J. STORER CLOUSTON
AUTHOR OF "THE MAN FROM THE CLOUDS," "THE SPY IN BLACK," "THE LUNATIC AT LARGE," ETC.
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I. The Solitary Passenger 9 II. The Procurator Fiscal 16 III. The Heir 23 IV. The Man from the West 31 V. The Third Visitor 40 VI. At Night 48 VII. The Drive Home 56 VIII. Sir Reginald 67 IX. A Philosopher 74 X. The Letter 80 XI. News 89 XII. Cicely 100 XIII. The Deductive Process 106 XIV. The Question of Motive 114 XV. Two Women 123 XVI. Rumour 128 XVII. A Suggestion 135 XVIII. L1200 143 XIX. The Empty Compartment 148 XX. The Sporting Visitor 154 XXI. Mr. Carrington's Walk 161 XXII. Mr. Carrington and the Fiscal 168 XXIII. Simon's Views 176 XXIV. Mr. Bisset's Assistant 185 XXV. A Telegram 196 XXVI. At Stanesland 201 XXVII. Flight 209 XXVIII. The Return 216 XXIX. Brother and Sister 224 XXX. A Marked Man 229 XXXI. The Letter Again 240 XXXII. The Sympathetic Stranger 247 XXXIII. The House of Mysteries 253 XXXIV. A Confidential Conversation 261 XXXV. In the Garden 271 XXXVI. The Walking Stick 278 XXXVII. Bisset's Advice 285 XXXVIII. Trapped 291 XXXIX. The Yarn 301 XL. The Last Chapter 312
THE SOLITARY PASSENGER
The train had come a long journey and the afternoon was wearing on. The passenger in the last third class compartment but one, looking out of the window sombrely and intently, saw nothing now but desolate brown hills and a winding lonely river, very northern looking under the autumnal sky.
He was alone in the carriage, and if any one had happened to study his movements during the interminable journey, they would have concluded that for some reason he seemed to have a singularly strong inclination for solitude. In fact this was at least the third compartment he had occupied, for whenever a fellow traveller entered, he unostentatiously descended, and in a moment had slipped, also unostentatiously, into an empty carriage. Finally he had selected one at the extreme end of the train, a judicious choice which had ensured privacy for the last couple of hours.
When the train at length paused in the midst of the moorlands and for some obscure reason this spot was selected for the examination of tickets, another feature of this traveller's character became apparent. He had no ticket, he confessed, but named the last station as his place of departure and the next as his destination. Being an entirely respectable looking person, his statement was accepted and he slipped the change for half a crown into his pocket; just as he had done a number of times previously in the course of his journey. Evidently the passenger was of an economical as well as of a secretive disposition.
As the light began to fade and the grey sky to change into a deeper grey, and the lighted train to glitter through the darkening moors, and he could see by his watch that their distant goal was now within an hour's journey, the man showed for the first time signs of a livelier interest. He peered out keenly into the dusk as though recognising old landmarks, and now and then he shifted in his seat restlessly and a little nervously.
He was a man of middle age or upwards, of middle height, and thickset. Round his neck he wore a muffler, so drawn up as partially to conceal the lower part of his face, and a black felt hat was drawn down over his eyes. Between them could be seen only the gleam of his eyes, the tip of his nose, and the stiff hairs of a grizzled moustache.
Out of his overcoat pocket he pulled a pipe and for a moment looked at it doubtfully, and then, as if the temptation were irresistible, he took out a tobacco pouch too. It was almost flat and he jealously picked up a shred that fell on the floor, and checked himself at last when the bowl was half filled. And then for a while he smoked very slowly, savouring each whiff.
When they stopped at the last station or two, the reserved and exclusive disposition of this traveller became still more apparent. Not only was he so muffled up as to make recognition by an unwelcome acquaintance exceedingly difficult, but so long as they paused at the stations he sat with his face resting on his hand, and when they moved on again, an air of some relief was apparent.
But a still more remarkable instance of this sensitive passion for privacy appeared when the train stopped at the ticket platform just outside its final destination. Even as they were slowing down, he fell on his knees and then stretched himself at full length on the floor, and when the door was flung open for an instant, the compartment was to all appearances empty. Only when they were well under way again did this retiring traveller emerge from beneath the seat.
And when he did emerge, his conduct continued to be of a piece with this curious performance. He glanced out of the window for an instant at the lights of the platform ahead, and the groups under them, and the arch of the station roof against the night sky, and then swiftly stepped across the carriage and gently opened the door on the wrong side. By the time the train was fairly at rest, the door had been as quietly closed again and the man was picking his way over the sleepers in the darkness, past the guard's van and away from the station and publicity. Certainly he had succeeded in achieving a singularly economical and private journey.
For a few minutes he continued to walk back along the line, and then after a wary look all round him, he sprang up the low bank at the side, threw his leg over a wire fence, and with infinite care began to make his way across a stubble field. As he approached the wall on the further side of the field his precautions increased. He listened intently, crouched down once or twice, and when at last he reached the wall, he peered over it very carefully before he mounted and dropped on the other side.
"Well," he murmured, "I'm here, by God, at last!"
He was standing now in a road on the outskirts of the town. On the one hand it led into a dim expanse of darkened country; on the other the lights of the town twinkled. Across the road, a few villas stood back amidst trees, with gates opening on to a footpath, the outlying houses of the town; and the first lamp-post stood a little way down this path. The man crossed the road and turned townwards, walking slowly and apparently at his ease. What seemed to interest him now was not his own need for privacy but the houses and gates he was passing. At one open gate in particular he half paused and then seemed to spy something ahead that altered his plans. Under a lamp-post a figure appeared to be lingering, and at the sight of this, the man drew his hat still more closely over his face and moved on.
As he drew near the lamp the forms of two youths became manifest, apparently loitering there idly. The man kept his eyes on the ground, passed them at a brisk walk and went on his way into the town.
"Damn them!" he muttered.
This incident seemed to have deranged his plans a little for his movements during the next half hour were so purposeless as to suggest that he was merely putting in time. Down one street and up another he walked, increasing his pace when he had to pass any fellow walkers, and then again falling slow at certain corners and looking round him curiously as though those dark lanes and half-lit streets were reminiscent.
Even seen in the light of the infrequent lamps and the rays from thinly blinded windows, it was evidently but a small country town of a hard, grey stone, northern type. The ends of certain lanes seemed to open into the empty country itself, and one could hear the regular cadence of waves hard by upon a shore.
"It doesn't seem to have changed much," said the man to himself.
He worked his way round, like one quite familiar with the route he followed, till at length he drew near the same quiet country road whence he had started. This time he stopped for a few minutes in the thickest shadow and scanned each dim circle of radiance ahead. Nobody seemed now to be within the rays of the lamps or to be moving in the darkness between. He went on warily till he had come nearly to the same open gate where he had paused before, and then there fell upon his ears the sound of steps behind him and he stopped again and looked sharply over his shoulder.
Somebody was following, but at a little distance off, and after hesitating for an instant, he seemed to make up his mind to risk it, and turned swiftly and stealthily through the gates. A short drive of some pretentions ran between trees and then curved round towards the house, but there was no lodge or any sign of a possible watcher, and the man advanced for a few yards swiftly and confidently enough. And then he stopped abruptly. Under the shade of the trees the drive ahead was pitch dark, but footsteps and voices were certainly coming from the house. In an instant he had vanished into the belt of plantation along one side of the drive.
The footsteps and voices ceased, and then the steps began again, timidly at first and then hurriedly. The belt of shrubs and trees was just thick enough to hide a man perfectly on a moonless cloudy night like this. Yet on either side the watcher could see enough of what was beyond to note that he stood between the dark drive on one hand and a lighter space of open garden on the other, and he could even catch a glimpse of the house against the sky. Light shone brightly from the fanlight over the front door, and less distinctly from one window upstairs and through the slats of a blind in a downstairs room. For a moment he looked in that direction and then intently watched the drive.
The footsteps by this time were almost on the run. The vague forms of two women passed swiftly and he could see their faces dimly turned towards him as they hurried by. They passed through the gates and were gone, and then a minute later men's voices in the road cried out a greeting. And after that the silence fell profound.
THE PROCURATOR FISCAL
The procurator fiscal breakfasted at 8.30, punctually, and at 8.30 as usual he entered his severely upholstered dining-room and shut th door behind him. The windows looked into a spacious garden with a belt of trees leading up to the house from the gate, and this morning Mr. Rattar, who was a machine for habit, departed in one trifling particular from his invariable routine. Instead of sitting straight down to the business of breakfasting, he stood for a minute or two at the window gazing into the garden, and then he came to the table very thoughtfully.
No man in that northern county was better known or more widely respected than Mr. Simon Rattar. In person, he was a thickset man of middle height and elderly middle age, with cold steady eyes and grizzled hair. His clean shaved face was chiefly remarkable for the hardness of his tight-shut mouth, and the obstinacy of the chin beneath it. Professionally, he was lawyer to several of the larger landowners and factor on their estates, and lawyer and adviser also to many other people in various stations in life. Officially, he was procurator fiscal for the county, the setter in motion of all criminal processes, and generalissimo, so to speak, of the police; and one way and another, he had the reputation of being a very comfortably well off gentleman indeed.
As for his abilities, they were undeniably considerable, of the hard, cautious, never-caught-asleep order; and his taciturn manner and way of drinking in everything said to him while he looked at you out of his steady eyes, and then merely nodded and gave a significant little grunt at the end, added immensely to his reputation for profound wisdom. People were able to quote few definite opinions uttered by "Silent Simon," but any that could be quoted were shrewdness itself.
He was a bachelor, and indeed, it was difficult for the most fanciful to imagine Silent Simon married. Even in his youth he had not been attracted by the other sex, and his own qualities certainly did not attract them. Not that there was a word to be said seriously against him. Hard and shrewd though he was, his respectability was extreme and his observance of the conventions scrupulous to a fault. He was an elder of the Kirk, a non-smoker, an abstemious drinker (to be an out and out teetotaler would have been a little too remarkable in those regions for a man of Mr. Rattar's conventional tastes), and indeed in all respects he trod that sober path that leads to a semi-public funeral and a vast block of granite in the parish kirkyard.
