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The Mystery of the Four Fingers
by Fred M. White
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"Well, you scoundrel," he said in a clear, cold voice, "I should like to know the meaning of this. I have heard of and read of some strange outrages in my time, but to kidnap a man and keep him prisoner in his own house is to exceed all the bounds of audacity."

"You appear to be annoyed," Fenwick said. "Perhaps you have not already learned who I am?"

"I know perfectly well who you are," the cripple responded. "Your name is Mark Fenwick, and you are one of the greatest scoundrels unhung. At present, you are posing as an American millionaire. Fools may believe you, but I know better. The point is, do you happen to know who I am?"

"Yes, I know who you are," Fenwick said with a sardonic smile. "You elect to call yourself Mr. Bates, or some such name, and you pretend to be a recluse who gives himself over to literary pursuits. As a matter of fact, you are Charles Le Fenu, and your father was, at one time, the practical owner of the Four Finger Mine."

"We are getting on," Venner whispered. "It may surprise you to hear this, but I have suspected it for some little time. The so-called absent owner of these houses is the man sitting opposite Fenwick there. Now do you begin to see something like daylight before you? I wouldn't have missed this for worlds."

"We have certainly been lucky," Gurdon replied.

There was no time for further conversation, for the cripple was speaking again. His voice was still hard and cold, nor did his manner betray the slightest sign of fear.

"So you have found that out," he said. "You know that I am the son of the unfortunate Frenchman who was murdered by a rascally Dutchman at your instigation. You thought that once having discovered the secret of the mine you could work it to your own advantage. How well you worked it your left hand testifies."

The jeer went home to Fenwick, his yellow face flushed, and he half rose from his chair with a threatening gesture.

"Oh, you can strike me," the cripple said. "I am practically helpless as far as my lower limbs are concerned, and it would be just the sort of cowardly act that would gratify a dirty little soul like yours. It hurts me to sit here, helpless and useless, knowing that you are the cause of all my misfortunes; knowing that, but for you, I should be as straight and strong as the best of them. And yet you are not safe—you are going to pay the penalty of your crime. Have you had the first of your warnings yet?"

Fenwick started in his seat; in the looking-glass the watchers could see how ghastly his face had grown.

"I don't know what you mean," he muttered.

"Liar!" the cripple cried. "Paltry liar! Why, you are shaking from head to foot now—your face is like that of a man who stands in the shadow of the gallows."

"I repeat, I don't know what you mean," Fenwick said.

"Oh, yes, you do. When your accomplice Van Fort foully murdered my father, you thought that the two of you would have the mine to yourselves; you thought you would work it alone as my father did, and send your ill-gotten gains back to England. That is how the murdered man accomplished it, that is how he made his fortune—and you were going to do the same thing, both of you. When you had made all your arrangements you went down to the coast on certain business, leaving the rascally Dutchman behind. He was quite alone in the mine, there was no one within miles of that secret spot. And yet he vanished. Van Fort was never heard of again. The message of his fingers was conveyed to his wife, for she was implicated in the murder of my father, and how she suffered you already know. But you are a brave man—I give you all the credit for that. You went back to the mine again, determined not to be deterred by what had happened. What happened to you, I need not go into. Shall I tell the story, or will you be content with a recollection of your sufferings? It is all the same to me."

"You are a bold man," Fenwick cried. He was trembling with the rage that filled him. "You are a bold man to defy me like this. Nobody knows that I am here, nobody knows that you are back in your own house again. I could kill you as you sit there, and not a soul would suffer for the crime."

The cripple laughed aloud; he seemed to be amused at something.

"Really!" he sneered. "Such cheap talk is wasted upon me. Besides, what would you gain by so unnecessary a crime, and how much better off would you be? You know as well as I do, disguise it as you will, that the long arm has reached for you across five thousand miles of sea, and that, when the time comes, you will be stricken down here in London as surely and inevitably as if you had remained in Mexico under the shadow of the mountains. The dreadful secret is known to a few, in its entirety it is even unknown to me. I asked you just now if you had received the first of your messages, and you denied that you knew what I meant. You actually had the effrontery to deny it to me, sitting opposite to you as I am, and looking straight at the dreadful disfigurement of your left hand. For over three centuries the natives of Mexico worked the Four Finger Mine till only two of the tribe who knew its secret remained. Then it was that my father came along. He was a brave man, and an adventurer to his finger tips. Moreover, he was a doctor. His healing art made those rough men his friends, and when their time came, my father was left in possession of the mine. How that mine was guarded and how the spirit of the place took its vengeance upon intruders, you know too well. Ah, I have touched you now."

Fenwick had risen, and was pacing uneasily up and down the room. All the dare-devil spirit seemed to have left the man for a moment; he turned a troubled face on the cripple huddled in his chair. He seemed half inclined to temporise, and then, with a short laugh, he resumed his own seat again.

"You seem to be very sure of your ground," he sneered.

"I am," the cripple went on. "What does it matter what becomes of a melancholy wreck like myself? Doctors tell me that in time I may become my old self again, but in my heart I doubt it, and as sure as I sit here the mere frame-work of a human being, my injuries are due to you. I might have had you shot before now, or I might even have done it myself, but I spared you. It would have been a kindness to cut your life short, but I had another use for you than that. And now, gradually, but surely, the net is closing in around you, though you cannot yet see its meshes, and you are powerless to prevent the inevitable end."

"You seem to have mapped it all out," Fenwick replied. "You seem to have settled it all to your own satisfaction, but you forget that I may have something to say in the matter. When I discovered, as I did quite by accident, that you were in London, I laid my plans for getting you into my hands. It suits me very well, apart from the criminal side of it, to hide myself in your house, but that is not all. I am in a position now to dictate terms, and you have nothing else to do but to listen. I am prepared to spare your life on one condition. Now kindly follow me carefully."

"I am listening," the cripple said, coldly. "If you were not the blind fool you seem to be you would know that there could be no conditions between us; but go on. Let me hear what you have to say."

"I am coming to that. I want you to tell me where I can find Felix Zary."

Suddenly, without the slightest premonition, the cripple burst into a hearty laugh. He rocked backward and forward in a perfect ecstasy of enjoyment; for the moment, at any rate, he might have been on the very best of terms with his companion.

"Oh, that is what you are driving at?" he said. "So you think that if you could get Felix Zary out of the way you would be absolutely safe? Really, it is marvellous how an otherwise clever man could be so blind to the true facts of the case. My good sir, I will give you Zary's address with pleasure."

Fenwick was obviously puzzled. Perhaps it was beginning to dawn upon him that he had a man of more than ordinary intellect to grapple with. He looked searchingly at the cripple, who was leaning back with eyes half closed.

"Hang me, if I can understand you," he muttered. "I am in imminent danger of my life, though I should be safe enough if Felix Zary and yourself were out of the way."

"And you are quite capable of putting us out of the way," the cripple said, gently. "Is not that so, my friend?"

"Aye, I could, and I would," Fenwick said in a fierce whisper. "If you were both dead I could breathe freely; I could go to bed at night feeling sure that I should wake in the morning. Nothing could trouble me then. As to that accursed mine, I have done with it. Never again do I plant my foot in Mexico."

"Fool that you are!" the cripple said in tones of infinite pity. "So you think that if Zary and myself were out of the way you might die eventually in your bed honored and respected of men? I tell you, never! The vengeance is upon you, it is following you here, it is close at hand now. You have already had your warning. Perhaps, for all I know to the contrary, you may have had your second warning; that you have had one, your face told me eloquently enough a few moments ago. I am quite sure that a little quiet reflection will show you the absurdity of keeping me a prisoner in my own house. Of course, I know I am entirely in your hands, and that you may keep me here for weeks if you choose. It will be very awkward for me, because I have important business on hand."

"I know your important business," Fenwick sneered. "Everything that goes in your favor will naturally spell disaster to me. As I told you before, it was only an accident that told me where you were; indeed, so changed are you that I should not have recognised you if I had met you in the street. No, on the whole, you will stay where you are."

At this point Venner clutched Gurdon's arm and dragged him hurriedly across the landing down to the half staircase. So quickly was this done that Gurdon had no time to ask the reason for it all.

"Someone coming down the stairs," Venner whispered. "Didn't you hear a voice? I believe it is the girl in white again."

Surely enough, looking upward, they could see the slim white figure creeping down the stairs. The girl was crooning some little song to herself as she came along. She turned into the drawing-room and called aloud to the cripple in the chair. With an oath on his lips, Fenwick motioned her away.



CHAPTER XIV

MASTER OF THE SITUATION

"What have you come back here for?" Fenwick demanded. "You said you were tired, and that you were going to bed, long ago."

The girl looked dreamily about her; it was some little time before she appeared to appreciate the significance of Fenwick's question. She was more like one who walks in her sleep than a human being in the full possession of understanding.

"I don't know," she said, helplessly. She rubbed her eyes as if there had been mist before them. "I was so tired that I lay on the bed without undressing, and I fell fast asleep. Then I had a dream. I dreamed that all the miserable past was forgotten, and that Charles was with me once more. Then he seemed to call me, and I woke up. Oh, it was such a vivid dream, so vivid, that I could not sleep again! I was so restless and anxious, that I made up my mind to come downstairs, and, as I was passing a door just now, it opened, and the face of Charles looked out. It was only for a moment, then two men behind him dragged him back and the door closed once more."

