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Hushed Up - A Mystery of London
by William Le Queux
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"I believed, nay, I knew, Miss Pennington, that you were my friend. You admitted in Gardone that you were friendless, and I offered you the friendship of one who, I hope, is an honest man."

"Ah! thank you!" she cried, taking my hand warmly in hers. "You have been so very generous, Mr. Biddulph, that I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart. It is true an attempt was made upon you, but you fortunately escaped, even though they secured a thousand pounds of your money. Yet, had you taken my advice and disappeared, they would soon have given up the chase."

"Tell me," I urged in deep earnestness, "others have been entrapped in that dark house—have they not? That mechanical chair—that devilish invention—was not constructed for me alone."

She did not answer, but I regarded her silence as an affirmative response.

"Your friends at least seem highly dangerous persons," I said, smiling. "I've been undecided, since discovering that my grave was already prepared, whether to go to Scotland Yard and reveal the whole game."

"No!" she cried in quick apprehension. "No, don't do that. It could serve no end, and would only implicate certain innocent persons—myself included."

"But how could you be implicated?"

"Was I not at the bank when the cheque was cashed?"

"Yes. Why were you there?" I asked.

But she only excused herself from replying to my question.

"Ah!" she cried wildly a moment later, clutching my arm convulsively, "you do not know my horrible position—you cannot dream what I have suffered, or how much I have sacrificed."

I saw that she was now terribly in earnest, and, by the quick rising and falling of the lace upon her bodice, I knew that she was stirred by a great emotion. She had refused to allow me to stand her friend because she feared what the result might be. And yet, had she not rescued me from the serpent's fang?

"Sylvia," I cried, "Sylvia—for I feel that I must call you by your Christian name—let us forget it all. The trap set by those blackguards was most ingenious, and in innocence I fell into it. I should have lost my life—except for you. You were present in that house of death. They told me you were there—they showed me your picture, and, to add to my horror, said that you, their betrayer, were to share the same fate as myself."

"Yes, yes, I know!" she cried, starting. "Oh, it was all too terrible—too terrible! How can I face you, Mr. Biddulph, after that!"

"My only desire is to forget it all, Sylvia," was my low and quiet response. "It was all my fault—my fault, for not heeding your warning. I never realized the evil machinations of those unknown enemies. How should I? As far as I know, I had never set eyes upon them before."

"You would have done wiser to have gone into hiding, as I suggested," she remarked quietly.

"Never mind," I said cheerily. "It is all past. Let us dismiss it. There is surely no more danger—now that I am forearmed."

"May they not fear your reprisals?" she exclaimed. "They did not intend that you should escape, remember."

"No, they had already prepared my grave. I have seen it."

"That grave was prepared for both of us," she said in a calm, reflective voice.

"Then how did you escape?" I inquired, with curiosity.

"I do not know. I can only guess."

"May I not know?" I asked eagerly.

"When I have confirmed my belief, I will tell you," she replied.

"Then let us dismiss the subject. It is horrible, gruesome. Look how lovely and bright the world is outside. Let us live in peace and in happiness. Let us turn aside these grim shadows which have lately fallen upon us."

"Ah!" she exclaimed, with a sigh, "you are indeed generous to me, Mr. Biddulph. But could you be so generous, I wonder, if you knew the actual truth? Alas! I fear you would not. Instead of remaining my friend, you would hate me—just—just as I hate myself!"

"Sylvia," I said, placing my hand again tenderly upon her shoulder and trying to calm her, and looking earnestly into her blue, wide-open eyes, "I shall never hate you. On the contrary, let me confess, now and openly," I whispered, "let me tell you that I—I love you!"

She started, her lips parted at the suddenness of my impetuous declaration, and stood for a moment, motionless as a statue, pale and rigid.

Then I felt a convulsive tremor run through her, and her breast heaved and fell rapidly. She placed her hand to her heart, as though to calm the rising tempest of emotion within her. Her breath came and went rapidly.

"Love me!" she echoed in a strange, hoarse tone. "Ah! no, Mr. Biddulph, no, a thousand times no! You do not know what you are saying. Recall those words—I beg of you!"

And I saw by her hard, set countenance and the strange look in her eyes that she was deadly in earnest.

"Why should I recall them?" I cried, my hand still upon her shoulder. "You are not my enemy, Sylvia, even though you may be the friend of my enemies. I love you, and I fear nothing—nothing!"

"Hush! Do not say that," she protested very quietly.

"Why?"

"Because—well, because even though you have escaped, they——" and she hesitated, her lips set as though unable to articulate the truth.

"They what?" I demanded.

"Because, Mr. Biddulph—because, alas! I know these men only too well. You have triumphed; but yours is, I fear, but a short-lived victory. They still intend that you shall die!"

"How do you know that?" I asked quickly.

"Listen," she said hoarsely. "I will tell you."



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

THE DEATH KISS

Sylvia sank into a chair, while I stood upon the hearth-rug facing her, eager to hear her explanation.

Her hands were clasped as she raised her wonderful blue eyes to mine. Yes, her beauty was perfect—more perfect than any I had ever seen in all my wandering, erratic life.

"Why do those men still intend that I shall die?" I asked. "Now that I know the truth I shall remain wary."

"Ah, yes," she responded. "But they will take you unawares. You do not know the devilish cunning and ingenuity of such men as they, who live upon their wits, and are utterly unscrupulous."

"Well, what do they now intend?" I asked, much interested, for it seemed that she knew very much more than she would admit.

"You have escaped," she said, looking straight into my face. "They naturally fear that you will tell the police."

"I shall not do that—not at present, at least," I replied. "I am keeping my own counsel."

"Yes. But cannot you see that while you live you are a menace to their dastardly plans? They dare not return to that deserted house in Bayswater."

"Where are they now?"

"Abroad, I believe. They always take care to have an outlet for escape," she answered. "Ah! you don't know what a formidable combination they are. They snap their fingers at the police of Europe."

"What? Then you really admit that there have been other victims?" I exclaimed.

"I have no actual knowledge," she declared, "only suspicions."

"Why are you friendly with them?" I asked. "What does your father say to such acquaintances?"

"I am friendly only under compulsion," she answered. "Ah! Mr. Biddulph, you cannot know how I hate the very sight or knowledge of those inhuman fiends. Their treatment of you is, in itself, sufficient proof of their pitiless plans."

"Tell me this, Sylvia," I said, after a second's pause. "Have you any knowledge of a man—a great friend of mine—named Jack Marlowe?"

Her face changed. It became paler, and I saw she was slightly confused.

"I—well, I believe we met once," she said. "His father lives somewhere down in Devonshire."

"Yes," I said quickly. "What do you know of him?"

"Nothing. We met only once."

"Where?"

"Well—our meeting was under rather curious circumstances. He is your friend, therefore please pardon me if I do not reply to your question," was her vague response.

"Then what do you anticipate from those men, Reckitt and Forbes?" I asked.

"Only evil—distinct evil," she replied. "They will return, and strike when you least expect attack."

"But if I do not go to the police, why should they fear me? They are quite welcome to the money they have stolen—so long as they allow me peace in the future."

"Which I fear they will not do," replied the girl, shaking her head.

"You speak very apprehensively," I said. "What is there really to fear? Perhaps it would be best if I went to the police at once. They would then dig over that neglected garden and reveal its secrets."

"No!" she cried again, starting wildly from her chair as though in sudden terror. "I beg of you not to do that, Mr. Biddulph. It would serve no purpose, and only create a great sensation. But the culprits would never be brought to justice. They are far too clever, and their conspiracies are too far-reaching. No, remain patient. Take the greatest care of your own personal safety—and you may yet be able to combat your enemies with their own weapons."

"I shall be able, Sylvia—providing that you assist me," I said.

She held her breath, and remained silent. She evidently feared them.

I tried to obtain from her some details of the occurrences of that night of horror, but she refused to satisfy my curiosity. Apparently she feared to incriminate herself. Could it be possible that she had only learnt at the last moment that it was I who was embraced in the next room by that fatal chair!

Yet it was all so puzzling, so remarkable. Surely a girl with such a pure, open, innocent face could not be the accomplice of dastardly criminals! She was their friend. That much she had admitted to me. But her friendship with them was made under compulsion. She urged me not to go to the police. Why?

Did she fear that she herself would be implicated in a series of dark and terrible crimes?

"Where is your father?" I inquired presently.

"In Scotland," was her prompt reply. "I heard from him at the Caledonian Hotel, at Edinburgh, last Friday. I am staying here with Mr. Shuttleworth until his return."

Was it not strange that she should be guest of a quiet-mannered country parson, if she were actually the accomplice of a pair of criminals! I felt convinced that Shuttleworth knew the truth—that he could reveal a very remarkable story—if he only would.

"Your father is a friend of Mr. Shuttleworth—eh?" I asked.

She nodded in the affirmative. Then she stood with her gaze fixed thoughtfully upon the sunlit lawn outside.

Mystery was written upon her fair countenance. She held a dread secret which she was determined not to reveal. She knew of those awful crimes committed in that dark house in Bayswater, but her intention seemed to be to shield at all hazards her dangerous "friends."

"Sylvia," I said tenderly at last, again taking her hand in mine, "why cannot you be open and frank with me?" She allowed her hand to lie soft and inert in mine, sighing the while, her gaze still fixed beyond as though her thoughts were far away. "I love you," I whispered. "Cannot you see how you puzzle me?—for you seem to be my friend at one moment, and at the next the accomplice of my enemies."

"I have told you that you must never love me, Mr. Biddulph," was her low reply, as she withdrew her hand slowly, but very firmly.

