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THE THREADS OF CIRCUMSTANCE
HARRY WARREN was so startled that he forgot the lawyer's prohibition and brought down his whip smartly on the mare's shoulders. He was a man prone to vent his feelings with violence. He never scrupled to lash a horse or kick a dog should the animal be near enough at the moment to gratify this brutal trait.
"Let me get out!" cried Aingier with some heat.
"Oh! I am sorry. Whoa, beauty! There now, she is all right. I forgot myself. If I have a whip in my hand I must use it. But, look here, Mr. Aingier, this is all rot! Dr. Smalley has given a certificate. His lordship died of heart-disease."
"So shall I, unless you drive properly," was the curt response. For a little time the solicitor sat in silence, clinging to the side rail and nervously watching the horse's ears. Warren, cursing his own stupidity in checking the other man's confidences, gave closer heed to his task. Nevertheless, they passed through the village rapidly.
Two girls, chatting at the garden gate of a neat cottage, watched the dog-cart go by. In the dim light it was difficult to distinguish the occupants of a fast-moving vehicle.
"Isn't that Harry Warren?" asked one of the pair, an apple-cheeked young woman whose indoor attire betokened that the cottage was probably her residence.
"Yes. I saw him as he came from the Hall. He has been to fetch some one from the station, most likely."
There was an indecisive pause. Then the first speaker said with a pout: "I wonder he didn't call, or at least wave his hand in passing. Ever since the New Year he makes out he has been so busy that he can hardly give me half an hour a week."
The rattle of the vehicle died away. The solemn calm of a summer's night settled down again on the quiet hamlet.
"Harry and you are engaged, aren't you, May?" said her friend.
"Of course we are. Every one knows that. If it wasn't for his mother we should have been married last year. As soon as Harry feels he is his own master there will be no more waiting, I assure you."
The assertive note was needlessly shrill. Perhaps Lizzie felt that she had meddled enough in other people's business that evening, or it might be that the walk homeward had cooled her temper. Anyhow, she refrained now from positive assertions, and dread of a searching cross-examination kept her from repeating the stray phrases she had gathered from Edith Holt's words. But she would not be a mischief-maker were she to leave the topic wholly.
"Will his lordship's death make any difference?" she asked.
"Difference? To me and Harry?"
"Don't snap at me in that fashion, May. I only mean that somebody else will own the Hall. Who is it; have you heard?"
"No one knows. That is, Harry doesn't, and he could hear any news that was going. But the Earl told him that he and his mother would not suffer, no matter what happened. Not that I don't mind telling you I shall be glad when everything is settled."
The girl sighed deeply. The camaraderie of feminine sentiment caused Lizzie to twist her next question out of its imminent form. "Do you know — I mean, have you seen much of that pale-faced, fluffy-haired girl at the Hall, the girl who writes his lordship's letters?"
"Miss Holt? No. She is always either reading by herself or doing all sorts of odd jobs about pictures and china. I don't rightly understand her situation. Harry says he hardly ever sees her."
"Oh!" said Lizzie, whose acquaintance with Mrs. Jackson, wife of gardener Jackson, led her to hold precisely the opposite view. "Well, good-by, dear. It is nearly ten — closing time, you know. Ask me to the wedding."
They kissed and parted.
"I'm sorry for May," mused Lizzie, speeding to the inn. "Ought I to have spoken, I wonder? Better not, perhaps, I do so hate tittle-tattling!"
Harry Warren's reputed fiancée did not re-enter the cottage. She was disturbed by vague misgivings. She looked up at the stars wistfully, striving to find sympathy in their fine aloofness from such petty troubles as centered in Arncliffe, though the tame astrologer of a woman's fashion paper had told her she must beware of Sirius the dog-star, ascendant in July.
"Half an hour a week!" she murmured bitterly. "If I had said half an hour a month I'd have been nearer the mark. And why did Lizzie mention Miss Holt? He swore to me he hated the sight of her, with her pretty ways and her mincing talk. Of course, he may have had things to occupy him; but it used not to be so. Maybe, now that the Earl has gone —"
She heard some one walking smartly down the road. She peered intently at the figure, and the livery of a groom helped her to identify the pedestrian.