He had acquired his substantial villa and large garden by a very shrewd bargain a number of years ago, and he lived there with just the decency that his condition in life enjoined, but with not a suspicion of display beyond it. He kept a staff of two competent and respectable girls, just enough to run a house of that size, but only just; and when he wanted to drive abroad he hired a conveyance exactly suitable to the occasion from the most respectable hotel. His life, in short, was ordered to the very best advantage possible.
Enthusiastic devotion to such an extremely exemplary gentleman was a little difficult, but in his present housemaid, Mary MacLean, he had a girl with a strong Highland strain of fidelity to a master, and an instinctive devotion to his interests, even if his person was hardly the chieftain her heart demanded. She was a soft voiced, anxious looking young woman, almost pretty despite her nervous high strung air, and of a quiet and modest demeanour.
Soon after her master had begun breakfast, Mary entered the dining-room with an apologetic air, but a conscientious eye.
"Begging your pardon, sir," she began, "but I thought I ought to tell you that when cook and me was going out to the concert last night we thought we saw something in the drive."
Mr. Rattar looked up at her sharply and fixed his cold eyes on her steadily for a moment, never saying a word. It was exactly his ordinary habit, and she had thought she was used to it by now, yet this morning she felt oddly disconcerted. Then it struck her that perhaps it was the red cut on his chin that gave her this curious feeling. Silent Simon's hand was as steady as a rock and she never remembered his having cut himself shaving before; certainly not as badly as this.
"Saw 'something'?" he repeated gruffly. "What do you mean?"
"It looked like a man, sir, and it seemed to move into the trees almost as quick as we saw it!"
"Tuts!" muttered Simon.
"But there was two friends of ours meeting us in the road," she hurried on, "and they thought they saw a man going in at the gate!"
Her master seemed a little more impressed.
"Indeed?" said he.
"So I thought it was my duty to tell you, sir."
"Quite right," said he.
"For I felt sure it couldn't just be a gentleman coming to see you, sir, or he wouldn't have gone into the trees."
"Of course not," he agreed briefly. "Nobody came to see me."
Mary looked at him doubtfully and hesitated for a moment.
"Didn't you even hear anything, sir?" she asked in a lowered voice.
Her master's quick glance made her jump.
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because, sir, I found footsteps in the gravel this morning—where it's soft with the rain, sir, just under the library window."
Mr. Rattar looked first hard at her and then at his plate. For several seconds he answered nothing, and then he said:
"I did hear some one."
There was something both in his voice and in his eye as he said this that was not quite like the usual Simon Rattar. Mary began to feel a sympathetic thrill.
"Did you look out of the window, sir?" she asked in a hushed voice.
Her master nodded and pursed his lips.
"But you didn't see him, sir?"
"No," said he.
"Who could it have been, sir?"
"I have been wondering," he said, and then he threw a sudden glance at her that made her hurry for the door. It was not that it was an angry look, but that it was what she called so "queer-like."
Just as she went out she noted another queer-like circumstance. Mr. Rattar had stretched out his hand towards the toast rack while he spoke. The toast stuck between the bars, and she caught a glimpse of an angry twitch that upset the rack with a clatter. Never before had she seen the master do a thing of that kind.
A little later the library bell called her. Mr. Rattar had finished breakfast and was seated beside the fire with a bundle of legal papers on a small table beside him, just as he always sat, absorbed in work, before he started for his office. The master's library impressed Mary vastly. The furniture was so substantial, new-looking, and conspicuous for the shininess of the wood and the brightness of the red morocco seats to the chairs. And it was such a tidy room—no litter of papers or books, nothing ever out of place, no sign even of pipe, tobacco jar, cigarette or cigar. The only concession to the vices were the ornate ash tray and the massive globular glass match box on the square table in the middle of the room, and they were manifestly placed there for the benefit of visitors merely. Even they, Mary thought, were admirable as ornaments, and she was concerned to note that there was no nice red-headed bundle of matches in the glass match box this morning. What had become of them she could not imagine, but she resolved to repair this blemish as soon as the master had left the house.
"I don't want you to go gossiping about this fellow who came into the garden, last night," he began.
"Oh, no, sir!" said she.
Simon shot her a glance that seemed compounded of doubt and warning.
"As procurator fiscal, it is my business to inquire into such affairs. I'll see to it."
"Oh, yes, sir; I know," said she. "It seemed so impudent like of the man coming into the fiscal's garden of all places!"
Simon grunted. It was his characteristic reply when no words were absolutely necessary.
"That's all," said he, "don't gossip! Remember, if we want to catch the man, the quieter we keep the better."
Mary went out, impressed with the warning, but still more deeply impressed with something else. Gossip with cook of course was not to be counted as gossip in the prohibited sense, and when she returned to the kitchen, she unburdened her Highland heart.
"The master's no himsel'!" she said. "I tell you, Janet, never have I seen Mr. Rattar look the way he looked at breakfast, nor yet the way he looked in the library!"
Cook was a practical person and apt to be a trifle unsympathetic.
"He couldna be bothered with your blethering most likely!" said she.
"Oh, it wasna that!" said Mary very seriously. "Just think yoursel' how would you like to be watched through the window at the dead of night as you were sitting in your chair? The master's feared of yon man, Janet!"
Even Janet was a little impressed by her solemnity.
"It must have taken something to make silent Simon feared!" said she.
Mary's voice fell.
"It's my opinion, the master knows more than he let on to me. The thought that came into my mind when he was talking to me was just—'The man feels he's being watched!'"
"Oh, get along wi' you and your Hieland fancies!" said cook, but she said it a little uncomfortably.
At 9.45 precisely Mr. Rattar arrived at his office, just as he had arrived every morning since his clerks could remember. He nodded curtly as usual to his head clerk, Mr. Ison, and went into his room. His letters were always laid out on his desk and from twenty minutes to half an hour were generally spent by him in running through them. Then he would ring for Mr. Ison and begin to deal with the business of the day. But on this morning the bell went within twelve minutes, as Mr. Ison (a most precise person) noted on the clock.
"Bring the letter book," said Mr. Rattar. "And the business ledger."
"Letter book and business ledger?" repeated Mr. Ison, looking a little surprised.
Mr. Rattar nodded.
The head clerk turned away and then paused and glanced at the bundle of papers Mr. Rattar had brought back with him. He had expected these to be dealt with first thing.
"About this Thomson business—" he began.
"It can wait."
The lawyer's manner was peremptory and the clerk fetched the letter book and ledger. These contained, between them, a record of all the recent business of the firm, apart from public business and the affairs of one large estate. What could be the reason for such a comprehensive examination, Mr. Ison could not divine, but Mr. Rattar never gave reasons unless he chose, and the clerk who would venture to ask him was not to be found on the staff of Silent Simon.
In a minute or two the head clerk returned with the books. This time he was wearing his spectacles and his first glance through them at Mr. Rattar gave him an odd sensation. The lawyer's mouth was as hard set and his eyes were as steady as ever. Yet something about his expression seemed a little unusual. Some unexpected business had turned up to disturb him, Mr. Ison felt sure; and indeed, this seemed certain from his request for the letter book and ledger. He now noticed also the cut on his chin, a sure sign that something had interrupted the orderly tenor of Simon Rattar's life, if ever there was one. Mr. Ison tried to guess whose business could have taken such a turn as to make Silent Simon cut himself with his razor, but though he had many virtues, imagination was not among them and he had to confess that it was fairly beyond James Ison.
And yet, curiously enough, his one remark to a fellow clerk was not unlike the comment of the imaginative Mary MacLean.
"The boss has a kin' of unusual look to-day. There was something kin' of suspicious in that eye of his—rather as though he thought someone was watching him."
Mr. Rattar had been busy with the books for some twenty minutes when his head clerk returned.
"Mr. Malcolm Cromarty to see you, sir," he said.
Silent Simon looked at him hard, and it was evident to his clerk that his mind had been extraordinarily absorbed, for he simply repeated in a curious way:
"Mr. Malcolm Cromarty?"
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Ison, and then as even this seemed scarcely to be comprehended, he added, "Sir Reginald's cousin."
"Ah, of course!" said Mr. Rattar. "Well, show him in."
The young man who entered was evidently conscious of being a superior person. From the waviness of his hair and the studied negligence of his tie (heliotrope with a design in old gold), it seemed probable that he had literary or artistic claims to be superior to the herd. And from the deference with which Mr. Ison had pronounced his name and his own slightly condescending manner, it appeared that he felt himself in other respects superior to Mr. Rattar. He was of medium height, slender, and dark-haired. His features were remarkably regular, and though his face was somewhat small, there could be no doubt that he was extremely good looking, especially to a woman's eye, who would be more apt than a fellow man to condone something a little supercilious in his smile.
The attire of Mr. Malcolm Cromarty was that of the man of fashion dressed for the country, with the single exception of the tie which intimated to the discerning that here was no young man of fashion merely, but likewise a young man of ideas. That he had written, or at least was going to write, or else that he painted or was about to paint, was quite manifest. The indications, however, were not sufficiently pronounced to permit one to suspect him of fiddling, or even of being about to fiddle.
This young gentleman's manner as he shook hands with the lawyer and then took a chair was on the surface cheerful and politely condescending. Yet after his first greeting, and when he was seated under Simon's inscrutable eye, there stole into his own a hint of quite another emotion. If ever an eye revealed apprehension it was Malcolm Cromarty's at that instant.
"Well, Mr. Rattar, here I am again, you see," said he with a little laugh; but it was not quite a spontaneous laugh.
"I see, Mr. Cromarty," said Simon laconically.
"You have been expecting to hear from me before, I suppose," the young man went on, "but the fact is I've had an idea for a story and I've been devilish busy sketching it out."
Simon grunted and gave a little nod. One would say that he was studying his visitor with exceptional attention.
"Ideas come to one at the most inconvenient times," the young author explained with a smile, and yet with a certain hurried utterance not usually associated with smiles, "one just has to shoot the bird when he happens to come over your head, don't you know, you can't send in beaters after that kind of fowl, Mr. Rattar. And when he does come out, there you are! You have to make hay while the sun shines."
Again the lawyer nodded, and again he made no remark. The apprehension in his visitor's eye increased, his smile died away, and suddenly he exclaimed:
"For God's sake, Mr. Rattar, say something! I meant honestly to pay you back—I felt sure I could sell that last thing of mine before now, but not a word yet from the editor I sent it to!"
