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At Midnight

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Chapter I Out of the Past

THEY sat in their American buggy at the turn of an English road—an Australian bride and bridegroom, on their wedding tour.

It was a bit of the “old country” that had not been syndicated and modernized since the bridegroom had seen it last—when he was a young fellow at Cambridge, paying visits to the houses of his university chums because his own home was inaccessible. Tall hedges embraced the ripening wheat-fields still; brambly ditches yawned beneath them. There were dense woods hereabouts that made green tunnels of the road, and there were thickets of fern and wild vines and bushes—acres of unprofitable beauty—under the useless trees. The spot was a joy to the sentimental wayfarer, and Mrs. Wingate's gaze meant rapture not expressible in words.

“This,” she sighed, “is England, Billy.”

She meant that this was the England of her

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romantic dreams—England as described to her by exiled parents and in scores of delightful books.

“And this,” said Billy, “is the place I told you of.”

He pointed with his whip.

Just below and before them rose an ancient gateway, iron and stone, with much heraldic ornament. An ivy-mantled lodge with curly chimney-stacks stood immediately within; and beyond, sloping gently upward for a mile or more, a straight, grassed drive between thick woods—a beautiful green vista, three times as wide as an ordinary park avenue—was closed, on an elevated horizon, by the indistinct but imposing mass of a great grey house, one of those “stately homes of England” which are our pride and boast. It was a lovely picture, and a lovely atmosphere through which to view it—tinted with the hues of approaching sunset on a late summer day. A few head of deer were browsing quietly on the shadow-patterned sward; thrushes were calling to each other from wood to wood; partridges flying homeward to their nests in the corn, disturbed by the sound of the horses' hoofs.

“There it is,” said the bridegroom, his eyes kindling, his voice full of feeling, evoked by thronging memories of the splendid days of youth. “And you should see it when the pink may is out and those woods full of rhododendron in flower! Look at that grass ride—the deer like to come out there to feed, though they hide in the fern to rest—and

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what a stretch for a gallop! There wasn't the shooting in my time that there is now, but many a jolly day have I had with Walter Desailly in those fields over there, walking up our birds with one old dog through the turnips and stubble. You see that water shining through the trees? There was duck there; we shot them with a rook rifle by moonlight out of a bedroom window, and scared the maids with the row we made; once we caught a fortytwo pound pike on a night-line; Walter had been fishing for it all his life, and found three sets of his tackle rusted in its jaws. The old squire had it stuffed for a curiosity. I wonder if Walter has it still, and whether he ever thinks of those old days?”

The speaker sighed inaudibly. He was a fine man, in his prime, inclining to stoutness, and with a suspicion of frost upon his short brown beard. “Those old days” were nearly twenty years ago.

“You ought to call upon him,” said Mrs. Wingate, “and remind him of them. I'm sure he would be delighted, if you were such friends as that. Then you could show me over. Probably he would invite us to stay with him. At any rate, he might be able to advise us about a place for ourselves.”

This pair, it must be explained, were wealthy, as was the case with many Australians at that date—a period now indicated in the conversation of their countrymen as “the good times”—he a lucky Queensland pastoralist, she an heiress of the Silver

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Boom, both rather new to prosperity of this kind, but too naturally nice to be vulgarized by it. Neither had any of the gross ambitions common to persons in their case, but both desired keenly to enjoy their money. They had just concluded a most successful London season, without having been presented at Court or made notorious in society papers; and they were now touring the country behind their own horses, mainly for rest and independence, and to see what was to be seen, but also in search of a good house in a sporting neighbourhood, where they might make a home and entertain their friends during the shooting and hunting seasons. Mrs. Wingate's dream of luxury was to live in a mediæval castle, with history around her in the atmosphere of refined, aristocratic, old-England life, as she had romantically imagined it. Mr. Wingate craved for gun and rod and a straight run after a stout fox—the joys of his early manhood, which memory had idealized — but was mainly bent at present upon pleasing his wife. They gazed together at the most attractive “place” they had yet seen, with thoughts of proprietorship that they felt were absurd and vain. Windsor Castle seemed as likely to be to let as the old mansion of the Desaillys, which had not wanted a master of the name for at least four hundred years.

“Why don't you call on him?” urged the bride. “To have been college friends surely is introduction enough?”

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“We parted on bad terms,” replied Wingate, with an air of reserve.

“What does that matter, after all these hundreds of years? You are not Corsican vendetta people. English gentlemen quarrel and have done with it; they don't bear malice for a lifetime. I am sure he has forgotten the whole thing long ago. Unless,” she added, with a glance at her husband's face, “unless it was something very desperate indeed. Was it? Oh, I believe it was! A woman, of course. If you don't want to tell me, Billy, you need not.”

Billy's left arm curled round the bride's slim waist.

“You are such a dear, kind little soul, Nettie, that I really don't mind telling you,” he said, after a pause. “You'll believe me, I know, when I declare on my honour that it wasn't my fault. And, besides, it was before your time, sweetheart; almost before you were born, indeed.”

“Yes, Billy; I know I am not the first, by thousands!”

“Oh, not quite so many as that! Just—well, never mind—there's only you now, pet—only you for evermore.” He kissed her at this point, for it was a lonely bit of road where they had stopped to look at the view and breathe the horses. And she returned his caress with a laugh, much comforted by the reflection that the particular lady referred to, if still alive, would be forty by this time, if not more.

“She was the daughter of a Cambridge bookseller,”

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confessed Billy. “It don't sound much, but a truer lady never stepped. We called her ‘the Princess,’ because she treated us all with such crushing dignity. Lots of us were gone on her: really, I think, just because of that; but Walter Desailly cut me out. At any rate, he said something that made me stop going there, so that I mightn't seem to be interfering with him. Of course I imagined it was just a little affair, like others, and never thought he would dream of marrying her, because the Desaillys are such great folks and so proud of their pedigree. But he did. I suppose she is living there now in state as my lady, and forgets that she ever waited in her father's shop. But, no—she wouldn't; she hadn't an ounce of that sort of snobbishness in her.”

“Go on,” said Mrs. Wingate, breaking a meditative pause. “There is no motive for quarrel, so far. I hope I am not strait-laced, Billy dear, and you couldn't make me jealous if you tried; but I do hope you did not elope with her afterwards.”

“I did nothing, Nettie, that you would not have approved of, had you been there and known all the circumstances. Walter did not know all the circumstances, and a man won't believe the word of his best friend in these cases, if appearances are against him. Come to that, I don't blame him. I wouldn't myself. It was a chapter of accidents all through. In the first place, I never thought of

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Lexie Baird again after I left Cambridge. I came home——”

“And got engaged to that fat woman who is now Mrs. Ross.”

“She was not a fat woman then. Let us keep to the point, if you please. But perhaps you don't care to hear about it?”

“Oh, I do—I do! I never was more interested in anything. And I think it is so good and dear of you, Billy, not to mind telling me.”

She slipped her hand within his elbow, and laid her fair young cheek upon his very large coat sleeve. She really was a sweet little bride, incapable of a mean thought about her husband, as he well knew.

“I came home, and took to business, and did not return to England for a couple of years and more. I went then because—no, not because of any woman, fat or thin, as I see you would insinuate—though it was not nice to live in a place where a fascinating widow was employing lawyers to write her letters to you. At any rate—well, look here, Nettie; young men will be young men, just as boys will be boys—they can't help it; and you needn't rake up old follies now that I've grown wise. Yes, I'm wise now. You are a witness to it. All those blunders were teaching me your value, don't you see? Perhaps I had better not tell you any more. It was stupid to mention the subject.”

She apologized so prettily for having dared to

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laugh, and urged him with such obvious sincerity not to tell her any more if he would rather not, that he proceeded with his little tale immediately.

“I went to shoot at a place not far from here, and a girl in the house told me that young Desailly had married a low barmaid, and been cut by his family for it. I was quite staggered by the news, because he'd been a fastidious sort of fellow, and I wanted to find him and cheer him up a bit; but no one knew where he was. The girl, Miss Balcombe—her father was the rector here—she was awfully bitter. It seems Walter had wanted to marry her at one time, and his people wouldn't have it. She was no end of a pretty girl, but there was something about her—she reminded me of a silky cat; and the way she talked of poor Lexie—I didn't know it was Lexie then—was fiendish. A low barmaid, indeed! No wonder I hadn't a notion what was coming. By the way, she honoured me with a particular regard. It's not for me to say it, but if I'd liked—however, I didn't.”

“Sure?” Mrs. Wingate questioned cautiously.

“Quite sure. She gave me the creeps sometimes when she used to smile. It was a perfectly heavenly smile, if you can understand, but she just put it on and off like a mask, and it was always the same for all purposes. She'd look really like an angel with that smile on, and her fair hair, and complexion like a lily; and all the time you'd have a cold feeling that she was thinking she'd like to strangle you. At

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least, that's how I felt when I was trying not to make love to her—I mean to resist her inducements to—I mean—but you know what I mean.”

“Perfectly, Billy dear.”

“Oh, she was a little devil, that girl! I know she was, though she was a parson's daughter. To look at her father, a real old-style rector, fat and red, fond of good living and not too fond of work—the commonplace personified—you'd really feel doubts as to whether he could be her father. Same with her mother, a meek little goose of a woman, who just fell down before her child and worshipped her. But a dear little soul for all that. We got on capitally together. She invited me to visit them at that old rectory over there”—pointing with his whip to a church tower in the landscape—“and I got a sprained wrist from a hunting fall first time I went out that season, and she nursed me as if I were a son of her own. What are you smiling at, Nettie?”

“Nothing, dearest. I didn't know I smiled.”

“And it was while I was there that everything happened. The very day I arrived they told me that Walter had been forgiven and taken back, because his wife—that low barmaid, you know!—had had a son, and somebody had reported that it was a fine child, and the old squire, being naturally anxious about the succession, thought it time to set things straight. Nobody had seen them yet, but there was to be a small dinner party that night to meet them,

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and I had been invited. Well, you can imagine my feelings when I stood with the others round the fire in the hall—I wish you could have a sight of that hall, Nettie!—to see, coming down the stairs by Walter's side, our princess—and looking it too, by George!—instead of the vulgar creature I had been expecting. I never was so struck all of a heap in my life. As for Geraldine Balcombe, oh, it was rich to see her smiling when Mrs. Walter Desailly was introduced to her! I had walked there with her—up that very grass ride you see before you, which is a good deal longer than it looks—and all the way she had been dancing on her toes, as it were, full of the triumph she was going to have over them all, and especially over the wife Walter had taken instead of her; she couldn't keep her elation within decent bounds. Dress!—I believe you. A regular ball gown of white satin, the best she'd got, and pearls round her neck—a lovely neck it was, too—and flowers out of the greenhouse. She'd got herself up regardless, thinking how mad Walter would be when he compared her with the low person, and how old Sir Thomas and my lady would curse the stratagems they had used so successfully to keep her out of the family. She quite thought she was going to have a rich revenge on the lot of them that night. And there was Lexie, looking like a real princess, in her plain black gown, with hardly any neck showing, putting everybody in the shade. Oh, she was a

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beautiful woman, Nettie! There was no mistake about it. Even Geraldine, though her vanity was like a rhinoceros' hide, felt it directly she saw her; and I know she hated poor Lexie like poison from that moment. There was no love lost on the other side either. When Lexie heard her calling ‘Walter’ here and ‘Walter’ there, like a cooing dove, I understood the look in her eyes. She was quick enough to smell a rat, and she wasn't the sort of woman to be trifled with. I can tell you she walked into that house all on fire with the humiliations they had made her suffer before they knew her, and if she didn't make them eat humble pie, from the great Sir Thomas downwards, I'm a Dutchman. Do you think she'd have her child sent for to be introduced and inspected? Not a bit of it. Everybody was dying to see the heir, for whose sake she had been condoned and acknowledged, and she calmly refused to have him disturbed out of his regular habits. Sir Thomas himself said, with his queer smile—he and she became very good friends afterwards—that he supposed they'd have to go on their knees at the nursery door before she'd deign to show it. Oh, she was a match for Miss Geraldine—except that she was all open and above board, and Geraldine was so secret and treacherous. I know that girl began to make mischief between husband and wife—and me—before we'd been an hour together. Of course Lexie was very pleased to see me.”

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“Why? if you don't mind my asking, Billy.”

“Well, you see I was an old friend, and I was not so grand as the Desaillys. Though she was not a bit afraid of them, their stately ways oppressed her. Besides, she was angry with them for the way they had repudiated her, and too proud to submit to be suddenly patronized and tolerated, and to make herself cheap to them all at once. Moreover, Walter behaved like an idiot. Instead of keeping near her, to pilot her about and help her to understand the strange ways, he sat the whole blessed evening in Geraldine Balcombe's pocket. Her doing, of course, but that didn't excuse him. He was her husband, and he ought to have backed her up. I know she felt it. In fact, I could see plainly that they were not as happy together as they should have been. Walter would have liked to talk to me about that—he did tell me he'd had a devil of a time keeping house on a bachelor's allowance—but I always shut him up straight. He was a selfish fellow, Walter Desailly. She was infinitely too good for him.”

He paused, gazing at the grey pile on the horizon, unconscious of the creeping twilight that had begun to blot it out. His wife heaved a pensive little sigh. He did not hear it.

“They asked me to The Chase to stay. By degrees the house filled, for Sir Thomas tried to make up to her for past slights and to bring the county families to receive and respect her. Men came to shoot, and

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there were parties given. Somehow Geraldine was always there, and she was always with Walter. The fellow must have been mad, or else the little cat had some power of witchcraft in her. To neglect a woman like Lexie, and she his wife, for such an unwholesome, cold-blooded——however, she wasn't cold-blooded to him. I do think she loved him as far as she could love anybody. I know she turned against me as soon as ever he came home—regularly hated me, in fact—partly, I suppose, because I sided with Lexie, whom she hated more. Why, the very last time I ever saw her, when I went to say goodbye, she was deliberately burning a fichu thing of Venetian lace just because I had given it to her—a valuable piece, mind you, of a rare pattern, that I had been stupid enough to pay a lot of money for; stuffing it into the fire, she was, and ramming it down with the poker, as if it was so much dishcloth.”

“An extraordinary way to show spite!” Mrs. Wingate ejaculated. “And she did not scorn your offering in the first instance?”

“It wasn't my offering. She almost wheedled it out of me—admired it so much that for very shame I had to give it to her. It wasn't meant for her at all.”

“That makes it still more extraordinary. If it had been Mrs. Walter's lace, I could understand it. For whom did you mean it, dear?”

“I don't know. Not for her, at any rate. But

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she got it, and seemed to think no end of it too—always wore it when she wanted to be extra smart. That very night she had had it on, over a blue silk dress. In a paroxysm of rage she just tore it off her shoulders and destroyed it. I asked her why, and she said because she did not want anything that reminded her of me. When I asked her why again, she said something implying that I had paid her attentions and then thrown her over. Which was a lie. But I was so upset myself that I didn't care what she said or what she thought. I left The Chase that night and went to the Himalayas, and I don't know where—the farthest off that I could get. And I never heard a word of the Desaillys from that day to this. Oh, yes, I heard that Sir Thomas was dead—that's all.”

“But you haven't told me what happened, Billy?”

“Oh, nothing much happened. I stayed a little while the first time—not long; you can't stay in a house when you see your host growing cool to you—getting utterly unfounded suspicions of you into his head. I went on to other places, and wandered about a bit; looked up her people at Cambridge, to tell them about her and how she was settling down. They were a nice family, none the worse for being tradespeople—three jolly young sisters, who were so proud of her rise in life; and when they asked me to stay a few days with them, I did, of course. She didn't know I was there, but one

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day—it was winter time, and I'd just come in from my old college chapel with two of the girls—we found her in the sitting-room, crying in her mother's lap as if her heart would break. She had come home because she could not bear it—Geraldine, you know—and said she was going to stay awhile and have a rest; but they were so awfully afraid she would make a breach with her husband and offend the Desaillys that they implored her not to. I went out of the room to leave them together, but presently they called me back, and she was quite recovered and calm. She made some excuse for her sudden visit, and said she must return before night—it was nearly night already—and would I look up the trains for her. She had the child with her, and, of course, she had remembered about his being the heir and belonging to The Chase in spite of her; and she was keener now than anybody to retrieve her false step. For it was a false step, and she, who was always so sensible and courageous, must have been fearfully treated to make her take it. I never knew what they did to her. They, I say. But Walter was a gentleman when not bewitched by that fiend of a girl.

“Well, I took her home. I had to, because the only man in her family was ill, and she couldn't be allowed to knock about railway stations alone at that hour. Besides, she was so perfectly innocent and unconscious of wrong that she asked me to

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escort her. We had the child with us, and we hardly spoke the whole way; she was full of her thoughts, so was I, neither of us could mention what they were, though we were such old friends. I wished with all my soul that I could leave her outside her gates, but I dared not suggest it; I had to go on right to the house, or put ideas into her head that she was above dreaming of. And Walter received us, and you can imagine how much he believed of the explanation we had to give; he just turned on his heel and walked away, leaving us standing together in the great hall. And I saw Geraldine Balcombe up in the gallery, looking down and smiling.

