THE affair had developed rapidly, of course, as such things always do.It had been fed on moonlight, as usual, and watered by dewy nights under the shade of the awnings to the accompaniment of music. And, as usual, she was beautiful, and he was a young man going back home again after four successful years spent in quite the approved fashion, restoring the fallen fortunes of his house. And he had done it, too, which is a way they have occasionally, both in real life and in the pages of fiction. It is possible, of course, for a man to spend a few years on the west coast of Africa and come home again little the worse in health and considerably benefited in pocket. Thus Gerald Eversleigh.
He was not thinking now about the old house and all the improvements he was going to make, because his mind happened to be full of Miss Flora Canning. He knew perfectly well that she was the daughter of a rich American, who was on his way to England for a visit. He knew perfectly well, too, that Mr. Canning was quite different from the ordinary Yankee who has made his pile in the ordinary way. He was perfectly well aware of the fact that Canning was proud of the English blood in his veins, and that he was really descended from a good North-country family. This, of course, was all by the way. That was not the point which puzzled and slightly irritated Eversleigh. He could not get over the feeling that he had seen Flora Canning before. Of course, it was absurd, because he had never been in America, and, with the exception of one brief visit, Miss Canning had never been in England. And even if they had ever met, she must have been a mere schoolgirl when that one visit was paid.
In the first moment that Eversleigh had seen her on the boat he had been filled with this haunting feeling that he had seen her before. He could not understand why it was that the girl should instantly remind him of his old home. He could not understand why, directly he saw her, his mind was filled with visions of old oak and Jacobean furniture and quaintly carved picture-frames. Behind all this was a background, faint enough, of laces and silks, and large picture hats with suggestions of Gainsborough about them. It was certainly very strange that whenever Eversleigh saw Flora Canning, she seemed to be reminiscent of the seventeenth century. And yet she was modern and up-to-date enough, though she certainly might have made an exquisite picture for Reynolds or Romney to paint.
And so things went on till the boat was due at Madeira. So far, Eversleigh had been content to take the romance as he found it. So far, he had not even informed the Cannings that the name of Eversleigh was merely a Christian name, and that he had adopted it for commercial purposes.
It was the night before the boat reached Madeira, and he got some sort of a clue to the mystery which worried and at the same time fascinated him. For once. Flora Canning was not on deck, so, on the principle of being near the rose in the absence of it, Eversleigh was smoking his cigar with her father.
"No, I shan't be in England very long," the latter was saying. "Really, I am going there for more or less sentimental reasons. I shouldn't have mentioned it if I hadn't found out quite by accident that you know so much about the early English school of portrait painters. Now, I am a collector. What I particularly favour is the work of Reynolds. I am more especially attracted by him because at one time or another I have happened to pick up a good many specimens, mostly representing the women of my own family. When my grandfather came to grief, his collection was disposed of, and it was always a sentiment of mine to get those pictures back if ever I made money enough. And now I really have got most of them at my place in Philadelphia; but there is one that I am particularly anxious to buy, and I have had a terrible difficulty in tracing it. And now, by good fortune, I've got the chance of buying it. The picture is at a place called Morton Dene, in Derbyshire. I believe the real owner has let the place, and has authorised the tenant to sell any of the pictures if they happen to go at a fair price. It isn't a bad chance of getting the picture."
"I suppose not," Eversleigh said thoughtfully. "In fact, it's rather cute. They would probably fetch a lot more money if they were seen by wealthy collectors on their native heath, so to speak. And it so happens that I know something about Morton Dene. I was born in that neighbourhood myself. Doesn't the house belong to a man called Edenbridge?"
"I believe that is so," Canning said. "But, at any rate, I shall know all about it at Madeira. I expect to meet Denham-Carter there, and he will go back on our boat."
"And who is Denham-Carter?" Eversleigh asked.
