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MRS. WARREN and the valet had retired, but Aingier signed to Edith to remain. When they were alone he strove to rally her into a less despondent mood.
"Upon my word," he cried, "for a young lady who has just come into forty-odd thousands a year you are not unduly jubilant."
But Edith could not respond to his mood.
"Not even forty thousand pounds a year can help me to disguise the fact that I am in great trouble," she murmured brokenly. "I have grave reason to believe that had Lord Arncliffe lived he would have made another will of very different significance to that which you have just read."
"Well, then, let us be thankful he didn't," retorted the lawyer, somewhat brusquely. "I don't mean we should be glad he didn't live, but that he didn't make another will. I'm sure he could not have improved upon this one. What possible foundation have you for what you say?"
"I cannot tell you exactly," she faltered; "the secret is not my own. But I was so unfortunate as to vex Lord Arncliffe very much some few weeks ago, and, although he treated me with the greatest kindness, he gave me clearly to understand that I must not expect to benefit in any way under his will."
"Strange," said Mr. Aingier, musingly. " When did this most potent secret event occur?"
"About six weeks since."
"And it is scarcely a month since he added the codicil to his will. My dear child, if he had intended to cut you out of his will he would have done so then."
"He might have forgotten," protested Edith, with a truly feminine lack of the sense of proportion.
"Forgotten that you were his heiress! Nonsense! In any case — I am an old fool! people do forget sometimes. Lord Arncliffe left a letter with me to be given to you privately after his will was read, and here am I keeping it in my pocket when it may be the key to the mystery which is troubling your little head so much. Here it is. Now just see whether it throws any light on the subject."
Edith opened the letter in silence. For a moment the sight of the well-remembered handwriting so blurred her eyes with emotion that she could not read a line. Then the words focused into coherence, and, as she realized their import, her face lightened into such happiness that the tears burst forth afresh.
"Oh, Mr. Aingier," she sobbed, "now, indeed, I know that all is well."
"I must say you have a remarkable way of showing it. However, you certainly look more like a residuary legatee than you did five minutes ago. So everything is all right?"
handed him the letter and he, adjusting his glasses, read it aloud as
people do whose eyes are not so young as they used to be:
MY DEAR CHILD:
Forgive an old man for the prank he has played upon you. I was stupid enough to wish to tease you, though I might have known that you would follow the nobler course whatever the cost to yourself. You will know ere you read this that I have made you my heiress. I need not tell you to use the wealth entrusted to you wisely and generously: and if unselfishness and purity of heart have their reward on earth I need not wish you happiness. Think kindly sometimes of your old friend,
"A very sensible letter," commented the lawyer, "though I don't know what on earth it means. Still, that doesn't matter. Now I think, for the time being, we had better forget you are so important a personage as Miss Holt of Arncliffe Hall, and then I can give orders which I shall expect to be obeyed. My commands are that you go and bathe those eyes, which are not so bright as I like to see them, and then take a run in the park and try if the wind cannot blow some roses into those pale cheeks."
"Very well, I will, indeed, obey you. But is there anything I can do for you first?"
"No, my dear. It is twelve o'clock now, and at two I must meet Mrs. Aingier at the station. Meanwhile I shall stroll into the village and see if I can come across this Dr. Lester who has so upset everybody."
Edith, far too confused to pay heed to his words, hastened to her room.
In a few minutes Aingier set out briskly, and as luck would have it he encountered the object of his search strolling in the direction of the trout stream, his purpose betrayed by the creel and rod he carried. Well-dressed strangers were not so plentiful in the little Northumberland village that there was much likelihood of a mistake; and although this bronzed, rather distinguished-looking individual smacked more of the military man than of the medico, the lawyer accosted him without any misgivings.
"Pardon me, have I the pleasure of addressing Dr. Lester?"
"That is my name," was the smiling answer.
"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Aingier, and I had the honor to act as the late Lord Arncliffe's legal adviser. I am anxious to consult you as to the circumstances of his lordship's death. I am the more pleased to meet you because I understand you are the gentleman who so successfully carried out certain bacteriological researches in which Lord Arncliffe was deeply interested."
"I never saw Lord Arncliffe in his life," replied the other, "although, in the sense that we corresponded with each other voluminously, we were somewhat intimate some years since. As you are probably aware, he took a keen interest in toxicology; and I have devoted some little attention to that branch of medical science —"
"That is really the point upon which I wished to have your advice," interrupted the lawyer. "You made an examination of Lord Arncliffe's body, did you not?"
"I was certainly present soon after he died," replied Lester, "but I retired almost immediately in favor of his regular medical attendant — who, I may say, treated me with rather scant courtesy."
"Dr. Smalley is an old woman!"
"I should heartily agree with you, were it not contrary to professional etiquette."
"However, you made a grave suggestion as to the cause of Lord Arncliffe's death?"
