As We Forgive Them - novelonlinefull.com
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"There must, however, at the outset be a clear and distinct understanding between us. Therefore permit me for one moment to speak to you candidly, as a man should to a woman who is his friend. You, Mabel, are young, and--well, you are, as you know, very good-looking--"
"No, really, Mr. Greenwood," she cried, interrupting me and blushing at my compliment, "it is too bad of you. I'm sure--"
"Hear me out, please," I continued with mock severity. "You are young, you are very good-looking, and you are rich; you therefore possess the three necessary attributes which render a woman eligible in these modern days when sentiment is held of such little account. Well, people who will watch our intimate friendship will, with ill-nature, declare, no doubt, that I am seeking to marry you for your money. I am quite sure the world will say this, but what I want you to promise is to at once refute such a statement. I desire that you and I shall be firm friends, just as we have ever been, without any thought of affection. I may admire you--I confess, now, that I have always admired you--but with a man of my limited means love for you is entirely out of the question.
Understand that I do not wish to presume upon the past, now that your father is dead and you are alone. Understand, too, from the very outset that I now give you the hand of firm friendship as I would give it to Reggie, my old schoolfellow and best friend, and that in future I shall safeguard your interests as though they were my own." And I held out my hands to her.
For a moment she hesitated, for my words had apparently caused her the most profound surprise.
"Very well," she faltered, glancing for an instant up to my face. "It is a bargain--if you wish it to be so."
"I wish, Mabel, to carry out the promise I made to your father," I said.
"As you know, I am greatly indebted to him for much generosity, and I wish, therefore, as a mark of grat.i.tude, to stand in his place and protect his daughter--yourself."
"But were we not, in the first place, both indebted to you?" she said.
"If it had not been for Mr. Seton and yourself I might have wandered on until I died by the wayside."
"For what was your father searching?" I asked. "He surely told you?"
"No, he never did. I am in entire ignorance of the reason of his three years of tramping up and down England. He had a distinct object, which he accomplished, but what it actually was he would never reveal to me."
"It was, I suppose, in connexion with that doc.u.ment he always carried?"
"I believe it was," was her response. Then she added, returning to her previous observations, "Why speak of your indebtedness to him, Mr.
Greenwood, when I know full well how you sold your best horse in order to pay my school fees at Bournemouth, and that you could not hunt that season in consequence? You denied yourself the only little pleasure you had, in order that I might be well cared for."
"I forbid you to mention that again," I said quickly. "Recollect we are now friends, and between friends there can be no question of indebtedness."
"Then you must not talk of any little service my father rendered to you," she laughed. "Come, now, I shall be unruly if you don't keep to your part of the bargain!"
And so we were compelled at that juncture to cry quits, and we recommenced our friendship on a firm and perfectly well-defined basis.
Yet how strange it was! The beauty of Mabel Blair, as she lounged there before me in that magnificent home that was now hers, was surely sufficient to turn the head of any man who was not a Chancery Judge or a Catholic Cardinal--different indeed from the poor, half-starved girl whom I had first seen exhausted and fallen by the roadside in the winter gloom.
IN WHICH THE MYSTERY BECOMES CONSIDERABLY INCREASED.
That the precious doc.u.ment, or whatever it was, sewn up in the wash-leather which the dead man had so carefully guarded through all those years was now missing was, in itself, a very suspicious circ.u.mstance, while Mabel's vague but distinct apprehensions, which she either would not or could not define, now aroused my suspicions that Burton Blair had been the victim of foul play.
Immediately after leaving her I therefore drove to Bedford Row and held another consultation with Leighton, to whom I explained my grave fears.
"As I have already explained, Mr. Greenwood," responded the solicitor, leaning back in his padded chair and regarding me gravely through his gla.s.ses, "I believe that my client did not die a natural death. There was some mystery in his life, some strange romantic circ.u.mstance which, unfortunately, he never thought fit to confide to me. He held a secret, he told me, and by knowledge of that secret, he obtained his vast wealth. Only half an hour ago I made a rough calculation of the present value of his estate, and at the lowest, I believe it will be found to amount to over two and a half millions. The whole of this, I may tell you in confidence, goes unreservedly to his daughter, with the exception of several legacies, which include ten thousand each to Mr. Seton and to yourself, two thousand to Mrs. Percival, and some small sums to the servants. But," he added, "there is a clause in the will which is very puzzling, and which closely affects yourself. As we both suspect foul play, I think I may as well at once show it to you without waiting for my unfortunate client's burial and the formal reading of his will."
