Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Administered by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.
It is a a story that will grip you right through. The theme—the cowardice of one man, acclaimed as a hero, and the bravery of another who suffers in silence—appeals irresistibly to all classes of readers. Mr. Dorrington is at his best in this story. Although the setting is English, and the characters English, the author handles them with oonsummate skill. They move before the reader as living beings, they fascinate and compel interest in their suffering and their great fight to overcome almost insuperable barriers. One young man spends three years in gaol for another's crime, and on this great central, theme Dorrington has constructed a story that goes with ever-increasing vitality, real human vitality, right up to the close.
"THE VELVET CLAW"
WORLD'S NEWS THIS WEEK.
THE crying of the gulls ceased with the coming darkness. Great gusts of sea rain blew across the open heath lands where the windows of Hamlin's cottage blinked and streamed under the sudden deluge. Save for the uncertain glow of the fir log, the cottage was in darkness. From a low-seated chair in the far chimney corner protruded a pair of hands which seemed to caress the violet-hued flame tips leaping higher and higher as the wind increased. A girlish voice spoke from the shadows beyond the chimney corner, and at each word the flame-illumined hands clenched and relaxed alternately.
"When Ken comes home, mother, there will be no place for him to sleep. What shall we do?"
"He will have a little money, Phyllis. Discharged prisoners are generally supplied with funds by the prison authorities. We shall manage somehow."
The hand remained clenched in the fire glow, and the face of the mother showed for an instant as she leaned forward to adjust the spluttering log.
Phyllis Hamlin, wrapped in an old blanket, peered from the straw mattress in the dark corner. Something in her mother's attitude sharpened the tense look in her eyes.
"Are you crying because he is coming, mother? Are you thinking of the shame...?"
"Hush, dear: you must not talk so much, Try and sleep a little. I will wake you when Ken arrives."
Mrs. Hamlin rose from her crouching position in the corner, and lit a small oil lamp that stood above the open fireplace. The light illumined slender hands and a refined face, a face which ill matched the poverty of her surroundings.
A creek that gave anchorage to half a dozen mud-spattered barges bounded the western side of the fields. Voices came from the tow-paths, the shouts of half-drunken men staggering homeward in the dark, followed by the silvery jingle of harness pieces. In the near east a faint nimbus of light filtered above furze-clad hills where Barhampton, with its quays and causeways, flanked the waters of the bay.
A footstep sounded on the gravel outside. Mrs. Hamlin turned quickly, and the lamp glow revealed the momentary terror that leaped to her eyes.
The door opened almost noiselessly. A young man wearing a thick overcoat and grey necktie entered and stood with his hand held upward to shield his eyes from the sudden light.
"I fancied that you might come to meet me, mother," he began, quietly. "Then I remembered your letter about Phyllis's indifferent health, and I found my way here alone."
Mrs. Hamlin was crying softly, her face pressed to his shoulder. Very tenderly he held her, his breast labouring at each fresh outburst from the little mother who had counted the days and months of his imprisonment with her passionate heartbeats. Then his grey eyes wandered from the shaking shoulders to the slight girlish figure huddled on the mattress. Stooping quickly, his boyish face found sudden refuge in Phyllis's outstretched arms.
"Oh, Ken, we're so glad you're here! We thought the months would never pass. It seemed to us as if the prison authorities had power to hold back the days and hours...!" Phyllis was trembling in his arms. He looked up with a furrowed brow to his mother.
"How long have you been in this slum?" He spoke hoarsely, his sister's face pressed to his own.
"Nearly a year," was the scarce audible reply. "With our money all gone, we had to seek some kind of refuge from the world. We could hardly have held out another month."
THREE years before, Kenneth Hamlin had been employed as a clerk in the well-known shipping firm of Jacob Eardsley at Barhampton. The position had promised a life-long occupancy, with increasing rewards, for it stood as unwritten law, in the house of Eardsley, that its servants should benefit in accordance with the firm's prosperity.
In the third year of his clerkship it had been proved that young Kenneth had betrayed his trust. Arrested and convicted of forging his employer's name, he had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment. The amount involved exceeded a thousand pounds. Jacob Eardsley's anger against Kenneth had been intensified by the fact that no trace of the money or the manner of its disposal had been satisfactorily accounted for. The severest cross-examination had failed to elicit from the young culprit any statement which might assist the firm in recovering a portion, if not the whole, of the purloined cash.
The cost of her son's defence had proved ruinous to Mrs. Hamlin. Her little freehold house, the gift of her father, had been mortgaged beyond redemption to meet the exorbitant demands of her legal representatives.
And now, in his twenty-third year, Kenneth had come out of prison to begin life again. Branded a felon in the eyes of his fellow citizens, there seemed small hope of regaining an honourable position in life.
Placing his rain-drenched overcoat across a chair, he stared a trifle bleakly around the small apartment which served the daily needs of his mother and sister. Tall, and of athletic proportions, his eyes held a nimbleness and vitality that invested him with a peculiar charm. There were people in Barhampton who refused to believe that Ken Hamlin had ever sought to rob the well-known shipping firm, The fact that he had not denied the authorship of the forged signature in no way altered their faith in his honesty.
With a covert glance at her son, Mrs. Hamlin hurried to a side cupboard to prepare a hasty meal from her scanty stock of provisions, while he remained beside the mattress listening to his sister's somewhat fevered talk.
Was he glad to be home again after the weary months spent in those dreaded prison cells? Had they ill-treated him?
Kenneth laughed at her earnestness of manner, and assured her that the prison authorities had dealt no harder with him than other prisoners.
Mrs. Hamlin drew a cloth across the table, placing some cold meat and a pot of tea in the centre.
"Come, Kenneth, and eat a bit of home food, Although we've lost our silver it will taste sweet after—"
"Government rations, eh, mater?"
He came forward and kissed her tenderly in the shadow of the lamp. "Cheer up: there are some bright days ahead. Stone walls and iron-fisted warders can't squelch the manhood out of one. I'm going to make the future a bright vermilion with streaks of gold in it and flake-white."
"Flake-white!" came like an echo from the mattress.
Mrs. Hamlin nodded and laughed under the spell of her son's words. It was good to have him home again, good to see him eat at her own table after an absence of three long years, Phyllis watched him with more than ordinary curiosity, for she could not rid herself of the thought that men were flogged and starved in gaol.
Kenneth ate slowly and with some delicacy of manner, using the serviette at his side, as one whose earlier instincts of table etiquette had not been obliterated by long intercourse with criminals and prison officials. Once or twice his glance leaped across the room to meet his sister's, and at each meeting the blood flashed into her pale cheeks. If Phyllis and her mother had expected to find the habits of goal life impressed on his movements they were pleasantly disappointed. To them it was as if he had walked in from an office desk. His manner was alert and confident; his whole being prepared for the coming conflict with the forces that would inevitably be arrayed against him the moment he sought to discover some honest means of employment.
At the end of the meal he turned to his mother, seated at the head of the little table, while a ghostly smile played about the corners of his mouth.
"Any news of Roy Eardsley—Jacob's son? Is he still in India?"
Mrs. Hamlin breathed sharply at his question, as though the mention of Roy Eardsley's name cut her to the quick. Kenneth and Jacob's son had been inseparable comrades at school long before Kenneth had been forced by his mothers impoverished circumstances to accept a position in Jacob's office. Mrs. Hamlin fidgeted uneasily in her seat.
"Roy has been invalided home on account of his wounds." she said slowly. "I thought Phyllis mentioned all about it in her last letter."
"Prisoners do not always get their letters." Kenneth spoke with a half-averted face, and the sound of his sister's voice raised him from the temporary fit of brooding which threatened to silence him.
"Roy has been mentioned for a V.C., Ken." Her voice was strained almost to the point of breaking. "The English papers were full of the boy's doings in India."
"Has there been a war?" he questioned doubtfully.
She laughed quickly. "Not a European war, Ken. It was one of those little frontier affairs hat happen so frequently in India. Roy's regiment was sent out to suppress some hill tribes, and through some dreadful mistake a company of engineers was ambushed and badly cut up. Roy behaved like a hero and— a lunatic, the papers said. He fought his way through a pack of Afridi tribesmen and held the pass until the mountain howitzers got to work. Poor Roy, he was always so headstrong and brave."
Phyllis was unusually excited. Not so her brother. He sat very still in his chair pondering his words, while his mother's hand strayed again and again to his shoulder.
Words shaped themselves on her lips only to be checked at the thought of the humiliating contrast in the two boys' careers. Roy, the only son of the wealthy shipowner, Jacob Eardsley, had obtained a commission in a crack regiment about a month before Kenneth's imprisonment. Singularly enough, Roy had embarked with several senior officers on the voyage to India only a few days before young Hamlin's arrest. Otherwise, it had been predicted, the young soldier would have made a strenuous effort to save his old comrade from his father's wrath.
THE Hamlins were an old Hampshire family living in prosperous circumstances until Kenneth's father, Colonel Jeremy Hamlin, succeeded in gambling away a fine estate. Speculations in wild-cat mining ventures had lured him to financial chaos, and had finally broken his heart. Kenneth's youthful indiscretion in the matter of forging his employer's name was the final tableau in the fortunes of his family.
Things had happened swiftly, leaving the distraught Mrs. Hamlin no time to safeguard the remnants of a once respectable fortune. Kenneth's mad act had threatened to temporarily upset her mind. It had been suggested at the trial that the boy had been driven to his foolish crime by a desire to help his impoverished sister and mother. The plea had been disposed of summarily by a bitter prosecuting counsel, who showed with merciless accuracy the untruth of such a statement. Neither Mrs. Hamlin nor her daughter had benefited by Kenneth's act. The money still remained unaccounted for, and the question of its whereabouts was one of the mysteries which still puzzled certain officers of the Barhampton police.
On his side Kenneth maintained a dogged silence concerning the forged cheque. Yet within him surged a passionate devotion for his mother and sister. Through the bleak days of his imprisonment he had never permitted them to pass from his mind.
Mrs. Hamlin hung about his chair covertly watching his brooding face as he glanced from time to time at the slim- throated girl on the rough mattress.
"Roy wrote us once," she ventured after a while. "A bank of England note for twenty pounds was enclosed in the letter."
"Oh!" Kenneth looked up sharply and for an instant his grey eyes grew narrow at the points. "The money came from India?"
"Yes, about a month after your conviction. Of course," Mrs. Hamlin paused to place his wet overcoat near the fire, "I returned the money."
Kenneth sighed. He appeared to sit tighter in his chair as the moments flew by. Mrs. Hamlin did not speak again. Once, twice she cast furtive glances at the white, clenched fingers visible on the ragged bedcover in the far, corner.
"You ought to be asleep, Phyllis," she whispered chidingly. "You are wasting strength in keeping awake."
The rain beat with sullen insistence against the leaded panes. A palpitating silence fell upon the apartment. The mother's thoughts went back through the years to the fair-haired boy with the strangely quiet eyes and the lovable ways. In those days the soul of Kenneth had seemed so rare and free from guile. How everyone had loved and petted him! And those schoolboy days had flown so fast, carrying with them the sainted spirit of childhood.
What imp of perverseness had seized him? she pondered, to make him a thief, a scoundrel! By all the laws of heredity and environment the thing appeared incredible, monstrous. Even as he sat beside his sister's bed she could not withdraw her glance from his handsome face. Prison life, with its debasing atmosphere, its brain-sapping miasmas, had failed to eradicate his inherent gentleness of manner.
He did not know that she was crying softly to herself. He was thinking of the son of his old employer, and of the days when Phyllis had given her foolish heart to the gypsy-faced Roy. He remembered now, with his sister's wasted hand held tightly in his own, the wild rambles together in the pine woods at Furze Hill, the long summer noons spent where the surf thundered on the beach beyond Alum Chine....
IN the solitude of his cell at Dartmoor, he had often recalled those hare-brained rambles, his sister's voice calling from the autumn mellowed bracken; Roy, his pockets full of money, his spendthrift habits, and above all, his tempestuous fits of good-nature and self-sacrifice.
What a blight had come over everything. Three years of his life wasted within the soul-destroying wards of a penitentiary!
Roy had been more fortunate. Everything had been ordained for the son of the wealthy shipowner. A commission in the army, service in foreign lands, fighting and chances of distinction, the comradeship of a whole regiment! All these immense opportunities had been bargained for and purchased, and Roy had seized the first chance to benefit himself and confirm the faith which his father had placed in him. The gaining of a V.C. after only three years' service was unparalleled, Kenneth thought.
He turned to the white face nestling close to his own and half whispered the thoughts in his mind.
"Roy has come through all right, Phil. Still, I'm glad mother returned that twenty pounds. It was just like Roy to send it. Do you remember how he used to squander his pocket money, the bangles and toys he used to buy for you?"
Phyllis merely breathed her answer.
"I remember, too, Phil, that you rather cared for him," he went on in the same undertone. "Of course it was only natural."
Phyllis opened her hand and closed it tightly. She made no response. He regarded the two thin hands folded across the ragged bed cover in silence, heard his mother's laboured breathing as she busied herself between the dark kitchen and their one living room.
"I'm sorry, Phil, that things turned out so badly. My fault, eh? My cloven foot stamping in upon your little daydreams. Mine the task of spoiling and wrecking!"
"Ken!" She held his wrist almost fiercely. "Don't—don't talk like that!"
His shoulders heaved; something of his family's almost desperate circumstances put a moist gleam in his eyes.
"I knew you were fond of Roy, Phil; and I used to comfort myself with the thought that he was clean and honourable!"
"Kenneth!" His mother stood in the kitchen doorway, a perturbed look on her face. "Phyllis isn't strong enough to bear that kind of talk. She doesn't know what you mean."
"My talk won't make her worse, mater. By-and-by it might make her feel a heap better. I was merely saying that Roy Eardsley had failed somewhere in his idea of things."
"Why, you couldn't expect him to follow us about after what happened!"
Mrs. Hamlin's voice was near to passion. She restrained herself with an effort. "You are blaming Roy for your own sin, Kenneth. Was it to be expected that he would pay attention to your sister after you had been convicted of forging his father's name?"
KENNETH HAMLIN passed a restless night under his mother's roof. The sound of the trees, the slow voice of the rain-swollen creek floated strangely upon his unaccustomed senses. The goblin shadow of the gaol invaded his dreams. At times he heard again the soft footsteps of the Warders patrolling the stone corridors, the hoarse coughing of the degenerate criminal who once occupied an adjoining cell.
The rain ceased at dawn. A cold wind-swept sky was visible through the tiny window that overlooked the distant fields. Yet there came to him a joyous sense of freedom with each breath from his native woods and lanes.
His mother was astir shortly after dawn, nervously anxious to begin the new day which followed her son's homecoming.
The living room downstairs appeared more cheerful in the daylight. Phyllis lay pillowed on her rough couch so that she might easily follow her brother's movements. He entered, treading lightly as one who had not quite shaken off the short step which clings to men who have paced the narrow limits of a prison cell.
"Ah! It's good to be out of gaol!" He paused near the fire, spreading his hands over the purple pine-wood blaze. "How human a fire seems after those beastly steam pipes!"
"You'll feel the noise and bustle of the streets," his mother predicted, holding a slice of toasted bread in her hand. "I read of a man who hid himself in a cellar after spending seven years in Reading gaol. The horses and traffic upset his nerves, poor fellow."
Kenneth laughed and placed an affectionate hand on his mother's shoulder.
"I wasn't shut up long enough to acquire gaol nerves, mater, a few visits to Barhampton will key me up to the proper pitch."
Kenneth's prospects in the near future were not very clear to his mother. His education had been ample and well-conducted and would have fitted him under normal conditions for routine work in any office or bank.
In the present circumstances she felt that his efforts to find employment in Barhampton would meet with scant success. The police would shadow him from place to place to warn any intending employer of his dubious past. Of course there were mercifully- disposed people ever ready to grant a discharged prisoner a fresh start in life.
Mrs. Hamlin placed a jug of steaming coffee and some toast before him, knowing that his first day's experience in quest of a situation would be the hardest. Sudden footsteps on the gravel outside disturbed her meditations, A double knock sounded on the door. Opening it with trembling hands, she found herself staring at a heavy-shouldered man with wheat-red hair and spectacled eyes.
"I belief dot Kenneth Hamlin live here," he began with a broad smile. "Is he at home?"
Kenneth put down his cup and went to the door hastily! "Why, it's Von Kroon," he exclaimed with heightening colour. "Pray come inside," he added warmly. "I hardly expected you to find me so soon."
It was not evident to Mrs. Hamlin who Von Kroon might be. She had once flattered herself that all her son's friends were known to her. She stared frigidly at the foreign eyes behind the spectacles, the tight-buttoned coat that was almost military in its cut and shape, "I vas glad to meet your moder, Kenneth," he said in acknowledgment of the young man's formal words of introduction. "Und ve haf an invalid," he vouchsafed, with a grave nod in Phyllis's direction. His manner was keenly sympathetic and devoid of patronage. Kenneth turned to his mother, anxious to explain the visitor's presence.
"I met Von Kroon about a year ago at a time when I needed a lot of brotherly sympathy and advice."
Mrs. Hamlin blushed furiously. "Then you became acquainted at—at—"
"Dartmoor," Kenneth admitted frankly. "Of course he was unfortunately a—"
"Prisoner like yourself!" Von Kroon laughed. "Der British Government haf a hasty way of putting German scientists into prison, Mrs. Hamlin. Some oder time I vill tell you my story. But it vas a good vind dot blew Kenneth and myself togeder at such a time. Your son vas like a lonely iceberg, Mrs. Hamlin, among dose white-faced convicts, und I vas feeling like der Gulf Sthream." He paused to chuckle at the simile, and then, with a kindly nod of the head, turned again to Phyllis in the corner.
"I shall come to see you, Miss Hamlin, after I haf talked a leedle mit your broder."
He regarded her with the eye of a medical practitioner, and then gently held her wrist for a few moments. "I dink," he spoke to Mrs. Hamlin, "your daughter is in need of special treatment. Dese English country doctors are careless und stupid!"
Mrs. Hamlin explained eagerly that Phyllis had received only casual advice from Mr. Johns, the local surgeon. She was convinced that her daughter's ill-health was due to their impoverished surroundings. A better house and nourishing food were wanted to complete her recovery.
Von Kroon's spectacled eyes wandered critically over the damp walls and floor of the apartment.
"It is not a good place for a tender constitution. Dese leedle slum buildings are culture grounds for erysipelas und consumption."
Mrs. Hamlin sighed loudly.
"We are hoping for better times now that Kenneth has returned. A few more shillings a week would give us a roomier dwelling."
Von Kroon nodded until his spectacles seemed to flare and scintillate in the fire glow.
"You hear vat your moder says, Kenneth! A few more shillings a veek vill do more to restore your sister's health dan doctor's medicine und advice. Money brings hygiene, clean houses, open spaces."
There seemed small need for Von Kroon's admonitions, since Kenneth appeared to be eager to be out and doing. Apologising to his mother for his hasty departure, he accompanied the German outside, and together they walked briskly in the direction of Barhampton. It was evident to him that Von Kroon had something unexpected to communicate to him, and his heart beat a trifle fast in anticipation of a strange piece of news.
KENNETH had first met Von Kroon in the prison dispensary at Dartmoor. There are occasions, even within a prison penitentiary, when surveillance and officialdom relax, and the two found many opportunities of exchanging confidences concerning their past and future intentions in life. Kenneth had gleaned something of the German's antecedents from other inmates of Dartmoor. Von Kroon had been convicted and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment on a charge of fraud and misrepresentation in connection with the sale of a war balloon. Others asserted that the genial Teuton had been mixed up with an Indian sedition case, "wherein three young Bengali students had been incited to murder a British Vice-Consul in London."
During his incarceration; Von Kroon stonily denied his complicity in the sedition case. He admitted, however, in a half jocular way, that it was the prerogative of every German to rob the British War Office when a chance offered.
The two halted near a bridge that overlooked a forest of masts and close-huddled sailing craft. For a moment Kenneth forgot his companion's presence in the sudden medley of life and motion afforded by the crowded wharves and quayside. His youthful eyes drew in the feast of colour, the towering sail-hung spars, the line on line of big-breasted ships moored to the very footpaths of the town.
"It vas a grand sight!" The German spoke at his elbow, his finger indicating a swarm of umber-hued sails flaunting in the fairway. "Good to see after a man has been shut between stone valls. Do you smell der sea, boy? Can you see in each of dose ships a sister to vind und sky?"
Kenneth was too profoundly impressed to answer. The half- seeing blindness of mental introspection was upon him, a blindness that masked the near quays, the crowds of smart men and women idling under the great sea wall. With the beating of his heart he heard again the slow, rhythmic tramping of feet, the measured concussions of iron-shod boots on the prison flagstones. Until now he had never known how deeply each thudding nail had driven into his heart, or the nights when he lay awake in his lonely cell crying to be released from the horrors of the coming day.
He breathed like one whose nerves are aleap for the new life to be, and when the German turned from the quay he saw that Kenneth's face was flushed and expectant.
"You do not look like dose convict fellows who haf borrowed der gaol stoop," he said cheerfully. "You are too young, eh? Vel, I haf someding to say dot ought to sharpen your vits."
Kenneth merely breathed, and waited for him to continue. Von Kroon lit a cigarette and his mouth twitched maliciously.
"Ve are going to der office of Jacob Eardsley. Vat do you say, my young friend?"
Kenneth flinched as though naked steel had touched him. "Not to Eardsley's," he declared flatly. "I have no desire to eat Jacob's insults, Please leave him out of your reckoning."
Von Kroon permitted his strong fingers to encircle Kenneth's arm good-naturedly as they advanced towards the busy centre of the town.
"I came out of prison dree months ago, my dear Kenneth, so you know. During dot period I haf been inquirin' into der history of der forgery dot sent you to Dartmoor for dree years."
"Oh!" Kenneth looked into the spectacles and found the German's steely glance unshakable. "I fear you have been wasting valuable time, Von Kroon."
The rimless glasses focused him instantly, "I haf heard vorse men dan you called angels, Kenneth. But shoost now you are behavin' like an army mule. Try und squeeze some of dose silly sentiments out of your head."
"Der nonsense of trying to shelter Roy Eardsley from der law. In gaol you confided many things to me, my dear Kenneth. One time you vas feverish und ill ven I met you in der dispensary at Dartmoor. I gave you an iced drink at der Government's expense."
"Go on; I remember!" Kenneth screwed up his eyes in thought. "God forgive me for what I said. I was feeling deadly ill ... you must not take too seriously what I said at such a time!" he almost gasped.
The German shrugged disparagingly. "You did not tell me that it vas Roy's hand dot forged his fader's name, Kenneth. You did not tell der judge und jury at der trial dot it vas your sister's sweetheart who gave you der cheque to cash. It vas you who presented it at der bank, it vas you who held your silly tongue ven der police claimed you dree veeks after... Gott im Himmel, it was horrible!"
Kenneth caught his wrist fiercely. "What do you want?" he demanded in a hoarse whisper. "What are my private affairs to you? You have no right to discuss these things."
Von Kroon threw away his cigarette; his big shoulders heaved sullenly.
"You tell me, my dear Kenneth, dot I haf no right to discuss der trial vere you played scapegoat for dot young coward Eardsley. Der whole trial should be made a public question. Vat right haf you or any oder man to suffer der hells of an English gaol to shield a blackguard spendthrift from justice?"
Kenneth quailed under the German's flung-out words. A pulseless inertia seized him, a sick frost feeling wherein the waters of the bay swam in dizzy circles about him. A policeman passed them leisurely, and turned at the street corner to glance quizzingly at Kenneth.
Von Kroon still held his arm firmly and drew him some distance down the road. Pausing again in the shadow of a bonded store, he pursued his argument with the craft of a born advocate.
"I do not accuse you, Kenneth, of conspiring to defeat der ends of justice. I claim, however, dot you haf no moral right to keep der truth from your moder and sister."
Kenneth shook his arm free. "Go your way and leave me in peace, Von Kroon. I shall find work somewhere, in a steamer's hold or as a dock labourer. Anything is preferable to your schemes of blackmail!"
"I do not vish to blackmail Jacob Eardsley, my dear Kenneth. It is all a question of compensation. I am sure dot Jacob is honest. No man in dis town haf a higher reputation. Let us go to him. I vill point out der whole case, how you preferred to hold your tongue rather dan expose your old comrade. Gott! der old man vill haf to listen!"
Von Kroon paused to wipe his hot face and to shake Kenneth in his friendly grip.
"Old Jacob haf vite hair und shinin' eyes," he went on. "I saw him yesterday troo der vindow of his office. He valked like a king among dose troops of clerks und ledger keepers, a big honest man, mit a great love for his ships und his money!"
The German paused as though the figure of Jacob Eardsley had suddenly leaped before him. "Come mit me, Kenneth," he continued softly. "Speak der truth to him und I gif you my vord dot he vill play der benefactor."
Kenneth's rising anger evaporated at the German's words. After all, he was only trying to help him in his own clumsy, good- hearted way. In their prison days Von Kroon had always proved untiring in his sympathy for others, often sacrificing himself to the wrath of the warders in his efforts to shield some unfortunate comrade.
Kenneth's manner softened, leaving him a prey to the Teuton's steady advances. Von Kroon was not slow to press his advantage a little further. His solicitude for the welfare of the Hamlin family was beyond doubt.
Kenneth ought to have a confidant, one able to bear with him in his coming struggle for existence, he inferred.
"Tell me der truth about dot cheque, my dear boy. No one can come to harm mitout your evidence. Have one fader confessor on earth, at least."
Kenneth shivered and looked again into the German's unwavering eyes. Something of the man's magnetic bearing thawed the frozen secret from his heart, a secret which he had held from his mother and from the judge who had sent him to Dartmoor.
"You know that Roy Eardsley and I were school chums before he went to Sandhurst. We lost sight of each other for some time, but he wrote to me frequently. We had our family troubles. My father became insolvent through over-speculation, and Jacob Eardsley assigned me to a fairly lucrative position in his office. That happened while Roy was at Sandhurst. Of course," Kenneth went on, "I did not feel bound to discontinue our correspondence because I happened to be in his father's employ, especially as his letters grew increasingly confidential. I learned that he was in difficulties with his creditors, racing men, commission agents, and money lenders. I begged him to make a clean statement of his affairs to his father, but somehow he balked and put the matter off.
"Then came his commission, and later the order for him to proceed with his regiment to India. His creditors did not appear to press him harshly, and before embarking at Barhampton, he paid a final visit to his parents at Fleet House.
"On the day of his departure he came into my office to say good-bye. Naturally I was delighted to see him. He looked so trim and set up, so quick-mannered and good-natured. We fell to talking of his prospects of promotion while on foreign service. Before saying good-bye he asked me as a favour to slip round to the bank in Victoria-avenue and cash a cheque he carried in his hand.
"I remembered at the time that his father had gone down to the docks to superintend the clearing of a six thousand ton steamer bound for Barbados. With scarcely a glance at the cheque, I carried it to the bank, cashed it, and returned with the money, some twelve hundred pounds in all, mostly in Bank of England notes."
"And vas you in der habit of cashing Jacob's cheques?" came from the palpitating Von Kroon.
"Yes, it was quite usual for me to bring money from the bank. I did not think it necessary to inform Jacob or the head cashier of the event. It seemed a confidential bit of business between my employer's son and myself. The cheque bore Jacob's signature, and was made payable to bearer, so I imagined that the old man had decided to settle with his son's creditors. It seemed very natural. The affair passed unnoticed until Roy was fairly on his way to India. You know what happened afterwards," Kenneth concluded wearily.
The German shook a clenched hand at the sky. "Gott! It is incredible dot dis Roy Eardsley can play der part of scoundrel und hero! By-und-by he is to receive der Victoria Cross, der highest military honour your country can bestow on a soldier. A veek ago der papers vas full of dot Ghazai Pass affair. Lieutenant Eardsley proved himself a lion among dose Afridi hillmen. Und yet he allowed you to rot in der cells of Dartmoor because he vas afraid to speak der truth. Himmel! It is a queer business!"
"I don't think he heard of my arrest until I was sentenced," Kenneth declared. "I'm half inclined to believe that Jacob kept back all tidings of the affair from him until I'd suffered a year's imprisonment. Roy's admission of the forgery wouldn't have helped me much. There would have been delays before a new trial was granted... Ruin for him, misery to his people. And what should I have gained?"
"Misery to your own people!" Von Kroon almost shouted. "I peeped in at der cottage vindow vere your moder lives, one night, about a month ago. Your sister vas ill, illness caused by semi- starvation und damp valls. Der tradespeople vill not let dem haf groceries because der vas no hope of employment for Kenneth ven he came out of gaol. Who," the German roared, "has come forward to lend you a hand? Vere is dis Lieutenant Roy Eardsley who is to vear der Victoria Cross?"
He paused as they neared the main thoroughfare of Barhampton, and pointed towards a colossal building surrounded by a huge observatory, which bore in gold letters the name of Jacob Eardsley. Below was written in eye-arresting capitals the names of the ships which carried the Eardsley house-flag, their tonnage and dates of sailing. The buildings dominated the town, and as Kenneth gazed at the high windows and the stream of business men and clerks swarming in and out the swinging doors, his heart came near to suffocating him.
Von Kroon squared his big shoulders and drew a breath like a swimmer about to plunge into an unknown depth.
"Come, my penniless young friend, let us call on Jacob mit der gold sacks. Vill you valk der streets for ever vearin' der brand of his son's crime on your brow?"
Kenneth shrank back, his limbs trembling violently. "Not inside those swinging doors!" he gasped. "What—what will happen to Roy? How can I break this thing to that white-haired father? For God's sake don't push me, Von Kroon... Not into that place."
A LOOK of disgust came into the German's eyes. Was is possible, he argued, that there were men who could refuse to avail themselves of their life-long opportunity?
Was young Hamlin mad, or was he planning some deeper scheme upon the purse-strings of the wealthy shipowner? It was not often that so glorious a chance of bending the neck of a millionaire presented itself. Here was a young man who had endured the ignominy and shame of a British penitentiary out of sheer love and devotion to Jacob Eardsley's son. There was to be no reward for this act of self-martyrdom. The colossal shipping house owned by Jacob was to pursue its course leisurely and in smug affluence, regardless of the fact that its heir presumptive was a common forger, who had evaded the law because an idealistic young fool named Hamlin had chosen to suffer in his place. The thought was monstrous.
Kenneth heard his outburst of indignation unmoved. How easy for a stranger to pass judgment on an absent comrade, he told himself. Kenneth abhorred all forms of self-pity. In the weary months of his incarceration he had never experienced a genuine thrill of anger against Roy Eardsley. Three years was a small slice out of a young man's life, and he felt certain that the son of Jacob would explain the reason of his terrible blunder the moment he set foot in England. Even now the young soldier was homeward bound, an invalid, bearing the knife-wounds of his recent conflict with Afridi tribesmen.
Von Kroon's voice rolled on in a low, thunderous bass as they passed from the town into a country lane that ran from the western end of Barhampton. The voice gained in volume once the open country was reached, until it became a trumpet blast of invectives breathed at the head of Lieutenant Roy Eardsley.
Kenneth halted in the road and put out his hand.
"Let us part here, Von Kroon. You have been very kind in the past, and I regret that I cannot accept your advice in the present instance. I must allow Roy Eardsley a chance to clear himself, in my eyes at least. I am the injured person. May I not, therefore, be the final judge? Good-bye, my dear Von Kroon."
The German accepted the outstretched hand unwillingly. He was convinced almost that Kenneth was a quixotic fool, incapable of turning a splendid opportunity to his advantage. Jacob's bullion vault stood open to them if they had but demanded admission. In his mind's eye he saw the wealthy shipowner flinch and grow pale at the first intimation of his son's terrible deed. In his dreams he had seen and counted the jingling streams of hush money that flowed from the rich father's purse. And now, by a freak of emotional reasoning, Kenneth had decided to wait and play the generous schoolboy with the rascally Roy.
"Goot-bye, Hamlin!" he growled. "A man who vill sit silent for tree years vile his comrade rots in a prison cell is only fit for Afghan knives. Ach, Gott, dey should haf driven dem deeper!"
He strode back in the direction of Barhampton, slashing with his walking cane at some overhead branches as he passed down the lane.
KENNETH stood for a while, his face to the wet fields, while his mother's cottage showed in grey silhouette against some blackened ricks of hay. For the life of him he could not settle the question of his next move. Employment must be found, and quickly. This would mean his leaving Barhampton for good. No business house in the town would offer him the meanest clerkship, for in those days of strenuous competition employers had no time for discharged forgers.
He was loth to return home so early in the day without having attempted something. Bracing himself, he made a detour towards the western end of the town, entering it by a new road, which terminated in the central thoroughfare of Barhampton. Half-way down his eye was attracted by a trade sign bearing the unfamiliar name of "Titus Hepburn—the American Hardware Man." Beneath the sign was a written notice: "Smart young man wanted. No invalids, please."
Kenneth laughed in spite of his anxiety. In all that grim town of Barhampton, where the hard-pressed workers glowered at each other, the notice lead like a genial invitation to apply.
Without a thought of the possibilities of his chances, Kenneth entered, and, after forging his way through piles of unpacked merchandise, he found himself in the presence of Titus Hepburn. Mr. Hepburn was tall and inclined to stoutness; his mouth worked convulsively as though he were chewing a mixture of gum Arabic and india-rubber. Kenneth met his swift, inquiring glance without a tremor.
"You want a smart man, Mr. Hepburn, and I'm after the job," he said, with a desperate attempt to steady his shaking voice.
Titus Hepburn rested a hand on his hip while his eyes searched Kenneth foot and brow.
"What's your line, young man? Have you been any iron goods before? Could you differentiate between a bed-lath and a cheap razor?" he asked quizzingly.
"I'm familiar with iron and steel goods," Kenneth answered quickly. "I may add that I possess a working knowledge of French and German."
The American's glance traversed over the tall, straight figure approvingly, and then, without a word, he beckoned the young man into his office, that, stood at the end of the warehouse.
"I've a couple of letters from Paris and Berlin houses," he said promptly. "Please sit in this chair and render a fairly free translation. I think you're going to suit."
Kenneth took the chair indicated, and in the briefest possible time had rendered the contents of the two foreign letters into English.
Titus Hepburn scanned them carefully, put them aside, and then consulted his watch. "I've had thirteen Barhampton men in here this morning, and not one of them knew whether Boston was in Ohio or Cleveland. Maybe you can tell me the same of the greatest American who ever lived, young man," he demanded, with startling suddenness. "I ask all my English employees the question. It kind of fixes them in my estimation."
Kenneth bowed to hide his smile-illumined face. "I should divide the honour between Lincoln and Washington," he stated humbly.
"Thank you," was all that Titus Hepburn vouchsafed. "I shall expect you here at eight in the morning. By the end of the month we shall have arranged your salary. Your name?"
"Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Hamlin."
OUTSIDE Kenneth fairly gasped for joy. Here at last was the chance, he had dreamed of. He passed with almost flying strides in the direction of his mother's cottage. He was glad to see, as he hurried through the environs of the lawn, that the people had forgotten him. Only here and there he came upon certain men and grown boys who favoured him with a second glance. Once firmly established in Titus Hepburn's employ, he could prove his worth. How delightful would be his coming and going from the warehouse each morning and evening. And, above all to taste again the sweet rewards of labour and a mind at rest.
His mother, watching from the cottage window, detected a lilt in his walk as he swung into the garden path. He came singing to the door that was held wide for him to enter. Kissing his mother heartily, he stooped over the expectant sister in the far corner of the room "I've got work, Phyllis. Blessed, remunerative work. An American merchant has decided to give me a start. Isn't it luck?"
Mrs. Hamlin sank into a chair, scarce daring to look at her son's joyous face. Surely the age of miracles was not past, she sobbed, when a young man could walk from a prison cell into a portion of trust and responsibility.
"But these American importers are not so exacting as English in the way of demanding references. So long as I prove efficient and trustworthy I shall hold my position."
"Is your knowledge of modern business methods good?" Mrs. Hamlin queried doubtfully.
"I was Jacob's confidential secretary, and his house has the finest organisation of any firm in this country," he answered with a touch of pride.
Kenneth's mind was essentially modern and constructive. He would carry into the house of Titus Hepburn an energy and foresight rarely met with among the crowds of half-educated young men who invaded the mercantile offices of Barhampton. He was determined to make himself indispensable. No branch of the business fabric would be permitted to stagnate under his eyes. His presence was going to count. In less than a year Titus Hepburn would be seeking his advice on questions of international trade deals and contracts. Kenneth's imagination soared to great heights during the long afternoon. Up and down the small room he paced, his illumined eyes half blind to his surroundings. Sometimes he pauses in his sharp turnings to contemplate the frail young girl reclining on the carefully-packed pillows.
"Phyllis, we'll be out of this fever trap in a month," he predicted. "I'll go round this afternoon and negotiate with the agent about a roomy cottage I saw vacant on top of Penance Hill. He'll let me have it the moment I take my seat in Hepburn's office."
"Do you mean that beautiful little place that lies back among the pine woods, Ken? There's a lot of trellis work in front. It was smothered in lilac and roses when we came here."
"The very place. I can get it for nine or ten shillings a week. The smell of those pine woods make me hungry," he exclaimed. "It's the kind of place that will make you fit and well in a month, Phil. I'll get you a bath chair and we'll ramble about the copses together now the spring's coming."
It was an auspicious afternoon at the Hamlin cottage. Kenneth's linen was overhauled by his mother; collars and ties which had lain idle so long were made ready for the coming days when he would journey to and from Hepburn's warehouse.
