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EDITH RESOLVES TO FIGHT ALONE
LESTER hastened onward, confident of catching Edith ere she reached the Hall. At the post-office he delayed to register her letter. With a man of Hobson's perverted ingenuity in the locality, this seemed to be the only safe course. The detective's suggestion that Edith was in correspondence with some unknown man caused Lester scrupulously to avoid reading the address. But he had been bound to glance at it in order to identify Edith's writing when Hobson handed it to him, and that fleeting glance had shown him that the letter was addressed to a "Miss" somebody or other. He was not altogether sorry.
This business concluded, he pushed forward at a swinging pace. Short cuts to the Hall were familiar enough to him now, and there was little chance that he would miss Miss Edith. As it was, be came upon her sooner than he expected, for she had sat down on a rustic railing that protected a young tree. Musing over the tangled growth of mystery which surrounded her, she forgot time itself for a while.
And so he found her, her hands clasping her knees, and a whole tragedy of dejection in the melancholy droop of her head. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps; and greeted him with a smile of infinite sweetness.
"I am grown indolent, you see," said she, with a brave attempt at cheerfulness.
"I am glad of it," was the reply. "Had you continued your walk to the Hall I might have failed to overtake you."
"Then you knew I was in the Park?"
"Yes, indeed. I saw you from my room at the Inn when you posted your letter."
"But that is ages ago!" exclaimed Edith, unconsciously reproachful.
"I know it is," said Lester, "but I was engaged in some investigations at the time, and the result is that I strongly advise you to register all your letters of any importance until matters have passed out of their present ridiculous impasse."
Edith looked at him in astonishment. "Register all my letters? But why?"
"I suppose I must tell you the whole story," said Lester. "I saw that detective, Hobson, fastening some contrivance in the letter-box — a kind of wire cage which fitted into the slot and was practically invisible. Directly you were out of sight he pretended to post a letter of his own and took the opportunity of securing yours."
Edith crimsoned with resentment. She sprang to her feet. That her correspondence should be at the mercy of such a man outraged every womanly instinct. Now Lester saw a new phase of her character. She was royally enraged; and the slenderness of the erect figure, and the tininess of the clenched hands, detracted nothing from the dignity of her anger.
"But this is infamous!" she exclaimed passionately, "infamous!"
"Infamous, indeed! but pray do not be in the least concerned about it. Of course, I compelled him to hand me the letter at once, and I have taken the liberty of registering it in case he might tamper with the letter-box again."
"But did you get only one of my letters, Dr. Lester?" asked Edith, with a puzzled air, "I posted two, and—"
Lester flushed darkly with mortification and anger. "Good Heavens!" he cried, "idiot that I am! Wait, Miss Holt, and I will go back." He turned toward the village, intent to reach Hobson, literally at breakneck speed.
"Stop!" cried Edith. "Oh, Dr. Lester, please do stop!"
So Lester perforce returned to her, though reluctantly, and looking disconcerted.
"You cannot possibly do any good now," she said. "When he found himself detected, you may be sure he would lose no time in making himself acquainted with the contents of the other letter. But tell me, to whom was the one he gave you addressed?"
"I did not look," was his reply, "but it will be on the registration receipt."
He handed her the slip of paper. Edith, reading the name, breathed a sigh of relief. The letter was to an old and trusted school friend whom she was inviting to come and stay with her.
Not for worlds would she have had its contents betrayed. It contained no confession of crime, no clue to the mysteries agitating Arncliffe, but in it George Lester was mentioned, and she had described him as a darling!
In her relief at this escape she was almost ready to forgive Hobson. "The other letter doesn't matter a bit," she assured Lester. "It is only to my brother in New York, and really there is nothing in it of real importance. I may tell you now, Dr. Lester, as this detective must know it, that the three hundred pounds which my kind friends seem to imagine I stole from Lord Arncliffe was given to me to — to start my brother in life."
Edith was a poor hand at concealment. Had Hobson been there to hear that little falter in her voice he would have scented a fresh intrigue, but Lester was ready to accept whatever she might say without question.
"I did not wish to speak of the matter," she went on, "since, after all, it is purely my own business; but it has led to so much malicious talk and has caused even my letters to be overhauled, that I think it best to explain. My brother has in his possession a kind message from Lord Arncliffe, in which the subject is referred to, and I have therefore asked him to come home and help me to face things. I think it will all be a little easier to bear if I have somebody to stand by me."
"I did not know you had a brother," said Lester, "Is he older than yourself?" He asked the question a little anxiously: an elder brother might have ambitions for his sister which would clash decidedly with Lester's aspirations.
"Oh, no, he is a mere boy; but he is all I have in the world. And he is at least man enough to protect me from insolence such as that of Hobson's to-day."
