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"Dawson feared to come to England," Reggie remarked.
"Yes," answered the old man. "There was a rather ugly incident in Liverpool a few years ago--that's the reason."
"There is no negative evidence regarding the actual gift of the pack of cards to Blair by this reformed outlaw, is there!" I inquired.
"None whatever. For my own part I believe that Poldo gave them to Blair together with instruction to return ash.o.r.e and find me, because he had showed him many little kindnesses during repeated illnesses. Poldo, on giving up his evil ways, had become religious and used to attend sailors' Bethels and missions when ash.o.r.e, while Blair was, as you know, a very G.o.d-fearing man for a sailor. When I recollect all the circ.u.mstances, I believe it was only natural that Poldo should give the dead Cardinal's secret into the hands of his best friend."
"The spot indicated is near Lucca in Tuscany," I remarked. "You say that this outlaw, Poldo Pensi, had been there and made an investigation.
What did he find?"
"He found what the Cardinal had told him he would find. But he never explained to me its nature. All he would tell was that the secret would render its possessor a very wealthy man--which it certainly did in Blair's case."
"The connexion of the Church between the late Cardinal Sannini and Fra Antonio, the Monk of Lucca, is strange," I observed. "Is the monk, I wonder, in possession of the secret? He certainly had some connexion with the affair, as shown by his constant consultations with the man Dawson."
"No doubt," remarked Reggie, turning over the little cards idly. "We've now got to discover the exact position of both men, and at the same time prevent this fellow Dawson from obtaining too firm a hold on Mabel Blair's fortune."
"Leave that to me," I said confidently. "For the present our line of action is quite clear. We must investigate the spot on the bank of the Serchio and discover what is hidden there." Then turning to Hales, I added, "In the record it is, I notice, distinctly directed `First find the old man who lives at the house by the crossways.' What does that mean? Why is that direction given?"
"Because I suppose that when the record was written upon these cards I was the only other person having any knowledge of the Cardinal's secret--the only person, too, possessing the key to the cipher."
"But you affected ignorance of all this at first," I said, still viewing the old fellow with some suspicion.
"Because I was not certain of your _bona-fides_," he laughed quite frankly. "You took me by surprise, and I was not inclined to show my hand prematurely."
"Then you have really told us all you know?" Reggie said.
"Yes, I know no more," he replied. "As to what is contained at the spot indicated in the record, I am quite ignorant. Remember that Blair has paid me justly, even more than he stipulated, but as you are well aware he was a most reserved man concerning his own affairs, and left me in entire ignorance."
"You can give us no further information regarding this one-eyed man who seems to have been Blair's partner in the extraordinary enterprise?"
"None, except that he's a very undesirable acquaintance. It was Poldo who nicknamed him `The Ceco.'"
"And the monk who calls himself Fra Antonio?"
"I know nothing of him--never heard of any such person."
It was upon the tip of my tongue to inquire whether the old man had a son, and if that son's name was Herbert, recollecting, as I did, that tragic midnight scene in Mayvill Park. Yet, fortunately perhaps, I was prompted to remain silent, preferring to conceal my knowledge and to await developments of the extraordinary situation.
Still a fierce, mad jealousy was gnawing at my heart. Mabel, the calm, sweet girl I loved so well, and whose future had been entrusted to me, had, like so many other girls, committed the grievous error of falling in love with a common man, rough, uncouth, and far beneath her station.
Love in a cottage--about which we hear so much--is all very well in theory, just as is the empty-pocket-light-heart fallacy, but in these modern days the woman habituated to luxury can never be happy in the four-roomed house any more than the man who gallantly marries for love and foregoes his inheritance.
No. Each time I recollected that young ruffian's sneers and threats, his arrogance and his final outburst of murderous pa.s.sion, which had been so near producing a fatal termination to my well-beloved, my blood boiled. My anger was aflame. The fellow had escaped, but within myself I determined that he should not go scot-free.
And yet, when I recollected, it seemed as though Mabel were utterly and irresistibly in that man's power, even though she had attempted defiance.
We remained with Hales and his wife for another hour learning few additional facts except from a word that the old lady let drop. I ascertained that they actually had a son whose name was Herbert, but whose character was none too good.
"He was in the stables at Belvoir," his mother explained when I made inquiry of him. "But he left nearly two years ago, and we haven't seen him since. He writes sometimes from various places and appears to be prospering."
The fellow was, therefore, as I had surmised from his appearance, a horsekeeper, a groom, or something of that kind.
It was already half-past seven when we arrived back at King's Cross, and after a hasty chop at a small Italian restaurant opposite the station, we both drove to Grosvenor Square, in order to explain to Mabel our success in the solution of the cipher.
