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Title: A Son of Ishmael - A Novel
Author: Meade, L. T.
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                                A Son of
                                 Ishmael

                                   BY
                            MRS. L. T. MEADE

                                Author of
                          “The Medicine Lady,”
                         “Dr. Rumsey’s Patient,”
                   “A Soldier of Fortune,” etc., etc.

                             [Illustration]

                    ILLUSTRATIONS BY A. BURNHAM SHUTE

                       NEW AMSTERDAM BOOK COMPANY
                        156 FIFTH AVENUE NEW YORK



A SON OF ISHMAEL.

[Illustration: “I die before my work is completed,” he said; “but leave
it to you.”—_Frontispiece._]



                            A SON OF ISHMAEL

                                 A Novel

                                   BY
                               L. T. MEADE

             AUTHOR OF “THE MEDICINE LADY,” “HEART OF GOLD,”
                        “NOBODY’S NEIGHBOR,” ETC.

                             [Illustration]

                                NEW YORK
                       NEW AMSTERDAM BOOK COMPANY
                            156 FIFTH AVENUE

                        LONDON—F. V. WHITE & CO.

                            Copyright, 1896,
                                   by
                       NEW AMSTERDAM BOOK COMPANY



CONTENTS.


      CHAP.                                               PAGE

         I.—DR. FOLLETT’S SECRET                             1

        II.—HIS WILLING BRIDE                               15

       III.—THE PACKET ON THE UPPER SHELF                   19

        IV.—AT THE BUNGALOW                                 30

         V.—A WILD WOOER                                    37

        VI.—LONG JOHN                                       45

       VII.—THE WEDDING NIGHT                               54

      VIII.—AT THE OPERA HOUSE                              60

        IX.—THE ROSE-COLOURED BEDROOM AND THE NEW MAID      70

         X.—THE BOY ON THE HEARTH                           78

        XI.—THE QUEEN ANNE WING AND GARDEN                  87

       XII.—SILVER                                          95

      XIII.—LONG JOHN                                      104

       XIV.—THE BUTLER’S PANTRY                            108

        XV.—LEAH                                           121

       XVI.—THE LADY IN THE WOOD                           130

      XVII.—CROSSLEY                                       139

     XVIII.—THE TORN LETTER AND THE MARK                   147

       XIX.—THE SILVER SCHOOL                              156

        XX.—A BLACK DIAMOND                                170

       XXI.—THE RATS IN THE QUEEN ANNE WING                174

      XXII.—THE MAN WITH THE MARK                          184

     XXIII.—DAME ROWTON                                    192

      XXIV.—THE BLACK DIAMOND AGAIN                        200

       XXV.—KIDNAPPED                                      208

      XXVI.—A “PLANT”                                      214

     XXVII.—INVISIBLE INK                                  225

    XXVIII.—HESTER                                         236

      XXIX.—“CALL ME DAWSON”                               242

       XXX.—MRS. LARKINS                                   250

      XXXI.—A SUMMONS                                      260

     XXXII.—A RED TRACK                                    266

    XXXIII.—“IF NOT, LIE TO HIM”                           277

     XXXIV.—A TOAST                                        290

      XXXV.—WAGES                                          295

     XXXVI.—THE DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN                   306



CHAPTER I.

DR. FOLLETT’S SECRET


Not many years ago in the neighbourhood of Andover stood a lonely house,
which went by the name of the Grange. It was enclosed in walled-in
gardens, and people who passed by on the high road saw nothing of
it. The house itself was squarely built—its windows were small, with
old-fashioned latticed panes, and its thick walls were closely covered
with ivy and other creepers of the hardy species.

It was a lonely place, standing solitary and bleak all the year round,
its sole inhabitants being an old man, a young girl, and one servant.

These three inhabited a corner of the old house, living very sparsely and
frugally, doing without warmth and comfort in winter and without all the
gay things of life in summer. The grounds round the Grange had gone to
rack and ruin; the huge kitchen garden was full of weeds, and the lawn in
front of the house had been attended to by no gardener since Dr. Follett
and his daughter, Nancy, took possession of the place six years ago.

People who saw them at church on Sunday said that Nancy Follett was a
handsome girl; she had bright grey eyes, good features, and quantities
of beautiful hair; her face had strength about it, her lips were firmly
moulded; she had a very upright and erect carriage, but she looked like a
girl who lived under a shadow, and during the six years of her residence
at the Grange she made but one acquaintance.

The neighbours would have been kind to her if she had let them, but Dr.
Follett received no visitors, and strictly forbade his daughter to make
friends for herself in the neighbourhood of her dismal home. How she got
to know Adrian Rowton was a mystery; how he obtained a footing in the
dismal old house was the wonder of the country side. But then Rowton
was a man who seemed to do what he liked wherever he went. He saw Nance
one day in church, observed the turn of her head, noticed the exquisite
curves of her soft neck and throat, commented with a quickening of his
heart’s pulses on the lovely shades of her hair, determined to get a
nearer view of her, met her by accident the next morning, spoke to her,
caught the glint of her bright eyes, and fell madly in love with her on
the spot.

Adrian Rowton had never yet seen any reason to check his inclinations,
whatever they might be. Nancy Follett’s father was an ogre, but Rowton
was clever enough quickly to gain an entrance into the deserted old
house. He made love to the father for the sake of the daughter, and to
the surprise of everyone in the place, was soon allowed to visit at the
Grange as often as he liked.

It was just Rowton’s luck, said other young men who also admired pretty
Nancy Follett, but then they looked at one another and wondered what
they meant, for if people knew nothing of Dr. Follett and his daughter,
they knew still less of Adrian Rowton. He rented a little shooting lodge
about half a mile away from the Grange. It was called the Bungalow, and
would have been to most men a singularly unattractive place. The house
was tumble-down and out of repair, and Rowton took no pains to keep the
grounds in order.

He arrived at the Bungalow two years before this story opens, accompanied
by a man-servant, a rough-looking fellow with a bulldog head and a
singularly unprepossessing face; also by several dogs, and a large
supply of guns and ammunition. Rowton had taken the shooting of a large
neighbouring estate and in the autumn he occupied himself with his
favourite pastime as long as daylight permitted. When the shooting season
was over he generally shut up the Bungalow and disappeared, returning,
however, any day or night quite unexpectedly and for no apparent reason.
He supplied Nancy Follett with plenty of game, but what he did with the
rest he never told to anyone. He used to drive about the country on a
high dog-cart, and one day brought two or three thoroughbred horses with
him from London.

People talked a good deal about him, for he had an air of mystery
which tantalised curiosity. He was tall, well set up, and strikingly
handsome—too dark, perhaps, for the conventional Englishman, but so
plucky, such a good sportsman, and withal so gay and bright when he
pleased, that against his own inclination and against the secret
prejudice of most of the neighbours, he was quickly invited to the best
houses in the place, and was, in short, a universal favourite.

On a certain night towards the end of a particularly tempestuous
November, Rowton was riding home from Andover. He was a reckless
horseman, and always rode mercilessly. The beast on which he was sitting
this special night was only half broken in. Suddenly he heard himself
shouted to by an angry voice.

“Hullo! take care, can’t you; do you want to ride right through my gig?”

Adrian pulled up his horse fiercely, the animal reared, he sprang from
its back and exclaimed with a hearty voice:

“A thousand pardons; I never saw you, Dr. Read.”

Dr. Read, who was also standing by his horse, faced the young man with a
smile.

“You nearly rode into me,” he said. “You ought not to give reins to an
animal of that sort on a dark night.”

“I am extremely sorry, but you had no lamp to your carriage. I certainly
did not expect to meet anyone on this rough bit of road. What is the
matter, doctor? What patient has called you out such a night as this?”

“I am just returning from the Grange,” said Dr. Read; “have you not
heard?”

“Heard what?—is anyone ill there?—surely not Miss Nancy!”

“Bless you, Nancy Follett is well enough, unless indeed, poor child, she
dies of her sorrows. What an old ruffian that father of hers is? Well,
he is dying now: his grief is evidently bringing him to his grave. By
the way, talking of mysteries, I believe I have got a clue to the shadow
which hangs over the old Grange.”

“And what is that?” asked Rowton, a tone of interest coming into his
voice.

“Why, they say that this old man, Dr. Follett, is no other than the
well-known physician of the name who performed such wonderful cures
in Harley Street some years back—you must have heard of the great Dr.
Follett.”

“Can’t say that I have,” answered Rowton.

“Well, well,” said Dr. Read testily, “I thought all the world knew of
him. I never for an instant suspected that this cross-grained old fellow
could be he, but I believe it is a fact. It seems that the man had an
awful shock: his only son was mysteriously murdered. Of course there may
not be a word of truth in it, but something must have happened—did you
speak, sir?”

Rowton had said “Good God” under his breath. He was quite quiet now.

“I think your informant must be mistaken,” he said after a pause. “I know
the Folletts very well, and neither father nor daughter have ever alluded
to a murdered son or brother—murdered! Good Heavens! Nancy Follett would
surely have told me of a tragedy of that sort.”

“Well,” said Dr. Read, “there is some shadow over those two lives, and
the shadow is killing the old man. Poor fellow, his days are numbered; it
is only a question of hours.”

“I am surprised, shocked, and sorry,” said Rowton. “I was at the Grange
only a week back and then Dr. Follett looked as well as ever.”

“As ill, you mean,” said the doctor. “He has been breaking up fast for
the last six months. The mystery, or shadow, or whatever it is, is
killing him, for the man is not really old. Have you ever noticed the
extraordinary gloom on his face?”

“Yes, and no,” replied Rowton. “I thought him a queer old card, but to be
frank with you, I don’t go to the Grange to study old Dr. Follett.”

The moon shone out at this moment, and Dr. Read favoured the bold outline
of the young man who stood by his side with a keen glance.

“That girl is as fine a creature as ever breathed,” he said with apparent
inconsequence; “take care, young sir, that you do not do her an injury;
but now I must be off. Follett is dying because there is a shadow over
him and the shadow is killing him. Well, I must not stay here any longer.
Good night to you, Mr. Rowton.”

“One moment before you go, doctor. Is Miss Nancy all alone?”

“No, I sent in a nurse this morning. Good-night, I must not stay here any
longer.”

The doctor got back into his gig and drove away, and Rowton stood for a
brief moment at his horse’s head. He was a man of quick action at all
times.

“Not home just at present, Satyr,” he said to the horse; “here, turn
your head to the left. So! ho! old boy, easy, easy.”

A moment later horse and rider were flying almost on the wings of the
wind in the direction of the Grange.

There was a long rambling avenue under dark lime trees up to the old
house. Rowton did not wait to open the gates. Setting spurs to his
horse the animal quickly leapt these obstacles, and then at full speed
galloped up the avenue. When the pair approached the house Rowton pulled
up abruptly, and springing from his steed led him softly over the grass.
A great cedar tree stood in the middle of the desolate lawn. Taking a
leather strap from his pocket, Rowton tied his horse to a branch of this
tree, and then stepping quickly up to one of the windows he began to
whistle, in gay clear notes, the well-known strains of “Garry Owen.” His
whistle rang out joyfully; he had just completed the melody and was going
to begin it a second time, when a noise at a little distance caused him
to turn his head; a faint light proceeded from an open door, and a girl’s
slender figure was seen standing on the steps.

Rowton made a stride forward, and the next moment had clasped Nancy
Follett to his heart.

“This is good,” he said. “I have hungered for a kiss. What is the matter,
sweetheart? you tremble as though you were an aspen leaf.”

“Because I am so glad to see you,” she replied. “But how did you know?
What brought you here at this hour?”

“By good luck, I met Dr. Read,” exclaimed Rowton; “he told me of your
trouble. There, sweetheart, you need not tremble; I am here to shelter
you.”

“But you don’t know everything, Adrian,” she said in a sort of choking
whisper. “Things have changed since I saw you last.”

“You need not tell me that, I know all about it,” he replied. “Your
father is dying and you are miserable—but things must be better when I
am with you. Let us come indoors; you will catch your death of cold if
you stay out in an awful gale of this sort, besides, we can scarcely hear
our own voices; come, I suppose you have some sort of fire in that big,
desolate dining-room.”

“Just a spark,” she answered, with a smile, which she quickly repressed.
“You seem to lift a weight off my heart,” she continued. “It is strength
and real gladness to have you close to me; but, Adrian, I cannot stay
with you; he is dying—the doctor says he will not last till morning.”

While she was speaking, Nancy turned and, followed by Rowton, entered the
great hall of the almost empty mansion.

“Why, it is as dark as pitch,” exclaimed the young man, “what a state of
things; have you no candles, no lamps, nothing to show a gleam of light
on an awful night of this sort?”

“I’ll fetch a candle,” she answered. She ran across the hall, opened
the door of a sitting-room some little distance away, and returned in a
moment, holding a lighted candle high above her head.

“The fire is out in the dining-room,” she said with another shiver,
“but we had better go there; I can talk to you better there, and I have
something to say.”

“You don’t utter a word until you have a good fire to say it by,” replied
Rowton. “This sort of thing is intolerable. You are going to be my wife,
you know, Nance, so you have to obey me, whether your father wishes it
or not. Here, give me the candle; why, your poor little hand shakes, you
would drop it in another moment.”

He took the light out of the girl’s trembling hands, and holding it in
such a manner that he could see her face, gazed long and earnestly into
it. It was a face of great spirit and beauty. The features were straight
and delicate in outline, the brows perfectly black and delicately marked,
the eyes large and of a lovely shade of grey, the golden hair looked like
a tangled web of many lights. But now the girl’s complexion was pinched
and blue with cold, and the lovely eyes had red rims round them.

“Come, let us light a big fire,” said Rowton. “I’ll soon set it going;
here are logs of wood and lumps of coal; fetch me an old newspaper,
Nancy. Now we’ll set to work.”

He dropped on his knees as he spoke, used his great hands deftly, and in
a moment or two a huge fire was roaring merrily up the old chimney.

“There now, that’s better,” he said. “You shall warm yourself—you shall
get back your delicate complexion. Why, my wild bird, you wanted me
sorely. Give me your hand—here, let me warm it. Sit on my knee close to
this blaze; it will tingle right through you. Whisper one word to me,
sweetheart; when did you last have a right, good, comforting meal?”

“Never mind about that, Adrian; how can I eat when my poor father is
dying? I love him, although——”

“Although he turned your life into a hell,” interrupted the young man
fiercely.

“That is true,” she replied; “but never mind that now—he has gone through
fearful sorrow, and I am heart and soul with him in everything.”

“Well, dearest, he is your father and one cannot account for the feelings
of affectionate girls like yourself. Thank heaven! I never had home
ties—I cannot remember my father—my mother died when I was an infant—I
was brought up in the roughest imaginable school. Yes, the school of life
was hard on me, and it has turned me out a pretty rough specimen; a rough
diamond, eh! sweet Nancy?”

“Not to me,” she answered with sudden tenderness. “To me you are the
best, the noblest of men; why will you run yourself down?”

“I won’t again,” he answered. “Now let us to business. Have you told your
father yet that you have promised to be my wife?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Why do you say ‘yes’ in that dismal way? Is he not glad? Will he not
welcome me as a son-in-law after his own heart? A little talk will
reassure him on many subjects. When can I have it?”

“Never, I fear, Adrian; he is too ill.”

“Well, then, I take you without his leave.”

“That’s just it,” replied Nance, speaking with hesitation and distress.
“You know, Adrian, how he began by taking a wonderful fancy to you.
During all the six years of our residence in this dismal old Grange you
are the only stranger who has set foot across our threshold. Father
liked you to come—he liked to talk to you—he liked to talk of you when
you went away. It comforted me immeasurably to feel that you and father
suited each other. When I saw that you loved me I was more glad than I
can say, to feel assured on the point of father also being tolerant to
you. Well, things have changed. The dreadful change took place after
your last visit. When you were gone, when you shut the hall-door behind
you, I found father in a state of strange and nervous excitement. He
was pacing up and down the room, clasping and unclasping his hands and
muttering to himself. I really had not the least idea what it all meant.
He kept saying under his breath: ‘Suspected—yes, suspected—there is a
likeness—there is a possibility of my search being terminated.’ Oh, he
has a secret, Adrian, but I don’t want to go into that now, and I thought
his poor brain was turned and that he was off his head, and I went to
him quite tenderly and touched him on his arm, and said, ‘Sit down, calm
yourself.’”

“‘I cannot,’ he said, shaking me off, ‘my heart is on fire and I am
nearly mad. That man—that man—and I harboured him here.’”

“‘What man?’ I asked in astonishment.

“‘Rowton,’ he said, ‘Adrian Rowton; I have harboured him here and made a
friend of him! Ah, but I shall track him down yet.’

“I felt myself turning quite faint with astonishment and an unaccountable
sense of terror.

“‘Father,’ I said, ‘you must be mad.’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘not mad, but my suspicions are aroused. Good heaven!
that I should have harboured that man here!’

“Then he pulled himself together, and tried to speak quietly. ‘Nancy,’ he
said, ‘listen to me. My suspicions are aroused—the man who calls himself
Adrian Rowton is never to come here again.’

“‘You cannot mean it,’ I said.

“‘I can and do,’ he replied. ‘He is never to darken these doors again.
Why, what is the matter?’ he exclaimed, for I was trembling and the tears
were running down my cheeks.

“‘It is only that I love Adrian Rowton better than anyone else in all the
world,’ I replied.

“Then he stood up and I thought he was going to curse me, but he did not
curse me, he cursed you instead. Oh! he used awful, fearful words, and
when they were over he fell down in a sort of fit. He got better after a
little, and since then has not breathed your name. I do not know what he
would do if he really knew that you and I were sitting here together.”

Rowton’s face looked disturbed while Nancy was speaking.

“Your father must have been off his head,” he said after a pause.

“No,” she replied, “his brain is sane enough.”

“He must have been off his head for the time at least,” repeated her
lover; “nothing else could account for words so purposeless and wild.
They are not worth your grave consideration; do not fret, sweetheart,
such words can make no difference to us. You don’t suppose that I will
part from the most precious thing in all the world because an old man’s
brain has suddenly given way.”

“If I really thought that,” said Nancy Follett.

“What else could it be? but now don’t let us waste our time talking about
it; you are mine and I am yours if fifty old men choose to go mad on the
subject. Now, I must see that my wild bird does not wear herself out; you
must have food, you shall have it; is there no one helping you to nurse
your father?”

“Yes, Dr. Read sent in a nurse to-day, she is upstairs now; not that
there is much to do, he has lain since the afternoon in a state of
stupor.”

Nancy was standing now close to the fire; the bright light fell all over
her; it brought a delicate colour into her cheeks and lit up her large
eyes with a strange gleam.

“You are the most beautiful creature in all the world,” said Rowton, with
passion.

She looked at him with a pained expression; her pretty dark brows were
knit together.

“Don’t,” she said suddenly. “I cannot listen to such words just now, they
seem incongruous, they press on my heart and hurt me. Whatever you may
choose to think of him, I love that old man upstairs; his fate has been
a cruel one, his grief is killing him; his terrible, his awful grief is
killing him, it is carrying him to his grave.”

“I am a heartless brute not to sympathise with you, Nancy,” said Rowton.
“What can be the grief, my dearest?”

“Ah! that I dare not tell you, that is our fearful secret. Once I was a
very happy girl, a thoughtless child. I wanted for nothing, I was gay as
the sunshine itself. Father was a successful man, he was quite a great
doctor, he had one of the largest practices in Harley Street. Then came
the trouble; it was a blow sudden and awful, like a bolt from the blue.
It crushed father and turned him into an old man, a man with only one
bitter object in life. Everything else seemed to die in him, everything
but the one consuming passion. He sold the furniture in Harley Street,
and we came here because the house was going for an old song, and father
wanted us to live cheaply; we have lived here ever since that blow
descended on our heads, and we have saved, and saved; we have starved
ourselves, we have lain cold at night, we have wanted the common comforts
of the most ordinary existence, all for one terrible purpose.”

“You certainly are a mysterious pair,” said Rowton with a laugh which
echoed painfully in the old room. “Just whisper to me what the purpose
was, Nance.”

She hesitated for a moment, then bending forward whispered a single word
in his ear.

His ruddy, dark face changed colour when she spoke, for quite a moment he
was silent.

“Your father has made a mistake,” he said; then gravely, “such a purpose
turns round and crushes the man who holds it in his grasp. His own fell
purpose will kill your father. You must drop it from your life, Nancy.
Your little sunshiny face was never meant for shadow or sorrow; you have
lived too long in the gloom; turn now to the sunshine of our mutual love.”

“Oh!” she answered, her voice coming out with a sort of strangled sob, “I
love you beyond words.”

“To please me, try and put it into words, Nan,” he asked; he gathered her
close to his heart as he spoke.

“My love is wide as the world and deep as hell,” she replied; “stronger
than death, and I think, I think, it could reach even to the heavens.”

“And mine for you means madness if thwarted,” he replied. “There is not a
man on earth can keep me from winning and holding you. There, you may go
to the old man now, for I see you want to; we’ll be man and wife before
another moon is passed. I’ll come back in the morning to learn your news.
Good-night.”



CHAPTER II.

HIS WILLING BRIDE.


Rowton left the house, clinking his spurs as he did so; Nancy listened to
the sound he made with a beating heart.

“Suppose father hears,” she thought; but then she remembered that the old
man was lying in a state of stupor, which, in all probability, would end
in death. He could not, therefore, hear. So far she was safe. Why did her
father hate her lover? Why had he cursed the man whom she loved? Well,
he was dying, and dead men were powerless to interfere with those who
lived. Rowton’s strong will would assuredly win the day, and Nancy would
be his bride.

“His willing bride,” she murmured, clasping and unclasping her fingers.
“It is awful to think of marrying him against father’s wishes, but I
know perfectly well that I shall do it. I am incapable of refusing him
anything. I love him to desperation, and who can wonder! I love my
father, too, but not as I love Adrian.”

“Please go upstairs, Miss Follett?”

Nancy started and her face turned pale.

“Yes, nurse, what is the matter?” she cried.

“Dr. Follett is awake and wishes to speak to you,” said the nurse.

“Awake! then perhaps he is better!” said Nancy.

“No, miss, he will never be that, but he is conscious and he wants
you without a moment’s delay. He asked me to leave you with him, so I
am going to the kitchen to try and have a bit of supper. He is pretty
sure to go off towards morning; there is little chance of this gleam of
consciousness lasting long.”

“I will go to him at once,” said Nancy.

She cast one longing glance at the blazing fire, then turning, left
the room. She ran up the rambling old stairs; they were faintly lit at
intervals by the struggling light of a watery moon. She reached the
gallery which ran round the hall, paused before a creaking, badly hung
door, and opening it, found herself in a lofty bedroom. The room was
almost bare of furniture. A strip of carpet stood by the bedside, another
was placed in front of the old fire-grate. With these two exceptions,
the floor was bare. A deal table stood in one of the windows, on which a
small looking-glass was placed, a chest of drawers of the commonest and
coarsest make occupied a position beside one of the walls; there were
a couple of chairs, a very old-fashioned washstand, a huge four-post
bedstead made of black mahogany and hung with old velvet curtains—that
was all.

The dying man lay in the middle of the bed; he was raised by several
pillows and was breathing loud and heavily. His eyes, with dark shadows
under them, were directed anxiously towards the door through which his
young daughter entered.

“Come here, Nancy, be quick,” he said, speaking in an imperative voice
and with wonderful strength for a dying man.

She hurried across the room and stood by the bedside, looking down at him.

“The Almighty has been good to me and has given me sufficient strength to
say what is necessary,” panted the doctor. “I am dying.”

Nancy opened her lips to speak, but no sound issued from them.

“I am dying,” said Dr. Follett again. “You need not try to contradict
me, Nance, I know what you would say. You have been a good girl, and you
will, in the ordinary course of nature, miss me for a little; you will
also as naturally forget me after a short time. I have been a burden to
you and have led you a weary life, but we have no time to go into that
now. Death is in a hurry and I must do something before I go to him. I
have sent for you to get you to make me a promise.”

Nancy began to tremble. Again she made an effort to speak, but again
failed; her hands were tightly locked together and beads of sudden
moisture stood on her forehead. Dr. Follett was gazing at her out of two
sunken and fierce eyes.

“You know what I allude to,” he said. “I see the knowledge in your face;
you know what has animated me and kept me alive during the last six
years.”

“Yes, I know,” she replied.

“I die before my work is completed,” he continued, “but I leave it to
you.”

“I cannot take up your work, father,” she answered.

“Don’t talk folly, child. You must take it up. You know what the object
of my life has been. Your brother was murdered; for six long years I have
been searching for the man who took his life—I have been a hunter in
pursuit of my prey. There is a man alive on this earth whom I must find,
my grip must hold him, my revenge must reach him. I die without scenting
my quarry, but you must follow where I leave off. There, my brain is
clouded, I cannot think, not definitely, not clearly—a short time ago I
had a suspicion. I wish Crossley, the detective, were here, I could tell
him. It seemed to me that I had got hold of a clue at last, but it has
slipped from my fingers, from my memory; I cannot recall it. I choke—this
emotion is too much for me. Give me a dose of that medicine, quick.”

Nancy turned to a table which stood near. She poured something from a
bottle into a medicine glass and brought it to her father. She held the
glass to his lips; he drained the contents to the dregs.

“That is right,” he panted, “that is good stuff, it warms the heart. I
used to give medicine myself like that long ago; there is chloroform
in it, it is very comforting. Come to my side, Nancy, let me hold your
hand. Remember I am a dying man and the requests of the dying ought to
be granted. You are to make me a promise. Your brother, Anthony, was
murdered, you are to find the murderer, and to avenge his death; you are
to take up my life work, child. If you don’t I shall curse you.”

“Where you failed, how am I to succeed?” she answered. “I won’t make that
cruel promise.”

“If you don’t I’ll curse you,” replied the dying man, his glittering
eyes looking full into hers. She shuddered and covered her face with her
trembling hands.

“I think nothing at all of your squeamish womanly fears,” he said,
with an awful sort of sneer. “Sit down by me—I have everything planned
out—listen.”



CHAPTER III.

THE PACKET ON THE UPPER SHELF.


As Nancy seated herself on the edge of the bed, her face grew startlingly
livid.

“You cannot surely mean what you are saying, father,” she replied.

“I mean,” said Dr. Follett in a steady and strong voice, “exactly what
I say. I have failed to avenge your brother’s death; you must finish my
work.”

“I am sorry,” said Nancy. “I am sorry at an hour like this to have to
refuse you anything, but I cannot do what you ask.”

“I will not die until you promise,” replied the doctor. “For six years I
have done all that man could do. I have not left a single stone unturned,
I have not neglected the slightest clue, yet I have failed. The man who
murdered Anthony has still to be found. If he walks this earth he shall
be found. I die, but you must find him.”

“You forget that I am a girl,” said Nancy; “no girl could undertake work
of this kind.”

“Pooh! what does sex matter?” replied the doctor. “Does the fact of your
being a girl alter love? Did not you love the dead boy? I die. It is the
will of the Almighty to take me away before my work is accomplished; but
I leave behind me a child, my lineal descendant, the loving playmate
of the murdered boy, the girl into whose ears he whispered his young
secrets, the girl who kissed his young lips. This girl is no weakling,
she can take up my work; she shall. I insist, I command, I will listen to
no silly cowardly entreaties. Do you hear me, Nancy? I die before another
sun rises, but my unfinished work drops on to your shoulders; you dare
not refuse me—do you hear what I am saying? You dare not.”

“The task you set me will kill me, father. I am dreadfully tired already.
I am utterly weary of the misery of my life.”

“Kneel down, child,” said the doctor. His voice changed from its hard and
ringing note; it grew all of a sudden soft, beseeching, tender.

“You have a woman’s heart and a woman’s spirit,” he said, touching one of
the slim young hands and stroking it as he spoke; “but you have more than
that, you have a man’s courage. I have seen that courage shine in your
eyes in more than one sudden emergency; the day the blow fell I saw it. I
have seen it since, when you have denied yourself and turned your back on
the good things of youth, and followed me, step by step, uncomplainingly,
up the narrow path of self-sacrifice and self-denial. You can do it—you
shall. Think of Anthony, think for a moment of the old times.”

“Yes, I remember the old times,” replied Nancy. She began to sob as she
spoke.

“That is right, child, cry away. I have touched your heart. When I
touch a heart like yours courage soon re-animates it; you will not be a
coward, you will not allow your brother’s blood to cry from the ground
for vengeance; think of the old times, think of your mother, think of the
old, gay, happy life.”

“Yes, yes, I remember it,” said the girl; “but it is all past and over.”
She wept silently, bowing her head until it almost touched the bedclothes.

“I see the old times as I lie here,” said Dr. Follett. A meditative,
gentle look stole the anxiety and some of the age out of his face. “Yes,”
he continued, speaking in a dreamy tone, “the past rises before me. I
see a picture. There are three people in the picture, Anthony, your
mother, you. Our house is full of sunshine. Your mother is proud of her
children, and I am proud of your mother and of the children. The picture
is very vivid, it is almost like a vision, it fills the whole of my gaze.
I see the room where we sit in the evening. I see people flitting about.
I see our morning-room with the sunshine on it; there is your mother’s
gentle face, there is Anthony like a young eagle, all romance, chivalry—a
daring boy, a splendid lad. I see you full of courage, but pretty, soft,
with hair like the sun. Yes, it is a lovely picture; it rests me, it
supports me. Ah, but it is changing—your mother’s place is empty, she
no longer sits by the fire, or takes the head of the table. She has
gone. I am in one sense alone, but still I live, for Anthony lives, and
you live, and I work for you, and my profession abounds with interest
and it absorbs me. Here is another picture coming on fast. I see my
consulting-room; here come the patients; I give them five minutes each,
and I drop the golden sovereigns into my drawer, fast, faster and faster.
I am a very successful doctor. You remember all about my success, don’t
you?”

“Yes, yes, you were grand, magnificent in those days,” said Nancy. She
had raised her head now; her tears had dried on her cheeks.

“Yes, as you say, I was magnificent,” repeated the old man, “but don’t
interrupt me; I still see the picture. Patients think a lot of me—I am
spoken well of by my colleagues, I am consulted by local practitioners.
People come from distant lands to see me and to get my opinion. My
opinion is golden. I feel myself something like a god; I can dispense
life, I can issue the dread fiat of death. Here is a patient who comes
from China. All the long way from the flowery land the wretched man has
come to consult me. I seem to see the long voyage and the despair at
the man’s heart, and now I behold the hope which animates him. He has a
tumour, horrible, unsightly, a ghastly thing, a protuberance from the
very home of Satan himself, but I remove it by my knife and by my skill,
and the man recovers. Look at him! He is blessing me, and he is offering
me the half of all his worldly possessions. Oh! how he has suffered, but
I have relieved him. I have lifted him from hell to paradise. Yes, I am a
great doctor. How beautiful, how absorbingly interesting is this picture
of the golden past!”

Dr. Follett’s voice dropped—the animation went out of it.

“There, child, all the pictures have faded,” he said. “The curtain has
dropped—the old life is shut away by a door which can never be opened,
for Anthony is dead. Let me weep for him, Nancy—I will; I must. Tears
come slowly to the dying, but they rise in my eyes now when I remember
Anthony. He is dead—he was murdered—he lies in his grave, but his
murderer still sees the sunshine and feels the sweet breath of life—his
murderer lives.”

“But you are not to blame for that,” said Nancy; “no man could do more
than you have done. When you see Anthony again in the strange world to
which you are hurrying you will tell him all, and——”

“I shall see him again,” said Dr. Follett, “and when I see him I will
tell him that I have dropped my mantle on to you; you are to continue my
work.”

Nancy’s face grew so white that it looked almost like the face of one who
had died; her lips slightly parted, her eyes, terror growing in them,
became fixed on her father’s face.

“I see another picture,” he said again suddenly. “I see the morning when
Anthony went to Paris—to gay Paris, where he lost his life. He enters
the room. How light is his laugh and how his eyes sparkle! He has said
‘farewell,’ he has gone. Wait a while—another picture is rising in that
dark part of the room. Hold me, Nancy, my child, or I shall fall. I must
look at it, but it horrifies me, it chills my blood. Do you see the man
who has come into the room? His name is Eustace Moore.”

“Oh! don’t let us recall that dreadful scene, father,” interrupted Nancy.

“I must, child. Don’t interrupt me, let me go on describing the picture.
Eustace Moore has come into the room. He is Anthony’s friend. He tells
his awful tale. Cannot you hear what he says?”

“No, dear father, I hear nothing. You are torturing yourself with all
these dreadful memories; they are exciting you too much; it is dreadfully
bad for you to talk as you do.”

“Nothing is bad for me now. I am past the good or the bad of life. I
stand on its threshold. Let me describe the picture. I hear Eustace Moore
speaking. These are his words:

“‘I have brought you terrible news, doctor. I cannot mince matters, nor
break the blow in any way. Your son is dead!’

“‘Go on,’ I answer. I stagger, but I don’t fall; ‘go on, hurry, tell me
everything.’

“‘Your son was murdered at a café in Paris,’ continues Moore. ‘The cause
of the murder is an absolute mystery. A stranger had a quarrel with him;
there were hurried words, followed by blows and pistol shots—the boy was
shot clean through the heart. My address was found in his pocket; someone
rushed to my flat, not far away, and I was on the scene in less than half
an hour. Anthony was lying dead on a table in an inner room of the café.
The man who had quarrelled with him and who had murdered him was known
by the name of Hubert Lefroy. As I was entering the café, I saw a tall
man rushing by in considerable agitation; he wore no hat, and he flew
quickly past me. I observed his strange face, and a mark—the mark of a
death’s head and cross-bones tattooed on the upper lip. Knowing nothing
definitely at the moment, I did not stop to arrest his flight. My firm
belief is that he is the murderer. Every possible search has been made
since, but not a trace of him has been heard of. The man was tall, dark
and strong. By the mark on his lip we ought to know him again—I should
recognise his face were I to see him.’

“Those were the exact words spoken by Eustace Moore, Nancy. I know them,
as you perceive, by heart—they are, indeed, graven on my heart. The
picture fades. Moore’s voice is silent. He has died since then. We do not
know a single living person who has seen that assassin, who sent my only
son to an early grave. For six long years we have searched for him—you,
my child, know how well.”

“Yes, father,” answered Nancy, “I do know.”

“We have spent all our money,” continued the doctor, “we have employed
the very best detectives—we have done all that human beings could do. I
have lived on the hope that the day would come when I should see that
wretch arrested, tried, hanged by the neck until he died. My hope is
fading into the night. I have not found the murderer. You will find him,
Nancy—you will carry on my work.”

“I hate the man,” said Nancy slowly and speaking with intense fervour.
“When you recall that dreadful picture, I hate the man who murdered my
brother as much as you do. I dream of him also night after night, and
my hate is so deep that nothing in all the world can extinguish it; but
how am I to carry on this awful search? Where you failed, how am I to
succeed?”

“You must go on employing Crossley, the detective; you must use your
woman’s wit—you must never slacken your zeal.”

“Oh! father, the thought is too horrible; let me drop it.”

“Never, child; I feel that I could haunt you if you did not do it. Find
the man who killed Anthony; promise to carry on my work, or I curse you
before I die. It will be an awful thing for you to live under your dying
father’s curse.”

“I am superstitious—you have made me superstitious,” answered Nancy; “my
nerves are not as strong as the nerves of girls who have lived happier
lives; I do not believe I could live under your curse.”

“You could not, it would wither you up, so awful would be its quality;
you would die or go mad.”

“I could not bear it,” said Nancy, again shuddering as she spoke.

“Then take my blessing instead, do my work, take up the burden bravely.”

“But is there any chance of my succeeding?” she answered, a note of
wavering coming into her voice. “If you have failed to find Anthony’s
murderer, how is it possible for me to succeed? All your savings have
gone to detectives. All the money you earned when you were rich and
famous has vanished. We have stinted ourselves and starved ourselves,
and brooded over this awful thing until we have scarcely been like human
beings. Can you not leave revenge to Heaven? Why should you ruin my young
life?”

“Because I will have revenge,” said the dying man, “because I lived for
it and will die for it. Swear, child—your idle words are only like pin
pricks to me. Swear to carry on my life’s purpose or I curse you.”

Nancy groaned and covered her white face.

“I won’t be denied,” said Dr. Follett, catching hold of her arm and
trying to pull one of her hands away.

“What have I done to be punished in this awful way?” said the girl.

“Swear,” repeated the doctor.

“I won’t swear,” she said suddenly. She flung down her hands; her face
looked calm and resolved. “There, have your way,” she said; “I yield, I
submit. I will do what you wish.”

“Swear it, swear by the heaven above and the hell beneath.”

“I won’t do that, father. I give you my word. I can do no more. I will
devote my life to this accursed search. I have never broken my word. Are
you satisfied?”

“Yes, I am satisfied; you never told me a lie yet.”

He lay back panting against his pillows. He spoke huskily and weakly now
that he had won his point.

“I am quite satisfied,” he said again. “You are young and you will have
time to do the work. Remember that Detective Crossley has got what few
clues we were able to collect. It will be necessary for you to go on
employing him. There is still a thousand pounds to my credit in the
London City Bank. A thousand pounds will go a long way, and you must
give Crossley what money he requires. As to your own expenses, you
will of course leave the Grange, but you can live very cheaply in some
inexpensive country place. I have trained you to want scarcely anything.
You must keep Crossley up to the mark. Crossley must search and keep on
searching; he must follow up the faintest clue; the money is there, and a
thousand pounds with your aid ought to do the work. Don’t forget that the
man is an Englishman and that there is an ugly scar on his lip. I feel
convinced that you will carry my work to a successful issue, and that
your brother’s blood will be avenged. Don’t turn your young attention
to the lighter things of existence; don’t marry until you have fulfilled
your sacred mission.”

“But if I find the murderer, father,” interrupted Nancy, “if I am
successful, what am I to do?”

The old doctor gave a grim smile.

“There is the justice of the law,” he answered; “the man would be tried
and hanged; I have thought of all that. I have pictured the dying scene,
and had I lived such pleasure would that trial have given me, such
exquisite bliss would I have felt in the moment that the murderer was
breathing out his dying breath, that I could have wished for no greater
gratification on earth; but you, child, are made of different metal, and
I have thought of a way by which revenge will come, swift, sure, and
terrible. None know better than I that a woman’s strength has its limits.
I myself will direct the bolt which severs that wretch’s life from this
fair earth. Now take my keys, go to the cupboard in the wall and open it.”

Nancy walked across the room, fitted a key into the cupboard and turned
the lock.

“There is a packet on the upper shelf—bring it to me,” called the doctor
to her.

She raised her arms and lifted down a square box. It was neatly folded in
brown paper, corded with strong cords and firmly sealed.

“Bring it here,” said her father.

She did so.

“Lay it on the bed.”

“Yes, father,” she replied; “what does it contain?”

“Nancy, you are never to open the box.”

“What am I to do with it?”

“When you find the man who killed your brother, you are to give this
unopened box to him. Give it to him, and when you do so, say, ‘Dr.
Follett, the father of Anthony Follett, asked me to give you this.’ You
need not add a word more. Keep the box until that supreme moment comes.
Whatever else you part from, never let this box out of your keeping.
Where you go take it, for any day or any night the need for it may arise.
When you give it to the murderer and when he opens it, your brother’s
blood will be avenged.”



CHAPTER IV.

AT THE BUNGALOW.


Meanwhile Adrian Rowton had gone quickly back to the Bungalow. It was
a truly bare and comfortless place. He kept only one servant, the
rough-looking man who has been already described. Hearing his horse’s
steps on the path outside, the man, Samson by name, came out to meet his
master. He was a middle aged, strongly-built, square individual; his
hair, which had once been red, was now turning to a grizzly grey; it
grew thick on his low forehead and was cut very short, so short that it
stood up like a thick brush all over his head. He had a bulldog sort of
face, with a massive chin, deeply cleft in the middle; one eye was also
decidedly smaller than the other. His name suited the man’s broad figure
and muscular arms to perfection.

“You are late to-night,” he said, addressing Adrian with a sort of
growl. “I lay down by the horses and went to sleep; I thought when I
heard the clock strike one that you were not coming.”

“I was delayed on my way home from the station,” said Rowton briefly;
“here, take Satyr, rub him down well and attend to him before you go to
bed.”

“Yes, sir. Do you want any supper?”

“None that I can’t get for myself. Good-night, Samson; I shall not need
your services before the morning.”

Rowton turned to his left as he spoke; Samson led the horse away to the
stables which stood to the right of the Bungalow. Rowton entered the
lowly built house under a heavy porch. A paraffin lamp was burning in
the hall; he took it up and entered a sort of general sitting-room. It
was long and low; there were three windows occupying the greater part of
one of the walls; the room was furnished in nondescript style, partly as
dining-room and partly as study; a square of carpet placed in front of
the fire gave a certain degree of comfort to the upper portion of the
apartment; the lower part near the entrance door was bare of carpet and
also of furniture. A high desk occupied the whole of one window. Rowton
placed the paraffin lamp now on this desk; he turned it up high and the
light illuminated the entire room.

“Bad enough hole for a man to live in, but the lap of luxury compared
to Nancy’s sitting-room,” he muttered. A red gleam sparkled angrily in
his eye as he spoke; he sat down where the firelight fell all over him,
tossed off his heavy boots, and gazed gloomily into the heart of a large
and glowing fire. He was a huge man, built on a massive scale. He tossed
his hair impatiently from a broad and splendidly developed brow. At this
moment his eyes were full of dreadful and fierce reflection, and he
pulled at his long moustache with an almost savage gesture.

“Without food, without fire, without the decencies of life—that old
fool is a madman,” he muttered again, “but I’ll soon change matters.
I take her with leave, if I can, but I take her without leave if any
difficulties are put in my way, and sooner without leave than with. After
all, to carry her off by force would suit my purpose better. The wild
bird shall sing to me and make me gentle; I cannot live without her.
Hullo! what’s up now, Samson? Why don’t you go to bed?”

“I forgot to tell you, sir, that the boxes will be here to-morrow night.”

“Who told you that?”

“Scrivener; I had a cipher from him by the last post.”

“All right,” said Rowton, “take them in when they come.”

“Between one and two to-morrow night,” repeated Samson; “there is no moon
and we can easily get them carted off from the station without anyone
noticing. Scrivener will come with them.”

“All right,” said Rowton again. “What are you waiting for? To-morrow
night is not to-night, and I am dog-tired and want to get to bed.”

“There is no room in the cellar unless we move the boxes which are there
already,” continued Samson. “We cannot go down there with lights in the
daytime, and I can’t do the job by myself.”

“You dog! I shan’t help you to move a box to-night; get off to bed and
leave me alone.”

Samson withdrew, muttering angrily as he did so.

When he left the room, Rowton rose from his chair by the fire, walked
across the apartment and locked the door. Then stepping up to the
uncarpeted portion of the room, he touched a secret spring, which
immediately revealed a trap-door. There was a ladder beneath the door
which led down into a cellar. Rowton gazed gloomily down for a moment.

He then let the trap door fall into its place, and a moment or two later
put out the lamp, lit a candle and went upstairs to his bedroom.

He slept until late the following morning, and when he went downstairs
between nine and ten, Samson was bringing his breakfast into the room.

“That’s right,” said Rowton, “I am as hungry as a ferret. You can put it
down; I shall wait on myself.”

“You won’t forget that Scrivener is coming to-night?”

“Am I likely to, when you remind me of the fact whenever you see me? You
want me to help with the boxes; I’ll go down to the cellar with you after
breakfast.”

“As you please, sir, but if I were you I would not draw attention by
taking a light there in the daytime.”

“We need not have a light; we can move the boxes in the dark. Be sure, by
the way, that you have the cart in good time at Mervyn station to-night.”

“I forgot to say that Nelly has gone lame,” said Samson; “she hurt her
hoof yesterday and won’t be good for anything for a few days.”

“You must take Satyr, then.”

“Satyr,” said the man, scratching his head in some perplexity; “he ain’t
used to harness; he’ll fidget a good bit.”

“Folly! don’t make obstacles; he’ll do very well. If anyone asks you
about the boxes, say that I am getting some wine; the goods will come
in wine cases, so your story will sound all right. By the way, Samson,
I shall leave here by the two o’clock train. I am supposed to be on my
way to Liverpool if anyone asks, but——” here Rowton’s voice dropped to a
low whisper. Samson came close, bent his head slightly forward, listened
with all his ears, and nodded once or twice emphatically. He was about to
leave the room when he suddenly came back.

“I forgot to tell you, sir, that old Dr. Follett is dead.”

“Ah! how did you hear that?” asked Rowton, who was in the act of pouring
out a cup of coffee.

“The milkman brought me the news. He died between three and four this
morning. The wench will be in a fine taking—she was bound up, they say,
in that queer old character.”

“That is enough, Samson; I prefer not to discuss Miss Follett. Thanks,
you can leave me alone now.”

When Samson withdrew, Rowton went calmly on with his breakfast. He then
returned to his bedroom and completely altered his dress. His rough
Norfolk suit was exchanged for that which a gentleman might wear in town.
Five minutes later he issued from the Bungalow, looking like a very
handsome, well set-up young man. Samson, who was grooming one of the
horses, raised his head to watch him from behind the hedge. When he saw
his master’s get-up, he grinned from ear to ear.

“Now what’s in the wind?” he said, under his breath; aloud he called out:

“Do you want the horse?”

“Not this morning.”

“You ain’t helped me with the boxes.”

“True, I had forgotten; I will help you when I come back. I am going to
see Miss Follett.”

Samson grinned again, but he took care now to withdraw his head from any
chance of Rowton’s observation.

The morning was clear and frosty; the storm of the night before had
completely spent itself; the sky overhead was a watery blue, and the
ground beneath felt crisp under Rowton’s feet as he walked. He quickly
reached the Grange, and taking a short cut to the house, soon found
himself on the lawn, where he had tied Satyr the night before. The door
of the old Grange was wide open and Nancy stood on the steps. She heard
her lover’s footsteps and greeted him with a very faint smile, which
quickly vanished. Her face was ghastly white and red rims disfigured her
beautiful grey eyes.

“Here I am,” said Rowton. “Good morning, sweetheart; give me a kiss,
won’t you?”

Nancy raised her trembling lips, then all of a sudden her calm gave
way, she flung her arms passionately round Rowton’s neck and burst into
convulsive sobs.

“There, darling, there,” he said. He patted her on the cheek, kissed her
many times and tried to comfort her, showering loving words upon her, and
then kissing her more and more passionately.

“You know,” she said at last in an almost inaudible whisper.

“Of course I know,” said Adrian. “What you feared last night has come to
pass—your father’s sufferings are over, he is dead. Peace to his soul,
say I. Now it is your duty, Nancy, to take care of yourself and not to
fret yourself into an illness. Remember I am here, and it is my privilege
and blessing to feel that I have a right to comfort you.”

Nancy with some difficulty disengaged herself from her lover’s arms.

“I have something to tell you,” she said—her face was like a sheet.
“Something happened last night after you left, and—Adrian—I am not free
to marry you—I am not free to marry anyone! I am a doomed woman; a doom
is on me and I cannot be your wife!”

She covered her face with her trembling hands; tears rained down her
cheeks.

