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AN UNEXPECTED CLUE
THREE days had elapsed since Phyllis Harland's arrival at Arncliffe Hall, and during all that weary time George Lester failed to put in an appearance. Had this lovers' quarrel merely been a case of ordinary jealousy, the happy prophecy of Edith's friend would probably have been fulfilled by Lester seeking an explanation. But the suggestions of the old lawyer as to the suitability of a match between Edith and Lord Arncliffe's nephew had set up a barrier unsuspected by that lively student of the wretch man, Miss Harland.
Edith grew a little more pale and held her head yet a little more erect, but she no longer sought relief in the feminine refuge of tears. Her indomitable pride had come to the rescue, and whenever he should appear she was prepared to treat the laggard penitent with a severity that would satisfy even Phyllis. Before he earned forgiveness Lester would need to be abject indeed.
Did he but know it, the imaginary danger to his happiness created by his needless sensitiveness was perilously near to becoming a reality. Edith was exceedingly anxious to arrive at some arrangement with Bradshaw, as to the division of Lord Arncliffe's property, and, when the American refused to be treated as an invalid any longer; she sent for him, thoroughly determined to settle things on an equitable basis.
"Now, Mr. Bradshaw," she said, pointing to an armchair with a pretty gesture of command, "you are to sit 'right there,' as you would put it, and you are not to get up again until you have agreed to everything I wish."
He sat down with an air of resignation. "Am to be fed?" he asked pathetically.
"No, you are to be starved into submission. But my terms are easy. I only want to arrange with you about your share of your uncle's estate."
"But I haven't any share, except that battle-ax with which my illustrious ancestor —"
"Mr. Bradshaw!" exclaimed Edith, impatiently, "I would really like to shake you. You know perfectly well that if Lord Arncliffe had known of your existence, as he should have known, you would be his heir."
"I don't know anything of the sort," said Bradshaw, obstinately. "He had known you and loved you nearly all your life, while he had never even seen me. Besides, I am quite sure if I had any money to leave, I would much rather leave it to you than to me."
"Cannot you see what a painful position I am in?" pleaded Edith. "It seems as though I have robbed you of your birthright — in fact, you know quite well that people do not scruple to say that I intercepted your letters to Lord Arncliffe."
"Oh, that is altogether ridiculous! Now, do please believe that I am quite satisfied. My uncle made a wise and proper disposition of his money, and I have no idea of interfering with it in any way."
"You must!" insisted Edith.
"Well, Miss Holt," he said deliberately, "there is only one condition on which I will take any share of Lord Arncliffe's property."
"Why, I am quite willing to meet you in every possible way," cried Edith, glad to find that there was some opportunity for compromise. "What is your condition?"
"That you give me yourself with it."
This sudden declaration so startled Edith that she put up her hands as if to shield herself. The very fact of Bradshaw's proposal seemed to accuse her of the disloyalty suspected by Lester.
"Oh, no, no!" she cried. "Please do not suggest such a thing, Mr. Bradshaw."
"I know you could do a whole heap better," he went on; "but really and truly, Miss Holt, I am not half a bad chap. And, you know, Americans make the best husbands in the world."
"I am sure you will be a very good husband," replied Edith, kindly, "a good and kind husband for some nice girl who will make you a great deal happier than I could."
Bradshaw, who was deeply moved, spoke with gentle deference. "Miss Holt, if there is anybody else, please forgive me for having made this proposal to you; if there is not, then I beg of you to think the matter over. But pray do not allow yourself to be influenced in the least by your anxiety to share my uncle's wealth with me. I come from a country where men are not happy unless they are working, and it would be utterly impossible for me to lead the life of one of your English country gentlemen. As for money, you may rest assured that I earn quite sufficient for my needs."
"There cannot be any one else," said Edith, almost inaudibly.
Was it not so, in sober earnest? Could Lester have made her suffer had he really loved her? For one brief moment she almost thought of accepting Bradshaw's offer. He was kind and honest and chivalrous, bearing the hallmark of true manhood no less clearly than did the lover who had discarded her. And it would be an easy way of giving him the inheritance that should be his.
