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HOBSON BECOMES VERY ANGRY
GEORGE LESTER sat at his bedroom window, smoking a peaceful pipe and idly watching the life of the village. He looked out on a scene with hundreds of duplicates in England: A patch of green whereon a few urchins, their coats set up for wickets, were playing the national game and playing it rather well; the quaint inn, given a fictitious importance by its detached sign-post and wide carriage way, relics of the old posting days; three or four tiny shops, whose owners, judged by the dressing of the latticed windows, derived their support solely from the sale of balls of string and those delectable concoctions known as bull's-eyes, of glorious memory; for the rest, a double row of cottages, with here and there women knitting and gossiping at their doors; and, a little in the distance, an old-fashioned house of worship, whose churchyard, with its time-scarred headstones, gave a soothing touch of solemn dignity to the scene.
One of the string and sweetstuff emporia stood out more prominently than the rest. It was the post-office, and its front was resplendent with the glory of a red-painted letter-box. This shop was a little to the left of the "Fisherman's Rest" and on the opposite side. From Lester's room he obtained an oblique view of it when his glance wandered in that direction.
To a man whose recollections of swamp and jungle were yet vivid, the rustic picture was delightful. The peaceful atmosphere harmonized with his thoughts, which were of the character associated with spring-time and youthful fancy. Your true lover is generally said to suffer from extreme despondency, but Lester by no means despaired of ultimate success. Edith's manner showed that at least she regarded him as a trusted friend, despite their brief acquaintance; and Lester, indomitable of will, made up his mind to win.
His thoughts wandered back to that first meeting on the banks of the trout-stream, and in imagination he saw Edith as she had appeared on that day, her cheeks flushed with health, and in her blue eyes the brightness of innocent joy in the sunshine and flowers and all the beautiful world.
Poor girl! What a difference a few short weeks had made! The delicate bloom had fled from cheeks now wan and sunken. The tender mouth had taken a piteous downward curve. Eyes made for happiness had now an expression of entreaty, of unconscious reproach, though they never faltered in their steadfast purity. Yet those things which were sapping her of happiness and health — the veiled sneers of so-called friends, the open insolence of mere acquaintances who cut her dead in the village — were precisely the things from which no one could protect her. If she would only give him the right, Lester told himself now, he would so fence her round with love that never a spiteful glance or envenomed shaft of slander should reach her.
He roused himself from his reverie and looked out on the village green again. Presently, his eyes turned toward the post-office. There was nobody about. The cricket-players had gone home, the knitters were vanished, for it was tea-time in the village, so, when a solitary figure approached, Lester looked at it with eyes of recognition. It was Detective-Inspector Hobson, and he had letters to send, for he made straight toward the letter-box. His movements, however, did not support this reasonable inference. He threw a quick glance round him, and then bent close to the box as though to read the printed regulations thereon. He took something from his vest pocket and fumbled at the slot with both hands, developing at the same time a remarkable interest in the string and bull's-eyes of the window.
It was all done in a moment, and then Hobson walked over to the inn; but from Lester's position it appeared that the detective had adjusted something. Certainly he had posted no letter.
"I think," murmured Lester to himself, "that here is a situation worth watching." Drawing back a little behind a curtain, he settled himself patiently to await developments.
Nothing happened for some considerable time. The good people of Arncliffe were not much given to letter-writing, since about ninety-five per cent. of the adult population understood spades and dolly-sticks better than pens. Lester, however, had learned patience in a good school. He had interviewed African chiefs who made it a rigid point of etiquette to sit in dignified silence for at least half an hour before discussing any business, however important. He had dealt with native bearers who procrastinated with a fervor almost religious. And he had waited hours in a malarious jungle for a specimen or a photograph, rarely missing his aim in the end, whether the shot was with rifle or with camera. One thing which determined him to see the thing through was that Hobson had not quitted the inn. Evidently he, too, was awaiting developments, and Lester did not like Hobson.
Ten minutes more, and Lester saw Edith approaching. For an instant he forgot all about Hobson and the letter-box. He had a wild idea of sauntering out and meeting her accidentally. And of course he could offer his escort back to the Hall, and — and —
Edith stopped at the post-office and dropped something into the box. Lester pulled himself together with a jerk. He had never thought of Hobson's curious trap being possibly directed against Edith. Now the situation took a new significance; and the delightful possibility of a stroll with the lady of his heart was relinquished at once. Edith, her correspondence posted, retraced her steps, stopping a moment to speak to a pretty, curly-headed mite at one of the cottage gates. Then the mother, a bloated slattern, came out, and Lester, in a white heat of fury, saw her snatch the child away.
