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WITHOUT, in the palm court, the orchestra was playing—inside, the champagne corks were still popping, heads were bent a little closer together, the hum of conversation and laughter was like a long-drawn-out human song. George Carey leaned across toward the girl who sat opposite him—his wife of a month.
"To-night," he sighed.
She set down her wineglass and looked at him; a somewhat fanciful grimace covered an expression of real pain.
"It is finished?" she asked. "We go back?"
"We will never go back," he replied.
"Explain," she insisted.
In a few deliberate words he laid before her his scheme of life.
"A few months ago," he reminded her, "you were a chorus-girl, earning £3 a week, and only exceptional from the fact that you were living on it. I was a clerk in a surveyor's office, earning very little more. We were engaged, God help us! We both have extravagant tastes, the inheritance of a stupid upbringing. We both have been a little badly treated by the world. Then this legacy of one thousand pounds came. Thank heaven for it—for this last month, whatever the others may bring."
Her lips seemed to follow his, as fervently yet silently.
"We made a bargain with ourselves," he continued, "and we have kept to it. For a month we have lived as civilised people of our upbringing should live. We have lacked nothing—clothes, food, music, the theatre, not to mention the special marriage licence. The sun shone upon us."
"Has it all gone?" she faltered.
"It has not," he answered. "We have spent exactly half our capital. I made up my mind to stop with five hundred pounds in hand, and I have done so. Now listen to me, please, Nora. You shall not go back to the theatre, nor will I ever enter again that wretched office. I mean to live as we have lived. The world has been against us. I am going to fight for my place in it. We both have wit, courage, and resource. Very well, let us make use of our qualities. From to-night I declare war!"
"Against the fools."
"Adventurer and adventuress!" she cried, with sparkling eyes.
"Up to a certain point," he assented, "but God help the fools!"
She gave him her fingers across the table and he raised them to his lips.
"To-morrow night, monsieur?" his favourite waiter asked, as he bowed them out.
"To-morrow we go to the country for a month or so," George Carey told him. "The night we return to town I shall wire for our table."
"Monsieur will be very welcome," the man replied.
THERE were varying opinions concerning the presence of Mr. George Rastall, erstwhile Carey, in the ancient town-village of Dreymarsh. The popular view was expressed, as seemed only fitting, by Mr. Henry Bomford, head of the firm of Born ford & Sons, Maltsters, Cattle Food, Corn, and Coal Merchants, Chairman of the Parish Council, churchwarden, and a prospective magistrate. His decision was given from his specially reserved easy-chair in the bar-parlour of the Crown Hotel, about six o'clock one November evening.
"Seems to me the fellow's crazy," he pronounced. "What can any sane man want messing about the marshes and Ben Joyce's meadows all day?"
"Crazy's the word," William Tubbs, grocer and very secondary pedagogue, assented respectfully. "Calls himself a Londoner, too. I should say they needed a bit more sense than he's got, up yonder."
Mrs. Wells, the landlady, was inclined to stick up for her guest. She was a good-looking, buxom, young-middle-aged woman and, when tidied up for the evening with a blue bow at her throat, stockings which looked like silk, and beaded slippers, she easily passed as the enchantress of the callow youths of the neighbourhood. So long, however, as such customers as Mr. Bomford and Mr. Tubbs were in the bar-parlour, humbler admirers were constrained to limit their sociabilities to a word across the counter at such times as she was summoned forth to administer to their thirst.
"He's harmless enough, anyway," she declared; "pays his way, too, and stands treat out in the tap-room there as though he were made of money."
"Has he," Mr. Bomford asked ponderously—he was a fat and ponderous man—"indicated the nature of his business in these parts?"
"He hasn't indicated anything that I know of," Mrs. Wells replied, "except his taste in liquors. He says that the sea air makes him thirsty."
Precisely at that moment the person who called himself George Rastall pushed open the door of the bar sanctum and entered. In his present guise he appeared to be an insignificant-looking little man with a scrubby ginger moustache, watery blue eyes, and a somewhat hesitating manner. He was oddly and unsuitably dressed in a grey cycling suit and a flannel shirt of yesterday—or the day before. His collar was doubtful, his cheeks were flushed, and his hair, as was apparent when he lifted his cap to Mrs. Wells, tousled.
"Been trying the whisky at the rival shows, Mrs. Wells," he explained in an ingratiating manner. "Not a patch on yours. Double Scotch, please. Stop, madam, if you please, one moment."
He steadied himself by clutching at a small round table in his vicinity, concealed a hiccough with a little cough, stared for a moment fiercely and then hospitably at the two occupants of the parlour.
"You will join me, gentlemen, I beg," he invited. "Stranger here—staying in the house. Mr. George Rastall my name."
Mrs. Wells was a little shocked, but some benign influence seemed to wither the refusal upon Mr. Bomford's lips. He was moved by an unusual and gracious condescension. After all, this poor stranger erred through ignorance only.
"I thank you, sir," he said. "I will take a gin and bitters with you."
Mrs. Wells was speechless with admiration. So could the great unbend! Mr. Tubbs murmured a preference for sherry, and the landlady bustled away to attend to their wants.
"Residents here, gentlemen?" George Rastall inquired, making uncertain movements toward a chair. They both assented.
"Father and grandfather before me," Mr. Bomford observed.
"Same here," Mr. Tubbs echoed.
"Disappointing place," the stranger declared dejectedly—"most disappointing."
Mr. Bomford remonstrated mildly.
"Come," he said, "you must remember that November is a poorish month for the East Coast."
"Folks don't come here holiday-making after September," Mr. Tubbs added.
