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E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM

THE FORTUNATE WAYFARER

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First UK edition: Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1928
First US edition: Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1928

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
Version Date: 2016-09-05
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"The Fortunate Wayfarer," Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1928



An eccentric nobleman with a lurid past, wishing to disinherit his nephew, hands £80,000 over to the first person who passes his door. Will it startle you to learn that the hero of the book, one Martin Barnes, is the fortunate donee? And then Martin tries to be a gentleman. Of course he makes the grade without too much puffing, and, although some of the smart set are inclined to be a little snooty, Lady Blanche is there to keep them in order. But it's not all pie for Martin. Two polished and fatal villains from his benefactor's past cause ructions, but Mr. Oppenheim straightens it all out in the end.

The Outlook, May 23, 1928



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prelude
Book One
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Book Two
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXVIII



PROLOGUE

The two men, breathless, swaying with fatigue, their clothes in rags, the bleeding feet of the shorter protruding from a pair of ragged canvas shoes, stood at the end of the wooden pier which skirted one side of the harbour of San Paulo and watched the departure of the small coasting steamer whose last siren had blown as they had pushed their aching way through the streets of the little South American port. The burning sunlight streamed down upon them as it had done all day throughout that terrible journey from the mountains, pitiless, scorching, leaving its fierce heat upon the pavements which they trod so gingerly and turning into hard, white dust the ridges of mud across which they had struggled to the quay. A soldier, on sentry duty—a small, brown man, but with fierce, black moustache—watched them suspiciously. The taller was an Englishman, beyond a doubt; the other might have belonged to any nationality. Some instinct, acquired in the turbulent little district, warned him that these were desperate men.

The Englishman, long and thin, with sun-baked complexion, dark, almost black hair, and eyes of a peculiar shade of light brown, was the first to find words. He spoke slowly and with difficulty, for the breath seemed to come creaking through his dust-clogged lungs. Nevertheless, there was a recognisable quality about his speech.

"He has caught the boat, Solomon. We can do nothing."

The man addressed, shorter and of thicker build, and, considering the climate, of a remarkable pallor, twice opened his cracked lips without speech. Then, fluently and blasphemously he began to swear. He made use of every foul word in the English language and invented more. When he had finished there were tears in his eyes.

"May his bones rot in hell!" he concluded, with a sob.

They leaned upon each other for support as they watched the miserable tramp steamer, its decks littered with great piles of bananas, go creaking and groaning its way out towards the open sea. The eyes of both were intent upon that little space amidships where a few lengths of white rail betokened the space set aside for passengers. A young man, of medium height, in spotless white ducks and a drooping Panama hat, stepped out of the companion-way and lounged over the rails. Simultaneously they recognised him. They tried to raise their voices, but in vain. The passenger departing upon the steamer waved his hand. He lifted his hat and there was a note of mockery as he called across to them.

"Too late to sec me off, my dear companions. Never mind, I will take the will for the deed. The world is a small place. We shall meet again. Work hard at the mine, and remember my share."

They shook their fists in silent fury. The steamer was already out of range of their poor attempts at rejoinder. Then there fluttered through the companion-way to the young man's side a girl, also in white, with wine-black hair, bareheaded, but protected from the sun by a little native parasol. She waved her hand in adieu to the two men, and there was mockery as well as jubilation in her tone.

"You are very stupid thieves," she cried in Spanish; "robbers without brains. Here is one who is cleverer."

She clutched at her companion's arm and clung fondly to it. The taller of the two men upon the quay, the one who up till then had shown the greater restraint, seemed to find in the sound of that voice and the little affectionate gesture a madness which made him forget all his exhaustion, his disreputable, pitiful state. His first impulse seemed to be to throw himself into the sea with some desperate effort at bridging the distance between the rotten plank upon which he stood and that challenging voice. Then he checked himself, looked wildly around, and lurched heavily towards the sentinel soldier. With a strength which, under the circumstances, was amazing he wrenched from the latter's hand the rifle he was carrying, and stooping down took careful aim at the passengers on the boat. There was a sharp click as he pulled the trigger—nothing more. The magazine of the rifle was empty. The soldier, recovered from his surprise, stepped furiously forward. One hand fell heavily upon the stooping man's shoulder; with the other he signalled for assistance.

"You are under arrest," he declared. "You will come with me at once—you and your companion. We go first to the prison."

The man who had sought to commit a murder stood for a moment as though deaf. His eyes were fixed upon the steamer, now passed outside the harbour, and ploughing its laborious way through the cobalt, oily sea. The figures of the two passengers had disappeared. He fancied still, however, that he could hear an echo—or was it a repetition—of that little mocking laugh. He was to have the same fancy many times in later life.

Down the wooden quay, in the broad glare of the pitiless sun, the two men were marched along towards the foul little prison at the back of the market, a rendezvous, to tell the truth, not altogether unfamiliar to them. Before they reached it, there was a moment's delay, owing to the blocking of the narrow street by a mule wagon. The taller man gripped his companion suddenly by the shoulder and raised his hand.

"Swear," he ordered, "that wherever we may meet him, one of us alone or both together, he shall suffer death—or those things that are worse than death."

For a moment the depths of his earnestness, the restrained passion of his deliberately spoken words, lent him a touch of dignity—something which robbed his threat of any touch of melodrama. His companion moistened his cracked lips. Some sound, which resembled more than anything a croak, escaped from his throat. It was unintelligible, but it was enough.

The same two men, Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt, were lunching together, one morning, some fifteen years later, in a business men's club on the twentieth storey of a great down-town New York building. They had been allotted a window table, from which was easily visible the far-reaching and impressive panorama of the river, with its tangled masses of shipping, its gigantic ferryboats, its screaming tugs, the huge liner which at that moment was being slowly towed out into the channel—the whole touched to splendour by the March sunshine. The two men gazed downward with thoughtful eyes. Each had changed in his way, since the morning of that weary tramp along the quay of San Paulo towards the prison building, but on the whole, time had dealt kindly with them. They were attired now in the well-cut business clothes of the typical New Yorker, and each seemed to have imbibed something of the alertness of the metropolis in which they had lived for the last ten years. Solomon Graunt had increased in girth until his figure was almost tubby and the pallor of the city had replaced the sunburn of South America; but his grey-green eyes, although unpleasant, were keen and bright. Victor Porle had preserved with his slenderness of figure that air of distinction which seemed always to separate him a little in class from his companion, but his mouth had grown, if anything, more sinister in its curve and his expression more evil. The firm of Porle and Graunt had become fairly well known in New York as importing fruit brokers from the South. Their business, wound up that day, had been a highly successful undertaking, although there were a few knowing ones who smiled at the name of the firm and the description of their activities. Perhaps they had reason. Messrs. Porle and Graunt had certainly not confined their operations to the importing of fruit.

"In one hour," Solomon Graunt murmured, his eyes fixed upon the tugs, straining like gnats to move, a foot at a time, the great liner, "we too shall be on our way down the river."

"In one hour," his companion repeated.

They lunched exceedingly well, although they drank nothing but iced water. Victor Porle looked down at the magnificent prospect with a frown upon his forehead. His regular features and slightly hooked nose gave him an almost scholarly appearance. He raised his glass.

"We drink our farewell to New York," he said. "Do you realise, Solomon, my friend, that in less than a dozen years we have made, almost honestly, a great fortune in this wonderful city?"

Solomon Graunt nodded. There was a scowl upon his face though, a reminiscent glitter in his eyes.

"I realise that, and very grateful I am," he acknowledged. "New York has done us well. For the moment, however, I was thinking—once we were very nearly broken, Victor."

"Once," the other admitted softly, "we touched bottom. God, shall I ever forget the agony of that day, the misery of the night in prison, the fleas, our feet, the fever!"

"There is something to come for that," Solomon muttered.

"There is most surely something to come," Victor Porle agreed as he called for the check.

They left New York in leisurely and dignified fashion. Those days belonged to the past when they had slipped away from great centres quietly and anxiously. Prosperity had smiled upon them. In every way their retirement, the winding up of their affairs, the closing down of the firm, had been above suspicion. They walked the gangway with firm steps and watched the detectives on the quay-side with a smile. As though by common consent, they commenced their journey in the same fashion; arranged their clothes in the commodious stateroom which they shared, secured a table for two in the dining room, promenaded the deck for an hour and afterwards waited feverishly amongst a little throng for the opening of the bar—an event, for them, full of amazing significance. After dinner they sat out on the deck veranda, ignoring their coffee, forgetting their cigars, but drinking liqueur brandy, to the astonishment of the steward, out of large-sized wineglasses. Finally, towards the close of the evening, they made their way out on deck, and found two chairs in a retired corner where the wind roared past them in gusts and the sound of the throbbing engines compelled them to draw close together.

It was Victor Porle who commenced the conversation. There was a menacing glitter in his hard, brown eyes.

"The time has come now, Solomon," he said, "when we should speak of this matter which is taking us to England."

"It has indeed come," was the ready assent. "For many years we have been silent. We had other things to think of. Poor men can do nothing in this world. We both realised that, Victor,"

The latter's tone was full of gentle self-satisfaction.

"We realised it, and we acted accordingly," he admitted. "We were a little bold, perhaps, but success has justified our efforts. We are wealthy men."

"And bearing that in mind," Solomon Graunt pronounced, watching his companion furtively, "we must remember that the risks of life are no more for us."

"There is our task," Porle observed tonelessly.

"I shall not flinch," the other assured him. "Still, what I say is, let us remember this: crime is a necessity to the poor; it is only a luxury to the rich. There are other ways,"

Victor Porle made no reply. There was, in those hard eyes, as he looked seawards, a gleam of that lust for murder which had shone in them when he had snatched the weapon from the little brown soldier. Presently his companion continued.

"Fifteen years. It is a long time. Supposing he is dead?"

"He is not dead. I have no fear of that."

There was a brief silence. Then for the first time for fifteen years the name of the woman passed Victor Porle's lips.

"It may be that Laurita is dead," he continued. "She was never strong, and the life at San Paulo was hard. If she is not dead, by now she will be ugly. If the child has lived, she will be seventeen years old. An interesting age, Solomon!"

"A wonderful age!"

"I have heard you yourself declare that at seventeen a girl is more beautiful than at any time before or after."

Solomon Graunt smiled slowly—a smile that was almost a leer. The curve of his lips was unpleasant; his teeth were irregular and of bad colour.

"You have some scheme already," he enquired; "something hatching in that wonderful brain of yours?"

"Not yet. Before one strikes one must know who is left and in what condition of life they are placed."

"And then?"

Victor Porle smiled indulgently.

"I know what you are fearing, Solomon," he said. "You think that in England I shall make use of the same methods I might have employed at San Paulo or up in the mountains. That is not my idea. To kill quickly is not my conception of vengeance. It is too merciful a thing. There are other ways. When we have found him, we will sit down and reflect. His nerves will not be as good as they were, Solomon. Of that I am well assured. I can see him sitting in a house of fear, shivering and waiting. That is better than the speedy bullet. Some day or other he knows that something will arrive because he knows what manner of men we are, but be will not know when or how. It will be better like that."

"Wonderful!" his companion murmured approvingly.

"There will be the girl too. You remember the little baby. He was fond of her. That feeling may have grown. Fortunately I have kept all my documents. Laurita and I were married in the English Settlement Church at San Paulo. It was a ridiculous whim of hers, but in a fortunate moment I consented. The child was baptised there. The English law is very fair. If I insist, until she is twenty-one, she must come to me. Stop! There is another idea which presents itself. Seventeen is your favourite age, Solomon, How would you like to be my son-in-law?"

"If the child is as beautiful as her mother was," Solomon Graunt replied, with an unpleasant brightness at the eyes, "I shall not refuse."

There was a long silence. Victor Porle was lost in what, seemed to be a pleasant reverie.

"There is just one thing," he said at last. "To sit at a man's gates and fill him with fear is good. It is good too to keep the doomed man waiting for his punishment, never knowing when it may fall. But the cat, after it has played with the mouse, kills in the end. When the safe time comes, Solomon, I think that he will die with my hand upon his throat."

Conversation was becoming more and more difficult. The strains of the distant orchestra were almost drowned by the rushing of the wind, and promenaders had vanished. A shower of spray broke at their feet, reminding the two men that they were on the windward side of the ship. They rose and buffeted their way along the deck to the smoking-room. A game of poker was being played in a distant corner. Solomon Graunt moved involuntarily towards it. His companion laid a hand warningly upon his arm.

"We watch only," he whispered. "It is no longer necessary."

Solomon Graunt hesitated. He had recognised the face of a New York banker and from long experience He knew it was a game of suckers—just such a game as had produced for him and his partner the thousand dollars with which they bad commenced business. Victor Porle led him on one side to a couple of vacant seats.

"Solomon," he said, "the first part of our task is finished—very marvellously finished. We have wealth. The second part lies before us. Any sort of trouble might interfere."

Solomon Graunt sighed. Even in that moment, though, his mind travelled backward to the quay at San Paulo and he was resigned.

"Right as usual," he agreed. "We will play cribbage together and drink. The time, after all, is short. In six days we shall be in England,"

"A straight game?" Victor Porle asked, shuffling the pack of cards which he had ordered, and suddenly throwing into the air in most amazing fashion, four aces.

Solomon Graunt sighed enviously.

"You were always too clever for me," he admitted. "We will play the straight game."



BOOK ONE

CHAPTER I

It was just an impulse for which at the time he did not take the trouble to account, even to himself, which induced Martin Barnes, the Eastern Counties representative of the firm of Shrives and Welshman of Bermondsey, to leave the commercial room, the atmosphere of which suddenly irritated him, to refuse an invitation to accompany a rival traveller to a picture show and to wander out alone into the streets of the old cathedral town where he was spending two or three days in pursuit of his business. It was further a craving for solitude, to which he was at rare and unexpected moments subject, which led him to turn from the backbone of the city and plunge into the network of dark, mysterious streets in the neighbourhood of the cathedral. He was not at the time conscious of any expectation of or desire for adventure. His impulse proceeded simply from the fact that he was weary of the flamboyant peregrinations in which the evenings of his days of travel were usually spent, of the company of his night-by-night associates, with whom he never felt entirely in sympathy, of the flirtations of an hour, harmless enough but cloying, continually offered in the more crowded places. It was so he came to Ash Hill.

He sauntered down the cobbled way certainly with no idea of finding anywhere in its murky recesses fortune or even anything unusual. High and majestic above the red-tiled roofs of the dwelling houses on his right, the cathedral spire arose, imminent, and in the gloom gigantic. He paused to look more closely at its impressive outline, and, taking out a packet of Virginian cigarettes from his pocket, selected and lit one. The chiming of the hour suddenly broke the deep stillness of the place, and after listening approvingly to the mellow notes he strolled on his way, his hands in his pockets, his tweed cap a little on the back of his head, the cigarette dangling from his lips. The character of the street puzzled him. On one side were dwelling houses of an ordinary type enough; on the other, the side nearer the cathedral, after passing a straggling, silent warehouse and an entry which led cathedral-wards he had come to a building which with its long, level line of windows, its impressive, yet secluded air, seemed singularly placed in so retired a neighbourhood. From the middle of the street, he stepped on to the pavement to examine more closely the nail-studded door, wondering at its massiveness, its fine carving, and curious about the great coat of arms surmounting it. Whilst he stood there, his foot almost advanced on the flawlessly clean white step, the door which he was studying was abruptly opened from inside and the most unmistakable butler who ever donned the livery of his class looked enquiringly out into the darkness. Martin Barnes was distinctly taken aback, the more so because he was conscious that he was being scrutinised with an interest, almost an eagerness, for which he could conceive no explanation. He himself felt like a suddenly convicted trespasser.

"I didn't ring or anything," he explained. "I was just admiring the door."

"Will you step inside, please," the butler invited. The young man stared at him.

"Why should I?" he demanded. "I don't know any one here. I was only admiring the door."

The butler opened it an inch or two wider. Before him now Martin looked down a vista of white-flagged hall, unexpectedly spacious, walls hung with sombrely framed oil paintings, a great oak staircase and beyond, a stained-glass window.

"My orders were to admit you," the man replied patiently.

Martin Barnes hesitated. Perhaps at that moment there was kindled in his imagination some spark of that love of adventure of which he certainly gave evidence in later life. He stepped into the hall and waited whilst the heavy door was closed behind him.

"Will you come this way, sir?"

With the sober, dignified gait of his class, the butler lead the way down the hall, threw open the door of a room on the left, and stood at one side to allow Martin to enter. In a single phrase he placed the visitor.

"The young man, my lord," he announced.

The door closed behind him, and Martin gasped. It was a room such as he had never seen before—a dining-room panelled from wainscotting to ceiling in ancient black oak, for the most part unrelieved but with here and there an oil painting let in, surmounted by a shaded electric light. At a round table four men had apparently been dining. There were decanters of wine and wonderful glass standing upon the polished table, dishes of fruit and nuts, and a profusion of flowers. The four men all wore dinner-clothes and possessed the air of having just concluded some heated discussion. The obvious host of the party, who was immediately facing Martin, was a thin, rather shrivelled-looking man with very carefully brushed, sandy-grey hair, eyes which for his apparent age were still remarkably bright, and a fretful mouth. On his right and left were men of ordinary type enough; one clean-shaven, with a thoughtful and clever face, the other elderly with grey beard and spectacles.

The fourth member of the party was much younger than any of the others, good-looking in an insignificant way but with pallid complexion, somewhat small features and a distinctly cynical mouth. They all four studied the newcomer with a curiosity which seemed to him entirely inexplicable, and which succeeded in rendering him to the last degree self-conscious. He stood twirling his tweed cap in his fingers, looking about him in perplexity—a tall, broad-shouldered young man, with pleasant face, mildly freckled complexion, a good mouth and jaw, eyes from which a gleam of humour was seldom absent, and a mass of light-coloured hair which grew too thickly to lend itself readily to control. His other features were without any special distinction, but were not displeasing. His carriage, under ordinary circumstances, repaid him for a good many hours spent in the gymnasium.

"I say, what am I here for?" he asked, finding words at last. "I was just passing down the street when the door opened and I was told to come in. I don't know any of you. I haven't any business here."

The man whom Martin had rightly divined to be host rose to his feet. He was taller than he had seemed when seated and his voice, notwithstanding its slight drawl, was unexpectedly pleasant.

"You are here at my special request," he announced. "I am exceedingly obliged to you for coming. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Ardrington. Will you take a seat and drink a glass of wine with us?"

Martin hesitated for a moment, then moved slowly forward. The man on his host's left-hand side rose and drew up a chair in which the newly arrived guest uneasily seated himself.

"My apologies are due to you for this interference with your evening, and also an explanation which I shall presently offer," the host of the party continued. "Pray, let me fill your glass, Mr.——by the bye, what is your name?"

"Barnes—-Martin Barnes."

"Mr. Martin Barnes—excellent! And now to commence our acquaintance, which I trust may be a lasting one, let me ask you a great favour. Would you mind extinguishing that cigarette which appears to be of a brand with which I am not familiar, until after you have drunk your wine."

The young man looked around helplessly. His neighbour on the left relieved him of the objectionable cigarette and dropped it gingerly into a bowl of flowers.

"Later," his host proceeded, "it would interest me to have your opinion of that wine. For the immediate present you would, I daresay, like to know the reason why I have engaged in such an unusual effort to secure the pleasure of your company this evening."

Martin toyed with his wineglass and took further note of his fellow guests in somewhat dazed fashion. He had an instinct for such matters and he realised quite well that, these men were of a different class from any with whom he had been previously associated.

"I should like to know what it all means, if you don't mind, Mr.—Mr.—Ardrington," he confessed.

"Lord Ardrington," the man on his left prompted in a whisper.

"That is of no consequence," the person so designated declared. "Here then is my explanation. Permit me to make you known to the rest of the company. Mr. Martin Barnes, whom under the circumstances we will call 'The Fortunate Wayfarer'—Doctor Helsby on my right here, my physician—Mr. Bordon, by your side, my lawyer—and facing me, a young man known very well in certain circles of modern life, as Gerry Garnham, but more formally designated the Honourable Gerald Garnham—my nephew and the heir to my estates."

"Is all this part of the joke?" the young man in question sneered.

"You are very hard to convince, my dear Gerald," his uncle complained, "but I can assure you that the joke does not exist. The only person in a position to extract any element of humour from to-night's proceedings will be myself. Now, my dear Mr.—Mr. Barnes, let me further confide to you the somewhat distressing information that in all probability within a week from this date I shall be dead. You will find no one here likely to dispute my statement—my doctor, less than any one. You are probably too sensible a young man to have made an intimate study of the peerage and you are therefore not aware that, for a twelfth holder of the title, I am singularly devoid of relatives. My nephew, the young man opposite, is my heir. Lord Ardrington he most certainly will be, and by no possible means can I rob him of the title, but in these, probably the last days of my life, I find myself forced to remember that in every possible manner my graceless nephew has displeased and angered me."

The Honourable Gerald kept silent with an evident effort at self-restraint. His uncle sighed as though a little disappointed that he had failed to elicit a retort.

"Look here, we don't seem to be getting on," Martin Barnes ventured. "I still don't see why I'm here or how all this concerns me."

"Everything shall be made clear directly," Lord Ardrington promised. "I am not a rich man, Mr. Martin Barnes; I am, in fact for my rank in life, a singularly poor one, but such money as I have to leave, I am determined shall not benefit that young man who is now looking at me so murderously from the other end of the table. I have no near relatives unless you place in that category an adopted daughter, who is already provided for, and I have decided, therefore, to dispose of certain monies which would otherwise come into the estate, by deed of gift. Mr. Bordon, if you please."

The lawyer drew reluctantly from his pocket and placed upon the table a thick sealed packet.

"Inside that," Lord Ardrington continued, pointing towards it, "are bank notes to the value of eighty thousand pounds. Not a large sum, Mr. Barnes, but I trust you will agree with me a very pleasant sum to own. To pick up the trend of our conversation, you will remember that I told you of my intention to dispose of some portion of my estate by deed of gift. But to whom? I imagine perhaps that I may be an old man grown out of touch with the times, but the regrettable fact remains that there is scarcely one of my few relatives with whom I am on speaking terms with the exception of a niece who flatly refuses to accept anything from me. I come to consider the question of charity. Mr. Barnes, I have been an unflinching opponent of all charitable institutions throughout my life. Hospitals, I have always argued, should be State-endowed. I will not, however, open up that question, as I do not wish to trespass for too long upon your patience. I have found myself faced with this fact: I know of no living person, nor have I interest in any institution, which I would care to have profit by this sum of money."

Martin Barnes was listening in earnest now. In a state of strain, his face gave evidence of qualities more or less latent. Its pallor became him. The tenseness of his expression gave emphasis to his not unattractive features. His eyes, though light in colour, were singularly bright and clear.

"All my life," the speaker proceeded, "I have been called a farceur. In my last few hours I have determined to live up to my reputation, I have instructed my lawyer to bring here in bank notes that portion of my property of which I desire to dispose—or shall I say, that I desire to keep from the covetous hands of my nephew. Some half an hour ago I announced to these gentlemen my intention of presenting that sum by deed of gift to the first person whose footsteps I should hear passing down the street."

Lord Ardrington paused and sipped his wine deliberately, raised the richly cut glass towards the light, studied it for a moment and drank the remainder of its contents. Meanwhile not a word had been spoken. Martin Barnes was scarcely conscious of his own physical whereabouts. The power of speech was denied him. His whole attention was rivetted upon the man by his side. Afterwards, when he tried to remember how he had felt during these amazing moments, it seemed to him that his attention was unduly and almost ludicrously absorbed by trifles. He remembered, for instance, an Italian signet ring with a dark green stone and small coronet which Lord Ardrington was wearing, remembered wondering at the beautiful shape of his hands and his carefully polished finger nails, the careless yet inimitable arrangement of his black tie, his black onyx studs and links; all these things so in accord with the environment of the room seemed to him suddenly vital and admirable. He found himself cloudily speculating as to whether, if he himself possessed that eighty thousand pounds, he could ever imbibe its remote but alluring atmosphere.

"The money," Lord Ardrington concluded, "is there, and you, Mr. Martin Barnes, have had the fortune—mark you, I say the 'fortune,' for the future alone will show whether it is good or ill—to pass—I wonder why?—down this remote thoroughfare. You are accordingly seated at my table and will presently depart with that packet of notes in your possession. I notice that you continue dumb. The situation is doubtless confusing to you. Might I venture an enquiry as to your present means and condition?"

The young man listened to his own voice as one listens to the speech of a stranger.

"I am a commercial traveller," he confided. "I come to Norwich every six weeks on business—Shrives and Welshman in Bermondsey. They pay me five pounds a week and a commission. I have no other money. I don't understand this. It's some sort of a joke, of course,"

"Mr. Barnes," he said, "before we go further, I insist upon your telling me what you think of that wine."

Martin sipped it obediently. His reply, however, lacked all enthusiasm.

"Oh, I don't know. It's good, I suppose. What does it matter? I never tasted anything like it before."

As though in obedience to an unspoken wish of his host's, he raised the glass once more to his lips and set it down empty. A faint tinge of colour stole into his cheeks. He felt the glow of the wine in his veins.

"You spoke the truth," Lord Ardrington approved. "You have never tasted anything like it. It is port of an 1868 vintage, which had lain undisturbed in my cellars since it was laid down in 1870. A revelation to you, I hope, Mr. Barnes?"

"How much longer is this damned foolery going to last?" the Honourable Gerald Garnham asked softly, but in a voice quivering with latent fury.

His uncle extended his hand.

"My dear Gerald," he begged, "do not hurry me. Remember that I am finding amusement in this little scene and that the amusements of my life are nearly over. Mr. Barnes, you, having a mind trained by commerce, are naturally asking yourself whether such an extraordinary gift as mine can legally be made. Let me assure you that it can. The gentleman whom I presented to you a few minutes ago—Mr. Bordon—is my lawyer. Mr. Bordon has drawn up the deed of gift which is enclosed with these bank notes in which I set forth my intentions coherently and, I think, with intelligence. The other gentleman to whom I presented you—Doctor Helsby—is my physician. If at any time you should be in need of advice, Mr. Barnes, I can assure you that Doctor Helsby's reputation is more than local. Now Doctor Helsby has given a certificate, which is also appended to the deed of gift, in which he admits that mentally I am in perfect health, that I am absolutely conscious of what I am doing and therefore in a condition to dispose as I will of my own effects. With these documents, Mr. Barnes, no one in the world will venture to dispute your possession of the money. Mr. Bordon, may I trouble you."

Mr. Bordon pushed the packet along the table and, at a sign from Lord Ardrington, Martin took it into his possession,

"I have carried out the instructions of my client," Mr. Bordon said, in a thin, harsh voice, "but I wish to repeat in your lordship's presence, as well as in the presence of your nephew and the beneficiary, that I entirely and utterly disapprove of this means of disposing of so large a sum of money."

"With which expression of disapproval," Doctor Helsby added, "I wish to associate myself."

Martin was beginning to hate these two men. They represented the world of practical, everyday things, the world in which he had lived and understood. They were trying to come between him and this fantastic fortune.

He buttoned the flap over his breast pocket and scowled at them both. His benefactor smiled.

"Our young friend," he remarked, "is beginning to realise the situation. What shall you do with that money, Mr. Barnes?"

"I don't know," was the candid reply. "I haven't had time to think yet."

"You will perhaps buy a share in the business with which you are associated?"

"Not I!" the young man exclaimed, with a vigour and clarity of thought which afterwards astonished him. "I hate business—my job, anyway."

"That is interesting," Lord Ardrington observed, "The money is going to make a real change in your life, then? Very interesting indeed," he mused. "It was a fortunate chance, Mr. Barnes, which brought you wandering down Ash Hill this evening."

Martin Barnes moistened his lips.

"It was a fortunate chance, all right, but are you sure that they won't be able to take it away from me?" he asked, jerking his head towards his neighbour.

"Ask him yourself?" Lord Ardrington enjoined.

"It would be impossible," the lawyer declared.

There was conviction in that curt statement. Martin's good fortune suddenly seemed to become real. He found himself wishing that they would ask him to have another glass of wine.

"To-night, at ten o'clock," Lord Ardrington continued, "I shall leave this house, which, by the bye, I seldom occupy, in that most dreary of vehicles, a motor ambulance. I am going to the hospital—the local hospital—and in four days' time I am to undergo an operation from which I believe I am right in saying, Doctor, that the odds are five to one against my recovery."

"To a patient of your lordship's nerve and temperament," the doctor assented, "I will admit that the odds are correctly stated."

"So you see that I have the right to amuse myself. For that reason I have set this little stage upon what may be the closing scene of my life; for that reason I am drinking one of the last bottles of the most famous wine grapes ever yielded. I have spent a pleasant evening and I thank you for your share in it, Mr. Barnes. I beg you to walk in the middle of the street on your way homewards and as soon as possible on the morrow to deposit the contents of that package in a respectable bank. I should be interested in your future career, but, alas, the possibilities of my being able to observe it are singularly remote. In the event, however, of that five to one chance coming off, let me see or hear something of you. Permit me to wish you good evening."

Martin was suddenly aware that the door of the room was open, and that the butler who had admitted him was standing patiently beside it. He rose to his feet and stood for a moment looking round at the four men, uncertain how to frame a farewell, how to make his exit. The "good-night all" of the commercial room seemed at once inadequate and familiar.

"If it isn't a dream," he said, with a hard little laugh, "I suppose I ought to say that I'm very grateful."

"Don't thank me," Lord Ardrington begged him, lifting his hand. "I have learned to hate the people who thank me. Besides, what have I to do with it. Thank instead what those irrational people like my nephew would call 'the wind of destiny' which brought you down this crazy street. Good-night, Mr. Barnes."

"Good-night, gentlemen all," Martin Barnes replied, with sudden inspiration as he left the room.


CHAPTER II

Martin Barnes, on the following morning, lay sleepily awake, watching a sunbeam on the ceiling of his bedroom—a very bare apartment on the third floor of the Grand Hotel. He lay upon a hard mattress and his bedstead was a plain iron one of the sort usually found in the servants' quarters of large houses. There was a plain suite of ash furniture in the room, two texts on either side of the mantelpiece and no further attempt at adornment. Thoughts framed themselves cloudily in his mind. A dream! A stupid dream! His own fault for going mooning off instead of visiting the pictures with Charlie Sands. He had the feeling of a man who has dozed in paradise and waked in misery. The prospect of his day's work depressed him. Competition was getting keener every journey. He was fighting all the time against the conviction that his firm was slipping a little behind. Back again that surge of thought, strengthened, overwhelming. Hastily he thrust his hand under the pillow. It was there—the amazing packet! He sat upright in the bed and drew out a handful of bank notes—hundred-pound bank notes. They were all there. It was true. And there were the documents signed by the doctor and the lawyer, every word of which he had read last night. With slow, trembling fingers he pushed everything back into the packet and lay there for a few moments, his heart beating. A knock at the door. In came Anne, the chambermaid, with a smile and a battered tin can of hot water. She glanced towards the bed in confident anticipation of a word of chaffing greeting.

"Eight o'clock, sir," she announced, as she drew the blinds. "Will you have a bath this morning?"

He looked at her, more than ever dazed. Surely Anne belonged to the other world. And that bath too; the varnish stained, the enamel off in great patches, an inadequate towel, a thin, unsatisfactory stream of water, nothing but the oilcloth to stand on. There were plenty of good bathrooms downstairs but they were for the coffee-room customers.

"A bath!" he repeated. "I don't know. I think so. Yes."

"Sure you wouldn't rather wait till to-night," she ventured. "The water's running rather slow." He shook his head. "I'll have it now," he decided.

She looked at him in surprise. Not a smile, not a light-hearted word!

"All right. I'll turn it on then," she said. "I'm afraid you were up late last night, Mr. Barnes."

"I feel as though I had been," he admitted.

Still not a smile. She might as well not have been in the room, and he seemed all the time to be clutching something under the bedclothes. She turned away with a little shrug of the shoulders. Queer chaps, these commercials! Up one day, down the next. No telling which way to take them. Martin waited until she had disappeared. Then he slipped out of the bed, hugging his packet, thrust on his overcoat—he did not possess a dressing-gown—and made his way across the bare corridor, guided by the sound of running water. Half an hour later he descended. Outside the commercial room he was met by the porter who wheeled around his truck-load of samples,—a red-faced, cheery youth.

"Where do we start this morning, sir?" he enquired. "Shall I be getting the stuff on the barrow? I thought if I nipped along ahead we might get in first at Claxton's."

Martin stared at him a little vaguely. Of course, he had meant to have a long, dogged day.

"I'm not sure that I sha'n't have to go back to London this afternoon, Tom," he said. "However, I needn't go till midday, so we'll start as usual. I'll meet you up at Claxton's. Try and find out if Mr. Alworth is in the way."

"Very good, sir," the man replied.

Martin took his place at the long table in the commercial room, ordered his accustomed breakfast—tea and bacon and eggs—and accepted the two letters which the waiter handed him. One was from his firm, signed by the junior partner, Mr. Welshman. Things were slow in town—slow everywhere. He had better, perhaps, put in an extra day where he was, and try for some business. He smiled as he thrust the letter back into its envelope. Then he opened the other after a moment's hesitation. It was typed and also upon the stationery of the firm, but was of a different character.

+++LETTER+++

Dearest Martin,

Just a line hoping you are having a successful journey. Things are very slow here and they are all hoping that you will have some luck. Don't hurry home, because I am going down to Streatham with mother to-morrow evening, and sha'n't be back until late.

So looking forward to seeing you.

With love and kisses,

Your Maisie.

 

He thrust this letter also, back into its envelope, curiously unmoved by its contents. As he ate his breakfast and afterwards when he was looking through his stock lists in the hotel lounge, he found himself thinking more than once of Maisie. She had seemed to him very desirable the first day she had taken her place in the outer office of Messrs. Shrives and Welshman. She conformed entirely to type, but the fashion of the day had made that type a peculiarly attractive one. Her brown hair was neatly bobbed; she wore a string of coloured beads with earrings to match; her dress, all in one piece, made the best of her slim, boyish body. There was a great deal of silk stocking visible at times, no doubt whatever about the powder of which she made occasional use, and very little about the source of the colour which at times made her lips almost too brilliant against the pallor of her cheeks. She had engaging yet demure manners, an amusing flow of small conversation, a distinct penchant for carefully conducted flirtations. She had promised, on one warm and languorous night, a month or so ago, when she had ridden in the side car of his motor bicycle down a country lane near Cobham and rested for a time under a tree, that as soon as he was ready, she would marry him. He found himself thinking this morning of her kisses, and the endearments which had so readily become almost a habit, with impersonal, almost cold criticism. Already, as he had tired easily of most things in life, except cricket, he was a little tired of Maisie. Not much hope of release now, though. It was characteristic of him that he viewed the future without any idea of evasion.

Then, with an effort, he started his morning's work. He greeted his customers one by one and indulged in the same trend of conversation with each. He made a few sales and worked hard for others. There were times when he completely forgot the great thing which had happened to him; others when he was so conscious of it that he showed a curious indifference as to the success or non-success of his transactions. Towards the midday dinner hour, he found himself with a little shock at the top of the hill leading to the cathedral. He dismissed the man with his barrow and walked slowly down Ash Hill, It seemed to him, in a sudden surge of excitement, that he half anticipated finding the large house in the small street vanished in the night—a building as chimerical as the strange happening it had sheltered. It was there still, however, and curiously, unexpectedly beautiful. There were mullioned windows, he saw now, Tudor chimneys and gables, and the oak door was even more beautiful than he had thought. A brick wall of great age sheltered it, and through a postern gate he had a glimpse of gardens sloping down to the river. He lingered before the door for several moments, studying its marvellous carving, and inclined to wonder that it did not once more swing open before him. This time, however, nothing happened. He felt the packet in his pocket, and its material presence seemed to give him fresh confidence. He turned around and swung light-heartedly up the hill.

Arrived at the hotel, the noisy clamour of the commercial room suddenly affronted him. He turned his back on it, then and forever and, deliberately crossing the lounge, entered and seated himself in the coffee room. He was relieved to find that no one took any notice of his presence there or seemed surprised at it, although to him it was an actual and tangible demonstration of his change of circumstances. The silence, the thick carpet, the softer voices and the pleasant manners of the few men and women from the country, his fellow patrons of the place, all soothed him. When he had finished his lunch and paid for it, he made up his mind to temporise with his good fortune no longer. He dismissed his porter with the most liberal tip the latter had ever received in his life, gave orders for his samples to be packed up, and, declining a seat in the omnibus, sent for a fly and drove down to the station in solitary state. He took a first-class ticket for London and, at the bookstall, bought a novel, the title of which attracted him, the Times instead of the Daily Mail, Punch instead of one of its host of cheaper imitators. On his journey up to London, he had the carriage to himself, and, pulling down the blinds for fear anyone might pass along the corridor, he deliberately reopened his packet. The notes were there, crisp, unmistakable. He closed the window for fear of an accident and set himself to the task of counting them. With each pile which he arranged on the seat opposite to him his heart seemed to beat faster. The actual and tangible presence of the money seemed to dispel forever all doubts, seemed to affect him with a peculiar sense of excitement. In the end they were all counted—eight hundred bank notes, each for a hundred pounds. He read through the doctor's certificate, studied the lawyer's few grim words, then packed everything once more into the envelope, replaced it in his breast coat pocket and settled himself down in his corner. He found it impossible to read, impossible to pursue any settled course of thought. With very little more success he tried to picture to himself the future which he desired in life. Each time he was nearing something definite, visions of Maisie with her slangy affection, her ardent—sometimes too ardent kisses—intervened, and the picture faded away. He thrust his hands into his trousers pockets and leaned back, frowning heavily. A man with eighty thousand pounds had every right to consider himself a man of the world. How should he deal with such a situation? Maisie's father was a plumber and her mother a dressmaker. She was a very proper companion for a commercial traveller, earning four or five pounds a week; a clever little thing too, who would keep house well, provided she could resist her naturally flirtatious instincts, but for the wife of a man of wealth, a man of the world, a man with a future, all wrong. He tried to fancy himself telling her of his good fortune. He could feel the yoke of her arms thrown around his neck, a yoke which be felt would never after then be loosened, her breathless paean of rejoicing, the soberer aftermath during which she planned their future. The trend of his reflections irritated him, because he was profoundly conscious of their meanness. Nevertheless, Maisie was a bore.

A fit of restlessness seized him and he began to move about. He smoked a cigarette and drank a whisky and soda in the dining car and enjoyed to the full the minor luxuries of comfortable travelling. On his way through the train he passed a row of third-class compartments, crowded, hot, thronged with people whom he found himself regarding now from a new point of view, and finding them entirely wanting. Only two days before he had travelled down to Norwich in the third-class dining car and fancied himself no end of a fellow. This afternoon the hard seats, the noisy service suddenly grated upon sensibilities, new-born indeed, but which he told himself must have been all the time latent. He made his way back to the dignified isolation of his first-class carriage and made another effort at connected thought. What should he do: travel, go in for country life, carry out one of his earlier ambitions and qualify for one of the counties at cricket, perhaps learn to shoot and ride? Or should he have a little flat in London, buy all the books he cared to, sit in the stalls at the theatres, frequent the well-known supper places? Alas, with such thoughts came back the obtruding realisation of Maisie. He remembered times when he had travelled home after a four or five days' absence, on fire with the joy of seeing her waiting at the station, to catch the first smile from her saucy little face, overjoyed to have her kiss him frankly, as she did, thrust her arm through his and lead him off. His present revulsion in feeling he told himself was revolting. He was suddenly and heartily ashamed of himself. How was it possible to have developed a different range of feelings, a finer critical sense in less than twenty-four hours. He looked out of the window and frowned. It was his first essay at self-analysis and he was compelled to find himself guilty—guilty of infidelity in thought and without doubt of a weakness which he could only characterise as snobbishness. There could be no other reason for this sudden change of feeling. Maisie belonged to that class of young women who succeed easily enough in arousing the desires of the male portion of the world with whom they are brought into contact. The fashions, the latitude of the moment, permitting even in a business young woman frank and challenging competition with the mere votaries of pleasure, were all on her side. He had felt and been vanquished by the allurement of her. That her attraction for him should all have disappeared now that everything was possible was unnatural, a proof, he told himself contemptuously, that he possessed a character too weak to stand the strain of good fortune. . . .

Arrived at Liverpool Street, there was time, had he wished it, to have visited the office, and perhaps to have caught Maisie before she left. He made his way instead, however, to his lodgings—a bed-sitting-room on the third floor of a dreary house just off the Marylebone Road. Mrs. Johnson, his landlady, who had not expected him, was cross at his coming, but his room as usual was neat, notwithstanding its bareness and lack of all comfort. He looked around as he laid his bag upon the table, with something which was almost a shiver. He was beginning to realise that the content of his days had sprung mostly from a certain adaptability of temperament.

"Shall you be wanting any tea, Mr. Barnes?" his landlady, who had followed him up, enquired gloomily. "I wasn't expecting you back till to-morrow at the earliest."

"I sha'n't want anything at all, thank you," he answered. "I am going out to-night. And, Mrs. Johnson——"

"Well?"

"I should like to give a week's notice from next Saturday."

"Hoity-toity!" the woman exclaimed. "What's wrong with you?"

He shrank from alluding to his altered circumstances.

"I am going away," he announced. "I have been quite comfortable here, and I dare say I can find you another tenant for the room, if necessary."

"Well, that's that," Mrs. Johnson remarked. "I expect I can let it fast enough. You haven't got the sack, have you?" she asked suspiciously.

He shook his head,

"On the contrary," he assured her, "I am likely to better myself."

She departed, only half satisfied. Martin, after a disapproving scrutiny of his wardrobe, dressed himself carefully in a blue serge suit which seemed to him his most effective possession, treated himself to clean linen, donned a new tie which he had been keeping for a special occasion, and presently left the house. He took a taxi and, descending Piccadilly, wandered through some of the West End thoroughfares which had hitherto been little more than a name to him. He walked there with a sense of ease which he was all the time endeavouring to cultivate. He told himself firmly that he belonged, that he might indeed, if he chose, be occupying a flat in any of those fine buildings which he passed, or staying at the hotel whose blue-coated commissionaire stood on one side to let him pass. He wandered on to the Park and sat there for a time, sorting out the people and placing them in his mind until the number of assignations on every side of him and his own isolation engendered a sense of loneliness. He glanced at his watch, discovered that it was eight o'clock and that he was hungry. At Hyde Park Corner he called another taxi, and, after a moment's hesitation, directed the man to drive him to the grillroom of a big hotel where, he happened to remember, one of the partners of the firm had taken a country client who was still in morning clothes to dine on the conclusion of an important deal. Arrived there he strolled into the place, more at ease than he had expected, and followed a smiling maître d'hôtel to a table. He ordered a gin and bitters to gain a moment's respite whilst he studied the menu. At the next table against the wall, a man and a girl were talking earnestly. The girl was very décolleteé; her black evening gown was little more than a sheath, and a string of imitation pearls hung from her neck. There was something curiously familiar about her attitude, the sound of her voice, half chaffing, half pleading. Martin's first careless glance became suddenly one of eager and intense absorption. The man—surely that was Mr. Welshman, the junior partner of the firm? And the girl? She turned her head. It was Maisie.


CHAPTER III

The little scene, which Martin was able to think of later in life with cool amusement, seemed to him then infinitely tragic. Curiously enough, all his afternoon reflections, his sudden distaste for his relations with Maisie, were momentarily forgotten. He only remembered that she, who had sent him off at Liverpool Street, pleading for one more kiss—and Maisie knew how to kiss—who had written him not to come home because she was visiting an aunt at Streatham, was seated there in evening clothes such as she had never worn in his company, dining alone with his employer, who had also enjoined him to stay away. He was white with anger, scorched with the flame of jealousy. He saw Maisie clutch at her companion's arm, heard her little horrified exclamation. Mr. Welshman turned in his chair and looked at Martin in obvious dismay. He was a fat young man with a stiff, yellow moustache, baggy white cheeks and plenty of fair hair brushed smoothly back. He wore well-cut dinner clothes, and, to judge from the attention which he had been receiving from the maître d'hôtel, was a regular patron of the place. He recovered his self-possession more quickly than his companion, but his disquietude was apparent.

"Why, what the devil are you doing here, Barnes?" he demanded. "I thought you were in Norwich."

"So, I suppose, did Miss Clemson," was the truculent reply.

"Martin," she faltered, leaning towards him, "I—well, I couldn't go to Streatham, and you were
away——"

"That will do, Maisie," he interrupted. "Lies don't help. Please don't let me interfere with your dinner."

"What the devil are you doing here anyhow?" Mr. Welshman repeated.

"That seems to me to be my business," Martin replied. "It's a public restaurant."

"It's a public restaurant for some of us. It's scarcely meant for a young man with a salary of five pounds a week," Mr. Welshman rejoined a little brutally. "Did you follow us here?"

"I did not."

"Then why did you leave Norwich after my letter?" Martin shrugged his shoulders.

"Your letter, which was to make things quite safe," he observed.

"That's nothing to do with it," Mr. Welshman declared angrily. "Your instructions were to remain where you were. What the devil do you mean by coming home without orders?"

Martin picked up the menu.

"I will explain to-morrow morning, if I feel like it," he promised.

Mr. Welshman scowled. He realised the significance of the young man's words—realised that, he had practically been reproved in a public place by one of his young employees. He turned his back upon him and began to talk earnestly to his companion, devoting himself to the task of consoling her. Martin ordered his dinner, and a pint of champagne, and, curiously enough, he enjoyed both. Every now and then he caught Maisie's eyes fixed upon him, pleading with him coquettishly, languishingly, almost passionately. Once or twice he smiled faintly in response but it was more in bitter appreciation of the tawdriness of her efforts at reconciliation than from any sensation of weakening. The more he thought of it, the more glaringly obvious the whole situation became. On half a dozen occasions before Mr. Welshman had urged him to remain away a day longer. He remembered the mysterious absence of Maisie from her post on the score of illness, when he was not permitted to visit her, and he recalled, with a little shock almost of horror, that there had been a corresponding absence from business of Mr. Welshman, He was still too angry to feel a proper sense of relief at his freedom, but he evinced no signs of it, even when, the meal somewhat hurriedly finished, they prepared to depart and Mr. Welshman, bidding him a curt good-night, turned towards the door. Maisie, after a moment's hesitation, stood in front of his table. He rose to his feet. He really had a great many very correct instincts,

"Martin," she pleaded, "you are not going to be angry with me. Shall I let him go and stay with you?"

"Of course not," he answered. "You had better hurry. He is waiting."

"But what brought you here, Martin? Had you heard anything?"

"Not a word," he assured her.

"But the Milan Grill? You don't come to these places?"

"You do, apparently," he rejoined.

She blushed guiltily.

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

"I shall be down at the office for an hour or two."

"You mean—you mean not to stay—that you will leave because of this?"

"I was leaving anyhow."

She abandoned her efforts then, conscious of a new quality in his resistance. She was one of those young women who possess a supreme confidence in their ability to wheedle and do as they please with members of the opposite sex, but somehow or other, during these few seconds, her belief in her powers received a severe blow. She joined her escort with a smile, which was something of a strain.

"Don't be foolish, dear," he whispered, as he arranged her wrap. "Someone must have told the young cub and he came here to spy upon us. After all, what does it matter? You would have had to give him the chuck sometime or other. You weren't made for married life on five pounds a week."

"He wasn't bad," she reflected, with a very real note of regret in her tone. "You'll have to be very nice to make up for this, Harold."

Martin, too, soon paid his bill. He suddenly remembered a predicament, which appealed to his sense of humour. He had eighty thousand pounds in his pocket and, after he had tipped the waiter, something like twelve shillings of negotiable money, twelve shillings with which to get through the first night of his new opulence. The position was ridiculous. After a certain amount of hesitation he made his way across the hotel lounge to the cashier's desk and tendered him one of the precious notes.

"Could you change this for me?" he asked, in as matter-of-fact a tone as possible.

The man glanced at it and up again at Martin.

"Are you staying in the hotel, sir?" he enquired.

"Not at present. I dined here."

The man handed back the note.

"Sorry, sir," he regretted. "We could not cash a note of that size for a stranger."

Martin buttoned up his coat once more and sallied out into the street. The prospects for his evening's amusement were a little restricted, yet he felt called upon to do something to mark the occasion. Suddenly a new and soothing view of the situation assailed him. He was a rich man—not for one night, but for always. There was no need for him to rush about after pleasures. They would come easily enough and he had a lifetime before him. One of his first lessons must be restraint, and this was a wonderful opportunity for practising it. He remembered a second-hand bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, which kept open till late, and made his way towards it. For a quarter of an hour he examined various volumes without finding anything which particularly appealed to him. His taste for books was catholic but very far from being universal—something quite removed from that of the culture-seeker of his class. It came into his mind, whilst he was searching, that he had once read a fragment of an essay by Bacon on gardens which had kept him curiously inattentive to mundane affairs during a busy morning at the warehouse. He searched the shelves, found a soiled and abbreviated edition of Bacon's essays for nine shillings, purchased it and made his way back to his rooms. In the passage he met his landlady.

"Why, you're back early, Mr. Barnes," she observed, in surprise. "I thought from your wearing your best suit that you were off to the theatre or somewhere."

"I changed my mind, Mrs. Johnson," he confided. "I am going to have a quiet evening and read for an hour or two before I go to sleep. In the meantime I have three shillings until I can go to the bank to-morrow morning. Do you think you could get me some whisky and soda water for that, at the place where you sometimes send out for beer?"

"I might," Mrs. Johnson admitted, "but what do you mean about having only three shillings? There ain't going to be any trouble about your bill on Saturday, I hope?"

He made his landlady his first confidant. "Mrs. Johnson," he announced, "I have come into a bequest."

"What's that?" she demanded suspiciously.

"It's the same thing as a legacy," he explained. "I am—well, I suppose I may call myself rich. To-morrow I can go to the bank and draw as much as I want."

Mrs. Johnson was by no means a credulous woman but she had known Martin for some years and she believed in him. Besides, his manner was convincing.

"I wish you luck, sir," she said. "Why shouldn't you make it a bottle? You'll get better stuff, and I can put it on the bill Saturday."

"Make it a bottle, by all means," Martin assented, "and be sure that you keep a glass or two for yourself. The half will be quite enough for me."

He mounted the stairs, took off his coat and hung it in view. With his feet on another chair and an oil lamp drawn up to his side, he spent the first night of his new life rereading with painstaking care and no little appreciation Bacon's essay on gardens, sipping the while whisky and soda and smoking gold flake cigarettes.


CHAPTER IV

In the grey hours of the morning, Martin woke in the throes of nightmare. There was a horrible sinking at his heart; drops of sweat upon his forehead. He was following his barrow through the steep streets of Norwich. Three days of failure were recorded against him. The dreariness, the indignity of those hopeless strivings after orders were vividly, agonisingly weighting him down. At every factory he visited he met successful rivals who had forestalled him. In the commercial room at night he was almost an object of pity. Everyone was whispering about the large contracts secured by his competitors. Telegrams were pouring in from the firm; the fear of dismissal was urgent. He sat up in bed, struck a match and lit the candle by his side. A rush of confused thoughts came to his brain. Feverishly his fingers dug under the pillow, dragged out his packet, clutched the notes in handfuls, and he fell back gasping with relief. It was a long time, however, before he could compose himself again to sleep and when he did so, the packet was tightly clasped in his hand.

In the morning his disordered mind had cleared itself. He woke buoyantly enough, and as he dressed he made plans. He must present himself at the warehouse and hand in his orders, but the most important thing of all was first to establish himself as a man of wealth. He breakfasted without appetite. The fare set before him was poor enough, but, as a matter of fact, it was the crumpled tablecloth, the cracked brown teapot and the common breakfast ware which repelled him. Things which he had accepted without protest during the period of necessity seemed suddenly to have become loathsome to him. He hurried over the meal and prepared for departure.

"Shall you be home for your tea or a bite of supper?" Mrs. Johnson enquired.

He shook his head. .

"I may be home earlier than usual," he admitted, "but I sha'n't be wanting any food."

"Nothing I can cook good enough now, I suppose," she observed gloomily.

"It isn't that," he hastened to assure her. "There may be friends I shall have to go and see."

He joined the little throng moving citywards, but he did not at once cross the river. Amongst his cricketing acquaintances was a young bank clerk whom he sought behind the counter of the august Lombard Street establishment in which he held a humble position. The young man in question, after some delay, came to the enquiry counter.

"I say, Barnes, we aren't allowed to have callers here," he explained doubtfully. "What is it you want?"

"I have come into money and I want to open a banking account," Martin announced bluntly. "I don't know anyone to apply to and I thought you might help. What shall I do about it? I have a lot of money in my pocket at the present moment."

The young man was dubious.

"Our people want a lot of introductions as a rule before opening an account," he confided.

"I don't want any favours," Martin rejoined. "I simply want my money taken care of."

"How much have you got?" his friend enquired condescendingly. "You see, we don't take small accounts here."

"Eighty thousand pounds," Martin announced.

The young man stood for a moment with his mouth and his eyes unbecomingly open.

"What on earth are you talking about, Barnes?" he demanded incredulously.

"In my pocket," Martin assured him. "All in hundred-pound notes. Like to see a few of them?"

He produced his packet, and his friend was speedily convinced.

"But what on earth——" he began. "Anyway, I'll go and speak to Mr. Fergueson, one of our under-managers. He's captain of the cricket team and he knows you by sight. Wait here, will you."

After a few minutes' delay Martin was shown into a very handsomely furnished office. A young but bald-headed man looked at him curiously from the other side of the desk.

"Sit down," he invited. "Mr. Barnes, isn't it? What's this Mervin's telling me? You want to open an account with us? What sort of an account?"

"I don't want any accommodation, if that is what you mean?" Martin replied. "I simply want to get rid of all this money."

He laid the notes down upon the desk, packet after packet. The under-manager examined them rapidly.

"Where on earth did you get all these?" he enquired.

"A bequest," Martin answered. "They were paid over to me by Messrs. Bordon and Herriot, solicitors of Norwich, yesterday."

"And you've been carrying them about ever since?"