“I swear,” said Rowton, “that there is not a doom on this wide earth
which shall part us. What is the matter, child? Tell me.”

“I cannot; it is a secret.”

“I swear that you shall, and now.” He tried to clasp her again in his
arms, but she slipped from him.

“I can never tell you,” she said; “and while I hold this secret I must
not be your wife!”



CHAPTER V.

A WILD WOOER.


Instead of replying indignantly to her excited words, Rowton gave Nancy a
long, attentive and very searching glance.

“When did your father die?” he asked at last.

“Towards morning. He had gone through a terrible night, but towards
morning he dozed off and the nurse who was with him said he passed away
in his sleep. He looked quite peaceful in the end; I think he trusted me
fully.”

“With his secret?” said Rowton.

“Yes,” replied Nancy, “with his secret.”

“And you think,” continued the young man, again favouring her with a
queer glance, “that because you have a secret, you and I are to part?”

“Yes; I can be no fit wife for you—it breaks my heart to have to say
it. I love you more than I have any words to express, but I have got a
dreadful thing to do, Adrian, and I can be no fit wife for any man until
it is accomplished.”

“You think so now, of course,” said Rowton, “but by-and-by you will
change your mind. You forget that you are young. Whatever burden your
father has laid upon you he cannot crush your youth. I am also young.
Dark things have happened in my life, but do you think they have crushed
the youth out of me? Assuredly not, at least they have not when I look at
you. I am here and you are my wild bird. I have lured you into my cage,
and you are never going out again, Nancy, so you need not think it.”

As he spoke Rowton clasped her again in his arms; he pressed her close to
him and kissed her on her brow and lips.

“Ah!” he said, “you cease to struggle; you are content with your cage.”

“And with my master,” she said, bowing her head until it rested on his
broad breast.

“Yes, that’s right; it is folly to talk of parting lovers such as we are.
Now, my little Nancy, you must cheer up. I’ll soon teach you a sweet
new song. You won’t know yourself when I take you from all these dismal
surroundings.”

“What was I dreaming of?” said Nancy. “Your love is so sweet to me that
for a moment I yielded. I cannot marry you, Adrian. It is impossible.”

“You must give me a better reason than you have yet given, before I agree
to any such nonsense.”

“Adrian, do you think I would say a thing of this sort without very grave
reason? It is not only the death of my father. Fathers and mothers die in
the course of nature, but children still live on. No, it is not that. The
burden laid upon me is of such a character that I must part from you. I
must, Adrian, I must; the thought drives me mad. I wish I had never been
born.”

All Nancy’s apparent composure gave way at this juncture. Dry, tearless
sobs shook her from head to foot; she tottered as if a storm had really
blown over her, and but for Rowton’s protecting arms would have fallen.

“Don’t hold me so close to you,” she panted at last, when she could find
her voice; “don’t make it any harder. You guess, don’t you, how much I
love you? Oh, why did God give me such passions, why did He give me the
love I feel in my heart, and then crush me with such a fearful doom? Oh!
I shall go mad, I shall go mad.”

“No, Nancy, you will do nothing of the kind,” said Rowton. He spoke, on
purpose, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. “You are over excited now and
very much upset. Put on your hat, darling, and let us go outside. It is
not so gloomy out as in; this tumble-down old Grange is enough to give
the blues to anyone. You don’t live another week in such a hole. Wait, my
angel, until you know what life really is, and life with me. I’ll show
you what it is to live. Why, you won’t know yourself—no more dull days,
no more cold and starvation. You shall have the softest of homes, the
most luxurious of lives, the most tempting delicacies to eat, the most
beautiful dresses to wear. You shall listen to music, you shall sing
yourself, you shall see laughing faces around you, amusements of every
sort shall but await your orders, and above and beyond all these things,
sweetheart, there will be love. The mighty love of my heart will surround
you.”

Rowton had by no means a tender face—his bold black eyes, his stalwart
frame, his swarthy complexion, his ringing voice, were all made to
command—but when he chose, no man could be more tender; his deep voice
could thrill to the very depths of the soul, his eyes could speak volumes
of passionate adoration.

Nancy shivered as she looked at him.

“How much I love you,” she repeated, twining and untwining her slender
hands as she spoke, “and yet, Adrian, I must part from you.”

“Not a bit of it, wild bird,” was the reply. “You and I are never going
to part again in this world—we shall be man and wife before a week is
out. Now, Nancy, do you really believe that a slender bit of a girl like
you can oppose a man of my sort, more particularly when you confess how
much you love me? Why, the last obstacle to our marriage was withdrawn
last night, and now you talk about a secret, as if any secret that ever
existed can come between us. After all, Nance, that old father of yours
was a very crabbed nut to crack—well, he is out of the way, now.”

“He was my father—do not speak against him.”

“I won’t, child; far be it from me to hurt you by disparaging the dead.
Your father is dead now and you are alone. I whistle and you come to me,
my pretty bird. I lure you to my side and you stay with me always. We’ll
be married next week. Hullo! what are you trying to say, sweetheart? You
had a terrible night, forsooth, and you speak of an awful doom which you
say hangs over you. Faith! Nancy, there is no doom which ever yet hung
over a girl’s head that can part you from me. Now, look me full in the
eyes. Jove! child, you have almost wept your pretty eyes out of your
head. Well, look full at me if you can. Dare to say ‘no’ when you look
me full in the eyes.”

“I am overpowered by a terrible fate,” said Nancy slowly. “You know what
a strange man my father was. You must have guessed that we, he and I,
always carried a secret with us. It was a terrible secret and it ruined
my father’s life—it ruined my life also. For six long years I have been a
miserable girl.”

“You shall be a happy woman for the rest of your days, to make up for
those six years of misery.”

“Adrian, you must hear me out.”

“Walk up and down with me, sweetheart; you’ll catch cold if you stand
still.”

Rowton stole his strong arm round Nancy’s waist; they walked in front of
the old Grange. Nancy soon found her head resting against her lover’s
shoulder.

“Now we can talk,” he said, “but I defy you to say much about parting
while I am as near to you as I am now; out with your secret, my wild
bird, we’ll share it.”

“That’s just it—I cannot tell it to you.”

“What! not even to your husband?”

“You are not my husband yet.”

“I shall be in a week; won’t you tell me your secret then?”

“Never—never on this side eternity.”

“Is it so bad as all that?”

“Yes, it is ghastly, terrible.”

Rowton gave vent to a long, significant whistle.

“Tell me what you can,” he said after a pause.

“I cannot say much, Adrian. After you left me last night, father sent
for me. He made me promise to do something terrible. He bound me down on
pain of his curse to carry on the work which he had not time to finish.
I struggled to refuse, but he frightened me into compliance. He even
threatened to return as a ghost to haunt me if I would not yield to his
wishes.”

“The man must have been raving mad,” interrupted Rowton.

“Mad or not, his words had power over me,” said Nancy. “He terrified me
into submission. I promised him that I would keep his secret and would
carry on his life work. Then, Adrian, he asked me not to marry—not to
think of the lighter things of life until my task was accomplished.”

“And you promised?”

“No, I hesitated.”

“You did well, for if you had promised fifty times you would have found
yourself my wife before many days had gone by.”

“Adrian, why are you so overmastering? You overpower me—you subdue me.
Your power over me is greater even than my father’s was.”

“That is as it should be,” said Rowton. “Now then, Nancy, let us to
commonplace. I am truly sorry you are burdened with a secret, but if
you think that secret is to keep us asunder you do not yet know your
man. Listen, my child; I am going to tell you something strange. It so
happens, my pretty wild bird, that your having a secret does not matter
so terribly to me as it would to other men. I also, sweetheart, am the
owner of a secret care. Nancy, my pretty child, I am not what I seem.
I look one thing, but I am in reality something different. There, now,
I have startled you, have I not? It would be comical to hear what you
really think of me, from those red lips. What sort of a man do I seem,
Nancy mine?”

“The best, the bravest, the noblest in the world,” she answered. “You are
an honourable English gentleman; a man whose word is as good as his bond.
You are a true man in heart and in soul.”

“Faith! child, do not say any more or you’ll crush me to the earth. Why,
you poor little girl, I am not a bit like that in reality. Do you think I
have no wild blood in me. Don’t I look at times, at times—the truth now,
Nancy—don’t I look at times a very Ishmaelite, a man whose hand might be
against every other man? Has not my eye a wild gleam in it? Look at me
now, Nance, and say truly what you think.”

“You never appear anything to me but what I have just said,” she
answered, giving him a somewhat timid glance, “but it is true that others
have told me——”

“Ha! ha!” laughed Rowton, “I thought that whisper would get about. You
see, my fair Nancy, I am not exactly what I seem. To you, my darling, I
am all that is true, all that is honourable, but to the world at large—I
will whisper it to you, Nancy—the world and I, the world and Adrian
Rowton, are at daggers drawn. Now, my love, will you marry me, knowing
this?”

“You mean that you have a secret?” said Nancy.

“I have.”

“A real grave secret?”

“Yes, the gravity of the thing cannot be exaggerated.”

“And you won’t tell me?”

“No, never. Are you curious? Curiosity, thy name is woman.”

“I will crush my curiosity, Adrian, if you think I had better not know.”

“Dear little Nance, you must never know. You shall be my wife, but
you must respect my secret, and if you see things which you do not
understand, you must be a good child and ask no questions; and I on my
part, will promise to respect your secret and not to worry you with
questions, even when your conduct surprises me—even when the desire to
know bubbles to the tip of my tongue. Why, Nancy, the fact of our both
having a secret makes the whole arrangement fair and above board.”

“It seems so,” said Nancy; “in one sense it seems fair, and yet in
another, dreadful. This is not my idea of a happy married life.”

“Never mind what your idea is; a happier husband and wife than you and I
will never be found. Well, that is settled; we will be married by special
licence next week.”

“So soon!” said Nancy.

“So late, you mean,” he answered, and stooping he pressed his lips to
hers. “I hunger for you,” he said. “I cannot live any longer without you.
We’ll be married next week by special licence. You have only a few more
days to live in this horrid old Grange.”

“And you take me to the Bungalow?” she asked.

“To the Bungalow!” he repeated—he laughed. “Jove! child,” he said, “do
you think that a comfortable home?—have I nothing better than that to
offer my little girl?”

“I do not know,” she replied. “I shall be quite satisfied with any home
with you—you are poor, are you not, Adrian?”

“Ah! now I shall surprise you,” he said. “I have a secret, after all,
which I can confide to my little girl.”

“What is that?” she asked.

“I am a rich man, Nancy Follett; your betrothed is a gentleman of means.”

“Indeed!” she said in surprise.

“Yes; I have heaps of money. I am a landed proprietor. In another part of
England, a long way from here, there is a beautiful mansion which belongs
to your humble servant, Adrian Rowton—it is furnished richly, softly,
luxuriously. In short, I have a nest of down for my wild bird, and I can
deck her with jewels. Oh! child, how lovely you will look when you wear
your husband’s diamonds.”



CHAPTER VI.

LONG JOHN.


When an hour later Rowton returned to the Bungalow, Samson met him in the
porch.

“Scrivener has come,” he said.

“Scrivener! I did not expect him to-day,” said Rowton, a frown gathering
between his thick brows.

“He has come, sir, and he wants to see you; he is waiting in the
dining-room. There is a good bit of excitement about him—I cannot tell
what the news can be.”

“Well, I’ll go to him,” said Rowton; “don’t keep me, Samson.”

“When will you want the horse saddled, sir? You are going to catch the
two o’clock train, are you not?”

“No, I have changed my mind. I shall not leave here before night or early
to-morrow morning; get back to your work now, don’t keep me.”

The man favoured Rowton with a keen glance; he then turned softly on his
heel, whistling as he did so.

“Gone out in his best clothes,” he remarked to himself; “come back
again with the airs of a lord; changes his plans when there is danger
in the wind. Now, what does this mean? Seems to me it ain’t far to
guess—sweethearting, and marrying, and giving in marriage. Good Heaven!
if this sort of thing goes on we are all lost.”

Samson returned to some mysterious carpentering that was engaging his
attention in the stable, and Rowton went into the dining-room.

A little man, with sandy hair and a thin face, was standing by one of
the windows. He was vulgarly dressed and had somewhat the appearance
of a fifth-rate commercial traveller. He had large bushy whiskers, a
shade redder than his hair, but his small eyes were light and set far
back in his head. With the exception of his whiskers the little man had
a clean-shaven face, which revealed the lines of remarkably thin and
somewhat crooked lips. The lips alone marked the face with the stamp of
originality—they were cruel and repulsive in their expression.

When he saw Rowton enter he turned and came up to him with a quick, alert
tread.

“You have kept me waiting for over an hour,” he said.

“Well, I am sorry, Scrivener. You see I did not expect you,” said
Rowton. He flung himself into a chair as he spoke, and favoured his
unprepossessing visitor with a quizzical glance.

“Come, no nonsense of that sort,” said Scrivener. “You were bound to
be here. I thought the boxes would be packed and ready to be sent off;
Samson tells me there is nothing done.”

“Everything that is necessary is done,” said Rowton. “I don’t choose to
be called over the coals by Samson.”

“Come, come, Rowton,” said Scrivener, giving his tall host another
lightning glance, “there is no good in your getting into a temper. You
are all very well, and of course a great help to us, and your manners and
your ways are no end of a blind, and we are awfully obliged to you, but
all the same, business is business, and you have no call to neglect any
of our interests.”

“I do not do so,” said Rowton. He stood up as he spoke. “By Heaven!” he
exclaimed, “I give up my life to your cursed interests. I have wrecked
my soul for them. You have no right to twit me with want of zeal. Where
would any of you be without me?”

“I know that, Silver, I know it,” said the man in a servile tone. He
walked again to the window and looked out. “All the same,” he added after
a pause, “the boxes are not ready and they must be moved to-night.”

“You have the afternoon to get them ready in,” said Rowton.

“Well, let us have something to eat and set to work,” answered Scrivener.

Rowton crossed the room and rang the bell. Samson appeared after a moment.

“Get something to eat for yourself and this man in the kitchen,” he said.

“In the kitchen!” said Scrivener; “do you think I will eat in the kitchen
with your serving man!”

“You won’t eat with me,” replied Rowton. “I am sick of the whole concern
and have a good mind to cut it.”

“Ah! you dare not do that,” said Scrivener; “you are too deep in by now.
What about the Kimberley diamonds and the silver ingots, and the——?”

Rowton’s tone changed. He stood up, and a look of perplexity flitted
across his handsome face.

“It is true, Scrivener,” he said, “it is too late to withdraw now, and I
did wrong to lose my temper over one like you.”

There was an indescribable scorn in his words.

“Yes,” he continued, “I am in too deep; there is nothing for it but to
stay in.”

“And the life is a jolly one, my fighting cock,” said Scrivener.

“Yes, jolly enough.” Rowton began to hum the first bar of the well-known
song, “Begone, dull care;” and his rich baritone filled the room.

“Yes! faith,” he continued, “the life suits me well enough; I am a jolly
rover, and I like excitement and dare-devil escapes, and all the rest of
the thing. I am sorry I showed temper to you, Scrivener, but the fact is,
I did not want you just now on the scene. I am particularly busy at the
present moment on my own account.”

“But your time is ours,” said Scrivener. “What would Long John say, or
Spider, if I told them you were giving your most precious moments to
private concerns?”

“Now, listen to me, Scrivener,” said the other man; “your pals may say
exactly what they please of me. I have agreed to take the lead of you
all, and I do not complain of the life; it has plenty of excitement and
there are heaps of plums. I do not attempt also to deny that the richest
plums have fallen into my mouth, but clearly understand once for all,
that I know my own value. I know that I have a head on my shoulders; I
know that I have a keen eye for business; I know that I am a desperate
man whose courage has never yet failed him. No one knows better than
I the game I am playing, and no one more clearly realises what my lot
must be in the long run. ‘A short life and a merry one’ is my motto, and
before Heaven! I’ll have it; but if you think, even for a moment, that
you are going, any of you, to bully me or even pretend to lead me, I’ll
cut off to Australia by the very next steamer that sails.”

“Yes, and if you do,” said Scrivener, “you’ll be met on board and brought
back; you know where. I do not think,” he continued, “that I need add any
more.”

“I don’t think you need; we both understand the position,” said Rowton.

He sat down again and remained perfectly still, with his hands hanging
between his great legs, his head slightly bent forward. There were lines
of perplexity wrinkling his brow; but presently he looked up with a
laugh, which showed the gleam of strong white teeth.

“You would suppress me if you could,” he said; “but it would take a
stronger than you to do that. My day is only at noon; I wait for the
black dog of care, I wait for the demon of misery until the night time.
Now then, tell me, Scrivener, why it is you have altered your plans and
come here at this hour; Samson and I did not expect you until nightfall.”

“I came to tell you,” said Scrivener, “that the goods which you expect
will not arrive until to-morrow. We have had word at our head office that
it is safer to keep them where they are for another twenty-four hours. I
thought it best to call on purpose.”

“Did any one see you coming?”

“Did any one see me?” said the man, laughing. “Of course—plenty; why, I
had a pipe and a glass of spirits at the sign of the ‘Jolly Dogs,’ on my
way through the village. I am a commercial traveller this time. How do
you like the get-up?”

“Admirable, most admirable; I did not know you at first. I really thought
you were the character.”

“Yes, I was sure these checks would do it,” said Scrivener, looking down
with affection at the hideous pattern of his trousers. “I had a good time
at the ‘Jolly Dogs,’ and have ordered dinner there on my return. Oh! I’m
all right, but I have only told you one half of what brought me here. We
have an important commission for you, Silver, and you are to go up to
town to see Long John to-night.”

“What does he want me for?” asked Rowton.

“He wants you to go to Spain with——”

The man bent forward and began to whisper.

Rowton’s brow grew black.

“When does he want me to go?” he asked.

“To-morrow.”

“How long will the business take?”

“That depends on yourself; it ought to be done within a fortnight.”

“Then tell Long John from me that he must get some other man to do the
job; I am already engaged and cannot go.”

“This is madness,” said Scrivener; “you are the only man among us who can
go. How can you pretend to be one of us and yet shirk duty in this way?”

“You must get someone else,” repeated Rowton. “Ah! here comes lunch; you
can lunch with me, after all, if you please, Scrivener; I can recommend
this round of beef. Samson, bring in some ale.”

The man withdrew.

“You’ll have to go,” pursued Scrivener, as he followed his host to the
table.

“I do not intend to; I have another engagement.”

“But no one else speaks Spanish; you are the only one among us who has
the slightest smattering of the tongue. You alone can do the work.”

Adrian drew the great joint of beef towards him.

“I am sorry to disoblige,” he said, as he cut huge slices from the joint
and piled them on his guest’s plate, “but the fact is, I am going to be
married next week.”

“Great Heaven!” cried Scrivener. “Is this the time for marrying? What do
we want with a woman in the business?”

Rowton’s black eyes flashed.

“Do you think I would bring her into your accursed business?” he said.
“Not I; but now listen once for all, Scrivener. I marry the girl I love
next week, and I go away with her on a holiday and don’t return to
business for a month. For five weeks from now I take complete holiday.
You can tell Long John so from me. At the end of that time I am once more
at his service. Now he can take me or leave me. I am quite willing to cut
the concern, notwithstanding your threats. I can get off to Australia as
knowingly as anybody else.”

“No, you can’t, Rowton; your personality is too marked. Cut four inches
off your height, and take a trifle from your breadth, and give you less
strongly marked features, and you might manage the thing; but what
disguise could you put on that we should not see Adrian Rowton peeping
through? You have no help for yourself; you are in the toils and you must
stay with us to the bitter end.”

“I am always forgetting,” said Rowton. “Were it not for—” he stretched
out his huge arms as he spoke and indulged in a mighty yawn—“were it not
for the angel who will soon walk by my side, I would cut the knot in
another way. As it is, you do well to remind me of my cage, Scrivener; I
am in it, but even a captive lion has the liberty of the length of his
chain; and I shall take mine to the full length of my tether. Five weeks
I take; a week to get ready for my wedding bells and four weeks of bliss
with the angel of my life. After that you and the devil can have your
way. Now I have spoken, and you can take my message to Long John.”

“You have spoken truly,” said Scrivener. “I’ll take your message; I do
not promise what the upshot will be.”

“It may be anything you please as far as I care,” said Rowton. “I’ll
change my mind for no man; now, help yourself to some beer.”

Scrivener took a long draught, and Rowton ate in silence; his thoughts
were far away, and his heart, for all his brave words, felt like lead in
his breast.

While he ate and frowned and thought, Scrivener regarded him furtively.

“Where are you going to live when you marry?” he asked abruptly.

Rowton brought his thoughts back to present things with an effort.

“Did you speak?” he asked.

“I only want to know, Silver, if your bride is to come to this house?”

“She is not.”

“Where then?”

“She will come with me to Rowton Heights.”

“What!” exclaimed Scrivener; “you don’t mean to say——”

Rowton nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “I do; the king will come into his own; I shall lord it
at Rowton Heights, and mark my words, will be the great man of the place
before I am six weeks in possession. I am marrying a lady, and she will
help me to entertain the county folk.”

Scrivener’s small eyes began to glitter.

“It is like you, Rowton,” he said after a pause; “you always were
magnificent in your ideas; but Rowton Heights! I did not think you would
dare.”

“There is nothing under Heaven that I would not dare,” said Rowton. “And
now, with your permission, if you have lunched, I have got heaps to
attend to. Take my message to Long John; tell him that I wed next week,
that I take my full honeymoon with its four quarters; and that at the end
of that time he will hear from me from Rowton Heights.”



CHAPTER VII.

THE WEDDING NIGHT.


Adrian Rowton kept his word to the letter. His iron will seemed to
bend all things to his wishes. Nancy Follett forgot her father’s dying
injunctions. Long John in his lair in London remained passive. Samson
did not dare to utter a word. Rowton went backwards and forwards day by
day from London to Andover. The special licence was procured—the rector
was asked to come to church to perform his duty; and on a certain dull
morning early in December, when the snow lay on the ground and the world
was steeped in a winter’s fog, Nancy Follett stood by Adrian Rowton’s
side and was made, with the full blessing of the Church, his lawful
wedded wife.

The marriage was so unusual, so sudden and unexpected, that early as
the hour was, the little church was filled. The men and women of the
neighbourhood, who had noticed the girl in church with the interest
people will always give to a mysterious, little known person, came to see
her wedded. She made a very beautiful bride. Her white dress, perfectly
simple and unbridal in its material, but enhanced the extreme fairness of
her face; excitement had lent colour to her cheeks and made her dark grey
eyes look almost black. Adrian Rowton’s height and magnificent physique
were commented on by everyone. As he walked down the church with Nancy’s
hand resting on his arm, he nodded to his friends, but Nancy kept her
eyes lowered; she did not know anyone, and did not care to receive the
smiles of strangers. The bridal pair went back to the Grange, where Nancy
hastily changed her white dress for a somewhat shabby-looking travelling
costume—it was the best she could make up at short notice—and in a
carriage and pair the couple started for the railway station _en route_
for Paris.

They arrived at their destination late that night and went straight to
the Grand Hotel, where Rowton had telegraphed for rooms. They found a
bedroom, dressing-room and a large _salon_ at their service. Nancy felt
intensely happy, but also queerly restless and excited. She walked about
her _salon_ and looked out of the window into the courtyard below. Large
parties of smartly-dressed people were sitting there, a fountain playing
in the middle; the place looked gay, very gay, and a splendid string band
was playing martial music. Winter as it was, the night was clear and full
of stars, the atmosphere was destitute of the faint suspicion of fog
which almost always hangs over England in winter. Nancy opened the window
and looked out; Rowton went and stood by her side.

“What do you think of Paris the gay?” he said.

Something in his tone made her start. She drew in her head, turned round
and faced him.

“Why did you bring me to Paris for my honeymoon?” she asked suddenly.

“What do you mean, Nance?” he answered.

“What I say,” she replied. “Why did you bring me here? I had forgotten.”

She covered her face with her trembling hands; she shook from head to
foot.

“My darling, what in the world is the matter?” asked Rowton in
astonishment.

“I am oppressed by the strangest sensation,” replied the bride. “It will
pass. Oh, yes, it will pass. Don’t speak to me for a minute.”

She left her bridegroom’s side and went over to the far end of the room.
Sitting almost with her back to him, she gazed gloomily at the glowing
hearth, where a pile of logs burned with cheerful blaze.

Rowton watched her with knitted brow and in some perplexity.

She felt that he was watching her. Suddenly she sprang to her feet and
faced him.

“You wonder at me?” she said.

“I do,” he answered.

“The thing is past,” she said with a smile. “But I must tell you; I
cannot keep a secret from you on our wedding night. For a moment, Adrian,
I—I who love you with passion, with devotion, with a love which seems to
me to pass the love of any ordinary woman, I felt that I _hated_ you—for
a moment you became intolerable to me; I shrank from your face—you
reminded me in some incomprehensible way of Anthony.”

“Of Anthony!” exclaimed Rowton. “Who is Anthony?”

“My brother Anthony. Oh! we must not speak of him.”

“Had you a brother named Anthony?” asked Rowton.

“I had. He is dead. I never care to talk of him. You look queer, Adrian;
did you ever know anyone of that name?”

“Yes, I once met a man of the name. He passed into my life and passed
out of it; I have a somewhat disagreeable reminiscence of him. Let us go
downstairs, Nance; why should we stay here alone?”

“But it is our wedding night,” she answered. She went to his side, put
her arms round his neck and laid her fair soft head on his breast.

“Look me in the face, little girl,” said her husband. He placed his hand
under her chin and raised her charming face, gazing full into the lovely
eyes which she raised to his. “You don’t hate your husband now, do you?”

“No, no, no!” she reiterated. “It was a passing sensation, just a
momentary queer stirring in my heart; it came when I suddenly remembered
that we were in Paris for our honeymoon. The fact is this, Adrian. Since
father’s death I have been in a whirl, and it was only a few minutes
ago that I suddenly remembered Paris in connection with⸺ Oh! there is
something I must never say to you—the thought rather overpowered me for a
moment, and I remembered poor dead Anthony. I won’t speak of him again.
Yes, I love you, my darling, my best, my noblest. Adrian, I mean to be a
good wife to you.”

“Just go on loving me, Nance, and I shall want nothing further,” he
replied. “No one else loves me, and although I am a hard, dare-devil sort
of chap, I hunger for love—the soft beautiful love of a good woman. You
are a good woman, my angel, and you are mine; you love me and I love you;
just bathe me in your love, sweetheart, and I ask for nothing further.
A perfect wife I do not want—I do not look for a perfect wife, but I do
want a wife whose whole heart is mine, who is mine absolutely.”

“And I am yours, absolutely,” she answered.

“I can be fiercely jealous,” he continued. “If I thought you gave any
part of yourself to anybody or anything but me, I don’t know what I
wouldn’t do. Even if you gave your love to a dead man, Nance, I should
be jealous—and jealousy with me would be fierce—I am all fierce passion.
The side I turn to you, my darling, is almost angel, for you make it so,
but all the rest of me is demon; you must keep that little angel bit of
me alive, and you will, if you love me with your whole complete entire
heart.”

“I do, I do,” she replied. “You are all in all to me. Would I have
disobeyed my father’s dying wish if I had not loved you best of all? I
love no one else, Adrian.”

“And I love no one else,” he answered with a laugh. “Come, Nancy, we have
a whole month to make merry in. We will make merry—we’ll have a royal
good time. Do you hear that music in the courtyard? Does it not seem to
draw you?”

“It does,” she replied, “it is wonderful.”

“We’ll go and sit there, and listen to it.”

“But there are strangers there, and I am shy.”

“You shan’t be shy long, my beauty—you shall meet fresh faces daily, and
fresh lives will touch your life, and your time will be gay, very gay. We
will go out shopping to-morrow and you shall buy lovely things—wonderful
raiment of all sorts to make a fit setting for that grave, soft, magical
loveliness of yours. I shall take delight in choosing things for you.
You don’t know yourself yet, Nance; you don’t know what a great gift
is yours, what a power you have in your face; but your beauty will be
acknowledged by all when you wear the things which I shall buy for you.
Yes, we will have a fine time to-morrow, just the time which they say a
woman loves. But now, come downstairs with me and sit in the court.”

“They are all wearing wraps of some sort, and I have nothing pretty,”
said Nancy. “You know that I came to you without a trousseau, Adrian.”

“What is a trousseau?” asked Rowton.

“Oh! all the pretty things that brides bring to the men they love—they
are called by the collective name ‘trousseau.’”

“Then this right loyal lover will give his bride the pretty things
himself, and—stay a moment, a recollection comes to me. I believe I
stuffed something into my portmanteau, something which I thought would
suit you. Wait a moment.”

Rowton went into the adjoining bedroom. He returned in a few moments with
a thin parcel wrapped in tissue paper.

“There,” he said, “you can wrap that round you. I don’t believe a lady
down there will have anything more radiant to sun herself in.”

Nancy took the pins out of the paper and the next moment a gossamer shawl
woven with what appeared like every thread of the rainbow—as light as a
feather, as fine as a cobweb—was extended on her arm.

“This is wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I never saw anything so like a bit
of the sun itself.”

“It came from Persia, it is only a trifle,” said Rowton. “I thought of
you when I put it away; let me wrap it round you; now come down stairs.”



CHAPTER VIII.

AT THE OPERA HOUSE.


The next day, true to his word, Rowton took Nancy to the shops. They
went to the Bon Marché, and to many other places where finery the most
fascinating, dresses the most _bizarre_, articles of toilet the most
_chic_ in the world, were to be found. Rowton consulted one of the
shopwomen whose taste was supposed to be absolute: she brought out one
costume after another and fitted them on Nancy, while her husband looked
on and criticised and admired. Morning dresses, afternoon dresses, tea
gowns, evening dresses, were bought in variety and abundance. With a mere
nod of his head Rowton would signify to the attendant that such a thing
was to be sent to Mrs. Rowton to the Grand Hotel; he never even enquired
the price.

“You want shoes and dainty stockings and handkerchiefs and ribbons, and
feathers and flowers,” he said, just laying his hand for an instant on
Nancy’s shoulder. “Oh, I know how women ought to be dressed.”

“See here,” he said to the attendant, “fit Mrs. Rowton with all that is
necessary. Let her have some dozen of this, and of this, and this—” he
indicated costly things with his hand. “Now then, Nancy, we will go to
the millinery department.”

Nancy found herself furnished with small velvet caps, with fascinating
toques, with hats adorned with great plumes of ostrich feathers, which
made her look, Rowton said, with eyes of passionate love, as if she had
just stepped out of a Gainsborough picture. The morning passed in a
perfect whirl, and when finally the pair returned to the hotel for lunch,
Nancy said frankly that she felt as if she had been going about all the
morning with a fairy godmother.

“Ah! you will have a good deal more of that sensation,” replied her
husband. “Hurry with your lunch, now, for afterwards we must go to the
Palais Royal to look at trinkets.”

“Trinkets?” she said; “you don’t mean jewels?”

“I mean a few rings and necklaces, and ornaments for your hair,” he said.
“I have taken a box at the opera to-night and you shall look—ah! I’ll not
be the only one to look at you to-night, Nancy mine; no woman will look
fairer, more divine than my little girl.”

The trinkets were bought and Nancy’s slender fingers were laden with
sparkling rings. A necklace consisting of a single row of magnificent
pearls was secured to encircle her dainty throat.

“Not that these are much,” said Rowton; “I have diamonds which you shall
wear. They are too valuable to take away from home. We will have a
house in town next season, Nance, and you shall wear them then; I won’t
show them to you until then. Pearls suit you best however, you are so
maidenly, so delicate, so youthful. Heavens! to think that one like you
should belong to one like me. My darling, my treasure, what have I done
that Providence should be so good to me?”

“And what have I done to deserve such a husband?” she answered.

“Do not say that,” he said, his tone completely changing; “you do not
really know me.”

“I know what you are to me; I know that in all the world no more gallant
gentleman, no braver prince amongst men could live.”

“Come, come, Nancy, it is bad to flatter,” he said; but his eyes shone
and his lips trembled.

“If she only knew!” he said to himself.

They drove in the Bois in the afternoon and after dinner went to the
opera. Nancy was dressed for the opera in one of her new costumes; it was
white, shaded off to the faintest tinge of rose. She looked something
like a summer cloud when she was dressed in these billows of diaphanous
texture; the pearls round her neck gave the last touch to the dazzling
effect.

“You look like the heart of a sea-shell,” said her husband; “there, let
me look at you from this distance; yes, the effect is perfect. Now again,
favour me by standing so. Now you resemble a sunset cloud; you are all
poetry, you are a dream. In fact you are a living, walking poem.”

“Don’t, Adrian,” she said.

“Why do you say ‘don’t’? it is my delight to see how much can be made
of unique beauty like yours. To-morrow night you shall be dressed quite
differently; to-morrow night that pale sweet face, those dark deep eyes
shall gleam in more sombre surroundings, and then my princess will look
like a star. Give me my delight, Nancy; don’t refuse it to me.”

“But my father is not dead a fortnight,” she said; “I ought to be in
mourning for him.”

“Tut! not a bit of it; no mourning during our wedding tour. Afterwards
you shall be up to your throat in crêpe if you like.”

“It is strange of you, Adrian, to say so very much about afterwards; when
you say ‘afterwards,’ a cold shiver seems to go through me.”

“Faith, child,” he replied, pulling himself together with an effort, “I
don’t mean anything. You shall, if I can manage it, walk on roses as long
as you live; and now, now, Nance—during our glorious honeymoon, we will
not think for one moment of the possibility of a shadow. Come, darling,
the carriage must be waiting for us in the courtyard.”

They went downstairs in the lift.

Rowton’s prophecy was abundantly fulfilled: there was not a man in the
place who did not look with more than admiration at the lovely girl
who walked by his side. They went to the opera and Rowton watched the
faces of his fellow-men and women. Some acquaintance in a distant box
recognised him and bowed. Rowton returned their salutations icily; he did
not want old friends to crop up here; he was determined to share Nance
with no one during the golden four weeks which he had allowed himself.
But when a Frenchman of the name of D’Escourt knocked at the door of
the Rowtons’ box, Rowton felt forced to admit him and to introduce him
to Nance. The two men talked for a little time in French, and D’Escourt
promised himself the pleasure of calling on Mrs. Rowton early the
following day. He sat down presently by her side, and began to talk. He
was a man of the world, extremely polished, and with a perfect knowledge
of English as well as French. Nancy’s French was not her strong point,
and she was glad to talk to the stranger in English.

“By the way,” he said suddenly, turning and looking at Rowton, who with a
frown between his brows gazed gloomily into the house, “it is some years
now since I saw you in our gay capital, my friend; not since 18⸺” He
mentioned a date; it was the year of Anthony Follett’s death.

“I wonder,” thought Nance to herself, “if Adrian could help me in my
strange and awful search. I will not think to-night of that terrible fate
which hangs over me.”

She tried to force her thoughts from the subject, but try as she would,
they hovered round it. She suddenly felt cold and miserable; her
conscience seemed to reproach her for her present extraordinary bliss;
she thought of her dead father, the desolate Grange, and the long six
years of misery. Her present life seemed like a dream; she might awaken
any moment to find herself back at the Grange; Rowton not allowed to
visit her, her father there, and the dreadful, stingy, starved existence
once more her own.

She started, hearing Adrian’s voice in her ears.

“A penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“I was trying to pinch myself,” she said.

She looked up and saw that D’Escourt had left them. “I was trying to
pinch myself,” she continued, “to find out whether I was really in a
dream or not.”

“You are not in a dream; at least, if you are, I am in it too; and I vote
we stay in dream-land, for it is monstrous pleasant,” said Adrian. “Now
listen to that music, Nance; does it not uplift your soul?”

She turned and looked vaguely at the performers on the stage. The opera
was one of Rossini’s; the scene now represented was a harvest festival;
the stage was full of motion and brilliant colour; the gay, light,
uplifting music rose to the very roof of the magnificent opera house.

“It is almost too much,” said Nance, with something like a sob in her
throat. She looked suddenly so white and weary that Rowton insisted on
her returning to the hotel without seeing the piece out.

The next day, to her astonishment, he proposed that they should leave
Paris and go on to the Riviera.

“We will go to Nice,” he said; “it is gay enough there, and we shall have
warmth and sunshine; we will visit Monte Carlo, too. Oh! I don’t gamble,
you need not fear anything of that sort, but for all that we will have
one exciting evening at the roulette tables.”

“I am sorry,” said Nance. “I am interested in Paris now that I am here,
and I should like to see more of it. M. D’Escourt said, too, that he
would call, and he promised to arrange to take us to Versailles; don’t
you remember, Adrian?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Rowton; “but that fact can scarcely influence my
movements.” He spoke with the faintest sneer. “I want to get on, Nance.
Paris is all very well; it satisfies me in one sense, and yet in another
it does not.”

“Do you know Paris? Have you been often here?”

“Yes; I spent two years in this gay capital; the liveliest and yet the
most wretched time of my life.”

“I heard you mention a certain date last night,” said Nancy in a low
voice, which slightly trembled. “You mentioned the year 18⸺. It so
happened that I am interested in that date. It was just then the cloud
came which changed father’s life and mine.”

“We need not go into that subject now, need we?” asked Rowton with
manifest uneasiness. “I want you to forget those six dreadful years of
famine. You have now, to borrow a Bible simile, come into the seven years
of plenty.”

“So I have,” she replied, running to him and kissing him with passion.
“How happy you make me; how more than willing I am to do anything you
wish.”

“Then we will take the Mediterranean express from the Gare de Lyon this
evening,” said Rowton. “I will go now to try and secure a sleeping
carriage. You can begin to pack some of your pretty things while I am
away from you, Nance.”

Rowton left the salon and hailing a fiacre, drove straight to the Gare de
Lyon.

“I don’t want D’Escourt to have much to say to Nance,” he said to
himself. “We were good friends in 18⸺. Heaven! When I remember that time;
can I possibly be the same man? Yes, I was a gay dog then; but upright
and honourable, notwithstanding all my pranks. I could look men straight
in the face. Now things are different. D’Escourt knew me intimately at
that time. Yes, we were great friends. He was glad to see me last night;
he evidently knows nothing; but if he comes often he may begin to ask
questions. His questions would be highly inconvenient. Not that Nance,
bless her, could answer one of them. But suppose he asks me straight out,
while that child is looking on, ‘What have you done with yourself since
18⸺? How have you passed your life?’ I might, it is just possible, with
the clear eyes of that angel looking into mine, I might show confusion.
There! confound the horrible thing! D’Escourt and I must not meet
again. D’Escourt and Nancy must have nothing to do with each other. My
sweetheart and I go to Nice to-night and have a right gay time.”

Rowton, arrived at his destination, secured the last sleeping compartment
on the train, and went quickly back to the Grand Hotel.

Nancy was waiting for him.

“I have not been dull,” she said, her eyes dancing with excitement and
pleasure. “M. D’Escourt called: I like him extremely; he has only just
left. He is quite put out at our going to Nice.”

“You told him that?” said Rowton.

“Yes; why not? Dearest, how thick your brows look when you frown.”

“I was not aware that I had frowned, sweet Nance.”

“But are you vexed with me for telling him where we are going?”

“Not in the least; all the world may know our movements. Now let us pack.
We will leave some of our boxes here, but we must take plenty of your
finery with us. I intend you to be the most beautiful woman at the Casino
when we visit Monte Carlo.”

Nancy began to pull her different beautiful dresses out of their boxes.

Rowton stood and watched her.

“M. D’Escourt seems to have been a great friend of yours, Adrian,” she
said; “he has the highest opinion of you.” She glanced up at him as she
spoke.

“He would be sure to praise me to you,” said Rowton in a would-be
careless tone. “We will go for a drive after déjeûner; I find that I must
get several small things on my own account. Are you not hungry, little
woman?”

“No, I feel too excited to be hungry. You don’t know what this life is to
me after my starved existence; but, Adrian, I am really sorry you missed
your friend.”

“Well, I am not,” said Rowton. “On a honeymoon one only wants one’s wife,
particularly when she is such a wife as mine; but you seem fascinated
with the fellow, Nancy.”

“Only because he praised you so much,” she said, with a sweet smile.

They went down to déjeûner.

As they were finishing the meal, Nancy again reverted to D’Escourt.

“He was really disappointed,” she said. “He was quite certain we were
going to stay in Paris for another week at least.”

“I have ordered the carriage to be round by now,” said Rowton without
replying, and glancing at the clock as he spoke. “Put on your prettiest
cloak and your most becoming hat and come out with me.”

They spent the afternoon shopping and afterwards drove in the Bois. By
eight o’clock that evening they had left the Grand Hotel and were on
their way to the Gare de Lyon. They reached it in good time to catch the
Mediterranean express.

At the booking office Nancy was much astonished to hear her husband ask
for tickets for San Remo.

“You are making a mistake,” she exclaimed. “We are going to Nice.”

“I have changed my mind,” he answered. “San Remo will suit us better.”

“What a pity,” cried Nancy. “M. D’Escourt said he might visit Nice in a
few days.”

“The very reason why we go to San Remo, sweetheart. Now take your place.
Here we are. You will admire the olive woods and the flowers before many
more hours are over, _cara mia_.”



CHAPTER IX.

THE ROSE-COLOURED BEDROOM AND THE NEW MAID.


The honeymoon was over; the four weeks all of pure gold had come slowly
but surely to an end. Nancy had forgotten much during this time. The look
of trouble, of anxiety, had absolutely left her face: it bloomed into
greater and greater beauty in the new atmosphere. Rowton, too, appeared
to be a different man. A great deal of his harshness and roughness had
left him. He could be polished when he chose. In the early days of his
life he had only associated with gentlemen; he was of good birth, and his
natural breeding quickly re-asserted itself.

“You are just like a tamed lion,” Nance was fond of saying to him. “You
are so gentle to me; so courteous and kind to everyone, but I know——”

“What do you know, sweet wife?” he said, clasping her round her slender
waist and looking into her deep, beautiful eyes; “you must not get to
know me too well, Nancy; be satisfied with the surface of me, and do not
penetrate too deep.”

“Ah!” she said smiling, “you will run yourself down; but I know the
deepest and the best of you. I leave the shallow part to strangers.”

“You were going to make a remark about the lion,” he said, patting her
soft hand; “so you really think I am a roaring lion, my darling?”

“You never roar to me,” she answered; “but that you can roar I am firmly
convinced.”

“Capital,” he said with a great laugh; “well, Nancy, I hope it will never
be your fate to hear one of my manifestations. Child, we go back to
England to-morrow; are you glad or sorry?”

“Glad,” she replied. “I was intensely happy on our honeymoon; oh! what
lovely places we have seen; how grand and magnificent the world is! It
has been sunshine inside and out ever since I gave myself to you.”

“And yet you want to leave it all and to go home,” he said.

“I do. I love you so much that to see you at home must be the best of
all; to live with you at home must be the sweetest of all.”

“You are mistaken,” he said, but he said it low, and the inaudible words
never reached his lips.

“Pack, child, now,” he said. “Our wearisome journey begins to-morrow.”

A day or two later, the Rowtons arrived at Rowton Heights in Yorkshire.
Nancy had never been in this part of the country, and her excitement and
delight reached the utmost bounds as they approached nearer and nearer to
their destination.

“You must tell me all about the place?” she said when they drove in
through the gates of the long winding avenue.

“Oh! what are all those people doing?” she exclaimed suddenly; “they have
torches and they are coming to meet us.”

“Some of the tenants on the estate, I presume,” said Rowton. “I expect
Maberly, my steward, has been getting up a little display. Never mind,
Nancy, it is in your honour.”

“In mine,” she said in astonishment; “how very sweet of them!”

“I never told you, darling,” said her husband, “that in your own house
amongst your servants and our tenantry, you will take the position of a
great lady.”

“I! a great lady!” she said; “I! poor little starved Nance of the Grange.”

“But starved no longer, and the Grange may well now be forgotten,” he
said. “I told you that I was rich, did I not?”

“Yes. Have you not proved it?” she said; “why, you are made of money; I
never heard of anyone throwing money away so lavishly.”

“Goodness, child! you know nothing of what really wealthy men can do.
Understand once for all, Nance, that I am rich, I am very rich. It is my
pleasure to give you everything that money can buy. I want to make your
life one long dream of happiness.”

“You are doing so,” she said; “but I think in one way you make a
mistake,” she added.

“How?” he asked, surprised at her tone.

“You think that I want such a lot of money, Adrian. In that sense you
do not really know me. I like pretty dresses, but not too many; I like
pretty jewels, but not too many again; I like the soft things of life,
but a little of them contents me.”

“Then I am not making you happy,” he said in alarm.

“Yes, yes,” she answered: “but not because of these things. You make me
happy because you love me, because you fill my heart with love, because
you give me your sweetest and your best in the way of love, and because I
give you all the love of my heart.”

“Sweetheart, you are adorable,” he said, catching her hand and squeezing
it. “You must accept the wealth and the responsibility it brings, even if
you do not care for it, Nance, for it is my lot, my portion in life, to
have more money than I know what to do with. Now, here we are. Come, let
me introduce you to my housekeeper, to the servants. Put on the airs of a
_grande dame_, pretty Nance.”

She was tall, and very slender. Her neck was somewhat long and her head
was set on it with perfect grace. Rowton watched her as she held that
small queenly head high; his heart glowed with admiration and love.

“She would fill any position,” he said to himself. “Could that
curmudgeon, her father, see her now, would he know her, my beautiful,
lovely darling? Ah! I cannot corrupt a heart like hers; she wants
a _little_ wealth, and a _few_ pretty dresses, and a _few_ jewels
forsooth, and—love, love, love for everything else. Will she always
remain like that? Heaven grant it.”

Meanwhile the steward, Maberly, had come up, and Mrs. Ferguson, the
housekeeper, had presented a bunch of keys to Nance. Instructed by her
husband she gave them back again to the good woman, telling her in a
sweet voice that she knew far better what to do with them than she did.
A long string of servants, all neatly attired, with white satin rosettes
pinned on to their dresses, gave deep curtsies as Nance and her husband
walked down the great hall through their midst.

“Take Mrs. Rowton to her bedroom at once,” said Rowton, addressing the
housekeeper; “see that she has everything she wants. Have you engaged a
good maid for her?”

“Yes, sir, a thoroughly experienced girl. She is from the village, but
was trained in London for a couple of years. I have her for a month on
trial. Come here, Hester, and let me introduce you to your new mistress.”

“I am glad to see you, Hester,” said Nancy in her cordial voice.

The girl, a small, dark-eyed lass, dropped a low curtsey; she had keen
eyes and they fell all over Mrs. Rowton’s beautiful travelling dress.

“Run upstairs at once, Hester,” said Mrs. Ferguson, the housekeeper; “see
that the trunks are taken up and begin to attend to your duties; go,
girl, don’t stare.”

Hester coloured crimson, fixed her eyes again with a look half of
admiration, half of something else, which Nance did not quite
understand, on her face, and turned to obey.

“I hope you’ll like her, ma’am,” said the housekeeper as she followed
more slowly with her mistress.

“Oh! yes, she seems a nice girl,” said Nance; “but I have not been
accustomed to a maid, and I do not really know what to do with one.”

