THOUGH there was a smile on the girl's face, there was something like despair in her heart. It was not the kind of setting either, that one associates with misery or unhappiness, for on every side was evidence of wealth and luxury and extravagance. As a matter of fact, Evelyn Drayton reproached herself with being there at all. Why had she consented, she wondered, to give the light of her countenance to people of this class? Perhaps it was because she was good-natured; perhaps it was because she had not liked to say no. At the same time, she knew perfectly well why she had come. She had not seen Cecil Burt lately, and besides, she had heard certain strange rumours as to the financial status of himself, and his partner, George Lester. They were known to be a somewhat audacious firm. They were quite up-to-date in their methods, and prepared to take risks at which a more old-fashioned house would have held up its hands in horror. But, then, they were both well-known sportsmen, and the commercial world generally was getting accustomed to their dashing habits.
It did not matter so much so far as Lester was concerned, for he had a rich old father behind him who would have seen that his son came to no harm. With Cecil Burt, however, the case was different. If anything happened to him he would have to stand or fall on the merits of the case. There was no one likely to come forward and give him a helping hand in case of disaster. There was one, but Cecil Burt did not dream that she was interested in his welfare, and, for her own reason, Mrs. Cranleigh did not want him to know. The lady in question was a widow of considerable means, unconventional enough, and a thorough Bohemian in her ways and habits. She was rich and fond enough of Cecil Burt, to whom she had decided upon leaving her entire wealth when she had done with it. But this was a secret known only to herself and Evelyn Drayton, and to the man who had made the volatile old lady's will. As a matter of fact, this man was George Lester, for Lester and Burt were partners as solicitors, and Lester's father was by way of being one of Mrs. Cranleigh's oldest friends. The matter was a profound secret, and Mrs. Cranleigh had extracted a promise from Lester that his partner should never know how Mrs. Cranleigh's money was to be disposed of.
This is exactly how matters stood as Evelyn Drayton sat there at that interminable evening party, waiting and hoping for a chance to see Burt. The rumours had been more persistent the last day or two; they assumed ominous form now, and Evelyn was terribly anxious. She might not have cared to confess it to herself, but she was very deeply in love with Cecil Burt, and it only needed this trouble on his part to disclose the girl's feelings to herself. Cecil Burt might have been rash and foolish, he might even have been mad enough to speculate with clients' money, but what difference would a fact like that make to a girl where her affections were concerned? She had nothing or little of her own, but she was none the less desirous of finding some way to save Cecil Burt from the disaster which was hanging over him.
Perhaps she was all the more keen on this because she profoundly disliked and distrusted George Lester. She knew perfectly well that the man cared for her; in fact, he made no attempt to disguise his feelings. He knew also that Burt was a successful rival, and Evelyn had a vague uncanny impression that he would not have scruples as to the means of getting Cecil Burt out of the way. And Burt was so rash and headstrong too. He was just the kind of man to carry on the reckless and hazardous game to the last moment, to run his head into the deadly noose, and then, if things failed, to take his own life without a moment's hesitation. More than once, in a half jesting way, he discussed this matter with Evelyn; but there was no jesting about him when he spoke of possible failure. His jaws stiffened then, his eyes had become sombre and serious. Perhaps, to a certain extent, the spirit of prophecy was upon him. At any rate, Evelyn could not shake off the impression of those words. She felt sure enough that Burt had been in deadly earnest.
The matter was with her now as she sat there listening to the frivolous conversation going on about her. Her eyes ached with the glittering gaudiness of it all. Besides, it was getting late now, and it did not look as if Cecil Burt was going to put in an appearance. Evelyn turned away a little sore and disappointed, for she had written an argent note to Cecil Burt saying where she should be that evening and expressing a desire to see him. She would have passed from the drawing room now, only George Lester came in at the same moment and took a seat by her side. There was no mistaking the look of admiration in his eyes and the girl coloured now as she noticed it. She half rose.
"I am just going," she said coldly.
"You wouldn't have been in such a hurry if Burt had been here," Lester replied. "Sit down a moment."
"Perhaps not." The girl took up the challenge boldly and coolly enough. "But then, you see, Cecil is not here. I wrote most particularly to him and asked him to meet me, but I suppose he is otherwise engaged, or he does not think it worth while."
"He always was a fool," Lester said cynically.
"Do you really think so?" the girl asked. "Well, perhaps that is better than being a knave. On second thoughts I won't go just yet. There are one or two things you can tell me. I am going to ask you plain questions, because I am fond of Cecil Burt, and I take a great interest in his welfare. I think you ought to know strange rumours are going about as to your firm. I have heard them freely mentioned lately. People say that you are in trouble, and that--well--that you are using money which is not altogether your own. I give it you for what it is worth, and I sincerely hope that there is no truth in the scandal."