Still there came only a guarded grunt from Simon and the young man went on with increasing agitation.
"You won't give me away to Sir Reginald, will you? He's been damned crusty with me lately about money matters, as it is. If you make me desperate——!" He broke off and gazed dramatically into space for a moment, and then less dramatically at his lawyer.
Silent Simon was proverbially cautious, but it seemed to his visitor that his demeanour this morning exceeded all reasonable limits. For nearly a minute he answered absolutely nothing, and then he said very slowly and deliberately:
"I think it would be better, Mr. Cromarty, if you gave me a brief, explicit statement of how you got into this mess."
"Dash it, you know too well—" began Cromarty.
"It would make you realise your own position more clearly," interrupted the lawyer. "You want me to assist you, I take it?"
"Rather—if you will!"
"Well then, please do as I ask you. You had better start at the beginning of your relations with Sir Reginald."
Malcolm Cromarty's face expressed surprise, but the lawyer's was distinctly less severe, and he began readily enough:
"Well, of course, as you know, my cousin Charles Cromarty died about 18 months ago and I became the heir to the baronetcy—" he broke off and asked, "Do you mean you want me to go over all that?"
Simon nodded, and he went on:
"Sir Reginald was devilish good at first—in his own patronising way, let me stay at Keldale as often and as long as I liked, made me an allowance and so on; but there was always this fuss about my taking up something a little more conventional than literature. Ha, ha!" The young man laughed in a superior way and then looked apprehensively at the other. "But I suppose you agree with Sir Reginald?"
Simon pursed his lips and made a non-committal sound.
"Well, anyhow, he wanted me to be called to the Bar or something of that kind, and then there was a fuss about money—his ideas of an allowance are rather old fashioned, as you know. And then you were good enough to help me with that loan, and—well, that's all, isn't it?"
Mr. Rattar had been listening with extreme attention. He now nodded, and a smile for a moment seemed to light his chilly eyes.
"I see that you quite realise your position, Mr. Cromarty," he said.
"Realise it!" cried the young man. "My God, I'm in a worse hole——" he broke off abruptly.
"Worse than you have admitted to me?" said Simon quickly and again with a smile in his eye.
Malcolm Cromarty hesitated, "Sir Reginald is so damned narrow! If he wants to drive me to the devil—well, let him! But I say, Mr. Rattar, what are you going to do?"
For some moments Simon said nothing. At length he answered:
"I shall not press for repayment at present."
His visitor rose with a sigh of relief and as he said good-bye his condescending manner returned as readily as it had gone.
"Good morning and many thanks," said he, and then hesitated for an instant. "You couldn't let me have a very small cheque, just to be going on with, could you?"
"Not this morning, Mr. Cromarty."
Mr. Cromarty's look of despair returned.
"Well," he cried darkly as he strode to the door, "people who treat a man in my position like this are responsible for—er——!" The banging of the door left their precise responsibility in doubt.
Simon Rattar gazed after him with an odd expression. It seemed to contain a considerable infusion of complacency. And then he rang for his clerk.
"Get me the Cromarty estate letter book," he commanded.
The book was brought and this time he had about ten minutes to himself before the clerk entered again.
"Mr. Cromarty of Stanesland to see you, sir," he announced.
This announcement seemed to set the lawyer thinking hard. Then in his abrupt way he said:
"Show him in."
THE MAN FROM THE WEST
Mr. Rattar's second visitor was of a different type. Mr. Cromarty of Stanesland stood about 6 feet two and had nothing artistic in his appearance, being a lean strapping man in the neighbourhood of forty, with a keen, thin, weather-beaten face chiefly remarkable for its straight sharp nose, compressed lips, reddish eye-brows, puckered into a slight habitual frown, and the fact that the keen look of the whole was expressed by only one of his eyes, the other being a good imitation but unmistakeably glass. The whole effect of the face, however, was singularly pleasing to the discerning critic. An out of door, reckless, humorous, honest personality was stamped on every line of it and every movement of the man. When he spoke his voice had a marked tinge of the twang of the wild west that sounded a little oddly on the lips of a country gentleman in these northern parts. He wore an open flannel collar, a shooting coat, well cut riding breeches and immaculate leather leggings, finished off by a most substantial pair of shooting boots. Unlike Mr. Malcolm Cromarty, he evidently looked upon his visit as expected.
"Good morning, Mr. Rattar," said he, throwing his long form into the clients' chair as he spoke. "Well, I guess you've got some good advice for me this morning."
Simon Rattar was proverbially cautious, but to-day his caution struck his visitor as quite remarkable.
"Um," he grunted. "Advice, Mr. Cromarty? Umph!"
"Don't trouble beating about the bush," said the tall man. "I've been figuring things out myself and so far as I can see, it comes to this:—that loan from Sir Reginald put me straight in the meantime, but I've got to cut down expense all round to keep straight, and I've got to pay him back. Of course you know his way when it's one of the clan he's dealing with. 'My dear Ned, no hurry whatever. If you send my heir a cheque some day after I'm gone it will have the added charm of surprise!' Well, that's damned decent, but hardly business. I want to get the whole thing off my chest. Got the statement made up?"
Simon shook his head.
"Very sorry, Mr. Cromarty. Haven't had time yet."
"Hell!" said Mr. Cromarty, though in a cheerful voice, and then added with an engaging smile, "Pardon me, Mr. Rattar. I'm trying to get educated out of strong language, but, Lord, at my time of life it's not so damned—I mean dashed easy!"
Even Simon Rattar's features relaxed for an instant into a smile.
"And who is educating you?" he enquired.
Mr. Cromarty looked a little surprised.
"Who but the usual lady? Gad, I've told you before of my sister's well meant efforts. It's a stiff job making a retired cow puncher into a high grade laird. However, I can smoke without spitting now, which is a step on the road towards being a Lord Chesterfield."
He smiled humorously, stretched out his long legs and added:
"It's a nuisance, your not having that statement ready. When I've got to do business I like pushing it through quick. That's an American habit I don't mean to get rid of, Mr. Rattar."
Mr. Rattar nodded his approval.
"Certainly not," said he.
"I've put down my car," his visitor continued. "Drive a buggy now—beg its pardon, a trap, and a devilish nice little mare I've got in her too. In fact, there are plenty of consolations for whatever you have to do in this world. I'm only sorry for my sister's sake that I have to draw in my horns a bit. Women like a bit of a splash—at least judging from the comparatively little I know of 'em."
"Miss Cromarty doesn't complain, I hope?"
"Oh, I think she's beginning to see the necessity for reform. You see, when both my civilised elder brothers died——" he broke off, and then added: "But you know the whole story."
"I would—er—like to refresh my memory," said Simon; and there seemed to be a note of interest and almost of eagerness in his voice that appeared to surprise his visitor afresh.
"First time I ever heard of your memory needing refreshing!" laughed his visitor. "Well, you know how I came back from the wild and woolly west and tried to make a comfortable home for Lilian. We were neither of us likely to marry at our time of life, and there were just the two of us left, and we'd both of us knocked about quite long enough on our own, and so why not settle down together in the old place and be comfortable? At least that's how it struck me. Of course, as you know, we hadn't met for so long that we were practically strangers and she knew the ways of civilisation better than me, and I gave her a pretty free hand in setting up the establishment. I don't blame her, mind you, for setting the pace a bit too fast to last. My own blamed fault entirely. However, we aren't in a very deep hole, thank the Lord. In fact if I hadn't got to pay Sir Reginald back the L1,200 it would be all right, so far I can figure out. But I want your exact statement, Mr. Rattar, and as quick as you can let me have it."
Simon nodded and grunted.
"You'll get it." And then he added: "I think I can assure you there is nothing to be concerned about."
Ned Cromarty smiled and a reckless light danced for a moment in his one efficient eye.
"I guess I almost wish there were something to be concerned about! Sir Reginald is always telling me I'm the head of the oldest branch of the whole Cromarty family and it's my duty to live in the house of my ancestors and be an ornament to the county, and all the rest of it. But I tell you it's a damned quiet life for a man who's had his eye put out with a broken whisky bottle and hanged the man who did it with his own hands!"
"Hanged him!" exclaimed the lawyer sharply.
"Oh, it wasn't merely for the eye. That gave the performance a kind of relish it would otherwise have lacked, being a cold-blooded ceremony and a little awkward with the apparatus we had. We hanged him for murder, as a matter of fact. Now, between ourselves, Mr. Rattar, we don't want to crab our own county, but you must confess that real good serious crime is devilish scarce here, eh?"
Cromarty's eye was gleaming humorously, and Simon Rattar might have been thought the kind of tough customer who would have been amused by the joke. He seemed, however, to be affected unpleasantly and even a little startled.
"I—I trust we don't," he said.
"Well," his visitor agreed, "as it means that something or somebody has got to be sacrificed to start the sport of man-hunting, I suppose there's something to be said for the quiet life. But personally I'd sooner be after men than grouse, from the point of view of getting thorough satisfaction while it lasts. My sister says it means I haven't settled down properly yet—calls me the bold bad bachelor!"
Through this speech Simon seemed to be looking at his visitor with an attention that bordered on fascination, and it was apparently with a slight effort that he asked at the end:
"Well, why don't you marry?"
"Marry!" exclaimed Ned Cromarty. "And where will you find the lady that's to succumb to my fascinations? I'm within a month of forty, Mr. Rattar, I've the mind, habits, and appearance of a backwoodsman, and I've one working eye left. A female collector of antique curiosities, or something in the nature of a retired wardress might take on the job, but I can't think of any one else!"
He laughed as he spoke, and yet something remarkably like a sigh followed the laugh, and for a moment after he had ceased speaking his eye looked abstractedly into space.
Before either spoke again, the door opened and the clerk, seeing Mr. Rattar was still engaged, murmured a "beg pardon" and was about to retire again.
"What is it?" asked the lawyer.
"Miss Farmond is waiting to see you, sir."
"I'll let you know when I'm free," said Simon.
Had his eye been on his visitor as his clerk spoke, he might have noticed a curious commentary on Mr. Cromarty's professed lack of interest in womankind. His single eye lit up for an instant and he moved sharply in his chair, and then as suddenly repressed all sign of interest.