Mrs. Ferguson looked puzzled. She knew nothing whatever with regard to
the bride whom Rowton was bringing home. Had he really by any possibility
married beneath him?

But one glance at Nancy’s lovely face dispelled this illusion. The sweet
face stole straight down to the old woman’s heart.

“If Hester does not quite please you, ma’am, you’ll be sure to tell me,”
she said; “but she seems a clever girl, and particularly good at doing
hair.”

“I have always arranged my own hair,” said Nance; “but I suppose if it
is necessary I must submit.” She sighed a little as she spoke. The next
moment her sigh was changed for an exclamation of delight.

“What a lovely bedroom!” she said. “Is this for me?”

“I am heartily glad you are pleased, ma’am,” said the housekeeper.
“Mr. Rowton gave instructions that this room was to be completely
re-furnished. He chose those rose-coloured silk curtains himself;
they came from London only two days ago. I hope you’ll like the whole
arrangement. I must say the room does look cheerful. This is your
dressing-room, and your boudoir is just beyond; these stairs lead to
Mr. Rowton’s dressing-room, and this is the door of the bathroom. This
complete suite is shut away by these curtains and door.”

“It is quite a little house to itself,” said Nance; “it certainly does
look perfect.”

“Well, I am pleased,” said the housekeeper. “I’ll leave you now, ma’am. I
see Hester is waiting to attend on you.”

Nance, who was standing in a dream of delight in the middle of the lovely
room, looked up at these words and encountered the dark gaze of her new
maid.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“The trunks are in your dressing-room, ma’am,” said the girl, “and I am
waiting for your keys, please.”

Nancy pulled them out of her pocket.

“Perhaps you will kindly tell me in which trunk your evening dresses are,
ma’am?”

“I really cannot say,” began Nancy; then she paused to consider for a
moment. “Oh! I know,” she said, “there is a very pretty evening dress
which I can wear to-night—grey silk—in the large basket trunk with the
arched roof.”

“I’ll have everything ready for you, ma’am, in less than a quarter of an
hour,” said the girl. She withdrew as she spoke, closing the door of the
bedroom behind her.

Nance went up to where a fire burned merrily in a grate, which was bright
with brass and ornamental with lovely tiles, and stood warming her feet.
The paper on the walls was of the faintest tone of rose; the mantelpiece
of the purest white marble; the overmantel and all the furniture were
ivory white mounted in brass; the window curtains and the bed hangings
were of the softest shade of rose silk; no more lovely room could be
imagined, and Nance, as she turned to survey her slender image in the
many mirrors which were inserted in the walls, could not sufficiently
give voice to her admiration. Her husband came in while she was examining
the room.

“Ah!” he said, “I see the London people have done exactly what I told
them. Well, Nance, what do you think of our bedroom?”

“Perfect,” she answered; “I never want to leave it.”

“Heaven forbid!” he cried; “that would mean that you were ill, which
would never do. I am glad you like this room, but wait until you see the
rest of the house.”

“I am almost too happy,” said the girl, and she breathed a sigh, the
depth of which nearly reached the point of pain.

“What, because you have got a pretty room, little one?” he replied.

He kissed her and went off to his dressing-room, whistling as he went.

Hester came to summon Nance, and in a few moments the young wife found
herself divested of her travelling things, her hair rearranged in the
most becoming style, and her evening dress put on. She scarcely knew
herself when she was arrayed for the evening, without having lifted a
finger on her own behalf.

“After all a maid is a comfort when one is dead tired,” she could not
help thinking. Her instinct was to pick up and put by her own things,
but Hester, who seemed to divine her intention, swept them out of sight
with an almost peremptory gesture.

“You may be sure I’ll do my best to try and please you, ma’am,” she said
in a soft voice.

Nance murmured her thanks and went downstairs.

“She is a chit of a thing,” muttered the girl when her mistress had
turned her back. “I can twist her round my little finger, particularly
when I make use of some very private information, which will considerably
alter the complexion of things for pretty Mrs. Rowton, or I am greatly
mistaken.”



CHAPTER X.

THE BOY ON THE HEARTH.


When Nance entered her drawing-room Rowton was waiting to receive her. He
was standing by the hearth. A great fire burned in the grate. Nance, as
she entered at the extreme further door, saw a picture which caused her
to give an exclamation of fresh delight; she looked down a long vista of
lovely furniture, of knick knacks, of small tables, of flowering plants
which filled the air with a subtle perfume, and saw her husband’s noble
figure in evening dress as he waited for her. She scarcely noticed the
dress, but her heart leapt up to receive the smile which shone out of the
dark eyes and trembled round the lips. Then her gaze travelled a step
further. Close by the man stood someone else—a slender boy, who might
have been any age from nine to eleven, dressed picturesquely in black
velvet with a Vandyck collar.

Each feature of his bold dark face was a counterpart of the dark face of
the man who towered above him; by the boy’s side, the boy’s hand resting
on his head, was a huge German boarhound, a magnificent creature of
perfect breed.

“I never told you about this young gentleman, Nance,” said Rowton, coming
forward, and holding the boy’s hand as he did so.

“Let me introduce you to my nephew, Murray Cameron; he has Scotch blood
in him. Make your best bow to your aunt, Murray.”

The little chap went forward, giving a low bow.

Nancy held out her hand.

“Nonsense,” she said, “you need not bow to me, Murray; I am delighted to
see you.” She laid her white hand on his shoulder, and bending forward
kissed him on his brow just where his clustering curls met the white skin.

The boy flushed crimson, raised two splendid dark eyes and looked full up
into her face.

“Come, come, Murray,” said his uncle, “you can go back now and continue
your attentions to Roy; Roy will be jealous; look how he is sniffing your
coat.”

“Roy has no reason to be jealous,” said the little fellow in a
determined, manly voice; “he must be a very silly dog if he supposes I
can compare him to a beautiful lady.”

Rowton burst into a loud laugh.

“Jove! youngster, you are coming on,” he said; “there, you may go now, in
any case; you may come to dessert if your eyes remain open long enough.”

“I am not likely to sleep,” said the boy. He gave another glance of the
broadest admiration at Nancy, and then walked gravely down the room,
accompanied by the boarhound.

“How is it you never told me about that dear little fellow, Adrian?” said
Nancy.

Rowton rumpled up his hair with a careless movement.

“I forgot his existence,” he said briefly.

“Forgot the existence of a splendid boy like that!” said Nancy in
astonishment.

“Yes, I was occupied with other matters.”

For some reason which Nancy could not understand there was annoyance in
his tone. With a woman’s tact she hastened to change the subject.

“How lovely this room is!” she said; “no wonder you gave me to understand
that you would dazzle me some day. I cannot believe that I am really the
mistress of this house.”

“I am glad you like it!” said her husband, recovering his good humour on
the instant. “Ah! I think the servant has just announced dinner. Come,
Nancy mine, let me have the pleasure of leading you to the head of your
table.”

The dinner passed off somewhat tamely. The dining-room was a long and
decidedly sombre apartment. But the Rowtons sat at a cheerful little
table at one end, laid with glittering glass and massive plate; it was
brought up close to the fire, and was lit by candles with coloured shades
over them. The rose coloured light somewhat softened Rowton’s harsh
complexion, and cast a fairy-like gleam over Nancy with her golden
hair, pale face and soft draperies. Two footmen waited, doing their work
noiselessly; the rest of the room was in absolute gloom.

Nancy could scarcely tell why she felt a sudden depression. She would not
yield to it, however, and struggled hard to keep up the gaiety which she
had really experienced not a few minutes ago.

When the dessert was on the table she raised her voice somewhat timidly.

“May not Murray come in?” she said. “I should like to see him again.”

“Tell Master Cameron that dessert is served,” said Rowton, turning to one
of the footmen.

They both noiselessly left the room and the husband and wife were for a
moment alone.

“Does Murray live here?” asked Nancy of her husband.

“Yes, this is his home. Now, see that you do not spoil him; he is a fine
little chap, but the soft ways of a woman about him just now would be his
destruction.”

“You don’t really mean that, Adrian; surely at Murray’s age more than at
any other time, he——”

“I differ from you, my love,” said her husband. “Hush!”

He interrupted her words: she glanced down the room. Out of the darkness
came a high-pitched glad voice, a gay laugh followed, and then the
flashing of bright eyes, the charm of a noble little face, and the boy
seated himself frankly and confidingly by his new aunt’s side.

“I left Roy in the other room,” he said, looking up at her; “I do not
want Roy now.”

“Have a glass of wine, Murray?” said his uncle.

The boy held out his glass, which Rowton filled to the brim.

He drank it off and his tongue began to chatter.

“I am so glad you have both come back,” he said; “I have been awfully
lonely; Mrs. Ferguson is not the best company. Now I expect I shall have
a right jolly time. You are going to live here always, are you not, aunt?”

“Listen to me, Murray,” said Rowton; “you are not to worry your aunt.”

“Oh! he won’t,” said Nance. She took one of the small hands—hard as iron
it felt, for the boy was all muscle—and patted it softly.

“We won’t worry each other, will we?” said Murray, glancing up at her
again and laughing.

Rowton gave the pair as they sat thus close together—the very fair young
girl, for Nance was nothing more, and the beautiful dark boy—an earnest,
penetrating glance.

“By Jove!” he said, “I see you are both going to fall in love with each
other. Take care both of you; I shall begin to be jealous.”

“Not you, Adrian,” said Nance with a smile.

“But he will, though,” said Murray; “you don’t know him yet, auntie; I
don’t know anyone who can be so, so——”

“So what?” said Rowton. “Come here this minute, lad, and give your aunt
an account of me; she won’t believe what I say of myself, but you have
known me for years.”

“Not so many years,” said Murray. “I am only eleven, and that is quite
young, isn’t it?”

“Well, speak, tell your aunt what you think of me.”

The boy left his seat by Nancy’s side, went up to Rowton and leant
against his knee.

“You have a bold face, young ’un,” said the man, chucking him under the
chin; “speak out, you are not afraid, are you?”

“Afraid,” said the lad proudly, tossing back his head. “I don’t know what
that means.”

“That is right; you are a gay little bantam. Now tell that beautiful lady
whom you have been impertinent enough to fall in love with exactly what
you think of me, her husband.”

“You know what I think of you,” said Murray, giving the man a very keen
and intense glance. Something in his gaze, fixed and full as it was,
caused Rowton to lower his own bold eyes. He caught the boy’s little
wrist with a grip of iron, and turned him fiercely round.

“Tell your aunt what you think of me, Murray,” he said.

“I think you are a very fine man—yes, auntie, he is a very fine man
indeed, very brave; about the bravest man in the world, I should say,
but——”

“No ‘buts,’ young sir, out with everything.”

“Then I will tell the truth,” said Murray; “you are not good in one way.”

“Ha! ha! Nancy,” said her husband, “listen with all your ears now; this
youngster is about to lift the curtain and show you the sort of man you
have deigned to marry.”

“Perhaps you can make him good all round,” said the boy, suddenly fixing
his bright eyes on Nancy’s soft face; “he is not good all round now—he is
not good to _my mother_.” The boy stepped back two or three inches, and
flung back his beautiful noble head.

“Silence, this moment, sir,” said Rowton. His voice rose; it seemed
to fill the big room. “Leave the room, Murray,” he said. “You have
transgressed your limits; you have a certain tether and you have gone
beyond it; leave the room.”

“I will, but I am not frightened,” said the boy. He still stood upright
with his head flung back, but Nancy saw that his delicate lips were
trembling.

“You are cruel to my mother, Uncle Adrian, and when I think of it, I—I
_hate_ you.” He turned then and marched proudly away.

It seemed a long time to the listeners up at the warmly-lighted part of
the room, until they heard the last echo of his little footsteps, and the
banging of the door in the dim distance as he walked away; then they both
looked one at the other. Nancy’s face was white and troubled; tears were
in her eyes; Adrian was looking full at her.

“That little turkey cock must be quieted,” he said; “he takes too much on
him; you are not to spoil him, Nancy, do you hear?”

“But what does he mean?” asked Nancy; “he says that you—you are cruel to
someone.”

“Come back to the drawing-room with me, sweet Nance.”

Rowton held out his hand; he clasped Nancy’s with a pressure which almost
made her cry out; she bit her lips and walked by his side in silence. The
drawing-room was the picture of comfort; Rowton sank down into a deep
easy chair, and pulling Nancy towards him, seated her on his knee.

“Now, my wild bird,” he said, “the curtain begins to lift; what do you
think of your Adonis? do I begin to show the cloven hoof?”

“No, no, no,” she said, a strangled sob in her throat, “but you
frightened me; why did you roar like that at the child?”

“He angered me, the little spitfire,” said the man; “he has got a spirit
that nothing will break.”

“But he is you, Adrian, he is you—young. He is what you were as a child.”

“Faith! I believe you are right, Nance.”

“I wish you had not shouted at him,” she continued. “I hated to see him,
and yet I loved to see him standing up so bravely under your anger.”

“I told you I was a lion,” said Rowton. “You have heard my first thunder.
Heaven grant that I may never thunder at you, darling. For the rest,
by those who know me well, by those who know me best of all, I am more
feared than loved.”

“No, no,” she said, “I cannot believe it. That little chap loves you.”

“But he said he hated me.”

“He hates you for a cause; he wants you to be good all round.”

“That I can never be; goodness is mawkish.”

“And who is his mother, Adrian, and why, why are you cruel to her?”

Rowton grasped Nancy’s wrist again.

“Do you really think I am?” he said.

“No, I don’t,” she said with white lips, for his grasp was so firm, so
fierce, that she could scarcely help wincing at the pain.

It relaxed at her words and his features wore a smile.

“That is good, little woman,” he said; “if you believe in me, all the
rest of the world may think as it pleases.”

“But who is the boy’s mother?”

“My sister.”

“And why did he speak in that strange way about her?”

Rowton did not answer for a while.

“Nancy,” he said then, “this is our first night at home, is it not?”

“Yes,” she said, surprised at his tone.

“Now I am not going to say anything harsh.”

“No,” she answered, “but I don’t think I much mind if you do.”

“Ah! my little woman,” he said, suddenly clasping her to him in a fierce
embrace, “I knew you had a spirit of your own: now I am going to remind
you of something. Do you remember the compact we made each with the other
on the day of your father’s death?”

Her face turned very white.

“I wish you would not remind me of that,” she said after a pause.

“You force me to,” he replied; “the time has come for me to remind you
of it, Nancy; I shall not interfere with your secrets if you do not
interfere with mine.”

“Then you have secrets?” she said again.

“Yes, little girl,” he answered—his voice was low—there was shame in the
tone.

“Ah!” he said suddenly, “you would make me an angel and worship me as
such, but I am a fiend. Do not try to know too much; be happy—you can be
happy, but knowledge would be your death-blow.”

She sat quite still and did not speak another word. In the distance she
heard a child’s laughter.

“Hark to the young cock sparrow—he has recovered,” said Adrian; “nothing
depresses him long, and nothing can crush him.”



CHAPTER XI.

THE QUEEN ANNE WING AND GARDEN.


Nancy lay long awake that night. Her husband slept soundly by her side,
but sleep seemed determined not to visit her; she was agitated, alarmed,
depressed. All the glory of that summer moon through which she had lived
had faded not only into autumn, but into winter.

What were Adrian’s secrets? Why was he cruel to his own sister? What was
the mystery which hung over him? The burden Nance had herself to carry
was quite sufficiently heavy to daunt most women, but just at present
she seemed to have laid it aside. All her thoughts were for Adrian. She
loved him more deeply, more passionately than ever, but she found herself
not only anxious but curious. What did he mean by those dark hints?
Where she found him angel, why did other people think of him as fiend?
Towards morning the tired girl fell asleep. She slept until late, and
awoke to find a snow-covered world, but much comfort around her. A fire
had already been lighted in her room and her maid, Hester, was waiting to
attend on her.

“Is it late?” asked Mrs. Rowton, starting up in bed.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the girl, speaking in a certain prim, respectful
voice, which was rather aggravating to listen to: “it is nine o’clock,
but Mr. Rowton said you were not to be disturbed. Would you like
breakfast before you get up, ma’am?”

“No, indeed,” replied Nance. “I don’t think I ever breakfasted in bed in
my life; I will get up now if you will leave me, please.”

The girl raised her brows in some slight surprise.

“Just as you please, ma’am,” she said. “I have left everything in perfect
order in your dressing-room, and when you ring the bell I shall be ready
to arrange your hair.”

Nancy said nothing more and the girl retired.

“Why is it I don’t take to her?” thought Mrs. Rowton; “she seems a good
girl, clever and obliging, but she gives me an uncomfortable sensation.
Well, I need not keep her if she is not quite to my taste, and she
certainly need not trouble me now.”

Nance dressed herself quickly and ran downstairs. She did not ring for
Hester to arrange her hair. Her spirits rose as she dressed, and when she
entered the room where she and her husband had dined the night before,
she felt full of excitement and interest.

Rowton had promised to take her over the house, and she was all agog to
explore her new home without delay.

The servant who waited upon her told her that his master had breakfasted
nearly two hours ago; that he and Master Murray were out, but would be in
before long.

Nancy had scarcely finished her meal before they appeared.

The boy ran up to her, flung his arms round her neck and kissed her.

“Have you slept well?” he asked. “I hope you are not tired; there is so
much for you to see, and it is so interesting. Are you not very curious
to see everything?”

“Enough, Murray,” said his uncle; “you shall take Aunt Nancy round the
place this afternoon, but just at present she is my property. Run off to
your lessons, my lad; I saw your tutor coming up the avenue just now.”

“Bother lessons!” said the boy.

“Are you not fond of study?” asked Nancy.

“No, I hate it; I can’t think what use tiresome books are to anyone.”

“Make yourself scarce, chatterbox,” said his uncle again.

The boy laughed and ran off.

“He is quite a darling,” said Nancy; “what a difference he will make in
the house.”

“I am glad you have taken to him,” said Rowton; “he is a fine little
chap, only you must not let him gossip to you, Nance. The boy has a keen
vein of curiosity in him; he knows too much or thinks he does. Now, if
you have quite finished breakfast I will take you round.”

They began their exploration, going from room to room and from storey to
storey. The house was an old one, and as Rowton showed it to his wife he
gave her a brief history of it. It had belonged to his family for several
generations, but had been so eaten up by one mortgage after another, that
Rowton’s own father had declined to live in the old place.

“But is it mortgaged now?” asked Nancy.

“No,” was the brief response.

“And you are rich, very rich, and your father was poor?”

“Even so, Nancy,” was the somewhat curt reply.

Nancy glanced up at her husband. His eyes looked full into hers; there
was a sort of dare devil gleam in them, which she turned away from.

“I see,” she said after a pause, “I must not expect you to confide in me.”

“Forsooth, no,” he answered; “not on certain topics. We two married under
a condition; if there is to be a chance of peace between us, we must
keep to it. You must ask me no questions, my darling; I on my part will
ask you none. I frankly admit that there are pages in my life which I do
not wish you to know anything about, but on the other hand there are
fair white pages which only you shall read. Are you not content with me,
Nancy?”

“Yes, I am,” she answered. “I love you. I trust you too utterly to feel
anything but happiness when with you.”

They kissed each other, standing side by side in the long picture
gallery. Portraits of Rowton’s ancestors adorned the walls. There were
Holbeins, Van Dycks, Gainsboroughs, and Raeburns among them—in short,
a magnificent collection, which Nancy scarcely knew enough of art to
thoroughly appreciate.

“Fair dames, are they not?” asked Rowton, stopping under a celebrated
Gainsborough as he spoke. “Ah! now I know whom you reminded me of when
you wore that Gainsborough hat in Paris; you have got just the face of
that Dame Rowton; just that graceful turn of the neck. We will copy that
picture for your next ball dress; you will look, as the old saying is, as
if you had stepped out of the canvas.”

They both laughed and discussed the picture a little longer; then they
walked on to the extreme end of the gallery.

“This way now,” said Rowton, turning abruptly to his left.

“Why so?” she asked. “Why not go through this door? See! you must have
overlooked it; there is a door here, and it will take us out into another
wing of the house.”

“Not now,” said Rowton. “There is nothing of interest in that wing; come
into the old ball-room; it has been disused for some time, but we will
restore it. Look”—he flung open a door as he spoke—“look at this carved
oak; it covers the room from floor to ceiling, from ceiling to floor
again. This oak is hundreds of years old and of enormous value. Will you
believe me when I tell you that once such a Goth lived in the old place
that he painted the oak white? It took a whole year to get that paint
off; my grandfather had that done. The oak looks nearly as well as ever
now. Observe the delicacy of the carving. We will furnish this ball-room
again. What say you, Nancy, shall we give a ball as your house warming,
after the neighbours have called on you.”

“The neighbours!” she said in some alarm; “are people coming to call on
me?”

“My dear, darling little goose,” was the reply, “do you think you are
going to live here in solitude? This is Saturday, to-morrow will be
Sunday. You and I and Murray appear in church together—a picturesque
group; we sit in the old family pew. On Monday the callers begin to
arrive. We shall be invited out a good bit, and then we will give a ball
in this room and you shall be dressed as Gainsborough’s Dame Rowton.”

Nancy laughed; Rowton continued to talk further about this idea; and they
strolled out into the grounds. It was a lovely winter’s day towards the
end of January. The pair walked quickly, exploring the different gardens
and pleasure grounds. Suddenly they came straight up to a high wall which
ran parallel with the house.

“What is in there?” asked Nancy.

“Another garden,” said Rowton in a careless tone.

“What a heap of gardens,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “I am almost tired
of exploring them.”

“We will return to the house now,” he said; “we need not go any further
to-day.”

“Oh, yes, let me see the inside of this garden. What a high wall, and
broken glass all along the top! I cannot get even a peep within. I am
curious. Is it a very old-fashioned garden, Adrian?”

“Yes,” he said after a pause; “we call it the Queen Anne garden here.”

“How charming! Are the trees cut about in queer shapes?”

“Yes. Contorted into foxes and dogs and bears. I fancy there is a cock,
who looks exactly as if he meant to crow, just inside the entrance gate.”

Rowton’s face wore a quizzical expression.

“Where is the entrance?” asked Nancy. “I am dying to see the garden.”

“Not to-day,” replied her husband. He drew her hand through his arm.

They walked on in silence for a moment, then he bent down and looked at
her.

“Are you vexed, little woman?” he asked.

“I try not to be,” she answered; “but it seems a simple thing just to
show me that last garden. I have never seen a proper Queen Anne garden,
and this one——”

“You feel a pin prick of natural womanly curiosity,” said Rowton;
“suppress it, dearest. Now I am going to confide in you to a certain
extent. I did not mean to, but I see that it is necessary. I have
brought you to a beautiful home, have I not?”

“Lovely—a palace,” said Nancy.

“The whole place is yours,” continued her husband: “the house, the
ground, with—with a reservation.”

“Yes?” she asked, looking up at him with parted lips.

“With a reservation,” he continued. “There is a wing of the house which
you are never to enter. That wing looks into the Queen Anne garden—you
are, therefore, never to go into the Queen Anne garden.”

“Never, Adrian, never?”

“Never, darling.”

“Why so?”

“I meant to keep the reason from you,” said Rowton; “but I must tell
it—there is a reason.”

“Yes?” she said again. She began to tremble.

“You heard Murray speak of his mother last night,” continued the man,
standing very upright as he spoke, folding his arms and looking down at
Nancy’s slim young figure.

“Yes,” she replied.

“The boy’s mother lives in that wing.”

“What?” cried Nancy.

“She lives in the wing into which you are never to go,” continued Rowton.
“She takes exercise in the Queen Anne garden. You need not be afraid of
her, but you are never to see her.”

“Why, why?”

“Because she is mad.”



CHAPTER XII.

SILVER.


These words had scarcely passed Rowton’s lips before he abruptly turned
and saw a little man crossing the lawn to meet him.

“Scrivener! by all that is unpleasant,” he muttered under his breath. He
turned to Nancy who, very white and frightened, stood by his side.

“Go into the house now,” he said; “go up to your room and unpack your
things, or sit by the fire in the library and enjoy a right good read of
one of the many novels which are scattered about. I want to speak to that
man who is coming across the lawn.”

“Who is he, Adrian?”

“A devil,” said Adrian. “Go away; he is not to see you.”

She turned abruptly at his words. His tone completed the trembling at her
heart; she tottered rather than walked into the house; she was full of
fear and misery.

Rowton, without even glancing after her, went to meet his unwelcome guest.

“Now, what has brought you here?” he asked.

“Ah! I expected you would take that sort of air when you returned to your
property,” said Scrivener. “The whole thing was a mistake, and I told
Long John so. And so that young lady is the angel of your life?”

“I forbid you to mention her name. What is your business here to-day?”

“To bring you a message,” said Scrivener, favouring Rowton with a long
and steady glance. “You have had your five weeks; the end of your tether
is therefore reached; you belong to us now, and we have something for you
to do.”

“I doubt not that you have,” said Rowton.

“Yes, there is some important business waiting for you. Can you return
with me to town this afternoon?”

Rowton looked both disturbed and annoyed.

“Does Long John want me so soon?” he asked.

“He wants you to-night. We have an important meeting at our club
to-night, and it is absolutely necessary that you should be present.”

Rowton stood quite still, a frown between his thick brows. Presently it
cleared away.

“I am at your service,” he said.

Scrivener was evidently relieved at this sudden acquiescence.

“That is a good thing,” he said. “I was commissioned to bring you with
or against your will. When you submit to the inevitable you make things
far easier for us. I’ll get straight back to Pitstow Station and take
the next train to town. The meeting is appointed for eleven o’clock
to-night—you’ll be sure to be there? You won’t play us false?”

“No, I shall come up to town by your train. Go, Scrivener, I don’t want
people to see you about.”

“As you please,” said the man; “but I expect folks round here will
have to get accustomed to me. I am thinking of taking lodgings in the
neighbourhood.”

“You are not?”

“Yes, I am. The air is wonderfully bracing, and I have been feeling
rather pulled down lately. Well, good-day, I am sorry, sir, you have not
got a job for me on the premises.”

These last remarks were made in a servile tone, and for the benefit of an
under-gardener who was seen approaching.

Rowton nodded. Scrivener turned on his heel and disappeared.

“Come here,” said Rowton to the gardener. He walked with him across the
lawn, gave him some directions with regard to the moving of several
plants, and then sauntered slowly into the house.

He went into the library, where he hoped to find Nance. She was there;
she had seated herself in a chair in front of a great fire; a book lay
open on her lap, but she was not reading; with the tears undried on her
cheeks, she was fast asleep. She looked weary, almost ethereal, in her
sleep. Rowton looked at her fair face with a great pang at his heart.

“Poor lily flower,” he murmured; “she looks as unfit as girl could look
to stand the storms of this troublesome world, and what storms she may
have to encounter with her lot linked to mine, Heaven only knows. But
there, perhaps I wrong her, there is, I sometimes think, muscle as well
as weakness under all that delicate womanly charm. Poor little girl!
shall I go away without telling her, or shall I tell her? No, I won’t
shirk the nasty things which I undertook when I married one like her—she
must bear her burden—Heaven knows I want to make it light to her. Yes,
I’ll tell her.”

He went up to Nancy, knelt by her side, put his arms round her, and
gently transferred her head from the sofa cushions to his breast. The
movement, light as it was, awakened her. She opened her eyes, saw him
looking down at her, and smiled at first dreamily and happily.

“Where am I?” she asked. “I thought I was back at San Remo—I remember
now, I am at home, and you are with me.”

“I am glad you have had a sleep, Nance,” said her husband in a
matter-of-fact voice. “Now I have something to say which is not quite
pleasant.”

“What is that?” she asked.

She started up and pushed her hair from her brow.

“I remember everything now,” she repeated; “the garden which I am not to
see, and the poor afflicted lady, and the dreadful man who walked across
the grass.”

“The man has gone, dearest. I trust you may not be troubled with him
again—in any case he has nothing whatever to do with you.”

“Then what unpleasant thing have you to tell me, Adrian?”

“Only that I must leave thee, sweetheart.”

“Leave me, leave me?” she asked, her face turning very white.

“But not for long.” Rowton bent forward and kissed her lips. “Only for
a few hours at the worst. That man brought me a message which makes it
imperative for me to go to town to-night. In fact, I am leaving almost
immediately—I shall take the very next train from Pitstow. If my business
is happily concluded I shall be back in time to go to church with you
to-morrow, if not——”

“Why do you say ‘if not’?” she asked. “Is there any fear?”

“No, none really. Of course there is a possibility that I may not return
in time for church—in that case, you will go with Murray; be sure you go,
Nance, whether I am with you or not. Now I have not a moment to spare.”

Rowton walked across the room and rang the bell. When the servant
appeared he gave orders that his dog-cart was to be brought round in a
quarter of an hour. He then prepared to leave the room.

“Let me come with you and help you to pack,” said Nancy.

“To be sure, little woman, come along,” he said.

He took her hand and they went upstairs together. They passed through the
beautiful bedroom into Rowton’s dressing-room. He thrust a few things
into his Gladstone bag, then turned and took his wife in his arms.

“How much I must love you,” he said, “when I feel it horrible even to
part for a few hours.”

“Can I not come with you?” she asked suddenly; “why should not I go to
London with you this afternoon?”

“No, darling, it is best not. I shall have to leave you at times,
sweetheart, and we must both get accustomed to the thing. Now I must say
farewell. I’ll soon be back. Adieu, darling, adieu.”

Rowton ran downstairs, and Nancy watched him from the window of the
dressing-room as he drove rapidly away.

He arrived at Pitstow Station a moment before the train was starting.
He saw Scrivener pacing up and down the platform, but neither man, by
word or glance, recognised the other. Rowton travelled first-class to
town—Scrivener third. In due course they arrived at King’s Cross, when
both men again went their several ways. Rowton drove to a small hotel in
the neighbourhood of the Strand. It was a comfortable, cleanly place,
but very unpretending and plain. He ordered something to eat and then
went out into the Strand. He amused himself buying one or two trifles for
Nancy. He then went to his club, the Shelton, where he smoked a cigar,
and chatted with two or three men, who were all delighted to see him
again. He invited several of his friends to stay at Rowton Heights, and
altogether was much cheered by his time at the club.

“Lucky for you, Rowton, to be back in the old place once more,” said
Charlie Danvers, a gay young Guardsman. Rowton had been at school with
him.

“Wish I could clear off all my mortgages, and come in for my own,” said
another man, whose name was Halliburton.

“I have heard a lot of your diggings, Rowton,” said a third; “the best
place in the county; shall be delighted to accept your invitation. What
time did you say?”

“I’ll write and fix a date,” said Rowton after a pause. “My wife and I
mean to give a ball, but we must wait a little until the county magnates
have time to call. I’ll want as many of you good fellows as will honour
me to come down for the great occasion. I mean to do something with the
hunting next season, but it is rather late to think much of that this
year. The ball, however, is a different matter. You’ll all come for the
ball, won’t you?”

Three or four promised, and Rowton made notes in his engagement book.

It was about ten o’clock when he left the club. He hailed a hansom then,
and drove straight back to the quiet little hotel off the Strand. When he
got there he went upstairs, changed his hat for a round one of somewhat
shabby make, put on a light overcoat and came down again.

“Going out, sir?” said the landlord, who was standing in the hall.

“Yes, for a bit,” said Rowton.

The man noticed the change of dress and made no remark—many of his guests
were out all night; he supplied them with latchkeys, and never sat up for
them.

“A latchkey, sir?” he said now to Rowton.

“Thanks,” replied the owner of Rowton Heights in a nonchalant tone. He
slipped the key into his pocket, and the next moment found himself again
in the Strand.

He took another hansom and told the man to drive him as far as the
Chelsea Embankment. It took about half an hour to get there. He got out
just by the Embankment, paid the driver his fare and walked slowly
on, bearing straight to his right all the time. By-and-by he found
himself, still almost within sight of the Embankment, but in a low part
of Chelsea. He went down several by-streets, being remarked by those
who glanced at him by reason of his height and a certain uprightness
of carriage which, try as he would, he could never get rid of. It was
Saturday night, near midnight, and the place was all alive—barrows in
the streets, hawkers everywhere, people buying and selling, children
screaming, women arguing and gesticulating, good, hard-worked housewives
hurrying home with well-laden baskets, drunken men staggering across
the streets. Rowton passed quickly through their midst. The place smelt
horribly. The air was heavy with the odours of stale fish and rotting
vegetables.

“Contrasts,” muttered the man to himself. “Rowton Heights last night,
Nance in her silver-grey dress, the old ancestral home—all the ‘noblesse
oblige’ of long descent surrounding me and tingling in my veins!
To-night, the slums, and I no stranger in them!”

He muttered an oath which scarcely reached his lips, but filled his heart
with intolerable bitterness. He left the glaring street with all its
light and noise, and turned abruptly down a dark passage. The next moment
he had knocked with his knuckles in a peculiar way on a certain door.
The door was cautiously opened by a girl in a dirty dress with a towzled
fringe reaching to her eyebrows.

“Who is there?” she asked.

“Silver,” was the reply.

“Oh! Silver, thank Heaven you have come,” she answered.

“Hush! don’t speak so loud,” said Rowton in a low voice. “How are you,
Sophy—pain in the back any better?”

“No, sir, I suffers awful still,” answered the poor slavey. “Glad you are
back, sir; don’t think I can stay much longer.”

“Oh! yes, you can—here is a sovereign to put in your pocket.”

“Bless you, sir, bless you, Silver,” the girl murmured as she stifled
back a sob. She slipped the coin into her mouth for greater safety, and
abruptly turned to walk upstairs.

“Are they in the old rooms?” asked Rowton.

“Yes, sir, ten of ’em strong.”

“Then you need not come. I can find my own way.”

He bounded past her three steps at a time, opened a door without knocking
and found himself in a long low room, which was now reeking with tobacco
smoke and the fumes of whisky. Several men were stationed about the
room, some sitting, some standing, some were smoking short pipes, some
indulging in cigars, some were doing neither. There was a certain
expectancy about all their faces, and when they saw Rowton it was more
than evident that this expectancy was realised. They welcomed him with
cheers; said, “Hullo, Silver, glad to see _you_ back,” and motioned him
forward into their midst.



CHAPTER XIII.

LONG JOHN.


Rowton nodded to one or two, and then going straight to the other end of
the room, where a man was seated by a desk, bent down over him.

“Here I am,” he said; “you have sent for me. I am in a great hurry, as I
want to take an early train back to Pitstow. What’s up, Piper? Why did
you require me to come in such a hurry?”

The man addressed as Piper raised himself slowly and fixed two steady,
luminous grey eyes on the speaker. He had an extraordinary face, with
a certain marked power about it. The lips were very hard, but the eyes
were tender as those of a woman. The face itself was long and extremely
narrow—the brow high, with scanty hair which receded far from the
temples; it was perfectly clean shaven, and was emaciated as well as long
and thin. Even as the man looked full at Rowton, a hectic colour came and
went on his cheeks. He was small and slenderly built, and why he went by
the name of Long John would have puzzled a stranger to account for. At a
first glance one would have taken him for an insignificant and somewhat
effeminate person; but a second, revealing the pathos and beauty of the
eyes, would not have failed to arrest attention, and a third glance from
an observer of human nature, would have revealed the fact that the man
possessed a strange and powerful personality.

“Now that you have come, you must listen to our business,” said Long
John. “We have waited for five weeks to consult your pleasure—there is a
good deal now to attend to. Are you there, Scrivener?”

“Yes,” said Scrivener, answering to his name.

Piper rose from his seat by the desk where he was carefully making notes,
lifted a flap, slipped the notes under it, locked the desk and came
forward into the centre of the room.

“Now, gentlemen,” he said, “now that Silver has come back, there is
nothing to prevent our beginning the business of the evening.”

“No, nothing,” said several voices. “Right glad to see you again, Silver.”

Several signs then passed between the parties; certain instructions were
read aloud by Long John, and commented upon in a terse, quick, eager
voice by Scrivener. Two or three of the men fell to whispering, and one,
who had seated himself close to Rowton, bent forward and said in a tone
of almost affection:

“I feel comfortable and safe, now that you are going to be at the helm
again.”

All this time Rowton was silent. Not that he lost a single word of
what was going on—he was acquainted with all the ciphers—he knew the
mysterious allusions. A sort of jargon was spoken which was not Greek to
him. Still, he never opened his lips, although, after a time, he noticed
that Long John constantly raised his lustrous eyes and fixed them on his
face.

Suddenly that individual turned round and addressed him.

“Marrying at the time you did,” he said, “you put us all to the height
of inconvenience. We lost that business in Spain by which we hoped to
have secured enormous profits. You are a strong man, you give weight and
solidity to all we do, and we cannot dispense with you. You were aware
of the fact when you made that audacious demand for five weeks off duty.
You have now returned to duty, and I presume will work extra hard for the
privilege we have accorded you.”

“Thanks,” said Rowton. “I belong to you, and I shall, of course, do my
best for the interests of the business.”

“That’s right,” said Long John after a pause. “The fact is, you have come
back in the nick of time—that affair in Spain can, I find, be re-opened.
Bonds to the tune of £20,000 are to be conveyed from Madrid to Paris by
train on the night of the 20th. Spider will meet you in Madrid. How soon
can you go there?”

Rowton started and looked troubled.

“Before I make any promises,” he said after a pause, “I wish to say
something on another matter.”

“What is that?”

“I wish to ask a favour.”

“A favour, Silver,” said Scrivener. “You seem great at that sort of thing
lately.”

“This matter is of much importance to me, Piper,” said Rowton, fixing his
bold eyes on the meagre face of the other man. “I want the headquarters
of our school to be removed from Rowton Heights.”

This demand was evidently most unexpected. The different men looked at
each other with blank faces. Scrivener shook his head, leapt forward and
whispered something in the ears of the man known by the name of Long John.

“It is quite impossible, Silver, and the matter cannot be further
discussed,” said Piper in an incisive voice, which sounded like the
snapping of steel.

His eyes changed their character as he spoke. They no longer looked
gentle and pathetic; rays of light, cruel as hell itself, seemed to leap
from their depths.

“Impossible,” he said; “not to be discussed. The place is absolutely
convenient—above suspicion, and therefore invaluable. So no more. Your
request is unequivocally refused.”

“I must bow to the inevitable,” said Rowton, slightly bending his head.

“Your marriage came at a most inconvenient time,” proceeded Piper; “but
now that you are married and have elected to live at Rowton Heights, we
all see our way to doing magnificent business. In your position as one of
the wealthiest and most influential men of your county, you can give us
information which will be more than useful. I will speak to you a while
on that point. Meanwhile it is my wish that Scrivener should go and live
at Pitstow. There is a village there, is there not?”

“A small town,” said Scrivener; “a healthy, bracing place. I need change
of air.”

The other men laughed. Rowton remained pale and silent.

“It would be particularly disagreeable to me to have Scrivener in the
neighbourhood,” he said after a pause.

“He may be useful,” said Piper. “He is to take lodgings at Pitstow next
week. Now that affair is settled for the present. How soon can you start
for Spain?”

“When must I go?”

“If you have arrangements to make at home we can give you until Monday to
make your plans.”

“Thanks,” said Rowton. He rose as he spoke.

“You will come here again on Monday night?”

“I will.”

“Then come with me now into this inner room. I have something to say with
regard to your duties as landlord and country gentleman.”

A queer expression crept over Rowton’s face; the healthy colour went out
of it; it grew grey and deathlike in hue. He followed his strange host
without a word.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE BUTLER’S PANTRY.


Nancy spent an almost sleepless night, and awoke the next day with a
headache. She got up earlier than usual, and went downstairs. Murray was
waiting for her in the hall—as usual, the boarhound, Roy, accompanied
him.

“Roy wants to make friends with you, auntie,” said the child. “Come, Roy,
come forward, do allegiance.”

The dog turned his eyes on the bright childish face, then he walked
straight up to Nancy, lay down at full length at her feet, and tried to
lick her shoe with his tongue.

“There, you belong to us now,” said Murray, delighted. “Is not Roy
wonderful? I whispered all that to him this morning. He seems to
understand almost as if he were a person. It is so nice to think that
there are three of us all of one mind—you, and Roy, and I. I know I shall
be awfully happy at Rowton Heights in the future.”

“Come to breakfast now, Murray,” said Nancy, holding out her hand.

He clasped it in his and danced into the breakfast room by her side.

“This is Sunday,” he said presently, giving her a glance, as bold and
direct as Rowton’s own.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Rowton.

“Sunday means church. Are you going to church?” asked the child.

Nancy remembered Rowton’s wish on that subject.

“I don’t want to,” she said, “for my head aches; but all the same I shall
go.”

“That is awfully brave of you,” replied Murray. “I am delighted, for
I always have to go, and I have to sit in that dull old square pew by
myself. I hope, auntie, now that you have come to Rowton Heights, you
will get the Rowton pew altered, and made like everybody else’s. It is so
dull not to see the congregation.”

“Is the pew so high as all that?” asked Nance.

“Yes; if you sit down—I mean if you happen to be a child—you are quite
lost to the congregation. Perhaps _you_ will be seen, and perhaps you
will see, for you are tall. I like tall girls. I shall marry a very tall
girl when I grow up.”

Nancy could not help smiling. The boy’s chatter, the gaiety of his sweet,
high laugh, the look in his eyes, ever and always reminding her of
Adrian, gave her more pleasure than she knew.

“I see we shall be capital friends,” she said, looking at him
affectionately. “We’ll often talk together of that tall girl whom you are
to marry. Now come out into the grounds; a little of the fresh air may
take off my headache.”

They walked about for some time, and then a beautifully-appointed
carriage being brought round, Nancy ran upstairs to put on her bonnet and
mantle, and she and Murray drove to church together.

After all, Rowton did not come back in time to go with them. Nancy’s
heart sank within her. She did not want to face the eager and curious
congregation without him. Her life had been so solitary for such a number
of years that she was often affected by almost painful shyness—she felt
queerly shy now, and quite trembled as she walked up the little church.
A verger went before her, opened the family pew with much ceremony,
and ushered in the bride and Murray Cameron. Murray had very quick
perceptions. He seemed to guess all that Nancy was feeling—accordingly he
sat close to her, seeming to take possession of her. He found her places
for her, and saw that she was accommodated with a comfortable footstool;
now and then his eyes fixed themselves on her lovely face; when he saw
that it looked pale and sad, he slipped his little hand into hers.

The service was about half way through, when the pew door was suddenly
opened, and, to Nancy’s surprise, and indescribable delight, Rowton came
in. He just glanced at her and then seated himself at her other side.
His face looked perfectly serene and contented. Nancy’s face now shared
the look of apparent happiness which was seen on his. All her depression
vanished on the instant—she felt comforted, soothed, blissful. He had
gone away, but he had come back again; the first separation was over; how
full of delight were the joys of reunion!

After church Rowton stopped to speak to one or two friends. He introduced
Nancy to an old lady with a kindly face, and beautiful grey hair.

“This is my wife, Lady Joyce.”

Lady Joyce favoured Nance with a piercing and yet kindly glance. She held
out her hand cordially.

“I am delighted to see you, Mrs. Rowton,” she said. “I hope to have the
pleasure of calling on you to-morrow. It was a good day for us all when
this young man married and elected to bring his bride back to Rowton
Heights.”

Rowton smiled and said something in a light tone. His remark, of a
trivial nature, amused the old lady; she laughed in a very hearty way,
shaking her sides as she did so.

“Ah! you always were a sad dog,” she said. “Don’t forget that I have
known you since you were as tall as that little lad,” pointing to Murray
as she spoke. “Mrs. Rowton, I’ll have plenty of tales to tell you of that
good husband of yours when we get better acquainted—so you had better
keep in my good graces, young man, for you were a pickle when you were
young.”

The good lady hobbled off to her carriage as she spoke. Rowton helped her
in, and presently Nance, he, and the boy, returned home.

The rest of the day passed without anything special occurring. Rowton and
his wife took a walk together. In the evening they sat in the library and
Rowton told her stories with regard to several of the books. He never
alluded to the sorrow which he knew was waiting for her the next day.

“Time enough,” he said to himself; “I need not leave here till three
o’clock in the afternoon—there is a train at three-thirty which will take
me to King’s Cross in sufficient time. Let me see, I need not tell her
to-night, nor will I tell her to-morrow, until after lunch; we’ll have
what happiness we can. After all it may be all right, and I may come back
safe and sound, or——” he paused in his own thoughts. A picture rose up
before his eyes. He saw himself a corpse, shot through the heart—such
an event was more than probable. He knew that he was going into grave
danger—that, in very truth, he was about to carry his life in his hand.

“No matter, but for her,” he said to himself. “I am sick of the whole
thing, and to die fighting would be the heart of my desire; but I cannot
leave her to face what may any moment be before her. No, I must court
caution this time—I must avoid risks. Her happiness must come first with
me—_her_ happiness! Ah! Nance, what are you looking at me so earnestly
for?”

“I see you are not reading,” said Nancy, flinging down her own book.

“No more I am,” he replied. “Come and sit on my knee, little woman. By
the way, I have a piece of work for us both to-morrow.”

“What is that?” she asked.

“I want us to overhaul the family plate.”

“Have we much plate?” asked Nance.

“Have we much plate?” he answered, mimicking her tone; “something like
three or four thousand pounds’ worth I should say.”

“Adrian!”

“Well, wait until I show it to you to-morrow. My grandfather was
celebrated for collecting plate. A good deal of it was mortgaged when my
father got into difficulties, but we managed to rescue almost the whole
of it. I want to have it all out to-morrow, for I have ordered a special
safe of a peculiar make to be sent down from town. Of course there are
several men servants in the house; but it is not well to have such a lot
of plate unless perfectly secured. I have ordered a safe, however, which
would baffle the efforts of the most accomplished burglar in the world.
Now let us talk no more about it. If you are not tired, I am. Remember, I
was up the whole of last night—suppose we go to bed.”

“I am so sleepy that I can scarcely keep my eyes open,” said Nancy.

“All right, come upstairs.”

The night was over, and the next day, immediately after breakfast, Rowton
and Nancy, accompanied by Mrs. Ferguson, the housekeeper, went to the
butler’s pantry, where a show of magnificent plate was arranged for them
to view.

“This is not all by any means,” said Rowton, running his eyes over the
articles as he spoke. “Where are the gold-plated things? I don’t see
them.”

“In this chest, sir,” said Mrs. Ferguson.

“Open it, pray. I want Mrs. Rowton thoroughly to understand in what her
property consists.”

The chest in question, a very heavy one, which was standing on the floor,
was opened by a curious mechanism of keys which completely puzzled Nance.
Its contents made a dazzling show; gold-plated spoons of every size and
shape, forks, large and small, dessert knives and forks; in short, a
complete assortment for the requirements of a good-sized party stood
revealed before her.

“See,” said Rowton, taking up one, “these spoons have all got the Rowton
crest on them, and just where the crest ends, a ruby of great value has
been introduced. They are unique of their kind and are undoubtedly almost
priceless.”

“Heaven preserve us, sir,” said Mrs. Ferguson; “I often tremble in my
shoes when I think of the plate that is in this house. Why, it would
tempt any burglar in the land. I say to Vickers, ‘Vickers, never show
this chest to any of the young footmen—you never can tell what friends
they have outside.’ That was why I did not open it, sir, until your good
lady and you were in the room.”

