THE GREAT DOORS clanged behind Inchcliffe, he heard the quick flick of the lock for the last time. His watch was in his pocket, and the little pile of gold sovereigns in the gold box; here was his cigarette-case half-filled, and matches in the little receptacle Hilda had given him the day before they were married.
Considering the time the cigarettes had been in the case they were not bad. He looked all right, of course; neat grey suit, symmetrical crease ending in a patent leather boot, clean linen and snowy collar and a beautiful bow in front of it. He would have passed in the Park all right—but he was not going there.
With his sentence—a just and proper sentence, too—social life was ended. But there can be no romance of this kind without a woman in the case. And the woman was lacking. Inchcliffe had emerged from the prison gates absolutely certain of seeing her—and, behold! she had not come. It was all the more amazing because the woman he had expected was his wife.
She had got off more lightly than he. Her sentence had been merely one of six months in the second division.
Of course, society was properly shocked when Hilda Inchcliffe stole the famous Lashmar necklace. It was such an impudent theft, brazened out till the last minute. It had been a cowardly thing, after Hilda Inchcliffe's arrest, for her husband to fly off to Paris and there hide himself for six months until his ready money had given out, and he had to give himself and the necklace up to the police.
Nor did Hilda Inchcliffe's line of defence tend to improve matters. She stoutly protested that Alice Lashmar, her cousin, had made her a present of the necklace. She had gone round to Miss Lashmar's house in Wilton-avenue, and asked for assistance.
And Miss Lashmar had given her the jewels. She swore to the day and the hour when this had taken place. And Miss Lashmar had had no difficulty in proving that at the hour in question she was somewhere else. Beyond all question Hilda Inchcliffe had called in the absence of her cousin, and had deliberately stolen the necklace.
Why had not Hilda met him as he had written and asked her? There were many things in connection with the story that she did not know. From the moment of his arrest until the day of their sentence he had not had a single hour with his wife. And now she had failed to keep his appointment.
He was more deeply hurt and disappointed than he cared to admit. He had been passionately in love with his wife; he had married her with little means and no prospects, and her extravagance had ruined him. The story that the necklace had been given to Hilda he had not at the time believed. It had been a terrible shock to him. For her sake he lost his head—lost his head and behaved like an idiot, or so people said. But, later on, during the weeks of seclusion in Paris, he began to see things. He saw more in the course of the trial, so that in time in the prison yonder he smiled to himself as if something did not displease him. He had kissed his wife as she disappeared from the dock. Then, like the man that he really was, stiffened his lip for his punishment.
Hilda was not coming, evidently. He would go and find out what had become of her. It was not a pleasant task, that ringing of bells outside West End houses and asking questions of smug, supercilious footmen, who recognised him for the most part. There were others who recognised him also—women with noses uptilted and men with a steely gleam in their eyes.
He found a man at last with the desired information. The man was coming down the steps of his own house.
"Your wife's with Miss Lashmar," he said, throatily. "Good-day."
Inchcliffe reeled down the steps into the road. "Poor little soul!" he muttered. "Poor little girl! The refined cruelty of it! But not for long."
He turned his steps towards Wilton-avenue. The footman who came to the door recognised him; his, eyes half-closed as he sang nasally that Miss Lashmar was not at home.
"Very well, then, so much the better. Where is my wife? Upstairs in the drawing-room? I'll announce myself."
Up the marble stairs, on the thick pile of the carpet, Inchcliffe made his way. The luxury and splendour of it oppressed him. He could still hear the clicking of the keys and the rattle of the locks. All this, more besides, belonged to Alice Lashmar. As a matter of fact, it should all have been Hilda's. That doddering old uncle of hers had always told her that he intended everything for her. She had lived with him as his daughter, and he had told her that he had made a will in her favour, and that will could not be found, and the brother's daughter had taken everything. If Inchcliffe had any suspicion, he kept it to himself. He had not married Hilda for her money. He had married her without a penny, and without heed for the future.
She was sitting all alone in the window with a book in her hand. But she was not reading. She was gazing out of the window sorrowfully and tearfully. She turned as the door opened, and a little cry escaped her. She staggered across the room into Inchcliffe's arms. He could feel her slender frame shaking from head to foot with sobs, her heart was beating to suffocation. She seemed to be struggling for her breath as Inchcliffe held her and soothed her tenderly.
