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Author: Graydon, Wm. Murray
Title: In Friendship's Guise
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Title: In Friendship's Guise

Author: Wm. Murray Graydon

Release Date: May 31, 2005 [EBook #15965]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK IN FRIENDSHIP'S GUISE ***




Produced by Marilynda Fraser-Cunliffe, Mary Meehan and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team









                         In Friendship's Guise

                         BY WM. MURRAY GRAYDON

                   AUTHOR OF "The Cryptogram," etc.

                                 1899




CONTENTS.

CHAPTER.

       I.--The Duplicate Rembrandt

      II.--Five Years Afterwards

     III.--An Old Friend

      IV.--Number 320 Wardour Street

       V.--A Mysterious Discussion

      VI.--A Visitor from Paris

     VII.--Love's Young Dream

    VIII.--An Attraction in Pall Mall

      IX.--Uncle and Nephew

       X.--A London Sensation

      XI.--A Mysterious Discovery

     XII.--A Cowardly Communication

    XIII.--The Tempter

     XIV.--The Dinner at Richmond

      XV.--From the Dead

     XVI.--The Last Card

    XVII.--Two Passengers from Calais

   XVIII.--Home Again

     XIX.--A Shock for Sir Lucius

      XX.--At a Night Club

     XXI.--A Quick Decision

    XXII.--Another Chance

   XXIII.--On the Track

    XXIV.--A Fateful Decision

     XXV.--A Fruitless Errand

    XXVI.--A Thunderbolt from the Blue

   XXVII.--An Amateur Detective

  XXVIII.--A Discovery

    XXIX.--The Vicar of Dunwold

     XXX.--Run to Earth

    XXXI.--Noah Hawker's Disclosure

   XXXII.--How the Day Ended

  XXXIII.--Conclusion




IN FRIENDSHIP'S GUISE.




CHAPTER I.

THE DUPLICATE REMBRANDT.


The day began well. The breakfast rolls were crisper than usual, the
butter was sweeter, and never had Diane's slender white hands poured out
more delicious coffee. Jack Clare was in the highest spirits as he
embraced his wife and sallied forth into the Boulevard St. Germain, with
a flat, square parcel wrapped in brown paper under his arm. From the
window of the entresol Diane waved a coquettish farewell.

"Remember, in an hour," she called down to him. "I shall be ready by
then, Jack, and waiting. We will lunch at Bignon's--"

"And drive in the Bois, and wind up with a jolly evening," he
interrupted, throwing a kiss. "I will hasten back, dear one. Be sure
that you put on your prettiest frock, and the jacket with the ermine
trimming."

It was a clear and frosty January morning, in the year 1892, and the
streets of Paris were dry and glistening. There was intoxication in the
very air, and Jack felt thoroughly in harmony with the fine weather.
What mattered it that he had but a few francs in his pocket--that the
quarterly remittance from his mother, who dreaded the Channel passage
and was devoted to her foggy London, would not be due for a fortnight?
The parcel under his arm meant, without doubt, a check for a nice sum.
He and Diane would spend it merrily, and until the morrow at least his
fellow-workers at Julian's Academy would miss him from his accustomed
place.

Bright-eyed grisettes flung coy looks at the young artist as he strode
along, admiring his well-knit figure, his handsome boyish features
chiseled as finely as a cameo, the crisp brown hair with a slight
tendency to curl, his velvet jacket and flowing tie. Jack nodded and
smiled at a familiar face now and then, or paused briefly to greet a
male acquaintance; for the Latin Quarter had been his little world for
three years, and he was well-known in it from the Boulevard St. Michel
to the quays of the Seine. He snapped his fingers at a mounted
cuirassier in scarlet and silver who galloped by him on the Point Royal,
and whistled a few bars of "The British Grenadiers" as he passed the
red-trowsered, meek-faced, under-sized soldiers who shouldered their
heavy muskets in the courts of the Louvre. The memory of Diane's
laughing countenance, as she leaned from the window, haunted him in the
Avenue de l'Opera.

"She's a good little girl, except when she's in a temper," he said to
himself, "and I love her every bit as much as I did when we were married
a year ago. Perhaps I was a fool, but I don't regret it. She was as
straight as a die, with a will of her own, and it was either lose her
altogether or do the right thing. I couldn't bear to part with her, and
I wasn't blackguard enough to try to deceive her. I'm afraid there will
be a row some day, though, when the Mater learns the truth. What would
she say if she knew that Diane Merode, one of the most popular and
fascinating dancers of the Folies Bergere, was now Mrs. John Clare?"

It was not a cheerful thought, but Jack's momentary depression vanished
as he stopped before the imposing facade of the Hotel Netherlands, in
the vicinity of the Opera. He entered boldly and inquired for Monsieur
Martin Von Whele. The gentleman was gone, a polite garcon explained. He
had received a telegram during the night to say that his wife was very
ill, and he had left Paris by the first train.

The happiness faded from Jack's eyes.

"Gone--gone back to Amsterdam?" he exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes, to his own country, monsieur."

"And he left no message for me--no letter?"

"Indeed, no, monsieur; he departed in great haste."

An appeal to a superior official of the hotel met with the same
response, and Jack turned away. He wandered slowly down the gay street,
the parcel hanging listlessly under his left arm, and his right hand
jingling the few coins in his pocket. His journey over the river, begun
so hopefully, had ended in a bitter disappointment.

Martin Von Whele was a retired merchant, a rich native of Amsterdam, and
his private collection of paintings was well known throughout Europe. He
had come to Paris a month before to attend a private sale, and had there
purchased, at a bargain, an exceedingly fine Rembrandt that had but
recently been unearthed from a hiding-place of centuries. He determined
to have a copy made for his country house in Holland, and chance brought
him in contact with Jack Clare, who at the time was reproducing for an
art patron a landscape in the Luxembourg Gallery--a sort of thing that
he was not too proud to undertake when he was getting short of money.
Monsieur Von Whele liked the young Englishman's work and came to an
agreement with him. Jack copied the Rembrandt at the Hotel Netherlands,
going there at odd hours, and made a perfect duplicate of it--a
dangerous one, as the Hollander laughingly suggested. Jack applied the
finishing touches at his studio, and artfully gave the canvas an
appearance of age. He was to receive the promised payment when he
delivered the painting at the Hotel Netherlands, and he had confidently
expected it. But, as has been seen, Martin Von Whele had gone home in
haste, leaving no letter or message. For the present there was no
likelihood of getting a cheque from him.

The brightness of the day aggravated Jack's disappointment as he walked
back to the little street just off the Boulevard St. Germain. He tried
to look cheerful as he mounted the stairs and threw the duplicate
Rembrandt into a corner of the studio, behind a stack of unfinished
sketches. Diane entered from the bedroom, ravishingly dressed for the
street in a costume that well set off her perfect figure. She was a
picture of beauty with her ivory complexion, her mass of dark brown
hair, and the wonderfully large and deep eyes that had been one of her
chief charms at the Folies Bergere.

"Good boy!" she cried. "You did not keep me waiting long. But you look
as glum as a bear. What is the matter?"

Jack explained briefly, in an appealing voice.

"I'm awfully sorry for your sake, dear," he added. "We are down to our
last twenty-franc piece, but in another fortnight--"

"Then you won't take me?"

"How can I? Don't be unreasonable."

"You promised, Jack. And see, I am all ready. I won't stay at home!"

"Is it my fault, Diane? Can I help it that Von Whele has left Paris?"

"You can help it that you have no money. Oh, I wish I had not given up
the stage!"

Diane stamped one little foot, and angry tears rose to her eyes. She
tore off her hat and jacket and dashed them to the floor. She threw
herself on a couch.

"You deceived me!" she cried bitterly. "You promised that I should want
for nothing--that you would always have plenty of money. And this is how
you keep your word! You are selfish, unkind! I hate you!"

She continued to reproach him, growing more and more angry. Words of
the lowest Parisian argot, picked up from her companions of the Folies
Bergere, fell from her lovely lips--words that brought a blush of shame,
a look of horror and repulsion, to Jack's face.

"Diane," he said pleadingly, as he bent over the couch.

Her mood changed as quickly, and she suddenly clasped her arms around
his neck.

"Forgive me, Jack," she whispered.

"I always do," he sighed.

"And, please, please get some money--now."

"You know that I can't."

"Yes, you can. You have lots of friends--they won't refuse you."

"But I hate to ask them. Of course, Jimmie Drexell would gladly loan me
a few pounds--"

"Then go to him," pleaded Diane, as she hung on his neck and stopped his
protests with a shower of kisses. "Go and get the money, Jack, dear--you
can pay it back when your remittance comes. And we will have such a
jolly day! I am sure you don't want to work."

Jack hesitated, and finally gave in; it was hard for him to resist a
woman's tears and entreaties--least of all when that woman was his
fascinating little wife. A moment later he was in the street, walking
rapidly toward the studio of his American friend and fellow-artist,
Jimmie Drexell.

"How Diane twists me around her finger!" he reflected ruefully. "I hate
these rows, and they have been more frequent of late. When she is in a
temper, and lets loose with her tongue, she is utterly repulsive. But I
forget everything when she melts into tears, and then I am her willing
slave again. I wonder sometimes if she truly loves me, or if her
affection depends on plenty of money and pleasure. Hang it all! Why
is a man ever fool enough to get married?"

       *       *       *       *       *

On a corner of the Boulevard St. Michel and a cross street there is a
brasserie beloved of artists and art students, and slightly more popular
with them than similar institutions of the same ilk in the Latin
Quarter. Here, one hazy October evening, nine months after Mr. Von
Whele's hurried departure from Paris, might have been found Jack Clare.
Tete-a-tete with him, across the little marble-topped table, was his
friend Victor Nevill, whom he had known in earlier days in England, and
whose acquaintance he had recently renewed in gay Paris. Nevill was an
Oxford graduate, and a wild and dissipated young man of Jack's age; he
was handsome and patrician-looking, a hail-fellow-well-met and a
favorite with women, but a close observer of character would have
proclaimed him to be selfish and heartless. He had lately come into
a large sum of money, and was spending it recklessly.

The long, low-ceilinged room was dim with tobacco smoke, noisy with
ribald jests and laughter. Here and there the waitresses, girls
coquettishly dressed, tripped with bottles and syphons, foaming bocks,
and glasses of brandy or liqueurs. The customers of the brasserie were
a mixed lot of women and men, the latter comprising' numerous
nationalities, and all drawn to Paris by the wiles of the Goddess of
Art. Topical songs of the day succeeded one another rapidly. A group of
long-haired, polyglot students hung around the piano, while others
played on violins or guitars, which they had brought to contribute to
the evening's enjoyment. At intervals, when there was a lull, the click
of billiard balls came from an adjoining apartment. Out on the
boulevard, under the glaring lights, the tide of revelers and
pleasure-seekers flowed unceasingly.

"I consider this a night wasted," said Jack. "I would rather have gone
to the Casino, for a change."

"It didn't much matter where we went, as long as we spent our last
evening together," Victor Nevill replied. "You know I leave for Rome
to-morrow. I fancy it will be a good move, for I have been going the
pace too fast in Paris."

"So have I," said Jack, wearily. "I'm not as lucky as you, with a pot of
money to draw on. I intend to turn over a new leaf, old chap, and you'll
find me reformed when you come back. I've been a fool, Nevill. When my
mother died last February I came into 30,000 francs, and for the last
five months I have been scattering my inheritance recklessly. Very
little of it is left now."

"But you have been working?"

"Yes, in a sort of a way. But you can imagine how it goes when a fellow
turns night into day."

"It's time you pulled up," said Nevill, "before you go stone broke. You
owe that much to your wife."

He spoke with a slight sneer which escaped his companion.

"I like that," Jack muttered bitterly. "Diane has spent two francs to
my one--or helped me to spend them."

"Such is the rosy path of marriage," Nevill remarked lightly.

"Shut up!" said Jack.

He laughed as he drained his glass of cognac, and then settled back in
his seat with a moody expression. His thoughts were not pleasant ones.
Since the early part of the year he and his wife had been gradually
drifting apart, and even when they were together at theatres or
luxurious cafes, spending money like water, there had been a restraint
between them. Of late Diane's fits of temper had become more frequent,
and only yielded to a handful of gold or notes. Jack had sought his own
amusements and left her much alone--more than was good for her, he now
reflected uneasily. Yet he had the utmost confidence in her still, and
not a shadow of suspicion had crossed his mind. He believed that his
honor was safe in her care.

"I have wished a thousand times that I had never married," he said to
himself, "but it is too late for that now. I must make the best of it.
I still love Diane, and I don't believe she has ceased to care for me.
Poor little girl! Perhaps she feels my neglect, and is too proud to own
it. I was ready enough to cut work and spend money. Yes, it has been my
fault. I'll go to her to-night and tell her that. I'll ask her to move
back to our old lodgings, where we were so happy. And then I'll turn
over that new leaf--"

"What's wrong with you, my boy?" broke in Victor Nevill. "Have you been
dreaming?"

"I am going home," said Jack, rising. "It will be a pleasant surprise
for Diane."

Nevill looked at him curiously, then laughed. He took out his watch.

"Have another drink," he urged. "We part to-night--who knows when we
will meet again? And it is only half-past eleven."

"One more," Jack assented, sitting down again.

Brandy was ordered, and Victor Nevill kept up a rapid conversation, and
an interesting one. From time to time he glanced covertly at his watch,
and it might have been supposed that he was purposely detaining his
companion. More brandy was placed on the table, and Jack frequently
lifted the glass to his lips. With a cigar between his teeth, with
flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, he laughed as merrily as any in the
room. But he did not drink too much, and the hand that he finally held
out to Nevill was perfectly steady.

"I must be off now," he said. "It is long past midnight. Good-by, old
chap, and bon voyage."

"Good-by, my dear fellow. Take care of yourself."

It was an undemonstrative parting, such as English-men are addicted to.
Jack sauntered out to the boulevard, and turned his steps homeward. His
thoughts were all of Diane, and he was not to be cajoled by a couple of
grisettes who made advances. He nodded to a friendly gendarme, and
crossed the street to avoid a frolicksome party of students, who were
bawling at the top of their voices the chorus of the latest topical song
by Paulus, the Beranger of the day--

"Nous en avons pour tous les gouts."

Victor Nevill heard the refrain as he left the brasserie and looked
warily about. He stepped into a cab, gave the driver hurried
instructions, and was whirled away at a rattling pace toward the Seine.

"He will never suspect me," he muttered complacently, as he lit a
cigar.

With head erect, and coat buttoned tightly over his breast, Jack went on
through the enticing streets of Paris. He had moved from his former
lodgings to a house that fronted on the Boulevard St. Germain. Here he
had the entresol, which he had furnished lavishly to please his wife. He
let himself in with a key, mounted the stairs, and opened the studio
door. A lamp was burning dimly, and the silence struck a chill to his
heart.

"Diane," he called.

There was no reply. He advanced a few feet, and caught sight of a letter
pinned to the frame of an easel. He turned up the lamp, opened the
envelope, and read the contents:

"Dear Jack:--

"Good-by forever. You will never see me again. Forgive me and try to
forget. It is better that we should part, as I could not endure a life of
poverty. I love you no longer, and I am sure that you have tired of me. I
am going with one who has taken your place in my heart--one who can
gratify my every wish. It will be useless to seek for me. Again,
farewell. DIANE."

The letter fell from Jack's hand, and he trampled it under foot. He
reeled into the dainty bedroom, and his burning eyes noted the signs of
confusion and flight--the open and empty drawers, the despoiled dressing
table, the discarded clothing strewn on the floor.

"Gone!" he cried hoarsely. "Gone at the bidding of some
scoundrel--perhaps a trusted friend and comrade! God help my betrayer
when the day of reckoning comes! But I am well rid of her. She was
heartless and mercenary. She never could have loved me--she has left me
because she knew that my money was nearly spent. But I love her still. I
can't tear her out of my heart. Diane, my wife, come back! Come back!"

His voice rang through the empty, deserted rooms. He threw himself on
the bed, and tore the lace coverings with his finger nails. He wept
bitter tears, strong man though he was, while out on the boulevard the
laughter of the midnight revelers mocked at his grief.

Finally he rose; he laughed harshly.

"Damn her, she would have dragged me down to her own level," he
muttered. "It is for the best. I am a free man once more."




CHAPTER II.

FIVE YEARS AFTERWARDS.


Jack Vernon looked discontentedly at the big canvas on the easel, and
with a shrug of the shoulders he turned his back on it. He dropped his
palette and flung his sheaf of brushes into an open drawer.

"I am not fit for anything to-day," he said petulantly. "I was up too
late last night. No, most decidedly, I am not in the mood for work."

He sauntered to the huge end window of the studio, and looked out over
the charming stretch of Ravenscourt Park. It was an ideal morning toward
the close of April, 1897--such a morning as one finds at its best in the
western suburbs of mighty London. The trees were in fresh leaf and bud,
the crocuses were blooming in the well-kept beds, and the grass was a
sheet of glittering emeralds. The singing of birds vied with the jangle
of tram-bells out on the high-road.

"A pull on the river will take the laziness out of me," thought Jack, as
he yawned and extended his arms. "What glorious weather! It would be a
shame to stop indoors."

A mental picture of the silvery Thames, green-wooded and sunny, proved
too strong an allurement to resist. Jack did not know that Destiny,
watchful of opportunity, had taken this beguiling shape to lead him to
a turning-point of his life--to steer him into the thick of troubled and
restless waters, of gray clouds and threatening storms. He discarded
his paint-smeared blouse--he had worn one since his Paris days--and,
getting quickly into white flannel and a river hat, he lit a briar pipe
and went forth whistling to meet his fate.

He was fond of walking, and he knew every foot of old Chiswick by heart.
He struck across the high-road, down a street of trim villas to a more
squalid neighborhood, and came out by the lower end of Chiswick Mall,
sacred to memories of the past. He lingered for a moment by the stately
house immortalized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair, and pictured Amelia
Sedley rolling out of the gates in her father's carriage, while Becky
Sharpe hurled the offending dictionary at the scandalized Miss
Pinkerton. Tempted by the signboard of the Red Lion, and by the
red-sailed wherries clustered between the dock and the eyot, he stopped
to quaff a foaming pewter on a bench outside the old inn.

A little later he had threaded the quaint passage behind Chiswick
Church, left the sonorous hammering of Thorneycroft's behind him, and
was stepping briskly along Burlington Lane, with the high wall of
Devonshire House on his right, and on his left, far over hedges and
orchards, the riverside houses of Barnes. He was almost sorry when he
reached Maynard's boat-house, where he kept a couple of light and
serviceable craft; but the dimpled bosom of the Thames, sparkling in the
sunlight, woke a fresh enthusiasm in his heart, and made him long to
transfer the picture to canvas.

"Even a Turner could not do it half justice," he reflected.

It was indeed a scene to defy any artist, but there were some bold enough
to attempt it. As Jack pulled up the river he saw, here and there, a
fellow-craftsman ensconced in a shady nook with easel and camp-chair. His
vigorous strokes sent him rapidly by Strand-on-the-Green, that secluded
bit of a village which so few Londoners have taken the trouble to search
out. A narrow paved quay, fringed with stately elm trees, separated the
old-fashioned, many-colored houses from the reedy shore, where at high
tide low great black barges, which apparently go nowhere, lie moored in
picturesque array.

It was all familiar to Jack, but he never tired of this stretch of the
Thames. He dived under Kew Bridge, shot by Kew Gardens and ancient
Brentford, and turned around off Isleworth. He rowed leisurely back,
dropping the oars now and again to light his pipe.

"There's nothing like this to brace a fellow up," he said to himself, as
he drew near Maynard's. "I should miss the river if I took a studio in
town. I'll have a bit of lunch at the Red Lion, and then go home and do
an afternoon's work."

A churning, thumping noise, which he had disregarded before, suddenly
swelled louder and warned him of possible danger. He was about off the
middle of Strand-on-the-Green, and, glancing around, he saw one of the
big Thames excursion steamers, laden with passengers, ploughing
up-stream within fifty yards of him, but at a safe distance to his
right. The same glimpse revealed a pretty picture midway between himself
and the vessel--a young girl approaching in a light Canadian canoe. She
could not have been more than twenty, and the striking beauty of her
face was due to those charms of expression and feature which are
indefinable. A crimson Tam-o'-Shanter was perched jauntily on her golden
hair, and a blue Zouave jacket, fitting loosely over her blouse, gave
full play to the grace and skill with which she handled the paddle.

Jack was indifferent to women, and wont to boast that none could
enslave him, but the sight of this fair young English maiden, if it did
not weaken the citadel of his heart, at least made that organ beat a
trifle faster. He shot one look of bold admiration, then turned and bent
to the oars.

"I don't know when I have seen so lovely a face," he thought. "I wonder
who she is."

The steamer glided by, and the next moment Jack was nearly opposite to
the canoe. What happened then was swift and unexpected. Above the splash
of the revolving paddles he heard hoarse shouts and warning cries. He
saw green waves approaching, flung up in the wake of the passing vessel.
As he dropped the oars and leapt anxiously to his feet the frail canoe,
unfitted to encounter such a peril, was clutched and lifted broadside by
the foaming swell. Over it went instantly, and there was a flash of red
and blue as the girl was flung headfirst into the river.

As quickly Jack clasped his hands and dived from his boat. He came to
the top and swam forward with desperate strokes. He saw the upturned
canoe, the floating paddle, the half-submerged Tam-o'-Shanter. Then a
mass of dripping golden hair cleft the surface, only to sink at once.

But Jack had marked the spot, and, taking a full breath, he dived. To
the onlookers the interval seemed painfully long, and a hundred cheering
voices rent the air as the young artist rose to view, keeping himself
afloat with one arm, while the other supported the girl. She was
conscious, but badly scared and disposed to struggle.

"Be quite still," Jack said, sharply. "You are in no danger--I will save
you if you trust me."

The girl obeyed, looking into Jack's eyes with a calmer expression. The
steamer had stopped, and half a dozen row-boats were approaching from
different directions. A grizzled waterman and his companion picked up
the two and pulled them across to Strand-on-the-Green. Others followed
towing Jack's boat and the canoe, and the big steamer proceeded on her
way to Kew Pier.

The Black Bull, close by the railway bridge, received the drenched
couple, and the watermen were delighted by the gift of a sovereign. A
motherly woman took the half-dazed girl upstairs, and Jack was led into
the oak-panelled parlor of the old inn by the landlord, who promptly
poured him out a little brandy, and then insisted on his having a change
of clothing.

"Thank you; I fear I must accept your offer," said Jack. "But I hope you
will attend to the young lady first. Your wife seemed to know her."

"Quite well, sir," was the reply. "Bless you, we all know Miss Madge
Foster hereabouts. She lives yonder at the lower end of the Green--"

"Then she had better be taken home."

"I think this is the best place for her at present, sir. Her father is
in town, and there is only an old servant."

"You are quite right," said Jack. "I suppose there is a doctor near by."

"There is, sir, and I will send for him at once," the landlord promised.
"If you will kindly step this way--"

At that moment there was a stir among the curious idlers who filled the
entrance passage of the inn. An authoritative voice opened a way between
them, and a man pushed through to the parlor. His face changed color at
the sight of Jack, who greeted him with a cry of astonishment.




CHAPTER III.

AN OLD FRIEND


There was gladness as well as surprise in Jack's hearty exclamation, for
the man who stood before him in the parlor of the Black Bull was his old
friend Victor Nevill, little altered in five years, except for a heavier
mustache that improved his dark and handsome face. To judge from
appearances, he had not run through with all his money. He was daintily
booted and gloved, and wore morning tweeds of perfect cut; a sprig of
violets was thrust in his button-hole. The two had not met since they
parted in Paris on that memorable night, nor had they known of each
other's whereabouts.

"Nevill, old chap!" cried Jack, holding out a hand.

Nevill clasped it warmly; his momentary confusion had vanished.

"My dear Clare--" he began.

"Not that name," Jack interrupted, laughingly. "I'm called Vernon on
this side of the Channel."

"What, John Vernon, the rising artist?"

"The same."

"It's news to me. I congratulate you, old man. If I had known I would
have looked you up long ago, but I lost all trace of you."

"That's my case," said Jack. "I supposed you were still abroad. Been
back long?"

"Yes, a couple of years."

"By Jove, it's queer we didn't meet before. Fancy you turning up here!"

"I stopped last night with a friend in Grove Park," Nevill answered,
after a brief hesitation, "and feeling a bit seedy this morning, I came
for a stroll along the river. I hear of a gallant rescue from the water,
and, of course, you are the hero, Jack. Is the young lady all right?"

"I believe so."

"Do you know who she is?"

"Miss Madge Poster, sir," spoke up the landlord, "and I can assure you
she was very nearly drowned--"

"Not so bad as that," modestly protested Jack.

Victor Nevill's face had changed color again, and for a second there was
a troubled look in his eyes. He spoke the girl's name carelessly, then
added in hurried tones:

"You must get into dry clothes at once, Jack, or you will be ill--"

"Just what I told him, sir," interrupted the landlord. "Young men _will_
be reckless."

"I am going back to town to keep an engagement," Nevill resumed. "Can I
do anything for you?"

"If you will, old chap," Jack said gratefully. "Stop at my studio,"
giving him the address, "and send my man Alphonse here with a dry rig."

"I'll go right away," replied Neville. "I can get a cab at Kew Bridge.
Come and see me, Jack. Here is my card. I put up in Jermyn street."

"And you know where to find me," said Jack. "I am seldom at home in the
evenings, though."

A few more words, and Neville departed. Jack was prevailed upon by the
landlord to go to an upper room, where he stripped off his drenched
garments and rubbed himself dry, then putting on a suit of clothes
belonging to his host. The latter brought the cheering news that Miss
Foster had taken a hot draught and was sleeping peacefully, and that it
would be quite unnecessary to send for a doctor.

A little later Alphonse and a cab arrived at the rear of the Black
Bull, where there was a lane for vehicular traffic, and Jack once more
changed his attire. He left his card and a polite message for the girl,
pressed a substantial tip on the reluctant landlord, and was soon
rattling homeward up Chiswick high-road, feeling none the worse for his
wetting, but, on the contrary, gifted with a keen appetite. He had sent
his boat back to Maynard's.

"What a pretty girl that was!" he reflected. "It's the first time in
five years I've given a serious thought to a woman. But I shall forget
her as quickly--I am wedded to my art. It's rather a fetching name,
Madge Foster. Come to think of it, it was hardly the proper thing to
leave my card. I suppose I will get a fervid letter of gratitude from
the girl's father, or the two of them may even invade my studio. How
could I have been so stupid?"

He ate a hearty lunch, and set to work diligently. But he could not keep
his mind from the adventure of the morning, and he saw more frequently
the face of the lovely young English girl, than that of the swarthy
Moorish dancer he was doing in oils.

Those five years had made a different man of Jack Clare--had brought him
financial prosperity, success in his art, and contentment with life. He
was now twenty-seven, clean-shaven, and with the build of an athlete;
and his attractive, well-cut features had fulfilled the promise of
youth. But for six wretched months, after that bitter night when Diane
fled from him, he had suffered acutely. In vain his friends, none of
whom could give him any clew to his betrayer, sought to comfort him; in
vain he searched for trace of tidings of his wife, for her faithlessness
had not utterly crushed his love, and the recollections of the first
months of his marriage were very sweet to him. The chains with which the
dancer of the Folies Bergere bound him had been strong; his hot youth
had fallen victim to the charms of a face and figure that would have
enslaved more experienced men.

But the healing power of time works wonders, and in the spring of the
succeeding year, when Paris burst into leaf and blossom, Jack began to
take a fresh interest in life, and to realize with a feeling little
short of satisfaction that Diane's desertion was all for the best, and
that he was well rid of a woman who must ultimately have dragged him
down to her own level. The sale of his mother's London residence, a
narrow little house in Bayswater, put him in possession of a fairly
large sum of money. He left Paris with his friend Jimmie Drexell, and
the two spent a year in Italy, Holland and Algeria, doing pretty hard
work in the way of sketching. Jack returned to Paris quite cured, and
with a determination to win success in his calling. He saw Drexell off
for his home in New York, and then he packed up his belongings--they had
been under lock and key in a room of the house on the Boulevard St.
Germain--and emigrated to London. His great sorrow was only an
unpleasant memory to him now. He had friends in England, but no
relations there or anywhere, so far as he knew. His father, an artist
of unappreciated talent, had died twenty years before. It was after his
death that Jack's mother had come into some property from a distant
relative.

Taking his middle name of Vernon, Jack settled in Fitzroy Square. A
couple of hundred pounds constituted his worldly wealth. His ambition
was to be a great painter, but he had other tastes as well, and his
talent lay in more than one channel. Within a year, by dint of hard
work, he obtained more than a foothold. He had sold a couple of pictures
to dealers; his black-and-white drawings were in demand with a couple of
good magazines, and a clever poster, bearing his name, and advertising
a popular whisky was displayed all over London. Then, picking up a
French paper in the Monico one morning, he experienced a shock. The body
of a woman had been found in the Seine and taken to the Morgue, where
several persons unhesitatingly identified her as Diane Merode, the
one-time fascinating dancer of the Folies Bergere.

Jack turned pale, and crushed the paper in his hand. Evening found him
wandering on the heights of Hampstead, but the next morning he was at
his easel. He was a free man now in every sense, and the world looked
brighter to him. He worked as hard as ever, and with increasing success,
but he spent most of his evenings with his comrades of the brush, with
whom he was immensely popular. He was indifferent to women, however, and
they did not enter into his life.

But a few months before the opening of this story Jack had taken his new
studio at Ravenscourt Park, in the west of London. It was a big place,
with a splendid north light, and with an admirable train service to all
parts of town; in that respect he was better off than artists living in
Hampstead or St. John's Wood. He had a couple of small furnished rooms
at one end of the studio, in one of which he slept. He usually dined in
town, Paris fashion, but his breakfast and lunch were served by his
French servant, Alphonse, an admirable fellow, who had lodgings close by
the studio; he could turn his hand to anything, and was devoted to his
master.

Jack had achieved success, and he deserved it. His name was well known,
and better things were predicted of him. The leading magazines displayed
his black-and-white drawings monthly, and publishers begged him to
illustrate books. He was making a large income, and saving the half of
it. Nor did he lose sight of his loftier goal. His picture of last year
had been accepted by the Academy, hung well, and sold, and he had just
been notified that he was in again this spring. Fortune smiled on him,
and the folly of his youth was a fading memory that could never cloud or
dim his future.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was two days after the adventure on the river, late in the afternoon.
Jack was reading over the manuscript of a book, and penciling possible
points for illustration, when Alphonse handed him a letter. It was
directed in a feminine hand, but a man had clearly penned the inclosure.
The writer signed himself Stephen Foster, and in a few brief sentences,
coldly and curtly expressed, he thanked Mr. Vernon for the great and
timely service he had rendered his daughter. That was all. There was no
invitation to the house at Strand-on-the-Green--no hope or desire for a
personal acquaintance.

Jack resented the bald, stereotyped communication. He felt
piqued--slightly hurt. He had been trying to forget the girl, but now,
thinking of her as something out of his reach, he wanted to see her
again.

"A conceited, crusty old chap--this Stephen Foster," he said to himself.
"No doubt he is a money-grubber in the city, and regards artists with
contempt. If I had a daughter like that, and a man saved her life, I
should be properly grateful. Poor girl, she can't lead a very happy
life."

He lighted a pipe, read a little further, and then tossed the sheaf of
manuscript aside. He rose and put on a hat and a black coat--he wore
evening dress as little as possible.

"Will you dine in town to-night, sir?" asked Alphonse, who was cleaning
a stack of brushes.

"Yes, oh, yes," Jack answered. "You can go when you have finished."

Whatever may have been his intention when he left the studio, Jack did
not cross the park toward the District Railway station. He walked slowly
to the high-road, and then westward with brisker step. He struck down
through Gunnersbury, by way of Sutton Court, and came out at the river
close to the lower end of Strand-on-the-Green.

A girl was sitting on a bench near the shore, pensively watching the sun
drooping over the misty ramparts of Kew Bridge; she held a closed book
in one hand, and by her side lay a sketching-block and a box of colors.
She heard the young artist's footsteps, and glanced up. A lovely blush
suffused her countenance, and for an instant she was speechless. Then,
with less confusion, with the candor of an innocent and unconventional
nature, she said:

"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Vernon."

"That is kind of you," Jack replied, with a smile.

"Yes, I wanted to thank you--"

"Your father has written to me."

"But that is different. I wanted to thank you for myself."

"I wish I were deserving of such gratitude," said Jack, thinking that
the girl looked far more charming than when he had first seen her.

"Ah, don't say that. You know that you saved my life. I am a good
swimmer, but that morning my clothes seemed to drag me down."

"I am glad that I happened to be near at the time," Jack replied, as
he seated himself without invitation on the bench. "But it is not a
pleasant topic--let us not talk about it."

"I shall never forget it," the girl answered softly. She was silent for
a moment, and then added gravely: "It is so strange to know you. I
admire artists so much, and I saw your picture in last year's Academy.
How surprised I was when I read your card!"

"You paint, yourself, Miss Foster?"

"No, I only try to. I wish I could."

She reluctantly yielded her block of Whatman's paper to Jack, and in the
portfolio attached to it he found several sketches that showed real
promise. He frankly said as much, to his companion's delight, and then
the conversation turned on the quaintness of Strand-on-the-Green, and
the constant and varied beauty of the river at this point--a subject
that was full of genuine interest to both. When the sun passed below the
bridge the girl suddenly rose and gathered her things.

"I must go," she said. "My father is coming home early to-day. Good-by,
Mr. Vernon."

"Not really good-by. I hope?"

An expression of sorrow and pain, almost pitiful, clouded her lovely
face. Jack understood the meaning of it, and hated Stephen Foster in his
heart.

"I shall see you here sometimes?" he added.

"Perhaps."

"Then you do not forbid me to come again?"

"How can I do that? This river walk is quite free, Mr. Vernon. Oh,
please don't think me ungrateful, but--but--"

She turned her head quickly away, and did not finish the sentence. She
called a word of farewell over her shoulder, and Jack moodily watched
her slim and graceful figure vanish between the great elm trees that
guard the lower entrance to Strand-on-the-Green.

"John Vernon, you are a fool," he said to himself. "The best thing for
you is to pack up your traps and be off to-morrow morning for a couple
of months' sketching in Devonshire. You've been bitten once--look out!"

He took a shilling from his pocket, and muttered, as he flipped it in
the air: "Tail, Richmond--head, town."

The coin fell tail upward, and Jack went off to dine at the Roebuck on
the hill, beloved of artists, where he met some boon companions and
argued about Whistler until a late hour.




CHAPTER IV.

NUMBER 320 WARDOUR STREET.


The rear-guard of London's great army of clerks had already vanished in
the city, and the hour was drawing near to eleven, when Victor Nevill
shook off his lassitude sufficiently to get out of bed. A cold tub
freshened him, and as he dressed with scrupulous care, choosing his
clothes from a well-filled wardrobe, he occasionally walked to the
window of his sitting-room and looked down on the narrow but lively
thoroughfare of Jermyn street. It was a fine morning, with the scent of
spring in the air, and the many colors of the rumbling 'busses glistened
like fresh paint in the sunlight.

His toilet completed, Victor Nevill pressed an electric bell, in answer
to which there presently appeared, from some mysterious source
downstairs, a boy in buttons carrying a tray on which reposed a small
pot of coffee, one of cream, a pat of butter, and a couple of crisp
rolls. Nevill ate his breakfast with the mechanical air of one who is
doing a tiresome but necessary thing, meanwhile consulting a tiny
memorandum-book, and counting over a handful of loose gold and silver.
Then he put on his hat and gloves, looked at the fit of his gray
frock-coat in the glass, and went into the street. At Piccadilly Circus
he bought a _boutonniere_, and as he was feeling slightly rocky after a
late night at card-playing, he dropped into the St. James. He emerged
shortly, fortified by a brandy-and-soda, and sauntered westward along
the Piccadilly pavement.

A typical young-man-about-town, an indolent pleasure-lover, always
dressed to perfection and flush with money--such was Victor Nevill in
the opinion of the world. For aught men knew to the contrary, he thrived
like the proverbial lily of the field, without the need of toiling or
spinning. He lived in expensive rooms, dined at the best restaurants,
and belonged to a couple of good clubs. To his friends this was no
matter of surprise or conjecture. They were aware that he was
well-connected, and that years before he had come into a fortune; they
naturally supposed that enough of it remained to yield him a comfortable
income, in spite of the follies and extravagances that rumor attributed
to him in the past, while he was abroad.

But Nevill himself, and one other individual, knew better. The bulk of
his fortune exhausted by reckless living on the Continent, he had
returned to London with a thousand pounds in cash, and a secured annuity
of two hundred pounds, which he was too prudent to try to negotiate. The
thousand pounds did not last long, but by the time they were spent he
had drifted into degraded and evil ways. None had ever dared to
whisper--none had ever suspected--that Victor Nevill was a rook for
money-lenders and a dangerous friend for young men. He knew what a
perilous game he was playing, but he studied every move and guarded
shrewdly against discovery. There were many reasons, and one in
particular, for keeping his reputation clean and untarnished. It was
a matter of the utmost satisfaction to him that his uncle, Sir Lucius
Chesney, of Priory Court in Sussex, cared but little for London, and
seldom came up to town. For Sir Lucius was childless, elderly, and
possessed of fifteen thousand pounds a year.

Victor Nevill's progress along Piccadilly was frequently interrupted by
friends, fashionably dressed young men like himself, whose invitations
to come and have a drink he declined on the plea of an engagement. Just
beyond Devonshire House he was accosted eagerly by a fresh-faced,
blond-haired boy--he was no more than twenty-two--who was coming from
the opposite direction.

"Hullo, Bertie," Nevill said carelessly, as he shook hands. "I was on my
way to the club."

"I got tired of waiting. You are half an hour over the time, Vic. I
thought of going to your rooms."

"I slept later than I intended," Nevill replied. "I had a night of it."

"So had I--a night of sleeplessness."

The Honorable Bertie Raven, second son of the Earl of Runnymede, might
have stepped out of one of Poole's fashion-plates, so far as dress was
concerned. But there was a strained look on his handsome, patrician
face, and in his blue eyes, that told of a gnawing mental anxiety. He
linked arms with his companion, and drew him to the edge of the
pavement.

"Is it all right?" he asked, pleadingly and hurriedly. "Were you able to
fix the thing up for me?"

"You are sure there is no other way, Bertie?"

"None, Vic. I have until this evening, and then--"

"Don't worry. I saw Benjamin and Company yesterday."

"And they will accommodate me?"

"Yes, at my request."

"You mean for your indorsement on the bill?" the lad exclaimed,
blushing. "Vic, you're a trump. You're the best fellow that ever lived,
and I can't tell you how grateful I am. God only knows what a weight
you've lifted from my mind. I'm going to run steady after this, and with
economy I can save enough out of my allowance--"

"My dear boy, you are wasting your gratitude over a trifle. Could I
refuse so simple a favor to a friend?"

"I don't know any one else who would have done as much, Vic. I was in an
awful hole. Will--will they give me plenty of time?"

"As much as you like. And, I say, Bertie, this affair must be quite
_entre nous_. There are plenty of chaps--good fellows, too--who would
like to use my name occasionally. But one must draw the line--"

"I understand, Vic. I'll be mum as an oyster."

"Well, suppose we go and have the thing over," said Nevill, "and then
we'll lunch together."

They turned eastward, walking briskly, and a few minutes later they
entered a narrow court off Duke street, St. James. Through a dingy and
unpretentious doorway, unmarked by sign or plate, they passed into the
premises of Benjamin and Company. In a dark, cramped office, scantily
furnished, they found an elderly Jewish gentleman seated at a desk.

Without delay, with a smoothness that spoke well for the weight and
influence of Victor Nevill's name, the little matter of business, as the
Jew smilingly called it, was transacted. A three-months' bill for five
hundred pounds was drawn up for Bertie's signature and Nevill's
indorsement. The lad hesitated briefly, then wrote his name in a bold
hand. He resisted the allurements of some jewelry, offered him in part
payment, and received the amount of the bill, less a prodigious discount
for interest. The Jew servilely bowed his customers out.

The Honorable Bertie's face was grave and serious as he walked toward
Piccadilly with his friend; he vaguely realized that he had taken the
first step on a road that too frequently ends in disgrace and ruin. But
this mood changed as he felt the rustling bank notes in his pocket. The
world had not looked so bright for many a day.

"I never knew the thing was so easy," he said. "What a good fellow you
are, Vic! You've made a new man of me. I can pay off those cursed
gambling losses, and a couple of the most pressing debts, and have
nearly a hundred pounds over. But I wish I had taken that ruby bracelet
for Flora--it would have pleased her."

"Cut Flora--that's my advice," replied Nevill.

"And jolly good advice, too, Vic. I'll think about it seriously. But
where will you lunch with me?"

"You are going to lunch with _me_," said Nevill, "at the Arlington."

       *       *       *       *       *

In Wardour street, Soho, as many an enthusiastic collector has found out
to the depletion of his pocket-book, there are sufficient antique
treasures of every variety stored away in dingy shop windows and dingier
rooms to furnish a small town. Number 320, which by chance or design
failed to display the name of its proprietor, differed from its
neighbors in one marked respect. Instead of the usual conglomerate mass,
articles of value cheek by jowl with worthless rubbish, the long window
contained some rare pieces of china and silver, an Italian hall-seat of
richly carved oak, and half a dozen paintings by well-known artists of
the past century, the authenticity of which was an excuse for the amount
at which they were priced.

Behind the window was a deep and narrow room, lined on both sides with
cabinets of great age and curious workmanship, oaken furniture belonging
to various periods, pictures restored and pictures cracked and faded,
cases filled with dainty objects of gold and silver, brass work from
Moorish and Saracenic craftsmen, tall suits of armor, helmets and
weapons that had clashed in battle hundreds of years before, and other
things too numerous to mention, all of a genuine value that put them
beyond the reach of a slim purse.