“Of course Lexie knew then. She was as white as a sheet. Poor girl! Poor girl! But I never saw such bravery in a woman, and she was more like a princess than ever. I had already arranged to sleep at the inn in the village—the Desailly Arms, where we will put up now, if it is still in existence—taking on the fly we had got at the station; and she just quietly bade me good-night, and thanked me for taking such good care of her; and I left her—left her alone to bear it all.

“However, I went to The Chase next day. I could not rest, and I determined to have it out with Walter. So I did, and so lost control of myself that I did her more harm than good, but she forgave me that. Look here, Nettie, I will make a clean

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breast of it—it is over and done with these twenty years, so you needn't be jealous—but I was hard hit. I was damned hard hit.”

“And told her?”

“Good heavens, no! I'd have cut my throat sooner. But seeing her in all that trouble—burning to help her, and not able to—I think she got a notion, just at the last. She encouraged me to travel. She was so kind, never reproaching me, but I knew what she meant. She wished me to go away, and never come back. And I did—for twenty years, at any rate. This is the first time—what? Oh, you precious little noodle! You don't mean to tell me you are jealous, after all? Now, Nettie, I'll let you into another dead secret: for fifteen, at least, out of those twenty years I haven't cared a single, solitary straw about her, not even enough to inquire of anybody whether she was alive or dead. And surely to goodness you don't suppose I am going to do it now?”

“You are a faithless wretch,” Mrs. Wingate ejaculated, wetting his cheek with the tip of an eyelash. “I suppose fifteen other women—oh, I begin to see what I have done in marrying a handsome husband! But one thing I insist on, Billy—I will see Lady Desailly with my own eyes before we leave this place, and so shall you. Call up that man who is going along the road, and ask him if the family is at home.”

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Chapter II Mystery

WILLIAM WINGATE had a feeling that he would rather inquire about his old sweetheart elsewhere than at the buggy side on the public highway. And so, finding his wife firm in demanding the immediate satisfaction of her curiosity, and that he should be confronted at the earliest opportunity with a woman old enough to be her mother—another Mrs. Ross with an immeasurable waist—he said he would seek information at the lodge, where he might find some one who remembered him. She approved, and took the reins. He jumped down, and the ivied cottage with the Tudor chimneys swallowed him.

It was all but dark when he reappeared, and yet she saw at once that he had had a shock.

“Ah,” she cried sympathetically, “your Lexie is dead!”

“Worse,” he groaned, as he swung himself into the buggy. “Unutterably worse! But I don't believe it. It's incredible. Nettie, what do you think they say?—that she eloped years ago with a foreigner who was staying in the house; that she left the child, who is now a young man, and that

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she took one of the most valuable of the family jewels with her—a diamond necklace, with five star-rubies in it. I remember it well. The old man, when he was reconciled to her, and wishing everybody to look up to her as if she had been born to the position, gave it to her and asked her to wear it; she had it on the very last time I ever saw her. This fellow—he is only a young keeper, speaking from hearsay and gossip—says Walter would not have her followed—scorned to interfere with her, both because he was too proud and because her lover had been his friend—and let the necklace go with her, and that nothing has been heard of either of them since. As if Lexie, of all people, would carry off property! I laughed at the idea. I told the fellow I didn't believe a word of such a story. I don't. I'll lay my life there's been a mistake somewhere.”

“She was an impulsive woman,” Mrs. Wingate remarked thoughtfully. “See how she rushed home in a fit of impatience, and repented the next moment and rushed back again. And perhaps they drove her to extremities.”

“It is conceivable,” he returned, “she might have done a mad thing in sheer desperation, though I should have thought she'd have sooner killed herself. They say that she and the man were seen going off together—though, if it was in the night, it may easily have been a case of mistaken identity. But supposing

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she left the child—she would have to do that if she wanted to get free herself, for the heir they must have recovered—which is sufficiently incredible, seeing what a devoted mother she was, she would certainly never have taken a scrap of Desailly property with her. That I will stake my head on, and every penny I possess.”

“The man may have been the culprit there, Billy.”

“Oh, it's awful!” he moaned, evidently cut to the heart. “I wish I could see Walter himself. But he's in Scotland with his son. This place is deserted—has been nearly all the time. The other day they opened it just to celebrate the boy's coming of age in the great hall, after some customs of the family; but it was all locked up directly afterwards, and stands there empty and falling into decay. Walter lives in London and abroad mostly, and when here, at the Dower House, a house near one of the other gates, where an aunt of his used to live. The old folks are both dead. There's a new rector too, but Geraldine Balcombe is alive and married. Well, my pet, you must be dying of hunger and fatigue. Let's be off to the Desailly Arms and a good supper, if they can give us one. After all, it is no concern of ours, I suppose.”

“It has occurred to me that it may concern us closely,” Mrs. Wingate said, in a matter-of-fact tone, no longer dreaming of jealousy. “If that house is empty, Billy, and Sir Walter cares so little what becomes of it, why shouldn't we try to find out whether

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it won't suit us? There must be an agent here somewhere who could give us particulars, and through whom we might open negotiations for renting it, if we found it to our taste and not too appallingly expensive.”

Billy confessed himself struck by the idea, but inclined to postpone the consideration of it to a future hour. He was upset and preoccupied, also wearying for his dinner. So they drove through the beautiful twilight, tinged now with the haze of a rising moon, to an inn that he remembered, and were shortly absorbed in beef and bottled porter, and the comforting sensation of being safe and snug together, with the troubled world shut out. There are times when happy people cannot be bothered to think of anything but themselves.

But when the landlady brought the coffee, she was induced to linger and be interrogated, whereby further details were added to the Desailly romance.

“Yes, sir, I remember when Sir Walter brought his wife and child to The Chase. I was kitchen-maid there at the time, but I don't call to mind your face, sir. My husband's father was butler; perhaps he'd remember you, only he's in his second childhood, and, being paralysed, can't make himself understood. Mrs. Walter, as she was then, did not stay long; she ran away within the year. And her husband, he was so set on her and so cut up that he never was the same man afterwards. He never wanted to

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marry again. Though lots of people tried to persuade him to get a divorce, he wouldn't.”

“Was he very much cut up?” inquired Wingate gravely.

“They say so, sir. The servants who saw him were always speaking of it. He seemed partly to blame himself, and I won't say that he's perfection. You can't expect it of a gentleman in his position, with no work to do to keep him out of mischief. He has brought young persons to the Dower House at times, and we hear of goings-on in London that it's best to take no notice of. But he did his duty by her, at any rate. He made her an honest woman, in spite of everything; he wouldn't take the law to her when she turned against him and disgraced a fine old family that had done her only too much honour; and as for that poor abandoned child of hers, why, he dotes on the very ground that Master Thomas walks on. Ah, let's hope that dear young man will make a better choice than his father did! He's the finest lad in the whole county, though he does come of a bad mother.”

“If you are speaking of Sir Walter's son by his wife, Miss Alexandra Baird,” said Wingate, slowly and with emphasis, “he comes of a mother who was simply one of the best women that ever lived. I had the privilege of knowing her well.”

“Indeed, sir! But the best o' women don't do what she did—not as a rule, sir—do they?”

  ― 25 ―

The fat landlady, who regarded the peccadilloes of the male person with such extreme indulgence, smiled austerely.

“I have yet to be convinced that she did do it,” said Billy, who, as he spoke, felt the hand of his little wife slipped into his, and grasped it gratefully.

“As to that, sir, there's the evidence of parties that saw them go off together. A lady staying in the house happened to be standing at her bedroom window, which she had opened, because it was bright moonlight and the garden looking so pretty, and she heard voices on the terrace underneath, close to a door at the foot of a private staircase; and when she looked down, there was Mrs. Walter and the young man, quite plain, so as nobody could mistake them. She had on the same white cloak that she'd left the hall with, the stairs and passages being draughty, and it slipped off her shoulders, and the lady saw the diamond necklace shining. The young man, he struck a match to see how to lock the door again, and that showed their faces clear. And the best proof was that neither of them was ever seen again, sir.”

“And the lady did not give the alarm?”

“She said nothing about it because she hoped they'd come back before they were found out and scandals made, and because Mrs. Walter was in the habit of going to her family when she was in a temper with her husband; and they did have words that

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day. Sir Walter had his suspicions of the young man, and taxed her with it. They all thought at first that she'd gone to Cambridge, and the lady that knew she hadn't said the same, just out of kindness and to give the woman a chance. Besides, she couldn't bear to be the one to break the news. However, she had to do it at last, when they found out by letters that came for Mrs. Walter from her mother that she'd never been there.”

“Poor mother!” Wingate ejaculated. “Nettie, we must go and see her. I want to hear both sides.”

“So do I,” cried Nettie, with cordial sympathy.

“Dead, sir; dead, ma'am,” said the landlady, “many-years ago; both her father and mother, and the business sold. There are no Bairds in Cambridge now.”

It was Nettie who asked the next and most important question.

“Mrs. Venn, was the lady you mention the only person who saw the elopement with her own eyes?”

Mrs. Venn said she believed the lady was the only person who actually so saw it, but a servant in the house—the baby's nurse—heard the door of the private staircase shut. It was in the wing Mrs. Walter occupied—a whole wing that old Sir Thomas had set apart for her and her husband's use, so that they could live independently, as if in their own house, when they felt disposed. The nurse had gone to bed in the nursery with the child; the noise of the

  ― 27 ―
door woke her, and she thought it was her master going into his dressing-room. But as it happened, Sir Walter—Mr. Walter as he was then—had gone to London unbeknown to her, and was away all that night—came home, poor man, to find the bird flown!”

“And who was that lady?” Mrs. Wingate inquired, in a tone of voice that made her Billy sit up and prick his ears.

“Mrs. George Desailly, ma'am. She married a cousin of the squire's. A good-for-nothing he is too, though he does belong to the family, and stands next to Master Thomas too, worse luck.”

Billy had heard already who Mrs. George Desailly was, and he seemed to spring out of his seat. “Aha! I thought so—I thought so! Which took place first, Mrs. Venn, her marriage or the elopement—the alleged elopement?”

“The elopement, sir—years and years before. Miss Balcombe married quite late in life—that is, late for a lady so good looking and attractive.”

“Any children?”

“Two, sir, only—a girl and boy. The poor little boy is not quite right, they say, but of course she thinks the world of him.”

“And Walter swallowed all her damned lies? I beg your pardon; I can't help using strong language. Because I can see, as plainly as that you are standing there, that Mrs. George Desailly invented that elopement for her own purposes. Don't you see it,

  ― 28 ―
Nettie? You remember what I told you?”—with a significant nod.

“Sir,” said Mrs. Venn, “you are like many other people—speaking evil of that lady without knowing anything about her.”

“I not know anything about her!” laughed Wingate grimly.

“Without knowing anything of the circumstances that, you say, happened after your time. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Walter and she were the best of friends. She has told me so herself.”

“Oh,” said Wingate. And he seemed to wink at Nettie from the corner of a sombre eye.

“And she could have had no interest whatever in injuring Mrs. Walter—in telling lies about her, as you call it.”

“Unless her lies caused Mrs. Walter's husband to divorce her.”

“Which they didn't.”

“No. But she could not have foreseen that.”

“And never thought of such disgraceful things. Besides, sir, if her story was an invention, how do you account for Mrs. Walter's disappearance? She went away that night, and the young foreign gentleman went away that night, and they've never been heard of since. That's the truth, at any rate; and if you can find any explanation of it but the one that anybody who knows the world——”

“I can find another without any trouble,” Wingate

  ― 29 ―
broke in. “The fellow may have been a villain—a foreigner generally is—and enticed her away, and murdered her for the sake of the necklace.”

“Not one who loved her. The whole house knew that he loved her, and that her husband had quarrelled with both of them because he'd found it out.”

Wingate's face fell slowly, and he heaved a restless sigh. “It is strange—it is indeed strange!” he ejaculated. Then, with an air of sudden resolution, he asked where Mrs. George Desailly might be found. “I am going,” said he darkly, “to the fountain head.”

Mrs. George, he was then informed, had no settled habitation of her own, her husband being a rolling stone, living by his wits and from hand to mouth, a frequenter of Continental gaming places and a sponger upon his friends; but it so happened that she was at this moment staying at the old rectory which used to be her home.

“They were both at the coming of age,” said the landlady, “though they weren't invited, and the squire was very angry when he saw them there. He's the best of landlords, and kindness itself to everybody else, but he does hate those George Desaillys so that it's like a madness with him. The other squires don't think it looks well at all, seeing that Mr. George is his own blood, and so near the title too. And his poor wife—goodness knows she has troubles enough without Sir Walter making more for her.”

“What! Does he hate her too? You don't say so!”

  ― 30 ―

“Like poison, sir. And all for nothing, I'm convinced. She once invited young Master Thomas to stay with her when he was home for his holidays and his father was away, and he got a bad cold, and told his father in a letter that his sheets were that damp you could have wrung them. Well, supposing they were damp—any careless hussy of a housemaid might have done it, and the missus never known. Desailly ladies don't make the beds. But Sir Walter, he got it into his head then that she wanted to kill the boy so that her own might succeed, and now it's a regular monomania with him. He keeps Master Thomas always under his eye, and he's given orders that neither she nor her husband are to set foot on the property. Any gatekeeper that lets them through even into the park is to lose his place directly. I call it a shame—though he is Sir Walter and my husband's landlord. She's a lady, like any other lady, and a Desailly moreover, and a sweet, gentle creature, incapable of doing such things as she's accused of. She was sitting in this parlour only yesterday, talking to me about it, and saying how she missed her dear mother, and how nice it was to be in her childhood's home again. For my part, I hate to see people despised and insulted just because they're poor. Why shouldn't she walk in the park if she's a mind? And why shouldn't she go into the house as well as the rats and mice? Now that she's here, she just pines to wander alone through the old

  ― 31 ―
rooms where she had such happy days when she was a girl, and she was asking me whether I could not manage it for her, through my husband, who's that trusted by the agent that he could get the keys at any time he wished. I'm sure I was willing enough, and I did all I could, but there's no man here that'll go against the squire. It went to my heart to see her pleading for such a little thing, and having to disappoint her. She said she supposed Sir Walter was afraid she'd steal something; but the tears were in her eyes, poor thing, and she trembled all over. There's nothing to steal except what nobody could carry away. The valuable small things are all well locked up, or at the Dower House, or in the bank. A burning shame, I call it.”

“It is,” said Wingate, smiling strangely. “And she is staying at the rectory, you say?”

“Yes, sir; at least, she was yesterday. The rector now is Mr. Martin, a bachelor gentleman; he was tutor to Master Thomas before he went to Eton. He never saw Mrs. George till the other day, at the coming of age; but he was told how the squire had treated her, and was very indignant, and offered her his arm as she was leaving the hall, and asked her to honour him by making use of his house.”

“How did the squire treat her?” inquired Wingate. “I used to know him pretty well, but I never thought him a man to be rude to ladies.”

“This was what he did,” said Mrs. Venn. “She

  ― 32 ―
and her husband came to The Chase because it was sort of open house at the coming of age—though the house is so empty and out of repair that only the great hall, the state drawing-room, and the kitchens were actually used—and because they hoped, she said, that on such an occasion the family might be reconciled. They wanted to congratulate Master Thomas, and to drink his health, and so make up all quarrels, and start fresh as friends. However, we noticed they were not at the banquet—the company this time was only the people on the estate, and a few friends of Master Thomas's, very different from the coming of ages that used to be—though we had seen them go in amongst the first, and it appears that Sir Walter didn't know they were there at all. But while the speeches were going on some one whispered to Master Thomas, and Master Thomas whispered to his father, and the squire looked as black as thunder, and as soon as the banquet was over ran up the stairs. They were not using the upper part of the house, and poor Mrs. George had taken the opportunity to have a quiet stroll through the rooms, the scenes of her happy days, poor thing! She was looking out of a window, and thinking of the past, when she used to be petted by Sir Thomas and my lady as if she were their own daughter, when up comes Sir Walter, and orders her out of the place just as if she was a common tramp. And she without even her husband to defend her. Mr. George had

  ― 33 ―
changed his mind about speaking to his cousin before so many people, and had left while everybody was at the banquet, and gone back to London, so that she was all alone by herself. She says he abused her shameful, but there was nobody to hear what they said till the rector met them in the gallery over the hall. Master Thomas had told the rector what was going on, for you must know that he doesn't hold with the way his father treats Mrs. George, which is real scandalous, though I oughtn't to say it, being an old servant of the family. Mr. Martin, he ran upstairs to see what he could do, and there was poor Mrs. George crying, and Sir Walter calling Mr. Blackett, the agent, to come and lock all the doors, and give the keys to him. He says he wouldn't trust her not to lay dynamite about the place, and blow them all up—which shows how mad he is in his spite against her. For anybody can see that a gentler creature never walked. Mr. Martin, he says he won't break bread in the house again while Sir Walter is master, though he did give him the living; and Master Thomas looked so ashamed, poor young gentleman! They say he had words with his father afterwards, though they are that fond of each other that they're more like twin brothers than parent and child.”

