About the Book
Welton Keynes sees a job as male secretary advertised by Miss Ferriby of The Lawns in London. On the way to the interview he is warned by neighbours that several young men employed in that house have disappeared. Ignoring the advice, he takes the job, but it is not long before Welton Keynes realizes something strange and dangerous is taking place in Miss Ferriby’s house. There are her mysterious clients, wealthy men and women coming to attend her séances. Although the large house is well kept, there seem to be no servants apart from the footman who is strangely out of place in that role. Welton decides to explore behind the locked doors. What he discovers will sign his death warrant, unless …
This is an old fashioned story of murder, robbery and séances, with a touch of romance. It was written in 1910 when political correctness in fiction was not even on the horizon, and the main villain was often physically disabled or disfigured (as here) to make him or her appear more villainous. Note that the physical descriptions of the characters are from the original book. It’s how writers of popular fiction generally wrote, and what their readers read. Be warned: Miss Ferriby will carry on living in the some dark corner of your mind long after you have finished the story.
Florence Warden 1857-1929
First published 1910
This edition ©2016 North View Publishing
Miss Ferriby’s Clients is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright owner of this edition.
About the Book
More thrillers from North View Publishing
[_ (Publisher's note: There are some minor edits made to this story to help readability, while bringing the punctuation and formatting into line with modern practice. The frequent use of But and And at the start of sentences are in the original. Nothing in the storyline has been changed. The value of money in 1910 when the story was written needs to be multiplied by at least 100 to get today's equivalent. So the clients paying 10 pounds for a single consultation with Miss Ferriby were paying over 1,000 pounds -- or $1,500.) _]
Welton Keynes was that most unlucky of men; the wellborn, well-educated son of a rich man who had grown suddenly and unexpectedly poor.
Welton’s father had been engaged in the City, and although financial speculations had kept him afloat and prosperous long enough to allow him to educate his two sons well and to bring them up in every luxury. It had taken wings with surprising suddenness at a time of City uneasiness, with the result that he had found himself one morning a ruined man.
Unable to bear the blow, his father disappeared on the day following the crisis, and was believed to have committed suicide on the boat as he crossed from Dover to Ostend.
The sons, left to struggle along in the world which had hitherto seemed a very paradise to them, looked out for something to do. The younger, Basil, a youth of eighteen, who had just left Eton and had expected to go on to Cambridge, at once obtained a post as clerk in a bank, through the help of some friends.
But the elder, Welton, who was twenty-four, was more difficult to provide for.
Day after day he searched the advertisement columns of the newspapers, but there were so many men in his own position, with no business training, and with their birth, breeding, good looks and expensive habits as sole assets, that each post suitable to him he found to have suited someone else before he got wind of it.
At the end of three weeks of failure to obtain any employment by which he could hope to make a living, Welton Keynes seemed as far off as ever from the goal, when he read an advertisement worded in the following way:
Secretary wanted, not over twenty-five, University man preferred, by elderly lady engaged in philanthropic work. Salary 500 pounds per annum. Address: Miss Ferriby, The Lawns, Chiswick.
Now this he felt to be too good for him to get. An elderly lady who wanted a secretary and was willing to give him five hundred pounds a year, would certainly have five hundred applications to choose from, and Welton despaired of his chances.
However, he went at once to Chiswick, but as it was late in the day before he read the advertisement, he felt sure that he would find he had been forestalled. He began to think the advertisement itself was a bad joke when he found that nobody knew where The Lawns was.
Almost sure that he had wasted his time, and in a very ill humour, Welton Keynes thought of entering a small newspaper shop which he passed on his wanderings, and making inquiries there. An old lady was being served with some notepaper, and a young one was standing behind her, waiting. Welton was struck with the face of the younger lady. She was tall and dark-haired, and dark-eyed, with a singularly pale olive complexion. Dressed almost shabbily, she yet had an air of extreme refinement which attracted the young man’s attention, and made him glance at her again as he waited for his turn.
The old lady was exacting, after the manner of her kind. But there was about her voice and manner, and even about her dress, which was as shabby as that of the younger lady, the same air of refinement which marked the other; and she had enough remains of personal beauty for Welton Keynes to decide that they must be mother and daughter.
When at last the elder lady had made her purchases, she retreated from the counter, but instead of at once leaving the shop, she turned to the opposite counter and began looking at the illustrated papers through her glasses.
“Come along, Mama,” said the daughter impatiently, in a voice which struck Welton, already attracted, as particularly musical.
Meanwhile Welton, making the excuse of buying a packet of cigarettes, asked the man in charge of the shop if he could direct him to The Lawns.
“Miss Ferriby’s? Oh, yes, sir. I’ve been asked that a good many times today. She put an advertisement in the papers, sir, and there’s been quite a rush of gentlemen after it.”
Welton Keynes, though not surprised, felt downcast at the words which confirmed his own suspicions as to the remoteness of his own chances.
“Oh yes, thanks,” he said. “Where did you say the place was?”
“I’ll show you, sir. The name used to be Glenavon, and it’s only recently been changed to The Lawns. That’s why people don’t know it. But I’ve served Miss Ferriby with papers for some time, sir, so I can tell you what you want to know.”
The talkative man came out from behind his counter, and from the door of the shop gave the necessary directions. In the meantime Welton cast another furtive glance at the young lady who had so greatly attracted him, and he noticed that she looked at him in what seemed to him rather a strange manner and then that she whispered something hastily to her mother, who said “What! What! I can’t hear. What young man?” in an audible undertone.
Welton thanked the shopkeeper and went out, following the directions given him until after several turns down rather tortuous bystreets, he came in sight of a high wall with a little dark green door in it, upon which were painted in tiny white letters the words “The Lawns.”
He could just see the first floor of what appeared to be a long comfortable-looking, old-fashioned house above the top of the wall.
The house, which was surrounded by trees, now in the October evening looked grey and shabby in their thin autumn covering. It stood in a little lane which led down to the river. Glancing in that direction, Welton Keynes thought what a dreary position it was, how strangely isolated and cut off from the world the house looked; and what a danger there might be for some visitor, arriving late at night and looking for the house, to drive right past under the high wall, and to find himself suddenly plunged into the dark waters of the river at the end of the lane.
It was rather out of curiosity than with any more keenly interested motive that he had come; for he knew that long before this the old lady would have had enough applicants for the post to make her selection.
He scarcely thought it worth while even to pull the long iron bell handle that hung beside the green door in the wall. While looking at it and hesitating, he heard a footstep behind him, and turning, saw the young lady of the newspaper shop running towards him. Behind her, some distance away, came, at a slower pace, and with more exertion, the elder lady.
“I beg your pardon,” said the girl, hesitating and shy, “but my mother wants to speak to you. Would you mind coming back to her? She can’t walk very fast, and she’s been trying hard to catch you up before——”
She did not finish the sentence, but she glanced at the handle beside the green door.
Welton Keynes, raising his hat, surprised and interested at this unexpected address, went back at once. The young lady walked silently by his side till they reached the elder, who was looking flushed and rather nervous.
“Oh, Barbara,” she began at once, addressing not the young man, but her daughter, “really I don’t know that we ought to interfere.” Then she turned to Welton. “I’m sure it’s nothing at all but our fancy, and because being two women living alone we get all sorts of things into our heads, and really we haven’t anything to say, and I’m sorry we spoke to you.”
The girl frowned with some trace of gentle impatience. “Really, Mama, since you insisted I should speak to this gentleman, I think you had better say what you wanted to say now.”
The elder lady was in a flutter of excitement and distress at this challenge. "Really, Barbara," she began again. And then she stopped, looked up at Welton Keynes, who was a tall, well-built young man of some six feet two inches, with laughing blue eyes, and sighed. "Well," she said at last, in a reluctant and yet important voice, "perhaps after all I'd better warn you. But mind," -- and she raised a warning finger in a carefully mended black kid glove -- "I may be quite wrong, of course."
Welton Keynes, much mystified, could only bow and wish she would get on with her story. At last, with another sigh, and a furtive glance round her, she spoke again.
"Well, you must know that we live in one of the two little houses -- cottages they are really -- at the end of the lane, just where it joins the high road. So we see a good deal of what goes on here, and we hear a good deal too. Well, if you're interested in the advertisement about secretaries, I think you ought to know that Miss Ferriby changes her secretary very often, and ... and nobody seems to know what becomes of them."
Although this was obviously the most arrant gossip of a talkative old woman, who would have been better employed reading her Bible than spying upon her neighbours and listening to the chatter of her maid, Welton Keynes was so much interested in the pretty girl who was the old lady’s daughter, that he not only listened courteously and pretended to be grateful for the nonsense she was talking, but asked her, with an appearance of intense interest, for further information.
“Indeed!” he said, with all the appearance of intense interest which he could muster. “That’s very strange, isn’t it? How do you account for it?”
The old lady pursed her lips and drew back her head. Her daughter twitched her mother’s sleeve, as a warning to her not to be too communicative to an utter stranger. But the mother clearly did not like being interfered with, and she frowned impatiently at her daughter and went on with her warnings.
“Well, one doesn’t like to talk scandal about one’s neighbours, and I myself have a horror of it. But certainly it seems strange to see so many new faces, one after another, and to know nothing about what becomes of them.”
“Won’t Miss Ferriby herself say anything about them then?” asked Welton, naturally enough taking it for granted that the old lady must be a personal friend, or at least acquaintance of the woman about whose private affairs she professed to know so much.
“Oh, how can I tell what she says? She isn’t a person I should care to know,” said the lady with dignity.
Welton felt greatly perplexed. If she did not know Miss Ferriby, how could she possibly expect to be supplied with full details concerning the fate of her secretaries? This question, however, he of course did not care to put. He looked puzzled, and she went on:
“But one learns a great deal about one’s near neighbours without the necessity of personal acquaintance. You see, we live so very near, and you know how our servants gossip?”
Welton assented to this, though it occurred to him to wonder whether they could possibly do more in that way than their mistresses.
There was a pause, and then the old lady said, "Well, I won't detain you, and I must really apologize to you for having insisted upon speaking to you. But really, after the things I've heard -- it seemed better, you know -- don't you think so?"
As she made this vague suggestion, the elderly lady peered up into his face for the look of gratitude she evidently considered her due.
He thanked her quite effusively, and glancing at the handsome girl by her side as he did so, wondered what she thought of her mother’s eccentric behaviour. To his surprise, she did not look as impatient and angry as he would have expected. The whole affair seemed to him so preposterous, to waylay a stranger in order to warn him vaguely about a danger which certainly did not exist, that he would have expected the younger and brighter-witted lady to laugh at her mother’s interference. But the girl appeared to take it quite seriously, and when her mother bowed and turned to go into her house, which was only a few yards away, she bowed too without a word, and followed her mother without any remonstrance or protest.
Welton watched them go through the tiny garden in front of one of the three small cottages which stood at the end of the lane. All three had once been merely labourers’ cottages, and they had been transformed by an enterprising landlord into bijou residences, by the simple expedient of painting the doors beetle-green, the window-sashes a staring white, and by substituting “art” curtains and “brise bise” lace blinds for the old-fashioned Venetian blinds and looped-up curtains of coarse white lace.
Then Welton, much amused, puzzled and interested by the incident, walked past the green door in the wall of The Lawns, more interested in the pretty girl with the pale skin and large eyes than in Miss Ferriby and the post which he knew he would not get.
He passed the three bijou residences, and saw the pretty girl at the window of the little front room. She was looking out, with an expression of eager interest upon her face, and as she watched him pass, he ventured to raise his hat again. She responded by bending her head, and continued to watch him with the same expression of interest, as he found by turning suddenly before he had gone many steps.
He got out into the high road, and then turned back and went the length of the lane towards the river. On his left hand, he presently came to a road which was very isolated, being bounded by high garden walls well away from the houses to which they belonged.
It was by this time getting dark, and rather pleased with the sense of distance from the hum of the busy streets which this retired neighbourhood presented, he sauntered on, turning out of one quiet, winding road into another, until in a back way shadowed by trees which stretched their branches over the walls on each side, he saw before him a sight which roused his curiosity by its oddity.
Between two huge mastiffs, evidently prize dogs of great value, there walked, or rather hobbled, a little old woman dressed most quaintly in a full, round skirt and a full, round black cape and a small black mushroom hat, from which depended a long, loose, flowing black veil.
She was deformed and stunted, and her enormous head was supported on two thin and narrow shoulders quite disproportioned to the weight and size of what it had to carry. Her back was humped, and from each side protruded a long, lean arm, with a very large and muscular hand at the end of it. In each hand she held a strap by which she led one of the dogs, and she called to them in a deep, masculine voice as she went along.
“Steady, Jock! Quicker, Jack! Good dog, good dog!”
Welton Keynes, fascinated by the oddity of the combination of the dwarf and the two splendid animals which protected her, followed slowly, watching the odd trio as they walked at a fairly good pace, first along one quiet lane and then down another.
Presently he saw a man’s head appear above the top of the wall a little in front of the strange group. Slackening his own pace, and keeping in the shadow of the overhanging trees, he was able to see that the man appeared to be lying in wait for somebody and that he carried a thick stick, the end of which was just visible over the top of the wall.
The woman who, by reason of her deformity, carried her head in a downward direction, had evidently not caught sight of the man. Neither did the dogs appear to have seen him.
Suddenly, before Welton Keynes had time to utter a shout of warning, the man with the stick had leapt over the wall, reached the ground, and was in the act of attacking the old woman.
The dogs sprang free from the straps by which she held them, and made a dash for the assailant; but at the same moment a second man came over the wall, and rushing up to the bent woman he would have knocked her down but for the timely interference of Welton Keynes, who running as fast as his legs would carry him, managed to trip the man up just as he was raising his stick for a second attempt to strike the old woman, who had avoided his first attack with nimbleness surprising in one of her years and apparent helplessness.
In the meantime the first man was finding the combined attack of the two mastiffs too much for him. And upon hearing the shout with which Welton came to the rescue, and the warning blasphemies of the second assailant, he contented himself with attempting to beat off the dogs, as he whistled to the other man to “get out of it.”
But this was not so easy. Welton was tall and athletic, and was ready for his man when the latter got up from the ground. There was a short scuffle, a blow dealt and returned, and then the second man took to his heels, following the first, and leaving the formidable, club-headed stick with which he had attacked the old woman, in the possession of his opponent.
Welton Keynes watched the two rascals as they disappeared round the nearest corner amid the ferocious barking of the two dogs, who were in a state of wild excitement, making little runs in the direction of the flying men, and returning reluctantly at the harsh call of their mistress.
Welton Keynes turned to her, and raising his hat, asked her if she was hurt.
The old woman was leaning against the wall and panting violently. She shook her head. Then, suddenly throwing back her flowing black veil, she showed him a face which struck him as being the most singular he had ever seen.
Features large enough for those of a man: nose prominent and masculine, mouth large and firmly closed, a jaw denoting decision and strength of will; and most striking of all, a pair of enormous grey eyes, peering out from under shaggy grey eyebrows, and full of strange lights and fire.
Above this striking face was a tangled mass of untidy grey hair, coarse and stringy and hanging in a sort of bush over the broad forehead and the extraordinary eyes. Welton looked at her, fascinated. So strong was the contrast between her feeble walk and bent, infirm figure, grey hair and grey eyebrows, on the one hand, and her hard, strong face and deep, masculine voice and fiery, flashing eyes on the other, that it seemed as if the component parts of this strange personality could not possibly belong to the same creature. So ill did the strong and the young elements combine with the old and the feeble.
“You came most opportunely,” she said, and he was surprised at the feminine graciousness with which she spoke, and the softness which she was able to put into her deep-toned, harsh voice. “I’m very much obliged to you. No, I’m not hurt. I’m annoyed with myself, though, for needing your help I’d imagined myself so safe with my two protectors.”
“Well, you were attacked unawares,” said Welton. “These dark roads are dangerous for a lady at night.”
"Well, I feel that, and so I'd provided myself, as I thought, with a strong escort. I shall take more care still in the future. And you -- did the brute hurt you?" she added solicitously.
“Not a bit. It was the other way. I think I hurt him. However, he got no more than he deserved. May I see you well out of these byroads into one of the more open thoroughfares, where I’ll know you are safe?”
She smiled, showing two rows of beautiful white teeth, which somehow seemed rather grotesque than attractive in the little deformed old woman. His first idea about them was that they must be false.
“You shall see me farther still, if you will. I should like you to come as far as my house, and to let me thank you there. It is not far.”
“Thank you. It’s nothing to thank me for. It was good fun to see the beggars run.”
“Then you won’t come?”
“I thank you very much. But I have an appointment to keep.”
The old lady frowned. She gave him the impression of being a person who was accustomed to consider her will as law. She even seemed offended by his refusal.
“As you like, of course,” she said, with a sudden change from sweetness to frigidity. “But I can tell you that the little hump-backed old woman lives in a very nice little shell, and knows how to treat her friends handsomely. However, it’s as you please. And I thank you all the same.”
She suddenly put out one of those long, strong, bony hands which he had already noticed, and shook hands with him with a grip like a man’s.
“You have proved a most charming acquaintance. I’m sorry you won’t be more,” she said, altering her voice back again until it was once more gentle and sweet. “Good night.”
“Good night,” said Welton, raising his hat as she seized the strap of her mastiffs, and turning rapidly with them into a street that was a little more open, disappeared from his sight.
Welton Keynes was so much interested by this second adventure in the neighbourhood that, changing his intention, he decided not to leave it until he had learnt all he could about the mysterious Miss Ferriby, whose eccentricities had excited so strongly the gossiping old lady with the pretty daughter.
He therefore went back to The Lawns, but mistaking his way it was some time before he arrived once more before the green door in the wall. Here, he pulled the iron handle.
Whether it rang or not he could not tell, as there followed no perceptible sound. In a few moments, however, he was conscious that an eye was looking at him through a small grating in the upper part of the door, which he had not previously noticed.
As noiselessly as it had been opened, the little trap was closed and the door opened.
“Is Miss Ferriby at home?” asked Welton of the tall footman in plain black livery who opened the door that showed a paved path up to the rustic porch of the house.
“I’ll see, sir. Will you come this way?”
The man led the way along the path, which was bordered by a tangle of late autumn flowers, through a pretty and beautifully kept garden. In the gloaming Welton could see the smooth lawns which gave the house its present name, the massed clusters of flowers in the borders, and the peeps of tree and shrub, pond and mossy bank beyond.
A little suburban paradise, bright with colour and pleasant to ear, sight and smell, Welton was struck with the ridiculous contrast the place presented, with its peaceful beauties, to the sinister rumours which the old lady with the daughter had spread about it.
The house itself was very unpretending, but was evidently much larger than would have been thought from the glimpse he had obtained of its roof and upper story from over the wall.
A long wing, red brick and mellow with years like the rest, was built out at one side of it; and tiny little gabled windows perked up their heads from the red tiled roof amid clusters of dying clematis and brown Virginia creeper, the long empty strings of which hung down in a scanty fringe over the lower windows.
The servant led the way through the little rustic porch and the wide doorway into a hall which presented a striking contrast to the unpretending outside of the house.
It was luxuriously furnished with thick pile carpets and handsome leopard skin and tiger skin rugs, with marble statuettes on handsome pedestals, and masses of flowers and long feathery ferns in great brass-bound tubs and strange shaped majolica vessels.
The staircase was wide, shallow and gracefully curved; and on the wide landing he could see handsome velvet lounges, and a placid-faced Hindu god sitting serenely on a massive teak table, surrounded by palms and bowls of hothouse roses.
Welton Keynes was shown into a little sitting room which was evidently used as a waiting room for visitors. He supposed that the applicants for Miss Ferriby’s charity would probably be the persons for whom it was intended.
The room was at the front of the house, was not more than ten or twelve feet square, and was plainly furnished with mahogany, and amply provided with writing materials.
“Your name, sir?”
Welton said, “I have come in answer to an advertisement for a secretary. But I dare say I’m too late.”
The footman took the card, and Welton Keynes was left alone.
He looked out of the window into the little garden. The man had turned on the electric light, but he had not drawn the curtains, and Welton could look out into the grey gloom in the pretty garden, and inhale the fragrance of a sweetbriar bush through the open window. The evening was wonderfully warm for the time of year, and as he seated himself in a rush and cane armchair with cheerful cushions, and rested his arm upon the window ledge, he thought that this was the prettiest, the most charming residence near London which he had ever entered.
There was something quite exceptional about the air of peace and harmony which reigned both inside and out, and which made the high outer walls of the garden, with their picturesque covering of fruit and flower, remind him of the walls of a convent, shutting out the cares and wickedness of the world.
He could not see very much of the flowers and the lawns in the grey evening, so he presently turned to the table which stood near one of the walls of the room, and picked up one of the newspapers which lay there, apparently placed for the use of the casual visitor.
It was one of the daily papers, and the first page on which he cast his eye was the illustrated one, with pictures of the people most in vogue, bad sketches with very little likeness to the originals. At the bottom was a portrait of a man who had startled the world by the murder of a woman under exceptionally brutal circumstances. The name he went by was “Henry Ward,” and a reward was being offered for any information which would lead to his apprehension. The description of the man was given underneath his portrait, and he was described as about thirty years of age, five feet six inches in height, with black hair and eyes and beard, spare of figure, and with a slight stoop.
Casually Welton read these details and looked at the portrait of the man, thinking how very unlike a murderer he looked, and wondering whether his guilt could really be proved.
Then he put down the paper, and began to wonder how soon he would be interviewed, or told that his services would not be required by Miss Ferriby.
He went back to the window, and looked out again. He heard the sound of a car stopping outside the garden wall, and wondered whether this portended the arrival of another would-be secretary. Without his hearing any bell, he saw the tall footman who had led him in, go down the path and admit a man, whom he showed up to the house, just as he had done with Welton Keynes.
And it flashed through Welton’s mind how common a type was that of the murderer, Henry Ward, when this man, the very first he had seen after looking at the picture, was almost as like him as if the portrait had been his own.
There was the slight figure, the slight stoop, the dark hair and beard. The man was rather shabbily dressed, and looked like a superior sort of mechanic. Welton wondered whether he would be shown into the room where he himself was.
But he did not come. And again there was a long silence. He grew impatient. It seemed to him that this quiet, peaceful house was like a mansion of the dead. For quite a quarter of an hour from the time when the man with the beard was shown in, Welton heard no sound whatever, except the whistling of a tradesman’s boy walking along the road outside.
He began to remember the gruesome suggestions and rumours which he had heard that afternoon from the old lady with the pretty daughter, and to wish he had never come into the mysterious house about which the neighbours gossiped. He looked at his watch. He had been half an hour in the room, and he began to think that he had been forgotten by the servant who let him in.
Without his hearing a footstep outside, the door suddenly opened, just as he had begun to think he would not wait any longer, but would make his exit without any ceremony, and the man who had let him in said, “Miss Ferriby will see you, sir. This way.”
Welton followed the man through the beautiful hall to a door on the other side, which he opened into a long, low-ceilinged and very attractive room, hung with pale pink damask, and furnished with Louis Quinze chairs and sofa in white and gold, upholstered in delicate tapestry. Everything was dainty and suggestive of Dresden china shepherdesses and the days of the spinet and powdered hair. The carpet had a pale ground upon which loosely woven garlands of pale pink flowers were tied with pale blue ribbons. A harp stood in one corner, a grand piano in a painted case stood in another. A faint perfume of potpourri was perceptible, growing stronger as he passed two enormous porcelain jars which stood on little ebony pedestals, one on either side of a doorway hung with a pale satin portière.
Between these curtains the servant led the way, and standing back, announced, “Mr. Welton Keynes.” He allowed the visitor to pass him into the inner room, which stood at right angles with that through which they had just passed.
This inner room was a complete contrast to the other. The ceiling was much higher; the walls, instead of being hung with pale tapestries, were draped with heavy stuffs, of which the predominating colours were rich, dark green, and red, and gold. The woodwork of the room was stained dark brown, and over the doorways were carved ornaments in dark oak. A lofty, old-fashioned fireplace faced the door by which Welton had entered, and on each side of it stood a tall carved Spanish chair, heavy with rich embroideries, and gorgeous in rich tones of dark brown, and red, and burnished gold.
Everything in the apartment was rich and handsome, from the lion skin that lay stretched upon the hearth, in front of the little fire that smouldered in the grate, to the old Italian furniture and the painted ceiling.
Perched high in one of the big Spanish armchairs, the richly coloured back of which stretched high above her head, sat the old woman whom Welton had rescued from the rascals in the lane.
Without her hat, her head with its mass of tousled grey hair looked even more masculine, more imposing in its massiveness and squareness, than it had looked on his first meeting with her. Over it, and around her shoulders, she wore a long shawl of fine black lace, fastened on each side of her head by an enormous tortoiseshell pin, studded with gold and hung with gold chains.
She was now dressed in a loose robe of dark red silk, embroidered with what looked like tarnished gold. With these accessories, it was impossible to detect her deformity. If he had now seen her for the first time, Welton Keynes would have been moved almost to admiration by the fire in the big grey eyes, by the square jaw with its look of will and strength, by the large features, the long white hands, the air of quiet dignity and repose about the old woman’s whole person.
The shortness of her stature was partly concealed by the fact that she had her feet on a high square footstool, over which the edge of her dress fell.
Welton was not in the least surprised at the discovery of the identity of Miss Ferriby with the woman he had rescued; he had had an intuition that this would prove to be the case.
In a mild and gentle voice she said, “Ah! And so we meet again after all, Mr. Keynes. And so you wish to be my secretary?”
“I’m afraid I’m too late, Miss Ferriby. I’m told you’ve been besieged.”
“So I have, so I have. But I’m a difficult person to please. I’ve seen between thirty and forty young men today, and I’ve put them all off till tomorrow.”
“And tomorrow you’re going to make up your mind?”
“I’ve made up my mind tonight.”
The gracious manner in which she uttered the words made it impossible to doubt her meaning, and Welton bowed in some confusion.
“That is, of course, if you care to come.”
“I shall be delighted, if you think I am qualified,” he stammered.
“I am sure you are. What I chiefly need is someone with tact to deal with a large and troublesome correspondence, brought about by my dabbling in what is called philanthropy. A good name! What can a poor, deformed old woman like me do in the world but be charitable? It’s a form of vanity, and the only one open to me to indulge. Well, you shall open my letters, sift them, and answer them. You have a home in London?”
“I’m in lodgings with a younger brother.”
“Good. You can keep them. It will be pleasanter for you, I dare say, to have the relief and change of a little journey morning and evening. And the salary will suit you?”
“It is more, much more than I feel myself qualified to earn.”
She smiled, showing her splendid teeth, and making him wonder once more whether they could possibly be her own.
“We shall see. I may want you later to come with me to the Riviera. Nothing to prevent that, I hope?”
“I should like it. And if you want references…”
“I do not,” she interrupted quickly. “After all, this is not our first meeting, you know. Tomorrow then, at ten?”
She held out her hand in gracious dismissal, as a queen might have done, and at the same time touched the wall on her left hand.
A minute later the tall footman appeared, holding up the silken portière, and Welton was ushered out by the way he had come. In another minute he was in the road outside, and the green door was shut behind him.
Contused, bewildered, disturbed as he was by the strange things he had seen that evening, Welton walked a few steps slowly down the lane, and then stopped.
He was suddenly seized with the fancy that he should like to know what had become of the man with the black beard, whom he had seen ushered into the house half an hour before.
Although on first seeing the man he had had no other suspicious thought concerning him than that he resembled the murderer, Henry Ward, the strangeness of the circumstances surrounding his visit to the neighbourhood now filled Welton’s mind with suspicion, and he resolved to hang about on the chance of seeing the man come out.
It would not do, however, to be seen hanging about in the lane, and he therefore walked to the end and, passing the cottage where the lady and the pretty girl lived, and finding the corner house on the opposite side of the lane where it joined the road to be tenantless, he slipped inside and got over the rail into the back garden, and easily concealed himself among the straggling bushes that grew there in all the luxuriance of complete neglect.
From time to time he leaned over the railing and looked along the lane towards the green door of The Lawns, and at last, on one of these occasions, he saw someone come out.
But his curiosity was disappointed: it was a woman.
She came on foot up the lane in the gloom of the evening, and Welton, retreating behind his screen of evergreens, watched her. And as she came past he was struck by two or three circumstances. In the first place, she was tall and walked strangely. In the second place, she stooped slightly; in the third place, she carried her dress awkwardly.
And a shiver passed through Welton as he became convinced, when the figure passed close to him on the other side of the railing, of two things. The first, that the figure was not a woman at all, but a man. The second was that the man was the very man he had seen entering The Lawns three-quarters of an hour before.
For the first few moments after his surprising discovery, Welton Keynes remained in his place of concealment, almost paralysed with a sort of sick terror.
What was this marvel which had taken place under his eyes? How was he to account for the apparent transformation of a man into a woman within the walls of The Lawns?
And who was the person who had undergone the transformation?
Although he had thought, when he noticed the resemblance between the portrait of the murderer, Henry Ward, in the paper, and the man he had seen admitted into the house by the tall footman, Welton had not until that moment seriously considered the possibility that the man he saw might be the murderer himself. But now he felt certain that the person who had just passed him, dressed as a woman, was no woman at all, but the man he had seen at The Lawns.
If so, what was he doing at The Lawns? And why had he gone in as a man and come out as a woman?
The answer was disturbing. For there could be only one. If the man with the black beard, whom he had seen admitted into The Lawns, was Henry Ward, the murderer, and if the person he had just seen dressed as a woman were the same person, then it was clear that the mysterious rumours of the neighbours as to the dubious character of the pretty suburban house, were amply justified.
Welton Keynes’ spirits fell.
In spite of the disturbing influence of the strange things which he had seen and heard since his arrival in the neighbourhood a little more than two hours before, he had felt considerable elation on finding himself engaged by Miss Ferriby; and had not, in accepting her offer, troubled his head about the disappearance of her former secretaries, alleged by the talkative old lady who had come from the newspaper shop.
But since this odd circumstance of the reincarnation of the black-bearded visitor as a woman, it was inevitable that he should begin to ask himself whether the situation he had obtained was all that his fancy had painted it, and that he should have doubts as to the wisdom of his having anything more to do with the woman from The Lawns.
As for Miss Ferriby herself, he felt attracted rather than repelled by her; for in spite of her deformity, and what many people would have considered her ugliness, there was in her great grey eyes so much keen intelligence, in her voice strange capacity for change from grave to cheerful, from harsh to sweet, that he was interested in her, and very anxious to know more about her. Was her charity so great that she not only relieved the destitute, but helped the outcast and the criminal? And would his duties as secretary bring him into close contact with the very off-scourings of society?
Noble as Miss Ferriby’s motives no doubt were, if he was right in thinking her charity so extensive at this, he felt considerable repugnance to the idea of having to assist, not only the needy, but the criminal and the vicious.
He understood, if this were the truth about Miss Ferriby and her wide sympathies, why it was that she was unable to keep a secretary for long. Even the most broad-minded of philanthropists must feel an occasional qualm at giving assistance to men who were outside the pale of human sympathy by reason of their crimes. And while he could not doubt that Miss Ferriby could find ample excuse and support for her actions in the teachings of humanity and religion, he felt that she must find it difficult to find other people of the same degree of liberality as she.
If the man he had just seen was really Henry Ward, and if he had gone straight to the large-hearted hunchback for sympathy and active assistance, was there not something hideous and revolting in the thought that the man who had murdered a helpless woman without the least compunction, should find every care and assistance from another woman, without his having expiated his crime?
On the whole, Welton Keynes found it impossible to accept such wide charity as this as right or justifiable. He had to decide, with much regret, that the post which he had thought too good to be within his reach, must be given up now that he had accepted it.
He glanced at the first of the three little houses opposite the neglected garden in which he had hidden himself. It was that in which the lady and her pretty daughter lived, his chance acquaintances of the morning.
He felt inclined to knock at the door, to relate what he had just seen, and to ask whether the ladies could help him to a solution of the little mystery which perplexed him, since they probably knew more than they had felt justified in telling a stranger.
On second thoughts, however, he decided that in the first place he would lay his perplexities before his young brother, who would be at his lodgings by the time he returned, and who was a singularly shrewd lad for his age.
So he took a motor omnibus from Hammersmith to Oxford Street, and reached home in the lodgings in a little street on the north side of that thoroughfare, just as his young brother was beginning to get anxious as to what had become of him.
“Hello!” said Basil, as his brother came into their somewhat dingy, but on the whole comfortable, sitting room on the second floor. “What have you been up to? You said you would be in to dinner at seven. We shan’t have time to get to the theatre.”
“Theatre! Oh, I’d forgotten. You go without me. I don’t feel inclined for the theatre tonight.”
Basil stared at him in astonishment. The younger brother was a handsome, black-eyed lad with curly hair, and a sharp business instinct which promised to develop into a useful quality by and by.
“What have you been doing with yourself?” he asked, as the other threw himself on the little hard springless sofa, and stretched himself out with a sort of weary impatience. “You look as if you’ve been ruffled by something.”
“So I have. I’ve been through the most extraordinary adventures that ever happened to me in my life, all through an advertisement I saw in the paper this afternoon, and at once went after.”
“No good, then?”
“Why yes, it was, in a way. At least I’ve got the offer of the post. Secretary to a charitable old lady. Salary five hundred a year.”
“By Jove! What luck!”
“But I’m not going to take it.”
Basil stared at his brother as if he had gone mad. “Why, what on earth do you expect to get? I should have thought you would have jumped at it.”
“So should I. I’ll tell you all about it.”
Slowly and deliberately, trying to keep the thread of his narrative clear, Welton told his brother all his adventures of that day, not forgetting any detail, and not laying undue stress upon the uncanny and odd parts of the story. When he had finished, he said, “There now, that’s about all. If you were in my place, would you go to The Lawns again?”
“Of course I would,” replied Basil readily. “Why not?”
Welton frowned. “I suppose,” he said, after a little pause, “I’ve not succeeded in conveying to you exactly the impression all these things made upon me.”
“I’ve gathered,” said Basil, “that you think there’s something too unpleasant about the old lady herself, and about her protégés, for you to care to have anything more to do with her.”
“Well, remembering to start with that the neighbours say no secretary ever stays with her, and that the salary appears large for the work to be done, I think I’m justified in saying that there’s something serious against the post. And after what I saw myself, I begin to feel sure that Miss Ferriby’s a wilful old woman with whims which nobody could put up with.”
“I don’t see what proof you have of that. And if I were you, I wouldn’t throw it up until I’d given the post a trial. It may be that being grateful to you as you say she is, for saving her from the two rascals who attacked her in the lane, she’ll listen to reason from you, and will perhaps learn to use a little more discrimination in her charities. She was very nice to you, you say?”
Welton hesitated. “Well, yes, she was,” he said at last. “But there’s something a trifle uncanny even in her amiability. She’s a fascinating, odd sort of creature; but the impression she made upon me was that she was disturbingly weird, and that she might be very difficult to deal with.”
“Well, don’t be satisfied to take an impression, but give the post a trial. You can always throw it up, as the others have done, can’t you?”
“Yes. But there seems to be an idea that the others went away rather mysteriously”
“Surely you can’t suppose that the old woman poisoned them, or made away with them?”
“No, of course not. Still, on the whole, I’m not at all eager to give the post a trial. I’ll go back there tomorrow morning, if you like, but I’m ready to bet it will be the last time.”
Basil laughed. It seemed to him strange that his brother, who was not at all inclined to be timid by temperament, should have let himself be influenced so strongly by what he himself thought were fancies and nothing more. Basil did not give one moment’s thought to the suggestion that the man he had seen enter The Lawns was the murderer, Henry Ward, of whom the police were in search. Still less did he credit what seemed to him the ridiculous notion that the woman whom his brother had seen passing the garden where he was in hiding, was in reality no woman at all, but a man disguised.
It seemed to Basil that the very fact of his brother’s having hidden himself in the deserted garden to watch for the man with the black beard, showed that he was under the influence of fanciful terrors, the result of the singular nature of his adventures that evening. Not for one moment did Basil credit the rumours about the old woman, or the vague suspicions which his brother had formed.
Being a very shrewd lad, he pointed out that hunchbacks are nearly always invested by the popular mind with unusual attributes, that they very often are eccentric, by reason of the difference their deformity makes in their lives. And he also pointed out that as Miss Ferriby appeared to be rich, she would inevitably appear more eccentric than ever, as she would be able to indulge her whims.
“And just as it’s a whim of hers to engage me, so it will probably soon be another to get rid of me.”
“What does that matter?” retorted Basil. “I dare say by that time you will have had enough of it, and in the meantime you will be earning something, and you can be looking out for a post to suit you better.”
This advice was so sound that Welton, although with a reluctance which he himself could scarcely understand, agreed to give the post a trial.
And on the following morning, punctually at ten o’clock, he was admitted by the footman and ushered into a room at the back of the house, furnished with a rolltop desk, writing table and other handsome, solid-looking furniture of the kind suited to a room which was evidently part library, part office.
The first impression made by the sight of The Lawns on a bright October morning, with the sun shining through a little autumnal mist, was calculated to dispel all unpleasant fancies. The garden looked charming still, although many of the flowers had died off, and those that remained were beginning to straggle and wither. But the smooth, velvety lawns, the well trimmed evergreens, the warm tinted walls with the fruit trees trained over them, all gave an impression of cosiness and tranquil happiness, while the house itself, seen in a brighter light, looked handsomer and more luxurious than ever.
There was not a good light in the library, into which he was shown, for the outlook was on to a sort of quadrangle which, though it was laid down in grass and adorned by yew trees which shut out the view of the kitchens opposite, suffered by reason of the confined space between the one wing of the house and the other.
However, it could scarcely be called dark; and Welton Keynes, as he went to the window and looked out, saw the same evidences of care and taste as on the other side of the house.
Upon the rolltop desk, which was open, he saw a huge pile of letters and papers of various kinds, which he guessed he would have to deal with by and by. In the meantime he looked about him.
The bookcases, of which there were several in the room, were handsomely carved and filled with well-bound volumes, mostly standard works in two or three modern languages. They did not look as if they were often touched.
There was a comfortable revolving chair by the writing table, and in the darkest corner of the room, close to the fireplace, and opposite to the writing table, there was a luxurious easy chair.
By the look of it, Welton judged that this would be Miss Ferriby’s seat, for he noticed that like the chair in which he had seen her seated on the previous evening, it was very high and had a tall, square footstool in front of it. It was piled with exceedingly handsome brocaded cushions, each of which was hung with four enormous tassels of silk and bullion.
He had scarcely finished his survey of the room when he saw a long hand protruding from behind a curtain which hung in a corner of the room beside the tall chair. And he knew it was Miss Ferriby who was coming in.
He could not quite understand the shudder which passed through him as he became aware of the fact that she was entering the room, but it was perhaps only the sight of the large pale hand grasping the curtain and remaining quite still for a moment, before he could see the figure to which it belonged, that made him so sensitive to this impression.
The next moment, out of the dark corner, he saw the deformed figure of Miss Ferriby, standing under the curtain which she was holding aside. No light came in from the space behind her, and Welton wondered where she came from. She dropped the curtain while he bowed, and mounting the high square footstool by the help of a little gold-headed cane which she carried, she ensconced herself in the chair in the dark corner. At last, she said, in the soft voice she could use when she pleased, “Good morning, Mr. Keynes. I’m very glad to see you again.”
He returned her greeting, took hold of the large pale hand which she held out to him with a curiously regal air, and felt that the large grey eyes were piercing him through and through.
He was conscious of an uneasy sense that she suspected the doubt which had made him hesitate whether he should come to her, and he felt he did not care to meet her eyes with the frankness she seemed to expect.
"And now are you ready to begin work?" she asked with a smile, which made her large white teeth gleam in the darkness of her corner. "If so, take your chair -- the one in front of the desk, and let us see what my correspondence consists of this morning."
Welton Keynes seated himself as he was told to do, on the other side of the writing table, which was conveniently placed in front of the window sideways, so that the light from the left fell upon the table.
“Is this the pile we have to deal with?” he asked, touching the great double pile of letters and papers addressed to “Miss Ferriby,” “Miss A. Ferriby,” “Miss Adeline Ferriby.”
