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HARRY WARREN SUPPLIES A FRESH SENSATION
THE shadows were lengthening, and the first suggestion of evening's hush were softening the vivid hues of the summer landscape, as Harry Warren strode through the Arncliffe grounds on the day following Bradshaw's arrival. There was a hint of unsteadiness in his gait. His face was deeply flushed. The haggard misery in his eye was of that enduring type which may be dulled, but cannot be drowned, by potations. He was taking his troubles like a child, blaming himself for his own folly, and almost ready to weep at the monstrous injustice of it all. He was indeed a child, in the sense that the savage is childish, an overgrown booby, absolutely deficient in self-control, and ready to gratify any passing fancy without a thought for the day of reckoning.
And now, when that most unpleasant date in the calendar of life loomed dangerously near, he was nerving himself to meet it, not with calm front and cool judgment, but with the fortitude of the brandy bottle. He walked on, slashing at leaves and twigs with his hunting-crop, and muttering inarticulate threats against every one in general, and Edith Holt and Lester in particular.
So oblivious to his surroundings was he that he almost ran into his mother, who was making her way in the direction of the village. If Harry Warren's vices far outweighed his virtues, let it be placed to his credit, nevertheless, that there was no alloy in the gold of his affection for his mother. Her austerity awed him a little, though to him she sometimes unbent sufficiently to show the woman's heart hidden beneath the exterior of marble placidity. And, if Warren loved his mother, she devoted herself to him with the intensity of which, perhaps, only the self-contained are capable. She was under no illusions as to his intellectual capacity, nor was she blind to faults beyond glossing over as youthful follies. But, to her, he was still only a wayward child, and his very roguery seemed only roguishness. She now realized that without the assistance of a firm, unfaltering hand, he would be submerged by the flood-tide of misfortune creeping in on him. The pitifully weak link in the chain of her calculations was that she had never considered the possibility of Edith Holt, whether rich or poor, in gladness or in sorrow, hesitating to embrace eagerly the prospect of illimitable bliss opened up by marriage with this paragon.
Warren's greeting to his mother was a trifle constrained. He was wondering how far he bore the evidence of his efforts to quench the fire in his breast by pouring spirits into it.
But if Mrs. Warren saw she did not comment. She slipped her arm within that of her stalwart son with a gesture, half of motherly protection, and half of womanly appeal. "Now, my boy," she said quietly, "tell me all about it."
"There is nothing to tell you," was the sullen reply, "excepting that I have been beaten at every turn by that cursed meddler, Lester."
"Oh, I have no patience with you!" exclaimed Mrs. Warren, her words and actions nevertheless betraying an infinity of patience. "Haven't you the soul of a man in that great body of yours? Why should you fear Dr. Lester? You are younger, better-looking, and you might have secured Edith's affections a dozen times over before this interloper came from his African swamps. But of course no girl of spirit would endure your conduct — your philanderings with the Isabels and Gerties and Mays of the village. Why, I am told that a girl named May Mannering has had the impertinence to report that she is engaged to you."
"She may be," growled Harry, "but I'm hanged if I am engaged to her. Yet I might do worse. Whatever happened, I believe she would stick to me through thick and thin."
"So would your dog," retorted Mrs. Warren, coldly. "I prefer not to discuss people of that class. The most important matter at present is your financial position. You must be aware that every moment threatens you with unspeakable dangers?"
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Harry, with a gasp of very real anxiety.
"Oh, my son, do not try to deceive me! I may not know all, but I know enough to realize that when Mr. Aingier examines certain of Lord Arncliffe's books, it means utter ruin to you."
Warren looked at his mother aghast. Then he began to whimper with maudlin self-pity. "It was not my fault," he protested. "I dropped four hundred over the Leger, but I should have pulled it all back. And if the Grand National favorite had not gone lame! — Besides, what did a few hundreds matter to old Arncliffe?"
"A few hundreds!" murmured his mother, reproachfully.
"Well, then," he growled sullenly, "a few thousands."
"And so," continued Mrs. Warren, "you opened a private account with Lord Arncliffe's bankers to enable you to supply him with a forged pass-book."
"Yes," admitted Harry, hopelessly. He did not attempt to inquire how his mother had obtained her information.
"Well, now, do you not see that your only safety lies in destroying that forged pass-book, and the book which Lord Arncliffe kept to check his banking-account? If that is done, people may, indeed, know that something is wrong, but they are not likely to suspect you, and it will be impossible to prove anything."
"I tried to secure the books the night Aingier arrived," said Harry, "but I heard somebody moving, and did not dare to remain in the library. As it was, Aingier caught me on the stairs, and seemed very suspicious. I have not had a chance again, but I was hoping that Edith would accept my proposal, and then, of course, things would easily have come right."
"I hoped so, too," rejoined his mother, bitterly; "but I fancy that few girls would be likely to accept a proposal that reeked of brandy. Still, we must leave that matter for the present. The main thing is to secure those books at any hazard. Mr. Aingier ordered a fire to be lighted in the library before I came out, and, for all we know, he may be examining those very accounts at this moment."