"A foolish fancy," Fenwick growled.

"It was not," the girl cried almost passionately. "I tried the door a moment later, and it was locked. I tell you that Charles is in that room. I cannot go to bed again until I am certain of the truth. Oh, why do you keep me in suspense like this?"

"Mad," Fenwick muttered. "Mad as a March hare. Why don't you send her to an asylum?"

"She is not mad," the cripple said in a curiously hard voice. "Something tells me that she has made a discovery. You rascal, is it possible that you have Charles Evors under this roof?"

Fenwick laughed, but there was something uneasy and strained about his mirth. He glanced defiantly at the cripple, then his eyes dropped before the latter's steady gaze.

"Why should I worry about Evors?" he asked. "The man is nothing to me, and if by chance—"

The rest of Fenwick's sentence was drowned in a sudden uproar which seemed to break out in a room overhead. The tense silence was broken by the thud of heavy blows as if someone were banging on a door, then came muttered shouts and yells of unmistakable pain. Hastily Fenwick rose from his seat and made in the direction of the door. He had hardly advanced two steps before he found himself confronted with the rim of a silver-plated revolver, which the cripple was holding directly in the line of his head.

"Sit down," the latter said tersely. "Sit down, or, as sure as I am a living man, I'll fire. I could say that I fired the shot in self-defence, and when the whole story comes to be told I have no fear that a jury would disbelieve me. Besides, there is nothing to be afraid of. Those sounds don't come from the police trying to force their way into the house. On the contrary, it seems to me that some of your parasites are having a misunderstanding over their cards. At any rate, you are not to move. If you do, there will be an end once and for all of the millionaire Mark Fenwick. Sit down, my child—you are trembling from head to foot."

"It was his voice," the girl cried. "I am certain that it was Charles who called out just now."

Once more the shouts and cries broke out, once more came that banging on the panels, followed by a splitting crash, after which the uproar doubled. Evidently a door had given way and the conflict was being fought out on the stairs.

"Shall we go and take a hand?" Gurdon whispered excitedly. "Murder might be going on here."

"I think we had better risk it a little longer," was Venner's cautious reply. "After all is said and done, we must not make ourselves too prominent. If necessary we will take a hand, but, unless I am greatly mistaken, the prisoner upstairs has got the better of his captors. Ah, I thought so."

The sound of strife overhead suddenly ceased after two smashing blows, in which evidently a man's clenched fist had come in contact with naked flesh. There was a groan, the thud of a falling body, and the man in the list slippers came rolling down the stairs. He was followed a moment later by a young clean-shaven man dressed in a grey Norfolk suit. His frame suggested power and strength, though his face was white like that of one who is just recovering from a long illness. He was breathing very hard, but otherwise he did not appear to have suffered much in the struggle out of which he had emerged in so victorious a fashion. He made his way direct to the drawing-room, and immediately a woman's voice uprose in a long wailing cry.

"I'd give something to see that," Venner whispered. "Only I am afraid we can't do anything until the man in the list slippers comes to his senses and takes himself off. There is another one coming now. He doesn't look much better off than his colleague."

Another man crept down the stairs, swaying as he came and holding on to the balusters. He had a tremendous swelling over his left eye and a terrible gash in his lip, from which the blood was flowing freely. Altogether he presented a terrible aspect as he bent over the prostrate form of his unconscious companion.

"Here, get up, wake up," he said. "What are you lying there for? He'll be out of the house before we can turn round, and what will the governor say then?"

The man in the slippers gradually assumed a sitting position and stared stupidly about him. A hearty kick in the ribs seemed to restore him to some measure of consciousness.

"Don't ask me," he said. "I never saw anything like it. Here's a chap who has been in bed on and off for months coming out in this unexpected manner and knocking us about as if we had been ninepins. What's become of him, I should like to know?"

"What are you two ruffians doing there?" came Fenwick's voice from the drawing-room. "Go back to your room, and I will send for you when I want you."

The men slunk back again, probably by no means sorry to be out of further trouble. No sooner had they disappeared than the two friends stood in the entrance to the door of the drawing-room once more. The friendly mirror again stood them in good stead, for by its aid they watched as dramatic and thrilling a picture as ever was presented on any stage.

The young man in the Norfolk suit stood there side by side with the girl in white. He had his arm about her waist. She clung to him, with her head upon his shoulder; there were words of endearment on her lips. Just for the moment she seemed to have forgotten that they were not alone; all the world might have been made for herself and her lover. For the moment, too, the dreamy look had left her face, and she no longer conveyed the impression to a stranger's eyes that she was suffering from some form of insanity. She was alert and vigorous once more.

"Oh, I knew that you would come back to me," she said. "I knew that you were not dead, for all they told me so. How cruel they were to tell me these things—"

"Stop," the cripple cried. "It sounds cruel and heartless for me to have to interfere just now, but I must insist that you go back to your room, Beth. Back at once."

"Can't I stay a little longer?" the girl pleaded. "It is such a long time since Charles and I—"

"No, no, you must do as I tell you. It will be far better in the long run. We are only two men against three, and there may be others concealed in the house for all I know. For myself, I am perfectly helpless, and Charles looks as if he had just come from the grave. Evidently his struggles have tried him."

"Well, I must confess, I am feeling rather down," Charles Evors said. "I could not stand it any longer, and I made a dash for liberty. Goodness knows how long I have been in the hands of those men; and how long they have kept me under the influence of drugs. I suppose the supply fell short. Anyway, I had just sense enough to take advantage of my first opportunity. You can explain all to me presently, but the mere fact of Fenwick being here is enough to tell me who is at the bottom of this business."

Fenwick placed his fingers to his lips and whistled shrilly. Almost immediately sounds of footsteps broke out overhead, and a door opened somewhere with a loud crash. The cripple turned to the girl, who had crept reluctantly as far as the doorway.

"Now listen to me," he said quickly. "Listen and act quickly. Go downstairs into the street and bring here the first policeman you can find. Tell him a violent quarrel has broken out between Mr. Bates and some of his guests, and say you fear that some mischief will be done. Do you understand me?"

The girl nodded quickly. Evidently she quite understood. She disappeared so suddenly that Venner and Gurdon had barely time to get out of her way. They heard the street door open—they were conscious of the sudden draught rushing up the stairs; the sound of passing cabs was distinctly audible.

The girl had hardly time to get outside before three or four men came down the stairs. They rushed headlong into the drawing-room, where they seemed to pause, no doubt deterred in their violence for a moment by the sight of the cripple's revolver.

"Here's our chance," Gurdon whispered. "The girl will be back with the police in two minutes, and we have heard quite enough to know the ingenious scheme which is uppermost in the cripple's mind. Let's lock them in. Don't you see that the key is in on this side of the door? Turn it quickly."

"Good business," Gurdon chuckled as he snapped the key in the lock. "Now they can fight as long as they like. At any rate, they can't do much mischief so long as they are caged in there."

A din of mingled voices came from the other side of the door, followed quickly by the whiplike crack of a revolver shot. Then someone tried the door and yelled aloud that it was locked. Fists battered violently on the panels, and just as the din was at its height the helmets of two policemen appeared mounting the stairs. Venner stepped coolly forward as if he had every right to be there.

"I'm glad you officers have come," he said. "There seems to be something in the nature of a free fight going on here. We took the liberty of turning in as the door was open to see what had happened. You had better go in yourself."

The policeman tried the door, which, naturally, did not yield to his hand, and he called out to those inside to open in the name of the law. A voice on the other side pleaded that the door was locked. Venner turned the key in the door.

"Probably the young lady had the sense to lock them in," he said. "You had better go inside, officer. No, there is no reason why we should accompany you. As a matter of fact our presence here is more or less an intrusion."

The policemen stepped into the room and demanded to know what was the matter. They could see the master of the house sitting there in his chair, with a tall young man in a Norfolk suit by his side, and opposite him Fenwick, flushed and sullen, with his satellites behind him. There were four of them altogether, and the appearance they made was by no means attractive, seeing that two at least of them were showing unmistakable signs of violence.

It was the cripple who first recovered his self-possession.

"I am sorry to trouble you," he said, "but I am afraid we have rather forgotten ourselves. You know me, of course?"

"Oh, yes, sir," the first officer replied. "You are Mr. Bates, the gentleman who is supposed to have been kidnapped the other night; the inspector told me that you were still on the Continent."

"Well, I am not," the cripple said curtly. "I am back home again, as you can see with your own eyes. The gentleman over there with the yellow face is Mr. Mark Fenwick, the well-known millionaire. I daresay you have heard of him."

Both officers touched their hats respectfully; they had probably come here prepared to make more than one arrest and thus cover themselves with comparative glory; but the mere mention of Fenwick's name settled that point once and for all.

"As you are probably aware," the cripple went on, "until quite recently Mr. Fenwick was staying at the Great Empire Hotel, but the place was too public for one of his gentle and retiring disposition, and so he made arrangements to take my house furnished, though the understanding was that nobody should know anything about it, and nobody would have known anything about it but for the fact that in the way of business Mr. Fenwick had to consult these other gentlemen. Perhaps they don't look in the least like it, but they are all American capitalists, having made their money by gold mining. They don't look a very attractive lot, officer, but if you knew them as well as I do you would learn to love them for their many engaging qualities, and their purity of heart."