In the rear of the shop--which was looked after by a salesman--was a
small office almost opulent in its appearance. Soft rugs covered the
floor, and costly paintings hung on the walls. The chairs and desk, the
huge couch, would have graced a palace, and a piece of priceless
tapestry partly overhung the big safe at one end. An incandescent lamp
was burning brightly, for very little light entered from the dreary
court on which a single window opened.

Here, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Stephen Foster sat poring over a
sheaf of papers. He was a man of fifty-two, nearly six feet tall and
correspondingly built--a man with a fine head and handsome features, a
man to attract more than ordinary attention. His hands were white, slim
and long. His eyes were deep brown, and his mustache and beard--the
latter cut to a point--were of a tawny yellowish-brown color, mixed with
gray to a slight degree. It would be difficult to analyze his character,
for in many ways he was a contradiction. He was not miserly, but his
besetting evil was the love of accumulating money--the lever that had
made him thoroughly unscrupulous. He was rich, or reputed so, but in
amassing gold, by fair means or foul, lay the keynote to his life. And
it was a dual life. He had chosen the old mansion at Strand-on-the-Green
to be out of the roar and turmoil of London life, and yet within touch
of it. Here, where his evenings were mostly spent, he was a different
man. He derived his chief pleasures from his daughter's society, from a
table filled with current literature, from a box of choice Havanas. In
town he was a sordid man of business, clever at buying and selling to
the best advantage. He had loved his wife, the daughter of a city
alderman and a friend of his father's, and her death twelve years before
had been a great blow to him. Madge resembled her, and he gave the girl
a father's sincere devotion.

Few persons knew that Stephen Foster was the proprietor of the
curio-shop in Wardour street--his daughter was among the ignorant--and
but one or two were aware that the business of Benjamin and Company,
carried on in Duke street, belonged also to him. None, assuredly, among
his sprinkling of acquaintances, would have believed that he could stoop
to lower things, or that he and his equally unscrupulous and useful
tool, Victor Nevill, the gay young-man-about-town, had been mixed up in
more than one nefarious transaction that would not bear the light of
day. He had taken the place in Wardour street within the past five
years, and prior to that time he had held a responsible position as
purchasing agent--there was not a better judge of pictures in
Europe--with the well-known firm of Lamb and Drummond, art dealers
and engravers to Her Majesty, of Pall Mall.

A slight frown gathered on Stephen Foster's brow as he put aside the
packet of papers, and it deepened as he recognized a familiar step
coming through the shop. But he had a cheery smile of greeting ready
when the office door opened to admit Victor Nevill. The young man's face
was flushed with excitement, and he carried in one hand a crumpled copy
of the Westminster _Budget_.

"Seen the evening editions yet?" he exclaimed.

"No; what's in them?" asked the curio-dealer.

"I was lunching at the Arlington, with the Honorable Bertie--By the
way, he took the hook," Nevill replied, in a calmer tone, "and when I
came out I bought this on the street. But read for yourself."

He opened the newspaper, folded it twice, and tossed it down on Stephen
Foster's desk.




CHAPTER V.

A MYSTERIOUS DISCUSSION.


The paragraph in the Westminster _Budget_ to which Victor Nevill
referred was headed in large type, and ran as follows:

"This morning, at his palatial residence in Amsterdam, commenced the
sale of the gallery of valuable paintings collected by the late Mr.
Martin Von Whele, who died while on a visit to his coffee estate in
Java. He left everything to his son, with the exception of the pictures,
which, by the terms of his will, were to be disposed of in order to
found a hospital in his native town. Mr. Von Whele was a keen and
discriminating patron of art, a lover of both the ancient and the
modern, and his vast wealth permitted him to indulge freely in his
hobby. His collection was well known by repute throughout the civilized
world. But the trustees of the estate seem to have committed a grave
blunder--which will undoubtedly cause much complaint--in waiting until
almost the last moment to announce the sale. But few bidders were
present, and these had things pretty much their own way, apparently
owing to the gross ignorance of the auctioneer. The gem of the gallery,
the famous Rembrandt found and purchased in Paris some years ago by Mr.
Von Whele, was knocked down for the ridiculous sum of L2,400. The lucky
purchaser was Mr. Charles Drummond, of the firm of Lamb and Drummond,
Pall Mall."

A remark that would not look well in print escaped Stephen Foster's lips
as he threw the paper on his desk.

"A blunder?" he cried. "It was criminal! A rascally conspiracy, with
Drummond at the bottom of it--British cunning against Dutch stupidity! I
seldom miss anything in the papers, Nevill, and yet I never heard of Von
Whele's death. I didn't get a hint of the sale."

"Nor I," replied Nevill. "It's a queer business. I thought the paragraph
would interest you. The sale continues--do you think of running over to
Amsterdam?"

"No; I shan't go. It's too late. By to-morrow a lot of dealers will have
men on the spot, and the rest of the pictures will likely fetch full
value. But L2,400 for the Rembrandt! Why, it's worth five times as much
if it's worth a penny! There's a profit for you, Nevill. And I always
coveted that picture. I had a sort of a hope that it would drop into my
hands some day. I believe I spoke to you about it."

"You did," assented Nevill, "and I remembered that at once when I read
of the sale. But I had another reason--one of my own--for calling your
attention to the matter."

Stephen Foster apparently did not hear the latter remark.

"I saw the Rembrandt when I was in Amsterdam, two years ago," he said
bitterly. "It was a splendid canvas--the colors were almost as fresh and
bright as the day they were laid on. And as a character study it was a
masterpiece second to none, and in my estimation superior to his
'Gilder,' which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It
represented a Pole or a Russian, with a face of intense ferocity. His
rank was shown by his rich cloak, the decorations on his furred hat, and
by the gold-beaded mace held in his hand. Von Whele declared that the
subject was John the Third, of Poland; but that was mere conjecture. And
now Drummond has the picture, and it will soon be drawing crowds around
the firm's window, I dare say. What a prize I have let slip through my
fingers!"

"I want to ask you a question," Nevill started abruptly. "Suppose this
Rembrandt, or any other painting of value and renown, should be stolen
from a big dealer's shop. How could the thief dispose of it?"

"He would have little or no chance of doing so at once," was the reply,
"unless he found some unscrupulous collector who was willing to buy it
and hide it away. But in the course of a few years, when the affair had
blown over, the picture could be sold for its full value, without any
risk to the seller, if he was a smart man."

"Then, if you had this Rembrandt locked up in your safe, you would
regard it as a sound and sure investment, to be realized on in the
future?"

"Certainly. I should consider it as an equivalent for L10,000," Stephen
Foster replied. "But there is not much of that sort of thing done--the
ordinary burglar doesn't understand the game," he went on, carelessly.
"And a good thing for the dealers, too. With my knowledge of the place,
I could very easily remove a picture from Lamb and Drummond's store-room
any night."

"Yes, you know the ground thoroughly. Would you like to make L10,000 at
a single stroke, without risk?"

"I don't think I should hesitate long, if it was a sure thing," Stephen
Foster replied, laughingly. "Nevill, what are you driving at?" he added
with sudden earnestness.

"Wait a moment, and I'll explain."

Victor Nevill stepped to the door, listened briefly, and turned the key
noiselessly in the lock. He drew a chair close to his companion and sat
down.

"I am going to tell you a little story," he said. "It will interest
you, if I am not mistaken."

It must have been a very important and mysterious communication, from
the care with which Nevill told it, from the low and cautious tone in
which he spoke. Stephen Foster listened with a blank expression that
gradually changed to a look of amazement and satisfaction, of
ill-concealed avarice. Then the two discussed the matter together,
heedless of the passage of time, until the clock struck five.

"It certainly appears to be simple enough," said Stephen Foster, "but
who will find out about--"

"You must do that," Nevill interrupted. "If I went, it might lead to
awkward complications in the future."

"It's the worst part, and I confess I don't like it. But I'll take a
night to think it over, and give you an answer to-morrow. It's an ugly
undertaking--"

"But a safe one. If it comes off all right, I want L500 cash down, on
account."

"It is not certain that it will come off at all," said Stephen Foster,
as he rose. "Come in to-morrow afternoon. Oh, I believe I promised you
some commission to-day."

"Yes; sixty pounds."

The check was written, and Nevill pocketed it with a nod. He put on his
hat, moved to the door, and paused.

"By the by, there's a new thing on at the Frivolity--awfully good," he
said. "Miss Foster might like to see it. We could make up a little party
of three--"

"Thank you, but my daughter doesn't care for theatres. And, as you know,
I spend my evenings at home."

"I don't blame you," Nevill replied, indifferently. "It's a snug and
jolly crib you have down there by the river. And the fresh air does a
fellow a lot of good. I feel like a new man when I come back to town
after dining with you. One gets tired of clubs and restaurants."

"Come out when you like," said Stephen Foster, in a voice that lacked
warmth and sincerity.

"That's kind of you," Nevill replied. "Good-night!"

A minute later he was walking thoughtfully down Wardour street.




CHAPTER VI.

A VISITOR FROM PARIS.


It was seven o'clock in the evening, ten days after Jack's second
encounter with Madge Foster, and a blaze of light shone from the big
studio that overlooked Ravenscourt Park. The lord and master of it was
writing business letters, a task in which he was assisted by frequent
cigarettes. A tray containing whisky, brandy and siphons stood on a
Moorish inlaid smoking stand, and suggested correctly that a visitor was
expected. At noon Jack had received a letter from Victor Nevill, of whom
he had seen nothing since their meeting at Strand-on-the-Green, to say
that he was coming out at eight o'clock that night to have a chat over
old times. Alphonse, being no longer required, had gone to his lodgings
near by.

"It will be a bit awkward if Nevill wants his dinner," Jack said to
himself, in an interval of his letter writing. "I'll keep him here a
couple of hours, and then take him to dine in town. He's a good fellow,
and will understand. He'll find things rather different from the Paris
days."

There was a touch of pardonable pride in that last thought, for few
artists in London could boast of such luxuriously decorated quarters, or
of such a collection of treasures as Jack's purse and good taste had
enabled him to gather around him. The hard oak floor, oiled and polished
by the hands of Alphonse, was sparsely strewn with Oriental rugs and a
couple of tiger skins. A screen of stamped leather hid three sides of
the French stove. The eye met a picturesque confusion of inlaid cabinets
with innumerable drawers, oak chests and benches, easy chairs of every
sort, Chippendale trays and escritoires, Spanish lanterns dangling from
overhead, old tables worn hollow on top with age, countless weapons and
pieces of armor, and shelves stacked with blue delf china and rows of
pewter plates. A long costume case flashed its glass doors at a cosy
corner draped with art muslin. On the walls, many of them presented by
friends, were scores of water-colors and oil paintings, etchings and
engravings, no two of them framed alike. Minor articles were scattered
about in profusion, and a couple of bulging sketch-books bore witness to
their owner's summer wanderings about England.

The letters finished and stamped, Jack closed his desk with a sigh of
relief. The evening was chilly, and he had started a small fire of coals
in the grate--he used his stove only in wintry weather. He pulled a big
chair to the blaze, stretched his legs against the fender, and fell
straightway into a reverie; an expression that none of his English
companions had ever seen there softened his handsome face.

"I wonder what she is doing now," he thought. "I fancy I can see her
sitting opposite to her father, at the dinner table, with the soft
lamplight on her lovely cheeks, and that bewitching look in her eyes.
I am a conceited fool to believe that she cares for me, and yet--and
yet--By Jove, I would marry her in a minute. She is the most winsome
girl I ever saw. It is not like the passion I had for Diane--I was a
foolish, hot-headed boy then. Madge would be my good angel. In spite of
myself, she has come into my life and taken a deep hold on my heart--I
can't put her out again. Jack, my boy, you had better have gone on that
sketching tour--better have fled to Devonian wilds before it was too
late."

But was it too late now? If so, the fact did not seem to trouble Jack
much, for he laughed softly as he stirred the fire. He, the impregnable
and boastful one, the woman-hater, had fallen a victim when he believed
himself most secure. It was unutterably sweet to him--this second
passion--and he knew that it was not to be shaken off.

During the past ten days he had seen Madge frequently. Nearly every
afternoon, when the fading sun glimmered through a golden haze, he had
wandered down to Strand-on-the-Green, confident that the girl would not
be far away, that she would welcome him shyly and blushingly, with that
radiant light in her eyes which he hoped he could read aright. They had
enjoyed a couple of tramps together, when time permitted--once up the
towing-path toward Richmond, and again down the river to Barnes.

They were happy hours for both. Madge was unconventional, and would
have resented a hint that she was doing anything in the least improper.
She had left boarding school two years before, and since then she had
rejoiced in her freedom, not finding life dull in the sleepy Thames-side
suburb of London. As for Jack, his conscience gave him few twinges in
regard to these surreptitious meetings. It would be different, he told
himself, had Stephen Foster chosen to receive him as a visitor. But he
had gathered, from what Madge told him, that her father was eccentric,
and detested visitors--that he would permit nothing to break the
monotonous and regular habits of the secluded old house. Madge admitted
that one friend of his, a young man, came sometimes; but she intimated
unmistakably that she did not like him. Jack was curious to know what
business took Stephen Foster to town every day, but on that subject the
girl never spoke.

As the young artist sat watching the fire in the grate, his fancy
painted pleasing pictures. "Why should I not marry?" he mused. "Bachelor
life is well enough in its way, but it can't compare with a snug house,
and one's own dining-table, and a charming wife to drive away the
occasional blue-devils. I have money put aside, and it won't be long
till I'm making an easy twelve hundred a year. By Jove, I will--"

A noisy rap at the door interrupted Jack's train of thought, and brought
him to his feet.

"Come in!" he cried, expecting to see Nevill.

But the visitor was a telegraph boy, bearing the familiar brown
envelope. Jack signed for it, and tore open the message.

"Awfully seedy," Victor Nevill wired. "Sorry I can't get out to-night.
Am going to bed."

"No answer," said Jack, dismissing the boy. With his hands in his
pockets he strolled undecidedly about the studio for a couple of
minutes. "I hope nothing serious is the matter with Nevill," he
reflected. "He's not the sort of a chap to go to bed unless he feels
pretty bad. What shall I do now? I must be quick about it if I want
to get any dinner in town. It's past eight, and--"

There was the sound of slow footsteps out in the passage, followed by
the nervous jingling of the electric bell.

"Who can that be?" Jack muttered.

He pulled a cord that turned the gas higher in the big circlet of jets
overhead, and opened the door curiously. The man who entered the studio
was a complete stranger, and it was certain that he was not an
Englishman, if dress and appearance could decide that fact. He was
very tall and well-built, with a handsome face, so deeply tanned as
to suggest a recent residence in a tropical country. His mustaches were
twisted into waxed points, and there was a good deal of gray in his
beard, which was parted German fashion in the middle, and carefully
brushed to each side. His top hat was unmistakably French, with a flat
rim, and his boots were of patent leather. As he opened his long caped
cloak, the collar of which he kept turned up, it was seen that he was in
evening dress.

"Do I address Monsieur Vernon, the artist?" he asked in good English,
with a French accent.

"Yes, that's right."

"Formerly Monsieur John Clare?"

"I once bore that name," said Jack, with a start of surprise; he was
ill-pleased to hear it after so many years.

The visitor produced a card bearing the name of M. Felix Marchand, Parc
Monceaux, Paris.

"I do not recall you," said Jack. "Will you take a seat."

"We have not met until now," said M. Marchand, "but I have the honor to
be familiar with your work, and to possess some of it. Pictures are to
me a delight--I confess myself a humble patron of art--and a few years
ago I purchased several water-color sketches signed by your name. They
appealed to me especially because they were bits of Paris--one looking
down the river from the bridge of the Carrousel, and the other a night
impression of Montmartre."

"I remember them vaguely," said Jack. "They, with others, were sold for
me by a dealer named Cambon--"

"Monsieur is right. It was from Jacques Cambon, of the Quai Voltaire,
I obtained the sketches. They pleased me much, and I went again to seek
more--that was eighteen months later, when I returned to Paris after a
long absence. Imagine my disappointment to learn that Jacques Cambon
had no further knowledge of Monsieur Clare, and no more of his sketches
to sell."

"No; I had come to London by that time--or was in Italy," said Jack.
"But perhaps--pardon me--you would prefer to carry on our conversation
in French."

"Monsieur is thoughtful," replied M. Marchand. "He will understand that
I desire, while in England, to improve as much as possible my knowledge
of the language."

"Quite so," assented Jack. "You speak it already like a native born," he
added to himself.

"The years passed on," resumed the Frenchman, "but I did not forget the
author of my little sketches. A few weeks ago I resolved to cross the
Channel and pay a visit to London, which I last saw in 1891. I had but
lately returned from a long trip to Algeria and Morocco, and I was told
that the English spring was mild; in Paris I found the weather too cold
for my chest complaint. So I said to myself, 'I will make endeavor to
find the artist, John Clare.' But how? I had an idea. I went to the
school of the great Julian, and there my inquiries met with success.
'Monsieur Clare,' one of the instructors told me, 'is now a prosperous
painter of London, by the name of Vernon.' They gave me the address of
a magazine in your Rue Paternoster, and at that place I was this morning
informed where to find you. I trust that my visit is not an intrusion."

"Oh, not at all," said Jack. "Who at Julian's can have known so much
about me?" he thought.

"I have spoken with freedom--perhaps too much," M. Marchand went on.
"But I desired to explain clearly. I have come on business, monsieur,
hoping that I may be privileged to purchase one or two pictures to take
back with me to Paris."

"I am very sorry," said Jack, "but I fear I have nothing whatever to
sell at present. I am indeed flattered by your kind interest in my work."

"Monsieur has nothing?"

Jack shook his head.

"You see I do a great deal in the way of magazine drawing," he
explained. "The half-finished water-colors on the easels are orders.
I expect to have a large painting in the Royal Academy shortly."

"Alas, I will not be able to see it," M. Marchand murmured. "I leave
London to-morrow." All the time he was speaking he had been looking with
interest about the studio, and his eyes still wandered from wall to
wall. "Ah, monsieur, I have a thought," he added suddenly. "It is of the
finished pictures, of your later work, that you speak. But surely you
possess many sketches, and among them would be some of Paris, such as
you placed with Jacques Cambon. Is it not so?"

Jack, in common with all artists, was reluctant to part with his
sketches. But he was growing uncomfortably hungry, and felt disposed to
make a sacrifice for the sake of getting rid of his importunate visitor.

"I will show you my collection," he answered briefly.

Lifting the drapery of a couch, he pulled out one of half a dozen fat
portfolios, of huge dimensions. He untied the strings and opened it,
exhibiting a number of large water-color drawings on bristol-board, most
of them belonging to his student days in Paris, some made in Holland and
Normandy. The sight of them, recalling his married life with Diane,
awoke unpleasant memories. He moved away and lighted a cigarette.

The Frenchman began to turn the sketches over eagerly, and presently
Jack saw him staring hard at an unstiffened canvas which he had found.
It was the duplicate Rembrandt painted for Martin Von Whele. Jack had
not been reading the papers much of late, and was ignorant of the
Hollander's death.

"That is nothing of any account," he said. "It is the copy of an old
master."

"Ah, I have a little taste for the antique," replied M. Marchand.
"This is repulsive--it is a frightful face. Were it in my collection,
monsieur, it would quite spoil my pretty bits of scenery."

He tossed the canvas carelessly aside, and finally chose a couple of
water-colors, both showing picturesque nooks of Paris.

"I should like to have these," he said, "if monsieur is willing to name
a price."

"Fifteen pounds for the two," Jack announced reluctantly. "Can I send
them for you?" he added.

"No; I will take them with me."

Jack tied up the portfolio and replaced it under the couch, an operation
that was closely watched by his visitor. Then he wrapped up the two
sketches, and received three five-pound notes.

"May I offer you some refreshment?" he said, politely. "You will find
brandy there--"

"I love the golden whisky of England," protested M. Marchand.

He mixed some for himself, and after drinking it he wiped his lips with
a handkerchief. As he returned it to his pocket Jack saw on the white
linen a brown stain that he was sure had not been there before.

M. Felix Marchand looked at his watch, shook hands with Jack, and hoped
that he would have the pleasure of seeing him again. Then he bowed
ceremoniously, and was gone, carrying the parcel under his arm. Jack
closed the door, and retired to an inner room to change his clothing for
the evening.

"I'll have a grill at the Trocadero," he told himself, "and drop in at
the Alhambra for the last few numbers. A queer chap, that Frenchman!
Where did he pick up such good English? He was all right, of course, but
I can't help feeling a bit puzzled. Fancy his taking a craze for my
studies of Paris! I remember that they gathered dust for months in old
Cambon's window, until one day I missed them. It's a funny thing about
that brown mark which came off on his handkerchief after he wiped his
mustache. Still, I've known men to use such stuff to give them a healthy
color, though this chap didn't look as if he needed it. And he said he
suffered from a chest complaint."

       *        *        *        *        *

At eight o'clock Jack was up and splashing in his bath, a custom that he
hugely enjoyed, winter and summer. He had come home the night before by
the last train, after dining with some friends he had picked up, and
spending an hour with them at the Alhambra.

He dressed himself with unusual care and discrimination, selecting a
suit of dark brown tweeds that matched his complexion, and a scarf with
a good bit of red in it. Prepared for him in the studio, and presided
over by Alphonse in a white apron, were rolls and coffee, eggs and
bacon. The sun was shining brightly outside. The postman came while he
was at breakfast, and he read his batch of letters; from some of which
dropped checks. One he purposely saved for the last, and the
contents--only a few lines--brought a smile to his lips. He tore the
dainty sheet of note-paper into small pieces and threw them into the
fire. Then he filled his cigar case with choice Regalias, pulled on his
driving gloves, and perched a jaunty Alpine hat on his head.

"Alphonse, you must be here all day," he said. "Mordaunt, of the
Frivolity, will send for that poster; and a messenger may come from the
Piccadilly Magazine--the drawings are in a parcel on my desk. Say to any
person who calls that I will not be back until evening."

"I will remember," assured Alphonse.

"By the by, Alphonse, you were living in a big house in the Parc
Monceaux half a dozen years ago?"

"Monsieur is right."

"Do you remember a gentleman by the name of Marchand--M. Felix
Marchand?"

"My memory may be at fault," Alphonse answered, "but I do not recall a
person of that name."

"Well, no matter. He may not have resided there then, and the Parc
Monceaux means a large neighborhood."

Jack banished M. Marchand from his mind with ease, as he went out into
the sunshine and freshness of the spring morning; the singing of the
birds, and the beauty of the trees and flowers, told him that it was a
glorious thing to be alive. He waited a few moments at a nearby livery
stable, while the attendants brought out a very swell-looking and newly
varnished trap, and put into the shafts a horse that would have held his
own in Hyde Park.

Chiswick high-road, with its constantly widening and narrowing
perspectives, its jumble of old and modern houses, had never looked more
cheerful as Jack drove rapidly westward. He crossed Kew Bridge, rattled
on briskly, and finally entered Richmond, where he pulled up by the curb
opposite to the station where centre a number of suburban railway lines.

He had not long to wait--a glance at his watch told him that. Five
minutes later the rumble of an incoming train was heard, and presently
a double procession of passengers came up the steps to the street. Jack
had eyes for one only, a radiant vision of loveliness, as sweet and
fresh and blushing as a June rose. The vision was Madge Foster, her
graceful figure set off by a new spring gown from Regent street, and a
sailor hat perched on her golden curls. She stepped lightly into the
trap, and nestled down on the cushions.

"Oh, Jack, what _will_ you think of me after this," she cried, half
seriously.

"I think that the famed beauties of Hampton Court would turn green
in their frames with envy if they could see you now," Jack answered
evasively, as he flicked the horses with his whip. "Here we go for
a jolly day. It will come to an end all too soon."




CHAPTER VII.

LOVE'S YOUNG DREAM.


The trap rattled up crooked George street, and swung around and down
to classic-looking Richmond Bridge, with its gorgeous vistas of river
scenery right and left over the low parapets. Madge was very quiet for
a time, and it was evident that she felt some misgivings as to the
propriety of what she had consented to do at Jack's urgent request. She
had left home soon after her father's departure for town, and she must
be back before six o'clock to meet him on his return. Her secret was
shared with the old servant, Mrs. Sedgwick, who was foolishly fond of
the girl, and naturally well-disposed toward Jack because he had saved
Madge's life. This faithful creature, on the death of her young husband
twenty years before, had entered Mrs. Foster's service; she practically
managed Stephen Foster's establishment, assisted by a housemaid and by
the daily visits of a charwoman.

Until Richmond was left behind, Jack was as serious and thoughtful
as his companion. He had a high sense of honor, a hatred of anything
underhanded, and his conscience pricked him a little. However, it was
not his fault, he told himself. Stephen Foster had no business to be
churlish and ungrateful, and treat his daughter as though she were a
school miss still in her teens. And what wrong could there be about the
day's outing together, if no harm was intended? It would all come right
in the end, unless, unless--

He felt reassured as he stole a glance at Madge's face, and saw her quick
blush. She laughed merrily, and nestled a little closer to his side.

"You are not sorry?" he asked.

"Sorry? Oh, no. It is so good of you, Jack, and the weather is
perfect--we could not have had a better day."

Their depression vanished like a summer cloud, as they rode through
Twickenham and Teddington, under the shade of the great trees, enjoying
the occasional views of the shining river, and the peeps into the walled
gardens of the fine old houses.

"It is all new to me," said Madge, with a sigh. "I used to go to Hampton
Court with father on Sundays, but that was long ago; he doesn't take me
anywhere now, except to the theatre once or twice a year."

"It is a shame," Jack replied indignantly, "when you enjoy things so
much."

"Oh, but I dearly love Strand-on-the-Green. I am very happy there."

"And you never long for a wider life?"

"Yes--sometimes. I want to go abroad and travel. It must be delightful
to see the places and countries one has read about, to roam in foreign
picture galleries."

"I would like to show you the Continent," said Jack. "We have the same
tastes, and--"

A rapturous "Oh!" burst from Madge. They had turned suddenly in at
the gates of Bushey Park, and before them was the twenty-mile-long
perspective of the chestnut avenue, bounded by the white sunlit walls of
the hospitable Greyhound. The girl's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and in
her excitement, as some fresh bit of beauty was revealed, she rested a
tiny gloved hand on Jack's arm.

"I will take you out often, if you will let me," he said.

They drove out of the park, and swung around the weather-beaten wall of
Hampton Court. Red-coated soldiers were lounging by the barracks in the
palace yard, and the clear notes of a bugle rose from quarters; a tide
of people and vehicles was flowing in the sunlight over Molesey Bridge.
Jack turned off into the lower river road, and so on by shady and
picturesque ways to the ancient village of Hampton.

They put up the horse and trap at the Flower Pot, and lunched in the
coffee-room of that old-fashioned hostelry, at a little table laid in
the bow-window, looking out on the quaint high-street. It was a charming
repast, and both were hungry enough to do it justice. The Chambertin
sparkled like rubies as it flowed from the cobwebbed bottle, and Jack
needed little urging from Madge to light a fragrant Regalia.

Then they sauntered forth into the sunshine, down to the river shore,
and Jack chose a big roomy boat, fitted with the softest of red cushions.
He pulled for a mile or more up the rippling Thames, chatting gaily with
Madge, who sat opposite to him and deftly managed the rudder-ropes. A
little-known backwater was the goal, and suddenly he drove the boat under
a screen of low-drooping bushes and into a miniature lake set in a frame
of leafy trees that formed a canopy of dense foliage overhead.

"What do you think of it?" Jack asked, as he ran the bow gently ashore
and pulled in the oars.

"It is like fairyland. It is too beautiful for words."

Madge averted her eyes from his, and pushed back a tress of golden hair
that had strayed from under her hat; she took off one glove, and dipped
the tips of her fingers in the water.

"I wish I had brought a book," she said. "Why don't you smoke? You have
my permission, sir. But we must not stop long."

Jack felt for his cigar-case and dropped it again. The next instant he
was beside the girl, and one arm encircled her waist.

"Madge, my darling!" he cried. "Don't you know--can't you guess--why I
brought you here?"

Her silence, the droop of her blushing face, emboldened him. The old,
old story, the story that was born when the world began, fell from his
lips. They were honest, manly words, with a ring of heartfelt passion
and pleading.

"Have I surprised you, Madge?" he went on. "Have I spoken too soon? We
have known each other only a short time, it is true, but I could not
care more for you had we been acquainted for months or years. I am not
an impulsive boy--I know my own heart. I loved you from the day you came
into my life. I love you now, and will always love you. I will be a good
and true husband. Have you no answer for me, dear?"

The girl suddenly raised her face to his. Half-shed tears glistened in
her eyes, but there was also a radiant look there which trilled his
heart with unspeakable joy. He knew that he had won her.

"Madge, my sweet Madge!" he whispered.

She trembled as his arm tightened about her waist.

"Jack, do you really, really love me?"

"More than I can tell you, dear. Can you doubt me? Have you nothing to
say? Do you think it so strange--"

"Strange? Yes, it is more than I dared to hope for. Don't think me
unwomanly, Jack, for telling the truth, but--but I do love you with all
my heart."

"Madge! You have made me the happiest man alive! God grant that I be
always worthy of your affection!"

A bird began to sing overhead, and Jack thought it was the sweetest
music he had ever heard, as he drew Madge to him and pressed a lover's
first kiss on her lips. Side by side they sat there in the leafy
retreat, heedless of time, while the afternoon sun drooped lower in the
sky. They had much to talk of--many little confidences to exchange. They
lived over again the events of that brief period in which they had known
each other.

"You have upset all my plans," said Madge, with a pretty pout. "I was
going to devote my life to art, and become a second Rosa Bonheur or Lady
Butler."

"One artist in the family will be enough," her lover answered,
laughingly. "But you shall continue to paint, dearest. We will roam
over Europe with our sketch-books."

"Oh, how delightful! To think of it--my dreams will be realized! I
knew your work, Jack, before I knew you. But I am so ignorant of the
world--even of the little world of London."

"Madge, you are talking nonsense. You are my queen--you are the dearest,
sweetest little woman that ever man won. And I love you the better
because you are as fresh and pure as a flower, untainted by the wicked
world, where innocence rubs off her bloom on vice's shoulders. I am not
old, dear, but I have lived long enough to appreciate the value of--"

"Hush, or I shall think you do not mean all you say. Oh, Jack, promise
me that you will never repent of your bargain. I wonder that some woman
did not enslave you long ago."

A shadow crossed Jack's face, and he was silent for a moment.

"Madge," he said, hesitatingly, "I have not been a bad man in my time,
nor have I been a particularly good one. I was an art student in Paris
for years, and Paris is a city of dissipation, full of pitfalls and
temptations to young fellows like myself. There is something connected
with my past, which I feel it is my duty to--"

"Don't tell me, Jack--please don't. I might not like to hear it. I will
try to forget that you had a past, and I will never ask you about it.
You are mine now, and we will think only of the present and the future.
I trust you, dear, and I know that you are good and true. You will
always love me, won't you?"

"Always, my darling," Jack replied in a tone of relief. He told himself,
as he kissed the troubled look from the girl's eyes, that it was better
to keep silence. What could he gain by dragging up the black skeleton of
the past? He was a free man now, and the withholding of that bitter
chapter of his life would be the wisest course. If the future ever
brought it to light, Madge would remember that she herself had checked
the story on his lips.

"Jack, you are looking awfully serious."

"Am I? Well, I won't any more. But, I say, Madge, when will you be my
wife? And how about speaking to your father? You know--"

"I can't tell him yet, Jack, really--you must wait a while. You won't
mind, will you?"

"I hate this deception."

"So do I. But father has not been quite himself lately--I think
something troubles him."

"Does he want to marry you to any one else?" Jack asked, jealously. "Is
there anything of the sort between him and that young chap who comes to
the house?"

"I can't be certain, Jack, but sometimes I imagine so, though father
has never spoken to me about it. I dislike Mr. Royle, and discourage his
attentions."

"His attentions?"

"Oh, Jack, don't look at me in that way--you make me feel wretched.
Won't you trust me and believe me? I love you with all my heart, and
I am as really yours as if I were married to you."

"My darling, I _do_ trust you," he said contritely. "Forgive me--I was
very foolish. I know that nothing can separate us, and I will await your
own time in patience. And when you are willing to have me speak to your
father--"

"It shall be very soon, dear," whispered Madge, looking up at him with
a soft light in her eyes. "If I find him in a good humor I will tell him
myself. We are great chums, you know."

Jack kissed her, and then glanced at his watch.

"Four o'clock," he said, regretfully. "We must be off."

He pulled the boat back to Hampton, and ordered the hostler at the
Flower Pot to get the trap ready. The world looked different, somehow,
to the happy couple, as they drove Londonwards. Love's young dream had
been realized, and they saw no shadow in the future.

The ride home was uneventful until they reached Richmond. Then, on the
slope of the hill in front of the Talbot, where the traffic was thick
and noisy, a coach with half a dozen young men on top was encountered,
evidently bound for a convivial dinner at the Star and Garter or the
Roebuck. A well-known young lord was driving, and beside him sat Victor
Nevill. He smiled and nodded at Jack, and turned to gaze after his fair
companion.

"That was an old friend of mine," remarked Jack, as the trap passed on.
"A jolly good fellow, too."

"Drive faster, please," Madge said, abruptly. "I am afraid it is late."

There was a troubled, half-frightened look on her face, and she was very
quiet until the station was reached, where she was sure to get a train
to Gunnersbury within a few minutes. She sprang lightly to the pavement,
and let her hand rest in Jack's for a moment, while her eyes, full of
unspeakable affection, gazed into his. Then, with a brief farewell, she
had vanished down the steps.

"She is mine," thought Jack, as he drove on toward Kew and Chiswick. "I
have won a pearl among women. I think I should kill any man who came
between us."




CHAPTER VIII.

AN ATTRACTION IN PALL MALL.


There was a counter-attraction in Pall Mall--a rival to Marlborough
House, opposite which, ranged along the curb, a number of persons are
usually waiting on the chance of seeing the Prince drive out. The rival
establishment was the shop of Lamb and Drummond, picture dealers and
engravers to Her Majesty. Since nine o'clock that morning, in the
blazing May sunshine, there had been a little crowd before the plate
glass window, behind which the firm had kindly exposed their latest
prize to the public gaze. Newspaper men had been admitted to a private
view of the picture, and for a couple of days previous the papers had
contained paragraphs in reference to the coming exhibition. Rembrandts
are by no means uncommon, nor do all command high prices; but this
particular one, which Martin Von Whele had unearthed in Paris, was
conceded to be the finest canvas that the master-artist's brush had
produced.

It was the typical London crowd, very much mixed. Some regarded the
picture with contemptuous indifference and walked away. Others admired
the rich, strong coloring, the permanency of the pigments, and the
powerful, ferocious head, either Russian or Polish, that seemed to
fairly stand out from the old canvas. A few persons, who were keener
critics, envied Lamb and Drummond for the bargain they had obtained at
such a small figure.

Early in the afternoon Jack Vernon joined the group before the shop
window; an interview with the editor of the _Piccadilly Magazine_ had
brought him to town, and, having read the papers, he had walked from the
Strand over to Pall Mall. Memories of his Paris life, of the morning
when he had trudged home in bitter disappointment to the Boulevard St.
Germain and Diane, surged into his mind.

"It is the same picture that I copied at the Hotel Netherlands," he said
to himself, "and it ought to sell for a lot of money. How well I recall
those hours of drudgery, with old Von Whele looking over my shoulder and
puffing the smoke of Dutch tobacco into my eyes! I was sorry to read of
his death, and the sale of his collection. He was a good sort, if he
_was_ forgetful. By Jove, I've half a mind to box up my duplicate and
send it to his executors. I wonder if they would settle the long-standing
account."

Several hours later, when Jack had gone home and was hard at work in his
studio, Victor Nevill sauntered down St. James street. He wore evening
dress, and carried a light overcoat on his arm. He stopped at Lamb and
Drummond's window for a few moments, and scrutinized the Rembrandt
carelessly, but with a rather curious expression on his face. Then he
looked at his watch--the time was half-past five--and cutting across
into the park he walked briskly to St. James' Park station. The train
that he wanted was announced, and when it came in he watched the row of
carriages as they flashed by him. He entered a first-class smoker, and
nodded to Stephen Foster. The two were not alone in the compartment, and
during the ride of half an hour they exchanged only a few words, and
gave close attention to their papers. But they had plenty to talk about
after they got out at Gunnersbury, and their conversation was grave and
serious as they walked slowly toward the river, by the long shady
streets lined with villas.

Stephen Foster's house stood close to the lower end of
Strand-on-the-Green. It was more than a century old, and was larger
than it looked from the outside. It had the staid and comfortable stamp
of the Georgian period, with its big square windows, and the unique
fanlight over the door. Directly opposite the entrance, across the strip
of paved quay, was a sort of a water-gate leading down to the sedgy
shore of the Thames--a flight of stone steps, cut out of the masonry,
from the foot of which it was possible to take boat at high tide. In the
rear of the house was a walled garden, filled with flowers, shrubbery,
and fruit trees.

Opening the door with his key, Stephen Foster led his guest into the
drawing-room, where Madge was sitting with a book. She kissed her
father, and gave a hand reluctantly to Nevill, whom she addressed as Mr.
Royle. She resumed her reading, perched on a couch by the window, and
Nevill stole numerous glances at her while he chatted with his host.

The curio-dealer dined early--he was always hungry when he came back
from town--and dinner was announced at seven o'clock. It was a
protracted ceremony, and the courses were well served and admirably
cooked; the wine came from a carefully selected cellar, and was beyond
reproach. Madge presided at the table, and joined in the conversation;
but it evidently cost her an effort to be cheerful. After the dessert
she rose.

"Will you and Mr. Royle excuse me, father?" she said. "I know you want
to smoke."

"I hope you are not going to desert us, Miss Foster," Nevill replied.
"Your company is preferable to the best cigar."

"We will go up stairs and smoke," said Stephen Foster. "Come, Royle; my
daughter would rather play the piano."

The library, whither Nevill accompanied his host, was on the second
floor front. It was a cozy room, trimmed with old oak, with furniture to
match, lined with books and furnished with rare engravings and Persian
rugs. Stephen Foster lighted the incandescent gas-lamp on the big table,
drew the window curtains together, and closed the door. Then he unlocked
a cabinet and brought out a box of Havanas, a siphon, a couple of
glasses, and a bottle of whisky and one of Maraschino.

"Sit down, and help yourself," he said. "Or is it too early for a
stimulant?"

Nevill did not reply; he was listening to the low strains of music from
the floor beneath, where Madge was at the piano, singing an old English
ballad. He hesitated for a moment, and dropped into an easy chair.
Stephen Foster drew his own chair closer and leaned forward.

"We are quite alone," he said, "and there is no danger of being
overheard or disturbed. You intimated that you had something particular
to say to me. What is it? Does it concern our little--"

"No; we discussed that after we left the train. It is quite a different
matter."

Nevill's usual self-possession seemed to have deserted him, and as he
went on with his revelation he spoke in jerky sentences, with some
confusion and embarrassment.

"That's all there is about it," he wound up, aggressively.

"All?" cried Stephen Foster.

He got up and walked nervously to the window. Then he turned back and
confronted Nevill; there was a look on his face that was not pleasant to
see, as if he had aged suddenly.

"Is this a jest, or are you serious?" he demanded, coldly. "Do I
understand that you love my daughter?--that you wish to marry her?"

"I have told you so plainly. You must have known that I loved her--you
cannot have been blind to that fact all this time."

"I have been worse than blind, Nevill, I fear. Have you spoken to Madge?"

"No; I never had a chance."

"Do you consider yourself a suitable husband for her?"

"Why not?" Nevill asked; he was cool and composed now. "If you are good
enough to be her father, am I not worthy to be her husband?"

"Don't say that," Stephen Foster answered. "You are insolent--you forget
to whom you are speaking. Whatever our relations have been and are,
whatever sort of man I am at my desk or my ledgers, I am another person
at home. Sneer if you like, it is true. I love my daughter--the child of
my dead wife. She does not know what I do in town--you are aware of
that--and God forbid that she ever does learn. I want to keep her in
ignorance--to guard her young life and secure her future happiness. And
_you_ want to marry her!"

"I do," replied Nevill, trying to speak pleasantly.

"How will you explain the deception--the fact that you have been coming
here under a false name?"

"I will get around that all right. It was your suggestion, you remember,
not mine, that I should take the name of Royle. Look here, Foster, I
know there is some reason in what you say--I respect your motives. But
you misunderstand and misjudge me. I love the girl with all my heart,
with a true, pure and lasting affection. I might choose a wife in higher
places, but Madge has enslaved me with her sweet face and charming
disposition. As for our relations--you know what poverty drove me to.
Given a secure income, and I should never have stooped to dishonor. The
need of money stifled the best that was in my nature. It is not too late
to reform, though. I don't mean now, but when I come into my uncle's
fortune, which is a sure thing. Then, I promise you, I will be as
straight as you could wish your daughter's husband to be. Believe me,
I am sincere. No man could offer Madge a deeper affection."

There was no doubt that Victor Nevill spoke the truth, for once in his
life; he loved Madge with a passion that dominated him, and he knew his
own unworthiness. Stephen Foster paced the floor with a haggard face,
with knitted brows.

"It is impossible," he said to himself. "I would rather see her married
to some poor but honest clerk." He lighted a cigar and bit it savagely.
"What if I refuse?" he added aloud.

A dangerous light flashed in Nevill's eyes.

"I won't give her up," he replied; and in the words there was a hidden
menace which Stephen Foster understood.

"Give her up?" he echoed. "You have not won her yet."

"I know that, but I hope to succeed."

"What do you expect me to do?"

"All in your power. Give me a fair show."

"The girl shan't be bullied or browbeaten--I won't force her into such a
step against her wishes. If she marries you, it will be of her own free
will."

