Roy Glashan's Library.
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"YOUR brother coming back to England, Evelyn! Back again so soon! That is somewhat strange, is it not?"
"So strange, dear Violet, in the greatest trouble and distress about it. I have had no particulars sent to me—merely the plain, bald fact that he is on his way home—will be here in a few days. And coming, as it does, after so many disappointments and—and—failures, it is all the harder to bear. I did think that this time Philip had found something that would—"
"Would give his talents a chance, dear. Yes, I know what you mean. I—all his friends and yours—hoped so, too."
"All our friends! Alas! where are they to-day? You and your father, and—and—one or two others, are all that are left of the shoals who used to crowd our house in the days when we had money. How terribly far off those times now seem! What a contrast with today! How different, how cruel and hard, the whole world seems when you have no longer money to keep up a position with!"
The speakers were two girls, Violet Metcalf and Evelyn Stanville, two young people who had been friends all their lives, having been playmates as children and afterwards schoolfellows. Trouble, however, heavier than usually falls upon the young, and bringing with it many strange and unexpected changes, had already visited them both though it had come upon them in different ways.
Violet Metcalf, a charming, fair-haired, blue-eyed maiden of scarcely twenty years, vivacious and sweet-tempered, was the only daughter of the Rev. Owen Metcalf, formerly for many years a curate at Somerdale, a village in the West of England, but now a Mission Worker in the East End of London.
At the time this story opens he was living in a shabby house in a narrow, dirty street close to one of the great docks—so close that the strip of "garden" at the back was shut in, at the further end, by the high dock wall.
Violet's mother had died some two or three years before, and then had followed closely two other misfortunes—Mr Metcalf had lost the post he had held for so long at Somerdale, and almost simultaneously an undertaking in which he had invested his meagre savings had failed. Since then he had felt the pinch of poverty cruelly, and had been unable to provide the money required for the ordination of his son Ernest, pending which the young man was perforce at home with nothing to do save assisting his father—employment which, however added little or nothing to the family income.
Evelyn Stanville, who had just entered her twenty-second year, could also boast of personal charms far above average, though her beauty was of a different style to that of her friend. She was tall, slender, and dark, and in manner somewhat reserved. She had been brought up in the very lap of luxury and had seemed, up to her seventeenth year, to be Fortune's favourite spoiled child. Then, her mother and father had both died within a short time of each other, leaving her alone in the world save for an elder brother, who succeeded to the family estates. The loss of their parents proved to be but the beginning of troubles that came rushing upon the two like the letting out of water. Somehow—no one seemed exactly to know how—in a surprisingly short time, Philip Stanville managed to run through his fortune. In three short years he lost all his money, his estates, and their old home, Somerdale Hall, that fine ancestral mansion close to Somerdale. Then, after a vain struggle to save something out of the wreck, the brother and sister had found themselves turned adrift in an unsympathetic world—moneyless, homeless, and almost helpless.
Since then Philip's history had been little else than a record of those dismal failures and disillusions such as too often await the young man used to wealth and luxury when he falls upon evil times. Having had no special training, he could not turn his hand to anything in the way of money making occupation, and "to beg he was ashamed."
His sister had been compelled to take a position as a governess, and out of her scanty savings she had, from time to time, sent many a sovereign to help her brother. Then someone had obtained for him a post under the Governor of one of our smaller colonies; and it was hopefully thought that he would be provided for, for a time at least. But now he was on his way back again, though he had only been out in the colony a bare three months.
The news had come to Evelyn just as she had received notice to leave her situation—the third she had tried since their troubles began—and it is not much to be wondered at, therefore, that it should have fallen upon her with almost crushing effect. She felt disheartened and despondent, and began to despair both for herself and for her brother.
While she was hesitating as to her next step, she received a letter from her friend Violet, saying she wanted particularly to see her, and inviting her to come and stay with her in London while she was out of a place. This offer she had at once gladly accepted, and sending only a few brief lines of acquiescence, followed the note up in person the following day.
Thus it came about that the two friends, brought up in a sunny Western country on the borders of Wales, in the midst of beautiful scenery, and in such different circumstances and surroundings, were now met together in one of the least attractive corners of the great wilderness of bricks and mortar called London.
It was a winter's afternoon, and Evelyn, gazing through the window almost shuddered as she noted the squalid, cheerless outlook. On either side were long strings of linen hanging out to dry in the sooty atmosphere; at the ends of the "gardens" were grimy tumble-down outhouses propped precariously against the massive dock wall. Everything around was dirty, sordid, smoke- dried, uninviting.
Yet above the bare-looking frowning wall of the dock there was a glimpse of something which carried the mind far away to very different scenes. The sky was alight with a warm orange glow from the setting sun, and sharply defined against it could be seen the graceful, towering masts and the clear-cut lines of the rigging of some of the great ships that sail to and fro upon the deep waters.
The sight of these, and the hoarse, roaring scream of a "siren," which told that some mighty leviathan was about to start upon a new voyage, seemed just then curiously in touch with Evelyn Stanville's thoughts. They reminded her afresh of her brother, who was then on the sea, and might be gazing up at just such masts and listening to just such a signal.
But Violet had become used to all these sights and sounds, and she now took no notice of them. Her thoughts had run into a different groove, and she said suddenly:
"Father meets with queer people sometimes in the course of his rounds, especially in the docks. And, do you know, he generally happens upon something or somebody out of the way when he has lost himself, or got into the wrong train or omnibus. Poor daddy! He will never get used to London! I fear. He is constantly losing his way and finding himself where he has no wish to be. And the funny thing is that when that occurs, it nearly always seems to result in some little adventure—in his meeting with somebody, or seeing something strange and altogether unexpected. It has become quite a saying with us now," she continued jokingly, "if you want daddy to help you in anything, you should first induce him to get himself lost; something is pretty sure to come of it."
Evelyn looked at her friend enquiringly, and a little wearily. Her mind was filled with anxious and gloomy thoughts, and this talk, which might have amused her at another time, seemed just then neither amusing nor relevant. But Violet proceeded to explain:
"Thus much by way of preface, Evelyn dear, before I explain what it was I wanted so particularly to see you about. Do you remember the old woman down at Somerdale we used to call Gipsy Jane?"
"Very well, indeed; I have cause to. She seemed to have a particular spite against me and mine, and used to delight in croaking out all sorts of dismal predictions a very bird of evil omen! The worst of it is that most of her evil auguries have come true."
"Yes, I remember."
But she made one last prophecy of another kind which I do not think I have over mentioned to you. It occurred after you went away. One day my brother, at some risk to himself, saved the old woman's life by fishing her out of the river when she had fallen in. So, by way I suppose, of requital, she was good enough to predict that some day all our troubles were to pass away, and my brother to be restored to his old position, and this was to come about through a mysterious somebody 'up in Lunnon town.' That," Evelyn finished, with a smile that was half-humorous, half-sad, "is, I think, about the only one of her predictions about myself and my fortunes which has not been fulfilled, and I suppose is never likely to be."
Violet remained silent a moment or two, as though pondering upon this statement. Then she continued:
"And you remember her son, William Grainger, 'Bill the Poacher' or 'Black Will,' as he was variously called, and his little girl Susie, that you made a sort of protégée of?"
"One day daddy lost his way in one of the docks, and accosting a man who was passing to ask his way, found himself face to face with Black Will. At once the man poured out a long tale of trouble, and said that little Susie was very ill—dying, he feared. We went to see her, and found her, as he had said, dangerously ill; but we did the best we could, and she pulled through."
Violet did not say that the illness had been smallpox, and that she herself had done nearly all the nursing. Such, however, was the case.
"Poor little Susie!" said Evelyn, sympathetically, "I was always fond of that child, and missed her sadly when her father left the place, and took her away."
"Well, to come to the point Evelyn, dear, this man Grainger is now himself very ill, and he wants to see you. He declares that be has something on his mind that he wishes to disclose to you— something concerning your brother, and that it will be to his interest, he hints, to know. He has refused to confide it either to daddy or to me, so that your coming here just now is opportune if you care to go and see him—as I daresay you will like to do."
"Something to disclose, something of interest to my brother!" Evelyn exclaimed, in some excitement "Yes, Violet; yes—oh, yes! I will go to him as soon as you like!"
"Then we will go at once," Violet replied. "He is unconscious at times, and to-morrow he might be too ill to talk."
AN hour later the two friends found themselves in a close, stuffy room, in a small tenement that stood at the end of a typical dirty, evil-smelling London Court. The distance from Mr. Metcalf's house was not great, but in traversing it the two had been compelled to wander, in the gathering dusk, through a labyrinth of lanes and byways, crowded with people whose appearance made Evelyn open her eyes in pained surprise, and even inspired her, at times, with some alarm, for the inhabitants of these slums in the vicinity of the docks are of a very mixed character, and the interest they exhibit in strangers—especially when respectably dressed—is not always of a friendly character.
Violet, however, showed neither fear nor hesitation, and pursued her way quite unmolested; indeed, with many of those they encountered she was not an unknown visitor, and they greeted her as respectfully and cordially as their naturally rough manners permitted.
The room in which the sick man lay was somewhat more comfortably furnished than might have been expected, considering the neighborhood, and what could be seen of the stairs up which they had stumbled. A lighted lamp stood upon a table in the middle of the room, and upon another smaller table, beside a bed in a corner, amongst a litter of dirty crockery, some medicine bottles could be discerned.
There was a fire in the grate, and in front of it, smoking a black clay pipe, was an old crone, who greeted Violet quietly, and then hobbled out of the room, leaving the two visitors alone with her patient.
To the latter Violet then turned, and after a few kindly greetings and inquiries came to the immediate reason of their visit.
"I have brought Miss Stanville to see you, Grainger," she said gently. "Now you can tell her yourself why you wished me to bring her."
"Let me see her. Bring the light nearer," with what was evidently a painful effort to a sitting position.
Violet moved the lamp to the table beside the bed, and Evelyn came forward a step or two into its full light, meeting, with a friendly smile, the eager gaze that was bent upon her.
The thin, haggard face she now saw, surrounded by a thick mass of tangled hair and beard, was so different to that of William Grainger as she had last seen him, that she had some difficulty in tracing a resemblance. But the black eyes, sunken though they were, that looked out from under the bushy eyebrows, seemed to blaze with even more than their old fierce fire; it was, indeed, obvious that they were lighted up with fever.
And as the man slowly sat up she could see how shrunken and emaciated was his form—a pathetic contrast to the burly figure that had been his in former days.
Grainger, on his part, gazed long and steadily at Evelyn, and his rough, fierce look softened a little as he noted that she, too, had changed. In her pale, anxious face his keen glance read and understood something of the troubles, trials, and bitter humiliations that the delicately brought-up girl had already endured in her experience of battling with the world. He saw that she had suffered, and he marked the wistful, almost humble, expression of the beautiful eyes that had been wont to sparkle with youth's high spirits; eyes that he had often seen filled with frank, roguish fun, but that could, as he remembered, on occasion, flash with a touch of the haughty fire she had inherited from some bygone ancestor.
Presently Grainger broke the silence abruptly:
"Ye doan't look well, yerself, Miss Evelyn," he said. "We're both of us the worse for the time that has gone by since we met last."
His tone was somewhat rough, but it seemed to Evelyn to have also in it a touch of sadness. She thought the roughness seemed to be assumed to hide deeper feelings which he was reluctant to exhibit, and she answered gently:
"The time that has passed, Grainger has brought troubles, no doubt, to both of us. I am sorry to see you are worse off than I am, for I have still health and strength which you have lost—let us trust, however, only for a time."
He shook his head despondently, and replied:
"Aye, I be main bad how bad I doan't rightly know, for the doctor woan't tell me—at least, I doan't know whether he says what he really thinks. Sometimes I think I be goin' to die, an' another time I think I'll get about agen yet. But, Miss Evelyn, I've bin thinkin' over things a lot while I've been lying 'ere, an' I feel I've been a bad 'un, and that what's happened to me ain't nothin' but what I deserved. But now wi' you an' your brother—Mr. Philip—it be different. You've done nuthin' to deserve the troubles as you've had come upon ye; an' as to Mr. Philip, well, he were a bit rough on me at times like. Masterful, aye, very masterful were Mr. Philip; but he's got a good heart, and he saved my mother's life, my poor old mother as 'as lost all her family but me, an' I've been a bad 'un to her. But Mr. Philip, as I say, arter all, 'as done nuthin' to deserve to suffer, an' he 'as suffered, I expec's."
Evelyn's eyes were filled with tears as she replied:
"Ah! you cannot think how cruelly he—we both have suffered."
Grainger eyed her keenly, and nodded slowly as be continued:
"Aye, aye; I can guess, I have 'eard—I know I be very sorry for him now, though once I was glad; an' I be more sorry still for you, miss. I were sorry about you because you were kind to my little Susie. An' now, Miss Violet, there, 'as bin that good to her as I can't bear to look her in the face, knowin' what I do about you, her frien', as I know she be so fond of you."
"But what is it you know, then, Grainger?"
Violet asked, as he paused. "Miss Stanville is more than usually worried and anxious just now, and if you have anything to say likely to interest her, or to be of service to her brother, do not keep her in suspense. He is now on his way home—"
Grainger smiled slightly, and said almost as if to himself:
"Yes, I know."
"You know! How can that be? I only knew of it to-day, and Miss Stanville—"
"I know all about it, Miss Violet," was the unexpected answer. "An' I know why he's comin' back, an' who's brought it about. It be all part of the same cunning scheme—the dirty conspiracy!"
"Cunning scheme! Conspiracy!" exclaimed his two hearers together.
"Aye, young ladies," Grainger repeated with energy, bringing one hand down with a bang on the table beside him. "It's bin all of it a dirty conspiracy to ruin Mr. Philip, and I"—he went on more slowly, his voice falling—"I am as bad as them as planned it and carried it out, for I knew all about it and said nuthin'!"
He hung his head, and his eyes fell as though ashamed to meet the looks that were bent upon him.
Evelyn went up to him and laid her hand upon his arm appealingly.
"Grainger," she entreated, in a voice almost choked with emotion, "if you know aught that can aid my brother, tell me, I beseech you. It is not only what we have gone through—what has happened—our money lost—that is done with—but I have strange misgivings—presentiments as to the future—"
She paused, struck by the look he turned upon her.
"Ye have presentiments. Miss Evelyn—ah! pay heed to 'em. They're a warning sent by the great God, I do believe. Ye say truly what 'as happened is past and gone; but there be worse afoot—an' I doan' like it. So long as there were a plan to get yer money, well, I didn't see 'twere my place to interfere; but now that there be a foul, blaggard plot afoot to bring disgrace and further shockin' trouble upon him—an' you, too, of course—then I doan' feel I can stand by and not give ye a word o' warnin'."
"Oh Violet!" Evelyn exclaimed, turning to her friend, "what can he mean? His words fill me with fear and terror. Can it be true Can it be possible that there is so much wickedness in the world? But who is at the bottom of it, then? Who is our enemy?"
"Aye, who?" Violet asked, turning to Grainger. "It is not much use to warn unless you tell the name of this hidden enemy."
But the sick man had exhausted his strength, and now lay back on the bed, gazing vacantly at the ceiling, and gabbling in a feeble fashion of other scenes. Nor could they draw from him anything further in the way of coherent talk, though they were assisted in their efforts by the old woman who was nursing him.
"He'll ramble on like that all night, now, I expec's, my dear," she told Violet. "You'd better leave him for to-day, and come agen another time."
There was nothing further for it but to act upon this advice, and thus it came about that Evelyn returned from the visit filled with new fear and apprehensions, but no wiser in the most essential points than when she had set out.
"WHY, this is good news! Evelyn my dear, what do you think this letter contains?"
"I'm sure I cannot guess, Mr. Metcalf. Anything concerning my brother? It would be welcome news, indeed, if it meant something good for him."
"Always your brother, Evelyn—your first thought is always of him." Mr. Metcalf looked at her with a kind, thoughtful smile, then he added: "Well, my dear, not to keep you in suspense, your surmise is correct. This letter does relate to your brother. It contains a definite offer of the post of which I spoke the other day. From what I gathered at the time it seems to me to be the very thing to suit him."
"Oh, how thankful I shall be if it turns out as you think, Mr. Metcalf. What an unexpected chance! What a piece of luck!"
But Mr. Metcalf shook his head disapprovingly.
"No, no, my child. Speak not of 'chance' or 'luck'—there is no such thing! You know I do not believe in anything of that kind; and I do not like to hear a person, when a good thing comes unexpectedly his or her way, ascribe it to 'chance.'
"I know; I ought to have remembered, Mr. Metcalf," Evelyn answered contritely. "But I did not exactly mean it; one says these things without thinking. In my own heart I render up thanks where our thanks are due."
The Reverend Owen Metcalf was a fine-looking old gentleman, with grey hair, a tall, upright figure, with a cheery, bustling manner. His clean-shaven face showed a well-formed mouth with kindly lines about it; and his clear grey eyes seemed habitually to beam with benevolence and good feeling. On occasion, too, they would twinkle with a certain quiet humor; for he was a man who believed in setting to others the example of cultivating a cheerful disposition.
"Our life here," he had said to Evelyn, referring to his experiences since he had last seen her, "is a busy one. We are always being called upon by one or another in trouble. They even occasionally call us up at night. Sometimes it is almost laughable, they come to consult us about such queer things; though, unhappily, there is more to grieve over than to laugh at. Yet it is good, while keeping one's heart open to sympathise with the misery of which one sees so much, it is good, I say, to keep one's eyes and ears open to the humorous interludes. It is good because it helps one to keep up a cheerful demeanor, which, goes a long way, at times, towards encouraging the downhearted. Like Figaro, I often have to 'laugh for fear I should weep.'"
As to the rest, the good-hearted minister erred, perhaps, if he erred at all, in a most invincible optimism in his views of human nature. Never did the description "one who thinketh no evil" apply to anyone more absolutely that this zealous, truly charitable-hearted worker.
Even in London slums, even after experiences that would have discouraged nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand, he seemed to retain all the innocent truthfulness which he had brought with him from the country life in which the greater part of his time had been spent.
A sincere, simple-minded servant of his Master, a worthy example of one of God's most faithful ministers, a peacemaker on earth, such was the Reverend Owen Metcalf.
He had been at one time, for a while, tutor to Philip Stanville, and no one had grieved more sincerely than the worthy clergyman over the young man's reverses, or sympathised more deeply with him and his sister in their misfortunes. When, therefore, his daughter had said she wished to ask Evelyn to stay with them, he had at once warmly approved of the suggestion.
Evelyn had now been in London for more than a fortnight, and beyond the fact that her brother had duly arrived, and that she had had the pleasure of greeting him on his arrival at the docks, little had occurred in the interval. Her interview with William Grainger, which at the time had promised to lead to some interesting revelations, had ended in disappointment. The man had made a marvellous recovery, and, in proportion as his health and strength returned, his professed desire to make the revelations he had hinted at had died down. Finally, he had suddenly disappeared without having revealed anything of consequence beyond the vague assertions Evelyn had heard at her first visit.
As matters had turned out, she had more than once found herself wishing that the man had said nothing at all, for his incomplete discourses had only served to increase and accentuate the indefinite apprehensions with which her mind was disturbed.
So much the more welcome, therefore, had been the announcement made by Mr. Metcalf at the breakfast-table, for it was at the morning meal that it had been made.
Philip was staying elsewhere. He usually called in during the morning, or came round later and spent the evening. There were present at the meal, therefore, besides herself and her host, only his daughter and his son Ernest.
Ernest Metcalf was a good-looking young man, of twenty-five, of whom it may truly be said that he was striving his best to walk in his father's footsteps. He had been intimate with Philip Stanville all his life, and their friendship had remained unbroken throughout the vicissitudes which the latter's change of fortune had brought about. In secret, he was a devoted admirer of Evelyn; but his own uncertain prospects had caused him to conceal his deeper feelings. Apart from that, the two were, and had always been, good, firm friends.
Ernest understood and sympathised with Evelyn in the vague forebodings which Grainger's mysterious talk had left in her mind, and had done his best to trace the man, with the object of inducing him to speak out more clearly; but he had thus far failed. He was all the more pleased, therefore, that this news of a good post for her brother should arrive just then to cheer her. Somehow she guessed it would be so, and was not surprised when she glanced in his direction, to find that he was regarding her with a glad smile.
"I am more pleased than I can tell you, Evelyn," he said. "You will be able to go with a better heart now to interview the ogress!"
He referred to an appointment which he knew Evelyn had made for that morning with a lady about an engagement as governess.
"Ye—es, I hope so," she answered, with a sigh; "but having to go there will prevent my being in when Phil calls this morning. I should so like to have told him myself, and to have a good long talk with him. And I know you and Violet are going out, too."
"I shall be at home, Evelyn," said Mr. Metcalf. "And I will keep him in if I can; or at least try to arrange with him to come in and see you this evening."
Thus it came about that when, in the course of the morning, Philip made his expected call, he found no one in to receive him save his former tutor.
He came in looking somewhat depressed, but cheered up a little at the sight of his friend's face, in which he seemed, even at the first glance, to read good news. Mr. Metcalf, on his part, looked at the young man with close attention. As had often been the case before, he was sensible of a feeling of admiration for the handsome face and figure, the easy grace and quiet dignity of carriage and bearing, and the honest, manly expression that shone in the clear, steady eyes. All this he had seen and appreciated in the past; what concerned him now was that he could so clearly perceive also the underlying shadow that threatened to spread and cloud the vivacious spirit and hopeful perseverance which Philip had hitherto always shown, and which had borne him through his many misfortunes and disappointments. It made the good-hearted old gentleman all the more pleased to think that he had that to impart which would probably, for a time at least, chase that gloomy-looking shadow away.
A few minutes sufficed to put his visitor in possession of the news, and the beneficial effects of the communication became quickly apparent. Philip's spirits visibly improved, and he seemed to throw off the listless air which had lately become almost habitual.
"The secretaryship of the Phoebus Gold Mine Company," said Mr. Metcalf, "that is what is offered to you, my dear boy. Three hundred a year to start with—it is a new company, I understand— and the promise of an increase of salary as the undertaking progresses."
"There's only one thing," Philip said, with a smile; "I know nothing whatever about gold-mining, or—"
"Oh, pooh! pooh!" Mr. Metcalf interrupted, briskly. "You're not going to be their engineer. You will soon fall into the duties. Do not throw away this opportunity, my dear boy—and God's blessings go with you."
And so it was settled that Philip Stanville was to become secretary to the Phoebus Gold Mine Company, Limited, a new venture then starting with what were considered dazzling prospects, to work a gold mine in South America. But had the worthy old gentleman, who was so delighted at having been the means of arranging the matter, only been able to foresee what was to come of it, he would have been the very last, probably, to urge his young friend to accept the proffered post.
"SO Phoebus Gold Mine shares have gone up with a great jump, I see, Mr. Keen."
The speaker was a sharp-faced, brisk individual who had just entered one of the offices of the great financial firm of Morrison, Hedley and Company, of Midas-court, in the City of London.
The man to whom the observation was addressed was standing with his back to a cheerful fire, intently engaged in reading one of the publications that are exclusively devoted to the movements of stocks and shares. He was stout, florid, and had a well- dressed, well-to-do air, and was evidently a person in authority; yet there was something about him, that indescribable something which always, to a close observer, distinguishes a paid servant of a firm from one of the principals.
Mr. Lewis Keen was, in fact, confidential clerk to Mr. Ralph Hedley, the junior partner of the house, and as such, was a person of considerable influence and importance. He had a private office all to himself, and a very sumptuously furnished up-to- date office it was, with beautiful Turkey carpets and at least half-a-dozen separate telephones.
This morning he seemed to be in particular good spirits, and the greeting he gave to his visitor was genial and cordial.
"I am glad to say," he said, replying to the other's remark, "that Phoebus shares are doing well—uncommonly well, Mr. Teazel."
And as he spoke his small eyes had a sly twinkle in them that seemed to suggest something more than the words themselves would actually have conveyed to an ordinary listener.
Mr. Silas Teazel evidently inferred something of the sort, for he laughed knowingly, and his own eyes twinkled in sympathy.
"You've managed it all very cleverly, Mr. Keen, I will say that," he rejoined. "I suppose you've taken advantage of the rise to make a bit for yourself, eh?"
And again he laughed in a very knowing fashion, and this time the laugh was accompanied by a very suggestive wink.
Mr. Keen shook his head, but in such a suggestive manner that it was doubtful whether he desired the disclaimer to be taken seriously.
"I have to be careful, you know," he said.
"But nobody—except you and I and a few behind the scenes—know that the 'Phoebus' is one of your gov'nor's promotions."
"Oh, no! Nobody has the ghost of an idea, and nobody beyond ourselves is ever likely to. We've kept it quite dark."
"Yes, as I said, you've managed uncommonly well. But I've just heard something that has surprised me—about the new secretary, I mean. I'm told you're going to put Philip Stanville in."
"Sh—sh! You'll get into trouble, Teazel, if you talk about anything of that sort. The gov'nors are not supposed to have anything to do with his appointment."
"I see. All right—I'll be careful."
"You'd better. Hullo! there's the gov'nor's bell."
Mr. Keen disappeared through a door, and returning a minute or two later, said, laconically:
"You're to go in at once."
Mr. Teazel nodded, and promptly went out by the door the other had left open for him, passed through a small lobby, knocked at another door marked "Mr. Ralph Hedley," and a moment later was standing in the presence of that gentleman himself.
He was seated at a table, busily engaged in writing. As his visitor entered, he just raised his hand for a moment and inclined his head without looking round, and Mr. Teazel who was accustomed to his ways, knew that the movement signified that he was at liberty to take a seat—which he did.
Mr. Ralph Hedley, reputed to be one of the most successful financiers of the day, was a somewhat thin, pale man of average height, with hair nearly black, and dark, piercing eyes. His age was probably a little over thirty-five. In manner he was quiet and self-contained, his face was clean-shaven and by no means bad-looking; but there were in it certain lines, especially about the mouth, that spoke of a hard, resolute, stern character and disposition.
He was a man of undoubted capacity, had travelled extensively, and in society, when he chose to take the trouble, had the gift of attracting even fascinating, those whom he thought it worth while to try to please. But in general, to the majority of those who came in contact with him, he appeared as a silent, shrewd, cynical man of business, showing little interest in anything outside his extensive business undertakings.
His success had been rapid, for but a few years before he had been a land and estate agent in a comparatively small way, and few—probably no one—who then knew him, imagined he would so speedily rise to the position that he had now attained. He had, however, the good fortune to make friends with a man who was already well known in the financial world—Mr. Benjamin Morrison— who to everybody's surprise, one day suddenly took him into partnership.
Since then the firm of Morrison and Hedley had gone on from one success to another, by leaps and bounds, until now they were the moving spirits, actual if not always declared, in some of the biggest enterprises of the day.
Mr. Teazel sat and gazed at the crackling fire, upon which a log of wood hissed and spluttered, and from that his glance wandered to the handsome carved furniture and fittings, the long, wide table in the centre littered over with a miscellaneous collection of papers, and the great windows which nearly filled the whole of one side of the spacious, lofty apartment.
Then Mr. Hedley suddenly threw down his pen, turned round, and spoke:
"Well!" he asked, "what have you to report?"
Under the keen, searching look that was bent upon him, the usually self-possessed detective—for such he really was, though what is generally styled a 'private' one—lost his easy assurance, and appeared almost nervous.
While he hesitated, his employer followed up his question with another:
"Have you traced—Grainger yet?"
He made a scarcely perceptible pause as he came to the name.
"No, sir, I'm sorry—very sorry to say—"
"Sorry? What is the use of being sorry," was the prompt reply, given in a curt, contemptuous tone. "You've bungled disgracefully throughout. First you lose sight of—Grainger, and actually let him get into touch with the Metcalf lot, without your knowing anything about it, and, in consequence without your warning me. Things go so far that he was actually on the point of blabbing to them—"
"I discovered that, sir, and acted in time," Mr. Teazel put in apologetically.
"You did; and well for you that you did. But you must have gone to sleep again, for you let him give you the slip and disappear; and now you have the face to come to me again today and tell me that you have not traced him yet. Very likely the Metcalf lot have got hold of him, and are hiding him from you and me. If that turns out to be the case, then understand, Mr. Silas Teazel—"
"No, sir; oh, dear, no, sir," Teazel interrupted, very earnestly. "I know for a fact that that is not the case. Indeed, sir, I know everything that they are doing—the Metcalfs, and Philip Stanville, and his sister—all of 'em. Mr. E. Metcalf has been going about making inquiries in a very amateurish fashion, and they've come to nothing. As to Mr. Stanville, he don't seem to trouble himself about Grainger a bit."
"H'm. And what about Grainger's child, Susie? You'll take care that old Metcalf's daughter don't get hold of her again?"
"Certainly; she hasn't seen the child for a long time, and don't know where she is."
"You'd better not let her find out! Keep an eye on all of them—especially on old Metcalf himself." He was silent for a space, and the expression of his face showed that he was thinking about something unpleasant. "Especially old Metcalf, do you hear? He has an unpleasant knack of blundering, he's too stupid for it to be anything but accidental—blundering into just the places I want to keep him away from. It was all through him that his girl got hold of the child Susie. He seems to be about here, there, and everywhere; and you never can tell where he may turn up next. Now you can go."
While his employer was impressing these directions upon the detective, the door had opened, and a short, thick set, elderly man, with iron-grey hair and whiskers, had entered and stood by the fire, listening.
The new-comer was Benjamin Morrison, Hedley's partner. Teazel went out, and Morrison, after waiting to see that the door was closed behind him, said:
"Still bothering about Philip Stanville! Why do you persist, Hedley, in worrying and wasting time about him? You've ruined him—got all his money—or, at least, most of it, and left him without a sixpence. What's the use of following him about further?"
"If I choose to—if I have reasons of my own—what business is it of yours, Morrison?" was Hedley's answer, given in what was almost a surly fashion.
"It's partly my business because you seem to spend as much time and brain power over it as would bring us both in something that would be worth having, if you only applied it to other purposes. Still, of course, I have no wish to interfere—it's your own affair. But it seems to me you're taking a lot of trouble over it. And these last two moves of yours—getting the lad appointed secretary to the Phoebus Company, and worrying my wife to engage his sister as governess—really, it's bringing me into it, in a sort of way, don't you see. And I don't like being dragged into anything, whatever it may be, without knowing the reason why. Now, in this matter of Philip Stanville and his sister, I really can't for the life of me, make out what your game is. I can't see the slightest end to be gained, or any money to be made, by what looks to me very like meaningless persecution."
Hedley had risen and was pacing the room, and at this point he turned and faced his partner, so abruptly as to cause that gentleman to suddenly pause. Hedley struck the open palm of one hand a violent blow with the clenched fist of the other. His eyes were blazing with a fierce, vindictive light, and his face was paler even than its wont with suppressed passion.
"Persecution!" he exclaimed. "Aye, call it so if you will. I don't care; and not even you shall stop me. You say I have ruined him. Pooh! I mean to do even more than that! I have not yet become master of Stanville Hall and the Stanville estate—and I intend to have them. But I mean to do more. I will not stop until I see him disgraced as well as ruined; for I hate him—I hate him, I say, with a hate, that will never be satisfied till I see him in shame and disgrace, abased and degraded, in the sight of a mocking world. That is my aim, and I will not turn from it till I have accomplished it. As to my reasons, they are no matter to you. Perhaps I may tell you some day; perhaps not. But crush him I will; and this letter I have here, saying that he accepts the post I have caused to be offered to him, means that he has walked into my trap. He is in the toils, and neither you nor anyone else on earth shall save him now from me!"
PHILIP STANVILLE took up the position offered to him of secretary to the Phoebus Gold Mine Company, Limited, of Guilder-square, in the City of London, and in the course of a very short time managed to become fairly well versed in the various duties attached to the post.
These were, indeed, as is often the case with such enterprises, light enough, consisting for the most part merely of office routine work, with occasional attendance at meetings of the Board of Directors. All the really important work of the company, the essential part of the business, was carried on in America by a manager at the mine; and for something like four or five days in each week the London offices seemed to be kept open more as a matter of form than from any business necessity. Only on "mail days," when letters and remittances were passing between the office and the local manager, or on "Board days," were there any signs of real activity. At other times the somewhat ample staff often found it a little difficult to keep up a decent show of having anything to do between ten and four—the nominal office hours.
