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XII. — What Happened
at Flairby Mill
KATHLEEN very naturally regarded the lawyer in the light of a disinterested friend. There was no reason why she should not do so; and if there had been any act needed to kindle a kindly feeling for the distant legal adviser it was this last act of his, for no sooner, as he told her, had he discovered by the merest accident a clue to the hidden word, than he had rushed off post-haste to put her in possession of his information. He had naturally advised immediate action, and when she demurred at the lateness of the hour at which to begin a hunt for the book, he had hinted vaguely at difficulties which would beset her if she delayed. She wanted to let Angel know, and Jimmy, but this the lawyer would not hear of, and she accounted for the insistence of his objection by the cautiousness of the legal mind.
Then the excitement of the midnight adventure appealed to her — the swift run in the motor-car through the wild night, and the wonderful possibilities of the search at the end of the ride.
So she went, and her appetite for adventure was all but satisfied by a narrowly-averted collision with another car speeding in the opposite direction. She did not see the occupants of the other car, but she hoped they had had as great a fright as she.
As a matter of fact, neither of the two men had given a second thought to their danger; one's mind was entirely and completely filled with her image, and the other was brooding on telephones.
She had no time to tire of the excitement of the night — the run across soaking heaths and through dead villages, where little cottages showed up for a moment in the glare of the head-lights, then faded into the darkness. Too soon she came to a familiar stretch of the road, and the car slowed down so that they might not pass the tiny grass lane that led to Flairby Mill. They came to it at last, and the car bumped cautiously over deep cart ruts, over loose stones, and through long drenched grasses till there loomed out of the night the squat outlines of Flairby Mill.
Once upon a time, before the coming of cheap machinery, Flairby Mill had been famous in the district, and the rumble of its big stones went on incessantly, night and day; but the wheel had long since broken, its wreck lay in the bed of the little stream that had so faithfully served it; its machinery was rust and scrap iron, and only the tiny dwelling-house that adjoined was of value. With little or no repair the homestead had remained watertight and weatherproof, and herein had Kathleen stored the odds and ends of her father's household. The saddles, shields, spears, and oddments he had collected in his travels, and the modest library that had consoled the embittered years of his passing, were all stored here. Valueless as the world assesses value, but in the eyes of the girl precious things associated with her dead father.
The tears rose to her eyes as Spedding, taking the key from her hand, fitted it into the lock of a seventeenth-century door, but she wiped them away furtively.
Spedding utilized the acetylene lamp of the car to show him the way into the house. "You must direct me, Miss Kent," he said, and Kathleen pointed the way. Up the oaken stairs, covered with dust, their footsteps resounding hollowly through the deserted homestead, the two passed. At the head of the stairs was a heavy door, and acting under the girl's instructions, the lawyer opened this.
It was a big room, almost like a barn, with a timbered ceiling sloping downward. There were three shuttered windows, and another door at the farther end of the room that led to a smaller room.
"This was the miller's living room," she said sadly. She could just remember when a miller lived in the homestead, and when she had ridden up to the door of the mill accompanied by her father, and the miller, white and jovial, had lifted her down and taken her through a mysterious chamber where great stones turned laboriously and noisily, and the air was filled with a fine white dust.
Spedding placed the lamp on the table, and cast his eyes round the room in search of the books. They were not difficult to discover; they had been unpacked, and were ranged in three disorderly rows upon roughly constructed bookshelves. The lawyer turned the lamp so that the full volume of light should fall on the books. Then he went carefully over them, row by row, checking each copy methodically, and half muttering the name of each tome he handled. There were school books, works of travel, and now and again a heavily bound scientific treatise, for her father had made science a particular study. The girl stood with one hand resting on the table, looking on, admiring the patience of the smooth, heavy man at his task, and, it must be confessed, inwardly wondering what necessity there was for this midnight visitation. She had told the lawyer nothing about the red envelope, but instinctively felt that he knew all about it.
"Anabasis, Xenophon," he muttered; "Josephus, Works and Life; Essays of Elia; Essays, Emerson; Essays, De Quincey. What's this?"