"You are glad to see me again, darling?" he asked.
"Oh, Hughie, If you only knew how much!"
"You did not feel up to coming to meet me, then? You got my letter?"
"I have had no letter lately, Hugh. I have been expecting to hear from you for a week."
Inchcliffe's face grew a little more hard and stern. He dropped down on a sofa and drew the pretty little woman on his knee. "We'll get out of the tangle presently," he said. "Will Alice be away long?"
"All the afternoon, I expect. She is lunching at the Russian Embassy. When I came here a month ago—"
"But, my dearest girl, how did you get here at all? With Alice Lashmar, of all people, after your protesting that she gave you the necklace! Why, it's an admission of guilt."
Hilda's lips trembled again, and tears came into her eyes. "I am past thinking of that," she said. "Nobody seemed to want me. I was not asked to stay anywhere more than a week. And then as a favour. Then Alice Lashmar took pity on me. Alice is supposed to have behaved very kindly and generously to me. And I hate her, hate her, hate her!"
Inchcliffe smoothed the pretty fair hair, and kissed the pretty trembling lips.
"We will come to all that presently," he said. "You still stick to the story of the necklace? You still protest that Alice Lashmar made you a present of it? It is a pretty thin story, Hilda."
"Oh, I know it, Hugh. And Alice did not have the least difficulty in proving that she was somewhere else at the same time. But it's true, Hugh, it's true. I don't know how she managed it, but it's as true as Heaven. But why did she play this trick on me?"
"As well ask why you behaved so foolishly in the pawnshop, dear?"
"I lost my head there, Hugh—as you lost yours afterwards."
Inchcliffe made no attempt to refute the charge. There was a grim smile on his face.
"We will get to all that presently," he said. "It's no use kicking against the pricks, little woman."
"If I had not been so terribly extravagant, Hugh—"
"No use to talk about that either. You were shockingly extravagant, and there's an end of it. You went to Alice, who had all the money that should have been yours, and asked for assistance. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for, and she took it with both hands."
"But, Hugh, there was no occasion for her to hurt me."
"Well, we shall come to that in good time," Inchcliffe went on. "I began to see things in Paris, and pieced the whole puzzle together till it was plain as a picture. We are the sport of circumstances, sweetheart. We shall never convince the world that we are innocent. We are guilty to them, and we must make the best of it. But life is not over for us, and we are not going down and under. And we are not grovelling on our knees to beg money from our relatives. We are about to start again in the Gulf of Florida, and we are leaving with a fortune in our pockets. No one will know where that fortune came from, and that will be our little comedy."
"But where is the money coming from, Hughie? Are you sure that we are not likely to be disappointed at the last moment?"
"We are victims," he said. "Outcasts. It's all very well for the smug armchair religionists to preach platitudes. We can be happy and comfortable if we like, or we can take the martyr's crown and crust thereof. And the martyr's crown would be grudged because society would say that we have no right to the part. When Alice Lashmar comes back—"
"Oh, she will not be back yet. She is dining to-night at the Railton with Oldban—"
"Oldban, so he is the man! Dear, old, solemn, good-natured Oldban! The one man who wrote to me yonder and offered me assistance. Hilda, we will go and dine at the Railton also."
"My dear boy! I haven't been seen in public; and, besides, consider what people will say."
"My dear girl, can they say anything fresh? Hilda, I have set my heart on this thing. You are going to see another act in the drama. You are about to learn what I discovered in prison, and Alice Lashmar must know the truth. Now pack up your belongings and send them to my old rooms in Graham-place. I am returning there to-night, and you will accompany me."
"But, Hugh," Hilda protested, "you said just now that I had better stay here a little bit longer—"
"I know I did. But I have changed my mind. The knowledge that Alice is dining at the Railton to-night has given me an idea. The Railton is never crowded at this time of year. And I should not be surprised to find that we are at the next table to Alice and her companion. Get out some evening things and a wrap, and meet me is the vestibule of the hotel at eight o'clock. Here's a sovereign; it will last you for the moment. Tell Alice that I have been here, and that you are coming back to me at once. Now, don't ask any questions, and you will see what you will see."
"Very well," Hilda answered. "I will be there to meet you. But I know that I shall die of shame. I shall sink through the floor, Hughie. Everybody will be looking at us."
