By EDGAR WALLACE
GWENDA MAYNARD turned into the Park. The crocuses and the daffodils were out, and the first tender green of spring was showing against the dingy brown of the lilac bushes, but none of these pleasant sights brought her to the loneliness of Hyde Park on a chilly afternoon in March.
Her problem was an unusual one. She had the care and responsibility of two children. From the first of these, Master Samuel Bradshaw, aged eleven months, she was soon to be relieved, for his mother had sent her a frantic cable on her arrival in New York, begging her to devise some method by which the child could be sent to her. Gwenda proved her capability by discovering a nurse who was returning to the United States on the Aquitania, and Samuel's box, so to speak, was already packed.
The second, of the children had no frantic mother to demand him—for which Gwenda was secretly glad—and into what was a guardianship she had drifted, although Chick was her senior by eighteen months.
He was a responsibility, because by the oddest trick of fortune this youthful insurance clerk had inherited a great title—and nothing else.
Gwenda was looking to the future, and the future she studied was Chick's. She had few illusions; five years spent on every variety of stage, from the "fit-up" company to the more decorous society of a West End theatre, had left her faith in men and women an attenuated thing Five years of struggle, of fierce, unrelenting battle against forces as grimly determined and merciless, had brought to her the cold, early morning sanity of view which comes to those who have wakened from dreams.
Her friends said that the circle of gold on her finger stood for a tragedy, but the closest of them had received no hint from her as to what that tragedy was. She never spoke of her husband, but some people believed that he was not very far away. She conveyed the impression that he was somewhere in the background, and there were managers who believed that they knew him.
Chick never asked—but he wouldn't. He accepted her with her mystery, her secrets, and all that went before, and was content to worship and adore her in his own clean way. Chick's love was like rock crystal, shaped and unchangeable. Crystal clear and transparent, it was part of his life, and he never disguised it.
With this Gwenda was content and grateful. She gave the boy all that he needed, but was desperately conscious that she must give him more than he recognised as necessary.
She looked at the watch on her wrist. It was three o'clock, and her appointment was for half-past. But since she did not know the house, and might experience some difficulty in finding it, she changed her direction and walked towards Knightsbridge. She walked slowly, and was so engrossed in her thoughts that the half-hour passed like five minutes. It was a little after the time when she pressed the bell of a flat in Knightsbridge.
A man-servant opened the door and showed her into a big and smoky room, evidently a man's study, and an out-of-door man's at that, for the walls were covered with trophies of hunt and stalk.
She had hardly time to look around when a young man came in. He smiled broadly as he took her hand,
"Will you talk here, or would you rather go into the drawing-room? My sister is dressing."
"Here will do very well, Lord Mansar," she smiled. "You didn't mind my 'phoning you yesterday—I haven't upset your arrangements for to-day?"
"Not a bit," said the Earl boisterously, which was not true. He had forgone a hunting fixture and a hunt ball, but this she could not know. "You want to speak about our young friend the Marquis—Lord Pelborough?"
"You understand his position," she said. "I almost said social position," she smiled. "Chick is employed by an insurance agent, and he receives a salary of five pounds a week."
"And yet there isn't a man in this town," she went on quietly, "who is a kindlier gentleman than this boy."
"I liked him," said Lord Mansar, nodding.
"I don't know much about nobility," the girl went on, "but I feel that Chick has a responsibility to you and to your kind. I'm not afraid of Chick falling into bad hands, because his natural honesty will keep him clear of anything questionable, but attempts will be made to exploit him, and, indeed, Mr. Leither, his present employer, is doing something of that sort already. Now, Lord Mansar," she said earnestly, "can you suggest any method by which Chick could take a place which would be creditable to him and to the order he represents?"
Mansar rubbed his chin and frowned. He was not used to problems of any character, and this was so remarkable a problem that for a moment he was confounded.
"It's a question of money," he said at last, "and really I can't think of any way by which Pelborough can make good. He cannot go into any of the Services, because he hasn't been prepared. Anyway, the Services are not paying propositions."
He looked at the girl thoughtfully.
"He might marry well," he said, and wondered whether he was committing a faux pas, but Gwenda only nodded.
"I have thought of that," she said.
Lord Mansar was silent.
"Have you any suggestion you could offer?" he said at last. "Because, frankly, I have none."
"The only idea I had in my mind," said the girl, hesitating, "was that you might possibly help him by—well, by bringing him out."
"Bringing him out?" said the puzzled Mansar.
"You might help him to meet the right people," said the girl desperately.
"Oh, I see!" A light dawned upon the Earl of Mansar, and a broad smile illuminated his cherubic face. "I'll arrange that with all the pleasure in life, Mrs. Maynard. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll get him an invitation to a dance. You know Mrs. Krenley?"
"I'm afraid I don't," laughed Gwenda.
