As We Forgive Them - novelonlinefull.com
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Many and many a time since then have I recollected those strange, prophetic words of his as he sat at my table, shabby, unkempt and ravenously hungry, a worn-out, half-frozen tramp from the highroad, who, absurd as it then seemed, held the strong belief that ere long he would be the possessor of millions.
I remember well how I smiled at his vague a.s.sertion. Every man who falls low in the social scale clings to the will-o'-the-wisp belief that his luck will change, and that by some vagary of fortune he will come up again smiling. Hope is never dead within the ruined man.
By dint of some careful questions I tried to obtain further information regarding this confident hope of wealth which he entertained, but he would tell me nothing--absolutely nothing.
He accepted a cigar after he had dined well, took brandy with his coffee, and smoked with the air of a contented man who had no single thought or care in the world--a man who knew exactly what the future held for him.
Thus, from the very first, Burton Blair was a mystery. On rejoining Mabel we found her sleeping peacefully, utterly f.a.gged out. Therefore I induced him to remain beneath my roof that night, in order that she might rest, and, returning to the dining-room, her father and I sat together smoking and talking for several hours.
He told me of his hard, rough years at sea, of strange adventures in savage lands, of a narrow escape from death at the hands of a band of natives in the Cameroons, and of how, for three years, he acted as captain of a river-steamer up the Congo, one of the pioneers of civilisation. He related his thrilling adventures calmly and naturally, without any bragging, but just in that plain, matter-of-fact manner which revealed to me that he was one of those men who love an adventurous life because of its perils and its vicissitudes.
"And now I'm tramping the turnpikes of England," he added, laughing.
"You must, no doubt, think it very strange, Mr. Greenwood, but to tell you the truth I am actively prosecuting a rather curious quest, the successful issue of which will one day bring me wealth beyond my wildest dreams. See!" he added, with a strange wild look in his great dark eyes, as swiftly undoing his blue guernsey and delving beneath it he drew forth a square, flat piece of soiled and well-worn chamois leather in which there seemed to be sewed some precious doc.u.ment or other.
"Look! My secret lies here. Some day I shall discover the key to it-- maybe to-morrow or next day, or next year. When, it is quite immaterial. The result will be the same. My years of continuous search and travel will be rewarded--and I shall be rich, and the world will wonder!" And, laughing contentedly, almost triumphantly within himself, he carefully replaced his precious doc.u.ment in his chest, and, rising, stood with his back to the fire in the att.i.tude of a man entirely confident of what was written in the Book of Fate.
That midnight scene in all its strange, romantic detail, that occasion when the tired wayfarer and his daughter spent their first night as my guests, rose before me when, on that bright, cold afternoon following the inquest up at Manchester, I alighted from a cab in front of the big white house in Grosvenor Square, and received word of Carter, the solemn manservant, that Miss Mabel was at home.
The magnificent mansion, with its exquisite decorations, its genuine Louis Quatorze furniture, its valuable pictures and splendid examples of seventeenth century statuary, home of one to whom expense was surely of no account, was a.s.suredly sufficient testimony that the shabby wayfarer who had uttered those words in my narrow little dining-room five years before had made no idle boast.
The secret sewed within that dirty bag of wash-leather, whatever it may have been, had already realised over a million, and was still realising enormous sums, until death had now so suddenly put an end to its exploitation. The mystery of it all was beyond solution; and the enigma was complete.
These and other reflections swept through my mind as I followed the footman up the wide marble staircase and was shown ceremoniously into the great gold and white drawing-room, the walls of which were panelled with pale rose silk, the four large windows affording a wide view across the Square. Those priceless paintings, those beautiful cabinets and unique _bric-a-brac_--all were purchased with the proceeds from that mysterious secret, the secret which had in that short s.p.a.ce of five years been the means of transforming a homeless, down-at-heel wanderer into a millionaire.
Gazing aimlessly across the grey Square with its leafless trees, I stood undecided how best to break the sad news, when a slight _frou-frou_ of silk swept behind me, and, turning quickly, I confronted the dead man's daughter, looking now, at twenty-three, far more sweet, graceful and womanly than in that first hour of our strange meeting by the wayside long ago.