Thus it came about that Philip found that the outer offices appeared to be regarded in the light of playroom for the clerks, who—when they were not out on an ostensible errand of posting letters, or buying papers to ascertain the latest movements in the market price of the company's shares, or the winner of the latest horse-race—passed the time in playing practical jokes upon one another. He also soon discovered that the more private rooms, including his own separate office, were utilised as a sort of meeting place and lounge for some of the directors of the company and their numerous city friends, which latter comprised a large circle of "smart" stockbrokers, financiers, company promoters, and the like, whose talk consisted of unfamiliar market slang, and whose ways he frequently found distasteful to his own refined feelings and instincts.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that he should, as a conscientious official of the company, sometimes find himself wondering why anybody should think it worth while to pay him three hundred a year to do so little. But he at least had a recognised official position and certain clearly defined duties to perform; there were others on the staff, as he presently came to know, equally well or even better paid, who seemed to have no raison d'être whatever, beyond the fact that they were the sons, nephews, or other nominees of directors.
In his inexperience of city methods, Philip wondered and puzzled much over these things, and they troubled him. But he had other causes of annoyance which struck deeper.
Upon the board of directors were two or three with whom he had been friendly before he had lost his fortune, and he found it a sore trial to his pride to have now to meet them on such very different relative terms.
Amongst these was the Earl of Ravensmoor, whose estates adjoined his own—or what had once been his—at Somerdale, and at whose stately mansion he had at one time been such a frequent visitor that local gossip had gone so far as to predict his engagement to the earl's daughter, the beautiful Lady Edith. Whether such a marriage had been actually contemplated, society never could get exactly to know. All that was certain was that if it had ever been seriously entertained, Philip's fall from his high estate had very effectually extinguished any chance of its fulfilment.
To one with Philip's high-spirited and sensitive nature, the position in which he thus found himself was trying indeed—at times cruelly so, and he even sometimes thought that had he known the names of the directors of the company before he had been offered the secretaryship, he might have shrunk from accepting it.
As matters were, however, there was nothing to be done but to go through with it, and he braced himself to bear the trial manfully. But as time went on there happened unexpected developments which formed still greater trials to his patience. These disagreeable incidents seemed, it is true, always to be the results of chance—mere curious coincidences; but they happened so frequently that anyone less unsuspicious than Philip Stanville would have begun to wonder whether it was possible that mere "chance" could be responsible for such a string of unlooked- for occurrences.
Yet another thing which gave him matter for thought was the fact that his sister Evelyn had stepped into a position which, in some respects, curiously resembled his own. In her search for a situation she had been recommended by a registry office to a Mrs. Morrison, by whom, greatly to her own surprise, she had been immediately engaged at the first interview, at a very liberal salary. True, she did not much like the lady; so far as she could judge at a first meeting, her prospective employer appeared to be one of those members of the nouveaux-riches whose delight in vulgar ostentation and display is so objectionable to others brought up with more refined tastes and ideas. But Evelyn had already learned in a very hard school that a poor governess cannot afford to pick and choose her situations according to her fancies, and she resolved to ignore her own inclinations and accept the engagement.
She was not long, however, in finding out that her instinctive feeling of dislike towards Mrs. Morrison had been only too well founded. From the very first her new mistress treated her in a supercilious, over-bearing manner which hurt and offended the young girl's susceptibilities, and which she found very hard to bear. The children, too—two at least out of the threes—were rude and unruly, and Evelyn's efforts to control them were constantly thwarted and rendered nugatory by injudicious interference on the part of their mother.
But her troubles did not end there. For some reason which Evelyn could not in anywise understand, Mrs. Morrison insisted upon her frequent appearance at the dinner-table when guests were present. This would happen, perhaps, twice a week, and all such occasions were, for her, ordeals of a cruelly trying character. Naturally, in her position, she could afford only the plainest and most inexpensive attire; she had no jewellery or other ornaments—all she had possessed had gone in the general crash—while the other ladies at the table would be decked out in the most expensive dresses, supplemented by gorgeous displays of sparkling gems and precious pearls. And, to add to her vexation some of these ladies were people she had met upon a different footing.
To one situated as Evelyn was, as can be readily understood, such experiences were very hard to bear. So hard did she find them that she often wondered whether Mrs. Morrison, for some reason which she (Evelyn) could not guess at, could have taken a special dislike to her, and hit upon this plan of intentionally causing her pain and humiliation. Yet what could she have done to excite such feelings in one she had never seen before she had called to seek an engagement.
But worse was to come. She soon became aware that the Mr. Morrison in whose house she had become an inmate was the partner in the business of Ralph Hedley, who had formerly acted as her brother's steward and confidential agent. This naturally caused her surprise; but, like her brother, she at first regarded the fact only in the light of a disagreeable "coincidence." Disagreeable it certainly was from the outset, for she had always disliked the man, and often, in the past, regretted the ascendancy he had gained over Philip and the absolute trust her brother had placed in him. Under the influence of this feeling, she had, she knew, treated Hedley, at times, with a hauteur which she remembered with some embarrassment now that their respective positions were, as it were, reversed. But Mr. Hedley, who was unmarried, was a frequent visitor at his partner's house, and he soon manifested an inclination to pay the new governess attentions which were as marked as they were distasteful to her. And the more Evelyn evinced her dislike to these attentions, the more she endeavored to discourage them, the more determined Hedley seemed to be to press them upon her; so that ere many weeks had passed she had come to regard his visits to the house with repugnancy, and to look upon his behaviour as amounting to persecution.
Of all this, however, Philip knew comparatively little, for Evelyn shrank from inflicting upon her brother the pain which she knew a disclosure of the actual facts would cause him. Even the little that came to his knowledge was sufficient, as has been said, to occasion him more anxious thought, and add to his feeling of general uneasiness. And since he, on his side, for exactly the same reasons, said little to Evelyn of his own disagreeable experiences, it came about that neither was fully aware of the actual state of affairs.
Ernest Metcalf, as it happened, was better informed. Philip was a frequent visitor at Mr. Metcalf's, and he concealed nothing in his talks with Ernest, while Evelyn found some consolation in making a confidante, through the medium of the post, of Violet. Ernest and his sister, in their loyal concern for their friends' welfare, thought it right to compare notes. And by thus putting "two and two and together," they began dimly to discern the existence of a chain of strange coincidences such as could scarcely be attributed to mere accident.
"FATHER, here is an unexpected visitor," said Ernest, one morning, on entering Mr. Metcalf's study. "None other than Mr. Wilberforce, from Lyngton."
"Mr. Wilberforce! Why, dear me! Bring him in, lad—bring him in. I wrote to him a week or two ago, and I've been wondering at not receiving an answer."
"I've come myself, instead of writing, you see," came in cheery tones from the visitor, who had followed Ernest into the room. "The fact is I had to come up to London, and so made a point of calling to have a look at you."
Mr. Wilberforce was a solicitor living in Lyngton, the market town of the district in which was situated the village of Somerdale, where Mr. Metcalf had formerly been curate. He was a well-known man in the locality, having an old-established and extensive connection, which included most of the county families and landed gentry in the neighborhood. He had been solicitor to Philip Stanville's father, and had known the son from childhood. He was a fine-looking, hearty old gentleman, now getting on in years; a typical specimen of the old-fashioned family lawyer. He and Mr. Metcalf had not met for years, and they had naturally now much to say to each other before he could enter upon the immediate object of his visit.
As to this, it had happened that Mr. Metcalf, in the course of his district visiting, had discovered in poverty and want, a poor woman who had once been a servant in Mr. Wilberforce's family.
Feeling sure that her former master would not turn a deaf ear to an appeal made under such circumstances, he had written on her behalf, giving particulars of the case, and earnestly asking for a little help.
As it turned out, his expectation was well founded, for the lawyer presently expressed a wish to pay his former servant a visit with a view to doing something substantial for her.
"Sarah Bridger was a good servant to us for many years," he said, "and a good nurse to our children. Neither Mrs. Wilberforce nor myself can bear the idea of her coming to want. We must try to get her back to the old place, and do something for her there."
"And now," he continued, his manner changing and becoming grave and serious, "let me speak of what is really the main cause of my visit here today. I hear you have seen a great deal lately of that most foolish and unfortunate young jackanapes, Master Philip Stanville. Please tell me the whole story since you came across him again. I wish to know everything, every detail you can tell me, no matter how trivial it may appear to you. I have very important reasons for asking this, as you shall presently hear."
Thus adjured, Mr. Metcalf proceed to relate everything he knew in connection with Philip and his sister since the latter had come to stay at his house a few weeks before. He omitted, however, any illusion to the hints thrown out by Grainger, to which Mr. Metcalf himself had never attached much importance. Mr. Wilberforce listened at first in attentive silence, but afterwards put many shrewd and searching questions, finally lapsing again into silence when the recital came to an end.
There ensued a long pause, during which the visitor seemed to be thinking deeply, while the others, seeing his pre-occupation, refrained from interfering with his train of thought At last, after some signs of hesitation, the man of law seemed finally to have made up his mind, and he turned to Mr. Metcalf with an air of decision:
"It seems to me," he began, "that the time has come when I ought to take someone else into my confidence in the matter of this erratic young gentleman's affairs, and I see I can choose no better one for the purpose I have in view than you, Mr. Metcalf, who once had the lad under your care, and your son, who is still, I am glad to hear, his close friend. I feel convinced I could not choose for the lad's welfare, two better friends in whom to confide. I have only, therefore to ask before I relate what I know will come upon you as a most surprising story—to ask for your assurance that you will treat what I have to tell as given in the strictest confidence. No one—not even his sister, Miss Evelyn—must know one word about it."
The required assurance having been readily given, the lawyer at once plunged into his disclosure, by making a statement which fairly astonished his listeners.
"The long and short of the matter is," he declared, "to put the case bluntly, Philip Stanville never ran through all the fortune his father left, for the simple reason that he never had it."
"Never had it!" his hearers exclaimed together.
"Never had it," Mr. Wilberforce repeated, emphatically. "That is to say, he never had more than half of it. One half of the whole amount his father died worth was set aside for—for another purpose."
"That is a surprise indeed!" said Mr. Metcalf thoughtfully. "I confess I can scarcely realise it and I am certainly quite unable to understand it. Why is it we—everybody—should have been left to suppose that it all went to Philip?"
"Because," the other replied, slowly, "the lad—foolish, reckless as he has been in some respects—is the very soul of honor. The reason was his father's secret, not his, so he looks at it; and, therefore, he feels bound in honor to keep the knowledge from all and sundry—at least for the present, until—well, until something happens which has not yet come to pass."
"So you see, both of you, that this young gentleman who has not been altogether so blameworthy as people generally imagine. If he has been reckless as regards what was his own portion of his father's fortune, he has scrupulously regarded the other half—which he set aside as a sacred trust, and has never touched."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. Metcalf drawing a long breath; "that is Philip all over. That is the lad I knew and loved as a boy! It is, after all, but one more proof of the honorable spirit the lad always exhibited in everything. It only makes it, however, still more surprising that he should have acted so—so weakly—as you say, so foolishly—with his own money."
"I am coming to that," Mr. Wilberforce returned. "It is, as you observe, all the more surprising; and to me it has been a puzzle that has cost me much thought. I have also made it my business to institute certain inquiries, but have not met with much promise of success till quite lately. And now—"
"Now you have discovered something?" Ernest exclaimed, eagerly.
The methodical old lawyer looked gravely at the interrupter over the top of his spectacles.
"I was about to say, young gentleman," he went on, with what, to Ernest seemed provoking slowness, "That I have recently obtained certain information which I think is sufficiently important to warrant my carrying on the inquiry here in London, and upon some more definite plan. To do this effectually I want the co-operation of someone in town—on the spot, so to speak, like yourselves."
"You may be sure we will help most heartily," Mr. Metcalf declared. "But tell me what it is you suspect?"
"I suspect," Mr. Wilberforce answered, deliberately, as though weighing every word—"I suspect treachery, fraud, conspiracy. I have good grounds for the suspicion, and though I cannot yet point to the arch-plotter in the shameful business, I believe I shall eventually be able to trace him and to unmask him."
"And do you hope to do any good for the poor lad in that case?" Mr. Metcalf asked. "Recovering anything of what he has lost?"
"I cannot say; but it will be something to clear the son of my dead friend from a great part, at any rate, of the load of blame that has been laid upon him. It is, also possible that the mischief is not even yet at an end. It might be—I only allude to it as a bare possibility—that these hidden schemers may have come to know about this large sum of money which is held in trust, and may be planning in some way to obtain possession of it."
At this Ernest sprang up in much excitement. A light seemed to flash into his mind.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "Yes! That supplies the motive I have been vainly striving to get at. Father, Grainger was right, and so is Mr. Wilberforce. There is some plotting still going on against Philip, and—and his sister, too. And I can tell you a great deal more about it than you have yet any idea of!"
ERNEST METCALF had done more than merely listen to his friend Philip Stanville's occasional accounts of his experiences at the offices of the company to which he was now attached. He had written down in his diary many of what struck him as the most important occurrences, and he was able, therefore, to lay the various incidents before Mr. Wilberforce, step by step, in something like chronological order. Strung together in this way they constituted, in the opinion of the shrewd lawyer, a succession of events so evidently purposeful, so clearly the outcome of design, that he did not hesitate to express his conviction that they all formed links in the chain of some carefully-laid scheme or plan, the nature and object of which, however, he confessed himself unable to understand.
"But there is more yet," Ernest presently declared, after some hesitation. "The fact is, Violet has received regular letters from—from Miss Stanville, who is, as you now know, at Mr. Morrison's, and has—er—sometimes read me out little extracts from them which have caused us both pain and surprise. I don't think Philip knows of these matters; his sister is so anxious to keep from him anything likely to worry or distress him, that she says nothing to him about them. But I think you had better have a talk with Violet about this, Mr. Wilberforce," he suddenly broke off abruptly. "The letters were sent to her, and I have only heard what she thought proper to tell me."
Ernest found himself somewhat embarrassed, and floundered a little and colored up under the sharp eye of the old lawyer. He suddenly became conscious that it might seem strange to other people that he should know so much about the contents of letters to his sister from another young lady. They could not be expected to understand—and, indeed, he did not wish them to know—that that young lady's welfare was to him a matter of great and very special interest.
However, his companions were too much engaged in thought to heed his self-conscious manner. Only Mr. Metcalf remarked, with a sort of mild surprise, that much of what Ernest now spoke of was new to him.
"It has all been communicated to me in confidence," was Ernest's explanation. "I should not have spoken of it now without first asking the permission of those who told it to me, but that I see how important it is that Mr. Wilberforce should know everything we can find out for him."
"You are quite right Ernest," that gentleman replied. "I am sure they will approve when they know the circumstances. Now tell me; how did Philip come to get the offer of the secretaryship of this company?"
"That was my doing," said Mr. Metcalf. "I called on the Earl of Ravenmoor, privately, without consulting anybody, and asked him whether he could do anything for Philip. He seemed to receive the suggestion in a friendly spirit, and promised to see what he could do. I had not much hope at the time, and was, I confess, very agreeably surprised when, only a few days afterwards, I had a letter from him saying he had recommended Philip for the position of secretary in this undertaking, which was just being formed, and of which he was chairman. When I called upon him to thank him he particularly requested me not to let Philip know to whom he owed the appointment. 'Considering the relations which formerly existed between us,' his lordship said, 'it might hurt his feelings—worry him with the sense of being under an obligation—so I would rather he did not know.'"
"H'm! Sounds very considerate, but to me, as a man of the world, it rather gives the idea that he may have had some other reason. Lord Ravenmoor, you know—or perhaps you do not know—is one of a certain circle or clique interested in company promoting. And the central figures in that clique—the prime movers who pull the strings which make the puppets dance—are Morrison and Hedley."
"Morrison and Hedley!"
His companions repeated the words, and looked at him in something like amazement.
"Morrison and Hedley," Mr. Wilberforce said again. "You know them—who they are?"
"We know Mr. Hedley, of course, or, rather, we used to know him when he was Philip Stanville's agent," Ernest answered. "As to the other, we have heard of the firm as famous financiers, and that is about all."
"Philip Stanville's agent," the lawyer said bitterly. "Ah! it was an evil day when the lad took that man into his confidence. However, to come to the present, I have absolute information from a man behind the scenes, as they say in the city, that Morrison and Hedley are the real promoters of the Phoebus Gold Mine Company. Therefore the matter stands thus—Philip is appointed secretary to a company recently promoted by Hedley and his partner; next, Miss Stanville is engaged in the family of Hedley's partner. Do you suppose these things constitute a mere coincidence?"
"But," objected Mr. Metcalf, whose unsophisticated nature recoiled from all sorts of plotting and scheming, and always strove against believing in it until driven to do so by absolute proof, "I still fail to see why, even if it be as you say, we must attribute it all to an unfriendly motive. Mr. Hedley has been very kindly treated by Philip in the past. Suppose he wished to help him in return, and desired, like Lord Ravenmoor, from motives of delicacy, to do something without Philip or his sister knowing they owed their places to him. What, then?"
"Motives of delicacy!" exclaimed the old lawyer, contemptuously. "My dear friend, when will you learn to look at such things as these from a common-sense point of view? If you knew as much about Mr. Ralph Hedley as I do, you would know that he is the last man in the world to do anything of the kind secretly, 'from motives of delicacy.' No, my friend, we must look the facts in the face, and act as men of the world would act."
"What, then, do you advise?" Mr. Metcalf asked, with a half- bewildered air.
"Let them both give up their places at once," Mr. Wilberforce decided, promptly. "The sooner the better."
"That I am certain Philip will not do," answered Ernest, with conviction. "He has as good as told me so. He says he will never run away from his worries there, whatever they may be. Evelyn— Miss Stanville—might, perhaps, be persuaded; but even then she would have to give reasonable notice."
"Tush! That's Philip Stanville all over," said the lawyer, impatiently. "I am really out of patience with that lad. I have some money in hand from his father's estate which he could have now if he chose, but he refuses, upon the ground that it belongs properly to the 'trust.' That is not the case—only a stickler for very strict forms could look at it so. But there it is—if he refuses."
"But can we, then, do nothing?" Ernest asked, his tone full of anxiety.
"Well, I have a man at work for me, a sort of private detective, who has ferreted out a good deal of information already, and who will, I think, be useful in the future. I myself cannot stay in town, but he will act for me, and I will send him to call upon you. His name is Ridler—Alec Ridler; I have known him for some years, and have always found him trustworthy. I shall remain in town for a day or two, so try and get the two young people round here, that I may have a talk to them. I do not care to see Philip at his office. And now I'm ready to go with you, Mr. Metcalf, to see poor old Bridger, if you can spare the time."
Mr. Metcalf intimated his readiness, and the lawyer, after a pause, went on:
"By the way, it was only through the letter you wrote on behalf of Bridger, and your telling me at the same time about Philip, that I came to know where he is, and what he is doing; for the young jackanapes has not written to me for a long time."
"That is strange," Ernest commented, "for I very well remember hearing him say that he had written to you twice, giving you full particulars, and that you had not answered either letter. He was wondering whether you were ill; or too offended with him to write."
"I never received any letter," Mr. Wilberforce declared, "and should not have known now but for your father's letter. The inquiries I have told you of were made independently, through something which came to my knowledge accidentally. I had no idea where Philip Stanville was, or his sister either."
This speech afforded Ernest further food for thought, for it so happened he had heard Philip complain of other letters which had gone astray or miscarried.
"Really," he said to himself, "it begins to look as though we were surrounded by an atmosphere of deception and intrigue, and, so I fear, is Evelyn too. Mr. Wilberforce is right; she must leave the Morrisons' at once. Would that I had a home to offer her, and the right to take her to it!"
MR. RALPH HEDLEY sat in his office in Midas- court perusing, with a smile of self satisfaction, a small batch of letters which lay open before him on his desk. Having finished the last of the set, he folded them all neatly into a little packet, put a label on them, and stowed them in a drawer of a safe which stood near at hand. Then he went to the fireplace and stood with his back to it, picking his teeth with a gold toothpick—a habit of his which usually denoted that he was in a very good humor with himself.
"Yes," he said aloud; "it was a good idea of Teazle's to get hold of those letters, especially the ones to that lawyer. Old Wilberforce never liked me—of course, that is not surprising—and it is just as well to keep him in the dark as long as possible. He would be pretty sure to come to look into matters for himself, and he might scent something, and put Stanville on his guard. Come in!"
Someone had knocked at the door, and Mr. Keen's face appeared.
"Mr. Teazle is here, sir," said the clerk.
"Good, good. Just the one I wanted to see. Tell him to come at once, Keen," was the reply, given in tones that sounded unusually genial.
The detective appeared immediately afterwards, with an air and countenance in curious contrast to Mr. Hedley's. Judging by his appearance, he brought news likely to be unwelcome, for he cast more than one apprehensive glance at his employer as he walked slowly across to the chair the latter indicated.
Mr. Hedley, however, seemed either not to observe these indications, or to be in too cheerful a mood to trouble himself about them.
"Why, Teazle, I was just thinking of you," he said, smilingly. "I was thinking it was a clever move of yours to stop those letters to old Wilberforce. Yes, it certainly was a good move. I have been going over them again—it's the first time I have read them through attentively—and I can see they would have had the effect of bringing that foxy old lawyer up to town to poke his nose into things that don't concern him. It was very sharp of you."
"Yes, sir, only—"
"And the notes you transcribed from the other letters, too—they were just what I wanted. You picked out exactly the most important points."
"I am glad to hear you say so, sir. But I have something—"
"Ah, yes, we will come to that presently," Mr. Hedley went on briskly. "The first thing is, have you been able to get that bit of writing?"
"Yes, sir—here it is."
And Mr. Teazle produced his pocket-book, and taking therefrom a half-sheet of paper, handed it to his employer, who looked at it critically, turned it round first one way and then the other, and then read out slowly what he there saw written:—
"Come to me at once; I am in great trouble. It is a matter of life and death. You can trust bearer, who will guide you to me!"
"H'm, yes, that will do. There is no mistaking Stanville's handwriting. You've managed this well, too. How did you do it?"
"Well, Sir Colin really contrived it for me—I didn't quite know how, sir. But he will tell you himself—I saw him downstairs, and he told me to say he was coming up to see you in a few minutes. Here he is, sir."
A voice was heard in the lobby, then a knock at the door, and in response to the usual "Come in," the door was flung open by Mr. Keen, who announced:
"Sir Colin Meedham, sir."
There entered, as Teazle followed Keen out, a tall man of about forty years of age, somewhat thin, with dark hair and heavy, drooping moustache. He walked with a military bearing—he had, in fact, at one time been in the army—and had a keen observant manner. Save for a somewhat prominent nose, which gave to his face rather a hawk-like hook, he might be called almost handsome; but his face was now beginning to show the effects of dissipation, and the lines about it were hard and deeply marked.
The baronet—for such was his rank—was a man well- known at Tattersall's, at Newmarket, and at one or two of the "smart" West-end clubs where high play is the rule rather than the exception. He had formerly been one of Philip Stanville's acquaintances, but Philip, for his part, had never liked the man, and had rather given him the cold shoulder. This was now unfortunate, since Sir Colin was not a man likely to overlook or forget that sort of thing, and fickle Fortune—or Mr. Ralph Hedley, acting as Fortune's deputy—had just made him managing director of the Phoebus Company, and he was, therefore, Philip's superior officer.
Let it be added that the baronet was heavily in debt and chronically short of spare cash, and sufficient will have been said to indicate that he was just the sort of character to be a convenient tool in the hands of a clever, scheming financier.
"So you've taken up your duties as managing director of the 'Phoebus' offices, I hear," Hedley observed. "How did our friend Stanville receive the intimation of your appointment?"
"Like the proud, stuck-up prig he always was," Sir Colin growled, in reply. "You'd scarcely believe it, but you would have thought he was still the wealthy master of Stanville Hall if you'd seen him yesterday. He had the impudence to treat me as cavalierly as he used to. For two pins I would—"
"Oh, never mind about that," Hedley interrupted impatiently. "I find from Teazle that you managed to get from him the slip in his writing that I wanted. How did you get it if he was so—"
"I did not appear in the business myself. Ned Lloyd—you know Ned Lloyd—man who writes verses, and plays, and that—arranged it. Showed Stanville the M.S. of one of his plays, and pretended to be dissatisfied with something. He got Stanville interested, and then it was easy enough to induce him to write one or two suggestions of his own. When Lloyd had got one that would suit, he said, 'Thank you,' and stuck to it."
"Good, good." This was a favorite expression of Hedley's when he was specially pleased. "Now that prepares matters for the girl. As to Stanville, we'll not be long before we lower his pride and give you your revenge, I promise you. Do you understand the part you will have to play?"
"Yes, that is all right, but, Hedley—"
"About the girl. I don't quite understand what your little game is. I hope you're not going to—to—well, going too far. Because, you know, I—well, I don't mind playing a trick on that prancing young coxcomb Stanville, but I draw the line at women—especially one like Evelyn Stanville, who, after all, is a lady, and—"
But the baronet did not finish the sentence. Hedley had swung round and fixed upon him a look which caused the words to die away upon his tongue. He had seen that look before, and he knew it meant that Hedley was dangerous.
But the financier seemed to alter his mind, and, instead of the stinging speech his companion was expecting, he said, merely:
"Let us drop the subject. I have something more important, to speak of—more important to you, at any rate, I suppose. I had your note, and I see you are hard up again. Well, I will let you have the cheque you want this time; but I make no promises as to the future unless—you understand—unless all this goes through smoothly. So be careful what you are doing."
Sir Colin's face had brightened at the mention of his cheque, but he bit his lip at the latter part of the speech.
There was some further talk between the two men, and then they were interrupted by the entrance of the senior partner, Mr. Morrison. He looked flushed and upset.
"You've heard the news, of course?" he asked curtly. "Teazle's told you?"
"What news?" asked Hedley in return.
"Why, that impudent minx, Stanville's sister, has given my wife notice to leave at the end of the month. It seems old Wilberforce saw her at the Metcalf's, and persuaded her into leaving us."
Hedley's face clouded over till it grew almost black, and an evil light came into his eyes.
"Wilberforce has seen the girl, and persuaded her to give you notice?" he repeated slowly. "Metcalf's doing again, too, eh? Am I to be thwarted at every turn by that sanctimonious old hypocrite?" He paused for a moment, and then, turning to Sir Colin, said: "Well, we must hurry matters on faster, that's all. Look to it that you carry out your part, and you may trust me to perform mine."
ONE afternoon Philip Stanville left his office early, and made his way to Mr. Metcalf's house, intending to have a quiet chat with Ernest; but he found no one at home but Violet.
She was busy with sewing work for some of her poor protégées, and, after rising to extend a kindly greeting to Philip, she resumed her seat and her occupation.
"Dadda is out—Ernest is out," she said, "and had you been a little earlier you would have found me out also, for I have not long returned. I have been on a fruitless journey. I had arranged to meet dadda, but he did not keep the appointment. So, after waiting as long as I thought reasonable, I returned alone. I am wondering what can have kept him away. I suppose, however—at least I hope—it is nothing more than that he has lost his way again, as so often happens. If so, he may have some fresh weird adventure to tell us about when he comes home. You know that Mr. Wilberforce has returned to Lyngton?"
"Yes, I said good-bye to him the other evening. It is partly about him that I wish to speak to you—to ask your advice."
"To ask my advice?"
"Yes, Violet, to ask your advice. It would not be the first time, as you will remember, if you carry your mind back to the time when we were boy and girl together."
Violet colored up, as she replied, somewhat shyly:
"That seems now a long time to look back to. Almost too long to remember."
"It is not too long for me to remember," Philip declared. "I recollect that you once said it was a case of the lion coming to the mouse for help."
At this Violet blushed still more, but she did not seem displeased at the reminder. The fact is, the two had been staunch friends as boy and girl, and had always continued so whenever they had met since. But while Philip had gone abroad in the world, forming other friendships, Violet's regard for him had remained the same. He had been her ideal hero in childhood, and as they both grew up her feelings had, in reality, undergone scarcely any change. But this was a secret she had kept locked up in her own breast. He did not know that, in the time of his adversity, no one had grieved so tenderly for him, or felt such genuine, heartfelt, if silent, sympathy as Violet Metcalf.
Just lately, however, some recognition of this had somehow crept in upon his mind. He found it very sweet comfort to come round to Mr. Metcalf's house to pass the evening after spending the day in the City, where everybody seemed to have but one end in view—the making of money. He grew very sick and tired of the monotonous talk of the noisy rout who made the offices of his company their lounging place. They came in and out all day, drinking champagne or brandy and soda, smoking, betting, gambling, speculating. They seemed to have but one or two topics of conversation—the movements of prices in the share lists of the day, or the possible winner of some forthcoming horse race. Greed, avarice, crawling, selfishness, the unhealthy excitement of big speculations, surrounded him on every side all the day long—over and above those special causes of annoyance and worry of which mention has already been made.
What a hideous contrast, he often reflected, to the restful peace, the quiet repose, which seemed to pervade the house of the Metcalf's! At his office, people parsed the hours away selfishly striving, one against another, which should be able to gain the most for himself and cause the greatest loss to his neighbor. In Mr. Metcalf's house there was anxiety it was true; but it was anxiety for others; and the hours were passed in little plans and schemes for the welfare of those who could not help themselves.
There could scarcely be presented to the imagination a greater contrast of life as it actually exists in London at the present day; and the constant contemplation of the picture gradually made a great impression upon Phil's mind.
About this time, too, Mr. Metcalf took occasion, one day, to have a long and serious talk with Philip, which later on bore more fruit than the kind-hearted old gentleman expected, or even hoped. It is sufficient here to refer to it as an event which set Philip thinking deeply, and in the result exercised great influence over the rest of his life.
That very day he had had rather a trying rencontre. Lord Ravenmoor had brought his daughter, Lady Edith, to the office, and Philip had had perforce to meet her. At one time he had fallen under the influence of that young lady's fascinations; but to-day as he sat looking at Violet, contrasting her quiet, simple, but indescribably sweet charm with the more showy style of the dashing Society beauty, he wondered how it could have come about that the Lady Edith had so attracted him.
But then—well, Violet had altered, improved wonderfully, compared with what he remembered of her down in the country. He had seen but little of her during the last three or four years, until his return to England a few weeks ago. As he recalled her, she had been scarcely more than a child; now she had bloomed, as it were, into the full beauty of which he had formerly seen but the promise, and he marvelled at the wondrous loveliness and grace now displayed, not merely in her face, but in her whole figure, and in every pose and movement, above all, he noted the steady, honest, fearless glance of the blue-grey eyes, that spoke so plainly, so eloquently, of the pure woman's soul within. And he saw a very soft, tender light steal into them as he told her of the talk he had had with Mr. Metcalf, and the impression that her father's kindly admonition had produced upon his mind.
"I have longed to suggest something like that myself," she answered, in a soft gentle tone, as though too intensely pleased to speak loudly, "to counsel you to seek and rely upon help from above, and not depend upon your own cleverness alone. It is the mistake, I think," she went on, dreamily, "too many make in this world, and then they complain of their own failures. If you follow out the dad's advice in that respect, Philip, I shall have new and brighter hopes of you as to the future. I have wished so I could make you think like that, but I did not dare to speak myself. I feared you would be offended with me."
"How could I be offended with you, Violet? Have we not always been firm friends, and have you not often, as I said just now, given me good counsel in the past? Yes, and often enough scolded me for not taking it, too."
Violet laughed. It was a frank, open little laugh.
"If I scolded you, I expect you deserved it," she said, gaily. "However, I don't think it made much difference what counsel I tendered; you never took it."
"Don't say that; it was not always so. Yet I think I should have done more wisely sometimes, if I had heeded your advice more. I certainly was not fit to advise myself. What an awful muddle I have made of it! When I think it all over I marvel that you should any longer show an atom of interest in me. I wonder you have not done as the rest of my friends have done, and given me up as a bad lot."
He sighed as he spoke these words, and in his voice and look there seemed such a load of bitter vain regret and self-reproach that his hearer at once lost the sunny smile that had lighted up her face, and became grave.
"I am not among those who put all the blame upon your shoulders, Philip," she replied, in low accents full of kindly sympathy. "Of course, I do not know much about it—not really; but I have always—somehow—had a sort of idea—a sort of instinct—that you have not been so much to blame as people were ready to make out."
"God bless you for those words, Violet," Philip exclaimed. "I cannot tell you how grateful, how sweet they sound to me. It was so—it was so, I do solemnly declare to you! Yet, somehow, I could never explain it all to other people so as to get them to believe it. I cannot explain it to my own satisfaction, even. It's all a mystery, and at times it seems as though I had done it all in my sleep, as though I had passed through a hideous dream."
"You know Evelyn's opinion about it, or feeling, rather," Violet returned, hesitatingly; and she glanced round as though half-afraid of being overheard. "She fully believes that you were a victim—the victim of some hidden enemy, some clever, designing, false friend, who managed to mislead you without yourself knowing anything about it. And that has been my own idea also. You know, too, that just lately that idea has received very unlooked for—I may say startling—confirmation in a very unexpected quarter. I have been told that Mr. Wilberforce has been suggesting a similar belief to my father."