He drew from between two bulky volumes a thin little book with a discoloured cover. He dusted it carefully, glanced at the title, opened it and read the title-page, then walked back to the table and seated himself, and started to read the book.
The girl did not know why, but there was something in his attitude at that moment that caused her a little uneasiness, and stirred within her a sense of danger. Perhaps it was that up till then he had shown her marked deference, had been almost obsequious. Now that the book had been found he disregarded her. He did not bring it to her or invite her attention, and she felt that she was "out of the picture," that the lawyer's interest in her affairs had stopped dead just as soon as the discovery was made.
He turned the leaves over carefully, poring over the introduction, and her eyes wandered from the book to his face. She had never looked at him before with any critical interest. In the unfriendly light of the lamp she saw his imperfections — the brutal strength of his jaw, the unscrupulous thinness of the lip, the heavy eyelids, and the curious hairlessness of his face. She shivered a little, for she read too much in his face for her peace of mind.
Unconscious of her scrutiny, for the book before him was all-engrossing, the lawyer went from page to page.
"Don't you think we had better be going?" Kathleen asked timidly.
Spedding looked up, and his stare was in keeping with his words.
"When I have finished we will go," he said brusquely, and went on reading.
Kathleen gave a little gasp of astonishment, for, with all her suspicions, she had not been prepared for such a complete and instant dropping of his mask of amiability. In a dim fashion she began to realize her danger, yet there could be no harm; outside was the chauffeur, he stood for something of established order. She made another attempt.
"I must insist, Mr. Spedding, upon your finishing your examination of that book elsewhere. I do not know whether you are aware that you are occupying the only chair in the room," she added indignantly.
"I am very well aware," said the lawyer calmly, without raising his eyes.
He looked up with an air of weariness.
"May I ask you to remain quiet until I have finished," he said, with an emphasis that she could not mistake, "and lest you have any lingering doubt that my present research is rather on my own account than on yours, I might add that if you annoy me by whining or fuming, or by any such nonsensical tricks, I have that with me which will quiet you," and he resumed his reading.
Cold and white, the girl stood in silence, her heart beating wildly, her mind occupied with schemes of escape.
After a while the lawyer looked up and tapped the book with his forefinger.
"Your precious secret is a secret no longer," he said with a hard laugh. Kathleen made no answer. "If I hadn't been a fool, I should have seen through it before," he added, then he looked at the girl in meditation.
"I have two propositions before me," he said, "and I want your help."
"You will have no help from me, Mr. Spedding," she replied coldly. "Tomorrow you will be asked to explain your extraordinary conduct."
"Tomorrow, by whom? By Angel or the young swell-mobsman who's half in love with you?"
He laughed again as he saw the colour rising to the girl's cheeks. "Ah! I've hit the mark, have I?"
She received his speech in contemptuous silence.
"Tomorrow I shall be away — well away, I trust, from the reach of either of the gentlemen you mention. I am not concerned with tomorrow as much as today." She remembered that they were within an hour of daybreak. "Today is a most fateful day for me — and for you." He emphasized the last words.
She preserved an icy silence.
"If I may put my case in a nutshell," he went on, with all his old-time suavity, "I may say that it is necessary for me to secure the money that is stored in that ridiculous safe." She checked an exclamation. "Ah! you understand? Let me be more explicit. When I say get the money, I mean get it for myself, every penny of it, and convert it to my private use. You can have no idea," he went on, "how comforting it is to be able to stand up and say in so many words the unspoken thoughts of a year, to tell some human being the most secret things that I have so far hidden here," he struck his chest. "I had thought when old Reale's commission was entrusted to me that I should find the legatees ordinary plain, everyday fools, who would have unfolded to me day by day the result of their investigations to my profit. I did not reckon very greatly on you, for women are naturally secretive and suspicious, but I did rely upon the two criminals. My experience of the criminal classes, a fairly extensive one, led me to believe that with these gentry I should have no difficulty." He pursed his lips. "I had calculated without my Jimmy," he said shortly. He saw the light in the girl's eye. "Yes," he went on, "Jimmy is no ordinary man, and Angel is a glaring instance of bad nomenclature. I nearly had Jimmy once. Did he tell you how he got the red envelope? I see he did not. Well, I nearly had him. I went to look for his body next morning, and found nothing. Later in the day I received a picture postcard from him, of a particularly flippant and vulgar character?" He stopped as if inviting comment.