The coarse gibe accompanying the action was inaudible, but Edith's shrinking, as though from a blow, the haughty poise of her head as she walked on, told the whole story. That a villager should dare to be rude to the woman who owned the manor of Arncliffe was an amazing thing. What deadly venom was it that some one was instilling into the public mind? And what object was served thereby?
This incident did not tend to improve matters for Hobson. Lester was already burning to avenge Edith's wrongs, and it boded ill for any one who might offer the least whipping-block.
In the management of his own business, the detective acted judiciously. He allowed another ten minutes to elapse before sauntering over to the post-office with an ostentatious letter in his hand. This he dropped into the box, and then again developed that remarkable interest in the commonplace contents of the shop window. But Lester saw his hands busy near the slot again. Ultimately Hobson sauntered off, and Lester, jamming on a hasty hat, followed, his jaw set grimly.
Inspector Hobson made his way toward the outskirts of the village, evidently in search of solitude. Slowly as he was walking, be moderated his pace at the sound of Lester's decided footsteps. The detective's quick ear noted that here was not the slouching step of a peasant in hobnails — nor even the step of a man in a hurry. It was the step of a man with a purpose, and whether that purpose was connected with himself or not, the detective saw that his best policy was an assumption of indifference.
So, when Lester was near, he looked round as a man naturally would, hearing so resolute a pursuit at his heels.
"Ah! Dr. Lester," he said, with a smile in which friendliness and respect were judiciously blended. "why have you not your fishing-tackle with you on this fine day?"
"I may yet make a cast or two," answered Lester, quietly. "At present I want to have a little chat with you."
"Lucky I thought of strolling into the village, sir," was Hobson's reply, delivered in apparent sincerity. "I hadn't much to do, and, to a man like me, stuck in London nearly all the year, it is a real pleasure to rove amongst the buttercups and daisies for a time."
"It is very gratifying that an official who is brought so much in contact with the seamy side of life should retain a taste for such things."
Lester's tone was dry, and the detective had some misgivings as to whether his companion was, to put it colloquially, "getting at him." Under the circumstances, he thought it wiser to change the subject.
"Have you learnt anything fresh, sir?" he inquired. "Things have come to a bit of a standstill, and I should be glad to break a little new ground."
"As a matter of fact," replied Lester, "that is the very reason I wanted to consult you. I have made a very important discovery, indeed."
"I am glad to hear it, sir. May I ask what the news is? It's a good thing we are alone here. We can chat without the fear of prying ears."
"I quite agree with you," said Lester. "It is an excellent thing that we are alone. But you will, perhaps, be disappointed to hear that my discovery has nothing to do with the death of Lord Arncliffe."
"No, sir?" the query was put a little uneasily.
"No, Mr. Hobson. What I have found out is a very ingenious method of robbing his majesty's mails!"
Hobson saw instantly that his manipulation of the letter-box had not passed unnoticed. Nevertheless, he determined not to lose the fruits of his industry without a struggle.
"Indeed, sir," he said coolly, "I am afraid that won't help our case along very much. Still, the postal authorities are always very glad to hear about any new dodge of that sort."
"Oh, I do not think there will be any necessity to approach the post-office over this matter. Just hand me over Miss Holt's letter, and, as I wish that lady to be spared annoyance as far as possible, we will say no more about it."
"Miss Holt's letter?" exclaimed the other, assuming an expression of wooden surprise. "I don't —"
"Don't waste your finesse on me, my man, if you please!" said Lester, sharply. "I watched the whole business from my window, from the time you fixed up your contrivance in the mail box until you went back and fetched it away, and with it Miss Holt's letter — the letter you are now carrying in your breast pocket."
Hobson, finding himself cornered, tried bluster.
"Look here," he began in the pompous tone of the policeman, "you must not interfere with me in the execution of my duty! I have authority for all I do, and it is a serious matter to attempt to defeat the ends of justice."
"Don't talk nonsense," said Lester, contemptuously. "You have no authority to rob letter-boxes. You know as well as I do that it is an offense which might send you to penal servitude. However, I am not going to argue the point with you. Give me that letter, please!"
The detective tried another tack. "It's all very well, sir, for you to accuse me of taking letters from the box, but I am not to be bluffed by you or any one else. You may accuse me; your accusation will take a lot of proving."