Stanville shook his head despondingly.
"No!" he answered, with decision. "I know that is Evelyn's notion, and I also know that it is Mr. Wilberforce's. I did not know that you shared it; it is very good of you, little friend of mine, very kind, to think so well of me. But it would be cowardly on my part to attempt to shelter myself behind any such excuse. I have been unpardonably foolish, wickedly reckless, and there is no excuse to be made for me. I feel in my own mind that I deserve to be blamed. Besides, what hidden enemy or false friend have I, or had I, who could possibly have done anything of the sort? There is only one I can think of—Hedley—Ralph Hedley—who was acting as my agent. He is the only one, so far as I can imagine, who could have even had the possible opportunity, and he—well, my dear Violet, you know I could not suspect Hedley!"
"You ask me why? Why, Violet, you know that Hedley—"
"I know little about Mr. Hedley, save that I never cared much for him. He was not at all a man to my taste. I believe, however, that you trusted almost everything to him. I have also heard that you had been exceedingly kind to him at a time when he was very poor, and that you had such great confidence in him, that you placed all your affairs in his hands. Some have said that he really owes his present position—everything—to your help in the first place; and I have heard them wonder that he has not done more for you in return."
"I haven't asked him, for one thing," Philip rejoined, somewhat gloomily. "Don't you see, Violet, that I don't care to go to him begging? I dare say, if I had, he would have been only too glad. If I have done anything for him in the past, however, it would look so like wanting to trade upon it, don't you see? And if, as you say, he has any reason to be grateful for anything I did for him, why, that only proves so much more clearly that if I really had a hidden enemy, as you call it, it could not have been Ralph Hedley. Why, even to suggest such a thing would be to suppose that he was just about the meanest, vilest, most ungrateful scoundrel! No, no, Violet! I'm not such a cad to try to screen myself by suspecting anything so vile of one I have once trusted."
Violet glanced at him with a look in which very mixed feelings were indicated. His logic did not convince her; but she could not refuse a mead of admiration for the young man's loyal fidelity to the one he had confided in and befriended.
"But what about Grainger's hints and warnings?" she asked.
"Pshaw! Probably the wanderings of a man in a delirium, or, more probably still, a cunning trick to get on the blind side of you two girls."
"HOWEVER, it was not of this that I came to speak to you," Philip resumed after a pause. "I want to ask you something Violet."
"And what may that be?"
"Two things. First, you know that Wilberforce has advised Evelyn to leave the Morrison's, and she has acted upon his advice and given them notice. So far, so good. I am glad, for I feel it cannot be a pleasant position in the circumstances. But he has urged me to give up my berth also, because he thinks, or has discovered, that the firm of Morrison and Hedley are connected in some way, behind the scenes, with the Phoebus Company. Now, that does not seem to me a sufficient reason. I admit I do not much like the place; I am far from comfortable there; but that may right itself in time. If I have to fight a bit to hold my own, well, I would rather fight than seem to run away. Then, again, Evelyn will shortly be out of a place, and must, of course, come to live with me. How about that, if I throw myself out of a berth now?"
"But why ask me about this, Philip? I know nothing of city business matters. It seems to be that—that—I was going to say my father or Ernest could advise you better; but, of course, they know nothing of such matters, either. So that throws it back upon Mr. Wilberforce, who is old and experienced. I think, Philip, I should consider well before I rejected the counsel of a friend like Mr. Wilberforce."
Philip was silent for a while, evidently turning this view over in his mind. Presently he spoke again:
"H'm. Well, I must think about it. Let us leave it for the present, and turn to the other point I spoke of. I want you to take me for a pupil."
"Take you for a pupil? What do you mean?"
"I want you, Violet, to teach me to try to do a little good in this world, as I see that you—all of you—are striving to do here. When I think of the opportunities of doing good that I have thrown away—of what I might have done with the money I used to waste in vain pleasures and idle amusements—when I compare what I did with what I then possessed with the good that you do here with your slender, limited means—I am ashamed of myself. I feel, when I come here, like an idle worthless drone in the midst of a hive of busy, useful bees. Fancy! I have managed to 'run through,' as they say, something like four hundred thousand pounds! Now, if I had acted upon the Scriptural injunction to spend a tenth in charity and good works, that would have been forty thousand pounds! Think of that! Think how differently I should have felt about it all to-day! Think what you could do, Violet, amongst your poor people here, with forty thousand pounds!"
"Ah!" Violet sighed and gazed dreamily at the fire, as though she could see there alluring visions of what she would do with such a sum. "What would you do, Philip, if you had the opportunity over again?" she presently asked.
"What I now wish I had done before."
A glad light came into her eyes, and Philip, perceiving it, continued earnestly:
"Yes, Violet, Heaven helping me, I would indeed! But since that is never likely to happen, I want you to teach me how to make the most of such opportunities as Heaven may still place in my hands. I see what wonders you seem to perform here with such limited means. Cannot I do a little to help too?"
Just then they heard the front door open, and a sound of scuffling feet and confused voices, as of a crowd in the doorway. Violet turned somewhat pale, for she always felt nervous when her father failed to return to time, fearing lest some accident had befallen him in the crowded streets, to which, as it seemed, he could never become accustomed. She sprang up and went out into the hall, Philip following her.
There they saw a curious scene. Standing in the open doorway were Mr. Metcalf and a policeman, leading between them by the hands, a little girl and a still smaller boy. The girl was fairly clean and tidily dressed, though her attire was much splashed with mud; but the boy was dirty, and ragged, without cap and without shoes. Round the doorstep was a small but appreciative crowd, evidently only kept at a respectful distance by their awe of the constable.
"Why, father—Susie," Violet exclaimed. But before she could say more the little girl had broken away from her guardians and rushed into her arms.
"Miss Vi'let, Miss Vi'let!" she sobbed out, amid a storm of passionate tears. "O Miss Vi'let, take me, hold me tight, don't let 'em take me back. They beat me an' I've runned away to come to you. An' I've brought Bobby too."
She turned abruptly, and, running back, seized the little boy by the hand and lugged him, all shy and unwilling, towards Violet.
"Come, Bobby, it's all right now. This is Miss Vi'let; she'll take care of you. I told you she would."
And dragging him along with her, she again clung desperately to her friend..
So pathetic, yet so grotesque, was the scene, that the onlookers seemed to hesitate between laughing and crying. The crowd outside at last raised a cheer, which reminded the policeman that he had not closed the door. This he proceeded to do, and after another cheer the crowd dispersed.
An hour later the little party, minus the representative of the law, were seated round a cheerful fire, and the two children having been washed and fed, and the boy dressed in some makeshift clothes that happened to be at hand.
Susie sat with one hand in Violet's and the other holding Bobby's, looking, the picture of happiness and contentment. Bobby, too, though still shy, seemed to have gained confidence and to thoroughly approve of the turn affairs had taken in his young life.
Philip was gazing with interest at Susie, and a perplexed look came into his face.
"I can't think of whom it is that child reminds me," he presently said. "I seem to know the type of countenance well, yet when I try to identify it, it eludes me. She has altered much since I saw her down at Somerdale."
As he continued to look at Susie the child smiled, and taking her hand from Violet, extended it, confidently, towards Philip.
"I know now who she reminds me of!" he suddenly exclaimed. "It is Hedley—Ralph Hedley."
But at the name the child drew back and a look, as of fear, came into her face. She clung to Violet and began to cry.
"No! No! Don't take me to Mr. Hedley," she sobbed out. "Hedley bad man. He beat me—an' Bobby too."
"Dear me, dear me!" exclaimed Mr. Metcalf. "What does this mean? What can this poor child know about Mr. Hedley? Why should she be frightened at the mere mention of his name?"
As none present could tell, the question remained unanswered. But one, at least, made a mental resolve to investigate this new and unexpected development.
"MR. ALEC RIDLER and Mr. Stephen Perram," said Ernest Metcalf, with a puzzled air, reading from a slip of paper which had just been put into his hand by the servant. "Who can these gentlemen be? Father, do you know them?"
"Why, yes, of course, I know Perram—Wilberforce's clerk. Don't you recollect him?"
"To be sure. And the other must be the detective Mr. Wilberforce spoke of. Show them into the study, Mary."
A few minutes later father and son were closeted with two emissaries from the Lyngton lawyer.
"I've called in accordance with Mr. Wilberforce's expressed intention, sir," said Perram, the older man, "to introduce Mr. Ridler, and to see that he is started in this business with all the information and particulars you can furnish him. You can trust him with everything you know; he is entirely in Mr. Wilberforce's confidence."
Stephen Perram had been confidential clerk to his present master almost from youth. He was short and stout, with grey hair and whiskers. In manner he was precise and somewhat stiff, but was honest and trustworthy, and completely devoted to the interests of his employer and of the clients he acted for.
The private detective, Alec Ridler, was a much younger man, and almost the opposite of his companion. Alert, observant, and energetic, he brought, both intelligence and perseverance to bear upon whatever he took in hand, and combined with these qualities a varied experience, such as few men in his profession could boast of.
The first thing to be done, Mr. Perram explained, was to go over the ground covered in the various conversations between his present hosts and his employer, and this took some little time. During the questions and answers that followed, Mr. Metcalf gave many unmistakable signs of a distaste for the whole business.
The worthy old gentleman had a sort of natural dislike towards all forms of espionage—as he considered detective work must necessarily be—and, moreover, he was not yet convinced that there was anything calling for the employment of such services at all.
"I think I ought to say," he at last burst out, "that I only consent to be mixed up in all this in deference to my friend Mr. Wilberforce's urgent request, and for fear that my refusing to do so might prejudice the interests of my young friend Mr. Philip Stanville. Personally, I prefer to believe that we are all searching for a mare's nest I see no real evidence of any deep- laid plot, and would prefer not to believe in it."
"You would think differently if you knew as much as I do, sir," Ridler answered, very quietly and respectfully. "For instance, when you find that other people are employing detectives to watch you, and following you about and report every little thing you do, and every place you go to, it shows that the parties who think it necessary to employ such agents against you must have some game in view big enough to make it worth while, don't it, sir?"
"Watch me? Follow me about?" exclaimed Mr. Metcalf, aghast at such an idea. "Why, man, you are dreaming!"
"Begging your pardon, no sir. I haven't been very long on this job—only a short time—but I've been long enough to find that out for certain. The man they are employing is well known to me, and he's a pretty sharp 'un, too. I've often had occasion to work against him before to-day, and it's been diamond cut diamond between us for some years now."
"That's a very important statement, father," said Ernest gravely. "If it be true, I, for one, require no further evidence that there is some serious intrigue afoot; and since it cannot well be directed against us, it follows that it must be aimed at our friends. Remember, father, Philip and his sister have no father or mother, and scarcely a friend left in the world now, save Mr. Wilberforce and ourselves. They are both young, inexperienced in the wickedness of the world, and unsuspicious. They—"
"Say no more, my dear boy, say no more," cried the old gentleman. "I see you are right, and I am too slow to understand this matter at first sight. It is all bewildering to me; I seem to be in another world where, as the sailors say, I have lost my bearings."
"Yet you have done pretty well already sir, in the way of upsetting some of their little tricks, or I'm a Dutchman, begging your pardon."
"I? What do you mean by that?" Mr. Metcalf asked, greatly puzzled.
"Never mind, sir. Them as lives shall see, as the saying is. I'll tell ye more one day if all goes well," was the cryptic reply. "Now to business. In our line we always seek first for the motive. I understand that in this case the motive is pretty clear. Something like half a million of money—no less—these schemers are playing for."
"Half a million of money?" Mr. Metcalf repeated, again greatly puzzled.
"That's the amount, sir, that Mr. Philip Stanville set aside out of his father's estate," Mr. Perram explained. "I understand the gov—Mr. Wilberforce—told you of that, in confidence."
"Dear me, dear me!" Mr. Metcalf exclaimed, helplessly. "Ernest, I seem to be in a dream."
"I had no idea the amount was so large," Ernest said. "Otherwise, of course, Mr. Wilberforce hinted at something of the kind."
"Well, the amount was over four hundred thousand when Mr. Philip's father died," Mr. Perram went on, "and the interest has accumulated since, seeing as how Mr. Philip refuses to touch the income of it, so that it is added every year to the principal. Therein Mr. Wilberforce considers as Mr. Philip is wrong—calls him foolish, quixotic, as they say, and so on. But this young gentleman has a will of his own when he chooses, and he has obstinately refused to touch a penny of it. Now, our theory is that these scheming parties have somehow got wind of all this, and they are working some very deep laid scheme to possess themselves of that money—principal, accumulated interest and all."
"But how?" asked Mr. Metcalf.
"That's what I am set to work to find out," said Mr. Ridler. "By the way, there is one other point. Part of the instructions given to me are to see for a certain party who has been lost sight of for some years."
Mr. Metcalf and Ernest both looked inquiringly at Perram.
"Yes, that is so," he assented. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but that relates to a point in this business—which is really more complicated than you are yet aware—as to which we are compelled, by professional requirements, to observe secrecy. We are searching for a certain party, and we are handicapped in the search by the fact that it has to be carried out secretly. If we find him well and good. If we do not—or if he is dead—then there are very good and sufficient reasons why it is better for all concerned that it should never be known that such a search was made."
"It's all very mysterious, and it certainly does not seem to get clearer as we go on," commented Mr. Metcalf, in a discontented tone. "I cannot understand the necessity for all this mystery and secrecy. However, if it be, as you assure me, for the good, or the protection, of Mr. Philip Stanville and his sister—why, then I have no more to say."
"We have reason to believe, sir," Mr. Ridler now put in, "that the people you know by the name of Grainger are somehow mixed up in the tangle, and have played an important part in it. For this reason, it is a curious thing that you should have at this moment under your roof the child—Susie, I believe they call her—of the man William Grainger."
"I came across the poor child quite accidentally," said Mr. Metcalf. "She had run away from whoever had charge of her, and was wandering helplessly around, leading another child whom she called Bobby, and inquiring after Miss Vi'let—by whom she meant my daughter, who has in the past taken some notice of the poor little thing. Of course, no one knew who Miss 'Vi'let' was, and the policemen were puzzled what to do with the pair. Knowing little Susie, as we do, I could not well do otherwise than keep the child here—temporarily, at all events. But now tell me, in confidence, the name of the man you are seeking. I might be able to aid you in your quest."
"In strict confidence, sir, the name is Rillingford—Andrew Rillingford."
"Rillingford—Andrew Rillingford." Mr. Metcalf repeated. "Why, surely I have heard that name."
"Where, sir?" eagerly exclaimed Ridler and Perram together.
Mr. Metcalf paused and seemed to be trying to recall the illusive recollection, but evidently without success, for he said, with a sigh:
"I have certainly heard that name, but I cannot now remember where. Perhaps later on it may come back to me."
"MR. TEAZLE is outside, sir. He would like to see you if you are disengaged."
Mr. Ralph Hedley looked at his clerk with a scowl, and muttered something to himself that scarcely sounded like a compliment. But aloud he only said:
"You can send him in. By the way, I am expecting Sir Colin. Have you seen him, or has he telephoned this morning?"
Mr. Keen retired, and in his place there entered Mr. Silas Teazle. He was not invited to take a chair, and remained standing. Evidently he had not yet recovered his former place in his employer's good books.
Mr. Hedley merely vouchsafed a glance and a nod.
"Well?" he said, or rather growled, "what is it now? I expect you've nothing to tell me?"
"It isn't my fault, sir; indeed it is not."
"I suppose you'll say next that you did not recommend me to send the child Susie to that woman, old mother Thompson. She was your recommendation, and almost the first thing that comes of it is that she allows the child to run away."
"It was all a bit of very hard luck for her, sir. It seems as though everything went wrong at once, as it were. She missed the runaways almost immediately, and went round to the police station and gave information. Then the police telephoned to all the other stations in the district, and she would undoubtedly have had both the children back all right the same night if Mr. Metcalf had not interfered. How it happened that he should have come across them I can't think. As I say, I suppose it was bad luck."
"Oh, to Halifax with your 'bad luck!' You mismanage things at every turn, and then prate to me about bad luck! You had better take care that you meet with some good luck next time by way of a change, or there will be a disagreeable reckoning between us. Now, what further mischief is in the wind? I see by your face that you have something further to tell."
"Mrs. Thompson saw William Grainger with a view to getting his authority to claim the girl from the Metcalf's. Rather to her surprise he decided to go there and claim her himself."
"Humph! Well, that seems right enough. It was the quickest way anyhow."
"Yes, sir, only—"
"Only what? What are you beating about the bush for?"
"Well, it seems that Grainger went to Mr. Metcalf's home, and saw him, and saw the child too. He was there for a long time, and when he came back he said that Miss Metcalf had offered to take care of Susie for a while, and that he had agreed. He thought it was the best place for her."
Hedley almost shouted the word. He sprang up from his chair, and fiercely paced the room for some seconds, clenching his hands, and muttering to himself:
"Is Grainger mad, or was he drunk?" he asked at last of Teazle. "I can scarcely believe it possible."
"I have not seen him, and so know nothing more than I have told you, sir. I had the news from Thompson, and came straight here to tell you."
Hedley seated himself, and remained for some time in a brown study. At last he said, more calmly:
"Very well; I will see Grainger myself. No doubt I shall be able to bring him to his senses. Anything else?"
"Why, a curious thing has happened. Mr. Wilberforce's clerk is up in town, and he is going round with Alec Ridler—you know who I mean, sir—and they called on Mr. Metcalf, and were there some time."
Hedley gave a long whistle. Then he looked puzzled.
"Now what do you suppose that means?" he asked after a short interval.
"I've made it my business to try and find out, but have not gained much information as yet. Ridler has been around, however, making inquiries about the firm of Fenton and Co."
"But that's ancient history. He was inquiring about them, I remember you telling me, a year or two ago. He's welcome to amuse himself that way—but is it merely a blind, think you?"
"I can't yet say, sir. Perhaps I shall be able to find out something in the course of a few days."
"Very well; that will do. You can leave Grainger to me!"
Teazle retired; and Hedley, left to himself, sat with his hand to his chin, staring at the fire, plunged in meditation.
"Metcalf! Metcalf!" he said, aloud. "It's funny that I should feel more concerned at his interference than I do in regard to old Wilberforce or Ridler, or anybody else. Not that Ridler is to be despised; I know by past experience how sharp he is, and I know that he's not to be bought, or bluffed once he gets on a scent."
"Sometimes I have thought, of late, that perhaps it would have been as well if I never had this canting old parson's money. Certainly, he is paying me out with interest, if he only knew it. But then he does not know that it was my doing. Some people—superstitious people, I mean—would say that there is the finger of fate in all this—that when he whined and raved about robbing the widow and orphan and all that stock claptrap, he was calling down a curse upon my devoted head, and that it is now working in so strange a fashion. Pshaw! What nonsense am I talking? Just because, by a strange chance, this particular man has crossed my path once or twice lately, I am almost growing superstitious myself. The hour of sweet revenge for which I have been working and waiting so patiently is close at hand, and I defy anyone to thwart me this time. Wilberforce may set Ridler to work—aye, and half a dozen more like him, too, if it so pleases him—and the Rev. Owen Metcalf may cant and pray; but they will fret and strive in vain. Come in!"
The last words were called out in response to a knock at the door. Sir Colin Meedham entered, and after the usual greeting was over seated himself moodily before the fire, smoking a cigar and discussing the fluctuations of the market price of certain shares in which he was interested.
His manner was nervous and uneasy, and more than once he glanced doubtfully at the financier. Presently he seemed to make up his mind, and said, abruptly:
"Hedley, do you feel certain that this plan of yours about young young Stanville will work all right? Suppose it were to miscarry? Suppose we were—ahem!—found out? It would be an awkward business, would it not? People would call it by an ugly name—conspiracy, or something—wouldn't they? I've been thinking it over, and—"
"Go on," was all Hedley said, as the other paused; but there was a cold, steely glitter in his eyes that made Sir Colin feel uncomfortable.
"Well, all I mean, you know, old chap, is to suggest whether there might not be some other way—some safer way—by which you could gain your end—whatever that may be—without—"
Again Sir Colin paused. He liked the look in Hedley's eyes less and less as he went on.
"Are you going to back out?" Hedley presently asked, in cold, dry tones, his glance fixed steadily on the baronet all the while.
"No!—oh, no!—of course not—if you assure me there is no other way," Sir Colin replied somewhat hastily.
"Have we not made our bargain as to what you are to get out of it? Are you not satisfied?"
"Does it matter to you, so long as I keep my word with you and you are satisfied, what particular purpose I may have in view?"
"No, no, only—"
"Then," said Hedley, quietly, "the matter is settled. Now tell me, have you prepared the ground as I planned out?"
"Everything has been done exactly as you instructed me. We had the Board meeting yesterday, and the cheque was sanctioned, amongst others, but not drawn."
"Did the other directors say anything?"
"Only one—the chairman, Ravenmoor. He seemed a bit mystified, and rather inclined to kick—wanted to adjourn the question until next meeting and so forth. But I pressed it quietly as being urgently required, and he gave way. I fancy, though, from his looks, and from something he said afterwards, that he was not altogether satisfied."
"Pooh! Ravenmoor doesn't matter. You've got the Board to sanction the cheque; I, on my part, have taken care that the money is in the bank—otherwise, by the way, I find there would not have been enough—so that the trap is now quite ready. In a few days, Meedham, you will have your revenge on 'the prancing Stanville,' as you call him"—his voice dropped, and he added in a fierce whisper to himself—"and so shall I!"
"HOW glad I am to see you again, dear Evelyn! More pleased than I can tell you."
"Not more pleased than I am to be here, dear Violet. This little room seems a veritable haven of rest to me. I am so sick of the vulgar glitter and ostentatious display one sees on ever side in the house I am living in. And I am tired of the people too. I shall be thankful when the time comes for me to leave them, even though I scarcely know where I shall go."
"You will come here to us, of course," Violet returned, heartily. And, as Evelyn shook her head, she continued, "Yes, yes; you must! Well, at first, for a little while, at all events."
"I know your father cannot afford to have another mouth to feed just now, dear Violet. And besides, Philip wishes me to go to live with him for a time."
"Yes; but come to us first—for a week or two, then you can go on to your brother afterwards, if he so wishes it. It will give him a little longer time to make his preparations to receive you. There! I consider that settled. And now tell me how things are going. Are they no better? But I fear they are not likely to be now that you have given Mrs. Morrison notice."
"They are so uncomfortable, Violet, that I have only been enabled to remain thus long by exercising the greatest self control, and by constant prayer to God for support."
Evelyn spoke in a low voice and evidently with difficulty. The note of tender sympathy in the other's voice had touched a chord in her own heart, and she felt hot tears rushing into her own eyes, and sobs that would not be kept down rising in her throat.
Then, as Violet threw her arms round her, she broke down completely, and burst into a flood of bitter, passionate tears that spoke all too eloquently of the self-restraint she had, till then, placed upon herself.
Violet did everything that her warm, loving nature could suggest to assuage her friend's distress; and for a time there was little said on either side.
Gradually Evelyn became more composed, and was able to answer the other's questions more coherently.
"I now begin to perceive, my poor darling," Violet presently said, "that you have told me in your letters but a very small part of what has really occurred. You must have suffered shamefully. I saw something of it in your face directly you came in. Tell me all about it; and tell me the why of it all, for I cannot understand it."
"No more can I, dear Violet. I am as much in the dark as you yourself. I only know that from the time I left here to go to Mrs. Morrison's my whole experience has been one long-drawn-out misery. What I, in my poor little life, can have done to deserve or provoke such treatment, I cannot think. I seem to have been treated as though I had done something very wicked to these people—something to make them most bitter, relentless enemies; as though, that being the case, they were determined to do everything that a malignant ingenuity can invent or suggest to revenge themselves upon me."
"My poor darling! What can it all mean?"
"I have racked my brains in vain to try to understand it; I have wondered and puzzled over it till my head has seemed to be going round; but in vain. I can assign no reason, can imagine no possible cause. O Violet, you can believe how I have prayed to Heaven for strength to bear with it, and for guidance! I have felt at times so bewildered, so lost; at others so full of useless indignation. The absence of any apparent cause makes it all the more difficult to explain it to other people, because, of course, they would not be able to understand it, to realise it, and would think I was exaggerating or imagining it all!"
"Yes, yes; I can understand. But who is it that treats you so? You have said something in your letters of Mr. Hedley paying you attentions that were distasteful—"
"Attentions! Did I use that word? At first I thought it was so, no doubt; but it was soon made plain enough that his 'attentions' were but veiled insults. He has been the worst of all. O Violet, you cannot think how wickedly I have sometimes felt towards that man! It is so wrong, I know; but I cannot tell you how I hate—I detest him. May God in his goodness forgive me! But He, and he alone, knows what I have borne, the humiliations I have endured!"
Then the overburdened heart overflowed again, and Violet was sore put to it to know what to do or say that could offer any real solace in such unusual circumstances.
Later on, when her loving ministrations had been to some extent successful, Evelyn proceeded to explain more fully, and to give details of the troubles she had passed through.
It was her first visit to Violet since she had gone to the Morrisons', for although their house was only as far away as the Bayswater-road, and Evelyn had been there nearly two months, yet, somehow, Mrs. Morrison had always contrived to find some excuse for refusing her permission to go out long enough to pay her friends a visit.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether she would have got away even now, had not the fact that she was soon to leave for good emboldened her to quietly insist upon being allowed an afternoon or an evening to herself. Hence Violet had known only what she could gather from the letters she had received; and now she learned that these had disclosed but a comparatively small part of what had actually occurred. And the more she heard the more she wondered, the more inexplicable did it all appear.
By-and-by they began to speak of other matters, and Evelyn spoke of Philip.
"Do you know, Violet," she said, "there is one thing that has been a source of comfort to me through all this; it is that a change seems to have come over my brother—a change that is all for the good. I know from his letters that he, too, has had troubles and experiences hard to bear. I strongly suspect—somehow I know—I seem to feel—that he has not confided everything to me—that his trials have been more serious than he has actually admitted to me. But the point is that through it all I have noticed—with a gladness greater than I can well tell you—a vein, as it were, of quiet resignation and reliance upon God's help. Now this is new in Philip; he used to rail so at 'fortune'—at his 'bad luck,' as he called it—whenever things went wrong, just as, I suppose, most people do when adversity comes. It drives so many men to recklessness and despair—to rebellion against the will of God. Only in the case of one here and there does it soften and chasten, and change a nature for the better. At least, so I have thought. But I seem to see hopeful signs in Philip's letters; instead of being impatient and complaining, they appear so gentle and patient, so quietly hopeful, that at first I could not help wondering what could be the cause of such a change. But I did not wonder long. His constant references to you and to his frequent visits here—of which, by the bye, I have heard more from him than from yourself—very soon explained what I ought to have guessed at once. I know you well enough, Violet, darling, to be sure that your influence would make for nothing but good with him."
At this, without exactly knowing why, Violet blushed so furiously that Evelyn almost forgot her own troubles in her sense of amusement. However, perceiving her friend's embarrassment, she forbore to press the point, saying, with a kiss:
"Do not be hurt, dear, at my words; and above all, do not be ashamed if what I think be true. I shall think all our misfortunes a blessing in disguise if it changes Philip in the way I mean, and I shall love you ten times more than I do already—if that be possible—for having under God's guidance, so influenced him. And now tell me about your own affairs—and Susie. What are you going to do with her?"
"Indeed, I don't know. I like the child so much I have asked dadda to let me keep her for the present, at any rate. And he has even gained her surly father's consent."
"Yes; and so you have seen Will Grainger. He has shown up again after disappearing all this while. Did he make any references to what he talked about when he was ill?"
Violet shook her head.
"No, he has not referred to it as yet, but I expect to see him again shortly. Here comes Ernest. He is before his usual time, but that is not surprising—he knew I expected you."
It is to be feared there was just a spice of mischievousness—of a harmless kind, no doubt—in Miss Violet's manner as she said these words. Certainly, if she intended them as a little bit of revenge for her confusion a short time before, she was justified of her prescience, for Evelyn's face, hitherto so pale, exhibited a rosy flush as she turned to greet the newcomer.
Presently Susie was sent for, and quickly showed that she had not forgotten the kindness she had formerly received at Evelyn's hands.
Then Philip arrived, and, shortly afterwards, Mr Metcalf, ready for his tea, and full of his usual bustling good spirits and breezy optimism, which never failed to cheer, by a sort of magnetic sympathy, every one with whom he came in contact.
Under such influences Evelyn passed an evening that seemed to her inexpressibly grateful and soothing; an evening which she had cause to remember afterwards as being, in its sense of peace and hopefulness, happier not only than any she had experienced for a long time in the past, but than any she was to know for many a weary day in the future.
"FATHER, Mr. Spencer has called; he wishes to have a little talk with you if you are disengaged."
"Ask him to come in, Ernest, my boy; ask him to come in. I am always glad to see our Brother Spencer. He does not need to be told that, I think."
It was on a Saturday afternoon, a few days after Evelyn's visit, and Ernest was waiting in at home for Philip Stanville, who had promised to come straight from the office—it closed early on Saturdays—to accompany him to an afternoon meeting he had arranged to attend.
A moment or two later there entered the Rev. Thomas Spencer, a mission worker like Mr. Metcalf, except that he was connected with one of the great Nonconformist Associations. The two were firm friends, and constantly co-operated and assisted each other in their work amongst the poor of the East-end.
Of the two, Mr. Spencer, although the younger man, was the more experienced in such work, having been engaged in it for many years, while Mr. Metcalf, as has been narrated, had come to London but a short time before from the country parish of Somerdale. In that district, as it so happened, Mr. Spencer had friends whom he had formerly been in the habit of visiting—a circumstance which no doubt had an influence in drawing the two together in the first place.
Yet in many respects the reverend gentlemen were very unlike. Mr. Spencer, a thin, pale, clean-shaven man, with dark hair and quiet-looking thoughtful eyes, showed signs of worry and overwork, and, in some degree, of that sense of the almost hopeless magnitude of the task to be accomplished which too often, sooner or later, makes itself felt and oppresses the spirits of even the most zealous workers in this vast illimitable field. To him Mr. Metcalf's unconquerable optimism was a source of admiring wonder. It was, as he more than once declared, "as refreshing as the sound of a cool, splashing fountain in the parched wilderness. One usually meets," he was accustomed to say, "with such cheery hopefulness only in the young, who come fresh to the work; brimming over with a zeal and enthusiasm which yields all too soon to the stern realities of life amongst the poor in this great metropolis."
Also, let it here be said, the dying down of such enthusiasm is too often the result of the want of sympathy with their work shown by the world at large—that is to say, of real, personal sympathy. Few outsiders can realise the amount of toil and the most sordid surroundings, of perseverance under heart- breaking difficulties, of self-denial, and self-sacrifice, continually called for in the every-day duties of the honest, unselfish worker among the poor of London. All honor, then to those who undertake the work, and who, undertaking it, devote themselves to it heart and soul. Of such Thomas Spencer was a typical and worthy example in his own circle, as Mr. Metcalf was in his.
But they are not exceptions; there are many more like them, working silently, unseen, unknown, so far as the great crowd of pleasure-seekers in the West-end is concerned. They hunger not, however, for notoriety, or for praise; but they do, some of them, at times, long wistfully for some sign from their fellows of sympathy with the struggle they maintain against the evil influences so continually brought to bear from every quarter upon the poor and ignorant crowded together in London slums.
"I have called to have a little talk with you, Brother Metcalf," said Mr. Spencer, after some preliminary greetings, "about a poor man I have lately been visiting named Gretton—Sydney Gretton. He is now old, broken down, ill, and almost helpless. But he was formerly in a fairly good position. He has been in the employ, he tells me—and I have reason to think he speaks the truth—of a firm of money- lenders named Fenton and Company, who seem to have cast him off, when it suited them, like an old shoe."
"Fenton and Company!"
The way that Mr. Metcalf repeated the name showed that it was by no means strange to him.
"Ah! You know them!"
Mr. Metcalf's face flushed, and he looked embarrassed, evidently hesitating before replying.
"The fact is, Mr. Spencer," Ernest here put in, "my father knows these people only too well. He has had dealings with them himself, unfortunately, as he is one of their victims—we are all victims here, I may say, for my sister and myself are sufferers, too. My dear father does not like to speak about them. You know how averse he is to say a hard word of any human being, but it is impossible even for him to speak any good of these people; there does not seem to be an extenuating circumstance to be found on their behalf. I speak not merely of our experience, in our own case, but of what we happen to know of the experiences of many others who have suffered even more cruelly at the hands of Messrs. Fenton and Co. than we have. I tell you this, of course, in confidence."