“That is it,” she said. “Tear them open, and tell me what they are about.”
He obeyed, opening one letter after another and noting, on the envelopes of those she directed him to keep, the sort of answer he was to make.
Already he was beginning to feel that he had been rather a fool to worry himself about her eccentricities. The letters were of the usual type sent to rich persons of benevolence, and included a very large proportion which they both at once saw to be nothing more or less than begging letters.
If he had doubted Miss Ferriby’s intelligence, the ease with which she saw through the conventional begging letter would have put him right. He began to know when to expect the little low-voiced, incredulous chuckle with which she received any variation of the well-worn begging letter.
“Wastepaper basket,” it was her habit to say softly, when he had read halfway through an epistle of this kind. And into the big basket beside him the letter would go, and the next on the pile would be opened and considered.
Many of the letters were from people of title and position who were interested in philanthropic or educational matters, some consulting Miss Ferriby, some enclosing donations or subscriptions to specific charities, some making appointments or asking for donations or subscriptions towards different benevolent institutions.
The remaining letters, asking for help in various ways, were put into a pile by themselves and handed one by one to Miss Ferriby when the rest of the correspondence was disposed of.
Upon the envelope of each, as she handed it back to Welton Keynes, he had to write notes as to the answer he was to give. This done, Miss Ferriby gave him the key of one of the drawers of the writing table and asked him to take out the various account books he would find there, referring to various charities with which she was interested. In these he had to make various entries at her dictation. Then followed the writing of several letters, most of them to persons of rank or wealth, in connection with other institutions of a charitable nature, or to the secretaries of such institutions themselves.
This done, Miss Ferriby sighed, and leaned back in her chair as if exhausted by her morning’s work. By this time the marble clock on the mantelpiece had struck one.
“And now,” she said good-humouredly, “we have half an hour for a little chat. I lunch at half past one and I have told them to have your luncheon served at that time. Will that suit you?”
“Perfectly, Miss Ferriby.”
“I dare say you will like to have it here, so that you can get on with the letters and things almost without a break. You will get three hours’ relief from my society, as I take an hour’s rest after luncheon and then receive my friends until half past four, when I shall come and worry you again, read the letters you have written and discuss the work for tomorrow. By half past five you will be free.”
She smiled graciously, waved one of her large white hands, and descended nimbly from her high footstool, raised the curtain and disappeared before Welton, who had sprung forward to help her, could reach the corner.
When she had been gone some seconds, he lifted the heavy tapestry curtain to see what was behind. A foot away there was a baize covered door which he pushed. But it must have been bolted on the other side, for it did not yield to his touch.
By the situation of the room he was in, Welton Keynes supposed that there must be a room or passage between the baize covered door and the little square, high ceilinged room in which he had seen Miss Ferriby on the preceding evening, and that Miss Ferriby had disappeared by way of that passage.
He had scarcely returned to his desk when the other door of the room opened and the solemn footman came in with a little luncheon tray, which he placed upon a side table. The service was perfect. The man moved silently and was careful and attentive. The cutlet was well cooked; the sweet omelette which followed was excellent, and the linen, cut glass, china and silver particularly dainty and handsome.
When Welton had finished, the tray was taken away as rapidly and noiselessly as it had been brought in. For the next two hours Welton devoted himself to his work, getting it done by four o’clock, by which time he thought he had earned the right to a cigarette in the garden, which he was longing to explore.
So he arranged his letters and papers neatly, and passing through the wide, handsome hall at a slow pace, in order to examine as he went some choice watercolour drawings upon the walls, he went out by an open side door into the garden, where the mist from the river was beginning to gather, but which was yet pleasant and restful to his eye.
As he passed by the long windows of the narrow drawing room through which he had walked on the preceding evening, he saw a throng of ladies, all well dressed and bearing the unmistakable stamp of luxurious and easy life, sitting and standing about the room. At the first window he passed he saw a tall, stately woman, whom he recognized as the wife of a well-known Member of Parliament. Talking to her was a handsome and exquisitely dressed woman who must, he thought, be an American.
Both seemed angry and impatient, and he heard them complaining loudly, as he passed, of being obliged to “waste the afternoon like this.”
Rather puzzled by what he saw, Welton Keynes went on along the paths and across the lawns, extending his walk until he had passed round the right wing of the house and through the kitchen garden at the back of it.
He noticed that the windows of the little room in which he had seen Miss Ferriby on the preceding evening were small and at a great height from the ground. There was a floor above, but he observed with some surprise that the windows of the upper floor all had their blinds down and the curtains drawn. And the suspicion that gambling was going on there crossed his mind.
After entering the quadrangle upon which the library looked out, and noting the fact that the blinds were only down in the upper floor of the one large wing of the house, he returned by the way he had come. This wing was, he saw, so large that it dwarfed the original building altogether, and spoilt the proportions of what had been a rather small but very well built house, turning it into a much larger but irregular one.
As he passed the windows of the long drawing room, he instinctively glanced towards the windows, and then he saw, to his surprise, that the crowd of ladies had all disappeared, melted away as if they had been a vision.
The sudden change from a talkative crowd to desolation and silence had been effected so suddenly that he stood still in astonishment, and then walked backwards a few steps across the lawn to look up at the house, as if doubtful of the evidence of his own eyes.
And then he saw that the blinds of the upper floor were all drawn up, and that the windows were thrown open and the curtains drawn back.
It was all a little uncanny, and amazing, and bewildering, and he went quickly back into the house and into the library with an uncomfortable, vague feeling that he had somehow been tricked.
He had scarcely taken his seat by the writing table, when the door by which he had come in opened behind him, and the tall footman, speaking for almost the first time since Welton’s arrival, told him that Miss Ferriby would be glad if he would bring the letters with him and take tea with her in the drawing room.
Welton, delighted at any incident which promised to explain something of this mysterious household, gathered up his letters and papers and followed the man out into the hall, and through the long narrow, low ceilinged drawing room, about which there now hung a faint suggestion of the various perfumes used by the ladies he had seen there a few minutes before, and into the little lofty apartment where he had seen Miss Ferriby on the previous evening.
She was sitting, as she had done on that occasion, in the high-backed Spanish chair by the fireplace, where the fire was burning low. The small, high windows, the fog which was increasing in density outside, the advancing shades of evening, and the rich dark tones of the tapestries with which the room was hung, all gave an impression of sombreness and gloom, which increased the effect of the attitude and action of Miss Ferriby, as she leaned forward in her chair and held out her hands to the feeble spark of a fire.
“I’m cold,” she said with a shiver.
Welton was surprised to hear it, for the air of the room seemed to him to be close and sickly, and heavy with the warmth of a stove as well as with some strange subtle perfume new to him.
He did not quite know whether he liked or disliked it, but only that it was quite new to him. But all other considerations were swallowed up in wonder at the magnificence of the jewels Miss Ferriby was wearing, and of the rich lace and brocade which adorned her poor deformed person.
Dressed in a gown of peculiar pattern, with a robe of a yellowish tint underneath, and a long overdress of pale pink, embroidered and woven with flowers in gold and copper thread, Miss Ferriby wore a deep flounce of priceless old white lace on her skirt, and a light triangular scarf of similar lace round her shoulders and on her head.
This lace was fastened on each side of her grey hair with pins set in amethysts and diamonds; while long chains of the same stones were wound five or six times round her neck, and drooped in long pendants as far as her knees. Her fingers sparkled with large diamonds, and a clasp set with flashing brilliants held together the sides of her overdress. Welton Keynes knew enough about precious stones to be able to make a roughly accurate guess that the jewellery she wore, pins, chains, rings, clasps, and bracelets, must be worth not less than from fifteen to twenty thousand pounds.
He was absorbed in wonder at the exotic dress, the throng of smart women he had seen, and the rest of the odd incidents of the day. Meanwhile Miss Ferriby, not unconscious, as it seemed to him, of the effect which the display of her jewels had upon him, told him to begin the work. Taking the letters he had written one by one, she read them, expressed approval of them, and helped to fasten up the envelopes.
By that time she appeared fatigued, and leaning back in her big chair, touched the electric button beside her, and smilingly invited him to have tea with her.
The solemn footman, who, as Welton remarked to himself, was absolutely the only member of Miss Ferriby’s household whom he had so far seen, brought in a little table with the exceptionally dainty linen and china which Welton had learnt to expect, and withdrew.
Miss Ferriby poured out the tea, and began to talk. “Well, Mr. Keynes, do you think you and I will get on together? I see you can do all I want to perfection, if you care enough about the post to do it. Today’s work has afforded a fair sample of the sort of correspondence I get, and the manner in which it has to be dealt with. Of course, sometimes it is heavier, but it is generally the same sort of thing.”
“Do you get much imposed upon, dealing as you do with so many applicants?” asked Welton.
“I don’t think so. Of course I get tricked sometimes, but on the whole I think my long experience enables me to detect imposition pretty certainly. I’m so well known in these philanthropic matters, that, as you know, people consult me as to dealing with particular cases, and as to the founding of charities of various kinds. I’ve become a sort of specialist in charity.”
“So I see. It must be a great delight to you to know how much good you are doing.”
To his surprise, Miss Ferriby, who had been leaning forward with her teacup on her knee, slowly munching a piece of cake, suddenly turned upon him those shrewd, bright, big grey eyes of hers with an expression which puzzled while it interested him. It was a look rather of cynical amusement than of gratitude and contentment.
The footman had turned on the electric light, which in this room was fitted in a silver lamp that hung in chains from the ceiling. The illumination was not very brilliant, the light being soft rather than powerful, well adapted to show in their fullest beauty the rich tones and colours of the dress Miss Ferriby wore, the sparkle of he jewels, the lights and shadows in the silent tapestries around her.
“I take no more pleasure in it all than you do,” she replied quietly and decisively.
He was amazed. “And yet you take so much trouble! You spend practically your whole time in doing this good thing,” he said gently, encouraged by the fact that she was inclined to talk confidentially.
“Ah, but do I? I used to think I did, at first, before I knew so much. Now I doubt it very much. These highly organized charities do indeed support a very worthy and deserving class of people for the most part: the officials, servants, and employees, who form the staff, the contractors who do the repairing of the expensive buildings, and so on. But good, actual good to the persons relieved? Well, a little is done, certainly, but not much, I’m afraid. Not nearly enough to be worth the expense and the money. No. I’ve been undeceived there.”
“Well, privately you must help a good many deserving persons who would not come to anybody less well known for benevolence than you.”
“A few, of course. But I doubt whether one often succeeds in reaching the really deserving. I should put the proportion of the deserving cases one helps to the undeserving as one in twenty.”
Welton was amazed again. “Yet you go on!”
“Well, one has got into the groove, and there is always the possibility that one may do some little good. There remains the fact that it has become a hobby. I wish I could honestly say more.”
“Then it has ceased to give you pleasure?”
"I can almost say, yes. I don't know that my motives were as high as they ought to have been when I took it up. Do you know -- perhaps you don't, you are too young -- that most people who take an active part in any movement are actuated in the first place rather by a general desire to be doing something, than by a desire to do that particular thing?"
“I can understand that.”
“Look at my life. Rich, energetic; yet shut out from the ordinary affections and interests of womanhood by my affliction, I had to do something. I am not sure that the love of gambling, which is inherent in my nature, had not its share in making me take to the course of life I follow.”
“Gambling?” he echoed in surprise.
“Yes. Philanthropy is a gamble. One hit for twenty misses,” she replied calmly. “But now it no longer satisfies me. I have to play with other stakes. Excitement, the stronger the better; that’s what attracts me now.”
Her eyes glowed with a strange fire, and her voice seemed to vibrate with passions which seemed to go ill with the deformed frame and with the grey hair. He looked at her with interest so intense that, when she turned abruptly and met his eyes with her own, a sore though not unkindly look passed over her face.
She said, in gentler tone, “You must think me a strange woman. I suppose you’ve never met anyone quite like me before?”
“Indeed I haven’t,” replied Welton at once.
“You will go home and tell your people that I’m mad.”
"Indeed, I shan't be so foolish or so ungrateful. I shall tell my brother that you've been very nice to me, and that -- may I say it? -- you are one of the most interesting ladies I've ever met."
Miss Ferriby was human enough to look pleased. “I had an idea,” she said, “that you looked at me this morning as if you thought I was in league with the devil.”
Welton Keynes was much startled by this remark which showed considerable penetration. "I'm sure I didn't know -- I didn't mean -- I hadn't the least idea," he stammered in confusion.
She cut him short with an imperious movement of her hand. “Tell me now, truthfully. You know I’m the sort of woman you can tell the truth to. Why did you think there was something odd, wrong about either me, or the post or both?”
He hesitated. But she was so winning in her frankness, in her kind, open manner, in the very cynicism of some of her remarks, that he grew bold, and resolved to tell her just what it was that surprised and alarmed him on the previous evening.
"I will," he said gravely. "I saw a man come into this house last night -- a man whom I thought I recognized as a criminal wanted by the police."
Her eyes were fixed upon him steadily, but not with a look or movement did she betray what she felt, or what she thought of this daring speech.
He went on: "And I thought I saw him go out again -- dressed as a woman."
There was a pause which seemed rather long. Then Miss Ferriby said quite composedly: “So you did.”
Welton’s horror at this bold confession was infinitely greater than had been his scandal at the time. That Miss Ferriby should thus confess without the least demur to such an amazing thing seemed to him too perplexing and shocking for words. He waited patiently, with his eyes down, until she said in a measured voice:
"The man came here for help, and I gave it him. Whether he deserved it or not I don't know. I should think it unlikely. But his daring to come was one thing in his favour, and his story was not without suggestions of veracity. So I helped him -- or rather allowed him to help himself."
Welton could not repress a shudder. That a woman of means like Miss Ferriby should knowingly help a criminal to escape seemed rather shocking, in spite of the semblance of reasonableness in what she said.
Miss Ferriby turned to him with a warning finger raised. “But you mustn’t say anything about it, and indeed you are not supposed to know anything,” she said in a whisper. “I have confided my reasons to you, but they might not get me so much sympathy from other people.”
Welton Keynes quite agreed with this, and wished he had not been quite so frank. It was much worse to know, than merely to suspect, that his employer had been guilty of aiding a criminal to escape from justice. When he got up to take his leave a few minutes later, he felt much less happy and contented with his lot than he had done ten minutes before.
And as he went home he was tormented by this question: Should he or should he not tell Basil all about it?
It was in a tumult of conflicting feelings that Welton Keynes left the house that evening; for, strange as some of his experience had been, puzzled as he still was by certain circumstances which had occurred during the day, repelled as he was from time to time by Miss Ferriby’s cynicism, he yet felt strongly disinclined to give up the post he had accepted with so much hesitation.
In the first place, he was interested by the novelty of the strange household, where only one servant was to be seen, even though everything was clean, tidy, well kept and well ordered. And in the second place, he was well paid and lightly worked. While, as a crowning inducement for him to remain, there was the fact that he had grave doubts as to the truth of what Miss Ferriby had told him, and that he was full of curiosity to know more.
It was true that he had visual proof of the truth of a great part of what Miss Ferriby had told him. He knew that she had not boasted in vain of her rich and highly placed acquaintances, since he had himself recognized more than one man and woman whom he knew to be in the best society, standing near the window of the long drawing room of The Lawns.
But it was difficult for him to believe that it was charity and benevolence alone which acted like a magnet in drawing the cream of society to the little suburban residence; which made society leaders complain of the time they were wasting there; and which yet held them there in such numbers that the murmur of their voices had pursued him for quite a long distance as he wandered through the grounds.
No. Welton felt sure that however benevolent these smart men and women might be, there was some more powerful inducement at work to throng the little suburban house in this manner. Remembering what Miss Ferriby had herself confessed to him about her inborn love of gambling, he could not doubt that the secret of the attraction The Lawns had for the great world, which is bored and seeks distraction, lay in the fact that Miss Ferriby kept some sort of gaming house, where the rank of the players was high, and where their stakes were high also.
How was he otherwise to account for that singular fact of the windows of the upper floor of the wing being darkened with curtains and drawn blinds? He remembered to have seen at the Kursaal at Ostend when play was high, the blinds of the gambling room in the Cercle privé drawn down in broad daylight to shut out the sun and the stare of curious eyes.
Here, he began to feel sure, was something of the same kind going on. Gaming for high stakes taking place in broad daylight, and the daylight shut out either for privacy, or for instinctive shyness.
He recalled the fact that the blinds were drawn up and the curtains pulled back as soon as the smart crowd of guests had taken their departure. As for the suddenness of their flight, that was another puzzling circumstance for which he could scarcely account. He would have expected to find them taking their departure in the usual way at short intervals. Instead of that, they had appeared to take wing in one flock at a stated moment.
He had got a few steps away from the green door in the wall, pondering these things, and wondering whether he should keep his own counsel for a day or two, or immediately open his heart about it all to his brother, when he caught sight of a figure he remembered very well, standing at the little gate of one of the tiny gardens to the cottages on the left hand side of the lane.
The figure was that of the pretty pale girl, whom he had met in the newspaper shop on his first visit to The Lawns on the previous day. She was in outdoor costume; but as she wore no gloves, it occurred to Welton, who knew how much interested she and her mother had appeared in the life of The Lawns, to wonder whether she had been sent out by her mother on purpose to meet him. For he saw the elder lady at the window of the front room.
He knew he might venture to raise his hat, for she was looking at him shyly as he came along. She bowed, and he crossed the road to speak to her.
“My mother wants to speak to you,” she said, “and she has sent me to ask you to come in.”
She led the way up the little path into the house, where the old lady, who was evidently in a state of great agitation, came out of the little front room to meet him and to invite him in.
He found that, as usual with houses of this type, the two tiny rooms on this floor had been thrown into one, which was used as dining room and drawing room too, being divided by heavy curtains which could be drawn back to make one room, or joined to make two, as required.
They were now drawn back, and Welton was able to see that the place was furnished with excellent taste, and that it contained many obvious relics of a more prosperous time in the shape of cabinets and curios, handsome books and dainty old china.
The elder lady shook hands with him with a warning look on her face. “I dare say,” she began gently, “you will think me a very fussy and interfering old woman to have spoken to you, a stranger, twice about this house and the people in it. But really, you know, I’m so much older than you are, that I think myself privileged to speak out my mind to you, just as I should do if you were my own son.”
“Indeed I think it’s very kind of you, and I’m not ungrateful,” said Welton.
She shook her head gently. “But you’ve taken the post, haven’t you, even after my warning?”
He had to admit the fact.
“And yet,” she said, “you must have seen enough already to know that Miss Ferriby’s household is a very peculiar one.”
“Yes,” he said at once, “I am not quite sure that I should have accepted the post if I had understood what a strange household it is. But at the same time I must own that I’ve seen nothing to warrant my thinking there is anything more than eccentricity about it.”
“You say, though, you would not have accepted the post if you had known as much as you do now?”
Welton hesitated. He felt that it was incumbent upon him to be cautious between this old lady and Miss Ferriby, of whom the one was inquisitive and fond of gossip, while she was kind and considerate to him, and the other was equally kind, but decidedly artful.
“I only mean,” he said after a moment’s thought, “that there is so little work to be done that I feel ashamed of being so well paid for it.”
The elder lady glared at him solemnly. “So little work!” she echoed gravely when he paused.
And then she added with ominous meaning, “Ah!”
Welton looked uncomfortable, and the girl interposed. “Mama,” she said gently, “you haven’t given any reasons, you know.”
Her mother turned to her with a gesture, as if to command her silence. “Well,” she said, “I hate gossip, and it’s not pleasant to have to chatter about one’s neighbours. But I really think I am justified in asking you if you’ve seen nothing surprising or unusual about the household at The Lawns?” And she fixed upon him a piercing gaze.
“Oh, yes,” replied Welton readily, “I’ve seen a good many strange and unusual things. But I’ve not thought anything much of them.”
“Have you noticed,” asked the elder lady solemnly, “how few servants there are about?”
“Yes, I have. But I thought nothing of that. I think the fewer servants one sees about, the better the service is, as a rule. And certainly the house is beautifully kept.”
“Oh, I dare say. But did you think there was nothing extraordinary about the rush of people you must surely have seen there in the afternoon?”
“There were a great many callers, certainly. Very smart people they seemed to be too.”
"Smart! Oh, yes, I dare say they are. But don't you think it rather extraordinary that all these smart people -- these handsomely dressed ladies and well-dressed men -- should all leave their motor cars, not in the lane, but in the road on the left?"
Welton, of course, had known nothing of this. “But the lane is very narrow,” he suggested, “and there’s no place where they could turn.”
“They couldn’t turn in the lane itself, but there’s no need to do that,” said the old lady dryly. “For there’s a turning a little way down where they could go, and by which they could get at once into the high road again. And they all know that quite well, for some of them come here time after time. And not only by day either,” she added, more solemnly still.
“And how do you account for this throng of visitors?” he asked.
"Well, I hope you'll not repeat what I am saying, since I only tell you because you insist, and because I hope it may be of use to you and help you, but I have an idea -- mind you, it's only an idea -- that Miss Ferriby is the head of a private inquiry agency, and that these smart people who come to see her have all come on business."
“By Jove!” murmured Welton, struck with the idea, which certainly seemed to offer a solution of the mystery concerning The Lawns.
“For there are settled hours for their coming,” went on the elder lady, pleased by the attention he gave her suggestion, “and no one comes in the morning. The afternoon there is almost always a crowd, except during the few weeks in the season when everyone is out of Town. And then again people come at night. Only then they don’t come in a crowd as they did this afternoon, but one at a time.”
Welton, on second thoughts, was already observing that this suggestion, good as it at first seemed, did not meet all the difficulties of the case. And he was sorry that he was listening to this gossip about his employer, with whom personally he had no fault to find.
“If that were so,” he said, when the lady paused to take breath, “Miss Ferriby would be a very busy woman, for her labours in the cause of charity are heavy, as I know of my own knowledge.”
Both ladies looked interested, and the elder incredulous. “Charity!” she echoed dryly.
“Yes. Ladies, and men too, of all ranks come to her for help and advice in matters of philanthropy,” said Welton. “I know that for a fact. There is scarcely a name known among the benevolent that is not on her list of correspondents.”
The younger lady turned impulsively to her mother. “Oh, mama,” she cried, “let us hope then that we’ve been too hasty, too ready with unkind suspicions. I’m sure” and she turned to Welton with eagerness “it’s not at all pleasant to have ill-natured thoughts of one’s neighbours.”
The elder lady laughed cynically. “Unfortunately the ill-natured are generally the right people in the world,” she said. “But of course you are not bound to pay any attention to what I tell you. Only, if you find yourself mixed up in any unpleasant detective business, and if you are cajoled or led into playing the part of a detective yourself, remember my warning.”
The lady, who had invited him to be seated and had sat down herself to converse with her visitor, rose majestically as a sign that she considered the interview at an end.
Welton rose too. “I’m very much indebted to you, at all events,” he said, “for your kindness in putting me on my guard. Believe me, I fully appreciate the arguments you bring forward, and I recognize that there is much to be explained about the household at The Lawns. At the same time, it’s only fair to say that I’ve seen nothing more than eccentricity about Miss Ferriby, and that personally she has been most kind and considerate to me. I should be very sorry to think there was anything more serious than the oddity of a reserved nature in her actions. I know her heart to be good and her benevolence boundless.”
The lady was looking at him with a rather acid little smile upon her face. “Well, I’m glad you are so well satisfied,” she said. “And you are very welcome to look upon me as a gossiping, mischievous old busybody if you please.”
“I certainly should not do that,” Welton was beginning, when the lady, with a distant bend of the head, disappeared between the curtains which hung in the middle of the long room, leaving him alone with her pretty daughter.
For a moment he was confused and uncomfortable and did not know what to say. He was beginning to offer apologies as he made his way towards the door, when the pretty girl interrupted him by a most charming and reassuring smile. She went out with him, with a glance which intimated that he had better remain silent until they were outside.
When they were in the tiny garden, making their way down to the gate, she said in a low and gentle voice, “Don’t look so much disturbed, pray, at the way in which my mother took your protest. You were quite right, and I hope you will never have reason to change your mind about Miss Ferriby. At the same time it’s only fair to tell you that my mother is quite right too. She is not the old gossip you may be inclined to think her. It was only her strong sense that there was something going on at The Lawns which it was undesirable to be mixed up with, which led her to speak to you yesterday. She felt, as she said to me afterwards, as she might have done if a son of her own had been about to do something rash, and that was what made her send me running after you, and surprising you by our unconventional behaviour.”
Welton, much moved by these words, and even more by the simple sincerity with which she spoke, said with eagerness, “Indeed, I’m very grateful to you both. Of course I don’t want to say anything about my employer which might seem to cast an aspersion upon her ways or upon her household. I know she is kind-hearted, and that her cleverness and tact have made her a large circle of acquaintances. If there is anything eccentric about her ways, I like to think it is nothing more than the effect, as she herself said to me, of the personal disadvantages she suffers from. But at the same time, I can not only understand the surprise and suspicion which her odd ways may rouse in her neighbours, but I feel very grateful to you and to your mother for putting me on my guard.”
The girl smiled. “My mother has two sons of her own,” she said. “Both are away, one in China and the other in India. So she feels a sort of motherly feeling for any man about the same age who seems to her to be in need of any advice or warning.”
Welton hesitated. “May I not know the name of such kind, unknown friends as you have both been to me?” he said at last.
“Oh, yes. Our name is Ashcot. I’m Barbara Ashcot, and my father was Major Ashcot of the Engineers. My people are all in the two services: one brother is in the navy, the other in the army. And that’s all our history.”
He smiled. "I had an uncle in the army," he said. "Captain Keynes. He was killed in action. My own father was in the City, and my only brother, who is only eighteen, is in a bank. And I -- well, I'm glad to be in anything, and I've been thanking my stars that I've got into such an easy berth as that at The Lawns. I do hope, therefore, as I'm an awful duffer, that I shan't have to give it up." He spoke quite wistfully, and into the girl's eyes there came a look of deep concern.
“I wish you had something else to do,” she said in the same low, earnest voice as before.
He was surprised by her obstinacy, but touched by it. “I shall be all right,” he said cheerfully. “It’s a new experience, and I assure you I’m enjoying it. Whether it will be a short or a long one, I don’t know; but I don’t mean to give it up until I see something better ahead. And that’s not likely, I’m afraid. At present the alternative would be a crossing and a broom.”
“I’m really not at all sure that might not be better,” she said solemnly.
But she would not be persuaded into saying anything more definite than this, though he tried hard to coax her to tell him of any explicit point about the household at The Lawns which had come under her notice and her displeasure. She was careful to say nothing more, and contented herself with telling him that if ever he should want advice or help that she and her mother could give, he was to come to them at once, and they would do what they could.
This was vaguely alarming, being suggestive of the possibility of tragic or terrible events at The Lawns, and the need of an immediate refuge.
But Welton only smiled his thanks, shook warmly the hand she graciously held out to him, and went away feeling dimly that he had got into a maze of unknown dangers and difficulties, none the less real that they appeared more apparent to others than they did to himself.
He found his brother very eager to hear about his experiences of the day; but Welton was cautious, and only gave him the bare outlines of the story, telling of his own work and of the smart visitors he had seen, without mentioning those other small details which had excited his own curiosity and Mrs. Ashcot’s suspicions.
Welton, however, had to tell his brother of his visit to the Ashcots, carefully suppressing the exaggerated fears and doubts of both ladies; so that he left upon the mind of the younger the impression that all was right with the household at The Lawns.
Perhaps, however, Basil guessed more than his elder brother suspected. It seemed to the shrewd younger brother rather strange that Welton should be so thoroughly satisfied, so soon after his expressing such strong doubts about the post. The truth was that Welton felt as anxious now to keep the post, for a little while at any rate, as he had previously been to give it up. Possibly his acquaintance with the attractive Barbara Ashcot, and the certainty that, if he were to leave Miss Ferriby’s employment, he would have no excuse for seeing her again, had something to do with his strong wish to stay at The Lawns.
He now felt so sure that there must be something rather “fishy” about the place that, knowing his brother’s shrewdness, he realized that were Basil to learn every circumstance which he had already noted, he would advise him as strongly as the Ashcots had done to have nothing more to do with Miss Ferriby and her philanthropy.
He was conscious that if the house were really either a private inquiry agency or a gaming house, association with it could not but do him harm. In the former case, the agency must be so well known that some of his own old acquaintances would probably meet him some day, and express surprise at his being associated with it; or, in the latter case, there was the risk of its being pounced upon by the police, in which event his own name might be published, with disastrous results to himself.
From time to time Welton would tell himself that all these guesses, and surmises, and doubts and suspicions were rather futile; and that it might turn out, as he had himself in the first place hoped, that Miss Ferriby was nothing more nor less than an eccentric philanthropist, such as she represented herself to be. But in that case, it was impossible to help acknowledging that there were many circumstances about her, and her household and circle, which needed explanation.
On the following morning he went again to The Lawns, and found Miss Ferriby already seated in her corner in the library. He thought she seemed morose and taciturn, and he wondered whether she had heard of his being waylaid by the Ashcots on the previous evening.
However, she said nothing about it, and as there was a larger pile of letters than ever to be handled, they soon got to work. Immersed in business, he lost sight on either side of what might have been troubling them.
So hard did they work, however, that they finished earlier than on the previous day, and Miss Ferriby, leaning back in her chair so far that he lost sight of her face altogether, said suddenly, “Have you spoken to anybody about what we talked about yesterday afternoon?”
“No,” answered Welton truthfully. “You told me not to mention it, and I did not.”
She suddenly thrust her face out of the darkness of the corner, and fixing her gaze upon him in a very penetrating manner, said shortly, “Do you know anybody in this neighbourhood?”
He knew at once to whom she must be referring, so he answered without hesitation, “Yes. Two ladies named Ashcot.”
She drew back and said in a peculiar tone, “Ah!”
Welton, hoping she would say nothing more about them, began to gather his letters and papers together, ready for the afternoon’s work. Her sharp tones interrupted him.
“They are busybodies, the pair of them. Be careful not to let them gossip. They are a type of women I loathe. Don’t you?”
Welton was unable to agree with her. “I rather like them,” he said.
She uttered a scornful sound, which was not exactly a laugh. "I don't so much mind the elder, though I'm sure she is an old chatterbox. But the daughter, with that sickly, ghastly face, and those unnaturally red lips and staring eyes -- I find her insupportable. But then I hate plain women. Being without personal advantages myself, I suppose I am more particular about them in others."
As Welton considered Miss Ashcot one of the prettiest girls he had ever seen, he was unable to say anything acceptable in reply to this speech; so he modestly kept silence altogether.
But Miss Ferriby was strangely persistent. “Don’t you agree with me that that sickly, bloodless type is horrible, repellent?” she asked, peering forward, and again fixing upon him the gaze of her big grey eyes.
“I think I rather admire a pale olive complexion,” he said. “And Miss Ashcot does not look unhealthy, I think.”
From the ugly frown which at once appeared upon Miss Ferriby’s face, Welton was surprised to learn that she belonged to that almost extinct type of women who are foolish enough to think they can prevent men from admiring handsomer women by running them down. It was such a strange foible to find in a woman like Miss Ferriby, masculine in appearance and in intelligence, that Welton was embarrassed and did not quite know how to treat her. So once more he buried himself in the letters before him.
But Miss Ferriby had had enough of business for the present, and she presently spoke again. “I hear you were in the garden yesterday afternoon?”
“Yes. I went out to smoke a cigarette after luncheon,” said Welton rather shortly.
As he spoke, he glanced at her and found that she was regarding him with a strange, fixed stare of inquiry. “You were having a good look about you,” she went on, almost in an accusing tone.
“You looked downstairs, and you saw my friends in the drawing room.”
“And you looked upstairs too.”
Was she going to tell him the explanation of the mystery of the drawn blinds? Instinctively Welton threw at her a questioning look. Miss Ferriby met it, and a curious smile began to hover about her lips.
“Ah, I thought so!” she said under her breath. She edged forward in her chair until she was about a foot nearer to him. Then leaning her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand, she fixed her great eyes upon him in a steady, aggressive look, and said, “I thought you had been spying! There was a look in your face last night which made me think so, and then I heard something, and I knew I was right.”
From which speech Welton gathered that when he took his walk in the grounds, he had been spied upon by unseen eyes.
“Well,” she said at last, suddenly throwing herself back in her chair again, until all he could see of her was the pair of gaunt, pale, large hands, plucking uncannily at the fold of her silk gown, “I shall have to gratify your curiosity, I suppose, or you will be telling fairy tales about me and my surroundings. Come this way.”
With her usual phenomenal agility, she had wriggled down from the high, square stool, pushed aside the heavy curtain, flung back the baize door, and stood in a little square hall with a small window high in the wall on the left-hand side, and doors opposite and on the right.
In the middle of this hall, which was handsomely carpeted and hung with tapestries, was a circular staircase with a balustrade of wrought iron, richly gilded. Miss Ferriby pointed to the little landing above, where there were two doors.
"If you will go up this staircase," she said, "after luncheon, and go quietly in by the door opposite to you, you will find yourself in a little room without any light whatever. You will be able to find your way in by the light which will come through the doorway as you go in. You will find a seat on your right hand. Sit down quietly, don't make the least noise, and don't forget to close the door behind you as you go in. Presently you will see by what means I collect money for my charities -- lots and lots of money. Don't stir from your seat till I come myself and let you out."
Welton, deeply interested, but rather reluctant to go through this suggested ordeal, would have protested, but Miss Ferriby cut him short, and made it clear to him that he had no choice. She implied, though she did not say so, that since he himself had been anxious to pry into her secrets, he must now learn them, whether he liked it or not.
As he perceived that there was some logic in this, he submitted, and promised to do exactly as she had told him.
This done, Miss Ferriby took him back into the library, pointing out to him that she was leaving the baize door unbolted for him. Then, rather less cordially than on the previous day, she took leave of him, and left him to his luncheon and to his work, warning him once more that he must be in the seat in the darkened room by five minutes to three without fail, and that he would have to remain there exactly an hour and a half.
Welton ate his luncheon, and began his work with mixed feelings. On the one hand he was excited at the thought that he was going to learn, once for all, the secret of The Lawns household which, however, he now began to guess at. On the other hand, there was something rather uncanny about the manner in which he was to satisfy his curiosity, that made him remember with a certain nervous uneasiness the warnings of the Ashcots.
Ridiculous as some of these warnings had seemed, now that he was instructed to find his way alone into a dark room and remain there for an hour and a half without speaking or moving, their rumours and whisperings seemed to be not without some substantial grounds.
The time seemed to drag until it was five minutes to three, when he sprang up from his desk, passed without noise under the curtain and through the doorway beyond, and found himself in the little square hall, over the window of which a curtain had now been drawn, so that all the light there was came from a small lamp of extraordinary shape that hung from the ceiling over the winding staircase.
Welton hastened up the stairs, opened the door pointed out to him by Miss Ferriby, and found himself, as she had said, in a small apartment, absolutely dark but for the faint light from the lamp in the hall behind him. Holding the door open, he observed the chair of which Miss Ferriby had spoken. It was on his right, and was placed to face a wall which appeared to be hung with a sort of coarse black canvas.
He shut the door behind him, groped his way to the chair, and sat down.
At the end of a few minutes he heard someone moving about on the other side of the wall in front of him, and the sounds were so distinct that he knew the supposed wall must be rather in the nature of a tightly drawn curtain.
Presently there were sounds from the lower part of the house, as of the opening and shutting of doors and the faint murmur of distant voices. And then, through the black wall or curtain before him he discerned a glimmer of light, and saw that a hand which he recognized as that of Miss Ferriby had lighted two wax candles in sconces on the walls, and that, between these, and at right angles to the wall before him, there was a tall mirror, about four feet in height and two in width, in a massive gilt frame, on a wall which appeared to be hung with red velvet.
Peering into the rest of the room, which was of about the same size as the one he was in, Welton saw that it was richly furnished, adorned with Oriental draperies and weapons, and divans covered with rich stuffs, that there was a gilt-topped table containing a sort of plate made of pearl, and that Miss Ferriby herself, in the exotic dress and rich jewels she had worn on the previous day, was sitting on a heap of cushions on the floor before the mirror, in front of which was burning in a shallow vessel something that gave out a perfume like incense, and clouded the room with vapour.
Miss Ferriby, having lighted the candles, was sitting as motionless as a sphinx, until the door leading out of the gallery by which Welton had come up opened, and a well dressed lady, with a soft, refined voice, came in. He saw her put some banknotes into the pearl dish, and was able to see that there were a good many of them. Then Miss Ferriby pointed to a chair, the visitor sat down, and what he perceived to be a sort of fortunetelling séance began.
It was all very well managed, very cleverly carried out, very effective and impressive. But it resolved itself into the reading of the magic mirror by Miss Ferriby, according to questions put to her by her visitor, who, guardedly as she put her questions, was evidently anxious to find out whether a certain secret, of which she betrayed the nature in spite of herself, was safe from another person whose knowledge she feared.
Welton grew hot and cold, and was ready to die with shame. Although it was true that he was unaware o£ the identity of the lady, it was perfectly certain that she believed herself to be alone with Miss Ferriby, who was reading out to her, with an appearance of infinite patience and in a dreamy, sonorous voice, the pictures on the mirror as they presented themselves before her.
It was indeed, as Welton saw, nothing but a highly refined and elaborated version of the visit of the servant girls to the gipsy, the fortune telling by a pack of cards, with the old “dark man,” “fair woman,” “journey,” “danger,” and the rest.
Only, instead of a poor servant girl, there was a richly dressed woman who might perhaps be a duchess, as dupe, willing dupe, and a woman adorned with real precious stones instead of a shabby gipsy. The greasy pack of cards was replaced by the magic mirror, across which there floated indistinct moving shapes, which Miss Ferriby interpreted in a fashion which, if not distressingly original, appeared to give complete satisfaction to the silly, excitement-loving woman to whom she made her revelations.”
The interview lasted five or six minutes, each of which, Welton computed, was paid for by two high value banknotes. And then Miss Ferriby waved her hand, the door appeared to open automatically, and the visitor rose and went out.
Scarcely had she done so, when Welton sprang to his feet, and would have dashed out by the way he had come, when a hand which had a grip he could not resist was placed upon his shoulder, forcing him back into his chair.
A man’s voice which he did not know whispered in his ear, “You have promised to stay, and to keep quiet. Remember to keep your word. As a gentleman, you must.”
Shuddering and almost sick, Welton began to protest faintly, when a strong hand was placed over his mouth, and the same voice as before said close to his ear, “I’m not going to hurt you. But I have to keep you quiet. It’s by Miss Ferriby’s orders. There’s someone else coming up. Give me your word to sit still, and not to move or speak until the séance is over, and I will let you go at once. Bow your head. I will take it as a sign you agree.”
Absolutely helpless in these hands, Welton bowed his head, and at once he found himself free. For one short moment the desire to be out of the sickening atmosphere of fraud and folly was so strong within him that he was on the point of breaking his implied promise, and of springing up and making another dash for the door, or tearing down the veil in front of him and protesting against the elaborate imposture.
Luckily for him, he remembered in time that he was powerless, that the unseen man, who appeared to be appointed his guardian and jailor, knew the place better than he did, might even have a weapon with which to reduce him to silence if it should be necessary. So he remained sitting like a statue, oppressed with indignation and shame, while yet another lady glided into the room on the other side of the black veil, which the faint light on the other side made transparent to him, while it evidently remained opaque to those on the other side.
This client was younger than the last, and it was at once evident that her anxiety was not amatory, but financial. She wanted advice on the subject of a speculation, and Welton was bound to admit that the advice given her was good. She was warned to be careful, not to trust a certain man who pretended to know all about financial matters, but who was a very unsafe guide, and was urged to take the advice instead of the man who stood nearer to her. In other words, so thought Welton, listening full of misery and shame to these confidential communications, her father or her husband.
Unspeakably wretched, Welton sat out half a dozen of these interviews, until at last, after a long pause, a man came into the room. Welton thought he recognized the voice, but could not identify it for the moment.
Not as trustful as the ladies, this, the first male client of the afternoon, came straight towards the veil which separated Welton and his unseen companion from the sibyl and her victims.