But her black gown, her trembling form, and her pale, tear-stained cheeks told me in an instant that this woman in my charge had already learnt the painful truth. She halted before me, a beautiful, tragic figure, her tiny white hand nervously clutching the back of one of the gilt chairs for support.
"I know!" she exclaimed in a broken voice, quite unnatural to her, her eyes fixed upon me, "I know, Mr. Greenwood, why you have called. The truth has been told to me by Mr. Leighton an hour ago. Ah! my poor dear father!" she sighed, the words catching in her throat as she burst into tears. "Why did he go to Manchester? His enemies have triumphed, just as I have all along feared they would. Yet, great-hearted as he was, he believed ill of no man. He refused always to heed my warnings, and laughed at all my apprehensions. Yet, alas! the ghastly truth is now only too plain. My poor father!" she gasped, her handsome face blanched to the lips. "He is dead--and his secret is out!"
WHICH TRAVERSES DANGEROUS GROUND.
"Are you really suspicious, Mabel, that your father has been the victim of foul play?" I inquired quickly of the dead man's daughter, standing pale and unnerved before me.
"I am," was her direct, unhesitating answer. "You know his story, Mr.
Greenwood; you know how he carried with him everywhere something he had sewed in a piece of chamois leather; something which was his most precious possession. Mr. Leighton tells me that it is missing."
"That is unfortunately so," I said. "We all three searched for it among his clothes and in his luggage; we made inquiry of the luncheon-car attendant who found him insensible in the railway carriage, of the porters who conveyed him to the hotel, of every one, in fact, but can find no trace of it whatsoever."
"Because it has been deliberately stolen," she remarked.
"Then your theory is that he has been a.s.sa.s.sinated in order to conceal the theft?"
She nodded in the affirmative, her face still hard and pale.
"But there is no evidence whatever of foul play, recollect," I exclaimed. "Both medical men, two of the best in Manchester, declared that death was entirely due to natural causes."
"I care nothing for what they say. The little sachet which my poor father sewed with his own hands, and guarded so carefully all these years, and which for some curious reason he would neither trust in any bank nor in a safe deposit vault, is missing. His enemies have gained possession of it, just as I felt confident they would."
"I recollect him showing me that little bag of wash-leather on the first night of our acquaintance," I said. "He then declared that what was contained therein would bring him wealth--and it certainly has done," I added, glancing round that magnificent apartment.
"It brought him wealth, but not happiness, Mr. Greenwood," she responded quickly. "That packet, the contents of which I have never seen, he has carried with him in his pocket or suspended round his neck ever since it first came into his possession years ago. In all his clothes he had a special pocket in which to carry it, while at night he wore it in a specially made belt which was locked around his waist. I think he regarded it as a sort of charm, or talisman, which, besides bringing him his great fortune, also preserved him from all ills. The reason of this I cannot tell."
"Did you never ascertain the nature of the doc.u.ment which he considered so precious?"
"I tried to do so many times, but he would never reveal it to me. `It was his secret,' he would say, and no more."
Both Reggie and I had, times without number, endeavoured to learn what the mysterious packet really contained, but had been no more successful than the charming girl now standing before me. Burton Blair was a strange man, both in actions and in words, very reserved regarding his own affairs, and yet, curiously enough, with the advent of prosperity he had become a prince of good fellows.
"But who were his enemies?" I inquired.
"Ah! of that I am likewise in utter ignorance," was her reply. "As you know, during the past year or two, like all rich men he has been surrounded by adventurers and parasites of all sorts, whom Ford, his secretary, has kept at arm's length. It may be that the existence of the precious packet was known, and that my poor father has fallen a victim to some foul plot. At east, that is my firm idea."
"If so, the police should certainly be informed," I said. "It is true that the wash-leather sachet which he showed me on the night of our first meeting is now missing, for we have all made the most careful search for it, but in vain. Yet what could its possession possibly profit any one if the key to what was contained there is wanting?"
"But was not this key, whatever it was, also in my father's hands?"
queried Mabel Blair. "Was it not the discovery of that very key which gave us all these possessions?" she asked, with the sweet womanliness that was her most engaging characteristic.
"Exactly. But surely your father, shrewd and cautious as he always was, would never carry upon his person both problem and key together! I can't really believe that he'd do such a foolish thing as that."
