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"Then for the legacy left me by poor Blair, I am, in a great measure, indebted to you?" I remarked, adding a word of thanks and pondering deeply over the revelation she had just made.
"I only did what was my duty to you both," was her response. "She loves you, as I say, and therefore, by a little persuasion you could, I feel convinced, induce her to tell us the truth concerning this man Dawson.
She has fled, it is true, but more in fear of what you may think of her when her secret is out, than of the man himself. Recollect," she added, "Mabel is pa.s.sionately fond of you, she has confessed it to me many times, but for some extraordinary reason which remains a mystery, she is endeavouring to repress her affection. She fears, I think, that on your part there is only friendship--that you are too confirmed a bachelor to regard her with any thoughts of affection."
"Oh, Mrs. Percival!" I cried, with a sudden outpouring, "I tell you, I confess to you that I have loved Mabel all along--I love her now, fondly, pa.s.sionately, with all that fierce ardour that comes to a man only once in his lifetime. She has misjudged me. It is I who have been foolishly at fault, for I have been blind, I have never read her heart's secret."
"Then she must know this at once," was the elderly woman's sympathetic answer. "We must discover her, at all costs, and tell her. There must be a reunion, and she on her part, must confess to you. I know too well how deeply she loves you," she added, "I know how she admires you and how, in the secrecy of her room, she has time after time wept long and bitterly because she believed you were cold and blind to the burning pa.s.sion of her true pure heart."
But how? The whereabouts of my well-beloved were unknown. She had disappeared completely, in order, it seemed, to escape some terrible revelation which she knew must be made sooner or later.
In the days that followed, while I lay still weak and helpless, both Ford and Reggie were active in their inquiries, but all in vain. I called in the solicitor, Leighton, in consultation, but he could devise no plan other than to advertise, yet to do so was, we agreed, scarcely fair to her.
Curiously enough the dark-faced young woman, Dorothy Dawson, otherwise Dolly, also betrayed the keenest anxiety for Mabel's welfare. Her mother was Italian, and she spoke English with a slight accent, having always, she said, lived in Italy. Indeed, she called upon me once to express her regret at my illness, and I found that she really improved on acquaintance. Her apparent coa.r.s.eness was only on account of her mixed nationality, and although she was a shrewd young person possessed of all the subtle Italian cunning, Reggie, I think, found her a bright and amusing companion.
All my thoughts were, however, of my sweet lost love, and of that common, arrogant fellow who, by his threats and taunts, held her so irresistibly and secretly in his power.
Why had she fled in terror from me, and why had such a dastardly and ingenious attempt been made to kill me?
I had solved the secret of the cipher only to be plunged still deeper into the mazes of doubt, despair and mystery, for what the closed book of the future held for me, was as you will see, truly startling and bewildering.
The truth when revealed was hard, solid fact, and yet so strange and amazing was it that it staggered all belief.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
CONTAINS A TERRIBLE DISCLOSURE.
Many long and dreary weeks had pa.s.sed before I had sufficiently recovered to leave the house, and, accompanied by Reggie, take my first drive.
It was mid April, the weather was still cold, and gay London had not yet returned from wintering in Monte Carlo, Cairo or Rome. Each year the society swallows, those people who fly south with the first chill day of autumn, return to town later, and each London season appears to be more protracted than before.
We drove down Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner, and then, turning along Const.i.tution Hill, drove along the Mall. Here a great desire seized me to rest for a brief while and enjoy the air in St. James's Park; therefore we alighted, paid the cabman, and, leaning upon Reggie's arm, I strolled slowly along the gravelled walks until we found a convenient seat. The glories of St. James's Park, even on an April day, are a joy for ever to the true Londoners. I often wonder that so few people take advantage of them. The wondrous trees, the delicious sheet of water, all the beauties of English rural scenery, and then the sense that all around you are the great palaces and departments, and offices in which the government of our great Empire is carried on--in other words, that commingling of silence at the core of feverish and tumultuous life outside--all these make St. James's Park one of the loveliest retreats in England.
These things Reggie and I repeated to each other, and then, under the soothing influence of the surroundings, there came musings and reminiscences and the long silences which come between friends and are the best symbols of their complete accord of feeling and opinion.
