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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

MESSENGER'S MILLION
(THE VAMP)

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Serialized under syndication in, e.g.,
The Teesdale Mercury, Teesdale, England, 1931-1932
The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 1931-1932

Published in book form as "The Vamp,"
T.A. & E. Pemberton, Manchester, 1948

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-09-20
Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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Illustration

"The Vamp" ("Messenger's Million"), T.A. & E. Pemberton, Manchester, 1948


TABLE OF CONTENTS


LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS



CHAPTER 1. — IN THE FOG.

THE eyes of the plump, pink-faced manager of the Great Southern Bank widened as they fell upon the figures on the cheque which young Gilbert Stratton had pushed across the counter.

"ONE hundred and eighty-seven pounds and ten shillings!" he said. "Shelcott's doing well, Gilbert. Has he raised your screw yet?"

"Not he!" returned Gilbert, with a smile that made his square, brown face very attractive. "I'm still drawing three quid a week—and likely to." Tom Horner's lip curled.

"He's a stingy swine." Then a shocked look crossed his genial face, and he looked round quickly to be sure no one else was within hearing. "I oughtn't to have said that," he added quickly. "Especially as Shelcott is one of the bank's best customers."

"Don't worry," grinned Gilbert. "I shan't give you away. But some day I shall probably tell him so myself."

"I shouldn't blame you if you did," said Horner. "Why don't you chuck it, and try for something else?"

"Because I don't want to starve," said Gilbert curtly. "There aren't half a dozen clay pits in the county, and you can bet your boots that Shelcott would take precious good care I didn't get into one of them if I left him." He shrugged his shoulders. "I've just got to carry on, Mr. Horner."

While they talked the manager's fingers were busy counting notes and silver. Most of it was silver, for that was what Shelcott needed for paying his men in the clay works. The money was packed in a canvas bag, and when the whole amount was settled and checked Gilbert picked up the bag. Horner came round the counter and accompanied him to the door.

"Fog on Mist Tor, Gilbert," he said. "You'll have a bad journey, I'm afraid." Gilbert glanced at the thick grey cloud that shrouded the top of the moor.

"I've been in too many fogs to worry about 'em, Mr. Horner. But I'll get on before it grows worse. Good-bye."

"Good-bye. See you next Friday, I suppose?"

"I hope so," smiled Gilbert, as he got on the saddle of his ancient motor bicycle and dumped the bag of money in the side- car. He started up the engine and roared away. Horner watched him go.

"A real good lad," he observed. "And always cheerful. Never seems to realise what a rotten life he leads up there on top of the moor. No society, no amusement, and practically seven days' work a week." He shivered in the raw air of the November afternoon and went back into the bank.

Stout Mr. Horner might have changed his mind had he been able to watch Gilbert's face as he drove his rattling old motor bicycle over the bridge and up the steep hill beyond. The young man's lips were set and his eyes hard. These weekly trips to Taverton were the only break in the deadly monotony of life up at the Carnaby Clay works and he hated going back there as a boy hates going back to school.

In spite of the noise it made, the old bike travelled well, and presently Gilbert was entering the mist cloud, the grey fingers of which were reaching further and further down into the valleys. Here he had to switch on his headlight and drop to lower gear. He came to Slipper Hill and crawled slowly upwards. The road was cut along the side of the steep tor, and above it the hillside was strewn with boulders.

A dark lump loomed up in the misty glare of his headlight. It was a big stone lying in the very middle of the road, and Gilbert stopped at once, and got off. Though he could have passed it easily enough the stone was a death trap for any car or lorry, and in common decency it was up to him to move it. Gilbert was tough as wire; but the rock weighed at least a hundred-weight, and took a deal of shifting. He was breathless by the time he had rolled it into the gutter.

A sound behind him caught his ear, and turning he saw a man bending over the side-car. With a shout he rushed at him, but before he could reach him the man had grabbed the bag and was racing away down hill.


Illustration

He saw a man bending over the side-car.


The mist was so thick that Gilbert could barely see the flying figure ahead; but he kept hard after him, and began to gain. Suddenly the man stopped, swung round, and his right hand flashed out. A small bag of pepper struck Gilbert full in the face and burst, filling his eyes and mouth. As he staggered back half choked and completely blinded, he heard a mocking laugh, then the quick rattle of boot soles on the hard road as the thief raced away.

While Gilbert stood gasping, trying in vain to clear the stinging powder from his eyes, he became aware of another sound, a quick click of shod hoofs.

"Hullo, what's up?" came a man's voice.

"A thief. He's got my bag of money," Gilbert managed to answer.

"Where did he go?"

"Straight down the hill."

"What's he done to you? What's the matter with your face?"

"Pepper—but don't mind me. Catch him if you can. He's got nearly two hundred pounds."

"Pepper—what a swine! There's water by the roadside. Here, let me lead you."

"Don't bother about me," said Gilbert sharply. "Get the thief."

"Don't worry. I'll get him safe enough," the other answered. He was already off his horse, and leading Gilbert across the road, made him kneel down and dip his hands in a little rill which ran down the gutter.

"Now you'll be all right," he said. "Stay where you are. I'll collar the blighter." Next moment he was riding hard down hill.

Gilbert, in such pain he could hardly think, splashed the ice- cold water into his burning eyes, and presently found himself able to see again. But now he was all alone. Dusk was closing down, and the raw fog hung round him like a shroud. He got to his feet and stood listening hard, but not a sound broke the clammy stillness.

"A nice mess-up!" groaned poor Gilbert. "What will Shelcott say? Odds are he'll accuse me of stealing his pay roll. He'll sack me anyhow—that's a cert." The more he thought the more unhappy he felt. Losing the sort of job Gilbert had would not worry the average young man, but, as Gilbert had told Horner, it was the only work he knew, the only thing that stood between him and the Labor Exchange. He was perfectly certain that Paul Shelcott would send him packing the minute he told him he had lost the pay roll. As for getting it back, the odds against it were a thousand to one, for in a fog like this the thief would have all the chances in the world of getting clear away.

Minutes dragged by, each seeming like an hour, and still nothing happened. Gilbert went back to his machine. He decided that he had best go straight back to Taverton and tell the police what had happened. He was in the act of turning the bicycle when he heard the klop-klop of a trotting horse, and next moment horse and rider loomed out of the smother. For a moment Gilbert's hopes soared, then when he saw the rider was alone they fell again with a bump.

"You didn't get him," he said.

"I didn't get him, but I got this." The other dropped the heavy bag with a clank into the side-car.

"You got the money?" gasped Gilbert, hardly able to believe his senses.

"Yes, and I think it's all there. The chap hadn't time to open the bag. Have a look, will you?" Gilbert picked up the bag.

"It's still sealed," he said joyfully. "I say, I'm most awfully grateful to you." The other laughed. Poor as the light was Gilbert saw him for a tall, powerfully-built young man, with a big clean-shaven face, a beaky nose, and large, prominent eyes.

"Then, that's all right." he said. "I'm only sorry I couldn't catch the blighter himself. When I got close he dropped the bag and took to the heather; and that's where I chucked it. I wasn't going to risk Belle's legs—to say nothing of my own neck," he added with a laugh.

"I'm glad you didn't," said Gilbert. "And I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for getting back the money. Shelcott well—I don't know what he'd have said."

"Shelcott—you mean the man who owns the Carnaby Clay Works? Do you work for him?"

"I've worked there all my life," Gilbert told him. "My name is Stratton. Mr. Carnaby adopted me when I was six."

"And you've lived up there ever since! Good Lord!—how do you stick it?"

"No choice," said Gilbert. "It's the only job I know."

"A pretty rotten one, it seems to me," said the other. "What do you do in your spare time?"

"Fish—and shoot."

"But don't you ever get a game of bridge or billiards?"

"I've never had the chance."

"Why, you poor devil! Forgive me. I oughtn't to have said that."

Gilbert laughed a trifle bitterly. "You can say it if you like. It's perfectly true."

The horseman looked down at him.

"Come and see me some time. My name is Merrill—James Merrill. I live at Woodend."

"I'd like to," said Gilbert gratefully.

"Well, come next Sunday. Come to lunch at one." He stretched out his hand. "All right, then. We'll expect you on Sunday. Good night."

"Good night," said Gilbert, "and—and thanks most awfully for what you've done." Merrill only laughed and rode away, and Gilbert once more in the saddle drove up hill through the fog.


CHAPTER 2. — SUNDAY.

"YOU'RE late," growled Shelcott, as Gilbert entered the office, and handed over the bag.

"There's a pretty heavy fog," said Gilbert quietly. Shelcott was a thick-necked, heavy-set man of thirty, handsome in a coarse way, but mean, and a bully.

"First time I knew you were afraid of a fog," he sneered.

"Only when I have other people's money to think of," replied Gilbert as calmly as before.

"Then you ought to have started earlier," snapped his employer.

"You are forgetting your order to the bank—that I'm to have the money at five minutes to four. And don't swear at me," added Gilbert, looking the other very straight between the eyes. Shelcott knew he had gone too far.

"Oh, don't be so infernally touchy," he muttered; and Gilbert, after a moment's pause, went out and up the hill to the cottage, which was all the home he knew.

The clay works lay on a bare hillside nearly fourteen hundred feet above sea level. The ugliest, barest place imaginable. A huge pit, an even huger dump, and everything whitened with chalk- like china clay. The cottages were of raw, grey granite. The country was too high and cold for gardens, and not a tree, not even a bush, broke its hideous monotony. At present the ugliness was shrouded by darkness and fog, and the kitchen of Clamp's house was at any rate warm and bright.

Clamp himself sat staring into the fire. He had a pipe in his mouth, but it was out. He was a big, powerfully-built man of fifty, and had been famous for his great strength, but had aged sadly since his son Joe had got into trouble.

Joe, a wild youngster, though with no real harm in him, had got in with a gang of poachers who had fallen foul of one of Sir John Cotter's keepers, and shot him. Joe and one other man had been caught, and though there was no proof that Joe had had anything to do with the killing, he had been sentenced to five years' penal servitude. Now, though Clamp was only fifty, his hair had gone grey and his giant frame was shrunken. Yet he smiled as Gilbert came in.

"So you'm back. Muster Gilbert." Then a look of dismay crossed his face. "But whatever has come to your eyes. Looks like ee'd caught a terrible cold."

"It's pepper I've caught, not cold," said Gilbert, and while he warmed himself he told Clamp of his experience on the way home. Clamp was horrified.

"I've heard tell of things like that in Plymouth and Lunnon, but I never reckoned no one would try it up here on the Moor. But 'ee saved the money."

"Mr. Merrill saved it for me. Who is he, Clamp? Do you know anything about him?"

"Not a deal. They do say he'm a sporting sort o' gentleman. And he'm got a proper pretty sister."

"A sister," repeated Gilbert blankly. "I didn't know that."

Clamp looked surprised.

"What difference do it make to 'ee, Muster Gilbert?"

"He asked me to lunch."

"'E'll go?" said Clamp. Gilbert shook his head.

"Not if he's got a sister."

"And why for not?" demanded Clamp, looking straight at the younger man.

"How can I?" asked Gilbert bitterly. "I don't know how to talk to girls. I've never met any—never had anything to do with them." Clamp stiffened.

"You'm talking moonshine, Muster Gilbert. You'm just as good as they. You'm a gentleman born, even if you was raised up here on the Moor. Now you'm a chance to mix it with your own kind, you go on and take it." It was the first time Gilbert had ever heard Clamp take this tone, and he was so astonished that he could find nothing to say.

"Now you go and bath your eyes," Clamp said, "and then come to supper. It's nigh ready."

Gilbert went meekly to his room, and came back presently to a meal of boiled bacon and greens, followed by an apple pasty and cheese. There was strong black tea to drink. He helped Mr. Champ to wash the dishes, then sat and smoked a pipe with Champ, and at nine he went off to bed. In summer he would go fishing, but all through the winter his evenings were spent in exactly the same way.

There followed another day's work. Even on Saturday Gilbert got little time to himself, for there were always accounts and letters. Sunday came at last, and Gilbert put on his one decent suit, a rather worn blue serge, which Mr. Champ had pressed and brushed for him. At twelve, he set off to walk to Woodend, which lay in the Valley of the Awne, about three miles from the quarry.

It was true enough, what he had told Clamp. At twenty-three he had hardly ever spoken to a girl of his own class. His parents had been killed in a railway accident when he was six. They had both been only children, so there was not an aunt or an uncle to take the lonely child; and if it had not been for Gilbert's godfather, old Mark Carnaby, Gilbert himself must have gone to the workhouse. Carnaby had taken him in, brought him up, and sent him to the Taverton Grammar School, where he had stayed till he was fifteen, and got a very fair education. Then the old man had gone down with pneumonia, and died within forty-eight hours; and when he was dead it was found that he had left no will, and that the pit and everything went to his unpleasant nephew, Paul Shelcott.

Paul had disliked Gilbert from the first, and would have sent him about his business only that he knew how unpopular this would make him. He did the next worse thing, took him away from school and turned him into an office drudge; and for seven long years Gilbert had done two men's work for less than one man's pay. Paul still disliked him. In fact, his feeling had grown to hate because he no longer dared bully him. Yet he would not dismiss him, because he knew he would have to pay double the money to get anyone half as good.

All these years Gilbert's life had been no better than that of a quarry man—worse in fact, for none of them were as lonely as he. There were girls of course at the clay pit, and more than one would have been kind to Gilbert if he had given them a chance. But there was something in Gilbert's make-up which saved him from that sort of thing.

And now, at last, Gilbert was going to meet a woman of his own class, and who can wonder that he fairly shivered with shyness and nervousness as he found himself walking up the drive to Woodend? Woodend was a small place, but with its trim flower- beds, its greenhouse and stables, it looked imposing in Gilbert's eyes. Merrill met him at the door. He was wearing a plus-four suit of red-brown tweed. His stockings matched his knitted waistcoat, and his tie and handkerchief were both of dull green silk. He looked big, sleek, and prosperous.

"Come in, Stratton. Very glad to see you," was his cordial greeting. "What about a cocktail? You must need one after your walk." He drew Gilbert into what he called his study, a snug room with very few books, but a quantity of sporting prints. Fishing rods were in racks on one wall, and a pair of fine hammerless guns in a glass-fronted case. Decanters and glasses stood ready on a small table, and presently Gilbert found himself drinking a pleasant but potent mixture—the very first cocktail of his life.

"Well, of all the selfish people—haven't you mixed one for me, James?" The rich, deep voice brought Gilbert sharply to his feet, and he stood gazing, almost staring at the girl who had entered the room.

Ida Merrill was tall, but not too tall, and exquisitely slim. Her skin was cream, her hair dark copper, beautifully waved. Her eyes—Gilbert thought they were green, but could not be quite sure. She brought with her into the room an atmosphere of intense femininity. Small wonder that Gilbert stood amazed.

"My sister," said Merrill, and Gilbert found himself holding the slim hand of this vision, blushing like a schoolboy and quite unable to say anything coherent.

"So you are Mr. Stratton," he heard her say. "James told me about your adventure the other evening. How perfectly thrilling!"

"The thrill was a perfectly beastly one—for me," Gilbert managed to say. "If I'd lost the pay roll I should have been in a most awful hole. I'm frightfully grateful to your brother."

"And so am I," said Ida, with a laugh, "for adding a young man to my visiting list. Most of the people about here are old and stodgy beyond belief. But there's the gong. Come to lunch. I'm sure you're hungry." She led the way into the dining-room, small, but, like all the rest of the house, extremely comfortable. The table was of old black oak polished like a mirror, so that the silver was reflected in it.

Such food Gilbert had never seen, let alone eaten. Clear soup, grouse, with chipped potatoes and stewed celery, an ice pudding and a dainty savoury. For drink, hock, and afterwards a glass of excellent port. Thinking of it later, Gilbert was full of wonder, for somehow his shyness was forgotten and he found himself talking quite easily, telling his host and hostess of his work at the clay pit, of his shooting and fishing and fifty other things. He did not realise that Ida had set herself to draw him out; nor her tact in avoiding all talk of things such as theatres and music, of which he was quite ignorant.

After lunch James went to his study, but Ida took Gilbert into her own sitting-room, where a fire of logs kept out the chill of the autumn day, and gave him cigarettes of a quality hitherto unknown to him. Time simply flew, and Gilbert was quite startled when the pretty silver clock on the mantel chimed four.

He jumped up.

"I must go," he said. Ida did not move.

"Trying to be polite?" she mocked. Gilbert did not know what to say. She laughed.

"Sit down, you silly boy," and when he still hesitated, she stretched out her arm and pulled him down beside her. "I can't help it if you're bored."

"Bored!" cried Gilbert horrified. "I—I've never enjoyed myself so much in my life."

"Then stay where you are and don't be silly," said Ida. "I shall be horribly bored if you go."

"Do—do you mean that?" Gilbert asked, stammering a little in his earnestness.

"Of course I mean it." She laid her I hand on his, and he thrilled at the touch. And just then the door opened.

"Mr. Shelcott," said the neat maid. Gilbert was so amazed he sat stock still. Ida rose leisurely to her feet.

"So it's you, Paul?" she said languidly. "You didn't tell me you were coming to-day. You know Mr. Stratton."

"I ought to, seeing he's my clerk," replied Shelcott, glaring unpleasantly at Gilbert.

"Well, I'm sure he's a very good clerk," replied Ida, "and he's been telling me all sorts of interesting things about the Moor and your workpeople."

"He knows them better than I do. He lives with them," sneered Shelcott. Gilbert realised the man was jealous, and the knowledge gave him a curious feeling of confidence.

"I have to, you see," he said quietly. "I can't do anything else on three pounds a week."

"Three pounds a week!" repeated Ida. "Paul, you ought to be ashamed of yourself." There was a nasty gleam in Paul Shelcott's eyes as he glanced at Gilbert. But he managed to smile.

"We shall have to see about a rise—especially since e's got into society," he added, in a tone that brought the blood to Gilbert's cheek.

Before anything more could be said the maid brought in tea, and an awkward situation was saved. James Merrill came in and talked business to Paul. So for the next hour matters were smooth enough on the surface, then Gilbert got up and said good-bye. Ida went with him to the door.

"You'll come again," she said. "Come next Sunday," she added, in a voice too low for Shelcott to hear. "Will you?"

"I shall love to," said Gilbert fervently.

As he tramped back up hill through the chill dusk of the autumn afternoon, he felt extraordinarily elated, yet at the same time a little puzzled. Gilbert Stratton was no fool, and he could not help wondering a little why these people had been so kind to a youngster like himself without money or prospects, or even a decent suit of clothes. And while he considered this point he heard a car coming up behind, and suddenly there was Shelcott's smart two-seater stopping alongside.

"Get in," said Paul harshly.

"Thanks," said Gilbert easily, "but I'd rather walk."

"Get in. I want to talk to you."

Gilbert smiled.

"I know you've nothing nice to say to me. Suppose we wait till Monday."

Shelcott got out, and came across.

"We'll talk now," he said ominously. "How did you get to know the Merrills?"

Gilbert kept his temper. "Is it any business of yours?" he asked quietly.

"Curse your cheek! Is that the way to talk to your employer?"

"You're my employer six days in the week, but not on Sunday," returned Gilbert briefly. Two spots of red showed on Shelcott's thick cheeks, his eyes had a nasty glitter.

"If you're not jolly careful you won't be in my employ much longer. Are you going to tell me how you came to know the Merrills?"

"No," said Gilbert curtly. Shelcott's temper went to the winds.

"Then you're sacked. You're sacked. You hear me?"

"I can't well help it when you shout like that," replied Gilbert. "And don't make faces at me. I don't like it."

"Make faces!" bellowed Shelcott. "Why, curse you, you dirty little charity boy—" That was as far as he got, for anything further he had to say was stopped by Gilbert's fist, which caught him neatly, between the eyes, and sent him staggering back against his car. Gilbert stood ready, but all the fight was out of Shelcott. He leaned against the car with his handkerchief pressed to his bleeding nose, and glared savagely at Gilbert.

"You shall sweat for this," he said in a voice of concentrated venom. "If I've any influence in the clay trade, you shall never get another job in it. And since it's the only work you know, you'll starve. And I'll watch you starve."

Gilbert's anger passed, and he shivered slightly. He knew that Shelcott was right, and that he could make good his ugly threat.


CHAPTER 3. — THE TRESPASSER.

"HE'VE sacked you?" Old Clamp's voice and face both showed the dismay he felt at Gilbert's news.

"He's sacked me all right," said Gilbert. Then he grinned. "But he'll have a sweet pair of black eyes tomorrow."

"Did 'ee hit him?" asked Clamp eagerly.

"Only once," replied Gilbert regretfully. "He wouldn't fight."

Champ chuckled.

"I wish I ha' been there to see," he said; but Gilbert shook his head.

"Jolly good thing you weren't, Champ, or you'd have got the push as well."

Champ sat back in his wooden chair and put his clay pipe between his lips.

"He'm a fule," he said. "He'll never get no one to do your job for twice the money."

"I'm not worrying about him," Gilbert answered. "My worry is a new job for myself, and I'm hanged if I see where I'm going to find one. China clay's the only thing I know about; and Shelcott wasn't boasting when he said he could stop me getting in with any of the other firms. He has a lot of influence in the trade."

Clamp shook his grey head.

"You'm right, Muster Gilbert. And he'm venomous as a twoad. Like as not he'm writing round to 'em this minute." Gilbert gave a short laugh.

"You're a bit of a job's comforter, Clamp. All the same I'm not going to starve just to please Paul Shelcott. I'm fairly fit, and if nothing else turns up I'll take on as a roadman. I can crack stones with the next." Clamp looked shocked.

"Don't 'ee talk that way, Muster Gilbert. Your father's son can't do work like that. Tell 'ee what—you go and see Muster Horner. He'm a nice gentleman, and can give 'ee better advice than I can." Gilbert's eyes brightened.

"That's not half a bad notion, Clamp. Tom Horner is just the one man I can go to for advice. I'll push off first thing In the morning and see what he has to say."

Just then Mrs. Clamp came in to say that supper was ready, and in spite of all his excitement and his good luncheon Gilbert ate his share of a cold pasty with good appetite. But when bedtime came it was a long time before he could sleep, and when he did at last drop off his rest was disturbed by queer dreams. Ida's beautiful face and Shelcott's angry one drifted through his subconscious mind. He was glad when dawn came and he could turn out and sluice himself in icy cold water and wash out these queer, unpleasant visions. Mrs. Clamp stared at him when he came down to breakfast in his better suit.

"I'd forgot," she said soberly. "It don't seem possible as 'ee ain't going to work to-day, Mr. Gilbert."

"Don't worry about me, Mrs. Clamp, I won't be out of work very long. I'm off this morning to find a new job."

"But it won't be here, Mr. Gilbert," she answered sadly. "And father and I—we'll miss 'ee terrible."

Gilbert put his hands on her shoulders said kissed her lined face, and for a moment or two the poor thing broke down and sobbed.

"You'm almost like a son to us, Mr. Gilbert," she said. "I don't know what we'll do without 'ee—now Joe's gone."

"Joe will come back," Gilbert told her. "And Joe will do well, and be a credit to you. And as for me, you haven't seen the last of me. Don't think it." She smiled through her tears.

"You'm not one to desert your friends, Mr. Gilbert, I know. Now come and have your breakfast."

It was a fine morning, and Gilbert decided to walk to Taverton. There was a short cut across the Moor, and he felt like exercise. There is nothing more perfect than a fine autumn day on Dartmoor. The heather bloom was over, but the gorse was still golden. Tit larks sang, and snipe rose twisting from bits of boggy ground. The pale blue sky was dappled with soft clouds, and the great hills were rich with color, brown, gold, and purple.

Gilbert came down into the valley of the Thane, where the clear amber water poured in long rushing trickles from the high hills. He made for the stepping-stones which crossed the stream above the thick coppice called Hanging Wood, and had almost reached them when, in the long pool just above the wood, a great salmon leaped high and fell back with a resounding splash. Gilbert saw it for only the half of a second, but that was enough for him to notice the gut cast flash in the sun. The big fish was hooked.

The fisherman he could not see, for he was still in the wood; but next instant out he came, a shortish man wearing rubber waders—heavy things—yet in spite of their weight he was coming at top speed. He had to, for the hooked fish was fairly racing up stream, and the speed of a salmon in the water is faster than most things on dry land.

Gilbert, keen fisherman himself, pulled up short to watch the struggle. But as if this in itself was not sufficiently exciting, all of a sudden another man came charging down out of the bushes on the steep bank opposite. He was older than the first, but bigger, much bigger. A great, gaunt-looking fellow, very roughly dressed, and Gilbert recognized him instantly as Seth Grimble, owner of Stonelake Farm, a typically old moorman, long-headed and short-tempered as any of these hillmen. He had a stiff beard, and clean-shaven upper lip, his hair was grizzled, his face was angry.

"Hi!" he roared. "What yer doin' on my land? Stop—drat ye!" Gilbert sized up the situation in an instant. All this land on the upper side of Hanging Wood was Grimble's, and no man stood more keenly on his rights than the old farmer.

As for the younger man, he did not appear to hear, or if he heard paid no attention. All his energies were concentrated on keeping up with his capture, which was still going up-stream like a torpedo-boat, and had already taken most of the line off his reel.

Grimble came leaping down on to the fisherman's path which bordered the river, and turned up it in pursuit.

"Stop, I tell yer!" he bellowed, in a voice which roused the echoes from the distant rocks. "Stop, ye derned poacher, or I'll break your blame neck."

Still the angler seemed unconscious of these awful threats; but Gilbert saw that he would soon be overtaken, and that it was time to interfere. He ran hard for the stepping stones which were just at the bottom of the pool, and crossed them in a series of bounds that would have been impossible to any one less active. Then gaining the path on the far side he raced in pursuit of Grimble.

Quick as he was, he was too late, for before he could reach Grimble the farmer had caught up with the fisherman and clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder. The fisherman, small as he was, showed that he had plenty of pluck. Pausing for the merest fraction of a moment, he swung his left leg backwards; the heel of his wader caught Grimble in the shin, and with a howl of pain the big man relaxed his bold and fell backwards into a tangle of brambles, amid which he lay, struggling frantically and roaring like a penned bull. The fisherman, without even glancing at him, continued up the bank.


Illustration

The big man relaxed his bold and fell backwards into a tangle of brambles.


Gilbert reached the spot just as Grimble struggled out of the thorny tangle and regained his feet. He was badly scratched, his coat was torn; and if he had been angry before he was now in a state of dangerous rage.

"I'll skin ye for that. I'll put ye in the river. I'll see ye in Taverton Gaol." He said other things which would not look well in cold print. Then as he started afresh after the fisherman he found Gilbert between him and his prey.

"What yer doin' here, Mr. Stratton? Get out o' my light, I tell yer."

"Steady, Mr. Grimble." Gilbert's tone was quiet but very firm.

"What d' yer mean—steady? Ain't I got a right to stop a poacher on my own land? Get out, I tell yer, afore I hurts yer." He clenched his big fists, but Gilbert did not budge.

"He's not a trespasser. He's followed a fish from his own water into yours. That's allowable in sport and in law. It's you who'll see Taverton Gaol if you assault him." Grimble towered over Gilbert, but Gilbert's shoulders were broad and his eyes were steady. His cool front made the big bully pause, but he was still raging.

"Me assault him!" he roared. "Didn't he knock me into that there thorn bush? Look at my coat a-ripped to ribbands. Out o' my way, and let me get at him." Gilbert kept his place and his temper.

"You tackled him first, Mr. Grimble, and if the case does come to court I've got to say so."

"I don't care what you says. Clear out now, afore there's trouble."

"You've had trouble before," said Gilbert significantly. "What about John Betts? Grimble's arms dropped to his sides. A startled look came into his little angry eyes. Gilbert had hit him in a very tender spot, for only a year ago the farmer had been fined five pounds for beating up his pet aversion, John Betts, whom he had found on his land, but who was able to prove that he had been on the footpath.

"Tell the old josser I'll buy him a new coat," came a voice behind Gilbert. "Tell him I'm sorry I pushed him into the bush. And for any sake; lend me a hand to gaff this brute of a fish."

"There," said Gilbert; "you're going to get a new coat for nothing, Mr. Grimble. And you've got an apology into the bargain." Without waiting for Grimble to answer he swung round, grabbed the gaff which hung at the back of the fisherman's belt, and leaped lightly down the bank. The salmon, beat with its rush, was circling on the surface close in and Gilbert, waiting his chance, slipped the gaff under it, and, with one quick jerk, dragged it ashore and up the bank. One sharp crack on the head finished its struggles, and it lay on the grass, a shining bar of silver.

"Twelve pounds, if he's an ounce," said Gilbert. "And a nice clean fish. Congratulations!"

"You're a darn fine hand with the gaff," said the other admiringly, and turned to Grimble.

"Sorry I shoved you in the bush. What about that old coat of yours? A quid any use to you?"

"A new coat'll cost me two," replied Grimble sourly. The other fished out a pocket book and extracted two pound notes.

"You're a sinful old robber," he said with a grin. "But you shall have these if you'll clear out and say no more about it." Grimble grabbed the money.

"All right." he growled, and stalked off. The fisherman chuckled again. He had a round, brown, good natured face, a little tooth-brush moustache, very fair hair, and very bright blue eyes.

"You're a darn good Samaritan," he said to Gilbert; then a puzzled look crossed his face. "Don't I know you?" he asked doubtfully.

"You ought to, Bobby," said Gilbert, "We were in the same form at Taverton."

Bobby's eyes widened.

"Good gosh, it's Gilbert Stratton! Well, of all the rum chances! Put her there, old son!" The two shook hands cordially.

"What brings you here, Bobby?" asked Gilbert. "I thought you'd gone into business somewhere up North."

"So I had. So I did, and, lord, how I hated it! I was clerk to my uncle in Doncaster for four years. Then the poor old josser departed this life, and when his will was read I found he'd left me thirty thousand pounds, I nearly fainted. When I recovered I couldn't pack up quick enough. I was back in Devonshire Inside 24 hours, and here, by gum, I mean to stay."

"Where are you living?"

"At Randlestone. I've bought a jolly old cottage. I've got a retired marine called Chard, as batman, and his wife as cook. I fish, and I shoot, and I'm as happy as the day is long."

"Sounds ideal," said Gilbert quietly. Bobby fixed his blue eyes on the other.

"It don't look to me like you've had quite the same sort of luck, old son." Gilbert laughed.

"I've no kind uncle to leave me thirty thousand pounds, or even thirty thousand pence. However, I've scraped along up to date."

