"I think that will be all right now," he said. "We have only got to wait till our man comes back and give him a quarter of an hour. Snuff is a very strong drug, and within a few minutes of his finishing his wine he will be sound asleep on the floor."
It all fell out exactly as Venner had prophesied. The man came back presently, passing Vera and her companion without the slightest suspicion of anything being wrong. Then he turned into the little room and closed the door behind him. Half an hour passed before Vera knocked at the door on some frivolous pretext, but no answer came from the other side. She knocked again and again, after which she ventured to open the door. The wine-glass was empty, a half-finished cigarette smouldered on the floor, and, by the side of it, lay the man in a deep and comatose sleep. Venner fairly turned him over with his foot, but the slumbering form gave no sign. The thing was safe now.
"We needn't worry ourselves for an hour or so," Venner said. "And now we have to see if we can discover the secrets of the prison house. Evidently nothing is going on at present. I should like to know what the table is for. It is not unlike a modern gas stove—I mean a gas stove used for cooking purposes, and here is a parcel on the table, just the same sort of parcel that the mysterious new sovereigns were wrapped up in."
"Oh, let me see," Vera said eagerly as she pulled the lid off the box. "See, this stuff inside is just like asbestos, and sure enough here is a layer of sovereigns on the top. How bright and new they look. I have never seen gold so attractive before. I—"
Vera suddenly ceased to speak, and a sharp cry of pain escaped her as she dropped to the floor one of the coins which she had taken in her hand. She was regarding her thumb and forefinger now with some dismay, for they were scorched and swollen.
"Those coins are red hot," she said. "You try—but look out you don't get burned."
Surely enough, the coins were almost at white heat; so much so, that a wax match placed on the edge of one flared instantly. Venner looked puzzled; he could not make it out. There was no fire in the room, and apparently no furnace or oven in which the metal could have been heated. Then he suddenly recollected that Vera must be in pain.
"My poor child," he said. "I am so sorry. You must go down to the old housekeeper at once and get her to put something on your hand. Meanwhile, I will stay here and investigate, though I don't expect for a moment that I shall make any further discoveries."
Vera's hand was dressed at length, and the pain of the burn had somewhat abated when Venner came down the stairs again. He shook his head in response to the questioning glance in Vera's eyes.
"Absolutely nothing," he said. "I found a safe there let into the wall, but then, you see, the safe has been built for years, and no doubt has been used by Lord Merton to store his plate and other valuables of that kind. It is just possible, of course, that Fenwick has the key of it, and that the safe had been cleared out for his use. I am afraid we shall never solve this little puzzle until Fenwick is in the hands of those detectives who gave me such a fright last night."
"But there must have been some means of heating those coins," Vera protested. "They must have come straight from a furnace."
"Of course," Venner said. "The trouble is where to find the furnace. I am perfectly sure, too, that the sovereigns were genuine. Now what on earth can a man gain by taking current coins of the realm and making them red hot? The only chance of a solution is for me to find Egan and Grady and tell them of my discovery. I shall be at the same spot to-morrow afternoon at the same time, and if I find anything out I will let you know."
There was nothing more for it than this, whereupon Venner went away and Vera returned thoughtfully to the dining-room. She was just a little bit in doubt as to whether the man upstairs would guess the trick played upon him, but that she had to risk.
THE PRODIGAL'S RETURN
Money can do most things, even in the matter of furnishing a large house with competent servants, and by six o'clock Vera had contrived for the domestic machine to run a little more smoothly. At any rate, she was in a position now to provide Fenwick with something in the shape of a respectable dinner on his return from town.
It was about a quarter to eight when he put in an appearance, and for the first time for some days he changed into evening dress for the chief meal of the day. He appeared to be as morose and savage as he had been in the morning, in fact even more so if that were possible. He answered Vera's questions curtly, so that she fell back upon herself and ate her soup in silence. And yet, though Fenwick was so quiet, it seemed to Vera that he was regarding her with a deep distrust, so that she found herself flushing under his gaze. He put his spoon down presently, and pointed with his hand to Vera's swollen fingers.
"What have you got there?" he demanded. "How did you do that?"
"I burnt it," Vera stammered. "It was an accident."
"Well, I don't suppose you burnt it on purpose," Fenwick growled. "I don't suppose you put your hand into the fire to see if it was hot. What I asked you was how you did it. Please answer my question."
"I repeat it was an accident," Vera said, coldly. "I burnt my fingers in such a way—"
"Yes, and you are not the first woman who has burnt her fingers interfering with things that don't concern her. I insist upon knowing exactly how that accident happened."
Vera turned a cold, contemptuous face to her companion; she began to understand now that his suspicions were aroused. It came back to her vividly enough that she had dropped the hot sovereign on the floor, and that, owing to the shock and sudden surprise, she had not replaced it. It was just possible that Fenwick had gone into the little room and had missed the sovereign from the neat layer of coins on the top of the box. And then another dreadful thought came to Vera—supposing that the drugged man had not recovered from the effects of his dose by the time that Fenwick had returned? It was a point which both she and Venner had overlooked. There was nothing for it but to take refuge behind an assumed indignation, and decline to answer offensive questions put in that tone of voice. Vera was still debating as to the most contemptuous reply when the dining-room door opened and one of the newly-arrived servants announced Mr. Blossett.
Fenwick rose to his feet and an unmistakable oath escaped his lips. All the same, he forced a kind of sickly smile to his face, as a big man, with an exceedingly red face and an exceedingly offensive swaggering manner, came into the dining-room. The stranger was quite well dressed, nothing about his garments offended the eye or outraged good taste, yet, all the same, the man had "bounder" written all over him in large letters. His impudent red face, his aggressively waxed moustache, and the easy familiarity of his manner, caused Vera to shrink within herself, though she could have been grateful to the fellow for the diversion which his appearance had created.
"Well, Fenwick, my buck!" he cried. "You didn't expect that I should accept your invitation quite so promptly, but I happen to be knocking around here, and I thought I'd drop in and join you in your chop. This is your daughter, I suppose? Glad to make your acquaintance, miss. I was told there were many beauties at Merton Grange, but I find that there is one more than I expected."
Vera merely bowed in reply. The man was so frankly, hopelessly, utterly vulgar that her uppermost feeling was one of amusement. She could see that Fenwick was terribly annoyed, though for some reason he had to keep himself in hand and be agreeable to Blossett.
"Sit down," he said. "Ring the bell, and we will get another cover laid. I don't suppose you mind missing the soup."
"I have been in the soup too often to care about it," Blossett laughed. "To tell the truth, we had such a warm time last night that solid food and myself are not on speaking terms just now. Here, waiter, fill me a tumbler of champagne. I daresay when I have got that down my neck I shall be able to pay my proper attentions to this young lady."
Fenwick made no reply; he cut savagely at his fish as if he were passing the knife over the throat of the intruder. Meanwhile the stranger rattled on, doubtless under the impression that he was making himself exceedingly agreeable. Vera sat there watching the scene with a certain sense of amusement. She was still a little pale and unsteady, still doubtful as to the amount of information that Fenwick had gleaned as to her movements that afternoon. She would be glad to get away presently and try to ascertain for herself whether the drugged man had recovered or not. Meanwhile, there was no occasion for her to talk, as the intruder was quite able to carry on all the necessary conversation.
"This is mighty fine tipple," he said. "Waiter, give me another tumbler of champagne. In my chequered career I don't often run up against this class of lotion. The worst of it is, it makes one talk too fast, and seeing that I have got to run the gauntlet with the next little parcel of sparklers—"
"Fool!" Fenwick burst out. His face was livid with rage, his eyes were shot with passionate anger. "Fool! can't you be silent? Don't you see that there is one here who is outside—"
"Beg pardon," Blossett said, unsteadily. "I thought the young woman knew all about it. Lord, with her dainty face and her aristocratic air, what a bonnet she'd make. Wouldn't she look nice passing off as the daughter of the old military swell with a fondness for a little game of cards? You know what I mean—the same game that old Jim and his wife used to play."
"Be silent," Fenwick thundered in a tone that at last seemed to penetrate the thick skull of his companion. "My—my daughter knows nothing of these things."
Blossett stammered something incoherent, his manner became more sullen, and long before dinner was completed it was evident that he had had far more wine than was good for him.
"If you will excuse me, I will leave you," Vera said coldly. "I do not care for any dessert or coffee to-night."
"Perhaps you had better go," Fenwick said with an air of relief. "I will take care that this thing does not happen again."
But Vera had already left the room; she was still consumed with anxiety, and desired to know more of what had happened to the man whom Venner had drugged. She did not dare venture as far as the little room, for fear that suspicious eyes should be watching her. It was just possible that Fenwick had given his satellites a hint to note her movements. Therefore, all she could do was to sit in the drawing-room with the door open. Some of the men began to pass presently, and after a little time, with a sigh of relief, Vera caught sight of the one upon whom the trick of the snuff was played. He seemed all right, as far as she could judge, and the girl began to breathe a little more freely.
As she sat there in the silence watching and waiting, she saw Fenwick and his companion emerge from the dining-room and cross the hall in the direction of the billiard room. Blossett was still talking lightly and incoherently; he leant on the arm of his host, and obviously the support was necessary. Vera had never before seen a drunken man under the same roof as herself, and her soul revolted at the sight. How much longer was this going on, she wondered? How much more would she be called upon to endure? For the present, she had only to possess herself in patience and hope for the best. She was longing now for something like action. The silence and stillness of the house oppressed her; she would have liked to be up and doing something. Anything better than sitting there.