"That's fair enough. But I want an open field. You must keep other
admirers away from the girl, and there isn't any time to lose about it.
It may be too late now--"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that Madge has improved her acquaintance with the chap who
pulled her out of the river a couple of weeks ago."

"Impossible, Nevill!"

"It is perfectly true. And do you know who the man is? It is none other
than Jack Vernon, the artist."

"By heavens, Jack Vernon! The same who--"

"Yes, the same. I did not tell you before."

"And I did not dream of it. I wrote a letter of gratitude to the fellow,
and told Madge to get his address from the landlord of the Black Bull--I
did not know it myself, else--"

"I was afraid you might have some scruples. It is too late for that
now."

"It was like your cursed cunning," exclaimed Stephen Foster. "Yes,
I should have hesitated. But are you certain that Madge has seen the
fellow since?"

"Certain? Why, I passed them in George street, Richmond, last evening,
as I was driving to the Star and Garter. They were together in a trap,
going toward Kew. That is the reason I determined to speak to you
to-night."

Stephen Foster rose and hurried toward the door; his face was pale with
anger and alarm.

"Stop!" cried Nevill. "What are you going to do?"

"Sit still," was the hoarse reply. "I'll tell you when I return."




CHAPTER IX.

UNCLE AND NEPHEW.


Victor Nevill was on his feet instantly, and by a quick move he
intercepted Foster and clutched him by the arm. He repeated his
question: "What are you going to do?"

"Take your hand off me. I shall hear from Madge's own lips a denial of
your words. How dare you accuse her of stooping to an intrigue?"

"I wouldn't call it that. Madge is young and innocent. She knows little
of the censorious world. She has been left pretty much to herself, and
naturally she sees no harm in meeting Vernon. As for denying my
words--she can't do that."

"I will call her to account, and make her confess everything."

"But not to-night," urged Nevill. "Come, sit down."

Stephen Foster yielded to the solicitation of his companion, and went
back to his chair. He mixed a whisky and soda, and drank half of it.

"I forget," he muttered, "that my little Madge has grown to womanhood.
Her very innocence would make her an easy prey to some unscrupulous
scoundrel. I must speak to her, Nevill."

"Yes, by all means."

"And why not to-night?"

"Need you ask? Would not Madge know at once that it was I who told you?
And what, then, would be my chance of winning her?"

"It couldn't be any poorer than it is now," thought Stephen Foster.
"Did she see you yesterday?" he said aloud.

"No, by good luck she did not--at least I feel pretty sure of it. A
jolly good thing, too, for Vernon recognized me and nodded to me. But
whether Madge saw me or not won't make much difference under present
circumstances. If you go downstairs now and start a row with her, she
will be sure to suspect that you received your information from me."

"Quite likely. What do you want me to do?"

"Wait until to-morrow evening, when you return from town. Then tell
her that some stock-broking friend of yours in the city saw her near
Richmond station."

"That is the best plan," assented Stephen Foster. "I will take your
advice."

"Of course you will forbid her to have anything more to do with Vernon,
and will see that your wishes are enforced?"

"Decidedly. The man has behaved badly, and I can't believe that he has
any honorable intentions. He has been simply amusing himself with the
girl."

"That's like him," Nevill said carelessly. "Jack Vernon was always a
rake and a _roue_; though, as I am a friend of his, I ought not to tell
you this. But for your daughter's sake--"

"I understand. The warning is timely, and I will see that the girl's
eyes are opened."

"And you will give Madge to me if I can win her consent."

"She shall marry the man she loves--the man of her choice," replied
Stephen Foster, "provided he is worthy of her. But I won't compel her
to do anything against her wishes."

"I am not asking you to do that. I have your permission, then, to visit
here as a suitor?"

"Yes; I shall be glad to see you a couple of times a week."

Stephen Foster did not speak very cordially, and his expression was not
that of a father who has found a suitable husband for his daughter; but
Victor Nevill had gained his point, and was satisfied with what he had
so far accomplished. He was a vain man, and possessed an overweening
amount of self-confidence, especially where women were concerned.

The two had other subjects to discuss. For a couple of hours--long after
Madge had forsaken the piano and gone to bed--a whispered conversation
was carried on that had no reference to the girl. It was nearly eleven
o'clock when Nevill left the house, and bade Stephen Foster good-night
on the step. He knew the way in spite of the darkness and the paucity
of street lamps. Having lighted a cigar, he walked briskly toward
Gunnersbury.

"It was a narrow squeak yesterday," he reflected. "Until I met the girl
to-night, I was doubtful as to her having failed to see me on the coach.
It would have been most unfortunate had both of them recognized me; they
would have compared notes in that case, and discovered that Victor
Nevill and Mr. Royle were one and the same. I must be more careful in
future. Foster was rather inclined to be ugly, but he promised certain
things, and he knows that he can't play fast and loose with me. I am
afraid some harm has been done already, but it will blow over if he
keeps a tight rein on his daughter. As for Vernon, he must be forced to
decamp. Curse the fate that brought him across my path! There's not much
I would stop at if he became a dangerous rival. But there is no danger
of that. I have the inner track, and by perseverance I will win the
girl in the end. She is not a bit like other women--that's her
charm--but it ought to count for something when she learns that I am Sir
Lucius Chesney's heir. I've been going to the devil pretty fast, but I
meant what I told Foster. I love Madge with all my better nature, and
for her sake I would run as straight as a die. A look from her pretty
eyes makes me feel like a blackguard."

Thus Nevill communed with himself until he neared Gunnersbury station,
when the distant rumble of a train quickened his steps. He had just time
to buy his ticket, dash down the steps, and jump into a first-class
carriage. Getting out at Portland road, he took a cab to Regent street,
and dropped in at the Cafe Royal for a few minutes. Then he started
toward his lodgings on foot. It was that witching hour when West End
London, before it goes to sleep, foams and froths like a glass of
champagne that will soon be flat and flavorless. Men and women, inclined
to be hilarious, thronged the pavements under the strong lights. Birds
of prey, male and female, prowled alertly.

A jingling hansom swung from Piccadilly Circus into the Quadrant. Its
occupants were a short, Jewish-looking man with a big diamond in his
shirt-front, and a woman who leaned forward more prominently than her
companion. She was richly dressed, and--at least by gaslight--strikingly
beautiful, with great eyes of a purplish hue, and a mass of golden-red
hair that might or might not have been natural; only at close range
could one have detected the ravages of an unfortunate and unbridled
life--the tell-tale marks that the lavish use of powder and rouge could
not utterly hide.

The vehicle very nearly ran Victor Nevill down--he had been about to
cross the street--and as he dodged back to the sidewalk his face was
for an instant close to the woman's, and he saw her distinctly. He
uttered an exclamation of surprise, and started as though an unseen hand
had dealt him a blow. He hesitated briefly, seemingly dazed, and then
started in pursuit. But he ran into a couple of men at the outset, and
by the time he had stammered an apology, and was free to look about him
again, the swift-moving hansom was lost to sight in a maze of similar
vehicles.

"It's no use to follow in a cab," muttered Nevill. "And I must be
mistaken, anyway. It can't be she whom I saw--she is dead."

He stood at the edge of the pavement, staring undecidedly up the curve
of the street. When a brace of painted women, emboldened by his
attitude, shot covert remarks at him, he turned on them sharply. But,
seeing a policeman approaching, he walked on.

"By heavens, I was _not_ mistaken!" he said to himself. "The papers must
have blundered--such things often happen. She is much altered, but they
were her eyes, her lips. To think that her peerless beauty should have
brought her so low! She is nothing to me now, though I nearly broke my
heart over her once. But she may serve as a useful tool. She will be a
trump card to play, if need be. She has probably come to London recently,
and if she stays any time it would not be a difficult matter for me to
find her. I daresay she drained the Russian's purse, and then served
him as she served me. The heartless vampire! But I am glad I saw her
to-night. With her aid it will be easier than I hoped, perhaps, to win
Madge."

       *       *       *       *       *

Since ten o'clock an unexpected visitor had been waiting in Victor
Nevill's rooms on Jermyn street. In a big basket-chair, drawn close to
the light, sat Sir Lucius Chesney. He had helped himself to cigars and
brandy-and-soda, and had dipped into half a dozen late novels that were
scattered about the table, but without finding any to interest him. It
was long past twelve now, and he was beginning to feel drowsy and out of
temper. He wished he had remained in the smoking-room of his hotel, or
hunted up some old acquaintances at the Country Club.

Sir Lucius was a medium-sized, slightly portly gentleman of fifty-eight,
though he did not look his age, thanks to the correct life he led. He
had a military carriage, a rubicund face, a heavy mustache, keen,
twinkling eyes, and a head of iron-gray hair. He was a childless
widower, and Victor Nevill, the son of his dead sister Elizabeth, was
his nephew, and presumably his heir. He had had another sister--his
favorite one--but many years ago he had cast her out of his life. He
lived alone at his fine old place in Sussex, Priory Court, near to the
sea and the downs. When he was at home he found occupation in shooting
and fishing, riding, cultivating hot-house fruits, and breeding horses
and cattle. These things he did to perfection, but his knowledge of art
was not beyond criticism. He was particularly fond of old masters, but
he bought all sorts of pictures, and had a gallery full of them. He made
bad bargains sometimes, and was imposed upon by unscrupulous dealers.
That, however, was nobody's business, as long as he himself was
satisfied.

He cared nothing for London or for society, and seldom came up to town;
but he liked to travel, and a portion of each year he invariably spent
on the Continent or in more remote places. He smoked Indian cheroots
from choice--he had once filled a civil position in Bombay for eighteen
months--and his favorite wine was port. He was generous and
kind-hearted, and believed that every young man must sow his crop of
wild oats, and that he would be the better for it. But there was another
and a deeper side to his character. In his sense of honor he was a
counterpart of Colonel Newcome, and he had a vast amount of family
pride; a sin against that he could neither forget nor forgive, and he
was relentless to the offender.

It was twenty minutes to one when Victor Nevill mounted the stairs and
opened his door, surprised to see that the gas was lighted in his rooms.
If he was unpleasantly startled by the sight of his visitor, he masked
his feelings successfully.

"My dear uncle," he cried, "I am delighted to see you!"

"You dog!" exclaimed Sir Lucius, with a beaming countenance. "You
night-bird! Do you know that I have been here since ten o'clock?"

"I am awfully sorry, I assure you, sir. If you had only dropped me a
line or wired. I have been dining with a friend in the suburbs, and the
best train I could catch took me to Portland road."

Possibly Sir Lucius did not believe this explanation. He glanced keenly
at his nephew, noting his flushed face and rumpled shirt-bosom, and a
shadow of displeasure crossed his features.

"I hoped to spend a few quiet hours with you," he said. "I came to town
this evening, and put up at Morley's. I am off to Norway in the morning,
by a steamer that sails from the Thames, and from there I shall probably
go to the Continent. I have been feeling a little run down--livery--and
my physician has advised a complete change of air."

"You are a regular globe-trotter," replied Victor, laughing to hide his
sudden look of relief. "I wish I could induce you to spend the season in
London."

"That's well enough for an idle young dog like yourself--you can't exist
out of London. What are you doing?"

"Nothing in particular. I read a good bit--"

"Yes, trashy novels. Does your income hold out?"

"I manage to get along, with economy."

"Economy? Humph! I have taken the liberty to look about your rooms.
The landlady remembered me and let me in. You have a snug nest--more
luxurious than the last time I was here. It is fit for a Sybarite. Your
brandy is old liquor, and must have cost you a pretty penny. Your cigars
are too good for _me_, sir, and I'll warrant you don't pay less than ten
pounds a hundred for them. As for your clothing, you have enough to
start a shop."

"I must keep up appearances, my dear uncle."

"Yes, I suppose so. I don't blame you for wanting to stand well with
your friends, if you can afford it. Your father and mother spoiled you.
You should have gone to the bar, or into the army or the church.
However, it is too late to talk about that now. But, to be frank with
you, my boy, it has come to my ears that you are leading a fast life."

"It is false!" Victor cried, indignantly.

"I sincerely trust so. I have heard only rumors, and I do not care to
attach any credence to them. But a word of warning--of advice--may not
be out of place. Young men must have their fling, and I think none the
worse of them for it. But you are not young, in your knowledge of the
world. It is six or seven years since you were thrown on the Continent
with a full purse. You have been able to indulge every whim and fancy.
You have had enough of wild oats. Fill your niche in Society and
Clubdom, if you like. Be a butterfly and an ornament, if you feel no
inclination for anything better. But be a gentleman--be honorable. If
you ever forget yourself, and bring a shadow of shame upon the unsullied
names of Chesney or Nevill, by gad, sir, you shall never touch a penny
of my money. I will leave it all to charities, and turn Priory Court
into a hospital. Mark that! If you go wrong, I'll hear of it. I'm good
for twenty years yet, if I'm good for a day."

"You seem to have a very bad opinion of me, Uncle Lucius. I never give
your fortune a thought. As for the honor of the family, it is as dear to
me as it is to you."

"Glad to hear you say it, my boy," replied Sir Lucius, breathlessly. "It
shows spirit. Well, I hope you'll overlook my sharp words. I meant them
for your good. And if you want a check--"

"Thanks, awfully, but I don't need it," Victor interrupted, with a
stroke of inspiration. "My income keeps me going all right. It is only
in trifles that I am extravagant. I have inherited a taste, sir, for
good cigars and old brandy."

"You dog, of course you have. Your maternal grandfather was noted for
his wine cellar, and he bought his Havanas by the thousand from Fribourg
and Treyer. That I should prefer cheroots is rank degeneracy. But I must
be off, or I shall get no sleep. I won't ask you to come down to the
dock in the morning--"

"But I insist upon coming, sir."

"Then breakfast with me at Morley's--nine o'clock sharp."

Uncle and nephew parted on the best of terms, but Sir Lucius was not
altogether easy in mind as he walked down Regent street, tapping the
now deserted pavement with his stick.

"I hope the boy is trustworthy," he thought. "He has some excuse for
recklessness and extravagance, but none for dishonor. I told him the
name of Chesney was unsullied--I forgot for a moment. It is strange that
Mary should be so much in my mind lately. Poor girl! Perhaps I was too
harsh with her. I wonder if she is still alive--if she has a son. But if
she came to me this moment, I could not forgive her. Nearly thirty years
have not softened me."

He sighed heavily as he entered Trafalgar Square, and to a wretched
woman with an infant in her arms, crouching under the shadow of the
Nelson Column, he tossed a silver piece.




CHAPTER X.

A LONDON SENSATION.


It had rained most of the afternoon, and then cleared off beautifully
just before twilight. Strand-on-the-Green, ever changeful of mood, was
this evening as fresh and sweet-smelling as a bit of the upper
Thames--as picturesque as any waterside village a hundred miles from
London.

By the grassy margin of the river, between Maynard's boat-house and the
elm trees, Jack Vernon strolled impatiently up and down. He was in low
spirits, and the beauty of the evening was wasted on him. He had been
here for fifteen minutes, and he told himself that he had been a fool to
come at all, at such an hour. He waited a little longer, and then, as he
was on the point of leaving, he heard light footsteps approaching, and
recognized them with a lover's keen perception. He hurried to meet the
slim, girlish figure, with a light cloak fluttering from her shoulders,
and Madge's little cry of pleasure was stifled on her lips as he kissed
them again and again.

"My darling!" he whispered eagerly. "I scarcely dared to hope that you
would come to-night, but I could not stay away. Do you know that you
have treated me cruelly? I have not seen you for two days--since
Wednesday afternoon. And I have been here twice."

"I am sorry, Jack, but I could not help it. I missed you ever so much."

"Where is your father?"

"He is not at home--that is why I came. He is dining in town with an
old friend, and won't be back until the last train, at the very
earliest."

"I am indebted to him. I was hungry for a sight of you, dearest."

"And I longed to see you, Jack. But I am afraid we shall not be able to
meet as often as before."

"Madge, what do you mean? Has anything gone wrong?"

The girl linked her arm in his, and drew him to a darker and lonelier
spot by the water. In a few words, tremulously spoken, she told him what
he had already surmised--that her father had discovered her secret, and
had taxed her with it when he came home on the previous evening.

"By Jove, it was my fault," Jack said, contritely. "I should not have
tempted you to go on that unlucky trip last Tuesday. So you were seen
near Richmond station by some meddlesome individual--probably when you
got out of the trap! But it may turn out for the best; your father could
not have been kept in ignorance much longer. Was he angry?"

"Yes, Jack; but he seemed more hurt and grieved. Oh, it was such a
wretched time!"

"My poor girl! Does--does he want you to give me up?"

"He forbade me to see you again."

"And you are here!"

"Did you expect me to obey him?"

"What did you tell him, dearest?"

"All--everything. I spoke up bravely, Jack. I told him I was a woman
now, and that I loved you with all my heart, and intended to marry you!"

"My own plucky Madge! And I suppose that made him the more angry?"

"No; my defiance surprised him--he thought I would yield. He talked
about ingratitude, and called me a foolish girl who did not know her own
mind. He looked awfully sad and stern, Jack, but when I kissed him and
begged him not to be angry, he melted a little."

"And gave in?"

"No, neither of us yielded; we agreed to a sort of a tacit truce. Father
did not speak of the matter again, and he went to town very early this
morning, before I was up. He left word with Mrs. Sedgewick that he would
not be back until late. I was sure he would go to your studio."

"I have not seen him," replied Jack; "but I hope he will come. If he
doesn't I shall call on him and ask for your hand, and without delay. It
is the only honorable course. Until I set things right with him, and
satisfy him of my intentions, I can't blame him for thinking all sorts
of evil of me."

"If he knew you as I know you, dear!"

"But he doesn't," Jack said, bitterly. "Is it likely that he will consent
to let you marry a poor artist? No. But I can't--I won't--give you up,
Madge!"

The girl rested her hands on his shoulders, and looked trustfully into
his face.

"Dear Jack, don't worry," she whispered. "It will all come right in the
end. We love each other, and we will be true. Nothing shall part us. I
am yours always, and some day I will be your wife. Promise that you will
believe me--that you will never be afraid of losing me!"

"I _do_ believe you, darling," Jack said, fervently. "You have made me
happy again--your words have driven the clouds away. I could not live
without you, Madge. Since I have known you the whole world seems
brighter and better. For your sake I am going to make a name and a
fortune."

He kissed her passionately, and for a few moments they stood watching
the incoming tide, and talking in a lighter vein. Then they parted, and
Madge slipped away toward the old house with its guardian elm trees. The
memory of her last words cheered Jack as he walked to the high-road and
thence to his studio. Alphonse had prepared him a tempting little
supper, and he did not go to town that night.

The next morning London awoke to a new sensation, which quite eclipsed
the week-old theft of the Duchess of Hightower's jewels and the recent
mysterious murder at Hoxton. The news was at first meager and
unsatisfactory, and contained little more in substance than was found
in the big headlines and on the posters of the leading papers:

DARING ROBBERY AT LAMB AND DRUMMOND'S.

THE FAMOUS REMBRANDT CARRIED OFF--WATCHMAN BRUTALLY HANDLED.

The early journals had gone to press before a full report of the affair
could reach them, but a detailed account appeared between ten and eleven
o'clock in the first edition of the afternoon papers. The Rembrandt was
gone--there was no doubt of it--and the story of its disappearance
contained many dramatic elements. A curious crowd gathered about the
premises of Lamb and Drummond on Pall Mall, to gaze at the now vacant
window, and the services of a policeman were required to keep the
sidewalk clear. Many persons recalled the similar case, some years
before, of the Gainsborough portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Mr. Lamb, it appeared, had been detained at his place of business until
long after the closing hour, writing important letters. He left at nine
o'clock, and Raper, the night watchman, fastened the street door behind
him. During the night the policeman on duty in Pall Mall saw or heard
nothing suspicious about the premises. The Rembrandt was on an easel in
a large room back of the shop proper, and from it a rear door opened on
a narrow paved passage leading to Crown Court; the inmates heard no
noise in the night. At four o'clock in the morning a policeman, flashing
his lantern in Crown Court, found a window open at the back of Lamb and
Drummond's premises. He entered at once. Inside the gas was burning
dimly, and the watchman lay bound and gagged in a corner, with a strong
odor of drugs mingling with his breath. The Rembrandt had been cut out
of its frame and carried away.

"The robbery was evidently well-planned, and is enveloped in mystery,"
said the _St. James' Gazette_, "and the thieves left not the slightest
clew. It is difficult to conceive their motive. They cannot hope at
present to dispose of the picture, which is known by reputation in
Europe and America, nor is it certain that they could safely realize
on it after the lapse of years. The watchman, who has recovered
consciousness, declared that he has no knowledge of how the thieves
entered the building. It was about midnight, he states, when he was
knocked down from behind. He remembers nothing after that."

The _Globe's_ account was more sensational. "It has come to light,"
wrote the enterprising reporter, "that Raper, the watchman, was in the
habit of slipping out to the Leather Bottle, on Crown Court, for a
drink at ten o'clock every evening, and leaving the back door of the
shop unlocked. He came into the private bar at the usual time last
night, and remained for twenty minutes. He drank a pint of ale, and was
seen conversing with a shabbily dressed stranger, whose face was
unfamiliar to the publican and the barmaid. This incident suggests two
theories. Did the affable stranger drug Raper's beer, and, at a later
hour of the night, while the watchman was in a stupor, force the window
with one or more companions and carry off the Rembrandt? Or was the
watchman in the plot? Did the thieves slip into the building while he
was in the Leather Bottle, and subsequently bind, gag and drug him, and
force open the window from the outside, in order to screen him from the
suspicions of his employers? We learn that Raper has been suspended from
his position, pending an investigation. Mr. Lamb informs us that the
Rembrandt was insured against fire and burglary for the sum of ten
thousand guineas. The company is the Mutual, and they are sure to do all
in their power to apprehend the thieves and save themselves from such a
heavy loss."

Such was the gist of the newspaper accounts of the puzzling affair. And
now to see how they affected certain individuals who are not strangers
to the reader.




CHAPTER XI.

A MYSTERIOUS DISCOVERY.


Stephen Foster sat in his office at No. 320 Wardour street, with half a
dozen of the morning and afternoon papers scattered about his desk. It
was two o'clock, but he had not gone out to lunch, and it had not
occurred to him that the usual hour for it was past. Footsteps came down
the length of the shop, and Victor Nevill opened the door. He closed it
quickly behind him as he entered the room; his face expressed extreme
agitation, and he looked like a man who has spent a sleepless night.

"You have seen them?" he exclaimed, pointing to the papers. "You have
read the different accounts?"

"Yes, I have read them--that is all. They tell me nothing. You could
have knocked me down with a feather when I bought a _Telegraph_ at
Gunnersbury station this morning, and saw the headlines."

"And I first heard of it at breakfast--I got up rather late. I opened
the _Globe_ and there it was, staring me in the eyes. It knocked my
appetite, I can assure you. What do you make of it?"

"It's a mystery," replied Stephen Foster, "and I am all in the dark
about it. Devilish unfortunate, I call it."

"Right you are! And it's more than that. You have seen the _Globe_?"

"Yes; here it is."

"Did you know that the picture was insured?"

"I judged that it was, but the fact was quite unimportant."

"The Mutual people won't regard it in that light."

"Hardly. Will you have a drink, my dear fellow? You are looking seedy."

A stiff brandy-and-soda pulled Victor Nevill together, and for nearly an
hour the two men spoke in low and serious tones, occasionally referring
to the heap of papers.

"Not the slightest clew," said Stephen Foster. "It is absurd to suspect
Raper of collusion with the thieves--his only fault was carelessness.
Leave the affair to the police. I shan't give it another thought."

"That's easier said than done," Nevill replied. He rose and put on his
hat. "I must be off now. Oh, about the other matter--have you said
anything further to your daughter?"

"Not a word."

"She still defies you?"

"She refuses to give the fellow up." Stephen Foster sighed. "The girl
has lots of spirit."

"You won't let her have her own way?"

"Not if I can prevent it."

"Prevent it?" echoed Nevill, sneeringly. "What measures will you take?"

"I shall see the artist."

"Much good that will do," said Nevill. "Better begin by enforcing your
authority over your daughter."

"I can't be harsh with her," Stephen Foster answered. "I am more
inclined to pity than anger."

Under the circumstances, now that he knew how far matters had gone
with the woman he loved and his rival, Victor Nevill was curiously
unconcerned and unmoved, at least outwardly. It is true that he did not
despair of success, strong as were the odds against him. There was a
hard and evil expression on his face, which melted at times into a
cunning smile of satisfaction, as he walked down Wardour street.

"I am on the right scent, and the game will soon be in my hands," he
reflected. "In another week I ought to be able to put an effectual spoke
in Jack Vernon's wheel. It will be a blow for Madge, but she will forget
him presently, and then I will commence to play my cards. I won't
fail--I'm determined to make her my wife. Shall I let Foster into the
scheme? I think not. Better let things take their course, and keep him
in ignorance of the fact that I had a hand in the revelation, if it
comes off. I'm afraid it won't, though."

We must take the reader now to Ravenscourt Park, to the studio of Jack
Vernon. Early in the afternoon, while Victor Nevill was closeted with
Stephen Foster, the young artist was sitting at his easel. He had been
working since breakfast on a landscape, a commission from one of his
wealthy patrons. Things had gone unusually well with him lately. His
picture was on the line at the Academy, it had been favorably reviewed,
and he had received several offers for it. This indicated increased
fame, with a larger income, and a luxurious little home for Madge.

"Will you have your lunch now, sir?" Alphonse called from the doorway
of an inner room.

"Yes, you may fetch it," Jack replied. "I'm as hungry as a bear."

He usually took his second meal at an earlier hour, but to-day he had
gone on working, deeply interested in his subject. He put aside his
brush and palette, and seated himself at the table, on which Alphonse
had placed a couple of chops, a bottle of Bass, and half a loaf of
French bread. When he had finished, he lighted a cigarette and opened
the _Telegraph_ lazily. He had not looked at it before, and he uttered
a cry of surprise as his eyes fell on the headlines announcing the theft
of the Rembrandt. He perused the brief paragraph, and turned to his
servant.

"Go out and buy me an afternoon paper," he said.

Alphonse departed, and, having the luck to encounter a newsboy in the
street, he speedily returned with the latest edition of the _Globe_. It
contained nothing more in substance than the earlier issues, but the
full account of the mysterious robbery was there, a column long, and
with keen interest Jack read every word of it over twice.

"It's a queer case," he said to himself, "and the sort of thing
that doesn't often happen. The last sensation of the kind was the
Gainsborough, years ago. What will the thieves do with their prize?
They can't well dispose of it. It will be a waiting game. I daresay
the watchman knows more than he cares to tell. And so the picture was
insured--over-insured, too, for I don't believe it would have brought
ten thousand pounds. That's rather an interesting fact. Now, if Lamb
and Drummond were like some unscrupulous dealers that I know, instead
of being beyond reproach, there would be reason to think--"

He did not finish the mental sentence, but tossed the paper aside, and
rose suddenly to his feet.

"By Jove, I'll hang up the duplicate!" he muttered. "I was going to
send it to Von Whele's executors, but it is worth keeping now, as a
curiosity. It will be an attraction to the chaps who come to see me.
I hope it won't get me into trouble. It is so deucedly like the original
that I might be accused of stealing it from the premises of Lamb and
Drummond."

He crossed the studio, knelt down by the couch and pulled the drapery
aside, and drew out the half-dozen of bulging portfolios; they had not
been disturbed since the visit of his French customer, M. Felix
Marchand. He opened the one in which he knew he had seen the Rembrandt
on that occasion, but he failed to find it, though he turned over the
sketches singly. He examined them again, with increasing wonder, and
then went carefully through the other portfolios. The search was
fruitless. The copy of Martin Von Whele's Rembrandt was gone!

"What can it mean?" thought Jack. "I distinctly remember putting the
canvas back in the biggest portfolio--I could swear to that. I have not
touched them since. Yet the picture is gone--missing--stolen. Yes,
stolen! What else? By Jove, it's a queer coincidence that both the
original and the copy should disappear simultaneously!"

He struck a match and looked beneath the couch; there was nothing there.
He ransacked about the studio for a few minutes, and then summoned his
servant.

"Was there a stranger here at any time during the last two weeks?" he
asked; "any person whom you did not know?"

Alphonse shook his head decidedly.

"There was no one, monsieur. I am certain of that."

"And my friends--"

"On such occasions as monsieur's friends called while he was out, I was
in the studio as long as they remained."

"Yes, of course. When did you sweep under this couch?"

"About three weeks ago, monsieur," was the hesitating reply.

"No less than that?"

"No less, monsieur."

Jack was satisfied. There was no room for suspicion, he told himself.
The man's word was to be relied upon. But by what agency, then, had the
canvas disappeared? How could a thief break into the studio without
leaving some trace of his visit, in the shape of a broken window or a
forced lock? There had been plenty of opportunities, it is true--nights
when Alphonse had been at home and Jack in town.

"Has monsieur lost something?"

"Yes, a large painting has been stolen," Jack replied.

He went to the door and examined the lock from the outside, by the aid
of matches, though with no hope of finding anything. But a surprising
and ominous discovery rewarded him at once. In and around the key-hole,
sticking to it, were some minute fragments of wax.

"By Jove, I have it!" cried Jack. "Here is the clew! Look, Alphonse! The
scoundrel, whoever he was, took an impression in wax on his first visit.
He had a key made from it, came back later at night, and stole the
picture. It was a cunning piece of work."

"Monsieur is right," said Alphonse. "A thief has robbed him. You suspect
nobody?"

"Not a soul," replied Jack.

Though the shreds of wax showed how the studio had been entered, he was
no nearer the solution of the mystery than before. He excepted the few
trustworthy friends--only three or four--who knew that he had the
duplicate Rembrandt.

"And even in Paris there were not many who knew that I painted the
thing," he thought. "I painted it at the Hotel Netherlands, and when Von
Whele went home and left it on my hands, I locked the canvas up in an
old chest. No, I can't suspect any of my friends, past or present. But
then who--By Jove! I have overlooked one point! The man who stole the
picture knew just where it was kept, and he went straight to it.
Otherwise he would have rummaged the studio, and disarranged things
badly before he found what he wanted."

A light flashed on Jack--a light of inspiration, of certainty and
conviction. He remembered the visit of M. Felix Marchand, that he had
commented on the painting, and had seen it restored to its place in the
portfolio. Beyond doubt the mysterious Frenchman was the thief. Armed
with his craftily-won knowledge, provided with a duplicate key to the
studio, he had easily and safely accomplished his purpose. At what hour,
and on what night, it was impossible to say. Probably a day or two after
his first visit in the guise of a buyer.

"Monsieur must not take his loss too much to heart," said Alphonse, with
well-meant sympathy. "If he informs the police--"

"I prefer to have nothing to do with the police, thank you. You may go,
Alphonse. I shall dine in town, as usual."

When Alphonse had departed, Jack threw a sheet over the canvas on his
easel, put on a smoking jacket, lighted his pipe, and stretched himself
in an easy chair, to think about the startling discovery he had made.

The mystery presented many difficult points for his consideration. The
rogue's sole aim was to get that particular painting, and he had taken
nothing else, though he might have walked off with his pockets filled
with valuable articles. He probably expected that the robbery would not
be discovered for a long time.

But what was his object in stealing the Rembrandt? What did he hope to
do with a copy of so well-known a work of art? Was there any connection
between this crime and the one committed last night on the premises of
the Pall Mall dealers? That was extremely unlikely. It was beyond
question that Lamb and Drummond had had the original painting in their
possession, and that daring burglars had taken it.

"I could see light in the matter," Jack reflected, "if the fellow had
visited my place after hearing of the robbery at Lamb and Drummond's.
In that case, his scheme would have been to get the duplicate
canvas--granted that he knew of its existence and whereabouts--and trade
it off for the original. But he could not have known until early this
morning, and he did not come then. I was sleeping here, and would have
heard him. No, my picture must have been taken at least a week or ten
days ago."

Jack smoked two more pipes, and the dark-brown Latakia tobacco from
Oriental shores, stealing insidiously to his brain, brought him an idea.

"It is chimeric and improbable," he concluded, "but it is the most likely
theory I have struck yet. Was my Frenchman the same chap who robbed Lamb
and Drummond? Did he or his confederates steal both paintings, knowing
them to be as like as two peas, with the intention of disposing of each
as the original, and thus killing two birds with one stone? By Jove, I
believe I've hit it! But, no, it is unlikely. Can I be right? I'll
reserve my opinion, anyway, until I have written to Paris to ascertain
if there is such a person as M. Felix Marchand, of the Pare Monceaux. If
there is _not_, then I will interview Lamb and Drummond, and confide the
whole story to them."

He decided to write the letter at once, but before he could reach his
desk there was a sharp rap on the door. He opened it, and saw a tall,
well-dressed gentleman, with a tawny beard and mustache, who bowed
coldly and silently, and held out a card. Jack took it and read the
name. His visitor was Stephen Foster.




CHAPTER XII.

A COWARDLY COMMUNICATION.


"You doubtless know why I have come," said Stephen Foster, as he stepped
into the room and closed the door. He looked penetratingly at the young
man through a pair of gold-rimmed eye-glasses.

"I think I do, sir," Jack replied, "and I am very glad to see you.
I rather expected a visit from you. Take a seat, please."

"Thank you--I prefer to stand. My business is very brief, Mr. Vernon.
It is quite unnecessary to enter into discussions or explanations. You
are aware, of course, that my daughter has told me everything. Do you
consider that you have acted honorably--that your conduct has been what
a gentleman's should be?"

"It has, sir. Appearances are a little against me, I admit, but I have
a clear conscience, Mr. Foster. I love your daughter with all my heart,
and I have no higher aim in life than to make her my wife. I am heartily
glad of the opportunity to tell you this to your face. Believe me, it
was not from choice that I stooped to clandestine meetings."

Stephen Foster laughed contemptuously.

"You took an unfair advantage of an innocent and trustful girl," he
said. "My daughter is young, ignorant of the world, and she does not
know her own mind. You have cast a spell over her, as it were. She
defies me--she refuses to obey my orders. You have estranged us, Mr.
Vernon, and brought a cloud into what was a happy home. I appeal to you,
in a father's name, to release the girl from the ill-advised and foolish
promises she made you."

"I cannot give her up, sir. I fear you do not understand how much
Madge--Miss Foster--is to me. If words could prove my sincerity, my
devotion to her--"

"Her marriage to you is out of the question."

"May I ask why?"

"My reasons do not concern you."

"But at least I am entitled to some explanation--it is no more than my
due," said Jack. "Why do you object to me as a son-in-law? I am not a
rake or an idler--you can easily satisfy yourself of my character, if
you like. I am not a rich man, but I can offer your daughter a
comfortable, even a luxurious, home. I have succeeded in my profession,
and in another year I shall doubtless be making an income of two or
three thousand pounds."

"I am ready to admit all that," was Stephen Foster's curt reply. "It
does not alter the position, however."

"I suppose you have higher views for your daughter!" Jack cried,
bitterly.

"Yes, I have," Stephen Foster admitted, after a moment's hesitation. "I
don't mind saying as much. But this interview has already lasted longer
than I intended it should, Mr. Vernon. Have I appealed to you in vain?"

"With all proper respect to you, sir, I can answer you in only one way,"
Jack replied, firmly. "Your daughter returns my affection, and she is a
woman in ten thousand--a woman for whose love one might well count the
world well lost. I cannot, I will not, give her up."

The young artist's declaration, strange to say, brought no angry
response from Stephen Foster. For an instant the hard lines on his
face melted away, and there was a gleam of something closely akin to
admiration in his eyes; he actually made a half-movement to hold out
his hand, but as quickly withdrew it. He turned and opened the door.

"Is this your last word?" he asked from the threshold.

"That rests with you. I cannot retreat from my position. Should I
renounce your daughter, after winning her heart, I would deserve to
be called--"

"Very well, sir," interrupted Stephen Foster. "I shall know what
measures to take in the future. Forewarned is forearmed. And, by the
way, to save you the trouble of hanging about Strand-on-the-Green, I
may tell you that I have sent my daughter out of town on a visit."

With that parting shot he went down the short flight of steps, and
passed into the street. Jack closed the door savagely, and began to
walk up and down the studio, as restless as a caged beast.

"Here's a nice mess!" he reflected. "Angry parent, obdurate daughter,
and all that sort of thing. But I rather fancy I scored--he gained
nothing by his visit, and after he thinks the matter over he will
probably take a more sensible view of it. His appeal to me shows clearly
that he failed to make Madge yield."

On the whole, after further consideration, Jack concluded that there was
no ground for despondency. His spirits rose as he recalled the girl's
earnest and loving promises, her assurances of eternal fidelity.

"My darling will be true to me, come what may," he thought. "No amount
of persuasion or threats can induce her to give me up, and in the end,
when Stephen Foster is convinced of that, he will make the best of it
and withdraw his objections. If Madge has been sent out of town, she
went against her will. But, of course, she will manage to let me hear
from her."

Jack sat down to his desk, intending to write a letter to a friend in
Paris, a well-to-do artist who lived in the neighborhood of the Pare
Monceaux. He held his pen undecidedly for a moment, and then leaned back
in his chair with a puzzled countenance.

"By Jove, it's queer," he muttered; "but Stephen Foster's voice was
awfully familiar. We never met before, and I never laid eyes on the man,
so far as I can remember. I am mistaken. It is only a fancy. No--I have
it! He suggests M. Felix Marchand--there is something in common in their
speech, though it is very slight. What an odd coincidence!"

That it could possibly be more than a coincidence did not occur to Jack,
and he would have laughed the idea to scorn. He dismissed the matter
from his mind, wrote and posted the letter, and then went off to dine by
appointment with Victor Nevill.

There was no word from Madge the next day, and it is to be feared that
Jack's work suffered in consequence, and that Alphonse found him
slightly irritable. But on the following morning a letter came in the
well-known handwriting. It was very brief. The girl was _not_ out of
town, but was stopping near Regent's Park with an elderly maternal aunt
who lived in Portland Terrace, and was addicted to the companionship of
cockatoos and cats, not to speak of a brace of overfed, half-blind pugs.

"I am in exile," the letter concluded, "and the dragon is a watchful
jailer. But she sleeps in the afternoon, and at three o'clock to-morrow
I will be inside the Charles street gate."

"To-morrow" meant to-day, and until lunch time Jack's brush flew
energetically over the canvas. He was at the trysting-place at the
appointed hour, and Madge was there waiting for him, so ravishingly
dressed that he could scarcely resist the temptation to gather her in
his arms. As they strolled through the park he rather gloomily described
his visit from Stephen Foster, but the girl's half-smiling, half-tearful
look of affection reassured him.

"You foolish boy!" she said, chidingly. "As if there were any danger of
your losing me. Why, I wouldn't give you up if you wanted me to! I think
you got the best of father, dear. He understands now, and by and by he
will relent. He is a good sort, really, and you will like him when you
know him better."

"We made a bad beginning," Jack said, ruefully.

They had reached the lake by this time, and they went on to a bench in
a shady and sequestered spot. Madge's high spirits seemed suddenly to
desert her, and she looked pensively across the glimmering water to the
tall mansions of Hanover Terrace.

"Madge, something troubles you," her lover said, anxiously.

"Yes, Jack. I--I received an anonymous letter at noon. Mrs. Sedgewick
forwarded it to me. Oh, it is shameful to speak of it--"

"An anonymous letter? There is nothing more vile or cowardly! Did it
concern me?"

"Yes."

"And spoke badly of me?"

"It didn't say anything good."

"I wish I had the scoundrel by the throat! You have no idea who sent
it?"

"None, dear. It was in a strange, scrawly hand, and was postmarked
Paddington."

"It is a mystery I am powerless to explain," Jack said dismally. "To
the best of my knowledge I have not an enemy in the world. I can recall
no one who would wish to do me an ill turn. And the writer lied foully
if he gave me a bad character, Madge. Where is the letter?"

"I destroyed it at once. I hated to see it, to touch it."

"I am sorry you did that. It might have contained some clew. Tell me
all, Madge. Surely, darling, you don't believe--"

"Jack, how can you think so?" She glanced up at him with a tender,
trustful, and yet half-distressed look in her eyes. "Forgive me, dear.
It is not that I doubt you, but--but I must ask you one question. You
are a free man? There is no tie that could forbid you to marry me?"

"I am a free man," Jack answered her solemnly. "Put such evil thoughts
out of your mind, my darling. By the passionate love I feel for you, by
my own honor, I swear that I have an honest man's right to make you
mine. But, as I told you before, I had a reckless past--"

"I don't want to hear about it," Madge interrupted.

No one was within sight or sound, so she put her arms about his neck and
lifted her lips to his.

"Jack, you have made me so happy," she whispered. "I will forget that
false, wicked letter. I love you, love you, dear. And I will be your
wife whenever you wish--"

Her voice broke, and he kissed a tear from her burning cheek.

"My Madge!" he said, softly. "Do you care so much for me?"

Half an hour later they parted at the Hanover Gate. As he turned his
steps homeward, the cowardly anonymous letter lay heavily on his mind.
Who could have written it, and what did it contain? He more than
suspected that it referred to his youthful marriage with Diane Merode.

When he reached the studio he found on his desk a letter bearing a
French stamp. He opened it curiously.




CHAPTER XIII.

THE TEMPTER.


"Just as I suspected!" Jack exclaimed. "I knew I couldn't be mistaken.
I have spotted the thief. The queer chap who bought my water-color
sketches is the same who carried off the Rembrandt. How cleverly he
worked his little game! But there my information stops, and I doubt
if the police could make much out of it."

The letter, which he had crumpled excitedly in his hand after reading
it, was written in French; freely translated it ran as follows:

"No. 15, BOULEVARD DE COURCELLES, PARIS.