"Is that you, Wilson?" she cried.
"Yes, miss." The groom knew her well, having brought her many a note from the agent.
"Who was Mr. Warren taking to the Hall?"
"Mr. Aingier, the family solicitor, miss."
"Oh, he has come to look after affairs, I suppose?" The groom drew nearer.
"That, and a bit more, miss," he said.
May Mannering was a pretty girl, of the healthy bloom which is dear to the countryman's heart. Secretly, Wilson admired her, and he was sorry for her too, having used his eyes shrewdly, being a "Border man."
"Has anything gone wrong, then?" she asked. "Well, miss, there's queer rumors," he admitted. "But his lordship was very old. Surely his death was expected?"
"Some people say it was a certainty, miss." "That is true of all of us, Wilson."
"By gum, that's a fact! But we don't know the date, so there's no use in worrying. Anyhow, folk are hinting that the Earl had to die this afternoon."
"Good gracious, Wilson! What do you mean?"
"If I say anything, you'll not give me away, not even to Mr. Harry?"
"No. I am usually reckoned a trustworthy person."
"No one need tell me that, miss, Well, there's a strange gent here, a fishing gent staying at 'Jolly Jim's' place, who up and said to-day that his lordship had been poisoned."
"It's the truth I'm telling you, sure as my name's Bob. Did you know my name was Bob, miss?"
He was standing so close to her now that he could see the troubled droop of her full lips. Yet his attitude was so respectful that she thought only of his mysterious revelation.
"I believe you are not making up a story," she said. "But what is behind it? Did the Earl poison himself?
"By gum! you have me there, miss. The strange gent said nothing about that. Only, you mark my words, there will be wigs on the green here to-morrow! Simpson, his lordship's man, you know, miss, is crazed about the master's death. He swears he'll speak out, no matter what happens."
"You are hinting at something. Out with it!'
"Simpson says the Earl was killed a-purpose. He knows something; but I don't know what. If I did, miss, I'd tell you, honor bright, for I'd trust you more than anybody."
He leaned against the gate, and the girl felt that he was nervous, even a little excited.
She was surprised, and retired a pace.
"The scandal will not be spread by me," she said coldly. " Of that you may be sure. Naturally, I am very sorry to think that the person lives who could wish harm to a dear old gentleman like Lord Arncliffe. Good night, Wilson."
"Good night, miss," he sighed.
"And, by the way, should you be passing tomorrow you might call if you have any further news."
He brightened up considerably. "You may rely on me, miss. Something will turn up, that's certain, and I'll get out somehow." He strode off, softly whistling a popular air.
She watched him from the porch. "I do believe," she said to herself, "that Wilson was sheepishly anxious to flirt with me. Yet he is aware that I am engaged to Harry. And they say Lord Arncliffe was murdered! What can it all mean?"
"Now, honey, it's time that lass was yam (home) an' i' bed," came a thin voice from within the cottage.
"All right, mother. I'm coming."
The girl pressed her hands against her bosom in a tumultuous rush of agonizing doubt. Then she went in and barred the door on specters; but it is hard to say whether or not she was successful.
Warren, who was really a skilful driver, succeeded in restoring Aingier's confidence before they reached the first gate of the park.
"Would you mind if I drove round to the West Lodge?" he asked.
"Why do you wish to take the longer route?" was the cautious query.
"We may meet Mr. Lester. I thought that you might like to have a word or two with him." Warren was prepared with this explanation. It was forthcoming readily.
"Not a bad idea. It is late already, and I can do little at the Hall to-night" In reality, the old lawyer was tickled with the notion that he might have a chance to question an important witness taken unawares.
The maneuver failed, for the good reason that Lester not only escorted Edith Holt back to the East Lodge, but obtained her permission to walk with her to the door of the Hall.
The pair in the dog-cart encountered no one on the highway, nor was any person other than a gamekeeper to be seen on the white ribbon of the open drive within the park. Harry Warren unconsciously flicked the mare again, and Aingier stifled a protest, mentally registering a vow that he would secure another Jehu while he dwelt at Arncliffe.