The silence was broken presently by the sound of angry voices proceeding from the billiard-room. Half-a-dozen men seemed to be talking at the same time—words floated to Vera's ears; then suddenly the noise ceased, as if somebody had clapped down a lid upon the meeting. Vera guessed exactly what had happened. The billiard-room door had been closed for fear of the servants hearing what was going on. It was just possible that behind those closed doors the mystery that had so puzzled Vera was being unfolded. She recollected now that between the dining-and the billiard-room was a fairly large conservatory opening on either side into the apartments in question. It was just possible that Fenwick and his companions might have overlooked the conservatory. At any rate, Vera determined to take advantage of the chance. The conservatory was full of palms and plants and flowers, behind which it was possible for the girl to hide and listen to all that was going on.
Vera fully understood the danger she was running, she quite appreciated the fact that discovery might be visited with unpleasant consequences. But this did not deter her for a moment. She was in the conservatory a little later, and was not displeased to find that the door leading to the billiard-room was open. Behind a thick mask of ferns she took her stand. Between the feathery fronds she could see into the billiard-room without being seen. Fenwick was standing by the side of the table laying down the law about something, while the rest of his men were scattered about the room.
"Why should I do it?" Fenwick was saying. "Why should I trust a man like you? You come down to-night on the most important errand, well knowing the risks you are running, and you start by getting drunk at the dinner table."
"I wasn't drunk," Blossett said sullenly. "As to the girl, why, I naturally expected—"
"Who gave you the right to expect?" Fenwick demanded. "Couldn't you see at a glance that she knew nothing about it. Another word and you would have betrayed the whole thing. You can stay here all night and talk if you like, but you are not going to have that parcel to take away to London with you. In your present condition you would be in the hands of the police before morning."
"But I haven't got a cent," Blossett said. "I hadn't enough money in my pocket to pay my cab fare from Canterbury; and don't you try on any of your games with me, because I am not the sort of man to stand them. You are a fine lot of workmen I know, but there isn't one of you who has the pluck and ability to take two thousand pound's worth of that stuff and turn it into cash in a week. Now look at the last parcel I had, I got rid of it in such a manner that no one could possibly discover that I ever handled the metal at all. Who among you could say the same thing?"
"Oh, you are right enough so long as you keep sober," Fenwick said. "But, all the same, I shall not trust you with the parcel that is waiting upstairs."
Vera listened, comprehending but little of what was going on. After all, she seemed to be having only her trouble for her pains. Beyond doubt these men were doing something illicit with the coinage of the country, though Vera could not bring herself to believe that they were passing off counterfeit money, seeing that the sovereigns were absolutely genuine.
"Well, something has got to be done," another of the gang remarked. "We are bound to have a few thousand during the next few days, and, as Blossett says, there is nobody that can work the oracle as well as he can. The best thing I can do is to go to town with him and keep a close eye on him till he has pulled round once more. He can keep sober enough on occasions if he likes, and once the drinking fit has passed he may be right for weeks."
"I am going to have no one with me," Blossett roared. "Do you think I am going to be treated like a blooming kid? I tell you, I am the best man of the lot of you. There isn't one of you can hold a candle to me. Fenwick, with all his cunning, is a child compared with Ned Blossett. Ask any of the old gang in New York, ask the blistering police if you like; and as to the rest of you, who are you? A set of whitefaced mechanics, without pluck enough to rob a hen-roost. Take that, you cur!"
The speaker rose suddenly to his feet and lurched across the room in Fenwick's direction. He aimed an unexpected blow at the latter which sent him headlong to the floor, and immediately the whole room was a scene of angry violence.
Vera shrank back in her shelter, hardly knowing what to do next. She saw that Blossett had disentangled himself from the mob about him and was making his way headlong into the conservatory. There was nothing for it but instant retreat. On the opposite side was a doorway leading to the garden, and through this Vera hastily slipped and darted across the grass, conscious of the noise and struggle going on behind. She paused with a little cry of vexation as she came close to a man who was standing on the edge of the lawn looking at the house. It was only for a moment that she stood there in doubt; then a glad little cry broke from her lips.
"Charles," she said. "Mr. Evors, what are you doing here?"
"We will come to that presently," Evors replied. "Meanwhile, you can be observed from where you are, and those rioters yonder may make it awkward for you. When they have patched up their quarrel, I will return to the house with you and explain. We can get in by the little green door behind the gunroom."
Vera suffered herself to be led away, feeling now utterly unable to be astonished at anything. They came at length to the secluded side of the house, where the girl paused and looked at her companion for an explanation.
"You seem to be strangely familiar with this place," she said. "You walk about here in the dark as if you had known this house all your lifetime, Have you been here before?"
"Many a time," Evors replied sadly. "Up to the time I was twenty my happiest years were spent here. But I see you are still in the dark. Cannot you guess who I really am, Vera? No? Then I will enlighten you. My name is Charles Evors, and I am the only son of Lord Merton. I was born here, and, if the Fates are good to me, some day I hope to die here."
THE THIRD FINGER
Vera ought to have experienced a feeling of deepest surprise; but she was long post any emotion of that kind. On the contrary, it seemed quite natural that Evors should be there telling her this extraordinary thing. The sounds of strife and tumult in the house had now died away; apparently the men in the billiard-room had patched up their quarrel, for nothing more could be heard save a sudden pop which sounded like the withdrawal of a cork. With a gesture of contempt, Evors pointed to the billiard-room window.
"I don't think you need worry about them," he said. "As far as I can judge, they were bound to come to some truce."
"But do you know what they were doing?" Vera asked.
"I haven't the remotest idea," Evors replied. "Some rascality, beyond question. There always is rascality where Fenwick is concerned. Is it not a strange thing that I should come down here and find that fellow settled in the home of my ancestors?"
"Then you did not come down on purpose to see him?"
"No, I came here entirely on my own responsibility. If you have half-an-hour to spare, and you think it quite safe, I will tell you everything. But there is one thing first, one assurance you must give me, or I am bound to remain silent. The death of your poor father in that mysterious fashion—"
"Stop," Vera said gently. "I know exactly what you are going to say. You want me to believe that you had no hand whatever in my father's murder. My dear Charles, I know it perfectly well. The only thing that puzzles me is why you acted in that strange weak fashion after the discovery of the crime."
"That is exactly what I am going to tell you," Evors went on. "It is a strange story, and one which, if you read it in the pages of a book, you would be inclined to discredit entirely. And yet stranger and more remarkable things happen every day."
Evors led the way to a secluded path beside the terrace.
"You need not worry about getting to the house," he said. "I can show you how to manage that at any time of the day or night without disturbing anybody. I am afraid that on many occasions I put my intimate knowledge of the premises to an improper use, and that was the beginning of my downfall. What will you say to me when I confess to you that when I came out to Mexico I was driven out of the old country, more or less, like a criminal?"
"I understood you to be a little wild," Vera said.
"A little wild!" Evors echoed bitterly. "I behaved in a perfectly disgraceful fashion. I degraded the old name, I made it a byword in the district. As sure as I am standing here at the present moment, I am more or less answerable for my mother's death. It is a strange thing with us Evors that all the men begin in this way. I suppose it is some taint in our blood. Up to the age of five-and-twenty, we have always been more like devils than men, and then, for the most part, we have settled down to wipe out the past and become respectable members of society. I think my father recognised that, though he was exceedingly hard and stern with me. Finally, after one more unusually disgraceful episode, he turned me out of the house, and said he hoped never to look upon my face again. I was deeply in debt, I had not a penny that I could call my own, and, finally, I drifted out to Mexico with the assistance of a boon companion. On the way out I took a solemn oath that I would do my best to redeem the past. I felt heartily ashamed of my evil ways; and for six months no one could possibly have led a purer and better life than myself. It was about this time that I became acquainted with your father and your sister Beth."
Evors paused a moment and paced up and down the avenue with Vera by his side. She saw that he was disturbed about something, so that she deemed it best not to interrupt him.
"It was like getting back to a better world again," Evors went on. "I believed that I had conquered myself; I felt pretty sure of it, or I would have never encouraged the friendship with your sister, which she offered me from the first. I don't know how it was or why it was that I did not see much of you about that time, but you were not in the mountains with the others."
"I was down in the city," Vera explained. "There was a friend of mine who had had a long serious illness, and I was engaged in nursing her. That is the reason."
"But it doesn't much matter," Evors went on. "You were not there to watch my friendship for Beth ripening into a warmer and deeper feeling. Mind you, she had not the remotest idea who I really was, nor had your father. They were quite content to take me on trust, they had no vulgar curiosity as to my past. And then the time came when Beth discovered what my feelings were, and I knew that she had given her heart to me. I had not intended to speak, I had sternly schooled myself to hold my tongue until I had completed my probation; but one never knows how these things come about. It was all so spontaneous, so unexpected—and before I knew what had really happened, we were engaged. It was the happiest time of my life. I had rid myself of all my bad habits. I was in the full flush and vigor of my manhood. I did not say anything to Beth about the past, because I felt that she would not understand, but I told your father pretty nearly everything except who I really was, for I had made up my mind not to take the old name again until I had really earned the right to do so. Of course, the name of Evors conveyed no impression to anybody. It did not imply that I was heir to Lord Merton. Your father was intensely friendly and sympathetic, he seemed to understand exactly. We became more than friends, and this is how it came about that I accompanied him finally on one of his secret visits to the Four Finger Mine. Your father's regular journeys to the mine had resulted in his becoming a rich man, and, as you know, he always kept the secret to himself, taking nobody with him as a rule, with the exception of Felix Zary. I will speak of Zary again presently. You know how faithful he was to your father, and how he would have laid down his life for him."