"My Dear Jack--I was rejoiced to hear from you, after so long a silence,
and it gave me sincere pleasure to look into the matter of which you
spoke. But I fear that my answers must be in the negative. It is certain
that no such individual as M. Felix Marchand lives in or near the Pare
Monceaux, where I have numerous acquaintances; nor do I find the name in
the directory of Paris. Moreover, he is unknown to the dealer, Cambon, on
the Quai Voltaire, of whom I made inquiries. So the matter rests. I am
pleased to learn of your prosperity. When shall I see you once more in
Lutetia?

"With amiable sentiments I inscribe myself,

"Your old friend,

"CHARLES JACQUIN."

"I'll take the earliest opportunity of seeing Lamb and Drummond," Jack
resolved. "The affair will interest them, and it may lead to something.
But I shan't bother about it--I didn't value the picture very highly,
and the thief almost deserves to keep it for his cleverness."

During the next three days, however, Jack was too busy to carry out his
plan--at least in the mornings. Not for any consideration would he have
sacrificed his afternoons, for then he met Madge in Regent's Park, and
spent an hour or more with her, reckless of extortionate cab fares from
Ravenscourt Park to the neighborhood of Portland Terrace. On the second
night, dining in town, he met Victor Nevill, and had a long chat with
him, the two going to a music-hall afterward. Jack was discreetly silent
about his love affair, nor did he or Nevill refer to the little incident
near Richmond Hill.

At the end of the week Jack's opportunity came. He had finished some
work on which he had been employed for several days, and soon after
breakfast, putting on a frock coat and a top hat he went off to town. He
presented a card at Lamb and Drummond's, and the senior partner of the
firm, who knew him well by reputation, invited him into his private
office. On learning his visitor's errand, Mr. Lamb evinced a keen
interest in the subject. He listened attentively to the story, and asked
various questions.

"Here is the letter from my friend in Paris," Jack concluded. "You will
understand its import. It shows conclusively that M. Marchand came to my
studio under a false name, and leaves no room for doubt that it was he
who stole my duplicate Rembrandt."

"I agree with you, Mr. Vernon. It is a puzzling affair, and I confess I
don't know what to make of it. But it is exceedingly interesting, and I
am very glad that you have confided in me. I think it will be best if
we keep our knowledge strictly to ourselves for the present."

"By all means."

"I except the detectives who are working on the case."

"Yes, of course. They are the proper persons to utilize the
information," assented Jack. "It should not be made public."

"I never knew that a copy of Von Whele's picture was in existence," said
Mr. Lamb. "I need hardly ask if it is a faithful one."

"I am afraid it is," Jack replied, smiling. "I worked slowly and
carefully, and though I was a bit of an amateur in those days, I was
more than satisfied with the result. The pictures were of the same size;
and I really don't think many persons could have distinguished the one
from the other."

"Could _you_ do that now, supposing that both were before you, framed
alike, and that the duplicate was cunningly toned to look as old as the
original?"

"I should not hesitate an instant," Jack replied, "because it happens
that I took the precaution of making a slight mark in one corner of my
canvas."

"Ah, that was a clever idea--very shrewd of you! It may be of the
greatest importance in the future."

"You have not yet given me your opinion of the mysterious Frenchman,"
Jack went on. "Do you believe that he was concerned in both robberies?"

"Circumstances seem to point that way, Mr. Vernon, do they not? Your
picture was certainly taken before mine?"

"It was, without doubt."

"Then, what object could the Frenchman have had in stealing the
comparatively worthless duplicate, unless he counted on subsequently
getting possession of the original?"

"It sounds plausible," said Jack. "That's just my way of looking at it.
The advantage would be--"

"That the thieves would have two pictures, equally valuable to them, to
dispose of secretly," put in Mr. Lamb. "We may safely assume, then, that
our enterprising burglars are in possession of a brace of Rembrandts.
What they will do with them it is difficult to say. They will likely
make no move at present, but it is possible that they will try to
dispose of them in the Continental market or in America, in which case
I have hopes that they will blunder into the hands of the police. Proper
precautions have been taken both at home and abroad."

"Is there any clew yet?"

Mr. Lamb shook his head sadly.

"Not a ray of light has been thrown on the mystery," he replied, "though
the best Scotland Yard men are at work. You may depend upon it that the
insurance people, who stand to lose ten thousand pounds, will leave no
stone unturned. As for Raper, our watchman, he has been discharged. Mr.
Drummond and I are convinced that his story was true, but it was
impossible to overlook his gross carelessness. We never knew that he
was in the habit of going nightly to the public house in Crown Court."

"It's a wonder you were not robbed before," said Jack. "You have my
address--will you let me know if anything occurs?"

"Certainly, Mr. Vernon. Must you be off? Good morning!"

Jack sauntered along Pall Mall, and turned up Regent street. At
Piccadilly Circus he saw two men standing before the cigar shop on the
corner. One was young and boyish looking. The other, a few years older,
was of medium height and stout beyond proportion; he wore a tweed suit
of a rather big check pattern, and the coat was buttoned over a scarlet
waistcoat; the straw hat, gaudily beribboned, shaded a fat, jolly,
half-comical face, of the type that readily inspires confidence. He was
talking to his companion animatedly when he saw Jack approaching. With a
boisterous exclamation of delight he rushed up to him and clapped him on
the shoulder.

"Clare, old boy!" he cried.

"Jimmie Drexell!" Jack gasped in amazement. "Dear old chap, how awfully
glad I am to see you!"

With genuine and heartfelt emotion they shook hands and looked into
each other's eyes--these two who had not met for long years, since the
rollicksome days of student life in Paris when they had been as intimate
as brothers.

"You're fit as a king, my boy--not much changed," spluttered Drexell,
with a strong American accent to his kindly, mellow voice. "I was going
to look you up to-day--only landed at Southampton yesterday--got beastly
tired of New York--yearned for London and Paris--shan't go back for six
months or a year, hanged if I do."

"I'm jolly glad to hear it, Jimmie."

"We'll see a lot of each other--eh, old man? So, you've stuck to the
name of Vernon? I called you Clare, didn't I? Yes, I forgot. You told me
you had taken the other name when you wrote a couple of years ago. I
haven't heard from you since, except through the papers. You've made
a hit, I understand. Doing well?"

"Rather! I've no cause to complain. And you, Jimmie? What's become of
the art?"

"Chucked it, Jack--it was no go. I painted like a blooming Turk--hired a
studio--filled it with jimcrackery--got the best-looking models--wore a
velvet coat and grew long hair. But it was all useless. I earned
twenty-five dollars in three years. I had a picture in a dealer's
shop--his place burnt down--I made him fork over. Then a deceased
relative left me $150,000--said I deserved it for working so hard in
Paris. A good one, eh? I leased the studio to the Salvation Army, and
here I am, a poor devil of an artist out of work."

Jack laughed heartily.

"Art never _was_ much in your line," he said, "though I remember how you
kept pegging away at it. And no one can be more pleased than myself to
learn that you've dropped into a fortune. Stick to it, Jimmie."

"There will be another one some day, Jack--when this is gone. By the
way, I met old Nevill last night--dined with him. And that reminds me--"

He turned to his companion, the fresh-faced boy, and introduced him to
Jack as the Honorable Bertie Raven. The two shook hands cordially, and
exchanged a few commonplace words.

"Come on; we've held up this corner long enough," exclaimed Drexell.
"Let's go and lunch together somewhere. I'll leave it to you, Raven.
Name your place."

"Prince's, then," was the prompt rejoinder.

As they walked along Piccadilly the Honorable Bertie was forced ahead by
the narrowness of the pavement and the jostling crowds, and Drexell
whispered at Jack's ear:

"A good sort, that young chap. I met him in New York a year ago. His
next eldest brother, the Honorable George, is over there now. I believe
he is going to marry a cousin of mine--a girl who will come into a pot
of money when her governor dies."

       *       *       *       *       *

Nine o'clock at night, and a room in Beak street, Regent street; a back
apartment looking into a dingy court, furnished with a sort of tawdry,
depressing luxury, and lighted by a pair of candles. A richly dressed
woman who had once been extremely handsome, and still retained more than
a trace of her charms, half reclined on a couch; a fluffy mass of
coppery-red hair had escaped from under her hat, and shaded her large
eyes; shame and confusion, mingled with angry defiance, deepened the
artificial blush on her cheeks.

Victor Nevill stood in the middle of the floor, confronting her with a
faint, mocking smile at his lips. He had not taken the trouble to remove
his hat. He wore evening dress, with a light cloak over it, and he
twirled a stick carelessly between his gloved fingers.

"So it is really you!" he said.

"If you came to sneer at me, go!" the woman answered spitefully. "You
have your revenge. How did you find me?"

"It was not easy, but I persevered--"

"Why?"

"For a purpose. I will tell you presently. And do not think that I came
to sneer. I am sorry for you--grieved to find you struggling in the
vortex of London." He looked about the room, which, indeed, told a plain
story. "You were intended for better things," he added. "Where is Count
Nordhoff?"

"He left me--three years ago."

"I wouldn't mind betting that you cleaned him out, and then heartlessly
turned him adrift."

"You are insolent!"

"And I dare say you have had plenty of others since. What has become of
the Jew?"

The woman's eyes flashed like a tiger's.

"I wish I had him here now!" she cried. "He deserted me--broke a hundred
promises. I have not seen him for a week."

"You are suffering heavily for the past."

"For the past!" the woman echoed dully. "Victor," she said with a sudden
change of voice, "_you_ loved me once--"

"Yes, once. But you crushed that love--killed it forever. No stage
sentiment, please. Understand that, plainly."

The brief hope died out of the woman's eyes, and was replaced by a gleam
of hatred. She looked at the man furiously.

"There is no need to fly into a passion," said Nevill. "We can at least
be friends. I cherish no ill-feeling--I pity you sincerely. And yet you
are still beautiful enough to turn some men's heads. How are you off for
money?"

The woman opened a purse and dashed a handful of silver to the floor.

"That is my all!" she cried, hoarsely.

"Then you must find a way out of your difficulties. I am going to have
a serious talk with you."

Nevill drew a chair up to the couch, and his first words roused the
woman's interest. He spoke for ten minutes or more, now in whispers, now
with a rising inflection; now persuasively, now with well-feigned
indignation and scorn. The effect which his argument had on his
companion was shown by the swift changes that passed over her face; she
interrupted him frequently, asking questions and making comments. At the
end the woman rustled her silken skirts disdainfully, and rose to her
feet.

"Why do you suggest this, Victor?" she demanded. "Where do _you_ come
in?"

Nevill seemed slightly disconcerted.

"I am foolish enough to feel an interest in a person I once cared for,"
he replied. "I want to save you from ruin that is inevitable if you
continue in your present course."

"It is kind of you, Victor Nevill," the woman answered sneeringly. "He
has a personal motive," she thought. "What can it be?"

"The thing is so simple, so natural," said Nevill, "that I wonder you
hesitate. Of course you will fall in with it."

"Suppose I refuse?"

"I can't credit you with such madness."

"But what if--" She leaned toward him and whispered a short sentence in
his ear. His face turned the color of ashes, and he clutched her wrist
so tightly that she winced with pain.

"It is a lie!" he cried, brutally. "By heavens, if I believed--"

The woman laughed--a laugh that was not pleasant to hear.

"Fool! do you think I would tell you if it was true?" she said. "I was
only jesting."

"It is not a subject to jest about," Nevill answered stiffly. "I came
here to do you a good turn, and--"

"You had better have kept away. You are a fiend--you are a Satan
himself! Why do you tempt me? Do you think that I have no conscience,
no shame left? I am bad enough, Victor Nevill, but by the memory of the
past--of what I threw away--I can't stoop so low as to--"

"Your heroics are out of place," he interrupted. "Go to the devil your
own way, if you like."

"You shall have an answer to-morrow--to-morrow! Give me time to think
about it."

The woman sank down on the couch again; her over-wrought nerves gave
way, and burying her face in the cushions she sobbed hysterically.
Nevill looked at her for a moment. Then he put a couple of sovereigns on
the table and quietly left the room.




CHAPTER XIV.

THE DINNER AT RICHMOND.


Three days later, at the unusually early hour of nine in the morning,
Victor Nevill was enjoying his sponge bath. There appeared to be
something of a pleasing nature on his mind, for as he dressed he smiled
complacently at his own reflection in the glass. Having finished his
toilet, he did not ring immediately for his breakfast. He sat down to
his desk, and drew pen, ink and paper before him.

"My Dear Jack" he wrote, "will you dine with me at the Roebuck to-morrow
night? Jimmie Drexell is coming, and I am going to drive him down. We
will stop and pick you up on the way. An answer will oblige, if not too
much trouble."

He put the invitation in an envelope and addressed it. Then he pulled
the bell-cord, and a boy shortly entered the room with a tray containing
breakfast and a little heap of letters. Nevill glanced over his
correspondence carelessly--they were mostly cards for receptions and
tradesmen's accounts--until he reached a letter bearing a foreign stamp.
It was a long communication, and the reading of it caused him anything
but satisfaction, to judge from the frown that gathered on his features.

"I wouldn't have credited Sir Lucius with such weakness," he muttered
angrily. "What has possessed him?--and after all these years! He says
his conscience troubles him! He fears he was too cruel and hard-hearted!
Humph! it's pleasant for me, I must say. Fancy him putting _me_ on the
scent--asking _me_ to turn private detective! I suppose I'll have to
humor him, or pretend to. It will be the safest course. Can there be any
truth in his theory, I wonder? No, I don't think so. And after such a
lapse of time the task would be next to impossible. I will be a fool if
I let the thing worry me."

Victor Nevill locked the offending letter in his desk, vowing that he
would forget it. But that was easier said than done, and his gloomy
countenance and preoccupied air showed how greatly he was disturbed. His
breakfast was quite spoiled, and he barely tasted his coffee and rolls.
With a savage oath he put on his hat, and went down into Jermyn street.
He walked slowly in the direction of the Albany, where Jimmie Drexell
had been fortunate enough to secure a couple of chambers.

The afternoon post brought Jack the invitation to dinner for the
following night, and he answered it at once. He accepted with pleasure,
but told Nevill not to stop for him on the way to Richmond. He would not
be at home after lunch, he wrote, but would turn up at the Roebuck on
time. Having thus disposed of the matter, he went to town, and he and
Drexell dined together and spent the evening at the Palace, where the
newest attraction was an American dancer with whom the susceptible
Jimmie had more than a nodding acquaintance, a fact that possibly had
something to do with his hasty visit to London.

Jack worked hard the next day--he had a lot of lucrative commissions on
hand, and could not afford to waste much time. It was three o'clock when
he left the studio, and half an hour later he was crossing Kew Bridge.
He turned up the river, along the towing-path, and near the old palace
he joined Madge. She had written to him a couple of days before,
announcing her immediate return from Portland Terrace, and arranged
for a meeting.

It was a perfect afternoon of early summer, with a cloudless sky and a
refreshing breeze. It cast a spell over the lovers, and for a time they
were silent as they trod the grassy path, with the rippling Thames,
dotted with pleasure-craft, flowing on their right. Jack stole many a
glance at the lovely, pensive face by his side. He was supremely happy,
in a dreamy mood, and not a shadow of the gathering storm marred his
content.

"It was always a beautiful world, Madge," he said, "but since you came
into my life it has been a sort of a paradise. Work is a keener pleasure
now--work for your sake. Existence is a dreary thing, if men only knew
it, without a good, pure woman's love."

The girl's face was rapturous as she looked up at him; she clung
caressingly to his arm.

"You regret nothing, dearest?" he asked.

"Nothing, Jack. How could I?"

"You have been very silent."

"You can't read a woman's heart, dear. If I was silent, it was because I
was so happy--because the future, our future, seemed so bright. There is
only the one little cloud--"

"Your father?" he interrupted. "Is he still relentless, Madge?"

"I think he is softening. He has been much kinder to me since I came
home. He does not mention your name, and he has not forbidden me to see
you or write to you. I should not have hesitated to tell him that I was
going to meet you to-day. He knows that I won't give you up."

"And, knowing that, he will make the best of it," Jack said, gladly.
"He will come round all right, I feel sure. And now I want to ask you
something, Madge, dear. You won't make me wait long, will you?"

She averted her eyes and blushed. Jack drew her to a lonely bench near
the moat, and they sat down.

"I will tell you why I ask," he went on. "I got a letter this morning
from a man who wants to buy my Academy pictures. He offers a splendid
price--more than I hoped for--and I will put it aside for our honeymoon.
Life is short enough, and we ought to make the most of it. Madge, what
do you say? Will you marry me early in September? That is a glorious
month to be abroad, roaming on the Continent--"

"It is so soon, Jack."

"To me it seems an age. You will consent if your father does?"

"Yes, I will."

"And if he refuses?"

The girl nestled closer to him, and looked into his face with laughing
eyes.

"Then, I am afraid I shall have to disobey him, dear. If you wish it I
will be your wife in September."

"My own sweet Madge!" he cried.

All his passionate love was poured out in those four little words. He
forgot the past, and saw only the rich promise of the future. There was
a lump in his throat as he added softly:

"You shall never repent your choice, darling!"

For an hour they sat on the bench, talking as they had never talked
before, and many a whispered confidence of the girl's, many a phrase and
sentence, burnt into Jack's memory to haunt him afterward. Then they
parted, there by the riverside, and Madge tripped homeward.

Happy were Jack's reflections as he picked up a cab that rattled him
swiftly into Richmond and up the famous Hill to the Roebuck. Nevill and
Jimmie Drexell, who had arrived a short time before, greeted him
hilariously.

The table was laid for Nevill and his guests in the coffee-room of the
Roebuck, as cheerful and snug a place as can be found anywhere, with its
snowy linen and shining silver and cut-glass, its buffet temptingly
spread, and on the walls a collection of paintings that any collector
might envy.

The Roebuck's _chef_ was one of the best, and the viands served were
excellent; the rare old wines gurgled and sparkled from cobwebbed
bottles that had lain long in bin. The dinner went merrily, the evening
wore on, and the sun dipped beneath the far-off Surrey Hills.

"This is a little bit of all right, my boys," said Jimmie, quoting
London slang, as he stirred his _creme de menthe frappe_ with a straw.
"I'm jolly glad I crossed the pond. Many's the time I longed for a
glimpse of Richmond and the river while I sweltered in the heat on the
Casino roof-garden. Here's to 'Dear Old London Town,' in the words
of--who _did_ write that song?"

Nevill drained his chartreuse.

"Come, let's go and have a turn on the Terrace," he said. "It's too
early to drive back to town."

They lighted their cigars and filed down stairs, laughing gaily, and
crossed the road. Jack was the merriest of the three. Little did he
dream that he was going to meet his fate.




CHAPTER XV.

FROM THE DEAD.


There were not many people about town. The strollers had gone back to
town, or down the hill to their dinners. The Terrace, and the gardens
that dropped below it to the Thames, were bathed in the purplish
opalescent shades of evening. From the windows of the Roebuck streamed a
shaft of light, playing on the trunks of the great trees, and gleaming
the breadth of the graveled walk. It shone full on Nevill and his
companions, and it revealed a woman coming along the Terrace from the
direction of the Star and Garter; she was smartly dressed, and stepped
with a graceful, easy carriage.

"Look!" whispered Jimmie. "The Lass of Richmond Hill! There's something
nice for you."

"Not for me," Jack laughed.

The woman, coming opposite to the three young men, shot a bold glance at
them. She stopped with a little scream, and pressed one hand agitatedly
to her heart.

"Jack!" she cried in an eager whisper. "My Jack!"

That once familiar voice woke the chords of his memory, bridged the gulf
of years. His blood seemed to turn to ice in his veins. He stared at the
handsome face, with its expression of mingled insolence and terror--met
the scrutiny of the large, flashing eyes. Then doubt fled. His brain
throbbed, and the world grew black.

"Diane! My God!" fell from his lips.

"Fancy _her_ turning up!" Nevill whispered to Drexell.

"It's a bad business," Jimmie replied; he, as well as Nevill, had known
Diane Merode while she was Jack's wife.

The woman came closer; she shrugged her shoulders mockingly.

"Jack--my husband," she said. "Have you no welcome for me?"

With a bitter oath he caught her arm. His face indicated intense
emotion, which he vainly tried to control.

"Yes, it is you!" he said, hoarsely. "You have come back from the grave
to wreck my life. I heard you were dead, and I believed it--"

"You read it in a Paris paper," interrupted Diane, speaking English with
a French accent. "It was a lie--a mistake. It was not I who was dragged
from the river and taken to the Morgue. It would have been better so,
perhaps. Jack, why do you glare at me? Listen, I am not as wicked as you
think. There were circumstances--I was not to blame. I can explain
all--"

"Hush, or I will kill you!" he said, fiercely. He snatched at a chain
that encircled her white throat, and as it broke in his grasp a
sparkling jewel fell to the ground. The most stinging name that a man
can call a woman hissed from his clenched teeth. She shrank back,
terrified, into the shadow, and he followed her. "Are you dead to all
shame, that you dare to make yourself known to me?" he cried. "The life
you lead is blazoned on your painted cheeks! You are no wife of mine!
Begone! Out of my sight! Merciful God, what have I done to deserve this?"

"For Heaven's sake, don't make a scene!" urged Jimmie. "Control yourself,
old man." He looked anxiously about, but as yet the altercation had not
been observed by the few persons in the vicinity. "Nevill, we must stop
this," he added.

"I _won't_ go away," Diane vowed, obstinately. "You are my husband,
Jack, and you know it. Let your friends, who knew us in the old days,
deny it if they can! I have a wife's claim on you."

"Take her away!" Jack begged.

Nevill drew the woman to one side, and though she made a show of
resistance at first, she quickly grew calm and listened quietly to his
whispered words. He whistled for a passing hansom, and it stopped at the
edge of the street. He helped Diane into it, and rejoined his companions.

"It's all right--she is reasonable now," he said in a low voice. "Brace
up, Jack; I'll see you through this. Jimmie, go over and pay the account,
will you? Here is the money. And say that I will send for the trap
to-morrow."

Nevill entered the cab, and it rattled swiftly down the hill. As the
echo of the wheels died away, Jack dropped on a bench and hid his face
in his hands.

"I'll be back in a moment, old chap," said Jimmie. "Wait here."

He had scarcely crossed the street when Jack rose. His agony seemed too
intense to bear, and even yet he did not realize all that the blow
meant. For the moment he was hardly responsible for his actions, and
a glimpse of the river, shining far below, lured him on blindly and
aimlessly. A little farther along the Terrace, just beyond the upper
side of the gardens, was a footway leading down to the lower road and
the Thames. He followed this, swaying like a drunken man, and he had
reached the iron stile at the bottom when Jimmie, who had sighted him
in the distance, overtook him and caught his arm. Jack shook him roughly
off.

"What do you want?" he said, hoarsely.

"Don't take it so hard," pleaded Jimmie. "I'm awfully sorry for you,
old man. I know it's a knock-down blow, but--"

"You don't know half. It's worse than you think. I am the most miserable
wretch on earth! And an hour ago I was the happiest--"

"Come with me," said Jimmie. "That's a good fellow."

Jack did not resist. Linked arm in arm with his friend, he stumbled
along the narrow pavement of the lower road. At The Pigeons they found a
cab that had just set down a fare. They got into it, and Jimmie gave the
driver his orders.

It seemed a short ride to Jack, and while it lasted not a word passed
his lips. He sat in a stupor, with dull, burning eyes and a throbbing
head. In all his thoughts he recalled the lovely, smiling face of Madge.
And now she was lost to him forever--there was a barrier between them
that severed their lives. In his heart he bitterly cursed the day when
he had yielded to the wiles of Diane Merode, the popular dancer of the
Folies Bergere.

The cab stopped, and he reeled up a dark flight of steps. He was sitting
in a big chair in his studio, with the gas burning overhead, and Jimmie
staring at him with an expression of heartfelt sympathy on his honest
face.

"This was the best place to bring you," he said.

Jack rose, and paced to and fro. He looked haggard and dazed; his hair
and clothing were disheveled.

"Tell me, Jimmie," he cried, "is it all a dream, or is it true?"

"I wish it wasn't true, old man. But you're taking it too hard--you're
as white as a ghost. It can be kept out of the papers, you know. And you
won't have to live with her--you can pension her off and send her
abroad. I dare say she's after money. Women are the very devil, Jack,
ain't they? I could tell you about a little scrape of my own, with
Totsy Footlights, of the Casino--"

"You don't understand," said Jack, in a dull, hard voice. "I believed
that Diane was dead."

"Of course you did--you showed me the paragraph in the _Petit Journal_."

"I considered myself a free man--free to marry again."

"Whew! Go on!"

Jack was strangely calm as he took out his keys and unlocked a cabinet
over his desk. He silently handed his friend a photograph.

"By Jove, what a lovely face!" muttered Jimmie.

"That is the best and dearest girl in the world," said Jack. "I thought
I was done with women until I met her, a short time ago. We love each
other, and we were to be married in September. And now--My God, this
will break her heart! It has broken mine already, Jimmie! Curse the day
I first put foot in Paris!"

"My poor old chap, this _is_--"

That was all Jimmie could say. He vaguely realized that he was in the
presence of a grief beyond the power of words to comfort. There was a
suspicious moisture in his eyes as he turned abruptly to the table and
mixed himself a mild stimulant. He drank it slowly to give himself time
to think.

Jack thrust the photograph into the breast pocket of his coat. He rubbed
one hand through his hair, and kicked an easel over. He burst into a
harsh, unnatural laugh.

"This is a rotten world!" he cried. "A rotten world! It's a stage
full of actors, and they play d---- little but tragedy! I've found
my long-lost wife again, Jimmie! Rejoice with me!"

He poured three fingers of neat brandy into a glass and drank it at a
gulp. Then the mocking laughter died on his lips, and he threw himself
into a chair. He buried his face in his hands, and his body shook with
the violence of the sobs he was powerless to stifle.

"It will do him good," thought Jimmie.

The clock ticked on, and at intervals there was the rumble of trains
passing to and from Ravenscourt Park station, and the clang of distant
tram-bells. The voice of mighty London mocked at Jack's misery, and he
conquered his emotions. He lifted a defiant face, much flushed.

"I've made a beastly fool of myself, Jimmie."

"Not a bit of it, old chap. Brace up; some one is coming." He had heard
a cab stop in the street.

There were rapid steps on the stairs, and Nevill entered the studio. His
face was eloquent with sympathy, and he silently held out a hand. Jack
gripped it tightly.

"Thanks, Vic," he said, gratefully. "Where did--did you take her?"

"To her lodgings, off Regent street. And then I came straight on here.
I thought she was dead, Jack. I don't wonder you're upset."

"Upset? It's worse than that. If I were the only one to suffer--"

"Then there's another woman?"

"Yes!"

"That's bad! I didn't dream of such a thing. I can't tell you how sorry
I feel."

Nevill sat down and lighted a cigar; he thoughtfully watched the smoke
curl up.

"I suppose I could get a divorce?" Jack asked, savagely.

"No doubt of it, but--"

"But you wouldn't advise me to do it. No, you're right. I couldn't
stand the publicity and disgrace."

"I would like to choke her," muttered Jimmie.

"I had a talk with her on the way to town," said Nevill. "She has been
in London for a month, and knew your address all the time, but did not
wish to see you. Now she is hard up, and that is why she made herself
known to you to-night."

"What became of the scoundrel she ran away with? Did he desert her?"

"Yes," Nevill answered, after a brief hesitation.

"Do you know who he was?"

"She intimated that he was a French Count. I believe she has had several
others since, and the last one left her stranded."

"She wants money, then?"

"Rather. That's her game. She knows she has no legal claim on you, and
for a fixed sum I think she will agree to return to Paris and not molest
you in future."

"I don't care what becomes of her," Jack replied, bitterly, "but I am
determined not to see her again. Let her understand that, and tell her
that I will give her three hundred pounds on condition that she goes
abroad and never shows her face in England again. And another thing,
there must be no further appeals to me."

"Bind her tight, in writing," suggested Jimmie.

"It's asking a lot of you, Nevill," said Jack, "but if you don't mind--"

"My dear fellow, it is a mere trifle. I will gladly help you in the
matter to my utmost power, and I only wish I could do more."

"That's the way to talk," put in Jimmie. "Can I be of any assistance,
Nevill? I've a persuasive sort of way with women--"

"Thanks, but I can manage much better alone, I think." Nevill took a
memorandum book from his pocket, and turned over the pages. "Trust all
to me, Jack," he added. "I am free to-morrow after four o'clock. I will
see Diane--your wife--fix the terms with her, and come down in the
evening to report to you."

"What time?"

"That is uncertain. But you will be here?"

"Yes; I shall expect you," said Jack. "I can't thank you enough. It's a
blessing for a chap to have a couple of friends like you and Jimmie."

"You would do as much for me," replied Nevill. "I'm going to see you
through your trouble."

Jack walked abruptly to the open window, and looked out into the starry
night.

"What does it matter," he thought, "whether I am rid of Diane or not? I
have lost my darling. Madge is dead to me. I can't grasp it yet. How can
I tell her?--how can I live without her?"

"Are you going up to town, Jimmie?" Nevill asked. "My cab is waiting,
and you can share it."

"No; I shall stop with poor old Jack," Jimmie replied. "I don't like to
leave him alone."

"That's good of you. It's a terrible blow, isn't it?"

Nevill went away, and Jimmie remained to comfort his friend. But there
was no consolation for Jack, whose bitter mood had turned to dull
despair and grief that would be more poignant in the morning, when he
would be better able to comprehend the fell blow that had shattered his
happiness and crushed his ambitions and dreams. He refused pipe and
cigars. Until three o'clock he sat staring vacantly at the floor,
seemingly oblivious of Jimmie's presence, and occasionally helping
himself to brandy. At last he fell asleep in the chair, and Jimmie, who
had with difficulty kept his eyes open, dozed away on the couch.

Meanwhile, Victor Nevill had driven straight to his rooms in Jermyn
street and had gone to bed. He rose about ten o'clock, and after a light
breakfast he sat down and wrote a short letter, cleverly disguising his
own hand, and imitating the scrawly penmanship and bad spelling of an
illiterate woman.

"The last card in the game," he reflected, as he addressed and stamped
the envelope. "It may be superfluous, in case he sees or writes to her
to-day. But he won't do that--he will put off the ordeal as long as
possible. My beautiful Madge, for your sake I am steeping myself in
infamy! It is not the first time a man has sold himself to the devil for
a woman. Yet why should I feel any scruples? It would have been far
worse to let them go on living in their fool's paradise."

An hour later, as he walked down Regent street, he posted the letter he
had written in the morning.

"It will be delivered at just about the right time," he thought.




CHAPTER XVI.

THE LAST CARD.


It was nine o'clock in the evening, and darkness had fallen rather
earlier than usual, owing to a black, cloudy sky that threatened rain.
Jimmie Drexell had gone during the afternoon, and Jack was alone in the
big studio--alone with his misery and his anguish. He had scarcely
tasted food since morning, much to the distress of Alphonse. He looked
a mere wreck of his former self--haggard and unshaven, with hard lines
around his weary eyes. He had not changed his clothes, and they were
wrinkled and untidy. Across the polished floor was a perceptible track,
worn by hours of restless striding to and fro. Now, after waiting
impatiently for Victor Nevill, and wondering why he did not come, Jack
had tried to nerve himself to the task that he dreaded, that preyed
incessantly on his mind. He knew that the sooner it was over the better.
He must write to Madge and tell her the truth--deal her the terrible
blow that might break her innocent, loving heart.

"It's no use--I can't do it," he said hoarsely, when he had been sitting
at his desk for five minutes. "The words won't come. My brain is dry.
Would it be better to try to see her, and tell her all face to face?
No--anything but that!"

Thrusting pen and paper from him, he rose and went to the liquor-stand.
The cut-glass bottle containing brandy dropped from his shaking hand and
was shattered to fragments. The crash drowned the opening of the studio
door, and as he surveyed the wreck he heard footsteps, and turned
sharply around, expecting to see Nevill. Diane stood before him, in a
costume that would have better suited a court presentation; the shaded
gas-lamps softened the rouge and pearl-powder on her cheeks, and lent
her a beauty that could never have survived the test of daylight. Her
expression was one of half defiance, half mute entreaty.

The audacity of the woman staggered Jack, and for an instant he was
speechless with indignation. His dull, bloodshot eyes woke to a fiery
wrath.

"You!" he cried. "How dare you come here? Go at once!"

"Not until I am ready," she replied, looking at him unflinchingly. "One
would think that my presence was pollution."

"It is--you know that. Did Nevill permit you to come? Have you seen
him?"

"No; I kept out of his way. He is searching for me in town now, I
suppose. It was you I wanted to see."

"You are dead to all shame, or you would never have come to London. I
don't know what you want, and I don't care. I won't listen to you, and
unless you leave, by heavens, I will call the police and have you
dragged out!"

"I hardly think you will do that," said Diane. "I am going presently, if
you will be a little patient. I am your wife, Jack--"

He laughed bitterly.

"You were once--you are not now. If I thought it would be any punishment
to you, that disgrace could soil _you_, I would take advantage of the
law and procure a divorce."

"I am your wife," she repeated, "but I do not intend to claim my
rights. We were both to blame in the past--"

"That is false!" he cried. "You only were to blame--I have nothing to
reproach myself with, except that I was a mad fool when I married you
for your pretty face. You tried to pull me down to your own level--the
level of the Parisian kennels. You squandered my money, tempted me to
reckless extravagances, and when the shower of gold drew near its end,
you ran off with some scoundrel who no doubt proved as simple a victim
as myself. I trusted you, and my honor was betrayed. But you did me a
greater wrong when you allowed me to believe that you were dead. By
heavens, when I think of it all--"

"You forget that we drifted apart toward the last," Diane interrupted.
"Was that entirely my fault? I believed that you no longer cared for me,
and it made me reckless." There was a sudden ring of sincerity in her
voice, and the insolent look in her eyes was replaced by a softer
expression. "I did wrong," she added. "I am all that you say I am. I
have sinned and suffered. But is there no pity or mercy in your heart?
Remember the past--that first year when we loved each other and were
happy. Wait; I have nearly finished. I am going out of your life
forever--it is the only atonement I can make. But will you let me go
without a sign of forgiveness?--without a soft word?"

For a moment there was silence. Diane waited with rigid face. She had
forgotten the purpose that brought her to the studio--a womanly impulse,
started to life by the memories of the past, had softened her heart. But
Jack, blinded by passion and his great wrongs, little dreamed of the
chance that he was throwing away.

"You talk of forgiveness!" he cried. "Why, I only wonder that I can
keep my hands off your throat. I hate the sight of you--I curse the day
I first saw your face! Do you know what you have done, by letting me
believe that you were dead? You have probably broken the heart of one
who is as good and pure as you are vile and treacherous--the woman whom
I love and would have married."

Diane's features hardened, and a sudden rage flashed in her half-veiled
eyes; her repentant impulse died as quickly.

"So that is your answer!" she exclaimed, harshly. "And there is another
woman! You shall never marry her--never!"

"You fiend!"

The threat goaded Jack to fury, and he might have lost his self-control.
But just then quick footsteps fell timely on his ear.

"Get behind that screen, or go into the next room," he muttered. "No; it
won't matter--it must be Nevill."

Diane held her ground.

"I don't care who it is," she said, shrilly. "I will tell the world that
I am your wife."

The next instant the door was thrown open, and a woman entered the
studio and came hesitatingly forward under the glare of the gas-jets.
With a rapid movement she partly tore off her long, hooded cloak, which
was dripping with rain. Jack quivered as though he had been struck a
blow.

"Madge!" he gasped, recognizing the lovely, agitated face.

The girl caught her breath, and looked from one to the other--from the
painted and powdered woman to the man who had won her love. Her bosom
heaved, and her flushed cheeks turned to the whiteness of marble.

"Jack, tell me--is it true?" she pleaded, struggling with each word. "I
should not have come, but--but I received this an hour ago." She flung a
crumpled letter at his feet, and he picked it up mechanically. "It said
that I would find you here with your--your--" She could not utter the
word. "I had to come," she added. "I could not rest. And now--who is
that woman? Speak!"

No answer. Jack's lips and throat were dry, and a red mist was before
his eyes.

"Is she your wife?"

"God help me, yes!" Jack cried, hoarsely. "I can explain. Believe me,
Madge, I was not false--I told you only the truth. If you will listen
to me for a moment--"

She shrank from him with horror, and the color surged back to her cheeks.

"Don't touch me!" she cried. "Let me go--this is no place for me! I pray
heaven to forgive you, Jack!"

The look that she gave him, so full of unspeakable agony and reproach,
cut him like a knife. She pressed one hand to her heart, and with the
other tried to draw her cloak around her. She swayed weakly, but
recovered herself in time. Jack, watching her as a man might watch the
gates of paradise close upon him, had failed to hear a cab stop in the
street. He suddenly saw Stephen Foster in the room.

"Is my daughter here?" he excitedly demanded.

Madge turned at the sound of her father's voice, and sank, half-fainting,
into his arms. Tears came to her relief, and she shook with the violence
of her sobs.

Stephen Foster looked from Diane to Jack. Madge had shown him the
anonymous letter, and he needed not to ask if the charge was true.

"You blackguard!" he cried, furiously. "You dastardly scoundrel!"

"I do not deserve those words!" Jack said, hoarsely, "but I cannot
resent them. From any other man, under other circumstances--"

"Coward and liar!"

With that Stephen Foster turned to the door, with Madge leaning heavily
on him. They passed down the stairs, and the rattle of wheels told that
they had gone. Jack was left alone with Diane.

"Are you satisfied with your devil's work?" he demanded, glaring at her
with burning, bloodshot eyes.

"It was not my fault."

"Not your fault? By heavens--"

He looked at the crumpled letter he held, and saw that it was apparently
written by a woman. A suspicion that as quickly became a certainty
flashed into his mind.

"_You_ sent this, and the other one as well," he exclaimed. "Don't deny
it! You planned the meeting here--"

"It is false, Jack! I swear to you that I know nothing of it--"

"Perjurer!" he snarled.

His face was like a madman's as he caught her arm in a cruel grip. She
cowered before him, dropping to her knees. She was pale with fear.

"Go, or I will kill you!" he cried, disregarding her protestations of
innocence. "I can't trust myself! Out of my sight--let me never see you
or hear of you again. I will give you money to leave London--to return
to Paris. Nevill will arrange it. Do you understand?"

He lifted her to her feet and pushed her from him. She staggered against
an easel on which was a completed picture in oils, and it fell with a
crash. Jack trampled over it ruthlessly, driving his feet through the
canvas.

"Go!" he cried.

And Diane, trembling with terror, went swiftly out into the black and
rainy night.

An hour later, when Victor Nevill came to say that his search had been
fruitless, he found Jack stretched full length on the couch, with his
face buried in a soft cushion.




CHAPTER XVII.

TWO PASSENGERS FROM CALAIS.


It was the 9th of November, Lord Mayor's Day, and in London the usual
clammy compound of fog and mist--was there ever a Lord Mayor's Day
without it?--hung like a shroud in the city streets, though it was
powerless to chill the ardor of the vast crowds who waited for the
procession to come by in all its pomp and pageantry.

At Dover the weather was as bad, but in a different way. Leaden clouds
went scudding from horizon to horizon, accentuating the chalky whiteness
of the cliffs, and reflecting their sombre hue on the gray waters. A
cold, raw wind swept through the old town, lashing the sea to
milk-crested waves. It was an ugly day for cross-Channel passages, but
the expectant onlookers sighted the black smoke of the _Calais-Douvres_
fully twenty minutes before she was due. The steamer's outline grew more
distinct. On she came, pitching and rolling, until knots of people could
be seen on the fore-deck.

The majority of the passengers, excepting a few Frenchmen and other
foreigners, were heartily glad to be at home again, after sojourns of
various lengths on the Continent. Two, in particular, could scarcely
restrain their impatience as they looked eagerly landward, though the
social gulf that separated them was as wide as the Channel itself. On
the upper deck, exposed to the buffeting of the wind, stood a short,
portly gentleman in a dark-blue suit and cape-coat; he had a soldierly
carriage, a ruddy complexion, and an iron-gray mustache. Sir Lucius
Chesney was in robust health again, and his liver had ceased to trouble
him. Norway had pulled him together, and a few months of aimless roaming
on the Continent had done the rest. He was anxious to get back to Priory
Court, among his pictures and hot-houses, his horses and cattle, and he
intended to go there after a brief stop in London.

Down below, among the second-class passengers, Mr. Noah Hawker paced to
and fro, gazing meditatively toward the Shakespeare Cliff. Mr. Hawker,
to give him the name by which he was known in Scotland Yard circles, was
a man of fifty, five feet nine in height, and rather stockily built. He
was lantern-jawed and dark-haired, with a coarse, black mustache curled
up at the ends like a pair of buffalo horns, and so strong a beard that
his cheeks were the color of blue ink, though he had shaved only three
hours before. His long frieze overcoat, swinging open, disclosed beneath
a German-made suit of a bad cut and very loud pattern. His soft hat,
crushed in, was perched to one side; a big horseshoe pin and a scarlet
cravat reposed on a limited space of pink shirt-front.

There was about one chance in ten of guessing his calling. He looked
equally like a successful sporting man, an ex-prize fighter, a barman,
a racing tout, a book-maker, or a public house thrower-out. But the most
unprejudiced observer would never have taken him for a gentleman.

It was a thrilling moment when the _Calais-Douvres_, slipping between
the waves, ran close in to the granite pier. She accomplished the feat
safely, and was quickly made fast. The gangway was thrown across, and
there was a mad rush of passengers hurrying to get ashore. A babel of
shouting voices broke loose: "London train ready!" "Here you are, sir!"
"Luggage, sir?" "Extry! extry!"

Sir Lucius Chesney, who was rarely disturbed by anything, showed on
this occasion a fussy solicitude about his trunks and boxes; nor was
he appeased until he had seen them all on a truck, waiting for the
inspection of the customs officers. Mr. Hawker, slouching along the pier
with his ulster collar turned up and his hat well down over his eyes,
observed the military-looking gentleman and then the prominent
white-lettered name on the luggage. He passed on after an instant's
hesitation.