The officers touched their helmets again, and appeared to be undecided in their minds as to whether the cripple was chaffing them or not. But though his voice had a certain playfulness of tone, his face was quite grave and steadfast.

"Very well, sir," the foremost of the constables said. "I understand that neither of you gentlemen desires to make any charge against the other. I shall have to make a note of this."

"Of course you will," the cripple said sweetly. "Now I appeal to Mr. Fenwick and his companions as to whether or not the whole thing has not been a silly misunderstanding. You see, officer, gold mining is rather a thirsty business, and occasionally leads to rather more champagne than is good for one. I can only apologise to my tenant, Mr. Fenwick, for losing my temper, and I will at once rid him of my presence. It is getting very late, and I can come round in the morning and make my peace here. As I am a little lame, I will ask one of you officers to give me your arm. Charles, will you be good enough to give me your arm also? I wish you good-night, Mr. Fenwick. In fact, I wish all of you good-night. I shall not fail to call round in the morning—"

"But you are not going," Fenwick cried in dismay. "You are not going away from your own house at this time of night?"

"You forget," the cripple said, gravely, "that for the time being you are my tenant, and that I have no more right in this house, indeed, not so much right, as one of these policemen. I have sent my servants away, and I am at present staying—in fact, it does not matter much where I am staying. Come along."

The trap was so neatly laid and so coolly worked that Fenwick could only sit and gasp in his chair, while his two victims walked quietly away in the most natural manner in the world.

"We had better be off," Gurdon whispered. "There is no occasion for us to stay any longer. Let us follow the cripple. By Jove, I never saw anything done more neatly than that!"



CHAPTER XV

FELIX ZARY

It would have been a comparatively easy matter for the two friends to have slipped out of the house before the cripple came down the stairs accompanied by the young man who called himself Charles Evors. The front door was still open, and there was no one to bar their way. Then it suddenly occurred to Gurdon that by so doing they would betray the secret of the moveable panel which communicated with the house next door.

"It would never do to go away like this," he said, hurriedly. "Besides, it is more than likely that we shall want to use that entrance again. We shall have to run the risk of losing sight of the cripple; anything is better than leaving that panel open for the servants to discover in the morning."

Venner could see for himself at once that there was no help for it, so without any further discussion on the matter, the two men hurried down the stairs, their feet making no noise on the thick carpet, and then they darted through the hole into the house next door. It was only the work of a moment to replace the panel, but hardly had they done so before they heard a confused murmur of voices on the other side. Gurdon pressed his back to the panel until the noise of the voices ceased.

"That was a pretty close call," he said. "Give me the mouldings and I will try to make them secure without any unnecessary noise. I daresay we can get the nails to fit the same holes. Anyway, there must be no hammering, or we shall be pretty sure to rouse the suspicions of the people next door."

It was perhaps fortunate that the mouldings fitted so well, for Gurdon managed to work the nails into the original holes and complete a more or less workmanlike job to his own satisfaction. Certainly, anybody who was not in the secret would never have detected anything wrong with the panels or imagined for a moment that they had been so recently moved.

"That's a good job well done," Venner said.

"Yes, but what do you do it for? In fact, what are you two gentlemen doing here at all?"

The voice came with a startling suddenness. It was an exceedingly clear, melodious voice, yet with a steely ring in it. The two friends wheeled round sharply to find themselves face to face with an exceedingly tall individual, whose length was almost grotesquely added to by the amazing slimness of his figure. In that respect he was not at all unlike the type of human skeleton which one generally expects to find in a travelling circus, or some show of that kind. The man, moreover, was dressed in deep black, which added to his solemnity. He had an exceedingly long, melancholy face, on both sides of which hung a mass of oily-looking black hair; his nose, too, was elongated and thin, and a long drooping moustache concealed his mouth. On the whole his appearance was redeemed from the grotesque by an extraordinary pair of black eyes, which were round and large as those of a Persian cat. Despite the man's exceeding thinness, he conveyed a certain suggestion of strength. At that moment he had a handkerchief between his fingers, and Gurdon could see that his wrists were supple and pliable as if they had been made of india rubber. Gurdon had heard that sort of hands before described as conjurer's hands. As he looked at them he half expected to see the handkerchief disappear and an orange or apple or something of that kind take its place. Then the stranger coolly walked across the hall and turned up another of the lights. He seemed to be perfectly at home, and conveyed a curious impression to the visitors that he expected to find them there.

"I beg to remind you that you have not yet answered my question," he said. "What are you doing here?"

"Let me answer your question with another," Venner said. "Who are you, and what may you be doing here?"

The man smiled in a peculiar fashion. His big black eyes seemed to radiate sparks; they were luminous and full of vivid fury, though, at the same time, the long horse-like face never for a moment lost its look of profound dejection. They might have been eyes gleaming behind a dull, painted mask.

"We will come to that presently," he said. "For the moment the mention of my name must content you. It is just possible that you might have heard the name of Felix Zary."

Venner and Gurdon fairly started. The name of Felix Zary was familiar to them, but only during the last three-quarters of an hour. In fact, that was the name of the man as to whose whereabouts Fenwick had been so anxious to hear. Here was another element in the mystery, which, up to this moment, had not advanced very far towards solution.

"I have heard the name before," Venner said, "but only quite recently—within the last hour, in fact."

"Oh, yes," the stranger said, "I know exactly what you mean. You probably heard it next door when you were listening so intently to the conversation between my friend Charles Le Fenu, the cripple, and that scoundrel who calls himself Fenwick. He is exceedingly anxious to know where I am, though without the smallest intention of benefitting me. Before long, his curiosity will be gratified; but not in the way he thinks."

The latter words came from the speaker's lips with a spitting hiss, such as a cat emits in the presence of a dog. The great round black eyes added intensity to the threat, and rendered the feline simile complete. The prophecy boded ill for Fenwick when at length he and Felix Zary came face to face.

"I see my conjecture is quite right," the stranger went on. "And as to you gentlemen, I have asked your names merely as a matter of courtesy. As a matter of fact I know perfectly well who you are—you are Mr. Gerald Venner and Mr. James Gurdon. But there is one thing I don't know, and that is why you have thrust yourself into this diabolical business. You must be brave men, or absolutely unconscious of the terrible danger you are running. If either of you are friends of Fenwick's—"

"Not for a moment," Venner cried. "You pay us a poor compliment indeed if you take us to be in any way friendly with that scoundrel."

"And yet you are here," Zary went on. "You are spying on the movements of my friend, Le Fenu. You have contrived to obtain possession of the keys of his house for no other purpose. Why?"

Venner paused before he answered the question. He did not recognise the right of this man to put him through a cross-examination. Indeed, it seemed to him, the less he said the better. Perhaps Zary saw something of what was going on in his mind, for his big black eyes smiled, though the dejected visage remained the same.

"I see, you do not trust me," he said. "Perhaps you are right to be cautious. Let me ask you another question, assuring you at the same time that I am the friend of Charles Le Fenu and his sisters, and that if necessary I will lay down my life to save them from trouble. Tell me, Mr. Venner, why are you so interested in saving the girl who passes for Fenwick's daughter from her miserable position? Tell me."

Zary came a step or two closer to Venner and looked down into his face with a searching yearning expression in those magnetic black eyes. The appeal to Venner was irresistible. The truth rose to his lips; it refused to be kept back.

"Because," he said slowly, "because she is my wife."

A great sigh of relief came from Zary.

"I am glad of that," he said. "Exceedingly glad. And yet I had suspected something of the kind. It is good for me to know that I am with friends, and that you two are only actuated by the best motives. For some days now I have had you under close observation. I followed you here to-night; indeed, I was in the house when you removed those panels. As a matter of fact, Mr. Gurdon's first involuntary visit here absolutely ruined a carefully laid plan of mine for getting Mark Fenwick into my hands. But I will tell you later on all about the mystery of the furnished dining-room and how and why the furniture vanished so strangely. When I followed you here to-night I was quite prepared to shoot you both if necessary, but some strange impulse came over me to speak to you and ask you what you were doing. I am rather glad I did, because I should not like to have a tragedy on my hands. Now would you like to come with me as far as my own rooms, where I shall be in a position to throw a little light upon a dark place or two?"

Venner and Gurdon clutched eagerly at the suggestion. Without further words, they passed into the street, and would have walked down the steps had not Zary detained them.

"One moment," he whispered. "Hang back in the shadow of the portico. Don't you see that there are two or three men on the steps of the house next door? Ah, I can catch the tones of that rascal Fenwick. If only that vile scoundrel knew how close to him I was at the present moment! But let us listen. Perhaps we may hear something useful."

It was very still and quiet in the Square now, for the hour was late, and therefore the voices from the portico came clear and distinct to the listeners' ears.

"What is the good of it?" one of the voices said. "Why on earth can't you wait till morning? Le Fenu has got clear away, and there isn't much chance of catching him again in a hurry. It was one of the coolest things I have seen for a long time."

"Oh, he doesn't lack brains, or pluck either," Fenwick said. "I should have been proud of a trick like that myself. I ought to have poisoned him when I had the chance. I ought to have got him out of the way without delay. But it seemed such a safe thing to kidnap him and hide him in his own house, where we could go on with our work without the slightest danger or interruption from those accursed police. And then, when Fate played into our hands and we got hold of Evors as well, it looked as if everything was going our way. How you fools ever contrived to let him get the upper hand of you is more than I can understand."