"Zary was an incomprehensible character," Vera said. "He was one of the surviving, or, rather, the only surviving member of the tribe who placed the Four Finger Mine in my father's hands. That was done solely out of gratitude, and Zary steadfastly declined to benefit one penny from the gold of the mine. He had a curious contempt for money, and he always said that the gold from the Four Finger Mine had brought a curse on his tribe. I really never got to the bottom of it, and I don't suppose I ever shall; but I am interrupting you, Charles. Will you please go on with your story."
"Where was I?" Evors asked. "Oh, yes, I was just leading up to the time when I accompanied your father on his last fatal journey to the mine. At one time I understand it was his intention to take with him the Dutchman, Van Fort, or your mother's brother, Mark Fenwick. However, your father decided against this plan, and I went with him instead. To a great extent it was my doing so that kept Van Fort and Fenwick out of it, for I distrusted both those men, and I believed that they would have been guilty of any crime to learn the secret of the mine. Your father, always trustful and confiding, laughed at my fears, and we started on that fateful journey. I don't want to harrow your feelings unnecessarily, or describe in detail how your father died; but he was foully murdered, and, as sure as I am in the presence of my Maker, the murder was accomplished either by the Dutchman or Fenwick, or between the two of them. Zary mysteriously vanished about the same time, and there was no one to back me up in my story. You may judge of my horror and surprise a little later when Van Fort and Fenwick entered into a deliberate conspiracy to prove that I was responsible for your father's death. They laid their plans with such a diabolical ingenuity that, had I been placed upon my trial at that time, I should have been hanged to a certainty. They even went so far as to tell Beth what had happened, with what result upon her mind you know. At this time Van Fort disappeared, and was never heard of again. Of the strange weird vengeance which followed him I will talk another time. I suppose I lost my nerve utterly, for I became as clay in the hands of Mark Fenwick. Badly as he was treating me, he professed to be my friend, and assured me he had found a way by which I could escape from the death which threatened me. Goodness only knows what he had in his mind; perhaps he wanted to part Beth and myself and get all your father's money into his hands. I suppose he reckoned without your brother, though the latter did not count for much just then, seeing that he was in the hospital at Vera Cranz, hovering between life and death, as the result of his accident. For my own part, I never believed it was an accident at all. I believed that Fenwick engineered the whole business. But that is all by the way. Like the weak fool that I was, I fell in with Fenwick's suggestion and allowed myself to become a veritable tool in his hands, but I did not go till I heard that you had come back again to look after Beth."
Vera recollected the time perfectly well; she was following Evors' narrative with breathless interest. How well she recollected the day of her own marriage and the receipt of that dreadful letter, which parted Gerald and herself on the very steps of the altar, and transformed her life from one of happiness into one of absolute self-sacrifice. She was beginning to see daylight now, she was beginning to discern a way at length, whereby she would be able to defy Fenwick and part with him for all time.
"It is getting quite plain now," she said. "But please go on. You cannot think how deeply interested I am in all you are saying. Presently I will tell you my side of the story. How I came to part with Beth, how I placed her in my brother's hands, how I elected to remain with Mark Fenwick, and my reasons for so doing. I may say that one of my principal reasons for staying with my uncle was to discover the real cause of my father's death. That you had anything to do with it I never really believed, though appearances were terribly against you, and you deliberately elected to make them look worse. But we need not go into that now. What happened to you after you fled from Mexico?"
"I am very much afraid that I dropped back into the old habits," Evors said, contritely. "I was reckless and desperate, and cared nothing for anybody. I had honestly done my best to atone for the past, and it seemed to me that Fate was dealing with me with a cruelty which I did not deserve. One or two of Fenwick's parasites accompanied me everywhere; there seemed to be no lack of money, and I had pretty well all I wanted. There were times, of course, when I tried to break the spell, but they used to drug me then, until my mind began to give way under the strain. Sometimes we were in Paris, sometimes we were in London, but I have not the slightest recollection of how I got from one place to another. I was like a man who is constantly on the verge of delirium. How long this had been going on I can't tell you, but finally I came to my senses in the house in London, and there for two days I was practically all right. All through this time I had the deepest horror of the drink with which they plied me, and on this occasion the horror had grown no less. For some reason or another, no doubt it was an oversight, they neglected me for two days, and I began to get rapidly better. Then, by the purest chance in the world, I discovered that I was actually under the same roof as Beth and your brother, and the knowledge was like medicine to me. I refused everything those men offered me, I demanded to be allowed to go out on business. They refused, and a strange new strength filled my veins. I contrived to get the better of the two men, and half an hour afterward I left the house in company with your brother."
All this was news indeed to Vera, but she asked no questions—she was quite content to stand there and listen to all that Evors had to say.
"I would not stay with your brother," he went on. "I went off immediately to an old friend of mine, to whom I told a portion of my story. He supplied me with money and clothing, and advised me that the best thing I could do was to go quietly away into the country and give myself an entire rest. I followed his advice, and I drifted down here, I suppose, in the same way that an animal finds his way home. I did not know my father was away, and you can imagine my surprise when I discovered to whom he had left the house. I feel pretty much myself now; there is no danger of my showing the white feather again. If you are in any trouble or distress, a line to the address on this card will bring me to you at any time. In this house there are certain hiding-places where I could secrete myself without anybody being the wiser; but we need not go into that. Now perhaps you had better return to the house, or you may be missed. Good-night, Vera. You cannot tell how wonderfully helpful your sympathy has been to me."
He was gone a moment later, and Vera returned slowly and thoughtfully to the house. The place was perfectly quiet now; the billiard-room door was open, and Vera could see that the apartment was deserted. Apparently the household had retired to rest, though it seemed to be nobody's business to fasten up the doors. Most of the lights were out, for it was getting very late now, so that there was nothing for it but for Vera to go up the stairs to her own room. She had hardly reached the landing when a door halfway down burst open, and Fenwick stood there shouting at the top of his voice for such of his men as he mentioned by name. He seemed to be almost beside himself with passion, though at the same time his face was pallid with a terrible fear. He held a small object in his hand, which he appeared to regard with disgust and loathing.
"Why don't some of you come out?" he yelled. "You drunken dogs, where have you all gone to? Let the man come out who has played this trick on me, and I'll break every bone in his body."
One or two heads emerged, and presently a little group stood around the enraged and affrighted Fenwick. Standing in a doorway, Vera could hear every word that passed.
"I locked my door after dinner," Fenwick said. "It is a patent lock, no key but mine will fit it. When I go to bed I find this thing lying on the dressing table."
"Another of the fingers," a voice cried. "The third finger. Are you quite sure that you locked your door?"
"I'll swear it," Fenwick yelled. "And if one of you—but, of course, it can't be one of you. There is no getting rid of this accursed thing. And when the last one comes—"
Fenwick stopped as if something choked him.
"THE TIME WILL COME"
The startled group on the stairs stood gazing at Fenwick as if they were stricken dumb. There was not one of them who had the slightest advice to offer, not one of them but felt that Fenwick's time was close at hand. Every man there knew by heart the strange story of the Four Finger Mine, and of the vengeance which had overtaken the Dutchman. The same unseen vengeance was very near Fenwick now; he had had his three warnings, and there was but one more to come before the final note of tragedy was struck. Most of them looked with dazed fascination at the mutilated left hand of their chief.
"How did you lose yours?" somebody whispered.
"Don't ask me," Fenwick said hoarsely. "I break into a cold sweat whenever I think of it. But why don't you do what I tell you? Why don't you find Zary? Find him out and bring him down here, and then I can laugh at the vengeance of the Four Fingers. But I have my plans laid, and I shall know how to act when the times comes. Now you all get off to bed again and forget all my foolishness. I suppose I was startled by seeing that accursed thing lying on my table, and lost my nerve."
The little group melted away, and once more the house became silent. When morning came there was no sign or suggestion of the events of the night before. For the first time for many months, Vera felt comparatively happy. She felt, too, that at last she was reaping the reward of all her self-sacrifice, and was approaching the time when she would be able to throw off the yoke and take up her life at the point where she had dropped it. She could afford to wait on events now; she could afford to possess her soul in patience till the hour and the man came together.
Somewhat to her relief, Fenwick did not appear at breakfast, so that, for once, she could partake of the meal in comparative comfort. Swaggering up and down the terrace outside, with a large cigar in his mouth, was the man who called himself Blossett. He had the air of one who is waiting for something; possibly he was waiting for the parcel which had been the means of breeding last night's disturbance in the billiard-room. Anyway, Vera noticed that Fenwick was very busy up and downstairs, and that all his parasites had gathered in the little room at the end of the corridor. For the present, at any rate, Vera's curiosity was satisfied. She had no intention of running any more risks, and as soon as she had finished her breakfast she went out into the grounds, with no intention of returning before lunch. She made her way across the wood which led to the high road, on the possible chance of meeting Gerald. It was not Gerald, however, who advanced from the deepest part of the copse to meet her, but the thin, cadaverous form of Felix Zary. He advanced towards the girl, and, in a grave, respectful way, he lifted her hand to his lips.
"You had not expected me, dear lady," he said.
"Well no, Felix," Vera said. "Though I am not in the least surprised. I suppose Mr. Venner has been to see you and has explained to you the meaning of that sheet of blank paper which reached you in an envelope bearing my handwriting."