"Your confessions have little interest for me," said the girl quietly. "I am now only anxious to be rid of your presence."
"I am coming to that," said the lawyer. "I was very rude to you a little while ago, but I was busily engaged, and besides I desired to give you an artistic introduction to the new condition. Now, so far from being rude, I wish to be very kind."
In spite of her outward calm, she trembled at the silky tone the lawyer had now adopted.
"My position is this," he said, "there is an enormous sum of money, which rightly is yours. The law and the inclination of your competitor — we will exclude Connor, who is not a factor — give you the money. It is unfortunate that I also, who have no earthly right, should desire this money, and we have narrowed down the ultimate issue to this: Shall it be Spedding or Kathleen Kent? I say Spedding, and circumstances support my claim, for I have you here, and, if you will pardon the suspicion of melodrama, very much in my power. If I am to take the two millions, your two millions, without interruption, it will depend entirely upon you."
Again he stopped to notice the effect of his words. The girl made no response, but he could see the terror in her eyes.
"If I could have dispensed with your services, or if I had had the sense to guess the simple solution of this cursed puzzle, I could have done everything without embarrassing you in the slightest; but now it has come to this — I have got to silence you."
He put forward the proposition with the utmost coolness, and Kathleen felt her senses reel at all the words implied.
"I can silence you by killing you," he said simply, "or by marrying you. If I could think of some effective plan by which I might be sure of your absolute obliteration for two days, I would gladly adopt it; but you are a human woman, and that is too much to expect. Now, of the alternatives, which do you prefer?"
She shrank back against the shuttered window, her eyes on the man.
"You are doubtless thinking of the chauffeur," he said smoothly, "but you may leave him out of the reckoning. Had your ears been sharp, you would have heard the car going back half an hour ago — he is awaiting our return half a mile away. If I return alone he will doubtlessly be surprised, but he will know nothing. Do you not see a picture of him driving me away, and me, at his side, turning round and waving a smiling farewell to an imaginary woman who is invisible to the chauffeur? Picture his uneasiness vanishing with this touch. Two days afterwards he would be on the sea with me, ignorant of the murder, and curious things happen at sea. Come, Kathleen, is it to be marriage — ?"
"Death!" she cried hoarsely, then, as his swift hand caught her by the throat, she screamed.
His face looked down into hers, no muscle of it moved. Fixed, rigid, and full of his dreadful purpose, she saw the pupils of his pitiless eyes contract
Then of a sudden he released hold of her, and she fell back against the wall. She heard his quick breathing, and closing her eyes, waited. Then slowly she looked up. She saw a revolver in his hand, and in a numb kind of way she realized that it was not pointed at her.
"Hands up!" She heard Spedding's harsh shout. "Hands up, both of you!"
Then she heard an insolent laugh.
There were only two men in the world who would laugh like that in the very face of death, and they were both there, standing in the doorway, Angel with his motor goggles about his neck and Jimmy slowly peeling his gloves.
Then she looked at Spedding.
The hand that held the revolver did not tremble, he was as self-possessed as he had been a. few minutes before.
"If either of you move I'll shoot the girl, by God!" said Spedding through his teeth.
They stood in the doorway, and Jimmy spoke. He did not raise his voice, but she heard the slumbering passion vibrating through his quiet sentences.
"Spedding, Spedding, my man, you're frightening that child; put your gun down and let us talk. Do you hear me? I am keeping myself in hand, Spedding, but if you harm that girl I'll be a devil to you. D'ye hear? If you hurt her, I'll take you with my bare hands and treat you Indian fashion, Spedding, my man, tie you down and stake you out, then burn you slowly. Yes, and, by the Lord, if any man interferes, even if it's Angel here, I'll swing for him. D'ye hear that?"
His breast heaved with the effort to hold himself, and Spedding, shuddering at the ferocity in the man's whole bearing, lowered his pistol.
"Let us talk," he said huskily.
"That's better," said Angel, "and let me talk first. I want you."
"Come and take me," he said.