"Miss Holt, I beg you to believe that you are not without friends who would—"
"I know," she interrupted, "and that reminds me that I have not yet thanked you for your prompt interference on my behalf."
"Please do not make me recall how egregiously I blundered," he protested. "I am still wondering whether you will ever forgive me for leaving one of your letters in his hands."
"Why, so far as that is concerned, I think you have really done me a service. At least it will show him that I obtained the three hundred pounds from Lord Arncliffe honestly. That," she added bitterly, "will reduce the number of crimes charged against me. Those remaining are the poisoning of Lord Arncliffe, the suppression of Mr. Bradshaw's letters in order to cheat him out of his inheritance, and the bribing of somebody to attack Mr. Aingier. Really, Dr. Lester, I wonder you care to take the hand of so dreadful a person."
"I will take your hand for good and all if you will give it to me?" rejoined Lester, stoutly. He was amazed and a little alarmed at his own boldness in the next instant, but win or lose, the die was cast now.
Edith drew away hastily.
"Oh!" she gasped, indignant at the monstrous unfairness of turning her own perfectly innocent remark into a weapon of attack against her. It looked as though she had invited his proposal, and so she endeavored to crush him with icy aloofness and a severe gaze before he could make any further advance. Only she could feel herself blushing hotly, and when that severe gaze of hers was met by his steadfast glance, her eyes had to drop and turn away. She strove to frame some flippant reply, and thus twist the incident into badinage, but a stolen glance at Lester's face had so demoralizing an effect that she only said "Oh!" again.
Lester had taken the plunge, and he meant to go on.
"I am not going to say anything about the disparity of our positions," he said, "because, if you think me the sort of man to be influenced by your wealth, it would be utterly hopeless for me to address you at all. But you know that it is only yourself I want. I love you, and — and —"
The timidity of the uncertain lover asserted itself, and he began to hesitate — and, hesitating, might have been lost, because, as his confidence waned, Edith gathered courage proportionately.
"I love you," he repeated with a curious iteration for a man wont to be so glib of speech.
Fortunately, it was a statement which Edith found interesting. For a moment she experienced an almost overmastering desire to fling herself into the sanctuary of his arms. He looked goodly and big and strong. Let him but stand at her side, and no one would dare attack her. And he loved her!
She put out a tremulous hand and touched him, as though to see if he were real. She lifted her brimming eyes to meet his ardent gaze. For an intoxicating instant she knew that she clung to him while he pressed hot kisses on her lips.
"Oh, no!" she cried piteously. "Oh, no! Not that! You must not!"
"But it is irrevocable, my darling," he whispered exultantly. "Oh, my little love, I have kissed you, and you are not angry! Say you are not angry!"
Edith put out her hands and held him from her. Let his arms close upon her once again, and she would have no courage to send him away. She sped off toward the Hall, Lester walking by her side and making earnest appeals to her to place all her trust in him. At last she recovered her self-possession. And she knew now that she too loved, but loved, as all good women love, with an utter lack of selfishness.
"I am not angry, Dr. Lester," she said, her voice faltering, but her face alight with a noble courage. "I believe — nay, I know you are a good and honorable man, and as long as I live I shall be proud of the love you offer me. But I am proud, too, in another sense. If ever I become a wife I will go to my husband without a blot upon my name. It is not enough that I should know myself to be unsullied — I will be 'above suspicion' in the eyes of the world as well."
"But, my dearest, do you think I care —"
"No, it is I who care," interrupted Edith, gently. "Can you think me so reckless as to suppose I would put an end to your splendid career — expose you to the gibes of petty rivals as the man who married Edith Holt the murderess? You would end by hating me!"
"My career!" he retorted bitterly. "What is my career worth in comparison with you? You take an altogether morbid view of the matter. These things are forgotten in six months; and in any case the whole mystery will probably be cleared up before long."
"When it is, come to me and say again what you have said to-day — if you have not changed your mind."
"And then?" he whispered eagerly.
"I will tell you what I think about it," said Edith, with a tantalizing smile. They were almost at the Hall now, and by sheer force of the joy in her heart, she gave rein to her innate coquetry.
"Good-by!" she cried, holding out her hand.
Lester looked dangerous, but she frowned and stamped her little foot, and he, losing courage, dared only to press his lips to her glove. He turned away dejectedly, and Edith looked after him with something of surprise. Had she driven him away from her, this knight errant who had found her in the wilderness? Then she ran back toward him, her cheeks aglow.
"Shut your eyes," she commanded imperiously, "and don't dare to move!"
Lester obeyed, in sheer astonishment. He felt a delicious touch, light as thistledown, on his lips, and awoke to find himself alone, alone in a smiling world which had suddenly changed into a Paradise.