"I have seen Mr. Venner," Zary replied in his smooth, respectful, even voice, "and he explained to me. I did not suspect—if I had received your letter I should have come to you at once—I believe I would come beyond the grave at the call of one bearing the beloved name of Le Fenu. There is nothing I would not do for you. At this moment I owe my life to your resourcefulness and courage. Had I come in response to your letter, I should never have left the house alive. Fenwick would have murdered me, and the vengeance of the Four Fingers would have been lost."
"Why should it not be?" Vera said with a shudder. "Why extract blood for blood in this fashion? Can all your revenge bring my dear father back to life again? And yet the vengeance draws nearer and nearer, as I know. I saw Mark Fenwick last night after he had received the third of those dreadful messages, and he was frightened to the depths of his soul. Let me implore you not to go any further—"
"It is not for me to say yes or no," Zary responded in the same quiet, silky manner. It seemed almost impossible to identify this man with murder and outrage. "I am but an instrument. I can only follow the dictates of my instinct. I cannot get away from the traditions of the tribe to which I belong. For two years now I have been a wanderer on the face of the earth; I have been in many strange cities and seen many strange things; with the occult science that I inherited from my ancestors, the Aztecs, I have earned my daily bread. I am what some call a medium, some call a conjurer, some call a charlatan and a quack. It is all the same what they call me, so long as I have the knowledge. For generations the vengeance of the Four Fingers has descended upon those who violate the secret of the mine, and so it must be to the end of time. If I did not obey the voice within me, if I refused to recognise the forms of my ancestors as they come to me in dreams, I should for ever and ever be a spirit wandering through space. Ah, dear lady, there are things you do not know, things, thank God, beyond your comprehension, so, therefore, do not interfere. Rest assured that this thing is absolute and inevitable."
Zary spoke with a certain gentle inspiration, as if all this was part of some ritual that he was repeating by heart. Quiet, almost timid as he looked, Vera knew from past experience that no efforts of hers could turn him from his intention. That he would do anything for a Le Fenu she knew full well, and all this in return for some little kindness which her father had afforded one or two of the now almost extinct tribe from which had come the secret of the Four Finger Mine. And Zary was absolutely the last of his race. There would be none to follow him.
"Very well," she said, "I see that anything I could say would be wasted on you, nor would I ask you what you are going to do next, because I am absolutely convinced that you would not tell me if I did. Still, I have a right to know—"
"You have a right to know nothing," Zary said, in a tone of deep humility. "But do not be afraid—the vengeance will not fall yet, for are not the warnings still incomplete? I will ask you to leave me here and go your way."
There was nothing for it but to obey, and Vera passed slowly through the wood in the direction of the high road. A strange weird smile flickered about the corner of Zary's mouth, as he stood there still and motionless, like some black statue. His lips moved, but no words came from them. He appeared to be uttering something that might have passed for a silent prayer. He took a battered gold watch from his pocket and consulted it with an air of grim satisfaction. Then, suddenly, he drew behind a thicket of undergrowth, for his quick ears detected the sound of approaching footsteps. Almost immediately the big form of Fenwick loomed in the opening, and a hoarse voice asked if somebody were there. Zary stepped out again and confronted Fenwick, who started back as if the slim black apparition had been a ghost.
"You here!" he stammered. "I did not expect to see you—I came here prepared to find somebody quite different."
"It matters little whom you came to find," Zary said. "The message sent to bring you here was merely a ruse of mine. Murderer and treacherous dog that you are, so you thought to get me here in the house among your hired assassins by means of the letter which you compelled my dear mistress to write? Are you mad that you should pit your paltry wits against mine?"
"I am as good as you," Fenwick said.
"Oh, you rave," Zary went on. "I am the heir of the ages. A thousand years of culture, of research, of peeps behind the veil, have gone to make me what I am. Your scientists and your occult researchers think they have discovered much, but, compared with me, they are but as children arguing with sages. Before the letter was written, the spirits that float on the air had told me of its coming. I have only to raise my hand and you wither up like a drop of dew in the eye of the sunshine. I have only to say the word and you die a thousand lingering deaths in one—but for such cattle as you the vengeance of the Four Fingers is enough. You shall die even as the Dutchman died, you shall perish miserably with your reason gone and your nerves shattered. If you could see yourself now as I can see you, with that dreadful look of fear haunting your eyes, you would know that the dread poison had already begun its work. The third warning came to you last night, the message that you should get your affairs in order and be prepared for the inevitable. The Dutchman is no more, his foul wretch of a wife died, a poor wreck of a woman, bereft of sense and reason."
"This is fine talk," Fenwick stammered. "What have you against me that you should threaten me like this?"
Zary raised his hand aloft with a dramatic gesture; his great round black eyes were filled with a luminous fire.
"Listen," he said. "Listen and heed. I am the last of my race, a race which has been persecuted by the alien and interloper for the last three centuries. Time was when we were a great and powerful people, educated and enlightened beyond the dreams of to-day. Our great curse was the possession of large tracts of land which contained the gold for which you Eastern people are prepared to barter honor and integrity and everything that the honest man holds dear. For it you are prepared to sacrifice your wives and children, you are prepared to cut the throat of your best friend. When you found your heart's desire in my country, you came in your thousands, and by degrees murders and assassination worked havoc with my tribe. It was not till quite recently that there came another man from the East, a different class of creature altogether. I am alluding to your late brother-in-law, George Le Fenu. He sought no gold or treasure; he came to us, he healed us of diseases of which we knew no cure. And in return for that we gave him the secret of the Four Finger Mine. It was because he had the secret of the mine and because he refused to share it with you that you and the Dutchman, with the aid of his foul wife, killed him."
"It's a lie," Fenwick stammered. "George Le Fenu suffered nothing at my hands. It was the young man Evors."
"It is false," Zary thundered. His eyes were dark, and in a sudden flood of fury he reached out a long thin hand and clutched Fenwick by the collar. "Why tell me this when I know so well how the whole thing happened? I can give it you now chapter and verse, only it would merely be a waste of breath. I declare as I stand here with my hand almost touching your flesh that I can scarcely wait for the vengeance, so eager am I to extract the debt that you owe to George Le Fenu and his children."
By way of reply, Fenwick dashed his fist full into the face of Zary. The latter drew back just in time to avoid a crushing blow; then his long thin arms twisted about the form of his bulky antagonist as a snake winds about his prey. So close and tenacious, so wonderfully tense was the grip, that Fenwick fairly gasped for breath. He had not expected a virile force like this in one so slender. A bony leg was pressed into the small of his back—he tottered backward and lay upon the mossy turf with Zary with one bony hand at his throat, on the top of him. It was all so sudden and so utterly unexpected that Fenwick could only gasp in astonishment. Then he became conscious of the fact that Zary's great luminous eyes were bent, full of hate, upon his face. A long curved knife gleamed in the sunshine. Very slowly the words came from Zary.
"I could finish you now," he whispered. "I could end it once and for all. It is only for me to put in action the forces that I know of, and you would utterly vanish from here, leaving no trace behind. One swift blow of this knife—"
"What are you doing?" a voice asked eagerly. "Zary, have you taken leave of your senses? Release him at once, I say."
Very slowly Zary replaced the knife in his pocket and rose to his feet. There was not the least trace of his recent passion—he was perfectly calm and collected, his breathing was as even and regular as it had been before the onslaught.
"You are quite right, master," he said. "I had almost forgotten myself. I am humiliated and ashamed. The mere touch of that man is pollution. We shall meet again, Mr. Evors."
Zary went calmly away and vanished in the thick undergrowth as quickly and mysteriously as if he had been spirited from the spot. Fenwick rose to his feet and wiped the stains from his clothing.
"I certainly owe you one for that," he growled. "That fellow would most assuredly have murdered me if you had not come up just at the right moment. It is fortunate, too, that you should have turned up here just now. Come as far as the house. I should like to say a few words to you in private."
It was well, perhaps, that Evors could not see the expression of his companion's face, that he did not note the look of mingled triumph and malice that distorted it. It never for a moment occurred to him as possible that black treachery could follow so closely upon the heels of his own magnanimity. Without the slightest demur he followed Fenwick to the house. The latter led the way upstairs into a room overlooking the ancient part of the house, murmuring something to the effect that here was the thing that he wished to show Evors. They were inside the room at length, then, with a muttered excuse, Fenwick hastened from the room. The key clicked in the door outside, and Evors knew that he was once more a prisoner.
"You stay there till I want you," Fenwick cried. "I'll teach you to play these tricks on me after all I have done for you."
"You rascal," Evors responded. "And so you think that you have me a prisoner once more. Walk to the end of the corridor and back, then come in here again and I will have a pleasant surprise for you. You need not be afraid—I am not armed."
Perhaps some sudden apprehension possessed Fenwick, for he turned rapidly as he was walking away and once more opened the door. Evors had been as good as his word—the surprise which he had promised Fenwick was complete and absolute.
"Vanished," Fenwick cried. "Gone! Curse him, what can have become of him?"
A feeling of helpless exasperation gripped Fenwick to the exclusion of all other emotions. Everything seemed to be going wrong just now; turn in any direction he pleased some obstacle blocked his path. Like most cunning criminals he could never quite dispossess himself of the idea that honesty and cleverness never went together. All honest men were fools of necessity, and therefore the legitimate prey of rogues like himself. And yet, though he was more or less confronted now with men of integrity, he was as helpless in their hands as if he had been a child. The maddening part of the whole thing was his inability to find anything to strike. He was like a general leading an army into the dark in a strange country, and knowing all the time that he had cunning unseen foes to fight.
