MR. JOHN MORLEY—ironically termed "Honest John" in the profession of which he was so distinguished an ornament—crept round the house in the December darkness. He did not wish to intrude, his most sincere desire was to remain anonymous. At the same time the exigencies of business rendered it necessary for him to get into the house without disturbing the party at dinner.
John Morley was not alone. He was accompanied by a delicate-looking lad of some seven years, a boy with a handsome face and a pair of dark eyes that seemed to be haunted by some constant terror. Even the tyro in matters of heredity could have refused to believe that any relationship existed between the two.
"Now, look 'ere," Morley remarked in the husky voice peculiar to his class, "you sty where you be. See the window with the loight in it. That's where I'm gain'! Up the ladder, too, sty just there, and if there's anything to be seen, give me the office. Or you'll get your (adjective) head broke."
The lad shivered with something more than cold. He stood trembling, and on the alert whilst his elder produced a ladder from a belt of shrubs and laid the same against an upstairs window. A minute or two later Morley came tumbling down the ladder again. Like the victim of the Heathen Chinee, his language was "painful and frequent and free."
"I've been betrayed," he said, with honest emotion, "reglar betrayed. The sparklers is there, for I see the box, but there's iron bars to the (adjective) windows. These kind of suspicions hurts the feelings. Ten quid and a fortnight's work clean chucked awy. It's disgustin'."
"Then we are to go away?" the lad asked eagerly.
"No, we ain't there," Morley responded savagely, and with a brutal blow that caused the boy to moan with pain. "I'll knock that pride out of yer. I'll spoil that pretty honesty of yourn. We ain't going away. That ain't the kind of man John Morley is. We're goin' to stay till they all go to roost, and then the band is going to ply. And if any a 'ens gives trouble, why——"
Morley preferred to leave the sentence unfinished. He had no time to waste in idle speculation. It was bitterly cold out there, and Morley was considering if he could find shelter till the psychological moment.
"I'll try it," he muttered; "blest if I don't. They'll never dream as a cracksman's doin' a doss in the conservatory."
As yet the drawing-room of the Fastnets was empty, the house party being still under the shaded lamps in the dining-room. Morley skirted along to the half-glass door of the conservatory leading into the garden. To this skilled workman a lock like that was a mere pastime. A dexterous turn or two with a piece of peculiarly-bent wire and the door opened. A grateful whiff of warmth and fragrance gushed out. Morley gave a luxurious shudder as he closed the door and laid himself at length on a bed of dry moss behind a wall of tender green.
"Now you toddle off to sleep," he said to the boy. "There's plenty of time."
The advice was hardly needed. The youngster was tired by want of rest. The grateful warmth of the place filled him with a sense of languid comfort. His eyes closed, for the time at least care touched him with gentle fingers.
Not so Morley. The senses were at their highest tension. Anon he heard the murmur of staccato voices, the ripple of well-bred laughter. A woman with a beautiful voice sang a touching melody which brought the tears to Morley's eyes. He had ever been of a sentimental nature.
It was all new and strange and pleasing to him. Also he felt grateful for the relief from tedium thus afforded. But the best was yet to come. Voices came nearer still, a man's flexible baritone, and the trainante limpid note of a woman. By common consent they took a seat. By arranging the fern fronds, Morley could see the couple quite plainly.
The man was a model in his way, the better military model. The woman was rarely beautiful, not quite in the first blush of youth, but still, so far as Morley could judge, on the sunny side of thirty.
"Loras," Morley muttered, "spoons for a million. Strike me pink if it ain't as good as a ply, with nothing to py."
The burglar composed himself to listen. Like most of his class, he was a connoisseur in the purer emotions. From his place in the "Surrey" gallery he could howl at vice and applaud virtue triumphant with the best of them.
"Beatrice," said the hero, "I am going away to-morrow."
"I am aware of the fact, Major Lester," came the low response.
The man made a gesture of impatience.