"What else was I to do? The banks were closed when I reached London last evening. And anyway, I have never had a banking account. This morning, I thought of Mervin—one of your clerks whom I have met playing cricket—so I came round to ask him to advise me?"

The under-manager picked up a magnifying glass and scrutinised the notes carefully. Then he rang for a subordinate, who brought him a blue list, stamped at the top "Scotland Yard," through which he glanced rapidly. Afterwards he leaned back in his chair.

"You must excuse our caution," he begged, "but it is a very unusual thing to have such a large amount in notes brought to us without any other explanation than you have given. However, the notes are certainly good, and they are not upon Scotland Yard's list. If you wish to deposit them with us, we shall be glad to open an account."

"That is just what I do want," Martin admitted.

"At the same time," the other continued, "the circumstances of your deposit being so unusual, I hope you do not intend to draw upon us for any considerable amount until we have had time to make enquiries."

"A couple of hundred pounds is all that I need for the moment," Martin announced. "Give me small notes for two of these and I sha'n't need to draw a check for a day or two at any rate. If you have to make enquiries, there are the solicitors I told you of, and Lord Ardrington, Ash Hill, Norwich."

The under manager made a memorandum of the names and various other formalities were gone through, after which Martin left the bank with a brand new check book and small notes to the extent of two hundred pounds in his pocketbook. Outside an omnibus was passing which would have landed him within a few yards of his destination, but he let it go and waited for a taxicab. These little things were of slight significance in themselves but they helped him to realise. Martin Barnes, crossing London Bridge in a taxicab, believed in himself. In the old days such an extravagance would never have occurred to him. He put his feet up on the opposite seat and lit a cigarette. He was still smoking when he entered the premises of Messrs. Shrives and Welshman. His arrival provoked a mild amount of comment.

"Thought you were going to stay another day in Norwich?" one of the warehousemen remarked.

"Come in and enter your orders," the manager begged him. "We are badly in want of something to do."

Martin, in the familiar atmosphere of years, suffered a brief relapse. He copied out the orders he had taken, in a neat handwriting, and gave special instructions with regard to some samples. Then, as soon as he had finished, he tore his order book in two and threw the pieces into the wastepaper basket. The manager stared at him.

"What the devil are you up to, Barnes?" he demanded.

"I've finished," was the triumphant reply. "I'm out of the wood. I'm never going tramping round again, making myself agreeable to men I hate, begging for orders as a dog does for a bone. It's a rotten life. I've done with it!"

"God bless my soul!" the other exclaimed. "Why, what's come to you, Barnes?"

The bell rang from the private office. Martin was wanted at once. On his way he passed the desk at which Maisie was seated. She paused in her typing and looked up at him eagerly.

"Good morning," she ventured, with quivering lips.

He looked at her with unseeing eyes, smiled slightly with mirthless lips.

"Good morning," he replied, without pausing.

Mr. Welshman was alone in the office. He motioned Martin to a chair and pushed a box of cigarettes towards him—an attention which he had never previously vouchsafed.

"Look here, Barnes," he began ingratiatingly, "I'm very anxious that you shouldn't misunderstand last evening."

"I don't," was the curt rejoinder,

"We'll talk about it presently. In the meantime, do you mind explaining why you returned from Norwich before your time? I was perfectly sincere in telling you that we wanted your business from there."

"I came back," Martin announced, "because I wished to hand in my resignation."

"Somebody has offered you more money, I suppose," Mr. Welshman suggested. "Be frank about it, Barnes. We don't want to part with you, and we'll do our best to make it worth your while to stay."

"It is not a question of that sort at all," Martin declared. "I have come in for a bequest. I have quite enough money to live on without working any more."

"The devil you have! How much is it, this bequest of yours?"

"Eighty thousand pounds."

Mr. Welshman smiled. Martin knew that smile. It was generally assumed when buyers spoke of bargains which had been offered by competitors. He opened his pocketbook and placed a receipt upon the table.

"I paid in eighty thousand pounds to Gurnett's Bank this morning. There is the receipt."

The document was unmistakable—a thing that couldn't lie. Mr. Welshman emphasised the presence of the box of cigarettes.

"My heartiest congratulations, Barnes," he declared, making a tentative effort to offer his hand, which Martin declined to notice. "I am sorry for ourselves. I was always hoping that you might push along and join us some day. Glad for your sake, of course. What are your plans?"

"I have none," Martin confessed.

Mr. Welshman leaned back in his chair.

"You're too young a man to give up altogether," he said. "Why don't you stick to the business? Chuck the travelling, of course, and take it easy—three days a week, or something of that sort? It will give you an interest and a position. I don't mind going so far as to tell you, Barnes, that if you want an investment and care to consider a directorship——"

"Nothing would induce me to consider it," Martin interrupted brusquely. "I hate business. I think that, without realising it, I have hated it all my life,"

Mr. Welshman was frankly surprised.

"But you must do something," he protested.

This time it was Martin who smiled. There was something in that smile which took him miles away from the murky office, some quality of which he himself was not conscious, some significance which was as yet only half developed.

"I shall find plenty to do," he assured his late employer. "One doesn't get far into life doing the grind I've been doing year after year."

Mr. Welshman looked at him keenly.

"You seem to have altered a great deal during the last few days," he observed.

"I believe I have," Martin admitted. "I can feel myself altering all the time—or else, perhaps I never was altogether what I seemed to be,"

Mr. Welshman made one more effort.

"Look here, Barnes," he said, "I'll be frank with you. Ours is a good business, but it needs more capital. If you cared to invest, say ten or fifteen thousand pounds with us, I think we could promise you seven and a half per cent, interest and a small share of the profits."

Martin shook his head.

"I have had all I want of the leather trade, thank you, Mr. Welshman," he declared. "I shall invest my money where I don't have to think about it at all,"

"You know your own mind, I suppose," the other conceded, trying to hide his disappointment. "Now, what about that other little affair? You are not going to cut up rough with Miss Clemson, I hope, just because of our jaunt last night."

"That," Martin replied, "is my own business. I may be wrong, but I have an instinct which warns me that it would be a dangerous matter if I were to discuss Miss Clemson with you."

Mr. Welshman fidgeted in his chair uneasily. The trouble was that he had no idea how much the young man knew.

"Of course, if you take it like that," he said, "there's an end of it. Do I gather that you intend to leave us without notice?"

"I certainly do," Martin acknowledged. "I am going back across London Bridge before luncheon and if ever I cross it again I shall be very much surprised."

"I didn't know you hated your job as much as all that," Mr. Welshman remarked.

"I didn't know it myself," Martin admitted. "Queer tiling," he reflected after a moment's pause, "how one takes most of one's life for granted. Good morning, Mr. Welshman."

"I—er—just one moment," the latter begged, doing his best to conceal a certain amount of embarrassment. "You know, Barnes, Miss Clemson is a very decent sort of girl, and I should hate to think that I had been the means——"

He stopped short. Martin's shoulders seemed suddenly to have broadened. The veins stood out on the backs of his fists. There was a queer, unanalysable look about his eyes. Mr. Welshman rang the bell hastily.

"Good morning, Barnes," he said. "Wish you luck and all that sort of thing."

Martin left the room without further speech. Outside he found Maisie waiting for him, dressed for the street and dressed, as he could not fail to notice, with unusual care.

"Martin," she pleaded, "I want to speak to you, please. Are you going into the warehouse?"

"I have finished here," he answered.

"Because of last night?"

"Not altogether. I came back from Norwich to hand in my resignation, not to spy upon you."

"It all seems very strange," she complained. "Can I come with you wherever you are going? We might have some lunch afterwards. Mr. Welshman told me I could have the morning off, if I liked."

"I am sorry, Maisie," he said, "but there's no getting over last night."

"Just one dinner!" she faltered.

He looked her in the eyes and he had a very direct way of looking at people.

"There have been other times," he asserted.

"All right," she exclaimed, a little hardly. "I shall stay here and wait for Mr. Welshman then. I daresay he'll take me to lunch if I ask him."

Martin held out his hand.

"Good-bye, Maisie," he said.

She swung round on her heel. For years afterwards he remembered the faint but not unpleasant perfume from the handkerchief which she had suddenly drawn from her pocket—a perfume the more noticeable because of the odour of leather which hung about the warehouse. He heard the swish of her skirts as she swept away and, without a backward glance, he turned and left the place.


CHAPTER V

Martin, with eighty thousand pounds and not a friend in the world, sat in the Park and considered the problem of life. Vaguely he knew what he wanted; actually he was confronted with minor difficulties. To start with, he needed clothes, comfortable bachelor quarters and a motor car. And what then? He had the sense of having been freed from an intolerable burden, but even in the first joy of his liberty the thought of an idle life made no appeal to him. He hated the sight of most of the people by whom he was surrounded; young women whose eyes were modestly raised from their books at the approach of a passer-by, questing men, fat and adventurous or lean and dissipated. The world of idlers seemed full of ugly backwaters, a world to which he was firmly resolved, from the first, he would never belong. A sudden distaste of his surroundings seized him and he was on the point of rising to his feet when he became aware of two promenaders who had not only paused directly in front of him but were scrutinising him with frank and unconcealed curiosity. The girl—he realised from the first to what world she belonged—was beautiful but a complete stranger to him. The young man, however, her escort, he recognised immediately. It was the Honourable Gerald Garnham, very elegant, very pale, if possible more supercilious than ever.

"Our young friend, The Fortunate Wayfarer," he observed. "Surely I am not mistaken."

Martin did not at once reply, nor did he even rise to his feet. He resented the smiling insolence of the young man's tone, but he resented almost as much the amused, half kindly, half condescending curiosity of his companion. He was suddenly conscious of the fact that his blue serge suit had after all been bought ready-made, that his bowler hat was of the wrong shape, that his tie was only an imitation of the correct thing.

"Spent that eighty thousand pounds yet?" Gerald Garnham enquired with a covert sneer.

"Not yet," Martin replied brusquely. "I am beginning this afternoon."

"My money, you know!"

"You've seen the last you'll ever see of it," was the curt rejoinder.

Gerald Garnham turned to his companion.

"My dear Blanche," he said, "I feel that you are still inclined to believe that I was pulling your leg with regard to that little episode in Norwich the night before last. Behold my proof! Permit me to present to you Mr. Martin Barnes, I think he said his name was, the person who has benefited by my uncle's eccentricity to the extent of some eighty thousand pounds—Lady Blanche Banningham."

The girl looked at Martin in frank, but not unfriendly curiosity. She was tall and fair, with the slim, well-poised body of an athlete. Her complexion was a little tanned, her eyes unusually blue. Her mouth, perhaps her best feature, was frankly large but delightfully shaped. Her smile, half humorous, half incredulous, for some reason irritated him.

"Do you mean to say," she demanded, "that this is the young man to whom Lord Ardrington gave all that money?"

"This is most certainly he," her companion assured her.

Martin was very much at his worst during those few minutes. Some indefinable quality about these two, a quality quite independent of their speech and clothes, which seemed to insist upon that subtle line of demarcation between his world and theirs, filled him with resentment. He hated the ease of the young man's attitude, his well-bred, supercilious voice, almost as much as he disliked the girl's amused contemplation of him. He managed, however, to take off his hat and half rose to his feet.

"Please don't get up," she begged, taking the vacant seat by his side. "Do tell me all about this wonderful adventure of yours and how you feel about it, Mr. Garnham tells me—you don't mind, do you?—that you were in very different circumstances,"

"I was a traveller for a firm of leather merchants," Martin confided. "My salary was five pounds a week and a little commission. As you have apparently been noticing, my clothes and manners belong to my station. Is there anything else I can tell you?"

She was obviously a little puzzled at his apparent resentment.

"Do you mind being talked to about it?" she went on, still pleasantly, but with that quaint note of aloofness in her tone which had from the first provoked his anger. "I think it is all so tremendously interesting—quite a romance, you know. Have you a wife or anything of that sort to share in the rejoicings?"

"I am not married," Martin replied. "As a matter of fact, I am almost without relatives. There is no one who is in the least interested in me."

"Not even engaged?"

"Not even engaged," he acknowledged, with a queer little sense of relief.

"So you start life altogether afresh," she reflected. "Dear me, how interesting! Tell me—-if you don't mind talking about it—how you've been feeling since this good fortune arrived?"

"I think I only realise it at odd times."

"How did you spend last night, for instance?"

"I drank whisky and soda instead of beer, and I read one of Bacon's essays in my bed-sitting-room."

The girl leaned back in her seat and laughed, and although he hated her, he realised that the laugh was like

"So that is your idea of a wonderful evening!"

"Not at all," he assured her. "The trouble was that I had the eighty thousand pounds but it was all in hundred-pound notes and nobody would change one. I have opened a banking account now. I shall spend to-day quite differently."

"Tell me just what you mean to do."

"Why should you be interested?" he asked her coldly. "Of course I'm interested. Haven't you enough imagination to realise the romance of the situation yourself? What really happens is that you commence to lead a new life without a second's warning, or perhaps, to put it more reasonably, you are provided with all the possibilities of a new life. How are you going to use them? What are the first ambitions you will gratify?"

"Are you one of those people who write novels?" Martin enquired, with an attempt at sarcasm.

"I have written one," she confessed, "but no one will publish it. Are you afraid that I am going to write one about you?"

"Anyhow, I shouldn't," he advised. "You won't find it worth while."

She looked at him critically. He felt the colour mounting in his cheeks but he bore her regard stoically.

"I might," she reflected. "I daresay there are possibilities about you. Tell me, did you really like being what you were—a commercial traveller, wasn't it?"

"Immensely," he answered. "I am broken-hearted at the idea of giving it up."

He rose to his feet, but even when he was standing he found it difficult to get away. Lady Blanche's smile was less impersonal now, almost alluring.

"I have an appointment," he muttered, his hand travelling towards his hat.

"Forget it, please, and sit down again," she begged. "I haven't had such an intriguing conversation for ever so long. Why should you mind being asked questions? You know you're very angry with me, and I can't imagine why. I'm trying to be nice."

Martin suddenly wondered why himself. She was Lady Blanche somebody or other and he was Martin Barnes, ex-commercial traveller, the son of middle-class parents, scantily educated, whose sole entrance into any sort of society had been an occasional appearance at a Bloomsbury Boarding House dance. Of course there was a difference. He was a fool to resent the fact.

"I am not angry," he said, "but I never met you before in my life and I cannot see why you should be interested in anything I have done or propose to do."

"But I am interested," she insisted. "Under the circumstances, you really ought to be very nice to us both—especially to Gerald. Remember that the eighty thousand pounds would most probably have come to him if his uncle had not been such a crank. He doesn't grudge it, do you, Gerald?"

"Like hell," the young man confessed gloomily.

"Well, whether he does or not," Lady Blanche went on, unruffled, "you have it, and he hasn't. The least you can do is to be agreeable to us. Mr. Graham is my cousin, you know, so naturally I sympathise with him."

"Very well," Martin acquiesced, with a forced air of resignation, "ask me as many questions as you like."

"You say that you have a banking account now. Have you drawn any money out yet?"

"I drew out two hundred pounds this morning."

"How are you going to spend them and what are you going to do all day? You don't propose to sit here, I suppose."

"I came here to be alone and to think."

She smiled.

"I never take hints," she confided. "Besides, although you may find me very inquisitive and dislike me very much at first, I am really quite a nice person. My apparent inquisitiveness only comes from an intense interest in my fellow creatures. You are in a unique position, and I must know all about you. Now, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?"

"Get some clothes," he answered shortly.

"You hear that, Gerald?" she enquired, looking across at him.

"He needs them," was the muttered response.

Martin again half rose to his feet but she laid her hand upon his arm and he found a peculiar pleasure in the frank familiarity of her touch. Once more his resentment left him.

"Have you any one to help you about these things?" she asked. "Any one to tell you, for instance, where to go for your clothes and hats and ties, and where to lunch and what shows to see?"

"I don't suppose I have," Martin admitted reluctantly. "The buyer of the firm where I have been employed used to come up to the West End often. I think he got his clothes somewhere in the Strand, but he is in America just now."

"Fortunately," she murmured, under her breath. "Mr. Barnes, let me make you an offer."

"What is it?" he demanded suspiciously.

"Gerald and I are very nice people, but there are times when we have unfortunately no money at all, and this is one of them. You, I think you said, have two hundred pounds in your pocket."

"Well?"

"We were just wondering upon which of our friends we should quarter ourselves for lunch. We should rather like to avoid them all. It would give us a better chance another day. Will you invite us to lunch with you, Mr. Barnes?"

"Good God!" Gerald Garnham muttered with a start.

"You wouldn't come if I did," Martin countered. "You'd hate being seen with me in these clothes; I shouldn't know where to go or what to order, and, apart from all that, I don't believe a word you say."

She nodded approvingly.

"Any amount of good material here, you notice, Gerald," she remarked, leaning a little forward. "That was a most sensible reply of yours, Mr. Barnes. My idea is this: we will select the restaurant, we will order the luncheon and you shall pay for it. In return, Mr. Garnham afterwards shall take you to his own tailor, bootmaker, and hosier. You see, it's a perfectly fair bargain. We get a free lunch—which, I tell you frankly, is a consideration for us—and you get the best technical advice in London as to your outfit. You know, I daresay, that Mr. Garnham is supposed to be quite one of our smartest young men about town."

Martin considered the matter for a moment.

"Treating it as a business proposition, I don't see anything the matter with it," he decided at last. "I tell you frankly that I don't like either of you, but I don't mind paying for your lunches, if Mr. Garnham will tell me where to buy my things."

Lady Blanche seemed for a moment almost distressed.

"Please tell me why you don't like us?" she begged. "Gerald, of course, is rather difficult, but I am supposed to be quite nice when I try, and I am trying so hard with you."

"You are very attractive," he admitted. "I realise that. Why I don't like you is because you seem to have some sort of an idea that, because I am a commercial traveller and you are Lady Blanche Banningham, there must be some radical difference in our outlooks which transforms me into a sort of curiosity."

She looked at him speculatively, a gleam of real interest in her eyes.

"Talks like a book," the Honourable Gerald murmured.

"But he's right," Lady Blanche declared. "He is beautifully right. Gerald, we are snobs."

"I'm not calling you names," Martin intervened hastily. "I'm just saying the things that occur to me about you."

"It is the people who have the courage to tell the truth," she observed, "who seldom make mistakes. Mr. Barnes, you must educate us. Our world has been too narrow. We are worshippers of shibboleths. You have two hundred pounds in your pockets and you shall convert us."

Garnham glanced at his watch.

"If we are going to carry out this absurd programme of yours, Blanche," he suggested, "we might as well be getting on with it. It's too late already for the Pendowers. They lunch so ghastly early."

Lady Blanche rose to her feet.

"We'll start at once," she assented. "Now, Mr. Barnes, if you please, your guests are ready. We will take a taxi at the gates, for which please remember that you must pay. We will lunch at the Clover Leaf in Soho. The food is excellent—I must warn you that both Gerald and I are very greedy—and the people who go there are quite reasonable."

"Anywhere you say," Martin acquiesced. "Remember, you have to order the lunch."

"I am not likely to forget it," she assured him calmly.

They walked, Martin in some discomfort, to Hyde Park Corner and entered a taxicab. Very much to Gerald Garnham's disgust, Lady Blanche insisted upon his occupying one of the small seats and placed Martin by her side. In the restaurant, where they were received with many smiles and bows, she again insisted upon the same method of seating.

"Mr. Barnes is our host," she explained, "and it is his privilege to sit by my side. You like being there, don't you, Mr. Barnes?"

"I should like it better," he replied a little shortly, "if it weren't perfectly obvious that you are making fun of me half the time."

She was so surprised that she almost dropped the menu.

"I am doing nothing of the sort," she expostulated. "That's only just ordinary chaff."

"Well, please order the lunch," he begged. "Only can't we first have some of those little yellow drinks in the frosted glasses—cocktails, I suppose they are."

"Isn't he wonderful," Lady Blanche murmured. "He'll learn things in no time. Three cocktails, dry Martinis, at once, please, Louis. Order those first, and then I'll tell you about lunch. Are you of an economical turn of mind, Mr. Barnes?" she enquired.

"I don't know whether I am or not," he confessed.

"On five pounds a week you're economical, because you've got to be. I don't mind how much I spend today, if that's what you mean."

"You're sure about the two hundred pounds?"

He drew a handful of notes from his pocket. She nodded.

"Very well, then," she decided, "we will start with caviare. Perhaps whilst we wait for the cocktails," she added, glancing surreptitiously at Martin's hands, which had been ungloved all the morning, "you men would like to wash."

Martin rose promptly and departed. The Honourable Gerald, however, remained in his place. As soon as Martin was out of hearing, he leaned across the table.

"How long are you going to keep up this silly game, Blanche?" he demanded.

"My dear Gerald," she replied, "what's wrong with it? I can assure you that I am very much amused. You know what that means to me."

"Do you seriously expect me to drag the fellow round to my tradespeople afterwards?"

"But why not? He can pay, and London tradespeople don't care about anything else, nowadays. You ought to make something out of it with your tailor—another year's credit, anyhow, if he won't give you a commission."

Gerald lit a cigarette, and ignored her for a moment.

"Don't carry it too far," he begged.

"I shall carry it as far as it amuses me," she told him. "It is an experiment which appeals to me immensely. I believe, if I had time, I could turn that young man out the finished article very quickly."

"Any actor can learn his part," he scoffed.

"Cynic!" she murmured, under her breath. "Here he comes. Please behave, Gerald. He's all on edge as it is, and if we offend him he may go out without paying for the lunch."

"God forbid!" the Honourable Gerald exclaimed fervently.


CHAPTER VI

In due course the luncheon, which after all was short enough although expensive, came to an end. The bill was presented to Martin who duly defrayed it and, under Lady Blanche's instructions, correctly apportioned the tips. Afterwards, with a word or two of regret, she took her leave.

"I shall have to hand you over to Mr. Garnham now," she said, "but remember that I consider you as my protégé. I can't come round to all these shops with you and I can't ask you to tea because I am on duty, but—I say, Gerald, why not bring him round for a cocktail at seven o'clock?"

"What, to the Mouse Trap?"

She nodded.

"I'll be there at seven o'clock. Don't be later. I'm doing something to-night, but I don't, remember what it is. And remember, Mr. Barnes, brown and grey are my favourite colours for lounge suits."

They all three left the place together and Lady Blanche stepped into a taxi outside, departing with a little wave of the hand. Gerald, with a sigh of resignation, entered upon his task. Arrived at his destination in the neighbourhood of Savile Row, he took his tailor to one side.

"Fellow come into money," he explained. "Thought you might as well have his cash as any one else."

"Exceedingly obliged to you, Mr. Garnham," was the grateful reply.

"What he wants," the latter continued, "is to have his taste guided tactfully. He's like all these chaps who come into it unexpectedly—sensitive. Stand at the back with a word of advice and if he chooses the wrong thing—forget it."

"I understand perfectly, sir," the man assented.

Martin, however, gave little trouble.

"I want the same sort of clothes as you make for other men of my age," he explained. "I will leave the patterns to you, only I want some of them quickly."

"There will be no difficulty about that, sir," the tailor assured him. "We are not particularly busy just now, and we are used to urgent orders. What clothes will the gentleman be requiring?" he added, half turning to his companion.

"I should think three lounge suits, a morning coat and trousers, one dress coat and two dinner suits," the Honourable Gerald pronounced. "That ought to keep him going for a bit. Flannels or golf clothes he can decide upon later."

Three cutters stripped Martin and made a careful survey of his figure. Their conclusions on the whole were favourable. His chest, indeed, almost interested his cicerone,

"Ever do any boxing?" the latter enquired.

"Once a week at the Y.M.C.A. Gym," Martin confided.

The Honourable Gerald shivered.

"Any good, those young Christians?"

"There are one or two of them I should be very sorry to tackle, except with the full-weight gloves," Martin replied.

The business of measuring and selecting patterns took a little more than an hour. At the hosier's their visit was briefer. Martin displayed no sensitiveness at all.

"I am always dead wrong about ties," he confessed.

"I'd be glad if you'd choose them for me, Mr. Garnham, and the shirts."

They wound up at the bootmaker's, after which Gerald, with a sigh of relief, glanced at his watch,

"Half past four," he announced. "I am going round to my club for a bit. If you've nothing to do, there are some rooms you might go and see—Number 31a, King Street. Then, if you'll call for me at ten minutes to seven, we'll go and have that cocktail with Lady Blanche."

"You think she meant it?" Martin asked diffidently.

"As much as she ever means anything," Gerald replied, as he turned away, with a little nod, "Number 3a, Piccadilly, at ten minutes to seven."

Martin inspected the rooms and promptly took them. For two hours afterwards he wandered about in the bookshops of Charing Cross and its purlieus. It was here for the first time that he felt a real sense of satisfaction at his well-filled pocketbook. One by one he selected and put on one side the books which in other days he had left regretfully upon their shelves. His tastes were catholic enough. There was a Sterne he had always coveted, a Borrow which on each of his previous visits he had abandoned with regret, a Fielding, a Don Quixote and a Marlowe in his little pile when he had finished, besides a few of the modern poets and a Decameron. He left the place with a sense of stimulation. Here at least he was in touch with the world which, in a way, he understood. He pictured to himself engrossing evenings—a comfortable room, whisky and soda for which he did not have to send out, a student lamp and at his elbow a choice of his precious books, or, with the summer coming on, a run down to the country in his new car to be presently acquired, a lounge in the woods somewhere with a well-filled cigarette case and a chosen volume. Other dreams were as yet shadowy. Maisie he could not keep altogether out of his thoughts, but Maisie as a type rather than a person. Her blatant infidelity was still rankling in his mind. He felt himself cynical about all women; the Lady Blanches of the world were probably worse.

Gerald kept him waiting only about five minutes.

"Queer little crib of my cousin's," he confided, as he gave the address to the taxi driver. "You have to grovel about on all fours to avoid hitting your head."

"Does Lady Blanche not live with her parents?" Martin enquired.

"Not when she can help it. That's the reason she's so infernally hard up. They allow her scarcely a penny beyond the bit she's got of her own. She couldn't stick it at home, though, and I don't blame her. The Duke is the dullest man I ever met and the old Duchess is the best-hated woman in London."

"Is her mother a duchess?"

Gerald nodded.

"The Duchess of Andover. Lady Blanche had some ridiculous idea about earning her own living a little time ago and she took this quaint little place over a mews. She really is very clever at designing. Some day or other she says she's going to start. At present heaven knows it must cost her half her allowance for cocktails."

"Will any one else be there this afternoon?" Martin ventured.

"Might be," was the laconic response. "Sometimes a crowd comes over from Claridge's after dancing."

They descended from the taxi in a back street in Mayfair, entered a yard, ascended an outside staircase and came to a door painted bright green on which was a brass plate the size of a visiting card, engraved only with the letter "B." There was an electric bell but Gerald turned the handle and entered a hall which was barely the size of a cupboard. The curtains on the left-hand side were pulled apart and Lady Blanche, in a robe of black silk covered with Chinese embroidery, welcomed them with a cocktail shaker in her hand.

"Come in," she invited. "Not a soul here. Come and see how the poor live, Mr. Barnes."

Martin looked around him without understanding. The room was smaller even than his own bed-sitting-room, with white walls divided into panels by a thin oak skirting, the spaces filled with fantastic pictures done in rough crayons. The furniture consisted chiefly of one enormous divan heaped with black cushions, and one gate-legged black oak table in the middle of the room upon which was a tray with half a dozen glasses and some bottles. The carpet was of a deep, dull purple and at the end of the room there were curtains of the same shade.

"You see my whole abode," she said. "On the other side of the hall is my bedroom—cosy, isn't it? Some day I must show you my bathroom. It's quite a gem."

She paused to shake vigorously the silver receptacle she was holding and filled three foaming glasses. Martin was uncertain for a moment as he raised his to his lips whether to indulge in any of the forms of salutation to which he was accustomed. His companion solved his difficulty.

"Here's our respects to you, dear hostess," he said. "Do I detect a faint odour of absinthe?"

"Scarcely a drop," she answered.

To Martin it seemed the most delicious and the most potent drink he had ever essayed. He sipped it and looked around him in amazement. A duke's daughter! What a world! She sprawled upon the divan, perfectly graceful but with an abandon which even Maisie herself could not have exceeded, and patted the cushions by her side.

"Sit down and tell me about the shopping," she invited. "Throw me a cigarette, Gerald."

The latter obeyed and Martin also helped himself from the wooden box, mechanically.

"Mr. Garnham has been very kind," he acknowledged. "He has told me of some rooms which I have taken, and I think I have ordered all the things I want."

"And how are you going to spend this evening?" she enquired. "Are you going to read another of Bacon's essays?"

He remembered those heavy brown paper packages, and for a moment lost his stiffness of manner.

"I bought quite a lot of books this afternoon," he confided. "I shall unpack them and look into one or two, I expect."

"Moderns?"

"Classics, most of them. I don't know what to ask for in modern books." She sighed.

"What a pity one hasn't the time," she regretted. "You'll only learn to be stodgier than ever with these undirected efforts at culture. You do badly need a sponsor."

"I don't know," he answered a little shortly. '"I know what I like to read and what I don't. One can alter externals, of course, but one can't change one's tastes."

She detected a faint note of resentment in his tone and abandoned the subject. For a moment, stretched upon the couch with her hands clasped behind her head, she seemed to forget her guest.

"Gerald," she murmured, "sympathise with me. I have to dine en famille and go with mother to that terrible musical woman's. I wouldn't mind if it was the right sort of music, but it won't be."

"Any chance of escaping early and having a little supper somewhere and a dance?" he enquired.

"So slight a chance that I daren't think of it."

He stood with his hands in his pocket, such pretence to good looks as he possessed completely marred by the peevishness of his expression.

"What the devil is there to do?" he demanded. "Dine at the club, I suppose. There's Lady Marsham's silly dance, and Clavering is having a supper party to those new American young women. I may go. I don't know. What's the use?"

She was silent. Then they spoke for a few minutes of some scandal connected with certain of their friends. For the moment they had forgotten Martin. He finished his second cocktail and rose to his feet. "I'll be moving on," he announced.

She nodded an indifferent farewell. "Come again some time," she invited. She had apparently lost interest in him; her thoughts had wandered off in some other direction.

"Thanks very much for looking after my things," he said, turning to Gerald as he took up his hat and stick.

"That's all right," was the careless response. "Take care of the family treasure."

"Have another cocktail before you go," Lady Blanche suggested abruptly.

"No, thanks," he answered, pausing with his hand upon the curtain. "I found that last one a little strong.—Look here."

"Well?"

"You've asked me a lot of questions, both of you; can I ask you one?"

"Rather," Lady Blanche assented.

"Why the devil are you both so miserable?"

"Miserable?" she repeated thoughtfully.

"Well," he pointed out, "you people are just as difficult for me to understand as I am for you. You've left a mansion in Grosvenor Square, or wherever it is, to come and live in a mews," he added, turning to Lady Blanche. "You speak of dining at home as though it were some terrible infliction, and you look the picture of gloom when you talk about the party you're going to-night. Mr. Garnham's just the same. He groans at having to dine at his club, which seemed to me a very attractive place, he doesn't want to go to the dance afterwards, and he speaks of a supper party to some American young ladies as though it were some sort of a Sunday school meeting he had to attend. What's the trouble?"

"Our young friend here has presented us with a problem," Gerald declared, his fingers straying towards the cigarette box. "What do you say, Blanche?"

"Oh, I don't know," she replied. "And yet I suppose I do, if I come to think of it, I'm sick of the whole caboodle of life up here. I'd get off abroad if I could, but I haven't a bob in the world when I've paid my bills."

"Exactly my case," Garnham acknowledged, "except that I can't even pay my creditors."

Martin studied them both with new interest: Lady Blanche with her freely displayed grey silk-clad legs, the strange but very beautiful garment she wore, trimmed, he noticed with chinchilla fur and fastened at her bosom with a massive Georgian brooch containing a single, uncut stone of fiery green, her face, triumphing over unnecessary cosmetics with its appearance of strength and perfect health, yet with its expression partially spoilt by the shadow of a brooding unhappiness; the man—his well-shaped but insignificant features disfigured by the discontented droop of his mouth.

"I don't understand," he admitted. "Why do you promise to do things you don't want to do?"

Lady Blanche yawned.

"I suppose," she confessed, "the light of common sense turned upon our daily lives must make them seem a little ridiculous to those who don't understand."

"I've always looked upon you sort of people," he persisted patiently, "as living just for pleasure, and being able to amuse yourselves all the time. I can't think why you don't do it?

"Lack of money, for one thing," Gerald grumbled.

A new idea struck Martin as he lingered there. He was unused to the terms upon which these two seemed to stand.

"Do you want to marry one another and haven't got enough money?" he asked bluntly.

Gerald looked at him in a manner he was already growing to hate. There was a cold surprise in Lady Blanche's eyes before which he felt all his newly gained confidence dwindling away.

"I—marry Gerald!" she exclaimed scornfully. "We should be just about the worst suited couple in the world, shouldn't we, Gerald? All the same," she added, turning back to Martin, "your question was a little impertinent, you know."

Martin passed through the curtains which he had been holding apart.

"Sorry," he apologised, closing them after him.

He opened the door and descended the crazy steps gingerly. The second cocktail had been even stronger than he had thought.

"Damn it!" he muttered. "They seem to treat me like a sort of glorified Kipps."


CHAPTER VII

Martin, one morning some three weeks later, sat up in bed, clasping his pyjama-clad knees. Through the open door behind him to the right he could hear the sound of water flowing into his bath. From the room in front came an appetizing odour of bacon and coffee. A discreet-looking manservant appeared by the side of the bed.

"Your bath is quite ready, sir," he announced. "Any particular clothes you fancy this morning?" Martin shook his head.

"Either of the lounge suits. I leave it to you, Jewson."

He indulged in ten minutes' vigorous exercises, bathed and dressed, still revelling in many minor but unaccustomed luxuries; the feeling of silk underclothes, the sense of satisfaction as he glanced at himself in the glass. He passed presently into his sitting-room where his breakfast was waiting for him upon an electric heater, his newspaper by his plate, a formidable-looking pile of letters beside it. The latter he glanced through eagerly and let the last one fall with a little feeling of disappointment. Circulars and charitable appeals, every one of them! Not a line from any human being. He began his breakfast; perfectly-cooked bacon, fresh eggs, well-made coffee. There were flowers upon the table. He thought for a moment of one of Mrs. Johnson's terrible morning meals with a shudder, and revelled in his present sense of luxury and well-being.—A ring at the outside bell disturbed his reflections. He heard Jewson's voice. The door was opened.

"A gentleman to see you, sir," Jewson announced, a little doubtfully.

"Run you to earth at last, old chap!" came a cheerful voice. "Say, this is fine!"

Martin swung round in his chair, recognising the voice almost in dismay. His visitor was Percy Quilland, buyer for the firm of Shrives and Welshman, recently returned from the States. He held out his hand, trying to infuse as much cordiality as possible into his greeting.

"Come in, Percy," he invited. "Have you had breakfast?"

"Hours ago," was the hearty response. "I'll take a cigarette though. By Jove, it's all true then, I see," he added, looking around him.

Jewson departed, having produced cigarettes from a cabinet and presented them to the newcomer upon a silver salver. Martin continued his breakfast with a queer sense of being not altogether at his ease.

"Tell us about it, old chap—this wonderful windfall?" Quilland demanded, establishing himself in an easy-chair.

"Nothing much to tell. I came in, quite unexpectedly, for a nice sum of money."

"Left to you?"

"In a sort of way," was the hesitating answer. "Anyway, I've got it. I've put it all into Government bonds for the present."

"Hearty congrats!" Percy Quilland exclaimed. "I'm damned glad, old chap. I don't know anyone I'd rather have had it happen to, so long as it couldn't be myself. It must have been a pretty tolerable windfall for you to establish yourself like this—and a manservant, too," he added, with a note almost of awe in his tone.

"The man takes care of two other suites on the same floor," Martin explained, "and his wife does the cooking. It's jolly comfortable, of course, but I was lucky to hear about it."

"Must cost a pretty penny," Quilland remarked. "Don't be so damned mysterious, old chap. How much is it you've tumbled into?"

"Eighty thousand pounds," Martin confided, with some reluctance.

Percy Quilland thrust his hands into his trousers pockets and whistled. He was a rather short, podgy person, the alertness of whose face and movements somewhat contradicted his physique. His clothes bore the hallmark of Strand smart tailoring and his tie was of that order which refuses to be ignored.

"Eighty thousand pounds!" he gasped. "My God, Martin, you're a lucky devil!"

"There certainly was an element of luck about it," Martin acknowledged, thinking with a momentary shudder of how nearly he had avoided the dark thoroughfare of Ash Hill.

"What are you going to do with all that money? You've left the shop, I hear?"

"Yes, I've given up my job. Can't imagine how I ever stuck it as long as I did. I never realised how much I disliked it until the moment came when I could chuck it. Funny in this world how we go on doing things just because we must."

"I suppose that's so," the other assented a little doubtfully. "My job suits me all right, though. I don't know what I should do without it. I can't imagine what you will."

"Look around for a bit, in the first place," Martin confided. "I've never had enough outdoor life to suit me, and I must travel later on."

"What about Maisie?" his friend asked curiously.

Martin shook his head.

"That's off. Don't think that it's because of the money," he begged. "I happened to—find out something."

Percy Quilland nodded with understanding.

"I'm damned glad to hear it, old chap," he declared. "I don't mind telling you that I had very nearly made up my mind some time ago that you ought to be put wise. She's been going about with the boss for some time now. As soon as you were off on a journey—"

"That will do," Martin interrupted, frowning. "I found out and that's the end of it."

"And a lucky man you were to have found out before this windfall happened," Quilland remarked. "She'd have dropped Welshman quick enough then, and you wouldn't have had an excuse to back out. Been going on for the best part of a year, I believe. Damn it, Martin, we men think we're clever, you know, but these girls do fool us sometimes. I'm off with Maggie too."

"Anything serious?"

"I'm afraid so. Why, damn it all, old chap, girls seem to have gone crazy these last few years. They seem to think they must have excitement every day. You are out of sight for a fortnight or so—let's see, I was away just over a month—and do you think they can wait? Not they! I thought Maggie was a bit overdoing it the night I got back. 'Been out with any one?' I asked her. 'Not a soul,' she assured me.

"Well, before an hour had passed, I heard about her and Billy Marks. When I tackled her with it, she was as cool as anything. 'What was the good of telling you the truth?' she asked. 'It would only have made you unhappy. I couldn't have sat at home and done nothing all the time you were away.' I tell you, I'm fed up with these girls, Martin."

"I'm fed up with the Maisie type," Martin assented.

"We treat 'em too seriously, my lad," Percy Quilland continued. "They ain't worth it, the way they behave. The whole bally thing's turned round. Years ago it was the girl who had romance and sentiment and that sort of stuff. Now I'm hanged if the man hasn't got more than the girl. She's for Pleasure with a capital 'P', and she's out to pay the price. I'm thinking of starting life on a new method: take 'em out for the night and have a jolly good time and have done with it. Look here, I must be off. What about a turn round the town tonight?"

Martin was suddenly rueful. The whole vivid picture of what 'a turn round the town' meant with Percy Quilland seemed to loom distastefully before his eyes. It was the sort of thing which he had determined should find no place in his new life,

"I'm afraid it can't be done, Percy," he said, with an unconscious note of apology in his tone.

"Oh, rubbish!" the other expostulated. "You're not going to put on airs with me, old chap, even if you are a millionaire. We'll have a little dinner at the Cosmopolitan, drop in at the bally old Empire—it isn't what it used to be but it's something that it's going again at all——then I know a snug little haunt, where I can get in on the nod and take you too—unless you've joined any of the swagger night clubs?" he added, a little hopefully.

"I haven't joined anywhere," Martin admitted. "As a matter of fact, I have scarcely been out."

"Well, there's going to be a beano to-night," Percy Quilland insisted. "I'm going to drink your health in a bottle of the best. Gee, I was thirsty when I left America! Didn't dare to trust the stuff there. The Cos, at seven-thirty sharp, then."

Martin hesitated, hating the ungraciousness of refusing, and yet struggling against a vehement distaste for the proposed evening's entertainment, A month ago it all would have seemed perfectly natural; he would even have looked forward to it with a certain measure of enthusiasm. It was impossible to change so completely in a month, he told himself. His aversion to the whole idea was unnatural and unworthy. Besides, already a sense of shame was making his cheeks almost hot. He had never before found anything to criticise in Percy Quilland's clothes or manners—rather the contrary. Standards couldn't alter like that.

"All right, Percy, I'll be there," he promised with a strenuous affectation of cheerfulness. "It's my dinner, you know."

The young man was not in the least disposed to dispute the point.

"All right, old chap," he agreed. "Have it your own way. We'll celebrate in style, eh? Dress clothes, and hit the town hard!"

Martin nodded.

"All right," he assented briefly.

His breezy visitor lit another cigarette and departed. Martin, left alone in his armchair, took himself almost savagely to task for that queer sense of distaste with which he contemplated the evening's programme. After all, Percy Quilland had been—still must be—his friend. He belonged to his own class, the class amongst which he had lived all his life, the only class to which he had any pretensions to belong. Money couldn't really make any difference. He was still Martin Barnes, ex-commercial traveller, instead of commercial traveller—the same thing in effect if not in circumstance.

He picked up the Times and turned without any conscious effort of will to the society column, scanning a list of guests at a great ball on the previous night. Yes, she had been there—"Lady Blanche Banningham, with her mother, the Duchess of Andover"—and further down on the list "the Honourable Gerald Garnham." He threw the paper on one side. It was three weeks since he had met them both in the Park and been marched off to give them lunch, and afterwards to put himself under Gerald Garnham's tutelage—three weeks since he had visited that amazing little dwelling in the mews and been given a cocktail. Since then he had seen nothing of either of them. They were both in London because he had seen their names in the paper repeatedly, and they knew where he was because it was from a friend of Garnham's that Martin had taken the flat. Lady Blanche's interest in him had passed away as quickly as it had come. It was all perfectly natural, just as it should be, he assured himself. Their half-mocking friendship had only irritated and disturbed him. He was better without it.

He walked up and down the room for a minute or two and then picked up the paper again, attracted by the sight of Lord Ardrington's name. There was a little paragraph concerning him at the foot of the society news, under the heading of "Distinguished Invalids."

###NEWSPAPER

The Earl of Ardrington, who has made an amazing recovery from his very serious operation, left the nursing home at Norwich to-day for Ardrington Park.

 

At eleven o'clock Martin took a lesson in driving a car. His preceptor was distinctly encouraging.

"You won't want any more lessons now, Mr. Barnes," he announced. "Why not make up your mind and let us send the coupé round to-morrow?"

"I haven't a garage yet," Martin demurred.

"We'll look after it free for a month for you," the young man offered eagerly, "and send it round to your rooms whenever you telephone."

"Very well," Martin decided, "I'll bring you a cheque round this afternoon."

The salesman drew a sigh of relief. Thousand-pound coupés took some selling.

"That will be all right," he exclaimed. "I'll have her tuned up and put in perfect order. Come across the road and have a cocktail, won't you?"

Martin hesitated for a moment. The young man was all very well in his way—a little reminiscent of a subdued Percy Quilland—but would he have asked Gerald Garnham, for instance, to have a cocktail after he had sold him a car? Martin set his heel upon the idea almost fiercely—another lapse into this intrusive snobbishness!

"I'd like one very much," he assented.

They descended to the Ritz Grillroom and sat for some time in the lounge. The young man, after his second cocktail, had to hurry away to report his good fortune, but Martin lingered. He had been frequenting the better-class restaurants lately—always alone; always, to tell the truth, a little lonely. He had never yet ventured into the Ritz. Whilst he hesitated, he remembered Lady Blanche having said that it was her favourite restaurant—or perhaps the fact had subconsciously been in his mind all the time. He washed his hands, straightened his tie, climbed the stairs and made his way along the vestibule to the restaurant. A maître d'hôtel took him entirely as a matter of course.

"A table for one, sir?—If you will come this way." Martin had learned by now to order what he wanted without hesitation—had made amazing progress, in fact, in the art of trifles. The place was fairly crowded, but there were still one or two empty tables. He ate his lunch slowly, watching the people and trying to submit himself to self-discipline. It could not by any possibility, he told himself, make the slightest difference to him whether Lady Blanche or the Honourable Gerald Garnham chose to lunch at the Ritz that day, yet, when she appeared in the doorway with a little company of strangers and presently moved down the room, he felt a quick, poignant start, followed by the complete loss of his carefully studied poise of indifference. Twice she stopped to speak to friends so that it chanced that when she reached his table she was alone. His heel burrowed its way into the carpet as he watched her approach. She glanced at him and for a single horrible moment he thought that she was going to look away and pass on. Then she appeared to recognise him and came to an abrupt standstill. He rose mechanically to his feet. He had prepared three or four sentences, every one of which he forgot.

"You disappointing person!" she exclaimed.

"Disappointing?"

"Why, yes. I thought your period of evolution would be much longer. Here you are at the Ritz—the finished article—one of us!"

"I am sorry," he faltered.

"So am I," she rejoined. "You see, I am afraid you won't be amusing any longer. Never mind. Come and have a cocktail with me one day."

She flung him a careless little nod, and passed on, the smile upon her lips hard to tabulate, indifferently gracious. A perambulating maître d'hôtel paused to fill his glass from the half-bottle of white wine. It occurred to him almost bitterly that the notice of Lady Blanche had altered his status in the man's eyes——a fact which filled him with purposeless resentment. He finished his luncheon, paid his bill and left the place. The wrong atmosphere for him, he decided. He welcomed with a sort of half-angry satisfaction the thought of his evening with Percy Quilland—certainly his natural and proper companion.


CHAPTER VIII

Nevertheless the cheerfulness with which Martin greeted his companion for the evening at the Cosmopolitan bar was entirely assumed. Percy Quilland's interpretation of evening dress was a long and rather badly-made dress coat, a shirt with one stud-hole, which was continually escaping the confines of his waistcoat, a clumsily-arranged white tie, and boots apparently selected for their wearing qualities rather than for any grace of form. Both during the half-hour at the bar and afterwards at the dinner table, Martin took himself severely to task for what he insisted to himself must be a new-born and unreasoning distaste for his companion's voice, his manners, his general lack of the small refinements of life. Percy Quilland had been an acceptable enough companion a few weeks ago; it was ridiculous for him to set up new standards simply because money had come his way. He himself could not have changed in the time; neither could the man whom he had been used to consider his friend. A month ago he would have contemplated an evening such as the one which lay before him serenely, even with pleasurable anticipation. From the moment, however, when the champagne—the arrival of which his companion watched with glistening eyes—had made its appearance, and they were settled down at their table, he knew instinctively that the evening was destined to form one of the landmarks of his life.

"Say, wouldn't Ned Welshman like to be in on this?" Percy Quilland, who, since his return from America, had shown a tendency to indulge in some of the more obvious terms of American slang, exclaimed. "He knocks about a bit but he's not so flush as he was and I don't think he often sees one of those chaps."

Martin glanced without enthusiasm at the magnum of champagne which was reposing in an ice-pail by their side.

"Well, we've got to celebrate whilst we have the chance, Percy," he said. "I haven't made any plans yet, but I don't suppose I shall be hanging about London very long."

"It's a pretty good place," the other observed, watching the filling of his glass with satisfaction. "You can say what you like about the old village. Martin, but if I had your money I jolly well know where I should spend it. . . . Have you heard this one? Chap told it to me in New York."

A succession of stories followed which to Martin seemed singularly devoid of humour. He kept up his role of assiduous host, however, and the service of dinner progressed entirely to Percy Quilland's satisfaction. Towards its close he leaned back in his chair and laughed uproariously.

"Can't help it, old chap," he exclaimed, wiping his eyes. "I was thinking about Maisie. Kind of hard luck on her, but she did ask for it."

Martin was suddenly thoughtful.

"We're selfish devils about women, Percy, it seems to me," he confided. "If they make a slip we couldn't forgive them even if we wanted to, but we take anything ourselves that comes along quite naturally."

"It's human nature," Percy Quilland declared complacently. "Men have got the upper hand. There's no getting away from it. Preponderance of their sex, I suppose, and the dominant spirit of ours."

"That's right enough," Martin agreed, "but at the same time we ought not to grumble too much if occasionally they pay us back in our own coin. They're all out for it nowadays. You see the difference in every city street. Girls, who a few years ago used to be content with any sort of old clothes to come to business in and who thought of nothing but their job, move through the streets now, every one of them, as though they were looking for adventure—short, tight skirts and silk stockings, bobbed hair, showing as much as they can of themselves, and—the new smile, Percy! Have you ever noticed the new smile,"

"I don't know what the devil you're talking about," the other admitted, mystified,

Martin pulled himself up with a gesture of apology.

"Perhaps I don't altogether myself," he confessed, "I was thinking just a little, too, of someone you don't know. Still, you visit a lot of manufacturers' offices. You're not going to tell me that the young women who keep the books and do the typing look or behave anything like their dowdy predecessors of, say, four or five years ago."

"Guess you're right," Percy Quilland acquiesced. "There's a kind of saucy air about most of them nowadays. I shouldn't mind if we had a couple of them here now."

They finished their dinner in due course, Martin's guest devoting himself to the bottle manfully, and Martin too drinking more than usual, chiefly with the idea of reaching the frame of mind in which he could endure the evening with toleration. He bought two stalls at the Empire, where Percy Quilland talked very loudly, and showed a frequent desire to leave his place in search of alcoholic refreshment. His suggestions as to the Leicester lounge Martin firmly and absolutely declined.

"We can't sit the evening through without talking to a bit of skirt," his guest grumbled.

"We'll go somewhere to supper, if you like," Martin suggested.

"We'll do better than that," Percy Quilland declared. "We'll go to this new little club I told you of—place where some of the toffs show up. We can wangle a drink there up till one o'clock. I can get in and take a pal. Comes a bit stiff—we have to drink champagne."

"That doesn't matter," Martin assured him. "It's my treat. You shall take me there directly the show is over."

"It isn't what it used to be, this place," the other complained, looking restlessly around. "I votes we go now and have a drink on the way."

Up to a certain point, Martin was an acquiescent host, and they found their way without much difficulty to the night club. There was some whispering at the door, a fumbled payment and a great show of writing their names in a book, after which they were permitted to pass the portals. Inside, the place was not so bad; a good dancing floor, a small but excellent band and plenty of empty tables. A few young ladies, mostly in couples, were seated in the background, whose presence Percy Quilland pointed out with satisfaction.

"Kind of professional dancers," he confided, as Martin ordered the wine and some supper. "Cost us a bit to dance with them, I expect. We won't hurry—get something worth having and then bring them over to the table, eh?"

"I suppose so," his host agreed a little doubtfully.

Martin had drunk much more than he was accustomed to and was inclined to resent the effect of the wine upon him; further proof of an unnatural change of outlook, he told himself angrily. Why shouldn't he get drunk if he wanted to. A month or so ago he would have welcomed the glow of the wine in his veins. If he had been with Maisie he would have looked forward to dancing with her, holding her tightly in his arms, to the walk home—perhaps a taxi ride, when her lips would cling to his. To-night, for some reason or other, he was angry at his own sense of excitement, at the toleration with which he regarded these young women—all, as his more discriminating taste told him, so obviously of a type. Suddenly his companion gave a little exclamation. A girl, seated with a companion a few tables away, had waved her hand.

"Jehoshaphat, here's a stroke of luck!" he exclaimed, springing up. "Sit tight, Martin."

He departed, walking with some slight unsteadiness, greeted the two young women with exaggerated cordiality, remained talking to them for several minutes, and then beckoned to Martin, who obeyed his summons with reluctance. They were rather better than the others, dressed less flamboyantly, and of a less hardened type, yet—

"This is my friend, Mr. Martin Barnes," Percy Quilland introduced. "Miss Rose Farrow—-Miss Daisy-Farrow. Friends of mine, Martin. We came over on the boat together."

"Very glad to meet you, Mr. Barnes," they declared simultaneously.

"Say, won't you two come and join us?" Percy Quilland invited eagerly.

"I should say we would," the elder of the two girls acquiesced. "We both feel kind of strange, coming out alone. In New York there's always a crowd round."

"Are you over here for long?" Martin ventured, as chairs were brought up and he ordered more wine.

"Depends upon the show," one of them answered.

"We open in 'The Broadway Girl' at the Gaiety next week."

"They're both on the stage," Percy Quilland announced, unctuously; "singing parts too, not chorus. I saw their show in New York."

Rose, the older and prettier of the two, suddenly seized Martin by the arm.

"Let's dance," she suggested.

"I'm not very good," he warned her.

"Well, I am," was the cool reply. "You'll dance better with me than you ever did before."

They moved off and Martin presently realised that his companion had spoken the truth.

"Say, I don't see what's wrong with your dancing," she declared presently, as they paused, waiting for an encore. "Is Mr. Quilland a great friend of yours?"

"Rather!" Martin replied, with every attempt at enthusiasm. "We were employed by the same firm."

"You're more like the Englishmen we hear about on the other side," she remarked. "He's a little noisy, isn't he?—Pushes his way about like our American men, only he hasn't got the zip."

"I've never been to America," Martin confided.

"I'll take you along when I go back," she suggested.

"Round the world if you like."

"My, I'd just love that!" she sighed.

They danced again and again and drank more wine. Martin let himself go to some extent and Rose showed signs of becoming affectionate.

"Say, I'm glad we happened in here this evening," she declared, passing her arm through his. "I was getting kind of lonesome. Daisy's got a friend. He'll be along later."

"And you?" he asked rashly.

"I guess I've been waiting for you," she confided.

Percy Quilland winked his congratulations across the table, A waiter brought more wine and Martin felt suddenly stifled. He hated the atmosphere, the insidious temptation of Rose's dark eyes and inviting mouth, the slight dizziness in his head, his own inclination to drift, to remember nothing except the easy, obvious termination to the evening against which an element of distaste had all the time insistently asserted itself. After all, he was young and free from all ties, free from everything except the new-born standards of a few hours' growth, spurious as they might be, the moral counterpart very likely of those elements of snobbery which he had resentfully discovered in himself. The part which he was expected to play was clear enough. Daisy, despairing of her absent cavalier, had settled down to receive the attentions of her present escort, whilst Rose became more affectionate and more confidential every moment. She made use of the dance—she was indeed a very wonderful dancer—to increase her allurement.