"I thought everybody knew her," said Mansar, in surprise. "She knows all the best people in London. I'll get her to send an invitation to Pelborough. I don' know what good those people can do him," he added a little ruefully; "they haven't been very serviceable to me. But you may be sure, Mrs. Maynard, I will do whatever I can. His lordship is no relation to you, I presume?"
Gwenda shook her head.
"I dare say you find it difficult to understand how I come into the business at, all," she said quietly. "I am, as I explained to you before, engaged at the Broadway Theatre. Chick and I became acquainted by reason of our staying in the same boarding-house; there is no other relationship, actual or prospective," she said emphatically, and Lord Mansar nodded.
To those people who troubled to think about the matter at all, the Honourable Mrs. Krenley was something of an enigma. George Krenley was the son of one poor peer and the brother of another who, if anything, was slightly more impecunious. He had married, before the War, a member of the ultra-smart set, who brought to her husband no other dowry than was represented by an expensive wardrobe, the reputation of being the best bridge player in London, and a most expensive circle of acquaintances. Yet after a few years of their married life the Krenleys were acknowledged as the leaders of the smartest society in the Metropolis. They leased a magnificent house in Bickley Square, they entertained largely and generously, and maintained a mansion in Somerset, and did all this apparently on the six hundred a year which Krenley drew from his mother's estate.
Two mornings after Gwenda had interviewed Lord Mansar, Mrs. Krenley sat in her boudoir, smoking a cigarette and looking thoughtfully at a letter which lay on her lap. She was a good-looking woman of thirty, and somewhat of a contrast to her stout, plain husband, who was sitting on a low divan amusing her brother with a pack of cards.
"Do you know Pelborough?" she asked, looking up from the letter.
Gregory Boyne, who was a florid edition of his sister, shook his head.
"Pelborough?" he said slowly. "I seem to remember the name. Yes. He's the shopwalker Marquis, isn't he? The fellow they were talking about the other day at the club?"
"He has no money," grunted Krenley, shuffling the cards. "Why do you ask, Lu?"
"Mansar wants me to invite him to our dance on Friday."
Boyne's lips curled.
"We don't want that kind of chap here," he said. "Why, the fellow's a hooligan! You'd be the laughing stock of London, Lu."
She was looking thoughtfully at him, tapping the letter on the palm of her hand.
"Our people might be interested to see him," she said. "It would give them something to talk about. Besides——"
"Besides what?" asked Krenley huskily. His voice at this early hour of the morning was invariably husky.
"If I wrote and told Mansar I could not invite the boy, I hardly know what excuse I could make," she said. "It isn't like dinner, where every place is fixed. One more or less at a dance doesn't really matter."
"Write to him telling him point-blank that we don't want the bounder," said her brother carelessly, and he heard her laugh.
"Would Mansar come?" she asked significantly, and Boyne twisted in his chair to face her.
"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "I don't think we'd better choke off Mansar."
"And he doesn't want much choking off," interrupted Krenley. "You've got to play that fish with a master hand, Lu."
Mrs. Krenley nodded.
"That is what I think. How much did he lose last time, Bob?"
"Seven thousand," said her husband promptly. "It's a flea-bite to him. If I had known that he was getting scared, he'd have lost more. No, I should write him a nice polite little note, if I were you, Lu, telling him to bring along his Marquis. I should choose that night for a real big coup. Mansar 's worth a million if he's worth a penny, and he's the kind of fellow who'd honour any cheque he signed—even if he was drunk when he signed it," he added significantly.
Chick had heard the news without enthusiasm.
"It will be wonderful for you, Chick," said Gwenda, her eyes shining. "You'll meet all your own kind of people."
They were at breakfast when she had received the letter from Lord Mansar enclosing Mrs. Krenley's invitation to Chick.
"I don't like parties very much," said Chick disconsolately, "but if you think I ought to go, Gwenda—why, there's nothing more to be said. What time does it begin?"
"At ten o'clock," said Gwenda, reading the invitation.
"At ten o'clock at night?" he said incredulously. "That will be keeping them up late, won't it?" He thought a while. "I'd better go half an hour before," he said. "It would look more polite."
"You'll go about half an hour late," said the girl decisively. "Can you dance, Chick?"
To her amazement he replied in the affirmative.
"The instructor at the Polytechnic is very keen on our dancing," he said apologetically. "It helps in the footwork."
"The footwork?" she repeated.
"Yes," and Chick explained. He had been to dancing lessons at the Polytechnic—apparently everything was to be learnt at the Polytechnic—and dancing is a useful accomplishment in a boxer.
"And did you really dance with real girls?" asked Gwenda, her eyes bright with laughter.
"Yes," admitted Chick. "I never looked at 'em, but I spoke to one or two."
"You're the queerest boy in the world, Chick," she said. And then, more briskly: "What are we going to do about your dress-clothes?"
"Dress-clothes," said Chick, panic-stricken. "Have I to dress up?"
"Haven't you a dress-suit?" she asked in dismay.
Chick had nothing so grand.