"Ernest, you ought not—" Mr. Metcalf began.
But Ernest interrupted him, respectfully but firmly.
"Nay, my dear father, I feel I ought to speak out here. It is a duty sometimes to warn others, and Mr. Spencer may be able to carry on the warning to some who may be in need of it. We know, Mr. Spencer, that these people prey upon the poor and helpless as well as upon the rich and foolish, and their nets are large and widespread. Therefore, you may very likely have opportunities of warning prospective victims; if so, do not hesitate."
"Who, then, is this Fenton?" Mr. Spencer asked. "I have heard his name apart from the firm."
"Ah, no one knows. It is one of the things a great many people would like to know. A great many have tried in vain to find out—are trying to discover now, for the matter of that. I know of one at this moment—one known, I think, to you also—Mr Wilberforce, of Lyngton."
"Mr. Wilberforce! Why of course I know him. Why should he wish to find out?"
"He is undertaking a thorough investigation into the affairs of my unfortunate friend, Philip Stanville, who he maintains, has been, in some respects, badly treated—in fact, to put it plainly, swindled out of a good deal of money he is generally supposed to have foolishly squandered. It is certain that Fenton and Co. were large creditors, and obtained from him enormous sums—whether fairly or not—"
"Ernest," Mr. Metcalf interposed, "speak not thus. Remember there is no proof."
"No; there is no proof, Mr. Spencer. I am only telling you in confidence what Mr. Wilberforce suspects."
Mr. Spence nodded his head and remained silent, evidently ruminating on what he had heard.
"Speaking of Philip Stanville," he presently observed, "tell me how he is going on—and his sister, too. I have not heard much about either of them lately."
"They were both here a few evenings since," Ernest replied, "and as to Philip, you will probably see him directly—he is overdue as it is. I have been expecting him for some time. I think I hear him now; at any rate, there is someone at the front door."
He went out into the hall, and was thus away for some little time. When he returned his face was deadly pale, and he had the air of one who had received some terrible shock. In his hand he held a letter.
"Father! Mr. Spencer!" he exclaimed, and even his voice seemed to have changed, "here is terrible news! so dreadful that I should scout the very idea as impossible were it not that I have it here written down in black and white. This has been brought by Miss Stanville, who has just arrived, more dead than alive, and is now lying very ill upstairs in Violet 's room."
He spoke in a half-bewildered, incoherent fashion, with many pauses and breaks, and an evident reluctance to come to the essential point of the communication he had to make.
His father and Mr. Spencer both rose from their chairs.
"What is it, Ernest?" Mr. Metcalf asked. "What letter is that you have in your hand? What does it say?"
"It says, father—oh! I can scarcely read out the hateful words to you—it says that Philip Stanville has not been to the office to-day, and cannot be found; but yesterday he forged a cheque for five thousand pounds, and it is believed, that he then cashed it and absconded with the money!"
FOR many long hours after her sudden arrival at Mr. Metcalf's house, Evelyn Stanville remained in such a state of utter prostration that the doctor who had been called in hesitated to give an opinion as to what the final outcome might be. He only shook his bead ominously, and said that practically almost nothing could be done beyond careful nursing.
"The young lady has evidently received some sudden and very severe shock," he declared, "and for the present I can do little for her. Absolute rest, and quiet, and watchful attention are the chief things she requires for the time being. Later on—we shall see. Meantime, we hope for the best."
This was all that was told to her anxious friends in the way of opinion or advice, and it did little, needless to say, in the direction of relieving their state of distress. So far as nursing was concerned, Violet Metcalf took it upon herself, and no nurse was ever more devoted, more tenderly watchful. Day and night she remained at her post, unremitting in her administrations, and denying to herself rest or sleep so long as her friend remained in danger.
With Ernest, meanwhile, the time dragged on wearily. He went at once, on the Saturday afternoon, to Philip's lodgings, but could learn nothing there beyond the bare fact that he had gone away on the Friday morning, with a small portmanteau, merely saying he would be absent a few days.
As the offices of the Phoebus Company were closed, Ernest could evidently do nothing there till Monday; so he went home again little wiser than when he set out.
He found Mr. Metcalf alone when he returned, and he told him the result of his errand.
The old gentleman had recovered a little from the first effects of the shock the news had given him, and now spoke calmly, even hopefully:
"While you have been away, my boy," he said, "I have spent much of the time in prayer. I have laid this great trouble before our Heavenly Father, and He has put courage into my heart. Never in my life have I seen those who trust him forsaken; shall I, then, begin to doubt to-day because this new trial is so grievous and hard to bear? There must be something behind all this which we cannot now see, but which will most surely redound to the honor and glory of God, and to the ultimate good of our sorely- tried friends. I feel it is so; it has been impressed upon me as I prayed."
"Amen! to that, dear father," Ernest returned. "I, too, will pray, and strive to believe with you that all will yet come out well; and meantime our friends, Philip and Evelyn, are sunk deep in the Valley of Humiliation, and it cannot be other than a bitter, a terrible time of trial that lies before them. Of course, we know that Philip is innocent—that he must be the victim of some horrible plot; but it must have been cunningly conceived to have worked out like this—we can perceive that much, even with our present imperfect information. But, father, don't you think we are somewhat to blame?—that we might have watched more carefully over the safety of these two? We have had repeated warnings and hinted suspicions that some hidden enemy was plotting against them. First there was Grainger, next Mr. Wilberforce, then that man Ridler—"
"Aye, my boy, aye. Truly we have, as you say, had plenty of warnings. But who could believe that such wickedness could be plotted against these two young people—fatherless, motherless, as they are, almost friendless?"
"I had almost forgotten Ridler till he came into my mind just then," Ernest now said, reflectively. "I have his address in my notebook, and I think I had better go and seek him out. He left me his private as well as his office address, in case, he said, I should want to see him suddenly at any time. It almost looks as though he had a sort of prevision that something of this kind would happen. Now how could that be? At any rate, it seems to suggest that he is a likely man to help us just now. Don't you think so?"
"It is better to trust in the Lord than to put any confidence in man," Mr. Metcalf quoted, solemnly. "For my part, I have little faith in any of these men whose business in life seems to be to spy upon others. I would rather trust everything to the guidance of a higher Power. Nevertheless, it may please that Power to work through such agents; and looking at it thus, it may be right for us to seek all the worldly aid we can, while placing our real trust and hope elsewhere. Go, then, Ernest, and ascertain what he thinks about the matter, and what he would advise us to do."
This conversation between the father and son was in many respects typical of the relations which existed between the two. It was ever a settled conviction in the heart of Mr. Owen Metcalf, that it is a mistake, and worse—that, indeed, it is wrongful—to trust either to your own cleverness or to that of others. Reliance upon guidance from above was no mere figure of speech with him. It was absolute, complete, unquestioning. And he carried it into everything in his daily life. "Take no thought for to-morrow what ye shall eat," was to him a command to be obeyed to the letter. To weak-kneed doubters who objected that it had not been intended that we should regard that command as one to be literally obeyed, he would reply:
"You profess to solemnly believe our gracious Lord's promise that through Him you can save your soul, and yet you cannot rely upon His promise in so much smaller a matter! No! I do not believe that that promise was intended to be regarded merely figuratively. I believe, my brother, that it was intended that we should rely upon it absolutely, implicitly, literally, and I have never known it to fail in the case of those who so trust it."
And no doubt Mr. Metcalf was right as to this; but how many are there who trust to it in the true spirit—with the unquestioning, unhesitating faith of the single-minded believer?
So while Ernest went out to seek the advice of the detective, Mr. Metcalf betook himself to prayer and meditation in his own chamber, going backward and forward now and again to inquire of his daughter as to how the patient was progressing.
Ernest was so far successful that he found Mr. Ridler at home, but quickly discovered that there was little to be got from him beyond certain shrewd guesses. What Ernest had to tell was as great a surprise to the detective as it had been to himself. He saw that plainly enough, though Mr. Ridler, "to save his face," tried his best to look wondrous wise, and to hint that the information was not altogether a surprise to him.
"At all events, I must wire to Mr. Wilberforce as soon as possible," he said after some desultory talk. "He is away from home just now, but will be back on Monday. I have not the slightest doubt that he will—if he can possibly get away—come up at once to look after Mr. Stanville's interests."
"What do you suppose they will do—I mean as regards Mr. Stanville?" Ernest asked, hesitatingly. "I mean what proceedings are they likely to take?"
"Issue a warrant for his arrest, no doubt," Ridler said, looking upon it as a matter of course.
Ernest shuddered. "Don't you think that they may wait a little to see what explanation—"
"Pooh! No, sir. I should not think so—not if the facts are as you have been given to understand. Of course, it has been a trap, sir—that I'm quite prepared to believe. But it must have been a clever one, and artfully set. And you may depend upon it that whoever contrived it will be at work edging on those concerned to take the proceedings usual in such cases."
"But what has become then, of Mr. Stanville, think you? I am smitten with apprehension at the vague ideas that arise unbidden in my mind. I am afraid to speak of them—they are such fearful shapes."
The detective nodded.
"Aye, just so," he replied, coolly. "He may have gone into hiding, when he realised what he had done, to gain time; he may have been forcibly abducted to make the case appear blacker against him; he may have commuted suicide; and lastly, he may merely have been enticed away on some fool's errand."
There was some further talk between the two, and then Ernest took his leave and returned to his home sick at heart and full of haunting fears. Over and above his sympathy for Philip, and his surmises as to what could have become of him, there was his intense anxiety upon Evelyn's account.
"Alas!" he thought, "whatever the outcome may be, the effect upon her must in any case be cruel. How can she ever bear up against the load of shame and misery that must inevitably fall upon her innocent shoulders?"
"I DO not see how I can interfere in this matter, Mr. Metcalf. The facts are, unfortunately, only too plain. An emergency meeting of the board of directors has been called for this morning, and I am going on there now. So far as I can see, we have only one course before us, and that is to issue a warrant for Mr. Stanville's arrest. I am sorry, extremely sorry; but upon what possible ground could I interfere?"
Thus spoke Lord Ravenmoor, the chairman of the Phoebus Company. It was early on the morning of the Monday following Philip's disappearance. After much thought Mr. Metcalf had determined to call upon the earl at his residence before he should leave for the city, and in order to glean what information he could, and to intercede with him to use his influence in his young friend's behalf.
"But, my lord, you surely do not believe that Philip Stanville is guilty of this dreadful thing that is imputed to him?"
Lord Ravenmoor stared half-wonderingly at his visitor, and then out of the window, evidently considering with himself before he replied. His pale, ascetic face bore a perplexed look, and he seemed ill at ease. To do himself justice, let it here be said, he had quite lately begun to ask himself whether the relations into which he had somehow drifted with Mr. Ralph Hedley were altogether satisfactory, regarded from the point of view of his own dignity and self-respect. To make up for a rather limited income—latterly made even less through some disastrous losses on the turf—he had consented to become one of the pushing financier's "ornamental" directors upon the boards of some of the companies that gentleman had promoted. In his ignorance of practical business he had been content to do, thus far, pretty much whatever Hedley had required of him; but latterly one or two matters had occurred which had caused him to pause, and filled him with certain uneasiness as to whether he might not have been too complacent. And the last incident which had thus influenced him had been connected with this very matter.
"You see, Mr. Metcalf," he presently said, evading a direct answer, "it is this way. The company has two banking accounts. At the last meeting of the board, a resolution was passed authorising the managing director, Sir Colin Meedham, to draw a cheque to transfer the sum of five thousand pounds from one account to the other, in order to meet certain drafts made upon it, or likely to be made upon it, by our manager at the mines. At least"—here the speaker hesitated—"so I understood the matter, though I confess that, not being a practical business-man myself, I do not quite know how or why these calls were thus suddenly made by our representative out there without giving us longer notice. It was not made at all clear to me, and for that reason I suggested that the question should be adjourned till our people here had cabled out for further information and received a reply. But I gave way to the other directors, and the resolution was passed, leaving the matter as I have said, in the hands of the managing director. The cheque would require two signatures, that of the managing director himself, and the secretary's. It seems that Sir Colin arranged with Mr. Stanville that he should come to the office last Friday afternoon to sign the cheque, and there is no doubt that Mr. Stanville was there in the early part of the day, apparently expecting him. But Sir Colin received a cable which informed him that there was no occasion for immediate hurry, and he thereupon sent a message to say that after all the cheque would not be required at present. When he called at the office on the Saturday morning, he found that Mr. Stanville had not been there since early in the afternoon of the previous day. There was nothing in that, of course, and he was about to leave again, when some reference was made by a clerk about a cheque having been drawn, which seemed so strange that Sir Colin went over to the bank to make inquiries. There he was told that a cheque for five thousand pounds, purporting to bear his signature, in addition to that of the secretary, had been presented and paid the day before. He was shown the cheque, and saw that his name had been forged, and the cashier who paid it, who knew Mr. Stanville by sight, as coming occasionally to the bank upon the company's business, declared that, to the best of his belief, he was the person who had presented it, and taken the proceeds. Then, inquiry at the apartments occupied by Mr. Stanville elicited the fact that he had gone away on Friday with a portmanteau. He left no word or message as to where he was going or when he would be back, and no one—not even you, his intimate friend—has seen him since or seems to have any idea where he is. Now, tell me what can I possibly think? If there were any probable explanation to be found, I should be only too glad to suspend judgment. I recommended Mr. Stanville to the company at your request, as you know, and therefore I feel that this reflects in some sense upon myself. Apart from all other considerations, there is also the fact of the—er—friendly relations which have—er—existed in the past between this gentleman and—er—myself—and—er—my family. The whole thing is—er—a scandal in which—er—I should be only too glad to have no part. But what can I do?"
Mr. Metcalf sighed. He knew not what reply to make, and could only shake his head in silent dissent. He could not suggest any feasible explanation; but his faith in his friend's innocence remained unshaken.
"We have had no time yet to make any inquiries," he presently urged. "Could you not induce your directors to delay taking any—that is, to put off doing anything which would make the matter public until we can form some idea what has become of him?"
Lord Ravenmoor shook his head.
"I can see no reason to put forward to justify such a course," he said. "I should be only too pleased to give my vote for it if you can only suggest any explanation that a committee of business men would be likely to listen to. You see, the amount is large; we cannot afford to lose such a sum. The directors are bound, as trustees for their shareholders, to take immediate steps to try to recover the money."
The earl might have added that he had a very direct and personal interest of his own in this part of the business. For a dead loss of five thousand pounds would mean a balance upon the wrong side of the company's profit and loss account at the end of the year, which, under the company's articles, meant very much smaller fees for himself as chairman in consequence.
The worthy clergyman was loth to go away unsuccessful in the object he had in view. He had persuaded himself, and tried hard now to persuade the peer, that the missing man would return in a day or two with some simple explanation which would set everything right.
"And then Lord Ravenmoor," he urged, "think how sorry—how ashamed—you will all feel to have made such a charge publicly! Think of the cruelty to this young gentleman—one without father or mother—to thus brand him with a wrongful accusation! Think, too, of the effect upon his sister Evelyn, whom you used to know so well—who is now lying at my house, as I verily believe, between life and death. Think of these things, my lord, and try to give him the merciful benefit of a doubt, for the space of a day or two!"
"'And so,'" our directors will say, 'give him time to clear off with the money,' the earl replied, shaking his head. "No, no, Mr. Metcalf, the facts, as I have said, are too strong. There is no reasonable pretext for delay to put forward."
During the latter part of the discussion a door upon the other side of the screen had softly opened, and a beautiful girl had come into the room, and remained an unheard and unseen listener to what was said. Her face grew pale as she listened, and she put her hand to her side and bowed her head as if in pain. Then she crept out again, closing the door so quietly behind her that neither of the speakers had any idea of her presence.
Mr. Metcalf, having exhausted every argument, every plea he could think of, presently took his leave of the earl, and made his way, with bowed head, and in a state of great dejection, down the staircase leading from the room in which he had been received, to the hall.
At the foot of the stairs he was surprised by feeling a hand suddenly laid upon his arm, and the rustling of a lady's dress.
As he looked up, the girl who had thus accosted him laid her finger upon her lip, and gently drew him aside into an adjoining apartment.
"Lady Edith!" Mr. Metcalf began in surprise.
"Hush! Mr. Metcalf. I sent the servant away that I might speak to you alone. I have heard what you have been talking about—you and my father. Like you, I refuse—indignantly refuse—to believe this shameful charge against Phil—Mr. Stanville—and I will help you. I can—and I will—"
"God will bless you if you do, Lady Edith!" said Mr. Metcalf fervently. "But how can you?"
"Never mind how. I know something—a little, and I suspect—well, a good deal more. But tell me, how is it that Evelyn Stanville is lying so ill at your house?"
"The shock of this terrible news has nearly killed her, so the doctor tells us. She—"
"Dear Mr. Metcalf, may I come and see her? Perhaps I may be able to comfort her a little under this cruel trial?"
"Come, my dear young lady—come, by all means."
"Expect me, then, this afternoon. Good-bye, till then, Mr. Metcalf; and tell Evelyn Stanville from me, not to lose heart."
MR. SILAS TEAZLE walked into the offices of Messrs. Morrison and Hedley with the air of a man who is on very good terms with himself. He nodded in a curt, patronising way to one or two clerks in an outer room, and at once made his way without waiting to be announced, into Mr. Keen's private apartment. That gentleman was busily writing; but he put aside his work as Mr. Teazle came in, and rose to greet him.
"You look well—and cheerful this morning, Mr. Teazle," he said, with a sharp, all-over sort of a glance at the detective. "It is refreshing to see someone looking a little cheerful in these days, when most people I know are growling about the sudden slump in the market. I've been hit myself this time—and I don't like it. I went for the rise and came a bit of a cropper. What did you do, if I may ask? Have you been one of the 'bears'?"
Mr. Teazle shook his head and laughed.
"Oh, no," he answered lightly. "I have not been speculating lately—have had other fish to fry."
"Humph! Well, you're lucky, for we have all been a bit shaken here during the last few days," Mr. Keen went on, rather gloomily. "And you know this rumor about Stanville going off with five thousand pounds is not calculated to help matters just now. It's rather unfortunate coming at the present moment. I suppose it's true, eh?"
He looked at Mr. Teazle again with an odd, sharp glance, in which there seemed just a trace of suspicion.
Mr. Teazle appeared not to notice the other's evident ill- humor. But he put on a rather grave air as he replied:
"Yes, Mr. Keen, it is, as you say, an unfortunate affair; but it's true enough. I have just come from the Phoebus Company's offices. Who would have thought of it? Fancy Philip Stanville doing such a thing, of all men!"
"What will they do? Issue a warrant, I suppose, at once?"
"Yes. Notices were sent out to all the directors calling a special meeting for this morning; in fact, the meeting was being held when I left. I expect they have settled it all by this time, and issued the necessary instruction."
A minute or two later Mr. Teazle was summoned into Mr Hedley's room. As he passed into the intervening lobby, Mr. Keen looked after him curiously.
"There's something going on that I know nothing about," he muttered to himself. "Something between Teazle and the governor as to which I am out in the cold. And it's something to do with this Stanville affair, or I'm a Dutchman. Well, I can wait; but I shall make it my business later on to find out what it all means."
Meanwhile the detective had greeted his employer, who was standing with his back to the fire looking—for him—in the height of good humor. He waved his hand to indicate that his visitor might be seated, and then said:
"You seem to have managed very well, Teazle. I suppose by this time the board have given directions for a warrant to be applied for? Was the meeting over when you left the 'Phoebus' offices?"
"No sir. Lord Ravenmoor was late, and they did not begin punctually. I didn't stay, because you said it would be a foregone conclusion, as it were, and—"
"Yes, yes; just so. There cannot be any doubt about it. I have seen all the directors personally, including Lord Ravenmoor. I saw him yesterday afternoon and found that he was very firm upon the matter that a warrant should be issued as quickly as possible. No, there's no doubt whatever about the result of the meeting, and, therefore, you did right not to stay. Any other news?"
"Miss Stanville has gone to Mr. Metcalf's, where they say she is lying very ill."
An ugly gleam came into Mr. Hedley's eyes.
"An attack of the spleen, I suppose; it will do her good," he said, callously. "She'll probably be worse yet before she is better!" He seated himself at his writing-table, and tore a cheque from a book lying open before him. "Here is a further instalment of what I promised you. You can have another when Philip Stanville is safe in prison. That won't be long now. Well, Keen?"
Mr. Keen had knocked and opened the door.
"Sir Colin is here, sir, and wishes to see you at once!"
"Ask him to step in, Keen. You can go, Teazle, for the present. I will see you again presently."
Sir Colin came in, looking red and excited. He glanced round to see that the door was safely closed behind the other two, and then threw himself into an armchair in a manner that showed that he was thoroughly out of temper.
"What's the trouble, Meedham?" Hedley asked.
"Trouble enough, man. The matter's adjourned."
"Adjourned! You don't mean to say they've done nothing?"
"I do mean to say it. Ravenmoor—"
"Ravenmoor! Why I saw him yesterday, and he seemed to be as firm as a rock about it."
"Ah! That was yesterday. But this morning that modern 'Paul Pry,' as I now begin to think him—old Metcalf—saw him, and evidently must have altered his views. Ravenmoor insists upon the matter being adjourned until to-morrow."
Hedley started to his feet, and strode up and down the room. He clenched his hands, and there came into his face again the hard, evil look that Sir Colin by this time knew so well.
"Metcalf again!" he exclaimed. "Why, this is monstrous! Intolerable! What can that old woman Ravenmoor be thinking of to listen to him? And what in the world could Metcalf have said to influence him? He knows—can know—nothing whatever; but, after all," he finished, with a sudden change to a calmer mood, "it is only put off, you say, till to-morrow. In the circumstances, twenty-four hours don't much matter."
"I don't know," Sir Colin said dubiously. "Hedley, I can't think what Metcalf can have said; but I feel convinced it was something which it is important we should inquire into at once. Ravenmoor's manner was very cool—provokingly cool—and I am very much inclined to believe he suspects something."
"HAVE you no news, Ernest? None, at any rate, that is good, I fear. Your face tells me that at the first glance."
"I have none, my dear sister, that can be any comfort to you to hear. How is Evelyn?"
"Rather better. She has been sitting up and talking for a little while."
"Is that wise, Violet?"
"I have been very careful, and she only frets and worries all the more, I fancy, if she does not talk a little. The doctor thinks the worst is past, and that she now wants cheering."
"Thank Heaven for that, Violet. Would that I could have brought some cheering news. That would be the best medicine for her, I think."
"Has nothing been heard of Philip?"
"Nothing. Everything has been wrapped in mystery. The only point of note is that Lord Ravenmoor has prevailed upon the board of directors not to do anything to-day. They have postponed taking action until to-morrow. Only a short respite, I fear, at the best."
"O Ernest, what is the meaning of this terrible blow that has fallen upon these two? I can scarcely realise that such an awful shadow is hanging over them. For Philip Stanville to be accused of anything so dreadful seems too ridiculous to be possible. I am dazed, bewildered, stunned! Surely, it is some hideous nightmare from which I—we—all of us will awake to-morrow, laughing at our dreaming fears. God will never permit so great an injustice to be done! What does it mean?"
"'An enemy hath done this,' dear Violet. All we can do is to pray for guidance to unravel the plot and unmask the plotter. At present we are but groping in the dark. Let us, then, pray for light from above, my dear sister."
"I do, Ernest. I pray day and night; but, oh! there seems to be no answer to my supplications. No glimmer of light has yet been vouchsafed to us."
"We must be patient, and trust in Heaven. I cannot believe so diabolical a scheme will be allowed to prosper."
"It is so difficult to conceive who can be at the back of it all, because what can the object be? Philip, poor fellow! has been ruined, and has suffered, within two or three years, more humiliations, more trials to his natural pride, than most men have to endure throughout their whole lives. And that makes it so difficult to imagine how or why any person living can wish to bring further trouble upon him. That is what puzzles me so. Were it not for that, I would not hesitate to declare my conviction that I could point out the enemy. I would say at once it is Ralph Hedley."
"I confess I truly believe he must be mixed up in it. But belief is not proof."
"No; but seeing is proof, and Evelyn declares that she saw it in his eyes when he came to her at Mrs. Morrison's on Saturday with the news about Philip, and announced it to her with such brutal abruptness. She declares that she saw his eyes blazing with triumph and gratified hate!"
"It is difficult to bring oneself to believe in such wickedness," he answered. "And still more difficult, as you say, to imagine any rational motive. We must be patient, dear sister—we must be patient."
Ernest Metcalf had been out and about all day making inquiries, and interviewing everybody he could think of as likely to be able to throw any light upon the mystery of Philip Stanville's disappearance. And now, in the afternoon, he had returned home unsuccessful and even more despondent, if possible, than when he had started. Mr. Metcalf, who had gone out at the same time with the expressed intention of interviewing Lord Ravenmoor, was still absent; and Ernest and his sister were beginning to wonder where be could be.
When, therefore, someone was heard at the front door, they both hurried into the hall expecting to meet him. Great was their surprise to find instead a visitor—the very last one, probably, that they would have expected to see. For there upon the doorstep stood a young lady in rich and fashionable attire, whom Violet failed to recognise, but whom Ernest knew to be Lady Edith—one of Lord Ravenmoor's stately daughters.
She and Violet had not met for some years. Both, therefore, had changed; and they now stood looking at each other in mutual embarrassment and surprise.
Lady Edith was the first to recover her self-possession. She went up to Violet, and took her by the hand in a friendly fashion.
"You do not recollect me, I expect; but I can see you are Violet. Don't you remember Edith Hitherton?"
Then Violet returned the greeting, but scarcely, be it said, very heartily. There was a constraint almost a coolness, in her manner, which would have surprised those who knew her naturally warm, friendly disposition.
"I saw Mr. Metcalf this morning at our house," Lady Edith continued, "and I asked and obtained his permission to come here this afternoon to see Evelyn Stanville, who is, I was told, very- ill."
At this Violet softened, and her manner became more cordial. Anyone who came to visit Evelyn at such a time of illness and trouble might be sure of a welcome from her devoted friend. No time elapsed ere the visitor was introduced to the patient's bedside.
Just as she entered the sickroom there brushed past her a little girl whose bright face and sparkling eyes immediately attracted her attention.
"Why, surely I know that child's face," she said to Violet. "Who is she?"
"It is William Grainger's child," Violet answered. "I am taking care of her at present, and in return she helps to take care of my patient. She is the most clever and devoted little nurse I have ever come across."
Lady Edith seemed about to say something more about the child, but suddenly turned and went on her way instead. A minute later she had taken Evelyn's hand in hers, and was bending down to kiss the pale face.
"I could not refrain from coming to tell you how sorry I am for you, Evelyn," she said. "We have not met for a long time, but we always used to be good friends. Do not give way, my dear; do not lose heart. This abominable accusation against—your brother—cannot possibly be true, and he will be cleared from it right enough. I am sure of it."
Evelyn's eyes filled with grateful tears at the cheering words, and her hand returned the other's friendly pressure. But she was weaker again, and was unable to do more than whisper her thanks.
"I prevailed upon my father," Lady Edith went on, "to persuade his board of directors to wait another twenty-four hours before taking any active steps. It is not a long respite, but it was all I could do; and who knows," she added, hopefully, "what may happen in twenty-four hours?"
"You do not believe this hateful charge, then?" Evelyn whispered. "God bless you for that, and for coming to tell me so. It will help to give me courage to bear up—and I do want to be up and about to try to help. I cannot tell you how I feel here, not only unable to help myself, but a trouble and burden to others."
But this brought upon her a little affectionate scolding from Violet, which Evelyn accepted with a wan smile.
Consideration for the patient caused Lady Edith to make the visit shorter than she would have liked; but she would not leave until she had obtained permission to come again very soon.
Just as she had left the sickroom, and was chatting with Violet and her brother before finally taking her leave, Mr. Metcalf returned. He brought with him the Reverend Mr. Spencer.
Their manner at once showed the others that they had something important to tell. Mr. Metcalf plunged into it immediately:
"I ran against our Brother Spencer," he said, "on my way to make a call in his neighborhood. He was going, he said, to see old Mr. Gretton, of whom you may remember, Ernest, he spoke to us the other day; and he wished me to accompany him, and he wished me to speak to him about those people Fenton and Co. We found the old gentleman much disturbed by the conduct of a son who had called upon him on Saturday, and after—greatly to his surprise—presenting him with—for him—a pretty considerable sum of money, announced that he was about to leave England for some foreign country from which he did not expect to return for at least some years. He refused to say where he was bound for, but declared he was going into a good berth, promised to write to his father from time to time, and to send him money periodically. Then, setting aside all his poor old parent's entreaties, he bade him a hasty good-bye, and left him. Where he has gone, or why, or in what capacity, his father has no idea; and the poor man is in a most anxious state of mind, fearing whether it is all fair and above board, and whether the money he left him so unexpectedly has been honestly come by."
Here Mr. Metcalf paused, and Mr. Spencer took up the story:
"What is, however, probably the most curious part of the affair remains to be told. It seems that this son, young Charles Gretton, has been living apart from his father for some time, and seldom went to visit him. He led, from all I can gather, a rather fast life, being given to doubtful company, betting on horse- racing, and so on. He had the grace, however, to send his old father a little money now and then, though he was not dutiful enough to visit him regularly, or to see after him as he ought to have done. Well, this young fellow has latterly employed—where do you think?"
No one could guess, so the speaker resumed.
"He was employed at the offices of the Phoebus Company, under Mr. Philip Stanville; so Mr. Gretton told us to-day. And, on Saturday night after his son had gone, Mr. Gretton picked up this letter, which must have dropped from his pocket. It is stamped ready for post, and the inference is, of course, that it was given to young Gretton to post, and that he, either accidentally or intentionally, omitted to do so."
Mr. Spencer drew out a letter addressed to Ernest, and the handwriting showed that it was from Philip Stanville.
THE letter which Mr. Spencer had brought with him, and which was addressed to Ernest, was indeed, from Philip Stanville. It was dated, it presently appeared, the previous Friday, and had it been duly posted, should have reached its destination the same evening.
Ernest seized the missive, and tore it open with excited eagerness, while the others crowded round him, in silent solicitude. Almost the first words appeared to reassure him.
"Why, this explains everything!" he cried. "Father! Violet. Philip received a sudden summons by telegraph from Mr. Wilberforce, and has merely gone down into the country to meet him."
There were glad exclamations from the anxious listeners, amongst which could be distinguished deep-toned "thanks to God!" from Mr. Metcalf. From Violet there was heard nothing but a gentle sigh; but the warm color that came rushing into her face, till then pale from watching and want of sleep, told eloquently how great was the relief from the previous cruel suspense.
"And here," continued Ernest, with increasing excitement, "here is a statement which explains the rest. Philip tells me how he came to sign the cheque. It's all as clear as daylight! Listen!"
He proceeded to read out the letter. After expressing regret that be would be unable to meet Ernest the following day, as had been arranged, the writer went on:—
"I have received a most urgent telegram from Mr. Wilberforce asking me to take the first train I can catch, and meet him at the George Hotel, Crawford. What he can want to see me about so imperatively, or why he should wish me to go to Crawford to see him, instead of to Lyngton, I have no sort of idea. However, the wording of his message hardly leaves me any choice in the matter, so I am starting by the next train. There is no particular business to prevent me leaving the office from to-day till Monday. The only matter of importance concerned a cheque for a large amount which our managing director, Sir Colin Meedham, was to have come here to-day to sign; but after waiting about for him all the morning I have just had a note from him saying he is unable to get away, and asking me to sign his name for him, add my own as usual, and then give the cheque to the bearer of his letter. Rather a funny way of doing things, it seemed to me, and I felt some hesitation about it, not knowing enough of business matters to be sure whether I ought to do it. However, as the cheque has been duly sanctioned by our Board, and I have Sir Colin's written request and authority to sign his name, I suppose I can't be far wrong in doing as he tells me. So now that that is done with, I can be off at once. Expect me back on Monday."
The letter had evidently been written in a hurry, and concluded hastily.
For a moment or two after Ernest had finished reading there was some confused talk amongst the group around him, and then Violet said good-bye to the visitors, and went off to carry the good news to Evelyn. Lady Edith left, accompanied by Ernest, who offered to escort her to the nearest cabstand.
"What do you think of the matter now, Lady Edith?" he asked, a little anxiously, as they went upon their way. "I am afraid you think the trouble is not yet over."
He had remarked that she had said very little about Philip's letter, and appeared thoughtful and preoccupied.