Bobby looked at him again. Those blue eyes of his were sharper than Gilbert knew.

"We're going to celebrate, Gilbert. You're coming home to lunch with me."

Gilbert shook his head.

"I must go to Taverton, Bobby."

"All on the way home. My little 'bus is in the lane. Come along."

"You've got your fishing, Bobby."

"I'm no hog. I've got a fish. You come and help me eat it." Gilbert hesitated.

"I must see this man in Taverton," he urged.

"You can see him. I don't suppose you want to spend the day with him."

"No, I'm asking him to find me a job." Bobby stared.

"Out of work, are you?" He grinned suddenly. "Don't worry about the gent in Taverton. I've got a job for you. Come on." He picked up his fish, and led the way to the road.


CHAPTER 4. — GILBERT GETS A SHOCK.

A TWO-SEATER, a sports model of a well-known make, stood on the turf at the roadside, and Robert Hilary Barr dumped his salmon into the boot, reeled up his line, unjointed his rod, put these with the salmon, and slipped into the driving seat.

"In you get, Gilbert," he ordered, but Gilbert paused.

"This job, Bobby. You'd better tell me before we start."

"I won't," said Bobby flatly. "Crawl in."

Gilbert shrugged and took his seat, Bobby let in the clutch, and the car glided away. In a moment it was flashing down the long white road with the speedometer needle steady at 40.

"Nice little 'bus, ain't she?" said Bobby. "You drive, Gilbert?"

"I can handle a bike or a lorry."

"Good egg. Then a car would be play to you. I say, it's fine to run into you again, old man. Just the one thing I wanted, to meet up with an old pal. He was so cordial, so evidently delighted at the meeting that Gilbert felt a little thrill of pleasure. His had been such a very lonely life.

"Now, tell me all about yourself," Bobby went on, and presently Gilbert found himself talking more freely than he had for years. Bobby slackened speed as he listened.

"I've heard of Shelcott," he said presently, "So you pasted him. Gosh, I wish I'd been there to see. The fellow's a rotter, Gilbert. You're well quit of him."

"Trouble is I'm not quit of him. He has a lot of influence in the clay trade, and he'll take precious good care I don't get another job in it."

"Hang the clay trade. You can do better than that, old son."

"How? It's the only work I know."

"You know office work. You can handle cars and men. Bless you, you can take a job anywhere."

"But I've no references, Shelcott won't give me any."

"Blow Shelcott. I'll give you a character. But here's the shanty. What do you think of it?"

"Topping!" declared Gilbert as he looked at the granite front of a charming old cottage which had been carefully modernised without in the least spoiling its original beauty. "And an orchard and a trout stream. My word, what a place to live in!" Bobby chuckled.

"Just what I want you to do, Gilbert. I need a pal. Take you on as my secretary. Two hundred a year and all found. What do you say?"

Gilbert stared at Bobby, He could hardly believe his ears. Then he shook his head. Bobby's face fell.

"Not enough? I'll make it two-fifty." Gilbert flung out his hand.

"Don't talk rot. Two hundred's too much—far too much. But I can't take it. Bobby."

"Why not?"

"It'd be play, not work. Don't think I'm ungrateful, but it would never do. I'd go all to pieces."

Bobby opened his mouth to protest again, but the look on Gilbert's face stopped him, He shrugged.

"Well, you'll stay a few days anyhow—as a favour, Gilbert. Hang it all, you've earned a holiday."

"The favour's mine. I'd love to."

"All right. We'll drive over and get your kit this afternoon. Now what about a spot of lunch?"

Lunch was cold roast duck and salad and a plum tart. Mrs. Chard was a first rate cook, Chard a perfect valet. Everything was nice as could be, and Gilbert thoroughly enjoyed it all. That afternoon they fetched Gilbert's suit case from the clay works, and on the way back Gilbert called at the bank and saw Mr. Horner who readily promised to do what he could to find Gilbert work.

Next day Bobby took Gilbert shooting, and on the following day, which was wet, motored him into Plymouth gave him lunch at the Grand, and afterwards they went to a matinee at the Royal.

"You're ruining me, Bobby," said Gilbert on the way home. "If I stay with you any longer I shall never be fit for work again."

"Rats!" remarked Bobby. "If a chap can't take a week's holiday after seven years' work he ought to be shot."

"I'd enjoy the holiday all the more if I knew I'd a job to go to when it was over," said Gilbert with a sigh. But Bobby only grunted. The car pulled up at Bobby's front door, and Chard came out.

"Gentleman's been ringing you up from the bank at Taverton, Mr. Stratton. Asked that you should ring him as soon as you got home."

"It's Horner," cried Gilbert, jumping out "He must have found something for me."

"Any one would think the feller actually liked work," said Bobby mournfully; but Gilbert was already at the 'phone. When he came back his eyes were bright.

"Homer's got me a job, I believe, Bobby. A man called Cowling has bought the Elford granite quarry and wants a sort of clerk- of-the-works. I'm to go up and see him to-morrow."

"Sounds pretty grim," said Bobby. "Still if you must have a job I hope you get it, for you'll only be eight miles away, and there'll be some hope of seeing you now and then. All right, I'll drive you there in the morning."

"No, I'll go on my old bike, Bobby. I don't want Mr. Cowling to take me for one of the idle rich."

Bobby knew it was no use to protest when Gilbert took that tone, and next morning Gilbert went off on his ancient, noisy, but still efficient machine, and within half an hour was climbing Elford Tor, in the side of which gaped the great raw chasm which was the Elford Quarry. Along the roadside were strung the cottages of the men, and below ran the little river Strane bubbling in the autumn sun. A workman directed him to the office, and there at a plain desk, sat the strangest, grimmest-looking man whom Gilbert had ever met. Judging by his wrinkled, parchment-like skin he was old, yet his hair was still dark and his tall, gaunt frame gave an impression of almost youthful vigor. He had a long, clean-shaven face, a thin, tight-lipped mouth, and grey eyes that were wonderfully bright and keen. As Gilbert stood in front of him he felt as if those grey eyes were fairly boring into his brain, and it seemed an age before the old fellow spoke.

"You are Gilbert Stratton?" he said in a harsh, croaking voice.


Illustration

"You are Gilbert Stratton?" he said.


"That is my name, sir," replied Gilbert.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-three, sir."

"H'm, young for the work I want. How much experience have you had?" Gilbert told him.

"What sort of character have you from your last employer?" Gilbert's heart sank.

"None, sir," he answered steadily.

Mr. Cowling's bushy eyebrows rose.

"I understand from Mr. Horner that you were dismissed."

"That is true," replied Gilbert simply.

"What was the reason?"

"Mr. Shelcott and I didn't get on, sir."

"That's not much of an answer," said the other gruffly.

"It is all I can give you," replied Gilbert.

"You can give me no explanation at all?"

Gilbert felt it was all up. He picked up his cap. The other frowned.

"What's the matter?" he asked testily. "Don't you want the job?"

"I want it very badly, sir, but of course I know that my lack of testimonials is a bar."

"That's for me to say—not you," retorted Cowling. "What money do you want?"

"I've had three pounds a week, sir."

"H'm, I give five pounds, and you can come on three months' trial. Don't stand and stare. When can you begin?"

"To-morrow—to-day if you wish, sir."

"Be here at nine to-morrow morning There are two furnished rooms over the office. You had better settle in this evening." Somehow Gilbert found himself outside.

"Well, of all the queer old beggars!" he found himself saying, and then he discovered that he badly wanted to sing. He leaped on his old bike and went roaring down the road at a reckless pace. Clamp—he must tell Clamp first. How pleased the old fellow would be! And perhaps he might meet Shelcott. He chuckled as he thought of Shelcott's face when he learned that his ex-clerk had got a new job at nearly double his old salary.

His thoughts turned to the Merrills They, too, would be pleased. And another thing, now he could afford some decent clothes. He hardly realised that it was only since this meeting with Ida that he had begun to wish to make a better appearance. After all he had sixty pounds saved up.

"I'll go to Taverton this very afternoon and order a suit," he vowed to himself.

The great mound of tailings above the Carnaby works stood up glaring white in front, and he slackened speed before turning into the side road leading to the pit. The main road and the train line were on the far side of the hill, and this was only a rough cart track cutting across the newtake, the big stone-fenced field where Shelcott's stock grazed.

As he got off to open the gate Gilbert saw a girl walking up the track ahead of him. At first he thought it was one of the pit men's daughters, but a second glance showed that she was nothing of the sort. No Carnaby girl would wear such a smart brown tweed suit, or carry a stick, or swing along so briskly as this girl was doing. Some friend of Shelcott, he supposed, as he closed the gate behind him and started to push his machine up the track. The road was too rough and rutty to risk his rather worn tyres.

At any other time a stranger to the pits, and especially one so smart, would have interested Gilbert immensely, but now he was so engrossed in his own affairs he hardly gave her a second thought. He was thinking of old Clamp's pleasure, of Shelcott's rage, while in the back of his mind he was wondering what Ida would think of his new job.

A sound roused him, a sort of explosive grunt; and glancing round in the direction of the sound he saw a great animal heaving itself up off the ground on the upper side of the field. With a feeling of acute dismay he recognised it as Shelcott's bull, Vindex, an animal of notoriously bad temper.

"The fool!" he said to himself. "What the deuce did he put it here for?"

The big brute stood for a moment with its eyes fixed on the girl. Then it began to paw the ground, flinging up great lumps of turf.

"Look out!" Gilbert shouted; but the girl had already seen the bull and had paused uncertainly. "Back—get back to the gate," Gilbert cried. But it was too late. Lowering its shaggy head the savage beast charged.


CHAPTER 5. — S.O.S.

REGINALD ASPLAND'S flat in Knightsbridge was small, but charmingly furnished and extremely comfortable. Reginald Aspland was one of those big, stout, genial, selfish men who make a god of comfort. Tea was over, the curtains were drawn, and Nance Aspland, who had spent the afternoon playing golf at Ranelagh, sat in a deep chair toasting her dainty toes before a cosy fire.

Nance was rather small, but beautifully made. Her hair was brown, with a glint of gold, her face something better than pretty, for the firm chin gave hint of a character very different from that of her ease-loving father, and her eyes, very deep blue in color, were level as those of a boy. Tired with her hard game, she was lying very quiet when a queer sound from her father roused her. It was half a snort, half a swear. She looked up.

"Bills, Dad?" she asked, in a voice which proved that bills were a not unusual source of annoyance in this household.

"Bills," groaned Aspland, who was seated at his writing-table with a whole sheaf of suspicious-looking documents in front of him. "Worse than that, Nance—writs." Nance shrugged.

"You shouldn't be so extravagant."

"Me—extravagant! My dear Nance. What are you talking about?"

"Your extravagance. You went to Brighton last week-end and that didn't cost less than ten pounds. You bought two new suits and a lot of new silk shirts last week; you asked the Gunters to lunch at the Savoy when you might just as well have had them here; you—"

"Oh, stop it!" cried Aspland. "A man must live." Nance straightened.

"A man must live according to his income, and yours isn't a bad one," she stated firmly.

"What! A thousand a year. You call that a decent income?"

"It's more than ninety per cent, of people get, and it's paid you free of income tax, so it's nearly thirteen hundred."

"It's nothing to John Messenger. He has forty thousand a year, and I doubt if he spends four hundred. And I'm his heir."

"I know, and you've been living on your prospects for years," went on Nance remorselessly. "Suppose he disinherited you?" Aspland's ruddy face paled.

"For Heaven's sake, don't suggest anything so dreadful, Nance."

"Well, he might if he heard you were in debt. A man like that, who has made his own money, hates debt, and I'm quite sure he will be very angry if you get into the Bankruptcy Court, and, perhaps, stop your allowance." She changed her tone.

"Dad, you really might brace up and economise." she said earnestly. He groaned again.

"I'll try. I really will try. But everything's so infernally expensive nowadays, and these confounded tradesmen pester one's life out." He went back to his bills, and Nance, glancing at the clock, got up and turned on the wireless.

"I won't keep it on," she said. "I just want the weather forecast and the news. I'm helping Mrs. Sutton with her children's party to-morrow, and it makes all the difference if it's fine."

After a moment's silence the time-signal came through, then the voice of the announcer. "This is the National programme from London. Before the news I have two S.O.S.'s."

"Confound the S.O.S.!" growled Aspland irritably. "Why can't they put them on at some other time?"

Nance did not speak, and the announcer's voice sounded clearly through the cosy little room.

"The police are anxious to trace John Messenger, missing from his home at Formby House, Filey, Yorkshire, since October 3 last." Aspland sprang from his chair.

"Messenger!" he gasped. "Good God!"

"Hush," said Nance swiftly, and the voice went on:

"The missing man, who is well known in Yorkshire as the owner of the Messenger steel-rolling mills, is 72 years of age, six feet one inch in height, has white hair, white moustache, and a short, stiff white beard. He was wearing a suit of dark-grey cloth, a black overcoat, black square-toed boots, and an old- fashioned square-crowned hat of hard black felt. He is possibly suffering from loss of memory. Will anyone who can throw light on his whereabouts communicate with the Chief Constable, Filey, Yorkshire, telephone—or with any police station."

The voice began on the second S.O.S., and Nance cut off. He father had dropped back into his chair. All his ruddy color was gone, and his plump hands were shaking.

"What does it mean?" he asked hoarsely "And why wasn't I told? As the heir they ought to have communicated with me before issuing an S.O.S."

"I expect that was done by his lawyer Mr. Martyn, Dad; and the police have left him to tell you."

"But he hasn't done so."

As Nance spoke the telephone bell rang and Mr. Aspland took off the receiver.

"Yes," Nance heard him say sharply "Yes, I've just heard the S.O.S. Mr. Martyn called away, you say. When can I see him?" A pause, then: "All right. I will be at the office at ten to-morrow morning." He turned to Nance.

"You're right. The police phoned Martyn, and he authorised the S.O.S. I'm to see him in the morning. But what can have happened?"

"I should think they are right," replied Nance, "and that he has lost his memory."

"But a man like that—so well known—some one must have seen him." Nance frowned a little.

"You would think so. I—I'm afraid he must be dead."

"Suicide, you mean, Nance?"

"Yes, or perhaps accident. Anything may happen to an old man who has lost his memory."

For the rest of that evening Aspland was unusually silent. Nor did he go out to his club after dinner as was his custom. He was up early next morning, and at a quarter to ten was on his way to the Bedford Row office of Martyn, Martyn and Sons, who were Messenger's solicitors. Nance waited in for him, but it was nearly twelve o'clock before he returned, looking very worried.

"Martyn knows little more than we do, Nance," he told her. "He only got the news the day before yesterday. Mrs. Knight, Messenger's housekeeper, had written him and he went straight up to Yorkshire. But no one seems to have the faintest idea of what has happened. Messenger went off on the morning of Tuesday, the 3rd, saying he would be away for a day or two, and she was to carry on as usual. He didn't say where he was going, but he seemed just as usual. She did carry on until the following Monday, when, as she had heard nothing, she grew anxious and wrote to Vivian Martyn. Martyn has put the local police on the track, but the only thing that has come to light is that an old chap, who looked like Cousin John, was seen at Harwich getting on the Dutch steamer. Martyn has sent a man over to Holland, and the police are doing all they can, but so far there is absolutely no news." Nance looked troubled.

"There's nothing we can do, Dad?"

"Not a thing. But I haven't told you the worst of it, Nance," he said ruefully. "My quarter's allowance is due next week, but, as you know, old John signs the cheques himself. If he doesn't turn up I'm broke to the world."

"But you're his heir," protested Nance. "If he's dead you get everything."

"Ah, if he's dead; but that's the question. And if he isn't, but has simply wandered away, I'm done. In a case of this sort, Martyn tells me, the Courts wait something like seven years before they allow death to be presumed." His plump face lengthened. "What the deuce shall we do if we have to wait seven years before we touch a penny?" Nance considered a moment.

"There's only one thing to do, Dad," she said presently. "We must leave London and go down to The Roost. I don't suppose your creditors can touch my money, can they?"

"No, of course not, but—" His face was more eloquent than words.

"Oh, I know you'll hate it," said Nance with a little smile, "but it will be very good for you. Fresh air and plain living. It will make a new man of you.

"It will make a mummy of me in a month," groaned her father, who was miserable if he was more than a mile away from Pall Mall and his club.

"Well, ask Mr. Martyn if he doesn't think I'm right," said Nance. "Ring him up now."

"No need for that," grumbled Reginald Aspland. "Martyn always backs you. All right, I'll come. But you'd better go down first and open the house." Nance nodded.

"I'll go this afternoon," she continued. "And I'll see if I can get Mrs. Betts. She cooks quite nicely, so you won't starve. And perhaps we'll find someone to play bridge with you. Cheer up, Dad. It won't be as bad as you expect."

"It couldn't be," said Mr. Aspland in a hollow tone; and Nance left him and went to her room to pack.

Nance Aspland's mother, who had died when Nance was ten, had left her three hundred pounds a year and a cottage at Brimmacombe known as The Roost. The poor lady had had a good deal more money than that when she first married Reginald Aspland, but Nance was grateful for small mercies, and down in Devonshire three hundred pounds would at any rate keep the wolf from the door.

For a young woman whose father was up to his neck in debt, and was also in danger of losing every penny of his income, Nance Aspland was remarkably cheerful. The fact was that she infinitely preferred the country to the town. Gardening, riding, fishing, and golf were her favourite occupations, and she was never so happy as on the rare occasions when she could get away to The Roost and live an open-air life. It was but very rarely that she could ever drag her father down to Devonshire, and nearly the whole of her life had been spent in London. So, perhaps, she may be excused for thinking it only right that she should have her turn, and for wasting comparatively little sympathy on her father.

She caught the two-thirty from Waterloo, arrived safely at Taverton at seven-ten, spent the night at sedate Bedford Arms Hotel, and early next morning drove out to The Roost.

That afternoon she went in search of Mrs. Betts, only to hear that she had moved to Carnaby, where she was keeping house for her uncle. So early next morning, Nance, who was a great walker, started out afoot for Carnaby. And the walk went very well indeed until she took the short cut across the newtake road and—met the bull.


CHAPTER 6. — A BULL AND A BIKE.

GILBERT saw the girl start running towards him. She ran like a boy, head up, hands clenched, her small feet fairly scudding across the rough grass.

But she had not a chance. Gilbert saw that the bull would catch her before she even reached him—let alone gained the gate. He jumped on to his machine, gave the starter a kick, and the engine burst into noisy life.

His first idea was to pick her up and race with her to safety; but he had hardly started before he saw that even this was impossible. There would be no time to take her up and turn before the bull caught them both. The only thing that remained was to try to draw off the racing beast.

"The gate!" he shouted as he passed her. "Make for the gate. I'll keep him busy." He spoke with a confidence that he did not in the least feel; but there was not much time for thought, for here was Vindex almost on top of him. The great beast weighed nearly a ton, and the ground fairly shook under his thudding hoofs. His shaggy head was low, and his little eyes were red with rage. With the usual single-minded devotion of his kind, he was hunting the girl, paying not the least attention to anything or anybody else.

In order to draw him off Gilbert had to get right in front of him, a risky business on such rough ground. It was all he could do to keep his battered old machine from skidding, and he had the unpleasant knowledge that his back tyre was distinctly shaky. It was worn right down to the canvas.

It was not until he had roared up almost in front of the bull's nose that the big, stupid brute paid him any attention. Then the clatter of the exhaust caused him to pause slightly. Gilbert yelled at him, and the trick was done. Turning at an angle so sharp that his great hoofs skidded, he swung, and, bellowing vengefully, was off on the track of his new enemy.

Gilbert made for the opposite gate. If only the ground had been good his anxiety would have been at an end, but it was not. This was no meadow turf, but a newtake full of heather and clumps of rush and—what was far worse—the native granite, which underlay it, thrust ugly knobs of lichen-clad rock above the surface. It took the cleverest kind of riding to dodge them; but Gilbert had ridden for years on all sorts of rough roads, and probably few professional dirt-track riders could have bested him on this sort of ground. But he had to dodge the rocks while the bull was able to go straight. The pace at which the great brute travelled was simply amazing, and it was all Gilbert could do to keep ahead.

In spite of all his care Gilbert hit a rock and his machine jumped into the air landing half a dozen feet away and nearly flinging him out of his saddle. Somehow he regained his balance and sped on towards the gate. He had almost gained it when the end came. The back tyre blew up with a bang like a pistol shot, the bike skidded and Gilbert went sprawling on hands and knees.

All that saved him was the report which so startled Vindex that he paused for an instant, snorting in anger and terror. Before he could start again, Gilbert had regained his feet and was scudding for the gate now only 20 yards distant. He gained it, put both hands on the top, and vaulted over. A loud crash made him think that Vindex had charged the gate, but as he swung round he saw that this was not the case. The big beast, baulked of his human prey, had turned on the bicycle, and charged it with such fury that his horns had got wedged in the spokes. This annoyed him intensely, and the crash which Gilbert had heard was caused by his ramming the battered machine furiously against the wall in the effort to get rid of it.

The result was startling. The poor old bike went all to bits, and most of it fell in ruins at the foot of the wall; but the front wheel remained fixed on Vindex's horns, and off he started, galloping madly in a wide circle, tossing his head and bellowing frantically. Dismayed as he was at the loss of his machine, the sight was too much for Gilbert, who burst out laughing.


Illustration

The front wheel remained fixed on Vindex's horns.


And just then Paul arrived on the scene.

"What are you doing here, you? What are you doing to my bull?" He was purple and hoarse with fury, and looked really dangerous. Gilbert swung on him.

"It would be more to the point to ask what your bull's doing with my bicycle. This is going to cost you the price of a new one." Gilbert's cool reply was like oil on the fire of Shelcott's fury. It made him so angry that for a moment he merely spluttered.

"Curse your cheek!" he got out at last. "You come trespassing on my land, abusing my animals. I'll have you in gaol for this!" Gilbert shrugged.

"Try it, Shelcott! Telephone for the police, and see which of us goes to gaol. I can tell you it's a pretty serious offence to leave a dangerous bull in a field through which there is a footpath. And I'll tell you something else—if I hadn't happened along when I did you'd be up at the next Exeter Assizes for manslaughter. That beast of yours was chasing that girl over at the far gate, and would most certainly have killed her if I had not interfered." Gilbert spoke with a cool certainty which impressed Shelcott in spite of his rage.

"The path isn't public," he snarled at last.

Gilbert's lip curled. "That's a lie—and you know it. This is going to cost you thirty pounds, Shelcott; and if I don't get a cheque to-morrow you'll get a lawyer's letter. I have a witness, and I'll go and make sure of her before you get at her."

He swung on his heel and walked away round the field, leaving Shelcott fairly flabbergasted. It was years since anyone had dared to speak to him in such a tone, and that his despised ex- clerk should do so made him feel as if he had been bitten by a rabbit.

Nance had come hurrying towards Gilbert, and the two met half- way. Gilbert, whose only idea had been to find a witness on his side, got a distinct shock when he came face to face with the prettiest girl he had ever seen—not even excepting Ida Merrill. And not only pretty, but with that indefinable stamp of breeding which so far Gilbert had hardly ever encountered.

"It was splendid!" she said, and her blue eyes shone. "Do you know, I—I really believe you saved my life." Gilbert felt suddenly bashful.

"It—it was the only thing I could do," he stammered.

"Save my life, you mean?" asked Nance demurely; and then they both laughed and the tension was snapped.

"You know I didn't mean it that way," said Gilbert. "I meant I had to draw the old beggar off."

"You did it wonderfully well," declared Nance. "But I had a bad moment when that tyre of yours blew up. I quite thought the nasty beast had got you."

"He only got the bike," said Gilbert.

"But he's smashed it all to bits," said Nance, suddenly grave. "You must let me make the damage good, Mr.—"

"Stratton is my name," put in Gilbert quickly, "but please don't speak of such a thing. It's all the fault of Shelcott, owner of the pit. He had no business to leave the bull in the newtake."

"Is he the man you ware talking to?"

"Yes. I used to work for him." Gilbert's voice was suddenly grim, and Nance gave him a quick glance.

"You don't like him," she said.

"We're not exactly bosom friends," remarked Gilbert. "I shall enjoy making him pay for a new bicycle."

"Well, I'll be your witness if he makes any trouble," vowed Nance. "My name is Nancy Aspland, and I live at Brimmacombe."

"I know—The Roost," said Gilbert quickly. "But what brings you up here on top of the moor?"

Nance explained about Mrs. Betts, and Gilbert nodded.

"I know her quite well. Widow of a poor fellow who was killed by an accident in the pit. A very nice woman, too. I'm going up to see my old foster-mother, Mrs. Clamp, so we may as well walk together."

"That will be very nice," said Nance, "especially if there are any more bulls about." Before they reached the row of cottages they were talking like old friends. Gilbert took her to the door of Betts' little house, and there she turned: "But how are you getting back?" she asked.

"Shank's mare," smiled Gilbert. "Perhaps you'll let me walk with you. Our roads lie together as far as Monk's Cross."

"That will be splendid." declared Nance.

"Splendid," agreed Gilbert happily. "I'll come back here for you in about half an hour." He went on to Clamp's. Mrs. Clamp was delighted to see him, and still more delighted when he told her of his new job. Her worn face shone.

"Five pounds a week! Why, you'm rich, Mr. Gilbert."

"I'll be richer still when I've collected that thirty pounds from Paul Shelcott," said Gilbert; but the good woman shook her head.

"You be careful. Mr. Gilbert. He'm a bad man, and I tell 'ee, he won't stop at much to get even with 'ee."

"He can't hurt me," said Gilbert confidently, and went on to make arrangements for having his goods hauled over to Elford that evening. Clamp would do it after supper. Then he went back cheerfully to meet Nancy, and found her equally cheerful, for Mrs. Betts had promised to come back to The Roost, so her domestic difficulties were solved.

The two walked off together across the moor, chatting as they went. Nance told something of her life in London, and was amazed to hear that Gilbert had never been there.

"But you seem to know so much about it," she said in a puzzled tone.

"I read," replied Gilbert modestly. "There isn't much else to do on winter evenings."

"I think it's wonderful," said Nance, and Gilbert glowed inwardly. The two were so interested in one another that they never saw or heard a man who rode up behind them.

"Hulloa, Stratton," he called, and Gilbert looked up to see James Merrill on his smart cob.

"Good morning, Merrill," he said brightly. "May I introduce you to Miss Aspland?" Merrill took off his hat with a flourish. Nance nodded.

"I hear you're staying with Barr," said James.

"Yes, but only until to-night. I've a job, Merrill."

"Have you, by Jove?"

"Yes, up at Elford."

"What—with Cowling?"

"Yes, I go there to-night."

"Congratulations! You won't forget Sunday."

"Not I," said Gilbert; and Merrill, raising his hat again with a smile, trotted off.

But he was not smiling when he reached home. On the contrary, there was a heavy frown on his face as he went into the house to look for his sister, whom he found arranging flowers in the dining-room. She looked up.

"What's the matter, James?" she asked lazily. "You look like a thundercloud."

"I've just seen young Stratton," he said. "He's got a job and a girl." Her lips tightened.

"Will you kindly tell me what you mean, James?"

"Exactly what I say. Gilbert Stratton was walking with a girl—a very pretty girl, and one years younger than you. This has got to be stopped, and it's up to you to stop it." He paused. "We're pretty near the end of our tether," he added significantly.


CHAPTER 7. — THE VAMP.

IDA'S whole face hardened. All its charm was gone, and she looked her full thirty years, or even more.

"What do you mean, James?" she asked, and her voice was as sharp as her looks.

"Just exactly what I say, my dear Ida. I've overdrawn at the bank; bills pile in every day, and if something isn't done we'll have to pack up and clear in a hurry."

"Clear—where to?"

"I shall go to America. You—well, I should suggest that you might find an opening in some seaside hotel where good- looking barmaids are still in request."

"You're a beast, James. You always were a beast."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Abuse won't get you anywhere. The remedy is in your own hands. You have only to catch this boy, and we're in easy street for the rest of our lives." Ida's face was furious with scorn.

"So you think you'll share Messenger's millions?" she sneered.

"I'm quite sure I shall," replied James, calmly. Defiance shone in Ida's eyes.

"Suppose I turn the whole thing down. Paul Shelcott would marry me any day."

"You'll never marry Paul Shelcott," James stated.

"You mean, you'd tell him?"

"Exactly. I don't want my half-sister prosecuted for bigamy."

"It will be bigamy just the same if I marry young Stratton," cried Ida.

"Speak a little more quietly, my dear," advised James. "Maids have long ears. Yes, of course it will be bigamy in any case, if you marry again while your present husband is still alive; but if it's Stratton, that doesn't matter, for a small allowance paid quarterly will keep Master Purvis's mouth shut."

"I think you're a devil, James," said Ida very slowly and distinctly.

"Not a devil or an angel—merely a man," replied James. "Now let's have an end of these heroics. Stratton is coming again on Sunday, and it's a pity if you, with all your cleverness, can't catch a raw boy like that."

He turned and left the room, and Ida dropped upon a chair and sat biting her lip, trying hard to compose herself. She was old enough to know that scenes like this played the very devil with her looks. She wasn't left long in peace, for within three minutes James was back in the room with a newspaper in his hand, and a look of unusual excitement on his face.

"Here's a nice business," he said sharply. "Old Messenger is missing." He held the paper out to her, pointing to a headline.

"A Missing Millionaire." Ida took the paper and glanced quickly down the column. Presently she looked up.

"They seem to think he's dead," she said slowly.

"And the odds are they're right," responded James. "When a man of that age stays away from his home you may take it as certain that something has happened to him. He has either drowned himself or some one has knocked him on the head."

"Then—then—" said Ida, "it's too late."

"Too late—what do you mean?"

"They will find Gilbert Stratton and tell him that he is the heir." James gave a short laugh.

"Anyone would think you were thirteen instead of thirty," he sneered. "Haven't I told you a dozen times that you and I are the only people who know that Gilbert Stratton is old Messenger's nearest relative? The lawyers—everyone believes that fat fellow, Aspland, is the heir, but he's only a great-nephew," he added, "and Stratton is grandson. Stratton's mother was Messenger's own daughter." Ida thought a little.

"But won't Aspland claim the money?" she said at length.

"Probably he will, but he can't touch it till there's proof of the old man's death." He paused. "All the same, it doesn't leave us much time, and the sooner you get to work the better. You want to have him tight before a word gets out," he added cynically. Ida shuddered.

"A raw boy like that," she muttered.

"Better than an old lag," retorted James brutally. "And once you've landed him you needn't have any more to do with him than you like." He stood looking down at her with hard eyes.