The visitor, having found his way to a chair, gazed at his companions almost truculently.
"Who said anything about holiday-making?" he demanded. "I'm here on business, I am."
The drinks were brought in and served; the usual courtesies were exchanged; to some small extent the curiosity of the two residents was excited.
"Business, eh?" Mr. Bomford repeated, as he sampled the contents of his wineglass. "Is that so?"
"What line might you be in?" Mr. Tubbs, with less diffidence, inquired. The stranger frowned severely.
"Business of very great importance," he remarked with dignity. "Not a commercial traveller or anything of that sort. Land business."
The two men were both interested. Both, as was well known, were landowners in the neighbourhood,—Mr Tubbs in a small way, as became his means; Mr. Bomford in a very large way, as became his greatness.
"If you wanted a plot of land for a house—" the former began.
"Or a factory," Mr. Bomford interrupted.
"Or for any purpose at all," the grocer continued. "My friend here and I would both or either of us be glad to show you round. There's a lady just taken a furnished house for a month in the neighbourhood, who hadn't been here more than a few days before she bought a matter of a couple of thousand acres of land."
"A couple of thousand acres?" Mr. Rastall repeated, with the air of one impressed.
"It was roughish land," the grocer explained. "She's going to make golf-links, that's what she's going to do."
"You may accept my assurance," Mr. Bomford declared emphatically, "that land in Dreymarsh never again will be sold so cheaply as to-day."
Mr. George Rastall closed his eyes, pursed his lips and shook his head.
"Two thousand acres of land for golf-links!" he muttered.
"It's mostly poor stuff," Mr. Tubbs put in; "common land and such like."
"Golf-links!" the stranger repeated, as though the idea for some reason or other annoyed him. "However, it doesn't matter. I've come down here on a fool's errand. I've failed. That's what I've done—failed."
He gazed into his empty tumbler with a melancholy expression. Mr. Bomford promptly took the hint, and the glasses were refilled.
"Well, well," the latter observed sympathetically, "I'm a native of the place, Mr. Rastall, and I'm sorry to hear of any one coming down here on business being disappointed."
"Then you're sorry for me," the stranger admitted dolefully, "for that's what I've done. Not through my own fault, mind," he went on. "Just obstinacy. I hate obstinacy."
"Perhaps," Mr. Bomford suggested, "you may, through ignorance of local facts, have gone the wrong way to work. Mrs. Wells," he continued, turning urbanely to the landlady, "will you let this gentleman know with whom he is conversing? He may then perhaps understand why the mention of business in this neighbourhood appeals to me—to me, perhaps, more even than to my friend, Mr. Tubbs."
The landlady hastened most impressively to convey to the stranger the awesome news of Mr. Bomford's greatness. Mr. Bomford, it appeared, was the richest, the most respected, and the most important person in the neighbourhood. There was nothing which Mrs. Wells said of which the subject of her discourse did not approve.
"You might call my friend, indeed," Mr. Tubbs wound up, "the uncrowned mayor of Dreymarsh."
"One thing's very certain," Mrs. Wells insisted, "if there was a mayor here, they wouldn't have no other."
The guest of the house twirled his glass in airy fashion, and Mr. Tubbs suddenly remembered that it was his turn. The uncrowned mayor was gracious, but a little protesting.
"Very seldom I take a third before supper, as every one who knows me is well aware," he declared. "However, here's wishing you better fortune, Mr. Rastall," he added, raising his glass, "and if, as one of the principal residents of the place, I can be of any assistance to you—why, command me."
But, alas! instead of being inspired with confidence by the condescension of his august companion, instead of finding his tongue unlocked by Mrs. Wells's excellent liquor, Mr. Rastall seemed now to have become afflicted with a sudden and most unaccountable reticence. He refused to respond to any of the openings so liberally provided for him by both of his companions, and cultivated a reserve as noticeable as his former affability. Mr. Bomford and his satellite scarcely knew what to make of him. Their curiosity was piqued, and when at last they left the place, long after their usual hour, they were both a little disturbed.
"I can't make that fellow out, William," Mr. Bomford confessed as they crossed the street together; "it's not often that I find difficulty in sizing up any one, but he fairly gets me."
"He's a living mystery, that's what he is," Mr. Tubbs assented. "He seems to have come down here expecting to make a bit of money somehow."
It was obvious, in a sense, that they both resented the coming of any one with such ideas into their own little corner of the earth. Mr. Bomford, after he had parted with his companion, paused for a moment between the iron gates which led to his square stone house, waited until the figure of his departing friend had disappeared, and then, with a quiet stealthiness, recrossed the street and made his way back into the bar-parlour. Mr. Rastall was still seated in an attitude of dejection before the fire. He glanced around at the sound of footsteps.
"Going to have another?" he asked, with a faint show of interest. "Just a nip before supper, eh?" Mr. Bomford shook his head.
"Not a drop," he declared. "I just slipped back—for my pipe. And while I am here, just a word in your ear, Mr. Rastall."
"She's frying bacon," the stranger murmured. "I can smell it. Delicious!"
"A business word, Mr. Rastall," the great man continued. "If the advice and help of an old and respected townsman here is of any service to you—not a man of straw, mind, either, but a man with a bank balance and credit for what he wants beyond it—why, here I am, Henry Bomford, Esquire, at the Square House just across the way. I'm game to buy or sell or lend upon security, so long as there's money in it. You follow me?"
"Sly old dog," Mr. Rastall chuckled. "You want to feather your own nest, that's what you want. Have a gin and bitters?"