"How cold you are," he said, "and what a short memory they have. Anyone would think that there had been no happy days in the time before you met and married Frank Walton. But for that rascal you and I would never have been robbed of eight precious years."
"He was my husband, and he is dead, George."
"If he were still alive, should I be here? When I heard that you were coming down to stay I lost no time in getting here. Better had I remained away. And you used to love me once, Beatrice."
Beatrice Walton regarded the Major almost defiantly.
"I love you still," she said, the words forced to her lips. "My husband deceived both of us. I was foolish enough to believe the evidence he produced. You were too proud to explain, and in a fit of pique I married Frank."
"Only to bitterly regret it afterwards?"
"Yes. The agony and misery of that time, God only knows. When my money was gone my husband stood out in his true colours. I did not think it possible for a man to fall so low in three years. He suffered imprisonment, as you know, and when my friends found me a home and I refused to see him again, he struck a blow at me, the effects of which I feel yet."
"You are alluding to your boy."
"I am. You cannot understand a mother's feelings. Frank was my salvation. But for him I must have lost my senses. Then my husband stole my bonny lad from me, and I have never seen him since. My husband is dead now, but my boy lives. But where? Herding with the vilest criminals, being brought up as one of them. The police can do nothing for me. And yet you wonder why I cannot settle down to a life of peace and happiness."
"But if you had the lad, Beatrice?"
"Ah, if! What a difference that would make, George, there is no more miserable woman on God's earth. I love you, and yet I cannot marry you. If I had my boy by my side—but it is no use to think of that."
"Why not, Beatrice? Why should you not give yourself to me all the same? We could look for the little chap, money can do almost anything. I could lay down my life to promote your happiness."
Beatrice shook her head tearfully. Behind the delicate green tracery of the ferns Morley was enjoying himself immensely.
"Prime!" he muttered, "Spiffin! That chap could knock spots off Wilson Barrett. I hope she'll take him. I allus likes to see these things end 'appy. But then women are always such bloomin' fools."
Beatrice rose and paced the floor in her agitation.
"Would you be content with a share of my heart?" she murmured.
Lester caught her hand eagerly.
"Only try me," he whispered. "There is room in your heart for two of us. You need not be afraid that you will forget. Your mission in life shall be mine. I must have your answer to-night, Bea.; because I shall be off so early to-morrow, if you say me nay, and goodness knows when meet again."
Beatrice hesitated. A great struggle was evidently going on in her mind. Morley felt half inclined to enter into the controversy, but a sense of modesty restrained him. And then the golden opportunity was lost.
On the scene there appeared a vivacious-looking maiden, who regarded the main actors in the drama with some reproach.
"Ah, here you are!" she said. "I've been looking for you everywhere. We are going to have some trick cycling in the gallery. Come along."
The vivacious one caught the others up as if in a whirlwind and carried them away.
Beatrice's lips formed one word, "Presently," and with that Major Lester was fain to be content. Morley felt that he, too, had a grievance.
"Pore bloke!" he muttered. "I'll bet a quid that other one tumbled to the game, and it's even money she wants the Major herself. Very near gettin' done on the post, though. I put my spondulix on the widow."
After this, things became slow for Morley. He could hear shouts and yells of laughter from the corridor, but the drawing-room was deserted, and Morley did not belong to the class who have resources in themselves. With ordinary luck he could have had those jewels, and been well on his way to town by now.
"I think I'll get forty winks," he muttered.
The forty winks were unduly expanded, for when Morley came to himself again he found the conservatory in darkness; the whole house had lapsed into a profound silence. After waiting a little while Morley lighted his lantern and looked at his watch—a valuable repeater.
"A quarter past one," he muttered. "Time I got to work. Wish I'd brought my full kit with me. Guess I'll manage to get into the drorin'-room."
But, unfortunately, with the limited means at disposal, this proved to be impossible. The inner door was coated with iron, and there were stout bolts on what Cæsar called the thither side.