Carter, who admitted us, knew us so well that he conducted us straight upstairs to the great drawing-room, so artistically lit with its shaded electric lights placed cunningly in all sorts of out-of-the-way corners.
Upon the table was a great old punch-bowl, full of splendid Gloire de Dijon roses, which the head gardener sent with the fruit from the house at Mayvill daily. Their arrangement was, I knew, by the hand of the woman whom for years I had secretly admired and loved. Upon a side table was a fine panel photograph of poor Burton Blair in a heavy silver frame, and upon the corner his daughter had placed a tiny bow of c.r.a.pe to honour the dead man's memory. The great house was full of those womanly touches that betrayed the sweet sympathy of her character and the calm tranquillity of her life.
Presently the door opened, and we both rose to our feet, but instead of the bright, sunny-hearted girl with the musical voice and merry, open face, there entered the middle-aged bearded man in gold-rimmed gla.s.ses, who was once the bo'sun of the barque _Annie Curtis_ of Liverpool, and afterwards had been the secret partner of Burton Blair.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he exclaimed, bowing with that forced veneer of polish he sometimes a.s.sumed. "I am very pleased to welcome you here in my late friend's house. I have, as you will perceive, taken up my quarters here in accordance with the terms of poor Blair's will, and I am pleased to have this opportunity of again meeting you."
The fellow's cool impudence took us both entirely aback. He seemed so entirely confident that his position was una.s.sailable.
"We called to see Miss Blair," I explained. "We were not aware that you were about to take up your residence here quite so quickly."
"Oh, it is best," he a.s.sured us. "There are a great many matters in connexion with Blair's wide interests that require immediate attention,"
and as he was speaking, the door again opened and there entered a dark-haired woman of about twenty-six, of medium height, rather showily dressed in a black, low-cut gown, but whose countenance was of a rather common type, yet, nevertheless, somewhat prepossessing.
"My daughter, Dolly," explained the one-eyed man. "Allow me to introduce you," and we both gave her rather a cold bow, for it seemed that they had both made their abode there, and taken over the management of the house in their own hands.
"I suppose Mrs. Percival still remains?" I inquired after a few moments, on recovering from the shock at finding the adventurer and his daughter were actually in possession of that splendid mansion which half London admired and the other half envied--the place of which numerous photographs and descriptions had appeared in the magazines and ladies'
"Yes, Mrs. Percival is still in her own sitting-room. I left her there five minutes ago. Mabel, it seems, went out at eleven o'clock this morning and has not returned."
"Not returned," I exclaimed in quick surprise. "Why not?"
"Mrs. Percival seems to be very upset. Fears something has happened to her, I think."
Without another word I ran down the broad staircase with its crystal bal.u.s.trade and, tapping at the door of the room, set apart for Mrs.
Percival, and announcing my ident.i.ty, was at once allowed admittance.
The instant the prim elderly widow saw me she sprang to her feet in terrible distress, crying--
"Oh, Mr. Greenwood, Mr. Greenwood! What can we do? How can we treat these terrible people? Poor Mabel left this morning and drove in the brougham to Euston Station. There she gave Peters this letter, addressed to you, and then dismissed the carriage. What can it possibly mean?"
I took the note she handed me and tremblingly tore it open, to find a few hurriedly scribbled lines in pencil upon a sheet of notepaper, as follows:--
"Dear Mr. Greenwood,--You will no doubt be greatly surprised to learn that I have left home for ever. I am well aware that you entertain for me as high a regard and esteem as I do for you, but as my secret must come out, I cannot remain to face you of all men. These people will hound me to death, therefore I prefer to live in secret beyond the reach of their taunts and their vengeance than to remain and have the finger of scorn pointed at me. My father's secret can never become yours, because his enemies are far too wily and ingenious. Every precaution has been taken to secure it against all your endeavours. Therefore, as your friend I tell you it is no use grinding the wind. All is hopeless!
Exposure means to me a fate worse than death! Believe me that only desperation has driven me to this step because my poor father's cowardly enemies and mine have triumphed. Yet at the same time I ask you to forget entirely that any one ever existed of the name of the ill-fated, unhappy and heartbroken Mabel Blair."
I stood with the open, tear-stained letter in my hand absolutely speechless.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
THE MYSTERY OF A NIGHT'S ADVENTURE.
"Exposure means to me a fate worse than death," she wrote. What could it mean?
Mrs. Percival divined by my face the gravity of the communication, and, rising quickly to her feet, she placed her hand tenderly upon my shoulder, asking--