“Quite right, quite right,” said Rowton; “it would, as you say, never
do to let this kind of thing get abroad. I have often half an idea to
transfer this chest to the bank at Pitstow; but on second thoughts, what
is the use of having pretty and valuable things if we do not use them?
Now then, Mrs. Ferguson, open the secret spring of the safe and bring out
the jewel case.”

“If you have no objection, sir, I’ll first of all lock the pantry door
and draw down the blind.”

“As you please, my good soul; but you don’t suppose that burglars are
about at this hour?”

“No, no, sir, of course not, but it’s best to make all safe.”

Rowton stood very upright, with an inscrutable smile on his lips which
Nancy remembered by-and-by, as Mrs. Ferguson locked the door, and drew
down the venetian blind. The room was now in semi-darkness, but there was
plenty of light to see the brilliancy of the magnificent diamond necklet,
which he presently lifted out of its velvet case.

“Here,” he said to Nance, “this is yours.”

“Mine?” she answered, her colour coming and going.

“Yes, yours—you shall wear it at the ball. There are heaps of other
things, but I flatter myself that the necklet has scarcely its second,
certainly not in the county, and perhaps not in the kingdom. I’ll give
you its history some day. Ah! it could tell several tales if it could
but speak! Here are rubies—magnificent, are they not?”

“Yes, yes,” said Nancy; “how they shine, they seem to fascinate me.”

“Jewels of such value often have that effect on people,” said Rowton.
“What is the matter, Mrs. Ferguson? You look quite scared!”

“I never knew those things were here,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “It’s
a-tempting of Providence—they ought not to be in the house, that they
ought not. It’s enough to frighten me into leaving my situation.”

“What! you would leave us?” said Rowton.

“No, no, sir, you know I would not; but to have diamonds and rubies like
those! why, they flash so it is enough to tempt one. There’s something
awful uncanny about them. Oh! I don’t say that they are not beautiful;
but they look like evil eyes fastening on one—they ought not to be here,
sir, in a lonely country house—they ought not, really.”

“I agree with you, Mrs. Ferguson,” said Rowton, “and I shall take
measures to have all this valuable plate and these jewels properly
secured. This old safe, strong as it looks, is practically of no use at
all. I have ordered another down from town. It will arrive to-morrow or
the next day, accompanied by several experts, who will give you, Vickers,
Mrs. Rowton, and myself, the cipher of how it is worked. No one will be
able to open the safe who does not understand the cipher.”

“Then, sir,” said the housekeeper, “I beg to say at once, that no
consideration on earth will make me learn it. I’d rather lose a thousand
pounds than know how to open that safe.”

“Nonsense, woman,” said Rowton, the colour coming into his face as he
spoke. “I think that will do now. Put the jewels back again, and the gold
plate and the rest of the things. They have lain here for many a month,
not to say years, and they may well stay here in safety for a few days
longer. Now come along, Nance mine, I want to take you to the stables. Do
you know anything about riding?”

“I used to ride when I was a girl, and when we lived in Harley Street,”
said Nance.

“Ah! true,” he said, linking her arm in his and drawing her away from the
pantry.

Vickers, the butler, was standing outside. He was an elderly man, stoutly
built, with a good-natured and good-humoured face.

“Go into the pantry and help Mrs. Ferguson put away the plate,” said his
master.

“Yes, sir,” replied the man.

He disappeared immediately, and Nancy and her husband went out of doors.

“I forgot,” he said, “that up to the age of—how old were you, Nance, when
you left Harley Street?”

“Fifteen,” she replied.

“Up to the age of fifteen you had all the things which rich girls
possess.”

“Yes, all,” she answered, tears springing suddenly to her eyes. “The best
home, the best father, the most loving mother——” she bit her lips and
could not go on. She had a vision before her at that moment of Anthony’s
splendid young strength, of his courage, his nobleness. She knew now of
whom Murray reminded her. He was like Rowton in feature, but, in heart
and mind, he was Anthony’s counterpart.

Rowton glanced at her face and guessed something of her thoughts.

“Sweetheart,” he said with a certain gravity which was full of sweetness;
“I see that as far as possible, I must banish memory from you. You must
live, my beloved, in the glorious present, and forget all those shadows
of your early youth.”

“But why forget its sunshine?” she answered.

“Yes, you must even forget its sunshine,” he replied; “for that sun of
long ago casts a deep shadow on you now.”

“It does,” she answered, “it does.”

“You will try to forget it?”

“I will,” she replied.

They reached the stables, and he showed her a thoroughbred mare,
spirited, obedient to a touch, gentle as a lamb, with a mouth like silk,
and a coat which shone like the brightest satin.

“Ho! Bonny Jean,” said her master. The creature raised its perfect
head—it had a white star on its forehead—whinnied in some excitement, and
thrust its nose into Rowton’s hand.

“This is your mistress, Bonny Jean,” said Rowton again. “You must resume
your riding lessons, Nancy,” he continued. “Murray can sit any horse
that ever was broken in, or unbroken in for that matter, and when I am
not here, he must accompany you—you must ride a good bit. After a little
practice you’ll be able to follow the hounds.”

“And you,” she answered, “which is your horse?”

He showed her a beautiful hunter, which went by the name of Peregrine.

“These two make a perfect pair,” he said. “We’ll have many a good canter
on their backs. By the way, I must order a habit for you. I will the next
time I go to town.”

Nancy did not reply.

The happy morning passed all too swiftly. Lunch was scarcely over before
the sound of wheels on the gravel proclaimed the first of the visitors
who were calling to pay their respects to the bride.

The lady who drove up now was one of the characters of the
neighbourhood—her name was Lady Georgina Strong. She drove herself, and
stepped lightly down from the high dog-cart, throwing the reins as she
did so to her groom.

Rowton and Nance were standing on the steps of the beautiful old house
when she appeared.

“Welcome to Rowton Heights,” said Rowton, taking off his hat and
advancing to meet her.

She held out her hand to him, and favoured him with a frank and
scrutinising glance.

“How do you do?” she said in a brisk, high voice; “and so this is the
baby—come here, baby, and be introduced.”

[Illustration: “How do you do?” she said, in a brisk, high voice.—_Page
119._]

In some astonishment Nancy ran down the steps.

Lady Georgina gazed at her out of two dark bright eyes, which were
rendered more intensely brilliant by means of her _pince-nez_.

“Ah!” she said, “you are a pretty, fair little girl—no wonder you bowled
him over. I was curious to see what sort of a woman could take that
fortress. I have known him for close on twenty years—off and on, that
is—and I never yet, poke as I would, pry as I would, search as I would,
discovered that he had the vestige of a heart. Where did you find it, my
dear—under the fifth rib, eh?”

Nancy laughed, but without much cordiality; she did not understand this
dashing dame. Rowton, however, seemed to enjoy her badinage thoroughly.

“Come in,” he said, “come in. You have arrived in the nick of time. You
always were the most good-natured woman in the world, Lady Georgina, and
I trust to your kind clemency for the present moment.”

“Anything that I can do for you, my good friend, you are more than
welcome to,” she answered. She walked on with him—he led her into the
largest of the drawing-rooms. Nancy followed slowly. Rowton glanced back
and saw her at some little distance—she had stopped to speak to Murray,
and to caress Roy, who was fast becoming her slave.

“One moment,” said Rowton abruptly, turning and speaking with eagerness.
“I am obliged to leave that child in less than half an hour. I am going
away.”

“One of the mysterious absences?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Will you be good to her until I come back?” he whispered.

There was no time to add any more.

“I will, I will,” said Lady Georgina.

Nance came up to them.



CHAPTER XV.

LEAH.


Nance could read faces very quickly.

“What is the matter?” she said, looking at her husband.

He hesitated for a moment. It seemed cruel to tell her before Lady
Georgina; but after all it might be the best way.

“I was telling this good old friend of mine,” he said, “that I am obliged
to leave Rowton Heights in a few minutes. I was asking her to be good to
you during my absence.”

Nance had a good deal of pride, and also much latent strength of
character. Had Rowton given her this information when they were alone,
she would probably have cried and fallen on his neck; now she only turned
very pale, drew herself up until her slender but stately height gave her
new-born dignity, and said in a gentle tone:

“Thank you for thinking about me. I did not know you were going away.
Shall you be back to-morrow?”

“Plucky darling,” said Rowton under his breath. Aloud he said: “I shall
be away for a few days. I will write to you from town.”

“And where are you going?” she asked in a curiously steady tone.

“I will let you know from town.”

“But are you going soon?” she asked again.

“In five minutes, dearest.”

“Then,” she answered, “I had better ring the bell to order the dog-cart
round.”

“If you’ll be so kind, Nance,” he replied.

She went across the room and pressed the button of the electric bell,
then she walked to one of the windows and stood looking out.

“I admire this view very much, don’t you?” she said to Lady Georgina.

“It is one of the most superb views in the county, Mrs. Rowton,” said
that good lady, marching up to Nancy’s side.

“I will help her out—she has stuff in her,” thought the lady. “By the
way,” she said, turning abruptly to Rowton, “what do you think of that
mare I chose for you?”

“I was just showing her to Nancy,” said Rowton, smiling and looking
relieved; “she is perfect.”

“You would say so if you saw her pedigree. Now, Mrs. Rowton, I propose
to call here early to-morrow morning to take you out for a ride. Without
conceit I can say of myself that I am one of the most accomplished
horsewomen in the county. Will you be ready for me by nine o’clock?”

“So early?” asked Nance.

“So early!” exclaimed Lady Georgina; “I am often on horseback at seven
o’clock. Ah! and you might bring your husband’s little nephew with you;
that boy rides splendidly—he has no fear in him.”

Nancy did not reply. The sound of wheels was heard on the gravel.

“There is the dog-cart,” she said, looking at Rowton.

“So it is,” he answered—he looked at his watch—“and time for me to be
off too. I see they have put the luggage on. Good-bye, Lady Georgina,
a thousand thanks. Good-bye, little woman, expect to hear from me from
town.”

“Good-bye, Adrian,” said Nancy. Her voice felt like ice, but her heart
was on fire.

Rowton took her in his arms and pressed her to his breast; his lips met
hers passionately, his eyes, bold and yet full of subdued anguish, looked
into hers. He turned abruptly, the door sounded behind him, and a moment
later the crunching of wheels on the gravel became distinctly audible.

“I would not overdo it,” said Lady Georgina, looking at Nance.

“Overdo what?” she answered somewhat proudly.

“Well, you know you feel horribly lonely without that good fellow. I
never saw anything more plucky in my life than the way you subdued your
feelings and let him go away without a murmur, but you need not mind me—I
am the soul of frankness—the essence of openness. I always say what I
think and show what I feel. You can copy me. It strikes me, by the way,
that you and I are going to be friends.”

“I hope so,” said Nancy.

“I know it, that is, if you will have me. I am a good friend, Mrs.
Rowton, and a very nasty enemy. You may as well take me as a friend, will
you?”

“You are Adrian’s friend, and you shall be mine,” said Nancy.

“That is right. Now, look here, child. I am not going to leave you to
your own miserable feelings for the rest of the day. I know that good man
you have married fifty times better than you do.”

“I can scarcely allow you to think that,” said Nancy.

“Oh! tut, tut, of course, I don’t mean the love-making side of him. He
never would make love to anybody, although half the girls round the
Heights had a try for it in the old days; but I know a side of him that
you do not know. He is restless, he is essentially a rover—a gay rover,
we all call him here. You must get accustomed to his vanishing in the
peculiar way he has just vanished—he will come back as suddenly; without
the least warning, any day or any hour the sunshine of his presence will
once more light up the house. Now, come for a walk in the grounds—and,
oh! by the way, pray invite me to dinner.”

Nancy could scarcely forbear from smiling.

“Will you stay?” she asked.

“Scarcely a cordial invitation,” said Lady Georgina, biting her lips and
smiling; “all the same I shall accept it. If you will excuse me, I’ll
just go and speak to my groom; he can take Dandy round to the stables. I
need not send for a dinner dress, need I?”

“Oh, no; stay as you are,” said Nance. She felt slightly stunned, but
Lady Georgina’s presence forced her to rouse herself.

They went into the grounds. The day was sunshiny, and the first signs of
spring began to be apparent in some delicate buds of green which were
coming out on the ribes and other of the hardiest shrubs. As they walked
side by side, Lady Georgina kept up a flow of small talk. She was a woman
of considerable character, although at first sight she appeared to be
nothing but froth and frivolity. She had a kindly and sterling heart. She
knew more about Rowton than he had any idea of, and she pitied Nance from
the bottom of her heart.

“How pretty she is!” she said to herself. “Anyone can see that she
is madly in love with that handsome lion. Poor child, what will her
future be? If my suspicions are correct, what chance has she of lasting
happiness? Well, I like her husband, whatever his failings, and I am
going to like her.”

Accordingly Lady Georgina put out her really great powers, and before
long Nance had submitted to her charm. They walked about for over an
hour and then came in to tea. Afterwards Nance took her guest up to her
bedroom.

Hester entered to attend to the ladies. When she had withdrawn Lady
Georgina spoke about her to Nance.

“I know that girl,” she said; “her name is Hester Winsome. She used to be
one of my favourite pupils in the village school. She went off to London
when she was fifteen. I have heard things of her since, which were not
absolutely in her favour. Why have you engaged her as your maid?”

“I do not know anything about it,” said Nance. “Mrs. Ferguson brought her
to me on the night of my arrival. She told me she was a girl from the
village who had been thoroughly trained in London.”

“Oh! I don’t doubt the training,” said Lady Georgina. “I think she got a
start when she saw me—she pretended not to recognise me. Frankly, I don’t
like her.”

“Nor do I in my heart,” said Nancy; “but she is very attentive and
clever.”

“Clever! too clever,” said Lady Georgina. “Don’t let her pry into your
secrets.”

“My secrets—I have none,” said Nance. Then she paused and coloured
crimson. She remembered the great secret which pressed upon her day and
night.

“Why do you get so red, child?” said Lady Georgina. “You say you have no
secrets, but your face says you have. Now, don’t tempt me. If I have a
fault, it is curiosity, inordinate curiosity. I never betray a friend,
and once I know the truth I never question, and never, never pry; but
until I know the truth I am—well, I cannot help it—_troublesome_. Don’t
show me a little, Nance Rowton, for if you do I shall poke out all.”

“I am sure you won’t,” said Nancy—“you are too much of a lady.”

“Now, was there ever such a snub!” said Lady Georgina, tapping her foot
somewhat impatiently on the floor as she spoke. “Child, you are quite
refreshing. If you speak in that frank way to everyone else you will bowl
all the county over; but I hear wheels—more visitors—come along down and
I will help you to entertain them.”

Until quite late in the afternoon, until the winter’s day had faded
into dark, Nance and Lady Georgina, or rather Lady Georgina herself,
entertained the county at Rowton Heights.

Each neighbour with the least pretensions to gentility hastened to pay
respect to Rowton’s fair bride.

“You must begin to return all these visits in a few days,” said Lady
Georgina.

“I cannot until Adrian comes back,” said Nance.

“Oh! nonsense, you must manage to lead an interested and happy life apart
from that husband of yours.”

“No, I won’t,” said Nance proudly.

“Oh! you won’t. You will sing a different tune after a time. I tell you,
Mrs. Rowton, he has got his own pursuits, and he will follow them to the
death in spite of you or twenty girls like you, and you’ll die of _ennui_
if you have not your own individual interests. You must begin to return
these calls by the end of the week, and then invitations will pour in.
If Mr. Rowton is at home he will go with you, if not, you must go by
yourself or with me. I shall be delighted to chaperone you to any extent.”

Nance bowed her head somewhat wearily. A good deal of Lady Georgina’s gay
chatter was scarcely heard by her. She admitted all the kindness, but her
heart was sore, and she longed indescribably to be alone. When the good
lady at last took her leave, Nancy could not help giving vent to a sigh
of relief. Soon afterwards she went upstairs to bed.

On the way to her own room, just outside the door she came face to face
with her maid, Hester, who was talking to an elderly woman, with sandy
hair and a broad freckled face. The woman had straight lips, a jaw of
iron, and pale light blue eyes. She was dressed very neatly, but not in
the dress of an ordinary servant. Her hair was tightly braided and she
wore it perfectly smooth.

“Well, good night, Leah,” said Hester, as Mrs. Rowton appeared on the
scene.

The woman called Leah favoured Nancy with a prolonged and undoubtedly
curious stare.

“Good evening, ma’am,” she said; then she dropped a curtsey and
disappeared down a passage.

“Who is that?” asked Nancy of Hester.

“She is the caretaker of the poor mad lady,” replied Hester.

“Then what is she doing in this part of the house?”

“She was only talking to me about her charge, Mrs. Rowton. She says that
poor Mrs. Cameron is very queer to-night, and Leah wanted to know if I
would go and help her to sit up with her.”

“Well, of course you won’t, Hester,” said Nance. “I do not know anything
about the case, but you surely want your night’s rest, and I am sure Mr.
Rowton——”

“Oh!” said Hester, with a toss of her head, “Mr. Rowton would not
interfere with a thing of this sort. Leah does want help at times, for
Mrs. Cameron is terribly violent. Indeed, I cannot make out why she is
not put into an asylum like other mad ladies.”

“It is not your business to discuss that question,” replied Nance.

“Of course not, ma’am, and I am sorry I forgot myself.” Hester spoke in
a subdued voice; she turned her back on Nance, who did not see the angry
and vindictive flash in her eyes. “Shall I take down your hair now,
ma’am?” she asked, speaking in a tone almost of servility.

“Thank you, no, I prefer to wait on myself to-night.”

“As you please, ma’am. I have left everything ready and comfortable in
your bedroom. You are quite sure you would not like me to help you to get
into bed?”

“Quite sure, thank you.”

“Very well, ma’am, then I think with your permission I’ll go to Leah; I
am not at all nervous with the insane, but Leah, strong as she looks,
gets quite overpowered at times.”

“But surely Leah has not the care of Mrs. Cameron by herself?” asked
Nance. The words were almost forced from her, for she had the greatest
dislike to discussing the matter with Hester.

“Oh! yes, ma’am, I assure you it is so—those two always sleep alone
in the Queen Anne wing. After all, it is only occasionally that it is
necessary for Leah to have assistance. Well, I’ll go to her now—I like to
be good-natured.”

“Good night,” said Nance.

“Good night, madam; I hope you’ll sleep well.”



CHAPTER XVI.

THE LADY IN THE WOOD.


True to her promise Lady Georgina arrived at nine o’clock the following
day to take Nance for a ride. They had an hour and a half of vigorous
exercise, and Mrs. Rowton returned home with spirits raised in spite of
herself. A letter from her husband awaited her—it was dated from a big
London hotel and was written late the evening before. She seized it,
opened it eagerly, and with eyes full of passionate love and anxiety,
devoured the contents. The letter was short, and although every word
breathed affection, there was little or no information to be obtained
from the hurried scrawl.

    “I am leaving England, Nance, for a short time,” wrote her
    husband. “I cannot give you any information with regard to
    where I am going. In short, my darling must make up her mind
    to do without hearing from me for a few weeks. I know this is
    hard on you, Nance, as it also is on me. The fates are bitterly
    hard on us both, but we married, did we not, accepting the
    position, and we must now endeavour to make the best of things.
    Unexpectedly some day I shall be again at your side. Meanwhile,
    believe that I am well, very well; believe that I will take
    all possible care of myself, for your sweet sake; believe
    also, that all my heart is yours—my best thoughts are yours.
    Good-bye, my angel.

                           “Your loving

                                                          “ADRIAN.

    “P.S.—Do not mention to anyone that I am out of England for
    a time. You can say, if questioned, that I am detained on
    business in town.”

“No, I won’t tell a lie,” said Nance to herself proudly.

She did not add any more. Even with her own anxious, beating heart,
she refused to commune over the contents of her letter. A flush burned
on either cheek, her eyes grew bright, with the brightness which often
precedes tears, but no tears came to them. She read the brief letter over
twice, then folded it up and slipped it into her pocket.

As she did this she noticed that Murray had come into the room, that he
had observed her action, and that his bold eyes, so like her husband’s,
were fixed on her face.

“Don’t look at me like that, Murray,” she said with a note in her voice
which sounded like a sob.

For answer the boy sprang to her side.

“Cry if you want to, auntie,” he said. “I know you want to. That letter
was from Uncle Adrian, was it not?”

“Yes, Murray.”

“And he told you that he must be away from home for a little?”

“Yes, dear. We won’t talk of it now.”

“But why not?” said Murray. “Why not talk of it to me? You see I am
accustomed to the sort of thing, Aunt Nancy; when I was young, quite a
little fellow, I had a mad, passionate feeling for Uncle Adrian, and when
he went away as he has done now and would give no address, I used nearly
to go wild. I used to stray off all by myself and have a terrible time.
But by-and-by, I saw it was foolish to make myself ill. He always came
back again, and I was glad, very glad, to see him. I thought him perfect
then,” concluded the boy.

“And you don’t think him perfect now?” said Nance.

He looked full at her, shut up his lips and was silent.

“I think you perfect,” he said after a long pause. “Don’t fret too much,
Aunt Nancy; but if you do fret, talk about it all to me, for though I am
a boy in years, some things have happened—yes, they have happened here
at beautiful Rowton Heights—which have turned me into a man. There are
times when I think I am almost an old man, for I feel quite a weight of
care, although, of course, I don’t talk of it. Don’t keep your grief too
much to yourself, Aunt Nancy, and be sure of one thing—that Uncle Adrian
will come back. Some day he’ll walk into the room. He’ll just whistle
as he knows how, and open the door and come in, and then it will be all
sunshine.”

“You are a dear little chap,” said Nancy, bending forward and kissing him.

He flushed when she did so.

“I love you so much,” he said enthusiastically. “Now I am the man and I
shall look after you. Have you eaten anything since you had your ride?”

“No; I had breakfast quite early and I am not hungry.”

“But that will never do. You must have some wine and a biscuit. Uncle
Adrian would wish it. Of course, he intended me to take great care of
you. It must have been an awful comfort to him to feel that I was about
when he had to leave you. I know where the wine is—I’ll go and fetch it.”

He ran off and returned in a moment or two with a glass of port and a box
of biscuits.

Nancy drank off the wine and felt all the better.

“Now you are to come out with me,” said the boy. “I have planned our
day. My tutor, Mr. Dixon, is not coming at all to-day. Uncle Adrian said
I might have two days’ holiday in order to look properly after you, and
won’t we have a good time of it! Are you up to a long, long walk?”

“Yes, anything,” said Nance. “Anything is better than the house.”

“Of course it is, and the day is so lovely. Well, come along, we’ll make
for the Rowton Woods. The road is all uphill, remember. You will be
pretty dead beat by the time you get there. Suppose we take some luncheon
with us?”

“Yes, that will be capital,” said Nancy; “much better than coming back to
a stately lunch here.”

“Oh! much better,” answered Murray, with a gleeful laugh. “I’ll run and
order sandwiches and a basket of grapes. Stay where you are, auntie;
I’ll be with you soon.”

Half an hour later the pair started off. Murray carried the grapes, and
Nance the basket of sandwiches. They looked like two children as they
crossed the grounds, passed through a stile, and found themselves in a
low-lying meadow which led to the opening which by-and-by was to bring
them into the famous Rowton Woods. In spite of her grief, in spite of
the fact that her husband’s letter, his mysterious letter, lay in her
pocket unanswered because it was impossible for her to answer it, Nancy’s
spirits rose. Her little companion was too healthy and charming not to
exercise a beneficial effect over her. Soon his gay laughter evoked hers,
and Nance found it possible to endure life even though Adrian was away.

“I wish, Murray,” she said, as presently they turned their steps
homeward, “that you and I might have the Heights all to ourselves. I
should never be lonely if I had plenty of your society.”

“I love to hear you say that,” answered the boy.

“Ha! ha!” laughed a voice in their ears.

The sound seemed to come from the ground beneath them. They turned
instinctively and saw a lady seated under a large tree. She was dressed
somewhat peculiarly in a neat little bonnet and mantle of old-world cut,
and a black alpaca dress. She wore cotton gloves, and although it was
winter and the sun was about to set, held a parasol, made of some light
fancy silk, over her head.

Nancy first thought that this peculiarly-dressed woman was one of her
neighbours. Murray touched her arm, however, and when she glanced at him,
she was forced to draw a different conclusion. His handsome little face
had turned deadly white.

“Go on, auntie,” he said in a whisper. “Don’t be a bit frightened. Just
go on quite quietly through the wood. I’ll follow you in a moment.”

“But who is that lady, Murray?”

“My mother,” answered the boy. “I must speak to her. I am not a bit
afraid.”

“But I am—it is not safe for you to be alone, I won’t leave you,” said
Nancy, her voice shaking in spite of herself.

“Ha! ha! what a nice little conversation you two are having,” said the
eccentric-looking lady, rising to her feet as she spoke and going towards
Nancy. “You are frightened, my pretty girl, although you try not to show
it. Well, perhaps you have cause. I know very well that there are times
when I am very dangerous. At times, too, I have got unnatural strength.
But it so happens that to-day I am in a quiet and tractable mood.”

“Let me take you home, mother,” said Murray. He ran up to her side and
laid his hand on her arm.

She shook it off with a sudden fierce gesture.

“Don’t touch me,” she shrieked; “you are the boy. It was on account of
you I got into all that trouble. I won’t speak to you! I won’t look at
you! Get out of my sight—go, at once!”

Her eyes, hitherto quiet, and, although somewhat wandering in their
expression, intelligent enough, began to blaze now with a fierce and
terrible fury.

“Go, Murray,” said Nancy; “go quickly back to the house. Your presence
excites your poor mother. No; I am not frightened now. Go, dear, no harm
will happen to me.”

“Yes, go, Murray Cameron,” shrieked his mother. “I don’t want you about.
When I look at you, mischievous, wild, uncontrollable thoughts come into
my head. Run away, child—get out of my sight as quickly as you can. I
have come here on purpose to speak to this young lady, and I won’t be
foiled by twenty little chaps like you. Go away, go at once.”

Nance nodded her head emphatically to the boy. He glanced from the mad
to the sane woman, and then turning abruptly, walked down the hill. When
he had gone a little distance he slipped behind a tree and waited with a
palpitating heart for the issue of events.

The moment he was out of sight, Mrs. Cameron strode straight up to Nance
and laid her hand on her arm.

“Look at me,” she said.

With an effort Nancy raised her frightened eyes.

“I have no reason to dislike you,” said the mad woman, “and you need not
fear me. I am anxious to have a right good stare at you, though. I am
devoured with curiosity about you.”

“Well, here I am,” said Nance.

“Here you are, indeed. What a finicking sort of voice you have, and your
face, although pretty, is not worth much. Perhaps I am wrong though—you
have an obstinate chin—I am glad you have an obstinate chin. You may
possibly have strength of character. I hate people without strength of
character.”

As she spoke, the woman placed her hand under Nancy’s chin, raised her
face and looked full into it. Her dancing wild eyes scanned each feature.
Presently she turned away laughing again.

“I do not hate you,” she said; “after all, you are harmless—you cannot
interfere with me. I hate your husband, though, and I hate Murray
Cameron.”

“But Murray is your child,” said Nancy, shocked.

“He is; but he has interfered with me, and I hate him. It was after his
birth I went off my head. Have I not good reason to dislike one who did
me an injury of that sort? I loved the boy’s father. Pah! what am I
talking about? Love was my undoing. Yes, I have had a strange history.
I’ll tell you my story some day, Mrs. Adrian Rowton. You must come and
see me some day in the Queen Anne wing.”

“Well, let me take you home now,” said Nance in a soothing tone.

“You have quite an agreeable way of speaking; and as you are not related
to me by any blood ties, I am willing to be civil to you. Call out to
that boy to get out of my sight—I know he is hiding behind that tree
yonder. You are perfectly safe—I would not hurt a hair of your pretty
head. But he is different.”

“Go home, Murray,” called out Nance.

He gave a low whistle in answer, and they heard his footsteps vanishing
down the hill.

“Now that is right,” said the mad woman, breathing a sigh of relief. “Now
I can really talk to you. Would you like to know why I am not confined in
an asylum? Would you like to know why I am kept in that dull Queen Anne
wing? You could not guess the reason, but I will tell it to you.”

“You shall some day,” said Nancy; “but now let me take you home.”

“I will tell you before I go. I have followed you on purpose to tell you.
Do you know what you did when you married Adrian Rowton?”

“Made myself very happy,” said Nancy in a faltering voice.

“So you think, you poor goose. Do you know what Adrian Rowton is?”

“I would rather you did not tell me.”

“Ha! ha! you are frightened, my pretty little dear. That good husband of
yours is away from home and he won’t give you his address. Ha! ha! he
says he will come back again unexpectedly, does he not? Ha! ha! ha! Well,
so he will. Now you ask him a question when he returns—ask him what goes
on in the Queen Anne wing at night—in the cellars, I mean. There are big
cellars under that part of the house—ask him what they are used for. Ask
him, too, why his mad sister is not put into an asylum; why she is used
as a—ha! ha!—a blind—ha! ha!”

“Now, madam, what nonsense this is. Come home this minute. You shall
suffer for this conduct.”

A strong voice rose on the air, firm steps were heard approaching. The
poor mad lady glanced round with a wild expression; suddenly she clung
close to Nance.

“Save me, save me!” she gasped; “that is Leah’s voice. At times she is
awfully cruel to me. Sometimes she beats me. Oh, save me!”

The poor creature’s voice rang out on the air with a wild scream.



CHAPTER XVII.

CROSSLEY.


The woman whom Nance had seen the night before came forward with quick
strides.

“None of this folly, Mrs. Cameron,” she said in a powerful voice. “Leave
that young lady alone this minute, or you know perfectly well what will
happen. Now take my arm. You have disobeyed me and you know you must be
punished.”

The miserable creature seemed to shrink and collapse into herself. She
gave Nance a piteous look.

Nance’s kind heart was immediately touched.

“Do not be hard on her,” she said, speaking to Leah; “she really meant no
harm. She came out on purpose to see me. She was curious, I suppose—it
was perfectly natural, was it not?”

“Yes, yes, that is it—it was perfectly natural,” said the mad woman. “You
hear her, Leah, she said I meant no harm. I only came out to tell her
what she ought to know. For instance—the cellars.”

“Hold your tongue this minute,” said Leah. “If you’ll have the goodness,
madam,” she continued, addressing Mrs. Rowton, “to leave us now, I think
I can take Mrs. Cameron home quietly. She was excited last night and is
not quite herself. Of course, you know well enough, that anything she may
tell you is not of the slightest consequence.”

“Ha! ha! Leah, you know better than that,” laughed Mrs. Cameron. Her
laugh was so wild that it was blood-curdling.

“Good-bye,” said Nance in a kind and steady voice. She held out her hand,
and the mad lady seized it in a fierce grip.

“I like you—I love you,” she said. “Yes, yes, even I—even I can love, and
I love you—you are a sweet little girl. I’ll be your friend. Be sure you
come to me when you _really_ want a friend. Good-bye, good-bye, pretty
little Mrs. Rowton.”

She turned as she spoke, and Nance walked away through the wood. She had
been brave enough during the interview, but now she trembled exceedingly.
She felt suddenly quite weak and faint. When Murray discovered her, she
was leaning against a tree too exhausted to proceed on her walk.

The boy’s eyes were red as if he had been crying, but when he saw Nance a
smile flitted bravely across his face.

“Oh! don’t think about me,” he said. “I am so glad you are safe. Of
course, you got a fright—you are not accustomed to this sort of thing. I
am—I mean there have often been scenes like this one, and mother has said
dreadful things of me. It is rather hard to hear your own mother speak of
you like that, is it not? but I know she does not mean it—it is just her
awful affliction. I love her very much. There is nothing I would not do
for her. She has been very badly used, but I will not go into that now.
May I take you home?”

“Yes, Murray, I am dreadfully tired,” said Nance in a faint voice.

Murray gave her his shoulder to lean on.

“Lean hard,” he said; “I am a splendid stick.”

By and-by they reached the house and Nance went away to her own room. She
lay down on her bed and made a great effort to shut away all thought.
This was by no means easy. There was much to think about—much to puzzle
and perplex her. Her husband’s mysterious absence; the near vicinity
of the poor insane lady; the strange words which the lady had used: “I
am here as a blind. Ask Adrian Rowton what goes on in the cellars at
night.” What did it all mean? What could it mean? Nancy’s heart beat with
great throbs—she felt excited and terribly overwrought. Her adventures,
however, were by no means at an end. She was just falling off into a
restful doze, when the door of her bedroom was softly opened, and her
maid, Hester, advanced across the room on tiptoe.

Nancy’s antipathy to this girl was decidedly on the increase, and she now
raised her head and spoke almost irritably.

“What is it, Hester?” she said.

The girl approached the bedside with alacrity.

“I just came in to find out whether you were asleep or not, madam,” she
said. “I am glad you are awake, for there is a man downstairs. I suppose
he is a gentleman, but I cannot say. Anyhow he has called to see you. He
said I was to tell you that Mr. Crossley was below.”

“Crossley,” said Nance with a start. She sat up in bed. A queer look came
into her eyes.

“When did he call?” she asked the girl.

“Half an hour ago, ma’am, I believe. Vickers has shown him in the
library. He said he would wait your convenience.”

“Go to Vickers and tell him to say to Mr. Crossley that I will be with
him in a few minutes,” replied Nance.

The girl left the room, walking with her usual absolutely noiseless tread.

“Mr. Crossley,” murmured Nance.

All her depression left her on the moment. Her thoughts were completely
turned into a new channel. Since her father’s death she had lived in a
dream of excitement, of adventure, of golden bliss. It was true lurid
lights were coming into this dream of hers; but the subject of all her
young life hitherto had been banished from view. Now she remembered
it with a pang and a thrill—a pang of deep pain and self-reproach, a
thrill of excitement. She thought of her father when he lay dying. She
remembered the mission which had been given to her. Her promise to her
dying father was abundantly recalled by the mere mention of Crossley’s
name.

She had taken off her dress, but she soon replaced it. She brushed out
her beautiful hair, gave one glance at herself in the long mirror and ran
downstairs.

Nance knew Crossley, the detective—she had often seen him before. During
the six years she had lived with her father at the Grange, he had come to
see them as a rule three or four times a year. At each interview she had
been present. It was perfectly true that she and her father had indeed
stood side by side in their intense eagerness to track the man who had
sent Anthony to an early grave. She was with her father now, heart and
soul. Her beautiful eyes shone as she entered the library.

“Mr. Crossley, I am glad to see you,” she said.

Crossley, a stout middle-aged man, with grizzly hair and bushy whiskers,
came out of the recess of one of the windows. He made a low bow to the
mistress of Rowton Heights.

“I thought it best to call, madam,” he said. “Since the letter which you
wrote to me announcing Dr. Follett’s death, I have been actively pursuing
inquiries, and with, I believe, a certain measure of success. In short,
I am now in possession of facts which can really lead to the ultimate
discovery of——”

“Hubert Lefroy?” interrupted Nance.

“Yes, or the man who called himself Hubert Lefroy.”

“You are certain, then, that the name is a feigned one?”

“I am positive; but do not say the word so loud—there may be listeners
about.”

“Oh! no, that is impossible,” said Nance, but she glanced nervously
behind her back as she spoke. “I am very glad you came,” she said; “sit
down, won’t you? My husband is away from home at present.”

“I am aware of that fact,” answered Crossley.

“Are you? How did you find out?”

“In the usual way, madam. When I take up a case of this kind I employ
emissaries all over the country, and nothing takes place with regard
to my clients’ movements that I am not acquainted with. Your father’s
strange case has, as you are aware, Mrs. Rowton, occupied my best
attention for many years. During his lifetime, owing to the absence of
almost all clues, we have been unsuccessful in bringing matters to an
issue. But since his death unexpected developments have taken place, and
these I may as well own have startled me considerably. I must repeat the
words which I have already uttered—I am, I believe, in a position to lay
my hands on the man who murdered your brother.”

“Then why don’t you do it?” said Nancy. “This excites me very much,” she
continued. She rose as she spoke, tugged at the neck of her dress as
though she felt her breathing a little difficult, and then crossed the
room to one of the windows.

“You understand my position,” she said after a pause. “I am my father’s
representative. It is my painful duty to carry out this search to the
bitter end.”

“Is it your duty?” asked Crossley.

“Is it my duty?” repeated the young lady; “need you ask? I am under a
vow.”

The detective gave Nance a long and earnest gaze. He had one of
those faces extremely difficult to read. It was smooth in outline,
commonplace in expression; it was a contented, slightly self-satisfied
face; the eyes were well open and of a serene tone of blue; the mouth
was hidden by a thick short moustache. Crossley was the sort of man
who would pass anywhere without exciting the least attention. He had
the sort of physiognomy which thousands of other people possess. No
one to look at him would suppose for a moment that he was one of the
shrewdest detectives of his day—a man practically at the head of his
profession—keen to read motives, capable of looking down into the hearts
of many apparently inexplicable mysteries.

While he gave Nance one of his slow and apparently indifferent glances,
he was really looking into her troubled heart.

“You are a happy young married lady now,” he said after a pause.

“Yes, yes, I am very happy,” she said, clasping her hands.

“You are much attached to your good husband, madam?”

“Need you ask?” Her eyes filled slowly with tears.

“Then for Heaven’s sake, Mrs. Rowton,” said the detective, speaking in
an altogether new voice for him, “give this matter up, let it drop. Nay,
hear me out”—he raised his hand to interrupt a flow of words which were
rushing to Nancy’s lips—“I am speaking against myself and against my own
interests when I so advise you; but I am not without heart, madam, and
I have seen in the past how sad your life was and how you suffered. It
is my profession to hunt down criminals—to scent crime to its source. In
this case let me do what is contrary to my profession—let me leave the
curtain unlifted. Mrs. Rowton, may I persuade you to leave justice and
revenge in this special case to Heaven?”

“I cannot,” said Nance. “I am amazed to hear you speak in that tone—you,
of all people. I cannot possibly do it. What do you mean? What can you
mean?”

“What I say, madam. I will tell you quite frankly why I came here to-day.
I came to Rowton Heights for a double purpose. I am, I believe, in
possession at last of a valuable clue which may lead to the arrest of the
man who took your brother’s life; but I find on looking into matters that
there are complications in connection with this search, and because of
these, I would earnestly beg of you, from a friendly point of view, to
give up the search. Now, Mrs. Rowton, I shall not explain myself. Once
again I beg of you to let the matter drop. Do not carry on this search
any further.”

“I wonder at you,” said Nance, with sparkling eyes; “and you call
yourself a professional detective!”

“I do, madam, I do; but even a professional detective may have a heart.”

“Well, listen to me,” said Nance. “I hate the man who killed my brother.
Two passions move me—love for my husband, and hatred for the man who
killed my young brother. When I think of that ruffian I have no heart;
when I think of my ruined father’s life, of my brother’s shameful death,
I have no heart—none. I am under a vow to the dead. I must carry on this
search. Do you understand me?”

“I do, Mrs. Rowton. Well, I have done my duty in recommending mercy to
you. Some day you may regret that you have not listened to me.”

“I shall never regret it. Now let us drop this side of the question. You
have a clue—tell me all about it.”



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE TORN LETTER AND THE MARK.


Crossley heaved a sigh, took his handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped
some drops of moisture from his brow, and then began to speak in a dry,
business-like tone.

“You know how very slight our clues have been up to the present?” he said
after a pause. “Your brother was murdered in a café in Paris; murderer
unknown; motive of the crime unknown. A man who is now in his grave
appeared on the scene half-an-hour after the murder was committed. He
found close to the body of the murdered man half a sheet of paper on
which something in cipher was written, and at the foot of the cipher in
place of signature were some very peculiar hieroglyphics. That piece of
paper has lain in my possession for years. I have studied the cipher and
the hieroglyphics which stood in place of a signature with the utmost
care. I have transposed the alphabet in all manner of ways, not only at
my office when I had a moment to spare, but over my evening pipe at home.
With infinite trouble I have made out a few words, but nothing to give me
any clue to the identity of the man to whom the paper belonged.

“The gentleman who is now dead and who appeared on the scene of the
murder half an-hour after it was committed, says he saw a man leaving
the café who looked much excited—was dark, and of unusual height and
breadth. His attention was attracted to this man because he wore no hat,
and he had also a peculiar mark above his upper lip. He described the
mark as something in the shape of a death’s head and cross-bones, but
could not positively be sure on that point. By evidence taken at the time
it was made abundantly plain that this man must have been the murderer.
He has never been captured, and our only chance of finding him consists
in following up the clue which the mysterious paper in my possession can
give us.

“There is little or no doubt either that the murder was premeditated, as
the writing was an appointment, bringing the murdered man to the spot.
My business, therefore, Mrs. Rowton, is to find the man who wrote the
letter, and who has that peculiar mark on his face.”

“Yes,” said Nance, with some impatience. “Remember,” she added, “that I
have heard all this discussed many, many times.”

“Yes, madam.”

“And have you nothing further to say?”

“A little more. Have you any objection to my locking the door?”

“Certainly not. But is it necessary? No one will disturb us during our
interview.”

“I am none so sure of that,” replied the detective. “There is a young
woman in this house who would think very little of eavesdropping.”

“Whom do you mean?” asked Nance with a start.

“A dark-eyed slip of a girl, madam—she came into this room a few minutes
ago to fetch a book. I looked at her and she looked at me. If ever a
face had cunning in it, hers is the one.”

“My maid, Hester Winsome,” thought Nance to herself.

Aloud she said: “Well, lock the door, and we shall be safe.”

Crossley did so.

As he resumed his seat, he said:

“I have something of great interest to tell you, madam. I have lately
arrested a man who belongs to a notorious school of burglars—he was
discovered uttering a forged cheque. In searching his house I found a
similar half sheet of paper to that already in my possession, with the
same cipher and the same hieroglyphics.”

“Impossible!” said Nance, springing to her feet, and speaking in great
excitement. “Then you have really found the man?”

“Pray sit down, Mrs. Rowton. I have not found the man, but I have found a
clue which may lead to him. Now I want you to allow me take certain steps
in order to make my suspicion a certainty.”

“What are they?”

“I want, with your permission, to locate a member of my staff at Rowton
Heights.”

“You do! What can you possibly mean?”

“Simply what I say, Mrs. Rowton. In order to make my suspicion a
certainty a member of my staff must come here.”

“But why?”

“I would rather not say at present. Remember, young lady, that I have
asked you to give up this search—you wish to continue it to the bitter
end. The clue which I have unexpectedly acquired points to a certain
track—that track lies red and hot round Rowton Heights.”

“You excite and terrify me,” said Nance, turning white as death.

“Even now, ma’am, we can drop the whole thing.”

“Never, never; my heart palpitates with eagerness to go on. Oh! that I
could find that coward, that ruffian, that assassin! If it is necessary
for your purpose to send a man here, let him come.”

“I thank you, Mrs. Rowton. The question now to consider is, in what guise
he had best appear on the scene.”

“Do you mean to imply that the man we are seeking for is in this house?”

“I mean to imply nothing of the kind, young lady. I believe, however,
that a member of my staff may do good work if his headquarters are here
for a short time.”

“He shall come,” said Nance, “he shall come. Send him down at once.”

“It would be fatal to our purpose, madam, if the least suspicion were
aroused. Now let me think. Can you manage another footman?”

“I don’t know anything about the servants—they are entirely managed by my
housekeeper, Mrs. Ferguson. We are a small family and we have two footmen
here at present.”

“Has Mr. Rowton a valet?” asked Crossley, knitting his brows as he spoke.

“No, he never will have one. He hates to have people about him when he is
dressing.”

“Some gentlemen are like that,” said Crossley. “It must be the footman
then. There is nothing for it, Mrs. Rowton, but for you to dismiss one of
your servants.”

“I don’t know how that is possible,” answered Nance—“the two footmen who
are here at present grew up in the village, and are, I believe, much
attached to the place.”

“You must make an excuse to get rid of one of them. Watch him when he
commits some slight indiscretion, give him notice, pay him a month’s
wages and a trifle over if you like, and then wire to me. My man shall
come down quickly to take his place.”

“This upsets me terribly,” said Nance. She pressed her hand to her
forehead as she spoke.

“I said there would be crooked work and all kinds of unpleasantnesses,”
said the detective in a dry tone. He rose as he spoke. “Can you oblige me
with fifty pounds on account?” he asked.

“I will go to my room and fetch it,” answered Mrs. Rowton.

She ran upstairs and entered her little boudoir. To her annoyance she
found that her maid, Hester, was standing over her writing table. The
girl had a duster in her hand which she began to use assiduously when
Nancy appeared.

“I want this room—will you leave me?” said her mistress.

“Yes, ma’am, certainly. I was just dusting the ornaments on your table—I
had no time to look after them properly this morning. I am going now to
the conservatories to pick some fresh flowers for these vases.”

“Thank you. But leave me now,” said Nancy.

Hester slowly left the room. Mrs. Rowton hastily unlocked her secretary,
and taking out her cheque book, filled in a cheque for the amount which
Crossley had demanded, and went downstairs.

The detective took it without a word.

“I have just time to catch my train,” he said, looking at his watch as
he spoke. “I shall expect to hear from you, madam, in a day or two with
regard to the new footman.”

“Yes,” answered Nance. “You shall hear from me.”

The man left the library and a moment later his footsteps might have been
heard crunching the gravel as he walked away.

Hester Winsome, from an upper window, looked after his retreating form.

“I guess who you are,” she said to herself. “You don’t know all that I
know. Some day perhaps you and I may be friends, there is no saying. Ah!
my young lady, you’re a deep one, but you are not quite as deep as Hester
Winsome yet.”

As Nancy was leaving the library she came suddenly face to face with Mrs.
Ferguson.

“I beg your pardon, madam,” said the housekeeper, “but may I speak to you
for a moment?”

“Certainly,” answered Nance; “is anything the matter?”

“I am ashamed to trouble you, Mrs. Rowton. It is about that tiresome
George—he has just given notice to leave.”

“George,” said Nance with a start, her colour flushing; “I thought that
you liked him.”

“He is an excellent servant, madam, and gives complete satisfaction; but
the fact is, he has taken fright on account of the new safe. The safe
arrived this morning and the men have been busy putting it up all day. It
is a wonderful safe, and they tell me there is not a burglar in the land
who can break into it. It is worth your while to come and see it, ma’am.”

“So I will presently,” answered Nance; “but tell me now about George.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Ferguson, “I never knew before that the lad had nerves;
but nerves he has and no mistake. The men called him to help them move
the plate into the safe. It was evidently a surprise to him to see such
a heap of splendid plate, and he came to me afterwards all white and
trembling.

“‘I had no idea there was so much plate in the house,’ he said. ‘It quite
frightens me, and I won’t take the responsibility of living in the same
place with it. I have heard of a place in London that I think will suit
me, and I’d like to go.’”

“Well, let him go,” said Nance.

“To be sure, ma’am. Foolish lad, to leave a first-class place of this
sort because he has got a bit of a scare. What has the plate to do with
him?”

Nance was silent.

“The inconvenience, too,” continued Mrs. Ferguson, knitting her brows,
and speaking with a touch of annoyance; “and just when Vickers had taken
the trouble to train him in. This will put too much work on Hamley, the
under-footman, and he don’t know his work as well as George. If my master
should come back unexpectedly, as he always does, we’ll not have the
place in the apple-pie order that I should like it to be in. I shall, of
course, look out for another servant immediately.”