"Sir Lucius Chesney!" he muttered. "It's queer, but I'll swear I've
heard that name before. Now, where could it have been? The bloke's face
ain't familiar--I never ran across him. But the name? Ah, hang me if I
don't think I've got it!"

Mr. Hawker did not get into the London train, though his goal was
the metropolis. He left the pier, and as he walked with apparent
carelessness through the town--he had no luggage--he took an occasional
crafty survey over his shoulder, as a man might do who feared that he
was being shadowed. When the train rattled out of Dover he was in the
public bar of a tavern not far from the Lord Warden Hotel, fortifying
himself with a brandy-and-soda after the rough passage across the
Channel. Meanwhile, Sir Lucius Chesney, seated in a first-class
carriage, was regarding with an ecstatic expression the one piece of
luggage that he had refused to trust to the van. This was a flat leather
case, and it contained something of much greater importance than the
dress-suit for which it was intended.

Dover was honored by Mr. Hawker's presence until three o'clock in the
afternoon, and he took advantage of the intervening couple of hours to
eat a hearty meal and to count his scanty store of money, after which he
dozed on a bench in the restaurant until roused by a waiter. There are
two railway stations in the town, and he chose the inner one. He found
an empty third-class compartment, and his relief was manifest when the
train pulled out. He produced a short briar-root pipe, and stuffed it
with the last shreds of French Caporal tobacco that remained in his
pouch.

"Give me the shag of old England," he said to himself, as he puffed away
with a poor relish and watched the flying sides of the deep railway
cutting. "This is no class--it's cabbage leaf soaked in juice. I wonder
if I ain't a fool to come back! But it can't be helped--there was
nothing to be picked up abroad, after that double stroke of hard luck.
And there's no place like London! I'll be all right if I dodge the
ferrets at Victoria. For the last ten years they've only known me
clean-shaven or with a heavy beard, and this mustache and the rig will
puzzle them a bit. Yes, I ought to pass for a foreign gent come across
to back horses."

The truth about Mr. Noah Hawkins, though it may shock the reader, must
be told in plain words. He was a professional burglar; none of your
petty, clumsy craftsmen that get lagged for smashing a shopkeeper's
till, but a follower to some extent in the footsteps of the masterful
Charles Peace. During the previous February he had come out of
Dartmoor--it was his third term of penal servitude--with a period of
police supervision to undergo. For the space of four months he regularly
reported himself, and then, in company with a pal of even higher
professional standing than himself, he suddenly disappeared from London.

A well-planned piece of work, cleverly performed, made it advantageous
to the couple to go abroad. It was a question of money, not dread of
discovery and arrest; they had covered their tracks well, and they
believed that no suspicion could fall upon them. They were not prepared
for the ill-luck that awaited them on the Continent. Their fruit of hope
turned to ashes of despair, or very nearly so. They realized but a
fraction of the sum they had expected, and Hawker lost his share of even
that through the treachery of his pal, who departed by night from the
German town where they were stopping. So Hawker started for home, and
he had landed at Dover with, two sovereigns and a few silver coins. He
still believed that the police were ignorant of the business that had
taken him abroad; the worst that he feared was getting into trouble for
failing to report himself.

"There isn't much danger if I'm sharp," he thought, as the Kentish
landscape, the Garden of England, sped by him in the gathering dusk;
"and I won't touch a crib of any sort till I've tried those other two
lays. It's more than doubtful about the papers--I forget what was in
them. And they may be gone by this time. But, leaving that out, I've got
a pretty sure thing up my sleeve. What happened in Germany put me on the
track--but for that I wouldn't have suspected. I'll make somebody fork
over to a stiff tune, and serve him d---- right. It's the first time I
was caught napping."

The endless chimney-pots and glowing lights of the great city gladdened
Hawker's heart, and a whiff from the murky Thames bade him welcome home.
He gave up his ticket at Grosvenor road, and when the train pulled into
Victoria he walked boldly through the immense station. He loved London
with a thoroughbred cockney's passion, and he exulted in the sights and
sounds around him.

Hawker spent his last coppers for a packet of tobacco, and broke one of
his sovereigns to get a drink. He speedily lost himself in the crowds of
Victoria street, satisfied that he had not been recognized or followed.
He went on foot to Charing Cross, and climbed to the top of a brown and
yellow bus. Three-quarters of an hour later he got off in Kentish Town
and made his way to a squalid and narrow thoroughfare in the vicinity of
Peckwater street. He stopped before a house in the middle of a dirty and
monotonous row, and looked at it reminiscently. He had lodged there five
years back, previous to his third conviction, and here he had been
arrested. He had not returned since, for on his release from Dartmoor he
went to live near his pal, who was then planning the lay that had ended
so disastrously.

He pulled the bell and waited anxiously. A stout, slatternly woman
appeared, and uttered a sharp exclamation at sight of her visitor. She
would have closed the door in his face, but Hawker quickly thrust a leg
inside.

"None o' that," he growled. "Don't you know me, missus?"

"It ain't likely I'd furgit _you_, Noah Hawker! What d'ye want?"

"A lodging, Mrs. Miggs," he replied. "Is my old room to let?" he added
eagerly.

"It's been empty a week, but what's that to you? I won't 'ave no
jail-bird in my 'ouse. I'm a respectable woman, an' I won't be disgraced
again by the likes of you."

"Come, stow that! Can't you see I'm a foreign gent from abroad? The
police ain't after me--take my word for it. I've come back here because
you always made me snug and comfortable. I'll have the room, and if you
want to see the color of my money--"

He produced a half-sovereign, and a relenting effect was immediately
visible. A brief parley ensued, which ended in Mrs. Miggs pocketing the
money and inviting Mr. Hawker to enter. A moment after the door had
closed a rather shabby man strolled by the house and made a mental note
of the number.

Presently a light gleamed from the window of the first floor back, which
overlooked, at a distance of six feet, a high, blank wall. Noah Hawker
put the candle on a shelf, locked the door noiselessly, and glanced
about the well-remembered room, with its dirty paper, frayed carpet and
scanty furniture. A little later, after listening to make sure that he
was not being spied upon, he blew out the candle and opened the window.
He fumbled for a minute, then closed the window and drew down the blind.
When he relighted the candle he held in one hand a packet wrapped in a
piece of mildewed leather.

Seating himself in a rickety chair he lighted his pipe and opened the
packet, which contained several papers in a good state of preservation.
He read them carefully and thoughtfully, and the task occupied him for
half an hour or more.

"Whew! It's a heap better than I counted on--I didn't have the time to
examine them right before," he muttered. "There may be a tidy little
fortune in it. I'll make something out of this, or my name ain't Noah
Hawker. The old chap is out of the running, to start with, so I must
hunt up the others. And that won't be easy, perhaps."




CHAPTER XVIII.

HOME AGAIN.


By an odd coincidence, on the same day that Sir Lucius Chesney and Noah
Hawker crossed over from Calais, a P. and O. steamship, Calcutta for
London, landed Jack Vernon at the Royal Albert Docks. He had expected to
be met there by Mr. Hunston, the editor of the _Illustrated Universe_,
or by one of the staff; yet he seemed rather relieved than otherwise
when he failed to pick out a single familiar face in the crowd. He was
fortunate in having his luggage attended to quickly, and, that formality
done with, he walked to the dock station.

The four or five intervening months, commencing with that tragic night
in the Ravenscourt Park studio, had wrought a great change in Jack;
though it was more internal, perhaps, than external. His old friends
would promptly have recognized the returned war-artist, laden with
honors that he did not care a jot for. He looked fit, and his step was
firm and elastic. His cheeks were deeply bronzed and well filled out. A
severe bullet wound and a sharp attack of fever had led to his being
peremptorily ordered home as soon as he was convalescent, and the sea
voyage had worked wonders and built up his weakened constitution. But he
was altered, none the less. There were hard lines about his mouth and
forehead, and in his eyes was a listless, weary, cynical look--the look
of a man who finds life a care and a burden almost beyond endurance.

The train was waiting, and Jack settled himself in a second-class
compartment. He tossed his traveling-bag on the opposite seat, lighted
a cigar, and let his thoughts wander at will. At the beginning of his
great grief, when nothing could console him for the loss of Madge, the
_Illustrated Universe_, a weekly journal, had asked him to go out to
India and represent them pictorially in the Afridi campaign on the
Northwest frontier. He accepted readily, with a desperate hope in his
heart that he did not confide to his friends. He wasted no time in
leaving London, which had become intensely hateful to him. He joined the
British forces, and performed his duty faithfully, sending home sketches
that immensely increased the circulation of the _Universe_. And he did
more. At every opportunity he was in the thick of the fighting. Time and
again, when he found himself with some little detachment that was cut
off from the main column and harassed by the enemy, he distinguished
himself for valor. He risked his life recklessly, with an unconcern that
surprised his soldier comrades. But the Afridis could not kill him. He
recovered from a bullet wound in the shoulder and from fever, and now he
was back in England again.

It was a dreary home-coming, without pleasure or anticipation. The sense
of his loss--the hopeless yearning for Madge--was but little dulled. He
felt that he could never take up the threads of his old life again; he
wished to avoid all who knew him. He had no plans for the future. His
studio was let, and the new tenant had engaged Alphonse--Nevill had
arranged this for him. He had received several letters from Jimmie, and
had answered them; but neither referred to Madge in the correspondence.
She was dead to him forever, he reflected with savage resentment of his
cruel fate. As for Diane, she had taken his three hundred pounds--it was
arranged through Nevill--and returned to the Continent. She had vowed
solemnly that he should never see or hear of her again.

The train rolled into Fenchurch street. Jack took his bag and got out, a
little dazed by the unaccustomed hubbub and din, by the jostling throng
on the platform. Here, again, there was no one to meet him. He passed
out of the station--it was just four o'clock--into the clammy November
mist. He shivered, and pulled up his coat collar. He was standing on the
pavement, undecided where to go, when a cab drew alongside the curb. A
corpulent young gentleman jumped out, and immediately uttered an eager
shout.

"Jack!" he cried. "So glad to see you! Welcome home!"

"Dear old Jimmie! This is like you!" Jack exclaimed. As he spoke he
gripped his friend's hand, and for a brief instant his face lighted up
with something of its old winning expression, then lost all animation.
"How did you know I was coming?" he added.

"Heard it at the office of the _Universe_. Did you miss Hunston?"

"I didn't see him."

"Then he got there too late--he said he was going to drive to the docks.
I'm not surprised. It's Lord Mayor's Day, you know, and the streets are
still badly blocked. I had a jolly close shave of it myself. How does it
feel to be back in dear old London?"

"I think I prefer Calcutta," Jack replied, stolidly. "I'm not used to
fogs."

Jimmie regarded him with a critical glance, with a stifled sigh of
disappointment. He saw clearly that strange scenes and stirring
adventures had failed to work a cure. He expected better things--quite
a different result.

"Yes, it's beastly weather," he said; "but you'll stand it all right.
You are in uncommonly good condition for a chap who has just pulled
through fever and a bullet hole. By Jove! I wish I could have seen you
tackling the Afridis--you were mentioned in the papers after that last
scrimmage, and they gave you a rousing send-off. You deserve the
Victoria Cross, and you would get it if you were a soldier."

"I didn't fight for glory," Jack muttered, bitterly. "I'm the most
unlucky beggar alive."

Jimmie looked at him curiously.

"You don't mean to say," he asked, "that you were hankering for an
Afridi bullet or spear in your heart?"

"It's the best thing that could have happened. They tell me I bear a
charmed life, and I believe it's true. I never expected to come back,
if you want to know."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that, old man. You need cheering up. Have you
any luggage besides that bag?"

"I sent the rest on to the _Universe_ office."

"Then come to my rooms--you know you left a lot of clothes and other
stuff there. You can fix up a bit, and then we'll go out and have a good
feed."

"As you like," Jack assented, indifferently. "But I must see Hunston
first--he will go from the docks to the office, and expect to find me
there."

They entered a cab and drove westward, through the decorated streets and
surging crowds of the city, down Ludgate Hill and up the slope of Fleet
street. Jack left his friend in the Strand, before the _Illustrated
Universe_ building, with its windows placarded with the paper's original
sketches and sheets from the current issue, and it was more than an
hour later when he turned up at Jimmie's luxurious chambers in the
Albany. He was in slightly better spirits, and he exhaled an odor of
brandy. He had a check for five hundred pounds in his pocket, and there
was more money due him.

"Where's my war-paint?" he demanded.

That meant, in plain English, Jack's dress clothes, and they were soon
produced from a trunk he had left in Jimmie's care. He made a careful
toilet, and then the two sallied forth into the blazing streets and
pleasure-seeking throngs.

They went to the Continental, above Waterloo Place, and Jack ordered
the dinner lavishly--he insisted on playing the host. He chatted in
his old light-hearted manner during the courses, occasionally laughing
boisterously, but with an artificial ring that was perceptible to his
companion. His eyes sparkled, and his brown cheeks flushed under the
glow of the red-shaded lamps.

"This is a rotten world, Jimmie," he said. "You know that, don't you?
But I've come home to have a good time, and I'm going to have it--I
don't care how."

"I wouldn't drink any more," Jimmie urged.

"Another bottle, old chap," Jack cried, thickly, as he lighted a fresh
cigar; "and then we'll wind up at the Empire."

"None for me, thank you."

"Then I'll drink it myself," vowed Jack. "Do you hear, _garcon_--'nother
bottle!'"

Jimmie looked at him gravely. He had serious misgivings about the
future.

       *       *       *       *       *

Many of London's spacious suburbs have the advantage of lying beyond the
scope of the fog-breeding smoke which hangs over the great city, and at
Strand-on-the-Green, on that 9th of November, the weather was less
disagreeable.

A man and a woman came slowly from the direction of Kew Bridge,
sauntering along the wet flagstones of the winding old quay, which
was almost as lonely as a rustic lane. Victor Nevill looked very
aristocratic and handsome in his long Chesterfield coat and top hat; in
one gray-gloved hand he swung a silver-headed stick. Madge Foster walked
quietly by his side, a dainty picture in furs. She was as lovely as
ever, if not more so, but it was a pale, fragile sort of beauty. She had
spent the summer in Scotland and the month of September in Devonshire,
and had returned to town at the beginning of October. Change of air and
scenery had worked a partial cure, but had not brought back her merry,
light-hearted disposition. She secretly nursed her grief--the sorrow
that had fallen on her happy young life--and tried hard not to show it.
There was a wistful, far-away expression in her eyes, and she seemed
unconscious of the presence of her companion.

"It's a beastly day," remarked Nevill. "I shouldn't like to live by the
river in winter. You need cheering up. What do you say to a box at the
Savoy to-night? There is plenty of time to arrange--"

"I don't care to go, thank you," was the indifferent reply.

The girl drew her furs closer about her throat, and watched a grimy
barge that was creeping up stream. She had become resigned to seeing a
good deal of Victor Nevill lately, but her treatment of him was little
altered. She knew his real name now, and that he was the heir of Sir
Lucius Chesney. She had accepted his excuses--listened to him with
resentment and indignation when he explained that he had assumed the
name of Royle because he wanted to win her for himself alone, and not
for the sake of his prospects. She realized whither she was trending,
but she felt powerless to resist her fate.

They paused a short distance beyond the Black Bull, where the quay
jutted out a little like a pier. It was guarded by a railing, and Madge
leaned on this and looked down at the black, incoming tide lapping below
her. No other person was in sight, and the white mist seemed suddenly to
close around the couple. The paddles of a receding steamer churned and
splashed monotonously. From Kew Bridge floated a faint murmur of
rumbling traffic. It was four o'clock, and the sun was hidden.

"You are shivering," said Nevill.

"It is very cold. Will you take me home, please?"

As she spoke, the girl turned toward him, and he moved impulsively
nearer.

"I will take you home," he said; "but first I want to ask you a
question--you _must_ hear me. Madge, are you utterly heartless? Twice,
when I told you of my love, you rejected it. But I persevered--I did not
lose hope. And now I ask you again, for the third time, will you be my
wife? Do I not deserve my reward?"

The girl did not answer. Her eyes were downcast, and one little foot
tapped the flagstone nervously.

"I love you with all my heart, Madge," he went on, with deep and sincere
passion in his voice. "You cannot doubt that, whatever you may think of
me. You are the best and sweetest of women--the only one in the world
for me. I will make your life happy. You shall want for nothing."

"Mr. Nevill, you know that I do not love you."

"But you will learn to in time."

"I fear not. No, I am sure of it."

"I will take the risk. I will hope that love will come."

"And you would marry me, knowing that I do not care for you in that way?"

"Yes, gladly. I cannot live without you. Say yes, Madge, and make me the
happiest of men."

"I suppose I must," she replied. She did not look him in the face. "My
father wishes it, and has urged me to consent. It will please him."

"Then you will be my wife, Madge?"

"Some day, if you still desire it."

"I will never change," he said, fervently.

It was a strange, ill-omened promise of marriage, and a bitter
realization of how little it meant was suddenly borne home to Nevill.
He touched the girl's hand--more he dared not do, though he longed to
take her in his arms and kiss her red lips. The coldness of her manner
repelled him. They turned and walked slowly along the river, while the
shadows deepened around them.




CHAPTER XIX.

A SHOCK FOR SIR LUCIUS.


They lingered but a moment at the house, standing irresolutely by the
steps. Madge did not invite Nevill to stop, which suited him in his
present mood. He pressed the girl's cold hand and strode away into the
darkness. His thoughts were not pleasant, and there was a sneering smile
on his face.

"I have won her," he reflected. "Won her at last! She will be my wife.
But it is not a victory to be proud of--not worth the infamy I've waded
through. She consented because she has been hard driven--because I
compelled her father to put the screws on. How calmly she told me that
she did not love me! I can read her like a book. I hoped she had
forgotten Jack, but I see now that she cares for him as much as ever.
Oh, how I hate him! Is his influence to ruin my life? I ought to be
satisfied with the blow I have dealt him, but if I get a chance to
strike another--"

A harsh laugh finished the sentence, and he hit out viciously with his
stick at a cat perched on a garden wall.

A Waterloo train conveyed him cityward, and, avoiding the haunts of his
associates, he dined at a restaurant in the Strand. It was eight o'clock
when he went to his rooms in Jermyn street, intending to change his
clothes and go to a theatre. A card lay inside the door. It bore Sir
Lucius Chesney's name, and Morley's Hotel was scribbled on the corner of
it. Nevill scowled, and a look that was closely akin to fear came into
his eyes.

"So my uncle is back!" he muttered. "I knew he would be turning up some
time, but it's rather a surprise all the same. He wants to see me, of
course, and I don't fancy the interview will be a very pleasant one.
Well, the sooner it is over the better. It will spoil my sleep to-night
if I put it off till to-morrow."

He dressed hurriedly and went down to Trafalgar Square. Sir Lucius had
just finished dinner, and uncle and nephew met near the hotel office.
They greeted each other heartily, and Sir Lucius invited the young man
upstairs to his room. He was in a good humor, and expressed his
gratification that Nevill had come so promptly.

"I want a long chat with you, my boy," he said. "Have you dined?"

"Yes."

Sir Lucius lighted a cigar, and handed his case to Nevill.

"Been out of town this summer?" he asked.

"The usual thing, that's all--an occasional run down to Brighton, a
month at country houses, and a week's shooting on the Earl of Runnymede's
Scotch moor."

"London agrees with you. I believe you are a little stouter."

"And you are looking half a dozen years younger, my dear uncle. How is
the liver?"

"It ought to be pretty well shaken to pieces, from the way I've trotted
it about. It hasn't troubled me for months, I am glad to say. I've had
a most enjoyable holiday, and a longer one than I intended to take. I
stopped in Norway seven weeks, and then went to the Continent. I did the
German baths, Vienna and a lot of other big cities, and came to Paris.
There I met an old Anglo-Indian friend, and he dragged me down to the
Riviera for a month. But there is no place like home. I've been in town
only a couple of hours--crossed this morning. And to-morrow I'm off to
Priory Court."

"So soon?"

"Yes; I can't endure your fogs."

There was an awkward pause. Nevill struck a match and put it to his
cigar, though it did not need relighting. Sir Lucius coughed, and
stirred nervously in his chair.

"You remember that little matter I wrote you about," he began. "Have you
done anything?"

"My dear uncle, I have left nothing undone that I could think of,"
Nevill replied; "but I am sorry to say that I have met with no success
whatever. It was a most difficult undertaking, after so many years."

"I feared it would be. You didn't advertise?"

"No; you told me not to do that."

"Quite right. I wished to avoid all publicity. But what steps did you
take?"

"I made careful inquiries, interviewed some of the older school of
artists, and searched London and provincial directories for some years
back. Then I consulted a private detective. I put the matter in his
hands. He worked on it for a couple of months, and finally said that
it was too much for him. He could not discover a trace of either your
sister or her husband, and he suggested that they probably emigrated
to America or Australia years ago."

"That is more than possible," assented Sir Lucius; "and it is likely
that they are both dead. But they may have left children, and for their
sakes--". He broke off abruptly, and sighed. "I should like to have a
talk with your private detective, if he is a clever fellow," he added.

"He is clever enough," Nevill replied slowly, "but I am afraid you
would have to go a long distance to find him. He went to America a week
ago to collect evidence for a divorce case in one of the Western States."

"Then he will hardly be back for months," said Sir Lucius. "No matter.
I think sometimes that it is foolish of me to take the thing up. But when
a man gets to my age, my boy, he is apt to regret many episodes in his
past life that seemed proper and well-advised at the time. I am convinced
that I was too harsh with your aunt. Poor Mary, she was my favorite
sister until--"

He stopped, and his face hardened a little at the recollection.

"I wish I could find her," said Nevill.

"I am sure you do, my boy. I am undecided what steps to take next. It
would be a good idea to stop in town for a couple of days and consult
a private inquiry bureau. But no, not in this weather. I will let the
matter rest for the present, and run up later on, when we get a spell
of sunshine and cold."

"I think that is wise. Meanwhile I am at your service."

"Thank you. Oh, by the way, Victor, you must have incurred some
considerable expense in my behalf. Let me write you a check."

"There is no hurry--I don't need the money," Nevill answered,
carelessly. "I will look up the account and send it to you."

"Or bring it with you when you come down to Priory Court for Christmas,
if I can induce you to leave town."

"I shall be delighted to come, I assure you."

"Then we'll consider it settled."

Sir Lucius lighted a fresh cigar and rose. His whole manner had changed;
he chuckled softly, and his smile was pleasant to see.

"I have something to show you, my boy," he said. "It is the richest
find that ever came my way. Ha, ha! not many collectors have ever been
so fortunate. I know where to pry about on the Continent, and I have
made good use of my holidays. I sent home a couple of boxes filled with
rare bargains; but this one--"

"You will be rousing the envy of the South Kensington Museum if you
keep on," Nevill interrupted, gaily; he was in high spirits because the
recent disagreeable topic had been shelved indefinitely. "What is it?"
he added.

"I'll show you in a moment, my boy. It will open your eyes when you see
it. You will agree that I am a lucky dog. By gad, what a stir it will
cause in art circles!"

Sir Lucius crossed the room, and from behind a trunk he took a flat
leather case. He unlocked and opened it, his back screening the
operation, and when he turned around he held in one hand a canvas,
unframed, about twenty inches square; the rich coloring and the outlines
of a massive head were brought out by the gaslight.

"What do you think of that?" he cried.

Nevill approached and stared at it. His eyes were dilated, his lips
parted, and the color was half-driven from his cheeks, as if by a sudden
shock. He had expected to see a bit of Saracenic armor, made in
Birmingham, or a cleverly forged Corot. But this--

"I don't wonder you are surprised," exclaimed Sir Lucius. "Congratulate
me, my dear boy."

"Where did you get it?" Nevill asked, sharply.

"In Munich--in a wretched, squalid by-street of the town, with as many
smells as Cologne. I found the place when I was poking about one
afternoon--a dingy little shop kept by a Jew who marvelously resembled
Cruikshank's Fagin. He resurrected this picture from a rusty old safe,
and I saw its value at once. It had been in his possession for several
years, he told me; he had taken it in payment of a debt. The Jew was
pretty keen on it--he knew whose work it was--but in the end I got it
for eleven hundred pounds. You know what it is?"

"An undoubted Rembrandt!"

"Yes, the finest Rembrandt in existence. No others can compare with it.
Look at the brilliancy of the pigments. Observe the masterful drawing.
See how well it is preserved. It is a prize, indeed, my boy, and worth
double what I paid for it. It will make a sensation, and the National
Gallery will want to buy it. But I wouldn't accept five thousand pounds
for it. I shall give it the place of honor in my collection."

Sir Lucius paused to get his breath.

"You don't seem to appreciate it," he added. "Remember, it is absolutely
unknown. Victor, what is the matter with you? Your actions are very
strange, and the expression of your face is almost insulting. Do you
dare to insinuate--"

"My dear uncle, will you listen to me for a moment?" said Nevill.
"Prepare yourself for a shock. I fear that the picture is far better
known than you think. Indeed, it is notorious."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that this Rembrandt, which you purchased in Munich, is the
identical one that was stolen some months ago from Lamb and Drummond,
the Pall Mall dealers. The affair made a big stir."

"Impossible!"

"It is only too true. Did you read the papers while you were away?"

"No; I scarcely glanced at them. But I can't believe--"

"Wait," said Nevill. From a pocket-book he produced a newspaper
clipping, which he handed silently to his uncle. It contained an account
of the robbery.

Sir Lucius read to the end. Then his cheeks swelled out, and turned from
red to purple; his eyes blazed with a hot anger.

"Good God!" he exclaimed, "was ever a man so cruelly imposed upon? It is
a d--nable shame! You are right, Victor. This is the stolen Rembrandt!"

"Undoubtedly. I can't tell you how sorry I feel for you." Nevill's
expression was most peculiar as he spoke, and the semblance of a smile
hovered about his lips.

"What is to be done?" gasped his uncle, who had flung the canvas on
a chair, and was stamping savagely about the room. "It is clear as
daylight. The thieves disposed of the painting in Munich, to my lying
rascal of a Jew. Damn him, I wish I had him here!"

"Under the peculiar circumstances, my dear uncle, I should venture to
suggest--"

"There is only one course open. This very night--no, the first thing
to-morrow morning--I will take the picture to Lamb and Drummond's and
tell them the whole story. I can't honorably do less."

"Certainly not," assented Nevill; it was not exactly what he had been
on the point of proposing, but he was glad that he had not spoken.

"I won't feel easy until it is out of my hands," cried Sir Lucius. "Good
heavens, suppose I should be suspected of the theft! Ah, that infamous
scoundrel of a Jew! The law shall punish him as he deserves!"

Rage overpowered him, and he seemed in danger of apoplexy. There was
brandy on the table, and he poured out a glass with a shaking hand.
Nevill watched him anxiously.




CHAPTER XX.

AT A NIGHT CLUB.


Victor Nevill called for his uncle at nine o'clock the next morning--it
was not often he rose so early--and after breakfasting together the two
went on to Lamb and Drummond's. Sir Lucius carried the unlucky picture
under his arm, and he thumped the Pall Mall flagstones viciously with
his stick; he walked like a reluctant martyr going to the stake.

Mr. Lamb had just arrived, and he led his visitors to his private
office. He listened with amazement and rapt interest to the story they
had come to tell him, which he did not once interrupt. When the canvas
was unrolled and spread on the table he bent over it eagerly, then drew
back and shook his head slightly.

"I was not aware of the robbery until my nephew informed me last night,"
explained Sir Lucius. "I have lost no time in restoring what I believe
to be your property. It is an unfortunate affair, and a most
disagreeable one to me, apart from any money considerations. But
it affords me much gratification, sir, to be the means of--"

"I am by no means certain, Sir Lucius," Mr. Lamb interrupted, "that this
_is_ my picture."

"There could not be two of them!" gasped Sir Lucius.

"As a matter of fact, there _are_ two," was the reply. "It is a curious
affair, Sir Lucius, but I can speedily make it clear to you."

Very concisely and briefly Mr. Lamb told all that he knew about the
duplicate Rembrandt, giving the gist of his interview months before with
Jack Vernon.

"Then you mean to say that this is the duplicate?" asked Nevill.

"No; I can't say that."

Sir Lucius brightened suddenly. The loss of his prize was a heavy blow,
but it would be far worse, he told himself, if he had been tricked into
buying a false copy. He hated to think of such a thing--it was a wound
to his pride, an insult to his judgment.

"I have reason to believe that the duplicate was a splendid replica of
the original, otherwise it would not have been worth the trouble of
stealing," Mr. Lamb went on. "Mr. Vernon assured me of that. So, under
the circumstances, I cannot be positive which picture lies here before
us. My eyesight is a little bad, and I prefer not to trust to it. Mr.
Drummond might recognize the canvas, but he is out of town. I am
disposed to doubt, however, that this is the original Rembrandt."

"You think it is more likely to be the duplicate?" inquired Sir Lucius.

"I do."

Sir Lucius swelled out with indignation, and his cheerfulness vanished.

"I am sorry to hear that" he said. "I can scarcely believe that I have
been imposed upon. I am somewhat of an authority on old masters, Mr.
Lamb."

The dealer smiled faintly; he had known Sir Lucius in a business way for
a number of years.

"The price you paid--eleven hundred pounds--favors my theory," he
replied. "Your Munich Jew, whom I happen to know by repute, is a very
clever scoundrel. It is most unlikely that he would have parted with a
real Rembrandt for such a sum. But I will gladly refund you the amount
if this proves to be the original."

"I don't want the money," growled Sir Lucius. "I dare say you are right,
sir; and if so, it is not to my discredit that I have been taken in by
such a perfect copy. Gad, it would have deceived Rembrandt himself! But
the question still remains to be settled. How can that be done, and as
quickly as possible?"

"Mr. Vernon, the artist, is the only person who can do that. He put a
private mark on the duplicate--"

"Vernon--John Vernon?" interrupted Sir Lucius. "Surely, Victor, I have
heard you mention that name?"

"Quite right, uncle," said Nevill. He made the admission promptly,
foreseeing that a denial might have awkward consequences in the future.
"I know Jack Vernon well," he added. "He is an old friend. But I am
sorry to inform you that he is not in England at present."

This was false, for Nevill had noted in the morning paper that Jack was
one of the passengers by the P. and O. steamship _Ismaila_, which had
docked on the previous day. Mr. Lamb, it appeared, was not aware of the
fact.

"Your nephew is correct, Sir Lucius," he said. "Mr. Vernon has been in
India for some months, acting as special war artist for the _Universe_.
But he is expected home very shortly--in the course of a week, I
believe."

"I shall not be here then," said Sir Lucius. "I am to leave London
to-day. What would you suggest?"

"Allow the canvas to remain in my hands--I will take the best of care
of it," replied Mr. Lamb. "I will write to you as soon as Mr. Vernon
returns, and will arrange that you shall meet him here."

"Very well, sir," assented Sir Lucius. "Let the matter rest at that.
When I hear from you I will run up to town."

He still hoped to learn that he had bought the original picture, and he
would have preferred an immediate solution of the question. He was in a
dejected mood when he left the shop with his nephew, but he cheered up
under the influence of a good lunch and a pint of port, and he was in
fairly good spirits when he took an afternoon train from Victoria to his
stately Sussex home.

"Hang the Rembrandt!" he said at parting. "I don't care how it turns
out. Run down for a few days at the end of the month, Victor--I can give
you some good shooting."

Glancing over a paper that evening, Mr. Lamb read of Jack Vernon's
return. But to find him proved to be a different matter, and at the end
of a week he was still unsuccessful. Then, meeting Victor Nevill on
Regent street, he induced him to join in the search for the missing
artist. The commission by no means pleased Nevill, but he did not see
his way to refuse.

       *       *       *       *       *

For thirteen days Sir Lucius Chesney had been back at Priory Court,
happy among his horses and dogs, his short-horns and orchids; his
pictures rested temporarily under a cloud, and he was rarely to be found
in the spacious gallery. In London, Victor Nevill enjoyed life with as
much zest as his conscience would permit; Madge Foster dragged through
weary days and duller evenings at Strand-on-the-Green; and the editor of
the _Illustrated Universe_ wondered what had become of his bright young
war-artist since the one brief visit to the office.

At two o'clock on a drizzling, foggy morning a policeman, walking up
the Charing Cross Road, paused for a moment to listen to some remote
strains of music that came indistinctly from a distance; then he
shrugged his shoulders and went on--it was no business of his. The
sounds that attracted the policeman's attention had their source in a
cross street to the left--in one of those evil institutions known as a
"night club," which it seems impossible to eradicate from the fast life
of West End London.

It was a typical scene; there were many like it that night. The house
had two street doors, and behind the inner one, which was fitted with a
small grating and kept locked, squatted a vigilant keeper, equally ready
to open to a member or deny admittance to any one who had no business
there. On the first floor, up the dingy stairs, were two apartments. The
outer and smaller room had a bar at one side, presided over by a bright,
golden-haired young lady in _very_ conspicuous evening dress, whose
powers of _repartee_ afforded much amusement to her customers. These
were, many of them, in more or less advanced stages of intoxication, and
they comprised sporting men, persons from various unfashionable walks of
life, clerks who wanted to soar like eagles, and a few swell young men
who had dropped in to be amused. A sprinkling of women must be added.

Both apartments were hung with engravings and French prints and
decorated with tawdry curtains, and in the larger of the two dancing was
going on. Here the crowd was denser and of the same heterogeneous kind.
It was a festival of high jinks--a sway of riotous, unbridled merriment.
A performer at the piano, with a bottle of beer within easy reach,
rapped out the inspiriting chords of a popular melody. Couples glided
over the polished floor, some lightly, some galloping, and all reckless
of colliding with the onlookers. There was a touch of the _risque_ in
the dancing, suggesting the Moulin Rouge of a Casino de Paris carnival.
Occasionally, during a lull, songs were sung by music-hall _artistes_ of
past celebrity, who were now glad of the chance to earn a few shillings
before an uncritical audience. The atmosphere was charged with the scent
of rouge and powder, brandy and stale sherry. Coarse jest and laughter,
ringing on the night, mocked at go-to-bed London.

Two young men leaned against the wall of the dancing-room, close to
the door, both smoking cigars. They wore evening dress, considerably
rumpled, and their attitudes were careless. The elder of the two was
Tony Mostyn, a clever but dissipated artist of the decadent school, who
steered his life by the rule of indulgence and worked as little as
possible.

"It's rather dull," he said; "eh, old chap?"

"It gives one a bad taste," his companion replied. "I don't see why you
brought me here."

The second speaker was Jack Vernon. He looked bored and weary, but his
cheeks were flushed and his eyes sparkled; the women who glanced pertly
at him as they swung by inspired him merely with disgust. He had come to
the club with Mostyn, after a dozen turns at the Alhambra, followed by a
prolonged theater supper. He had drunk more than was good for him during
the course of the evening, but the effects had about worn off.

The story of the past two weeks--since Jack's return from India--was a
sad one. He tried his best to drown the bitter memories of Madge, of
what he had lost. He cut loose from Jimmie and other old friends, took
lodgings in an out-of-the-way quarter, and turned night into day. He had
plenty of money, and he had not been near the office of the _Universe_.
He found boon companions among the wildest acquaintances of his Paris
days, including Tony Mostyn and his set. But a fortnight had dispelled
the glamour, and life looked blacker to him than it had ever looked
before. Courage and manhood were at a low ebb. He laughed recklessly
as he wondered what the end would be.

"Let us go and get a drink," he said to his companion.

As he spoke a tumult broke out at the far end of the room. Scuffling
feet and men's angry voices mingled with cries of protest and women's
shrill screams. Then followed a heavy fall, a groan, and a rush of
people. The music had stopped and the dancers were still.

"There's been a row," exclaimed Mostyn. "It's bad for the club."

Idle curiosity led Jack to the spot, and Mostyn accompanied him.
They elbowed their way through, and saw a flashily-dressed man with
blue-black cheeks and a curling black mustache lying on the floor. He
was bleeding from an ugly wound on the forehead, where he had been
struck by a bottle. His assailant had slipped away, scared, and was
being smuggled out of the room and down stairs by his friends.

"What a shame!" ejaculated a terrified woman.

"It's no fair fighting," added another.

"Shut up, all of you!" angrily cried a harsh-voiced man--clearly one in
authority--as he elbowed his way to the front. "Do you want to bring the
police down on us?"

The warning had a prompt effect, and comparative silence ensued. The
injured man tried to rise, but his potations had weakened him more than
the loss of blood.

"Where's the bloke what hit me?" he feebly demanded.

His maudlin speech and woe-begone manner roused Jack's sympathy. He
knelt down beside him, and made a brief examination.

"It's nothing serious--the bottle glanced off," he said. "Fetch water
and a sponge, and I'll soon stop the bleeding. Who has a bit of
plaster?"

No sponge was to be had, but a basin of water was quickly produced. Jack
tore his handkerchief in two and wet part of it. He was about to begin
operations when a hand tapped him on the shoulder and a familiar voice
pronounced his name.




CHAPTER XXI.

A QUICK DECISION.


Jack turned around, and when he saw Victor Nevill bending over him he
looked first confused and then pleasurably surprised.

"Hello, old chap," he said. "Wait a bit, will you?"

"You've led me a chase," Nevill whispered in a low voice. "I want to
talk to you. Important!"

"All right," Jack replied. "I'll be through in a couple of minutes."

He wondered if it could have anything to do with Diane, as he set to
work on the injured man. With deft fingers he bathed the cut, staunched
the blood, and applied a piece of plaster handed to him by a bystander;
over it he placed the dry half of his handkerchief.

"You'll do now," he said. "It's not a deep cut."

With assistance the man got to his feet. The shock had sobered him, and
he was pretty steady. He pulled his cap on his head, and winced with
pain as it stirred the bandage.

"Where's the cowardly rat what hit me?" he demanded.

"Never you mind about 'im," put in the proprietor of the club--a very
fat man with a ponderous watch-chain. "While the excitement was on 'e
'ooked it. You be off, too--I don't want any more rowing." Sinking his
voice to a faint whisper, he added: "You'd be worse off than the rest
of us, 'Awker, should the police 'appen to come."

"Yes, go home, my good fellow," urged Jack. "You look ill; and what you
need is rest. You'll be all right in the morning."

He pressed half a sovereign into the man's hand--so cleverly that none
observed the action--and then slipped back and joined Nevill and Mostyn,
who had a slight acquaintance with each other. The three had left the
room, and were going downstairs, before Mr. Noah Hawker recovered from
his surprise on learning that his gift was gold instead of a silver
sixpence. It chanced that he was reduced to his last coppers, and so the
half sovereign was a boon indeed. He nudged the elbow of a supercilious
looking young gentleman in evening dress who was passing.

"That swell cove who fixed me up--he's just gone," he said. "He's a real
gent, he is! Could you tell me his name, sir?"

"Aw, yes, I think I can," was the drawling reply. "He's an artist chap,
don't you know! Name of Vernon."

"Might it be John Vernon?"

"That's it, my man."

The name rang in Noah Hawker's ears, and he repeated it to himself as he
stumbled downstairs. He was in such a brown study that he forgot to tip
the door-keeper who let him into the street. He pulled his cap lower to
hide his bandaged head, and struck off in the direction of Tottenham
Court road.

"Funny how I run across that chap!" he reflected. "Vernon--John
Vernon--yes, it's the same, no doubt about it. But he's only an artist,
and I know what artists are. There's many on 'em, with claw-hammer coats
and diamonds in their shirt-fronts, as hasn't got two quid to knock
together. You won't suit my book, Mr. Vernon--you're not in the running
against the others. It's a pity, though, for he was a real swell, what I
_call_ a gent. But I'll keep him in mind, and it sort of strikes me I'll
be able to do him a good turn some day."

Meanwhile, as Noah Hawker walked northward in the direction of Kentish
Town, Jack and his companions had reached Piccadilly Circus. Here Mostyn
left them, while Jack and Nevill went down Regent street.

"A bit of a rounder, that chap," said Nevill. "He's not your sort. What
have you been doing with yourself for the last two weeks? I've not seen
you since you sailed for India, early in the summer."

"How did you find me to-night?" asked Jack, in a tone which suggested
that he did not want to be found.

"I met a Johnny who told me where you were. I vowed he was mistaken at
first, but he stuck to it so positively--"

"You said you wanted to talk to me," Jack interrupted. "I suppose it is
about--"

"No; you're wrong. _She_ is in Paris, and she won't trouble you again.
The fact is, I have a message for you from Lamb and Drummond. They've
been trying to find you for a fortnight."

"Lamb and Drummond looking for me? Ah, yes, I think I know what they
want."

"It's a queer business, isn't it? My uncle is mixed up in it--Sir Lucius
Chesney, you know."

"Then he has told you--"

"Only a little. It's not my affair, and I would rather not speak about
it. Can I tell Mr. Lamb that you will call upon him at five o'clock
to-morrow afternoon--or this afternoon, to be correct? They will want
to get my uncle from the country."

"I will be there at that hour," Jack assented, and with a hasty
"Good-night" he was gone, striding rapidly away. Nevill looked after
him for a moment, and then sauntered home. The street lights showed
a sneering smile of satisfaction on his face.

Jack could easily have picked up a cab, but he preferred to walk. He
went along the Strand, now waking up to the life and traffic of early
morning. Turning into Wellington street, he crossed Waterloo Bridge, and
the gray dawn was breaking when he let himself into a big, dingy house
not far from the river. Here, remote from his friends, he had chosen to
live, in two rooms which he had fitted up more than comfortably with
recent purchases. Even Jimmie did not know where he was--never dreamed
of looking for him on the Surrey side. His brain was too active for
sleep, and he sat up smoking another hour.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon when Jack awoke from an unrefreshing
slumber; his head was heavy, and he would have liked to remain in bed
for the rest of the day. He remembered that he had two engagements; he
had promised to attend a "do" at a studio in Joubert Mansions, Chelsea,
where he would meet a lot of Tony Mostyn's set, and make night noisy
until the wee hours of the morning. At four o'clock he started to dress
for the evening. At five a cab put him down in Pall Mall, opposite the
premises of Lamb and Drummond. A clerk conducted him to the private
office, which was well lighted. Mr. Lamb was present, and with him a
soldierly, aristocratic-looking gentleman who had been summoned by wire
from Sussex. Victor Nevill would have been there also, but he had
pleaded a previous engagement.