"Beg pardon," said Warren, briefly. "I was thinking of the outlook."
"Your thoughts take an unnecessarily active form," growled the lawyer.
"The fact is, Mr. Aingier, I was wondering who would be my new employer. You see it is a serious thing for me."
"At present I am in charge of the estate as resident trustee, and it will certainly be a most serious thing for you if you throw me out of this infernal conveyance!" was the unexpected retort.
"I suppose some distant cousin will get the title and the bulk of the property?" persisted Warren.
"The title becomes extinct, there being no direct descendant of his lordship," the lawyer answered dryly. "You, as agent, know well enough that the estate is not entailed. Lord Arncliffe was what is styled a self-made man. He could, if he chose, leave everything he possessed to you, Mr. Harry Warren."
"By gad! No such luck!"
Warren rolled his tongue in his mouth. He collected rents amounting to ten thousand a year. Thrice that sum came from cotton and cloth mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the deceased Earl was credited with enormous deposits of ready money in two banks.
Aingier enjoyed the analysis of Warren's feelings. How this beefy youngster would revel in the delights of millionairedom! Already the mare was lifting her head under the urging of the reins.
"Failing you," he went on, "his lordship might devise his money to establishing a home for idiots."
"Don't be severe on me, Mr. Aingier. I am a bit upset by to-day's events, and I assure you there is not the slightest danger in sitting behind a quiet animal like this. All I want to say is that I hope, whoever succeeds to the property, it will make no difference to me."
"When I was a young man I gave no heed to considerations of that sort. I always endeavored to serve my employers faithfully and well, trusting to my services to secure my position."
Harry Warren would indeed have been slowwitted if he misapprehended this tart rejoinder. For the remaining quarter of a mile his nervous companion had no occasion for further protest. It was a pleasant night for a drive, and the lawyer recovered his equanimity before they reached the house.
Edith Holt, standing near the door after Lester had left her, heard the approaching vehicle. She recognized the sound of the wheels, and wondered idly why Warren had brought the solicitor by a circuitous way from the station.
She greeted Aingier cordially, telling him that Mrs. Warren, sorely tried by the Earl's sudden death, was compelled to retire, and had requested her to await his arrival.
Instantly Warren began to reckon the sequence of events. When had his mother seen Edith? It was evident that the latter had cut short her conversation with Lester. He was mistaken. Mrs. Warren, completely prostrated, had left a message for Miss Holt with a footman, but the belief served to banish her son's ill humor.
The old man seemed to be delighted that he was to have Miss Holt's company while he partook of some supper. He promised to join her immediately, and Harry Warren, anxious for a word, seized the moment's interval afforded by the safe transference of the solicitor's baggage to his room.
"Edith," he whispered, " don't forget that Mr. Aingier is a trustee. He can do a lot for us." "In what way?" she asked.
"Well, he can smooth away difficulties, you know. You should — be quite nice to him." He nearly said " play up to him," but the words faltered on his tongue. The girl seemed to be so lost in the great sorrow of her benefactor's fate that even he felt the jar of the suggestion.
"Of course, I will endeavor to make him comfortable," she said simply. " But I have had a long talk with Dr. Lester, and I am profoundly moved by Lord Arncliffe's extraordinary death. I fear I shall prove a very indifferent hostess to-night, Harry."
Now, the last thing a man of Warren's shifty disposition expected was this candid admission. It astounded him. A new-born tact induced him to be content with a growling comment about " interference by outsiders."
"You and Dr. Smalley are quite mistaken in that respect," she assured him earnestly. "Dr. Lester has been quite frank with me. His presence, as you are aware, was a sheer accident, and it is still more extraordinary that for some years he should have been engaged in the research planned by his lordship in West and Central Africa. You have heard me speak of it — the malarial mosquito, you remember. Dr. Lester forgot Sir William Bradshaw's new title. Indeed, he thinks he never heard of it, which was quite possible for a man who lived during months at a time on the head waters of the Niger. He is recognized as a great authority on — poisons."
She dwelt solemnly on the dread word. Warren's natural petulance resented the certainty of her convictions, nor was he pleased by her defense of Lester.