“Allow me, Miss Ferriby,” he said, as he groped his way to the black veil and raised his hand to touch it, “to make quite sure, in the first place, that we are really alone.”
For one moment Welton Keynes thought that he would be discovered, dragged out from his hiding place, and exposed by the astute masculine client who would not be satisfied with mere assurances on the part of Miss Ferriby that he and she were alone, and out of earshot of any other person.
But it was only for a moment.
Then Miss Ferriby, with that remarkable agility which distinguished her from all the other old women Welton had ever met, had sprung up from the pile of cushions upon which she was sitting, and taking her sceptical client by the hand drew him gently away from the black curtain which hung between the portion of the room where she held her séances, and that in which Welton was sitting.
"I am afraid," she said gently, but with so much firmness that the lively young man with whom she had to deal had at once to resign himself to be dictated to by her, "that you will have to submit to the rules I make for my visitors, or else I will have to forego the pleasure of satisfying either your anxiety or your curiosity -- whichever motive brought you to see me."
He laughed, but at once spoke apologetically. “Well, Miss Ferriby, and supposing it were curiosity alone which made me come and see you, is there any harm in my satisfying it to the extent of finding out whether you have any assistants in this business?”
As he spoke in a clear, well modulated voice, crisply and distinctly, Welton suddenly recognized the tones as those of a well-known Member of Parliament, a Cabinet Minister of a few months’ standing, and one of the most brilliant of the public men of the day.
It seemed inconceivable that such a man should have come on any errand but curiosity, or perhaps the fulfilment of a bet, and it was impossible to withhold admiration from Miss Ferriby for the cleverness with which she treated him.
Laughing in her turn, but still holding him by the hand, she said promptly, “There’s not the least harm in your curiosity, and if I were an impostor, trying to make a living out of the credulity of foolish people, I should praise your zeal in the cause of common sense. But as I don’t profess, or pretend either, to tell fortunes or to foretell future events. All I do is to answer questions satisfactorily enough to induce crowds of people to come and ask more, so I really don’t see in whose behalf you are so zealous.”
The Honourable Barton Cullingworth then spoke in an apologetic tone, as if rather ashamed of himself. “Indeed, Miss Ferriby, you’re quite wrong,” he said. “I really wish to consult you, to hear what you have to say on a point that is perplexing me. And as it’s rather a delicate matter, I’m anxious that it should not be overheard by anyone.”
And again he turned, as if about to proceed to the investigations which she had interrupted.
But again she was too quick for him. “Although there is nobody actually within hearing,” she said, not yet relaxing her hold of his hand, “there may very likely be someone in the next room. So, if you are at all nervous as to the thinness of the walls, pray tell me your difficulty in a whisper instead of saying it aloud. And if you like, I will answer your questions in the same way.”
Mr. Cullingworth caught at her first words. “You say there is someone in the next room?” he persisted.
"I said," replied Miss Ferriby, "that there might very likely be someone there. I have a small room next to this, where a shy client who does not care to wait for his interview -- it is generally a member of your sex who is so shy -- in the crowd downstairs, comes to wait his turn. Now are you satisfied?"
“Oh, all right,” said Mr. Cullingworth, in a tone which implied that he was not more than half convinced. “Let me see, what is the fee?”
“Ah! Paying game, Miss Ferriby!” Mr. Cullingworth laughed softly.
She laughed too. “Why do you encourage me then? It is so easy to keep your money in your pocket and to remain outside.”
“No, it isn’t. The easiest thing is to follow the lead. And everybody comes to you. You’re the fashion.”
“Well, I work pretty hard, and they tell me I do some good with it. My charities get the benefit. More than one will tell you that I do more for them than anybody else does.” Then abruptly she brought him back to business. “And now for your questions. Whisper as low as you please.”
Mr. Cullingworth bent his head, and said something in her ear much too low for Welton Keynes to hear. Then he sat back in his chair and there was a pause.
Welton Keynes noticed that for this sceptical client Miss Ferriby did not use the mirror with its vague moving images. Instead, she took the cover off the little Turkish table that stood beside her, and bent her head to look into a bowl of water which was placed upon it.
After a few minutes spent in gazing into this, she raised her head, beckoned to Mr. Cullingworth, and when he leaned forward, she gave him in a whisper a somewhat lengthy answer.
“By Jove!” he ejaculated once or twice as she spoke. Then he sat back, and so did Miss Ferriby.
He wanted to speak again, but she waved her hand, and said with decision, “That is all, absolutely all I have to tell you.”
He rose reluctantly. “I admit it’s worth the money,” he said with another laugh as he went out of the room.
Then another lady came up, and another and another, until the little clock in the shape of a globe which stood on a side table in Miss Ferriby’s room struck the half-hour after four.
A lady had just gone out.
Miss Ferriby sprang to her feet, extinguished the two candles with almost incredible rapidity, while a moment later Welton felt the rapid movement of the air in front of him as the curtain which had divided the portion of the room in which he was sitting from the other was drawn up by means of a spring.
He rose and went to the door by which he had entered, but found it locked or bolted on the outside.
As he stood turning the handle vainly, however, there was a sudden change in the room, which was on the instant flooded with bright daylight, and turning quickly, he found himself in a room which looked as unlike as possible to the gloomy haunt of a sham seer.
Now that the black veil or curtain had been raised by a spring to the ceiling, where it was hidden by a valance of rich covering, heavily tasselled and hung with silken cords, he found himself in a room about twenty feet long and ten or twelve wide, brightly and well furnished with the richness characteristic of the whole house, but without any features suggestive of the cave of an enchantress.
Even the magic mirror had disappeared, and in its place was an oil painting of a lady, which filled the gilt frame and looked well against the red velvet-hung wall.
Miss Ferriby herself looked a quaint figure as she stood by the window in her exotic garb, and pulled aside the curtains with her bejewelled fingers. She looked tired and harassed, Welton thought, but she was energetic enough to cross the room to the table by the door, and to take out of the drawer underneath such a large number of banknotes that he stood marvelling at the credulity and superstition of the twentieth century, which could fritter away so much money on such follies.
Miss Ferriby, he had already noticed, did not put enough faith in her clients to leave their offerings exposed to view. No sooner did one client leave her presence than the mystic jumped up from her cushions and hastily emptied the latest contribution into the drawer underneath the table. It was from this receptacle that she was now taking her earnings.
Welton, who was indignant at having been forced to sit quietly by while this shameless exploitation of her clients was going on, stood moody and silent until Miss Ferriby counted out one hundred and forty-nine pounds, which she put into a leather wallet that she wore underneath her overdress. She chuckled as she did so, and then looked up at him.
“Not bad that, for an afternoon’s work,” she remarked coolly, as she shut the drawer, “but I notice that I am short of a pound. So one of my fair friends was weak in her arithmetic apparently.”
“Surely,” burst out Welton Keynes, forgetting the respect due to his employer in the indignation he felt at her behaviour, “you don’t make these silly women pay ten pounds for no more than telling them a few sentences of advice such as they could get from anybody?”
Miss Ferriby laughed without a qualm. “Why shouldn’t I take their money, which all goes to support the charities in which I am interested, if they will give it me for so little?”
“But it’s such nonsense! There’s nothing in it all,” he protested.
“I beg your pardon. You can’t have listened to what I said this afternoon without knowing that what I did tell them was always for their good, that I gave them good advice, and that I told them nothing which they could twist into anything mischievous.”
“You gave good advice to several, I know. But you foretold things, and that must have been mere guesswork, and productive of mischief.”
Miss Ferriby appeared quite unmoved by his displeasure, and very patient with his reproaches. “If you had known a little more about these people, if you had known as much as I do, for instance, you would not have thought it such mere guesswork as it now appears to you.”
He remembered as she spoke, that more than one of the ladies had been so greatly struck with what Miss Ferriby told her as to leave the room in a half-fainting condition. “Then it must be trickery,” he said boldly.
At that there came a change over Miss Ferriby’s face, and he thought he had gone too far.
“That,” she said coldly, “is my affair, and theirs. If they are satisfied, and more than satisfied by what I tell them, surely there is no more to be said. They come to consult me; I give them good advice which they would not take from anybody else; I am sometimes clever enough to foretell what is bound to happen, as you must have seen by the way they took it. And who gets the benefit of their silliness and my cleverness? Why, the orphan, the needy, the cripple, the old, the overworked. If that is trickery, it’s a pity there isn’t more of it in the world.”
But Welton, who was thoroughly roused, and thoroughly disgusted by the whole proceedings, would not be silenced. “At any rate,” he said sharply, “since these people came to you in the fullest confidence that they were alone with you, that they were pouring out their hearts and telling their secrets to someone who would keep their counsel, it was surely unpardonable in you to allow two other people to be present during these interviews. I never felt so guilty, so ashamed in all my life as I did when I was forced to listen to these poor dupes confessing themselves to you in my hearing. The confessional ought always to be sacred, whether it is in a church or not.”
At last he had gone too far. Miss Ferriby’s great grey eyes flashed fire. “Dupes!” she cried angrily. “Don’t talk to me of dupes, if you please. If they are dupes, it is by their own credulity. I do no more to dupe them than their own dearest friends, and their spiritual advisers, if they have any. As for your being present, it was by your own wish. You were dying of curiosity, and I gratified it. You ought to thank, instead of abusing me.”
“I beg your pardon. I am not abusing you. I am only protesting. I would not have asked you to let me be present if I had had any idea that I must listen to confidences not intended for me. And when I wanted to get away, I was forced into remaining by some person whom you had set to mount guard over me.”
“Of course, I couldn’t risk your crying out,” retorted Miss Ferriby. “It was only the footman who lets you in, an old servant of mine, whom I ordered to keep you quiet if your own good sense should fail you, as it appears to have done.”
Now Welton Keynes knew that this was not, could not be true. He had up to now only seen one servant in the house, the tall, handsome man who let him and the other visitors into the house and did the waiting, and who seemed to be the only servant about the place.”
He said nothing. Obviously he could not have been kept a prisoner upstairs while the footman was wanted below to usher in the visitors.
The look of disbelief on his face annoyed Miss Ferriby. “Do you doubt me?” she asked sharply.
“I am obliged to do so. At least, I don’t see how it was possible for the footman to be downstairs showing in your visitors, and upstairs keeping me quiet at the same time.”
Apparently this objection had not occurred to her, clever as she was. She dismissed it, however, with a shrug. “If you are determined not to believe me,” she said dryly, “I don’t suppose it is of much use for me to tell you anything.”
“Surely you can’t expect me to believe that I am the only person who has ever been shut in that room while the séances were going on,” protested Welton Keynes quietly.
“I use that division for other purposes,” she said petulantly. “Sometimes there are two or three persons coming to me at the same time, and then I put them in there, and remain on the other side myself.”
This was a lame explanation, which meant nothing. Welton Keynes continued to look incredulous.
“If you are ready,” Miss Ferriby said after a pause, with some acerbity, “I will now come downstairs and see the letters you have written.”
Welton felt startled. “I haven’t had time to finish them yet, Miss Ferriby,” he said stiffly. “I’ll go and do them now.”
He went quickly out of the room and down to the library, where the letters were lying just as he had left them. He was, however, in such a state of agitation that he could scarcely give his mind to the work he had to do. When the curtain in the corner was raised in half an hour’s time, and Miss Ferriby came in again, he had still a good deal to do. He rose at once, aware that she could see at a glance that he had by no means got over his discomfiture.
“I’m afraid,” he began, “that there’s still a great deal to do.”
“Never mind,” she said graciously, almost caressingly. “Stay and dine with me, and there will be time, after we have had a cup of tea, for you to finish everything.”
“Thank you, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “My brother expects me.”
“I will have a telegram sent to him to say you are detained.”
She would not allow him to protest, but touched the button beside her, and in a few minutes the tall footman answered the summons, bearing the tea tray.
“Take the tray into the small drawing room as usual,” she said. “And then I want you to send off a telegram. Give me a form.”
Then she rose and invited Welton to follow her into the drawing room. He did so, still with the same gravity and stiffness of manner as before. When he had taken the seat she indicated, and she had mounted as usual into her high-backed chair, she leaned forward, and in the rather disconcerting way she had, put her chin in her hand to stare at him penetratingly.
“What a farce it is,” she said mockingly at last, “for you to put on these airs of being offended, just because you know I tell fortunes. What is there worse in that than in City business, for example, company promoting, the trade you were brought up on?”
Welton was startled by this address, which indeed left him without any very good answer. He stammered, and she cut him short.
“Did you, pray, ever treat your own father to these heroics, and object to being kept and educated by him on the profits made by his business?”
Welton stared at her in alarm. What did she know about his father? He had certainly never told her anything about him, never mentioned either his name or his business. Yet she knew all about him, and now threw in his face his father’s business as if she had been intimately acquainted with all the details of it.
“A boy can’t very well tell his father he disapproves of his profession,” Welton stammered out at last. “But I quite agree with you that there is much to be said against the sort of business that is known as company promoting. There is, however, this to be said on the other side that, if it is worthy of punishment, it really gets its deserts. My father’s fortune disappeared with great suddenness, as, since you know so much, I dare say you know.”
Miss Ferriby nodded. “Yes, that’s the way with most fortunes made in that way,” she said quietly. “And you might say much the same of my fortune. It is quickly made, as I’ve no doubt you must have remarked, but my vogue as a fortune-teller may be at an end at any moment. Somebody else may spring up with a new name, new method, and in a moment away goes my wealthy and smart clientele, and I am left lamenting!”
Welton said nothing to this. Indeed he was almost stupefied by the whole business, by the silliness displayed by the horde of smart women who thronged the little house and let themselves be fleeced at such an extravagant rate for the pleasure of hearing the little hunchback repeat a few sentences, either in advice, warning, or so-called prophecy: by the openness with which the business was carried on, by the artfulness which surrounded the little suburban residence with a certain air of mystery and singularity.
Judged from this standpoint, the absence of visible servants, the darkened rooms, the contrast between the drawing room where the visitors were received, and the apartment where the fortune-telling went on, were all evidences of considerable ability and knowledge of human nature.
Unconsciously he looked at Miss Ferriby, and wondered as he looked. But she was quick to see the expression on his face, and turning upon him unexpectedly, she asked, “What are you thinking about?”
After a moment’s hesitation he answered truthfully. “I was thinking how very clever you must be, Miss Ferriby.”
She smiled, not ill pleased. “Well, perhaps it’s not so much cleverness as luck which has done so much for me,” she answered slowly. “I don’t say there isn’t a good deal of human knowledge required to set up in my business. I don’t say that I’m not careful to make the most of my knowledge. But luck must help one at the outset, in this as in every other trade or profession, and it helped me. I had a distinguished client who had reason to be startled and delighted with the success of a prophecy I made, and the news of that soon spread and brought me more clients than I could well deal with.”
“I dare say you find the work very exhausting,” suggested Welton, who had wondered at the short hours during which she received.
“Yes, I do.”
Welton, however, looked incredulous. Certainly the work, as he had seen it performed, looked far from arduous. But as he had seen many more people waiting on the previous day than could possibly have been interviewed in the hours during which Miss Ferriby received, he concluded that she wished it to be supposed that the work was of an exhausting nature.
She was clever enough to read his incredulity in his eyes, and so she presently laughed, and said, “You don’t mean what you say. You are wondering, since it pays so well, why I don’t receive during longer hours? Why, for instance, there were fourteen people sent away today disappointed at not having been received by me, while there were nine disappointed yesterday.”
“That’s just what I was thinking.”
A malicious smile appeared on the hunchback’s face. “It is better not to make oneself too cheap,” she said. “These people who can’t get to see me one day, will come again the next. In the meantime they will grumble loudly at the difficulty of seeing me, and give me an excellent advertisement.”
“And you do all this in the cause of charity?” asked Welton suddenly.
A flush appeared in the hunchback’s face, and he perceived that his question was a most indiscreet one.
“Of course,” said Miss Ferriby, with some haughtiness. “You can scarcely suppose that I, who am very well off, should take all this trouble except for a purpose which lay very near my heart.”
“Oh, of course not,” said the young man hastily. “You must be a godsend to some of the charities you help.”
“I think,” she said, leaning back with a satisfied air, and waving her hand in the direction of the pile of letters with which he was dealing, “you can have little doubt on that point after the samples you have seen of my correspondence.”
“No, indeed. They overwhelm you with gratitude.”
Afraid that he had shown but little tact in his share of the conversation, Welton bent his head over the letter with which he was at the moment dealing. There was silence for some minutes. Then, raising his head in curiosity to see what Miss Ferriby was doing while she remained so very quiet, he was surprised, almost startled to find that she was bending forward to stare at him with a look in her great grey eyes which was so keen as to be somewhat alarming. It was as if she had been trying to extract his thoughts without the use of words.
He looked down again quickly. There was something uncanny in her look, something strangely inconsistent with her grey hair and supposed age in the fire with which she gazed at him.
He found himself wondering whether she was really as old as she pretended to be; whether she found a burden of years desirable in her profession of clairvoyant and whether the mass of tangled grey hair, which formed such a picturesque, if untidy, background to her face, with its burning grey eyes and masculine expression, were really her own after all.
The moment that she found him looking at her, Miss Ferriby drew back into the shadow of her corner, where she sat as motionless and as silent as a statue until he had finished the letters. Then she took them one by one as before, read them and gave them back with an indescribable gentleness and graciousness of manner, which Welton thought womanly and touching.
Then she told him to go and smoke his cigarette in the garden until dinner time, which she had fixed for half past six on his account. Welton held up the curtain for her to go out, and then profited by her suggestion and went into the garden.
He was disturbed and uneasy, and resolved to ask her that very night to excuse him from further attendance. Although he recognized the truth of all she had said, that the trade of fortune-teller was little worse than some other better thought of professions, that she was collecting a large amount for charities, and that the people who came to her would certainly go to someone else for the same purpose if she were to give up her remunerative employment, he disliked the atmosphere of deception and fraud which surrounded the whole business, and he was still highly incensed at the manner in which he had been forced to listen to confidences intended for Miss Ferriby’s ear alone.
Although when in her presence her masculine personality and force of will dominated him, and made him overlook certain of the more repulsive features of her calling, no sooner was he alone than he recalled them; recalled too the fact that she had not scrupled to employ force to keep him in his distasteful place, and that the darkened space behind the thin curtain was evidently used for purposes of espionage, which had not been properly explained away.
He was struck, too, by the coolness with which she had received his remonstrances; as if the dishonourable conduct of which she had been guilty in introducing a stranger to overhear the confidences made to her were of no account at all.
Not only did she evidently look upon her visitors as the silliest of dupes, but she appeared quite cynically unconcerned about their secrets, some of which must obviously be serious enough to darken their lives.
And there darted into his mind the fear that if she was not very scrupulous as to the character of her own servants and dependents, some of these must necessarily become acquainted sooner or later with important secrets, and be in a position to levy blackmail upon Miss Ferriby’s too confiding visitors.
All things considered, he could not doubt the wisdom of the course he proposed, and he was pondering what excuse he should find to offer to her, when the gong sounded and he came indoors.
In the hall he was met by the tall footman, who showed him into a room where he found his own dress clothes laid out for him, as if by the practised hand of a clever valet.
“Miss Ferriby sent to your home for your things, sir,” explained the man simply, as Welton stared at his own coat, in doubt whether it could really be his own.
He dressed quickly, and at the sound of the second gong he came downstairs, and was shown by the footman into a pretty dining room in the front of the house, where dinner was laid for two.
As usual in this mysterious house, everything was exquisitely served. Miss Ferriby herself came in at one door as he entered by the other, and he was struck by the grotesque and painful contrast, which the square-cut dress of ivory satin with its long train, and the beautiful lace and jewels which she wore, presented to the deformed and stunted figure, the long, hard, masculine face and the large, pale hands.
Once more he was struck with the singular contrast between the grey hair and the fiery eyes. How old was she? If she was sixty, her eyes were too young, her face was too smooth. If she was thirty-five, what was the meaning of the grey hair?
They sat down to dinner, and Miss Ferriby showed herself in such a charming mood, feminine, witty, vivacious, that Welton doubted more and more whether she was really as old as she chose to say. Younger and younger the face seemed to grow, brighter and brighter became the eyes, until he began to ask himself whether this witch were using some of her arts upon him, whether there were some elixir in the champagne to turn old women into young ones, or to dazzle the eyes of young men.
Remembering that he had an important matter to discuss with her, for he felt sure he should meet with opposition in his determination to leave her service, Welton was very abstemious and kept strict watch upon his own tongue in spite of all Miss Ferriby’s endeavours to draw him out. He had formed a very strong opinion as to the witch’s powers, and was determined to hold his own with her, and not to be cajoled into continuing to occupy a position which he felt to be as unsatisfactory as it was insecure.
When dinner was over, Miss Ferriby asked him if he was fond of music, and upon his replying that he was, she led the way into the drawing room, and seating herself at the grand piano in its dainty painted case which he had admired on his first visit to the house, she played and sang to him so charmingly that he marvelled how a woman so old and so misshapen could draw such sweet sounds from the instrument, and retain the freshness of her own voice so long.
He expressed his delight in no measured terms, and Miss Ferriby, still in the same mood of vivacity and gentleness which had charmed him at dinner, and made him feel double pity for her deformity, left the piano, and seating herself on a sofa near the chair on which he was sitting near the fire, she leaned back and gave a little sigh.
“Ah!” she said, “it’s all very well; you like my playing and my singing, but all the while you were thinking what a pity it is such gifts as I possess were not those of a young, handsome woman with a fine figure and a pretty face.”
Welton was startled by the shrewdness of the remark, and although he vehemently denied that he had held any such thoughts, the quiet smile with which she received his protests only emphasized the truth of her words.
There was still a gentleness, almost a sweetness, in her manner which encouraged him to think that now that business hours were past and she could be what he supposed to be her natural self, she would listen with sympathy and interest to the statement which he would have to make, and would consent to let him off further attendance.
Full of this idea, he was very attentive and deferential, full of enthusiasm about her music, and delighted to find her so much pleased at his own real appreciation of her accomplishments.
“If you will stay to dine with me again tomorrow,” she presently said, “I will get out some more of my old songs, since they please you so much, and tune my harp to accompany myself with.”
At once Welton grew nervous. Here was his opportunity; he must make the most of it. Coughing from sheer fright, and growing red and obviously awkward, he said, “It is very good of you, Miss Ferriby, and I should have been delighted. But unfortunately I have an appointment for tomorrow which I must keep. And if you can let me off further attendance, and can forgive my not having given you notice, I should be very grateful, as I have heard of a post abroad which my people think I ought to accept, if I can.”
It was terribly abrupt, tactless, awkward, stupid. He felt that himself, after all his thought and all his preparation. Miss Ferriby looked astounded.
For a few moments she sat still, aghast at his audacity, perhaps at his ingratitude. Then she turned slowly towards him, and he was struck with horror to see that her eyes were full of tears. And yet in spite of that fact, he had an idea that it was anger as much as sorrow that possessed her as she said, after a long-drawn breath, "I see. I've frightened you. Is it my beauty, or is it my too great confidence in you which has alarmed you and made you decide to take flight? Oh, don't shake your head, and don't give yourself the trouble of inventing silly tales which no one could believe for a moment. You want to cease to come here. You are tired already, or discontented, or overworked, perhaps. Or perhaps you think I've not treated you well enough. Never mind the reason. You want to go. I, a poor lonely old woman who thought that at last I had found, in the man who saved me from a couple of thieves, someone whom I could trust, and whose fortune I could perhaps help to make -- have made a mistake. You are not well enough treated here. You want to go. Well, well, I can't detain you. I can't force you to come back if you are unwilling. I... I..."
To his horror she covered her face with her jewelled hands and sobbed bitterly.
Terribly distressed by this unexpected scene, Welton tried in vain to persuade her that he was only moved by considerations which had nothing to do with her or her household. He felt how feeble his words sounded, how inadequate his reasons were.
Suddenly Miss Ferriby sat up, and fixing upon him that steady penetrating gaze which seemed to read thought as if she had an open book before her, she said, “If you feel, as you say, that you are behaving badly to me, why do you do it? Why don’t you do the proper thing and give me a month’s notice? I will take that if you like. I must, I suppose. But don’t, now that I’ve let you get into my ways, that I’ve told you my innocent little secrets, that I’ve learnt to have confidence in you, and that I’ve found you intelligent, sympathetic, all that I wish, don’t throw me over, leave me in the lurch. Give me just time to find another secretary. Do, Welton, do.”
It was impossible for him to resist such earnest pleading, even though he felt persuaded in his heart of hearts that he was doing a foolish and dangerous thing in consenting.
He agreed, therefore, to give her the month’s work asked for, and then he saw at once by a light in her eyes, which he could not have described, that he had made another false move. In spite of her gentleness, her winning ways, he felt strongly that the woman was dangerous, and that the sooner he broke off all communication with her, the better it would be for him.
In the meantime, she had no sooner gained her point than she became once more the fascinating, gentle woman she had been before his words disturbed her equanimity. And he felt when he went away that night that the empire she had gained over her dupes as a seer was not surprising, since he himself had felt the influence of her strong will and masculine mind, which made his own resolution melt like wax before the fire of hers.
His brother was in a state of great excitement over his invitation to stay and dine with Miss Ferriby, and it went to Welton’s heart to have to disappoint the lad, who had at once made up his mind that his brother was, as he put it, “In for a good thing.”
“I suppose the old lady’s taken a fancy to you, and if so, perhaps she’ll leave you all her money,” suggested Basil, full of a theory which had immediately possessed him when he heard that his brother wanted his dress clothes.
Welton shook his head. “Not a bit of it,” he said. “The fact is, Basil, I don’t like the post a bit, and I want to get out of it, and Miss Ferriby won’t let me. And there’s nothing I wish less than that she should take a fancy to me, as you call it.”
And he at once proceeded to tell his brother the whole story of his day’s adventures without, however, succeeding in impressing the younger with the same sense of fear and suspicion with which the household at The Lawns and Miss Ferriby herself inspired him.
Basil looked upon the fortune-telling as jolly good fun, and failed to understand how seriously it was taken by Miss Ferriby’s dupes. “And if she gives all the money she makes by it to charities, and if she makes as much by it as you say, why, all I can say is the charities in question may well wink the other eye over the way she makes it.”
Welton shifted his position uneasily. "Ah, but there's another thing," he said, instinctively lowering his voice as he drew nearer to his brother. "She says again and again that she gives all the money she makes by fortune-telling to charities. But I've gone over all her letters and her books too, and reckoning up the sums she's collected from benevolent people on the one hand, and the sums she's handed over to charitable institutions on the other, I find that they exactly balance each other, and I can't find any trace of all this money of her own, although it must be between one hundred and fifty and two hundred pounds a day. It begins to look to me," added Welton, lowering his voice still more, "as if Miss Ferriby's were the sort of charity that begins at home -- and ends there!
There was silence on the part of both the brothers when Welton Keynes made his rather startling announcement concerning Miss Ferriby’s charities. That a woman of her type, cynical, shrewd, actuated, as she had herself confessed, by no very much loftier motives than love of excitement and the gambling instinct, should go to all the trouble and fatigue of the séances she held, with no other object than the provision of a large sum of money to be spent in benevolence which she herself mocked at, had seemed strange to Welton, as soon as he knew all about it.
When he had looked further into her accounts, and when he had carefully completed his examination of the letters and papers put into his care, there had remained this grave cause of surprise and suspicion, that while careful note was made of people, and while careful entry was made of the particular charity to which each sum was given, he had so far failed to account for any sums other than these. Not one scrap of paper, not one page of accounts, referred to Miss Ferriby’s own gifts from fortune-telling.
Basil looked rather scared. But after a pause he brightened up. “But why should she keep account of her expenditure of her own money?” asked he earnestly. “After all, what she does with it is her own affair, and she is not accountable to anybody. It’s only the money entrusted to her by others that she is bound to account for, and that, you say, she does most scrupulously to the last penny.”
Welton nodded. “That is true,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that as a dispenser of the charity of other people, she is most careful and conscientious, entering the minutest particulars, and the smallest sums.”
“Then why should you mistrust her about her own money?” asked Basil in a reproachful tone. “It seems to me that if she were not honest, it would be easy enough for such a clever woman to take everything that passed through her hands, and to make up some sort of story to account for what she had done with it. Or, if she couldn’t quite do that, she might levy a very handsome toll upon every sum given her, and put it down, as the charities themselves do their pilferings, to expenses.”
But the suggestion did not satisfy his brother. “Miss Ferriby’s not the sort of woman of whom one can certainly say that she would do this or that,” he said gravely. “I think that she is so awfully, diabolically clever, that she might well cover up her own particular form of depredations by being specially scrupulous in other matters. Mind, I don’t say it is so, but I say it might be so. She’s not only the cleverest woman, but the cleverest person I ever met. I’m afraid of her.”
Basil laughed incredulously. That his courageous, spirited, handsome brother should be really afraid of a hump-backed old woman, was too absurd to be anything more than a jest. He could not understand the strange attitude his brother was taking over the whole business. It seemed to him that the post was a delightful one, and that Welton was ridiculously particular to expect more than he had got in the way of comfort, consideration and salary, and to make so much of things which appeared to Basil unimportant.
If Miss Ferriby chose to amuse herself, and to make money for her charities by working on the credulity of a lot of rich people who were prepared to pay handsomely for their amusement, it did not seem to the younger brother such a very great crime. Even if she had perferred to keep the money she made in this way, there might be something to be said for her view of what was justifiable. But since she appeared to be extremely well oft already, and since she spoke of her vogue as a fortune-teller as being temporary only, it seemed to Basil only reasonable to suppose that she was doing it for her pleasure only, and that she saw no necessity for keeping a strict account of the acts of benevolence she performed with the money.
He thought Welton would be mad to give up a situation so pleasant and easy without better cause than he had yet shown for doing so. And down at the bottom of his heart there lingered the hope that Miss Ferriby would adopt the handsome Welton as her son, and leave him all her money! Such things did happen. Why should they not happen to Welton?
But he did not dare to say much about this idea, for his brother was so very curt and decided in rebutting it. Welton, indeed, was clearly in low spirits and uneasy, so to divert him Basil suggested that, as it was a fine night, they should have a walk.
It was not much past ten o’clock, so Welton consented, and putting on their overcoats, the brothers started southwards through Mayfair with the intention of getting into St. James’s Park.
As they were passing through one of the smartest streets, where rows of cars, waiting to set down their owners, showed that an entertainment was going on at one or perhaps more of the houses, Welton suddenly stopped short, grasping his brother’s arm tightly. He was staring at a gentleman in evening dress who had just got out of one of the cars and was walking up the red cloth which had been laid across the pavement, and up the steps of a mansion which was brightly lighted and crowded with beautifully dressed women and smart-looking men.
“What’s the matter?” asked Basil.
But at first Welton seemed unable to answer. He was leaning by this time quite heavily on his brother’s shoulder, and still staring fixedly at the man who had got out of the car.
“Good heavens!” cried Welton hoarsely.
The tall man turned sharply, and his eyes met those of Welton. Basil saw at once that the two men recognized each other, for the other man turned away, and quickening his pace ran up the steps as if afraid that Welton would speak to him.
Basil stared into his brother’s face and then, when the other man had disappeared into the house, he led his brother quickly away where they could talk, away from the crowd of loafers which had as usual gathered about the house where the reception was going on.
“What’s the matter, Welton?” he asked again, beginning to wonder whether there was something wrong with his brother, that he should have developed such a highly fanciful temperament of late.
Welton answered in a hoarse voice, "You saw the man -- the tall, good-looking man going into that house by himself? Well, he's the footman at The Lawns."
But this was more than Basil could listen to with patience. Now he was convinced that Welton, either by finding himself in a new environment or for some other reason, was not quite himself, and was imagining a good deal more than he saw.
“Come, Welton, that’s hardly likely, is it?” he said gently.
“It’s just as likely as a dozen things that I’ve seen and heard in the last three days,” retorted Welton, who was in a state of great agitation.
Basil remonstrated again, very patiently. “But this is more unlikely, you know; it’s impossible. This man was wearing a moustache.”
“I know that,” said Welton sharply. “And his moustache is put on for this occasion. He is clean-shaved when he is at The Lawns.”
Basil could not help smiling. “I think you must have made a mistake,” he said. “A moustache makes just enough difference for it to be impossible to tell a man seen hurriedly like that with one for the same man seen without.”
Welton made an impatient movement. “You are talking to me tonight,” he said sharply, “as if I were a fool. But I know I’m right. I know that the man I’ve just seen go into that house is the man who has been waiting upon me at The Lawns for the last three days. And more than that, he recognized me at the moment I recognized him.”
“Oh, yes, I dare say you did recognize each other,” said Basil readily. “All I’m sure of is that though no doubt you’ve seen the man before, you’ve mistaken the occasion on which you met him. You will remember more presently.”
Welton remained silent after this speech. He was evidently indeed too disturbed to talk much, and all attempts made by his brother to divert his attention and talk upon other subjects failed to rouse him from the state of acute anxiety into which this incident had thrown him.
On his return to his rooms he could not dispossess his mind of the belief that it was Miss Ferriby’s tall footman whom he had seen going into the Mayfair house as a guest, and he resolved to find out without delay who was the occupier of the house in question. The post office directory supplied the required information. A Mr. C. G. Van Velsen was given as the present occupier, and Welton guessed that this was the American millionaire whose wealth had bought his way into the papers, and the heart of English society.
However, this knowledge did not tell him much, as he had never heard the name before. But he made a note of the name and the address in case it should help him in the future to a solution of one of the many mysteries which surrounded The Lawns.
Although it was becoming ever clear to him that there was something mysterious and uncanny about Miss Ferriby and her household and her clients, Welton was now so far under the spell of this strange creature, and so fully awake to the singularity of the household, that he no longer wished to cut off the connection with The Lawns abruptly. He felt that he must learn more about it first, and that he must make quite sure what became of Miss Ferriby’s fortune-telling fees, and that he must know more too about the peculiar form her charity sometimes took.
While he knew that during the day her guests were in the highest ranks of society, he had reason to believe that during the evening she sometimes received people who were very near the opposite end of the social ladder. There was that strange visitor who came as a man and went away as a woman, and who, as he had reason to believe, was the murderer, Henry Ward.
Miss Ferriby had almost owned that it was he, and had made no secret of the fact that she, knowing him to be a criminal, had helped him to disguise himself and so to escape. Was such an action excusable on any grounds? And could it be believed that Miss Ferriby, cynical and fond of excitement and not over scrupulous as to the means she took to gratify her tastes, did things like this out of pure Christian charity alone?
Basil, alarmed by the effect which his new employment was already beginning to have upon his brother, now began to suggest that it would be better for him to give up his post at once, thus reversing the position he had up to now held.
Now, however, it was Welton who insisted upon carrying out his agreement with Miss Ferriby, to the extent of remaining the rest of the month with her, to allow her, as she had said, to procure a substitute for him.
On the following morning, on his way to The Lawns, Welton was met at the corner of the road by Mrs. Ashcot and her daughter, and they both looked at him anxiously as if they felt uncertain whether some alarming change might not already have taken place in him.
“I suppose you will say I’m fond of playing the spy,” said the elder lady, “when I tell you that I know you stayed to dinner last night at The Lawns.”
“Well, yes, I did,” he answered, smiling. “But you will be glad to hear that I have given notice to leave, and that I shall only be there a month.”
The old lady drew a breath of relief. Then, however, her face clouded again. “And what made you do that?” she asked quickly.
He hesitated. Miss Ferriby had treated him kindly, and he did not want to say anything which reflected upon his employer.
“Mama, it’s not fair to ask Mr. Keynes that. You should be satisfied with the fact,” Miss Ashcot said.
But Mrs. Ashcot was too much interested to be discreet. “No, my dear, I can’t be satisfied,” she persisted. “Not until I see him leaving The Lawns for the last time. And even then,” she added mysteriously, “I should like you to promise to come here at once, and let us see for ourselves that you’re all right.”
“Mama,” laughed her daughter, “of course Mr. Keynes will be all right. Don’t make him uncomfortable.”
“That’s just what I want to do,” retorted Mrs. Ashcot simply. “I don’t want you, Mr. Keynes, to feel safe at The Lawns, because I know you’re not.”
“Why, what do you think will happen to me, Mrs. Ashcot?” said Welton, trying not to smile, in spite of his own secret misgivings.
But the smile offended her, and she only said, “Never mind what I think. You have confessed enough in telling us you are not going to stay with Miss Ferriby. And I can only say that I congratulate you.”
Mrs. Ashcot made a sudden dash across the road to post a letter, in spite of her daughter’s suggestion that she should do it for her. Barbara Ashcot, finding herself thus alone for a moment with Welton Keynes, said quickly, “There was a very late visitor to The Lawns last night. A car stopped there at two o’clock in the morning.”
Welton looked alert and interested. “I suppose you couldn’t see who was inside?” he asked.
“Oh, no. But it was the second time the car was at the door of The Lawns last night. The first time was a little before eleven.”
“Ah!” said Welton, remembering that it was a little after eleven that he had seen the footman, disguised in a fair moustache, go into the Mayfair house.
Barbara blushed. “You will think us terribly inquisitive,” she said. “But it’s true, as my mother says, that we’ve heard and seen such odd things here that we have become unduly curious about what goes on at The Lawns. And Mama is specially interested now,” she went on, growing redder than ever in her anxiety to put all the curiosity on to Mama’s shoulders, “because she’s taken it into her head that you’re like one of her own boys. Of course you’re not a bit really,” she added quickly.
“Indeed, I wish I were. I’m ever so much touched by her interest. And, may I say, yours?” he added softly, looking into her face which, usually so pale, was now flushed with subdued excitement.
“Of course I have to watch when my mother tells me to,” she said demurely. “It’s not very pleasant to feel that one is always spying, but there’s something so odd about the household there, and the very different types of Miss Ferriby’s visitors, that one can’t live where we do, almost opposite, without getting more curious than is quite proper.”
“Have you any idea why the other secretaries went away so quickly? Did you know any of them?” asked Welton.
“Oh no. They didn’t look like the sort of persons one would care to know,” she said. “One of them looked as if he drank, and another had an evil face, so that we used to call him the convict, while another always looked frightened from morning till night. He used to look up and down the lane when he came out, and make a dash for the street at a breathless pace, as if afraid of being caught.”
“So when we saw someone quite different, we felt we ought to say something by way of warning, odd though it must have seemed to you to be accosted like that.”
“It was most kind of you both. It’s not many who would have done so much for a stranger,” said Welton warmly.
Barbara smiled a little. “If you thought it odd,” she said, “you must remember that we live a very quiet life, so that my mother is always thinking of her absent boys. And anyone who recalls either of them to her is always sure of her sympathy and help, if necessary.”
They were chattering like this for the very pleasure of talking to each other. For already drawn together by the mysterious attractions of mutual interest, and by the knowledge that they were both rather lonely in the world, they were watching for a few words together, for a sight of the other’s face. Already the pretty pale oval face and the big dark eyes had begun to intrude into Welton’s daydreams.
“Might I,” he said, hesitating, as she looked round towards her mother, who was coming back to them, “might I, if I have anything to tell you this afternoon, come in for a few minutes when I leave The Lawns?”
“Oh, we shall feel so pleased if you will,” said Barbara, brightening, sounding as if she meant it. “Only don’t tell Mama anything that will frighten her,” she added with a little laugh.
“Trust me. If I have anything alarming to tell, I’ll keep it for your ears, Miss Barbara.”
They exchanged a swift look of mutual interest and sympathy, and the girl looked away with the red blood rushing into her pale cheeks once more. She looked so pretty, so modest, and withal so gentle, and yet so intelligent, that he was quite sure he had never met a girl who in all respects was so much like his ideal of what a woman should be. Her evident devotion to her mother was enough to satisfy him as to the emotional side of her nature, while the way in which she listened to his account of his adventures at The Lawns, guarded as were his words, showed the intelligence of a mind that took in everything, together with a tact that said little.
His looks betrayed his thoughts of her.
“Well,” she answered, when he uttered this promise of confiding in her if anything should alarm him during the day, “you couldn’t do better, I’m sure, than tell me anything strange that happens to you. For I can keep a secret, although I am a woman.”