Mr. Bomford withdrew, annoyed. He had become quite convinced that a money-making scheme was somewhere concealed in the foggy brain of this unusual visitor. Consequently his righteous indignation was immense when he beheld, from his dining-room window, a few minutes later, the surreptitious reappearance of his friend and neighbour, William Tubbs. He watched him enter the hotel with a heavy frown, and obeyed his better half's summons to supper with leaden footsteps.
"If there's one thing I abominate in this world," he declared, apparently apropos of nothing, as he took his place at the head of the table, "it's double dealing."
Very much the same sentiments were paramount in William Tubbs's mind as he received the landlady's surprised greeting.
"What, you back again, too, Mr. Tubbs!" she exclaimed. "Mr. Bomford was here only a moment ago. Wanted to have another word with the funny little man."
The grocer frowned, and paused on the threshold of the bar-parlour.
"I find my supper is half an hour later this evening, Mrs. Wells," he explained. "That housekeeper of mine is gallivanting as usual."
"Always finding fault with your wives or your housekeepers, you men are," Mrs. Wells declared good-humouredly. "I wonder they put up with you, I'm sure. I'll bring yours in a moment, Mr. Tubbs. There's rather a rush in the taproom."
The funny little man, as his hostess called him, glanced up at Tubbs's entrance.
"What-ho!" he exclaimed, "you back again, too! Not half after the oof bird."
"'Cute as they make 'em, eh?" Mr. Rastall grinned.
"A little over-'cute," the other confided. "Since I happen to have found you alone, Mr. Rastall," he went on in friendly fashion, "let me put it to you that if you should need the advice of a resident here, who cannot boast about his bank balance, but whose motto is, 'Live and Let Live,' well, William Tubbs is at your service. You will generally find me at my shop round the corner."
Mr. Rastall smiled a cunning smile.
"Much obliged," he said. "Don't want any help."
"I like an independent spirit," Mr. Tubbs confessed. "I'm a bit that way myself, but there's times when the shrewdest of us may fail through lack of a trifle of inside knowledge, as you may say. The people round in these parts are set in their ways, Mr. Rastall. They take a lot of shifting."
"There ain't anything concerning this one-horse place as I want to know more about than I do," the irreverent stranger declared, watching with vast interest the laving of the cloth for his supper. "My trouble ain't with the place nor with any one who belongs to it. Are you a married man, Mr. Tubbs?"
The grocer composed his features into a becoming expression of gloom and glanced down at his sombre attire.
"A widower," he sighed. "Lost my wife a few months back."
"Don't you go and put your head in the noose again, then," Mr. Rastall advised unfeelingly. "There's no saving some men from themselves. My trouble down here is that instead of a plain, straightforward man to do business with, it's a woman I'm up against."
"A woman," Mr. Tubbs repeated wonderingly.
Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of a diminutive servant with a smoking dish. Mr. Rastall rose with alacrity and drew up his chair to the table.
"Trouble is off," he pronounced firmly. "If there's one thing I'm partial to, it's ham and eggs. There's not enough for two, Mr.—What's-your-name, so I can't ask you to stay for supper. Good-evening!"
The grocer took a somewhat unwilling departure, and, left in solitary possession of the parlour, a remarkable though indefinable change took place in the stranger's deportment. He leaned back for a moment in his chair and laughed softly to himself, not in the vacuous fashion of the half-inebriated loafer, but with the restraint and enjoyment of a man of very different calibre whose sense of humour has been tickled. Then he proceeded with his supper, eating without much appetite, but with a certain languid appreciation of what seemed to be unaccustomed fare. His hands, which had previously not been much in evidence, were white and well cared for; with a little frown he suddenly seemed to remember the presence of a signet-ring upon his finger and removed it. When he had finished his meal, he drew a plain but remarkably handsome cigarette case from his pocket, lit a cigarette, and, throwing himself back in the horsehair easy-chair, summoned his landlady.
"Mrs. Wells," he said, waving her to a chair, "the people round about here seem of a curious nature."
"Not more so than in most small places," Mrs. Wells protested.
"That may or may not be," her visitor said judicially. "I find them curious, trying all the time to ferret out a fellow's business. Have you such a thing as a safe, Mrs. Wells?"
"In the corner, right opposite you," she pointed out.
Mr. Rastall produced a long envelope, which he drew with great care from his inner pocket.
"Be so good, madam," he begged, "as to take care of that document for me."
"Why, you're not afraid of being robbed down here?" she inquired good-humouredly, as she rose to her feet and opened the safe.
"I'm not afraid of anything," Mr. Rastall declared, a little gruffly, "but I like to keep my business to myself, and I don't care much about Henry Bomford, Esquire, of the Square House."
"Don't you indeed, sir?" Mrs. Wells replied, with the air of one who is not at all sure that sacrilege is not in the air. "He's very much respected in the neighbourhood."
"He's got small, covetous eyes," Mr. Rastall continued. "Never trust a man with eyes like that, Mrs. Wells."
"He's a very wealthy gentleman," she observed. "They say round about here that there's no telling what he's worth."
"Men with eyes like that are always wealthy if they can keep out of prison," her guest declared. "I am going out for a walk, Mrs. Wells. I shall not return until closing time. You can tell Henry Bomford, Esq., what I think of him if he puts his nose in here again—"
Mr. Rastall took up a very shabby cap and swaggered out. Mrs. Wells looked after him for a moment with disapproval in her face, superintended the removal of his supper things and settled down to the perusal of her ledger, from which task she was presently disturbed by the entrance of William Tubbs.