"Let's go," she whispered, at the conclusion of a long and sensuous waltz, "If your friend's as bad here as he was on the steamer, he'll sit up all night, and I don't want to be too late. I have to rehearse in the morning."

"I haven't paid my bill," he reminded her, snatching at any excuse for delay.

She sat close to him whilst he drew out notes from a well-filled pocketbook, paid the bill and tipped the waiters. Then she tugged his arm, impatiently,

"Come," she insisted.

A young man had stopped in front of the table. Martin looked up with a little start. It was the Honourable Gerald Garnham, and it was obvious at once that he was very drunk indeed.


CHAPTER IX

Gerald Garnham was standing with unnatural steadiness, a black overcoat upon his arm, a gold-mounted Malacca cane in his other hand, his silk hat a little on the back of his head. Not even the exigencies of a presumably convivial evening had, however, disturbed the faultless arrangement of his tie or the set of his perfectly cut shirt. He was very pale, paler even than usual, and his eyes were brilliant, although without depth. From the threshold, the attendant and the secretary were watching him, whispering together.

"Spending my uncle's money, eh, Barnes?" he observed, a little truculently.

Martin restored the pocketbook to his pocket.

"At the present moment," he replied, "I am spending my own."

The newcomer, for some reason or other, was indisposed to argue the fact.

"Introduce me," he begged, looking hard at Rose; "to the young ladies, I mean—not your friend. I don't like your friend," he added, regarding Percy Quilland with distaste.

"Here, I say!" the latter exclaimed, half rising to his feet.

The Honourable Gerald waved him back.

"Speak to you—presently, my man," he said. "Want you to come to the secretary, Barnes. Made a fuss about letting me in. Happened to see you, so here I am. Waiter, bring another chair."

The waiter made no movement. The secretary crossed the floor, approaching them. A look of understanding passed between him and Martin.

"This gentleman will enter my name," the Honourable Gerald announced.

"The gentleman is not a member," the secretary objected. "He is here himself as a guest. I am sorry, sir, but I must ask you to leave."

"Mean to say I can't sit down with my friends and have a drink?" Gerald demanded.

"Impossible, sir."

The aggrieved young man turned to Martin. "Look here!" he exclaimed. "What about this?"

"I think," Martin advised, "if you will excuse my saying so, Mr. Garnham, you had better go home."

"Go home? Why?"

Martin leaned towards him and dropped his voice.

"Because you are drunk."

The young man considered the point for a moment.

"Queer thing," he remarked. "You're the third that's said that to me to-night. Quite wrong too. Waiter, bring that chair."

A commissionaire was approaching. Martin laid his hand upon the other's arm.

"Look here," he suggested, "let's go out and see the manager."

Garnham acquiesced at once. He suffered himself to be led across the threshold and down the passage, the commissionaire following behind.

"Where is the manager?" he demanded, as they approached the street.

"He's inside," Martin replied. "We won't bother about him to-night. I'm going to take you home."

The clutch of Martin's hand upon his companion's arm became more insistent. The commissionaire hurried past them and held open the door of a taxicab. Before he was quite sure how it had happened the Honourable Gerald was inside, and Martin seated next to him.

"Where to?" the commissionaire asked Martin, thankful to be rid of a disagreeable task.

The latter turned to the young man by his side.

"Where do you live?" he enquired.

The Honourable Gerald, who had shown signs of becoming truculent, was suddenly amused. He put up his feet on the opposite seat.

"Now I've got you," he exclaimed. "You don't know. I shan't tell you. Spend night in here, if you like."

He produced a cigarette case and made clumsy attempts to light a cigarette. A card fluttered to the floor. Martin picked it up and glanced at it.

"Dalgerry Chambers," he told the man.

The Honourable Gerald was annoyed.

"No right to look at that," he complained, as the taxi started. "If you pick up document—which belongs to another person—shouldn't look at it. No gentleman would. But I forgot, you're not a gentleman,"

"No, I suppose not," Martin acquiesced.

"Don't know what you're coming home with me for. I don't want you."

"I don't particularly want to come. Still, I suppose someone must."

"If you'd minded your own business," the other grumbled, "I should have been dancing in that pothouse now. Nice little girl, that. I suppose you can pick 'em up all right with the uncle's money. Wonder you had the face to keep it when he didn't die, after all."

Martin made no reply. His companion became somnolent. At Dalgerry Chambers he had to shake him.

"Kept me out damned late," Gerald complained unsteadily, as after fumbling in his pocket, he produced a latchkey. "Come in and have a drink."

Martin helped with the latchkey, and found the switch of the electric light. To his great relief a manservant came hurrying forward.

"Got the drinks out, Morton?" his master asked.

The servant threw open the door of the sitting room.

"Everything is on the sideboard, sir," he announced.

"Just one whisky and soda, Barnes, what?"

Martin shook his head and turned away.

"I won't stop, thank you, Mr. Garnham," he said. "Good-night."

He stepped back into the taxi. The driver closed the door and looked in at the window.

"Where to, sir?" he enquired.

Martin hated himself for the battle which raged within him, hated his own grim depression of spirits as he presently paid the man and mounted the stairs to his rooms. It was only when lie imbibed a little of the atmosphere which had suddenly become so wonderful—the atmosphere of his own den, with the books still scattered about the table, decanters neatly arranged on the sideboard, a cluster of roses, which he had bought that morning, on his writing table—that he felt a resurgent wave of thankfulness. The music died out of his ears, the cling of those white arms, the pleading of the not unmusical voice, the shameless entreaty of the dark eyes—all these things seemed to fall back into the space of nebulous things. He undressed, turned on the bath water and sat and soaked for a while as though the physical cleanliness in which he revelled were in some way symbolic. In his newly purchased silk pyjamas and a dressing gown, he permitted himself a last cigarette and whisky and soda and settled down to study some maps which he bad bought that afternoon. Suddenly the telephone bell rang. He picked up the receiver. It was Percy Quilland speaking—husky, expostulatory.

"Here, I say, Martin, what's the game?" he demanded.

"I had to take that young man home," Martin explained. "It didn't seem to be worth while coming back again. I'd paid the bill."

"But what about Rose?"

"Well, I'd have seen her home if I'd been there," Martin replied. "As it is—well, you can manage it, can't you?"

"That's all damned nonsense," was the angry rejoinder. "You've been making up to the girl all the evening, and you can't drop her like that. We're coming round to have a drink with you."

"Not to-night, if you don't mind," Martin begged. "I'm three floors up, the front door is locked and there is no night porter."

There was a moment's blank silence. Martin was on the point of replacing the receiver, when a feminine voice hailed him.

"Hullo!"

"Hullo!" he replied.

"Is that Martin?"

"Here I am," he assented, a little weakly. "Sorry I wasn't able to say good-night, Miss Rose. I had to see that young man home,"

"Say, what's the matter with you?" the voice demanded. "You're not peeved or anything, are you?"

"Not in the least," Martin assured her. "It was so late I scarcely thought you'd still be at the club, so I came home."

"Well, we're all coming right along," Rose announced.

"Please don't. It's too late."

"May I come alone?" she demanded, dropping her voice a little.

"Very nice of you, but you can't do that," he told her, more firmly, "The place is all locked up and I am undressed,"

"Well, of all the rotters—"

Martin listened for some moments and then replaced the receiver. He was suddenly conscious of an immense weariness. He picked up his maps, locked all the doors, switched off the lights and turned in.


CHAPTER X

These was perhaps no time for definite reflection as Martin, his eyes glued to the road with the tense concentration of the beginner, drove his car northwards through the blossoming country on the following morning. On the other hand, with every milestone he passed when clear of the city, he seemed to be breathing an atmosphere, spiritually as well as actually cleaner and more invigorating. The Great North Road, in its earlier stages, is scarcely an inspiring thoroughfare, but when he left it near Baldock and the country grew more open, his sense of exhilaration increased. The June west wind lent life to the air and an early morning rain had cleansed the dust from the roads. The smell of new-mown grass assailed him pleasantly, and he passed continually between hedges wreathed with honeysuckle. At Newmarket he paused for lunch and drove his car into a garage.

"Will you just give her a good looking over?" he begged. "I've never driven her alone before, and I'd like to know that she's all right."

He wandered into the hotel, found an unexpected appetite, strolled through the town and purchased some cigarettes, and with his sense of adventure increasing all the time, returned to the garage.

"A beautiful car, sir," the man told him. "Running perfectly, I should imagine. I've filled her up and looked to the oil supply. She's all right now for a couple of hundred miles."

Martin thanked him and drove away into a country now of a different description. The road led across a great heath, starred with bushes of yellow gorse; there were dark patches of pine trees in the background and the singing and twittering of innumerable birds. Once he pulled up by the roadside—pulled up for the sole purpose of realising in inaction the joy of his liberty. He sat there, bare-headed, steeped in content. The joy of the morning was in his veins. A lark was singing overhead; the sunshine warmed him. When again he took to the road he found himself humming fragments of popular songs and musical comedy airs. He felt ridiculously yet completely light-hearted. He was without the slightest premonition of any possible change in his spirits. It was not until he was approaching the loneliest part of the road, about halfway to Thetford, that the change came.

In the beginning there was nothing at all remarkable about the incident which he was to remember all his life. Two dark specks, at which he gazed with some curiosity whilst still over a mile away, turned out, as he drew nearer, to be two men seated upon the fallen trunk of it young pine tree close to the road. The fact in itself was not extraordinary, but the men were. There was apparently no house anywhere near from which they could have wandered, yet they did not in the least resemble ordinary pedestrians. They were dressed, not as tourists or country folk, but more as loungers spending a morning in Bond Street. They showed no signs of having walked for any distance, nor did they seem equipped for exercise of any sort. They watched the advancing car with interest and Martin, without any conscious intention of doing so, came slowly to a standstill.

"Can I give you a lift anywhere?" he asked. "I'm going through to Norwich."

The two men were evidently interested, but they made no immediate reply. One was short with a pale face, watery eyes and a curiously shaped mouth—a mouth which ought to have been humorous and wasn't. His companion was dark, with a long thin countenance, sallow complexion, regular features and a slightly hooked nose. The mystery of their being seated there was Martin's first conscious sensation concerning them. A moment later he was aware of another. He felt that he had never before in the whole course of his life taken so violent a dislike to two human beings. He was not naturally superstitious, but as he sat there, with the sunshine still around him, he felt his dislike turn almost to dread. There was something unnatural not only in their presence in that particular spot but in the men themselves. As he waited for their reply, he felt an unaccountable chill, an unreasoning sense almost of terror. He had hard work to struggle against the impulse which prompted him to let in his clutch, drive on and leave them, and pray that he might never see them again.

The taller of the two men rose slowly to his feet. It became more than ever obvious that he could not have walked for any distance whatever, for his patent-leather shoes shone and the dust lay heavily upon the road. He addressed Martin, choosing his words apparently with measured exactitude. His tone was pedantic. He spoke either with a foreign accent or with the hesitation of one who has lived for long in foreign countries. With it all there was the slight nasal inflection of the American.

"You are very kind, sir," he said. "My companion and I are, to be truthful, in somewhat of a dilemma."

"A damned awkward dilemma," his companion muttered.

"There has been some misunderstanding about an automobile which was to have met us," the first speaker continued, watching Martin as though anxious to see how the statement impressed him. "We were to have been picked up just here, and, as you see, nothing has arrived."

Martin gave an involuntary glance around. The place was destitute of landmark, unrecognisable from any other spot along the lonely road.

"How far have you come?" he asked.

The little man smiled and his face became even more repulsive.

"Not a great distance," he replied; "not a very great distance, but far enough. If you are serious in your offer of assistance, sir, we will accept a lift gratefully."

Martin descended and opened the capacious dickey at the back.

"One of you can sit here and the other in front with me," he directed. "How far do you want to go?"

"Our ultimate destination," the taller man acknowledged, "is very little short of Norwich itself. We have no idea, however, of imposing our company upon you to such an extent, if that might seem too far. If you would convey us to Thetford, we could doubtless hire another car there."

Once again, as the two wayfarers took their places, Martin's curiosity conquered for a moment his repugnance. He had an impression that they moved more like automatons than like human beings. There was not a speck of dust anywhere upon their persons, no indication whatever of even the shortest journey. They carried Malacca walking canes and gloves, and the hands of both were white and well kept. Once more, as he pushed in his clutch, he looked around. There were a few clumps of trees in the neighbourhood but not a sign of anything which could conceal a dwelling house.

"I will take you as far as you want to go," he said a little shortly. "Just tell me when you want to get down."

"We will do so," the taller man assented, as he settled himself by Martin's side. "You are touring, I presume," he added. "A very admirable form of recreation."

"In a way I suppose I am," Martin admitted. "I got fed up with London and made up my mind suddenly to get out of it. A lonely part, this."

"Evidently a sparsely populated neighbourhood," his companion agreed.

There was a brief silence. It was obvious that of their own accord neither of the two men intended to explain the nature of their predicament. Martin, however, felt all the more doggedly determined to understand.

"Do you mind my asking you a question?" he ventured.

"Questions," the other rejoined, "are an integral part of conversation. Pray proceed."

"Well," Martin confessed, "I am hanged if I can understand how you two got to the middle of this heath without a speck of dust upon you or any signs of having walked from anywhere."

There was a sinister curl of the lip on the face of the man by his side. Otherwise he remained imperturbable.

"A legitimate curiosity, Good Samaritan," he admitted. "To tell you the truth, if I had been in your place, I, too, should have been curious."

"Couple of mugs we must have looked, sitting there," the man behind grunted.

"The incident has its humorous and its tragic side," Martin's companion continued. "Some day or other it may lend itself to explanation—oh, decidedly so! Some day or other we may be able to speak of it without hesitation."

"Meanwhile," his friend interposed, leaning forward from his place in the dickey seat—

"Meanwhile," the other concluded, "there is, as you can perceive, nothing more to be said."

Martin shrugged his shoulders, increased his speed and, leaning forward, gave all his attention to driving. Within a dozen miles of Norwich, the two men began to watch the signposts carefully. Presently, at the top of a hill, his immediate companion broke the silence which had existed for some time.

"If you would add to your great kindness," he begged, "by setting us down at the turning on the left which we are now approaching, we should be exceedingly obliged to you."

Martin made no reply. He simply brought the car to a standstill at the turning indicated. The two men descended. Both raised their hats. The taller man's smile of farewell had in it a touch of mockery.

"We offer you, sir," he said, "our profound thanks. You have been a friend in need. We shall not readily forget this service."

"That's so, indeed," the other man agreed. "We might have sat on that infernal tree for hours."

"You are welcome," Martin said shortly. "Good-day."

He turned his back upon them and descended to close the dickey. When he climbed back into the car he looked at the signpost, and gave a little start as he read the direction:

###SIGN

1 Mile to Ardrington.

 

He glanced once more after these two strangers whom he had befriended. They were walking slowly arm-in-arm down the leafy lane, apparently deeply engrossed in conversation.


CHAPTER XI

The Norwich into which Martin presently drove seemed to him, both as he entered it and later on, a city of unrealities. He passed the hotel 'bus—a crazy vehicle in which he had so often travelled to and from the station. The driver half recognised him in his superlatively handsome car and simply stared. It seemed impossible of realisation that he should so often have occupied that corner seat with a neatly packed case of samples upon the roof, discussing business prospects perhaps with a rival, or maintaining a mysterious silence. He passed one of the factories, outside which he had often waited so anxiously, saw an acquaintance and late rival loitering there, caught through the window a glimpse of the manufacturer himself: a fat, pudgy little person, he seemed, now that he was devoid of the halo which hung around the head of a desirable account. He changed his mind about going to the hotel where he had been accustomed to stay—the idea of mixing with his old associates was suddenly distasteful to him—and turned instead through the arched gateway of the old-fashioned tourist hotel of the place. He garaged his car, ordered a room, and strolled out presently to see the city from a new point of view. He was no longer the young ambassador of commerce, absorbed in the success or non-success of his efforts and with blind eyes for anything which might distract him. He had slipped easily enough into the ranks of those others: one of the little crowd of idle tourists in search of objects of interest and beauty. He walked with lighter footsteps as the city, unrolling itself before him, presented a new charm and undreamed-of fascination. His most poignant impressions, as he strolled along, were of a soothing and very agreeable tranquillity. He had no appointments, no responsibilities. Legends of large sales by his rivals could no longer disturb him. He wandered round the Cathedral Close, conscious that he had never before realised its beauty—at any rate, from an understanding point of view. He lingered for some time before the front, drew back to a distant corner to appreciate more fully the wonderful spire, and finally passed on inevitably—this time, however, approaching it from the lower end—to the narrow, cobbled street of his destiny. Presently he came to a standstill before that strangely situated, most surprising house. The massive nail-studded door was firmly closed; the blinds all down. Even in the sunshine, the place preserved for him its sense of mystery. He lingered there for several moments. Then be rang the bell. It was only perhaps during those moments of indecision that he realised that his visit to Norwich had been one undertaken with a definite purpose.

There was a brief delay before the door was opened, and the woman who appeared was evidently a caretaker.

"Is Lord Ardrington in?" Martin enquired.

The woman seemed surprised.

"His lordship has not been here since he left the Nursing Home," she replied. "It's very seldom he's here at all, anyway."

"Where could I find him?"

The woman studied her questioner doubtfully. Martin, in those days, was perhaps a little hard to place.

"His lordship is at Ardrington Park."

"Is that far away?" Martin persisted.

"About eight miles. His lordship isn't seeing any one, though. It wouldn't be worth your while going over."

Martin bade her good-evening and turned away, the heavy door swinging to behind him. At the top of the street he paused and looked back. The memory of that evening and the life which had lain behind it, so near in time, so infinitely far in perspective, was for the moment extraordinarily vivid. He remembered the hesitation which had come over him just where he stood; remembered the faint sense of adventure with which he had descended the cobbled way. He recalled the strange expression of the white-faced butler, his dubious entrance into the house, the curiously assorted company seated around the table agleam with glass and silver. More clearly than anything else he remembered Lord Ardrington with his mocking voice, his air of detachment from the others. He remembered, too, climbing the hill afterwards, gripping at his packet, his feverish examination of the notes under the gas-jet of his bedroom. The haunting fear of those first few days had vanished. His money was safely invested, his future his own. He was one of the few people in life to whom real adventure had come.

He made his way back to the hotel, inspected his room, took a bath to get rid of the dust of his journey, drank an aperitif in the old-fashioned bar parlour, into which in the old days he had never ventured to make his way, dined in the coffee room where he treated himself to half a bottle of the best wine upon the list, and received much attention from the head waiter. Afterwards he strolled out into the streets again, searching tentatively for some of his old sensations. He deliberately experimented upon himself, trying to carry out the old programme, to respond to the advances of the promenading young factory- and shop-girls who thronged the principal thoroughfares. Two of them—one passably good looking—he took into a cosy little bar parlour to have a drink. His stock of chaff and small talk, however, seemed to have deserted him. He had slipped out of his place in this world and presently the girls became impatient and left him. He wandered into a cinema and sat in solitary state amongst the best seats. Finally, with an effort, he entered the smoke room of an hotel where he and his acquaintances had nearly always finished their evenings. The place was empty. The young lady who waited upon him—an old acquaintance—welcomed him with a smile and seemed unconscious of anything unusual in his appearance. The gossip concerning his change of fortunes had apparently not reached her.

"Quiet this evening," he remarked.

She nodded.

"These fine nights they all like to get into the country," she explained. "Shouldn't mind it myself."

He remembered suddenly that he had once taken her on the river after a more than usually successful day. He alluded to the circumstance and she, too, recalled it perfectly.

"Yon always said that you were going to take me to the Broads one afternoon," she reminded him.

"I'll try and manage it this time," he promised. She made a little grimace.

"You all say that," she complained, "and then it's business, business, the whole blessed time. You're so afraid of losing an order that you don't give yourselves time to enjoy life."

"It is rather a rush," he admitted.

He hesitated for a moment, wondering whether to tell her of his altered circumstances. Then he decided against it, invented a tentative engagement, and bade her good-night.

"You can take me home, if you wait another ten minutes," she suggested, glancing at the clock.

He remembered when this had been a privilege of which he had gladly availed himself. Now the idea seemed infinitely wearisome. Once more he excused himself, and, taking his departure hurriedly, made his way back to the hotel and his room.

Through the wide-flung window he looked down at the city, now more or less silent; a strange medley of roofs and spires, the corner of the street which had led him to adventure just in view, the Cathedral spire looming out of obscurity, menacingly black. It was the same city in which he had toiled honestly but ignominiously; the same city upon which he had looked from a barely-furnished bedroom in a cheap hotel, flushed with his small successes or depressed with failure. Such successes! Such failure! He was puzzled as he tried to understand his present mental attitude. How could the mere possession of wealth affect his whole outlook upon life, fill him with a sort of shuddering distaste of the treadmill which before he had accepted as a matter of course. If life under these new conditions had something more to offer him, as yet it was undeclared. All that had happened within himself was destructive. The old life had passed away under the blight of shrinking but inexplicable aversion. Maisie, Percy Quilland, the promenading shop-girls out for an evening's fun, the barmaid at the "Lion," all these were surely the puppets of some previous existence.


CHAPTER XII

Martin, the next morning, after a leisurely drive from the city, brought his car to a standstill before the great gates which might well have guarded a fortress, and looked about him for a moment with an air of bewilderment. For a mile or more the road had skirted a high wall, beyond which was a vista of nothing but trees and broken country. Now, entering the village itself, the wall, with its formidable spikes, had curved suddenly inward, and inhospitality became almost menace. There was something grimly forbidding about the fast-closed gates and drawn blinds of the porter's lodge. Martin turned to a labourer who was passing along the lane.

"Is this the entrance to Ardrington Park?" he enquired.

The man paused.

"That be the entrance, surely," he admitted, "but I don't know as they'll let you go in."

"Why not?"

"His lordship's orders," the man replied, and pursued his stolid way.

Martin blew his horn, at first without result. Presently, however, a postern gate opened and a stalwart man in old-fashioned livery came out. His manner was not ingratiating.

"What might you be wanting?" he demanded.

"I want to go up to the house," Martin explained. "Lord Ardrington is there, isn't he?"

"His lordship is in residence," the man acknowledged, "but he receives no visitors."

Martin was taken aback. There seemed to be something more than ordinary inhospitality in such a blunt statement.

"You mean to say that I can't drive up to the house and leave a message?" he persisted.

"You can't pass through here, sir, on no conditions," was the firm rejoinder. "If you've business with his lordship, you'd best write."

Martin sat and considered the situation for a moment. Just then, from inside came the hoot of an impatient motor horn. The man disappeared through the small door which fastened after him with a spring-lock and, immediately afterwards, the gates were jealously opened and a small car emerged, the two sides swinging back again to within a foot of the rear wheels. Martin, however, profited nothing from the glimpse he might have had of the great courtyard within. His eyes were fixed upon the girl driving the car. There came to him a sudden and complete confusion of the senses. He was conscious of emotions he had never felt in his life before: a mixture of joy, excitement, and something that was almost fear. She looked at him out of her blue eyes and the half-mocking smile which he had never forgotten parted her lips. The car was brought to a standstill by his side.

"How do you do, Mr. Martin Barnes?" Lady Blanche asked affably.

"I am quite well, Lady Blanche, thank you," Martin replied.

She studied him for a moment with slightly uplifted eyebrows, realising, perhaps, his embarrassment without any idea as to its cause. Her natural vein of kindliness asserted itself. Her slight drawl was more pronounced than ever, as she gave him time to recover himself,

"How surprising to find you in this part of the country," she observed, "and at the impassable gates too. I thought you were settling down so happily in London. By the bye, you don't want to see my uncle, I hope? He is indulging just now in another fit of eccentricity, for which we have to pay the penalty. All visitors are shot at sight or thrown into the moat. That's so, isn't it, Reynolds?"

The man touched his hat.

"I wouldn't go so far as that, my lady," he replied, "but no visitor has passed through these gates since his lordship issued his orders."

"I did rather want to see Lord Ardrington," Martin confessed. "I had no idea that there was likely to be any difficulty about it. Perhaps I had better write."

"Come round here and be introduced to my cousin," she invited.

Martin descended hastily and made his way to the other car.

"This is Mr. Martin Barnes," Lady Blanche announced, turning to the girl by her side, "who is by way of being a protégé of your eccentric stepfather. Miss Laurita Fosbroke."

The girl acknowledged the introduction shyly but gracefully. She was very pale but she had the most beautiful eyes and eyelashes Martin had ever seen in his life. Her smile, too, had a quality of its own. Her speech from its very slowness was attractive.

"I have heard of you, Mr. Barnes," she observed. "You are the person, are you not, whom they dragged into the house at Norwich the night my stepfather went to the hospital?"

"I am afraid that I must be very unpopular with you all," Martin said contritely. "At the same time, if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else."

"A very sage and consoling reflection," Lady Blanche observed. "Now tell us what you are doing here. You don't really want to see my uncle, do you?"

"I thought I should like to," Martin acknowledged.

"What about?" she asked him bluntly.

He hesitated.

"Well, you see," he explained, "when Lord Ardrington gave me that money, he thought he was going to die, didn't he?"

"Well, what of it?"

"Nothing, except that he didn't die. That sort of alters things, doesn't it?"

"Do you want to restore the money?" Lady Blanche enquired.

"I thought I'd like to talk about it," Martin replied, with a sinking of the heart.

The two girls exchanged rather doubtful glances. Laurita whispered in her companion's ear.

"You are perhaps staying in the neighbourhood, Mr. Barnes?" the latter asked.

"I am staying nowhere in particular—just wandering round. I shall lunch at the inn."

"Stay there until three o'clock then," Lady Blanche enjoined, "and one of us will send you a note. Laurita thinks that we ought to persuade Lord Ardrington to see you. If he feels like it, he may; if he doesn't, nothing will induce him to. However, we'll do what we can."

"Very kind of you, I'm sure," Martin murmured.

The two girls drove off—Laurita turning round at the last moment to wave her hand. Martin backed his car into the lane and drove slowly on into the village. His depression had all vanished, and a peculiar sense of excitement had taken its place. He was so little given to self-analysis that he easily evaded embarrassing introspection. He even allowed himself to revisualize Lady Blanche in her close-fitting grey felt hat with the green quill, her grey coat and skirt, the charm of her slow speech, the provocativeness of her smile which from its faint touch of superciliousness had once angered him. To Laurita he scarcely gave a thought, except to wonder as to what nationality she might be. There was a book, he remembered vaguely, which told one such things. He must consult it as soon as he got back to London.

The Ardrington Arms, which was easily found, was a small inn of attractive appearance. Martin drove his car into the yard and presently made his way into the sitting room leading out of the bar, an apartment which seemed to do duty both as coffee-room and lounge. Upon the threshold he stopped short. Two men were there, seated side by side, apparently deep in a conversation which for some reason or other they were carrying on in an undertone, although they were the sole occupants of the place. Both looked up at his entrance and the recognition at once became mutual. It struck Martin during those first few seconds that his own chilled dismay at their presence was reflected in the malevolent glance cast upon him by the taller of the two men.

"Our benefactor!" the latter remarked with a faint sneer. "The rescuer of pedestrians in distress."

They looked at him with scant friendliness. They had almost the air of conspirators whose solitude had been broken in upon. The shorter of the two, however—the man with the smooth, round cheeks and light-coloured eyes—did his best to summon his disfiguring smile.

"We had cause to be greatly obliged to you yesterday, sir," he acknowledged.

"I was very glad to be of service," Martin said. "I could scarcely leave you there sitting by the roadside."

There was a somewhat awkward pause. A pleasant-looking, elderly woman appeared behind the bar, to whom Martin turned with some relief. He ordered a glass of sherry and some lunch to follow presently. The two men, silent now, listened covertly to his conversation with the landlady. Presently Martin lit a cigarette and took a chair in their vicinity.

"I wanted to have a look at Ardrington Hall," he remarked. "It seems rather a quaint idea to keep it locked up as though it were a prison."

The woman who, a moment before, had been loquacious enough, was suddenly reticent.

"His lordship has his reasons," she confided, "and good ones they may be."

The taller and darker of the two men chimed in. His voice was smooth, almost silky, but utterly devoid of expression. He gave one the idea of a marionette speaking with the aid of some wonderful machinery.

"It is surely very unlike the English aristocracy," he said, "to be so churlish. Back and front the place is guarded as though it were a Royal residence. Is Lord Ardrington eccentric?"

"We've all been his tenants for a-many years," the woman replied, "and we haven't found him so. A great gentleman like him has a right to keep himself to himself if he chooses. It's no business of strangers as I can see," she added, with a stealthy glance, almost of disfavour, at the two visitors.

"Come, come!" the shorter man remonstrated. "No offence meant—not even criticism. We've always understood that the house was full of treasures, and being in the neighbourhood, it seemed natural to expect that, say, on one day a week strangers might be admitted to see them. My friend and I are very interested in objets d'art and pictures, are we not, Victor?"

"We are indeed," his friend assented. "We arc disappointed. And now our young friend is in the same predicament."

"There's no call as I can see," the woman declared, "to open your house to strangers just because you have a fine show of pictures and such like. There's some as does it and some as doesn't. It's well to be understood that his lordship, having been nigh to death, isn't wanting to have strangers traipsing about the place. If you gentlemen will go through that door," she added, pointing, "you will find luncheon upon the table. You might have chanced in on a day when we had a hot joint, but Friday's mostly an unusual day for cooking. There's a good piece of cold beef, though, and the salad's fresh from the garden. If there's anything you might be wanting to drink, you've only to say the word."

The two strangers rose to their feet with some apparent reluctance. They lingered to look out through the inn window to where, across the lane, the huge bulk of the great house turned an almost insolent back to travellers; a mass of grey stone, yellowed a little with age, shapeless, yet imposing from its size alone.

"These English country houses," the taller and darker man observed, "hold beyond a doubt a great collection of treasures. Fancy, Solomon, there are no less than four Van Dycks and two Corots behind those walls, which we may not see."

"What there may be there is none of our affairs," the woman intervened almost curtly. "If you gentlemen will ring the bell, Anne will bring the cheese and change the plates when you're ready."

She disappeared, closing the door. The man to whom she had been talking shrugged his shoulders as he followed his companion and Martin and took his place at the table.

"These relics of feudal devotion," he murmured, "are one of the most interesting features of English country life."


CHAPTER XIII

The taller, saturnine-looking man took the seat at the end of the table and politely enquired as to Martin's preferences as he carved. He seemed to have become more resigned to his presence.

"Chance having brought us together again, sir," he said, "you will perhaps allow me to introduce myself and my friend. My name is Porle—Victor Porle—and my friend's name is Solomon Graunt."

"Mine is Barnes," Martin confided, "Martin Barnes."

"My friend and I," Mr. Victor Porle continued, "have spent many years abroad. I started life in England, however, as a private tutor. I was tutor to several men who have since become distinguished; subsequently I became a schoolmaster. Then, alas, the love of travel caught me in its grip. We have been in strange countries together, Solomon."

"We have," his friend agreed without looking up.

"The less civilised countries of the world were, on the whole, unkind to us," Victor Porle went on. "Success came where we least expected it. We amassed the modest competency which enabled us to revisit this country, in New York."

"Never been there," Martin confessed. "You need to have your wits about you, though, I should think."

"You need initiative and you need enterprise," the other pronounced. "We became the pioneers of a new industry. We devoted ourselves to an enterprise philanthropic and yet remunerative. We assuaged the thirst of a parched nation."

"Bootleggers!" Martin ventured.

Victor Porle smiled.

"In American parlance, my young friend," he admitted, "you have spoken a mouthful. We were also, however, in business as wholesale fruit merchants. This conjunction was admirable. It enabled us to charter steamers without suspicion."

"A very interesting way of making a fortune," Martin acknowledged.

"We had adventures. There were times when we were obliged to use our wits. Still, we came safely out of it."

"You have treated me with a certain amount of confidence," Martin remarked; "why won't you tell me what I really want to know?"

"My dear young friend," Victor Porle murmured. "Pray enlighten us as to this curiosity of yours."

"Where the devil had you come from," Martin asked, "when I picked you up on the heath the other side of Thetford?"

The two men exchanged furtive glances. There was the slightest possible nod of assent from Solomon Graunt.

"About that matter," Victor Porle confided, "there is less mystery than you might think. We hesitated to answer your previous enquiry because we were still smarting from the ignominy of the affair. We had been made the victims of a practical joke."

"A practical joke?" Martin repeated dubiously.

"A most unwarrantable one," Solomon Graunt growled, looking up from his plate.

"A practical joke, too, instituted, if you please, by this boor of a man—Lord Ardrington."

Martin was, for a moment, tempted to smile. He, of all people in the world, was capable of appreciating the plausibility of the idea.

"It had come to our knowledge," Victor Porle continued—"we were staying in Norwich at the time—that amongst the pictures at Ardrington Hall were a reputed Perugino, several Corots, and the Van Dycks I have spoken of. There is also a screen in the private chapel brought from Italy in the fifteenth century. We addressed ourselves respectfully to Lord Ardrington and begged permission to inspect these treasures at any convenient day upon which the house was open to the public. His lordship vouchsafed no reply to our enquiries."

"He ignored our letter, in fact, damn him!" Solomon Graunt observed, returning from the sideboard which he had visited in search of some bread.

"To be brief," the other went on, "we wrote again without result. We motored over here and applied at the porter's lodge. What sort of a reception we met with, you yourself may imagine. Finally from Norwich we made one last effort. We wrote again, and to our surprise, we received a letter stating that a car would call for us on the following morning to take us out to Ardrington."

"Did it come?"

"It did, and you shall hear what happened. The chauffeur—just an ordinary chauffeur he seemed to us—certainly an Englishman—told us when we started that the direct road to Ardrington was up for repairs, and that he would have to take us some way around. We thought nothing of that at the time, but when we had been motoring at a very high speed for over an hour, we began to feel that something was wrong. We tried to communicate with the chauffeur through the speaking tube, but he took no notice. Both the doors were locked. We were puzzled, but action on our part was almost impossible. We could have attracted the attention of passers-by, but as we were travelling at between forty and fifty miles an hour, it seemed scarcely worth while. Arrived at the spot where you found us, the car was brought to a standstill. The chauffeur unlocked the doors, invited us to descend, handed us a note and immediately drove off."

"And the note?" Martin enquired.

"Ah!" he murmured. "The note!"

"The note does not concern any one except ourselves," Solomon Graunt declared.

"In other words," Victor Porle said smoothly, "you must pardon us, my young friend, if we decline to appoint you our complete father confessor. The note contained a single offensive sentence and was the sort of communication which, considering our previous acquaintance with Lord Ardrington, we might have expected."

"I think we may say that we have had some acquaintance with Lord Ardrington, many years ago," Victor Porle assented. "It was a long way from here and there was no question then of our friend ever occupying so dignified a position. An agreeable young man in those days, but unprincipled."

"You're talking too much, Victor," his partner warned him bluntly. "Anyway," he added, turning to Martin, "my friend and I are not accustomed to failure. We've made up our minds to see those Corots and to renew our acquaintance with his lordship. That is why we are here; that is why we intend to remain here for the present."

"I should think you'd find it difficult if he really doesn't want to see you," Martin remarked.

Victor Porle's smile was menacing. His eyes had narrowed, his tone was almost contemptuous.

"We have overcome greater difficulties in life," he said.

The landlady entered a moment or two later, carrying a square, blue envelope.

"I don't know the names of you gentlemen," she said. "Is one of you called Barnes—Martin Barnes?"

"That is my name," Martin admitted, accepting the note.

"From the Hall," the woman confided. "There is no reply."

Martin tore open the envelope with a muttered word of excuse, the two men watching him covertly. The contents, in a woman's hand-writing, were brief enough:

###LETTER

Lord Ardrington will see you at three o'clock. Enclosed is a pass for the porter at the entrance gate.

 

Martin picked up the enclosure—a plain card, signed "Ardrington" in a somewhat shaky handwriting—placed it with the note in his pocket and continued his lunch. Mr. Victor Porle helped himself liberally to whisky and lit a cigarette. He stroked his chin, and his narrow brown eyes seemed to be trying to bore their way into Martin's brain.

"We have been very frank with you, sir," he said, "as to our business here and our little adventure, from the inconvenience of which you rescued us. We have gratified your curiosity. Return us the favour. What is your business here—your position with the household, that you receive notes from one of the inmates?"

"There is no secret about my presence here," Martin confided. "I came down to Norfolk to discuss a certain matter with Lord Ardrington. I went to Norwich first and was told that he was here. This morning, I was turned away from the gates like every one else, but I happened to meet his niece, whom I know very slightly, and this pass comes to me, I think, through her influence."

"A pass!" Solomon Graunt repeated.

"A pass to enter the domain," Victor Porle murmured.

There followed a somewhat curious silence. The window of the room was open and a pleasant west breeze brought wafts of perfume from the well-stocked flower garden outside. The atmosphere of the whole place seemed charged with peace and rural tranquillity, yet Martin, not unduly imaginative, fancied that during that brief period, some alien influence belonging to a more vital and intense life than any he had ever dreamed of had crept into the room. These two men of such unusual and unnatural type seemed suddenly sinister figures, their explanation of their presence balderdash, invented for the gulling of the simpleton. He felt his hands grow hot, his sense of uneasiness increase almost to a fever. Then some ordinary sound—the ticking of the grandfather clock against the wall about to strike the hour, the drone of an intruding bee—seemed to re-establish the ordinary and everyday nature of his surroundings. He took advantage of his momentary return to sanity, pushed back his chair and lit a cigarette,

"I think I shall smoke in the garden," he said, with a little valedictory nod.

His two companions suffered him to pass out without remark, without change of expression. In the garden he found a rustic seat surrounded with a shower of Dorothy Perkins roses, a little vista of meadows on his left, on his right, over the wall, a glimpse here and there, through the trees, of the sullen back of the great house. He made a determined attempt to thrust from his mind those two displeasing personalities. He tried hard to think of his own affairs, to speculate as to the conditions of his visit, whether his eccentric benefactor would dismiss him with a cynical word, or show any curiosity as to what he was doing with his windfall. Then again those considerations melted away, and he indulged for a few moments in forbidden dreams, the folly against which he fought, the madness from which he was absolutely convinced that his common sense would save him. Yet it was wonderful to think of her, strong and kind, gracious, masterfully sweet. The whole world of her sex dropped into nothingness by the side of her. Her very aloofness seemed natural and necessary. It was sheer admiration which he felt, he told himself, devoid of a single grain of sentiment, yet he suddenly remembered the little glance, half scrutinising, half kindly, and his pulses trembled. Away with his dreams! . . . Mr. Victor Porle, a thin, ominous figure, had stepped out of the window and was crossing the strip of lawn. He was colourless, notwithstanding the heat of the sun, and the quantity of whisky he had drunk. He moved with the quiet, silent steps of some feline animal. With a murmur of apology he took the seat by Martin's side.

"I shall venture to intrude upon your privacy for a moment," he said, "because I am anxious to engage your attention. I have a suggestion to make on behalf of my friend and myself."

"A suggestion?" Martin queried.

"It is this: we have been very frank with you—my friend and I. We have confided to you our firm intention of penetrating into the interior of Ardrington Hall. Somehow or other we intend to see those pictures, and on the same occasion to have an interview with Lord Ardrington."

"Well, you may succeed if you stick at it long enough," Martin observed. "Personally, I shouldn't have thought it worth while. There are lots of Corots and Van Dycks at the National Gallery."

"Not the Corots we wish to see," Victor Porle pointed out gently. "May I beg for your undivided attention for one moment, Mr. Barnes. We have made our plans for visiting Ardrington Hall. The only trouble is that they take time. We would expedite matters, if we could. Hence our suggestion to you."

"And what is it?" Martin demanded.

"The pass which has been sent you for this afternoon. It is, I should imagine, of small moment to you whether you see his lordship to-day or to-morrow. For Mr. Solomon Graunt and myself, it is an affair of greater interest."

"Well?"

"We suggest that we buy your pass for a hundred pounds."

"You can go to hell!" Martin rejoined curtly.

"Emphatic, very," was the other's murmured comment. "A hundred pounds in Bank of England notes, is quite a great deal of money."

Oddly enough, Martin's first sensation had been one of annoyance that these men should have imagined him a person who could be bribed. Momentarily he lost confidence in himself. The ex-commercial traveller must still be manifest, notwithstanding his clothes and car. Mingled with his annoyance, however, was a strong subconsciousness of curiosity. A hundred pounds to set one's feet inside a prohibited house at the risk of prompt expulsion! The thing seemed amazing. Who were these men and what could they want with Lord Ardrington?

"I don't know why you should make such a proposition," he observed. "The pass was issued to me for my own use, and of course I could not dispose of it."

Mr. Victor Porle accepted defeat graciously. There was a slight shrug of the shoulders, a slight opening of the palms of his bony hands. It was by such gestures as well as his speech that he gave evidence of his long residence abroad.

"I regret," he said, "that my suggestion does not appeal to you. It is not a matter, however, of vital importance. My friend and I have been partners in various enterprises for the greater part of our lives. We have had many disappointments, many reverses, but never ultimate failure. We shall see the Corots and obtain our interview with Lord Ardrington within a week."

Martin rose to his feet a little precipitately. His dislike of these two men, one of whom was seated by his side, the other standing looking out of the parlour window, was growing rapidly. They seemed out of the setting in such a locality. Their actions were inexplicable by eccentricity alone. More than ever they seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of unpleasant mystery,

"I am going to have a look over my car," he remarked shortly.

Victor Porle inclined his head, and Martin made his way out through a gate in the wall to the cobbled stable-yard. The man whom he had left behind remained in the rustic chair, mechanically pulling to pieces one of the Dorothy Perkins roses he had gathered.


CHAPTER XIV

Punctually at the time appointed, after his pass had been rigidly scrutinised, the oak gates of Ardrington Hall were unlocked and swung back to admit Martin and his car. The entrance seemed at first a quaint one to a house of such size and consequence, but justified itself amply and surprisingly. The avenue which skirted the ancient courtyard and the side of the house passed through a short grove of beech trees and finally emerged with a sweep on the right on to a magnificent and unexpected terrace. Martin's little exclamation of astonishment was almost a gasp. The house, the back of which had seemed sullen with its sombre lack of ornamentation, presented a front dignified and extensive in the best Jacobean architecture, with lawns stretching down from the terrace to an Italian garden and beyond to a richly wooded park. As he brought his car slowly to a standstill before the imposing entrance door, he was aware of a manservant in plain black livery standing motionless upon the threshold. It was his friend the butler who had admitted him to the house in Ash Hill.

"I have an appointment with his lordship for three o'clock," Martin announced as he stepped from the car.

"His lordship is expecting you, sir," was the measured reply. "Kindly step this way."

Martin was once again confused with a flood of impressions as he crossed the vast hall with its white stone flags, its stained-glass windows, its stone arches of ecclesiastical design, which but for the height of the place might almost have suggested the crypt of a cathedral. He caught a glimpse of a huge oak staircase, a vista of a picture gallery which seemed endless. Then he found himself suddenly ushered into a room unexpectedly small and furnished with almost Spartan simplicity. Lord Ardrington, appearing at first sight very much as he had on the night of their first meeting, except that he was dressed in country tweeds instead of dinner clothes, laid down a book which he had been reading and looked intently at his visitor from the depths of an easy-chair. There was suspicion as well as curiosity in his earnest regard.

"Mr. Barnes, my lord," the butler announced.

Lord Ardrington nodded and watched Martin's somewhat hesitating approach. His eyes were sunken and seemed almost black against the leathery sallowness of his complexion. His smile of welcome, if indeed it was intended to convey a welcome, was more cynical than kindly.

"What the devil do you want to see me about, young man?" he demanded. "Don't you know that I hate visitors. Why do you suppose I keep all my doors and gates locked and my walls spiked? It's an infernal shame I can't be left in peace."

"Well, I don't know that I was particularly keen on coming," Martin rejoined, as soon as he had recovered from his surprise. "When I heard that you were alive I thought I had to, that's all."

"What difference does the fact of my being alive make?" Lord Ardrington enquired. "Sit down, if you want to. Over there."

Martin accepted the chair indicated. The singularity of his reception seemed for some reason or other to have put him almost at his ease.

"It makes this difference," he explained. "You gave me that money believing that you were about to die. Now that you are not going to die, how do you feel about it?"

There was a faint elevation of the lines on Lord Ardrington's high and well-shaped forehead.

"Do you mean to say that you have come here simply to ask that question?" he asked incredulously.

"For no other reason in the world."

"And if, finding myself alive and able to spend my own money, I have repented of my, shall we call it 'freakish' impulse, are you going to offer to make restitution?"

"I shouldn't give it all back to you," Martin acknowledged. "That wouldn't be fair because I have given up my job, and I should hate to go back to it, but I might make an arrangement."

Lord Ardrington seemed to have lost most of his preliminary irritation. A momentary gleam of humour lit his eyes.

"You might make an arrangement, eh?" he repeated. "Capital! I like that, Mr.—let me see, what is it—. Barnes? You might make an arrangement, eh?"

"That appears to me to be reasonable," Martin declared. "I shouldn't give you the lot back. As I've said I've changed my whole manner of life and I should hate to go back to where I was."

Lord Ardrington once more scrutinised his visitor thoughtfully.

"Quite a metamorphosis," he murmured. "Someone has taken you to a good tailor and taught you how to choose the right sort of clothes. I suppose that was Gerald's doing. How the devil did you come across him and Lady Blanche?"

"I met them in the Park. Mr. Garnham stopped and spoke to me. He told Lady Blanche who I was and she seemed interested."

Lord Ardrington grinned.

"So I should imagine," he murmured. "She always took an interest in the unusual."

Martin flushed but remained silent. Lord Ardrington seemed to have gone off into a brown study. For a short space of time he took no notice whatever of his visitor. Then he turned to him abruptly.

"What do you think of my stepdaughter?"

There was a note of interest in his tone which seemed at the time inexplicable. Martin was a little taken aback.

"You mean the young lady who was with Lady Blanche this morning?"

"Of course. Where else could you have met her?"

"Well, I only spoke to her for a moment. I thought she seemed very beautiful. Is she altogether English?"

"No," Lord Ardrington acknowledged. "Her father was an Englishman. Her mother was a Spanish Argentine—a very beautiful woman, her mother."

"I can well believe it," Martin assented.

"Laurita has just left boarding school," Lord Ardrington continued, speaking almost as though to himself. "I am going to find the charge of her very difficult—very difficult and perhaps dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Martin repeated, a little puzzled.

Lord Ardrington's face seemed suddenly worn and tired. There was a shadow of fear in his strangely dark eyes.

"There is a tragedy connected with Laurita," he confided, speaking once more with that curious impersonality, as though he were recounting facts to himself rather than imparting them, "I brought her, with her mother, from a little town in South America when she was only three years old. I have educated her as though she were my own child. I settled a small fortune upon her long ago, or that little windfall would never have come your way—but it may be that nothing I can do can save her."

"Save her from what?" Martin asked.

"From the shadow of that tragedy," was the gloomy reply.

Martin moved a little uneasily in his chair. The conversation seemed to be getting outside his comprehension. Perhaps Lord Ardrington also noticed this, for, when he spoke again, a moment or two later, it was in an altogether different tone.

"We will return," he said, "to the subject of your visit. Frankly, I expected to die when I gave you the money, or I might have thought twice about it. Since I did not die, however, the money remains yours."

Martin was conscious of a sense of genuine relief.

"I'm not going to pretend that I'm not very glad to hear it," he acknowledged.

"Why have you come here to make me this offer? Did you believe that I was really poor?"

"I only had what you yourself said to go by. Since I came down to these parts, however, I have heard that you have such valuable pictures and possessions that you are obliged to keep the place locked up and specially guarded."

"I keep it locked up," Lord Ardrington confided, "because the intrusion of strangers is the one great terror of my life."

Martin was puzzled. He looked at his host curiously.

"Terror seems rather a strong word," he remarked. "If you will forgive my saying so, sir, you don't appear to me like a man who is easily afraid."

"In a general way, you are correct," Lord Ardrington ruminated. "In a general way, no one could say that I knew what fear was. If you had lived in the world that takes note of such things, you would have heard of me in many walks of sport and adventure. Fear in a physical sense I have never known and shall never feel, but our nerve force declines with the years. There is a mental cowardice, my young friend, which is torture; shadowy fears which rack the brain and steal away one's courage."

His voice had fallen; his serenity of manner had disappeared. He was a changed man—a man wrestling with a nightmare. Martin looked at him in surprise. It was as though he had passed into another world.

"Personal danger," he went on, speaking half to himself, "a man at my time of life can afford to scoff at, as they will tell you at Norwich that I did, when I drove up to the hospital and entered the operating room. But there is another sort of terror which may grip one, which may drive a brave man to cower behind locked doors, to feel that the walls of even a fortress are made of brown paper."

He relapsed for a moment into a gloomy and morose silence. Then, with a effort, he roused himself.

"Well," he said, "I consented to see you, my young friend, hoping that you might distract me, not to dig up ghosts in your company. Tell me of your recent adventures. A commercial traveller, I think you told me you were. I gather that you have renounced that—er—calling."

"I have," Martin assented. "The more I think about it now, the more I realise how thoroughly I disliked it."

Lord Ardrington thrust his long, lean fingers into a casket of cigarettes, selected one and passed them over to his visitor.

"You are confronted," he remarked, "with an interesting problem. With the possession of unexpected wealth, you can decide to live in the same environment as before and amongst the same friends, but to live without effort, to help yourself to the luxuries pertaining to the daily life of a man of moderate means, and to find yourself popular and envied amongst those who have known you in less prosperous days."

"I had very few friends," Martin observed, "and no pursuits that I cared for except boxing and cricket."

"On the other hand, you can become, if you will," Lord Ardrington continued, with an air of reflection, "something in the nature of a social climber. You have a fairly good appearance. With the aid of travel or the skilful use of new acquaintances, you should be able to secure for yourself a position in an altogether different class of society."

Martin considered for a moment.

"I can't alter my status," he said thoughtfully. "I don't know that I even wish to do so. I don't think that I want to make any fixed plans. I want to gravitate, to find my way where I belong, to make friends amongst the people I like, to live under the conditions which are most agreeable to me."

Lord Ardrington, listening approvingly, seemed to discover a new interest in his visitor.

"You are really," he declared, "a young man of considerable intelligence. You interest me more to-day than on that momentous evening of our first visit. You had difficulty enough in getting here, Mr. Barnes; now that you are here, remain for a few days as my guest."

Martin was momentarily taken aback.

"What? Remain here—at Ardrington Hall?" he exclaimed.

"Why not? You will be your own master. You can choose your own recreation. There is a gymnasium somewhere, a small golf course in the Park, and the tennis courts, I believe, are good. I am not sure that in my present state absolute solitude is good for me. You shall give me an hour or two of your time each day. It will interest me," he went on thoughtfully, "to hear more of your views about life. You represent a class of which one knows too little because one seldom meets them under the right conditions. If the historians and prophets of to-day tell the truth, it is upon your shoulders that the burden of carrying on the Empire will remain. You accept my invitation, I trust?"

"Of course I do," Martin assented, a tittle dazed. "I don't know why you ask me, unless, perhaps, you are very bored with your own friends. If I may say so without offence, I am just as curious about your class as you are about mine."

The dull booming of a Burmese gong reverberated through the halt. Lord Ardrington rose to his feet.

"Your clothes?" he enquired.

"I have a portmanteau in the car. I had thought of moving on to Lincoln to-night."

"I will have it sent to your rooms. Meanwhile we will join Lady Blanche and my stepdaughter for tea."

They passed across the hall, Lord Ardrington's hand resting lightly upon his companion's stalwart shoulder, into the old-fashioned drawing-room, which was one of the splendours of the house, a copy of a room in a Versailles palace, from which indeed most of the furniture and mirrors had come. At its further end was a smaller apartment, with windows opening onto the terrace, where Lady Blanche and her cousin, reclining in low chairs, were engaged in what seemed to be an animated conversation. They broke off abruptly as the two men approached and Martin was uneasily conscious of the sound of his own name.

"Mr. Barnes tells me that he has already made the acquaintance of you two young ladies," Lord Ardrington observed,

They both smiled a greeting at him.

"We've been admiring your car, Mr. Barnes," Lady Blanche observed. "What a selfish man you must be to go touring about the country all alone."

"I have persuaded Mr. Barnes to change his plans and stay over a few days with us," Lord Ardrington announced. "Laurita, you must see Mrs. Holmes and arrange for some rooms on the south side to be prepared. In the meantime, will you give us some tea?"

Laurita pirouetted across to the table. There was a faint flush of colour in her checks and her eyes were suddenly bright.

"What an exciting announcement," she exclaimed. "Will you take me out in your car, Mr. Barnes?"

"With pleasure," he answered.

"And you must play tennis with me," Lady Blanche insisted.

"If there's a spare racket anywhere about," he agreed.

"I can see the end of our lotus-like idleness," Lady Blanche sighed. "I think that you are a very brave man, Mr. Barnes, to accept my uncle's invitation. Laurita, fresh from boarding school, has simply been aching for a little male society, and I am almost as bad myself. How we will partition you out, I can't imagine."

Glancing around, Martin suddenly caught a little flash from Laurita's eyes—something which be utterly failed to understand, yet which in a sense thrilled him. She held out a cup and her eyes and smile invited him to the chair by her side.

"Mr. Barnes will have to be specially kind to me," she said, "because, although it is my home, I have visited it so seldom that we are really both strangers here."

"Laurita already cadging for sympathy!" Lady Blanche complained. "Don't be carried away by that childlike, appealing manner, Mr. Barnes. Laurita is a babe, just out of boarding school. I am one of the noblest works of nature—an emancipated woman. You almost discovered that in London, didn't you? Mr. Barnes was terribly shocked, Uncle, when he heard that I had independent rooms over a mews."

"No sane person pretends to understand the ways of you of the younger generation," Lord Ardrington remarked, stirring his tea. "A reversion to Victorianism, I should think, is due at any moment."

"It might be effective," Blanche mused. "Could you be demure, Laurita? Not with those eyes, I am afraid. And I don't think side-whiskers would suit you at all, Mr. Barnes."