Kenneth slept well that night, and awoke with a giant's forces inside him. The sun was well above the pine woods. Smoke from the town drifted in lazy streamers across the distant harbor. Out of the sky came the piercing note of a lark, rising higher and higher until it seemed to melt in the golden sunlight above.
"Why, Barhampton is quite lovely this morning. I once thought it was the capital of Grime and Sweat!" Kenneth declared, as he came in from a short ramble through the woods.
AFTER breakfast he departed exultantly in the direction of Hepburn's warehouse. It several minutes to eight when he arrived. Entering, he stood near the office, expectantly observing the small procession of clerks and salesmen filing in from the street.
Titus Hepburn arrived on the stroke of eight, looking flushed and overheated. For an instant both men eyed each other in silence— Kenneth eager of nerve and mind, the other sombrely alert and out of countenance. He spoke quietly and without phlegm, and each word struck home on Kenneth like a barbed weapon.
"I regret, Mr. Hamlin, that I find it necessary to cancel my assignment of yesterday. I may tell you frankly that I liked you at sight. I wasn't aware, though, you'd just walked out of gaol. I'm sorry the thing happened. A pie-faced detective blew in here after you'd gone yesterday. He gave away the show without me asking. I must wish you good morning, Mr. Hamlin!"
OLD JACOB EARDSLEY left his office a little earlier than usual, and stepped lightly into the red landaulette car awaiting him outside. A short ten minutes' run brought him to Fleet House, which stood in one of the finest park lands in the south of England.
Fleet House had cost Jacob twenty thousand pounds to build. A hundred acres of pints forest had been cleared to make way for his lawns and private golf links. Its construction had begun about a year before Roy sailed with his regiment for India. And the old shipowner had looked forward to the day when his son would return and play the part of country gentleman among the well-to-do landowners of the district.
Roy was a handsome stripling, carrying with him something of his Italian mother's quick blooded temperament and features. In Jacob's estimation the earth moved and adjusted its rotations to suit his son's whims and fancies. He loved Roy with the silent strength that was part of his big nature. The news of the little Indian frontier affair in which a detachment of cavalry had been cut up same as a thunderclap to Jacob. The central figure of the universe had been badly wounded. For days no further news came through the cables. Then, after a heart-breaking silence, the details of Lieutenant Eardsley's heroism leaked out word by word, until the whole throbbing story was at the disposal of the newspaper world.
Jacob read it with kindling eyes and a heart that almost stopped. He saw it first in the columns of a distinguished London paper. It was scare-headed and in big margins. The episode leaped at him from the printed lines, and his blinding tears fell on the paper as he followed the soul-thrilling narrative to its end. Then came weeks of agonised waiting, when the young man's life hung on gossamer threads out there in a little, white-walled hospital, somewhere in the vague Punjab.
"Do the gods let heroes die?" he had asked his wife.
Francesca Eardsley had never studied the possible predilections of the ancient gods where modern military heroes were concerned, she only knew that her son lay stretched on a camp bed, with half-a-dozen Afridi knife marks on his tender body. It was an abominable thing, Francesca thought, that mere schoolboys should be flung into a mountain pass to face hordes of Mohammedan fiends, who recognised no civilised rules of warfare.
But Lieutenant Roy's fine constitution outpaced the swift- running angel of death as youth invariably outpaces it when the future holds greater torments in store. To the many who were not likely to forget his brilliant stand against overwhelming odds, the news of his recovery came as a heart-soothing item of poetic justice. Thousands of well-wishers were prepared to receive him the moment he landed at Plymouth or Barhampton. At that moment the Empire was badly in need of a hero, and Lieutenant Eardsley's photograph figured conspicuously in the illustrated papers long before he embarked on the homeward-bound steamer at Bombay.
Jacob fingered a cablegram, which he had received earlier in the day, apprising him of the probable hour of his son's arrival at Barhampton. Descending from the car the instant it drew up at the portals of Fleet House, he entered, and was met by his wife. Her face was lit up, her eyes full of unuttered questions.
"One more day and he will be here!" Jacob announced. "God, it seems years!"
Francesca followed him into the silk-upholstered lounge which separated the spacious reception-room from the main hall.
"We're going to be happy in the years of our senility," Jacob ventured dryly. "Sit beside me, my dear." His big white hand sought hers, with caressing solicitude. "I'm sixty, France, and I'm fit to hammer the best man in England. Eh. it's fine to feel young again! It's fine to have a son on the home trail after the fight. And, by the Lord, it will be finer to hear the shout of welcome that will greet him when he touches English soil!"
Jacob was unduly elated at the prospect of Roy's homecoming. He rose from the chair to breathe the sweet air blowing in at the open windows, and his eyes danced in the fires of his rekindled youth. He stood six feet in his bare soles, and he possessed the chest, measurement of a bison: England breeds such men, and loves them. His hair was white and thick, and the draught rifled it in silvery heaps above his sun-tanned face.
Francesca watched him with patient eyes, as he again consulted the cablegram in his hand.
"We'll go down to Barhampton to-morrow early, France. There'll be the biggest crowd since the troops went to South Africa. Here's the cablegram!"
He spread it to the light, and adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles. "Listen!" He spoke with a fatherly twinkle in his moist grey eyes,
"AM FEELING SPLENDID. DON'T LET THE CROWD EAT ME. DOCTOR PREVENTED ME COMING THROUGH VIA BRINDISI. — ROY."
Francesca sighed contentedly as her husband replaced the cablegram in his pocket.
"I'm afraid the people will harass him," she ventured. "Could we not get him away in the big limousine car before the speechmaking begins? Those wretched mayors and aldermen will plague him terribly. We must not forget that he is still an invalid."
FRANCESCA had been born in Italy some fifty years before. Not a streak of grey or silver lined the smooth black hair of her brow and temples. The oldest servant in the family had never seen her angry. Yet, she rarely smiled. A curious, soft-footed woman, with gentle ways and dreamy eyes, Jacob had first met her in London at the house of an Italian merchant. Her father was a sea captain, who had lost his life and his ship off the Needles, one terrible night in March. Francesca had been adopted by her father's friend in London, and she had matured to womanhood in an English environment, to meet Jacob Eardsley, the man who was then the owner of a single cargo tramp plying between Barhampton and wherever a cargo waited.
After their marriage things went very well with Jacob. He became part owner of a small fishing fleet, and later in a couple of bull-headed Sunderland colliers. Money came with the coal. Jacob reached out with his big English hands and brain, until his name figured amongst the list of directors who controlled the fleet of black-funnelled leviathans, of Atlantic fame.
As a youth, Roy had feared this big-voiced father. The fear had not grown less during the budding years of his manhood. Jacob was exacting, punctilious, a financial martinet. In his office, or at his own fireside, he inveighed against the squanderer and the spendthrift. Men who gambled and spent wantonly were the harlots of finance, he declared. Roy listened to his preachings, trembling at times when called upon to account for the spending of his inadequate monthly allowance.
Things had altered since then, Jacob felt assured. Roy was no longer a fool with his cash. Thanks to his early training, he had avoided the financial pitfalls set by unscrupulous money-lenders for young men of his kind.
Jacob awoke from his swift meditations and touched Francesca's arm gently.
"No more soldiering for Roy, once he's home. That Ghazai Pass affair was a near thing. I want my son alive; I want every fibre and sinew in his body to be near me!"
His voice quivered strangely. Francesca's eyes seemed to melt under his pulsating glance.
"The gods do not let such children die, Jacob, even in those white-walled Indian hospitals!"
She paused with a catch in her voice, and Jacob remembered how the news of their son's condition had come near to unhinging her mind. The newspapers had been cunningly withheld from her until her suspicions had grown sharp, prompting her to inquire further afield.
Only by force had this dreamy-eyed Italian mother been prevented from hurrying by the Paris mail to join her wounded son in India. Jacob had entreated, insisted on the madness of her travelling across the world alone. Roy would be dead or convalescent long before she reached him. But to his dying day Jacob never forgot those terrible weeks of waiting, when their son's life hovered near the Valley of the Shadow.
"Yes," he nodded absently, "the gods held to him fast. I—I didn't believe in 'em," he said hoarsely, "until I heard you pray that night. You prayed to anything and everything. Sort of pagan orgy in the way of prayer. Lord... I thought I should have to buy up the Eastern Telegraph Company to get news of him through fast enough!"
And so Jacob decided to take Francesca the following day to Barhampton to meet the incoming steamer. He decided also that the big six-cylinder limousine was more comfortable than the electric brougham. It had a lounge of rose-red leather, a powerful, silent machine, that would take them to and from Barhampton in the briefest possible time.
"I don't believe in coddling," he averred. "But when a young man has been hacked with Afghan knives, he's got to be looked after."
"I shall be there." Francesca spoke quietly. "I think we had better not carry too many furs."
"Which means that he won't freeze while you're hugging him all the way home," Jacob laughed. "By gad, it's nearly six o'clock!" He stood up and consulted his watch seriously. "I promised to be at a directors' meeting at eight!"
Francesca was about to ring for her maid; she paused, her hand on the electric button.
"Young Hamlin was seen in town this morning," she vouchsafed thoughtfully. "He was accompanied by a foreign-looking man."
Jacob was about to light a small cigar; the match remained unlit between his fingers.
"Out of gaol, eh!" His voice was cold, sullen almost in its taciturnity. "Who saw him?" He looked askance at his wife.
"Denison, the gardener. He was returning from town with a load of palms for the grounds."
"Tcht! I'd almost forgotten the young black-guard. Three years!" he muttered. "How the time flies!"
Jacob sat down again, and for a few brief moments permitted his chin to rest in his hand. From the open window Francesca contemplated the elm-skirted drive that stretched its shadowed length towards the huge iron entrance gates of Fleet House.
"Is it impossible to help him?" She brushed, a fluttering moth from the window curtain very gently, then caught and held it for a moment in her soft hand.
Jacob leaned forward and regarded her critically. "Why should he be helped?" he asked, without heat or passion. "Help a wolf I took into my house, play benefactor to a Judas that forged my name and broke his mother's heart. Help... that fellow Francesca! Tsh!"
He sat back on the lounge, nibbling the end of his unlit cigar.
"If he had been older I should not have suggested it." Francesca placed the fluttering moth outside the window. "A young man of twenty has not accumulated the wisdom of sixty, Jacob. He was Roy's friend, too," she added simply.
"That hurt more than anything else, Francesca. I tried to forgive him for that reason." Jacob's chin swayed over his outstretched palm. "I tried and prayed for strength to forgive him. It might have proved an easy task to some men. I found it too hard. I'd promised him so much. You remember how he came to us, his father a ruined, blithering bankrupt, not worth his weight in his own rotten paper. Kenneth came to me—"
"You sent for him," Francesca corrected in her velvet tones. "Am I right, Jacob?"
He looked at her under his heavy brows and his mouth softened strangely. "Yes, I sent for him," he admitted. "I assigned him a place that was beyond his years. And the cub put his claw into my vitals. I don't know how far he might have gone if McMurdock hadn't scrutinised the accounts that quarter. By Jove, it might have been twenty thousand pounds!"
Francesca regarded him with slow, inquiring eyes. "You have always been so honest," she murmured.
"Honest!" he vociferated. "I've stood sentry over my own actions for forty years. I've broken the neck of every dishonourable instinct that tried to lead me astray!"
Jacob's face had grown white; his words seemed to volley through the apartment. Never before had Francesca seen his mouth grow so hard, his features so unrelenting. Yet it was nearly always the same when they spoke of money.
"Men come to me," he was speaking softly now, his face sheltered by the soft shadows of the curtain, "captains, brokers, insurance rogues, to point out new ways of making money. One man sees a clear ten thousand in sending rotten ships to sea; another in feeding crews on market offal, and in paying starvation wages to married men. Others come with new-old schemes for manning my Eastern Packet Service with coolie crews, which would mean the displacing of nearly a thousand white sailors— English and American, mostly."
Francesca sighed wearily as she regarded the shadow-wrapped face.
"We were speaking of young Hamlin," she said meekly. "I know you have always put your faith in white crews, and that your men are better paid than other Atlantic companies. Still we might—"
Jacob rose impatiently from his seat and again looked at his watch. "This meeting of directors, my dear, that concerns the docking scheme which is going before the local council. I'm interested to the extent of a quarter of a million in the affair."
He kissed her lightly and brushed past a servant in the doorway carrying a tray of light refreshments. Francesca watched silently as he gained the waiting car outside.
He spoke from the window, a tender gleam in his eyes. "I'll be home early. We've a big day ahead to-morrow—Barhampton and Roy. The steamer is due about midday."
THE crowd ceased to cheer as the Maharajah drew alongside the Barhampton wharf. Ten thousand eyes were centered on a slim uniformed figure, standing beside the captain on the navigation bridge. A score of invalided and time-expired soldiers had gathered under the bridge, to join in the second round of cheers that burst from the waiting multitude.
The uniformed figure leaned from the navigation bridge, as though in acknowledgment of the honour accorded him. Then in the shift of an eye he detected the white-panelled limousine car standing behind the crowd.
Slowly the Maharajah made the wharf amid the hooting of sirens from a dozen smaller vessels anchored close by. The gangway had scarcely been secured when the crowd swayed forward, impatient to gain the steamer's deck.
The wharf officials held the gangway clear until the figure of Jacob Eardsley appeared crushing through the solid pack of human shapes. With his hand on the iron rail he looked up quickly at the uniformed figure on the bridge and the blood flashed into his sun-browned face. Another mighty cheer rent the air.
"That's his father!" a voice yelled. "That's Jacob Eardsley. Way for father and son!"
Roy appeared to cling a trifle desperately to the bridge rail, his body swaying slightly as though he were about to collapse into the captain's arms.
"Steady, lieutenant," the captain whispered. "Hold yourself together and don't let them rattle you. These high-tension receptions are trying to men just out of hospital."
Jacob scrambled up the bridge stairs with the agility of an able seaman. The crowd roared again when the old shipowner appeared on the navigation bridge beside his son.
"Roy, my lad; what's the matter?" he roared. "Has fighting Pathans taken all the stomach out of you?"
Lieutenant Eardsley drew himself together with a final effort. But the next moment found him sobbing on his father's shoulder.
An outburst of cheering, frenzied and prolonged greeted the meeting of father and son. Women hid their eyes, for the story of the young soldier's battle with death in India had been recited with embellishments in every Hampshire farm and cottage.
"By Jove, the young lieutenant doesn't look the kind of chap who'd face a horde of Afghan tribesmen!" A man spoke almost under his breath near the Maharajah's port rail.
"Looks belie some soldiers," one of the ship's officers retorted. "Young Eardsley has won his V.C. if ever a man did!"
Jacob, accompanied by his son, descended the bridge and gained the saloon deck without mishap. The crowd fell away the moment Francesca approached. Heads were uncovered reverently as mother and son greeted each other near the gangway.
Roy recovered himself wonderfully. Something in his mother's caressing voice banished the unspoken dread in his eyes. His features were finely cut and betrayed little of the fighting blood which distinguishes the born soldier, A nervous hesitation marked his movements, which the onlookers attributed to his overwhelming modesty and youth.
Jacob hurried him to the waiting car, laughing boisterously as they evaded the hundred hands stretched out to grasp Roy's flingers. Francesca followed, glancing neither to right nor left, although each fresh outburst of cheering sent the proud blood scampering to her pale cheeks. At the motor side she turned with outstretched hands to the multitude.
"I thank you in my son's name for your generous welcome!" she cried. "He is weak after a prolonged struggle with death. Soldiers are not speechmakers. Some day he will thank you. To-day you must pardon a little weakness brought about by his injuries and a great love for his own people."
She was gone in a flash. And it was not until the big limousine was well away from the town that Lieutenant Eardsley gained a sitting posture amid the pile of cushions, and looked into his mother's face.
"I—I didn't expect such a rousing reception. Great Scott, it took my breath away, I hadn't a blessed verb or adjective to throw at the mass!"
Jacob laughed outright at his son's words. His gold-enamelled cigar-case clicked open, shedding a small crop of choice havanas across the refreshment tray.
"They're nerve settlers," he said jocularly. "Grown and matured for invalids, and cost a guinea each."
Roy fingered them guardedly as one whose mind was still haunted by the tempest of heads and shoulders which had surged around the Maharajah's gangway.
"I was never so scared of a crowd before," he admitted solemnly. "One didn't know whether it was going to be cheers—or stones!"
"Stones! My dear Roy, what are you thinking of?" Francesca exclaimed. "Who would dream of stoning you?"
Roy lit a cigar, but his fingers were not so steady in the manipulation as his father's.
"One gets these ideas. Heaven knows why they come. You see —"
"It's through being up so high," Jacob interrupted. "Standing on a navigation bridge you get a curiously foreshortened view of ten-thousand eyes and jaws. I must say that our Hampshire crowds run mostly to jaw. I shouldn't think they look more fightable than those Afridi chaps, though," he concluded with a proud glance at his son.
"The Afridi have long Hebrew faces." Roy opened the car window to clear the cigar smoke from his mother's eyes. "Faces to match their knives," he added grimly.
THE pine-clad slopes of the winding Hampshire roads swung behind the fast-travelling car. A sky of blue softened by streamers of wind-blown clouds filled the west. The sweet air of the countryside was inhaled like wine by the young man, who still carried the coarser bouquet of the sea in his blood. The car ran almost without sound through the straggling villages and hamlets. The air of his native countryside begot strange recollections in the mind of the young soldier, recollections that remained fresh and poignant in his memory. Here and there a beech clump rushed into view, and he remembered the stream that babbled over the beds of flint and chalk beyond the gravel pits. A blackbird called melodiously through a dark, leaf-embowered lane, while a near forest of pines gave up images that thronged the portals of his memory.
The figure of a girl seemed to peer at him from the lair of ferns and underscrub. She wore a yellow garland of forest flowers, while her supple fingers weaved into strange designs the long-stalked buttercups at her feet. He saw her now, as the car rushed past, weaving, weaving those fairy-like chaplets that were to adorn his own unworthy head. The fast travelling limousine could not leave the wood or the wraith of the girl behind. They followed with ghostly stealth until his sea-tanned cheeks grew white and deathly.
Jacob's hand fell on the window strap as the car entered the iron gates leading to Fleet House, where the elm shadows swayed across the warm sunlit gravel.
"Fleet House, my lad. Home again—and the grandest one in the country if I may say it!"
The old shipowner was first to alight, assisting Francesca with unusual sprightliness of manner. Roy descended, still clinging abstractedly to his burnt-out cigar.
"Come along!" Jacob beckoned the slow-moving Roy, then turned suddenly on the terrace steps to stare at a blue-panelled Daimler car standing near the conservatory entrance. He beckoned again, this time to Francesca, indicating the car with a bent forefinger.
"The Colwyn's machine!" he half whispered. "What on earth has come over old Penelope?"
Entering the house he was met by a palpitating footman, who announced in a shaking voice that the Countess of Colwyn and her daughter, Lady Mary Trenwyth, were at that moment in the reception room. The countess was inflexible, and had insisted on awaiting their return from Barhampton.
Jacob's heels fairly danced on the rubber mat. A luminous geniality flowed over him. He flung round upon the slow-footed Francesca, a triumphant look in his eyes.
"She's come at last! Roy's the snare! Well, after all these years.... I'm dashed."
FOR ten years Jacob Eardsley had angled scientifically to attract the Countess of Colwyn to his circle, and had failed ignominiously at every cast. A moody, exclusive woman was Penelope Trenwyth, Countess of Colwyn. Upon her brow sat the care of an impoverished estate. The manor of Colwyn was composed of a group of mortgage-ridden holdings whose ultimate destiny seemed to point in the direction of the land jobber and speculative builder. Yet, with all her financial disabilities, Penelope presented an impregnable front to the small bands of society hunters who would have willingly paid a price for the privilege of her friendship.
Jacob, accompanied by his wife, found himself bowing to a small, tight-mouthed woman with iron-grey hair. Beside her sat Lady Mary, a violet-eyed young lady of twenty, who reviewed the Eardsley inrush with a certain flighting indifference of manner.
"Your ladyship has indeed honoured my house," Jacob began, his social cravings intensified by the proximity of Hampshire's unapproachable society leaders.
Penelope shook hands with Francesca, while her glance wandered towards the slim, uniformed figure standing irresolutely in the door way.
"You must pardon us for calling at such a time, Mrs. Eardsley. By the way, I have to present you to my daughter, Lady Mary. Of course, as Hampshire people, we could not allow the event of Lieutenant Eardsley's home-coming to pass unregarded. It is gratifying to learn that so distinguished an officer bears a Hampshire name!"
Roy fidgeted in the doorway as one eager to escape he intolerable formalities which usually accompanied an introduction to the countess. His mother's voice recalled him to a sense of his obligations.
"Her ladyship has been good enough to desire your acquaintance, Roy. Pray, come inside."
"The Afridi almost prevented the introduction," laughed the irrepressible Jacob. "Another inch of steel would have settled the business."
Roy came forward with unsoldierly bashfulness, while Penelope's monocle focused him cleverly.
"We expect you to visit us at Colwyn Hall, lieutenant."
"You have some excellent shooting?" he inquired, with exaggerated earnestness.
She laughed quickly. "The only bird left us is the gardener's magpie, lieutenant. I must therefore beg you not to bring any man-killing weapons."
"The birds always seem to fly with the money, your ladyship," Jacob interposed, for he saw how ill at ease his son appeared. "I'd give my preserves and ten thousand acres besides, though, for a bit of the Colwyn pedigree," he added with unabashed effrontery.
It was rarely the old shipowner tried his hand at a compliment. The flash in his son's eyes told him how miserably he had failed.
Penelope chuckled audibly as she turned in her seat to caress her daughter's hand.
"You heard what Mr. Eardsley said, my darling!" She indicated the abashed Jacob with her dangling monocle. "The man who has gathered iron fleets around him, the man whose house flag is known in every port east and north of Suez, craves for a little ancestral varnish."
Jacob came very near to scowling at the slight ripple of laughter which followed her thrust. The reassuring smile that accompanied her gentle taunt softened his rising indignation.
"The Trenwyths were an indifferent gang, Mr. Eardsley," she went on. "Rats in their own cupboard, if I may say it. Maybe I'd have given more than my empty acres, if a son of mine had earned the homage yours received today."
She had risen and was shaking out the folds of her stiff silk skirt. A mercurial woman was Penelope Trenwyth, Countess of Colwyn, the lustre of a dying race in her eyes. She talked volubly, during the fluttering moments of her exit, and it occurred to the old shipowner that he had met a woman whose intellect was more finely bladed than his own.
Lady Mary followed, pensive and silent, with but a single glance in Roy's vicinity. The hero of the Ghazai Pass did not return it. In the past he had known her as a beautiful, introspective creature who had been known to write verse which appeared at intervals in the very high toned literary reviews and magazines. A flash of anger passed over him when he recalled his father's humiliating words:— "I'd give my preserves and ten thousand acres beside for a bit of the Colwyn pedigree."
Again Francesca's voice recalled him from his brooding.
"My dear Roy, you ought to have escorted the countess to her car. We must not concern ourselves too seriously with her peculiarities. Indeed, people say she is the very soul of kindness."
Jacob had followed Penelope to the terrace, and stood by respectfully until the car slid away down the avenue. He returned to the reception room, slightly flushed, his blood tingling with a new delight.
"The old witch is after our son," he muttered. "By Jove, our chance has come at last!"
He peered into the corners of the vast reception room anxiously. "Where's Roy?" he questioned almost tartly. "He was here a moment ago."
"He's gone to his room," Francesca answered. "He complains of feeling over weary."
"IF we married Roy to Lady Mary we could bring the belted earls and their powdered dames by the dozen to our receptions, Francesca."
"Do you want them?" she asked almost timorously. "I thought you preferred to ignore such people."
"Not if they're to be got cheap, my dear. Some titles are not worth their weight in dead birds. The De Monkhursts, for instance. They've heaps of money, but it all smells of beer. Old Cadenby de Monkhurst, the founder of the house, made his title out of stout, the kind of stuff they make with oatmeal and liquorice."
Jacob Eardsley lit a cigar and thrust his slippered feet far into the skin foot muff on the hearth.
"The De Monkhursts have two fine girls," he went on thoughtfully. "Cecilia Venetia and Rosalind Estelle. Nice girls, but not far enough removed from the stout labels. Cadenby's XX, bottled at our own works."
Francesca stared at her husband doubtfully. "We ought to remember our own trade," she declared.
"Trade! Do you call the planning of maritime fleets a trade, my dear!" Jacob sat up, wriggling his toes in the soft skin muff. "Do you know that next year our ocean tonnage will beat the Cunard and White Star at the rate we're building. Don't allude to our maritime organisation as a trade, Francesca. One might as well refer to Signor Marconi as a jobbing electrician." Francesca's head went down before his sub-humorous blast of words. She could not resist a final shot, however.
"The Countess of Colwyn is not likely to forget that we owe our beginnings to plaice and mackerel, Jacob. And beer isn't a bit worse than fish!'"
"Fiddlesticks, my dear, fiddlesticks. You forget Lieutenant Eardsley, V.C., the young soldier who'll go down to history as one of the Empire's heroes. Which of the Colwyn crowd did better? Neville Trenwyth, at Flodden? No fear! He got an axe through his skull because he couldn't unhorse a Douglas. No, Francesca, not one of the proud Colwyns faced the music like my son!"
Jacob snapped his fingers emphatically. "The Colwyns are not the only people who've had men in their family. The one thing I pray for is that we end better. They went to pieces in the fourth generation."
The old shipowner half rose, staring round the vast saloon- like apartment abstractedly as if in search of a lost idea. "We're yarning about ancestors, and I'm getting hungry, my dear. A bit of cold chicken would keep me from talking too much. And, by the way, Francesca, what's the matter with Roy? He used to yelp for food after a motor ride. D'ye think we'd better call in a physician to overhaul him? Those Indian army surgeons are a rough and ready lot of butchers. He wants a tonic."
Mrs. Eardsley was convinced that her soon only needed a little repose after his ride from Barhampton. She would send a couple of tasty dishes to his room. Some chicken breasts in jelly and a bottle of claret from the '97 bin would help him through.
She rang for the butler and gave her order briefly, while Jacob paced the floor, his fists rammed into the side-pockets of his coat. After a rather prolonged absence the butler returned with the intimation that Lieutenant Eardsley was not in his room. Jacob ceased his perambulations to stare at the liveried shape in the doorway.
"Not in his room, Townsend! Are you certain?"
"Positive, sir. I've had nearly every corner of the house searched, too. Johnson and Pounds tried the library and billiard room."
"He's somewhere in the grounds," Jacob declared testily. "Gone to look at those gold-fish in the new pond. Of course he's in the grounds."
The butler retired in haste, and the sounds of feet hurrying in different directions across the gravel walks told Francesca that a small army of domestics had gone in search of the missing Roy.
Jacob fretted in silence as he waited near the open window for the butler's return. To Francesca it seemed an ordinary circumstance for her son to wander about the park-like enclosures of Fleet House. Where was the oddity in such a proceeding? After three years' absence it was only natural that he should evince a desire to inspect certain new additions to the estate. There was the grotto at the edge of the beech copse where—
Her thoughts broke off suddenly when she remembered his old- time companions, Kenneth and Phyllis Hamlin, who had shared his daily rambles through the Hampshire woods and lanes.
The butler returned, flushed and verbose. "Not anywhere in the grounds," he explained. "We took the lieutenant's collie, that's been howling ever since he came home, and she couldn't scent him out, sir. Old Jess, if you remember, that was a puppy before the lieutenant went abroad?"
"Yes, yes," Jacob cut him short. "If he's not in the house or grounds, Townsend, how on earth did he leave without our knowledge? We should have heard or seen him if he had gone out by the avenue. There are no woods to hide one between the house and the entrance!"
"Must have gone out the back way, sir. But, seeing that the east and south gates are locked," the butler added, "there'd have been only one way of exit, sir."
"Over the wall, you mean." Jacob rasped,
Then, with a side glance at his wife, he dismissed the perspiring Townsend.
Silence fell between husband and wife, and in those speechless moments Francesca heard the voice of the wind in the trees outside.
The sun had gone down beyond the far pine woods; a cable of white smoke trailed above the distant lodge where the house lights already pricked the growing dusk.
"Why, it's almost childish!" Jacob blurted out. "A lieutenant of cavalry climbing walls He's an invalid, too! I hope the Indian sun hasn't turned the lad's brain!"
THE sun of Asia had not impaired the mental qualities of Roy Eardsley. A desire strong as life had come upon him to be free: from his father's everlasting gaze, from the soul-searching eyes of his mother. To leave the house unnoticed was a matter of some difficulty. But to Roy the military science of deploying or seeking an enemy under cover was an inborn faculty. With soundless steps he had gained the rear of the house and was soon inside the thick shrubbery beyond the old summer house. The eight-foot stone wall offered no bar to his progress. A gardener's ladder standing near the house saved him the exertion of climbing. On top he tilted back the ladder to earth and lowered himself into the lane.
A brisk walk took him to the outskirts of the town. Since arriving in England his mind had attained an unusual fixity of purpose. Something was crying within him for expression in deed and word.
To him the town of Barhampton appeared but a bleak industrial hive after the clear hot skies of India. How smoky and gruesome everything seemed! With the coming of dusk the flares of a dozen foundry cupolas shone redly beyond the fields. His thoughts went back to the beautiful face of Mary Trenwyth, the silent disdain in her eyes when his father had assumed the role of a parvenu and a flatterer.
What did Lady Mary think of them, he wondered; of their vast and suddenly acquired wealth, their huge house, with its league- long parks and drives?
Something whispered that he was baulking a more important question, a question that flared with more intensity than the crimson cupolas in the distance. At the corner of Merion Street be found himself staring at a policeman who had halted near a shop window.
The official hand went up in a brief salute. Roy nodded in response, then, as an afterthought, advanced a couple of paces.
"A lot of improvement in this town during the last year or so!" he hazarded. "Most of these business sites were common land quite recently."
The policeman coughed and regarded his interrogator with unfeigned respect. "Yes, lieutenant, the town of Barhampton is going ahead. Gentlemen like yourself are sure to notice it after a spell abroad."
Roy flushed in spite of himself. He did not always desire to be recognised at a moment's notice. Still, he had been driven to ask a certain question, and he desired it to be answered immediately. "Do you know anything of Kenneth Hamlin?" he asked. "Probably you may remember that he was convicted of forgery and sent to gaol about three years ago?"
The policeman was a middle-aged man of intelligent bearing; his attention became fixed instantly at the mention of Kenneth's name.
"Most of us in Barhampton remember the case, lieutenant. Hamlin's time expired a few days ago. He's somewhere about the town." The policeman's manner became intensely confidential, his head turned to right and left as one who feared that his statement might be overheard.
"I may mention, lieutenant, that a couple of our plain clothes men are keeping in touch with his movements. These released forgers have got to be watched."
Roy breathed sharply, a mad tumult of ideas surging through his brain.
"You mean that Ken Hamlin is being shadowed from place to place?" he vouchsafed.
"Yes, lieutenant. He's feinting for a job at present, and it's only fair to the business people of Barhampton to let them know the kind of man he is. Business men must be protected, lieutenant." Roy turned away, dizzy and sick at heart, to contemplate the mile long row of shops that stretched towards the quay side. The hoot of a far-off siren sounded above the roar of the traffic and stayed in his ears like a trumpet call to arms.
"But wouldn't it be better to give Hamlin a chance?" The words left him unconsciously. "There's no sense in hounding a man!"
The policeman nodded once or twice in evident sympathy with his remark. "That's my honest opinion too, lieutenant. But we have to carry out orders. One of our men got wind only yesterday that Hamlin had found a job with an American firm of steel merchants in this town. Well, he strolled round and gave the employer a strong hint of Hamlin's past, and that settled it. The business men are a pretty nervous lot, lieutenant. Hamlin was turned adrift from the only firm in Barhampton likely to employ him."
"My God!" Roy groaned. "I thought I had returned to civilisation!"
He placed a florin in the policeman's hand, paused a moment to venture a few irrelevant remarks anent the congested state of the traffic, and then passed on in the direction of the open country. Upon one memorable occasion he had been moved to send a small sum of money to Mrs. Hamlin. The cash had been promptly returned, but her new address was in his notebook.
STARTING down a narrow by-lane, he skirted some fields and emerged upon a wheel-rutted road, where pools of stagnant water, made prismatic gouts of motor oil, shone weirdly in the growing dusk.
The Hamlin cottage stood isolated on the bleak edge of the common. A few spindly firs relieved the unutterable desolation of the surroundings. His alert eye scanned the crooked elevations, the rotten, rain-soaked roof of shingle and thatch. He saw also that the walls gaped in places, allowing the rain to penetrate the bedroom and floors.
"Rent about two and six a week," he muttered. "Some shire councils wouldn't allow a horse to be stabled in such a hole!"
He tapped at the door somewhat meticulously for one who had faced death in the white Himalayan passes. And somehow, the waiting silence that followed his summons grew sharper, deadlier than the gloom of the star wrapped Khyber. Centuries seemed to move between each heart-beat. There came no answer to his knock, yet he knew that one living person at least sat or lay huddled within. The fireglow showed through the half open kitchen door. Again his knuckles rapped, and, as he listened, he heard a girlish voice call faintly in response. He could not tell whether she were bidding him enter, but in the dumb solitudes of his conscience he found an echo to that querulous voice.
It was Phyllis, and his heart shook at the thought of their meeting. The creaky door fell away at the touch of his hand. He entered very softly, inhaling; as he moved forward, the dank miasmas from the rain-rotted walls. He became suddenly conscious of a pair of eyes watching him from a torn mattress in the far corner of the room, of two white hands spread out in weary waiting.
"Is that you Ken, dear?" The hands moved and grew tight on the cover. The face peered at him long and questioningly, until his breath threatened to choke him.
"No, it's an old friend, Phyllis. I thought Ken would be here. Have I frightened you? Ought I to have come?"
He heard the fierce catch of breath that was like the sob of a wounded child. "Roy Eardsley!" Then he felt the sting of her sudden silence until it seemed to sever the roots of his manhood. The coward years of his own silence came back and struck with merciless whips. Here was a tragedy of his own making, a pitiful drama played to its last act during the years of his campaigning. And Roy, the "hero of Ghazai Pass, found that he had nothing to say to this companion of his earlier years.
"I came here to see Kenneth," he said after a while. "I heard that he was home." He paused, like one measuring his own death agony; and he felt thankful that the bad light prevented this sick girl from scrutinising his agonised features. "I'm terribly sorry to find you here, Phyllis, in this rotten slum of a house I mean!"
She did not answer immediately. He felt that his unexpected entry had been a great shock to her. There were some flowers beside the bed, a mere handful of violets and mignonette, and the delicate perfume carried him back to the sunlit pine woods and this restless fingers that once weaved the scented garlands for him alone....
"I came to have a chat with Ken," he went on steadily. "We must not let him feel that he's quite alone in the world. I want to be his friend, Phyllis; I want to raise him from this horrible slough. We might get him off to Canada. He'd be able to make a start there."
He felt that Phyllis was staring at him, he saw her dumb lips parted as though about to cry out. How wasted and fragile she had become, how lustrous the dark soft eyes!
Her fingers stole across the rough cover of the bed as her head sank forward like one who had seen and suffered some sharp disillusionment. Yet Roy had never appeared to better advantage, his slim, well-shaped figure silhouetted against the fireglow.
"You are very kind, Roy, to take an interest in Ken. I think he would like to emigrate— after what happened to-day. It was horrible!"
She covered her face, and he heard the low sobbing that cut him through and through.
"I heard, too," was all he could say. He paced the narrow apartment, his breath coming in sharp expulsions. "I will have it stopped!" he choked. "They shan't shadow Ken. I'll appeal to the magistrates to-morrow!"
Even now he could not force himself to the belief that it was his utter cowardice which had brought the Hamlins to such a pass. He told himself that the circumstances had gone beyond his control, that he had never intended Kenneth or any other man to bear his punishment. It was the merest accident in the world which caused the detection of the forgery. After all, it was his father's money.
Nothing would have happened to him, Roy Eardsley, if the cheque incident had been sheeted home to him. It was too late now to brood over what might have been. He must help Kenneth, even though it cost him his father's friendship. Kenneth must not be dogged from place to place like an escaped felon.
Phyllis explained, in a scarcely audible voice, that her mother had gone out only a few minutes before. She would not be long away. As for her brother, it was hard to say when he would return. His mind was in a perturbed state after losing the situation promised him by Titus Hepburn. Phyllis's voice. although scarcely above a whisper, was full of passionate remonstrances against the system employed to prevent Kenneth earning a livelihood.
Roy felt that he dared not meet her glance; once the chords of his emotion were struck, the whole story of his unpremeditated fraud might break from his lips. And, since Kenneth had not confided the truth of the affair to his mother or sister, it was not for him to drag up the forgotten past.
A light footstep outside aroused him from his silent cogitations. The outer door was pushed open and closed with some celerity, The footsteps approached the living room, while Phyllis clasped her hands tightly; a sudden smile lit up her pale face.
"It's Ken!" she half whispered. "How surprised he will be to see you here!"
KENNETH was flushed and excited; his neck-tie was curiously disarranged, as if he had emerged from a conflict with a footpad or a band of hooligans. Inside the narrow, smoke- filled room he swung round upon Roy, and the light of recognition was like a gun-flash in his eyes.
The son of the wealthy shipowner breathed as one plunging into the hollows of an engulfing wave. He was prepared for a scene, was ready to receive the volleys of bitter denunciation he so well merited.