"Nor do I. Although I was his only child, and his confidante in everything relating to his life, there was one thing he persistently kept from me, and that was the nature of his secret. Sometimes I have found myself suspecting that it was not an altogether creditable one-- indeed, one that a father dare not reveal to his daughter. And yet no one has ever accused him of dishonesty or of double-dealing. At other times I have noticed in his face and manner an air of distinct mystery which has caused me to believe that the source of our unlimited wealth was some curious and romantic one, which to the world would be regarded as entirely incredible. One night, indeed, as we sat here at table after dinner, and while smoking, he had been telling me about my poor mother who died in lodgings in a back street in Manchester while he was absent on a voyage to the West Coast of Africa, he declared that if London knew the source of his income it would be astounded. `But,' he added, `it is a secret--a secret I intend to carry with me to the grave.'"
Strangely enough he had uttered those very same words to me a couple of years before, when one night he had sat before the fire in my rooms in Great Russell Street, and I had referred to his marvellous stroke of good fortune. He had died, and he had either carried out his threat of destroying that evidence of his secret in the shape of the well-worn chamois leather bag, or else it had been ingeniously stolen from him.
The curious, ill-written letter I had secured from my friend's luggage, while puzzling me had aroused certain suspicions that hitherto I had not entertained. Of these I, of course, told Mabel nothing, for I did not wish to cause her any greater pain. In the years we had been acquainted we had always been good friends. Although Reggie was fifteen years her senior, and I thirteen years older than she, I believe she regarded both of us as big brothers.
Our friendship had commenced when, finding Burton Blair, the seafaring tramp, practically-starving as he was, we clubbed together from our small means and put her to a finishing school at Bournemouth. To allow so young and delicate a girl to tramp England aimlessly in search of some vague and secret information which seemed to be her erratic father's object, was, we decided, an utter impossibility; therefore, following that night of our first meeting at Helpstone, Burton and his daughter remained our guests for a week, and, after many consultations and some little economies, we were at last successful in placing Mabel at school, a service for which we later received her heartfelt thanks.
She was utterly worn out, poor child. Poverty had already set its indelible stamp upon her sweet face, and her beauty was beginning to fade beneath that burden of disappointment and erratic wandering when we had so fortunately discovered her, and been able to rescue her from the necessity of tramping footsore over those endless, pitiless highways.
Contrary to our expectation it was quite a long time before we could induce Blair to allow his daughter to return to school, for, as a matter of fact, both father and daughter were entirely devoted to one another.
Nevertheless, in the end we triumphed, and later, when the bluff, bearded wayfarer came to his own, he did not forget to return thanks to us in a very substantial manner. Indeed, our present improved circ.u.mstances were due to him, for not only had he handed a cheque to Reggie sufficient to pay the whole of the liabilities of the Cannon Street lace business, but to me, on my birthday three years ago, he had sent, enclosed in a cheap, silver cigarette case, a draft upon his bankers for a sum sufficient to provide me with a very comfortable little annuity.
Burton Blair never forgot his friends--neither did he ever forgive an unkind action. Mabel was his idol, his only real confidante, and yet it seemed more than strange that she knew absolutely nothing of the mysterious source of his colossal income.
Together we sat for over an hour in that great drawing-room, the very splendour of which spoke mystery. Mrs. Percival, the pleasant, middle-aged widow of a naval surgeon, who was Mabel's chaperon and companion, entered, but left us quickly, much upset by the tragic news.
Presently, when I told Mabel of my promise to her father, a slight blush suffused her pale cheeks.
"It is really awfully good of you to trouble over my affairs, Mr.
Greenwood," she said, glancing at me, and then dropping her eyes modestly. "I suppose in future I shall have to consider you as my guardian," and she laughed lightly, twisting her ring around her finger.
"Not as your legal guardian," I answered. "Your father's lawyers will, no doubt, act in that capacity, but rather as your protector and your friend."
"Ah!" she replied sadly, "I suppose I shall require both, now that poor dad is dead."
"I have been your friend for over five years, Mabel, and I hope you will still allow me to carry out my promise to your father," I said, standing before her and speaking in deep earnestness.