"My dear sir," rejoined Lester, "you must be aware that neither I nor any other can decide in such a case without a thorough investigation. It merely happened that the very cursory examination I made revealed certain indications which led me to suspect poisoning. It is not impossible that I was mistaken, though I do not think so. Nevertheless, it was my duty to mention my suspicions."
"Then your view is ---"
"My view is that my responsibility in the matter is at an end. Dr. Smalley is, I presume, a reputable practitioner. If Lord Arncliffe's relatives are satisfied there is no more to be said. From what I hear, however, it appears to be a case for inquiry. Personally, I have not the least doubt that there will be an inquiry."
"There are no relatives. The matter rests with me. To be frank, Dr. Lester, my principal object in coming to see you was to ask you to say nothing about it for the present. You may feel assured that there will be a full investigation. In fact, Sir Henry Mathieson, the Home Office analyst, arrives to-morrow for that purpose."
"Ah!" murmured the young doctor, thoughtfully. "I should rather like to be present."
"Why, indeed, if Sir Henry has no objection --" " Oh, Mathieson and I are old friends. I was a pupil of his."
"Then I will let you know. If, as I hope, Lord Arncliffe's death turns out to have been due to natural causes, there need not, of course, be any publicity."
"Well," said Lester, dryly, "as it is current in the village that Lord Arncliffe was poisoned, shot, stabbed, strangled, and blown up with dynamite, I fear there is likely to be some little publicity. It seems to be a matter of common knowledge that he suspected an attempt was being made upon his life."
"But this is terrible!" cried Aingier, almost wringing his hands.
"A mere nine days' wonder," Lester assured him, with that serene philosophy which enables us to bear up so well under other people's troubles.
"Nine days' wonders last about three generations in a village like this," retorted the old solicitor shortly. " Well, I must say good-by now, Dr. Lester, as I have an appointment. I shall, no doubt, have the pleasure of seeing you at the Hall to-morrow."
They had wandered into Arncliffe Park during their conversation, and Lester strolled on unthinkingly, though the trout stream lay behind him. He was recalling the events of the last twenty-four hours, but, strangely enough, the mystery of Lord Arncliffe's death had no place in his thoughts. For him the events of a memorable day all resolved themselves into one picture -- a vision from Trianon of old, a vision with hair of ruddy gown with sunshine tangled in it; the eyes a mystery behind a veil of azure crystal; the mouth a love-poem, and the delicate curves of the oval face —
George Lester was, in fact, suffering from a disease not dreamed of in all his bacteriology. The symptoms included an unreasoning but not the less intense hatred of Harry Warren; an earnest (and, of course, unselfish) desire that Miss Holt should not waste her affections on an unworthy object; and a species of mild delirium accompanied by hallucinations, in which Edith appeared as beaming at him across the breakfast-table, or waving a smiling farewell as he left her for the day's work at the laboratory. And then a memory of Harry Warren, with his insufferable air of proprietorship, would spoil it all.
Good heavens! what could such a woman find admirable in a clodhopper like that? Almost repulsive in appearance (this, by the way, was unjust, since Warren was well-looking enough, albeit of an animal type), with rather less brains than an ox. And then the grim humor of it all appealed and he reproached himself.
"What an idiotic frame of mind I am in!" he thought, smiling sourly. "I don't know how it is, but I'd give anything for a decent opportunity to punch that fellow's head!"
It was while Lester was giving utterance to this kindly thought that he emerged into an open glade of the wood and found the object of his solicitude thirty paces in front of him, engaged in earnest conversation with Miss Holt.
Warren's voice was raised, though his words were indistinguishable; and there seemed to be something of agitation in the girl's manner. It came to Lester with a sharp pang that here was perhaps a lover's quarrel. For a moment he hesitated. Then he realized that to turn back would be a piece of gaucherie worthy of the despised Warren, so he made the best of an awkward situation and went forward.
The vision of Edith Holt pouring out the matutinal coffee had grown distressingly shadowy, and his heart had dropped down into his boots, a distance of rather more than a thousand miles. But he greeted the young people pleasantly enough, met Warren's black scowl with a smile of polite indifference, and would have passed on, had not Edith Holt given him a glance so pregnant with entreaty that be constituted himself her faithful knight on the spot. And lo! his heart bounded back those thousand miles and beat bravely in his bosom again. But the craving to assault and batter Warren remained painfully insistent.
Warren's attitude was not, indeed, calculated to allay that craving. His face was flushed with sullen rage. There was open insolence in the baleful gaze he turned upon the interrupter of his tête-à-tête with Miss Holt.
"We seem fated to meet, Miss Holt, and, as usual, I am a trespasser," said Lester, gaily. He recked little of Warren's black looks, since Edith's glance told him so plainly that he was welcome.
An inarticulate growl broke from Warren's lips. Edith glanced at him in a haughty astonishment that was not lessened by the almost uncontrollable passion she saw depicted on his features. Now, indeed, Lester recognized the marquise of the ancien régime. The dainty head took a higher poise; the flower-like mouth hardened, and there was a note of freezing superiority in her voice as she addressed the young man who stood before her like a culprit, still sullen and glowering, yet not daring to meet her eyes.