"Ken, won't you speak?"
Roy stood before him, hands thrust out, his eyes brimming with the tears he had fought so long to restrain. "Don't be too hard until you have heard me! It was all a mistake, a cruel oversight... you know I never intended...." he concluded brokenly.
Kenneth viewed him in blank amazement. On top of his recent humiliating experience in the warehouse of Titus Hepburn his mind had grown mutinous, his soul filled with revolt against the cause of his sufferings. A glance at his old comrade's tear-filled eyes steadied his thoughts and soothed the white rage which threatened to cloud his better judgment.
"I slipped away from the house," Roy went on, "thinking to find you here alone. Fate seems to have willed that we should have returned to our homes almost together."
Their hands met in the semi-darkness of the room, and in that brief grip Roy's heart went out to the man who had endured for his sake the nerve-breaking terrors of Dartmoor.
Kenneth's emotions ran in a different groove. He had long ago banished all sense of self-pity. The knowledge that he had borne his comrade's punishment had lifted him above the petty tortures and humiliations of prison life.
He was concerned mainly with his chances in the future. If at the expiration of his sentence ho were allowed to resume the prerogatives of citizenship unmolested, the past might, soon be forgotten. On the other hand, if the authorities persisted in hounding him from place to place, debarring him from an honest livelihood, he must, of necessity, demand a little human justice. The Titus Hepburn incident had shaken his faith in things. He was in the position of a man bidding for his life and the lives of his mother and sister. And until to-day he dared not think of what the future might hold. But now that Roy had come voluntarily to see him his spirits rose and the bitter experiences of the morning faded temporarily from his mind.
"I'm glad you put up that fight in the Ghazai," he said with genuine feeling. "You did the thing we always predicted."
"I couldn't help it," Roy answered huskily. "Even a coward hits out when the devil gets him by the hair!"
"Not always," Kenneth ventured deprecatingly. "My father was a soldier, and I know the kind of fix you were in. Those Afridi have been in the man-killing business since Shem gave up the plough."
Roy gestured wearily, and his outspread arms flung an ominous shadow on the rain-soaked walls. "The expedition suffered for my mistakes. Ken. I misjudged the temper of my men, and things went wrong from the day the expedition left the Terai Ghat."
He tapped his boot heel impatiently with the cane he carried, and then threw a furtive glance into the dark corner where Phyllis lay.
"By a stroke of luck I pulled out of a nasty incident with some honour to myself. Ten men killed and as many wounded."
"Including yourself," Kenneth interposed, his cheeks flushed at the thought of his comrade's achievement.
"Yes; I got 'the Afridi steel where I most deserved— in the right arm and bicep— this one!" He held out his lithe, muscle-packed arm to the fire-glow, and with a twist of his shirt cuff revealed a criss-cross of newly-healed scars.
"This was the hand that filled in a certain cheque, Ken," he whispered. "I've never had any luck with it since. Funny, isn't it?" Again he looked over his shoulder where the shadows seemed to huddle and dance in Phyllis's corner.
"A Cabuli pony savaged it one day," he went on, still holding the scar-covered wrist for Kenneth's inspection. "It was in the picket lines. See her teeth marks! I had to swing round and batter her face with my sword handle before the little brute would let go. And just when her teeth marks healed the Afridi pounced in and carved their initials in half a dozen places."
"Was it on account of the stand you made that they recommended you for the V.C.?" Kenneth asked eagerly. All thought of the past faded in his present enthusiasm. He could only see his old comrade, trapped in a mountain pass, fighting to keep back the black swarm of hillmen from rushing the hospital tent. The world- known incident was so clearly impressed on his mind, the starlit Himalayan night, the dark pine-clad ridges, the small besieged force of sick and wounded huddled within the hospital tent. He heard, as Roy had heard, the sudden cessation of rifle fire which told how the last picket detachment had gone down before the hillmen's second onrush. He saw Roy in that moment, his slim figure silhouetted against the black mountain wall, the quick flashes from his revolver lighting for an instant the lank Mohammedan shapes pressing into the boulder-packed defile towards the hospital door. What a splendid fight! Surely one might forgive anything of a comrade who was capable of such heroic impulses!
Roy did not answer immediately his question concerning the V.C. He turned to look at the luminous eyes of Phyllis in the far corner.
"Perhaps we had better go for a short stroll." he suggested thoughtfully. "I must not stay too long. Goodbye. Phyllis!"
He stooped near the bowl of violets and kissed the thin white hand held out to him. Kenneth turned aside, his chest labouring slightly, for he knew that his sister had lavished upon this young soldier the dreams and fancies of her early childhood. Waking or sleeping, her thoughts had followed every known movement of his life from the day he left Sandhurst until death had stalked among his comrades in India, picking then out one by one, sparing the hero of her dreams so that he might enter the splendid heritage which awaited him at home.
"Good-bye, Phyllis." Roy drew away from the bed, the blood leaping from his heart at sight of her miserable surroundings. He, too, knew what Kenneth had long guessed, and his lips trembled. The Hamlins, mother, daughter, and son, should not long remain in such a hot-bed of fever and pain. He would arrange for their better housing, he would find ways of supplying them with money. No matter how, or the means adopted, they should not suffer one day longer the punishment that was rightly his.
Outside the two walked on, scarce daring to break the awkward silence which had fallen between them. Above all things Roy desired to free his friend from the police espionage that presaged ultimate ruin. Around them stretched a desolate expanse of heath interspersed with gravel pits. Squads of heavy- shouldered labourers shambled past without a glance at the two men whose destinies were moving them into unknown spheres of action.
Roy spoke first, and his voice lacked that vibrant emotionalism which had keened it in Phyllis's presence. Each word uttered now sounded hard, metallic; it was the voice of a soldier grown weary of adulation and the plaudits of admiring throngs.
"That Ghazai affair was in reality the rottenest thing in my life, Ken," he confessed suddenly. "Only a week or so before I had come across an old newspaper which contained an account of your trial and sentence. To me, out there in India, marching north on a beastly punitive expedition, the story come as a thunderclap!"
"Didn't you expect your father or the bank people to detect the forgery sooner or later?" Kenneth broke in. "It was only a question of time."
Roy shrugged. "I had hoped to refund it secretly. I felt certain that my mother would help me. I made the mistake or not confiding in her."
"She still thinks that—"
"I'm the soul of honour," the young soldier went on in the same leaden tones. "I'm afraid, too, that my father regards me as a kind of consecrated hero. Well, Ken, I read that paper one morning on the march to the Ghazai, and I learned that you had gone to gaol rather than tell the truth about the cheque."
"You'd have done the same for me," Kenneth declared, "if the situation had been reversed."
Roy waived the point with some diplomacy and continued. "It made me sick to think of the beastly mess I'd involved you in, Ken, especially when it was too late to start a series of foolish explanations. Of course, I felt certain that you'd make a clean statement of the affair to one of the goal officials. That would have ended my career, and, in my utter selfishness, Ken, I prayed and hoped you wouldn't."
"Go on," Kenneth nodded and kept in step as they skirted the dreary fields and entered a hedge-flanked road leading to Barhampton.
"On the night of the ambush in the Ghazai," Roy continued, "I felt that the time had come for me to end my rotten career. That exposure awaited me the moment I set foot in England I was certain. It wasn't the thought of those poor chaps lying frostbitten and wounded in that field tent that sent me out like a human tiger upon the Afridi. I'm not taking credit for any heroism, Ken. I was sick of life and just a bit rattled at the notion of being exposed at any moment as a shyster and a fraud."
The young soldier paused in his stride to wipe the moisture that gathered like a death sweat on his face. The slow movement of the drawn sleeve revealed again to Kenneth the ugly knife wounds on his wrist and forearm.
"I went into them, Ken, praying for a sure stab to put me out of my earthly worries. The mistake I made was in the mad dog method of my attack. My revolver was emptied in the first ten seconds. Then I got to them with my blade. I'm an indifferent swordsman; an ordinary Tommy could get me with a bayonet thrust. But the hillmen saw that I was mad, and they quitted. That's all, Ken. I'm to get the V.C., and all I can say is that it will adorn the breast of the biggest coward in the army!"
"Roy... don't, don't say that!"
The young soldier regarded his companion with far-away, expressionless eyes.
"Do you know, Ken, that when I stood on the navigation bridge of the Maharajah at Barhampton, I wasn't sure whether the crowd had come to cheer or stone me to death. I only knew that your time had expired and that you might be waiting to expose me the moment I stepped ashore."
Kenneth's silence was eloquent of his nature. Between him and Roy Eardsley there had existed a friendship strong as life itself. And although one of them had failed, through carelessness and ignorance, in the hour of need, the bond of comradeship still clung with its old-time tenacity.
They shook bands at the corner of the street, Roy promising to call at the cottage the following day to arrange for the betterment of Mrs. Hamlin and Phyllis. In this matter Kenneth observed a strictly non-committal attitude. He desired no monetary compensation for the injustice suffered. Honest employment he was willing to accept, but at present he hardly knew how Roy would efface the stigma of gaol which would follow him through life.
AT home he found his mother eagerly awaiting his return. She was delighted at Roy's protestations of friendship, and in her exuberance of spirits omitted all reference to a letter for him which had come by the evening post.
Phyllis indicated excitedly where it lay on a small table near the window. Kenneth opened it, and his heightening colour betrayed the importance of its contents.
"It's from the Countess of Colwyn's steward," He spoke with a tremor in his voice. "He wants to know if I'll undertake the position of assistant chauffeur lo her ladyship. One of the drivers has been dismissed for exceeding the speed limit, and injuring an old lady near Furze Hill."
His mother watched his face anxiously. "You knew every trick and turn of the blue Panhard your father gave you six years ago," she volunteered. "Both you and Roy had drivers' licences."
Kenneth stared doubtingly at the letter as though scarce believing his senses.
"The steward must be mistaken. The countess would hardly assign me such a position. She is the last woman on earth to encourage discharged prisoners."
"She is the last woman in this country to forget a brave action!" came unexpectedly from Phyllis. "Have you forgotten how she spoke on your behalf at the trial?" Phyllis, had risen to her elbow and was breathing sharply. "Didn't everyone admit that her intervention saved you from a longer term?"
Kenneth had almost forgotten the event. He remembered another, however, in connection with Lady Mary that would never efface itself from his mind. It concerned an adventure in the Solent. Lady Mary and her uncle, Sir Timothy Trenwyth, had been sailing between Barhampton and Boscombe pier, when through an unforeseen accident (people declared it was Sir Timothy's lack of seamanship) the yacht capsized suddenly in the trough of a nasty sea. The accident occurred within hailing distance or Boscombe pier, where Roy Eardsley and Kenneth were engaged fishing from an old punt attached to an anchored dredge.
It was a windy afternoon, with a heavy swell breaking in from the Channel. In a flash Kenneth beheld the water-logged yacht drifting in a sou'-easterly direction. His young eyes detected the figure of Lady Mary hopelessly enmeshed in a tangle of blocks and cordage, while Sir Timothy appeared to have been stunned by a blow from the shifting boom.
Without a glance at the awe-stricken Roy, Kenneth had slipped into the water and was swimming with the tide towards the drifting yacht. It was a titanic struggle for a boy of fifteen, rendered difficult by the occasional in-driving seas that carried him beyond the yacht's water-bellied jibsail. Battling with salt- drenched eyes and clinging garments, he essayed the stern of the yacht, and, seizing the rail desperately, crawled forward to where Lady Mary was fast losing her hold of the peak halyards and sail end.
It seemed like one of fate's decrees that Roy should have been with him on the punt at the time of the capsize. In speaking of the affair afterwards, the people of Barhampton contrasted the conduct of the two boys. Roy had remained spellbound during his companion's struggle to gain the yacht, and it had been hinted, by more or less well disposed onlookers, that the son of Jacob had been afflicted temporarily with inertia or panic— they knew not which.
It did not lessen Kenneth's brave act in the eyes of the countess. Her beloved daughter rescued from a position of grave peril at a moment when her brother was in charge of the yacht left a lasting impression, of the boy's courage on her mind. Kenneth had succeeded in freeing Lady Mary from her dangerous position after an heroic battle with wind and water, and had supported her until boats from the pier effected their rescue. Sir Timothy's injuries were only of a slight nature. His position, however, at the time of the capsize had been fraught with considerable peril.
The incident had piqued Jacob Eardsley. In sheltering Roy from any suspicion of cowardice, he stated gruffly enough that his son was only a tenth-rate swimmer, with just sufficient skill to keep himself afloat without attempting any foolhardy struggles against wind and tide.
It appeared now to Kenneth, after a second perusal of the letter, that the countess was anxious to help him. Once in her employ he would he safe from prying detectives and scandal- mongers.
Mrs. Hamlin dilated upon the yacht incident. "It seems to me," she ventured thoughtfully, "that the affair helped to embitter Jacob's mind against you, Kenneth. Everyone knows how he struggled to get into the Colwyn circle. The yacht incident was the very thing to have helped him if," here she cast a furtive glance at her daughter, "if Roy had gone to Lady Mary's help. I— I really think that the boy was afraid of the open water these days."
"Roy afraid!" Phyllis glanced at her brother for approval. "Then the manhood of the army is composed of cowards!"
"Of course he wasn't afraid," Kenneth agreed. "If I remember rightly Roy was only recovering from a violent attack of neuralgia at the time. There's got to be lumps of heroism in neuralgic boys before they'll take a header into cold sea water. Besides, he's not a strong swimmer. A lion isn't necessarily a coward because it baulks at deep water."
"I should think not," Phyllis augmented fervently. "And it didn't require two pairs of hands to extricate Lady Mary from her temporary peril."
VON KROON came very near to anger on learning that Kenneth had taken service with the Countess of Colwyn. He had laughed outright at the news of the young man's encounter with Titus Hepburn. A continuation of similar rebuffs would inevitably have brought Kenneth to his way of thinking with regard to Jacob Eardsley. So long as young Hamlin was employed and his mind freed from financial worries he was not likely to fall in with Von Kroon's schemes of blackmailing the wealthy ship-owner.
The German ex-convict paced the room of his Barhampton lodging-house, his thoughts centred on the vast fortune which Jacob had amassed during the later years of his life. The home- coming of Lieutenant Eardsley had impressed Von Kroon tremendously. He had been a silent watcher at the meeting between father and son on the navigation bridge of the Maharajah at Barhampton. He had noted Jacob and Francesca's passionate devotion to their young soldier son, and guessed to what lengths both would go in their endeavours to shield him from possible calumny and exposure in a court of justice.
Without Kenneth's co-operation Von Kroon was aware that no charge could be brought against the young soldier hero. Neither could Jacob or Francesca be approached with a view to extracting money on Hamlin's behalf unless the injured Kenneth were a party to his plans. The German felt that Roy had played an excellent card in seeking out the man he had so unwittingly wronged. No power could make either speak the truth so long as the old friendship remained firm. Kenneth Hamlin might live and die a chauffeur in the service of the Colwyn family, carrying with him to the grave the secret of Roy Eardsley's crime.
Von Kroon's wits sharpened as his debts increased. Everywhere he was being pressed for money. Since his discharge from Dartmoor gaol he had been living in the hope of Kenneth striking a blow at the man who had practically caused his ruin. He had sought by every means in his power to inflame young Hamlin's mind against Jacob and his son. And now everything seemed to indicate a firm bond of friendship springing up between the two people he had intended to use for his own ends.
The German's credit in Barhampton was in perilous state. Even his landlady, the mildest of châtelaines under ordinary circumstances, became daily more insistent in her demands. He must have money; and since Kenneth could not be depended on to storm the Eardsley citadel, it became increasingly urgent for him to make a few thrusts on his own behalf.
To approach Roy for money was out of the question. That young gentleman, he felt sure, was as much in need of cash as the average subaltern. Francesca was the true target. He could bleed her as Bismarck bled France, and no one would feel a penny worse. He had watched her on the day of the Maharajah's arrival, seated in the big limousine car. It had thrilled him to see the mother- hunger in her dark Italian eyes. Surely, he argued, the fates had never flung such a trump card at the head of a blackmailer.
How much would this Italian mother give? How much to shield this handsome boy hero from the results of the most dastardly crime that could be brought against man or woman? How much and how little?
The chill night air nipped his slipperless toes. To and fro he paced the bleak, fireless room, pausing near the window at times to stare into the noisy street below.
How much would Francesca give if it were shown to her that he, Von Kroon, could, by the aid of an ordinary solicitor, compel the re-hearing of the Hamlin forgery case, with Lieutenant Roy Eardsley, V.C., in the witness-box? How much would this passionate, devoted mother surrender rather than see the story of her son's blackguard treachery printed throughout the civilised world?
The German sat down suddenly, as one oppressed by the weight of his terrible schemes. In his prison days, when comradeship had lightened the weary hours, young Hamlin had upon more than one occasion referred to his innocence of the forgery. At another time, when suffering from an attack of fever, he had wormed the secret of Roy's guilt from the distraught Kenneth.
The cheque must, according to all laws of finance, be in the possession of the bank for a period of six years after cashing. At any time within that period it could be produced by a judge's order.
Von Kroon's fingers tapped the window sill meditatively, his thoughts clogging at intervals, only to race with redoubled energy through his illumined mind. Kenneth had once confided something concerning a letter which Roy had written from Naples about a week after the cashing of the cheque. The letter contained, as far as he remembered, a full admission of Roy's folly in allowing Kenneth to present it at the bank. It was like the temperamentally emtional Roy, Von Kroon thought, to admit, in a moment of panic, his stupid and far-reaching offence. In that letter Roy had begged his old comrade to hold back any mention of his name if trouble arose. It would only be for a little while, etc., and then he could refund the amount drawn.
What had become of the letter? Had Kenneth, in fear of his friend's good name, destroyed it? It had been in young Hamlin's possession a fortnight before his arrest. Where was it now?
The German pressed his thumbs to his brow, as though to steer his scampering thoughts into line. Would it not be possible, he pursued, to surprise Kenneth into some admission of the letter's existence or whereabouts?
Temperamentally Kenneth was of a confiding nature, especially when labouring under stress of mental excitement. To waylay and spring upon him some unlooked-for piece of news, in connection with the letter in point, might produce unexpected results. If, however, the letter were lost or destroyed, even Kenneth's sworn testimony would carry little weight at an inquiry. Neither Jacob nor his wife would credit the story without some visible proof of Roy's guilt.
Von Kroon rose from his chair and assumed his shabby frock coat and gloves somewhat hastily. He would have no difficulty in finding Kenneth at Colwyn Hall. And the more sudden his appearance the better his chance of startling the young man into some definite assurance of the letter's existence and its probable whereabouts.
Descending the narrow stairs he was met by his landlady, a nervous woman with expectant eyes and coal-smeared fingers. It was evident that she had waited for him to come from his room.
"It's the fifth time I've had to press for my money, sir. You see how hard it is on me. I'm behind in my rent, and Mr. Higson, my landlord is threatening to distrain. May I expect something on your return to-night?" she pleaded.
He paused, his gloved hand resting on the door, while a wave of fury swept over him. It was with extreme difficulty he suppressed the scourging epithets that rose to his lips.
"Madam," he thundered, "you vill be paid to der last shillin'. Do not interrupt me now; I haf important business to attend."
Marching from the house, he paused outside to survey the crowded street before him, the jostling bands of hooligans and unemployed sailors who haunted that particular thoroughfare. It was a long walk to Colwyn Hall. A taxi would have covered the distance in ten minutes. But the German's last florin had been spent the night before in a heavy repast at a cheap eating-house near the docks. The day had given him nothing but a stale cigar— one he had discovered in an old portmanteau.
VON KROON had suffered imprisonment within an English penitentiary without a sigh. He was not likely to abandon his purpose because food and wine were scarce. The thought of his straitened circumstances gave a wolfish zest to his stride. He had no eye for the lamplit town or the riding lights of a hundred vessels strung out across the harbor. His feet tramped to the tune of flowing wealth, a tune that beat through his brain when he remembered the limitless gold that lay hoarded in the great shipping house of Jacob Eardsley.
He was separated from this unmeasurable bullion heap by a mere scrap of paper. Once he could show Francesca the damning proof of her son's infamy, Kroon, the hungry and sore of foot, might depend on a fixed income for life as the price of his silence.
He paused on the crest of a chalk-strewn hill to scan the far countryside. Colwyn Hall, with its many windowed facade, gleamed theatre-like in the distance. To him it appeared as a huge jewel in a setting of forest trees. Far away it twinkled and glowed, its Venetian windows and arched recesses scintillating bulbs of orange and wine-red lights.
It was evident to Von Kroon that a reception of unusual splendour was in progress. Strains of music, accompanied by the soft, wailing of violins, reached him. Walking nearer, he came upon small groups of inquisitive sightseers gathered at the main entrance. Here and there he caught a half-heard utterance, then a stir of feet as a big limousine car shot past into the wide avenue. His German eyes leaped to the open window of the car; the white head of Jacob Eardsley was plainly visible. Francesca sat beside him, while Roy, leaning forward, appeared to be engrossed in the study of the grounds and the hall entrance.
The car was gone in a flash, leaving him gaping in surprise.
"Gott, dot Roy haf der assurance of an eagle!" he growled. "To come here und play der hero before so many people!"
A few minutes later the hidden orchestra changed its gay waltz to "See the Conquering Hero Comes," a circumstance which suggested to the German that Jacob and his son were entering the portals of Colwyn Hall.
Von Kroon advanced down the avenue, humming softly. His clothes, although much worn and frayed in parts, were of good cut and revealed nothing of their almost threadbare condition in the uncertain lights of the grounds. Turning in the direction of the servants' hall, he found himself, after a brief survey of the buildings, standing at the door of a well-lit garage.
Kenneth Hamlin, dressed in spotless white overalls, was bending over a small chassis of the Panhard type. He glanced up quickly from his inspection and stared in surprise at the heavy- shouldered German in the doorway. Kenneth noted the dust-covered boots and pants which suggested his long tramp from Barhampton. Something in the visitor's shifty glance spoke of his purpose.
Closing the garage door carefully, the German seated himself on the edge of the chassis, mopping his face with a blue kerchief.
"I haf a bit of news for you, Hamlin," he began, flicking the dust in clouds from his hoots and clothes with the heavy kerchief. "Dot betting man, Ike Vilson, who lives in Barhampton, haf got on der track of der letter Roy sent you from Naples. You remember?"
All the brightness had gone from Kenneth's face. He merely stared at the dust-raising German, robbed of speech by so unexpected a statement.
"Did you hear me speak, Kenneth? I said dot Ike Vilson haf come into possession of der letter!"
"What letter?" Kenneth demanded huskily, "And who in the name of heaven is Ike Wilson?"
The German laughed consumedly until his blue eyes seemed to leap and twinkle behind the spectacles.
"Ike is der fellow dot lent money to Roy vhile he vas at Sandhurst. He is der man dot Roy paid mit der money you cashed mit dot cheque. Gott! You haf not forgotten der cheque!"
"I know nothing about Ike Wilson," Kenneth answered slowly. "As for the letter, I don't see how he could find it. I couldn't recover it myself; although after my arrest I expected the police to unearth it at any moment."
"Den you haf not seen it since you came out of prison?"
"No." Kenneth was off his guard in a moment. "I should have destroyed it at once if I had. That part of Roy's life is dead and buried. No one has a right to resurrect it."
"But you hid der letter in such a foolish place," the German hazarded. "Vhy do you not try to recover und destroy it. I vill be glad to help you. Dis fellow Vilson haf got vind of its vhereabouts."
Kenneth appeared to brood over the German's statement, his head bent over the gleaming, steel-bodied chassis. "I don't know how Wilson knew that Roy had ever written me a letter," he said after a while.
Von Kroon shrugged disparagingly.
"He saw you der oder night in company mit Roy. He is a shrewd fellow. He suspects someding. It vould be a great pity if der letter fell into his hands!"
Kenneth fingered abstractedly the smooth, steel driving gear at his side. A strange listening blindness came into his eyes, as though his thoughts were roaming down the years of his bleak and unhappy past. His voice sounded far away when he spoke, and was scarce audible above the music of the near orchestra.
"I don't want that letter to fall into Wilson's hands. I think... it ought to be prevented."
The German wriggled on the edge of the chassis. A thoughtless suggestion or ill-timed phrase would check the words that seemed to linger on Kenneth's lips.
"You told me something of its vhereabouts, Hamlin, but my memory vas shaky dese times."
His throat had grown dry as a crater. Between him and his visions of untold wealth lurked a half-uttered word. For an instant he was impelled by a desire to seize and shake it from the young chauffeur's throat. Never had a secret hung so trickily on a man's lips before. Covertly he watched the rise and fall of Kenneth's chest, each intake of breath, Anything which might indicate the manner and moment of speech.
"Dot fellow Vilson is a bad man," he ventured desperately. "Der is no mistakin' his intentions vhen he gets dot letter!"
Kenneth inclined his head thoughtfully; his left hand still caressed the highly-polished chassis.
"Wilson would have to be something of a mind-reader to unearth it," ho declared. "That old velvet claw is the last place in the house one would expect to find a letter."
The German balanced himself on the car edge as thought peering into a fathomless pit. "You mentioned someding about it one day at Dartmoor," he volunteered carelessly. "Id is upstairs—dis velvet claw, eh?"
"Over the window in the room where I used to sleep. One of those plaster eagles that you see in houses where the freak architect has been allowed to have his way." Kenneth spoke abstractedly, as if recounting something with which the German was already familiar. "The thing had bronze claws that rested on a velvet-covered stand. Rather a bizarre ornament in its way, although my father regarded it as highly decorative. A white eagle spread above the west window and facing my bed. Inspiriting, my pater thought. Well, I put Roy's letter under the velvet pad. To do this I had to break some of the stitches and I'm not sure whether I sewed them up again. Anyhow, the police overlooked the velvet claw when they searched the house after I was arrested."
"Dey vere lookin' for money, eh, twelve hundred pounds?" the German broke in. "Und dey vould hardly look under a bit of velvet for so much money."
Shaking himself from his seat on the car edge, Von Kroon prepared to depart. "Ve must get into der house somehow, Kenneth," he said slowly. "Vhere vas it situated?"
"On Hinton Hill! The house was occupied by my mother until after my arrest. My father's creditors sold her out."
"Den id vas let now?"
"To an old sea captain named Verder. Pretty testy old salt. Keeps two or three bulldogs about the grounds and rarely goes out.
"I shall haf trouble mit Verder," he predicted. "Onless ve poison his dogs. Himmel! I vould sooner meet a torpedo dan a bulldog!"
Sounds of laughter came from the large drawing-room situated in the west wing; the voices of men and women rose and fell alternately. Then a period of silence, followed by a clear, golden voice that beat out in sheer ecstasy and delight the Jewel Song in "Faust." The servants and chauffeurs outside remained silent, under the spell of rapturous melody. Von Kroon stood rooted for a moment, his big red hands clutching the body of a near automobile.
"Dot vas Lady Mary Trenvyth!" he said hoarsely. "Gott! I did not dink an Englishwoman could breathe the soul of Gounod. Id vas unbeliefable."
"Lady Mary is very young," Kenneth answered, with a sigh.
"Dot lucky Roy vas dancing mit her vhen I came in. De vorld goes vell mit some people, Hamlin."
Kenneth returned to his task of overhauling the body of the car, examining each part with more than ordinary zeal. The German moved towards the garage door, glancing back at the young chauffeur undecidedly.
"I am going," he said, with his hand on the door. "May I ask you to spare me a leedle cash, Kenneth? I haf been very miserable today mitout food or money."
Kenneth's figure straightened instantly. His hand made a lightning plunge into his pocket. A look of immediate sympathy was impressed on his boyish face.
"The countess's steward advanced me a month's pay this morning. Don't go without food, my dear Kroon. We mustn't let that happen."
The memory of their old prison days came to Kenneth as he handed some silver to the apparently downcast German, "it's a long walk to Barhampton. Try a taxi, there are half a dozen outside. One of those drivers will run you home for a shilling or two."
Von Kroon shook his hand hurriedly. "I vill keep my eye on diss Ike Vilson, Kenneth. In der meantime ve must consider some vay of gettin' der letter. It vas much better in der fire. Some time at der veek end I shall see you. Goot-night!"
He passed swiftly from the grounds and down the white road that led to Barhampton.
Kenneth busied himself with the chassis in the garage, his head down, his fingers testing and manipulating the various parts of Lady Mary's private car. In the vast, mirror-flanked reception-room not fifty yards away Jacob and Francesca sat watching the movements of the brilliant assemblage over which the Countess of Colwyn presided.
ROY, in the uniform of a cavalry lieutenant, was the central figure of the evening. Around him were gathered a small coterie of semi-naval and military admirers. Some distance away a German attaché was trying to explain to a Japanese consul the precise circumstances which terminated in Lieutenant Eardsley's dashing defence in the Ghazai Pass. There were sun-tanned army veterans present who appeared unduly bored at the homage paid to Jacob's dark-haired son, but to a man they admitted the splendid initiative which had sent him like a lion upon the Afridi steel.
"By Jove, those Afridi are born devils. D'you know, I've actually seen them creep up to the gun wheels to slash a Tommy at the breech!"
Roy's bearing during the enfilade of questions poured upon him was modest to a fault.
At last, finding retreat from his inquisitive admirers cut off, he succumbed heroically to the blandishments of an old colonel's wife. She bore him triumphantly to meet Sir Timothy Trenwyth, a sleek-haired, shamble-footed yachting man with a stormy voice and unreliable memory. He fixed Roy with his sherry- coloured eyes and his bald eyebrows wagged uncertainly.
"Lieutenant Eardsley! Oh, yes, I remember you!" he almost shouted, the moment Roy was drawn within his circle. "Off Boscombe Pier, eh? By gad, it was a touch and go with little Lady Mary and myself! A real touch and go, I tell you. Flying boom laid me out, if you recollect, lieutenant? Never had such a bat on the head in my life. Feel it now when the weather's a bit damp."
Roy flushed to his hair roots because he felt certain that Jacob had overheard the unhappy remark. The colonel's wife whispered in Sir Timothy's ear. Instantly the sloping shoulders grew stiff. He peered more closely at Roy.
"Why, yes, of course. I—er—beg your pardon, lieutenant," he growled. "Quite mistook you for that other little chap who swam out from the punt to help Lady Mary. Amberly—Amberling, his name, eh, no?"
The colonel's wife fidgeted nervously.
"Hamlin. Sir Timothy. The boy went wrong, you know. A dreadful pity for his poor mother and sister. Such a pretty girl!"
Sir Timothy almost glared at the hot-checked Roy. "I—er—again beg your pardon, lieutenant," he mumbled. "You are, no doubt, too conspicuous a person, these times, to be mistaken for the common variety of hero."
He spoke without malice and with unaffected naturalness of manner.
Roy laughed forgivingly. "I am heroic enough to admit that a bit of choppy sea water scared me in those days, sir. Kenneth Hamlin was the hero on that occasion," he added generously. "And, for that matter, is a hero still."
Turning leisurely he crossed the room to where the countess was seated beside her daughter. She greeted him with a dry, mischievous smile.
"You have been championing a protégé of mine, lieutenant. My brother-in-law. Sir Timothy, is not yet aware that Hamlin has only recently entered my service."
Roy was about to compliment Lady Mary on her rendering of the Jewel Song. He paused, his lips trembling perceptibly.
"Until now I had no idea that Kenneth had entered your service, Lady Trenwyth. I am sure he will justify the confidence placed in him."
The countess regarded the young soldier through her monocle. "Do you think that heroes are always honest, lieutenant?"
He met her scrutiny without a tremor. "From my own experience I should say they were not," was his unexpected retort. "At the same time one does not infer that Kenneth's integrity is doubtful."
Lady Mary flashed a glance in his direction. "I am certain that Hamlin is honest. I never believed him guilty of—"
"My darling, we must not go into these matters," the countess remonstrated. "We are here to honour our guest, Lieutenant Eardsley."
"DREE bulldogs!" the German muttered, "und a sea captain who nefer goes from der house!"
He repeated Kenneth's words a dozen times during his weary tramp from Colwyn Hall to his lodgings at Barhampton. "Gott! it vould be as easy for der army of der Faderland to invade England as for me to enter such a house. Dree bulldogs. Himmel! Vot a task!"
For a whole day and night Von Kroon had not tasted food. With the indomitable tenacity of his race, he swung forward past hedged fields and over dreary heathlands, until the lights of Barhampton illumined the wide hollow in the east.
Kenneth had given him three shillings. He fingered the coins lovingly, and his mind raced over the names of the various dishes he could obtain for two shillings at a certain eating-house near the quay. And after the wolf in him had been appeased, he would go to Hinton Hill and reconnoitre the vicinity of Captain Verder's house.
THE town, with its myriad smells, assailed him as he plunged into its depths. Ravening odours of fried fish and chipped potatoes weltered in the subways. From the flaring porticoes of Barhampton gin palaces and taverns issued a constant stream of sailors and loud-voiced women. Everyone talked of the sea, of the recent gales which had driven a fleet of trawlers from the South Goodwin lights to the Needles. Fish talk flowed and predominated over other topics until it became a series of prose illuminations among the beer-fuddled toilers of the sea.
The German, tramped past the frowsy band of women gossipers, paused an instant in the doorway of an oil-lit eating-house, and entered. Wine in such a place was unthinkable. He must husband his small capital and be content to stay the cravings of the inner wolf.
A soulless, flat-browed waiter inquired his wants. A plate of soup for threepence; two cuts from a stale, cold joint, sixpence; some pickles and bread, a penny. There would be twopence left out of the shilling; a mug of beer from an adjoining tavern would cost a penny; the soulless, flat-browed man would, confiscate the remaining coin. It was highway robbery under the name of tipping. And what filthy brews these English purveyed under the noble title of beer. Gott im Himmel!
Yet this mug of filthy British beer warmed him and made him feel that Germans were the true inheritors of the earth. A second mug convinced him that it was a truly fortuitous circumstance for anyone to be born a German, He wiped his mouth, paid the bill, and was out in the road again, pressing on in the direction of Hinton Hill. The night took on a pleasanter aspect now that his particular wolf had been laid low. The memory even of Captain Verder's three bulldogs assumed a less horrifying aspect. Beer and cold beer are wonderful tonics to bulldog-ridden nerves.
The German pressed on.
It was past eleven when he breasted the ridge of Hinton Hill. The stars pricked the clear heavens above the wind-shaken pine woods on his right. Von Kroon hummed a German song in defiance of British bulldogs. Yet how was he to attempt an entry into the house of Captain Verder? To wait until the inmates had retired for the night and then force his way into the bedroom once occupied by Kenneth Hamlin appeared a wildly-desperate alternative to the strategically-disposed German. Such an act could only result in his immediate arrest, with the possibility of a brutal, mauling at the hands of Captain Verder and his three bulldogs. There were simpler ways of obtaining Roy's letter than by burgling.
The house stood back about a hundred feet from the road; it was shut in by a high hedge, and was completely detached. A detour of the grounds convinced him that the bulldogs were kept indoors. An intimate knowledge of the breed had proved to Von Kroon that these narrow-flanked, big-chested creatures are peculiarly susceptible to asthma. That they were comfortably bedded somewhere near the kitchen stove he was certain.
Satisfied that Roy's letter, if still hidden beneath the velvet claw, could be easily recovered, he returned to his lodgings and slept soundly until nearly nine o'clock. Rising, he dressed with more than ordinary care, taking his last clean collar from an empty linen-drawer and adjusting his frayed shirt- cuffs with some craft and circumspection.
Without a thought of breakfast, and desiring to escape his landlady's observation, he slipped noiselessly from the house. Once in the street, he felt, for the first time in many years, that his days of poverty and hunger had come to an end. Arriving at Hinton Hill, after a brisk walk, he strode unhesitatingly towards the house of Captain Verder, and boldly entered the gate. The scent of laburnum and English may seemed to inundate his alert senses as he approached the hall door. A thrush carolled somewhere in the woods that lay beyond the house. Everything spoke of tranquillity and repose; it was a morning when thoughts of burglary should have been absent from a man's mind, the German soliloquised.
A peremptory knock at the door to give urgency to his business followed his swift entry into the grounds. It seemed a long time before his summons affected the solemn repose of the house. He expected an exodus of bulldogs the moment the door opened, and stood ready with German caution to execute a flank movement in the vicinity of the side gate if their attentions proved undesirable.
The door opened softly. A stooping, white-haired lady appeared, breathing tremulously, as if she had descended many flights of stairs.
Von Kroon raised his hat after the manner of a British tradesman. "I haf called at der request of der Barhampton Gas Corporation, madam," he began solemnly. "Ve haf located frequent escapes at dis terminus." He paused to take breath and to ease the sledge-hammer beatings of his heart. "You vill haf no objection to me inspectin' der pipes inside your house, madam," he went on insinuatingly. "Der is nodin' like bein' on der safe side vere gas is concerned, madam."
Mrs. Verder appeared nonplussed at his unexpected visit. Instinctively her glance wandered over his straight military figure, the carefully-manicured finger nails that seemed ill- adapted to the overhauling of leaky gas pipes.
"There is no escape of gas in this house." she assured him. "The pipes were thoroughly tested only a few weeks ago."
She was about to close the door when he interposed with a quick gesture of alarm. "Madam, it is for your safety dot I come here. Der haf been an explosion dis mornin' a leedle way down der road. I gif you my vord dot I shall not hurt your carpets like dose oder fools der company send here."
Mrs. Verder seemed incapable of resisting further. His vital earnestness of manner swept aside her temporary objections.