Thoughts like these were uppermost in Fenwick's mind as he gazed in consternation about the little room from which Evors had vanished. So far as Fenwick knew, Evors had saved his life from Zary, but that had not prevented Fenwick from behaving in a dastardly fashion. It seemed to him as if Fate were playing into his hands by bringing Evors here at this moment. Hitherto he had found Evors such plastic material that he had never seriously considered him in the light of a foe. Now, for the first time, he saw how greatly he had been mistaken.
"Where can the fellow have gone to?" he muttered. "And whence comes his intimate knowledge of the house?"
He tapped the walls, he examined the floor, but there was no sign whatever of the means by which Evors had made good his escape.
Fenwick furiously rang the bell and demanded that the old caretaker should be sent to him at once. The man came to him, shambling unsteadily along and breathing fast as if he had been running. His aged features were quivering with some strange excitement, as Fenwick did not fail to notice, despite his own perturbation.
"What on earth is the matter with you?" he exclaimed. "You look as if you had seen a ghost! What is it? Speak up, man!"
"It isn't that, sir," the old man said in trembling tones. "It is a sight that I never expected to see again. A bit wild he was—aye, a rare handful at times, though we were all precious fond of him. And to see him back here again like this—"
"What the devil are you talking about?" Fenwick burst out furiously. "The old fool is in his second childhood."
"It was the young master," the caretaker babbled on. "Why, you could have knocked me down with a feather when he came in the house with you. As soon as I set eyes on Mr. Charles—"
"Mr. what?" Fenwick asked. "Oh, I see what you mean. You are speaking of Mr. Evors, who came in with me."
"That's it, sir, that's it," the old man said. "Mr. Evors, only we used to call him Mr. Charles."
Fenwick began to understand.
"Let's have it out," he said. "Mr. Evors, whom you saw with me just now, is Lord Merton's only son?"
"That he be, sir, that he be. And to think that he should come home like this. It'll be a good day for the old house when he returns to settle down altogether."
Fenwick dismissed the old man with a contemptuous gesture. He had found out all he wanted to know, though his information had come to him as an unpleasant surprise. It was a strange coincidence that Fenwick should have settled upon Merton Grange for a dwelling-place, and thus had picked out the actual home of the young man who had suffered so much at his hands. But there was something beyond this that troubled Fenwick. It was a disturbing thought to know that Charles Evors could find his way about the house in this mysterious fashion. It was a still more disturbing thought to feel that Evors might be in league with those who were engaged in tracking down the so-called millionaire. There were certain things going on which it was imperative to keep a profound secret. Doubtless there were secret passages and panels in this ancient house, and Fenwick turned cold at the thought that perhaps prying eyes had already solved the problem of the little room at the end of the corridor. He lost no time in calling his parasites about him. In a few words he told them what had happened.
"Don't you see what it means?" he said. "Charles Evors is here, he has come back to his old home, and what is more he has come back to keep an eye on us. I feel pretty certain that someone is behind him. Very likely it is that devil Zary. If the police were to walk in now, guided by Evors, we should be caught like rats in a trap. I didn't want to trust that stuff to Blossett, but he must get away with it now without delay. There is a train about twelve o'clock to London, and he must get one of the servants to drive him over in a dogcart. Now don't stand gazing at me with your mouths open like that, for goodness knows how close the danger is. Get the stuff away at once."
The man Blossett came into the garden, a big cigar between his lips. He laughed in his insolent fashion when he was told of his errand. The hot blood was in Fenwick's face, but he had not time to quarrel with the swaggering Blossett.
"I thought you would come to your senses," the latter said. "Nobody like me to do a little thing of that sort. Now let me have the case and I'll be off without delay. Better put it in a Gladstone bag. If I have any luck I shall be back here to-night, and then we can share the bank-notes and there will be an end of the matter. You had better sink all the materials in the moat. Not that I am afraid of anything happening, myself."
Half an hour later Blossett was being bowled down the drive behind a fleet horse. A little later still, as the train pulled out of the station, Egan and Grady stood there watching it with rueful faces. Venner was with them, and smiled to himself, despite the unfortunate nature of the situation.
"I thought we had cut it a bit too fine," Grady said. "It is all the fault of that confounded watch of mine. Now what's the best thing to be done? Shall we telegraph to Scotland Yard and ask to have Blossett detained when he reaches Victoria?"
"I don't quite like the idea," Egan said. "If we were English detectives it wouldn't much matter, but I guess I don't want Scotland Yard to have the laugh of me like this. It may cost a deal of money, and I shall probably have to pay it out of my own pocket, but I am going to have a special train."
"My good man," Venner said, "it is absurd to think that you can get a special train at a roadside station like this. Probably they do things differently in America, but if you suggest a special to the station-master here, he will take you for an amiable lunatic. I have an idea that may work out all right, though it all depends upon whether the train that has gone out of the station is a fast or a slow one."
The inquiry proved the fact that the train was a slow one, stopping at every station. It would be quite two hours in reaching Victoria. Venner smiled with the air of a man who is well pleased with himself. He turned eagerly to his companions.
"I think I've got it," he said. "We will wound Fenwick with one of his own weapons. It will be the easiest thing in the world to got from here to Victoria well under two hours in a motor."
"I guess that's about true," Grady said, drily. "But what applies to the special equally applies to the motor. Where are we to get the machine from?"
"Borrow Fenwick's," Venner said. "I understand the working of a Mercedes, and, I know where the car is kept. If I go about this thing boldly, our success is assured. Then you can wait for me at the cross roads and I can pick you up."
"Well, you can try it on, sir," Egan said doubtfully. "If you fail we must telegraph to Scotland Yard."
But Venner had not the slightest intention of failing. There were no horses in the stable at Merton Grange, and consequently no helpers loafing about the yard. There stood the big car, and on a shelf all the necessaries for setting the machine in motion. In an incredibly short space of time Venner had backed the Mercedes into the yard; he turned her dexterously, and a moment later was speeding down a side avenue which led to the Park. The good old saying that fortune favors the brave was not belied in this instance, for Venner succeeded in reaching the high road without mishap. It was very long odds against his theft being discovered, at any rate, for some considerable time; and even if the car were missing, no one could possibly identify its loss with the chase after Blossett. It was consequently in high spirits that the trio set out on their journey. Naturally enough Venner was curious to know what the criminal charge would be.
"Though I have found out a good deal," he said, "I am still utterly at a loss to know what these fellows have been up to. Of course, I quite understand that there is some underhand business with regard to certain coins—but then those coins are real gold, and it would not pay anybody to counterfeit sovereigns worth twenty shillings apiece."
"You don't think so," Egan said, drily. "We shall be able to prove the contrary presently. But hadn't you better wait, sir, till the critical moment comes?"
"Very well," Venner laughed good-naturedly. "I'll wait and see what dramatic surprise you have in store for me."
The powerful car sped over the roads heedless of police traps or other troubles of that kind, and some time before the appointed hour for the arrival of Blossett's train in London they had reached Victoria. It was an easy matter to store the car in a neighboring hotel, and presently they had the satisfaction of seeing Blossett swagger from a first-class carriage with a heavy Gladstone bag in his hand. He called a cab and was rapidly driven off in the direction of the city. Egan in his turn called another cab, giving the driver strict injunctions to keep the first vehicle in sight. It was a long chase, but it came to an end presently outside an office in Walbrook. Blossett paid his man and walked slowly up a flight of steps, carrying his bag. He paused at length before a door which was marked "Private," and also placarded the information that here was the business place of one Drummond, commission agent. Scarcely had the door closed on Blossett than Egan followed without ceremony. He motioned the other two to remain behind; he had some glib story to tell the solitary clerk in the outer office, from whom he gleaned the information that Mr. Drummond was engaged on some particular business and could not see him for some time.
"Very well," he said; "I'll wait and read the paper."
He sat there patiently for some five minutes, his quick ears strained to catch the faintest sound of what was taking place in the inner office. There came presently the chink of metal, whereupon the watcher whistled gently and his comrade and Venner entered the room. Very coolly Egan crossed over and locked the door.
"Now, my young friend," he said to the astonished clerk, "you will oblige me by not making a single sound. I don't suppose for a moment you have had anything to do with this; in fact, from your bewildered expression, I am certain that you haven't. Now tell me how long have you been in your present situation."
"About three months," the clerk replied. "If you gentlemen happen to be police officers—"
"That is exactly what we are," Grady smiled. "Do you find business brisk—plenty of clients about?"
The clerk shook his head. He was understood to say that business was inclined to be slack. He was so frightened and uneasy that it was somewhat difficult to discern what he was talking about. From time to time there came sounds of tinkling metal from the inner office. Then Grady crossed the floor and opened the door. He stepped inside nimbly, there was a sudden cry, and then the voice of the detective broke out harshly.
"Now drop it," he said. "Keep your hands out of your pocket—there are three of us here altogether, and the more fuss you make the worse it will be for both of you. You know perfectly well who I am, Blossett; and we are old friends, too, Mr. Drummond, though I don't know you by that name. You will come with me—"
"But what's the charge?" Blossett blustered. "I am doing business with my friend here quite in a legitimate way."
"Counterfeit coining," Grady said crisply. "Oh, we know all about it, so you need not try to bluff it out in that way. I'll call a cab, and we can drive off comfortably to Bow Street."
All the swaggering impudence vanished from Blossett. As for his companion, he had not said a word from start to finish. It was about an hour later that Venner and his companions were seated at lunch at a hotel in Covent Garden, and Venner was impatiently waiting to hear what was the charge which had laid Blossett and his companion by the heels. Grady smiled as he drew from his pocket what appeared to be a brand new sovereign.