"But what am I to do?" demanded Warren, looking around as though he expected instant arrest.
"Do anything," returned Mrs. Warren, stamping her foot with impatience, "so long as you do not absolutely commit yourself. Until those books are destroyed you run a risk, not only of prosecution for forgery and embezzlement, but for something much more serious. You must not forget that Lord Arncliffe was murdered."
Warren's face paled grayly, and his hand went up to his throat. Brandy helps a man to feel certain emotions too keenly.
"That is all a beastly plot. I don't believe a word of it," he murmured.
"Yet it may be true. And people are seeking for some one who might have a motive in taking the old man's life," went on his mother, relentlessly. "Hobson, the detective, seems to suspect Edith Holt at present. But he is a dangerously shrewd man, and may look in another direction at any moment."
Warren turned haggard eyes on his mother. He was almost sober again. "I must go and get the books now," he said, as if repeating a lesson. "I must go and get them now."
"You must go now," repeated Mrs. Warren, firmly. "Hobson is the person most to be feared, and he has just driven to the village. If I meet him on my way I will detain him as long as possible. Be careful; but, for my sake as well as your own, make a bold effort. You may never have another chance."
She kissed him tenderly, and then, as if ashamed of her emotion, walked away, her gray head erect, her step unfaltering.
Warren looked after her irresolutely. Then he experienced an overwhelming impulse to act. Something must be done. He glanced nervously at the wan shadows of the fading day, and turned back mechanically toward the Hall.
"I must get them now," he muttered, half uncomprehending.
The difficulty of the task before him was greater than he realized in his agitated, drink-dazed condition. Hitherto, Aingier had been busily engaged in preparing for the inquest and in going through Lord Arncliffe's various papers, but, as Mrs. Warren said, he might turn his attention to the estate books at any moment. Worst of all, there was the danger that he might send the forged pass-book to the bankers at Alnwick, and that, of course, would mean irretrievable calamity. Since Inspector Hobson had taken up his abode at the Hall, there seemed to be in the air a relentless vigilance that, apparently objectless, was yet all-embracing. Warren bitterly regretted the timidity which sent him rushing empty-handed from the study at the sound of the creaking stair that night of Lord Arncliffe's death. The incriminating books could then have been had for the taking; now it would be a miracle if he accomplished his purpose.
Oddly enough, this bull-headed young man had a talent for figures. Had he directed his bookkeeping abilities into legitimate channels he would have been a model accountant. The business between Lord Arncliffe and his ordinary bankers had almost invariably been conducted by the agent. Lord Arncliffe's account was so large that there was little danger of an unusually heavy item drawing attention to the irregularities. Moreover, Warren had made a point of always fetching and delivering the pass-book personally. Except when it was at the bank, the genuine pass-book never left his possession for a moment, while the forged one had always been filled in with the utmost care and attention to detail.
Now, as he neared the Hall, his dazed mind tried to formulate some definite plan of campaign. His only hope, apparently, was to inveigle the solicitor out of the room, if only for a single moment. Yet to accomplish this without laying himself open to suspicion appeared to be impossible. But he must get the books now! To-morrow might be too late.
The library was on the ground floor, and Warren saw, with a chill of apprehension, that there was a dim light within the room. He knew the light well. It came from a shaded desk-lamp. He pictured the old solicitor poring over the fatal books. At the thought, the fumes of alcohol rose again to his brain. He became almost frantic with fear.
He crept softly close to the window, and from the shadow of a dump of bushes peered in, though his eyes were blurred and his forehead clammy. Mr. Aingier, with spectacles on nose, was actually studying the ledger. At his elbow lay the pass-book. This, however, as Warren noted with the quick appreciation of nerves at full tension, was as yet unopened. How long would it remain unopened?
And then there came to him an insane desire to scream out — to do anything that might end it all, and relieve the suspense that was making an Inferno of his life — but he quieted the mocking fiend of conscience and stepped lightly up to the French windows which gave access to the library from the garden.
He turned the latch softly. Even now he had not decided on any course of action, though he had some vague hope of engaging the lawyer's attention, perhaps till dinner time, when the books might be left unguarded. So he advanced across the soft carpet, trying to frame a greeting with his dry lips.
The old man's back was toward him. Absorbed in his work, Aingier did not look up, because, as it chanced, he thought the newcomer was a servant.
Warren stood for an instant with an "Excuse me!" trembling on his lips. Suddenly a murderous impulse leaped to his eyes like a sheet of flame, and he struck savagely at the bald head with his heavy hunting-crop. His victim sat for a moment as though nothing had happened, and Warren waited, staring stupidly. Then the old head dropped to the desk, and the wet gap where the blow had fallen lost its dean-cut edges and began to dribble red streaks across the tense skin, and so down to the pages of the open ledger. Warren almost shouted for help. It seemed impossible that he could have done this awful thing. He never meant to hurt the old man. Of course, he would not hurt him for the world! Nevertheless, the ruling instinct made him active in self-preservation. While he was protesting to himself the innocence of his intentions, he was still reaching feverishly for the books for which he had risked so much.