"Well, I understand that he is the tenant of Morton Dene. Edenbridge let him the house furnished. I understand from my daughter that the Denham-Carters are none too well off, and that they take paying guests in an exceedingly superior way. But that doesn't concern me. What I am going down to Morton Dene for is to see this particular Reynolds, which I intend to buy even if I have to give a fancy price for it. And thereby hangs a tale. At the same time Reynolds painted two portraits of two distant connections of mine. These girls were sisters. One of them was fair and small, and I have her portrait. She is the very image of my second daughter, May, making allowance for a difference of costume, etc., and the strange part of the whole thing is that the other portrait, now at Morton Dene, is the exact likeness of my daughter Flora. I know that, because Denham-Carter sent me a photograph. So now you will see why I am so anxious to have the picture. It strikes me as a very strange and fascinating thing that, after the lapse of a century and a half. Nature should reproduce two girls in the same family so exactly resembling their famous ancestresses. I hope you won't think I am sentimental."
"Oh, the contrary," Eversleigh said warmly. "And now I begin to understand why Miss Canning reminds me of someone. I begin to understand why it is that when I see her, my mind is full of Old Masters and early Georgian painters. Seeing that I am acquainted with Morton Dene, I must have seen that portrait, and it must have impressed me more than I was aware. And so Edenbridge has let Morton Dene to your friend Denham-Carter? If he takes paying guests, as you say he does, I should very much like to go down there. I have very few friends in England, for I have lost touch with most of them; indeed, I expect I am so altered that they would hardly know me."
"I dare say that would be all right," Canning said. "I'll introduce you to Denham-Carter to-morrow, and then you can make arrangements."
Eversleigh remained on deck for some time, sitting silent and thoughtful under the stars. He had a good deal to think about, and his musings appeared to cause him considerable satisfaction.
He had the opportunity the next day of seeing the tenant of Morton Dene and being introduced to him. Denham-Carter looked like a gentleman; indeed, he suggested a naval officer of distinction. He had the easy, natural manner of one accustomed to good society, and the determined face and firm-cut mouth of a man who knows how to get his own way and perhaps is not altogether too scrupulous in his methods of doing so. He stared hard enough at Eversleigh when the introduction was made, and just for the moment he changed colour. But it was only for a moment, and then his easy, natural manner returned. Still, for the next day or two, it seemed to Eversleigh that Denham-Carter was watching him closely, and that he was puzzled as to his ability properly to place his new acquaintance. He had an expression in his eyes such as may be seen on the face of a poker player when big stakes are on the table, and he knows that he has an adversary worthy of his steel. But before the English Channel was reached, all this suggestion of suspicion had vanished, and Denham-Carter was the easy, fascinating man of the world again. Indeed, he seemed to go out of his way to make liimself agreeable to Eversleigh. He had known what it was, he said, to drift abroad for years and lose sight of old friends, and if Mr. Eversleigh liked to come down to Morton Dene with the Cannings, he was quite sure Mrs. Denham-Carter would be delighted to see him.
Eversleigh murmured his thanks; the offer was too tempting to be refused. And Flora Canning seemed to be pleased, too.
"I'm so glad you are coming to Morton Dene," she said. "And then, of course, you know the place."
"I know the house," Eversleigh explained. "It's run on rather novel lines, isn't it?"
"Oh, quite. You see, it's such a splendid idea to entertain guests in a charming old bouse which is a perfect specimen of Tudor architecture, full of old furniture. Of course, the Denham-Carters don't call people 'paying guests.' They entertain a carefully selected house-party, and I believe that when you are there, you would not know it from an exclusive gathering in any great country seat. You don't pay so much a week, or anything of that kind, nor do you see a bill. You go when you please and leave when you please, then you write the usual letter of thanks afterwards, incidentally enclosing a cheque at the rate of a good many guineas a week. You see how delightfully simple it is, and in what good taste."
"Magnificent," Eversleigh murmured. "Does it go on all the year round?"
"Well, except from Christmas to March, when the Denham-Carters go to Monte Carlo. Mrs. Denham-Carter is by way of being an invalid. But you shall see for yourself. I am quite sure you will be grateful to me for my discovery."