"Well, upon my word, Mr. Tubbs, whoever thought of seeing you again today?" she exclaimed, hastily removing her spectacles. "Caught me in these ugly things, too. I don't really need them, but they do save the eyes."
"And eyes like yours, Mrs. \Veils," her visitor declared gallantly, "are worth saving."
Mrs. Wells manifestly simpered.
"They've seen their best days, I'm afraid, Mr. Tubbs," she sighed.
"Not a bit of it," the grocer protested. "You're a young woman, that's what you are, and if it weren't that—"
Mr. Tubbs looked down at his black clothes and became melancholy. Mrs. Wells was promptly sympathetic.
"Now, Mr. Tubbs," she begged, "no fretting. Losses will happen and losses must be borne. I will fetch a drop of your usual, and then do you just light your pipe, settle down, and make yourself comfortable. There's no one more welcome at my fireside, and that you know."
The landlady bustled out, bustled back again, and, having served her visitor with his drink, superintended the lighting of his pipe. The fingers which held the match needed guiding, and a moment or two of very pleasant confusion followed before the two settled down in opposite chairs. Mrs. Wells, in whom her unexpected visitor's demeanour had inspired a new and bewildering idea, was a little flustered. It really was quite a domestic picture.
"The funny little man not here?" Mr. Tubbs remarked, glancing round the room as though noticing his absence for the first time.
"Gone out on what he calls a 'pub crawl,'" Mrs. Wells replied contemptuously. "Mine's the best whisky in Dreymarsh, and I'm not partial to people who can't sit still for a minute in the day. Not that he's wanted here, by any means."
"That I'm sure he's not," Mr. Tubbs assented gallantly. "Much cosier without him. What's his little game down in these parts do you suppose, Mrs. Wells?"
The landlady shook her head.
"Fair puzzles me," she confessed. "He spends most of his time wandering about what we call the Marsh Farm. That's the land the young lady up at the High House has just bought for golf-links. Mr. Norton, that's the gentleman who farms up beyond, did say that he saw him coming out of the High House the other afternoon, muttering to himself and swinging his arms like a madman."
"Sounds mysterious, doesn't it?" Mr. Tubbs observed, with much relish.
"He seems terrible afraid of having people know what he's after," Mrs. Wells continued.
"He's just given me a paper to keep in the safe up there."
"A paper," Mr. Tubbs repeated with interest. "Did you look at it?"
The landlady shook her head.
"I wasn't that curious," she admitted. "Besides, it was in an envelope."
Mr. Tubbs fidgeted in his chair, his eyes glued upon the safe.
"It's my belief," he said, "that the fellow's up to no good."
"I should be surprised if he were," his companion assented.
"He's either up to no good," Mr. Tubbs pronounced, "or he's got hold of some scheme for making a bit of money out of Dreymarsh. I don't hold with strangers coming down here and making money under our very noses, Mrs. Wells. If there's anything of that sort to be done, why can't we do it?"
"That's common sense," Mrs. Wells agreed.
"I call it nigh on robbery, if he's come here with ideas of that sort in his head," the grocer proceeded.
"And I'm with you," was the vigorous assent. "There's no one wants the like of him hanging about the place."
Mr. Tubbs glanced once more toward the safe and coughed. Mrs. Wells had picked up her knitting and was apparently engrossed in it.
"Don't you think," Mr. Tubbs asked tentatively, "that we have a kind of right to glance at that document, whatever it may be? Not as a matter of curiosity, you understand," he went on hastily, "but just to see that no one ain't trying to take advantage of us?"
Mrs. Wells stopped her knitting.
"I'm afraid I couldn't go so far as that," she regretted. "Besides, it's in an envelope—and some one might come in."
"Lock the door," Mr. Tubbs suggested.
Mrs. Wells gave a little half-suppressed scream.
"And you and 'me widow and widower," she reminded him reproachfully. "Why, if any one so much as turned the handle, I'd never hold up my head in Dreymarsh again."
"There's ways of stopping people's mouths, Anna Wells," her companion observed insinuatingly, rising to his feet and moving toward the safe.
"I'm all in a flutter," Mrs. Wells declared, reaching for her keys. "It's a long envelope just inside. Do be quick."
Mr. Tubbs was expedition itself. The safe was open and the envelope in his hand before many seconds had passed.
"It's come unstuck," he murmured excitedly. "What luck!"
They stood close together listening for a moment like conspirators. From the taproom came the sound of cheerful voices and laughter. Elsewhere all was quiet. Mr. Tubbs shook the contents of the envelope on to the table. In themselves they were not inspiring. There was what appeared to be the torn half of a letter from a firm of surveyors, whose name was obliterated, and a plan on glazed paper, at which Mr. Tubbs gazed with open mouth and protruding eyes, muttering to himself all the time. Mrs. Wells, who was looking over his shoulder, shook her head.
"Can't make head nor tail of it," she confessed. "What's the funny drawing?"
Mr. Tubbs replaced the documents in the envelope. His fingers were trembling violently.
"Lock it away," he directed. "Look sharp about it."
Mrs. Wells, however, seemed suddenly incapable of movement. She was standing quite still, her eyes fixed upon the doorway, in which stood the suspicious, if not accusing, figure of Mr. Bomford.
"Good-evening to you both," the latter observed, closing the door behind him.
"Goodness gracious me, what a start you did give me, to be sure!" Mrs. Wells declared, suddenly voluble. "And what a surprise to see you in the evening, Mr. Bomford! Come right in, sir. Mr. Tubbs was sitting in your easy-chair, but he will give it up and welcome. And what shall it be, sir—a drop of Special to-night?"