"It is fortunate that Captain Verder is with the dogs," she exclaimed vehemently. "He has a perfect loathing for plumbers, and gas inspectors:"
The German tip-toed from the rubber mat at the door to the polished oilcloth inside the hall. Something of the bloodhound's questing eagerness seized him on the instant. In which bedroom, he asked himself, was the great plaster eagle with the velvet claws?
His thoughts stampeded madly through his illumined brain as he followed the white-haired stooping figure into the kitchen. Here he paused and merely sniffed ostentatiously, shaking his head after the third sniff.
"I thought not!" Mrs. Verder cried. "It was only the other day a man came to test them."
"Gas leakages go up, madam," the German insisted. "I vill try one or two of der bedrooms. It is better to feel safe. One does not care to be suffocated in one's sleep, eh?"
He was on the stairs now, his nose in the air, his cheeks aflame with suppressed excitement. At the top he halted and wondered whether she would follow him from room to room.
She came up the stairs, with groans in her sixty-year-old joints, panting, expostulating on the heartlessness of gas inspectors and company officials in general. There was sand and mud on his boots. She was certain that his footmarks were visible on her carpets. Would he please hurry with his inspections and be gone before Captain Verder returned? She could not hold herself responsible for what might happen if he entered and discovered a gas official in the house.
Von Kroon thrust his head into the nearest room, sniffed vigorously, but his roving eye saw no white eagle above the window. The second room revealed straight walls and an undecorated cornice. Wiping his hot face, he cursed Kenneth under his breath for his lack of information in regard to the precise aspect of the room in question. Where— where was the stupid eagle, and why did this foolish Englishwoman so persistently dog his steps?
He sniffed and sniffed, his eyes roving everywhere save in the vicinity of the gold-lacquered gas-brackets. "Not in here!" he declared thickly, after a brief glance into the fourth room. He turned and walked along the corridor in the direction of the west room overlooking the pine woods. That surely was the apartment which Kenneth had occupied in the old, prosperous days!
A dozen steps carried him to the door. It was closed. Opening it with a jerk, he entered, with Mrs. Verder on his heels. His eyes leaped upwards to the great white eagle outspread across the window bay. Its bronze talons rested on a velvet-covered pedestal. He noted that the velvet was of a rich crimson and seemed to hold the morning light in a blood-red circle beneath.
Mrs. Verder followed his glance and sighed. "I don't know why such things are put into a bedroom!" she declared. "These Hampshire architects are the craziest people on earth!"
The German felt that his life depended on the power and persistence of a big final sniff.
"Ach, Gott! Dere is gas!" His final sniff threatened to unsettle his hair. "Enough to smoder an army. Vot a blessing dot I came in time!"
Mrs. Verder remained rooted in the doorway, as one determined to see the exact spot where the alleged leakage had occurred. The German, at his wits' end, knelt and turned the carpet corner over, inhaling deep breaths of air.
"I shall haf to lift a board to locate der leakage."' he affirmed boldly. "Could I trouble you to get me a hammer, madam?"
Mrs. Verder stiffened on the instant. "You had better see my husband before a single board is displaced," she insisted. "Personally I don't smell the slightest breath of gas. It's just a lot of officiousness to annoy people in their houses!"
The German remained kneeling on the carpet edge, his upturned eyes fixed on the blood-red velvet which encircled the eagle's claw. In the tense silence he became aware of heavy footsteps approaching the front door.
The steps came nearer, stopped, and then the sharp summons of the electric bell thrilled his ears. Something heavy dropped suddenly to the hall floor.
Mrs. Verder pivoted in the doorway. "It's the postman! One moment, please!"
Hurrying along the corridor, she descended the stairs to pick up the package and letter lying on the floor.
Von Kroon bounded to his feet like a runner off the mark, his long arms reaching upward towards the red velvet pad. A savage oath escaped him. The pad and claw were fully two feet beyond his reach. Mrs. Verder's returning footsteps fell like sabre taps on his roused ear. Dragging a chair from the corner, he mounted it and thrust his fingers under the broken stitches of the velvet pad. He felt the square edge of a letter recede the hundredth part of an inch from his clutching finger points. Then his powerful thumb burst the half-sewn velvet in his frantic haste. The footsteps were half-way up the stairs now. There was still a bend at the banister end to be negotiated.... His hand shot in under the claw and the letter came out with a fierce snatch. He was on the floor, panting, hot-cheeked, the letter crushed in his big palm, when she entered the room. Her eyes stabbed him with a glance.
"You have been standing on my chair!" she snapped. "How dare you invade people's homes in this way!"
The German fawned in utter self-abasement. "I am very sorry, madam. I feared dere vas a dangerous leakage up dere!"
He indicated the white eagle as he receded somewhat hastily from the room. "The chair is not much soiled, I trust."
Mrs. Verder pursued him downstairs, overlooking in her wrath the fact that he had begged for a hammer to locate the alleged escape of gas under the boards. She slammed the door on his retreating figure, leaving him to draw breath in the garden path outside.
"Gott! Id vas a tricky performance!" he gasped. "I vould nod do it again for all der money in Europe!"
He walked with a quickened step in the direction of his lodgings, as one who held the key of many golden situations in his pocket. At the bottom of the hill he passed a red-faced man escorting three brindle and white bulldogs.
"MY dear Francesca, the affair is as good as settled. I'd wager an Atlantic liner against a herring boat that Lady Mary will say yes to Roy. I'll allow him twenty thousand a year and a seat on the directors' board."
Francesca sighed. "Always your son and your ships, Jacob. I used to think once it was the ships."
Jacob turned in his promenade on the lawn to where his dark- haired Italian wife was seated in the silk-lined sun-chair. He bent near her caressingly.
"Never you, eh. France? Never the little girl-wife who watched my first fight among the leviathans of commerce, the little wife- mother who held to me faithfully when my first ship seemed bound for the rocks of despair and insolvency!"
Jacob's manner was inexpressibly tender. For a brief, heart- moving space his hand trembled on her shoulder, while a strange dimness clouded his eyes. All around them the spacious parks and uplands of their beautiful, Hampshire home, wide, grassy lawns that stretched into the dim silences of beech copse and pine woods. A stream raced noisily over the moss-covered flints at the forest foot, winding, bickering, from shallow to pool, over chalky flats and by dun-red banks. Jacob listened, as though the voice of the stream gave new meaning to his thoughts.
"How many have gone down, my dear," he went on, "while we faced the music of battle! We have lived to see our enemies hammered and chastened, the men who sought with brains and wealth to kill our earlier enterprises. Who is left of the swarm of jobbers and speculators who lit their torches to show up my ruin!"
Francesca stroked the big, white hand resting on the arm of the sun-chair, and looked up at the firm mouth and eyes of the husband whose honesty had always outridden his vanity and pride. And what rewards had come to this white-browed giant of commerce, this sea-king whose fleets tramped the wide spans of ocean that linked pole with pole! Beyond and above the mere lust of commercial victories dwelt the serene joy of domestic fulfilment, pride in their house and their son, a pride now shared by the very nation from which her husband had sprung.
JACOB had built ships to conquer new trade routes; these ships had fulfilled their destiny, had earned him golden dividends, but their names were now forgotten. Men do not remember cargo hulks for ever. It was their son who had written their name on the nation's flag of honour, a name that would go down through history with the heroes of Balaclava and Cawnpore. It was written in Roy's blood somewhere in the Himalayan passes, where the Indian, stars blazed along the track to Kandahar.
It was a great ending to a man's life, Jacob thought, this blissful contemplation of things well done. It was permissible, and it exalted and beatified him. He desired also that his wife should share his spiritual beatification.
Francesca shared it to the full. She rarely revealed her emotions in cold English words. Fluency of speech was strangely withheld from her. Yet there were times when her southern blood leaped and craved for higher expression in words. For a time she had been startled at the possibility of her son becoming attached to the daughter of a Trenwyth. She did not understand these proud English families who had so long refused her husband admittance to their houses.
Since the day they had settled in their lovely Hampshire home the Countess of Colwyn had steadily refused to acknowledge their existence. Other distinguished families had taken their cue from their acknowledged social leader.
And for years the Eardsleys had been left to themselves, cut off from the very houses which Jacob had set his mind on entering.
At last the ice had been broken— smashed, Jacob declared— by the force of circumstances. It was Roy's homecoming which had accomplished the miracle. Even Penelope Trenwyth could not close her doors to the nation's hero. Following an invitation to attend a brilliant levee at Colwyn Hall had come other messages from the most high and exclusive places, begging them to honour their homes with the presence of their distinguished son.
Jacob promenaded the lawn in front of his wife's chair, his half-smoked cheroot scenting the morning air.
"We've got them by the dozen," he said, with a sub-humorous nod. "The Bransholmes and the Gideons, the Talbotts and the Messengers. Peers of the realm and ladies by the grace of God. Who'd have guessed, France, that Jacob, the mackerel man, the big-headed bargee, as they called me once, should enter the houses of England's king-makers? Eh, France, it sounds well!"
"Do they make kings?" Francesca inquired innocently.
"I'll make them send Roy to Parliament." Jacob laughed. "He'd go to the polls with their names at his back. Once in Parliament anything might happen. Lieutenant Eardsley, V.C."
Jacob lingered over the words as though a sweet flavour encircled the V.C. "Roy Eardsley, son-in-law of Penelope Trenwyth, fifth Countess of Colwyn, etc., etc."
He smote his thigh exultantly, and stood with legs wide apart on the sunlit grass, the smoke of his cheroot marbling the air above his head. "It almost makes me wish we had a daughter, France," he declared wistfully. "We might have given her a coronet."
Francesca regarded him thoughtfully, and was about to speak, but seemed to change her mind. When he turned again in his promenade she looked up from her needlework slowly.
"Kenneth Hamlin has been engaged as assistant chauffeur to the countess, Jacob. Roy told me only this morning!"
Jacob swung round, his big chin thrust out. His cigar fell to the lawn. "T'ch!" He kicked it into the gravel walk impatiently. "That's the first I've heard," he muttered. "What insane conduct for a woman of Penelope's standing!"
A chill air seemed to have caught him. The pleasantry which had exuded from him like distilled champagne grew vinegarish in the turn of a phrase.
"Roy kept it from me. Where did he hear it?"
"Lady Mary made mention of the fact. She sympathises with Hamlin, I am sure."
"Sympathy for the released gaol-bird!" Jacob paused, his feet wide apart, his brow dark with thought. "It's an unneighbourly trick for Penelope to play; a piece of malice, no better nor worse!"
His feet seemed to take root where he stood; once, twice, his big shoulders heaved as though responding to the trumpet call of an enemy.
"Why, the fellow was gaoled for robbing me! And that woman takes him under her wing!"
He turned his astonished eyes upon the pale lipped Francesca. "What for?" he asked. "Where in the name of social equality is the sense of such a proceeding?"
"Charity!" came softly from his wife. "Let us, too, be charitable, Jacob. Let us forget."
He stared at her moodily. "A good, sound principle, my dear. But this looks a freakish business on Penelope's part. Would I employ a defaulting steward of hers? If I did it would be only to wound her feelings."
Francesca recalled the yacht incident to his mind, stressing the fact as an excuse for the countess's sudden interest in Kenneth.
"We must not forget that Kenneth rendered a valuable service to Lady Mary... that day when the yacht lay near to her doom in the Solent. Mother and daughter have not forgotten. Would you?"
Jacob made a dissenting gesture.
"She has a right to be grateful, I suppose. All the same, I hope her ladyship will never be driven to Fleet House by her gaol-bird chauffeur. Charity is an excellent thing, but one does not care to be constantly meeting ex-convicts and forgers!"
A few wind-blown clouds raced over the near pine woods. Jacob's eye went out to the smoky blur in the south where the port of Barhampton extended its endless quays and wharves to the sea.
"I must be going." He looked at his gold faced watch rather sullenly. "You will have Roy for company most of the day, Francesca. Time will fly until he's married. Let him drive you to the New Forest. Take a hamper; give him wine and chicken in the woods."
He moved to depart. Francesca beckoned him closer.
"Do you want me to keep watch over Roy, Soldiers hate that kind of motherly espionage, He ought to have a free hand."
Jacob's brow darkened. "Not too much freedom for our son, France. Remember ... he will inherit a million or thereabouts when the Lord thinks fit to take us. The world is full of women adventurers, male sharpers and dicers. The newspapers have been scattering pictures of him throughout the Dominions. There is sure to be a blight of money-hungry people settling hereabouts before long. They come like caterpillars to a rose tree, and no one sees them coming."
He kissed Francesca tenderly just as his electric brougham came noiselessly from the garage. It was his custom of late to dwell upon the increasing pressure of business at the Barhampton offices. For nine or ten hours a day he must bend his neck to the yoke and stress of modern competition. At present he was forcing two huge shipping combines to fight for their existence. It was a war of freights, and the house of Eardsley had been compelled to cut and reduce rates to a point which would have meant ruin to a less opulent firm. Jacob smelt disaster in the air—for his rivals. It was merely a question of weeks before the giant combination surrendered to his inflexible demands. Jacob fought with his own money and rarely risked the invested capital of outside share holders, and he fought mercilessly and cruelly until the opposing factions cried enough.
Francesca watched the electric brougham sweep down the avenue into Barhampton-road Rising from her chair, she became conscious of something moving beyond the beech copse on her right. A man wearing spectacles walked slowly into view. By his fair hair and brushed-up moustache she judged him of German nationality.
His frock-coat appeared shiny in the morning light, his linen rather soiled and frayed, she thought.
He approached within half a dozen paces, his glance wandering apprehensively from the sun-chair to the house.
"I haf der pleasure of speakin' to Madam Eardsley?" he began with a stiff bow in her direction. "My name is Stefan Von Kroon."
Something in his gait and manner turned her cold. Yet the German was not of forbidding aspect. A certain refinement of manner invested each action and phrase of speech. It was the wild alertness of his eye that touched her like naked steel, the alertness of the hungry hound that limps in from the chase.
"What do you want, Herr Kroon?" she asked without moving. "My husband has just gone out."
It was plain to her that Von Kroon was aware of Jacob's absence. The sound of his voice filled her with unconscious dread.
"My business, Madam Eardsley, may at first seem unpleasant. But if you vill be patient und reasonable. I promise dot you will live to regard my visit as der act of a friend."
"Patient and reasonable," Francesca repeated. "Will you be good enough to explain?"
He answered her question with a sigh. She noted, in her slow, lingering glance, that his hands were plump and soft, his finger- nails almost pearly in their manicured brightness.
"In der first place, madam, I must tell you dot I haf been in gaol!"
"In gaol, madam, because I put anoder man's money into a flying-machine. You haf no doubt heard of der Kroon biplane?"
"No." Francesca was convinced that her visitor was an amiable lunatic who had invaded the privacy of her grounds with the intention of divulging some hare-brained scheme in connection with flying-machines.
"I am very sorry to hear that you have been in gaol, Herr Kroon," she said soothingly. "How long ago?"
She prayed that the lodge-keeper or gardener would spy him out and come to her assistance. Never before had the grounds appeared so deserted. Her eyes searched the house precincts furtively until his voice again compelled her attention.
"I came out of prison dree months before young Hamlin, madam. Ve enjoyed much of each other's society during der years of our incarceration."
The unexpected reference to Kenneth's name brought a cold tingling sensation upon Francesca. It was no madman who addressed her now, only a semi-respectable adventurer with a story to tell. Kenneth had no doubt sent him to her for help or assistance. But why had he not gone to the Prison Gate Brigade, a society to which she contributed large sums annually? One's private grounds were hardly the place to meet discharged prisoners.
"I am sorry for men of your class who go astray," she said after awhile. "In what way do you expect to be helped, Herr Kroon?"
His spectacled eyes fell upon her like a searchlight.
"You must nod mistake me for a beggar, Madam Eardsley. I have been moved to come here by a spirit of justice, to show you how simple people can suffer prison degradation for oder people."
"What people?" She made a step towards the house. "Of whom are you speaking?"
"Of Kenneth Hamlin, madam, der young man who endured penal servitude to oblige your son, Lieutenant Eardsley. It ees an astonishing ding how readily dese young people dishonour demselves for each oder!"
"To prison... penal servitude to oblige my son!" Francesca returned to him as a tigress returns to some threatening stalker. "How dare you!"
The German shrugged.
"Madam. I vas mit der army of der Faderland ven it held France by der droat—from the Rhine to Paris. I haf looked at nasty dings in my time, I haf seen wounds dot no man but a doctor should see, I haf gazed at dead faces dot none but a priest could cover mitout weeping. Und I know vot it is to be loved by leedle childrens. Yes, madam, I am someding of a man because I haf suffered und felt for oders. But—" his manicured hands went up in a gesture of horror and contempt, "dis business of Lieutenant Eardsley's makes me sad."
While her heart leaped like a startled hind's, his manner became merely pensive. Something of the attitude of an executioner invested his movements and gestures, a slow methodical deliberation before delivering his fatal stroke.
Francesca grew white at the lips; sweat broke from her brow.
"What have you to tell?" she asked. "Speak; there is no one near!"
He seemed to awake from his brooding contemplation of her. His German head went up, and she saw the stark look of the executioner in his eyes. He delivered his stroke with Teutonic exactitude.
"It vos your son who forged his fader's name, Madam Eardsley, your son who hid himself somewhere in Bengal vhile dot young fool, Kenneth Hamlin, took der blame."
Francesca recoiled, looking sharply to right and left as though to escape the terrible impact of words that struck upon her heart. Slowly, very slowly, she recovered her presence of mind until the fear died in her, was cast out by the heroic spirit of her Italian fathers. The German viewed her pensively, with something of a physician's calculating stare. He had seen men shrink from steel weapons just as this dark-haired mother had shrunk. But they had not recovered themselves so quickly. She appeared to approach him on tip-toe, nearer, nearer, until her breath smote his face.
"A poor silly lie to bring to a soldier's mother, you—you German scoundrel!"
A red spot flamed on Von Kroon's cheek. His big shoulders went up in a fierce shrug of disdain. Then he laughed quietly.
"Ve had better be friends, madam," he cautioned. "I am not ashamed of my nationality. I am not ashamed to admit dot I haf been in gaol. But dese German hands of mine vould sooner rot dan allow a comrade to suffer for my sins. Do not insult me or my country, Madam Eardsley!"
He saw her quail beneath his words, saw the white despair clinch and hold her. She, trembled violently and came near to falling. Not once did he put forth a hand to steady her shaking limbs. He had seen another suffer, had been his comrade within a bleak-walled prison, had seen the ruin of hearth and home, the sick girl-child panting on a straw bed inside a dank and filthy slum-cottage. There was no question of money behind this slow wrath of his—that could be settled later. It was of Kenneth he was thinking now, and of this woman's soldier son basking in the smiles of society ladies, posing as the nation's hero.
Francesca's frightened eyes searched the many-windowed house that stood back among the rows of stately elms. Roy was at that moment within the grounds or library. He had not yet gone out for his morning stroll. If he came upon them now, the pitiless disclosure, would be made in his presence by this soulless creature with the pensive eyes. Roy must not see them yet. Guilty or innocent, she must have time to think and deliberate upon her future course of action. Certain incidents in connection with Kenneth's trial for forgery had happened which had left a lasting suspicion in her mind concerning the legality of the prosecution. Therefore, she argued swiftly to herself, she must observe discretion and not allow her tongue to exasperate this man, who knew so much, and who flaunted his cruel knowledge with such passionless insistence.
She turned to him with unseeing, fear-dimmed eyes. Her face now wore the semi-vacuous look of a blind woman.
"I am sorry, Herr Kroon, if my hasty words have caused you pain. You will understand," she volunteered brokenly, "the pain your statement has caused me. Do not judge harshly if I mistrusted your intentions. I have merely your word as evidence of the crime you allege against my son."
Von Kroon assumed a less magisterial attitude in the face of her pleading tones. It was not his business to punish the mother for the sin of her offspring. His own greatest need was money. He must therefore put aside his grand idea of compelling Jacob to reinstate Kenneth in the eyes of the world. Such thought savoured of a quixotic disposition. At present Kenneth was doing very well, while he, Stefan Von Kroon, was badly in need of a dinner. He must have money to pay his way.
From his inner pocket he produced a thumb-soiled letter, which he held rigidly before Francesca's doubting eyes.
"Your son vos foolish enough, madam, to write dis letter to young Hamlin about a veek after der cheque had been cashed. Come closer; it is not difficult to read!"
He held the letter tight stretched, his alert hands ready to close over it should this mother in her desperation seek to snatch it away.
She came on tip-toe, and her eyes drank in her son's familiar scrawl.
My dear Ken.
If there's any bother about the cheque I gave you to cash, don't give me away. The governor, I feel sure, will allow the matter to blow over. You have probably guessed by now that I filled in my respected parent's signature. Of course, dear boy, I wouldn't have risked it with another man's coin. The pater will never miss the cash. The cheque will be "snowed under" by the masses of paper that pass into his account daily. Let me know what you are doing, and give my affectionate regards to Phyllis and your mother.
Francesca drew away after reading it. There was no visible shadow of anger or pain in her eyes. The German returned the letter to his pocket, buttoning his coat tightly as he did so.
For a moment she regarded him askance, while her breath came in a series of laboured efforts.
"What do you desire, Herr Kroon?"
"Money, madam; money to stifle my sense of shame und justice; money to stop me bellowing der story of dis unparalleled infamy!"
His voice was almost a roar now. He smote the pocket where Roy's letter lay. There was no denying his passionate insistence. He was the kind of man to stand at street corners and harangue the townspeople. His very personality attracted attention. Francesca quailed. She must act quickly and wisely if disaster to her family were to be averted. This man was prepared to shout her son's crime through the by-ways of Barhampton. She made a weary gesture in his direction.
"Pray follow me into the house, Herr Kroon. It is not advisable to stand here in the open."
Francesca walked slowly towards the large French windows overlooking the lawn, stooping once, as she gained the entrance, to pluck a white rose from some overhanging trellis.
The German skulked in her shadow, stiff-shouldered, and meditating swiftly upon the ways and means of using to advantage the priceless knowledge in his possession.
IN the library Francesca cast herself into Jacob's chair, her hand straying instinctively to the cabinet at her elbow, wherein lay her own private cheque-book. She had no idea what his demands might be, but, whatever the amount, she desired the affair kept secret from her husband.
She turned to the big-shouldered figure standing in the doorway, her chin thrust out. "You will understand," she began quickly, "that my husband must know nothing of this business."
His face crimsoned. "Vy?" he demanded bluntly.
She answered with her head bent over the open drawer. "Because he would send you to prison as a blackmailer!"
"Your son, madam, vould—"
"Go to prison with you, Herr Kroon. Do not mistake Jacob Eardsley. Your secret will not be worth a bottle of wine once he is made aware of his son's guilt."
"Madam, I cannot believe dot—"
"Your price!" she interrupted, with a gesture. "And remember. Herr Kroon, that I only pay once. The letter in your pocket I shall take in exchange for my cheque. How much?"
The German shrugged.
"Der letter is quite safe mit me, madam. I shall nod trouble you too often," he affirmed in a conciliatory tone. "Once a month, say, at dis hour of der morning, and on a date to be fixed, between us."
"How much?" She stroked the table with her shut hand.
"One hundred pounds, madam; no more or less."
She stared in round-eyed amazement.. "Even as the wife of Jacob Eardsley my private resources are limited. My husband would find out sooner or later that I was being victimised. The discovery would endanger you also," she added significantly.
Von Kroon turned as though to depart. "Den you refuse my modest terms, madam?"
His manner was coldly impartial. He flicked a speck of fluff from his well-brushed sleeve. "Dink, madam, before you destroy der roots of your being!"
She pondered bleakly over his words, then took a pen from the writing-desk and filled in the cheque. Blotting it, she handed it across the table.
The German scanned the signature and the amount filled in before placing it in his pocket. At that moment a light step sounded in the hall outside. The library door was opened softly; Roy entered, carrying a bundle of letters in his hand. Francesca did not by the slightest gesture signify her knowledge of his entry. Her eyes were on the German.
"We may go further into the matter, Von Kroon," she said easily, "when you call again."
The German merely bowed. Then his spectacles flashed obliquely on the tall figure of Roy in the doorway. Without a word he passed from the library to the outer door. The crunching of his heavy boots on the gravel outside broke the tense silence between mother and son.
Roy placed the letters on the table, stooped to pick out one that bore the royal seal in the left-hand corner, and passed it to his another.
"A note from Lord Knollbrook, the King's secretary," he began, with a queer smile. "It's about the Victoria Cross I'm to receive."
"The Victoria Cross!" The brightness had gone from her face. A wisp of hair had become disentangled and hung limply across her blanched cheek. An hour ago her years might have been difficult of ascertainment; now, in the passing of a shadow almost, her eyes and brow had become shrunken and withered. The mask of age had settled upon her for ever.
"What cross?" she demanded, in a whisper.
He prompted her failing memory with a touch of good-natured cynicism.
"You know I'm to be decorated shortly, held up to the nation as a self-sacrificing soldier of the King."
Then his glance fell upon the withered cheek and glassy eye, the wisp of hair hanging so loosely from her brow.
"Why... mater, what's wrong?" he asked tenderly. "Aren't you well?"
She moved imperceptibly, swayed forward, her hand gripping the chair. A sudden suspicion crossed him.
"Who was that fellow who went out a moment ago? What has he been saying?"
Francesca's grip of the chair slackened. "A poor fellow in search of a livelihood, Roy. I promised to help him a little. Ah!" she breathed warily as a wounded animal. "I am glad that you are to receive your decoration, dear. It will finish up that Ghazai Pass episode. The King will—will fasten the cross to your breast, I suppose?"
"Yes," Roy answered, his face to the window. "I'd rather go through the Ghazai Pass again, the fighting and the yelling thrown in, than endure this—this—"
"Decoration?" she asked wearily.
He nodded assent. "The thought of going up to Windsor and facing so much flag-flapping and music is interfering with my rest. I feel that some horrible calamity will happen during the proceedings. A Hindu fortune-teller I met at Umballa once told me that the lightning would strike me on my happiest day."
"Those Hindu fortune-tellers are crude impostors!" Francesca declared flatly. "What did he mean by the lightning? There are so many kinds?"
Roy was silent. His face betrayed something of his inner thoughts as he turned to finger the pile of letters on the table.
A premonition that, he was about to confess everything in connection with the Hamlin forgery case assailed her. It was on his lips, in his eyes, like a strangled spirit crying to be released from its awful bondage. She felt that it would kill her to hear it from him now.
Rising from her seat, she clutched the table to steady her uncertain limbs.
"I have not quite recovered from the excitement of Lady Colwyn's reception," she said, with an effort. "Such late hours do not agree with your mother. Roy. Thank you, dear!"
He had taken her arm very tenderly. She made a gesture in the direction of the hall. "Ring for Summers, my maid. The air of this library is quite oppressive. The windows are always shut."
Summers appeared on the instant—a light-footed, quick- eyed girl, with the Hampshire roses mirrored in her cheeks. She assisted her mistress from the library to the wide stairs, leaving Roy standing a triple crestfallen in the hall, wondering whether he had better summon a doctor.
It was the German who had unnerved her, he told himself. He would question her further on the subject when an opportunity presented itself.
AMONG the letters which had come to him by the Indian mail was one that bore the scarce decipherable postmark of Serampore, a small hill station where he had sojourned during the months of his convalescence. It was a tear-blotted, almost illegible little scrawl that spoke to him of the heart-cravings of Lalun Chundrath, aged sixteen, daughter of Lalun Chundrath, an officer attached to a company of native infantry stationed at Serampore.
In India Roy had few opportunities of meeting women of his own class. There had been the usual regimental balls and parties, teas at the various gymkhana clubs, where certain officers' wives had deigned to acknowledge the existence of the olive-skinned subaltern. But nothing in the way of a genuine love episode had interfered with his duties.
In the hospital at Serampore, after the Ghazai Pass affair, he had, in sheer loneliness of spirit, exhibited a certain interest in the pretty daughter of Boas Chundrath. Boas and he had fraternised during the days of his convalescence; they had often walked together through the pine-sheltered valleys of the hill sanatorium. Lalun had come to Serampore to meet her father, and she had experienced the rare privilege of the lieutenant sahib's society when accompanying Boas in his mountain excursions.
Roy visioned her more clearly now, after a second, glance at the tear-blotted epistle— a nymph-like figure, with smooth, raven hair and Asian eyes. Something of the Arab girl's solemnity enshrined her movements. How graceful and sweet she had seemed in that lonely hill station.
Of course he had talked to her alone when Boas was on duty. Lalun was merely a child, and he had treated her as such, had given her toys and trinkets, and—yes, he recollected having kissed her once quite innocently. He knew that her father was in ignorance of his act. Lalun had not told him, he felt certain. A man has a right to kiss a pretty child. Still, he had been troubled in mind for days after the event. Lalun had avoided him with natural shyness of manner. But he remembered always seeing her face peeping at him behind the bungalow curtain whenever he passed on his rambles through the hills.
Only once afterwards had he met her. It was the day he left Serampore for Bombay to embark for England. He had wished her good-bye in a light and cheerful spirit, but he could not forget the tight-clenched hand dragging at his sleeve. He had kissed her again.
Yes, he distinctly recalled her face at their final parting. It was very young and childish; yet there had come into her Asian eyes a look that was beyond her years. It was as if her soul cried against the shadow of death and the black water that would separate them for evermore.
Phyllis Hamlin had never disturbed him with such glances. Of course, he had told Lalun not to cry, it was so foolish. The soldier sahib must return to his people. And was she, Lalun Chundrath, not the daughter of a soldier?
It was a bleak-eyed little maid that turned aside from him in that lonely Himalayan valley. He had watched her slow return to the bungalow, and without another sign, had ridden to the hill station where his luggage stood on the platform beside the waiting train. It all happened nearly two months ago. To him how it seemed years, after the long sea voyage and the events which followed his homecoming. Poor little Lalun! She would marry some man of her own caste and quickly forget him in a year.
He passed the maid Summers in the hall and learned that his mother was feeling more composed. Strolling into the grounds, he felt the morning air touch his checks and heated brow. A stroll among the dahlia and chrysanthemum beds served to clarify his thoughts and sweeten his mind.
How beautiful the Hampshire air seemed after the tigerish heat and stress of India, with its dust-choked highways and sun- shrivelled gardens! How many men had gone out there and married native women—sinking their pride of race, and drifting ultimately into a social ostracism from which there was no redemption!
Somehow Roy dreaded meeting his father at table. He felt that he was withholding a part of his life which should have been manfully unfolded. He could not tell the truth-loving Jacob of the crime he had committed in allowing Kenneth Hamlin to suffer for his own selfish sin. Rather would he face again the naked steel of the Afridi. The thought of Jacob's honest ways assailed him, the man whose just wrath burned against all forms of chicanery and falsehood.
Scanning the morning paper, he came upon a paragraph which arrested his eye. It was the announcement of the departure from India of a small company of native cavalry which had supported him in his attack on the Afridi stronghold. He read further that these native cavalrymen were to be present at Windsor on the day of the Imperial review. Other troops from the outposts of the Empire were daily expected in England—Canadians, Australian detachments of riflemen and carabineers. A thrill of pride passed through him at the thought of the military pageant in which he was to play the central figure. Lieutenant Roy Eardsley stepping out to permit his Sovereign to attach the V.C. to his breast would be the crowning feature of the big review.
Surely, he argued, the Fates would permit him this one brief hour of pleasure and gratification.
FRANCESCA did not appear at dinner that evening, a circumstance which disturbed Jacob mightily. Roy sat alone with his father, eating sparingly, as one whose mind was ill at ease. The old shipowner grew less reticent as the wine circulated, while his shrewd eyes wandered inquiringly over his silent son.
"The London papers are making the most of the review at Windsor," he said, in a half jocular vein. "The Military Chronicle has published your photograph in the current number, together with an account of the Ghazai Pass affair."
"A good account, you mean!" Roy flushed instantly. "The Chronicle would hardly—" he checked himself suddenly, as though in doubt of the precise words to use.
Jacob stared. "Why should a paper give an ill account of the light? I hope, Roy, that you are going with a clean heart to meet your Sovereign?"
Roy laughed strangely. '"These local military correspondents are apt to criticise the actions of foreign service men a little harshly at times!"
"Actions?" Jacob questioned. "What would they be, Roy?"
"Oh, the merest oversight in the disposition of the command during the Ghazai Pass incident," Roy explained awkwardly. "One never knows these military scribes. They are made up mostly of disappointed army men."
Jacob sighed, because his son's words removed a sudden misgiving in his mind. "Every profession has its vanguard of pen and ink warriors," he laughed. "You are not afraid of the brigade, I hope?"
The young soldier bent over his wine-glass broodingly. "Don't know that I'm afraid of anything that will stand up and hit straight," he vouchsafed.
"When you hit straight yourself, eh, my lad?" Jacob sat back in his chair, glowing from head to heel as he contemplated his sun-tanned hero son. "Straight from the heart and shoulder, Roy. No skulking when the enemy's yelping in front. Well, here's to your regiment, my lad, and the King, God bless him!"
The old shipowner rose and held his brimming wine-glass at arm's length; Roy stared dully across the table, but refrained from joining in the toast. Jacob's beaming eye clouded suddenly; his mouth hardened.
"The toast, Roy!" he commanded. "What ails you to-night? I named your regiment and the King. Did you not hear?"
The young soldier merely nodded sullenly. "Wine and half- healed wounds are poor feast companions, pater. I'm just a slave to my doctor's orders." He paused and contemplated his half-empty glass. "Already I've exceeded the prescribed number— two glasses since dessert."
Jacob resumed his seat, somewhat crest fallen. "Quite right, my lad, to lay to your doctor's orders. I'd forgotten you were an invalid."
He smoked in silence until his irrepressible good-humour overcame him, drowning in a sea of conjured-up illusions all thoughts of his son's meticulous manner.
"It you were in better form, Roy, I'd ask you to join me in toasting Lady Mary Trenwyth. I've been thinking a great deal about her lately."
He glanced over a wine decanter and noted the red flush on the young soldier's cheeks. He chuckled good-humouredly.
"Wounds and wine never earned a better lady, Roy. She's yours for the asking," he declared with a glibness unusual in him. "I hope my meaning is clear," he supplemented garrulously.
"Quite, quite clear." Roy seemed to hold himself in his chair, while a wave of bitterness swept over him. "Although I'm not sure she's anyone's for the asking," he added coldly.
Jacob leaned across the table to catch his son's wavering eye. "I met the countess in town this afternoon. She appeared overwrought and anxious." He pushed aside an empty decanter as one emphasising the importance of his communication. "Lady Trenwyth is at the end of her financial tether. For thirty years she's gone the pace without a break. There's to be a winding-up of her affairs at the month's end. I'm afraid her bankers have decided to let her creditors have their way."
Roy fidgeted. "Did the countess call at the office?" he inquired bleakly.
"Yes and no," Jacob responded. "Her car was passing while I was coming out. She pulled up for a chat. Penelope's not the kind of woman to squeal poverty or to go begging from neighbour to neighbour. She's been dealing with the Jews, bill-discounters, and forty per cent, Christian gentlemen." Jacob paused to adjust the big diamond ring that flashed like a Koh-i-noor on his second finger. "Now she has her back to the wall, fighting for her house and lands. It's a fearsome thing for a woman of her breed to be treated like a huckster's wife by those Shylocks."
"Sir Timothy Trenwyth has property in Cornwall," Roy protested. "And what of those titled legions we met at Colwyn Hall the other evening? Won't they rally to her help?"
"They'll rally to the auction sale that takes place at the Hall next month," Jacob predicted. "They'll be there to pick up a few mementoes— cheap. There are a score of Barhampton parvenus waiting like wolves for her ejection. They'll bid for her house and lands, and unless help descends from heaven, Roy, Penelope Trenwyth, fifth Countess of Colwyn, will be pounding on the reefs of insolvency this day month!"
There was a ring of genuine pity in the old shipowner's voice. He scrutinised his son in the silence that followed as one gauging the effect of his words.
Roy's fingers played with the gold-enamelled ring of his serviette. Otherwise he remained outwardly unaffected by his father's declaration. The old shipowner appeared nonplussed by his son's want of enthusiasm. His eyes kindled as he again returned to the theme.
"It's a question of likes and dislikes, my lad," he went on. "If you fancy your heart is in the union there should be small difficulty of its accomplishment— granted that Lady Mary's objections to you as a husband are not insuperable."
Roy remembered that his father had used similar language when dealing with a refractory shipping combine once. He smiled grimly.
"The alliance," Jacob continued warmly, "would be a blessing and a mercy to—to—"
"Whom?" Roy questioned, unmoved.
"To both parties!" the old shipowner declared. "I'm not forgetting that I was once in the mackerel trade, and that the Trenwyths are the peers of the Marlboroughs, the Warwicks, and the Devonshires."
He stared with brightening eyes at his son. It was well, he argued mentally, that this young hero should be occasionally reminded of his humble forebears. It would keep him in step with the music.
Roy flinched under the lash, but the scarlet of his cheeks was instantly relieved by a more pallid hue.
"Lady Mary will refuse me!" he said flatly. "In any case, I should prefer to wait until after the review at Windsor."
"Too long!" the old shipowner growled, "Lady Trenwyth's creditors must get word of your engagement at once, my lad! That will scatter them. They'll not foreclose once our good name stands behind the Trenwyths'." Jacob rounded the table with his fist. "Will you ask Lady Mary to-morrow?" He thrust his hand across to his son. "Will you ask Mary Trenwyth to be your wife?"
The young soldier caught his breath sharply. The shadow of his unspeakable crime loomed titanesque now that the destiny of the beautiful Mary Trenwyth was to be drawn into his own.