"All right. I'll do it," she said, and with a laugh James again left the room.

Gilbert, meanwhile, had started work at Elford. He was a little nervous at first, but soon found that, though there was plenty to do, there was nothing beyond his powers. His new employer was amazingly competent, and worked, himself, a full eight-hour day. He lived in a small house close to the office where the wife of one of the quarry-men did his cooking. Each morning he had Gilbert into his office and gave him dry, precise directions as to what was to be done, directions which Gilbert had no difficulty in carrying out. Gilbert had the happy knack of getting on with the workmen, and before the week was out had come to know most of them.

Sharp at twelve on Saturday work ceased for the week, but Gilbert was so accustomed to carrying on that he automatically went back to the office after his midday meal. A few minutes later Mr. Cowling entered.

"Have you not finished your week's work?" he asked drily.

"I've pretty well cleaned up, sir," replied Gilbert.

"Then kindly leave the office, and go and take some exercise or amuse yourself. I do not care to have my employees damaging their health by working overtime, unless there is special need."

"Very good, sir," said Gilbert quietly, and retired. His spirits rose. He had money in his pocket, and the afternoon was fine. He made up his mind that he would walk into Taverton and see if the new bicycle he had ordered was ready. Shelcott had paid up all right.

To his delight he found the machine waiting for him, and he tried it out with great joy. It was a joyful contrast to the old rattle-trap which Vindex had destroyed. Then he went to the tailor from whom he had ordered his new suit on the previous Thursday. He had begged the man to try and get it finished by Saturday, but had hardly expected him to do so.

Here was another pleasant surprise. It was ready and it fitted well. Gilbert had it packed, he paid for it, then made a round of the shops and bought new shirts, socks, and ties. He even indulged in a new hat. After that he fell in with Tom Horner, who asked him to tea, and was anxious to hear about his work at Elford. Gilbert assured him that he got on capitally with Cowling.

"He's a queer old bird," he said. "Do you know anything about him, Mr. Horner?"

"Not much," admitted Horner. "When he opened his account with us he transferred from a Cornish bank, so he must have been in tin or clay down there."

"He knows granite," said Gilbert. "He'll make Elford quarry pay better than it's ever paid yet."

"So much the better for you, my son," smiled Horner; and then Gilbert said good-bye and went off with all the goods strapped on the carrier of his new machine, making him look as if he was a traveller in the drapery business. He had had a very good afternoon, and he spent a pleasant evening sorting out his purchases and putting his rooms to rights. It was jolly to have two rooms of his own after his one little bedroom at Clamp's, and he was very busy fixing up his sitting room. He wanted it to be fit to receive visitors.

Next day was fine again, and he shaved and dressed with unusual care.

The quarry woman who acted as his housekeeper smiled at him when she had laid his breakfast. "You'm proper smart this morning, Mr. Stratton," she said. "Looks like you be going coorting." Gilbert, to his disgust, got very red, which tickled the good woman immensely.

A little after twelve, he went off on his new machine, and as he ran easily down the long winding road he could not help thinking how much had happened in the one week. More than in any year of his life previously. He had met the Merrills, quarrelled with Shelcott, stayed with Bobby, got a new job, and—he felt an odd thrill as he remembered—made friends with Nance Aspland. He found himself wishing that he was going to lunch with Nance instead of Ida, and suddenly he was very cross with himself. "You're an ungrateful brute, Gilbert," he remarked emphatically, and, pushing over the lever, sent his machine whizzing down the slope.

The door of Woodend opened almost before his finger had left the bell push, and there was Ida, looking, so Gilbert thought perfectly lovely. She was indeed a handsome woman, but Gilbert, in his innocence was not to know how much her looks owed to art. She gave him both hands.


Illustration

She gave him both hands.


"How smart you are, Gilbert!" she exclaimed. Then she looked a little confused, "Forgive me. I ought to have said 'Mr. Stratton.'"

"Please don't," begged Gilbert. "Gilbert sounds so nice from you." Her eyes widened a little. "He's not such a fool as he looks," was her thought, but what she said was:

"Then you'll have to call me Ida."

"I'll try," replied Gilbert, laughing. She took him round the garden, cut a late rose for his buttonhole, and they saw nothing of James until lunch-time.

Lunch was perfect as usual. There were partridges cooked as Gilbert had never seen them, a cream deliciously mixed with late autumn raspberries, and a savory of very delicate puff pastry just flavored with cheese. James sat and smoked a while with Gilbert, and talked of sport. It was one of the things James could talk about. Then he excused himself on the plea of having letters to write, and left Gilbert in the drawing-room with Ida. Ida made room for him on the sofa beside her. She laughed.

"It's absurd to think it's only a week since we first met," she said. "Tell me how you like your new work."

"I like it immensely," declared Gilbert. "Mr. Cowling gives me orders, but I have a free hand in carrying them out."

"Well," said Ida, "I'm glad you have found something not too far away. I was afraid, when you left the clay pits, that you might go out of this county altogether, and then we should have seen no more of you." Gilbert was flattered. What youngster of his age would not have been?

"Would you have minded?" he asked.

"Of course I should," said Ida softly. "Haven't I told you how lonely life is here on the moor?"

"But you and your brother must have plenty of friends."

"Acquaintances, yes, but friends are not so easy to find."

She looked up at him, and Gilbert saw that her eyes were not really green, but a curious hazel color, very soft and bright. They fascinated him, and all of a sudden he felt an intense desire to kiss her. And somehow he knew that she would not mind being kissed. He bent towards her.

Another instant and his lips would have been on hers, when all in a flash Nance's face rose between them. Nance, with her fresh, clear skin and bright, honest eyes. The illusion was so strong that Gilbert stiffened.

"I beg your pardon, Ida," he said gently.

"What for?" In spite of herself, Ida's voice was sharp. She had failed, and she had not the faintest notion why she had failed. She was furious.


CHAPTER 8. — DEAD MAN'S SWIM.

JUST before dusk that afternoon Gilbert arrived at Bobby Barr's place at Randlestone, and Bobby welcomed him boisterously.

"Gosh, look at the man! I say, Gilbert, you didn't put on those togs to call on me." Gilbert tried to laugh, but made rather a poor job of it, and Bobby, who had a heap of good, sound common sense under his happy-go-lucky exterior, saw at once that something was wrong, and quickly changed the subject.

"I got another salmon yesterday, Gilbert. You must take a chunk of it home with you. But here's Mrs. Chard to say tea's ready. Come in and have a mug." He chattered away so cheerfully that Gilbert soon began to feel better. The tea was hot and strong, and there were Devonshire "tough cakes," light as feathers, with Devonshire cream and Devonshire strawberry jam. Bobby waited until he saw that his friend was in a better frame of mind, then began to angle artfully to get at the source of his depression.

"You been lunching with the Merrills, haven't you, old man?"

"Yes," said Gilbert rather shortly, and Bobby knew at once that he was on the track.

"Are you going there next Sunday?"

"No."

"Then come here. I want to fix up a picnic to Black Tor Gorge. You remember that girl you rescued from the bull, Miss Aspland?"

"Yes, of course."

"She and her father are coming. Is it a go?"

"Rather," Gilbert brightened so that Bobby nearly laughed. But not quite. He was too wise for that.

"I think it will be rather jolly," he went on.

"Topping, if it's only a fine day," agreed Gilbert cordially; "but I say, I didn't know you knew the Asplands."

"I didn't till you told me about them. Then I went and called. Nice little place they've got at Brimmacombe, and Miss Aspland knows how to run it. Pretty girl, too, rather!"

"Pretty—she's lovely," declared Gilbert indignantly, and again Bobby smothered a grin.

Gilbert sat with his legs straight out and an unlighted cigarette between his lips. He was gazing into space, and Bobby, too, sat silent. After a bit Gilbert took the cigarette from his mouth and turned his eyes on Bobby.

"I say, Bobby, you'll probably think I'm an awful fool, but can a chap be in love with two girls at once?"

"Of course he can," said Bobby promptly. "He can love one because she's pretty, and the other because she's nice." Gilbert nodded gravely.

"I see. One's a physical attraction and the other mental.

"That's about the size of it," agreed Bobby, and waited again. He knew too much to ask questions.

"Did you ever meet Ida Merrill?" Gilbert asked presently.

"Yes. Now there's a pretty woman for you, if you like."

"Why did you say woman?"

"Because she's 30 if she's a day." Gilbert's eyes widened.

"Thirty! You're crazy. She can't be a day over 25."

"Ask her" said Bobby, then he laughed. "No, that wouldn't be much use. Go and look up her baptismal register. Anyway I'll bet you 5/ to 5d. that she'll never see 30 again."

A shocked look had come upon Gilbert's face, and Bobby, watching him shrewdly, began to size up the situation.

"That dame's been trying to vamp the poor kid," he said to himself. "I wonder what her game is?"

"I'm afraid I don't know much about women," said Gilbert at last.

"Don't worry!" grinned Bobby. "You'll learn."

"Oh, I'm learning all right," replied Gilbert, rather grimly, and got up. "Now I must push off." Bobby tried to get him to stay for supper, but Gilbert quietly refused.

"All right, if you must go," said Bobby at last. "But it's a date for Sunday next. Come early, will you?" Gilbert promised and rode off into the darkness of the calm autumn night.

As he rode slowly up the long hill he met a car, and in the glare of his own headlight spotted it as Shelcott's two-seater. Shelcott, too, recognised Gilbert, and gave him an ugly stare, then swished past and turned down a side road.

"Going to Woodend for supper," said Gilbert to himself; and went on home very thoughtful.

Next day he had a charming note from Ida asking him to lunch again the following Sunday. In reply, instead of merely pleading a previous engagement, Gilbert thought it was up to him to explain just what that engagement was, and ended by thanking Ida and her brother for all their kindness, and saying he hoped to call some day soon.

The weather remained fine till Friday, when it blew a gale and rained; Saturday it poured all day, and that afternoon Gilbert sat in his snug room reading, and every now and then looking out at the grey sheets driving past his window. It seemed certain that the weather had broken completely, and that the picnic was doomed.

Sunday dawned dark and dull, but the wind had changed to east, and the glass was rising slowly. Just after breakfast a gleam of pale sunshine broke through the clouds, then, like magic, the sky cleared, and by ten o'clock the great moor basked under an arch of purest blue. Gilbert could not have asked a finer day had it been made to order. Bobby had told him to come as early as he could, and Gilbert started at eleven.

Gilbert was surprised to find an A.A. Man posted on the top of Meripit Hill. Who warned him that the main road was partly washed away, and that he would have to go round by Woodend.

As he passed the house with its pretty trees, their foliage glorious with autumn tints, he suddenly felt glad that he was not spending his Sunday as he had spent the last two. He realised that there was something odd about the atmosphere of Woodend, and began to wonder again, as he had wondered a fortnight earlier, why the Merrill's had been so civil to him.

Then his mood changed, and he cursed himself for an ungrateful ass. These people had been extraordinarily kind, and, after all, it was entirely through meeting them that he had left Shelcott, got decent work, better prospects, and—this, of course, the biggest thing of all—met Nance. And now he was going to meet Nance for a second time, and his spirits shot up. He switched on more power and roared away down the valley with the river in full flood roaring louder still to his left. Bobby greeted him joyously.

"'Pon my Sam, work agrees with you, Gilbert. You're looking fine."

"It isn't work, you ass!" retorted Gilbert. "It's the prospect of some play."

"With the fair Nance!" grinned Bobby. "Here, let up, you big bully!" he protested, as he found himself picked up bodily and flung upon a sofa. "You shan't have any lunch if you do that again," he threatened. They fooled like two schoolboys, and when Nance and her father arrived they found the pair in the highest spirits. The hamper was ready, so was the car; they all packed in. Bobby and Mr. Aspland in front, Nance and Gilbert in the dicky, and off they went.

Black Tor Gorge is one of the show places of the Moor. Here the Thane breaks down from the High Moor through a bed of granite for a distance of about two miles, forming a narrow gorge about a hundred feet deep, at the bottom of which the river runs narrow, dark, and swift. A footpath has been cut along one side just high enough above the river to be beyond the reach of floods, and the cliffs on either side are covered with mountain ash, bramble, all sorts of growth, and huge sheets of ancient ivy.

In summer the gorge is lovely, but that day majestic was a better word to describe it, for the river, swollen by two days' rain, came thundering down through the depths with a force and fury that filled the great cleft with terrifying sound. The four stood on the road bridge and looked down into the depths, and for a while were very silent.

"A terrible place," said Reginald Aspland at last in a very subdued voice.

"Wait till you've seen it closer," said Bobby cheerfully.

"This is close enough for me," declared the other.

"It's quite safe," protested Bobby. "The path is railed." Aspland shook his head.

"You can go if you like. I'll take care of the car and the tea."

"You're just lazy, Dad," chaffed Nance, as she left him. A flight of wooden steps took the three down to the level of the footpath. The flood swirled only a foot or so beneath, a mass of spinning eddies covered with clots of yellow foam. The boom of the penned waters in the great hollows underneath the path was deafening; the very rock seemed to quiver under the impact of their rush.

"Dad's right," said Nance in an awed voice. "It's simply terrific."

"You'll see it better lower down," Bobby told her. "There's a footbridge a bit below there. We cross by that and go up the steps the other side." Nance looked doubtful.

"Is it safe?" she asked. Gilbert saw his chance.

"Take my arm and you'll be right as rain," he assured her; and without waiting for further permission slipped her hand through his arm, and they started after Bobby. There were several places where the path was muddy and slippery with earth washed from above, and Gilbert thrilled as Nance slipped a little, and he felt her weight on him.

"I ought to have had nailed shoes," she told him. "Really, I'm pretty good on rocks."

"I think you'd be good at anything you tried," said Gilbert in a matter-of-fact tone. The roar of the water made talking difficult, and the talking was none too easy, but Bobby, scrambling ahead, led them to the footbridge and stood aside for Nance to cross first.

"You'll get a topping view from the middle, Miss Aspland," he said. "That pool below—they call it Dead Man's Swim." Nance shivered.

"What a horrid name! Why do they call it that?"

"Because if anyone falls in above that's where they're found," Bobby explained. "They get in that big eddy to the left and stay there. Have a look at it."

Nance stepped lightly on to the bridge, which was simply a couple of larch trunks with slats reached across, and provided with a light handrail. Gilbert followed. As Nance reached the centre there was a slight crackling sound, and the whole structure of the bridge began to sag.

"Look out!" shouted Gilbert, and, seizing Nance, tried to rush her across to the far side. There was a louder crack, both supports seemed to break at once, and next thing Gilbert knew he and Nance went down amid the wreckage into the broiling flood.

"Dead Man's Swim!" Bobby's words seemed to echo through Gilbert's mind as the chill yellow water closed over them both.


CHAPTER 9. — THE LAST MINUTE.

GILBERT was a strong swimmer. What was more, he was a fresh-water swimmer, and that makes a lot of difference. He struck out and forced himself and Nance to the surface. She was as cool as he, and it was with a throb of relief that he realised she, too, could swim.

Already the current had them in its grip, and was carrying them swiftly down the centre of the pool, which was, perhaps, thirty yards long. Beyond was a narrow gully through which the penned water ran like a sluice. Once in that they would be swept away like straws, slammed against the rocks, and finished beyond hope. In a flash Gilbert saw that their one chance was to get into the big eddy which swirled under the high bank to the right.

"The eddy," he yelled to Nance. He had no breath to waste on talking, but he saw by the look in her eyes that she understood, and as he struck out so did she.

The pull of the flood was terrific, the water was bitterly cold, and Gilbert's clothes dragged him down. But he was fit and fresh, and hard as nails. What was more, he had the will to win out, and that often counts for more than mere muscle power. Even so, if Nance had not helped, he could never have done it. She was hardly any weight on him, and was as cool or even cooler than he. Panting with the fearful exertion, the two forced their way out of the fierce rush and all of a sudden were caught in the great eddy and swung in towards the bank.

"Dead Man's Swim," said Nance, and Gilbert's lips tightened.

"It's life for us," he said. She glanced round.

"But there's no way out," she said quietly, and she was right, for the rock ran straight up for at least six feet without the ghost of a hold of any sort. Bobby's voice came to them above the thunder of the water.

"Hang on, you two. I'll get you out."

Gilbert saw him starting to swing himself down from the ledge above.

"Stop that," he shouted. "Stop it, Bobby. You'll only fall in. Go and fetch a rope."

Bobby hesitated, and Gilbert saw the look of agonised indecision on his face. "It's the only way, Bobby," he urged. "Don't worry. We can keep afloat." Bobby saw that Gilbert was right. He turned and ran.

"He has a long way to go," said Nance. Her tone was quiet and collected as ever, but Gilbert saw that she realised their danger.

"Bobby's pretty fleet," he said. "Hang on to me, Nance, I can keep you up.

"I'm quite all right," she answered. "I could stay afloat for half an hour if it wasn't for my clothes." She was treading water easily as she spoke, but Gilbert saw that her lips were blue. The cold was their worst enemy.

"If only we could get hold of something," he muttered under his breath, but she heard him.

"There's nothing, is there?" she said. He towed her in close under the bank and tried to find a hold, but there was none. The rock, polished by the floods of centuries, was smooth as the wall of a house, and the only cleft he could see was above his reach. He felt with his toes for any projection below water, but could not find any. Nance saw the look on his face.

"It's all right," she said. "I can keep afloat."

Gilbert thrilled at the pluck of her, and the odd thought flashed through his mind: "Suppose it had been Ida Merrill." He could not see her swimming boldly in this icy, swirling pool. The swirl was the worst of it. It kept on tugging them away from the bank, and they had to struggle all the time to save themselves from being drawn into the suck, where the undertow would have dragged them both under.

A minute passed. It seemed like an hour. Nance's lips were terribly blue and she was sinking deeper in the water. Gilbert himself was growing numbed with the intense cold, and his clothes dragged him down. If he had been alone he would have tried to get rid of his coat, but he dared not relax his hold on Nance for even a moment. Nance spoke again.

"I'm sorry, Gilbert. I'm afraid I'm going to faint," she said. Her voice, though little more than a whisper, was still perfectly steady. Gilbert tightened his hold on her.

"Keep up, Nance," he begged earnestly. "Bobby can't be long now. But even if you do faint I can keep you afloat."


Illustration

"Keep up, Nance," he begged earnestly.


"You're splendid," said Nance, "but if I go you will save yourself."

"I won't." Gilbert's face was agonised. "If you go, I go too. I can't live without you."

A faint smile crossed Nance's pinched face, then her eyes closed, and suddenly she went dead in his arms. Gilbert tried to lift her, but the effort sent him under water, and he realised that the end was very near.

Yet life was sweet, and he vowed to himself that he would hang on to the last moment. The chill cold was his worst enemy, for it was numbing his mind as well as his body. He was like a man freezing to death in a blizzard longing above all things to sleep.

Once more he raised his head and looked along the path, but there was no sign of Bobby.

"Looking for a rope, I expect," he said dully. "Poor old Bobby. He'll be sick when he finds we're gone." He was going. He knew it. The thunder of the flood seemed to rise and fall like the surge of sea waves, and strange colours danced before his eyes. He looked down at Nance's pale face and pinched, yet very peaceful.

"I'm sorry, dear," he said hoarsely. "I've done my best."

Something bumped against him with a shock that roused him sharply from his coma of exhaustion. It seemed to rise from under him. Instinctively he snatched at it, and found it was a part of the broken bridge. Sucked under by some freak of the flood, it had been flung into the great eddy to rise just in the nick of time under Gilbert and Nance. Instantly Gilbert found himself and Nance raised so that their heads and shoulders were clear of the water.

"Nance, Nance, wake up." he cried. "We're saved." But Nance lay very still and quiet on his arm. He lifted her as far as he could, and, paddling with his feet, was able to keep the mass of timber close in under the bank. This sudden bit of luck coming when he least expected it had roused him from his stupor, and he felt good to hold on until help came.

It was coming. Here was Bobby racing recklessly along the path, and behind him a second man, a stranger. Behind him again panted Reginald Aspland. He had forgotten his fear of the narrow path. Bobby got there first.

"Still on top. Good for you, old man," he panted as he rapidly uncoiled the rope and flung the loose end down.

"Nance has fainted, Bobby. You'll have to be very careful," said Gilbert. As he spoke he was trying with numbed fingers to knot a loop around Nance's body. Somehow he managed it. By this time the stranger, a youngish man who wore spectacles, was on the spot and ready to lend a hand. Between them they lifted Nance carefully up the steep bank.

"Take her to that cottage by the bridge," Gilbert ordered. "She'll die of cold if you don't get her to a fire at once."

"So'll you," replied Bobby briefly. "Catch hold." By this time Gilbert was almost helpless, yet he managed somehow to twist the rope round himself, and they had him out in very short order. But he couldn't stand.

"Never mind me," he begged. "Get Nance into the warmth. Go on, I tell you."

"Here, Stratton. Try some of this?" Reginald Aspland brought out a flask, and filled a silver cup.

"But Nance," urged Gilbert. "Can't she take some?"

"Drink it, I tell you," said Aspland. "Nance will be all right." Gilbert drank. It was old brandy, and the warmth of it went to his very bones. Some color came back to his face, and with Aspland's help he was able to walk. The other two were already carrying Nance back up the path, and in spite of its difficulties they made short work of the journey. Gilbert followed. He was half wild with anxiety. At first he staggered, and Aspland had to help him, but after a little the blood began to move again in his chilled veins and he got on better.

Mrs. Blandy, the woman who lived in the cottage by the bridge, and who made her living by providing teas for sightseers, had already heard of the accident and had a fire lighted and blankets warming. A quick, capable body, she soon had Nance into her own bedroom.

"I'll tend to the lady," she said. "Take the gentleman into the other room. There's some clothes of my boy's there if he'll make shift with them." Bobby helped Gilbert to strip off his soaked garments.

"Rotten end for your new suit, old man," he remarked, as he squeezed the water out of Gilbert's coat, "but cleaners do wonderful things. Here, what about this pair of bags? They won't be much too small for you." He saw how shaken Gilbert was, and kept up a constant flow of talk and chaff so as to give his friend a chance to recover.

"But Nance," said Gilbert. "Bobby, do you think she'll get better?"

"Bless you, she'll be eating a bigger tea than you in half an hour's time," grinned Bobby.

"She was so brave," said Gilbert.

"She hasn't a monopoly of courage," replied Bobby drily. "I'm hanged if I could have kept myself, let alone another person, afloat in that death hole for nearly five minutes."

"I couldn't have done it if that piece of the broken bridge hadn't floated up, Bobby," said Gilbert gravely. "I was just going under when it came."

"Well, you didn't, anyhow," cut in Bobby hastily. "And you're all right now. So just don't think of it any more, but get those togs on and come and have tea. We're going to have it here in the house. Oh, I've asked that fellow who helped us, Goodbody his name is, to feed with us. He's a rum looking blighter, but I couldn't do less."

Gilbert came out into the sitting-room wearing Mrs. Blandy's son's best suit. It was a curious sort of mauve color, but it fitted him fairly well, and, anyhow no one was in a state to worry much about clothes.

"How's Miss Aspland?" was his first eager question to Mrs. Blandy.

"She's quite right, sir," was the cheery answer. "I wanted her to lie down an hour or two after a shock like that, but, bless you, she won't hear tell of it." As she spoke she was pouring boiling water into the teapot. The room was warm and cosy, Nance was better, and Gilbert's spirits rose. A minute later, Nance herself came in. The fact that she was attired in a blue flannel dressing-gown belonging to Mrs. Blandy, and slippers much too big for her slim feet, did not in the least detract from her looks. She came straight to Gilbert.

"You're all right?" she asked anxiously. "Of course—but you?"

"Warm again and hungry," said Nance, with a delightful smile. "I can't think why I was so silly as to faint. But here's tea, and I do want a cup. Sit down, Mr. Goodbody. I have to thank you for helping us as you did."

"It was nothing," he said. "I'm very glad I was there at the time. But I'd like to know how the bridge came to break down." Gilbert opened his lips as if to speak, then checked.

"Timber's rotten, I expect," said Bobby. "Beastly damp place, y'know."

"I've crossed it many a time," said Goodbody, with a shiver. "My word, I'd hate to have gone through, especially with that flood on. You were lucky not to be swept down. But I take it you swim, Miss Aspland?" All through tea he kept on asking questions, and as soon as the meal was over he excused himself, went out, and they heard him roaring away on a powerful motor bicycle.

"Queer kind of bird," remarked Bobby.

"Wonder who he is."

"He comes from Plymouth, sir," said Mrs. Blandy, "but I don't know what he does." They sat a while by the glowing peat fire; then, as it was getting dark, packed up. Bobby gave Mrs. Blandy a tip which made the good lady open her eyes, and told her he would call the next day for the wet clothes which she was drying. Then they drove off.

This time Nance sat in front with Bobby so as to keep warmer behind the wind-screen, so Gilbert had no chance of further talk with her. Bobby drove the Asplands straight home, then took Gilbert back to his own place for supper. Afterwards they sat and smoked. Gilbert was quiet, and Bobby took it he was tired. He had a right to be, he thought, after what he had gone through. Suddenly Gilbert took his pipe out of his mouth.

"Bobby, remember what that chap, Goodbody, asked about the bridge breaking?"

"Yes—what about it? Wasn't I right?"

"No," replied Gilbert. "It wasn't rotten. Someone had sawn both the supports nearly through. I spotted that when that piece floated up and I hung on to it." All the fun went out of Bobby's face.

"The devil!" he remarked softly.

"That's what I thought," replied Gilbert.


CHAPTER 10. — JAMES TRIES AGAIN.JAMES TRIES AGAIN.

"YOU seem to have been distinguishing yourself, Stratton," said Mr. Cowling dryly as he entered the office next morning. Gilbert looked up sharply, and his employer handed him an open newspaper. The first thing Gilbert saw was a heavily- leaded heading:

ACCIDENT AT BLACK TOR GORGE.

Gallant Rescue by Young Quarry Manager.

Below was a highly-spiced but on the whole, fairly accurate account of the accident and the rescue. The writer made much of Nance Aspland's charm and Gilbert's pluck.

"Hell!" said Gilbert, and for the first time in his experience he saw a slight smile cross Cowling's grim lips.

"I agree," said the latter. Then more kindly. "Are you any the worse, Stratton?"

"Not a bit, thank you, sir."

"And the lady?"

"She fainted, but that was the cold, and she was soon all right when we got her to a fire. She was wonderfully plucky; a jolly sight cooler than I."

"I'm glad it was no worse." said the other as he seated himself at his desk and picked up a letter. "This shipment to Ilfracombe, Stratton." he went on, and after that he spoke only of business.

Almost at the same hour the same account was being read by James Merrill at the breakfast table at Woodend. Merrill's face changed as he read, and the look of genial good fellowship, which was what he usually showed to the world, changed to an ugly and dangerous scowl. The oath which escaped his lips was so savage that his sister looked up sharply.

"What's the matter, James?" she asked sharply. He flung the paper across to her.

"Read this, and perhaps you'll understand," he sneered.

Ida's face, too, changed as she read the column. It grew older and harder.

"This is awkward," she said.

"Awkward," repeated Merrill. He was very angry. "It's hell, and it's all your infernal blundering. You had your chance and you messed it up. You were so infernally crude in your methods that you scared the boy off. Now the odds are that he's out of your net, and you'll never have another opportunity to catch him." Ida rose to her feet. A dull flush stained her cheeks.

"And if I had, I would not take it," she said, with a kind of bitter intensity. Then without another word she swept out of the room. James swore feelingly.

"Now I've done it," he muttered. "Got her back up properly. But something must be done. If that bill isn't met next month I'm finished. It's worse than bankruptcy. They'll have me in quod if I can't raise the wind."

For a while he sat quite still, frowning into vacancy, then at last got up.

"I'll have to eat humble pie," he said resignedly. "Well, I'd better let her simmer down a bit first. I don't want to have my head snapped off." He lit a pipe and sat in his study, and allowed an hour to pass before he went in search of Ida. He found her in her own sitting-room, reading. She did not even look up as he entered, and James bit his lip. His task was going to be harder than he had supposed.

"Ida," he said, "Ida." At last she glanced up, but he got no comfort from the look on her face.

"I've come to apologise," he said.

"It's too late for that, James. I'm finished," she answered coldly. James bit his lip, and inwardly cursed the ill temper which had led him into the quarrel.

"Don't be foolish, Ida," he begged. "I lost my temper, and said things I shouldn't have said. Now I'm ready to eat humble pie."

"I've heard all that before," Ida spoke with a quietness that frightened James. "I'm fed up. The other day you advised me to go back to my old job. I've made up my mind to do so. In an hotel I shall at any rate be my own mistress out of working hours." James was silent.. His affairs were in a desperate way, and without Ida's help there was no hope of getting out of the hole in which he found himself.

"Perhaps you're right," he said at last, with a shrug. "Fact is I'm not fit for any woman to be in the same house with me. But it's worry that's driving me into these fits of temper." Ida looked a little surprised. She had never before seen James in quite this mood. "Our coup has failed," he went on. "It was a big thing, and I put all I had into it. Well, I shall have to clear out at once, and so will you, for I can't tell how soon the bailiffs will be in."

"I thought you still had five hundred," said Ida sharply.

"I haven't fifty left, and I'll need thirty of that to buy a ticket to Canada. You can have the rest to tide you over till you get work." Ida was startled. She had not thought matters had come to such a pass, and although she had spoken definitely enough of going back to her old position as barmaid, yet it was work she hated. Indeed, with her lazy, pleasure-loving nature, she hated any kind of work. James read her thoughts.

"It's a pity you're not a match for a chit like this Aspland girl," he remarked quietly. This stirred Ida. She sniffed—one might almost have said she snorted.

"That little fool. I'm not afraid of her."

"You oughtn't to be, Ida," said James gravely. "You're still a remarkably handsome woman, and don't look your age by a good five years. How about having one more try? After all, the stake is worth a bit of trouble. A million doesn't come our way twice in a lifetime." Ida considered.

"You'll have to help. James. It's no good asking him here again."

"I'll do anything I can, Ida. Between us we ought to hit on some plan for roping him in." He sat down. "I've got a sort of notion," he went on. "Listen now and tell me if you think it might work."

While the Merrills were talking, Bobby Barr was driving to Black Tor to fetch Gilbert's suit. He brought it home, lunched, and later in the afternoon drove up to Elford, where Gilbert, who had just finished work for the day, greeted him with joy.

"Brought your kit, old son," said Bobby, as he handed over a cardboard box.