“I’m not at all inclined to see the force of the word, although, Miss Barbara,” said Welton. “I think women keep their secrets better than men. They are more cautious. I’m quite sure that Miss Ferriby could keep one,” he added with decision.
"Our reputation is not that we can't keep our own secrets. They say it's those of other people that we feel bound to betray," said Barbara, smiling. "But I should think Miss Ferriby could keep anybody's -- as long as it suited her purpose to do so," she added with a little asperity.
“Ah,” said Welton, “those words are not quite worthy of you, if I may dare to say so.”
“How do you mean, not worthy?”
"They showed a little -- may I dare say it? -- a little malice, such as I had not thought you capable of."
The girl blushed. Then she looked up at him steadily. “I only hope,” she said earnestly, yet modestly, “that you may never have reason to regret that you did not share my malice,” and she held out her hand in farewell.
Welton felt remorseful and ashamed. “Will you forgive me?” he said. “I ought not to have said such a thing. But you must see what a difficult position I’m in. Miss Ferriby is my employer, and she’s been very kind to me. She’s made a great fuss about my saving her from two men who attacked her in a lane near here, before I knew who she was, and she has put me under obligations by her generous treatment. I want, therefore, to think the best. Wouldn’t you feel like that if you were in my place?”
“Of course I would,” said Barbara, smiling. “And you are perfectly right. Try to forget a good deal of what we’ve said and suggested, and remember only enough not to be too confiding.”
“I will,” he said as they parted, he going on towards The Lawns, and she returning to her mother.
It was with much trepidation that Welton awaited the appearance of the tall footman at the door of The Lawns to let him in. So convinced was he that he had seen the fellow going into the Mayfair house, that even the statement made by the Ashcots that they had seen a car at the door twice on the preceding night, at such time as accorded with the supposition that it had taken the man away and brought him back again, scarcely made Welton’s conviction on the point stronger than it had been before.
When the door opened at his summons, and the tall footman appeared as usual, Welton looked him straight in the face, and at once saw, by the rush of blood into the man’s face, that there was no doubt about his identity with the man he had seen, disguised in a fair moustache, going into the house of the American millionaire.
Although Welton had been sure of this, the confirmation of his own suspicion in the man’s look and demeanour, affected him so strongly that he felt as if he must accuse the footman on the spot of his double life.
But of course he restrained this impulse, and at once casting down his eyes, allowed himself to be shown into the house without uttering a word to express his conviction that, whatever might be the strange doings at The Lawns, the tall footman who appeared to be the only servant Miss Ferriby had was not only fully cognizant of them, but had a hand in some of them himself.
When Welton reached the library and sat down to his day’s work, he was thankful to find that his employer had not yet made her appearance. Bound as he felt himself to be by his promise to remain a month in the capacity of her secretary, his doubts about his employer, her methods and her principles, were so strong that he began to feel sure something would occur to make it impossible for him to keep his word.
Should he speak about what he had seen? If he were to tell her about the footman’s escapade, what would she do? Perhaps she would profess incredulity. But in that case Welton felt that there would be nothing for it but open admission on his side that he did not believe her, and that he would have to insist upon going away at once.
Already he had become so strongly affected by the fascination of the mystery which surrounded the house and its mistress, that he did not want to go away with his many questions and doubts about the place unsatisfied.
His head was bent over his work, which consisted in opening and mastering the contents of the letters which, he now began to think, must be carefully sorted by someone before they were given to him, when on hearing a soft sigh he looked up quickly and saw that Miss Ferriby had entered the room and taken her seat so quietly that he had heard no sound.
She looked pensive and sad, and a feeling of compassion for the deformed woman, who was so kind to him, took the upper hand of every other sentiment, as he rose and wished her good morning.
Did she know anything of his doubts? He could not be sure, but she was so pensive, so gentle, so extraordinarily kind and sweet, that he fancied she must be aware of his misgivings, and that she was doing her best to minimize the effect of the discovery he had made.
She gave him extra work to do that morning, so that they were both fully employed until the luncheon hour, when she said, with an arch look, “Go and enjoy your cigarette in the garden, but don’t be too curious about my visitors. They don’t care to be seen here, on their superstitious errand, by anyone who looks as if he were spying upon them.”
“I hope, Miss Ferriby, that I have not done anything to cause comment on the part of your visitors,” replied Welton rather stiffly. “I only passed the windows of the drawing room and saw ladies standing inside, but of course I did not look at them even long enough to be able to recognize them if I were to see them again.”
Miss Ferriby raised her eyebrows not ill-naturedly, but with a rather mischievous little smile. “From something I was told,” she replied coolly, “I had fancied you were more inquisitive than you describe yourself as being.”
He knew that she must refer to what he had seen of the footman, and he thought he would make confession and see what she had to say on the subject. But before he could collect his thoughts and frame his words for the necessary speech, Miss Ferriby had retreated under the portière and he had lost his chance.
The afternoon was uneventful for him. The footman came in with his luncheon and went away again. He did his morning’s work, smoked his cigarette in the garden, saw more smartly dressed ladies, with one or two gentlemen evidently belonging to the same world.
And then again he went on with his work, and Miss Ferriby, when she came in to read over what he had done, said nothing more which he could take as an opening for discussion.
But when she had read the last letter she leaned back in her chair, and asked him to stay to dine with her again.
Welton excused himself, but she cut him short rather peremptorily. “If you won’t stay, I can’t force you to do so, of course. But I ask you to stay as a favour. I am a lonely old woman, and your society last night was very pleasant to me. My vanity was pleased by your praise of my music, and I am eager for more pleasure of the same kind. I’ve hunted out some more old songs. I’ve tuned my harp, and I am longing to show off my prowess upon that too. If you won’t stay, well, I must let you go. But,” and she leaned forward, and into her eyes there came a look of eager longing that touched him in spite of himself, “if you can stay, do, do, please.”
There was nothing to be done but to yield, and once again Welton found his dress clothes in the room into which he was shown by the footman.
He dressed with a great sense of uneasiness, scarcely knowing why he was disturbed and alarmed, but yet feeling more and more surely the necessity of going warily in this house of surprises.
At dinner Miss Ferriby wore a fresh gown, even more gorgeous than the one she had appeared in on the previous evening, and the jewels she wore were new and splendid. He calculated, knowing something about such things, that the diamonds she had in her grey hair and round her neck, on her arms, bodice and fingers, must be worth twenty thousand pounds.
The woman was just as gracious, as sweet voiced and gentle mannered as ever, so that it was quite impossible not to be pleased both with her and with oneself when in her society.
Welton Keynes found himself thinking what an exceedingly fascinating woman she would have been but for her unfortunate deformity. For, as she talked, he forgot the largeness of her features, and the masculine expression disappeared from her face, which became womanly and gentle in a striking degree. The tones of her voice, singularly varied and soothing to the ear, became as pleasant to listen to as her singing, which was excellent.
When she seated herself at her old-fashioned harp and ran her large, strong fingers over the strings with the touch of experience and skill, he listened entranced, and could have thought, when he turned away his eyes, that he was in the presence of a nymph of the woods, or of the very genius of music herself.
She had sung him several songs with a wild and exquisitely moving accompaniment, when the door of the drawing room opened noiselessly and the footman appeared. As Welton glanced up on his entrance, he was surprised to see a look exchanged between the mistress and the servant which betrayed at once the fact that their relations were not those commonly supposed.
The mistress looked anxious, the servant looked angry. And Welton Keynes, as he looked quickly down again, afraid of being caught in his curious gaze, wondered what relationship these two really stood in, the one towards the other. They were certainly not mistress and servant as they pretended to be. What then were they? Partners in a lucrative profession? Or husband and wife?
As these thoughts passed through his mind, the measured and absolutely respectful voice of the footman was saying, “There is a gentleman, ma’am, in the waiting room, who says he would like to speak to you. Can you see him?”
Once more Welton stole a look at first the one face and then the other. He felt quite sure, by what he noticed, that some signals were exchanged between them. It was not that there was any well-marked movement on either side. But in the pause that followed the servant’s words, there was just some indication that mute questions were asked and answered, rather by looks and signs than by definite actions.
And then Miss Ferriby said, “Did he give his name, Box?”
But by this time Welton felt sure that Miss Ferriby was perfectly well acquainted with the identity of her unnamed visitor, and she rose with an impatient sigh. “Very well, Box. Show him into the smaller drawing room. I will see him.”
“Yes, ma am.”
The footman departed, and Miss Ferriby turned to Welton. With one of her large, ample, well-shaped hands still lingering lovingly upon the strings of her harp, she said with another sigh, “Some idiot who wants his fortune told, no doubt.”
Although something he could not have defined made Welton think this was not the truth, he had to say something which implied that he believed her. “You ought not surely to call them idiots, when their folly or their frivolity contributes so handsomely to your favourite charity, Miss Ferriby,” he said, smiling, but not, perhaps, looking quite as unmoved and uninterested as he would have liked.
She looked at him with a curious expression, half suspicion, half amusement. "Oh," she said, "yes, you're right. For while the day hours are reasonable, and I only ask ten pounds, for a night consultation such as this I ask twenty -- and get it," she added with a little laugh.
It was impossible not to look incredulous then. “Twenty pounds?” he stammered.
Miss Ferriby nodded emphatically. "Since the great Napoleon visited and believed a fortune-teller, why should not some of our present-day rulers have the same weakness -- if it is a weakness?" she said impressively.
“Quite true,” said Welton Keynes.
Miss Ferriby, who had put aside her harp, lingered one moment after she had turned to leave the drawing room by a door which, as he knew, must lead direct into the little hall where the staircase was that led upstairs.
“You will be able to amuse yourself for half an hour, won’t you?” she said. “You will find plenty of magazines about, and if you play, there is the piano.”
“Thank you,” he said, as he sprang across the room to open the door for her. But she smiled, let herself out so quickly that he could not reach her before the door was closed behind her, and the key turned in the lock.
She did it so softly that he scarcely heard it, and indeed, if he had not been so much on the alert for surprises, he would not have noticed it. To make sure, he softly turned the handle and ascertained that the door would not open. Then he went back to the piano, and looked thoughtfully at the fire.
Miss Ferriby had told him that some people came to her at night to have their fortune told, and she had implied that the present visitor was of very high rank.
The visitor, if he had been taken upstairs into the room where the fortune-telling went on, must have been taken through the library. As far as he had been able to make out, there was only one staircase up to the long upper room in the wing, and there appeared to be only two ways of reaching that staircase: the one through the drawing room in which he was, and the other through the library, by way of the door in the corner behind the door curtain.
Of course it was a house where there might be other doors hidden in walls where they were not expected and not easily seen. But Welton did not think that on the wide landing at the top of the stairs, which was fitted up as a sort of conservatory, he had seen any suspicious space. Everywhere there had been flower stands and tubs full of aspidistras and ferns not likely to be found in front of secret doors.
He tried to amuse himself with a magazine, as Miss Ferriby had suggested. But he was too uneasy and curious about what was going on upstairs.
Had Miss Ferriby told him the truth about the visitor? What was the meaning of the secret signs, which he felt convinced had been exchanged between her and the footman before she left the room?
Welton had seen and heard far too much that was strange and uncanny during his short acquaintance with his employer and her household, to be able to dismiss these questions from his mind and to resolve not to trouble his head about them.
It was vitally important he should know without any doubt whether Miss Ferriby really did nothing more blameworthy than tell fortunes of silly and credulous people for large sums, which she spent on charity. He did not like the notion that he might be in the employ of a lady who was practising an illegal, or even perhaps fraudulent profession or calling, and he was resolved to know, if possible, whether that was the whole extent of Miss Ferriby’s questionable practices.
He therefore went quietly out of the drawing room into the hall of the house, and opened the door of the library. As far as he could tell he passed nobody on the way, and he looked about him carefully to make sure that he was not being watched by spying eyes from any dark corner.
The library was in darkness, but he knew his way, and was able to reach the curtain in the corner, which he raised to reach the handle of the door behind it. But this was locked, and he had to retreat, baffled in his attempt to discover what was going on upstairs.
Quite without noise, he made his way back to the other door, by which he had entered the room, and turned the handle.
A cold shudder passed through him when he found that this door, through which he had passed a moment before, was now locked against him also.
Unless he chose to try to get out of the window into the garden at the risk of falling into a flowerbed, he was a prisoner.
Whatever he might have thought before about the household at The Lawns, this last incident was quite conclusive in his mind on more than one point.
In the first place, he knew that what he had suspected during the course of the evening was true, and that the well-trained and quiet footman whom he had seen entering the house in Mayfair as a guest, was not really the servant of Miss Ferriby, but was her equal. Whether he was her partner, her lover, or her husband, it was impossible as yet to say, but that he had as much authority in the house as she had, appeared to be certain. Otherwise, how could he account for the fact that the man could take it upon himself to turn the lock of the library door?
Not for one moment did Welton doubt that it was the footman who had done this. Miss Ferriby must, he took it for granted, be upstairs with her mysterious visitor. And she could scarcely have guessed that the secretary would think of trying to get upstairs by way of the library, and therefore taken the precaution of locking the inner door. She certainly would not, he thought, have gone the length of locking him into the room.
Miss Ferriby always did her best to appear innocent of anything wrong or suspicious, and he felt sure that she would not herself have suggested a course of action so likely to rouse every possible doubt and fear, concerning what was going on upstairs and the character of the mysterious guest.
Remembering what he had seen on the first evening at The Lawns, the arrival of a visitor in the garb of a man, and his departure in that of a woman, and remembering also that his doubts as to the identity of that visitor had never been set at rest, Welton was extremely anxious to see whether Miss Ferriby’s hints concerning a guest of high rank, come to have his fortune told, had any justification in fact, or whether the visitor was really the same person he had seen then, or one come on a similar errand.
Welton stood for a few minutes quite close to the outer door of the room, trying to make out whether there was anyone waiting for him to attempt to force a way out. But if that were so, the watcher was too quiet to be heard.
So he found the electric switch in the wall and turned up the light, and throwing up the rolltop of his desk with sufficient noise to be heard by anyone who might be waiting outside, he sat down and wrote a couple of letters on his own account, not only to fill up the time, but also to throw off guard anyone who might be on the watch in the hall.
This done, he shut the desk so softly that he was sure he could not have been heard by anyone outside; and peeping out from behind the drawn curtains, and seeing nothing moving in the garden, he very quietly drew back the catch of the window, and throwing up the sash without noise, dropped down into the flower border below.
Then for a few moments he stood quite still, taking stock of the situation. On the opposite side of the little square patch of garden, shut in on his left hand by the main building of the house, and in front and behind him by the two wings, the lights of the kitchen and servants’ quarters glimmered faintly through the thick yew hedge which stood in front of their windows.
He wondered whether he could contrive to peep into those windows, and what he would see there -- not, certainly, the solitary figure of Box, the footman, enjoying the light and warmth all by himself. It was quite impossible that the whole service of the house could be carried on by one man, and that one the superior, stolid, handsome personage who led two lives.
Even if the man had only led one, Welton knew that it was out of the question for one person, however active, to be cook, housemaid, parlour maid, kitchen maid, ladies’ maid, butler and footman, in a house where everything was so well done as at The Lawns.
How much less probable was it, now that he knew Box paid visits in the West End in quite another capacity? Who, then, were the mysterious servants who did, unseen, the work of the house? And why were they kept shut up as if in a nunnery?
He stared at the glimmering lights, until the temptation to see into those secluded quarters of the house became too strong for him. He crossed the smooth stretch of grass that lay between the two wings, and reaching the hedge, tried to look through between the branches.
But provision had been made for such attacks of curiosity, and he found that on the other side of the yew hedge there was a strong wire netting erected, and that beyond the netting there was a second hedge, thicker than the first.
He could force apart the branches of the outer hedge, but that was of little avail. Certainly he was thus enabled to see better the lights in the windows of the rooms in front of him, but although he could hear the murmur of voices he could see no one. The white blinds were drawn down, and not even a shadow passed them on the other side to satisfy his curiosity as to whether the inhabitants of this secluded wing were men or women.
So Welton, disappointed in this quarter, turned without leaving the hedge, and looked up at the windows of the other wing where the fortune-telling went on.
There were lights in the big room and on the beautifully furnished landing. The lights were very bright indeed: not the mysterious half-lights which the fortune-teller usually affected. And the more he looked at the brilliant illumination, the more strongly impelled he was to find out what was going on within.
At last the temptation grew irresistible, and cautiously he crossed the lawn again and went round the angle of the house, looking for some means by which he might reach the upper floor from outside.
He had seen two or three signs of an unseen gardener’s presence on the occasion of his last saunter in the grounds: a few tools, a garden roller, a rake. If he could only find a ladder, such as must sometimes be used to nail up the creepers, he might reach the upper windows without difficulty.
But there was nothing of the kind left about in that discreetly-managed garden. And at last he was obliged to scramble up to the top of the veranda, which was on the river side of the house, by means of a slanting drainpipe and the strong bough of an old wisteria which grew against the end of the wing, and joined its branches with those of the Virginia creeper which grew along the river front of the drawing room wing.
By this means he was enabled to reach the top of the veranda, and once there, he found it easy to crawl along until he was under the nearest window.
Here, however, he came to a standstill. For one thing, he felt the metal roof of the veranda yielding under him as if the support were not firm, and fearful of coming down with a crash to the ground below he crouched closely against the wall, holding on by the ledge of the window, and carefully feeling whether the nailed-up branches of wisteria, which had lost almost all their red and brown leaves, were capable of offering any support.
While he clung under the window, he heard sounds in more than one direction. There were footsteps on the stone floor of the veranda beneath him, and an occasional sound of a voice in the room where the fortune-telling went on.
The footsteps were light and stealthy, and he wondered whether they were those of Box, the footman, on the prowl, and whether he had found out by this time that the prisoner in the library had escaped.
Although a stream of light came on the lawn from each of the two drawing room windows beneath him, Welton could not see any shadow crossing these streams of light, by which he could have found out the identity of the person below. Nor were the footsteps heavy enough for him to say for certain whether they were those of a man or of a woman.
As for the voices in the room close to him, the sounds were almost as mysterious as the footsteps. He could not distinguish whether the murmur denoted the voice of a woman or of a man. The murmur was not continuous, but rather suggested someone uttering short sentences from time to time by way of direction or short comment.
Welton clung to the ledge until his fingers grew stiff. By that time the footsteps below had died away, and he summoned courage at last to raise himself a little and to try to discover some chink or crack by which he could look into the room.
But the blinds were drawn down securely, and to judge by the little light which came through on this side, in contrast to the bright light on the inner side of the house, the curtains must not only be thick, but closely drawn.
To these facts he attributed his failure to catch even the distant sound of the voice or voices within.
And it occurred to him that if the curtains and blinds formed such a strong barrier to the passage of sound, he might use that fact to his own advantage. So he took out a penknife which he carried in his pocket, and raising himself very cautiously to his full height, pushed back the catch of the window, not without difficulty, but almost without noise, and then began softly to push up the sash.
He had scarcely got it open an inch, when he began to be able to make out something more of what was going on inside the room.
A voice which he recognized as that of Miss Ferriby said, “A little to the right, please.”
There was no answer.
“And now for your hair. You’d better have it bleached, I think.”
This was enough for Welton, who knew now that she was not telling fortunes, but helping another visitor to an efficient disguise. It became a matter of importance to see who was the person operated on, and to judge, if possible, his or her position in life.
He pushed up the sash little by little, still hearing from time to time the same sort of directions and remarks, always in Miss Ferriby’s voice, until he was able to touch the blind and draw aside the curtain a little.
This, however, was an act that needed the greatest caution in performance, as it was difficult to tell when the faces of the two people, whom he presumed to be inside the room, would be turned away from the window.
With his hand close to the curtain, he waited patiently for what seemed a long time. There was this difficulty, that if, as he supposed, Miss Ferriby were engaged in making up the face and figure of her client or visitor, when she had her back to the window the visitor would face it.
Welton, however, was growing too impatient to wait any longer. It was more by chance than judgment that he seized upon the right moment and drew aside the inner curtain about an inch, just as the two occupants of the room were facing each other and neither facing the window.
As he looked, Welton could almost have cried aloud. For more certainly than he had identified the visitor of the previous occasion with the man whose picture he had seen in the paper, and whom he believed to be the murderer, Henry Ward, did he now recognize in the man whose face Miss Ferriby was making up with the dexterity of a finished artist, a man whom the police wanted for a robbery of diamonds from a duchess’s dressing table; a man whose identification was rendered easy by the fact that he had a large growth on the side of his neck under the left ear.
As he now stood, the growth was distinctly visible to Welton outside the window, and it was this that made him sure that the man in front of him, the man whom Miss Ferriby was so benevolently occupied in disguising, was none other than the Fergus Johnston, alias about a dozen other names, of whom the police were now in active search.
So much struck was Welton by this hideous discovery, that he did not attempt to retreat from his dangerous post, but holding the curtain aside just far enough to watch what went on, he stood rooted to the spot, staring at Miss Ferriby, as with one swift, sure, clever touch after another she gradually altered the appearance of the man before her, until from a repulsive-looking man of about thirty years of age, with close-cropped black hair and clean-shaven, thick-lipped face, she had transformed him into an elderly man of respectable and even benevolent appearance: grey hair, grey eyebrowed, his ugly mouth hidden by a short greyish beard, and the growth on his neck concealed by an old-fashioned stock, while his sinister eyes seemed gentle and mild from behind a pair of spectacles which looked as if they had gold rims.
Welton remained in his perilous position more than half an hour, long enough indeed to see the greater part of the artistic work in which Miss Ferriby was evidently an expert.
Keen as was his interest in and abhorrence of the criminal in front of him, whom the public now knew to be one of the most despicable of irreclaimable criminals, Welton’s interest in the creature grew pale and tame compared to what he felt in the woman who was transforming him, and helping him to escape the punishment he so thoroughly deserved.
As Welton’s gaze wandered from the man to the woman, he marvelled in the first place at the courage she showed in allowing herself to be left alone with such a brute.
There she was, locked in with one of the most notorious criminals known to the English police, and obviously there was not a thought of danger, a fear, a tremor about her, as she gave herself up heart and soul to the work in which she evidently took the keenest delight and pride.
There was the enthusiasm of a successful artist in her face and voice as she stood back from time to time, and with her head a little to one side contemplated her handiwork with an artist’s pride.
She even hummed fragments of the songs which she had been singing to her harp as she worked away at the transformation of the wretch under her hands from a repulsive-looking individual with the brand of Cain upon him, to a decent and civilized creature whom no one would suspect of the smallest attempt at wrongdoing.
And all the while there lay beside her on the little table which held her paints, her powders, and her scraps of false hair, a little heap of magnificent rings, the value of which must be, as Welton knew, some thousands of pounds.
True it was that she had taken off some of her jewellery, that he did not see either the diamonds she had worn in her hair and dress, her bracelets or her necklace. These, together with the rich dress she had worn at dinner, she had apparently put away as likely to tempt the cupidity of her guest, or perhaps in the way when she was going to work.
Whether she had forgotten the rings until the last moment, or whether she had taken them off under her visitor’s eyes from sheer bravado and faith in her own powers, Welton could not tell. Certain it is that neither she nor the thief whom she was transforming took any notice of the sparkling stones, and that both appeared to be absorbed, the one in working, the other in admiring what was being done to him.
At last the moment arrived when Miss Ferriby, who was now dressed in a long garment like the blouse of a French workman, could step back some yards from her subject, and say with a sigh of triumph, “There, that will do, I think.”
And she stood back for the man to survey himself in a long cheval glass which she pulled forward out of a corner of the room. Welton now perceived that hanging over the chairs and on the ottomans and chests which formed part of the furniture of the room, was a large and varied collection of old clothes, some cloth, some fustian, and some velveteen, and he guessed that this extensive wardrobe was used for purposes of disguise, in order that each new visitor might find in a selection so vast the garb most likely to suit his particular needs, and to disguise him the most effectually.
The man before him was now dressed like a Sunday school teacher and deacon in a Dissenting chapel, in a frock-coat, an old-fashioned silk hat and woollen gloves.
Not by the furthest stretch of imagination could it be supposed the man had anything in common with thieves, or jewel robbers, or swindlers. As such, Miss Ferriby’s triumph was supreme.
Welton, shuddering, felt that he almost admired the woman who could put talents, so many and peculiar, so daringly to such evil purposes. It seemed to argue a mind above the common even to evolve such a plan of existence out of her head.
Scarcely had he glanced from the man to her in this half-admiring, half-revolted manner, when the ungrateful thief made an attempt to escape by means of the door opposite to the window. But it was locked.
“You’ve forgotten my fee,” said Miss Ferriby coolly.
The man turned sullenly. “You’re a fine ‘un to talk of fees,” he began sulkily.
His tone, so it seemed to Welton, was almost threatening. But he did not alarm Miss Ferriby, who was carefully collecting the garments which had not been used and packing them away into the chests round the walls.
“Ten pounds,” she said.
“How do you know I’ve got ten pounds, you harpy?” said the man sullenly.
Without turning or pausing in her work Miss Ferriby said, “You wouldn’t have been allowed up here if you hadn’t shown you could pay your footing.”
The man affected to laugh. “Oh! That’s what you keep that hulking chap downstairs for, eh? To find out whether one can pay for your kind help, eh?”
“That’s it exactly,” replied the woman quietly, as she folded up a military coat and put it neatly into one of the drawers of a beautiful Louis Quinze chest, which Welton had seen before but had little suspected to be put to such use as this.
The man hesitated, put one hand reluctantly into his pocket, and looked stealthily at the rings on the table beside him. Rather as if she divined his thoughts than because she saw the look, Miss Ferriby suddenly turned and walked towards the table, took up the rings and thrust them into a pocket which she wore under her blouse.
“Now then,” she said quietly, but with a firmness there was no mistaking, “the money, please. And then you can go as quickly as you like. You’d better lose no time. The description of you is pretty well known, and so’s your character. If I were you, I wouldn’t waste more time about London than can be helped.”
Something in her determined yet quiet tone affected the man, as it affected everybody who came near her, and he sullenly took out of his pocket a greasy purse, from which he counted out the sum required.
“Thank you,” said Miss Ferriby, as she glanced at the door.
He looked at her, and then at the door, as if expecting her to call someone to unlock it. She made an impatient movement with her foot.
“You can go,” she said at last.
As if doubting her words, the man made a hesitating step forward, and turning the handle of the door, which had previously refused to open, he found that it flew wide at his touch. With a sort of alarmed glance at Miss Ferriby, as if he believed her to be in league with the powers of evil, the man darted out of the room, and Welton heard him stumbling down the stairs.
The moment the man had left the room, Miss Ferriby, who had been stooping over one of the chests thrusting some clothes into it, stood erect, shut down the lid of the chest, and darting across the room to the electric switch in the wall, turned out the lights.
The change from light to darkness was so sudden and so entirely unexpected, that Welton made a movement and a slight noise. Miss Ferriby did not seem to hear him, for she was already out of the room. But someone in the veranda below heard, and stepping out upon the lawn, was able to discern that there was a figure under the upper window.
“Who’s there?” cried a voice which Welton did not know.
For a moment, Welton hesitated. The next, he decided rather to run the risk of an encounter in the open, than get into the house where he might be surprised at some corner.
So he called out in reply boldly, “It’s I.”
Scrambling along the veranda roof by the way he had come, he climbed down as he had got up, by way of the pipe and the nailed-up wisteria, and found himself, on reaching the ground, in a grasp which he was sure he recognized as that of the man who had mounted guard over him when he was witnessing, unwillingly, the fortune-telling in the upper room.
Welton was glad of an opportunity of finding out in whose hands he had been that day, so he submitted without any attempt at escape when the man, who was tall and broadly built and powerful, seized and held him.
“Well,” said Welton, “what do you want with me?”
“I want to know what you were doing up there on the veranda?” said the man, in a voice which was rather less refined than that of Box, the footman, but which was yet not quite that of an uneducated man.
“Well, I’ll tell Miss Ferriby all she wants to know about that,” replied Welton coolly. “Let go of me, please.”
Still he did not struggle, and the man did not let him go. For a moment they stood still, the captor not relaxing his grip, and the captured making no attempt to get away.
Then Welton said, “Take me to Miss Ferriby. I’ll explain everything to her.”
The man appeared to be seized with a sudden access of passion at these words. “Miss Ferriby! Take you to Miss Ferriby?” he cried in a voice of extreme anger, “I dare say you think you can get round her. But you don’t get round me, you prying, poking, uppish mischief-maker! You will pay for this, you will, you confounded sneak!”
Still Welton did not say a word. He wanted his captor to take him round to the light, so that he could get a good look at him, and see whether his face was new. Perhaps the man guessed his object, for he drew his captive towards the darkness round the angle of the wall, snarling between his teeth at him, and muttering threats which, while they did not greatly alarm Welton, told him clearly that he had made himself obnoxious not to one person only, but to a gang.
The man seemed to resent Welton’s behaviour, and as he muttered his threats and oaths, he shook his captive as if trying to stir him up into resentment of a violent kind. But Welton knew that Miss Ferriby would not be long in returning to the drawing room, and he knew also that his best hope lay in her interference.
Whatever the mutual relation of these people might be, that the woman exercised some kind of headship over them seemed to him plain. If for no other reason, he would have thought so from her manner, her airs of authority. They might all be equals nominally, but he was sure that she was the leading mind.
Perhaps his captor knew this, for he began to appear anxious to draw the young man farther away, into the thickets of tree and shrub which dotted the garden at a little distance from the house.
But Welton did not like the look of that mysterious darkness under the trees, and he guessed that on that side there might be another lane leading to the river, down which it might be the good pleasure of his captor to lead him. So he suddenly made a stand, and called in a loud voice, “Miss Ferriby!”
The suddenness of this move surprised and alarmed his captor, who gasped for breath at his audacity, and would have tried to gag him, but Welton now began to struggle in good earnest, and being quite fresh, as he had not so far attempted to put out his strength, he easily held his ground, and was able to repeat his cry with all the strength of his lungs.
Then the other man grew frightened, and from bullying began to entreat. “There, there, hold hard! You don’t want to have the neighbourhood about our ears, do you?” he asked, in a more conciliatory voice. “You’ll see Miss Ferriby right enough, if only you’ll be quiet.”
But Welton was not satisfied, and again he would have shouted, if Miss Ferriby herself, once more in her handsome dinner dress and her diamonds, had not at that moment appeared against the light of the drawing room.
Standing in the open French window, she was bending forward to peer into the darkness, and on seeing the two struggling figures she came quickly out on the lawn, and said in a low, but very distinct voice, “Mr. Keynes, where have you been? What have you been doing?”
Welton did not immediately answer. At the first word uttered by the lady he had come towards her, and his captor had allowed him to do so, but had come with him. Now they had both reached that part of the lawn where the light came from the drawing room, and Welton’s first action was to turn and get a good look at the big man in whose clutches he found himself.
His assailant was a tall, broad man of between thirty and forty years of age, of massive proportions, with a most repulsive and evil face. Welton was quite sure by this time that this was the man who had kept him quiet during the fortune-telling, and he even recognized the feel of the man’s strong, rather rough hands.
Having satisfied his curiosity, Welton turned to answer the lady. “I’ll tell you, Miss Ferriby,” he said, “as soon as you get this fellow to let me go.”
“Why don’t you let Mr. Keynes go, Cockett?” asked Miss Ferriby, upon whose face Welton now thought he detected a look of some anxiety.
“I want you first to know, ma’am, what Mr. Keynes has been doing,” replied the man now identified as Cockett, in a tone which was not disrespectful, but which was not exactly that of the servant he ostensibly was. “I caught him on the top of the veranda underneath that window.” He pointed up to the place where he had found the secretary.
Miss Ferriby frowned. “And what were you doing there, Mr. Keynes?” she asked coldly.
“I was doing what you invited me to do on a previous occasion, Miss Ferriby. I was watching you tell fortunes,” he replied quietly.
Cockett laughed mockingly. “Useful man, that, ma’am,” he said in a dry tone. “If I might advise you, I should say the sooner you taught him manners the better.”
Now these words were simple enough, but there was a sort of sub tone in his voice which was full of nameless and ugly suggestion.
Welton turned to him quickly. “I think,” he said, “you and the man Box want a few lessons too.”
Miss Ferriby drew a sharp breath.
“What in?” asked Cockett ferociously.
“Honesty,” retorted Welton loudly.
Cockett at once dropped his hands and faced Miss Ferriby with a look which said plainly, “See the sort of fellow you’ve got here!”
“Leave him to me, Cockett,” she said quietly, but with firmness.
The man hesitated. “I think you’d better have me at hand to help you deal with him,” he said meaningfully.
Miss Ferriby laughed. “It’s the first time,” she said in a measured voice, “that any doubt has been cast upon my ability to deal with anybody.”
“It’s the first time I have doubted your ability, ma’am,” retorted Cockett, in a tone which had a concealed threat in it.
For a few moments there was dead silence, apart from the hard drawn breathing of the three. Then Cockett, standing stolidly and stubbornly in front of Miss Ferriby, glanced behind her into the drawing room, and Welton saw a smile come over his face. In an instant, without another word, he drew back, and Miss Ferriby signed to Welton to follow her into the house.
But they were not alone. Busy with the arrangement of the magazines and papers, which Welton had turned over carelessly before leaving the drawing room, was the footman, Box.
“You can go, Box,” said Miss Ferriby as she came in.
But though he spoke as respectfully as ever, he did not leave the room. After arranging the magazines, he turned to the piano, and busied himself in picking up the fallen leaves of music and in setting them carefully in their place again. Then he crossed the room and found something to do with the curtains at the end window. And all the while Miss Ferriby, shivering after the cool evening air she had encountered in her low-cut dress, was kneeling on a stool before the fire, plucking as it were, nervously at the folds of a lace scarf which she wore round her shoulders, and affecting to shiver as she held out her bejewelled hands to the blaze.
Welton, silent, uncomfortable, wondering what was going to happen, stood a little distance from her, not heeding her invitation to be seated.
There was a long silence. Miss Ferriby still knelt before the fire, without casting so much as a look in the direction either of Welton or of the over-busy footman.
Welton himself remained very still, watching the two alternately. Box, after arranging the curtains, went in a leisurely manner to the French window by which Miss Ferriby and Welton had entered the room, and shutting it carefully, began the readjustment of the curtains, just as he had done with the others.
All the time he appeared to be intent upon his work, and never cast so much as a glance either at the lady or the secretary.
Welton began to think that he had better take his leave and allow explanations to be postponed until the next day, when suddenly Miss Ferriby sprang erect from her footstool, and turning majestically towards the footman, pointed to the door, and said in a voice which, though not very loud, sounded like the roll of distant thunder, “Leave the room.”
The man turned, and on his fair-skinned, handsome face Welton saw a look of rage and defiance which made him hold his breath. Only for a moment. Then he stole a look at Miss Ferriby. And on the large, masculine features he saw an expression which, in its fierce, dogged determination, showed such a reserve of character that he at once decided that it would be with her that the victory would lie.
There was another short, deathlike silence, and then the footman with a slow, reluctant step, and with a look at Welton which made the young man feel a cold shiver down his back, went out of the room.
The moment she and Welton were alone, Miss Ferriby hurried across the room and turned the key quickly in the door. Then she locked the second door which led to the staircase to the upper room. And then, disappearing through the curtains which separated the long drawing room from the little one, she locked the door of that room also, and returning, stood panting and excited before the young man.
“Now,” she said. “What does this mean? You have been playing the spy!”
He stood his ground. “Miss Ferriby,” he said, “you invited me to witness your fortune-telling once, and I took the liberty of watching it again. Or rather, I went to see if you had told me the truth when you said you were going to tell your visitor’s fortune.”
“What business was it of yours?”
“I have a right to know in what sort of employ I am.”
Her grey eyes flashed fire. “Do you dare to make insinuations against me and my actions?” she cried fiercely.
“Oh, no, I insinuate nothing. But I know you were not telling fortunes this evening. You were helping to disguise a thief, so that he might escape from the punishment which ought to be his.”
“Upon my word, you are a very impertinent young fool to presume to talk to me in this strain, and to call my friends and visitors thieves!” exclaimed Miss Ferriby with indignation.
“Well, I’m sorry if you think so. I think I had a right to know whether you were telling me the truth.”
“What makes you say my friends are thieves?
“I have already met here two: one the murderer, Henry Ward, and the other, the jewel thief, Fergus Johnston.”
It was plain that Miss Ferriby was startled. “What jewel thief? Johnston? I’ve never heard of him.”
“But you took ten pounds from him for making up his disguise as a Dissenting minister,” retorted Welton, suddenly raising his voice and speaking with passion.
She was shocked, overwhelmed, not having dreamed that he could find out so much.
There was a long silence. At last she raised her head, and said in quite a different voice, quiet, tranquil, cynical, “And supposing that were so, what of it? You know nothing about this man, and I do.”
“I know nothing more about him than the police know,” replied Welton promptly. “But that’s enough for me, and it ought to be enough to prevent decent people from helping him to escape. Miss Ferriby, I am sorry to have to speak like this, for you have been very nice to me. But I don’t care to remain in a house where criminals are assisted to escape from justice.”
Miss Ferriby sprang from her seat and pointed at him a warning finger. “Take care,” she said, “take care. Not only criminals of the sort you’ve seen, but absconding bankrupts, come to me for assistance. Mr. Keynes, I have helped to disguise your father.”
Welton uttered a cry of rage, incredulity and dismay. “My father was never an absconding bankrupt,” he cried.
“He was. He is,” retorted Miss Ferriby fiercely. “He was not drowned on the Ostend boat, as was supposed. He is alive, in England, in London. And a word from me would put the police on his track tomorrow.”
Welton Keynes reeled under the blow, and at first remained almost stupefied from the effect of Miss Ferriby’s startling statement.
Then recovering himself, he repeated as fiercely as she, “I tell you, my father never was a bankrupt. Whoever told you such a thing about him has told you a lie.”
Miss Ferriby shrugged her shoulders. “You are contending over a word only,” she said. “If you are technically correct, as you may be, in saying that Richard Keynes was never actually declared bankrupt, you know as well as I do that he left England on account of his debts.”
The red blood rushed into the young man's face. "It is brutal, hideous, to put it like that -- to me," he said in a hoarse voice. "I know he was in debt. I know he was ruined, that our house -- everything he had, was sold to pay his debts, and that there remained a great deal that he could not pay. But to say that he ran away to avoid paying isn't true. How could it be when, if he had stayed, he could have done no more than was done, paid no shilling more than was paid. We were left absolutely stranded, my brother and I, without anything but the few pounds lent us by friends to start us in life. And you talk as if my father had been a fraudulent debtor, one of those men who have money which they keep for themselves and their families, instead of paying it away to their lawful creditors. For shame, Miss Ferriby, for shame!"
But the woman showed neither shame nor contrition for what she had done. Seating herself by the fire with an air of calmness, which perhaps was scarcely real, she repeated in a lower voice, with great deliberation, “If it was not to avoid his creditors, why did your father go away by the Ostend boat, on the morning after the crash came?”
Welton, with an expression of the keenest anguish and anxiety upon his face, stood, white but collected, on the opposite side of the fireplace, looking steadily at her. Then he said, "I didn't say that it was not to avoid his creditors. I dare say the feeling -- that he couldn't face them -- had something to do with his going away. My poor father, who was passionately attached to us, couldn't bear to face either the men to whom he owed money, or us, whom he had always treated so well and so generously. But that's not the thing you accuse him of. You say he went to avoid paying. That's not true. He went because he couldn’t pay, and because it had broken his heart.”
“His heart is mended now,” replied Miss Ferriby quietly. “He is in England and passes under another name, but he doesn’t appear to be without money.”
Welton felt as if an icy hand had been laid upon his throat. If this were true, that his father was alive and in England, it certainly seemed probable that he had got money from somewhere, since Miss Ferriby was not in the habit of dealing with penniless clients. Her rules on that subject appeared to be very strict indeed, and “No pay, no help” appeared to be the fixed principle upon which her charity was exercised.
Welton felt sick at heart, bewildered, miserable, and at the same time fiercely, defiantly, incredulous. His father had been unlucky in his speculative career, but that, he felt, was the very worst that could be said of him. For years his father had been prosperous, and during the time of his prosperity no father could have been more affectionate or more devoted, no friend more generous or more true, than Richard Keynes. To hear this suggestion that he was living in England in some sort of comfort, if not of luxury, without making any effort to see or help his own sons, was a blow under which Welton felt that his brain reeled.
