'BEGGARS,' said Audrey Bourne, 'can't be choosers.'
It is more than a little dangerous to base your life and future upon a platitude, even though that platitude has passed into proverb.
She was not exactly a beggar, for she had a thousand a year of her own, and the choice was hardly hers. There were certain overpowering relatives of hers, the half-millionaire uncle being the most dominant, who thought it would be an amazingly fine stroke of business to make her the Countess of Tenford, and, since she was heart-free and had the spurious philosophy which twenty acquires so readily—the keystone of that philosophy being that one man is very much like another—she accepted her fate though she hated Tenford Court, which was Tudor and comfortless, though she loathed Tenford Park with its gloomy trees that shut out all view, and she disliked Lady Tenford, soon to be Agatha, Dowager Countess.
Few people liked Lady Tenford, who was tall, and thin, and acrid; a woman with a large nose and a short upper lip; who knew the history of every coat of arms that jostled one another in the mullion windows of the Great Hall. She had been a Tenford before she had married the late earl, and could trace her line back to pre-Plantagenet times. To her Tenfordism was a religion, the name more sacred than any she murmured so mechanically in the big family pew at Tenford Church.
Audrey came to hate the name and found a welcome relief in discussing, with bated breath, the murderous eccentricities of a hideous assassin who at that time was setting the nerves of Somerset on edge so that nobody walked out at night.
Cattle had been maimed, a farmer on his way home had been struck down and left for dead, a row of cottages at Senthford—which was once Seventhford—had been fired in the night and a poor woman had died of shock.
Her ladyship discovered her interest in these fearful happenings and had squashed her.
'I don't think it is wise, my dear Audrey, and I am sure Harry would not like it, to discuss these dreadful things with servants. You must not forget that one day you will be the Countess of Tenford and between you and them there is a gulf...'
She enlarged upon the exaltation which awaited the girl till Audrey was almost rude. And then, mercifully, Audrey was called to Berlin.
She had, strangely enough, an interest in the estate of a dead aunt who was indubitably German by marriage. The law courts of Berlin required her presence. It was not a very trying ordeal. Her business was finished the day she arrived, and she had a week left for sight-seeing.
In the ordinary and normal circumstances Audrey Bourne would never have become acquainted with 'Scarface.' She thought of him by this ugly title before she knew his name. She was rather young and very modern and had the trick of flippancy. Not that it was an unpleasing scar, or very noticeable: it followed the line of the lower jaw and was not more than two inches long. Otherwise he was quite good looking. Her first impression was that he was an army man; she amended this and decided, on the evidence of his intellect, that he was a schoolmaster on a holiday. He spoke German perfectly and she spoke it as she had been taught at school. It was in a curio shop near the Kurfürstendamm that he came fluently to her rescue, helped her with her purchases, and eventually walked with her through the Tiergarten to the Pariserplatz.
Two days later she saw him lunching alone at the Adlon and had coffee with him in the lounge. She did not ask his name; the head-waiter could not tell her when she asked; she knew that he was staying at the Eden and no more.
The acquaintance and its conditions would have been impossible in England; abroad one does singularly unconventional and even vulgar things and is thought none the worse of.
Had she told him she was visiting Potsdam and was approaching the home of military glory by way of the great lake? She rather thought that she had when she found him on the terrace of the Haus am See, with a table reserved for luncheon. They went across the lake together in a hired motor boat, through the Venetian waterways, to Potsdam, where her car was waiting. In the course of the trip she learned his name and his perfectly dreadful profession. She was genuinely shocked, though he seemed quite oblivious to his social inferiority.
She sat on the edge of her bed that night frowning at her indiscretions.
Why on earth had she told him about her engagement, about Harry and Lady Tenford, and everything? And why had he gaped at her when she told him of her engagement? That was an impertinence. Here was an acquaintance to be dropped instantly.
She went to the writing table and scribbled a note. She would not be able to lunch with him as arranged—she was terribly sorry. She left the note sealed on the table and went to bed.