"Don't suppose they'll be much good for anything," said Gilbert rather ruefully. "And I haven't even paid for them yet. Decent of you to tie 'em up so nicely." He cut the string as he spoke, opened the box, and stared in amazement at the contents.

"Why, they're as good as new!" he exclaimed. "How the deuce did you do this, Bobby?"

"I didn't. It was Chard. He cleaned and pressed them."

"He's a nailer," declared Gilbert delighted. "I'll thank him myself when I see him." Then his face changed. "Have you seen the paper, Bobby?" Bobby chuckled.

"You bet. Gives you a good ad., Gilbert."

"I think it's rotten," said Gilbert sourly: "but who did it? How did they get all that stuff?" Bobby laughed again.

"That fellow, Goodbody, is one of their reporters. You didn't know we were entertaining angels unawares."

"Devils more like," growled Gilbert. "Nance—Miss Aspland will be awfully sick about this."

"Don't worry. She won't think it was your fault."

"I hope she won't," said Gilbert wistfully. "Bobby, do you—do you think she and her father would come to tea one day?"

"Ask them," said Bobby briefly.

"But here, I mean," said Gilbert, looking disparagingly around his rather bare sitting-room.

"Of course they will," declared Bobby. "And you can show 'em the quarry. They'll be frightfully bucked." Gilbert looked cheered.

"Do you really think so?"

"Of course I think so. I'm jolly sure of it. Get a few flowers, and some cakes from Taverton, and it'll be a top-hole show."

"I thought of Thursday afternoon," said Gilbert. "Cowling will let me off at three o'clock. I asked him. And can you come, Bobby?"

"Sorry, old man, but I'm going to London town on Thursday to stay till Monday. There's an old Wykehamist dinner on, and I've promised to go. But you carry on, and I'll tell you what. I'm passing The Roost on my way home, and if you like to write a note I'll leave it."

"You're a brick," declared Gilbert gratefully, and, pushing the cigarette box towards Bobby, sat down to write his letter.

He got the answer next day—his first letter from Nance. She and her father would be delighted to come. They would be with him about half-past three. And Gilbert was not to worry about that stupid stuff in the paper, for Mr. Barr had told her who was responsible.

That very evening Gilbert rode into Taverton. Cakes, flowers—everything must be of the best. Sturrock, the baker, promised delivery on Thursday morning, and vowed that Gilbert should have no cause for complaint.

All Thursday morning Gilbert was in a fuss, which did not escape the keen old eyes of his employer. But Cowling made no remark. His lunch hour Gilbert spent in putting the final touches to his room. Two big vases of chrysanthemums added the needed color, and the cakes were all that Sturrock had promised. Fresh rolls, too, and tough cakes, and saffron buns, and a blue bowl of Devonshire cream.

An hour's work in the office, clearing up for the day, then Gilbert went back to wait for his guests. At twenty past three he heard a car coming, and hurried down to meet the Asplands. Nance hadn't said that they would ride, but the afternoon was overcast, and perhaps they had thought better to hire a car. He knew they had not a car of their own. Reaching the door, he found the car already there. But surely this was no hired car.

"Hullo, Stratton, how are you? My sister and I decided to come and look you up. Hope you're not busy." The voice was that of James Merrill, and Gilbert's heart sank to his very boots. Of all the rotten luck! Now Ida and Nance would meet, and, worse, Nance would think that he had asked the Merrills to meet her. Gilbert might not know much about women, but he did know that Nance Aspland and Ida Merrill would mix about as well as oil and vinegar.


CHAPTER 11. — GILBERT LEARNS ABOUT WOMEN.

THERE was good stuff in Gilbert.

Even Ida, watching him keenly could see nothing but welcome in his face, though she suspected—you might say knew—that he was raging inwardly.

"Do come in," he said, cordially, as he helped Ida out. "My rooms are upstairs," he explained, as he led the way.

"But how charming!" cried Ida when she entered the room. With the bright fire, the big vases of chrysanthemums, his books and his pictures, Gilbert's sitting-room did indeed look most comfortable and cosy.

"You do yourself jolly well, Stratton," added James genially.

"I am expecting some friends to tea," Gilbert said quietly. "But don't be afraid. There'll be plenty for all of us."

James laughed.

"You're becoming quite a society man, Stratton. I thought you told me once that you knew nobody."

"That was true, then," Gilbert answered simply. "You and Miss Merrill started me, you see." As he spoke he was getting fresh cups and saucers out of the cupboard and putting them on the table. The kettle was already on the fire. In work of this kind Gilbert was handy as a woman. Life at Clamp's had taught him many things of which the average young man is completely ignorant. But all the time he had one eye on the window, and sure enough in a few minutes he saw Nance and her father riding up.

"You'll excuse me a minute while I bring my guests," he said, and was out of the room with a swiftness which did not escape Ida's notice.

"He's in love with that girl," she said to her brother as the door closed behind Gilbert.

"He'll be out again before you've finished with him," said James confidently.

Gilbert meantime was hurrying downstairs. Here was his chance to explain, and he must not lose it. Nance had pulled up, and he saw that her eyes were on the car.

"It's the Merrills," he said in a low voice, as he helped her off. "Miss Merrill and her brother have just turned up. I—I didn't ask them." Nance made a little face.

"What a bother! Never mind. It can't be helped. Where shall we put our ponies?"

"I have a man here to take them. There's a stable where they will be quite safe." Then as he led them into the house he asked Nance: "Have you met the Merrills?"

"No. I suppose really we ought to call, since we have had The Roost longer than they have been at Woodend. But Dad has never lived down here, and I never paid any calls while I was on holiday in Devonshire. You'd better introduce me, and I'll explain things to Miss Merrill."

Gilbert managed the introductions very creditably, and was relieved to find that James and Mr. Aspland began to talk at once. But the two girls did not hit it off so well. Gilbert was conscious that they were far too polite to one another. For himself, he had to be busy making the tea, for the kettle was already boiling.

"You can see Gilbert's cut out for a bachelor," laughed Ida. "Can't you, Miss Aspland? Look at the way he warms the teapot before putting in the tea." Nance looked up sharply at Ida's use of the Christian name, but Ida went on. "Gilbert and I are old friends. James and I take credit that we were the first to make him come out of his shell." She laughed again. "The worst of these men who start late is that, once they are started, there's no stopping them. Gilbert's becoming a regular flirt." Gilbert saw a shadow cross Nance's face. He broke in quickly.


Illustration

"Gilbert's becoming a regular flirt."


"Tea's ready. Won't you come and sit down? We're going to have a schoolroom tea, and all sit round the table."

It was a very good tea, and the Merrills and Mr. Aspland seemed to enjoy it; but Nance ate little and for Gilbert the whole thing was completely spoiled. Ida kept up a constant flow of talk, but Nance was very silent. Gilbert was thankful when it was over.

"Now come and see the quarry." he said.

"I think we ought to be going," said Nance. He gave her a quick look.

"No, please. It's quite early still, and the quarry is worth seeing."

"Very well, but we mustn't be long," replied Nance. "It gets dark quickly these evenings."

Work was over for the day when they reached the great gash in the hillside—that is the men had stopped and gone to their homes. But in granite quarries blasting is done either during the dinner hour or after work hours, and a blast was due on this particular evening. This Gilbert had forgotten, and it was not until the party had climbed the hill at the back of the quarry that he noticed the red danger flag flying.

"Stop, please!" he cried quickly. "Get back all of you. They're going to fire a charge." He hurried them back from the verge, but before they had gone half a dozen steps there came a sudden deep boom, sounding like heavy artillery in the distance. The whole hillside seemed to jump upwards under their feet. The men staggered, Gilbert caught Nance and saved her, but Ida, standing a little apart from the rest, fell heavily.

There followed a deep-toned roar as a huge mass of granite dislodged by the force of the explosion toppled outwards and fell into the bed of the vast pit. Nance was the first to speak.

"Miss Merrill is hurt," she said quickly; and Gilbert and James both sprang forward to where Ida lay flat on her face on the rocky hillside.

"Not hurt, I do hope." said Gilbert anxiously.

"Stunned," replied James, as he lifted her. "Or else she's fainted. Help me carry her in." Ida was no light weight, and both the men were breathing hard by the time they got her back to Gilbert's sitting-room, where they laid her on the sofa.

"It's a faint," said Nance presently. "I don't think she's hurt. Get some cold water, please, Mr. Stratton." He ran into his bedroom and fetched a basin of cold water and a sponge, and Nance bathed the other girl's forehead while Gilbert stood by, a good deal troubled. Presently Ida sighed and stirred.

"She's coming round," said Nance, and stepped back a little. Ida opened her eyes and gazed up at Gilbert.

"Gilbert," she said softly, and stretching out her arms, flung them round his neck. She did it in a dreamy, dazed sort of fashion, as if she hardly knew what she was about. Then suddenly she seemed to wake up.

"Oh, how silly I am!" she exclaimed, and laughed again. "I quite forgot that anyone else was here." Gilbert was scarlet. He burned with rage and misery, but the others could not know this. To them it looked as though he were merely abashed. Nance spoke.

"Don't mind us, Miss Merrill." Then she, too, laughed; but both her tone and her laugh were unlike anything that Gilbert had ever heard from her. "In any case we are going. Come, Dad." She picked up her coat. Gilbert moved to help her on with it, but she had already handed it to her father.

"Good-bye, Mr. Stratton," she said. She was still smiling, but her voice was ice. "Thank you for our nice tea. No, don't trouble to come down. We can find our ponies. The man said he would wait." She went straight out. Gilbert followed, but she paid no more attention to him than if he had not been there. The man was waiting with the ponies, and Nance swung to the saddle without help.

"Good-bye, Stratton," said her father, and to Gilbert it seemed that he, too, spoke coldly. He watched them ride away into the gloom of the autumn night, and turned to find the Merrills in the hall.

"Quite time we were getting on, too, Stratton," said James. "We're going into Plymouth to a dinner to-night. Thanks awfully for looking after us so well."

"Good-bye." said Gilbert. "I hope you'll have a good time." Nothing in his voice or manner betrayed the anger that burned within him; but when they were gone he went slowly back upstairs, dropped into a chair, and sat very still, staring into the fire, a prey to the bitterest thoughts he had ever known.

"She did it on purpose," he said at last. And then, after a long pause, "But why? I don't understand. I don't believe she really cares." He laughed bitterly. "Bobby said I should learn about women. By gad, he was right."

He was roused by a knocking below, and getting out of his chair went down. He took it that the foreman wanted to see him about something, but when he reached the front door it was not the foreman, but a smaller man wearing a leather coat and goggles, who stood beside a powerful motor bicycle.

Gilbert peered at him through the gloom.

"Why, it's Mr. Goodbody, isn't it?" he said.

"It is, and I've come all the way from Plymouth to see you. Can you spare me a few minutes?"

"Come in," said Gilbert, and as he took the man upstairs he wondered what had brought him all this distance. But the reporter seemed in no hurry to tell him. He settled himself comfortably before the fire, lit the cigarette Gilbert had given him, and stretched forward his cold hands to warm them at the fire.

"A nice little place you've got here, Mr. Stratton," he said, peering at Gilbert through his glasses.

"You didn't come here to tell me that," returned Gilbert; and Goodbody grinned. It was a genial sort of grin, and Gilbert saw that his visitor had very good white teeth, and that his eyes behind their big lenses were a clear and pleasant grey. Though his hair was untidy, his clothes dusty, and his boots badly blacked, Gilbert found himself rather liking the man.

"That's a fact," said Goodbody. "I came to talk to you about last Sunday." Gilbert grunted.

"Seems to me you've said about everything there was to be said, and a bit over." Goodbody grinned again.

"It wasn't a bad bit of copy, though I say so myself. Our circulation was up nearly five hundred." He paused and blew a cloud of smoke out of his nostrils.

"That bridge," he remarked; and his keen eyes did not miss Gilbert's slight start. "Ah, you agree with me. You know it wasn't rotten."

"Just what do you mean?" demanded Gilbert.

"Just what I said. I've crossed that bridge a score of times. Not a month ago I saw four men on it at once. If it had been going to break it would have broken then. What do you know about it, Mr. Stratton?"


CHAPTER 12. — SNIPE AND SHELCOTT.

GILBERT hesitated. He did not know what to say. The other smoked and watched him.

"You're hinting that there was foul play?" said Gilbert at last. Goodbody nodded.

"That's right. I'll bet a hat someone cut the bridge. Have you any enemies, Mr. Stratton?" Gilbert shrugged.

"Who hasn't?" he answered evasively.

"A man who will try such tricks on you is a pretty dangerous enemy," said Goodbody quietly. "And the next time he tries you may be less lucky. You may just as well tell me what you know, Mr. Stratton."

"And have you make another splash article out of it. No, thank you, Mr. Goodbody." Goodbody leaned forward a little.

"I'm a reporter. I'm out for copy. There's big copy in this story, but in a case of this sort I wouldn't print a word until I was sure of all my facts. If I ran my paper in for a libel suit I should be looking for a new job the same day. And I should never get another. Now do you see where I stand?" Gilbert nodded.

"Yes, that's clear enough. But to be quite straight with you, though, like you, I suspect foul play, I don't know anything."

"You know the bridge was cut," said Goodbody sharply.

"Yes, I know that; but I don't know who did it."

"You have your suspicions?"

"Yes, but so vague I don't feel like mentioning them."

"Perhaps I could help you," said Goodbody dryly. "If I said clay pits, would that mean anything?" Again Gilbert could not repress a start, and this time the reporter laughed softly.

"It's impossible," said Gilbert.

"Nothing's impossible when one man's got it in for another," replied Goodbody. "And that you'd know if you'd seen as much of the shady side as I have. Now, Mr. Stratton, I'll make a bargain with you. You tell me all you know and I give you my word I won't print a line until you give me leave. Does that suit?"

This time Gilbert did not take long to think.

"That's a bargain." he answered. "The bridge was cut. When that piece floated up in the eddy, I distinctly saw marks where a saw had been used."

"The devil you did." Goodbody had whipped out a pad and pencil and was taking rapid notes in shorthand. "And you never spoke of it?"

"Only to Mr. Barr."

"If only I'd known," groaned Goodbody. "I should have had that log if I had to swim for it." Gilbert stared.

"It wasn't you the fellow was trying to finish."

"No such luck. If he had I should have made a good thing out of it. But go on. This man Shelcott—I understand you were working for him for a long time. Did he sack you, or did you sack him?"

"Oh, he sacked me," replied Gilbert. "We never got on, and at last we had a row, and it came to blows, and—"

"Came to blows?" Goodbody's eyes shone. "Did you beat him?"

"I knocked him down, and he didn't come up to the scratch a second time."

"Go on," said Goodbody, scribbling rapidly. "Then there was more trouble, wasn't there, about a bull?"

"How do you know about that?" questioned Gilbert.

"One of the men at the clay pits told me."

"It's true," said Gilbert rather reluctantly. "His bull got after Miss Aspland, and I had to draw the brute off with my motor bike."

"Gad, I wish I'd been there," exclaimed the other. "I never saw a bull fight. And the old devil got your machine, didn't he? They say he was running round the newtake with one wheel stuck on his horns." Gilbert laughed.

"Yes, and then Shelcott came up and began to raise Cain. However, I talked to him and he cooled down; and then I made him pay for a new bike."

"The deuce you did!" There was admiration in Goodbody's eyes. "Now look here, don't be offended at this question. Is Shelcott fond of this young lady, Miss Aspland?"

"He's never even spoken to her," said Gilbert promptly. Goodbody's face fell. Evidently a cherished theory had been punctured.

"Well, it doesn't matter," he said. "The two rows you've had are quite enough to put a man like that on the spike."

Gilbert shook his head. "Aren't you jumping ahead a bit too fast? Black Tor Gorge is a long way from the Carnaby clay pits, and we haven't the faintest proof that Shelcott was within a dozen miles of that bridge last Sunday."

"Oh, but we have. As it happens, I was up at the gorge early. I like a day in the open, and often ride out that way on Sundays and have lunch at Mrs. Blandy's. And I saw a man going down the Gorge about eleven o'clock that morning. I didn't see his face, but I could almost swear he was Shelcott. I should know his square figure and his walk anywhere." Gilbert's eyes widened.

"This is news indeed; but surely the fellow would never risk doing a job like that in broad daylight?"

"Why not? Unless there was someone down the Gorge he couldn't possibly be seen. The trees practically meet over the top above the bridge, and at this time of year trippers are scarce. We can take it as one sure thing that Shelcott did the job." Gilbert thought a little.

"But how on earth was he to know that I was going there that day?"

"You and Mr. Barr had fixed up this picnic some days before, I take it?"

"Yes, but no one knew except ourselves."

"Are you sure of that?" Suddenly Gilbert remembered his letter to Ida, in which he had told her the reason why he could not lunch at Woodend. But now he was on his guard, and no start betrayed him.

"I can't think of anyone," he lied quietly. Goodbody frowned a little.

"It doesn't matter. There are many who might have known. Mr. Barr's servant, or Miss Aspland's maid. Anyway, it's certain Shelcott did know." He paused. "Look here, Mr. Stratton, you'd better keep your eyes open. Once a man begins that game he doesn't stop until he's finished the job."


Illustration

"Look here, Mr. Stratton, you'd better keep your eyes open."


"I'll be careful," said Gilbert with a nod. "And I'm very much obliged to you for what you've told me. But from your own point of view we don't seem to have got much forrader. We can't accuse Shelcott of attempt to murder without definite proof."

"That's a fact," agreed Goodbody. "But don't worry, we'll get proof. And then what a story!"

"Remember our bargain," said Gilbert,

"I'm good at keeping my word," was the reply. "Now I must be going."

Gilbert asked him to stay for supper, but Goodbody regretfully told him he could not. There was work waiting for him at the office and he had to go. So Gilbert gave him a drink and he went off, and Gilbert returned to his room and his own company.

Not very pleasant company, either, for the thought of Nance's face as she rode away stabbed him like a knife. "What must she be thinking of me!" he groaned. "And how on earth shall I ever get a chance of making her know the truth?" He thought of Bobby. If Bobby had been at home he would have had out his machine and gone straight to see him; but Bobby was in London, and he had no one to whom to turn.

Poor Gilbert, he had a horrible evening, and an even worse night. He was thankful when day dawned and he was able to get up. A cold tub did him good, but, even so, he was pale and heavy-eyed when he took his seat in the office.

Cowling came in, stiff and silent as usual. He gave Gilbert some brief directions and the day's work began. Gilbert flung himself into it in the effort to forget his own troubles, and to some extent succeeded. In the afternoon he was in the quarry, and it was about four when he returned to the office. Presently Cowling looked up.

"Do you shoot, Stratton?" he asked curtly. Gilbert looked up, surprised.

"Yes, sir."

"I find I have the rights of shooting over Red Tor and all that quarter of the Moor as far as Grimlake. Since I do not shoot myself you may as well do so."

"Thank you very much, sir," said Gilbert gratefully.

"An occasional couple of snipe will be the best way of expressing your gratitude." said the older man with a bleak smile. "I am fond of snipe."

Gilbert made up his mind to shoot on Saturday. A long tramp with the gun was just what he needed, and Jess, his old red setter, would also be the better for a day's work. He came to work that morning in boots and gaiters, and Cowling, who never seemed to look at anything yet actually noticed everything, saw and quietly told him that since there was not much doing he could go at once.

"It's very kind of you, sir," said Gilbert. "It's simply that I want to be sure of a snipe pudding for to-morrow's dinner," replied the old fellow, with a ghost of a smile.

The day was cold but fine, and the sun shone. Gilbert was young, and something of his load of troubles slipped off his back as he tramped through the fading heather, with Jess ranging to and fro ahead. The cold had brought in the snipe, and at the very first little patch of bog Jess stood. Gilbert walked up quietly, and up went two full snipe twisting and twirling in the pale sunshine. Gilbert achieved a right and left, and felt very pleased with himself. Jess brought in the birds, and he dropped them into his game bag and went on. When he sat down under the shelter of a giant boulder to eat his sandwiches Mr. Cowling's snipe pudding was assured, but there was plenty of time before dark and Gilbert pushed on.

He crossed the Stone Brook, climbed the vast slope of Druid's Den beyond, and looked down upon the wide expanse of Grimlake Mire, a great bog where the tall rushes waved in the chill breeze and the sunlight was reflected from patches of bottomless black slime. On the heights beyond loomed the great hill of white china clay from the Carnaby pit, and the sight reminded Gilbert that he was reaching the edge of his shoot. But the Mire was inside it, and there were sure to be some snipe there. Suddenly he caught sight of a great flight of birds wheeling over the hill side beyond. They were golden plover, three or four hundred of them. He saw them pitch, and all thought of snipe was forgotten. Calling Jess to heel, he began to work cautiously towards them.

Golden plover are extremely shy birds, and it is very difficult to get within range, yet since there was a good deal of cover on the opposite slope, Gilbert thought he might get a shot. The next twenty minutes he spent crawling from boulder to gorse patch, and from gorse patch to heather clump. Hard work and wet work, but to Gilbert this sort of stalk was a delight. And then just as he was almost in range up rose the whole flight wheeling like one bird. At the same moment two shots rang out from above the birds.

"Silly ass, whoever he is!" growled Gilbert. "He must be all of a hundred yards from them." The plover were gone, and with them the need for concealment, so Gilbert rose to his feet. So at the same time did the other man, and an odd little thrill ran through Gilbert as he recognised Paul Shelcott. For a moment he stood still, and so did Shelcott. Then, quite suddenly, Shelcott shouldered his gun and began to walk towards Gilbert.

"Now, what the deuce is he after?" thought Gilbert. Then he smiled grimly.

"His gun's empty and mine isn't," he said to himself.

Shelcott walked straight across the heather, and the look on his coarsely-handsome face puzzled Gilbert. When he was within about twenty paces of Gilbert he stopped.

"I want to talk to you," he said in a queer, strained voice.

"That's more than I do," retorted Gilbert. Shelcott dropped his gun on a heather clump and came nearer.

"I only want to ask you one question. Will you answer it?"

"That depends on what it is."

"All right. Here it is. Are you engaged to Ida Merrill or are you not?" Gilbert looked him straight in the face. His first impulse was to say "No" straight out, but then he remembered the way in which this man had treated him. His gorge rose.

"What's that to do with you?" he demanded. He fully expected Shelcott to fly into a rage, but the man bit his lip and managed to control his temper.

"It's a lot to me. She was practically engaged to me before she got to know you."

"A woman's entitled to change her mind if she wants to," said Gilbert flippantly. Shelcott's face went brick-red; he trembled all over.

"D—it! Do you want to drive me mad?" he cried.

"I think you're mad already," returned Gilbert.

"What do you mean?"

"A man's got to be pretty mad before he tries to murder another," was Gilbert's answer.


CHAPTER 13. — GILBERT PUTS HIS FOOT IN IT.

IF Gilbert had expected to force any kind of confession out of Paul Shelcott he was disappointed. The man stared a moment, then laughed harshly.

"Are you crazy?" he asked scornfully. "What do you think you're talking about?" His attitude staggered Gilbert, but only for a moment. Goodbody's evidence was too strong.

"You're pretty clever, Shelcott," he retorted, "but you can't get away with it like that. I know that bridge at Black Tor didn't break by itself. The supports were sawn through."

"And you're suggesting I did it?" jeered Shelcott.

"I'm not merely suggesting it. I'm stating it. You were seen in the Gorge that morning."

"Seen in the Gorge—I'll swear I wasn't. I never was nearer to it than I am now. I was in Plymouth on Sunday. I can prove it."

"You may have to," said Gilbert; but though he spoke firmly he was beginning to feel doubts. Shelcott watched him a moment.

"Anything more you want to accuse me of?" he sneered.

"Not at present. Only don't try anything like that again, Shelcott, for if you do you'll get it in the neck. You might finish me next time; but I'm not the only one who knows about, last Sunday."

Shelcott snapped his thick fingers.

"That for your fool suspicions. I'm not saying I wouldn't like to finish you. Nothing would please me better than to see you out of my way, but I'm not the sort of darned fool to risk my neck in putting you out." He paused, then went on in a tone of concentrated bitterness. "You think you're on top now, and maybe you are for the minute. But if you fancy you're going to marry Ida Merrill, you're making the biggest kind of a mistake. She's mine, and I'll see you in hell before you get her." He swung on his heel and stalked off. Gilbert stood watching him till he was safely out of distance, then walked off in the opposite direction.

The road leading to the clay works ran along the slope to the north, and since he had finished shooting he made for this. He walked slowly, his gun on his shoulder, his dog at heel. He was thinking deeply of his interview with Shelcott. The more he though the more certain he was that Shelcott was bluffing, for he could not think of any one else who hated him badly enough to wish to kill him. And the proof, too. Goodbody's evidence was very strong.

He was still wrapped in thought when he reached the road, and so oblivious of his surroundings that he never heard the pony coming up behind until it was quite close. Then he looked quickly round, and his heart gave a great jump as he recognised Nance.

Nance was wearing neat riding breeches and brown boots, and a long tan coat. With her slim figure and straight back she never looked better than in the saddle.

Gilbert pulled up short and raised his cap, but there was no answering smile on Nance's face. On the contrary, her eyes, if you could say it of such lovely eyes, were positively bleak. She gave him a cool nod, and did not check her pony.

"Miss Aspland," Gilbert was resolved to make an effort to break the ice. She checked her pony, and turned her head.

"Yes, Mr. Stratton. Did you want anything?"

"I—I wanted to speak to you."

"Yes," she said again, but her voice was as bleak as her eyes.

"I—I wanted to explain," stammered Gilbert. Nance frowned slightly.

"Explain. I don't understand. What was it you wished to explain?"

"About—about Thursday." Nance looked faintly surprised.

"Was there anything to explain? I don't remember." Gilbert bit his lip. She was making it desperately difficult.

"I mean—about Miss Merrill," he got out; but if he expected Nance to help him he was mistaken.

"Yes," she said patiently. Gilbert began to lose his temper, which is, of course, a fatal thing to do in a case like this.

"You know what I mean perfectly well," he insisted. She shook her head.

"You gave me too much credit, Mr. Stratton," she replied, with the same icy calm. "Unless, of course, you are talking about kissing your fiancée before us all. But under the circumstances we, of course, excused you."

"She isn't my fiancée. We aren't engaged," blurted out Gilbert desperately. Nance's eyebrows rose.

"Then you ought to be," she replied cuttingly; and touching her pony with her heel cantered off sharply.

"D—it! D—everything!" cried Gilbert savagely as he stood and watched her and her pony growing smaller in the distance. "Oh, what's the good of trying to talk to a woman?" He wasn't the first to ask this question, and he certainly wouldn't be the last. But Gilbert was young and very green, He had not yet "learned about women." It did not occur to him that Nance's anger was the surest sign that her feelings were deeply disturbed, and he tramped on home in as miserable a state of mind as he had ever known.

It was horrible coming into his empty rooms. The woman who looked after him had left his tea ready, but had gone. There was no one to talk to, and there would be no one all that evening; and Gilbert felt a horror of loneliness upon him. It seemed to him that if he had to put up with his own company all the evening he would go crazy. Yet where could he go? What could he do? Bobby was away, and would not be back till Monday, and there was no one else he could talk to.

Yes there was. There was Goodbody. Plymouth, it was true, was 17 miles away, but that would not take long on his motor bicycle.

Once having made up his mind, Gilbert wasted no time. First he put on the kettle, then he went into his bedroom, got out of his muddy tweeds and into his best suit, which, thanks to Chard, was still as good as new. By the time he was dressed the kettle was boiling, and he made and drank a cup of hot tea. He did not feel like eating. He put on his heavy coat, cap and goggles, locked up, got out his machine, and a few minutes later was sliding away down the long slopes of the Moor towards the in-country, as they call the Devonshire lowlands. Thirty minutes later he passed the barracks at Crown Hill, and presently was threading his way at a more sober pace through the narrow streets towards the newspaper office.

Gilbert had supposed that a newspaper office was always open, and he got a shock when he found the big, tall building silent, dark, and deserted. He had forgotten that Saturday is the one day in the week when those employed on a daily newspaper rest. That, because the paper does not appear on Sunday. However, he found a commissionaire on guard in a little box by a side door, and he, after some demur, gave Goodbody's address. Gilbert thanked him, and pushed on.

Goodbody was not at all surprised to see Gilbert. A reporter is seldom surprised, and he offered him a drink, which Gilbert was glad to accept. But his keen grey eyes quickly spotted the fact that Gilbert had something on his mind.

"You must have a bit of supper with me," he suggested. "My rooms are not as tidy as yours, Mr. Stratton," he said, "but then I'm not in them more than eight hours out of 24."

"They look very comfy anyhow," said Gilbert, and indeed, with a fire burning brightly and any number of books, the untidiness might be forgiven. Goodbody swept a mass of papers off a table on to the nearest chair, went to a cupboard and brought out bread, butter, cold ham, cheese, plates, and knives, and Gilbert helped to lay the table.

"I hope you're hungry," said Goodbody. To his surprise, Gilbert was hungry, and enjoyed the meal.

While they ate, Goodbody talked of all sorts of things, but not a word about Gilbert's business. After-wards he mixed a drink for Gilbert, put a box of cigarettes at his elbow, and took his seat opposite.

"Well, and what did Shelcott say?" he demanded.

"Shelcott! How do you know I've seen him?"

"I don't, but something's happened or you wouldn't have come down here." Gilbert nodded.

"You're right. I ran into him to-day when I was out shooting. He came up and tackled me. We had a few words, and I accused him straight out of trying to murder me."

"That was a foolish thing to do," remarked the reporter.

"I suppose it was," allowed Gilbert, ruefully, "but I got my back up."

"What did he say?"

"Denied it flatly. Swore he wasn't within ten miles of the Gorge that Sunday, and said he could prove he had been in Plymouth." Goodbody nodded.

"Of course he would have an alibi. He would fix that up beforehand. Men like Shelcott are pretty careful to have that sort of evidence." He frowned. "But it makes it all the more difficult to prove anything against him."

"Then you don't believe in his denial?" The scornful smile that crossed the reporter's face showed how little credence he attached to Shelcott's denial.

"And what happened then?" he asked.

"Oh, he said a few kind words. Told me he'd like nothing better than to finish me, but hadn't any notion of risking his neck in doing so." Goodbody nodded again.

"That doesn't cut any ice, because there were no witnesses. You look out, Mr. Stratton." He looked hard at Gilbert. "It seems to me there's more behind this than you've told me," he added, shrewdly. But Gilbert was on his guard. He merely shrugged his shoulders, and Goodbody asked no more questions. The reporter sat silent a while, smoking, then Gilbert got up.

