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LORD ARNCLIFFE CONTINUES THE DISPUTE
"POISONED?" cried Harry Warren, with the loud scorn of a man asked to credit the incredible.
"Poisoned?" echoed his mother, gazing affrightedly at Lester. Her thin face blanched and she clutched at the steel chain which held the bunch of jangling keys as though the suggestion conveyed a sinister imputation against her household management.
And Dr. Smalley became angry indeed.
"Stuff and nonsense!" he almost shouted. "How dare you come here, sir, and make such ridiculous statements? His lordship has been my patient for years. There is not the slightest ground for your opinion. It is grotesque and untenable. It amounts to a positive outrage. I absolutely refuse to accept it."
Lester looked the enraged little man straight in the eyes. The wrathful obstinacy he found therein would have amused him under different conditions. As it was, he declined the threatened argument.
"I have warned you, and I consider that my duty ends there," he said quietly. "I came to Arncliffe in search of peace. Believe me, I have no wish to be drawn into a distasteful controversy."
But Dr. Smalley was not to be pacified.
"You seem to forget, sir," he vociferated, "that your idiotic charge contains a grave reflection on my treatment of his lordship, and implies either that he has killed himself or that some member of his household has committed murder. Let me tell you, sir—"
Lester waved a deprecating hand to stay the torrent of words. He went out, closing the door behind him. None of the others offered to stay his departure. It was only natural that they should take Dr. Smalley's view of the dispute.
At the door, he told the waiting gardener to lead the horse to the stables. Dr. Smalley's gig was standing there, too. For the second time within the hour he walked slowly back to the village.
Half-way he met the groom, who seemed to be surprised.
"Is his lordship better, sir?" inquired the man.
"He is dead," was the answer. Ere the groom could gurgle forth his amazement, Lester asked him if he had seen Dr. Smalley.
"No, sir," he replied.
"Then the doctor must have heard of Lord Arncliffe's illness from some other source; he is at the Hall now."
"He may have come into the park by the West Lodge, sir. It is possible he drove through on his way home. But for goodness' sake, sir, what did his lordship die of?"
"Dr. Smalley has been in attendance on your master. He will assign the cause of death," was the guarded answer. If Lester could help it, no hint of a difference between doctors should pass beyond the confines of the dimly lighted room where lay the mortal remains of the owner of Arncliffe.
Before he reached the "Fisherman's Rest" he had made up his mind to pursue a definite course. His assumption that Lord Arncliffe had been poisoned, either by design or accident, rested on no more firm basis than a guess, a scientific guess, it is true, but without the essential warrant of thorough investigation. Perhaps he was mistaken. An old man, possibly somewhat eccentric in his ways, and with dogmatic views anent food and medicine, might easily have acquired symptoms calculated to deceive the eye of even an experienced investigator like George Lester.
The village doctor did not know that his imaginary rival was one of the most eminent toxicologists of the day. Passing out of Edinburgh University, after taking the highest honors in materia medial and chemistry, Lester was at once appointed lecturer in the first of these sciences; but no sooner had he laid the foundations of a most successful career than he imperiled his future by accepting a trivial appointment on the staff of a West African exploration company. In reality, he enhanced his reputation. His studies in plant and insect poison, carried on in the Ashanti bush, earned him a world-wide reputation. Before he was thirty he was famous.
Such credentials do not render a man bumptious or intolerant. Only he who climbs the tree of knowledge can tell how wary must be each upward step, and George Lester, the brilliant investigator, honored by his own government, a recognized authority in the medical schools of the Continent, was in a curiously humble frame of mind as he entered the village. He already regretted the momentary resentment of Dr. Smalley's pompous air which induced him to utter the drastic opinion. The little doctor might have been profoundly amazed were he able to read Lester's thoughts at that moment. Conviction was rapidly yielding to doubt. There was some chance that, ere night fell, the author of "Toxic Analysis" would seek the fiery-eyed Smalley and apologize to him.
But the circumstances which conspire against human happiness wing their unseen flight from the most unlikely quarters. "Jolly Jim " Jones, noted only for his laugh and his taste in beer, was the unconscious agent who quickened a lulled suspicion into fresh activity.