In the morning she forgot to send it and lunched with him to her regret; for he was insufferable, plied her with questions, became almost proprietorial. It was now for the first time, she learned that he was neither army nor scholastic—he was in Berlin on quite a different errand. She might have borne the shock of this if he had not displayed an indecent interest in her future.
'But why marry anybody if you don't love them?' he asked. 'I think it is a horrible idea! After all, there are more important things than money—'
'Shall we talk about something else, please?' she asked coldly.
She left Berlin a day sooner than she had told him she was leaving and was unreasonably hurt because he did not come to the Friedrichstrasse station to see her off.
'A horrible man,' she said, and wished she had never met him.
She wished this through a sleepless night and in the dreary day journey between Dieppe and Calais, and on the boat and in the Pullman.
Lady Tenford met her at the Halt a few days later and thought she looked peaked.
'You must get some colour in your cheeks before Harry comes back. He is in town, having treatment for his ankle—you know when he was in the army he was shot at by a wretched native.'
HARRY TENFORD'S military career was a short one. He had served for two years with a crack cavalry regiment, had gone to India as ADC to a provincial governor, and resigning his post, had returned to England to a life of complete idleness.
He came down on the day of Audrey's arrival—a rather shy and awkward young man, too full of this forbidden subject for Lady Tenford's peace of mind. He was, it appeared, an amateur detective, had joined one of the search parties which went out to seek the unknown destroyer of the countryside peace, had theories upon which he would have enlarged if his dominating mother had not vetoed the discussion.
'They say he is a man from London ... The police found a footprint near the cottages ... Hobnail boots and that sort of thing ... Naturally they think he is a farm labourer. I pointed out to the inspector that that was probably a blind. Can't town people wear hobnail boots? They say they are bringing the best fellow down from Scotland Yard. It's going to be great fun—'
'It doesn't amuse me,' said her ladyship coldly. 'I would much rather you left this subject for the servants' hall to discuss. Audrey is not interested, neither am I.'
Audrey was very much intrigued at something he had said, but she did not feel that was the moment to display her interest. She had set her teeth for a very dull week, and had an idea that grimmer weeks would follow the 17th July which saw her by courtesy the mistress of Tenford Court.
THERE was a label on the window of the compartment which announced that it was reserved. Harry Tenford's heavy-jowled servant, who was standing in the corridor looking out on the station platform as the train began to move, took a half-step to check the intruder, but he had already pulled aside the sliding door and had one foot in the compartment. Harry looked up over the magazine and scowled at the newcomer.
'The compartment,' he began, 'is reserved.'
'I am terribly sorry, I didn't notice it.'
Harry liked people instantly or disliked them instantly, generally unreasonably in either case. He liked this brown-faced man with his ready smile.
'Don't go, sit down. The beastly train is bound to be crowded. I generally travel de luxe,' he said apologetically. Then, looking past his guest, he nodded. 'It's all right. Sool, I have asked this gentleman to share my carriage.'
The heavy-faced man withdrew reluctantly and closed the door. Harry Tenford's guest had the impression that he would have welcomed the order to eject without ceremony this invader of his master's privacy.
'My name is Tenford. I suppose you are going on to Bath?' But the other man said:
'No. I hear the train is stopping at Tenford Halt by great good luck. I am staying with some people in the neighbourhood. You are not Lord Tenford?'
Harry grinned and nodded. He was a big, florid young man with thin fair hair and a bald forehead.
'Yes, that is my name. Who are you staying with? They must be neighbours of mine. You are in luck; this train doesn't usually stop at Tenford Halt, no trains do except by request. Do you know Somerset, Mr—?'
The visitor took a card from his pocket and passed it across to his host.
'John Carberry,' read the other. 'I knew some Carberrys in India. A chap on the Viceroy's staff. You don't happen to be—?'
'I have never been in India,' said John Carberry. 'I believe I have some relations in the Army, but I don't know them.'
Lord Tenford picked up his magazine again and turned the pages slowly. Presently he put the book down again.
'Are you staying over the week-end?'