"In a minute," Mr. Bomford replied, his eyes still fixed upon the envelope, which Mrs. Wells was holding in her hand. "Now I wonder," he went on, glancing from the open safe to the envelope and then to Mr. Tubbs, "I wonder if I could make a guess at what you two good people were doing when I strolled in."
Mr. Tubbs was in a shaken state. Small jealousies were forgotten. Figuratively speaking, he opened his arms to the newcomer.
"I can tell you what I was on the point of doing, Henry," he interposed. "I was on the point of sending over for you. Mrs. Wells, be so good as to hand that envelope to Mr. Bomford. There's no secrets here. All's fair and above-board between friends. These are the papers that loafer fellow left with Mrs. Wells. Just you examine them, Henry; cast your eyes through them before Mrs. Wells locks them up again."
Mr. Bomford was in a very few seconds reduced to a condition of pulp. He gave vent to many unintelligible exclamations as he pored over the scrap of letter and the plan. When at last he had mastered their meaning, he produced a huge handkerchief and mopped his forehead. At the grocer's whispered suggestion, Mrs. Wells replaced the envelope in the safe and departed in search of refreshments.
"The Railway!" Mr. Bomford gasped, as one might have spoken of the Holy Grail.
"After all these years!" Mr. Tubbs murmured.
They were both a little dazed, but never did strong whisky and water fulfil better its duties as a restorative. In a very few minutes Mr. Bomford was himself again. He cast himself into his easy-chair and clasped his hands in front of him. His eyes seemed to have become a little narrower and to have receded a little farther into his head. His lips had come close together, and there was a frown upon his forehead. It was a picture of a great man studying a business problem.
"Let us put this matter into plain words, William," he said. "My instincts were dead right. This fellow's errand here is disgraceful. He is trying—he, a stranger—to make money out of Dreymarsh!"
"It all comes of the railway accident up at Dodden, I suppose," the grocer observed.
"Precisely," Mr. Bomford continued. "It is quite obvious from these papers that this rascal of a fellow has obtained inside information as to the verdict to be pronounced by the Government Inspector. The displacement of the rails, which caused the accident, was due to a subsidence of the railway bed, and the line for more than a mile has been condemned. You follow me, I trust?" he added condescendingly, turning to his listeners.
"You make it quite clear, sir," Mrs. Wells murmured.
"Quite simple," Mr. Tubbs echoed.
"The plan accompanying the letter," Mr. Bomford proceeded, "is the proposed curve of the railway across a more solid stretch of ground, and, as you see, it takes in Dreymarsh. The new route and the station will be on the Marsh Farm Estate."
"The land the lady up at the High House has just bought for a golf-course!" Mr. Tubbs exclaimed. .
"Precisely," Mr. Bomford assented. "She gave only a matter of two thousand pounds for it, but I heard, incidentally, that she's none too keen about her bargain. It seems her husband has written from America disapproving of the purchase.
"I wonder," Mr. Tubbs said thoughtfully, "whether this fellow has given the show away to her."
"He couldn't be such an ass as that," Mr. Bomford objected. "I dare say he's shrewd enough when he's sober."
"He's been to see her and he's always hanging about the land," Mr. Tubbs muttered.
"He wouldn't be such a fool as to spoil his own market," Mr. Bomford declared confidently. "No doubt he's trying to make some arrangement with her, but it's pretty evident he has not succeeded up till now. He probably hasn't a bob to bless himself with. I shall approach Mrs. Johnson to-morrow, and you will find that it will be a very different story."
"You!" Mr. Tubbs exclaimed. "Steady, Henry—where do I come in?"
Mr. Bomford frowned.
"You haven't the money to buy the Marsh Farm Estate," he pointed out. "This information is of no value to you."
Mrs. Wells stopped knitting, and Mr. Tubbs's face was no longer pasty.
"Whether I have money or whether I have not," he declared fiercely, "we're in this together."
"Together!" Mr. Bomford scoffed. "Why, William Tubbs, are you out of your senses?"
"Share and share alike," was the fierce rejoinder. "If there's one thing I hate, it's selfishness. What would you have known about the matter if I hadn't asked Mrs. Wells here to place the papers before you?"
"Pooh!" Mr. Bomford exclaimed contemptuously, "I was on the fellow's track. My instincts are never wrong. Why do you suppose I came back here to-night, eh? William, be reasonable," the great man went on with condescending mildness. "I was never one to treat a pal meanly. If I make as much as I hope to out of this little affair—it may be as much as twenty thousand pounds—there will be a fifty-pound note for you, Tubbs. Come, what do you say to that?"
"I say," Mr. Tubbs replied, a little thickly, "that if you make twenty thousand pounds there will be ten thousand for me—or nothing for either of us."
"You're out of your senses, man," Mr. Bomford expostulated. "Do you hear the fellow, Mrs. Wells? Help me to make him listen to reason."
"I'm not one," Mrs. Wells said, "to interfere between gentlemen, especially in a business matter, and maybe my notion about it is all wrong, but I can't help thinking, Mr. Bomford, sir, that it was William Tubbs who let you into the secret."
"But what's the good of the secret, as you call it, without money—my money?" Mr. Bomford demanded angrily. "Mr. Tubbs is a very deserving person," he went on, "and I am very glad to call him my friend, but when it comes to money, he knows, and you know, and I know, Mrs. Wells, that he has not a bob to bless himself with outside his business, and little enough for that. It's money that makes money, and money he has not got."
Mrs. Wells continued knitting.