"It was Jones's fault," another voice growled. "He forgot the drug, and we ran clean out of it. Then, I suppose, we got interested over a game of cards, and one way and another, Evors managed to get six or seven hours' sleep without having any of that stuff inside him. Bless me, if it wasn't all like a dream, guv'nor. There we were, interested in our cards, and before we knew where we were our heads were banged together, and I was lying on the floor thinking that the end of the world had come. That fellow has got the strength of the very devil itself."

"Poor weak creature," Fenwick sneered.

"Weak-minded, perhaps, and easily led," the first speaker said. "But there is not much the matter with him when it comes to fists."

"We can't stop chattering here all night," Fenwick cried. "It is all very well for you men, who don't care so long as you have something to eat and drink. You would be quite satisfied to sit like a lot of hogs in a sty in Le Fenu's house, but he'll certainly be back in the morning with some infernal scheme or other for getting the best of us. Don't you see it is impossible for me any longer to play the part of a tenant of a furnished house, now that the owner of the house is at large again? It is a very fortunate thing, too, in a way, that I can pass all you people off as my servants. Now get away at once and do as I tell you. As for me, I am going to take a cab as far as the old place by the side of the river. In an hour's time I hope to be on my way to Canterbury. Now, you are quite sure you all know what to do? It's confoundedly awkward to have one's plans upset like this, but a clever man always has an alternative scheme on hand, and I've got mine. There, that will do. Be off at once."

"That's all very well, guv'nor," another voice said. "It is easy enough to put the door on the latch and turn out of the crib, leaving it empty, but what about the girl in the white dress? I ain't very scrupulous as a rule, but it seems rather cruel to leave the poor kid behind and she not more than half right in her head."

"Devil fly away with the girl," Fenwick said passionately. "We can pick her up at any time we want to. Besides, I think I can see a way to arrange for her and a method of getting her out of the house within the next hour. It was no bad thing for men who get their living as we do when some genius invented motor cars. Now do go along or we shall never finish."

The little group on the portico steps melted away, and one by one the slouching figures vanished into the darkness. Zary stepped on to the pavement, and proceeded to open the front door of the next house. It yielded to his touch.

"I am glad of this," he said; "and, really, we owe quite a debt of gratitude to the tender-hearted ruffian who was averse to leaving a poor girl in this house all alone. We will spare Fenwick the trouble of any inconvenience so far as she is concerned."

So saying, Zary proceeded to walk up the stairs, turning up the lights as he went. He called the name of Beth softly three or four times, and presently a door opened overhead and a girl in a white dress came out. A pleased smile spread over her face as she looked over the balusters and noted the caller.

"Felix," she said softly, "is it really you? I have been hiding myself in my room because I was terrified, and after Charles had gone those men quarrelled so terribly among themselves! I suppose Charles forgot all about me in the excitement of the moment."

"Oh, no, he didn't, dear one," Zary said very gently. "He would have come back to you in any case. But I am going to take you away from this house where you have been so miserable; I am going to see that you are not molested in the future."

"That is all very well," Venner interposed, "but where can the young lady go? She is quite alone and helpless, and unless you have some reputable female relation—"

"It is not a matter of my relations," Zary smiled. "Miss Beth will go to one who is her natural protector, and one who will watch over her welfare with unceasing care. To put it quite plainly, Miss Beth is going to the Great Empire Hotel, and you are going to take her. To-night she will sleep under the same roof as her sister."

Venner was just a little startled by the suddenness of the proposal, yet, on the whole, the suggestion was an exceedingly natural one, for who was better capable of looking after the unfortunate Beth than her own sister? True, the hour was exceedingly late; but then a huge place like the Great Empire Hotel was practically open night and day, and a request at one o'clock in the morning that a guest in the house should be awakened to receive another guest would be nothing in the way of a novelty.

"Very well," Venner said. "Let her put on her hat and jacket, and she can come with me at once."



CHAPTER XVI

FENWICK MOVES AGAIN

Beth raised no objection to the programme; indeed, the suggestion seemed to fill her with delight. She would not be a moment, she said. She would put certain necessaries in a handbag, and come back for the rest of her wardrobe on the morrow. Venner had expressed a desire that Zary should accompany him, but the latter shook his head emphatically.

"No, no," he said; "you are going alone. As for me, I have important business on hand which will not brook the slightest delay. Mr. Gurdon had best return to his own rooms; and, for his own sake, I would advise him to keep in the middle of the road. You two little know the danger you incurred when you decided to thrust your head into this hornet's nest. Now I will see you both off the premises and put out all the lights. I may mention in passing that I have a latchkey to this place."

A few minutes later Venner found himself walking down the deserted streets with his fair little companion hanging on his arm. She chattered to him very prettily and daintily, but there was a great deal in her remarks which conveyed nothing to him at all. She constantly alluded to matters of which he was entirely ignorant, apparently taking it for granted that he was au fait with what she was saying. It struck Venner that though not exactly mentally deficient, she was suffering from weakness of intellect, brought about, probably, by some great shock or terrible sorrow. On the whole, he was not sorry to find himself in the great hall of the hotel, the lights of which were still burning, and where several guests were lounging for a final cigar.

"I know it is exceedingly late," Venner said to the clerk, "but it is quite imperative that this young lady should see Miss Fenwick. Will you be good enough to send up to her room and tell her how sorry I am to disturb her at this time of night, but that the matter is exceedingly urgent?"

"Miss Fenwick is not in, sir," came the startling response. "She went out shortly after eleven o'clock, and she told me that she might not be back for some considerable time. You see, she wanted to be quite sure that she could get back into the hotel at any time she returned. Oh, no doubt she is returning, or I don't suppose for a moment that she would have asked me all those questions."

The information was sufficiently disturbing, but there was no help for it. All they had to do was to sit down and wait patiently till Vera came back. They were not in the least likely to attract any attention, seeing that several men in evening dress together with their wives were seated in the hall for a final chat after the theatre or some party or reception. In her long white frock, partially concealed by a cloak and hood, Beth would have easily passed for a girl fresh from a theatre or a dance. It was a long weary wait of over an hour, and Venner was feeling distinctly anxious, when the big folding doors at the end of the hall opened and Vera's tall, graceful figure emerged.

"Here is your sister," Venner said. There was just a stern suggestion in his voice. "Now, you are not to cry or make any scene, you are not to attract any attention to yourself, but take it all for granted. You can be as emotional as you please when you are alone together in your room."

Vera came across the hall in a jaded, weary way, as if she were thoroughly tired out. Her face flushed a little as she recognised Venner. Then she looked at his companion and almost paused, while the blood ebbed from her face, leaving it deadly pale.

"Gerald," she whispered. "Gerald and Beth. What does it mean? What strange thing has happened to bring you both together here."

"Don't make a scene, for goodness' sake," Venner said. "Take it as calmly as you can. Unless you are self-possessed, your sister is sure to give way, and that is the last thing in the world to be desired. I cannot possibly stop now to tell you all the extraordinary things which have happened to-night. Let it be sufficient to say that it is absolutely imperative that you give your sister shelter, and that nobody but yourself should know where she is."

"But how did you find her?" Vera asked. "And who was it suggested that you should bring her to me?"

"Let me just mention the name of Zary," Venner replied. "Oh, I can come round here to-morrow and tell you all about it. If you think that there is any possible danger—"

"Of course there is danger," Vera said. "Mr. Fenwick may be back at any moment. He does not know that I am aware that my sister is even alive. If he became acquainted with the fact that we had come together again, all my plans would be absolutely ruined, and my three years of self-sacrifice would be in vain."

"I am afraid you must run the risk now," Venner said. "At any rate, your sister will have to stay here till the morning. It is perhaps a good thing that she does not understand what is going on."

Apparently the girl had no real comprehension of all the anxieties and emotions of which she was unconsciously the centre. She was holding her sister's hand now and smiling tenderly into her face, like a child who has found a long-lost friend.

"You may rest assured on one point," Venner went on. "For the present there is not the slightest reason to fear Fenwick. He has had a great shock to-night; all his plans have been upset, and he finds himself in a position of considerable danger. I know for a fact that he is going straight away to Canterbury, and probably by this time he is on his way there. According to what your mysterious friend Zary said, he had some plan cut and dried for providing for your sister's safety to-morrow. Now take the poor child to bed, for she is half asleep already, and when once you have made her comfortable I want you to come down again and have a few words with me. You need not hesitate; surely a man can talk to his wife whenever he pleases—and, besides, there are several people here who show not the slightest signs of going to bed yet."

"Very well," Vera said. "Come along, dear, I see you are dreadfully sleepy—so sleepy that you do not appear to recognise the sister you have met for the first time for three years."

Venner had time to smoke the best part of a cigar before Vera reappeared. They took a seat in a secluded corner of the hall, where it was possible to talk without interruption.

"Now, please, tell me everything," the girl said.