Eversleigh admitted enthusiastically that it was no fancy picture which Flora Canning had drawn of the delights of Morton Dene. He had been there just four-and-twenty hours, and he and his companion were pacing up and down the terrace in front of the house before tea-time.
"Now, didn't I draw a fair picture of the place?" Flora asked. "I ask you if I exaggerated in any particular. There is something so Tennysonian about the house. Look at the long, grey front, the moss-clad pillars, and the pigeons up in those gables, and the peacocks flaunting their plumes in the sun. Wouldn't a poet such as Austin Dobson love to describe this place?"
"It is certainly charming," Eversleigh said.
"Oh, that's a poor way of describing it. Do you know it is the dream of my life to have a house like this for my own. Most Americans rave over old places, but I don't think they really appreciate them, unless they happen to be really English at heart, as I am. I shall really have to find Mr. Edenbridge and make love to him. I believe I could love any man who could give me a home like this."
"There's no knowing what may happen," Eversleigh smiled. "I have just been looking at the Reynolds which your father is so anxious to buy. It is a beautiful piece of work, quite in the master's best style, but I understand that Denham-Carter's asking a fancy price for it."
"But he's not selling it for himself, you understand."
"Oh, I quite appreciate that fact. But our respected host is not without an eye for the main chance, and the bigger the price, the bigger the commission. Still, your father is keen ou having the picture, and I suppose the four thousand guineas he is paying for it are no great matter to him. It's a pity, all the same, your father can't get the shooting he wants later on. Still, even that might be managed."
"Do you really think so?" Flora asked.
Eversleigh refused to say more, and together he and his companion returned to the house. The light began to fade presently, and a couple of decorous footmen came into the hall with shaded lamps in their hands. It was a charming scene altogether, the half light, the great wood fire on the hearth, the broken shadows falling on the old silver on the tea-table, upon pictures and statues and the dusky gleam of armour. Mrs. Denham-Carter, perfectly gowned and full of small talk, presided at the tea-table. About her a score of guests were gathered. There was absolutely not one inharmonious note, no sharp tone of colour to suggest that the whole thing was being run on a commercial basis. Eversleigh stood contemplating the picture critically and talking in a desultory sort of way to his host. It seemed to him that Denham-Carter was not altogether easy in his mind; the strange look of suspicion was back in his eyes again, and there was something almost combative in his manner. In an odd sort of way Eversleigh felt that his host was waiting for something. It came presently through the medium of one of the decorous footmen and a telegram on a silver salver. Denham-Carter took up the envelope carelessly enough and proceeded to open it. Then his expression changed, and his wife looked up at him swiftly.
"I hope there's nothing the matter, dear," she said. "Oh, George, don't tell me that Emily is worse!"
"It's very sad," Denham-Carter said, "but your sister has had a relapse, my dear. She has been ordered out to Madeira again, and she wants you to go with her at once; and, under the circumstances, I don't see how you can possibly refuse. It will be very awkward, of course."
A murmur of sympathy went round the table. Mrs. Denham-Carter applied a few inches of exquisite lace to her eyes and sobbed. Denham-Carter was understood to say that these things were all for the best, and that the trouble might not be so serious as it seemed.
"Our guests will quite understand," be said. "But I hope they won't let this unfortunate message cast a gloom upon them. It will be time enough to think about trains and Bradshaws and all that sort of thing in the morning. I hope you good people will make yourselves quite at home till to-morrow, at any rate. I shall have to leave you men to your claret and cigarettes after dinner, because, naturally, my evening is likely to be a busy one. It will take me all my time to get the servants out of the house and the caretakers in before we leave for Southampton to-morrow. By the way, Canning, we can settle our little business before bed-time, can't we?"
"Isn't it sad?" Flora murmured to Eversleigh.
"Yes, it is a good joke," Eversleigh said absently. "Oh, I beg your pardon! Most sad, really."