“This,” remarked Wingate, “is strangely unlike the Walter Desailly that I used to know. However——”

  ― 34 ―

He looked at his watch, and then at his wife, and then at the landlady, who was so enjoying her own loquacity.

“Can you tell me, Mrs. Venn, whether Sir Walter still keeps the keys?”

Mrs. Venn supposed not, as he was out of the country. She thought Mr. Blackett would have them, and was sure there would be no difficulty in getting leave to look over the house, if Mr. Wingate wished to do so. It was only Mrs. George who was shut out, lest she should plant dynamite upon the premises.

“Well,” said Billy, who craved impatiently for a pipe and a quiet gossip with his wife, “what do you say to a little stroll before turning in, Nettie? It is a lovely night, and I don't feel a bit like sleep at present.”

“Nor I,” said Nettie, also anxious to dispense with the landlady, and not knowing how to do it politely. “Supper has made a new creature of me. I could walk miles. Only I'm afraid we might be keeping Mrs. Venn up.”

The landlady offered to leave a key under a doormat, and otherwise to meet the wishes of a customer who had been at college with the squire, and whose whole equipment betokened wealth, and of the pretty young wife who was so considerate for other people. She took them, with many apologies, through back passages and a kitchen to show them the door, the

  ― 35 ―
key, and the mat, and where they would find matches and their bedroom candle, incidentally bringing to their notice certain members of her family circle. These the strangers affected to ignore, from motives of delicacy, until a very old man, who was being helped to bed by a pair of stalwart grandchildren, actually blocked their path.

“This,” said Mrs. Venn, “is my husband's father, that must have been butler at The Chase when you were there, sir. But I suppose you wouldn't have known him again. He's close on eighty-four, and was a faithful servant of the family from the time he cleaned the knives when he was only ten. Grandpa!”—raising her voice to a loud yell — “this gentle — man — used — to — come — to — the — house — when — you — were — there — Mr. — Win — gate — friend — of — the — squire's — went — to — col — lege — with — him — knew — the — lady — that — ran — a — way — — ”

“Hush-sh!” cried Wingate fiercely. And she stopped.

“We have to bawl at him, sir, to make him hear. But it's not much use. He gets deafer and deafer, and his memory is quite gone. He won't know you. Oh, but he does, though! Look at him!”

Grandpa was evidently acting in an unusual way. He pointed a claw-like finger at Wingate's massive chest, glared up at him with his rheumy eyes, wagged his head, made strange gabbling sounds, and pulled

  ― 36 ―
at the arms supporting him, evidently in high excitement.

“Well, old gentleman, and how do you do?” Wingate jauntily addressed him, taking the trembling hand and sawing it up and down. “It is very flattering to me to think that I've changed so little. Hey? What? Look here, Mrs. Venn, if I were you I'd get him off to bed as soon as possible. He looks to me as if he were going to have a fit.”

The Venn family removed the patriarch, with soothing words to him and apologies to the guest, explaining that the old man was quite childish, and not accountable for his vagaries. And the bride and bridegroom escaped, to their relief and pleasure, into the calm night.

  ― 37 ―

Chapter III The Scent Lies

TALKING of Lexie Desailly and her fate, in which the one had become as much interested as the other, Mr. and Mrs. Wingate found their way almost unconsciously to the gates through which they had gazed, a few hours earlier, at what they supposed to be her home. It was now invisible amongst the distant shades, but half a mile of the green ride lay fair beneath the moon, looking like a lawn for elves to dance on. Nettie held two of the great bars in her little hands, and peered between them wistfully. Billy's eyes, over the top of her head, searched the night with equal eagerness. The Chase was laying a spell upon them both.

The young lodge-keeper heard them talking, and came out to reconnoitre. Wingate accosted him, asking leave to enter the enclosure. The request was at once granted to an old friend of the squire's, who was exhorted to take his own time, and return when it pleased him. The man had some business of his own on hand, which would keep him up for an hour or two, and was willing to wait upon the strangers' pleasure.

  ― 38 ―

“We shall have time, then, to get a peep at the house,” Nettie joyfully exclaimed. She was “dying,” as she called it, for that satisfaction.

“Perhaps, if we look sharp,” said Billy. “But the length of this avenue is about three times what it looks.”

And they set off to walk it at a swinging pace, keeping the middle of the grass, to be as far as possible from the black shadows of the woods on either side. Nettie held tight to her stalwart husband's hand, and after a little only spoke in low tones, glancing hither and thither in a furtive way, with occasional jumps and starts; for the sense of mystery was upon her—delightful certainly, enchantingly English, but a little uncanny, all the same. Bushes to right and left rustled as they passed; twigs snapped; owls went by with no sound of wings, phantom-like; couching forms of deer arose, loomed for a moment, and disappeared. These latter were the most romantic feature of The Chase to her Australian mind, but an antlered buck in twilight, showing himself unexpectedly and merely as something alive and large, brings, as she expressed it, one's heart into one's mouth.

The spectacle of the old mansion, when they reached the inner enclosure of garden surrounding it, enhanced this sense of phantasmal things, the general awesomeness of the expedition and the hour. It was indeed the ideal haunted house. Nettie said

  ― 39 ―
she had seen the very “moral” of it, under that title, in an old volume of the Illustrated London News. Ivy cloaked embattled walls and hung ragged wreaths from projections of ornamental stonework; towers and chimney-stacks rose majestic from the mass, cutting large blocks out of the pellucid sky. Moss and weeds showed clear in the chinks of the flagged terraces, and unpruned growths from the once trim parterres overran the pillared balustrades and short flights of shallow steps leading from one level to another. A rusty gate hung awry on a broken hinge; gravel paths were all but obliterated; storm-strewn twigs and branches of trees lay where the wind had tossed them, bedded in rank grass; and over all this desolation the broad windows gazed blankly, from under their stone brows, like open eyes of the dead.

“What a change!” Wingate muttered, in an awed voice; “oh, what a change! I cannot understand it. For the boy's sake, if not for his own—for common decency's sake—he might have kept such a beautiful place from going to rack and ruin like this! He doesn't deserve to own it. Well, I don't think we'll try to make a home here, sweetheart.”

“Oh, no!” whispered Nettie, shivering within the arm he had thrown around her.

Nevertheless, he looked about him with a keen business eye, trying to measure the extent of the dilapidation, and what it would cost to put the place

  ― 40 ―
in habitable repair. And while thus engaged, detached for the moment from the sentiment of the scene, Nettie startled him with a sudden cry and a clutch upon his arm. In an instant she was within the rampart of that arm, as behind a padlocked door.

“Hullo!” he cried; “what's the matter?”

“Look!” she gasped. “Oh, look!”

He looked hurriedly hither and thither, not knowing what she meant.

“Hey? Where? I don't see anything.”

“It's gone,” she said, in the same dry-throated whisper. “But I saw it quite plainly—in that great window—the one hanging out on the wall up there.”

“Saw what, child? Oh, this is getting on your nerves!”

“Billy, you may disbelieve me if you like, but I did see it—a light like a candle—in that window at the end of the wing. Watch; perhaps we shall see it again.”

They stared steadily for several minutes, and saw no light except the moonlight, which was very clear and bright. In the silence they heard rustlings in the bushes near them, and, above all other noises, the thumping of their hearts.

“That,” said Billy, in a low voice, “is the wing where Lexie lived. The big window belongs to what used to be her bedroom—a great room, that was three parts sitting-room, one of the finest in the house. If you really saw a candle in it, of course

  ― 41 ―
some one must be there. But they certainly told me it was all shut up.”

As he spoke they simultaneously detected a figure gliding across a moon-lighted corner of the terrace beneath the window. It was such a shadow of a figure, and came and went so swiftly, that they barely identified it as human, and were unable to distinguish sex. Nettie smothered a shriek in her husband's breast.

“I say, this looks very suspicious,” he exclaimed excitedly, while trying to soothe her alarm. “There are some little games going on that the authorities don't know anything about, evidently. Poachers—burglars—somebody taking advantage of the empty house for unlawful purposes.”

“Oh, Billy, come away, come away! They might see us, and you are unarmed, and we are so far from help!”

“Nonsense, pet! Don't be a little goose. Well, we'll go at once, dear—only just let me run up and see where that fellow went to, first. It would be cowardly to leave them to do no one knows what mischief, and not lift a hand to prevent it. You stay here in shelter, and I'll be back in two minutes.”

But Nettie, mustering a fair stock of native courage, declared that if he must go on such an errand, she would go too. Never would she be separated from her husband, whatever happened. They would die together, if need were.

Wingate would have preferred to make a sortie by

  ― 42 ―
himself—it would have been the sooner over, and he could have dealt summarily with any difficulty encountered; the presence of his wife made an irksome caution necessary. However, her wish was law; and he lifted her over the rusted gate upon which they had been leaning, and set her little feet upon a path that led, by two flights of massive steps, to the terrace under the wing that had been Lexie's private dwelling, and the particular window in which Nettie had seen the light. Here they proceeded softly, the man holding his companion behind him with a firm grip, and keeping one eye on the window and the other on the bushes to right and left, until they reached the moonlit corner where the figure had been seen. Here Billy stopped and pounced upon something—something that lay coiled on the weedy pavement under the shadow of the balustrade like one of his native snakes. He pulled it out into the light, and lo, a rope of many fathoms, new and strong, with a long thin cord attached to it, weighted at the end—similar to the tackle with which ships make fast to tug or wharf, but of inferior weight and quality.

“Burglars, of course,” he remarked, delighted with his find. “Some of them must have got in, and others are outside; every window on the ground floor is barred like a prison, so I suppose they are hauling themselves into that upper one with the rope. But how the dickens did the first one get through? It projects so far from the wall that the ivy wouldn't

  ― 43 ―
help. They must have got the line over something, but I can't see what. And the casements are shut. There are two, in the lower part, opening like doors. Lexie loved to have them open; she was so fond of fresh air! By the way, there's the door of the little staircase that they say she eloped by; is that shut, I wonder?”

It was—hard and fast. And, when he ran half round the house, and ran back, before Nettie had time to feel deserted, he found all doors and windows wearing the same impenetrable look. And no sign of life was visible, nor further trace of the supposed marauders. In spite of which, common prudence dictated a retreat under the circumstances.

“If I were alone,” said Billy, “I'd get to the bottom of this, but I can't expose you to the tender mercies of a burglar at bay. The best thing to be done is to get you safe to the inn, and then come back with what men I can muster, and thoroughly search the place. We will take the rascals' rope with us, at any rate, and trust they haven't got another.”

He quickly made a coil of the rope and slung it over his shoulder. With the other arm he embraced his wife and propelled her homeward. Along the cracked and weedy flags, down the moss-grown steps, through the wilderness of a garden they scurried, as if themselves detected housebreakers; and neither of them enjoyed the romance of the situation in the least. Bright as the moon was, their path

  ― 44 ―
to the rusty gate, through the rank, dank shrubberies, was a more fearsome passage than before; and when, at a spot where the branches closed above their heads, they heard a rustle and a movement as of some creature tracking them, Nettie's heart failed her, and she screamed aloud. Billy thereupon dropped his load of rope, clasped his wife to his breast, planted his feet firmly, and glared from side to side.

“Who's there?” he called sharply.

No answer. No sound.

“Who's that?” he repeated, in a still louder tone.

They listened with all their tingling ears, but heard nothing.

“A rabbit, or a bird, or perhaps one of the deer out of the woods,” he murmured soothingly. “Why, child, what's come to you?”

But his own voice was a trifle unsteady. Eager to stand and fight any danger that he could see, this shadow business unnerved him.

A mile in twenty minutes was their rate of travel down the long chase to the lodge, and the little star that was Abel Rowe's parlour lamp, on which they kept their eyes fixed steadily all the way, was a great comfort to them. The young keeper came out to meet them, and speaking both at once and rather breathlessly, they poured the story of their adventure into his ears. He received it without visible surprise or concern, and did not agree with Mr. Wingate that a midnight expedition was necessary.

  ― 45 ―

“Oh, you saw that light in the window!” he exclaimed, with much gravity. “I was wondering whether you would. I was out last night, looking at some traps, and saw it myself; and several other people have seen it. The conclusion they've come to is that the old house is haunted, sir. I don't hold with ghosts myself, but that's the common view.”

“Haunted be blowed!” was Wingate's rude rejoinder; and he showed the rope, which was mysterious without being supernatural, and described how they had seen a man “scoot” round a corner of the house. “Besides,” said he, “if ghosts were allowed to carry matches and candles, they'd burn the places down.”

“I suppose there are ghosts of lights as well as ghosts of people, if there are ghosts at all,” argued Abel Rowe. “Be that as it may, no mortal hand lit that light you saw, sir, if it was in the big window of the west wing you saw it. Because why? The day after it was first seen, Mr. Blackett and a whole posse of people, thinking just as you do that burglars were in the house, went in and all over it, and tried every lock and bolt, and thoroughly ransacked the whole place; and they proved that nobody could possibly have been there. Especially in that room where the window is; that was locked up tighter than any. Sir Walter doesn't like to have people prying there. It used to be his wife's room.”

“There must be a hiding-place in it,” said Wingate.

  ― 46 ―

“There is not, sir, begging your pardon. Every bit of wall and floor was tapped and tested; some of the boards were ripped up. Mr. Blackett satisfied himself that there was no hiding-place.”

“Then they had got out of the window with the rope in the meantime.”

“No, sir; for the casements were found fastened on the inside.”

“Well, but here's the rope to speak for itself. It was lying close under the window. It is quite new—just out of the shop—no doubt bought on purpose. What do you suppose it was doing there? And the fellow we saw running? Must he be a ghost too?”

“I can't account for him, nor for the rope,” Mr. Rowe admitted, fingering the latter in an abstracted way. “I thought nobody cared to go near the place of a night, since there's been this talk of the ghost in the window. I'll see Mr. Blackett about it in the morning——”

“I will see him also,” broke in Wingate, with a significant glance at his wife. “And I will keep the rope, if you please. It is my evidence, you see. I intend to sift this thing to the bottom, ghost and all.”

He was about to leave, when Mrs. Rowe, the keeper's mother, having risen from bed and dressed in haste, in order to find out what was doing at this hour of the night, entered the parlour, curtsied, looked from one to another with an expectant smile, and

  ― 47 ―
then caught sight of the coil of rope and pounced upon it.

“Why, if this ain't the clothes line that was stole last night!” she ejaculated, with round eyes and uplifted hands. “Why, Abel, wherever did you find it?”

“This gentleman found it, mother, in the garden at The Chase.”

“Lor! Right away up there! Whatever——”

“Was it yours?” interposed Wingate eagerly.

“No, sir, the rector's. His housekeeper bought it new last week, and the very first time she used it she had it stole. Strange to say, the linen that was a-hanging on it—for myself, I don't believe in leaving your clothes out all night—was left on the grass, and only the line took.”

“Only the line was required,” said Billy. “But how do you know it is the same?”

“Because there wasn't another new clothes line in the place.”

“I suppose rope is used for other purposes. Probably this was brought to The Chase from quite another direction.”

“And to The Chase, of all places!”

She desired ardently to enter upon a long discussion, covering the matter of the ghost, but sudden reticence had fallen upon the visitor. He affected surprise to find it near upon midnight, and concern that his wife was so late up after a journey, and took a hasty leave, carrying his rope with him. As soon

  ― 48 ―
as they were both upon the high-road, out of ear-shot of the lodge, he said to his wife, solemnly,—

“Nettie, either that fellow is in league with the burglars, or Geraldine Balcombe has some game on hand. One or the other.”

“Then it must be Geraldine Balcombe,” said Nettie, “for I am convinced that Abel Rowe is as honest as the day.”

“How are you convinced?” her husband asked.

“By the look of his face—the way he speaks—everything.”

“Woman's instinct!” laughed Billy. “Now I think his manner most suspicious: his disinclination to have the matter inquired into—his preposterous suggestion that the candle-man is a ghost—everything, as you would say. But things look black against the rector's house too. We will interview Mrs. George Desailly to-morrow morning, and get particulars concerning the Jarceny of the clothes line. I'm awfully curious to see her, apart from that. I wonder how she'll receive me, and what she looks like now? She was uncommonly pretty as a girl, in her white-cat style. And I'll make her tell that story about Lexie before I've done—and watch how she does it. I can't get it out of my mind somehow that it's all a pack of lies.”

“But what then, Billy?”

“Oh, God knows! I believe she was enticed away by that foreign fellow—on some charitable errand

  ― 49 ―
perhaps—and murdered for the necklace. That, to me, is far more likely than the other thing. And they never seem to have thought of it! Fancy, never thinking of it, and never lifting a hand or taking a step to find her!”

“I suppose they had more reason than you know of,” suggested Nettie, saying to herself, with an inward sigh, “How he harps upon that woman! How impossible he thinks it for her to have done wrong!”

They found Mrs. Venn's door-key under the mat, and slipped through the house to bed, and tried to sleep. Nettie succeeded, for she was only twenty-two and her heart was at rest—she did not seriously concern herself about her handsome husband's past; Billy declared in the morning that the feather mattress had defeated him, and that if they stayed another night in that place he should lie on the floor. He took a nip of whisky before breakfast, to clear his brain of morbid thoughts that had haunted him through the dark hours.