"I am afraid that is impossible," Venner replied. "This is one of the most extraordinary and complicated businesses that I ever heard of. In the first place, I came to England, weary and worn out with my search for you, and half inclined to abandon it altogether. In the very last place in the world where I expect to meet you, I come In contact with you in this hotel. I find that you are being passed off as the daughter of one of the greatest scoundrels who ever cheated the gallows. But that does not check my faith in you. I had kept my trust in you intact. Ever since you left me on the day of our marriage I have had nothing but a few words to explain your amazing conduct; and now here am I doing my best to free you from the chains that bind you, and all the while you seem to be struggling to hug those chains about you and to baffle all my efforts. Why do you do this? What is the secret that you conceal so carefully from the man who would do anything to save you from trouble, from the man you profess to love? If you do care for me—"

"Oh, I do indeed," Vera whispered. There were tears in her eyes now and her cheeks were wet. "It is not for my own sake—it is for the sake of the poor girl upstairs. I had promised to say nothing of that to anyone—to try and save her—and I left you and ran the risk of for ever forfeiting your affection. But if Beth is better in the morning I will try to get her to absolve me from my promise and induce her—"

"She is not capable of giving a promise of rescinding it," Venner said. "Don't you think it would be far better if, instead, you discussed the matter with your brother, Charles Le Fenu?"

"So you know all about that?" Vera cried.

"Yes, I do. I have seen him to-night. Gurdon has already had an interview with him—an interview that almost cost him his life. We have been having some pretty fine adventures the last two or three days—but if it all ends in saving you and lifting this cloud from your life I shall be well content. I am not going to ask you to go into explanations now, because I see they would be distasteful to you, and because you have given some foolish promise which you are loth to break. But tell me one thing. You said just now that you had not seen your sister for three years, though she has been living with your brother, whom you visited quite recently."

"That is easily explained," Vera said. "It was deemed necessary to tell Beth one or two fictions with a view to easing her mind and leaving her still with some slight shadow of hope, which was the only means of preventing her reason from absolutely leaving her. These fictions entailed my keeping out of the way. Beth is exceedingly different from me, as you know."

"Indeed, she is," said Venner, smiling for the first time. "But does it not strike you as an extraordinary thing that I should be fighting in this fierce way in your behalf, and that you should be placing negative obstacles in my way all the time? I won't worry you any more to-night, dearest—you look tired and worn out. You had better go to your own room, and we can discuss this matter further in the morning."

It was dark enough and sheltered enough in that secluded corner of the hall for Venner to draw the girl towards him and kiss her lips passionately. Just for a brief moment Vera lay in her husband's arms; then, with a little sigh, she disengaged herself and disappeared slowly up the stairs.

She had placed Beth in her own room, which they would share together for that night, at any rate. The younger girl was sleeping placidly; there was a smile on her face—her lips were parted like those of one who is utterly and entirely happy. She made a fair picture as she lay there, with her yellow hair streaming over her shoulders. She just murmured something in her sleep, as Vera bent over her and brushed her forehead lightly with her lips.

"Oh, I wonder how long this cloud will last!" Vera murmured—"how much longer I shall be till I am free! How terrible it is to have the offer of a good man's love, and be compelled to spoil it as I do, or, at least, as I appear to do. And yet I should be a happy woman if I could only throw off these shackles—"

Vera paused, unable to say more, for something seemed to rise in her throat and choke her. She was utterly tired and worn out, almost too tired to undress and get into bed—and yet once her head was on the pillow she could not sleep; she tossed and turned wearily. All London seemed to be transformed into one noisy collection of clocks. The noise and the din seemed to stun Vera and throb through her head like the beating of hammers on her brain. She fell off presently into a troubled sleep, which was full of dreams. It seemed to her that she was locked in a safe, and that somebody outside was hammering at the walls to let her free. Then she became conscious of the fact that somebody really was knocking at the door. As Vera stumbled out of bed a clock somewhere struck three. She flicked up the light and opened the door. A sleepy-looking chambermaid handed her a note, which was marked "Urgent" on the envelope. With a thrill, she recognised the handwriting of Mark Fenwick. What new disaster was here? she wondered.

"Is there anybody waiting for an answer?" she asked tremblingly. "Is the messenger downstairs?"

"Yes, miss," the sleepy chambermaid replied. "It was brought by a gentleman in a motor. I told him you were in bed and fast asleep, but he said it was of the greatest importance and I was to wake you. Perhaps you had better read it."

With a hand that trembled terribly, Vera tore open the envelope. There were only two or three lines there in Fenwick's stiff handwriting; they were curt and discourteous, and very much to the point. They ran as follows—

"I am writing you this from Canterbury, where I have been for the last hour, and where I have important business. I have sent one of the cars over for you, and you are to come back at once. Whatever happens, see that you obey me."

* * * * *

"You will tell the gentleman I will be down in a few moments," Vera said. "I will not detain him any longer than I can help."

"What is to be done?" the girl wondered directly she was alone. She felt that she dared not disobey this command; she would have to go at all costs. She knew by bitter experience that Fenwick was not the man to brook contradiction. Besides, at the present moment it would be a fatal thing to rouse his suspicions. And yet, she felt how impossible it was for her to leave Beth here in the circumstances. Nor could she see her way to call up Venner at this hour and explain what had happened. All she could do was to scribble a short note to him with a view to explaining the outline of the new situation. Ten minutes later she was downstairs in the hall, where she found the man awaiting her. He was clad in furs, his motor cap was pulled over his eyes as if he shrank from observation; but all the same Vera recognised him.

"So it is you, Jones," she said. "Do you know that you have been sent all the way from Canterbury to fetch me at this time in the morning? It is perfectly monstrous that I should be dragged out of bed like this; perfectly disgraceful!"

"I don't know anything about that, miss," the man said sullenly. "It is the guv'nor's orders, and he gave me pretty plainly to understand that he would want to know the reason why if I came back without you. Don't blame me."

"I'm not blaming you at all," Vera said, coldly. "Nor am I going to stand here bandying words with you. I will just go to my room and put on a fur coat—then I shall be ready."

"Very well, miss. That's the proper way to take it. But where is the other young lady?"

Vera's heart fairly stood still for a moment. Fenwick's note had said nothing about her sister, though this man seemed to be aware of the fact that she was here. There was only one thing for it, and that was to lie boldly and without hesitation. She looked the speaker in the face in blank astonishment.

"I fail to understand you," she said. "There is nobody here but me; there could be nobody here but me. And now I have nothing further to say. One moment and I will be with you."



CHAPTER XVII

MERTON GRANGE

Vera came down a few moments later ready for her journey. Now that she had had time to think matters over, she was looking forward with some dread to her forthcoming interview with Mark Fenwick. Surely something out of the common must have taken place, or he would never have sent for her at such an extraordinary time, and Vera had always one thing to contend with; she had not forgotten, in fact, she could not forget, that for the last three years she had been engaged in plotting steadily against the man by whose name she was known. Moreover, she was not in the least blind to Fenwick's astuteness, and there was always the unpleasant feeling that he might be playing with her. She had always loathed and detested this man from the bottom of her soul; there were times when she doubted whether or not he was a relation of hers. As far as Vera knew, he was supposed to be her mother's half-brother, and so much as this she owed the man—he had come to her at the time when she was nearly destitute, and in no position to turn her back on his advances. That it suited Fenwick to have a well-bred and graceful girl about him, she knew perfectly well. But long before would she have left him, only she was quite certain that Fenwick was at the bottom of the dreadful business which had resulted in Beth's deplorable state of mind.

But as to all this, Vera could say nothing at the moment. All she had to do now was to guard herself against a surprise on the part of Fenwick. She had been startled by the mere suggestion on the part of her companion that she had not been alone at the Great Empire Hotel. Much as she would have liked illumination on this point, she had the prudence to say nothing. Silently she stepped into the car, a big Mercedes with great glaring eyes; silently, too, she was borne along the empty streets. It wanted yet three hours to daylight, and Vera asked how long they would be in reaching their destination. Her companion put on speed once the outskirts of town were reached. Vera could feel the cold air streaming past her face like a touch of ice.

"Oh, about an hour and a half," the driver said carelessly. "I suppose it is about fifty-five miles. With these big lamps and these clear roads we'll just fly along."

The speaker touched a lever, and the car seemed to jump over the smooth roads. The hedges and houses flew by and the whole earth seemed to vibrate to the roar and rattle of the car. It was Vera's first experience of anything like racing, and she held her breath in terror.

"What would happen if a wheel gave way?" she asked. She had muffled her face in her veil, so that she could breathe more freely now. "Surely a pace like this is dangerous."

"You have to take risks, miss," the driver said coolly. "We are moving at about five and forty miles an hour now. I'm very sorry if it makes you nervous, but my instructions were to get back as quickly as possible."

"I don't feel exactly nervous," Vera said.

"Oh, no, you are getting over it. Everybody does after the first few moments. When you get used to the motion you will like it. It gives you a feeling like a glass of champagne when you're tired. You'll see for yourself presently."

Surely enough Vera did see for herself presently. As the feeling of timidity and unfamiliarity wore off she began to be conscious of a glow in her blood as if she were breathing some pure mountain air. The breeze fairly sang past her ears, the car ran more smoothly now with nothing to check its movement, and Vera could have sung aloud for the very joy of living. She began to understand the vivid pleasure of motoring; she could even make an excuse for those who travelled the high roads at top speed. Long before she had reached her destination she had forgotten everything else beside the pure delight of that trip in the dark.

"Here we are, miss," the driver said at length, as he turned in through a pair of huge iron gates. "It's about a mile up the avenue to the house—but you can see the lights in front of you."