"No go!" quoth the burglar. "I'll have to try one of the outside windows. One of 'em safe to be unfastened. Wake up, Ned."
He shook the boy roughly. He sat up fresh from green fields and the happy memories that blessed sleep brings. Half drunk with slumber still, he stumbled into the open air with his brutal companion. The intense cold seemed to strike him to the marrow of his bones.
He stood there shivering until the raucous voice of his companion called him.
"Look 'ere," came the hoarse voice. "We're got to get into the 'ouse. That narrer window up there is in the 'all. I'll push the catch back, and then you'll step in and unfasten the front door. Twig?"
"I—I can't do it," the boy stammered. "I'm afraid."
A sounding smack on the side of the poor lad's head sufficed to bring him to his senses and the moral obligation of things. With a thin-bladed knife, Morley pushed the catch back, and softly raised the sash. Visions of jewels galore chastened him to a feeling of savage pleasure, which was his nearest approach to amiability.
"Now, up you go, young 'un," he muttered. "I might be able to squeeze through there myself, but a close fit like that 'ud be dyngerus. The lights ain't quite out, and you can easily find your wy to the front door. Jist pull back the bolts and chynes, and there yer are."
In an agony of shivering terror Ned complied. He had never actually taken part in crimes like that before. He dropped into the hall, and stood there for a moment absolutely dazed. A lurid curse brought him to his senses. He started forward on the run, darting along in blind, headlong fashion. He crashed into a stand of armour that gave out a frightful clang. But he contrived to reach the door at length.
"Dear by," Morley muttered between his teeth. "Gentle creature, what a time you'll 'ave when I get my fist into your neck agen."
Ned fumbled with the bolts and chains. He was sobbing violently with fear and excitement. What a time it took. And if anybody came.
"My child, what are you doing there?"
Ned turned round to encounter standing in the dining-room door what his native fancy took to be an angel. As a matter of fact it was Beatrice. She had slipped down into the dining-room to leave a note where the Major would be sure to find it in the morning, because no opportunity of giving Lester an answer had presented itself before retiring.
A second before Ned's great fear had been lest somebody should come. And now when someone had come he did not feel in the least afraid. For the angel in the white and the golden hair had the sweetest face and the softest smile.
"Save me," he said, "oh, please, please to save me."
He clung to the diaphanous robes of the pitying white angel. Dirty and grimed as he was Beatrice took him up and kissed him.
"My child, who are you afraid of?" she asked.
"Him," was the reply. "He put me through the window. We were to rob the house."
As Beatrice's eyes met those of Morley a shrill cry went up from her lips. It rang through the house like a clarion cry. If not heroic the measure was effective. Doors were heard to open, and the first man who came down the stairs was the Major. He took in the whole situation at a glance. So did Morley, who deemed discretion to be the better part of valour and disappeared.
"The kid must look to himself," he muttered, "I don't want to see him any more."
"Beatrice," said the Major, "what is the matter?"
But Beatrice seemed incapable of speech. On her knees, with her arms about the little waif and stray, she was laughing and crying in a breath. There were others there, by this time looking on in silent wonder.
"Don't you see what has happened?" Beatrice cried. "It is my boy—my own boy whom I have not seen for three years. And God has sent him back to me. Ned, my Ned; is not your name Ned Walton?"
"They used to call me that," said Ned. "Are you my mother?"
"Oh, yes, yes. And you will stay with me always. Oh, George, to think that he should come back to me like this! What shall I do?"
The Major was honestly moved, and his heart was sorry for the boy who stood there looking at him with his mother's eyes.
"I could make the same suggestion," he said, "that Mr. Dick did concerning David Copperfield, under somewhat similar circumstances. Wash him!"
The tension was relieved, and everybody laughed. There seemed to be a struggle amongst the women-kind as to who should make the most of Ned. And as his mother finally recovered him and carried him off in triumph she turned to the Major. Her eyes were shining with love and happiness.
"George," she whispered, "George, you will not go away to-morrow?"
"No, my darling," responded the Major.