Then he rose, and from a big black deed box lettered "Burton Blair, Esquire," he took out the dead man's will, and, opening it, showed me a pa.s.sage which read:--
Ten: "I give and bequeath to Gilbert Greenwood of The Cedars, Helpstone, the small bag of chamois leather that will be found upon me at the time of my death, in order that he may profit by what is contained therein, and as recompense for certain valuable services rendered to me. Let him recollect always this rhyme--
"`_Henry the Eighth was a knave to his queens, He'd, one short of seven--and nine or ten scenes_!'
"And let him well and truly preserve the secret from every man, just as I have done."
That was all. A strange clause surely! Burton Blair had, after all, actually bequeathed his secret to me, the secret that had brought him his colossal wealth! Yet it was already lost--probably stolen by his enemies.
"That's a curious doggerel," the solicitor smiled. "But poor Blair possessed but little literary culture, I fear. He knew more about the sea than poetry. Yet, after all, it seems a tantalising situation that you should be left the secret of the source of my client's enormous fortune, and that it should be stolen from you in this manner."
"We had, I think, better consult the police, and explain our suspicions," I said, in bitter chagrin that the chamois sachet should have fallen into other hands.
"I entirely agree with you, Mr. Greenwood. We will go together to Scotland Yard and get them to inst.i.tute inquiries. If Mr. Blair was actually murdered, then his a.s.sa.s.sination was accomplished in a most secret and remarkable manner, to say the least. But there is one further clause in the will which is somewhat disturbing, and that is with regard to his daughter Mabel. The testator has appointed some person of whom I have never heard--a man called Paolo Melandrini, an Italian, apparently living in Florence, to be her secretary and the manager of her affairs."
"What!" I cried, amazed. "An Italian to be her secretary! Who is he?"
"A person with whom I am not acquainted; whose name, indeed, has never been mentioned to me by my client. He merely dictated it to me when I drafted the will."
"But the thing's absurd!" I exclaimed. "Surely you can't let an unknown foreigner, who may be an adventurer for all we know, have control of all her money?"
"I fear there's no help for it," replied Leighton, gravely. "It is written here, and we shall be compelled to give notice to this man, whoever he is, of his appointment at a salary of five thousand pounds a year."
"And will he really have control of her affairs?"
"Absolutely. Indeed, the whole estate is left to her on condition that she accepts this fellow as her secretary and confidential adviser."
"Why, Blair must have been mad!" I exclaimed. "Has Mabel any knowledge of this mysterious Italian?"
"She has never heard of him."
"Well, in that case, I think that, before he is informed of poor Blair's death and the good fortune in store for him, we ought at least to find out who and what he is. We can in any case, keep a watchful eye on him, and see that he doesn't trick Mabel out of her money."
The lawyer sighed, wiped his gla.s.ses slowly, and said--
"He will have the entire management of everything, therefore it will be difficult to know what goes on, or how much he puts into his own pocket."
"But whatever could possess Blair to insert such a mad clause as that?
Didn't you point out the folly of it?"
"And what did he say?"
"He reflected a few moments over my words, sighed, and then answered, `It is imperative, Leighton. I have no other alternative.' Therefore from that I took it that he was acting under compulsion."
"You believe that this foreigner was in a position to demand it--eh?"
The solicitor nodded. He evidently was of opinion that the reason of the introduction of this unknown person into Mabel's household was a secret one, known only to Burton Blair and to the individual himself.
It was curious, I reflected, that Mabel herself had not mentioned it to me. Yet perhaps she had hesitated, because I had told her of my promise to her father, and she did not wish to hurt my feelings. The whole situation became hourly more complicated and more mysterious.
I was, however, bent upon accomplishing two things; first, to recover the millionaire's most precious possession which he had bequeathed to me, together with such an extraordinary injunction to recollect that doggerel couplet which still ran in my head; and secondly, to make private inquiries regarding this unknown foreigner who had so suddenly become introduced into the affair.
That same evening at six o'clock, having met Reggie by appointment at Mr. Leighton's office, we all three drove to Scotland Yard, where we had a long consultation with one of the head officials, to whom we explained the circ.u.mstances and our suspicions of foul play.