"Have we really come all that way in this short time?" Vera asked. "It only seems about ten minutes since we started."

The driver made no reply, and Vera had little time to look curiously about her. So far as she could judge, they were in a large park, filled with magnificent oak trees. Here and there through the gloom she seemed to see shadowy figures flitting, and these she assumed to be deer. On each side of the avenue rose a noble line of elm trees, beyond which were the gardens; then a series of terraces, culminating in a fine house of the late Tudor period. Beyond question, it was a fine old family mansion in which Fenwick had taken up his quarters for the present.

"What do you call the place?" Vera asked.

"This is Merton Grange, miss," the driver explained. "It belongs to Lord Somebody or another, I forget his name. Anyway, he has had to let the house for a time and go abroad. You had better get out here, and I'll take the car to the garage. I wouldn't ring the bell if I were you, miss. I'd just walk straight into the house. You'll find the door open and the guv'nor ready to receive you. He is sure to have heard the car coming up the drive."

Vera descended and walked up the flight of steps which led to a noble portico. Here was a great massive oak door, which looked as if it required the strength of a strong man to open it, but it yielded to Vera's touch, and a moment later she was standing in the great hall.

Tired as she was and frightened as she was feeling now, she could not but admire the beauty and symmetry of the place. Like most historic mansions of to-day, the place had been fitted with electric light, and a soft illuminating flood of it filled the hall. It was a magnificent oak-panelled apartment, filled with old armor and trophies, and lined with portraits of the owner's ancestors. It seemed to Vera that anybody might be happy here. It also seemed strange to her that a man of Fenwick's type should choose a place like this for his habitation. She was destined to know later what Fenwick had in his mind when he came here.

Vera's meditations were cut short by the appearance of the man himself. To her surprise she noted that he was dressed in some blue material, just like an engineer on board ship. His hands were grimy, too, as if he had been indulging in some mechanical work. He nodded curtly to the girl.

"So you've come at last," he said. "I daresay you wonder why I sent for you. There is a little room at the back yonder, behind the drawing-room, that I have turned into a study. Go in there and wait for me, and I'll come to you as soon as I have washed my hands. I hope you have brought all you want with you; for there is precious little accommodation for your sex here at present. You can take your choice of bed-rooms—there are enough of those and to spare. I have something serious to say to you."

With a sinking at her heart Vera passed into the little room that Fenwick had pointed out to her. At any other time she would have admired the old furniture and the elegant refined simplicity of it all; now she had other things to think of. She stood warming her hands at the fire till Fenwick came in and carefully closed the door behind him.

"Now we can get to business," he said. "I daresay you wonder why I sent for you instead of leaving you in London for the present. Up to now I have always regarded you as perfectly safe—indeed, I thought you were sufficiently grateful to me for all my kindness to you. I find I am mistaken."

Vera looked up with a challenge in her eyes. She knew that she had something to face now, and she meant to see it through without showing the white feather. She was braced up and ready, now that the moment for action had come.

"Have you ever really been kind to me?" she challenged. "I mean, have you really been kind to me for my own sake, and out of pure good-nature? I very much doubt it."

"This is your gratitude," Fenwick sneered. "I think we had better understand one another."

"I would give a great deal to understand you," the girl said boldly. "But we are wasting time fencing here like this, and I am very tired. You sent for me at this extraordinary hour, and I came. I have every right to know why you asked me to come here."

"Sit down," Fenwick growled. "I sent for you because I did not trust you. I sent for you because you have betrayed your promise. You are doing something that you told me you would not do."

"And what is that?" Vera asked.

"Just as if you did not know. Let us go back a bit, back three years and a half ago. Your father was alive in those days; it was just before he met his death in Mexico."

"I remember perfectly well," Vera said, quietly. "I am not likely to forget the time. Pray continue."

"Have patience please, I am coming to it all in time. Your father died more or less mysteriously, but there is not the shadow of a doubt that he was murdered. Nobody knows how he was murdered, but a good many people behind the scenes can guess why. The thing was hushed up, possibly because the tragedy took place in so remote a corner of the world—possibly because the authorities were bribed. Tell me the name of the man, or, at least, tell me the name of the one man who was with your father at the time of his death."

Vera's face paled slightly, but she kept her eyes steadily fixed on her companion's face. She began to understand where the point of the torture was coming in.

"I will not affect to misunderstand you," she said. "The man who was with my father at that time was Mr. Charles Evors. He was a sort of pupil of my father's, and had more than once accompanied him on his excursions. You want to insinuate that my father met his death at the hands of this young man, who, overcome by certain temptation and a desire to obtain the secret of the Four Finger Mine, murdered his master?"

"I am in a position to prove it," Fenwick said sternly. "I have given you practical proof of it, more than once. Why should I have interfered in the way I did, unless it was that I desired to save you pain? I could have brought the whole thing into the light of day, but I refrained from doing so because, it seemed to me, nothing could be gained by bringing the criminal to justice. I had another reason, too, as you know."

"Yes, I am aware of that," Vera said. "I could never make it out—I could never really believe that Charles Evors was guilty of that dreadful crime. He was so frank and true, so kind to everybody! I know he was weak—I know that he had been sent away from England because he had fallen into bad company; I know, too, that he was a little fond of drink. There was only one point on which he was reticent—he never spoke much about his people; but I rather gathered that they were in a high position."

"They were," Fenwick grinned. "You'd be surprised if you knew how high a position. But go on."

"I was saying that I could not credit Charles Evors with such a crime. A man who is so fond of children, so sympathetic to things weaker than himself, could not have taken the life of a fellow-creature. He was fond of my father, too, but that was not the strangest feature of the mystery. Do you suppose for a moment that the man who was engaged to be married to my sister could have laid violent hands on her father?"

"But he did do it," Fenwick cried impatiently. "Otherwise why did he vanish so mysteriously? Why did he go away and leave us to infer that he had perished at sea? It was the kindest thing we could do to let your sister think that her lover was dead, though the shock seems to have deprived her of her reason; and, though I acted all for the best, your brother chose to proclaim me an abandoned scoundrel, and to say that your father's death lay at my door. You know why it became necessary for you to remain with me and treat your brother henceforth as a stranger. You volunteered to do it, you volunteered to turn your back on your family and remain with me. Why did you do so?"

No reply came from Vera's lips. It seemed to her that her safest course lay in silence. To her great relief, Fenwick went on without waiting for an answer.

"Now I am coming to my point," he said. "You have broken faith with me. Three or four times since we came to England you have seen your brother. You have seen him by stealth; you know all about that strange household in Portsmouth Square where he chooses to hide himself under the name of Bates. I want to know why it is that you have chosen to break your word with me? I have had you watched to-night, and I have learned all your movements by means of the telephone. You will stay down here during my pleasure. If you fail to do so, or if you try to deceive me again, as sure as I stand here at the present moment I will betray Charles Evors into the hands of the police. Now look me in the face and answer my question truthfully Do you know where that young man is?"

It was fortunate for Vera that she could reply in the negative. A few more hours, perhaps, and she might have been able to afford the information; but, luckily for her, the startling events that had recently taken place in Portsmouth Square were not known to her in their entirety. She could look Fenwick in the face.

"I don't," she said. "I have never seen him since that fateful morning—but I don't care to go into that. I admit that I have seen my brother. I admit, too, that I have seen my sister; the temptation to find them and see them once more was too strong for me. You will not be surprised to find that I have some natural feelings left. It is not so very extraordinary."

Fenwick shot a suspicious glance at Vera, but she was gazing into the fire with a thoughtful look. She was acting her part splendidly; she was deceiving this man who, as a rule, could read the thoughts of most people.

"Perhaps you are right," he said doubtfully. "But to make assurance doubly sure you are going to help me out of a difficulty. I suppose you have not forgotten Felix Zary?"

"No," Vera said, in a curiously low voice. "I have not forgotten my father's faithful companion. I should very much like to see him again. If you know where he is—"

"Oh, I know where he is," Fenwick said with a laugh. "We will have him down here as a pleasant surprise. That is all I want you to do—I want you to write a letter to Zary, telling him that you are in great trouble, and asking him to come down here and see you at once. I should like you to write that letter now."



CHAPTER XVIII

A COUPLE OF VISITORS

Something in the tone of Fenwick's voice caused Vera to look up hastily. Perhaps it was her imagination that in the unsteady light of the flickering fire his face seemed to have changed almost beyond recognition. The features were dark and murderous and the eyes were full of a lust for vengeance. It was only just for a moment—then the man became his normal self again, just as if nothing had happened. A violent shudder passed over Vera's frame, but Fenwick appeared to notice nothing of this.

"You want me to write that letter now?" she asked.

"At once," Fenwick responded. "I don't mind telling you that I am in great trouble over business matters; there is a conspiracy on foot amongst certain people to get me into trouble. I may even find myself inside the walls of a prison. The man who can save me from all this is your friend, Felix Zary. Unfortunately for me, the man has the bad taste to dislike me exceedingly. He seems to think that I was in some way responsible for your father's death. And, as you know, he loved your father with a devotion that was almost dog-like. If I could get Zary down here I should have no difficulty in convincing him that he was wrong. But he would not come near the place so long as he knew that I was present; so, therefore, I want you to write to him and conceal the fact that I am on the premises. Directly he gets your letter he will come at once."

