A PAIR of exquisite blue eyes, tearfully despairing, looked into Gertrude Stanmore's scornful brown ones.
"Oh, so that it what that Ponting woman was hinting at last night?" she asked. "Gladys, do you mean to say?—oh, I am almost ashamed to ask you the question. Am I to understand that you deliberately stole a diamond bangle belonging to Lady Oxted and handed it over to that Ponting creature as security for a bridge debt of fifty pounds? Now, don't prevaricate; tell me the truth. Mrs. Jim Ponting didn't say so in as many words, but she inferred it. Oh, you must have been mad, mad."
Well, Gladys always had been a little fool, Gertrude told herself bitterly, but that had not prevented her spoiling her younger sister ever since Colonel Stanmore's death, and the day when they had been turned out of a comfortable home to fight the world together. But it had been Gertrude who had done all the fighting. It was she who had laid out their little income to the best advantage, and had made a place for herself in the field of journalism. It had been hard and trying work, and there were times when she grew tired and weary and dreamt of the day—well, the kind of dream that all women have who are face to face with the battle of life, and the deadly fear of defeat.
And nobody knew better than Gertrude what it meant. And now the man had come, two of them in fact. There was Lord Falmer to begin with. That somewhat serious-minded young man had fallen head over ears in love with Gladys' exquisite colouring and dainty porcelain beauty, and was ready to give up a promising political career for her sake. And Gladys herself was ready to go down on her knees and ask Heaven what she had done to deserve all this happiness. And on the top of this the other man had come along, and made the world into a bower of roses for Gertrude.
And now it looked as if Gladys had wrecked it all by one stupendous folly. Far better if Gladys had confessed her fault, and admitted that she had been foolish enough to play Royal Auction for a pound a hundred under Mrs. Remington's roof. That the good lady in question knew nothing of these midnight gambles made no difference. And because Gladys had nothing to gamble with the inevitable had happened.
"Mrs. Ponting is such a horrible creature," she said tearfully.
"Of course she is," Gertrude cried. "She is absolutely out of place in a house like this. But Mrs. Remington is a kind-hearted creature, and Jim Ponting has always been a second son to her. But what is the use of discussing that point? You lost money you cannot pay to Mrs. Ponting, and you stole a diamond bangle from Lady Oxted's dressing-room, and offered it as a security. And Lady Oxted will be back here to-morrow, and, of course, she will miss it. What are you going to do then? Oh, it's no use looking at me in that pathetic way; I can't help you. I suppose you don't know what's in the back of that woman's mind. I suppose you don't realise that it is her intention to levy blackmail on you. Mrs. Jim Ponting is no fool. She is to have the entree of your country house, to come and go when she likes, and speak of you as her dear little pal, Gladdie Falmer. Far, far better go to Falmer and tell him the truth."
"I couldn't do it," Gladys whispered. "I really couldn't."
"Well, I will do what I can," Gertrude said wearily. "You had better go downstairs to the others, or they will wonder if there is anything wrong. I told Mrs. Remington I had letters to write after dinner, so she won't expect to see me again to-night. I asked Mrs. Ponting to come and see me about eleven o'clock, so she may be here any moment now. I will do what I can for you, but it looks absolutely hopeless."
Gladys faded out of the room, glad to get away so easily. For a long time Gertrude sat before the fire thinking wearily. From time to time she caught the sound of mirth and laughter downstairs. She could hear a ripple of voices in the corridor outside as the women of the house party came to bed. It was getting late now, and it looked as if Ida Ponting had forgotten her promise. Then there came a tap upon the door and the woman entered.
At first glance there was nothing very wrong about her except a slight suggestion of exaggeration in the brightness of her hair and the pronounced pink and white of her complexion. There was, too, a little too much decolletage, an accentuation of ornaments, an exaggeration of ease and assumption of one born to this sort of thing. The brown eyes were bright and bold, the red lips a trifle too thin and greedy. Yet the average animal man would have called Ida Ponting a pretty woman, and he would have been justified in doing so. At any rate simple-hearted Jim Ponting was her absolute slave, and regarded himself as the most fortunate of men. But Gertrude drew back as if she had been some loathsome reptile, and cold contempt stood confessed in her eyes.
"You had better sit down," she suggested. "And I think it would be just as well if we understood one another. I have been talking over matters with my sister, and she has told me everything. Of course, you see that you cannot keep Lady's Oxted's bangle."