A minute or two later the visitor jumped up.
"Well," said he, "I guess you're pretty busy and I've been talking too long as it is. Let me have that statement as quick as you like. Good morning!"
He strode to the door, shut it behind him, and then when he was on the landing, his movements became suddenly more leisurely. Instead of striding downstairs he stood looking curiously in turn at each closed door. It was an old fashioned house and rather a rabbit warren of an office, and it would seem as though for some reason he wished to leave no door unwatched. In a moment he heard the lawyer's bell ring and very slowly he moved down a step or two while a clerk answered the call and withdrew. And then he took a cigar from his case, bit off the end, and felt for matches; all this being very deliberately done, and his eye following the clerk. Thus when a girl emerged from the room along a passage, she met, apparently quite accidentally, Mr. Cromarty of Stanesland.
At the first glance it was quite evident that the meeting gave more pleasure to the gentleman than to the lady. Indeed, the girl seemed too disconcerted to hide the fact.
"Good morning, Miss Farmond," said he with what seemed intended for an air of surprise; as though he had no idea she had been within a mile of him. "You coming to see Simon on business too?" And then taking the cue from her constrained manner, he added hurriedly, and with a note of dejection he could not quite hide, "Well, good-bye."
The girl's expression suddenly changed, and with that change the laird of Stanesland's curious movements became very explicable, for her face was singularly charming when she smiled. It was a rather pale but fresh and clear-skinned face, wide at the forehead and narrowing to a firm little chin, with long-lashed expressive eyes, and a serious expression in repose. Her smile was candid, a little coy and irresistibly engaging, and her voice was very pleasant, rather low, and most engaging too. She was of middle height and dressed in mourning. Her age seemed rather under than over twenty.
"Oh," she said, with a touch of hesitation at first, "I didn't mean——" She broke off, glanced at the clerk, who being a discreet young man was now in the background, and then with lowered voice confessed, "The fact is, Mr. Cromarty, I'm not really supposed to be here at all. That's to say nobody knows I am."
Mr. Cromarty looked infinitely relieved.
"And you don't want anybody to know?" he said in his outspoken way. "Right you are. I can lie low and say nothing, or lie hard and say what you like; whichever you choose."
"Lying low will do," she smiled. "But please don't think I'm doing anything very wrong."
"I'll think what you tell me," he said gallantly. "I was thinking Silent Simon was in luck's way—but perhaps you're going to wig him?"
She laughed and shook her head.
"Can you imagine me daring to wig Mr. Simon Rattar?"
"I guess he needs waking up now and then like other people. He's been slacking over my business. In fact, I can't quite make him out this morning. He's not quite his usual self for some reason. Don't be afraid to wig him if he needs it!"
The clerk in the background coughed and Miss Cicely Farmond moved towards the door of the lawyer's room, but Ned Cromarty seemed reluctant to end the meeting so quickly.
"How did you come?" he asked.
"Walked," she smiled.
"Walked! And how are you going back?"
"I say," he suggested eagerly, "I've got my trap in. Let me drive you!"
She hesitated a moment.
"It's awfully good of you to think of it——"
"That's settled then. I'll be on the look out when you leave old Simon's den."
He raised his cap and went downstairs this time without any hesitation. He had forgotten to light his cigar, and it was probably as a substitute for smoking that he found himself whistling.
THE THIRD VISITOR
Miss Cicely Farmond's air as she entered Simon Rattar's room seemed compounded of a little shyness, considerable trepidation, and yet more determination. In her low voice and with a fleeting smile she wished him good morning, like an acquaintance with whom she was quite familiar, and then with a serious little frown, and fixing her engaging eyes very straight upon him, she made the surprising demand:
"Mr. Rattar, I want you to tell me honestly who I am."
For an instant Simon's cold eyes opened very wide, and then he was gazing at her after his usual silent and steadfast manner.
"Who you are?" he repeated after a few seconds' pause.
"Yes. Indeed, Mr. Rattar, I insist on knowing!"
Simon smiled slightly.
"And what makes you think I can assist you to—er—recover your identity, Miss Farmond?"
"To discover it, not recover it," she corrected.
"Don't you really know that I am honestly quite ignorant?"
Mr. Rattar shook his head cautiously.
"It is not for me to hazard an opinion," he answered.
"Oh please, Mr. Rattar," she exclaimed, "don't be so dreadfully cautious! Surely you can't have thought that I knew all the time!"
Again he was silent for a moment, and then enquired:
"Why do you come to me now?"
"Because I must know! Because—well, because it is so unsatisfactory not knowing—for various reasons."
"And why are you so positive that I can tell you?"
"Because all my affairs and arrangements went through your hands, and of course you know!"
Again he seemed to reflect for a moment.
"May I ask, Miss Farmond," he enquired, "why, in that case, you think I shouldn't have told you before, and why—also in that case—I should tell you now?"
This enquiry seemed to disconcert Miss Farmond a little.
"Oh, of course I presume Sir Reginald and you had some reasons," she admitted.
"And don't you think then we have them still?"
"I can't honestly see why you should make such a mystery of it—especially as I can guess the truth perfectly easily!"
"If you can guess it——" he began.
"Oh please don't answer me like that! Why won't you tell me?"
He seemed to consider the point for a moment, and then he said:
"I am not at all sure that I am at liberty to tell you, Miss Farmond, without further consultation."
"Has Sir Reginald really any good reasons for not telling me?"
"Have you asked him that question?"
"No," she confessed. "He and Lady Cromarty have been so frightfully kind, and yet so—so reserved on that subject, that I have never liked to ask them direct. But they know that I have guessed, and they haven't done anything to prevent me finding out more for myself, which means that they really are quite willing to let me find out if I can."
He shook his head.
"I am afraid I shall require more authority than that."
She pursed her lips and looked at the floor in silence, and then she rose.
"Well, if you absolutely refuse to tell me anything, Mr. Rattar, I suppose——"
A dejected little shrug completed her sentence, and as she turned towards the door her eloquent eyes looked at him for a moment beneath their long lashes with an expression in them that might have moved a statue. Although Simon Rattar had the reputation of being impervious to woman's wiles, he may have been moved by this unspoken appeal. He certainly seemed struck by something, for even as her back was turning towards him, he said suddenly, and in a distinctly different voice:
"You say you can guess yourself?"
She nodded, and added with a pathetic coaxing note in her low voice:
"But I want to know!"
"Supposing," he suggested, "you were to tell me precisely how much you do know already, and then I could judge whether the rest might or might not be divulged."
Her face brightened and she returned to her chair with a promptitude that suggested she was not unaccustomed to win a lost battle with these weapons.
"Well," she said, "it was only six months ago—when mother died—that I first had the least suspicion there was any mystery about me—anything to hide. I knew she hadn't always been happy and that her trouble had something to do with my father, simply because she hardly ever mentioned him. But she lived at Eastbourne just like plenty of other widows and we had a few friends, though never very many, and I was very happy at school, and so I never troubled much about things."
"And knew nothing up till six months ago?" asked Simon, who was following her story very attentively.
"Nothing at all. Then, about a month after mother's death, I got a note from you asking me to go up to London and meet Sir Reginald Cromarty. I had never even heard of him before! Well, I went and he was simply as kind as—well, as he always is to everybody, and said he was a kind of connection of my family and asked me to pay them a long visit to Keldale."
"How long ago precisely was that?"
She looked a little surprised.
"Oh, you know exactly. Almost just four months ago, wasn't it?"
He nodded, but said nothing, and she went on:
"From the very first it had seemed very strange that I had never heard a word about the Cromartys from mother, and as soon as I got to Keldale and met Lady Cromarty, I felt sure there was something wrong. I mean that I wasn't an ordinary distant relation. For one thing they never spoke of our relationship and exactly what sort of cousins we were, and considering how keen Sir Reginald is on his pedigree and all his relations and everybody, that alone made me certain I wasn't the ordinary kind. That was obvious, wasn't it?"
"It seems so," the lawyer admitted cautiously.
"Of course it was! Well, one day I happened to be looking over an old photograph album and suddenly I saw my father's photograph! Mother had a miniature of him—I have it still, and I was certain it was the same man. I pulled myself together and asked Sir Reginald in a very ordinary voice who that was, and I could see that both he and Lady Cromarty jumped a little. He had to tell me it was his brother Alfred and I discovered he had long been dead, but I didn't try to get any more information from them. I applied to Bisset."
She gave a little laugh and looked at him with a touch of defiance. His inscrutable countenance appeared to annoy her.
"Well?" he remarked.
"Perhaps you think I oughtn't to have gone to a butler about such a thing, but Bisset is practically one of the family and I didn't give him the least idea of what I was after. I simply drew him on the subject of the Cromarty family history and among other things—that didn't so much interest me—I found that Mr. Alfred Cromarty was never married and seemed to have had rather a gay reputation."
She looked at him with an expression that would have immediately converted any susceptible man into a fellow conspirator, and asked in her most enticing voice:
"Need you ask what I guessed? What is the use in not telling me simply whether I have guessed right!"
Silent Simon's face remained a mask.
"What precisely did you guess?"
"That my mother wasn't married," she said, her voice falling very low, "and I am really Sir Reginald's niece though he never can acknowledge it—and I don't want him to! But I do want to be sure. Dear Mr. Rattar, won't you tell me?"
Dear Mr. Rattar never relaxed a muscle.
"Your guess seems very probable," he admitted.
"But tell me definitely."
"Why?" he enquired coldly.
"Oh, have you no curiosity yourself—especially about who your parents were; supposing you didn't know?"
"Then it's only out of curiosity that you enquired?"
"Only!" she repeated with a world of woman's scorn. "But what sort of motives did you expect? I have walked in the whole way this morning just to end the suspense of wondering! Of course, I'll never tell a soul you told me."
She threw on him a moving smile.
"You needn't actually tell me outright. Just use some legal word—'Alibi' if I am right and 'forgery' if I'm wrong!"
Silent Simon's sudden glance chilled her smile. She evidently felt she had been taking the law in vain.
"I only meant——" she began anxiously.
"I must consult Sir Reginald," he interrupted brusquely.
She made no further effort. That glance seemed to have subdued her spirit.