While we were thus seated I became conscious of the fact that we were in the spot above all others where one was certain to see pa.s.s, at that time of day most of the prominent political figures of the hour on their way to their various Departments, or to Parliament where the sitting was just commencing. A Cabinet Minister, two Liberal peers, a Conservative whip, and an Under-secretary pa.s.sed in rapid succession away in the direction of Storey's Gate.
Reggie, who took a great interest in politics, and had often occupied a seat in the Strangers' Gallery, was pointing out to me the politicians who pa.s.sed, but my thoughts were elsewhere--with my lost love. Now that Mrs. Percival had revealed to me the truth of Mabel's affection I saw how foolish I had been in making pretence of a coldness towards her that was the very opposite to the feeling which really existed in my heart.
I had been a fool, and had now to suffer.
During the weeks I had been confined to my room I had obtained a quant.i.ty of books, and discovered certain facts concerning the late Cardinal who had divulged the secret--whatever it was--in return for his release. It appeared that Andrea Sannini was a native of Perugia, who became Archbishop of Bologna, and was afterwards given the Cardinal's hat. A great favourite of Pius IX, he was employed by him upon many delicate missions to the various Powers. As a diplomatist he proved himself possessed of remarkable ac.u.men, therefore the Pope appointed him treasurer-general, as well as director of the world-famous museums and galleries of the Vatican. He was, it appeared, one of the most powerful and distinguished figures in the College of Cardinals, and became extremely prominent for the part he played on the occasion of the entry of the Italian troops into the Eternal City in 1870, while on the death of Pius IX, eight years later, he was believed to be designated as his successor, although on election the choice fell upon his colleague, the late Cardinal Pecci, who became Leo XIII.
I was reflecting upon these facts which I had established after a good deal of heavy reading, when Reggie suddenly cried in a low voice,--
"Why, look! there's Dawson's daughter walking with a man!"
I glanced quickly in the direction indicated and saw, crossing the bridge that spanned the lake and approaching in our direction, a well-dressed female figure in a smart jacket of caracul and neat toque, accompanied by a tall thin man in black.
Dolly Dawson was walking at his side leisurely, chatting and laughing, while he ever and anon bent towards her making some remarks. As he raised his head to glance across the water I saw that above his overcoat showed a clerical collar with a tiny piece of Roman purple. The man was evidently a canon or other dignitary of the Catholic Church.
He was about fifty-five, grey-haired, clean-shaven and wore a silk hat of a somewhat ecclesiastical shape, a rather pleasant-looking man in spite of his thin sensitive lips and pale ascetic face.
In an instant it struck me that they had met clandestinely and were sauntering there in order to avoid possible recognition if they walked the streets. The old priest appeared to be treating her with studied politeness, and as I watched him I saw from his slight gesticulations as he spoke that he was no doubt a foreigner.
I pointed out the fact to Reggie, who said--"We must watch them, old chap. They mustn't see us here. I only hope they'll turn off the other way."
For a moment we followed them with our eyes, fearing that, having crossed the bridge, they would turn in our direction, but fortunately they did not, but turned off to the right along the sh.o.r.e of the lake.
"If he really is Italian then he may have come specially from Italy to have an interview with her," I remarked. For ever since I had met the monk, Antonio, there had seemed some curious connexion between the secret of the dead cardinal and the Church of Rome.
"We must try and find out," declared Reggie. "You mustn't remain here.
It's getting too cold for you," he added, springing to his feet. "I'll follow them while you return home."
"No," I said. "I'll walk with you for a bit. I'm interested in the little game," and, rising also, I linked my arm in his and went forward by the aid of my stick.
They were walking side by side in earnest conversation. I could tell by the priest's quick gesticulations, the way in which he first waved his closed fingers and then raised his open hand and touched his left forearm, that he was speaking of some secret and the possessor of it who had disappeared. If one knows the Italian well, one can follow in a sense the topic of conversation by the gestures, each one having its particular signification.
Hurrying as well as I could we gradually gained upon them, for presently they slackened their pace, while the priest spoke earnestly, as though persuading the daughter of the ex-boatswain of the _Annie Curtis_ to act in some way he was directing.