"I once tried to grow them," he admitted. "They thought I looked rather young for the post I was holding."

"I should look divine in a crinoline," Lady Blanche reflected. "I am not at all sure that I could manage the modesty stunt, though."

Lord Ardrington laid down his cup.

"I shall leave you to the entertainment of these young ladies, Mr. Barnes," he said, as he turned away. "Dinner is at eight o'clock. My stepdaughter will see the housekeeper about your rooms, and she will appoint one of the men to look after your clothes."

His tone had suddenly become listless. He left the room with the air of one anxious to escape. Lady Blanche looked after him wonderingly.

"I wonder what you have been doing to my uncle," she reflected. "He has that strange, haunted look, which comes to him sometimes, as though he weren't living with us at all."

Martin shook his head in concern. "He changed like that without the slightest warning this afternoon," he remarked. "Then, after a time, he seemed to get all right again. I hope he isn't regretting that he asked me to stay."

"I'm sure it wouldn't be that," Lady Blanche declared. "As a matter of fact, it ought to be good for him to have a visitor to talk to. There is something altogether unnatural about the way he is shutting himself up here."

Laurita, who was looking out across the park, shivered. It was a very beautiful view, but curiously devoid of any sign of human life or movement. There was a wonderful stretch of flower garden, cattle in the nearer meadow, a few deer beyond—but no sign of any human being.

"Can one have nerves at seventeen?" she demanded.

"Certainly not," Blanche scoffed. "I am the only one who has any right to such a luxury. I am many years older than you; I smoke far too much; if I have the whim I drink too many cocktails; I sit up to all hours of the night and misbehave in every conceivable way. But for my rude health, I should be a nervous wreck. Why don't you go and see about Mr. Barnes' rooms, Laurita? Get it over and then we can decide what to do with him until dinner time."

Laurita made a little grimace.

"I do not like leaving you two together," she declared. "It is not fair. You are already the older friend."

Blanche rose from her chair with affected reluctance.

"In that case I must sacrifice myself. I will come with you, Laurita, and while we are gone, Mr. Barnes can drive his car round to the garage—through the gates to the left just as you came in,"

Martin drove down the avenue and into the great courtyard, the door of which was only opened to him after a long delay. The place seemed desolate and bare. There was moss growing between the stones, and most of the boxes were empty. The gates were locked even for the few minutes that he was there, and a postern gate leading out on to the village street was secured by two iron bars of enormous strength. The nearer view of the back of the house was even more forbidding than from the lane; the windows were most of them barred and the blinds drawn.

"Are you afraid of burglars here?" Martin asked the man who helped him put away the car and finally let him out.

The man balanced the great key upon his little finger. He had a tired look about the eves, as though he slept badly.

"I can't rightly tell what it is we're afraid of, sir," he confided.

 


CHAPTER XV

Notwithstanding the chaff between the two girls, it was Laurita alone who presently descended the terrace and came across the lawn to where Martin was seated under a cedar tree. He watched her with half reluctant but genuine admiration. She had all the inherited grace of a generation of dancers. Her lithe body swayed as though moved by the wind. Her smile as she reached him was almost bewildering.

"It is not my fault if I disappoint you," she laughed. "Blanche is writing letters, so I come alone. You must tell me of all these strange things that have happened to you through my eccentric stepfather."

She settled down by his side—a dainty little puff-ball of perfume and laces and gaiety. Only her eyes were almost the eyes of a woman.

"Is it true what they tell me of your night walk through the streets of Norwich, and what came of it?" she continued. "Please tell me the whole story. It sounds so romantic."

"You may think me a terrible robber," he warned her.

"That is what I promise you that I shall not think," she assured him. "If it had not been you, it would have been another."

He told her everything, carefully and omitting no details. Her little peals of laughter were the most musical thing he had ever heard.

"Oh, but I think it was wonderful!" she declared. "And now, what do you do with yourself? You must marry, of course, and marry quickly."

"I thought of that," he admitted, "but I bought an automobile instead."

"You are a bad man," she reproved him. "You should not joke about such a serious, such a wonderful subject."

"Is it serious and wonderful?" he asked.

"But of course it is," she insisted. "I have just left boarding school—barely a week—and already I have made up my mind. I should like to be married to-morrow."

Martin's exclamation was one of genuine amazement, mingled with a certain note of discomfort.

"You really mean that?" he ventured.

"Why, of course I do," she answered. "Is it not foolish to pretend things? I think so. One is to be married some day or other. Why should it be delayed? If you love truly the person whom you marry, everything that comes to you in life is sweeter because it comes to you both. Then why not begin quite young together and have a wonderful, wonderful time?"

"I see," Martin murmured. "Still, one isn't always able to make up one's mind."

"Oh, la la!" she laughed. "Why, I am seventeen, and I could make up my mind in five seconds, if someone whom I liked spoke and I felt what one should feel. How old are you, Mr. Martin Barnes?"

"I am twenty-five," he told her.

"A Methuselah!" she exclaimed. "Why, you ought to have been married years ago."

"I'm glad I wasn't," he declared whole-heartedly. "In any case I couldn't have afforded it."

She made a little grimace.

"But now you can," she reminded him. "You must not put it off very long, Mr.—shall I call you Mr. Barnes, or just Martin?"

"I like Martin better. I should be very proud if you would call me Martin."

"We are getting on," she murmured contentedly. "You, of course, must call me Laurita. Dear Blanche," she went on, as Lady Blanche, in her leisurely progress from the house, came within hearing, "we are getting on very well indeed. I call him Martin and he calls me Laurita. I have advised him to marry very quickly, and I think I rather like him. He is very easily shocked, but perhaps that is because he is good."

"Fickle brute!" Blanche declared, lighting a cigarette and sinking into a chair. "I believe he admired me before you came, Laurita."

"You have so many," Laurita protested. "This is my first. Do not grudge him to me. You see at boarding school they were very strict, and in the holidays I never met anybody but boys."

"You can have him if you insist," Blanche yielded. "At the same time, why make up our minds so soon? Half the interest of Mr. Barnes' visit will have gone if our rivalry ceases before it has commenced."

Laurita sighed.

"It is an idea," she admitted. "Do you feel that you are likely to fall in love with me, Mr.—Martin?"

Martin distinctly floundered. He looked across at Blanche for help, but she was watching the smoke of her cigarette curling upward.

"I don't see how any one could possibly help it," he ventured.

"Well, if you should feel it coming on, do not struggle," she begged. "Say to yourself that it is fate. Decidedly, Blanche, it is more amusing to have a young man here."

"It isn't going to be amusing for me," Blanche grumbled, "if you make the running at this pace."

"Look here," Martin interposed, with sudden seriousness, "if you two could leave off chaffing me for a moment, I should really like to ask you a question—especially if I am going to stay here a couple of days."

"So long as your question is one that a shy and well-brought-up young woman can answer," Blanche stipulated; "proceed."

"Why on earth is Lord Ardrington living like a feudal baron in danger of attack?" Martin demanded. "I looked at some of the other entrances after I put the car away. All the gates are fastened with the most marvellous locks, the walls are so spiked that no one in his senses would ever dream of trying to climb them, and they tell me that there are watchmen promenading every night. What's it all mean, anyhow?"

Both girls were suddenly grave.

"What it means neither Laurita nor I have any idea," Blanche admitted. "It's worse than you could possibly imagine, too. Even the servants are not allowed out without a pass, and the tradespeople are only allowed to call within certain hours."

"Do you think that Lord Ardrington is afraid of burglars?" Martin suggested.

"I don't think so. There are some treasures in the house, of course, but not the sort of treasures that burglars could carry away with them."

"I will tell you what I think," Laurita announced, first looking around curiously and dropping her voice almost to a whisper. "I think that there is some enemy of whom my stepfather has a great fear."

"That doesn't sound like him," Martin observed.

"I will tell you why I think so," Laurita continued. "It all started when I was here for two days on one of my school holidays. My father was going through his letters after breakfast, and he found one which upset him terribly. I was close to him and I was frightened. He gave a little cry as though he had been stabbed, and for a long time afterwards he sat looking straight ahead of him, but really seeing nothing. Within twenty-four hours all this started. Before, he used to go to London sometimes. He even came to visit me at boarding school. Since that morning, except when he went to Norwich for his operation, he has never left this place. I am sure that he is afraid of some one, and he feels safer here than anywhere else."

"You don't know whether the letter came from abroad or not, I suppose?" Blanche enquired.

"It came from New York," Laurita answered. "I know because the envelope blew away and I picked it up. Upon the back of the flap were two names, and I think it said 'Wholesale Fruit Merchants.' The second name was something like 'Gaunt.'"

"Would it be 'Graunt'?" Martin asked quickly.

"That is exactly what it was. Tell me where you got the name from?"

Martin hesitated.

"I only know," he confided, "that there is a person of that name hanging round here now, trying to see Lord Ardrington."

They were all silent for a moment. There seemed suddenly a new significance in the high, spiked wall, the locked gates, the ceaseless watch. There was some definite cause for it, then, after all.

"I think," Blanche decided, "that you ought to tell my uncle."

"I will tell him to-night after dinner," Martin agreed. "This man Graunt wants to see him all right, and apparently he wants to see him without sending word beforehand. He offered me money for my pass when it arrived this afternoon."

"Tell me what sort of a man he is?" Laurita begged. Martin found it difficult to repress a little shiver as he answered.

"There are two of them," he confided. "I can't tell what there is about them, but I never met two men I disliked so much in my life. Graunt is a short, bald-headed little man, rather fat, very carefully dressed, with odd-coloured eyes and a horrible mouth. The man with him looks almost like a foreigner—a thin, dark, hatchet-faced man, who speaks very carefully, almost like a schoolmaster,"

"Where did you come across them?" Blanche asked.

"On the roadside, between Newmarket and Thetford," Martin explained. "I found them there, seated on a fallen tree, without a speck of dust upon their clothes. They looked as though they'd dropped from an aeroplane. Afterwards they told me that they had been the victims of one of your uncle's practical jokes."

Blanche nodded.

"Uncle has done that three or four times," she said, "to people who've bothered him to see over the house. I don't suppose he knew who these two were, though."

Laurita appeared troubled. For a moment her childishness seemed to have left her.

"The man who looked like a foreigner," she murmured. "I wonder where he came from."

"He wasn't very communicative."

"I am afraid that that very charming uncle of mine," Lady Blanche sighed, "lived a somewhat adventurous life in his younger days,"

"Did he live abroad?" Martin asked.

"More or less. He was thirty-five years old when he came into the title and scarcely anyone even knew him. He went out to the Argentine after the War and practically disappeared there."

A bell rang from its tower on the western front of the house—-a strident yet sonorous message.

"Three quarters of an hour before dinner," Blanche remarked, rising. "Come along, Laurita. We must hand our guest over to Mrs. Holmes. Even that bell," she added, with a little shiver, as they strolled across the lawn, "has been dragged into the service. Uncle has an electric communication with it—'in case of fire,' she explained."

Martin sighed.

"I think that fear like that in the heart of a brave man must be a terrible thing," he reflected.


CHAPTER XVI

"So far," Lord Ardrington declared, as he tasted critically his first glass of port, "I must confess that you are rather a disappointment to me, Mr. Martin Barnes."

"In what way?" Martin demanded.

"There is very little about you to study. You behave just as nine out of ten other young men would behave. A degree less polished, perhaps; some slight lack of assurance, which in these days is rather an advantage. Otherwise, you don't seem to have much to learn externally."

"I'm getting the best of the bargain, then," Martin observed. "There's lots about all you people here entirely different from anything I have been accustomed to—lots that I should be glad to imitate, only of course I know that I never could. But there is one thing, if you'll let me speak about it," he went on, after a moment's hesitation, "which I can't and never shall be able to understand."

Lord Ardrington stiffened a little. He replenished his glass and passed the decanter.

"I think I know what you are going to say," he remarked.

"It is perhaps impertinent of me to ask questions," Martin admitted, "but one can't help being curious. What on earth does it all mean—these locked gates, the passes to come in and out, the turning of the house into a fortress? It is just as though you were afraid of something, which in these days does seem absurd, doesn't it?"

Lord Ardrington sipped his wine and replaced his glass upon the table. His hand was steady, his voice firm, yet it was obvious that he was speaking the truth,

"I have had but one fear in my life," he confided, "but, alas, that has grown with the years. I am not afraid of personal injury, or armed burglars, of sudden death, of the ordinary perils which incite fear, and yet—I don't know why I should offer you my confidence in this matter, except that in doing so I have a half-formed purpose in my mind—there is one great enmity in my life, one threatened reprisal, which is poisoning my days."

He paused, frowning heavily, and his attention seemed to wander away. When he came to himself with a little shiver, it seemed as though he had made up his mind to abandon the subject. Martin, however, persisted.

"I don't suppose," he said, "that the police are very strong in an out-of-the-way village like this, but if you were to apply to the Chief Constable of the county, couldn't he deal with any threats you might receive?"

"The law," Lord Ardrington explained, "is for the law-abiders. As it happens, upon this occasion, I am on the wrong side of the fence. The thing I fear most in life, in fact, might be brought about by legal means."

"Then why," Martin asked, more than ever puzzled, "this attempt to keep visitors out? You couldn't use your locked gates against the police."

"I have begun to ask myself," his host admitted, a little wearily, "whether this despairing effort of mine to keep my enemies away is worth the candle. It may baulk them for a day or a week: they are far too clever, however, to be kept at arm's length indefinitely. The curious part of it is," he continued, with a grim smile, "that from the moment I made access to the house and grounds difficult, the number of harmless would-be visitors has increased to a ridiculous extent. They even ring me up from Norwich continually, begging for permission to see the pictures. With one or two of them I have been able to indulge in my propensity for practical jokes."

"Tell me about that," Martin begged.

The smile on his host's face became more pronounced, though it still lacked any element of real mirth.

"There were two of them the other day who rang up from Norwich representing themselves as picture dealers. I sent a car, presumably to bring them out here. The chauffeur told them that the direct road was closed, drove them to a distant spot and turned them out. I have been expecting an abusive letter for several days."

"I don't think you'll get it now," Martin confided. "I found those very two men on Thetford Heath. They were seated by the roadside, dressed as though for a saunter down Bond Street, and I was so surprised that I stopped and asked them if anything was the matter. I brought them back nearly as far as Norwich."

"The chauffeur should not have left them in such a public place," the other complained. "Anyhow, I daresay the experience was good for them."

Martin finished his wine and summoned up his courage.

"It never occurred to you, I suppose," he asked with some hesitation, "that these two men might be the people against whom you are guarding the place so carefully?"

Lord Ardrington clutched for a moment at the table. His face had become utterly colourless, his fingers were trembling, his eyes lit with sombre terror.

"Why do you ask that?" he demanded. "What do you know about them?"

"They are back here now at Ardrington. They are staying at the village inn. They were there when Lady Blanche sent me down my pass. They offered me money for it."

"Describe them."

"I never met two men so difficult to describe. One is rather short, rather stout, with a bald head, an ugly mouth and queer-coloured eyes; the other is darker, very thin, and speaks very slowly. I could tell you their names or the names they gave me."

Lord Ardrington's face, although ghastly, had become set. He had the air of a man who braces himself to receive ill news.

"Well?"

"The name of the shorter man is Solomon Graunt; the other Porle—Victor Porle, I think he said."

The stem of the glass Lord Ardrington was holding snapped in his fingers, and the remainder of his wine dripped on to the smooth polished table. He shrank in his high-backed chair with its beautiful carving, like a man who has received a blow.

"Where are they now—'these two?" he demanded presently.

"At the village inn, or rather they were this afternoon."

Lord Ardrington rose to his feet, made his way to the windows, and looked out into the mauve twilight. The gardens and the park beyond were silent and deserted. On the left the broad flagged approach to the house was empty of any living creature. It was a peaceful, even a beautiful view, yet as he stood there, he shivered.

"They may come to-night," he muttered.

Martin was conscious of a sudden accession of sympathy for this man, for whom up till then his feelings had been curiously mixed. He had been inclined to resent the farceur, the almost insolent assumption of some vital difference, not only in their station, but in their whole outlook and scheme of daily life. Yet, in that moment of his benefactor's weakness, a kindliness amounting almost to affection established itself,

"You have told me so much, sir," he said gently; "why don't you tell me a little more? If you want a protector from a physical point of view, I'm not afraid of a scrap, I've generally managed to hold my own when there was anything of that sort doing, I'll sleep anywhere in the house—outside your door, if you like. I think I could stop anyone coming in,"

His host sighed.

"That's very good of you, Barnes," he acknowledged, "but I'm afraid that sort of help wouldn't be of much use. These men will get at me all right. They haven't waited all these years for nothing."

"Well, how can I help then?" Martin persisted.

Lord Ardrington had resumed his seat. The question he suddenly asked was the most astonishing which his guest could possibly have conceived.

"Have you ever thought of marriage?"

"Marriage?" Martin gasped. "Well, not lately. I suppose I shall marry some day."

"After all," Lord Ardrington went on, speaking half to himself, "you are in my debt. Chance selected you as my beneficiary, but still you owe me your altered state in life."

"I acknowledge it willingly," Martin declared. "As I told you before, if there is anything I can do, you can count on me."

"Will you marry my stepdaughter—say, the day after to-morrow?"

Martin stared across at his questioner, dumbfounded, his senses confused, deprived for the moment of the power of speech.

"Good God!" he exclaimed presently. "Marry—your stepdaughter—the day after to-morrow! Why, I only met her this afternoon."

"That is beside the question. Will you do it?"

"But Laurita—Miss Laurita—she wouldn't dream of it."

"Not in an ordinary way, perhaps," Lord Ardrington admitted, "but your marriage need be one of form only, and it may save her from a far more terrible fate. One of those men is her father."

Martin was proof against further shocks. He remained speechless.

"Part of the terror in which I live," Lord Ardrington continued, "is on her account. I loved her mother with every breath of my body, and on her deathbed I swore to keep Laurita from the fate with which her father threatened her. Will you do what I ask?"

"But it wouldn't be possible," Martin faltered.

"It is possible. You could motor up to London tomorrow, get a special licence and return with it at night. You could be married the next day."

"But would she consent?" Martin asked doubtfully. "She has only known me for a few hours, and in a way, I have not been brought up in her world; I am not at all the sort of person she has been used to."

"She would consent to the ceremony if I explained matters to her," Lord Ardrington insisted. "It is understood, of course, that the ceremony is one of protection only. If, when you got to know one another better, you found that any sufficient amount of affection developed, why then you might become husband and wife in earnest. Otherwise, of course, divorce would always be possible and easy."

Martin sat for several moments in silence. He was striving to see his way, but his thoughts were in confusion. His host rose and laid his hand upon the young man's shoulder.

"Remember that you pledge yourself to nothing," he urged. "The only thing is that you will not be able to marry anyone else for a time. You're young enough to wait, however, and when you learn, as you very soon shall learn, from what you're saving Laurita, you'll be glad. . . . We'll finish our conversation presently. Not a word to any one, mind. Laurita must be prepared first by me."

There seemed to Martin something entirely unreal about the rest of that evening. In the hall, quaint anachronism as it seemed under the stately domed ceiling and amongst surroundings correctly and impressively medieval, the two girls were dancing to the music of a gramophone. They left off at once as the men approached the table where the coffee was awaiting them.

"You do not, by any chance, dance, I suppose, Martin?" Laurita asked wistfully.

"Not very well," he admitted.

"For heaven's sake, if you can stand up on two legs at all, try," Lady Blanche begged. "I can't do man, and Laurita's crazy about it."

Martin's performance was duly approved; he was, in fact, a reasonably good dancer. A few suggestions as to alterations in his steps were tentatively made and good-naturedly accepted.

"And you must really hold me to you and not away from you," Laurita insisted.

"Your diffidence," Lady Blanche pointed out, "is engaging, but for the purpose of dancing impossible. You must remember that it is the dance and nothing but the dance. In other words, it is your partner you are clasping, and not Laurita."

Nevertheless, Martin knew very well that it was Laurita whose body clung softly to his as they moved away to the music. For a moment, he was bewildered by a rush of unanalysable sensations. The thought of marriage with her suddenly presented itself with a new and amazing significance. She glanced up at him, wondering at his silence, and, meeting his eyes, looked away with a nervous little laugh, herself conscious of a momentary wave of agitation. Blanche, from the easy-chair into which she had sunk, watched them with a curious expression in her eyes

"You know how to take hints, Mr. Barnes," she remarked. "Uncle, tell me what you think of this modern dancing. Don't you find it just a trifle affectionate?"

"I cannot regard it as dancing," Lord Ardrington pronounced drily. "At the same time, if I were a young man—Mr. Barnes' age, for instance—I should probably embrace my opportunities as he does."

Laurita suddenly stopped in the middle of a record, ran to the instrument and removed it. She spoke to her partner, but she looked away from him.

"You must have your coffee before it is cold, Martin. It is too bad to drag you into this without a moment's notice,"

There was a brief interval, then more dancing. Afterwards Blanche took Martin for a little tour round the hall, showing him some of the better known pictures. In one of the farthest recesses she paused, and they seated themselves on a great divan with an oak back.

"Are you falling in love with Laurita?" she asked abruptly,

"I don't think so," he answered

"Why?"

Blanche shrugged her shoulders.

"You looked like a human being for a minute or two," she remarked carelessly.

"Perhaps I forgot myself," he said. "She dances wonderfully and I enjoyed it. As a rule I'm half the time worrying for fear I'm going to do something wrong."

"Idiot!" she scoffed. "You're all right, if only you had a little more confidence."

"I don't think I am," he answered. "I don't think that would help me in the least. It is the same with my dancing as it is with everything else in life."

"Just what do you mean?" she demanded curiously.

"Well, it's like this," he tried to explain. "You can't get over the fact that there is a difference, almost a difference of fundamentals, between Martin Barnes with little better than a board-school education, a hard-working traveller until a few weeks ago, and you others. Mr. Garnham doesn't hesitate to make me realise it, and, as a matter of fact, I half recognise his point of view and the point of view of your friends. Your manners are impressive, you all wear your clothes wonderfully, and it must have taken generations to acquire such a gift of cultivated insolence. I don't resent it; I rather admire it, I'm quite certain I couldn't live up to it."

She laughed at him softly and kindly, her eyes full of a pleasant expression. He felt an absurd desire to possess himself of the hand which rested so close to his; not a dainty, doll-like little hand with rose-tipped fingernails like Laurita's, but a woman's strong, capable hand, with long but almost square-tipped fingers, a few freckles on the back, well-shaped and comely.

"I think you'll do all right if you remain natural," she assured him. "You may put your foot in it occasionally, but nothing's unforgivable nowadays and we're all sick of our own type. Besides, imitation is never, after all, the real thing. You wouldn't be able to emulate, for instance, Gerald's courteous but deadly insolent to any one he dislikes. If I were you I should just prune off the gaucheries and remain yourself."

"And as myself," he asked with a sudden impulse, "supposing I wanted to marry anyone, say of your world, what would they think of it?"

She looked at him curiously, reminding him at that moment of the time when he had seen her in her quaint Chinese costume, standing on the threshold of her sitting room, and bidding him welcome.

"Since when have you let your young mind dwell upon the subject of marriage?" she demanded.

"I suppose I'll have to think about it sometime or other," he answered, a little evasively.

"Have you ever been engaged?"

He nodded.

"I was engaged to one of the typists in the office where I worked."

"A little obvious," she sighed. "Pretty?"

"Very."

"You're not going to tell me," she exclaimed, with a sudden indignation, "that you gave her up because of this ridiculous windfall of yours."

He shook his head.

"I should have gone through with it," he assured her. "I'm glad I hadn't to, though. I came home from Norwich one day before I was expected, when she had told me that she was going to see an aunt at Streatham, and discovered her dining at the Milan Grill with my employer, I found out afterwards—that it wasn't the first time."

"What an escape!" she murmured. "Still, why did you become engaged to her at all?"

"I think," he answered, after a moment's reflection, "that it was all part of the life one leads when one is in the position I was in. You get half a day's holiday a week, and Sundays. You haven't any family, you don't want to spend the time alone. Naturally, you look for a girl. The rest you drift into."

"And what's the difference now?" she enquired.

"Simply that there are so many more things to do and so much more time to do them in," he explained. "You're a free agent. You don't have to have a wife and an eight-roomed house to be comfortable. I don't know whether you can understand me, but a wife seems to be a necessity to a poor man and just a luxury to a rich one."

Lady Blanche laughed softly.

"Well, take my advice," she begged. "Don't hurry."

His sense of humour was suddenly tickled. He joined in her laughter a little drearily as they strolled across the spacious hall.


CHAPTER XVII

MARTIN, whose health was robust, and whose imagination, if anything, was a little limited, had scarcely ever in his life known the meaning of the word nerves. Yet when, on his return journey from London on the following evening, he waited outside the closed gates of Ardrington Hall for admission, he was suddenly conscious of a wave of miserable depression, the grip of some indefinable, unnameable fear. The glimpses he was able to get of the back of the house showed it unchanged, sombre, weather-stained, and gloomy—a massive heap of chimneys and barred windows. The face of the custodian who admitted him was wooden and expressionless as ever. Nothing seemed altered during his twenty-four hours' absence. The lawns and gardens, as he turned the corner of the brief, sweeping avenue, were as beautiful as ever. The air was softly fragrant with the odour of late hyacinths planted in long formal rows on either side of the drive, and, in the soft spring twilight, the country which flowed away from the gardens and park beyond was growing delicately nebulous. Yet the silence of it all oppressed him. The absence of any sign of human occupation gave the place an unnatural appearance which even its brooding beauty could not dispel. It was with almost a gasp of relief, as he brought the car to a standstill, that he found the front door already open and Mallowes, the butler, attended by a subordinate, in waiting.

"Every one all right, Mallowes?" Martin could not help asking, as he descended.

"Every one is quite well, sir," the man answered. "His lordship is waiting to see you in the morning room. The young ladies are changing for dinner."

Almost as he spoke the dressing gong sounded—a very human note, which Martin welcomed with a further sense of satisfaction. Its summons seemed to bring a note of real and everyday existence to surroundings from which, with some sinister significance, the pulse of actual life seemed to have died away. There were other servants in the hall, a vision of the dining table through an open door, a tray of cocktails standing on the round table in the background. Everything was as usual, Martin told himself. The strain of driving had thrown him momentarily off his balance. Yet he acted eagerly upon Mallowes' suggestion and drank one of the cocktails as he passed.

"His lordship is expecting to have a word with you before you change, sir," the man announced, as he threw open the door of the morning room.

Once more the sense of shock returned as Martin entered the room and waited for the door to close behind him. Lord Ardrington seemed more shrunken than ever as he leaned forward in his chair. His face was lined and there was a pitiful little droop of the mouth. He was like a man who had been through some ordeal from which he had emerged, shattered and suffering.

"Well?" he demanded.

"I've got it," Martin assured him, "right here in my pocket."

Lord Ardrington gave a gasp of relief. "Let me see it," he insisted.

Martin handed over the scrap of parchment. Lord Ardrington read it through, word by word. Then he folded it up and returned it.

"To-morrow," he murmured; "it must be done tomorrow."

Martin's heart sank.

"You'll tell me a little more about it first."

"I'll tell you what I can," was the almost tremulous reply. "There are just a few things which you must take for granted. One is the supreme, the damnable villainy of the man Porle."

"Have either of these men made any effort to see you whilst I have been away?"

"So far as I can gather, they haven't been near the place. They seem to spend the whole of their time drinking and playing cards. They do nothing. I begin to understand."

"Tell me what it is that you understand?" Martin begged. "If they have taken the trouble to come here, why don't they do something about it?"

"In their way, as torturers, they are artists," Lord Ardrington explained bitterly. "They know very well what their hanging about means to me. They know that day by day I grow weaker, from fear—fear, do you hear that, Martin?—and apprehension. They have given up the idea of forcing their way in. They are keeping me in suspense as to their next move out of sheer devilment."

Martin felt a wave of overwhelming sympathy. However incomprehensible the whole thing might be, there was no doubt about this man's suffering.

"Look here, do you mind if I make a suggestion, sir?" he asked eagerly.

"Well, what is it?"

"If you've got to see these men some time or other, why not get it over? They can't do any harm if they come when we're prepared for them."

Lord Ardrington reflected for a moment.

"A week ago," he confessed, "the suggestion would have thrown me into a fit. The thought of admitting these vermin voluntarily into my house would have seemed like lunacy. To-day I feel differently. I can bear anything except this suspense. If I am to be drawn and quartered, I would rather have it over."

"They couldn't do a thing to you," Martin protested. "They are not fools. They must know that we are too many for them. I haven't seen much of them, but I'm pretty certain of one thing—they're both far too clever to risk the gallows for anything in this world. If they've got anything against you and it's bad, it just means blackmail."

Lord Ardrington for a moment muttered to himself. His eyes were fixed upon the flames of a small wood fire which was burning in the grate. It seemed as though he were reconstructing some scene from the past,

"You did well to stumble down Ash Hill that night, Martin Barnes," he said presently, as he looked back into the room. "You have just that sort of robust common sense which clings to the obvious. After all, it's the obvious that counts; imagination leads us wrong all the time. Of course they would like to murder me, and, from their point of view, I deserve it. They won't do it though, unless they can think of some way of escaping punishment; but they are clever, Martin—they are hellishly clever! I was a pretty bad lot myself, many years ago, but compared to them I was a babe. I once saw Graunt torture and kill a man. It wasn't a pleasant sight! If I'd had my gun I'd have put a bullet through his head to have ended his sufferings."

"Well, you're not suggesting that anything of that sort is possible in this country," Martin observed,

The other nodded. There was a little more life in his face, in the cynical curve of his lips.

"True," he agreed. "Here, only souls may be tortured. . . . You'd better go and change now quickly, Martin. Not a word, mind, to either of them. My explanation must come first."

"I sha'n't say a word," was the ready enough response. "As a matter of fact, I shouldn't have the least idea what to say."

The two girls welcomed him in amazingly friendly fashion when he descended into the hall half an hour later, a huge box of chocolates under either arm. Laurita was wearing a dress of soft scarlet, wonderfully effective against the background of dark and shadowy places.

"We never really thought you'd come back," Blanche told him, "We decided that this mysterious business of yours was an excuse."

"But I told you that I was returning," Martin reminded her.

"Men are such deceivers," she replied, selecting a chocolate and biting into it. "Laurita, for a young man of inexperience, our friend Martin is inspired. He has discovered the only place where they have these large vanilla chocolates."

"Did you have a pleasant ride down all alone?" Laurita asked, raising her wonderful eyes to his.

"Pleasant but dusty. I had a puncture too, and it took me a long time to change the wheel."

"Uncle has been terribly queer," Blanche confided, dropping her voice a little. "I know he'll be as glad to have you back as we arc."

Their host joined them a few minutes later. His face seemed less lined, his carriage more confident, and a part of his dejection at any rate, appeared to have vanished.

He took a white carnation from a bowl near at hand and thrust it into his buttonhole.

"A reminiscence of the Riviera," he remarked, as he sipped his cocktail.

"You are my only hope of ever getting there again," Blanche sighed. "Ropes wouldn't drag father out of England unless there was a mud bath at the end of the journey. He thinks the Riviera unsuited to the Anglo-Saxon temperament."

"Yet, compared with some people, yours is an Anglo-Saxon temperament, isn't it?" Martin ventured.

She looked at him more intently than usual—a queer little smile at the corners of her lips.

"I wonder," she murmured.

Her uncle set down his glass empty.

"As I am always telling you, my dear Blanche," he said, "you should get married. Then your husband could take you wherever you wanted to go."

"What an unkind remark," she complained. "You know very well that, having enjoyed a brief spell of independence, it is now the one desire of my life to get married. What can I do about it, though? None of the really nice men I know would ever believe I was in earnest. A little minx like Laurita here will be a mother whilst I am growing into an old maid."

They obeyed Mallowes' summons and moved into the dining room. Their host, who seemed to be making a great effort to throw off his depression, ordered champagne of a special brand.

"Marriage," he pointed out, "is a very great protection. Some girls need it much more than others. Laurita, for instance, far more than you, Blanche."

The latter indulged in a little grimace.

"It is that sort of idea," she protested, "which sets men against me and is spoiling my matrimonial prospects. I am really of a very affectionate disposition—almost of the clinging type. Just because I am good at games and hunt, and choose to meet my artist friends in London in my own way, every one seems to think I am sexless. I am nothing of the sort. I am like all other girls, and I am twenty-seven years old and getting annoyed about it. If Laurita marries before me it will be the last straw."

"But Blanche dear, what is there for me to do?" Laurita demanded. "I am not good at games, I do not wish to hunt, and I have not a circle of interesting friends as you have. You are Lady Blanche Banningham, and you do what you like, but this stern stepfather of mine would not let me live in rooms on my own and know all sorts of strange people, therefore you see that the only escape I have from the monotony of life is a husband. I am young, but I do not see what there is to wait for."

"You'll find him all right," Blanche assured her grudgingly. "You dance divinely, you have just the sort of dainty, petite figure that men adore, and you have taken care of your complexion, which I haven't. You're a little exotic for this part of the world, child, but you're horribly attractive. Don't you think so, Martin?"

"I certainly do," he admitted, "but from me that means very little. Most of the girls I have known have had to earn their own livings. I suppose it's a rotten thing to say," he went on hesitatingly, "although it certainly ought not to be so, but it docs seem to me that the independent type of girl, who can look after herself and knows that she can, is never quite so attractive as she ought to be to a man."

"There you are!" Blanche exclaimed petulantly. "That from a young man who is just commencing life and to whom I have been extraordinarily kind,"

Martin looked across the table and found her unexpectedly serious. She was wearing black, which became her. The blue of her eyes was almost brilliant. She looked the very prototype of well-bred and splendid young womanhood.

"Your independence," he declared, "is not the type I was thinking of. What I meant is that there is a sort of hardness about girls who have to make their own way in the world and have to be always looking after themselves. Life's made pretty difficult for them, and I think in holding their own they sometimes lose charm."

"Your influence, Laurita!" Blanche sighed. "The worst of it is I am not at all sure the man hasn't got some idea of what he's talking about."


CHAPTER XVIII

Lord Ardrington wasted very little time after the port had been placed upon the table and the servants had left the room. He filled his companion's glass and his own, but he did not even indulge in that connoisseur's first sip before he began to unburden himself.

"Martin," he said, "the whole story of the things that lie between those two men and myself I cannot tell you now. I was a penniless spendthrift when I came into contact with them and such moral sense as I ever possessed I had lost in adversity. We were partners for nine years in various places along the South American coast. I draw a veil over those nine years. I come to the closing act in the drama of my existence with them, because it is the one which concerns Laurita."

He paused, and satisfied with having made a start, drank half his glassful of port. His critical appreciation, however, had departed. He seemed to drink mechanically and without interest.

"We three were living together in a shack amongst the hills about sixty miles inland from San Paulo," he continued. "We were living on the site of a deserted mine which we had acquired in one of the gambling haunts of the city. The mine was utterly worthless, but we used it as a base for swindling operations. We had just returned from San Paulo, where we had made a fairly good haul from some Americans. We were supposed to share equally in all profits. By the merest chance I discovered that I had been cheated by those two men, that they had pocketed at least three hundred pounds more than they had told me of without giving me my share, I brooded over this, uncertain how to act. We had had several disagreements and I knew perfectly well what the end must be. Later that night I learned more. They had proposed this excursion up to the mine with the sole idea of ending our partnership—ending it, that is to say, in the usual and logical manner. I was the superfluous person. All my influence was exhausted and my money gone. It was their intention to pick a quarrel with me and throw me over the mine shaft with a bullet through my head,"

Lord Ardrington paused, finished his wine deliberately, waited until his guest had done the same, and then refilled the glasses. Martin was spellbound. There was something curiously dramatic about the thin, clear voice of his host, deliberately delving into a terrible past in surroundings so sedate and magnificent. The oil paintings upon the walls, the beautiful panelling, the suits of priceless armour, the stately proportions of the room with its oriel windows, the silver and glass upon the table, the whole environment seemed to lend a strange and indescribable piquancy to this amazing recital.

"I went out for an hour with my gun that evening," Lord Ardrington continued,—"an excuse to get away and think. It was a dreary stretch of country, a mud heap on the first range of hills leading to the mountains. I shot a few quail, and then sat down upon a rock and reasoned the matter out. It was either my life or theirs, my wits against theirs. I was perfectly prepared to kill them both, if needs be, unless I could think of an easier way. In the end I decided upon a sort of plan. When I made my way back to the bungalow, I had thought it out in every detail."

Another pause. Lord Ardrington seemed to be gazing out of the window towards the park, but his eyes were set and Martin knew very well it was another scene upon which he looked.

"We had a clumsy old American car," he proceeded, "in which we made the journey hack and forth to San Paulo, Before I returned I went into the shed where we kept it, doctored it up as well as I could, and put on a fresh tyre. When I made my way round to the front my two partners were playing cards on the veranda. They did not even look up at my coming, and when I entered the living room I found that they had finished their supper and left me practically nothing. This was their first attempt to start a quarrel. I took no notice but prepared myself something to eat and, watching for my opportunity, I emptied the whole of a flask of bromide I had bought at the chemist's at San Paulo the day before into the brandy bottle. I had scarcely done it when Solomon Graunt came in. 'Where the hell's the brandy?' he demanded. 'Where you left it, I suppose,' I answered, coolly enough. 'You know I don't touch it. It's the whisky I want.' I filled myself a glass of whisky and water and began to drink. Solomon Graunt took the brandy out with him and I could hear the cards go pattering upon the table whilst they played. I saw that my revolver was charged in every barrel and loose in my pocket. Then I lit my pipe and went out to them. 'What about draw poker?' I suggested. The money I had wasn't of much account to them, but I suppose they thought it would be sport to get it from me before they proceeded to extremes. They agreed to play and we all sat down. I sipped my whisky and they drank their brandy. At another time it would have amused me to watch the skill with which they manipulated the cards. I pretended not to notice. Once Graunt cheated flagrantly. I still refused to notice. That was evidently another attempt to start the quarrel. All the time I was drinking my whisky. They themselves were heavy drinkers, but they could scarcely keep pace with me. Once I had a fright. 'Funny flavour about this brandy,' Victor Porle declared, smelling it. 'Perfectly all right,' Graunt pronounced sleepily. 'Best I ever tasted.' Very likely Graunt saved my life. It must have irritated him afterwards to have realised that. I could see them growing drowsier and drowsier. Presently, most of my money was on the table, and I rose with a growl, 'You fellows have all the luck,' I muttered. I am convinced that it was their intention to have finished the matter there, on the veranda. I could see Porle's gun sticking out of his jacket pocket, where he could get at it quickly. They were both so sleepy now, though, that they never even answered me. I strolled away and made a few preparations. When I came back I went round the side of the house with my revolver in my hand. Victor Porle was lying across the table, his chin resting upon it, his hands hanging downward, almost touching the ground. Solomon Graunt had slipped from his chair and was lying at full length on the coconut matting. I approached them on tiptoe with my gun in my hand, but I need not have troubled. They were like logs. I emptied their pockets. I helped myself to every penny of the money which should have been handed over to me, and every penny of their own. I took their guns from their pockets in case of accidents and threw them away. I left them there like dead men and, with practically all the stores in the back of my car and every dollar in my pocket, I started off for San Paulo."

Martin moved uneasily in his chair. He was quite incapable of speech, enthralled by his companion's simply chosen words which seemed to bring up the whole scene before his eyes.

"It was more than sixty miles to San Paulo, and the road was nothing but a mud tract. Nevertheless, I reached there the next day. I put up my car at the best hotel—it wasn't much of a place—I bought clean clothes and linen, bathed and shaved, and stepped back across the border line into civilization. There was no need for me to hurry in getting away. The nearest dwelling house to our shack was over twenty miles distant. There wasn't such a thing as a car to be bought or hired anywhere in those days, and if there had been, neither Porle nor Solomon Graunt had a dollar of money to hire one with or even to procure a mule. I reckoned I had two days clear. As it happened, it was lucky I had, for after all I ran the thing pretty close. I went and booked my passage on a fruit steamer sailing, they assured me, within twenty-four hours, and then I went to see the woman who had kept me human, whom I pitied more than any one else in the world, Laurita's mother, Victor Porle's wife."

A little exclamation escaped at last from Martin's lips. His host's face had grown sterner. Martin waited breathlessly.

"I am not going to attempt to glorify or conceal the truth about Laurita's mother. She drifted into San Paulo with an opera company from Buenos Aires, stayed there and danced every night at the place we called the Palais—half gambling hell, half dancing hall. She was pretty, a devoted Catholic, and more than anything in the world she tried to keep straight. What might have saved her proved her ruin. Victor Porle married her soon after her arrival, tired of her in a month or so, and forced her to go back to her dancing. She lived in rooms over the Palais and there her child—Laurita—was born. I honestly believe, Martin—in fact, I know—that she tried to keep straight. In such a den of iniquity, with such a husband to jeer at her efforts at respectability, she couldn't do it. She was the most pathetic figure I have ever met with in my life. She was beautiful—more beautiful than Laurita ever will be—and she was naturally and instinctively good, but there she was like a beautiful butterfly in a collector's glass bottle. The management of the Palais paid her fees upon which no one in the world could have lived, least of all in San Paulo, and when she appealed to her husband he answered her with fiendish cruelty. I remember a scene between them—her pleading for protection—his brutal answer! I shall not repeat his words, Martin. I am an old, tired man, but I feel my arm nerved for murder when I think of them. Those words were the beginning of our quarrel, I threw him out into the street,—and she suffered for it."

Again the silence. The man whose quiet words seemed to have filled the whole atmosphere with drama rose to his feet and threw open the windows leading on to the terrace. Always afterwards, when he thought of that evening, Martin remembered the faint perfume of those hyacinths in their last glory wafted in through the windows, mingling with the scent of the hothouse roses upon the table. Lord Ardrington came back to the table, but he did not at once resume his seat. He stood there, his hands upon the high back of his chair.

"I am coming to the end of my story, Martin," he said. "I went to Laurita's mother, and I told her the plain truth, I was as sick of my foul life as she was sick of hers. I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to do one good action—whatever it cost me. I asked her to come with me and bring the child. I offered to take them both back to England. For very shame, I knew that my relatives would provide me with a means of making a living. I promised her a new life and a chance for the child. There had never been a word of love-making between us. That came afterwards, and it came out of her deep gratitude, for I kept my promise. They left San Paulo with me, and before I took ship for England, I learned that the title was mine, and an income which seemed to me in those days enormous. Laurita's mother lived for seven years—mostly in the South of France, where I bought a villa. She was absolutely happy to the end, but the life at San Paulo had undermined her constitution. With her last breath she made me swear that I would guard Laurita. She knew Victor Porle—we both knew him."

"Have you heard nothing from either of these two men until now?" Martin asked, surprised to find his throat and tongue dry.

"We saw them on the quay at San Paulo as we left. In a way our departure was dramatic. They tramped down and reached the quay—a ghastly sight—just as we steamed off. Afterwards there came one letter from him, and only one. The memory of that letter and its threat was the only cloud upon poor Laurita's life."

"Do you suppose," Martin ventured, "that he has come here really to take her away?"

"For that and no other purpose. He has come to keep his oath—the most terrible one man ever made. I was never, alas, married to Laurita's mother. We wrote time after time, offering him anything in the world for a divorce. There was no reply—for many years. The last time there came a single sentence. 'It would interfere with my intentions.'"

"But what can he do?"

"I could almost wish," Lord Ardrington said, with a sudden flash of the eyes, "that we were back again in a country where the laws are laxer and where he and I could answer that question for our two selves. Unfortunately, we are in England. The fact that I was never married to her mother and brought them both away from San Paulo makes his claim in law unanswerable. He has come to take Laurita from me."

The horror in those last words scarcely found an echo in Martin's understanding. It was not until his host leaned across towards him and dropped his voice to a terrible whisper that he realised their significance.

"His oath was to take her back to San Paulo—his own child—and make her what her mother was."


CHAPTER XIX

THERE was no pretence at any light-heartedness or festivity either during or after the strange little ceremony which took place the following morning at Ardrington Church. Laurita listened to the words of the service with a rapt, dreamy expression in her large, sombre eyes. To Martin, matter of fact although he usually was, the whole thing seemed like a dream. The one thing which he did appreciate, and which filled him with a disturbing uneasiness, was Laurita's curious quiescence. She had not for a single moment the air of one who is playing a part. She seemed to enter into the service seriously and with unmistakable emotion. Her fingers clutched his arm as they passed down the aisle with a nervous strength which surprised him. His first words to her as they passed from the cool, rather depressing closeness of the little church into the sunlit strip of churchyard outside were of reassurance as much for himself as for her.

"Please remember," he begged, "that what has happened makes not the slightest difference. You needn't be afraid for a moment that I should ever take advantage of it."

She looked up at him shyly, almost questioningly,

"You must not think that I am frightened, Martin," she whispered. "Only it is all so sudden. It was only last night that I heard."

Martin welcomed the others who joined them at that moment, with a sensation of relief. Of the four who crossed the stretch of parkland which separated the Church from the hall, Lord Ardrington was the only one who made any attempt at conversation, and he did not venture upon any reference to the ceremony. On the terrace they all dispersed, Blanche and Laurita hastening upstairs—the latter with a little wave of the hand to Martin—and Lord Ardrington, who was buttonholed by his agent, disappearing in the direction of his study. Martin, after a moment's hesitation, took a cap and stick and started off for a walk across the park. He felt the need of fresh air and exercise, the environment of the everyday incidents and objects of life, to recall him to its realities. He kept on telling himself that the ceremony in which he had taken part meant nothing, that the solemn words which he had recited, and to which he had listened, had no significance. Yet, there it was—a legally accomplished fact. He was a married man. Laurita—Laurita was his wife!

On his way back, after an hour and a half of vigorous tramping, he met Blanche. She was walking, contrary to her custom, with her eyes fixed upon the ground, and her start, when they met in the middle of a small fir plantation, was the first sign of nervousness he had ever noticed in her.

"Well, have you come to think over your new responsibilities?" she demanded.

"I have none," he rejoined, a little shortly. "I suppose you know the whole story?"

"Everything," she admitted. "Uncle told us both together."

"Well, then, you must know that I haven't any responsibilities at all," he insisted. "The thing had to be done, and I am glad that I was here to do it. All the same, it's a stupid business."

"From some points of view, a damnable business,"

Blanche assented, turning around. "I've come quite far enough. I'll walk back with you."

"I hope you'll reassure Laurita," he begged, after a moment's silence. "I want her to realise that she need never have a second's uneasiness. I understand perfectly that the ceremony was entirely a matter of form. I shall always remember that."

Blanche looked at him curiously.

"I don't think that Laurita is feeling in the least alarmed," she confided. "I suppose at her age she is romantic, and it does seem a little queer to go through the service and hold hands with a man—promise all sorts of things—and yet realise that it means nothing all the time."

"She's got to remember that," Martin insisted. "You can help there, and I hope you will."

Again her eyes sought his questioningly. Walking side by side she was almost as tall—the grace of her movements more than ever perceptible against his long strides.

"I rather thought that it was you who would need all that drummed into you," she remarked. "I fancied that you had rather a penchant for our little Laurita."

"I admire her, of course," he admitted. "Anyone would. Marriage is entirely a different thing."

"Oh, I don't know. The modern idea is that courtship ought to begin after marriage. You'd better begin this afternoon. Laurita is in a very emotional state. You might make an impression."

"I think you're rather brutal," he declared indignantly. "You know the whole thing's a sham."

"I think that the whole thing is a ridiculous farce," she answered. "I hope I'm about when the villain of the piece claims his daughter, and you do the Drury Lane hero stunt."

"You don't believe very much in the villain?" Martin asked curiously.

"Not to the extent that uncle seems to," she acknowledged. "To me it seems like a piece of ordinary blackmail. After all these years, he can't really want Laurita, even if he is in a position to support her. He'd set about the whole business quite differently if he did, I should think."

"Well, I don't happen to agree with you," Martin pronounced, "I might have felt just like you, only that I have seen the man. I have spoken to him—to him and his friend. I'm not an imaginative person, as you know, Lady Blanche, but they gave me the creeps, the horrors—whatever you like to call them. They're barely human. They are terrible!"

Martin had been very much in earnest, and Blanche, in spite of herself, was impressed.

"But after all these years," she argued, "surely you can't imagine that the man has been storing up either his affection or his desire for vengeance. Of course he doesn't want Laurita. He wants money, and I can't think that you two young people were right in hanging a millstone around your necks."

They had reached the terrace and she left him a little abruptly. Martin, strolling aimlessly and somewhat dejectedly to its farther end, was hailed by Lord Ardrington from the morning room.

"We timed our morning's adventure well," he remarked, as he threw a letter upon the table where Martin could read it. "This is from a firm of solicitors in Lincoln's Inn—good people they are too!—requiring me to hand over the custody of Laurita to her father upon application. I should have been compelled to give her up. Legally, I shouldn't have had a leg to stand upon."

Martin glanced through the letter and laid it down again.

"Now that the danger is over for the moment, Martin," Lord Ardrington continued, with a new note of gravity in his tone, "I don't mind telling you that I had firmly made up my mind to keep my promise to the dead at all costs. Sooner than have parted with Laurita to that man I would have shot him. So you have saved us from a tragedy, you see. You know quite well that I do not talk of such matters lightly."

He opened a drawer of his table and fingered a revolver for a moment. All six chambers were loaded. Then he thrust it back.

"This was the last alternative, but I can assure you that if the necessity had arisen, I should not have hesitated. You have probably saved me from the gallows, Martin. It is a poor bargain for you, but if Laurita should need a husband's protection, promise that you will give it to her."

"I promise," Martin acquiesced. "She has the shelter of my name. She shall have all the protection I can give her."

Lord Ardrington sighed contentedly. He tore the lawyer's letter into small shreds.

"At last," he declared, "I can look outside my walls without shivering. My late partners can pay me their threatened visit as soon as they like."

"You mean that?"

"I do. I'd like them to know the truth. I'd like to know for what other purpose they have followed me here. They cheated me, and I cheated them. They robbed me, and I robbed them, Victor Porle can't want to shoot me, or he wouldn't have waited all these years. I'm tired of lying awake at night listening for them, fancying every time I hear a strange voice that they have come at last, I'd like to get it over, Martin. If I have to fight for my life, well, I've done it before. I'd like them here to-day, as soon as possible."

"You're sure that you mean it," Martin persisted.

Lord Ardrington shrugged his shoulders.

"Look at me," he answered. "I am cool enough, aren't I? Laurita is safe. Nothing else matters."

"Then let me go and fetch them," Martin proposed. "Unless they've changed their minds very much since I talked to them last, I'll have them here within half an hour."

Victor Porle and his friend Solomon Graunt were seated at a card table drawn through the low windows of the bar parlour on to the little strip of lawn outside, when Martin presented himself some half an hour later. They were engaged in a game of picquet, smoking long, black cigars and drinking brandy and water.

"Our friend Mr. Barnes!" the former murmured, glancing up for a moment but without pausing in the play of his cards.

Beyond a slight nod, his opponent made no comment. They continued the playing of the hand. Martin stood by in silence until the scoring was concluded and written down. Then, with the cards in his hand, as though about to shuffle, Victor Porle addressed him again.

"So you have become an inmate of the House Mysterious," he remarked.

"I am staying at Ardrington Hall for a few days," Martin acquiesced. "I have brought you both a message from Lord Ardrington."

"I divined it. As you crossed the road, Mr. Barnes, swinging that little key in your hand, I said to my friend Solomon, 'Here comes a message at last.' An invitation, perhaps. Am I right?"

"You are," Martin admitted. "Lord Ardrington would like to see you. He proposes that you should return with me now."

"Lord Ardrington would like to see us," Porle repeated. "Dear me! Quite surprising!"

"He has made up his mind very suddenly, it seems," Solomon Graunt observed.

"I know nothing of that," Martin replied. "I am simply his ambassador. He has sent me down to take you back with me, or to make an appointment for any time you prefer during the day,"

"This is a matter," Victor Porle announced, "which requires consideration,"

"Why should it?" Martin demanded. "Only a day or two ago you offered me a hundred pounds for my pass. You can't pretend that you are staying down here for any other reason than to pay a visit to Ardrington Hall. Well, here's your chance."

Solomon Graunt lifted a tumblerful of brandy and water to his lips and disposed of the greater portion of its contents.

"Your cards, Victor," he said, commencing to deal.

"Why not postpone your game until you get back?" Martin suggested a little impatiently.

"Until we get back from where?" Victor Porle enquired, picking up his cards one by one.

"From your interview with Lord Ardrington."

Solomon Graunt finished dealing. Before collecting the cards, however, he turned to Martin. His mouth had taken its peculiar twist, his eyes had narrowed unpleasantly.

"My young friend," he said, "you mean well, but you're a nuisance. Ambassadors between ourselves and our old friend Lord Ardrington are unnecessary. Why, bless you, we three have done all sorts of things together in the old days. We've robbed a mail coach, salted a mine, and relieved the idle rich of their poker money in a way known only to experts,"

"Come along and renew your acquaintance then," Martin enjoined patiently. "I have a key in my hand, and I can take you straight to Lord Ardrington. I wouldn't let the chance go by if I were you."

Victor Porle sorted his cards and leaned back in his chair.

"Our friend Fozzy, as we used to call him—I beg his pardon—was pleased to make sport of us on one occasion when we were seeking an interview with him—an occasion which you, sir, know all about," he remarked. "A humorous matter, no doubt—but, shall I call it a little one-sidedly humorous? Rightly or wrongly, we were annoyed. We have, in fact, taken offence. Our position now is that we shall wait upon Lord Ardrington when it suits us. I am right, Solomon?"

"You are right," was the prompt assent.

"Isn't that rather foolish?" Martin protested. "You're only wasting time staying down at this wretched little place. Your opportunity has come now. You can see Lord Ardrington, pay your bill and leave to-morrow, if you want to."

"Oh, no," Solomon Graunt objected. "We could not do that."

"Quite impossible," Victor Porle murmured.

