COLONEL LEWIS FABER sat deep down in his big library chair trying to steel himself against the blow that fate had dealt him in the shape of the big man who stood with his back to the great carved chimney-piece and spoke as if Angles belonged to him. And the bitter truth was that the thing was practically true.
That is to say that the big man with the straggling beard, ill-kept hair and bloodshot eyes was the Colonel's only son whom he had deemed to be dead and buried ten long years ago. And glad to know that such was the case. Because Dick Faber had utterly disgraced the family name, leaving the country hurriedly lest he might have figured in the dock. A young man, thorough bad, with no redeeming features, one who had broken his mother's heart and sent her to a premature grave.
And here he was back again on Christmas Eve of all days in the year to claim his inheritance seeing that the the Angles estates were entailed, and, however vile the Colonel's successor was, the property would be his some day.
He was dead and had come back to life again after the lapse of something like thirty years despite the fact that the father had had proof in chapter and verse from distant Alaska that his son was dead, murdered, in that distant land. And Lewis Faber had been thankful to hear it.
The prodigal had changed beyond recognition. The handsome youth of thirty years ago had grown into the dissipated figure of a mere roadster and wandering vagabond leaving no trace of his early manhood behind him. But for the fact that he seemed to remember the grand old house and intimate things connected with it, the Colonel would have had no hesitation in proclaiming him to be no more than some impudent impostor.
"There isn't any way of getting over it, governor," the prodigal was saying. "Sorry to upset your arrangements and all that, but fair's fair even if I am a real wrong 'un. Which I ain't denying. O' course I can't prevent you leaving, mother's money to this young George Faber and his little missis to be, but all the property must come to me some day and there's no two ways about that. And mind this, old sport—I 'aven't come back with bulging pockets."
"Why did you come back at all?" the tortured Colonel asked with a bitter glance. "Wasn't it enough to drag the name down in the mud, as you did thirty years ago? My time has nearly come and you might have waited till then, the more so as you now tell me you have no means of your own."
"But I shall 'ave," the derelict boasted. He had few aspirates, the Colonel noticed. Forgotten long ago, probably. "Only I, well, there's no occasion to go into that. Thought I was murdered didn't you? Well, I was left for dead after that row I 'ad with Big Dronson. Over a lot of pelts, that was. Great stuff and worth a packet. Then One Tooth—a half breed—found me in the snow and nursed me sound again."
"I know," the Colonel said wearily. "You wrote and told your poor mother about that. Not that she showed me the letter. It was not supposed that you were in correspondence with her. Then came the news that, after all, you had succumbed to long exposure in the snow and the cold. Now what are you going to do? Some day you will be master of Angles, but not yet. I am not going to have you here."
"What! Not on Christmas Eve or to-morrow?"
The Colonel seemed to hesitate. A day or so mattered little. The Christmas tradition was strong in him. And besides, the servants knew pretty well everything by this time.
"Let it pass," he said. "But not after to-morrow. Do you propose to sit down to dinner this evening in those—er—rags? Perhaps Jarvis can dig you out a suit."
"All the same to me," the intruder growled.
He turned away and slouched out of the room. The Colonel sighed deeply as he rose and drew the heavy curtains so as to shut out the fading daylight with its leaden sky. A few feathers of snow were floating down-wards, but the impending fall would not be yet.
What would the end be? Lewis Faber asked himself. And why had this affliction fallen on him? The evidence of his wretched son's death had been so marked and conclusive that there had been no doubt about it for a moment. And this evidence had come to hand long after the story of the half-breed, hero of the rescue, had reached England through Dick Faber's letter to his mother. The letter which the Colonel had never seen, and which he was supposed to know nothing about.
And where would Elsie Warren and his nephew George Faber come in now. Elsie was a sort of adopted daughter and the apple of the Colonel's eye these ten years past. And George Faber, son of his dead brother and apparently heir to Angles—a young man calculated to uphold the honour and fortunes of the house. Those two were going to be married early in the new year, but the advent of the prodigal had put an end to all that or at least delayed it for some years. How would Elsie take it?
