"

"No, Ralph, not with you by my side. And as to poverty, why, it could
not be worse than what I have gone through lately. We shall be very
poor, Ralph."

"Not so very poor," Ralph smiled. There was nobody near to see them,
so the girl's head rested happily on Ralph's shoulder, his arm round
her waist. "Dearest, I have a confession to make to you. We are not
poor at all."

"But I thought that you had lost everything, Ralph. That Mr. Mayfield
had your money. But don't let us talk about him. It makes me hot and
cold all over. To think that at one time there was more than a
possibility that I should----"

"No, there was never the slightest possibility," said Ralph. "I have
had all the cards in the game from the very first. Mary, I am going to
tell you a little story; it is the history of a man who passed most of
his early life in America, where he did not see many people. He was
quite a well-born man, but his father had quarrelled with his
relatives, and so he had not all the advantages which were due to his
station. But he was well brought up, and prided himself that he had a
high sense of honour.

"Well, in time, he came to Europe, and then he met the one woman that
he needed. She was very lovely, very proud, and very distant. But that
young man could see what lay under her pride, and he determined to win
her for his wife. She liked him, but she refused him. And for two
years he did not meet her again. Then he came to England, and accident
brought those two together again. In the meantime, the girl's father
had come into possession of the family estates, and the girl was more
proud and distant than ever. And still that young man was not
dismayed.

"And now comes the strange part of my story. The young man, whose
father had died in the meantime, had come here to claim a title and a
property. He had not known anything of this till his father died, but
he came, and his grandmother recognized him at once. But that very
same property and title had passed to the girl's father. Now, the
young man might have told the girl this, and doubtless she would have
married him. But he was a romantic young man, and desired to be
married for his own sake. Then another claimant to the property turned
up, and the young man pretended to back this impostor's claim. He did
this, so that the girl should go out in the world, as he felt that she
would, and get her own living. And his estimate of the girl was
correct, for she did so."

"Go on," Mary whispered. "You can't tell how interested I am."

"Well, it was even as the young man had expected. The
carefully-planned plot succeeded beyond the most sanguine
expectations. The girl went out into the world, and almost at once her
better nature began to prevail. She saw the world through other eyes;
she learned what a wonderful and complex thing humanity is. And when
that young man saw the girl again he was astonished and delighted. He
did not regret his plot in the least. He knew now that here was the
real girl that he loved, deprived of her pride and hauteur,
palpitating with love and tender sympathy. . . . In your case would
you have forgiven that man, Mary?"

"Oh, yes, yes," Mary cried. "Oh, I can read between the lines of your
parable. I am the girl and you are the man who has brought me to my
senses. Ralph, it sounds like a fairy story. And so you took this
means of opening my eyes, and showing me how small and narrow my world
was. Forgive you? Could you ever forgive me? And to think that you are
the son of Ralph Dashwood come back after all these years. And to
think that Lady Dashwood should know and not tell me. Marvellous!"

"I bound her to secrecy," Ralph explained. "And, really, things fell
out wonderfully for me. There was the incident of the fire and that
matchbox, for instance; the incident that forced the impostor Speed to
declare himself. For, of course, you have guessed who the man who
called himself Sir Vincent Dashwood really was. I suppose we shall
never hear who it was who tried to set the Hall on fire."

Mary laughed happily through her tears.

"And you never found that out?" she said. "Why, I knew at once. And I
was horribly afraid lest the person should be found out and severely
punished. Do you recollect the night that those men took possession of
the Hall, the night when you tried to save me from Mayfield? Old
Patience was there. It was one of her lucid nights when she possessed
her full intelligence. And she kept on crying for somebody to smoke
the rats out, for somebody who had courage to put the match to the
faggot. I found her quite late, and took her to sleep for the night in
my dressing-room. And when you came to save me, Patience had vanished.
I never had the slightest doubt who set the Hall on fire, and I hope
that you will not mention this to anybody, Ralph. Patience has quite
forgotten it. I alluded to the subject only yesterday, and she
expressed her indignation."

"Well, that is the last of the mysteries cleared," Ralph said. "I
suppose the poor creature found that matchbox somewhere. The next
thing is to proclaim myself, and then, Mary, you can come back to the
Hall as mistress again."

"What happiness!" Mary whispered. "But a different kind of happiness
to the old. I shall hope a little later to see the old Hall a
different place to what it has ever been before. I should like to
build a charming house close by for the benefit of girls like my
friends Connie and Grace. I owe them more than I can ever repay;
indeed, I owe humanity in general a deep debt of gratitude. You will
let me have my own way over this, Ralph, for I have set my heart on
it."

"It shall be as you say, darling," Ralph whispered, as he kissed the
red lips tenderly. "For the honour of the house, for now and
evermore."



THE END.





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