"Well, you know your own business best, of course," Martin declared, "but you may not get another chance. This morning, Lord Ardrington happens to be in a very reasonable frame of mind. He has the strongest aversion to seeing either of you, but he realises that this waiting behind locked doors is rather absurd."

"His lordship realises that, eh?" Solomon Graunt chuckled. "To tell you the truth, Mr. Barnes, it had occurred to us some time ago—in fact we have found it most laughable."

"You may have found it laughable, but you haven't been able to get to the other side of those gates."

Victor Porle crossed his long legs, produced a morocco case and lit a thin, evil-looking cigar. Martin stared at it, fascinated. In some quaint way it seemed to remind him of the man.

"I shall explain to you why we have made no effort to do so, Mr. Barnes," he said. "We are men of perceptions, Mr. Graunt and I, and we know Lord Ardrington. You may perhaps be aware that we spent several—oh, quite a great many years—in a country a long way from here, with him. Sandy Fosbroke, they used to call him then."

"Well, what of it?"

"Just this. We were living under circumstances which enabled us to judge one another fairly well. I came to certain conclusions about our friend—conclusions with which Solomon Graunt here, who is a very shrewd person, thoroughly agrees. We see him, now that the inevitable has come, now that Solomon Graunt and I, Victor Porle, sworn enemies of his, as I am afraid I must confess ourselves, are here at his gates, waiting. He knows in his heart that however long our meeting may be postponed, it will surely come. So I have a little mind picture of him in these last few days—correct me if I am wrong. I imagine him shivering and trembling his way through the hours; I imagine him walking restlessly up and down his terrace or through his flower garden, finding little comfort in their beauty, peering behind every shrub, starting at the falling of a twig. I imagine his quick nervous little glances over his shoulders, his resentful glare through that thick and impenetrable wall towards this very comfortable inn which shelters us. I imagine him wakeful at night, listening for a sound in the house. In a big house, Mr. Barnes, in the dead of night, sounds are easily imagined."

He paused for a moment, gazing intently at the end of his cigar, smiling faintly as though at some evil memory. Watching him closely, it seemed hard for Martin to realise that this was indeed a human being. He was wearing a black coat and black and white check trousers, in which his limbs looked like the limbs of a skeleton. There were hollows in his cheeks; his dark eyes seemed almost bead-like, his jet-black hair, slightly disturbed by the breeze, like the plumage of some bird of prey. His very presence in this homely little garden with its sweet-smelling, nodding flowers, its air of peace, seemed like a defilement.

"I perhaps give way too much to my imagination," he continued presently. "Why not? It is at least a luxury. Perhaps my vision is exaggerated—perhaps not; but with this idea in our heads, Mr. Barnes, we think—my friend and I—that it will be as well to let Lord Ardrington await our visit just a little longer. It is almost as amusing to us to contemplate his present condition as it must have been to him to think of our vigil on the edge of Thetford Heath. We will call at Ardrington Hall when the fancy takes us."

"But that's just what you can't do," Martin expostulated. "With me, to-day, the way is open for you. If you refuse to come, Lord Ardrington will probably change his mind. Without assistance, you will never gain access to the house, or an interview with him."

Solomon Graunt, who had been an attentive listener, removed his cigar from his lips, apparently for the purpose of smiling. His teeth were not quite all that they should have been and his lips when parted seemed more than ever distorted in shape. Victor Porle leaned back in his chair and laughed long and silently. Martin, as he watched them both, shivered with passionate dislike. There was something inhuman about their sheer ugliness, something sinister about their confidence.

"You talk very simply, my young friend," Victor Porle said at last, "but that is because you do not know the manner of men with whom you talk. You can go back to your patron, Lord Ardrington, and tell him that we are very happy and contented here, but that when the whim seizes us, when my friend Mr. Solomon Graunt and I desire to pay him that little visit, whether it be in broad daylight or in what you would call the watches of the night, we shall come. Locks will not stay us, nor a horde of servants, nor that powerful arm of yours, young man, if you are fool enough to interfere. We shall come when we choose, but when that will be it does not please us to say."

Slowly and deliberately he recommenced to deal the cards. The heads of the two men were bent forward. Victor Porle motioned impatiently to Martin.

"We play for high stakes," he said. "Your presence annoys."

Martin turned slowly away. The last sounds which he heard were the soft patter of the cards upon the bare table and the calling of Solomon Graunt through the open window for more drinks.


CHAPTER XX

"BUT why wouldn't they come?" Lord Ardrington demanded passionately, as Martin regretfully confessed the failure of his mission. "What do they hope to gain by waiting around here? I am willing to see them. I will hear all they have to say. The sooner they come, the sooner they'll be driven to realise that Laurita is now out of their reach."

Martin shook his head dubiously. He recounted, so far as he could remember it, the whole of the conversation between the two men and himself. Lord Ardrington listened without change of countenance.

"That's like them," he admitted. "They were growing like that day by day when we parted. It's like them, and yet I don't understand."

"Neither do I," Martin agreed. "A few days ago they offered to buy my pass from me. Now they boast that they can walk in when they please."

"Very possibly they could," Lord Ardrington remarked nervously. "Solomon Graunt started life as a burglar, I believe. I have heard him say that he could pick any lock in the universe."

"And Victor Porle?"

"Victor Porle was a house master at one of our best public schools. He was sent away in disgrace and went out to Buenos Aires. Tell me, you saw no strangers in the village? You don't think they're waiting for assistance."

"I didn't notice anything unusual," Martin replied. "Just as I was turning in here, a Ford car with two men and a boy in it stopped at the inn, but they looked quite ordinary people. I waited a moment and when I looked round again our two friends were still going on with their game."

Lord Ardrington suddenly smiled. A gleam of humour shone in his eyes.

"After all," he said, "they have lived so long abroad they may have imbibed foreign notions. Perhaps it is my duty as lord of the manor to call upon these two distinguished strangers, I have a good mind to do it."

The luncheon gong rang out and they turned towards the terrace, Blanche met them alone.

"Laurita has a headache," she announced. "She is lying on her bed eating chocolates and staring at the ceiling. I can't get a word out of her except that she doesn't want to come down and doesn't want any lunch. She has a prayer book by her side and I honestly believe she's been reading the marriage service over again."

Lord Ardrington frowned in some perplexity.

"In that case," he said, as Mallowes presented himself, "we won't wait for lunch,"

Later in the afternoon, Martin and Blanche sat under one of the fine cedar trees on the confines of the lawn, indulging in cool drinks after a strenuous set of tennis.

"At last I am beginning to feel alive again," the latter confessed. "Three days without any exercise at all sends me crazy. You don't play badly, Martin, you know. Your style is rotten, but you have a most amazing drive. All that you need is practice."

"Well, we'll play as often as you like," he proposed eagerly. "To tell you the truth, this life is getting on my nerves. When Lord Ardrington asked me, I thought it would be simply wonderful to stay here—"

"Well, isn't it?" Blanche interrupted. "You meet two charming young women, and within a few days you've married one of them and I'm sure you've had a pleasant afternoon's tennis with the other one."

"I've enjoyed the tennis," Martin acquiesced, "and I'm certainly not complaining of having been dull. I wonder how Laurita is."

"I'll go and see presently," Blanche promised. "Look here, Martin," she added, turning a little towards him, "you've got to play the game, you know,"

He met the searching gaze of her frank blue eyes without flinching.

"Of course I shall play the game," he answered, "but what exactly do you mean?"

"Laurita isn't English, you must remember. She has what they call the Latin temperament. Where an English girl would use her common sense, Laurita is inclined to give way to her imagination."

Martin moved uncomfortably in his place.

"Do you mean that you think she's inclined to take this thing seriously?" he asked, after a moment's hesitation.

"I shouldn't be surprised."

"But hang it all," Martin protested, "her stepfather explained the whole thing to her. She knows perfectly well that it's only a matter of form. She can't imagine that I should ever dream of taking advantage of it."

Blanche patted the back of his hand for a moment. He felt a sudden little stab of pleasure.

"My dear man, can't you understand that she may want you to. That may be your difficulty. To a girl like Laurita there is something tremendously romantic in standing up with a young man whom she doesn't actually dislike and having that service pronounced over her. There you are, under the same roof, man and wife. An English girl might be able to keep her mind upon the fact that the whole thing was meant to be a farce. I'm not so sure that Laurita could."

"Good God!" Martin exclaimed. "I'll have to go away."

"Of course," Blanche went on, "lots of girls in the country she came from are married with very little more preparation than that—married even before they are her age, too. If you are willing to accept the position seriously, if you think you could care enough for Laurita to make her a good husband, why then the thing is easy, but if you don't, then I think you'll have to be very careful during the next few days. I've tried to talk sense to Laurita but she only smiles at me."

"Couldn't we get Lord Ardrington to talk to her?" Martin suggested.

"We might, but I am not sure that it would do much good. He seems to have taken an immense fancy to you, and I think he would rather like to have you for an imitation son-in-law. Wouldn't you like it yourself, Martin? Be honest."

"No," he replied.

"Why not?"

"Because I haven't thought about it enough; because I don't want to get married at all just yet; and because I am not at all sure that there is not some one else of whom I am much fonder."

"That complicates the situation," Blanche admitted. "Who is this other person? Does she care for you?"

"Not a scrap," Martin answered. "She never will. All the same, she would always be there. She would probably stop my feeling the right sort of things for Laurita."

"You're an ingenuous youth," Blanche sighed. "You've had your warning, though, and I think you'll remember. Still I should like to know about the other girl."

"I don't think you ever will," was the rather wistful reply.

She rose to her feet.

"Well," she announced, "I must go and look after Laurita. If I find her still poring over the prayer book, I shall throw it out of the window. You'll be able to amuse yourself for an hour or two, won't you? I don't think we'll have any more tennis. Go and shoot some rabbits in the park. That used to be Gerald's favourite amusement between tea time and dinner time. You'll find lots of ammunition in the gun room. Ask Mallowes about it."

Martin made his way into the house, provided himself with a gun and a pocketful of cartridges, and, crossing the avenue, strolled up the plantation which bordered the road. He had one long shot at a rabbit almost immediately, and missed it. About fifty yards farther on, he was conscious of something moving behind a shrub near the wall. He raised his gun tentatively. There was a little squeal from behind the shrub.

"I say, Guv'nor, don't you go shootin' me."

He lowered his gun and hastened forward. On the other side of the shrub, on his hands and knees, a small boy, white with fear, was staring at him.

"What the devil are you doing here?" Martin demanded.

"Came after cheggies," was the terse rejoinder.

"Chestnuts? Why, there aren't any ripe yet!"

"Thought they might be," the boy persisted. "I found some as were."

"But how did you get in here?"

"Climbed the wall."

"That's a lie," Martin answered quickly. "Neither you nor any one else could do it. There's twelve foot of wall there and half a foot of spike at the top. That won't do for me, my lad. You'd better come up to the house."

"Sha'n't," the boy muttered, moving a little farther away.

"You certainly will unless you tell me the truth," Martin threatened. "It's no good, your thinking of getting away. I can run twice as fast as you, and I can shoot if I want to."

The boy's sharp little Jewish face was knitted in thought. Martin, in his tennis flannels and tennis shoes, certainly was not a person to take liberties with.

"I got helped over," he admitted at last grudgingly.

"Who by?"

"My father and another man. They hoisted me up and I got hold of the bough of that tree—nearly came off in me 'ands, it did."

Martin saw the freshly broken bough and nodded.

"So your father and a friend helped you over. Well, they didn't want any chestnuts. What did they help you over for?"

"Nothing but the cheggies."

"That's a lie," Martin said, "and I'm never very kind to little boys who tell lies. What are you doing here? Let's have the truth?"

The boy began to whimper and suddenly made a dart for an opening in the shrubs. Martin caught him without difficulty.

"Very well," he announced, "I shall take you up to Lord Ardrington, the gentleman who lives here. He's a magistrate and he'll send you to prison."

The boy gave a yell of terror, and almost immediately there was a crashing amongst the trees and a man's face appeared over the wall. Martin recognised him at once as one of the two men who had driven up to the inn in the Ford car.

"What are you doing with that boy?" he demanded gruffly.

"Taking him up to the house, unless he tells me why he's trespassing here," was the curt response.

"He's my son," the man asserted, "and he dropped over the wall to look for a few chestnuts. Wot's the 'arm?"

"The place is private," Martin pointed out. "There are plenty of notices to tell you so."

"I've seen 'em," the man admitted, "'Trespassers will be Prosecuted' every twenty yards or so. Enough to make b——y socialists of the lot of us. The boy weren't doing no 'arm. You let 'im go."

"How did you get where you are?" Martin asked curiously.

"I am standing on the back of my car," the man replied. "You just hand over that kid. If there's a fine to be paid, I'll give you my name and address."

"If I find him in here again, he won't get off so easily," Martin threatened, releasing him.

The boy climbed the overhanging tree like a monkey, leaned down and disappeared in his father's arms. Martin, after a moment's reflection, set down his gun and also swung himself up into the tree. To his surprise the Ford car stood on the other side of the road, as yet uncranked. The boy had already scrambled into his seat, his father was stowing something away behind, the third man was turning the handle of the car.

"Hullo!" Martin called out.

The boy's father looked around. There was a subtle change in his manner. He scowled across the road,

"Well, what is it now, Guv'nor?" he asked.

"Do you mind," Martin demanded, struggling for a more secure footing, "telling me what you were standing on just now when you helped the boy down?"

The engine of the car had begun to beat. The man took his scat at the wheel and raised his hat in valedictory salute.

"I was treading on the air, sir," he called out. "'Abit of mine, sometimes."

He raised his hat once more. The boy by his side indulged in the derisive gesture of ill-bred youth. The car drove off.


CHAPTER XXI

MARTIN was by himself in the hall that evening when Laurita came down the stairs. He stood transfixed at the sight of her, at the curious mixture of the ghostly and the human. She was wearing unrelieved white, a dress of white lace, a white silk shawl draped about her in some strange way with a single red rose stealing out from some secret place of fastening at her bosom. She stopped on the bottom stair when she saw him there alone. Then she came forward, her eyes swimming with some sort of emotion, a faint blush upon her cheeks, her hands outstretched. It was the most beautiful living picture he had ever seen in his life, and he welcomed her with a curious sense of confusion.

"You will forgive me that I have not been down before," she asked, looking up at him for a moment and then dropping her eyes with a deeper blush. "It was all so strange. I could not understand. I stayed away to gain courage."

She had come fluttering almost into his arms. From the bottom of his heart, Martin welcomed the arrival of Mallowes with cocktails. Laurita, however, made a little grimace.

"We will sit together in this corner," she proposed. "I started to dress an hour ago. I prayed that you, too, might be early. Tell me what you have done all day."

Martin fortified himself with a cocktail. Laurita leaned over and took a sip from his glass.

"Well," he recounted, "first of all I went down to the village and called upon these two men who have come to visit Lord Ardrington,"

"I know," she murmured, "One of them is my wicked father."

"He is not very attractive," Martin ventured.

"It is enough for me," Laurita confided, "that my mother found him wicked, that he made her unhappy, that she warned me against him on her deathbed. For him I have nothing but fear. I do not desire to hear about him. And afterwards?"

"We lunched——"

"Missing me, I hope?"

"Missing you very much," he assured her. "Afterwards Lady Blanche and I played five sets of tennis. Then she came in and I went out to try to shoot rabbits in the park."

"Did you kill any?" she asked anxiously.

"Not one."

"I am glad," she declared contentedly. "I do not wish that anything should be killed to-day. That is because I think, after all—though I am tired with thinking about it—that this for me is a day of happiness."

Her exquisite little hand stole into his, soft and perfumed and white except for her rosy finger nails. She held it up and showed him the ring which he had placed there earlier in the day, a quaint and very beautiful one which Lord Ardrington had unexpectedly produced.

"I shall keep this always," she said softly. "Afterwards I should like a little platinum one, but only as a guard."

Martin felt suddenly stifled. She seemed quite happy, however, and leaned back, her head almost upon his shoulder.

"I am very glad that this evening has come," she whispered. "I hope, Martin, that you too are pleased?"

"Of course I am. But, Laurita—"

She held up a warning finger, and with a great relief he saw Blanche, followed by her uncle, entering the hall. Martin rose to greet them. He felt that Blanche was regarding him gravely.

"Any luck with the rabbits?" Lord Ardrington enquired.

Martin shook his head.

"I'm afraid I haven't the knack of moving quietly enough," he replied. "One would have needed a rifle for those I saw,"

Lord Ardrington took a cocktail from the table. He came over to the great recess where the others were grouped.

"Why, Laurita, my child!" he exclaimed, looking at her with startled admiration, "You look like—"

He stopped short. The significance of what he had been about to say seemed reinforced by Martin's dismayed expression.

"Please finish, Father," she begged. "What do I look like?"

He passed his arm lightly around her.

"You look like the sweetest of the moderns who ever sat in this dingy old hall," he said.

"But that is not what you were going to say," she remonstrated.

"Indeed, no," he assented. "There is no reason why I should not say it. I was going to tell you that you looked like the bride of a fifteenth-century Spanish romance."

"Is that not what I am?" she asked, laughing. "After all, what does time or place matter?"

Martin deliberately walked away to the table, picked up the shaker and helped himself to another cocktail. Laurita's eyes followed him querulously. Blanche, her empty glass in her hand, also approached the table.

"What have you been saying to the child?" she asked, as he filled it.

"Not one word, God knows!" he answered, with smothered passion. "What I want to know is what you others have been saying to her? The whole situation was to have been made perfectly clear."

"I tried," she whispered. "Laurita isn't like ordinary people sometimes. Talk to me after dinner. In the meantime you must humour her a little. Don't hurt her."

"I wouldn't for the world," Martin replied. "But there's something terribly wrong somewhere. She doesn't seem to realise—"

Once more Mallowes came to the rescue, announcing dinner. Here for a while there was respite. They sat at a small round table and conversation was necessarily general. When the champagne was served, Laurita raised her glass and looked across at Martin. There was a glow in her eyes as she sipped her wine. When the meal was over and Martin stood by the open door whilst they passed out, she raised her hand and pressed it to his lips.

"We dance soon—yes?" she murmured. "If you will," he answered.

He returned to the table and waited for the departure of the servants. The door was scarcely closed after Mallowes' subordinate before he leaned eagerly across to his host.

"I say, sir—forgive me—but are you certain that she understands?"

Lord Ardrington filled both glasses with port, pouring out the wine with great deliberation.

"Why are you so concerned about this?" he asked.

"I haven't understood Miss Laurita at all, sir," was the anxious reply. "As you know, she went straight to her room after the ceremony and stayed there all the afternoon, and I was terribly afraid that she had misunderstood—that she didn't altogether trust me. Then, to-night, when she came down, from something she said, I was almost afraid—it almost seemed as though it were I who didn't understand."

Lord Ardrington caressed his wineglass lovingly.

"Martin," he said, "I will be quite frank with you. I set out to explain this matter to Laurita as I would have done to Blanche or any other young girl amongst my relations. I tried to make everything quite clear. I told her of your pledged word. I tried to point out—vaguely of course, but still with sufficient clearness—what this nominal ceremony might save her from. I thought she took it all in, and yet at times I wasn't quite sure. Laurita is very young and she comes from a very emotional and passionate race. I watched her during the ceremony and I believe honestly that the memory of all that I had told her was swept almost into oblivion by that touch of drama, the curious excitement, which must visit a child of her temperament standing side by side with a man and subscribing to that service."

"What are we going to do?" Martin demanded. "I can't meet her eyes, sir. There are things in them I don't know how to reply to."

Lord Ardrington looked across at him keenly.

"Tell me," he asked, "is the idea of a serious marriage with my stepdaughter such a nightmare to you?"

"I haven't considered it," Martin rejoined. "It never entered into my head to consider it seriously until Lady Blanche warned me and Laurita came downstairs tonight. It was merely the shelter of my name which was required. You had a right to ask this of me and I was glad to give it, but now I don't know where I am. I don't know how to answer Laurita. Damn it all, sir," he broke out suddenly, "when she came downstairs tonight she acted as though she expected me to take her into my arms, as though we had really been married this morning, as though I were really her husband,"

Lord Ardrington smiled benignly.

"Well," he said, "Laurita is a very lovely child. Would it have been so terrible?"

"But, my God, sir," Martin expostulated, "what about my promise? What about the conditions?"

Lord Ardrington sipped his wine.

"There are times," he remarked a little cynically, "when the bourgeois conscience is a terrible obstacle to civilised life. However, Martin, no doubt your attitude is correct, according to your lights. Let me approach the subject from another point of view. Laurita is—well, as you see her,—beautiful, attractive in every way. What she lacks in athletic proficiency she makes up in her music, her dancing, her very beautiful voice. She is my adopted stepdaughter, and has been received as such by those of my relations who matter. She has as much money as you have. She will have more. Is the idea of serious marriage with her repellent to you?"

Martin was silent. Lord Ardrington waited patiently for several minutes. He cracked himself a walnut and refilled the two glasses. Then at last his guest found words.

"No one could help admiring Laurita," he said. "I'm not good enough for her. I knew that quite well. All the same, I went through this without a single idea that it might ever become a reality. I purposely did not listen to a word of the service. I was only sorry for Laurita when I saw how affected she was by it. I have tried to carry out my bargain in the spirit as well as in the letter. I have kept even my thoughts away from the nature of the bond which holds us. If you are seriously asking me whether I wish that bond to be real, I honestly can't answer you. I tried so hard to convince myself that it was unreal that I can't turn round all in a moment."

"You're an extraordinarily conscientious young man," Lord Ardrington observed, with faint irony.

"I don't think I am," Martin replied. "I'm trying to be decent, according to my lights. I'm no different to other young men of my age, and if you ask me whether I would like to have taken Laurita into my arms when she came downstairs before dinner, I will tell you that it would have given me an amazing amount of pleasure, but if I had done it, I should deserve to have been kicked out of the house. I should have been taking advantage of a child's temperament suddenly worked upon by those few minutes in church."

Lord Ardrington relapsed once more into silence. In a sense he seemed disappointed.

"Very well, Martin;" he said, "we must all help one another so far as Laurita is concerned, but don't hurt her—for God's sake, don't hurt her. Her mother suffered so terribly that notwithstanding her later years of happiness, I believe that she died of a broken heart. Laurita must be happy."

"Then I think, sir," Martin ventured, "that she should have a year or two to look around to choose a husband for herself."

Lord Ardrington shook his head.

"Her instincts aren't that way, Martin," he objected. "However, let that pass. I want you to answer me faithfully. Is there any reason why, if you accustomed yourself to the idea, and if you realise that the child wants it, your marriage shouldn't be made a real one?"

The walls of the room seemed suddenly to fall away. Martin sat once more in the Park and listened to Garnham's semi-ironic introduction. He stood in Blanche's miniature hall and saw her upon the threshold of her strange little room. He sat at his table at the Ritz and watched her come down the room, his heart pounding like a sledge hammer. It was a moment of absolute self-revelation. He knew himself and all about himself, knew whence had come that sense of horror barely an hour ago.

"There is no real reason, Lord Ardrington," he acknowledged, steadying his voice with a great effort. "I am not a romantic person. I realise very well what is possible and what is not. That is why I answer you that there is no real reason why I should not some day make Laurita a decent husband if she wants me."

Lord Ardrington inclined his head.

"I am glad of that," he said. "It is a moment of confidences, however, and I have an intuition. You and I are not only alone in this room, but we are rather lonely people in the world. There is someone else—someone impossible—in your mind."

"That is true. I only realised it a few minutes ago."

"Some one impossible?"

"Some one quite impossible."

Lord Ardrington filled the glasses once more.

"We are drinking an extra glass of wine to-night, Martin," he said. "We shall neither of us be the worse for it. You know who Lady Blanche is?"

"Quite well."

"She is the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Andover. Henry, her father, is one of the most pigheaded and obstinate men I ever knew—a man without the slightest sense of humour and an overweening idea of his own importance. Her whole family stand for everything that is unbending and narrow-minded in their order. They are, nevertheless, great persons at Court and much favoured by Royalty. You understand?"

"I understand."

"Laurita's father," Lord Ardrington continued—"the greatest villain I have ever known—was born a gentleman. He was married to Laurita's mother, and Laurita's mother herself was a sweet and good woman, vilely used, terribly unhappy. Need I say more than that I should have been proud for her to have been my wife had she been free?"

"I understand quite well," Martin repeated.

Lord Ardrington rose to his feet. He passed his arm almost affectionately through his guest's.

"These young people will think that I'm trying to make an old fogey of you, Martin," he said. "We had better be prepared for a lecture."


CHAPTER XXII

Lady Blanche was waiting in the hall beside the coffee equipage, whilst Mallowes, at the sound of the opening of the dining-room door, appeared from somewhere in the background and hastened to the table upon which the liqueurs were displayed. Through the partly opened door of the drawing-room came unfamiliar yet seductive strains of music. Laurita was playing a polonaise of Chopin. Lord Ardrington was immediately attentive and they all listened until the music drew to an end. Then Laurita appeared for a moment upon the threshold. Again Martin gave a little start as he saw her. Her eyes were soft yet glowing, her mouth tenderly sweet. She came towards them as though her feet were on the air.

"I did not know that you were here," she said, almost shyly. "May I have milk in my coffee, Blanche, and some of that green stuff, please? How long you two have been!"

Her stepfather seated himself by her side, drawing her hand through his arm.

"We had a great many things to discuss, Martin and I," he explained. "I may have to send him away to see the lawyers."

There was an instant cloud upon her face.

"He cannot go," she declared. "We need him here. I am frightened without him."

"We will manage to protect you, if it is necessary," Lord Ardrington assured her. "On the other hand, we may have been alarming ourselves without cause. Open some more windows, Mallowes," he ordered, as the man came to remove the coffee cups.

"There is a storm brewing, my lord," the butler warned him respectfully.

"We can close them quickly if there is rain," Blanche remarked, rising to her feet. "It is almost stifling in here."

"I think that we will go on to the terrace and get some air," Laurita suggested. "Come, my big guardian," she added, passing her arm through Martin's. "If you are there to protect me, I shall not be afraid of the thunder."

They passed out through the windows which Mallowes had just opened and leaned over the edge of the terrace. Immediately above them the sky was clear, but the light in the park was ghostly and uncertain. In the far distance were banks of black cloud, riven already, as they watched, with vivid streaks of lightning. The tree-tops were bent with a sudden breeze. They could hear the wind soughing its way through the long strip of wood.

"We shall have the storm, all right," Lord Ardrington remarked.

Laurita was watching the lightning with a fascinated but disturbed gaze.

"I am afraid," she whispered. "Let us walk, Martin—walk to the end of the terrace just once."

He acquiesced without hesitation. She linked her hands together through his arm and leaned upon him.

"If this is make-belief," she whispered, "I rather like it. It is wonderful to feel that one belongs to some one big and strong. I am supposed to belong to you, am I not, Martin?"

"You certainly are," he answered, trying to keep his tone kindly but as matter of fact as possible. "This is the way we will have to behave if ever you are claimed. You're better at it than I am."

"Then you must practise," she laughed up at him, the storm apparently forgotten, her spirits rising as they moved further away. "Shall I give you lessons, Mr. Husband-that-is-supposed-to-be?"

"You'll have to give me a whole course if I'm to be any good," he replied,

"To begin with then," she directed, "you must put that great arm of yours around my waist."

"How the mischief can I?" he demanded. "Your stepfather is watching us even now. Don't forget that I'm on trust."

"Stupid!" she murmured. "Very well, then, we turn the corner of the terrace here. Then no one wilt see. It is almost dark there, Martin. You will find your courage."

"It isn't fair to tease me like this," he grumbled, coming to a standstill. "I shall take you back indoors." Her lip trembled.

"What do you mean—not fair? I wish it. I wish that you go there with me. I wish that I give you a lesson."

It was a crisis even before he had expected it. Lady Blanche, however, bore down to the rescue.

"Laurita," she cried, "indoors at once! Can't you feel these rain drops?"

"By Jove, we shall be drenched!" Martin exclaimed. "I'll race you to the window."

Laurita was off like a flash, fleet-footed, her skirts flying around her in the clutch of the sudden wind. She was through the window and dancing around the hall before Martin reached it. She clapped her hands gaily.

"Slow man!" she mocked. "Oh, Martin, Martin, we must make you move quicker than that. We must take you into one of the countries where the sun and fire burn, where your heart beats faster and you follow where the wind rushes as it did just then."

"But you didn't run—you flew," Martin protested, breathless.

"And for once, you followed," she laughed. "Come!"

She moved towards the gramophone. Blanche, who was strolling about, smoking a cigarette, shook her head.

"No go, my dear," she declared. "I've been trying it myself. We must have broken the spring last night."

Laurita's face became the picture of dismay.

"But you mean that it will not go, that we have no music for dancing?" she exclaimed.

"Not to-night, at any rate. We might get a man out from Norwich to-morrow to see to it."

Laurita's distress was almost pathetic. She sank into a chair and held out her hands to Martin.

"But I want to dance," she cried. "I want to dance with you, Martin."

"I was rather hoping to myself," Blanche put in. "It's no good, though. The thing won't even wheeze."

"Under these regrettable conditions," Lord Ardrington proposed, "what about a game of billiards, Martin?"

"I should like it immensely, sir," was the prompt assent.

Laurita sprang from her chair. Her lips were quivering. There was a flood of tears in her eyes.

"But I want—I want to talk to Martin. I cannot walk with him because of the rain, I cannot dance with him because the gramophone is broken, and now you take him away to play billiards!"

Her stepfather was already on his way across the hall. Martin lingered behind,

"I'm sorry—" he began.

"You're not," she interrupted. "I don't think you want to stay with me. Say you do, please," she begged, in a suddenly altered tone.

"Of course I'd like to," Martin assured her, "but after all, Lord Ardrington is my host, If he wants to play billiards, I must."

"Of course he must," Blanche intervened, turning away from the window. "Don't be a baby, Laurita. Play another of those divine polonaises. They can hear if they leave the billiard-room door open, and afterwards we'll go in and mark for them."

Laurita rose obediently but sadly to her feet.

"Everything is very stupid," she complained.

Martin mopped his forehead as he selected a cue.

"Temporizing's a little hard, I am afraid," Lord Ardrington remarked sympathetically. "Laurita is such a child in one way; such a woman in another. You mustn't hurt her, Martin,"

"God knows I don't want to, but it's difficult," Martin groaned.

They played billiards for an hour with scarcely the interchange of a word. All the time through the open door came the call of the music—sometimes passionately loud, sometimes seductively low, always disturbing. At the end Martin broke down over an easy shot and turned abruptly to his host.

"What on earth is she doing it for, sir?" he demanded.

Lord Ardrington chalked his cue. His expression was unmoved.

"She wants you to go into the drawing-room to her," he said.

"It sounds like it," Martin admitted, "but you know I can't."

"You have my permission!"

"But I can't," Martin repeated fiercely.

"In that case, let us continue our game," Lord Ardrington suggested.

"I can't do that, either. That music is terrible. It sounds as though she were suffering."

"She probably is."

"I want to go and say something to her," Martin declared, "but not—"

"Not what she wants to hear, probably," Lord Ardrington interrupted. "I should stay where you are, Martin. These things must run their course, like the storm outside. There! It's all over."

The music had stopped abruptly. Presently they heard soft footsteps crossing the hall. The two girls entered together.

"We're going to bed," Blanche announced. "The storm's upset us both."

"It has played the mischief also with our billiards," Lord Ardrington observed. "I think you are wise."

"Good-night, both of you," Blanche yawned.

"Good-night," Laurita echoed.

Martin held the door open. Blanche went out first and her glance in passing was kindly. Laurita lingered for a moment. She raised her eyes. Her lips scarcely moved,

"You heard the music I made?"

"It was very wonderful," Martin answered.

She looked at him for a second longer and then moved away. He stood motionless until she had disappeared. Then he closed the door.

"One more fifty up and a whisky and soda," Lord Ardrington proposed,

Martin chalked his cue mechanically. His hands were trembling, his throat was parched. He was obsessed with the sensation of having been driven forever out of the routine of the life which he had known into foreign ways.


CHAPTER XXIII

MARTIN, an hour or so later, sat up in his bed, suddenly and violently awakened. For a moment he listened intently. He was absolutely unconscious of what had awakened him, conscious of no sound or movement in the room or out of it, yet a sense of alarm was upon him, a sense as of some imminent danger. He slid out of bed, wrapped himself in his dressing gown, and stood for a moment before his opened window. The moon was half visible, emerging from behind a bank of jagged clouds. By its light he could dimly see the stretch of park, the trees motionless now that the wind was spent. He stood there, tense and rigid, trying to make up his mind whether the sound which had awakened him had come from within or without. The park, umbrageous and solitary, presented its usual picture of desolation. Even the owls, driven into shelter by the storm, were silent. He moved away, opened the door softly and once more listened. At first, a strange thought seized him. He could almost have sworn that he heard the sound of footsteps along the branch corridor nearly opposite. He listened again. The window behind him was still open and an unexpected breath of wind came sighing up from the open spaces, rustling amongst the curtains. He lingered there, the door ajar, every sense on the alert. At first, nothing—the faint beat of ivy against the mullioned window. Then, unexpectedly, beyond possibility of any mistake, the human sound for which he had waited so feverishly—the groan of a man in pain, close at hand, almost immediately beneath him.

For a single moment—a moment during which his feet scarcely touched the stairs—he regretted his half-contemptuous refusal of the revolver which Lord Ardrington had pressed upon him. After all, though, at close quarters, his strength was the better thing. At the door of the sitting room which was a portion of Lord Ardrington's suite, he paused to recover his breath. Then he opened it suddenly, without summons or warning precipitating himself well over the threshold, almost into the middle of the room. Again he regretted his refusal of that revolver. He looked straight into the ugly and outstretched muzzle of an automatic pistol, and the hand which held the butt so steadily was the hand of Mr. Victor Porle.

"Come in, if you insist," the latter invited gently, "and close the door behind you—or, on second thoughts, perhaps, remain where you are. Solomon, the door, if you please."

Solomon Graunt obeyed instructions, listening for a moment to be sure that no alarm had been given. Martin, in that brief breathing space, took in the contents of the room. The two intruders had apparently been seated in easy-chairs placed side by side. Lord Ardrington was opposite to them—but Lord Ardrington in grievous state. He was tied with devilish skill to a high-backed chair, his hands secured by a leather thong, another one cutting into his neck as he leaned backward. His face was ghastly pale, but he was perfectly conscious.

"You'd better get out of this, Martin," he enjoined. "They've got me. They were bound to, sooner or later. They're armed and you're not."

"Our friend has as usual spoken wisely," Victor Porle remarked, toying with his weapon. "Your presence is not needed here, Mr. Martin Barnes. This is a private interview to which Solomon Graunt and I are looking forward with much pleasure."

Martin seemed suddenly to imbibe the atmosphere of another world. He was devoid of all fear. He was filled with a splendid and sufficient self-confidence. His brain was working too. He remembered perfectly well where to pick up a pair of wonderful scissors in their case on the edge of a table covered with curios. There was a little snarl from Victor Porle.

"Put those down," he ordered, "or by hell, I'll shoot."

"Shoot away, then," Martin invited cheerfully, slipping the scissors under the first thong. "There arc a dozen menservants sleeping in the house altogether—two or three of them just overhead. Shoot away. If you kill me, you'll swing for it. If they hear the sound of your pistol—and they can't fail to—you'll never get out of this."

He bent over his task. Notwithstanding what must have sounded like bravado, his heart was beating fast. Every moment he expected to hear the roar of the automatic in his ears, a quick, stabbing pain somewhere in his body. Yet nothing happened. He cut the last cord, lifted the man whom he had freed in his chair, and then for the first time turned around. Victor Porle was still toying with his automatic; Solomon Graunt was scowling.

"A very fine example of nerve," the former declared approvingly. "I am glad, young man, that we have the honour of your acquaintance. Still, perhaps you did not know that my friend and I between us have committed at least a score of burglaries, and our toll of human lives, owing to unfortuitous circumstances, has been regrettably heavy."

"You would have been fools if you'd shot me," Martin replied tersely. "You'd have gained nothing by it, and you'd have had the whole household here."

"Exactly my own conclusions," the other assented. "Still, I should like you to understand that both Solomon Graunt and I bitterly resent your intrusion. Many years have passed since we have had a chance of half an hour's conversation with our old friend and partner."

Lord Ardrington rose to his feet with a slight groan and moved unsteadily to another chair.

"Let's cut out the melodrama now," he suggested. "Get me a whisky and soda from that sideboard, Martin, and we will hear what these men have got to say."

"These men' are your partners, and don't you forget It," Solomon Graunt muttered hoarsely. "We are here for a settlement."

"A settlement," Victor Porle murmured, "which is a good many years overdue."

"If your remark is intended to relate to finance," Lord Ardrington said coolly, "you do not seem to be in need of it. You have apparently prospered."

"We are in better trim than when you left us at San Paulo," Solomon Graunt admitted, with a note of passion in his tone. "We are wearing shoes, you see. Our feet are not blistered, nor are we starving. We have money in our pockets and clothes upon our backs. That was a dirty trick you played us. We have never been quite able to forget it, have we, Victor?"

"It was a damnable trick—the trick of a thief and a coward," was the bitter reply.

"A thief, perhaps," Lord Ardrington reflected. "It depends upon the point of view. I stole back again the money out of which you cheated me. I took the liberty of borrowing yours to prevent your being able to hire horses or mules on which to follow me. I knew quite well that without money you were safe—that there was no one in those parts who would have trusted you for a cent."

"You are casting aspersions upon the characters of two honest and successful men," Victor Porle declared mockingly,

"You're a couple of the worst blackguards on God's earth, and you know it. The question is what do you want with me."

"The question is rather what do we not want," his chief torturer amended softly. "You owe us a great deal—me perhaps a little more than you owe Solomon,"

"I took your wife away from you, if that is what you mean," Lord Ardrington acknowledged deliberately. "To my last hour—even if that has now arrived—I shall be glad that I did. She had seven years of happiness with me. They may not have made up altogether for the three years of misery and degradation she lived with you, but I think that they helped."

"You're not making things better for yourself—partner," Victor Porle warned him.

Lord Ardrington had drunk of the cup of desperation. All his nervous fears of the last few days seemed to have left him.

"Do you think that it is incumbent upon me to mince words with a scoundrel like you?" he demanded. "I know very well that if you had caught me in some of the countries in which we have lived, it would have been torture first and murder afterwards. But under these conditions, everything is changed. I will admit that I feared your coming. Now, I ask myself why. What can you do? You can kill me, of course, but you'd look a couple of pretty ghastly objects on the scaffold with the ropes about your necks."

"All these matters," Victor Porle confided suavely, reaching out his hand for the brandy decanter and refilling his glass, "we have thoroughly discussed and reflected upon—my friend Solomon Graunt and I. Considering that we have had so long to wait for the turn of the cards I must admit that we are not quite so favourably placed as we might have wished. Still, the very fact that this is a law-abiding country—the only fact, let me assure you, that keeps us from choking the breath out of your body, has its advantages. They do not shelter murderers here, Ardrington. The police all round the coast of San Paulo were hot on the tracks of the man who killed and robbed that Spaniard on the road to Santa Barbara. There's no statute of limitations for murder, you know. Then there was that American you cheated at cards. How long was it that you spent in prison for half killing him."

"Nearly a year," Lord Ardrington admitted coolly. "I cannot say that I ever regretted it. He was a thoroughly disagreeable fellow!"

"Still, the prisons were very dirty—nothing like this wonderful house of yours," Victor Porle continued. "You seem to be much respected round here, Ardrington. I don't know why. They tell me that you are Lord Lieutenant of the County. A great honour, that! It is deeply gratifying to us to find our late partner so highly thought of."

Martin was fired with a sudden anger. He saw the line of torture in the baited man's face.

"Look here, sir," he protested, "why do you sit still and let these men go on talking? Let me turn them out or alarm the house. What are they here for, anyway?"

Lord Ardrington half rose to his feet, but Victor Porle waved him back.

"Our errand to-night, young man," he acknowledged, "might have been accomplished a little differently but for your unwelcome interference. As it is, however, we have gained two of our ends. We have been able to study at our leisure—you see I have taken the liberty of turning up the lights—two of the most wonderful Corots I have ever seen. We have also been able to have a chat over old times with our late partner. If we are not disposed to hurry in stating our final purpose, that has—if you will permit me to say so—nothing whatever to do with you. We are feeling our way. Before very long, you may be sure we will come to an understanding with our partner. We are not hard men, but he is very much our debtor."

Once more, Martin stood tense and rigid. The murmur of Victor Porle's suave words died monotonously away on his ear. Another sound had thrilled and horrified him. He restrained a wild impulse to spring for the door. These men were talking for time. With that cry in his ears, he felt a sudden wave of inspiration.

"Well, if that's what you're here for, I don't see that I can help," he announced, turning away towards the door. "Call me when you've finished with them, sir, and I'll see them off the premises."

Lord Ardrington looked up in surprise.

"Don't leave me, Martin," he begged.

Martin affected to hesitate, but he took another half step towards the door. Then he saw suspicion flash into Victor Porle's face, and he made his spring. Halfway through the door, a bullet whistled past his legs. With another bound, however, he was in the corridor, flying along the passage. He never hesitated as to his direction. He crossed the great hall, lighted only by one faint beam of moonlight, and made for the front door, which stood wide open. On the terrace he paused for a moment, his eyes straining across the shadowy vista of the park. Then a little groan broke from his lips. Already more than halfway to the wall, to the spot where the boy had been cowering that afternoon, were moving figures, uncertain of shape, one man apparently carrying a burden. Martin shed his dressing gown, leaped from the terrace on to the flower beds below, crossed the lawn in a dozen strides and, avoiding the lower stretch of gardens, vaulted into the park and settled down to his task. He was barefooted—his bedroom slippers had been only an encumbrance—but the ground was soft, and he ran as he had never run before in his life. The moon had disappeared behind a cloud, and he seemed to be making his way into a wall of darkness. It flashed into his mind that the boy whom he had found lurking there that evening had not been hiding behind the shrub for nothing, and so far as he could guess at it, he made that spot his destination. Behind him the alarm bell had commenced to ring; lights were flashing out from many of the windows. From away in front he suddenly heard a man's voice calling to some one apparently on the other side of the wall. He was close upon them now, his flying footsteps almost noiseless. He peered forward with straining eyes. There was something in front of him, somebody walking at a swift walk, another figure by his side. He slackened speed to still the sobbing of his breath. Just then a corner of the moon came out from behind a mass of black cloud. Indistinct shapes began to appear in the thin, ghostly light. He knew then that his inspiration had been a true one. A man was in the act of stepping over the iron railing, carrying the still struggling form of a girl wrapped in a great shawl. He stepped into the undergrowth of the wood. The man by his side suddenly came into clear view.

"What the hell's that?" he demanded, looking around quickly.

The flash of an electric torch for a moment almost blinded Martin. He heard a quick, excited voice.

"There's only one on 'em, Ned. Get you to the ladder with the girl. I'll see to 'im."

The man with his burden went staggering on. From behind the torch came a fierce shout.

"Stop where you are, you fool! I'll let daylight into you if you come another yard."

The moon was halfway out again now. Everything around was taking a clearer outline. Martin saw a few yards in front of him the father of the boy, his arm outstretched in threatening fashion. Stumbling through the shrubs and undergrowth a few yards further on was the other man, and—most pitiful sight of all—Laurita, gripped in his arms, her eyes full of wild fear. Her wrists were held by her captor, and something like a respirator had been fastened over her mouth. Nevertheless she made a sobbing little sound as she saw Martin and redoubled her struggles.

"It's all right, Laurita," Martin called out.

"It's all wrong with you, you damned fool!" the man between shouted.

Martin, plunging forward, crashed prematurely into the iron fence and perhaps saved his life. Simultaneously a bullet whistled past him. The man lowered his pistol.

"I've done him in," he muttered. "Up the ladder like hell, John! Hit 'er on the 'ead if she squeals."

They made a dash for it. Martin, unhurt, was on his feet in a moment. His first assailant heard his rush but had no time to draw his pistol again before Martin had disappeared on the other side of the tree. There was no more speech now. Laurita's captor, who had reached the wall, swung round in time to receive the full weight of Martin's fist upon his jaw. He went over like a log and Laurita, suddenly freed, slipped from his grasp amongst the bushes. With her hands at liberty, she tore at the gag before her mouth.

"Martin!" she screamed. "Save me! Oh, mind!"

The man whom Martin had dodged had come round the shrubs and was standing a few feet away, gripping a wicked-looking automatic.

"Blast you!" he shouted. "If you move an inch, you're a dead man, I may shoot you first or I may shoot the gal. I've a b——y good mind to make it the pair of you."

His face was clearly visible now in the filtered moonlight, and without a doubt he was in deadly earnest. Martin stood motionless, thinking hard. So far as he could tell, the other marauder was incapable of further action. Laurita had scrambled to her feet and was standing trembling by his side.

"What've you done to my pal?" the man asked, still with his pistol levelled at Martin's chest.

"Knocked him out," Martin answered. "I wish to God I'd had time to do the same to you."

The other made a sound which in normal times might have been a chuckle.

"It wouldn't have been any too easy, young fellow. Stand away from the gal."

"What for?" Martin demanded.

"We want her. That's all. We want her for someone as has a better claim than any of you up there. This isn't any b——y abduction. We're out to restore the gal to her loving father. You've interfered quite enough."

"I'll interfere a little more before you take her away," Martin said firmly.

He could hear her soft breathing by his side. She seemed incapable of speech. Her hand clutched at his arm. Gently he held her away.

"One moment, Laurita," he begged. "I'll take care of you directly."

The man approached half a step nearer, his pistol still threatening.

"You drop it, young fellow," he advised. "You'd have got yours before now if you hadn't tripped over the fence. There won't be a second miracle. I'm coming for the gal and if you don't stand away, you'll have a bullet somewhere where you won't like it. I ain't going to swing for you, but you'll be in 'ospital for a bit. That's where you'll be."

Martin suddenly leaned forward, peering into the darkness. He raised his arm and shouted,

"Come on, Mallowes! Come on, John! Here we are! There's only one of them."

The man gave a quick half-turn and Martin, who had calculated the distance to a nicety, sprang. His right hand seized his opponent's wrist and the pistol exploded harmlessly in the air. Then with all his strength, he sought to possess himself of the weapon. His assailant with his left hand struck him on the back of the head, but Martin, although he spun round, was able to keep his feet. The fingers locked round the butt of the pistol were weakening and the weapon was almost his. Sooner than relinquish it altogether, however, with his last effort the man jerked it into a thick bush. Martin broke away to gain a moment's respite and the two swayed on their feet, both breathing heavily. It was as though they were taking stock of each other in the wan light which was rapidly becoming more uncertain.

"Look here, Guv'nor," the man said, with a little sob in his throat, "I've gone as far as I want to on this job. I was told there wouldn't be any interference."

Martin moistened his lips and tried hard to keep his voice steady.

"Well?" he said sharply. "What about it?"

"Let me take my pal off and you hop it with the young woman."

Martin glanced at the rope ladder hanging from the wall,

"How'll you get him up?"

"I'll see to that. Is it a do?"

Martin hesitated for a moment. He saw what his antagonist had not noticed. The fallen man was beginning to twitch—a sure sign that he was on the point of recovery.

"It's a do," he agreed. "Laurita, get through the rails and start towards the house."

She obeyed, staggering blindly for the first few paces.

"Now, what about that pistol?" Martin asked.

The man looked at him—a queer sight in his torn pyjamas, bleeding feet and blood streaming from the side of his head.

"I suppose you're a gent," he said. "I know you wouldn't trust me, so I'll trust you. Take it out of the bush and chuck it into the road."

Martin obeyed, walking backwards and keeping his eye on his late antagonist. He stooped down, reached the pistol, and jerked it over the wall in a slanting direction. The man nodded approvingly.

"You're a good scrapper, Guv'nor," he said. "'Op it off 'ome."

He turned towards his fallen companion. Martin was by Laurita's side in a moment. She was clinging to the railing and seemed incapable of further movement. He caught her up in his arms, with a backward glance of apprehension.

"Chap seems all right," he muttered, "but we won't risk it."

Once more he ran. Tighter and tighter Laurita's arms were clasped around his neck. Her soft cheeks were pressed to his. Her lips repeatedly brushed his eyes, his lips. Twice he paused to look behind. There was no sign of any pursuit. Presently he heard the purring of an engine, the grinding of gears, and the sound of a car in movement along the road which bordered the park. He drew a deep breath of immense relief.

"They're off!" he exclaimed.

Laurita said nothing. Her eyes were half closed. Suddenly she began to sob. She raised herself as he slackened his pace, her arms almost strangling him, her body straining to his.

"Martin!" she faltered.

A ridge of cloud had floated across the moon, and the fragments of a storm brought wind which bent the tops of the trees by their sides, and great drops of rain which heat into their faces. In the sudden darkness her lips found his and clung there passionately. Her arms almost choked him. The cling of her body was wild evidence of the hysteria which was raging within her. Before him was an open door and a line of flaming lights. He staggered up on to the terrace with a little sob of thankfulness.


CHAPTER XXIV

PERHAPS the greatest surprise of these exciting days came the next morning to Martin and Lord Ardrington out of a clear sky, without any sort of warning, a happening so incredible that at first they could scarcely trust their own eyes. The sergeant of police had departed, pompous and greatly excited, with a pocketbook full of unintelligible notes. Blanche had gone up to see Laurita, who was reported to be still sleeping. Martin, with a bandage on his head and one arm in a sling, was stretched in an easy-chair in a sunny corner of the terrace, and his host was lounging by his side. The sound of approaching footsteps caused the latter, and Martin afterwards, to raise their heads. It was unbelievable but true. Unannounced by any servant, without any indication of the manner by which they made their entrance, Solomon Graunt and Victor Porle, with a stranger between them, were approaching along the terrace.

"God bless my soul!" Lord Ardrington gasped.

Martin sat up in his chair. He could find no words. Together they watched the visitors. Mr. Solomon Graunt was wearing a grey tweed suit, brown shoes, and a Homburg hat. He was very spick and span and very self-assured. His gait, indeed, was almost jaunty. Next to him walked a man of medium height, dressed in sober black, with a face of legal type, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and carrying an attaché case. On his other side was Victor Porle, also carefully dressed in blue serge with tie and collar faultlessly chosen, chamois leather gloves and a Malacca cane. His long, olive-complexioned face was more destitute than ever of any colour except where the thin line from an ancient scar flamed a little on his left cheek.

"My God, what a nerve!" Lord Ardrington muttered. "And how the devil did they get in?"

"The same way as last night, I expect," Martin replied. "They must have got a wax impression and have had keys made to one of the postern gates. After all, that wasn't difficult, but that they should have come here—this morning! They ought to have been hiding from the police."

The three men were now within greeting distance. Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt raised their hats. Neither made any attempt to shake hands. Victor Porle, completely at his ease, took charge of the situation.

"Ardrington," he announced, "I have come to pay you a more or less formal visit. I have ventured to bring with me my legal adviser. Mr. Maurice Rosen—Lord Ardrington."

The former raised his hat; the latter nodded.

"You have already received a letter," Porle continued, "from the firm in which my friend Mr. Rosen is a partner. You are therefore prepared for the formal demand I am here to make."

Lord Ardrington glanced upwards at the row of opened windows.

"Business of this importance," he suggested, rising to his feet, "had better be conducted in my study. Will you follow me, gentlemen?"

He led the way into the smaller apartment where he spent most of his days, immediately below his upstairs sitting room, and pointed to chairs. The three visitors seated themselves. Lord Ardrington followed their examples. Martin alone remained standing.

"Our business," Victor Porle continued, "is of an intimate and family nature. Our young friend here—you will pardon my suggesting it—might find himself somewhat de trop—"

"It is my wish that he remain," Lord Ardrington said curtly. "You may find that he has more concern in the business of which you desire to speak than you imagine."

The other shrugged his shoulders.

"We are in your house, Ardrington," he admitted. "We submit to your ruling in the matter. I will enter at once, then, upon the object of our visit. I am here to claim possession of my daughter Laurita, whom you abducted, together with her mother, from San Paulo sixteen years ago."

Lord Ardrington leaned back in his chair.

"Victor Porle," he said, "although I have always loathed your character, I have recognised your courage. I pay tribute to it at this moment. You hire a gang of ruffians to abduct my adopted daughter from this house last night, whilst you devoted yourself to engaging the attention of her protectors, and, having failed—thanks to the gallantry of my young friend—you dare to come here and make your demand under the shadow of the law."

Victor Porle's air of mystification was magnificent. He shook his head thoughtfully.

"There are rumours in the village," he observed, "of an attempted burglary here last night. You cannot for a moment imagine that your old friend Mr. Solomon Graunt and I could possibly be implicated in such an enterprise."

"From my knowledge of your past careers," was the somewhat sarcastic retort, "I know you to be capable of anything of the sort, if you think it worth while. However, we will assume—in order that this interview may be the more speedily concluded—that you know nothing about the attempted abduction of Laurita last night, and continue this discussion on your own lines. You ask me to hand over your daughter Laurita. I refuse. She has lived with me for the greater part of her life. I rescued her from the slough in which you left her and her mother, and I have brought her up as my stepdaughter. I refuse to hand her over to you." The lawyer cleared his throat.

"Lord Ardrington," he said, "it is my duty to point out to you that your position as guardian of the young lady is entirely indefensible and cannot be supported in the eyes of the law. Your relations with her mother were absolutely illegal and would rather prejudice than help your claim. Our client here—Mr. Victor Porle—has produced proof that he is the father of the young lady, and he demands herewith your prompt surrender of her to his care."

"Very well put," Lord Ardrington admitted, taking a cigarette from the box before him and tapping it carelessly upon the table, "but you see, besides myself, there is some one else to be considered."

"Some one else?" the lawyer repeated.

"The mother is dead," Victor Porle affirmed.

"But Laurita's husband may surely be allowed to have something to say," Lord Ardrington suggested, with a little movement of his hand towards Martin.

There was complete and absolute silence—a dumbfounded silence. No one even ventured upon an exclamation. From outside came the sound of feminine voices, light footsteps, the flutter of skirts. Blanche and a friend passed along the terrace and, descending the steps, made their way to the gardens. Victor Porle rose to his feet.