"I will ask her a week from to-day," he answered dully. "I must have a few days to prepare for the ordeal."
He rose unsteadily from the table, his mental and physical agitation revealed in each movement. Jacob reached forward and gripped his hand, a fierce wave of emotion surging through his blood.
"It will be no ordeal, Roy. Mary Trenwyth will take you for life. Ay, and the proud Penelope will dance a cotillion with Jacob, the smack owner, the bargee, the man whose house flag is flaunting over the five oceans!"
That night the old shipowner entered his wife's apartments, his face wreathed in after-dinner smiles. Francesca was reclining on an ottoman. She made no stir at the sound of his footsteps. He stooped and touched her shoulder lightly.
"Roy has promised to ask Lady Mary a week from to-day," he blurted out. "You may consider everything settled bar the rice- throwing."
Francesca turned in the uncertain light, and her sunken cheeks and withered brow were only half visible to him. The lustreless eyes stared vacuously in his direction.
"My God!" she whispered under her breath. And Jacob Eardsley, in his mental delirium, mistook her exclamation for a prayer of thanksgiving.
KENNETH HAMLIN had found an Arcadian retreat within the spacious grounds of Colwyn Hall. The grim past, with its goblin shadow of gaol, its slouching gangs of convicts huddled within the stone corridors of Dartmoor, remained in his mind only as the effects of an evil dream.
Daily within the spacious garage at Colwyn Hall he went about his work among the highly-polished machines with care and discernment. The countess had taken a personal interest in his mother and sister. She had assisted them in obtaining the pretty cottage near Leven Wood which Kenneth had once dreamed of renting on the day he had intended to take up his duties in the office of Titus Hepburn.
How different the world seemed since that terrible morning when the bluff American had warned him off the premises, insisting that he had no place in his warehouse for gaol birds and forgers! Here, amid the lovely surroundings of Colwyn Hall and park, he was permitted to work out his own salvation. Upon several occasions he had, at Lady Trenwyth's express desire, driven her to and from the city. At other times he had steered the blue-panelled landaulette for Lady Mary when attending certain social functions in or around Barhampton.
He found the daughter of Penelope singularly appreciative of his efforts to win her esteem. Never by word or suggestion was he made to feel the stigma of the past. In him Lady Mary only saw a fair-haired, quick-eyed young chauffeur who had permitted himself to be drawn into a mysterious banking fraud. She refused to believe that this quiet-browed son of Colonel Hamlin was a forger. She maintained always that a grave injustice had been committed, and her womanhood would not allow her to forget that it was Kenneth Hamlin who had once plunged into a driving sea to assist her to a position of safety.
The countess watched progress from day to day, correcting her impressions as she watched. Painfully exacting in her demands, she found that her most stringent requirements were carried out unremittingly by her quick-witted young protégé.
"The boy is made of silver now," she confided to her daughter. "In a year he'll be my golden chauffeur— if we survive my meeting of creditors next week."
Lady Mary sighed as she followed her mother from the deserted hall into the sunlit court beyond the aviary.
"Is it too late to effect economies in the household?" she asked wistfully. "Could we not dispense with half our servants, our cars, and as many dinner parties a month?"
Penelope screwed up her lips in the anguish of unaccustomed meditation.
"No, darling, there will be no half measures. It will be a garden party or an Armageddon if my Jews think fit to foreclose."
"And when do you expect these dreadful foreclosures?"
"In a week, not longer." The countess sighed as she adjusted with ineffable care a rosebud that trailed from some broken lattice work to the ground. "The rapacious vandals will strip my house and rack-rent my poor cottagers. What a fate! What an ending to the house of Colwyn. Oh.... me—me!"
Lady Mary had known little of her mother's financial indiscretions in the past. She was dimly aware of the sword of debt which hung suspended over their house. There had been times when she had heard a note of warning sounded by Carson, the steward, warnings that fell unheeded upon her mother's ears.
It was not the upkeep of Colwyn Hall which had hurried Penelope Trenwyth to financial destruction. Speculations in foreign stocks and mining ventures had wrought havoc with her yearly income. She had invested like a gambler, and lost smilingly. A season in London had cost her twenty thousand pounds.
But now, in the saner atmosphere of her Hampshire home, the knowledge of her reckless enterprises struck her cold each time she gazed into her daughter's eyes.
Together they wandered round the grounds, stopping to examine the orchid nurseries, where the close-packed rows of beautiful white and scarlet bulbs held them entranced during the greater part of the morning, At the garage door Kenneth passed them swiftly; his dark-blue driving coat, buttoned tightly about his breast and throat, served to contrast the Saxon fairness of his clear skin and eyes.
Lady Mary viewed with some preoccupation of manner a border of violets near the lawn edge as Kenneth passed them. Halting near the big Panhard car, outside the garage, he waited as though anticipating some orders for the day.
Apprehending his object, Penelope inclined a moment in his direction.
"We may use the small De Dion after lunch, Hamlin. How are the roads between here and old Jacob's— I beg pardon— between here and Fleet House?"
"The south road is good, your ladyship. The repair section between here and Bramley Wood is still unrolled."
He answered always respectfully, yet never permitted his manner to betray him into a fawning servility. And Penelope Trenwyth was not unappreciative.
"To think that the son of Colonel Hamlin should be driving a car of mine!" she confided to her daughter. "I remember the day when the Hamlin estates were valued at two hundred thousand pounds. All gone in twenty years. Poor old colonel, he gave and he squandered. The Eardsleys are the only ones who leaped and held."
"The mackerel boats!" Lady Mary sighed. "How the fishes come to some who cast into the deep!"
"Jacob will be casting into the Colwyn deeps by-and-by," Penelope predicted, with a sly glance at her daughter. "What do you think of this young lieutenant, Mary?"
She paused in her walk to breathe in the pageant of the morning sky, the league-long bank of wind-mottled clouds piled in snowy splendour over the smoky woods and fields. A thrush carolled somewhere in the mists of the lower valley, where a brown huddle of thatched roofs and barns completed the pageant.
"I think Jacob's son is courageous," Lady Mary admitted quietly. "A man does not gain the bronze cross for nothing."
"Oh, physical courage is well planted in the boy," Penelope agreed, "Although he—?"
"Left Hamlin to drag me off that overturned yacht." Lady Mary finished the sentence with a certain malicious enjoyment.
PENELOPE continued her walk, her arm linked in her daughter's. At the end of the long drive she appeared to tire of the morning exercise. They returned by a shorter path to the Hall.
"Lieutenant Eardsley is coming here to-morrow." She paused at the Hall door to gaze across the lawn. "We shall be at home to him."
"I thought we were to join the Cridland party at St. Gothard's!" Lady Mary's utterance was charged with surprise.
"The Cridlands may wait, my darling. What's wrong with the soldier boy?" Penelope flashed. "No twenty-year-old girlie has a right to despise a hero!"
"I should not be a Colwyn if I overlooked the mackerel boats," Lady Mary parried, with skill and judgment, her violet eyes leaping to the assault.
Penelope had foreseen her daughter's reply. Thirty years' experience in the matrimonial field had given her a velvet tongue and a purpose of steel when her heart's desire was in the bargaining. Yet she loved this only daughter with the passionate strength of her stern nature, a love that was beyond the instant need of gold.
"I shall not put feathers in the cap of the Roy hero," she said pleasantly. "All I ask is that we see him."
Lady Mary sighed as she entered the house in her mother's footsteps. The coming of Roy Eardsley filled her with curious misgivings. Her heart had gone out often to the dark-haired Francesca, sitting alone amid the splendid surroundings of Fleet House. Yet the daughter of the impecunious Penelope could not overcome her patrician prejudices whenever the big-voiced Jacob approached her. Even his bluff honesty, so patent to the world, had not inclined her friendship. She was compelled to admit, however, that Ray had inherited none of his father's bourgeois spirit; indeed, she confessed that the young soldier approached her ideal of a true aristocrat more closely than scores of her titled friends. He was not objectionable to her. She was merely unresponsive in his presence. And even though her beloved monarch decorated him with a hundred bronze crosses, the fact would never cause her pulse to quicken a single beat.
She became conscious of her mother's voice as they entered the white morning room. Something in its pleading intonation disturbed her brooding calm.
"I don't know what this young Eardsley will have to say, my dear. But before he speaks it is better for me to admit that our world is tumbling about our ears. I could paper the Hall with notices and injunctions received from one rascally creditor or another. Twenty years ago I would have thrown my lands and house to the wolves and gone out into the world to seek my fortune."
Penelope sank with a sigh into a wide-armed chair, stroking her stiff silk gown with meticulous care.
"The old Hall is dear to me, my child; every column and window speaks of a Trenwyth and the people of our blood. In a few days it will be overrun by a gang of auctioneers and furniture dealers. They'll loot and plunder our art treasures; they'll burrow, and seize the very trinkets my mother wore!"
Lady Mary sat white-lipped under this emotional cannonade. She had scarcely anticipated so abject a confession from her strong- willed parent. The blood rose in a surging flood from her young heart, tears flashed in her eyes.
"Has this anything to do with Lieutenant Eardsley's coming?" she asked tremulously.
"You'll judge for yourself, my dear. One way or another, I'm anxious to see you settled in life. And a rich hero may prove as good a husband as a bankrupt peer."
With this parting shaft Penelope rose stiffly from her chair and retired to complete her morning toilette. In the afternoon they made a tour of the surrounding estates, Kenneth driving them in the De Dion car.
Running through Barhampton, they observed a small procession of Hindu students escorted by a party of police passing down the main thoroughfare. Men called excitedly to each other as the car threaded its way past. A word flung from an angry sailor fell on Kenneth's roused ear. Slowing down the car, he was able to comprehend the flow of disjointed talk circulated in shouts by the fast running crowd.
The students had collected in the grounds of Fleet House, the residence of Jacob Eardsley, and, after a hostile demonstration, had smashed some of the windows and a portion of a summer- house.
Kenneth, in response to the countesses inquiry, stated briefly what he had heard. Penelope grew hot and cold.
"Indian students! Why in the name of sanity should they cast stones at Jacob's house?"
Kenneth was sorely puzzled and refrained from answering her question. The car followed the procession: It was evident to the young chauffeur that the police had arrested the ring-leaders of the outrage. Leaning from the car, the countess addressed one of the policemen in the crowd, requesting some details of the strange occurrence. Recognising his distinguished questioner, the officer saluted respectfully before answering.
"It's a very serious affair, your ladyship. Some very valuable furniture has been knocked to pieces by the shower of stones. Mrs. Eardsley was in her room at the time, suffering from nervous breakdown. She narrowly escaped some of the heavier missiles. It's the most unusual thing that's happened here since I can remember."
The countess pursued the question.
"Was Lieutenant Eardsley at home during the assault?"
"No one knows for certain, your ladyship. We assume he was not on the premises. Otherwise he would have given an account of himself."
The car proceeded in the direction of Colwyn Hall, while Kenneth, his hand gripping the steering-wheel, kept asking himself why a band of Hindu students should have assaulted the home of Jacob Eardsley.
EACH hour Kenneth became aware that the daughter of Penelope Trenwyth sympathised with his unfortunate past. Often during their motoring tours he found her watching him covertly, pityingly, he thought, and his heart throbbed to bursting at the memory of the shame he had endured to shield Roy's dishonest action. Often when lying awake during the midnight hours he told himself that Phyllis had been the pivot of his sacrifice, the gentle-spirited sister whose love for the young soldier was as enduring as the stars.
For her sake he had shielded Roy's name and kept it clean, but now that the ordeal was over he began to experience the terrible aftermath of his self-allotted martyrdom. Branded for all time as an ex-forger, how could he hope to attain anything more tangible than pity or toleration from decent-minded people?
Not once did the countess refer to the incident which had deprived him of his liberty for three whole years. Even during a period of financial stress, when the shadow of ruin hung over her beloved home, she could still spare a kindly word for others. Of Penelope's financial disabilities Kenneth knew nothing. That she existed from month to month by the grace of her creditors he never suspected.
Phyllis was now well on her way to recovery from the illness which had come so near to ending her life. The change from the damp, ill-ventilated cottage to a roomier house with more salubrious surroundings had worked wonders. The roses were already blooming in her cheeks, and Kenneth looked forward to the summer months for her complete rejuvenation.
The Barhampton morning papers were full of startling items concerning the attack on Fleet House by the mob of young Hindu students.
At the time of the outrage, one article stated, Fleet House was in the keeping of Lieutenant Eardsley, his father having journeyed to London only a few hours before. It was a curious fact, the account ran, that at no time during the stone-throwing did Lieutenant Eardsley show himself to the enraged students, although it was known beyond doubt that he was present in the house. The head gardener, supported by the whole male staff of servants, had sallied forth with the utmost gallantry in a vain effort to drive off the rioting Hindus. Why, the newspaper's correspondent asked, had the lieutenant refrained from rendering assistance at a time when his father's property appeared in peril of demolition? Was this the young military hero who had won the highest honour a Sovereign could bestow? Was this the man who had faced the Afridi steel in the far Himalayan passes? Surely not. The article concluded by stating its confidence in the young lieutenant's undoubted courage. It was sure that the young soldier would explain the cause of his apparent unwillingness in defending his father's house from the destroying hands of a whooping band of fanatics.
Kenneth re-read the article while the hot blood tingled through his veins. Surely there was a mistake; or was it an old and risky newspaper trick of working up a piece of sensational "copy"? He would never believe that Roy had taken shelter somewhere in the house while his father's servants went forth to the fight. It was unthinkable, preposterous!
A shadow slanted across the garage entrance at the moment his eye was perusing the obnoxious article. Penelope, her monocle swinging from her thumb and forefinger, entered, and with a casual glance at a near car passed to the electric landaulette at the far end.
Kenneth thrust the newspaper hurriedly into a gear box, while the tell-tale crimson of his cheeks belied his assumed complacency. Turning from the landaulette, Penelope fixed him suddenly with her monocle.
"Do you know anything of this window breaking affair at Fleet House, Hamlin?"
She spoke softly, but the young chauffeur detected a steely inquisitiveness behind the velvet repose of her manner. He answered promptly that the episode, as reported, savoured of malice on the part of the newspaper correspondent. He could not believe that Lieutenant Eardsley was present at the time of the disturbance.
"But the paper in question has proof positive!" she flashed instantly. "The proprietors of that journal are not anxious to perpetrate a ruinous libel on the richest man in Hampshire!"
"We shall hear more at the police inquiry," Kenneth predicted. "Lieutenant Eardsley is hardly the type of soldier to join in a foolish riot conducted mostly by fanatical boys."
"He had a water-hose!" Penelope retorted. "His soldierly dignity would not have suffered if he had doused them from the grounds. My faith!" she declared vehemently, "there would have been boiling water in the air if a black face had shown inside Colwyn Hall!"
Kenneth beheld the fires of youth in the old eyes, the clenched hand, and fearless brow. He was puzzled to account for her abrupt entry. It was seldom she intruded into the garage. Something warned him of her pressing interest in Roy's welfare. What could it be?
Pacing the garage abstractedly, she appeared to forget his presence. Half way down the building she paused, her jewelled fingers resting against the blue-panelled landaulette.
"I have not forgotten, Hamlin, that you and the lieutenant were once inseparable companions. Now," she eyed him steadily until his heart beat fiercely under her pitiless scrutiny, "now, Hamlin, I want to ask your opinion of Lieutenant Eardsley. Do you think he is a man of honour? In your dealings with him did he always prove veracious, honest, heroic?"
The questions were volleyed with an air of frankness and couched in such terms as an ordinary employer might use when some particular matter of interest was at stake.
Kenneth flinched from her gaze. It was the first time that the question of Roy's integrity had been put to him point-blank. Only for an instant did he cross glances with her, and the stammering reply on his lips seemed to freeze and fall dead. Penelope spoke a word that escaped him. He braced himself a trifle desperately.
"I have always felt honoured in Roy's friendship." Kenneth battled with the words as though Roy's future depended on each syllable. "I would readily go out with him, above all men, to meet death or misfortune if he needed my aid."
"More paint on the soldier hero!" Her laugh was humiliating, disconcerting to the white lipped young chauffeur, "My question remains unanswered, Hamlin. Well, well." She pondered over her words abstractedly, her fingers toying with the golden thread of her monocle. "Since you will not give me the truth direct, Hamlin, I must put up with a little more varnish and vermilion. And somehow"—she paused again to finger the polished edge of the chassis thoughtfully—"somehow the colours do not stick. And... my poor child! I must think awhile."
She passed from the garage, and Kenneth did not see her again that day. He received orders next morning to drive her and Lady Mary to the courthouse at Barhampton where half-a-dozen Hindu students were to appear, charged with riotous behaviour within the private grounds of Fleet House.
THE court was crowded. Seats were provided, however, beside the prosecuting counsel for Lady Trenwyth and her daughter. Jacob, accompanied by his son, occupied seats adjoining their old family solicitor. To Penelope's shrewd eyes Roy appeared pale and nerve-shaken. Over his left temple he wore a light bandage almost concealed by the brim of his deerstalker hat.
The Hindu students, some of them scarce out of their teens, pleaded guilty to the charge, but refused with characteristic reticence to disclose the nature of the grievance which had incited them to their disorderly conduct.
Lieutenant Eardsley entered the witness-box amid the strained silence of the crowded court. His voice was keyed to a scarce audible monotone, and the loud breathing of the close-packed audience was heard in strained expulsions. Roy deposed that, on hearing a disturbance in the grounds of Fleet House, he had hurried from his room upstairs to forcibly expel the invaders. But while descending the stairs he had been struck by a stone, which crashed through a window on the landing, rendering him unconscious for some time.
His unexpected testimony produced a strange sensation in court. A question was put by the presiding magistrate after order had been restored.
"Have you any knowledge of these students, Lieutenant Eardsley, or from what cause their vindictiveness might arise?"
"You have been in India?"
"Nothing occurred there during your sojourn that might have given offence to these students?"
"Not to my knowledge. Neither am I acquainted with any member of the group charged here to-day."
Roy retired from the witness-box visibly affected by the brief examination. Jacob's counsel pressed for a severe term of imprisonment for each of the offending students. Moreover, he pointed out that the town of Barhampton had recently become the headquarters of numerous disaffected aliens working in conjunction with a notorious revolutionary movement in Bengal. It was possible, the counsel urged, that a spirit of revenge had been nurtured against Lieutenant Eardsley, who had just returned from an historical campaign against certain hill tribes in Northern India.
The magistrate decided, in view of the extreme youth and nationality of the offenders, to merely inflict a heavy fine and to bind them, over in substantial securities to keep the peace.
Jacob left the court with Roy, but halted in the vestibule to exchange greetings with the countess and Lady Mary.
"I trust that the lieutenant has recovered from the effects of the stoning!" Penelope exclaimed, with a show of sympathy. "An unthinkable atrocity to perpetrate on British soil, eh, Mr. Eardsley?"
Roy winced at the word "stoning," and heaved a sigh of relief when they were clear of the courthouse and Penelope's peculiar forms of greeting. He turned for a moment and flashed a look upon Kenneth seated in the countess's car. Jacob followed his glance, while a shadow of annoyance darkened his brow.
"That fellow again!" he muttered. "She plumps him in my path at every turning. And the stoning," he growled, as they gained their seats in the big limousine. "Funny how that word sticks! You used it on the navigation bridge of the Maharajah. And, by the Lord, we've been stoned all right!"
Roy seemed to cower among the cushions of the fast-travelling car, scarce venturing to meet his father's shifting glances. Jacob's mood alternated between the emotional and the tensely introspective. The cause of the Hindu outrage puzzled him. Neither the boy students nor his son had volunteered the slightest explanation. He looked askance at Roy's bandaged head as the car swept from the smoky town into the open country.
"The stone hit you at the wrong moment, Roy," he ventured thoughtfully. "Another minute and you'd have been amongst them with your fists, I'll warrant!"
"They deserved a clouting." The young soldier fingered his cigarette uneasily. "I was going to use a horse-whip; it's the only thing to bring these black cubs to their senses."
Jacob watched his son's features narrowly while he spoke. Then he stretched out his hand suddenly as if to touch the bandage under the deerstalker hat.
Roy evaded the contact of his father's fingers, laughing quickly to hide his confusion. "The cut's rather inflamed at present," he vouchsafed, his guard hand thrown up. "Quite tender, in fact."
Jacob nodded sympathetically, but did not withdraw his hand. "You bandaged it yourself?" he questioned tersely.
"Yes. Luckily I had some lint in my old field kit. You see, there was no one about at the time, so I doctored myself."
Some instinct of mistrust settled upon the brooding shipowner. He had seen men on the wharves and quay-sides suffering from wounded scalps and fractures, and his mind grew dark with suspicion the more he scrutinised his son's features. He noted a general absence of that pain-drawn expression so common among men and women under treatment for head fractures and concussions. With a half-caressing movement, accompanied by a good natured laugh, he shot out his hand and snatched the bandage from the young soldier's brow.
"Your father has doubts, my lad!" he cried. "And, heigho, where's the stone wound?"
He scanned Roy's unbruised head, while a savage pucker framed his hard mouth. "Man alive, you're not scratched! What's the meaning of this deception?"
He sat up, glowering at Roy, his eyes reddening in surprise and mortification.
The young soldier crouched back among the cushions, white- lipped, shaken to his depths by his father's unexpected action.
"Speak, man, speak!" Jacob thundered. "What's this infernal duplicity, this dressing of heads, this shamming and lying?"
Roy swung round as though to ward off the white-haired fury who gestured and breathed in his face.
"I should have told you at first," he stammered at last. "Yesterday, when those fellows attacked the house. I had taken a bottle of that '78 port into my room. The confounded stuff got into my head. I must have gone off into a pretty sound sleep," he went on hurriedly, "for when I woke the police were in the house and the servants thundering at my door for admission."
"You looked your door?" Jacob snapped. "In your own house too!"
"It's a habit one acquires in India," Roy explained in feverish, haste. "When I looked from the window I saw what an unholy mess those students had made, and—and," he paused, wiping the moisture from his brow.
"You saw that a drunken soldier is a creature of contempt in such instances; so you invented the broken head to cover your sin. Is that so?"
"It seemed the only way of explaining my—er—inability to go out and fight. If I'd been sober, why," again he hesitated, his fingers plucking nervously at the cushions beside him. "I'd have gone out and brained one or two of those slinking jackals. I'd have taught them not to pelt the windows of my father's house!"
Jacob eyed him sullenly. He knew that the famous '78 port wine in the cellar was headier than French cognac, especially when imbibed to excess by a recently-invalided man of Roy's temperament. The old shipowner appeared slightly relieved by the explanation, yet he could scarcely conceal his disgust at the means employed in masking a rather nasty situation. He was certain that the stoning of Fleet House was not the result of a mere frolic or hoydenish spirits. He could not believe his son a coward, the idea was preposterous. Yet it chilled him to think that Roy had maintained a lying face before a magistrate and counsel. No one would ever be wiser, of course, but his honest nature revolted at such trickiness. No man of honour ever sheltered himself behind a lie.
He was ill-inclined to question his son further, for he was not quite sure what fresh lie his questions might evoke. Arriving at Fleet House, he declared gruffly that some private correspondence would detain him in his study for the rest of the evening. He advised the downcast Roy to amuse himself with his military text-books until the dinner hour.
Alone in his study, the old shipowner rang for Merrick, the butler. With hands clenched on the writing-table, he waited for his old servitor's appearance. Merrick came briskly enough for his years, and cast an oblique glance at the stiff-lipped old shipowner in the chair.
"Merrick," Jacob began, "how much of the '78 port is left?"
The butler stroked his chin reflectively, then cast an eye at the ceiling before answering.
"Of the last six dozen, sir, only four bottles have been opened."
"When was the last bottle opened in this house, Merrick?"
"About, a fortnight ago, sir, on the night of the lieutenant's homecoming, if you remember."
"There has been one opened since. Think, man! You have usually a good memory for these items. Was there not an empty bottle in my son's room—yesterday?"
"A soda and Claret, sir." Merrick answered quickly. "I took it into the lieutenant's room myself. Not a bottle of the '78. Oh, no; the lieutenant never touches the port. Rather heady for him, I should say."
A nod from the old shipowner dismissed him. And as the old butler retired to the hall he wondered vaguely why his answer should have acted like a thunderbolt on his master.
"If I'd said port," Merrick confided to Mrs. Compton, the house-keeper, later on, "it might have had a different effect on the governor. Blessed if I can see why the young lieutenant shouldn't drink any wine he likes. There's I plenty in the cellar!"
Jacob sat with his head drooping forward, his hands clenched on his knees. The difference in two bottles of wine had shattered his belief in his son's manhood. A few moments before he would have given his ocean-going fleet to have obtained a different answer from the butler.
LIEUTENANT EARDSLEY began to realise that his reputation as a hero had suffered almost beyond repair. His father had grown cold in his manner towards him; he was no longer the affectionate big-voiced parent who made rousing speeches on his son's behalf. The old shipowner fell to sulking in his study, brooding upon the little white lies which had been invented for his hearing.
Two days had elapsed since the police court inquiry, and the course of events seemed to presage more tragic occurrences in the near future. Roy had still to press his suit upon Lady Mary Trenwyth. Upon this matter Jacob remained silent. All interest and enthusiasm in his son's immediate welfare appeared to have ebbed. But no one knew better than the young soldier how transitory was the present state of his father's mind.
There remained two more days in which to urge his attentions upon Lady Mary and thus save the house of Colwyn from the greedy maws of Penelope's creditors. Yet Roy felt that he could not meet Lady Mary until the little gang of Hindu students had been dealt with. He must satisfy his father, also, that no gem of fear lay concealed in his fighting soul. On the day of the stone throwing, Roy had been overcome by a fear of the young Hindus' real mission. That it concerned the young girl Lalun he had met in the far Himalayan sanatorium seemed certain. Boas Chundrath, her father, had probably discovered the breach of caste rights, the kissing of Lalun by the lieutenant sahib, and his wrath had blown itself across the seas into the ears of his countrymen residing in Barhampton. News travels in India. And since Roy's name had figured so conspicuously in the Indian and British press, his whereabouts had been easily located.
While in court, the young soldier divined instinctively that the young Hindus were holding back the name of Lalun Chundrath. They had merely desired to punish him after their own fashion, and to offer no explanations. It was always the way with these over-educated Orientals. They struck and observed silence after the blow. And since they chose to keep silent concerning Lalun Chundrath, he felt that he could now assert his manhood and teach young India not to riot in the private grounds of an English gentleman.
Passing from his room, a heavy dog-whip tucked under his arm, he made his way from the house, and walked briskly in the direction of Barhampton. His spirits rose as the keen night air filled his lungs. The childish fears of the last few days disappeared with each forward step. The lights of the harbor blinked in the wide hollow of the south. A ship's bell clanging the hour of eight reached him faintly. He was aware that the Hindu students usually foregathered in a room situated over a typewriter's office in Victoria-avenue. The place had been under police surveillance for some time. It was the students' custom to meet each evening, with the object of discussing the urgent need of reform in India.
Entering Victoria-avenue, Roy soon discovered the typewriter's shop. Above, in the well-lit room, he heard the babble and mutter of alien voices, high-pitched at times, while at others they fell almost to a profound whispering. In the midst of a querulous harangue he detected a more guttural note, that ceased the moment he entered the side passage leading upstairs.
Ascending the stairs, Roy listened, as if trying to gain some estimate of their numbers. In that moment he felt equal to a dozen of these Bengali neurotics, whose babblings caused a genuine thrill of rage to tingle his fighting arm.
At the stair-head he paused, while the guttural voice took up the discussion and raised it to an impassioned address. It was a German voice, and the young soldier's fist clenched on the heavy whip as he listened.
"I tell you, gentlemen, dot you make a mistake in dese silly exhibitions of anger. Dere is no goot purpose served by vindow smashing. It is der vindows of der British Empire, you moost batter in; and you moost take care to blind der whole British race mit der broken glass. I say, organise mit your fellow- countrymen across der seas, and smash der power of John Bull in your land!"
Some dissent and approval followed the German's address. A thin, piping voice rose clear above the babel.
"We have done with Eardsley sahib. We desired merely to mark our disapproval of a certain violation of our caste. We are now satisfied!"
A sudden movement, accompanied by a shuffling of feet, made known to Roy that one of their number was about to depart. Slipping back into the darkness of the landing, he waited for the figure to pass out.
The door opened and the voice of Von Kroon sounded on the stair-head as he wished the assembly good-night. Roy waited until his foot-steps had passed down the stairs, and well into the avenue, before proceeding further. Then, softly and with incredible swiftness, he swung open the door and faced the startled company of students seated at a long narrow table.
Like panthers disturbed, they sprang to their feet at sight of this lion-footed invader with the illumined eyes. Their leader, a lank-jawed Bengali stripling, held up his hand protestingly.
"Your entry here is an insult to us, Lieutenant Eardsley. Be good enough to leave the room!"
The son of Jacob stood silent against the door, his left hand turning the key in the lock. Then he nodded grimly.
"Children of Ind," he began solemnly, "you have taken an unwarrantable interest in my father's house and windows. If I had razed your temples and defiled your gods you could not have behaved with greater savagery!"
His tone was strictly judicial; scarcely a muscle of his body moved as he rested his tall shoulders against the shut door.
"A woman of our caste has been betrayed!" came from the lank- jawed leader. "The stones were our protest!"
"A woman of your caste was honoured by my friendship!" Roy flashed back. "Do you regard a soldier of the Empire as unworthy of your women's friendship, at a time when he is sick and wounded? Was I unworthy, after fighting your country's little wars?"
Like a young tree held back, his frame stiffened with a leap, and for an instant his whole being became transfigured, splendid in its fighting poise. He towered above their stunted shapes as a man moves among a pack of urchins. Wide-eyed, and with something of terror in their glances, they beheld the long, snake-like lash uncoil from his arm.
A muffled snarl came from their straining throats; a dozen lean arms flew up to stay the down-curling thong. "Was I unworthy?" he repeated, with blade-edge clearness of voice, "because I was not of your caste? Is it proper that, being kind to one of your child-women, you should fill my because of your accursed stones?"
He was upon them, striking right and left with the cunning of a prison flagellator. In the first shock of surprise they shrank away in horror from the cracking lash that wealed and stung like tongues of fire. Around the long room he drove them, flaying legs and arms with machine-like precision. Screaming, plunging under tables and chairs, they sought frantically by every means to evade the whanging blows of the merciless thong.
"Am I unworthy, dogs of Bengal, to lift my eyes to one of your kind? Am I to be shamed among my own people... made to lie because of your accursed stories?"
The pent-up sufferings of the last few days were released upon the pack of clawing, whimpering students. Many had crawled under the table, where they sought to grip his ankles when he strode round after an escaping pair of shoulders or legs. A hatred of their breed was upon him, as it had been when he hurled himself upon the dark-skinned tribesmen in the Ghazai Pass.
He paused awhile to stare in his baresark fury at these spindle-legged aliens who had come so near to his undoing.... They had caused him to add yet another lie to the growing list... these foul-brained, impudent pariahs!
He smote their leader's humped shoulders until the back and spine curved in an agony of pain, and again until the body writhed on the carpet at his feet.
He peered at the flinching form, the whip held high, and the only sound in the room was the labored breathing of the huddled shapes beneath the chairs and table.
"Spare us, Eardsley sahib! Spare us this shame! We swear no more to molest..."
It was a thin, piping voice beneath a sofa that appealed to his clemency. A lash-reddened hand was stretched forth in supplication. "No more of this horse-flogging, Eardsley sahib. May the gods smile on thee in the days to come. There shall be peace between us!"
So he turned to the door, a grim smile on his lips, and opened it with the key, Outside on the landing he paused to assure himself that no one followed, and then hurried into the street, the whip tucked under his weary arm. He cared not a rap whether they brought a dozen actions for assault against him now. He felt that he had somehow vindicated himself. He was certain that the Barhampton papers would get hold of the facts of his flogging exploit. The London press would eagerly circulate the story once it became known that he, Roy Eardsley, hero of the Ghazai Pass affair, had entered a meeting of Hindu students and trounced them in a body. He glanced up and down the avenue, wondering vaguely why some wandering policeman had not been attracted by the shouts of the students when he pursued them round the room. The avenue was almost deserted, and was as free of police officers as the interior of a church.
He found his mother awaiting his arrival. She stared at his flushed face and disordered appearance, at the heavy-thonged whip under his arm.
"What have you been doing?" she quavered, "Your father has been searching the house for you!"
Roy laughed carelessly. "I've been trying to instil some notions of decency into the heads of our Indian fellow-subjects. We must preserve the decencies."
"With a dog-whip!" Francesca retorted coldly. "And after all that has happened." She turned a little wearily from him and walked to her room.
HE did not follow. The excitement of the last hour had produced a healthy exhilaration of body and mind. He entered the spacious oak-carved dining-room and found the table laid. A touch of the bell brought Merrick, the butler, who informed him that his father had dined alone an hour before. In a brief space the young soldier was plying knife and fork before a well-cooked sirloin of beef that was followed by several French dishes from the chef's room below. Merrick indicated with meticulous care the wine-card at his elbow.
"Port or claret, sir?" he inquired deferentially. Roy glanced up swiftly into the butler's smileless visage. Then, with another glance at the wine-card, "My father out, Merrick?"
"No, sir; he's just gone to his room. Seems rather worried, if I may take the liberty of mentioning it."
"About me?" Roy prompted.
The butler fingered a serviette in silence before responding. He had been with the Eardsley family for a dozen years, and he had not quite recovered the shock of Jacob's cross-examination concerning the bottle of '78 port.
"Your father seemed particularly distressed, sir," he ventured after awhile, "because I mentioned the fact that you had taken claret the other afternoon instead of the '78 port."
"Oh!" Roy's knife and fork collapsed with in rattle on his plate. All desire for food vanished, leaving him sick and cold. Merrick hung about the table, conscious of his young master's torment of mind. From the roots of his servile manhood he craved for some light on this port wine mystery which had set the old millionaire at loggerheads with his son.
Roy's chagrin evaporated slowly, leaving in its place a grim sense of the ridiculous, a desire to match fate's back-handed strokes with a gentle stab of his own.
"Merrick," he looked up at the face behind his chair, "bring me a bottle of the '78 port, and continue to bring one every evening."
While Roy brooded over the famous port Francesca tossed feverishly on her couch, unable to ward off the javelins of thought that stabbed her aching brain. She trembled for her son's future, trembled for the white-haired Jacob who saw only a smiling hero in their handsome soldier son. Fate stalked in the shadow of their house, she heard the beating of its dread wings in each rustle of the trees, in each flutter of the night wind.
Once or twice she rose from her couch to stare bleakly across the starlit grounds and woods. The knowledge that Roy had inflicted chastisement upon the rioting Hindu students affected her but little. It was the idea of his thoughtless crime in the past which stirred her to tears and despair. At present she was at the mercy of a German blackmailer, whose demands for money would increase once he tasted the sweets of life. She could not hope to keep her secret from Jacob. Like most men of his class, the old shipowner was in close touch with her bankers, and would detect sooner or later the unusually large withdrawals on her account. She dared not predict what would happen once Jacob became aware of Roy's unspeakable treachery. Dishonesty and lying were to him the two unpardonable sins... How her temples throbbed! And how she hated to be left alone in these vast, theatre-like rooms!
Her maid, Summers, had gone to Barhampton on a visit to her old mother, and might not be home till late. Jacob was sulking like Agamemnon in his own den, worrying, no doubt, over his wretched ships, counting his profits and losses, his brain full of schemes for creating wealth and more wealth. Yet even though he created a river of gold it would never refund the years of life which Kenneth Hamlin had spent in prison.
She paused in her silent cogitations to listen at the stair- head. Roy's footsteps sounded heavy and uncertain in the hall; he appeared to lurch unsteadily, she thought; or was it the effect of the shadows from the portiere? Why was Merrick walking beside him?
It occurred to her in a flask that the soldier hero had been drinking at dinner, an unusual circumstance with him. She followed his swaying form until it passed into the billiard-room at the extreme end of the hall.
Francesca retreated to her room, irritated and annoyed at the knowledge of her son's intemperance. She would speak to Merrick about it at the first opportunity. Yet her heart went out to this olive-skinned son who carried in his heart a torment too great for his years.
Opening wide the window facing the south, she inhaled a deep breath of blossom-scented air. From quay to quay the lights of Barhampton shone in the distance like a band of jewels, in fancy she beheld the swart barges huddled on the bars, the fleets of big-bosomed tramps moored to the footpaths of the town...
Footsteps sounded far down the garden path— quick, hurrying steps, as of someone running in the direction of the house. Nearer, nearer they came until the white edge of a woman's dress appeared against the dark of some juniper trees at the path end.
It was Summers, her maid. Francesca drew away from the open window and waited for the girl to appear. Something had frightened her. It was unusual for a girl of Summers's dignity to be seen flying down the path at such a rate.
In spite of her self-restraint, Francesca's curiosity carried her to the stairs and down the long straight flight to meet the breathless maid in the hall.
What was wrong? What had frightened the girl?
Francesca's questions brought Summers to the point, although her round, blue eyes were aglow with terror and wonderment. She had returned from her visit to her mother's cottage by the road from Gorse Hill, because there were more lights. She had entered the grounds of Fleet House by the gate near the old conservatory. Coming down the path about twenty yards from the conservatory she had observed something lying in the grass. At first she thought it might be Lockwood, the gardener, because it was known that he was a confirmed epileptic. Very much afraid, she had ventured near, to discover a strange man huddled face down on the grass. His hat and walking cane were some distance away.