Lester laughed unconcernedly.
"Not so far as I am concerned," he said. "Besides, even if there were, I have my father behind me. Still, one never knows, even in an office like ours. You see, we both have our separate departments, and if Burt were doing anything wrong I should probably be the last to know. Had you not better ask him yourself!"
There was a sneer underlying the question, and Evelyn Drayton resented it accordingly. She checked the impulse which rose to the tip of her tongue, and smiled bravely.
"That is exactly what I am going to do," she said. "But hasn't Cecil Burt any friends at all, no expectations?"
It was Lester's turn now to hesitate. He did so for the fraction of a second, but it was not lost upon the girl by his side.
"So far as I know, none," he said.
There was something in the reply which excited all the girl's worst fears. Professional caution was all very well, but Lester was carrying it a little too far. He might, at any rate, have given her a hint, so Evelyn thought, as to Mrs. Cranleigh's will in Cecil's favour. There was no need to mention any name, but it seemed ominous, to the girl who knew everything, that he was concealing this fact so carefully. And again, he had listened with no sort of anger or impatience to the suggestion that there was anything wrong with his firm. Men of integrity did not usually accept such slander so calmly. In an illogical kind of way it occurred to Evelyn that Lester might be laying a deliberate trap for his partner. The consequences to Lester would be slight, for the simple reason that he had his father behind him. But for Burt they might be very serious indeed. It might mean disgrace, the loss of all social position, and perhaps dishonour in a gaol. There was not the slightest reason why Evelyn should come to these conclusions, but they were gradually being forced upon her. She rose now, almost afraid to continue the conversation, and moved across the room, with Lester by her side. A newcomer, with a face which betrayed excitement, accosted Lester.
"Is it true?" he asked. "I mean is it true what I heard just now about Mrs. Cranleigh? I am told she is dead."
Lester started uneasily. Evelyn Drayton's heart gave a great leap. She checked a sudden feeling of hopelessness of which she was ashamed. But she was only thinking about Burt now. At the same time, she was thinking about Lester, too and the sudden, unexpected embarrassment in his manner.
"How should I know!" he stammered.
"How should you know?" the other man echoed. "Why, you came away from the house with Dr. Bryant. I heard him say so. Of course, if you like to make a mystery about it, I am sorry I spoke." The speaker passed on, apparently in a huff. There was a red flush on Lester's face, and a furtive look in his eyes as he turned to Evelyn. Her manner was cold and self-contained, though inwardly she was burning. All she wanted now was to be alone to think this matter out. If she understood the thing at all Cecil Burt would be free now, there would be nothing to prevent him meeting his engagements. But why did Lester want to keep it secret? Why should he try and disguise from Burt the knowledge that his benefactress was dead. Was it possible that things had reached such an acute state--but Evelyn did not care to think of that.
She would go home at once. She would telegraph Burt to come and see her without delay. It was just possible that she might be able to reach him by means of the telephone. At any rate, she would not rest an evening until she had met the man who was everything to her.
She reached her own rooms at length. She dismissed her maid and drew the curtains close, for it was a chilly evening, and an inviting fire burnt on the hearth. There was a pile of letters on the table, and Evelyn turned them over carelessly. They might keep for the present, she told herself.
She was in no mood now for idle gossip and frivolous feminine correspondence. She turned the letters over contemptuously with her hand, then the colour came into her cheeks and the sparkle to her eyes again.
Here was a letter from Cecil Burt. She wondered what excuse he had to make for not replying to her urgent messages. Her heart beat more joyfully as she tore open the envelope.
But as she read the few words, hastily scrawled upon the sheet of paper, the colour left her cheeks and her heart seemed to stand still. There was no heading or signature. The wild words were quite enough and pregnant with meaning without that.
"You will never see me again," the message ran. "This is the last message I shall write to you or anybody else; for, my dear child, I am ruined beyond hope of recovery, I am dishonoured beyond despair. I have been playing with money belonging to other people, and my speculations have ended in disaster. Lester knows little or nothing about this. I doubt if he would care if he did. He will be all right, for his father will see to him, and Lester knows by this time; in fact, I saw him tonight. Think the best you can of me, and do not forget that with all my faults I loved you with a sincerity and passion beyond all words. I can say no more than this. It is my last word and thought."