"I am sorry I have bothered you," she said as she went.
As the door closed behind her, Mr. Rattar took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow and his neck. And then he fell to work again upon the recent records of the firm. Yet, absorbed though he seemed, whenever a door opened or shut sharply or a step sounded distinctly outside his room, he would look up quickly and listen, or that expression would come into his eye which both Mary MacLean and Mr. Ison had described as the look of one who was watched.
When Simon Rattar came to his present villa, he brought from his old house in the middle of the town (which had been his father's before him) a vast accumulation of old books and old papers. Being a man who never threw away an opportunity or anything else, and also a person of the utmost tidyness, he compromised by keeping this litter in the spare rooms at the top of the house. In fact Simon was rather pleased at discovering this use for his superfluous apartments, for he hated wasting anything.
On this same morning, just before he started for his office, he had again called his housemaid and given her particular injunctions that these rooms were not to be disturbed during the day. He added that this was essential because he expected a gentleman that evening who would be going through some of the old papers with him.
Perhaps it was the vague feeling of disquiet which possessed Mary MacLean this morning that made his injunction seem a little curious. She had been with the master three years and never presumed or dreamt of presuming to touch his papers. He might have known that, thought she, without having to tell her not to. Indeed, she felt a little aggrieved at the command, and in the course of the morning she made a discovery that seemed to her a further reflection on her discretion.
When she came to dust the passage in which these rooms opened her eye was at once caught by a sheet of white paper pinned to each of the three doors. On each of these sheets was written in her master's hand the words "This room not to be entered. Papers to be undisturbed." The result was a warning to those who take superfluous precautions. Under ordinary circumstances Mary would never have thought of touching the handles of those doors. Now, she looked at them for a few moments and then tried the handle nearest to her. The door was locked. She tried the second and the third, and they stood locked too. And the three keys had all been removed.
"To think of the master locking the doors!" said she to herself after failing at each in turn. "As if I'd have tried to open them!"
That top storey was of the semi-attic kind, with roofs that sloped and a sky-light in one of them and the slates close overhead. It was a grey windy morning, and as she stood there, alone in that large house save for the cook far away in the kitchen, with a loose slate rattling in the gusts, and a glimpse of clouds driving over the sky-light, she began all at once to feel uncomfortable. Those locked doors were uncanny—something was not as it should be; there was a sinister moan in the wind; the slate did not rattle quite like an ordinary slate. Tales of her childhood, tales from the superstitious western islands, rushed into her mind. And then, all at once, she heard another sound. She heard it but for one instant, and then with a pale face she fled downstairs and stood for a space in the hall trembling and wondering.
She wondered first whether the sound had really come from behind the locked doors, and whether it actually was some one stealthily moving. She wondered next whether she could bring herself to confide in cook and stand Janet's cheerful scorn. She ended by saying not a word, and waiting to see what happened when the master came home.
He returned as usual in time for a cup of tea. It was pretty dark by then and Mary was upstairs lighting the gas (but she did not venture up to the top floor). She heard Mr. Rattar come into the hall, and then, quite distinctly this time, she heard overhead a dull sound, a kind of gentle thud. The next moment she heard the master running upstairs, and when he was safely past she ran even more swiftly down and burst into the kitchen.
"There's something in yon top rooms!" she panted.
"There's something in your top storey!" snapped cook; and poor Mary said no more.
When she brought his tea in to Mr. Rattar, she seemed to read in his first glance at her the same expression that had disturbed her in the morning, and yet the next moment he was speaking in his ordinary grumpy, laconic way.
"Have you noticed rats in the house?" he asked.
"Rats, sir!" she exclaimed. "Oh, no, sir, I don't think there are any rats."
"I saw one just now," he said. "If we see it again we must get some rat poison."
So it had only been a rat! Mary felt vastly relieved; and yet not altogether easy. One could not venture to doubt the master, but it was a queer-like sound for a rat to make.
Mr. Rattar had brought back a great many papers to-day, and sat engrossed in them till dinner. After dinner he fell to work again, and then about nine o'clock he rang for her and said:
"The gentleman I expect this evening will probably be late in coming. Don't sit up. I'll hear him and let him in myself. We shall be working late and I shall be going upstairs about those papers. If you hear anybody moving about, it will only be this gentleman and myself."
This was rather a long speech for silent Simon, and Mary thought it considerate of him to explain any nocturnal sounds beforehand; unusually considerate, in fact, for he seldom went out of his way to explain things. And yet those few minutes in his presence made her uncomfortable afresh. She could not keep her eyes away from that red cut on his chin. It made him seem odd-like, she thought. And then as she passed through the hall she heard faintly from the upper regions that slate rattling again. At least it was either the slate or—she recalled a story of her childhood, and hurried on to the kitchen.
She and the cook shared the same bedroom. It was fairly large with two beds in it, and along with the kitchen and other back premises it was shut off from the front part of the house by a door at the end of the hall. Cook was asleep within ten minutes. Mary could hear her heavy breathing above the incessant droning and whistling of the wind, and she envied her with all her Highland heart. In her own glen people would have understood how she felt, but here she dared not confess lest she were laughed at. It was such a vague and nameless feeling, a sixth sense warning her that all was not well; that something was in the air. The longer she lay awake the more certain she grew that evil was afoot; and yet what could be its shape? Everything in that quiet and respectable household was going on exactly as usual; everything that any one else would have considered material. The little things she had noticed would be considered absurd trifles by the sensible. She knew that as well as they.
She thought she had been in bed about an hour, though the time passed so slowly that it might have been less, when she heard, faintly and gently, but quite distinctly, the door from the hall into the back premises being opened. It seemed to be held open for nearly a minute, as though some one were standing there listening. She moved a little and the bed creaked; and then, as gently as it had been opened, the door was closed again.
Had the intruder come through or gone away? And could it only be the master, doing this curious thing, or was it some one—or something—else? Dreadful minutes passed, but there was not a sound of any one moving in the back passage, or the kitchen, and then in the distance she could hear the grating noise of the front door being opened and the rush of wind that accompanied it. It was closed sharply in a moment and she could catch the sound of steps in the hall and the master's voice making some remark. Another voice replied, gruff and muffled and indistinct, and then again the master spoke. Evidently the late caller had arrived, and a moment later she heard the library door shut, and it was plain that he and Mr. Rattar were closeted there.
They seemed to remain in the library about a quarter of an hour before the door opened again, and in a moment the stairs were creaking faintly. Evidently one or both were going up for the old papers.
All this was exactly what she had been led to expect, and ought to have reassured her, yet, for no reason at all, the conviction remained as intense and disturbing as ever, that something unspeakable was happening in this respectable house. The minutes dragged by till quite half an hour must have passed, and then she heard the steps descending. They came down very slowly this time, and very heavily. The obvious explanation was that they were bringing down one of those boxes filled with dusty papers which she had often seen in the closed rooms; yet though Mary knew perfectly that this was the common sense of the matter, a feeling of horror increased till she could scarcely refrain from crying out. If cook had not such a quick temper and such a healthy contempt for this kind of fancy, she would have rushed across to her bed; but as it was, she simply lay and trembled.
The steps sounded still heavy but more muffled on the hall carpet, though whether they were the steps of one man or two she could not feel sure. And then she heard the front door open again and then close; so that it seemed plain that the visitor had taken the box with him and gone away. And with this departure came a sense of relief, as devoid of rational foundation as the sense of horror before. She felt at last that if she could only hear the master going upstairs to bed, she might go to sleep.
But though she listened hard as she lay there in the oppressive dark, she heard not another sound so long as she kept awake, and that was for some time, she thought. She did get off at last and had been asleep she knew not how long when she awoke drowsily with a confused impression that the front door had been shut again. How late it was she could but guess—about three or four in the morning her instinct told her. But then came sleep again and in the morning the last part of her recollections was a little uncertain.
At breakfast the master was as silently formidable as ever and he never said a word about his visitor. When Mary went to the top floor later the papers were off the doors and the keys replaced.
THE DRIVE HOME
Under the grey autumnal sky Miss Cicely Farmond drove out of the town wrapped in Ned Cromarty's overcoat. He assured her he never felt cold, and as she glanced a little shyly up at the strapping figure by her side, she said to herself that he certainly was the toughest looking man of her acquaintance, and she felt a little less contrition for the loan. She was an independent young lady and from no one else would she have accepted such a favour, but the laird of Stanesland had such an off-hand authoritative way with him that, somewhat to her own surprise, she had protested—and submitted.
The trap was a high dog cart and the mare a flier.
"What a splendid horse!" she exclaimed as they spun up the first hill.
"Isn't she?" said Ned. "And she can go all the way like this, too."
Cicely was therefore a little surprised when at the next hill this flier was brought to a walk.
"I thought we were going all the way like that!" she laughed.
Ned glanced down at her.
"Are you in a hurry?" he enquired.
"Not particularly," she admitted.
"No more am I," said he, and this time he smiled down at her in a very friendly way.
So far they had talked casually on any indifferent subject that came to hand, but now his manner grew a little more intimate.
"Are you going to stay on with the Cromartys long?" he asked.
"I am wondering myself," she confessed.
"I hope you will," he said bluntly.
"It is very kind of you to say so," she said smiling at him a little shyly.
"I mean it. The fact is, Miss Farmond, you are a bit of a treat."
The quaintness of the phrase was irresistible and she laughed outright.
"It's a fact," said he, "you see I live an odd lonely kind of life here, and for most of my career I've lived an odd lonely kind of life too, so far as girls were concerned. It may sound rum to you to hear a backwood hunks of my time of life confessing to finding a girl of your age a bit of a treat, but it's a fact."
"Yes," she said. "I should have thought I must seem rather young and foolish."
"Lord, I don't mean that!" he exclaimed. "I mean that I must seem a pretty uninteresting bit of elderly shoe-leather."
"Uninteresting? Oh no!" she cried in protest, and then checked herself and her colour rose a little.
He smiled humorously.
"I can't see you out of this glass eye unless I turn round, so whether you're pulling my leg or not I don't know, but I was just saying to old Simon that the only kind of lady likely to take an interest in me was a female collector of antique curiosities, and you don't seem that sort, Miss Farmond."
She said nothing for a moment, and then asked:
"Were you discussing ladies then with Mr. Rattar?"