“I can’t believe it,” he cried at last, passionately.
Miss Ferriby looked up at him, and he, catching her eye, full of indignation as he was, could not help seeing a tenderness, a concern in her face that frightened him, and made him ask himself whether this awful thing that she had told him was really the truth after all.
Why would she tell him a lie about this? What object could she have in representing Richard Keynes as being still alive, if he was dead, as they had all believed? However, he stood firm.
"My father was the best father that ever lived," he said. "I can't believe that he would have been able to stay in England all this time without coming to see us. It's a year now since -- as we believe -- he died."
Over Miss Ferriby’s masculine face there passed a look which struck him as being the tenderest, the gentlest he had ever seen upon it. When she spoke, it was in a low-pitched, sweet voice as she leaned forward and looked up at him kindly and remorsefully.
“Why did you irritate me into telling you?” she said simply.
Welton turned away to hide the tears which had started to his eyes. He was torn with strong emotions, pity and anxiety for the father who might still be living; resentment against this woman who had stirred up again the old feelings of bitterness and pain; the woman whom he could not understand and could not trust, but who yet wielded some sort of influence over him, as he felt sure she did over everyone with whom she came in contact.
“I didn’t want to tell you. I ought not to have told you,” she went on. “But then you ought not to have irritated me by telling me my friends and visitors were thieves. Remember, a man may be called a thief when he is really little or not at all to blame. He may be overtaken by misfortune, be unable to fight against it, may succumb to temptation after resisting a long time.”
Welton flinched at each word, which he knew could be made to apply to his own father. She went on, "Is it fair then to be so hard? Is it fair to condemn me because I am merciful? Ah, I know what you're going to say. I make them pay for it. Why shouldn't I -- if they can -- since the money goes to help others who are unfortunate without blame?"
“What makes you do it? You know you must be helping some who ought not to be helped,” said Welton hoarsely.
“Perhaps so. Still, that’s my affair, isn’t it? I have my way of doing what I suppose to be good. And I won’t be interfered with. I won’t be dictated to. I won’t have anybody say to me: You must be charitable in such a way, and such only. Do you hear?”
She rose to her feet, her voice growing deeper and more passionate as she went on. “Look at me,” she cried, raising her hands to her shoulders and pointing out her own deformity with a sudden swift look of pain such as opened his eyes abruptly to the misery her misfortune caused her. “Look at the burden of deformity which I have to carry with me to the end of my days! Think of the wreck this want of all feminine grace or beauty has made of my life. And then tell me, remembering how there is always a twist in the mind of every cripple, whether it is not natural that I should have my own ways of doing what seems to me to be good in the world, whether it is surprising that my way should not be the way of other people!”
Welton was for the moment almost dazzled into agreeing with this specious argument. But he paused before replying, recovered himself, and said at last, deliberately and earnestly, “Miss Ferriby, nobody could possibly be more sorry for you than I am, or more ready to see with your eyes if it were possible to do so. But it isn’t. Surely, surely you can’t pretend not to see the difference between a man who is unfortunate through no fault of his own, or no great fault, and the man who commits a foul crime, a crime against society? You are so clever that I understand you may look upon things in a different way from mine. But surely there’s only one right way of looking upon a man who’s committed an appalling murder, or upon one who has stolen some jewels and then tried to shoot a poor girl who tried to prevent his escape.”
Miss Ferriby was silent for a moment. Then she said obstinately, “What about the English law then, which looks upon a man as innocent until he’s proved to be guilty? You would have him condemned off-hand?”
“No, no. But when there’s a clear case against him, I would have him put on trial.”
“And would you treat unfortunate debtors in the same way?”
The question, put so quietly, caused Welton to blush, to stammer, and to feel the most acute distress.
"Bring him to me," he cried hoarsely, going straight to the point, and thus acknowledging that he knew what she meant. "Bring my father to me, and let me hear what he has to say. I don't believe that he has done anything wrong -- anything cowardly even. If he is in hiding, it's because he has some good end to serve, because he sees a way out of his difficulties, a way to pay his creditors, which he couldn't use if they knew him to be alive."
For a moment Miss Ferriby seemed touched, and he thought she was going to shed tears. But the next instant she had recovered herself, and leaning forward and dropping her voice, she said, “Why don’t you see him and ask him?”
The question caused Welton the most acute distress and emotion. Was it really possible for him to see his father again in the flesh, to confer with him, to feel the touch of his hand, hear the sound of his voice, to look once more upon the face which had always had a kind look for his own children?
He was almost overwhelmed by the thought, and it was with difficulty that he presently stammered out, “How can I? How is it possible for me to see him, if he does not wish to see me?” Even now there was a note of incredulity in his voice.
Miss Ferriby smiled shrewdly. “You have only to wait,” she said, “and watch. If you remain with me you are bound to see your father before long. He honours me by saying that I’ve been a good friend to him, and whenever he is in any difficulty, or even when he merely wants to feel the touch of a friend’s hand, he comes to see me, by night always.”
Still Welton looked incredulous. “Do your servants know who he is? The relation in which he stands to me?” he asked at last.
Miss Ferriby looked at him quickly. “No,” she said. “They don’t know even his real name, only the one he goes by, which I can’t tell even to you.”
Reckless of offending her, since he was not even sure that he would ever be under her roof again, at any rate in the capacity of paid dependent or friend, Welton went on, “But your servants seem to know a great deal. One of them locked me into the library this evening, and the other was on the watch for me when I got on the veranda.”
Miss Ferriby smiled grimly. “I have treated my servants so well,” she said, “that their interest is my interest, and they know it. No mistress who can say that, is ever other than well served.”
This was an admirable answer, but it did not satisfy Welton. He knew that the two men he had seen about were more than servants, and in particular the one he had seen enter the Mayfair house disguised. He wondered whether Box had said anything to Miss Ferriby about that incident and their mutual recognition. The next words she uttered convinced him that he had.
“What makes you think they know so much?” she asked after a pause. “Have you ever seen them do anything which surprised you, which seemed a strange thing for them to be doing?”
He hesitated. For one moment he thought he would challenge her to account for that episode, but the next some wiser instinct told him he had better hold his tongue about that chance meeting. “Only what I’ve told you,” he said at last. “They seemed to be spying upon me.”
She smiled. “Because they knew you to be curious,” she said, “and they were right. Never mind, I forgive your curiosity. What I could not forgive, however, would be any attempt to betray my secrets. You look upon them as sacred, I hope?”
Again he hesitated. In his own mind he felt that he looked upon them very differently, having had his eyes opened that evening in a manner which left no room for doubt that Miss Ferriby was not exactly the beneficent angel of mercy she had represented herself to be.
Even if her statement were true, that she helped criminals out of pity, and took their money from them in order to help a more worthy class of unlucky ones, there was a taint of commercialism about this philanthropy, at a fixed fee, which repelled him. Even if the money thus collected from thieves and murderers went to the assistance of the friendless and the poor, Welton felt that the method was hideous, repulsive.
But he had the strongest possible doubts whether the money Miss Ferriby exacted from her clients ever went further than her own pocket.
All this mystery which surrounded the household, this hiding away of the servants, this strange reincarnation of the footman in the house of an American millionaire in the character of a guest, were incompatible with pure benevolence, with the charity which is untainted and unalloyed.
Stronger and stronger was the impression growing in his mind that Miss Ferriby’s evident prosperity was the result of her fortune-telling, and her tolls upon the criminals she helped to disguise, and he wondered, with an ugly feeling of mistrust, where those jewels had come from with which she adorned her unattractive person.
Did she levy toll in kind upon her clients, as well as exact money fees? Welton thought it quite possible. Anything was possible in this eccentric woman, in this uncanny household.
In the meantime Miss Ferriby was waiting for an answer to her question.
Instead of giving it, he asked another. “What secrets have I of yours to keep, Miss Ferriby?”
She frowned impatiently, but he went on blandly, “It is no secret that you tell fortunes, I suppose?”
"Well, we don't speak of it in that crude way," she said. "I don't make any claims to prophecy. All I say is that, from the art I have studied -- or call it science if you like -- of reading the picture which I can conjure up with the aid of another mind that is set on the same idea"
“Magic lantern,” thought Welton.
“I can make shrewd and pretty accurate guesses at the course events will take in any case before me. There, that is all; absolutely all. You are at liberty to say that about me, and no more.”
“Well, then, you don’t call that a secret?”
"Your charity -- the benevolent works upon which everyone consults you -- there is no secrecy about them?" pursued Welton.
“Oh, no. I am known far and wide for the interest I take in philanthropic works, and for the way in which I work in support of the charities I am interested in.”
“And what else?”
Miss Ferriby frowned again. She seemed to dislike this attempt to drive her into a corner. "It would not do for it to be known that I have helped people in distress to escape," she said. "It would not do to betray me -- nor could you very well betray your own father."
Welton gave a convulsive movement. “I can’t believe…” he began. And he faced her with a challenge in his voice. “What is my father like?” he asked sharply.
She peered up info his face. “Why, he is like you,” she said.
Absurdly easy as it might have seemed to make such an answer as this, it was so eminently and conspicuously true, and she said it with such an air of conviction that Welton was confounded. It was the truth that he had always been singularly like his father, and the manner in which she looked at him, as if suddenly struck with the resemblance, did more to convince him that her astonishing story was true than all that she had said before.
He turned away, shaking from head to foot, troubled and dismayed. He heard the rustling of her silk gown, and the next moment he felt one of her firm, large hands upon his arm.
“You will come back? You will see him?” she asked in a whisper.
He bowed his head without a word. Satisfied, she let him go. But he hurried out with a bow and a hurried goodbye, without touching her hand in farewell.
He felt that he could not. He mistrusted her too much for that.
As he went out into the lane, and felt the night air upon his face, he drew in large draughts of it, feeling as if he wanted to bathe himself in the purer outer air after that atmosphere of heavy perfume, and that sickening sense of wrongdoing that seemed now to pervade the house and cling round its mistress like a veil.
As he came in front of the little house where the Ashcots lived, he saw a light in the lower front room, and the curtains were not quite closed. A woman’s face was looking out between them.
The effect of the sudden discovery that this girl was watching for him, as he did not doubt was the case, was so strong, so welcome to his wounded spirit, that it acted upon him like a tonic, bracing him up after the depressing and devastating experience he had just gone through.
He felt that he worshipped this tender-hearted creature who had shown so much interest in a stranger, and so warmly, yet so modestly, done her best to warn him of his dangers, and to protect him from the consequences of his own temerity in having dealings with the ill-famed hunchback.
He lingered a moment outside the little garden, not daring to make her any sign of his presence, yet feeling the comfort of knowing that she saw him, and that she was glad he was safe. Then he passed on, and as he reached the corner, the light went out.
Now he knew, without any possibility of doubt, that it was for him to pass in safety that Barbara had been watching.
When he got back to his lodging, Welton took care to assume as careless a manner as he could manage, and although he was afraid he was not very successful, for Basil eyed him keenly, and appeared dissatisfied with his vague account of the evening’s doings, he escaped that torrent of questions which he was unwilling to meet.
Not for the world would he have worried his brother by telling him the story he had heard that evening from Miss Ferriby’s lips, of their father being alive and well and in England.
Whether it was true or not, Welton could not decide. At one moment he told himself it was a mere ruse to keep him in her employ; the next he remembered how often such tricks have been played before by ruined men, and wondered whether there might not be some truth in her account.
However that might be, he was disgusted with the fraudulent and extortionate business carried on at The Lawns, and extremely anxious to break off all connection with Miss Ferriby. But he had more than one reason for not wishing to do so at once.
In the first place, he was on thorns until he could make sure whether her story concerning his father were true or false; and it was to be remembered that she had never heard a word about his father or his own affairs from himself. In the second place, he wanted to be quite sure whether his suspicions about her use of the money she collected were justified; and in the third place, he did not want to lose his excuse for visiting the Ashcots.
So for the present he felt that he was tied, and that he could take his time about breaking off altogether his connection with The Lawns.
In the morning he ventured to write a short letter to Barbara Ashcot, apologizing for not calling in the afternoon as he had proposed to do, and saying that he had been detained by Miss Ferriby, but that he would call that afternoon in the hope of being able to see her for a few minutes and explain.
He was not quite sure yet how much he should tell her. The Ashcots had already been abundantly justified in their warnings, and he thought that perhaps they might know even more than they had professed to do. Candour on his side might perhaps induce them to say more than they had said yet about the visitors to The Lawns, and he wondered whether, by any chance, they might have noticed among the nocturnal guests of Miss Ferriby any person whom they recognized as resembling himself. Perhaps they would prove to have seen his own father go in or out.
At this thought Welton grew so much agitated that his brother, who was sitting at the breakfast table with him, wondered what was the matter. But the elder was reticent, and would make no confession.
To Basil’s openly expressed fears that he was not getting on comfortably at The Lawns, Welton replied that he had given Miss Ferriby a month’s notice.
Then Basil asked sharply, “How about the footman?”
For a moment Welton could not remember what he meant. The fact was that so many things had happened since the meeting with Box at the door of the millionaire’s house, that they had pushed into the background that incident, singular as it was. Then he recalled the episode. “Yes. I’m sure it was the same man, quite sure.”
“And what do you think it means?”
“Ah,” said Welton, “that’s more than I can say.”
“Did you tell Miss Ferriby?”
“Do you think she had anything to do with it?
Welton paused. Then he rose hurriedly and said in a breathless voice, “I think nothing happens within a four-mile radius of Miss Ferriby that she doesn’t know all about.”
Basil was dismayed. There was a gravity about the usually high-spirited and light-hearted Welton, which warned the younger brother that something was at stake. But Welton would say nothing more before hurrying away to The Lawns for his day’s work.
As he passed the little house where the Ashcots lived, he dropped his note into the letter-box, and then hurried down the garden path without waiting to see whether the door would be opened.
He did not want to be caught and detained by Mrs. Ashcot and her daughter just then, having a very strong belief that they would have a long story to tell him, which would delay his arrival at his employer’s house.
Miss Ferriby was cold and cross that morning, and Welton was careful to immerse himself at once in the business of the day, in order to avoid conversation upon any subject more exhilarating than the letters with which he was dealing.
He guessed, of course, that by this time she would have had a long consultation with her partners or her subordinates concerning himself, and he could feel sure that there would be agreement on the matter between the men on the one side and Miss Ferriby on the other.
However that might be, when the morning’s work was done, Miss Ferriby asked him, as she rose to go, whether he would stay and dine with her again that evening. He thanked her, but pleaded an engagement.
Evidently surprised by this answer, she stopped short as she was about to pass under the portière, and said shortly, “What engagement?”
He hesitated. There would have been no harm in saying he had to make a call in the neighbourhood, but knowing what extensive and accurate knowledge of the doings of her own household Miss Ferriby was sure to have, he thought he would rather not bring it to her notice that he intended to visit the neighbours of whom she had spoken so vindictively.
But his hesitation was enough for her.
“You are going to pay a call, I suppose?”
“A duty call. Yes, I have to.”
“Very well. Pay your call, if it is at no great distance, and come back here afterwards.”
“I am afraid that’s impossible today, Miss Ferriby. I have an engagement for this evening also.”
“You said nothing about it last night, when I spoke about this evening?”
He remembered that she had suggested his dining with her a third time, and that as it was during dinner and before his adventure of the veranda, he had appeared quite ready to accept it.
There was an awkward silence. Then she laughed gently, but in a way which sent a cold shiver down his back. Every advance in acquaintance with this woman revealed new powers in her, and he now knew how much more she guessed of his thoughts than he would have had known. Suddenly her tone and manner changed. The note of dictatorship, of arrogance, went out of her voice, and coming down from her footstool and leaning over the desk towards him, she insisted upon his meeting her eyes. They were full of tears.
"I know where you're going," she said almost brokenly. "You're going to the little cottage at the end of the lane to see the Ashcots, the people who are never tired of talking scandal about me -- about me, a poor deformed creature, for whom, if they had hearts at all, they would feel nothing but pity and compassion."
The words, spoken with passion, with acute emotion, filled Welton with shame and vague remorse. He felt at the moment, so strong was this woman’s influence and power, as if he had been guilty of a mean and treacherous act in wishing to discuss her doings and her motives with the two ladies whom he knew to be safer and better friends.
He knew that this feeling was illogical, but he could not help it. The strong will and strong intellect of Miss Ferriby were potent enough to cast a spell upon him while he was under the direct influence of her presence, of the passion which thrilled in her deep voice, the fire which burned in her great grey eyes.
Even though he knew that the Ashcots had done nothing but warn him of dangers that existed at The Lawns, and that Miss Ferriby was in the habit of doing things which would bring her, if they were known, within reach of the law, he felt at the moment as if he were the most treacherous and mean of men.
“I am sure, Miss Ferriby,” he stammered out, after a few moments’ guilty silence, “that Mrs. Ashcot would never say anything about her neighbours in the nature of ill-natured gossip.”
Miss Ferriby drew herself up, flashed at him a look of scorn, and laughed contemptuously. "Mrs. Ashcot!" she said mockingly. "Mrs. Ashcot! Well, I'm not much concerned about what Mrs. Ashcot says. What I want to know----" and she suddenly darted forward again, and hanging over the desk, looked straight into his face with burning eyes, "---- is not what Mrs. Ashcot says about me, but what her daughter says. Yes, Welton, that's what I want to know. You look upon me as a clever, strong-minded woman. But I'm not clever. I'm not even commonly sensible and logical when it's a question of a pretty woman. For I know that I do not have a chance against her, and that if you have to choose between giving a few hours of your society to a poor, misshapen creature with a woman's affections and a woman's longing for sympathy, and the emptiest-headed pretty girl that ever lisped out silly nothings to every man that spoke to her, why, I should have to go to the wall, even if I died for it!"
Her voice shook with the passion which possessed her, and her eyes seemed to swim in unshed tears. Astonished, half disgusted and repelled, yet moved to something like compassion at the same time, Welton did not know what to say.
She saw that she had succeeded in touching him, and she leaned over the desk and said in a low, vibrating voice, “Give up one more evening to me, Welton, won’t you? You won’t have any guests or mysterious visitors to contend with this time, I promise you.”
But he would not give up Barbara for Miss Ferriby, nor was he by any means anxious for another evening in her society. She had delighted him by her conversation, by her singing, by her playing. But the pleasure was all too dearly bought with the anxieties and suspicions to which he had been a prey ever since, and he stood firm.
Gently, playfully, he persisted that he could not break faith in the matter of his engagement for that evening, and when she pleaded for the following day, he said truly that he had a long-standing engagement for that night which was important for him and his brother.
Deeply offended, Miss Ferriby suddenly gave up her persuasions, and with a cold, “Well, as you please, then,” she left the room.
Welton wondered whether he would now suffer in any way from her displeasure during the rest of his working day. But by the time she came back at five o’clock to see what he had done, she appeared to have forgotten all about their conversation of the morning, although he knew very well that she had not really done so.
When he left The Lawns, he took the precaution, thinking that he might be watched, of going to the end of the lane and out of sight before he turned back in order to keep his promise of calling at the Ashcots’. To make this action plausible, he posted some of Miss Ferriby’s letters in the main street, and then came back to the lane.
Alas for his precaution! As he put his hand upon the latch of the garden gate, he saw Box, the mysterious footman, watching him from outside the green door.
When he got inside the little drawing room, where he found both the ladies eager to receive him, Welton was looking so harassed that Mrs. Ashcot at once began to overwhelm him with questions as to what had happened. It then transpired that they had been outside the house on the preceding evening, and had heard his cry for “Miss Ferriby,” and they had ever since been in a state of anxiety on his account.
He did his best to persuade them that nothing serious had taken place there. Although he did not convince them of that, he made Barbara by his looks so sure that this pressure was distasteful to him, that she contrived to persuade her mother to drop the subject of The Lawns, and to converse on other matters.
By dint of perseverance the girl succeeded. When, however, she got an opportunity of saying a few words to Welton in the absence of her mother, she was disappointed to find that he was as reticent with her as he had been with her mother.
However, she had more tact than Mrs. Ashcot, and though she was disappointed, she did not press him to confess what he evidently wished to keep to himself.
He stayed with them a very short time, and hurried home to his rooms where he treated his brother with just as much reserve as before, and even went out to avoid the temptation of talking too much to him.
On the following day he went as usual to Miss Ferriby’s. She said not a word about his visit to the Ashcots, and did not press him to stay to dinner, as he had feared she would do.
He had truthfully told her that he had a longstanding appointment for that evening. It was a ball at the house of one of the friends from his father’s prosperous days, and the brothers were half glad, half sorry, to be once more among the old set, dancing with their old partners, and sitting in the beautiful suite of rooms they remembered so well.
They met a good many old acquaintances, and were touched by the kindly feeling displayed on all sides, and by the hearty kindness with which more than one of their fellow-guests insisted that they should no longer “bury themselves,” and invited them to their houses with even more warmth than in the old days.
In the midst of the pleasure he felt at this discovery that their old friends had not forgotten them, Welton was recalled to his later and less pleasant experiences by seeing among the crowd of dancers a lady whom he did not know, but whom he recognized as one of the crowd of smartly dressed women he had seen waiting Miss Ferriby’s leisure in the drawing room at The Lawns.
At once he asked and obtained an introduction to her, and found her to be Lady Mirfield, the wife of a well-known sporting baronet. He found her to be a charming woman of the frivolous and sprightly type, eager for every sort of new amusement, and easily led to talk upon any subject.
So he led the conversation, during the waltz she gave him, on to the subject of the occult, and asked her if she believed in omens.
"Oh, yes, I'm dreadfully superstitious," she answered frankly. "I was at Miss Ferriby's -- you know, Fiammetta -- having my fortune told. Only she doesn't call it that, you know. She's too great a personage. She calls it 'translating the vital language.' But it comes to much the same thing."
“Does she ever make good predictions?”
“Good? Oh, yes, it’s quite uncanny! She told me ever so many things I thought nobody knew. She’s weirdly clever, or lucky, or something. And everybody says the same thing. She’s absolutely the queen of that sort of thing. There’s no one to touch her.”
“I suppose I mustn’t ask what sort of things she foretells?” suggested Welton, more interested than he dared show.
“Well, I couldn’t tell you everything, but I may give you a specimen of her powers. I asked her where the person was I loved best in the world. And she said at once ‘India.’ And she was right.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Welton.
“Yes, and she was right in other things. People go to her for everything nowadays. If I were Mr. Van Velsen, I should go to her to find out who stole his curios.”
Welton was so much startled that he could for a moment scarcely speak. “What curios?” he asked after a pause.
“Haven’t you heard? It was found yesterday that some very valuable things, snuffboxes and little things like that, priceless, I believe, were missing from one of his cabinets.”
Welton felt as if his brain was reeling. Mr. Van Velsen, the millionaire in whose house he had seen Box the footman enter as a guest, disguised in a fair moustache!
That Miss Ferriby would be able to tell something about that robbery -- if she chose -- he could well believe.
As he walked away after leading Lady Mirfield to a seat, he almost felt as guilty as if he were an accomplice of the thief.
For some time after hearing the astounding statement, which confirmed the worst of his fears concerning the woman in whose employ he was, Welton Keynes could scarcely collect his thoughts sufficiently to think clearly.
Mr. Van Velsen, he repeated to himself, was the millionaire whose house he had seen Box enter in the character of a guest. And now, immediately afterwards, he heard that a robbery had been committed there.
It was impossible not to connect the two events with each other, and the feeling that he was entangled in the meshes of an adventuress of the worst and most dangerous type, grew stronger and stronger upon him.
True, he was ostensibly not mixed up with her crimes, her pretended fortune-telling, her deep-laid schemes for getting money out of the pockets of other people and transferring it into her own. True that he knew she did a great deal of highly useful and commendable work in organizing charity, and in dispensing the funds supplied by other people for good works of various kinds.
But this work of hers, thoroughly well carried on as it was, he was now forced to look upon as merely a very clever ruse for covering her more important and extensive operations. And these, he was now abundantly satisfied, were of the most dangerous and infamous kind.
That her fortune-telling was connected with other things even less commendable, he had felt sure. Now he began to understand more about it, and to see how she made her two various trades and enterprises work together for her own benefit and that of her confederates or employees.
For even now, he was not sure of the relation in which she and the two men he had seen about The Lawns stood to each other and to her.
When he had recovered a little of his lost self-possession, Welton decided to ask Lady Mirfield a few more questions, in order to get as much information as possible about Miss Ferriby. He also wished to let her know his own position, in view of the exposure which he was not only sure must come, but which he had already determined to have a hand in.
In coming to this decision, he did not hide from himself the fact that it was a dangerous mission to attempt to rid society of such a highly organized and cleverly carried on system of crime and misdemeanour.
But his disgust at the methods of which he had already seen so much, at the hypocrisy which had successfully covered the infamies committed under the cloak of pretended charity, made him eager and earnest in his wish to deliver the city of London from a pest which he knew must spread its contagion far and wide.
That it had not yet come under the notice of the police he could only attribute to two things. The one, that Miss Ferriby, in her astuteness, had contrived to get so many members of the influential classes on her side by her pretended charities, and by her real help in organization. The other, that she was careful to make every person whom she employed in her evil work a large participator in the profits of her crimes; so that it was better worth the while of her associates to continue their connection with her than to give evidence against her which, owing to her great astuteness, they might have found it hard to substantiate.
Welton was a very good-looking, well-bred young man, so that when he ventured to ask Lady Mirfield for another dance, not expecting that she would be able to give it to him, she coolly threw over one of her already engaged partners, and gave his waltz to Welton.
“I wanted to tell you,” he said, as soon as he had an opportunity of speaking to her, “the reason why I am so strongly interested in what you told me about Miss Ferriby’s fortune-telling. I am her secretary.”
Lady Mirfield uttered a little cry of surprise. “Don’t you know all about it, then?” she asked quickly.
“No, I have nothing to do with that. I know, of course, that it goes on, but I must tell you frankly that I have no belief whatever in supernatural powers exercised in that manner. I look upon it as clever trickery and nothing more.”
Lady Mirfield appeared interested. “Well, coming from you, who live so very close to the thing, as it were, your opinion is bound to be worth listening to. But really myself, I don’t see how some of her predictions can be tricks. I’ve seen so many strange things, and I’ve heard of so many more, that it’s easier to believe in supernatural agency than in any other in the matter.”
Welton preserved a discreet silence at this point, and after a pause and a careful scrutiny of his face, Lady Mirfield said, “What sort of work do you do then, if you have nothing to do with the fortune-telling?”
“I sort and answer her letters, and I enter all the amounts given to her for charitable purposes, and I keep her accounts in connection with them.”
“Ah, yes. She does a great deal of good, I know. At least, she is supposed to! Do you mean to imply that that is trickery too?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Welton quickly. “I know for a fact beyond dispute that she is most conscientious in the distribution of the money she collects for charities, and that she is very shrewd in allotting it, so that hardly a shilling gets wasted. That is the part of her occupations that is immediately under my eyes, and I can answer for the care with which she carries it out.”
He was glad to be able to say this, as it was important that no suspicion should be raised prematurely as to Miss Ferriby’s occupations. The best chance of finding her out, if she really were, as he supposed, at the head of a highly organized conspiracy for purposes of successful crime, lay in behaving as if he knew nothing, and in the meantime finding out all he could.
Lady Mirfield, whose suspicions had been momentarily aroused by his first words, seemed reassured, and presently asked him to call upon her if he wanted to be thoroughly convinced of the genuineness of Miss Ferriby’s claims as a seer.
“I will show you two or three proofs,” she said, “of her accuracy in prophecy. And I will remember all I’ve heard from my friends, and I think you will be convinced that no ordinary cleverness could have foretold so much. I’m partly Scottish by descent, and a firm believer in second sight, and I believe Miss Ferriby to have the gift in an unusual degree.”
Welton Keynes eagerly accepted her invitation, delighted that he would be able to hear more concerning Miss Ferriby’s supposed powers, without invitging suspicion as to his motive in wishing to learn all he could about them.
He was in the supper room some time after this, when he caught sight of a face he knew among the servants, and felt sick with fresh horror when he recognized the man Cockett, who had lain in wait for him when he got on top of the veranda at The Lawns.
Filled with fears and anxieties which he did not dare to confess to anyone present, even to his own brother, Welton left the supper room as quickly as he could, hoping that Cockett had not recognized him.
He would willingly have believed himself mistaken, but a second furtive look which he took as he went out, convinced him he was right.
And now he began to understand why it was that the servants at The Lawns were so seldom seen. The footman, Box, whom he guessed to be in a superior position to the rest, was the only one seen by the ordinary visitors.
Cockett and those others who were hidden in the wing opposite to that in which the fortune-telling went on, were no doubt sent out as scouts into the houses where robberies were to take place, finding out not only the secrets of the ladies who went to have their fortunes told, but other secrets more immediately connected with the plate and jewellery of the family.
He felt as if he were suffocating, and the scene before his eyes seemed to fade into the indistinctness of a dream as he turned over in his mind all the things that he had just learnt, and wondered how he ought to set about the stupendous task of bringing to book the gang amongst which he had fallen.
Should he go straight to the police and tell them all he knew? This, the simple course though not the least hazardous, had two objections.
If he should be disbelieved, or even if no immediate steps should be taken towards the breaking up of the gang, he himself would not only be in imminent danger from the members of the gang themselves, but there would be a great risk of their escaping altogether, Miss Ferriby not being the sort of person to leave any precaution against sudden surprise neglected.
The second thing that made him pause was the possibility of Miss Ferriby’s having told the truth about his father. How could he, while he was in ignorance upon that point, take any steps which might lead to his own father’s discomfiture.
But Welton was tormented by the thought that there was probably a robbery in course of contemplation at the very house he was in, and he turned over in his mind plan after plan of putting his host and hostess on their guard.
He decided at last upon writing them a guarded letter of warning, and then bent all his energies to the task of keeping out of the way of Cockett, although he feared that his efforts would prove unavailing. And so it turned out. He came face to face with the man as he was crossing the hall; but so well had he schooled himself, so guarded was he, that he gave no sign, when he met the man’s eyes, that he recognized him.
So far, therefore, he had succeeded in his plan of letting things go on in all respects as if he knew and guessed nothing.
But when he got home that night, his brother knew that there was something wrong, and begged him to confess why he looked so downcast, so depressed.
Welton, however, would confess nothing. He sent his brother off to bed, and sat down to write a letter to his hostess of the night. But on second thoughts he decided that writing was too dangerous, and that he had better give the warning in person. When he rose the following morning, he was haggard and almost feverish from fatigue and still more from anxiety.
He dared not leave the matter a minute longer than could be helped, and after a breakfast which he scarcely touched, he hastened to the house where he had been dancing a few hours before, and asked to see Mr. Ospringe, his host, who was, he knew, being in the diplomatic service and a man in a highly responsible position, bound to be early astir.
He had to wait a little while before his host made his appearance, and in the meantime Welton paced the library with uneasy steps, wondering whether at that very moment he were exposed to the fire of unseen eyes.
When Mr. Ospringe made his appearance, Welton was quite prepared with what he had to say. After the first greetings he said in a low voice, “I have come to warn you that I saw last night, among your servants, a man whom I have some reason to suspect of being connected with a gang of thieves. I am so little sure of anything in connection with this matter that I could not help you in the way of giving evidence against him. In fact I have no evidence to give. But I have so much reason to suspect that, when I see him in a house, a robbery there is on the cards, that I could not rest till I had put you on your guard.”
Mr. Ospringe was a man of sufficient experience to know that under the young man’s exterior there was some intensely serious purpose. He asked whether Welton could give him any details about the man’s appearance.
Welton did his best, but Cockett looked so exactly like the ordinary well-built, tall manservant, that there was nothing very salient in his description.
“Do you know his name?” asked Mr. Ospringe.
“I know one name by which he is known elsewhere, but I doubt whether you would know him by it. It is Cockett.”
Mr. Ospringe shook his head. “No,” he said, “there is no one in my service of that name. Will you tell me where you have met him?”
“I’d rather not do that.”
Mr. Ospringe looked at him searchingly. And suddenly there shot through Welton’s heart a horrible pang of doubt and dread. Was there really, as Miss Ferriby had said, something shameful in the history of his father? And did this clever and worldly-wise man know all about it, and did he mistrust the son of Richard Keynes?
There was an awkward pause. Then Mr. Ospringe asked very quietly, “Could you point him out?”
The blood rushed to Welton’s cheeks and forehead. “I’d rather not do that,” he said. And again the dreadful fear came into his heart that Mr. Ospringe mistrusted him and looked upon him as a possible accomplice rather than as a warning friend. Strange as this idea was, the manner of his late host had undergone so sudden and startling a change that the suspicion was justifiable.
As soon as Welton refused to give more details than he had done, the face of Mr. Ospringe had become as cold and expressionless as a slab of marble. He thanked his young visitor very coolly, and Welton went away with the miserable certainty in his mind that, whether he had done anything for Mr. Ospringe or not, he had done something for himself that was wholly disastrous.
Whether Mr. Ospringe believed the warning or not, it seemed plain to Welton that his late host looked upon him with suspicion; while on the other hand Welton was inclined to think that, careful as he had been, Cockett might have found out what he was doing, in which case he guessed that he had little mercy to expect at the hands of the gang.
This feeling braced him up in the determination he had formed to break up the infamous combination into whose secrets he had been unwillingly initiated.
Difficult as he found it to face the idea of deliberately playing a part and trying to deceive Miss Ferriby, still more difficult as it would be to carry out this plan, he had made up his mind that there was nothing else to be done.
To leave Miss Ferriby’s employment without notice would, he felt sure, put the gang on the alert and make it impossible for anything to be discovered, while at the same time they would most certainly find some means of revenging themselves upon him as a traitor in the camp.
There was therefore no help for it. He must try to appear as if he had no suspicion of the worst, and must do his best to lull them, or at any rate Miss Ferriby herself, into a belief that all was well.
The knowledge that he had to play a part braced him to make a great effort, and when he met Miss Ferriby that morning he was more genial, more lively than he had been on the previous day. She asked him where he had been the night before, and when he told her that he had been at a ball at the house of Lady Theophila Ospringe, she smiled and said that accounted for his looking as if he had been up all night.
“That is why you’re late this morning, I suppose?” she said archly.
“Well, no, it isn’t, as a matter of fact,” said Welton. “I had to pay a very early call on my way here, and I’m sorry I couldn’t manage to get it in time.”
“A very early call indeed!” she replied, fixing upon him a peculiar look. “Something very important, I suppose?”
It almost looked as if she suspected him, Welton thought. But he put a brave face on the matter, and told her he had to see his host of the previous night.
Miss Ferriby looked down at her letters, and Welton decided, if she was surprised and interested to hear that was where he had been, she concealed her feelings very well. But he believed that the matter was already known to her.
The day passed as usual, but in the afternoon, when they had done their work, Miss Ferriby said, “Is it of any use to ask you to dine with me tonight? Someone may be calling upon me in whom you take an interest.”
Her voice dropped, and Welton’s face flushed. “My father!” he cried under his breath.
She put her finger on her lip. “Remember he is passing under another name,” she said in a whisper. “Even my household don’t know who he is. If you see him you are to greet him as if he were a stranger, remember that.”
Welton trembled. Was he to believe her? If not, why would she raise false hopes, since he must discover sooner or later whether she was tricking him or not?
In any case, he knew that he must not lose this opportunity of finding out whether his father were really alive, so he accepted Miss Ferriby’s invitation, and stayed to dinner.
He had an idea that she knew something more about his call that morning on Mr. Ospringe than he would have had her know. Cockett had probably been about when he called, and he, being a member of the gang at The Lawns, might have been clever enough to have contrived to overhear something, or to get an inkling of what was happening between his master and his visitor.
Whether this suspicion were correct or not, Welton now felt that he must take some strong step to protect himself from the possible revenge of the gang if they should guess his intentions towards them. He therefore set himself to work to make a favourable impression upon Miss Ferriby, and instead of contenting himself with being a courteous and attentive listener to her conversation, her playing and her singing, he now tried flattery as a means of ingratiating himself with her.
Knowing how clever the woman was, however, he at first dared not do more than pay her little compliments of no great significance. These, however, were so well received that he soon grew bolder, and as he himself expressed later, “laid it on with a trowel,” speaking enthusiastically, not only of her musical talents, which he could praise with an easy conscience, but even daring to extol the beauty of her eyes and the sweetness of her speaking voice.
Almost to his consternation, he found that these outrageous flatteries were much better received by Miss Ferriby than the more modest and honest compliments with which he had begun. It seemed to him an amazing thing that this woman could believe herself attractive enough to inspire such admiration as he expressed, and that a woman so clever should be so easily flattered.
It is true that she laughed at him, and told him he was trying to get round a silly old woman whom he in his heart despised. But it was plain, even when she said things like that, that she was thoroughly pleased with his homage; so that although he knew that his safety depended upon what he was doing, Welton felt ashamed and sorry that he should have to descend to this means of securing it.
In the meantime the hours went by, and there was no sign of the promised visitor.
“At what time do you expect my father to call upon you, Miss Ferriby?” he asked when the clock struck ten, and he began to find the constant stream of laudation difficult to keep up.
She started and looked at the clock. “I’m afraid he’s not coming tonight,” she said. “At least, he is generally earlier than this.”
Welton knew at once, by an instinct indefinable but sure, that there had never been any question of this visit. She had used it merely to secure his staying that evening. Perhaps the expression of his face betrayed his thoughts, for she answered quickly, “Is it so much to give a lonely woman a few hours of your society, that you look angry at your temporary disappointment? He will come another night, since he has not appeared this evening. Would you like me to make an appointment with him?”
Welton hesitated. It became increasingly clear to him that the less he had to do with Miss Ferriby, the more perfunctory his visits became, the more strictly he confined himself to business, the better it would be for him when the crash came. But on the other hand it was desirable that he should remain her friend, in order to protect himself from the hostility of the rest of the gang.
A trifle might at any moment betray his intentions towards them, and he had very strong suspicions that these two men, whom he knew to be Miss Ferriby’s accomplices, would not be scrupulous about their treatment of him if they should discover what he meditated.
It was curious that he should have stayed that evening with some belief that he would see his father, and that now he should think the whole story concerning Richard Keynes false and untrue.
The revelation had come to him in a single look on Miss Ferriby’s face, which had convinced him at once that the story was a concoction. But he took care not to betray his belief. “It would be very good of you, Miss Ferriby,” he said. “If he is alive, I should like to see him.”
Now these were scarcely the words he would have used if he had felt convinced that his father was still live, but Miss Ferriby was thinking of something else, and seemed not to notice his lack of warmth.
“I suppose,” she said, in a rather offended tone, “if it were not for the chance of seeing him, I should never see you in the evening again.”
“You would see me here often enough to find me a bore, Miss Ferriby, if I hadn’t the sense to know that I must not intrude too often,” he said gallantly.
She smiled graciously, but then her face changed. “You say that to me,” she said, “but I find it difficult to make you stay, while the Ashcots have to use no strong inducements to get you to call.”
Welton had not expected this, for the extreme bitterness which suddenly made itself manifest in her tone made it an attack. “Those ladies are lonely too,” he said after a moment’s pause.
Miss Ferriby laughed harshly. “Oh, I think not. Miss Ashcot is not very particular. She has plenty of flirtations, I can assure you.”
Welton’s face flushed at this attack, and he was imprudent enough to resent her words. “I think you have made a mistake,” he said coldly. “Miss Ashcot gives me the impression of being a girl to whom what is commonly called flirtation would be impossible.”
“She has flirted with you, who scarcely knew her,” said Miss Ferriby sharply.
“Oh, no, indeed she has not, unless indeed you mean by the word flirtation something different from what I mean by it. I would only ever use the word in a bad sense, and I could use no such word in speaking of Miss Ashcot.”
A look of unmistakable jealousy shot into Miss Ferriby’s eyes as she said in a cold, spiteful voice, “Oh, I have no doubt she is a paragon. Pray don’t consider yourself bound to come here and to waste your time in listening to my singing and playing, when you would be so much happier on the other side of the road with your pale-faced beauty.”