Summers breathed heavily at the end of her narrative. The fellow, whoever he might be, was drunk. He had wandered into the grounds and had fallen asleep. Only a few days before, Summers said, a tinker had found his way into the old conservatory, and had passed the night there. Lockwood had ejected him at daybreak.
Francesca listened patiently, her interest keening at certain details in Summers's description of the drunken intruder. He was wearing a tight-fitting frock-coat, of military cut, while the mention of the cane and the heavy shoulders impressed her tremendously.
Francesca was not afraid of the dark outside. It had fewer terrors than her present unspeakable dread of mind. Summers was for alarming the house. Lieutenant Eardsley was the man for such a crisis. This blue-eyed maid possessed an unshakable confidence in the soldier hero who had just returned from the war.
Her mistress's glance froze her to silence. There was no need to disturb her son or husband, she declared. Some poor fellow had blundered into the grounds and was sleeping off the effects of liquor. She would go down herself and investigate. Summers might wait for her return at the side door.
The finger of fate seemed to guide her foot-steps. She felt the clasp of the dew-drenched grass about her slippered ankles as she stole past the juniper clump and down the silent avenue where the shadows hemmed the lawn edge.
Suddenly she saw it, and her fingers went to her breast to quiet the mad leapings of her heart. Three paces carried her beneath the silver ash tree where it lay. Fate, in a gust of wind, swept the tree shadows from the half-turned face in the grass, the face of Stefan von Kroon, the man whose very breath had almost blown the light of reason from her eyes.
Francesca had seen sick and hurt men lie on the earth. She knew the aimless sprawl of the besotted drunkard, the loud breathing of wine tipplers fresh from an orgy. But something in the nerveless huddle of the big-shouldered German whipped her doubts into a horrible uncertainty. She stooped in the shadow of the silver ash and touched the wet wrist in the grass.
It did not seem much colder than her own hand, no colder than her heart felt when he had come like a hound upon her, baying the story of her son's shame.
She peered down at the quiet figure, waiting, waiting, until the wind again smoothed the velvet shadow from the half-turned face. Something swished in the grass beside her; she turned with a cry, and found the maid staring at the silent figure on the ground. The maid was the first to speak.
"We had better wake him madam. Or shall I run for Latimer?"
Francesca thrust back the slim-figured girl. "He is dead! You had no right to follow me, We must send for the police."
Jacob met them in the hall like one in quest of alarms. The maid's hysterical bearing set his nerves aleap. Francesca explained in a steady voice the finding of Von Kroon's body near the old conservatory. It was the most annoying thing that could have happened, she affirmed, with a sudden irritability of manner. Yet she could not hide a certain pity for the man who had come to his end with such tragic swiftness.
Jacob approached the telephone somewhat dismayed at the strange event. He turned to his wife, his hand on the receiver.
"Do we know the man?" he asked quickly. "I thought you mentioned his name. Perhaps I was mistaken," he added after a pause.
Francesca's pale cheeks showed signs of crimson.
"The poor fellow came here a few days ago asking for help and employment."
"Did you assist him in any way?"
Jacob remained by the telephone as if unwilling to communicate with the Barhampton police until his wife had explained everything she knew of the unfortunate Von Kroon. Her reply was clear and uttered in a more than usually steady voice.
"He came to me with a rather pitiful story of hardships and privations. I gathered from his disconnected statements that he had suffered a term of imprisonment. So... I gave him a little money to help him along."
Jacob emitted a sigh of relief as he rang up the central exchange. A minute later he was narrating to the inspector of police at Barhampton the circumstances which had led to the discovery of a dead man in the grounds of Fleet House. Would the inspector despatch someone to report on the affair as quickly as possible?
The old shipowner, received the customary stereotyped answer from the inspector. A couple of plain-clothes men would go out at once and investigate. In the meantime he requested Jacob to observe silence until the initial observations were concluded.
Jacob hung up the receiver, and stared a trifle dismally at Francesca and her maid standing in the hall. His glance moved up and along the wide stairs, and down to the billiard room at the hall end.
"Where's Roy?" he demanded with sudden, acerbity. "He came home an hour ago!"
Without answering his question, Francesca walked down the hall to the billiard-room door. The lamps still glowed under their green shades above the smooth baize table. A cue and several balls lay on the cloth. In a far corner of the room, near the patent marking board, sat her son, his head sunk forward as though overcome by sleep or drowsiness.
"Roy!"' Her voice rang through the room and was reiterated with a certain blade-edge incisiveness. He sprang up as though in response to a trumpet call, his figure swaying uncertainly, his eyes dilating at sight of his mother's figure in the doorway.
"Didn't think I'd go off to sleep," he muttered apologetically. "This room is overheated; and—and a fellow can't play billiards by himself."
The sight of his father in the hall steadied him. He straightened his shoulders instinctively, with a soldierly regard for his appearance. Jacob addressed him as though conscious of the maid's presence.
"An unfortunate thing has happened," he began deliberately. "A German by name of Kroon has taken the trouble to die in our grounds. Summers and your mother came across him quite accidentally near the old conservatory."
Roy listened, and his glance wandered, from the girl Summers to his mother. "Kroon," he exclaimed in surprise. "Wasn't that the fellow I met in the library?"
Jacob winced. "In our library!" he cried. "Is that the place we meet mendicants and gaol-birds, Francesca?"
"Hardly a mendicant," she protested. "He appeared to be a well-educated person. Besides, his business was not clear to me until he was in the house."
Jacob appeared to extract some comfort from her explanation. He turned with a sigh into his study. "Let me know when the police arrive." he said to his son.
Pausing in the doorway of the study, he turned to the maid. "If you are questioned by the police, young lady, be good enough to state exactly what you know. Tell the truth, and nothing but the truth."
THE following morning Jacob received a notification from the superintendent at Barhampton stating that the inquest would be held in the conservatory at Fleet House, for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of Stefan Von Kroon's mysterious death.
Jacob acquiesced readily enough, although he secretly gritted at the train of unwelcome circumstances which threatened to cause him endless annoyance. The attack on his house by a mob of Hindu students had scarcely passed before a mysterious German had thought fit to die inside his private grounds. This latter incident he felt sure would give rise to a lot of loose talk and nonsense among the scandal loving people of the district. And as a crowning discomfiture, his son, the one man on earth whose honour he held above wealth or station, had told him a stupid and deliberate lie.
Finding Francesca somewhat pale and depressed at breakfast, he conceived it advisable to take her for a short run into the country before the coroner and jurymen, came upon the scene.
"A breath from the heather will blood your cheeks, my dear," he said tenderly. "After all, this Wandering Willy of a German was of no account. Well known to the police, he was more or less of a blackguard and swindler, I've no doubt. So don't allow the thought of a dead foreigner to spoil your appetite."
Francesca made no reply as she seated herself beside him in the beautiful rose-tinted automobile. She could not banish from her mind the scene in the study with Roy, his terrible grief and her own fierce outburst of rage. The inquest, with its array of fuddle-headed jurors, caused her little or no concern. The one bit of evidence which might have gone to implicate Roy in a difficult police court situation was burned to ashes.
A swift ride through the gorse-covered hills brought a suggestion of colour to Francesca's cheeks. Jacob chatted cheerily, never once betraying the concern he felt over the dismal happenings of the previous night. Roy's name did not escape him during the morning. It puzzled and annoyed him to confess that his son had adopted a stupid subterfuge to escape being branded a coward. Here was a young soldier of proven courage and initiative, a man who had earned the highest award for valour his Sovereign could bestow—here he was, Jacob brooded, clapping bandages on his unhurt head, shamming drunkenness to shelter his reputation! Surely such conduct passed the bounds of self-respect and prudence!
They returned to Fleet House to find the conservatory packed with jurymen. Here the details of the unhappy affair were inquired into with a briskness that surprised even Jacob. A verdict of death by strangulation at the hands of some unknown person was unhesitatingly recorded. The testimony of the maid Summers was listened to with interest, while Francesca's evidence was accepted unquestioningly by the coroner and police.
Long before midday the jurymen had departed for Barhampton, carrying with them the effects of Jacob's hospitality and good wine in their gait and actions. Towards evening the old shipowner expressed a desire to visit one of the theatres in the town, a circumstance unusual in him. Francesca assented readily enough, as one glad of a change from the nerve-breaking events of the last few days.
Roy remained at home, preferring to continue his military studies rather than fritter away an evening at a dull provincial entertainment. The Barhampton theatres were notoriously dull and insipid, he averred.
AFTER Francesca and Jacob had gone he lounged off to the billiard-room, where the services of Merrick were requisitioned to assist him in passing away an evening. The old butler played an all-round game, and maintained a good score against his young master's more brilliant play.
About nine o'clock, while Roy was executing a series of fascinating cannons off the cushion, a smartly-dressed young man in a frock coat and silk hat entered the grounds. After lingering in the vicinity of the conservatory and examining its approaches front and rear, he strolled towards the house by way of the tradesmen's entrance.
Francesca's maid Summers was first to spy him out. During the morning Summers had been unduly agitated by some questions put to her by the foreman of the jury, questions which had disturbed her equanimity of mind.
She had been asked whether her young man had accompanied her from Barhampton into the grounds of Fleet House on the night of Von Kroon's death. Furthermore, the coroner had pressed home the point (in a jocular spirit, for your true country practitioner is usually a noted wag) that a pretty girl had no right to be alone under such circumstances.
Summers was realising the unutterable depths of her loneliness when the silk hat and frock coat bulged upon her vision. Francesca's maid had a feminine regard for a silk hat when its wearer was well under thirty. The owner of the hat tapped very gently at the side door and exhibited a sense of pleasure and restrained delight at Summers's instant appearance. To the palpitating maid his business appeared somewhat indefinite and purposeless, while his conversation seemed at first mere beating of time to gain her favour and confidence. In the midst of an amiable address which touched upon the benefits to be derived from the Servants' Compensation Act, he inquired casually whether Madam Eardsley was at home.
Madam was not at home; she had gone to the theatre for the first time in eight years! But Summers felt confident that if his business were sufficiently urgent an interview might be arranged on madam's return. Would the gentleman step inside? The house was not in its usual order owing to the wretched inquest. Servants got flurried and left many things undone.
He followed her into the main hall and was conducted to a small ante-room, where Summers proposed that he might await Madam Eardsley's return. He gave his name as Reginald Vickers, and in his most fascinating tones expressed the keenest admiration for the exquisite interior decoration of Fleet House. Without permitting Summers to withdraw, he launched forth into a disquisition on the fame and beauty of Jacob's princely residence. He asked her many questions relating to the house and its management. In which part of the east wing were madam's private rooms situated? He was interested because madam was reputed to be the most benevolent lady in Hampshire.
The lateness of the evening did not prevent Summers explaining that her mistress's rooms were the most elegantly appointed in the house. She regretted her inability to show him over the place at that hour. It was a favour which madam would accord him, she felt certain, once his mission was made known to her.
Further reference to the locality of madam's private apartments revealed the exact position. Summers, grew increasingly talkative. Her pent-up agitation found relief in explaining everything of interest in the great house of Eardsley. Her discourse was cut short at last by a violent ringing of the housekeeper's bell.
With a flurried apology she withdrew, after promising to return at an early opportunity. Left alone with a pile of illustrated papers and magazines, Reginald Vickers's attitude of studied bonhomie changed with the vanishing of her shadow from the doorway. Swiftly, silently, he crossed the hall, and his nimble legs carried him without effort up the wide stairs and into Francesca's room on the left. A touch of the electric button inundated the apartment with light. His single glance seemed to cover each article of furniture, drawers, whatnots, escritoires, and the large, inlaid mahogany writing table in the far corner.
He passed them with a stride to peer over the gold-lacquered fire-screen which hid the empty fireplace from view. It was not quite so empty, as he discovered after a careful scrutiny. A small heap of white ashes filled the centre, a fact which verified Summers's statement that the inquest had temporarily disorganised the house staff, and had been responsible for the neglected condition of Francesca's fireplace.
Mr. Reginald Vickers's alert fingers swept together and sifted among the ashes for several seconds without apparent result. Then, kneeling on the big leopard skin rug, he drew cut the ash preventer and groped beneath the grate. Here his fingers closed on a buckled-up piece of fire-charred metal, which he examined with studious interest. A further sifting below the grate brought to light a small, shield-shaped bit of metal that appeared to interest him vastly.
Thrusting it with the larger piece into his pocket, he rose from the rug and approached the door. The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside gave pause to his movements. The footsteps passed, halted, and then returned. A moment later the door opened and Mr. Reginald Vickers found himself bowing to Lieutenant Eardsley.
Roy drew back, his guard arm thrown up instinctively.
"Who are you?" he demanded hoarsely. "What business brings you into these apartments?"
Mr. Vickers bowed again slightly, but made no attempt to pass Roy's alert figure in the doorway.
"It has been my painful duty to enter Fleet House at the behest of Scotland Yard, Lieutenant Eardsley," he began, in a voice devoid of nervous tremors. "I have a search warrant in my possession." He paused and drew out a large folio-sized document from his inner pocket. "Finding madam away from home, I undertook to pursue a certain course which may not commend itself to you."
Roy waved aside the search warrant held up for his inspection; his lips had grown white with anger.
"The open window behind invites me to pitch you out!" he said fiercely. "How dare you enter my mother's apartments like a commons sneak thief?"
Mr. Reginald Vickers, of Scotland Yard, stood his ground. Not for an instant did he allow his glance to shift from the young soldier's supple figure in the doorway. He felt, perhaps, that his zeal had carried him a little too far in entering Francesca's room, yet he was prepared to risk all consequences of failure with the possibilities of some startling discovery near at hand.
"I should hardly have entered without some authority, lieutenant," he stated coldly. The first shock of Roy's unexpected entry passed, his manner changed from the apologetic to a stern note of inquiry.
"The affair at No. 8 Victoria-avenue kept, you out late on Tuesday evening, lieutenant," he began icily.
"You mean—" Roy paused, his first thrill of anger evaporating at the other's question.
"That little flogging episode among those Hindu students," Vickers prompted. "Although the affair has not yet been made public, lieutenant," he went on, "the police are in possession of the whole story."
"Is that why you entered my mother apartments?" Roy demanded. "Why should my affairs cause Scotland Yard to plant spies in her bedroom?"
Roy, in his overwhelming heat, advanced a pace nearer, his left fist balanced for a straight-out blow. The detective watched him apprehensively.
"I beg you to calm yourself, Lieutenant Eardsley. And please don't mistake me for an Afridi tribesman," he added, with a scarcely veiled sneer.
Roy watched him craftily, "I believe you are some kind of a sneak thief after all. I've a good mind to pitch you out of the window."
"Not so fast, lieutenant, not so fast," Vickers protested. "When you've cooled down I'll read my search warrant. A burglar or sneak-thief would have appropriated something more valuable than this!"
Drawing the two pieces of fire-blackened metal from his pocket, the detective indicated the scarce decipherable monogram "S.V.K." on the shield-shaped plate.
"This shield," he explained to the bewildered young soldier, "belonged to a cigarette case which happened to be in the possession of Stefan Von Kroon at the time of his death. It was stolen from his pocket while he lay in the conservatory last night!"
"Stolen!" Roy flinched at the quietly-spoken word.
"Abstracted, if you like," was the emphasised rejoinder. "Cleaver, one of the plain-clothes officers who searched the German, stated after the inquest that a cigarette case had gone missing from the dead man's pocket. The officer was all the more emphatic on this point," Vickers continued in the same unimpassioned tones, "because its absence recalled a peculiar incident which occurred in the conservatory when Cleaver was searching Von Kroon's pockets. Madam Eardsley startled him abruptly by crying out that something was coming from behind him. Even policemen have nerves, lieutenant, and Cleaver, in his trepidation, returned the cigarette case to Kroon's pocket."
Roy still remained in the doorway, his eyes dilating strangely. "So... you assume that we stole it!" he declared in a scarce audible voice. "That I or my mother took it from the German's pocket!"
"I assume nothing," the detective responded. "I have merely followed up certain ideas which occurred to me. No doubt Madam Eardsley will explain how a portion of Von Kroon's card case happens to be lying in the ashes of her fireplace."
Roy's breathing came in sharp expulsions. What lunatic impulse, he asked himself, had caused Summers to allow this sleuth into his mother's room? He was aware that the card case had been taken from the German's pocket to recover the letter he had once written to Kenneth Hamlin. The discovery of the fire blistered nickel mounting in Francesca's fire-place might lead to unpleasant inquiries. He did not bother to ask himself how the German had come into possession of the letter, he only saw the far-reaching consequences of his mother's act, an act committed to save him from the aftermath of his own foolish crime.
Mr. Reginald Vickers maintained his customary alertness of manner in his survey of the situation. He was not disposed to exceed the bounds of prudence in carrying out his plans. He had hoped to alight upon some item of evidence which might connect the house of Eardsley with the mysterious death of Stefan Von Kroon. The potentialities of the unknown factor were never absent from his speculation. A servant might have become possessed of the card case, and, after an examination of its contents, consigned it to the fire. He preferred, therefore, to proceed with exceeding caution.
With Roy at his heels he returned to the ante-room to await the coming of Francesca. Something in the detective's manner prompted the young soldier to sit beside him with the object of preventing any further visits to the upstairs rooms. Neither spoke as the night dragged out its weary length. Once or twice Summers appeared at the door, only to meet her young master's scowling eyes, the shut hand that waved her unceremoniously from the scene. The jade had done enough, he thought, in permitting this smooth-voiced inquisitor to enter the house. For his part, he felt that silence was his only refuge. And if his mother would only assume a non-committal attitude they might laugh at Scotland Yard and all its attempts to work up an incriminating chain of evidence.
Still, he could not understand why anyone should seek to destroy his mother's enemy. That the German had blackmailed her he was certain now. And in his heart he felt secretly glad that the enterprising Teuton had met with an unexpected piece of retribution.
The detective watched him in silence, as though debating inwardly the wisdom of maintaining a conversation. Catching the young soldier's eye unexpectedly, he felt committed to a passing reference to Roy's past exploit.
"You buckled into those Hindu chaps, if I may mention it, lieutenant," he ventured, with a plausible smile.
Roy stared at him thoughtfully before answering. "As you say, I buckled into them," he said at last. "Dog-whips for rioters and revolutionaries," he added with vehemence.
A serene smile hovered about the detective's lips. '"You are aware that Von Kroon was present at that particular meeting, lieutenant? You know he was in the room a few minutes prior to your entry?"
"Yes, I heard his voice—the voice of Germany prompting young India to revolt and shake off the hated chains of slavery."
"You saw him come out?"
"He passed me on the stairs. I was not concerned with him. I had other matters to attend to."
Roy paused to light a cigarette. A sudden consciousness of his ability to withstand any amount of cross-examination entered him. The detective coughed as he watched the smoke ooze from the young soldier's lips.
"Do you know, lieutenant, that the strangulation marks on Von Kroon's throat were caused by the thong of a whip— a dog- whip, probably?"
His question, put without heat or effort, had a singular effect on Jacob's son. He raised his head slowly, the cigarette held out a few inches from his ashen lips.
"Such a thing was not suggested at the inquest. Do you infer—" He stared with fierce questioning eyes at Vickers. "Do you mean to assert that I followed the German with my dog- whip?"
The man from Scotland Yard smiled placatingly. "We need not lose our tempers over it, lieutenant. After all, dog-whips are pretty uncommon things in this town. And to hazard a rough guess, I should say that not three people in this district were carrying them at the precise moment of the murder."
The white rage which had once borne Roy Eardsley through a circle of Afridi steel almost carried him now to the throat of his interrogator. Yet some dormant instinct of self-preservation checked his rising fury. He resumed his seat, spellbound, voiceless for several moments. He stared in dumfounded amazement at this slow-voiced intruder, who sought by deed and suggestion to incriminate him or his mother in the murder of a German ex- convict.
"Like most men of your trade," he spoke with difficulty as one at grips with every nerve and fibre in his body, "your theories are made to fit certain persons, times, and places. Would a piece of rope, say, make a different impression on a man's throat than a dog-whip thong?"
"It is not for me to say, lieutenant." The detective shrugged blandly and rose from his seat.
THE sound of an approaching automobile reached them from the avenue. It came nearer and stopped at the foot of the terrace. Jacob's voice was heard addressing the chauffeur as he ascended the steps, Francesca's hand resting on his arm. Husband and wife entered the hall chatting lightly, the old shipowner leading the way to the drawing-room, where a well laid fire gleamed a welcome through the opal tinted screen.
Francesca hesitated before entering, as though suddenly aware of Roy's voice calling from the ante-room. He came forward gesticulating until she turned to meet him. Something in his glance warned her that a crisis in their lives was at hand.
FRANCESCA put her hand instinctively in Roy's. The shadow of some near danger seemed to leap between them.
"What is it?" she whispered. "Surely nothing...."
He checked her with a gesture of alarm. Jacob had entered the drawing-room and was comfortably ensconced in an easy chair. At. his elbow stood a box of his favourite cheroots. Reaching for one, he truncated it leisurely with his penknife and waited patiently for Francesca to join him.
Subconsciously he was aware of Roy having detained her; some petty incident too trifling for his ears held them in conclave. Their voices receded far down the hall, and then silence came with the sudden closing of the ante-room door.
Roy had drawn his mother inside, where sat the young detective, his chin resting on the handle of his walking cane. He rose, bowing respectfully to Francesca, and in the fall of an eye she divined his profession in the indescribable poise of his shoulders and limbs. He was a peculiar type of investigator, young, and perhaps over-confident, but in each movement and gesture was stamped the eternal sign of his craft.
Roy was not inclined to allow this lawyer-witted intruder to cross-examine his mother.
He interrupted without apology the detective's preliminary statement, and related briefly himself and in his own fashion the cause of Vickers's presence in the house.
Francesca shrank at each word, but maintained outwardly a decent composure until Roy had concluded his explanations. Then, in a steady voice, she begged permission to see the card case fittings. Vickers hesitated, but consented finally to allow her to examine them.
A sense of shame and humiliation swept over her as she scanned the tell-tale monogram. A feeling of abhorrence assailed her for this pale-eyed sleuth, whose unerring instincts had led him to the ashes of yesterday's fire. Roy's voice sounded clear and firm through the maelstrom of conjectures and conflicting ideas that swirled through her brain. The touch of his hand reassured her instantly. Crossing the room, she pressed the housemaid's bell and waited with kindling eyes for the girl to appear.
She came quick-footed upon the summons, and stood breathlessly before the grouped figures in the room centre. Francesca shot her question with the skill of an advocate, knowing that her every movement and intonation was being secretly recorded by the pensive-eyed Vickers in the background.
"A cigarette case was thrown into the fireplace of my private room some time last evening, Rodgers." She held up the fire- blackened case fittings for the maid's inspection. "Do you know anything about these things?"
"My fireplace was not cleaned as usual this morning?"
"No, madam"—this with a guilty droop of the head.
"Do you know of anyone entering my room during my absence. Speak quickly, Rodgers, it is very important!"
The maid shook her head doubtfully. "I'm not saying that someone mightn't have, madam," she vouchsafed. "What with those coroner people running about the place it's hard to say who's been spying round."
Francesca dismissed her with a nod.
"Send Mrs. Compton to me instantly," She commanded.
The housekeeper entered, palpitating visibly, and was subjected to a searching inquiry from her mistress. Mrs. Compton was doubtful whether any person could have entered the room without someone in the house becoming aware of the fact. She dilated at length upon the vigilance displayed by her under-maids in watching the entrances and exits of Fleet House.
Roy checked her sharply. "Fleet House is evidently open to any marauder who thinks fit to explore its most private apartments!" he declared with animation. "This gentleman," he indicated Vickers sternly, "was discovered wandering at large in my mother's room."
The housekeeper retired feeling that a slur had been cast on her integrity. It was that pampered jade Summers who had admitted the gentleman with the silk hat and the long nose. And Summers, being a favourite with her mistress, would be the last person to be blamed.
Francesca turned to the detective with a sudden severity of manner that astonished Roy.
"You are at liberty to continue your inquiries within this house," she said quietly. "At present I cannot determine how those burnt case fittings found their way into my room. I must, for the present, wish you good night!"
Roy escorted the detective to the terrace, chatting with some affability, as though anxious to modify the effects of his previous angry outbursts.
"A trick has been played on us, Mr. Vickers," he vouchsafed, as they halted at the avenue entrance. "You will understand how distasteful such an incident must be to me and my mother."
"Quite." Detective Vickers halted in the shadow of an elm to press his leather gloves tightly between his fingers. "A perfectly intolerable business to people of your standing," he added slowly. Then, with a slight inclination of the head, he wished the young soldier good-night.
Roy watched him saunter down the avenue and out through the lamp-lit gates before returning to the house. He found his mother staring bleakly in the direction of the drawing-room, where Jacob sat smoking contentedly.
He touched her arm gently, as though to recall her to a sense of her Immediate duty.
"The wolf has departed for a time. You had better go in to the pater. He'll be getting anxious."
Francesca rose with a subdued cry of pain. All the life had gone from her face.
"How can I face him!" she whispered, "when he almost reads my thoughts. How shall I meet him after this—lie!"
The unmistakable purring of a motor-car reached them faintly. It came with a throb and rush into the avenue and drew up outside the house. A minute later the hall servant announced Lady Mary Trenwyth.
Francesca gasped in surprise. "At this hour!" she cried.
"Like a ministering angel, whatever her purpose," Roy supplemented. "It will turn the pater's attention from your absence. Come along."
They met Lady Mary in the reception-room, and without questioning the cause of her visit Francesca bore her in upon the unsuspecting Jacob. Roy brought up the rear, curious and expectant of further trouble.
A glow of pleasure suffused the old ship-owner's cheeks at Lady Mary's unexpected entry. Where was the Countess of Colwyn? And what delightful circumstance had occasioned her visit at such an hour?
LADY MARY sat very demurely in one of the least conspicuous places of the vast drawing-room. Francesca regarded her in deep-breathed silence. The daughter of Penelope appeared to be suffering from the effects of some recent excitement. Her beautiful face bore symptoms of unusual care and anxiety. In the excitement of the last few days Jacob had overlooked the swift change of fortune which had descended upon the house of Trenwyth. It came to him now, as he encountered Lady Mary's half-frightened glance, that Penelope's creditors were probably besieging Colwyn Hall, those grim, soulless tradesmen and bill discounters who would go to any lengths in their demands for an immediate settlement.
Jacob moved in his chair uneasily. His own domestic troubles were heavy enough, but his heart went out to this gentle-eyed lady who was threatened probably with the instant ruin of her house.
Lady Mary appeared to address herself to Jacob, She had come to ask a favour, to beg if possible of him to save her mother's name and honour. He was hardly aware that she had begun to speak, so low were her tones, so devoid of theatrical gestures her manner.
"It may seem unpardonable of me to seek you at this hour, Mr. Eardsley, without my mother's permission or knowledge. There is so little time left to seek help from distant friends, even if they were disposed to help us. Only a few hours ago our house was overrun by a crowd of bailiffs and lawyers crying for money, threatening, quarrelling with each other; as though Colwyn Hall were a market-place. Perhaps I am too bold in coming to you—a stranger," she faltered.
"A stranger!" Jacob broke in good-naturedly. "That's a harsh word, Lady Mary. I've known your mother nigh on forty years!"'
"Known her, Mr. Eardsley!" Lady Mary plucked at her gloves irresolutely, while a deep flush stained her cheek. "I am ashamed when I recall the way people have been treated who desired merely to be our friends."
"The countess has a right to choose her friends," Jacob condoned her admission, even though he experienced the sting of its truth. How often had Penelope shut her door in his face and in the face of his socially ostracised wife!
A great glow suffused him now at the though of victory. Money was power. It was stronger than the breath of life; it severed kinship; it bled armies, and built up civilisations. It was a weapon more flexible than steel. It had brought this young aristocrat to his feet begging for her mother's very life.
Jacob's sudden intake of breath changed to a huge sigh of pleasure; he turned slowly, in his chair and looked for his son.
"Where is Roy?" he questioned Francesca. "Does he know that Lady Mary is here?"
The daughter of Penelope remained rigid in her seat. All the live colour which had sprung to her cheeks died to an ashen grey. Somewhere in the shadow of the portiere the young soldier lurked. She knew in the pause of a heart-beat that he was watching her quietly from his coign of vantage, that his restless dark eyes were devouring her slightest movements.
His shadow sulked forward at sound of Jacob's voice. Very erect now, he swung into view. A soldierly, handsome fellow, his father mused, a man whose presence would yet inflame the minds of England's society dames.
"I knew Lady Mary was here," he ventured in response to his father's question. "Thought I'd better not interrupt, for awhile at least," he added, with a smile in Mary Trenwyth's direction.
"We've finished our discourse," Jacob laughed. "Your services will be required to-morrow to deal with the little gang of money- grubbers who have laid siege to Colwyn Hall."
The young soldier flushed instantly. "It will be a pleasure to meet them singly or in a body," he answered grimly.
"Oh, we're not asking the hero of the Ghazai to thrash insolent tradespeople," Jacob declaimed. "Fight them with my cheque-book; it has smashed big and little men before to- day!"
The old shipowner permitted his glance to meet Lady Mary's. Something like a tear flashed in her eye. He saw that Francesca was about to speak, but, as usual, she hesitated, and allowed him to continue.
"I should be glad if you would allow my son to accompany you home, Lady Mary," he said suavely.
Francesca took her young visitor's hand impulsively. "My husband is always thinking of footpads and highwaymen. He overlooks the fact that a fast-travelling car is one's greatest safeguard."
"You are both very kind." Lady Mary spoke in scarce audible tones. "I can only tender my poor thanks for your promise to help my mother from her obligations."
Roy followed her to the door, beating his brain for the elusive words which evaded him so mercilessly. Outside on the white-fronted terrace the night seemed to breathe the unutterable perfumes of rare trees and flowers. The scent of burning larch assailed him. The near woods became suddenly vocal with the voices of wind and leaf. In Mary Trenwyth's eyes he saw a limpid glow, a shining eagerness to breathe and inhale the pure spirit of the night. Only for an instant did they pause on the windy terrace, and in that pause his glance went over to Kenneth Hamlin, seated sphinx-like at the steering wheel of the automobile.
Not by the lifting of an eye did the young chauffeur betray his knowledge of Roy's proximity. His gloved hand rested idly on the wheel, while his half-closed eyes seemed devoid of all interest in his young mistress's movements.
"These English nights are sweeter than your tropic dawns!" Lady Mary, stood with her face to the dark pine woods, where the midnight stars seemed to lean from a sky of velvet. The words, uttered in a half whisper, reached Roy faintly.
"The dawn is better than the night," he answered. "Night is always the same, always brooding or silent, or merely beautiful. But the dawn carries the banner of a new life, of the day to be!"
"You have seen these wonderful dawns, lieutenant?"
"Yes; on the face of the sea." His voice had grown soft as velvet, his brooding gypsy eyes suffused with a live nimbus of colour. "On the face of the sea," he repeated slowly, "and in the quiet hills beyond the Khyber, where so many of England's dead lie!"
HIS speech was not a love poem, she told herself afterwards, but it spoke of some ineffable purpose crying in his heart. It was the cry of one who had left his manhood behind in the far Himalayas, where it whitened and bleached on the blood- drenched stones of the Ghazai Pass.
For a fraction of time a sense of unutterable pity for this son of Jacob came upon her. She knew not why, could not guess even vaguely the cause of her momentary flash of inward pain. He was so young, and to her his very gestures conveyed something of the despair of one who had suffered an early crucifixion.
The fragrance of trees and earth wafted from the near woods beat upon her oppressed senses. Very slowly she descended the terrace steps, where the squat shadow of the car loomed titanesque in the strange angle of light cast by the pedestal lamps.
"It seems so useless for you to come so far." She turned on the terrace steps, a strange sadness in her voice. "You know it is past midnight?"
"I should not mind the hour," he vouchsafed, "if you were in need of my escort. You are very well guarded, Lady Mary."
For the first time he acknowledged Kenneth's presence, but the young chauffeur remained unmoved by his words. His gloved hand hung idly on the wheel, his brooding eyes half closed.
Lady Mary gained the car and put out her hand to the young soldier. He took it simply, and touched it with his lips.
Only then did Kenneth betray signs of animation as he threw in the clutch, bringing the ear round with a peculiar sobbing noise.
Roy remained on the terrace steps, disturbed and slightly disappointed, at her going without him. A footstep in the hall turned him sharply. Jacob emerged, cigar in mouth, the suggestion of a frown on his square brow.
"She was worth going with," he declared brusquely. "Why did you stand on a bit on ceremony?"
"She suggested how late it was and trouble it would give me."
"Trouble and fiddlesticks, my lad. In my day I'd have gone through white fire to get her. It was a pretty speech you made about the dawn, though," he added, with malice.
"You'll find that action, and not poetry, wins, my lad. Who's driving her car to-night?"
Roy flinched at the question. "Kenneth Hamlin. A pretty safe driver, if I'm a judge."
"Safe as a hangman." Jacob snapped in spite of himself. "I can't understand Penelope's sympathy for the young blackguard. The sight of him sitting beside your future wife is getting on my nerves!"
Jacob returned to the drawing-room some what out of temper, leaving Roy staring bleakly where the lights of Lady Mary's car flashed along the old Barhampton-road.
PENELOPE addressed the attendant with scarcely a tremor in her voice, "Lady Mary will entertain Lieutenant Eardsley until I am disengaged."
The door closed softly behind the liveried man-servant, leaving Kenneth trembling in surprise and doubt. He knew that Roy had been hourly expected, knew that the son of Jacob had come to breathe the story of his love and devotion to sweet-voiced Mary Trenwyth. Even as the attendant passed from the study his hand went out involuntarily to stay him. But the door closed firmly before his arresting gesture had been noticed. How could he prevent another tragedy? How was it possible to stay the son of Jacob from committing another irreparable crime?
In that moment a thought came upon him that Roy had been guilty of murder. It might have been that his own unspoken love for Mary Trenwyth had sent the blood-rush of thought to his brain. For a period of heart-beats it held him in a grip of fear. Had Roy in his desperation really killed the German to get possession of the miserable letter?
The voice of Penelope sundered the thread of his swift reasonings.
"Lieutenant Eardsley has called to do me a great service, Hamlin. I speak to you now as a friend, not as a servant. I cannot forget that you once rendered my daughter the service of her life." She paused, as though her emotions threatened to overcome her. The sharp lines of her mouth relaxed as she continued:
"Lieutenant Eardsley has come to raise the siege which my creditors are conducting. His friendship and the friendship of his father are invaluable to me and my daughter. Yet I am not without honour, Kenneth. I cannot sell even my friendship to people who are morally unworthy. Will you tell me, therefore," she added pleadingly, "whether the death of this wretched German was due to—" She threw up her hands as one afraid to utter the word.
Kenneth bowed his head to the storm. Her vehemence affected him like a whirlwind. "Will you speak?" she flashed. "Will you give me a name?"
"The lieutenant's name, Lady Colwyn, I fear he will hardly escape suspicion once the real work of tracking down Kroon's murderer begins. You are aware," he continued hoarsely, "of the friendship which exists between Roy and myself. I cannot associate him with the Fleet House crime—not for a thousand letters."
"There was a letter?"
"I fear so."
"It must have been an ominous document, Hamlin, to impel him to such an end. Did it—" she touched his bent shoulder lightly, "did it relate to your imprisonment, or implicate the lieutenant personally?"
Kenneth made no reply. It was then she saw the savage despair in his eyes, despair which hinted only too plainly at the thought which had leaped to her mind. Her finger's closed with a deadly grip about his arm. He fell back half pace before the flaming wrath in her eyes.
"So... you have sheltered that man through all these years, Kenneth Hamlin, sacrificed your name and life to save that imposter."
Kenneth's head was bent. His loud sobs reached her as she turned her face to the window. All the pain endured in the past was as nothing to this silent admission of his friend's infamy.
LADY COLWYN stared with a great unbelief in her eyes. To her it was monstrous, incredible. Her grip on his arm relaxed; his loud grief recalled the sobbing, of a hurt child, pitiful, merciless, overwhelming. And the man who had betrayed this simple hearted boy was at that moment seated in her drawing-room proposing marriage to her daughter. "Oh, the infamy..."
She stood rigid as stone, her hand resting on the study door. Why had she not guessed it before? Even Fanning's belated babblings contained the whole pith and substance of the crime. What could she say to Roy Eardsley now, the man who had come with his father's gold to release her from the hated gang of creditors and place her in a position of comparative independence?
Could she permit so cowardly an imposter to remain even for an instant in her daughter's society? There must be no half measures in such a situation. In her passionate desire to be rid of him she craved for a man's strength to cast him from her threshold. Kenneth's sobbing nerved her for the ordeal. With a half glance at his bent figure near the window, the clenched hands and drawn face, she divined the tragedy of his miserable young life.
His mother and sister ostracised, degraded in the eyes of the world, himself hounded from place to place by an iniquitous police system— all to shelter this upstart son of Jacob the fisherman.
A dozen quick steps carried her into the hall and past the lounging servants near the stair foot. Strains of laughter reached her from the white and gold interior of the vast reception-room. It was Roy's laughter, forced as usual, not the heart-bubbling mirth that one might have expected from a conscience at peace with the world.
The young soldier was seated opposite Lady Mary, an album resting on his knee, the light from the large oval window full on his face.
It was an inexpressibly boyish face, chin slightly deflecting—not a fighting chin, she thought—and eyes which should rightly have belonged to a woman, so tender and full of sympathy were they.