Their buggy having no seat for a servant, and the English-feeling morning—a mixture of delicate mist and sunshine—being more inviting than usual, they agreed to do their errands to the rectory and the agent's house on foot. And they set forth early, without confiding their business and late experiences to their garrulous landlady, Wingate being still under the impression that a police case impended in which anybody might be involved.

  ― 50 ―

Their first call was upon the interesting Geraldine Balcombe that was, and Wingate was almost certain that he saw her face at an upper window as they passed through the well-remembered garden, where the beech tree under which she used to make afternoon tea was beginning to turn yellow, and the myriad chrysanthemum buds opening into bloom. Great, therefore, was their disappointment when the genial rector, who received them in his study, presently intimated that she was too unwell to come downstairs. His mention of the fact that she had seen the linen taken from the lost line, when gazing at the moon from her bedroom window—unfortunately assuming that it was the housekeeper who, for fear of thieves, was bringing it indoors—saved Wingate the awkwardness of introducing her name, and gave him his opportunity to explain that she was an old friend. His touching account of his intimacy with her and her family in past years—of how he had been a guest in this very house, treated like a son, and how interesting he found it to return to the old scenes and revive the happy memories connected therewith—caused Mr. Martin to send a message to Mrs. Desailly, with the expectation that she would make a special effort in response; but her answer, long delayed, was that she begged Mr. Wingate would excuse her, and the report of the servant to the effect that the lady had had a kind of fainting fit at the moment of hearing his name.

  ― 51 ―

Wingate expressed his sorrow for this state of things, looking becomingly grave, but revealing a certain elation at the back of his gravity to Nettie's watchful eye. His air of sympathy and his claim to old friendship had the anticipated result of drawing confidences from Mr. Martin which he would not have reposed in a stranger.

“I daresay,” said he, “you are aware of the sad dissensions in the Desailly family?”

Wingate said he was, implying a complete knowledge of all their affairs.

“She suffers terribly,” the rector continued, shaking his head; “more than Sir Walter can have any idea of, or he would never treat her so cruelly as he does.”

“I cannot realize his character, as you and others paint it,” said Wingate. “I was his chosen comrade for years when we were both young men, and never knew a kinder-hearted fellow. He must have greatly changed.”

“He has, evidently. To hound a poor, weak woman into her grave or the mad-house—no man worthy of the name of man, let alone a gentleman, and one with a kind heart, could stoop to such cowardly, such infamous conduct.”

The warmth with which this speech was delivered suggested to Wingate that the fascinating Geraldine had not yet outgrown her fascinations.

“I am quite sure,” he said, “that my old friend could not stoop to that, however changed. There

  ― 52 ―
must be a misunderstanding somewhere. Possibly you are not acquainted with all the circumstances.”

“Pardon me. Mrs. Desailly has herself done me the honour to confide the whole matter to me, without reserve.”

“I see,” murmured Billy, with another look at his wife, who sat out of the discussion as far as her host's politeness allowed.

“And I have the evidence of my own eyes, Mr. Wingate—of her terrible state of health, the result of these constant trials. They have so preyed upon a highly nervous constitution that the brain seems to have become incapable of rest. She is a martyr to insomnia in its most acute form.”

“I am really awfully sorry to hear it,” remarked Wingate, in a commiserating tone, and with all his wits on the alert.

“Yes. She has taken to walking in her sleep—when she does sleep—which greatly alarms me. And one doesn't know what to do in such a case, especially in my situation. I am afraid to lock her in, lest she should fall out of the window or have an accident with the candle. She naturally objects to have a servant with her at night, and opiates she has a horror of—so have I. I have known the habit of taking morphia to entirely destroy all moral principle and self-restraint. I would rather any one belonging to me poisoned himself outright than take a single dose of it.”

  ― 53 ―

“You have really proved the somnambulism?” Wingate queried gently.

“Beyond a doubt. I met her on the road a few nights ago, hours after she had retired to bed—I was called from mine to attend a dying parishioner—and she told me she had no idea how she had got there. It is a most serious symptom in her case. I have tried to impress this upon her, and to persuade her to seek medical advice.”

“And won't she?”

“She wishes to give herself a fair trial of the country first. She thinks her native air and the peace and quiet of her present life are doing her good, and will soon restore her altogether. I am bound to say I don't. I think the disorganization of the nervous system increases daily. Indeed, if her husband does not come very soon, I must send for him, or else for a good doctor, for my own satisfaction.”

“Does she expect her husband soon?”

“Any day. But he is rather an erratic person, as perhaps you know. I proposed to fetch her daughter to keep her company, but she won't hear of it. She thinks it bad for the child to be shut up with a nervous invalid. Perhaps it is. But I am sure it is advisable to have some one to stay with her. It would relieve me of much responsibility, and keep her from brooding and fretting so much.”

“I should insist upon it,” said Wingate, “if I were

  ― 54 ―
you. By the way, you don't think she may have taken the clothes line herself, when walking in her sleep?”

“Oh, no; certainly not. She was awake and looking from the window when she saw the thief, and that was one of her better nights. But last night she must have been out again. We did not hear her moving, but my housekeeper says there is no doubt about it. She judges by the state of her clothes and shoes. And she seems this morning to be prostrate with exhaustion, though she stayed in the house all yesterday.”

“I should certainly get a doctor at once,” said Wingate, rising, “and make him insist on her being watched at night. Your housekeeper looks a ladylike person; Mrs. Desailly could not object to her having a bed in her room, under the circumstances. But the best thing, of course, would be to send for her husband to come and take her home.”

“I cannot be inhospitable,” the poor rector faltered, “if the change of air is really doing her any good. But—well, I must talk matters over with her when she gets up.”

“And pray command me, if I can be of any use,” said Wingate. “As an old friend, you know——”

“Oh, thank you, thank you! Where are you staying? Won't you take lunch with me? Pray do—you and Mrs. Wingate—and perhaps Mrs. Desailly might then be well enough to come down. She

  ― 55 ―
will be deeply disappointed, I am sure, to miss seeing you. Everything connected with her happy girlhood is so intensely interesting to her. And I should like to show you the church and the improvements I have made. You will find things looking very different from what they were in poor old Balcombe's time.”

The visitors pleaded the pressing nature of their business with the squire's agent, which turned the conversation upon the burglars, the ghost, and contingent matters, delaying their departure for another half-hour. But engagements were entered into for an exchange of hospitalities when convenient, while the rector walked with them to his garden gate, gathering flowers for Nettie by the way; and before separating cordial offers of assistance in their respective difficulties were provisionally accepted on both sides. As Wingate shook hands with his new friend, promising to call again later to report progress in the affair of the rope, he saw a face in an upper window, peeping from behind a blind. While he tried to draw Nettie's attention to it, it disappeared.

“But I know that profile,” he said, when they were again upon the road “and I see the whole thing as clear as day. It isn't burglars—it's some fight going on between Walter and her—I should imagine for the possession of something he's got locked up at The Chase. Compromising documents, perhaps.

  ― 56 ―
Well, though it doesn't seem exactly chivalrous, and though I don't owe him any service, but quite the contrary, I am going to be on Walter's side. And we'll stop here, Nettie, if you have no objection, till we get through with the affair.”

“Oh, I have no objection,” Nettie cried heartily; “far from it! I wouldn't go away now for fifty pounds. I never was so interested in anything in all my life.”

  ― 57 ―

Chapter IV The Honest Truth

MR. BLACKETT was stout and elderly and a good deal crippled by rheumatism, but he had young, keen eyes, deep set under intellectual brows, and with those eyes received Wingate as at the muzzle of a double-barrelled gun. The boyish face of twenty years ago was now lean and tanned, maturely dignified, wearing a slightly grizzled moustache and beard that had formerly been absent from it; but the agent—who had been the agent for more than twenty years, and deserved his reputation for an almost miraculous sharp-sightedness—instantly knew it for the same, though he had only seen it once. When the name belonging to it was announced to him, he concentrated upon the visitor a steely gaze that was unpleasant and disconcerting. Though Wingate gave himself no airs, it nettled him to be looked at in this way; he consequently remained standing, and stated his errand in the briefest terms, Nettie meanwhile lingering near the door, glancing at bookshelves and affecting not to listen. The rude master of the house did not rise from his arm-chair, but it presently appeared that he could

  ― 58 ―
only do so with difficulty, owing to physical ailments.

The story of the rope, the candle in the window, and the visible figure of the supposed burglar was told again, but the information gathered at the rectory was withheld. Wingate said he thought it his duty to report what he had seen; he also desired to assist in the search which he presumed would immediately be set on foot to discover what was wrong.

“You may not be aware,” he said stiffly, “that I am an old friend of Sir Walter Desailly's.”

Mr. Blackett replied that he was quite aware of it, still transfixing the visitor with steadfast, steely eyes.

“I remember your coming here, Mr. Wingate, rather more than twenty years ago—it was your last visit, was it not?—and also your departure. Also your departure, Mr. Wingate.”

“You have the advantage of me,” Wingate returned, with his easy courtesy; “I have no recollection of having seen you before.”

“I was Sir Thomas's agent, in succession to my father,” said the old man. “I was cognisant, sir, of all the family affairs.”

“The family affairs, I hear, took a sad turn after I left,” remarked Wingate.

Mr. Blackett did not answer, but stared more strangely than before. Wingate thought the look referred to the elopement, and added, with warmth:

  ― 59 ―
“But I, for one, refuse to believe that Mrs. Walter Desailly was to blame. I knew her well, and never knew a better woman—a perfect English lady, if ever there was one, in spite of her people being shop-keepers. The circumstances may be as they have been described to me, but I am convinced that the popular theory is a wrong one.”

The agent seemed much agitated by this reference to the great scandal. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, and shut it without doing so; the gnarled hand on his writing table closed and unclosed sharply; he drew his brows together; his eyes flashed upon Nettie's pretty figure, which had not yet been invited to rest itself.

“You are married to this lady?” he jerked out.

Wingate bowed, while he wondered if it were not his duty to feel insulted by the question on her behalf.

“I must apologise for asking it,” the old man continued, with a tremble in his voice, “but will she mind leaving us for a short time? There are some important matters—the drawing-room is just across the hall—I think my wife is at home——”

He hoisted himself with difficulty out of his chair to reach a bell button, but before he could get at it, and before Wingate could explain that Mrs. Wingate had an equal interest with him in the proceedings, the lady had disappeared.

“I will wait for you on the road, Billy,” said she,

  ― 60 ―
with fiery cheeks and an icy smile, and next minute was out of the house and marching along the highway in wrath. “If these are your English manners,” she intended to say to Billy when she saw him again, “give me Australia.” For it seemed to her that he was too much in the habit of glorifying England and its institutions (including its women) at the expense of his own country.

She had promised to wait for him on the road, and did so for nearly three-quarters of an hour, learning every hedgerow leaf and every blade of wayside grass by heart, exhausting all the charms of the harvest landscape. But when the little watch pinned to the breast of her neat tweed coat, as also an inward monitor of equal infallibility, informed her that it was one o'clock and lunch time, she decided to leave him to his devices. Doubtless he and that rude old man were so absorbed in their reminiscences of the incomparable Mrs. Walter as to forget that a mere every-day young woman with an appetite existed. She returned to the inn, ordered the cutlets to be served and the bottle of Bass opened, and sat down to begin her meal alone—for the first time since she had been Billy's wife.

“I really could not wait any longer,” she called out, when the sitting-room door opened to admit the laggard. But a glance at her husband's face caused her voice to change its note. “Oh, my dear boy! what is the matter with you?”

  ― 61 ―

Instead of falling upon the beer and cutlets, Billy fell in a headlong fashion upon the horsehair sofa, planted his elbows on his knees, dropped his face in his hands, and sobbed audibly—one sob only, no more, but enough to pierce her heart. She was instantly beside him, trying to span his huge back with her little arm, to pull his strong fingers from their tight clasp upon his brow.

“Darling! darling! Tell me! Tell your Nettie! What is it, precious one?” She cooed like a courting turtle-dove, pressing her cheek to his shoulder and his ear.

“Oh, Nettie, I have had a blow! I have had an awful shock!” he groaned, with a long up-drawing of the breath. “A bolt from the blue, and no mistake!” He raised himself and looked at her, with something wild in his eyes. “Who do you think the foreigner was, Nettie?”

“The—the man she el——”

“Me—me!” he burst out, in the grammar of strong emotion. “They actually believed that she ran away with ME!”

“And called you a foreigner?” cried Nettie. “What cheek! Just like these ignorant English people! As if we were not just as much English as they are!”

“But don't you see, child? They have been supposing we went away together, because it seems we were missed at the same time. That cursed talk

  ― 62 ―
about foreigners has been putting me off the scent; but I might have known—I did know—that Geraldine's tale was a pack of lies—of a piece with her tale of how she saw the linen taken off the clothes line. It was she who swore she had seen us sneaking away together, and made Walter believe it—when no one knows better how I went than she does, for she accompanied me part of the way. Oh, that little devil is at the bottom of it all!”

“But where, then——”

“Ah, that's the point! that's the point! That's the awful part of it! If Lexie didn't elope with me—as certainly she didn't, and no other man has been mentioned in the case—what, in the name of God, did become of her?” He struck his knee with a clenched fist. “But I'll find out, Nettie; I'll find out, if I take years to do it, and it costs me my last penny.”

“Sir Walter will surely see to that,” said Nettie softly. “She was his wife.”

“We have telegraphed for Walter,” said Wingate, for the first time turning an eye upon the luncheon table. “Yes, of course he will see to it; for I find he really did appreciate her, appearances notwithstanding, and from the moment he lost her turned against Geraldine as if he suspected something, and has shunned and hated her ever since. But we can help him. There is plenty to do before he comes. That woman is up to mischief at this moment,

  ― 63 ―
though we don't know what. It can't be anything that concerns poor Lexie now, but it may lead us to a clue. We've got to hunt for all fresh clues now. And Blackett is as convinced as I am that our best course is to stick like wax to her. Her story, you see, being proved untrue, is damning evidence against herself—looks as if she either put poor Lexie out of the way, or knows who did. I am going to have a policeman this afternoon to go over the house with me, and I am going to sleep in that room where we saw the candle—Lexie's room—to-night.”

“I with you,” said Mrs. Wingate, putting a tumbler of fresh beer into his unsteady hand.

“My pet, I can't expose you——”

“Now, Billy, let us understand one another,” she broke in, with an inflexible air to which he was unaccustomed; and forthwith she stated a case in words that made an impression upon him. The result was what Rudyard Kipling would call an “interlude” of unwonted duration and intensity—a general concession of her right, as a bride on her honeymoon, to anything she liked to ask for, on the part of the husband; and on the part of the wife, a renewed conviction that he was the best and dearest of living men, despite his little weaknesses. She sat on his knee while he ate his lunch as best he could with one hand; then she filled his pipe, and put a cushion under his head.

“Now,” said she, “try if you can remember all

  ― 64 ―
that happened that night at The Chase. It may help us to an idea. You never told me before, by the way, that Miss Balcombe was with you when you left, and that is a most important detail.”

“Well, it was this way, Nettie. You know I had a scrimmage with Walter. I wanted to explain about the Cambridge journey, and to stand up for Lexie, and it's always a mistake to begin putting things of that sort into words, especially as we were situated. I stood up for her too much—because I saw he was taking it all wrong—and I lost my temper, and said things I wouldn't forgive myself, if any man said them to me. As for him, he couldn't have insulted me more than he did. So, of course, there it stood. That was in the morning. There was nothing for me but to clear out as soon as possible, and I went back to the inn—this inn, and this room too, only different people. I packed up for London, had some bread and cheese, and started to go by the next train. But just as I'd settled in my corner, I saw Walter's dog-cart tearing along the road, and I knew he was trying to catch the train too; and I hated the thought of travelling with him, or near him, after the row we'd had; besides—well, I'll tell you the honest truth, Nettie—it was a chance to have a word with Lexie that I could not resist. I didn't do anything behind Walter's back that I wouldn't have done before his face, but for her sake I couldn't go near her while he was there misjudging us, and

  ― 65 ―
it was a cowardly thing to make off without even bidding her good-bye—looked like deserting her in her trouble, and owning to wrong things. At any rate, I jumped out of the carriage, and kept out of sight until Walter got in. Then, when the train was gone, I went outside, and spoke to the groom. He said his master had been called to town on business, but was expected back next morning. My luggage had gone on in the van, so I telegraphed to London to have it looked after on arrival, and walked across the fields to The Chase. I daresay they made capital out of all that afterwards.”

“You may be certain that they did,” said Nettie, “and you can't blame them either.”

“No, of course. Still, you mustn't forget that The Chase was Sir Thomas's house then, and not Walter's, and that the old gentleman and I were the best of friends. He was out when I arrived, and I just asked straight for Lexie, so as not to waste time. The man took me to her boudoir—she didn't use it much, because she liked her big bedroom to sit in—and no one came to disturb us. We had a—a talk——”

He paused absent-mindedly. The silence was broken by a plaintive little sigh,—

“Ah, Billy! Billy!”