"I may be permitted perhaps a word with my daughter before I make any comment upon this extraordinary statement?" he asked in a stifled voice.

"Never, with my permission," Lord Ardrington declared.

"Or with mine," Martin added.

"May I enquire," the lawyer intervened, "on what date this alleged marriage took place?"

"A very pertinent enquiry," Lord Ardrington admitted, smiling. "It look place yesterday in the parish church here. You will doubtless wish to examine the register. It is at your disposal."

"My daughter," Victor Porle objected, "cannot marry without my consent. She is a minor."

"The matter has, I fear, gone a little too far for that," Lord Ardrington pointed out. "You might, with the aid of your lawyer, have used endeavours to prevent the ceremony, had you known that it was imminent. You cannot, however, upset it now that it has taken place. Laurita has found a legal guardian, Porle. She is saved for all time from the execution of your dastardly threat."

"A trifle melodramatic," her father sneered. Lord Ardrington rose from his seat. He stood with his back to the window and he faced the man he hated.

"In case you are not aware of it, Victor Porle," he said, "let me tell you that I know why you want Laurita, and if there was anything wanting to convince me that you are one of the foulest creatures alive upon this earth, that knowledge would suffice. I read the only letter you wrote your wife after I took her from the degradation into which it was your wicked joy to plunge her. I read your threat, and I know that you would keep your word if you could. You'd take her back to San Paulo and do your devilish best to push her into the hell in which you let her mother live. That was your oath of vengeance—to terrify a woman already upon her deathbed. You needn't think it frightened her; it didn't. I swore, too, that you should never have her, and she knew that I was the better man and she died content. If I hadn't been able to keep Laurita away from you by other and better means, I should have killed you without hesitation."

There was again a silence. From the lawn outside came the sound of tennis balls being struck. A girl's laughter floated in. Victor Porle became suddenly tense as he listened.

"Damn you, Ardrington!" he exclaimed, with a sudden flame of passion. "You stole my wife. Now you cheat me out of my daughter. You think so—perhaps. I am not so sure."

For a single moment battle seemed to be in the air. The lawyer rose to his feet. He laid his hand upon his client's arm.

"The situation is entirely changed, Mr. Porle," he pointed out. "We cannot proceed further in this matter along legal lines. We shall be well advised, I think, to leave for the present and discuss the matter privately."

"It grieves me to part with your company," Lord Ardrington remarked, touching the bell, "but the advice of your lawyer appears to me to be excellent."

Mallowes made his usual prompt appearance.

"You can show these gentlemen out," his master directed. "Take them the short way by the terrace."

"Very good, my lord."

There was no pretence at leave-taking. Through the window and down the terrace, preceded by Mallowes, the three men passed on their way to the gates; the lawyer, his hands clasped behind his back, apparently absorbed in consideration of his client's new dilemma; Solomon Graunt, all the time looking about him curiously, carrying his hat in his hand as though enjoying the light west breeze which had sprung up, pausing once to sniff at an overhanging cluster of flowers; Victor Porle looking neither to the right nor to the left, his shoulders a little hunched, his long body drooping. So they passed presently out of sight without a backward glance.

Luncheon was rendered perhaps a less difficult meal from the fact that Laurita was still in her room and Blanche had a girl friend with her who had motored over for some tennis. Lord Ardrington had the air of a man suddenly freed—temporarily, at any rate—from a great anxiety. He talked gaily to Blanche's friend and decided to play tennis himself later on. In the presence of a stranger, the events of the preceding night were not alluded to at all. It was not until Lady Blanche and her guest had wandered off into the flower gardens and Lord Ardrington and Martin were left alone with their coffee on the terrace, that a really serious word was spoken.

"What puzzles me," Martin confessed, a little abruptly, "is why, if Laurita's father had taken the trouble to get a lawyer down here to support his application for the charge of her, and their position so far as they knew was quite unassailable legally, should he have planned this attempt to abduct her on the night before their visit?"

"I can explain it," Lord Ardrington replied, "because my own lawyer gave me a word of warning in case anything of the sort was attempted. Legally, Victor Porle is—or rather was, before that little ceremony—entitled to the charge of Laurita. On the other hand I should have contested his claim and, although I should have lost in the long run, I might have delayed matters for many months. If, however, Laurita, by any means whatever, was actually in her father's charge, there was no legal action I could ever bring to recover possession of her. If they had got her away last night to London or even Norwich, they could have taken her to South America. Victor Porle is clever enough to have played the indulgent and affectionate parent. He would have surrounded her with luxuries for the moment. His legal position was unassailable."

"I see," Martin murmured.

"It is you and you alone who have saved the situation," Lord Ardrington concluded. "You have repaid me many times over, Martin, for the chance which made me your benefactor. . . . Why not change your clothes? The girls will be expecting you to play tennis."

Martin shook his head.

"I hope you won't think it ungracious of me, sir," he said, "but I am going away. I have asked Mallowes to have my things packed, and my car is out in the courtyard now."

Lord Ardrington held his cigarette a little away from him. He looked at his guest in amazement. "Going away?" he repeated.

"I can't see any other course," Martin declared. "I am afraid if you don't understand, I can't explain."

"Without seeing Laurita—without a word with her? After last night, too!"

"Last night has only made things more difficult. Any man is of course forced to take his part in a scrap, if it comes his way, but to an imaginative child like Laurita last night's affair seemed no doubt—oh, it's damned difficult to explain!" Martin broke off. "First of all there was the marriage ceremony, and then last night. Laurita was hysterical, naturally, but I couldn't help it—I couldn't be brutal. She kissed me and I kissed her back again. I felt that I was kissing a terrified child; what she felt was just hysteria. But there it is! I can't stay in the house like this."

"I think that she cares for you, Martin," Lord Ardrington said, with a note of wistfulness in his tone. "You couldn't take it that way, could you?"

Martin shook his head.

"It would be all wrong," he protested, "Apart from my own colossal folly, Laurita can't possibly know her own mind. You've got rid of those brutes for the present, and I'm sure it would be much better for me to clear out for a time—for Laurita's sake as well as mine. When I come back, we shall both be normal."

"I suppose you're right, unless you could stop the way I'd like you to."

"That way, I can't—not yet, at any rate," Martin declared, rising to his feet, "You must say just what seems best to you to Laurita. Lady Blanche, I think, will understand."

Lord Ardrington walked to the end of the terrace with his guest. He held his hand in a warm grasp as they parted.

"Of course, I'd rather it had been the other way, Martin," he said, "but I suppose you're right. Come back soon."

His tone was cordial, his gesture of farewell genially polite, yet Martin, as he made his way to the courtyard, felt a curious sense of depression. It seemed to him that he was back again on the outside of things, that he was on his way somehow or other to exile. Then, as he pushed open the heavy doors of the courtyard, a sudden revulsion of feeling lightened his heart, sent the blood dancing through his veins. There was the car ready for his start, and, in the driver's seat, Lady Blanche!

He hastened towards her.

"How did you guess?" he asked.

"I suppose," she replied, descending from the car, "because, when I thought it over, I decided it was what you would do. I noticed you had your travelling clothes on at luncheon, so I got rid of my little friend, came here and found, as I had expected, that your car was ready. I am glad that I am in time to say good-bye."

"You think that I am right?"

"I think you are very right," she assured him gravely. "Even if you were in love with Laurita, I should still say that you were very right. That ceremony wasn't meant to be what those words implied. Laurita is unlike all us English people. You must always remember that. Her emotions and her passions are far nearer the surface. The romance of it all rather carried her away. And then last night! Poor man! You had to play the part of hero, didn't you? But you did it very finely."

"I must have looked a sight!" he exclaimed, with a sudden retrogressive flash of humour.

"It was simply amazing," Blanche confided. "It was half drama and half the sheerest comedy. Your pyjamas were spotted with blood and one of the legs was torn. Your poor feet—they must be painful this morning—were all cut, and your hair—it has grown too long, Martin—was like a male golliwog. And there was Laurita with one stocking on and one off, in a crèpe de chine night dress and a mackintosh coat, with her arms almost strangling you, and—well, I'll draw a veil over the rest. Yes, it was a mixture of tragedy and comedy."

"Well, I'll have plenty to think about, anyway," Martin observed, as he took the hand she held out and leaned over towards the self-starter.

"You'll come back?" she asked.

He looked earnestly, almost eagerly, into her face. Then his heart gave a little throb. Her expression was serious, almost wistful.

"I have promised Lord Ardrington to come back whenever I am needed," he said. "Perhaps I may not wait for that."

She sent him off with a little nod and a wave of the hand. The gate was opened by the same surly janitor, and he passed outside, skirting once more the high wall which bordered the Park. He glanced for a moment at the spot from which the rope ladder had hung the night before, and making his way into the main road, crossed Thetford Heath, back again in the country through which he had travelled such a short time before in quest of adventure. It was a very similar day. A west wind blew upon his cheeks, a warm sun shone from an unclouded sky. There was the same little string of horses at Newmarket, the same wait at Six Mile Bottom. At Royston he ordered tea, which he forgot to drink. Afterwards he loitered on the way and entered London with the lamps shining palely into the lavender twilight. He awoke from a sort of numbed state as the necessity for driving more carefully through the traffic arose.

Jewson greeted him with mild surprise.

"You'll find everything all right, sir, I think, although we wasn't expecting you," the man announced. "There's nothing for you except what seem to be circulars, or I'd have sent them on,"

"No one called or telephoned?"

"The Mr. Percy Quilland who came to see you one morning has telephoned several times, sir, and a young lady has telephoned from the Savoy Court and one of the theatres."

Martin turned away to hide the bitterness of his smile. It was a quaint world to come back to—the world of Percy Quilland and Miss Rose!


BOOK TWO

CHAPTER XXV

Martin gazed around him with an air of lazy satisfaction, as the blue-jerseyed, sandy-haired fisherman who was his sole companion threw the anchor overboard and produced from his locker a tin of bait.

"A new ground, Burgess," he remarked. "Have we caught all the fish Lynton way?"

"I wouldn't like to say that, sir," the man replied, "but it's a good spot, this, and always was. You'll get dabs here when there bean't a smell of 'em round the shoals."

Martin sat up in the boat and looked landwards. They were anchored in a little bay, the sandy shore of which was absolutely deserted; high above him a stretch of woods led to one of the tongues of Exmoor. There was a grey, forsaken-looking house on a plateau just overhead, but no other sign of human habitation or presence.

"That's a nice beach, Burgess, to be empty at this time of the year," he remarked. The fisherman nodded.

"A cruel shame that do be, sir," he admitted. "Yon house there and the right of way to the sea belong to a man as has barricaded everything up and kept people from bathing or picnicking or landing nohow. It be that sort of thing that do make socialists of people."

"Seems odd. What's the idea?"

The fisherman was at once mysterious, as became his calling.

"There's some as do hint at smuggling," he confided, "and there's others that do say as it's mysterious folks that have taken the house there and want it kept solitary."

"It looks deserted enough. Are they in residence?"

"Not as I've heerd on. Not a soul ain't seen one of 'em, anyway. And that yacht too," the fisherman went on, pointing to the rather ill-painted, ill-conditioned-looking schooner which lay at anchor about half a mile away—"that belongs to the people. There's six or seven men on her with nothing to do all day but hang about."

"Who are they?" Martin asked, accepting a rod and casting the line overboard.

"I do have heerd the name," Burgess admitted, "but the memory of it has slipped me."

"Londoners?"

"I am doubting whether they're not foreigners, sir."

Martin's curiosity evaporated for the moment. He fished and dreamed, had his lunch and fished again. Presently Burgess watched the water close at hand and around the point.

"The ebb be coming, sir," he announced. "We'd better be moving on."

Martin nodded and wound up his line.

"Let's speak to the yacht," he suggested.

They hauled up anchor and took a sweep around, coming within a few yards of the yacht. A man leaning over the side waved his hand to Burgess.

"Are you the captain?" Martin asked.

"I am that, sir," was the answer.

"I hear you're having a slack time," Martin continued. "Do you think your governor would charter you for a month?"

The man withdrew his pipe from his mouth. "I ain't ever heard him say as he'd be willing to do so," he replied. "He's only just took us on."

"Where can I write to him?"

The man hesitated and shook his head. "I don't know as he's willing to charter her, sir," he said shortly.

"Well, there wouldn't be any harm in my asking him, would there?" Martin persisted. "I'd just like a fortnight's cruise, that's all, if it could be arranged."

The man had recommenced to smoke. He had the air of one who is indulging in an unprofitable conversation.

"It wouldn't be worth your while trying, sir. We're lying here under orders—might be off any day."

"So that's that!" Martin murmured, as he gave the signal to Burgess and they swept away. "Beastly dreary-looking place, that house, for a man who can afford to charter a yacht."

The fisherman who had started his petrol engine stood up and looked behind him. He pointed in a semicircle round the house.

"That do seem to us folk at Lynton to be a most mysterious place sure-ly," he said. "There be a wall round the back there and them three ways folk used to come down to the sea; they're all barred and built up now. It be unnatural secluded, that's what it be. And what with no one coming and the yacht lying there idle, folks do get curious hereabouts."

"I don't wonder," Martin assented. "I'm surprised he wouldn't tell me his master's name."

"That's what few people have heard," Burgess replied, "and there's some as do say as it's a woman. The agents as let the yacht were Ulrick and Cogden's of Plymouth. Put on a spinner, sir. There's mackerel about."

It was a very pleasant, lotus-like existence into which Martin had drifted since his arrival in Devonshire a month ago. Some days he fished; on others he took long tramps across Exmoor. The joy of his liberty was still a new thing. There was scarcely a morning when on waking he did not experience a little throb of happiness as he realised that the hours in front were his to while away as he wished, that his former life, with its dull routine and sordid cares, was a thing of the past. He was no luxury-lover. It was above all things the sense of freedom which he most appreciated. . . .

 

On the morning after his fishing excursion in the lonely bay: there arrived—amongst the letters forwarded from his rooms—the first letter with the Ardrington postmark. He was just starting for a tramp and he thrust it into his pocket and kept it there until he reached his destination on the edge of a strip of moorland, a precipice below, with glimpses of the sea through the thickly growing pine trees. The writing was bold and large yet feminine. He read and re-read the letter with meticulous care, as though striving to find in it something more than the mere words:

###LETTER

My Dear Martin,

I wonder what you are doing with yourself? We miss you very much, but my eccentric uncle has now developed a sudden penchant for society. Our flag is flying and the gates are open. We have half a dozen people staying here—no one, I think, in whom you would be very interested, except Gerald, whom for some reason or another, my uncle seems to be tolerating.

You want to hear about Laurita, of course. Well, to be frank, I'm rather worried about her. When she heard that you had gone there was a moment in which I feared an outburst. That is all past now. If it were possible, I should say that she was very bitter about what she terms your desertion of her. She and Gerald are getting on very well together—too well I consider, but Laurita only laughs at me when I hint at the fact.

Uncle has heard no more from those terrible men. He, too, to be quite frank, seems in a way to resent your departure, although not to the same degree as Laurita. I alone remain thoroughly sympathetic. I do really feel that you were put in an utterly impossible situation, and I am glad that you had the courage to stand out against it.

You are welcome here any time. I think you ought to come back before the summer is over. You would find the situation much less difficult now.

Very sincerely yours,

Blanche Banningham.

 

Martin folded the letter up and put it carefully away in his pocket. A wave of something which was the equivalent of homesickness had seized him. The almost theatrical beauty of his immediate surroundings suddenly palled. He felt a longing for the quiet country lanes, the wooded park, the old-fashioned flower gardens of Ardrington. It was a place for dreams where he lay and he yielded to them. He tried to think of Laurita with her delicate oval face, her scarlet lips and her eyes lit with fire. His thoughts only imperfectly fashioned her. It was always Blanche who took her place—Blanche with her frank, challenging eyes, mouth always beautiful but which at times he hated, half provocative, half supercilious, the perfection of her, the self-assurance, the delight of her free, graceful movements and natural speech. All these things were knit into his vision. Then, in the midst of it, he remembered Lord Ardrington's kindly warning, the folly of his dreams, and a wave of depression swept over him. . . . He rose to his feet and gazed gloomily downwards. Through the trees he could see a woman walking on the deserted lawn of the Manor—probably its mistress. He could distinguish nothing except that she was tall and graceful. The house itself, from the height where he lay, seemed like a doll's house. He tried to interest himself in speculations concerning her, wondering why she or her menkind owned a yacht which they never apparently visited and a house which they so seldom occupied. Presently he turned away, suddenly realising that he was profoundly uninterested, that there was only one thing he desired to do, and that was to return to Ardrington. He read Blanche's letter again. After all, why not? With other people there, the tension of the situation between himself and Laurita would be relieved. He played with the idea of an unexpected arrival and found that it gave him a tingling sense of pleasure. In that moment he abandoned the harmless self-deception in which he had indulged. He realised the cause of his immense unsettlement, no longer thrust it into the background. The great stroke of good fortune which had freed him from irksome labours had become bound up with an impulse of unimaginable folly. He had allowed what should have been a momentary fancy, a passing infatuation, to become a vital part of his life. Before he had had time to spread himself in the sunshine of his new prosperity he had mortgaged his chances of happiness.

His impulse of self-acknowledgment, once yielded to, opened the way to fresh avenues of thought which kept him engrossed all the way to Barnstable on the first stage of his hastily undertaken journey. He admitted with gratitude the compensations of his folly—compensations which bore fruit every day in his attitude towards the other sex, perhaps even in his daily conduct towards life. The hotel at which he had stayed had been full of the usual holiday crowd with the usual preponderance of young women. He had no longer found it amusing to embark upon cheap flirtations, nor had he felt any inclination to take advantage of the opportunities offered him as an unattached young man of personable appearance and the owner of a much admired motor car. His slight but kindly aloofness invested him, too, with an air of dignity, which he felt had come to him for life. The possibilities of London, with its Roses and night clubs, failed to stir his imagination in the slightest. "Larking about with girls," as he and Percy Quilland had frankly called it—once a pastime frequently indulged in—had become suddenly distasteful and impossible. It really seemed as though some honest, internal change in his own outlook and tastes had followed his change of fortune.

He slept that night at Wells, fascinated by the quaint old place and the glamour of its wonderful cathedral. Anxious though he was to reach his journey's end, it was midday before he could tear himself away and eight o'clock before he reached his rooms in town. There on the table he found a reply to the telegram he had sent from Lynton. He tore it hastily open:—

###TELEGRAM

Certainly. Pleased to see you any day. Ardrington.

 

He laid the message down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction—a dissatisfaction which he scouted as unreasonable, but which still lingered with him. Nevertheless, at ten o'clock on the following morning, he was once more on the way to Norfolk.


CHAPTER XXVI

It was a very different Ardrington through the wide-flung gates of which Martin passed late in the afternoon. The flag was flying from the roof of the house, the lawns and those gardens whose emptiness had seemed always a little dreary were invaded by a crowd of young people. The atmosphere of brooding mystery, of fear and apprehension which had hung about the place, appeared to have altogether vanished. Yet, curiously enough, the new condition seemed to Martin more depressing than the old. His reception was pleasant but not enthusiastic. Laurita and Lord Ardrington, who were both playing tennis, waved their hands as he drove up but did not interrupt their game. Blanche detached herself from a little group around the tea table and came up to him as one of the footmen was taking his luggage from the car.

"How brown and well you look," she remarked, as they shook hands. "You must find it hard to recognise this place."

"I do, indeed," he admitted, glancing around.

"You'd better change into flannels," she suggested. "We're all crazy about tennis just now. Mallowes will show you your room."

She nodded and turned away. Martin followed the servant who had taken possession of his bag. It was only natural, he told himself, but it was nevertheless a disappointment to find that instead of occupying his former quarters, he had been relegated to a small room at the back of the house.

"Mr. Gerald has the room you had when you were here last, sir," the footman observed, as he undid the straps of Martin's bag. "We shall be quite full up for the weekend, the housekeeper tells us."

Martin changed into tennis flannels, took out his racquet from its press and descended to pay his respects to Lord Ardrington. The latter welcomed him kindly, but after a few words left him alone to receive some new arrivals. Martin turned towards Laurita, who was seated side by side with Gerald and some other young people. The few words vouchsafed him by Gerald were good-humoured but casual. Laurita greeted him a little impersonally and avoided meeting his eyes, giving him a curious impression that for some reason or other his coming was displeasing to her.

"You have repented of your abrupt departure?" she asked presently, raising her eyes for the first time to his.

"Haven't I proved it by coming back?" he rejoined.

She smiled meaningly.

"To come back," she said, turning away to her companion, "is never the same thing."

Martin wandered on. Blanche was playing tennis; there was no one else whom he knew, and they all seemed to be speaking a language which was still strange to him. Finally he found a seat out of sight from the lawn, behind a great yew shrub, and, lighting a pipe, settled himself down in a corner, his unused racquet by his side, his eyes fixed gloomily upon the distant gardens. He had been there for an hour or more when Blanche, catching sight of him on her way out of the house, came over and sank into the seat by his side.

"Well, what are you doing here all by yourself?" she asked.

"Sulking," he admitted frankly. She leaned back with a little laugh.

"Look at me," she insisted.

He obeyed reluctantly, yet, as he was forced to admit, she was very well worth looking at in her spotless white silk jumper healthily open at the neck, her beautifully cut white flannel tennis skirt, her white silk stockings and immaculate shoes. He was beginning to take notice of such things, and he realised that she was the last word in elegant athleticism. Yet towards her too, as towards those others, there seemed to be smouldering in him some sort of resentment.

"Well," she demanded, "what's wrong, Martin?"

Despite his ill-humour, the kindliness of her question pleased him,

"Everything's wrong, Lady Blanche," he confided, with a strange impulse of peevishness. "These people all seem to remind me by their very existence—the way they talk and everything—that I am outside their world. I thought I was getting on very well when I was down here with you people alone. Now I don't belong and I never shall, and I'm sick of trying."

"Have you been alone all the afternoon?"

"I just spoke to Laurita and Mr. Garnham. I didn't know any one else."

"You haven't played tennis at all?"

"No."

"And why not?"

"Nobody asked me," he pointed out, "They are all intimate. They all like playing together, and they make sets up amongst themselves. Why should they ask an outsider? I watched them for a time. Then I came here to have a pipe and think it out."

"It was very thoughtless of me," she confessed. "I ought to have remembered that you didn't know all these people and started you off in a set. Will you play with me next time?"

"Why should you bother with me?" he rejoined a little bitterly. "There are all sorts of more attractive people here."

She laughed at him tolerantly.

"Aren't you rather a baby?"

"I suppose I am," he admitted. "I can't help it. I'll stick it out somehow or other for to-day, and I'll push off to-morrow."

"Where to?"

"I don't know. I must go somewhere. I shall go to one of the seaside places where I used to spend my fortnight's holiday at a cheap boarding house, take a room at one of the best hotels, drive around in the car and make an ass of myself generally."

"I should think you'd still find the boarding house the more amusing," she commented. "However, of course you're not in earnest about going away."

"Yes, I am," he assured her. "You're nice—-the nicest and kindest girl I ever met—but these others—they aren't like you. Even Laurita doesn't help."

"You're developing an imagination."

"Oh, no, I'm not. I was wandering about watching the tennis, and I heard one of those fellows who came with the cricketing crowd from Norwich—Eames, I think his name was—ask who I was. Shall I tell you how he asked?"

"If you like," she answered carelessly. "I shouldn't think it matters, anyway."

"Just what he said was this—he was talking to another man and Laurita was quite close: 'Who's the quaint-looking bird mooning about by himself?' No one answered. Then I heard a voice from some one whom I couldn't see who thought I looked rather a bounder. Then some one else suggested that as no one seemed to know me I had probably found my way in by mistake. Then I suppose Laurita thought she couldn't keep silent any longer and she just said, 'It's a Mr. Barnes, a protégé of my stepfather.' I—her husband! And—well, you know. Damnation!"

"Laurita is very young," Blanche pointed out, "and you must remember she was very angry with you. As for the rest, very few of these young people nowadays have any manners."

"They didn't know that I was within hearing," he explained a little drearily, "so it wasn't a question of manners. They spoke of me just as I appeared to them. It was hearing the truth without any disguise."

She patted him on the arm.

"Don't you worry about them, Martin," she begged. "Come and play a set with me."

"I'd rather not," he protested. "You know I'm not good, and no one will want to play against us particularly."

"I'll see about that," she replied, with an ominous tightening of the lips. "Put your pipe in your pocket and come along."

They strolled across towards the courts, Martin, as they drew near, seemed to feel an idiotic return of the self-consciousness which had been born in him since his change of fortune. He felt that he would have given anything in the world to have been able to imitate the ease of the young men who were standing about talking, a few of them grouped around the table where one of Mallowes' subordinates was dispensing drinks. There was an empty court and Blanche hastened towards it. A young man and girl from one of the neighbouring houses were standing talking by the net.

"Play us a set?" Blanche invited.

"We are waiting for Harry Eames and Muriel," the former answered. "They have challenged us."

"Well, you're going to play us instead, if you're going to play here at all," Lady Blanche announced, pleasantly enough, but with a note of determination in her tone. "Harry Eames and Muriel have played nearly every set this afternoon. I've played only two and my partner hasn't had a game at all. Being in a sense your hostess, young man," she went on sternly, "I beg that you will play according to instructions."

He made her a mock bow.

"Lady Blanche," he apologised, "I am sorry I even mentioned those other blighters. Toss for courts, please."

"Let me first introduce my partner," Lady Blanche went on, with a wave of the hand towards Martin. "Mr. Martin Barnes—Miss Johnson—Captain Philipson—a friend of mine when he behaves nicely, but rather a handful. I call rough."

"Rough it is!"

"We'll take service. There's nothing in the courts."

A tall, dark young woman, one of Martin's previous critics, came hurrying up to the court, followed by Eames.

"Here! We're playing these two," she announced; "challenged them a quarter of an hour ago."

Lady Blanche paused with the balls in her hand. She looked across at the speaker, whom it chanced that she disliked, nonchalantly enough, but there was a quality in her tone of which she seldom made use.

"It is customary, Miss Lovell," she said, "to allow your hostess some discretion in the arranging of sets. You have been playing all the afternoon, and I think that you had better rest for a little time. Ready, partner? Serve!"

Martin, nervous and flustered, started badly but helped by his partner's apparent indifference to the result and her own brilliant play, quickly recovered himself. They won the set six-three.

"We will play you again from the other side," Blanche proposed; "unless you're tired, in which case we'll find some other victims. It's my partner's first set and he is improving every minute."

"You are too strong for us," Philipson grumbled good-naturedly, "but we'll play the return, of course."

Blanche and Martin won again—this time with even greater ease. Afterwards, the former deliberately thrust her arm through her partner's and led him to the table under the trees where most of the young people were gathered.

"How I hate these afternoon drinks," she sighed. "You'll be all right, Martin. There's whisky and soda with a lump of ice in it for you. An orange squash for me, Mallowes . . . Gerald," she added, looking across to where he was bending over Laurita, "come and talk to Mr. Barnes."

There were a few more introductions and everyone was very civil. Lady Blanche was a young person who ruled the world of which she was the principal star with a certain amount of rigour, and her attitude towards Martin was unmistakable.

"What about the cricket, Gerald?" she enquired.

"All fixed up," was the cheerful reply. "They're coming over pretty strong, but we haven't a bad team."

"Let me look at the list," Blanche begged, holding out her hand.

He produced a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to her.

"You have several down here who are not staying in the house," she remarked.

"Can't help that. Holman, Weston and Dickinson must all sleep the night so as to qualify."

"By the bye, don't you play cricket, Mr. Barnes?" Blanche asked, turning towards him.

"Yes, after a fashion."

"Then, of course you must play in the match," she declared. "Mr. Barnes has been staying in the house off and on for two months, Gerald. Of course he must play before these others."

"Devilish awkward," Gerald objected, frowning. "You see, I've asked them now."

"It doesn't matter about me at all," Martin intervened,—"especially as I am probably leaving to morrow."

"Nothing of the sort," Blanche insisted, lighting a cigarette. "You're playing in the cricket match ... I think I should leave Weston out, if I were you," she added, turning to Gerald. "He's certainly a disagreeable boy."

"What club do you play for, Mr. Barnes?" Gerald enquired grudgingly.

"The Bermondsey Wanderers," was the laconic reply. There was a gleam of delight in Blanche's eyes.

Gerald seemed a little taken aback.

"Can't say that I know the club," he remarked, "or its standing, but I really don't see how we can chuck Weston."

"Well, you're going to," Blanche declared with determination.

"Please don't consider me," Martin begged. "I haven't the faintest desire to play."

"It is I who insist," Blanche said sweetly but firmly. "Don't let there be any mistake about it, Gerald. Mr. Barnes plays to-morrow, whomever you leave out."

"All right," Gerald yielded ungraciously. "I'll go and let Weston know."

He strolled away and was presently surrounded by a little crowd to whom he recited his grievance. Lady Blanche watched him with a frown.

"You won't back out, Martin," she insisted.

"I certainly will not," he promised grimly. "I'll stay over to-morrow, if it's only to play in the match,"


CHAPTER XXVII

There was a large party to dinner that night and, owing to the presence of the cricketers, a preponderance of men for the dancing afterwards. Martin found a remote corner in the hall, where Lord Ardrington presently came and joined him.

"You see what your damned punctiliousness is responsible for," the latter remarked irritably, as Laurita floated by, clasped in Gerald Garnham's arms. "That's the last thing in the world I wanted."

"It wasn't only punctiliousness, sir," Martin protested.

"Well, whatever it was, it's too late now," Lord Ardrington rejoined gloomily'. "If I have to give in, Gerald will make her a rotten husband."

"Have you heard anything more from her father, sir?" Martin enquired, making an effort to change the conversation.

For a moment the old look was back on his host's face, the terror lurked in his eyes, trembled in his suddenly lowered tone.

"Not a word."

"They've gone away, of course?"

"So far as I know, they have. Yes, they've gone away. But I'll make a confession to you, Martin: the fear of those two men is in my blood. I fill the house with guests, but it makes no difference. I wake up sometimes in the night and I fancy that I hear footsteps, that there is some one in the room. I can even see the knife gleaming in the darkness. Porle had always a horrible hand with a knife. Of course, in the morning, the whole thing seems ridiculous, but there it is. I'm just as likely as not to feel the same way the next night."

"Why not travel?" Martin suggested. "Take Laurita round the world."

The other shook his head.

"They'd find me when they're ready. If only Laurita was absolutely safe, I wouldn't mind. Their very silence terrifies me. They are planning something; I'm sure of that."

His voice was filled with nameless apprehension. The fear which lived with him lingered in his eyes. He brushed aside Martin's attempt at expostulation.

"Listen," he went on, dropping his voice even lower, "that man Porle is like some hideous, white-blooded verminous creature, patient but unforgetting. He was obliged to leave England because of some terrible scandal when he was a young man—a young man with a brilliant future too. He told me the story soon after we met in South America, and he told me the name of the man who was responsible for his downfall. 'Some day,' he said, without a break in his voice, 'I shall kill him.' Years afterwards we in San Paulo when he read that this man was out buying horses, visiting some ranches nearly a thousand miles away. He started the next morning—it was three months before I saw him again. He came back with a horrible smile. He never said anything. I read in the paper of the other man's murder—done to death in a lonely part of the ranch he was visiting. The only remark—"

He broke off abruptly. Laurita, flushed and happy, had crossed the dancing space and stood unexpectedly before them. She held out both hands.

"Will you dance with me, please?" she invited.

Martin rose to his feet promptly.

"If you wish it, of course."

They danced for some time, and the music, with her perfect movements, went a little to his head. Afterwards they sauntered out on to the terrace and she led the way to two chairs at the quieter end.

"So you have come back at last to your neglected wife!" she laughed up at him softly.

"My neglected wife has been doing all right, I am told," he rejoined.

"Oh, la, la!" she exclaimed. "Someone has been telling tales. Still, neglectful husbands run a risk. Did that never occur to you, dear Martin?"

"Are you trying to make fun of me?" he asked simply.

"How do I know?" she answered. "I have never any premeditation. I say what comes into my head. Tonight, I happened to see you looking lonely, and I felt as I did after that little ceremony. So I danced with you, and now you have nothing to say to me! . . . For a husband—do not look at me like that, Martin; I shall say it—you are what I would call very unenterprising."

He leaned over her until his lips almost touched hers. She did not flinch. There was a touch of the former tenderness in her eyes.

"If you kiss me," she whispered, "everyone will see. Then you will have to declare that you are my husband and Gerald will want to kill you."

"I forgot Gerald," he admitted, drawing a little away.

"So did I," she confessed. "Give me a cigarette, please. I find it very amusing to sit here in this beautiful twilight and flirt with—a husband."

He gave her a cigarette and lit it. Her soft fingers guided his hand as he held the match.

"That's all very well for you," he complained. "You were born to flirt as you were to dance and make music—but what about me?"

She blew a little cloud of smoke away from before her face and looked at him with a challenge in her velvety eyes.

"For you," she said, "in your position, there are many possible things. The English law is very favourable for the husband, is it not? If I flirted with you and you felt a pain in your heart for me, you could throw me over your shoulder, take me to your car and drive me away with you to the edge of the world—or wherever you pleased."

He shook his head.

"Old-fashioned," he declared. "Nowadays no husband attempts anything except with his wife's consent."

"The old days were more romantic," she sighed.

"Besides," he reminded her, "there is Gerald."

"Yes, there is Gerald," she reflected, "I have flirted with him too. It is not so amusing, though, for he responds too quickly. Sometimes," she added demurely, "knowing that I am a married woman—"

She broke off in her sentence with a little gesture of unmistakable annoyance. Gerald had come lounging down the terrace and was now within a few feet of them.

"We talk again soon, please," she whispered. "I have yet to tell you what I think of your leaving me as you did,"

"Aren't I being a little neglected?" Gerald drawled. "You promised me a dance half an hour ago," She rose to her feet.

"There have been things I had to say to Mr. Martin," she confided, "They are not quite finished yet, but I will dance with you and talk to him again afterwards."

She departed with a little glance over her shoulder and a backward wave of the hand. On their way down the terrace they stopped to speak to Blanche. As soon as they had left her, she came down and took Laurita's vacant chair.

"Aren't you making things rather complicated for yourself, Martin?" she asked him quietly.

"I don't know that I have a great deal to do with it," he answered. "Laurita asked me to dance and brought me out here. She has simply been trying to amuse herself with me."

"Adam!" Lady Blanche scoffed. "Seriously, though, Laurita with her disposition and temperament is a great responsibility. She needs someone to look after her more than anyone I know, and I don't think Gerald will ever be able to do it."

"Are you suggesting," he demanded, "that I should?"

"There have been times," she said gravely, "when I have seen you look as though you might not find it a very irksome task."

"Laurita, when she likes," he replied, "can be extraordinarily attractive. She's quite capable of turning stronger heads than mine."

"It would be her salvation," Lady Blanche continued thoughtfully. "Were you serious, I wonder, Martin, in what you told me about that other attachment?"

"Absolutely," he answered without hesitation.

There was a silence—almost unduly prolonged—a few moments which remained by themselves for all time in the storehouse of Martin's memory. A nightingale was singing in the woods below; the music of a waltz, played distractingly and with perfect rhythm by the little orchestra inside, floated out through the open window. The air was soft and warm—heavy with the perfume of some exotic night flower at the foot of the terrace. Blanche rose to her feet and lingered for a moment in the light streaming out through one of the French windows. It seemed to Martin that there was a new seriousness in her face.

"It is a pity," she murmured, as they strolled down the terrace.


CHAPTER XXVIII

Early on the following afternoon Blanche brought her little two-seater to a parking place under the trees and walked across to the cricket pavilion. She met Gerald, looking the picture of misery.

"Tell me at once what's happened?" she demanded. "I've been fidgeting to get here all the morning, but I had to take that stupid maid of mine over to the hospital at Norwich."

"You haven't heard the score at all then?"

"I haven't heard anything. The doctor came and looked at the girl's ankle at half-past ten and insisted upon her being taken over to have it X-rayed. I've only just got back."

"They won the toss," Gerald recounted, "and got a hundred and nineteen. Thought we'd done rather well to get them out for that, but our batting was simply disgraceful. The whole side were skittled out for thirty-eight."

"Nonsense!" she exclaimed incredulously.

"It's a fact. I got a duck and Eames only got seven. Hawkes was bowling his very fastest and no one could touch him. Now they've sent us in again—and good God, that's Eames out!" he broke off, as a little round of applause and a retreating batsman indicated disaster. "Four wickets down for twenty."

"Have you been in?"

"Bagged a brace," was the gloomy answer. Blanche turned aside to greet Martin, who was passing.

"What's happened to all of you?" she exclaimed.

"I don't know," was the somewhat restrained reply. "Our side don't seem to fancy the fast bowler."

"Have you been in?"

"Not this innings,"

"When do you go in?"

"Last,"

Blanche frowned.

"When did you go in the first innings?" she enquired, "Stop a minute, Gerald," she added, as the latter was turning away. "I may want to speak to you."

"The same place."

"And what happened to you?"

"I had one ball. Fortunately it was tosh and I got a four. It was the last ball of the over and the other chap got out."

"You went in last, you weren't out, and you're in last this second innings? Gerald, what are you thinking about?"

"I know nothing of Barnes' cricket," was the reply, half brusque, half apologetic. "Don't know the form, of the Bermondsey Wanderers at all."

"He scored a boundary with the only ball he got," Blanche pointed out, "and carried his bat. You've no right to send him in last again."

"Do you think you can play Hawkes?" Gerald asked superciliously.

"I have played better bowling," was the terse rejoinder.

"Put on your pads and go in next then. Harrison won't mind. He's in a blue funk already."

Both men turned away to the pavilion. Blanche, conscious that she was very nearly angry, found an empty bench and seated herself. In a moment or two Captain Philipson came across to her.

"Come to sympathise?" he asked disconsolately. "We've got it in the neck all right, haven't we?"

"I hear you've all been funking Hawkes."

"It doesn't sound nice, but I suppose it's true," he admitted. "He started pitching them a bit short and then found his length before we could steady down. Hullo, there's your protégé going in!"

"My protégé, as you call him, did better than some of you," Blanche observed coldly. "He had one ball and scored a boundary,"

"The only boundary on our side. I should have put him in earlier if I'd been Gerald. He fielded like a good 'un. Held two capital catches."

"Did he bowl?"

"I didn't hear Gerald ask him. . . . Jove, he looks like a hitter!" Philipson added, as Martin took guard and glanced around the field.

Hawkes' first ball, which Blanche was conscious of watching with eager interest, was one of the best he had bowled that afternoon. Martin played it safely back, confidently, but without any attempt to take liberties with it. The next one was pitched short and seemed as though it were out of reach, above the batsman's head, but he was round like lightning and hit it almost straight behind the wickets out of the field and into the park for a six. There was a moment's amazed silence and then a burst of applause.

"By Jove, what an eye!" Philipson muttered. "A few of those would knock Hawkes silly."

The next ball was a full pitch, slightly to the off. Martin banged it over the pavilion amidst another roar of applause. The last ball of the over he drove to long off, but refusing an easy second run, waved back his rather too eager partner.

"Means to get the bowling," Philipson pointed out.

"I'm damned if I don't believe the fellow's a cricketer."

"I suppose," Blanche remarked ironically, "because he doesn't speak your language you find it hard to believe that he could be a sportsman at all."

Gerald came over a moment or two later, honestly remorseful. They were hunting for the ball on the far side of the pavilion and there was everywhere a little buzz of excitement.

"I'm beastly sorry, Blanche," he apologised. "How was I to know anything about the fellow, or the Bermondsey Wanderers? His cap was enough to put anyone off."

"I'm glad anyhow that I came when I did," she replied. "Don't anyone talk to me, please, for a time. It's so seldom one gets an opportunity of watching real cricket."

Martin played an innings such as had never been played on the ground before. Almost white with anger when he went in, he seemed to find a vicious pleasure at lashing at every possible ball. In reality a cricketer of a very sound type and only when necessity demanded a powerful hitter, he realised on this occasion what was wanted and took every manner of risk without mistiming a single ball. In half a dozen overs Hawkes was bowling wides and voluntarily retired. After his departure Martin had the air of scarcely troubling to look at the ball. He lost three of his partners in due course, but at eight wickets down, the score stood at two hundred and twenty-two, Martin not out, a hundred and twenty-one. Gerald glanced at his watch.

"It seems a shame to end this," he declared, "but we are playing under a special arrangement to-day. Win on the first innings or play the match out if there's time. There are two hours more of play and we're a hundred and forty-one ahead. We've nothing to lose by declaring. The match is lost already on the first innings unless we can scoop them out."

"I should have a try," Philipson acquiesced. "Declare now and have tea and then go for them."

"And it might be a good idea," Blanche suggested, with gentle sarcasm, "if you asked Mr. Barnes if he bowled. He seems to have taught you pretty well how to play fast bowling."

Martin, obeying the summons, walked in a little doggedly, but it was impossible to resist the storm of cheering which greeted him. He lifted his cap twice and disappeared into the pavilion, followed by Gerald.

"I'm awfully sorry, Barnes," the latter apologised—"sending you in last and that sort of thing—but how the devil was I to know? I never heard of you or the Bermondsey Wanderers."

"It really doesn't matter," Martin replied. "If you had asked any questions, I could have told you that I had been invited several times to play for Middlesex, but I couldn't get off."

"Do you bowl, by any chance?"

"Nothing extraordinary. I can get a little pace into my first few overs, if I happen to find a length."

"Well, open the bowling then, please, from whichever end you prefer."

One or two of the young men who had scarcely spoken to him at the house came up with a word of congratulation, but Martin avoided them as far as possible. Presently Gerald reappeared.

"Lady Blanche wants to speak to you," he announced curtly.

Martin approached the group under the trees a little diffidently. Blanche's enthusiastic welcome, however, set him at his ease.

"Why didn't you come and have tea with us?" she demanded. "My congratulations! I never enjoyed cricket more in my life."

"And what it was all about I do not know," Laurita admitted—"but it was magnificent."

"A fine innings, my lad," Lord Ardrington declared.

"I hope now that they've found out that you can bat, they're going to try you bowling," Blanche said.

"I'm starting at the top end. I'm not much good, though. You'll have to excuse me, please. We're going out, I sec."

He strolled into the field and was met by Gerald, who chucked him the ball.

"Are you going to start fast?" he asked. "Because if so, I'll put Eames on at the other end. He was just getting into his leg breaks this morning."

"Good idea," Martin assented. "If I don't do any good, take me off as soon as you like. I've only bowled once or twice this season."

"Try one down the pitch," Gerald suggested.

Martin, with very little run, but with a great deal of control of the ball, bowled three almost slow balls, each of them breaking slightly from the off.

"I think I can manage the length," he decided. "Just how many have they got to make?"

"A hundred and forty-two. It's worth while taking any risks to get them out, because if we don't we've lost on the first innings."

Hawkes, the fast bowler, who had been in the Varsity Eleven, and the professional of the club, a well-known stonewaller, were the opening batsmen. Martin sent down his first two balls without very much pace but with excellent length, each being correctly and carefully played. The third ball Hawkes went forward to confidently enough, but apparently never saw it. It came in nearly a foot from the off and missed the stumps by an inch.

The next, which looked simple enough, the batsmen went forward to drive, found it break away nearly half a foot and deposited it neatly in first slip's hands. He gave the pitch a vicious little pat before he departed for the pavilion.

"Damned good, Barnes!" Gerald congratulated him. "I thought you were going to sling 'em in a bit, though."

"I want to be sure of my length, if you don't mind," Martin explained. "If I pitched them short they might make a lot of runs in byes or snicks before we knew where we were. I shall wait till the last ball of this over."

The next man, who had made fifty in the first innings, played two balls soundly but without much assurance. For the last ball of the over, Martin increased his run, swung his arm much higher, and delivered the ball at the last moment with a little plunge. There was a gasp from the spectators. The batsman had scarcely finished a careful sweep forward when he heard the crash of disaster,

"Never even saw it," he told Gerald on his way out. "Beaten to the world! I've played against some fast bowlers this season," he added, "but I've never lost sight of a ball so completely."

Afterwards the cricket tamed down. Eames' leg breaks came in for a certain amount of punishment, and Martin himself, after taking three more wickets, begged for a rest. With eight wickets down for a hundred-and-twenty-four runs and the two men who were in seemingly well set, every one began to get a little nervous. Martin stopped Gerald in crossing.

"You told me to tell you when I felt ready for another go," he said. "Can I have the next over from the top end?"

"Rather!" Gerald assented. "I was just going to ask you."

"And if you wouldn't mind a suggestion," Martin went on, "put Captain Philipson on at the other end. There's not much in his bowling, but it's straight. If they hit a few boundaries off those leg breaks of Eames, they'll make the runs. I don't think they'll hit Philipson, and it will give me a chance to get them out if I have any luck."

Gerald nodded approval, and the last era of the game commenced. Martin's third ball took the off stump of the man who had been playing the soundest innings and sent it flying half a dozen yards. The last man came in. He played the remainder of the over without disaster, and Philipson's carefully delivered six balls were productive of neither runs nor wickets. Martin was edged to the boundary for four and snicked a little luckily almost immediately afterwards for the same number. Six runs came from Philipson's next over, leaving four for victory. Martin toyed with the ball for a moment or two in genuine perplexity whilst the field settled into their places. He was called upon to face something of a problem. A fast ball, if the bat met it anywhere, was liable to go to the boundary from any sort of a flukey stroke, apart from which although the wicket-keeper was standing well back, there had already been several byes for four. Finally he took his usual run but slackened towards the end and tossed the ball down, very nearly a half volley, at barely medium pace. The batsman, with the light of triumph in his eyes, stepped out to hit. The break back, however, deceived him and although he hit it, it was to the off instead of to the on and about the height of Martin's head. There was no time to shape for the catch. His left hand shot out and the ball was for a moment invisible. Then, swinging round with the impact, he threw it gently into the air and turned to the pavilion. Ardrington had won by three runs.

 

"So you won't stay another day or two, even to be lionized," Blanche asked him, as they strolled upon the terrace that night after dinner.

He shook his head.

"Thank you," he replied. "Everyone has been quite decent about the cricket and that, but honestly I don't feel comfortable here."

"Idiot!" she murmured. "You'd get over that very soon. Come and sit down for a few moments. It's too hot to dance any more."

He acquiesced readily and they chose a retired corner.

"Well?" she murmured, a little vaguely, wondering at his prolonged silence.

"I was just thinking what a wonderful body and beautiful limbs you had," he confessed. "Somehow black too makes such a background for your hair and complexion."

For almost the first time in her life she blushed.

"My dear Martin!" she protested. "I don't often correct you, but you must not be so—what shall I say—downright?"

"You told me," he reminded her, "that nothing that was truthful and that wasn't hurtful to any one's feelings could be the wrong thing to say."

"Touché" she admitted. "Well, anyhow, I'm glad you think I look nice, as this is to be our last evening. These compliments are rather a new departure for you, though."

"They're not compliments. They're just what I think," he declared. "I am going away to-morrow and I know that one of the chief memories I shall take with me is the memory of your kindness. I think," he went on thoughtfully, "that you are one of those people who always want to give, who are always looking out for some one to help, who will always want to take the weaker side. You'd never have felt any interest in me if I'd been just like these others—gone to Eton and Oxford like your cousin, for instance, or to Wellington and Sandhurst, like Captain Philipson."

"Well, you must remember that I am a little older than most of these young people," she reflected. "Outside things are important in their way, but they don't, after all, count for a great deal. I always like to look for the character underneath. I hate taking things and people for granted. It's so slovenly and the crowd amongst whom I was brought up have always adopted this ready-made point of view. That's the reason why I'm rather a black sheep at home, why I have my own quarters and go and hide there sometimes."

"I remember having a cocktail with you in those quaint rooms of yours, the first day I ever met you. You wore a wonderful black silk or satin thing with coloured embroidery all over it."

"A Chinese tea gown," she confided. "The man whom I nearly married brought it home with him from Pekin."

"Why on earth aren't you married?"

"Because it hasn't happened to come my way, I suppose. I was rather particular when I was young and now in my early middle age—well, of course, the thing is a little more difficult."

"Early middle age!" he repeated scornfully. "I never know how to answer you when you talk nonsense."

She laughed softly.

"Oh, I daresay I shall marry some day, Mr. Martin Barnes—probably something elderly in diplomacy or politics, for the sake of a new interest in life."

"You shouldn't need that. Your life, as it is, seems to me wonderful."

"I'll tell you something, Martin," she confided. "The young people of this generation are admitted too early into everything which makes for pleasure. Naturally we tire of it too soon. That accounts for the extravagance of most of us. A Victorian bringing up sounds terrible, but at any rate there wasn't this aftermath of restlessness almost before one is grown up."

The windows behind them were thrown open by some of the dancers, and the music mingled with scraps of light conversation floated out to them. Blanche rose reluctantly to her feet.

"Well, I suppose we must go and join in these gay revels," she remarked.

The far end of the terrace, still deserted, allured with its perfumed obscurity. He glanced longingly towards it, but his courage failed him. Whilst he hesitated, Blanche was claimed by one of the men and joined the dancers, and the little oasis at which he had looked so longingly was invaded by a crowd of young people. Martin descended the steps savagely and wandered off into the garden.


CHAPTER XXIX

Martin found an unexpected sense of pleasure in his return to his rooms, in the services of Jewson, the quietness, the piles of books still waiting to be put in their places, the sense of freedom and well-being in those neatly-arranged evening clothes, and of independence instilled by the sight of his well-filled pocketbook. There had come to him on the road back from Norfolk a vivid recollection of those former rooms of his in King Street, the hard-faced landlady, the iron bedstead, the dingy sitting-room with its strip of carpet, still redolent with the odours of past meals, which he shared with other lodgers of unprepossessing manners and appearance. The contrast between that environment and his present one was marvellously invigorating. Unconsciously it ministered to his self-respect. He dressed for the evening and sent Jewson for a taxicab with some faint renewal of that spirit of adventure never altogether dormant. In his selection of a restaurant he was swayed by varying impulses. He was conscious of a distinct revulsion of feeling against the haunts of Gerald Garnham and his friends. On the other hand, the thought of the less expensive and noisier places where he had been accustomed to disport himself in the old days was utterly unattractive. He compromised in favour of the restaurant in a club which he had recently joined, a place largely patronised by the cinema and theatrical professions but with also a leaven of the other world attracted by its excellent cuisine and the shelter of its Bohemianism. Arrived there, he left his coat and hat with the attendant and descended the stairs into the famous bar for a cocktail. He chose the end stool and, having given his order, glanced casually enough at his neighbours. A moment's amazed incredulity was followed by a real start as realisation asserted itself. Seated within a few feet of him, side by side and as yet apparently ignorant of his coming, were Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt.

Again he felt a recrudescence of that sense of mystery, that interest in these two men which was distinctly tempered with some sort of apprehension. Both were dressed in dinner clothes, well fitting and well made, and the other details of their toilettes were in accordance with the fashion of the moment. Both were excellently coiffured; the hand of Victor Poole, resting upon the counter, betrayed the recent attentions of the manicurist. Yet there was something queer about them, some nameless, incomprehensible difference between them and the other loungers.

In the midst of his absorbed speculations, they simultaneously recognised him. With great deliberation Victor Porle left his stool, paused for a moment as though he were in the act of attempting to walk a tight-rope, and then came around to Martin's side.

"I am glad to see you, son-in-law," he said.

"I am afraid," Martin replied, "that I don't feel exactly the same way about it."

The newcomer seated himself upon a vacant stool.

"That," he observed, "is unfortunate, but easily understood. We will drink together."

Martin was on the point of indicating his still half-filled glass, but acting upon a sudden resolution he changed his mind.

"Thank you," he replied. "I will take a Martini. What about your friend?"

There seemed to be some sort of perfect understanding between this queerly contrasted pair. Victor Porle merely glanced across and Solomon Graunt at once approached them. He dragged a stool to Martin's other side.

"We seem to have a knack of meeting you, my young friend," he remarked.

"It appears so," Martin agreed.

Victor Porle ordered the drinks. Then he turned towards Martin.

"Where is my daughter?" he demanded.

"She is not with me."

"You are in London alone and so lately married?"

"I am in London alone," Martin acquiesced.

Victor Porle tapped his forehead for a moment with the fingers of his long and almost clawlike hand. Looking at him closely, Martin realised that with his extreme pallor, the thin red line of his ancient scar was more than ever prominent.

"It is unfortunate that she is not with you," he said. "I have made up my mind that before I leave the country I must see my daughter. You will not deny me that right?"

"I most certainly shall," Martin assured him. "And why, may I ask? She has never seen you, to her knowledge. She has no recollection of you whatever, except as a person of whom her mother died in fear. It is a little late to establish parental relations."

"That may be your point of view. It is not mine. Look at me, son-in-law. Do you notice anything about

"You seem much as usual."

"There indeed you are wrong," Victor Porle declared earnestly. "Solomon, my son-in-law is not truthful. He pretends that he does not realise that I am very, very drunk."

Solomon Graunt steadied himself upon his stool.

"You have an excellent gift of concealment," he said.

"This afternoon," Porle continued, "I drank your abominable whiskies and sodas. Solomon has been showing me London and I do not like London. London has no imagination in its drinks; it is all the time whisky and soda or champagne. At half-past six we commenced to drink cocktails. I lost count before you came in; I think this is my tenth."

"Then you are a very wonderful person," Martin pronounced.

"There have been times," Victor Porle went on, "when Solomon and I for weeks together have scarcely touched wine, spirits or cocktails, the reason for which being that we have been penniless. But when we drink, we drink as no other two men can. Solomon there follows closely in my footsteps and we commenced together a quarter of a century ago. Now, I will tell you a wonderful thing, son-in-law: neither of us has ever been what a custodian of the law would term drunk."

"Amazing!" Martin exclaimed.

"As you are now a member of my family, I will tell you what keeps us from it—strength of mind—strength of purpose. Our lives are governed by our will."

"That being so," Martin suggested, "you had both better have a cocktail with me."

"That we will do with great pleasure," Victor Porle assented. "It is fitting that we should drink together. I hope to see more of you—a great deal more of you. You are not perhaps just the husband I should have chosen for my daughter, but one must accept what has happened."