“George must go,” said Nance. “There is no use in keeping an unwilling or
frightened servant in the place.”

“Very well, ma’am, of course you are right. I’ll send off a note by the
next post to the registry office in London, where I generally apply for
servants.”

“No, don’t do that,” answered Nance. “It is strange that you should have
spoken to me about George now, for it so happens that I heard only a few
moments ago of an excellent footman. I will write about him myself at
once. When does George want to leave?”

“Really, madam, he is quite unreasonable!”—the housekeeper laughed as she
spoke. “He says the sight of the plate has fairly shaken his nerves, and
he knows he’ll fancy burglars are breaking into the house every night
from this moment forward. I never saw a sensible lad in such a taking. He
wants to forfeit his month’s wages and get off as soon as possible.”

“Let him go,” answered Mrs. Rowton; “but pay him his wages, of course.
The new footman can arrive to-morrow or the next day at latest—now I’ll
come with you to see the new safe.”

The two women went into the butler’s pantry, where the men from London
were busy adjusting one of Clever’s patent safes. Nancy looked into it
with curiosity. The plate was lying about in all directions. It made
a dazzling and splendid show—silver trays, baskets, candelabra, table
ornaments of every description, coffee-pots, tea-pots, silver jugs, and
valuable silver hunting cups were lying on the shelves, and even on the
floor.

“What a quantity!” exclaimed the young mistress of Rowton Heights. “Will
the safe hold all these?” she asked, turning to one of the London workmen.

“Oh! yes, madam,” was the reply, “it is one of our very largest. Yes,”
he added, glancing at the silver which lay shining all about him; “there
is scarcely a country house that holds such treasure as this—to say
nothing,” he added, lowering his voice, “of the gold-plated articles and
the jewel case.”

“Will you have the goodness to come forward, madam?” said another man. “I
should like to show you the secret receptacle where the jewel case will
be placed.”

“I think I would rather not,” she said, turning white and frightened.

“As you please, madam,” said the man in some surprise; “but I surely
understood from Mr. Rowton that you were to be acquainted with the
workings of the safe.”

“Oh! if my husband wished it shown to me, that alters the matter,” said
Nance, the colour returning to her face.

She spent nearly an hour with the men, who explained the different keys
for opening the safe.



CHAPTER XIX.

THE SILVER SCHOOL.


About a month after the events recorded in the last chapter, some men
who went by the name of the Silver School, or Mob, assembled for an
important meeting. The Silver School had existed now for several years,
doing its mysterious work effectually and quietly, and never exciting
suspicion, except in the minds of certain individuals in New Scotland
Yard. They had meeting places all over England, and not only in England,
but also in many parts of the world. They knew each other by a certain
code or cipher; they had their own peculiar way of shaking hands; their
own peculiar nod or smile; they were in short, a dangerous secret
society, their object being to upset morality and turn the system which
makes a man’s property his own topsy-turvy. Often they met at a lonely
public-house; often in the heart of the busy town; but their favourite
place of meeting was in the house of a private individual near the
Chelsea Embankment—the very place where Rowton had gone to see Long John
just before his mission to Spain.

To-night the members assembled themselves by a roaring fire, and taking
out their pipes awaited the appearance of their leader.

Adrian Rowton, who went by the name of Silver, was in many respects the
leader of the School. He was secretly admired by every other member; but
their real chief, the man whom they feared, respected, hated, thrilled
under, was Piper, or Long John, as they called him. Piper had none
of Rowton’s dare-devil and careless magnificence of manner. He often
appeared rather to slink than to walk into a room; but there was not a
member of the Silver Mob who did not tremble when he spoke to him, and
did not feel elated for a whole week if the chief gave him even a scant
word of praise.

To-night, as the men sat together, they looked anxiously at one another.

“Well, Scrivener, and how do you find the country?” said the landlord,
Simpkins, who was invariably present at these meetings. “What sort of
a place is Pitstow? You don’t look, to judge from your face, as if you
found the air so wonderfully bracing, after all.”

“The air is well enough, but there are other drawbacks—don’t you meddle,
Simpkins,” replied Scrivener.

“You’re as unsociable as usual, Scrivener,” exclaimed another man.
He uttered a whole jargon of mysterious epithets, and then continued
abruptly: “Well, out with the cat. Why did you come up to night? I don’t
believe Long John expected you.”

“Don’t you? I should not have come if he didn’t. I had a wire from him at
ten o’clock this morning. Don’t you know that Silver has come back?”

“Ah,” muttered one or two voices deeply and under the breath.

This exclamation had scarcely sounded through the room before the door
was opened and Long John, accompanied by Rowton, entered.

Long John’s eyes looked kind and pathetic; his lips intensely firm, a
smile now and then parting them and showing the white teeth. That smile,
innocent as it appeared, was the dread of every man in the room.

As Rowton now walked by his side up to the top of the room, he felt that
the chief was smiling, and augured ill from the circumstance.

“Welcome back, Silver,” said one or two voices as he passed them.
Simpkins in particular, a cadaverous-looking man for all his apparent
prosperity, clutched hold of Rowton’s coat to attract attention.

“It’s all right, old man,” said Rowton, nodding to him.

The man’s face instantly relaxed into a happier expression.

“Sit down near me, Rowton, and tell us all that you have done during your
absence,” said Long John. “We did not expect you for at least another
fortnight. Have you concluded the business?”

“Yes and no,” replied Rowton.

“That is very ambiguous—explain yourself.”

“I have concluded the greater part of it, but not all, Piper,” replied
Rowton.

“And why not all, my good fellow? You went away for a definite purpose.
It was understood, was it not, that you were on no account to show your
face in England again until that purpose was completed in its entirety?”

“I managed the diamonds and have brought them back with me,” answered
Rowton.

“Aye, aye, that’s right—that’s the main thing,” muttered several voices
at the other end of the room.

“Silence there,” said Long John. He did not speak loudly, but his eyes
flashed fire.

“Give us full particulars,” he said, flinging himself back in his chair,
and swinging round in such a way that his eyes could comfortably fix
themselves on Rowton’s face. Rowton looked haggard; there were a few
streaks of white in his black hair; he was unshaven, and had a somewhat
unkempt appearance. He told his story briefly, speaking with a certain
terseness which compelled every man in the room to listen to him, not
only with interest, but respect.

“I have brought a specimen of the diamonds with me,” he said after a
pause. He drew forth a small bag as he spoke—he had been holding it all
this time between his knees—opened the bag with a peculiarly-shaped key,
and taking out a harmless-looking brown paper parcel, laid it on Piper’s
knee.

“There they are,” he said; “in the rough, it is true. These are just
ordinary specimens of the pile. The whole thing is worth between eighty
and one hundred thousand pounds. I have the remainder at my hotel off the
Strand.”

Long John got up with a certain eagerness, which not all his efforts to
show no emotion could altogether conceal. He took the little parcel, laid
it on the table, opened it and called the other men to come round.

They were rewarded by nothing apparently remarkable—a few rough-looking
stones, uncut and dull, lay before them.

Long John fingered one or two, giving them a peculiar and intense glance
out of his melancholy eyes.

“And the rest are at the hotel?” he said.

“Yes, in a packet in a cupboard at the back of my bed.”

“Why did you not bring them?”

“I might have been watched. It was not safe. I will return for them later
on to-night, if one of you men will accompany me. Those diamonds had
just arrived from Kimberley and were waiting to be put into the Bank at
Madrid. I nabbed them in the nick of time.”

“Yes, yes; you did well—you told us all that story,” said Piper.

“You did very well. No one but Silver could have managed it,” said one
of the other men in a tone of deep elation. “This haul sets us straight,
don’t it, Piper?”

“The diamonds have to be realised,” said Piper; “and we have not got them
yet. How did you get on at Madrid in other respects?”

“As well as possible,” answered Rowton with a short laugh. “My
introductions got me into the best society in the place. I made some
friends and saw something of the life.”

“Well, so far so good,” said Piper; “but now for the other part of the
business. You sold that black diamond, did you not?”

“I got rid of it for fifteen hundred pounds. I have the money in my
breast pocket.”

“Too little,” said Piper, with a frown. “I said it was worth two
thousand—you sold it for five hundred pounds below its market value.”

“I could not help that.”

“You were right, Silver, of course you were right,” said Scrivener,
coming close up to Piper and Rowton as he spoke. “It would never have
done to have brought the black diamond home again—some of us might have
swung for it. Good to have it out of the land. You are certain it won’t
be traced, though, old chap—remember it has a history.”

“No, it is safe enough,” said Rowton with a grim smile.

“You did right to sell it for fifteen hundred,” repeated Scrivener.

“And I say he did wrong,” exclaimed Piper, stamping his foot as he spoke;
“the stone was worth two thousand pounds, and if Rowton had played his
cards well he’d have got it.”

“I could do no better,” said Rowton, with a frown between his brows.

“Stuff!” exclaimed Piper. “What is the good of having a man like you
attached to us—a man who may trip us up at any moment—if you cannot
do what you are commissioned to do? This loss of five hundred must be
accounted for when we divide the profits.”

“As you please,” said Rowton, slightly bowing his head. “The money part
of the business does not affect me in the least.”

“You have been feeding too well, my fighting cock,” said Piper with a
sneer. “You would sing another tune were I to take you at your word.”

Rowton said nothing. He leant back in his chair folding his arms. The
other men still lingered round the table where the specimen diamonds were
lying. Piper went up to the table, took the little parcel, folded it up
and placed it in his desk at the top of the room. He locked the desk and
put the key in his pocket.

“The rest of the diamonds have got to be fetched to-night,” he said,
looking at the men. “You, Scrivener, and you, Simpkins, had better
accompany Rowton when he leaves us—wait for him outside the hotel, take
the bag from him and bring it straight here. You can manage to do this
when the policeman is off his beat.”

“Rather,” said Scrivener, with a smile. “All the same it is a ticklish
business,” he added.

“But worth one hundred thousand pounds. We must realise that money and
soon. I have got my plans all marked out. You, Scrivener, are the man for
the job.”

“I?” said Scrivener, looking up with a startled and scared face.

“Yes, you are not going to funk it—we will make a man of you—you want to
marry, too, don’t you?”

“Oh, time enough,” said Scrivener with a smirk.

“Not at all. It is good for a man to have a wife, and your wedding bells
shall ring before long. You are a good fellow, one of the best of us.
What do you say to our starting you as a jeweller? A merchant who buys
rough diamonds in the ordinary market. I heard only to-day that a small
jeweller’s shop in Cheapside was going a-begging—you shall take it,
change your name and your coat, and do good business. We will fit you up
with capital, and you shall buy sufficient diamonds at the ordinary price
to lull suspicion. By degrees those which Rowton has brought back from
Spain can be sold at full market value.”

“That’s a prime notion,” said Simpkins, coming forward.

“Yes, we’ll talk of it later on—I have the whole thing neatly planned.
Scrivener shall take the shop to-morrow. Now, then, to turn to another
matter. Come here, Silver, let us hear the whole of your story. You did
part of our work, but not all. What about the bonds? How did that affair
prosper?”

“I have returned without executing that part of my order,” said Rowton in
a brief tone.

“You have!”

Long John sprang to his feet, so did Scrivener, so did Simpkins, so did
every other man in the room. Rowton alone remained seated. He raised his
head and stared from one to the other.

“Your reasons,” said Piper then; “your reasons, my noble leader.”

“I am not your leader, and you know it,” replied Rowton. “You lead us
all.”

“That’s neither here nor there,” interrupted Long John, with a sneer on
his lips. “You are our ostensible leader. Why did you not bring back the
bonds as well as the diamonds?”

“I was in the train,” said Rowton, speaking slowly, and raising his eyes
until their full insolent light was fixed intensely upon Long John’s
face; “I was in the train which ran from Madrid to Paris, and the bonds
were there; but the work given me to do was dirty, defiling, dangerous. I
thought I had done enough—in short, I did not execute my commission.”

“Your reason?” said Piper in a low voice.

“Quite simple, and I am not afraid to state it,” replied Rowton. “I saw
plainly that were I to pursue the business in connection with those
special bonds, although my confederate Spider might escape, my own life
would be the forfeit.”

“Spider—by the way, where is Spider?” asked Scrivener.

“I left him in Spain—he is all right.”

“And so you feared your life would be the forfeit?” snarled Piper.

“Yes.”

“Well, and what of it, you dog?”

“Everything—to myself,” replied Rowton. “I don’t choose to die. I—if you
like the word, I will use it—I _funked_ that part of my expedition.”

An incredulous and amazed look filled the eyes of every man in the room.
Even Long John’s eyes leapt for a moment with an expression almost of
compassion; then they fixed themselves in a stony stare on Rowton’s proud
face.

“It is not like you, Silver, to be a coward,” he said then; “the word
fits you badly. You were always our dare-devil; no danger was too hot for
you. Why do you come back to us with the story of a sneak? I repeat, it
is not like you.”

“I did not secure the bonds,” continued Rowton, speaking in a steady and
absolutely quiet voice, “for the simple reason that, had I done so, my
own life would have been the forfeit. I do not choose now to throw away
my life.”

“And why now, if I may venture to ask the question of your mightiness?”
snapped Piper.

“Because I have got a wife, and I do not intend her to become a widow.”

Something like a groan was heard throughout the room. It was more than
evident that no one present sympathised with Rowton.

After a pause he said abruptly, rising as he spoke:

“You must get another man for that part of the business. I distinctly
refuse to commit myself in the matter. My life is of moment to me.”

“Coward!” growled one or two.

“You may taunt me with that word if you like, my good fellows,” said
Rowton, looking down the room as he spoke. “Your taunts will not in the
least affect me, or turn me from my set purpose. I am willing to go into
danger for your cause, but into absolute and certain defeat I no longer
venture. My wife is much more valuable to me than the opinions of the
Silver Mob. Now, Piper, in bringing you the diamonds, I have, I think,
executed my orders as fully as I can execute them. Here is the money for
the black diamond. When I deliver over the packet which contains the
diamonds in the rough, to Scrivener and Simpkins, I shall feel that I
have earned a holiday. I am anxious to return to Rowton Heights early
to-morrow morning. Have you anything further to say?”

“Yes, a good deal,” said Piper; “sit down again and don’t be so
impatient. As to your conduct with regard to the bonds, I refuse to speak
further about it on the present occasion. I must consult with Scrivener
and one or two other members of the School, and shall probably summon you
here any day within the next week or fortnight. In the meantime there are
other matters to be talked over. We want fresh blood—the School won’t
prosper without. What sort of a boy is that lad of yours?”

“What lad?” asked Rowton, raising his head, but a startled expression all
the same crossing his face.

“You know the boy I mean—the son of the mad woman. Is he a plucky little
chap?”

“I refuse to say anything about him—he has nothing to do with you nor you
with him.”

“That’s as we may think best,” said Piper, with another sneer. “After
all, I can get information apart from you. Scrivener, come here.”

Scrivener, who had re-seated himself near the fire between Simpkins and
another man with a particularly evil cast of face, now stepped lightly
across the room.

“Scrivener,” said Long John, “have you made good use of your time at
Pitstow?”

“Excellent, Piper,” replied the man. “I have mapped out the entire
district. I know every room in every house, the amount of——”

“That will do,” said Piper, raising his hand; “we can go into that matter
at a less pressing moment than the present. What sort is Rowton’s boy?”

“A fine lad,” said Scrivener.

“You have seen him?”

“Often.”

“Describe him.”

“Slim, dark, tall,” answered Scrivener; “plucky, a little dare-devil like
his uncle there—in short, Silver himself in miniature.”

“Suitable, do you think?” said Long John, looking fixedly at Scrivener.

“Undoubtedly; the very lad for our purpose; heaps of go in him; don’t
know the meaning of funk; slippery and agile as an eel.”

“That will do, Scrivener,” said Long John.

Scrivener retired down the room and Long John turned to Rowton.

Rowton was standing perfectly upright with his back to the wall. He was
looking straight before him down the long vista of the room.

“Silver, you have disappointed me,” said Long John. “What I expected
would happen, when you took it into your head to marry a wife, has
happened. You are now half hearted, lukewarm. We don’t want lukewarm
people here. Get you gone to Rowton Heights if you want to—that is, after
you have delivered the swag to Scrivener and Simpkins. Yes, get you gone;
take your holiday; kiss your wife, and make the most of her. Embrace your
nephew, too, for if my plans are carried out, you won’t have him long.
Now go. Hark ye, though, one moment. That safe was sent down to the
Heights, was it not?”

“I ordered it, but cannot tell if it has arrived,” replied Rowton. “I
have been out of England for a month, and during that time I have had no
news.”

“The safe arrived weeks ago,” called out Scrivener from his seat by the
fire.

“That’s right,” said Long John. “We can open up business in that
neighbourhood next week. Go home, Silver. Your duty now is to entertain
the county. Cease to be Silver, the head of our School, and assume your
rightful name—Rowton, the heir to a fine old country estate, the owner of
an ideal country house. Wake up the county, entertain them. Be the good
old English squire; dispense hospitality right and left; use your wife
as a bribe to induce the neighbours to come to your house. Be a complete
blind yourself, and leave us to our work. We won’t trouble you for a
time. We will respect your scruples and your _fears_.”

Piper’s lips smiled grimly as he uttered the last words, but his eyes
looked gentle and refined.

“I have a word to say,” interrupted Rowton.

“What is that?”

“I return to Rowton Heights and I do exactly what you wish me to do, but
only on a condition.”

“There you are with your conditions again,” laughed Scrivener.

“Silence,” said Long John.

“I do what you want, Piper, on one condition.”

“Your position does not admit of conditions,” said Piper. “You are
completely under my thumb. You dare not move an inch except as I will
you—you know that.”

[Illustration: “Your position does not admit of conditions; you are
completely under my thumb.”—_Page 168._]

“I do not.”

“What does the fighting cock mean?” cried several voices.

“I owe submission to none of you,” repeated Rowton. “There is always, you
men understand, such a thing as throwing up the sponge. I am completely
sick of this life. If you put the screw on too tight I throw up the
sponge—_how_ I do it is my own affair.”

The man standing there gloomy, defiant, his head thrown back, his
bold eyes fixed on the pathetic and peculiar eyes of the chief, was a
spectacle to bring forth admiration in the breasts of such men as were
members of his School. There was absolute sincerity in Rowton’s tone. He
was driven into a corner—he could turn round and show fight. To such a
man suicide was more than possible. Suicide would be bad enough. Rowton
was an important member of the School—his presence, his individuality,
his life, were essential to the carrying on of the nefarious business. If
he really threw up the sponge, danger might quickly accrue.

“Your condition?” asked Long John.

“I do what you wish,” continued Rowton, tugging at his moustache as he
spoke; “I keep up this horrible farce, this tragedy of comedy, I put my
powers, my genius, at your command, I blind the county and you can do
your cursed will, provided you leave that lad of mine alone.”



CHAPTER XX.

A BLACK DIAMOND.


Early the next morning Rowton returned home. Nance was standing in the
garden when she suddenly saw her husband cross the lawn; he had walked
over from Pitstow. Nancy, whose face was very pale, and under whose eyes
were large black shadows, looked, when she suddenly beheld his face, as
if a ray of the spring had got into her heart. She uttered an almost
inarticulate cry of joy, and sprang into his arms.

“At last,” she panted, “at last. Oh! how cruelly I have missed you.”

“And I you, sweetheart,” he answered. “Let us forget the past now we are
together again.”

“Yes, at last,” she panted. She laid her head on his breast. Her
happiness was so intense that her breath came fast and hurriedly.

“Look me in the face, little woman,” said Rowton. “Why darling, you are
changed; how thin you have got, and your eyes so big—too big. What is it,
Nancy?”

“I have been starving,” said Nancy.

“Ah, I might have guessed,” he said, clasping her again to him. “Well,
I have returned. I, too, have starved and suffered; but this is plenty
after famine. Kiss me, Nance, kiss me many times.”

“You are never going away again?” she asked after a pause. “I cannot live
if you do it again, Adrian.”

“Let us think of nothing gloomy to-day. I am pretty safe to remain for a
time.”

The new footman, whose name was Jacob, was seen at that moment crossing
the lawn bearing a letter on a salver.

“From Lady Georgina Strong, and the messenger is waiting,” he said to
Nance.

Nance took the letter impatiently, opened it, glanced through its
contents, and spoke:

“Lady Georgina wants to dine here to-night—shall we have her?” she asked,
as she glanced up at her husband.

“Yes,” he replied, “we must not make ourselves hermits. Tell the
messenger to wait,” said Rowton, speaking to the servant, whose eyes,
after glancing at him, were fixed on the ground. “Say Mrs. Rowton will
send a note in a moment.”

Jacob turned obediently and went back to the house.

“A new footman?” said Rowton. “Have you engaged another servant, or has
one of the other domestics left us?”

“Yes, George has gone,” said Nance. She had forgotten all about Jacob,
to whose presence she had become quite accustomed, but at her husband’s
words a great flush of colour rose to her cheeks.

“George went for a silly reason,” she said; “he was quite nervous about
the plate. This man has come in his stead—he seems a good servant.”

“Doubtless, dearest,” said Rowton. “Now let us go into the house. I must
send to the station for my luggage, and you had better scribble a line to
Lady Georgina. Tell her the prodigal has returned, and that to-night we
kill the fatted calf.”

Nance laughed a laugh of pure pleasure. The note was despatched, and
a messenger sent for Rowton’s luggage; after which the pair had lunch
together and then went out into the grounds.

The day was a spring one, warm and balmy; crocuses and snowdrops bloomed
gaily in the garden; the trees were putting out their first spring buds.

“Our good time is about to begin,” said Rowton, his arm round his wife’s
waist as he spoke. “There is just a month from now to Easter. I presume
all the neighbours have called on you, Nance?”

“I suppose so. There are shoals and shoals of cards,” she answered.

“We will look through them together—I know everybody. Have you returned
the calls?”

“I think so. Lady Georgina was my guide into polite society—she went with
me everywhere. We left your cards with mine.”

“Right. I knew you would make a splendid woman of the world. Have
invitations come to us yet?”

“Yes, half a dozen dinners and one or two rather big evening affairs. Oh,
and a ball given by the officers at Pitstow. It is to take place in the
town hall. I have not replied yet—the ball is for next Tuesday.”

“We will go,” said Rowton; “we will dance our time away. I shall dance
with my wife, no matter what the county say.”

He hummed a bar of his favourite song, “Begone, dull care.”

“You don’t look too well, Adrian,” said the young wife, glancing up
tenderly into his face; “you don’t suppose I want balls or parties. You
are with me again and my heart is full.”

“Faith, Nance, gaiety is no delight to me,” he replied; “but ‘noblesse
oblige,’ dearest—we must live up to our position. The Squire of Rowton
Heights is the biggest man in the place—he must entertain. Dame Rowton
must entertain too. Ah! pretty one, how superb you will look in that old
dress—and I have brought home a trinket for you.”

“A trinket!” said Nance; “but I have so many.”

“None like this,” he answered. “What think you of a black diamond?”

“Black,” she said.

“Aye, such a beauty—fit for the brow of a queen. I am not going to show
it you yet. You shall wear it at our own ball. To-night we will talk over
that matter with Lady Georgina. She is worth her weight in gold when we
take her really into our confidence.”

“Yes, she has the kindest of hearts,” said Nance; “but do you really like
all this excitement, Adrian? Does it really give you pleasure?”

“Pleasure,” he answered, his brow darkening; “your kisses alone in all
the wide world give me pleasure.”

“Take them then,” she answered.



CHAPTER XXI.

THE RATS IN THE QUEEN ANNE WING.


The new footman’s name was Jacob Short. On his arrival he had specially
requested that he might be called by his Christian name. Nance saw no
objection to this. The man, to outward appearance, was harmless in
every way. Unlike his name he was somewhat tall of stature—this was his
ostensible reason for making the request that he might be called Jacob.

“I am lanky and long and thin,” he said to the maids, “and when I am
spoken to as Short, it’s like inviting you all to make fun of me.”

He quickly became popular in the servants’ hall and in the housekeeper’s
room. He could tell good stories. He was extremely obliging and had a
thorough knowledge of his duties.

There was one member of the household, however, who did not get on with
the new footman—this was the lady’s maid, Hester Winsome. She was a
rather pretty girl, and she took great pains to make herself attractive
when she supped in the servants’ hall. On these occasions she had been
accustomed to delicate attentions from the now absent George. Hester was
a flirt, and she liked a good-looking young footman to pay her attention.
She regretted George, but was abundantly willing to allow Jacob to take
his place. But Jacob did not see this at first. He gave Hester one or
two apparently indifferent glances, read her through and through, and
then determined to have nothing whatever to do with her.

Hester bore this at first without complaint, but after struggling against
her fate for quite three weeks, she became restive. As Jacob would not
confide in her, she began to make him confidences.

“Why, you have never been all round the house yet,” she said to him at
supper, on the day on which Rowton came home.

“How do you know that?” he asked her.

“How do I know it?” she retorted, lowering her voice, and edging close to
his side. “If you had even tried to go all over the house you’d be asking
questions, my fine fellow.”

“And how do you know I have not asked questions?” replied Jacob. “I’ll
trouble you, Miss Winsome, to pass me the sardines.”

Hester pouted, stretched out her hand for the delicacy which Jacob
demanded, and after a time continued in a low voice:

“Well, then, if you have been over the house, and if you have asked
questions, tell me what you think of the Queen Anne wing?”

To this query Jacob did not immediately respond. After a long pause he
said slowly:

“I have not been in the wing yet—can you take me there?”

Hester’s heart gave a sudden throb of delight. Up to the present, deep as
she undoubtedly was, she had never suspected Jacob to be any other than
a well-behaved and excellent servant. She now saw a chance of getting him
into her power, of forcing him to flirt with her, and her spirits rose.

“It is difficult to get into that part of the house,” she said. “Do not
say anything more at present. I will come to you if I can at nine o’clock
to-morrow in Vickers’ pantry.”

Jacob made no reply at all to this, and Hester did not even know if he
heard her.

At the appointed hour, however, she made her appearance at the door of
the pantry. She held a key in her hand.

“I saw Leah half an hour ago,” she said.

“Leah! and who is Leah?” asked Jacob.

“She is the poor mad lady’s caretaker.”

Jacob began to polish up his silver—he held a chamois leather in his hand.

“Now that’s curious,” he said in a slow voice; “so you keep a mad lady on
the premises?”

“That we do—she is in the Queen Anne wing.”

“You don’t say so!”

“I do. I can take you over the wing if you come at once.”

“I can’t until I have put all this plate tidy.”

“Oh, bother the plate,” said Hester. “Can’t you come at once?—the chance
may go.”

“I can come all the sooner if you’ll help me,” said Jacob. “You can wash
while I polish. Now then, two pair of hands are better than one.”

“That they are,” said Hester, delighted. She put the key on the shelf by
her side, and helped Jacob to wash up the plate.

With a sudden dexterous turn of his hand and a flick of the leather with
which he was polishing a valuable tray, Jacob contrived to slip the key
into his own pocket. Hester, quick as she was, did not see the movement.

After a time the plate was all in order, and the footman announced to the
lady’s maid that he was at her service.

Hester began to look for the key—she looked on the shelf where she had
placed it, she looked on the floor, she felt her pockets and shook
out her apron, but all in vain. Jacob helped her in her search with
assiduity. He appeared as anxious and annoyed as she was. Footsteps were
heard approaching before any solution of the difficulty was arrived at,
and Hester, knowing that her opportunity for that evening was gone, bade
Jacob a reluctant good-night.

“What am I to do?” she said as she was parting from him. “If I lose that
key Leah will give it to me—it opens the little postern gate into the
garden, and Leah never knew that I took it. I took it yesterday, for I
thought I’d like to show you the Queen Anne wing and the garden, Mr.
Jacob.”

“And I am sure I am much obliged to you,” replied Jacob. “We’ll have a
good look for the key the first thing in the morning.”

Hester was obliged to be satisfied, and when she departed Jacob softly
patted the key which lay in his trousers pocket.

That night, when the rest of the house had gone to bed, the new footman
rose and stole quietly through the silent house. He was evidently an
expert at this sort of thing, for the floors did not creak as he passed
over them, and he turned the handles of several doors without making the
ghost of a sound. By-and-by he found himself in the open air. The night
was a dark one, which favoured his purpose. A great watch-dog, of the
name of Chance, rose up and growled as the man approached. Jacob called
his name very softly under his breath and the creature wagged his tail.

“Quiet, Chance, stay where you are,” said Jacob.

The dog looked wistfully after him, but obeyed.

Jacob Short quickly discovered the little postern door. He slipped
Hester’s well-oiled key into it, turned the lock, and soon found himself
in the Queen Anne garden.

The night was a cold one, but Jacob did not seem to mind that fact in
the least. He stayed in the garden for two or three hours, and during
that time he explored every inch of it. Dark as the night was, there was
a perfect map of that garden sketched out in Jacob Short’s brain before
the first streak of daylight dawned. He was back in his bed by that time,
having made some discoveries which excited him considerably.

“I could never have done it with that minx of a girl tacked on to my
heels,” he said to himself; “but she shall show me the inside of the
house whenever she likes—and now to sleep, and to keep my astonishing
suspicions to myself until they become certainties.”

In the morning the man put the key of the postern gate into Hester’s
hands.

“I found it buried under some rubbish on the floor,” he said. “I’ll be
very much obliged if you will take me to see the wing to-night.”

Hester, who had slept badly, was delighted to get back the key again, and
early that evening, having made a _rendezvous_ in advance with Leah, she
took Jacob into the wing.

Leah met the pair just outside the mad lady’s sitting-room.

“How do you do?” she said, after Hester had formally presented Jacob
Short to her notice. “I am sorry that my patient happens to be asleep at
this moment, so I cannot take you into her sitting-room.”

“I won’t awaken her, and I’d like to see her,” remarked Jacob.

Leah shook her head.

“It cannot be done,” she said. “If she were to wake it would be as much
as my place is worth. You can see the rest of the house, of course.”

“Well, thank you for that,” replied Jacob. “It seems an uncommon snug
place,” he added, glancing round him as he spoke.

“Yes, it is well enough,” replied Leah. “It is to all intents and
purposes a little house by itself. Come this way now—I’ll show you the
bedrooms first.”

Leah was right in saying that the Queen Anne wing was a complete small
house. It contained kitchen, scullery, coal cellar, two sitting-rooms and
two large airy bedrooms. The little house was well but plainly furnished
There was nothing gaudy about it, and the furniture was somewhat
old-fashioned; but the whole place had a cheerful and complete air of
comfort.

“This is my bedroom,” said Leah, “and this is my mistress’s.” She entered
one of the large bedrooms as she spoke. “You see this door,” she added:
“this communicates with my mistress’s room—come in and I’ll show it to
you. See, my mistress has no door to her room, except through mine. There
was a door, but Mr. Rowton had it built up when Mrs. Cameron was brought
here. We have been obliged to bar the windows, too, and they only open a
very little way at the top; but, of course you would not notice that at
night. The poor lady has a comfortable room, and, but for the fact that
she is really in confinement, all the ordinary luxuries of life.”

“Yes, the place seems comfortable,” said Jacob. “I am interested in the
insane,” he continued; “I had a sister once who went off her head—they
took her to the Bethlehem Asylum, and she did not live very long, poor
thing. Her sad case makes me take a sort of liking to all insane people.”

“Insanity is a most fascinating subject,” interrupted Hester at that
moment. There was a queer light in the strange girl’s eyes. She walked
about Mrs. Cameron’s bedroom, prying here, there, and everywhere.

“Hester, your curiosity will be your undoing,” said Leah, giving the girl
a grim smile which flitted across her strong face for a moment and then
disappeared.

“Are you often disturbed by your charge at night, Mrs. Leah?” queried
Jacob.

“Now and then,” replied Leah, “but often for a whole month the poor lady
sleeps without rocking. It is wonderful what good nights she has, all
things considered; she is often more restless in the daytime than she is
at night.”

“And are the rats as troublesome as they were?” suddenly asked Hester.

“No; the last poison had good effect,” replied Leah, turning her back as
she spoke.

“Are you troubled with rats?” asked Jacob. “Why don’t you keep a cat?”

“Mrs. Cameron hates cats,” answered Leah. “It is one of her illusions,
poor thing, that she is pursued by a black cat. She would not see one
within a yard of her at any price.”

“If I were you, Mr. Jacob Short,” said Hester with a quick, sudden
movement which brought her directly facing the new footman, “I’d ask to
see the cellars of this house. The cellars are, to my way of thinking,
very curious.” Her dark eyes flashed as she spoke.

“To be sure,” replied Jacob; “that is, if I am not giving too much
trouble.”

“Well, you are, and that’s plain,” replied Leah. “There is nothing at all
wonderful in the cellars; they run under the house. For that matter, I
believe they run under the whole of Rowton Heights. I like houses with
cellars, for my part; they keep the sitting-rooms so much drier. It is a
pity, of course, the rats have got into them; but, as I said just now to
Hester, they have not troubled us very much lately. Come to the kitchen,
if you like, and I’ll show you the door which leads into the principal
cellar.”

They went downstairs, explored a small and well-appointed kitchen, and
a short time afterwards the footman and Hester bade Leah a cordial
good-night, and returned to the house.

“Now, you must never tell on me,” said Hester as they walked back over
the grass, for Leah had let them out from the Queen Anne garden. “If it
was known that I had shown you the mad lady’s wing, it would be as much
as my place was worth.”

“I have no object in betraying you,” said Jacob in a sharp voice.

“And what do you think of it?” said Hester, after a pause.

“I think nothing of it,” answered Jacob, “only that my master must be a
very considerate gentleman.”

“Yes, that he is,” replied Hester; “it is not everyone would keep a mad
sister close to him, and so comfortable, too.”

“Exactly,” replied Jacob.

“It is a good thing the rats are not so troublesome now,” continued
Hester.

“Very good,” said Jacob.

The maid favoured him with a glance of some irritation.

“You must be a ninny,” she said, after a pause.

“I don’t understand you, Miss Winsome,” replied the new footman.

“Well, now, just tell me plain out and honest,” returned the girl, “if
you believe that story about the rats?”

“I have no reason to disbelieve it,” he answered. “Have you?”

“Yes, that I have.”

“I know what you think,” said Jacob, after a pause; “you are
superstitious—some girls are made that way—and you believe in ghosts.”

“Very substantial ones,” she retorted. “I could tell tales to them that
are curious. You are not curious, are you, Mr. Short?”

“One of my faults,” replied Short, after a pause, “is that I am made
without the least scrap of curiosity. They say it is a sign that I am
lacking in human sympathy; but I never did take the least glimmer of
interest in what did not concern myself. It is nothing to me whether
there are rats in the cellars, or whether there are ghosts. You will
excuse me now, Miss Winsome, for hurrying on; I have got to take the wine
into the drawing-room; it is past ten o’clock.”



CHAPTER XXII.

THE MAN WITH THE MARK.


The Rowtons now entered on a very gay time. They accepted every
invitation which came to them. No night passed which did not find them
either dining out or attending large evening receptions. The ball at
Pitstow turned out an immense success, and Nance was the acknowledged
belle of the occasion. She wore one of her most beautiful Paris dresses,
which gave her all that diaphanous and somewhat cloudy appearance which
best set off the delicate style of her beauty. Nance wore diamonds on
this occasion, and there were no jewels to match with hers amongst the
giddy throng. By-and-by, the time drew on when Rowton and his wife were
to give that house-warming which the master of Rowton Heights had spoken
of on the day when he first took Nance over the house. The preparations
for the ball were at their height, and the ball itself was to take place
within a week’s time, when, to Mrs. Ferguson’s unbounded astonishment and
annoyance, Jacob, the valuable new footman, begged for a holiday. He came
to the housekeeper just when she was at her busiest, and made his request
in that cool, quiet voice which always characterised him.

“I want to go up to London for a day and a night,” he said.

“Well, I suppose you can when the ball is over,” she returned. “You have
not been here two months yet; but you are a good servant, and I daresay
Vickers can manage to spare you; but, of course, such a thing cannot be
thought of until the ball is over.”

“I am very sorry,” replied Jacob, “but I have had bad news from home,
and must go and attend to matters myself. If you let me off to-day, Mrs.
Ferguson, I’ll be back, at the very latest, the day after to-morrow.”

“You cannot go at all. Your request is most unreasonable,” said Mrs.
Ferguson. “There are some new servants coming down immediately, and the
house will be full from end to end; then half of the guests at least will
arrive on Saturday. No, no, my good fellow, I cannot listen to you. Don’t
keep me any longer. I can give no servants holidays until the ball is
behind us instead of in front of us.”

Jacob retired without a word.

But he was not to be out-done. After thinking matters over for a moment
or two, he resolved to attack his mistress, and, if necessary, to take
her partly into his confidence. After a little searching he found Nance
in the large conservatory which opened out of the yellow drawing-room.
Her husband was with her. He was busily engaged re-potting some flowers.
Rowton was devoted to horticulture, and no employment gave him greater
pleasure. Nance was helping him—garden gloves on her hands, and a large
apron over her pretty morning dress—when she was startled by hearing
Jacob’s quiet voice in her ears. She turned round quickly.

“Can I speak to you for a moment, madam?” he said. “I am very sorry to
trouble you.”

“Certainly, Jacob,” replied the girl in a kind voice. “What is the
matter? You look quite in trouble. Can I do anything for you?”

The man glanced over his shoulder at Rowton. Rowton, absorbed in his
work, did not even know that Short had come into the conservatory. He was
bending over a very valuable cactus.

“Nance,” he called out, “come here. This is certainly a night-flowering
cactus, and I do believe there is a bud coming. We must watch for the
time when it bursts into flower; the scent is something never to be
forgotten—the flower only lasts during one night. Can you sketch? You
ought to make a drawing of it. Well, if you can’t, I can. You never saw a
night-flowering cactus, did you?”

“No, no,” she answered. “I’ll be with you in one moment, Adrian. Now,
Jacob, what is it you want?”

“Can I speak to you alone, ma’am? I won’t keep you,” said the man.

Nance walked to the door of the conservatory. Jacob followed her.

“I am very sorry to be troublesome,” he said, “and I really thought
to get to London without worrying you in the matter, ma’am, but Mrs.
Ferguson won’t let me go.”

“Do you really wish to leave us?” said Nance. She forgot at that moment
all about Crossley; and Jacob was nothing more to her than an ordinary
valuable and good servant. “You seem to suit the place very well,” she
continued. “I am sorry you have to go.”

“I don’t want to go at all, ma’am. I am coming back again; but I must go
to town to-day.”

“Well, why not? I daresay you can be spared.”

“Mrs. Ferguson says not, ma’am. Now the fact is,”—here Jacob lowered
his voice, and his eyes sought the ground—“it is Crossley; I have had a
letter from him.”

“Crossley the detective?” cried Nance, with a start.

“Yes, ma’am; perhaps you won’t speak so loud. I have had a cipher from
Crossley this morning—in answer to one of mine, of course. You know, Mrs.
Rowton, why I am here?”

“Nance, what is keeping you?” called her husband.

“I cannot stay with you now, Jacob,” said Nance, colouring and looking
confused. “Coming, Adrian. Of course, if you want to go to town,” she
continued, glancing almost nervously at the footman, “you must do so. Do
not stay away longer than you can help. Tell Mrs. Ferguson I have given
you leave.”

“Thank you, ma’am, I am extremely obliged,” answered Jacob.

He left the conservatory, walking in his deliberate fashion through the
drawing-room. In the lobby outside he came face to face with Hester
Winsome.

“Well?” she said, looking at him interrogatively.

“Well?” he replied, drawing himself full up.

“I saw you talking to my mistress,” said Hester. “Were you asking a
favour?”

“Yes and no,” replied Jacob. “One of my relations is ill, and I am
anxious to go to town to see her. Mrs. Ferguson would not let me off
because of all this fuss in connection with the big ball, so I went to
Mrs. Rowton.”

“How sly of you,” said Hester. “Of course, she, poor weakling, gave you
leave.”

“You ought not to speak of your mistress like that, Miss Winsome. Yes,
she gave me leave. She is a kind-hearted young lady. I’m off to town in
an hour. Shall I bring you a pretty trifle when I return?”

“That’s as you please,” answered Hester, with a smile. “I may be going
to town on my own account before long,” she added. “I am rather tired of
Rowton Heights. It don’t seem the right sort of place for a girl like me.
There’s nothing to excite one here—at least, nothing to excite one who
has been used to London ways.”

Jacob smiled.

“You’ll have plenty of excitement next week,” he said, “when all the
grand folks are down. The house will be chock full, like an egg full of
meat.”

“Yes, won’t it?” said Hester. “They’re putting up beds everywhere. Now,
don’t it seem stupid to crowd people like that when the Queen Anne wing
would hold three or four more of the guests? Why cannot beds be put in
the Queen Anne wing?”

“You are very unreasonable,” said Jacob. “How can a poor lady who is off
her head be disturbed with company?”

“Of course, I forgot,” answered the girl. “And the rats, too, might
frighten the guests. Oh! it’s best as it is, no doubt.” Her eyes flashed
in a knowing way.

“By the way, Mr. Jacob,” she called out as the man was disappearing down
one of the passages, “have you heard the latest news?”

“No,” he said, arresting his steps as he spoke.

“Why, it is this,” answered Hester, running up to him, “there’s been
no end of a big burglary took place last night at Castle Stewart. The
postman brought us the news this morning.”

“I have not heard anything of it,” replied Jacob. “A burglary, did you
say—not really?”

“Yes, really, and a very big one. The burglars got in through one of the
upper windows—they say they had rope ladders with them and all kinds
of modern contrivances—and they broke open the safe in Lady Arabella’s
dressing-room, and took off all her jewels and a lot of plate from the
butler’s pantry besides. The police are scouring the country to try and
catch some of the thieves.”

“It is a good thing we have one of Clever’s safes here,” remarked Jacob.

He stood quite silent for a moment, evidently thinking hard. Then he went
to find Mrs. Ferguson to let her know that his young mistress had given
him permission to take his holiday.

       *       *       *       *       *

That evening Crossley the detective was enjoying his pipe over a snug
fire in his little house near Clapham Common. He had gone through a day
of hard work, and was just in the humour to appreciate some well-earned
rest, when his servant opened the door and announced a visitor. The next
moment Short stood before him.

“Here I am,” said that worthy. “I got your cipher by the first post this
morning and managed everything first rate. The house is full and will be
still fuller, so I must take the first train back. And now what do you
want of me?”

“Sit down, Jacob,” said Crossley; “if you are in a hurry I am more than
willing to go to business at once. You seem, to judge by your letter, to
be managing all right down in those parts.”

“Yes, I am making discoveries,” said Jacob; “and some which I fancy will
surprise you. These I keep to myself for the present. The discoveries
which relate to the special business which keeps me at Rowton Heights, I,
of course, disclose to you.”

“Why not all your discoveries?” said Crossley.

“Because some are not ripe for disclosure at the present moment,”
answered Jacob, in a terse voice. “The fact is this, a clue is a delicate
matter—a clue seems to me to be often a sort of intangible thing. If you
speak of it, it vanishes under your grip. But I repeat that things look
well, and that I am doing good work.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Crossley, “the part of your work which concerns
me is what I am naturally anxious to hear about. You know what you went
to Rowton Heights for?”

“Rather,” said Jacob—“to get hold of the man who murdered young Mr.
Follett.”

“Yes, we must nab him soon, I fancy.”

“He requires careful handling,” said Jacob. “Your clue to him at the
present moment is a piece of paper with a certain cipher and a certain
hieroglyphic upon it—the man himself being marked in a peculiar way.”

“Precisely,” said the detective, removing the pipe from his mouth, and
looking hard into Jacob’s eyes.

“You arrested a man lately who belonged to the Silver Mob,” continued
Jacob. “On examining his papers you found a letter, or part of a letter
written in the same cipher, and signed with the same hieroglyphics.”

“I did, I did. What is the good of going into that over again?”

“I want to get it firm in my mind,” continued Jacob. “You sent me to
Rowton Heights because your suspicions pointed to one man.”

“Good Heavens! yes,” said Crossley, jumping up as he spoke. “It is
ridiculous for a man like me to feel anything, but you don’t know, Short,
what I have suffered on account of these suspicions. The young lady wants
to go on with this matter and yet——”

“If your suspicions and mine are correct,” continued Jacob in a calm
voice, “the business will break her heart—still business is business. I
don’t mean to drop the thing now. It is true at the present moment I have
not found any cipher at Rowton Heights like that which you hold in your
hands, but I think I see the way to doing so before long. I also believe
that I shall discover the mark for which we are searching. It won’t be
long, therefore, before we put our hands upon the man.”

“And he is?” said Crossley, bending forward, his voice dropping to a
whisper; “speak low, Jacob, for Heaven’s sake!”



CHAPTER XXIII.

DAME ROWTON.


Jacob Short returned the next day to Rowton Heights, and almost
immediately afterwards the excitement and confusion incident to the
great ball began. Many fresh servants were engaged for the occasion; a
string band from London was secured; in short, no expense was spared to
make the occasion a worthy one, and to render the ball as brilliant as
possible. The old ball-room was too magnificent in itself to require much
decoration. The carved oak, which covered it from ceiling to floor, was
re-polished, but the windows were not draped, Nature’s draping of ivy
and old creepers being considered far more effective than anything man
could devise. The ball-room, which was over one hundred feet in length
and thirty feet in breadth, was one of the most celebrated rooms in the
whole county. In the old days, brave knights and fair ladies had held
high revelry here. It was well known also that more than one personage
celebrated in the history of England had figured in the giddy mazes of
the dance in the old room. For years it had been shut up, as misfortune
and even poverty had come to the noble old family who for so many
generations had reigned at Rowton Heights. The occasion, therefore, of
its being re-opened was considered a truly auspicious one, and certainly
Rowton and his wife could not have discovered a more popular way of
entertaining the county than by allowing them to dance once more in the
oak ball-room. It had been long years now since Rowton Heights had so
resounded to mirth and merry-making.

For days before the ball the house was full of eager and expectant
guests. Smart young men from town and the prettiest girls of the
neighbourhood gladly accepted invitations to stay at the Heights. The
host and hostess were seen on this occasion at their very best. Nance,
under her husband’s protecting wing, lost much of her inborn shyness.
Her gentle beauty, her sweet low voice, her affectionate and sympathetic
manner, could not fail to make her a universal favourite. As to Rowton,
he was, as Lady Georgina Strong expressed it, every inch a man of the
world, and, she was wont to add, fascinating at that.

“There is a certain air of mystery about your husband, Nancy,” she said
on one occasion to the young wife, “which much adds to his attractions.
He is delightful, gay, debonair; but watch him, he never talks of
himself. He never tells anybody what he does with his time.”

“With his time?” said Nance, looking slightly startled. “What is there to
tell?”

“I only allude to his mysterious absences,” said Lady Georgina in a light
tone. “Dear me, child, you need not turn so pale—he is with you now. He
always was a favourite, and he will go on being so to his dying day. I
sometimes wish he were a little more of a flirt, however; it would be
glorious to have a flirtation with him. How you open your eyes! You
think because he is your husband——”

“There are few men like Adrian,” said Nance, in a proud tone, “and
he——”—her lips trembled; she could not get out the next words.