He also paused for a moment before replying.
"Incidentally in the course of a gossip, as the old chap hadn't got my business ready for me. By the way, did you get much change out of him?"
She shook her head a little mournfully.
"Nothing at all. He just asked questions instead of answering them."
"So he did with me! Confound the man. I fancy he has made too much money and is beginning to take it easy. That's one advantage of not being too rich, Miss Farmond; it keeps you from waxing fat."
"I'm not likely to wax fat then!" she laughed, and yet it was not quite a cheerful laugh.
He turned quickly and looked at her sympathetically.
"That your trouble?" he enquired in his outspoken way.
Cicely was not by way of giving her confidences easily, but this straight-forward, friendly attack penetrated her reserve.
"It makes one so dependent," she said, her voice even lower than usual.
"That must be the devil," he admitted.
"It is!" said she.
He whipped up the mare and ruminated in silence. Then he remarked:
"I'm just wondering."
Cicely began to smile.
"What the devil there can be that isn't utterly uninteresting about me—assuming you weren't pulling my leg."
"Oh," she said, "no man can be uninteresting who has seen as much and done as much as you have."
"The Lord keep you of that opinion!" he said, half humorously, but only half, it seemed. "It's true I've knocked about and been knocked about, but I'd have thought you'd have judged more by results."
She laughed a little low laugh.
"Do you think yourself the results are very bad?"
"Judging by the mirror, beastly! Judging by other standards—well, one can't see one's self in one's full naked horror, thank Heaven for it too! But I'm not well read, and I'm not—but what's the good in telling you? You're clever enough to see for yourself."
For a man who had no intention of paying compliments, Ned Cromarty had a singular gift for administering the pleasantest—because it was so evidently the most genuine—form of flattery. In fact, had he but known it, he was a universal favourite with women, whenever he happened to meet them; only he had not the least suspicion of the fact—which made him all the more favoured.
"I don't know very many men," said Cicely, with her serious expression and a conscientious air, "and so perhaps I am not a good judge, but certainly you seem to me quite unlike all the others."
"I told you," he laughed, "that the female would have to be a bit of a collector."
"Oh," she cried, quite serious still, "I don't mean that in the least. I don't like freaks a bit myself. I only mean—well, people do differ in character and experience, don't they?"
"I guess you're pretty wise," said he simply. "And I'm sized up right enough. However, the trouble at present is this blamed mare goes too fast!"
On their left, the chimneys and roof of a large mansion showed through the surrounding trees. In this wind-swept seaboard country, its acres of plantation were a conspicuous landmark and marked it as the seat of some outstanding local magnate. These trees were carried down to the road in a narrow belt enclosing an avenue that ended in a lodge and gates. At the same time that the lodge came into view round a bend in the road, a man on a bicycle appeared ahead of them, going in the same direction, and bent over his handle-bars against the wind.
"Hullo, that's surely Malcolm Cromarty!" said Ned.
"So it is!" she exclaimed, and there was a note of surprise in her voice. "I wonder where he has been."
The cyclist dismounted at the lodge gates a few moments before the trap pulled up there too, and the young man turned and greeted them. Or rather he greeted Miss Farmond, for his smile was clearly aimed at her alone.
"Hullo! Where have you been?" he cried.
"Where have you?" she retorted as she jumped out and let him help her off with the driving coat.
They made a remarkably good-looking young couple standing together there on the road and their manner to one another was evidently that of two people who knew each other well. Sitting on his high driving seat, Ned Cromarty turned his head well round so as to bring his sound eye to bear and looked at them in silence. When she handed him his coat and thanked him afresh, he merely laughed, told her, in his outspoken way, that all the fun had been his, and whipped up his mare.
"That's more the sort of fellow!" he said to himself gloomily, and for a little the thought seemed to keep him depressed. And then as he let the recollections of their drive have their own way undisturbed, he began to smile again, and kept smiling most of the way home.
The road drew ever nearer to the sea, trees and hedgerows grew even rarer and more stunted, and then he was driving through a patch of planting hardly higher than a shrubbery up to an ancient building on the very brink of the cliffs. The sea crashed white below and stretched grey and cold to the horizon, the wind whistled round the battlements and sighed through the stunted trees, and Ned (who had been too absorbed to remember his coat) slapped his arms and stamped his feet as he descended before a nail-studded front door with a battered coat of arms above it.
"Lord, what a place!" he said to himself, half critically, half affectionately.
The old castle of Stanesland was but a small house as castles, or even mansions, go, almost devoid of architectural ornament and evidently built in a sterner age simply for security, and but little embellished by the taste of more degenerate times. As a specimen of a small early 15th Century castle it was excellent; as a home it was inconvenience incarnate. How so many draughts found their way through such thick walls was a perennial mystery, and how to convey dishes from the kitchen to the dining room without their getting cold an almost insoluble problem.
The laird and his sister sat down to lunch and in about ten minutes Miss Cromarty remarked,
"So you drove Cicely Farmond home?"
Her brother nodded. He had mentioned the fact as soon as he came in, and rather wondered why she referred to it again.
Miss Cromarty smiled her own peculiar shrewd worldly little smile, and said:
"You are very silent, Ned."
Lilian Cromarty was a few years older than her brother; though one would hardly have guessed it. Her trim figure, bright eyes, vivacity of expression when she chose to be vivacious, and quick movements might have belonged to a woman twenty years younger. She had never been pretty, but she was always perfectly dressed and her smile could be anything she chose to make it. Until her youngest brother came into the property, the place had been let and she had lived with her friends and relations. She had had a good time, she always frankly confessed, but as frankly admitted that it was a relief to settle down at last.
"I was thinking," said her brother.
"About Cicely?" she asked in her frankly audacious way.
He opened his eyes for a moment and then laughed.
"You needn't guess again, Lilian," he admitted.
"Funny little thing," she observed.
"Funny?" he repeated, and his tone brought an almost imperceptible change of expression into his sister's eye.
"Oh," she said as though throwing the subject aside, "she is nice and quite pretty, but very young, and not very sophisticated; is she? However, I should think she would be a great success as a man's girl. That low voice and those eyes of hers are very effective. Pass me the salt, Ned."
Ned looked at her in silence, and then over her shoulder out through the square window set in the vast thickness of the wall, to the grey horizon line.
"I guess you've recommended me to marry once or twice, Lilian," he observed.
"Don't 'guess' please!" she laughed, "or I'll stick my bowie knife or gun or something into you! Yes, I've always advised you to marry—if you found the right kind of wife."
She took some credit to herself for this disinterested advice, since, if he took it, the consequences would be decidedly disconcerting to herself; but she had never pointed out any specific lady yet, or made any conspicuous effort to find one for him.
"Well——" he began, and then broke off.
"You're not thinking of Cicely, are you?" she asked, still in the same bright light way, but with a quick searching look at him.
"It seems a bit absurd. I don't imagine for an instant she'd look at me."
"Wouldn't look——!" she began derisively, and then pulled herself up very sharply, and altered her tactics on the instant. "She might think you a little too old for her," she said in a tone of entire agreement with him.
"And also that I've got one too few eyes, and in fact several other criticisms."
His sister shrugged her shoulders.
"A girl of that age might think those things," she admitted, "but it seems to me that the criticism ought to be on the other side. Who is she?"
Ned looked at her and she broke into a laugh.
"Well," she said, "I suppose we both have a pretty good idea. She's somebody's something—Alfred Cromarty's, I believe; though of course her mother may have fibbed, for she doesn't look much like the Cromartys. Anyhow that pretty well puts her out of the question."
"If you were a mere nobody, it mightn't make so much difference, but your wife must have some sort of a family behind her. One needn't be a snob to think that one mother and a guess at the father is hardly enough!"
"After all, that's up to me. I wouldn't be wanting to marry her great-mothers, even if she had any."
She shrugged her shoulders again.
"My dear Ned, I'm no prude, but there's always some devilment in the blood in these cases."
"Rot!" said he.
"Well, rot if you like, but I know more than one instance."
He said nothing for a moment and as he sat in silence, a look of keen anxiety came into her eye. She hid it instantly and compressed her lips, and then abruptly her brother said:
"I wonder whether she's at all taken up with Malcolm Cromarty!"
She ceased to meet his eye, and her own became expressionless.
"They have spent some months in the same house. At their age the consequences seem pretty inevitable."
She had contrived to suggest a little more than she said, and he started in his chair.
"What do you know?" he demanded.
"Oh, of course, there would be a dreadful row if anything was actually known abroad. Sir Reginald has probably other ideas for his heir."
"Then there is something between them?"
She nodded, and though she still did not meet his eye, he accepted the nod with a grim look that passed in a moment into a melancholy laugh.
"Well," he said, rising, "it was a pretty absurd idea anyhow. I'll go and have a look at myself in the glass and try to see the funny side of it!"
His sister sat very still after he had left the room.
Cicely Farmond and Malcolm Cromarty walked up the avenue together, he pushing his bicycle, she walking by his side with a more than usually serious expression.
"Then you won't tell me where you've been?" said he.
"You won't tell me where you've been!"
He was silent for a moment and then said confidentially:
"We might as well say we've been somewhere together. I mean, if any one asks."
"Thank you, I don't need to fib," said she.
"I don't mean I need to. Only——" he seemed to find it difficult to explain.
"I shall merely say I have been for a walk, and you need only say you have been for a ride—if you don't want to say where you have really been."
"And if you don't want to mention that you were driving with Ned Cromarty," he retorted.
"He only very kindly offered me a lift!"
She looked quickly at him as she spoke and as quickly away again. The glint in her eye seemed to displease him.
"You needn't always be so sharp with me, Cicely," he complained.
"You shouldn't say stupid things."
Both were silent for a space and then in a low mournful voice he said:
"I wish I knew how to win your sympathy, Cicely. You don't absolutely hate me, do you?"
"Of course I don't hate you. But the way to get a girl's sympathy is not always to keep asking for it."
He looked displeased again.
"I don't believe you know what I mean!"
"I don't believe you do either."
He grew tender.
"Your sympathy, Cicely, would make all the difference to my life!"
"Now, Malcolm——" she began in a warning voice.
"Oh, I am not asking you to love me again," he assured her quickly. "It is only sympathy I demand!"