"I must be keeping you out of bed," he said. Goodbody chuckled.

"Great snakes, how old do you think I am—ten? It's not nine o'clock yet, and I couldn't tell when I've been in bed before midnight. And you—I don't suppose you want to go home yet. What do you say to looking in at the Pavilion for an hour or so?"

"Where's that?" asked Gilbert puzzled.

"Don't tell me you've never been there."

"I've never even heard of it," replied Gilbert. Goodbody's eyebrows rose.

"You'll tell me you've never danced to a jazz band next?"

"I never have," confessed Gilbert.

"Never danced!"

"Oh, I've danced, but never to a proper band." Goodbody looked as if he could not believe his ears.

"Well—well," he said at last. "Live and learn. I've lived and you're learning. Come on."

"But I can't go to a dance in this kit," protested Gilbert.

"It's a darn sight better than mine," jeered Goodbody—"several darns if it comes to that," he chuckled. "Come along."

They went down together, and Goodbody led the way up one street and down another till they came to what looked like a good-sized private house. A taxi had just discharged a couple of young naval officers, and they followed these in. A burly man in uniform looked hard at Gilbert, but Goodbody said a word in the man's ear, and he nodded and let them both pass.

"What is this place—a night club?" asked Gilbert.

"No, a dancing place. Perfectly decent, and you could take your wife or sister if you wanted." Gilbert was in that frame of mind when he did not much care where he went. Nance had turned him down and nothing else mattered. Yet, in spite of his unhappiness he felt a little thrill as he found himself in a big room, brilliantly lit, in which two score or more couples moved over the polished floor to the staccato music of a very good jazz band.

Gilbert had danced, but only at the small parties organised locally at the clay pits; he had never even seen a ballroom, never heard a good band, let alone danced to one. Goodbody steered him across to a table, and beckoned to a waiter.

"Your first show. We must celebrate. We'll have a drink," he said.

"You must think me an awful ass, Goodbody, because I haven't been to this kind of place before."

"Good lord!" gasped the other. He stared at Gilbert with a kind of amazement. Then more seriously. "I'm glad you're here in my company, Mr. Stratton." Gilbert's heart warmed to his companion.

"You might drop the mister," he suggested. And Goodbody laughed.

"Same here, Stratton. Now what about shaking a hoof? You said you danced."

"Me dance here!" Gilbert exclaimed.

"Why not. There's plenty of nice girls Now, there's one, a real beauty. Why don't you go and ask her?" He pointed, and there, just opposite, Gilbert saw Ida Merrill.


CHAPTER 14. — A NIGHT OUT.

IDA was in evening dress, a flame-colored silk which showed her bare arms and neck. They were very beautiful arms, for Ida had always taken good care of her skin. Her hair was perfectly waved, and she had just enough make-up to lend her complexion brilliancy. She was talking in animated fashion to a tall, powerfully-built naval officer, her fine eyes were shining. She fully deserved Goodbody's description of "a real beauty."

Gilbert sat gazing at her, his eyes wide open, and his lips slightly apart. It came to him with a queer shock that this girl had once offered him a kiss and he had refused it.

"It—it's Miss Merrill," he said at last.

"You don't tell me you know her?" said Goodbody.

"Yes. I've lunched with them at Woodend," Gilbert admitted. The wine was working in his head, and, unknown to himself, he was losing his accustomed caution.

"Well. I'll be blowed," said Goodbody softly, and just then Ida chanced to look across and saw Gilbert, and smiled at him.

"She's seen you. She wants you," said Goodbody in a quick whisper. Gilbert hesitated.

"Go on," his companion bade him, and somehow Gilbert found himself walking across the room. Ida stood up and gave him both hands.

"But how nice to see you here, Gilbert. Let me introduce you to Commander Cleghorn. And now tell me what brings you to Plymouth and to the Pavilion of all places."

"I came down to Plymouth to see my friend, Mr. Goodbody, and he brought me." Gilbert replied. "But I never expected to see you." Ida laughed.

"I hope you're not disappointed." The music began again.

"Come and dance," she said.

"But I don't know these dances," began Gilbert in dismay.

"Nonsense! It's nothing but a two-step." He found her in his arms.

Gilbert had a good ear for music and—more than that the sense of rhythm which is the one thing needful in dancing. And Ida was the perfect partner. To his amazement, he found himself moving round the big room without the slightest trouble, and—enjoying it keenly.

"Can't dance, what nonsense!" Ida whispered in his ear. "All I can say is, I wouldn't ask for a better partner."

"That's awfully nice of you." The wine, the music, the flattery were going to Gilbert's head, and who was to blame him? He saw other men looking at him enviously. Ida steered him to a quiet corner, and they sat down.

"I love dancing," she said. "And you're a born dancer. All you want is a few lessons in different steps. I have promised the next dance to Commander Cleghorn, but you shall have the one after if you like. Will you wait for me?"

"Of course I will. Thanks ever so much," said Gilbert. Ida slipped away, and Gilbert went back to Goodbody. On her way around the big room Ida saw James and got a word with him.

"It's all right," she whispered.

"Good for you, Ida," replied James with warm approval. "Bit squiffy, isn't he?"

"Nothing to speak of, but it's his first show of this kind, and he's a little above himself. He can dance," she added.

"Strike while the iron's hot. Get him to come home with us. I'll drive, and you can sit behind with him." She nodded and went on, and presently Gilbert saw her moving round the room in the arms of the big naval officer.

"Jove, she can dance," said Goodbody, regarding her with admiration. "And so can you," he added, gazing at Gilbert through his glasses, "though how the devil you managed to learn up there on the moor beats me. But you must be thirsty after all that. Have another drink." He filled Gilbert's glass and Gilbert, unheedful of the unaccustomed amount he was drinking, drained it.

"It's very jolly." he said. "It was good of you to bring me, Goodbody." Goodbody laughed.

"I envy you, Stratton. I'd give a lot to be as young as you."

"Why, you're not much older than I," retorted Gilbert.

"Not in years perhaps." said the other, "but I've been knocking about like this ever since I was seventeen." He laughed again. "It's a bit late in the evening for that sort of talk, and there's Miss Merrill signalling. Go and enjoy yourself."

Gilbert danced again with Ida. He felt her warm, vibrant body in his arms. The scent she used helped to intoxicate him. He talked, but hardly knew what he said. For the moment Nance had receded into the background. Then, as they sat out together in their corner suddenly Ida stiffened, and Gilbert, looking up, saw Paul Shelcott opposite. Shelcott wore a dinner jacket and soft silk shirt. He looked very smart, but there was a heavy scowl on his face. Suddenly he came straight across towards them.

"Will you dance, Ida?" he said.

"I will give you the next," said Ida. "You know Mr. Stratton, I think." Shelcott gave Gilbert an insolent stare.

"Yes, he used to be my clerk until I sacked him." he said, coarsely. The insult cleared Gilbert's head like a dash of cold water. He laughed.

"Yes, but hadn't you better explain the reason, Shelcott?" Shelcott had had much more to drink than Gilbert. He was pot- valiant.

"I sacked you because you were incompetent," he retorted. Gilbert laughed again.

"Come, now, Shelcott, that won't wash, especially as I got a better paid job within a week. You'll have to find a better story than that." This sort of baiting was new to Shelcott, who promptly lost his temper.

"Are you calling me a liar?" he demanded loudly. Ida broke in.

"Be quiet, Paul. You've no business to talk like that."

"He's calling me a liar," repeated Shelcott savagely.

"If you'll come outside I'll explain the reason," said Gilbert, in a tone the softness of which did not make it less dangerous.

"Don't!" said Ida quickly. "I won't have you two quarrelling." As she spoke she laid her hand on Gilbert's arm. That was enough to put the spark to the powder. All Shelcott's furious jealousy blazed to the surface, and he struck out savagely at Gilbert. Gilbert ducked sufficiently to avoid the worst of the blow, but Shelcott's big fist raked his cheek and staggered him, so that he reeled against the wall.


Illustration

He struck out savagely at Gilbert.


"Gilbert! Gilbert!" cried Ida, flinging herself between the two. At the same moment Cleghorn, who had been dancing past, broke away from his partner and with true naval promptness seized Shelcott in a grip of iron. Shelcott, quite beside himself, twisted round and hit Cleghorn in the face, and in an instant a crowd had collected. Someone caught Gilbert by the arm.

"Come along," said Goodbody in a quick whisper. In a trice he had drawn Gilbert out of the throng and hurried him through a side door into a passage.

"This way," he said. "The sooner we're out of it the better." He led Gilbert down a flight of stairs and next moment they were in a back street.

"Well, I'm dashed," he chuckled. "For a green hand from the top of the Moor you're the limit, Stratton. Dancing with the prettiest girl in the room—fighting the biggest bully. What a night!"

"The swine!" Gilbert was very angry. "He hit me and I didn't hit him back." Goodbody laughed again.

"Don't worry. He'll spend the night in the cells, and that's worse than any licking you could give him. They don't love brawling in the Pavilion."

"But they'll want me as witness," said Gilbert.

"He hardly touched you," Goodbody answered. "It was Cleghorn he hit. If they want a witness Cleghorn will be sufficient. We're out of it, and we'll keep out of it."

It was beginning to rain, a cold, miserable drizzle. Goodbody quickened his pace.

"Come along back to my place." he said.

"But I must get home," said Gilbert.

"Rats! You're not going to ride up to the Moor to-night. You must stay with me. There's plenty of room. And to-morrow I'll take you round to the office and show you a thing or two."

Gilbert saw he meant it, so yielded. He was not aware of the fact that James Merrill was searching eagerly for him, or that Ida was raging over the failure of her plans.

Goodbody made him very comfortable and Gilbert slept well though he woke early with a dry mouth and an unaccustomed headache. But a cold tub and some hot tea soon put that right, and later in the morning Goodbody took him round to the office, which was already beginning to hum with the preparation of Monday's paper. In the reporters' room they met a tall, lank fellow with a mass of black hair.

"Hulloa, Kempson, any news?" Goodbody asked.

"Not a lot. Big fire in Bristol, but we've got that covered. Oh, and they say they've found the body of that missing millionaire."

"Not Messenger?"

"That's the chap. The one who disappeared from Filey, and was supposed to have gone to Holland. A body's been found in a canal at Ghent which answers to the description; but, of course, it will have to be identified."

"Poor devil," said Goodbody "Think of having a million and ending up in a Belgian ditch. Who's the heir?"

"A man named Aspland." A gasp from Gilbert made him turn.

"Not Reginald Apsland?" said Goodbody sharply.

"That's the name," said Kempson. "You know him?"

"Yes, he lives at The Roost, just beyond Taverton." Goodbody's eyes brightened.

"What a bit of luck. Why of course, it's Miss Aspland's father. Let's get on the 'phone. If he's at home I'll go and see him at once." He turned to Gilbert. "I'll go up with you, Stratton." Then he paused. "What's the matter with you? You're looking positively green."


CHAPTER 15. — BOBBY HOLDS OUT HOPE.

"I'M all right," returned Gilbert gruffly. Goodbody gave him one sharp look and went to the 'phone. He got through quickly, and Gilbert heard him speaking to Nance's father. Presently he hung up.

"It's all right," he said to Kempson. "He'll see me. I'm going straight out." Then he turned to Gilbert.

"You coming?"

"As far as Taverton," replied Gilbert briefly; and the two went down together and walked to the garage.

"Better come to The Roost with me suggested the reporter; but Gilbert shook his head. Goodbody was no fool. He saw or thought he saw the reason for Gilbert's reluctance.

"Money won't make any difference to a girl like Miss Aspland," he remarked. Gilbert's lips tightened.

"I'd rather not go, thank you, Goodbody," he answered, and his tone put an end to any further discussion.

Presently they were both on their machines and riding out. You cannot do much talking when clattering along at thirty miles an hour on a motor bicycle, so there was no more conversation until they reached Taverton. Goodbody pulled up in the square.

"Sure you won't come in, Stratton?"

"No, I'll get home. And thanks awfully for putting me up and being so decent." The other laughed ruefully.

"I don't seem to have done much except get you into a fresh row with that fellow Shelcott." He paused, then added in a lower voice, "Keep your eyes open, Stratton. That villain will do you harm if he has half a chance."

"I'll watch out," Gilbert promised, as he started his machine again. "Goodbye!"

Though it was not raining the day was dark and lowering, and the air a bit raw and damp as Gilbert breasted the long hill up to the Moor. His spirits were as low as the barometer, and the further he went up into the chill desolation of the high Moor, the lower they fell. He blamed himself deeply for his performances on the previous evening.

"I'm not fit even to talk to Nance," he said bitterly to himself as his stout little machine flashed along the bare open road. "Falling for Ida, like that, the first time she lifted a finger!" He sighed deeply. "Well, it's all over now," he continued. "Old Messenger's million has put the hat on it. I may be a fool, but I'm not a fortune-hunter."

At the pace he rode it was not long before he reached Elford. The place looked bleak and bare under the heavy sky; and when he reached his rooms they were cold as a vault, and he busied himself lighting a fire. From long practice he was handy with this sort of thing, and soon the dry peat piled in the grate was glowing, and the room began to look and feel more comfortable. More for something to do than because he was hungry, he set to making himself a meal, and had just dished up a very creditable omelette when he heard steps outside, and opening the door saw Bobby Barr at the head of the stairs.

"You, Bobby!" he exclaimed. "You said you wouldn't be back till Monday?"

"Ashby of the Marines was driving down yesterday and offered me a lift, and since it gave me the chance to escape a Sunday in town I jumped at it. I'm sorry you're disappointed," he added with a grin.

"Disappointed! I never was so glad to see anyone in my life," replied Gilbert. Bobby's eyes widened a little. He saw at once that there was something wrong, but had too much sense and tact to ask right out what it was.

"Glad enough to give me lunch?" he asked. "That omelette looks darn good."

"Then you'll jolly well eat it," vowed Gilbert. "Take off your overcoat, sit in this chair and make yourself comfortable."

"Topping omelette," said Bobby presently "I'd no notion you were such a cook, Gilbert. But you're not eating with your usual moorland appetite."

"I'm not hungry." replied Gilbert rather dryly.

"Bored with your own company?" suggested Bobby.

"No, I'm just home from Plymouth." Bobby glanced up quickly.

"Plymouth on Sunday. Something new, eh, Gilbert?"

"I spent the night there—with our friend Goodbody."

Bobby was wisely silent, and by degrees it all came out. Gilbert did not spare himself.

"I must have been crazy," he ended, and sat with chin on hands gazing gloomily at Bobby.

"Crazy—hum—I'd give it another name, Gilbert," said Bobby.

"What do you mean?"

"How much of that wine did you have?"

"About half the bottle."

"On top of beer and two whiskies and sodas?"

Gilbert looked horrified.

"You mean I was drunk?"

"Hardly that, but a bit above yourself. You're not exactly accustomed to that kind of drink."

"It was the first time," confessed Gilbert. Bobby laughed.

"Don't look so tragic. There are precious few chaps of your age who could boast they'd never been squiffy. And, take it all in all, you seem to have carried your liquor like a man." He paused. "But you owe a bit to Master Shelcott."

"I owe him a crack on the jaw I never returned."

"And cheap, too," said Bobby dryly, "for if he hadn't tackled you as he did, you wouldn't be here now."

"You're talking Dutch," growled Gilbert.

"I'm talking sense. If Shelcott hadn't lost his wool and plugged you, you'd be at Woodend this minute, and if the fair Ida hadn't got you in her pocket I miss my guess." Gilbert stiffened.

"Why should Ida Merrill want—that is—?" He stopped and reddened. "Oh, hell, you know what I mean."

"I know, and I don't know. But she may be in love with you, Gilbert. You're not exactly a beauty, but plenty of women would find you attractive."

"I don't believe she cares a bit—not in that way," Gilbert answered bluntly. Bobby shrugged.

"There are some women who can't see a man without wanting to own him."

"It beats me," said Gilbert. Then his head dropped again. "What's it matter?" he said despondently. "I'm finished, anyhow."

"Just how?" Bobby asked quietly.

"Nance," groaned Gilbert.

"I don't understand."

"I thought I told you. They've found Messenger's body, and Mr. Aspland is heir to all his money."

"And very nice for him. Surely you're not grudging him his luck."

"Of course I don't grudge him his luck, but it—it changes everything."

"What does it change—your feeling for Nance or hers for you?"

"Oh, don't be an ass," said Gilbert, half angrily.

"My dear chap," said Bobby patiently. "It's you who are the ass. If you were going to get the million you wouldn't turn down Nance, would you?"

"What a silly question," snapped Gilbert.

"Then if she likes you, as I think she she does, she'd say the same."

"She doesn't. She snubbed me most frightfully when I tried to apologise to her for—for that business last Thursday." Bobby bit his lip and sternly repressed a desire to laugh.

"You apologised to her for Ida kissing you?"

"I—I tried to."

This was too much for Bobby. He lay back in his chair and laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks.

"Oh, Gilbert, you are priceless," he sobbed, as he wiped his streaming eyes. "Now, don't get shirty"—for there was fire in Gilbert's eyes and his face was going red. "It was about the silliest darn thing that you could possibly have done, and I don't wonder you got it in the neck. But don't despair, for the mere fact that she snubbed you instead of riding straight away is a good sign."

"You mean she—she—"

"Yes, you old ass—that she still likes you."

"You're not just comforting me? You really think so?"

"I really think so," said Bobby stoutly. Gilbert's face brightened, but then he slumped again.

"She'll never speak to me again, Bobby," he groaned.

"Oh, buck up, Gilbert. Sit tight and things will straighten out."

"I'll jolly well see they do," he added to himself. "I'll talk to the fair Nance." Then he got up.

"Get your coat on and come with me," he ordered. "I'm not going to leave you to grouse by yourself here all day."

Gilbert obeyed quite meekly, and Bobby drove him over to Randlestone and did not bring him home until late.

On Monday, Gilbert had a telephone message from Goodbody to say that Mr. Aspland had gone to Belgium to identify the body of the late Mr. Messenger, and that he, Goodbody, would keep him posted if there was any more news. Shelcott, he added, had spent Saturday night and all Sunday in a cell, and had been fined five pounds for brawling.

"He's mad as a wet hen," the reporter added, "so you'd better remember my advice."

"I haven't forgotten it," said Gilbert, and Goodbody hung up.

The next three days passed quietly enough. Luckily for himself, Gilbert was so busy that he had little time to worry about his own affairs. On Wednesday evening old Cowling, who had a kind heart under his rather grim and silent exterior, told Gilbert he could take the next day off for shooting, and Gilbert at once telephoned Bobby asking him if he could come. But Bobby could not. He was very sorry but was engaged, he told Gilbert, to shoot at Broadstone on the other side of the Moor.

So Gilbert had to resign himself to a solitary day's sport, and he started out on a fine, cool morning, with his gun on his shoulder, his lunch in his pocket, and his setter at his heel.

Midday found him on the hill above Grimlake Mire, where he seated himself under a boulder, sheltered from the chilly wind, and pulled out his sandwiches and flask, and made a leisurely lunch. Opposite rose the white mountain of tailings from the clay pit, and Gilbert's thoughts went back to his last day's shooting and his encounter with Shelcott.


Illustration

Midday found him on the hill above Grimlake Mire.


"I was an ass," he said to himself. "I ought to have told the fellow straight out that I didn't care a straw for Ida. Now it's too late." His lips tightened. "Too late altogether. I'm finished with Nance. In spite of what Bobby says, I feel she'll never forgive me. And I can't go to her. Bobby may say it's silly and old-fashioned, but I couldn't live on a girl's money." His spirits sank sadly, for so far as he could see there was no way out of the hobble in which he found himself. He forgot his shooting, forgot everything, and sank deeper and deeper into a slough of despond until roused by his old setter, Jess, whining and thrusting her cold, wet nose into his hand.

"What is it, old girl?" he said, then, looking up, he saw someone coming towards him in the distance. "Shelcott!" he exclaimed, and jumped up quickly.


CHAPTER 16. — THE ONE-MAN WAY.

IT was not Shelcott. As the man came nearer Gilbert saw that he was a stranger. A roughly-dressed fellow who seemed to be just an ordinary moorman. But he was coming straight towards the boulder where Gilbert was standing, and it was quite plain he had something to say.

"You'm Muster Stratton?" said the man as he arrived.

"That's my name," replied Gilbert, giving the other a sharp look-over. "But I don't know you."

"I be Bob French. George French's nevvy from Postgate. You knows George French?"

"I know him well enough," Gilbert answered. "But you're a long way from home."

"I be staying with Mrs. Chinnock up to the clay works. I been trying for a job there. I seed 'ee shooting, and Muster Clamp, he told me to tell 'ee he seed a couple o' teal down on the big pool, end of the Mire."

"Teal!" Gilbert was all eagerness, for these duck are rare on the Moor, and a prize to any gun.

"By Jove, I wonder if they're still there."

"He seen 'em last evening, but he didn't have no time to go arter 'em. So when I said I seed 'ee shooting he said for me to go across and tell 'ee."

"That was good of you," Gilbert fished in his pocket and found a shilling, which he handed to Bob, who touched his battered hat. "I'll go after them at once," added Gilbert. Bob nodded.

"But Mr. Clamp, he said the Mire were full, and for 'ee to be careful." Gilbert smiled.

"Tell him not to worry. I know the Mire pretty well, there's a safe path across it. Give Clamp my thanks, and tell him he shall have one of the birds if I get them."

"I'll tell him for sure," answered Bob; and touching his hat again turned away. Gilbert shouldered his gun, and calling Jess to heel started.

What he had told French was less than the truth. He knew the great Mire in the valley below like the palm of his hand, and for him it held no terrors. Yet to a stranger the vast morass was full of the most deadly peril, and never a year passed but cattle and ponies were swallowed up in its bottomless depths.

The pool where the teal had been seen was at the south end of the Mire, a good mile away, and was quite hidden from the clay pits by a rise of land to the west. It was a place which no stranger could possibly have approached from the east side; but Gilbert knew that there was a narrow neck of firm ground over which he could walk in safety. It was called the "One-man Way" because in places it was so narrow that two people could not walk abreast on it; yet it afforded a safe passage across the Mire from west to east!

After a quarter of an hour's brisk walking, Gilbert reached the western end of the Way, and started across. Tall reeds and dead grass rustled harshly in the chill wind, and on either side lay pits of bottomless black slime. Here and there the path itself quaked underfoot, but this did not trouble Gilbert, who had crossed it dozens of times. He walked slowly and cautiously, his gun held ready for instant action, for it was not certain that the teal were in the pool. They might very well be feeding in the mud of the Mire.

The pool itself was nearer to the west than the east side, and presently Gilbert caught a glimpse through the reeds of its steely surface ruffled by the breath of the cold wind. He bent double and crept forward, expecting every moment to hear the clap of wings as the birds rose.

Sure enough, it came, and with the sound Gilbert straightened and flung up his gun. Teal rise like a flash, and the speed at which they fly is tremendous. Gilbert's quick eyes caught them just as they came above the level of the reeds. His gun spoke twice, and both birds dropped like stones.

"A right and left!" cried Gilbert aloud. It was a bit of really pretty shooting, and he was justly proud of it.

"Fetch 'em, Jess," he said, and plunging into the icy water, the dog struck out. Both the birds were floating quite dead, so she had no difficulty in retrieving them.

"Good dog!" said Gilbert, as he took the last bird from her and put it carefully into his game-bag. Then he went on towards the western edge of the Mire, which was no more than a hundred paces from where he had fired. This was the narrowest part of the path, but at the same time the soundest, and Gilbert walked rapidly along it. He was within twenty yards of the edge of the Mire when the ground gave way beneath his feet. He made a desperate effort to leap backwards, but there was no foothold. He floundered forward, and next instant was up to his waist in the mud.

A stranger to the moor would have struggled desperately and sunk at once, but Gilbert knew better than that. He still had his gun in his hands, and quickly laid it in front of him so as to take a part of his weight. Then he looked round to see if there were any reeds within reach. A single clump of reeds will take a man's weight.

Reeds there were in plenty, but none within reach. Gilbert felt himself sinking. Very slowly, it is true, yet none the less surely, and he knew that if help did not come he was doomed. This mud is like quicksand. Once in its grip it slowly draws its victim downwards until he is swallowed up. There is no possibility of recovering the body, which will lie there until the crack of doom.

Gilbert knew he was in a very tight place, yet he did not lose his head. Working very carefully, he drew his game-bag round in front of him so as to give a wider surface on which to lie. This, too, helped, yet it only slowed the inevitable end.

Jess, realising that something was seriously wrong, stood on the path behind him, whining. Gilbert spoke to her.

"Home, Jess," he ordered. "Go home." At first she refused to leave him, but at last he got her to understand, and, leaping the gap, she went off. But Gilbert took little comfort from this. Even if she went straight home, even if someone noticed that she had come alone, and realised that there was trouble, it would be two hours or more before help came. And that would be at least an hour too late. He waited till Jess was out of earshot, then began to shout.

"Help! Help!" His voice came echoing back from the tor side opposite, but there was no other reply. How could there be? The clay works was nearly two miles away, and there was nothing but open moor between him and the pits. In the summer there were turf-cutters about, but now there was nothing to bring men on the open moor but the shooting. And Gilbert knew very well that no one—with the possible exception of Shelcott—was likely to be using a gun. And Shelcott—well, Gilbert had his doubts as to whether Shelcott would do anything to help him; or, rather, he had no doubts at all, for he knew that Shelcott would not lift a finger to aid him.

All this time he was sinking—very slowly, it is true, for the gun and the game-bag took a good deal of his weight. Still, if the sinking was slow, it was sure The great Mire had him in its grip, and the Mire was merciless. The cold, too, was intense. This mud felt like liquid ice, and the chill was sinking into his very bones. He shouted again, but as before there was no response.

His thoughts went hack to Shelcott, and suddenly he began to wonder if this was altogether an accident. The path—he had crossed it many times before and it had always held him; yet now there was a gap. A surge of anger thrilled him as his suspicions began to change into certainty. That man who called himself Bob French. The odds were that he was some ruffian whom Shelcott had bribed to take a message. Shelcott might have known overnight that there were teal in the Mire, then what easier than to have gone down quietly in the late evening, and with a shovel cut away the foundation of the path? The more he considered the matter the stronger grew his suspicions.

"The brute!" he muttered. "And now I shall never have a chance of getting even with him."

By this time he had sunk so that only his head, shoulders and arms were above the surface of the mud. The cold was beginning to numb him, and a drowsy feeling affected his brain. Yet Gilbert was young and strong, and the love of life ran high within him. He would not give up, and again and again he shouted until his voice began to grow weak and hoarse. And then, just as hope was dying, he heard, or thought he heard, an answering cry Once more he called at the very pitch of his voice, and this time there was no doubt about the reply. "I'm coming. Where are you?" came the voice.

"Nance!" gasped Gilbert, hardly able to believe his senses. Yet Nance it was who came galloping up on her clever Moor pony.

"Steady!" shouted Gilbert. "Don't come too close." She was out of the saddle in an instant, and leaving the pony to stand, came straight down to the edge of the Mire. The pretty color had drained from her cheeks, and Gilbert saw the horror in her eyes.

"How close can I come?" Not a word of "how did you get there?" or anything of that sort. Even in his desperate position, Gilbert felt a thrill of admiration for her practical pluck.

"You can't pull me out, Nance," he answered. "Not alone. You must go for help."

"There isn't time," Nance answered. "The clay works are quite two miles away, and it would be half an hour before I could get anyone here."

"But we must have a rope," said Gilbert. "There's my pony's bridle and the girths. They will do." Suddenly she gave a cry of alarm. "Keep still. You're sinking." Gilbert had moved, and the movement had sent him a little lower. Black bubbles rose through the slime, bursting around him.

"It's all right," Gilbert answered. "Listen, Nance, have you a knife?"

"Yes."

"Then cut some heather, make two small bundles, and throw them to me." She obeyed instantly, and, working with amazing speed, cut the heather, tied each bundle with some string she had in her saddle bag, and came forward.

"There's a path," said Gilbert. "It comes out between these two reed clumps. You're safe as far as that next clump, but no farther. You understand?"

She nodded, and came forward, coolly picking her way along the narrow strip of firm ground. When she reached the second clump of reeds she stopped.


Illustration

She nodded, and came forward.


"Throw me the heather," Gilbert told her, and she did so. He caught the two compact bundles, and, moving as little as possible, tucked one under each arm.

"Now I'm safe for a while," he said. "These will keep me up. I can last until you can bring a rope from Clamps."

"Must I go?" Nance's face showed her agony of mind.

"You must," said Gilbert gently. "You can do nothing alone. Don't worry, dear. I shall be quite all right until you come back."

"Oh, Gilbert!" The words seemed wrung from her lips. Gilbert smiled up at her.

"I give you my word, I shall be safe until you come back. Nothing could happen to me now you have forgiven me."

She tried to smile back, but it was more a sob than a smile; then she turned, and picking her way back to firm ground, sprang into the saddle as lightly as any boy. The pony shot away uphill, and Gilbert watched her out of sight.


CHAPTER 17. — DECOY DUCKS.

"EIGHT minutes to get to Clamp's, five to get the rope and for Clamp to saddle his pony, then eight back. Gilbert realised that it must be at least twenty minutes before Nance could return.

"But I can stick that all right," he said to himself. It was amazing what a difference hope made—and happiness. For Nance had forgiven him, and now nothing else mattered. The bundles of heather were keeping him up, and although the cold was pretty hard to bear he did not seem to feel it so much as before Nance's arrival. For all that, the time dragged terribly as he waited.

At last a dot appeared on the summit of the distant slope. Nance galloping furiously, but Nance alone.

Each moment Gilbert expected to see Clamp appear behind her, but there was no sign of any second rider. What had happened? What was keeping Clamp? Had Shelcott been up to some fresh mischief?

He had not long to wait for answers to his questions. Nance came up, and springing off her sweating pony, took a coil of stout rope from the saddle and ran to the edge of the bog.

"Clamp's not in the house," she panted. "And all the other men are in the pits. I sent Mrs. Clamp to find Clamp, but I could not wait. I have a rope. I can get you out."

"You can't, Nance," Gilbert knew the glue-like qualities of this black peaty slime. "It's impossible. It's a two-man job."

"Or a one pony one," Nance answered quickly, as she uncoiled the rope and flung one end to Gilbert.

"The pony!" Hope came again to Gilbert. "That's an idea. But, Nance, if he jerks he'll either break the rope or me."

"Punch won't jerk," replied Nance confidently as she fastened the other end of the rope to the saddle. She turned the pony and held him by the bridle. "Are you ready, Gilbert?"