"I am afraid it's very far from over, Mr. Ernest," was the reply. "You see I had a talk with my father after he returned from the City. He did not give me very full particulars of what took place, but I know this much that Sir Colin was there, and said nothing about having requested or authorised Mr. Stanville to sign his name to the wretched cheque which has caused all this misery. I do not like to say anything to damp the hopes which Mr. Stanville's letter has naturally raised—but—I have still grave misgivings."
"But at least it is a great relief to know even that Philip is all right—"
"Was," Lady Edith corrected. "Was all right on Friday. But he said he would be back by Monday, why, then, is he not back? Or why, if he is detained with Mr. Wilberforce, did he not send some explanation of his continued absence to the office—or to you for instance? Where is he now? See what a difference it would have made had he been at the meeting today to give his explanation."
"True, I admit those considerations had not occurred to me up to now. I was so taken up with the feeling of relief which Philip's letter afforded that I forgot everything else. Your shrewd questions make me full of uneasiness again."
"I am sorry for that; but you see, Mr. Ernest, if, as some of us—I, for one, and you, I know, for another—believe—if, I say, there is a plot against Mr. Stanville, it is not likely to be so easily upset. Depend upon it, the plotters, whoever they are, have laid their plans more deeply than that. That is why I am troubled about Mr. Stanville's continued absence and silence."
"You suspect a plot then? Have you any suspicion as to who Philip's enemy can be?"
"I told your father this morning that I had a suspicion, and that I knew something—something which came to my knowledge lately quite accidentally. It is not much that I have to go upon, but it may lead to further discoveries later on. More I would rather not say just now."
"I shall think well over what you have said, Lady Edith; and if we do not hear of Philip by the morning, I think I shall start off myself for Crawford and Lyngton to investigate matters on the spot. But what do you think of the curious coincidence about this young Gretton? Why did he not post that letter to me? Did he forget it, or—"
"I do not believe he forgot it, Mr. Ernest; depend upon it, that letter was intentionally kept back. It only shows again how deeply-laid is this wicked plot. I fear there will be more difficulty in unravelling it than I should like to believe. Then, as we heard, this young Gretton is going away—has gone, I suppose, by now. So if he is wanted to—to—Well, let us say to testify to anything on Mr. Stanville's behalf, he cannot be found. As you say, though, it is a strange chance that Mr. Metcalf should drop on the father in that accidental way and to recover the letter."
"My father does not believe in 'chance' or 'accident,' Lady Edith," Ernest answered. "He would tell you that there is no such thing, and that in this he sees the direct guidance of God. You do not know, perhaps, that Mr. Wilberforce has for some time past been secretly employing a private detective in connection with Philip's affairs. But he does not seem to be of much use, and it is certain that this upset is as great a surprise to him as it has been to us, and that up to now he does not seem to have been able to do anything to help us. It is curious then, is it not, that my father, without exact intention, should have come across this letter, which throws more light upon the matter than anything we have—all of us put together—so far been able to find out?"
"Your father is a good, dear old gentleman. I always loved and respected him almost more than anyone I know. But he is so very unworldly, you know—so simple and trusting in his ideas."
"He is; and yet," said Ernest, tenderly, almost reverently, "this is not by any means the first time I have known him in his seemingly blind, aimless fashion to stumble on something which others were vigilantly seeking for, and which, notwithstanding all their experience and worldly wisdom, they had failed to find."
Lady Edith smiled.
"Truly that seems a curious thing to say of one so unused to the world's ways, so thoroughly unsophisticated. But," she added, gravely, "I know so well what he would say. He would say, 'Why not? Why should not God direct those who revere and trust Him rather than those who rely on their own cleverness?'"
"That is, indeed, my father's faith, Lady Edith. He would be pleased to hear you say that; he would welcome the words as a proof that you too—"
"I?" said Lady Edith, with a note of sadness in her voice. "Alas! no; you must not include me. In the set we move in it is so difficult to be good. Ah! Mr. Ernest," she added, with a heavy sigh, "more difficult than you, perhaps, have any idea of. But here is a cab; so I must say good evening."
She drove away after adding a few words of thanks for his escort, and many expressions of hope as to the future.
Ernest, returning home deep in thought over all that had occurred during the day, found his father and sister in conversation with Mr. Alec Ridler.
The detective had been greatly chagrined when he had been told of the incident of the Grettons and what had already been learned from it. However, he brought further news of Philip—news calculated to cheer Ernest's spirits, which had begun to droop again.
"I've been in communication with Mr. Wilberforce by telegraph, and have learnt much—and also have been able to inform him pretty well as to the position of affairs by sending him a long letter as a parcel by express train," the detective explained. "And he and Mr. Stanville are now on their way to London, and will be glad if you, Mr. Ernest, can meet them with me at Paddington Station to-night. It is clear," he went on to say, "that Mr. Stanville must have been enticed away by a false telegram—it did not come from Mr. Wilberforce at all; he was not at Crawford, but had gone in another direction, and when Mr. Stanville, tired of waiting about at the hotel there, decided to go on to Lyngton to seek for news of him, he had to wait again till he returned early this morning. This much I gather from the wires I have received. As regards this young Gretton, it was known that he was leaving the office for good on Saturday, but no one knows where he is going to. It had been put about, I hear, that he was going out to some relation in South Africa; but that, I expect, is all moonshine. I have not the slightest doubt but that he is in the plot, that it had all been arranged beforehand, and that he has been well paid, and packed off out of the way. The question remains, who are the people in the background? I am trying to find out who Fenton and Co. are—or is—for I believe when we find that out, we shall discover the real instigator of this shady affair."
"I REALLY do not know whom or what to believe, Mr. Wilberforce," said Lord Ravenmoor, testily. "It is a miserable business altogether—a wretched scandal to happen to anything I am connected with. First I am told one tale, then you come and tell me another; and, for all I know, when I get down to the city to-day, I shall hear something again quite different. Meantime it is causing me endless annoyance and bother—taking me to the city yesterday, and again to-day, when I had important engagements elsewhere."
"But, my lord, consider what is at stake! This young gentleman's character—"
"Oh, bother the young gentleman's character!" the earl replied, peevishly. "He should look after it better himself. Ever since his father died he has gone on from one piece of foolishness to another, until, by his extravagance or worse, he has beggared himself, and is obliged to go round worrying his former friends to do something for him, or put him into some berth or other. And no sooner he is put into one than he manages, somehow or other, to get out of it again. Finally, Mr. Metcalf comes to me entreating to see me what I can do to give him one more chance. I use my influence to get him this post in a company I am connected with, and before many weeks are over this horrid scandal crops up! Really, he is hopeless! I must wash my hands of him!"
"But he is innocent of any wrong in the matter—as I feel convinced he is—and can prove it—and it can be shown that he is the victim of a plot—"
"Oh, don't talk of plots and such like nonsense! Such things may do very well in the pages of romance, but the colleagues I have to do with, who are my co-directors, are hard-headed city men. They are not to be coaxed or cozened into neglecting their obvious duty, as trustees of the shareholders' money, by talk about secret plots to ruin innocent and—in this case—supposedly simple-minded men."
Mr. Wilberforce looked disconcerted. He had arrived in town after a long journey, the previous night, and had been closeted till the early hours of the morning with his agents, Mr. Ridler and others, discussing the state of affairs, and planning their future procedure. The worthy lawyer made no secret of his conviction that they had to do with some clever, unscrupulous, deadly enemy to Philip Stanville; and one whose schemes were probably too deeply and cunningly laid to be easily defeated. They must, he therefore advised, proceed warily, and, first of all, it was necessary, almost at all costs, to gain over Lord Ravenmoor as an ally. So he had risen early and gone to the peer's residence to have an interview with him before he started out to attend the board meeting of the company—upon the result of which, that day, so much depended.
And now he had found to his disappointment and dismay, that the earl was in a very querulous, irritable mood, and in a frame of mind very prejudicial, if not actively hostile, to his young client's interests. The reason of this was to be found in the fact that there was a race meeting on at Sandown, which Lord Ravenmoor had been prevented from attending. Another was that his daughter, Lady Edith, had been taking Philip's part, and had, perhaps, unintentionally, done harm rather than good. For the proud old nobleman had chosen to see in her advocacy a revival of the penchant which she was supposed formerly to have felt for Philip. Now, to think of Philip Stanville as a possible son-in- law, considered as a landed gentleman, the owner of Stanville Hall, and with an income in keeping with such a position, was one thing; but Philip Stanville, as he now was, penniless, and with such a charge hanging over his head—that, of course was quite another matter. The mere thought of such a thing sent a cold shiver down the old man's back; from his head and neck down to his very shoes, and—well, he was getting into a state of mind very dangerous to poor Philip—he was beginning to think that perhaps the sooner this attractive young scapegrace was put safely out of the way, the better for his—the earl's—future peace of mind.
So Mr. Wilberforce found he had a very hard nut to crack when he essayed the task of gaining over the wavering chairman of the company.
He determined upon heroic measures; that is to say, he decided to give to the earl, in confidence, certain particulars which he would very much have preferred to keep to himself. He knew, however, that Lord Ravenmoor was a gentleman whose word, once given, was to be absolutely trusted. He proceeded, therefore, to pour into his astonished ear the story he had revealed to Mr. Metcalf of the money which Philip had set aside, according to his father's wishes, as a trust; explained how he even refused to touch a penny of the income from it, and some further details which need not here be set out, but which evidently produced a great effect upon his hearer.
"I ask you now, my lord," he said at the end, "whether it is likely—even possible—that one who has acted in this way, one who has been so quixotically honorable and scrupulous in regard to this large sum of money—whether such a man is likely to commit a contemptible fraud such as has been laid to his charge?"
"Well, well. You have astonished me, Mr. Wilberforce. No sir. I agree with you that it is not likely. And if he can produce this letter you speak of from Sir Colin, I will back him up and aid him in every way I can to set himself straight with my board and with the world at large. But I must tell you that Sir John denies absolutely that he has authorised in any way, directly or indirectly, the signing of this cheque; so that there seems to be a direct clashing of statements. It seems it is Sir Colin's word against Mr. Stanville's at present. So we must have that letter to make things clear. And the telegram, too, which you say was sent in your name to take him down to Crawford on a fool's errand—we ought to see that also; and inquiries ought to be made as to who really sent it. Even now, I do not see exactly why anyone should take the trouble to play so elaborate a hoax. They must have sent someone down to Crawford on purpose. Why should they do so?"
"They wanted to get Mr. Stanville out of the way, my lord, so that it might appear—as it has appeared to everyone thus far—that he had absconded with the money. Thus they lured him on to meet me, not at Lyngton, where he would very quickly have discovered the deception, but to an hotel in another town, where, of course, he waited about, hoping I should put in an appearance later on. He wired from there to my house—my office being closed—asking the reason of the delay, and of course got no reply, as I was away from home in another direction. That also appears to have been known to the cunning knaves who engineered all this. Finally, when he came over to Lyngton in search of me, he had to wait till I returned on Monday morning before he saw me. Then, of course, he could not get back to London till night. Meantime, he knew nothing of the terrible imputation lying upon him, of the emergency board meeting which had been called, or of the dark construction which would be placed upon his absence. Remember, too, that a letter which he left at the office explaining that he had gone away on urgent private business, and might not return till Monday afternoon, and a letter he had written to his friend Mr. Ernest Metcalf, had both been, by some means, suppressed or kept back. Altogether, he seems to have been surrounded by treachery, and to be a victim of the most diabolical cunning."
Mr. Wilberforce left Lord Ravenmoor fairly content with the final result of his interview, and more hopeful as to the immediate future.
An hour later he went with Philip, and accompanied by Ernest Metcalf, to the office of the company, where the secretary's unexpected reappearance created a sensation. Without heeding the cold looks and contemptuous shrugs of some of those he met, however, Philip Stanville went straight into his own office, and taking out a bunch of keys, opened his private safe.
For a minute or two he searched, but hunted in vain for what he sought. Then he turned to his companions with a white face, and startled, wondering eyes, exclaiming in faltering accents:
"The papers have been stolen!"
The letter from Sir Colin, authorising him to sign the cheque, and the telegram which had been the cause of his hurried journey, and which he had carefully placed in the safe before his departure, had disappeared. Nor did a further and more careful search reveal any trace of the two documents, or any hint of the means by which they had been abstracted.
WHEN Philip Stanville looked into his private safe, and found that during his absence the letter he had come to seek so confidently had been abstracted, he felt like one who had received a sudden, terrible blow. For a space he was bewildered, dazed, stunned; then there came rushing upon him a flood of thoughts, which threw, as it were, a lurid, hideous light upon the true meaning, the depth, and the cunning of the plot which had been concocted against him.
Up to that moment he had scarcely regarded the matter seriously, the accusation seemed to him so absurd, so very ridiculous. He had not realised the full meaning of it, nor had he grasped the importance of the construction which other people would probably put upon it all. Confident in his own innocence of any intentional wrong doing, full of his own high standard of rectitude and honor, he had been too much inclined to regard the whole affair as a sort of a storm in a teacup, or simply a misunderstanding, which would be all put right as soon as he exhibited the letter of authority from Sir Colin Meedham.
When he had been told that Sir Colin denied having written any such letter, the statement had seemed to make the matter graver, certainly, but to his mind even then, at worst, it only suggested that he, Philip, had been the victim of a skilful forgery. If so, that, of course, was a serious matter—for the company; and he himself would be very greatly blamed, no doubt; for having been so readily imposed upon. But to blame himself for having allowed himself to be duped was a different matter from imputing to him forgery and embezzlement.
But if he could not show the letter he had received, whether that letter had been genuine or a clever forgery, if he were unable to corroborate his own statements and asseverations by the production of a single document, then, indeed—it suddenly flashed upon him—he was in a very different position. In that moment he perceived for the first time the precipice on the edge of which he stood, and below it the yawning chasm of social obloquy and disgrace into whose sombre depths some unseen, malignant, implacable foe was evidently striving to force him.
There came upon him a vision of the terrible suffering, the cruel mental torture, this shame would cause his innocent sister Evelyn, who had already suffered heavily enough from the poverty he had allowed to fall upon her; and he saw, mentally, Violet Metcalf's swept face, and wondered how she would be affected by some such dishonor falling upon him.
He sank upon a chair, and, for a while, was conscious only of a wave of agony that seemed to engulf his whole soul as these pictures passed before his mind. Then came the thought of the counsel which he knew—he was sure—Violet would have given him had she been there. Of late he had received at her hands many little lessons of faith in God's help in time of trial. He had allowed her to believe that her counsels, her influence, had not been altogether in vain. Should he admit now that he had been insincere—that he had not really meant what he had allowed her to believe of him? No! He had put his hand to the plough, and God helping him, he would not look back. What would Violet say if she were there? She would say, "Have faith, have courage; pray for help from above; do not rely either upon your own cleverness or upon the aid of friends to escape the net which has been cast around you!" And for a few brief moments Philip strove to put his counsel into practice; his whole heart and soul cried out to God, humbly, reverently, for help in this great danger. When he looked up his face was calm, and he met Ernest's sympathising and anxious gaze with a steady, courageous glance in reply.
Ernest's concern and disappointment at what had happened were visible enough; but Mr. Wilberforce was not affected in the same manner. He showed no surprise at the turn things had taken, but proceeded to talk rather as though he had expected it.
"You've taken this matter much too easily, Philip, my lad," said the old lawyer, shaking his head. Then, turning to Ernest, he continued: "I did not care to act the part of prophet of evil; but I never supposed from the first time I heard about it, that this business was so simple as our unsuspicious friend here has persisted in believing. Though I confess I did not exactly foresee this particular piece of cunning, I felt pretty sure that there was more trouble looming ahead than he allowed himself to believe. Well, now, Philip, do not be too much cast down over this. Pending the unravelling of this skein, I must try what diplomacy can do."
"How do you mean, sir?" Philip asked, in some wonder.
"Never mind, never mind," was the enigmatical rejoinder. "I'm not going to desert you, my lad—to leave you to the tender mercies of these conspirators. Your father was my friend, and a very good, kind friend he once showed himself at what was, for me, a critical time of my life. I never had any opportunity of paying him back during his lifetime, so I shall try to pay some, at any rate, of the debt of kindness I owed him—I shall endeavor to pay some of it to his son. That is why I have made up my mind to see this thing through, as the Americans say."
Philip silently held out his hand, while a thankful sigh went up from his heart to the Power which had placed so sturdy and experienced a friend by his side at such a time.
"Now, where is this young scoundrel—young Gretton?" Mr. Wilberforce asked.
"Indeed, I don't know, sir. We all knew he was going to leave the company's service last Saturday; and he hinted vaguely that he was going abroad to an uncle or some relative in South Africa; but he told us nothing definite. I rather liked the lad, and even now I cannot bring myself to believe that he has played me false."
Philip did not say that he had pressed a present of a few guineas upon the young fellow before saying goodbye. Such, however, was the fact.
"You gave him your letter to Ernest to post?"
"Yes; he saw me with it in my hand, and took it from me, saying he would post it safely, as I might forget it on my way to the station."
"The young hypocrite! And he also took charge of the letter explaining where you were going, and saying you might not be back till Monday afternoon?"
"Yes. You see there was no one else in the office, as it happened, just then."
"And it was he who brought you the letter from Sir Colin requesting you to sign the cheque and give it to bearer immediately; and he saw you, when you had complied with the request, put the letter away in your private safe?"
"Yes. In my surprise I read the letter over to him twice before I decided to sign the cheque. He heard me say I did not like to do so. He could bear witness—"
"Pooh! Don't you see that is all part of the plot? You never saw the messenger who was waiting downstairs, either, I suppose?"
"N—no. I was told it was a commissionaire; but I did not see him because—"
"Because there was no messenger there, you may be sure. All the same this will be turned against you, don't you see? It will be said that what you assert about young Gretton being there and seeing you open the letter, and hearing you say you objected to sign it—it will be said it is easy—and clever—of you to put all this upon him, knowing, as you do, that he has gone away and cannot be found."
Phil sprang up with indignant repudiation.
"Pooh! Don't upset yourself, lad. That was all a part of the plan from the first. There is one thing I do not so clearly understand, and that is, why did they send you a telegram as from me, of all the people in the world?"
"Why, one can explain that easily enough," was Philip's ready reply. "There is no one else out of London, throughout the length and breadth of the land, whose summons would have taken me away so suddenly and unquestioningly."
Mr. Wilberforce nodded his bead, and made answer:
"Yes, I can guess there is no one else whose name they could use for the purpose. It is fortunate, indeed, that Mr. Metcalf should have seen Lord Ravenmoor, and been the means of getting the matter adjourned for twenty-four hours. See what has come of it! You are here in time for the adjourned meeting to face your accusers, and we have this letter which young Gretton intended to suppress, which we owe to Mr. Metcalf again. It is not much, this last, looked at in one way; but it is important viewed in another. It is the only corroboration we have up to now of your side of the story; from that point of view it is almost invaluable."
The man of law, having delivered this opinion, remained for a few minutes deep in thought, and then resumed:
"Now as to Sir Colin. Either he wrote that letter to you, or someone closely imitated his writing—that is how the matter stands there. In the former case, of course, he must be in the plot against you—must be a liar, an unscrupulous, unmitigated villain. On the other hand, he may really never have written the letter, and know nothing about it—in which case his disclaimer would be natural and innocent enough. Do you suppose he is likely to be an enemy of yours; is he likely to have any grudge against you, Philip?"
"I cannot imagine any possible reason for his feeling any enmity against me, Mr. Wilberforce. Certainly I never liked the man when I knew him in former days; and he has been rude and overbearing to me since he was made managing director here. I fancy there is a sort of mutual dislike between us; but I should be sorry to suspect him of anything worse."
"Humph!" muttered the other to himself, discontentedly. "You and Mr. Metcalf are a pair. Left to yourselves, I don't believe you would suspect a pickpocket if you caught him with his hand in your pocket, either of you. And if he made the excuse that he merely put it there to keep it warm you would believe it."
"LORD RAVENMOOR is ready to see you sir."
Mr. Wilberforce rose and nodded to the clerk who had brought the message, then, after waiting to see that he had gone, turned to Philip.
"Be of good cheer, my boy. I go to see what 'diplomacy' can effect For the present we must not rely entirely upon the justice of the case. Justice, for the time, must take a back seat."
He went out, leaving Philip and Ernest together, for the latter had remained with his friend, refusing to leave him until they knew what the outcome of the adjourned meeting was to be. Though he tried his best to cheer Philip, he was himself—as he could not but admit—in a high state of tension. He could not altogether conceal the anxiety with which he awaited the expected decision.
Nor was Mr. Wilberforce, old practitioner though he was, and used to the mysteries and the tragedies that are inseparable from a lawyer's field of work, free from a feeling of uneasy nervousness. Though without any real knowledge of the foes with whom he had to cope, and consequently only dimly groping his way by the light of vague undefined suspicions which he could not put to any legal test, he was determined that he would unmask, sooner or later, the real authors of the plot which he was convinced had been hatched against his friend's son. As he was so badly informed at present, he had but one immediate end to strive for—to gain time. He could not hope to succeed except by a comparatively slow process of sap and mine; and to enable him to do this he must have time.
"But meanwhile," he said to himself, "they must not put Philip Stanville into gaol."
And he set his teeth hard, and clenched his hands as he went forth to do battle on behalf of his protégé.
Lord Ravenmoor received the lawyer courteously; but the latter could read in his face little to encourage his hopes.
"I have done my best," said the earl, "but they are too strongly against me. Frankly, the directors find it hard to believe Mr. Stanville's story, and though I admit that his unexpected return, and the remarkable discovery of the letter, supposedly suppressed by young Gretton, have evidently made some impression upon one or two, I was afraid to take a vote till I had seen you again, as you suggested."
Philip had been before the directors and told his version of what had happened; and Lord Ravenmoor had come away from the meeting for a few minutes to discuss the subject a little further.
"Thank you, my lord. I thank you very much. I cannot tell how deeply I feel upon this matter. Philip Stanville's father was my friend—I may truly say no man ever had a truer, a more loyal, or a more generous friend. What I wish you to do, what you must do, my lord, if you will permit me to respectfully press the point, is to postpone any unfriendly decision against this young man. There is a foul plot—of that I am persuaded—and we cannot unravel it in a minute or two. We want time—weeks—months. Give us, then, six months—and I guarantee by then I will make this rascally business as clear as day."
Lord Ravenmoor shook his head.
"That is not possible," he replied decidedly, "I fear I could not even get you another twenty-four hours' delay."
"It would be of no use if you could, my lord; so we will not talk of that. Six months is the term I want—and six months I mean to have if diplomacy can get it."
"What do you mean by 'diplomacy,' Mr. Wilberforce?" the peer asked with some surprise.
Mr. Wilberforce curled his lip.
"Look here, my lord," he exclaimed, "do you suppose I do not know that all these precious virtuous directors of yours are mere puppets of those long-headed financiers, Morrison and Hedley?"
"Really, sir," returned the earl, flushing and looking indignant. "I must say you have no right—"
"I mean no offence to yourself, my lord; but listen for a moment to me. If Philip had any idea of what I am about to do he would come rushing in here to stop me with a very much more genuine display of anger and indignation than all your board together could muster up. You say your directors have left five thousand pounds, and that, as trustees for the shareholders, they dare not refrain from taking all the steps they can to try to recover the money. I quite admit that; only, what I say and know—and what you know, too, for the matter of that—is that Philip has not got the money, and does not know what has become of it, and that, therefore, your board will do no earthly good by arresting him. Now, of course, it would not be right of me to offer to repay this money."
"You, Mr. Wilberforce! What the five thousand pounds?" exclaimed Lord Ravenmoor, in astonishment.
"Yes; I say it would not do for me to offer to. It would be illegal; it is compounding a felony."
"Yes, yes," the earl replied, but his tone had less conviction in it than just before.
"So you could not expect an old lawyer, such as I am, to place himself in a false position, to say nothing of the fact that your virtuous directors would at once reject such an offer with scorn."
"Yes, of course we should," said the earl; but his tone still more lacked enthusiasm, and had sunk to a mere murmur. There was even in it, a cynic might have said, a suggestion of disappointment.
"Just so," Mr. Wilberforce went on. "Moreover, my high- spirited young client, Philip Stanville, would, if he heard of my making such an offer, be the first to repudiate it—and me, too, I expect—for he would look at it that I thereby admitted that he had taken the money."
"No, no, it need not be so," murmured the chairman. "Put it that he admitted responsibility on the one hand, and negligence on the other, and that he was willing to make compensation."
"No; I know my young gentleman too well, Lord Ravenmoor. He could never be induced to consent. It would leave a slur which he would never get over. He would never lift up his head again, poor fellow."
"Well, well, what is it, then, that you do propose?" the other inquired, impatiently.
"W—well, your lordship is a sporting man; what I propose is a wager."
"Yes, a wager for five thousand pounds!"
"A wager for five thousand pounds! My good sir, what do you mean?"
"Simply this; your directors say that this is not a plot to ruin and disgrace Philip Stanville—at least, they profess not to believe it. I say it is. As they won't give in to my opinion, and I won't give in to theirs, I propose a bet. I am willing to wager five thousand pounds that within six months I shall have cleared up the matter and exposed the authors. If I fall, I will forfeit the five thousand pounds."
"Do you mean this seriously, Mr. Wilberforce?"
"I do; and I am ready this day to deposit the whole sum in the hands of any trustworthy third party as a guarantee."
"Really, Mr. Wilberforce," said the chairman, hesitatingly. "I hardly know whether I should put so strange a position before my board."
"Oh, well, try 'em, my lord, try 'em. I expect, like yourself, they are most of 'em open to a little betting—or speculation—now and again."
There was some further talk, and then Lord Ravenmoor went off to put his unexpected proposal before his directors. After another long interval he returned, looking rather gloomy.
"I cannot say I have altogether failed, Mr Wilberforce," he said; "neither have I succeeded. The directors at first pooh- poohed your proposal; but after a while one or two have come round; but still I could not see my way to getting a majority. So I again put off taking the vote."
"H'm. Well, now, my lord, let me talk quite frankly. If I seem to speak abruptly, pray forgive me. I have no wish to hurt your feelings—and remember, pray remember, I am working hard, not to do myself any good, but to save a young man of whose absolute innocence I am convinced. Now, I want all your influence in this matter; and I know I cannot hope to get it if you are in debt to Morrison and Hedley. Now tell me how much do you owe them over this Phoebus Company."
"Mr. Wilberforce," cried the earl, indignantly, "this insult—"
"Nay, nay, my lord, there is no insult intended. But it so often happens that a director—especially a chairman—a titled chairman—is never asked to put his hand into his pocket for his 'qualification' shares. Now, supposing it were so here—I only say 'supposing'—can you say, after all I have told you, that it is quite wise of your lordship to remain under such an obligation to such people as Morrison and Hedley?"
Lord Ravenmoor at first seemed as though he were going to burst out into a highly indignant reply. Then he appeared to think better of it, and looked keenly and uneasily at his questioner. Finally, he said quietly:
"I don't know how you came to be aware of it, but since you seem to have learned all about it, it is of no use for me to say anything further. As to your question, I wish with all my heart I had the money; it is only a thousand pounds. If I could I would pay it to-morrow, and get out of their debt."
"You do not owe them anything else?"
"No; oh no."
"Well, Lord Ravenmoor," said the old lawyer, leaning over towards him and speaking very emphatically, but very quietly, "use all your influence, and insist on carrying this through for me—get me this six months' delay—and I will, to- morrow, buy your shares, and pay over the money for them; but they shall remain in your name as long as it suits your wishes."
There was a little further discussion, and the peer once more went back to the meeting; and Mr. Wilberforce, left alone, fell into a brown study. And as he waited his head drooped, and his whole attitude betokened the despondency and anxiety with which he awaited the result.
"May God have mercy upon this poor lad and defend him from this last crying shame!" he said, softly, to himself. "As for the rest—well, if it costs six thousand pounds to secure this breathing time, and it results in our ultimately clearing him, it will be a cheap enough price. It will be but a small part, after all, of what I owe his dead father."
MR. WILBERFORCE, growing somewhat restless in his anxious impatience, got up and wandered aimlessly along a rather dark passage, intending to rejoin Philip and Ernest, who were waiting together in another department by themselves.
Rather to his surprise, he ran against a gentleman in black, who was hurrying along in so hasty a fashion that the two came together somewhat roughly.
"Dear me, dear me!" exclaimed the newcomer. "I really beg your pardon, sir, but I am a stranger here, and I fancy they must have sent me up the wrong staircase or something, for I cannot—why, dear me, it is the very man I want."
"Why, Mr. Metcalf," cried Mr. Wilberforce, "I did not know you in this bad light. You have come, I suppose—"
"Tell me, is anything definitely decided yet?" Mr. Metcalf inquired eagerly.
"No, my friend, nothing as yet. We have had interviews and discussions, but at present we are awaiting results—"
"Heaven be thanked!" said Mr. Metcalf, taking off his hat and wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, though the day was cold. "I have hurried here, Mr. Wilberforce, with important papers which came into my hands but an hour since. They are papers which may make a lot of difference to Philip. See here!"
The lawyer during this short colloquy, had been leading his visitor by the arm into the room in which Philip and Ernest were seated, gazing listlessly out of the window. They turned at the sound of voices, and sprang up on catching sight of Mr. Metcalf. The latter, without, further preface, produced two or three papers, which, on being unfolded, proved to be none other than the very documents which had been taken from Philip's safe.
Philip cried out in astonishment, and thankfulness as he recognised them, and Mr. Metcalf looked on in pleased satisfaction. But he saw enough, as he glanced round at the faces of those present, to tell him that they regarded what he had brought as of supreme importance.
"My dear good friend, where, in the name of all that is wonderful, have you unearthed these from?" exclaimed Mr. Wilberforce. "Why, these are the very papers we are all in such trouble about!"
"Let us thank God, then, with all our hearts before we go any further," was the reverent answer. "As to how I came by them, that you shall probably know later on—it is a secret for the present, though in reality it is a short and simple matter enough. The question is, what are you going to do with them?"
"Yes—yes, you are right, Mr. Metcalf," said the lawyer. "I will send for Lord Ravenmoor at once."
His lordship shortly afterwards came into the room in response to the summons which was sent to him, and his surprise at the sight of the missing papers was visible enough. But mingled with it the lawyer plainly read doubt and perplexity.
"Here, my lord," said the man of law, "you perceive are the papers which Mr. Stanville missed from his safe. They are, firstly, the false telegram which caused him to leave London so hurriedly; secondly, the letter he left addressed to the managing director, in which he states he may be away until Monday afternoon; and thirdly, the all-important letter from Sir Colin Meedham—or purporting to be from him—which I see directs Mr. Stanville, clearly and unmistakably enough to sign the cheque for five thousand pounds, leave it open, so that it can be cashed, and send it, in an envelope by the bearer, who is, the letter states, a trustworthy commissionaire, well known to the writer. Now, the question is—What has Sir Colin to say to that? Does he admit it, or does he deny it?"
"I will take it to Sir Colin, and ask him," returned Lord Ravenmoor, slowly. "He is in the board room, and then—"
But the cautious lawyer demurred.
"I must guard my client's interest, my lord," he objected, in a quiet, respectful tone. "Your lordship knows how important that document is, and that it has already been lost once. I must not lose sight of it again. I will accompany you, and bring the letter with me, if you like, or Sir Colin can come here and inspect it; but I cannot let it go out of my hands."
Meanwhile another stormy scene was taking place in Mr. Ralph Hedley's office. His rage when Sir Colin carried to him the result of the day's proceedings, was something terrible to look upon. But for once he found that his accomplice was too much enraged to show his usual fear of him.
"See what you have led me into!" muttered Sir Colin. "It was part of our plan that that miserable letter should be stolen and destroyed so that it should never turn up against me. But see how you have mismanaged it! Instead of its having been destroyed, here it is back again in Stanville's hands, and if I had not pretended to get into a temper and so made an excuse for getting away, I should have been confronted by that cunning old lawyer. Then I should, as he said, have either to admit or denounce it as a forgery—that is put my own head into a noose! No, thank you. I was not going to stay there to be caught like that. It means penal servitude if it should be brought home to me. Even now, how do I know that that lawyer won't commence proceedings on his own account, and force me into court. If he does a nice corner I shall be in. How did Metcalf come to have that letter? That's what I want to know. You ought to be able to tell me."
"Metcalf! Metcalf! Don't ask me to account for Metcalf's getting into our way again! It is beyond my comprehension," Hedley returned savagely. "But, never mind. Stanville's not out of the wood yet. This accusation will stick to him; and I'll take good care to put it about and rub it in. And over and above that, I have already got a fresh plan."
"Well, you can work out your fresh plans yourself," returned Sir Colin sullenly. "I've been a fool ever to join you in such business, and I've had enough of it. Do what you like to Stanville in the future, but leave me out of it. I'll have nothing more to do with it."