'I hope I am staying a week,' said Carberry with a laugh. 'I have an invitation to come down to Braime. Lord Perley—'
'Perley? Good lord! He went abroad yesterday. I believe the house is shut up.'
Carberry looked at him with an expression of blank astonishment.
'That's bad news,' he said. 'It looks as if I had my journey for nothing. I was hoping to get some fishing, too. If I hadn't been a fool I should have telegraphed from Paris to tell him I was coming.'
Harry Tenford looked at him thoughtfully.
'You are not a doctor, are you?' he asked.
'No,' said the other, evidently surprised at the question.
'I only asked you,' Tenford explained hastily, 'because my mother dislikes doctors. She is one of these what-do-you-all-ums?'
'In a way—yes. I mean, she goes to church, but she loathes doctors, my dear fellow. It's queer, isn't it? How can people get so prejudiced?'
He didn't explain why he had asked the question till the train was within ten minutes from the Halt.
'I wonder if you would like us to put you up for the week-end?' he asked abruptly. 'There's no inn where you can stay and the nearest town is twelve miles away, and you probably wouldn't be able to hire a car.'
He was amused at the effect of his gloomy prediction. John Carberry's face fell.
When the Halt was reached and they were on the little wooden platform he offered the promise of a solution to John Carberry's problems.
'If you wouldn't mind waiting here till I come back, I will be able to fix you up. The truth is, my mother is rather weird about—strange people. Particularly since this ghastly business in the neighbourhood.'
He did not particularise what the ghastly business was, nor did Carberry express any curiosity.
'If you can get me a car, I will be terribly obliged to you,' he said. He was more than amused at the young man's frankness.
T won't be gone more than half-an-hour. Perhaps Tillett will give you a cup of tea.'
Tillett proved to be the signalman and station master. Perhaps signalman was too dignified a title. He occupied a small cottage near the level crossing, the opening and closing of which was shared between himself and a spinster sister.
The stranded passenger watched Lord Tenford's Rolls sweep out of sight and surrendered his ticket to the querulous station chief.
'You are a friend of m'lord's, sir? Or maybe you are a lord yourself?'
'I am a plain mister myself,' smiled Carberry.
'Marvellous young gentleman: he has been in the army, been all over the world, India, everywhere. Staying at Tenford Court, sir?'
'No,' said the visitor.
'Ah, that's a pity: you'd like her ladyship. She is a bit severe, but a wonderful lady.'
Apparently Tillett's invitation to tea was an inevitable sequel. Tea was his one dissipation, and he offered the hospitality of that meal on the least excuse. Carberry followed him to the cottage.
'Lonely? I should think it was!'
Mr Tillett shivered. He was a thin man, and sandy as he was grey, but the type of man from whom one would expect emotional reaction.
'My sister has gone into Bath. She always goes in on Fridays, and I tell you I will be glad when she is back. Since this terrible business that's been going on—'
'What terrible business? His lordship was telling me something about it.'
Tillett looked right and left as though he feared an eavesdropper.
He told the story of the cattle maiming, of a devilish man who burned and hurt in sheer lust of cruelty.
'We found a dead tramp up there'—he pointed to the infinite—'up in Crawley Woods. An old fellow; I saw the body after the police found him—'
'Scared, are you?'
'Nobody is safe. I keep my door locked, and I wouldn't open it for all the money in the world. A fellow tried to get through with a car last night, but I told him to go up to the one on the Bath Road. I am not taking any risks.'
He lowered his voice.
'Mackintosh is coming down,' he said impressively.
'Who is Mackintosh?'
'Scotland Yard—one of the big men. He is expected at Bath by train, and he is coming out here this evening. One of the police sergeants told me—Sergeant Grear, a very nice man who lives down the village.'
'People are frightened down here, I suppose?'
'Frightened! It's not the word for it! You won't meet a soul on the road after dark. Most of the farmers who go out carry a gun, and I don't blame them, though the police think there will be a lot of accidents.'
He was the kind of man who could talk without the stimulant of interest. He was still talking when the Rolls came back with Tenford himself.