"I have not the slightest doubt of it," Vera said slowly. "There is nothing that Zary would not do for one of us, if you will assure me that you mean no harm by him—"

"Harm?" Fenwick shouted. "What harm could I do the man? Didn't I tell you just now that I want him to do me a service? One does not generally ill-treat those who are in a position to bestow favors. Now sit down like the good girl that you are, and write that letter at once. Then you can go to bed."

"I will write it in the morning," Vera said. "Surely there cannot be all this desperate hurry. If the letter is written before the post goes out tomorrow afternoon it will be in good time. I am much too tired to do it now."

Just for a moment Fenwick's eyes blazed angrily again. It seemed to Vera that the man was about to burst forth into a storm of passion. The hot words did not come, however, for Fenwick restrained himself. Perhaps he was afraid of going a little too far; perhaps he was afraid of arousing Vera's suspicions, and thus defeating his own object by a refusal on her part to write the letter. He knew from past experience that she could be as firm of purpose as himself if she chose.

"Very well," he said, with an almost grotesque attempt at good-humor. "You look very tired tonight, and I daresay you have had a fatiguing journey—and, after all, there is no great hurry. I will show you up to the room which I have set apart for your use."

Vera was only too glad to get away. Despite her strange surroundings, and despite the sense of coming danger, she threw herself on the bed and slept the sleep of utter exhaustion. It was getting towards noon before she came back to herself, invigorated and refreshed by her long rest.

So far as the girl could see, there were no servants in the house at present besides an old retainer of the family and her husband. Fenwick had made some excuse about the staff of domestics who were to follow later on; but up to now he only had about him the men whom Vera had known more or less well for the last two years. The meals appeared to be served in a remarkably irregular fashion; even the lunch was partaken of hurriedly by Fenwick, who pleaded the pressure of business.

"I can't stop a minute," he said. "I have more to do now than I can manage. I should just like to have a look at that letter that you have written to Zary. There is no excuse for not doing it now, and I want to put it in the post-bag."

"Very well," Vera said serenely. "If you will come with me to the library you will see exactly what I write. I know you are a suspicious man and that you don't trust anybody, therefore I shall be very glad for you to know that I have carried out your request to the letter."

Fenwick laughed as if something had pleased him. Nevertheless, he looked over Vera's shoulder until she had penned the last word. She slowly folded up the communication and sealed it.

"How am I to address the envelope?" she said. "I have not the slightest idea where Zary is to be found. For all I know to the contrary, he may not even be in England."

"Oh, yes, he is," Fenwick chuckled. "He is in London at the present moment. If you address that letter, 17, Paradise Street, Camberwell, Zary will be in receipt of it to-morrow morning."

Vera wrote the address boldly and firmly, and handed the letter with more or less contempt to her companion. She wanted him to feel that she held his suspicions with scorn. She wanted him to know that so far as she was concerned here was an end of the matter. Nevertheless, she followed him carelessly from the room and saw him place the letter, together with others, on the hall table. A moment later he had vanished, and she was left alone to act promptly. She did not hesitate for a moment; she made her way back to the drawing-room and addressed a second envelope to the house in Paradise Street, into which envelope she slipped a blank sheet of notepaper. Then she stamped the envelope and made her way back cautiously to the hall. There was a chance of being discovered, a chance that she was being watched, but she had to run the risk of that. She was crossing the hall freely and carelessly now, and so contrived as to sweep the mass of letters with her sleeve to the floor, exclaiming at her own clumsiness as she did so. Like a flash she picked out the one letter that she needed and swiftly exchanged it for the other. A moment later she was out of doors, with the dangerous communication in her pocket.

So far as she could see, she had succeeded beyond her wildest expectations. It was only a simple ruse, but like most simple things, generally successful. Vera was trembling from head to foot now, but the fresh air of the park and the broad, beautiful solitude of it soothed her jarred nerves, and brought back a more contented frame of mind. Her spirits rose as she walked along.

"I am glad I did that," she told herself, "I may be mistaken, but I firmly believe that I have saved Zary's life. Had he come down here he would never have left the place again. And yet there is danger for him still, and I must warn him of it. I must manage to communicate in some way with Gerald. I wonder if it would be safe to send him a telegram from the village. I wonder, too, in what direction the village lies. Still, I have all the afternoon before me, and a brisk walk will do me good."

With a firm, elastic step, Vera walked across the grass in the direction of a wood, beyond which she could see the slope of the high road. She had hardly entered the wood before she heard a voice calling her name, and to her intense delight she turned to find herself face to face with Venner.

"Oh, this is glorious," she said, as she placed both her hands in his. "But do you think that it is quite safe for you to come here so soon? For all I know, I may be followed.

"I don't think so," Venner said. "Now let me take you in my arms and kiss you. Let us sit down here in this snug corner and try to imagine that we are back in the happy days when no cloud loomed between us, and we were looking forward to many joyous years together. We will talk mundane matters presently."

Vera yielded to the ecstasy of the moment. Everything was so dark and melancholy that it seemed a sin to lose a gleam of sunshine like this. But the time crept on and the November sun was sinking, and it was borne in upon Vera that she must get back to the house again. Very gently, she disengaged herself from Venner's embrace.

"We must be really practical now," she said. "Tell me what has happened since I left the hotel last night?"

"So far as I can see, nothing," Venner replied. "I asked for you this morning, and to my surprise I found that you had vanished in the dead of the night with a mysterious chauffeur and a Mercedes car. By great good luck I found a policeman who had made a note of the number of the car; after which I went to the makers, or rather the agents of the makers, and it was quite easy to find out that the Mercedes in question had recently been delivered to Mr. Mark Fenwick's order at Merton Grange near Canterbury. After that, you will not be surprised to find that I came down here as soon as possible, and that I have been hiding here with a pair of field-glasses trying to get a glimpse of you."

"That was very interesting," Vera laughed. "But tell me about my sister. I am so anxious over her."

"No reason to be," said Venner. "I have seen to that. She has gone back to your brother."

"Oh, I am so glad. Now listen to me carefully."

She went on with some detail to tell the story of her last night's experiences. She spoke of Felix Zary and the letter which she had been more or less compelled to write to him. Also, she described the ruse by which the letter had been regained.

"Now you must go and see this Zary," she said. "Tell him that you come from me, and tell him all about the letter. Mind, he must reply to my letter just as if it had reached him in the ordinary way through the post, because, as you see, I shall have to show the answer to Mr. Fenwick, and I want to lull his suspicions to rest entirely. You may find Zary a little awkward at first."

"I don't think I shall," Venner smiled. "In fact, he and I are already acquainted. But I am not going to tell you anything about that; you prefer to keep your secrets as far as I am concerned, and I am going to guard mine for the present. I am working to put an end to all this mystery and bother, and I am going to do it my own way. Anyway, I will see Zary for you and tell him exactly what has happened. In fact, I will go to town this evening for the express purpose. Then I will come back in the morning and meet you here the same time to-morrow afternoon."

They parted at that, and Vera made her way back to the house. She saw that the letters were no longer on the hall table, and therefore she concluded that they had been posted. She assumed a quiet, dignified manner during the rest of the evening. She treated Fenwick more or less distantly, as if she were still offended with his suspicions. Fenwick, on the other hand, was more than usually amiable. Something had evidently pleased him, and he appeared to be doing his best to wipe out the unpleasant impression of the morning. Vera felt quite easy in her mind now; she knew that her ruse had been absolutely successful. All the same, she ignored Fenwick's request of a little music, professing to be exceedingly tired, which, indeed, was no more than the truth.

"I am going to bed quite early to-night," she said. "I have been sleeping very indifferently of late."

It was barely ten before she was in her room, and there she lay, oblivious of all that was taking place around her, till she woke presently with an idea that she could hear the sound of hammering close by. As she sat up in bed with all her senses about her, she could hear the great stable clock strike the hour of three. Her ears had not deceived her; the sound of metal meeting metal in a kind of musical chink came distinct and clear. Then from somewhere near she could hear voices. The thing was very strange, seeing that Fenwick was a business man pure and simple, and that he had never confessed to any knowledge of mechanics. It came back to her mind now, that directly she had entered the house Fenwick had greeted her in a suit of blue overalls which she understood men who followed mechanical pursuits generally wore. She recollected, too, that his hands were black and grimy. What could be going on, and why had she seen nothing of this during the day-time? She could comprehend men sitting up all night and working in a factory, but surely there could be no occasion for a thing like this in a private house, unless, perhaps, Fenwick and his satellites were engaged in some pursuit that needed careful concealment from the eyes of the law.

It would be well, perhaps, Vera thought, if she could find out what was going on. The discovery might be the means of putting another weapon into her hands. She rose from her bed and partially dressed herself. Then, with a pair of slippers on her feet and a dark wrap round her shoulders, she stole into the corridor. A dim light was burning there, so that she had no fear of being discovered, especially as the walls were draped with tapestry, and here and there armored figures stood, which afforded a capital means of concealment. As Vera sidled along she noticed that at the end of the corridor was a small room down a flight of steps. From where she stood she could see into the room, the door of which was open. Fenwick stood there apparently engaged in superintending the melting of metal in a crucible over a fire, which was driven to white heat by a pair of bellows. The rest of his gang seemed to be doing something on an iron table with moulds and discs. Vera could see the gleam of yellow metal, then somebody closed the door of the room and she could learn no more. It was all very strange and mysterious, and there was a furtive air about it which did not suggest honesty of purpose. There was nothing more for it now except for Vera to return to her room, with a determination to see the inside of that little apartment the first time that the coast was clear.