And with that Mr. Hedley's quondam confederate swaggered off, and left him to give vent to his rage and disappointment in solitude.
"I HAVE some news for you, Philip," said Violet Metcalf one afternoon when the two happened to be aloof together. "I wonder what you will think of it?"
Philip had been sitting looking across the strip of garden, his gaze fixed somewhat wistfully upon the masts which reared their shapely towering forms high above the dingy walls of the dock. As Violet spoke he turned his glance towards her. Something in her air and manner seemed to give him an idea.
"Is it another 'post' Violet?" he asked, rather listlessly. Then he shook his head. "It is of no use for any of you, dear kind friends as you are, to try to get 'berths' for me. I am a failure—an out-and-out failure; and I seem only fated to be a trouble and a worry to those who care for me."
"No; you must not talk like that, Philip indeed, you must not," said Violet, gravely. "We must all work, and strive, and struggle on, you know. God so wills it; and it is not for us to give way because of a faint heart."
"Ah, Violet, would that I had your faith—your invincible faith, dear friend. I do confess that mine—"
"Is wavering, would you say? O, Philip!"
They were but two words, but so full of gentle, shocked reproach that they stirred the listener as probably any other sort of appeal would have failed to do. He rose and came across to where she was sitting sewing, and took her hand.
"Dear Violet," he said, tenderly, "you are far too good to me. You should not worry that little brain of yours about me. Besides, 'tis useless; I am pursued by a miserable fate, and it has not yet—something seems to tell me—done its worst. As I sat over there just now I was wondering—what do you think?—I was just wondering what was the next knock down blow that fate has in store for me."
"Philip, I sometimes think that in that direction lies one thing that is bad for you—you sit and brood and dream too much. You want more occupation, more to think about of a practical, everyday character. Lately, since you left the Phoebus Company, you have necessarily been unoccupied, for a while; but now I should like to see you turn your mind to something—well, something that would take up all your time, all your thoughts. And, you know, I think I have found it for you."
It was about a month after Philip's resignation of his secretaryship. Evelyn had got well again, so far as physical health was concerned, and had been industriously seeking a new engagement, hitherto without success. She had gone out on this errand again this afternoon, and Philip, who had called to see her, was now awaiting her return.
But though Evelyn had recovered from the cruel shock she had received when she quitted the Morrisons so hastily, she was far from having gained her former spirits. Indeed, both the brother and sister felt deeply and cruelly the sort of stain cast upon them by the charge which had been brought against him, and which had never been properly cleared up. Evelyn was not one to cry out over such a pain; but it gnawed at her heart all the same, and reflected its sinister effects in her face. With Philip, the same feeling exhibited itself in another fashion; he was gloomy, listless, spiritless, and given to bitter self-jibings. It was an unhealthy state of mind, and both Mr. Metcalf and Ernest noticed it with pain and some apprehension. But their efforts had been unable, to rouse him from the state he had fallen into.
Mr. Wilberforce had returned to Lyngton. It was understood that Mr. Ridler was still busily at work for him, and that the private detective's zeal had been stimulated by the promise of a handsome reward in the case of his making any important discovery; but so far his efforts did not seem to have met with much success.
"Yes, Philip," Violet went on. "I think I have found something that would be the very thing for you."
"And what may that be?" Philip asked, without, however, any particular show of interest or curiosity.
"Mr. Spencer has a vacancy for a lay worker—two, in fact—and he has kindly promised me to give you and Evelyn the refusal of them. Of course, the remuneration is very low, but one can live on it. And," she added, her face lighting up with enthusiasm, "think what a lot of good one can often do!"
To her disappointment, Philip went back to his chair, and resumed his former occupation of staring out of the window.
For some minutes he made no reply. Then he turned and said, simply:
"Violet, do you think it would be the right thing for me to accept this offer, if I do my best to carry out the duties?"
"I do, indeed, Philip. And I should be so glad to see you hard at work in the same field as that in which we are laboring. I am sure that you would come to love it as I have learned to do. Do you know," she went on, dreamily, "I have come to appreciate our life here in a very different way to what I thought I should ever do. When we first came from the country to our present surroundings, it seemed a very hard change, yet I cannot but feel that life here, in this great teeming metropolis, is far more interesting. One has so many more opportunities of doing good, of helping consoling, comforting those in need or in trouble. Not only that, but one sees such wonderful developments of life as it really is; such strange happenings, such marvellous—almost incredible—dramas of earthly existence, such queer little comedies, such pathetic tragedies! In the dear, delightful village in the midst of which we used to live, we seem now, looking back, but to have been in a backwater of life, drifting slowly, idly round and round in a little eddy. Here, in London, we are in the midst of the rushing stream, and are carried along with it, at times through deep places, at others over shallows; sometimes swifter, sometimes lower, but scarcely ever still, and seldom resting. And all the while the banks flit past like a living panorama, giving us momentary glances of places and things we never before so much as dreamed of. It is like—to put it another way—being always at a theatre, where each day a fresh play is acted under one's eyes. Ah! I could occupy weeks, months, in telling you tales of the strange happenings, the startling little romances we have seen in the two or three years we have been in London!"
While speaking, the young girl's face had become lighted up with animation, and her companion caught something of her enthusiasm as he looked at her.
"I will do as you wish, Violet," Philip repeated. "I pray I may succeed better in this—God's own work—than I seem to have done in any other."
PHILIP STANVILLE in due course entered upon his duties as a district visitor, and it may truly be said that from the commencement of his work he never ceased to feel amazed at the experiences which came to him. He found himself in an altogether new world, one almost strange to him, as he sometimes was wont to declare, as though he had been living on another planet.
Yet he had previously considered that he knew London fairly well. As one of the jeunesse dorée of the land, he had lived in the West-end, visited the Royal palaces, the ducal mansions of Belgravia, and the fashionable haunts of Mayfair. He had lounged in the most exclusive clubs of Pall Mall and St. James; he had had his ride in the Row in the morning, his box at the opera at night.
More recently he had mingled with financiers, stockbrokers, and speculators in the city, and watched the play of the passions of greed and avarice upon men's faces as they surged to and fro in their wild struggle for gold, caught by the fatal attraction of the mighty maelstrom that whirls round and round unceasingly, with the Stock Exchange for its centre.
He had thought that he "knew London," that he had a fair knowledge of the great modern Babylon which surpasses in size any other city of the earth. London! The greatest city the world has seen; the mighty, throbbing heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known! A vast world in itself! The home, the abiding place, of the noblest intellects, the most exalted seekers after purity and truth; the abode, the sale refuge of the most ignoble, the most sordid, the most vicious! A realm of unsolved, impenetrable mysteries! The birthplace alike of beauty and innocence, of depravity and sin; the happy dwelling place of secrets hideous, dire, unutterable!
Who shall estimate, who shall sum up the total of laughter or of tears, of joyousness or of misery, of delight unnamed or anguish unbearable, that go to make up one hour, one minute, one second of the life of the millions that are represented by the one word "London."
Philip Stanville had to confess, when he came to plunge into the real, true undercurrent of East-end life, that he had never before "known London."
And, as time went on, he acknowledged, with an ever increasing sense of the hopelessness of the endeavor, that though he were to live and labor there for a hundred years, he would still, at the end of it, know but comparatively little of "London."
Only those who take such a plunge can ever conceive the state of things which has somehow—no one seems to know exactly how—been allowed to grow up in this part of the wealthiest, in many respects the most enlightened city of the world. Few outside its limits would credit the overcrowding, the squalor, the hopeless despair that everywhere reign among this unhappy population; still fewer, perhaps, realise their benighted, heathenish condition. This is no mere figure of speech. A high authority has declared that "in the Bethnal Green district alone, there is a pagan population of a million growing up."
Can words more eloquent be spoken? Is there need, to say more than those few words to bring home to the minds of outsiders the appalling state of things prevailing in this year of grace in some parts of our great capital?
Into this seething stream of ignorance, crime, and suffering, then, as has been said, Philip Stanville plunged. Under the able and sympathetic guidance of Mr. Spencer and Mr. Metcalf he soon began to know his way about the network of narrow streets, courts, alleys, which, with one or two stretches of broader thoroughfares, made up the district placed under his charge. It would be as impossible to follow him through his many and varied experiences as it would be to accurately describe the labyrinthian routes he traversed in the course of his daily rounds. Only one thing can be said with certainty—day or night, except when actually asleep, he was never idle.
So closely was he occupied, so thoroughly were his thoughts taken up by the exigences of his work, that he had little opportunity now of brooding over the past, and gradually the memory of his troubles became softened, though never obliterated. But always there lay over him the shadow of the foul charge which had been brought against him. Of this he could not rid himself, and the memory was very, very bitter; but he felt that for the time it was wiser to bear it silently.
Two months passed, and matters remained as regards that episode, very much in the same position. There were two or three on the Board of the Phoebus Company who were much inclined to take drastic proceedings, with the object of discovering what had become of the missing money, and trying to punish the guilty parties, whosoever they might be proved to be, and these were secretly urged in that direction by Hedley, with a view to causing renewed trouble to Stanville. But the other directors were in favor of leaving things alone for a time, and trusting to the chapter of accidents. Lord Ravenmoor, for one, steadily opposed the suggestion of such proceedings, and so, for very different reasons did the managing director, Sir Colin Meedham. The former had freed himself from his obligations to Hedley, and there was a chilling coolness between them. Indeed, to do the earl justice, he was desirous of retiring from the chairmanship altogether, and only deferred doing so—as he had informed Mr. Wilberforce—in order to be able to continue his good offices on Philip's behalf should occasion arise.
Lord Ravenmoor's independent, critical attitude and studied coldness were a source of annoyance to Hedley in several ways, and upset many of his plans with regard to operations in the company's shares; but his resentment against the peer was as nothing to his exasperation at the defection of Sir Colin. The unexpected cropping up, however, of the stolen letter had thoroughly frightened the cautious baronet, who still resolutely refused to run into danger himself, as he put it, merely to gratify Hedley's insatiable hatred against Philip Stanville.
For some time the financier had perforce to content himself with such gratification as he derived from the thought that he had fixed upon the object of his dislike a stigma which he would find it difficult to get rid of. It would prevent Philip, as he hoped, from getting a post elsewhere, from mixing in society, and, in many other ways prove ever a thorn in his side. Hence, when he heard, through his factotum, Teazle, that the young man had turned to district visiting for occupation, he looked upon it as a proof that his hopes in this respect had been fulfilled—Philip had evidently felt himself ostracised from all "decent society" (so Mr. Hedley elegantly expressed it), and was giving up the struggle to recover anything like a position for himself. This Hedley looked upon as a victory—not so complete a one as he had hoped for, but still a very decided victory for himself. He trusted to time and the rankling of the wound he had inflicted to sink his victim yet lower and lower.
Gradually he had come to regard this prospect with a certain amount of complacent satisfaction, when he was startled one day to hear, from his spy, Teazle, that amongst those whom Stanville was now in the habit of visiting was the old man Gretton.
"How long has this been going on?" he angrily demanded, "and why have you not told me before?"
"Well, these mission people do run about sir, it's very difficult for one person to keep an eye on them. Mr. Stanville will pay, perhaps, forty or fifty visits in a day, sometimes. He will start out, p'rhaps, at six in the morning, having only got home after twelve at night; and he'll be at it all day till eleven or twelve again the next night. He trots around to dozens of places, sometimes with Mr. Spencer or Mr. Metcalf, but more often alone, and at one place he'll stop, maybe, half an hour, at another only a few minutes, and at another, maybe, a couple of hours. Where or when he gets his meals is at times a mystery—unless he goes without 'em, which is likely enough, pretty often, I expect. Often, too, somebody sends for him and he goes out in the middle of the night—at two or three in the morning. In fact, sir, I never saw a man with so much energy. I'm pretty good myself, as you know sir, when I'm on the scent, as we say; but, there! he almost beats me. He has fairly run me off my legs at times, that he has; so that as for keeping an exact record of his goings-out and comings-in, or who or where he goes to visit—well, you can see, sir, from what I have told you, that it is scarcely, humanly speaking, possible. And if I were to reel off to you the whole list of people he calls on during the week—"
"But that's no reason, you idiot, why you should leave out the name of the one man you know I would wish you to keep him away from above all others. This must be seen to—it is serious. You can go."
And for nearly an hour thereafter Mr. Hedley sat silent and apparently idle beside his fireplace, or walked restlessly up and down, denying himself to all visitors, and bolting the door even against the confiding Mr. Keen. When, finally, he went and unfastened it, and took up the thread of his interrupted work again, there was a look of determination in his eyes and a compression about the lips that boded no good to the unconscious object of his self-communings.
"I'VE brought you this, Mr. Gretton, with Mr. Spencer's compliments," cried a cheery voice, as the sick man, in response to a knock, sung out in a feeble, high key, the usual "Come in."
It was Philip Stanville who entered, and he came into the room with an air of bonhomie and good spirits that was indescribably pleasing and cheering to those upon whom he called, and sometimes irresistibly catching, too. Whatever his own feelings, he seldom allowed them to appear when "out on duty," as he termed it. His own sorrows and troubles, and that one gnawing canker at his heart, were locked up and hidden away all day long now. If they were ever set free and allowed to come out and show themselves for a while, it was usually only at night, in the privacy of his own dingy little bedroom. Elsewhere he and they were not on speaking terms—they were strangers to one another in public—so he himself quaintly phrased it.
In appearance he was thinner, but otherwise the new life seemed to agree with him fairly well. Almost everywhere he went—the exceptions were few indeed—he made friends; and there were not many places as to which it could truly be said that he was not welcome.
"Well, now, what is the matter today?" he asked, seating himself by the sick man's bedside. "I got your message, and you see I have come pretty quickly. I should have been sooner if I hadn't been interrupted by a poor fellow who wants me to go and see his brother at some place by the riverside. A sailor, he tells me, who was on the Dolphin, the vessel I came home in a few months ago. How he came to know I was in these parts visiting, or how his brother, who is a stranger to me, managed to spot me as I came along, I'm sure I don't know. However, I declared that no one should claim me until after I had seen you, and here I am, you see. Now, do you know, Mr. Gretton, I should have thought you were worse. You look, if anything, better; but perhaps—"
"I'm not any worse, sir, thank you. That was not the reason I sent you the message. It is very kind of you to be so prompt and thoughtful for me—and to bring, me that jar of jelly—"
"Mrs. Spencer's thoughtfulness—not mine—as I told you just now," Philip corrected promptly.
"Aye, aye; but—well, never mind that now, Mr. Stanville. I wanted to see you alone, sir. I have something on my mind that's worrying me, and I have felt for some time that I must out with it sooner or later—so why not sooner?"
"Don't you think, Mr. Gretton," returned Philip, kindly, "that Mr. Spencer, or Mr. Metcalf, would be the one to make any—s—statement—to, rather than myself. You see, I am but a young fellow, and—"
The old man laid a hand impressively upon Philip's arm.
"It is you I wish to speak to, sir, and no one else, for it is about your own affairs."
"Oh! Well, in that case, of course, I am quite ready to listen. At the same time, my good friend, if you are worrying yourself about any supposed troubles of mine, let me say at once I do not wish you to do so. You have quite enough of your own to think about, I know."
"Mr. Stanville," said the sick man, taking no notice of Philip's observation, "listen to what I have to say. I have learned from Mr. Spencer what happened to you recently, and the part my scapegrace son is supposed to have played in it. Ah, sir, you do not know what a heavy trial it is to have a ne'er-do-well for a son! Now, you have been so kind to me, in spite of the soreness that you must naturally have against the lad, that I feel I must try to make some amends."
"Mr. Gretton," Philip answered, earnestly, "I declare to you that there is no feeling whatever on my side against your son. I always liked him, what little I saw of him—"
"Aye, aye, it's your nature to speak so, but for all that I know you have been very badly treated by him. Now, I can do you a good turn in another way, sir—a way you will little dream of. Your solicitor, Mr. Wilberforce, is hunting high and low, spending money in employing inquiry agents and the like, to try to find out certain things about the firm of moneylenders known as Fenton and Co."
"Fenton and Co.!" Philip repeated. "Well, but I don't see what good Mr. Wilberforce hopes to effect. My transactions with those people are over and done with long ago. I know they are not nice people—far from it; but I did not know as much in those days as I do now. If I had, you may be sure I should have fought shy of them."
"But Mr. Wilberforce is right, sir, he is on the right scent. If your transactions with those people were overhauled by the light of certain information which I could supply, you would find they had swindled you out of thousands, which you could claim back from them to-day, and which they would be only too glad to pay back to hush it up."
The old man glanced keenly at his visitor as he said this; but, to his evident disappointment and surprise, Philip still evinced no signs of being interested. He shook his head and smiled.
"No, Mr. Gretton, no! I don't care to start upon the weary road of endless litigation in the hope of recovering anything out of the wreck. Mr. Wilberforce knows my determination upon that point. If these people have as you say, swindled me—and it is quite likely that they have, for I was younger—and very foolish in those days—why they may keep their ill-gotten gains, for me. It is very kind of you—"
"Pray, listen to me for a moment, sir," persisted the other; "you do not yet know what it is I have to tell you. I was in Fenton and Co.'s employ for some years, and know many of their secrets. When they turned me off, old, useless, and poor—I never had a chance to save money there, I can assure you—when they turned me off, I say, they, in order, I suppose, to keep my mouth closed, promised to provide for my son. But I don't see that they are keeping their promises, sir. I do not call it 'providing' for him, to make him one of their confederates in a scheme to ruin an innocent gentleman—for that, I am now convinced, is what they have been doing. The money he brought me is tainted, sir, and I have not touched it; I will not touch a penny of it—I will starve first. I must find my boy, and rescue him from the evil influences of such people. Will you help me to do that, Mr. Stanville?"
The speaker added this last anxiously, and gazed wistfully at his visitor.
"I will, willingly. It shall be a sacred obligation. I will make it one of the objects of my life, Mr. Gretton," returned Philip, feelingly.
"I take that as a solemn, binding compact, sir. I, on my side, will help you to recover some of the money you have lost, and you, on your side, will use some of it to rescue my poor, misguided boy! Well, now, to go back to Fenton and Co.—or rather, Fenton, for there is only one man in that firm. I was employed there, as I have said, and have copied out lots of leases and other documents. Also—I don't mind saying it to you—I possessed myself, through another clerk, a friend of mine there, of copies of numbers of documents and deeds about which they thought I knew nothing. I did this in self-defence, sir, in case, at any time, they might fail to keep their promise about my son. Now, I declare, solemnly, that you were defrauded right and left. Mortgages were duplicated, triplicated; you were made to pay the same amounts over and over again. You were robbed, cheated, swindled, deceived, and duped on every side."
"But how could that be, Mr. Gretton?" exclaimed Philip, astounded. "Mr. Hedley, supervised everything; I made no payments except upon his assurance that it was all right."
"Mr. Hedley! Ralph Hedley, as he calls himself," laughed old Gretton scornfully. "Why, Ralph Hedley, as he calls himself at one place, is Fenton and Co. at another!"
At this astonishing declaration Philip seemed scarcely to know what to reply. He remained silent, his mind trying to grasp the full meaning. In the quiet that marked the pause a knocking was heard at the door. Then it was pushed a little way open, and the head and shoulders of a rough, bearded sailor man appeared.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," he said to Philip, "may I make so bold as to ask 'ee to make haste? I be feared my poor brother won't last till we get there."
At the sound of his voice the sick man started, and his deep- sunk eyes glanced out sharply from under their shaggy eyebrows at the stranger.
"Coming, my friend coming," said Philip, heartily. "Well, Mr. Gretton, I will see you again very soon. Thank you meantime; but I cannot stop to go further into it now. I must not let my private affairs take precedence of my duties; and here it is a question of seeing a poor man before he dies. So good-bye for the present."
He shook the wasted hand that lay on the shabby coverlet, and went out after the sailor.
Hardly had he gone however, when Gretton sprang out of his bed and shuffled feebly towards the door.
"That voice!" he exclaimed. "I thought I knew it, and—oh, fool that I was! That man's no sailor! Mr. Stanville! Mr. Stanville! Do not trust that man! Do not go with him! Come back, sir—come back!"
He opened the door and shouted down the staircase; but no answer was returned. Then he hobbled across to the window, threw it open, and leaned out.
There, some distance away, he could see Philip and the false sailor striding hastily along; but they paid no heed to his cries, and, turning a corner, quickly passed from his sight.
"THERE! that is finished! And I am sure you are not sorry, Evelyn. You look tired, dear."
"I do not know that I am tired, Violet, so much as—as—"
"As heart-weary, my poor darling," said Violet, as she came up to where Evelyn was sitting, and put an arm tenderly round her. "You must try to cheer up and hope on."
Tears gathered in Evelyn's eyes.
"I would not mind so much for myself, it is Philip I feel for. He tries to be brave and cheerful, but I can see, day by day, that the effort is becoming ever harder. How could it be otherwise, Violet? You know him, to-day—you knew him a few years ago. Think of the difference! Then he seemed to be the very darling of Fortune, courted, flattered, sought after, in the very highest circles in the land! High-spirited, generous, trustful! Ever kind-hearted and thoughtful to those beneath him as well as to others. And honorable and sensitive! Ah, me! He would have broken his heart in those days, at the very thought of sitting down under the shameful stain that has been so wickedly cast upon him. O Violet, Violet! will God never hear my prayers and lighten this awful shadow? Are we to dwell for the rest of our lives plunged deep down in this terrible Valley of Humiliation? It seems to me as though God has forgotten us!"
"Hush! Hush! Do not talk thus, my poor Evelyn. It is hard—very, very hard. Believe me, I feel it just as much as you do. I see it all just as you see it. I so often think of Philip as I used to see him in the scarlet coat at the meet, looking, on that beautiful chestnut he used to ride—you remember the one I mean, Roland he was called—looking, I used to think, the handsomest figure there, though all the elite of the country were gathered around." Here Violet suddenly paused and blushed deeply at the self-betrayal into which she had wandered. Then she continued, more gravely, "But, dear Violet, we must bow to the will of God. And who can say what great good may not come out of this suffering? Keep your faith; hope and work. They are my watchwords. They are yours too—are they not?"
Evelyn looked at Violet with a pained, wistful expression in her eyes, and quietly shook her head.
"Alas! Violet, no; I cannot say I have your unswerving, unwavering faith and hope. But I try to—I try; very hard to be patient, and to be cheerful, too."
"I know you do, dear. I can see often how hard you try, and what a struggle it has been. Well, now I am going out for a while, and I want you to stay here and have a good rest. We have worked very hard, and have done enough for the present. I will send Susie to you to keep you company while I am away. I think she generally manages to put you into better spirits."
Evelyn had stayed thus far with her friend Violet Metcalf, though not without much protest. But as she met with one disappointment after another in her efforts to obtain a situation, she had finally yielded to her friend's wishes, and had agreed to remain for a while and give her help in the parish work. Thus the two worked together side by side, in sisterly fashion; and true sisters of mercy and of sympathy their poor neighbors found in them.
Violet went out, and a few minutes afterwards the door opened with a rush, and the child Susie came bounding into the room. The first thing she did was to run up to Evelyn for a kiss and "a hug," as she called it. Very particular was Susie on this point, and sometimes very hard to please. She had her own notions of the precise manner in which an embrace should be given, and if the first one did not come up to her ideal, it had to be repeated until something near perfection was attained.
Susie, at this time, was about seven years of age, and had grown into a remarkably pretty and engaging child. Her dark hair and eyes, and deep rich color, suggested a gipsy strain in her blood; but though she had been reared under very unfavorable conditions, some natural refinement in her nature had prevented her from growing up in accordance with them. Amongst all those with whom she now lived she had established herself as a great favorite; and, indeed, she seemed to be in some danger of being a little spoiled. Her one great dread was that she might be sent away again from Violet's care, and the merest reference to such a possibility was sufficient, even when in the gayest of moods, to plunge her into the depths of tears and misery.
"What were you looking at so sorrowfully when I came in?" Susie presently asked, when she had settled herself comfortably at Evelyn's feet.
"I was looking at those beautiful masts soaring up into the sky," Evelyn answered. "I was thinking of the strange lands far away that they sail to, and wishing, I think, Susie dear, that I could sail away with them."
Susie's face clouded.
"Could I go, too, and Miss Violet—could we all go? Because I shouldn't like you to go by yourself. And would it be nice to go? Is it so very nice far away—so very much nicer than it is here? Tell me some tales about these wonderful places, please, Miss Evelyn."
Thus entreated, Evelyn began to talk to her young friend of foreign climes, and of the wonders that were to be seen in the countries across the sea. They were both deep in this occupation when Ernest Metcalf came in, and after an affectionate greeting to Susie sat down and joined in the talk.
"Come and listen, Mr. Ernest!" said Susie. "Miss Evelyn is telling me, oh! such lovely stories about the most beautiful places where it is always summer, and they never have nasty cold winters. And the sky is ever, ever so much bluer, Miss Evelyn says, and the sun so much brighter, and everything so much nicer, than it is in this country."
"Do you really think that, Evelyn?" Ernest asked, glancing at her with a look which she quickly saw had a deeper meaning. "Because if you do—well, it is curious, but I have been to- day discussing the question whether I should leave England and go out to—to just such scenes and places as you appear to have been talking about."
Evelyn turned visibly paler, and Susie felt the hand she was holding give her own a sudden squeeze.
"You have been talking of leaving England?" Evelyn repeated. "Why, what for, Ernest? Why should you think of that?"
"I was asked," he answered, "whether I should care to go out to the South Seas as missionary. It seems there is likely to be a vacancy shortly; one who has been out there for many years is thinking of resigning and coming back to England to spend the rest of his days. It is not quite settled how soon he will retire; but he may do so at any moment, as it is feared his health may give way if it goes on much longer. I can have the post if I wish; but there is one condition attached to it which at present I am unable to fulfil."
"And what is that, Ernest?" Evelyn asked.
"Why, Evelyn, it is this: The man who takes the position must be a married man."
The blood mounted into Evelyn's face, and then quickly receded, leaving it deadly pale. She stared thoughtfully down at the floor, and made no reply; and a silence fell upon the little group.
"There's that pigeon again flying into our garden. I hope our cat won't catch the silly bird!" Susie exclaimed, and, starting up, she ran to the window to watch the trespasser.
"Evelyn," said Ernest, softly, "I have loved you all my life—you know it—I need not tell it you. While you were Miss Stanville, of Stanville Hall, I should never have dared to lift my eyes to you; but seeing how things are—how they are likely to be—do you think I am too presumptuous if I venture to say, would you come out with me to those sunny shores you were just now describing, and let us leave behind us a world that has proved so cruelly hard to you and yours?"
Whatever answer Evelyn was about to give to this appeal remained unspoken, for at that moment the door opened, and Mr. Metcalf came bustling in.
"Ernest," he said, "here is Mr. Spencer come to see us. He wants, he says to have a talk with as upon a very important matter. So Evelyn, my dear, do you mind taking Susie away for a little while? I dare say we shall not be long."
As Mr. Spencer entered Susie ran up to him.
"Bobby! Bobby! how is Bobby?" she cried. "And, Mr. Spencer, please when will you take me to see him again? I was promised I should go and see him last week, and then it was put off."
Bobby was the little boy Susie had run away with when she escaped from the woman to whose custody she had been entrusted.
Mr. Spencer had placed him in a boys' home, where, he was living happily and contentedly, and now and then Susie, as a great treat, was taken to pay him a visit.
Mr. Spencer stopped and kissed the child, and gave her a promise that he would call for her to see her little friend in a few days. Then Evelyn led her away, and left the three together.
NO sooner had the door closed upon Evelyn and her young companion than the smile with which he had greeted them vanished from Mr. Spencer's face, and his manner became unusually grave.
"I am afraid, my dear friends," he began, "that I am the bearer of evil tidings. I cannot speak positively until I get the further news which I am awaiting, and, therefore, I was very desirous that Miss Stanville should have, at present, no inkling of what I have to tell you."
"Now let me begin at the beginning."
"Yesterday afternoon Philip Stanville came to my house and mentioned that he had received a rather urgent message from old Mr. Gretton begging him to give him a call so soon as he conveniently could. He was, in fact, then on his way there to see Gretton, and thereupon my wife asked him if he would mind acting as bearer of a small parcel she desired to send to the invalid. He went away, and we have not seen him since."
"Not seen him since!" Ernest repeated. "Do you think then, that he is ill?"
"Wait a little. Sometimes, of course, I do not see him for a day or two at a time, so that his failure to look in this morning would not have occasioned me any uneasiness had it not happened that he promised to be with me at ten o'clock in order to accompany me on a visit I wished to make close by. As it was, I had to go without him. When I got back I found there were still no signs of him; and then I started out on my rounds. What made me take Gretton first I cannot tell; I had intended calling on him last—perhaps I might not have gone there at all to-day; as it was, however, I went there first. I found the old man in a great state of trouble, as it quickly appeared, about Mr. Stanville. He said he had been wishing to send a message to me to ask if I had seen the young gentleman, as he feared something was wrong. But he had been quite alone; no one had been near him, and consequently he had been unable to communicate with me."
"Why did he think something was wrong?" Ernest asked eagerly.
"It seemed that Mr. Stanville called on him in due course, and delivered the parcel my wife asked him to take charge of. Almost the first thing he said was to the effect that he had been delayed on the road through meeting a sailor, who begged of him to go with him to see his brother who was dying, and wished particularly to see Mr. Stanville. The brother, the man declared, had been a sailor on board the vessel Mr. Stanville came home in. The man tried very hard, it seems, to get our friend to go with him then and there; but Mr. Philip, as it happened, said he must call to deliver the parcel. After a little while the strange man, whom he told to wait for him below, became impatient, and put his head in the door urging Mr. Stanville to go with him at once, on the plea that otherwise the brother might be dead before they could get to him. Thereupon our good-natured friend took a hasty leave, and went off with the stranger."
"Well, but have you sent round to Philip's lodgings?" Ernest asked. "Surely—"
"I was on my way there, when whom should I run against but Mr. Ridler—I frequently encounter him in my wanderings—and he offered to go instead and make the necessary inquiries. I arranged for him to come on to your house as soon as possible, while I came here first to let you know how matters stand."
"What construction do you put on this, Brother Spencer?" Mr. Metcalf asked. "Do you fancy, from what Gretton said, that there is really anything wrong? How or why should there be? It seems a reasonable thing enough that a sailor who knew Philip on the voyage home might be desirous of seeing him when he fell ill. You know what a popular lad he is—and I can quite understand his making friends among the sailors, as well as amongst the officers and passengers, on board a ship."
"True, my dear Mr. Metcalf, but the serious thing is that Gretton declares that just after Mr. Stanville and his pseudo- sailor friend had gone, it came upon him that he knew the stranger's voice—and recognised the fellow, notwithstanding his clever disguise. He was none other than a certain Silas Teazle, a low-class private inquiry agent, whom he well knew to be in the pay of Mr. Ralph Hedley. As this flashed into his mind, poor old Gretton sprang out of bed, and hobbled to the door and then to the window, and called after Mr. Stanville, to try to stop him. But he was too late; they had gone out of ear-shot; and he shouted himself pretty well hoarse in vain."
"I confess I am at a loss to understand it all," Ernest said, his face and tone full of trouble and anxiety "But one thing seems to stand out clearly enough: If Gretton did not fancy that part about the man Teazle, this brings suspicion home to Hedley as Philip's real enemy more clearly than anything we have yet been able to get hold of."
"But Gretton has a great deal more than that to tell," Mr. Spencer went on, gravely shaking his head. "It seems that yesterday he opened his heart to Mr. Stanville, and revealed to him secrets which, when he repeated them to me to-day, nearly took my breath away. He can tell you more about Hedley than anyone else has even so much as guessed at."
And Mr. Spencer proceeded to repeat to his astonished hearers the whole of the revelations that Gretton had made to Philip, putting them in possession of all the allegations the old man had made respecting the chicanery carried on by Hedley under cover of the firm of Fenton and Co.
"Poor old Gretton," said Mr. Spencer, "is almost beside himself; and now that he has made up his mind to speak, declares that no fear of consequences shall prevent his telling the whole truth in the light of day. But what specially makes him anxious as to Mr. Stanville is that he says he has not the slightest doubt that the fellow Teazle was listening at the door and heard what he had been saying. Therefore, Hedley knows that Mr. Stanville is now aware of his perfidy and of the frauds he has carried out on this trusting young man. Naturally, he will be in a state of mind likely to lead him on to almost any desperate act in order to save himself from public exposure. If, therefore, Gretton's forebodings are well founded, and Mr. Stanville has been enticed away, and is in this man's power, then, my dear friends, you will perceive that he may be in grave danger indeed. I pray Heaven, however, that such may not be the case."