She seemed silent, thoughtful and undecided. Once she shrugged her shoulders, and half-turned from him as though in defiance, when in a moment the wily cleric became all smiles and apologies. They were talking in Italian without a doubt, so as pa.s.sers-by might not understand their conversation. His clothes, too, I noticed were of a distinctly foreign cut and he wore low shoes, the bright steel buckles of which he had evidently taken off.
As they had come across the bridge she had been laughing merrily at some quaint remark of her companion's, but now it appeared as though all her gaiety had died out and she had realised the true object of the stranger's mission. The path they had taken led straight across to the Horse Guards' Parade, and feeling a few moments later that my weakness would not allow me to walk farther, I was compelled to turn back towards the York Column steps, leaving Reggie to make what observations he could.
I returned home thoroughly exhausted and very cold. Even my big frieze overcoat, which I used for driving when down at Helpstone, did not keep out the biting wind. So I sat over the fire for fully a couple of hours until my friend at last returned.
"I've followed them everywhere," he explained, throwing himself into an armchair opposite me. "He's evidently threatening her, and she is afraid of him When they got to the Horse Guards they turned back along Birdcage Walk and then across the Green Park. Afterwards he drove her in a cab to one of Fuller's shops in Regent Street. The old priest seems mortally afraid of being recognised. Before he left the Green Park he turned up the collar of his overcoat so as to hide that piece of purple at his collar."
"Did you discover his name?"
"I followed him to the _Savoy_, where he is staying. He has given his name as Monsignore Galli, of Rimini."
There our information ended. It, however, was sufficient to show that the ecclesiastic was in London with some distinct purpose, probably to induce the Ceco's daughter to give him certain information which he earnestly desired, and which he intended to obtain by reason of certain knowledge which he possessed.
The days pa.s.sed with gloom and rain, and Bloomsbury presented its most cheerless aspect. No trace could I discover of my lost love, and no further fact concerning the white-haired monsignore. The latter had, it appeared, left the _Savoy_ on the following evening, returning, in all probability, to the Continent, but whether successful in his mission or no we were in complete ignorance.
Dolly Dawson, with whom Reggie had struck up a kind of pleasant friendship, more for the purpose of being able to observe and question her than anything else, called upon us on the day following to inquire after me and hear whether we had learnt anything regarding Mabel's whereabouts. Her father, she told us, was absent from London for a few days, and she was about to leave for Brighton in order to visit an aunt.
Was it possible that Dawson, having learned of my solution of the cipher, had returned to Italy in order to secure the Cardinal's secret from us? I longed hour by hour for strength to travel out to that spot beside the Serchio, but was held to those narrow rooms by my terrible weakness.
Four long and dreary weeks pa.s.sed, until the middle of May, when I had gathered sufficient strength to walk out alone, and take short strolls in Oxford Street and its vicinity. Burton Blair's will had been proved, and Leighton, who visited us several times, told us of the recklessness with which the man Dawson was dealing with the estate. That the adventurer was in secret communication with Mabel was proved by the fact that certain cheques signed by her had pa.s.sed through his hands into the bank, yet strangely enough, he declared entire ignorance of her whereabouts.
Dawson had returned to Grosvenor Square, when one day at noon the footman, Carter, was ushered in to me by Glave.
I saw by his face that the man was excited, and scarcely had he been shown into my room before he exclaimed, saluting respectfully--
"I've found out Miss Mabel's address, sir! Ever since she's been gone I've kept my eyes on the letters sent to post, just as Mr. Ford suggested that I should, but Mr. Dawson never wrote to her until this morning, by accident I think, he sent a letter to the post addressed to her, among a number of others which he gave to the page-boy. She's at the Mill House, Church Enstone, near Chipping Norton."
In quick delight I sprang to my feet. I thanked him, ordered Glave to give him a drink and left London by the half-past one train for Oxfordshire.
Just before five o'clock I discovered the Mill House, a grey, old-fashioned place standing back behind a high box hedge from the village street at Church Enstone, on the highroad from Aylesbury to Stratford. Before the house was a tiny lawn, bright with tulip borders and sweet-smelling narcissi.