It was just at that moment when Elsie came into the room. A subdued and saddened Elsie far from the bright spirit and beauty who had helped all these years to make Angles the cheerful habitation it had been—till that very morning.
"Sit down, my dear," the Colonel murmured. "I have just been... No escaping from it, I fear. It looks as if Dick's mother knew that he was alive when we, yes, hoped, that he was dead. I never saw the letter——"
"I did," Elsie explained. "Just before Auntie died she gave me Dick's letters to read—all of them. I was to take care of them and I have. Not to show them to you unless you asked or made any inquiries. I have just been reading them again. Dear uncle, please don't worry about George and myself. It will all come right in the end. We are both young and..."
A GHASTLY Christmas Eve and a dinner suggesting that somewhere a corpse was lying in the room. The Colonel hardly speaking a word, Elsie trying to be cheerful and the derelict growing more noisy and boastful as he tossed off the wine which he never passed. And George Faber watching and wondering how it was possible that this vulgar ruffian, with his coarse speech and illiterate vocabulary had ever been educated in a famous public school. An evening never to be forgotten and never seeming to come to an end. Then, finally, Dick Faber rose unsteadily to his feet and made for the door. He leered at the others evilly.
"I'm going to bed," he said thickly. "Ask Jarvis to put a pair of slippers in my room—I've got nothing beyond the boots that I stand up in, governor."
He was gone, and the cloud seemed to lift as he went. But it was late now and, any way, the evening was spoilt.
"Is it snowing yet?" the Colonel asked absently.
"Just beginning, sir," George Faber replied. "Not heavy yet, but likely to be towards morning."
The conversation flagged and died so that the trio in the dining room welcomed the suggestion of bed. With every prospect of another dreadful day on the morrow. At least George Faber told himself as he made for his room. Not that he hoped to sleep for that seemed to be out of the question. He made up his fire anew and sat before it thinking deeply. He could hear the soft tinkle of snow on the windows and, down below, the clock proclaiming the hour after midnight. All else quiet as the grave.
And then a sound somewhere on the ground floor. A sound as if someone was hitting an object with some heavy weapon which was muffled by a cloth.
George scrambled out of bed and hastily dressed. Beyond a doubt, somebody was down there in the library. Within five minutes George was creeping down the stairs and into the room from whence the tappings proceeded. Somebody was at work there; some intruder kneeling before the rather ancient safe in which the Colonel kept some of his valuables, including a considerable sum of money with which to cover the festive season.
A masked figure, with what appeared to be a pair of rough stockings drawn over his boots. Without waiting for a moment, George flung himself upon the intruder and bore him backwards. But the advantage was short.
The thief recovered himself immediately. He was on his feet so swiftly that even his mask was not disturbed. In point of physique, the odds were all on his side. George just avoided a smashing blow, and made for the door with a view to giving the alarm. With a muttered oath the burglar dashed for the low french window, and drawing back the catch flung open the one half and vanished into the night. Nothing daunted, George followed. But his man had vanished into the darkness and was seen no more. An inch or so of snow had fallen within the last hour or so, but had ceased now, and George could see the beginning of a series of footsteps printed on the white sheet.
Pursuit, however, seemed to be hopeless. It only remained now to rouse the household and ascertain what had been removed from the safe, which the burglar had contrived to open and from whence he probably had looted the paper money and other valuables.
Apparently George's cry for assistance which he had uttered as he reached the library door had not been heard, so that he was fain to rouse the Colonel and tell him what had happened.
"All right, I'll come down," he said. "No occasion to wake anybody else. Pass me that dressing gown."
The safe door stood open and the Colonel looked in.
"Um, money all gone," he muttered. "And a gold cigar case. Nothing else, apparently. This is the first time I ever regretted the absence of a telephone here. We can do nothing till morning, George, so let's go back to bed."
CHRISTMAS morning; and a perfect day with brilliant sunshine and the whole countryside under a thin mantle of glittering snow. Breakfast time in the smaller dining-room with the Colonel and Elsie and George gathered there. No sign of the prodigal son for whose absence there was little regret. And not a happy Christmas morn as it had been but a year ago.