It was very unfortunate, of course, and Denham-Carter and his wife came in for a good deal of sympathy. The former appeared to take it philosophically enough. There was a great deal to do, and directly dinner was over he disappeared in the direction of the library. By way of consolation to his male guests, he left out something exceedingly particular in the way of claret, and also a cigar the like of which is not met every day. It was getting rather late before the company in the dining-room broke up and the men began to scatter over the house. Eversleigh strolled into the hall to ascertain whether he could see anything of Miss Canning, but she was not there. He was moving in the direction of the drawing-room, when one of the decorous footmen stopped him.
"Would you mind going as far as the library, sir?" he said. "Mr. Denham-Carter would like to see you before you go."
"Go where?" Eversleigh asked.
Apparently, the question was a natural enough one, but it seemed to puzzle the servant. He looked at Eversleigh stupidly enough, but the latter asked no further explanation. Possibly the man had managed to blunder over his message, but the gist of it was clear enough. Denham-Carter wanted to see him, and, as a matter of fact, he was equally anxious to see Denham-Carter.
He made his way at once along the corridor which led to the oldest portion of the house, where the library was situated. This portion of Morton Dene dated back to the time of the first Henry.
The old, solid masonry still remained, the thick, stone walls had suffered little from the ravages of time. Here, in the old, turbulent days, had been a kind of monks' room or sanctuary, where more than one conflict had taken place. There was a sort of secret passage leading down beneath the moat, whereby anyone bold enough to take the plunge could dive under the water and come up on the far side. This fact was known to few people, but, at any rate, Eversleigh had heard it, and the thought was uppermost in his mind as he made his way to the library. The room was lighted only from the roof, the heavy walls were lined with books, and, indeed, the only modern innovation there had been the comparatively recent installation of the electric light.
Denham-Carter looked up from the table where he was writing as Eversleigh entered, then he rose from his chair and walked over to the door, which he proceeded to lock. Then he put the key in his pocket. The thing was so coolly done that Eversleigh could not but admire its quiet determination.
"No reason for us to be interrupted," Denham-Carter said. "Would you mind sitting down, Mr. Edenbridge?"
"I beg your pardon," Eversleigh said.
"Really! I thought I spoke plainly enough. Still, I don't want to have a misunderstanding with you. Of course, I know that it pleased you, when you came here, to call yourself Gerald Eversleigh, but that's not your name. I am quite sure that you will not deny the fact that you are Mr. Edenbridge."
"I will let that pass, if you like."
"Quite so. I thought you would take a sensible view of it. You are a man of the world, with plenty of natural courage, and I have no doubt that in the course of your wanderings you have been in a good many tight places."
"I have," Edenbridge said, "and I am not blind to the fact that I am in one now. But that's no reason why we should quarrel over things. Pass me those cigarettes, will you?"
"With the greatest pleasure. I am glad you are taking so common-sense a view of the matter. I suppose you don't know who I really am. You don't know my real name?"
"What does it matter?" Edenbridge said indifferently, "The point is that you are a cool, audacious scoundrel, and I have been fool enough to put myself in your power. I must congratulate you upon the neat way in which you have managed things. The message you sent me by your footman was quite a diplomatic model in its way. You must have thought it out very carefully."
"Well, I did. You see, it wanted a certain amount of consideration. You see, I have to be most cautious. When I joined the boat at Madeira, it was an unpleasant surprise to me to recognise you. I shouldn't have done so, only, when I was making arrangements with one of your trustees to obtain possession of this house, I happened to see on his desk an amateur photograph of yourself taken somewhere in Africa and sent home by you. That was a bit of luck in its way, which I didn't quite appreciate at the time. But I appreciated it right enough when I met you at Madeira, and I saw the danger in a moment. I hope I'm not boring you?"
"Not at all," Edenbridge said politely. "On the contrary, I am most interested. Pray go on."