“Yes, pet, I know. But it was twenty years ago, and I've got over it this many a day.”

“I don't believe you have got over it yet, Billy.”

  ― 66 ―

“You are the last person who should say that, or think it,” he remonstrated, drawing her to his knee again, and settling her comfortably in a favourite place and pose. “And, besides, she's dead—I know she is dead. Nothing but death would have taken her from the child. You can't be jealous of a dead woman.”

“Oh, can't I? But I won't, Billy—indeed, I won't! It was only my nonsense. You are mine now, and that's all I care about. Listen, dear, I've thought of something. There is that lake where you caught the big pike—I expect that, being so unhappy, she committed suicide by drowning herself in it. That would account for her sudden disappearance, and her never being seen or traced. Billy, I have thought of another thing. Perhaps it was because—but, no, I won't say it!”

“Say it, Nettie.”

“She might have been broken-hearted at losing you.”

Wingate drew in his breath, and went red and pale, but controlled himself instantly.

“No,” he said, reluctantly impartial, “there was no motive of that sort. I'll tell the honest truth, Nettie—I did let myself go that last time that we were together, though I tried my utmost not to. But she never did; on the contrary, she pulled me up in her firm, kind way, lectured me like a mother she did—tried to make me see there were good things still

  ― 67 ―
to live for, and that she trusted me for a gentleman, and—and so on. Oh, she was not the sort of person to play fast and loose with matrimony and motherhood—not she; nor yet of the flimsy stuff that suicides are made of. Still, it's an idea. When Walter comes, of course he'll leave no stone unturned, and the lake must be emptied if necessary. But then why did Geraldine concoct that elaborate story? She must have had some object.”

“She was staying in the house, you say?”

“Yes; and, unfortunately, knew about my having gone away before lunch, and come back after Walter had left the house, and being shown up to Lexie's private sitting-room, and staying such a long time with her—things she could twist and turn to suit her tale. I did not know how late it was till I heard the dressing-bell ring, and then, when I tried to get away quietly, I ran up against the old lady and Geraldine, who were pacing up and down the terrace in the evening sun. They were both ready for dinner, and the girl had got that lace on which I afterwards found her stuffing into the fire——”

“Ah! I want to hear more about that lace,” Nettie interposed, with the air of a detective on a strong scent.

“Oh, that was nothing; I must have offended her in the course of the evening,” said Wingate absently. “I know I was a surly boor, not fit for ladies' company; but they made me stay. The old people

  ― 68 ―
knew nothing of any quarrel, and couldn't understand why I should make off just before dinner, and pooh-poohed my excuse that I wasn't dressed. It was weak of me, I know, but I let myself be tempted; and after all Lexie went upstairs while the squire and I were talking over our wine, and never showed again. I particularly wanted to say something to her that I had forgotten, so I stayed late. I went to the smoking-room with the old man. At last he proposed that I should remain for the night, and some things of Walter's were put out for me, and we went to our rooms, and the house was closed. Oh, yes; I know how contemptible it was! But at the time every other feeling was swallowed up in my longing to put right a misunderstanding that I thought Lexie was labouring under—to have all straight between us before I went away for good; in fact, I wanted to tell her I meant to try and do, and be, all she wished. I thought, as it was the last time—but I was an ass and a fool, and very nearly a villain, too. I might have compromised her worse; perhaps I did. Somebody else besides Geraldine Balcombe—somebody who wasn't a liar—may have seen me messing about the west wing at three in the morning——”

What? You don't surely mean to say——”

“No, of course I don't. All I did was to write a letter to her, and take it to her boudoir and slip it into a blotting case on her writing table, walking

  ― 69 ―
softly in my socks, so as not to wake anybody. I made sure that the whole place was dead asleep, for I hadn't heard a sound for hours. But as I was getting back to my room, I saw a glimmer of light through the crack of a door—a curtain rather. There's a queer little circular room at an angle of the stairs where they run into the gallery that goes round the great hall; it's like one huge bay window with the bay enclosed; a big portière hangs across the entrance, which you can loop back or not, as you like; just the little nook for sitting out dances in, if there were balls in the hall, which would be a magnificent place for them, with a wooden floor. It isn't a private room, and yet it is; and they always had a fire there in fire weather. Having windows all round—the room seemed to be built of the stone mullions, with a little churchy ceiling—it was beautifully light and cheerful, and it had a lovely view. We were always meeting there on our way to other rooms, and going downstairs to dinner, and so on. There were two or three lounge chairs in it, and a small table—no room for other furniture. Lady Desailly used to read the Times there of a morning, and sometimes have afternoon tea there, when there was no company, instead of in the hall. Well, though it wasn't cold yet, the fires were all going, and there had been one in this little room that evening. I had been there to look for Lexie after dinner, and saw it burning. And it was here where I saw the light at three in the

  ― 70 ―
morning. The curtain was down, but just one ray came through, like a finger. It seemed to me like a finger beckoning me to her. I made sure that she was there, and I stole up without a sound and put the curtain back a little. I had not undressed, of course.”

“And saw Miss Balcombe burning the Venetian lace?”

“Yes. She was standing over the fireplace, with a candle in one hand and the lace in the other. She was holding it over the flame, and it was flaring and frizzling up, very nearly all burnt. I could see she had just taken it off, because otherwise she was fully dressed as when she left the drawing-room; the blue bodice was plain and bare, and the silk was torn where the lace had been stitched on, and wrenched off anyhow——”

“Billy dear, you think nothing of this lace business, but I think it is the most suspicious of all the features of the case. Why should she have burnt her own lace that she was so eager to get, and so proud of when she did get it? And why secretly at three o'clock in the morning? You said she did it in a fit of rage with you, but she would not have been in a fit of rage—that sort of rage—for hours and hours all by herself, with you or anybody. What had she been doing in the meantime, do you suppose? Billy, do you know how I read the riddle? There was blood on that lace.”

  ― 71 ―

Wingate shuddered. “Oh, don't talk of blood!” he implored. “Besides, in that case, there would have been blood elsewhere. There was none on her dress, I know, and evidently none was found. Blood is a thing that cries out anywhere. The least trace would have altered everything and set them hunting.”

“Did she have a guilty look when you surprised her?”

“I don't know what you call a guilty look. Of course it gave her an awful start when she heard the curtain move and saw me watching her. Anybody would have looked scared under the circumstances at that unearthly time o'night. She gave a loud catch of the breath, and then dashed the lace into the coals and rammed it in with the poker. There was still a little red fire left, and it caught, and was consumed directly. I think she was anxious that I shouldn't see it was my present to her, but I came a little too soon.”

“And how did she explain herself?”

“At first she kept her back to me and said nothing. I was embarrassed too. I would have crept away when I found it was she and not Lexie; but when I saw she had seen me, and saw what she was doing, I went in. I made believe that I was glad of the opportunity to say good-bye to her before leaving in the morning, as I should probably never come back again. The fact was, I guessed she knew pretty well about me and Lexie, and I knew she was furiously

  ― 72 ―
jealous at having to play second fiddle, and I wanted, for Lexie's sake, to square her if I could. So I tried to be friendly, although I was so sick at heart, and I asked why she was treating my gift to her in that way. She said——but I told you what she said. If you want the honest truth, Nettie—it's the first time I ever let on about a woman in a matter of this kind—she did all she knew to make me believe that it wasn't Walter after all.”

“Made love to you, do you mean?”

“Like the very deuce. Said she was burning the fichu because the sight of it in the glass over the mantel-piece made her desperate at my treatment of her, and—and so on. I've known women throw themselves at a fellow's head, but—by George! And I might have been fool enough, Lord knows! if it hadn't been for feeling the way I did.”

“If I recollect aright, you said she did go with you?”

“But not that way, of course not. Sit still, Nettie, until I've finished. Oh, I give you leave to be jealous of Geraldine Balcombe all you like. That won't hurt.”

“Billy, you say she asked you to run away with her, and you said—you distinctly said—you did.”

“Madam, I said nothing of the kind. Stay here and be nice to me, and I'll tell you exactly what occurred. After we had been talking in the little room for a bit——”

  ― 73 ―

“How much of a bit?”

“I don't know. But the mornings were still early, and all those windows showed us the dawn coming. There had been a moon, as she says in that precious tale of hers, but it had set long ago. She was frightened lest we should be found up, and you may be sure I didn't care about it either. Indeed, I was raging to get clear of the house and her, and the whole blessed business, especially when I thought of Walter coming home in a few hours. As you know, I had no luggage with me. I was free to go directly I got an opportunity, and I made up my mind to slip off somehow so as to catch an early train across the fields. She seemed to know that I was trying to get away from her, for she said if I wanted to go she could show me how to do so without disturbing the house. I was so glad of any chance that I accepted the offer, and when I had fetched my boots and things, she took me down that very staircase and through the door which she says she saw me and Lexie elope by. She knew that door well, evidently, for she had the key with her, and locked and unlocked it as easily as if she did it every day. The nurse may say she heard it bang, but it didn't bang that time.”

“And she locked herself outside as well as you?”

“I thought she would say good-bye there, but she took a hat and cloak from a peg and threw them on, and said she'd show me how to get out of the park

  ― 74 ―
without passing the lodges. That's the way she's getting in now, I expect, when Walter fancies he has guarded every point. There's a door in the park wall where it joins the rectory grounds; it's for the use of the rector when he likes, and she had the key. That's where she let me out, and that's where she made her last try; but I mustn't say any more about that. It still wanted nearly two hours to the train. She said she could slip into the rectory and up to her room—by another secret way, I suppose—and get some clothes. She offered to be my servant—my anything—if I would take her with me. Oh, but I am a cad to tell on her, though she is what she is! I got away somehow, and struck across country, and walked I don't know where, picked up the railway a dozen miles off, and took the train at a little station I'd never been to before. And as soon as I got to London I fell in with a friend just off to shoot wild sheep and goats in the Himalayas, and I got my rifles and things ready in a day and went with him—the beginning of long wanderings. And I hardly saw an English paper, and never heard any news, and never wanted to. And—and I think that's all, Nettie.”

She put her arms round his neck, and kissed him, and thanked him. She said she didn't think any husband could have told the honest truth more honestly.

  ― 75 ―

Chapter V The Spirit of Murder

THE Wingates drove in their own buggy to The Chase, where they were met by Mr. Blackett's policeman, by whom they were escorted over the great house.

It was a great house, in more ways than one; and Nettie, whose passion for things English was far greater than that of which she had accused her husband, walked about with clasped hands and head thrown back, uttering sighs and “ohs” and other senseless ejaculations, in a state of rapture too profound for words.

The hall—the great hall, as it was properly termed—had been left almost exactly as it was in what Billy called his time, and was impressive enough for anything—especially in the dull light of a threatening storm which had unexpectedly followed upon the bright morning. It was not much unlike a church,—with a fireplace in it and all the pews turned out. There was a screen like a rood-screen at the lower end, dividing it from an outer vestibule; at the upper end the massive staircase, down which Lexie had walked like a princess at her husband's side, branched into

  ― 76 ―
galleries running down the sides. The windows were mullioned and filled with old glass, partly stained; the floor was of chequered stone; the roof a mass of oak beams, spreading fan-wise in all directions. From the latter—very high up and shadowed—hung banners, beautifully dilapidated. There were trophies of arms on the walls, genuinely mediæval; rows upon rows of family portraits, with authentic dates to them, historic and notorious; heraldic insignia on every hand, indisputably testifying that the Desaillys were an ancient and a noble family. Altogether, there was a fine, solemn, feudal air about the place, calculated to awe a colonial person seeing it for the first time.

Having been so lately used for the coming-of-age festivities, dust and cobwebs were not conspicuous; but the air struck cold and had a musty, mouldy taint, causing Nettie to cry “Pah!” and put a perfumed handkerchief to her nose.

“It is the very smell of murdered bodies,” she declared, shivering.

“How do you know what the smell of murdered bodies is like?” her husband asked her.

“Oh, by instinct,” she replied.

“It's the smell of old age,” he said, sniffing and peering about him. “Powers above! It looks as if it might have been like this for a thousand years.”

They opened the shutters of the state drawing-room, which had been used in Lexie's honour on the night Wingate so well remembered—a place of comfortless

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splendour such as may still be found in certain royal palaces which the changes of fifty years or so have respectfully passed by. Here was desolation again. The floral carpet and much of the satiny furniture had been removed, and most of the precious ornaments; what were left stood shrouded in bags of calico, bulging and shapeless. But the chandeliers, that weighed tons, and the cunning carved work of the sumptuous ceiling and doorways, were exposed; so were the panels of tapestry said to be three hundred years old, and the famous pictures that carried history on their faces—faces of Vandyke ladies in their stately and beautiful Henrietta-Maria costumes; Lely ladies in flowing and formless draperies, kept from flowing away altogether by a mere taper-fingered hand; Gainsboroughs, Sir Joshuas, Romneys, with huge heads and little scarves and fichus—Lexie's noble predecessors in that most select of county families.

“Oh!” sighed Nettie Wingate, to all this forsaken beauty, “what a drawing-room I could make of this! Billy, what do you say——?”

But when they went upstairs she was afraid to repeat the suggestion. Here, where the rooms had not been opened for the coming-of-age guests, the utterly undomestic, deserted, haunted-house look of everything made the thought of the vulgarest Melbourne villa grateful. Anything like a home seemed inconceivable in that forlorn and fusty wilderness

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where rats squeaked in daytime, and spiders' webs, drawn over the heavily leaded windows, shut wholesome sunshine out. In every room carpets were rolled up, and only the heavy furniture left in place—except in that most interesting room of all at the end of the west wing, identified with Lexie in the past, and with the rope and candle in the present, the place of the mystery which it was the object of their expedition to solve. Here what carpet the moth had left still clung to the floor, and curtains of flowered silk damask, that had been old and faded in her time, still depended from the canopy of Lexie's bed—a monumental structure of mahogany that must have been built where it stood—and from the cornice spanning the bay of the big window, which almost filled one end of the room and was the only light in it. The great wardrobes and presses, the bow-legged toilet table, with its oval mirror swinging between tall shafts, the sofa and the escritoire, the very mattress and pillows of the vast bed, with the satin quilt drawn over them—everything that she had used during her brief occupancy of the apartment—seemed to have been left unaltered; and Billy looked at all with a full heart and eyes that his wife did not care to meet for a few minutes. The rooms that had been Walter's dressing-room and the nurseries, adjoining each other in the passage outside, communicated with hers by one door only, the only one in the great room, corresponding at the one end to the only

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window at the other. The long side walls were unbroken save by the chimney-piece, which was the usual massive structure, sixteenth-century woodwork, with ornamentation reaching to the ceiling, the hearth wide and the shaft spacious, giving a far-off view of a disc of sky. The most casual inspection showed the impossibility of any living thing, save birds, being harboured there. The floor, as Wingate had been informed, had been taken up in various places and put down again, the old carpet now hiding the scars; the window casements were fastened; and when he went along the wainscot, rapping sharply on every panel, and standing still to listen for the effect, the sound died immediately, with no hint of inward echo.

“We've done that,” the constable observed with a smile. “There's nothing there, sir. Solid as a rock.”

“What!” cried Wingate, “do you believe in ghosts, too?”

“No, sir; but I believe in the evidence of my senses. Those walls don't hide anything. I've proved it.”

They were lined from top to bottom with wood panelling, that had been painted white and gilded in places, and was now soiled and tarnished. In five of the panels, three on one side and two on the other, the latter flanking the central chimney-piece, pictures were embedded as in fixed frames. They were so old that it was impossible to tell whether, as works of art, they were good or bad, for hardly an outline was

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visible under the varnish, which seemed to be many coats thick. Their blackened hues contrasted oddly with the white paint, suggesting that the latter was a recent innovation in the chronology of the house, and probably hid the beautiful texture and colour of old oak or other valuable wood. The visitors passed them over with a glance.

“Well,” said Wingate to the constable, “I think that's all for the present. The place is empty now, whatever it may have been last night; the windows are secure, and we will lock the door behind us safely. When we have had something to eat, and gathered together a few things that we may want, we will return here, and stay in this room till morning. And if you will meet us with the keys, and share our watch, I shall be infinitely obliged to you. Of course I'll make it well worth your while.”

“Don't you think, sir,” suggested the constable, “that it'd be as well for somebody to watch outside as well as in? That fellow with the rope, that you saw in the garden, wants attending to.”

“Certainly. I mean to keep a good look-out from the window. There will be a splendid moon if these clouds clear off. The fewer we are the better in a case of this sort. You don't catch fish if you make a splash in the water.”

“No, sir. But I think it's my business to look after the man rather than the ghost, if it's all the same to you.”

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Wingate agreed that a policeman must be allowed to know his own business best, and had a shrewd suspicion that this particular policeman would rather deal single-handed with fifty corporeal thieves of the most desperate character than with one indeterminate spectre lighting its way about the deserted house with a harmless spectral candle. So it was arranged that he should patrol the garden, with a trusty friend for company, while husband and wife held the fort within. At six o'clock of a summer evening the prospect had no terrors for the latter. She was delighted to have gained permission to share such a brave adventure.