Welton began to perceive that he was doing a very rash thing in allowing Miss Ferriby to guess how deep the impression was which Barbara Ashcot had made upon him. So he laughed. “My pale-faced beauty, as you call her, Miss Ferriby, is not my beauty at all. In the first place I can’t afford the luxury of falling in love; and in the second place, if I could, I would look out for something more than beauty in a wife.”
He saw at once that he was on the right tack once more. Miss Ferriby was listening to him eagerly, bending forward with a light in her eyes, earnest, excited, ready as was ever a greedy fish to take the most obvious bait.
“Oh, no. Young men say that, but they don’t mean it. They talk wisely, and marry foolishly,” she said. “Where is the young man who will overlook physical disadvantages for the sake of intellect, accomplishments, even money?”
“Oh, there are plenty of men ready to overlook everything for the sake of money,” said Welton.
"Yes, plenty of men who are not worth having," said Miss Ferriby, earnest and impassioned, the deep notes in her voice sounding rich and full with emotion. "But what I mean is this: do you think there is in the world a man, young, handsome, well-bred, good-tempered -- the sort of man, in fact, that women love and would give their lives for -- who would marry a woman whose intellect he admired, whose accomplishments he took pleasure in, but who was not beautiful to the eye, who was not even up to the average of good looks or shapeliness?"
Welton, feeling disgusted by this straightforward courtship, took care not to betray his feelings. While she spoke, indeed, he was preparing his answer, which was bound to be diplomatic.
“I think,” he said gravely, when she had finished, “there must be many a young man who would be flattered by the love of an intellectual woman, whose beauty was not so much physical as mental.”
This speech, solemnly and deliberately uttered, and not without a caressing note, was well received by Miss Ferriby. She uttered a little soft laugh, and said gently, “There is this to be said for the love of such a woman, that it would be given wholly, freely, gratefully, and that, even if it were not incompatible with a certain amount of inevitable jealousy, it might be worth having.”
“I’m sure of it,” said Welton, in a gentle voice. And growing bolder, he added, “Such a love, growing gradually, not too hurriedly, would be more satisfactory on both sides than a transient passion for a pretty face on the one side, and for a commonplace young man on the other.”
Miss Ferriby looked up with a glance which, if it had not been so alarming, would have been unspeakably grotesque. “Not commonplace,” she said. “The commonplace is abhorrent to me, either in man or woman, in literature, art or anything else. No, no! I love what is out of the common, and if I were to give my heart to a man it would be to one who was different from other men, more gentle, more courageous, with intelligence enough to choose for himself, and daring enough not to be frightened by trifles.”
She paused, fixing upon Welton an ardent look which he would willingly have avoided, but which he met with an expression which he tried to make interested and not disgusted, amiable and not repelled.
But all the while he was feeling an unutterable loathing for this woman, whose very soul was steeped in crime, and whose wealth was tainted and ill-gotten. He was most anxious to get away as quickly as possible, fearing that her keen eyes would pierce the veil of hypocrisy with which he was obliged to try to hide his feelings of disgust and repulsion.
Rising to his feet, he bent over her and said, “You would have earned the love you demand and deserve, Miss Ferriby, if you were to bring such a man face to face with one whom he had believed dead, but whom you had befriended and helped to live.”
Miss Ferriby looked startled by these words. Rising in her turn, she said quickly, “You don’t doubt that I could do so?”
“Of course not. Haven’t you given me your word? I’m only waiting for the fulfilment of your promise.”
He screwed himself up to the difficult task of giving her a look which she might construe into a declaration of passion, subdued but anxious to declare itself.
For a few minutes she seemed to him to look disconcerted. Then she said impulsively, “You will see him. I will arrange a meeting. When shall it be?”
“Tomorrow night,” replied Welton promptly.
“And you will dine with me again tomorrow?”
“On that understanding, yes,” said Welton, who began to think that perhaps a little touch of imperiousness might not be amiss in dealing with her. “But I don’t like these disappointments. They are scarcely fair, are they, when I feel so strongly about it?”
She looked rather guilty and nervous, but she answered briskly, “Of course they are not. Very well then, tomorrow evening you shall meet him.”
With the necessary fervour, Welton kissed her hand, but he was sorry he had done so when he saw the strong effect which the action had upon the woman. She began to tremble, and turned pale. He was seized, as he hurried away, with a strong suspicion that he was preparing for himself a very difficult task when the time should come to break with her.
The whole episode of her overtures of love and his diplomatic reply was horrible, repulsive, and it was with a mind and heart oppressed as they had never been before by the certainty of coming difficulty and trouble, that Welton returned to his lodging that night.
He thought over the situation before he went to rest, and though he was so tired after the previous late night that he could scarcely keep his eyes open, he decided upon a plan of action.
In pursuance of it, he wrote a letter to Barbara Ashcot on the following morning, and sent it to her through the post instead of delivering it personally. In it he told her that he would have to avoid calling upon her and Mrs. Ashcot for a few days, as his acquaintance with them was disapproved of, but that he hoped she would write to tell him how they were, and that they would allow him to call again as soon as he was at liberty to do so.
He went to The Lawns that morning with great repugnance, and this was intensified when he found Miss Ferriby not merely amiable, but positively affectionate. She held out her hand to him in such a way that he saw he was expected to kiss it, and this he did with all the appearance of devotion he was able to muster.
During the hours of the morning Miss Ferriby leaned amorously over the desk, and instead of striking him into admiration and respect by her clever and shrewd summing up of the merits of the writers of her letters, she now assumed a seductive attitude, as ridiculous as it was unbecoming, and gave him opening after opening for the exaggerated compliments which he took care to pay.
At lunchtime she reminded him that he was going to stay to dine with her, but he said that he must pay a duty call near Eaton Square between the end of his day’s duties and dinnertime. Although Miss Ferriby was displeased, she had to agree to this, and Welton, at four o’clock, left The Lawns and hurried away to Lady Mirfield’s.
His first duty in connection with the unpleasant business in which he found himself involved, was to warn such of his friends and acquaintances as had dealings with Miss Ferriby, to be cautious in their association with that untrustworthy person.
Lady Mirfield either was, or professed to be, suffering from a headache which was too severe to allow her to walk from her boudoir to the drawing room, but which was not severe enough to prevent her from receiving such of her friends as she wished to see, in her pretty little sitting room hung with pale pink silk. She was lying back in a low chair, looking charming in a loose tea gown of cream silk and lace with ornaments of turquoise.
Her maid, a quiet, unobtrusive-looking young woman in black, was handing her lavender salts and a Pekinese puppy as Welton came in.
When the maid had retired, Lady Mirfield told him that she had made a note for him of all the wonderful sayings and prophecies of Fiammetta’s which had come true. Welton, when he heard them all, was more than ever convinced that these prophecies were based on something more than guesswork, and that Miss Ferriby’s emissaries were distributed among the ranks of the wealthy and idle ladies and men of the Metropolis.
He fulfilled his mission, therefore, by giving her a solemn caution. “If I were you,” he said, “I wouldn’t trust these fortune-tellers with too much of your personal history. Of course I have nothing to say about Miss Ferriby, as I have nothing to do with her fortune-telling. But I don’t believe in miraculous powers, and I think it is always unwise to trust strangers with confidences of any sort.”
Lady Mirfield looked interested but sceptical. And although in the resulting argument they had on the subject he got the best of it, he left her with an uneasy sense that he had done nothing to counteract the influence which he knew was to be dreaded.
He hastened back to The Lawns, where, as he had expected, he had another ordeal to go through. He went through it like a man, however, and did not flinch from the necessities of the position, making signs of devotion to the hunchback without ardour but with stolid persistency, which met more than its due reward in Miss Ferriby’s extravagant responsiveness.
It was a great relief to him when a caller was announced, and although he sprang up in excitement, wondering whether it was really his father who had come, he was disappointed the next moment by hearing Miss Ferriby, on receiving a silent sign from Box, tell him to show the visitor upstairs.
Then she turned to Welton. Laying an affectionate hand on his arm she said, “It is only a man to have the signs read for him. I won’t be ten minutes.”
Welton would have seized the opportunity to take his leave, but she was out of the room too quickly, locking the door, as before, as she went through to the winding staircase.
Welton, rashly determined to risk another dangerous encounter rather than give up his investigations, at once went out into the grounds, passed round the angle at the house, and made his way towards the wing where the servants’ quarters were.
He had seen two of the members of the household, and both of them he had met in the houses of other people. He was resolved to find out who were the other members of the gang.
Having tried the inner side of the wing on a previous occasion, he now tried to make his way round to the outer side. Passing close to a window which was whitened all over, he noted that there were four iron bars fastened in front of it. He paused for a moment before the window, and then saw it being slowly opened from the bottom, and a voice said in a subdued tone, “Wait a moment, Mr. Keynes.”
There was no light behind the window, and it was only opened about four inches from the bottom by a hand which he could see was that of a woman. The voice, too, was a woman’s. He stopped at once, and the voice spoke again, clearly for his ears alone.
“I want to warn you, Mr. Keynes,” the voice said, “that you are behaving very foolishly. It’s not safe to play a double game here. Either stand in with us, marry Miss Ferriby, and live like a fighting-cock, as we do. Or else sling your hook, and hold your tongue about us and her. Don’t think you can keep in with her while you are warning outsiders against her. It won’t do. Take my tip. I speak for the sake of your good-looking face. But I’m the only one here who doesn’t want to tear your heart out and roast you alive. And they will too, if you don’t look out!”
Down went the window softly, and Welton, without a word, staggered away. He had made the most ghastly and unexpected discovery of all. Before the unseen woman had got to the end of her warning speech, she had raised her voice just enough for him to recognize it as that of Lady Mirfield’s trusted maid.
Truly the meshes of the Ferriby net were spread wide!
Welton, almost stupefied as he was by the latest proof of the widespread nature of the organization of which Miss Ferriby was the apparent head, had no intention of allowing his new opportunity of learning details about it slip away.
But when the window was shut down, he gave himself a few minutes for reflection before he tried to find out more from the unseen informant whose voice he had recognized.
So he reached a rustic bench, which stood in a nook in the grounds under the spreading branches of an old cedar tree, and sat down to think over what he had heard.
Not that there was any great shock in what he had just learnt. Having already found out that the two menservants, Box and Cockett, played the spy in different houses in the city, it was not surprising to find that there were women also employed in the same infamous business.
Neither was it astonishing that he should again have happened to meet one of the gang at the house of an acquaintance, since it was because he had seen Lady Mirfield at The Lawns that he had made her acquaintance.
That which amazed him the most in connection with this business was the boldness with which it was carried on, an example of which he had just had in the words used by the unseen woman.
The maid made no pretence of innocence concerning the doings of the gang; but boldly assuming that Welton knew the sort of society in which he lived, she frankly advised him either to join it, or else to give it up and hold his tongue.
And she emphasized her warning by the most cynical openness as to the lives she and her fellow-conspirators led. “We live like fighting-cocks,” was her terse comment and inducement to him to join them.
More and more evident did it become to him that he would have to tread warily if he would not draw down upon himself the vengeance of the gang. He had already faced the possibility of his having been overheard by Cockett when he gave his warning to Mr. Ospringe. Now he was sure that he had been listened to by unseen ears of the maid when he was advising Lady Mirfield not to have anything further to do with Miss Ferriby.
The knowledge that he could not move a step in any direction without finding some member of the gang, sometimes utterly unsuspected, on his track, was disconcerting and oppressive in the extreme. It complicated matters by making it difficult for him to approach the police except by letter, and in such a matter he felt that a personal interview was infinitely to be preferred to any other form of communication.
In the meantime he knew that he must lose no time if he meant to try to make the maid who had just spoken to him yield him further information. Miss Ferriby had told him she would be engaged ten to twenty minutes with her visitor, and there was not much left of that time.
He sprang up from the rustic seat, with a furtive glance around him to see that he was not even then being watched by unseen eyes, and returning to the closed window from which the woman had spoken to him, he tapped softly on the lower pane.
He could make out through the whitened surface that there was someone moving on the other side, and after a pause, he tapped again more imperiously.
Then the pane was moved up a little way. “What do you want?” asked the same voice as before.
“I want to see you. I know who you are. You are Lady Mirfield’s maid. Come now, it can do you no harm to come out and speak to me face to face. And if you really want to help me, as you say, there is something more for you to tell me, isn’t there? Come.”
He made his voice very soft and persuasive, and to his intense relief he was answered by a giggle, suppressed at once, but sufficiently promising to make him sure that the lady’s maid would not be able to resist his invitation.
"Well, if I come out, will you promise -- honour bright, mind -- to let me go in again without attempting to follow me the moment I want to?"
"I promise -- word of honour," said Welton promptly.
“All right, then. Go under the wall behind the cedar, where the plum trees are, and I’ll come out.”
Welton retired at once in the direction indicated, still careful to keep a good lookout against possible surprise. He had not been half a dozen seconds on the spot indicated, when a figure, darkly clad, with a black lace shawl hung flirtatiously about her head and neck, appeared from the other side of the cedar. It was evident that the instincts of plunder, which must have been successfully developed in her, had not extinguished her flirty tone, for she shrugged her shoulders and put on airs of alarm and timidity which he knew very well could not be genuine.
He took care to humour her, however, with a certain pretence of interest in her as a woman, though in his heart he cared for only one thing -- that she should tell him as much as possible of her associates and of the danger of his own position.
It was soon evident that she was competent to give him full satisfaction on both these points. “Now, it’s too bad of you, Mr. Keynes, to make me come out, when I had done you a good turn, too, in warning you. I think, as a gentleman, you ought to have respected my incognito, even if you did guess who I was.”
“I was too anxious for a sight of the girl who had done me such a kindness,” replied Welton gallantly.
She giggled again and stepped back. “Well, I wouldn’t have been so frank as I was, if I’d thought you were going to make me come out and show myself,” she said. “Fancy you recognizing my voice, too! And I, who flatter myself I can disguise myself!”
“Well, perhaps I’d been too much struck with the quality of your voice when I heard it before, not to recognize it when I heard it again,” said Welton, with a smile which he hoped was fascinating.
“Oh, well, there now, to think of your noticing. Well, now I’ve come, what is it you want to say to me?”
“I want in the first place to know what you mean by your warning?”
The girl came a step nearer, and peeped at him from behind her lace shawl. "Well, you know what I said. It's all true, every word. I heard you speaking to Lady M., and warning her about Fiammetta -- that's Miss F. Now, it's no mortal use your warning people, because Miss F. and Miss F.'s assistants in the business aren't so easily caught, I can tell you. But you've already shown your hand plainly enough to be watched, shadowed, and I can just tell you that if you were to do anything more in the way of warning outsiders that we're wrong 'uns, you'd have very little chance of ever warning anybody again."
“Do you mean that I should be murdered?” asked Welton abruptly.
She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not prepared to say that, but I may tell you this, that Miss F. has had a good many secretaries before, and that they went two ways all of them. One set went with us, and are with us still. The other lot didn't, and -- well, I can't tell you, I'm sure, where they are now. But I shouldn't like you to end as they've done."
There was just enough of hurry, of awe, about her voice and manner as she uttered the last words, to let Welton know that she herself had a vivid impression of the fate which had befallen these others the gang looked upon as traitors.
“You’re very good,” he said, in a tone which he in vain tried to make other than horror-struck and disgusted.
She laughed in a subdued way. “Oh, well, I don’t know so much about that,” she said. “I just don’t care to see you in danger of being knocked on the head by that Box, who’s mad because you’ve cut him out with Miss F.”
“Cut him out?” echoed Welton quickly.
She nodded. “Yes. When he came here first, he made up to Miss F. of course, like the rest of them, but he wasn’t her style, and so she just got her claws into him in the way she does, but she wasn’t taking him on and he had just to fall into line with the rest of us. So naturally, when he sees you getting ahead of him and the rest without any trouble, and Miss F. making the fuss with you she does, he don’t like it. So he wouldn’t be above showing his feelings in a way I should be sorry to see.”
“Do you mean he said he loved her and she snubbed him?”
“That’s it exactly. Oh, she’s very particular, ugly though she is. And the wonder is how she can get them to work for her, and keep her hold on them, and all without being handsome or even being able to stand straight. It’s uncanny, that it is, and I do believe myself she’s more than half a witch.”
“Did any of the other secretaries make passionate approaches to her?” asked Welton quickly.
“Rather. For her money, of course. But she sent them all to the right about in that way. They might work for her, but her own share she would keep to herself. You’re the first one she’s taken a real fancy to, I do believe.”
It flashed through Welton’s mind that this might be the thing said to each of Miss Ferriby’s secretaries in turn with the object of getting their willing service. So he only nodded without being greatly impressed by the implied compliment, such as it was.
“Of course you’re too good for her,” went on the girl impishly. “But I should advise you to humour her, and if you don’t mean to marry her, to pretend you do. But if so, you’d better give up warning people to have nothing to do with her, hadn’t you?”
“There’s another alternative,” said Welton.
“You mean getting away? Well, you won’t find it so easy. As for your warnings, they won’t do any good. Everybody warns one against fortune-tellers, don’t they? But they go to them all the same.”
“It’s something besides fortune-telling that people ought to be warned against,” said Welton.
“Well, you’d better not worry your head about that,” said the maid coolly. “And if your conscience is uneasy and you feel you must get away from us, all I can say is you’d better take care how you set about it. But if you think to give us away, you may look upon yourself as what they call a goner.”
That was exactly what Welton was feeling himself to be, and he smiled with a sinking heart as he thanked her for her advice. The barefaced audacity with which this little quiet-looking maid gave him this account of the gang’s way of doing things, and of the consequences of interfering with them, made him shudder.
She evidently hoped to begin a little flirtation with him in return for her information. "If you want a chat with me any evening," she said confidentially, "you've only to tap at the window where you found me. I generally sit in the next room to the passage -- that's the passage-window, you know -- in the evenings, and I'd hear you if I didn't see you."
By which Welton knew she had now left Lady Mirfield’s, presumably because she had found out all she wanted.
“And how many are there of you in there?” asked Welton, with a carelessness which did not deceive the quiet-looking young woman, who uttered a sort of chuckle as she said, “Oh, I mustn’t tell you that. I do wish for your own sake you’d be satisfied to know just what comes under your eyes and no more. And now goodnight. And take care of yourself.”
She advanced her cheek with so evident an invitation that Welton kissed her, and she uttered a stifled scream and ran away.
But Welton was certain that if she had known the feelings of abhorrence which her cynical indifference to the criminal aspect of her mistress’s business inspired in him, she would not have been so well pleased with this attention.
Welton, who knew that the interview with the unknown visitor must by this time be over, hastened back towards the house by way of the drawing room through which he had come out. He found, however, that it was now closed against him, and he wondered whether he should take advantage of the fact that he thus found the house closed against him, to make his escape by climbing over the garden wall on the side nearest the river, and getting away without further ceremony.
The fact that he was in dress clothes and without either hat or overcoat was, however, a deterrent. He would probably be scrutinized carefully by the first policeman he met, and although this would afford an opportunity of offering his story to the authorities for what it was worth, he was conscious that the gang, having had ample notice of his intentions towards them, would probably succeed in making him look like a fool instead of a man acting in the interests of justice and good order.
While he was standing in the veranda, hesitating what to do, he saw a shadow pass the blind of the window by which he was standing, and this was followed by a second.
Without difficulty he recognized that the first was that of Miss Ferriby, and that the second was Box, who appeared to be pursuing her.
Then the sounds of subdued but angry voices reached his ears, and then a stifled scream and scuffle. He rapped sharply on the window pane, and heard Miss Ferriby’s voice saying, in a tone of intense relief, “Thank heaven!”
The next moment he had to step back hurriedly, for Miss Ferriby, bursting open the long French window, had rushed out and almost thrown herself into his arms. “Ah!” she cried, as she glanced round at Box who was still in the drawing room, muttering and cursing under his breath. “Safe once more, thanks to you!”
Welton, not at all enthusiastically, offered the required support of his arm to the hunchback and led her back into the drawing room.
Box in his footman’s livery was leaning against the door, frowning and uttering threats which, if they were scarcely distinguishable, were nevertheless perfectly understood by both his hearers.
He was clearly jealous of the influence the newcomer, Welton Keynes, had already obtained over Miss Ferriby, and he was angry that Welton should so little appreciate his unmerited good fortune.
Welton wondered whether it were only interest which moved the man, or whether Miss Ferriby had managed to overcome a natural repugnance to deformity allied to her overtures, and had inspired Box with a feeling of personal affection.
“Of course you are safe,” he said, as he led her to a chair, and crossed the room again to shut the window and free himself from her clinging hands at the same time. “And I hope you haven’t caught cold?”
Shivering, Miss Ferriby drew her scarf of lace and China crape closer round her shoulders, and held out her jewelled hands to the fire. “No, no, I’m not cold,” she said.
Box from the door, where he was still standing, uttered a mocking laugh. “Aren’t you going to ask Mr. Keynes where he’s been, Miss Ferriby?” he said, in an imperious tone, which betrayed the fact that they were hardly mistress and servant. “Or is he to be allowed the run of the house and grounds at all hours, finding out what he can, and gossiping of what he sees?”
Welton Keynes looked at the man again, and wondered whether he was under the influence of wine. It was not usual for him to drop his respectfully indifferent, stolid servant’s manner, and thus to project himself upon Miss Ferriby.
She was recovering her self-possession, now that she knew herself to be no longer in the power of Box, and she laughed a little as she said, “Mr. Keynes is very welcome to roam wherever he likes and find out what he pleases, Box. There is no harm in anything I do, and I hope there is no harm in anything done by anyone else in my house.”
And she sat back and closed her eyes wearily, as if tired of the discussion which she had evidently been carrying on with him.
Box said nothing to this, but he left his place near the door and pretended to occupy himself with the curtains of the windows, without another glance in her direction. Welton Keynes came back to the fire and said he was afraid he was tired, and must be going.
She opened her eyes again, and imperiously signed to him to take a seat on the other side of the fireplace. He obeyed, and glanced at Box, who with his back turned to them was viciously pulling the curtains about, but silently and as if afraid he had gone too far.
“I have a great deal to say to you before I can let you go,” she said, raising her voice deliberately so that Box could hear her.
The footman turned quickly, looked from his mistress to Welton Keynes with an expression which showed that, as on a previous occasion, the woman’s will was too strong for him, or else that prudence suggested retreat without further objection.
He went quietly out of the room, and Miss Ferriby, with a sigh of relief, leaned back again in her chair and smiled with a satisfied expression. Welton felt exceedingly uncomfortable. He saw that he was expected to renew the tedious and distasteful conversation which had been interrupted by the arrival of the unknown visitor, and, courageously as he had kept it up before, he now felt that his very lips refused to utter any more of the wearisome and foolish compliments which seemed to satisfy Miss Ferriby, but which would, he knew, have been laughed at by such a woman as Barbara Ashcot.
“And now,” she said, in a caressing voice, as she bent forward and looked into his eyes, “now that we are by ourselves again, let me hear your voice once more in the tones you were using before that man came in.”
But Welton took refuge in a mock jealousy which he found exceedingly useful. “Who is that man?” he asked as if in anger. “And how is it that he is able to take such a liberty as to address you as he does, and to pursue you as he was doing when I came to the window?”
Miss Ferriby smiled, evidently pleased to hear his aggrieved tone. “Oh, don’t be jealous,” she replied with grotesque flirtation. “There is no reason for it indeed. Do you suppose I would condescend to allow the man to talk love to me? My own servant?”
Welton folded his arms and frowned. There was nothing for it but to go on in the character he had assumed, and he began to think it would afford him good excuse for beating a retreat from The Lawns. “He’s more than a servant, much more,” he said. “He doesn’t speak like one, although of course he can look like one. But I’m much mistaken if I haven’t seen him about in circumstances which made me think he was only masquerading as a servant.”
Miss Ferriby smiled. “Well, you shall learn all about that and everything else you want to know, by and by,” she said after a pause. “In the meantime, you may rest assured that you have no need to be jealous, and that whether the fellow is my servant or my business partner, he is not my lover. And that, I suppose, will be enough for you.”
It was strange how thoroughly she seemed to become the silly old woman, instead of the astute schemer, as soon as she fancied that this good-looking young man who had taken her fancy was ready to join the army of her more or less interested admirers.
Clever and strong-willed enough to manage a house full of greedy and unprincipled dependents, she seemed to lose all her intelligence the moment her vanity was thoroughly aroused, and the sentimental side of her character, which had before been in abeyance, became suddenly prominent and aggressive.
Welton Keynes, disgusted and anxious to escape from the atmosphere of trickery and criminality which surrounded this woman, as well as from her distasteful overtures, thought he had better keep up the fiction of jealousy in order to beat a retreat with a sufficient motive.
He rose, therefore, and standing a few paces from her, said, “It is enough for me to know that he is in your confidence, while I am not, Miss Ferriby. You are perfectly justified, of course, in trusting whom you please, and in maintaining reserve with others. But when I find you being chased round the room by a man whom I have been accustomed to look upon as your footman you must, I think, not be surprised if I feel that it is time for me to retire from a household where things happen which are so very unexpected and surprising.”
He bowed as he spoke, and moved towards the door.
Miss Ferriby’s eyes, however, had undergone a curious change of expression during his speech. When he began, she was teasing, pleasing, trying by little gestures of invitation and smiling nods and becks to induce him to resume his seat near her.
When, however, she saw that he was indeed bent on going away, there came a look into her face which at once recalled to him that it would not be easy to break with her, to have done with her.
Before he could reach the door, she stopped him, without a movement, merely by the tone in which she said, “Sit down.”
He hesitated, perceiving at once that he could not get away as he had hoped to do, without more explanation. He did not obey her literally, but he stopped and waited to hear what she had to say.
"You are playing with me, trying to make a fool of me," she said, not loudly, but in the old keen tone which made him feel as if her thoughts had pierced to his very brain. "You think to use your pretended jealousy of this man as an excuse for getting away from me. But you won't find that so easy. You can leave the house. The doors will open at your touch, and you can get out into the street in two minutes. But you will not for all that get away from me -- from us."
Rising suddenly, raised from the ground on the big footstool which stood in front of her chair, she pointed with one of her long white fingers to the door, and with a harsh, mocking laugh went on, “Go, go. Don’t lose a moment. Put on your hat and coat and reach the street outside, and draw a long breath and say, ‘Thank heaven I’m out of it!’ But you won’t be! Don’t flatter yourself that you are out of my reach because you are out of my sight. Don’t think you have left your troubles behind because you have shut the door of The Lawns behind you. I have offered you fortune, affection, luxury, happiness. You have chosen to refuse them, to play with me, to throw me over. Well, go your own way. But don’t be surprised if it leads you where you don’t expect to go.”
Turning abruptly, she threw herself down again in her chair, turning her back upon him and breathing heavily.
Welton had seen and heard enough to know that it would not do to leave her in this mood. What form exactly her vengeance would take, if he were rash enough to offend her mortally, he did not know. But that she would find ample means of satisfying her resentment, and of avenging her wounded vanity, he felt sure.
What should he do? Go without making his peace? It was not to be thought of. Resume again the attitude of wearisome and nauseous flattery and devotion, which had soothed her vanity and gained what she was pleased to call her heart? Well, repulsive as it was, there was no other means at hand of soothing her feelings and making himself temporarily secure.
So he listened quietly to her outburst, watched the flashing eye furtively, and once more felt surprised at the energy and passion which went so oddly with the grey hair.
When she paused, he came a little nearer to her chair and said gently, “I should be very ungrateful if I were to go away without thanking you for all your kindness, and the pleasure you have given me by your beautiful singing. At the same time, I think you must admit that I have seen things, especially tonight, which make it difficult for me to believe everything you have said to me, and make me think that, brilliant and fascinating as you are, it’s wiser not to allow myself to fall too deeply under the spell of your charming personality.”
The words, the tone, the look, mollified Miss Ferriby at once. Again she lost her penetrating acuteness, and at the words and voice of flattery from the man who had taken her fancy, she became yielding, fond, foolish as before. Turning at once, and leaning over the side of her chair, she looked him in the face and smilingly said, "My personality need have no terrors for you, Welton. You need not be afraid if only you'll trust me, be fond of me -- as I am ready to be of you. If you mean the things you've said to me tonight, if you really feel for me anything of what I feel for you, if you wish to marry me, Welton, then you need have no jealousy of anyone, for with you by my side I should have ten times the power I have already. With a man upon whom I could depend at my side, I could conquer the world!"
As she spoke, her eyes flashed, and there appeared in her masculine face such an expression of triumphant passion, as made Welton wonder vaguely what mysterious power this misshapen woman possessed, that she could even subdue him for a time to a sort of appearance of submission to her will, in spite of his loathing, of his anxiety to get away from her.
He felt at that moment as if paralysed, and unable to tear himself away from this old woman, whom at the same time he dreaded as he had never dreaded a human being before. A sort of fire seemed to flash out of her eyes and scorch him, while the trembling of her large pale hands, as she held them towards him, seemed to affect him with a sort of answering motion, so that he shivered as he stood.
“You are too far above me, Miss Ferriby, in intellect, in … in fortune, in everything,” he stammered out after a long pause, during which the great eyes still watched him, the long hands still were stretched out towards him, reminding him of the tentacles of a giant octopus, feeling for their prey.
She answered with a mocking laugh, and suddenly raising her hands to her head, she tore off the grey hair, which he now for the first time saw to be nothing but a wig, and loosening the coils of her own hair fastened up tightly underneath, let down over her misshapen shoulders a wealth of black curly hair, out of which her masculine face peered, looking weirdly handsome in its new frame.
Welton uttered a low cry of astonishment at the change in her.
“Ah,” she cried. “Now you understand, do you, why I can love, and long, and sigh and reign absolutely over my little kingdom? I’m not the old woman I pass for, Welton. I am older than you, years and years older, but I’m younger, years and years younger than I find it in my interest to pretend to be. And I’m not the hunchback I pass for, either. But that’s a secret that you must keep. And now what say you? Am I handsome enough for you now?”
Throwing back the long, dark tresses, Miss Ferriby gazed at him with a fervour which, if no more welcome than before, was less grotesque than when she was disguised in her false grey locks.
“You look magnificent, Miss Ferriby,” stammered Welton, longing more than ever to get away, never to come back again. “You are too handsome for me now, as well as too clever and too rich.”
She uttered a delighted laugh. “No, no,” she said, “just handsome enough, and rich enough and clever enough, if you like, but there’s no possibility of having too much of any of those good things. Then, Welton, if I’m handsome enough, is it agreed that we make a match of it?”
“I should feel unspeakably honoured and … and charmed,” he stammered, vaguely feeling that whichever way he turned he would find his path closed up by the machinations of this woman, but anxious at all costs to get away for the time at least.
Miss Ferriby invited him by a gesture, and held out one of her hands for him to take in his. He obeyed, feeling as he did so that her fingers felt as hot as fire within his own, which were icy cold.
“Would you?” She seized him and drew him towards her, so that at last he was forced to go down on one knee, drawn by her masculine power of wrist close to her side.
“Kiss me, then.”
He obeyed, scarcely able to repress a shudder as he did so.
To his intense relief, a footstep in the hall outside made her repulse him sharply, and he sprang to his feet.
She laughed in delight and triumph. “Go then, Welton, you may go now,” she said, with the air of a maiden who has difficulty in persuading her lover to leave her side. “And tomorrow we will discuss things together about the future. But first, before you go, you must swear to me that you love no one else, that you are not playing with me, that you don’t love another woman.”
Welton wanted to escape this oath. “I swear,” he said quickly, “that I would love no woman who did not trust me.”
She was obliged to be content with that, and she let him go with reluctant coquetry, which irritated him to such a pitch that he found it hard to suppress every sign of the anxiety he felt to be away.
When he got outside, his first impulse was to make straight for the nearest police station, and regardless of consequences give all the information he could concerning the gang of thieves and swindlers at The Lawns.
All his resolutions as to caution in dealing with these people had grown pale beside the horror of the experiences he had just passed through: the confessions of the maid; the surly revolt of the supposed footman, whose status even now he suspected to be different from that Miss Ferriby had stated it to be; the unspeakably distasteful endearments of the hunchback, who seemed to him ten times more repulsive now that he knew her to be comparatively young than they had done when he looked upon her with a sort of pity as a disappointed and soured old woman.
He got into the high road, and looked about for a taxi. But it was so late that he had to walk some distance before he found one, and then, just as he was about to jump in, he caught sight of a slouching figure close by, and discretion suddenly seized him and made him pause.
Instead of directing the man to drive to the nearest police station, he told him to drive to Oxford Street, and as he started on his journey he was thankful for his discretion, for he recognized in the slouching figure that was evidently shadowing him, the footman Box, disguised in a long, rough overcoat, but unmistakable still.
Welton felt, as he got out of the cab a few hundred yards from the turning which led to his lodging, as if the claws of a beast of prey were holding him. He debated with himself whether he should proceed at once to a police station, but decided that, as he knew he had been shadowed on leaving The Lawns, he was probably being shadowed still, so that any attempt he might make that night to give information about the gang would be thrown away.
He therefore decided, after walking up and down the street a few times debating what to do, that he would make no attempt that night to speak to the police, but would find some more cautious way of communicating with the authorities than by presenting himself at a police station.
He went softly upstairs, entering the sitting room, and turned up the light. His brother had left it burning low, and had gone to bed.
On the table was an evening paper.
Welton left the light turned up and went softly into the next room where there were two beds, one of which was used by himself and the other by Basil. His brother was asleep, and Welton hung over him a moment, hesitating whether to wake him up and tell him what had happened. He felt as if the burden of the ugly secrets of The Lawns were too great for him to bear alone.
But on second thoughts he resolved to leave Basil peacefully asleep, and decide in the morning whether he should get the younger brother to help him in his difficult and dangerous task of warning the police.
Having left the light burning in the outer room, he went back again, and was horror-struck to find, standing on the side of the table nearest to the window, Miss Ferriby, with her head enveloped in a long loose lace wrap, and with the rest of her person hidden by a long cloak of black silk, lined with a fur which he knew to be costly sable.
He could scarcely refrain from uttering a cry of horror when he saw that she had followed him.
She flung off her wraps, and showed him that she had contrived to cover up her real black hair already under the grey wig, and that in one of her hands, which were now covered by long, light gloves of pale Swedish kid, she held a large leather bag.
“Look!” she cried in a subdued voice, as she opened it, and laid down on the table before his astonished eyes a pile of banknotes, and handful after handful of loose jewellery, rings, brooches, bracelets, all wrapped loosely in scraps of tissue paper, and all set with gems of enormous value. “Look what I have brought with me! Now tell me, Welton: we shall have some difficulty in satisfying them all, if we stay in England and get married in the conventional way. If you are ready, we will start tonight. I have a motor car waiting at the end of the street. We will go down to Dover, and go across with the eleven o’clock boat tomorrow morning. We can get married either at Calais or in Paris, and I think the measures I have taken will have made it impossible for any of my own people to guess which way we have gone.”
Welton felt paralysed with revulsion. “Surely,” he said, “you don’t mean to leave your home and friends like that?”
She made a gesture of impatience. “Why not? I’ve made my pile. I’m tired of my life. I want to begin a fresh one, a quiet one. I’ve only waited to find a man I liked, who liked me, to drop the old ways, good or bad, whichever you like to call them, and to start afresh.”
“But your house?” stammered Welton.
"Oh, my house -- if it is mine -- may go," she said lightly.
A shrewd suspicion began to steal into Welton’s mind that the house was not hers, together with a vague wonder whether the wealth before his eyes were hers, either.
"You love me -- I love you. Why should we not begin life together away from old associations, from old worries, old ties?" she asked, and in a caressing manner laid one hand on the table.
As she did so, she displaced the newspaper that was lying on it. There was an unopened letter addressed to Welton lying beneath. It was addressed in a woman’s handwriting, and with a savage cry Miss Ferriby snatched it up, tore it open, and read its contents while Welton vainly tried to stop her.
He guessed it was from Barbara Ashcot, and he felt equally sure that it would have some uncomplimentary references to Miss Ferriby.
When she had read the letter, which was evidently short, Miss Ferriby, livid with rage, uttered a suppressed shriek and flew at Welton with the look of an enraged tigress.
“You have lied to me! You love this girl!” she hissed as she snatched up a handful of the gems before her and, as if they had been pebbles, flung them in his face.
Welton Keynes staggered back with his hand to his face which was cut and bleeding, the jewels which Miss Ferriby had flung at him having inflicted more than one wound.
The hunchback continued to glare at him across the table as she stood, the letter crunched up in one of her hands, the other resting in front of her.
“You love this girl, this miserable, white-faced Barbara Ashcot whom you pretended not to care about!” she hissed out, as she panted and shook with rage and mortification. “You were only pretending to love me to amuse yourself, and not because you cared about me, or ever meant to marry me!”
Welton made no answer. He did not yet know what Barbara had said in her letter, and his first anxiety was to get hold of it, to read it, and to know whether the girl had given any hint of his feelings or intentions towards Miss Ferriby and her gang.
It was true that he had never, as far as he remembered, been very outspoken, either to Mrs. Ashcot or her daughter on the subject of the activities at The Lawns. A sense of loyalty to the woman in whose employ he was, had prevented his being very outspoken on the matter. But the Ashcots had been even more suspicious than he, and he did not doubt that Barbara, in this her first letter to him, would have expressed her own opinions about Miss Ferriby pretty freely.
For another reason he was anxious to get hold of the letter. More and more deeply he had felt drawn to the girl during the past few days, touched by her interest in his employment, and sensible that she was a friend and ally upon whom he could reckon for sympathy in the difficult circumstances of his life. He wanted to know what she had to say to him, how she expressed herself, and he was enraged to see a letter precious to him crushed up in the jealous hands of this woman, hunchback or no.
Bent, therefore, on obtaining possession of his letter, he folded his arms and pretended to take no notice of Miss Ferriby’s tirade, but to treat it with the contempt which an attack so violent and so brutal deserved. The blood was still flowing from two small cuts on his face, the one on his forehead and the other on his chin, but he paid no heed to them, and it was the woman herself who called his attention to them.
It seemed Miss Ferriby could not bear the sight of blood, and as she glared angrily at Welton, her attention could not fail to be attracted by the sight of the wounds she had made in her passionate attack. She shuddered and suddenly said, “I’m … I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. Let me see if I can do something to stop the bleeding.”
Welton said nothing, but waited without moving until she got round the table and stood close to him. Then he quickly wrenched the letter from her hand, and getting away to the opposite side of the room, smoothed the paper out so that he could read Barbara’s letter.
It was this:
Dear Mr. Keynes,
I am much troubled about you, and although you do not say why it is that you cannot come and see us for the next few days, I am afraid I know, and that it is on account of the horrible woman at The Lawns. We know she hates us, because she knows that we have seen enough of her doings to suspect the nature of them. I most earnestly warn you not to stay with her, and I do beg you to remember what my mother and I told you at the outset about her, and about the former secretaries she has had. She is a most dangerous woman, without any heart or conscience, and if you will not do exactly as she wishes you to do, she will find some means of revenging herself upon you. I know all this sounds fanciful, and it is true that I would find it hard to give you proof of all I am saying. But all the same I believe I am not saying one word more than the truth, and I think you yourself must have seen enough of her and her visitors of all sorts to be anxious to break off all connection with her.
Please forgive my writing like this. I would not, if I did not feel as I do about you. I know you will forgive me.
Yours very sincerely,
Welton was by no means so quick in mastering the contents of this letter as Miss Ferriby had been. Hampered as he was by having to keep an eye on the woman, who, however, made no attempt to interfere with his reading of the letter, he found some difficulty in reading it, and had to content himself in some places with gathering the sense rather than reading all the words of Barbara’s warning.
Truly, a more unfortunate letter for Miss Ferriby to have seized and read it would have been impossible to find. Barbara had been more outspoken with her pen than she had ever been with her lips, and it was quite impossible to suppose that Miss Ferriby would fail to guess that the girl knew her warnings would be received sympathetically.
There was no longer any hope, therefore, of persuading Miss Ferriby that he felt anything for her but the most profound mistrust, or that he felt anything but friendship for the Ashcots, whom she herself hated and made it clear she despised.