"If it's a question of buying back the Marsh Farm estate," she said, "it's only a matter of two thousand pounds or so, isn't it? That's a thousand each, if you were partners. If Mr. Tubbs has not got his thousand ready, he might be able to borrow it."
"Tubbs borrow a thousand pounds!" Mr. Bomford laughed hoarsely. "I'd like to know who'd lend it him."
"I would," Mrs. Wells replied, "if he asked me."
Mr. Tubbs's face glowed, and his widowerhood from that moment was plainly doomed. Mr. Bomford was speechless, and at that precise moment came intervention in the shape of Mr. George Rastall, who, having noiselessly opened and closed the door, stood leaning over the back of a chair, looking at them. His condition was obvious and reprehensible.
"Bill, please, Mrs. Wells," he demanded. "I'm going."
Mrs. Wells looked at him sorrowfully.
"Going," she repeated. "Where to?"
"Back to London," he replied. "Catch last train! Had enough of this one-horse place. One-donkey place, I call it," he concluded, looking hard at Mr. Bomford. "Donkey place, do you hear?"
"But there aren't any trains," Mrs. Wells protested. "You can't get any one to take you to Dodden tonight, and the last train's gone if you got there."
Mr. Rastall looked prodigiously wise.
"Quite forgot," he admitted. "No trains, no railway station, eh? Place over three thousand inhabitants and no railway station! I could give you all a shock if I wanted to. I could surprise you."
"Go on, then," Mr. Bomford invited. "Let's have it."
The stranger shook his head with the utmost gravity.
"Dead secret," he replied. "I'm not drunk—can't tell secrets. If I can't get away, I'll have a drink."
The landlady hesitated. She glanced instinctively toward Mr.' Bomford, who nodded an almost too-eager assent. Thereupon she departed in search of the refreshment. Mr. Rastall, who had noticed her hesitation and who, therefore, could scarcely have been so drunk as he seemed, looked after her resentfully.
"All women," he declared, with great precision, "are mutton-headed fools!"
Mr. Tubbs showed signs of a chivalrous outburst, which was checked, however, by a warning glance from his companion.
"Come, come, not all women," the latter protested.
"Well, then, Mrs. Wells—and another I know of," the injured man insisted. "The other one's worse—much worse. I admit that," he conceded, with an air of impartiality. "A blind, pig-headed fool of a woman—blind to her own interests. Mrs. Wells isn't as bad as that," he concluded generously, as the landlady returned with his whisky. "Cheero, everybody!"
Mr. Rastall drained the contents of his tumbler and became forthwith comatose, obviously useless for either conversation or conviviality. Mr. Bomford took up his hat.
"We'll resume our conversation to-morrow, William," he said, as he turned to leave. "Good-night, both of you."
Mr. Tubbs was by his friend's side in a moment.
"Not a chance!" he exclaimed angrily. "I'm not going to have you sneaking off to the High House alone. Halves it's got to be, Henry, and that's my last word."
Mr. Bomford strode majestically across the street toward the walled precincts of his domain.
"Don't talk nonsense, William," he replied. "This is an affair to be conducted only by a man of capital. Besides, it will need tact and discretion. You see how that poor sot over the way has failed, with everything in his favour. You would probably make an equal mess of it. Go to bed and think it over."
"Go to blazes!" was Mr. Tubbs's vigorous rejoinder. "It's halves or there's nothing doing."
The angry grocer spoke to empty space. Mr. Bomford had passed through his iron gates and slammed them after him. A moment later he disappeared through his front door, also slammed. Mr. Tubbs, left standing outside, made at first no movement. He stood watching the grey stone house for some considerable time until one by one the lights were extinguished. Then he made his way slowly back to his own more modest abode. From the shelves in his little sitting-room he took down a small volume entitled "Every Man His Own Lawyer," and copied word for word a certain form of agreement on to a half-sheet of foolscap. Then he filled a fountain-pen, set his alarm for five o'clock, and went to bed.
FROM half-past five the next morning until a quarter-past nine Mr. Tubbs sat upon a log of wood in a small spinney exactly opposite the High House. From under his umbrella—it had been raining since daybreak—he watched the road ceaselessly, until, a little earlier than he expected, his patience was at last rewarded. A Ford car, driven by a chauffeur in soiled plum-coloured livery, climbed the hill and stopped in front of the High House. Mr. Bomford, very carefully dressed, descended and started to walk briskly up the short drive. Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find Mr. Tubbs by his side.
"You!" he exclaimed in a tone of disgust.
Mr. Tubbs wasted no words; he produced his sheet of foolscap and his fountain-pen. His pale face, glistening with raindrops, was almost grim.
"It's halves or there's no deal," he said firmly.
"You're a rotten blackmailer!" Mr. Bomford fumed.
"You can call me what you like, but you can't get rid of me, and it's halves," was the obdurate reply.
Mr. Bomford signed the paper before he rang the bell. The trim maid-servant showed them into a very pleasant morning-room, and after a few moments' delay an extremely attractive-looking young lady, in a check travelling suit and neat little hat, came in to them. She regarded with obvious surprise her unexpected callers.
"You wish to see me?" she asked. "I am Mrs. Johnson."
"A little matter of business," Mr. Bomford declared, placing a chair for her with pompous courtesy.
"Business?" she repeated wonderingly.
Mr. Bomford cleared his throat.
"My name, madam," he began, "is Bomford—Henry Bomford. In a sense I may be said to represent the town of Dreymarsh. I may without vanity, I think, term myself its principal inhabitant."
Mrs. Johnson's little nod was all that could be desired in the way of sympathetic apprehension.