"Ah! no," I cried. "Do not take offence at my words. I'm aware that I'm a hopeless blunderer in love. All I know, Sylvia, is that my only thought is of you. And I—I've wondered whether you, on your part, can ever entertain a spark of affection for me?"

She was silent, her white lips pressed close together, a strange expression crossing her features. Again she held her breath, as though what I had said had caused her great surprise. Then she answered—

"How can you love me? Am I not, after all, a mere stranger?"

"I know you sufficiently well," I cried, "to be aware that for me there exists no other woman. I fear I'm a blunt man. It is my nature. Forgive me, Sylvia, for speaking the truth, but—well, as a matter of fact, I could not conceal the truth any longer."

"And you tell me this, after—after all that has happened!" she faltered in a low, tremulous voice, as I again took her tiny hand in mine.

"Yes—because I truly and honestly love you," I said, "because ever since we have met I have found myself thinking of you—recalling you—nay, dreaming of happiness at your side."

She raised her splendid eyes, and looked into mine for a moment; then, sighing, shook her head sadly.

"Ah! Mr. Biddulph," she responded in a curious, strained voice, "passion may be perilously misleading. Ask yourself if you are not injudicious in making this declaration—to a woman like myself?"

"Why?" I cried. "Why should it be injudicious? I trust you, because—because I owe my life to you—because you have already proved yourself my devoted little friend. What I beg and pray is that your friendship may, in course of time, ripen into love—that you may reciprocate my affection—that you may really love me!"

A slight hardness showed at the corners of her small mouth. Her eyes were downcast, and she swallowed the lump that arose in her throat.

She was silent, standing rigid and motionless.

Suddenly a great and distressing truth occurred to me. Did she believe that I pitied her? I hoped not. Any woman of common sensibility would almost die of shame at the thought of being loved out of pity; and, what is more, she would think none the better of the man who pitied her. The belief that "pity melts the heart to love" is an unfounded one.

So I at once endeavoured to remove the wrong impression which I feared I had conveyed.

What mad, impetuous words I uttered I can scarcely tell. I know that I raised her soft white hand to my lips and kissed it fervently, repeating my avowal and craving a word of hope from her lips.

But she again shook her head, and with sadness responded in a low, faltering tone—

"It is quite impossible, Mr. Biddulph. Leave me—let us forget all you have said. It will be better thus—far better for us both. You do not know who or what I am; you——"

"I do not know, neither do I care!" I cried passionately. "All I know, Sylvia, is that my heart is yours—that I have loved only once in my life, and it is now!"

Her slim fingers played nervously with the ribbon upon her cool summer gown, but she made no response.

"I know I have not much to recommend me," I went on. "Perhaps I am too hulking, too English. You who have lived so much abroad are more used, no doubt, to the elegant manners and the prettily turned compliments of the foreigner than the straight speech of a fellow like myself. Yet I swear that my only thought has been of you, that I love you with all my heart—with all my soul."

I caught her hand and again looked into her eyes, trying to read what response lay hidden in their depths.

I felt her tremble. For a moment she seemed unable to reply. The silence was unbroken save for the drowsy hum of the insects in the summer heat outside, while the sweet perfume of the flowers filled our nostrils. In the tension of those moments each second seemed an hour. You who have experienced the white heat of the love-flame can only know my eager, breathless apprehension, the honest whole-heartedness of my declaration. Perhaps, in your case, the flames are all burnt out, but even now you can tell of the white core and centre of fire within you. Years may have gone, but it still remains—the sweet memory of your well-beloved.

"Tell me, Sylvia," I whispered once more. "Tell me, will you not break down this strange invisible barrier which you have set up between us? Forget the past, as I have already forgotten it—and be mine—my own!"

She burst into tears.

"Ah!" she cried. "If I only could—if I only dared!"

"Will you not dare to do it—for my sake?" I asked very quietly. "Will you not promise to be mine? Let me stand your friend—your champion. Let me defend you against your enemies. Let me place myself beside you and defy them."

"Ah, no!" she gasped, "not to defy them. Defiance would only bring death—death to both of us!"

"Your love, Sylvia, would mean life and happiness, not death—to me—to both of us!" I cried. "Will you not give me your promise? Let our love be in secret, if you so desire—only let us love each other. Promise me!" I cried, my arm stealing around her narrow waist. "Promise me that you will try and love me, and I, too, will promise to be worthy of your affection."

For a moment she remained silent, her handsome head downcast.

Then slowly, with a sweet love-look upon her beautiful countenance, she raised her face to mine, and then for the first time our lips met in a fierce and passionate caress.

Thus was our solemn compact sealed.



CHAPTER FOURTEEN

OF THINGS UNMENTIONABLE

I remained in that cosy, book-lined den for perhaps an hour—one whole hour of sweet, delightful ecstasy.

With her fair head buried upon my shoulder she shed tears of joy, while, time after time, I smothered her white brow with my kisses. Ah! yes, I loved her. I closed my eyes to all. I put away all my dark suspicions, and lived only for the present in the knowledge that Sylvia was mine—mine!

My hot, fevered declarations of affection caused her to cling to me more closely, yet she uttered but few words, and those half-incoherent ones, overcome as she was by a flood of emotion. She seemed to have utterly broken down beneath the great strain, and now welcomed the peace and all-absorbing happiness of affection. Alone and friendless, as she had admitted herself to be, she had, perhaps, longed for the love of an honest man. At least, that is what I was egotistical enough to believe. Possibly I might have been wrong, for until that moment I had ever been a confirmed bachelor, and had but little experience of the fantastic workings of a woman's mind.

Like so many other men of my age, I had vainly believed myself to be a philosopher. Yet are not philosophers merely soured cynics, after all? And I certainly was neither cynical nor soured. Therefore my philosophy was but a mere ridiculous affectation to which so many men and women are prone.

But in those moments of ecstasy I abandoned myself entirely to love, imprinting lingering, passionate kisses upon her lips, her closed eyes, her wide white brow, while she returned my caresses, smiling through her hot tears.

Presently, when she grew calmer, she said in a low, sweet voice—

"I—hardly know whether this is wise. I somehow fear——"

"Fear what?" I asked, interrupting her.

"I fear what the future may hold for us," she answered. "Remember I—I am poor, while you are wealthy, and——"

"What does that matter, pray? Thank Heaven! I have sufficient for us both—sufficient to provide for you the ordinary comforts of life, Sylvia. I only now long for the day, dearest, when I may call you wife."

"Ah!" she said, with a wistful smile, "and I, too, shall be content when I can call you husband."

And so we sat together upon the couch, holding each other's hand, and speaking for the first time not as friends—but as lovers.

You who love, or who have loved, know well the joyful, careless feeling of such moments; the great peace which overspreads the mind when the passion of affection burns within.

Need I say more, except to tell you that our great overwhelming love was mutual, and that our true hearts beat in unison?

Thus the afternoon slipped by until, of a sudden, we heard a girl's voice call: "Sylvia! Sylvia!"

We sprang apart. And not a moment too soon, for next second there appeared at the French windows the tall figure of a rather pretty dark-haired girl in cream.

"I—I beg your pardon!" she stammered, on recognizing that Sylvia was not alone.

"This is Mr. Biddulph," exclaimed my well-beloved. "Miss Elsie Durnford."

I bowed, and then we all three went forth upon the lawn.

I found Sylvia's fellow-guest a very quiet young girl, and understood that she lived somewhere in the Midlands. Her father, she told me, was very fond of hunting, and she rode to hounds a good deal.

We wandered about the garden awaiting Shuttleworth's return, for both girls would not hear of me leaving before tea.

"Mr. and Mrs. Shuttleworth are certain to be back in time," Sylvia declared, "and I'm sure they'd be horribly annoyed if you went away without seeing them."

"Do you really wish me to stay?" I asked, with a laugh, as we halted beneath the shadow of the great spreading cedar upon the lawn.

"Of course we do," declared Elsie, laughing. "You really must remain and keep us company, Mr. Biddulph. Sylvia, you know, is quite a stranger. She's always travelling now-a-days. I get letters from her from the four corners of the earth. I never know where to write so as to catch her."

"Yes," replied my well-beloved, with a slight sigh. "When we were at school at Eastbourne I thought it would be so jolly to travel and see the world, but now-a-days, alas! I confess I'm already tired of it. I would give anything to settle down quietly in the beautiful country in England—the country which is incomparable."

"You will—one day," I remarked meaningly.

And as she lifted her eyes to mine she replied—

"Perhaps—who knows?"

The village rector returned at last, greeting me with some surprise, and introducing his wife, a rather stout, homely woman, who bore traces of good looks, and who wore a visiting gown of neat black, for she had been paying a call.

"I looked in to see you the other day in town, Mr. Biddulph," he said. "But I was unfortunate. Your man told me you were out. He was not rude to me this time," he added humorously, with a laugh.

"No," I said, smiling. "He was profuse in his apologies. Old servants are sometimes a little trying."

"Yes, you're right. But he seems a good sort. I blame myself, you know. He's not to blame in the least."

Then we strolled together to a tent set beneath the cedar, whither the maid had already taken the tea and strawberries, and there we sat around gossiping.

Afterwards, when Shuttleworth rose, he said—

"Come across to my study and have a smoke. You're not in a great hurry to get back to town. Perhaps you'll play a game of tennis presently?"

I followed him through the pretty pergola of roses, back into the house, and when I had seated myself in the big old arm-chair, he gave me an excellent cigar.

"Do you know, Mr. Biddulph," he said after we had been smoking some minutes, "I'm extremely glad to have this opportunity of a chat with you. I called at Wilton Street, because I wished to see you."