It appeared incredible that such a man could play the role of a blackguard for three whole years. Kenneth had told her no more than she had half guessed long ago. And now was the time to assert her womanhood to show this parvenu's son her loathing of his kind. Into the room she swept, cheeks aflame, eyes seeking her prey.
"Lieutenant Eardsley!" She halted half way down the apartment with the air of a duellist standing erect at twelve paces from the man she was about to kill. "Will you be good enough to leave my house!"
He had risen somewhat leisurely to greet her. The shock of her words turned him ashen. "I-I beg your pardon. Lady Colwyn!" he stammered. "I do not quite understand—"
"You will later, lieutenant, without gratuitous explanations from me."
Her manner was free from malice or vindictiveness now. A shadow of pity clung to her, pity for the despairing Francesca and for the boy whose life had been rendered a hell on earth by his foolish conduct. Lady Mary seemed to crouch back in her chair from the dry-lipped young soldier standing beside her.
"Mother," she whispered, and covered her face.
The colour returned to Roy's cheeks. He regarded Penelope with a sudden show of good humour.
"Is it not unfair to judge me without a hearing, Lady Colwyn? What sin have I committed?" His voice was inexpressibly pleading. "Kindly explain... must I leave your house without uttering a word in my own defence?"
Penelope guessed that he had come to render her financial assistance, to banish with his father's cheque-book the host of creditors who would again overrun her house at the hour of midday. She strove to adjust her emotion to a more business-like plane. Yet, dear as her home was to her, how could she barter with her conscience while the knowledge of Kenneth's iniquitous imprisonment was alive within her?
Lady Mary took her hand very gently.
"Allow Lieutenant Eardsley a word in his own defence. It is only just."
Roy's shoulders straightened involuntarily at her words. "I don't know where I am to begin," he ventured, with increasing assurance. "Will you enlighten me, Lady Colwyn?"
She approached a few paces until the cold scorn in her eyes leaped at him.
"I have just left Kenneth Hamlin in my study, lieutenant. He was your comrade before he went to prison in your place. You may remember?"
"Please go on, Lady Colwyn."
She paused, as if his unexpected assurance had drawn the first sting of her attack.
"Is there need for me to go on?" The words seemed to be wrung from her. "Must I expose you before my daughter? Is it necessary to detail the unhappy incidents which led to Kenneth Hamlin suffering a term of penal servitude on your behalf?"
He nodded gravely. "It will be necessary, Lady Colwyn," he responded, his courage hardening at the prospect of Kenneth's confession. With the knowledge that the only scrap of evidence against him had been destroyed by his mother he felt that any admission of his guilt would be suicidal, madness.
"I know nothing of the miscarriage of justice referred to," he went on guardedly. "That poor Hamlin endured a brief term of penal servitude for forging my father's name I am well aware. I must beg your ladyship to remember also that at the time of Hamlin's imprisonment I was in India."
Roy in the millionth fraction of time had made up his mind to act with decision. There were to be no more vacillations. Friend and foe must be thrust ruthlessly aside. Kenneth had suffered for his sin. Was there any need for further sacrifices? he asked himself.
He turned to Penelope, his face aglow with indignation and hurt vanity.
"I am willing to meet Kenneth here," he flashed out. "I, therefore, beg of you, Lady Colwyn, to afford me an opportunity of refuting anything that reflects upon my honour. You know why I came here to-day," he continued, with the skill of a trained advocate, "to place the resources of my father's house at your disposal, to assist you with my sympathy, my strength, and purse. Do not, I beg, allow this irrelevant bit of scandal to interfere with my father's good wishes. Call in your Kenneth. You shall judge between us!"
ROY'S manner, although smacking of the melodramatic, carried with it a ring of genuine passion. The young soldier had played his last card. To allow the countess to drive him from her house at such a time would be the final act in his career. His father would rend him. It would also place his mother in a position of instant peril, since any statement that Kenneth might feel disposed to make, concerning the letter in Von Kroon's possession at the time of his death, would tell against her. He must win over the countess, even though he swore his own soul and Kenneth's away. Besides, the countess was in a position to compel her chauffeurs silence.
His challenge had a peculiarly soothing effect on Penelope's overwrought nerves. Either way she was confronted by disaster; but with Roy's innocence assured, the cruel edge of misfortune might be turned aside. Penelope, beyond her valiant outbursts of outraged dignity, was hardly the woman to forfeit her lands and house without a final struggle. With the passing of her anger she prayed inwardly that this clear-eyed young soldier might prove the utter falseness of Kenneth's assertions. She must not lose her house and lands, not while Jacob's long purse was in the market. And... it was only fair that Roy should have a chance of refuting Kenneth's story. Detective Vickers could clear up the rest.
There was an apology in her tones as she beckoned the young soldier to accompany her to the study where Kenneth sat. "I must ask you to pardon my hasty manner, lieutenant. I shall be delighted to see you prove even Hamlin in the wrong."
Lady Mary, sitting silent in the shadow of the portiere, suppressed a cry as they passed out of the room. All her hopes, her future, depended upon the coming ordeal. She was conscious that Kenneth had been forced by the iron hand of circumstances to utter a terrible charge against the son of Jacob. She had long ago suspected something of the truth, and her heart grew faint as she caught the sound of the study door being opened.
Roy walked beside Penelope as one treading a path that might lead to a grave. All the valour had gone from his eyes now that he was to confront the man who had saved him from ruin and degradation. He had hoped that Penelope would have kept them apart, rather than cause a scene in her house. His breath grew sharp as they halted at the study door, while his knees seemed to soften at the joints when he recalled the words, his mother had flung at him.
"Oh, you coward.... Remember the boy whose life you stole. The boy whose faith you spoiled, whose sister's heart you broke. You, Roy Eardsley, V.C. by the grace of your King and regiment. Oh, you pitiful coward."
The countess turned the handle of the study door, beckoning the young soldier to follow.
A flood of morning light illumined the apartment. The French windows leading to the west lawn were open and Kenneth Hamlin had gone.
THE thunderbolt fell upon Jacob while he was dictating some correspondence to his confidential secretary at his Barhampton office. His son had been detained by Detective Vickers on suspicion of being concerned with the death of Stefan Von Kroon. At first the old shipowner was inclined to treat the episode as a bit of official muddling quite in keeping with the traditions of Scotland Yard, and the Barhampton police in particular.
What was there to link his son with the affairs of a foreign vagabond who had but recently been discharged from prison? Within an hour of receipt of the intelligence Jacob's electric brougham was at the door of the lock-up, where he soon found his way into the private office of the police superintendent, a wiry-haired, ex-army man, with a tenacious mouth and jaw. To this stern guardian of the public peace Jacob delivered himself with characteristic gusto.
"My son has only recently returned from India," he broke out. "What in the name of sanity would he be doing in the company of a German tramp, sir? I presume," Jacob's eyes dilated with pride and assurance, "I presume that my name is not unknown in Hampshire."
The superintendent was aware of his visitor's commercial standing. The name of Eardsley was one of Barhampton's proudest boasts. It was a name which stood for honesty and enterprise, wealth and fair dealing.
"And yet," Jacob interrupted the superintendent's eulogy with a fresh burst of irritation, "you permit some whipster of a detective to haul my son here with a view to examining him on a murder charge, sir! The whole thing is pure skiting nonsense!"
The superintendent bent his head to the blast of Jacob's wrath. "The lieutenant was not detained here, Mr. Eardsley, without good cause," he declared with cold deliberation. "It was a great shock to me when I learned from Detective Vickers that Von Kroon was obtaining money from your wife, a fact which you are perhaps not aware of."
Jacob clung to his seat as though it were a sinking ship. "My wife tried to help the fellow," he retorted after awhile. "She has a soft heart, and he had a rascally begging tongue. I fancy. Some small cash may have been given him!"
"Would you call a hundred pounds small cash, Mr. Eardsley? The cheque is, of course, in possession of the bank!"
"A hundred pounds!" Jacob writhed in his bewilderment. What had moved Francesca to advance so large a sum to a mere German tramp? It was more than he paid to a clerk for a whole year's salary. The superintendent broke in upon his reflections with some austerity of manner.
"It is a very serious business. Mr. Eardsley. And, between ourselves, I regard the finding of a portion of Von Kroon's card case in your wife's bedroom as an extraordinary incident."
The superintendent herewith repeated the story of the card case, how it had been returned to the German's pocket by one of the plain-clothes police on account of Francesca's sudden outburst of fear in the conservatory.
"The case was missing at the inquest," the superintendent went on. "Our men were puzzled a good deal over the matter until Vickers, a Scotland Yard man, came down and started to put some brains into the inquiry. He lost no time in gaining access to Madam Eardsley's room and in unearthing some fire-blackened nickel fittings belonging to the missing card case."
The superintendent leaned back in his chair and viewed the old shipowner with judicial restraint of manner.
"I pass over the fact," he went on, "that the lieutenant entered the room occupied by those Hindu students the other night, and, after flogging them pretty thoroughly, returned home. We have noticed, Mr. Eardsley, that the time of Von Kroon's death synchronises almost with the hour of the lieutenant's return home from the Hindus' room. We conjecture, with good reason, that your son was in a highly-excited state at the time, and we assume, with good reason also, that he met the German near the conservatory. Another nasty coincidence," the superintendent declared with emphasis, "is the fact that Kroon bore the marks of a whip thong on his throat. It's a ticklish business, Mr. Eardsley, and, between ourselves, I hope the lieutenant will clear himself."
Silence fell between them, a silence in which the old shipowner felt his little world reel and totter about his ears.
"Of course," the superintendent continued, "we overlooked the lieutenant's assault on those Hindus for many reasons. No man likes a gang of black people to enter his grounds and smash his windows. That was allowed to pass. But when the effect of one little outrage bears upon a greater one. Mr. Eardsley, we feel it our duty to act promptly."
Jacob nodded dully; he was like one caught in a racing flood and borne into a seething maelstrom. Everything had happened so swiftly, mercilessly. Somehow, he knew not how, a great and silent tragedy had been enacted unknown to him. Francesca's cheque to Kroon for a hundred pounds looked nasty. What had she to do with the fellow? ...And there was Roy's flogging exploit, he brooded; a monstrous thing, a piece of military swank, an unfortunate episode viewed from any standpoint. It gave these Scotland Yard bounders unlimited powers. The thought of his son's complicity in the German's death was not to be entertained. It was unthinkable, preposterous.
He looked up under his heavy white brows and met the superintendent's questioning glance "What— what of this young fellow Hamlin?" he asked, with an unusual tremor in his voice, "You have proof of his—"
"Not a scrap," the superintendent interrupted promptly. "Hamlin has been in gaol, that's all. He knew Kroon, and in one way or other appears to be sharing some mysterious secret with your son."
Jacob almost staggered to his feet, the roar of his falling world thundering in his ears.
The superintendent bowed him to the door, and into the street, with some courtesy and sympathy of manner. It was not often he condescended to enlighten the friends of a suspected person concerning the inner details of the charge. But Jacob Eardsley was a potentiality in Barhampton, an associate of many eminent legal luminaries, a citizen to be placated and perhaps cajoled.
Jacob trod the pavement heavily. Strange noises boomed in his ears. In that moment he hated this son who had weaved a network of lies about him. Francesca, too, had played, him false. And the soldier son who could do no wrong was a posturing braggart whose name would go down in military annals as the man who waylaid and garotted a German ex-convict.
With his hand on the door of his brougham he heard in fancy the noise of his son's ruin thundering through England. There would be the bitter shrieks of the anti-military press, calling for justice. He saw, too, his own world-wide reputation dragged into the slough where the names of murderers and larcenists are enrolled. And all this on top of his charitable gift to the Duchess of Colwyn!
Money had been flung away to gratify the ambition of this military hoodlum! Jacob slammed his fist against the car, snarled a word into the ear of the astounded chauffeur, and flung himself into his seat.
What would Lady Mary and her mother think of Roy now? How would these two descendants of a noble house reconcile themselves to a man who had been charged with the crime of murder?
Money had brought his soldier son within marrying distance of the Trenwyths, but would it save Roy from public shame and the hangman's rope?
Not for an instant did the old shipowner question the fact of his son's innocence or guilt. He was shaken to his soul depths by the knowledge of Francesca's mysterious silences—this grey- haired Italian wife whom he loved and cherished with the strength of his big nature. His thoughts pendulated between the cause of her deception and his son's infamous gasconading. His great fists lay clenched on his knees as the car sped home ward.
"Within an ace of marrying Lady Mary!" he muttered. "Within an ace... and now comes a dead German to unloose the sewer gates of scandal upon my house!"
IT was late in the afternoon before Roy and Kenneth were admitted to bail, for Detective Vickers acting upon instructions from Scotland Yard, had preferred a charge against Roy of being concerned with the death of Stefan Von Kroon.
Jacob did not interview his son on his return home, but retired to his study to brood over the Promethean calamities which had overtaken his house.
The evening papers were redolent of the affair. Roy's career in India was criticised in the light of present events. While refraining from comment of any kind in connection with the charge brought against the young soldier, the newspapers were not slow to seize and enlarge upon the mystery which still shrouded the ex-convict's death.
Jacob's sullen broodings were disturbed by the entry of a servant into the study. The Countess of Colwyn had called and desired to see him. Would he grant her ladyship a few moments' conversation?
Jacob grunted assent, bit his lip, and repressed a desire to curse the events which had plunged his house into the shadow of criminal mystery. Why, he asked himself, had the sharp-tongued Penelope intruded upon him at such a time? Was there no seclusion in which he might cover his head, no retreat wherein a man might hide his everlasting shame?
Penelope entered, soft-footed and out of breath. She was dressed in a claret-coloured gown that seemed to lend a little of its own colour to her pallid cheeks. He made no obeisance as she swept in; his weary, shame-stricken eyes seemed to flinch from the meeting.
"And so the old sea lion is licking his wounds," she began in her half-bantering way. Then, without waiting for his surly indication for her to be seated, she chose her chair opposite his bowed head.
"I take it that these Scotland Yard humbugs are seeking to shake the roof of your little world." She leaned from her chair and patted the clenched fist resting on his knee.
"Let the old sea king hold up his head when the hour comes. He has enemies. I apprehend?"
"Why did you come, countess?" He stared at her under his white brows, while the shut fist relaxed on his knee. "You saw Roy this morning?"
There was a challenge in his voice, the challenge of one who dares a woman to her worst.
She smiled, and with deft fingers swept the folds of her claret-hued gown.
"Yes, man of the sea, the lieutenant boy called very early this morning and proceeded to make himself agreeable."
The old shipowner sighed, and she noted that the fist closed again on his knee.
"What do you think of the whole business, countess, the business of the morning and the afternoon?"
She shook her head slowly, ruefully, and then broke into a laugh.
"It won't do, man of the sea. Marriage proposals after breakfast, charges of murder in the afternoon. Too much variety for an old pacer like myself!"
She wiped her pince-nez carefully with the corner of her kerchief, while he glared at her in open-eyed amazement.
"I guessed you'd repudiate the alliance." He spoke from the depths of his murdered vanity, and his eyes grew brittle and steely at the points. "My son gave you a cheque, countess. I trust that—"
He did not finish his words. She drew it from her purse and placed it before him on the study table. He stared with tight- clenched mouth and unbelieving eyes.
"Fifty thousand pounds!" he cried. "Is that the amount my son filled in? Is that—" he looked at her almost menacingly. "Is that the sum you demanded?"
She laughed blithely. "Some reputations go cheap, man of the sea. I'm studying mine to-day."
"Isn't fifty thousand English pounds enough for one morning?" he bit out.
"Twice that sum would not bend this will of mine after to-day, Jacob Eardsley. And pray inform the lieutenant that my daughter is free to choose where she will. But this I predict"— she stood up suddenly and looked down at his bent, white figure—"Lady Mary will never assume the name of Eardsley, Where is Francesca?"
He shook his head and raised his shut hand with a despairing gesture, a gesture which implied absolute indifference to his wife's whereabouts.
Penelope observed him with compassionate eyes. A thought came to her that set her heart beating faster. Did this stern-browed builder of fleets know the depths of his soldier son's folly and shame? Had the truth been laid before him?
He looked up, his lips twitching curiously as he scanned the cheque on the study table.
"What of you, countess?" he asked hoarsely. "Your creditors, I mean?"
She snapped her fingers, but he saw the sudden flash of tears in her eyes.
"My time is up. The wolves are in the house already," she admitted frankly. "Everything has to go. I shall be lucky to come out of the fight with a five-pound note."
THE study door opened unexpectedly. Francesca entered, and her terrified glance wandered from her husband's bent figure in the chair, to Penelope standing in the centre of the study.
"You have come to speak of my son, Lady Colwyn," she began, in a voice half-stifled with fear and emotion. "I beg you to postpone anything you have to say until after the trial."
Penelope's glance did not move from the huddled figure of the old shipowner. Something of the man's intolerable position appealed to her. For beyond his lowly beginnings and his early struggles to conquer immovable forces she divined the sudden tragedy which had shot bolt-like into his declining years. She was also sorry for the bright-eyed Kenneth Hamlin, whose young life had been sacrificed to shelter the soldier hero.
She looked at Francesca, while Jacob stared at both as if expecting another flash from the black canopy of lies which enveloped him.
"I came here," Penelope said quietly, "to ask your help in a cause which concerns four people's lives, your son included."
"Who are the others?" The words left Jacob in a hoarse whisper.
"Kenneth Hamlin, his sister, and mother." Penelope admitted. "He left my service today because your son—"
Jacob interrupted with a rough gesture. "If you employ vagabonds and ex-convicts, Lady Colwyn, the fault is your own; I washed my hands of the Hamlins long ago."
"If you washed them in the waters of Niagara, man of the sea, you would never remove the stains!" Penelope flashed back.
"Of what?" He stared at her heavily, his shut hand resting against his great brow. "What stains, Lady Colwyn?"
"Of your son's unthinkable folly! Has it ever occurred to you, Jacob Eardsley," Penelope went on fearlessly, "that Kenneth Hamlin never put pen to a cheque of yours? The one that sent him into penal servitude was your son's forging... to pay his debts before he sailed for India, three years ago. Hamlin was a quixotic young fool, your son merely a selfish young prig. That's the tragedy Penelope Trenwyth is here to unfold. Do what you will now, but the silk and gold from your hundred ships will never build up the ruined house of Hamlin as you tried to build up mine!"
Jacob sat like a huge stone figure in his chair, a thing without life or motion. It was as if her words had blasted the light from his eyes. Then slowly his head came up, as a sinking ship lifts its bow to the sky before the final plunge... He glowed at his wife.
"Is this a lie, France? Can you order this woman from the house?"
Francesca leaned against the door, her lips shaping the words that would not come. A deathly pallor was on her cheeks.
Jacob rose in lionesque wonder, his hand closing fiercely on her wrist.
"Is that story true? Have we slept these three years on our son's infamy... this bottled-up lie? Speak out, or..."
He caught the stammering words on her lips, words that struck like fiery weapons into his vitals. His grip on her wrist relaxed. Very slowly he turned, his shoulders bent, his legs trembling, and fell into the chair. A moment or two later he raised his face, and nodded dully at the claret-coloured gown standing somewhere near his wife.
"I beg your pardon, Lady Colwyn, for the words used... thoughtlessly. You struck me unawares. I meant no injustice. That such a one should have been perpetrated defies comprehension!"
He sat back, white-lipped and silent, his fingers pressed over his wrinkled brow. In that moment Jacob Eardsley was permitted to stare into the grave of his ambitions and his one dead love. Deceived by his wife and son, he had caused an irremediable injustice to fall upon the innocent head of a widowed woman and family.
IT was too late to recall the past. He must come to grips with the present, which held ignominy and shame for others. Everything he had accomplished had gone for naught. By a stroke of the pen Roy had obliterated all his gigantic enterprises, his monumental under-takings in the past. He had covered the ocean with his fleets, had fought opposing trusts with the courage of a Samson. And it had been left to his well-beloved son to drag his good name into the criminal records of his country.
No more would his soul rejoice in the thought of his great ships tramping the five oceans with their cargoes of grain and food to feed the hungry nations of the earth. His pride and his triumphs were submerged in the bilges of his son's creating.
In the midst of his bitter cogitations he was dimly aware of Penelope's hand resting on his shoulder. She addressed him softly, kindly, as a woman of the world speaks to a fallen princeling.
"This charge of murder has to be met. I do not believe that your son was inveigled into so stupid a crime. The Hamlin cheque business may remain in the grave. Kenneth desires it so... The boy is made of gold. Only to me did he speak, and then under compulsion. You must remember, too, that I was his one friend. And if you are inclined to think harshly of young Hamlin, let your mind run back to the three years of silence endured in the stone Gehenna of a British penitentiary!"
She receded to the study door with a final glance in Francesca's direction.
"Good-bye!" she said softly. "Do not fancy that I have meddled in your private affairs. The boy was something to me... And I have my to-morrow to face, the hard road which all transgressors must tread."
She went out into the night to meet her daughter, and to begin in her fiftieth year a new life on the ruins of the old. Her creditors had taken everything, and the cheque which might have put her despoilers to flight lay unnoticed on the study table before the man whose heart was already in the grave.
THE magisterial inquiry into the charge brought against Lieutenant Beardsley came to an end about a week after the countess's visit to Fleet House. The young soldier and Kenneth were represented, during the lengthy examination, by Sir Evelyn Monckton, one of the most brilliant advocates in England. In the interest of his son's safety Jacob had deemed it politic to arrange for Kenneth's defence as well.
Beyond the fact that some badly-burnt case fittings bearing the monogram of Von Kroon had been found in one of the apartments of Fleet House, nothing further of a remarkable nature could be brought against Roy. The reason of Kenneth's arraignment became evident as the inquiry proceeded. Bull-dozed, heckled to distraction by an over-bearing counsel, he was trapped into a statement which compelled Roy, when cross-examined, to admit the whole story of the forged cheque.
Public interest in the case increased to fever point as the inquiry proceeded. That the soldier hero of the hour should stand revealed as a selfish hypocrite came as a shock to thousands. His attitude of cowardly silence during his comrade's term of imprisonment was dwelt upon by the haranguing attorney, while the crowded court was barely restrained from venting its feeling in loud groans and hisses.
Roy's bearing during the pitiless ordeal suggested nothing of fear or self-pity. At times his glance sought the white-haired Jacob seated beside Sir Evelyn Monckton. Occasionally he was arrested in his fugitive survey of the crowded court-house by the presence of a young girl crouching in the shadow of an intervening pillar. He knew the strangely beautiful face belonged to Phyllis Hamlin, long since recovered from her illness and now awaiting with patient courage her brother's dismissal. Where was Lady Mary? Often during those long, nerve-breaking afternoons his undaunted eyes sought her in vain among the packed audience in the gallery, while his courage rose on discovering that she was not present.
Kenneth felt keenly his old comrade's humiliation. Each sentence dragged from the son of Jacob went like a sword-thrust to his heart. There remained, however, the pleasing fact that Detective Vickers failed completely to support the charge brought against the young soldier.
Kenneth left the court carrying with him the sympathy of the presiding magistrate, while outside the waiting crowd evinced their keen admiration for his conduct by cheering wildly as he emerged into the street.
Roy was borne swiftly to Fleet House in a fast-travelling car. For him there were no cheers or friendly congratulations. An ominous silence greeted the well-known car as it rushed through the streets of Barhampton. Nearing the outskirts of the town the crowds appeared to converge in masses across the main avenue, causing the driver to slow down. A dozen reckless spirits clung to the wheel guards and body of the car, yelling insulting epithets to the sullen-browed Roy seated within.
THE result of the police inquiry into the murder of Stefan Von Kroon was flashed through the country. The evening papers appeared with the story of Kenneth's false imprisonment, together with the report of Roy's dragged-out confession of guilt. The papers were eagerly bought by the throngs of people waiting about the street corners of Barhampton. Long before nightfall nearly every man and woman in the great seaport was in possession of the secret crime which had brought ruin and disaster upon the Hamlin family.
Roy paced his room at Fleet House in a spirit of utter dejection and defeat. Although acquitted of complicity in the terrible charge preferred against him, he knew that his career had been checked, his future effaced. He could not return to his regiment, neither did be feel disposed to claim the V.C. which was to have been conferred upon him at Windsor the following day.
How could he, a confessed criminal and traitor to his friend, accept the most coveted recognition of valour his Sovereign could bestow? It was not Kenneth who would be forced to leave his country, but he, Lieutenant Eardsley, who would find his native land untenable. There were hints already that the Crown Prosecutor might at any moment cause a re-hearing of the Hamlin forgery case.
Since the magisterial inquiry he had not exchanged words with his father. He flinched from meeting those terrible eyes that still held the fires of unslaked wrath and needed only a word to wake the slumbering devils of scorn in Jacob's heart.
Halting at the open window, his glance went out to the pine- covered hills in the west, and up to the masses of wind-driven clouds scurrying in from the Atlantic. Drops of rain fell on the heated earth, for the day had been unusually hot and oppressive.
Lounging through the French door that led to a spacious balcony, he stepped outside and listened. His ear had caught an unaccountable murmur that was neither wind in the trees nor the sound of rain on the swaying crests of the near elms. It came in strange babbling waves, followed by a hoarse yelping that resembled the cries from a hunting field. The sound increased in volume as it approached the house, developing into a medley of human voices that rent the air with the sound of his name.
Up the avenue they came, spreading in straggling mobs across the lawns and terraces. A score of quick-footed leaders reached the terrace front before the main body had emerged from the dark, tree-skirted avenue. They, gathered like a wolf-pack some twenty- yards from the balcony, and their voices seemed to hold the pent- up hatred of the town.
"Come out. Lieutenant Roy... you cur in hiding! Walk out and tell the story you told in court to-day!"
Roy retreated instinctively to the shelter of the room as a huddle of shapes emerged from the avenue and gathered in a straggling line in front of the house. There were women in the mob, loose-haired, bare-armed fishermen's wives, with sticks and clods of earth in their hands. The solid phalanx of men that stood twenty deep on the terrace front were Barhampton people, bargemen and trawlers, wharfingers, and the riff-raff of the port. A stone broke through the oriel window below, and the crash of glass that followed sounded like the meeting of sabres to Roy's overstrung nerves. Another and larger missile hummed through the window of the reception-room, scattering piecemeal a collection of costly bric-à-brac that stood on a Sheraton cabinet.
"Out you come, lieutenant, or by the Lord we'll fetch thee by the hair and ears!"— this from the bare-armed women ranged on the terrace below.
Roy crossed the room and turned like a trapped panther at the sound of a door opening in his rear. Jacob entered with quick, hasty strides, but recoiled at sight of his wild-eyed son standing near the shut balcony window. The shouts had assumed an uglier note; the loud rattle of stones coming suddenly from another side of the house warned them that the conservatories and garage were being fiercely assailed. Clods of earth and broken flower-pots flew towards the upper windows; the crash of broken china and falling pictures followed as the missiles 'gained in accuracy. The voices of the women were heard above the bellowing shouts of the mob.
"Out with your swankin' son, Jacob! Give him us to deal with. Send the blackguard out!"
Jacob laughed hoarsely, listened again to the clatter and din of smashing window-frames, and then turned to his son.
"They have you now," he half whispered, "to rend and shake. Was the Ghazai Pass affair like this... What are you going to do?"
"Fight!" came from Roy. '"Do you think I'm made of dirt?"
"I know not what God made you of," Jacob flashed back. "There's no more fibre in you than a band of straw. I believe no word of that hill campaign. You've fed me and others on lies."
He paused at the insistent bellowing of the mob below, his head drooping slightly as though to catch the sound of sticks and fists battering on the outer doors.
"So," he turned again to Roy, "you may now try hiding yourself for a change."
The old shipowner's words revealed the depths of his anger and shame. A moment before his entry into the room he had sent a message over the telephone to the police at Barhampton, notifying them of the projected assault on his house by a gathering mob of townspeople.
Roy crouched forward, his chest heaving, his supple figure quivering with suppressed rage and humiliation. The desultory stone-throwing below had become a bombardment. Servants screamed as they ran across the hall seeking shelter in the upper rooms. A hurricane of blows was delivered on the strong oak doors, while a fresh supply of broken flower-pots from the summer houses and conservatories was hurled with terrific force through the upper windows.
The men-servants stooped low near the kitchen tables to avoid the dangerous missiles that whanged through the broken casements.
Roy had gained the door, and paused an instant to look back at the scoffing, white-haired Jacob seated near the balcony door.
"Is it... an exhibition of courage you want, pater; to prove that your son has the blood of a man in him? Is it—"
He was gone in a flash and was down the carpeted stairs at a bound. In the hall he drew breath before a small armoury of ancient weapons that lined the wall at the entrance to the drawing-room. He could not face this human herd bare-handed. He flinched slightly from a brick-battered fanlight that split the air and fell in a thousand fragments at his feet. The shock tingled his nerves, and cooled the leaping blood in his young veins.
ABOVE his head was an array of ancient javelins, spears, and many South Sea Island weapons, gathered and brought home by the various captains of his father's vessels. With lightning fingers the young soldier reached down a broken-headed lance of hickory that bent and flew back like tempered steel in his strong grasp.
The mob still thundered at the hall door. It was this entrance he chose as the nearest and best way into the heart of the yelping mob. Something white slipped from the ante-room; Francesca, with set lips and illumined eyes, caught him frantically by the shoulder.
"Are you mad, boy? Where are you going?"
"Stand away!" He spoke with scarcely a lift in his voice as he pressed her aside. "I know these Hampshire yokels. They're baiting the wrong cur this time!" His nimble fingers snapped back the bolts, and a moment later he left the house with the spring of a tiger. A wharf-labourer standing on the terrace was drawing back to hurl his ninth flower-pot through the smashed fanlight.
A blow that resembled the smothered whoop of sword, blade against bone and flesh dropped him to his knees. The mob on the terrace gaped and hung still at sight of the coatless Roy, beating, with flail-like precision, the skulls of their leaders. In eight steps he had bludgeoned a path through the howling mass, while the pliant, back-swinging lance-butt held him clear of the fists and arms which sought to pound his sobbing heart and brain.
Right and left he pivoted, nimble-footed as a schoolboy, clubbing with lunatic strength at the blind mob of waving arms and faces. before him.
"Beasts! beasts! beasts!"
From the balcony Jacob watched the fight; he heard the dull whoop of the lance-butt as it fell front and rear, hewing circles and lanes through the front and middle ranks of the crowd. It brought him no joy or pleasure, this mad exhibition of valour. The coward son had merely responded to his taunt just as a wolf cub might leap, under fear of death, into a pack of baying hounds!
The cries below took on a strange note as the unequal fight went on. The scouting wing of the mob returned from the rear attack, on Fleet House, and they closed in a solid formation above the coatless figure of the young soldier.
Jacob shrank back from the window now, a grim fear in his quaking limbs. A lantern carried by a bargeman lit up the scene on the terrace, the solid circle of human shapes pressing closer, closer about the battling figure with the smiting, lance-butt. To Jacob, Roy's blows seemed to fall slower and with less precision. He stumbled occasionally as the flying clods and stones thudded on his arms and body. Smaller and smaller the ring grew, while fists and feet struck in at the reeling figure of his son.
"Ye'll remember Ken Hamlin, lieutenant, when ye feel this in the mornin'. Take that, and hold up your head for this. Ah!"
The mob surged in, smashing down by sheer weight the flaying lance-butt. Roy, swept from his feet, went under the kicking legs and pounding sticks, his arms thrown up to cover his head and face.
Jacob walked downstairs from the room bare-headed, silent, and on to the terrace. The lamp-glow from a nearby statue illumined his silvery-white head, the set mouth and chin which had defied and held back the mercantile trusts of Europe and America. A woman with a handful of stones looked up into his face and fled. Hands locked behind his back, he walked straight to the mob, and as he came they turned from their salvage batterings of the huddled figure at their feet, and scuttled away in twos and threes, and finally in a mad stampede across the grounds.
Jacob stooped over the supine figure of his son, and with an effort raised the stone-bruised face to his knees.
A PARTY of police met the returning rioters between Furze Hill and Barhampton. Half-a-dozen of the ringleaders were arrested and conveyed to the station, where they were charged with creating a riot and forcibly invading the private grounds of Fleet House.
The news of the attack on Jacob's residence caused a feeling of regret in the town, for, although Roy was a self-confessed traitor and worse, there were many wealthy residents who still regarded the young soldier's conduct in the past as a mere act of thoughtlessness and boyish impulse.
The damage done to Fleet House was not irreparable; a few hundred pounds bade fair to renew the effects of the stone- throwing. A great silence enveloped the corridors and rooms upstairs. White capped nurses flitted here and there, pausing to whisper in the wide hall as they sped from the west wing on some particular mission in connection with their work.
Jacob moved from the deserted drawing-room, sighing as he lingered in the wide hall to catch a whispered word from one of the hurrying nurses, or to speak for one brief moment to Sir Ralph Spender, the eminent London specialist, who had just arrived by the morning express.
Sir Ralph sat in close consultation with Doctor Fenton, the family physician, in a room adjoining the one occupied by Jacob. Roy lay in his own apartment overlooking the pine woods, and, save for the incidental fluttering of his lips, he appeared devoid of consciousness or life. Francesca, in a low chair beside the bed, sat watching the heavy shadows creep athwart the bandaged face of her unhappy son.
THE summer air was pregnant with the odour of sun-warmed flowers, of dew-drenched grass, and pine-scented breezes from the near woods. In the dark hush of her mind there rose a picture of this olive-skinned boy riding with her over the wind-swept heathlands of his native Hampshire. The insistent prattle of his schoolboy voice, the touch of his straying hands, stayed in her memory now to sting and hurt like barbed arrows.
All the bitter sweetness of the boy's past returned to be sipped and tasted like a poisoned cup. And this dark-hair Italian mother, flung back upon memory's dreadful feast, drained the bitter draught again and again.
Sometimes the quiet figure in the bed stirred, and the rare sound of his moving swept her to her feet, her pulses aleap for some fresh sign of life.
Often during the long summer afternoons, Sir Ralph Spender peeped in at the door, finger on chin, his sharp eyes on the bandaged face among the pillows.
"The lieutenant has youth," he would whisper to his confrère, "and there is always a chance, you know. But if he goes—"
"She will sleep with him," Doctor Fenton added pensively. "He made a Roman holiday for that Barhampton crowd. Only a constitution of iron could survive it."
Francesca followed their glances with sullen mistrust. She watched the shaping whispers on their lips, the lights and shadows in their eyes, yet she never questioned or asked an opinion.
They could do no more than they had done. The fight now was between youth and death. And death, as she knew, sat crouching in the shadows, preparing for his leap, waiting for the slightest vantage in the ebbing forces of that young life.
Often she looked up from her brooding quiet whenever a slippered foot sounded in the passage outside. A wild hope surged in her that Jacob would come and look upon the still breathing figure of his son. Would his bitterness and despair keep him away till the last? Would he touch the stone-bruised hands while they were yet warm, or look into the half-open eyes that were once so cowardly and yet so brave?
Some boys were guilty of innumerable follies, she pondered, yet they emerged triumphant and victorious in the battle of life. No one could judge this foolish son of hers. The judgment of the mother was never final. She knew that the first downward step in his career had destroyed him utterly. He had been accused of every mean and despicable trait a man may possess. He had been found guilty and pounded to death by the very people who had known him since childhood.
And this was the day of the grand review at Windsor, when he was to have received the bronze cross from the hands of his Sovereign! The thought bent her like a blast of wind. This day of all others, when death sat beside her, waiting to snatch the fluttering breath from his lips ...
How quickly would he be forgotten. To-morrow by his father, by the very children who had read with beating hearts the story of immortal fight in a far Himalayan pass, where he had held back the Afridi steel from the little hospital tent, had fought alone in the chill mountain dawn to keep his wounded comrades clear of the hillmen's knives.....
Why had all this been forgotten, overlooked? Why were her son's heroic deeds uncounted?
Through the long afternoon a great sun-patch stayed above the bed. Sometimes it shivered and danced like a burning shield until her senses reeled. Often the soft-footed nurse brought her strange iced drinks and tempting dainties. A sea-green blind was drawn down to keep out the burning shield. The only sounds that reached her were the shrill notes of a lark and the plaintive baying of Roy's favourite collie in the yard.
Towards evening he rallied and stared at the dumb-eyed mother seated near. His waking was the signal for the alert physicians with the searching eyes and skilled brains.
A slight shiver penetrated the young soldier's limbs. After the fever of his wounds he felt the cold breath of death on his brow. Sir Ralph leaned over, his fingers caressing the patient's wrist instinctively.
Francesca watched his eyes while her own heart hung still as a bulleted fawn's. The physician nodded twice, replaced his watch, and then bent over her gently.
"The young are sometimes hard to kill," he whispered. "Life hugs them with giant hands and breath."
"We shall see, to-night. Try and rest a little," he advised. "For upon your strength his life may depend."
They wheeled her couch beside the bed of her son, and, as the night came up out of the star depths, she wondered dully whether he would live to see another burning shield on the wall of his room.
The aching silence had its victories for this fierce-loving Italian mother. In the lone midnight hour, she was conscious of a bowed, white-headed figure in the doorway, a figure that breathed and stared with cowed eyes into the room. Slowly the figure advanced until his hand rested on the bed beside her.
There came to Francesca an inarticulate monition of fear and joy, of resignation and revolt. She heard the painful inhalation of breath, saw the flash of despair in the old, lion-like eyes.
A clock chimed the hour with slow, metallic precision. Francesca felt that she must break the intolerable silence.