THE next hour or two passed for Evelyn Drayton like a dream. There was only one thought uppermost in her mind, and that was that Cecil Burt must be saved. For all her thoughts were in a whirl. She saw one thing steadily and clearly. She was satisfied now that George Lester had been in a position to save this disgrace, to save the loss of life. He had deliberately held his tongue. To all practical purposes he would be guilty of Cecil Burt's murder. And why had he done this? To Evelyn's mind there was no doubt whatever. He had remained silent, knowing that a few hours would see Burt out of the way, and the path rendered smooth and easy for himself. It was a horrible idea, so horrible that Evelyn could have cried aloud when she thought of this black treachery.
But it was useless to sit there brooding and grieving. There was work to be done, and that without delay. Half an hour later Evelyn, closely cloaked and veiled, was making her way towards Burt's lodgings in the faint hope of finding him there. She had heeded nothing of the fact that the streets were now almost deserted, and that more than one belated wayfarer regarded her curiously. What did anything matter so long as the life of the man she loved was in danger. She came presently to her destination, only to be met with disappointment. Burt's discreet manservant raised his eyebrows significantly as he saw his visitor, but he was respectful enough. He had not seen Mr. Burt all day. The latter had said that he was not coming back, but that if anybody wanted him he would be at the office at 10 o'clock tomorrow.
"Are you sure!" Evelyn asked anxiously.
"I think so, miss," the manservant said. "The master promised to do a little thing for me. I don't mind telling you that it is in connexion with an almshouse which my mother is looking for. I have never known master neglect a promise of that kind."
Evelyn thanked the man and went away. After all it was a slender chance, but there was just a certain amount of hope in it. For Cecil Burt was just the kind of man to recollect a promise like that, even in the moment of his darkest despair. Where he was and what he was doing in the meantime Evelyn would have given much to know. It only remained for her now to pass the time as best she could to kill the laden hours till the morning, and then to make her way to Lincoln's Inn, where the offices of Lester and Burt were situated. There was hope yet.
Ten o'clock in the morning found Evelyn in Lincoln's Inn. She walked boldly into the clerk's room and asked for Mr. Burt. At the same moment Lester came out of his own office. He was immaculately dressed, as usual, and self-possessed, but he obviously started at the beautiful vision standing there in his clerk's office. He had evidently caught the question, for he replied to it himself without the slightest hesitation.
"Burt is not here," he said. "Is there any message I can give him? Perhaps you would like to come into my office."
Evelyn glanced at the clerk to whom she had put the question. She saw there was a colour in his face, and that his manner was confused. Evidently it was not in the direction of the office, on the ground-glass door of which the name of Burt was inscribed in black letters. It seemed to her that she could see the shadow of someone looming behind the opaque panels. Then she changed her mind and followed Lester. He waved her to a chair. He sat at his own desk with the tips of his well-manicured fingers pressed together.
"This is all unexpected pleasure," he murmured.
"Is it a pleasure?" Evelyn asked coldly. "I doubt it. You are wondering why I am here, and I will tell you. Last night I had a strange, unaccountable dream which impressed me very much. I thought that some friend of mine had been convicted of a crime of which he was innocent, and that he was going to be hanged this morning. It seemed to me that the proofs of his innocence came into my hands just in time for me to save him. This was a most extraordinary dream, because I found out that the governor of the gaol, who was responsible for the execution, was himself the guilty party. It was my duty to go down to the prison with a reprieve. But when I showed it to the governor in his private office he locked me in there so that I was powerless to do anything till that judicial murder was accomplished. It was a most vivid dream, for I could hear the funeral service being read, and the tolling of the bell. Then I battered my hands upon the door till they were raw and bleeding, and the clamour I was making awoke me. Now, don't you think that was a strange dream for a girl to have?"
"And you came here to tell me this?" Lester asked.
"Amongst other things, yes," Evelyn went on. "But I don't think I should have dreamt that dream but for the fact that I knew that the man I love was in danger. I came here to save Cecil Burt from his own folly and from your treachery."
"Treachery?" Lester said hoarsely; "what do you mean?"
"Oh, don't palter with me," Evelyn cried. "You know what I mean as well as if I had made a deliberate accusation against you. A pretty compliment you paid me. It is, indeed, good to think that a man should care for me so much that he should deliberately murder his own friend so as to clear the ground for himself. I did not think I should ever like to speak to a man in this shameless fashion, but this is no time to play with words and hide oneself behind a false femininity. Why do you shake your head and smile like that? I tell you I know everything, and you know everything, too. You have known for days the desperate position in which Cecil Burt stands. You knew that there was only one thing that could save him. But you never told him what that one thing was--you kept that assiduously to yourself. If you had told him that Mrs. Cranleigh was dying----"
"Mrs. Cranleigh?" Lester echoed. "What has she to do with it?"