"Not they! You will be glad afterwards. And before a week has passed we shall be on our way out of England. Everything is arranged, the house taken and furnished. We shall be free and happy and have money to spend. And I shall have a genial occupation. It's well worth an effort, as you will see presently."
"I'll make it," Hilda smiled. "Hugh, what will Alice say?"
Inchcliffe shrugged his shoulders. Really it mattered nothing what Alice Lashmar thought. He walked along presently with his head in the air. He was seeking no favour of any man; he was going out to an ideal life with his dear little wife by his side. He turned into the dining-room of the Railton and interviewed the head waiter. He was not known here, and consequently not identified. He would like to see a plan of the tables, and wanted seats for two. He ran his eye swiftly over the card, and a look of satisfaction appeared on his face. Here was the corner where the Marquess of Oldban was dining, and in the same angle another table was vacant. Inchcliffe scribbled his initials on the card, and strolled out well satisfied.
"Is it quite fair?" he asked himself. "She's but a woman after all. Still, my wife is another. And I don't think many men could resist such a glorious revenge as this."
The dining-room contained no more than a sprinkling of guests as Inchcliffe and his wife made their way across the dining room to their table. Nobody appeared to recognise them as they took their seats. A waiter buzzed about them fussily. They settled down to the soup, Hilda looking about her nervously. She gave a start presently, and a wave of colour swept over her face.
"They are coming," she whispered. "What is going to happen? What is it that you want me to do?"
"Nothing," Inchcliffe responded. "Yours is the policy of masterly inactivity. Leave the talking to me, and rest at your ease. Ah, Oldban has spotted us. I hope he won't want to speak."
A young man with a dull, good-natured face and an inevitable eye-glass, started and half stopped. He appeared as if about to hold out his hand, but Inchcliffe bowed coldly and turned away. Hilda watched timidly from under the fringe of her lashes. She saw Oldban colour awkwardly, she saw the haughty disdain on Alice Lashmar's face. Yet that face was very white, and the woman's lips quivered strangely for a moment.
"Hugh," Hilda whispered, breathlessly. "How blind I have been! I have discovered something that I never dreamt of—"
"Really! Ah, you will find out something else before long. Now go on with your dinner. Let us have 40 min. of the commonplace before the curtain goes up on the drama."
The meal drew to an end at length, coffee and liqueur and cigarettes had appeared. The people at the next table were very silent; but then Oldban was always silent.
"The victims of circumstance, no doubt," Inchcliffe said, as if continuing a conversation. Every word could be heard at the next table. "But what could any one do in such a case? It was very hard upon your girl friend, because she could not know how much her cousin hated her. Did you never guess the reason for all this hatred? Did you—I mean, your girl friend—ever ask herself that question?"
"I don't think she imagined that there was any hatred," Hilda said, in a bewildered way. "I don't think—"
"Oh, yes, there was. You—I mean your girl friend—had everything—the prospect of a large fortune, a man who loves you—I mean her. And the other woman was in love with the other man."
"You!" Hilda cried. "Is it possible that—"
"My dear, you are attracting attention," Hugh went on, coldly. "No use getting excited over a mere story. I say that the other woman loved the man and let him see it. I don't think he was more conceited than most men, and therefore he couldn't help understanding. There was one rather painful scene—but no matter. Anyhow, she knew that the man wouldn't tell tales out of school, and he didn't. Then there came a time when you—I mean the girl friend—lost all her money, and it went to the other girl, every penny of it. And the other girl wanted to know if the man still wished to marry the first girl, because—well, it's like a story in a book, isn't it? And the man said he would marry you—I mean your girl friend—if she hadn't a copper. And, as a matter of fact, he did."
"I think," came a clear, hard voice from the other table, "that we had better be moving on, Lord Oldban."
"And I think," Oldban said, in a curiously-strained voice, "that I should like to remain a bit longer. Put you in a cab and all that, if you like, Miss Lashmar."
A glass tinkled on the adjoining table, rolled over, and dropped in a thousand fragments upon the floor.
"It's a very interesting story, Hugh," Hilda said, her cheeks flooded with crimson. "Very interesting."