Although genuinely sorry to hear that the Earl was dead, Jones soon recovered his wonted buoyancy and proceeded to entertain his guest with reminiscences of the deceased peer.
"By gum! " said he, " I thowt his lo'dship 'ud live till he wur a hundred. He wur hard as nails, teuf as a bit o' seasoned yak." (Anglice, oak.) "An' he wur a clever owd bird, too. He knew summat about everythink. One day he chaffed me wi' more ways o' hocussing spirits than I'd ivver heerd tell of afore. Gosh! he med me roar."
And Jones showed how he roared.
"Another time," he went on, after regaining his breath, "his lo'dship walked around my bit o' garden, an' he nearly skeered me into a fit. By gum! he said as how honey could be poisoned by bees feedin' on rhodydendrums, and henbane or water dropwort mistakken for parsnips. As for mushrooms, he called 'em sike neäms I've nivver had one i' t' house since."
Lester suddenly found the garrulous landlord's talk exceedingly interesting.
"Did Lord Arncliffe really show much knowledge of poisons?" he asked.
"Poisons?" repeated Jones, grinning widely.
"I'll take my solemn davy he a'most med me suspect my own beer. He talked about some stuff he called pick-row-somethin'-or-other—"
"Ay, that's it. By gum! Gives man a taste o' that in a pint an' you'll see things. You doctors mun be rum fellers to quarrel wi', to my thinkin'."
Such obvious philosophy required a pull at the beer-handle to soften its rigor. Lester escaped to his room, sat down at a writing-table, and set forth on paper, briefly but clearly, his reasons for thinking that Lord Arncliffe had died from arsenical poisoning. After the landlord's curiously appropriate story he had no other course left open. There might be an inquest, with far-reaching consequences. No matter what the inconvenience to himself, he could not shirk the outcome of his own definite pronouncement in the presence of four persons. So George Lester wrote a short record of the facts, sealed the paper in an envelope, and gave it to the landlord, with a request that the latter should place it in his safe.
"You will not forget the date and the hour?" he said, noticing that Jones weighed the small package in his hand with a certain air of doubt.
noä, sir," grinned the other. "What is
"Certainly, sir. I'm a careful man meself. I nivver buy owt that I doän't enter t' day an' t' price in a note-book. Once I bowt a pig—"
A maid reported that a fine trout and other delicacies awaited Lester in the coffee-room, so the pig-buying episode was interrupted. Lester dined alone. There happened to be no other anglers staying at the inn that day. Propping a London daily paper against the cruet-stand, he endeavored to read an article dealing with Anglo-American influences on affairs in the Far East. In a word, he determined to rid his thoughts of all further speculation about the dead master of Arncliffe, and succeeded so well that, with coffee and a cigar, he wheeled his chair to secure a better light while he scanned the newspaper in comfort.
Hence, he was positively surprised when the maid brought a letter, correctly addressed to him, and bearing the Arncliffe arms, a stag couchant proper on a field d'or. But his surprise kindled into actual amazement when he read:
"Dear Sir: Simpson, the man who was present to-day when you met Dr. Smalley in Lord Arncliffe's bedroom, has told me what you said. I was so shocked and grieved by the death of one to whom I owe everything that I failed at first to give your words their true significance. Now, however, I feel it a sacred duty that I should acquaint you with certain matters within my knowledge. I do not think I can ask you to come to the Hall, and, in a small place like Arncliffe, it would cause needless comment were I to call and see you at the inn. Can you meet me at the East Lodge gate at nine o'clock? The terrible occurrence of this afternoon must be my excuse for such an unconventional request. Yours faithfully,
"P. S. I have been Lord Arncliffe's secretary and amanuensis during the past three years. I should add that it was to my assistance you came to-day in the Fen Ghyll.
Although not a man of hesitating mood, Lester drew a deep breath of dubiety when he reached the end of this short but decisive note. There are, in a man's life, certain rare moments of divination. They are mysterious, occult, fleeting as the gleam of lightning in the depths of a somber cloud. They carry an impalpable message of hidden fate, so distinct as to be undeniable, yet so vague that no sane intelligence can interpret them for good or evil. One of these glimpses behind the veil of futurity was vouchsafed to him now, and he wondered with unaccustomed awe what the portent signified. He was sure that the tryst fixed for the ensuing hour would have an uncontrollable influence on his career. Events were slowly but inexorably conspiring to enmesh him within a web of exceeding strength. Should he escape while yet the way was open?