But no! Let Lester deem her false if he chose. She would remain faithful to the troth she had plighted in her heart.
"Well, then think the matter over," repeated Bradshaw. "Meanwhile," he cried gaily, with a quick return to his usual manner, "I really think you had better let me get up."
"Yes, you may get up," said Edith, glad to end a tête-à-tête which had developed so unexpectedly. "And if you will come with me, I will introduce you to the dearest, sweetest, prettiest, and nicest girl in all the world.''
"I know her already," murmured Bradshaw, with a look which made Edith hasten their departure.
Miss Phyllis Harland, dressed with elaborate simplicity to support her favorite opening, which was to pose as a demure, timid little maid, was waiting with growing indignation for Edith to present the "nice American." She had arranged herself on a shady garden seat, with a sunbonnet dangling from her rosy fingers, her head thrown back, her lips just parted to show a gleam of pearly teeth, and her long lashes resting on her flushed cheeks. She offered a delightful picture of a tired child fallen into unconscious sleep. When Bradshaw appeared on the scene it was her intention to give him time to take in all the details, and then to raise slowly those long, curved lashes and look at him with shy, startled eyes. She had never yet known this attack to fail. But the position was trying, and at length, when the pins and needles in her shoulders grew unbearable, she rose to her feet and stamped on the ground pettishly.
At this unpropitious moment Edith and Bradshaw came upon her suddenly from an unexpected direction, and Phyllis, all her elaborate arrangements wasted, shook a mental fist at her friend. Miss Harland had, however, almost as many gambits as a chess expert; if the conditions were unfavorable for the display of appealing trustfulness, her mood of happy, innocent roguishness was none the less fascinating. Edith, silent and distrait, suffered by comparison with her sparkling friend. Bradshaw found Phyllis a companion after his own heart.
Down at the "Fisherman's Rest" George Lester was gloomily debating whether to stay on for awhile or end the whole business by taking the next train to London.
The tide of suspicion seemed to be ebbing away from Edith, and she had a strong and alert protector in Bradshaw. Yet, though it seemed to him that he was irresolute, in reality he had made up his mind to wait for some definite indication of Edith's engagement to the American. During those days he went out little. A meeting with Edith would be painful to both of them, and though Bradshaw, who had now returned to his quarters at the inn, pressed him to accompany him to the Hall and on various other expeditions, Lester pleaded urgent work in connection with a forthcoming book.
Meanwhile, though fond hearts might suffer, the detective was untiring and unceasing in his efforts to follow up the shadowy clues in his hands.
Leigh, the poacher, and his mysterious accession to wealth, had not been neglected. Hobson, with an ingenious air of good-fellowship, made several attempts to hobnob with him; but Leigh, who had a natural antipathy to policemen in any shape or form, received all advances with churlish silence.
Hobson, nothing daunted, decided to keep him under observation. To this end, he slipped out quietly after Leigh one night when the poacher quitted the tap-room of the inn. But, alas! it is one thing to shadow a man through the streets of a great city, and another to follow on the steps of a trained woodsman whose ear is alert for every crackling twig, and whose eye does not miss so much as a moving leaf. Ere they had covered a quarter of a mile the detective discovered that by some mysterious process his quarry was behind instead of in front of him.
"Lord love you, maister!" said Leigh with genial irony as he caught up with his tracker, "you ought to keep your eyes open when you are about at this time of night. Just s'pose now if there was anybody took a grudge against you — thought p'raps you was a-spyin' on him — why, he might come on you, just like I did, and give you a crack on the head without a livin' soul being the wiser."
"You are quite right," agreed the detective, with an appreciation that was hearty without being enthusiastic. "But I am not likely to spy on anybody — I was just trying to find a short cut to the railway station."
"Lies right behind you, sir." Still that galling note of irony.
"How stupid of me! That way, you say? Thanks; good night!"