"This is it," he said. "A counterfeit. You wouldn't think so to look at it, would you? It appears to be perfectly genuine. If you will balance it on your finger you will find that it is perfect weight, and as to the finish it leaves nothing to be desired. And yet that coin is false, though it contains as much gold as any coin that you have in your purse."
"Now I begin to understand," Venner exclaimed. "I have already told you all about my discovery at the Empire Hotel, also what happened quite recently at Merton Grange. I could not for the life of me understand what those fellows had to gain by making sovereigns red-hot. Of course, I took them to be real sovereigns—"
"Well, so they are practically," Egan said. "They contain absolutely as much gold as an English coin of equal value. They are made from the metal Fenwick managed to loot from the Four Finger Mine."
"What, do you know all about that?" Venner cried.
"We know all about everything," Grady said gravely. "We have been tracking Fenwick for years, and it is a terrible indictment we shall have to lay against him when the proper time comes. We shall prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was one of the murderers of Mr. George Le Fenu —but we need not go into that now, for I see you are anxious to know all about the trick of the sovereigns. After Fenwick was compelled to abandon the Four Finger Mine, he found himself with a great deal less gold than he had expected. Then he hit upon the ingenious scheme which we are here to expose. His plan was to make sovereigns and half-sovereigns, and put them on the market as genuine coins. Now do you see what he had to gain by this ingenious programme?"
THE MOUTH OF THE NET
"I am afraid I am very dense," Venner said, "but I quite fail to see how a man could make a fortune by selling for a sovereign an article that cost him twenty shillings, to say nothing of the trouble and cost of labor and the risk of being discovered—"
"As a matter of fact, the risk is comparatively small," Grady said. "It was only by a pure accident that we got on the inside track of this matter. You see, the coins are of actual face value, they are most beautifully made, and, indeed, would pass anywhere. Let me tell you that every sovereign contains a certain amount of alloy which reduces its actual value to about eighteen and threepence. Now you can see where the profit comes in. Supposing these men turn out a couple of thousand sovereigns a day—no very difficult matter with a plant like theirs; and, of course, the money can be disposed of with the greatest possible ease. This leaves a profit of a hundred and seventy-five pounds a day. When I have said so much, I think I have told you everything. Don't you admire the ingenuity of an idea like this?"
It was all perfectly plain now—indeed, the mystery appeared to be ridiculously simple now that it was explained.
"And what are you going to do now?" Venner asked.
Grady explained that the next step would be the arrest of Fenwick and his gang at Merton Grange. For that purpose it would be necessary to enlist the assistance of the local authorities. And in no case did the American detectives purpose to effect the arrest before night. So far as Venner was concerned, he was quite at liberty to accompany the Americans on their errand; at the same time they let him infer that here was a situation in which they preferred his room to his company.
"As you will," Venner smiled. "So far as I am concerned, I am going to get back to Canterbury as soon as I can. With all your preparations you have an exceedingly clever man to deal with, and it is just possible that by this time Fenwick already knows that you have laid the messenger by the heels. Men of that sort never trust one another, and it is exceedingly probable that Blossett has been watched."
Grady and Egan admitted this possibility cheerfully enough. Doubtless they had made plans which they did not care to communicate to Venner. He left them presently, only to discover to his annoyance that he had just missed a train to Canterbury, and that there was not another one till nearly six o'clock. It was quite dark when he stepped out of the carriage at Canterbury Station and stood debating whether he should walk as far as the lodgings he had taken near Merton Grange, or call a cab. As he was idly making up his mind, he saw to his surprise the figure of the handsome cripple descending from the next carriage. He noted, too, that the cripple did not seem anything like as feeble as before, though he appeared to be glad enough to lean on the arm of a servant. At the same moment Le Fenu was joined by Evors, who came eagerly forward and shook him warmly by the hand. What these two were doing here, and what they had in their minds, it was not for Venner to say. He wondered what they would think if they knew how close he was, and how deeply interested he was in their movements. He hung back in the shadow, for just then he did not want to be recognised by Le Fenu.
"What a queer tangle it all is," he said to himself. "If I spoke to Le Fenu, he would recognise me in a moment as an old friend of his father's. I wonder what he would say to me if he knew I was his brother-in-law —and Evors, too. Imagine their astonishment if I walked up to them at this moment. Still, on the whole, I think I prefer to watch their movements. If they are going to thrust their heads into the lion's mouth, perhaps I may be able to stand by and render some assistance."
It was as Venner had anticipated, for presently Le Fenu and Evors entered a cab and gave the driver directions to take them as far as Merton Grange. Venner made up his mind that he could do no better than follow their example.
The cab stopped at length outside the lodge gates, where Evors and Le Fenu alighted, and walked slowly up the drive. It was rather a painful effort for Le Fenu, but he managed it a great deal better than Venner had anticipated. They did not enter the house by the front door—on the contrary, they crept round a small side entrance, beyond which they vanished, leaving Venner standing on the grass wondering what he had better do next.
Meanwhile, Evors led the way down a flight of stairs till he emerged presently in a corridor. With his companion on his arm he walked to the little room at the end and boldly flung open the door.
The room was empty, a thing which both of them seemed to expect, for they smiled at one another in a significant manner, and nodded with the air of men who are quite pleased with themselves.
"You had better sit down," Evors said. "That walk must have tired you terribly. I should be exceedingly sorry—"
"You need not worry about me," Le Fenu said in a clear, hard voice. "I am a little tired, perhaps, but I have a duty to fulfil, and the knowledge of it has braced me wonderfully. Besides, I am so much better of late, and I am looking eagerly forward to the time when I shall be as other men. Now go and fetch him, and let us get the thing done. But for the fact that he is my mother's brother I would have had no mercy on the scoundrel. Still, the same blood flows in our veins, and I am in a merciful mood to-night."
Evors walked boldly out of the room and down the stairs into the hall—then in a loud voice he called out the name of Mark Fenwick. The dining-room door burst open and Fenwick strode out, his yellow face blazing with passion in the light.
"So you are back again," he said hoarsely. "You are a bold man to thrust your head into the lion's mouth like this."
"There are others equally bold," Evors said, coolly. "I am strong enough and able enough to take you by that fat throat of yours and choke the life out of you. You have a different man to deal with now—but there are others to be considered, so I will trouble you to come along with me. The interview had best take place in the little room at the end of the corridor. You know the room I mean. Ah, I see you do."
Fenwick started. It was quite plain that Evors' hint was not lost on him. Without another word he led the way up the staircase into the little room. He started again and half turned when he caught sight of the white, handsome face of Le Fenu. In all probability he would have disappeared altogether, but for the fact that Evors closed the door and turned the key.
Fenwick stood there, his yellow face scared and terrified. Cold as it was, a bead of perspiration stood on his bulging forehead. He looked from one to the other as if he anticipated violence. Le Fenu sat up in his chair and laughed aloud.
"You are but a sorry coward after all," he said. "You have no need to fear us in the slightest. We shall leave the vengeance to come in the hands of others. And now sit down—though you are not fit to take a chair in the company of any honest men."
"In my own house," Fenwick began feebly, "you are—"
"We will overlook that," Le Fenu went on. "It is our turn now, and I don't think you will find our conditions too harsh. It is not so long ago since my friend here was a prisoner in your hands, and since you reduced him to such a condition of mind that he had abandoned hope and lost all desire to live. It is not so long ago, either, since you dared to make me a prisoner in my own house for your own ends. It was fortunate for you that I chose to live more or less alone in London and under an assumed name. But all the time I was looking for you, all the time I was working out my plans for your destruction. Then you found me out—you began to see how I could be useful to you, how I could become your miserable tool, as Mr. Evors here did. You dared not stay at your hotel—things were not quite ripe for you to come down here. Therefore you hit upon the ingenious idea of making me a prisoner under my own roof. But Fate, which has been waiting for you a long time, intervened, and I became a free man again just at the very moment when Mr. Evors also regained his liberty. Since then we have met more than once, and the whole tale of your villainy is now plain before me. You might have been content with the murder of my father and the blood money you extracted from the Four Finger Mine, but that was not enough for you—nothing less than the extermination of our race sufficed. It was no fault of yours that I was not killed in the so-called accident that has made me the cripple that I am. That was all arranged by you, as I shall be able to prove when the proper time comes. I escaped death by a miracle, and good friends of mine hid me away beyond the reach of your arm. Even then you had no sort of mercy, even then you were not content with the mischief you had wrought. You must do your best to pin your crime to Mr. Evors, though that conspiracy cost my sister Beth her reason. Of course, you would deny all these things, and I see you are prepared to deny them now. But it is absolutely useless to add one lie to another, because we know full well—"
"Stop," Fenwick cried. "What are you here for? Why do you tell me this? A desperate man like myself—"
"No threats," Le Fenu said, sternly. "I am simply here to warn you. God knows what an effort it is on my part not to hand you over to your punishment, but I cannot forget that you are a blood relation of mine—and, therefore, I am disposed to spare you. Still, there is another Nemesis awaiting you, which Nemesis I need not mention by name. When I look at your left hand I feel sorry for you. Bad as you are, the terrible fate which is yours moves me to a kind of pity."
Le Fenu paused and glanced significantly at Fenwick's maimed hand. The latter had nothing more to say; all his swaggering assurance had left him—he sat huddled up in his chair, a picture of abject terror and misery.