A polite refusal to meet this lovely "marquise," on the plea that he was leaving Arncliffe at once, showed the path of expediency. His eyes, fixed in thought, fell again on the letter: "The death of one to whom I owe everything," she wrote. Once before that day he had gone to her in a moment of distress. Should he refuse her now in a greater need? George Lester might be a clever and clear-sighted young man, nevertheless, he was a young man.
"Tell the messenger I will keep the appointment," he said to the waiting servant. "Or, perhaps, I had better write a note."
"Please, sir, the boy said there was no answer. He has gone."
Then Lester laughed. He was spared all hesitancy. It was intolerable that Miss Edith Holt, the girl with the Greuze face and figure, should be allowed to wait in vain outside the East Lodge for one who came not.
"No answer is the most conclusive of all answers," he said, and smiled.
The girl smiled, too, though she understood him not at all.
"He is such a nice gentleman!" she confided to the kitchen maid, who was dressed for going out.
"But he looks at you sometimes as if he didn't see you."
"An' that won't suit you," commented the other tartly, the house-maid being the better looking of the pair.
"I'm not used to it like you are, Lizzie," was the flippant retort.
Lizzie glared, but curiosity conquered pique when her fellow-servant went on:
"I've just given him a note from the Hall. It was in a lady's handwriting. I wonder who he knows there?"
"Who brought it?"
"Jackson's little boy." Jackson was a gardener employed on the Arncliffe estate.
"If I meet him I'll ask who sent it."
"It was to make an appointment of some sort."
"You don't say? I'll just hurry out. Mebbe I'll overtake him."
So Lizzie hurried, and caught the Jackson urchin swapping marbles with another boy on the outskirts of the village. But she failed to extract any information from him, a largesse of sixpence having insured discretion.
Lizzie was baffled. She went to visit a friend, and it was one of the queer coincidences of fate that she should happen to catch sight of George Lester's tall figure as he strolled toward the park a few minutes before nine o'clock.
"Well, I must be off now," she cried, a sudden impulse moving her to follow him.
"Why, this is no time to go!" protested her gossip. "You needn't be home yet for another hour or more."
"I've got to meet me sweetheart," grinned Lizzie. "You told me he was given a job in Newcastle as a porter."
"This is a friend of his who takes care of me on his account," was the jaunty reply, and Lizzie darted forth into the soft shadows of a fine June night.
Within the nearest gate of the park Lester saw Edith Holt. Though, of course, she was attired in different garments from the summer-like costume of their earlier meeting, he recognized her at the first glance. She walked with a free elegance, and carried herself with a distinction that would serve to single her out from a crowd anywhere. Here, with never a rival, Edith Holt had the semblance of a rank far higher than that accorded her by the landlord's chatter.
Being neither a prude nor a gallant, Lester wondered what their strange meeting really meant. He realized that the girl must have yielded to some powerful motive ere she wrote to him, and he felt, too, that it lay with him to redeem her from the natural embarrassment of their first exchange of words. Hence, the surprises of that day of bewilderment were only increased when he found that Miss Holt, who passed through the gate before he could reach it, took the lead in their conversation.
"It is very good of you to be so punctual," she said. "Shall we walk this way?"
She indicated the high road, leading away from the village.
"I am entirely at your service," said Lester.
"I need hardly apologize for my letter," she began again instantly. "Most fortunately, you are a doctor, and, in grave trouble, one turns to a doctor for help as instinctively as to a lawyer or a clergyman."
"You have my sympathy already, and believe me you shall have my best counsel," said he.
Now, the truth was that Lester was taken aback by the girl's demeanor. He was in no way conceited, nor could his detractors, if such existed, describe him as a "ladies' man." But that this beautiful young woman should so calmly relegate him to the category of fatherly gray-heads gave him a twinge of annoyance that none of her sex had succeeded in inflicting before.
Utterly unconscious of her own attitude, Edith Holt passed a hand over her eyes as though to clear away a baffling mist.