“You are a greedy little creature,” said Lady Georgina, who was watching
her closely. “You need not fear that he will ever flirt with anybody but
you. Why, child, he loves you to distraction. I only say that I consider
it scarcely fair of you to keep such a man all to yourself.”

Nancy laughed almost gaily. She did not often laugh. There was an under
vein of sadness in her, which not all her present great happiness could
quite remove.

Sweeping her arm round her waist, Lady Georgina led her into the next
room.

“Come,” she said, “you must not hide your charms. You are too much of the
violet in the shade. Don’t you know that you and your husband are simply
worshipped by everyone in the house?—you and your husband, and that dear
manly boy, Murray.”

“Ah, anyone would love Murray,” said Nancy; and this was true.

The handsome little fellow had added to the merriment of this gay time.
The excitement and pleasure were new to him, and he enjoyed the mirth
and the merry-making all the more in consequence. He and Roy obtruded
themselves on all possible occasions. They made a picturesque addition to
many a lovely scene, and added to the mirth when it was highest, and to
the wit when it flowed most freely.

The great day of the ball at last arrived, and Lady Georgina came over
early to the Heights to help Nance and to hear the latest news.

“Not that there is anything special for me to do,” she said in an almost
vexed voice as she flung herself into a chair in Nancy’s pretty boudoir.
“It seems to me that these are the days for idle hands—at least, where
rich people are concerned. Money commands willing labour. Money banishes
fatigue; money destroys illusions. There was a time when I should have
slaved myself to death to produce results which, by the magic wand of
your money, Nance, can be made ten times more beautiful than any toil of
mine could possibly effect. Well, never mind, you are the wife of the
richest, the gayest, the most delightful man in the whole county. Ah,
and here comes that angel of virtue to speak for himself. How go the
festivities, my friend?” she continued, holding out her hand to Rowton,
who entered the boudoir at that moment.

“Swimmingly,” he replied, seating himself on a sofa near her. “There are
so many people in the house that they entertain one another, and leave
their host and hostess practically with nothing to do. As to the ball, I
do not anticipate a hitch anywhere.”

“There’s one thing left to settle, fortunately for me,” said Lady
Georgina, “and that is this young lady’s dress. I have not yet seen her
in the Dame Rowton costume.”

“No more you have, and no more have I,” said Rowton. “The dress is all
complete, is it not, Nance?”

“I believe so,” she replied, somewhat indifferently. “Hester told me
that a box arrived from Madame Delaroi, of Bond Street, last night.”

“That genius, Delaroi!” cried Lady Georgina. “If Delaroi tries to get up
the antique, then there is certain not to be a flaw in the costume. You
sent her a photograph, did you not?”

“We not only did that,” replied Rowton, “we had her down to examine the
Gainsborough picture for herself.”

“Once again, I must repeat, what will not money effect,” said Lady
Georgina. She tapped her fingers playfully on the ivory handle of a large
fan which she wore at her waist.

“Come,” she said, turning to Nance, “you must put on your dress before
the evening. Let me help you to do it now.”

“I don’t want to,” said Nance, somewhat lazily.

“But, my dear child, you must. Some trifling alteration may be necessary.
Besides, I have come over to make myself useful, and useful I must be
made. You will like to see the modern Dame Rowton when she is rigged
out,” continued Lady Georgina, turning to Rowton. “We will ring for you
when we are ready to show you the exhibition.”

Nance rose to accompany Lady Georgina to her dressing-room. On the way
there she suddenly stopped.

“Now, what is the matter?” asked that good lady.

“Nothing,” said Mrs. Rowton; “only sometimes I am sick of so much dress
and so much money.” There was a wistful and very sad tone in her voice.

“Dear me, child, you would be much more sick if you had not got the
dress and the money,” replied Lady Georgina in her brusque voice. “Don’t
quarrel with your lot, Nancy,” she added. “Take the goods the gods give
you with a thankful heart. There are few women so blessed.”

They entered the dressing-room, and Nancy shut the door.

“I know you are right,” she said, making an effort to recover her
spirits, “and when Adrian is at home there is no woman in all the world
whose heart is more full of thankfulness. Oh, I suffered when he was
away,” she continued. “I earnestly hope he will never leave me again.”

“Poor little girl!” said Lady Georgina.

She paused for a moment, thinking somewhat deeply for her.

“It would be unkind,” she said then, “to counsel you to wish for the
impossible. You must take the sour with the sweet, the dark with the
light, like all the rest of us, Mrs. Rowton. Your husband will certainly
leave you again. He is a wanderer not only by nature, but by heredity.
His father was one of the most celebrated travellers of his day. His
grandfather could never stay three months in the same place, and as to
Adrian, he has been already over the greater part of the world. Yes, my
dear, he will of course, travel again, and leave you again, and come back
to you again and rejoice your heart. Now let us be content with the happy
present. Heigh ho! for the beautiful dress. Shall we ring for your maid?”

“Let us manage without her,” said Nance. “I do not like Hester,” she
continued. “Each day I dislike her more.”

“Then in the name of fortune, child, why do you keep her?” said Lady
Georgina. “You are surely your own mistress and can do just what you
please.”

“Of course I am my own mistress,” answered Nance, “but I do not like to
give way to mere fancy, and the girl really serves me very well. Still,”
she added, emphasis in her voice, “I do not like Hester Winsome; I know I
never shall like her.”

“Did you ring for me, madam?” said Hester’s voice at that moment.

Both ladies turned and started. Hester had advanced a few steps into the
room. Her face looked serene and innocent.

“I surely heard you ring for me, madam.”

“I did not ring,” answered Nancy.

“Another time, knock before you enter a room, Hester,” said Lady Georgina
in her curtest, shortest voice.

“Yes, please do, Hester,” said Nancy; “but now that you are here, stay. I
want to try on my new ball dress. You told me, did you not, that it had
arrived from Madame Delaroi’s last night?”

“Yes, madam, it is in the large wardrobe.”

Hester crossed the room as she spoke, opened a wardrobe, and took out
a magnificent dress of the palest cream brocade, richly and heavily
embroidered with seed pearls.

“Ah!” cried Lady Georgina, “that dress is worth looking at. It really
makes my mouth water. For the third time, I say, what it is to be rich!”

“The dress is lovely,” said Nance. She went up to it, and, lifting the
train, flung it over her arm.

“It is not only the material but the style,” said Lady Georgina. “Why,
it is unique, perfect. Madame Delaroi is a genius. See this enticing
petticoat. Notice the train—the way it will set. You must be careful how
you hold it up to-night, Nancy. See, oh, do see this fascinating little
shoe with its pearl buckle. Get into your costume, my dear; be quick
about it. You will certainly be Gainsborough’s Dame Rowton come alive.”

“If I might venture to speak, madam,” said Hester, “I think your hair
ought to be arranged to correspond with the dress, or it will be
impossible to judge of the general effect. The hair must, of course, be
piled up very high on the head and powdered.”

“Yes; but I cannot wait for that just now,” said Nance.

“You must, Nance: we really must see the thing complete,” said Lady
Georgina.

“Well, if I must, I must,” replied Mrs. Rowton.

She sat down before her glass with a good-humoured sigh.

“There are some disadvantages in being rich,” she said, smiling up into
Lady Georgina’s face.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE BLACK DIAMOND AGAIN.


While Hester was busy dressing Nancy’s hair Lady Georgina seated herself
near, and began chatting volubly as usual.

“By the way,” she said, after a moment’s pause, “I am told there has been
another robbery in the neighbourhood. The burglars broke into Belton
Priory last night. Fortunately they were heard before they committed much
mischief.”

Nance listened to this information with somewhat languid interest, but
Hester, who was sweeping some of her mistress’s beautiful hair over a
high pillow, started violently, and dropped the pad which she was using
to the floor. When she raised her head again after stooping to pick it
up, her whole face was scarlet.

Lady Georgina, whose bright eyes took in everything, noticed her sudden
increase of colour.

“The ruffians escaped,” she continued, speaking in her quick incisive
voice, “but I believe they carried off very little. Of course, at Castle
Stewart the loss of plate and jewels is considerable. The Belton Priory
people have got off much better. I cannot imagine,” continued the good
lady, tapping her feet impatiently, “what the police are made of in
these days. How is it that they cannot get the faintest trace of these
burglars? It is reported that they belong to a certain gang, called the
Silver Mob.”

“How much you seem to know about burglars,” said Nance, shuddering
slightly as she spoke. “Do they really go about in gangs?”

“I believe so, very often,” said Lady Georgina, after a pause. “They say
the Silver Mob is very well-known to the police; that it has also existed
for a long time. But the members are so clever and so widely scattered,
that it is almost impossible to collect evidence sufficient to arrest any
of them.”

“Well, I hope none of the burglars will come here,” said Nance.

Her hair was finished now, and she rose from her seat. Hester helped her
put on the beautiful dress, and Lady Georgina amused herself hopping
round, pulling out the train, and ejaculating over it in various staccato
exclamations of delight.

A knock was heard at the door, and Rowton put in his head.

“Is the dressing complete?” he asked.

“Yes, pray come in,” called out Nance.

Hester was putting the finishing touches to the beautiful robe. Nance
turned and faced her husband.

“My darling,” he cried, “powder does not look well by daylight.”

“One moment,” said Lady Georgina.

She went to the window, drew down the blinds, pulled the curtains across,
and turned on the electric light.

“Now,” she said, “speak the truth. Was there ever a bonnier, a more
lovely resurrection?”

“Hail! fair dame,” said Rowton.

He fell suddenly on one knee with a fantastic gesture, and kissed the tip
of Nancy’s slender hand.

“You are complete but for your jewels,” he said. “I will fetch them.”

“No; to-night will do,” she answered.

“I think you can leave us now,” said Lady Georgina, turning to Hester,
who was standing submissive and subdued in the background.

“Yes, certainly, Hester, I do not require you any longer,” said Nance.

“Thank you, madam,” replied the girl.

She went softly across the room, opened the door, went out, and shut it
behind her.

Rowton was still busy examining the dress.

“I am going for the jewels,” he repeated. “We must see the effect
complete.”

“It really is not safe, Mr. Rowton, to have jewels lying about at the
present moment,” said Lady Georgina. “We were talking about those
mysterious burglaries which are taking place in the neighbourhood just
when you came in.”

“Ah, of course,” said Rowton. “How clever burglars are in the present
day! Have the police yet got the least inkling as to the scoundrels who
have broken into Castle Stewart?”

“Not they. Police, I think, are born without brains,” said Lady Georgina
in a fretful tone. “But the Stewarts are not the only victims. The
Frasers at Belton Priory have also had their place broken into.”

“You don’t say so!” cried Rowton.

“Yes, it is a fact. The attempted burglary took place last night, between
ten and eleven o’clock. Fortunately, as I say, it was in this case only
an attempted burglary. The old butler gave the alarm, and the ruffians
decamped without doing much mischief. They had only just got into the
butler’s pantry, and had not even begun to attack the safe. I am told
that they made off with some spoons and a few other articles of plate,
but nothing really worth speaking about. The case was very different
at Castle Stewart, and, unless the police get quickly on their scent,
the mischief will never be repaired. Poor Lady Arabella is, I hear,
inconsolable. She has lost, among other treasures, her famous rose
diamond.”

“The police are sure to find the brutes in the end,” said Rowton. He came
close to Nance as he spoke, and softly rearranged the setting of one of
her sleeves. “Did you really say that Lady Arabella had lost her rose
diamond?” he said, turning to Lady Georgina.

“Yes; the old family heirloom, estimated as worth quite sixty thousand
pounds.”

“A gem of that kind will certainly be traced,” said Rowton. “Still,” he
added, “as you say, the whole thing is preposterous. To think of men in
the latter end of the nineteenth century being able to break into a house
in the dead of night and take away jewels out of some of those marvellous
modern safes, quite beats my comprehension. It is a good thing that we
have got one of Clever’s safes here.”

“Yes; you are in luck,” said Lady Georgina. “There’s not a house in the
whole country which contains so much plate and valuables as this.”

“True,” said Rowton, tapping his fingers on the back of Nancy’s
chair. “Well,” he added, starting as if from a reverie, “as we have
the treasures we must use them. There will be a good lot of plate out
to-night, and Nance must wear her jewels—or, at least, jewels suitable to
her dress. I’ll go and fetch them.”

He left the room.

In a few moments he returned with an old leather case, which he unlocked,
and exhibited before Lady Georgina’s delighted eyes a magnificent
selection of pearls, rubies, and diamonds.

“Pearls are the right ornaments for that dress,” he said, glancing at his
young wife, “and I think,” he added, “I have got the very thing.”

As he spoke he touched a secret spring in the box. A drawer flew open,
revealing a single string of pearls, each nearly the size of a robin’s
egg. Rowton lifted it out and clasped it round Nancy’s soft white neck.

“There,” he said, “you are complete now. Anything further would spoil the
effect.”

Nancy went up to the glass to examine herself.

“Are these heirlooms?” she asked.

“Of course, dearest. Lady Georgina, don’t you remember them?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I saw them last on your mother’s neck. I was a tiny
child at the time, but the unusual size of the pearls attracted me. What
is the matter, Mrs. Rowton?—you look disturbed.”

“It is our house-warming, and I want to wear one of your presents to
me,” said Nance, going up to her husband. “You spoke of a black diamond.
I have not seen it yet.”

“A black diamond!” cried Lady Georgina; “you surely do not mean to say,
you lucky people, that you possess a priceless treasure of that sort.
There are only a few really valuable black diamonds in the whole world.”

“Strange as it may seem,” said Rowton in a careless tone, “I happened to
pick one up when I was abroad. It is a strange gem, and I was able to
get it cheap. Yes, Nance, you shall wear the black diamond, if you like
to-night. I’ll fetch it at once.”

When he left the room, Lady Georgina went to the door and locked it.

“I want to say something to you,” she said, lowering her voice to a
whisper as she approached Nancy’s side. “You must be very careful about
your jewels. Don’t leave those pearls about when you go downstairs. I
agree with you in not liking that maid of yours. What is more, I begin to
suspect her.”

“Suspect her? What about?” asked Mrs. Rowton.

“I cannot exactly say. But did you notice how she changed colour, how
evidently confused she was when I spoke about the big robbery at Castle
Stewart, and the attempted one at Belton Priory?”

“No, I observed nothing,” said Nance.

“You have no suspicion in you, child; but I tell you I am certain Hester
Winsome is not straight. Half these burglaries are committed through the
connivance of girls like her. Ah, here comes your husband with the black
diamond. I really am devoured by curiosity.”

Lady Georgina flew to unlock the door. Rowton came back bearing a small
case in his hand. He touched the spring, and the case flew open. An
enormous diamond of the purest water, but in colour as black as coal, lay
on its satin bed within. The diamond was set in heavy gold, to which a
pin was attached; and the gem was evidently meant to be worn in the hair.
Without a word, but nevertheless with fingers which slightly trembled,
Rowton lifted the treasure from its bed, and placed it in his wife’s
powdered locks.

“There,” he said, “come and see yourself once again in the glass. I
guessed that this queer stone would fit you to perfection. You are so
fair that the sort of devildom of the thing comes out all the better from
contrast.”

“Upon my word, that diamond looks almost uncanny,” cried Lady Georgina.
“What possessed you to get it for your wife?”

“Because of its rarity, and because I am rather fond of the uncanny,”
said Rowton, with a slight laugh. “The price of this gem, like a good
woman, is above rubies.”

“Well, it certainly is magnificent,” said Lady Georgina. “It will be
remarked by everyone in the room.”

“Why not? I mean it to be,” answered Rowton.

“Those tiresome burglars who are hovering round the neighbourhood had
better not get wind of it,” continued Lady Georgina. “If they do, they
are certain to have a try for this house and its treasures.”

“I am afraid that fact will not prevent Nance from wearing her husband’s
present,” said the master of the Heights in a careless tone. “It sends
out queer rays, does it not?—rays not of day but night.”

“Adrian, I am half afraid of it,” said Nance.

She put up her hand, took the pin from her hair, and looked at the
sparkling dark gem with a frightened expression on her face.

“You poor dear little mass of superstition,” said Rowton; “what can there
be to frighten you in your husband’s present?”

“Not in your present,” she answered, “only I wish it were not black.”

“Wear it for my sake, sweetheart,” he said. “I have taken a fancy to it.
It has a queer incomprehensible look. You take my fancy in it.” He sank
his voice as he spoke until it thrilled with suppressed passion.

“Then I will wear it gladly for you,” she said in as low a whisper.

Lady Georgina turned and walked to the window.

“It is tiresome sometimes being in the room alone with such a pair of
crazy lovers,” she murmured to herself.

Aloud, she said, after a moment’s pause, turning and speaking to Rowton:

“Have you ever heard of the Silver Mob?”

“The Silver Mob!” he replied. “No, I can’t say that I have. Who are they?
What are they?”

“A notorious gang of burglars. They say that the robberies in this
neighbourhood are being committed by them.”



CHAPTER XXV.

KIDNAPPED.


The great house-warming at Rowton Heights was never forgotten by anyone
who was present at it. The merry ball was not only remembered on account
of the grand festivity itself, but because of that mystery and tragedy
which immediately followed it. At the time it went, as Rowton had
prophesied, without a single hitch. Rowton was now a king, and Nance was
a queen. The king had come in for his own again, and the county rejoiced.
Pretty Nance, or Dame Rowton, as the guests called her on account of her
quaint and lovely dress, was the undoubted belle of the occasion. She
suited the quaint rich costume to perfection. Her slim young figure,
her delicate features, the bloom of youth on her cheeks, the sparkle of
hope and happiness in her eyes, gave to her beauty a unique and almost
spiritual appearance. She might have really lived in the days she so
cunningly represented. There was a certain ethereal quality about her
which made her appear at times, and under certain emotions, more spirit
than flesh; but hers was the sort of beauty which no man has ever been
known to resist. There was something womanly, essentially gentle, about
her. It was impossible to connect unkindness, want of charity, or any of
the vices with that sweet face.

Nance was one of those people who feel so much that, like an Æolian
harp, each breath which blew upon her brought out some fresh attribute of
her bright spirit. Never for long could the charming face look the same.
One half hour the cheeks would be bright, the eyes shining, the rosebud
lips would part with smiles; the next, all the colour would have fled,
the pathetic eyes would look full of undefined trouble, the lips would be
too faintly coloured for health; laughter would then be banished, and the
grave face would be too thoughtful for its youth.

To-night, however, Nance showed little of the more sombre side of her
character; the place, the occasion, the presence of her dearly beloved
husband, all helped to raise her to a state of exaltation. She gave
herself up to the happiness of the occasion and the hour.

“What a couple those two make!” said more than one guest as the husband
and wife received their guests near the principal entrance.

“And what a charming little cavalier that boy is!” said a lady who was
devoted to children, and whose eyes wandered over Murray’s handsome
little figure with a certain thrill of sympathy.

The little fellow was dressed as a cavalier of the time of Charles I.,
and the dress suited his picturesque dark beauty to perfection.

“How like his uncle he is!” everyone said.

Once the boy heard the words. He glanced round with a flash in his eyes,
and said excitedly:

“I’m so delighted you say that. I want to be like Uncle Adrian—that is,
in _most_ things.”

He did not add any more. He was devoting himself just then to Lady
Georgina, who, amused with his manly airs, condescended to dance with him
once or twice.

“This is our dance,” he said, running up to her. “I’m so glad it is not
a square dance. I hate square dances. This is a right down jolly waltz.
There’s nothing like a waltz, is there?”

“No, when you are young, and it does not turn you giddy,” said Lady
Georgina.

“Well, you are young enough,” he said, looking up at her.

“And so are you,” she replied with a laugh.

“I wish I were older,” he said. “If I were older, we might be betrothed,
might we not?”

“I don’t think age matters,” said Lady Georgina, “we can be betrothed if
you like.”

“Do you mean it really?”

Murray’s face glowed with delight.

“It is really nice to be engaged,” he said, after a pause, “and you are a
tall lady. I always said I would have a tall lady to be my wife, for then
she might become something like Aunt Nancy. Come on, won’t you? Don’t let
us waste lose a minute of this dance.”

Lady Georgina stepped into the middle of the room, and she and Murray
danced together to the amusement of many people who watched them. As they
approached the other end of the ball-room, they suddenly came plump up
against Hester Winsome. She was passing through the room with a tray of
glasses in her hands. Lady Georgina’s dislike to this girl was increasing
each moment. She stopped now to reprimand her.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “Do you know that it is very wrong
of you to bring glasses into the ball-room? We might have knocked them
all over.”

[Illustration: “What are you doing here? Do you know it is very wrong of
you to bring glasses into the ball-room?”—_Page 211._]

“I am really sorry, madam,” said Hester, dropping a curtsey as she spoke.
“I know I ought to have gone round by the corridor outside, but this part
of the room seemed quite clear just for the moment, and Jacob was in a
hurry. He sent me flying for some fresh glasses. I am very sorry, of
course.”

“Well, don’t do it again,” said Lady Georgina, “and go away now; this is
no place for you.”

Hester tripped across the room, carrying her glasses deftly. Lady
Georgina and Murray prepared to resume their dance. Suddenly Hester’s
face was seen in the doorway.

“Master Murray, may I speak to you for a moment?” she called out.

“What can you want, Hester?” cried the boy. “I am very busy just now. I
can’t leave my partner.”

“I won’t keep you long, sir; there’s something you ought to know.”

Hester’s face looked really troubled.

“I wonder what she wants,” said Murray to Lady Georgina. “Would you mind
very much if I went to her?”

“No, dear,” was the reply, “I’ll sit on the window ledge and wait for
you.”

“Please don’t give our dance to anybody else.”

“No, I will keep it for you, my little lover,” said Lady Georgina,
kissing her hand to the handsome boy.

He laughed back at her and ran out of the ball-room. The moment he did
so, Hester took his hand, and led him a step or two into the supper room.

“I really cannot stay with you, Hester,” he said; “what can you possibly
want with me now?”

“I am very sorry to bother you, Master Murray,” said the girl, “but the
fact is, I am in an awful fright. I am terribly afraid your poor mother
has managed to get loose, sir.”

“My mother! Oh, what do you mean?”

“What I say, Master Murray. I was going through the garden just now, and
I saw someone dressed as your mother dresses running and dodging just
behind the laurel shrubs. If she did get loose, she would think nothing
of going into the ball-room and frightening everyone. I wanted to see Mr.
Rowton about it, and hoped he might be at the lower end of the room.”

“Shall I try and fetch him for you?” said Murray.

“No, sir, it is not necessary; you’ll do just as well as my master.”

“I!” said Murray. His little face turned pale as it always did when his
mother was mentioned. “Perhaps you know, Hester,” he said with a sigh,
“that mother is not very fond of me. I do not see how _I_ am to find her.”

“Of course not, my little gentleman,” said the girl. “Leah is the one
who ought to do that. Now, if anyone could be got to run round to the
Queen Anne wing, Leah would soon put matters straight. I’d go myself, but
there’s such a heap to be done that I really haven’t a single moment.”

“Hester, stop talking there and come and help us,” said Jacob from the
other end of the room.

“Yes, Jacob, I’m coming. Please, Master Murray, would you help us, sir?”

“If I can. Do you want me to go to the Queen Anne wing?”

“Oh, sir, if you only would.”

“But I am never allowed to go there.”

“That don’t matter, sir, on an occasion like the present.” Hester slipped
her hand into her pocket as she spoke. “Here is the key of the little
postern gate in the garden,” she said, lowering her voice. “You know the
Queen Anne garden, of course, Master Murray?”

“Of course I do,” answered Murray.

“Will you go there now, sir? You can open the postern gate easily; then
you have only to run across the garden, and tap with your knuckles on the
back door. Leah will be there to hear, for she is expecting me round with
a bit of supper presently. I promised I would bring her over a trayful.
Go, Master Murray, be quick, tell her what I said.”

“Of course I will,” said Murray. “It would never do for mother to
frighten the people in the ball-room.”

He ran off quickly. The mere thought of his mother had always the power
to depress him, but his spirits were high to-night.

He soon found the postern door, and let himself in. The garden was not
large; he quickly ran across it, and found the back door of the house.
Here he knocked with his knuckles as Hester had desired him to do. His
first knock was unanswered. He repeated it in some impatience. This
time he was evidently heard. He saw through the fanlight overhead the
light of a candle coming nearer and nearer. The next moment the door was
cautiously opened, and a voice said, in muffled tones:

“Who is there?”

“It’s me, Murray Cameron,” said the child.

“Then you are just the person we want, Murray Cameron,” answered the
voice.

A hand was cautiously put out, and the child was pulled into the house.
The candle was immediately extinguished; a cloth was thrown over the
little fellow’s face. He found himself lifted into somebody’s arms and
carried—he did not know where.



CHAPTER XXVI.

A “PLANT.”


Until the daylight dawned in the far east the merry ball went on. Even
with daylight the happy dancers were scarcely willing to give up such
glorious fun; but the happiest times must come to an end, and at long
length the sound of the last carriage wheels was heard to die away upon
the gravel outside the old house. The guests who were staying in the
house retired to their various rooms, and Nance, Lady Georgina, and
Rowton found themselves for a moment alone together.

“I am dead tired, of course,” said Lady Georgina, “but I really may as
well say frankly that I never had a better time in my life. The whole
thing was so young and yet so old.”

“What do you mean by that conundrum?” asked Rowton with a careless laugh.

“Must I unriddle my riddle?” she replied. “Well, then, here’s the answer.
The ball was young because it was spirited and absolutely unconventional;
it was old because it seemed to partake of a certain last century
flavour—the room, the situation, certain memories, all conspired to that;
but most of all was the last century flavour accentuated by Dame Rowton’s
presence.” Here Lady Georgina gave a mock but graceful bow in pretty
Nancy’s direction. “Have I explained myself?” she said, turning her
bright eyes full on Rowton’s somewhat flushed but handsome face.

“Perfectly,” he replied. “You have the gift, Lady Georgina, of making
very neat compliments. Now I vote that we all go to bed and discuss the
charms of our house-warming to-morrow.”

“By the way,” said Lady Georgina, as she prepared to leave the room, “I
missed one person towards the end of the evening. Who was it ordered
little Murray off to bed so early?”

“Murray to bed!” exclaimed Nancy. “Why, surely he never went to bed. He
begged of me to let him stay up during the entire night, and, perhaps not
very wisely, I gave him leave. The fact is, I did not think the child
could sleep with so much noise going on.”

“Nevertheless, he must have gone to bed,” said Lady Georgina, “for I
have not seen him for several hours. He was dancing with me, having a
very good time, and making outrageous proposals, the monkey, that I
should be his future wife. He was called out of the room by your maid,
Hester Winsome, but promised to be back in a moment. He never came back,
however.”

“Mrs. Ferguson may have sent Hester to speak to him,” said Nance after a
pause; “she is quite a dragon about early hours for the boy. I wonder he
did not appeal to me. Poor little dear, he must have been disappointed
if he was banished off to bed when he expected so thoroughly to enjoy
himself.”

“The boy was much better in bed,” said Rowton suddenly; “don’t fret
yourselves about him now. Good-night, Lady Georgina.”

He held out his hand as he spoke. The lady took it, favoured him with a
full admiring glance, kissed Nance on her cheek, and left the room.

“Now, Nancy, to bed, to bed. I cannot keep my eyes open a moment longer,”
said her husband. He took her hand and they ran upstairs.

A fire burnt in the beautiful bedroom; the doors of the two
dressing-rooms were wide open—fires were also blazing there. Through the
drawn curtains, with their soft shadows of rose colour, peeped in the
first rays of the dawn.

“How horribly dissipated I feel,” said Nance with a smile. “The fact
is, I have never in the whole course of my life spent the entire night
dancing before.”

“You have enjoyed everything, have you not, dearest?”

“Almost beyond the point of enjoyment,” she replied. “My happiness was
so great that I felt, to allude to an old superstition, ‘fey,’ as they
express it.”

“Nonsense, little woman,” replied her husband. “This is the beginning,
let us trust, of many scenes as gay, as fresh and invigorating.”

Nance moved a step or two nearer to Rowton as he spoke. A ray of sunshine
at that moment pierced through the rose curtains and fell across her face
and figure. It gave her a sort of unearthly beauty. Rowton went up to
her, put his arms round her, and clasped her to his heart.

“What is there about you, child,” he said, “which moves all the best in
me? The dead, forgotten good stirs feebly once again in my breast.”

“But you are good. Why will you ever and always run yourself down?” she
said, a note of pain in her voice.

“To you I _am_ what I seem,” he said; “for you I could, devil that I
am—yes, Nancy, for you I could almost become an angel.” He unloosed her
suddenly as he said the words. “Get to bed, child,” he said; “take off
those pearls and that diamond.”

Nance put her hand to her head, took the black diamond from her hair, and
then slipped the row of pearls from her neck.

“I am glad to be rid of these priceless treasures,” she said. “Had you
not better take them down to the safe at once, Adrian? Is it wise to keep
them here till the morning?”

“It is morning now,” he said, with a yawn; “burglars do not come in broad
daylight; the jewels can lie with perfect safety in your dressing-room
till we get up. Now I am going to tumble into bed as fast as ever I can.”

He went into his dressing-room as he spoke, and Nancy rather slowly and
with a certain unwillingness, which she could not account for, went to
hers.

To her surprise and by no means to her pleasure, Hester, looking pale and
worn, was waiting for her.

“Why are you here, Hester?” exclaimed her mistress. “I particularly told
you that I did not wish you to stay up.” There was some annoyance in
Nancy’s gentle voice.

“Yes, ma’am, you are very kind and thoughtful,” replied the maid,
lowering her eyes as was her invariable habit, “but I could not possibly
let you unlace your dress.”

“My husband could have done it. I really wish you had obeyed me,” said
Nance. “Well, as you are up you had better do what is necessary. Please
give me my jewel-case from the dressing-table; I want to put the pearls
and this diamond into it.”

Hester took up a beautiful morocco jewel-case, unlocked it and held it
out before her mistress. Nancy put the string of pearls and the diamond
in the top compartment of the case.

“It is a queer, uncanny sort of stone,” remarked Hester, looking at the
black diamond as she spoke.

Nancy did not reply. Hester locked the case and gave her mistress the key.

“If you have no objection, ma’am,” she said, after a pause, “would it not
be best to put this case into the safe?”

“No; it is quite unnecessary,” replied Nancy: “you can put it on the
shelf in my wardrobe; and if you are nervous you can give me the key of
the wardrobe.”

“I will certainly do so, ma’am; it is really not wise to have jewel-cases
of this sort about when burglars are known to be in the neighbourhood.”

“I am perfectly sick of the subject of those tiresome burglars,” said
Nancy.

Hester made no remark at all to this, and soon afterwards left her
mistress.

       *       *       *       *       *

The tired household slept long and late, unsuspicious of any danger. It
was between nine and ten the following morning when Nancy suddenly opened
her eyes. She started up in bed, and was about to ring her bell to summon
Hester, when the young woman hurriedly opened the bedroom door and stood
on the threshold with a scared and absolutely deathlike face.

“Oh, madam, I’m so glad you are awake,” she said. “Vickers said you ought
certainly to be aroused at once, and yet I did not like to do it.”

“What is the matter, Hester? How terrified you look!” cried Nancy.

“Oh, I am, madam. Please will you wake Mr. Rowton; Vickers wishes to see
him immediately.”

“Go into my dressing-room. I’ll be there in no time,” said Nancy.

Hester closed the bedroom door softly behind her.

“Adrian, dear, wake; you are wanted at once,” cried Nancy.

Rowton opened his eyes with a start.

“What is it?” he cried.

“Vickers wants you; I am afraid there is something wrong. Hester came to
the door to call us; she looked so frightened.”

“Vickers wants me!” repeated Rowton. “I don’t know that there is anything
to alarm one in that. I am afraid he must wait for a little, however.
I feel much too sleepy to get out of bed at present.” He turned on his
pillow as he spoke, and wrapped the bedclothes round him.

“But you really must get up, Adrian. Hester’s face looked positively
terrified. I know there is something grave the matter.”

Somewhat unwillingly Rowton sat up in bed, yawning as he did so.

“My dearest,” he said, noticing how Nancy’s hand trembled, “there is
probably nothing at all to alarm anyone. Servants are always taking
fright. You have not been long at the head of an establishment of this
sort; if you had, you would not put yourself out simply on account of a
scared face. In all probability Vickers misses one of the spoons, and
thinks the gang of burglars who are haunting this neighbourhood have
broken into the house. I do wish the police would nab those fellows, in
order to give us all quiet nights.”

“I wish, Adrian, you would get up. I am quite convinced it is worse than
you imagine,” said Nancy.

She went into her dressing-room as she spoke.

To her surprise and consternation both Hester and Mrs. Ferguson were
waiting for her there. The housekeeper was on the verge of hysterics.

“The most frightful, awful thing has happened,” she cried; “we cannot
find Master Murray high nor low, and Vickers says some people meddled
with the safe last night. He says a lot of the plate and most of the
jewels are gone, and, oh, ma’am, look, look!”

Nancy turned quickly round. The housekeeper was pointing to her wardrobe,
which had been broken open. A glance showed her that her small private
jewel-case, the case in which she had put the pearls and diamonds, had
been abstracted.

“Don’t be so frightened,” she said to Mrs. Ferguson; “I’ll go back at
once and tell my husband. Of course the burglars will soon be caught. But
what did you say about Murray?”

“That is the worst of all, ma’am, to my thinking—the child is missing; he
can’t be found high nor low.”

“Murray missing! You must be dreaming,” said Nancy.

“No, I am not, ma’am; we have searched all over the place for him. He
never lay in his bed at all last night, the blessed lamb. Where he is
Heaven only knows.”

“Who saw him last?” asked Nancy.

“I did,” said Hester, suddenly coming forward.

She spoke with a catch in her voice; her face was deadly pale. She was
scarcely able to keep steady; and, staggering slightly, leant up against
the wall.

“Tell me everything, and be quick,” said Mrs. Rowton hurriedly, beginning
to dress as she spoke.

“I believe that I was the last person to see the young gentleman,”
replied Hester. “The fact is this, ma’am: I got a fright just between
ten and eleven last night soon after the ball opened. I saw, or fancied
I saw, a lady flitting about in the garden. You remember, ma’am, there
was a moon, but there were lots of black clouds, and the light was always
being shut away by the clouds going across the moon; but just for the
minute it shone out quite bright, and I distinctly saw a woman running
and stooping as she ran close to the laurel hedge. I seemed to recognise
the dress, and I thought at once that poor Mrs. Cameron had got loose. I
wanted to tell my master, for I knew it would be awful if she ran into
the ball-room. I made an excuse to get into the room, hoping that Mr.
Rowton might be somewhere within sight; but I only caught sight of Master
Murray, and it occurred to me that I would ask him to help me.”

“You did very wrong,” said Nancy; “you know, or you must know, that it is
not safe for the boy to be with his mother. Well, go on, be quick.”

“I had no time to think, madam, and besides, I am not supposed to know
anything.” Hester made an effort to give her head its old pert toss. “I
managed to get Master Murray out of the ball-room,” she continued, “and
I asked him to run across to the wing and tell Leah at once that Mrs.
Cameron had escaped. He ran off quite willingly. I gave him the key of
the postern door, which opens into the Queen Anne garden.”

“And the child has never come back? You must be making a mistake,” cried
Nancy.

“It is true, ma’am; alas! it is true,” sobbed Mrs. Ferguson. “I was over
with Leah this morning, and she says she never saw the boy, and never
heard him knock, and Mrs. Cameron did not escape at all last night, but
at the very time that Hester fancied she saw her, was sound asleep in
bed. Oh, I dread to think what has happened—burglars breaking into the
house, and the child gone, kidnapped most like. Oh, the plate and jewels
are nothing—it is the child.”

“Yes; it is the child,” said Nancy.

She had dressed herself now. The very magnitude and imminence of the
catastrophe which had suddenly overtaken her, gave her a certain feeling
of strength. She remembered that queer sense of being “fey” last night;
she remembered the words which she had spoken to her husband.

“Well,” she said, looking at the two terrified women, “you have done
right to tell me; don’t be over frightened; try and keep yourselves calm.
The boy will, of course, be found immediately. I’ll go now and tell Mr.
Rowton.”

She ran into the next room, but Rowton had already dressed and gone
downstairs. The direful tidings had, of course, been broken to him by
Vickers.

Nance at last came face to face with her husband in the butler’s
pantry. There a scene of the utmost confusion and destruction met her
astonished eyes. The celebrated Clever safe, which was supposed to be
proof against any burglar in the land, had been burst open by means of
certain explosives, which had probably been introduced through a joint
in the side. The safe had been nearly completely rifled of its contents.
The secret receptacle for the jewel case had been discovered, and the
splendid Rowton diamonds, with many other valuable and priceless jewels,
had disappeared; the gold plate had also completely vanished. In short,
the burglars had possessed themselves of many thousand pounds’ worth of
valuable goods.

“Here’s a wreck,” said Rowton, turning to Nance when she appeared. His
face was pale, and his underlip shook. “You see what this boasted safe is
worth, after all,” he continued.

“Yes, yes; but the jewels are nothing,” panted Nancy, “it is the child.
Who minds about the jewels or the plate? Oh, Adrian, it is Murray.”

“Murray!” cried the man; “what in the world do you mean? What has Murray
to do with this?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Nancy, tottering as she spoke, “only they seem
to have stolen him, too. He cannot be found anywhere; Murray is lost.”

For answer Rowton took his wife’s hand with that grip of iron which had
hurt her so much on the night of her arrival at the Heights.

“Come into my study,” he said in a voice which he scarcely recognised as
his own. He shut the door when he got there, and turned her round to face
him.

“Now, tell me everything,” he said.

“Why do you look like that?” she replied.

“Don’t mind my looks. Tell me everything, quickly.”

Nance repeated the story which Hester had told her.

“A plant!” muttered Adrian under his breath.

“What did you say, Adrian? I did not hear you.”

“The devil is in this job, Nancy,” he replied; “for Heaven’s sake, leave
me for a moment.”

“Do you really think any harm has happened to the little fellow?”

“Harm? God only knows. Would I had never been born. Leave me, wife; I
shall go mad if your innocent eyes look into mine a moment longer. I must
do something, and I must be alone.”



CHAPTER XXVII.

INVISIBLE INK.


Nance left the room. The moment she closed the door behind her the master
of the Heights went straight to his desk. His brow was like thunder; his
face was white with an awful grey shadow over it.

“Long John has gone one step too far,” he muttered. “The robbery was
planned and carried out to perfection. It was done as a blind, and as a
blind it will succeed admirably; but this—this blow was aimed at me. I
have threatened to throw up the sponge. If I do, it will mean so much
that all will be up with the Silver School. Now, hear me, Heaven,”
continued the man, clenching his hand and looking up as he spoke, “I
swear, I swear that, as I live, if that boy is not back at the Heights
within twenty-four hours, I carry out my threat.”

Trembling violently, Rowton sat down before his desk and opened it. He
took out some paper of a peculiar make and quality, dipped his pen into
a small bottle which contained a preparation not in the least like
ordinary ink, and wrote a short sentence. At the end of this sentence
he appended a hieroglyphic. The paper was then folded up, put into an
envelope and directed. Having done so, Rowton put on his hat and went out.

As he was walking up the avenue, Jacob, the footman, who had been
unremitting in his active services and presence of mind during the
terrible scare of the morning, also put on his hat, and followed his
master at a respectful distance.

With quick strides, Rowton approached the little post office of the small
adjacent village. The post-mistress, who had evidently not yet heard
anything of the burglary, looked at him with some slight surprise when he
entered her shop.

“Am I in time to catch the post, Mrs. Higgins?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, just; Polly and me, we are packing the bags now.”

“Then here is a letter; hold out the bag and I’ll drop it in.”

The woman did so.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

“Now I want to send off a telegram.”

“Here are the forms, sir, and a new pen.”

Rowton scribbled two words on a telegraph form, added a brief address,
and handed it in.

“I want this to go at once,” he said.

“I’ll send it off this moment, sir; it is early, and the wires are sure
to be clear.”

“Very well, I’ll wait and see it off; it is of the utmost importance.”

The woman turned to where the little telegraphic apparatus stood, and
immediately worked off the message while Rowton stood silently by.

“Thank you,” he answered. He left the post-office as he spoke.

Just outside he ran almost into Jacob’s arms.

“What are you doing here?” cried his master with a scowl.

“I beg your pardon, sir; I saw you go out, and I thought I’d run after
you, sir, to suggest that the police should be telegraphed for from
Pitstow.”

“Aye, a good thought,” answered Rowton; “go into the office and send a
wire off immediately.”

Jacob lingered outside the post-office until his master’s figure had
vanished from view. Rowton did not once look round. When Jacob could see
him no longer, he too, went into the post-office.

“I want to send a telegram,” he said to the post-mistress; “please give
me a form.”

“Dear, dear, you must be all gone mad on the subject of telegrams,” she
answered; “there’s Mr. Rowton sending off the queerest words, enough to
frighten a body. Oh, I am not going to tell, so don’t you think it, Jacob
Short.”

She showed him with a motion of her hand where the telegraph forms were
lying. As she did so, his eyes met hers with a fixed and peculiar glance.
She faintly nodded to him, and then her face turned pale.

“Run, Polly,” she said to a rosy-cheeked girl who was helping her, “and
tell Hudson to be quick; tell him it’s time the post was off, or he will
miss the train at Pitstow.”

The girl immediately left the room.

“That was well done,” said Jacob; “now we have not a minute to lose. He
brought a letter here, did he not?”

“He did that, Mr. Short; he brought it and dropped it into the mail-bag
himself. I can’t find it, so there’s no use in your trying to meddle. It
is as much as my place is worth, even talking to you on the subject, and
if I was to do more, it’s penal servitude might hang over my head.”

“It might, or it might not,” said Jacob; “we have talked over these
matters a few times, haven’t we, Mrs. Higgins? It is rather late in the
day for you to take up this tone. I thought the matter was all arranged.
You want thirty pounds, don’t you now? You shall have it if you give me
one look at the letter which Mr. Rowton has just dropped into the bag.”

The woman hesitated again; she had a weak and somewhat cowardly type of
face—her mouth expressed greed. When Jacob spoke of the thirty pounds
which might so easily become hers, her eyes glittered with an ugly light.

“Heaven knows I do want that money,” she said, “and I don’t suppose any
harm will come of it; be quick, then, or Polly will be back.”

The woman shivered as she spoke. She lifted the flap of the counter.

“I was just about to seal the bag,” she said; “I won’t look—you do.”

Jacob slipped inside the counter. The post-mistress held the bag,
half-full of letters, for him to peep in. His eyes which were keen as an
eagle’s, quickly discovered the despatch he wanted.

He lifted it out of the bag and coolly deposited it in his pocket.

[Illustration: “He lifted the dispatch out of the bag and coolly
deposited it in his pocket.”—_Page 229._]

“No, no; that’s not fair,” she cried in terror.

“Perfectly fair,” he replied; “I’ll post it myself at Pitstow in time to
catch the same mail.”

“You cannot; it is impossible.”

“It is quite possible. Don’t keep me now, woman; here’s your thirty
pounds.” He laid an envelope on the counter, and vanished before she
could utter a word.

Going as quickly as ever his feet could carry him, Jacob approached the
nearest inn, ordered a trap and the fleetest horse in the livery stables.
He made a very plausible explanation for his hurry.

“You know all about the burglary up at the Heights,” he said—“well, I’m
off to see the police at Pitstow; my master told me to telegraph, but it
occurred to me it would be best to drive over and bring one or two of
them back with me. Now, do be quick. Half a crown to the man who brings
round the trap first.”

“It shall be at your service in three minutes at the farthest,” said the
burly host of the little village inn. He ran off to the stables, and
several men began to loaf round and eagerly question Jacob Short.

“I think I’ll go and lend a hand in putting the harness on the horse,”
said Jacob, who did not want to communicate any of his tidings to the
excited bystanders. He had reason for his hurry, for at that moment the
cart containing Her Majesty’s mail rattled up the street. Two minutes
afterwards Jacob himself was driving as fast as he could in the same
direction. He soon overtook the mail cart, nodded to the driver, whom he
happened to know slightly, and promising his own driver five shillings if
he got to Pitstow ten minutes before the mail, settled down comfortably
to consider the present position of affairs.

Pitstow was quite five miles away, and part of the road was very lonely.
When Jacob got to the lonely part, the mail-cart was so far behind that
it was not even visible. Short’s driver was smoking a cigar supplied to
him by that worthy, and happy in his own reflections, was looking the
other way. With a hasty movement, Short now took the letter which he had
abstracted from the mail-bag out of his pocket. It was addressed in an
upright and somewhat cramped hand.

“The sort of hand that ain’t natural to the writer,” muttered Short, a
gratified smile spreading over his countenance. “I’ve seen Mr. Rowton’s
own hand scores of times—big and flowing and easy, with a sort of dash
about it; now, this is as stiff and crabbed as if the writer had got the
rheumatics very bad. Let me see, to whom is it addressed?

“‘George Morton, Esq., ⸺, Redcliffe Square, London S.W.’ Well, there’s
certainly nothing remarkable in the address. George Morton—the name is
respectable, the locality good.”

Jacob held the letter close to his eyes; once again he perused the
upright, stiff hand with minute and careful attention. He presently
took a pocket-book out of his breast pocket and carefully compared the
handwriting on the envelope of the purloined letter with some handwriting
which he had in his pocket-book.

“Done, by Jove! Caught at last!” he muttered.

He slipped the pocket-book into its place, put the letter once again into
his breast pocket, and began to talk in a cheerful and lively manner to
the man who was driving him.

The subject of the burglary was, of course, the only one of the least
interest at the present moment.

“It’s the queerest thing going,” said Jacob Short’s driver; “why,
that’s the third big robbery that’s taken place in the last month or
six weeks—and the police ain’t nabbed one of the fellows yet. I can’t
understand it, can you, guv’nor?”

“Oh, the burglars will be nabbed all in good time,” said Jacob; “I should
not be a bit surprised if this robbery at the Heights last night did not
do for them. Then there’s the child, you know.”

“What child?” asked the man.

“Why, that game little chap, Master Murray Cameron, he was kidnapped,
too, last night, as well as the plate and jewels.”

The driver, a stolid-looking fellow, dropped his mouth wide open on
hearing this startling intelligence.

“Heaven preserve us!” he cried; “It is enough to terrify a body. There
seems a sort of judgment on the place. Don’t it strike you so, guv’nor?”

“It does and it doesn’t,” said Jacob; “you whip up your horse, my man.
Ah, here we are, at Pitstow, at last.”

“Shall I drive you straight to the police station?” asked the man.

“No; you put up here at the sign of the Boar; I shall want you to drive
me back before long.”

Jacob jumped off the cart and entered the inn.

“A private room, quick,” he said; “a room with a fire in it.”

Jacob was conducted into a small parlour at the back of the inn.

“You can have this room to yourself, sir,” said the landlady. “It so
happens that there’s no one using it just now, and the fire is lit all
handy.”

“That’s right,” answered Jacob; “now bring me pen, ink, and paper. I am
in a desperate hurry—I want to write an important letter to catch the
next post to London.”