"Well, you see, that meeting was most awkward for me. In the first place, it looked like upsetting all my arrangements. I had no idea that you intended coming back to England so soon. One of your trustees is now mentally unfit to take any part in business, and the other one is a careless sort of man who never troubles about anything. That is why I had no difficulty whatever in producing certain documents which satisfied him of my bona fides, and that I had made arrangements with you to rent Morton Dene furnished. And, on the whole, I made a very good thing of it. But, you see, there was always a certain amount of danger, and I always made up my mind that if I could get out with a few thousand pounds, I would do so. I began to see my way to this when I heard from Mr. Canning on the subject of the Reynolds. It looked such good business that I went to Madeira to meet him. And there I met you, too, and not being quite a fool, Mr. Edenbridge, I saw at once that you were up to every move on the board. I was prepared to bluf it out, but I saw that you were a man with a sense of humour, and that you were going to see the game through to the finish. Well, that suited me very well. I saw in a short time that you meant to keep your end up till Canning was ready with his cheque, and that then you would step in and spoil the show. Isn't that what you came down here to do?"
"Your instinct is marvellous," Edenbridge said. "That was my precise intention, and I was going to do it to-morrow. But don't you think you are carrying matters with rather a high hand? I am afraid that, physically speaking, you would be more than a match for me, and I see that you have something neat in the way of a revolver on the table there. But how do you propose to get rid of me? Awkward questions may be asked."
"Oh, I don't think so," Denham-Carter said thoughtfully. "Nobody knows that you are in England. You have never approached any of your friends yet, and you are always spoken of as 'Eversleigh.' You haven't been in this neighbourhood since you were a boy, so there is no chance of anybody recognising you. Now, by to-morrow afternoon we shall have cleared out of here, and when I go away, I shall take the Reynolds with me. I propose to lock you in here and leave you to make your way out as best you can. It was done once, a century or two ago, as you are quite aware. An ancestor of yours, who was confined in his own house, managed to make a hole in the floor by using his broken sword as a tool, and subsequently dived into the moat. It took him four days to do it, and by that time he was more or less of a wreck, but he managed it all right, as the records of the family show. I don't see why you shouldn't do the same thing, seeing that you know exactly how to go about it."
"It is a pleasing programme," Edenbridge said, "and it does you credit. But pardon me if I am dense enough not quite to understand. For instance, Mr. Canning will wonder what's become of me. That is one point."
"Oh, not at all. You are supposed to have left the house already. The telegram I received after tea-time was really addressed to you. At the present moment it is lying on the mantelpiece in your bedroom, and anybody who reads it will come to the conclusion that it indicated danger to yourself, and that you should be in London without delay. Within an hour's time I shall be on my way to the station, made up to look as much like you as possible, and my own chauffeur will drive me there under the impression that he is driving you. I shall take a first-class ticket to town, and I shall be seen to enter the train, but as it is only a single line here, I shall quietly creep out from the other side, and in an hour's time I shall be back again. That will dispose of you. And you've only got yourself to blame. You deliberately chose to pit yourself against me."
"It was foolish, wasn't it?" Edenbridge said drily. "But I've enjoyed it, and I don't regret the fact at all. However, there are flaws in even such a perfect skill as yours. Now, I take it that you are going to put me to all this inconvenience, not to say danger, so that I can be kept out of the way till you have negotiated your little matter with Mr. Canning and cashed his cheque. At the end of four days you ought not only to have done this, but you ought to have reached a place of safety. I see you follow me now. And now I am coming to the first flaw in that little scheme of yours. Mr. Canning is quite prepared to pay the price you ask for the Reynolds, but being a business man, he declines to part with his cheque till a well-known expert has reported favourably. Is not that so?"
"The point is conceded," Denham-Carter said.