'My mother will be delighted if you come and spend the week-end with us,' he said. 'You will get all the fishing you want.'
The invitation was, not unexpected. John Carberry anticipated such an invitation after the mystery that accompanied his host's departure. He sat by his side on the drive back and ventured to raise a topic of conversation which he thought might be distasteful to his host.
'He is a marvellous fellow,' said Lord Tenford with enthusiasm. 'He has got everybody scared stiff—everybody except mother. The devil couldn't scare her! We are doing some patrolling to-night. The police has been reinforced and if you care to join our party—We are going to comb out Branson Wood.'
'Thank you,' said the other with a smile. 'That's not my idea of spending a perfect Saturday evening.'
Lady Tenford was waiting to meet them in the big hall. Her welcome was neither enthusiastic nor hearty. Mr Carberry thought that possibly her coldness was normal. Her scrutiny had a quality of suspicion and, remembering her dislike of doctors, he wondered whether her son had convinced her that this was not his profession.
Her ladyship resented his presence—she hardly disguised the fact. The gesture which she made to the scared-looking servant had in it something of contempt. He examined her curiously: a close-lipped woman, thin and angular. Harry Tenford was nervous in her presence, grinned amiably, but was uncomfortable, like a wilful child who had had his way and was a little apprehensive as to the consequence.
In the background was the big heavy-jawed servant whom Tenford called 'Sool'. He had changed into a footman's livery, and looked a little awkward.
'The man will take your bag to your room, Mr—ah—Carberry. Sool, will you see to Mr Carberry?'
Sool took the suit-case from the maid and led the way up the broad staircase, to a small, plainly furnished bedroom. He put down the case, making no attempt to open it, turned towards the door and stopped.
His voice was harsh, his tone unfriendly.
The man was taken aback by the brusqueness of the question.
'I just asked,' he said.
He opened the door, but the visitor called him back.
'You might say "sir" when you speak to me, will you?' said Carberry. He was smiling in the face of the discomfited Sool. 'Let me see—were you in the Army or the Navy?'
'SBS of course.' He saw the man jump, and laughed. 'I shouldn't tell her ladyship if I were you,' he said. There was the hint of a threat in his words. 'By the way, when do you expect Miss Bourne?'
'She's here, sir,' said the man.
Carberry's eyebrows rose. Then she could not have had his letter—the letter that he had written and re-written with such care.
'She came down last week,' said Sool.
Carberry nodded slowly.
'Very well ... You'll remember not to speak a word to her ladyship about my question. It is going to be rather awkward for you anyway—don't make your position a dangerous one.'
He changed and strolled upstairs; he knew his way about the house—an illustrated weekly had once described and illustrated Tenford Court exhaustively, and he had taken the trouble to look up the files.
For John Carberry intended to spend Saturday to Monday at the Court, his arrival in Lord Tenford's reserved compartment had been most carefully timed: his intention to spend the week-end at Braime House entirely fictitious. Nobody knew better than he that Lord Perley of Braime was not in residence. He had banked upon the hospitality of Harry Tenford.
He strolled into the library, and its one inmate rose with flushed cheeks and amazement in her eyes at the sight of him.
'You? You're not Mr Carberry?' she gasped.
'I am Mr Carberry,' he smiled.
She stared at him.
'But that isn't your name. Why did you come here in a false name?'
'One does those things,' he said carelessly.
'Does Lady Tenford know?' She was a little breathless.
He shook his head.
'I'd rather she didn't,' he said. 'I'm terribly sorry if I've annoyed you. I quite realise that I'm not a welcome visitor—I seldom am.'
'Not a welcome visitor!' She could have fallen on his neck in sheer thankfulness. Two nights of horror she had spent at Tenford—the Tuesday and the Wednesday nights.
She had wakened one night to hear a low chuckle, and had seen a hand and an arm coming through the open window of her bedroom. Her screams brought the servant Sool and her ladyship's voice was shrill with anger at her 'nightmare' (as Lady Tenford most summarily dismissed the apparition).