Hobson turned and walked away with as much dignity as he could command, not sure, even now, that he was entirely safe from that "crack on the head." The blow, indeed, might be met, for he was not the man to shirk a tussle, but the insolent chuckle which the poacher sent after him was gall and wormwood. He, one of the smartest of all the smart men at "The Yard," to be outwitted and jeered at by a mere yokel! However, it was clear that on his own ground the yokel was more than a match for the Londoner, and the Londoner was sufficiently candid to acknowledge it.
Of Lester, on the other hand, the poacher had no mistrust. He had been drawn to the young doctor from their first meeting in the bar of the "Fisherman's Rest," when he told Lester of that giant trout which came to so untimely an end. A man who dealt with the ever-burning question of beer in so liberal a spirit could not but inspire friendship, and Lester had shown sufficient acquaintance with the coy secrets of the woods and streams to command Leigh's respect.
As a matter of fact, Lester liked the old ruffian, but Hobson so pressed upon him the importance of ascertaining how a man in Leigh's position could be continually changing sovereigns, that, for Edith's sake, he undertook to find out, if possible, whether Leigh was in any way concerned in the recent happenings at Arncliffe Hall.
For a day or two the poacher had been rather less sedulous in his attentions to the home-brewed of Landlord Jones, and the reason was apparent when one afternoon he accosted Lester, who was taking a solitary ramble.
"All the folks around here say that you're a great doctor, sir, a much better man than Dr. Smalley," he said in uneasy compliment. "I've been wondering if you would come and have a look at my old mother. I'd be mortal glad, sir, and I'd pay any-think you like to ask."
"My good fellow," replied Lester, "I am a specialist, and in most cases you would do far better to consult Dr. Smalley. Still, I will see your mother with pleasure. As for payment, I am on a holiday, and I refuse to work, save in a friendly way, for anybody."
"Thankee, sir." For the first time Lester saw something approaching emotion in the rugged, sinister face of the poacher.
"What is the matter with your mother?"
"Well, sir, she's took to her bed a bit earlier than usual of late, and this mornin' she was very quiet — lay still and followed me about with her eyes without saying a word. Nor she don't care for her cup o' tea or her pipe o' 'bacca as she used to."
"Is she very old?"
"Why, doctor, she might be ninety, or she might be a little more, but she's allus been strong."
"You see," said Lester, gently, "when people reach ninety years of age you must expect all sorts of ailments, and you must be prepared for the worst. At the same time, it is quite possible that with a little care she will be all right again for some time to come. You may be sure I will do my best for her. Would you like me to see her now?"
"If you would be so kind, sir."
They strolled on to that little hovel on the outskirts, where Warren, half mad with fear, had removed the stains of his attack on the solicitor. Lester, on entering, recoiled with disgust from the horrible atmosphere -- an atmosphere which brought vivid recollections of African Kraals.
"Good Heavens, man!" he exclaimed, "no wonder your mother is ill! Why, this air is enough to poison her!"
"Oh, it's the way she's lived all her life. You mustn't judge us folk the same as you would the gentry."
"I know; but — here, won't this window open? Then keep the door wide, for goodness' sake, or I shall be stifled!"
The atmosphere cleared a little, and Lester turned his attention to the old woman lying on the heap of foul rags which served for a bed. He saw at once that she was verging on delirium. There was a vacant uneasiness in her eyes, and she moved her skinny hands about restlessly. She was going to die presently.
"Is that Maister Harry Warren?" she asked, peering through the gloom at Lester. "I've got the books safe enough, Maister Warren, I've got 'em safe enough."
"Shut up, mother!" growled the son, savagely. "This is the doctor come to see you. I'm afraid, sir," he explained apologetically to Lester, "she's a bit off her head."
"Oh, no, it isn't the doctor. I may be old, Bob, but I'm not blind yet. It's Harry Warren — Warren that got you six months, Warren 'at tried to murder the old lawyer, Warren that we're mindin' the books for, Warren — why, "screamed the aged crone, sitting up and tossing away the white locks from her eyes, "there he is now looking over your shoulder!"
The two men turned involuntarily toward the door as she made her vehement assertion, and both started with astonishment. For there, in very truth, stood Harry Warren, his lips white with fear and his red face haggard.