"The risk is too great," said Angel frankly, "and besides, I can afford to wait."
"Well?" asked the lawyer defiantly, after a long pause. He kept the weapon in his hand pointed in the vicinity of the girl.
Angel exchanged a word in an undertone with his companion, then —
"You may go," he said, and stepped aside.
Spedding motioned him farther away. Then slowly edging his way to the door, he reached it. He paused for a moment as if about to speak, then quick as thought raised his revolver and fired twice.
Angel felt the wind of the bullets as they passed his face, and sprang forward just as Jimmy's arm shot out.
Crack, crack, crack! Three shots so rapid that their reports were almost simultaneous from Jimmy's automatic pistol sped after the lawyer, but too late, and the heavy door crashed to in Angel's face, and the snap of the lock told them they were prisoners.
Angel made a dart for a window, but it was shuttered and nailed and immovable.
He looked at Jimmy, and burst into a ringing laugh.
"Trapped, by Jove!" he said.
Jimmy was on his knees by the side of the girl. She had not fainted, but had suddenly realized her terrible danger, and the strain and weariness of the night adventure had brought her trembling to her knees. Very tenderly did Jimmy's arm support her. She felt the strength of the man, and, thrilled at his touch, her head sank on his shoulder and she felt at rest.
Angel was busily examining the windows, when a loud report outside the house arrested his attention.
"What is that?" asked the girl faintly.
"It is either Mr. Spedding's well-timed suicide, which I fear is too much to expect," said Angel philosophically, "or else it is the same Mr. Spedding destroying the working parts of our car. I am afraid it is the latter."
He moved up and down the room, examined the smaller chamber at the other end, then sniffed uneasily.
"Miss Kent," he said earnestly, "are you well enough to tell me something?"
She started and flushed as she drew herself from Jimmy's arms, and stood up a little shakily.
"Yes," she said, with a faint smile, "I think I am all right now."
"What is there under here?" asked Angel, pointing to the floor.
"An old workshop, a sort of storehouse," she replied in surprise.
"What is in it?" There was no mistaking the seriousness in Angel's voice.
"Yes, I think there are, and paints and things. Why do you ask?"
"Jimmy," said Angel quickly, "do you smell anything?"
"Yes," he said quickly. "Quick, the windows!"
They made a rapid search of the room. In a corner Jimmy unearthed a rusty cavalry sabre.
"That's the thing," said Angel, and started to prise loose the solid shutter; but the wood was unyielding, and just as they had secured a purchase the blade snapped.
"There is an old axe in the cupboard," cried the girl, who apprehended the hidden danger.
With a yell of joy Angel dragged forth an antiquated battle-axe, and attacked the shutter afresh. With each blow the wood flew in big splinters, but fast as he worked something else was moving faster. Angel had not mistaken the smell of petrol, and now a thin vapour of smoke flowed into the room from underneath the door, and in tiny spirals through the interstices of the floorboards. Angel stopped exhausted, and Jimmy picked up the axe and struck it true, then after one vigorous stroke a streak of daylight showed in the shutter. The room was now intolerably hot, and Angel took up the axe and hacked away at the oaken barrier to life.
"Shall we escape?" asked the girl quietly.
"Yes, I think so," said Jimmy steadily.
"I shall not regret tonight," she faltered.
"Nor I," said Jimmy in a low voice, "whatever the issue is. It is very good to love once in a lifetime, even if that once is on the brink of the grave."
Her lips quivered, and she tried to speak.
Angel was hard at work on the window, and his back was toward them, and Jimmy bent and kissed the girl on the lips.
The window was down! Angel turned in a welter of perspiring triumph.
"Outside as quick as dammit!" he cried.
Angel had found a rope in the smaller room in his earlier search, and this he slipped round the girl's waist. "When you get down run clear of the smoke," he instructed her, and in a minute she found herself swinging in mid-air, in a cloud of rolling smoke that blinded and choked her. She felt the ground, and staying only to loose the rope, she ran outward and fell exhausted on a grassy bank.
In a few minutes the two men were by her side. They stood in silence contemplating the conflagration, then Kathleen remembered.
"The book, the book!" she cried.
"It's inside my shirt," said the shameless Angel.