"Between Lester and Aingier we are in for a fine old scandal," he said with a scowl.
"Mr. Aingier? What does he know about it?"
"Mr. Aingier will tell you himself, my dear young lady," said the solicitor, speaking from the open doorway. He had overheard Warren's exclamation, and the latter, somewhat abashed, drove off to the stables in sulky silence.
Lester, stepping out briskly, met a keeper with a dog, who questioned him as to his business. He satisfied the man's doubts, and thinking it was unusual, to say the least, that a visitor leaving the Hall by the proper road at such an hour should be called on to explain his presence, produced a cigar-case and invited the keeper to accompany him as far as the gate.
In a quiet country place unwonted excitement will loosen tongues more than ordinarily cautious. "Velveteens" was no exception to the rule.
"His lordship was what people call a recluse, sir," he said. "Nobody, not even a village tradesman, was allowed to approach the Hall without his permission. There was never any company. His lordship took his pleasure either in readin' or writin'. Sometimes, on a fine mornin', he would sit for hours on a canvas chair hidden by bushes and watch the birds and rabbits in the woods."
"He was a man after my own heart."
"I shouldn't have thought that, sir," said the keeper with a canny humor in his tone.
"You say that because you saw me escorting Miss Holt just now?
"Mebbe I did, sir."
"There is no doubt about it. You were crouching behind the largest of three elms and holding your dog by the neck lest he should run out into the open.
"Phew!" whistled the keeper. "Who'd ha' thought you could spot me like that?"
"You fancy I would make an expert poacher, eh? Well, if Lord Arncliffe forbade the killing of game, I shouldn't carry two, if not more, young rabbits in my coat pocket. Have another cigar to smoke before you go to bed. Good night."
"Good night, sir, and thank you kindly. You're a rum un, you are!" added the man under his breath.
Although Lester had amused himself at the rustic's expense, his reflections were serious enough as he neared the village. Edith Holt, growing calmer after the discomfiture of Lizzie the kitchen-maid, was able to add nothing to Lord Arncliffe's nebulous theory that he was being done to death. Striving to lead her from a distracting topic, Lester exerted himself to make their chat more general in character. He spoke of himself and his aims in life, knowing full well that the girl would repay his confidences by her own simple story.
She was the daughter of an English classical tutor who contracted a marriage somewhat late in life with a woman belonging to a poor and proud Channel Islands family.
"My great-grandfather was a Rochambert, an emigré, who married Mademoiselle Helène de Grammont, and I have been told that in a famous private collection in London there is a miniature of my great-grandmother to which I bear a remarkable likeness," she said.
"I can fully credit the statement," put in Lester, smiling in the darkness at his recollection of the bewitching "marquise" of the afternoon.
"I once told dear Lord Arncliffe about it," she continued, "and if I didn't so want to cry I could laugh now at the way in which the other wealthy connoisseur fenced with him when he wrote offering to buy it. Neither would sell, but each wanted to purchase the other's complete cabinet. Soon my poor Helène de Grammont was swamped in the galaxy of stars which illuminated the letters. You see, each collector tried, with the most elaborate courtesy, to show his rival that his own gallery of celebrities was so nearly perfect that it was a pity to withhold trifling exceptions from its completion, especially when price was no object."
"Would not you have been the most suitable person to buy your great-grandmother?"
"Ah, you know little of the ways of collectors.
Half the joy of ownership consists in the knowledge that you have something another man wants and cannot obtain."
The girl's lively wit made her possible engagement to a man of Harry Warren's type wholly incomprehensible to Lester. He paid little heed to the plausible explanation that a secretary and amanuensis might well regard the estate agent as a desirable spouse. Unreasonable though the feeling was, Lester longed to kick Warren for his impertinence in asking this spirituelle, graceful creature to be his wife. He had no manner of doubt that such was the position between these two. Even now, when the fragrance of her presence was gone, and her clear sweet voice was only a memory, Lester was furiously, inexplicably angry with Warren. The absurd fit passed, however, and he laughed at his own folly. It was in a state of placid good humor that he entered the bar of the " Fisherman's Rest," where " Jolly Jim " and his sturdy poacher acquaintance were far more eager to learn details of the sad end of the giant trout than to glean gossip from the Hall, even if Lester was disposed to give it.