When he finished reading the letter, he put it quickly into his pocket, and taking out his handkerchief, wiped the blood from his face.
Miss Ferriby was waiting, white and trembling, while he put back his letter. “Will you forgive me for what I did?” she said. “I’m very sorry I hurt you. But I was jealous. Tell me you look upon this girl’s imagined warnings and absurd suspicions as ridiculous and uncalled for, and I’ll forgive you everything.”
“You are not asked to forgive that or anything else, Miss Ferriby,” answered Welton, speaking in a tone he had never used to her before. “You have done an unpardonable thing in opening and reading my letter, and you have only yourself to thank that you have read the truth about yourself in it.”
Miss Ferriby looked aghast. Clever as she was, her fancy for the handsome young man clearly made her loath to realize the fact that he did not care for her, never had cared for her, and that no words she could utter would matter to him compared with one word, one look, from the girl whose letter she had torn open.
These words, therefore, which he spoke in a hard, grave tone, shocked and unnerved her. In spite of her masculine face, her deep voice, her commanding intelligence, she was at heart a very woman, not of the best sort, be it understood, but unmistakably feminine in her desire for love, in her fancies, in her lack of logic when it came to be a question of the affections.
Thus she could not understand how it was that Welton Keynes, a handsome young man, should have been attracted by the girl whom she had persistently run down, and that he should prefer a woman of his own generation to one in every way her superior.
For a moment she was overwhelmed by the discovery that Welton not only resented her action, but frankly took the part of Barbara Ashcot against her. Then she spoke in a low voice, pleadingly. “Won’t you forgive? It was only my love for you, Welton, which made me do what I did. It was your treatment of me, your coldness, and then my discovery that you were corresponding with this girl, which maddened me. Won’t you let bygones be bygones, and go away with me? What would it matter to you whether they call me dangerous or not, if I were your wife? You know I love you. I would act only for you. I would do nothing that you disapproved of. Would this girl do as much, do you think? Come, tell me you forgive me.”
“But I don’t,” said Welton firmly. “I can’t, Miss Ferriby. Whatever you may have done in your own house, whatever you may have thought you had a right to do, nothing can excuse the way in which you have behaved to me. I could not trust a woman who would open a letter not intended for her. Nor a woman who could so far forget herself as to throw things at me.”
Miss Ferriby saw that pleading was useless, and as she watched him, a change came over her face. “Do you intend never to come to The Lawns again, then?” she asked, with great abruptness.
“I don’t think you can expect me to come,” he said coolly.
She uttered a hard little laugh, and he saw at once that she saw through his motives and intentions. “So you have been making a fool of me,” she said with vicious emphasis. “You have been pretending to care for me, pretending to love me, while all the time you were making up to this girl, and exchanging comments on me and my doings with her and her mischief-making old mother. Well, it’s your own affair, of course. I won’t intrude upon you any longer.”
Her rage, her mortification, her dismay, were visible in her strongly-marked face, and were appalling in intensity.
She gathered up the jewels which she had displayed on the table and went in search of those she had thrown at Welton. He helped her to collect them from the floor, and handed such of those as he recovered back into her hands.
Then the door opened, and Basil came in. He had been awakened by the sound of voices and scuffling, and as soon as he became aware of the identity of the unexpected nocturnal visitor, and of the fact that she and Welton were quarrelling, he had hastily dressed and come in to see what was the matter.
Miss Ferriby turned sharply at his entrance. “Who is this?” she asked, as she spoke feeling in her bodice for what Welton guessed to be a weapon of some sort.
“It’s my brother,” he said quickly, as Basil entered.
The hunchback stared at him, and apparently reassured, let her hand drop. Basil bowed, and went quietly across the room to the window. Drawing aside the curtain, he looked out into the street below to see in what conveyance she had come. But all he saw was a man on the pavement looking up at the house. Miss Ferriby came softly and swiftly behind Basil, and looked out also. The brothers thought she must recognize the man, for she uttered a low cry of dismay.
Welton understood then that as she followed him, another member of the household had followed her; for when he looked out with the others, he saw that the man in the street below was no other than the footman, Box.
Miss Ferriby stepped back into the middle of the room, and drawing together the sides of her handsome mantle, made a dash for the door. She had hidden the bag in which she was carrying her jewels and money under the fold of her cloak, and Welton easily guessed that she would do her best to hide from her partner in crime the fact that she had taken the precious booty away with her on this dubious expedition.
The brothers watched the man, after putting out the light in the room in order to be unseen from the street. And in a few minutes they saw him joined by Miss Ferriby, and then saw the two walk down the street together.
Then Welton and Basil looked at each other.
“What did she come for?” asked Basil, not even then daring to raise his voice above a whisper.
“She wanted me to go away with her to France, to marry her. And she brought with her a quantity of valuable jewellery and money, which I strongly suspect was not hers, but part of the plunder which the gang are supposed to share.”
Basil shook with terror. “And you refused to go?”
“She’ll have her knife in you for this, Welton!”
“I can’t help it. Surely you don’t suggest that I would have humoured her to the extent of letting her think I was going to do as she wished?”
“I think you had better have tried to keep in with her. The look she gave you as she went out was deadly, horrible.”
Welton shrugged his shoulders. “I couldn’t help myself. She snatched from the table, tore open, and read before my eyes a letter addressed to me. Surely that’s the sort of thing nobody could even pretend to put up with?”
Basil still looked alarmed. “Was she jealous?” he asked.
“Well, you’ve managed to get yourself into a nice hole! I suppose that was one of her pals waiting down below?”
"Yes, but she didn't expect him. And my fervent hope is that they will quarrel so much over this business -- for she was ready to go off with the money, which I am quite sure was not all hers even by the rules of thieves -- that they'll forget all about me."
“And you think she is one of a gang of thieves?”
“I don’t think it. I know it.”
“Why don’t you give information to the police, and have the whole gang arrested before they can do anything?”
“That’s what I want to do.”
Welton was moving towards the door, but his brother stopped him. "Wait a minute," he said. "I can't let you go by yourself. You don't know what games they may be up to. The gang -- some of them -- may be on the watch for you."
“That’s just what I think myself,” said Welton. “I’m shadowed, I know. And it was because I was followed here tonight by one of the gang, that Miss Ferriby herself was caught by him.”
“Then we’ll wait till daylight,” said Basil promptly. “For the chances are that instead of quarrelling, they’ll join forces against you, since they are sure to see that they’ve lost their hold on you now.”
Welton thought the idea a good one. Miss Ferriby, although she had been quite ready to throw over her confederates and to leave them all in the lurch when she thought she had a prospect of a different and less anxious life before her, would probably be clever enough to regain her influence over Box in a very short time, when once she knew that Welton had only been playing with her.
They would both be suspicious of his intentions, and might lie in wait for him that night. Or whether they would go back to The Lawns and prepare for a visit from the police, Welton could not guess. But he thought it possible that Miss Ferriby, having left The Lawns with the intention of not returning to it, might persist in her resolution and perhaps, in default of the husband she wanted, bestow her ardently desired hand on Box and seek a new life of adventure with him on the proceeds of their former crimes and misdemeanours.
The brothers retired to rest, but it was long before they could sleep. Welton, indeed, was questioned by Basil until he had told the whole story of his adventures at The Lawns, and the younger brother was appalled at the account.
The last thing they decided before going to sleep was that, as soon as it was light in the morning, they would go to the nearest police station, give information of the gang at The Lawns, and risk the consequences together.
But before they could get out in the morning, hastily eating a cold breakfast almost before it was light, a maid came up and said that there were two gentlemen downstairs who wanted to see Mr. Welton Keynes.
The brothers looked at each other, and Basil, after a few words of whispered consultation with his brother, retired into the next room, while the maid was directed to show the gentlemen up.
Already the brothers had guessed that the visit had some connection with the affair at The Lawns, and Welton was not surprised when the “two gentlemen” announced themselves as police officers, and informed him that they had come to see him in connection with some information which he had given to Mr. Ospringe concerning a man in his service, named Cockett.
Welton Keynes was delighted to find that he was thus saved all the trouble and danger of a visit to the police station, and he at once asked the visitors to sit down, and gave them a succinct account of his adventures at The Lawns.
Fortune-telling, visits of professional thieves, murderers, and other criminals for purposes of disguise: about these things he told all he knew; and he also laid before the men the artful scheme, whereby the information necessary to Miss Ferriby in her profession of fortune-teller was gleaned by persons in her employ, who went out as servants and as guests into the houses of prominent and rich people.
He gave the name of Lady Mirfield as one of the marked victims of the gang, and said that the woman who had passed as her maid not many days ago was now, or was a few hours previously, one of the servants at The Lawns. Welton added that there were other servants there whom he had not even seen, and who took great care never to be seen by casual visitors at The Lawns.
"It can scarcely be doubted," he added, "that these men and women -- for I believe there are some of each sex -- are also actively engaged as spies in the houses of well known and wealthy people."
The officer who was taking the lead in the questions put to Welton, a tall, dark man with a thick black moustache and keen dark eyes, a typical police official in appearance and manner, smiled. “It looks like it,” he said. “And do these men and women only take temporary engagements? Or do some of them take situations permanently?”
“That I have no means of knowing. You see, I have only been a short time employed there as secretary, and I am only making conjectures about the members of the household whom I have not seen, based on what I know of those I have seen. I can’t conceive any other motive for their being kept out of sight than the one I have suggested.”
“You say you have recognized one in the service of Mr. Ospringe, and another in that of Lady Mirfield?”
“And a third, the one who is commonly seen about at The Lawns, I recognized as he was entering the house of Mr. Van Velsen. It was a night or two later that I heard of the robbery there.”
“Ah! And you could identify that man?”
“Oh, yes. He was disguised, but I knew him and he knew me.”
"You knew him by name -- by one name, at any rate?"
“Yes, by the name of Box. And the man who was engaged at Mr. Ospringe’s I knew as Cockett. The maid’s name I never heard.”
“But you could identify her?”
The officer looked at his notes, and then shut up his notebook and looked thoughtful. The silence that followed was broken by his companion, a thin, fair man with an intelligent face.
“You haven’t got anything that can be called evidence so far,” he said quietly.
“I agree,” said the other man. He turned to Welton again. “There’s really only the fortune-telling that you could swear to, sir?”
“I can swear to having seen the man Box enter Mr. Van Velsen’s as a guest the night previous to that of the robbery,” said Welton.
“Well, yes, that’s all right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. We want a good deal more than that. We hope, Mr. Keynes, that you will help us get it.”
“I’ll do anything I can, of course, though I would rather not have had to give evidence against the two women who live opposite Miss Ferriby.”
Both men smiled a little. “I don’t see that need trouble you, sir. They are both clearly innocent,” said the taller man.
“Then what do you want me to do?”
“We want you to go back to The Lawns this morning as if nothing had happened.”
Welton drew back, appalled. “I can’t do that,” he said with decision. “It wouldn’t be safe for one thing, and it wouldn’t do any good for another.”
“I’m not altogether sure that it would be comfortable for you,” replied the officer, “but it’s necessary if you want to give us any effective help. You must put them off their guard.”
“But to play the spy! To go there for the very purpose of betraying them!” Welton said.
“Well, we don’t think anything of a job like that ourselves,” said the second man. “But I can see how you’d look upon it, sir. But if we put it to you that it’s our only chance of bringing these people to justice, I’m sure you won’t refuse to help us. You’ve said yourself the gang is a pest to society.”
"Yes, I admit that. But considering the relations I've had with the head of them -- if Miss Ferriby is the head -- and even the personal kindness and confidence with which she has treated me, I should feel very reluctant to play such a part as you suggest."
“Well, what have you done already? When you spoke to Mr. Ospringe you must have known he would inform us,” said the leader of the two men.
“Yes, but I didn’t know that I would be expected to take an active part in the business.”
“I would have thought,” said the thin man, “a young man like you would have rather welcomed the thing for the sake of the sport. I’m pretty sure, sir, you must have had your suspicions about these people almost from the first, and that it was for the excitement of the thing that you stayed on.”
“Well, you’re not altogether wrong there,” admitted Welton.
“And if you weren’t afraid of danger then, when we were not even on the alert, I don’t see why you should be now, when we are.”
Welton hesitated. “If,” he said, “I were absolutely certain of the worst of the things I only suspect, I would do as you wish without an instant’s delay.”
“Ah,” said the big man, turning triumphantly to his companion, “I thought so. Well, then, Mr. Keynes, I may tell you frankly that a greater danger to society never lived than this Miss Ferriby, or Fiammetta as she calls herself. She is not only a receiver, and a trainer and a protectress of thieves of the boldest sort, but she wouldn’t herself stick at murder, and some of her friends and accomplices have already committed it.”
Welton uttered an exclamation of horror, but not of incredulity. It was just what he would have expected.
“What is it you propose?” he asked after a moment’s pause.
"Only this: that you should go to The Lawns this morning and do your work there as usual. When I appear at the window of the room -- you will tell me where it is -- just open the window and let me in. After that, I can manage all that is necessary myself."
“Couldn’t you get in the ordinary way, as one of the people who come to have their fortunes told?”
The officer shook his head. “They’re too fly,” he said. “Look at me. Everybody can tell me for what I am. Look at my boots.”
“It’s easy enough to change them,” remarked Welton.
“But not so easy to change this,” said the man, touching his own face. “You see, I’m well known, and these gentry know me perfectly and would never admit me. But if I get over the wall into the garden, I can get in easily enough if you will just open the window.”
Welton hesitated, but recognizing that he was indeed anxious to assist in the capture of a most dangerous and desperate gang, and that, as the police truly said, he was exposing himself to no uncommon danger, so that he was risking something in the cause of honesty and good order, he at length agreed to help the police in the way suggested.
He carefully described the position of the room in which he did his work, and stated at what hour he was usually alone there. Then the two officers, having made a note of all he had to say, thanked him and assured him that in the event of his being attacked by the people at The Lawns when they found out what he had done, he would find assistance ready to hand. They then took their leave.
Welton at once took his brother into his confidence, and told him all that had passed.
Basil, thoroughly alarmed, was sorry his brother had promised to go back to The Lawns. “They may suspect you from the first,” he said. “Naturally Miss Ferriby won’t expect to see you after tonight’s work. And if there should be any hitch in the police arrangements, you could be murdered before they can come to your rescue.”
Welton, however, did not think things looked as black as that. He pointed out that robbery is one thing and murder another, and that though the police officers had mentioned murder as one of the crimes committed by the gang, they did not speak as if they had any very strong proof of what they asserted on that head.
“And what good would they do themselves by murdering me?” Weston asked. “It would be the very worst thing they could do, now that they would know the police were on their track.”
Basil still looked grim. “I didn’t like the look on the woman’s face,” he said. “It seemed to me to be the most ferocious expression I had ever seen on a human face. I think she would do anything, anything to be revenged on you.”
Welton laughed at the suggestion. "Anything short of risking her own neck, I dare say," he said. "But to tell you the truth, the sporting part of the business has begun to appeal to me, and I've made up my mind to go through with it boldly, not to stick at difficulties, and not to stick at -- well, tarradiddles. I shall have to convince Miss Ferriby that I'm sorry for my behaviour to her last night, that I've thought it over, and that I've been touched by her devotion."
Basil listened gloomily to this suggestion, but Welton had made up his mind, and the brothers parted that morning, both in a state of high anticipation over the day’s doings.
Welton hurried away to Chiswick and wondered, as he pulled the handle of the bell outside the little green door in the wall, whether he would detect any change in the demeanour of Box towards him. Would they all be surprised to see him back again? Or would they show active resentment at his daring to make a reappearance among them.
His questions were soon answered. Box let him in with exactly the same placid face as ever, led the way into the house, opened the library door and retreated as if nothing unusual had ruffled the placid current of their existence.
Welton sat down to his desk, opened the letters as usual, and on hearing a slight sound, looked up to see Miss Ferriby taking her usual place in her high chair in the corner.
She herself appeared as calm as if nothing had happened to disturb the even tenor of their lives. And he began almost to wonder, as with trembling fingers he turned over the papers before him, whether the events of the previous night had occurred in a dream, and whether the woman before him, placid, keen-witted, tranquil, as she sat inspecting her letters with her sharp grey eyes, had ever addressed him with embarrassing words of passion and love, and whether it was her large white hand which had really thrown those jewels at him on the previous night, which had cut and scarred his chin and forehead.
But before the morning’s work with the correspondence was over, he found out that this appearance of calmness was deceptive, and that underneath the grey false hair and the placid exterior, the same fiery spirit was burning. Miss Ferriby looked through the letters he passed to her, and presently laid them down in her lap.
There was a pause. Welton took up a pen, prepared to make notes at her dictation. But instead of dictating, she said abruptly, “Why did you come back this morning?
Her tone was searching, her look piercing. He hesitated. “We have settled nothing,” he said in a low voice.
“Have you forgotten that the very last thing you said to me last night was that you wouldn’t come back?”
“I believe I did.”
She looked at him keenly. He thought he perceived some sign of a storm within, for a dark look came over her face. He was glad that she thus betrayed feelings other than gentle and kindly ones, for when her voice softened, wicked and unprincipled as he knew her to be, his distaste for the idea of trapping a woman came back in full force.
“Well, I’m glad to see you again,” she said in a different tone, harder, colder. “Though I still think you were foolish not to take the offer I made, and go away with me. You would have been happy with me, Welton. You look upon me as a dreadful person, I suppose, but you would have found me very easy to get on with, and much pleasanter as a companion than one of your niminy-piminy girls who know nothing of life. Your Barbara Ashcot, whom I suppose you think of making your wife some day, is a fool, a simple dull fool, and you would be bored to death if you made her your wife.”
Welton smiled. “I haven’t any thought of making her my wife. I can’t afford such a luxury,” he said.
“You could afford to marry a woman with a little money, though.”
“I shouldn’t care to have to make such considerations as that influence me in the matter.”
“But they have to be thought of nowadays, Welton. Could you forgive a woman for being jealous? If…” and as she spoke she came gradually forward in her chair, and leaning towards him, fixed her great grey eyes penetratingly upon his face, “…if she were ready to forgive you a great deal more than that?
A cold shiver ran down Welton’s back. What did she guess? Had she any idea of the stratagem by which he proposed to put her and her accomplices into the hands of the police?
“No woman whom I loved would ever have much to forgive,” replied he evasively.
She frowned. “We are talking of a woman who offers love before it is returned, even before it is asked,” she said impatiently. “Tell me, could you forgive jealousy in a woman who, knowing more about you and your intentions and hopes than you supposed possible, could yet forgive you all, and offer you her love still?”
Welton hesitated. Then he answered frankly. “I am quite sure that I could only love a woman in whom I had the utmost confidence, whom I had to forgive nothing whatever.”
She laughed gently, almost incredulously. “Ah. you think so. But it only shows that you have never yet felt what I call love at all,” she said. “Now I, who know what passion is, who have felt it in every fibre of my being, I say that I could forgive coldness, treachery, ay, and even contempt to one who had inspired me with the deepest affection I am capable of. I say I could wipe out everything, forget everything, and only ask in return for my devotion to be allowed to go on loving, loving till my life’s end.”
Passion thrilled in her voice, which had become sweet and womanly. Welton, stirred, troubled, dismayed, felt ashamed, contrite, and yet shocked and repelled at the same time. For while he recognized that there was genuine feeling in her words, he knew also that there lurked there other sentiments, other passions less foolish, perhaps, but far less blameless and innocent.
Before he could frame any sort of reply, and while yet Miss Ferriby, leaning forward eagerly, was looking into his eyes with a sort of glow which disconcerted him, there suddenly entered the man Box, carrying coal for the fire, which was such an unnecessary action on his part, as the scuttle was quite full. Welton guessed at once that he was on guard over his ostensible mistress, and that he had come in at what he considered an opportune moment.
Welton immediately decided in his own mind that Box must have been concealed somewhere within hearing of what was going on in the library between Miss Ferriby and himself, and that he had come in just in time to check her in her profession of affection.
Miss Ferriby drew back with an angry look on her face. Welton saw her exchange a rapid glance with Box, who, however, remained as imperturbable outwardly as before, and busied himself with the fire without a word.
It was time for Miss Ferriby to retire as usual at her luncheon hour, and Welton was growing nervous about his share in the arrangement he had made with the detectives.
He had given the two police officers the time at which he would be alone, and when Miss Ferriby had disappeared behind her curtain and Box by the opposite door, he watched the window with a fast-beating heart.
There was one thing he had forgotten to tell the men. He knew that he was generally kept more or less under observation, and it was possible, even probable that, if he were to let the detectives in by the window, they would find both the doors of the room locked if they were to try to penetrate further into the house.
However, this was a difficulty which the officers might know how to deal with, and in the meantime there was nothing to do but wait.
But the time went by, and he became conscious that there must be a hitch somewhere, for nobody appeared at the window. Yet surely his directions for finding the room and the window had been perfectly clear.
His luncheon was brought in as usual, and he tried to eat it without much success. Then he felt bound, as nobody had appeared at the window, to go on with his work as usual.
The hours seemed to drag heavily by, and then at half past four Miss Ferriby, beautifully and exotically dressed as usual, appeared in the doorway behind the curtain with her face flushed and a certain look of strange excitement in her eyes.
“I’m tired, worried, upset,” she said. “Come into my den, and talk to me.”
He could not refuse, so he followed her across the tiny central hall of the house, past the staircase, and through the long drawing room into the little inner one with the one high window.
It was almost dark in this room, and the light of the small fire which was burning in the grate cast rich lights and shadows on the beautiful tapestry hangings.
She pointed to the deep-seated chair near the fireplace. “Sit down there,” she said, “and wait for me.”
He obeyed, and seated himself in the armchair, while Miss Ferriby went out of the room again, closing the door behind her.
He was left alone such a long time that he presently got up, and with a strange suspicion in his mind he pulled aside the portière which hung over the door, and tried the handle.
It was locked.
Looking up at the window high in the wall, Welton discerned something that had escaped his notice before: the window was protected by iron bars on the outside.
There was no second door, and no other window.
He was, in fact, caught like a rat in a trap.
Welton's heart beat fast as he asked himself whether the police had made no mistake, whether they were close at hand in case of an emergency, and -- whether they would be in time.
Now Mr. Ospringe, although he had received so coldly the information supplied by Welton Keynes concerning the suspicious servant he was employing, had not been unmindful of the warning thus conveyed.
Being a very shrewd man, he at first said nothing about it to anybody, but quietly reviewed all the men in his employ without letting them know what he was doing, and decided that one of the two who had joined the household staff quite recently must be the man referred to.
Then he summoned these two to his presence one by one, and after dismissing the first as wholly innocent, he finally interrogated Cockett, beginning very sharply, “What is your name?”
“You have been known by another name?” said Mr. Ospringe sharply, “that of Cockett?”
The man’s face changed. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he answered quietly, “Yes, sir, I have.”
“What is the meaning of your having two names?”
“My last master disliked the name of Cockett, sir. He said it sounded like a name out of a farce,” he replied readily.
Mr. Ospringe smiled. It was so true, and he could not but admit at once that the reason for the change was a good one. “I understand, though, that you have been mixed up with some very undesirable people.”
“I’ve been in the service of a lady who told fortunes, sir, if you mean that,” he said. “Miss Ferriby of The Lawns, Chiswick. I know people say that’s not a proper thing to do, but Miss Ferriby is such a charitable and good lady, sir, and does so much work among the poor, that most people think that makes a difference, sir.”
Mr. Ospringe was interested. He had heard of the fortune-teller at The Lawns, whose wonderfully accurate forecasts and shrewd replies to the questions put to her were indeed a common topic in society. He had heard something, too, of her posing as a philanthropist, although that side of her work had not been so much talked about in the circles in which he moved.
For a moment he said nothing, wondering whether this could be the service which Welton Keynes meant when he uttered his daring warning.
Although there was no suggestion that Miss Ferriby did any harm, unless she worked dangerously upon the imagination of weak-minded women by her prophecies, there was always just enough cant about such a profession as hers to make Mr. Ospringe wonder vaguely whether there might be any connection between the young man’s warning and Miss Ferriby’s establishment.
It was most unlikely, but still it seemed possible.
“You were with Miss Ferriby long?” he asked suddenly.
“Not very long. She became a little difficult to serve, sir, owing to her taking a gentleman named Keynes, who found fault with all her arrangements, and made himself so objectionable to all us servants, sir, by the things he put into Miss Ferriby’s head about us, that we couldn’t stand it, sir. More especially, as we knew he was trying to get hold of her, if I may say so, sir, and to marry her. And as she’s misshapen, why, we couldn’t help but see, sir, that what he was after was just her money.”
Mr. Ospringe listened attentively. “And what sort of things, then, did he accuse you of?”
“He called some of us thieves, sir, I believe, till Miss Ferriby she stood up for us and asked him to prove it. Then he couldn’t prove anything, and I believe, sir, she told him she wouldn’t want his services a month after that.”
Mr. Ospringe listened with the same keen attention as ever. “Ah,” he said, “there must be something wrong about that young man, I should think.”
“Well, sir, of course it’s not for me to say. But I never liked the looks of him myself, and as Miss Ferriby was always a most kind and considerate mistress, and as I’ve never heard anything but praise for her and her kindness to anybody in want, why, sir, of course I’m not altogether an unprejudiced person.”
“Of course not. And if this young gentleman were to be asked to prove what he said against you, you could challenge him with a safe conscience?”
“Indeed I could, sir.”
“Well, that will do.”
Cockett retreated, but when he had got outside the door a smile of malicious satisfaction appeared on his face as he flattered himself that he had turned the tables cleverly upon Welton Keynes.
When he reported progress to his friends at The Lawns, he did not fail to inform them that Welton Keynes was working hard to do them all the mischief he could, and to tell them how successfully his malice had been rendered ineffective.
He was actually on the premises at the time that Welton Keynes found himself shut into the smaller drawing room, and caught in Miss Ferriby’s trap.
Welton, after trying the only door of the room and finding it securely fastened, sat down in an armchair by the fire, not to take it easy, but to consider his position. Here was he, in the house which was, he was sure, the headquarters of a gang of desperate and clever criminals, locked in, barred, secured, at their mercy.
By what accident the police had bungled, so that the two officers whom he had seen on that same morning had not appeared at the library window during the morning as arranged, he could not guess. He could hope that they were near at hand, but he could not feel quite sure. Experienced as they were, they were dealing with rogues of an especially shrewd a sort, that it was possible the rogues might have had the best of it, and that the officers of law and order had been outwitted.
In that case, if he was entirely at the mercy of Miss Ferriby and her associates, what had he to expect at their hands?
That they knew something of his doings he was aware. The lady’s maid had told him so. And that Miss Ferriby, in addition to anger against him for refusing to join the gang, was jealous as a woman with him on account of Barbara Ashcot, he knew full well.
Here then were now two elements of danger, either of which by itself would have been enough to ruin him: the anger of the gang, including Miss Ferriby, for his warnings to Lady Mirfield, and perhaps also to Mr. Ospringe: and the jealousy of the embittered woman on finding that he preferred another woman to her, and that he would not leave the country with her to become her husband.
Welton wondered how far they would dare to carry their resentment against him. That they would murder him he did not believe. Miss Ferriby at least knew that he had a brother, and that she had behaved in that brother’s presence in a manner which had been calculated to arouse his gravest suspicions.
If he should suddenly disappear, inquiries would be instituted at once, and not only Basil, but the Ashcots would give such information concerning The Lawns and its tenants that the police would have amplest evidence against the gang.
This was the first thing that occurred to him to comfort him.
But second thoughts were more disquieting.
In the first place, a jealous woman would not trouble herself about the consequences of her acts -- if she were to make up her mind that the man who had rejected her overtures deserved to die. Miss Ferriby, too, was no ordinary woman, and he thought it not improbable that she had already not only decided upon his punishment, but arranged the means whereby suspicion was to be diverted from herself and her accomplices in the matter.
In the second place, he was by no means sure that the gang had not already made up their minds what to do with him, and with the river so near at hand there might be ways of disposing of him which would be quite compatible with the theory of suicide.
On the whole, he felt by no means comfortable or secure, and knowing that he had been compassing the ruin of the people by whom he was surrounded, he felt that he must be prepared for reprisals of the most violent kind.
In the meantime he decided, before he had been long imprisoned, to make a careful survey of the premises so as to be on his guard against a possible surprise.
In the first place he examined the nooks and corners, lifted up the tapestry that hung on the walls, and assured himself that there was no hiding place in the room itself.
Then he proceeded to try the handle of the door once more, but on examination he discovered something that did not tend to decrease his fears.
The door was not made of wood, but of iron.
Uncanny fears began to assail him, as he reflected that this was certainly not the first time a prisoner had been confined in a room so well provided against every possibility of escape.
And it was with a sinking heart that he went on to inspect the window, the position of which had, even at his first acquaintance with the apartment, struck him as singular.
For it was small -- not more than three feet high and two feet wide, and was eight feet from the floor.
By balancing one chair with difficulty upon an ottoman, and raising himself upon it with great difficulty, Welton was able to reach the level of the window, and by clinging to the window ledge, to look out.
He had now been confined about an hour in the room, and it was nearly six o’clock. There was some fog outside, which combined with the darkness of a late October evening to make it difficult to make out any objects distinctly. But when his eyes got used to the obscurity, he was able to discern two figures moving, as it were, stealthily about in the darkness.
He was presently able to support himself by placing his feet on the rail of the chair beneath him, and by so doing he was enabled to raise his head high enough to get a wider range of vision.
The figures seemed to have disappeared. Aware how much depended upon his being able to find out what they intended to do, he took advantage of the darkness, and of the apparent absence of any observer, to get his hand high enough to undo the fastening of the window.
Knowing what extreme caution was necessary in dealing with the people by whom he was surrounded, he was careful to move it up inch by inch, and so softly that he himself did not hear a sound.
When the window was open about four inches, he was able not only to see but to hear better, and he became aware that, although he could not yet see them, there were some people in the grounds just underneath the window.
“Will she hold firm?” asked a voice in a whisper.
Welton thought it was the voice of a woman.
The answer was low, but unmistakably the voice of a man. “Firm! We’ll make her. We’ve had enough of this humbugging about. To think of her being such a fool, with all her cleverness, to set her fancy on this bit of a lad! It’s sickening, disgusting, that’s what it is!”
“What shall we do?”
“With him? Better not inquire, if you’re soft-hearted,” said the man’s voice jeeringly.
“Well, I’m sure you won’t be able to do anything very dreadful to the poor young fellow, because we won’t let you. He’s too good-looking.”
“Good-looking? That’s all you women think about.”
“Well, it does make a difference.”
“That young Browne was good looking in a way, yet you didn’t trouble yourselves about what became of him.”
“Oh, Browne! He was too womanish himself. No, I didn’t care for him.”
“And I don’t see what there is in this fellow that you should all put yourselves into such a fume about him.”
“Don’t you? Well, he’s what we call nice, you see.”
“Nice? Yes, very nice, to want to go and give us all away.”
“Oh, well, after all, he’d no call to be so fond of us, had he?”
“Do you mean to say you don’t want to see him punished for trying to get us all lagged?
“I don’t know as I quite say that. But considering we know pretty well how to take care of ourselves, I think there’s no need to be harsh.”
“It doesn’t lie in your hands,” remarked the man’s voice dryly.
“No more does it in yours. And Miss F. thinks very much as I do, I’ll be bound.”
“Don’t you be too sure of that,” replied the man sharply. As he grew a little louder in his excitement, his voice was recognizable, though he was still out of sight, as that of Box.
“What are you waiting here for?” asked the woman after a pause.
“Can’t you guess? I’m mounting guard on our friend inside. He’s a tricky customer, and we have to make sure of him.”
“And who’s watching the other side?”
“In the drawing room? Oh, someone we can trust, you may be sure.”
"It's my belief the worst thing he's done in your eyes is that he's managed to get Miss F.'s goodwill -- well, and mine."
Box laughed shortly. “What does yours matter?”
The woman took offence at his tone. “It might matter a good deal at a pinch perhaps,” she remarked dryly.
Welton, from where he stood uneasily on the rail of the chair, hanging on to the inside of the window ledge as if for his life, heard Box move impatiently.
“If you think we’re going to let him go free, and if you think you’re going to help him, you may just give up the idea,” he said angrily. “We’ve got quite an anxious enough time of it as it is, and we’re not going to stand any traitors in the camp, male or female. So if you don’t want to get the same short shrift yourself, you’d better give up the notion of doing anything but keep in line with the rest of us.”
There was silence after this speech for some minutes, or so it seemed to Welton, who was listening intently for the woman’s reply.
Then Box suddenly cried, “Hello! Here come the others!”
The woman uttered a low cry. “I hate them both,” she said.
Welton, watching eagerly, peering into the darkness, thought he discerned two more figures advancing slowly towards the angle of the house. Then suddenly the lights went up in the opposite wing in which the servants’ quarters were, and against the illuminated patch Welton was able to distinguish the forms of two men, who were advancing slowly towards the other two people.
As he suddenly recognized in them the two police officers who had called upon him that morning, he was on the point of shouting to them to let them know where he was, when he perceived that they had both stopped short in the middle of the grass, and that they were apparently keeping watch on the movements of Box and the maid.
He could have shouted for joy at the sight of his deliverers who had come so tardily to their rendezvous, when something in the attitude of both struck him with uneasy surprise, and made him refrain for the moment from making himself known.
They signalled to the two people beneath his window, whom he could not see, and after a pause they made more signals as if they had received some in return.
Were they then pretending to be friends of these two members of the gang? Had they gained admission by stratagem, and had they not yet been discovered for what they really were?
It seemed so, for after a short pause Box stepped out of the shadow of the house wall and went to meet them. It was impossible for Welton to hear the words exchanged between him and the policemen, but it was clear that they were conversing not as opponents or enemies, but as friends.
Something made him tremble and feel cold as he watched. He would not at first allow himself to do more than feel vaguely uneasy. He did not dare harbour the ugly suspicion which was trying to steal into his heart.
He told himself that the police officers had succeeded in worming themselves into the confidence of at least one member of the gang, and that by that means they had gained admittance into the grounds. And he supposed it must be Box or the maid, or both, whom they had tricked into believing that they were friends worthy of confidence.
Box had spoken of them as “the others,” as if they were friends, or members of the gang. And the maid had replied in the same strain.
More and more surely the horrible fear forced itself into Welton’s mind that they were in truth not police officers at all, but two of the cleverest, the most expert, and the most to be dreaded of Miss Ferriby’s accomplices, and that they were not tricking Box and the unseen maid, but that they had most perfectly and brilliantly succeeded in tricking him.
For a few moments after the certainty had forced itself into his mind that he had done the worst thing possible for himself, at the very time when he had supposed himself to be doing the best, he could scarcely compose his mind to think clearly.
Then he tried to remember just what he had said to the two men whom he had taken for detectives, and the more he recollected of that interview, the gloomier did his own prospects seem to him.
He was at that moment not at all sure that the gang would hold back from murder. Why should they? If they were capable, as they had proved themselves, of carrying on a successful career of crime without drawing upon themselves the attention of the authorities, why should they draw the line at committing a murder, which they would certainly find means to conceal just as they had concealed other crimes before?
He felt cold with horror when he thought of the evil nature which Miss Ferriby’s philanthropy was a cloak for, when he considered all that he had seen and heard, and remembered the ease with which she had hoodwinked him, as well as the rest of the people with whom her charitable works brought her in contact.
It was true that not only his brother, but the Ashcots, knew where he had gone that morning, and would be on the alert for his return. But would not Miss Ferriby and her associates and accomplices be fully equal to the task of inventing and upholding some story to account for his disappearance?
The more he thought about it, the more sure did he feel that to such able rogues a difficulty of that sort would seem but a trifle, and the less did he feel able to count upon the assistance of his own friends.
As these terrible thoughts chased each other through his mind, he kept watch with painful intentness upon the group outside the house.
For a long time -- or what seemed so to him -- Box and the two men whom he had mistaken for detectives, talked together at a distance of some yards from the house, while no sound reached his ears either from them or from the woman, whom he supposed to be still out of his sight under the window.
Then a voice said: “Cockett!” and the three men turned in the same direction at once. This was to Welton’s mind conclusive evidence that they were all friends. When a moment later Cockett, still dressed in clothes which made him look like a footman out of livery, approached them at a sauntering pace, with his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in his mouth, Welton was quite confirmed in this opinion.
“Well, how goes it? Have you got him?” asked Cockett, as he came up to the three men who began to move towards the spot under the wall where the maid was waiting.
“Yes, we’ve got him right enough,” replied the man who had posed as the chief of the two detectives, with an easy nod. “He’s in there,”
He nodded in the direction of the window without so much as giving a good look in that direction, and Welton was rather surprised and still more perturbed by the fact that nobody appeared to think it worth while to take particular note of the window, so that no one noticed in the twilight that it had been pushed open.
He reflected with dismay that they did not think the point of any consequence, as they looked upon the occupant of the little room with the iron door and the barred window as a doomed man.
What did they intend to do with him? This gathering of the forces of the establishment was such a new and strange thing, so contrary to the ordinary habits of the household where the servants were usually hidden away in the secluded wing, that Welton knew there was mischief brewing.
Cockett laughed under his breath at the news of the capture. “I had my work cut out for me by the mischief-making sneak,” he said. “The fellow saw me on the night of the dance at the Ospringes, and what should he do but go and give Mr. Ospringe next morning a warning that there was a dangerous person among his servants.”
“Ah, his old games!” cried the woman’s voice.
Cockett, who was within sight of Welton at the window, nodded. “Yes. Well, old Ospringe is a shrewd fellow, so he sifted out the men of the household and fixed upon me and another one as the likeliest to be meant by this fellow’s warning. And he sent for us and asked us questions, and then he asked me if I had ever been known by any other name, and I said yes, and that my former master thought the name too farcical.”
“Good,” said one of the other men.
“And I said that I had been in the service of a charitable lady named Ferriby, who did tell fortunes, but who did nothing worse than that. And that there was a secretary there who made mischief with her for all the servants, saying that we were thieves.”
“And I flattered myself I turned the tables on the gentleman, and that it is he, and not I, who fell in old Ospringe’s estimation when I had made things clear to him.”
“You don’t think he has any suspicion?”
“None. At least he didn’t give me the sack, as I should think he would have done if he had suspected anything wrong. But we had better put off the affair at his place for a day or two, I think. If it were to come off now, he might wake up again, and think there was something in this Keynes’ warning after all.”
Box uttered a short word expressive of his annoyance at this interference with their plans. “He’s a born nuisance, that chap,” he said savagely. “And what the old lady can see in him is more than I can make out.”
Cockett sniggered. “He put your nose out of joint, Box, didn’t he?” he said.
The two other men and the maid joined in the laugh. All kept their merriment under their breath, however, so that Welton would scarcely have heard any sound if the window had still been shut.
But it appeared to enter the maid’s mind that they ought to be cautious. “Take care,” she said. “He’s not far off, you know. You don’t want him to hear you.”
The words which fell from the lips of Box in answer to these, however, made Welton’s blood run cold. “What does it matter if he does hear?” asked he coolly. “Now he’s safe in there, nothing matters. He can hear what he likes, and see what he can, and welcome.”
There was a sort of murmur at this, and Welton could not be quite sure what the murmur meant: whether it was wholly satisfied and ferocious, or partly condemnatory, or even sympathetic on the part of the woman. He thought, however, when she spoke that she could not be as strong in condemnation as the rest. Indeed she had spoken up for him, if in rather a weak and modified way, already.
“You’re not going to be too hard with him, are you?” she said. “At least, I don’t suppose you can be, for Miss F. wouldn’t stand it.”
The man who had posed as the second detective laughed. “My dear, you don’t know your own sex if you think that,” he said. “There’s no man in the world half so spiteful as a woman who is in love with a man, or who thinks she is, and who finds that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her. Why, a tiger’s an angel compared to Miss F. when she’s put out. And if this cub hasn’t managed to put her out by the way he’s carried on, well, all I can say is that he’s tried jolly hard!”
The maid’s voice was more anxious than before. “Well, how could she expect him to like her, in that way, I mean?”