"The Earl was my only friend," she continued in a strained, nervous manner which told how feverishly she was controlling her emotions. "I did not exaggerate when I said that I owed everything in the world to him. When my dear father died, nearly ten years ago, I was left alone, a little girl of nine, but Heaven inspired my father on his death-bed to write to his old school-fellow, Sir William Bradshaw, as he was then, and ask him to care for me."
"Sir William Bradshaw, the great cotton manufacturer! Did he become Earl of Arncliffe?"
"Yes, only three years since. His gifts to the nation, his endowment of two universities, brought him a peerage, which be accepted only as a joke. 'It will inter me decently,' he used to say. 'People will forget that such an old fossil as Bradshaw is still living.' My dear old friend and benefactor! Who could have wished him harm?" She stopped to choke back a sob.
Lester, wishing to soothe her, said quietly: "Do not be too ready to adopt my hasty conclusion, Miss Holt. Lord Arncliffe, whose career is, of course, well known to me, was an old man. It is amazing to me now to realize that I, too, owe him a certain measure of success in my profession. It was Sir William Bradshaw who provided funds for the Tropical Fevers Commission which came to West Africa —
"And are you the Dr. George Lester who discovered the Micrococcus Africanus?" she interrupted.
They halted and gazed at one another with renewed interest. As for Lester, he was astounded. Not many young ladies of nineteen could speak thus glibly of the tiny organism he had detected in the fever-laden blood of a Congo nomad only a few months earlier. But the transient gleam fled from the girl's brilliant eyes.
"Lord Arncliffe followed your researches carefully," she explained. "I compiled a small record of them. How delighted he would have been to talk to you! And now he is dead, and you have come too late to save him! For you could have saved him, Dr. Lester. I believe now he was poisoned. I am sure of it."
"It is a difficult matter of which to speak so confidently. I may have been mistaken, and I gather that the suspicion in your mind was created only by my words."
"It is hard to make things clear; but the Earl believed he was being poisoned. He often hinted at it, especially of late. I fancied he was giving way to the vagaries of old age, though, indeed, his fine intellect might have shown me the folly of such a doubt. I assure you, Dr. Lester, he strongly suspected, I may almost say he knew, that some one was killing him. Oh! why did I not listen to him? Even I might have helped a little bit to thwart a murderous design."
There was no denying the girl's implicit faith. Her sorrowful eyes looked up into the starlit sky. Her grief was such that the tears could not be checked.
"That is a very serious statement to make, Miss Holt. Can you help my judgment by any specific fact? In a word, do you yourself suspect anybody?"
Lester felt that she would be calmer if recalled to the direct issue of the tragedy. Nor was he unprepared for her answer.
"Suspect? I? You saw me to-day in the park, reading some stupid book in the very hour when Lord Arncliffe was dying. Would I have been there were I suspicious of a poisoner? I am in a maze, Dr. Lester, a maze of terror. I am only certain of the one dreadful thing: some loathsome creature has killed my friend."
They were walking slowly along a road bordered, on one hand, by the dense belt of fir-trees which guarded the park, and, on the other, by a steep bank covered with brambles and hazel-bushes. Lester was not aware that a foot-path traversed its higher ground — it was indeed the ancient track of moss-trooping days superseded by a graded highway. But a man who has led expeditions through the forests and swamps of the Congo should possess hearing trained to a marvelous degree where lurking foe or prowling beast is concerned. A slight rustle of grass on the elevated path conveyed a warning, the first time — there was no doubt the second.
"Pardon me one moment," said he to his companion. Then he sprang lightly up the bank, and peered through a dump of nut-trees. Edith Holt heard a slight cry of dismay as Lester confronted the shrinking form of the enterprising Lizzie.
"Why are you trying to overhear our conversation?" he demanded sternly.
"Please, sir, I wasn't," she stuttered, alternately blushing and paling.
"If you are not a spy, you should not behave like one. Which way are you going?"
"Back to the village, sir."
The words had scarcely left her lips before Lizzie realized her error. She had practically admitted her eavesdropping tactics. Her face burned as she turned and hurried away. But she was exceedingly angry, and, with a queer, feline spite, she longed to revenge her humiliation on the fair woman who had not even seen her.