“You’ll have to be quick, then,” said the landlady, glancing at the clock
over the mantelpiece as she spoke, “for the post will be cleared in ten
minutes.” She hurried out of the room to procure writing materials,
returning with them almost immediately.

“Thank you, ma’am,” answered Jacob; “and now I’ll be all the quicker if I
am left alone.”

The landlady took the hint and closed the parlour door behind her.

The moment she did so, Jacob took Rowton’s letter again out of his
pocket. He breathed on the flap, which was securely fastened down,
holding it to his mouth with one hand, while he wrote a communication
of his own, as if for life or death, with the other. At last he took
the moist letter from his mouth. With very little difficulty and with
consummate skill he unfastened the flap of the envelope and took the
letter from beneath. He opened it, to survey nothing whatever except a
perfectly blank sheet of paper.

“Ha! invisible ink,” he muttered. “Now, will it make its appearance under
the influence of fire or of water? I hope to goodness heat will do it,
for I never thought of ordering water, and the mail will be off in a few
minutes.”

He rushed to the fire as he spoke, and held the blank sheet of paper at
a little distance from the bars. After doing so for a few seconds, a
satisfied exclamation fell from his lips. Some writing of a bright blue
colour was now perfectly visible on the hitherto blank sheet of paper.
Jacob read the words, which, to an unobservant eye, meant very little:

    “Illness has increased; will call to-morrow for ultimatum.”

At the foot of this apparently unintelligible sentence was a certain
hieroglyphic of a peculiar shape and size.

After once again consulting some memoranda in his pocket-book, Jacob
re-enclosed the letter in its envelope. As he did so he observed with
satisfaction that the writing had completely disappeared. Slipping this
letter with another of his own into his pocket, he now rushed almost on
the wings of the wind to the nearest post-office. He opened the door and
went in—the mail was just being packed.

“Am I in time to post two letters?”

“Just in time, master, if you look sharp,” said the postmaster. “Here,
give ’em to me and I’ll drop ’em into the bag myself.”

Jacob did so; the letters were thrown on the top of a heap of others, and
the postmaster began to tie up the bag. Jacob went out of the post-office
with a perfectly radiant face.

“Well, Jacob Short, you’ve done a nice stroke of business to-day,” he
muttered to himself; “and now I fancy your residence at Rowton Heights
has very nearly come to an end.”

His mind was completely relieved with regard to the letter which he had
abstracted from Her Majesty’s mail in the little village near Rowton
Heights. After all, it would go by exactly the same post to town.

He now went to the police station, gave a circumstantial account of the
events of the last night, and, as he expected, was soon accompanied by
two or three of her Majesty’s constabulary back to Rowton Heights.

The rest of the day was passed, as might be imagined, in hopeless
confusion and excitement. Jacob saw very little of his master and
mistress. He was not required to wait at lunch, but was busily occupied
taking notes with the police, who required someone to help them.

Most of the guests had left or were leaving the Heights, the ladies
being, many of them, in a state of panic, and everyone earnestly wishing
to get away from a place over which a tragedy seemed now to hang. The
news of the mad lady being confined in the Queen Anne wing had got
abroad; that fact, the abstraction of the jewels, and the loss of the
child, seemed quite to change the aspect of the place. Rowton Heights
was no longer gay, cheerful, the home of brightness and frivolity.
Detectives and superintendents of police kept coming and going; the
entire house was searched from cellar to attic, the Queen Anne wing not
being excepted. Nothing of the least importance was, however discovered,
and not the faintest clue to the lost child was obtained.

Rowton, who had busied himself all day seeing to his guests and hastening
their departure, came into the room where his wife and Lady Georgina were
seated, about six o’clock in the evening.

“I cannot stand this inaction any longer,” he said. “I mean to go up to
town to-night myself.”

“Oh, take me with you,” said Nance, springing to her feet; “the fact is,
I am quite afraid to stay here alone.”

He fixed his eyes gloomily upon her—they were slightly bloodshot; his
face was more or less flushed. He looked so agitated and upset that Lady
Georgina seemed scarcely to know him.

“Will you have the goodness to stay with my wife?” he asked suddenly,
giving her a keen intelligent glance, which also seemed to her to convey
to her a certain warning.

“With pleasure,” she replied.

“But don’t leave me behind, Adrian,” cried Nance. “I know Lady Georgina
is kind, but I am terrified to be left without you. Please take me with
you to town.”

“I’ll send for you if necessary, Nancy,” he replied after a brief pause.

“You are surely not going to stay away long?” she asked with a gasp of
terror.

He did not answer her, neither did he kiss her; there was an expression
about his face which she could not fathom. Half an hour later he went
away.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

HESTER.


Jacob witnessed the parting between his master and mistress in the great
hall of the old house. Without apparently noticing anything, he yet
saw with vivid distinctness the queer grey pallor on Adrian Rowton’s
face; he noticed how Nance bit her lips, how tightly her hands were
locked together; he saw a look in her eyes which touched him in spite of
himself. The look was one of agony. As Nance bade a voiceless good-bye to
her husband, her soul seemed to look straight into his. Jacob saw it all
without appearing to see.

“Poor young lady,” he muttered under his breath; “it ain’t in me to be
very sorry for anyone, but if I could have a spice of feeling it would be
for Mrs. Adrian Rowton. She is so pretty and so kind. Whatever possessed
her to give herself up, heart and soul, to that devil-may-care chap?—and
yet, and yet, if he were not what he is, I could find it in my heart not
to be greatly surprised. Ah, my fine fellow, you’ll know what Jacob Short
has found out about you. You’ll lay low enough before long.”

As these thoughts flitted through his mind, the footman turned slowly
in the direction of the servants’ premises. He was met just outside the
servants’ hall by the housekeeper.

“Well, now,” she said, “here’s a new trouble.”

“And what is that, ma’am?” asked Jacob.

“Why, as if we had not worries enough, there’s that tiresome girl, Hester
Winsome, has gone and been taken real bad.”

“Bad?” echoed Jacob; “how so?”

“You may well ask how so.”

“Now I come to think of it,” answered Jacob, “she did look a bit queer at
dinner-time.”

“Well, she is queerer now; she is up in her room sobbing and moaning and
clasping her hands, and crying that she wishes to heaven she had never
set foot in this place, and that her pain is more than she can bear. Pain
of mind, it seems to me, for I can’t make out that there’s anything wrong
with her body.”

“I wonder, now,” said Jacob, after a somewhat long pause, during which he
was thinking deeply—“I wonder, now, if she would see me. Perhaps you have
noticed, ma’am, that I have a soothing sort of way with me.”

“Of course I’ve noticed it,” said the housekeeper. “I remarked it from
the very first. It was only half-an-hour ago I was saying to Vickers,
‘if it was not for Jacob Short I really don’t know how we’d have lived
through the day.’ He is the only one amongst us who has kept a cool head
on his shoulders.”

“Then perhaps I might soothe Hester,” answered Jacob, in his soft and
melodious voice, his face exhibiting the utmost kindness and sympathy.
“Perhaps you would not mind telling her, Mrs. Ferguson, that if she would
like to come downstairs I should be glad to have a chat with her.”

“I will,” said Mrs. Ferguson; “it is a good thought. You may do something
to make the girl unburden herself, for mind trouble I am convinced it is.”

Mrs. Ferguson trotted upstairs, and went straight to Hester’s room.

Hester was laying on the bed, face downwards; she was moaning now and
then very heavily, but otherwise lay perfectly still.

“Now, you silly girl, have you not recovered your nerve yet?” said the
housekeeper.

“It is the ache in my head, ma’am,” replied the girl; “there’s a pain
running through me at the back of my head enough to make me screech out.”

“I hope, then, you won’t screech out, for there is confusion and worry
enough without that. For my part, I have no patience with people who have
not got self-control. You get up, Hester, and come downstairs.”

“It is easy for you to speak, ma’am,” answered Hester; “your conscience
lies light enough. It was not you who sent Master Murray to the Queen
Anne wing.”

“Well, and if you did it, child,” answered the housekeeper, her voice
slightly softening, “you did it, I know, with a good motive; you ain’t to
blame for that. Now, cheer up, and come downstairs; it will do you good
to eat a bit of supper with the rest of us.”

As Mrs. Ferguson said these last words, she laid her hand on Hester’s
shoulder.

“There’s Jacob, too,” she continued. “Now, if there’s a man I do admire,
it’s Jacob. He has self-control if you like; he has a head on his
shoulders; he don’t think anything of himself. What has not he done
this day? Why, everything for everybody. Helping the police to take an
inventory of the missing plate, remembering all about it—wonderful,
too—better even than Vickers, who has been here for years, and going off
on his own accord for the police, and then seeing my master off to town.
I never had a better servant in the house, and that I will say. When I
told him about you, no one could speak nicer; he said to me at once,
looking as concerned as you please:

“‘Mrs. Ferguson, maybe I could soothe her a bit. I have a soothing way,
you might remark,’ says he.

“‘That you have,’ says I.

“‘Well, then, send her down to me and I’ll have a bit of a talk,’ says he.

“I answered that I would; so down you go now, Hester, and pour out your
mind to him. You tell him how you feel about sending the poor little chap
off to the Queen Anne wing. He’ll bring you to your senses if anyone
will.”

“I cannot go,” answered Hester, who had thrown herself back again on her
bed; “it’s useless to expect it of me—my head is so giddy that I could
not rise to save my life; you can tell Mr. Jacob so with my compliments,
Mrs. Ferguson. Perhaps I’ll be better in the morning after I have had a
bit of sleep.”

“Well, if you are as bad as all that,” answered Mrs. Ferguson, “you had
best take off your clothes and get right into bed. I’ll tell Jacob you
ain’t well enough to see him, and have gone to bed.”

“Yes, please do,” answered Hester.

Mrs. Ferguson left the room.

As soon as her footsteps died away in the distance, Hester raised her
head from the pillow and began to listen intently. Not hearing a sound,
she rose, crossed her room, and turned the key in the lock. It turned
smoothly, as if the lock had been recently oiled.

Hester then went and stood by the window. Her little room was high up
in a certain wing of the old house; it looked out across the garden.
Night had fallen over the place, and the moon, clearer and brighter than
on the previous night, lit up the landscape with a fantastic and weird
distinctness. Hester clasped her two hands above her head and gazed
steadily out. Her dark eyes were full of a curious mixture of feeling.
Emotion, despair, chased away the almost cruel expression which, on most
occasions, characterised them.

“I have gone a step too far,” she muttered. “I thought I was taking in
others, and I was took in myself. I am fit to kill myself. There, was
that nine that struck?”

A little clock on the mantelpiece had signalled the hour.

Hester went across the room to a wardrobe, which she opened. She took out
a cloak and flung it over her shoulders, and then with stealthy and swift
movements approached the door. She unlocked it and went into the passage
outside. The house was quiet as the grave; the servants were at supper
far away; the mad lady was quiet in the Queen Anne wing; Mrs. Rowton and
Lady Georgina Strong were at some distance in one of the drawing rooms.
Hester’s opportunity had come.

Quick as lightning she flew down the stairs, and a moment later found
herself under the shade of a large yew tree. The moonlight fell broadly
on the grass, but under the yew there was a shadow nearly black. As she
stood there someone touched her on the arm.

“So you’ve come,” said a man’s voice in a muffled tone.

“Yes, I am here, Jim Scrivener,” panted the girl.

“We can’t talk so near the house,” answered Scrivener.

“I know a place where we’ll be safe; follow me and keep in the shade.”

He turned abruptly. Hester, trembling in every limb, followed in his
wake.



CHAPTER XXIX.

“CALL ME DAWSON.”


Scrivener walked down a narrow winding path, and Hester followed him.
They presently found themselves under some oak trees in a little dingle,
where they were completely sheltered from view. Hester stood up to her
knees in undergrowth, but Scrivener, supporting himself against the trunk
of one of the trees, twisted his arm round a lower branch, and so raised
himself out of the brushwood. In this position he could look down on the
pale and trembling girl. Hester’s agitated face showed distinctly in the
white light of the moon. The light came in checkered bars through the
bare branches of the oak tree.

“That’s right,” said Scrivener, uttering a little sigh as he spoke; “we
can talk freely now. No one will trace us to this hiding-place. With all
their ’cuteness the police would not think that we were fools enough
to stand out in a place of this sort chatting together—and if they did
see us, why, it would not matter, for we are declared lovers, and the
fooleries of lovers is past belief, as everybody knows.”

Hester made no reply to this tirade, but her trembling lips suddenly shut
themselves firmly, and she looked boldly up into Scrivener’s face.

“Well, you are a handsome girl,” said that individual. He jumped down
from his vantage ground, and clasped her in his arms.

“Let go at once,” she cried. She raised her hands and tried to push him
from her.

“Hush, hush, old girl, not so loud,” he replied. “Why, what is the matter
with you, Hetty? Ain’t a kiss welcome from your own true love?”

“Not at present,” she answered, “and if you are my true love, I don’t
know that I am yours. You have played me false, Jim Scrivener, and I am
not sure—no, I am by no means sure—that I want to have anything to do
with you.”

“Well, now, you surprise me,” he said in astonishment which was by no
means feigned. “I thought our agreement was fair and above board. I was
to make a lady of you, Hester Winsome. With your looks, and that fine,
bold, queenly way of yours, all you want, as I tell you over and over, is
money and the name of an honest man at your back.”

“An honest man!” said Hester, her lip curling.

“Well, well,” Scrivener laughed as he spoke. “You must forgive a slip now
and then,” he continued, “and in the eyes of the world I am a rare honest
specimen, in a fair way to make a big fortune. When it is made, really
made, Hester, my girl, we will forsake all the ways of evil. There is a
new world at the other side of this old earth of ours, and we’ll settle
down there and live as honest as any people in the land. Now you know our
bargain. I am to make you a lady and my wife. We are to be married as
soon as ever the registrar will do the job. You have fulfilled your part
to the letter, splendidly, too, and now it is my turn.”

“All the same, you have deceived me,” said Hester. “We did make a
bargain, but you meant more than I knew.”

“Ha, ha, you cannot blame me for being a little cunning,” said Scrivener.
“I repeat, you did your part of the job splendidly. If I had told you
all, the fat would have been in the fire—you would never have had the
courage.”

“The courage! The cruelty, you mean,” said Hester, clasping her hands so
tightly together that the veins almost started through the skin. “You
must let me speak out, Jim Scrivener. You told me some, but not all—you
deceived me. Did you think I’d have gone as far as I did if I had really
known?”

“No, that you would not, so I kept some to myself.”

“You said you wanted to have a good look at the child—that you were
really curious about him. You wanted to know if, by-and-by, not at
present, but by-and-by, he might take to the business, the cursed
black business which I hate at this moment as much as I hate you, Jim
Scrivener. You asked me to send him round for you to squint at, as you
expressed it. How could I tell you meant to kidnap him? When he never
came back last night I guessed the whole, and I was fit to kill myself.
I have been fit to kill myself ever since. And now, look here, Jim
Scrivener, I won’t be your wife, not if it makes me the grandest lady in
the land. If you don’t do something, and pretty quick, too, I’ll tell
what I know. I don’t care if I do go to prison for it, I’ll tell what I
know.”

“Is that your real mind?” said Scrivener, coming up close to her and
looking intently into her face.

He wore an ugly look; there was a certain green tint about his face which
the moonlight intensified. His small shifty eyes looked cruel. Hester,
who had not much real courage, shrank away from him.

“We’re ugly people, we are,” said Scrivener, “good to work with but
ugly to meddle with—worse than ugly, dangerous, to cross. If you ain’t
tired of the life that beats in that pretty little body of yours, Hester
Winsome, you had better not talk in that way, for I may as well say out
flat, it would not be worth an hour’s purchase if some of our folk knew
what you just said. Look me full in the face, Hester, and repeat those
words again if you dare.”

“You know I do not dare, Jim,” she answered; “you know that you have a
terrible power over me; you know that you have had it for a long time.”

“Yes; you are completely and utterly in my power, body and soul,” said
the man. As he spoke he slipped his arm round her waist and drew her
close to him. “Body and soul, little girl,” he repeated, “you are in the
power of Jim Scrivener, of the Silver School.”

“Oh, don’t say it so loud,” she panted.

“I won’t if you don’t drive me to it. There, now you look like your old
self. Give us a kiss, gentle and pretty like. Why, I am so fond of you,
Hetty, that there’s nothing I would not do for you but put my own neck
in jeopardy, and that’s more than any girl can expect.”

“Yes, I know, Jim,” she replied, seeing it was best to humour him, “and,
of course, I would not tell for all the world. But, look here, Jim,
couldn’t you manage to get the little chap back again? You cannot really
want a little fellow like that. Why, what can he do for you?”

“We want him as a draw,” said Scrivener. “You let him alone; you won’t
see him for the present.”

“Oh, Jim, I feel as if I’d go mad when I think of him. I don’t mind a bit
about the jewels nor the silver, nor, for that matter, about Mr. Rowton,
but I do care for that nice little fellow. Oh, there’s no knowing what
harm he will come to—and it is my doing. I shall feel that it’s my doing
to my dying day.”

“The kid will come to no harm, silly girl.”

“But where is he, Jim? You might tell me, seeing that you love me so
much.”

Scrivener laughed.

“Not I,” he answered. “I do love you, and you’re an uncommon pretty girl,
and I’ll make you a real affectionate sort of husband. You’ll be loving
to me, and I’ll be loving to you, and we’ll be like a pair of turtle
doves together. There, now you are looking at me in your old pretty way.
Upon my word, I am all impatient for the ceremony to take place. You
are not to know where the little chap is, Hester, but there, I’ll say
something to comfort you. He is snug enough and will come to no harm.
Long John has got him, and Long John ain’t to be gainsaid, not by any
silly girl that ever breathed, so you stop whining in that way, and let
us go to the real business which has brought me here.”

“Yes,” she said, controlling herself with a mighty effort.

Suddenly she raised her eyes, which were full of tears.

“I see you won’t tell, and I must be content,” she said. “Will you swear
faithful, then, Jim, that if I do go on bearing this awful weight on my
conscience, no real harm will happen to the child?”

“Yes, I can swear that right enough. At the very worst, the little
fighting-cock will only enter on a short and a merry life. Why, Hetty,”
continued the man, “think of what it all means—lots of money, lots of
excitement, hairbreadth escapes, adventures no end.”

“Prison afterwards, penal servitude, and worse perhaps,” she muttered
under her breath.

“True enough,” replied the man. “I ain’t one to shut my eyes to the
danger; we most of us go that way in the long run; we make up our minds
to that from the first. Why, it is part of the excitement. The fear, for
I suppose it is a sort of fear, makes the pleasure of the present all the
greater. Oh, girl, it is a mad, merry life, and I would not change it for
twenty of the humdrum existences of the city clerk and the other poor,
half-starved beggars I see around me. Now then, my pretty one, when shall
the marriage bells chime?”

“Not yet,” she answered; “I don’t want to be your wife yet awhile.”

“Yes, but I want you to. You know too much, Hester Winsome; you must join
us out and out now, or take the consequences.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning pale.

For answer, Scrivener once again put his arm round her waist, drew her
close to him, put his hand under her chin, and looked fixedly into her
eyes. Then he whispered a short sentence into her ear.

Whatever he told her had a queer effect. She turned first a vivid red,
and then white to her lips; her slender figure swayed as if she would
faint, and were the man not supporting her, she must have fallen.

“There’s a brave lass,” he said; “you have taken it as I knew you would.
You must make the best of things now, my beauty. I go back to town
to-morrow, or perhaps to-night, and I’ll see what the registrar requires.
It is my belief, as I have been so long in the place, that we can be
married at very short notice. Now, you leave your present situation in a
week or ten days at the farthest. Why, look here, I am no end of a swell
in town. You’ll be surprised when I take you to your home. In my own way
I am as good as Silver—yes, that I am. I believe his dame was a good bit
taken aback when she came here; so you’ll be when I take you to my humble
dwelling, pretty Hetty. Now let me hear from those beautiful rosebud lips
that you’ll soon be mine.”

“I’ll soon be yours, Jim,” answered the girl, “though I am in no end of a
funk.”

The man laughed. He pressed Hetty close to him, and began to kiss her on
her lips and forehead. She submitted to his caresses, shutting her eyes
and trying to keep back the agony which was really filling her heart.

“That’s all right,” said Scrivener. “You give notice to quit to-morrow,
do you hear?”

“Yes, Jim.”

“You had best not give too short notice, or it might rouse suspicion. Say
you are engaged to be married to a respectable man in a way of business.
You might call me Dawson if you like; it don’t much matter; the less
you bring in names, the better, only if you are driven to it, say the
man’s name is Sam Dawson. Then at the end of the fortnight you go up to
town, and I’ll meet you at King’s Cross and take you right away to my
own house. I think that’s all now. You had best slip back, or you may be
suspected.”

“Very well, Jim, I’ll do what you say, for I cannot help myself. I
suppose you are going to town?”

“You had best not know where I am going. Leave me to manage my own
affairs. If you don’t know, you can’t tell. There, good-bye.”



CHAPTER XXX.

MRS. LARKINS.


George Morton, of ⸺, Redcliffe Square, was supposed by his many friends
to be a retired solicitor. He was a man who lived in a comfortable
and respectable way, who gave largely to charities, who was a good
Church member, an affectionate father, and a kind husband. He was much
respected and looked up to in the neighbourhood, and no one would suspect
him of having anything to do with that disgraceful thing, an alias.
Nevertheless, Long John, of the Silver School, and George Morton, of
Redcliffe Square, were one and the same individual. He received Rowton’s
letter in the course of the evening, and its contents by no means
surprised him. The telegram, which had come early in the day, had given
him quite to understand that this troublesome member of his mob or school
was in a state of insurrection. Morton read the letter calmly, slipped
it into his pocket, and proceeded to discuss the soup in his plate. His
wife, a pretty little woman, who had not the faintest idea that her
husband was other than what he represented himself to be, looked at him
with the dawn of anxiety on her face.

“Does anything worry you, George?” she asked.

“No, nothing. Why do you ask?” he replied. He gave her a glance out of
his big and beautiful eyes, and she knew at once that he did not wish to
be questioned further.

“Have you to go out to-night, dear?” was her next query.

“Yes,” he answered; “I have just received a letter which requires
immediate attention.”

“Has it anything to do with the telegram which I opened in your absence?”
she asked—“the telegram with the queer words, ‘death imminent.’”

“I wish, Alice,” he answered, “that in future you would not open my
telegrams. No, the letter has nothing whatever to do with the telegram.
The latter referred to an affair on the Stock Exchange, and was a cipher.”

“Oh!” she answered, looking puzzled, as he meant her to be. “Then you
cannot come with me to the Norrises’ ‘At Home’?“ she said after a longer
pause.

“Not to-night; I must go to my club. I cannot say when I shall be in, so
will take the latchkey. Don’t sit up for me.”

Having finished his dinner, Morton presently went out.

His wife nodded brightly to him when he bade her good-bye, and soon
afterwards she went upstairs to her nursery. She kissed her children and
heard them say their prayers, and then went to dress for the “At Home,”
to which Morton could not accompany her.

       *       *       *       *       *

At about the time that Long John, or Morton, received Rowton’s letter,
the detective, Crossley, had an epistle of extreme interest from Jacob
Short, the footman at Rowton Heights. He read it over with care and
conned the last sentence with special interest.

    “There’s no doubt,” wrote Short, “that we have found our man.
    He answers in every respect to the description which you
    have had by you for so many years. The only thing now left
    to discover is the mark on the upper lip. The man whom we
    suspect—for safety I name no names here—although clean shaven
    otherwise, wears a long and heavy moustache. I have tried once
    or twice to steal secretly into his room when he was sleeping.
    It even occurred to me to drug his wine, in order to ensure
    that he might have such deep repose that I could lift his
    moustache without his noticing it; but that opportunity has
    never come. I doubt, too, whether the man, who is naturally
    all suspicion, could arrive at such a state of slumber that
    I could effect my object. It is necessary, of course, to
    discover this mark, and it is my opinion that the wife is
    the only person who will be able to find out whether her
    husband conceals under his moustache the death’s head and
    arrow.”

“True,” said Crossley to himself, “too true.”

Having finished his letter he put it into his pocket, and soon afterwards
went out. Hailing a cab, he drove to an address in Lambeth. His hansom
turned into a shabby side street, and drew up before a small and
decidedly common order of house. Crossley ran up the steps and rang the
bell. After a moment’s delay, a woman opened the door and stood before
him. She was a pale, anxious-faced woman, of middle age, untidy in
appearance, with unkempt, disorderly hair. Her eyes were sunken into her
head as if she had indulged in much and constant weeping. When she saw
Crossley, the colour rushed into her face, and she gave a violent and
perceptible start.

“How do you do, Mrs. Larkins?” said the detective.

Mrs. Larkins dropped a curtsey. Her words, when they did come out, were
uttered so quickly that they seemed to tumble one on top of the other.

“I beg your pardon, sir, I did not know you for the instant, standing
with your back to the light. Come in, sir, if you please.”

Crossley entered the little house without a word. The woman took him
into her parlour. She was a sempstress; a sewing machine stood on the
centre table, and a lot of plain linen was scattered about. A couple of
children, dirty and ill-fed, were quarrelling on the hearth-rug. They did
not look up or desist from their occupation of pulling each other’s hair
when Crossley and the mother entered.

“Send them away,” said the detective, pointing to them; “I want to see
you alone, and I am in a great hurry.”

“Run upstairs to granny, dears,” said the woman to the children. “Ask
granny to give you a bit of supper and put you to bed.”

“Granny says there ain’t nothing for supper except dry bread,” piped the
elder child, “and I don’t want dry bread; do you, Bobby?”

“No,” said Bobby, beginning to whimper. “I want cake.”

“Here,” said Crossley, putting his hand into his pocket and pulling out
half-a-crown, “take this to your granny and tell her to buy you some
cake.”

The elder child, young as she was, knew the value of money. She clutched
the coin eagerly, and ran out of the room, followed by her small brother.

“Them children, and myself, for that matter, are half starved,” said Mrs.
Larkins. “I’ve worked ’ard, as you can see, sir, but I can’t make the two
ends meet, no matter how I try. It do seem bitter ’ard, Mr. Crossley,
that you should not let me have the twenty pounds my husband hid away for
me. He knew well when he hid the money in that mug behind the dresser
that an evil day would come. He knew I would be safe to find the money
the first time I turned the room out. I say again, sir, it do seem ’ard
you should have taken it, for it were meant for me.”

“Shut up, woman,” said Crossley, “and let me speak. I did what I did for
a good purpose, and could do no otherwise. Your husband’s trial comes on
at the next assizes; he is certain to get his five years at the least.”

“Do you think so, indeed, sir? Oh, my poor Bill. And whatever will become
of me?” The woman raised her apron to her eyes and began to sob.

“It is impossible for me to say. Now, listen and stop crying if you can.
The fact is this; I know your case is a hard one. I have thought a good
bit about you and that twenty pounds which your husband saved away for
you in case he should be nabbed, as nabbed he was certain to be in the
end.”

“Yes, yes, sir, I am not going to defend him, but that money I do believe
he come by honest.”

“The less we talk on that subject, the better,” said Crossley. “Well,
now, look here. I found the money, and as, of course, I ought, I took it
with me because you had no possible right to it; but it so happens that
at the present moment I have got twenty pounds in my pocket—here, in my
waistcoat.” Crossley tapped himself as he spoke.

“Oh, sir, _that_ twenty pounds?”

“No matter to you what twenty pounds. I have twenty pounds in my pocket,
and you shall have it—yes, every penny of it, all in gold sovereigns,
too, if you’ll do what I want.”

“I’m sure there’s nothing I would not do for the money,” began Mrs.
Larkins.

“Then that is all right; you are a sensible woman when all is said and
done. Now, you just give me a little bit of information.”

At these words the poor woman’s face, which had gradually begun to
assume an expression of hope, turned once again to its old death-in-life
appearance. She shook her head feebly, and taking up a long seam of
needlework began to sew at it. “I cannot tell on poor Bill’s pals,”
she said; “no, I can’t, it’s no use asking me, so there. I won’t give
evidence agin them.”

“Very well,” said Crossley, “I can only say I am sorry for you. It is
quite out of my power to give you twenty pounds for nothing. If you help
me, I’ll help you. That is fair and above board, isn’t it? Now, will you
speak or will you not?”

“I cannot, sir; I really cannot.”

“Well, well, you have something to sell, and I want to buy it. I offer a
good price, but if you won’t accept, there’s an end of the matter. Good
evening to you, Mrs. Larkins.” Crossley placed his hat on his head as he
spoke and made for the door.

“Oh, sir!” said the poor woman, “if only you would see your way to give
me five pounds out of the twenty. Even five would save me, sir. I can’t
pay the rent, and we’ll be turned out next week, and everybody knows I am
the wife of a thief, and I can’t get employment, except this sort, and
this sort is starvation, it really is.”

“Now look here, my good woman,” said Crossley, returning once more and
taking up his stand on the hearth rug, “don’t you think you are a bit of
a fool? What are you making all these bones about? You want the money,
and I am willing to give it to you. I want to buy something which you can
sell. Now, if I promise absolute secrecy, will you tell me what you know
on a certain point?”

“Oh, if I thought it would never get abroad, of course I would,” said the
woman.

“Your name will never be breathed in the business—that I swear to you. I
want this information for my own private reasons.”

“And you’ll give me Bill’s twenty pounds, sir?”

“I’ll give you twenty pounds before I leave this house, but you need not
call it Bill’s unless you like. I advise you not to for your own sake.”

The woman was silent for a moment. Taking out a handkerchief, she wiped
some moisture from her forehead. After a pause, she said abruptly:

“Very well, I’ll tell. I hope to heaven I ain’t doing nothing wrong.”

“Of course you’re not; you are a wise woman who simply knows when her
bread is buttered. Come here to the light. Do you know this? Have you
ever seen anything like it before?”

As he spoke, Crossley held a fragment of the letter, which for so many
years he had kept in his possession, before Mrs. Larkins’ eyes.

“Yes, sir, I seem to know it,” she replied, turning white.

“It is queer writing, is it not?”

“Oh, yes, sir, very queer.”

“And you are sure you have seen it before?”

“Well, yes, sir, I am positive.”

“Tell me when and how.”

“Well, my husband got letters writ like that more than once—several
times. Once he left a letter about and I puzzled to read it. Of course, I
could not make out a single word, and he laughed at me trying to get at
the back of the cipher as he called it.”

“You are quite right; this letter is written in cipher. Now, can you tell
me the name of the writer?”

“No, sir.”

“No, Mrs. Larkins! Remember your twenty pounds.”

“Even for that I cannot tell what I do not know, sir. I do not know the
name of the writer of that letter.”

“Have you ever seen him?”

“Oh, that’s another matter,” said Mrs. Larkins. “Yes, I’ve seen him; he
come here once or twice—once he came and stayed over an hour; he and my
husband talked in this ’ere room.”

“And you saw him?”

“I see him come and go. The light fell on his face.”

“You would know him again, would you?”

“Yes, sir, well.”

“Well enough to swear to him?”

“I think so, sir.”

“What sort of a man was he? Describe him as well as you can.”

“So dark that he looked almost like a foreign chap,” said Larkins’ wife;
“taller than most men, and broader. He wore a hat slouched down over his
eyes, so I could not see his face, but his voice was deep and full, and
had a fierce sort of note in it.”

“Would you say, now, that he was a gentleman?”

“Oh, yes, he had the way of one—’aughty he were, and proud as a lord.”

“Well, now, think a minute: you are quite sure you never heard his name?”

“No, that I didn’t; but Bill was mighty flustered the last time he came
here. I were in the next room for a bit, and I ’eard my husband and this
gentleman talk about a robbery which they meant to commit in the north of
England. I believe it were a bank they wanted to rob. Someone, whose name
I could not catch, had said they were to do the job between them—that is,
my man was to do the real business, and the other man was to watch and
to look on. That’s all I ever heard, and it’s my belief the robbery never
came off—but I remember they planned it.”

“Here,” said Crossley suddenly, taking a photograph out of his pocket;
“you say you would know your man if you saw him again?”

“I would, sir.”

“Was he anything like this?”

[Illustration: “Here,” said Crossley, taking a photograph out of his
pocket; “was he anything like this?”—_Page 259._]

“Why, yes, sir,” said Mrs. Larkins, turning pale, “that were ’im. I could
not mistake him. Oh, sir, you swear you won’t get me into trouble for
this. It seems as if I were telling you too much.”

“Not a bit of it. I swear that your name shall never come out in this
matter. Now, here’s your twenty pounds. I believe you have told me all
you know truthfully, and you can do no more.”

“Heaven bless you, sir,” called Mrs. Larkins after him when Crossley went
away.

Before the indefatigable detective went to bed that night he wrote the
following letter, which was addressed to Mrs. Adrian Rowton, Rowton
Heights, near Pitstow, Yorkshire, and ran as follows:

    “MADAM,

    “I have some painful news to impart to you in connection with
    the business which has occupied my attention for so many years.
    I wish to heaven your father were still alive so that I might
    break it to him instead of to you, but it being your express
    wish that the thing should go on to the bitter end, I have no
    help for it, but to summon you to town as quickly as possible.
    On receipt of this letter, which I calculate will reach you
    about noon to-morrow, will you take the next train from Pitstow
    to King’s Cross? I will meet you at King’s Cross and bring
    you straight here to my own house. I shall have something to
    communicate to you then which will fall as a blow on you,
    madam. I trust to your good sense, however, to keep up under
    these afflicting circumstances, and to remember the solemn
    promise you are under to your late father.

    “I am, Madam,

                     “Your respectful servant,

                                                “ROBERT CROSSLEY.”



CHAPTER XXXI.

A SUMMONS.


Nance received Crossley’s letter about noon on the following day. Lady
Georgina was, of course, still with her. Nance and this lady were
standing by the drawing-room window when Jacob brought in the letter.
Before he left the room, he perceived the death like hue which spread
over his young mistress’s face.

“When all is said and done, mine is an odious calling,” he muttered to
himself. He went straight to the housekeeper’s room.

“Mrs. Ferguson,” he said, “even at the risk of incurring your
displeasure, I must ask you to give me another holiday.”

“What, Jacob, another! Really, what servants are coming to in this day
passes belief. The old business, is it?”

“Yes, ma’am, the old trouble,” answered Jacob.

“Well, well, I am sorry for you. You’ll be back to-morrow?”

“Certain, sure, ma’am, and I am much obliged.”

Jacob left the room.

He had scarcely done so when the drawing-room bell summoned him to appear
there.

Mrs. Rowton was standing by a table—she was taking up and putting down
some new magazines—there was an abstracted and somewhat alarmed look on
her face. When Jacob appeared she started.

“Did you ring, madam?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Will you, please, go to the stables at once, and
desire the coachman to bring the carriage round to meet the next train to
town?”

“The covered carriage, madam?”

“Yes, the brougham with the basket on top for luggage.”

“Very well, madam; the next train leaves for town at 3.30,” answered
Jacob.

“Desire the carriage to be round in good time.”

“Now it is my turn,” said Lady Georgina, who had sat quite silent during
all this time by the window. She approached the table where Nance was
standing. “May I ask, Nancy Rowton,” she said, “if that mysterious letter
was from your husband?”

“It was not,” answered Nance.

“Ah! that is strange; and yet the letter was a summons for you to go to
town?”

“Yes, it was,” replied Nance.

“And not from your husband?”

“No.”

“You are going to obey the summons, child?”

“I am, Lady Georgina.”

“You won’t tell me what it is all about?”

“I cannot; you must not question me.”

“Then, at least understand one thing,” said Lady Georgina in a determined
voice—“where you go, I go.”

“You!” answered Nance, looking up with a queer expression in her eyes.
Her mouth suddenly twitched with emotion which she could scarcely control.

“No,” she said, “you are kind—you are very kind, you are my best friend
after my husband, but I must do this thing alone. It is part of the agony
that it must be done alone and without help; I must consult no one. I
must go to town by myself.”

“My dear little girl, you must do nothing of the kind. I have no wish to
spy into your secret. You can see whoever you wish to see by yourself,
but your husband put you into my care, and where you go, Nancy, I go.”

“As you please; I have no strength to argue about the matter,” said Nancy
in a faint voice.

She went up to her room to put on her travelling cloak and bonnet, and
found Hester waiting for her. Hester was neatly dressed in her travelling
things.

“Of course you want me to go with you, madam?” she said.

“I think not, Hester,” replied Nance, “If I stay in town for any length
of time I will telegraph to you to join me, but you are not to accompany
me to-day.”

“As you please, of course, madam. I have packed everything you will
require, and, of course, shall be in readiness to go to town the moment
I receive your telegram.” Hester took off her hat as she spoke. Her face
was very pale.

“You don’t look well,” said Nancy, whose heart was never too much
troubled to forget to notice the pains and sorrows of others.

“I have been having bad head-aches lately,” replied the girl, turning
crimson; then she added after a pause, as she held out her mistress’s
cloak for her to put on, “I don’t know if Mrs. Ferguson acquainted you
with the fact, madam, that I must leave your service.”

“Indeed,” replied Nance. She would have liked to have added that she was
sorry, but the words were arrested on her lips. She knew in her heart of
hearts that Hester’s absence would be a relief.

“Yes, madam,” continued the girl, “I am leaving in about a fortnight.
Mrs. Ferguson says she can easily supply my place, and as I am to be
married——”

“Married!” cried Nancy; “you are leaving because of that?”

“Yes, madam, I expect to be married in a fortnight from now.”

The sound of wheels was heard crunching the gravel outside.

“I must go,” said Nance, catching up her gloves and muff. “Good-bye,
Hester; you can tell me all about your future prospects when next we
meet—who your husband is to be, and all about it. Good-bye.”

Nance nodded kindly and left the room. A moment or two later, she and
Lady Georgina were driving to Pitstow station. They reached it in good
time, took their train, and presently found themselves steaming quickly
in the direction of London. They had a first-class compartment to
themselves.

“I have a fear,” said Nance suddenly, “which I cannot account for, nor
explain away.”

“You mean that you dread our dear little Murray may not be quickly
found?” said Lady Georgina.

“No,” answered Nance after a pause; “it would be wrong to deceive you or
to make you think me better than I am. I love Murray, but my fear is not
about him.”

“Then what is it about, child? Ah, you need not tell me—you are troubled
about your husband?”

“He is unhappy, and he is away. I am much, much troubled.”

“You are naturally nervous,” replied Lady Georgina. “Now, if you had
known that good Adrian Rowton as long as I have, nothing that he did or
said would surprise you—in short, you would cease to be nervous about one
who is unaccountable. His ways are unaccountable, so is his mind, so also
doubtless is his heart.”

“No, no, there never was a heart like his,” interrupted Nance.

“It shows its sunny side to you,” replied Lady Georgina; “to others——”
she paused, her bright dancing eyes became grave. “Adrian comes of an
eccentric family,” she continued, “eccentric to the verge—yes, I may as
well say it, of insanity. His sister, poor thing! has been insane for
years. Report whispers that Adrian gave her a dreadful shock, soon after
Murray’s birth. Anyhow she went completely off her head, and has been
insane ever since. As to Adrian himself, he has his own mad points. Oh,
my dear child, there have been occasions when I have thought him as mad
as a hatter, but all the same, I repeat once again, I have never met a
more fascinating, a braver or more attractive man.”

“Thank you for those good words,” Nance said impulsively.

She left her seat, crossed the carriage, put her arms round Lady
Georgina’s neck, and kissed her.

“Thank you,” she repeated; “when even for a moment you see my husband as
he really is, you give me inexpressible comfort.”

“It is my honest opinion,” continued Lady Georgina, “that the only very
great trouble you have to bear at present is the mysterious absence of
dear little Murray. Your husband is doubtless taking steps to discover
his whereabouts in town. As to his conduct in other respects, remember
that I think nothing at all about it. He is queer, but not mad; he will
never kick over the traces, or go too far in any one direction. You will
most likely meet him to-morrow or the next day in London. By the way, do
you know his address?”

“No.”

“I thought as much. Does he never give you his address when he leaves
you?”

“He has not done so hitherto.”

“Again I may say, that I thought as much,” replied Lady Georgina,
tapping her foot impatiently. “Did you really have no directions where
letters are to be forwarded to?”

“No.”

“Where do you propose to spend the night yourself?”

“I cannot tell, Lady Georgina. I only know that I am going to town; after
that all is blank.”

“Then, my dear, it is a blessing I am with you. We will put up at the
Universal Hotel. It is large and central, and the very moment we take
rooms there we will wire to Rowton Heights to tell the servants our
whereabouts.”



CHAPTER XXXII.

A RED TRACK.


When the train arrived at King’s Cross, Crossley was waiting on the
platform. A quick glance showed him Nancy’s pale face in the window of a
first-class compartment. He went forward to meet her.

“Thank you for answering my letter so promptly, Mrs. Rowton,” he said. “I
have a carriage outside; may I take you at once to my house?”

At this moment Lady Georgina touched Nancy on the arm.

“Introduce me to the gentleman,” she said.

“Mr. Crossley, Lady Georgina Strong,” said Nance.

Crossley bowed. Lady Georgina favoured him with an intensely earnest
glance. She saw a man of middle height, dressed in the correct garb of
an ordinary gentleman. He had a pleasant face, and looked eminently
respectable.

“Lady Georgina has been kind enough to accompany me to town, Mr.
Crossley,” said Mrs. Rowton.

“Yes,” said Lady Georgina, “I have come with this lady because she is too
young and inexperienced to take care of herself—also because her husband
left her in my charge. She says that she has come up to London on receipt
of a letter. May I ask, sir, if you are the writer?”

“I am, madam. I am anxious to see Mrs. Rowton on a private matter of much
importance.”

“Yes, Lady Georgina, it is quite a secret,” said Nance.

“I am aware of that fact,” said Lady Georgina. “Well, sir,” she
continued, “here is Mrs. Rowton. You are at liberty to tell her what you
please. Where do you propose to take her to communicate your tidings?”

“To my own house, madam.”

“And where is your house?”

“It is a good way from here—near Clapham Common—but, expecting the lady,
I ordered a private carriage, which is waiting for us at the present
moment, and we can reach the house in about an hour from now.”

“Very well,” answered Lady Georgina, “only please understand that where
Mrs. Rowton goes I go.”

The luggage was secured and put upon the top of the private carriage,
which Crossley had hired from a livery stable not far from his own house.
Lady Georgina and Nance entered, but the detective preferred sitting with
the driver on the box, he said.

“The mystery thickens, but excitement suits me,” said Lady Georgina with
a sigh, which she quickly suppressed as the horses started forward at a
good pace, and they soon left King’s Cross behind them.

In the course of an hour they reached Crossley’s house. The moment they
got within, Nance, who had been absolutely silent during the long drive,
spoke.

“I am anxious to see you alone at once, Mr. Crossley,” she said.

She raised her eyes to the detective’s face as she spoke. He was placing
his hat on the stand in the little narrow hall.

“Very well, madam, I wish to tell you my tidings without delay,” he
replied.

“Then will you kindly show Lady Georgina to one room and take me to
another?”

“May I take you to my drawing-room, madam?” said Crossley, bowing to Lady
Georgina.

He opened a door on one side of the hall as he spoke, and ushered
Lady Georgina into a small room, furnished in the ordinary style of a
drawing-room of that class of house. There was a centre table on which
some newspapers and one or two gaudily-bound books were placed. A
paraffin lamp stood in the centre of the table, a bright fire burned in
the grate; an easy-chair of old-fashioned make stood beside the fire.

“I shall do well here,” said Lady Georgina. “Do not pray give me another
thought, only let me know when you have quite done with Mrs. Rowton.”

“One word, madam,” said Crossley, dropping his voice to a whisper. “I
count it a providential arrangement that you are with the young lady. I
have sore tidings for her. Heaven knows she will need help.”

There was a note in the detective’s voice which startled Lady Georgina,
who was not a woman affected by nerves. She made no reply, however,
beyond an emphatic nod of her head. The detective left the room, closing
the door behind him. He took Nance at once into his private study, and
motioned her to a chair. She loosened her cloak, but did not sit.

“I prefer to stand,” she said. “I want, Mr. Crossley, to learn your
tidings at once and without preface.” She fixed her eyes on him as she
spoke.

“How will she bear it?” thought the detective to himself. “I wish I had
never gone into this business. Who would have thought that it would have
come out as it has? Poor young lady, I cannot bear to meet her eyes.”

“You have prepared me for something very dreadful,” said Nance; “but
please understand it is not the news itself, but the suspense which is
really killing me. Speak! tell me what you have discovered.”

“I have very grave tidings, Mrs. Rowton,” said the man. “It is impossible
for me to tell them you in half a dozen words. You have got to listen to
a certain story. Believe me, I will not keep you in suspense a minute
longer than I can help.”

“Begin, then,” said Nance.

A chair was standing near. She caught the back of it with one trembling
hand, and stood very upright, facing the detective, who placed himself
on the hearth-rug with his back to the fire.

“I believe,” said Crossley, in a low but very firm voice, “that I have at
last found the man who murdered your brother.”

“I thought as much,” said Nance. She spoke faintly.

“His name?” she said then after a pause.

“I will come to the name in a few minutes, madam. I have, I believe,
found the man. You remember when I visited you at the Heights about two
months ago that I then spoke of certain suspicions?”

“You did. Pardon me, why must we go into that? Can you not put me out of
suspense at once?”

“I must tell my story in my own way, Mrs. Rowton. Believe me, my task is
no easy one.”

“I will have patience,” said Nance. “I beg you to forgive me for showing
want of self-control.”

“I more than forgive you, my young lady. I will say something more; I
wish to Heaven I had never touched this business. But, now to proceed.
The suspicions I had two months ago led me to place a detective belonging
to my own staff on your premises.”

“Yes,” said Nance, “you sent Jacob Short, our very excellent footman,
down to the Heights. He was a good servant, and for my part, I seldom
remembered that he was anything else. But I recall now your words at
the time. You said the scent lay red round Rowton Heights. I did not
understand you.”

“Very likely not,” said Crossley. “Nevertheless, before I proceed any
further, allow me to remind you, madam, that I earnestly begged of you
to give up the search.”

“And I refused to do so,” said Nancy. “We need not revert to that again.
I had vowed to go on with the thing—my vow was given to a dying man. I
will go on with it to the bitter end.”

“Very well, madam, I have now to proceed with my story. Jacob Short went
to Rowton Heights and did the work which I had expected him to do. The
suspicions which I entertained before he arrived there were abundantly
confirmed by evidence which he was able to collect.”

Nance came a step nearer.

“What do you mean?” she said. “Do you infer,” she moistened her lips,
they were so dry she could scarcely get out the words—“do you really
infer that the murderer, the man who took the life of my young brother,
was really an inmate of Rowton Heights?”

The detective nodded.

“This is fearful! Who could it be? One of the servants? Surely not
Vickers—not Hamley.”

“You must have patience, madam; you will know all in a few minutes.”

Nance again grasped the back of the chair and stood firm.