It was slightly otherwise at nine o'clock, however. Night was closing in then, and with the night came the heavy storm that had been slowly gathering during the afternoon. Sombre thunder clouds, riven with red lightning, and a deep and swelling murmur in the air, were the conditions attendant upon an uncomfortable start from the abode of Mrs. Venn, who, having supplied certain demands, was wild with curiosity to know what for—the only fact confided to her being the intention of her guests to “camp out,” which seemed about the last thing likely in the state of the weather. Half-way up the green chase, the horses, already at their fastest trot, delighting in the longest stretch of sward they had ever felt under their feet, were encouraged to break into a gallop; and the deserted stables were reached just as the furious rain

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began to fall. Here they found the constable and Abel Rowe, his chosen mate—declared to be the best available—looking far from happy. They helped Wingate to shelter his buggy, and make the horses comfortable, and then to carry the contents of the vehicle into the house.

How the great hall clanged to the tread of their hob-nailed boots! And the aspect of the place, in the light of one candle and a bull's-eye lantern—the hollow silence and darkness filled with the sound of rushing rain—how eerie it was! When such rain falls on your roof at night, particularly with trees about, you can always hear voices in it, gabbling to each other, if you like to listen for them; here they seemed to shout overhead, like wild birds passing over—a ride of valkyries above the storm; and the empty house reverberated till one could well fancy that kindred spirits within it were answering to the call. Nevertheless, Billy enticed his evidently uneasy comrades to remain while the downpour lasted, keeping them in heart with the whisky flask. He earnestly advised them to remain inside for the night, and watch the terrace from a ground-floor window; but they preferred the risk of rheumatism and pneumonia in a damp summer-house outside.

It wouldn't do, they said, with sheepish smiles, to make themselves too comfortable, since they had to keep awake all night.

“Very well; only if you catch your deaths don't

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blame me,” said Billy testily. He had scorned to plead nervousness on his own account, but was more and more conscious that it would have been a satisfaction to have his guards on the inner side of the locked doors during the witching hours.

“Look sharp that you do keep awake,” he besought them, as they turned to go. “Don't take your eye off that terrace and the window for a moment. And cooee—that is, call out to me, if you see anything suspicious. I will do the same. Good-night! Take the mackintosh rug with you.”

He let them out into the sweet-smelling, rain-washed night, closed the heavy door upon them and turned the key with a vindictive wrench, reflecting with pleasure that their cowardice, as he supposed it, had cut them off from the support of his courage, companionship and revolver; then he and Nettie, crowding into each other's pockets, sat down to hearten themselves with a little supper.

“I've got some more whisky here,” he said, rummaging, “and I'm going to give you some, old girl. I am wishing, do you know, that I'd left you with Mrs. Venn after all.”

“Why, Billy? I am not frightened. I wouldn't have stayed at home, away from you, for anything; nothing should have induced me. But I do think,” speaking rather tremulously, “that those men might have kept us company the first night!”

“I can easily make them, if you wish. I can drive

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them in by threatening to shoot them if they won't come. But that wouldn't help much, and I suppose it really is an advantage to have the house watched outside. Don't you feel safe with only me, sweetheart?”

He put his arm around her as she sat upon his knee, and she dropped a package of sandwiches to the floor in order to kiss him adequately.

“Oh, I do, I do!” she cried, and honestly meant it, for never had her bridegroom shown himself so much of a man and a husband as he was doing now. “But this place”—they were in the great hall, for the security of a wide outlook all round them—“oh, Billy dear, this place is so, so creepy!”

It certainly was—even Billy confessed it; far more so in the moonlight than in the rain. No ordinary imagination could withstand the effect—the conjunction of effects—presented.

“We won't stay here any longer,” he murmured soothingly. “We'll go to bed. Here, drink,”—holding a potent tumbler to her lips. “I know it is nasty, but it will do you good. Now just one little sandwich to please me. That's right! You feel better now, don't you? You are not nervous now, are you?”

Gladdened to the heart by his serious anxiety, responsively solicitous for his ease of mind, she assured him that she feared nothing so long as her husband was with her. In the silent hug that followed they

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touched a deeper note than had yet sounded in the merry music of their joint lives.

“Brave girl! Come along, then; stick close to me. There's nothing whatever to be afraid of. It's only that the place looks so big and grand, and feels so full of its old stories somehow. This is the sort of thing that makes people feel religious in cathedrals, when they are quite cold and callous in a common modern church. Just imagine that you've been locked into Melbourne Town Hall by mistake, and see how little you will care then!”

“I can't. This is like being in another world.”

“It's the same old world—the same ‘so-called nineteenth century’; and we're just as safe as——hullo!”


“Confound the thing! All right, all right; it's only one of the buggy lamps; I didn't see it was there.” He had knocked it from a pile of bedclothes to the floor, and the glass and metal rang upon the bare stone. Echoes in the roof and galleries were like a flock of startled birds taking wing at the noise.

“That ought to be a warning to the ghosts,” he growled, in a vexed tone; “the very thing I didn't want to give them. Wait a bit, Nettie; listen a moment.”

They stood quite still, in their small island of light, peering into the sea of shadows round them. The flame of the candle glowed up into their handsome

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faces, so alive and alert, but left dark, as in ambush, the eyes of the dead Desaillys watching the intruders from the wall. Brighter every moment shone the moon through the blazoned windows, sharper its embroidery of cross-bars and lattice-work came out upon the pavement under them; and the lighter it grew, the more like a haunted place it looked. Oh, how different things appear at night from what they do by day! Billy wished again that he had left Nettie with Mrs. Venn. “Listen!” he said, holding her tightly with one hand and the butt of his revolver with the other. But they heard nothing, except their hearts beating.

So they started on their voyage to the west wing. Their supper had done them so much good that they dared to blow the candle out and find their way by the light of the moon; for, as Billy said, if they were to catch that ghost, it was necessary to stalk him carefully.

“But don't think of such rot,” he hastened to add. “If you hear anything, mind, it will be the dripping of the rain, or the mice and rats, or the wind in chimneys and keyholes, or the windows shaking, or the old boards creaking and cracking underfoot. Natural causes, remember—not supernatural.”

“Oh! I'm not afraid of ghosts,” boasted Nettie, whom whisky had made valiant for the moment. “Nor of anything else—with you.”

She carried the candlestick and matches, her dressing-bag

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and wraps; Billy had loaded himself with all their bedclothes, but kept his right hand free. They walked in their stockinged feet and talked in whispers. The first sensation, as of cold water down her spine, came to Nettie as they passed the little room at the angle of the stairs. No curtain masked it now, and the moonlight poured through its encircling windows in a melodramatic way.

“That's where I saw her burning the lace,” said Wingate, pointing.

“Oh, don't!” gasped Nettie, seeing in her mind's eye the lace with blood-stains on it. All the tragical story, as her young fancy composed it, seemed to act itself again before her; she dared not look into the little room, lest she should behold the spirit of midnight murder bending over the hearth. Oh, this was indeed an uncanny place to be astray in at such an hour!

They reached, or all but reached, their destination in the west wing, creeping past the little well staircase and the row of doors to the carefully locked door at the end of the passage. Suddenly both stood motionless, arrested in the self-same instant; and Nettie uttered an involuntary exclamation which Wingate instantly suppressed.



“What was that?”

A sound which, if anywhere outside their own imaginations,

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was inside the sealed chamber, and not wind or mice or rain-drops now. The noise, a deep rumble, was as if some one were dragging a solid, smooth piece of furniture over the floor, rather like the sound of an earthquake, and the feel of it too. A distinct vibration was communicated to the pair, who were as yet some dozen yards from the spot whence the movement seemed to proceed, the air being at the same time filled with a muffled hum, swelling for a moment and then ceasing suddenly, leaving the tomb-like silence as before. It might have been an earthquake, or it might have been thunder, the tail end of the recent storm; but our adventurers did not think of either possibility.

“They've got in before us,” whispered Wingate, dropping the bedclothes where he stood, and getting a grip of his revolver. “Steady now. Don't be frightened. Light the candle. Quick!”

He turned the heavy handle of the door, expecting to find it unfastened. But it was not unfastened; it was just as he had left it. Stooping, with the candle at his eye, he peered into the keyhole, and saw that no key obstructed it. Then he snatched his own from his pocket, wrenched it round in the lock, and threw the door wide open.

No one was visible. The room was silent and empty of everything but what they had left there in the afternoon; nothing had been moved. They stood for a minute or two just within the door, which, when

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they had brought in the bedclothes, they closed and locked behind them, staring up and down and from side to side; then, holding his wife's hand, Wingate approached the fireplace cautiously and looked up the wide shaft of the chimney, holding the candle high above his head.

“Nothing there,” he whispered.

Then he tip-toed to the window, which he examined closely. No one, he found, could have got out that way. The two casements were both closed. He took hold of each handle of the iron catches and moved it up and down; both worked well, but both had been in their sockets, and no draughts could have displaced them. Opening one door-like lattice, he reached his head out; the window, resting on a bracket of heraldic stone-work, was thirty feet up in the wall, at least, projecting into the air, with nothing under it but flag pavements. Any burglar departing by that route would do so to certain suicide.

“What could it have been?” faltered Nettie, whose little heart was pumping violently.

“Thunder, I expect. It must have been thunder.”

“It didn't sound like thunder, Billy. It stopped too suddenly.”

“Couldn't have been anything else,” he insisted, with some impatience; but he still prowled about uneasily.

“If any of the village people are watching the house,” said Nettie, as she placed the candle on the

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dressing-table, not far from the window, “they will say the ghost is here to-night, at any rate.”

“Blow it out,” cried Wingate, and he extinguished the little flame himself as he spoke. “Let us watch for an hour or two. The moon is light enough for anything, and it's as well—ha!”


They stood like statues, listening, and heard the voices of the men from the terrace beneath. Wingate put his head out of the window and hailed them.

“Cooee! You fellows there—what's up?”

“We've only found another rope, sir. An old one this time.”

“Oh, have you? Anything else?”

“Nothing else, sir. We heard a rustling and thought we saw somebody, but it was a mistake. We'll keep a good look-out, sir.”

“Just scour the place well before you settle yourselves down, and report to me in half an hour.”

They did so, but had nothing further to report.

“All right inside, sir?” the constable kindly inquired.

“As right as a trivet,” was the ostentatiously cheerful reply.

“Did you light a candle and put it out just now, sir?”

“Of course I did. We like the moonlight best. You had better come along, you and Rowe, and sleep up here near us.”

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“Thank you, sir. It's very comfortable outside, sir.”

“All right. Please yourselves. Good-night!”

“Good-night, sir!”

Wingate turned from the window, and he and Nettie made their bed by the light of the moon. They made it within the monstrous four-poster that had been Lexie's marriage couch for the few sad and splendid weeks that seemed to have been her last; the hair mattress and the big down pillows were dry and wholesome-smelling, for something seemed to have preserved the air in this room fresher than that of the rest of the house—a circumstance, however, which did not strike them at the time. As they spread their inadequate blankets and linen, and tucked the old silk curtains back behind the bedhead and the wall, they talked of various matters, but never mentioned Lexie.

When all preparations were made, they were still reluctant to go to bed. They sat together on Lexie's sofa in the window, and let the cool, clean air flow over them. They gazed at the high, clear sky and the beautiful moon-touched clouds, at the wide-branching “English” trees that were such a constant joy, and those majestic angles of wall with the ivy on them, the wet leaves twinkling where they caught the light. They sniffed the perfume of the rain, exhaled from earth and flowers, the sweetest of all sweet things to an Australian nose. And, with their

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late unsettled nerves composed, they remembered they were bride and bridegroom, and that, wherever they were, they carried their home shrine with them, as the snails, now coming out in such myriads, carried their shells upon their backs.

“It only wants a nightingale to make it perfect,” sighed Nettie, slowly drawing hairpins from her chestnut plaits.

The nightingale had done his courting for that year; he was gone—only just gone—and would be heard no more in English gardens till April came again. But her lover beside her had no difficulty in proving to her that nightingales were, after all, superfluous.

At about midnight they lit the candle once more. Wingate opened the door to take a last look into the corridor, and before he shut it laid a piece of paper over the outer keyhole, and stuck it down with some strips torn from the edge of a sheet of postage stamps. Then, locking it inside with the greatest care, he placed the key by the bedside, along with candle and matches and the loaded revolver. They extinguished the light, and, feeling safe and satisfied, lay down to sleep in each other's arms.

  ― 93 ―

Chapter VI The Catspaw

THAT first night in the haunted chamber was not so romantic in its incidents as the second one, and yet it was far from being commonplace. The occupants found it impossible to feel at home in such surroundings. They fidgetted through the long six hours, listening, watching, talking, dozing in brief snatches, waking on the threshold of dreams to cry, “Phew, how hot it is!” and disturb each other by asking whether he or she was asleep or not. And the mice were distracting. But for the testimony of universal experience, it would have been hard to believe they were mice, rushing and raging over the floor, and scratching and squealing behind the wainscot in that rampageous manner. The present auditors had no doubt about it—blessed them in choice language without feeling any necessity to light the candle. Perhaps it was the familiar domestic associations of the noise which lulled them into their first sleep, when their ears had become accustomed to the noise itself.

At any rate, they slept. It seemed to themselves that they had been off guard for about five minutes,

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when first Nettie, and then her husband, awoke to a sensation of something having happened during their absence. There was a subdued creaking, as when one tries to open a door or window without being heard—a little cracking noise, then silence, then another crack.

“There's some one in the room,” whispered Nettie, her dry tongue cleaving to the roof of her mouth.

“Hush-sh-sh!” breathed Wingate in her ear, and he drew himself up softly into a sitting posture. The moon was obscured at this moment, and from their bed by the fireplace, nearer to the door than the window, they could see nothing distinctly.

Again they heard the creaking noise—a noise that certainly had not disturbed them before they went to sleep—and Wingate cautiously felt for the matches. He was not alarmed, but he trembled with the effort that he made not to betray himself by an untimely movement. He managed to secure the match-box without rattling it against the candlestick, and to open and close it without a tinkle; then he sat up in bed with a match in his hand, ready to strike the instant he heard the creaking sound again. After long suspense it was repeated, and, with his straining eyes fixed upon the door whence he believed it to come, he dashed the match upon the box, expecting to reveal the form of Geraldine Desailly or an accomplice in the act of creeping into the room. But he dashed with too much vigour; the match-head

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snapped without exploding, and fell off upon the sheet. He did not swear, as he felt inclined to do, but listened for a moment eagerly. Again there was the creaking sound, not so loud this time, but continued for several seconds instead of for one. He seized another match, struck it successfully, and held the little flame high, rising on one knee as he did so, and he saw that the door was closed and the room unchanged. He then lit the candle and got out of bed to explore more thoroughly, Nettie following close behind him; but the strictest search discovered nothing. The bit of paper was still over the outside keyhole, untouched; the passage doors were shut and fastened; the passage and the little staircase were empty and silent; the haunted room revealed no sign of any human presence, save their own.

“It must have been the mice,” said Wingate, as he locked their own door afresh; and he bade his wife go back to bed.

“It was not a bit like mice,” she objected timidly.

“Well, there's nobody about, at any rate.”

So they returned to their pillows, and, listening for a long time, heard no more noises except such as mice ordinarily make in their nibblings at dry woodwork and their scamperings to and fro. Rain began to patter down again, and to tinkle upon the window.

“Perhaps it was the rain,” said Wingate.

“Perhaps,” suggested Nettie hopefully, “it was the furniture creaking after being moved and pulled about.

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I had a wicker chair in my bedroom once that used to make noises the whole night if I had been sitting in it before I went to bed.”

“Oh, very likely. I daresay that was it.”

Wingate turned over to go to sleep.

His wife, less satisfied, lay awake for some time longer, and then she, too, dozed again; but she had troubled dreams of ghosts and burglars that startled her into sudden recognition of the white moonlight and black shadows of the haunted room at very short intervals. On one of these occasions she crept up to Billy, and whispered his name into his ear. He was slumbering lightly, but in a moment checked his audible breathing and brought all his senses to attention. There was a noise in the air again, but not the same noise as before. It was a sort of pulsation, half a sigh and half a snore, rising and falling gently and evenly, like the heavy breathing of some sleeping animal, and it seemed to come from under the floor.

“If we were in the bush,” said Wingate, “I should say it was an opossum. It is exactly like the noise they make in the trees at night, just outside your window.”

“It must be a dog,” said Nettie.

“Yes. Or—” he was trying to think of an English equivalent for an opossum, “or a squirrel out of the woods.”

They were both sure that it was not man, woman, or ghost; so Wingate picked up one of his boots and

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flung it noisily across the floor, crying “Shoo!” loudly as he did so. Instantly the noise stopped, there was the sound of a stealthy, creeping movement, and all was still.

“A squirrel,” said Wingate again. “An old place like this, deserted for so long, and standing in the middle of these lonely woods, must be alive with creatures making a shelter of it. No wonder there are noises.”

Then they went to sleep for the last time, and awoke in daylight, safe and sound, satisfied with the issue of their adventure.