On the Wednesday there was a terrific thunderstorm, and in the flicker of the lightning she had seen two shapes flying across the lawn—men, one in pursuit of another. She did not scream, but somebody else was screaming in the dark of the sombre woods.
'No... I sha'n't tell.'
Lady Tenford came in at that moment. She was almost amiable. 'You've met Miss Bourne? Darling, it is time for you to dress.' She pecked at the girl's pale cheek. Audrey was not sorry to go.
'You are a Somerset man, Mr Carberry? Then you know the family?'
'The Family' was the one subject that her ladyship would discuss with the humblest of her servitors. The Tenfords of Tenford Court, William of Tenford who held the West County for King John, Laurence of Tenford whose name is inscribed in the Doomsday Book. It was essential for the peace and happiness of the world that the Tenford line should continue unbroken.
John Carberry gathered that Audrey Bourne was not the medium her ladyship would have chosen to this end. The Bournes were not a really old family—they emerged from obscurity after the Restoration: but Audrey was a 'nice gel' and her archaeological shortcomings had been excused. Besides which it was high time that Harry was married.
At dinner the conversation became more human. Harry Tenford was full of the latest outrage—the tramp murder. It had happened on the night of the storm. He was forming one of a party that was to make a midnight search of the woods.
'You'll do nothing of the kind!' said her ladyship sharply. 'Leave these matters to the police.'
Harry sulked through the rest of the meal.
For Mr Carberry the dinner was interesting, if only because of the gaucheness of the footman. Undoubtedly Sool was the most left-handed servitor that had ever waited at table. The girl hardly spoke through the meal and did not address him directly until she said 'good night' before retiring.
'I'm not sorry you're here,' she said in so low a voice that none heard except the man with the scar.
She fell asleep almost as soon as she was in bed; she had an unaccountable sense of security. Her room was sanctuary at least against the clumsy love-making of Harry—he had kissed her before she came up to bed, and that was one of the things she wanted to forget.
She woke suddenly to hear the deep-toned clock in the hall chime two. It had not disturbed her before, but now she was wide awake—wondering, fearful. Why had the clock sounded so near and so loud. That could not have awakened her.
She sat up in bed, and her blood went cold as the explanation came to her. The door of her room was open. She had locked it and taken out the key. She listened.
It was not imagination; she could hear somebody breathing, and then a board creaked.
The scream died in her throat; she was paralysed by fear, incapable of movement or sound. Then she felt a hand touch the silken coverlet—she heard the soft swish of it moving.
In an instant she was out of bed, darting blindly toward the door.
And then a big hand gripped her arm—another closed about her throat.
She struggled in the madness of her panic.
She heard something snap, and the room was flooded with light.
In the doorway was the man who called himself Carberry, and behind him she saw the frightened face of Sool.
The hand about her throat relaxed, and Harry, Earl of Tenford, drew back, a grin on his foolish red face, and then Sool called him and he went obediently.
IN the library they drank coffee together—the scar-faced Inspector Mackintosh from Scotland Yard and the pallid girl.
'It was an odd coincidence meeting you in Berlin,' he said. 'I was over there collecting information about this case—I didn't tell you so, but that is a fact. Tenford nearly murdered a German professor who was in India, the guest of the Governor to whose staff Tenford was attached. He's mad—a pretty dangerous homicide, but it was hushed up because of the family, and he was placed in the care of a keeper. Sool was an SBS—Sick Bay Steward—at Haslar, that is the naval hospital, and was in charge of lunatics. As soon as these atrocities started Scotland Yard put the case in my hands, and I started hunting up Tenford's history.'
'Did Lady Tenford know?' she asked in a shocked whisper.
'She's probably the madder of the two: Tenford-mad! She would have sacrificed you or anybody else to carry on the line.'
There was a long silence.
'I'm taking you back to town tomorrow,' he said. 'I'm terribly sorry you've had this shock. I hope what I have to say to you when you're well enough to hear it will not be a greater one.'
She shook her head.
'The shock will be yours, I think,' she said quietly, 'for I shall say "Yes".'