The military gentleman was formally introduced as Sir Lucius Chesney.
Jack shook hands with him nonchalantly, and wondered what was coming
next; he did not much care. Sir Lucius regarded Jack carelessly at
first, then with a stare that was almost impertinent. He adjusted a pair
of gold-rimmed eye-glasses, and looked again. He leaned forward in his
chair, under the influence of some strong agitation.

"Bless my soul!" he muttered, half audibly. "Very remarkable!"

"I beg your pardon, sir," said Jack.

"Nothing! nothing!" replied Sir Lucius, in some confusion. "So you are
Mr. Vernon?"

"That is my name, sir."

Sir Lucius pulled himself together, and thoughtfully stroked his
mustache. An awkward pause was broken by Mr. Lamb, who proceeded to
state at some length the business that had rendered Jack's presence
imperative. Sir Lucius listened with rising indignation, as the story
poignantly recalled to him his bitter experience with the Munich Jew.
Jack, seeing the ludicrous side, with difficulty repressed an
inclination to smile.

"Let me have the picture," he said. "I can settle the question at once."

Sir Lucius rose eagerly from his seat. Mr. Lamb took the canvas from
an open safe and spread it on the table. Jack bent over it, standing
between the two. He laughed as he pointed to a peculiar
brush-stroke--insignificant in the general effect--down in the lower
right-hand corner.

"There is my mark," he said, "and this is the duplicate I painted for
Martin Von Whele, nearly six years ago."

"I thought as much," exclaimed Mr. Lamb.

"Are you sure of what you are saying, young man?" asked Sir Lucius.

"Quite positive, sir," declared Jack. "I assure you that--"

"Yes, there can be no doubt about it," interrupted Mr. Lamb. "I was
pretty well satisfied from the first, but I would not trust my own
judgment, considering the poorness of my eyesight. This is the copy, and
the person who stole it from Mr. Vernon's studio disposed of it later to
the Jew in Munich, who succeeded--very naturally, I admit--in selling it
to you as the real thing, Sir Lucius."

There was a _double entendre_ about the "very naturally" which Sir
Lucius chose, rightly or wrongly, to interpret to his own disadvantage.

"Do you mean to insinuate--" he began, bridling up.

"As for the genuine Rembrandt--_my_ picture," resumed Mr. Lamb, "its
disappearance is still shrouded in mystery. It can be only a matter of
time, however, until the affair is cleared up. But that is poor
consolation for the insurance people, who owe me L10,000."

"It is well you safeguard yourself in that way," observed Jack. "I
shouldn't be surprised if your picture turned up as unexpectedly as mine
has done, and perhaps before long. But I can hardly call this my
property. Sir Lucius Chesney is out of pocket to the tune of eleven
hundred pounds--"

"D--n the money, sir!" blurted out Sir Lucius. "I can afford to lose it.
And pray accept the Rembrandt from me as a gift, if you think you are
not entitled to it legally."

"You are very kind, but I prefer that you should keep it."

"I don't want it--won't have it! Take it out of my sight!--it is only a
worthless copy!" Sir Lucius, purple in the face, plumped himself down in
his chair. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Vernon," he added. "As a copy it is
truly magnificent--it does the greatest credit to your artistic skill.
It deceived _me_, sir! Whom would it not have deceived? There is an end
of the matter! I shall forget it. But I will go to Munich some day, and
beat that rascally Jew within an inch of his life!"

"If you can catch him," thought Jack. "I had better leave the painting
with you for the present, Mr. Lamb," he said. "It may be of some use in
your search for the original."

"Quite so," assented the dealer. "I will gladly retain it for the
present."

"If that is all," Jack continued, "I will wish you good afternoon."

"One moment, Mr. Vernon," said Sir Lucius, whose choleric indications
had completely vanished. "I--I should like to have an interview with
you, if you will consent to humor an old man. Your face interests me--I
admire your work. I propose to remain in town for a brief time, though
I am off to Oxford to-night, to visit an old friend, and will not be back
until to-morrow afternoon. Would you find it convenient to give me a
call to-morrow night at eight o'clock, at Morley's Hotel?"

Jack was silent; his face expressed the surprise he felt.

"I should like you to come down to Sussex and do some landscapes of
Priory Court," Sir Lucius further explained.

"I am not working at present," Jack said, curtly.

"But there is something else--a--a private matter," Sir Lucius replied,
confusedly. "I beg that you will oblige me, Mr. Vernon."

"Very well, sir, since you wish it so much," Jack consented. "I will
come to Morley's Hotel at eight to-morrow evening."

"Thank you, Mr. Vernon."

Jack shook hands with both gentlemen, picked up his hat and stick, and
went off to an early dinner. Sir Lucius looked after him wistfully.




CHAPTER XXII.

ANOTHER CHANCE.


Sir Lucius Chesney remained for an hour to further discuss the affair
of the two Rembrandts with Mr. Lamb, and the conversation became so
interesting that he almost forgot that he had arranged to leave
Paddington for Oxford at eight o'clock; when he suddenly remembered the
fact he hurried off, fearful of losing his dinner, and St. Martin's in
the Fields indicated a quarter to seven as he entered Morley's Hotel.

At that time a little party of three persons were sitting down to a
table in one of the luxurious dining-rooms of the Trocadero. Victor
Nevill was the host, and his guests were Stephen Foster and his
daughter; later they were all going to see the production of a new
musical comedy.

Madge, as lovely as a dream in her lustrous, shimmering evening gown,
fell under the sway of the lights and the music, and was more like her
old self than she had been for months; the papers had been kept out of
her way, and she did not know that Jack had returned from India. Stephen
Foster was absorbed in the _menu_ and the wine-card, and Nevill, in the
highest of spirits, laughed and chatted incessantly. He was ignorant of
something that had occurred that very day, else his evening's pleasure
would surely have been spoiled.

To understand the incident, the reader must go back to the previous
night, or rather an early hour of the morning. For the last of the West
End restaurants were putting out their lights and closing their doors
when Jimmie Drexell, coming home from a "smoker" at the Langham Sketch
Club, ran across Bertie Raven in Piccadilly. It was a fortunate meeting.
The Honorable Bertie was with a couple of questionable companions, and
he was intoxicated and very noisy; so much so that he had attracted the
attention of a policeman, who was moving toward the group.

Jimmie, like a good Samaritan, promptly rescued his friend and took
him to his own chambers in the Albany, as he was obviously unfit to go
elsewhere. Bertie demurred at first, but his mood soon changed, and he
became pliant and sullen. He roused a little when he found himself
indoors, and demanded a drink. That being firmly refused, he muttered
some incoherent words, flung himself down on a big couch in Jimmie's
sitting-room, and lapsed into a drunken sleep.

Jimmie threw a rug over him, locked up the whisky, and went off to bed.
His first thought, when he woke about nine the next morning, was of
his guest. Hearing footsteps in the outer room, he hurriedly got into
dressing-gown and slippers and opened the communicating door. He was not
prepared for what he saw. Bertie stood by the window, with the dull gray
light on his haggard face and disordered hair, his crushed shirt-front
and collar. A revolver, taken from a nearby cabinet, was in his hand. He
was about to raise it to his forehead.

Jimmie was across the room at a bound, and, striking his friend's arm
down, he sent the weapon clattering to the floor.

"Good God!" he cried. "What were you going to do?"

"End it all," gasped Bertie. He dropped into a chair and gave way to a
burst of tears, which he tried hard to repress.

"What does it mean?" exclaimed Jimmie, breathing quick and deep. "Are
you mad?"

Bertie lifted a ghastly, distorted face.

"It means ruin, old chap," he replied. "That's the plain truth. I wish
you had let me alone."

"Come, this won't do, you know," said Jimmie. "You are not yourself
this morning, and I don't wonder, after the condition I found you in
last night. Things always look black after a spree. You exaggerate, of
course, when you talk about ruin. You are all unstrung, Bertie. Tell me
your troubles, and I'll do what I can to help you out of them."

Bertie shuddered as his eyes fell on the pistol at his feet.

"It's awfully good of you, old fellow," he answered huskily, "but you
can't help me."

"How do you know that? Come, out with your story. Make a clean breast of
it!"

Moved by his friend's kind appeal, the wretched young man confessed his
troubles, speaking in dull, hopeless tones. It was the old story--a
brief career on the road to ruin, from start to finish. A woman was at
the bottom of it--when is it otherwise? Bertie had not reformed when he
had the chance; Flora, the chorus-girl of the Frivolity, had exercised
too strong an influence over him. His income would scarcely have kept
her in flowers, and to supply her with jewels and dinners and a hundred
other luxuries, as well as to repay money lost at cards, he had plunged
deeper into the books of Benjamin and Company, hoping each time that some
windfall would stave off disaster. Disregarding the advice of a few
sincere friends, he had continued his mad course of dissipation. And
now the blow had fallen--sooner than he had reason to expect. A bill for
a large amount was due that very day, and Benjamin and Company refused
to renew it; they demanded both interest and principal, and would give
no easier terms.

"You'd better let me have that," Bertie concluded, desperately, pointing
to the pistol.

Jimmie kicked the weapon under the table, put his hands deep into the
pockets of his dressing gown, and whistled thoughtfully.

"Yes, it's bad," he said. "So you've gone to the Jews! You ought to have
known better--but that's the way with you chaps who are fed with silver
spoons. I'm not a saint myself--"

"Are you going to preach?" put in Bertie, sullenly.

"No; my little lecture is over. Cheer up and face the music, my boy.
It's not as bad as you think. Surely your father will get you out of
the scrape."

"Do you suppose I would tell him?" Bertie cried, savagely. "That would
be worse than--well, you know what I was going to do. It's just because
of the governor that I can't bear to face the thing. He has paid my
debts three times before, and he vowed that if I ran up any more bills
he would ship me off to one of his ranches in Western America. He will
keep his word, too."

"Ranch life isn't bad," said Jimmie.

"Don't talk about it! I would rather kill myself than go out there, away
from England and all that one cares for. You know how it is, old man,
don't you? London is the breath of life to me, with its clubs and
theaters, and suppers, and jolly good fellows, and--"

"And Flora!" Jimmie supplemented drily.

"D--n Flora! She threw up the Friv yesterday and slipped off to the
Continent with Dozy Molyneaux. I'm done with _her_, anyway! But what
does it all matter? I'm ruined, and I must go under. Give me a drink,
old chap--a stiff one."

"You can't have it, Bertie. Now, don't get riled--listen to me. Where
was your father while you were going the pace so heavily?"

"In Scotland--at Runnymede Castle. He's there still, and knows nothing
of what I've been doing. I dare say he thinks I've been living
comfortably on my income--a beggarly five hundred a year!"

"What amount is the bill that falls due to-day?"

"Seven hundred and fifty pounds, with interest."

"And there are others?"

"Yes; three more--all renewals."

"And the total sum? Can you give it to me?"

"What's the use?" Bertie muttered. "But if you want to know--" He took a
bit of paper from his pocket. "I counted it up yesterday," he added. "I
can't get clear of the Jews for less than twenty-five hundred pounds."

"It's a heavy sum!"

"I can't raise a fraction of it. And the worst of it is that Victor
Nevill is on--By Jove, I shouldn't have let that out!"

"You mean that Nevill indorsed the paper--all of it?"

"Only the first bill, and the next one Benjamin and Company took without
an indorsement, as they did with the later ones. Nevill warned me what
would happen if I kept on. I wish I had listened to him!"

Jimmie looked very grave.

"So Nevill steered you to the Jews!" he said, in a troubled tone. "It
was hardly the act of a friend. Have you spoken to him in regard to this
matter?"

"Yes, but he was short of money, and couldn't help me," Bertie replied.
"He was awfully cut up about it, and went to see the Jews. It was no
good--they refused to renew the bill on his indorsement."

"And heretofore they have accepted paper bearing your own signature
only! Of course they knew that you had future expectations, or that your
father would protect them from loss. It's the old game!"

"My expectations are not what they were," Bertie said sullenly, "and
that's about what has brought things to a crisis. I can see through a
millstone when there is a hole in it. I have a bachelor uncle on my
mother's side--a woman-hater--who always said that he would remain
single and make me his heir. But he changed his mind a couple of months
ago, and married."

"Be assured that Benjamin and Company know that," Jimmie answered; "it's
their reason for refusing to renew the bill."

"Yes; Nevill told me the same. He advised me to own up to the governor."

"How about your eldest brother--Lord Charters?"

"No good," the Honorable Bertie replied, gloomily; "we are on bad terms.
And George is in New York."

"Then I must put you on your feet again."

"You!"

"Yes; I will lift your paper--the whole of it."

"Impossible! I can't accept money from a friend!"

"I'm more than that, my boy--or will be. Isn't your brother going to
marry my cousin? And, anyway, we'll call it a loan. I'll take your I O U
for the amount, and you can have twenty years to repay it--a hundred if
you like. I can easily spare the money."

"I tell you I won't--"

"Don't tell me anything. It's settled. I mean to do it."

Bertie broke down; his scruples yielded before his friend's persistence.

"I'll pay it back," he cried, half sobbingly. "I'll be able to some day.
God bless you, Jimmie--you don't know what you've saved me from. Another
chance! I will make the most of it! I'll cut the old life and run
straight--I mean it this time. I'm done with cards and evil companions,
and all the rest of it!"

"Glad to hear it," said Jimmie. "I want your word of honor that you
won't exceed your income hereafter, and that you will leave London for
six months and go home."

"I will; I swear it!"

"And you will have nothing more to do with Flora and her kind?"

"Never again!"

"I believe you," said Jimmie, patting the young man on the shoulder.
"Cheer up now and we'll breakfast together presently, and meanwhile I'll
send a man round to your rooms for some morning togs. Then I'll leave
you here while I go down to the city to see my bankers. I'll be back
before noon, and bring a solicitor with me; I want the thing done
ship-shape."

With that, Jimmie retired to the bedroom, where he was soon heard
splashing in his tub. An hour later, when breakfast was over, he hurried
away. He returned at half-past twelve, accompanied by an elderly
gentleman of legal aspect, Mr. Grimsby by name. Bertie was ready,
dressed in a suit of brown tweeds, and the three went on foot to Duke
street, St. James'. They passed through the narrow court, and, without
knocking, entered the office of Benjamin and Company. No one was there,
but two persons were talking in a rear apartment, the door of which
stood open an inch or so. And one of the voices sounded strangely
familiar to Jimmie.

"Listen!" he whispered to Bertie. "Do you hear that?"




CHAPTER XXIII.

ON THE TRACK.


In answer to Jimmie's question, Bertie gave him a puzzled look; he
clearly did not understand. At the same instant the conversation in the
next room was brought to a close. Some person said "Good-morning,
Benjamin," and there was a sound of a door closing and of retreating
footsteps; one of the speakers had gone, probably by another exit. The
house, as Jimmie suspected, fronted on Duke street, and it was the rear
portion that was connected with the court.

The elderly Jew, who was Mr. Benjamin himself, promptly entered the
office, adjusting a black skull-cap to his head. He gave a barely
perceptible start of surprise at sight of his visitors; he could not
have known that they were there. He apologized extravagantly, and
inquired what he could have the pleasure of doing for them. Mr. Grimsby
stated their business, and the Jew listened with an inscrutable face;
his deep-sunken eyes blinked uneasily.

"Do I understand," he said, addressing himself to the Honorable Bertie,
"that you wish to take up not only the bill which is due to-day--"

"No; all of them, Benjamin," Bertie interrupted. "My friend wants to pay
you to the last penny."

"I shall be happy to oblige," said the Jew, rubbing his hands. "I always
knew that you were an honest young gentleman, Mr. Raven. I am sorry that
I had to insist on payment, but my partner--"

"Will you let me have the paper, sir," Jimmie put in, curtly.

The Jew at once bestirred himself. He opened a safe in which little
bundles of documents were neatly arranged, and in a couple of minutes he
produced the sheaf of bills that had so nearly been the ruin of his
aristocratic young client. The first one was among the number; it had
been renewed several times, on Nevill's indorsement.

The affair was quickly settled. The solicitor went carefully over Mr.
Benjamin's figures, representing principal and interest up to date, and
expressed himself as satisfied; it was extortionate but legal, he
declared. The sum total was a little over twenty-five hundred
pounds--Bertie had received less than two-thirds of it in cash--and
Jimmie promptly hauled out a fat roll of Bank of England notes and paid
down the amount. He took the canceled paper, nodded coldly to the Jew,
and left the money-lender's office with his companions.

Mr. Grimsby, declining an invitation to lunch, hailed a cab and went off
to the city to keep an appointment with a client. The other two walked
on to Piccadilly, and Bertie remembered that morning, months before,
when Victor Nevill had helped him out of his difficulties, only to get
him into a tighter hole.

"No person but myself was to blame," he thought. "Nevill meant it as a
kindness, and he advised me to pull up when he found what I was drifting
into--I never mentioned the last bill to him. Dear old Jimmie, he's
given me another chance! How jolly to feel that one is rid of such a
burden! I haven't drawn an easy breath for weeks."

"We'll go to my place first," said Jimmie. "I want a wash after the
atmosphere of that Jew's den. And then we'll lunch together."

It was a dull and cheerless day, but the sitting-room in the Albany
looked quite different to Bertie as he entered it. Was it only a few
hours before, he wondered, that he had stood there by the window in the
act of taking that life which had become too great a burden to bear? And
in the blackness of his despair, when he saw no glimmer of hope, the
clouds had rolled away. He glanced at the pistol, harmlessly resting on
a shelf, and a rush of gratitude filled his heart and brought tears to
his eyes. He clasped his friend's hand and tried incoherently to thank
him.

"Come, none of that," Jimmie said, brusquely. "Let us talk of something
more interesting. I have a pot of money; and this stuff," pulling out
the packet of bills, "don't even make a hole in it. It was a jolly
little thing to do--"

"It wasn't a little thing for me, old chap. I shall never forget, and
be assured that you will get your money back some day, with interest."

"Oh, hang the money!" exclaimed Jimmie. "If I'm ever hard up I'll ask
for it. If you want to show your gratitude, my boy, see that you stick
to your promise and run straight as a die hereafter."

"I swear I will, Jimmie. I would be worse than a blackguard if I didn't.
Don't worry--I've had my lesson!"

"Then let it be a lasting one. There are plenty of fellows who _never_
get clear of the Jews."

Jimmie vanished into the next room, and in a few moments reappeared,
rubbing his face vigorously with a towel.

"Do you remember in the Jew's den," he said abruptly, "my calling your
attention to the men talking in the back office?"

"Yes, but I didn't know what you meant."

"Didn't one of the voices sound familiar to you?"

"By Jove, you're right, come to think of it. It reminded me of--"

"Of Victor Nevill," said Jimmie. "Benjamin's companion talked exactly
like him, it struck me."

"That's it. Queer, wasn't it? But, of course, it was only a coincidence.
Nevill couldn't have been there."

"No; I hardly think so," Jimmie answered, slowly and seriously.

"I'm positive about it," exclaimed Bertie. "Surely you wouldn't
insinuate that Nevill is a--"

"No, I can't believe him to be that--a tout for money-lenders. But it
was wonderfully like his voice."

"Don't get such an idea into your head," protested Bertie. "Nevill was
only in the place twice, and then he went to oblige me. He hates the
Jews, and won't have anything to do with them himself. And he don't
need to. He has a settled income of two or three thousand a year."

"Yet he refused to help you, and pleaded that he was hard up?"

"Yes," assented Bertie, "but he didn't put it exactly in that way. He
explained how he was fixed, and I quite understand it. He must save all
his spare cash just now. He is going to be married soon."

"That's news," said Jimmie. "I hadn't an inkling of it."

"Nor I," declared Bertie, "until a week ago. I was dining with Nevill,
and he had taken half a bottle too much, you know. That's when he let
it out."

"Who is the girl?"

"A Miss Foster, I believe. She lives somewhere near Kew Bridge, in a
big, old-fashioned house on the river. I suppose her father has money.
From what Nevill said--"

A sharp exclamation fell from Jimmie's lips, and his face expressed
blank astonishment.

"By Jove! Nevill engaged to Madge Foster?" he cried.

"That's the girl, and he's going to marry her!"

Jimmie turned away to hide his feelings. This was a most astounding
piece of news, but under the circumstances he was satisfied that it
must be true. So Nevill knew Miss Foster! That in itself was a strange
revelation! And suddenly a vague suspicion came into his mind--a
chilling doubt--as he recalled Nevill's demeanor, and certain little
actions of his, on the night when Jack Vernon's French wife confronted
him under the trees of Richmond Terrace. Had a jealous rival planned
that Diane should be there?--that she should come to life again to blast
the happiness of the man who believed her dead? He tried to put away the
suspicion, but it would not be stifled; it grew stronger.

"I say, old man, what's gone wrong?" asked Bertie. "You're acting
queerly. I hope _you've_ not been hit in that quarter."

Jimmie faced around and laughed.

"No fear, Bertie," he said. "I'm not a marrying man. I wouldn't know
Miss Foster from your precious Flora, for I've never seen either of
them." He suddenly remembered the photograph Jack had shown him, and his
cheeks flushed. "It gave me a bit of a start to hear that Nevill was
going to be married," he added, hastily. "I thought he was too fond of
a bachelor's existence to tie himself to a wife."

"It's funny what a woman can do with a chap," Bertie sagely observed.

"_You_ ought to know," Jimmie replied, pointedly, as he pulled on his
coat. "Come along! It's past my lunch hour, and I'm hungry."

On their way to a noted restaurant in the vicinity Jimmy engaged in deep
reflection.

"I'll do it," he vowed, mentally. "I'll keep an eye on Mr. Victor
Nevill, and get to the bottom of this thing. I remember that I took a
dislike to him in Paris from the first. I hate a traitor, and if Nevill
has been playing the part of a false friend, I'll block his little game.
He seemed rather too anxious to take Diane away that night. And he'll
bear watching for another reason--I'm almost certain that it was his
voice I heard in the Jew's back room. Benjamin and Company, like charity,
may cover a multitude of sins. Nevill was going a rapid pace when he was
abroad, and he couldn't well have kept it up all these years on his
legacy."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was eleven o'clock at night, and the theatres were pouring their
audiences from pit and stalls, galleries and boxes, into the crowded,
tumultuous, clamoring Strand, blazing and flashing like a vast, long
furnace, echoing to the roar of raucous throats, and throbbing to
the rumble of an endless invasion of cabs and private carriages. A
fascinating scene, and one of the most interesting that London can show.

The uniformed commissionaire of the Ambiguity, reading the wishes of a
lady and gentleman who pressed across the pavement to the curb, promptly
claimed a hansom and opened the door. Stephen Foster helped his daughter
into it and followed her. Madge looked fragile and tired, but her sweet
beauty attracted the attention of the bystanders; she drew her fluffy
opera-cloak about her white throat and shoulders as she nestled in a
corner of the seat. Nevill, who had been separated from them by the
crush, came forward just then.

"I'm sorry you won't have some supper," he said. "It is not late."

"It will be midnight before we get home," Stephen Foster replied. "We
are indebted to you for a delightful evening."

"Yes, we enjoyed it _so_ much," Madge added, politely.

"I hope you will let me repeat it soon," Nevill said.

The girl did not answer. She held out her hand, and it was cold to
Nevill's touch. He bade them both good-night, and stepped aside to give
the cabby his directions. He watched the vehicle roll away, and then
scowled at the commissionaire, who waited expectantly for a tip.

"As beautiful as a dream," he thought, savagely, "but with a heart of
ice--at least to me. Will I never be able to melt her?"

It is no easy matter to cross the Strand when the theaters are dismissing
their audiences, and five minutes were required for Nevill to accomplish
that operation; even then he had to avail himself of a stoppage of the
traffic by a policeman. He bent his steps to the grill-room of the Grand,
and enjoyed a chop and a small bottle of wine. Lighting a cigar, he
sauntered slowly to Jermyn street, and as he reached his lodgings a man
started up suddenly before him.

"Beg pardon, sir," he said humbly, "but ain't you Mr. Victor Nevill?"




CHAPTER XXIV.

A FATEFUL DECISION.


Nevill paused, latch-key in hand; a cautious impulse checked the
admission of his identity. The individual who had accosted him, seen by
the glow of a distant street-lamp, was thickset and rakish-looking, with
a heavy mustache. He repeated his question uneasily.

"If I've made a mistake--" he went on.

"No, you are not mistaken," said Nevill. "But how did you learn my name,
and what do you want with me?"

On a natural impulse, fancying he recognized a racing tipster who had
been of service to him in the past, he reached for his pocket; the
jingling of coin was heard.

"Stow that--I'm not a beggar!" the man said, sharply.

"I beg your pardon! I thought I recalled--"

"We never met before, Mr. Nevill."

"Then it's a queer time of night for a stranger to hunt me up. If you
have business with me, come in the morning; or, better still, write to
me."

"I've got to talk to you to-night, sir, and I ain't to be put off. For
two blessed hours I've been hanging around this house, watching an'
waiting--"

"A sad waste of time! You are an impudent fellow, whoever you are. I
refuse to have anything to do with you."

"I think you'll change your mind, sir. If you don't you'll be sorry till
your dying day."

"You scoundrel, do you dare to threaten me?" cried Nevill. "There is
only one remedy for ruffians of your kind--" He looked up and down the
street in search of a policeman.

"You can call an officer if you like," the man said, scornfully; "or, if
you choose to order me away, I'll go. But in that case," he bent nearer
and dropped his voice to a whisper, "I'll take my secret straight to Sir
Lucius Chesney. And I'll warrant _he_ won't refuse to hear it."

Nevill's countenance changed, and he seemed to wilt instantly.

"Your secret?" he muttered. "Are you telling the truth? What is it?"

"Do you suppose I'm going to give that away here in the street? It's a
private matter, and can only be told under shelter, where there ain't no
danger of eavesdroppers."

"I'll trust you," replied Nevill, after a brief hesitation. "Come, you
shall go to my rooms. But I warn you in advance that if you are playing
a game of blackmail I'll have no mercy on you."

"I won't ask none. Don't you fear."

Nevill opened the house door, and the two went softly up the dimly lit
staircase. The gas-lamps were turned on, revealing the luxuries of the
front apartment, and the visitor looked about him with bewildered
admiration; he seemed to feel his unfitness for the place, and
instinctively buttoned his coat over his shabby linen. But that was only
for a moment. With an insolent smile he took possession of a
basket-chair, helped himself to a cigar, and poured some brandy from a
_carafe_ into a glass. Meanwhile Nevill had drawn the window curtains,
and when he turned around he had hard work to restrain his anger.

"What the devil--," he began, and broke off. "You are the cheekiest
fellow I ever came across," he added.

"It ain't often," replied the man, puffing away contentedly, "that I get
a chance to try a swell's tobacco and liquor. That's prime stuff, sir. I
feel more like talking now."

"Then be quick about it. What is your business? And as you have the
advantage of me at present, it would be better if you began by stating
your name."

"My name," the man paused half a second, "is Timmins--Joe Timmins. It
ain't likely that you--"

"No; I never heard it," Nevill interrupted. He sat down at the other
side of the table, and endeavored to hide his anxiety and impatience.
"I can't spare you much time," he added.

"Sure there ain't nobody within earshot?"

"Quite sure. Make your mind easy."

Mr. Joe Timmins--_alias_ Noah Hawker--expressed his satisfaction by
a nod. He produced a paper from his pocket, and slowly unfolded it.

"If you will kindly read that," he said.

Nevill took the document curiously. It consisted of half a dozen pages
of writing, well-worded and grammatical, but done by a wretched,
scrawling hand, and embellished with numerous blots and smudges. From
the first he grasped its import, and as he read on to the end his face
grew pale and his hands shook. With a curse he started to his feet and
made a step toward the grate, where the embers of a coal fire lingered.
Then, dropping down again, he laughed bitterly.

"Of course this is only a copy?" he exclaimed.

"That's all, sir," replied Mr. Timmins, with a grim smile. "It ain't
likely I'd been fool enough to bring the original here. I did the copy
myself, an' though I ain't much of a scholar, I do say as it reads for
what it's meant to be, word for word."

"I want better proof than this, my man."

"Ain't you satisfied? Look at the date of the letter, an' where it was
written, an' what it says. Could I invent such a thing?"

"No; you couldn't," Nevill admitted. "You have the original letter, you
say?"

"I've had that and other papers for years, hid away in a safe place,
which is where they lie now. It's only lately I looked into them deep,
so to speak, and saw what they might be worth to me. I studied them,
sir, and by putting things together I found there were three persons
concerned--three chances for me to try."

"You are a cunning fellow," said Nevill. "Why did you bring the letter
to me?"

"Because it pointed that way. I knew you were the biggest bird, and the
one most likely to pay me for my secret. It was quite a different matter
with the others--"

"You haven't seen them?"

"No fear!" Mr. Timmins answered, emphatically. "I spotted you as my man
from the first, and I'm glad you've got the sense to look at it right.
I hope we understand each other."

"I don't think there can be much doubt about that," replied Nevill,
whose quick mind had grasped the situation in all its bearings; he
realized that there was no alternative--save ruin--but to submit to the
scoundrel's terms. But the bargain must be made as easy as possible.

"I must know more than you have told me," he went on. "How did the
letter come into your possession? And why have you waited more than five
years to make use of it?"

Mr. Timmins was not averse to answering the questions. He pulled his
chair closer, and in low tones spoke for some minutes, revealing all
that Nevill wished to know, and much besides that was of interest.

"You'll find me a square-dealing customer," he concluded, "and I expect
the same of a gent like you."

Nevill shrank from him with ill-concealed disgust and repulsion; contact
with the lower depths of crime affected his aristocratic sensibilities.

"You swear that you have all the papers?" he asked.

"Yes."

"And they are in a safe place?"

"If I was to drop over dead, sir, they wouldn't be found in a hundred
years."

"We'll proceed to the next question," Nevill said, abruptly. "To speak
with brutal frankness, Mr. Timmins, what is your price?"

"One thousand pounds in cash, when the papers are handed over," was the
prompt reply, "and a signed agreement to pay me as much more when you
come into--"

"Do you take me for a millionaire?" cried Nevill. "It's all right about
the agreement, but a thousand pounds is utterly beyond my means. Say two
hundred."

Mr. Timmins shook his head, and glanced significantly about the room.

"I can't take a shilling less," he firmly replied. "I know a good thing
when I have it, sir."

Nevill temporized. He argued and entreated, but without avail. He had an
inflexible customer to deal with, who would not be put off with anything
but his pound of flesh. A decision that night was impossible, and
arrangements were made for another meeting within a few days. Then Mr.
Timmins filled his pocket with cigars and took his leave.

Nevill let him out into Jermyn street, locked the door, and returned
to his sitting-room. His face was distorted with evil passions, and he
spilled the brandy on the table as he poured some into a glass.

"Curse him!" he said, hoarsely. "_He_ again! Is he destined to blast my
life and ruin my prospects?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The "do" at Joubert Mansions, Chelsea, by no means fell short of Jack's
forecast; on the contrary, it exceeded it. His memory failed him as to
what transpired after three in the morning; he woke at noon in a strange
bed, with a sense of overmastering languor, and a head that felt too big
for his body. Vance Dickens, with a palette on his thumb, was standing
over him. He laughed till the roof threatened to come off.

"I wish you could see yourself," he howled. "It's not exactly the
awakening of Venus. You _wouldn't_ be undressed, so we had to tuck you
away as you were--some chaps helped to bring you here."

"You beggar!" growled Jack. "You look as fresh as a new penny."

"Two whiskies is my limit, old boy--I don't go beyond it. And I had
a page black-and-white to do to-day. Stir yourself, and we'll have
breakfast. The kettle is boiling. Wait--I'll bring you a pick-me-up."

The pick-me-up, compounded on the principle that like cures like, did
not belie its name. It got Jack to his feet and soothed his head. The
two men were about of a size, and Dickens loaned his friend a shirt and
collar and a tweed suit, promising to send his dress clothes home by a
trusty messenger.

"No; I'll attend to that," demurred Jack, who did not care to tell where
he lived.

He nibbled at his breakfast, drank four cups of strong tea, and then
sauntered to the window. It was drizzling rain, and the streets between
the river and the King's road were wrapped in a white mist.

"This sort of thing won't do," he reflected. "I must pull up short, or
I'll be a complete wreck." He remembered the brief, sad note--with more
love than bitterness in it--which he had received from Madge in reply to
his letter of explanation. "I owe something to her," he thought. "She
forgave me, and begged me to face the future bravely. And, by heavens,
I'll do it! I hope she doesn't know the life I've been leading since I
came back. Work is the thing, and I'll buckle down to it again."

Fired by his new resolve, Jack settled himself in a cozy corner and
lighted a pipe. With a stimulating interest he watched Dickens, who had
finished his black-and-white, and was doing a water color from a sketch
made that summer at Walberswick, a quaint fishing village on the Suffolk
coast. He blobbed on the paint, working spasmodically, and occasionally
he refreshed himself at the piano with a verse of the latest popular
song.

"By Jove, this is Friday!" he said suddenly; "and I'm due at the London
Sketch Club to-night. Will you come there and have supper with me at
nine?"

"Sorry, but I can't," Jack replied, remembering his promise to Sir
Lucius Chesney. "I'm off now. I'll drop in to-morrow and get my
dress-suit--don't trouble to send it."

Dickens vainly urged a change of mind. Jack was not to be coerced, and,
putting on a borrowed cap and overcoat, he left the studio. He walked to
Sloane square, and took a train to the Temple; but he was so absorbed
in a paper that he was carried past his station. He got out at
Blackfriars, and lingered doubtfully on the greasy pavement, staring at
the sea of traffic surging in the thick, yellow fog. He had reached
another turning-point in his life, but he did not know it.

"I'll go to the 'Cheese,'" he decided, "and have some supper."




CHAPTER XXV.

A FRUITLESS ERRAND.


The merest trifles often have far-reaching results, and Jack's careless
decision, prompted by a hungry stomach, made him the puppet of fate. The
crossing at Blackfriars station is the most dangerous in London, and he
did not reach the other side without much delay and several narrow
escapes. It was a shoulder-and-elbow fight to the mouth of the dingy
little court in which is the noted hostelry he sought, and then
compensation and a haven of rest--the dining-room of the "Cheshire
Cheese!" Here there was no trace of the fog, and the rumble of wheels
was hushed to a soothing murmur. An old-world air pervaded the place,
with its low ceiling and sawdust-sprinkled floor, its well-worn benches
and tables and paneling. The engravings on the walls added to the charm,
and the head waiter might have stepped from a page of Dickens. Savory
smells abounded, and the kettle rested on the hob over the big
fireplace, to the right of which Doctor Johnson's favorite seat spoke
eloquently of the great lexicographer, who in time past was wont to
foregather here with his friends.

Jack was too hungry to be sentimental. He sat down in one of the
high-backed compartments, and, glancing indifferently at a man sitting
opposite to him, he recognized the editor of the _Illustrated Universe_.

"By Jove!" Hunston cried, in surprise, "you're the very chap I want to
see. Where have you been hiding yourself, Vernon? I searched for you
high and low."

"I've not been out of town," said Jack. "I intended to look you up, or
to send my address, but one thing and another interfered--"

"Yes, I understand," Hunston interrupted. "London is fresh to a man who
has just come back from India. I hope you've had your fling, and are
ready to do some work."

"As soon as you like," Jack replied.

"I'm glad to hear it--I was afraid you had given me the slip altogether.
I want some of your sketches enlarged to double-page drawings, and I am
thinking of issuing a photographic album of the snap-shots you took on
the frontier."

"That's not a bad idea. I'll come in to-morrow."

"I'll expect you, then. You haven't a studio at present?"

"No."

"Well, I can give you a room on the premises to work in. By the bye,
there is a letter for you at the office. It came this morning."

"I'll get it to-morrow. I don't suppose it's important."

"It is in a woman's handwriting," said Hunston, with a smile.

"A woman?" exclaimed Jack. "Where does it come from--England or abroad?"

"London postmark," was the reply.

Jack changed color, and a lump seemed to rise in his throat.

"It must be from Madge," he thought. "But why would she write to me?"

"If you would like the letter to-night--" Hunston went on.

"If it's no trouble," Jack replied, eagerly.

"None whatever. I must go back to the office, anyway."

Jack was impatient to start, and he no longer felt hungry. He ordered
a light supper, however, and ate it hurriedly. He finished at the same
time as Hunston, and they left the "Cheese" and plunged into the outer
fog and crowds. A short walk brought them to the _Universe_ building,
which was just closing its doors to the public. Hunston turned up the
gas in his office.

"Here you are," he said, taking a letter from a pigeon-hole over the
desk.

Jack looked at it sharply, and disappointment banished hope. He scowled
savagely, and an half-audible oath slipped from his lips. He had
recognized Diane's peculiar penmanship. She was in London, contrary
to promise, and had dared to write to him.

"Sit down," said Hunston. "Have a cigar?"

"No; I'm off," Jack answered dully, as he thrust the letter into his
pocket unopened.

Hunston regarded him anxiously.

"Ill see you to-morrow?" he asked. "You know it's rather important, and
I'll want one of the double pages by next Wednesday."

"I'll turn up," Jack promised, in an absent tone.

With that he hastened away, and as he trod the Strand his brain was in a
confused whirl, and he was oblivious of the frothing life about him. He
groped across Waterloo Bridge in the fog, and looked wistfully toward
the black river. He did not care to read the letter yet. It was enough
for the present to know that his wife had broken her word and returned
to London, doubtless with the intention of demanding more money. He
vowed that she should not have a penny. Fierce anger and resentment rose
in his heart as he remembered, with anguish as keen as it had ever been,
the blow Diane had dealt him.

"I will show her no mercy," he resolved.

In the privacy of his room, when he had locked the door and lighted the
gas, he took out the letter. His face was dark and scowling as he tore
it open, and read the few lines that it contained:

"DEAR JACK:--You will fly into a passion when you find that I am in
London, but you won't blame me when you learn the reasons that have
brought me back. I knew that you had returned from India, and I want
to see you. Not having your address, I am sending the letter to the
_Universe_ office, and I hope it will be delivered to you promptly. Will
you come to 324 Beak street, at half-past eight to-morrow night? The
street door will be open. Go to the top of the stairs, and knock at the
first door on the left. Do not fear that I shall ask for money, or make
other demands. I have much to tell you, of the greatest importance to
your future happiness. If you do not come you will regret it all your
life. I will expect you. DIANE."

With a bitter laugh Jack flung the letter on a table. It was not written
in French, for Diane was herself of English birth, though of her history
before she came to Paris her husband was ignorant; she had never spoken
to him of her earlier years, nor had he questioned her about them.

"Does she think I am a fool, to be taken in so easily?" he said to
himself. "It is a lie--a trick! Money is her game, of course. She wants
to decoy me to her lodgings, and hopes to make me yield by threats of
exposure. And yet she writes with a ring of sincerity--something like
her old self in the first days of our marriage. Bah! it is only her
cunning."

He read the letter again, and pondered it.

"It was written yesterday," he muttered. "The appointment is for
to-night. What could she possibly have to tell me that concerns my
future happiness? Nothing! And yet, if she should really be
remorseful--By Jove! I _will_ go! It can do no harm. But if I find that
she has deceived me, and is playing the old game, by heavens! I'll--"

Passion choked his utterance, and he concluded the sentence with a
mental threat. He suddenly remembered that he had promised to meet Sir
Lucius Chesney at eight o'clock that night.

"I can't do it," he thought. "I'm not fit to talk to any man in this
mood. And he would probably detain me more than half an hour. No, I'll
write a short note to Sir Lucius, putting off the engagement, and leave
it at Morley's."

Whether his decision was a wise one or not, was a question that Jack did
not attempt to analyze. He proceeded to carry his plans into effect. It
was then seven o'clock, and it took him twenty minutes to write the note
to Sir Lucius and exchange his borrowed clothes for a dark suit of his
own. He put Diane's letter into a side pocket, so that he might be sure
of the address, and then left the house. He did not take a cab,
preferring to walk.

He handed the note in at Morley's Hotel, and steered across Trafalgar
square. At the top of the Haymarket, to his chagrin, he encountered
Jimmie Drexell, who urged him to have a drink at Scott's; he could not
well refuse, as it was nearly a fortnight since they had met.

A quarter of an hour slipped by. Jimmie asked a great many questions,
but Jack was preoccupied and uneasy, and scarcely answered them. He
finally tore himself away on the plea of an urgent engagement, and
promised to call at the Albany the next day; he was reluctant to confide
in his friend. A distant clock was striking eight-thirty as he turned up
the Quadrant.

Regent street was noisy and crowded, but Beak street was gloomy and
misty, depressing and lonely, in contrast. Jack found the right number,
and as he hesitated before the house--the door of which was partly
open--a man came abruptly out. He was tall and slim, dressed in dark
clothes, and with a soft hat that concealed all of his features except
an aquiline nose and a black beard and mustache. He stared hard at Jack
for an instant, then strode rapidly off to the eastward and was lost in
the fog.

"A foreigner, from his actions," thought Jack.

He pushed the door open, and mounted a steep and narrow staircase.
Reaching the first landing, he saw a door on his left. At the bottom
a faint streak of light was visible, but his low rapping brought no
response. He rapped again--three times, and each louder--but with the
same result.

"No use to keep this up," he concluded, vexatiously. "I am a few minutes
late, and she has gone out, thinking that I would not come. There is no
mistake about the room. I won't wait--I'll write to her to-morrow, and
give her twenty-four hours to get out of London."