“You remember,” continued Crossley, looking fixedly at her as he spoke,
“the evidence which I had in hand from the beginning. There was found
near the body of the murdered man a torn piece of paper, which contained
some writing in cipher; at the bottom of the cipher was a hieroglyphic
of peculiar shape and size. On the night of the murder, a friend of the
murdered man saw a man escaping from the café—a tall, dark, fine-looking
man, with a peculiar mark on his upper lip. That man was searched for by
the police, but he was not heard of again. On that evidence I had to work
up my case. The most important part of the evidence was contained in the
torn paper which held the cipher.

“After long toil and weeks of labour I became acquainted with the key
of the cipher, and was able to read what was written on the torn bit of
paper. It was incriminating to the last degree, showing that the murder
was premeditated, for it was an appointment to meet your brother at the
café where he lost his life. From that day to now my object, madam,
has been to find the man who used that cipher and that hieroglyphic. I
obtained a certain clue which made me think it probable that I should
find him in your house. Yes, Mrs. Rowton, in your house.

“I sent Jacob there for the purpose of rendering my suspicions
certainties. He worked well, his object being to find the cipher and
hieroglyphic, which had already been used on the piece of paper found
close to the murdered man in the possession of the suspected party. For
this purpose he made friends with a woman who kept a small post-office
in the village near your home. He also left not a stone unturned to make
investigations at the Heights itself. Yesterday morning, madam, a man
living on your premises wrote a letter to town in the same cipher and
signed it with the same hieroglyphic which was used when your brother
was murdered more than six years ago.

“This is terrible! it excites me beyond measure. Go on; tell me the rest
quickly.”

“Jacob Short sent me full particulars,” continued Crossley, “and acting
on them I went to see a woman last night whose husband belongs to a
celebrated gang or school of burglars, known to us police as the Silver
School. The man has not long ago been arrested on a charge of uttering a
forged cheque. I thought it possible that the wife might know something
about the man who wrote the cipher and who lived at Rowton Heights. I
went to her last night and taxed her with her knowledge, believing, as I
will explain, that her husband and this man belonged to the same School.
Under pressure, she told me what she knew. She described the man who used
that cipher and who signed his name with that special hieroglyphic. She
described him as I expected her to describe him, but she could not tell
me his name, for that had always been hidden from her. I had a photograph
in my possession, however, which I showed her, and she identified the
photograph with the man. There is no doubt that this man and the woman’s
husband had been employed in the same nefarious work.”

“You absolutely bewilder me,” said Nance. “Then this ruffian has not only
taken human life, but he is also a burglar. And you tell me calmly to my
face that this fiend has lived in the house with my husband and myself.
Have you arrested him, Mr. Crossley?”

Nancy Rowton’s eyes became full of fire—a passion of absolute revenge
gave to her face a totally foreign appearance.

“Have you arrested the scoundrel?” she repeated.

“I cannot arrest him at present,” answered Crossley. “To complete my
evidence there is one last link wanting. The man who murdered your
young brother not only used the cipher which I have discovered and the
hieroglyphic, but he wore on his face a peculiar mark, a mark so uncommon
and so impossible to hide that by that alone he might be identified at
any time. My man, Short, found the cipher and the hieroglyphic, but it
was, as he said, completely outside his province to discover the mark.
When we find the man with the mark on his upper lip, we have found,
beyond doubt, the murderer of your brother. I regret to say, madam, that
no one can give us that last evidence but yourself.”

“I?” said Nance. “Impossible! You cannot know what you are saying. I?”

“Yes, Mrs. Rowton, that is your painful duty—that is, if you still wish
me to go on with the search.”

“Of course I wish you to go on with it. My heart is on fire—my noble
young brother—my father’s life sacrificed. Go on with the search? Yes,
yes, I say to the bitter end. I would see that man on the gallows if I
could. I have taken a vow in this matter.”

“There are some vows which are bad,” said the detective; “some vows are
better broken than kept. I speak against my own calling when I remind you
of that, Mrs. Rowton. I am interested in this case. It is, I admit, a
very terrible one. Madam, you must prepare for a blow. It belongs to my
calling to know something of human nature. I think I read you right. I
think I am not mistaken. You love your husband?”

“Love him,” said Nance. Her face, which had looked fierce and unwomanly,
underwent an instant change. “You have no right to ask me that question,”
she continued. “Nevertheless,” she added, raising her voice and speaking
with sudden and unlooked for strength, “I will answer it. Yes, I love my
husband. There are no words in any language to express my unalterable
love.”

She no longer leant against the chair—she stood upright, her hands
hung at her sides, her head was flung back. There was not the faintest
suspicion in her voice, in her face, of the awful news which the
detective was trying to break to her. He was silent for nearly a minute,
puzzled how to proceed. She herself helped him at last.

“I cannot understand,” she said, “why it is left to me to make the final
and last discovery. If you have done all else, why not complete it? The
man who possesses the cipher and who has used it, who possesses the
hieroglyphic and who has used it, must be the man who also possesses the
mark. Find the mark for yourself, Mr. Crossley.”

“The mark, Mrs. Rowton, is on the face—on the upper lip. It is small,
but distinct. It alters the complete character of the mouth, being a
death’s head and arrow tattooed on the lip. How done and for what purpose
I cannot tell you. Now, the man whom we suspect has covered that mark by
means of a moustache. My servant would have completed the task himself,
but he found it difficult—impossible.”

“A man who lives at Rowton Heights with a moustache,” said Nance,
laughing somewhat unsteadily. “You must surely be mistaken, for I know
everyone in my own house. The servants, of course, do not wear hair on
their faces. In fact, no one wears a moustache except my husband.” She
stopped, and looked with dilated eyes at the detective.

“That is true, Mrs. Rowton. No one wears a moustache but your husband,
Adrian Rowton.”

“What can you mean? You look at me in a very queer way. What is your
meaning? Speak.”

“I mean this, Mrs. Rowton. I have discovered this: your husband, Adrian
Rowton, is also known as Silver, the leader of the Silver Mob or School.
This man, madam, is the one who murdered Anthony Follett many years ago!”

[Illustration: “This man, Madam, is the one who murdered Anthony Follett
many years ago!”—_Page 276._]

There was a silence in the room which might almost be felt when Crossley
ceased speaking. Nancy’s voice broke into it after a moment. She
laughed—her laugh was wild and a little unsteady.

“My husband!” she said. “How dare you say that to my face? Do you think
for one moment I believe you?”

“I knew it would be a blow to you, madam.”

“It is no blow; you are absolutely mistaken. Anything else might have
been a blow, but not that. My husband kill my young brother! My husband
take a man’s life! Oh! come—this is too much.”

“Satisfy yourself, then, Mrs. Rowton. Discover if his lip is smooth. Find
out if he wears the mark.”

“I will find out. I thank you. You thought to have terrified and crushed
me, but you only excite my anger and my contempt. My husband! I myself
rather than he.”

She turned to the door as she spoke, opened it, and walked out with a
steady step. Crossley followed her into the hall. It had never occurred
to him that she would take his tidings with utter disbelief.

“Lady Georgina,” said Nancy, opening the door of the little drawing-room,
“my business with this gentleman is now concluded, and I am ready to go
away.”

Lady Georgina jumped up. She did not know Mrs. Rowton’s voice with the
new quality in it. The ring of defiance, the vibration of strength and
courage, were altogether a revelation to her. The carriage was waiting at
the door. The ladies drove to the Universal Hotel.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

“IF NOT, LIE TO HIM.”


When Long John arrived at the club in the street off the Chelsea
Embankment he found several members of the School waiting to receive him.
They were all assembled in a large room on the first floor of the house.
As usual, they were smoking, and as the chief entered the dense smell of
reeking tobacco filled the air. Scrivener was amongst the men present.
He looked pale and excited. The other members of the School wore their
habitual expressions, some of surly indifference, some of bravado, not
a few of ill-concealed fear. For some reason there was a shadow in the
air, and the men felt it without knowing that they did so. Scrivener
was seated close to the fire smoking very strong tobacco when Long John
appeared on the scene.

“You have come; you are welcome,” said Scrivener, starting up and going a
few steps forward to meet his chief.

“Yes,” replied Long John in a voice of irritation, “of course I’ve come.
There is not much time to lose,” he added; “the night is already late,
and it does not do to arouse suspicion by keeping this sort of place open
too long. Let us to business at once. You managed the kidnapping of the
child very well, Scrivener.”

“What child?” asked Simpkins in an eager voice.

Simpkins, as the proprietor of the club, was always treated with a
certain amount of respect, but on this occasion Long John favoured him
with a scowling glance.

“You’ll know all if you’ll keep quiet,” he said. “A child has been
kidnapped by my orders—that child from this moment belongs to our School;
we bring him up in our ways, to do our business, perhaps to lead us in
his turn. He is the nephew of your gentleman leader, my men. He is Adrian
Rowton’s nephew.”

“Silver’s nephew! Good Heaven!” cried Simpkins. He bit his lips and
looked across to one of his neighbours with a glance which was half
scared, half appalled. “I thought,” he said after a pause, “that matter
was settled. It was proposed in this room that the child should be
brought to us, but Rowton objected. It was arranged, was it not, that if
Rowton did what we wanted, the child was to be let alone?”

“I was in my right when I kidnapped the boy,” said Piper in that snappy
voice which always characterised him when his temper was getting the
upper hand. “Now, Scrivener, to business; you took the child. Where is
he?”

“I have him, sir.”

“Where?”

“In a room just above the shop in Cheapside.”

“Ah! that was a good thought. Is the lad safe? Any chance of his
escaping?”

“None whatever,” answered Scrivener. “I need not go into particulars,” he
added, “but the boy is safe enough; he won’t escape.”

“That’s right; you can keep him for the present. I shall want him
by-and-by. What sort of lad is he?”

“I told you already, Long John, that he is about the pluckiest youngster
I ever came across. To be honest, now,” continued Scrivener, “I didn’t
like the job of taking that little game chap away a bit, and I hope—yes,
I do—that he’ll soon have his liberty. I don’t hold with bringing up boys
to our trade, that I don’t.”

“Nor do I,” said Simpkins. “It’s ⸺ hard,” he added, “and it don’t seem a
bit fair to a straightforward fellow like Silver.”

“Silence!” said Piper. “Simpkins, when I want your opinion I’ll ask for
it. The boy is not to have his liberty. I shall probably send him to
America by-and-by.”

“To America!” cried Scrivener.

“Yes, why not? Am I your head, or am I not, men?”

“Of course you’re our head, Long John,” said a surly bulldog-looking man
who stood near.

“Well, then, am I to direct proceedings, or am I not?”

“You are, you are, Piper,” said several.

“Let me hear no more grumbling, then. I propose to send the kid to
America before long. The members of our School there will receive him
with effusion, and the puppy can be brought up from tender years to walk
in the way in which he should go. There’s only one thing now to be said,
and it is this; that boy never returns to Rowton Heights. Should any
member of this club be base enough to reveal his whereabouts, or even
give the slightest hint to Adrian Rowton, he gets the black mark.”

There was no need to explain what the black mark meant: the men all
looked lowering and discontented.

“I have had a letter and a telegram from Rowton,” said Long John; “both
need attention. The man is in a high state of insurrection, and must be
dealt with in a very summary manner. He is likely to come here at any
moment.”

“That is true,” said Scrivener. “I know for a fact,” he added, “that
Rowton is in town. He will, of course, demand the boy. What is your
object, Piper, in keeping the lad from him?”

Piper, otherwise Long John, did not reply for a minute. He stood up
looking gloomy and depressed. Then he said, abruptly:

“I refuse to disclose all my plans, but enough can be said to explain my
reasons for the very strong move which I have just taken. Rowton is the
gentleman leader of this School, but I, my men, am the real boss; but for
me, where would any of you be now?”

“True for you, guv’nor,” said a couple of voices.

“I am the boss of this School. Two leaders cannot exist at the same
time—one must fall. Rowton has defied me too long. All our plans will
go to pieces, the police will get an inkling of our whereabouts, clues
will be furnished to them, the scheme which we have formed to undermine
society for our own best interest will fail, if there is a division in
the camp. In short, the School will come to absolute and open grief.
Rowton has defied me. I got the boy into my power because I intend to
show Rowton who is master.”

“That’s fair enough,” said one or two again.

“’Tain’t fair to my way of thinking,” said Simpkins suddenly. “There
ain’t one of us like Silver. No one has done us the good turns Silver has
done, and he’s straight. I’d trust him—I’d trust him to the death.”

“Silence!” said Long John.

There was a heavy oak chair at one end of the room. Piper now approached
it, seated himself, and looked down the long room. His face was even
thinner and more cadaverous than usual, his eyes more luminous, his lips
firmer and more cruel. Scrivener watched him in silence; then he went up
the room and asked him a question.

“What do you want done,” he said, “with the plate and jewels which we
have just taken from Rowton Heights?”

“They belong to Silver, and he must have them back again,” answered Long
John with a weary sigh. “That plant on public credulity was the finest
stroke of business we have done for a long time. We crown all when we not
only punish and completely gull the public, but also take the desire of
his eyes from Rowton.”

“Aye, but that, to my way of thinking, was the step too far,” muttered
Scrivener under his breath.

“What are you saying, Scrivener? Speak out! I allow no mutterings here.”

“I am saying this,” answered Scrivener; “we put ourselves into danger
when we aroused the indignation of a man like Rowton. You may push your
authority too far, Long John. I have spoken, now; I won’t say another
word.”

“You had better not. Now about the plate and jewels. You can keep them at
your place in Cheapside, Scrivener, for a bit, can’t you?”

“I can, Piper, but to be frank with you, I don’t want them to remain
there. They might implicate me.”

“Not a bit of it. The best plan would be to convert them into money,
which you can easily do. You have crucibles, and can melt down the plate.
The jewels can be taken from their settings, and one of our men can go
over to Holland with a part of them in the course of the next fortnight.
Rowton would as lief have a good large sum of money as the goods back
again. In fact, he cannot have them back; it might arouse suspicion.”

“How about this?” said Scrivener after a pause. “You think yourselves
safe enough,” he added, looking at the chief, his ugly small eyes
flashing, “but I said we did wrong to get to the black side of a man like
Rowton. How about this?” He put his hand into his breast pocket, drew out
a small morocco case, and touched a spring. The case flew open, and the
black diamond was revealed to view.

Long John was a man not easily moved; his outward calm seldom or never
deserted him. He took the diamond from its case, looked at it, and put it
back again.

“That black diamond,” he said, “was, by my orders, to be sold by Rowton
in Spain. He came here and told a dastardly lie about it. Did I not say
that fighting-cock, that bravado, wanted humiliating, crushing, defying?
He said he had received fifteen hundred pounds for the gem; five hundred,
as I told him at the time, too little. He gave me the money in your
presence, mates.”

“He did that,” said a man who stood near. “I don’t know what all this row
is about,” he continued, “we never had a straighter fellow among us than
Silver.”

“Hush, there! When I want your opinion I’ll ask for it. Now, Scrivener,
speak. How did you come by this diamond?”

“There’s treachery in the matter,” said Scrivener.

“Well, man, speak up, out with it.”

“It is this,” said Scrivener; “Silver has played us a scurvy trick.
Instead of selling the gem and putting it out of the power of the police
to trace it to us, he kept it and gave it to his wife. Mrs. Rowton wore
the black diamond in her hair on the night of the ball at Rowton Heights.”

“You swear this as a fact?” said Long John.

“My proof, sir, is that I have the diamond,” said Scrivener. “A girl
of the name of Hester Winsome, whom I heavily bribed while staying at
Pitstow, managed to secure it for me. She took it out of her mistress’s
wardrobe after the lady had retired for the night. And here it is, sir.”
Scrivener pointed to the gem as he spoke.

“Yes, the proof is convincing,” said Long John.

A growl came from one or two throats near. Long John took up the diamond,
looked at it again, and then replaced it on the table.

At that moment there came a knock at the door.

“Silver’s knock,” said Scrivener; “you won’t betray me, Piper?”

“You dog! Get along and let me alone,” said Piper. “Open the door,
someone.”

Simpkins went down the room and threw the door open.

“Welcome, Silver,” he said in a voice which slightly shook.

Rowton nodded to him and entered. Without looking to right or left he
came straight up the room. It was not his way to be ungracious, and the
men resented what they termed his haughty bearing.

“You received my letter?” he said in a curt voice, looking full at Long
John.

“I did, my fine fellow. You crow loud and fierce, my fighting cock. How
dare you address your boss in that tone?”

“What I dare to do is my own affair,” answered Rowton. “Your part of the
business is this; you keep your faith with me; if you break it, I’ll
stick to my word. Unless the boy is given back to me in two hours, I
break with the Silver School.”

“There are two words to that,” said Long John; “and as to my breaking
faith with you, wait a while—we may equalise the balance. Give me that
case here, Scrivener. Ha! what do you say to this, Rowton? How did this
come into your possession?”

“That is the black diamond,” said Rowton in a cool voice. “I bought it
for my wife. I forgot that it was stolen with the other things.”

He took up the gem as he spoke, looked at it with a peculiar expression,
and then laid it back on the table.

“My wife wore it the night of the ball,” he said.

His tone was thoughtful. For a moment he ceased to see the scene which
surrounded him; a fair vision rose before his mental eyes—he felt
clinging arms round his neck. The next, the vision had faded and the
black present was alone with him. He started from his reverie and spoke
abruptly.

“That robbery was very well planned, Piper,” he said. “I must
congratulate you on the whole way the thing was executed. But for the one
step too far—but for the kidnapping of my lad—I could admire the pluck
and courage of my confederates.” He looked round the room at the men,
whose eyes glowed with delight at his words of praise.

“Hold your tongue and listen,” said Long John, interlarding his words
with a terrific oath. “How did that diamond get into your possession?”

“I bought it,” answered Rowton. “I gave you fifteen hundred pounds for
it.”

“Then, do you know what you have done? By this act alone you have sold
us. There are ugly stories known to the police in connection with this
black diamond. I could lay my hands at the present moment on three men
in this room whom this precious gem of infernal night might bring to the
gallows.”

“Hush, for Heaven’s sake!” said Scrivener, “walls have ears.”

“There are moments when one must speak out, danger or not,” said Long
John. “The fact is plainly this. By your action, Rowton, you have
imperilled us all. You broke faith with us when you appropriated this
diamond for your own purposes. It is a lucky chance which brings it again
into our possession. Understand, now, that this matter makes us quits,
and that you have nothing whatever to do with the child.”

“Then my letter to you holds good,” said Rowton. “My men, I must wish you
good evening.”

He took up his hat, walked down the length of the room, opened the door,
and went out.

“Follow him,” said Long John, nodding to Simpkins as he spoke.

Without a word Simpkins also left the room.

When the two men had departed, and the sound of their footsteps going
downstairs had completely died away, Long John seated himself once more
in the old oak chair. He remained gloomy and silent for a moment. Then
his voice sounded full and sonorous.

“Come up near me, all of you,” he said; “we have an important matter to
discuss.”

All the men flocked, without a word, to the upper end of the room.
Scrivener stood exactly in front of Long John. Long John’s eyes, pathetic
to almost unbearable sadness, gazed full into the shifty eyes of his spy,
his lips became thin as a line, his face showed white and cadaverous,
even more deathly in hue than usual. On each cheek there came out slowly
an angry spot of flame about the size of a halfpenny; the eyes grew
brighter as the spot deepened. The lips were now so thin that they looked
like a mere thread. The men all waited in perfect silence. They knew this
mood of their leader, and trembled before it.

“There is only one thing to be done,” said Long John; “I name it with
regret, but it must be done.”

“What is that?” asked Scrivener.

“We have had too much to do with our gentleman leader—he has defied us
and put us in peril. Men, if we do not wish, each one of us, to taste the
sweets of penal servitude, if three or four of us do not wish to swing by
the neck until they die, Rowton must go.”

“He must go, it is true,” echoed Scrivener.

“It don’t seem to me as if that verdict was fair,” said a man on the
outer edge of the circle.

Long John fixed him with his glittering eyes.

“What do you mean, Danvers?” he said.

“What I say,” replied the man, getting a little bolder. “Silver may have
been wrong about that diamond, but after all, when all’s said and done,
he give it to his wife, and, except for the black diamond, we never did
have a straighter feller to work with.”

“If the black diamond is found by the police,” continued Long John, “we
are all undone. The police have information with regard to it which will
hang three men. Must three hang for one? I repeat that Adrian Rowton must
go.”

All the men were silent now. One or two looked eager and impressed, one
or two alarmed. Long John, after a silence which might almost be felt,
spoke again.

“If we don’t give him away, he gives us away.”

“No,” said the man called Danvers, “’tain’t in Silver to give evidence
agin his pals.”

“We have him in a cleft stick,” continued Long John. “Seeing himself at
our mercy he will turn round and defy us. Has he not done so already?
To-night, in your presence, mates, he named impossible conditions; when
they were not acceded to, he went away with threatening words on his
lips. He has done us harm, and, I repeat again, he must go. A diamond,
well known to the police, has been found in his establishment. His wife
has worn it. It is, doubtless, even now written in their records as part
of the stolen goods from Rowton Heights. I repeat once again, the man
must go. Do not let us discuss the fact of his going. A word or two as to
the means and this meeting may break up.”

Just then there came a timid knock at the door.

Scrivener went on tiptoe to open it. The servant girl who brought it
stood without. She handed a little twisted note.

Scrivener took it to Long John. He opened it, read the contents, and
thrust it into his pocket.

“I have grave information here,” he said. “Spider is in town, and has
been acting the spy for us as usual. We have no time to lose, mates. The
police have already got wind of Silver’s identity. Spider has informed me
in this note that they identify him with Adrian Rowton, master of Rowton
Heights. Before twenty-four hours are over he will be arrested. Now, look
here, we arrest him first. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes,” answered several voices. They were all eager now. Their apathy had
vanished.

“We have a wine party here to-morrow night,” said Long John, rising as he
spoke. “Scrivener, it will be your duty to bring Silver here as guest.
Use fair means to get him to come, if necessary; if not, lie to him.
Good-night, men. We meet to-morrow evening at nine.”



CHAPTER XXXIV.

A TOAST.


Absorbed in his own disturbed thoughts, Rowton never knew that he was
followed. Simpkins saw him enter the little hotel off the Strand which
has been mentioned in an earlier part of this story.

At an early hour on the following morning, as Rowton was having breakfast
in the coffee room, Scrivener was announced. The landlord brought in the
information.

“There’s a man of the name of Dawson outside,” he said to Rowton, “he’ll
be glad to speak to you for a minute.”

“Show him in,” said Rowton, nodding.

The next moment Scrivener stood before him.

“Ah, Dawson,” said Rowton, taking his cue immediately, “what may your
business be?”

“Nothing much,” replied Scrivener. “I have come here with a message from
the club.”

“Well, sit down and have a cup of coffee. I’ll walk out with you
presently.”

Scrivener, otherwise Dawson, complied. The two men drank coffee together.
Then Rowton rose from his seat.

“We can take a turn on the Embankment,” he said.

A moment later the men were seen walking side by side on the Thames
Embankment. The morning was a fine one, and a fresh breeze from the river
blew on their faces. A man with a smooth face and a perfectly innocent
expression passed them slowly. He looked full at Rowton, who nodded to
him.

“That is my servant, Jacob,” he said, turning to Scrivener. “What is he
doing here?”

“Mischief,” muttered Scrivener. “We had best not be seen in such an open
place as this. Let us turn up this by-street into the Strand.”

The men did so. From the Strand they passed into a narrow court. In the
court was a public-house. They entered it, asked for a private room, and
sat down by the fire. Scrivener took out his pipe and lighted it, but
Rowton did not smoke.

“Now,” said Rowton, “your business, and quickly.”

“The boss is sorry you parted from him in anger,” said Scrivener.
“There’s a wine party at our club to-night, and I was to bring you a
special invitation. Long John has sent it to you himself. Matters may be
smoothed over. Long John naturally does not want to get into your black
books. Will you come, or will you not? That is the question.”

“When I left the club yesterday evening,” said Rowton, “I said I would
never darken its doors again.”

“That is likely enough. I don’t wonder you took some of the words the
chief said rather hard; but if matters are spliced up between us, you
won’t forsake your own School, will you, mate?”

“If the boy is given back to me I’ll not forsake the School,” said Rowton
after a pause.

“I believe that will be done,” said Scrivener. “Anyhow you are bidden to
come to-night to talk over the matter.”

“Are you square with me?” asked Rowton, looking full into Scrivener’s
face.

“As square as daylight,” replied the man.

Rowton turned away with a suppressed sigh.

“I’ll be there,” he said; “not that I believe matters will be smoothed
over. This will doubtless be my last visit.”

“No, mate,” answered Scrivener, “we cannot do without a jolly dog like
you.”

“I’ll be there; that is enough,” answered Rowton.

“One last word before I go, mate,” said Scrivener. “You had best keep
dark to-day. The police have got wind of your identity and are after you.”

“How do you know?” asked Rowton.

“Long John had a warning last night. Spider is in town, and is prying
round as usual. It is true, I tell you. You may thank your stars that you
have not been arrested before this. It is all the doings of that footman
of yours.”

“My footman! Do you mean Jacob Short?”

“I mean Jacob Short. He is a spy from Scotland Yard. Now you know enough,
and I dare not breathe another word.”

Scrivener went away, but Rowton sat on by the fire in the back room of
the public-house. His thoughts and sensations were known to himself
alone. After a time he got up, paid for the use of the room, and by a
circuitous route got back again to the hotel in the Strand. As he was
going in he came face to face with Jacob standing near the door of the
hotel.

“What are you doing here?” asked Rowton.

“I came up for a holiday, sir. I hope to return to my duties to-morrow
night.”

“See you do. I don’t wish my servants to come to town without my special
permission.”

Rowton spoke in his chuffiest and most forbidding tones. Jacob’s face
flushed. Rowton ran quickly upstairs to his room. It was at the top of
the house. On the landing outside a ladder was placed which communicated
with a skylight. Rowton packed a few things in a black bag, and a moment
afterwards, had anyone looked, might have been seen crossing the leads of
the house to another at some distance off. Jacob did not catch sight of
Rowton again that day, although he kicked his heels for a long time at
the door of the hotel.

Punctually at the appointed hour the men met at the smoking club in
Chelsea. Their full number was present. Long John looked at his best.
At such moments he could be delightful. He was gracious now, unbending;
there was not a shadow of care on his brow; his great eyes glowed with
the softest and sweetest expression, his lips unbent in genial smiles.
There are times when even men of the Silver School can relax, and, to all
appearance, forget their cares. The present seemed to be one.

“Welcome back,” said Long John to Rowton. He went down the room to meet
his guest, shaking hands with him warmly.

“You know the condition on which I have come,” answered Rowton.

“Yes,” replied Long John, “but we won’t discuss unpleasantnesses until
after supper. Now, men, let us gather round and enjoy ourselves.”

The men sat round a table and began to smoke and drink. The wine was of
the best. Under its influence they all soon became convivial and merry.
Even Rowton lost his sense of depression; he filled his glass several
times. Soon toasts of different kinds were proposed. The men talked in
metaphor, and slang terms were freely used.

“To the success of our next meeting,” said Long John, rising from his
seat, and raising a glassful of wine high into the air drained it off at
a bumper.

“To a short life and a merry one,” said Rowton, rising also in his turn.

“To the sale of the black diamond,” cried Scrivener.

Scrivener was seated next to Rowton. At this moment Long John gave him an
almost imperceptible signal. Taking up a wine bottle which stood near he
filled Rowton’s glass to the brim.

“To the sale of the black diamond,” he repeated.

All the men, in a spirit of high bravado, drained off their glasses.
A moment later they sat down. Other toasts followed. The party grew
wilder and more merry. Each man capped his neighbour’s story. The room
was clouded with smoke, and echoed from end to end with the sound of
boisterous mirth. Suddenly, in the midst of a very wild and daring tale,
Rowton staggered to his feet. He made a step or two forward in the
chief’s direction.

“You scoundrel, you have poisoned me!” he cried.



CHAPTER XXXV.

WAGES.


The moment Rowton spoke Long John rapped his hand loudly on the board. He
rose and spoke in a clear and penetrating voice.

“Silence, men,” he said, “I have something to say.”

Every tongue was instantly arrested.

“I wish to state a fact,” continued Long John, just glancing for a moment
at Rowton, who, white to his lips, was standing near. “Our gentleman
leader, Adrian Rowton, of Rowton Heights, in Yorkshire, otherwise known
to this school by the name of Silver, has been in debt to us to the tune
of five hundred pounds. The debt was contracted on behalf of a certain
diamond, which we all know here as the black diamond. The diamond was
of great worth, and from different circumstances in connection with its
coming into our possession, its presence in the School was fraught with
extreme danger. Silver was commissioned to take it to Spain and sell it
there for two thousand pounds, a sum, as you know, very much below its
intrinsic value. Silver did sell the diamond, but, as it turns out, he
sold it to himself for five hundred pounds _below_ the price I set upon
it. In this manner he contracted a debt to our School of five hundred
pounds. By securing the diamond for himself he contracted a further debt,
the dimensions of which cannot be measured. This further debt formed the
subject of our very painful discussion last night. The first debt was
of small importance; the second debt was vital. There was only one way
in which Rowton could pay the second debt. I wish to tell you all, now,
my men, that Adrian Rowton has cleared the debt. His record with us is
white.”

“Hold a minute,” said Rowton. His voice was loud but somewhat shaky. He
was staggering with mortal pain. “All here present have acted towards me
with treachery. There’s not a man in this room who did not know what Long
John wanted me here for. You, Scrivener, lured me to this place by means
of a lie. When I came here I trusted to your honour, mates. You have
every one of you failed me.”

Some of the men groaned, lowered their eyes, and some shuffled restlessly
with their feet. Long John tapped again on the table.

“The old trite proverb that ‘all is fair in love and war’ applies here,”
he said. “There was only one way to wipe out Rowton’s debt, and that way
has been used.”

“A word more,” continued Rowton; “my debt will be wiped out soon, but
there is another debt to cancel. Long John, you kidnapped the boy. If my
record is white, yours is black. I forgive the rest of you fellows—you
did what you did under compulsion. But as to you, you coward, I swear
that if I appear before my Maker unabsolved and with my sins upon me, so
do you.”

Quick as thought Rowton produced a revolver and fired. He aimed at Long
John’s heart. The man saw his danger, swerved an inch, and received the
bullet in his right arm.

All was immediately confusion and alarm. Rowton, after firing, fell to
the ground in strong convulsions. Long John, white as a sheet, caught
up a napkin to stay the blood which began to pour from his wounded arm.
Simpkins rushed to one of the windows to shut it, fearing that the police
might have heard the sound of the shot. Long John’s face became more and
more ghastly—a smile kept coming and going on his thin lips. Simpkins ran
forward to help him. Scrivener and another man approached the heap on the
floor which had represented the strong, athletic form of Rowton not ten
minutes ago.

“What are you trying to say, mate?” whispered Scrivener.

“Take me where I can be alone.”

The two men tried to lift him in their arms.

“Stay,” called Long John; “we can put cushions on the floor and lay him
here. I am going. One word to you, Rowton, before we part; we have not
yet squared the record.”

“We wait for that,” answered Rowton. He raised his glassy eyes and fixed
them on Long John’s cadaverous face.

Long John staggered to the door. The other men hurried to place cushions
and coats in a corner on the floor. They laid the dying man on them.

“How long have I to live?” he asked.

“I do not know,” returned Scrivener, “but I think for two or three
hours. We gave that poison before to——”

“Hush!” said Simpkins suddenly, clapping his hands across Scrivener’s
mouth.

“I forgot myself in the excitement of the moment,” answered Scrivener. “I
wish I’d never done the ghastly deed—Rowton of all men! If it were not
for Long John, and that he’d find a way to hurry one out of the world if
one did not do his slightest wish, why——” Scrivener wiped the dew from
his face.

“Ours is a ghastly calling,” said Simpkins. “There, mates,” he added,
turning to where a group of the men were huddled together in a distant
part of the room, “you had best leave us. Long John is not killed, but
he has got his deserts after a fashion, and he’ll have to lie dark for
a bit. The rest of you go home, and be quick about it. When we want you
again we’ll let you know.”

The men still hesitated. At last one of them, treading on tiptoe, came to
the upper end of the room.

“Shake hands, mate,” said this fellow, going on his knees and holding out
his hand to Rowton. “Say you forgive us before we go.”

“I forgive you, mates,” answered Rowton; “you were only tools. There
is one man whom I do not forgive, and that is your boss. He acted with
treachery and you were not courageous enough to resist. Now go. I have
only a short time to live and much to do.”

One by one the men came up, looked at his ashy face, shook their heads,
and slowly left the room.

When they had all gone Rowton spoke to Simpkins.

“What did he give me?” he asked.

With some hesitation Simpkins named a drug, bending low to do so.

Rowton’s face could not grow more ghastly.

“Then it is certain death,” he said.

“Yes, certain death; but, if you like, we’ll fetch a doctor.”

“Never mind. Were enquiries set on foot, things would go badly with you.
I die, I hope, as a man——”

He paused, struggling for breath.

“I always knew,” he continued, “that the fate I have met might be mine.
There is no hope, you say. I may live for—two hours.”

“You may, mate, but it is not certain. You are taking the dose hard,”
said Scrivener.

“I want you to do something for me, Scrivener.”

“Anything,” replied the man, falling on his knees.

“Fetch my wife here.”

“Your wife!” said Simpkins suddenly. “Dare you see her, mate?”

“I dare anything. I have one last—_desperate_ wish; it must be granted. I
must see my wife.”

“But if she is in Yorkshire, Silver?” queried Scrivener.

“I have a premonition that she is in London,” replied Rowton. His
words came more and more slowly, with longer and longer gasps between.
“Scrivener—you know Rowton Heights? Wire there at once—get Mrs. Rowton’s
address in London, and then fetch her here. You don’t object, do you? If
so, at any cost, I’ll get back to my hotel.”

“I’ll do what you wish,” said Scrivener.

“It seems reasonable enough,” echoed Simpkins.

“Of course, you’ll take an oath, pal,” continued Scrivener, “that you’ll
let out nothing.”

The ghost of a smile played round Rowton’s white lips.

“Heaven knows I am a deeply-dyed scoundrel,” he said, “but honour among
thieves. You may bring Mrs. Rowton to this house without danger to the
Silver School.”

Scrivener left the room without another word, and Simpkins seated himself
by the dying man.

As Scrivener ran downstairs he could not help muttering some words to
himself.

“Ours is a beastly calling; there’s no mercy in a school like ours. If
it were anyone but Rowton I should not mind a brass button—but Rowton!
’Tain’t that he was _soft_; ’tain’t that he was specially kind; but
he was _straight_, although he belonged to us. We’ll go to pieces now
without him. Long John made a huge mistake.”

Scrivener sprang into a cab and drove to the nearest post-office. From
there he wired to Rowton Heights, remaining in the office until the
message bearing Mrs. Rowton’s address in town was sent to him. He then
hailed another hansom and drove straight to the Universal Hotel.

This was the night on which Nance had come to London and had received
Crossley’s awful communication. She had driven straight to the hotel
with Lady Georgina, and when Scrivener was suddenly announced the two
ladies were in a private sitting-room. From the moment she left Clapham
Common Nance had talked incessantly. She had seemed to all appearances in
the highest spirits. She had refused to disclose the faintest hint with
regard to her interview with Crossley. Beyond telling Lady Georgina that
she believed the man to be altogether mistaken about a certain business
which he had undertaken for her, she turned her conversation resolutely
from the subject.

“I feel in good spirits,” she said once or twice. “I have the same
feeling which possessed me the night of the ball at Rowton Heights. How
long ago did the ball take place, Lady Georgina?”

“Only two days ago, child,” was the reply.

“It seems months back,” said Nance, pushing her hair from her flushed
face. “I told Adrian then that my excitement and high spirits were almost
‘fey,’ as the saying is. I have the same feeling to-night. Never mind;
while I feel happy let me enjoy life. I believe that I shall soon hear
news of the boy and also of my husband. Ah! who is that?”

At this moment Scrivener was announced. Nance, with the flush on her
cheeks and the queer bright light in her eyes, went forward at once
to meet him. She felt stimulated all over to an extraordinary degree.
Crossley had spoken the most utter nonsense. His tidings had not given
her the slightest pain. A shadow of doubt of the man she loved could not
visit her loyal heart.

“I seem to know your face,” she said, looking into that of Scrivener with
a puzzled expression. “Ah, yes, I remember now. Surely I saw you once at
Rowton Heights.”

“I saw you also, madam,” said the man.

He bowed awkwardly. Then his eyes travelled to Lady Georgina, who, bold,
upright, and firm, stood not far away.

“I have a message for you alone, Mrs. Rowton,” he said.

“Please leave us, Lady Georgina,” said Nance.

“I will not,” replied Lady Georgina. “You are left in my charge by your
husband, Nance, and I prefer to remain with you whatever happens. Sir, I
do not know what your business can be with this young lady, but I must
ask you to say it before me.”

“Very well, madam,” replied the man. “We have not a moment to lose, Mrs.
Rowton,” he continued; “your husband has sent for you. I am commissioned
to bring you to him immediately.”

“To bring me to him!” said Nance, her eyes lighting up with sudden
tumultuous joy. “I won’t keep you. But why can he not come to me?”

“He cannot, madam: he is very ill.”

“Ill!” said Nance. She started violently. Her face grew white. “I won’t
keep you a single moment,” she said.

“I’ll go with you, dear,” said Lady Georgina.

“I am sorry, madam,” said Scrivener, “but on that point I am obliged to
be firm. I cannot possibly take you with Mrs. Rowton. If she wishes to
see her husband alive she must trust herself to me alone. I swear no harm
will happen to her.”

“If I wish to see my husband alive?” repeated Nance. “Oh! for Heaven’s
sake, don’t put obstacles in the way now, Lady Georgina. I won’t keep you
a moment,” she said, again turning to the man.

She flew out of the room, returning in less than a minute in her hat and
cloak.

“I am ready,” she said, “let us come.”

“This is an awful situation,” exclaimed Lady Georgina. “I promised to
look after that child. How do I know, sir, that you are not deceiving me?”

“I swear on the Bible, madam, that I am not. Mr. Rowton has sent for his
wife. He is very ill. If you refuse to let Mrs. Rowton come with me I
must go away without her.”

“In that case, I have no alternative,” said Lady Georgina; “I only trust
I am not doing wrong.”

Nance and Scrivener left the room. A hansom was in waiting outside the
hotel.

Nance entered and Scrivener immediately followed her. He gave directions
in a low voice to the driver, and the cab started forward at a quick
pace. Presently Scrivener put his hand through the little window in the
roof.

“A sovereign,” he called to the driver, “if you get us to our destination
in a quarter of an hour from now.”

The man whipped up his horse.

“You said that my husband was very ill; is he in danger?” asked Nance.

“He is, madam, in extreme danger.”

Nance did not ask another question. She locked her hands tightly under
her cloak. Her face was deathlike. She looked like one carved in stone.

By-and-by the cab entered a squalid street leading off the Embankment.
It turned to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, and
finally drew up at a shabby-looking door. Scrivener jumped out.

“This way, Mrs. Rowton,” he said.

He flung the sovereign to the driver, and then knocked in a peculiar way
on the door.

It was opened immediately by a shabbily-dressed girl, whose eyes were red
from violent weeping.

“All right upstairs, Sophy?” asked Scrivener.

“Silver is still alive,” answered Sophy with a catch in her voice.

“Silver,” repeated Nance to herself in a low tone.

It was at this awful moment of her life that a memory came back to her.
She had forgotten it until now. Earlier in that same evening Crossley had
told her that her husband, her brave husband, whom he presently accused
of the most ghastly crime, was also known as Silver, the leader of a
school or mob of burglars, called the Silver School. The information
seemed to her so baseless and false, and was also so completely swallowed
up in the grave and monstrous accusation which followed it, that until
now it was completely blotted out of her memory.

“Silver,” she said, looking with dilated eyes at Scrivener as they
mounted the stairs. “Who is Silver?”

“Never mind about Silver now, madam; I am taking you to see your husband,
Mr. Rowton, of Rowton Heights.”

Nance asked no more questions. The next moment they found themselves
inside the club room. The greater part of the long room was in complete
darkness, but at the farther end a paraffin lamp flared. Nance saw dimly
as she entered the figure of a man lying on the floor.

When he heard her step Rowton raised himself with an effort.

[Illustration: “When he heard her step Rowton raised himself with an
effort.”—_Page 305._]

“My wife has come,” he said to Simpkins. “Leave us. Go into another
room.”



CHAPTER XXXVI.

THE DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN.


Nance fell on her knees by the dying man. She took one of his cold hands
in hers.

“Little woman,” said Rowton. “Come close to me, Nance,” he continued in
an almost inaudible whisper; “hold my hand tighter—I cannot feel your
clasp.”

She put both her hands round it, fondling it close to her breast.

“Are we alone, Nancy?”

“Yes, darling, quite alone.”

“That is—good. I have much to say to you.”

“Darling, don’t talk if it gives you pain. I can guess your thoughts, I
know you so well.”

“Heavens! She knows me so well,” repeated the dying man.

“Has a doctor been sent for, Adrian?”

“No use.”

“But I thought you were strong, in good health. What is the meaning of
this agony?”

“Heart,” he said in a whisper. “I have—known—it long—disease of long
standing—hopeless; never mind—no doctor can cure me. Listen—Nancy mine.”

She bent down until her white face was almost on a level with his.

“Speak, dearest, beloved,” she said in her softest voice. “Your very
lowest word will be heard by me. Everything you tell me I will do. I am
all yours, remember, both in life and death.”

“There never was—such an angel,” he replied, and a faint, half-mocking,
yet utterly sweet smile flitted across his face.

“Nancy, my strength is going. See you get the boy.”

“Yes.”

“Listen, Nance. Simpkins knows where he is—so does—Scrivener. So, I
fancy, does Sophy—the girl in this house. If—Simpkins and Scrivener fail
you—turn to—Sophy. She was always fond of me—poor Sophy! If she—helps
you—take her away with you afterwards—for in doing—what you want, she
may bring her own—life—into danger. Go away yourself, too. Little
woman—you’ll hear terrible things.”

“I don’t care,” she replied. “What are terrible tidings to me if I don’t
believe them?”

Rowton smiled into her eyes.

“I would—I might always remain thy white knight,” he said. “Black to
everyone else—but white to thee. There!—it is too much to hope.”

He panted, his breath failed him. Nance held some brandy to his lips. He
presently closed his eyes.

She sat down on the floor by his side, and slipped her arm under his
neck, so that his head rested on her breast.

He felt the warm beating of the loving heart and opened his eyes.

“Are you there?” he said. “I can’t see; are you there?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Do you think I could leave you?”

“Never,” he replied. “My angel who believed in the angel in me. Nancy, I
am the blackest scoundrel—on earth.”

“No, no,” she then said with a sob. “Don’t revile yourself now. To one
person you have always been white.”

“As an angel, Nancy mine?”

“As an angel,” she replied. “You have been the one hero of my
life—immaculate, strong, as you said yourself, my white knight.”

The dying man moved restlessly.

“Child,” he said, “you will hear things.” His voice grew lower and lower.
“I have brought thee into the lowest scrape—into the depths. You will
know hereafter what I have done for thee, Little Nancy.”

“I don’t wish to know; I will not listen. Whatever I hear, nothing will
turn my love,” she replied.

“Is that indeed so? Say—those words again.”

“Nothing in heaven above or hell beneath can change my unalterable love,”
she repeated.

“Fold my hands, Nance—together—so. Father in Heaven—if a weak woman can
be so forgiving, wilt not Thou—even Thou—have mercy?”

The last words were scarcely distinguishable. Nance kept the folded
hands together. A smile came suddenly on the white lips, a longer and
slower breath than any of the others, then stillness.

Half an hour afterwards Simpkins softly opened the door of the room and
came on tiptoe to Nancy’s side. He saw at a glance that the chief was
dead. Nance was kneeling by him, her face hidden against his breast.

“Come, madam; I am dreadfully sorry, but you dare not stay here another
moment,” said the man in a tone of great pity and sympathy.

At the words she raised her head and gave him a bewildered glance. She
rose to her feet, staggering slightly.

“I do not wish to leave here,” she said. “I want to remain by my
husband’s body.”

“Hurry, Simpkins, hurry!” said Scrivener’s voice at that moment in the
doorway.

“You must not stay, madam. It is as much as our lives are worth. I must
tell you something.”

“Nothing against the dead,” said Nancy, speaking in a strong full tone;
“I forbid you.”

“No, we won’t mention his name,” said Simpkins. “I honour you, madam,
for your loyalty. But as matters have turned out, he might, poor fellow,
have met a worse fate. I won’t say any more. Whatever his faults he died
true to us. Mrs. Rowton, it has been our misfortune to get into the black
books of the law, and even at this moment the house is surrounded by
police.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I say. The police have got wind of our whereabouts. They will burst
into this room in a moment or two. No they cannot touch the dead, but you
must leave us, madam.”

“Is your name Simpkins?” inquired Nance suddenly.

“Yes, madam.”

“Then I have a message for you from my husband. He said that you knew of
the whereabouts of his nephew, Murray Cameron. His last injunction to me
was to find the boy. I must find him. Will you help me?”

“Yes,” said Scrivener, who came forward at that moment. “We’ll both help
you, lady. We do not want the boy any more. Our School is broken up after
to-night. Go at once, Mrs. Rowton. I know your hotel. Your husband’s
nephew will join you there before the morning. Go now.”

A sudden noise was heard downstairs—the trampling of feet.

“Heavens! we are lost,” cried Scrivener. “Go, madam; they cannot touch
your dead; but if you do as he wishes, you will leave us now.”

“Yes, I will go,” said Nance. “But one moment first.”

She fell on her knees by the body of her husband, and bending down
printed a long kiss on the cold lips. In doing so she noticed that the
lips themselves were smooth and undisfigured. There was no mark.

       *       *       *       *       *

Scrivener was true to his word, and early the following morning Murray
Cameron was restored to his friends. Crossley, aided by Jacob Short, had
given the alarm to the police, and the Silver School was broken up for
ever.

Nance returned for one night to Rowton Heights—it was just before she and
Murray started to begin a new life in Australia—her object was to secure
a certain box.

“I do not know what it contains,” she reflected, “but if it means
revenge, I would rather break my vow to the dead than use it now!”

She packed it carefully, and, half way between England and the New World,
dropped it into deep water. Thus its secret was never revealed.

But afterwards a dying man in Paris made a strange confession. He
declared to the priest who absolved him that for years he had belonged
to a notorious gang of burglars in London, who went by the name of the
Silver School. He himself was known by the sobriquet of Spider. Amongst
the queer friendships of his life was one with the gentleman leader
of that gang, a man called Silver. The likeness between the two was
remarkable, and there was an occasion when, for purposes of his own, it
came into Spider’s head to personate Silver. He did so in order to take
the life of a young Englishman with whom he had quarrelled in a Parisian
café. The Englishman had discovered one of his most important secrets,
and Spider, with the ruthlessness of his class, resolved to silence him
in the only effectual way. In order to divert suspicion entirely from
himself, he used a cipher and hieroglyphic, the secret of which Rowton
had once confided to him.

“On my lips,” said the dying man, “you will find the mark of a death’s
head and arrows which was tattooed there years ago. You may use this
confession after my death.”


THE END.



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