To take up the forged pass-book and put the genuine one in its place was the work of an instant. Then, with something of shuddering horror, he pulled the ledger from beneath the senseless head. He saw a red smear across his hands, and again the desire to scream aloud came upon him, but not so strongly that selfish terror did not master it. One glance was enough. He had the right books. His trembling fingers buttoned them under his coat, and he knew he might laugh at investigation, provided he could conceal the fact that he had entered that room just then.
His mind was clear, with the dazzling radiance of a lightning flash amid dark clouds. He remembered that this quiet, oak-paneled apartment had, twice within a fortnight, been the scene of a crime. With the thought, blind terror gripped him again in its icy clutches. He must run away — away from the silent figure with its nerveless bands and accusing blood. He went, on tiptoe, half-way to the window, and then, with a gasp of panic born only of his conscience, rushed out as though all Scotland Yard pursued him — rushed, and catching his foot on the raised lintel of the window, fell heavily, his head striking the pedestal of a grinning figure of Pan, the goat-god.
For a few moments he lay utterly unconscious. He was not seriously hurt, though the breath had been knocked out of his body and his half-frenzied brains were rudely stilled. But the brief oblivion arose more from his overmastering fear than from any physical cause. The sense of danger supplied a prompt restorative. He struggled to his feet and began to run again, pressing his arm to his side to secure the precious books. Then he stopped and groped madly at the earth around the spot where he had fallen.
The books were gone!
And now, indeed, he was perilously near the precipice of utter insanity. The ledger and the passbook could not have been swallowed up by the smooth lawn. He tried to force himself to believe he had left them in the library. He knew it was not so, and, had it been otherwise, he could not face that room, with its stricken tenant, a second time.
So, they must be where he had fallen. A match might help. Whatever the risk of showing a light, there was no other way. How he anathematized the overhanging trees for the dense shade they cast on the ground! He fumbled with his match-box, and then he was nearly paralyzed with fright as an iron grip on his arm restrained him and a hoarse voice whispered:
"I've got 'em, Mister Warren, an' I've got you, an' I mean to keep both! But come away from here, quick, or the game is up!"
Warren was a bully. He had a certain rude physical courage which might have sustained him in a battle. But he yielded now as he might have yielded to the specter of Death, and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.
A firm hand on his arm guided him unerringly across the lawn into a thicket of laurels. Utterly cowed, he accompanied his guide unresistingly. Mortal terror had so mastered him that he was ready to meet any fate, good or bad, that might befall him, and he walked with the mechanical calm of a convict on his way to the scaffold. Yet the voice was human enough, and it sounded familiar in his ears, so presently, when reason reasserted itself, he began to see a glimmer of hope.
His captor led him along at breathless speed, but always with a caution that was in itself a warning for silence and a light step. At length they plunged into a dark spinney, and Warren, still guided by the compelling hand, crouched down in the underbrush for a moment's breathing space. In the black darkness it was impossible to distinguish face or form. From the few whispered words, it was impossible for Warren to form any dear idea as to the identity of his companion. This man had spoken in the rugged Northumbrian accents, and Warren had reached a state of mind in which he could bear anything rather than suspense, so he put a curt question to settle things, one way or another.
"Who are you?" he whispered imperatively.
The reply came in a whisper too, but these were whispers in which there was all the light and shade of any measured conversation.
"Don't you know me, Master Harry?" answered the other, banteringly. "Surely you must remember getting me six months last year over a little matter of a brace of pheasants. But there, there —" he chuckled, "a gentleman like you might easily forget a trifle of that sort."
"Bob Leigh!" he muttered despairingly. He was delivered, fettered for life, into the hands of a notorious poacher, the man who first sent Lester to whip the trout stream which flowed through Arncliffe Park.
"Yes, sir, Bob Leigh," repeated the man in the same jeering tones. "But bless you, don't think that I bear any malice. Why, I daresay, if the truth was known, gaol did me a power of good. It sharpened my hearin', for one thing; so, when I heard you and your ma talkin' awhile ago, I thought it best to follow you. Now, Mr. Warren, just you listen to me, and do as I tell yer. Go to my cottage, wash your hands, an' call at 'Jolly Jim's' for a drink. Be sure he sees you. Don't hurry. Let a servant from the Hall find you, by accident-like —"
"Yes, I'll do that," broke in Warren. "Ill pay you well, Leigh, for your help. If — if you saw — everything, you will know I didn't mean -- But I must have those books!"
"You'll get nowt but what I gie thee," came the poacher's menacing whisper. "Now, be off! I’ll take good care o' t' books, Mr. Warren, an', what's more, I'll see you in t' morning, when we'll have a bit crack about things, an' particular aboot my allowance. Not that way, you rabbit-hearted fool. You'll meet a keeper or some one comin' to t' Hall. Make for t' Beck, and then go up to my cottage by way of the meadows. The door's on the latch. And hurry, I tell thee! Hurry, or you'll spoil everything!"