"I need not detain you any longer, Mr. Warren," she said. "Dr. Lester, there is a gentleman at the Hall, Lord Arncliffe's solicitor, who is very anxious to see you. If you have nothing else to do, will you walk in that direction?"
"Nothing could give me greater pleasure," he replied.
Edith instantly turned in the direction of the Hall, but Lester's quick ears told him that the discomfited agent did not move. It required little imagination to picture the malignant glance which followed them. Lester was happy enough to feel rather sorry for him. After all, poor devil, who could blame him for worshiping this divinity?
"Mr. Aingier went into the village in the hope of finding you," said Edith, " but I expect he will return soon."
"As a matter of fact, I have only recently left him," confessed Lester. "Nevertheless, I hope you will let me accompany you to the Hall."
Nothing was said of Warren's offensive behavior, but there was necessarily a tacit understanding; and Edith accepted the proffered escort with simple thanks. They talked little: the girl was overwrought, and Lester was tactful enough to realize that she was best left to herself. He took his leave, therefore, directly they came in sight of the house. And, though he parted from her with a strange reluctance, his blood tingled with most unscientific ardor when Edith gave him a grateful little pressure of the hand at parting.
Meanwhile, Harry Warren, nursing a deep wrath, awaited Lester's reappearance. Here was one fallen from the clouds, a possible and most dangerous rival. He meant to declare instant war.
Lester, contrary to his wonted habit, was so oblivious to his surroundings that it was only when he came right upon the other that he awoke from his day-dreams. He had no desire to bandy words with Warren, whose face was a sufficient index of the fact that nothing would please him better than a quarrel. It is all well enough in the abstract to think of punching heads, but a gentleman does not act in that strenuous way unless he is absolutely forced to it. For Miss Holt's sake alone, if for no other reason, a stupid scuffle was to be avoided. Lester therefore nodded politely, and would have passed on, but the other seemed bent on provoking him.
"By this time you ought to be aware that these grounds are private," he said insolently.
"I am quite aware of the fact," rejoined Lester, quietly; " but I presume that both Mr. Aingier and Miss Holt have the privilege of admitting their acquaintances."
"And failing them, you come here to spy on your own account?" asked Warren, with a sneer.
"I am rather at a loss to understand you."
"Perhaps you will understand me when I say that if I catch you meddling in what does not concern you again it will be the worse for you."
Lester looked at him curiously. The flushed cheek and slightly thick speech seemed to point to something more potent than mere temper.
"My friend," he said calmly, "let me tell you that to a man of your build alcohol is absolutely poison."
Warren took a step forward. "Confound you! what do you mean?" he snarled.
"I mean that your neck is like your head -- abnormally thick. One of these days you will die of apoplexy if you are not careful."
Lester never showed anger, but his mood was none the more benevolent on that account. And he had not forgotten that there were tears in Edith's eyes.
Warren clenched his fists, and his muscles tautened. Yet he did not strike. He had a fair enough share of brute courage, but there was something he did not understand in the cool, unruffled look of his opponent. He was like a wild beast held in check by the power of the human eye; and, with the wild beast's fear of an unknown force, he tried to lash himself into sufficient fury for attack. In his case the effort took the form of a volley of abuse.
Lester half turned away. His action was eloquent of unspoken contempt.
It was enough. The spell of those steady eyes was broken, and with a hoarse cry Warren sprang forward. Lester, seeing what was coming, stepped back lightly. The vicious blow just missed him. He countered, with a skill born of many a bout with the gloves.
It seemed, for an instant, that this unexpected reply was only a ward to gain distance, for Warren did not even stagger. But it was only for an instant. Then his knees bent and he collapsed quietly into a limp heap.
Lester smiled grimly, stooped over his adversary, and proceeded to light a cigar. Master Warren would come to his senses in a minute or two, a trifle dazed, but not much the worse. And so it proved. The fallen hero rose to his knees presently. He was not absolutely certain what had happened, but evidently the placid-looking man with the cigar was in some way responsible for his discomfiture.
"You are going to have a very bad headache soon," remarked Lester, cheerfully, "and I rather think you will be sick. If you take my advice you will go home and get to bed. You may apologize for your conduct next time I see you. Can you walk?"
Warren struggled to his feet. He was very shaken, and pale.
"As I said, you may apologize later on," went on Lester. "As you do not seem to be in need of my professional assistance, I will bid you good day?"
He walked slowly away, followed by certain assurances as to Warren's future intentions which it is not necessary to repeat. Lester smiled again pleasantly. Reflection, with its unkind candor, had not yet overtaken him.
"Useful blow, that, on the point of the jaw," he murmured. "It doesn't leave any mark; and I should not have liked Edith to have seen him with a black eye. But I am glad I punched his head. It seems to have adjusted matters."
Clearly, George Lester was in an unusual frame of mind. Else why did he think of a girl whom he had seen twice in his life, as "Edith"?