"Wait a moment. I must get the loop round my body. My hands are too numb to grip properly."

With a great effort Gilbert succeeded in passing his end of the rope around his body. The effort made him sink still more deeply in the clinging mire, and when he had finished he was in almost to his neck.

"Now, Nance," he said, "but very slowly, please."

Nance led Punch on a step or two and the rope slowly tightened. Another step.

"Can you stand it?" she asked anxiously.

"All right," said Gilbert, though he felt as though he were being cut in two. Another step. The pain was agonising, but Gilbert was moving. There were squelching sounds and big bubbles rose and burst around him.

"Can you bear it, Gilbert?" Nance's voice was sharp with anxiety.

"Yes. Go ahead." He got hold of the rope, and as his hands took a part of his weight, the strain was easier to bear. Inch by inch he came free, but when at last he was drawn out of his living grave and pulled on to firm ground he was a strange looking object. Every bit of him, even his face, was covered with clinging black mire. He tried to gain his feet, but the cold had numbed his muscles so that his legs refused to work.

"Keep still," ordered Nance, as she untied the rope.

"There's a flask in my haversack," Gilbert said. She got it out and gave him whisky in the metal cup. The spirit ran through his veins like fire.

"That's better," he said, "I'll be all right in a minute. But I say, Nance, you've got a pretty filthy object on your hands."

"Don't be silly!" returned Nance. She was trying to smile, but Gilbert saw she was badly shaken. "Clamp will be here in a minute, and then we'll get you up to his place. Here he is," she added, as a pony came galloping down the slope. Clamp slid from the saddle.

"She'm got you out!" he exclaimed in amazement. "Wherever did she get the strength?"

"I used the pony," Nance explained, "but Mr. Stratton's nearly frozen, and he'll have pneumonia if we don't get him to a fire. Put him on Punch and take him to your house." Clamp stooped and lifted Gilbert.

The old fellow's strength was still almost as great as ever. He swung him to the saddle.

"You ride mine, missy," he said, as he started afoot leading his pony. "How did 'ee get in there?" he asked of Gilbert. "A moorman like 'ee didn't ought to fall in a bog."

"Path was gone," Gilbert told him. Clamp looked up.

"It never goed afore," he said suspiciously.

"It didn't go of itself," replied Gilbert. His lips were blue with cold and his teeth chattered.

"Us'll see about that," said Clamp grimly as he clucked to the pony and quickened his pace.

Gilbert was more helpless than ever when they reached Clamp's house, and Clamp had to lift him off and carry him in.

"I got blankets hot," said Mrs. Clamp. "And there's plenty hot water. You take his things off, John." Clamp carried Gilbert into his old room and stripped him rapidly. A bucket of hot water was waiting, and he sponged the mud from his head and arms, wrapped him in the hot blankets and put a stone jar of hot water to his feet. Then Mrs. Clamp came in with a cup of hot tea.

"My word, that's good," said Gilbert gratefully, as he finished it. The warmth was making the blood run again in his frozen veins. He had a wonderful constitution and was already recovering from an ordeal which would have killed a man less strong than he. "How's Miss Aspland Mrs Clamp?"

"She'll be a heap better when I tell her how well you be, Master Gilbert," replied Mrs. Clamp, with a kindly twinkle in her old eyes.

"She saved my life, Mrs. Clamp," Gilbert told her. "She—she's the pluckiest, coolest girl you ever saw."

"She'm a fine young lady, and you'm a lucky young man," said Mrs. Clamp.

"What do you mean, Mrs. Clamp?"

"If you don't know what I mean you've lost a lot of sense since you left here, Master Gilbert," she retorted drily. "Now, you better go quiet to sleep."

"Sleep! I'm getting up and coming down."

"Not while I'm here to stop 'ee," was the firm answer.

"But I must. I've got to see Miss Aspland."

"You can see her without coming down. Ain't no reason why she can't walk upstairs."

"Do you think she would?" asked Gilbert earnestly.

"Won't do no harm to ask," said Mrs. Clamp as she turned to leave the room. Gilbert called after her:

"Wait—wait! Give me that sponge again. Help me to make myself took half-way decent." There was a smile on Mrs. Clamp's face as she got him the sponge and a brush, and one of her husband's night shirts. Then she went down, and Gilbert had just time to make himself a little more tidy before he heard a knock, and there was Nance. Nance stared.

"What a transformation!" she said. Then they both laughed, and what might have been an awkward moment was smoothed over. She stood beside the bed.

"You're sure you're all right, Gilbert?"

"I could get up this minute and walk home, if Mrs. Clamp would let me," he assured her.

"Now tell me how you got into that dreadful place," she ordered, and he obeyed. When he had finished there was a very grave look on her face.

"I thought as much. Clamp has gone down to have a look round."

"He won't find anything," said Gilbert. "There's no way of telling if the path was really cut."

"But this is a horrible business," said Nance quickly.

"It would have been if you hadn't turned up in the nick of time. Nance, you saved my life."

"Tit-for-tat," smiled Nance. "I haven't forgotten the day you pulled me out of the river."

"I thought you had," ventured Gilbert. Then as he saw a shadow in her eyes, "but Bobby says I don't understand women," he added humbly. Nance laughed outright.

"Bobby is right, Gilbert. But you'll learn."

"Will you teach me, Nance?" he begged, and stretching out caught her hand, drew it to his lips and kissed it. She flushed a little, then laughed.

"I didn't bargain to start lessons to-day," she told him. "No," she added, as she drew her hand gently away, "not now, Gilbert."

"But I may come and see you," Gilbert implored.

"Yes, when Dad is back. He has gone to Belgium." A shadow crossed Gilbert's face. For the moment he had forgotten.

"What's the matter now?" Nance asked. "He's gone about Mr. Messenger, hasn't he?" Gilbert tried to speak unconcernedly.

"Yes—to identify the body. It's very sad, of course, that my poor old great-uncle should end up like this; but, after all, we hardly knew him, and it would be silly to pretend that we are very grieved."

"He—he was very rich, wasn't he?" asked Gilbert.

"A millionaire. But don't look so sad about it. You don't grudge us the money, Gilbert?"

"N—no," faltered Gilbert, and just then there was a tap at the door and Mrs. Clamp came in.

"Clamp, he'm back. Master Gilbert. He've been down to the bog, and he've got something to tell 'ee."

"Ask him to come up," said Gilbert quickly. "No, please don't go, Nance. Whatever he's found, you ought to hear."

"I'll wait a little," said Nance. "But I mustn't be long. It's getting dark."

Clamp came in and both Gilbert and Nance could see by his face that he had something serious to say. He closed the door behind him.

"You'm right, Muster Gilbert," he said in a deep, heavy voice. "That there path were cut."

"How do you know?"

"Two ways. First, that there fellow as called hisself Bob French were a liar. I never told him nothing about teal being in the pool. I never even seed the fellow."

"That's pretty good evidence there was something crooked," said Gilbert, "but it's not proof. And no one can prove that the path was cut unless a man was seen doing it." Clamp raised his hand.

"Wait, Muster Gilbert. I've got something else to tell 'ee. There was two decoys laid in a little pool in the reeds close to the big pool." Nance looked puzzled.

"Decoys," she repeated.

"Aye. Decoy ducks put there to bring the wild ones," Clamp explained. Gilbert pursed his lips.

"That makes it certain that it was a put-up job," he agreed. "If we can get the decoys and find who owned them we have proof all right."

"I'll get 'em, Muster Gilbert," said the old man. "But it be too late to-night. I'll go first thing in the morning."

Gilbert's lips tightened.

"And I'll come with you," he said. Nance looked horrified.

"But who could have done such a dreadful thing?" she exclaimed. "Who is this horrible man who is trying to murder you, Gilbert?" Gilbert hesitated, but only for a moment.

"I'd better not say anything, even to you, until I am certain, Nance."

"You suspect someone?" she asked quickly.

"Yes, I do suspect someone—but suspicion isn't proof."

"But he may try something else," cried Nance in alarm.

"He may," said Gilbert, "but I'll take precious good care I don't tumble into any more traps."

"And you won't go shooting again, alone?" begged Nance.

"Not till this business is cleared up," Gilbert promised. Nance nodded.

"That's a promise, Gilbert, and now I must go. Dad is due back to-morrow or next day. Come on Saturday, will you?"

"I will," said Gilbert gravely, and with a little wave of her hand she was gone. Mrs. Clamp followed her, but Gilbert kept Clamp.

"Mrs. Clamp won't let me go till to-morrow, Clamp. Can you send word to Mr. Cowling?"

"I'll send a boy, Muster Gilbert. Don't 'ee trouble. It'll be all right. Nothing like a good sleep to put 'ee right."

But it was a long time before Gilbert slept. He had so much to think of. If Shelcott was not responsible for cutting away that path, then he, Gilbert, was very out in his ideas.


CHAPTER 18. — THE MAN IN THE LOFT.

"SO you got here. I hardly thought you would in this fog," said Nance, as she met Gilbert at the door of The Roost. "Did you get those decoys?"

"We got them," Gilbert told her, "but they're battered old things that must have been bought years ago, and there's no tracing to whom they belonged."

"But you know, Gilbert?"

"I don't know. I suspect."

"And you won't tell me?"

"I think I'd better not, Nance. But I'll say this much—I have a man helping me to find out. That Mr. Goodbody."

"Is he any use?" asked Nance, doubtfully.

"A lot of use. He's a reporter with years of experience in ferreting out things of this kind. And he's tremendously keen, because it would make such a wonderful story for his paper." Nance still looked doubtful. Gilbert thought her fascinating as she stood gazing at him with a tiny frown on her forehead. He longed to catch her by the shoulders and kiss her.

Perhaps his eyes showed his thoughts, for Nance flushed a little, then laughed.

"Don't look so solemn, Gilbert. Come in. Tea will be ready in a few minutes."

"What news?" asked Gilbert, as he followed her into her own sitting-room. Nance shrugged.

"Nothing very good," she replied. "Dad's back, but he could not identify the body. He says that no one could," she added, with a little shiver.

"No papers or anything?"

"No clothes. The body had been stripped. Dad says he hasn't any real doubt that it's Mr. Messenger, but he can't honestly swear to it."

"Then what happens now?" Gilbert asked.

"No one seems to know. There will be more delays, and between ourselves, Gilbert, it's rather serious. You see, Mr. Messenger made dad an allowance, and that has stopped; so we have nothing to live on except my little bit of money, and dad is in debt and his creditors are worrying him."

"How beastly for you!" exclaimed Gilbert. "But surely they can wait when they know that all this money must come to him sooner or later."

"Most of them will wait, of course, but I know that some of them are growing impatient." Mrs. Betts came in with tea, and they had to talk of other things.

"I don't know what's become of dad," said Nance, as she poured out tea for Gilbert. "But he's in the house somewhere, so he will come when he is ready." Gilbert hoped it would be a long time before he was ready, for it was a joy to get Nance to himself for a little while. He was longing for a chance to explain to her about Ida, but wise enough to wait until she introduced the subject, for he vowed to himself that he was not going to blunder as he had on a previous occasion. Nance, however, never mentioned the Merrills. She was telling him about her life to London, and Gilbert was utterly content to sit in the pretty little room and sip his tea and eat daintily cut cress sandwiches, and watch the bright face of the girl he adored. Then suddenly the door opened and her father came in.

"Nance, that infernal fellow, Ascherson, is here," he began; then he saw Gilbert and stopped. "I beg your pardon, Stratton. I forgot you were coming to-day."

"You needn't worry about Gilbert, Dad," said Nance, with a rather rueful smile. "He knows all about our troubles." The elder man looked doubtful, and Gilbert got up.

"Perhaps I'd better go," he said to Nance, but she only laughed.

"Don't be silly. Dad will be glad of your help to get rid of the unpleasant Ascherson." But Mr. Aspland shook his head.

"I'd like nothing better than to get Mr. Stratton to boot the blighter out of the house, but I dare not do it. He's vicious. Swears he must have a hundred pounds down."

"How can he?" said Nance. "You haven't a hundred, and I haven't either. Luckily, my little capital is entailed. Dad, tell him his money is quite safe if he waits."

"But he won't wait, Nance." Mr. Aspland was very agitated. "He swears he must have it now or—or he'll get a warrant."

Nance looked disturbed.

"You mean he'll send you to prison, Dad?"

"That's it." Mr. Aspland took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. "He's absolutely savage."


Illustration

Mr. Aspland mopped his forehead.


Gilbert struck in.

"Mr. Aspland, I have sixty pounds in the bank, which I will gladly lend you. Do you think this man would take that and be satisfied?"

Nance got up quickly.

"Nonsense, Gilbert. We can't take your money."

"But it's only a loan," protested Gilbert, "I shan't be using it for ages. Mr. Cowling pays me quite a good salary."

"It's uncommonly kind of you, Stratton," said Mr. Aspland gratefully. "I'll see if the fellow will take that amount and wait for the rest." He hurried out of the room, and Nance turned to Gilbert.

"You shouldn't, Gilbert. Oh, I wish you hadn't offered it. Dad has no conscience about money."

"Please, Nance," begged Gilbert. "If you only knew how glad I am to be of any use." But Nance was not pleased.

"I'd almost sooner see Dad in prison. Really it might do him good." Just then Mr. Aspland came back and beckoned Gilbert out.

"He says he must have the whole hundred," he said. "I suppose you couldn't raise the forty, could you?"

Gilbert considered.

"I might ask Mr. Cowling," he said, "but I'd have to tell him why I wanted it."

"You can tell him anything you like, my dear boy, if you can only get the money."

"I'll try then," Gilbert promised, "but you'd better tell Ascherson that he must wait until Monday. It's too late to do anything to-day." Mr. Aspland laughed.

"He can't do much on Sunday, that's one good thing. All right, Stratton. Perhaps you'll telephone me what luck you have." He went back to Ascherson in his study and Gilbert to his interrupted tea, or rather to his talk with Nance. Nance never did things by halves, and, having forgiven Gilbert, did not even allude to the Merrills. So Gilbert was equally careful not to bring in their names, and he spent a happy two hours with Nance, and rode back through the fog feeling more cheerful than for some time past.

The only thing that bothered him was the idea of appealing to Mr. Cowling for the money Nance's father needed; but it was no use shirking disagreeables, and as soon as he got back he went straight to the small house inhabited by the owner of Elford. Cowling's elderly housekeeper let him in, and he found Cowling himself seated in a big armchair by the fire, reading. The old fellow was wearing a brown smoking coat frogged and braided, and one of those flat-topped embroidered smoking-caps popular in Victorian days, but now forgotten. He looked a little surprised at Gilbert's appearance.

"Nothing wrong, I hope, Stratton?" he remarked in a dry, rather harsh voice.

"Nothing wrong at Elford, sir. I came to ask you to do me a favor." And without beating about the bush Gilbert put forward his request. The other sat silent for a while, looking up at the younger man.

"You want this money for your friend, I understand?"

"Yes, sir. I told him I should tell you exactly what I wanted it for. You see, there won't be any trouble about repayment with the proper interest, for Mr. Aspland is heir to a millionaire."

"And who is that?" asked Cowling.

"The Mr. Messenger who disappeared a while ago. His body has been found in a canal at Ghent."

"I read about that in the Plymouth paper, but is there not some doubt about the identity?"

"That's true," said Gilbert. "Mr. Aspland said the body was in such a condition that no one could swear to it. Still he hadn't much doubt about its being that of his uncle."

"Unless someone can positively identify the body the courts will not give probate," replied Mr. Cowling. "And in that case there may be years of delay." He shook his head. "No, Stratton. I have made what money I have by taking care of it, not by lending on post-obits. I do not wish to lend to your friend."

"I don't want you to. I want you to lend it to me, Mr. Cowling. You could deduct it from my salary until it's paid."

"And if you fell ill or I dismissed you, how would you pay then?"

"I'm not likely to fall ill, and so far you seem satisfied with my work."

"I have never lent money. I am too old to begin doing so. That is my decision. Good night, Stratton."

Gilbert marched out of the room. He was very angry indeed, but, after all, what could he say? Cowling had a perfect right to refuse his request. Yet he felt he must find the money for Mr. Aspland. Nance might say what she liked, but it would never do for her father to go to prison. Besides, Gilbert had promised to find the money, and he simply hated to let anyone down.

Suddenly he thought of Bobby. Bobby, of course, would lend him the money like a shot. He looked at his watch, and found it was not yet seven.

"I'll go over at once and see him," he said to himself, and started back to the old stable where he kept his bicycle. The fog was still pretty thick, but not quite as bad as it had been. Gilbert thought he could make it.

He found that his tank was nearly empty, and he was searching for a tin of petrol to refill it when he distinctly heard some movement in the loft above. It did not sound like a rat either. He listened, but all was silent.

Gilbert, however, was never one to shirk a duty. It was quite possible that a tramp had come in off the road for shelter, and he decided to make sure. Picking up a heavy spanner, he climbed the ladder to the loft. His hands met fresh wet mud on the rungs of the ladder, and he knew that his suspicions were correct. He stopped.

"Come down, you!" he ordered sharply. There was a stir above, then a hoarse whisper.

"Is that you, Mr. Gilbert?" Gilbert started so that he nearly lost his hold on the ladder.

"Who is it?" he asked in a strained whisper.

"Me, sir—Joe Clamp," was the reply, as someone came quietly to the edge of the trap door. "I couldn't stand it, sir," the man went on passionately. "I'd ha' gone mad."

"And you've escaped?" gasped Gilbert. "Yes. I did a bunk in the fog. I wouldn't go to Dad's because I knew that's where they'd look first. So I came across here." He paused. "You won't give me up, Mr. Gilbert?" he whispered.


CHAPTER 19. — STOLEN MONEY.STOLEN MONEY.

"GIVE you up!" repeated Gilbert. "Don't be a fool, Joe." He climbed the rest of the ladder, and found himself face to face with young Clamp. It was too dark to see his face, but Gilbert found Joe's hand and gripped it. "Are they after you?" he asked.

"They're after me fast enough, Mr. Gilbert," said the boy, "but I reckon I fooled 'em. The fog were that thick they got all lost like. They thought as I'd gone up into Hanging Wood, but I took right across the farm and along the prison leat, and come over the head of the Swincombe." Gilbert whistled softly.

"Took some doing in this fog. But, Joe, you're soaking, and I suppose pretty well starving. You'd better wait here while I go and fetch a change and some grub."

"It's clothes I wants most, Mr. Gilbert. Get me any kind o' change and a bite of food, and I'll be off. 'Tain't fair for me to stay around here, and maybe get you into trouble."

"Now you're talking rot," said Gilbert bluntly. "How much walking are you going to do after running 10 miles across the Moor? You'd drop by the roadside and the first policeman would pick you up in the morning. No, you'll stay here for to-night and get a good sleep. There's plenty of hay, and I'll find you a rug. You'll be perfectly safe, for no one ever comes into the building except myself and old King, who keeps his bicycle down below with mine."

"You're a gentleman, sir," said Joe, in a voice that was not too steady. Gilbert realised that the youngster was very near to breaking down, and giving his hand another quick grip, he turned to go back down the stairs.

Then he stopped short, and stood perfectly still. Joe, too, remained as if frozen, for both had heard a slight sound below. They stood quiet as mice, listening intently.

A minute passed, two minutes, but the silence remained unbroken. Gilbert turned, and, kneeling down, looked over the edge of the trap-door. His electric torch, which he had left on the bench below, threw a faint light through the foggy gloom, but he could see nothing unusual. He got up again.

"Must have been a rat," he said.

"You're sure there's no one down there, sir?" asked Joe. He was badly scared.

"Quite certain," replied Gilbert. "What's more, the door is just as I left it—nearly closed." Joe drew a sigh of relief.

"I thought for sure it was a screw," he muttered. "Scared me proper, it did."

"I'll go down and make quite sure," said Gilbert, and hurried down the ladder. He picked up his torch and searched every inch of the place, but there was no one about, and no sign of anything being disturbed. He went outside, but all was one pall of foggy gloom. Laying down the torch, he again climbed the ladder.

"It's all right. It was nothing but a rat. There are dozens of 'em in this old place. Now I'll go and get you a change and some food."

Gilbert's wardrobe was not a large one, but he had one very old suit which he had worn when actually in the clay pits. It was whitened with clay, but still fairly sound. He took this and a flannel shirt, some socks, a pair of old boots, and made them into a bundle with a rug. Then he dug out bread and cold meat, and a bottle of beer from his cupboard, and went back with these to the stable. There was no window in the loft, so he ventured to take a candle and some matches. He closed the outer door after him and bolted it, then went up to the loft.

"Here we are, Joe," he said, cheerfully. "First thing is to change. I'm lighting a candle so you can see. It's quite safe for there's no window, only a ventilator in the roof." He struck a match as he spoke and the candlelight showed Joe with his ugly convict clothes covered with mud, soaked and clinging to his body.

Joe seized the old suit as if it were gold, and ripping off the prison clothes changed in record time. Then he sat down on the floor and started hungrily on the food, while Gilbert opened the bottle.

"Beer!" said Joe, as he took the glass and held it against the candle. "I haven't seed beer, let alone tasted it, for fourteen months."

"Then taste it quick, Joe," laughed Gilbert. But Joe had his manners. He raised the glass.

"Here's your good health and thanks for all your kindness!" A little color came back into his thin brown cheeks.

"By gum, that's good," he said. When he had finished Gilbert gave him a cigarette.

"That's another thing I ain't tasted since they took me," said Joe. "And it do taste good, too. I was in luck to run into you, Mr. Gilbert."

"Didn't you know I was here?"

"Hadn't a notion, sir. I only get a letter once in six months. When did you leave the clay pits?"

Gilbert told him. He told him a good deal of what had happened in the last fortnight, and of his row with Shelcott, though he did not enlarge on the cause of that row. He spoke of the cut bridge at the Gorge, and of Shelcott's attempt to finish him in the Mire. Joe shook his head.

"I knowed Shelcott was a hard man, but I never thought he'd go that far," he said. "I wish it was so I could take a hand," he added longingly.

"Oh, I can look after myself," Gilbert answered. "It's you we have to think of. Have you any plans?"

"None, sir. I just run when the chance came; but where I was going or what I meant to do I hadn't no more notion than Adam."

"They'll be searching the Moor to-morrow," said Gilbert. "And by this time every police station has been warned." A look of despair came into Joe's eyes.

"Don't I know it? A mad dog would have as good a chance as me."

"Don't talk rot," replied Gilbert, curtly.

"You'll be perfectly safe here to-night, for the fog is far too thick for any search. To-morrow, we'll fix you up with some sort of disguise, and after it's dark I'll take you to Exeter on my motor bike, or Plymouth, if you think better. You'd be all right if you could get to London, wouldn't you?"

"That I would—or to Bristol. I could get work at the docks, and no one would be the wiser." He paused and looked at Gilbert. "But it's not fair to you, Mr. Gilbert. Suppose you was caught?"

"You're talking nonsense again! I happen to be rather fond of you, Joe, apart from the fact that you're your father's son. Now I'm going to leave you to get some sleep. I'll bring you some breakfast. No one will think twice of my going to and from the shed, because my bicycle is here."

"You're a wonderful good friend, Mr. Gilbert," said Joe quietly, but Gilbert only smiled and slipped away down the ladder.

It was a long time before Gilbert got to sleep that night. He was racking his brain as to how best to help Joe. Mr. Aspland's business would have to slide for the present. He made up his mind to telephone in the morning and tell him that Mr. Cowling had refused the loan. He finally got to sleep about one, but woke at his usual time, to find the fog still thick over the High Moor.

"Looks like lasting all day," he said to himself, "and that's all to the good." He got his food and went out to the stable. Joe was awake and waiting.

"Joe," said Gilbert. "there'll be a big drive to-day, and it strikes me that this place isn't safe. The odds are they'll search all out-buildings."

"Then what am I to do?" asked Joe in a panic.

"Don't get scared. There's an attic above my rooms. It's nothing but a sort of loft under the slates, and the only way of getting there is through a trapdoor in my bedroom ceiling. But it's the sort of place no one would ever dream of searching."

"It sounds fine, Mr. Gilbert, but how can I get there?"

"Walk right across with me. The fog's so thick that no one will see you. Mr. Cowling doesn't come to the office until ten, and there's no one about."

"It's a risk for you, sir." Gilbert smiled.

"The risk would be if you were caught here in my clothes. Come on and don't be silly."

Joe came, but in spite of Gilbert's assurance, crossing that thirty yards of open was a bit of an ordeal, and Gilbert was as grateful as Joe when they reached his rooms without running into anybody. The roof of his bedroom was low, and by standing on a chair placed on a table they were able to reach and open the trap door. Joe squirmed through, Gilbert passed him some food, a bottle of beer and a newspaper.

"You'd better not smoke," he said, "and keep as quiet as you can, for a woman comes in about ten to do my rooms."

"I'll be careful, sir," Joe promised, and Gilbert, after removing the chair and table, tidied himself up and went down to the office. He was a little late, and found that Mr. Cowling was already in his chair. Cowling looked up.

"Stratton," he said, "my safe was opened last night and fifty pounds taken." He did not raise his voice in the slightest, he betrayed no sign of emotion, but his keen eyes seemed to bore right into Gilbert's brain.


CHAPTER 20. — JAMES MERRILL SHOWS HIS TEETH.

GILBERT was thunderstruck. Joe—could it be Joe? was the thought that flashed through his brain. Cowling was speaking again.

"Did you hear anything in the night, Stratton? Your rooms are over the office."

"N—no, sir," stammered Gilbert. He was pitiably conscious that he was himself showing every sign of guilt. With a great effort he pulled himself together. "No, sir," he repeated in a firmer tone. "And I wasn't in bed very early either."

Cowling's eyes were still fixed upon him.

"Don't look so worried," he said in the same even voice. "I'm not suspecting you—even though you did ask for a loan last night. May I ask if your hard-up friend visited you?"

"No, sir. And—and in any case you couldn't imagine Mr. Aspland turning burglar."

"Any one may turn burglar if his need is great enough," was the quiet answer. "I will ask you to telephone to the police station at Taverton. Tell them to send someone at once, please."

Gilbert had no choice but to obey, yet his feelings may be imagined while he carried out his order. Sergeant Tooker answered.

"Burglary at Elford, you say, Mr. Stratton," and Gilbert caught the eagerness in his voice. "I'll be out right off. You'll ask Mr. Cowling to please leave everything just as it is until I come."

"Nothing shall be touched," Gilbert promised, and went to his desk. Cowling went on with the morning's work as quietly as though a burglary was no more than spilling an ink pot. He opened his letters methodically, read them and dictated the gist of the replies to Gilbert. The morning post had all been dealt with when, less than half an hour after the call had gone through, Sergeant Tooker arrived in a car with a constable.

Tooker was a sound specimen of the country policeman who, by hard work and long service, had risen to the rank of sergeant. He was evidently a little excited, for burglaries are rare in the neighborhood of Taverton. He began by asking a number of questions to which Mr. Cowling responded in his usual dry, precise fashion. All he knew was that he had found the safe forced and the money gone. Nothing else had been disturbed. The safe was an old one which he had taken over with the business, and Tooker, after examining it scornfully declared that a tramp could have opened it with a poker. In point of fact a crowbar had been used, and the door forced with this instrument. The marks were plain. He tested for finger prints but found none, and this puzzled him, for it showed that the thief must have worn gloves.

"A pair of my gloves were on the desk," put in Mr. Cowling quietly.

"Ah, likely he used them. But wasn't any sound heard? You sleep in the building, I understand, Mr. Stratton."

"Yes, and as I told Mr. Cowling I was not asleep very early, but I never heard a sound."

"Were you out earlier in the evening?" asked the sergeant.


Illustration

"Were you out earlier in the evening?" asked the sergeant.


"Yes, but I got home about seven and saw Mr. Cowling then. Afterwards I went out to the stable where I keep my motor bicycle. I had intended riding down to see Mr. Barr, but decided that the fog was too thick."

"Were you out there long, Mr. Stratton?"

"Some little time. I was wiping down the machine and putting fresh petrol in the tank." Tooker nodded.

"Then it's my opinion that it was while you were out that the burglary was committed. And I'm strongly inclined to think that the thief was this here chap who escaped from Dartmoor yesterday."

"Someone escaped?" said Gilbert quickly. "I haven't seen the paper yet," he added.

"Yes—a chap you know. That young Clamp. He did a bolt in the fog, and they haven't seen him since."

"Joe Clamp!" Gilbert managed to put on a look of amazement. "Yes. I knew him well, I lived at the Clamps' house when I was at the clay pits. Yet, if you ask me, Sergeant, I'd say Joe was the last man to steal."

"Maybe he is in a general sense. But when a chap's desperate like he is, when money means liberty, a man that never stole before will turn burglar." He frowned. "The funny thing is that he took nothing but money. Clothes and food mean more to a runaway lag than money. Are you sure nothing else has been missed?"

"Nothing so far as I know," said Mr. Cowling, and Gilbert added that he had not missed anything.

"He may have got clothes from his own folks up at the pits," said Tooker, "but he ain't there, for the whole place has been properly searched. Well, I'll take a look round here, though I don't reckon to find much. Once he'd got money in his pocket Clamp wouldn't hang round very long. He'd likely make for Plymouth."

"Take the sergeant round," Cowling bade Gilbert, and Gilbert, as he left the room, blessed his own foresight that he had shifted Joe from the stable. Tooker's search was thorough, and he visited every house and building around the quarry and questioned all the men. He climbed to the loft over the stable, and Gilbert had a bad minute as the sergeant poked about in the hay. But luckily he himself had obliterated every trace of Joe's visit.

The last place Tooker visited was Gilbert's rooms, and here again Gilbert was in a stew. But he kept perfectly cool, and if Tooker even noticed the trap door he did not mention it. All the same Gilbert sighed with relief when the inspection was over and they were once more in the office.

"There's no one here, sir, and I haven't found anything," Tooker said to Cowling. "But I haven't changed my opinion that the job was done by young Clamp. With your permission, I'll ring up Plymouth and tell them what's happened." He did so, then left, and Cowling settled calmly back to work. The old man's coolness was almost uncanny. He never said another word about the burglary, yet for this Gilbert was grateful. He was dreadfully afraid of betraying himself if fresh questions had been asked.

At half-past twelve Cowling left the office, and Gilbert went up to his rooms where his mid-day meal was ready on the table. The first thing he did was to lock his door, the next to fix up the table and chair and open the trap. Joe was waiting.

