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THERE were three people in the boarding-house conducted by Mrs. Smithson, at 37 Bloomsbury-street, who, after having attracted much curiosity from their fellow-guests, became the subjects of a certain amount of suspicion. The one good- natured person in the place, the widow of a retired country grocer, left comfortably provided for, declared that this suspicion rose solely from the fact that these three, unlike any of the other residents, declined to discuss themselves or their own affairs. However this may be, stories of the three, in their absence or outside the range of their hearing, formed the most engrossing subject of conversation at Mrs. Smithson's dining- table.
The triumvirate consisted of a girl and two men. The girl was small and dark, graceful, with big black eyes, black hair parted in the middle, a rare but delightful smile, and a correctness of enunciation which led one to surmise that she might be of foreign origin. Her name was Miss Dorothy Illingworth, and all that anyone knew, of her was that she left the boarding-house after 10 every morning with a roll of music under her arm, and returned sometime towards, evening. Presumably she gave music lessons, but as more than one of the boarders savagely remarked, that roll of music might have meant anything.
The elder of the two men was a florid, talkative, unpleasant- looking man of little more than middle-age. His appearance suggested more the bar of a public-house than the restaurant of a highly-respectable boarding-house, and his hours could scarcely be called regular. He talked with everybody and about everybody, except one thing—himself. Any allusion to the subject of his own doings dried him up even in the midst of the most eloquent flood of conversation. No one had ever heard him say what his business was, or how he spent his days. Hence his position in the triumvirate.
The third person who had become the object of censorious comments in this little circle was a Mr. Frank Bray, a younger man, tall, dark, and reserved. He was not good-looking, but he was always carefully dressed, and his manners were good. He had first been the object of some attention from the young ladies of the place, and it was his obvious desire to escape from them which struck the first nail in the coffin of his popularity. He shared the peculiarity which has already been noted of his friend Mr. Jenwick. Never at any time had he been known to allude to himself or his work, and as Mrs. Smithson herself once sagely re- marked, "When a man never talks about his doings there's certain to be something he's ashamed of."
ONE day Miss Dorothy Illingworth returned home a little earlier than usual, entered the drawing-room, fancying herself alone, threw down her roll of music, and commenced to sob with her face in her hands. Mr Jenwick rose up from a distant corner, and rapidly approached her.
"My dear young lady!" he said. "My dear young lady!"
His tone was meant to be soothing. The girl only found it irritating. She sat upright, and stared at him out of her black eyes. "I am sorry," she said. "I did not know that you were in the room."
She stretched out her hand for her roll of music, and would have hurried away. Mr. Jenwick, however, prevented her.
"My dear young lady," he said, "you and I are alike in one respect. We have not made friends with any of the people here. Perhaps that is a reason why we ourselves should be friends. I am much older than you are. Tell me about your little trouble." Now Dorothy disliked this man exceedingly, but she was very much alone in the world, and she was feeling very miserable. He could certainly do her no harm, and his words were probably meant to be kind. "I have only four pupils," she said, "to whom I give music- lessons. I have just lost the best of them."
"That is too bad," he said. "Never mind. You will soon find someone to replace them."
She shook her head.
"It is so difficult," she said, "and the money I received from the four only just enabled me to pay my way here."
"You have no friends," he asked, "to help look after you?"
"Not one," she answered. "I am alone In the world."
"There is no one," he inquired, "to take an interest in you—to know what becomes of you."
She shook her head.
"Not a soul," she answered.
He was thoughtful for several moments. He had taken her hand in his, and was patting it soothingly. Suddenly she noticed the fact, and drew it sharply away.
"Well," he said, "it is too bad. However," he added, turning his head and looking at her critically, "there are other ways of making a living than trying to grind out music from the fingers of stupid children."
She shook her head.
"Not for me," she said. "There is nothing else that I can do."
"You never know until you try," he said encouragingly.
"Tell me something, then?" she asked. "I am not clever enough to be a governess. I do not know shorthand. I could not work a typewriter."
"The stage?" he suggested, musingly.
"I have neither friends nor influence nor ability," she answered.
He patted her hand once more consolingly.
"Well," he said, "let me know how you go on. I still think that there ought to be plenty of ways for you to make a living. I knock about so much, I may hear of something."
She thanked him warmly, and dried her eyes. After all, she thought, he could not be such a bad sort. In the hall she ran against Mr. Bray. He was walking up and down very much as though he had been waiting for her.
"Miss Illingworth," he said, "can I have a word with you?"
"Certainly," she answered, very much surprised. "Will after dinner do? I was just going to my room."