The hour of ten disposed of external visitors, and Lester yielded so far to a personal curiosity as to ask the landlord if he knew whether or not Harry Warren was engaged to be married.
Jones laughed loudly. "Engaged?" he bellowed.
"By gum, engaged isn't the word, sir! He's hot, is that young man, very hot! But, mark me, he'll get into deep wafter if he isn't careful. I say nowt about Betsy Spence or Polly Renwick, nor do I reckon much on Mary Brown's affair; but when it comes to playin' fast an' loose wi' sike a lass as May Mannering, why, my name isn't J. J. if she don't bring him up wi' a tight line."
Lester suddenly found the conversation disagreeable. Was Edith Holt the latest fancy of this village Lothario? The mere idea was nauseating. He must to bed and dispel these vapors. When all was said and done, how did it concern him?
About one o'clock in the morning, Aingier, a light sleeper at any time, but rendered more than ordinarily wakeful by a long journey, the loss of his friend, and a certain air of mystery attached to a professional incident which might otherwise be colorless, thought he heard some person walking stealthily along the corridor in which his room was situated.
Notwithstanding his nervousness about spirited horses and high-perched dog-carts, the old lawyer was plucky enough in other respects. He sprang up with remarkable alertness for one of his years, opened the door noiselessly and looked out. The corridor was dark, and, as far as he could judge, untenanted.
"I don't remember having heard of a night watchman being employed here," he communed, "and it is a queer hour for any one to be wandering about the house."
He closed the door again, turned up the gas and dressed partially. He had the student's habit of reading late at night. If he tackled a stiff book for an hour the effort might induce sleep. His hobby, strangely enough, was ship-building; within a few minutes he was deeply immersed in a recent treatise on naval architecture.
Then came that soft, guarded tread again, which, were it not for the creaking age of the oak floor, must have passed unheard. This time Aingier was prepared. He flung his bedroom door wide, and the flood of light from within fell on Harry Warren, standing, pale and open-mouthed, in the corridor. He was without his boots; he carried an extinguished candle in his left hand, with his right arm he encircled a sleepy-eyed puppy.
"What on earth have you been doing?" demanded Aingier sharply.
"I -- I went to find ---- this little chap," said Warren confusedly, his naturally red face flaming back from white to brick color.
"Hunting for a dog at this hour? Absurd!"
"Really — I lost him. He ran out of my room, and -- I had to follow him."
Aingier glanced at his watch. "You followed him, for half an hour?" he cried with increasing suspicion in his voice.
"I — don't understand you."
"My words are exceedingly plain. You passed my door exactly thirty-two minutes since."
"That I swear I did not," cried Warren with more self-possession. " My room is on the next floor, and I — followed the dog along several passages until I caught him. This is the nearest way back."
"Then who passed here earlier?"
"I don't know. Shall I search the upper floors to see if any one is about?"
"It seems to me that there are some extraordinary happenings in this house!" snapped Aingier, without answering Warren's question directly.
The younger man appeared to be annoyed too. "There is nothing very odd about a young dog wandering a bit," he said brusquely.
"That puppy is nearly sound asleep. He wants to run nowhere, " growled the lawyer.
"I have been nursing him, you see."
"You impress me as a tender-hearted person. May I ask if your nocturnal rambles have ended?"
"I tell you I have not passed your door before! You can believe me or not, just as you please," said Warren, and he stalked off.
For some considerable time thereafter Aingier tried to guess the true reason of Harry Warren's nocturnal prowling, for he dismissed the excuse of the straying puppy as a stupidly conceived pretext.
Warren himself, though vexed and somewhat frightened because he was discovered, was far more perturbed to think that another had passed along the corridor at the time stated by the keen-witted old solicitor. Who could it have been? What was the secret watcher's object? Harry Warren did not sleep until long after he had restored the puppy to its dam, lying cosily amid the straw of a distant stable.