"Why not?" the other asked. "Don't mind if I smoke, do you? Thanks. But why make a fuss about it? I don't want to keep the thing. And I am quite prepared to play the game if you will do the same. Now, look here, I am not on the make. When your sister lost that money I shouldn't have pressed her for it, only I happened to be a bit short myself. Of course, I didn't mind taking the security, though I was a bit staggered when I recognised the bangle. But you can have it back if you like, and nobody will be the wiser."
"Do you mean unconditionally?" Gertrude asked.
"Oh, well, that's what it comes to. Your sister is a dear little thing, and I have taken a fancy to her. My Jim and Lord Falmer were at school together, and they've always been pals. Mind you, I owe Falmer one for trying to come between Jim and myself. It isn't due to him that I'm Mrs. Jim to-day. He's a bit of a prig, but all the same I ain't blind to the advantage of writing my letters from Falmer Castle occasionally, and that's just what I'm after. It isn't much to ask after all. I may have started life in the Gaiety chorus, but I'm no thief, Gertrude Stanmore, and don't you forget it."
"So that is your price?" Gertrude asked coldly. "Lord Falmer will not tolerate it for a moment. He would forbid anything like intimacy, and there the matter would end."
"Oh, I don't think so," Mrs. Ponting said. "Falmer is ridiculously in love with your sister, and he would do anything she asked. The question is, are you going to try?"
Mrs. Ponting put the question plainly; no longer was there a smile upon her lips, no suggestion of amiability in the harsh tone of her voice. She seemed suddenly to have lost something, to have taken one step back towards the primitive.
"I tell you it is impossible," Gertrude said. "You must do your worst. The truth must come out to-morrow, in a day or two everybody will be discussing this scandal, and you won't come out of it altogether as easily as you imagine. You will be asked many awkward questions. Oh, you may smile and think how easy it will be to answer them. But there is more than one kind of blackmail, Mrs. Ponting, and your type is not the least objectionable. They will discuss you in drawing-rooms, they will hold post-mortems in clubs. And everybody whose opinions you value to-day will smile contemptuously at the woman who thought that she could get into the best houses by blackmailing a silly little donkey like Gladys Stanmore. I can hear them saying it, I can see them smiling over it at this present moment. And your social pretensions will be done for. You smile to hear me say that. But you see I have mixed with these people all my life, despite the fact that I am only a working journalist, and you are a comparatively newcomer. We have our traditions and our customs, and we hang together as the wild animals do; indeed, we are all animals after all. And you will find that, like the stray dogs in the streets of Constantinople, we keep to our own quarters, and fiercely resent an intrusion from the alien next door."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Mrs. Ponting said sullenly. "It's all Greek to me."
"Very probably. But if you persist you will find out what I am talking about, and you will understand through a mist of humiliation and tears. If you are wise you will return——"
"Never," the other woman cried back. "Never, unless you drag it out of me. And I believe you are capable of that."
"I am," Gertrude said. "Yes, I would go as far as that. You are not playing the game fairly, and I hold that I should be justified in any step to save my sister's happiness—and my own. And then I would defy you, Mrs. Ponting. I would stigmatise your story as an impudent lie; I would show my friends what you are aiming at. And if you think that your word would be taken against mine you will find yourself bitterly mistaken. But it is useless to discuss the matter further; go to bed and sleep on it, and think of what I have said. You may take a different view to-morrow. Lady Oxted will not be back till the afternoon, and if you wish to discuss the matter further, I will meet you here after luncheon. And now allow me to wish you good-night."
Mrs. Ponting rose sullenly from her chair.
She was smiling confidently enough, but there was about her none of the easy self-assurance with which she had come into the room. With a toss of her head she closed the door noisily behind her.
She came out of her hideous waking dream presently to the knowledge of a world in which things were moving. It was as if a door had been opened somewhere, and the wheels of life were closed. Someone was screaming loudly, at the far end of the corridor; there was a tinkling crash of glass, and the thud of footsteps outside. As Gertrude started to her feet the door of her room burst open and a man entered.
As she focussed her eyes upon him she saw a slim, athletic figure, a thin, sensitive face with a mouth drawn hard and combative, like the lips of a cat when she turns upon a dog in a tight corner. In the ordinary way the intruder would have been harmless enough, the typical worker one meets in a tram or train, but Gertrude's journalistic training showed her more than this. She could see humour in the blue eyes, and something more—humour turned to the courage of despair by the proximity of danger.