Nettie dressed provisionally, put a tin kettle to boil on a spirit stove, and made tea, first for her husband and herself, and then for the two men who had spent the night on the hard boards of the summer-house, and whom Wingate went in search of as soon as he had hurried on his clothes.

“Well, you fellows,” he said airily, “now that you've got the light of day to reassure you, perhaps you'll come into the house for a little refreshment. Mrs. Wingate is brewing you a cup of tea; she thinks you'll be wanting something after all you have gone through. We have been as comfortable and snug as possible.”

“Slept well, sir?” inquired Abel Rowe, as he and his companion walked stiffly towards the house, having returned respectful greetings and tendered thanks for the lady's kindness.

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“Never better,” replied Wingate.

“You didn't keep awake to watch—?”

“Of course I did. When I say I slept well, I mean that everything was quiet. The mice made a bit of a rumpus, that's all.”

“And your lady wasn't frightened, sir?”

“Not a bit. She isn't one of that sort. Besides, there was nothing to frighten anybody.”

Then he fetched his wife downstairs, taking the precaution to lock their chamber door behind them, because she was leaving silver toilet things and other valuables about; and she looked very fresh and charming to the tired men as she stepped into the hall, carrying her tea-basket in her arms. They saluted her with a shamefaced sense of her moral superiority over themselves.

“I should like,” said Wingate, emptying the remaining contents of his spirit flask into the men's teacups, “to thoroughly satisfy your minds as well as my own, to prove to everybody that the house is free of ghosts, at any rate. It is just possible that I may rent the place from Sir Walter for a time, and I am well aware that we should have trouble with servants, and so on, if any nonsense of that sort got about. I suppose you won't object to sleeping with us here to-night, now that a lady has not been afraid to do it, with only one arm to defend her?”

The men pocketed the insult implied, and professed themselves ready to spend nights or days

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wherever duty called them. If the gentleman and Mr. Blackett thought it better to guard the house from the inside than from the outside, well and good. They were there to obey orders.

“Then I'll see Mr. Blackett in the course of the day, and let you know the arrangements later. You can leave the keys with me; I will lock up safely.”

They left him the keys, and departed to their homes and breakfasts. Then Wingate and Nettie enjoyed some hours of perfect independence and delight; feeding and watering their horses, roaming about the neglected grounds, where they found fresh footprints — unmistakable woman's footprints—amongst the marks of the men's boots in the moist earth, pointing as unmistakably to the rector's sleep-walker; wandering over the extraordinary house, and rummaging its many nooks and corners, its cupboards and cabinets, its wonderful relics of the romantic past; until they felt so hungry as well as so intensely interested that they determined not to waste time going home to luncheon, but to make shift with the scraps of the provision basket.

They camped again in the great hall, sitting on their carriage cushions and spreading a clean towel before them on the stone floor. It reminded them, they said, of many a picnic in the beloved bush at home, though it would have been hard to imagine a greater contrast. They lifted baggy napkins and spread them open, disclosing curly-cornered sandwiches,

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crumpled pasties, dry hunks of bread and cheese, with fragments of other dainties similarly the worse for wear. Only that Billy enjoyed the continual feast of a contented mind, Nettie would have expected remarks on her housekeeping; but he was satisfied to eat whatever she gave him, and only grumbled because there was not enough to drink.

“I will make some tea,” she said. “I've got a screw left.”

But he said he wanted something better than tea, and retrospectively begrudged the whisky he had wasted over-night. So she remembered that she had a medicinal flask in her dressing-bag upstairs, and offered to go and fetch it.

“I'll go,” cried Wingate, springing to his feet. “You couldn't unlock the door with those bits of hands.” And he tramped towards the staircase at the end of the hall, and pounded up the shallow oak steps to the gallery above and the western passage leading out of it, singing as he went, filling the house with hollow noises. When he returned, he was holding a silver-mounted bottle between his eye and the light, laughing discontentedly.

“Well, you're a nice sort of young person!” he exclaimed.

“Am I?” she replied. “And why?”

“Tippling on the quiet in this way, and all the time pretending to your husband that the smell of spirits makes you sick.”

  ― 101 ―

“So it does. What are you talking about?”

“This flask's empty.”

“It isn't. It's brimful. I haven't touched it since you filled it for me in London.”

Wingate solemnly turned it upside-down before her eyes. One drop only splashed upon the pavement.

“Then some one has been at it.”

“Since when?”

“I don't know. I have never taken it out of its pocket since we left town.”

“The stopper was hardly screwed on at all.”

“Oh dear! I hope it hasn't been leaking into the bag.”

“No, I looked to see. The bag is all right. But don't you keep it locked when you're going about in strange places? You ought. All those fittings are solid, you know.”

“I will in future,” said Nettie. “But it's a nuisance. I do hate not to be able to trust people.”

“So do I,” said Wingate. And they silently suspected a number of honest persons, while Nettie strove to pacify the disappointed one with a cup of tea.

It did not pacify him, so they put the horses to the buggy and returned to the Desailly Arms, where he drank a whole bottle of beer and was himself again.

Then Nettie, bathed and brushed, with stays off and an empire tea-gown on, spent a pleasant afternoon

  ― 102 ―
with a novel. Wingate, meanwhile, went to see Mr. Blackett, Mr. Martin, the housekeeper at the Dower House, and his late colleague the constable, to arrange the programme for the night. Time was required for the doing of so much business, and Mrs. Venn was ready to dish up dinner when he returned with his report.

“It's all right,” he said. “Walter is hurrying home, but he can't get here till late to-night; I don't suppose we shall see him till the morning. He has telegraphed to Blackett that I am to have a free hand. Dear old fellow! I am thankful he knows it wasn't me, at last. It will be strange to see him after twenty years, and to see him under these strange circumstances. He is leaving the boy behind—I'm glad of that; it would have been difficult to talk of his mother before him, and he might have hampered us in our dealings with Mrs. George, whom he seems, like the rector, to regard as a persecuted angel, more or less. By the way, I've done a good stroke in getting the rector to join our watch to-night. He's awfully interested in the business, and burning to help—feels, of course, that it's a parish matter in which he is primarily concerned. But I told him to be sure and not breathe a word to the lady. I said the mere suggestion of burglars and ghosts, of anything being the matter, would be most injurious to her in her nervous state. She's not sleeping any better, he says, but still refuses to see

  ― 103 ―
a doctor or to have any one in her room. His being away to-night will give her scope for enterprise; we shall be able to find her out now, if we are very careful. I don't mean to let anybody watch in the garden, to scare her off; I'll give her a chance to do whatever it is she wants to do.”

“Blow us up with dynamite?” cried Nettie.

“Oh, it isn't dynamite,” he rejoined confidently. “There'd be no sense in that. It's something that doesn't want to make a noise to attract public attention. And”—with an exultant look—“old Walter will be here to-night.”

An unusually hearty dinner and an imperatively necessary cigar took another hour from the daylight, and by the time Mrs. Venn had replenished the picnic-basket, and been mercifully made acquainted with a part of the truth as to the business connected with it, Wingate found himself late for his appointment with the rector at The Chase. But the horses were fresh and fast, and the way was short to-night. A groom was in attendance to drive them back to the comfortable inn stables, for it was not supposed to be any longer necessary to keep the means of escape at hand; and husband and wife yawned luxuriously in anticipation of the quiet night they were going to have. Their nerves were entirely unaffected by its shadowy approach. It was delightful to hear the owl hoot, and the stag, with his fighting antlers ready, challenge his rival across a glimmering pool. The

  ― 104 ―
mystery of the thick woods to right and left had no terrors in it; and the old house, when again it loomed above them, was even as the Melbourne Town Hall to their placid imaginations.

They found Mr. Martin kicking his heels in the porch, and took him in, and entertained him, as if the place belonged to them; made him smoke and drink, and eat delicacies provided on purpose for him out of the basket, and join in pleasant talk and the telling of adventurous tales; and Wingate fed Abel and the constable with equal hospitality, after the manner of Australian hosts. Then, in good heart and condition, they mounted the grand staircase in a body and dispersed themselves to their respective posts. The rector was put into what used to be Walter's dressing-room, the two men had shake-downs on the passage floor, just outside the door of the large chamber that had been Lexie's, which Wingate and Nettie had appropriated.

And now this pair felt that the time had come to relax and recruit themselves after their exhausting day. Wingate sank into an arm-chair, in slippers and shirt-sleeves, and lit his pipe. Nettie squatted on the bed, and brushed her hair, and yawned contentedly. And they amused themselves with plans for renting The Chase—which now seemed altogether desirable—and discussed furniture and domestic arrangements, and how they would have a real English Christmas in the great hall, and invite all available

  ― 105 ―
Australians of their acquaintance to come to it.

“Oh, I am so tired!” sighed Nettie at last.

“So am I,” said Wingate, getting up to stretch himself. “It's the reaction after so much excitement. Well, we can sleep in peace to-night.”

She tumbled into bed, and the heavy lids dropped over her sleepy eyes. He for the last time stepped to the now unlocked door, and, opening it for an inch or two, asked if they were “all right out there?”

“All right,” the three men responded promptly.

“Good-night, then. Call me if anything is the matter, but don't make more noise than you can help. Mrs. Wingate is tired, and I don't want her to be disturbed.”

They bade him good-night, and he extinguished the candles on the dressing-table. In ten minutes he and his wife were slumbering like a pair of healthy. infants. They could not have “gone off” more quickly and soundly if they had taken opiates for the purpose.

Nevertheless, Nettie awoke in an hour—suddenly, with an unaccountable sense of shock. Before she was able to think about it, before she opened her eyes indeed, she knew she was not being roused naturally, but had been frightened awake by some power of which her physical senses were not as yet conscious. It was with a heart-shaking thrill that she remembered where she was—the tragical haunted room, and the pale moonbeams that only made it

  ― 106 ―
more so—and at the same moment realized that she had been compelled to remember it. While far away in dreamland, fancy free, something — something awful—had called her back; she had no doubt about it, even while she did not know what it was, hearing and seeing nothing. Her husband calmly snored beside her, with his head rolled in the bedclothes; he had not felt the presence in the air, and she was powerless to lift hand or voice to stir him.

Opening her eyes—every other muscle of the body being paralysed with fright—she looked into the darkness straight before her, as with an instinct for the quarter whence revelation would come. There was nothing at the foot of the great bedstead, no footboard or rail, to obstruct her view, but the moonlight was not strong enough to show her the features of the room immediately. Gradually, however, the main outlines faintly defined themselves—the division of wall from ceiling and of panel from panel—until she could see the shape of the recess in which the picture that faced her was embedded. While her fascinated gaze was rivetted to this object, she saw a strange effect of broken lights, or rather of broken shadows, quivering on and off its surface, which still shone with old varnish; the next instant the picture was gone! Not altogether gone, but, as it were, cut in two—the fact being that it had been pushed up in a groove, as one pushes up the sash of a window, leaving the lower half of the space void.

  ― 107 ―

But not empty. Nettie knew now what it was that had chilled her blood even while she slept. Peering out from that black hole were a pair of eyes—there was a head belonging to them, but the eyes were all she saw—shining fixedly, like those of a hungry wild beast watching the time to spring; and it was at her they glared, with more and more ferocious intentness as the power of the moon increased, while she lay like a terror-stricken rabbit in the cage of a boa-constrictor, unable to articulate even the little whisper that would have sufficed to arouse her mate. She knew the eyes belonged to a man and not to a ghost, and felt sure that she and Billy were going to be murdered, like poor Lexie, as a penalty for meddling with that ghastly house, and that she would only precipitate the catastrophe if she spoke or moved.

The eyes and hers confronted each other during a dozen hammer-strokes of her bursting heart; then a hand became visible, cautiously extended; a head followed, craning to right and left; a naked foot stole out of the picture frame, and groped stealthily for the floor. When she saw that, Nettie concluded that the end had come. The spell that had paralysed her faculties seemed to snap and free her, and she uttered a ringing shriek that Sir Walter might have heard at the Dower House, where he had just arrived—a shriek which was answered by an oath from the mysterious intruder, who had not seen that she was watching him.

  ― 108 ―

The sound had not died before Wingate was out of bed, the rector, Abel Rowe, and the constable, stumbling to their feet, bewildered and quaking, all at sea for the moment as to what had occurred. Then the occupants of the haunted chamber heard bare feet slapping the floor, the crash of a chair overturned, the thump of a body against the door, the rattle of the handle; and Wingate bawled excitedly, “Look out there! Stop him! Stop him!” And then to the constable, who had the revolver, “Don't shoot! Don't shoot! He can't get out!”

Even as he spoke the door was flung open, and the fugitive was seen running down the passage, where a lighted stable lantern had been placed for the night. Two of the guard, in the condition known as flabbergasted, looked as if they had been knocked backwards and breathless by the flying figure, and were not yet certain if it were flesh and blood or ghost; but the expression of the rector's face as he darted out of his room was even more astonished and astonishing. All three set off in pursuit as fast as their legs could carry them; and a strange sound it was in the dead of night—the echo, reverberating far and wide, of that hurry-scurry through the hollow house, along the gallery, and down the stairs where the moon made darkness visible.

Because Nettie held him back, praying not to be left alone with that hole in the wall and its terrifying possibilities, Wingate did not go for a minute or two,

  ― 109 ―
but he spent that minute in helping her into her dressing-gown, and then they followed the chase together. A man in his pyjama suit is already dressed for such emergencies.

The scuffle was over when they appeared upon the scene of action, but a dramatic picture met their eyes as they came into the gallery at the head of the grand staircase, and looked down into the hall. The moon and the stable lantern that Wingate held above his head just, and only just, revealed the size and sombre splendours of the place; the policeman's bull's-eye did the rest. It was opened upon the face of the central figure of the group gathered in the middle of the paved floor, and that face was the only thing distinct in the vast obscurity. The three men round it were shadows only. One shadow poured wine from a bottle into a cup, another flitted about with the provision basket; the third presented something to the Rembrandt face, and it opened unshaven jaws and snatched it wolfishly.

“Why, who the dickens is that?” exclaimed Wingate.

“It's all right, Mr. Wingate,” the rector called to him. “It's Mr. George Desailly. He was locked in by accident on the day of the coming of age, he says, and could not get out.”

“And he's clean starved,” cried Abel Rowe. “There's nothing at all where his stomach ought to be.”

  ― 110 ―

“He hasn't been without food for a fortnight,” Wingate whispered to Nettie, as they ran down the stairs together. “And he could have got out at least three days ago, if he had liked.”

“Look!” she said breathlessly, and pointed to one of the great hall windows. With the moon behind it, a figure was dimly visible; a swing of the stable lantern showed a pair of peering eyes and a white nose flattened upon the glass.

“Mr. Martin,” said Wingate, “your guest is walking in her sleep again. She is on the terrace there. Go out very quietly so as not to startle her, which is bad for sleep-walkers, and bring her into shelter, will you? Perhaps she is awake, and looking for her lost husband; if so, you can tell her we have found him.”

Full of concern for his interesting invalid, the rector bustled towards one of the two archways through which one passed from the hall to the vestibule and porch. Wingate hurried after him and threw open a leaf of the heavy outer doors.

The fresh night air came pouring in, and with it the sound of wheels and horses approaching rapidly, not over the grass, but along another road reserved for carriages, entered at a gate near the gate of the Dower House. The master had arrived.

  ― 111 ―

Chapter VII Discovery

THE rector, engaged in what he considered his first duty, did not return. Nettie, after some talk and a hasty toilet, was sent home to the Desailly Arms in Sir Walter's carriage. The constable and his mate retired from the hall, by order of their master. And so only the two old friends, so strangely reunited, were left there, sitting side by side on an oaken settle, with the prisoner sobbing and grovelling at their feet.

The lord of the manor, at eight and forty, looked older than his years—he had lived fast—and his person, superficially considered, was not imposing. Nature steadily refuses to be subservient to the otherwise all-powerful; wherefore we behold princes who are physically indistinguishable from peasants, and millionaires whom the diseases of low people have rendered incapable of enjoying money. The great Desaillys were of the best blood in the land, from a Heralds' College point of view. Their pedigree was blue throughout as a teetotal ribbon, until a bookseller's daughter came into it; yet the old Sir Thomas, Walter's father, had been meagre and undersized, sandy-haired, rat-nosed, puffy-eyed,

  ― 112 ―
pimply-skinned; in fact, just as common to look at as common could be; and Walter's son, by the bookseller's daughter aforesaid, was like a young king in a fairy tale. Walter himself might have been taken for a prosperous butcher or publican, at a first glance. But when you came to know him—only to know him for five minutes—you perceived that breeding is not altogether a matter of personal beauty, nor of manners either. That plain-featured, bull-necked, beefy and beery man had a way of looking at people that made them feel as worms before him. Race was potent, after all. Sir Walter was Sir Walter, in short; throughout Norfolk, at any rate, this sufficed to explain him.

Once upon a time his kinsman, George, had worn that distinguished air, and possessed some of the moral qualities that almost necessarily go with it; but a bad life and a bad woman had corrupted and destroyed all, or nearly all. At this moment, overwhelmed with the effect of his late terrible experiences, a trace of the lost virtue reappeared.