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, for several reasons," was his slow, earnest reply. His face looked thinner, more serious. Somehow I had taken a great fancy to him, for though a clergyman, he struck me as a broad-minded man of the world. He was keen-eyed, thoughtful and earnest, yet at the same time full of that genuine, hearty bonhomie so seldom, alas! found in religious men. The good fellowship of a leader appeals to men more than anything else, and yet somehow it seems always more apparent in the Roman Catholic priest than in the Protestant clergyman.

"The reason I called to-day was because I thought you might wish to speak to me," I said.

He rose and closed the French windows. Then, re-seating himself, he removed his old briar pipe from his lips, and, bending towards me in his chair, said very earnestly—

"I wonder whether I might presume to say something to you strictly in private, Mr. Biddulph? I know that I ought not to interfere in your private affairs—yet, as a minister of religion, I perhaps am a slightly privileged person in that respect. At least you will, I trust, believe in my impartiality."

"Most certainly I do, Mr. Shuttleworth," I replied, somewhat surprised at his manner.

"Well, you recollect our conversation on the last occasion you were here?" he said. "You remember what I told you?"

"I remember that we spoke of Miss Sylvia," I exclaimed, "and that you refused to satisfy my curiosity."

"I refused, because I am not permitted," was his calm rejoinder.

"Since I saw you," I said, "a dastardly attempt has been made upon my life. I was enticed to an untenanted house in Bayswater, and after a cheque for a thousand pounds had been obtained from me by a trick, I narrowly escaped death by a devilish device. My grave, I afterwards found, was already prepared."

"Is this a fact!" he gasped.

"It is. I was rescued—by Sylvia herself."

He was silent, drawing hard at his pipe, deep in thought.

"The names of the two men who made the dastardly attempt upon me were Reckitt and Forbes—friends of Sylvia Pennington," I went on.

He nodded. Then, removing his pipe, exclaimed—

"Yes. I understand. But did I not warn you?"

"You did. But, to be frank, Mr. Shuttleworth, I really did not follow you then. Neither do I now."

"Have I not told you, my dear sir, that I possess certain knowledge under vow of absolute secrecy—knowledge which it is not permitted to me, as a servant of God, to divulge."

"But surely if you knew that assassination was contemplated, it was your duty to warn me."

"I did—but you took no heed," he declared. "Sylvia warned you also, when you met in Gardone, and yet you refused to take her advice and go into hiding!"

"But why should an innocent, law-abiding, inoffensive man be compelled to hide himself like a fugitive from justice?" I protested.

"Who can fathom human enmity, or the ingenious cunning of the evil-doer?" asked the grey-faced rector quite calmly. "Have you never stopped to wonder at the marvellous subtlety of human wickedness?"

"Those men are veritable fiends," I cried. "Yet why have I aroused their animosity? If you know so much concerning them, Mr. Shuttleworth, don't you think that it is your duty to protect your fellow-creatures?—to make it your business to inform the police?" I added.

"Probably it is," he said reflectively. "But there are times when even the performance of one's duty may be injudicious."

"Surely it is not injudicious to expose the methods of such blackguards!" I cried.

"Pardon me," he said. "I am compelled to differ with that opinion. Were you in possession of the same knowledge as myself, you too, would, I feel sure, deem it injudicious."

"But what is this secret knowledge?" I demanded. "I have narrowly escaped being foully done to death. I have been robbed, and I feel that it is but right that I should now know the truth."

"Not from me, Mr. Biddulph," he answered. "Have I not already told you the reason why no word of the actual facts may pass my lips?"

"I cannot see why you should persist in thus mystifying me as to the sinister motive of that pair of assassins. If they wished to rob me, they could have done so without seeking to take my life by those horrible means."

"What means did they employ?" he asked.

Briefly and vividly I explained their methods, as he sat silent, listening to me to the end. He evinced neither horror nor surprise. Perhaps he knew their mode of procedure only too well.

"I warned you," was all he vouchsafed. "Sylvia warned you also."

"It is over—of the past, Mr. Shuttleworth," I said, rising from my chair. "I feel confident that Sylvia, though she possessed knowledge of what was intended, had no hand whatever in it. Indeed, so confident am I of her loyalty to me, that to-day—yes, let me confess it to you—for I know you are my friend as well as hers, to-day, here—only an hour ago, I asked Sylvia to become my wife."

"Your wife!" he gasped, starting to his feet, his countenance pale and drawn.

"Yes, my wife."

"And what was her answer?" he asked dryly, in a changed tone.

"She has consented."

"Mr. Biddulph," he said very gravely, looking straight into my face, "this must never be! Have I not already told you the ghastly truth?—that there is a secret—an unmentionable secret——"

"A secret concerning her!" I cried. "What is it? Come, Mr. Shuttleworth, you shall tell me, I demand to know!"

"I can only repeat that between you and Sylvia Pennington there still lies the open gulf—and that gulf is, indeed, the grave. In your ignorance of the strange but actual facts you do not realize your own dread peril, or you would never ask her to become your wife. Abandon all thought of her, I beg of you," he urged earnestly. "Take this advice of mine, for one day you will assuredly thank me for my counsel."

"I love her with all the strength of my being, and for me that is sufficient," I declared.

"Ah!" he cried in despair as he paced the room. "To think of the irony of it all! That you should actually woo her—of all women!" Then, halting before me, his eye grew suddenly aflame, he clenched his hands and cried: "But you shall not! Understand me, you shall hate her; you shall curse her very name. You shall never love her—never—I, Edmund Shuttleworth, forbid it! It must not be!"

At that instant the frou-frou of a woman's skirts fell upon my ears, and, turning quickly, I saw Sylvia herself standing at the open French windows.

Entering unobserved she had heard those wild words of the rector's, and stood pale, breathless, rigid as a statue.

"There!" he cried, pointing at her with his thin, bony finger. "There she is! Ask her yourself, now—before me—the reason why she can never be your wife—the reason that her love is forbidden! If she really loves you, as she pretends, she will tell you the truth with her own lips!"



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

FORBIDDEN LOVE

I stood before Shuttleworth angry and defiant.

I had crossed to Sylvia and had taken her soft hand.

"I really cannot see, sir, by what right you interfere between us!" I cried, looking at him narrowly. "You forbid! What do I care—why, pray, should you forbid my actions?"

"I forbid," repeated the thin-faced clergyman, "because I have a right—a right which one day will be made quite plain to you."

"Ah! Mr. Shuttleworth," gasped Sylvia, now pale as death, "what are you saying?"

"The truth, my child. You know too well that, for you, love and marriage are forbidden," he exclaimed, looking at her meaningly.

She sighed, and her tiny hand trembled within my grasp. Her mouth trembled, and I saw that tears were welling in her eyes.

"Ah! yes," she cried hoarsely a moment later. "I know, alas! that I am not like other women. About me there have been forged bonds of steel—bonds which I can never break."

"Only by one means," interrupted Shuttleworth, terribly calm and composed.

"No, no!" she protested quickly, covering her face with her hands as though in shame. "Not that—never that! Do not let us speak of it!"

"Then you have no right to accept this man's love," he said reproachfully, "no right to allow him to approach nearer the brink of the grave than he has done. You know full well that, for him, your love must prove fatal!"

She hung her head as though not daring to look again into my eyes. The strange clergyman's stern rebuke had utterly confused and confounded her. Yet I knew she loved me dearly. That sweet, intense love-look of hers an hour ago could never be feigned. It spoke far more truly than mere words.

Perhaps she was annoyed that I had told Shuttleworth the truth. Yes, I had acted very foolishly. My tongue had loosened involuntarily. My wild joy had led me into an injudicious confession—one that I had never dreamed would be fraught with sorrow.

"Mr. Shuttleworth," I said at last, "please do not distress yourself on my account. I love Sylvia, and she has promised to be mine. If disaster occurs, then I am fully prepared to meet it. You seem in close touch with this remarkable association of thieves and assassins, or you would hardly be so readily aware of their evil intentions."

"Ah!" he responded, with a slight sigh, "you are only speaking in ignorance. If you were aware of the true facts, you would, on the contrary, thank me for revealing the peril in which love for this young lady will assuredly place you."

"But have I not already told you that I am fearless? I am prepared to meet this mysterious peril, whatever it is, for her sake!" I protested.

A curious, cynical smile overspread his grey, ascetic face.

"You speak without knowledge, my dear sir," he remarked. "Could I but reveal the truth, you would quickly withdraw that assertion. You would, indeed, flee from this girl as you would from the plague!"

"Well," I said, "your words are at least very remarkable, sir. One would really imagine Miss Pennington to be a hell-fiend—from your denunciation."

"You mistake me. I make no denunciation. On the other hand, I am trying to impress upon you the utter futility of your love."

"Why should you do that? What is your motive?" I asked quickly, trying to discern what could be at the back of this man's mind. How strange it was! Hitherto I had rather liked the tall, quiet, kind-mannered country rector. Yet he had suddenly set himself out in open antagonism to my plans—to my love!

"My motive," he declared, "is to protect the best interests of you both. I have no ends to serve, save those of humanity, Mr. Biddulph."

"You urged Miss Pennington to make confession to me. You implied that her avowal of affection was false," I said, with quick indignation.

"I asked her to confess—to tell you the truth, because I am unable so to do," was his slow reply. "Ah! Mr. Biddulph," he sighed, "if only the real facts could be exposed to you—if only you could be told the ghastly, naked truth."

"Why do you say all this, Mr. Shuttleworth?" protested Sylvia in a low, pained voice. "Why should Mr. Biddulph be mystified further? If you are determined that I should sacrifice myself—well, I am ready. You have been my friend—yet now you seem to have suddenly turned against me, and treat me as an enemy."