"Very well, then. Now I am going to tell you something. It so happens that my grandfather was a great spendthrift, He had many ways of raising money, and one of them was by selling the family pictures. Amongst these pictures he disposed of the Reynolds which is the cause of our present little argument. He sold the picture, and to prevent awkward questions by Courts of Chancery and trustees and other painfully suspicious people, he had a copy of it made by a clever artist, for which he paid a sum of five hundred pounds. My grandfather was a cynical old man, and he kept the receipt for the double purpose of showing his sense of humour and preventing complications later on. You see what I mean, Mr. Carter. And if you don't believe what I say, you will find the very evidence in this room. I will procure it for you if you like. It is in the bottom drawer of that quaint, old secretaire over yonder, which opens by means of a concealed spring. But perhaps you would like to see for yourself.... There, now, there's no getting away from that, is there? Then, if that doesn't satisfy you, I will produce the letters which passed between my grandfather and the man who bought the original Reynolds. Now, come, Mr. Carter, you are a man with a brilliant and original mind, and you would be one of the first to admit that this is a serious flaw in your little scheme. Of course you might murder me and burn these documents, and I know you are perfectly ready and willing to do it. But, really, would it be worth while? You would gain nothing by such an unnecessary risk. Yon see, you can't deceive the real picture expert. He would be certain to pronounce the picture a forgery, and therefore your chances of getting Mr. Canning's cheque would be remote. You will fail to gain anything by all your cleverness. And if you do cause me any further inconvenience, then I promise you, when I am free, I will hunt you from one end of the world to the other. In the language that you are fond of using in your circles, the game is up, Mr. Carter."
The easy smile faded away from Denham-Carter's face. He turned the faded yellow papers over in his hand and examined them carefully. There was no doubt in his mind that they were absolutely genuine, and there was no doubt in his mind either that Edenbridge was presenting a perfectly unanswerable case. Denham-Carter picked up the revolver from the table and dropped it into his pocket.
"I give you best," he said. "You have been too many for me, and I always know when I am beaten. It would be folly on my part to push this thing any further if you are ready to make terms."
"Oh, I don't mind," Edenbridge said. "You're an infamous rascal, and I ought to prosecute you, but I have had a lot of fun out of this thing, and I am not disposed to be hard. Unlock that door. That's the first condition."
Denham-Carter unlocked the door calmly. It was a sign of a complete and absolute surrender.
"That will do," Edenbridge said. "Now you can go and tell your charming partner exactly what has happened. And you are not to see any of your guests again, mind. You and Mrs. Carter will go to London by the first train to-morrow morning, and the rest you may leave to me. Now go. Go straight to your own room and stay there. I think that's all."
* * * * *
"It seems to me that I am under an obligation to you," Mr. Canning said. "At any rate, you may have saved me the loss of a good deal of money. Picture experts are not always right, you know. Sometimes they err."
"They wouldn't have done so in this case," Edenbridge laughed, "because the picture is perfectly genuine. I didn't tell Denham-Carter so, for obvious reasons. I proved to him beyond a demonstration that my grandfather sold the picture and had a copy painted, but I didn't tell him that when the trustees found it out, they compelled my grandfather to buy the Reynolds back again. You see, I forgot that."
"How perfectly splendid!" Flora Canning cried. "How clever of you! But I suppose now that you won't part with the picture?"
"I expect not," Canning said regretfully.
"Oh, I think we shall be able to come to an understanding," Edenbridge laughed. "There is more than one way of managing this kind of thing. For instance, we might make an exchange."
Canning looked inquiringly at the speaker. He did not seem quite to follow, but obviously Flora did, for she looked down at her feet and a little colour crept into her cheeks.
"Perhaps I had better explain," Edenbridge said. "Now, suppose you take the picture and I take the copy. You are bound to admit that when your daughter came into the world, Nature obviously copied her from Reynolds. And, in any case, an arrangement like this will keep the picture in the family, and when you are away in Philadelphia, you will have the consolation—"
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Canning asked.
"Indeed, I hope so," Edenbridge said quietly. "We will leave it to Flora to decide."
"It seems a good arrangement." Flora said demurely. "And dad will get his shooting at Morton Dene, after all."