He went slowly down the dark stairs, and as he stepped into the street
he brushed against a stout, elderly woman. With a muttered apology, he
moved aside. The woman turned and looked after him sharply for an
instant, then entered the house and closed the door.

Jack thought nothing of the incident. How to put in the evening was
the question that concerned him. He was walking undecidedly down the
Quadrant when he saw approaching an artist friend whom he did not care
to meet. On the impulse of the moment he darted across the street,
narrowly missing the wheels of a hansom, and in front of the Cafe Royal
he ran into the arms of Victor Nevill.

"Hello, old chap; you _are_ in a hurry!" cried Nevill. "What's up now?
Seen my uncle?"

Jack was flushed and breathless.

"No; I couldn't manage it," he panted. "I left a note at Morley's for
him. I had to make a call--party wasn't at home."

"Where are you bound for? Morley's?"

"No; it's too late. Shall we have some refreshment?"

"Sorry, but I can't," replied Nevill. "I'm going to a reception. Will
you come to my rooms at eleven?"

"Yes, if I'm not too far away. But don't count on me. Good-night, in
case I don't see you again."

"Good-night," echoed Nevill.

As he looked after Jack, the latter pulled out his handkerchief,
and a white object fluttered from it to the pavement. He walked on,
unconscious of its loss. Nevill hurried to the spot, and picked up
a letter.

"A woman's!" he muttered, as he thrust it quickly into his pocket. "And
the writing seems familiar. I'll examine this when I get a chance.
Everything is fair in the game I am playing."

Jack wandered irresolutely to Piccadilly Circus, seeking distraction.
In the American bar at the St. James' he met a man named Ingram, who
suggested that they should go to see a mutual friend--an artist--who
lived in Bedford Park. Jack agreed, and they drove in a cab. They found
a lot of other men they knew at the studio, and whisky and tobacco made
the hours fly. They left at two o'clock in the morning--a convivial
party of five--and they had to walk to Hammersmith before they picked up
a hansom. They dropped off one by one, and Jack was the only occupant
when he reached Sloane street. It was long past four when the cab put
him down at his lodgings on the Surrey side.




CHAPTER XXVI.

A THUNDERBOLT FROM THE BLUE.


Another day dawned, as wet and gloomy as the preceding ones. It was the
middle of the morning when Jack got out of bed, and as he dressed he
heard the penetrating voices of newsboys ringing through the Waterloo
Bridge road. He could not distinguish what they were saying, though
he judged that the papers must contain some intelligence of unusual
importance. He rang for his breakfast, and his landlady, Mrs. Jones,
appeared in person, bringing coffee, rolls and bacon on a tray. Her face
was flushed with excitement.

"Oh, Mr. Vernon, 'ave you 'eard?" she exclaimed. "There was a 'orrible
murder last night! I do pity the poor, dear creature--"

"I don't want to be shocked," Jack curtly interrupted. "Murders are
common enough. But you might send me up a paper."

"And you won't 'ear--"

"Not now, my good woman."

Mrs. Jones put down the tray, tossed her head, and departed in a huff.
The paper arrived five minutes later, and Jack glanced over it while he
sipped his coffee. One of the inside pages suddenly confronted him with
huge headlines: "The Beak Street Murder!" He read further down the
column, and his face turned as pale as ashes; he swayed in his chair.

"My God!" he cried. "It is Diane!"

The report of the affair was enlarged from a briefer account that had
appeared in a late edition on the previous night. It seemed that Mrs.
Rickett, the landlady and proprietress of 324 Beak street, had
discovered the crime at a quarter to ten in the evening. A red stain,
coming through the ceiling of her sitting-room, attracted her attention.
She went to the room overhead, which was occupied by a female lodger
calling herself Diane Merode. The door was locked, and her demands for
admittance brought no response. She promptly summoned the police, who
broke in the door and found the unfortunate woman, Merode, lying dead in
a pool of blood. She had been stabbed to the heart by a powerful blow
dealt from behind.

"The murderer left no traces," the _Globe_ continued. "He carried off
the weapon, and, after locking the door, he took the key. According to
medical opinion, the deed was committed about half-past eight o'clock.
At that time there were several other lodgers in the top part of the
house, but they heard no noise whatever. Fortunately, however, there
is a clew. Mrs. Ricketts, who was out making purchases for breakfast,
returned about a quarter to nine. As she entered the doorway a man
slipped by her and hastened in the direction of Regent street. She had
a good look at him, and declares that she would be able to recognize him
again. The police are searching for the suspected person."

Jack's breakfast was untasted and forgotten. His trembling hand had
upset the coffee, spilling it over the paper. He felt cold in every
vein, and his thoughts were in a state of wild chaos. It was hard to
grasp the truth--difficult to realize the import of those staring
headlines of black type!

"Diane murdered! Diane dead!" he repeated, vacantly. "I can't believe
it!"

After the first shock, when his brain began to throw off the numbing
stupor, he comprehended the terrible fact. The crime gave him no
satisfaction; it never occurred to him that he was a free man now. On
the contrary, a dull remorse stirred within him. He remembered his wife
as she had been five years before, when she had loved him with as much
sincerity as her shallow nature would permit, and her charms and beauty
had bound him captive by golden chains. There were tears in his eyes as
he paced the floor unsteadily.

"Poor Diane!" he muttered. "She has paid a frightful penalty for the
sins of her wayward life--more than she deserved. She must have been
lying dead when I rapped on her door last night. Yes, and the fatal blow
had been struck but a short time before! The assassin was the
foreign-looking man who came down the stairs as I went up! There can be
no doubt of it! But who was he? And what was his motive? A discarded
lover, perhaps! What else could have prompted the deed?"

He suddenly paused, and reeled against the wall; he clenched his hands,
and a look of sharp horror distorted his face.

"By heavens, this is awful!" he gasped. "I never thought of it before!
The police are looking for me--I remember now that I met the landlady
when I left the house. I brushed against her and apologized, and she
stared straight at me! And the real murderer--the foreigner--appears to
have been seen by nobody except myself. What shall I do? It is on me
that suspicion has fallen!"

The realization of his danger unnerved and stupefied Jack for an
instant. Dread phantoms of arrest and imprisonment, of trial and
sentence, rose before his eyes. One moment he determined to flee the
country; the next he resolved to surrender to the police and tell all
that he knew, so that the real murderer might be sought for without
loss of time. But the latter course was risky, fraught with terrible
possibilities. The evidence would be strong against him. He remembered
Diane's letter. He must destroy it! He hurriedly searched the pockets of
the clothing he had worn on the previous night, but in vain.

"The letter is gone--I have lost it!" he concluded, with a sinking
heart. "But where and how? And if it is found--"

There was a sharp rap at the door, and as quickly it opened, without
invitation. Two stern-looking men, dressed in plain clothes, stepped
into the room. Jack knew at once what the visit meant, and with a
supreme effort he braced himself to meet the ordeal. It was hard work
to stand erect and to keep his face from twitching.

"You are John Vernon?" demanded one of the men.

"Yes."

"I will be very brief, sir. I am a Scotland Yard officer, and I am here
to arrest you on suspicion of having murdered your wife, known as Diane
Merode, at Number 324 Beak street, last night."

"I expected this," Jack replied. "I have just seen the paper--I knew
nothing of the crime before. I am entirely innocent, though I admit that
the circumstances--"

"I warn you not to say anything that may incriminate yourself. You must
come with me, sir!"

"I understand that, and I will go quietly. I am quite ready. And at the
proper time I will speak."

There was no delay. One of the officers remained to search the
apartments, and Jack accompanied the other downstairs. They got into
a cab and drove off, while Mrs. Jones shook her fist at them from the
doorway, loudly protesting that she was a disgraced and ruined woman
forever.

The magistrate was sitting in the court at Great Marlborough street, and
Jack was taken there to undergo a brief preliminary formality. Contrary
to advice, he persisted in making a statement, after which he was
removed to the Holloway prison of detention to await the result of the
coroner's inquest.

About the time that the cell-door closed on the unfortunate artist,
shutting him in to bitter reflections, Victor Nevill was in his rooms on
Jermyn street. Several of the latest papers were spread out before him,
and he brushed them savagely aside as he reached for a cigar-box. He
looked paler than usual--even haggard.

"They have taken him by this time," he thought. "I was lucky to pick up
the letter, and it was a stroke of inspiration to send it to the police.
He is guilty, without doubt. I vowed to have a further revenge, my fine
fellow, if I ever got the chance, and I have kept my word. But there are
other troubles to meet. The clouds are gathering--I wonder if I shall
weather the storm!"

        *       *       *       *       *

Enterprising reporters, aided by official leaking somewhere, obtained
possession of considerable facts, including the prisoner's arrest and
statement, before two o'clock, and the afternoon journals promptly
published them, not scrupling to add various imaginary embellishments.
The simple truth was enough to cause a wide-spread and profound
sensation, and it did so; for John Vernon's reputation as an artist, and
his Academy successes, were known alike to society and to the masses. It
was a rare morsel of scandal!

Madge Foster's first knowledge of the murder was gleaned from a morning
paper, which, delayed for some reason, was not delivered until her
father had gone up to town. Toward evening she bought a late edition
from a newsboy who had penetrated to the isolated regions of Grove Park
and Strand-on-the-Green, and she saw Jack's name in big letters. When
she had read the whole account, the room seemed to swim around her, and
she dropped, half fainting, into a chair.

"He is innocent--his story is true!" she cried, feebly. "I will never
believe him guilty! Oh, if I could only go to him and comfort him in his
great trouble!"

Stephen Foster came home at seven o'clock, but he dined alone. Madge was
in her room, and would not come out or touch food. Her eyes were red and
swollen, and she had wept until the fountain of her tears was dried up.

At four o'clock that same afternoon Mr. Tenby, the famous criminal
solicitor, was sitting in his private office in Bedford street, Strand,
when two prospective clients were announced simultaneously, and, by a
mistake on the part of the office-boy, shown in together. The visitors
were Jimmie Drexell and Sir Lucius Chesney, and, greatly to their mutual
amazement and the surprise of the solicitor, it appeared that they had
come on the same errand--to engage Mr. Tenby to look after the interests
of Jack Vernon. They were soon on the best of terms.

"Mr. Vernon is an old friend of mine," Jimmie explained, "and I am going
to see him through this thing. I will stake my life on his innocence!"

"I am glad to hear you say that," replied Sir Lucius. "I am convinced
myself that he is guiltless--that his story is true in every
particular. His face is a warranty of that. I am deeply interested in
the young man, Mr. Drexell. I have taken a fancy to him--and I insist on
aiding in his defense. Don't refuse, sir. Expense is no object to me!"

"Nor to me," said Jimmie. "But it shall be as you wish."

This understanding being reached, the matter was further gone into.
The solicitor, by adroit questioning, drew from Jimmie various bits of
information relating to the accused man's past life. His own opinion--he
had read all the papers--Mr. Tenby held in reserve behind a sphinx-like
countenance, nor did he vouchsafe it when it was finally settled that he
should defend the case.

"The circumstantial evidence appears strong--very strong," he said
drily. "The situation looks black for Mr. Vernon. But I trust that the
police will find the foreign-looking individual whom the accused met
coming out of the house, if it is certain that--" He broke off sharply.

"At all events, gentlemen," he added, "be assured that I shall do my
best."

This promise from the great Mr. Tenby meant everything. He dismissed his
visitors, and they walked as far as Morley's Hotel together, discussing
the situation as hopefully as they could. It was evident to both,
however, that the solicitor was not disposed to credit Jack's innocence
or the truth of his statement.

"I'll spend every dollar I have to get him free," Jimmie vowed, as he
went sadly on to the Albany. And much the same thing was in the mind of
Sir Lucius, though he wondered why it should be. He was the creature of
a whim that dominated him.

The next day was Sunday, and on Monday the coroner held his inquest.
The accused was not present, but he was represented by Mr. Tenby, who
posed mainly as a listener, however, and asked very few questions.
Nothing fresh was solicited. Mrs. Rickett repeated her story, and the
letter from the murdered woman, which the prisoner admitted having lost,
was put in evidence. The proceedings being merely a prelude to a higher
court, the jurors rendered an undecisive verdict. They found that the
deceased had been murdered by a person or persons unknown, but that
suspicion strongly pointed to her husband, John Vernon. They advised,
moreover, that the police should try to find the stranger whom the
accused alleged to have seen coming from the house.

On Tuesday the unfortunate woman was decently buried, at Jimmie
Drexell's expense, and on the following day a more formal inquiry was
held at Great Marlborough street. Jack was there, and he had a brief and
affecting interview with Sir Lucius and Jimmie; he had previously seen
his solicitor at Holloway. He repeated to the magistrate the story he
had told before, and he was compelled to admit, by the Crown lawyers,
that the murdered woman had been his wife, that they had lived apart for
nearly six years, and that she had recently prevented him from marrying
another woman. What prompted these damaging questions, or how the
prosecution got hold of the lost letter, did not appear. Mrs. Rickett
positively identified the prisoner, and medical evidence was taken. The
police stated that they had been unable as yet to find the missing man,
concerning whose existence they suggested some doubt, and that they had
discovered nothing bearing on the case in the apartments occupied by
either the accused or Diane Merode. Mr. Tenby, who was suffering from
a headache, did little but watch the proceedings. The inquiry was
adjourned, and John Vernon was remanded in custody for a week.

But much was destined to occur in the interval. The solicitor had a
formidable rival in the person of Jimmie Drexell. The shrewd American,
keeping eyes and ears open, had formed suspicions in regard to the
principal witness for the Crown. And he lost no time in making the most
of his clew, wild and improbable as it seemed.




CHAPTER XXVII.

AN AMATEUR DETECTIVE.


On the day of the inquiry at Great Marlborough street, about five
o'clock in the afternoon, Jimmie Drexell walked slowly and thoughtfully
up the Quadrant. The weather had turned cold, and his top hat and
fur-lined coat gave him the appearance of an actor in luck. He was bound
on a peculiar errand, and though he hoped to succeed, he was not blind
to the fact that the odds were very much against him.

"I shall probably put my foot in it somehow," he reflected dolefully,
"and make a mess of the thing. But if I fail, it won't convince me that
I am wrong. I had my eye on that woman in court, and she was certainly
keeping something back. She seemed confused--in dread of some question
that was never asked. And once or twice I thought she was on the point
of making some startling revelation. I must play a cunning game, for
poor old Jack's sake. If Mrs. Rickett can't save him, and the police
don't find the mysterious stranger, I'm afraid he will be in a devilish
bad way."

Jimmie turned into Beak street, and pulled the bell of Number 324. He
waited several minutes before the landlady came, and then she opened
the door but a couple of inches, and peered distrustfully out. Jimmie
craftily thrust a foot in, so that the door could not be closed.

"You do not know me, madam," he said, "but I come as a friend. I wish to
have a short conversation with you."

Mrs. Rickett's distrust turned to alarm. In her agitation she retreated
a little, and Jimmie carried the first outworks and entered the hall.

"I must talk to you privately," he added. "We may be overheard here."

In a tremulous voice the landlady invited him to follow her, and she led
the way to a cozy apartment on the ground floor that was half kitchen
and half sitting-room. A kettle was steaming merrily on the fire, and
overhead an ominous red stain was visible on the ceiling.

Mrs. Rickett sank limply into a chair, and Jimmie, after closing the
door and removing his hat, seated himself opposite. He assumed an air
of grave importance.

"My good woman, perhaps you can guess why I am here," he began. "I was
present to-day at Great Marlborough street police-court. I watched the
proceedings closely, and my experience in such cases, and my infallible
sense of discrimination, enabled me to make a discovery." He paused for
breath, and to note the effect of his peroration; he wondered if the
words were right. "I am satisfied," he went on, "that the evidence you
gave--"

"Oh, Lor', it's come! it's come!" interrupted Mrs. Rickett. "I knew it
would! I've been in fear and tremblin'! Why didn't I speak at the right
time? Indeed, I tried to, but I sorter got choked up! Oh, sir, have pity
on a lone widow!"

Her face grew white, and she gasped for breath; she threatened to go
into a fit of hysterics.

"Come, come; there is nothing to be alarmed about," said Jimmie, who
could scarcely hide his delight. "Take comfort, my good woman. You may
have been foolish and thoughtless, but I am sure you have done nothing
criminal. I am here as a friend, and you can trust me. I wish to learn
the truth--that is all. From motives which I can understand, you kept
back some important evidence in connection with this sad tragedy--"

"I did, sir--I don't deny it. I didn't tell what I should, though I
nearly got the words out a 'eap of times. Please don't carry me off to
prison, sir. I knowed you was a police officer in disguise the minute
I clapped eyes on you--"

"I have nothing to do with the police," Jimmie assured her.

"Really? Then perhaps you're a detective--a private one?"

"Yes, it is something like that. I am making inquiries privately, in
behalf of my unfortunate friend."

"Meaning Mr. Vernon."

"That's right. I am convinced of his innocence, and I want to prove it.
You need have no fear. On the contrary, if you tell me freely all that
you know, you shall be well rewarded."

Mrs. Rickett took comfort, and fervently declared that her visitor
was a real gentleman. She offered him a cup of tea, which he tactfully
accepted, and then fortified her inner self with one, preliminary to
making her statement.

"I'm that flustered I 'ardly know what I'm doing," she began, wiping her
lips with a corner of her apron. "As to why I didn't speak before, it's
just this, sir. I liked that young man's face, 'im I met comin' out of
my 'ouse that night, and I thought afterward the woman might 'ave done
'im a bitter wrong, which, of course, ain't excusin' 'im for the
dreadful crime of murder, and I wouldn't 'ave you think it--"

"Then you know something that might be harmful to Mr. Vernon?" Jimmie
interrupted. He began to suspect the situation.

"That's it, sir!"

"But, my good woman, Mr. Vernon is absolutely innocent. Take my word
for it. The other man, who left the house just before my friend, is the
guilty person."

"I didn't believe in that other man at first," Mrs. Rickett replied;
"but it looks like the story might be true, after all. And if it is--"

"Well?"

"Then I can tell something about _him_; leastwise I think so."

"Go on!" Jimmie said, eagerly.

"I 'eard it from that French woman, Dinah Mer--I never _can_ pernounce
the name," continued Mrs. Rickett. "Pore creature, what a 'orrible end;
though it's a mercy it was so sudden like. But, as I was saying, sir,
she lodged in my 'ouse last spring, and she come back only three days
before the murder. She never 'ad much to say for 'erself, an' I judged
she was stiff and proud. You'll believe I was taken all aback, then,
when she walked into this 'ere very room one evening--it was last
Thursday, the day before the murder--an' takes off her cloak as cool as
you please. 'Mrs. Rickett,' she says, 'I'm feelin' badly. Can you give
me a cup of tea?' Of course I says yes. I was 'aving my own tea at the
time, and I asked 'er to join me, sociable like. By an' by she got to
tellin' me about 'erself. It appears she wasn't really French, but was
born at Dunwold, a village in Sussex, an' lived there till she was grown
up, after which she went abroad. Then she says to me, of a sudden: 'I
met a man to-day--'"

"One moment!" Jimmie interrupted. He took a note-book and pencil from
his pocket, and jotted down a few lines. "Please resume now," he added.
"What did the deceased tell you?"

"She told me that she'd met a man on Regent street from her native
English village, meaning Dunwold," Mrs. Rickett went on, "and that he
give her a bad fright. 'Is he an enemy of yours?' I asked. 'Yes, a
bitter one,' she says, 'an' I'm mortal afraid of him. An' the worst of
it is I'm sure he saw me, though I give 'im the slip by going into Swan
and Edgar's at one door and out at another. If he finds me, Mrs. Rickett,
'e'll kill me.' I told 'er not to worrit 'erself, an' I clean furgot the
matter till the next night, when the pore dear creature was stabbed to
the 'eart. I thought I should 'ave lost my 'ead, what with the crowds
that gathered, an' the police in the 'ouse, an' the doctors a viewin'
the departed corpse, an'--"

Jimmie checked her by a gesture.

"Are you sure you have told me everything?" he asked.

"Every blessed word, sir. It's the first and only time the woman spoke
to me of 'erself."

Jimmie jotted down a few more notes, and his hand shook like a leaf, so
greatly was he thrilled by the value of his discovery. Then he put Mrs.
Rickett through a cross-examination, in what he flattered himself was a
strictly legal style. Certainly Mr. Tenby could not have done it better,
for the landlady had nothing more to tell.

"I 'ope you're satisfied," she said. "And you won't forget what you
promised--that I shouldn't get into trouble?"

"I'll see to that," Jimmie replied. "It can be easily managed. I trust
that what you have told me will lead to the acquittal of my friend. Here
are ten pounds for you, and, if all goes well, I shall probably add to
it at another time."

The landlady thrust the bank notes into her broad bosom. She was
overpowered by the munificence of the gift, and poured out her
gratitude copiously.

"I've just recollected something," she went on. "There's a secret closet
in the room where the pore woman lodged, an' last spring I 'appened to
show it to 'er. It sort of took 'er fancy, and--"

"Did the police find it or examine it?" cried Jimmie.

"No, sir. I forgot to speak of it."

"Let me see it, please! It may lead to something of importance."

Mrs. Rickett willingly conducted her visitor through the hall and up the
staircase. A sense of the recent tragedy seemed to haunt the room, with
its drawn curtains and tawdry furnishings, and the dark stain on the
floor. The landlady shuddered, and glanced fearfully around. She made
haste to open a narrow closet, and to slide open a disguised panel at
the back of it, which disclosed a small recess. Jimmie, who was at her
shoulder, uttered a cry of surprise. He saw a gleam of white, and
reached for it quickly. He drew out an envelope, unaddressed and sealed,
with contents of a bulky nature.

"Bless me! She _did_ 'ide something!" gasped Mrs. Rickett. "What can it
be?"

"Writing, perhaps," replied Jimmie. "Will you permit me to have this,
Mrs. Rickett? I will examine it at my leisure, and tell you about it
later."

"I've no objections, sir," the landlady replied, as another five-pound
note was slipped into her hand. "Take it and welcome!"

Jimmie thanked her, and pocketed the envelope.

"I will see you again," he said, "and tell you whether I succeed
or fail. And, meanwhile, I must ask you to keep my visit a strict
secret--to inform no one of what you have told me. And don't breathe a
whisper in regard to anything being found in the murdered woman's room.
Keep your own counsel."

"I'll do that, sir, never fear. I'm a close-mouthed woman, and know how
to hold my tongue, which there ain't many females can say the same. And
I'm sure you'll do the right thing by me."

"I will, indeed," Jimmie promised. "You shan't have cause to regret your
confidence. And if I can clear my friend through the assistance you have
given me, I will be more liberal than I have been on this occasion."

"Thank you, sir, and I 'ope with all my 'eart you'll find the guilty
man," Mrs. Rickett declared, vehemently. "I never _did_ think Mr. Vernon
murdered that pore creature. Ah, but it's a wicked world!"

She accompanied her visitor to the door, showered further effusive
gratitude upon him, and gazed after him till he had turned the corner.
Overjoyed by his unexpected success, hopeful of achieving great results,
Jimmie strode down Regent street, amid the lights and the crowds. The
crisp, cold air had dried the pavements, and the stars shone from a
clear sky.

"What luck!" he thought, exultantly. "It was a happy inspiration to go
there to-night! Gad, I ought to be in Scotland Yard! There is no doubt
that the man who killed Diane was the same fellow she met the day
before. He hailed from her native village, and of course he was a
discarded lover. It is even possible that he was her husband, in the
days before she went to Paris, became a dancer, and married Jack. I must
utilize the information to the best advantage. The first thing is to run
down to Dunwold, find out all I can, and then put the police on the
track. For the present I will dispense with their services, though it
seems a bit risky to take matters into my own hands. But I rather fancy
the idea of playing detective, and I'll have a go at the business. I
won't tell the solicitor what I have discovered, but I think it will be
wise to confide in Sir Lucius Chesney. By the bye, he lives somewhere in
Sussex. He may be able to help me at the start."

Jimmie remembered the mysterious envelope in his pocket, and it occurred
to him that the contents might alter the whole situation, and make a
trip to Dunwold unnecessary. He walked faster, impatient to reach the
Albany and investigate his prize in safety.




CHAPTER XXVIII.

A DISCOVERY.


Jimmie's first move, on entering his chambers, was to lock the door
behind him and turn up the gas. Then he produced the envelope, and tore
it open, wondering as he did so what penalty the law would exact for
such an offense. The enclosure consisted of a dozen closely-written
pages of note-paper, dated two days before the murder. It was in the
nature of a statement, or confession, which some whim had prompted Diane
to put down in writing. Her motive became clearer to Jimmie as he read
on. She had meant no treachery to Jack in her letter. She had come to
London, a repentant woman, to do him a real service--to open his eyes to
various things--and for that purpose she had made the appointment at
Beak street on the fatal night. In all likelihood the document hidden in
the closet was due to a premonition of impending evil--a haunting dread
of the danger that was creeping upon the unfortunate woman.

The statement was in the form of a letter, addressed to Jack Vernon on
the first page, and signed "Diane Merode" on the last. It ended quite
abruptly, and did not refer directly to the mysterious stranger or to
Diane's early life, though it hinted at certain things of importance
which she was resolved to tell. But what she disclosed was astounding
in itself, and when Jimmie threw down the pages, after reading them
attentively, his face showed how deeply he was agitated. It took much to
rouse his placid nature to anger, but now his eyes blazed with rage and
indignation.

"By heavens, this is awful!" he said, hoarsely. "It is far worse than I
dreamed of! The consummate scoundrel! The treacherous blackguard! There
is no need to keep further watch on Victor Nevill. His record is
exposed. How true were my suspicions about that money-lending business!
He dropped some letters in Diane's room last spring, which she declares
proved him to be a partner in the firm of Benjamin and Company. I believe
her--I don't doubt it. The cursed tout! For how many years has he made
use of his social advantages to ruin young men--to decoy them into the
clutches of the Jews? It makes my blood boil! And the worst of it all is
the part he has played toward poor Jack--a false, black-hearted friend
from beginning to end; from the early days in Paris up to the present
time. If I had him here now--"

He finished the sentence by banging his clenched fist on the table with
a force that made it quiver.

Little wonder that Jimmie was indignant and wrathful! For Diane, weary
of being made a cat's-paw for an unscrupulous villain, remorseful for
the misery she had brought on one who once loved her, had confessed in
writing all of Victor Nevill's dark deeds. She had not known at first,
she said, that his sole aim had been to injure his trusting friend, else
she would have refused to help him. She had learned the truth since, and
she did not spare her knowledge of Nevill's dark deeds and cunning
tricks. She told how he had tempted her to desert her husband and flee
from Paris with him; how he had met her five years later in London, and
planned the infamous scheme which brought Jack and Diane together on
Richmond Terrace; and she declared that it was Victor Nevill also who
sent the anonymous letters to Madge Foster, the second of which had led
to the painful _denouement_ in the Ravenscourt Park studio. It was all
there in black and white--a story bearing the unmistakable evidence of
truth and sincerity.

"This is a private matter," thought Jimmie, when he had calmed down a
little, "and I'm bound to regard it as such. The statement can't affect
the case against Jack--it is useless to Mr. Tenby--and it would be
unwise to make it public for the purposes of denouncing Nevill--at least
at present. I will put it away carefully, and give it to Jack when his
innocence is proved, which I trust will be very soon. As for Nevill,
I'll reckon with the scoundrel at the proper time. I'll expose him in
every club in London, and drive him from the country. He shall not marry
Miss Foster--I'll nip that scheme in the bud and open her eyes--and I'll
let Sir Lucius Chesney know what sort of a man his nephew is. He'll cut
him off with a penny, I'll bet. But all these things must wait until I
find Diane's murderer, and meanwhile I will lock up the confession and
keep my own counsel."

Taking the letter, he reread the closing lines, studying the
curiously-worded phrases.

"I am not writing this to send to you," Diane concluded, "but to hide in
a secret place where it will be found if anything happens to me; life is
always uncertain. I have much more to tell, but I am too weary to put it
on paper. You will know all when me meet, and when you learn my secret,
happiness will come into your life again."

"It's a pretty clear case," reflected Jimmie. "The secret refers,
without doubt, to the man who murdered her. And the motive for it must
be traced back to her early life at Dunwold. She left a discarded lover
behind when she went to Paris. Ah, but why not a husband? Suppose she
was never really Jack's wife! In that case it is easy to see what she
meant by saying that she would make him happy again. By Jove, I'm
anxious to ferret the thing out!"

Jimmie looked at his watch; it was just seven o'clock. He put the letter
in his desk, safe under lock and key, and went straight to Morley's
Hotel. He dined with Sir Lucius Chesney, and told him what he had
learned from his visit to Mrs. Rickett. He made no mention of what he
had found in the secret closet, nor did he refer to Victor Nevill.

Sir Lucius was amazed and delighted, hopeful of success. He thoroughly
approved Jimmie's plan, and gave him a brief note of introduction to the
Vicar of Dunwold.

"I wish I could go with you," he said; "but, unfortunately, I have two
important engagements in town to-morrow."

The interview was a long one, and it was eleven o'clock when Jimmie left
the hotel. He went straight home to bed, and an early hour the next
morning found him gliding out of Victoria station in a South Coast
train.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the previous night, while Jimmie and Sir Lucius were dining at
Morley's, Victor Nevill emerged from his rooms in Jermyn street, and
walked briskly to Piccadilly Circus. He looked quite unlike the spruce
young man of fashion who was wont to disport himself in the West End at
this hour, for he wore tweeds, a soft hat, and a rather shabby overcoat.
He took a cab in Coventry street, and gave the driver a northern
address. As he rode through the Soho district he occasionally pressed
one hand to his breast, and a bundle of bank notes, tucked snugly away
there, gave forth a rustling sound. The thought of them aggravated him
sorely.

"A thousand pounds to that black-mailing scoundrel!" he muttered. "It's
a steep price, and yet it means much more than that to me. There was no
other way out of it, and I can't blame the fellow for making a hard
bargain and sticking to it. If all goes smoothly, and I get possession
of the papers, it's ten to one I will be secure, with nothing more to
fear. It was fortunate that Timmins picked _me_ out. It would have meant
ruin to my prospects had he sold his knowledge elsewhere. He is a clever
rascal, and he knows that it will be to his interest to keep his mouth
shut hereafter. What risk there may be from other quarters is so slight
that I needn't worry about it."

It had not been an easy matter to find the thousand pounds, and in the
interval he had twice seen Mr. Timmins, and vainly tried to beat down
his price. The money was finally squeezed out of Stephen Foster, with
extreme reluctance on his part, and by means which he resented bitterly
but was powerless to combat. He had angrily upbraided his unscrupulous
young confederate, who would not even tell him for what purpose he
wanted the sum. Nevill was indifferent to Stephen Foster's wrath and
reproaches. He had accomplished his object, and he was too hardened by
this time to feel any twinges of conscience. He was now going to meet
the man Timmins by appointment, and buy from him the valuable papers in
his possession.

It was nine o'clock when the cab put him down in one of the noisy
thoroughfares of Kentish Town. He paid the driver, and entered a public
house on the corner. He ordered a light stimulant, and on the strength
of it he re-examined the rather vague written directions Mr. Timmins had
given him. He came out five minutes later, and turned eastward into a
gloomy and squalid neighborhood. He lost his bearings twice, and then
found himself at one end of Peckwater street. He took the first turn to
the left, and began to count the houses and scan their numbers.

While Nevill was speeding along the Kentish Town road in a cab, Mr.
Timmins, _alias_ Noah Hawker, was at home in the dingy little room which
he had selected for his residence in London. With a short pipe between
his teeth, he reclined in a wooden chair, which was tipped back against
the wall. On a table, within easy reach of him, were a packet of tobacco
and a bottle of stout. A candle furnished light.

"I wonder if the bloke'll turn up," he reflected, as he puffed rank
smoke from his mouth. "If he don't he knows what to expect--I ain't a
man to go back on my word. But I needn't fear. He'll come all right, and
he'll have the dust with him. Is it likely he'd throw away a fortune,
such as I'm offerin' him? Not a bit of it! I'll be glad when the thing
is done and over with. A thousand pounds ain't to be laughed at. I'll go
abroad and spend it, where the sun shines in winter and--"

At this point Mr. Hawker's soliloquies were interrupted by footsteps
just outside the room.

"That's my swell," he thought, "and he's a bit early. He must be in a
hurry to get hold of the documents."

The door opened quickly and sharply, and two sinewy, plainly-dressed men
stepped into the room. Hawker knew his visitors to be detectives.

His jaw dropped, his face turned livid with rage and fear, and he tried
to thrust one hand behind him. But the move was anticipated, and he
abandoned all thought of resistance when the muzzle of a revolver stared
him in the eyes.

"None of that, Hawker," said the detective who held the weapon. "You'd
best come quietly. Didn't expect to catch us napping, did you?"

"I ain't done nothin'," panted Hawker, who was breathing like a winded
beast.

"I didn't say you had," was the reply, "but you've been missing for a
few months. Last spring you stopped reporting yourself and went abroad.
We want you for that--nothing else _at present_."

The two final words were spoken with an emphasis and significance that
did not escape the prisoner, and brought a desperate look to his face.
He seemed about to show fight, but the next instant a pair of irons were
clapped on his wrists, and he was helpless.

A brief time was required to search the room, but nothing was found,
for all that Hawker owned was on his person. The bedding was pulled
apart, and the strip of ragged carpet was lifted up. Then the detectives
went downstairs with their prisoner, followed by the indignant and
scandalized Mrs. Miggs. She angrily upbraided Mr. Hawker, who received
her reproaches in sullen silence. Her breath was spent when she slammed
the door shut.

The affair had been managed quietly, without attracting public
attention, and the street was as lonely and dark as usual. One of the
detectives whistled for a cab, which he had in waiting around the
corner, and just then a man walked quickly by the house, glancing keenly
at the little group as he passed. He slouched carelessly on into the
gloom, but not until he had been recognized by Noah Hawker.

The cab came up, and the prisoner was bundled into it. He was apparently
very submissive and unconcerned as he sat with manacled hands between
his captors, but when the vehicle rolled into a more populous
neighborhood, the street lamps revealed the expression of burning,
implacable hatred that distorted his face.

"It was that swell who betrayed me to the police," he thought bitterly.
"I was a fool to trust him. I know his little game, but he'll be badly
mistaken if he expects to find the papers. They'll be safe enough till I
want them again. I'll get square in a way he don't dream of, curse him!
Yes, I'll do it! I'd rather have revenge than money. A few days yet, and
then--"

"What's that?" asked one of the detectives.

"Nothing," Mr. Hawker replied, in a tone of sarcasm. "I was thinkin' of
a friend of mine, what'll be sorry I was took."




CHAPTER XXIX.

THE VICAR OF DUNWOLD.


At a safe distance Victor Nevill stopped and turned around. When the cab
rolled away, he walked slowly back, looking keenly at the house as he
passed it. His demeanor was calm, but it was only skin deep. He felt
like swearing loudly at everybody and everything. His brain was in a
whirl of rage and fear, sharp anxiety and keen disappointment. He had
recognized Noah Hawker and seen the gleam of steel at his wrists, which
explained the situation as clearly as words could have done.

"The poor chap has been tracked and arrested," he thought; "possibly for
some past burglary. Our negotiations are ended for the present, confound
the luck! But the papers! By Jove, suppose Hawker had them on his
person! If so, they will be found when he is searched. They will be
opened and examined, and the whole truth will come out. I can't be
sure that Hawker won't give away my part in the affair. I shall be
ruined--nothing short of it! What a luckless devil I am!"

The iron hand of Nemesis seemed reaching out to grasp Nevill, and he
shuddered as he realized his danger. The rustle of the bank notes in his
breast pocket afforded him a momentary relief as he remembered that they
would give him a fresh start in case he had to flee from England. Then a
sudden thought lightened the gloom still more, and he clutched eagerly
at the ray of hope thus thrown out.

"Hawker was too shrewd a man to be caught unawares," he reasoned. "He
kept the papers in a secure hiding-place, and he certainly would not
have taken them from it until I came and he saw the color of the money.
Nor is it likely that the police found them, though they must have
searched the place. If they are still in the room, why should I not try
to get possession of them? I could square up with Hawker afterward, when
he recovers his liberty. By Jove, it's worth risking!"

Nevill walked as far as Peckwater street, debating the question. He did
not hesitate long, for there was too much at stake. He quickly made up
his mind, and retraced his steps to the dingy house from which the
detectives had taken their prisoner. He had planned his course of
procedure when the door opened to his knock, and Mrs. Miggs revealed her
distrustful countenance. Nevill tendered her half a sovereign on the
spot, and asked to see the room lately occupied by Mr. Noah Hawker.

"It's a private matter," he explained. "Yes, I know that Mr. Hawker has
just been arrested and taken away. District detectives did that--they
were onto him for some breach of the law. I was after him myself, with
a Scotland Yard warrant, but I arrived too late, unfortunately."

"Then what do you want?" grumbled the woman.

"I want to search Hawker's room for some papers which I believe he hid
there. If I find them you shall be rewarded."

Mrs. Miggs relaxed visibly. She had a wholesome respect for the police,
and she did not doubt that Nevill was other than he purported to be--a
Scotland Yard officer. She let him into the hall and closed the door.

"You can come up," she said ungraciously, "but I don't think there's
anything there."

She lighted a candle and guided Nevill upstairs. He could scarcely
restrain his excitement as he entered the little room. He glanced keenly
about, noting the half-empty bottle of stout and the dirty glass.

"Did the police search here?" he inquired.

"Of course they did, but they didn't find nothin', 'cause there wasn't
anything to find. 'Awker was as poor as Job!"

"They examined his person?--his clothes, I mean?"

"Yes, an' all they got was a knife, and a pistol, and some loose silver
and coppers."

"They didn't discover any papers?"

"No; I'm sure o' that," asserted Mrs. Miggs. "I can't stand 'ere all
night," she impatiently added.

Nevill took the hint, and set to work in good spirits. The landlady
watched him scornfully while he hauled the carpet and bedding about, and
examined all the joints of the few articles of furniture. He then
proceeded--there was no fireplace in the room--to tap every part of the
walls, and to try the flooring to see if any boards were loose. But the
walls were solid and untampered with, and the nails in the floor had
clearly not been disturbed for many years. He spent half an hour at his
task, and the result was a barren failure. He realized that it would be
useless to search further. He looked sharply at the landlady, and said,
on a sudden impulse:

"You knew Mr. Hawker pretty well, I think. Perhaps he asked you to
oblige him by taking care of the papers I am looking for; they could not
possibly be of any advantage to you in the future, and if you have them
I should be glad to buy them from you. I would give as much as--"

"I only wish I _did_ 'ave them!" interrupted Mrs. Miggs. "I wouldn't
'esitate a minute to turn 'em into money. But I don't know nothin' of
them, sir, an' you see yourself they ain't 'id in this room, an' Mr.
'Awker never put foot in any other part of the 'ouse."

The woman's expression of disappointment, her manner, satisfied Nevill
that his suspicion was baseless. There was nothing more to be done, so
he gave Mrs. Miggs an additional half-sovereign, cautioned her not to
speak of his visit, and left the house. His last state of mind was worse
than his first, and dread of exposure, tormenting visions of a dreary
and perpetual exile from England, not to speak of more bitter things,
haunted him as he strode moodily toward the lights of the Kentish Town
road.

"The papers may be in that room, hidden so securely as to baffle any
search," he said to himself, "and if that is the case there is still
hope. But it is more likely that Hawker had them concealed under his
clothing or in his boots. I will know in a day or two--if the police
find them, they will make the matter public. All I can do is to wait.
But the suspense is awful, and I wish it was over."

The next day was cold, sunny and bracing--more like the end of February
than the end of November. At nine o'clock in the morning Victor Nevill
crawled out of bed after a troubled night; with haggard face and dull
eyes he looked down into Jermyn street, wondering, as he recalled the
events of the previous night, what another day would bring forth.

At the same hour, or a little later, Jimmie Drexell was at Hastings.
Having to wait some time for another train, he walked through the pretty
town to the sea, and the sight of its glorious beauty--the embodiment of
untrammeled freedom--made him think sadly of poor Jack in a prison cell.

"Never mind, I'll have him out soon!" he vowed.

He returned to the station, and was whirled on through the flat, green
country to the charming Sussex village of Pevensey, with its ruined old
castle and rambling street, and the blue line of the Channel flashing in
the distance. His journey did not end here, and he was impatient to
continue it. He procured a horse and trap at the Railway Arms, gleaned
careful instructions from the landlord, and drove back a few miles along
the hedge-lined roads, while the sea faded behind him.

It was eleven o'clock when he reached the retired little hamlet of
Dunwold. He put up his vehicle at a quaint old inn, and refreshed
himself with a simple lunch. Then he sought the vicarage, hard by the
ancient church with its Norman tower, and, on inquiring for Mr.
Chalfont, he was shown into a sunny library full of books and
Chippendale furniture, with flowers on the deep window-seats and
a litter of papers on the carved oak writing-desk.

The vicar entered shortly--an elderly gentleman of benevolent aspect and
snowy beard, but sturdy and lithe-limbed for his years, clearly one of
those persons who seemed predestined for the placidity of clerical life.
After a penetrating glance he greeted his visitor most graciously, and
expressed pleasure at seeing him.

"I am sure that you are a stranger to the neighborhood," he continued.
"Our fine old church draws many such hither. If you wish to go over it,
I can show you many things of interest--"

"At another time," Jimmie interrupted, "I should be only too delighted.
I regret to say that it is quite a different matter that brings me
here--hardly a pleasant one. This will partly explain, Mr. Chalfont."

He presented the letter Sir Lucius had given him, and when it had been
opened and read he poured out the whole story of Diane's life and end,
of the charge against Jack Vernon, and the clew that the murdered woman
had revealed to her landlady.

The vicar rose from his chair, showing traces of deep agitation and
distress.