"You can help me if you will," he said hoarsely. "You are speaking of Zary. That man is no human being at all, he is no more than a cold-blooded tiger, and yet he would do anything for you and yours. If you asked him to spare me—"
Fenwick broke off and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders were heaving with convulsive sobs now, tears of self-pity ran through his fingers. For the time being, at any rate, the man's nerve was utterly gone. He was prepared to make any conditions to save his skin. Agitated and broken as he was, his cunning mind was yet moving swiftly. A little time ago, these two men would not have dared to intrude themselves upon his presence, he had held them like prisoners in the hollow of his hand; and now it seemed to him that they must feel their position to be impregnable, or they would never have intruded upon him in this bold fashion.
"I am not the man I was," he gasped. "It is only lately that my nerve seems to have utterly deserted me. You do not know what it is to be fighting in the dark against a foe so cold and relentless as Felix Zary. When the first warning came I was alarmed. The second warning frightened me till I woke in the night with a suffocating feeling at my heart as if I were going to die. Against the third warning I took the most elaborate precautions; but it came all the same, and since then I have been drinking to drown my terror. But what is the good of that?—how little does it serve me in my sober moments? As I said just now, Zary would do anything for your family, and if you would induce him to forego that dreaded vengeance which hangs over me—"
"Impossible," Le Fenu said coldly. "Zary is a fanatic, a dreamer of dreams; he has a religion of his own which no one else in the world understands but himself. He firmly and honestly believes that some divine power is impelling him on, that he is merely an instrument in the hands of the Maker of the universe. There have been other beings of the same class in a way. Charlotte Corday believed herself to be the chosen champion of Heaven when she stabbed the French monster in his bath. Nothing I could say or do would turn Zary from what he believes to be his duty. The only thing you can do is to go away and lose yourself in some foreign country where Zary cannot follow you."
"Impossible," Fenwick said hoarsely. "I could not get away. If the man possesses the powers he claims he would know where to find me, even if I hid myself in the depths of a Brazilian forest. I tell you I am doomed. I cannot get away from the inevitable."
Fenwick slipped from his chair and fairly grovelled in his anguish on the floor. It was a pitiable sight, but one that moved the watchers with contempt. They waited patiently enough for the paroxysm of terror to pass and for Fenwick to resume something like the outer semblance of manhood. He drew himself up at length, and wiped the tears from his sickly yellow face.
"I cannot think," he said. "My mind seems to have ceased to act. If either of you have any plan I shall be grateful to hear it. It seems almost impossible—"
The speaker suddenly paused, for there came from below the unmistakable sounds of high voices raised in expostulation. It occurred to Fenwick for a moment that his subordinates were quarrelling among themselves; then his quick ears discerned the sound of strange voices. He rose to his feet and made in the direction of the door. A minute later a stealthy tap was heard on the door, and a voice whispered, asking to be admitted. Evors glanced at Le Fenu in an interrogative kind of way, as if asking for instructions. The latter nodded, and the door opened. The man in the list slippers staggered into the room, his red face white and quivering, his whole aspect eloquent of fear.
"What is it?" Fenwick whispered. "What's the trouble? Why don't you speak out, man, instead of standing there like that?"
The man found his voice at last, his words came thickly.
"They are here," he said. "The men from America. You know who I mean. Get away at once. Wait for nothing. Those two devils Egan and Grady are downstairs in the hall."
AN ACT OF CHARITY
Fenwick looked at the speaker as if he did not exactly comprehend what he had said. The man's mind was apparently dazed, as if the accumulation of his troubles had been too much for him. He passed his hand across his forehead, striving to collect his thoughts and to find some way of facing this new and unexpected peril.
"Say that again," he faltered. "I don't quite understand. Surely Egan and Grady are in New York."
"They are both down in the hall," the man said, vehemently. "And, what's more, they know that you are here. If you don't want to spend the night in gaol, get away without any further delay."
Fenwick could only look about him helplessly. It seemed to him futile to make further effort. Turn which way he would, there was no avenue open to him. He looked imploringly in the direction of Charles Evors.
"I think I can manage it," the latter said. "Now, you fellow, whatever your name is, leave the room at once and go downstairs and close the door behind you."
The man slunk away, and, at a sign from Le Fenu, Evors closed the door. Evors jumped to his feet and crossed the room to where a picture was let into the panelling. He pushed this aside and disclosed a dark opening beyond to Fenwick's astonished gaze. The latter stared about him.
"Now get through there," Evors said. "It is a good thing for you that I know all the secrets of the old house. There are many panels and passages here, for this used to be a favorite hiding-place for the fugitive cavaliers in the time of Cromwell."
"But where does it go to?" Fenwick stammered.
Evors explained that the passage terminated in a bedroom a little distance away. He went on to say that Fenwick would only have to press his hand upon the wall and that the corresponding panel of the bedroom would yield to his touch.
"It is the Blue Room," he said, "in which you will find yourself presently. Wait there and I'll see what I can do for you. I fancy that I shall be able to convey you outside the walls of the house without anybody being the wiser."
Fenwick crept through the hole, and Evors pulled the panel across, leaving the room exactly as it had been a few minutes before. He had hardly done so when there was a sound of footsteps outside, and without ceremony the American detectives came in. The occupants of the room had had ample time to recover their self-possession, so that they could look coolly at the intruders and demand to know what this outrage meant. The Americans were clearly puzzled.
"I am sure I beg your pardon," Egan said, "but I understand that Mr. Fenwick is the tenant of the house."
"That is so," Evors said. "Do you generally come into a gentleman's house in this unceremonious fashion?"
"Perhaps I had better explain my errand," Egan said. "We are down here with a warrant for the apprehension of Mark Fenwick, and we know that a little time ago he was in the house. He is wanted on a charge of stealing certain valuables in New York, and also for manufacturing counterfeit coins. We quite expected to find him here."
"In that case, of course, you have perfect liberty to do as you please," Evors said. "I may explain that I am the only son of Lord Merton, and that I shall be pleased to do anything to help you that lies in my power. By all means search the house."
Grady appeared as if about to say something, but Egan checked him. It was no time for the Americans to disclose the fact that they knew all about the murder of Mr. George Le Fenu, and how Evors had been more or less dragged into the business. Their main object now was to get hold of Fenwick without delay, and take him back with them to London.
"Very well, sir," Egan said. "We need not trouble you any further. If our man is anywhere about the house, we are bound to find him. Come along, Grady."
They bustled out of the room, and presently they could be heard ranging about the house. As the two friends discussed the situation in whispers the door was flung open and Vera came in. Her face was aflame with indignation—she was quivering with a strange unaccustomed passion.
"Charles," she cried. "I hardly expected to see you here."
"Perhaps you are equally surprised to see Evors," Le Fenu said. "We have had an explanation—"
"I have already met Charles," Vera said. "But he did not tell me you were coming down here. Still, all that is beside the point. There will be plenty of time for full explanation later on. What I have to complain of now is an intolerable outrage on the part of Mark Fenwick. He has actually dared to intrude himself on the privacy of my bedroom, and despite all I can say—"
"By Jove, this is a piece of bad luck," Evors exclaimed. "My dear Vera, I had not the slightest idea that you were occupying the Blue Room. In fact, I did not know that it was being used at all. I managed to send Fenwick that way for the simple reason that there are two American detectives downstairs with a warrant for his arrest. It was your brother's idea to get him away—"
"What for?" Vera asked, passionately.
"Why should we trouble ourselves for the safety of an abandoned wretch like that? He is the cause of all our troubles and sorrows. For the last three years he has blighted the lives of all of us, and there is worse than that—for, as sure as I am speaking to you now, the blood of our dear father is upon his head."
"Yes, and mine might have been also, but for a mere miracle," Le Fenu said. "He tried to do away with me—he would have done away with all of us if he had only dared. But one thing do not forget—he is our mother's only brother."
Vera started and bit her lips. It was easy to see that the appeal was not lost upon her, and that she was ready now to fall in with her brother's idea. She waited quite humbly for him to speak.
"I am glad you understand," he said. "It would never do for us to hand that man over to justice, richly as he deserves his sentence. And you can help us if you will. Those men will search every room in the house, including yours. If you are in there when they come and show a certain amount of indignation—"
"Oh, I quite understand," Vera responded.
"And I will do what I can for that wretched creature."
"What is he doing now?" Le Fenu asked.
"He has huddled himself up in a wardrobe," Vera explained. "He seems so paralysed with fear that I could not get anything like a coherent account of what had happened. Anyway, I will go back to my room now. You need not be afraid for me."
As matters turned out, Vera had no time to spare, for she was hardly back in her room before the detectives were at the door. She came out to them, coldly indignant, and demanded to know what this conduct meant. As was only natural, the Americans were profoundly regretful and almost abjectly polite, but they had their duty to perform, and they would be glad to know if Vera had seen anything of Mark Fenwick, for whose apprehension they held a warrant.
"Well," Vera said, loftily, "you don't expect to find him in here, I suppose? Of course, if your duty carries you so far as to ransack a lady's room, I will not prevent you."
The absolute iciness of the whole thing profoundly impressed the listeners. Astute as they were, it never occurred to them that the girl was acting a part; furthermore, with their intimate knowledge of Fenwick's past, they knew well enough that Vera had no cause to shield the man of whom they were in search.
"We will not trouble you," Egan stammered. "It is a mere matter of form, and it would be absurd to suppose that our man is concealed in your room. In all probability he received news of our coming and got away without warning his companions. It is just the sort of thing that a man of his type would do. We have the rest of the gang all safe, but we shall certainly have to look elsewhere for their chief. Will you please accept our apologies?"