The easy smile faded from Gertrude's lips, her face took a tinge of grey. At that moment she looked curiously old and worn, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders, and she found the burden too much for her.
"Ever seen this before, lady?" he whispered hoarsely. "Now, steady, miss, steady, play the game by me and——"
The speaker paused significantly.
Gertrude stood there, her eyes fixed with flickering fascination upon the flashing trinket that her visitor held in his hand. She knew it well enough, she did not want to be told what it was. Beyond the shadow of a doubt those winking, tantalising stones formed Lady Oxted's bangle, the same ornament which had caused all the trouble. How it had fallen into the hands of this audacious thief mattered nothing. It was enough to know that it was no longer in Mrs. Ponting's custody, and that this man was here prepared to bargain over it. Slowly and surely the situation was unfolding itself to Gertrude. This man was a burglar, he had been caught practically red-handed, and had bolted headlong like a rabbit, looking for some avenue of escape, and by the merest luck he had found his way here.
But how could he possibly know that Gertrude would be interested in that particular trinket? Evidently he did know, for there was a grin on his face and the light of humour was dawning in his cunning blue eyes. He advanced a step or two tentatively.
"You tumble?" he whispered. "You're fly, miss. And if so be as you like to make a bit of a bargain wiv me——"
He broke off short, his eyes dilating and his nostrils flicked like those of a dog scenting danger. A murmur of voices came from the corridor outside, there were impatient knockings on the door, and the tones of a man calling on Gertrude by name. As the man's voice fell upon her ears, she stiffened. The knocking grew louder and more insistent, someone was suggesting that the lock should be forced. Gertrude stood there swayed this way and that by the violence of her emotions. In a dim way she began to see the path of safety, but she would have to act quickly, for there was not a moment to be lost. The burglar clutched her arm.
"See this," he whispered. "Don't you want it? Wouldn't you give one of your eyes for it? And it's yours if you'll only play the game right. Now come!"
It was exactly what Gertrude would have suggested herself. The dim and narrow track of safety had now resolved itself into a broad and luminous path.
"I think I understand," said Gertrude. "I think I know what you want me to do. And I shall know how to deal with you if you play me false. Go into my dressing-room. Close the door behind you, and leave the rest to me."
The burglar vanished without another word. Hardly had the dressing-room door closed behind him before the other door burst open, and half a dozen men in evening dress entered. There was one man in front of them, evidently a late comer, for he was still in travelling kit, and his brown, clean-shaven face was quivering with anxiety. At sight of him Gertrude uttered a little cry.
"Jack," she said. "When did you arrive? I had not the slightest idea that you were coming this week-end."
"Half a minute, if you don't mind," another of the intruders exclaimed.
"We are most awfully sorry to behave like this, don't you know, but there's a burglar in the house. He was disturbed by one of the maids in Mrs. Jim Ponting's dressing-room, and she swears that he came in here."
"Really, Captain Clinton," Gertrude protested. "Oh, this is too ridiculous. I was sitting over my fire half asleep, and if anybody had come in I must—oh, it's too laughable. I hope the thief gained nothing in the way of plunder."
"Took the lot, I understand," Clinton said. "But of course if he hasn't been there, we are jolly well wasting our time, you chaps. Miss Stanmore, I cannot make sufficient apologies."
"There is no occasion for apologies at all," Gertrude said sweetly. "Of course you are acting for the best. And now——"
There was no more to be said or done, nothing but to withdraw with a sort of shamed confusion, and leave Gertrude to the privacy of her room. She stood there a moment holding herself in with an effort. She had seen her way a moment of two before, but Jack Seymour's unexpected appearance had been something in the nature of a shock. In the ordinary course of things she would have been glad enough to see the man that she was going to marry, but not just now. She wondered half-guiltily how much he had guessed of the truth, for there had been no smile on his lips, and no love in his eyes as they met hers. Well, it was no time to discuss that point. What she had to do now was to complete her shameful bargain with the burglar and see that he made his escape good. She opened the door of the dressing-room, and bade the thief come forth.
"That was very smart of you, miss," he said. "And here is your bracelet. It's worth a goodish bit, and I don't grudge it you; and now I daresay you would like to know all about it."
"I should indeed," Gertrude said coldly.