Martin ordered the cocktails and Victor Porle for a moment or two relapsed into a brooding silence.

"You left our friends at Ardrington well, I trust?" Solomon Graunt enquired.

"I left them very well indeed," Martin assured him.

"And glad to have got rid of us for a short time, without a doubt?"

"I should gather so," Martin assented. "You seem to belong to a period of his life which Lord Ardrington is anxious to forget,"

Solomon Graunt smiled slightly. He was watching the efforts of the bartender, but his smile seemed to belong to other and less pleasing things.

"Anxious to forget it, no doubt he is," he agreed, "but he never will. Not a chance, Mr. Barnes. He will always be reminded of those days. That is why Victor and I are here."

"Why don't you leave him alone?" Martin demanded. "What's the use of carrying a grudge on all these years?"

"A grudge like ours," Solomon Graunt said, with a return of his unpleasant smile, "is not a thing which one forgets."

"I don't see what you are going to do about it," Martin remarked.

"You would not. Quite true—you would not," Victor Porle intervened. "But then you see, even when we are as drunk as we are to-night, we do not tell our secrets. We have withdrawn from Norfolk, finding our friend and former partner ungrateful, finding that he has stolen a march upon me and deprived me temporarily of my daughter, but we have our plans."

"If you took the honest advice of a man of common sense," Martin said earnestly, "you would give up this idea of forcing yourself upon Laurita. Abductions are out of date in this country, as I should think your friends realized the other night."

"My son-in-law alludes to an incident of which I know nothing," Victor Porle declared, with great solemnity.

"Naturally you wouldn't. Still, why not get this into your heads; Laurita is safely and legally in our keeping. You have spent most of your time in less civilised countries, and you can't or won't understand that that ends the matter. As for Lord Ardrington—well, he admits that he was once your partner, but I can assure you that he never wishes to see either of you again."

The cocktails were served. Victor Porle lifted his glass and bowed.

"You have insight, son-in-law," he said, with a sarcasm which he took no pains to hide, "and what I believe is called British common sense. Yet if you know so much, you should know more. Lord Ardrington—as our former partner is now called—fears us—fears us both very much. There is nothing else in life which he fears so much as the feeling that we are near."

"Why should he?" Martin asked.

Victor Porle set down his glass empty.

"You have one fault, my young friend," he declared, "the fault of youth. You ask too many questions, and you wish to receive information for nothing. . . . Solomon," he went on, turning to his friend, "these cocktails taste all alike; the drinking of them has ceased to give me pleasure. Let us dine. Son-in-law, dine with us."

Martin did not hesitate for a moment.

"Why not?"

"We will dine down here if you have no objection," Porle proposed. "We engaged a table and ordered dinner an hour ago. I go now to wash my hands. In five minutes we meet again. It shall be a feast of welcome, son-in-law. You and I will speak of the future."

They left the bar, walking a little stiffly but with absolute precision. Martin gazed after them with never lessening astonishment. They seemed to him to conform to no known type of humans, to share a common and unanalysable gift of mystery. The enterprise of the dinner seemed to him suddenly foolish. Drunk or sober, how was he to measure his wits against theirs successfully?...

They dined in a corner of the grillroom and Victor Porle, who sat at the head of the table, commanded the instant and obsequious services of the head waiter and his subordinates. With the mark of his scar in the shadow, seated rigidly upright, and talking with almost pedantic exactitude, he presented a not altogether undistinguished appearance, dominating completely the little party over which he presided. Solomon Graunt, on one side, became a sycophant; Martin, the average young Englishman, an alien figure.

"The relation," Victor Porle observed, after having carefully tasted and approved of the sauce which was about to be served, "between a father and his son-in-law is an exceedingly delicate one. It involves, however, a certain amount of confidence. It occurs to me, Martin Barnes, that you may like to know the reason why Solomon, my old friend and partner, and I are in these days somewhat inclined to place alcohol amongst the primary blessings of life. Permit me then to explain the matter to you. Solomon and I, after years of poverty, of adventure of every sort, made our fortunes in New York, ostensibly as fruit merchants, actually as bootleggers. . . . We have much to thank America for," he continued, after a moment's pause. "Her bootlegging is the most magnificent industry which ever commended itself to men in whom lives the love of adventure. Solomon—bootlegging! We raise our glasses to bootlegging."

The glasses had already been filled with champagne and Martin did not hesitate to join in the toast.

"But," Victor Porle went on—"and here, my son-in-law, you will, I think, admit our wisdom—during those seven years—year after year realising for us a moderate-sized fortune—we swore to each other that no drink should pass our lips, and we kept our word. Never shall I forget the ecstasy of that day when we finally cashed in our securities and stepped on board the steamer for Europe. In one hour the bar was to open, the primary joy of a man's life was waiting for us, the thirst of seven years was to be quenched."

"Talking some, ain't you?" Mr. Solomon Graunt observed.

"There are times when speech is difficult for me," Victor Porle rejoined. "To-night, wine and the presence of my dear son-in-law have freed my lips. All is not yet well with us. We have an old grudge to deal with, a hatred to assuage. We were badly treated in the past. I myself was robbed of a wife—temporarily I was robbed of a daughter. The time has come for my reunion with her and I find difficulties."

"Yes," Martin agreed, "there will be difficulties."

"They may not last for ever. It is possible, son-in-law, that I may gain your confidence. It is even possible that you will realise the advantages of a wealthy father-in-law."

"I have all the money I need," Martin declared, "and I'd like to make this clear to you: you're giving me a very good dinner, for which I am correspondingly grateful, but so far as Laurita is concerned, I mean to keep her away from you. You will never either see her or speak to her if I can help it. Now, what are you going to do about that?"

Victor Porle sipped his wine as though it were the first drink of a long and harassed day.

"I fear," he sighed, "that you have been prejudiced against me."

"I don't think it's a matter of prejudice," Martin retorted, "I have confidence in Lord Ardrington and I have adopted his statement of the past as being the truth. He tells me that you utterly failed to support your wife, that you left her to earn an unworthy living in some low-class South American dancing hall, that when you came to see her you were brutal, that she spent her life in terror of you. You may have changed since then—I hope so, but I look upon any attempt on your part at parental claim over Laurita as simply ridiculous."

Solomon Graunt glanced up from his plate.

"Hold on, young man," he enjoined. "You haven't got it all right yet. There was never a greater scoundrel in South America in those days than the present Lord Ardrington."

"Then there were probably three of you together," Martin declared bluntly, "because he says exactly the same thing about you."

Victor Porle drank long and voraciously. He waited until his glass was filled up and he drained it again. His cheeks seemed to grow only a little paler, but there was a slight moisture upon his forehead.

"It is a great pity," he regretted, "when old partners and companions fall out. So far as my friend Solomon Graunt and myself are concerned we never hesitate to confess that we have had our ups and downs. We chose an adventurous career early in life—and by Jesu Maria," he exclaimed, with a sudden and unexpected tremble in his voice, "we have had it! We have killed sooner than be killed; we have stolen rather than be robbed. A black enough record ours, no doubt, but we have tasted life."

"Incidentally," Solomon Graunt announced, with a greedy upward glance, "we have never tasted a better saddle of lamb."

"Eating," Victor Porle observed, "is the second good in life."

"And the third?" Martin ventured.

"Women, I suppose," Victor Porle admitted in his colourless tone. "Here we bow a little perhaps to popular prejudice. Solomon and I share what you would possibly call the barbarian sense of woman's place in life. . . . Ah, I see that you are listening intently, my son-in-law," he went on, with an ugly smile, "and I shall not conceal from you the fact that such women as have drifted into the lives of my friend Solomon and myself we have generally had to fight for. We have lived in lands where women were scarce. We have fought for them and used them for such purposes as we needed—for beasts of burden, domestic slaves or amusement. We have had no time for sentiment. We have never lived in soft places."

Martin was listening with obvious repugnance to his host's diatribe. He had the air of one hemmed in by circumstances; an unwilling listener, a conventional prisoner, eager for escape.

"You may speak with authority on drink and food," he exclaimed, "but when you begin to talk about women you are worse than the mad swine of the Scriptures!"

Solomon Graunt leaned a little back in his chair, sipping his wine.

"The first two are enough," he declared. "All men quarrel about women. Let us leave them alone. Such lamb! Such asparagus! My friend Victor, you are marvellously served."

"One is always well served if one knows what one wants—in life as in the restaurants," Victor Porle pronounced. "I know what I want—the best—and I order accordingly. Now we will drink Turkish coffee and the nectar of men and gods—brandy. Son-in-law, I must see more of you. Here is our address. Here we are always to be found. You must change your mind. You must bring my daughter to see me."

With deliberate care he drew from his pocket a little handful of letters and replaced them, keeping only a single envelope, on the back of which he wrote slowly and unfalteringly two addresses: one a number at the Milan Hotel; the other the address of some lawyers in Lincoln's Inn. He pushed the envelope across to Martin.

"Put that in your pocketbook," he enjoined, "We are closely connected, Mr. Martin Barnes. We must not part in ignorance of one another's whereabouts."

Martin, with the envelope in his hand, was gazing not at the address but at the inscription printed upon the flap—"Ulrick and Cogden, Plymouth." For a moment only the familiarity of the name struck him. Then he glanced up at his host.

"Is that your yacht lying off Lynton?" he demanded.

The moment the words had escaped his lips he realised his error. The face of Victor Porle seemed suddenly to have become inscrutable. Both men were wonderful. Even their expressions were sphinx-like. Nevertheless, for a single second the light of murder flamed in Victor Porle's eyes as he looked at his guest.

"A yacht," he said, "is the last luxury in life I should be likely to indulge in. Why do you ask me such a question, son-in-law?"

"Because I have just come from Devonshire, and in a little bay where I fished there is lying a yacht hired through a firm of agents—Ulrick and Cogden—the name on the flap of this envelope. I wondered whether it was you who were the tenant of an old manor house there and the charterer of the yacht."

Victor Porle shook his head.

"Whilst I remain in this country," he said, "London is the city for me, son-in-law. I am not likely to travel so far as Devonshire. I am still less likely to charter a yacht. The letter contained in the envelope which you have was a request for a reference—a matter of no importance."

There was a brief silence during which Martin felt that both men were watching him closely.

"And what took you to Devonshire, son-in-law?" his host asked at last.

"I went there as an ordinary tourist," Martin replied, trying his best to keep his voice steady. "I was there for a month and used to fish in the sea nearly every day round Lynton."

"An interesting and healthy occupation," Victor Porle murmured. "You look the better for it, son-in-law. You were a little pale and nervous when we met last. Sea air and sunshine have made a man of you. Now, let us try what brandy can do."

Great glasses were brought to them. Victor Porle spoke a few words in rapid French to the maître d'hôtel and the latter presently produced a dust-covered bottle of quaint shape which he reverently opened.

"This is the veritable brandy of Napoleon," Victor Porle confided. "Drink it freely, son-in-law. The chance will not come often."

"It would be wasted on me," Martin warned him. "I am not used to these things."

Victor Porle, his thin hands clasping the bulge of his glass, looked across at his guest with glinting curiosity in his narrowed eyes.

"To what are you used, my son-in-law?" he demanded. "Where did you spring from? What strange fate made you a minion of Ardrington? Did no one ever whisper to you that it was dangerous to cross the wills of such men as Solomon Graunt and myself?"

"Considering that I have only just become aware of your existence," Martin observed, "how the mischief could I be troubled with any such silly idea?"

"Spoken with British common sense," Victor Porle assented. "Can one accept the plea, Solomon? I am not sure. You have the air of studying me, son-in-law. What are your thoughts?"

"I was thinking," Martin confessed, "that it was amazing how much you talk and how little you say,"

"It is the drink in me. It unloosens my tongue. I forget my hesitations. I could speak as fluently as I am speaking now in seven languages. Am I not a father-in-law to be proud of, Martin Barnes?"

"Why?" Martin rejoined coolly. "Many of the professors at the Berlitz Schools can do that."

"Literal—shockingly literal again!" Porle declared. "Alas, I am being driven to the sad conclusion that you have no imagination, son-in-law. That in itself is a crime. Apart from which, you have robbed me of my daughter."

"What are you going to do about that?"

"What a blunt, what a thoroughly Saxon question! How could you expect that I should tell you, young man? You drink with us to-night. You have put on one side your obvious distaste, and you have dined with us. You tolerate our company because you imagine yourself clever enough to gain some inkling of our future plans and transmit them to your friend and patron, Lord Ardrington. You are indeed a simpleton. It is fortunate that you do not have to live by your wits."

Martin half rose to his feet but Solomon Graunt pushed him back again.

"My friend Victor is in a strange mood," he said. "Bear with him, I beg of you."

"I am in a strange mood," Victor Porle acquiesced,"'because I am magnificently drunk. Son-in-law, drink more of this brandy. Believe me, it will make a man of you. I am not altogether satisfied with you as a husband for my beautiful daughter. There is something wrong with you. I don't quite know what it is. Perhaps as our acquaintance progresses I shall discover it. Solomon, what is wrong with our young friend here?"

"He has more conscience than brains," Solomon Graunt pronounced. "In the end, that always makes a simpleton of a man."

"A true diagnosis," Victor Porle assented approvingly. "Ingenuous is perhaps the adjective to apply to our young friend. He has dined with us in the hope of fathoming our plans. Many have hung around whilst we were in liquor in the old days, Solomon, but it did them little good. Is it doing you any good, son-in-law?"

Martin was gazing into his glass.

"This brandy seems to have a funny taste, somehow," he muttered.

There was the slow commencement of a vicious smile on Victor Porle's pallid lips. Suddenly Martin clutched at the tablecloth. The room seemed to have taken an unexpected lurch. He had once taken gas at a dentist's, and he felt the same sensations. A voice came to him from a long way off. It was Victor Porle's, apologising for him.

"A weak head, alas! A pity, in a public place. My son-in-law too!"

The other faces faded away, and he saw only Victor Porle's, the smile broadening. Then he saw nothing at all.


CHAPTER XXX

Lord Ardrington had suffered a relapse; once more he was peevish, irritable, apprehensive. The head waiter of the Ritz grillroom, a person of infinite tact and patience, having finally succeeded in obtaining his order for dinner, retired to the farther end of the room in hurt aloofness.

"Well, we're here," his difficult patron exclaimed gloomily, looking round at his companions. "I don't see what good we expect to do. Anything in the evening papers, Gerald?"

"Nothing at all, sir."

Laurita and Blanche, still in their travelling clothes, completed the little party. They had motored up from Ardrington that morning—the fourth since Martin's disappearance.

"I think, if I may say so, you people are getting the wind up about nothing," Gerald remarked thoughtfully, as he toyed with the menu. "Fellows are always disappearing for a few days and turning up again afterwards."

"But not under the same circumstances," Blanche objected, "According to the papers, Martin changed his clothes after he got up from Ardrington and simply went out to dine. He took no luggage and expressly told his servant that he would be back before eleven. That is four days ago and not a thing has been heard of him."

"Of course, he may have got into trouble," Gerald reflected, "especially if he was carrying a good deal of money about with him. There isn't much of that sort of thing in London, though. I shouldn't be surprised to find that he has just gone on a jolly good bat, someone has lent him some clothes, and he'll come back all right when he's tired of it. He seemed a harmless enough chap down at Ardrington, but then he was rather out of his métier, wasn't he? He probably had a few little affairs hanging over from the time when he was a commercial traveller and played cricket for the Bermondsey Wanderers."

"You're a very bad judge of your fellow men if you believe anything of the sort," Blanche said quietly. "If he has met with any serious trouble, I think it is probably due rather to his new friends than his old."

Gerald finished his cocktail and stood up to take his leave.

"Sorry I can't dine," he apologised. "If I'd had any idea that you people were coming up, I'd have arranged it."

Laurita made a little grimace.

"It is not pleasant to have you leave us," she complained.

"It is very hard luck on me that I have to," he rejoined, dropping his voice. "Never mind, I shall come back, and there will be to-morrow."

He raised her fingers to his lips and departed. Laurita's eyes followed him to the door.

"Gerald doesn't seem particularly sympathetic," Blanche remarked drily.

Laurita sighed.

"He is not fond of Martin, I am afraid," she said. "Men are like that."

Dinner was served and conversation for a time languished. Then the two men entered the restaurant, unexpectedly, dramatically. It was Blanche who saw them first. She recognised them at once, though the only time she had seen them before was one hasty glimpse as they had sauntered down the terrace at Ardrington. She laid her hand upon her uncle's arm.

"Uncle," she whispered, "buck up, there's a dear! They're coming in here to dine—Victor Porle and the little man."

Lord Ardrington's exclamation was almost a smothered cry of terror.

"My God!" he exclaimed. "Have they seen us?"

"Not yet," Blanche answered. "And when they do, what does it matter? They can't even annoy us in here."

Without a doubt the two men seemed to have the knack of inspiring confidence and respect amongst maîtres d'hôtel. The head waiter himself, venturing out from his obscurity, ushered them to their table, a corner one, only a few yards away, and it was he who placed the menus in their hands.

"They're quite harmless here," Blanche went on reassuringly. "On the whole, I'm rather glad to see them. It shows they can't have whisked Martin off anywhere."

Her uncle made no reply. He seemed indeed scarcely capable of speech. His cheeks were of an ashen colour; the old horror of Ardrington was upon him again. Laurita leaned forward and patted his hand. Under her black motoring veil, her face was strangely pale, although her lips and eyes remained vivid and alluring.

"What could happen which need alarm you?" she said soothingly. "I myself feel safer here in London than in the country. They can do us no harm."

Lord Ardrington made a great effort.

"You are both of you right," he confessed; "both you and Blanche. What I feel about these two men, however, is not capable of explanation. I feel as though there moved with them the shadows of my old misdeeds—black, grisly and mocking effigies. They know it too, and they glory in it."

The head waiter, whose portly person had blocked the intervening space, departed now to hand in his order, and with his movement the occupants of the two tables were in full view of one another. There was a moment's inaction, then a whispered word or two from Victor Porle to his companion, following which the former rose to his feet and deliberately crossed the few yards which separated them. Blanche watched his approach with acute yet disturbed curiosity. Lord Ardrington, whose self-control in moments, of crisis seemed automatically to reassert itself, sat with the face of a sphinx. Laurita's eyes were fixed upon her father's, tense and fascinated. The latter bowed very low towards her, but she made no response, neither did she turn away her gaze.

"Ardrington," the newcomer began, standing by his side with the air of one very much at his ease, "I venture to pay you this, I fear, undesired visit, because I can offer you news of a matter in which you are doubtless interested."

No possible words could have more completely surprised the little company.

"You mean that you know something about the disappearance of Martin Barnes?" Blanche demanded.

"I know this much," was the smooth reply. "On Tuesday night my friend Solomon Graunt and I dined at Mario's. Whilst we sat at the bar your young friend came in. He accepted our invitation to join us in a cocktail—perhaps two, perhaps three. It was our impression—we may have been mistaken—that he had already had several before he came."

"I do not believe it—the imputation, at any rate," Blanche said steadily.

Victor Porle bowed but there was a wicked light for a moment in his eyes.

"I offer my impressions solely," he reminded her, "impressions shared, I may add, by my friend, Mr. Solomon Graunt. We invited Mr. Barnes to dine with us. Under the circumstances it seemed to me that it would be a good opportunity to further my acquaintance with him—under the circumstances of which we all know."

There was a breathless silence at the little table. Victor Porle had turned once more towards Laurita, whose eyes had never left his face. He seemed for a moment about to address her directly, but apparently changed his mind.

"Mr. Barnes—my son-in-law, I am informed—accepted my invitation," he went on. "We drank a magnum of champagne for dinner and some brandy to follow. I formed the impression—I beg that if I am contradicted it will be borne in mind that I offer this as my impression only—that the young man was either unaccustomed to drinking wine or that he had indulged to some extent during the afternoon. At any rate, towards the close of our meal, I regret to state that my son-in-law showed symptoms of intoxication."

"Mr. Barnes has been my guest in the country for some time," Lord Ardrington said. "I have never seen any signs of such a weakness."

"Nor any one else," Blanche put in coldly.

"His habits in London," Victor Porle observed, "may be different, or he may perhaps have been suffering from some strain. Who can tell?"

His eyes once more invited Laurita's speech, but she remained obstinately silent. Presently he proceeded:

"The head waiter came and whispered to me, pointing out the condition of my guest and suggested his removal by a commissionaire. That, of course, we could not permit. My friend Solomon Graunt and I escorted the young man to a taxicab and drove him to his rooms, the address of which we were able to extract from him after some difficulty. Arrived there, he appeared somewhat recovered, but surly. He declined our further assistance, and the last we saw of him, he was crossing the pavement with the key in his hand, prepared to enter his flat."

"You didn't wait to see him in, then?" Blanche enquired.

"It did not seem to us necessary. We thought no more of the matter until we read the paragraph in the papers yesterday. We immediately paid a visit to the Deputy Commissioner of Police and laid our information before him. Seeing you here and judging that you might be interested, I ventured to hand you the latest information."

"Why did you not take Mr. Barnes back to your own rooms or hotel until he was recovered?" Blanche asked.

"We would have done so only as a last resort," Victor Porle replied. "We are staying at the Milan, which in its way may be a cosmopolitan hotel, but where a very strict surveillance is kept upon the guests. To have returned there with a drunken companion would have been an indiscretion on our part. I considered—my friend Solomon Graunt also considered—that we did better to take the young man directly to his own apartments."

"Which he never reached," Blanche observed calmly.

Victor Porle indulged in a little deprecating gesture.

"Can we be blamed?" he asked quietly. "You would say that we should have remained until we had seen him through the door, but consider: he was able to descend from the taxicab unaided, he crossed the pavement without difficulty. We were glad to have finished with the episode."

There was a moment's silence, broken on this occasion by Lord Ardrington.

"Did you say that you were staying at the Milan?" he enquired.

"We expect to be there for another month. The business which brought us to England—is not yet finished."

With a little bow which included them all and a last cryptic glance at Laurita, who was trembling violently, Victor Porle turned away and rejoined his companion. Blanche's hand rested affectionately for a moment upon her uncle's.

"Uncle," she confided, "I am beginning to understand, and my sympathy is growing. Every word you have told me about that man I believe."


CHAPTER

Loud Ardrington stood with his niece before the swing doors of the Ritz, waiting for the taxi which he had summoned. It had turned out an unexpectedly wet night and vehicles were scarce.

"I wish to the devil, Blanche," he said irritably, "you'd give up living in that miserable mews and let me take a room for you here."

"You're rather rough on my poor little abode, Uncle," she protested. "It isn't as bad as all that, really, and the glories of these big hotels never did appeal to me."

"That's all very well," he complained, "but you ought to have got over the young woman's latchkey fever by this time. One doesn't want to consider these things too much, of course, but the newspaper fellows do love to get hold of gossip about a duke's daughter. Apart from that, it's a solitary spot. I wouldn't call it safe for any good-looking young woman living absolutely alone,"

Blanche laughed a little scornfully,

"I don't think any one would try to molest me," she said. "I have a revolver by the side of my bed and there are half a dozen of the chauffeurs and the chauffeurs' wives farther along the building, almost within call—and the telephone. I'm not quite so cut off as I seem,"

"Living in a place with a damned stepladder," Lord Ardrington grumbled. "It does seem ridiculous, Blanche. Besides, you'd be company for Laurita. I can't be with her all the time, and I don't want her to go out alone."

"If we stay up much longer," Blanche promised, "I'll move over here."

"I'll remind you of that to-morrow. I'm not quite as narrow-minded as your father, you know, but I do call it a nervous job for any young woman living alone in a damned loft night after night."

"But what on earth could happen to me?" she scoffed. "I don't even keep my jewellery there. It's all at the bank when Banningham House is closed."

"You've quite enough on now for any ordinary thief," he rejoined, "Well, here's your taxi. Good night!"

"Good night," she laughed, "and don't you worry about me."

Nevertheless, it was perhaps a curious coincidence that as she crossed the cobbled yard a quarter of an hour later and mounted the wooden steps to the outside door of her unusual abode, Blanche felt the first sensation of nervousness she had ever experienced in connection with it. She let herself in and turned on the lights quickly, glanced into her bedroom to see that everything was in order, and then threw herself upon the couch in the quaint little room she called her studio. There were sketches upon the walls signed by famous names, a bar or two of music by the greatest living composer, a baby grand piano in its corner, for months untouched. Here, at any rate, she was at home with herself; with her golf clubs, her racquets, fishing rods, twenty-bore shotgun, a few photographs; everything was untidy, yet not slipshod. She made a grimace as she contemplated moving into the Ritz, a part of her repugnance arising, as she very well knew, from the thought that it was her duty to Laurita, She lit a cigarette and lay there for some time thinking hard, her hands clasped behind her head, her eyes fixed upon the ceiling. Men of every degree in life had been her suitors; she could count them almost by the dozen. She had told them what she had honestly believed—that she had no vocation for marriage, that the finality of it appalled her. Yet to-day she was keeping a secret from herself—a ridiculous, illogical, unimaginable secret. She was a fine judge of all men, not only from the superficial point of view but of their mental qualities and character. She deceived herself in no way about Martin. She did not glorify him or attempt to ignore his frequent lapses from the standard she had always set up in her mind. The enigma at the end of her thoughts was invariably the same: what could there be which this man possessed which appealed when others, far more obviously impressive, failed? She rose and walked restlessly up and down the room, lit another cigarette and began to consider the subject of going to bed.

Suddenly all her sense of nervousness returned. She was unable to account for it; there were no sounds outside, no one would be likely to attempt a burglary, she told herself, on the first night of her return after having left the place unoccupied for so long. Yet her nervousness was undoubtedly increasing at every moment, an indefinable hatred of her solitude, a queer physical apprehension, something a little allied—as she thought with a lightning-like flash of realisation—to the terrified state in which her uncle had lived whilst his two enemies were near. She crossed the passage into her bedroom and snatched up the revolver from its place by her bed. Once more she listened. Then came the last sound of all which she had expected to hear—the stealthy insertion of a key in her outside door, the sound of its slight drag across the narrow strip of drugget. She stood for a moment as though turned to stone, although with the actual drawing near of peril she lost much of her fear. She heard the door closed. There was a moment's pause as though the intruder were looking into the sitting room. Then, before her eyes, she saw the handle of the bedroom door slowly turn, the door itself open inch by inch, the figure of a man loom into sight.

"What do you want?" she asked sharply. "Don't come an inch nearer or I shall fire."

She switched on the light which she had temporarily lowered. Then she gave a little cry.

"Martin!" she exclaimed. "My God! Martin!"

She was breathlessly amazed. At first indeed it seemed as thought it might be an apparition. It was Martin, but he was wearing unfamiliar clothes; his navy blue serge suit bore the hall-mark of the ready-made tailor; his linen was none too clean; he had lost the sunburn of the country. Nevertheless, it was Martin, and though his eyes were sunken and he had the look of a man who had suffered, his voice was steady enough.

"It's all right, Lady Blanche," he said. "Forgive me, please."

"Forgive you?" she gasped.

"For coming here. I couldn't help it. It seemed such a wonderful opportunity."

"What on earth are you talking about?" she demanded. "Where have you been? Why did you disappear? Don't you know that the police are looking for yon?"

He nodded.

"I guessed they were," he admitted. "I don't know that I'm particularly anxious for them to find me just yet."

"But have you been hurt? You look ill."

"Yes, I've been hurt a bit," he acknowledged.

"But who took you away? What hurt you? What became of you?"

"I've come to tell you about it. You don't happen to have a little whisky?"

"What do you suppose," she rejoined—"with all my visitors! Come into the other room."

She led the way across the passage, opened her cupboard, and mixed him a drink with trembling fingers. Then she pushed him into an easy-chair and seated herself on a great cushion by his side.

"Tell me everything your own way," she begged.

He gulped down nearly half the whisky and soda greedily. When he began to talk, he still hugged the tumbler.

"It's those two—my amiable father-in-law and Solomon Graunt," he confided. "I blundered up against them the night I came back from Ardrington. They invited me to dinner. I accepted like a fool, thinking I might find out some of their plans. To complete my folly, I noticed the names of some yacht agents printed on the flap of an envelope upon which Victor Porle wrote some addresses, and asked him questions which he didn't want to answer. Ill tell you more about that later. They put something in my brandy, pretended I was drunk and dragged me off. I suppose it was a trick any child might have guarded against, although, somehow or other, one can't believe that those things really happen nowadays. When I opened my eyes, I found myself here."

"Here?" Blanche exclaimed incredulously.

"The loft just opposite you. The one with the brown door."

"But Créon, the French artist, has that."

"There isn't a Créon," he replied grimly. "Créon is Victor Porle, although I'd have passed him in the street without knowing him. He only comes there at night or odd times. When he comes, you'd find that there was no Mr. Victor Porle at the Milan Hotel. He keeps the place for meeting people he doesn't want to be seen with at the Milan. There's been a woman there for an hour or so the last three or four days—and he used it for me."

"But what do they want you for?" she demanded.

"It's Laurita they want," he explained, "and they want her damned badly. If they can get hold of her by any means, they are going to take her back to San Paulo."

"But I don't understand at all," Blanche declared. "Surely they don't talk before you?"

"They think I am much worse than I am. I couldn't move for the first two days. Since then I have pretended I couldn't."

"But how did you let yourself in here?" she demanded. He smiled faintly.

"Do you remember giving me your key to take care of when we were playing tennis? I put it on my key ring."

"Of course I do," she assented, after a moment's reflection. "I couldn't think where I'd left it. I had to get the other one from the caretaker here."

"I lie in bed most of the day within sight of your window," he continued. "I saw you come in to-night. That's why I ventured to come across."

"Hadn't we better ring up Scotland Yard at once," she suggested.

"For God's sake, no! I haven't come away for good. I'm going back."

"Going back!"

"It's the best chance of finding out what they really are up to. They won't do me any particular harm. They think I'm a more desperate fellow than I am, after that little scrap in the park, and their idea is to keep me there helpless until they've brought something off. I'm going to stay helpless until I find out what it is. Do you happen to have any salt, Lady Blanche?"

"Salt?" she repeated, wonderingly.

He produced a small chemist's bottle, half tilled with white powder, from his pocket and shook the contents out on to a piece of paper.

"This is their dope," he explained. "I get a dose in the trifle of food they give me, every day. Now if you can replace that with salt, it isn't going to do me much harm."

She produced salt from a cupboard and watched him half fill the bottle.

"I don't think you ought to go back, Martin," she pronounced, "Supposing they find out that you are humbugging?"

"Oh, I'm safe enough," he assured her. "They don't want to run any particular risk about me. They are too keen on the other thing. Suppose I go to the police now, what's my charge against them? I couldn't prove I was drugged. They could bring any number of witnesses to declare I was drunk. Victor Porle would simply declare that I had D.T., that I had lost my memory, that he could not find out where I belonged, and that he had let me occupy the studio until I came to. It would all sound fishy enough in a way, no doubt, but they haven't robbed me or ill-treated me, so there is no criminal charge against them. I am quite sure that if I stick it out another day or two, I shall be able to tumble to their little game,"

"It's very sporting of you," she murmured.

He finished his drink and handed her the tumbler.

"You don't know how much good that's done me," he confided, with a touch of his old self. "Is that a cake on the sideboard, Lady Blanche?"

She cut him a huge slice, which he ate voraciously, and accepted another whisky and soda.

"You didn't believe that I was drunk, did you?" he asked.

"As a matter of fact, I didn't. I was the only one who was obstinate about it, though."

"I don't care, so long as you didn't believe it."

There was a moment's silence. Blanche had turned away to help herself to some soda water. Presently she returned to his side.

"Have you had any conversation with Victor Porle?" she enquired. "Has he tried to make any terms with you?"

"In a way," Martin admitted. "You see, I don't think he realises quite how complete a farce our marriage was, and he is all the time trying to come the beneficent father-in-law over me and to try and persuade me that he just wants to see Laurita to give her a father's blessing and that sort of thing. Do write and beg Lord Ardrington to keep her down in the country."

"Too late," Blanche regretted. "We all came up this morning."

Martin was evidently disturbed.

"Why on earth did you do that?" he demanded.

"My dear young man, you don't know how famous you have become. There have been paragraphs in all the papers about your mysterious disappearance. Uncle couldn't help coming up, and of course he couldn't leave Laurita behind,"

"I am sorry," he pronounced gloomily. "For some reason or other, that's exactly what they wanted. Porle's great idea was to get me to sign a letter persuading them to come to London on some pretext or another."

"They can't carry Laurita off by force from the centre of London," Blanche pointed out, after a moment's reflection. "Victor Porle himself is too clever a man to attempt anything so stupid."

"Don't ask me," he begged. "I have nothing to do over there but lie still hour after hour, trying to piece things together. I heard the woman tell him yesterday that I should be much better got rid of, but he only laughed. He told her that the only part of me to be feared was my fists."

"Do you mean to say that they talked like this when you were within hearing?"

"It's the only joke I had on them. They talked in Spanish, and when I left school and went into the leather firm I was with, they sent me out to Barcelona for two years to their hide market, so of course I picked up smatterings of the language. Graunt came down one night and they told the woman together how they had disposed of a Portuguese up in a silver mine who had found them out in something or other. Pretty horrid story it was!"

"Martin," she exclaimed, "I sha'n't let you go back!"

"I am going," he insisted. "You see, Lady Blanche," he went on, "I have imbibed a little of your uncle's superstition. Home Services and police and locked doors are all very well in ordinary cases, but these men have got what they want through life, and they'll go on doing it. I've heard them talk. I've wondered sometimes whether they were human. They have no fear; they'll never be caught doing anything they'd have to suffer for, but I think they'd go out themselves just as readily as they'd put any one else out, I'm not going to leave them there planning this thing, whatever it may be. I have a chance, so long as they think I'm still too weak to move and still half-witted. I'm going to hold on to it."

Blanche deliberated for several moments.

"You're very obstinate, Martin," she said. "I think after you have gone I shall take the matter into my own hands and ring up the police."

He shook his head.

"You wouldn't do a thing like that, Lady Blanche. It wouldn't be playing the game. It's been splendid to come and talk to you—like coming back into life again for a few moments—but you must let me go through this my own way."

He munched another piece of cake, lingering over the remains of his whisky and soda.

"Dear me, you're very troublesome," Blanche sighed.

"If I am, you'll have to put up with it," he warned her. "Life's an odd thing, Three months ago I was—well, you know what—and yet, funnily enough, in a way, I was moderately content. And now, I would rather those men murdered me than go back to the old life. I used to be afraid when I had a cold. I don't suppose I was exactly a coward, but the very thought of dying threw me into a sweat, and now I can listen to those two blackguards talking murder and never even blink. I'll tell you something, Lady Blanche: if it comes to a scrap, and if I can get past any one's gun, and I can once have my fingers on Victor Porle's throat, I shall kill him. I've heard him speak of Laurita—he—her father—and what he intends. Yes, I shall kill Victor Porle if I get the chance. Fancy, a few months ago my thinking of killing anyone," he concluded, with a nervous little laugh which was half a sob.

"Martin," she pleaded, "you're not strong enough to go back. You're half starved. You wouldn't have the strength for a great fight. You could help Laurita more if you just told the truth and let the police do what they can."

"I'm going to stick it out," he said doggedly. "You needn't be afraid, either. I'm not throwing my life away if I can help it."

"How did you get out?" she enquired.

"Your key fits. There'll be no one there till to-morrow morning. Then Victor Porle will arrive with a roll or some bread in a paper bag, I shall be given a little water from the tap, he'll take some sketches from a portfolio and out he'll go again. The woman's coming back in the afternoon, though. It's when he talks to her I get the chance. You can't blame them for not imagining that a chap like me can speak Spanish. I'd better go now."

She laid her hand upon his arm. She felt an ever-increasing reluctance to part with him.

"Must you?" she protested. "You're more comfortable here."

"The chauffeurs come back presently," he explained, "and the night club at the top end opens. Just as well for no one to see me. Monsieur Créon might hear about it to-morrow morning."

"Is that your window opposite?" she asked.

"That's it. If ever you see a book on the sill, you'll know that there's danger, that I'm giving up the game and want help. Then you can telephone for the police if you like."

"I'll watch for it," she promised.

He rose to his feet. The cake and the whisky and soda seemed to have given him strength. He was more like himself as he held out his hand a little awkwardly.

"Good night, Lady Blanche,"

"You must go?" she repeated, looking away from him out of the window.

"I daren't risk it any longer. Don't get up. I can let myself out very quietly."

She watched him descend the wooden stairs, cross the cobbled yard, glance for a moment to the right and to the left, and mount the corresponding stairs leading to Monsieur Créon's studio. He inserted the key in the door and in a moment or two later disappeared, closing it behind him. The light flashed for a second in his window to show her that he was safe. Blanche went back to her bedroom, amazed to find that she was trembling in every limb.


CHAPTER XXXII

Every class of society seemed to have contributed to the little crowd seated or gathered round the long green baize-topped table in the large reception room of a mansion on the outskirts of Mayfair. There was a duke, more noted for his gambling propensities and the multiplicity of his feminine obligations than for any attention to the supposed duties of his position, a well-known actress, many representatives of the world which is sometimes known and sometimes unknown to society, a sprinkling of stockbrokers and bookmakers, and a few impossible of classification. They were all very carefully and correctly dressed and most of them shared that air of stealthiness assumed by those breaking the law who are not habitual criminals. No one appeared more at his ease than Victor Porle, who was standing behind the chair of a very beautiful white-haired woman, whose brilliant eyes and perfect complexion gave her a singularly youthful appearance. She glanced round to discover him standing there, and leaving her gold purse and chatelaine case to mark her seat, she rose to her feet.

"I will drink something, if you please, Victor," she said. "They are so slow here that it will be half an hour before the bank is mine again."

They walked down the room side by side, passing Gerald Garnham, who was seated in an easy-chair set back against the wall, his hands in his pockets, his legs crossed, a scowl upon his pale face. The woman touched her companion's arm.

"He too is of the party," she confided. "He met them and had cocktails to-night. He is, I understand, a nephew of Lord Ardrington's—a Mr. Gerald Garnham."

Victor Porle glanced at the young man with interest.

"Gerald Garnham," he repeated. "That interests me, Rosita. It is the family name and I have no doubt that you are right."

They mounted a step and entered a little bar in which were many easy-chairs, a mahogany counter, a dazzling array of bottles and an obviously American bartender in white linen clothes. Victor Porle ordered a champagne cocktail for his companion, and drank brandy himself.

"You are well established, Rosita?" he enquired.

"Without the slightest difficulty. I have stayed there before. I have very beautiful rooms and the great respect of every one on the staff. I await now the next move."

"Leave that entirely in my hands," Victor Porle enjoined. "Discourage overtures from anyone. You are Madame da Mendora from Buenos Aires, the widow of the Argentine railway king. That already is known."

"Tell me, how was our sullen young friend to-night?"

"Perfectly normal. The action of the powder never varies. He is in a semi-cataleptic state, attended with partial paralysis of the limbs. I don't suppose he'd get up if he heard the fire-bell."

"You are clever, my dear Victor, and you know your own business," the woman remarked carelessly, "but to me there would seem some risk in keeping him there. He is a young man of great strength. During your absence he might overcome the effect of the powder and raise an alarm."

Victor Porle lit a cigarette and blew a little cloud of smoke down his thin nostrils.

"Supposing he did, he would have no clear story to tell," he pointed out. "The police would probably decide that he was recovering from a drunken bout."

Gerald Garnham strolled in and seated himself on a stool at the bar.

"Where's Mr. Chambers, Harry?" he asked the man, as he sipped the whisky and soda he had ordered.

"Coming right along, sir," the man replied.

A little flaxen-haired man in spectacles came bustling in as though in search of someone. He greeted Victor Porle with marked respect; Gerald he had the air of wishing to avoid. The latter, however, called him back.

"I say, Chambers, just a moment."

"I'm terribly busy," the other remarked doubtfully.

"Time enough to listen to what I have to say," was the brusque rejoinder. "Sit down for a moment."

The newcomer accepted a stool by Gerald's side.

"Look here," the latter continued. "This is supposed to be a club in which gentlemen may amuse themselves, isn't it? We are breaking the law, of course, and you've let a lot of rotters in, but we've always stuck to you when there's been any trouble."

"Quite so, Mr. Garnham."

"Well, what I want to know is, what the devil does old Mallerson mean by refusing to cash my cheque. I came in here with a hundred pounds in my pocket—that's as much as any man's expected to carry about with him. I've lost that, and when I wanted to draw a cheque for another two hundred, Mallerson said there was no money in the place—couldn't cash it. That's all tommy-rot, of course."

The secretary scratched his chin.

"Mallerson is an obstinate fellow," he said. "I'll speak to him, if you like, but I'm afraid it won't be any good. There was a little trouble once before, wasn't there?"

"You mean just because I asked to have a cheque held over for a few days?" Gerald enquired. "It was paid in the long run."

"Just so," the other agreed, "but it was some time hanging about, and the one thing a show like this can't afford is even the risk of a bad debt. The expenses are pretty heavy, as you can imagine, and we always have to be saving up for the next fine."

"Well, it's no good my belonging here or bringing my friends," Gerald declared, "if I can't get a cheque for a paltry two hundred cashed."

The secretary edged away.

"I'll sec what I can do with Mallerson," he promised, and departed hastily,

Victor Porle rose quietly from his chair and strolled towards the bar. He took the stool which the secretary had vacated.

"How are you, Mr. Garnham," he said.

Gerald stared at him insolently—an effort at which he was an adept. For once, however, his rebuke was wasted. Victor Porle, engaged in lighting a cigarette, was entirely unmoved.

"Met you down at Newmarket," he went on, "and over at Monte Carlo, I think it was. Damned disobliging fellow, that Chambers. I didn't intend to overhear your conversation, of course, but I couldn't help noticing his attitude."

Gerald, like all weaklings, snatched at the sympathy even of a stranger.

"They're all a damned lot of swine," he pronounced viciously. "I've dropped a thousand pounds with them already this season, and I've brought lots of chaps in, and now they won't cash a cheque for me for a couple of hundred."

Victor Porle thoughtfully sipped the brandy which the barman had just handed him.

"I am not making a mistake, am I?" he asked. "You are Mr. Gerald Garnham, the nephew of Lord Ardrington?"

"That's my name," Gerald admitted.

"I haven't a great deal of money with me to-night," Victor Porle went on. "I only came in because I knew it was the one place where I would be sure of getting good brandy at this hour. Still, if two hundred is all you want, I'll cash your cheque for that amount with pleasure."

Gerald was surprised but eager. Such an offer from a person whom he could not remember having ever met before in his life was an amazing stroke of luck.

"That's awfully decent of you," he exclaimed. "Sure you mean it?"

"Why, of course. Bring a pen and ink over to this table, Harry, and two more drinks. Come and sit down for a moment, Garnham."

Gerald followed his benefactor without hesitation.

"You must let me present you to my friend, Madame da Mendora," the latter continued. "This is Mr. Gerald Garnham—Madame da Mendora."

Gerald bowed and accepted a chair. He was already looking restlessly round for the pen and ink.

"I shall commence our acquaintance, Mr. Garnham," the lady said, "with asking a favour. I have seen you, have I not, at the Ritz?"

"Very likely," Gerald admitted.

"I am staying there," Madame da Mendora confided. "I have friends in the hotel and I am well known in London. Please do not mention to any one that you saw me here."

"Why, of course not," Gerald assented. "I'll promise to forget where we met, as long as you'll allow me to remember that I have now the honour of your acquaintance."

She encountered his admiring gaze and laughed at him softly. This was a game at which they were both proficient.

"It is an arrangement," she agreed. "Just now I am very careful because it is not long since I lost my husband. Presently it will be different. When I am in London, I like to entertain. I have good friends at the Embassy of my country, who are very kind to me."

"Madame is a South American," Porle explained.

"I must go back to my place," she decided, rising to her feet. "I cannot afford to miss my bank. We shall meet again."

She passed out, very gracious and elegant. Gerald's eyes followed her with interest.

"A very beautiful woman, if I may take the liberty of saying so," he remarked,

"I am surprised that you didn't know her. She is outrageously rich; her husband left her the best part of a million. . . . Now, for our business."

He opened a pocketbook, the contents of which made Gerald's mouth water, produced four fifty-pound notes and handed them over.

"To whom shall I make my cheque payable?" the latter enquired,

"To Victor Porle," was the reply, after a second's deliberation—"P-o-r-l-e."

Gerald hesitated for a moment, with the pen in his hand. He had only once heard the name whispered, but there seemed to him something vaguely familiar about it. He dashed off the cheque, however, and stuck the notes into his pocket.

"You needn't be afraid of having a gamble now," Porle observed. "No one ever loses with my money."

"Are you lucky?" Gerald enquired, rising to his feet.

"I never lose," was the quiet reply. "I know every game of cards from beginning to end. I might call it the hobby of my life. You may think that in games of chance this makes no difference. I do not agree. If you play often enough, a profound knowledge of the game is helpful."

"Well, I'll let you know how I get on with your money," Gerald promised, hurrying out.

Victor Porle finished his brandy slowly and followed the young man whom he had befriended. The chemin-de-fer table, presided over by an obviously professional croupier, was crowded now, and there were people standing two or three deep waiting for a place. He paused for a moment by the side of Solomon Graunt, who looked up from his seat with a smile of triumph. Before him was a great pile of notes and counters.

"I have disproved your theory, friend Victor," he announced. "I have bought for fifty pounds a bank that had already run seven times and it ran for another five."

Victor Porle was unmoved.

"The theory remains," he remarked, passing on.

He watched the game for some time and finally came to a standstill behind Gerald's chair. The young man was flushed and nervous. He had very few chips in front of him and had evidently been losing. The bank on his left had run three times already. The croupier was dividing the counters into little heaps and separating the notes.

"Four hundred and forty pounds," he announced.

He glanced at Gerald.

"Banquo," Victor Porle whispered in his ear.

"How the devil can I?" was the irritable reply. "I followed three times, and I've only seventy left."

"We'll go it together," Victor Porle suggested, "and if we lose, I'll take your cheque for the balance of your share."

"Done," Gerald assented eagerly. "Banquo!"

The woman whose bank it was hesitated. Finally, with a little shrug of the shoulders, she gave the cards. Gerald picked his up with shaking fingers. He had a ten and a two.

"Card," he demanded.

The woman threw a ten and a seven face upward upon the table and tossed a card over to Gerald. He looked at it with an anxiety which he was powerless to conceal and gave vent to a little exclamation of triumph as he recognised a seven. The woman pushed on the shoe with a gesture of anger.

"I was a fool to give it," she declared.

Victor Porle stood listening with a faint smile of contempt to her shrill complaints and to Gerald's voluble gratitude.

"If you hadn't come along just then, I shouldn't have dared to go that 'banquo.' Jolly decent of you to back me up. Regular Good Samaritan, aren't you? We'll have a drink together directly. Here's your share," he added, as the money was passed over. "I'll be able to cash my own cheque before the end of the evening."

Victor Porle gathered up his money and passed on, smiling. Presently Solomon Graunt plucked him by the arm,

"I am thirsty," he confided.

They made their way to the bar, ordered brandy and water and sat down at a small table. It was noticeable that when they drank it was not as men taking a little relaxation, and indulging in a spirit of good-fellowship, not even as men enjoying a good drink as they might enjoy good food; they drank with an absorption almost fierce, with an appetite intent and lustful. At the end of half an hour the barman looked at them in amazement. They had drunk more than he ever remembered to have served two men in so short a time before, but there was not the slightest indication of excess in either of them. Solomon Graunt's shoulders were a little hunched, and the froglike expression of his face was more apparent, but Victor Porle, except for a slightly increased pallor, was absolutely unchanged. They carried on no regular conversation but occasionally exchanged a few words.

"Who is the young man?" Solomon Graunt enquired. "He is a foolish player."

"He is a very fortunate discovery," Victor Porle replied. "He is the nephew of our friend Ardrington. I have just cashed his cheque for two hundred pounds and introduced him to Rosita."

"There are possibilities there," Solomon Graunt acknowledged. "Rosita is established now at the Ritz?"

"She is established there. I have told her that she must not hurry, but her acquaintance with this young man may change the whole situation. . To tell you the truth, Solomon, I am getting impatient. This country would make me old before my time. For the good man and the honest citizen, the man who has never drunk the wine of life as we have drunk it, it may be a tolerable place. As for me, here I cannot breathe. It is not only its external law-abidingness; its myriads of police; its ridiculous interference with the harmless amusements of the people; it is the people themselves, so well content, such willing slaves of the ordinance of the law, whose lives become nothing more than a series of mechanical impulses. In New York or Rio, San Francisco, or practically anywhere in Southern America, our little affair could have been arranged in a day. Here one moves on eggshells. The girl is within a mile of us at the present moment, and here are we, men who have carried out every form of daring enterprise, continually baffled. We have, for the first time in our lives, wealth; we have one of the cleverest women in Europe with us—everything seems to be on our side—and still we wait."

"And it appears to me," Solomon Graunt declared gloomily, "that we shall continue to wait. Meanwhile, what are you going to do with that young man in your shanty, Victor?"

"A problem," Victor Porle confessed. "The young man hasn't many brains, but according to Marcus, he is not only a fierce fighter but a clever one. There is danger, I admit, in keeping him, but there is danger also in letting him go. An oubliette is what we need, Solomon, somewhere—"

He broke off in his speech. There was the sound of a shrill electric whistle over their heads and another in the gaming room. The barman leaned over, throwing open as he did so the flap of the counter.

"It's the cops!" he announced. "We're raided! I can get you out the back way, if you're quick. Step along after me!"

He touched the switch and the lights in the little recess were suddenly extinguished. Then, moving stealthily, but with some speed, he led the way along several darkened passages, down a flight of stairs and into an area. He peered cautiously around and then beckoned them on.

"No one's wise to this way out," he confided, "It's really the area to the house backing on to this. There's a taxi stand at the corner there."

They emerged onto the pavement and Victor Porle thrust a five-pound note into the man's hand.

"Does this sort of thing happen often?" he enquired.

"Once or twice a season," their benefactor replied "The boss gets fined about one night's profit and opens up again in a friend's name somewhere else in less than a week. You'll have cards with the new address before then, sure. Now you can see the front of the house," he pointed out, as they paused at the corner of the street. "Say, they're out for 'em to-night, all right Four police vans and two inspectors' cars! They're going to take them to Vine Street. Here's the first lot."

A little procession of men and women in evening clothes with a dark figure on either side came down the steps from the house, and were hustled into the police van The whole proceeding was noiseless and stealthy and there was no sign of any resistance.

"They allowed they were going to do that last time," the barman went on. "The magistrate insisted that instead of taking the names and addresses, which were most always faked, they should take anyone found actually playing to the police court—and they've done it too. You're well out of that, gentlemen!"

"We are indeed, thanks to you," Victor Porle agreed smoothly. "The only trouble is there seems to be nothing else to do but go home."

"You guys are late birds," the barman remarked

"Our habits are in a way regular," Victor Porle assured him. "Five to six is the time at which we like to retire. We rise at half-past twelve for lunch, and in a general way we sleep after lunch until four or even later. We are then, as you may imagine, prepared for a long evening."

"In this case," Solomon Graunt sighed, "completely mucked up by this stupid raid."

The man hesitated.

"Would you care to look a place over, where the cops dursn't show themselves?" he enquired.

"Most assuredly," Victor Porle answered promptly. "Any place free from the trammels of this somewhat too obtrusive civilisation would be a welcome relief to us."

The barman glanced suspiciously at the speaker.

"Can't say as I get you," he acknowledged. "But I can take you to a joint where there's a rough-house most nights—a place the cops know of, all right, but they don't mean tackling it unless they're driven to it. Mind you," he went on, "it's not much of a place for toffs; there's all sorts there, mostly foreigners. You'll have to look after yourselves too. If you flash your money about, you'll lose it, and you won't find anyone to complain to if your pocket's picked or anything of that sort. You don't either of you carry a gun, I suppose?"

"Curiously enough," Victor Porle assented, his fingers straying behind his coat tails, "I do. Just a small one, so as not to disturb the set of my clothes, but quite sufficient to end an argument."

The barman grinned as they all stepped into a taxicab.

"I guess you two are all right," he conceded.


CHAPTER XXXIII

The taxicab drew up before a small tobacconist's and news-agent's shop in a gloomy little street, one of the backwaters of the district between Soho and the Tottenham Court Road.

"Pay the man and send him away," the barman whispered.

Porle obeyed and their guide, with a gesture to them to remain where they were, plunged into the tobacconist's shop. He emerged in a brief space of time and led the way to some huge adjoining gates of what was announced as a furniture emporium. After a moment's delay a postern door was opened from inside and they passed into a yard—a square, untidy, cobbled place, in a corner of which stood one rickety-looking furniture van. They descended some stone steps to a lower level. Outside another formidable-looking door they paused, and their guide, taking a small electric torch from his pocket, flashed it three or four times in front of a narrow window. A moment later the door was slowly opened by an enormous man, obviously an ex-prize fighter.

"Come in quick," he ordered. "Get your toffs in and the door closed, Harry. The boss is nervous to-night."

The barman nodded.

"This way," he whispered.

He pushed aside a curtain and they entered a large, oblong room, utterly destitute of any attempt at luxury, with sanded floor and bare wooden chairs. There were a dozen tables where men and women sat playing cards and drinking, and at the farther end a Negro band was thumping out popular jazz music. On the left and right were two additional rooms, one of which was taken up by a bar, and most of the other by a large baccarat table. In the place between the two a few couples were dancing. From the entrance to the baccarat room a man hastened forward to meet the newcomers. He was a thin, weedy personage, practically bald, with a cast in one eye, and a mouth whose underlip seemed to have been permanently drawn sideways. He stared at the two visitors at first doubtfully, but the longer he stared, the stranger his expression grew.

"Don't I know you two?" he asked.

"Freddy's Club in New York," Victor Porle reminded him. "You're Freddy. I should have known you anywhere."

The man frowned in warning fashion.

"That's all right," he said, "but don't get chucking my name about too freely, please. There was some trouble when I quit yonder."

"I remember. One of the detectives was shot when they raided the place."