“In the name of God, don't ask me any questions,” he implored hysterically, kneeling up on Wingate's buggy cushions, which had been made a couch for his exhausted frame. “My mouth is shut, Walter. I simply can't explain. For your own sake, for Tom's sake, for the sake of the old family, don't try to understand anything! Oh, why didn't I throw myself out of the window and break my

  ― 113 ―
neck! My God, what I've gone through! I think I'm mad! I hadn't bite or sup for three days and nights, till I got a thimbleful of brandy this morning. I dropped the rope—I hadn't anything to get out by—and she couldn't throw another up. Walter, old Walter—we were boys together—give me enough to go out of the country with, and I'll never let you see my face again, nor hers either.”

“I understand,” Sir Walter said, gravely studying the wild-eyed, bristly, grimy face before him. “You won't turn dog on your own wife. That's all right. But I know, without having to ask anybody, that she's at the bottom of it. She knew of that cupboard, which is more that I did, and that something worth having was in it.”

“Nothing, Walter; nothing, nothing, I swear!”

“What! You had your labour for your pains? Or was there any other little game on? But we'll find all that out for ourselves when we've time to go into things. I'll just ask you one question, one that's easy to answer. Have you been doing any mischief to the house or to anything belonging to the house? Dynamite, or anything of that sort, hey? On your honour, George, as a man and a gentleman and a Desailly of The Chase, if you've got such a thing as honour left.”

Mr. George Desailly hoped, dramatically, that he might die in slow torment, and be damned for ever, if he had done a single mortal thing. “I know you

  ― 114 ―
don't believe me,” he said, “but it's as true as that you are sitting there.”

Sir Walter did believe him, and dismissed such trifles as ropes and cupboards from his mind. “Very well,” said he. “Now look here; I'll let you go, and I'll give you enough to get out of the country with, and an income to live on while you keep out, on one condition.”

The face of the degraded wretch who had once been a gentleman shone with hope, then clouded with sudden fear.

“What's that?” he muttered.

“On condition,” said Sir Walter slowly and emphatically, “that you tell me all you know about my wife's disappearance.”

A pause followed this sentence, during which the two judges looked at the culprit closely. He moistened a dry throat, and returned answer to the effect that Mr. Wingate was the person to question on that point.

“Pass Mr. Wingate, if you please. That's played out.”

The blanched cheek went whiter under its film of grime, but the man, seeing the corner he was being driven to, did the best his shattered condition allowed of to avoid it.

“Why should Mr. Wingate be passed? Everybody knew that he went off with her. You knew it yourself, and had good reason to.”

  ― 115 ―

“I know now that he didn't, as I ought to have known from the first. I did him and her a gross and fatal injustice, for which I shall never forgive myself, and never be able to make amends.”

“Who says so?”

“He does.”

The fellow cackled in a ghastly way, but his face was grey with fright. “And you take his word against the testimony—”

“Of Mrs. George Desailly? I should rather think so.”

“Well, it's your business, not mine. I know nothing of what happened, except what I've been told. How on earth should I? I was in Paris all the time. I never so much as set eyes on your wife. I was in Paris all the time.”

“I know you were; but other people were not—other people in whose confidence you are, or you would not be in your present situation. Look here, George, Lexie met with foul play that night—there is no doubt that she did, either in my mind or Mr. Wingate's—otherwise she would have come back, or we should have heard of her somewhere; and you've got to tell us just what you know about it. You understand me?”

The wretched man understood well enough, but said to himself that he was still man enough not to turn dog on his own wife—blind, like all users of that figure of speech, to the fact that meanness and

  ― 116 ―
treachery are the attributes of men, never of dogs. Wingate, watching him steadily, said, in a quiet voice,—

“Where did you say you dropped the rope, Mr. Desailly?”

Mr. Desailly gasped audibly, “What rope?”

“You said you had a rope, and dropped it, and therefore could not let yourself out.”

“I don't know what I've been saying. I've been all but starved to death, and I think my mind's going. I hadn't any rope. I said my wife tried to throw a rope up to me, when she found I'd been locked in——”

“Oh, come, George, let's have done with that farce of being locked in!” his cousin angrily interrupted. “Answer Mr. Wingate's question.”

“I'll not answer any of his damned questions!” was the excited retort. “If it hadn't been for him—oh, my God!—I should have been safe in France by this time.”

“Tell me,” said Wingate, with the same calmly concentrated air, “was it out of the window that you dropped your rope, when trying to descend by it through the only exit left to you?”

“Of course it was—only you confuse me so that I don't know what I'm saying. I was trying to carry it through one casement to the other, so as to get it round the stone, don't you know, and the reach was too long, and it slipped clean out of my hands, and

  ― 117 ―
dropped on to the terrace. You found it there yourself.”

“Well, of all the cool liars that ever I came across——!”

“Hush, Wingate! let me conduct this business, will you?” his friend whispered. “Lies won't serve him; we can test them all. Come, George, either here or in a court of justice—whichever you like. Never mind about ropes and rubbish now. Tell me, what has become of my wife?—that's the point I want cleared up first.”

“Excuse me, Walter,” said Wingate earnestly, “I must know where he dropped that rope.”

“Why, out of the window, man! Didn't he just say so?”

“And you could see he was lying as plain as the nose on his face. He didn't drop it out of the window; he dropped it somewhere else, and he doesn't want to say where.”

“There's no other place where he could have dropped it, since the door of that room was locked.”

“Exactly; that's what struck me. He knows of a place that we don't know of; and, perhaps, if we find that place we shall find out something about Lexie. We will explore your closet, sir, and see for ourselves whether it's as empty as you say it is—whether it's a closet at all, in fact, or an entrance to one of those secret passages, or secret chamber places——”

  ― 118 ―

He stopped dead, with a sharp exclamation, for he saw that his random shot had hit the bull's-eye. Sir Walter saw it, too. Both men rose in their stern excitement and stood over the swooning figure on the buggy cushions, and forced a confession out of it as one squeezes water from a flabby sponge.

Yes, there was a passage out of the closet, and it led to a—a—a place. Walter might remember that there was always a tradition in the family about a secret chamber, though no one believed it because it could not be found. That, perhaps, was on account of old Sir Thomas coming unexpectedly into the property, inheriting from an uncle he had never seen. Doubtless that uncle knew, but, dying suddenly, took the secret with him. He (George) hadn't an idea of it up to a fortnight ago, and never was so knocked all of a heap in his life as he was when Jerry told him about it. How had she found it out? He was sure he didn't know. It was when she was a girl, and used to potter about The Chase to amuse herself when the family was away, with only a housekeeper in charge. She was always fond of nosing round, and poking into things, and there wasn't much that escaped her eye. She noticed a little hole under the moulding of a panel, close to the floor, and she had the curiosity to stick a hairpin up, and, when she found it went all the way, a skewer or something, till she saw the picture shake—that was how it came about, he thought. At any rate,

  ― 119 ―
she did make the discovery, and she kept it to herself, because it was a convenient place to stow letters and things in that she didn't want anybody to find. Unfortunately, she showed it to Mrs. Walter. Odd? Oh, well, perhaps she couldn't help herself. He thought she had been getting something out of it, or putting something in, when Mrs. Walter came into the room and surprised her. It was Mrs. Walter's bedroom, and Jerry thought it would never do to let her see the closet without warning her what a dangerous place it was to go into. It looked just like an ordinary closet from the outside, but it ran off to the left into the dark, and some way along there was a—a place. It had a trap-door over it, like a cellar door, flush with the floor, and not showing when it was closed unless you looked for the cracks carefully. Yes, perhaps, an oubliette, only the flap opened upwards in the ordinary way, instead of sinking treacherously underfoot—fortunately, because Jerry only found it out by feeling it shake as she stepped on it. The hinges had got rusty and loose—one was gone altogether now; so that it couldn't be fixed up as it was before. It was not a sewage drain, or well, or place for running water from the roof, because it was dry all through, and the bottom hard. Deep? Oh, very—going right down below the cellars, apparently, like a mine shaft. Jerry, after no end of trouble in prising the trap-door up, and lodging it against the wall, tried to sound its depth

  ― 120 ―
with a long fishing-line and sinker, and couldn't find it. It was she who put the thing out of gear, messing there by herself, and once she had shifted it up, it was too heavy to move again.

So the hole was always open after that; and when Jerry had shown it to Mrs. Walter, and gone to bed, she couldn't rest for the fear that Mrs. Walter would commit suicide by throwing herself down it. Why? Because the poor woman was mad with grief about something or other, and just in the state of mind to make away with herself. Oh, he didn't know anything about Mrs. Walter's disposition—whether she was the sort of person to do such a thing, or whether she wasn't; he could only tell the tale as it was told to him. She certainly was awfully cut up—there was no need for him to say more in present company—and poured out her troubles to her friend, as was only natural. What friend? Why, the only one she had at The Chase, so far as he could make out. People might pretend to think a lot of her now, but when she was alive—all right: if the cap fitted, well and good. As he was saying, Jerry went to bed, but could not sleep for worrying about the poor thing she had left sobbing fit to break her heart; so she got up to go and see if she was all right. And there she found her just rushing into the closet, calling out that her husband had cast her off, and she could not live any longer, and was going to throw herself down the well, and have done with it. Likely? Anything

  ― 121 ―
and everything was likely with a woman in hysterics; you never could tell what they'd do in a moment of desperation. Those that weren't there to see could not possibly know. Yes, it was a pity they were not there, as much for Jerry's sake as for Mrs. Walter's. It was because she was alone, with no witness to prove that she hadn't murdered Mrs. Walter herself, that Jerry was obliged to invent the tale of the elopement. He did not, of course, justify her in the course she took—far from it; but he expected that if they, Sir Walter and Wingate, had been in her cruel position, they would have done the same.

What happened? He could see they knew well enough what happened. An awful thing; but those who drove her to it were responsible, not he Jerry ran after her to try to save her, but was just a second too late. On the very edge of the hole she caught hold of her, but Mrs. Walter fought to get loose, and very nearly carried Jerry down too. In the struggle Jerry's dress was torn—some trimmings on the sleeve, or something—and that, as well as all the other circumstances, when she came to think of them, made the affair look so black against her that she simply daren't tell anybody about it. She had been having tiffs with Mrs. Walter, and nobody knew they had made their quarrel up; and nobody knew about the closet and the hole; and altogether—well, one could understand her being afraid to speak. It would have taken a brave person to do it; and, if

  ― 122 ―
not done at the first moment, every moment that passed made it more impossible. The house was quiet as the grave; she was certain no one would believe her, especially with a bit of her dress in the hole; and so she shut the picture, and she took the torn stuff off her dress and burnt it—oh, Mr. Wingate might well smile! Mr. Wingate knew something about that. He, George Desailly, could inform Mr. Wingate that it was owing to his conduct that night, in insulting a lady whom he found alone and unprotected in a deserted part of the house, that those who had made a scapegoat of him had done so without the slightest shadow of compunction or regret.

“Have you anything to say to that, Billy?” Sir Walter inquired at this point.

Wingate said he had not—at present—and urged his friend to proceed to the investigation of those circumstances in which the prisoner was directly implicated.

But here it was most difficult to get him to be frank. These, evidently, were the damning circumstances from his point of view. He squirmed and sobbed, and cursed his madness and folly, and pleaded the bitter poverty that alone could have driven him to such deeds as he had been found out in. Walter had never known, and never would know, what it was to be dunned by Jew cads at every turn—to have no means to bring up his children properly—to see disgrace and ruin staring him

  ― 123 ―
in the face. It was not for one who had rolled in luxury all his life to understand the temptations of a man driven desperate by misfortunes that were no fault of his own. And so on.

At last it came out. Poor Lexie had gone to her doom in evening dress, with a jewel of great value round her beautiful neck; and Mr. and Mrs. George Desailly, in the extremity of their needs and as a last resource, had proposed to retrieve that jewel, dissect it, and turn the stones into money. Jerry had disclosed the dread secret of twenty years, and, when he had somewhat recovered from the shock, her husband had consented to the fearful enterprise which he never, never, never would have entered upon or dreamed of but for the straits that he was in. They prepared food, lights, and a suitable rope—the latter concealed under the lady's skirts—and got into the house on the coming-of-age morning, mingling with the invited guests. While the banquet was in progress, and the coast consequently clear, they successfully surmounted what they had supposed their greatest difficulty. Jerry opened the closet, showed the hole, explained the mechanism of the picture and the details of the business generally, and shut her accomplice up, before Sir Walter, being made aware of her proximity, found her, turned her out of his wife's room, and locked the door behind her. Anticipating this locking of doors,—instructing her husband not to proceed until he

  ― 124 ―
was sure of having the house to himself,—she had arranged that he was to let himself out of the window by the rope he had used to let himself down the hole, if no better means of exit were available, when his job was done.

His job! Great heavens, what a job! He did not realize the horror of it until it was too late. When the revels of the day were over—when night came, and that voiceless solitude, filled with spirits of the dead—his nerve failed him. Trying to fasten a rope to an iron ring just within the mouth of the well, evidently put there on purpose to fasten ropes to—hurrying to get the thing over and done with as quickly as possible—he fumbled and bungled, and it slipped out of his hands. It slipped and fell to the bottom of the shaft—he heard it hit the bottom—and there he was, helpless. The bottom, he declared, in reply to questions, was at least sixty feet from the top, and no one falling that distance could possibly have lived an instant.

He thought of tearing up curtains or carpet to make another ladder, but he had plenty of food then, and was afraid to do anything until he had conferred with Jerry, who came in a few days to see what had delayed him. She came by night, to escape observation, and spoke to him from the terrace. She was very angry when she heard of his accident, but forbade him on any account to leave traces of his errand in the house, or to leave the

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house without the necklace. She said she would manage somehow to throw up a line with another rope attached, and that he was to wait where he was until she did so, taking every care not to betray himself or her. But she was hindered in various ways, and when at last things seemed to be going right, the sudden interposition of the Wingates frustrated and ruined all.

“My last hope,” said George Desailly, “was to slip out while the doors would open from the inside, even if I had to do it by degrees, from one hiding-place to another; and to-night I was too hungry to wait any longer. I thought Mr. and Mrs. Wingate both asleep, and didn't know of the fellows in the passage. And—and that's all, Walter. And I wish you'd take your revolver and put a bullet through my head!”

A few minutes later, Sir Walter and Wingate, with hands that did not fumble and bungle, fastened a rope to the iron ring in the well-mouth, and went down into Lexie's grave. It was not an oubliette, after all, but a perpendicular route to another secret passage, a subterranean tunnel, the door to which was found at the base of the shaft. That door had been locked for, perhaps, hundreds of years, and the mystery on the further side of it does not belong to this story. Lexie never got so far. The light of two candles, waved slowly to and fro, revealed her poor bones lying before it, flattened

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out upon the slimy floor—flattened by a heavy rope that had fallen upon and disjointed them. An eyeless skull, that kept no record of her lovely face except the white teeth that grinned so horribly, still adhered to the thing that had been a neck of snow; and there, between the jaw and the mouldy garments, the diamonds and the star-rubies glittered resplendent, alive and immortal in the dust of death. The famous jewel, the strands of chestnut hair, the yet identifiable colour and texture of the silken gown and the embroidered slippers—above all, the thick wedding ring with the initials inside it—proved to her old lovers, as they would have to prove to the world at large, that a part, at least, of the story they had just heard was true. But when they disentangled from the bones of one skeleton hand a much-torn fragment of Venetian lace——

“Am I,” said Sir Walter, “to consent to the theory this piece of evidence so plainly gives the lie to? To let it be supposed that she was the woman to commit suicide in a fit of hysterics, and I the brute to drive her to it?”

“I have been thinking it over,” said Wingate, “and I don't see what else is to be done. There were no witnesses.”

And, in the final result, Mrs. George Desailly's word was taken as against all evidence to the contrary. There were protracted and sensational legal proceedings, in the course of which she had to undergo

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a trial that must have crushed and ruined—socially ruined, at the least—an ordinary woman, with the witness of a bad conscience against her; but she was no ordinary woman. Even Nettie Wingate, on first beholding her in the flesh, falling under the spell of that beautiful smile (tempered with tears and a black dress), exclaimed, “What! Is that the she-devil you have been telling me about? Impossible!” Everybody said “impossible,” or thought it. Sir Walter himself—Wingate also—were glad to the heart when they found she was not to be put in prison, or otherwise openly degraded, although they knew they had no justification for such weakness, and that her victory had cost them dear.

When all was over, and the excitement of the affair allayed, Wingate and Nettie still thought they would like to rent The Chase and make an English Christmas in it. But the owner, when approached on the subject, announced an intention to put his old house in order and go to live there himself immediately. He was about to be married again, with a view to having several more sons, if possible, the engagement of young Thomas to do likewise being already satisfactorily arranged. Sir Walter sits now in the chancel of his parish church on Sundays with quite a family around him, and “Sacred to the Memory of Alexandra Desailly” shines from a marble tablet

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over his head. She had, of course, been virtually supplanted for many a year before her bones were coffined in state and laid in the vault underfoot with those of his noble ancestors.

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