"This," Mr. Bomford indicated, with a jerk of the head toward his companion, "is our local grocer, William Tubbs. To come to business, madam, the town has been considering the question of your purchase of the Marsh Farm estate for the purpose of golf-links. We have come to the conclusion that privately-owned links are undesirable. We appreciate your selection of the land and your foresight, but we scarcely think that a lady like yourself would meet with success in carrying through a business enterprise. We therefore propose, madam, if you are willing, to repurchase the land from you, allowing you, if agreeable, a small profit for lawyer's expenses."
Mrs. Johnson shook her head.
"Oh, no," she declared, "I couldn't entertain such a proposition. I couldn't, indeed. My husband was quite surprised when I told him what I had paid for the estate. He considers the property worth much more, and he is looking forward immensely to the time when he can come down and lay out the links."
"Your husband, madam, is probably unacquainted with the neighbourhood," Mr. Bomford reminded her. "The total rents from the Marsh Farm estate are, I believe, under eighty pounds a year. I need not point out to you that that is no sort of interest upon the capital you have disbursed."
Mrs. Johnson shook her head.
"I think," she told them confidentially, "that the property must be worth more than I gave for it. Shall I tell you why?"
"Pray do," Mr. Bomford acquiesced.
"Do you know," she went on, "that a most extraordinary little man has been down here, trying to get me to sign what he called an option. I didn't exactly understand it, but it seems he wants the property for some friends of his who are willing to give a great deal more for it. What is an option, Mr. Bomford?"
"An option, my dear young lady," Mr. Bomford said impressively, "is a form of business of which I entirely disapprove. You sign a paper, which ties your hands and for which you get nothing. By the by, you did not sign it, I trust?" he added anxiously.
Mrs. Johnson laughed reminiscently.
"Of course I didn't," she replied; "but he was such a funny little man. He was so cross with me—I can't imagine why. I never said I wanted to sell the property. In fact, I don't."
"That," Mr. Bomford declared, "is unfortunate, for the object of my visit here this morning is to make you an offer for it."
"You don't want an option?" Mrs. Johnson asked, smiling.
"I'm an honest man," Mr. Bomford asserted proudly. "It's not only an offer which I have to make, but a cash offer."
Mrs. Johnson considered for a moment.
"There's not a coal-mine underneath, or anything of that sort, is there?" she asked with a delightful little grimace.
Mr. Bomford smiled tolerantly.
"I can assure you most positively that there is nothing of the sort. The fact of the matter is that the town have decided that they would like to lay out and manage the golf-links themselves."
Mrs. Johnson played with her bracelet for a moment.
"The town have had a good many years during which they might have bought the land," she pointed out. "I don't want to seem disagreeable, but I really don't feel inclined to part with it, at any rate without consulting my husband. He's going to bring a friend down shortly, who has laid out a great many golf-courses in America."
"But, my dear young lady, we haven't finished with this matter yet. I am prepared, on behalf of the town," Mr. Bomford announced magnanimously, "to offer you a small profit on your purchase."
"I will see what George says," Mrs. Johnson promised, glancing at the clock. "In any case, the matter would have to stand over for a time. I'm going up to town to-day and shall be away for at least a week."
Mr. Bomford had at least courage. He settled down to his task, undaunted.
"Mrs. Johnson," he begged, "oblige me by giving me your whole attention. First of all, the afternoon train would do for you, if necessary, wouldn't it?"
"I suppose it would," she admitted doubtfully, "if there were any reason for staying."
"There shall be every reason for your staying," Mr. Bomford promised her. "Now about the title-deeds."
"They are deposited at the bank here," she replied. "You see, I didn't pay the whole two thousand pounds."
"I understand," Mr. Bomford said. "Now, if only you would be reasonable, madam, the whole business could be finished in time for you to catch the afternoon train."
Mrs. Johnson was mildly amused, although at the same time a little impatient.
"But I really don't want to sell!" she exclaimed, almost fretfully. "I don't wish even to discuss the matter further just at present."
"But you do want," Mr. Bomford persisted, "to give your husband a pleasant little surprise. Supposing you were able to show him five hundred pounds in bank-notes, eh? Five hundred pounds profit, mind."
She laughed a little scornfully.
"That is nothing! Why, I gave two thousand pounds for the property. Two thousand five hundred pounds is almost the same thing."
"Oh, is it?" Mr. Bomford murmured, a little taken aback.
"We shall run the golf club quite nicely," she promised. "There will be a committee and all that sort of thing. You can be on it yourself, if you like, and George will get an expert to help him lay them out. I think, if you don't mind, I'll—"
She half rose to her feet, but Mr. Bomford waved her back.
"Madam," he interrupted, "personally I do not mind, but I have the town to consider, and the town's interests. I should have considered five hundred pounds a magnificent profit. However, let that be. Kindly name your price."
Mrs. Johnson traced the pattern of the carpet with the tip of her exceedingly smart patent shoe. She looked up and made a little grimace.
"You see, I don't want to part with the land," she complained. "I suppose if you were to offer me as much again as I gave for it—oh, I don't know!"
"My dear madam!" Mr. Bomford gasped, genuinely startled. "Really, you take my breath away. Four thousand pounds!"
"Is that much?" Mrs. Johnson asked. "But then, I really mean what I say," she went on impressively. "I don't want to sell it at all."
"If three thousand pounds—" Mr. Bomford began slowly.
"We'll leave it till George comes back," Mrs. Johnson interrupted. "You and he shall have a nice talk together, and I'm sure he will do what's fair. If the town really don't want strangers to own the land—I suppose that is why you are so much in earnest about the matter—I am sure he won't be obstinate about it.