The men tried to silence her. “You’d better keep a watch on your own tongue, my dear,” said Cockett jeeringly. “All women think themselves beauties, and if they feel a doubt about it, they don’t like that doubt put into words.”
Welton was feeling sick and almost faint with the combined strain of listening to every word, and the physical effort of hanging on to the window ledge. But he heard one more speech from the woman before, shaking and disheartened, he dropped down to the floor.
“Well, whatever she feels about him, I don’t see how she could have the heart to serve him the way you all served that poor Browne. His ghost would rise up and torment you all if you were to treat him the same way. And more than that, none of us women would give you any help over it, and so I tell you!”
Welton stumbled down to the floor as she uttered the last word, and he supposed by the silence that followed that they had awakened to the fact that they might be overheard.
For a few moments he lay upon the floor, his hands sore and trembling, his whole frame suffering from the severe double strain of suspense and physical fatigue. Before he got up, however, he noticed that there were coming up through the floor certain faint, hollow sounds, as if there were something going on underneath.
He put his ear close to the carpet.
Whether it was the sound of voices and footsteps, or that of running water, he could not be sure, but there was a continuous murmur, not loud, but steady and monotonous, muffled by the carpet and rugs but unmistakable.
Welton crawled over the floor in all directions to ascertain the exact spot where the noise was loudest, and he found that it was under the leopard skin rug, which was stretched on the floor at a little distance from the chair upon which he had mounted to the window.
He pulled up one end of the rug and found that there was no carpet underneath it, nothing but bare boards which had once been polished, but which were now scratched and shabby.
He had only the firelight to help him in his search, but it was sufficient for his purpose. He had just ascertained that the boards at this spot were loose, when he heard a key inserted in the lock of the door on the outer side.
Springing to his feet, he hastily replaced the leopard skin rug, and threw himself into the armchair by the fire.
The next moment the door opened, and Miss Ferriby came in.
Welton guessed that she was either afraid to meet him or, which was more probable, her accomplices were afraid to leave her unwatched; for he perceived in the long drawing room behind her a figure he thought he recognized as that of Box.
She came in quickly, shut the door behind her, but did not attempt to lock it; which pointed again, as Welton thought, to the fact that she knew she had able arms and quick ears outside.
He rose quietly, without uttering a word as she entered.
She peered at him in the darkness, which was now almost complete. Then she stepped back, and finding behind the tapestry the button, which Welton would never have expected to find at that particular spot in the middle of the wall, she turned on the electric light in the lamp that hung by silver chains from the ceiling.
The change from darkness to light made Welton blink.
Then he saw that she was very pale, and that the great grey eyes had a haggard and worn look, while the heavy jaw looked even more masculine than before, now that the face seemed to have suddenly aged.
She came close to him as he stood upon the leopard skin which lay in front of the fireplace. “You look worried,” she said, in a broken, hoarse voice. “What is the matter with you?”
He laughed shortly. “I have been wondering,” he said coldly, “why I have been kept locked in here.”
Her face changed. “No, you have not been wondering,” she said sharply. “You knew very well why it was. You couldn’t suppose that you would be allowed to do what you have done without any notice being taken of it.”
“What have I tried to do?”
“You tried to give us up to the police. I know all about it, as you may suppose. I know that in gratitude for my offering you all a woman has to offer, you have shown yourself ungrateful. You have ferreted for what you could find against us, and only this morning you gave evidence, as you supposed, to the police. It was owing to our wits being better than yours that you told what you had to say to us instead of to the police.”
Welton said nothing at all in answer to this, but stood before the fire with his head bent, listening attentively. His silence irritated her.
“Well,” she said at last, “can you justify yourself for trying to betray the people who have been kind to you?”
He raised his head. “What I did,” he said simply, “was just what anybody else in my position would have done. I tried to save the people I knew, the people I’ve lived among, from being robbed.”
“You’ve lived among us too,” retorted Miss Ferriby sharply.
“Only for a few days,” he said. “And during those few days I’ve already tried to get away. You will admit that, I think.”
Her face grew heavy and sullen. "Oh, yes, you've been anxious enough to get away," she said snappishly, at last. "But I should have thought, as you'd been well treated here, you would have considered yourself bound to show us -- or me at least -- some consideration."
“Miss Ferriby, what can you expect of me after last night?” he asked. “You can’t have forgotten that you tore open my letter and behaved as no woman should behave. What could you expect but that I should warn my friends, and that I should inform the police of what I know concerning a public danger?”
Miss Ferriby moved impatiently. “What does a public danger matter compared to your private interest?” she said. “If you had thrown in your lot with us, I would have made your fortune. What will your other friends do for you? What will the police do for you? Nothing, nothing. You have behaved like a fool, Welton. You have grasped at the shadow and thrown away the substance. And all for what? For a whim, a wicked, revengeful whim. You wanted to see us all in the dock, to see some of us hanged. And why? You had no reason, no reason whatever.”
Welton was appalled. Wanted to see them hanged, she said. Now there was only one crime for which the punishment was hanging, and this was the first confirmation he had heard of his strong suspicion that the gang had not stopped at robbery.
It was some moments before he could answer. Indeed, he did not know very well what to say. Self-interest was evidently the only spring of action recognized by these people, and for him to talk of honour and his duty to society would have been waste of breath.
However, one definite grievance came into his mind. “Have you forgotten the lies you told me about my father?” he asked, in an impressive voice.
Miss Ferriby quailed under the unexpected accusation. Then she made an impatient gesture. “Well, I’ll admit they were lies,” she said. “I’ve never seen your father. I know nothing about him but what my people found out for me. But I loved you. I had to say something which would keep you near me, and so I confess I invented the story of his being still alive and a friend of mine. I know it was what you people call wrong. But since the motive was love for you, you might forgive me. But you are hard, unforgiving, Welton. You have no heart, or you wouldn’t treat me as you’ve done.”
Then this unprincipled woman, whose crimes sat lightly upon her, and who evidently saw only in herself a sweet-natured martyr to unrequited love, sobbed and buried her face in her hands.
Welton was amazed as well as shocked. “I don’t think I’ve done anything to be ashamed of,” he said, in a very quiet voice. “I don’t see how I could have acted otherwise than as I’ve done.”
She snatched her hands away from her face. “And do you know the penalty? Do you know what you’ve brought upon yourself by your high principles and your scruples?” she asked, with sudden ferocity. “Have you any idea of what you will have to go through in return for your treachery?”
“I have committed no treachery. I never professed to have joined your … your society. I never even wished to remain in your employment.”
Miss Ferriby, instead of resenting this speech, drew a little nearer to him and sighed. “I didn’t ask you to do that. You know what I wished you to do. Even now, Welton, it’s not too late. If you will only swear to betray nothing … if you will only … only be nice … be kind to me,” and she looked up into his face with an expression which, if he had not loathed her for her baseness, would have moved him by its evident sincerity of feeling. Her voice dropped still lower, “… I’ll save you yet.”
But even as she spoke, Welton heard a low sound of mocking laughter from the window, and turning quickly, remembering too late that he had left it open, he saw and Miss Ferriby saw, that there were two faces close enough to the bars outside to see whatever went on inside, and to hear all that was said.
And at the same moment they both heard the key turned in the lock of the door. Welton was no longer a lonely prisoner. Box had taken the opportunity to imprison together both the mistress who had thrown him over for a new face, and the owner of the new face himself.
The moment Box had turned the key on Miss Ferriby, thus imprisoning her and her victim Welton Keynes in the small drawing room, he retreated and joined the rest of the gang gathered under the wall of the house.
There were by this time eight of them huddled together under the wall, listening to what they could catch of the conversation that was going on inside between Welton Keynes and Miss Ferriby.
Cockett, with the maid who had warned Welton, the two sham detectives, Box and one other man, and two more women, both old and, by the look of their faces, seasoned in ill-doing, were all quiet, and evidently impressed with the consciousness that some crisis in their fate was approaching.
Box, as he joined the rest, was the only one who looked perfectly free from care. Instead of anxiety, his face was full of anger and a sort of savage delight. The others threw at him warning looks and gestures, pointed up to the window which he now perceived to be slightly opened, and thus persuaded him to remain silent as they were.
But for all their attentive listening, they could gather very little of what was passing within. The voices of Welton Keynes and Miss Ferriby could be heard indeed, but not many of the words they uttered, for the window was high, and the man and the woman were speaking in low voices and with caution.
At last Box, tired of waiting to hear nothing of any importance, signed to his companion to follow him and retreated to a little distance, while they all one by one followed him.
If Miss Ferriby was the leader of the gang, Box was certainly the second in command to whom they all naturally looked when she was away.
He drew them all off, until they were far enough away from the house to be out of danger of being overheard by anyone inside. Then Box with an air of authority said, “I have something to tell you. You must all be prepared for a change in the command. You’ve all been looking to Miss Ferriby for orders, haven’t you? Well, that’s over. She’s done with, done for. She must be given up by you, as I’ve given her up. Do you hear?”
There was a dead silence, followed by murmurs in which the sobbing of one of the old women could be heard.
Then the man Cockett spoke with some show of irritation. “I don’t see that. It’s for us to say, not you, that she’s to be given up. All we know against her at present is that she won’t have anything to do with you. That’s not enough for us. She knows her business; she’s got a head worth two of yours, and it’s for us to say what we think.”
There were louder murmurs after this, and the man who had played the principal detective even approached Box in a menacing manner; but he was held back by the woman who had posed as Lady Mirfield’s maid.
“What has she done? Come now!” asked the man in a challenging tone.
“She’s lost her head over this confounded Keynes, and she’s ready to throw over the whole lot of us for him,” replied Box firmly.
The rest had seen enough of what had been going on to know that there was some truth in this statement. All received it in moody silence. Even the sobbing old woman repressed her grief and listened eagerly for the next words.
“I’ve been with her in the drawing room,” went on Box, whose lowering looks and sullen tone betrayed that he felt a much stronger personal interest in the matter than the rest did. “And it was plain all the time that she was feeling as much for this fellow whom we’d got under lock and key, as ever she did before she found out he was trying to give us up.”
“She’ll be all right when it comes to the scratch,” said Cockett confidently. “Leave Miss Ferriby alone, and she’ll be right enough in the long run.”
“I wish you wouldn’t push things on so,” said the maid in an anxious tone. “Why couldn’t you let this fellow go? He’s had his lesson, and he may be trusted to hold his tongue for the future.”
“And if you put him away,” said the man who had posed as the second detective, “you’ll have a lot of people after you, for he’s got friends, you know. And then there’s old Ospringe and a girl besides. You don’t suppose they won’t know where to look for him if he doesn’t turn up?”
“They may know where to look for him, but they won’t know where to find him,” replied Box grimly.
“What can you do if Miss Ferriby won’t let you touch him?”
“If she won’t, we must, that’s all.”
“And if you interfere with him against her will, what have you got to expect yourself?” asked Cockett.
Box frowned as he answered. “What has she got to expect, if she shows us plainly she doesn’t care two pence for the lot of us, and that all she’s bent on is saving this fellow, and going away with him. Remember we caught her out last night. Remember she was going away with him. And remember too, that if she had gone, and if she had taken her jewellery with her and her money, she’d have been taking what isn’t hers any more than it’s mine and yours, that she would have been robbing us all.”
There was another silence after this, and then he went on. “Her jewels are our capital that she works upon the people she tricks with, aren’t they? She has a right to wear them, to bring in more money. But she had no right to run away with them.”
“Well, you don’t know that she was going to,” said the maid.
“I’m pretty sure of it,” retorted Box. “Anyhow, I don’t mean to let her get off her plain duty, which is to help us to get rid of this fellow Keynes.”
“You’re jealous,” said the maid.
Box frowned and affected to scoff. But the rest had a strong suspicion that the hunchback had made her influence so deeply felt, that Box felt more than mere professional jealousy in the matter of Welton Keynes and Miss Ferriby’s favour.
“What are you going to do then?” asked the man who had posed as the chief detective.
Box answered evasively. “I’ve told her she must treat him as she treated young Browne.”
“And if she won’t?”
“Then I’ll treat both as she treated Browne.”
“You’ll let them both be found drowned?”
Box nodded assent.
“Nonsense,” said Cockett sharply. “Miss Ferriby’s never failed us yet, and she won’t now. You, Box, must keep her up to the mark. If you don’t find her doing her duty, why then you must just see she does it, that’s all.”
And he signed to Box to return to the house. Sullenly, Box took the hint and went back to the long drawing room to keep watch on the two prisoners.
There was a short silence among the rest. Then the one who had passed as the second detective said, “Box is right. She must be kept up to the mark. And he’s the man to keep her up to it. Cockett, you and the Beggar had better go in and help Box if he wants help.”
“What for?” asked Cockett uneasily.
The other man, however, preferred not to be too explicit. “You’ll see,” he said, as he nodded imperiously in the direction of the house.
And the two men thus addressed, after a hurried consultation from which they excluded the women, went quickly and silently into the outer drawing room to watch with Box the result of the strange interview between the two persons whom Box had locked into the inner drawing room together.
When Welton heard the key turned in the lock, and recognized the fact that there were two parties among his captors, he wondered with a sick feeling of horror and dismay whether they intended to murder him and Miss Ferriby together.
Since his discovery that this room had evidently been used for similar purposes before, he had recognized that his imprisonment was but the preliminary step to some much more stringent punishment for his attempt to betray the gang to the police, and his hopes that they would be discovered in their evil purpose before it was successfully accomplished, had grown sensibly less.
To find that the leader of the gang herself appeared to be included in his punishment for her desire to shield him, did not inspire him with any tenderness on her account, as he recognized full well that Miss Ferriby’s tenderness was that of the tiger, and knew that his refusal to join her in the new life she proposed for herself, had filled her with resentment which was quite as much to be dreaded as that of her accomplices.
The hunchback, on hearing the turning of the key, uttered a strange little cry, and ran back towards the door. Then she listened, and heard the footsteps of Box retreating as she ascertained that she was indeed locked in with her intended victim.
When she turned round and faced Welton again, her face had changed and the glare in her great grey eyes was that of a hunted beast.
He waited for her to speak, but she seemed unable to do so. Panting, haggard, evidently understanding better than he did the fate which lay before them both, she faced the young man with an expression from which all trace of tenderness, of what she called love, had disappeared. She was fierce, savage, full of bitterness and rage.
“It’s you who have brought me to this!” she hissed out sharply, not in a loud voice, but with so much emphasis that he found his blood run cold as she spoke. “It’s you, for whom I was ready to sacrifice so much, who have ruined me, killed me!”
“I’ve done nothing, Miss Ferriby,” said Welton, “except refuse to help you to run away from your own companions and accomplices.”
She uttered a low cry full of rage and dismay, and looked round, as if afraid that the gang might hear him. “If I wanted to run away, as you call it, wasn’t it with the object of saving you, of making you rich, of taking you out of the wretched position of a dependent and making you happy?”
“I don’t think you were wholly unselfish, Miss Ferriby,” said Welton. “But we needn’t discuss that now. The point is to get out of this hole that we are both in, and I hope you are clever enough to do it.”
She looked round her with frightened eyes, like a child caught and threatened with well-merited punishment. “I can’t,” she whispered hoarsely. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Surely you know how, by pretending to agree with what these people wish, to get us both set free?” he urged.
As he spoke, he inadvertently approached the part of the floor which was covered by the leopard skin rug, and Miss Ferriby, seeing where he was coming to, instinctively thrust forth her hand and glancing at the floor, cried quickly, “Take care!”
With a sick feeling of being unable to move without danger, Welton checked himself and remained where he was, between the ottoman under the window and the fireplace. Miss Ferriby turned away from him, and seating herself on a chair close to the door, put her ear to the keyhole and remained silent, motionless, without even raising her head to look at the young man, who on his side, finding that she had no answer to give to his persuasions at present, and not daring to move about much in a room which he felt to be full of unknown dangers, sat down in the armchair by the fire and waited, watching her, for some movement or word on her part.
The silence had lasted a long time when she raised her head and said, “He’s come back. I hear him.”
Again she bent her head to listen, but there was little to be heard for a long time, for Box, when he was joined by Cockett and the other man, remained quite silent, watching the door of the inner drawing room without a word.
The other men presently grew restless, and appealed to Box to make an end of the suspense in which they were all living.
“You’d better speak to her,” suggested Cockett. “The fellow Keynes will be missed before this, and then we don’t know what may happen. Our business here ought to be got over without more delay.”
“Right you are,” said Box. “You two stay here in case I need you.”
They assented by gestures instead of words, and he suddenly turned the key in the lock of the iron door, and throwing it open, found the hunchback jumping onto his arms. She had been on the alert, and at the first sound had prepared to precipitate herself into the arms of her irritated and revolted lieutenant, Box.
But the man repulsed her savagely, and holding her away from him with an iron grip, as he stood in the doorway with the other two men close behind, he said between his set teeth, “Why don’t you do what you have to do? Do you want any help from us?”
“No, no, no. Give me time, time,” gasped the woman, with her eyes rolling, and drawing her breath with difficulty.
“You chose to do it. You asked to do it,” whispered Box in her ear.
“Yes, yes. Why don’t you give me time?”
“You’ve had time. Now choose. Either swear you’ll do it and have done with it, or let me come and do it instead of you.”
Miss Ferriby’s eyes were glaring, her mouth was twisted each moment into a different strange shape, and she presented the appearance of a person about to have a fit. “If you have it done, we shall all suffer for it,” she stammered. “He has friends, powerful friends.”
“And we have enemies, powerful enemies,” retorted Box ferociously. “Come now. You, or I?”
The woman struggled with herself, fought a desperate inward battle, and gradually grew comparatively calm. “I’ll do it,” she said at last hoarsely.
His tone changed at once. "It's our only chance -- and yours," he whispered in her ear, as he let her go, and she staggered back into the little room.
Welton meanwhile had not dared to move from the armchair by the fireside, for the doorway was blocked by these two struggling figures, and behind them, close behind, he saw those of Cockett and the other man. But he stealthily prepared himself for a tussle, and stooping, grasped the little brass poker with his right hand, while he measured with his eyes the distance to the window.
But there was a space to be traversed before he could reach it, and although, when he was once more in his old position, clinging to the window ledge, he might be able to shout through the still open window for the help which he feared would be out of reach, he did not know what pitfalls there might be on the way.
He had felt the loose boards under the leopard skin; he had heard Miss Ferriby’s warning cry, “Take care”; and he had heard also that mysterious sound of water or human voices underneath.
On the whole he decided to keep still and wait the result of the struggle between the man and the woman in the doorway, measuring the distance between him and them with his eye, and wondering whether he could reach them by one bound, and fight his way out.
But the odds were tremendous: four against one. And he knew better than to suppose that Miss Ferriby’s muscle, woman and hunchback though she was, was to be despised.
The end of the short tussle between Box and Miss Ferriby came before Welton could try his luck against them. Suddenly he saw Miss Ferriby once more alone at the other end of the room and the door shut behind her.
He stood up again. “Now,” he said, “what are you going to do with me?”
She did not immediately answer. But his suspicions about the floor and what there might be going on underneath it were again roused when he noted that after one glance at his face, Miss Ferriby’s eyes were turned downwards, as if seeking some particular spot.
Then she looked up, but did not meet his eyes. “Come here,” she said, in a voice that was broken and harsh. As she spoke, he saw her right hand raised to her breast, and then lowered to her waist where the loose outer robe of embroidered silk which she was wearing was confined by a hanging girdle of jewelled leather.
He did not move from where he stood, but watched her movement with a cautious eye.
Suddenly she whipped out something which he felt rather than saw was a revolver. He made one spring across the floor to the place where she stood, and wrestling with her, wrenched the weapon out of her hand.
Panting after the struggle, he instinctively stepped backwards, and a cry for “Help!” escaped his lips as, with a spasm of horror, he felt that the floor giving way under his feet.
Chapter 20 and Last
“Help!” cried Welton again, as feeling himself falling through the floor he flung out his hands to right and left in the endeavour to save himself.
In his efforts, he dropped the revolver. It fell with the leopard skin rug on which he was standing, right through the floor of the room and into the water below.
Even as he fell, and before he touched the water, a horrible suspicion as to his fate flashed through his mind. With a vivid recollection of what he had heard, of the murmuring noise below the floor, he was prepared, even before he felt the icy water closing round him and over him, for the fact that he was destined to meet his death by drowning at the hands of the wretches among whom he had been thrown.
Down he went, not so very far below the level of the floor of the small drawing room, but quite far enough for it to be out of the question for him to try to save himself by getting out through the hole through which he had fallen.
Encumbered by the skin rug which had fallen with him into the water, he could not at first make out anything but the fact that he was in deep water, in a sort of enormous tank which was both dark and cold, and the size of which he could not for some time ascertain.
The square hole in the floor above, which he guessed to be a trapdoor through which he had fallen, appeared from below to be some three feet square, and through it he could dimly see the swinging lamp and the painted ceiling of the little drawing room as his head, after being completely immersed, came to the top of the water, and he freed himself from the enveloping leopard skin.
He could swim, and he got to the side of the tank, which he now judged to be not more than seven or eight feet across. He felt the wall with his hands. It was perfectly smooth, without any projection by which he could support himself. He swam round the whole of the small space, and then looked up again into the room above.
Then he saw Miss Ferriby’s face leaning down and looking in.
If she had had any lingering tenderness towards him, she had managed to stifle the feeling, and the expression which he saw on her masculine features was one which appalled him by its mingled ferocity and despair.
She seemed to know, he thought, that the fate which she had prepared for her victim would not be unavenged, for there was a look of sullen anger, and at the same time of desperation in her whole attitude, in her clenched hands and set teeth, which made him certain that she was quite fully aware of the dangers of her own course of action.
He thought his best chance was to remain still, and he made no more movement than was necessary to keep himself afloat, so that Miss Ferriby, blinking down into the darkness of the tank, seemed not to be sure whether he was alive or dead.
Her doubt peeped out in her tone as she said, in a hoarse voice, “Keynes, are you alive?”
He was careful not to utter so much as a sound in reply.
She repeated her question, bending down and staring into the depths below, without in all probability being able to discern very much.
Then Welton heard a noise in the distance, a noise of feet, a murmur of voices, and there was evidently a rush into the room above of several people who all began to speak at once, not very loudly, but with unmistakable anger.
Miss Ferriby had started back, away from the hole in the floor, and at the same moment Welton uttered a low cry, for something hard and cold had touched his forehead. He immediately recognized, however, that this was only the square piece of flooring which had dropped out into the water to let him down, on the withdrawal by some means he was as yet unable to ascertain, of the supports which kept it in its place.
Listening intently, he made out the voices of Box and the maid. They were speaking together, both sharply, reproachfully, threateningly.
“Is he dead?” asked the voice of Box.
Miss Ferriby made no immediate answer, but Cockett spoke. “We didn’t hear a shot. We heard a scuffle and a fall, but no revolver shot. Did you shoot him?
Miss Ferriby attempted to assume her old tone of authority with them. “I did what I had undertaken to do, of course,” she said. “He is in there. If he isn’t yet dead, he soon will be. How can a man live in ten feet of water, if he can’t get out?”
Box approached the hole in the floor and looked down. But he failed to make out much more than Miss Ferriby had done; and perhaps with a wholesome fear of possible treachery on the part of his fellow-conspirators, Box did not linger on the edge of the hole.
Cockett presently took his place. “I don’t believe he is dead,” he said slowly. “You ought to have made sure.”
Welton took care to make no sign, but the faint movement he was obliged to make to enable him to keep his head above the water was enough for the sharp eyes above him.
Box came back again and stood beside his fellow-rogue. “If you don’t think he’s done for,” he said in a low voice, which however was loud enough for the unhappy victim in the water to hear, “we’d better make sure. Where’s her revolver?”
Cockett retreated a few paces to find out what had become of the weapon, but Welton knew that he would have a respite, as the revolver, which he had wrenched from the hunchback, had fallen into the water with him.
There was, as he expected, a short break while the men retreated, and Welton heard them conversing in a low voice. Then Miss Ferriby broke out into a fit of harsh laughter.
“You fools!” she cried derisively. “If you’d only had the sense to let me carry out my own plans, my own wishes, you would have saved yourself all this, and more, much more. Look there!”
Welton did not know at what she was pointing but he heard the voice of the lady’s maid, who ran breathless into the room, crying with intense excitement. “Where shall we go? What shall we do? It’s the police, really the police!”
Miss Ferriby, at once mistress of all her faculties when danger threatened, drew herself up and laughed, no longer in the harsh strident tones she had lately used, but almost merrily.
“The police!” she cried, as if there were nothing in the word to alarm her. “Dear me, what have they come about, I wonder!”
Leaving the smaller drawing room for the outer one, she would have turned the key in the lock to shut in her victim and any possible cries which he might utter, while Box and Cockett were still in the room, if the former had not pushed past her angrily, and at the same moment the lady’s maid had not rushed past her in the other direction into the smaller drawing room, where she uttered a loud shriek as she found herself unexpectedly close to the hole in the floor.
Cockett, who was still in the room, put his hand over her mouth savagely.
In the meantime Box, growing pale and hesitating what to do in face of the fact that he could see for himself that there was something unusual going on in the garden, turned to Miss Ferriby, who was now the only person entirely calm and apparently unmoved by the commotion.
“What shall we do?” he asked under his breath. “You hag, see what you’ve brought us to, with your fancies and your confounded whims!”
Miss Ferriby sauntered, wholly unmoved, in the direction of the nearest window. The blinds were down, the curtains were drawn, but the French window by which the lady’s maid had entered was still ajar. The lights were turned on in the long drawing room, and as the hunchback reached the window, drew up the blind and looked out, her form was silhouetted against the illumination behind her.
“What’s the matter?” she asked in her blandest tones. “Who is that?”
The question was directed to the nearer of two men, unmistakably policemen in plain clothes, who were already in the veranda, and who came briskly up to the window when she spoke.
But as they came up, Miss Ferriby caught sight of two figures behind those men which gave her more concern than they. In the background, hovering close together, and not uttering a sound, she caught sight of a tall, slim, young girl and of a very young man. They were so far away that in the darkness she could not make out their features, but by the hoarse cry which she uttered under her breath, it was evident that she recognized them both.
The foremost of the police officers saluted and said, “Miss Ferriby, I believe?”
“Yes, that’s my name. What do you want?”
“We want to know whether a Mr. Welton Keynes is staying here, if you please, ma’am.”
The figure of the young man and the girl stole stealthily nearer in the darkness, but still neither of them uttered a word.
Miss Ferriby’s answer was given in a voice full of surprise. “Mr. Keynes? Oh no, he’s not here now. He goes away every day at about five o’clock or half past.”
“Did he go at that time today, ma’am?”
“I believe so. At least, I haven’t seen him since then and I thought he was gone.”
“We have information, ma’am, that he’s on the premises now. Would you have any objection to our trying to find him?”
Miss Ferriby affected to utter a little scream of horror. “He’s been in some trouble, has he?” she asked sharply. “And he seemed such a decent sort of fellow.”
“Well, we’ve heard something that makes us think he’s in hiding, ma’am, and the truth is, we’ve been watching for him, and he hasn’t come out. I hope you don’t mind our making a little search, ma’am.”
Although she kept her countenance pretty well, Miss Ferriby’s colour became a dull grey as she said in an altered voice, into which she tried to put some dignity, “I’m sure he’s not here. You’d better search the house at the corner, Mrs. Ashcot’s, number three in the lane. He’s more likely to be there than here.”
“Oh, we’ve been there, ma’am,” said the second officer quietly.
There was a pause. In the darkness the two young figures came nearer.
And then the first officer pushed his way rather brusquely past the hunchback, with a “By your leave, ma’am,” and entered the drawing room.
Although there was no one in the room apart from Box in his servant’s livery, apparently calm and busy putting the furniture in order, the officers had an inkling at once, from something in the condition of the room, that something dramatic had taken place there very recently.
Miss Ferriby followed them in, and suggested their making a search upstairs. “I have an idea,” she said, “that Mr. Keynes may have gone into the room where I sometimes receive visitors who want their palms read. He was very curious about that room, and he may have gone up there when his secretarial work for me was over. This way.”
She had opened the door leading to the little spiral staircase, when one of the detectives stopped short, fancying he heard a faint cry.
“Before we go upstairs, Miss Ferriby,” he said, “we had better make a search down here, I think.”
He pushed past Miss Ferriby, who stood in the way, and tried the handle of the door of the inner drawing room.
“Locked,” he said shortly. “Give me the key, please.”
The young man and woman were now in the room. Miss Ferriby, as she glanced round, saw that the girl was deadly white, and that she was sobbing. She recognised Miss Ashcot immediately.
She turned savagely to the detectives. “I won’t have my house turned upside down to please the inquisitive whims of a lot of gossiping neighbours!” she cried loudly, in such a ringing voice of command that even the police officer was for the moment checked by it. “This girl is the daughter of a mischief-making neighbour of mine called Mrs. Ashcot. She has made my life a burden by the scandalous things she says about me, as she does about all her neighbours.”
But while she was making this indignant protest, the second officer, getting behind her and his companion, had made another discovery. “This door,” he said, “is made of iron.” And he made a savage lunge at it.
Quickly upon the noise he made, there followed a piercing woman’s shriek from within the room, and then again the hoarse, faint cry which they had heard before.
“It’s Welton’s voice! It’s my brother!” cried Basil, who with Barbara Ashcot had followed the officers in silence until that moment.
The girl uttered a smothered sob, but keeping herself under strong control she said nothing, but stood trembling with Basil just inside the French window.
The officer turned to Miss Ferriby. “The key, please, madam,” he said, “at once.”
“The key?” echoed she, her voice shaking a little. “But I haven’t the least idea where it is.”
It was evident that the detective did not believe a syllable of what she said.
But she turned away as if offended at the question.
The detective seized her arm and held it like a vice. As he did so, he perceived on her right wrist the marks of a struggle. The skin was bruised and broken, and he, meeting her eyes, knew that she had been engaged in an actual physical tussle at no very remote time. She flinched at his touch, indeed, for Welton had had some trouble in wrenching the revolver from her grasp, and her wrist was still sore from the struggle.
“I must break the door in, then,” he said.
Box stood at a little distance, as white as his mistress. Something in his face attracted the attention of the second officer, who whispered a few words to his companion. Then at the same moment they rushed at Box, tripped him up, and laying him on the floor, in spite of his struggles, searched him thoroughly, with the result that a door key was found upon him, which one of the officers handed to Basil Keynes.
“Try the door with it,” he said briefly.
Miss Ferriby rushed at the lad, but Barbara, dashing past her, snatched the key from Basil and placed it in the lock of the door, while Basil restrained the hunchback.
A cry of horror burst from Barbara Ashcot’s lips when she saw, stretched on the floor, the unconscious figure of a woman, while a man sat with folded arms in an armchair by the fireplace.
In the floor was a gaping space, and Barbara, with an instinct that it was here that she would find Welton, crept close to the edge, knelt down, and cried, “Are you there? Are you alive?”
A faint voice answered her. “Yes, for God’s sake get me out! I’m drowning.”
Barbara sprang to her feet, and rushing across the room tore down the thick cord that was used to loop up the portière. Basil joined her, and one of the detectives ran in to help them.
Welton, who was growing rigid and cold from his long immersion and battle with death, was just able to pass the cord round his body, and then the work of drawing him up to the level of the floor began.
It was a difficult business, although the second detective now came to the help of the first.
By the time they had dragged the unfortunate Welton to the floor of the room, Barbara was crying bitterly with terror lest he should die as the result of his terrible experience. As soon as he was laid on the floor, she flung herself beside him and kissed his pale face with passionate tenderness, which, even then, brought a tinge of colour to his face, and acted as a wholesome stimulant to the half-drowned man.
"Where are they? Where is she -- Miss Ferriby?" was the first thing Welton asked, when they had given him some brandy and made him warm himself at the fire.
The detectives smiled. “There are some more of us outside,” he said dryly. “They’ll see they give an account of themselves.”
Barbara shuddered and came closer to Welton.
The room in which they sat was clear of the gang, for the lady’s maid had disappeared with Cockett, having recovered consciousness very promptly on the appearance of the police. Box and the rest had tried to escape, but only Box, the cleverest of them, succeeded in getting away.
As for Miss Ferriby, perhaps conscious that she was too easily recognizable for escape to be possible in her case, perhaps tired of a life which she had persistently misspent, she made no attempt to run away, but going to a cabinet in the long drawing room where a whole store of weapons was subsequently discovered, she took out a loaded revolver, and placing it against her own breast, killed herself with one well-directed shot.
Her body, in her magnificent dress and still glittering with jewels, was found lying in a corner of the drawing room by the two detectives as they came out.
Welton Keynes was taken to the house of Mrs. Ashcot, and no one who saw Barbara hanging over him, or the way in which he sought her eyes, had much doubt how their romance would end.
He was not long in finding out that it was Barbara’s quick wit which had combined with Basil’s fears to devise a way of helping him out of the dangers which both knew him to be in. And so the story unfolded.
Basil explained that when the day passed without getting the promised telegram from his brother, he dashed off home to their lodging, found Welton still absent, and went as fast as he could to Mrs. Ashcot’s. There, Barbara scenting danger when she heard Basil’s story, suggested that they should both go at once to the nearest police station to find out if there was any truth in the story of the police raid.
The Superintendent questioned them both closely, informed them that nothing was known of the raid in question, but that certain warnings concerning The Lawns had been given to the force by Mr. Ospringe, who had not been quite so easily hoodwinked as Cockett had supposed.
So clear was Basil’s story and so strong were Barbara’s suspicions of the house, that the Superintendent obtained and at once used permission from headquarters to institute a raid upon the premises of Miss Ferriby.
Barbara and Basil had followed them and got admittance at the same time, one of the policemen scaling the wall and letting the others in.
Not half the crimes committed by the gang ever came to light, as evidence was wanting on which to convict them. But the outrage on Welton Keynes, and the part taken in it by Box, Cockett and Miss Ferriby, were easy to prove, and the two men, being left by Miss Ferriby’s suicide to bear the penalty without her, were sentenced to a term of penal servitude which they had thoroughly earned.
The subordinates in crime got lighter sentences, having failed to prove that entire innocence of what went on at The Lawns which their counsel strove to establish.
And the pretty little house with its smooth lawns and atmosphere of peace, having provided a nine days’ wonder and horror for the smart ladies who had had their fortunes told by the philanthropic Miss Ferriby, was empty and “to let,” until an enterprising builder came and erected a row of cheaply built flats over the scene of Fiammetta’s adventures, and the crimes of the gang which worked under her orders.
More books from North View Publishing are on the following pages:
THE FANSHAWE MURDER
Violet Milton is working as a shorthand typist in New York when she inherits the largest paper mill in Europe. Feisty Violet decides to take over the running of the English company, and is warned by a well meaning employee that something mysterious and dangerous is being manufactured in secret in a hidden part of the factory.
This story was written in the 1920s when political correctness in fiction was not even on the horizon, and a villain was often physically disabled or disfigured to make him or her appear more villainous. Note that the physical descriptions of the characters are from the original book. This is an old fashioned story of murder, industrial mayhem, and a weapon of mass destruction -- with a touch of romance.
A thrilling chase through Europe as the Vatican and a neo-Nazi faction hunt down an ancient relic with a value greater than human life -- a relic that threatens the traditions of the Christian Church. Sturmbannführer Kessel killed to get his hands on the relic in wartime Rome. An elderly Jew risked his life to return it to a religion that was not his own. And today, Kessel's son wants it back -- to destroy the Christian Church and change the face of Europe. Someone is needed to probe the darkened web of evil. Into this explosive situation steps young priest Marco Sartini, once married, and still suffering the trauma of bereavement. The Vatican Security Services have found the perfect bait...
Martin Kramer's ambition is to become a deputy director of the CIA. But he brings the threat of nuclear war when he launches Operation Oracle, a personal campaign of hate against Israel. Sam Bolt gets caught up in Kramer's plans when he meets the mysterious Panya Pulaski from Unity Through Faith, a group trying to bring peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims in order to get aid and medicine to the Middle East. Sam is in trouble. With his children in care, and his partner missing with the lottery winnings, he is suspected of murder. And a relentless newspaper reporter refuses to leave him alone. When Sam hears of a wartime Gestapo officer buried in a Berlin cellar, he reluctantly flies to Germany to investigate. The body holds the key to an ancient prophecy that could blow Kramer's plans sky high. But all Sam wants is his children back. Eagle of Darkness -- a chilling chain of events running through America, England and Germany, coming to a gripping finale in the Red Mountains of Egypt.
Private investigator Matt Rider wants to find out if his grandfather killed Sophie Bernay, and uncovers an appalling international secret. Domestic Chemicals, a New York company owned by the Heinman dynasty, made poison gas for Nazi Germany. And now the past is back to haunt them – like the bloated corpse Frank B Heinman saw rising to the surface in the East River as a boy. Matt Rider in England and Frank Heinman in New York are on a collision course. The ex-president of Domestic Chemicals will make sure no one stays alive if he sees them as a danger to the company. Matt Rider just wants the truth. Hands of the Traitor is the first Matt Rider detective thriller.
Archbishop Valdieri from New York is impatient to get the Pope to the Clinic of the Little Sisters of Tourvillon in Avignon, France, for treatment. The surgeons at the American-owned clinic are eager to treat the Pope, but the Archbishop suspects there's a problem. Matt Rider, an English PI, is on holiday in Avignon with his girlfriend Zoé. They get talking to a local nurse in Avignon. She tells them that all is not well at the American clinic up on the hill. Matt thinks the nurse is crazy -- until her husband calls with devastating news. To investigate the clinic, Matt needs some bugs and a phone tap. But he doesn't know that the national security forces are involved, and he doesn't know that one of the surgeons will soon want Zoé dead. Shroud of the Healer is the second Matt Rider detective thriller.
Matt Rider is made an offer that seems too good to miss. Go to Prague, find some priceless music manuscripts -- and share in a fortune. Unfortunately, even for a confident backstreet PI, the clues are rather thin on the ground. All Matt knows is that a young Jewish girl called Hana Eisler had the manuscripts in Prague in 1942. Using old records from the Helios Music Academy in England, Matt tracks Hana's movements to a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic. And there the trail seems to end. The American violin teacher at the Helios Academy claims to know something about Hana's family. And so does the Academy dean. Matt decides to contact Hana in a séance. Taking place in England and the Czech Republic, Academy of the Dead is an exciting hunt for lost treasure. There are big stakes to play for -- and maybe not everyone can be trusted. Academy of the Dead is the third Matt Rider detective thriller.
Matt and Zoe’s baby, Jack, needs urgent treatment in a New York specialist hospital. Before treatment can start, Baby Jack is snatched. Has Jack been taken for ransom, for body parts, or by a powerful sect for indoctrination? An ex-cop offers to help, as does Simon Urquet (from Hands of the Traitor) and Archbishop Stephen Valdieri, now ex-Archbishop Stephen Valdieri (from Shroud of the Healer). Finding the baby still alive means a race against time. Zoe thinks that her mother's instinct will lead them to baby Jack, but she has to admit that she and Matt are, in her words, chasing the wild goose. Matt believes he has the answer, annoyed with himself for not putting the clues together sooner. But even that lead seems to finish at a dead end. And all the time the clock is ticking because Jack is not getting his urgent treatment -- assuming he's still alive! Eyes of the Innocent is the fourth Matt Rider detective thriller.
Welton Keynes sees a job as male secretary advertised by Miss Ferriby of The Lawns in London. On the way to the interview he is warned by neighbours that several young men employed in that house have disappeared. Ignoring the advice, he takes the job, but it is not long before Welton Keynes realizes something strange and dangerous is taking place in Miss Ferriby's house. There are her mysterious clients, wealthy men and women coming to attend her séances. Although the large house is well kept, there seem to be no servants apart from the footman who is strangely out of place in that role. Welton decides to explore behind the locked doors. What he discovers will sign his death warrant, unless ... This is an old fashioned story of murder, robbery and séances, with a touch of romance. It was written in 1910 when political correctness in fiction was not even on the horizon, and the main suspect was often physically disabled or disfigured (as here) to make him or her appear more evil. Note that the physical descriptions of the characters are from the original book. It's how writers wrote, and what readers read. Be warned: Miss Ferriby will carry on living in the some dark corner of your mind long after you have finished the story.