Vera waved the men aside haughtily. She was glad to turn her back upon them, so that they could not see the expression of her face. She was trembling violently now, for her courage had suddenly deserted her. For some long time she stood there in the corridor, until, presently, she heard the noise of wheels as two vehicles drove away. Then, with a great sigh of relief, she recognised the fact that the detectives had left the house. She opened the door of her room and called aloud to Fenwick. She called again and again without response.
"You can come out," she said, contemptuously. "There is no cause to fear, for those men have gone."
A moment later the yellow, fear-distorted face of Mark Fenwick peeped out into the corridor. He came shambling along on tottering limbs, and his coarse mouth twitched horribly. It seemed to Vera as if she were looking at a mere travesty of the man who so short a time ago had been so strong and masterful and courageous.
"They gave me a rare fright," Fenwick said in a senile way. He seemed to have aged twenty years in the last few minutes. "That—that—was very cool and courageous of you, my dear. I couldn't have done any better myself. You dear, kind girl. He advanced now and would have taken Vera's hands in his, but she turned from him with loathing. She was wondering which she disliked most—the cold, cruel, determined criminal, or this miserable wreck of a man glad to lean on anyone for support.
"Don't touch me," she said, with a shudder. "Don't thank me for anything for I should have handed you over to those men gladly, I was ready and willing to do so, only my brother recalled to me the fact that the same blood runs in the veins of both of us. It was the remembrance of this that made me lie just now, that caused me to run the risk of a criminal charge myself. For I understand that anybody who harbors a thief for whose arrest a warrant has been issued, runs the risk of going to gaol. And to think that Le Fenu should do a thing of that kind for such a creature as yourself—it is too amazing."
"I suppose it is, my dear," Fenwick said in the same carneying voice. "I never expected to find myself shielded behind a woman. But I have lost all my nerve lately, and the more I drink to drown my troubles, the worse I get. But you must not think too badly of me, for I am not so black as I am painted."
"Could you be any blacker?" Vera asked. "Could any human being have descended lower than you have descended? I think not. You imagine because I threw in my lot with you three years ago that I knew nothing of your crimes. As a matter of fact, I knew everything. I knew how you had shifted the responsibility of that dastardly murder on to the shoulders of the man who is in love with my sister Beth. It was for her sake that I pretended ignorance, for her sake that I came with you to try to get to the bottom of your designs. What I have endured in the time nobody but myself can know. But it has all come out now, and here am I to-day trying to shield you from the very vengeance that I have been plotting for you all this time. Oh, don't say anything, don't deny it, don't add more useless lies to the catalogue of your vices. Go now. Let us see the last of you, and never intrude upon us again."
All this outburst of indignation had apparently been wasted on Fenwick for he did not appear to be listening at all. He had enough troubles of his own, and, despite the fact that his nerve had failed him, it was no feeling of remorse that left him stricken and trembling and broken down before Vera's scornful eyes. He could only whine and protest that he was absolutely helpless.
"But what can I do?" he murmured, with tears in his eyes. "I am not so young as I was, indeed I am much older than people take me for. I have no money and no friends, there is not a place I can go to. Don't turn me out—let me stay here, where I shall be safe."
"It is impossible," Vera said, coldly. "We have done enough, and more than enough for you. Now come this way, and I will hand you over to my brother and Mr. Evors. They are cleverer than I am, and may be able to devise some means for getting you out of the country. Why don't you come?"
"I can't," Fenwick almost sobbed. "There is something in my limbs that renders them powerless. If you will give me your arm, I daresay I shall be able to get as far as the little room."
The touch of the man was pollution, yet Vera bravely endured it. She could hear the excited servants talking in whispers downstairs, and one of them might appear at any moment. It would be far better for the domestic staff to assume that the culprit had vanished, otherwise their gossip would assuredly bring the detectives back again without delay. Vera was glad enough when her task was finished and the trembling form of Mark Fenwick was lowered into a seat. The cunning look was still in his eyes; the born criminal would never get rid of that expression, though for the rest he was an object now more for pity than fear.
"It is very good of you," he said. "It is far better than I deserve. You will say I can't stay here—"
"That is absolutely certain," Le Fenu said, coldly. "Most assuredly you can't remain here. You may remain for the night, and Mr. Evors and myself will try and think of a plan between us."
"And Zary," Fenwick whispered. The mention of that dreaded name set him trembling again. "Keep me away from Zary. I am afraid of a good many things, but the mere mention of that man's name stops my heart beating and suffocates me."
"You had better go away," Le Fenu said to Vera, "and leave the wretched creature to us. There will be no trouble in hiding him here for a bit. There are two rooms here that nobody knows anything about except Evors and his father."
Vera was only too glad to get away into the open air, glad to feel that at last this nerve-destroying mystery was coming to an end. She wanted to see Venner, too, and tell him all that had happened. In all probability he was waiting at the accustomed spot. With a light heart and a feeling of youthfulness upon her that she had not felt for some time, she set out on her journey.
THE LAST FINGER
In the ordinary course of things, and but for the dramatic events of the evening, it would have been about the time of night when dinner was finished and the house-party had gathered in the drawing-room. It had been somewhere about seven when the Americans reached Merton Grange, and now it was getting towards nine. It was not exactly the temperature at which one enjoys an evening stroll, but the recent events had been so exciting that Vera felt how impossible it would be to settle down to anything within the limits of the house. There was a moon, too, which made all the difference in the world. As Vera walked along, she almost smiled to herself to think how strange her conduct might look in the eyes of those formal people whose lives run in conventional channels. She told herself more than once that it would be absurd to hope to see Gerald at this time of night, but all the same she continued her journey across the park.
She had not so far to go as she expected, for presently she could see the glow of a cigar in the distance, and Venner came up. A little joyful cry came from Vera.
"This is very fortunate," she said. "How lucky it is that I should run against you in this fashion."
"Well, I was flattering myself that you came on purpose," Venner said. "And, after all, it is not so very lucky, seeing that I have been hanging about this house on the chance of seeing you since it became dark. But you look rather more disturbed and anxious than usual. My dear girl, I do hope and trust that there are no new complications. I shall really have to take you by force and carry you out of the country. Why should we have to go on living this miserable kind of existence when we can take our happiness in both hands and enjoy it? Now don't tell me that something fresh has occurred which will keep us apart, for another year or two? By the way, have you had any visitors to-night?"
"What do you know about them?" Vera asked. "Have you found out anything about Mr. Fenwick?"
"Well, I should say so," Venner said, drily. "I have absolutely got to the bottom of that mysterious coin business. In fact, I accompanied Egan and Grady to London, and I was with them when they arrested that awful creature, Blossett. Egan and Grady are old friends of mine, and I told them all about the strange coins and how you literally burnt your fingers over them. They were coming down here to arrest Fenwick, and I offered to accompany them; but they declined my offer, so I returned here alone, and have been hanging about the house, curious to know what had taken place. Have they bagged our friend Fenwick yet?"
"It is about Mr. Fenwick that I wish to speak to you," Vera replied. "Mr. Evors is down here. By the way, I don't know whether you are aware of the fact that he is the son of Lord Merton."
"Perhaps you had better tell me the story," Venner said.
"I am coming to that presently. Mr. Evors is down here; he is the man who is engaged to my sister Beth."
Venner whistled softly to himself. At any rate, he knew all about that, for his mind went swiftly back to the series of dramatic events which had taken place some time previously in the house in Portsmouth Square. He recollected now the white-faced young man who had broken away from his captors and joined Le Fenu, otherwise Bates, in the drawing-room. He recollected the joy and delight of the girl, and how she had clung to the stranger as if he had come back to her from the other side of the grave.
"There will be a great many things to be explained between us, presently," he said, gravely. "But for the present, I want to know all about Fenwick. Where is he now?"
"He is hiding up at the house. I believe they have put him into a secret room, the whereabouts of which is known only to Charles Evors. Of course, he will not stay."
"But why shield such a blackguard at all?" Venner asked. "Surely, after all the trouble he has caused you—"
"You must not forget that he is our own flesh and blood," Vera said, quietly. "I had almost ignored the fact—I am afraid I should have ignored it altogether had not my brother taken a strong view of the matter. At any rate, there he is, and we are in a conspiracy to get him safely out of the country. For the present the man is utterly broken down and absolutely incapable of taking care of himself. I want you to do me a favor, Gerald. I want you to take a hand in this business. While the police are still hot upon the track it would not be prudent for Mr. Evors or my brother to be too much in evidence just now."
"My dearest girl, I would do anything in the world for you," Venner cried. "And if I am to take that sorry old rascal out of the country and get rid of him altogether, I will do so with pleasure and never count the cost. If I could see your brother—"
"Then why not come and see him now?" Vera said. "You will have to meet sooner or later, and there could be no better opportunity for an explanation."
To Le Fenu and Evors smoking in the dining-room came Vera and Venner. Le Fenu looked up with a sort of mild surprise and perhaps just a suspicion of mistrust in his eyes.
"Whom have we here, Vera?" he said.
"This is Mr. Gerald Venner," Vera said. "You know him perfectly well by name—he was with us, on and off, for a considerable time before our poor father died. Father had a great regard for him, and I hope you will have the same, for a reason which I am just going to mention."
"I am sure I am very pleased to meet you," Le Fenu said, politely. "This is my friend, Mr. Charles Evors, the only son of the owner of the house. When I come to look at you, Mr. Venner, I confess that your appearance pleases me, but I have had to deal with so many suspicious characters lately that really—"
"Don't apologise," Venner laughed. "You will have to make the best of me. I came here to-night with Vera to have a thorough explanation of certain matters."