A silence fell upon the group, which continued for some minutes, each seeming to be occupied with his own thoughts.
Presently Ernest spoke.
"And Gretton, too; they will scarcely leave him unmolested if they are aware of what he told Philip," he said in a low voice.
"I have seen to that," Mr. Spencer returned, "at least, so far as I could. Ridler had one of his assistants with him, and he sent him off to look after Gretton until we can make other arrangements."
Just then a knock was heard at the front door, and a minute later Mr. Ridler came in.
He brought bad news. Philip Stanville had not been home all night.
"But that is not the worst," said the detective; "it appears that last night a gentlemanly-looking man called at Mr. Stanville's lodgings and asked for him. On being told he was not in, he requested permission to go up to his room and wait for him, and they allowed him to do so. But after waiting a short time the man came down again, and showed a crumpled note, which, he said, he had picked up on the floor of Mr. Stanville's room. Then he went away, leaving neither name nor address. This is the disgraceful note which he alleged he had picked up. The scoundrel took care to read it to all and sundry, and to make his own comments upon it before he went away."
It was an anonymous letter from a pretended "friend," warning Philip Stanville that a warrant had been privately applied for and issued against him, in respect of "the five thousand pounds he had stolen," and advising him to fly instantly if he wished to avoid arrest.
"So now it would appear, you perceive," said Mr. Ridler, "that his enemies have not only managed to entice Mr. Stanville away and get him into their power, but have put about a wicked story of his flying from justice in order to account for his disappearance!"
THE mystery of Philip Stanville's second disappearance proved to be a more serious matter than his previous involuntary absence had been; and as time went on, and no word or message from him came to his anxious friends, their anxiety increased in proportion.
Alec Ridler had telegraphed at once to Mr. Wilberforce, who immediately came up to town, and took systematic measures for instituting inquiries and carrying on the search in every quarter that might be considered in the least degree likely. But the hours passed on, merged into days, and the mystery seemed only to deepen; no ray of light came to hearten the searchers groping in the dark, no clue could be discovered to guide their efforts. Philip Stanville seemed to have disappeared this time as completely as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up.
And yet in one sense, certainly, the situation had seemed to Mr. Wilberforce, at first sight, fairly hopeful. They knew their enemy this time. Old Mr. Gretton's revelations, and his recognition of Teazle, had pointed out Ralph Hedley clearly enough as Philip's long-hidden secret enemy, and the instigator of this last bold outrage. But when the astute lawyer came to essay to make practical use of this advantage, his chagrin was great to find how little it helped him.
Gretton supplied him with drafts of leases and securities which he (Gretton) asserted were copies he had carefully made while in the employ of Fenton and Co. (otherwise Hedley), and which he declared had been taken from false and fraudulent deeds to which Philip's name had been in some cases forged; but the information did not help Mr. Wilberforce now. In Philip's absence he could not challenge a single document or dispute a single signature. Therefore he found himself unable to initiate any action against Hedley until Philip could be found.
Under this enforced inaction the lawyer, ordinarily so quiet and self-contained, chafed and fretted not a little. For years he had had his suspicions of Hedley's good faith; and for some months now he had been vainly spending money in employing agents to make secret investigations. And now that "chance" had suddenly placed the long-sought clue in his hands, he was unable to turn it to account.
"Wait until we find Philip—only wait till we find him!" he would say to Ernest Metcalf. "Then, Mr. Ralph Hedley, alias Fenton, then—"
"Ah, yes! When Philip was found! But that was now the crux of the whole affair; and Ernest only sighed as he heard the lawyer's impatient exclamations and realised how little progress they had yet been able to make towards finding him.
"And what will you do then—when Philip returns?" he once asked.
"Make Hedley disgorge," was the reply. "If I don't compel him to make restitution, to the tune of—um—well, a good many thousands of pounds, then I'm a Dutchman," Mr. Wilberforce finished.
"Yes, if he's still worth it," put in Mr. Ridler, who happened to be present. "But, do you know, sir, I have heard rumors of late than the firm of Morrison and Hedley are in difficulties. Two or three of their last 'promotions' have gone wrong, so it is whispered, and if old Gretton talks too loud, and sets a lot of other victims of 'Fenton and Co.'s' gentle squeezing practices on to Mr. Hedley, why, then I'm thinking there may not be much salvage when divided among so many."
"Humph! Well, then I'll prosecute him and put him where he tried so hard to put Philip Stanville," growled the lawyer, savagely.
But, as has been said, all these threats and plans were for the time futile. Nothing could be done, no step taken, till Philip was found not even to frighten Hedley—as Mr. Wilberforce discovered when he essayed the attempt.
He went to the financier's office several times to try to interview him, but was told at each visit that Mr. Hedley was out of town. He did manage to see Mr. Morrison on one occasion, and had a stormy scene with that gentleman; but he had to come away without having gained any information or achieved any purpose satisfactory to himself.
Then the determined lawyer called upon Alec Ridler's employers, Messrs. Stilforth and Co., private inquiry agents, to stimulate their zeal with the promise of an increased reward for the recovery of the missing man.
"Put on more men, sir—put on more men," he said to the chief of the firm. "This is not a matter in which expense has to be considered. Apart from our natural anxiety for this young gentleman's personal safety, the money side of the affair means a big thing. It is a matter of thousands—aye hundreds of thousands of pounds."
"You refer, I suppose, sir, to the large sum Mr. Stanville holds in trust," observed Mr. Stilforth, musingly. "Of course, about that I only know what you have thought proper to confide to me from time to time. It is a large amount, I think you said—nearly half a million of money?"
"Over half a million, sir, now," was Mr. Wilberforce's answer. "Some of the investments have improved greatly in value since the money was placed in them."
"Half a million!" the other repeated.
"It's a big windfall for anyone to come in for, isn't it, Mr. Wilberforce? I refer to it now because it happens that the other day I had a report from one of our people to the effect that he thought he had at last come upon traces of the man you want to find—Andrew Rillingford."
Mr. Wilberforce started and looked perturbed.
"This is strange—coming just now," he commented. "Why did you not tell me at once?"
"It was just before you came to town and called with the news of Mr. Stanville's disappearance and the latter matter put the other, for the moment, out of my head."
"Have you any particulars?" Mr. Wilberforce asked, very earnestly. "Do you suppose the—the man we have been trying to find is—um—well—to put it shortly—alive or dead?"
"I have nothing at present to enable me to give any definite reply to that question; but my agent rather inclines to the idea that the man is dead."
It was all the old lawyer then said; but the brown study he forthwith fell into conveyed the idea that he attached a very great deal of importance to the answer, vague as it had been.
"Would to Heaven it might be so!" he presently exclaimed. "It seems a harsh thing to say, but I cannot help the feeling. This man Rillingford is nothing to me. I have never seen him—probably should not like him if I did—whereas Philip Stanville, foolish and headstrong as he has been, is one in whom I take an affectionate interest—and he—if this man were dead, he—"
"Would come into possession of this half-million, I suppose," quietly remarked Mr. Stilforth.
The lawyer seemed annoyed.
"I did not say so," he exclaimed, hastily. "Mr. Stilforth, you have no right to assume—to—to—a—seek to pry—"
"Pray say no more, Mr. Wilberforce," the other interrupted, with a deprecating air. "I assume nothing, and I am far from seeking to pry into anything you do not wish to tell me. We detectives, you know, sir, can't help making deductions sometimes unconsciously. I believe I do it myself in my sleep at times. Our thoughts will run off on their own at times. The observation escaped me unintentionally. But do not be disturbed, sir. All secrets are safe with me, whatever they may be. You know that, sir."
"Yes, yes, Mr. Stilforth, yes. However, to go back to this man Rillingford; tell me more of what you have learned."
"There is really no more to tell," returned the detective, taking a folded paper from a pigeon-hole of his desk. "Here is my man's report—you can read it for yourself. It is, as I have said, vague and indefinite as it stands; but you will perceive he says he may have fuller and clearer information any day now."
Mr. Wilberforce looked at the paper and read it carefully, then put it down, and shortly afterwards took his leave without much further talk.
And as he walked away his manner conveyed the idea that what he had heard had, somehow, set him thinking very seriously.
"WHAT has become of Philip Stanville?"
This question was asked by Mr. Benjamin Morrison of his partner, Mr. Ralph Hedley, as they sat together in their office, and asked in tones that betokened a captious and dissatisfied state of mind.
Mr. Hedley glanced up from the letter he was writing with a look of bland surprise.
"Why do you ask me? How should I know?" he answered, mildly.
"Come, come, no nonsense with me, if you please. Yesterday I had a visit from the foxy old lawyer, Wilberforce, and he made all sorts of vague threats. He has evidently made some discovery, which he thinks he can use against us—though he was too cautious to let me see his cords. I fear there is trouble brewing in connexion with this business, and I feel very doubtful and uneasy at the turn things are taking. If matters are as I fear, it seems to me that you will have brought it upon our heads quite gratuitously and unnecessarily by going to such elaborate lengths to harry young Stanville. Just now, too, as you know, we have other troubles crowding around us. Only this morning I've heard that a bad report has been received from the manager out at the Phoebus Mines. It can't be kept dark more than a few days at most; and when it is publicly known, then there will be another bad slump in Phoebus shares. We can't support the market as matters are, and therefore—"
"Oh, hang Phoebus shares!" Hedley exclaimed, shrugging his shoulders. "There's nothing new in the likelihood that that undertaking will come to grief. We knew it must do so from the first. Naturally, the concern must have been rotten, or we should never have been able to secure it so cheaply and make such a big profit out of the resale to the company. All things considered, we haven't done so badly over that business. What's upset us is that we have lost what we made there in other ways. The fact that the Phoebus Company is not going to keep on its legs as long as we had hoped is not a matter of any great consequence now."
"I'm not so sure of that," Morrison replied, gloomily. "It seems to me things are going wrong all round, and I have good reason to believe that the fact that we are the actual promoters of the Phoebus Company has somehow leaked out, and, therefore, its collapse will be a matter we shall have to take into account. However, to come back to what I was talking about—what is the object of this new move with regard to Philip Stanville? Why can't you leave well alone? You've harried him pretty well, turned him out of all decent society with a brand upon his name, and forced him to go and hide himself in the East-end working among the slums there. From that obscurity he is not very likely to emerge again; in fact, with this stain upon his name he can't. What more do you want? Why not let sleeping dogs lie? He was safely out of the way where he was."
"It is precisely because he was not safely out of the way that I had to take further steps," Hedley now admitted, with evident reluctance. "The fact is, Morrison, that miserable old humbug Metcalf has been taking a hand at the game again."
At this Mr. Morrison seemed suddenly amused. He laughed.
"Why, what in the world has he been doing now?" he queried. "He seems to be keeping a particularly sharp eye upon you. What's he up to? Is he going to turn amateur detective? Are you and he playing a new game of 'hide and seek?' or is it to be 'beggar my neighbor?'"
"Keep your chaff to yourself Morrison," Hedley retorted with a scowl. "It is no laughing matter this time. Somehow this canting old donkey Metcalf, at whom everybody laughs, and who, they say, is so unnaturally stupid that when he ventures out of doors he can scarcely find his way back from the next street—that's what I have been told—well, he, I say, has brought about confidential meetings between Stanville and—whom do you think?"
"Can't say, I'm sure."
"Well, then, listen. Old Sydney Gretton! And, what's more, Gretton's been chattering."
Morrison gave a great jump, stared incredulously at his partner, and then, began walking restlessly up and down the office.
"Gretton chattering to Stanville! Why, man, that may mean to us nothing less than blue ruin! When did you learn this?"
"But a few days ago. Something clearly had to be done—and so—well, Stanville, they say, has disappeared!"
Morrison made no answer, but just nodded his head ever so slightly, and continued to promenade.
"Why didn't you tell me this before?" he presently said, suddenly pausing in his walk. "Why keep me in the dark?"
"You forget I've been away, and it was not a thing I cared to write about. I should have told you of it by-and-by; I am really waiting for a report from one of my people."
Hedley shook his head.
"No," he said. "Teazle has blundered again, and Gretton recognised him. So he has to lie perdu for a while, in case, if he came here, he might be watched for and followed. I knew Wilberforce was up in town again. I don't know yet how much he knows, but it is best to be on the safe side."
"But Gretton! What's the fool thinking about to dare such a thing? Has he forgotten the hold we have over his son?"
"I have seen to that. I went down and interviewed him, and I think I thoroughly frightened him. He won't talk any more now. The worry of it is that he has blabbed to Stanville, and"—here Hedley hesitated, and rubbed his chin reflectively with his hand—"to tell you the truth, Morrison, Teazle, who overheard what was said, tells me Gretton seems to know a great deal more than you or I had any idea of. He boasted to Stanville of copies he has in his possession of certain deeds connected with Stanville's transactions with us. The cunning scoundrel must have made them somehow while in the employ of Fenton and Co. Of course, there must have been another in the swim; he could only have got them by collusion with someone else. He never had access to any such papers in his own department, and I feel sure that other one did not even know the value or meaning of the papers he allowed Gretton to copy. But it seems now Gretton knew well enough, and he has been keeping those copies and biding his time all these years."
"Can't you get them from him?"
"Just now he is watched day and night by the other side; but no doubt they will tire, and our chance will come by-and-by. Meantime, I have frightened him. He will say no more at present, you may be sure. If he does, I have assured him I would have his son arrested and locked up within twenty-four hours."
"Yes, if we could catch him. But at present we don't know where the young beggar is."
"Gretton does not know that. He thinks I can lay my hand upon him at a moment's notice."
"I don't like the look of things. Why haven't you kept a sharper eye upon Gretton? How came it that he and Stanville should become friendly and confidential without your knowing of it? It is not likely to have happened all at once. It must have been going on for some time."
"Teazle ought to have warned me, I know, but, somehow, he didn't. As for the rest, who would ever have thought of Stanville turning slum visitor and stumbling across this particular man?"
"It seems to me, Hedley, that you have only yourself to thank for this. At the very beginning of this business I said, 'Leave Stanville alone'—that was when you first proposed to put him in as secretary to the Phoebus Company. Now, it seems to me, all your scheming against him has only ended in this: that you have driven him to take refuge in the East-end slums, and driven him—where?—into the arms of the man Gretton, of all people in the world! You should have been satisfied with what you had done, and left the fellow alone. I can't even now understand why you should hate him so much as to follow out your vengeance even to the point of bringing us into this mess."
"I tell you this is not my doing," Hedley broke out, fiercely. "My plans were all well laid, and I should have had him safely enough by now—sentenced to penal servitude or something of that, sort if—"
"Why, if Metcalf hadn't thwarted me at every turn. Again and again that praying, sanctimonious old parson upset everything that I had so carefully arranged."
"How do I know?" Hedley returned, with a vicious snap. "I wish I did; I can't even guess. But there's the fact. It has sometimes appeared to me as if he could read my very thoughts and counterplot me at every turn. First of all, he gets hold of Grainger and gets on the soft side of that maundering fool by pretending to be very fond of his child. Then, somehow, he brings Wilberforce to town at a critical time, who prevails on Stanville's sister to leave your house—this after I had taken infinite pains to keep Wilberforce and Stanville apart by intercepting Stanville's letters. Well, that disturbed my plans, and caused me to hurry on matters before everything was quite ready. Next, he gets hold of the child again and keeps her, and that means that I have to keep an eye on Grainger all the while. Then you know how he upset everything in my little move with Meedham, though how he got hold of that letter of Meedham's which young Gretton had I don't know to this day. The young scoundrel must have played double there, and actually given or sent Metcalf the papers we had paid him to steal. After that, of course, all chance of getting Ravenmoor and the others to prosecute Stanville was at an end, for Meedham grew frightened, and refused point blank to go into court and swear that he hadn't written his own letter. And so—"
"And so—altogether Metcalf is paying you out?"
"Paying me out? How do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. When he came to grief at Somerdale—lost his money, and had to give up his curacy and come up to London, to become a sort of broken-down mission worker—that was your doing, wasn't it?"
"Well, of course, as 'Fenton and Co.', I was the lender of the money he borrowed to get himself out of the trouble he had tumbled into."
"Through taking your advice as to investing in a little concern you were interested in, I think?"
"Why, yes; but still he doesn't know that."
"Ah; well; it's all the same. He's paying you back, now, knowingly or unknowingly. Pity you hadn't left him in his retirement down at Somerdale."
"I wish to goodness now that I had!"
"It's no good wishing now. Let us look after him a little more carefully in future, and see that he does not get a chance to interfere with us again. As I understand it, you think Gretton's safe for the time, and the only thing you fear is Stanville's getting free?"
"That is so. At all cost he must be kept out of the way, or put out of the way. Things have come to that pass now that it is our only chance. Let us put our heads together, and decide what we shall do with him."
The two worthies proceeded to put their heads together accordingly, and were closeted together for a long while deciding upon the fate of their unfortunate victim.
"ANOTHER weary night has passed, and still no news! Another morning has come, the commencement of another day to drag by, I suppose, like the others! O Violet! how am I to bear this cruel suspense? Can I do nothing to help? Inaction at such a time is maddening; and yet there seems nothing I can do but wait, and wait, and—"
"And hope in God and pray to Him, my darling Evelyn," said Violet Metcalf, putting her arm round her friend and kissing her. "You remember what my father enjoined on us. I know what he would say to you now in answer to your question; he would say. 'Yes, there is much for you who stay at home to do—you can aid by your prayers.' Would he not, Evelyn?"
"Ah, yes, Violet dear, yes. Your reproof is just—"
"Not reproof, dear Evelyn," Violet answered, gently. "I was far from thinking to convey any reproof. I only wished to bring to your mind my dear old dad's words and the counsel that I know he would give if he were here at this moment."
"Ah! but Violet, it is different, somehow, with me to what it is with you and your father. I do pray for help in this great trouble, but somehow—"
"There seems something wanting. My prayers do not seem to do me good, to soothe my fears and to give me hope, as I believe yours do with you. What is the reason, Violet? What can it be that is lacking?"
"Is it not faith?"
"I fear it is," Evelyn replied, sorrowfully. "I would that I could see with your eyes, understand with your feelings, pray to Heaven with your wonderful, unwavering faith, Violet! They have been such a lesson to me, these months that I have passed here with you and your dear father; such a daily lesson in faith! But, O dear, it makes me feel how thin, how shallow, how miserably weak all my notions of faith have hitherto been! Look at your father! To me there is something almost sublime in the simple, childlike confidence in the guidance of a Higher Power which he brings to bear upon everything he does, and which he exhibits as plainly in the midst of the most trivial of his daily duties as in times of deeper trouble such as this! Seeing this in him, I can understand how you have been taught to feel the same way; but it also shows me what a poor, weak imitation my own ideal has been, and makes me despair of ever becoming like you."
"You must not say that, Evelyn—indeed you must not. Truly, as you say, I have had a wonderful example before my eyes all my life in my dear father, and I often feel in my own heart that I sometimes fall far short of his standard; but I comfort myself with the thought that to wish to be better, to hope, to strive to be, is half-way towards achievement. And you must take comfort that way, too. Meantime, as dad always counsels, hope and pray. His unbounded trust and confidence in that one great resource—which, as he says, is always open to the very poorest as well as the richest—is a greater support to me now that I can well tell you. I scarcely know how, without it, I should be able to bear the weight of this suspense; for you know, dear Violet, how deeply I sympathise with you, and how I pray that your brother may be restored to us safe and unharmed."
"I am sure of it, dearest."
"And my father is sure he will be, dear; so sure is he that—ah! well, it gives me heart and courage such as I should never otherwise feel, to wait patiently for the appointed time, and, meanwhile, to go on doing my daily duties as well as the trying circumstances will allow me."
"And I will try to be like you, Violet," said Evelyn, drying up her tears; and tenderly kissing her friend. "I begin to feel a little of your courage and confidence, and to gather some of your faith. Henceforth I will try to be more hopeful—to feel quite sure that God will protect Philip, and, as you say, to go about my daily work as usual meanwhile."
But though she resolved to be hopeful, and made brave efforts, Evelyn found the task a hard one, and as the time passed without bringing any news of her brother, her spirits gradually drooped in spite of herself. She had come to learn, too, a good deal, more of how matters really stood in regard to the one she now knew to be their deadly enemy—Ralph Hedley. She knew that he almost certainly had Philip in his power; that he must of necessity feel desperate at the turn things had taken, and all sorts of ideas and vague fears filled her mind as to the form that his enemy might now assume.
Mr. Wilberforce called every evening to see her, and brought such reports and suggestions as he had gathered during the day, either from the agents he was himself employing, or from the police, who had also taken up the search.
In other directions, too, willing helpers were at work for Mr. Metcalf and Mr. Spencer. Some of these Mr. Wilberforce occasionally accompanied upon their rounds, and the old lawyer repeatedly expressed his admiration and astonishment at the thoroughness with which their investigations were carried out, and the number and diversity of the people amongst whom they prosecuted their inquiries. They entered fearlessly into rookeries and dens where even a policeman would scarcely care to venture alone, and they were sometimes on such confidential terms with their more or less doubtful inhabitants, as enabled them to pick up information and hints which the police would never have been able to extract.
But, with it all, no clue as to Philip Stanville's whereabouts could be discovered. That he must have been kidnapped, and was now being kept in secret confinement, seemed tolerably certain; but where remained a profound, inscrutable mystery.
In the midst of this trouble and uncertainty a message came one day to Ernest Metcalf which added appreciably to the difficulties of the situation. It was to the effect that the position of which he had spoken to Evelyn was now vacant, and it was necessary, therefore, that he should make up his mind whether he intended to accept it or not. If he wished to take it, he had now the opportunity; but the offer could not be kept open indefinitely.
One of the conditions, as he had said, was that he must take a wife out with him; and this was the provision that caused him to hesitate.
As far as the rest was concerned, he felt that he ought to accept the appointment. Not only did his tastes and inclinations urge him to it, but he considered that his duty lay that way also. By going out be would not only be relieving his father of a burden, but he would be able to contribute something to assist him and his sister; and he knew that this was sorely needed.
The only point that gave him pause, therefore, was the proviso as to taking a wife. How could he ask Evelyn in the present unhappy circumstances? How force his hopes and aspirations upon her at a time when she stood alone—when she not only had no brother at hand to consult, but was stricken with grief at his mysterious absence?
Ernest pondered much upon these several points, and at last determined to lay them before his father, whose advice he always asked, sooner or later, in regard to all his own personal troubles.
Mr. Metcalf listened to the communication without surprise. He had not been unobservant of the feelings which Ernest had shown from time to time towards Evelyn Stanville; and since he himself had a very high regard for her, he had no objection to make against his son's choice.
"Of course, if she were in the position she formerly enjoyed," Ernest said, "I should never have dared to aspire to her. But as things are, I feel certain that Philip would gladly give his consent; and if he comes back to us safely and soon, as we ardently hope, I am assured that he will not be offended at my having spoken in his absence, when he understands the peculiar circumstances. And let us even suppose—I hate to think of it, but one cannot put it altogether out of account—let us even suppose, I say, that he does not come back—say for a long time—do you not think, my dear father, that he would be glad if he could know that his sister had someone who had the will and the right to take care of her, and protect her while he was away?"
Mr. Metcalf remained silent for a while before replying. Presently he said, gravely and slowly:
"Yes, my son, I do think so. But I would suggest, before going further, that we talk of this with Violet. She may be able to advise you in such a matter better than I can. She probably can guess at what Evelyn's real feelings are likely to be if your mind is set upon asking her. But, my boy, you are not thinking of going abroad merely because you imagine you are a burden at home?"
"No, father. I feel it would be for the best to spend a few years abroad for both of us—I mean for Evelyn as well as for myself. And I believe, if Philip knew, he would approve, and come too. He has said as much to me more than once. He thinks England is no place, as things are now, for either himself or his sister."
"YES, Mr. Wilberforce, I have some news for you at last! It has been a long hunt; but, you see, we have been greatly handicapped by having to work secretly."
Mr. Stilforth, the chief partner of the well-known firm of private inquiry agents, looked particularly well pleased with himself. He was an elderly man, grey-haired and somewhat stout, but withal still very active, and with a keen, vigilant eye. He did not now undertake the actual duties connected with his profession, but employed a large and carefully-selected staff, of whom Mr. Alec Ridler was one of the most trusted.
"I only received the report this morning. I wired to you at once," he added.
"And what does it amount to?" Mr. Wilberforce asked.
"To put it shortly, it comes to this—that Andrew Rillingford is dead. He was drowned just eleven years ago in the sinking of the ship Bluebell, which was wrecked off the Cape Coast. No wonder we have had trouble in tracing him."
"Aye; but can we be sure it is the right man?"
"Yes, sir. My agent has made the most careful investigations, and has even plumped upon a man who was Rillingford's—um—partner—confederate I was going to say—for they seem to have been a shady couple. They were mixed up in several discreditable transactions, amongst which illicit diamond dealing was one of the least disreputable. This 'pal,' whose name is James Collier, verified the death. He also gave full particulars of Rillingford's antecedents, of his birth, and so on. Rillingford had probably been in prison before—at any rate, he was being sought for at the time of his death by the police. The latter also inquired into and satisfied themselves as to the circumstances of his death. Here are all the particulars, authenticated by H. M. Consul at Cape Town."
Mr. Wilberforce took the papers handed to him, and began to carefully study them. He went over them again and again, making many pencil notes, and asking numerous questions.
Finally he laid them down with an air of satisfaction.
"Yes," he said, "I see your evidence is very full and perfectly clear. It is authenticated, too, as you say, by the Consul. I see no loophole for doubt and it removes a great load from my mind. But would that it had come sooner! I pray to Heaven it may not be too late!"
"You are thinking, I expect, of Mr. Stanville?"
"Aye, Mr. Stilforth, of Philip Stanville, poor lad! poor lad! I am beginning to have the gravest fears that be has fallen a victim to foul play. Unfortunately, it becomes clearer and clearer, with every day's investigations, that this scoundrel Hedley's only chance of safety now lies in keeping his foolish dupe and victim, Mr. Stanville, out of the way—in silencing him for good. In that case, who shall say that he would shrink from anything—even murder itself? If he is in the desperate straits that I believe him to be in, and Philip Stanville is in his clutches, then Heaven help the poor lad, Heaven help him!"
The lawyer rose from his chair, and went to the window, where he stood moodily grazing out at the people and traffic passing to and fro in the busy street without. Mr. Stilforth watched him in silence, and waited for him to resume his seat before saying anything further. When, after a rather long interval, Mr. Wilberforce returned to his chair, the detective asked:
"May I now inquire if my former surmise was correct? Does this money that is held in trust revert to Mr. Stanville?"
"Aye—if the poor lad is still alive."
"Humph! It is certainly an unfortunate affair; for here, then, would be an end of all his troubles."
"Yes, sir, so far as financial and such like worries are concerned; for now that it is legally proved that Andrew Rillingford is dead, there is no longer any 'trust,' and Mr. Stanville is to-day, worth over half a million. Moreover, he is again, or very soon will be, the master of his old home—Stanville Hall—for he will now be able to pay off the mortgages, and resume possession of the estates. These people, Fenton and Co., tried all they could to foreclose, so as to get the mansion and estates into their hands; but I have kept the interest paid up, and disappointed them as to that. Otherwise they would have grabbed them long ago."
"Fenton and Co. Well, but that is Hedley again, is it not?"
"Just so. I suppose Hedley wanted to get the place into his own hands, and go and lord it there as master—where he had formerly been servant."
"I begin to understand. That was one thing he was playing for, then!"
"Still, there is much that I cannot account for. In the matter of that shameful, false accusation which he trumped up against Mr. Stanville, how could that advance his interests, or further such a wish as the one you have just mentioned, for instance?"
"For the life of me I cannot answer that question, Mr. Stilforth. It's a puzzle. There are hidden depths in this blackguardly business that I, with all my knowledge of human nature, cannot pretend to even fathom."
"Ridler's idea," Mr. Stilforth continued, "is that he knows of this trust money; and that he was manoeuvring to get such a hold over Mr. Stanville as should induce him to make use of money from the trust to buy him off."
"In other words, his ultimate object was blackmail?"
"Yes; that is Ridler's explanation."
Mr. Wilberforce considered for a space.
"But in that case he went the wrong way to work," he presently observed, reflectively. "He would, one would suppose, have threatened first, before making anything known. Here, he blurted it all out from the first."
"True; and so destroyed beforehand the only inducement he could have offered to Mr. Stanville in return for money. I confess the affair is still very much of a mystery."
"And so it must remain for the present, I fear, Mr. Stilforth. It would be more to the purpose just now to think of some way of discovering what has become of Mr. Stanville.
"I am thinking of that, and had it in my mind in regard to what I was going to say to you. If we could come to the conclusion that this man Hedley's object was blackmail, it might help us."
"Why, my dear sir, don't you see that if the man's object is money it might not be too late, even yet, to strike a bargain. Now that you have half a million of money set free—as I understand the position—might it not be better to make this man an offer, and so put an end to the present uncertainty and suspense? Would not even this—repugnant as I know it would be to you—would it not be better than to let the present situation continue at the risk, as you say, that the villain being in a corner, and desperate, may do Mr. Stanville some more serious harm than he has yet effected?"
Mr. Wilberforce started, and stared at the detective. He was evidently rather taken aback at the suggestion.
"It's a bold idea," he said, "and of course, as a lawyer, I am bound to say I don't like to have to think of it. Still, it may be worth consideration if—"
Here there came an interruption. Someone knocked loudly and hurriedly at the door. The next moment it opened, and Ernest Metcalf burst in.
"Mr. Wilberforce," he exclaimed, in much excitement. "I am glad, indeed to have found you! I was told you had come here, and followed you. Mr. Stilforth, pray forgive my unceremonious entry, but I—we—that is, I came to tell you that we have received news of Philip!"
"News of Philip?" Mr. Wilberforce repeated, catching some of the newcomer's excitement. "What news?"
"See! Here is a note from him! It is but a line or two, evidently scribbled hastily on a half-sheet of paper. But it is Philip's writing right enough!"
And he handed a piece of paper to the lawyer, who took it and read aloud:
"Come to me at once. I am in great trouble. It is a matter of life and death. You can trust bearer, who will guide you to me."
Mr. Wilberforce, after reading it, handed the paper, with a puzzled air, to Mr. Stilforth, who also read it aloud.
"H'm! No date to it, and it is not addressed to anyone in particular, Moreover, this P. at the end, has been written in since; it is in different ink," the old detective commented, suspiciously. "How have you come by this, my good sir?"
"Evelyn—that is, Miss Stanville," Ernest replied, "started out for a walk with our little protégée, Susie Grainger. A short time afterwards the child returned alone, saying that Miss Evelyn had gone away with someone who had brought her this note—which, she thus sent on to us as an explanation."
The detective gave a significant whistle, and his face became very grave; while Mr. Wilberforce uttered something that sounded like a groan.
"You say this is undoubtedly Mr. Stanville's writing, you feel sure of that?" the detective went on.
"I feel certain of it; and Miss Stanville must have felt equally convinced or she would never have gone away with the stranger," Ernest answered; his tone, however, now denoting his growing uneasiness.
"Ah! Then all I can say is that there is yet more mischief afoot. This, I feel assured, means another blow from your relentless enemies. That note may be a clever imitation of your friend's writing, or it may have been written by Mr. Stanville himself under pressure; but, in either case, my deliberate opinion is that it is a decoy."
"A decoy?" Ernest exclaimed aghast.
"Yes, sir," Mr. Stilforth repeated; it is a decoy—sent with the object of decoying Miss Stanville into the hands of her persecutors, and, judging by what you tell me, the trick seems to have been successful too."
And so it proved, for Evelyn did not return, nor did any letter or message come from her to explain her absence.
"I HAVE come to make a confession, Mr. Metcalf."
"A confession, Lady Edith! Well, well, if it will ease your mind, I will listen, of course. But why come to me, my dear young lady?"
"It—it concerns—Philip—that is, Mr. Stanville."
The old gentleman's exclamation was in a tone that indicated the surprise the statement caused him and the importance he attached to it. Till then he had been talking in his usual cheery, bustling manner, but when Philip's name was mentioned, he at once became grave and closely attentive. And now he remarked more particularly how pale and subdued his visitor appeared to be, and he began to wonder what new development her unexpected visit to him might portend.