"Who is she, I'd like to know?" snorted the kitchen-maid. "With all her fine airs an' her long words, she's only a servant like me."
She was passing the lodge when the rhythmic beat of a horse's hoofs, hard driven, came from the park. Being out of sight of Miss Holt and Lester, she slackened her pace. The lodge-keeper opened the gate, and Harry Warren drove through in a dog-cart.
An elfish spirit of mischief moved the girl to cry out to him :
"Are ye lookin' for Miss Holt, sir?"
"No," answered he in surprise; then, taking thought, he pulled up the horse.
"Why did you ask me that?" he went on sharply. Lizzie was demure. "I only wanted to save you trouble, sir, in case ye were seekin' her."
"Miss Holt is at the Hall," said he.
"Oh no, she's not. She is welkin' up the road there, with Mr. Lester, a gentleman who is stayin' at the 'Fisherman's Rest' "
The vindictive note in her voice might have astonished the estate agent if her statement had not set other speculations jarring in his brain.
He hesitated, handled the reins irresolutely as though minded to turn the vehicle, but seemingly changed his half-formed intention, and drove off at a rare rate toward the village. A groom, seated stiffly on the back seat, watched the girl curiously until the trap whirled him into the night.
"That's one for her," said Lizzie with a sour smile. "And now I'll give her another, if only I can find May Mannering."
The railway-station, as in many English country districts, was situated a needless half-mile away from the village, practically as far to the east as the Hall lay to the west. Warren tore through the village street and reached the station ten minutes too soon, his apparent mission being to meet the last train due to arrive that night.
The train was punctual, and an elderly man alighted from a first-class carriage. He moved briskly enough, although his head and shoulders had the student's stoop. His sharply cut, somewhat wizened features wore a distinctly legal aspect, and his remarkably bright eyes, peering under heavy, white-haired brows, discerned Warren standing on the platform long before the younger man could pick him out amid the crowd of hurrying passengers.
The newcomer was Mr. Aingier, of Aingier, Smith & Co., solicitors, Grey Street, Newcastle, and King's Bench Walk, London. Aingier greeted Warren cordially, but he had an imperative way with him, and he showed it in his manner of ordering the groom to place a couple of portmanteaus on the back of the dog-cart and walk to the Hall.
"I wish to talk without a servant being a listener," he explained to Warren. "But why are we traveling at such a pace?" he demanded.
"The mare is rather fresh," said Warren.
"So it would appear. You must either moderate her ardor or I shall walk with the groom."
Thus admonished, Warren steadied the animal, and Aingier began to question him. The estate agent gave an accurate account of events at the Hall, and did not scruple to express his contempt for the view taken by Lester as to the probable cause of the Earl's death.
But Aingier was much interested.
"Who is this young man?" he asked. "Where is he staying? Is he known to any one locally?"
"I never heard of him before to-day. As a matter of fact, if you wish to see him, we may meet him on the road. I was told that Miss Holt and he were walking together half an hour since."
"Miss Holt? Is he a friend of hers?"
"Not to my knowledge. I am almost sure that she, too, met him to-day for the first time."
"This is a very strange story, Mr. Warren."
"It is, indeed."
"I am not alluding to Miss Holt's penchant for an evening stroll with a stranger. I am thinking of this Mr. Lester's statement. You are aware, I suppose, that in addition to my partnership in a firm which conducts Lord Arncliffe's legal affairs, I am one of the trustees under his lordship's will. Under the circumstances, your communication warrants me in divulging one, at least, of his lordship's testamentary conditions somewhat in advance of the ordinary course of events. Early in the present year my poor old friend added a codicil to his will. I tried to dissuade him, and even argued that he was indulging in a piece of folly which might have most unpleasant results. But what you have now told me compels, as I have said, a remarkable avowal. Lord Arncliffe, in his codicil, deliberately states that some one was endeavoring to poison him. He directs that, in the event of his sudden death, a post-mortem examination shall be held by Home Office experts, and, finally, he sets apart the sum of ten thousand pounds as a reward to the person who, in the opinion of his trustees, is chiefly responsible for the conviction of his murderer."