"The dawn will show whether he will live or die, Jacob. Will you sit here with me lest—"
"He may pass while I am away." He finished the words for her, his big hand resting on the brass bed-rail, his eyes seeking to read some message of fate in his son's face.
IN his day, Jacob had seen ships go forth to their predestined end. The bones of a hundred sailors who once manned his fleets lay strewn about the Atlantic floor. And now it was ordained that he should sit very still and watch the passing of his only son.
All his victories and triumphs ended here by this bed. He had built fleets and fought worldwide organisations with the arm of a Hercules, the brain of a Caesar. He had won in every fight, and had held what he won, yet everything that had been worth the winning must pass with this bandaged figure in the bed.
The nurses flitted past his bowed figure. Voices whispered in the corridors. But it was as though he himself was dying, as though his soul had leaped out into the night, abandoning him defenceless and alone in an empty world.
Somewhere in the east a gray breath of cloud marked the end of night. The dawn came like a white priest demanding his son's soul, a dawn that wore a livery of wine-red and saffron-belted skies.
The physician entered alertly, confidentially, each gesture and motion driving back the white despair from Francesca's face.
Roy's breathing became more regular; his lips grew moist after his first revitalising sleep. Sir Ralph nodded with professional stealth to the waiting nurses, and then met Francesca's glance with a beaming eye.
"Nature is kind to young blood and tissue," his lips shaped the words. "In the present case, Madame Eardsley, we may safely predict a slow, but happy recovery."
Jacob closed his eyes and opened them again. He was conscious of the great physician's hand touching his shoulder.
"We may congratulate each other, Mr. Eardsley, on the recuperative qualities of our young patient. Strength in whatever form," he added loquaciously, "must be measured by its powers of resistance."
The old shipowner rose from his seat at the bedside and muttered something about the inscrutable ways of fate, and then, with a slow, lingering glance at the bed, walked from the room.
HE breakfasted early in his own apartment, after assuring himself that Francesca had fallen into a soothing sleep. While absorbed in the events of the past night his glance was arrested by the word "murder" and the name "Von Kroon" set in big type on the front page of his morning paper.
Taking it to the window, he stared at the eye-searing type which announced the arrest of a Hindu student on a charge of murdering Stefan Von Kroon within the grounds of Fleet House. The article stated briefly that the Criminal Investigation Department had evidence to hand which proved beyond a doubt that the German had been implicated in the recent revolutionary movement in India. It was well known to the authorities that Von Kroon had volunteered to keep them posted with details of the movements and utterances of the hand of students residing in Barhampton. That the German's treachery had become known to them was now evident to certain members of Scotland Yard. It had been left to one inconspicuous official to piece and thread together certain facts which went to prove that the Teuton had fallen a victim to the Hindus' wrath.
The arrest of Bannerjeh Singh, and Mooltan Rawal, two members of the society, had produced unexpected results. Rawal admitted having shadowed Von Kroon on the night Roy appeared with the dog- whip. He had waited outside the rooms until the German appeared, and together with Bannerjeh had stalked him to the grounds of Fleet House.
A terrific struggle had ensued between Von Kroon and Rawal. The latter, being of herculean proportions and a master in the art of wrestling, soon brought the German to earth. With Bannerjeh's help a cord had been secured around Von Kroon's throat, and despite his frantic struggles against Rawal's loin and chin grip, he succumbed finally to the deadly effects of the strangling cord.
Jacob cast aside the paper and turned into the hall, his fists clenched at his side. Although his son's name would be cleared from all complicity in the charge which Detective Vickers had brought against him, there still remained the unutterable indiscretion of the forged cheque to be atoned for.
His chauffeur waited outside in the red-panelled landaulette. The old shipowner stayed a moment in the hall to adjust his cravat before the mirror in the huge oak stand. He was loath to leave the house without a final word with his wife. A nurse peered over the stairs suddenly and made signals with her hands.
"Is the boy doing well?" he demanded with unusual gruffness.
"Splendidly, Mr. Eardsley. Madam is sleeping soundly, too!"
"H'm." The old shipowner brooded a moment before the mirror, then, as if overcome by an irresistible impulse, returned to his room and brought forth the paper which contained the account of Rawal and Bannerjeh's arrest.
"Give this to madam when she wakes." He handed the paper to the nurse, and the next moment he was in the car beside the chauffeur, his eyes aflame with suppressed emotion and excitement.
"Drive me to Mrs. Hamlin's—that little brick cottage at the top of Furze Hill," he commanded.
Jacob sat back in the tonneau and for the first time for some days lit a cheroot as the car sped from the grounds of Fleet House.
HAMLIN returned home after the futile police inquiry into the death of Von Kroon, determined to begin life again in Canada or the United States. He had heard of the seizure of Colwyn Hall by the countess's creditors, and his heart went out to the unfortunate Penelope and her daughter.
That the countess's friends would come forward during the period of stress and humiliation he felt certain. He was aware that Penelope had surrendered everything of value to her unsatisfied tradespeople, and that in future no sane business man in Hampshire would extend them a pound's worth of credit. He was constrained to ask himself what became of insolvent aristocrats when turned adrift upon an unsympathetic world. How would the gentle-mannered Lady Mary conduct herself in such a crisis?
In the midst of his speculations came the news of the attack on Fleet House by an infuriated mob from Barhampton; and later in the day the story of Roy's single-handed fight with the yelping crowd of stone-throwers.
Kenneth paced the narrow limits of the flower-bordered garden, while Phyllis assisted her mother in preparing the afternoon meal. He had not thought fit to harrow his sister and mother with news of the affair; something warned him that they knew of it already.
The sweet air of their changed surroundings had affected Phyllis in a marvellous degree. The bloom of health and good spirits shone in her cheeks, yet Kenneth had detected an undercurrent of sadness in her manner since Roy's long-remembered visit to the cottage. Of the young soldier's meeting with him at Colwyn Hall not a word had been spoken. Something warned Kenneth that his old comrade had, for family reasons, been forced to seek an alliance with the daughter of Penelope.
All that was past now. Not even the wealth of Jacob's commerce-laden fleets could lure the financially-wrecked Trenwyths into a marriage contract with his house.
Roy's condition after his fight with the rioters caused Kenneth some uneasiness. One paper asserted gravely, that the son of Jacob could not survive the terrible battering inflicted upon him by the mob. Only a man of heroic mould, and with nerves of iron, would have faced single-handed those infuriated Barhampton fishermen. And of the two hundred men who raved and cursed on the terrace of Fleet House, sixteen bore the impress of the young soldier's lance-butt.
He might with dignity have met them with his sword, another paper declared boldly, since they had gone to his house with intent to kill. Was it that the young soldier, disdained to meet such a crowd with a military weapon. Some men would not have hesitated.
It must be admitted that the son of Jacob stood better in the public estimation after the detailed account of his single-handed defence of Fleet House became known. No born coward would have faced that band of house-wreckers. Eight members of the assaulting party were under medical treatment at the Barhampton Infirmary, as a result of the young soldier's single-handed sortie!
Kenneth's blood tingled at the news of Roy's lonely charge into that bowling mob of human fiends. Always a creature of impulse, the young soldier had gone to his undoing, where braver and more tactful men would have waited for the arrival of the police.
Impulse was Roy's besetting sin. It had made, and it had destroyed him. Impulse had driven him to the forging of his father's name; it had sent him pell-mell into a circle of Afridi knives, when all hope of further guarding the hospital tents seemed futile. Impulse had guided him, whip in hand, to the meeting of Hindu students in Victoria Avenue. And it was that memorable flogging episode which had caused the police to arrest him in connection with the murder of Stefan Von Kroon.
Kenneth sighed when he read of the great review at Windsor only the day before. It was the day that Roy should have received the Victoria Cross. Would authorities refuse him the distinction after what had happened?
IN the eyes of the world Roy had been proved a poltroon and a hero. It was for the War Office to decide now whether he was worthy of the little bronze cross. The son of Jacob had been punished for his sin; surely it was only just that he should receive some token of his past achievement in India!
Kenneth's broodings were disturbed by the sound of an automobile rushing into the quiet, pine-sheltered road. It had stopped at the garden gate to allow a white-haired man to alight. With a heart that throbbed like a piston, Kenneth walked to the gate with a curiously nervous feeling in his limbs.
"Mr. Eardsley!" The words left him in a quivering undertone, as thought afraid of the sound reaching his mother and sister.
The old shipowner straightened his bent shoulders, while his fingers fumbled hesitatingly at the gate latch. He looked up at the young man slowly, steadily, as one measuring and counting the vanished years of his own life. The hand which had forced to his will the great mercantile combines of England and America trembled on the gate. Kenneth met him eye to eye, remembering with each intake of breath the fierce hatred, the ruthless scorn, which those steel-grey eyes had once held for him.
Jacob entered the garden, and stood with head uncovered in the clear sunlight.
"You have a sweet-smelling house, Kenneth Hamlin," he began, with a peculiar tremor in his voice. "Will your women-folk allow me a chair inside, or a cup of tea to brighten the morning's ride?"
Here was the flag of surrender hoisted by an implacable foe! Kenneth saw the woods and sky reel in the hot sunlight. His breath came in laboured gusts. The weight of years, the black odour of the penitentiary, seemed to lift and vanish from his tortured mind.
Jacob made gestures in the direction of the house. His face had grown luminous with the surge of inward emotion.
"I have more than a little hospitality to crave," he went on, as they passed up the flower-bordered path. "Something that gold or favours pan never buy."
Mrs. Hamlin came forward and stared at the bent shape she had known in earlier years. How he had changed! Where was the nimble eye, the quiet gesture, and erect mein? In the place of the old lion-like captain of industry stood a shamble-footed, loose- shouldered ruin of a man, who made signs to her with his trembling hand.
His voice was broken, querulous, but there was no mistaking the object of his mission.
"I remember when your husband was a stripling, like Kenneth, Mrs. Hamlin," he volunteered uncertainly, "and for that reason may I claim entry to your pretty cottage?"
Mrs. Hamlin was too moved by the event of his coming to put her welcome into words. She led him inside, feeling instinctively that his visit affected her son's welfare.
The shadow of death hovering about Fleet House had made the old sea-king humble and afraid. During the bleak midnight hours, when his son's life trembled with every respiration, the consciousness of pain and suffering in others had entered him. His struggle with his iron-bound resolutions had bordered on the titanic; he had prayed and fought inwardly to bring himself to this act of humiliation. Yet his blood kindled with fatherly warmth now as he gazed at the sun-browned Kenneth standing so quietly beside his mother and sister.
This, then, was the unpretentious stripling who had suffered the horrors of Dartmoor for Roy's sake, had endured humiliation and torment without protest or profit to himself!
Mrs. Hamlin, unconscious of Jacob's mental conflict, questioned him with bated breath concerning Roy's condition. "Was there hope of his recovery?" she asked.
The old shipowner bowed his head. "Such sons die hard," he said, with a touch of weariness. "The trouncing they gave him was thorough, though," he added, with a grim flash in his faded eyes. "Stones and iron-shod boots. I heard them... against his body, like the hammers of the Lord's crucifiers. It was a great night!"
Kenneth's nerves leaped at his words. He viewed with swimming eyes the bowed bead and shoulders of the man who had once pinned his giant faith in his son's integrity. Whatever speech lay in him was choked by the knowledge of Roy's fearful punishment.
Jacob looked up again slowly at the flashing-eyed Phyllis standing silently in the shadow of the door. He beckoned her sorrowfully, and when she came fearlessly to his outstretched hand a look of ineffable gratitude crept into his face.
"You were Roy's sweetheart once," he said, with a quiver in his voice. "In the days when there were fairies and goblins in the old pine woods beyond. Do you remember the stories you told him, eh, Phyllis Hamlin, of Redbeard, the Ogre, and little Scarlet Slipper?"
Although marvelling at his wonderful memory, Phyllis was almost in tears, despite her resolution to remain firm in his presence. She had not lain a prisoner in the clutches of fever in the old slum cottage on the heath without living again through the glad years of her early life. Even the irreparable shame of her brother's imprisonment had never utterly destroyed a hope that burned in her young breast, a hope that some day the son of Jacob would sit beside her among the pine-scented copses of her native Hampshire. How far away and unreal it all appeared, even now, when Jacob himself was rekindling the white lamps of memory.
He seemed to fathom what was passing in her mind. Beyond her own discernment he beheld the tragedy of her young life, a life spoiled and defaced by the sins of others. How could he offer atonement to this simple girl robbed of life's sweetness by his own and his son's immeasurable folly?
He patted her hand gently. "Some day, Phyllis, you may tell me your fairy stories. You must come to Fleet House and amuse a world weary man and woman."
"But... we are going with Kenneth to America!" she broke out. "We are going to begin life again."
The old shipowner shook his head deprecatingly. "I think you had better not wander too far." His shrewd eyes went out to Kenneth. "Will you come to me, Hamlin? Will you bring your good faith and honesty into my service? Shall we begin again and build where we ceased. You are young. Put away this notion of leaving your native land!"
Mrs. Hamlin held her breath in amazement. Then, with a fluttering fear in her heart, she watched the answering words shape themselves on her son's lips.
"I assume that my services are no longer required at Colwyn Hall," Kenneth answered thoughtfully. "I was forced to leave in a hurry," he added, with a sub-humorous smile.
"The countess is no better off than yourself to-day." Jacob sighed. Then, with another glance at Phyllis, he returned to his original offer.
"I must repeat my offer, Hamlin. Will you enter my service?" He rose from his chair, even before the agitated Mrs. Hamlin could place a cup of tea before him. "I have a vacancy in the general manager's department that should fit your energies."
He paused, his hand resting on Kenneth's arm.
"If Roy wins through this pounding he shall prove himself in my office beside you, my boy. 'Tis a fine trade, this handling of ships," he continued, his pulse quickening at each word. "My clerks have the Atlantic Ocean for a playfellow. They know its thoughts as my captains know its tides and soundings. We have continents to serve, Hamlin. We trail our smoke from the Orinoco to the Ganges. Will you come to us?"
"I will!" Kenneth spoke with a tremor in his voice. "I will serve the sea and your ships, Mr. Eardsley. When may I begin?"
"To-morrow. I will speak to Mr. Rylands, my manager, about the matter. We shall be friends again." He gripped Kenneth's hand, and then, with a final word of encouragement to Mrs. Hamlin, begged leave to depart.
Phyllis walked with him to the gate, listening with pain at her heart as he again recounted the fierce ordeal through which Roy had passed. The old shipowner seemed to regain his spirits while she remained at his side.
At the gate he touched with his lips the slender white rose she held before him.
"Come and see Francesca!" he spoke from the tonneau. "Fleet House will be the sweeter for your presence."
Mrs. Hamlin was too exercised in mind to fully grasp the importance of Jacob's visit. She was aware instinctively, however, that his coming had swept away the ogre of poverty which faced them now at every turn. Kenneth would resume his old duties in the big shipping firm, a position which would go far to ensure them comfort and security during the rest of their lives.
From the door she watched Phyllis break into girlish laughter at some parting jest from Jacob as the auto swept round towards the Barhampton Road. Kenneth waited for his sister half-way down the garden path. Her face was suffused with a glowing delight.
"He called me the fairy with the golden eyes!" she laughed, as they stood watching the white dust leap in the track of the fast- travelling car. "Imagine him remembering all that baby nonsense Roy and I used to talk!"
Phyllis drew her brother a little way down the path, while her eyes danced in the sheer joy of his good fortune.
"What did he mean by his allusion to Lady Mary Trenwyth? Has my brother presumed to dream of the aristocrat with the cold heart and ways?"
"She is not cold," Kenneth answered cheerfully. "She is warmer than your reddest June flowers, she is sweeter than the sea that Jacob almost sang about. And she is braver than any of his captains."
He regarded Phyllis steadily.
"Jacob mentioned her— at the gate, eh?"
"Yes, he is very sorry for Lady Mary, sorry that she has lost her home. It was the countess's choosing, he said. A retired haberdasher has bought Colwyn Hall. The place is to be redecorated."
Kenneth sighed as they strolled back to the cottage; he turned once in the path and looked at the dusty white road that led to Colwyn Hall, while Phyllis became absorbed in the tiny geranium beds under the window.
"The Colwyns will never return to Barhampton," she predicted, without looking up. "Are you sorry?"
He paled slightly, and moved as if to enter the house. Phyllis straightened suddenly and met his wavering glance.
"Poor Lady Mary, poor Kenneth," she half-whispered.
He laughed carelessly. "She spoke to me about three times in her life."
"Once on the day you saved her life?"
"That was the first time," he admitted thoughtfully. "The third was on the day that Roy asked her to be his wife!"
"THE minx has pretty ways," Jacob confessed half aloud, as the car swung through the entrance gates to Fleet House. "She's daintier than porcelain and wins the eye at a first peep!"
A pleasant stillness pervaded the house and grounds, a sense of well-being and security after the stress and turmoil of the last few days. The servants moved about with a brisker air, as though conscious of a new spirit of forgiveness abroad where silence and falsehood had recently held sway.
Jacob descended from the car and was about to pass into the hall. Merrick, the butler, met him almost on the threshold, the keys of the cellar twirling on the end of his finger. The old shipowner detected symptoms of a fresh mystery in the old retainer's faded eyes. The twirling of the keys was indicative of no ordinary mental agitation.
"Speak up, Merrick!" Jacob cried cheerfully. "Calamity cannot dog us eternally from day to day!"
Merrick's intake of breath was a study in voice suppression and restrained exuberance.
"General Compton Harding has called, sir. He said you would not mind him smoking while he waited in one of the back rooms!"
"In one of my back rooms!" Jacob exploded. "What on earth does a British general want to smoke in my back room for!" Then, after a moment's reflection, "Why, he's the officer who—who commanded the review at Windsor yesterday. What in the name of—"
Jacob pondered heavily, swung on his heel, and, with a sign to Merrick, entered the mirror-flanked reception-room. A moment or two later the old shipowner found himself bowing slightly to a grizzled moustache and sun-blackened face that beamed upon him with unaffected good humour.
"I have the honour of addressing the father of Lieutenant Eardsley," he began briskly. "I regret to hear, sir, of our young hero's unfortunate encounter the other evening with that infernal gang! A dastardly affair, unworthy of Hampshire people!" he declared with rising indignation.
Jacob bent his head and sighed. A week ago his volubility would have outrun his sense of discretion. To-day he remained mute, wondering what this square-shouldered, iron-voiced commander of men had come to say.
"My business here to-day," General Compton Harding went on, "embraces one of the pleasantest duties of my career, Mr. Eardsley."
He took from his pocket a small case and held it before the old shipowner's eyes.
Jacob stared, gesticulated heavily for a moment. "I know," he said thickly, "why you have come here to-day, General Compton Harding. I know that you carry in that little box the highest award this country can offer to a soldier. You have brought it," he went on with icy deliberation, "to present to my son, Lieutenant Eardsley, because certain injuries by a mob of hoodlums prevented him attending the review at Windsor yesterday."
"That is so," the general admitted, with symptoms of impatience in his gesticulating hands. "If you will permit me, Mr. Eardsley, I shall have much pleasure in pinning it to the breast of your son. He is bed, I understand."
Jacob nodded, and his labouring breath denoted his intense mental perturbation. He turned slowly, with a half-muttered word, walked to the door, his shoulders stooping, his knit brows reflecting the terrible scorn which flowed molten through his eyes.
"My son has just emerged from the Shadow, General. Come—" He beckoned wearily to the erect, iron-grey figure standing in the centre of the reception-room. "Let us see if the lieutenant is fit to receive that!" His pointed finger indicated the little box in the old war veteran's hand.
Without a word both men ascended the wide stairs leading to the room where Roy lay propped between high pillows. The young soldier appeared much refreshed after his long sleep. The fever had left him, and as the door of his room swung back his eyes fell on the stiff military figure standing bareheaded beside his father on the threshold.
Instantly his hand went up to his brow. General Compton Harding responded quickly, and in the sharp silence that followed the brief military salute Jacob heard his son's loud breathing, felt the bleak curiosity of his gaze as it settled upon the curious little box in the general's hand. The old shipowner's voice rang out in that still sick-chamber, and the nurse standing beside the bed shrank from the inexorable tones, the trembling forefinger pointed at the crouching figure in the bed.
"Ask the lieutenant if he is worthy to receive this sacred decoration, General Compton Harding— this Victoria Cross which has adorned the breasts of the nation's heroes!"
The general stood rigid as stone, looked quickly at father and son, as though divining an element of madness in so strange an outbreak.
"I—I must beg you to remember, Mr. Eardsley, that when a soldier gains this coveted distinction, only a military tribunal can strip him of the honour!"
The iron-visaged soldier drew out the little Maltese cross with loving care, and held it daintily between finger and thumb. "I have never known," he went on in a voice that almost shook with emotion, "I have never known our beloved cross to find its way to an unworthy breast. And you, Lieutenant Roy Eardsley. Who—"
Roy struggled to his elbow, his eyes burning with the shame of his past indiscretions. Sweat stood on his brow as, with hands gripping the edge of the bed-cover, he stared fearfully at the tall, iron-grey soldier approaching with the bronze symbol of his country's honour.
"Ask— ask if he will receive it!" Jacob's voice was no more than a whisper. "Ask him — who a few hours ago was panting in the jaws of death— ask him if he will receive this sacrament of honour from his king and regiment."
The general halted at the bedside, a deep frown lining his brow.
"Lieutenant Eardsley, do I understand that—"
Roy choked out an inaudible word, and thrust forward his shaking hand to ward off the old soldier's approach.
"No, no! Spare me this last degradation, general... You do not understand!" he panted feebly. "I ask your pardon: but... things have happened which compel my renunciation... I have sent in my papers. Pray take it away... the cross, I mean. I could never wear it, never, never!"
He sank back among the pillows, exhausted by his last effort, his breath coming in laboured gusts.
General Compton Harding bristled for an instant, as one who had suffered an unpardonable affront. In the flash of an eye the cross was in the box, and his broad shoulders swinging to the open door. He looked back at father and son, sombrely, quietly, a strange, puzzled look in his veteran eyes.
"Nothing but a piece of —comedy!" he said quietly. "Sheer swank, and mummery. I never heard of such a piece of impudence... never."
They heard his heavy tread on the stairs, his final snapped- out words to Merrick in the hall, and then the sound of his auto grinding, grinding, it seemed to Jacob, over the gravel and down the long avenue to Barhampton.
A silence leaped father and son, a silence that was only broken by the sound of the scandalised nurse entering the room.
Jacob looked out of the window across the sunlit pine woods, where a streamer of clouds trailed in from the smoky town.
"Renunciation!" he said under his breath. "That marks the beginning of another day."
He turned slowly and walked to the bed. Roy had grown calmer. He met his father's searching gaze unmoved. Something of a smile overspread his bandaged face.
"I think," he spoke with some difficulty now, "I think, pater, it's time I gave up being a hero and settled down to some kind of honest work, shipping work for instance."
Jacob put out his big hand until it encircled the bruised fingers on the bedcover.
"The man we hurt go much, my boy, is coming into the office to begin life again."
"Yes; I saw his mother and sister to-day, and oh, man," Jacob flung out his arms in a gesture of savage, self-reproach; "we've behaved like a pack of barbarians to those people. There is yet time to make amends; to make some restitution for the injury done!"
Roy appeared relieved now that the worst was over. Kenneth would be spared the bitter humiliations of the past, and could look forward to an honourable career in the great shipping firm of Jacob Eardsley and Son.
ROY'S recovery was a matter of many weeks' careful nursing. Autumn had smitten wood and pine copse with red and saffron hues before the son of Jacob ventured unaided about the grounds of Fleet House.
He desired now to prove to his father that something beyond mere flashes of courage was required to build up a shattered reputation. The world of commerce demanded pluck and brains from her captains. He decided, therefore, to pass his days beside Kenneth Hamlin in the big, busy offices among the navigators' charts and tide maps, where the voices of four continents were constantly being flashed over the cables and Marconi installation. And when the spirit of travel seized him he could, like Kenneth, slake his wandering desires by seeking the outer seas in one of his father's ocean liners.
Nothing more had been heard of his refusal to accept the V.C. Roy was anxious to win his cross in a different way, and since mere swordplay could never reinstate him in his father's eyes, he chose the great white room where the ocean whispered over the cables, and where the busy clamour of docks and quays sounded all through the long afternoons.
The countess, and her daughter had vanished from society. A new owner was in possession of Colwyn Hall. A less aristocratic, but more affluent, dame presided where the silver-haired Penelope had once gathered the famous men and women of the period around her.
Often in the long summer evenings Kenneth strolled with his sister along the cliffs and under the walls of the house where each tree and shrub held sacred the memory of beautiful Mary Trenwyth and her unhappy mother.
Autumn and winter passed. The spring came, bringing fresh advancement to Kenneth, heavier trusts and responsibilities as each month proved the faith old Jacob reposed in him.
His salary was sufficiently liberal to allow Phyllis and his mother many of the comforts and luxuries, of modern life. Although his duties in the great shipping firm permitted ample leisure in the evenings, yet they held a measure of responsibility which bladed and keened his interest in the day's work.
THE first summer's holiday found him at Ostend, renting quietly after a busy season, His mother and Phyllis had accompanied Francesca and Roy to the Norwegian fiords to enjoy a well-earned holiday.
Walking one afternoon along the crowded sea front, Kenneth came full tilt against a bath chair drawn by a fat German hotel servant. A swift apology from the young Englishman was followed by a stifled cry from the white-haired lady seated within the chair.
"Upon my word, Hamlin, it is ungracious of you to run away in that fashion. Remember... I had my fifty horse-power touring car once!"
Kenneth scarcely recognised in the faded, little figure the once brilliant woman who had startled society by her audacious turf and mining speculations. He accepted her outstretched hand naturally, listened with unfeigned regret to her torrential outpourings concerning her health and the various opinions expressed by her doctors on her old enemy, gout. Cards were the only palliatives against the foot-fiend, as she chose to call her ailment—bridge and that horrid, but delightful, American game, poker, were the only reliefs. Did her young friend, Hamlin, ever indulge in bridge?
He did not, yet he professed himself willing to plunge into the most desperate games if it would only afford his old patroness some ease from her complaint. He checked the question on his lips, which begged a little information concerning the whereabouts of Lady Mary, for he felt that Penelope was regarding him rather closely through her pince-nez.
"The world speaks well of you, Hamlin," she said with a queer laugh. "Jacob has played the man at last—the old moneybags!"
In a voice that was scarce audible above the sound of the surf, he inquired at last after her daughter. Penelope shrugged and sighed.
"Always the same, Hamlin. Just a trifle changed, maybe, after what the newspapers are pleased to call the vicissitudes of fortune."
To Kenneth her words held a suggestion of tragedy. That the one woman he held dearer than life should be suffering a self- imposed exile among the nameless crowds of cosmopolitan adventurers, who lived by grace of their wits, touched him to the quick.
And what did this faded old aristocrat mean by the vicissitudes of fortune? Had Lady Mary been subjected to the humiliation of her impoverished surroundings? Were mother and daughter in need of help?
He was hardly the man to forget that Penelope had been the first to stretch a helping hand when the Barhampton police were using every means in their power to prevent him obtaining employment. His voice quavered as he begged permission to call on her. Could he be of service? She might command him in anything.
She broke in upon his half-stammered words with the old, good- natured laugh.
"My dear Hamlin, we are very well indeed. We owe certain small sums to these wretched local tradespeople; that is to say, I owe them. But really——" She appeared to be consumed with inward laughter. "Really, Hamlin, one could hardly exist if the tradespeople ceased complaining."
In those few words he read the tragic comedy of Penelope's existence. Dunned from place to place, heckled and threatened by German and Belgian creditors, she was passing the remaining years of life in fifth-rate Continental watering-places and hydros.
And this was the woman who had returned Jacob's cheque for £50,000, with an apologetic smile.
The following afternoon Kenneth found his way into the vestibule of a second-rate hotel on the marine esplanade, and was ushered into a seedy-looking drawing-room to await the result of his message to Lady Mary Trenwyth.
He did not wait long. The woman who had filled his dreams from boyhood entered like a breath from the sun-illumined sea outside.
She had altered, only in her attire. Her dress was simple, but a certain transition in the grave, beautiful lines of her face suggested a sudden intellectual change in her outlook. He held her hand for six palpitating moments, while his mind flew back to the days when he had driven her through the pine shadowed Hampshire roads.
HER story was soon told. Engaged in literary work, she was treading the bitter track to fortune, with small hope of even a living wage for her efforts. During the first year she had received certain small sums from a London literary syndicate which circulated her weekly Continental letter through a score or more of British newspapers and magazines.
"My first novel, 'Margaret Bellamy,' brought me thirty pounds," she told the listening Kenneth. "It was supposed to be a success, too," she added with a smile.
"For the publishers, no doubt," he ventured, with a touch of indignation. "Are you supposed to spend your life in writing successful novels, at thirty pounds a book?"
She laughed at his earnestness. But through her forced gaiety of manner he read the bitter story of her existence, the petty annoyances inevitable to her changed sphere of life, the struggle to fend off the wolf of poverty. All these jarring elements were leaving their mark on the gently-nurtured Mary Trenwyth.
Kenneth knew enough of the literary life to understand the never-ending struggle which confronts the newly-launched writer, the ceaseless pitting of brain against brain, by publisher's and editors in their efforts to wring the last ounce of merit from their contributors, especially in the case of inexperienced authors like the daughter of Penelope.
Secure in his position as Jacob's confidential secretary, he felt that he might ask her to choose between her present uncertain existence and a life of assured comfort with himself as her husband and slave.
She talked volubly of her work, and showed him many excellent reviews culled from the leading journals of the day. Kenneth read them, and in his blind infatuation almost swore at the notion of her spending the best years of her life trying to win a little praise from the tribe of book-weary reviewers.
Penelope was indisposed, and could not leave her room. Outside the surf crashed with a tonsillar sound on the sunlit beach. His heart beat madly as he suggested a stroll towards the Kursaal. Would she come? Would this book-writing, dreamy-eyed, young aristocrat accompany him?
They went out ten minutes later, after Lady Mary had ascertained that her mother was comfortably settled in her apartment. They found a seat where the cloud-white surf leaped in thunderous masses against the groined sea-wall. It was with difficulty that he restrained the wild beatings of his heart. The westering sun seemed to illumine her wind-blown hair, while the sound of his softly-pleading voice awoke a myriad slumbering fires in her dreaming eyes.
What would be her answer if he dared ask her to be his wife? Could she forget that he had suffered imprisonment to save Roy Eardsley? A cool wind came up from the bay and filled his young blood with a sense of delight and pain. He could not divine her thoughts. She seemed to brood between the lapses in their conversation. Once or twice, when he spoke of his past, her fingers tightened as if a thought had leaped into her mind and chilled her heart.
Was it pity for his past that made her silent, he asked himself? And later, when the sea turned to crimson in the last rays of the sun, he told himself that a woman of her station would never stoop to love and honour a man who had known the inside of a penitentiary.
The thought froze all further speech and left him staring rather bleakly at the wind-driven gulls swarming over the wet sand-spit beyond the groynes.
That night he returned to his hotel to feed upon the bitter thoughts begotten of her silence. Was it that she still remembered Roy, or lived in the hope that the son of Jacob would come forward and again press his suit?
He banished the thought as unworthy, for he could not but admit, after final consideration, that the daughter of Penelope had never shown the slightest preference for Roy's society.
A letter from Phyllis awaited him at the hotel. It was addressed from Copenhagen, and each word seemed to pierce the well-springs of his forgiving nature.
Roy has asked me to be his wife. I think he chose the opportunity while we are absent from England. The dear boy was awfully distressed when I refused to listen... Positively I refused until... wonders and wonders... Jacob appeared on the scene, looking pink and white after his sea trip. He told me that he honoured me for refusing his son. Yet... he pleaded hard for his boy, carried me by his whirlwind eloquence. And, of course, you know I have always loved Roy. Nothing earthly would hammer my affection away.
I'd marry him if he were the son of a canal bargee. So I am to be Mrs. Eardsley, and the old dream has come true.
Yours for ever and ever,
By the following post he received a letter from Jacob. It was a fatherly epistle, couched in the warmest terms, and bore testimony to the old shipowner's desire to make amends for his son's omissions in the past. Jacob also intimated his intention of retiring from active participation in the business of Eardsley and Son. Upon Roy would fall the responsibility of the new order of things. In this enterprise the old sea-lord nominated Kenneth to the position of associate manager. Of course, the gigantic organisation which Jacob had founded and built up was controlled by an efficient staff of managing directors, who would continue to act in the interests of their old employer.
Kenneth's appointment carried with it a salary of two thousand a year and much arduous labour. But, more than mere monetary gain, Kenneth's heart was filled at the thought of Jacob's magnificent confidence and trust.
It was the footnote to the old sea-king's letter which added a final thrill to Kenneth's leaping pulse.
Maybe you'll be hearing something of Lady Mary and her mother at Ostend. They have been residing there for the last month. I bear them much good-will, and would readily congratulate you if the news came here that Penelope's daughter had consented to become plain Mrs. Hamlin. I fancy the young lady knows her own mind.
KENNETH found Lady Mary at her hotel the following afternoon. A thought came to him as he glanced into her eyes that his coming had been anticipated. It was apparent to him that the countess was suffering more than usual from the effects of their straitened circumstances. In Lady Mary he detected evidences of recent literary labours in the piles of unfastened MSS. scattered about the drawing-room tables.
The countess, reclining amid a pile of cushions, seemed to read his swift glances.
"These literary dabblings bring small birds to the pot, Mr. Hamlin," she volunteered, with a sly grimace in her daughter's direction.
Kenneth's answer was strictly non-committal. He knew that Lady Mary was labouring heart and brain to clear her mother from debt. Yet, among the legions of literary aspirants fighting to achieve a little cold print, how could she ever hope to earn even a competency?
He had come to break the news of his sister's engagement to the son of Jacob. The colour in his cheeks deepened to a fiery scarlet as he encountered Penelope's staring eyes. How far the news would annoy or humiliate was difficult of conception.
"The Eardsleys and Hamlins are joining hands," he began, a flash of humour kindling him.
Penelope wriggled among her cushions, her slippered toes twisted and writhed in an agony of intense contemplation. His shot had told. He divined it in the twitching of her mouth When she spoke.
"I always overlooked your little sister, Hamlin," she said slowly, thoughtfully. "Some flowers are born to blush unseen, others leap at you over the hedgerows!"
Lady Mary paled slightly at her mother's words. Only by an effort did she control herself. Kenneth met her glance, and in the swift communion of thoughts which flowed between them he divined the beauty and simplicity of her nature. She was glad that Phyllis had accepted Roy, the fact was revealed in her eyes and gestures. A thought came to him, impelling the belief that Lady Mary had secretly wished for Phyllis to gain the boy lover of her early dreams. Penelope's voice brought him once more to the point.
"Your sister is to be congratulated, Hamlin. Convey my expressions of good-will to her. She has done well, although I have no right to say so. Only this morning my daughter had an offer of marriage from—"
"The Mexican Oil Company," Lady Mary interposed, with a wry face. "It tried to cast itself upon our troubled affairs and bring us safely into port."
"Do you call a Mexican millionaire 'it'?" Penelope stormed. "Is a man to be insulted because fortune has thrust her favours upon him?"
"He was not insulted!" Lady Mary collected her loose manuscript, and placed it in a music cabinet beside her. "You know I detest oil," she added, looking up into her mother's face.
Penelope laughed in spite of herself, while Kenneth consigned all wandering millionaires to the uttermost regions of the frozen north.
He took his leave of Penelope, and, on the badly-lit stairs, stood fumbling undecidedly with his hat and gloves. He must return to Barhampton to-morrow, must leave Ostend and the one woman on earth who counted for anything in life. He must leave at once. His position was assured now. An associate manager in the great house of Eardsley and Son, he might have offered the daughter of Penelope something beyond her present dreams.
He glanced back over his shoulder, and found her looking pensively in his direction.
"You will say good-bye. I know, you are returning to your work to-morrow."
Her voice seemed to mingle with the crying of the gulls outside, with the sound of the sea that beat its eternal song into the chords of his being.
To her he seemed like one in a dream from which he was fighting to awake.
"I shall not go until you bid me." He looked back into the clear light of her eyes, and in that glance he forgot the white- haired Penelope brooding in her chair inside the room beyond.
Lady Mary stood hesitatingly at the head of the stairs, her lips parted slightly, as though drinking in his words.
"I shall not go," he repeated steadily, "until all hope of winning your love is dead."
"Love!" She hesitated, her fingers tightening on the rail. Then her half-frightened glance wandered back to the room where her mother sat, and again to the young man standing half-way down the stairs.
"What does it matter!" he whispered. "Come to me, Mary Trenwyth. Together we can help Lady Colwyn.... make life somewhat easier. Will you come with me? Shall we go in and ask her?"
Kenneth was at her side now, his hot lips pressed to her cheek.
"Let us go in to Penelope!" he cried hoarsely. "Will you lead me to her— dear?"
Mary Trenwyth did not take her hand from his as they entered the room. The countess viewed them, through her pince- nez as one who had overheard the brief dialogue on the stair-head.
"I have nothing whatever to say in the matter, my dear Hamlin," she broke out before his trembling lips had shaped the words he intended to utter. "I may predict, however, the early suicide of a certain oil millionaire. Kiss her, Hamlin, and then be good enough to ring for afternoon tea."
THE pitiless warring of fate seemed to end here, as Kenneth stooped to touch Lady Mary's upturned face with his lips. Strife, disappointment, and the innumerable terrors of the past were swept aside in that pledge of life's sweet sacrament.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Administered by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.