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As We Forgive Them Part 16

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Since that day the old place had remained absolutely unchanged, with its rows of dark, time-mellowed family portraits in the big hall, its Jacobean furniture and its old helmets and pikes that had borne the brunt of Naseby. The night was bitterly cold. In the great open hearth huge logs were blazing, and as we stood there to warm ourselves after our journey, Mrs. Gibbons, who had been apprised of our advent by telegraph, announced that she had prepared supper for us as she knew we could not arrive in time for dinner.

Both she and her husband expressed the deepest sympathy with Mabel in her bereavement, and then having removed our coats we went on into the small dining-room, where supper was served by Gibbons and the footman with that old-fashioned stateliness characteristic of all in that fine old-world mansion.

Gibbons and his wife, old retainers of the former owners, were, I think, somewhat surprised that I had accompanied their young mistress alone, nevertheless Mabel had explained to them how she wished to make a search of her father's effects in the library, and that for that reason she had invited me to accompany her. Yet I must confess that I, on my part, had not yet formed any conclusion as to the real reason of her visit. That there was some ulterior motive in it I felt certain, but what it was I could not even guess.

After supper Mrs. Gibbons took my pretty companion to her room, while Gibbons showed me the one prepared for me, a long big chamber on the first floor, from the windows of which I had a wide view over the undulating lawns to Wormsley Hill and Sarnesfield. I had occupied the room on several occasions, and knew it well, with its great old carved four-poster bed, antique hangings, Jacobean chests and polished oaken ceiling.

After a wash I rejoined my dainty little hostess in the library--a big, long, old room, where a fire burned brightly and the lamps were softly shaded with yellow silk. Over the fireplace were craved in stone the three water-bougets of the Baddesleys, with the date 1601, while the whole room from end to end was lined with brown-backed books that had probably not been disturbed for half-a-century.

After Mabel had allowed me a cigarette and told Gibbons that she did not wish to be disturbed for an hour or so, she rose and turned the key behind the servants, so that we might carry out the work of investigation without interruption.

"Now," she said, turning her fine eyes upon me with an excitement she could not suppress as she walked to the big writing-table and took her father's keys from her pocket, "I wonder whether we shall discover anything of interest. I suppose," she added, "it is really Mr.

Leighton's duty to do this. But I prefer that you and I should look into my father's affairs prior to the inquisitive lawyer's arrival."

It almost seemed as if she half-expected to discover something which she desired to conceal from the solicitor.

The dead man's writing-table was a ponderous old-fashioned one of carved oak, and as she unlocked the first drawer and turned out its contents, I drew up chairs and settled with her in order to make a methodical and thorough examination. The papers, we found, were mostly letters from friends, and correspondence from solicitors and brokers regarding his investments in various quarters. From some which I read I gathered what enormous profits he had made over certain deals in Kaffirs, while in certain other correspondence were allusions to matters which, to me, were very puzzling.

Mabel's eager att.i.tude was that of one in search of some doc.u.ment or other which she believed to be there. She scarcely troubled to read any of the letters, merely scanning them swiftly and casting them aside.

Thus we examined the contents of one drawer after another until I saw beneath her hand a blue foolscap envelope sealed with black wax, and bearing the superscription in her father's handwriting:--

"To be opened by Mabel after my death.--Burton Blair."

"Ah!" she gasped in breathless haste. "I wonder what this contains?"

And she eagerly broke the seals, and drew forth a sheet of foolscap closely written, to which some other papers were attached by means of a bra.s.s fastener.

From the envelope, too, something fell, and I picked it up, finding to my surprise that it was a snap-shot photograph much worn and tattered, but preserved by being mounted upon a piece of linen. It was a half-faded view of a country crossroads in a flat and rather dismal country, with a small lonely house, probably once an old toll-house, with high chimneys standing on the edge of the highway, a small strip of flower-garden railed off at the side. Before the door was a rustic porch covered by climbing roses, and out on the roadside an old Windsor armchair that had apparently just been vacated.

While I was examining the view beneath the lamp-light, the dead man's daughter was reading swiftly through those close lines her father had penned.

Suddenly she uttered a loud cry as though horrified by some discovery, and, startled, I turned to glance at her. Her countenance had changed; she was blanched to the lips.

"No!" she gasped hoa.r.s.ely. "I--I can't believe it--I won't!"

Again she glanced at the paper to re-read those fateful lines.

"What is it?" I inquired anxiously. "May I not know?" And I crossed to where she stood.

"No," she answered firmly, placing the paper behind her. "No! Not even you may know this!" And with a sudden movement she tore the paper to pieces in her hands, and ere I could rescue it, she had cast the fragments into the fire.

The flames leapt up, and next instant the dead man's confession--if such it were--was consumed and lost for ever, while his daughter stood, haggard, rigid and white as death.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

IN WHICH TWO CURIOUS FACTS ARE ESTABLISHED.

Mabel's sudden action both annoyed and surprised me, for I had believed that our friendship was of such a close and intimate character that she would at least have allowed me sight of what her father had written.