"Only as far as this unfortunate affair is concerned, my child," he said. "Remember my position—recall all the past, and put to yourself the question whether I have not a perfect right to forbid you to sacrifice the life of a good, honest man like the one before you," he said, his clerical drawl becoming more accentuated as he spoke.

"Rubbish, my dear sir," I laughed derisively. "Put aside all this cant and hypocrisy. It ill becomes you. Speak out, like a man of the world that you are. What specific charge do you bring against this lady? Come, tell me."

"None," he replied. "Evil is done through her—not by her."

And she stood silent, unable to protest.

"But can't you be more explicit?" I cried, my anger rising. "If you make charges, I demand that you shall substantiate them. Recollect all that I have at stake in this matter."

"I know—your life," he responded. "Well, I have already told you what to expect."

"Sylvia," I said, turning to the pale girl standing trembling at my side, "will you not speak? Will you not tell me what all this means? By what right does this man speak thus? Has he any right?"

She was silent for a few moments. Then slowly she nodded her head in an affirmative.

"What right has he to forbid our affection?" I demanded. "I love you, and I tell you that no man shall come between us!"

"He alone has a right, Owen," she said, addressing me for the first time by my Christian name.

"What right?"

But she would not answer. She merely stood with head downcast, and said—

"Ask him."

This I did, but the thin-faced man refused to reply. All he would say was—

"I have forbidden this fatal folly, Mr. Biddulph. Please do not let us discuss it further."

I confess I was both angry and bewildered. The mystery was hourly increasing. Sylvia had admitted that Shuttleworth had a right to interfere. Yet I could not discern by what right a mere friend could forbid a girl to entertain affection. I felt that the ever-increasing problem was even stranger and more remarkable than I had anticipated, and that when I fathomed it, it would be found to be utterly astounding!

Sylvia was unwavering in her attachment to myself. Her antagonism towards Shuttleworth's pronouncement was keen and bitter, yet, with her woman's superior judgment, she affected carelessness.

"You asked this lady to confess," I said, addressing him. "Confess what?"

"The truth."

Then I turned to my well-beloved and asked—

"What is the truth? Do you love me?"

"Yes, Owen, I do," was her frank and fervent response.

"I did not mean that," said Shuttleworth hastily. "I meant the truth concerning yourself."

"Mr. Biddulph knows what I am."

"But he does not know who you are."

"Then you may tell him," was her hoarse reply. "Tell him!" she cried wildly. "Tear from me all that I hold sacred—all that I hold most dear—dash me back into degradation and despair—if you will! I am in your hands."

"Sylvia!" he said reproachfully. "I am your friend—and your father's friend. I am not your enemy. I regret if you have ever thought I have lifted a finger against you."

"Are you not standing as a barrier between myself and Mr. Biddulph?" she protested, her eyes flashing.

"Because I see that only misfortune—ah! death—can arise. You know full well the promise I have made. You know, too, what has been told me in confidence, because—because my profession happens to be what it is—a humble servant of God."

"Yes," she faltered, "I know—I know! Forgive me if I have spoken harshly, Mr. Shuttleworth. I know you are my friend—and you are Owen's. Only—only it seems very hard that you should thus put this ban upon us—you, who preach the gospel of truth and love."

Shuttleworth drew a deep breath. His thin lips were pursed; his grey eyebrows contracted slightly, and I saw in his countenance a distinctly pained expression.

"I have spoken with all good intention, Sylvia," he said. "Your love for Mr. Biddulph must only bring evil upon both of you. Surely you realize that?"

"Sylvia has already realized it," I declared. "But we have resolved to risk it."

"The risk is, alas! too great," he declared. "Already you are a marked man. Your only chance of escape is to take Sylvia's advice and to go into hiding. Go away—into the country—and live in some quiet, remote village under another name. It is your best mode of evading disaster. To remain and become the lover of Sylvia Pennington is, I tell you, the height of folly—it is suicide!"

"Let it be so," I responded in quiet defiance. "I will never forsake the woman I love. Frankly, I suspect a hidden motive in this suggestion of yours; therefore I refuse to accept it."

"Not to save your own life?"

"Not even to save my life. This is surely my own affair."

"And hers."

"I shall protect Sylvia, never fear. I am not afraid. Let our enemies betray their presence by sign or word, and I will set myself out to combat them. They have already those crimes in Bayswater to account for. And they will take a good deal of explaining away."

"Then you really intend to reveal the secret of that house in Porchester Terrace?" he asked, not without some apprehension.

"My enemies, you say, intend to plot and encompass my death. Good! Then I shall take my own means of vindication. Naturally I am a quiet, law-abiding man. But if any enemy rises against me without cause, then I strike out with a sledgehammer."

"You are hopeless," he declared.

"I am, where my love is concerned," I admitted. "Sylvia has promised to-day that she will become my wife. The future is surely our own affair, Mr. Shuttleworth—not yours!"

"And if her father forbids?" he asked quite quietly, his eyes fixed straight upon my well-beloved.

"Let me meet him face to face," I said in defiance. "He will not interfere after I have spoken," I added, with confidence. "I, perhaps, know more than you believe concerning him."

Sylvia started, staring at me, her face blanched in an instant. The scene was tragic and painful.

"What do you know?" she asked breathlessly.

"Nothing, dearest, which will interfere with our love," I reassured her. "Your father's affairs are not yours, and for his doings you cannot be held responsible."

She exchanged a quick glance with Shuttleworth, I noticed.

Then it seemed as though a great weight were lifted from her mind by my words, for, turning to me, she smiled sweetly, saying—

"Ah! how can I thank you sufficiently? I am helpless and defenceless. If I only dared, I could tell you a strange story—for surely mine is as strange as any ever printed in the pages of fiction. But Mr. Shuttleworth will not permit it."

"You may speak—if you deem it wise," exclaimed the rector in a strangely altered voice. He seemed much annoyed at my open defiance. "Mr. Biddulph may as well, perhaps, know the truth at first as at last."

"The truth!" I echoed. "Yes, tell me the truth," I begged her.

"No," she cried wildly, again covering her fair face with her hands. "No—forgive me. I can't—I can't!"

"No," remarked Shuttleworth in a strange, hard, reproachful tone, and with a cruel, cynical smile upon his lips. "You cannot—for it is too hideous—too disgraceful—too utterly scandalous! It is for that reason I forbid you to love!"



CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE MAN IN GOLD PINCE-NEZ

For a whole month our engagement was kept a profound secret.

Only Shuttleworth and his wife knew. The first-named had been compelled to bow to the inevitable, and for him, it must be said that he behaved splendidly. Sylvia remained his guest, and on several days each week I travelled down from Waterloo to Andover and spent the warm summer hours with her, wandering in the woods, or lounging upon the pretty lawn of the old rectory.

The rector had ceased to utter warnings, yet sometimes I noticed a strange, apprehensive look upon his grave countenance. Elsie Durnford still remained there, and she and Sylvia were close friends.

Through those four happy weeks I had tried to get into communication with Mr. Pennington. I telegraphed to an address in Scotland which Sylvia had given me, but received no reply. I then telegraphed to the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, and then learned, with considerable surprise, that nobody named Pennington was, or had been, staying there.

I told Sylvia this. But she merely remarked—

"Father is so erratic in his movements that he probably never went to Edinburgh, after all. I have not heard from him now for a full week."

I somehow felt, why, I cannot well explain, that she was rather disinclined to allow me to communicate with Pennington. Did she fear that he might forbid our marriage?

Without seeing him or obtaining his consent, I confess I did not feel absolute security. The mystery surrounding her was such a curious and complicated one that the deeper I probed into it, the more complex did it appear.

Some few days later, in reply to my question, she said that she had heard from her father, who was at the Midland Grand Hotel in Manchester. He would not, however, be in London for two or three weeks, as he was about to leave in two days' time, by way of Hook of Holland, for Berlin, where he had business.

Therefore, early the following morning, I took train to Manchester, and made inquiry at the big hotel.

"We have no gentleman of that name here, sir," replied the smart reception clerk, referring to his list. "He hasn't arrived yet, I expect. A lady was asking for a Mr. Pennington yesterday—a French lady."

"You don't know the name, then?"

He replied in the negative.

"No doubt he is expected, if the lady called to see him?"

"No doubt, sir. Perhaps he'll be here to-day."

And with that, I was compelled to turn disappointed away. I wandered into the restaurant, and there ate my lunch alone. The place was crowded, as it always is, mostly by people interested in cotton and its products, for it is, perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan hotels in the whole kingdom. Sick of the chatter and clatter of the place, I paid my bill and passed out into the big smoking-lounge to take my coffee and liqueur and idle over the newspaper.

I was not quite certain whether to remain there the night and watch for Pennington's arrival, or to return to London. As a matter of fact, so certain had I been of finding him that I had not brought a suit-case.

I suppose I had been in the lounge half-an-hour or so, when I looked up, and then, to my surprise, saw Pennington, smartly dressed, and looking very spruce for his years, crossing from the bureau with a number of letters in his hand. It was apparent that he had just received them from the mail-clerk.

And yet I had been told that he was not staying there!

I held my paper in such position as to conceal my face while I watched his movements.

He halted, opened a telegram, and read it eagerly. Then, crushing it in his hand with a gesture of annoyance, he thrust it into his jacket pocket.

He was dressed in a smart dark grey suit, which fitted him perfectly, a grey soft felt hat, while his easy manner and bearing were those of a gentleman of wealth and leisure. He held a cigar between his fingers, and, walking slowly as he opened one of the letters, he presently threw himself into one of the big arm-chairs near me, and became absorbed in his correspondence.