"Oh, you seem to forget the fact that she was a great friend of mine, and she told me what you have known for months. Then sooner or later, every penny she possessed would find its way into Cecil Burt's possession. She bound you to secrecy as she bound me, and that secret you had a right to respect. But when Cecil Burt came to you last night and told you how things were, why did you not tell him that there was a means whereby he could have escaped the consequences of his folly and lead a better life in future? You could have informed him that Mrs. Cranleigh was dying, that it was only a question of hours. You could have found him late last night, and let him know that he had come into a fortune which would place him beyond the reach of the law. Oh, it is a horrible thing to speculate thus on a poor woman's death, to rejoice, as it were, that her loss has been another's gain! But, then, we are all human, and such thoughts as these will not be denied. At ten o'clock last night you knew everything. It was after ten when you saw your partner, and he went away with the avowed intention of taking his own life, what time a single word from you would have saved him."
"I didn't know," Lester stammered. "I give you my word----"
"Your word!" Evelyn echoed scornfully. "And what is that worth? A little less than nothing. Ring the bell, and tell your clerk to ask Mr. Burt to come in here at once! And don't let him know that I am here. Oh, I would have spared you this humiliation if I could; but moments are precious, and I am wasting valuable time. You will have to sit there and listen to all that I have to say. You will have to drink the cup to the dregs. How strange it seems! How different is the realisation to one's expectations! At one time I would have scorned the idea of giving my affections to a man who was not the pink of honour and integrity. And here am I prepared to commit something which is not much less than a crime to save a man for whose sake I would gladly die. Perhaps, after all, I am no better than either of you. Perhaps----"
The door opened and the clerk came in. A moment later he disappeared and Burt walked into the room. He staggered back at the sight of Evelyn. He would have retreated had she not darted forward and laid her hand upon his arm. The whole room was spinning round the girl now, a red mist floated before her eyes. But her voice was firm and steady enough as she spoke again presently.
"You wonder why I am here," she said. "I have been looking for you since last night, ever since I received your letter. Let me tell you that our dear old friend Mrs. Cranleigh is dead, and that she has left you the whole of her fortune. Before you wrote me that letter last night you saw Mr. Lester here and told him what you were going to do. He might have informed you then of what he already knew--that you were a rich man, and beyond the reach of all pecuniary troubles. But he had his own peculiar reasons for remaining silent, and I leave you to guess what they were. Heaven knows, I have been through humiliation enough already!"
"For my sake?" Burt asked, with white lips.
"For your sake. Yes, and perhaps for my own also. Why is it that women should never think the less of a man because he has made a false step like this? And yet if, on the other hand, the crime was the woman's--but this is no time for moralising. Ask Mr. Lester if what I say is not strictly true. But there is no occasion to do that because you can read his guilt on his face. Months ago Mrs. Cranleigh told me what she was going to do with her money, but she bound me to secrecy, and I have always respected her wishes. But I knew that your partner knew, because he made the will. At first, for professional reasons, he did not tell you. Later on he concealed his knowledge for reasons which I prefer not to go into. At any rate, he will tell you now that you are free, and that it is only a question of time before you are rid of this hateful business altogether. And now, will you kindly call a cab for me? I have taxed my strength a little more than I can bear."
Lester sat at his desk in moody silence, whilst Burt procured the cab. His face was white and set, but no more so than Evelyn Drayton's features. She held out her hand, which Burt barely touched.
"Come and see me this evening," she said; "I cannot bear to talk of it now, in a detestable atmosphere like this. Oh, you need not be afraid--you are quite forgiven. When a woman passes her heart over to a man she overlooks crime on his part, while she would turn with loathing from another whose indiscretions were far more trivial. And try and recollect that you belong to me now, and that all I have done is for your sake alone. Call me selfish, if you like; perhaps, after all, it is nothing else."
It was about nine o'clock the same evening that Burt called round at Evelyn's rooms. She was seated thoughtfully by the firelight. But for its flickering glow the rest of the room was in darkness. She held out a long, slim hand to her lover. There was an unsteady smile upon her face. He knelt by the side of the low armchair and placed his arms about her shoulders.
"Am I quite forgiven?" he whispered.
"Oh, yes," the girl smiled through her tears. "It is all very weak on my part, and I am not a bit like the heroine I took myself to be. But then, you see, I happen to love you, and that makes all the difference. Still, there is something to be wiped out, something which will take time to forget. It is in your hands, Cecil, and the punishment will be yours if you do not teach me to forget."
"I will try, my dear," the man said, "I will try."