Yet when, next second, I reflected that the envelope had been specially addressed to her, I saw that whatever was contained therein had been intended for her eye alone.

"You have discovered something which has upset you?" I said, looking straight into her white, hard-drawn face. "I hope it is really nothing very disconcerting?"

She held her breath for a moment, her hand instinctively upon her breast as though to still the wild beating of her heart.

"Ah! unfortunately it is," was her answer. "I know the truth now--the awful, terrible truth." And without a word of warning she covered her face with her hands and burst into a torrent of tears.

At her side in an instant I was striving to console her, but I quickly realised what a deep impression of dismay and horror those written words of her dead father had produced upon her. She was filled with grief, and utterly inconsolable.

The quiet of that long, old-fashioned room was unbroken save for her bitter sobs and the solemn tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock at the further end of the apartment. My hand was placed tenderly upon the poor girl's shoulder, but it was a long time ere I could induce her to dry her tears.

When she did so, I saw by her face that she had become a changed woman.

Walking back to the writing-table she took up the envelope and re-read the superscription which Blair had written upon it, and then for the first time her eyes fell upon the photograph of that lonely house by the crossways.

"Why!" she cried, startled, "where did you find this?"

I explained that it had dropped from the envelope, whereupon she took it up and gazed, for a long time upon it. Then, turning it over, she discovered what I had not noticed, namely, written faintly in pencil and half effaced were the words, "Owston crossroads, 9 miles beyond Doncaster on the Selby Road.--B. B."

"Do you know what this is?"

"No, I haven't the least idea," I answered. "It must be something of which your father was very careful. It seems to be well worn, too, as though carried in somebody's pocket."

"Well," she said, "I will tell you. I had no idea that he still preserved it, but I suppose he kept it as a souvenir of those weary journeys of long ago. This photograph," she added, holding it still in her hand, "is the picture of the spot for which he searched every turnpike in England. He had the photograph but nothing else to guide him to the spot, and we were therefore compelled to tramp all the main roads up and down the country in an attempt to identify it. Not until nearly a year after you and Mr. Seton had so kindly placed me at school at Bournemouth did my father, still on his lonely tramp, succeed in discovering it after a search lasting over three years. He identified it one summer evening as the crossways at Owston, and he found living in that house the person of whom he had been all those weary months in search."

"Curious," I said. "Tell me more about it."

"There is nothing else to tell, except that, by identifying the house, he obtained the key to the secret--at least, that is what I always understood from him," she said. "Ah, I recollect all those long wearying walks when I was a girl, how we trudged on over those long, white, endless roads, in sunshine and in rain, envying people in carriages and carts, and men and women on bicycles, and yet my courage always supported by my father's declaration that great fortune must be ours some day. He carried this photograph with him always, and almost at each crossroad he would take it out, examine the landscape and compare it, not knowing, of course, but that the old toll-house might have been pulled down since the taking of the picture."

"Did he never tell you the reason why he wished to visit that house."

"He used to say that the man who lived there--the man who used to sit on summer evenings in that chair outside, was his friend--his good friend; only they had been parted for a long time, and he did not know that my father was still alive. They had been friends abroad, I fancy, in the days when my father was at sea."

"And the identification of this spot was the reason of your father's constant wanderings?" I exclaimed, pleased that I had at last cleared up one point which, for five years or so, had been a mystery.

"Yes. A month after he had made the discovery he came to Bournemouth, and told me in confidence that his dream of great wealth was about to be realised. He had solved the problem, and within a week or two would be in possession of ample funds. He disappeared, you will remember, almost immediately, and was away for a month. Then he returned a rich man--so rich that you and Mr. Seton were utterly dumbfounded. Don't you recollect that night at Helpstone, after I had come from school to spend a week with my father on his return? We were sitting together after dinner and poor father recalled the last occasion when we had all a.s.sembled there--the occasion when I was taken ill outside," she added.

"And don't you recollect Mr. Seton appearing to doubt my father's statement that he was already worth fifty thousand pounds."

"I remember," I answered, as her clear eyes met mine. "I remember how your father struck us utterly dumb by going upstairs and fetching his banker's pa.s.s-book, which showed a balance of fifty-four thousand odd pounds. After that he became more than ever a mystery to us. But tell me," I added in a low, earnest voice, "what have you discovered to-night that has so upset you?"

"I have nearly found proof of a fact that I have dreaded for years--a fact that affects not only my poor father's memory, but also myself. I am in peril--personal danger."

"How?" I asked quickly, failing to understand her meaning. "Recollect that I promised your father to act as your protector."

"I know, I know. It is awfully good of you," she said, looking at me gratefully with those wonderful eyes that had always held me fascinated beneath the spell of her beauty. "But," she added, shaking her head sorrowfully, "I fear that in this you will be powerless. If the blow falls, as it must sooner or later, then I shall be crushed and helpless.

No power, not even your devoted friendship, can then save me."

"You certainly speak very strangely, Mabel. I don't follow you at all."

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As We Forgive Them Part 16 summary

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