There was a waste-paper basket near, and into this he tossed something as valueless. One of the letters evidently caused him considerable annoyance, for, removing his hat, he passed his hand slowly over his bald head as he sat staring at it in mystification. Then he rang the bell, and ordered something from a waiter. A liqueur of brandy was brought, and, tossing it off at a gulp, he rose, wrote a telegram at the table near him, and went quickly out.

After he had gone I also rose, and, without attracting attention, crossed, took up another paper, and then seated myself in the chair he had vacated.

My eye was upon the waste-paper basket, and when no one was looking I reached out and took therefrom a crumpled blue envelope—the paper he had flung away.

Smoothing it out, I found that it was not addressed to him, but to "Arnold Du Cane, Esq., Travellers' Club, Paris," and had been re-directed to this hotel.

This surprised me.

I rose, and, crossing to the mail-clerk, asked—

"You gave some letters and a telegram to a rather short gentleman in grey a few minutes ago. Was that Mr. Du Cane?"

"Yes, sir," was the reply. "He went across yonder into the lounge."

"You know him—eh?"

"Oh yes, sir. He's often been here. Not lately. At one time, however, he was a frequent visitor."

And so Sylvia's father was living there under the assumed name of Arnold Du Cane!

For business purposes names are often assumed, of course. But Pennington's business was such a mysterious one that, even against my will, I became filled with suspicion.

I resolved to wait and catch him on his return. He had probably only gone to the telegraph office. Had Sylvia wilfully concealed the fact that her father travelled under the name of Du Cane, in order that I should not meet him? Surely there could be no reason why she should have done so.

Therefore I returned to a chair near the entrance to the smoking-lounge, and waited in patience.

My vigil was not a long one, for after ten minutes or so he re-entered, spruce and gay, and cast a quick glance around, as though in search of somebody.

I rose from my chair, and as I did so saw that he regarded me strangely, as though half conscious of having met me somewhere before.

Walking straight up to him, I said—

"I believe, sir, that you are Mr. Pennington?"

He looked at me strangely, and I fancied that he started at mention of the name.

"Well, sir," was his calm reply, "I have not the pleasure of knowing you." I noted that he neither admitted that he was Pennington, nor did he deny it.

"We met some little time ago on the Lake of Garda," I said. "I, unfortunately, did not get the chance of a chat with you then. You left suddenly. Don't you recollect that I sat alone opposite you in the restaurant of the Grand at Gardone?"

"Oh yes!" he laughed. "How very foolish of me! Forgive me. I thought I recognized you, and yet couldn't, for the life of me, recall where we had met. How are you?" and he put out his hand and shook mine warmly. "Let's sit down. Have a drink, Mr.—er. I haven't the pleasure of your name."

"Biddulph," I said. "Owen Biddulph."

"Well, Mr. Biddulph," he said in a cheery way, "I'm very glad you recognized me. I'm a very bad hand at recollecting people, I fear. Perhaps I meet so many." And then he gave the waiter an order for some refreshment. "Since I was at Gardone I've been about a great deal—to Cairo, Bucharest, Odessa, and other places. I'm always travelling, you know."

"And your daughter has remained at home—with Mr. Shuttleworth, near Andover," I remarked.

He started perceptibly at my words.

"Ah! of course. The girl was with me at Gardone. You met her there, perhaps—eh?"

I replied in the affirmative. It, however, struck me as strange that he should refer to her as "the girl." Surely that was the term used by one of his strange motoring friends when he kept that midnight appointment on the Brescia road.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Sylvia," I went on. "And more, we have become very firm friends."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, opening his eyes widely. "I'm delighted to hear it."

Though his manner was so open and breezy, I yet somehow detected a curious sinister expression in his glance. He did not seem exactly at his ease in my presence.

"The fact is, Mr. Pennington," I said, after we had been chatting for some time, "I have been wanting to meet you for some weeks past. I have something to say to you."

"Oh! What's that?" he asked, regarding me with some surprise. "I suppose Sylvia told you that I was in Manchester, and you came here to see me—eh? This was not a chance meeting—was it?"

"Not exactly," I admitted. "I came here from London expressly to have a chat with you—a confidential chat."

His expression altered slightly, I thought.

"Well?" he asked, twisting his cigar thoughtfully in his fingers. "Speak; I'm listening."

For a second I hesitated. Then, in a blundering way, blurted forth—

"The fact is, Mr. Pennington, I love Sylvia! She has promised to become my wife, and I am here to beg your consent."

He half rose from his chair, staring at me in blank amazement.

"What?" he cried. "Sylvia loves you—a perfect stranger?"

"She does," was my calm response. "And though I may be a stranger to you, Mr. Pennington, I hope it may not be for long. I am not without means, and I am in a position to maintain your daughter properly, as the wife of a country gentleman."

He was silent for a few moments, his brows knit thoughtfully, his eyes upon the fine ring upon his well-manicured hand.

"What is your income?" he asked quite bluntly, raising his keen eyes to mine.

I told him, giving him a few details concerning my parentage and my possessions.

"And what would you be prepared to settle on my daughter, providing I gave my consent? Have you thought of that matter?"

I confessed that I had not, but that I would be ready, if she so desired, to settle upon her twenty thousand pounds.

"And that wouldn't cripple you—eh?"

"No, I'm pleased to say it would not. I have kept my inheritance practically intact," I added.

"Well, I must first hear what Sylvia has to say," he said; then he added airily, "I suppose you would make over the greater part of your estate to her, in case of your death? And there are life assurances, of course? One never knows what may happen, you know. Pardon me for speaking thus frankly. As a father, however, it is my duty to see that my daughter's future is safeguarded."

"I quite understand all that," I replied, with a smile. "Of course, Sylvia would inherit all I could legally bequeath to her, and as for life assurances, I would insure myself for what sum you suggest."

"You are young," he said. "Insure for ten thousand. The premiums would be not so very heavy."

"As you wish," I replied. "If I carry out your desires, I understand that I have your consent to pay my attentions to Sylvia?"

"If what you tell me proves, on inquiry, to be the truth, Mr. Biddulph, I shall have the greatest pleasure in welcoming you as my son-in-law. I can't say more," he replied. "Here's my hand," and as I took his, he gripped me heartily. "I confess I like you now," he added, "and I feel sure I shall like you more when I know more concerning you."

Then he added, with a laugh—

"Oh, by the way, I'm not known here as Pennington, but as Du Cane. The fact is, I had some unfortunate litigation some time ago, which led to bankruptcy, and so, for business reasons, I'm Arnold Du Cane. You'll understand, won't you?" he laughed.

"Entirely," I replied, overjoyed at receiving Pennington's consent. "When shall we meet in London?"

"I'll be back on the 10th—that's sixteen days from now," he replied. "I have to go to Brussels, and on to Riga. Tell Sylvia and dear old Shuttleworth you've seen me. Give them both my love. We shall meet down at Middleton, most certainly."

And so for a long time we chatted on, finishing our cigars, I replying to many questions he put to me relative to my financial and social position—questions which were most natural in the circumstances of our proposed relationship.

But while we were talking a rather curious incident arrested my attention. Pennington was sitting with his back to the door of the lounge, when, among those who came and went, was a rather stout foreigner of middle age, dressed quietly in black, wearing a gold pince-nez, and having the appearance of a French business man.

He had entered the lounge leisurely, when, suddenly catching sight of Sylvia's father, he drew back and made a hurried exit, apparently anxious to escape the observation of us both.

So occupied was my mind with my own affairs that the occurrence completely passed from me until that same night, when, at ten o'clock, on descending the steps of White's and proceeding to walk down St. James's Street in the direction of home, I suddenly heard footsteps behind me, and, turning, found, to my dismay, the Frenchman from Manchester quietly walking in the same direction.

This greatly mystified me. The broad-faced foreigner in gold pince-nez, evidently in ignorance that I had seen him in Manchester, must have travelled up to London by the same train as myself, and must have remained watching outside White's for an hour or more!

Why had the stranger so suddenly become interested in me?

Was yet another attempt to be made upon me, as Shuttleworth had so mysteriously predicted?

I was determined to show a bold front and defy my enemies; therefore, when I had crossed Pall Mall against St. James's Palace, I suddenly faced about, and, meeting the stranger full tilt, addressed him before he could escape.

Next moment, alas! I knew that I had acted injudiciously.



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THE MAN IN THE STREET

I had asked the Frenchman, rather angrily I fear, why he was following me, whereat he merely bowed with the exquisite politeness of his race, and replied in good English—

"I was not aware of following m'sieur. I regret extremely if I have caused annoyance. I ask a thousand pardons."

"Well, your surveillance upon me annoys me," I declared abruptly. "I saw you spying upon me in Manchester this afternoon, and you have followed me to London!"

"Ah, yes," he replied, with a slight gesticulation; "it is true that I was in Manchester. But our meeting here must be by mere chance. I was unaware that monsieur was in Manchester," he assured me in a suave manner.

"Well," I said in French, "yours is a very lame story, monsieur. I saw you, and you also saw me talking to Mr. Pennington in the Midland Hotel. Perhaps you'll deny that you know Mr. Pennington—eh?"

"I certainly do not deny that," he said, with a smile. "I have known Monsieur Penning-ton for some years. It is true that I saw him at the Midland."

"And you withdrew in order to escape his observation—eh?"

"Monsieur has quick eyes," he said. "Yes, that is quite true."

"Why?"

"For reasons of my own."

"And you deny having followed me here?"

He hesitated for a second, looking straight into my face in the darkness.

"Come," I said, "you may as well admit that you followed me from Manchester."