Lester laughed — a laugh that had in it a quality which caused his companion to eye him alertly. In the course of a long experience of hard men he had never heard that kind of laugh without somebody receiving bodily injury in the near future.
"It will not take any proving," said Lester, curtly. "I am a bigger man than you, Hobson, and a younger man, and a stronger man. If you do not give me that letter this instant I shall remove it from your coat by the use of as much force as may be necessary."
Inspector Hobson looked up and down the road with a glance of bitter annoyance. It was a white ribbon of sunlit emptiness. There was no mistaking that the young doctor meant each word he said, and though the detective was brave enough in the discharge of his duty, he saw himself at a disadvantage in every respect. Physically he was no match for Lester, and in any case, he knew very well that his tampering with the mails was indefensible. Scotland Yard is not too scrupulous in its methods of obtaining information, but the officer who is discovered in any sharp practice finds himself in the same unfortunate position as the secret-service agent who is caught with the plans of a fortification in his pocket. He is disowned with virtuous indignation by the country which employed him. The detective therefore surrendered at discretion and handed over Edith's letter with as good a grace as possible.
"There you are, sir," he said. "You must have your own way because I am in the wrong; but let me tell you, you are making a very great mistake. If the young lady is innocent, it can't do her any harm —"
"No harm," interrupted Lester, indignantly, "to have her private correspondence tampered with?"
"Bless you, sir!" was the cheerfully brazen answer, "if it is just harmless correspondence, I should not remember a word of it five minutes after I had read it. I have enough to keep in mind without bothering myself with other people's private affairs. But one thing is certain. There is a man in this case. And when we get hold of that man we shall be on the right track."
The detective noted with instant satisfaction that Lester's bronzed cheek paled a little. Here, then, was the opportunity. He had already suspected that the young doctor was in love with Miss Holt, and a magic touch of jealousy might transform the implacable enemy into a useful ally. Hobson was an astute judge of erring human nature, but he fell into the error of deeming all men base.
"Likely enough," he went on, assuming a tone of parental benevolence, "the young lady has fallen into the hands of some scamp. It will be doing her a kindness to find out who he is and put a stop to his game. To tell you the truth, sir, I have a particular reason for believing that letter to be important. Now, if we just have a peep at it—"
"If you suggest such a thing to me again, I fear I shall be tempted to try and break your neck. Remember, I shall not tolerate any more pilfering of letters. Miss Holt has nothing to fear from you, Hobson, and her personal correspondence must certainly be sacred."
Lester walked away abruptly. Then, moved by a sudden impulse, he turned back. "Here," he said, with something of apology in his voice. "Take this," and, dropping a sovereign into the detective's unsuspecting palm, he nodded and went off again at a brisk pace.
Indeed, he was already somewhat ashamed of himself. In his fiery zeal for Edith he had behaved rather like the hero of a melodrama, and he had all the true Englishman's horror of betraying emotion of any sort. Then again, this busybody of a policeman was acting only according to his lights, and those lights meant what the average man calls a disagreeable prying into other people's business.
Inspector Hobson's income, what with matters of private generosity and et ceteras — many et ceteras — approximated to five hundred pounds a year, and Lester's sovereign was the most unkind cut of all. He looked at it, and flung it to the ground, stamping upon it in a sudden access of fury.
"The cursed impudence of it!" he muttered.
The sovereign twinkled up at him from the gravel.
"I'll get level with him before I've finished," he growled, but the sovereign sparkled so that he picked it up and put it in his waistcoat pocket. And then he chuckled in his wrath.
"There were two letters," he said. "Let me see whether I have managed to keep the best one. You're clever, Dr. Lester, but you've made a mistake this time."
Edith had, in fact, posted two letters, and Hobson had given Lester only the first which came to hand. Now he sat on a grassy bank to investigate.
"'Sidney Holt'," he read on the envelope -- "I don't like that — and 'U.S.A.' — I don't like that either."
He produced a little implement like a pair of miniature curling-tongs, and inserting it in the corner of the envelope, gripped the edge of the letter and began to twist. This is an invention for which the world is indebted to the Russian censor. In two minutes Hobson had the letter out and in front of his eager eyes. He read:
MY DEAR REGGIE. — Come home at once. I am in dreadful trouble. You can put things right for me. Lord Arncliffe's letter will explain that he gave the three hundred pounds to start you in America. Tell nothing to any one until you have seen me.
The eager critic read the letter through many times, but could find only transparent honesty in every line.
"Sometimes," he murmured, carefully returning it to the envelope, "I am almost afraid that the young lady is innocent!"