"I heard the sergeant, sir," were Joe's first words, "and I was proper scared. But you bluffed him fine." Gilbert did not answer at once. He stood on the chair with his eyes fixed on Joe.

"What's the matter, sir?" asked Joe uneasily.

"Part of the matter is that Mr. Cowling's safe was burgled last night, and a large sum of money taken. Another part is that Sergeant Tooker believes you to be the thief, Joe."

"But you don't believe that, sir," replied Joe quietly.

"I certainly don't want to, Joe. I've known you since you were a boy, and I never knew you steal so much as a lump of sugar." Joe smiled slightly.

"You're not quite right, sir, I've stole many a hare and rabbit." Gilbert had to smile back.

"Oh, I know all about your poaching, but I can't believe you'll take money."

"And you're right, sir. I've never took anything but wild things, and, as for last night I never moved after you left me. I was that tired I slept like a log." Gilbert nodded.

"I had to ask you, Joe, but, as I told Tooker, I always believed you to be the last man to turn thief." He paused. "All the same, this is a precious awkward business. My chief wonder is that Mr. Cowling didn't suspect me."

"Suspect you!" exclaimed Joe, horrified.

"Yes. You see only last night I asked him to lend me £40, and he refused."

"That wouldn't make no difference," replied Joe sturdily. "Not if he knowed you." Gilbert laughed.

"That's very nice of you, Joe, but he doesn't know me as well as you do. And I wanted the money badly. A friend of mine is in trouble and I want to help him."

"That'll be the Mr. Aspland as you spoke of," said Joe.

"I don't know how you know that, but it's true," replied Gilbert. Joe nodded.

"I been putting together the things you told me last night, and I'm kind of getting the hang of it all. See here, Mr. Gilbert, do you think as it could have been Shelcott as stole the money?"

Gilbert's eyes widened. "I never thought of that."

"But it might be. Looks to me like he'd do anything to get you into trouble." Gilbert thought a little, then shook his head.

"It's a bit far fetched. Joe. It's quite true that Shelcott would do anything to queer my pitch, but he couldn't possibly have known that I was in need of money; and it doesn't seem to me likely that he'd have taken such a risk."

"Well, someone took it," insisted Joe.

"I'm inclined to think it was some passing tramp who came along while I was talking to you in the barn last night," said Gilbert.

"Tramps ain't over fond of the Moor, Mr. Gilbert, let alone on a foggy night."

Gilbert shrugged. "If it wasn't a tramp it must have been a professional burglar. There's not a workman on the place who could be suspected."

"It's a rum business," said Joe frowning.

"We'll have to let it drop for the moment," said Gilbert. "The job now is to get you away."

"I been thinking about that, sir," said Joe. "And I reckoned it wouldn't be no use trying to get anywheres by train, for they'll be watching the stations pretty close the next two or three days. You see, if they thinks I've got money, they'll be looking for me to use it."

"Then you'll have to stay here."

"No, sir. I got a better notion than that. You knows that old oak wood above Merlin's Mire?"

"Yes."

"There's a cave there, Mr. Gilbert, a place no one don't know except me. I could lie hid there a month if I had a rug and some grub. Wouldn't need much grub either, for there's trout and rabbits for the taking. You let me start out after dark to-night, and I'll find my way there easy, and stay till the hue and cry has died down."

"It's a long way, Joe," objected Gilbert.

"Four or five miles across the Moor, and I knows the way blindfold. You take it from me, sir, it's the best plan."

Gilbert stood silent, considering Joe's proposal. Taking it all round, it probably was the best plan, for if Joe could reach the place unseen the odds were that no one would ever find him. As he had said, he could remain there until the hue and cry died down and then slip quietly away.

"All right, Joe," he said at last, "I'll fix up some food for you. And you'll want wire for snares and some fishing tackle and—"

Joe raised his hand. "Hush! Some one's coming," he whispered swiftly. Sure enough the bell had rung. Gilbert did not waste a moment. He dropped down and swiftly moved the table and chair to their proper places while Joe softly dropped the trap. Gilbert had just time to unlock his sitting-room door before there came a knock on it, and the housekeeper appeared.

"Gentleman asking to see you, sir. It's Mr. Merrill from Woodend."

"D—!" muttered Gilbert under his breath. Aloud he said:

"Ask him to come up, Mrs. Holmes."

"What the deuce does he want?" was Gilbert's thought, as Merrill entered the room; but Merrill did not seem in a hurry to tell him. He shook hands, took the cigarette Gilbert offered, but refused a drink. Gilbert's luncheon was on the table, but the odd thing was that Merrill did not seem to notice it, and, though his manners were usually good, made no apology for intruding at such an unusual time. All this Gilbert noticed and it put him very much on his guard.

"You left us very abruptly the other night, Stratton," said Merrill presently.

"I couldn't well help it," replied Gilbert with a smile. "Not after the row Shelcott started."

"Shelcott's a fool," snapped Merrill. Gilbert had never heard him speak so viciously. "All the same," he added in a milder tone, "you needn't have bustled off in such a hurry. You hurt Ida's feelings by bolting like that."

"Really I was not responsible," Gilbert answered. "Goodbody fairly shoved me out. I was in the street before I knew it." Merrill looked at him and Gilbert noticed how very hard his eyes were.

"I think you owe Ida an apology," he said curtly. "You've been paying her a good deal of attention, Stratton." The remark was so unexpected that Gilbert did not know what to say. He stood silent looking at the other.

"You made her very conspicuous both there and at the tea you gave her," Merrill said; then he changed his tone. "Ida is very fond of you Stratton. In these days it has gone out of fashion for brothers to ask about intentions. Still, between ourselves I should like to know what your ideas are on the subject of my sister." Gilbert stiffened.

"Are you asking whether we are engaged Merrill?"

"Yes," replied the other. "I am."

"Then I'll be equally plain," replied Gilbert. "We are not engaged. Your sister has been very kind to me, but there is nothing of that sort between us. In any case, how could I possibly marry without either money or prospects?"

"My sister has money of her own," said James.

"I shouldn't dream of living on a woman's money," retorted Gilbert. Merrill's face went suddenly ugly.

"Not if her name was Nance Aspland," he sneered.


CHAPTER 21. — THE BARGAIN.

GILBERT'S eyes went hard as steel, his lips tightened, and a small white spot showed on each cheek. Merrill, big and burly as he was, seemed suddenly to shrink in comparison with the younger man.

"I'm sorry, Stratton," he said hastily. "I shouldn't have said that."

"You'll certainly repent it if you say anything of the kind again," returned Gilbert curtly. He stood very still with his eyes fixed on Merrill. His whole attitude said. "You'd better go," but Merrill, though he felt the challenge, made no move to leave the room. Gilbert spoke again.

"I have to get back to my work at two," he said, pointedly. This was more than a mere hint, yet still Merrill did not move.

"Office work?" he questioned.

"Of course," Gilbert answered impatiently.

"Sure you have no other work on hand?" Gilbert sensed something beneath his question, and felt suddenly uneasy, but he resolved to bluff.

"I haven't a notion what you are talking about. I am very busy. Don't you think you had better go?"

"Not just yet, my young friend." There was no longer any doubt about the menace in Merrill's voice and manner. "I have still something to say to you. I think you are aware that a convict bolted from the prison yesterday." In spite of himself, Gilbert could not repress a slight start, and an ugly smile crossed Merrill's face.

"Ah, I see you know what I am talking about. It's rather a serious offence to aid and abet an escaped prisoner. A year's hard labor is, I believe, the statutory punishment." Gilbert had hold of himself again.

"I heard this morning that a man had bolted. I am aware that he is young Clamp whom I knew before they caught him for poaching, and a killing with which he had nothing to do. But perhaps you'll kindly tell me what this has to do with me." There was something like admiration on Merrill's face as he looked at Gilbert.

"You're some bluffer!" he remarked, dropping into the American slang which he often used. "But it's no use, Stratton—not a bit of use. You see, I know." If Gilbert felt dismay there was no sign of it on his face.

"Yes, and what do you know?" he asked patiently.

"I know that Joe Clamp was here last night, that you found him and gave him food and clothes."

"Oh, so it was you sneaking in the shed below last night," said Gilbert, so scornfully that Merrill's face reddened.

"Yes," he snapped. "I was there. I'd come to see you, and I followed you across to the stable. My hearing what I did was pure accident."

"An accident you evidently mean to make use of," retorted Gilbert scornfully, "for if you didn't you'd have called to me." How right he was the deepening color on Merrill's face proved, but before the latter could speak Gilbert went on: "But it won't do you any good, Merrill. Since you heard me speaking to Joe it's no use my denying that he was there or that I helped him. But you've got no second witness. It's only your word against mine—and that's no use in a law court. And Joe's gone long ago."

It was a bold lie on Gilbert's part, but to his secret dismay it did not seem to work. Merrill smiled.

"As I said before, you're a good bluffer, Stratton. Only, as it happens, I know better. Clamp is still on the place. What's more, there was a burglary here last night. Cowling's safe was opened, and the police suspect Clamp. If Clamp is taken he will be tried for this, and the odds are that he will get an extra five years in Dartmoor on top of his original sentence. Gilbert felt as though the ground was sinking beneath his feet, but he managed not to show it.

"You seem to know a lot," he retorted, "but I'll tell you something which perhaps you don't know. Sergeant Tooker has been here this morning and searched the whole place. He didn't find Joe."

"Simply because he never suspected you of hiding him," Merrill answered.

"And I must say you did the job uncommonly well." Gilbert still bluffed, though by this time he was pretty well convinced that it was hopeless.

"So you think you can find him?" he retorted.

"I don't think—I know," was the blunt answer. "He's somewhere overhead—up in the roof." He laughed nastily. "Perhaps by this time you're convinced you can't fool me." Gilbert saw it was hopeless. How Merrill knew all this he had not the faintest idea, but there was no disputing his knowledge. Suddenly he felt that he had always mistrusted this man, and there came upon him an impulse which he could hardly withstand, to dash his fist in the fellow's face, throw him out of the room and fling him down the stairs. But Gilbert had gained a deal of self-command during the past few weeks.

"Yes," he said, with a calmness that surprised himself as much as it did Merrill. "And now what are you going to do with your knowledge—go to the police, and get me jugged?"

Merrill raised a hand in quick protest.

"Don't talk nonsense. Why should I do a thing like that? You and I have always been good friends, Stratton, and I'm only sorry that we've had this little tiff. The fact is, I'm very fond of my sister and I got annoyed because I thought—and still think—that you have not treated her well. To be quite frank. Ida has grown very fond of you. I want to see her happy." He paused, then went on. "Come down and talk it over with her, and, so far as I'm concerned young Clamp may go to Kamchatka."

Gilbert did not relax in the slightest. He was not fool enough to believe a word of Merrill's explanation, nor that Ida was in love with him. There was something behind it all, though what it was he could not even begin to guess.

"Suppose I don't fall in with you view," he answered coldly. Merrill shrugged his shoulders.

"I'd better be blunt, Stratton. In that case I shall try compulsion. I have a pull over you, and I shall use it." Gilbert's lip curled.

"You mean you'd send this poor devil, Clamp, back to gaol for a crime he didn't commit?"

"Why do you say he didn't commit it?"

"Because I know him. Joe would never steal a penny. Joe—" Gilbert stiffened suddenly. "By gad, I believe I know now who stole the money." He pointed at James. "It was you."

Merrill laughed scornfully.

"Going the whole hog, aren't you?" he taunted. Then his tone changed again. "Don't be a fool, Stratton, or next thing I shall be accusing you. After all, you sleep over the office." He paused, and the two stood staring at one another. Gilbert was raging inwardly, but resolved not to show his feelings. As for Merrill he seemed to be trying to make up his mind what to say next. He was the first to break the silence.

"What are you going to do about it?" he asked at last.

Gilbert had been thinking hard. Whatever happened, he could not go back on Joe. He owed much to the Clamps. For years Mrs. Clamp had been the only mother he had known, and she had given him the same care she gave her own son. Old Clamp, too, had always been kind to him, and he and Joe had been the best of friends. To send Joe back to prison was practically a sentence of death. Even if the boy did not die he would almost certainly go off his head. Imprisonment is far worse for a moorman than for a city-bred youth. At all costs he must save Joe.

"It seems to me," he said, "that it's for you to state your conditions." A gleam of triumph showed for an instant in Merrill's prominent eyes.

"I'm glad you're seeing sense at last, Stratton, for this business isn't any more pleasant for me than for you. All I ask is that you will at any rate give my sister the opportunity of refusing you. In return for that promise I give you my word to say nothing about this business of young Clamp."

"All right," replied Gilbert coldly. "I will do what you wish, but only on one condition. You must help me to get Joe Clamp safe away from here."

James Merrill scowled.

"What's the idea of that?" he demanded. "I'd have thought it was pretty obvious," replied Gilbert. "If you help in his get- away then he and I are safe. It shuts your mouth, you see." Merrill bit his lip.

"You don't seem to trust me very far," he said.

"I don't," Gilbert answered bluntly. "I don't trust you at all. After what's happened this afternoon you can't wonder at it." Merrill looked more glum than ever. He stood with knitted brows, scowling at Gilbert.

"And why should I trust you?" he retorted "What guarantee have I that you'll carry out your share of the bargain if I agree to this absurd proposal?"

"I've given you my word," said Gilbert quietly.

"That for your word!" said Merrill, snapping his fingers. "I'll have it in writing."

Gilbert's fists tightened. It was all he could do to keep himself from driving them into the sneering face of the other. The surge of rage within him made him quiver all over. Yet once more he managed to get back his self-control. He had to think of the Clamps, not of himself.

"Very good." he answered at last. "There's pen and paper on my desk. Write what you like and I'll sign it." Merrill went across to the desk, sat down and wrote a few words on a sheet of paper, then handed the sheet to Gilbert. This is what Gilbert read:

"I promise to offer marriage to Ida Merrill within the next twenty-four hours.—(Signed)—"

Gilbert did not hesitate. He took up the pen and added his name and the date, then handed the slip to James.

"Now," he said, "to-night you'll come up with your car at seven o'clock and take Joe to Exeter, and see him on the train."

"I'll do it, but first you'll drive down with me to Woodend and carry out your side of the understanding. It's no use your objecting on the score of work. Cowling will give you the time off if you ask him." Gilbert did not hesitate. The sooner this sorry business was over the better.

"All right," he said curtly. "Wait for me while I ask Cowling."

Cowling looked hard at Gilbert when he put forward his request.

"You can go," he said; then he added: "But don't forget the robbery. Keep your eyes open, Stratton."

"Very good, sir," replied Gilbert; but as he left the room he was wondering greatly just what the old man meant. How much did he know? Worried as he was, Gilbert would have given a good deal to be able to read the mind of his employer.


CHAPTER 22. — ROGUES FALL OUT.

The weather had changed as Merrill and Gilbert started. The fog had gone and heavy rain was falling. The hillsides ran with water, the tors were wreathed in coiling cloud, the gloom and desolation matched the misery in Gilbert's heart. In spite of the weather Merrill drove fast, and in less than twenty minutes they were nearing Woodend. So far they had not met a single vehicle, but just as they came to the gate of Woodend and were slowing to turn in, another car came up from the Taverton direction, and Gilbert recognised it as Shelcott's.

"Your rival," said Merrill, with a half sneer; but Gilbert hardly heard him. Shelcott was staring—no, glaring—at him, and the man's face was a mask of hatred. Then Merrill had swung in at the gate, and a moment later pulled up at the front door.

"Come in," he said, and his tone was almost genial. "Like a drink, Stratton?"

"No, thank you," said Gilbert, quietly.

"Then go into Ida's sitting-room, I'll tell her."

Gilbert went in. The room was heavy with the scent of flowers, and a fire burned brightly on the hearth. Gilbert looked round, and wondered vaguely why he had thought it all so wonderful when he first saw it. It seemed to him that he was not the same man who, only three short weeks ago, had so delighted in his first visit to this house. Perhaps he was not far wrong.

The door opened and Ida came in. She wore a perfectly plain morning dress of a dull blue material, which enhanced the clearness of her skin. She seemed quieter, more subdued than Gilbert had ever known her. In spite of his anger he could not help seeing that she was a very handsome woman.

"Oh, how do you do, Gilbert. How nice of you to come and see me on this horrid day!" Her voice and the tone were so calm, so casual, that Gilbert found himself wondering if she had any knowledge of her brother's visit to him, or of the object of his own call.

"Sit down," she continued, "and smoke a cigarette." She offered him a silver cigarette-box and struck a match for him. All her movements were quiet and leisurely, and Gilbert felt more and more as though he were living in a dream. She seated herself opposite him, lighted a cigarette, and leaned back comfortably in her chair.

"Tea will be in just now," she said. Then she laughed. "How silent you are, Gilbert. Are you still thinking of last Saturday? I'm so sorry about that business and Mr. Shelcott's stupidity."

"Rather a mild way of putting it," Gilbert could not help saying. She nodded.

"Yes, it was worse than that. But he has a violent temper, and—and I think he had had too much to drink. He was very sorry afterwards and wrote to me to apologise."

"I didn't get any apologies," said Gilbert. Inwardly he cursed himself for this remark. He was getting further from what he had to say instead of nearer. Ida laughed again.

"You could hardly expect it, could you? I'm afraid he's jealous, Gilbert." This was better. Gilbert's opportunity was plain, yet to save his life he could not take it. He felt absolutely tongue-tied. He knew that he ought to feel flattered at the evident preference of this fascinating woman, yet all the time Nance's face with its clear, honest eyes was before him. It seemed to him he could see her as plainly as if she stood between him and Ida. He roused himself with a strong effort.

"I'm afraid I behaved badly that night, Ida," he said.

"Nonsense! I think you behaved very well. Most men attacked like that would have gone mad. I think you showed great self- restraint."

"I meant to you, Ida. I ought not to have gone away without wishing you good-night, especially after all your kindness." He drew a quick breath. "Ida, will you marry me?" His question was so abrupt that for once Ida Merrill was taken aback. She knew that the question had been forced from him, and he knew that she knew it.


Illustration

"Ida, will you marry me?"


"Why—why, if you wish it, Gilbert," she began, then a loud, angry voice made itself heard in the hall.

"Get out of my way, Merrill. Get out, I tell you. I'm going in and you shan't stop me." Ida sprang to her feet.

"It's Paul," she said quickly. "Gilbert go through that door into the conservatory. We can't have another scene." But Gilbert stood fast.

"I don't run away from Shelcott," he said stubbornly. Ida caught him by the arm.

"You must." Her eyes were bright with distress, and there was no doubting that her emotion was genuine. From outside the door came the voice of James Merrill, not so loud as Shelcott's, but equally angry.

"Get out of this house, Shelcott. If you don't go I'll throw you out."

"Try it, you swine," Shelcott roared back. His voice quivered with rage.

"Oh!" said Ida. "Oh, we must stop them." She went towards the door, and Gilbert followed. Before she could reach it there were sounds of a struggle outside.

"All right!" came Merrill's voice. "If you want it you can have it." With that the thud of a blow, the crash of a falling body, and as Ida flung open the door there lay Shelcott, flat on his back on the floor, and there was James Merrill standing over him, his eyes bloodshot, his fists clenched. James turned to his sister.

"I'm sorry about this, Ida, but I couldn't help it. Paul forced his way into the house and was going to force his way into your room. When I tried to stop him he attacked me, and I was obliged to hit him."

"You seem to have hit him harder than was necessary," said Ida, and Gilbert wondered at the quietness with which she spoke.

"I got him on the jaw and knocked him out," James answered. "He'll be all right again in a few minutes. Get a little cold water, will you, Ida. And—and keep the servants from coming in." Ida nodded and went quickly through a door at the end of the hall. James turned to Gilbert.

"D—the fellow. He got just what was coming to him," he said with a snarl "Who'd have thought of his following you in here?"

"Knowing Shelcott, it's just what we might have expected," replied Gilbert coldly. He bent over the prostrate man "He's pretty thoroughly knocked out," he added. Ida came back with a basin and sponge. She knelt beside Shelcott and bathed his forehead, but he did not move or open his eyes. He was breathing heavily and his lips were blue. James spoke.

"We can't let him lie here. The maid will be in with tea. Help me lift him into my study, Stratton." Between them they lifted the man. He was no light weight They carried him in to the room Merrill called his study, and laid him on a couch. Gilbert loosened his collar and tie, then turned to James.

"I'll be going now," he said. Merrill looked hard at him.

"Then it's all right," he said.

"From your point of view, yes," Gilbert replied with a touch of sarcasm he could not restrain. James flamed up.

"D—it. Anyone would think you were doing my sister a favor." he growled; but Gilbert paid no attention to his outburst.

"I shall expect you at seven this evening," he said quietly, and went out of the room. Ida was still in the hall. She was looking very disturbed.

"Good-bye, Ida," said Gilbert. "I'm going now." She caught his right hand in both hers.

"No. You must stay to tea."

"I can't," he said gently. "I have something to do."

"Then—then good-bye, Gilbert." She kissed him on the cheek, and James, coming out of the study, was Just in time to see the salute. Gilbert, feeling oddly sick and confused, found his hat and coat, and his way out of the front door.

The rain had ceased, and a strong west wind blew in great cold gusts across the soaked countryside. At the gate Gilbert instinctively took the homeward road, but after a few steps stopped.

"No," he said to himself. "I must see Nance. I must get it over." He turned and went back, and took the turn leading to Brimmacombe. The distance was about three miles, and at the pace Gilbert walked he reached The Roost within three-quarters of an hour. If anyone passed him he was not conscious of it. He walked like a man in a dream.

"Yes," Mrs. Betts told him, "Miss Aspland is at home." She took him into the drawing-room where Nance was sitting alone, just finishing her tea. Nance jumped up. The look of surprise and pleasure on her face went to Gilbert's heart like a knife.

"How nice to see you, Gilbert," she said. "And how surprising, too. I didn't know you ever got away from work during the week." She paused suddenly, and Gilbert felt her eyes searching his face. "But what's the matter, Gilbert?" she asked quickly. "Something is wrong." Gilbert bit his lip and managed to suppress a groan.

"I've come to tell you something, Nance," he said steadily. "I—I am engaged to be married." If Nance started at all the start was so slight that even Gilbert did not notice it. All he did notice was that she paused an instant before replying.

"This is news, indeed, Gilbert," she said very quietly. "To Miss Merrill, I suppose."

"Yes," Gilbert answered, and though he prided himself that he kept all trace of emotion out of his voice Nance was wiser. She caught the ring of despair beneath his quiet tone and manner, and she was badly puzzled. There was silence a moment, then Gilbert spoke again.

"I—that is, you are the first person I have told, Nance. And now—now I must go."

"You'll have a cup of tea first," said Nance gently.

"No, no. I—I couldn't. Good-bye." He was gone before she could find anything to say to stop him, and she dropped back into her chair and sat with her pretty forehead, puckered and her clear eyes gazing into vacancy, as puzzled a girl as any in Devonshire.

She marshalled what facts she could. In the first place Gilbert loved her and not Ida Merrill. Of that she was definitely certain; in the second, he was desperately unhappy; in the third—but this was not a fact, only a supposition—he had been trapped into this engagement with Ida.

But how? That was beyond Nance's ability to fathom.

And while she sat there thinking, in came her father, carrying the London paper which had just arrived by second post.

"Nance," he said, "here's a bit of excitement for you. A prisoner has escaped from Dartmoor."

"That's nothing very unusual, is it?" said Nance.

"Ah, but who do you think it is? It's that young Clamp, son of the man that Gilbert Stratton lived with at the clay pits. And, by the way, wasn't that Stratton I saw leaving just now? I wanted to see him." But Nance did not answer. Indeed, she hardly heard the last part of her father's remark. Joe Clamp had escaped. He was Gilbert's friend. What more likely than that he had helped him? Was there any connection between his escape and this sudden engagement? It seemed a wild kind of idea, yet Nance had what the Americans call a "hunch" that there was something in it. She jumped up.

"Dad, it's fine, and I'm going for a ride." Ten minutes later she was cantering across the moor towards the clay pits.


CHAPTER 23. — NANCE TELLS THE TRUTH.

PUNCH, Nance's pony, had not been out for days and was unpleasantly fresh. When a rabbit jumped up under his feet he shied so badly that he nearly had her off, and the worst of it was that she dared not gallop him. The sun was down and the light far too treacherous to let him out.

Nance, however, had a capital seat on a horse, and she reached the clay pits safely, though by that time it was nearly dark. Mrs. Clamp was amazed to see her.

"Whatever brings 'ee riding this time of night, Miss Nancy?" she exclaimed.

"I've come to see your husband, Mrs. Clamp," Nance answered.

"Is it about Joe?" Mrs. Clamp's voice was keen with anxiety.

"Partly," said Nance. Mrs. Clamp showed her into the sitting- room and dusted a chair that was already specklessly clean.

"He's cleaning himself," she told Nance. "I'll bring him as soon as he've got his coat on."

A minute later Clamp came in. His great gaunt figure was more bent than before, and there were deep lines on his weather-beaten face.

"You got news about Joe, Miss?" were his first words as he fixed his eyes on her face.

"I'm sorry," Nance answered. "I haven't. Indeed, it's less than an hour since I heard he had got away. It's Mr. Stratton I wanted to see you about. But do sit down," she added gently. The big man took a chair.

"What's wrong with Muster Gilbert?" he asked anxiously.

"That's what I want to know. He came to me an hour ago and told me he was engaged to Miss Merrill." Old Clamp's pale eyes widened, a look of utter amazement came upon his face.

"Him engaged to that there Merrill woman. Why, he'm crazy!" he ejaculated. "It's you he'm fond of, Miss Nance." Nance flushed a little.

"I believe you're right, Mr. Clamp. At any rate, he is desperately unhappy." Clamp shook his head.

"There's summat behind this, Miss—summat mighty queer."

"Again, I agree with you; but what is it? Why should Ida Merrill want to marry Gilbert? My own belief is that she doesn't care too straws for him."

"Mine, too, missy; but her and her brother, they been angling for him ever since that day as James Merrill saved the pay roll.

"Saved the pay roll!" repeated Nance. "I hadn't heard about that." Clamp told her the story and Nance frowned a little as she listened.

"It sounds to me rather as though the whole thing was a kind of plot," she said when he had finished. "I mean that it would have been quite easy for Mr. Merrill to have hired someone to steal the money just so that he could recover it and put Gilbert under an obligation."

"I wouldn't wonder if you was right," said Clamp slowly. "But them folk is money-grabbers. What would they want with a young fellow like him as hasn't got nothing?"

"That, of course, is the puzzle. It looks to me as if they know something about him which he doesn't know."

"You mean as he'm heir to some money?" said Clamp shrewdly.

"That is just what I do mean, and I was wondering if you could throw any light on it." Again Clamp shook his head.

"The only one as might ha' knowed was old Mr. Carnaby, and he'm dead years agone." Nance sat silent a moment before she spoke again.

"But even suppose that this is the real reason why the Merrills are after Gilbert, how is it that they have forced him suddenly into this engagement? That is what is puzzling me. I am wondering, Mr. Clamp, whether it has anything to do with Joe." Old Clamp went suddenly taut.

"Muster Gilbert been helping him, you means, and that there Merrill got on to it. Surely that's just what might ha' happened. He'd do anything for Joe. He've been to see him at the prison; he've done all he could for him." He paused and his big gnarled hands were working nervously. "But even for Joe's sake I wouldn't have nothing happen to Muster Gilbert," he added.

"After all, it's only a guess on my part," said Nance, trying to comfort him; "but it's interesting to find that you think I may be right. Well, we've got to stop it, Mr. Clamp."

"You tell what to do, missy, and I'll do it," said the old man eagerly.

"I don't know." said Nance, "but I'm going to ride to Elford in the morning and see Mr. Stratton and try to find out the truth." Clamp rose to his feet.

"Missy," he said gravely, "you'm proper fond of Muster Gilbert?" Nance rose too, and looked him straight in the face.


Illustration

"You'm proper fond of Muster Gilbert?"


"I am, Mr. Clamp. And I'm not going to see another woman steal him from me if I can help it." There was real admiration in the old man's eyes, as he looked at her.

"And her shan't steal him from 'ee," he told her. "Not if I can help 'ee." She smiled at him.

"Thank you, Mr. Clamp. If I want your help be sure I will call for it. And now I must be going." He went out with her and held the pony, while she mounted. In the chill evening air Punch was fresher than ever.

"He'll be the better for a good long turn," she said to herself. "I'll keep to the road instead of going across the Moor." The road led round by Elford, but Nance had no idea what else it would lead her to that night.

While she had been visiting Clamp. Gilbert had hurried back to Elford, taking a short cut across the Moor. He had to be back before Merrill arrived, for it was necessary to tell Joe who was taking him to Exeter and to prepare him for the journey. All was quiet when he entered his rooms. His supper lay ready on the table. All he needed to do was to put on the kettle. He did this, then went into his bedroom, and called to Joe.

"You can come down," he told him. "You are leaving for Exeter within an hour."

"No one about, sir?" Joe asked.

"No, nor likely to be. Anyhow, my outer door is locked, and if anyone did come unexpectedly you could easily slip back into the loft. Supper is on the table and you may as well eat a decent meal for once." Joe swung down. He was dusty, dirty, and unshaven; and Gilbert got out a razor for him and left him to wash and tidy up while he himself went into the other room, and made the tea. When, a few minutes later. Joe appeared Gilbert hardly knew him, he looked so spruce.

"You do me credit, Joe," he said. "Now sit down." Joe took his seat and Gilbert helped him to cold beef. "I'm not taking you, myself," he explained. "Mr. Merrill is driving you. He has a closed car and you'll be much safer in that than on the pillion of my bike."

"Mr. Merrill—the gentleman from Woodend?" Joe questioned.

"Yes—what's the matter?" he added, for Joe had stopped eating and was gazing at him with an odd look on his face.

"Was that the gent as was here at dinner-time to-day, Mr. Gilbert?"

"Yes," said Gilbert. Joe still stared.

"Sounded to me like him and you was having words," he said. Gilbert stiffened.

"You didn't hear what we said?" he asked curtly.

"Not plainly, sir—just a word here and there, but I heard him sort of shouting like he was angry, and once he said ! Don't be a fool.'" Gilbert frowned.

"We did have something like a quarrel," he confessed, "but that was all settled before he left, and he gave me his promise to take you safely to Exeter." Joe still looked thoughtful.

"I can't think how you persuaded a chap like that to take the chances of driving me in his car," he said doubtfully.

"Why do you say that? What do you know about him?" demanded Gilbert.

"Nothing good, Mr. Gilbert. There's lags up at the prison knows him well." Gilbert stared. Much as he disliked Merrill, it had never occurred to him that the man was a crook or an associate of crooks.