"Why should I admit what is not the truth?" he asked. "What motive could I have to follow you—a perfect stranger?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, I'm a bit suspicious," I declared, still speaking in French. "Of late there was a desperate attempt upon my life."

"By whom?" he inquired quickly. "Please tell me, Monsieur Biddulph; I am greatly interested in this."

"Then you know my name?" I exclaimed, surprised.

"Certainly."

"Why are you interested in me?"

"I may now have a motive," was his calm yet mysterious reply. "Tell me in what manner an attempt has been made upon you?"

At first I hesitated, then, after a second's reflection, I explained the situation in a few words.

"Ah! Of course, I quite see that monsieur's mind must be filled by suspicion," he responded; "yet I regret if I have been the cause of any annoyance. By the way, how long have you known Monsieur Penning-ton?"

"Oh, some months," I replied. "The fact is, I'm engaged to his daughter."

"His daughter!" echoed the Frenchman, looking at me quickly with a searching glance. Then he gave vent to a low grunt, and stroked his grey pointed beard.

"And it was after this engagement that the attempt was made upon you—eh?" he inquired.

"No, before."

The foreigner remained silent for a few moments. He seemed considerably puzzled. I could not make him out. The fact that he was acquainted with my name showed that he was unduly interested in me, even though he had partially denied it.

"Why do you ask this?" I demanded, as we still stood together at the bottom of St. James's Street.

"Ah, nothing," he laughed. "But—well, I really fear I've aroused your suspicions unduly. Perhaps it is not so very extraordinary, after all, that in these days of rapid communication two men should catch sight of each other in a Manchester hotel, and, later on, meet in a street in London—eh?"

"I regard the coincidence as a strange one, monsieur," I replied stiffly, "if it is really an actual coincidence."

For aught I knew, the fellow might be a friend of Pennington, or an accomplice of those rascally assassins. Had I not been warned by Shuttleworth, and also by Sylvia herself, of another secret attempt upon my life?

I was wary now, and full of suspicion.

Instinctively I did not like this mysterious foreigner. The way in which he had first caught sight of my face as I descended the steps of White's, and how he had glided after me down St. James's Street, was not calculated to inspire confidence.

He asked permission to walk at my side along the Mall, which I rather reluctantly granted. It seemed that, now I had addressed him, I could not shake him off. Without doubt his intention was to watch, and see where I lived. Therefore, instead of going in the direction of Buckingham Palace, I turned back eastward towards the steps at the foot of the Duke of York's Column.

As we strolled in the darkness along the front of Carlton House Terrace he chatted affably with me, then said suddenly—

"Do you know, Monsieur Biddulph, we met once before—in rather strange circumstances. You did not, however, see me. It was in Paris, some little time ago. You were staying at the Grand Hotel, and became acquainted with a certain American named Harriman."

"Harriman!" I echoed, with a start, for that man's name brought back to me an episode I would fain forget. The fact is, I had trusted him, and I had believed him to be an honest man engaged in big financial transactions, until I discovered the truth. My friendship with him cost me nearly one thousand eight hundred pounds.

"Harriman was very smart, was he not?" laughed my friend, with a touch of sarcasm.

Could it be, I wondered, that this Frenchman was a friend of the shrewd and unscrupulous New Yorker?

"Yes," I replied rather faintly.

"Sharp—until found out," went on the stranger, speaking in French. "His real name is Bell, and he——"

"Yes, I know; he was arrested for fraud in my presence as he came down the staircase in the hotel," I interrupted.

"He was arrested upon a much more serious charge," exclaimed the stranger. "He was certainly wanted in Berlin and Hanover for frauds in connection with an invention, but the most serious charge against him was one of murder."

"Murder!" I gasped. "I never knew that!"

"Yes—the murder of a young English statesman named Ronald Burke at a villa near Nice. Surely you read reports of the trial?"

I confessed that I had not done so.

"Well, it was proved conclusively that he was a member of a very dangerous gang of criminals who for several years had committed some of the most clever and audacious thefts. The organization consisted of over thirty men and women, of varying ages, all of them expert jewel thieves, safe-breakers, or card-sharpers. Twice each year this interesting company held meetings—at which every member was present—and at such meetings certain members were allotted certain districts, or certain profitable pieces of business. Thus, if half-a-dozen were to-day operating in London as thieves or receivers, they would change, and in a week would be operating in St. Petersburg, while those from Russia would be here. So cleverly was the band organized that it was practically impossible for the police to make arrests. It was a more widespread and wealthy criminal organization than has ever before been unearthed. But the arrest of your friend Harriman, alias Bell, on a charge of murder was the means of exposing the conspiracy, and the ultimate breaking up of the gang."

"And what of Bell?"

"He narrowly escaped the guillotine, and is now imprisoned for life at Devil's Island."

"And you saw him with me at Paris?" I remarked, in wonder at this strange revelation. "He certainly never struck me as an assassin. He was a shrewd man—a swindler, no doubt, but his humorous bearing and his good-nature were entirely opposed to the belief that his was a sinister nature."

"Yet it was proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he and another man killed and robbed a young Englishman named Burke," responded the Frenchman. "Perhaps you, yourself, had a narrow escape. Who knows? It was no doubt lucky for you that he was arrested."

"But I understood that the charge was one of fraud," I said. "I intended to go to the trial, but I was called to Italy."

"The charge of fraud was made in order not to alarm his accomplice," replied the stranger.

"How do you know that?" I inquired.

"Well"—he hesitated—"that came out at the trial. There were full accounts of it in the Paris Matin."

"I don't care for reading Assize Court horrors," I replied, still puzzled regarding my strange companion's intimate knowledge concerning the man whose dramatic and sudden arrest had, on that memorable afternoon, so startled me.

"When I saw your face just now," he said, "I recognized you as being at the Grand Hotel with Bell. Do you know," he laughed, "you were such a close friend of the accused that you were suspected of being a member of the dangerous association! Indeed, you very narrowly escaped arrest on suspicion. It was only because the reception clerk in the hotel knew you well, and vouched for your respectability and that Biddulph was your real name. Yet, for a full week, you were watched closely by the surete."

"And I was all unconscious of it!" I cried, realizing how narrowly I had escaped a very unpleasant time. "How do you know all this?" I asked.

But the Frenchman with the gold glasses and the big amethyst ring upon his finger merely laughed, and refused to satisfy me.

From him, however, I learned that the depredations of the formidable gang had been unequalled in the annals of crime. Many of the greatest jewel robberies in the European capitals in recent years had, it was now proved, been effected by them, as well as the theft of the Marchioness of Mottisfont's jewels at Victoria Station, which were valued at eighteen thousand pounds, and were never recovered; the breaking open of the safe of Levi & Andrews, the well-known diamond-merchants of Hatton Garden, and the theft of a whole vanload of furs before a shop in New Bond Street, all of which are, no doubt, fresh within the memory of the reader of the daily newspapers.

Every single member of that remarkable association of thieves was an expert in his or her branch of dishonesty, while the common fund was a large one, hence members could disguise themselves as wealthy persons, if need be. One, when arrested, was found occupying a fine old castle in the Tyrol, he told me; another—an expert burglar—was a doctor in good practice at Hampstead; another kept a fine jeweller's shop in Marseilles, while another, a lady, lived in style in a great chateau near Nevers.

"And who exposed them?" I asked, much interested. "Somebody must have betrayed them."

"Somebody did betray them—by anonymous letters to the police—letters which were received at intervals at the Prefecture in Paris, and led to the arrest of one after another of the chief members of the gang. It seemed to have been done by some one irritated by Bell's arrest. But the identity of the informant has never been ascertained. He deemed it best to remain hidden—for obvious reasons," laughed my friend at my side.

"You seem to know a good many facts regarding the affair," I said. "Have you no idea of the identity of the mysterious informant?"

"Well"—he hesitated—"I have a suspicion that it was some person associated with them—some one who became conscience-stricken. Ah! M'sieur Biddulph, if you only knew the marvellous cunning of that invulnerable gang. Had it not been for that informant, they would still be operating—in open defiance of the police of Europe. Criminal methods, if expert, only fail for want of funds. Are not some of our wealthiest financiers mere criminals who, by dealing in thousands, as other men deal in francs, conceal their criminal methods? Half your successful financiers are merely successful adventurers. The dossiers of some of them, preserved in the police bureaux, would be astounding reading to those who admire them and proclaim them the successful men of to-day—kings of finance they call them!"

"You are certainly something of a philosopher," I laughed, compelled to admit the truth of his argument; "but tell me—how is it that you know so much concerning George Harriman, alias Bell, and his antecedents?"



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PROOF POSITIVE

I was greatly interested, even though I was now filled with suspicion.

Somehow I had become impressed with the idea that the stranger might have been one of the daring and dangerous association, and that he had related that strange story for the purpose of misleading me.

But the stranger, who had, in the course of our conversation, told me that his name was Pierre Delanne, only said—

"You could have read it all in the Matin, my dear monsieur."

His attitude was that of a man who knew more than he intended to reveal. Surely it was a curious circumstance, standing there in the night, listening to the dramatic truth concerning the big-faced American, Harriman, whom I had for so long regarded as an enigma.

"Tell me, Monsieur Delanne," I said, "for what reason have you followed me to London?"

He laughed as he strode easily along at my side towards the Duke of York's steps.

"Haven't I already told you that I did not purposely follow you?" he exclaimed.

"Yes, but I don't believe it," was my very frank reply. He had certainly explained that, but his manner was not earnest. I could see that he was only trifling with me, trifling in an easy, good-natured way.