"I shan't keep you a minute," he said, throwing open the door of a little back sitting room, which was used by the male guests of the place as a smoking-room, "if you don't mind."
SHE followed him in, and he closed the door.
"Miss. Illingworth," he said, "I came into the drawing-room just now. I saw that you were talking to Mr. Jenwick, so I did not disturb you."
"Mr. Jenwick is very kind," she said.
“Nevertheless," he answered, "it is about Mr. Jenwick that I wish to have a word with you."
"About Mr. Jenwick?" she repeated.
"I am in the unpleasant position," he said, "of being about to speak against a man behind his back. I do not like to do so, but there are reasons why I wish to avoid any direct contact with that gentleman."
"What do you wish to say against Mr. Jenwick?" she asked.
"Only this," he answered. "He is not a person in whom you should trust. I did not wish to play the eavesdropper, but I could not help noticing that he was giving you advice. I believe that he even made you some sort of vague offer. Miss Illingworth, I wish to tell you this. You must not trust Mr. Jenwick. or take his advice. He is not a fit companion for you. He is not a fit person for you to have anything to do with."
"Thank you;" she said coldly. "Is that all?"
He looked down into her face earnestly.
"Miss Illingworth," he said, "why can't you trust me?"
"Why should I?" she answered. "You have never shown, any interest in me or my affairs."
"I am not a man who shows easily what he feels," Mr. Bray answered. "However, I can assure you that I am interested in you. If I were not, I should not have troubled to warn you against Mr. Jenwick."
"I will think over what you have said," she remarked, a little ungraciously.
"Will you promise," he asked, "that you will not follow his advice in any matter of importance, without consulting me?"
"No!" she answered. "I will not promise that. There is no reason why I should trust you any more than Mr. Jenwick, and I am quite old enough to look after myself."
She made her escape from the room, hurried upstairs, and burst into tears. Of course she had been a fool! She knew that quite well. And yet, he might have talked a little more kindly! He might have made it easier for her! Perhaps he would talk to her after dinner.
In this hope, however, she was disappointed. Neither Mr. Jenwick nor Mr. Bray dined at the boarding-house that night.
SHE came back the next afternoon a little more frightened. There was a look of positive terror in her face as she hurried through the hall and up to her room. She had a queer sort of feeling that someone was seeking to do her harm in the dark. That afternoon she had lost her other principal pupil. In exactly the same way—a few words, and a few shillings in lieu of notice. There was some reason for it. There must be some reason for it. She looked at the shillings in her purse, and she looked out into the future. Nothing in the world could be more hopeless.
She was a brave little person, however, and when the dinner bell rang she bathed her eyes, changed her clothes, and went down. Mr. Jenwick was there, making one of his rare appearances. He spoke to her once or twice good-humoredly during the progress of the meal, and afterwards he followed her into the drawing- room.
"Nothing else wrong, I hope?" he asked. "You are not looking particularly cheerful."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Nothing particular," she said.
"Sure?" he asked.
She looked at him with uplifted eyebrows. He got up with a little laugh, and went out.
Ten days passed. Then those of the boarders who happened to be about saw Miss Illingworth's box in the hall.
"I am very sorry indeed," Mrs. Smithson said; "very sorry. Miss Illingworth has always behaved quite nicely while she has been here, but what am I to do? She says that she cannot continue to pay my rates, and I am sure that they are low enough. So I suppose she must go."
She did not leave without remonstrance. Bray met her in the hall, and drew her into the little parlor.
"Miss Illingworth," he said, "I am very sorry indeed to hear that you have had some bad luck."
"It is of no consequence," she said coldly.
"It is of a great deal of consequence to me," he said emphatically. "I have not been able to see very much of you, Miss Illingworth, because my position here is in some respects a little peculiar, but I do wish you would believe me when I say that I am very anxious indeed to be your friend."
"It is very good of you," she murmured, turning away to hide her face. She could face misfortune, but kindness was more difficult.
"It is not good of me at all, he answered emphatically. "There are other things which I want to say to you, Miss Illingworth, and which I hope very soon that I may. Just at present I cannot."
"No?" she murmured.
"You don't understand, of course," he continued. "I can't make you understand, but let me tell you this. My name is not Bray, and I am here—well, almost under false pretences."
She drew a little away from him.
"And yet," she said, "you are the person who was warning me against Mr. Jenwick."
"And I do so again, most emphatically," he declared. "Jenwick is a scoundrel."
"Is that all?" she asked coldly.
"Tell me where you are going, Miss Illingworth," he begged.
"Why should I?" she asked.