"But you mix them up so easily. It isn't safe to give you anything."
"I won't again!" he assured her.
"Well," she said, though not very sympathetically, "what do you want to be sympathised with about now?"
"When you offer me sympathy in that tone, I can't give you my confidence!" he said unhappily.
"Really, Malcolm, how can I possibly tell what your confidence is going to be beforehand? Perhaps it won't deserve sympathy."
"If you knew the state of my affairs!" he said darkly.
"A few days ago you told me they were very promising," she said with a little smile.
"So they would be—so they are—if—if only you would care for me, Cicely!"
"You tell me they are promising when you want me to marry you, and desperate when you want me to sympathise with you," she said a little cruelly. "Which am I to believe?"
"Hush! Here's Sir Reginald," he said.
The gentleman who came through a door in the walled garden beside the house was a fresh-coloured, white-haired man of sixty; slender and not above middle height, but very erect, and with the carriage of a person a little conscious of being of some importance. Sir Reginald Cromarty was, in fact, extremely conscious of his position in life, and the rather superior and condescending air he was wont to assume in general society made it a little difficult for a stranger to believe that he could actually be the most popular person in the county; especially as it was not hard to discover that his temper could easily become peppery upon provocation. If, however, the stranger chanced to provide the worthy baronet with even the smallest opening of exhibiting his extraordinary kindness of heart—were it only by getting wet in a shower or mislaying a walking stick, he would quickly comprehend. And the baronet's sympathy never waited to be summoned; it seemed to hover constantly over all men and women he met, spying for its chance.
He himself was totally unconscious of this attribute and imagined the respect in which he was held to be due to his lineage, rank, and superior breeding and understanding. Indeed, few people in this world can have cut a more dissimilar figure as seen from his own and from other men's eyes; though as both parties were equally pleased with Sir Reginald Cromarty, it mattered little.
At the sight of Cicely his smile revealed the warmth of his feelings in that direction.
"Ah, my dear girl," said he, "we've been looking for you. Where have you been?"
"I've been having a walk."
She smiled at him as she answered, and on his side it was easy to see that the good gentleman was enraptured, and that Miss Farmond was not likely to be severely cross-examined as to her movements. Towards Malcolm, on the other hand, though his greeting was kindly enough, his eye was critical. The young author's tie seemed to be regarded with particular displeasure.
"My God, Margaret, imagine being found dead in such a thing!" he had exclaimed to his wife, after his first sight of it; and time had done nothing to diminish his distaste for this indication of a foreign way of life.
Lady Cromarty came out of the garden a moment later; a dark thin-faced lady with a gracious manner when she spoke, but with lips that were usually kept very tight shut and an eye that could easily be hard.
"Nearly time for lunch," she said. "You two had better hurry up!"
The young people hurried on to the house and the baronet and his lady walked slowly behind.
"So they have been away all morning together, Reginald," she remarked.
"Oh, I don't think so," said he. "He had his bicycle and she has been walking."
"You are really too unsuspicious, Reggie!"
"A woman, my dear, is perhaps a little too much the reverse where a young couple is concerned. I have told you before, and I repeat it now emphatically, that neither Cicely nor Malcolm is in a position to contemplate matrimony for an instant."
"He is your heir—and Cicely is quite aware of it."
"I assure you, Margaret," he said with great conviction, "that Cicely is not a girl with mercenary motives. She is quite charming——"
"Oh, I know your opinion of her, Reggie," Lady Cromarty broke in a trifle impatiently, "and I am fond of her too, as you know. Still, I don't believe a girl who can use her eyes so effectively is quite as simple as you think."
Sir Reginald laughed indulgently.
"Really, my love, even the best of women are sometimes a trifle uncharitable! But in any case Malcolm has quite enough sense of his future position to realise that his wife must be somebody without the blemish on her birth, which is no fault of dear Cicely's, but—er—makes her ineligible for this particular position."
"I wish I could think that Malcolm is the kind of young man who would consult anything but his own wishes. I have told you often enough, Reggie, that I don't think it is wise to keep these two young people living here in the same house for months on end."
"But what can one do?" asked the benevolent baronet. "Neither of them has any home of their own. Hang it, I'm the head of their family and I'm bound to show them a little hospitality."
"But Malcolm has rooms in town. He needn't spend months on end at Keldale."
The baronet was silent for a moment. Then he said:
"To tell the truth, my dear, I'm afraid Malcolm is not turning out quite so well as I had hoped. He certainly ought to be away doing something. At the same time, hang it, you wouldn't have me turn my own kinsman and heir out of my house, Margaret; would you?"
Lady Cromarty sighed, and then her thin lips tightened.
"You are hopeless, Reggie. I sometimes feel as though I were here merely as matron of a home for lost Cromartys! Well, I hope your confidence won't be abused. I confess I don't feel very comfortable about it myself."
"Well, well," said Sir Reginald. "My own eyes are open too, I assure you. I shall watch them very carefully at lunch, in the light of what you have been saying."
The baronet was an old Etonian, and as his life had been somewhat uneventful since, he was in the habit of drawing very largely on his recollections of that nursery of learning. Lunch had hardly begun before a question from Cicely set him going, and for the rest of the meal he regaled her with these reminiscences.
After luncheon he said to his wife:
"Upon my word, I noticed nothing whatever amiss. Cicely is a very sensible as well as a deuced pretty girl."
"I happened to look at Malcolm occasionally," said she.
Sir Reginald thought that she seemed to imply more than she said, but then women were like that, he had noticed, and if one took all their implications into account, life would be a troublesome affair.
During luncheon an exceedingly efficient person had been moving briskly behind the chairs. His face was so expressionless, his mouth so tightly closed, and his air of concentration on the business in hand so intense, that he seemed the perfect type of the silent butler. But as soon as lunch was over, and while Cicely still stood in the hall listening with a dubious eye to Malcolm's suggestion of a game of billiards, Mr. James Bisset revealed the other side of his personality. He came up to the young couple with just sufficient deference, but no more, and in an accent which experts would have recognised as the hall mark of the western part of North Britain, said:
"Excuse me, miss, but I've mended your bicycle and I'll show it you if ye like, and just explain the principle of the thing."
There was at least as much command as invitation in his tones. The billiard invitation was refused, and with a hidden smile Cicely followed him to the bicycle house.
Expert knowledge was James Bisset's foible. Of some subjects, such as buttling, carpentry, and mending bicycles, it was practical; of others, such as shooting, gardening, and motoring, it was more theoretical. To Sir Reginald and my lady he was quite indispensable, for he could repair almost anything, knew his own more particular business from A to Z, and was ready at any moment to shoulder any responsibility. Sir Reginald's keeper, gardener, and chauffeur were apt however to be a trifle less enthusiastic, Mr. Bisset's passion for expounding the principles of their professions sometimes exceeding his tact.
In person, he was an active, stoutly built man (though far too energetic to be fat), with blunt rounded features, eyes a little protruding, and sandy hair and a reddish complexion which made his age an unguessable secret. He might have been in the thirties or he might have been in the fifties.
"With regard to these ladies' bicycles, miss—" he began with a lecturer's air.
But by this time Cicely was also an expert in side-tracking her friend's theoretical essays.
"Oh, how clever of you!" she exclaimed rapturously. "It looks as good as ever!"
The interruption was too gratifying to offend.
"Better in some ways," he said complacently. "The principle of these things is——"
"I did miss it this morning," she hurried on. "In fact I had to have quite a long walk. Luckily Mr. Cromarty of Stanesland gave me a lift coming home."
"Oh, indeed, miss? Stanesland gave ye a lift, did he? An interesting gentleman yon."
This time she made no effort to divert Mr. Bisset's train of thought.
"You think Mr. Cromarty interesting, then?" said she.
"They say he's hanged a man with his ain hands," said Bisset impressively.
"What!" she cried.
"For good and sufficient reason, we'll hope, miss. But whatever the way of it, it makes a gentleman more interesting in a kin' of way than the usual run. And then looking at the thing on general principles, the theory of hanging is——"
"Oh, but surely," she interrupted, "that isn't the only reason why Mr. Cromarty—I mean why you think he is interesting?"
"There's that glass eye, too. That's very interesting, miss."
She still seemed unsatisfied.
"His glass eye! Oh—you mean it has a story?"
"Vera possibly. He says himself it was done wi' a whisky bottle, but possibly that's making the best of it. But what interests me, miss, about yon eye is this——"
He paused dramatically and she enquired in an encouraging voice:
"It's the principle of introducing a foreign substance so near the man's brain. What's glass? What's it consist of?"
"I—I don't know," confessed Cicely weakly.
"Silica! And what's silica? Practically the same as sand! Well now if ye put a handful of sand into a man's brain—or anyhow next door to it, it's bound to have some effect, bound to have some effect!"
Bisset's voice fell to a very serious note, and as he was famous for the range of his reading and was generally said to know practically by heart "The People's Self-Educator in Science and Art," Cicely asked a little apprehensively:
"But what effect can it possibly have?"
"It might take him different ways," said the philosopher cautiously though sombrely. "But it's a good thing, anyway, Miss Farmond, that the laird of Stanesland is no likely to get married."
"Isn't he?" she asked, again with that encouraging note.
Bisset replied with another question, asked in an ominous voice:
"Have ye seen yon castle o' his, miss?"
"I called there once with Lady Cromarty."
"A most interesting place, miss, illustrating the principle of thae castles very instructively."
Mr. Bisset had evidently been studying architecture as well as science, and no doubt would have given Miss Farmond some valuable information on the subject. But she seemed to lack enthusiasm for it to-day.
"But will the castle prevent him marrying?" she enquired with a smile.
"The lady in it will," said the philosopher with a sudden descent into worldly shrewdness.
"Miss Cromarty! Why?"
"She's mair comfortable there than setting off on her travels again. That's a fac', miss."
"But—but supposing he——" Cicely began and then paused.