"Bien!" he said; "and if I followed you, Monsieur Biddulph, I assert that it is with no sinister intent."

"How do I know that?" I queried. "You are a stranger."

"I admit that. But you are not a stranger to me, my dear monsieur."

"Well, let us come to the point," I said. "What do you want with me?"

"Nothing," he laughed. "Was it not you yourself who addressed me?"

"But you followed me!" I cried. "You can't deny that."

"Monsieur may hold of me whatever opinion he pleases," was Delanne's polite reply. "I repeat my regrets, and I ask pardon."

He spoke English remarkably well. But I recollected that the international thief—the man who is a cosmopolitan, and who commits theft in one country to-night, and is across the frontier in the morning—is always a perfect linguist. Harriman was. Though American, with all his nasal intonation and quaint Americanisms, he spoke half-a-dozen Continental languages quite fluently.

My bitter experiences of the past caused considerable doubt to arise within me. I had had warnings that my mysterious enemies would attack me secretly, by some subtle means. Was this Frenchman one of them?

He saw that I treated him with some suspicion, but it evidently amused him. His face beamed with good-nature.

At the bottom of the broad flight of stairs which lead up to the United Service Club and Pall Mall, I halted.

"Now look here, Monsieur Delanne," I said, much puzzled and mystified by the man's manner and the curious story he had related, "I have neither desire nor inclination for your company further. You understand?"

"Ah, monsieur, a thousand pardons," cried the man, raising his hat and bowing with the elegance of the true Parisian. "I have simply spoken the truth. Did you not put to me questions which I have answered? You have said you are engaged to the daughter of my friend Penning-ton. That has interested me."

"Why?"

"Because the daughter of my friend Penning-ton always interests me," was his curious reply.

"Is that an intended sarcasm?" I asked resentfully.

"Not in the least, m'sieur," he said quickly. "I have every admiration for the young lady."

"Then you know her—eh?"

"By repute."

"Why?"

"Well, her father was connected with one of the strangest and most extraordinary incidents in my life," he said. "Even to-day, the mystery of it all has not been cleared up. I have tried, times without number, to elucidate it, but have always failed."

"What part did Sylvia play in the affair, may I ask?"

"Really," he replied, "I scarcely know. It was so utterly extraordinary—beyond human credence."

"Tell me—explain to me," I said, instantly interested. What could this man know of my well-beloved?

He was silent for some minutes. We were still standing by the steps. Surely it was scarcely the place for an exchange of confidences.

"I fear that monsieur must really excuse me. The matter is purely a personal one—purely confidential, and concerns myself alone—just—just as your close acquaintanceship with Mademoiselle Sylvia concerns you."

"It seems that it concerns other persons as well, if one may judge by what has recently occurred."

"Ah! Then your enemies have arisen because of your engagement to the girl—eh?"

"The girl!" How strange! Pennington's mysterious friends of the Brescia road had referred to her as "the girl." So had those two assassins in Porchester Terrace! Was it a mere coincidence, or had he, too, betrayed a collusion with those mean blackguards who had put me to that horrible torture?

Had you met this strange man at night in St. James's Park, would you have placed any faith in him? I think not. I maintain that I was perfectly justified in treating him as an enemy. He was rather too intimately acquainted with the doings of Harriman and his gang to suit my liking. Even as he stood there beneath the light of the street-lamp, I saw that his bright eyes twinkled behind those gold pince-nez, while the big old-fashioned amethyst he wore on his finger was a conspicuous object. He gave one the appearance of a prosperous merchant or shopkeeper.

"What makes you suggest that the attempt was due to my affection for Sylvia?" I asked him.

"Well, it furnishes a motive, does it not?"

"No, it doesn't. I have no enemies—as far as I am aware."

"But there exists some person who is highly jealous of mademoiselle, and who is therefore working against you in secret."

"Is that your opinion?"

"I regret to admit that it is. Indeed, Monsieur Biddulph, you have every need to exercise the greatest care. Otherwise misfortune will occur to you. Mark what I—a stranger—tell you."

I started. Here again was a warning uttered! The situation was growing quite uncanny.

"What makes you expect this?"

"It is more than mere surmise," he said slowly and in deep earnestness. "I happen to know."

From that last sentence of his I jumped to the conclusion that he was, after all, one of the malefactors. He was warning me with the distinct object of putting me off my guard. His next move, no doubt, would be to try and pose as my friend and adviser! I laughed within myself, for I was too wary for him.

"Well," I said, after a few moments' silence, as together we ascended the broad flight of steps, with the high column looming in the darkness, "the fact is, I've become tired of all these warnings. Everybody I meet seems to predict disaster for me. Why, I can't make out."

"No one has revealed to you the reason—eh?" he asked in a low, meaning voice.

"No."

"Ah! Then, of course, you cannot discern the peril. It is but natural that you should treat all well-meant advice lightly. Probably I should, mon cher ami, if I were in your place."

"Well," I exclaimed impatiently, halting again, "now, what is it that you really know? Don't beat about the bush any longer. Tell me, frankly and openly."

The man merely raised his shoulders significantly, but made no response. In the ray of light which fell upon him, his gold-rimmed spectacles glinted, while his shrewd dark eyes twinkled behind them, as though he delighted in mystifying me.

"Surely you can reply," I cried in anger. "What is the reason of all this? What have I done?"

"Ah! it is what monsieur has not done."

"Pray explain."

"Pardon. I cannot explain. Why not ask mademoiselle? She knows everything."

"Everything!" I echoed. "Then why does she not tell me?"

"She fears—most probably."

Could it be that this strange foreigner was purposely misleading me? I gazed upon his stout, well-dressed figure, and the well-brushed silk hat which he wore with such jaunty air.

In Pall Mall a string of taxi-cabs was passing westward, conveying homeward-bound theatre folk, while across at the brightly-lit entrance of the Carlton, cabs and taxis were drawing up and depositing well-dressed people about to sup.

At the corner of the Athenaeum Club we halted again, for I wanted to rid myself of him. I had acted foolishly in addressing him in the first instance. For aught I knew, he might be an accomplice of those absconding assassins of Porchester Terrace.

As we stood there, he had the audacity to produce his cigarette-case and offer me one. But I resentfully declined it.

"Ah!" he laughed, stroking his greyish beard again, "I fear, Monsieur Biddulph, that you are displeased with me. I have annoyed you by not satisfying your natural curiosity. But were I to do so, it would be against my own interests. Hence my silence. Am I not perfectly honest with you?"

That speech of his corroborated all my suspicions. His motive in following me, whatever it could be, was a sinister one. He had admitted knowledge of Harriman, the man found guilty and sentenced for the murder of the young English member of Parliament, Ronald Burke. His intimate acquaintance with Harriman's past and with his undesirable friends showed that he must have been an associate of that daring and dangerous gang.

I was a diligent reader of the English papers, but had never seen any mention of the great association of expert criminals. His assertion that the Paris Matin had published all the details was, in all probability, untrue. I instinctively mistrusted him, because he had kept such a watchful eye upon me ever since I had sat with Sylvia's father in the lounge of that big hotel in Manchester.

"I don't think you are honest with me, Monsieur Delanne," I said stiffly. "Therefore I refuse to believe you further."

"As you wish," laughed my companion. "You will believe me, however, ere long—when you have proof. Depend upon it."

And he glanced at his watch, closing it quickly with a snap.

"You see——" he began, but as he uttered the words a taxi, coming from the direction of Charing Cross, suddenly pulled up at the kerb where we were standing—so suddenly that, for a moment, I did not notice that it had come to a standstill.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, when he saw the cab, "I quite forgot! I have an appointment. I will wish you bon soir, Monsieur Biddulph. We may meet again—perhaps." And he raised his hat in farewell.

As he turned towards the taxi to enter it, I realized that some one was inside—that the person in the cab had met the strange foreigner by appointment at that corner!

A man's face peered out for a second, and a voice exclaimed cheerily—

"Hulloa! Sorry I'm late, old chap!"

Then, next instant, on seeing me, the face was withdrawn into the shadow.

Delanne had entered quickly, and, slamming the door, told the man to drive with all speed to Paddington Station.

The taxi was well on its way down Pall Mall ere I could recover from my surprise.

The face of the man in the cab was a countenance the remembrance of which will ever haunt me if I live to be a hundred years—the evil, pimply, dissipated face of Charles Reckitt!

My surmise had been correct, after all. Delanne was his friend!

Another conspiracy was afoot against me!



CHAPTER NINETEEN

THROUGH THE MISTS

It was now the end of September.

All my fears had proved groundless, and I had, at last, learned to laugh at them. For me, a new vista of life had been opened out, for Sylvia had now been my wife for a whole week—seven long dreamy days of perfect love and bliss.

Scarce could we realize the truth that we were actually man and wife.

Pennington had, after all, proved quite kind and affable, his sole thought being of his daughter's future happiness. I had invited them both down to Carrington, and he had expressed delight at the provision I had made for Sylvia. Old Browning, in his brand-new suit, was at the head of a new staff of servants. There were new horses and carriages and a landaulette motor, while I had also done all I could to refurnish and renovate some of the rooms for Sylvia's use.

The old place had been very dark and dreary, but it now wore an air of brightness and freshness, thanks to the London upholsterers and decorators into whose hands I had given the work.

Pennington appeared highly pleased with all he saw, while Sylvia, her arms entwined about my neck, kissed me in silent thanks for my efforts on her behalf.

Then came the wedding—a very quiet one at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington. Besides Jack Marlowe and a couple of other men who were intimate friends, not more than a dozen persons were present. Shuttleworth assisted the vicar, but Pennington was unfortunately ill in bed at the Hotel Metropole, suffering from a bad cold. Still, we held the wedding luncheon at the Savoy, and afterwards went up to Scarborough, where we were now living in a pretty suite at the Grand Hotel overlooking the harbour, the blue bay, and the castle-crowned cliffs.