"Because in a few weeks—very soon—I want to come and ask you something."
In her heart she felt that she believed in him, but a very devilish femininity possessed her. She turned away coldly.
"Thank you," she said, "my plans are not made yet."
She was out of the room before he could stop her. Bray walked to the window and swore softly. He saw that as she turned into the street, Jenwick, who was coming round the corner, accosted her. They walked slowly off together talking earnestly.
"I do wish, my dear Miss Illingworth," Jenwick was saying, "that I could inspire you with a little more confidence. Of course, the offer I make you sounds a little ridiculous, but there—you may as well know the truth. I am what is called a snob. I have plenty of money, but no friends with whom I care to be seen. Humor me just once or twice. It can do you no harm. Everyone knows that I have a niece, and everyone will believe that you are she. I don't ask you, of course. to compromise yourself in any way. You can have your rooms where you will, so long as you will show yourself occasionally with me, and help me, perhaps, one or two nights, to entertain some of my friends."
"Mr. Jenwick," the girl. said, looking at him steadily, "there is something about your offer which I do not understand. I want money very badly, but I want it honestly. This doesn't seem to me to be a reasonable way of earning it."
"I'll give you a sovereign for every time you come out with me," he declared. "Isn't that good enough? Try it just for once or twice. Try it and I'll advance enough for you to take your rooms somewhere and settle down comfortably."
"Mr. Jenwick," she said, "I do not like you well enough to feel that I want to be under any obligation to you."
"You will be under no obligation whatever," he answered. "I shall have my money's worth, I can assure you. If you are afraid of me," he went on, "I will promise not to touch even your fingers. I will promise you that faithfully. Come, will you try it?" "Yes!" she said. "On that understanding, I will try it."
"You are a very wise girl," he said. "You will never be sorry. Now you must please forgive the question, but have you an evening dress?"
"Certainly I have," she answered. "I was obliged to keep one for concerts."
He scribbled an address upon a card and gave it to her. There was also something else underneath the card.
"You will please take a cab at a quarter to eight this evening," he said, "and meet me at that address. Put on your evening dress, and make yourself look as nice as you can, as it is rather a smart restaurant. There will be plenty of money to go on with."
HE hurried away. before she could protest. She hated it all, and yet she was scarcely her own mistress. She was, after all, only a girl, and the necessity for living was still paramount."
The first evening passed off not so badly. On the whole, Dorothy was forced to admit that she had enjoyed herself. The restaurant at which they dined was quite first-class; the cooking, after a long course at Mrs. Smithson's table, was delightful; the music, soft but inspiring, and the sight of so many people; all bent upon enjoyment, was in itself reassuring. Mr. Jenwick's behavior, so far as it went, was irreproachable. He seemed in some way, too, to justify his own explanations. He asked, her several little questions about etiquette, and accepted her reading of the French dishes on the menu. She looked at him critically, and although he was dressed with care, she knew quite well that to a casual, observer she would appear his social superior. Well, if that sort of thing was worth, paying for, it was certainly not her place to complain. There was only one thing which made her a little uneasy. She noticed that throughout the whole dinner he seemed to be waiting for someone. His eyes constantly sought the door, and he watched every new arrival.
They sat until quite late, and afterwards he excused himself from taking her to any place of amusement, handed her into a cab, and sent her home.
"To-morrow night," he said, "I want you to come at the same hour to the same place." "What, we are going to dine here to- morrow night?" she exclaimed.
"It won't bore you, I hope?" he said.
She laughed. The question seemed to her to prove that he was not devoid of humor.
The next night something happened. A very young and tired- looking boy came into the place with two friends. He passed their table with a slight nod to Jenwick, but when his eyes fell upon Dorothy his manner underwent a complete change. He almost stopped, and passed on as though reluctantly. She heard him give orders to a maitre d'hotel that his table should be changed, and for the first few courses of his dinner he did little else except look across the room towards her.
"Who is that young man?" she asked Mr. Jenwick.
"That," he said, "is a young fool named Vane Hessel. He has just come into some thing like a million of money."
"He seems a little impertinent," she remarked.
"He is spoilt," Jenwick answered; "but he is really a very decent young fellow indeed. I expect he will come across and speak to me before long."
Mr. Jenwick's supposition proved correct. The young man came across as soon as coffee was served, and stood talking for several moments in a languid sort of manner, with his eyes continually straying towards Dorothy. Jenwick at last introduced him. "Dorothy, he said, this is Mr. Vane Hessel—my niece!" he added.