"Serve him right," Freddy muttered, under his breath. "He was double-crossing us all the time. Took a hundred dollars a week from me and then sold us. He got his, all right. What are you boys doing over here?"

"Seeing life," Solomon Graunt grumbled, "and not succeeding very well. London's a bum hole."

"It's the rottenest place on this rotten earth," Freddy admitted. "There's only one thing: we've no competition. This is the only joint of its sort in the whole town,"

"Are they on to you?" Solomon Graunt asked.

"They're on to us, all right, but they're a soft lot and they don't like firearms. I keep this show going with a little gang of my own; most of them have a grudge against the cops. They might get into the place, in time, but I guess there ain't many would get out alive. It'd take a hundred to raid us, and then we've seven ways of getting clear."

"It's the toughest crowd I've seen in London," Victor Porle admitted.

Freddy accepted the compliment with a grin.

"You're right and then some," he admitted. "We get a few of the sight-seeing nobs here sometimes, though. There was a lord and a duke here last night. What're you counting on doing?"

"We'll look around," Victor Porle decided. "I shall play a bit presently. I see you've got a room in there which looks interesting."

"You've got to show the ready first."

"We've got that."

"I'll answer that they have," Harry intervened. "I brought these guys on from Jimmy Dowell's. You heard what's happened there?"

"Nope," Freddy replied succinctly.

"They're raided. The cops are taking them away in wagons. I got these gents out my back way."

Freddy laughed long and mirthlessly.

"A swell show, Jimmy runs, too," he remarked. "That's the sort of crib the police like. No trouble—scarcely an unkind word. You'd hear the bulldogs bark some down here, if so much as a peaked cap showed itself."

A Russian woman, pale and unwholesome-looking, but with beautiful violet eyes, magnificent but over-developed figure, and masses of black hair, came up to them. She laid her hand on Freddy's shoulder.

"Go away, Freddy," she enjoined. "You have not the time to show these gentlemen the place. I will explain everything."

"None of your tricks, then," Freddy warned her. "These guys are my friends."

The woman laughed, but not unmusically. "I have no tricks," she declared.

She led the way to her table. Victor Porle ordered champagne and a bottle of brandy, and they studied their surroundings with interest. Save for themselves, there was scarcely a man in evening clothes, scarcely one whose linen could have stood a close scrutiny. There were a few Jews and a good many Easterners, a sprinkling of Americans and an English clement which appeared to consist, according to their companion, chiefly of racing men or prize fighters. There were a few good-looking women, but the almost flamboyant sordidness of the place seemed to have set its mark upon their faces. Even the laughter, and there was plenty of it, was shrill and unnatural. A woman who had slipped off her skirt and was doing a solo dance came and kicked a glass from their table. A waiter picked up the fragments and apparently everyone considered it as a matter of course. Freddy, however, leaned over, and as she came near again, smacked her on the cheek. She shrieked, but the people playing cards scarcely troubled to look round. For a moment she seemed as though about to fly at her aggressor. Then she shrank back. He threw her skirt at her.

"Put that on and sit down," he snarled, "unless you want the chuck."

"They're frightened to death of Freddy, every one of them," the Russian woman confided to her companion. "You can really do just what you like here, but Freddy hates that woman. There will be trouble between them some day."

It was curious how, notwithstanding the difference in their clothes and external deportment, Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt seemed rapidly to sink into accord with their surroundings. In less than half an hour they appeared to belong to the place. The habitués no longer regarded them with suspicion; they had become part of the sullen atmosphere. There were shouts of laughter sometimes, but there was no real attempt at light-heartedness. The place seemed devoted to the earnest and concentrated pursuit of vice without any of its redeeming features. Victor Porle took a bank at baccarat with moderate success, and afterwards strolled into the bar. Solomon Graunt abandoned a game of poker precipitately, being himself too great an expert to be deceived by what might seem to be the good fortune of others, and returned to the company of his Russian lady. Victor Porle joined them and presently Freddy, in response to a signal, drew up a chair.

"I've been looking round your joint, Freddy," Porle observed, leaning towards him and dropping his voice a little. "You've got some bad men here all right."

Freddy glanced carelessly around the room.

"You're saying some," he admitted. "That little dark, unshaven chap over in the corner, for instance, who can't sit still—that's the man who put Jimmy Andrews', the bookmaker's, light out a few weeks ago. The cops know all about it, but they'll never get him. There's others here in the same box,"

"I imagine," Victor Porle continued, "that for a consideration it would be possible for me to avail myself of the services of, say, one or two of your friends, who might be disposed to run a little mild risk."

Freddy looked at him keenly.

"I wish you wouldn't talk like a b——y parson," he muttered. "Is it a life job?"

"Nothing of the sort," Victor Porle assured him. "A young lady to be restored to her natural guardian."

"The young lady being unwilling?"

"We fear so."

"It's a queer country for that sort of job," Freddy remarked, "but I've plenty here who'd take it on. It's a question of the dollars—nothing else."

Porle waved his hand with a gesture of indifference.

"The dollars," he declared, "can easily be found."

"Then so can the men," Freddy announced. "I guess," he added, rising to his feet, "that we'd better have a jaw in my office if you mean business."

The two men followed him across the room, reeking now of tobacco smoke. Uninviting though the appearance of the place had always been, it had changed for the worse during the last hour. Some of the men playing cards had taken off their coats and were devoting themselves to their gambling with a brutal zest. Two women were quarrelling violently; their language and gestures obscene and hysterical. Champagne was being drunk in every direction—champagne and raw spirits. Freddy looked back with a word of explanation.

"One of them racing gangs that shows up here most nights,—they're having a bit of a beano," he confided. "Hullo, Lane!" he broke off. "What are you doing here all by yourself?"

The young man addressed looked up calmly. He was of a different type to any of the crowd by whom he was surrounded, dressed in a neat dark blue suit with clean linen and manicured hands. His voice as he answered was soft and his manner almost ingenuous, but his expression was curiously sinister.

"I like myself better than the company here to-night," he observed. "That's why I'm alone. There'll be trouble here before morning, if you don't look out, Freddy. Hoover's gang are all red-hot for mischief, and if one of Daniels' lot comes along, he'll get his."

"I've telephoned them to stay away," Freddy answered brusquely. "I can't do more. Come into the office with us. I want you to know my two friends here. There may be something doing."

The young man abandoned the game of patience upon which he had been engaged and rose to his feet.

"I was just going to leave this pit-hole anyhow," he declared.

"Moving on to the Carlton, I suppose?" Freddy sneered.

The new addition to their party smiled as he lounged after them.

"If anything," he confessed, "could persuade me to turn over a new leaf, it would be a study of the lower form of criminals, of whom, my dear Freddy, you have far too many here. In their way, I suppose they are useful, but as companions they offend my taste."

"They'll face a gun which is more than you sneak thieves would do," Freddy scoffed, as he threw open the door of his sanctum. "Now let's get to business. I can't take my eye off this place for more than five minutes at a time."

"To business, certainly," Victor Porle assented, selecting the most comfortable chair and lighting a cigarette. "The undertaking I have to suggest to you is one in which violence and bloodshed are quite unnecessary. Subtlety, coolness and assurance are the three qualities which will be required. The risk is infinitesimal and the reward large."

The young man smiled appreciatively.

"I must confess that I am attracted towards the business, whatever it may be," he declared. "It is always one of my pleasures in life to work with or for a gentleman such as I perceive you, sir, to be."

"Get down to the tacks," Freddy growled.


CHAPTER XXXIV

They met, accidentally, as it seemed, in the lounge of the Ritz at twelve o'clock on the following morning. Madame da Mendora, notwithstanding her perfect self-composure, welcomed him with a smile which was half deprecating, half embarrassed. Gerald was looking as gloomy as was possible for him when accosted by a really beautiful woman.

"Tell me," she asked quickly, "you were unlucky? Yes? You stayed?"

He nodded.

"They got me, all right," he admitted. "I've just come from Vine Street. Now I've got to face the music with my uncle."

She looked nervously around.

"Come and sit in that corner with me and have a cocktail," she whispered. "There is something I wish to say to you."

He glanced at the clock and assented willingly enough. Notwithstanding his depression, Madame da Mendora, in her simple but obviously Parisian costume, her general air of smartness and her sympathetic tone and manner, was, even to his fastidious taste, a very attractive personage.

"First of all," she said, as soon as the order had been given, "I want you to promise that you will never breathe a word to any one about my having been at that place last night."

"Of course I won't," he agreed ruefully. "I'm in trouble enough about it myself."

"Now there is another thing I want you to do for me," she continued. "I want you to present me to Lord Ardrington."

He looked at her half doubtfully, half surprised.

"But why on earth?" he began—"The old boy scarcely speaks to anyone nowadays. Besides, he's suffering from an attack of nerves. A young protégé of his is missing, and some of his old pals from South America are leading him the devil of a life."

"Never mind," she insisted. "It will be quite easy for you, and I have a very special reason."

"Do you know anything about him in his younger days?" Gerald asked curiously.

"I myself have never met him," she acknowledged, "but I know those who have—one indeed who is very deeply interested. As soon as I have met him and talked for a few minutes, the next time you and I come together I will tell you everything."

"Oh, I'll present him, of course, if there's the ghost of an opportunity," Gerald promised. "Perhaps we could dine together one night soon, eh?"

She looked at him out of her wonderful eyes and the acceptance of his half casual invitation became a thing greatly to be desired.

"My dear boy, of course I will dine with you, if you like," she assented, "on my first free evening, but you realise, I hope, that I am old enough to be your mother."

"I don't believe it," he declared incredulously.

The cocktails were served, Gerald drank his at a gulp.

"Jove! They gave us a doing at that beastly police court this morning," he confided.

She stopped his impending recital.

"Lord Ardrington has just come into the lounge," she pointed out. "Look, he is quite alone. He is coming this way too. You will never have a better opportunity."

Gerald rose a little hesitatingly to his feet. His uncle was now in fact within a few yards of them, on his way to a chair. Gerald, his hand forced, accepted the inevitable.

"Uncle," he said, "I want to present you to my friend, Madame da Mendora, who wishes to meet you."

Lord Ardrington bowed politely but without enthusiasm. Madame da Mendora, however, held out her hand and he was almost compelled to take the seat she indicated.

"I ought to have known you long ago, Lord Ardrington," she said, looking at him all the time with an air of almost wistful earnestness. "When I first arrived in England this season, it was my intention to come and see you, and then—well, I put it off and it became more difficult each day."

"Have we met before?" he enquired in some curiosity.

"Never, although you have often heard my name. It is really a little difficult for me to tell you who I am," she went on, "unless you can guess."

He shook his head.

"I have seen you here," he admitted, "but as to guessing who you were—why should I have been able to do that?"

"Shall I tell you my name before I was married?"

"If you will, Madame."

"In the old days, when I lived at Buenos Aires, I was called Rosita Portuna. Laurita was my sister."

His surprise amounted almost to incredulity.

"Laurita's sister?" he repeated. "But I thought—"

"You associated nothing but poverty with us, of course," she interrupted. "That is quite natural, I too was on the stage, and penniless, but I was fortunate enough to marry a very rich man. He died recently. Now I have nothing to do but travel, and I am alone. If ever you wanted a home for Laurita," she sighed, "she would find a very warm welcome from me."

"I could not possibly spare her," Lord Ardrington declared hastily. "You must please not suggest such a thing. I am an old man and not very strong, and Laurita is very dear to me."

"You need have no fear," Madame da Mendora reassured him. "I shall never take advantage of my legal relationship. You did what you could for her mother and you made her happy. You have brought the child up and she shall stay with you for your lifetime, and she shall become—as she is at present—my heiress. But on one condition."

"Well?"

"That you never either hand her over to her father or permit her to have any intercourse with him."

Lord Ardrington drew a deep sigh of relief.

"My dear lady," he confided, "that is a condition which you need never have troubled to make. Her father is the curse and dread of my life. He was also the curse and dread of dear Laurita's life."

Madame da Mendora shivered.

"From all I have heard, he is a very terrible person."

"He is over here at the present time," Lord Ardrington declared, speaking with some excitement. "He has tried to rob me of Laurita. He sent me lawyers' letters. He absolutely tried to abduct Laurita from my house in Norfolk. Fortunately, I saw a way out. The next time we meet, I will tell you about it."

"You will let me see Laurita," she begged. "I promise that I will make no claim to her."

"You shall see her most certainly."

"Is she like me?"

Lord Ardrington shook his head.

"She is like her mother."

Madame da Mendora glanced at herself in a little gold mirror.

"We were different types, of course," she reflected. "Laurita used to hate me for being so tall in the days when we were at school together, before things broke up and we had to earn our own livings."

"Tell me of your life over here," he invited. "Do you know many people?"

"I go out as much as I care to. My friends are mostly amongst the South Americans and Argentines, but I know some French people too and have a few English acquaintances."

"And my nephew? May I ask how long you have known him?"

"A year or so, I fancy—very slightly. We met at a dinner party once—I think it must have been at the Embassy—afterwards at a dance—one comes across people. I have never told him who I am. It was only when we were talking together this morning that I had the sudden idea of taking my courage into my hands and asking to meet you."

"Laurita and a friend of hers will be here directly. Perhaps we might induce you to lunch with us?" Lord Ardrington suggested, after a moment's hesitation.

She shook her head.

"That is very kind of you," she acknowledged, rising to her feet. "Of course I do not know how well Laurita remembers her mother, if at all, but I think it would be better if you spoke to her first about me. If you are dining here, why not then? I have a box at the opera. We might go on, perhaps, I shall leave you now. It has upset me a little, talking of these things, and I do not feel prepared to meet Laurita suddenly."

She rose to her feet and turned away, very gracious and self-possessed. Lord Ardrington looked after her curiously. He beckoned to Gerald, who was hovering in the background.

"How long have you known Madame da Mendora?" he asked, a little abruptly, as the young man resumed his former seat.

"Can't remember. One meets people and sees them about and gets generally mixed up."

"Do you see her with people who are known?"

Gerald reflected.

"Yes, I should say so. She goes about rather with the American set."

"She is very wealthy, I understand?"

"Rolling," Gerald replied enviously. "Makes one's mouth water to look at her pearls."

Lord Ardrington lit one of his favourite cigarettes. His fingers were trembling. The encounter, with all its reminiscences, had disturbed him.

"Did you know, Gerald," he enquired, "that Madame da Mendora was Laurita's aunt?"

"Good God no!" the young man exclaimed. "Laurita's aunt?"

"Her mother's sister. She says so and I have no reason to doubt her. I know that her mother had a sister who was also on the stage, whose name was Rosita. She appears to have married and to have been left a great deal of money."

"Does she want Laurita?"

"She says not. I hope she means it."

"A rich aunt doesn't do any one any harm," Gerald remarked.

"They are to meet to-night. After that, we shall see. Laurita's mother, notwithstanding her misfortunes, had always a sweet disposition. Of this woman's character, of course, I know nothing.... As to yourself," he went on, changing the subject suddenly, and with a note of increasing sternness in his tone, "it is really amazing how you manage to keep the family name before the public."

The young man was for a moment shamefaced. He made no reply.

"Not, I regret to say," Lord Ardrington continued, "in the manner in which some of our distinguished ancestors have contrived to do so. I see at no time any mention of your successes in politics, any form of scholarship, or even sport. The last occasion upon which I think the Honourable Gerald Garnham, nephew to the Earl of Ardrington, graced the columns of the newspapers was when you were fined forty shillings with costs, for being drunk and disorderly in Leicester Square. This morning, for a slight variation, I see that you were bound over in the sum of one hundred pounds not to frequent the low gambling hall where you were arrested by the police last night."

"It's such tommyrot calling chemin de fer an illegal game," the young man grumbled. "Every old woman in England plays it directly she gets across the Channel."

"It happens," his uncle pointed out, "to be against the law of the country. Furthermore, none but fools and sharps play it here. I see that your host of last night pleads guilty to a cagnotte of twelve per cent. May I ask you if you are so utterly destitute of intelligence as to imagine that you can do anything else except lose your money against such odds?"

"Some people win."

Lord Ardrington shrugged his shoulders.

"The subject is not worth discussing."

"It's all very well," the young man continued irritably, "but the only thing I was ever taught was soldiering, and it's cheaper to be out of the army than in it nowadays. I get a very small allowance—not your fault, I know, Uncle, that the taxation is so beastly but I can't see the harm of trying to make a bit extra gambling."

"You talk like a bigger fool than I believe you to be, Gerald. To begin with, you get eight hundred a year and a room, either in town or at Ardrington, when you want it. I have paid your debts half a dozen times and supplied you with practically all the necessities of life. How any man with a grain of common sense can expect to add to his income by gambling—especially playing chemin de fer with a huge cagnotte—I can't imagine."

"One must do something," Gerald muttered. "You should have let me marry Laurita instead of that other fellow."

Lord Ardrington looked across at his nephew in amazement.

"Are you serious, Gerald?"

"Perfectly. I believe Laurita's very fond of me, and I'm certainly very fond of her. You've impoverished the estates by settling that eighty thousand pounds on her, to say nothing of the eighty thousand you gave away. We could live on that and my allowance comfortably."

"How long has this brilliant idea dawned upon you?" his uncle demanded. "Since you discovered that Laurita had a very wealthy aunt as well as that eighty thousand pounds?"

Gerald, for a moment, looked almost a man. His small features seemed to gain strength.

"Look here, Uncle," he protested, "you're too hard on me. I daresay I'm lazy, and I know I'm shiftless, but damn it, I'm not a wrong 'un! I tell you I'm fond enough of Laurita to marry her if she hadn't a penny. If only you'd made use of me instead of that chap Barnes, everything might have been all right by this time. I don't want to live this hanging-about-town life. Give me a little house in the country, a thousand acres of shooting, a couple of horses, and a month abroad in the winter, and I bet you I'd make Laurita as happy as I should be myself."

"From your point of view," Lord Ardrington admitted, "that sounds all very well, but what about Laurita? I had some reason to believe that she was fond of Martin."

"Laurita is passionate and impetuous—romantic too and full of temperament. The ceremony turned her head. Then Martin's rescue and fight with those men carried her off her feet. Of course, she had a feeling for him. If he had returned it, no one else would have had a chance. He didn't, and it is passing with Laurita just as quickly as it came. She is happier at this moment with me than with any one else. I'd almost dare to ask her to tell you so herself," he added, turning around, as Laurita and Blanche entered the lounge.

Lord Ardrington laid his hand upon his nephew's

"You have given me something to think about, Gerald," he said, "but remember this—not a word to Laurita—to any one—until Martin is found."


CHAPTER XXXV

The dinner that evening, arranged by means of a courteous interchange of notes, was apparently a complete success. Madame da Mendora, who had insisted upon becoming hostess, looking more distinguished than ever in unrelieved black, and from the various officials at the hotel and restaurant she received almost the consideration paid to royalty. To Laurita, her behaviour was charming. Her slight allusions to their relationship were tactful and brief.

"I shall not speak to you about your mother, child," she told her almost in the first few moments, "until we know each other better."

Gerald she treated with the kindly interest of an older woman. To Lord Ardrington she offered the subtle deference acceptable to a man of his years. Blanche alone, more silent than anyone else during the meal, watched her sometimes with a dissatisfied expression in her eyes. When, at its close, their hostess proposed an adjournment to her box at the opera, she was the only one who refused.

"But, my dear cousin, you love music as much as I," Laurita pleaded with her, "and afterwards we go to supper and Madame has promised that we shall dance."

"You dance with Gerald and enjoy yourself, my dear," Blanche replied. "I just don't feel like it, and besides, I really have something to do."

Laurita indulged in a slight grimace. Nevertheless, the prospect of the evening's pleasure was too entrancing to be readily spoilt. There was "Tristram and Iseult," even though it might be only the last act, the music flooding through the darkened opera house where she could sit side by side with Gerald, and afterwards the dancing. She waved her hand to Blanche a little wistfully but without real regret. It had been a long time since she had looked forward to an evening more ecstatically.

Blanche drove to her rooms and from the bottom of her stairs looked eagerly across at Martin's window. There was no sign of disturbance there, no book on the sill, no indication of life. She let herself in, changed into a tea gown, and, more for the sake of something to do than from any actual desire for it, prepared some coffee. More than once she turned out the light in her sitting room so as to be able to see more clearly across the few yards of space between her window and the opposite one—space a little dim now with an autumnal mist. An uneasiness which had depressed her all day seemed to grow in intensity as she sat there watching. The street lamp at the entrance to the mews was too far away to shine on the blank windows. It was all black and desolate and gloomy.

Then followed a period of intense disquietude. She smoked endless cigarettes, looked into the cupboard half a dozen times to be sure that the bread and chicken and wine she had ordered in case of a visit from Martin were there. She drank her coffee, even indulged in a rare liqueur. At one moment her behaviour seemed outrageous—the result of an unreasonable, ridiculous obsession; at another it seemed as though she were wasting time, as though she must rush screaming across those few yards of courtyard, tear up the stairs and see what horrible thing awaited her. She called herself to task violently. She was giving way to the first fit of nerves from which she had ever suffered. Yet even when her will began slowly to assert itself, she was only more conscious of an intense apprehension, of an almost overmastering impulse to see for herself that nothing untoward was happening. In the end she compromised. She yielded to her impulse, but she yielded with deliberation. She put on a fur coat, slipped her revolver into one of its loose pockets, and carried an electric torch in her hand. With a coolness which seemed to come to her as soon as she had resolved upon action, she descended the steps, crossed the cobbled yard and ascended the opposite stairs. From there she looked up and down. There was no one in sight, but a light shining out of the end garage seemed to give her confidence. She fitted her key to the lock, and opened the door. Inside everything was dark. There was no indication of any form of life. She turned on her torch and softly opened the door on the left-hand side. She flashed it around and she knew at once why she had come.

The couch which Martin had described as being drawn up to the window had been moved to the farther end of the room, and on it Martin was stretched, his eyes wide open, staring at her, his hands bound together, his legs tied to the supports of the couch. Something like a black respirator was fastened across his mouth. He made a little gurgling sound as she entered, but anything like coherent speech was evidently impossible.

"Martin!" she exclaimed softly. "My God!"

She was as cool now as ever in her life. In her right hand she held her little revolver, absolutely prepared to use it, with murder in her heart, should she hear a step in the passage or on the stairs. There was no sound, however. Satisfied, after a brief period of intense listening, she moved quickly to Martin's side. Her fingers searched for the fastenings of the cloth which was half stifling him. She removed it without great difficulty.

For a moment his tongue seemed to strike the roof of his mouth without result. Then something articulate came.

"A knife—in the cupboard."

She nodded, looked into the cupboard towards which his eyes had directed her, and returned with an ordinary table knife. Once more she listened carefully; once more at the fancied creaking of a board she drew her revolver from her pocket and held it with steady fingers. Again he spoke. This time more easily.

"There's no one here. I don't think any one's coming back just yet."

She set to work, marvelling sometimes at the ingenuity of the knots through which she cut. In about five minutes Martin was free. He tried to move but rolled off on to the floor.

"I'm sorry," he gasped; "just stiff."

She held out her hands and he rose this time without much difficulty. The cords had left marks on his clothes from his ankles to his shoulders. His breath was still coming spasmodically but the colour was returning to his cheeks.

"I've finished here," he announced. "Let's get out."

She took him by the arm. Together they staggered down the steps across the courtyard, up her own stairs and into her sitting room. She drew the bolts of the door, and then a long sigh of relief escaped from her. For a minute she stood quite still, her hands pressed to her eyeballs. Martin, with almost a natural movement, subsided into a chair.

"You are wonderful," he said, trying to keep his voice steady. "Is there any of that whisky left?"

She pushed a table up to his side, poured whisky and soda into a tumbler and held it to his lips. Then she piled the table with the things she had bought earlier in the day, and set a plate and knife and fork before him. He watched her with the faint beginnings of a smile. He drank at first cautiously, then finished the contents of his tumbler and held it out for more.

"Don't talk to me until you've eaten and drunk something," she enjoined. "Ten minutes can't make any difference. We'll talk then."

He nodded.

"I'm all right," he assured her, his eyes fixed hungrily upon the food.

She served him and made some excuse to leave the room for a minute or two. Once safely away, she felt again the throb of hysteria in her veins. She pressed her forehead against the cool glass of the window. She could scarcely believe that it was she who had so deliberately entered that sinister abode, who had stood there only a few minutes before, ready to kill, who had sawn so methodically through the cruel knots. She fought her second battle now and this time won it completely. When she returned to the sitting room she had thrown off her fur coat and there was a smile upon her lips.

"Well, my dear Martin," she said, looking with satisfaction at his half-empty plate, "this is melodrama with a vengeance."

"I don't know even now," he confided, "whether they found me out. I caught Victor Porle this morning examining my powder rather suspiciously. He didn't seem to have time, though, to bother about me. There's something on, Lady Blanche. There have been men coming and going all day—messages too. I can't get it out of my head that they've finished over there."

"Leaving you like that!" she gasped.

"I'm not so sure. I believe that fellow Victor Porle is capable of anything in the way of cruelty, but I know he wrote a note to the janitor over the way, and I believe I heard him tell one of the crowd who had been in and out all day to deliver it in the morning. However, that doesn't matter.... I can eat whilst I talk. Might I have some more?"

She served him joyously. Every moment his strength seemed to be returning.

"Such a day!" he went on. "There's a big move on, Lady Blanche. Where's Laurita? I hope they're keeping her safe."

Blanche paused for a moment before replying, to count the strokes of the church clock in the near distance. Midnight already! She realised then that her struggle before she could make up her mind to action had been longer than she had thought.

"Laurita's all right to-night," she assured him. "I should think she's probably dancing at Mario's."

"With whom?"

"With Gerald and a woman who has just turned up. It's rather a queer thing, Martin. I wanted to tell you about it. Laurita's mother's sister is staying at the Ritz and has made friends with uncle. It is she who has taken them out this evening."

A vague uneasiness seemed to trouble Martin. He frowned for a moment.

"Who is she, and what is her name?" he demanded.

"She is a very beautiful woman," Blanche replied, "and apparently very wealthy. She is the widow of a Buenos Aires millionaire. Her name is Madame da Mendora."

The knife and fork slipped from his fingers. He gave a little cry,

"My God!" he exclaimed. "She's no more Laurita's aunt than I am! That's the woman who's been coming here day after day to see Victor Porle."

Their mutual stupefaction was of marvellously short duration. Martin finished his whisky and soda at a gulp, stretched himself to feel how sore his limbs really were and then laid down his plan of action.

"Look here," he said, "I've picked up a thing or two from sort of half sentences I've heard, but I understand the whole business now. It's easy enough to see what they're going to try. They're going to try to carry Laurita off from some night haunt or other. I suppose Mr. Garnham—?"

He stopped short. Their eyes met. Blanche shook her head.

"I haven't much of an opinion of Gerald myself," she admitted, "but he's not downright bad. As a matter of fact, I think he's rather fond of Laurita. No, he'd do what he could to help if there was trouble, but I'm afraid it wouldn't be much."

"What time does the opera come out?"

"About twelve o'clock."

"We can only guess at their plans," Martin continued, after a moment's pause. "I should imagine that she'd take them first to one of the best places, to stop any suspicion, and then afterwards on to some other haunt. Where would they go to first, do you think?"

"They didn't say."

"Well, it's only just past twelve," Martin reflected. "We'd better call round at my rooms. They wouldn't let me in anywhere like this. In ten minutes I can change a few things. I've a revolver there and I can get some money. Then we'll go round to the likely places. I don't see anything else to be done."

"What about the police?"

"I shall want your help there," Martin declared. "I'll never be able to convince them by myself. We'll go direct to Scotland Yard before we try the supper places."

"All right," Blanche agreed. "I'll just slip my frock on again and I can wait at your flat whilst you change. I think we're bound to find them, at either Mario's or the Ambassadors'."

She turned to leave the room. Suddenly they both yielded to the nervous start inspired by a simple but unexpected happening. The telephone bell from the little instrument on the sideboard was ringing. Blanche moved over to it, took off the receiver and held it in her hand until the buzzing was finished.

"Blanche Banningham speaking," she said. "Who are you?"

There was a little laugh at the other end of the wire.

"Laurita!" Blanche exclaimed under her breath.

"Blanche, we're having such a lovely time. The opera was so wonderful; I'm still quivering with excitement. Now we are all here at Mario's."

"Where did you say?"

"At Mario's," Laurita repeated. "Why does your voice sound so strange, Blanche?"

"The telephone startled me," Blanche explained. "Go on, please."

"Everything is so delightful here," Laurita continued. "We want you to come. Madame da Mendora invites you specially. Gerald has several young men friends here who are dancers. Please dress yourself and come quickly."

Blanche stood away from the telephone for a moment and turned to Martin.

"She wants me to go there—to Mario's."

"Can you get her away without making them suspicious?" he asked.

"I'll try!—Laurita!"

"Well, dear? Don't keep me waiting, will you? They are playing such divine music."

"Laurita," Blanche went on earnestly, "I have found Martin. We have heard something. We believe that everything is not safe for you to-night."

A mocking laugh came down the wire.

"That is ridiculous," Laurita scoffed. "I was never so safe or so happy. But that Martin is found—I am delighted! Come quickly and tell me all about it."

"Laurita," Blanche insisted, "tell Gerald from me that there is trouble. Insist that he bring you away at once."

"And leave that dear aunt of mine!" was the indignant response. "Never! You must be mad, Blanche. You do not know how sweet and kind she is. Whilst I am with her and with Gerald, I am perfectly safe. Are you coming or not? I must go back."

Blanche hesitated for a moment.

"I'll come," she decided. "Only listen, Laurita. Promise me that you will not tell even Gerald—certainly not Madame da Mendora—that I have begged you to come away."

"I would not do anything so stupid," Laurita agreed; "it might hurt them. Come quickly, Blanche. I'm very happy about Martin."

"One moment," Blanche begged. "Does Madame da Mendora really know that you are telephoning to me?"

Laurita hesitated.

"Perhaps she does not," she admitted, "but she did say that it was a pity we had no other girl when Gerald had so many men friends here. But that you need not mind. She is so kind and generous, she will be delighted."

"Very well, dear, I'll come," Blanche promised.

"That sounds all right, Martin, doesn't it?" Blanche asked a little doubtfully, after she had rung off.

"You're sure that it was Laurita speaking?"

"Absolutely. What she said at first wasn't quite true though. Madame da Mendora didn't know that she was speaking to me."

Martin's face cleared.

"That explains it. On with the frock, please, Lady Blanche. This may shorten matters."

Blanche passed swiftly through into her room. Martin, still a little unsteady, threw open the window for more air. He thought with a grim smile of the time less than twelve months ago when he had prayed for more adventure in his life!


CHAPTER XXXVI

Mario's, perhaps the most popular dance club in London, was at its best when Laurita, after her brief moment at the telephone, rejoined Gerald, who was waiting in the lounge, and was ushered by a bowing maître d'hôtel to the table where Madame da Mendora already sat installed, chatting to some acquaintances whom Gerald had introduced. She welcomed Laurita with an affectionate little smile.

"I have ordered everything I could think of for supper, dear," she said. "Meanwhile, make the best of this wonderful music. Dance now. Why not?"

"Won't you have a turn, Madame?" Gerald suggested.

"With me, perhaps?" another of the men ventured.

Madame da Mendora smiled.

"I am not going to say that I am too old, because you are all so polite that you would protest. Presently, later on in the evening, I will dance, I promise, I need one, perhaps two, glasses of champagne, and then my feet are light again. You young men must find partners."

"Very soon," Laurita announced, "Blanche will be here."

"Who?" Madame da Mendora asked, with a curious sharpness in her tone.

"Blanche, my cousin," Laurita explained, "I knew you would not mind that, Madame. Blanche loves dancing too, and when Gerald found so many friends I telephoned to her."

Madame da Mendora's fan waved slowly back and forth in front of her face, now suddenly sphinx-like. Then she nodded.

"You did quite right, child," she said. "We shall welcome your cousin."

Laurita and Gerald moved off together, the former a little troubled.

"Was it my fancy, Gerald," she asked, "or did Madame seem annoyed because I asked Blanche? It is not like her. She has been so kind."

"I didn't notice," he answered. "I couldn't think of anything else except that I was just going to dance with you. And I'm going to dance with you, mind, all evening, whatever these other follows say."

She laughed happily. His arm tightened a little around her.

"I am very happy to dance with you, and only you, Gerald," she whispered.

When at last they paused, the table was empty save for two of Gerald's friends,

"Madame has gone, or been called to the telephone," one of them explained. "She said we were to drink our cocktails, that she would be back directly."

Almost as he spoke, she came, smiling and gracious as usual, by far the most distinguished, almost the most beautiful woman in the room.

"My children," she exclaimed, grasping Laurita's hands, "I am distracted! But never fear, your evening shall be just as happy. Gerald must excuse me to his guests. I have received a telephone call from a very old friend—the Duc d'Aumale. He tells me that he waits at the Ambassadors' for me and my party. It is true that he did ask me a week ago to supper to-night. There are interesting people there. We shall be very happy."

Laurita's face fell a little.

"It is quite wonderful here," she ventured.

"My dear, if you like," Madame suggested, "we will come here to-morrow, and if these nice friends of Mr. Garnham will have supper with us then, it will give me so much pleasure. It is arranged? Then we will go. I have explained to the manager and booked the table for to-morrow."

"What about Blanche?" Gerald asked, as they made their way out.

"I have left full instructions," Madame assured him. "Lady Blanche will join us at the Ambassadors'. It will be the affair of a few minutes only."

There were regretful farewells. The Ambassadors' was very wonderful, but Laurita left Mario's with a little sigh of regret. Here she had Gerald all to herself. The Ambassadors' might be different. Nevertheless, she tried to hide her disappointment as they took their places in Madame da Mendora's very beautiful car and rolled off.

"Afraid we shall find the Ambassadors' pretty full," Gerald remarked, as they turned out of Piccadilly.

"Then we will go somewhere else," was the smiling rejoinder. "I love to watch you children dance. Tomorrow night we will do nothing else. We will dine at Mario's, say at half-past eight. Mr. Garnham here shall see that his friends come, and we will not be troubled with any outside engagements."

"You are too kind," Laurita murmured. "How delightful it will be!"

They drew up outside the Ambassadors'. The footman who was seated next the chauffeur sprang down and stood by the side of the commissionaire. Madame da Mendora's descent was the descent of a queen. She checked Laurita who was in the act of following her.

"Wait, children," she enjoined. "Let me be quite sure that it is here we are to sup. My friend the Duc is charming, but he changes his mind every five minutes."

She disappeared up the corridor. Laurita looked after her ecstatically.

"She is wonderful, isn't she, Gerald?"

"She's all right," Gerald agreed, "but a trifle on the restless side. Personally, I should like my supper. Music always makes me hungry."

Laurita laughed softly.

"It will not be long. I do not know why she leaves us here. We might as well have entered."

Madame swept down the corridor, reading a note, her chinchilla coat half thrown back, her wonderful pearls glistening in the lamplight. She made a little grimace as she joined them.

"Maurice is too tiresome," she declared. "He was dissatisfied with his table here, and has taken the whole party to some new place which he loves so much.—Freddy's, I think they call it," she added, turning to the footman.

"Freddy's, Madame," the man replied. "Very good."

He climbed back on to his seat and the car started. "Never heard of the place," Gerald remarked.

"Is it far?" Laurita enquired.

"A matter of three minutes. But you children shall have your dance, and I shall have what is beginning to be more important to me—my supper."

"We're going rather a quaint way, aren't we?" Gerald asked, a few minutes later,

"I am ignorant of London," Madame da Mendora confessed. "These, it seems to me, are not pleasant streets,—and how empty, how desolate!"

"It's a queer neighbourhood," Gerald muttered.

They turned into a street not only deserted but almost unlit, and drew up slowly before a pair of firmly closed doors. The footman descended and apparently rung a bell.

"Surely this can't be the place?" Gerald ventured. "We're pretty well in the slums."

"So are some of the most amusing places in Paris," Madame da Mendora reminded him. "Freddy's, I think, is rather an imitation."

A postern door was suddenly opened, a blaze of light streamed out.

"Now for our adventure!" Madame observed, preparing to alight.

Even to the most hardened habitues, a sense of strain, of something unusual and mysterious, prevailed that night in the club over which New York Freddy was the presiding genius. There were some of the more devoted gamblers who continued to play their game without an upward glance; a few constant drinkers were too far gone to be susceptible to any sort of atmosphere; and several of the women, especially, were too reckless to care. But, amongst the others a spirit of restlessness prevailed. The baccarat table was frequently broken up; more than once a waiter in the act of serving a drink had paused to listen. The door was being guarded with far more than the usual attention. Freddy, instead of joining in the ghastly merriment of the place, was continually disappearing into his office and remaining there in seclusion. The only two who seemed entirely at their ease were Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt, seated at their table a little round the corner and near the bar, with a bottle of brandy between them. The Russian woman, wandering aimlessly about, pulled her chair up to their table.

"To-night, my dear lady," Victor Porle warned her, "we do not need company. Seek other friends, I beg of you."

Her violet eyes glowed at him whilst her great body, ill-contained in her scanty clothing, swayed and trembled.

"You two are the friends whom I desire," she declared. "You may be devils but you are also men."

"You are better away from us," Victor Porle persisted. "My friend and I have, in fact, a little enterprise to conduct. There will be trouble here before long."

"You would be wrong to send me away," she persisted. "You may need my help. I am a strong woman; I am one who loves to fight. Beneath my corsets is a knife."

"There is other trouble," Solomon Graunt whispered. "There is a police raid threatened."

"Let it come," she answered scornfully. "A cell in the police courts is no worse than my room in Seven Dials Lane. The only joy of those who crawl is that they have no lower to go."

They forgot her for the moment. The door labelled "PRIVATE" was slowly pushed open. Freddy showed himself upon the threshold. He was at all times a repulsive-looking object; so completely a creature of the sewers that to meet him out in the daylight in the streets would have seemed a thing impossible. The colour of his cheeks was green to ghastliness, the curve of his twisted lips venomous. He was like a man drunk with strange drugs, who had crept out of some horrible underworld. Even Victor Porle gazed at him with disgust. Nevertheless he signalled him to come to the table.

"Freddy," he invited, "drink with us." For a moment the man hesitated, a strange look in his inflamed eyes. Then he crossed the floor, pushed the Russian woman out of her chair and took her place. He sat down and leaned across the table. A waiter placed a glass before him and he half filled it with brandy.

"You would appear, my friend," Victor Porle said calmly, "to be unduly disturbed. Surely a little affair like to-night's is nothing unusual to a person of your experience."

"You gotter remember that this ain't Piccadilly," Freddy growled. "The cops have kept mighty shy of us up to now, but if they did come there'd be hell to pay. I couldn't keep my boys quiet if I wanted to. There'd be murder and plenty of it."

"You were always a white-livered skunk," Victor Porle observed calmly.

Freddy leaped suddenly to his feet. His teeth were showing; hideous, uneven and fanglike teeth. There was murder in his eyes.

"Say it again!" he cried. "You—!"

Victor Porle looked at him without speech. The words seemed to die away upon the man's lips. Not so, however, the hate, and of that Solomon Graunt took troubled note.

"What have you to fear to-night?" Victor Porle demanded. "We have planned what the law calls an abduction, but mark you, not a criminal abduction. It is a father who takes off his own daughter. What has the law to say about that? Why, my terrified friend, tonight's little episode might almost be carried out in the face of all the police in London."

"Who knows that she's your daughter?" the man growled.

"I never lie," Victor Porle declared. "I have never found it pay. The girl is my daughter."

"Then what the hell do you want with her?"

There was a glimmer of that smile on Victor Porle's lips which had cost him once his scar and another time very nearly his life,

"That," he rejoined, "is no one's business but my own. Yet, if you have qualms of conscience, let me assure you that in a way the scheme I am engaged on has its elements of equity. As the mother was," he added, with a sudden strange and ugly seriousness, "so shall the daughter be. That I have sworn; that is what shall happen."

Freddy finished his brandy and rose unsteadily to his feet.

"You talk too fine for me," he grumbled. "You've got me beat."

"What about the line-up?" Solomon Graunt demanded.

"You can trust Len for that," was the gruff reply. "He's a b——y artist when there's no fighting. Our first two are playing picquet at the second table near the door. They take the girl. The man opposite—Bill Leavey, the heavyweight—is to tackle the man. Outside, Len is waiting in the first car, and his partner in the second, with the gunmen, if they're followed. The launch has been against Blackfriars Bridge for half an hour already. The whole thing will go like b——y clockwork—if ever it starts."

Victor Porle's glance was like a dash of lightning.

"What do you mean—if ever it starts?"

There was a second's portentous silence. Freddy appeared to be on the point of a fierce rejoinder. Suddenly the drama seemed to die out of the moment. He shrugged his shoulders in normal fashion.

"How do I know that the guys will turn up?" he demanded. "If they do, we're ready."

Victor Porle knocked the ash from a long, black cigar he was smoking. His fingers were white and his nails polished. His linen was as usual above reproach. He was wearing a blue serge suit instead of his ordinary dinner clothes. His tie was carefully arranged and not a hair of his head was out of place.

"They will come," he said calmly. "I think that they are on their way now."

"Then I guess we're near where things begin to happen. I got to have a word with the Hoskins crowd. I'd better put 'em wise to this being a faked alarm, or there'll be some shooting without call for it."

He moved off, walking steadily enough and with an almost painful precision. Solomon Graunt watched him, scowling, and afterwards leaned forward towards his partner.

"If I were of a suspicious nature," he said softly, "I should be inclined to-night to distrust our friend Freddy."

"You think he's out to double-cross us?" Victor Porle demanded, with a frown.

"If there was any way in which he could possibly gain by it," the other reflected, "that is just what I should be afraid of. On the other hand, there isn't a penny to be made out of the business unless he runs straight."

Victor Porle leaned even farther across the table. He looked around him furtively and moistened his lips before he spoke.

"You don't suppose," he whispered, "that he could ever have found out who it was who gave the show away to the cops in New York?"

Solomon Graunt shook his head firmly.

"Not possible, my dear Victor," he declared. "There was only one man knew—the Police Commissioner himself—and was he likely to split to such carrion as Freddy? Why, he wouldn't have touched him with a pair of tongs!"

"Things have leaked out in odd ways," Victor Porle muttered. "Still, we had to do it. It was a fair deal with the Commissioner. The truth about Freddy's cellar or no more bootlegging for us. We should have been down and out again, if the Commissioner had kept up his threat and confiscated that Florida shipment."

"It was one of our closest shaves, Victor," his partner recalled, taking a gulp of his brandy. "They got Freddy's brother and sent him to the chair. That made the Commissioner our friend for life. No, Freddy can't have that on us. It's the foul life he leads. He never did look more than half a human being."

He turned and beckoned the Russian woman, who had been hovering wistfully in the background, to her place.

"What's the matter with Freddy to-night?" he demanded, holding her wrist and looking into her eyes.

"Blind drunk," she answered. "There's nothing else I can think of. What is to happen here is a small thing, if you speak the truth, yet he is acting like a scared hen, as though hell were the other side of midnight."

"Drink to a man who cannot stand it," Victor Porle observed, pouring out more brandy, "is without doubt a curse."

The woman watched him in wonder mingled with a sort of shuddering admiration.

"You two," she pronounced, "you are holy marvels! I've known Russians who've drunk themselves on fire, but they were babes in arms, lappers of milk to you two. Give me your hand to feel."

Victor Porle obeyed her, yielding it for a moment to her touch, and then drawing it fastidiously away. She looked at his bony knuckles, his thin, fleshless fingers, and rose to her feet with a little shiver.

"B——y marvels, both of you!" she muttered.

A bell rang suddenly at the back of the bar. Solomon

Graunt and his partner exchanged meaning glances across the table. The two men who were playing picquet paused in their game; Bill Leavey, the heavyweight, half rose to his feet. Freddy peered out from his office. The stage was set! The entrance door was opened with less deliberation than usual and, amidst a curious silence, Madame da Mendora swept in, followed by Laurita and Gerald. They had scarcely taken a step before they stopped short. The door behind them swung to and the man who had admitted them stood with his back to it. Laurita, after one glance of curiosity, looked around her with ever-increasing horror; Gerald, as he realised the character of the place and its clients, with swift apprehension.

"But, madame," Laurita exclaimed, "this cannot be the club where your friend awaits us! Why, it is horrible!"

"We'll clear out," Gerald announced sharply. "This slum isn't fit for you women. Stand away from that door, you!"

Then came a few seconds of more momentous upheaval. Above the guttural conversation of the men, the oaths of the card players, the shrill hysterical laughter of the women, came the sound full of menace—the loud clanging of an electric gong set in the middle of the wall. Whilst it rang, men and women everywhere sat or stood as though turned to stone. A man who was dealing kept his hand extended. They were all strange studies in arrested motion. The echoes of that brazen warning had scarcely died away, however, before pandemonium set in. Card tables were thrown over, men and women were running about like rabbits. Then the lights went out and the place would have been in complete darkness but that the moon was shining through the one uncurtained window. Gerald, who had been vainly shaking the door through which they had entered, with Laurita clinging to his arm, turned back into the room. Madame da Mendora had disappeared as though caught up in the rush. A man more composed than the rest paused to look curiously at these unusual visitors.

"What's wrong? Is it a fire?" Gerald demanded.

"No, the cops," was the quick reply. "You can get out this way, if you hurry."

"A raid!" Gerald exclaimed. "Buck up, Laurita! Cling on to my arm, and we'll make a dash for it."

They moved a step forward through the now almost deserted rooms. Suddenly, in its narrowest portion, just between the one bare window and Freddy's office, they came up against two men who barred their further progress—Victor Porle and Solomon Graunt. The former's face, caught by a gleam of white moonlight, streaming palely in through the dust-encrusted window, was terrible in its malicious triumph.

"My daughter, I believe," he said, bowing to Laurita. "A momentous meeting, this! One which a few seconds ago I feared might have been postponed. It is fortunate that I am able to offer you my protection."

The words were the last that ever left his lips. From some unseen place came the crack of an automatic pistol, and Victor Porle spun round and fell, a crumpled-up heap, upon an overturned table. Solomon Graunt, amazingly quick, ducked and fired in the direction from which the shot had come, only to fall a moment later face downwards by the side of his partner. Three men, who had been creeping through the shadows of the place towards Laurita, turned and disappeared. There was the sound of banging of doors, stifled moans and shrieks in the distance, then a curious silence. Gerald, still gripping Laurita, found her now a dead weight in his arms, her eyes closed, her cheeks more colourless than ever.

He laid her gently on a divan and afterwards stooped down and picked up the automatic which lay close to Solomon Graunt's right hand. He stood in the middle of the sanded floor, peering around and listening. There was no sound whatever inside the place which was apparently deserted. With the pistol in his hand, he felt no longer helpless. He stepped back to the door through which they had entered and shook it vigorously only to find that it was locked on the outside. He bent over Laurita for a moment, fancying that he saw signs of returning consciousness. Then suddenly he became tense again. From the other side of the door labelled "PRIVATE" came the sound of a faint groan. He crossed the room and threw it open. The body of Freddy, the proprietor, which seemed to have been propped up on the inside, fell with a dull thud upon the sanded floor. Hideous in life, he seemed in death to be more than normally grotesque. Gerald stared at him until he felt his senses beginning to reel. He cried out at the top of his voice, heedless of the fact that so far as he knew there was no one to hear him. Even the silence was not more terrifying than that unexpected response from the dim recesses of the place—a response in a woman's throaty, drunken tones:

"What's wrong, dearie? Hold on a bit and we'll have some light!"

Amazingly then from the gloomy corner of the room came a horrible and incongruous sound—a little hiss and the discordant rasping of a cracked record upon an ancient gramophone:

Way down in Tennessee,

That's where I love to be—

Lights unexpectedly shot out all around. Gerald stared about him wildly. The room, clearly visible now, scene of chaotic disorder, with overturned tables, counters scattered upon the floor, broken glasses, thin streams of liquor sucked in by the sawdust, was empty save for a drunken woman seated by the side of the gramophone and rocking to its strains.

"Lord love us, what a night!" she called out. "Everybody's dead and I can't stop this b——y instrument!"

Exhausted with her effort at the switches, she collapsed across the bench upon which she was seated. The gramophone continued to wheeze out its doleful melody. Suddenly from outside came sounds of blissful promise—the tramp of heavy footsteps. The window crashed inwards, fragments of glass flying all over the floor. A sergeant of police with peaked cap drew himself up—Martin's unusually pale face gleamed in the background. Gerald welcomed them both hysterically. The sense of relief was almost overpowering.

"You're too late," he called out—"too late! Three dead men and a crazy woman! Can't some one stop that blasted instrument?"


CHAPTER XXXVII

They paused for a moment at the top of the narrow, cobbled street, imperfectly lit, leading as it seemed into pools of darkness. Above the warehouse and the house beyond, the spire of the cathedral, clean-cut, more than ever impressive by reason of its near proximity, stood vividly out in the crisp winter twilight. There were stars in the clear sky, a suggestion of frost in the air. The warmth of the city, whose main arteries they had just quitted, with its crowded pavements, its brilliantly lit electric cars, its throb of humanity, had left them with a little glow.

"So this is where you wandered from the lighted ways, Martin, in search of romance?" Blanche observed, glancing for a moment behind and then forward into obscurity.

"What possessed me I can't imagine," he reflected. "Three nights out of four the other things would have contented me. On the fourth, there was always something that wanted to escape."

"I don't suppose you could have really been satisfied with your life," she observed.

"I don't suppose I was," he admitted. "On the other hand, it is amazing what philosophy can do towards reconciling us to anything. As soon as a thing is or becomes inevitable, we accept it. Something inside us seems automatically to be working towards adaptation."

"You've carried out your own theory pretty well," she remarked—"with the second development in your life, I mean, not the first. Don't hurry. I like to walk slowly down this quaint street, I like to try to imagine the thoughts which must have been passing through your brain when the door you were admiring flew open and you were invited to enter. The symbolism of it all is most attractive."

He smiled.

"I wasn't in a frame of mind to appreciate the metaphysical side of it," he assured her. "I must have looked a priceless idiot when I wandered into that dining-room. I was smoking a fag which your uncle hated and I was wearing the clothes I had worn all day pulling my samples about. I hadn't even a clean collar—Pm not sure that it wasn't a flannel one."

"You were living," she mused, "in accord with your circumstances. The way you have adapted yourself to the new ones, though, proves that there must have been an undercurrent of discontent."

"But have I?" he queried, a little dubiously. "I sometimes have a most depressing feeling of not belonging anywhere, of passing through the world as it were on sufferance."

"Idiot!" she scoffed.

They had reached with loitering footsteps the long front of the house, with its great stretch of wall beyond. They stood before the carved oak door. Martin pushed the bell and in a moment Mallowes made his appearance, and, recognising them, stood on one side with a deferential smile. Blanche led the way across the hall.

"They haven't commenced to lay the table yet for dinner, have they, Mallowes?" she enquired.

"Not yet, my lady," the man answered. "In about half an hour we shall be beginning."

Blanche beckoned Martin to follow her into the room and closed the door. She turned on the lights in the somewhat gloomy, but impressive apartment, and led the way to the round table.

"Sit exactly where they placed a chair for you," she directed; "and where was uncle?"

He explained and she seated herself in the host's place.

"I can see them all here," she murmured: "Gerald at the other end of the table, sulky and ill-tempered, you looking absolutely bewildered and I expect a little awkward just where you are, Mr. Borden by your side and Doctor Helsby opposite. You must have wondered in those first few minutes what was going to happen."

"I did indeed," he admitted. "Why shouldn't I? I don't suppose anything like that ever happened to any one before."

"No, I suppose not. Uncle rather surpassed himself in eccentricity that night. He looked upon it as his last fling, you know. He really thought he was going to die."

"That's why I felt afterwards I ought to have made him have the money back again, or most of it."

"Ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "Ardrington can keep itself up all right, and Gerald and Laurita will have all they want, even if she persists in refusing to touch her father's money."

"I sha'n't be obstinate about it," Martin said. "I don't really want to part with the money at all. It isn't that I am exactly a lover of luxury. Poverty wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so undignified."

She nodded.

"I occasionally feel like that," she agreed, "when I have to make my last winter's coat do. Still there are compensations. Great wealth, for instance, leads one just as far into the quagmire. Senseless extravagance is more undignified even than grovelling penury. Not that I've brought you in here to talk of such things!"

She leaned forward to smell the roses which filled a great bowl in the middle of the table. She had unfastened her fur coat and the dull scarlet of her gown formed a wonderful spot of colour in the darkened room.

"What did you want to come in here for?" he asked.

She leaned back again, threw her hat into a chair and smoothed her wonderful hair.

"I wanted to sit in the chair where my uncle sat when he christened you 'The Fortunate Wayfarer,'" she confided; "to have you sit by my side and to ask you—"

"Well?"

It needed all her resolution to go on. It had seemed simple enough in that moment of inspiration. The seldom seen light in Martin's eyes as he had uttered his eager exclamation seemed to bring things to a sudden crisis.

"To ask you," she continued, "whether I too could not contribute?"

"More than your uncle a thousand times, more than any one else in the world—but think—how should I dare——"

Those long arms which he had wondered at and coveted for so long were around his neck. Her lips were close to his, her eyes shining with that whole and wonderful truth. Even in the moment of his ecstasy he seemed to live it all through again. For a single second he was the bewildered young man of the past, listening to the words which released him from his bondage; a flash of the wheel of time and he was gathering greedily, passionately into his life Greater Fortune.

 

Lord Ardrington was seated in an easy-chair in his very episcopal-looking library, reading the Times and waiting for the cocktail which was always brought to him with the dressing gong.

"Shut that door," he begged, without looking around. "This house is full of damned draughts. Thank God, Ardrington will be ready for us to-morrow."

They came into the circle of lamplight. He laid down his newspaper.

"Well?" he asked.

Blanche nodded.

"I had to do it myself," she confessed, "but it's all right."

Lord Ardrington held out a hand to Martin and accepted his niece's kiss. Then as he rose to his feet a sudden whimsical expression crept into his face. Once more Martin fancied that he could see him in his place at the head of the dining table—an elderly eccentric, giving away a fortune for a caprice. His smile broadened.

"A divorcé too! I'd love to be there when you tell Henry," he confided.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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