"A friend of Sir Lucius Chesney is a friend of mine," he said, hoarsely.
"I shall be glad to help you--to do anything in my power to clear your
friend. I believe that he is innocent. Your sad story has awakened old
memories, Mr. Drexell. And it is a great shock to me, as you will
understand when I tell you all. I seldom read the London papers, and
it comes as a blow and a surprise to me that Diane Merode has been
murdered."

"Then you know her by that name?" exclaimed Jimmie. "This is indeed
fortunate, Mr. Chalfont. I feared that you would find it difficult to
identify the woman--to recall her. And the man whom she proclaimed as
her enemy--do you know _him_?"

"Judge for yourself," replied the vicar, as he sat down and settled back
in his chair. "I will state the facts, distinctly and briefly. That will
not be hard to do. To begin, I have been in this parish for thirty
years, and I am familiar with its history. I remember when Diane
Merode's father came home with his young bride. He was a doctor, with
some small means of his own, and he lived in the second house beyond the
church. His wife was a French girl, well educated and beautiful, and he
met and married her while on a visit to France; his name was George
Hammersley. They settled here in the village, but I do not think that
they lived very happily together. Their one child, christened Diane,
was born two years after the marriage. She inherited her mother's
vivacious disposition and love of the world, and I always felt
misgivings about her future. She spent five years at a school in Paris,
and returned at the age of sixteen. Within less than two years her
parents died within a week of each other, of a malignant fever that
attacked our village. A friend of George Hammersley's took Diane to his
home--it appeared that she had no relatives--and nine months later she
married a man, nearly twenty years her senior, who had fallen
passionately in love with her."

"By Jove, so she was really married before!" cried Jimmie. "But I beg
your pardon, Mr. Chalfont, for interrupting you."

"This man, Gilbert Morris, was comparatively well-to-do," resumed the
vicar. "He owned a couple of ships, and when at home he lived in
Dunwold; but he was away the greater part of his time, sailing one or
the other of his vessels to foreign ports. Six months after the marriage
he started on such a voyage, leaving his youthful bride with an old
housekeeper, and just three weeks later Diane disappeared. Every effort
was made to trace her, but in vain, and it was believed that she had
gone to London. Before the end of the winter our village squire returned
from abroad, and declared that he had recognized Diane in Paris, and
that she was a popular dancer under the name of Merode. About the same
time it was reported in the papers that the vessel on which Gilbert
Morris had set sail, the _Nautilus_, had been lost in a storm, with all
hands on board. There was every reason to credit the report--"

"But it was not true," exclaimed Jimmie. "I can read as much in your
eyes, Mr. Chalfont. What became of Gilbert Morris?"




CHAPTER XXX.

RUN TO EARTH.


The vicar hesitated for a moment, and then looked his companion straight
in the face.

"That unhappy man, Gilbert Morris, was spared by the sea," he answered
in a low voice. "The ship was lost, as reported, but he and two of the
crew were picked up by a sailing vessel and carried to South America.
Months elapsed before they were heard of, and Diane had been gone for
a year when Gilbert Morris returned to Dunwold. The news was a terrible
shock to him, for he had loved his wife with all the depth of a fierce
and fiery nature. His affection seemed to turn to rage, and it was
thought best to keep him in ignorance of the fact that Diane had been
seen in Paris. Brain fever prostrated him, and when he recovered
physically from that his mind was affected--in other words, he was
a homicidal lunatic, with a fixed determination to find and kill his
wife."

"By heavens!" exclaimed Jimmie. "The scent is getting warm! What was
done with the man?"

"He was sent to a private madhouse in Surrey."

"And is he there still?"

"No, he is not," the vicar replied agitatedly. "He succeeded in making
his escape more than a week ago. The matter was hushed up, because it
was hoped that he would come back to Dunwold, and that he could be
quietly captured here. But, in spite of the utmost vigilance, he was
not found or traced; and this very morning I received a letter from
Doctor Bent, the proprietor of the madhouse, stating that he had
furnished the London police with a description of his missing patient."

"That settles it!" cried Jimmie, jumping up in excitement. "Gilbert
Morris is the man!"

"Yes, I fear he is the murderer," assented the vicar. "But, pray sit
down, Mr. Drexell, and we will talk further of the sad affair. Lunch
will be ready in a few minutes, and I shall be glad to have you--"

"Thanks, but I can't stop," Jimmie interrupted, as he put on his hat.
"I'm off to town to help the police to find the guilty man."

"But surely, my dear sir, this is a very hasty conclusion--"

"Can you doubt for one moment, in your heart, that Gilbert Morris killed
that unfortunate woman?"

"The circumstances all point that way," admitted Mr. Chalfont. "Yes, it
is a pretty clear case. It is distressing to think that the crime might
have been prevented, had the police been promptly informed of the
madman's escape. But only Doctor Bent and myself were aware of the
fact--excepting the attendants of the institution. As I told you, I knew
nothing of the murder until you informed me, and it was unlikely that
the doctor--though he must have read the papers--should have associated
the deed with Morris; he took charge of the place quite recently, and
could not have been well posted regarding the history of his patient."

"He ought to be arrested for criminal neglect," Jimmie said,
indignantly. "He is in a measure responsible for the murder. Gilbert
Morris might have been retaken almost at once had the police been
informed at the time of the escape."

"Just so!" the vicar agreed.

"I'm off now," continued Jimmie. "I can't thank you enough, Mr.
Chalfont, for the information you have given me. I shall never forget
it, nor will my friend."

"It was Providence that guided you here," replied the vicar. "His ways
are indeed marvelous. I wish you every success, Mr. Drexell. I trust
that your friend will speedily be at liberty, and if I can be of any
further service, count upon me."

"I'll do that, sir," Jimmie assured him.

The next minute he was striding away from the vicarage, and it was a
very perspiring and foam-flecked horse that pulled up outside the
Railway Arms at Pevensey half an hour later. Jimmie jumped out of the
trap, paid the account, and dashed over to the station. His arrival
was timely, for he learned that a through London train was due in ten
minutes. During the interval he found some vent for his impatience in
sending a wire to Sir Lucius Chesney, as follows:

"Success! Back in town at three o'clock."

Never had a railway journey seemed so long and tiresome to Jimmie as
that comparatively short one, in a fast train, from Pevensey to London.
He had a book and a newspaper, but he could not read; he smoked like a
furnace, and glared from the window at the flying landscape. He reached
Victoria station at five minutes past three, and just outside the gates
he met Sir Lucius.

"I barely got here--I was afraid I'd miss you," the latter exclaimed
breathlessly; his face was a more ruddy color than usual. "I have
something to tell you," he went on; "something that happened--"

"It's a jolly good thing, sir, that I went down to Pevensey," Jimmie
interrupted, as he drew his companion aside to a quieter spot. "You'll
scarcely believe what I have found out. The vicar told me a most amazing
story, and we spotted the murderer at once. He is Diane's real
husband--Jack was never legally married to her--and his name is Gilbert
Morris. He is an escaped lunatic--"

"Gad, sir, the man is arrested!" gasped Sir Lucius. "He is in custody!"

"Arrested?" cried Jimmie.

"Yes; the afternoon papers are full of it. The police, furnished with
a description of the man and other information, apprehended him this
morning early in a Lambeth lodging-house. There were blood-spots on his
clothing, and in his pocket they found a bloodstained knife. He became
violent the moment he was arrested, and raved about his wife Diane, who
had deserted him, and how he had killed her to avenge his honor."

"That's the man!" said Jimmie. "He's as mad as a March hare. Thank God,
they have got him!"

"We'll soon have Mr. Vernon out," Sir Lucius replied, cheerfully.

Jimmie told the rest of the story in the privacy of a cab, which drove
the two rapidly from Victoria station to Bedford street, Strand. They
found Mr. Tenby in his office, and had a long interview with him. The
solicitor had read the papers, and when he was put in possession of
the further important facts bearing on the case, he promised to secure
Jack's release as soon as the necessary legal formalities could be
complied with. Moreover, he promised to go to Holloway within the course
of an hour or two, and communicate the good news to the prisoner. Jimmie
was anxious to go with him, but he reluctantly abandoned the project
when the solicitor assured him that it would be most difficult to
arrange.

"Be patient, gentlemen, and leave the matter in my hands," said Mr.
Tenby. "I think we shall have Mr. Vernon out of Holloway to-morrow, and
without a stain on his character."

Sir Lucius and Jimmie walked to Morley's and separated. The former went
into the hotel, half resolved to pack up his luggage and take an early
train in the morning to Priory Court; he was tired of London and the
recent excitement he had passed through, and longed for his country
home. But, on second thought, he altered his mind, and concluded to wait
until Jack Vernon was a free man again; he was strangely interested in
the unfortunate young artist, and was as anxious as ever to have a talk
with him on matters of a private nature.

Jimmie went to his chambers in the Albany, where he removed the dust of
travel and changed his clothes. He did not at once go out to dinner,
though he was exceedingly hungry. He was impulsive and impatient, and he
had conceived a plan whereby he might punish Victor Nevill's perfidy
without a public exposure, and at the same time, he fondly hoped, do
Jack a good turn.

"It will hardly be safe to wait longer," he reflected, "for all I know
to the contrary, the girl may be married to-morrow. She will be glad to
have her eyes opened--I can't believe that she is in love with that
blackguard. As for Sir Lucius, I would rather face a battery of guns
than tell the dear old chap the shameful story to his face. But it must
be told somehow."

Jimmie proceeded to carry out his plans. He took Diane's last letter
from its hiding-place, and sitting down to his desk he made two copies
of it, prefacing each with a brief explanation of how the statement had
come into his hands. It was a laborious task, and it kept him busy for
two hours. At nine o'clock he went out to dinner, and on the way to the
Cafe Royal he dropped two bulky letters into a street-box. One was
addressed to "Miss Madge Foster, Strand-on-the-Green, Chiswick, W." The
other to "Sir Lucius Chesney, Morley's Hotel."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was ten o'clock in the morning, and the phenomenal November weather
showed no signs of breaking up. The sun shone brightly in Trafalgar
Square, and the people and busses, the hoary old Nelson Column and its
guardian lions, made a picture more Continental than English in its
coloring.

But to Sir Lucius Chesney the world looked as black as midnight. He
paced the floor of his room, purple of countenance and savage of eye,
letting slip an occasional oath as he glanced at the sheets of Jimmie's
letter scattered over the table. The blow had hit him hard; it had
wounded him in his most tender spot--his family honor. His first
paroxysm of rage had passed, but he could not think calmly. His brain
was on fire with pent-up emotions--shame and indignation, bitter grief
and despair, a sense of everlasting disgrace. One moment he doubted;
the next the damning truth overwhelmed him and defied denial.

"I can't believe it!" he muttered hoarsely. "It is too terrible! How
blindly I trusted that boy! I heard rumors about him, and turned a deaf
ear to them. I knew he was inclined to be dissolute and extravagant, but
I never dreamed of this! To drag the name of Chesney in the dirt! My
nephew a liar and a traitor, a scoundrel of the blackest dye to a
confiding friend, a seducer, a tout for money-lenders, a consort of
blood-sucking Jews! By heavens, I will confront him and hear the truth
from his own lips! How do I know that this letter is not a forgery?
Perhaps young Drexell never saw it."

It was a slim ray of hope, but Sir Lucius took some comfort from it. He
put on his hat, took his stick, and marched down stairs. As he passed
through the office, a clerk handed him a letter that had just been
brought in. He waited until he was outside to open it, and with the
utmost amazement he read the contents:

"Pentonville Prison.

"My Dear Sir Lucius--I see by the papers that you are in town
temporarily, so I address you at Morley's instead of Priory Court. A very
curious thing has happened. A few days ago a prisoner who was arrested
for a breach of the police-supervision rules, but who was really wanted
for a much more serious affair, was put in my charge. This man, Noah
Hawker by name, sent for me and made a secret communication. He stated
that in his room in Kentish Town, where he was arrested, he had hidden
some papers of the greatest importance to yourself. He told me how to
find them, and yesterday I got them and brought them here. They are in a
sealed parcel, and the prisoner begs that they shall not be opened except
in your presence, as he wishes to tell you the whole story. So I thought
it best to send for you, and if convenient I should like to see you about
noon to-day. I am posting this early in the morning, and hope you will
receive it in good time.

"Sincerely your old friend,

"Major Hugh Wyatt."

"I don't understand it," thought Sir Lucius. "It is certainly most
perplexing. What can it mean? I haven't seen Wyatt for years, but I
remember now that he was appointed Governor of Pentonville some time
ago. But who the deuce is the man Hawker? I never heard the name. Papers
of importance to me? What could they be, and how did the fellow get
them? There must be some mistake. And yet--"

He read the letter a second time, and it turned his curiosity into a
desire to probe the mystery. He concluded to put off the interview with
his nephew, and see him later in the day. He hailed a cab, and told the
driver to take him to Pentonville.




CHAPTER XXXI.

NOAH HAWKER'S DISCLOSURE.


True to his word, Mr. Tenby set the machinery of the law in motion as
speedily as possible. About the time when Sir Lucius entered the dreary
prison that lies Islington way, Gilbert Morris was brought to the court
in Great Marlborough street. Jack was present--a warder had driven him
from Holloway--and he promptly identified the prisoner as the man he had
seen coming out of the Beak street house on the night of the murder.
Other evidence was given by the police, and by Doctor Bent, the
proprietor of the Surrey madhouse, and the lunatic was remanded for a
week; he boasted of his crime while in the dock. Then a brief formality
ensued. Mr. Tenby applied for the discharge of his client, and the
magistrate granted it without delay.

A free man again! The words seemed to ring in Jack's ears as he left the
court, but they meant little to him, so broken was he in spirit, so
ashamed of his unmerited disgrace. Jimmie was waiting for him, and
congratulated him fervently. The two shook hands with the solicitor, and
thanked him for what he had done, and they went quickly off in a cab.

They drove to the Albany, and Jimmie ordered a lunch to be sent in from
a Piccadilly restaurant. Jack ate listlessly, but a bottle of prime
claret made him slightly more cheerful and brought some color to his
bleached features. He listened to all that Jimmie had to tell him--sat
with stern eyes and compressed lips while the black tale of Victor
Nevill's treachery was recounted. He could not doubt when he had read
the murdered woman's statement; it breathed truth in every word. He
crushed the letter in his hand, as though he wished it had been the
throat of his enemy.

"Nevill, of all men!" he said, hoarsely. "A creeping serpent, masked as
a friend, who struck in the dark! And he was Diane's seducer! The night
he stole her from me we were drinking together in a _brasserie_ in the
Latin Quarter! And, as if that was not deep enough injury, he brought
her to England, years afterwards, to ruin my new-found happiness. There
was never such perfidy! I was not even aware that he knew Madge, much
less that he loved her. But she surely won't marry him now."

"No fear!" replied Jimmie. "His retribution has come. I hope you will
pay him with interest, old chap."

"I should like to confront him," Jack answered, "but it is wiser
not to; my passion would get the better of me. No, his punishment is
sufficient--you have avenged me, Jimmie. Think of what it means! Public
exposure, perhaps, exile from England, and the loss of his uncle's
fortune. He will suffer more keenly than any low-born criminal who goes
to the gallows. I will leave him to his conscience and his God."

"You are too merciful--too kind-hearted," said Jimmie. "But it is
useless to argue with you. Come, we'll talk of something more cheerful
and forget the past. What are you going to do with yourself? Go back
to the art?"

"I have no plans," Jack replied, bitterly, "except that I shall get away
from London as speedily as possible. I can't live down my disgrace here.
I shall probably return to India. I have lost faith in human nature,
Jimmie, and learned the mockery of friendship--no, by heavens, I
shouldn't say that! I have found out what true friendship is. I can
never forget what you did for me--how you worked to prove my innocence!"

"It was a pleasure, old fellow. I would have done a hundred times as
much. But don't talk blooming nonsense about leaving London. Many an
innocent man falls under suspicion--there is not a shadow of disgrace
attached to it. Stay here and work! Go back to your studio! And marry
the woman you love. Why shouldn't you, now that you are free in every
sense? I'll bet anything you like that she cares for you as much as
ever--"

"Stop; don't speak of _her_!" cried Jack. "I can't bear it!--the memory
of Madge brings torments! It is too late, too late! She can never be
mine!"

"That's where you're wrong, old chap," said Jimmie. "I know how you feel
about it, but do listen to reason--"

He broke off at the sound of a couple of sharp raps, and jumping up
he opened the door. Into the room strode Sir Lucius Chesney, with a
bewildered, agitated look on his face that had been there when he drove
away from Pentonville Prison an hour before, after a lengthy and most
startling interview with Major Wyatt and Noah Hawker.

"I hope you will excuse my abrupt intrusion," he said quickly. "I went
to Tenby's office, and he told me where you had gone. I have something
very important to say--I will come to it presently. Mr. Vernon, I
congratulate you! No one can rejoice more sincerely than myself that
this black cloud has passed away from your life. You have paid dearly
for your youthful folly--your boyish infatuation with a French dancer."

"You are very kind, sir," said Jack, as he accepted the proffered hand.
"I hear that I owe very much to you."

"Thank God that I have found you--that I am not left desolate in my old
age!" exclaimed Sir Lucius, to the wonder of his companions. "Prepare
for a great surprise! Your name is not Vernon, but Clare?"

"John Clare is my real name, sir."

"And your father was Ralph Vernon Clare?"

"Yes!"

"I knew as much--it was needless to ask," replied Sir Lucius, in
tremulous tones; something glistened in his eye. He rested an arm on
Jack's shoulder and looked into his face. "My dear boy, your mother was
my youngest sister," he added. "And you are my nephew!"

A rush of color dyed Jack's cheeks, and he stared in amazement; he could
not grasp the meaning of what he had just heard.

"You my uncle, Sir Lucius?" he asked, hoarsely.

"Yes, your uncle!"

"By Jove, another mystery!" gasped Jimmie. "It knocks me breathless! I
don't know what to make of it--it beats the novels that wind up with the
discovery of the lost heir. At all events, Jack, you seem to be in luck.
I'm awfully glad!"

"I--I'm afraid I don't quite understand," said Jack. "I never suspected
anything of the sort, though I remember that my mother rarely spoke of
her early life."

"That was her secret," replied Sir Lucius, "and she intended that it
should be revealed to you after her death. Read these; they will tell
you all!"

Sir Lucius produced three papers from his pocket. Jack took them, and
he uttered an exclamation of astonishment as he saw that one was a
certificate of his mother's marriage, and another one of his own birth.
The third paper was a letter of a dozen closely written sheets, in the
dead hand that was so familiar to him. As he read on, his face showed
various emotions.

"My poor mother, how she suffered!" he said when he had finished the
letter. "It is a strange story, Sir Lucius. So my mother was your
sister, and Victor Nevill was the son of another sister, which makes him
my cousin. My mother knew all these things, and yet she never told me!"

"She had the family pride," Sir Lucius answered, with a sigh. "As for
Victor Nevill, I regret that the blood of the Chesneys runs in his
veins. But he is no longer any kin of mine--I disown him and cast him
out. The letter does not speak so harshly of me as I deserve. Your
mother, Mary, was my youngest and favorite sister--I loved her the more
because my wife had died childless soon after my marriage. I got a
clever young artist, Ralph Clare, down to Priory Court to paint Mary's
portrait, little foreseeing what would happen. She fell in love with
him, and fled to become his wife. It was a blow to my family pride, and
my anger was stronger than my grief. I vowed that I would never forgive
her, and when she wrote to me--once a short time after her flight, and
again ten years later--I returned her letters unopened. Her elder sister
was as obdurate as myself, and refused to have anything to do with her.
After the death of Elizabeth--that was Victor Nevill's mother--I began
to feel that I had been too harsh with Mary. My remorse grew, giving me
no rest, until recently I determined to find her. But I might never
have succeeded had not mere chance helped me. I was struck by your
resemblance to Mary when I first met you in Lamb and Drummond's shop--"

He paused for a moment, struggling with emotion.

"My boy, believe that I am truly repentant," he added. "I have no kith
or kin left but you--you alone can fill the empty void in my heart. You
must reign some day at Priory Court. Will you forgive me, as your mother
did at the last?"

For an instant Jack hesitated. He remembered the sad story he had
just read--the story of his father's illness and death, his mother's
subsequent privations, and the grief caused by her brother's cruel
conduct, which continued to cloud her life after a distant relative
bequeathed to her a comfortable legacy. Then he recalled the last words
of the letter, and his face softened.

"I forgive you freely, Sir Lucius," he said. "My mother wished me to
bear you no malice, and I cannot disregard that."

"God bless you, my boy," replied Sir Lucius. "You have made me very
happy."

"Come, cheer up!" put in Jimmie. "This is an occasion for rejoicing. I
have a bottle of champagne, and we'll drink it to the health of the new
heir."

The wine was produced and opened, and Jack responded to the toast.

"There is one thing that puzzles me, Sir Lucius," he said. "How did
these papers come into your hands? They could not have been among my
mother's effects."

"Are you aware," replied Sir Lucius, "that on the night after your
mother's death her house in Bayswater was broken into by a burglar?"

"Yes; I remember that."

"Well, the burglar carried off, among other things that were of little
value, this packet of papers. He concealed them at his lodgings in
Kentish Town, and he chose a curious and ingenious hiding-place--a
recess behind a loose brick in the wall of the house, just below his
window. Shortly afterward the rascal--his name was Noah Hawker--was
caught at another crime, and sent to penal servitude for a term of
years. On his release last spring, on ticket-of-leave, he went abroad,
and when he returned to England several weeks ago he resurrected the
papers from their place of security, studied them, and saw an
opportunity for gain. He knew that they concerned three persons--you,
Victor Nevill and myself--and he was cunning enough to start with
Victor. He hunted him up and offered to sell the papers for a thousand
pounds. My nephew agreed to buy them, intending to destroy them and thus
retain his position as my sole heir--"

"Then Nevill knew who I was?" exclaimed Jack.

"Yes, he knew recently," Sir Lucius replied. "I must break off to tell
you that while I was abroad this summer, Victor promised, at my request,
to try to trace your mother; but I am thoroughly convinced now that he
made no effort whatever, and that he lied to me basely, with the hope of
making me believe that the task was impossible. To proceed, the man
Hawker was traced by the police, and arrested while awaiting the arrival
of my nephew to complete the sale of the papers. He believed that Victor
had betrayed him, and he determined to be revenged. So he confided in
the Governor of Pentonville Prison, who went to the house in Kentish
Town and found the papers. Then, at the prisoner's earnest request, he
sent for me this morning. I went to Pentonville and Hawker told me the
whole story and gave me the papers. By the way, he knows you, my boy,
and declares that you did him a kindness not long ago. It was at a
night-club, I think, and you bandaged a wound on his head."

"I remember!" exclaimed Jack. "By Jove, was that the man?"

"The fellow _must_ have been intent on revenge," said Jimmie, "to
incriminate himself so deeply."

"That can't make much difference to Hawker, and he knows it," Sir Lucius
replied. "It seems that he was really wanted for something more serious
than failing to report himself to the police. In fact, as you will be
surprised to learn, he is said to be mixed up in the robbery of the
Rembrandt from Lamb and Drummond. His pal was arrested in Belgium, and
has confessed. Hawker is aware that there is a clear case against him,
and I understand that he has made some sensational disclosures. I heard
this from the Governor of Pentonville, who happens to be an old friend of
mine. He hinted that the matter was likely to be made public in a day or
two."

"Meaning the theft of the real Rembrandt," said Jack. "I don't suppose
it will throw any light on the mystery of the duplicate one."

"It may," replied Sir Lucius; and he spoke more truly than he thought.
Major Wyatt had been too discreet to tell all that he knew.




CHAPTER XXXII.

HOW THE DAY ENDED.


It was a day of strange events and sudden surprises. To Jack the
propitious fates gave freedom and a relative whose existence he had
never even suspected before; to Sir Lucius Chesney they brought a fresh
interest in life, a nephew whom he was prepared to take to his heart.
Let us see how certain others, closely connected with our story, fared
before the day was ended.

Victor Nevill spent the afternoon at one of his clubs, where he won
pretty heavily at cards and drank rather more brandy than he was
accustomed to take. Feeling consequently in good spirits, he determined
to carry out a plan that he had been pondering for some time. He left
the club at six o'clock, and an hour later a cab put him down at the
lower end of Strand-on-the-Green. Mrs. Sedgewick admitted him to Stephen
Foster's house. The master had not returned from town, she said, but
Miss Foster was at home. Nevill asked to see her, and was shown into the
drawing-room, where a couple of red-shaded lamps were burning. He was
too restless to sit down, and, sauntering to the window, he drew aside
the curtains and looked out at the river, with the lights from the
railway bridge reflected on its dark surface.

"There is no reason why I shouldn't do it--no reason why I should fear
a refusal on her part," he thought. "The clouds have blown over. Noah
Hawker's silence can be explained only in one way. The papers are hidden
where he is certain that they cannot be found, and no doubt he intends
to let the matter rest until he gets out of jail. As for Jack, it is not
likely that he will ever learn the truth or cross my path again. The
grave tells no secrets. I hope he will leave England when he is released.
That will probably be to-day, since the real murderer has been found."

He turned away from the window, and smiled complacently as he dropped
into a big chair.

"Yes, I will do it," he resolved. "I shall ask Madge to marry me within
a fortnight or three weeks, and we will go down to Nice or Monte
Carlo--I'll risk taking half of that thousand pounds. I dare say my
uncle will be a bit cut up when he hears the news; but I won't tell him
for a time, and after he sees my wife he will be only too eager to
congratulate me. Any man might be proud of such--"

Soft footsteps interrupted his musing, and the next instant the door
opened. Madge entered the room, holding in one white hand a crumpled
letter. She wore a gown of lustrous rose-colored material, with filmy
lace on the throat and bosom, and her splendid hair strayed coyly over
her neck and temples. She had never looked more dazzlingly lovely,
Nevill thought, and yet--

He rose quickly from the chair, and then the words of greeting died on
his lips. He recoiled like a man who sees a ghost, and a sharp and
sudden fear stabbed him. In Madge's face, in her flushed cheeks and
blazing, scornful eyes, he read the signs of a woman roused to supremest
anger.

"How dared you come?" she cried, in a voice that he seemed never to have
heard before. "How dared you? Have you no shame, no conscience? Go! Go!"

"Madge! What has happened?"

"Not that name from you! I forbid it; it dishonors me!"

"I will speak! What does this farce mean?"

"Need you ask? I know all, Victor Nevill! I know that you are a liar
and a traitor--that you are everything wicked and vile, infamous and
cowardly! Heaven has revealed the truth! I know that Diane Merode was
never Jack's wife! It was you, his trusted friend, who stole her from
him in Paris six years ago! You, who found her in London last spring,
and persuaded her to play the false and wicked part that crushed the
happiness out of two lives! That is not all; but it would be useless
to recount the rest of your dastardly deeds. Oh, how I despise and hate
you! Your presence is an insult--it is loathsome! Go! Leave me!"

Nevill had listened to this tirade with a madly throbbing heart, and a
countenance that was almost livid. He was stunned and bewildered; he did
not understand how it was possible for detection to have overtaken him.
His first impulse was to brazen the thing out, on the chance that the
girl's accusations were prompted more by surmise than knowledge.

"It is false!" he cried, striving to compose himself. "You will be sorry
for what you have said. Has John Vernon told you these lies?"

"I have not seen him; he probably knows nothing as yet. But he _will_
learn all, and if you are within his reach--"

"This is ridiculous nonsense," Nevill hoarsely interrupted. "It is the
work of an enemy. Some one has been poisoning your mind against me. Who
is my accuser?"

"_Diane Merode!_" cried Madge, hissing the words from her clenched
teeth. "She accuses you from the grave! Here! Take this and read it--it
is a copy of the original. And then deny the truth if you dare!"

Nevill clutched the proffered letter--the girl did not give him Jimmie's
extra enclosure. He read quickly, merely scanning the written pages, and
yet grasping their fateful import. He must have been more than human to
hide his consternation. The blow fell like a thunderbolt: betrayal had
come from the quarter whence he would have least expected it--from the
grave. His lips quivered uncontrollably. The pages dropped to the floor.

"_Now_ do you deny it?" Madge demanded. "Answer, and go!"

"I deny everything," he snarled hoarsely. "It is a forgery--a tissue of
lies! Believe me, Madge! Don't spurn me! Don't cast me off! I will prove
to you--"

"I say go!"

The girl's voice was as hard and cold as steel. She pointed to the door
as Nevill made a step toward her. Her ravishing beauty, lost to him
forever, maddened him. For an instant he was tempted to fly at her
throat and bruise its loveliness. But just then a bell pealed loudly
through the house. The front door was heard to open, and voices mingled
with rapid steps. An elderly man burst unceremoniously into the room,
and Nevill recognized Stephen Foster's clerk and shop assistant. Bad
news was stamped on his agitated face.

"What is the matter, Hawkins?" Madge asked, breathlessly.

"Oh, how can I tell you, Miss Foster? It is terrible! Your father--"

"What of him?"

"He is dead! He shot himself in his office an hour ago. The police--"

The girl's cheeks turned to the whiteness of marble. She gave one cry
of anguish, reeled, and fell unconscious to the floor. Mrs. Sedgewick
rushed in, wringing her hands and wailing hysterically.

"See to your young mistress--she has fainted," Nevill said, hoarsely.
"Fetch cold water at once."

He looked once at Madge's pale and lovely face--he felt that it was
for the last time--and then he took Hawkins by the arm and pulled him
half-forcibly into the hall.

"Tell me everything," he whispered, excitedly. "What has happened?"

"There isn't much to tell, Mr. Nevill," the man replied. "Two Scotland
Yard men came to the shop at five o'clock. They arrested my employer for
stealing that Rembrandt from Lamb and Drummond, and they found the
picture in the safe. Mr. Foster asked permission to make a statement in
writing--he took things coolly:--and they let him do it. He wrote for
half an hour, and then, before the police could stop him, he snatched
a pistol from a drawer and shot himself through the head. I was so
flustered I hardly knew what I was doing, but I thought first of Miss
Madge, whom I knew from often bringing messages and parcels to the
house--"

"The statement? What was in it?" Nevill interrupted.

"I don't know, sir!"

"Then I must find out! I am off to town--I can't stop! You will be
needed here, Hawkins. Do all that you can for Miss Foster."

With those words, spoken incoherently, Nevill jammed on his hat and
hurried from the house. He turned instinctively toward Grove Park,
remembering that the nearest railway station was there. He was haunted
by a terrible fear as he traversed the dark streets with an unsteady
gait. Worse than ruin threatened him. He shuddered at the thought of
arrest and punishment. He could not doubt that Stephen Foster had
written a full confession.

"He would do it out of revenge--I put the screws on him too often!" he
reflected. "I _must_ get to my rooms before the police come; all my
money is there. And I must cross the Channel to-night!"

All the past rose before him, and he cursed himself for his blind
follies. He just missed a train at Chiswick station, and in desperation
he took a cab to Gunnersbury and caught a Mansion House train. He got
out at St. James' Park, and pulling his coat collar up he hastened
across to Pall Mall. He chose the shortest cut to Jermyn street, and on
the north side of St. James' Square, in the shadow of the railings, he
suddenly encountered the last man he could have wished to meet.

"My God, my uncle!" he cried, staggering back.

"You!" exclaimed Sir Lucius, in a voice half-choked by anger. "Stop, you
can't go to your rooms--the police are there. What do they want with
you?"

"You will find out in the morning," Nevill huskily replied; he reeled
against the railings.

"It can't be much worse--I know all about your dastardly conduct!"
said Sir Lucius. "Hawker has given me the papers, and I have found
poor Mary's son--the friend you betrayed. But there is no time for
reproaches, nor could anything I might say add to your punishment. If
you have a spark of conscience or shame left, spare me the further
disgrace of reading of your arrest in the papers. Get out of England--"

"My money is in my rooms!" gasped Nevill. "I can't escape unless you
help me!"

Sir Lucius took a handful of notes and gold from his pocket.

"Here are a hundred pounds--all I have with me," he said. "It will be
more than sufficient. Don't lose a moment! Go to Dover, and cross by the
night boat. And never let me see you or hear from you again! I disown
you--you are no nephew of mine! Do you understand? You have ruined your
life beyond redemption--you can't do better than finish it with a
bullet!"

Nevill had no words to reply. He seized the money with a trembling hand,
and crammed it into his pocket. Then he slunk away into the darkness and
disappeared.

On the following day a new sensation thrilled the public, and it may be
imagined with what surprise Sir Lucius Chesney and Jack Vernon--who had
especial cause to be interested in the revelation--read the papers. The
story was complete, for Mr. Shadrach, the Jew who managed business for
the firm of Benjamin and Company, took fright and made a full confession.
The _Globe_, after treating at length of the arrest and subsequent
suicide of Stephen Foster, continued its account as follows:

"The history of the two Rembrandts forms one of the most curious and
unique episodes in criminal annals, and not the least remarkable feature
of the story is the manner in which it is pieced together by the
statement of Stephen Foster and the confession of Noah Hawker. When Lamb
and Drummond purchased the original Rembrandt from the collection of the
late Martin Von Whele, and exhibited it in London, Stephen Foster and
his confederate, Victor Nevill, laid clever plans to steal the picture.
They knew that a duplicate Rembrandt, an admirable copy, was in the
possession of Mr. John Vernon, the well-known artist, who was lately
accused wrongfully of murder. By a cunning ruse Foster stole the
duplicate, and on the night of the robbery he exchanged it for the real
picture, while Nevill engaged the watchman in conversation in the Crown
Court public-house. But two other men, Noah Hawker and a companion
called the Spider, had designs on the same picture. Hawker, while
prowling about, saw Stephen Foster emerge from Crown Court, but thought
nothing of that circumstance until long afterward. So he and the Spider
stole the false Rembrandt which Foster had substituted, believing it to
be the real one.

"Hawker and his companion went abroad, and when they tried to dispose of
their prize in Munich they learned that it was of little value. They
sold it, however, for a trifling sum, and the dealer who bought it
disposed of it as an original to Sir Lucius Chesney. On his return to
England, hearing for the first time of the robbery, Sir Lucius took the
painting to Lamb and Drummond and discovered how he had been tricked.
Meanwhile Hawker and his companion quarreled and separated. Both had
been under suspicion since a short time after the theft of the
Rembrandt, and when the Spider was arrested in Belgium, for a crime
committed in that country, he made some statements in regard to the Lamb
and Drummond affair. Hawker, coming back to London, fell into the hands
of the police. He had before this suspected Stephen Foster's crime, and
when he found how strong the case was against himself, he told all that
he knew. Scotland Yard took the matter up, and quickly discovered more
evidence, which warranted them in arresting Foster yesterday. They found
the original Rembrandt in his safe, and the unfortunate man, after
writing a complete confession, committed suicide. His fellow-criminal,
Victor Nevill, must have received timely warning. The police have not
succeeded in apprehending him, and it is believed that he crossed to the
Continent last night."

It was not until the middle of the day that the papers printed the
complete story. Sir Lucius and Jack had a long talk about that and
other matters, and in the afternoon they went together to the house at
Strand-on-the-Green, and left messages of sympathy for Miss Foster; she
was too prostrated to see any person, Mrs. Sedgewick informed them.
Three days later, after the burial of Stephen Foster, Jack returned
alone. He found the house closed, and a neighbor told him that Madge
and Mrs. Sedgewick had gone away and left no address.

It was a bitter disappointment, and it proved the last straw to the
burden of Jack's troubles. For a week he tried vainly to trace the girl,
and then, at the earnest request of Sir Lucius, he went down to Priory
Court. There fever gripped him, and he fell seriously ill.




CHAPTER XXXIII.

CONCLUSION.


For weeks Jack hovered between life and death, and when the crisis was
finally passed, and he found himself well on the road to convalescence,
the new year was a month old. His first thoughts were of Madge, whose
disappearance was still a mystery; he learned this from Jimmie, who came
down to Priory Court more than once to see his friend. He had decided to
spend the winter in England, and since Jack's illness he had been trying
to find the girl.

By medical advice the patient was sent off to Torquay, in Devonshire, to
recuperate, and Sir Lucius, who was anxious to restore his nephew to
perfect health again, accompanied him. Jimmie remained in London,
determined to prosecute his search for Madge more vigorously than ever.
Sir Lucius, who, of course, knew the whole story, himself begged Jimmie
to spare no pains.

In the mild climate of Devon the days dragged along monotonously, and
Jimmie's letters spoke only of failure. But Jack grew stronger and
stouter, and in looks, at least, he was quite like his old self, with a
fine bronze on his cheeks, when he returned with Sir Lucius to Priory
Court in March. It was the close of the month, and many a nine days'
wonder had replaced in the public interest the tragic death of Stephen
Foster, the exposure of Benjamin and Company's nefarious transactions,
and the solved mystery of the two Rembrandts. The world easily forgets,
but not so with the actors concerned.

Jack had been at Priory Court two days, and was expecting a visit from
Jimmie, when the latter wired to him to come up to town at once if he
was able. Sir Lucius was not at home; he was riding over some distant
property he had recently bought. So Jack left a note for him, drove to
the station, and caught a London train. He reached Victoria station at
noon, and the cab that whirled him to the Albany seemed to crawl. Jimmie
greeted him gladly, with a ring of deep emotion in his mellow voice.

"By Jove, old fellow," he cried, "you are looking splendidly fit!"

"Have you succeeded?" Jack demanded, impatiently.

"Yes, I have found her," Jimmie replied. "It was by a mere fluke. I went
to a solicitor on some business, and it turned out that he was acting
for Miss Foster--you see her father left a good bit of money. He was
close-mouthed at first, but when I partly explained how matters stood,
he told me that the girl and her old servant, Mrs. Sedgewick, went off
to a quiet place in the country--"

"And he gave you the address?"

"Yes; here it is!"

Jack took the piece of paper, and when he glanced at it his face
flushed. He wrung his friend's hand silently, looking the gratitude that
he could not utter, and then he made a bolt for the door.

"I'm off," he said, hoarsely. "God bless you, Jimmie--I'll never forget
this!"

"Sure you feel fit enough?"

"Quite; don't worry about that."

"Well, good luck to you, old man!"

Jack shouted good-by, and made for Piccadilly. He sprang into the first
cab that came along, and he reached Waterloo just in time to catch a
Shepperton train. He longed to be at his destination, and alternate
hopes and fears beset him, as he watched the landscape flit by. He drew
a deep breath when he found himself on the platform of the rustic little
station. It was a beautiful spring-like day, warm and sunny, with birds
making merry song and the air sweet and fragrant. He started off at a
rapid pace along the hedge-bordered road, and, traversing the length of
the quaint old village street, he stopped finally at a cottage on the
farther outskirts. It was a pretty, retired place, lying near the
ancient church-tower, and isolated by a walled garden full of trees and
shrubbery.

Jack's heart was beating wildly as he opened the gate. He walked up the
graveled path, between the rows of tall green boxwood, and suddenly a
vision rose before him. It was Madge herself, as lovely and fair as the
springtime, in a white frock with a pathetic touch of black at the
throat and waist. She approached slowly, then lifted her eyes and saw
him. And on the mad impulse of the moment he sprang forward and seized
her. He held her tight against his heart, as though he intended never to
release her.

"At last, darling!" he whispered passionately. "At last I have found
you! Cruel one, why did you hide so long? Can you forgive me, Madge? Can
you bring back the past?--the happiness that was yours and mine in the
old days?"

At first the girl lay mutely in his arms, quivering like a fragile
flower with emotions that he could not read. Then she tried to break
from his embrace, looking at him with a flushed and tear-stained face.

"Let me go!" she pleaded. "Oh, Jack, why did you come? It was wrong of
you! I have tried to forget--you know that the past is dead!"

"Hush! I love you, Madge, with a love that can never die. I won't lose
you again. Be merciful! Don't send me away! Is the shadow of the
past--the heavy punishment that fell upon me for boyish follies--to
blast your life and mine? Have I not suffered enough?"

The girl slipped from his arms and confronted him sadly.

"It is not that," she said. "I am unworthy of you, Jack. What is your
disgrace to mine? Would you marry the daughter of a man who--"

"Are you to blame for your father's sins?" Jack interrupted. "Let the
dead rest! He would have wished you to be happy. You are mine, mine!
Nothing shall part us, unless--But I won't believe that. Tell me, Madge,
that you love me--that your feelings have not changed."

"I do love you, Jack, with all my heart, but--"

He stopped her lips with a kiss, and drew her to his arms again.

"There is no but," he whispered. "The shadows are gone, and the world is
bright. Dearest, you will be my wife?"

He read his answer in her eloquent eyes, in the passion of the lips that
met his. A joy too deep for words filled his heart, and he felt himself
amply compensated for all that he had suffered.

       *       *       *       *       *

The marriage took place in June, at old Shepperton church, and Jimmie
was best man. Sir Lucius Chesney witnessed the quiet ceremony, and then
considerately went off to Paris for a fortnight, while the happy pair
traveled down to Priory Court, to spend their honeymoon in the ancestral
mansion that would some day be their own. And, later, Jack took his wife
abroad, intending to do the Continent thoroughly before buckling down
in London to his art; he could not be persuaded to relinquish that, in
spite of the sad memories that attached to it.

Jimmie took a sudden longing for his native heath, and returned to New
York; but it is more than likely that he will spend a part of each year
in England, as so many Americans are eager to do. Madge does not forget
her father, unworthy though he was of such a daughter; and to Jack the
memory of Diane is untempered by bitter feelings; for he knows that she
repented at the last. The Honorable Bertie Raven has learned his hard
lesson, and his present conduct gives reasonable assurance that he will
run a straight course in the future, thanks to the friend who saved him.
Noah Hawker is doing five years "hard," and Victor Nevill is an outcast
and an exile in Australia, eking out a wretched existence on a small
income that Sir Lucius kindly allows him.

As for the two Rembrandts, the original, of course, reverted to Lamb and
Drummond. The duplicate hangs in the gallery at Priory Court, and Sir
Lucius prizes it highly because it was the main link in the chain of
circumstances that gave him a nephew worthy of his honored name.


THE END.





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