Mr. Vane Hessel accepted a chair and talked to Dorothy for the next quarter of an hour. His remarks were pleasant enough, and he made but one lapse—he showed a little too obviously his surprise at the relationship to which Jenwick had alluded. Before he went he suggested an excursion in his motor-car for the following Sunday, which Mr. Jenwick calmly accepted for both of them.
"I tell you what it is," he said. "You must come and dine with us quietly—say, on Friday or Saturday night. I'll get just a couple of fellows in; and we'll have a little game of cards, and Dorothy shall play and sing to us."
"I shall be delighted," the young man said eagerly.
"Make it Friday, then," Jenwick declared. "We must be off now. I am going to take my niece to the Palace."
That night, as they left the restaurant, Dorothy met Bray face to face. He passed without recognition, and Jenwick frowned.
It's that fellow from the boarding-house," he said. "I hate him."
Dorothy made no remark. She was walking with her head a little higher than usual, and a flush upon her cheeks. How dared he look as though he had the right to be angry at her presence there with Mr. Jenwick!
"HE shall not sign it!"
There was a muttered curse from Jenwick, a blank surprise from the other men. Vane Hessel, who was lounging back in his chair with his hands in his pockets, looked at her in stupid amazement.
"What the devil are you talking about, Dorothy," Jenwick exclaimed savagely.
"I mean what I say," she declared. "I understand it all now. You. have done your best to make him drunk, you have robbed him at cards, and now you want him to sign a blank cheque. I tell you that he shan't sign it. Mr. Vane Hessel," she said, turning towards him. "listen to me. I tell you that I am not this man's niece. It is all part of a scheme to get you here and make money out of you. If you have an ounce of manhood in you, you will sign nothing. You will—"
Jenwick's coarse, fat hand was suddenly pressed against her mouth. She struggled, but it was impossible to escape from his grasp. Vane Hessel lurched up to his feet.
"Let the girl go, Jenwick," he cried.
He was thrown back into his seat easily enough. Nevertheless, he rose again, and struggled to reach her, as Jenwick pushed her towards the door.
"Little girl," he cried out, "you are right. I'm d- — d if I'll sign anything. This is a den of sharpers."
There was an ominous silence. Dorothy felt herself almost flung into the little back room, and heard the key turned upon her. Jenwick walked hack into the dining-room. Vane Hessel was still upon his feet, and struggling to make his way toward the door.
"Look here, Jenwick," he said, "do you mean that I am not to be allowed to leave this house?"
"Not till you've signed that cheque," Jenwick answered sternly. "You've lost your money, and you must pay."
"Lost my money be d—d!" the young man answered. "The girl was right. It has. been a put-up job from the start. You can keep me here till doomsday, but I sign no cheque. I repudiate any liability, on to-night's play."
Jenwick calmly locked the door.
"We shall see about that," he said. Dorothy sometimes heard his groaning, and more than once she heard him shout out—always the same thing.
"I will not sign! I will sign nothing!"
Then there would he more groans, groans which had a background of curses and savage threats. So the night wore on. Dorothy flung herself continually at the door. She rang the bells, shouted till her throat was hoarse. The men in the next room took no notice of her. Jenwick's establishment was conducted on lines which made such behavior futile. But toward morning something happened. She heard sudden whistles, and was aware from the darkening of the transept that the lights all over the house had suddenly gone out. The curses in the next room were lowered but emphatic. There was a sound of footsteps upon the stairs, the tramp of men, and then a thundered summons at the next door. She held her breath and waited. A revolver shot rang out, followed by another. Then a blaze of light, the sound of a heavy fall, and silence. Then she began to scream again, and the door of her room was thrown open. She rushed out, and found herself in the arms of Mr. Bray.
"Don't go in the next room," he said. "Someone has been hurt."
"What are you doing here?" she exclaimed.
"I am here to look after you," he answered grimly. "I can tell you the truth now, if you like. I am a detective, and I have been watching your friend, Mr. Jenwick, for the last two years. We have him at last, thank Heavens, and a bigger blackguard was never removed from this world."
She began to sob.
"Oh! I have been so foolish!" she murmured.
"There's a man in there who wouldn't believe it," Bray said; "Vane Hessel has been telling us about you."
"I ought to have listened to you before," she said shyly.
"Won't you promise," he whispered, "never to listen to anyone else again, and I think that I will forgive you?"
She drew a little sigh.
"If you mean it," she said, "if you are sure that you mean it."
"I am a poor man," he said slowly, "and there's a young millionaire in the next room who's raving about you already. You're sure—"
She laughed softly, and came a little closer into his arms. He found no opportunity just then for further speech.