It was disappointing to Sylvia that her father had not been present at the wedding, but Elsie Durnford and her mother were there, as well as two or three other of her girl friends. The ceremony was very plain. At her own request, she had been married in her travelling-dress, while I, man-like, had secretly been glad that there was no fuss.

Just a visit to the church, the brief ceremony, the signature in the register, and a four-line announcement in the Times and Morning Post, and Sylvia and I had become man and wife.

I had resolved, on the morning of my marriage, to put behind me all thought of the mysteries and gruesomeness of the past. Now that I was Sylvia's husband, I felt that she would have my protection, as well as that of her father. I had said nothing to her of her strange apprehensions, for we had mutually allowed them to drop.

We had come to Scarborough in preference to going abroad, for my well-beloved declared that she had had already too much of Continental life, and preferred a quiet time in England. So we had chosen the East Coast, and now each day we either drove out over the Yorkshire moors, or wandered by the rolling seas.

She was now my own—my very own! Ah! the sweet significance of those words when I uttered them and she clung to me, raising her full red lips to mine to kiss.

I loved her—aye, loved her with an all-consuming love. I told myself a thousand times that no man on earth had ever loved a woman more than I loved Sylvia. She was my idol, and more, we were wedded, firmly united to one another, insunderably joined with each other so that we two were one.

You satirists, cynics, misogamists and misogynists may sneer at love, and jeer at marriage. So melancholy is this our age that even by some women marriage seems to be doubted. Yet we may believe that there is not a woman in all Christendom who does not dote upon the name of "wife." It carries a spell which even the most rebellious suffragette must acknowledge. They may speak of the subjection, the trammel, the "slavery," and the inferiority to which marriage reduces them, but, after all, "wife" is a word against which they cannot harden their hearts.

Ah! how fervently we loved each other. As Sylvia and I wandered together by the sea on those calm September evenings, avoiding the holiday crowd, preferring the less-frequented walks to the fashionable promenades of the South Cliff or the Spa, we linked arm in arm, and I often, when not observed, kissed her upon the brow.

One evening, with the golden sunset in our faces, we were walking over the cliffs to Cayton Bay, a favourite walk of ours, when we halted at a stile, and sat together upon it to rest.

The wide waters deep below, bathed in the green and gold of the sinking sun, were calm, almost unruffled, unusual indeed for the North Sea, while about us the birds were singing their evening song, and the cattle in the fields were lying down in peace. There was not a breath of wind. The calmness was the same as the perfect calmness of our own hearts.

"How still it is, Owen," remarked my love, after sitting in silence for a few minutes. From where we sat we could see that it was high tide, and the waves were lazily lapping the base of the cliffs deep below. Now and then a gull would circle about us with its shrill, plaintive cry, while far on the distant horizon lay the trail of smoke from a passing steamer. "How delightful it is to be here—alone with you!"

My arm stole round her slim waist, and my lips met hers in a fond, passionate caress. She looked very dainty in a plain walking costume of cream serge, with a boa of ostrich feathers about her throat, and a large straw hat trimmed with autumn flowers. It was exceptionally warm for the time of year; yet at night, on the breezy East Coast, there is a cold nip in the air even in the height of summer.

That afternoon we had, by favour of its owner, Mr. George Beeforth, one of the pioneers of Scarborough, wandered through the beautiful private gardens of the Belvedere, which, with their rose-walks, lawns and plantations, stretched from the promenade down to the sea, and had spent some charming hours in what its genial owner called "the sun-trap." In all the north of England there are surely no more beautiful gardens beside the sea than those, and happily their good-natured owner is never averse to granting a stranger permission to visit them.

As we now sat upon that stile our hearts were too full for words, devoted as we were to each other.

"Owen," my wife exclaimed at last, her soft little hand upon my shoulder as she looked up into my face, "are you certain you will never regret marrying me?"

"Why, of course not, dearest," I said quickly, looking into her great wide-open eyes.

"But—but, somehow——"

"Somehow, what?" I asked slowly.

"Well," she sighed, gazing away towards the far-off horizon, her wonderful eyes bluer than the sea itself, "I have a strange, indescribable feeling of impending evil—a presage of disaster."

"My darling," I exclaimed, "why trouble yourself over what are merely melancholy fancies? We are happy in each other's love; therefore why should we anticipate evil? If it comes, then we will unite to resist it."

"Ah, yes, Owen," she replied quickly, "but this strange feeling came over me yesterday when we were together at Whitby. I cannot describe it—only it is a weird, uncanny feeling, a fixed idea that something must happen to mar this perfect happiness of ours."

"What can mar our happiness when we both trust each other—when we both love each other, and our two hearts beat as one?"

"Has not the French poet written a very serious truth in those lines: 'Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment; chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie'?"

"Yes, but we shall experience no chagrin, sweetheart," I assured her. "After another week here we will travel where you will. If you wish, we will go to Carrington. There we shall be perfectly happy together, away in beautiful Devonshire."

"I know you want to go there for the shooting, Owen," she said quietly, yet regarding me somewhat strangely, I thought. "You have asked Mr. Marlowe?"

"With your permission, dearest."

But her face changed, and she sighed slightly.

In an instant I recollected the admission that they had either met before, or at least they knew something concerning each other.

"Perhaps you do not desire to entertain company yet?" I said quickly. "Very well; I'll ask your father; he and I can have some sport together."

"Owen," she said at last, turning her fair face again to mine, "would you think it very, very strange of me, after all that you have done at beautiful old Carrington, if I told you that I—well, that I do not exactly like the place?"

This rather surprised me, for she had hitherto been full of admiration of the fine, well-preserved relic of the Elizabethan age.

"Dearest, if you do not care for Carrington we will not go there. We can either live at Wilton Street, or travel."

"I'm tired of travelling, dear," she declared. "Ah, so tired! So, if you are content, let us live in Wilton Street. Carrington is so huge. When we were there I always felt lost in those big old rooms and long, echoing corridors."

"But your own rooms that I've had redecorated and furnished are smaller," I said. "I admit that the old part of the house is very dark and weird—full of ghosts of other times. There are a dozen or more legends concerning it, as you know."

"Yes, I read them in the guide-book to Devon. Some are distinctly quaint, are they not?"

"Some are tragic also—especially the story of little Lady Holbrook, who was so brutally killed by the Roundheads because she refused to reveal the whereabouts of her husband," I said.

"Poor little lady!" sighed Sylvia. "But that is not mere legend: it is historical fact."

"Well," I said, "if you do not care for Carrington—if it is too dull for you—we'll live in London. Personally, I, too, should soon grow tired of a country life; and yet how could I grow tired of life with you, my own darling, at my side?"

"And how could I either, Owen?" she asked, kissing me fondly. "With you, no place can ever be dull. It is not the dulness I dread, but other things."

"What things?"

"Catastrophe—of what kind, I know not. But I have been seized with a kind of instinctive dread."

For a few moments I was silent, my arm still about her neat waist. This sudden depression of hers was not reassuring.

"Try and rid yourself of the idea, dearest," I urged presently. "You have nothing to fear. We may both have enemies, but they will not now dare to attack us. Remember, I am now your husband."

"And I your wife, Owen," she said, with a sweet love-look. Then, with a heavy sigh, she gazed thoughtfully away with her eyes fixed upon the darkening sea, and added: "I only fear, dearest—for your sake."

I was silent again.

"Sylvia," I said slowly at last, "have you learnt anything—anything fresh which has awakened these strange apprehensions of yours?"

"No," she faltered, "nothing exactly fresh. It is only a strange and unaccountable dread which has seized me—a dread of impending disaster."

"Forget it," I urged, endeavouring to laugh. "All your fears are now without foundation, dearest. Now we are wedded, we will fearlessly face the world together."

"I have no fear when I am at your side, Owen," she replied, looking at me pale and troubled. "But when we are parted I—I always fear. The day before yesterday I was full of apprehension all the time you had gone to York. I felt that something was to happen to you."

"Really, dear," I said, smiling, "you make me feel quite creepy. Don't allow your mind to run on the subject. Try and think of something else."

"But I can't," she declared. "That's just it. I only wish I could rid myself of this horrible feeling of insecurity."

"We are perfectly secure," I assured her. "My enemies are now aware that I'm quite wide awake." And in a few brief sentences I explained my curious meeting with the Frenchman Delanne.

The instant I described him—his stout body, his grey pointed beard, his gold pince-nez, his amethyst ring—she sat staring at me, white to the lips.

"Why," she gasped, "I know! The description is exact. And—and you say he saw my father in Manchester! He actually rode away in the same cab as Reckitt! Impossible! You must have dreamt it all, Owen."

"No, dearest," I said quite calmly. "It all occurred just as I have repeated it to you."

"And he really entered the taxi with Reckitt? He said, too, that he knew my father—eh?"

"He did."

She held her breath. Her eyes were staring straight before her, her breath came and went quickly, and she gripped the wooden post to steady herself, for she swayed forward suddenly, and I stretched out my hand, fearing lest she should fall.

What I had told her seemed to stagger her. It revealed something of intense importance to her—something which, to me, remained hidden.

It was still a complete enigma.



CHAPTER TWENTY

THE STRANGER IN THE RUE DE RIVOLI

From Scarborough we had gone up to the Highlands, spending a fortnight at Grantown, a week at Blair Atholl, returning south through Callander and the Trossachs—one of the most glorious autumns I had ever spent.

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