"Madam," Mr. Bomford requested, "will you allow me to have a word in private with my friend Tubbs?"
Mr. Tubbs emerged slowly from behind the local paper. His hair was exceedingly rough, he was looking pastier than ever, and for some reason was obviously disturbed. Mrs. Johnson rose lightly to her feet and hurried toward the door.
"I'll go and finish my packing," she announced. "If you do want to see me again, I'll come down when you ring."
Mr. Bomford waited until the door was closed, then he turned to his companion.
"William," he said firmly, "this thing has grown too big for you."
"Has it?" Mr. Tubbs faltered.
"It has," Mr. Bomford reiterated. "Now, you know me, William; you know that I'm a man it is impossible to deceive. There's no one breathing can say he's had the better of me in a bargain. I can smell out the bottom price anywhere. I know perfectly well when a person wants to sell and when he doesn't."
"Well," Mr. Tubbs said, "all granted, and what then?"
"If I get this land," Mr. Bomford continued, "I shall have to give four thousand pounds for it. Nov, be reasonable. Can you put down pound for pound with me?"
"Of course I can't," the grocer admitted gloomily.
"There you are, you see," Mr. Bomford went on. "It's just as I say—the thing's too big for you. Now be sensible. I have two hundred pounds in bank-notes in my pocket. I brought them up in case I had to pay a deposit. Here they are."
He produced and held them out insinuatingly.
"Two hundred pounds," Mr. Tubbs sighed.
"They're yours in exchange for that agreement," Mr. Bomford declared magnificently. "No more bother or risk, just a cool two hundred to do as you like with."
Mr. Tubbs's hesitation was almost hysterical. Finally he drew the agreement from his pocket, handed it over, received the notes, and turned toward the door.
"I'm off," he announced gloomily. "I can't bear to see the finish of it."
"Perhaps it would be as well," Mr. Bomford assented. "Remember, William, that you have done very well out of this. Very well indeed, for a man in your position," he repeated impressively. "We will meet later."
"I shall be at the Crown," Mr. Tubbs agreed disconsolately, closing the door behind him.
IT was about six o'clock that evening when Mr. Bomford presented himself in the bar-parlour of the Crown, where he found Mr. Tubbs and the landlady chatting together confidentially. Mr. Bomford was still wearing his best clothes, and the very boards beneath his feet seemed to creak out intimations of his importance. His bow to Mrs. Wells was more condescending than usual, his jerk of the head toward William Tubbs a very epitome of careless graciousness. He deposited a sealed packet upon the table and established himself luxuriously in his easy-chair.
"You can guess what is inside there, William, eh?" he observed.
"The title-deeds," Mr. Tubbs murmured.
"Precisely," Mr. Bomford continued, balancing his finger-tips one against the other. "For Dreymarsh, I think this is indeed a record deal. Four thousand pounds," he said impressively, "I have paid out in banknotes. I was right, wasn't I, William, when I said that the affair was a little too large for you?"
"Y-es," Mr. Tubbs assented, with resignation. With a little exclamation, he rose to his feet. He had picked up a newspaper and was studying it intently.
"I can't quite follow this," he observed in a disturbed tone. "What do you make of it?"
Mr. Bomford adjusted his pince-nez, held the paper out in front of him,
and commenced to read:
"'Major Hartley, Government Inspector of Railways, has now
completed his inquiry into the Dodden Junction railway accident, in which it
will be remembered that three lives were lost and many injured. He finds the
mishap is entirely due to—to—'"
Mr. Bomford's voice seemed suddenly to collapse. He stared at the paragraph which he was reading, like a man suddenly confronted by a tragedy. His eyes were distended, his mouth wide open. Mr. Tubbs looked over his shoulder and continued:
"—'to faulty signalling on the part of John Drage, who was in charge of the down-line box. He has made drastic recommendations to the Railway Company, who have agreed to reduce the working hours of all officials upon this branch.'"
Mr. Bomford began to breathe heavily.
"What's become of that rascal who was hanging about down here?" he demanded.
"Mr. Rastall went to London this afternoon."
"And his papers?"
"He tore them up before he went," Mrs. Wells replied. "He said something about having finished with them."
There was an awful silence. Mr. Bomford was still breathing heavily.
"You don't suppose," Mr. Tubbs said, leaning a little toward him, and speaking as though the idea had occurred to him for the first time—"it's not possible that you've been spoofed?"
Mr. Bomford's exit was blasphemous and incoherent, besides being exceedingly rapid. Mrs. Wells was shocked.
Mr. Tubbs set down his glass empty; there was a ring of real determination in his tone.
"If old Bomford never speaks to me again," he declared, "if he tries to have the law of me, which he won't for fear of being laughed at; if he worries me by day and by night, 1'11 never part with a fiver of that two hundred! It's the easiest and the pleasantest money I ever earned, and when I do begin to spend—well, it will be a few things we might be needing about the house. Allow me."
Mrs. Wells watched the wine bubble in her glass.
"Well," she said, "it's just a judgment upon him. I've never known much good come of thinking you're such a lot cleverer than other people. He's learnt his lesson."
Mr. Tubbs chuckled.
"And it's cost him a bit!"
THE maître d'hôtel's cheerful face was wreathed with smiles as he ushered his favourite clients to their table.
"To ourselves," George Carey murmured as he raised his glass, "and our first success—Mr. George Rastall and Mrs. Johnson!"
"And Mr. Bomford," she laughed.
"First of the fools," he acquiesced.
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