"But he's never been in prison, Joe?" he asked sharply.

"No, sir, but that ain't to say he didn't ought to have been. They told me he made his money crooked."

"Then I take it you're afraid he won't play the game with you. But I assure you he will. Between ourselves, he dare not do anything else."

"That's all right if you say so, Mr. Gilbert," said Joe. He paused and looked hard at Gilbert. "But you're worried—I can see that. You ain't been making any bargain with him on my account, have you?" Joe had so shrewdly hit on the truth that for the moment Gilbert was staggered. But he pulled himself together very quickly.

"There's nothing for you to worry about, Joe. I've arranged everything, and, as I say, you can trust Mr. Merrill to see you through. He'll do it for his own sake, if not for mine. It would be awkward if you were found in his car."

"But I am worried, sir. I'm worried because you're worried. See here, I'd a deal rather chuck it all and give myself up than you run into trouble." He meant it, too. That was quite clear, and Gilbert was deeply touched.

"I am worried, Joe," he confessed, "but that's my own silly fault—nothing to do with you. And I shall feel a jolly sight happier once you're safe. How finish your supper, for Mr. Merrill will be here in a few minutes. He's due now."

Joe was silent as he finished his supper, but Gilbert could see that he was troubled. Gilbert did not speak either. He had never felt so miserable in all his life, and his one idea at present was to get Joe safe away before he betrayed himself. He had not long to wait, for presently the white beam of headlights glowed through the night, and the car drew up outside. Gilbert went down and let in Merrill. Merrill was scowling and looking extremely upset.

"Here's a nice mess," he growled. "That fellow Shelcott hasn't come round yet, and Ida insisted on sending for a doctor. The doctor says he's had a stroke."

"Is he bad?" Gilbert asked.

"I don't know. The doctor was still examining him when I left."

"I daresay he'll get over it," said Gilbert dryly. "Shelcott's pretty tough."

"But there'll be a scandal about it," grumbled Merrill. "Now, what about this fellow?"

"He's quite ready," Gilbert answered. "He's to wear my coat and hat. I've told my housekeeper, Mrs. Holmes, that I'm going out with you this evening, so I shall lie quiet in my rooms without a light until you come back. She'll be in bed and asleep by that time."

"I hope to goodness we get through all right," said Merrill, who was clearly very nervous. "It would be just about the dead finish if we got held up by the police or screws."

"There's precious little risk of that if you avoid the bridge over the Strane. Police aren't likely to imagine that a lag could be driving in a car like yours."

"I shall be glad when it's all over," said Merrill, who was horribly nervous. Gilbert got Joe ready, Joe himself said nothing, but Gilbert saw him looking at Merrill, and gathered that he did not trust him. Nor did he himself; yet he felt sure that for his own sake Merrill would be careful, After all, there was very little risk, for only the bridges on the moor were guarded. Merrill fidgeted about the room while Gilbert put his own hat and coat on Joe.

"Come on," said Merrill impatiently. Joe turned to Gilbert.

"I can't ever thank you properly, Mr. Gilbert," he said. "I'll let you know how I get on, and maybe you'll tell Father."

"Be sure I will," said Gilbert. "You've got money for your ticket. Good-bye, Joe."

One hand-clasp, then Joe followed Merrill down the stairs, and Gilbert watching them out of the window saw them get into the car and drive off. He watched until the glow of the headlights died in the distance, then dropped into a chair.

"He's safe—that's one good thing," he muttered, "but for the rest—what a mess—what a mess I've made of it."


CHAPTER 24. — WHEN PUNCH PLAYED UP.

MERRILL drove fast indeed, recklessly, but luckily the night was clear and so were the Moor roads. For the first mile he did not say a word, then as they came to the top of the long slope leading down to the Strane he slowed.

"Where's the turn?" he asked harshly.

"Next to the left," said Joe, equally briefly.

"Shall we be able to cross the ford?" Merrill asked. "There's been a lot of rain."

"Flood ain't big," replied Joe. "We'll get across right enough." Merrill did not look happy.

"Nice job if the water reaches the engine," he growled. "But I suppose we daren't try the bridge."

"There'll be a screw posted there. We'd be stopped for sure," Joe told him. "Here's the turn," he added. Merrill, grumbling under his breath, swung the car into it, a narrow grass-grown track that led down to the ford half a mile or so above the bridge. It had been the only road in the old days when the tinners lived on the Moor and cut it all to pieces in their search for metal. The banks on either side were steep and covered with heather, and it was crooked as any snake. The car lurched and bumped over boulders, and Merrill cursed again.

"Lucky if we don't smash the back axle," he growled. Another curve loomed up in front and Merrill changed down to negotiate it. As the car turned, the long, white beam of the headlight struck full upon a girl mounted on a pony, and instantly the pony reared.

"Steady, Punch!" the girl cried, as she fought to control the powerful little beast. It was useless. Seizing the bit in his teeth, he whirled round, leaped up the bank, then went off at a tearing gallop straight down hill towards the river.

"Silly fool—!" snarled Merrill. "It's that Aspland girl. What's she doing here this hour of the night?"

"Stop!" cried Joe sharply.

"What for?"

"She'll be in the river. And it's deep there. Stop, I tell you."

"Stop!" retorted Merrill. "Do you think I'm going to risk everything because—curse you!" he broke off. "What the blazes are you doing?" for Joe's work—hardened right hand had closed on the back of his neck and forced him over against the edge of the car. Joe mean to stop the car at any cost. He wasn't going to see Miss Aspland drowned if he could help it, for, from what Gilbert had told him, he knew she was Gilbert's friend.

It did not work out as Joe had hoped. Merrill's right foot was still on the accelerator, and as Joe pushed to one side his whole weight came upon that foot, and forced down the pedal to the last notch. The car leaped forward. Merrill was still clinging to the steering wheel and this caused the car to swerve sharply to the left. In spite of his efforts Joe was too late to right it. The front wheels climbed the steep bank on the left of the track, and Merrill screamed like a woman as the whole thing turned over and fell with a crash on its side in the bottom of the gully.

Joe was shot out right over Merrill and found himself rolling over and over on the grass-covered track. Barring a few bruises, which made little difference to his tough frame, he was quite unhurt, and in a moment was on his feet. Glancing round, he saw that Merrill, too, was clear of the car. He seemed to be stunned, for he lay still.

"And serve him right, the dirty coward," growled Joe, as he leaped up the bank to the right and raced downhill towards the flooded river, whose voice rose hoarsely from the valley below. He could no longer see the grey pony; all was gloom in the wide hollow. But as he ran a faint cry pealed out, and it was a woman's voice.

Joe redoubled his speed. Well rested and well fed, his tough young body had recovered all its strength. He forgot everything but the urgent need of rescuing this girl. The hillside was steep, and he fairly flew down it, leaping great tufts of heather, dodging round grey granite boulders, tripping and stumbling, yet somehow keeping his feet. In a marvellously short time he had reached the bank, and saw the river before him, brown and mysterious in the starlight, its wide water swollen with the recent rains.

He saw more. Some thirty yards down stream was a white object. It was the head and shoulders of a pony swimming strongly, but there was nothing on that pony's back.

"Hey!" he shouted as he ran down the bank. "Hey, where are you?" Above the hoarse roar of the river a call came back to him, high and thin; and presently he was able to make out a dark dot right in the centre of the river. Joe was a moorman born and bred; he knew the rivers, the fierce speed at which they ran. Instead of plunging in at once he ran on further until he was a dozen paces ahead of the struggling swimmer. Then he flung off his coat and plunged in.

Nance was swimming, but she had been struggling to reach the shore and the effort had exhausted her. Now it was all she could do to keep her head above water. Joe saw her coming down towards him and caught her.

"Don't 'ee fight," he told her, in his excitement he forgot the good English he had learnt at school, and went back to the moor talk of his father. "Us can't get across stream. Must let un carry on till us comes to big pool."

"I understand," Nance answered. "It's the cold. I'm afraid of cramp."

"Don't 'ee worry," Joe said in her ear. "Just float. I can hold 'ee." She relaxed and together they were swept down the centre of the stream. The water roared ominously among the great rocks which thrust their heads above the peat-stained flood. All Joe's energies were directed to keeping clear of the boulders, for if they struck one that would be the end. Time and again he put out all his strength to drag Nance clear of one of those dark masses which loomed up suddenly in the gloom. Nance lay so still in his grip he feared she had fainted, but looking at her he saw her eyes were open.

"You'm a good plucked one, miss," he said, encouragingly.

"I'm trusting you, you see," Nance answered.

"Aye, and I'll get 'ee out, never fear," Joe told her cheerily. "We'm nigh the big pool now—that's where we'll come to shore." The furious speed of the current was slackening a little, though they were still being carried down at a great rate. Ahead, dark against the night sky, loomed an arch. It was the bridge carrying the main road across the Strane, and Joe knew that there was a long, wide pool below it with a shingle bank on the right-hand side. That was where he meant to get Nance to land.

Just, as they came near the head of the pool an eddy seized and swung them, and Nance heard Joe gasp.

"What's the matter?" she asked quickly.

"Bumped on a rock," replied Joe hoarsely. "But don't 'ee trouble. It'll be all right." It was not all right. His knee had struck against a submerged rock and the whole of his right leg felt numbed and useless. The pain was agonising and made him feel sick and giddy. But fortunately for them both they were now in deep and comparatively still water. Joe kept going with his left leg, and in a moment or two they were swept under the dark arch of the bridge into the wider pool below.

"Can 'ee swim now, miss?" Joe asked, and Nance was horrified at the weakness of his voice.

"Yes," she told him strongly, and struck out. He came with her, but he could no longer help her. Nance saw the shore just ahead. She dropped her legs and found she was within her depth. She turned and caught hold of Joe.

"I be all right," said the plucky fellow, as he put down his good leg and felt bottom, but when he tried to walk he toppled forward and Nance was just in time to catch him and drag him ashore. "It be my leg, miss," he said thickly; then he collapsed.

Nance was at her wits' end. Alone here in the dark with an injured man, herself soaked and numbed with cold—what was to happen—how could she get help? Then looking round in despair she caught a gleam of light from the top of the bridge.

"Help!" she called as loudly as she could. The light moved, and suddenly the small white gleam of an electric torch shone over the parapet of the bridge.


Illustration

"Help!" she called as loudly as she could.


"What's up? Who's there?" came a man's voice.

"A man hurt," Nance answered.

"All right. I'm coming," was the welcome reply, and Nance, quite exhausted, dropped back on the shingle. The man came hurrying down off the bridge carrying his torch, and by its light Nance saw the familiar dark-blue uniform of a prison warder. His eyes widened.

"Whatever's happened?" he exclaimed.

"My pony bolted," Nance explained briefly. "Took me straight into the river, and I was swept off. This plucky fellow came to my rescue, and saved me from being drowned. But he's hurt. I'm very much afraid his leg is broken. What can we do?" The warder turned the light upon Joe; he went rigid and stood staring down at him for a moment without speaking. Then he turned to Nance.

"This is our gentleman, Miss," he said. "What do you mean?"

"It's Joe Clamp, the fellow as got away last Saturday. We been hunting him ever since."


CHAPTER 25. — WHAT GILBERT FOUND IN THE GULLY.

JOE CLAMP! The warder's words made Nance forget for the moment her own plight, her cold, her exhaustion. She forgot everything except the fact that she had handed back to the law the one man whom she would have done almost anything to save.

"Oh!" she cried in distress. "Oh, and after he saved my life." The warder was a good fellow. He understood her feelings perfectly.

"Don't worry, miss," he advised. "It wasn't your fault. And he were bound to be caught soon or late. It's fifty year and more since anyone got clear away from Dartmoor. And 'tain't as if he'd go to a punishment cell. With that there leg he'll fetch the farm—hospital. I'd ought to say." He broke off. "But you and him will die o' cold if I don't do something." He pulled off his overcoat. "Wrap that around you, Miss. It'll keep the wind off. And I'll light a fire. Then if no one don't come I'll go back to Elford and telephone for help."

There was plenty of heather handy, and here was driftwood by the water's edge. The warder wasted no time in getting a fire going, but it had hardly blazed up before the lights of a car showed on the hillside opposite. The warder sprang up, and ran for the bridge, but there was no hurry for the driver of the car, a Moor farmer named Drake, knew that the bridge was guarded and had pulled up of his own accord. After hearing the warder's story he readily agreed to help, and, leaving his car on the road, came down. He was a lusty man of between thirty and forty, and he and the warder between them lifted Joe, who was still insensible, and carried him to the car, where they made him as comfortable as was possible on the back seat, rolling him in a rug. Drake pulled a flask from his pocket and offered it to Nance.

"You better take a drop, missy," he said. "It'll save 'ee from catching cold." The strong spirit made Nance choke, but it sent a grateful warmth through her chilled body. Then they all drove off up the hill towards Elford.

Gilbert, sitting in his room all in the dark, heard the car drive up and went to the window. He was very puzzled, for he knew, of course, that it was impossible for Merrill to have reached Exeter and returned in so short a time. He was still more puzzled when he saw that the car was a strange one and that it had pulled up at the door. But when in the glow of its headlights he saw a warder get out and come to the door his heart sank to his very boots.

"So they've got him," he groaned. "And it was all for nothing." He did not hesitate, but ran down at once and opened the door.

"Why, it's Purvis!" he exclaimed, for he recognised the warder who was the son of an innkeeper in Taverton.

"Yes, Mr. Stratton, I'm Purvis. We've got young Clamp here, and he's hurt." Before he could say more Nance was out of the car.

"It's Joe, Gilbert," she cried, "and it was all my fault." Gilbert saw the water dropping from her, her hair plastered to her head, and her face white with strain.

"Oh, my dear, come in," he cried, and caught her by the arm and drew her in.

"Never mind about me, Gilbert," she said quickly. "I'm all right. It's Joe who is hurt, and badly, I'm afraid. I think his leg is broken. We must get him to bed and send for a doctor." Drake broke in.

"I'm going by Taverton. I'll tell the doctor. Can you two manage to take Clamp in?"

"Yes," said Gilbert. "You get on at once, Mr. Drake, and tell Dr. Hillman to bring some splints." He and Purvis lifted Joe out. Joe had come to his senses again, and was evidently in great pain; but he set his lips and stuck it like the plucky fellow he was. Drake drove off at once, and Gilbert and Purvis carried Joe upstairs and into Gilbert's bedroom, where they quickly undressed him and put him to bed. His right knee was badly swollen, but they could not tell what the injury was.

Leaving Purvis with Joe, Gilbert hurried out to find Nance crouching over the fire.

"I want to tell you about it, Gilbert," she began, but he checked her.

"Not until you have changed, Nance. I'll fetch Mrs. Holmes." As he spoke, Mrs. Holmes herself, who had been roused by the sound of the car and people moving, came up the stairs, and Gilbert handed Nance over to her, with directions to find her some dry clothes and give her something hot to drink.

Even now Gilbert did not know what had happened except that Joe had pulled Nance out of the river. He had not an idea of what had become of Merrill. Nor had he time to ask, for he had hardly got Nance off before the doctor drove up, and he had to go down and let him in. Hillman was a sound type of the general practitioner, a stocky, rather silent man. He did not waste time asking questions, but got to work at once on his patient.

"No, the leg isn't broken," he said presently, "but the kneecap is cracked and will have to be wired. I must get him to hospital as soon as possible."

"I can telephone for the prison ambulance, sir," suggested Purvis.

"Has he got to go back to prison?" asked Gilbert sharply.

"Why, of course, he must, sir," said Purvis; "but you needn't to worry about that, for the hospital is a fine place, and he'll get as good care as if he was in London."

"Yes, and If necessary they'll get a surgeon from London to do the operation, Mr. Stratton," the doctor added. Gilbert said nothing, but perhaps his face showed his feelings, for Purvis spoke consolingly.

"Likely Clamp'll get off cheap, sir, after what he's done to- night. Indeed, I think it's likely he'll get a remission. There ain't no doubt he saved the young lady's life. Now with your permission I'll go down and use the telephone."

Gilbert got the key of the office and went down with him, and Purvis, after a brief talk with the prison, announced that the ambulance would be started at once and would be at Elford before long. He went back upstairs, and Gilbert called up Brimmacombe and informed Mr. Aspland that Nance had had a slight accident, but was none the worse, that she would spend the night with Mrs. Holmes and be back in the morning. Then Gilbert returned to his rooms to find that Dr. Hillman had put a splint on Joe's leg and given him something to ease the pain.

"I can't wait," he said, "for I have a maternity case which I must go to at once, but I'll leave a note for the prison doctor." He wrote the note, said good-bye to Gilbert and left. Purvis came out of the bedroom.

"Clamp wants to see you, Mr. Stratton—asked me if I'd mind letting him and you have a word together. Seeing as he can't run away, I don't see nothing against it, so you go in if you've a mind to."

"Thank you, Purvis," said Gilbert gratefully. "Joe's father and mother are old friends of mine, and I've no doubt he has some message for them." He went in and closed the door. Joe beckoned him close.

"Is it all right, Mr. Gilbert?" he asked in an anxious whisper.

"It's all wrong, Joe," replied Gilbert, with a rueful smile.

"Oh, about me being took, but that isn't what I mean. I'm talking about you. Does the screw suspect anything?"

"Not so far as I know."

"Then that's all right," said Joe, with a sigh of relief; "but you'll have to square that there Merrill. He'll be mad as a hornet."

"Why? What do you mean?"

Joe told him. He explained how he had seen Nance's pony bolt, how Merrill had refused to stop, and how he had stopped the car and—upset it.

"The swine!" growled Gilbert.

"He's all o' that, sir. I told you he were a bad one."

"And then you went into the river and got Miss Aspland out?" Gilbert questioned.

"Yes, sir; and we was carried down into the bridge pool, and I knocked my knee, and in the end it was the young lady herself as pulled me out. A proper good plucked one she is."

"And what about you, Joe? It isn't every man who'd have risked his life and his liberty as you have to-night." The warmth in Gilbert's voice brought a flush to Joe's pale cheeks.

"I'd do more than that for you, Mr. Gilbert, or for a lady as brave as she be." He paused. "Is she your young lady, Mr. Gilbert?" he asked shyly. Gilbert groaned.

"There was a time when I thought so, Joe."

"And don't you stop thinking it," said Joe. "I seed her face when she were looking at you, and she likes you all right, sir."

"You're a brick, Joe," said Gilbert, as he grasped Joe's hand. "I'll work heaven and earth to get you out of prison, and so will Miss Aspland."

"Don't you worry about me," Joe begged. "It's Merrill you got to see. He'll be poison angry about getting upset, and liable to make all kinds of trouble."

"He daren't, Joe. He'd get himself into trouble." Joe raised a hand.

"Don't you trust him, Mr. Gilbert," he said earnestly. "You go and see him as quick as you can."

"Do you think he was hurt?" Gilbert asked.

"Just stunned, I reckon. He fell clear of the car."

"I'd better go and see," Gilbert said, "but I'll have to wait till Purvis is gone or he may smell a rat."

"You won't have long to wait," said Joe. "I hear the ambulance." At that moment Purvis knocked and came in.

"Clamp must come along now, sir." Joe and Gilbert had just time to exchange a handclasp before two hospital orderlies came in. They carried Joe carefully down, put him in the big motor ambulance, and drove away.

They were hardly out of sight before Nance came back upstairs. She was wearing Mrs. Holmes' Sunday best, but Gilbert thought she looked adorable. She stood in front of Gilbert and her face was desperately sad.

"Oh, Gilbert, what a dreadful business!" she said. "And all my fault."

"It was not your fault at all," said Gilbert, with decision. "I've heard all about it from Joe. Now, listen, Nance. When Joe saw Punch bolt Merrill refused to stop. Joe stopped the car and in doing so upset it. I must go and see if Merrill is hurt.

"I have telephoned your father that you are all right, and are spending the night with Mrs. Holmes. Will you wait here until I come back?"

"I'll stay here in your rooms, Gilbert, if you'll let me," said Nance simply.

"Oughtn't you to go to bed?"

"It's not ten yet," she answered. Gilbert stared at the clock.

"I thought it was at least midnight," he said slowly. "All right, then. There's a good fire. I'll take my bicycle and be as quick as I can." He flung on a cap and ran down. A minute later he was on his machine and racing away towards the river.

In less than five minutes he was at the head of the old road. He slackened speed, and went quietly down the twisting gully. As he came round that last sharp bend, his headlight fell upon Merrill's car, and his heart gave a queer twist as he saw Merrill still lying where he had fallen beside the car. He swung off his machine, leaned it against a rock, went forward, and bent over Merrill.

One glance was enough. The man's neck was broken and the body already cold.


CHAPTER 26. — NEXT MORNING.

GILBERT had been through so much in the last few hours that his feelings were curiously dulled. He had no special sense of shock or sorrow or gladness as he stood looking down at the remains of James Merrill. Then he began to consider what best to do.

The best course was to hurry back to Elford and telephone the police, but second thoughts convinced him that he had better not do anything in a hurry. The first thing the police would want to know was how he, Gilbert, had learned where the accident had taken place. Then he must tell the whole story. He would not be able to keep Ida out of it, or even Nance, and he shuddered at the thought. Merrill was finished and nothing could help him, so it made no real difference if his body lay there a few hours longer.

Ida—Ida was the person who mattered. Gilbert decided to go and see her at once, tell her all about it, and hear what she would say. But first, he must tell Nance. Within less than a quarter of an hour after starting out, he was back in his rooms and Nance was listening to his story.

"Yes," she said, when he had finished, "you are right, Gilbert. You must see Miss Merrill."

"And you'll go to bed, Nance. Please. You must be worn out."

"I am tired," she admitted, as she gave him her hand. "Good night, Gilbert. We shall meet in the morning." For a moment the two stood looking at one another. Gilbert had a terrible longing to take her in his arms, and perhaps she saw it in his eyes, for quite suddenly she drew her hand from his.


Illustration

Gilbert had a terrible longing to take her in his arms.


"You must go," she said gently. "Good night, again."

Lights showed in the windows of Woodend as Gilbert rode up, and his ring was answered almost at once.

"Yes," said the maid, "Miss Merrill is still up. Mr. Shelcott is very ill, sir," she added, as she took him into the drawing- room. A minute later Ida appeared. Her face was lined and drawn, she looked her full thirty years and more.

"You, Gilbert. What's the matter now?" Her voice was sharper than Gilbert had ever heard it.

"James," began Gilbert, and hesitated.

"They've arrested him?" said Ida. "No—he—he is hurt."

"Hurt?" She looked hard at him. "Tell me the truth," she added harshly.

"He's dead," said Gilbert. She stiffened. "Who killed him—you?"

"Good God, no! It was an accident." Quickly he told her all that had happened. Ida went very pale, but showed no other sign of agitation. After he had finished she was silent for some moments.

"You were quite right," she said at last in a quieter tone. "It's much better that nothing of all this should come out. To- morrow I shall start a search and the body will be found. The verdict will be 'accidental death.'" She saw the shocked look on Gilbert's face and a slight smile crossed her own.

"You think I'm hard," she said. "If I am it was James made me so. He may have been my brother, but he was also my tyrant. He made life hell for me, and I'm not going to pretend I'm sorry. If it hadn't been for him I might have married Paul, and been happy. Now Paul's dying, and it was James who killed him." Gilbert's eyes widened.

"Then—then why did you want—" He hesitated, trying to find words.

"To marry you?" she snapped. "I didn't. Now that James is dead that's all washed out. I'm not going to explain. You'll find out the truth soon enough. I must go back to Paul. Good-night."

Somehow, Gilbert found himself on his bicycle again, riding up the great hills through the chill, clear night. His mind was in such a whirl that he could not think clearly. Only one thing stood out in all the muddle and confusion. Ida had turned him down, and he was free. He pushed over the accelerator and flashed along the empty road at a reckless pace. Perhaps he could catch Nance before she was in bed, and tell her this tremendous news.

But when he reached his rooms they were empty and there was nothing for it but to go to bed and wait until morning. Gilbert did not expect to sleep, but he forgot the number of miles he had walked and cycled. His head was hardly on the pillow before he was dead asleep, to wake up suddenly at seven with an extraordinary feeling of relief and happiness.

Yet as he dressed this feeling died and all sorts of misgivings began to take its place. What was he to ask a girl like Nance to marry him? Five pounds a week, and she heiress to a million! Bobby's argument that if Gilbert had the million and Nance nothing, it would make no difference, was specious, but in the chill light of dawn it did not seem to be sound. By the time Gilbert was dressed he was in a very depressed state of mind. Mrs. Holmes came in to lay the breakfast. Yes, Miss Aspland was quite well, she told him in answer to his eager inquiries, and Holmes had been out and found Punch quite safe. And, yes, Miss Aspland would come and breakfast with Mr. Gilbert.

The fire was burning brightly and the bacon and eggs on the table when Nance came in. She was wearing her riding clothes which Mrs. Holmes had managed to dry, and looked fresh and sweet as ever. "Good morning, Gilbert," she said, as she closed the door behind her and came forward. "You saw her?" she asked quickly.

"I saw her. She—she has turned me down, Nance," he blurted out. Nance's eyes widened slightly.

"Then now perhaps you will explain, Gilbert," was all she said.

"I'm going to," said Gilbert, "but it will take some time, and the bacon is growing cold. So first sit down and have your breakfast."

Nance obeyed. She did not seem to mind being ordered about. Gilbert helped her, then himself, and began to talk. He told her everything, including his adventure in Plymouth, and did not spare himself. He expected her to be shocked, but to his surprise a faint smile trembled on her lips, and all she said was:

"Go on, Gilbert." He went on; he told her of Joe's escape and of James Merrill's visit and his blackmailing proposal, of his own visit to Woodend, and of the struggle between James and Shelcott.

"And the rest, Nance, you know," he ended. She looked across at him.

"So it was for Joe's sake that you agreed to marry Ida, Gilbert?"

"I—I was a fool," stammered Gilbert.

"You are nothing of the sort," replied Nance severely. "If you had done anything else I should never have spoken to you again."

"Nance!" cried Gilbert, half rising from his chair. Nance raised her hand.

"Wait. There's one thing I don't understand. Why did James want Ida to marry you?" Gilbert shook his head.

"I haven't a notion."

"But there must be some reason."

"If there is I can't even guess it." He broke off short. "Someone outside," he whispered. "Who can it be?" There came a knock. "Hang it!" growled Gilbert under his breath, but aloud he said: "Come in." The door opened and in walked Mr. Cowling. Gilbert was so surprised he dropped back in his chair and simply stared. Nance was equally amazed.

"Good morning, Miss Aspland," said Cowling, in his dry way. "Good morning, Stratton. I am sorry to intrude, but I thought it was about time." Gilbert recovered himself enough to get up and push a chair forward. Cowling sat down. His long face was as solemn as ever, but was there a twinkle in his deep-set eyes?

"I have been guilty of a somewhat shabby act," he stated. "In point of fact I have been listening outside the door." Gilbert gasped.

"Then—you heard about Joe Clamp?"

"Certainly I heard about Joe Clamp, but not much that was news to me, for I was perfectly well aware that he had been sheltering in my stable, and that you, Stratton, were looking after him." Gilbert was so amazed he couldn't find a word. Cowling went on. "What was news to me—good news—was that Merrill is dead. One doesn't speak ill of the dead if one can help it, but he was a thoroughly bad lot, and his death clears the air." He paused and looked thoughtfully at Nance, then at Gilbert. "And now, I take it, you two young people want to get married." The color rose in Nance's cheeks, but it was Gilbert who spoke up.

"But I can't ask her to marry me on five pounds a week, sir."

"You can, and I will," stated Nance very distinctly. Cowling nodded.

"A very proper spirit, Nance," he said. Then he looked at Gilbert. "Suppose you had this quarry, Gilbert, could you marry on that?"

"The quarry!" gasped Gilbert. "Why it's worth five thousand a year."

"There or thereabouts," was the quiet reply. "I propose to settle it on you, Gilbert, if you marry Miss Aspland." Gilbert merely goggled. He could not speak, and his only idea was that his taciturn employer had suddenly taken leave of his senses. He glanced at Nance, and to his amazement she was smiling calmly at the eccentric Mr. Cowling. What was still more amazing, he saw Cowling wink—yes, wink at Nance. He sat petrified, and presently Cowling spoke again.

"The lady has said yes, Gilbert. It seems to me that you are rather a laggard in love." Gilbert jumped up.

"I don't know if you're crazy, or I am, sir. It may be all a dream, but if it is it's a darn good dream." He strode across to Nance.

"Did you mean it, Nance?"

"Of course I meant it, silly." Gilbert picked her right up out of her chair, and the hug he gave her brought a real smile to old Cowling's face.

"That's better," he said. "Now I can carry out my side of the bargain."

"But—but can you afford it, sir?" Gilbert stammered.

"Oh, I shall have enough left to buy bread and butter," said the other drily. "And you can drop the 'sir,' Gilbert. You see, I happen to be your grandfather, John Messenger."

"My grandfather!"

"Yes, and if you are inclined to think me a heartless sort of person to have left you to be brought up here on the Moor, I had better tell you that until recently I was unaware of the fact that I owned a grandson. Carnaby, you see, never liked me. He thought I was hard on my daughter, your mother, about her marriage. Perhaps he was right."

The old man was silent a moment, then went on again:

"At any rate, it was not until a little before his death that he wrote and told me of your existence. I am a rich man, Gilbert. I did not want the fortune I have won to be squandered. I decided to look you over, so to speak, before letting you know that you were my kin. That is why I bought the quarry and took the rather drastic step of changing my identity." Nance gave a little laugh.

"I take it he has passed the test, Mr. Messenger?"

"You may," replied the other dryly. "Any other question, young lady?"

"Just one. How did those Merrills come to know about Gilbert? Can you tell me that?"

"About this point I am not quite certain," Mr. Messenger said slowly, "but Merrill's father was a solicitor, and I am bound to say a rather shady member of his profession. At one time he was Carnaby's legal adviser. It seems likely that Carnaby consulted him about Gilbert's future, and that later the younger Merrill got the secret of Gilbert's identity from his father." The old man rose.

"Gilbert, you'd better take the day off. You won't be fit for any useful work after all this excitement." Then he left the room. Gilbert stared after him.

"But, Nance," he said slowly, "I thought you were the heir, or rather, your father." Nance smiled.

"After all, it comes to much the same thing in the long run, doesn't it, Gilbert?"

"Just the same thing. Oh, Nance, it's too good to be true." He opened his arms, and this time Nance came to him of her own accord.


THE END