"Ought not we to do something about last night's affair?" Elsie broke the silence at length. "The footprints of the burglar are printed in the snow from the library window just as if they had been painted there. Evidently he forgot all about the snow. George says he had stockings over his——"
"On second thoughts," George interrupted, "I am inclined to think I was mistaken. More like grey tennis shoes. I am the more convinced of this because when I was looking for clues in the garden two hours ago I actually found an old tennis shoe or slipper. The thief lost that in his flight, and probably the other somewhere else. If you ask me——"
Jarvis came silently into the breakfast room.
"Sergeant Bruford would like to speak to you, sir," he said to the Colonel. "Something to do with last night, sir."
The man of the law had quite a lot to say.
"I was on duty last night, sir," he began. "Between the hours of 12 and six this morning. About one o'clock I was passing along the Park footpath when I saw a man emerge from Angles rose garden and run like a hare towards the river. He came straight into my arms, as one might say, and I made out that he was barefooted. Much later on I found a sort of tennis shoe in the man's tracks—but that is not the point sir. So, after a bit of a struggle, I arrested my gentleman and took him to the village lock-up. When I searched him I found a lot of money in notes and a gold cigar case bearing your initials, sir."
The Colonel turned hurriedly to George. "Run upstairs and see if my—Dick is in his room," he directed. "Something is very wrong here."
"So I think, sir," the policeman said. "Why, the man in question actually had the nerve to say that he was your son, sir. And staying here."
The Colonel's abject misery was plainly apparent.
"More or less true, officer," he murmured. "Though why he should play the burglar in what is practically his own house passes my comprehension."
"A pressing need of money," Elsie suggested.
"More than possible," the Colonel agreed. "We have long thought him to be dead, Bruford. But, of course, you know all about that shameful story."
Bruford made no attempt to conceal his surprise.
"Then I have your son in my custody," he exclaimed. "Of course, if you wish to withdraw the charge——"
"I must," the Colonel said miserably. "Well, George?"
"He's not there, Uncle. Bed not slept in."
IT was all wrong, of course, but in the afternoon the prodigal son swaggered in with no hint of repentance. He had wanted money which he had expected to be denied him, and had taken an easy way of replenishing his empty pockets. Only luck was against him, and so he had fled the house with the plunder in his pocket hoping to regain his bedroom when the hue and cry was over. The rest was no more than a piece of pure bad luck. To all of that the Colonel listened in abject misery.
"And this is a son of mine," the old man cried. "A son with no shame in him."
George Faber looked up from a letter he had been reading and which had been handed to him by Elsie. Then he turned to the prodigal and directly addressed him.
"Would you mind answering a question or two?" he asked.
"A million if you like," the other shrugged.
"Thanks. You remember a letter you wrote your mother some ten years ago after you were left for dead in Alaska and rescued by a half-breed Indian? You do? Good. Because I hold that letter in my hand. Do you recognise it as genuine?"
"Why should I deny it?" the other shouted after he had merely glanced at the handwriting.
"Good again," George went on. "This letter was handed to me just now by Elsie after we had made a most important discovery. She had it from Mrs. Faber with others not long before that lady died. And, most fortunately has preserved them over since. If that letter is yours——"
"Who doubts it?" the prodigal said truculently. "Not me."
"I do," George said, quietly. "Moreover, the late Mrs. Faber was not your mother. No need to shout, I am going to prove what I say. In this vital letter from the real Dick Faber to his mother, he says that he did not escape unhurt altogether from his long exposure in the snow. On the contrary, he lost all the toes on his left foot from frostbite. A small thing, but fatal to your case. If you like to show us——"
An oath broke from the prodigal's lips.
"No need for that," George went on. "The footprints you left last night, when you ran into the arms of a local policeman after I had alarmed you, are plain as daylight for anybody to see. Cross over to the window and look for yourself. They are those of a man who has suffered no injury. No doubt you know Dick Faber well and learnt how to impersonate him much as the famous Claimant did in the Tichborne case. Out of your own mouth you are convicted. If it is necessary to call the police——"
"No animosity," the stranger grinned, as he walked out of the room. "And a merry Christmas."
"And it shall be," the Colonel smiled. "Thank God."