She hurried along back to her own room, and had almost succeeded in reaching it, when she came face to face with a man who had stepped out of a doorway so suddenly that the two figures came almost in contact. A fraction of a second later a hand was laid over Vera's mouth, while another grasped her wrist; then she saw that the intruder had been joined by a companion.

"Please don't say a word, miss; and, whatever you do, don't call out," one of the men whispered. "We know all about you and who you are. Believe me, we are here to do you the greatest service in our power. My colleague will tell you the same."

"But who are you?" Vera asked, as the man removed his hand from her mouth. Her courage had come back to her now. "Why do you come in this fashion?"

"My name is Egan," the stranger said, "and this is my companion, Grady. We are New York detectives, over here on important business. The man we are after is Mark Fenwick."



CHAPTER XIX

PHANTOM GOLD

Vera had entirely recovered her self-possession by this time. She was able to regard the men coolly and critically. There was nothing about them that suggested anything wrong or underhand; on the contrary, the girl rather liked their appearance. All the same it was a strange and unique experience; and though Vera had been through a series of trials and tribulations, she thrilled now as she recognised how near she had been to the man who was thus running himself into the hands of justice.

"But how can you know anything about me?" she said. "You surely do not mean to say that you suspect—"

"Not at all, miss," Egan said, civilly. "Only, you see, it is always our business to know a great deal more than people imagine. I hope you won't suppose that we are going to take any advantage of our position here, or that we want you to betray Mr. Fenwick into our hands; but since we have been unfortunate enough to be discovered by you, we will ask you to go so far as to say nothing to Mr. Fenwick. If you tell him, you will be doing considerable harm to a great many deserving people who have suffered terribly at that man's hands. I think you understand."

Vera understood only too well, and yet her delicate sense of honor was slightly disturbed at the idea of continuing there without warning Fenwick of the danger that overshadowed him. Personally, she would have liked to have told him exactly how he stood, and given him the opportunity to get away. Perhaps Egan saw something of this in Vera's face, for he went on to speak again.

"I know it isn't very nice for you, miss," he said, "and I am not surprised to see you hesitate; but seeing that Mr. Fenwick has done you as much harm as anybody else—"

"How do you know that?" Vera exclaimed.

"Well, you see, it is our business to know everything. I feel quite certain that on reflection you will do nothing to defeat the ends of justice."

"No," Vera said, thoughtfully. "In any case, it cannot much matter. You are here to arrest Mr. Fenwick, and you probably know where he is to be found at the present moment."

"There you are wrong, miss," Grady said. "We are not in a position at present to lay hands on our man. We came here prepared to take a few risks—but I don't suppose you would care to hear anything about our methods. It will be a great favor to us if you will retire to your room and stay there till morning."

Vera went off without any further ado, feeling that once more the current of events had come between her and the sleep that she so sorely needed. But, in spite of everything, she had youth and health on her side, and within a few minutes she was fast asleep. It was fairly late when she came down the next morning, and she was rather surprised to find that Fenwick had not finished his breakfast. He sat there sullen and heavy-eyed, and had no more than a grunt for Vera in response to her morning greeting. He turned over his food with savage disapproval. Evidently, from the look of him, he had not only been up late overnight, but he had also had more wine than was good for him.

"Who can eat rubbish like this?" he growled. "The stuff isn't fit to feed a dog with. Look at this bacon."

"You can expect nothing else," Vera said, coldly. "If you choose to try and run a large house like this with practically no servants beyond a caretaker and his wife, you must put up with the consequences. You are an exceedingly clever man, but you seem to have overlooked one fact, and that is the amount of gossip you are providing for the neighbors. It isn't as if we were still in town, where the man next door knows nothing of you and cares less. Here people are interested in their neighbors. It will cause quite a scandal when it becomes known that you are occupying Lord Merton's house with nothing more than a number of questionable men. As far as I can see, you are far worse off here than if you had stayed in London. I may be wrong, of course."

"I begin to think you are quite right," Fenwick grunted. "I must see to this. It will never do for all these chattering magpies to pry into my business. You had better go into Canterbury this morning and see if you can't arrange for a proper staff of servants to come. Well, what's the matter now?"

One of the men had come into the room with a telegram in his hand. He pitched it in a contemptuous way upon the table and withdrew, whistling unconcernedly. The man's manner was so flippant and familiar that Vera flushed with annoyance.

"I wish you would keep your subordinates a little more under your control," she said. "One hardly expects a man of your wealth to be treated in this way by his clerks."

But Fenwick was not listening. His brows were knotted in a sullen frown over the telegram that he held in his hand. He clutched the flimsy paper and threw it with a passionate gesture into the fire. Vera could see that his yellow face had grown strangely white, and that his coarse lips were trembling. He rose from the table, pushing his plate away from him.

"I've got to go to town at once," he said. "How strange it is that everything seems to have gone wrong of late! I shall be back again in time for dinner, and I shall be glad if you are good enough to see that I have something fit to eat. Perhaps you had better telephone to town for some servants. It doesn't much matter what you pay them as long as they are good."

Fenwick walked rapidly from the room, and a few moments later Vera could see his car moving swiftly down the drive. On the whole, she was not sorry to have Fenwick out of the house. She was pleased, also, to know that he had made up his mind over the servant question. Already the house was beginning to look shabby and neglected; in the strong morning sunshine Vera could see the dust lying everywhere. Her womanly instincts rebelled against this condition of things; she was not satisfied until she had set the telephone in motion and settled the matter as far as the domestic staff was concerned.

Then a sudden thought flashed into her mind. Here was the opportunity for examining the little room where Fenwick and his satellites had been busy the previous evening. Vera had not failed to notice the fact that three of the men had gone off with Fenwick in his car, so that, in all probability, they meant to accompany him to town. If this turned out to be correct, then there was only one man to be accounted for. Possibly with the assistance of Gerald, the fourth man might be got out of the way.

It was nearly three o'clock in the afternoon before Vera managed to see her husband. Eagerly and rapidly she told him all that had taken place the previous evening, though she was rather surprised to find him manifesting less astonishment than she had expected. Venner smiled when Vera mentioned this.

"Oh, that's no new thing to me," he said. "I saw all that going on in your suite of rooms at the Great Empire Hotel, though I haven't the least notion what it all means. I should have thought that your interesting guardian was manufacturing counterfeit coins. But we managed to get hold of one of them, and a jeweller pronounced at once that it was a genuine sovereign. Still, there is no question of the fact that some underhand business is going on, and I am quite ready to assist you in finding out what it is. The point is whether the coast is clear or not."

"There is only one man left behind." Vera explained. "All the rest have gone to London with Mr. Fenwick, who received a most disturbing telegram at breakfast this morning. Of course, the old caretaker and his wife count for nothing; they are quite innocent parties, and merely regard their stay here as temporary, pending the arrival of our staff of servants."

"In that case, I don't see why it shouldn't be managed," Venner said. "You had better go back to the house, and I will call and see you. There is not the slightest reason why I shouldn't give my own name, nor is there the slightest reason why you should not show me over the house when I come. I daresay all this sounds a bit cheap, but one cannot be too careful in dealing with these people."

It was all arranged exactly as Venner had suggested, and a little later Vera was shaking hands with her own husband as if he were a perfect stranger. They proceeded presently to walk up the grand staircase and along the corridor, Vera doing the honors of the place and speaking in a manner calculated to deceive anybody who was listening. She stopped presently and clutched Venner's arm excitedly. She pointed to a doorway leading to a little room down the steps at the end of the corridor.

"There," she whispered, "that is the room, and, as far as I can see, it is absolutely empty. What do you say to going in there now? The coast seems to be quite clear."

Venner hesitated for a moment; it would be just as well, he thought, to err on the side of caution. A casual glance from the corridor disclosed nothing, except that on the table there stood a bottle apparently containing wine, for a glass of some dark ruby liquid stood beside it. Very rapidly Venner ran down the flight of stairs and looked into the room.

"There is nobody there for the moment," he said, "but that bulldog of Fenwick's can't be far off, for there is a half-smoked cigarette on the end of the table which has not yet gone out. I think I can see my way now to working this thing without any trouble or danger. Do you happen to know if that rheumatic old caretaker uses snuff?"

"Really, I don't," Vera said with a smile. "But what possible connection is there between the caretaker and his snuff—?"

"Never mind about that at present. Go down and ask the old man for his snuff box. By the look of him, I am quite sure he indulges in the habit. Tell him you want to kill some insects in the conservatory. Tell him anything, so long as you get possession of the box for a few minutes."

Vera flew off on her errand. She was some moments before she could make the old man understand what she needed; then, with the air of one who parts with some treasure, he handed over to her a little tortoiseshell box, remarking, at the same time, that he had had it for the last sixty years and would not part with it for anything. A moment later, Vera was back again at the end of the corridor. Venner had not moved, a sure sign that no one had approached in the meantime. Taking the box from Vera's hand, and leaving her to guard the corridor, he stepped into the little room, where he proceeded to stir a little pellet of snuff into the glass of wine. This done, he immediately hurried Vera away to the other end of the corridor.

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