"Oh, the laird's no the marrying sort anyhow. He says to me himself one day when I'd taken the liberty of suggesting that a lady would suit the castle fine—we was shooting and I was carrying his cartridges, which I do for amusement, miss, whiles—'Bisset,' says he, 'the lady will have to be a damned keen shot to think me worth a cartridge. I'm too tough for the table,' says he, 'and not ornamental enough to stuff. They've let me off so far, and why the he—' begging your pardon, miss, but Stanesland uses strong expressions sometimes. 'Why the something,' says he, 'should they want to put me in the bag now? I'm happier free—and so's the lady.' But he's a grand shot and a vera friendly gentleman, vera friendly indeed. It's a pity, though, he's that ugly."
"Ugly!" she exclaimed. "Oh, I don't think him ugly at all. He's very striking looking. I think he is rather handsome."
Bisset looked at her with a benevolently reproving eye.
"Weel, miss, it's all a matter of taste, but to my mind Stanesland is a fine gentleman, but the vera opposite extreme from a Venus." He broke off and glanced towards the house. "Oh, help us! There's one of thae helpless women crying on me. How this house would get on wanting me——!"
He left Miss Farmond to paint the gloomy picture for herself.
It was a few days later that Cicely looked up from the local paper she was reading and asked:
"Who was George Rattar?"
Sir Reginald laid down his book and looked at her in some surprise.
"George Rattar? What do you know about him?"
"I see the announcement of his death. 'Son of the late John Simon Rattar' he's called."
"That's Silent Simon's brother!" exclaimed Sir Reginald. "Where did he die?"
"In New York, it says."
Sir Reginald turned to his wife.
"We can hardly send our sympathies to Simon on this bereavement!"
"No," she said significantly. "I suppose congratulations would be more appropriate."
The baronet took the paper from Cicely and studied it himself.
"Died about a fortnight ago, I see," he observed. "I wonder whether Simon put this announcement in himself, or whether brother George arranged it in his will? It would be quite like the fellow to have this posthumous wipe at Simon. George had a certain sense of humour—which Simon lacks. And there was certainly no love lost between them!"
"Why should it annoy Mr. Rattar?" asked Cicely.
"Because brother George was not a member of his family he would care to be reminded of. Though on the other hand, Simon is as hard as whinstone and has as much sentiment as this teapot, and he may have put the notice in himself simply to show the world he was rid of the fellow."
"What was George Rattar then?" enquired Cicely.
"He was once Simon Rattar's partner, wasn't he, Reginald?" said Lady Cromarty. "And then he swindled him, didn't he?"
"Swindled several other people as well," said Sir Reginald, "myself included. However, the thing was hushed up, and brother George disappeared. Then he took to forgery on his own account and among other people's signatures he imitated with remarkable success was Simon's. This let old Simon in for it again and there was no hushing it up a second time. Simon gave evidence against him without mercy, and since then George has been his Majesty's guest for a number of years. So if you meet Mr. Simon Rattar, Cicely, you'd better not tell him how sorry you are to hear of poor George's decease!"
"I wish I could remember him more distinctly," said Lady Cromarty. "I'm afraid I always mix him up with our friend Mr. Simon."
"It's little wonder," her husband replied. "They were twins. George was the one with a moustache; one knew them apart by that. Extraordinary thing, it has always seemed to me, that their natures should have been so different."
"Perhaps," suggested Cicely compassionately, with her serious air, "it was only that George was tempted."
Sir Reginald laughed heartily.
"You little cynic!" he cried. "You mean to insinuate that if you tempted Simon, he'd be as bad a hat as his brother?"
"Oh, no!" cried Cicely. "I meant——"
"Tempt him and see!" chuckled the baronet. "And we'll have a little bet on the result!" He was glancing at the paper as he laughed, and now he suddenly stopped laughing and exclaimed, "Hullo! Here's a much more serious loss for our friend. Would you like to earn L1, Cicely?"
"Very much," said she.
"Well then if you search the road very carefully between Mr. Simon Rattar's residence and his office you may find his signet ring and obtain the advertised, and I may say princely, reward of one pound."
"Only a pound!" exclaimed Lady Cromarty, "for that handsome old ring of his?"
"If he had offered a penny more, I should have taken my business out of his hands!" laughed Sir Reginald. "It would have meant that Silent Simon wasn't himself any longer. A pound is exactly his figure; a respectable sum, but not extravagant."
"What day did he lose it?" asked Cicely.
"The advertisement doesn't say."
"He wasn't wearing it——" Cicely pulled herself up sharply.
"When?" asked Lady Cromarty.
"Where can I have seen him last?" wondered Cicely with an innocent air.
"Not for two or three weeks certainly," said Lady Cromarty decisively. "And he can't have lost it then if this advertisement is only just put in."
"No, of course not," Cicely agreed.
"Well," said Sir Reginald, "he'll miss his ring more than his brother! And remember, Cicely, you get a pound for finding the ring, and you win a pair of gloves if you can tempt Simon to stray from the paths of honesty and virtue! By Jingo, I'll give you the gloves if you can even make him tell a good sporting lie!"
When the good baronet was in this humour no man could excel him in geniality, and, to do him justice, a kindly temper and hearty spirits were the rule with him six days out of seven. On the other hand, he was easily ruffled and his tempers were hot while they lasted. Upon the very next morning there arose on the horizon a little cloud, a cloud that seemed at the moment the merest fleck of vapour, which upset him, his family thought, quite unduly.
It took the form of a business letter from Mr. Simon Rattar, a letter on the surface perfectly innocuous and formally polite. Yet Sir Reginald seemed considerably disturbed.
"Damn the man!" he exclaimed as he cast it on the breakfast table.
"Reggie!" expostulated his wife gently. "What's the matter?"
"Matter?" snapped her husband. "Simon Rattar has the impudence to tell me he is letting the farm of Castleknowe to that fellow Shearer after all!"
"But why not? You meant to some time ago, I know."
"Some time ago, certainly. But I had a long talk with Simon ten days ago and told him what I'd heard about Shearer and said I wouldn't have the fellow on my property at any price. I don't believe the man is solvent, in the first place; and in the second place he's a socialistic, quarrelsome, mischievous fellow!"
"And what did Mr. Rattar think?"
"He tried to make some allowances for the man, but in the end when he saw I had made up my mind, he professed to agree with me and said he would look out for another tenant. Now he tells me that the matter is settled as per my instructions of the 8th. That's weeks ago, and not a word does he say about our conversation cancelling the whole instructions!"
"Then Shearer gets the farm?"
"No, he doesn't! I'm dashed if he does! I shall send Mr. Simon a letter that will make him sit up! He's got to alter the arrangement somehow."
He turned to Malcolm and added:
"When your time comes, Malcolm, beware of having a factor who has run the place so long that he thinks it's his own property! By Gad, I'm going to tell him a bit of my mind!"
During the rest of breakfast he glanced at the letter once or twice, and each time his brows contracted, but he said nothing more in presence of Cicely and Malcolm. After he had left the dining room, however, Lady Cromarty followed him and said:
"Don't be too hasty with Mr. Rattar, Reggie! After all, the talk may have slipped his memory."
"Slipped his memory? If you had heard it, Margaret, you'd know better. I was a bit cross with him for a minute or two then, which I hardly ever am, and that alone would make him remember it, one would think. We talked for over an hour on the business and the upshot was clear and final. No, no, he has got a bit above himself and wants a touch of the curb."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I'm going to send in a note by car and tell him to come out and see me about the business at once."
"Let me see the letter before you send it, Reggie."
He seemed to growl assent, but when she next saw him the letter had gone; and from the baronet's somewhat crusty explanation, she suspected that it was a little sharper than he knew she would have approved.
When the car returned his annoyance was increased again for a space. Mr. Rattar had sent a brief reply that he was too busy to come out that afternoon, but he would call on Sir Reginald in the morning. For a time this answer kept Sir Reginald in a state of renewed irritation, and then his natural good humour began to prevail, till by dinner time he was quite calm again, and after dinner in as genial humour as he had been in the day before.
He played a game of pyramids with Cicely and Malcolm in the billiard room, and then he and Cicely joined Lady Cromarty in the drawing room while the young author went up to his room to work, he declared. He had a large bedroom furnished half as a sitting room where he retired each night to compose his masterpieces as soon as it became impossible to enjoy Miss Farmond's company without having to share it in the drawing room with his host and hostess. At least, that was the explanation of his procedure given by Lady Cromarty, whose eye was never more critical than when it studied her husband's kinsman and heir.
Lady Cromarty's eye was not uncritical also of Cicely at times, but to-night she was so relieved to see how Sir Reginald's temper improved under her smiles and half shy glances, that she let her stay up later than usual. Then when she and the girl went up to bed, she asked her husband if he would be late.
"The magazines came this morning," said he. "I'd better sleep in my dressing room."
The baronet was apt to sit up late when he had anything to read that held his fancy, and the procedure of sleeping in his dressing room was commonly followed then.
He bade them good-night and went off towards the library, and a few minutes later, as they were going upstairs, they heard the library door shut.
When they came to Lady Cromarty's room, Cicely said good-night to her hostess and turned down the passage that led to her own bedroom. A door opened quietly as she passed and a voice whispered:
She stopped and regarded the young author with a reproving eye.
"Is anything the matter?" she asked.
"I just wanted to speak to you!" he pleaded.
"Now, Malcolm," she said severely, "you know quite well that Lady Cromarty trusts us not to do this sort of thing!"
"She's in her room, isn't she?"
"What does that matter?"
"And where's Sir Reginald?"
"Still in the library."
"Sitting up late?"
"Yes, but that doesn't matter either. Good night!"
"Wait just one minute, Cicely! Come into my room—I won't shut the door!"
"Certainly not!" she said emphatically.
"Well then, don't speak so loudly! I must confide in you, Cicely; I'm getting desperate. My position is really serious. Something's got to happen! If you would only give me your sympathy——"
"I thought you were writing," she interrupted.
"I've been trying to, but——"
"Well, write all this down and read it to me to-morrow," she smiled. "Good night!"
"The blame be on your head!" began the author dramatically, but the slim figure was already moving away, throwing him a parting smile that seemed to wound his sensitive soul afresh.
Even in that scattered countryside of long distances by windy roads, with scarcely ever a village as a focus for gossip, news flew fast. The next morning Ned Cromarty had set out with his gun towards a certain snipe marsh, but while he was still on the high road he met a man on a bicycle. The man had heard strange news and stopped to pass it on, and the next moment Ned was hurrying as fast as his long legs could take him back to the castle.