"Yes isn't it? Well, the man married the girl, and that appeared to be the end of it. But the man and the girl were terribly extravagant, and there came a time when they were in dire straits for the need of money. It was only natural that the young wife should go to the other girl who had deprived her of a great fortune and ask for assistance. And there was nothing marvellous in the fact that the assistance was forthcoming. The second girl had no ready money, but she had jewels—gems which by right really belonged to the young wife—and these were passed on to her. This was the first step in the scheme of vengeance."
"But why was it necessary, Hugh?"
"Because, my dear, we have it on the word of the poet that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She knew that your friend would try and raise money on the necklace, and she did. The little girl was not used to that sort of thing, and she made rather a hash of things. Questions were asked, and subsequently the second girl swore that her young friend had stolen the necklace. The young wife declared how on a certain date she had visited the house of the other girl—by the way, shall we call her Alice?"
Hilda nodded. She was dying to steal a glance at the adjoining table, but she dared not for the moment.
"Alice proved that she could not have been present when the alleged interview took place, for she was somewhere else at the time, and, moreover, was suffering from a sprained ankle. Despite that, she was at a garden party, where scores of people saw her. But this was just the very occasion when she was able to slip out and get home with no one any the wiser. The sprained ankle was a sham. And that is how the thing was done."
There was a rustle and a movement at the next table. Alice Lashmar moved slowly towards the door. Her face was white and set, and her eyes gleamed wrathfully.
"You will see me home, Lord Oldban?" she asked.
"I will see you as far as your cab, Miss Lashmar," Oldban said, in the same curiously wooden voice. "There are some old friends of mine that I should very much like to speak to."
Inchcliffe jumped to his feet as the other two vanished. "Here, pay the bill out of that, waiter," he said. "Keep the change. Let's get out of this by the Stannard-street entrance, Hilda. I don't want Oldban back here just now. We've had a pretty innings, and I've spoilt Alice's little game so far as his Lordship is concerned. But nothing can be gained by stirring up the old scandal. Any way, you know now why Alice behaved in that vile way over the necklace."
Hilda was very silent and thoughtful as the cab proceeded in the direction of Inchcliffe's old lodgings. They were plain enough in their way, but they suggested home, and, at any rate, she and Hugh were together. There were tears of happiness in her eyes as she removed her wraps and deposited then in her bedroom. Here were all her belongings, the brushes and trinkets and silver articles, set out on the toilet table. She came back to the sitting-room presently, and smiled as Hugh took her in his arms and kissed her.
"You haven't quite finished your story yet?" she asked.
"Not quite, sweetheart. You see, when you said that that necklace had been given to you, I naturally believed every word that you said. And when Alice behaved so shamefully I knew exactly what was her motive. But for that vile trick of hers I should never have told you that she tried to get me away from you. And we were both helpless. We were bound to suffer. No one would have believed us, and we should have been left to face the world without resource, save what our relatives flung at us as contemptuous charity. When the police were after you I took the necklace, and tried to raise money on it. Or, rather, I pretended to try. I knew that we were both done, and that we were bound to suffer. You see, appearances were too terribly against us. And yet, in common equity and common honesty, that necklace belonged to you.
"I made up my mind what to do. I saw Ashley, and he let me have a thousand pounds. I bolted off to Paris with the necklace, and hid myself there; but I was hiding with a purpose all those months, and I was not wasting my time. When I was ready I came back to England, and surrendered myself to the police."
"And returned the necklace. Hugh?"
Inchcliffe smiled as he turned back a corner of the carpet and pulled up a board. From a little cavity there he produced a shabby leather case, and asked Hilda to open it. As she did so a cry escaped her, and she staggered back in amazement.
"The necklace!" she gasped. "And yet only a day or two ago Alice wore it at the Opera."
"No; merely a clever imitation. I had it copied in Paris, and paid a thousand pounds for it. I felt sure that no questions would be asked when the counterfeit was handed over, and I have been quite justified by events. Now, look here, Hilda, I am not going into the morality of the thing. The necklace was given to you, and there is no reason to inquire why. Besides, no one would believe the story, though you could see for yourself how it impressed Oldban. I worked out the thing cynically and coldly, with the full intention of providing for our future. I did not see my way to cadging on my knees for a few hundred pounds to take us abroad. I daresay I shall get the bitter taste out of my mouth in time, and I know I can sell those stones for thirty thousand pounds if I am careful. Perhaps later on, when we have made our fortune in Florida, I may possibly see my way. But even then—"