"Well, it's like this, miss. My name is John Heggs—leastways for the present. I ain't always been on this lay. I was a gentleman's servant once, and so you see I know a good deal about country houses. Matter of fact I've been layin' about for Mrs. Ponting's jewels for the best part of the week. You would 'ardly believe it, but I 'ave been sleeping in the 'ouse for these three nights. And I was actually 'idin' on the balcony outside yonder window when you was 'avin' that bit of an argument along o' Mrs. Jim, as they calls 'er. And a nice lot she is. Lor, I remember 'er when she was getting a quid a week in a little hall down 'Oxton way. Now, look 'ere, miss, it ain't for me to preach, but there are some things that I can't stand, and that little game wat Mrs. Ponting put up on your sister is one of 'em. And, mind you, there was a time once when your father was very good to me. And so I says to myself, 'John, my boy, when you gets off with that stuff you're just going ter send that there bracelet anonymously to Miss Stanmore, and leave her to do the rest.' An' that's way I puts it separately in my pocket when I pulls off the little deal to-night. And when that maid comes in an' interrupts me, I makes a bolt of it, and 'ere I am. It was just blind luck as brought me in 'ere. An' now I 'ope as you're satisfied."
With something quite graceful in the way of a bow, Heggs tendered the precious bracelet to Gertrude, who dropped it in the pocket of her wrap. She was seeing her way clearly now.
"They say that some women are never satisfied, Mr. Heggs," she said. "And I am afraid you will find that I am one of them. Please turn out your pockets. I have no great affection for Mrs. Ponting, but all the same I cannot stand by and permit your old acquaintance to be robbed. Am I quite clear?"
"You don't mean that, miss?" Heggs said forlornly.
"I do, indeed, Heggs. I daresay it seems a pity, but don't forget that you owe your liberty to me. I've no doubt you value that more highly than all the diamonds in the world. Yes, that's right. Are you quite sure? But I'll take your word for it. Now if you open the dressing-room window quietly you will be able to drop on the flower-bed below, and the rest I can leave to your discretion."
Without protest Heggs turned out his pockets. A heartfelt sigh broke from his lips as he let himself gently down from the window and struck out vigorously across the lawn. He knew his ground to well to fear anything in the way of an ambush, and his sigh of regret was echoed by one of relief from Gertrude, as she closed the window behind him and switched on the light.
"I suppose I ought to be satisfied," she told herself dubiously. But sleep was not for her that night. She was glad when the morning came, if only to walk about the gardens, and gather a handful of late flowers. And there amongst the lingering roses she came face to face with the man whom she was anxious to see, and whom she dreaded to meet at the same time.
"You are early, Jack," she said with a faint smile.
"Like you, I couldn't sleep," Seymour replied.
"Oh, and how do you know that I could not sleep?"
"Have you looked at yourself in the glass this morning?" Seymour asked. "Haven't you got something to tell me, Gertrude? Of course, I have no right to pry into your secrets, but it seemed to me last night there were several blind fools about——"
"Enough," Gertrude cried. "I saw you were not satisfied. And I am bound to tell you everything. At first I did not mean to. But I see now that your happiness and mine are at stake. I see that going out of my way to shield another——"
"By which you mean your sister, of course? My dear girl, are you going to live entirely for that selfish little fool? Don't you know that the way in which you have given up everything for her sake was one of your attractions in my eyes? Look here, Gertrude; you and I will be poor enough by comparison with Gladys and Falmer, and that is why we have need to be more jealous of our good name. And now I want you to tell me why you were hiding that thief in your room last night. Mind you, I am not insisting upon it, and, if you refuse I shall never mention the subject again. And I shall never treat you with less respect or admiration."
"You are making it very easy for me, Jack," Gertrude said with tears in her eyes. "Half an hour ago I did not believe that I should ever be happy again. Let us sit down here on this old seat, and I will tell you everything."
She told the story from end to end without one word in the way of extenuation. And as she proceeded she found her hands in those of Seymour, then his arm went about her waist as he bent down ad pressed his lips warmly on hers.
"And that is all," he said. "What a story! What a comedy! And what a pity we have got to keep it all to ourselves. Anything that Gladys has to say to Falmer is no business of ours. Of course, she won't tell him. And I think you can leave Mrs. Jim Ponting to me. She will me glad enough to get her jewels back, and she will probably realise that there is no chance of dating her letters from Falmer Castle. In her own vernacular, there's nothing doing! And now do you feel easy in your mind?"
"Oh, yes, yes," Gertrude whispered. "I believe that this is the happiest moment of my life."