He had been much surprised and a little embarrassed, a few minutes before, by receiving Lady Edith's card, just as he was about to set upon a little journey which he was in the habit of taking once a fortnight to a charitable institution a few miles out of London. Great as his trouble and preoccupation were at that anxious time, when Philip Stanville's mysterious disappearance had been followed by that of his sister, Mr. Metcalf would not allow what he considered his private cares to interfere with his social duties, if he could possibly and conscientiously avoid doing so, and he was therefore on the point of starting as his accustomed hour when the visitor was announced. Both Ernest and Violet were absent, so that he could not well do otherwise than see the young lady himself. Believing that she had merely called to pay a visit of ordinary ceremony or inquiry, he had at first been chiefly desirous to bring the interview to a close as soon as politeness would allow. At the mention of Philip Stanville's name, however, his interest was fully aroused, and he began to regard his visitor narrowly.
What he now observed excited his sympathy as well as his interest, for he noted very clear traces of sorrow and suffering.
"What have you to say to me concerning Philip Stanville?" he presently asked. "I am ready, as you may believe, to listen to anything that may possibly be a help in the present unfortunate state of affairs."
"Alas! Mr. Metcalf, I fear what I have to tell you may not be of much help now. I ought to have told you long ago; and I am—how shall I say it?—I am ashamed—I despise myself—for having delayed it," Lady Edith replied, in low hesitating accents. "When you came to see my father, on that occasion I overheard your talk, I said I knew something, which, however, I did not disclose to you."
"I remember. You also gave Ernest a hint to the same effect when you came down to see Evelyn!"
Lady Edith sighed.
"Yes; but I ought to have gone further than hinting."
"You helped us materially, by prevailing upon Lord Ravenmoor to adjourn the directors' meeting; I do not forget that, my dear young lady."
"Oh, do not thank me—you will not when you have heard all. But I want you to promise you will tell no one of what I am about to say, save in the very last resort—only if you find it is imperatively necessary to do so in Mr. Stanville's interest."
"I promise, Lady Edith."
Then the young lady proceeded to pour out, with many incoherent interruptions and hesitations, and not a few tears, an unexpected confession. It appeared that Sir Colin Meedham, who was a frequent visitor at her father's house, and who was one of her admirers, had dropped a letter, which she had picked up and read, not knowing at the time to whom it belonged. It was from Hedley to Sir Colin, and contained a draft of the letter he (Sir Colin) was to write—did subsequently write—in order to induce Philip to sign the cheque for five thousand pounds. It was, in fact, Hedley's own draft of the letter which young Gretton had stolen from Philip's private safe, and which Mr. Metcalf had afterwards been the means of restoring at so critical moment. The incident of Lady Edith's finding it had occurred a few days before Mr. Metcalf's visit to Lord Ravenmoor on Philip's, behalf, and, when, therefore, she overheard their conversation, she understood at once the meaning of what she had seen. Her first impulse had been to tell what she knew to Mr. Metcalf; but she had reasons of her own for not wishing to offend Sir Colin, so she compromised with her conscience by getting her father to keep matters open to give Philip time to return, and by paying a visit to Evelyn. When she found that the trouble had somehow been, in a measure hushed up, and that Philip stood in no danger of prosecution, she had persuaded herself that there was no need for her further interference, and so had afterwards kept silent.
"But why?" Mr. Metcalf asked, sorrowfully, "why did you—how could you—bring yourself to screen Sir Colin in such a shameful business?"
"I owed him money," she confessed, shamefacedly. "I had borrowed a good deal—for me—to pay my losses at 'bridge.'"
"At 'bridge'! You don't mean to say, my dear young lady, that you gamble to that extent?"
"I don't now, Mr. Metcalf; but I did then. They all do in our set. You have no idea what large amounts some ladies I know win or lose, as the case may be, in these days. But papa does not know, and he would have been furious with me if Sir Colin had told him—as he would have done if I had offended him. And then, after all, you see, I had no proof, for I had given him back the letter I found. However, it showed me the sort of man he was, and made me determined to have very little to say to him in the future; and I am glad to say I have now paid him back and am free again."
Mr. Metcalf, kind, gentle, and forgiving, as he always was, sent the fair penitent away with words of forgiveness for the past and exhortation as to the future, and then started off for the railway station. He had already lost one train through the delay Lady Edith's visit had caused him, and he hurried along to avoid losing the next one.
He heard it coming as he neared the station, and increased his pace to a run. As the result he was just in time to get a ticket, rush past the ticket collector, to whom he was known, and jump into the train as it started off.
For some little time he leaned back, and gave himself up to the reflections which his late interview with Lady Edith had given rise to. But presently he became aware that the train he was in was flying past the stations in a fashion very unusual in the case of the slow train he was accustomed to. Then he looked round to see who was in the compartment besides himself, and found that it contained only one other passenger. This was a very quiet, gentlemanly-looking young man, who was addressed in attire that struck him as partaking of a nautical character.
"I fancy we are of the same cloth, sir," said the stranger with a smile.
"Indeed, sir," said Mr. Metcalf, with surprise. "I had no idea of that. It is true I belong to the Church; I am a mission worker."
"So am I sir. I belong to a seamen's mission society. I am very glad to have fallen into such company. I was beginning to think, before you got in, that I should have to do the whole journey alone."
"The whole journey? What journey?" asked Mr. Metcalf, in growing uneasiness. "What train, then, is this? I get out at Crowfield."
"But this is the boat express, sir, and doesn't stop again till it arrives at Tilbury Docks."
And so, to Mr. Metcalf's great dismay, it proved. No amount of further talk or questioning could alter the fact; and in the end the old gentleman surrendered himself good humoredly to the exigencies of his position, and beguiled the tedium of his enforced journey by conversation with his companion.
He soon came to know that the stranger's name was Gerald Bradfield, that he had an extensive knowledge of the shipping and of the sailors passing in and out of the various docks and up and down the Thames; that he frequently, in the course of his duties, travelled a good way round the coast.
Mr. Metcalf became very friendly with the young missionary, whom he found to be full of anecdote and curious experiences; and in return for his relation for these the old gentleman told him the full story of Philip Stanville's troubles and of his and his sister's disappearance.
To this Mr. Bradfield listened sympathetically, and at the end he said:
"Well, now I wonder it has not occurred to you to make inquiries amongst the waterside people—especially the Thames police. If your friend is being kept in enforced confinement in or near London, what more likely place, what safer place, can there be than a ship? There are many come in and out of the Thames, manned by foreign seamen of doubtful character who are quite capable of taking a hand in a kidnapping business, provided it were made worth their while. I, myself, am going today for a few hours' run with a Thames police steam launch. If you like to come with me, you can talk to the officers, and may pick up some information. We are also going to visit one or two vessels of the class I have alluded to, which are lying at Anchor at Gravesend."
"Thank you very much for the offer," Mr. Metcalf returned hesitatingly, "but I am doubtful whether I can come to-day. I have a friend in Gravesend, and now that I shall be so near it would be a convenience to me to call on him. I have been wishing to visit him for some time."
"Come with us first, Mr. Metcalf, and we will put you ashore at Gravesend afterwards. We shall be quite near."
"Why, that would suit me very well indeed, my dear sir, and I shall gladly accept your good-natured invitation."
In due time they reached Tilbury, and Mr. Metcalf, after a brief delay caused by his having no ticket for the station he had come to, walked with his friend to a landing stage, where the police launch was waiting. Suddenly he stopped and stared at two men in front of them. They had come down by the same train, and were evidently also making for one of the quays. Mr. Metcalf stood still and made a sign to his companion.
"Why, I declare; there are two of the people I have been talking to you about!" he exclaimed in a low tone. "They are Mr. Morrison and Sir Colin Meedham. Now, I wonder what they are doing here? How strange that we should see them. See! they are going off in that little launch."
"Step aside," said Mr. Bradfield, taking him by the arm and drawing him behind an adjacent building. "Do not let them see you. When they are well started, we will go on board the launch which is waiting for me, and I will get the officer in charge to follow them. This is getting interesting, and I mean to see it through."
FAR out upon the broad waters of the Thames, between Gravesend and the Essex shore, a dark-hued, clumsy, uninviting vessel lay at anchor, She was bluff in the bows, and high out of the water at the stern, and was dirty, and untidy looking withal. Any of the longshoremen thereabouts would declare to you, at the first glance, that she was "a furriner, sir"; and some there were amongst those who had noted her lying in her position for the past week or two, who shook their heads and gravely stated their deliberate conviction that "she wasn't after no good."
Local opinion was decided as to whether she was employed in carrying out arms to intending insurgents in some South American State, or whisky and rum for the blacks of Africa. In any case she did not appear to be engaged in any one of the many branches of the legitimate shipping trade that is ever passing in or out of London's busy port, and for that reason she was regarded by the idlers on shore with a certain amount of vague suspicion and distrust. The ship's papers, however, had been overhauled by the powers that be, and found to be strictly in order; and that being the case, she was left at liberty to lie at anchor, or sail off at a moment's notice, as those in charge of her pleased.
So she lay now, lazily tugging at her cable, well out of the fairway, in the sun and haze of a fine spring day, the little ripples of the placid stream lapping with sleeping monotony against her sides.
Upon her deck, lounging against the bulwarks, were the skipper and two or three of the crew, all evidently 'furriners' also, and unusually forbidding and dirty looking at that. Their chief present occupation seemed to be blinking at the sun and smoking extremely bad-smelling tobacco; but to the initiated their appearance suggested that they were quite ready—for a consideration—to take part in any work that came along, however rough it might be.
The Thames police had, in fact, looked upon this craft with such suspicion that they had, upon one excuse and another, paid her two or three visits, without, however, finding anything to justify their doubts. Yet it was in one of her cabins that Philip Stanville was a prisoner; and anyone peering through a certain port window might have seen him sitting gazing wistfully out at the glancing water and the distant shore, wondering, with fast- sinking hopes, whether deliverance would come to him before the vessel sailed and carried him off upon a voyage to some unknown destination.
When he had left old Gretton's in the company of the supposed sailor, he had followed his guide without a thought of evil, and had walked unsuspiciously into one of the worst riverside dens kept by crimps, of which many exist even in these days, and to which Jack ashore is so often lured and first tempted to drink, then drugged and robbed, and finally turned adrift penniless. Here he was, suddenly set upon, gagged and bound before he could utter a sound or strike a blow in self-defence, and that same night was taken in a boat, still bound, down the river to his present quarters.
The binding and gagging had been repeated just before each visit of the river police—visits which were intended, no doubt, to be unexpected, but of which the crafty skipper evidently somehow managed to get timely notice.
Thus, while the officers were inspecting the cabins and forecastle, Philip had been lying helpless, and perforce silent, in some dark cupboard, divided from the searchers only by a thin plank, and able even to hear their questions, and the skipper's bland replies.
His looks bore witness to the suffering he had undergone. He was haggard and thin; but his spirit and determination had remained unbroken, and he had made up his mind to resist to the last the offers which had been made to him to purchase release by paying a heavy ransom.
For the rest, in the long, lonely hours, as they dragged so slowly by, his thoughts had reverted constantly to Violet Metcalf, and he had set himself the one task—that of trying to imagine the counsel she would have given him under his present circumstances, and endeavoring to act up to the ideal thus created. This led him to pass more and more of his time in prayer, and each time he rose up feeling strengthened and encouraged, and strong in faith and determination to trust himself absolutely to God's will.
He knew his enemy now. For Hedley was his gaoler, and paid him daily visits. He had completely thrown off the mask, and glorified and triumphed in declaring to his victim how he had tricked and deceived him in the past, and how he had hated him throughout, until Philip had grown sick and weary of listening to the cynical, shameless recital of the numberless ways in which he had been deceived.
It made him shudder with disgust and horror to hear this man, whom he had treated with absolute confidence, and loaded with favors and kindnesses innumerable, openly rejoicing in the revelation of his own perfidy; and it filled him with wonder, too. For throughout he sought in vain for any adequate reason for it all. And by degrees there grew up dimly, deep down in his own mind, a shadowy suspicion that there must be some hidden cause for it at which he himself could not so much as guess. Side by side with this idea was a vague curiosity which set him thinking, wondering, conjecturing as to what it could possibly be. Only one thing seemed to him to be clear in this connection—this hidden motive was something beyond mere greed or the desire to get money from him.
These thoughts followed one another, as they had done so many times before, travelling ever, as it were, in a circle, and starting and ending always at the same place, as he sat down, gazing out through the open port window at the distant land, where the sunlight fell on scattered houses dotted here and there amidst patches of brilliant green. There, too, could be seen the curling white-trail of a moving train just starting on its way to London. He was dreamily following its movements, and wishing he was one of the passengers, when he became aware of a confused noise and bustle going on overhead. Then the cabin door suddenly opened, and Hedley entered. He stood for a space regarding his prisoner with his usual cynical smile before speaking.
"I have come," he said, "for the last time—to give you one more chance. I told you this vessel would sail with the ebb. The tide has just turned, and you can hear the preparations for departure. After I go out of this cabin it will be too late for you to alter your mind. I have told you where you will be taken to. Perhaps you think in these days people cannot be carried off and sold as slaves to Moorish cut-throats; but do not deceive yourself. The men of this vessel have been engaged for years in smuggling arms and ammunition into the wilds of Morocco. They are utterly unscrupulous, and ready to do any thing for money, and you will not be the first white slave who has been sent into life-long captivity by their hands. The others have never come back—nor will you. I give you one last chance. Sign, the paper I have shown you, and you shall be set free, and your sister too."
Philip looked at him with a stern, steady glance which the other found it hard to meet and when he spoke, it was in a tone of contempt, which stung Hedley to the quick.
"You have had my answer several times already," he said. "I do not know how you came to discover this secret—a secret which is not mine—never has been mine—for it was confided to me as a sacred trust by my father upon his deathbed. I tell you again I will not sign the paper; I will not purchase present relief from trouble by an act of dishonor, which would render myself despicable in my own eyes for the rest of my life. I tell you," he added, with cutting scorn, "I would not pay you your price even if this money were my own. You can judge for yourself, therefore, whether I am likely to do so out of money which belongs by right to someone else! As to what you can do, either to me or my sister, that rests in the hands of God. I will not believe He will allow you to harm her, nor will I be afraid of what He may permit you to do towards myself."
"Then you have brought your fate upon yourself," Hedley answered between his teeth, his whole face contorted with passion and hate. "Hark! you can hear they are weighing anchor! In a few minutes I shall have left the ship, and she will have started, and you had better then amuse yourself by taking your last look at England's shores, for you will never see them again."
AS Hedley stood looking at Philip Stanville, as if expecting a reply to his last speech, shouts and calls were heard upon the deck above, followed by the sound of a boat bumping against the side of the ship.
"That, I expect, is the pilot," Hedley presently said. "There is yet time, if you are hesitating; another few minutes and it will be too late."
Evidently he had been hopeful that Philip's determination would give way at the last moment, and was disappointed at his firmness, and loth to go away without having achieved his purpose. Then a fresh idea appeared to strike him, and he went on with an insulting sneer:
"This new religious temper you have imitated from your sanctimonious friends, the Metcalfs, hardly suits you, I assure you. Anyone can see that it is put on for the occasion. It makes a comical contrast, too, to other days when I remember you at the race meetings we used to attend together, and some other little goings-on. I could recall to your recollection if I chose. But enough of that! I have learned, beyond all doubt, that this money which you have so cleverly hidden away that I did not know of its existence till recently is at your own absolute disposal, and needs no other name to transfer it. I warn you, I mean to have it—if not with your sanction, then without it. Your signature is easily imitated."
"Yes, I believe you discovered that long ago," Philip returned.
There was no suggestion of sarcasm in his tone, only a bitter, deep disappointment and sorrow of having been so badly treated by one he had trusted. Then softer thoughts came into his mind, and he continued, almost as if talking to himself rather than to the other:
"And yet I trusted you—made you my most trusted friend—could have loved you! Tell me, Hedley"—here a note of appeal came into his voice—"tell me, what have I done that you should treat me as you have?"
"What have you done?" Hedley repeated, with sudden fury, the words pouring out from him with a rush. "What have you done? Were you not rich and spoiled, even as a child, while I was brought up in poverty? Were you not the favorite of fortune, while I was an outcast? Have you not flaunted your high position in society before my eyes, while I had to choose between starvation and living on the crumbs you chose to throw me from your princely table? Who are you—who made you so much superior to me—that you should have all the good things on earth, while I had to toil and strive and plot and scheme for a bare living, to bow and scrape to you to induce you to make me your servant, to give in to all your whims and caprices, and flatter your poor silly vanity, as the only means of retaining your lordly patronage?"
He paused, out of breath with his rage, his eyes blazing with hate and fury, his hand trembling with excitement as he pointed his finger to emphasise his words.
Philip, astounded at this extraordinary tirade, stared at him in undisguised amazement. But after a few moments' thought, a feasible, and satisfactory explanation offered itself to his bewildered senses.
"Clearly, this man is a madman," he thought. "That explains everything. I must be careful and humor him."
Then, hearing through the clatter that was going on on deck another very unmistakable hail, he turned again to the port and leaned over close to it to look out.
There, to his unspeakable delight, he saw a police launch; and amongst the group, standing at the stern, gazing at the ship, some of them shouting at the skipper, was the Reverend Owen Metcalf.
"Mr. Metcalf! Mr. Metcalf!" he called out.
Mr. Metcalf turned at the cry, and recognised Philip's face. The next moment Hedley had pulled him roughly from the port, and was holding a revolver to his head.
"Metcalf," he hissed, now quite beside himself with rage. "Metcalf again! Do you think, you poor, weak fool, that I am in a mood to let Metcalf snatch you out of my power at the last moment, after all the pains I have taken to conquer you? If you cry out again, or so much as whisper, I will end matters, once and for all, by ending your life!"
Philip thought he saw the fire of madness unmistakably shining in Hedley eyes, and, realising that it would be dangerous to oppose him, remained silent. A long and painful pause ensued, during which through a confused jumble of many and various sounds, Philip could all the time plainly distinguish the labored breathing of the man beside him, who kept his hold upon his arm, and his finger on the trigger of the pistol.
Then there came a knocking at the cabin door, and someone called out Hedley's name. But the voice was not that of Mr. Metcalf, as they had both expected, but of Mr. Morrison, Hedley's partner.
Hedley was so surprised at this that he involuntarily moved his face round towards the door, and, for a moment, turned the revolver away from Philip, who at once, thinking it likely to be the only chance he would have with this madman, seized it, and tried to wrest it from the hand that held it.
A brief, fierce struggle ensued, during which both rolled upon the floor, and the pistol went off accidentally. Hedley fell back, badly wounded, while Philip raised himself upon his knees by the side of his late antagonist, whom he how regarded with dismay and concern in his eyes.
"Tell me, Hedley," he asked, earnestly, "are you hurt—is it—"
"Hurt—aye, wounded to the death," was the answer, given in a voice that was weak, and yet still full of anger.
And so the struggle between us ends. You have got the better of me in every way through life. Your luck has driven me over to the wall—even to my death."
"How can you nurse such ideas, Hedley?" Philip cried, grief and pity mingling in his accents. "What have I done to deserve so much ill-will?"
"Done! Robbed me of my birthright."
"Your birthright? Why, what are you saying?"
"My birthright, I say," Hedley repeated. "That is true; for I am your father's son. I am your elder brother—your half- brother!"
"Great Heaven! Then you—you are Andrew Rillingford!"
"So I was called; but my real name is Andrew Stanville!"
"Oh Andrew—my brother," Philip cried, "say that I have not found you only to lose you! Know that this miserable money is all yours. My father—our father—told me of you upon his deathbed, and I put half my fortune aside for you, and that is the trust I have so jealously guarded. It is all yours—every penny of it!"
Hedley raised himself, and stared incredulously at the speaker.
"Can this be true?" he gasped. "Will you swear it?"
"Aye, willingly. Mr. Wilberforce has known it all along. He has been seeking you for me all this time!"
"Oh, blind! blind! blind!" moaned the wounded man, sinking back. "May God forgive me! Pray for me! that He may, Philip. I know that you never can."
"But I do—from my heart, Andrew," Philip declared. "It has all been a mistake—a hideous mistake!"
"A mistake! Aye, what a mistake, Philip!"
The words died away into a whisper, and Philip saw that he had fainted. Then he rushed to the door and opened it.
A crowd stood around it, and some pressed forward into the cabin, Mr. Metcalf among the foremost.
"Philip," he cried, "what has happened? Are you safe? We heard a pistol shot—and—tell me what has happened?"
"Hush! Mr. Metcalf," Philip answered, pointing to the unconscious form on the floor. "Send for a doctor quickly. See! my brother lies there badly hurt, perhaps dead—hurt—by—all through a mistake!"
HEDLEY—or Andrew Stanville, to give him his real name—did not then die, but recovered sufficiently to enable him to go abroad a few months later, though only as a confirmed invalid. The complication which had led up to so strange a situation between the two half-brothers can be best described in Mr. Wilberforce's words, when, one day, a few weeks later, he recounted the full particulars to Mr. Metcalf and his son.
At this time Philip and Evelyn—who, as it turned out, had been taken to Mrs. Morrison's, and there detained as a close prisoner—had gone down to Somerdale to make arrangements for their return to their old home, Stanville Hall, and Mr. Wilberforce was settling matters up for them in town.
"Mr. Stanville, senior, in his youth," said Mr. Wilberforce, "had weakly and secretly married, in a false name (that of Rillingford), a circus performer, a woman older than himself, but of great beauty, and of gipsy blood. The union proved unfortunate and unhappy in every way, and after a short and miserable married life passed on the Continent, the natural roving spirit of his wife's nature asserted itself, and she ran away and left him, taking with her a son that had been born. Mr. Stanville endeavored to trace her, but at that time in vain. Afterwards he heard of her under circumstances which rendered any reconciliation impossible, and placed a final bar between them; and then, still later, he heard of her death. He then made an attempt to trace the son, who had been brought up as Andrew Rillingford; but without success. Soon afterwards he married again, and thence forward gave up all thought of doing anything for young Andrew, until he lay upon his deathbed, when he was seized with remorse at having so long neglected one who, as he now recollected, was, after all, his first-born. Then he confided the secret—for secret it had been carefully kept—to Philip, the son of his second manage. Philip at once declared that he should divide his fortune into two portions, and put one half away in trust for his brother, whom he determined to seek out. To this impulsive generosity his father demurred; but finding that Philip had made up his mind to it, he finally insisted only upon one condition—viz., that the quest should be a secret one.
"Suppose, my dear Philip," he pointed out, "that your half- brother is dead; of what use would it then be to have raked up this unfortunate chapter in my life, and to have published it to the world?"
Philip recognised the cogency of the reasons for secrecy thus pointed out, and gave a solemn promise that his father's wishes in that respect should be most carefully observed. This explains how it is that you never heard before of this first marriage, or of the possible existence of another son.
"Shortly after Mr. Stanville's death a sister of this first wife (afterwards known to you as Gipsy Jane) came to live near Stanville Hall, bringing with her a son William, a rough, restless fellow, who, as you will remember, soon made himself noted in the district as a confirmed and daring poacher. As a matter of fact, these two came to spy out the land on behalf of their relative, young Andrew, who, meantime, had taken the name of Ralph Hedley. He had got into trouble in South Africa, and the police were after him; but he managed to throw them off the scent, and to make them believe that he had perished in the wreck of a ship in which he had, at the time of her loss, been a passenger. He then followed his relatives to England, and set up, under his new name, as a land and estate agent.
"Andrew had been far better educated than his cousin, William Grainger, and being naturally shrewd and clever, had made good use of his opportunities. He pretended to be a stranger to his relatives, but in secret they aided one another, and in time 'Ralph Hedley' wormed himself into Philip's good graces, and became his confidential agent. This he did with the deliberate object of mining Philip, and incidentally, of profiting himself as much as possible, in the process.
"He had been deceitfully—I may say wickedly—reared by his mother in the belief that he was a deeply-wronged son; that, as the elder brother, he was morally entitled to Philip's position, and that, therefore to get money from him by trickery and treachery was no sin, but only 'getting his own back.' To this end she had foisted upon him an entirely untruthful account of what had happened, and of the treatment she had received from his father. This Andrew now admits; and he declares that he was assured it would be useless to make any appeal either to Mr. Stanville or to Philip. He was educated, in fact, in envy and hatred of the younger brother, who, as he believed, had usurped his rights. Given such a training, the implacable hatred that 'Hedley' developed towards the innocent, unconscious Philip, and the chicanery he resorted to in order to possess himself of as much of his fortune as possible, become matters less difficult to understand, though they are not, therefore, the less sinful.
"And yet," continued Mr. Wilberforce, sorrowfully, "we all know that any appeal from Andrew to Philip—nay, even a word, a hint—would have met with a ready and generous response, and would have cleared up the misapprehension between these two unfortunate half-brothers, for so long closely associated in the flesh, yet so far apart in the spirit.
"It affords us some idea of how utterly false, how entirely unfounded, must have been the convictions impressed upon Andrew by his erring mother, when we see how fully persuaded he was that it would be useless to make any such appeal to Philip's generosity. It is sad to think of the mischief, the pain and suffering, the unnecessary misery, which have here been caused by the wickedness of a single unscrupulous woman. If Philip has been a sufferer for whatever sin his father committed in allying himself with such a woman, Hedley—or rather, Andrew—has suffered, it seems to me, not less bitterly from the sins of his mother."
"Yes, that is true," Mr. Metcalf commented thoughtfully. "Thus do we see. Once more, how the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. And yet even here there are compensations. I have had a little conversation with Andrew, and am glad and thankful to say I am myself surprised to find what a powerful effect the contemplation of Philip's constancy and generous loyalty to his self-imposed 'trust' has had upon him. I believe, after all, that his disposition was not naturally very bad; but it was warped and misdirected, and all but crushed by his early training, and by the fixed idea instilled into his mind that he was the shamefully-wronged son of a cruel and unjust father. Now that Philip's splendid unselfishness has convinced him how unfounded that idea really was, he feels, he says, humbled to the very dust, and declares that if he is spared to live, his great object in life shall hereafter be to endeavour to live up to the noble example his brother has set him. Such were his words, and I believe he is sincere."
"He has given one unmistakable proof of sincerity," Mr. Wilberforce observed, "by refusing to accept a penny of the money that Philip had saved for him, and as Philip, on his side, was at first equally resolute in his determination not to touch any of it. I am afraid things would have come to a deadlock but for a codicil to old Mr. Stanville's will, which, as a matter of fact, he executed at the last moment, and entrusted to me. In this—of which Philip knew nothing—he absolutely forbids Philip to make over to his brother any sum exceeding ten thousand pounds in the event of his finding that Andrew, when he is discovered, is not leading an honest and reputable life. And the final decision as to this is left to myself as arbitrator! Now I cannot honestly say that this newly-discovered son is or was leading 'an honest and reputable life,' so I have decided against him; and as Andrew admits my award to be just, Philip has had to give way. And thus it has been settled; Andrew takes ten thousand, and Philip keeps the rest, less a legacy of ten thousand pounds which the codicil directs to be set aside in trust for William Grainger's daughter, Susan, till she is of age."
"Susie is an heiress, then?" Ernest said, with a smile. "How fortunate that we should have been led to like the child, and to have done something to keep her from possible harm!"
"Andrew was fairly generous to his aunt, Gipsy Jane, as she is called, and to his cousin, Susie's father, and never allowed them to want," Mr. Wilberforce went on. "But Susie, he never seems to have liked, and she did not like him, and there was constant friction between him and Grainger about her—especially after you began to show an interest in her. I verily believe that if you had not taken charge of her when you did it would have resulted badly for the child. Either she would have run away and come to harm, or Grainger would have gone off and taken her with him; in which case it is not pleasant to imagine what her future would probably have been. Her father seems to be a strange mixture; I do not know what to think of him. Undoubtedly he was more or less cognisant of what was going on, and, therefore, was a confederate."
"Yet he has given me useful hints once or twice lately; and it was he who got that letter from young Gretton and brought it to me at so critical a juncture," said Mr. Metcalf, mildly. "To screen him, I have told no one before how that letter came into my hands so opportunely. Undoubtedly it saved Philip from worse trouble at the time. He said he brought it to me out of gratitude for what we had done for his child."
"H'm! Well—we will give him the credit of being a little grateful, then, anyway."
"I do not wish to seem to recall what Philip has forgiven and desires to forget," Ernest here observed; "but I cannot understand how Hedley—that is, Andrew—could plot against Miss Stanville, whom he knew to be his sister, even as Philip is his brother."
"I asked him as to that," Mr. Wilberforce replied, "and his answer is that he never intended to harm her, but only to make use of her to put pressure upon Philip. I understand she was well treated during her involuntary stay with the Morrisons, and had no cause for complaint beyond the fact that she was a prisoner, and was not allowed to communicate with friends. By the way, you know, I suppose, that Morrison had disappeared?"
"No. Has he?"
"Yes; and Sir Colin Meedham also. They were afraid to face the consequences which they expected would follow."
"But Philip could not have taken proceedings against them without proceeding against his brother as well; and he would never have done that," said Ernest.
"No, of course; so, on the whole, it is best that they frightened themselves into running away. And now, Mr. Metcalf, I come to a more pleasing matter. Some time ago Mr. Walton, who is, as you know, the present vicar of Somerdale, intimated to me his wish to resign. He desires to be free to go to live in a warmer climate on account of the unsatisfactory state of his daughter's health. I prevailed upon him to keep back his resignation for a time, hoping that Philip might be in a position to deal with it, and this has now happened. The living is, as you know, in the gift of the owner of the Stanville estates. Philip writes to me that he has seen Mr. Walton and arranged everything and he desires me to beg your acceptance of the position. He says he wishes me to be the bearer of the offer—I don't know why—unless he is too modest or too shy to make it himself. I do not press for answer now; wait till he returns to town. He has some plan in for filling the blank which he knows your giving up your work in London would create—some plan of his own, which, he says, he feels sure will meet your objections on that side. But of that you and he can talk together later on."
Philip Stanville fully redeemed the promise that he made to Violet—that if ever he should again be rich he would endeavor to do in the future as he then wished he had done in the past. One of his first acts was to found and endow a branch mission in the East-end to take over and carry on the good work Mr. Metcalf had been doing, so that none of the circle he had so zealously worked for should be the worse for his removal from their midst.
This dispersed the good-hearted old gentleman's only serious doubts as to whether he was justified in consulting his own inclinations, which urged him to return to spend his last years in the country, where so much of his life had been passed. His conscientious hesitation was finally overcome, however, when he found that he was to be asked to give his consent to Violet's marriage with Philip, and the two appealed to him to yield to their desire that he should come and live near them.
In the circumstances Ernest gave up his intention to going abroad, and remained to become his father's curate; and in due time he brought Evelyn to the vicarage as his wife, to keep house for the old gentleman.
Susie remained in Philip and Violet's charge. She was formally surrendered to them by her father, William Grainger, who, with his mother, "Gipsy Jane," accompanied Andrew Stanville in his sojourn abroad. "Bobby," too, the orphan waif, was not forgotten, but has become one of Violet's many protégés.
Old Mr. Gretton was generously rewarded for what he had ventured in Philip's behalf; and his son was restored to him and put into a good situation, where he would be out of the way of his former bad associates.
Mr. Metcalf continues, in his position of vicar of Somerdale, as zealous, as energetic, and as invincibly hopeful as ever in the doing of his Master's work. He is known and beloved by the whole countryside; but he does not forget his former flock still living stived up in London slums. He pays periodical visits to them in the company of Ernest or Philip, and generally searches out some who would be the better, in his opinion for a week or two in the country air, and insists upon taking them back with him when he returns. Sometimes Mr. Spencer returns with them, and enjoys a week or two in well-earned rest in peaceful Somerdale, while Ernest remains in town and takes over his duties for the time being.
As to Philip, he never tires of helping his gentle wife in seeking fresh channels through which to make use of his wealth in alleviating the distresses of the poor and needy, and helping those who cannot help themselves.
He says he has never forgotten—will never forget—the words Mr. Metcalf addressed to him when he consented to hand his daughter Violet over to his care. He will remember them, he declares, all his life. They were these:—
"I am giving into your care, my dear boy," said the sincere, simple-hearted minister, "a treasure more precious than gold or precious stones. It is a most sacred, solemn trust, but I have no fear but that you will try to be worthy of it. I do not forget how faithful you have been to the promise you made to your father upon his death-bed, and to the trust which you then undertook to fulfil. But, Philip, I would have you bear in mind that everything we possess in this life, every gift, physical or mental, every talent, all our wealth and property, is a sacred trust. In regard to this trust which you undertook on behalf of your unknown brother you have been faithful; but in regard to the wealth that came to you at your father's death, in regard to all the opportunities for doing good thus placed in your hands, you were not faithful; hence no blessing rested upon your life, and misfortune came to you. Let it, then, be your resolve that you will look upon the wealth and opportunities now again placed in your hands, as given to you, not to contribute to your own pleasures, but as—like the money you guarded so loyally and so well—only a treasure 'held in trust'."
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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