After business hours that day she met him, and they made a tour of those emporia which make a feature of ready-to-wear clothing. It was surprisingly easy to fit Chick. It almost seemed as if the reach-me-down tailors of the world had decided that the standard shape, length, and breadth of dress-clothing should be based upon Chick's physique.
Although the dance did not begin till ten, Chick was dressed at half-past five. Dressing for a dance, he discovered, involved a larger outlay than he had imagined. There were shirts and studs, silk socks—or socks that had the appearance of silk—patent shoes, and a crush hat (the latter begged by the practical Gwenda from the wardrobe mistress at the theatre), and a very extra special white silk scarf.
For three hours Chick sat on the edge of the chair in the little flat, awaiting the hour of his trial with the pained (expression of one who was anticipating the hour of his execution, and when at last he reached the big door of the house in Bickley Square and saw the footmen, the stream of beautiful ladies and most elegant men passing through the portals, he had an urgent desire to run home.
He strolled along the pavement, wondering exactly what he ought to do. He thought there should have been a ticket or some tangible proof of his bona fides. If he could have walked up the steps and presented a square of pasteboard to the footman, he would have felt more comfortable Half of his troubles ended when Lord Mansar descended from an electric brougham and, catching him by the arm, whisked him into the house. Before he knew what had happened. Chick found himself bowing stiffly to a beautiful lady and holding her jewelled hand.
"Glad to meet you. Lord Pelborough," she said sweetly. "I've heard so much about you."
Chick, who had prepared a little speech expressing his thanks for the invitation, was almost immediately dismissed as Mrs. Krenley welcomed another guest.
"Now, Pelborough. what are you going to do?"
Mansar took his arm and led him into the big ballroom, which was filled by two-stepping couples. Mansar's cheeks were a little flushed, for he had dined remarkably well.
"I'll just sit down," stammered Chick, "and look at the dancing. What time can I go?"
"My dear old thing, you're not here yet, and if you run away before you've made a few useful acquaintances, I'll never forgive you. Come along." He seized Chick's arm and hurried him to a queer-looking man, who offered him a limp hand.
"This is Lord Pr-sh-n-m." (It might have been "Mir-kr-sb," or some such name; Chick never remembered.) He was a Cabinet Minister, and a very important person. He was so important that he didn't look twice at Chick—indeed, it is doubtful if he looked once. He was a thin-faced man with pale eyes and a heavily-wrinkled forehead.
From him Chick was led to Mr. "Sesewsur" (or it might have been Mr. "Srugulun"). Chick made a most heroic effort this time to catch the name, but did not succeed. Every, person he met seemed to be attached to a title which defied the ear, titles which were jumbles of consonants and vowels and nasal sounds.
"And now, old thing," said Lord Mansar. patting him on the back, "I'll leave you. I'm going upstairs to play. Do you play?"
Chick smiled and shook his head.
"I used to be able to play 'God Save the King' with one finger——" he began, and Mansar departed in a tempest of laughter.
Chick found a chair and sat down. He enjoyed the music and the movement, and nobody troubled him. People looked curiously at the forlorn figure, and wondered who he was, and what excuse there might be for his presence. But nobody, not even the unrememberable ladies and gentlemen to whom he had been introduced, came near him. After a while he got a little bored, and followed the heated dancers from the room, being curious to know where they went. He discovered a buffet, and a footman with a large tray handed him a glass containing liquor of a golden hue. It looked rather like ginger ale, and tasted like cider, but at the first gulp he spluttered. It was a frothy, gaseous drink that went up into his head and gave him a tingling, suffocating sensation in his nose.
"Is that alcohol?" he gasped.
"No, sir, champagne," said the footman.
Chick nodded. He did not like to hand back the glass, but he had no intention of drinking the fiery potion. After a while he managed to slip the glass on to a sideboard, and strolled away guiltily.
All sorts of people were going upstairs. At first Chick did not like to follow them, because he thought they might be personal friends of the hostess who had the run of the house, but after a while he summoned up courage to explore the upper floor.
In a big saloon above the ballroom some thirty people, men and women, were gathered round a green baize table, in the centre of which was a small roulette wheel. He watched, fascinated, whilst real money, though not in very large quantities, was thrown on one of the numbered squares or little oblong spaces inscribed with foreign words.
"Gambling!" said Chick in amazement, and looked uneasily at the door, through which at any moment, he felt, a detachment of police might enter. He was to learn later that a mild flutter at roulette was one of the attractions of Mrs. Krenley's parties.
After a while even this thrill passed, and Chick strolled out on to the landing, where it was cooler than in the heated room. He stood with his back to the wall, his hands clasped in front of him, wondering how he could get the crush hat and the overcoat which he had so confidingly handed to a footman on his arrival.
He felt very lonely, very "out of it." He Was a stranger in a strange land, and did not speak the language of these gay people, who addressed one another by their Christian names. He had almost made up his mind to make a furtive inspection of the footmen in order to discover the custodian of the hat and coat, when a door at the farther end of the landing opened, and a tall, florid man came out. He looked round and beckoned Chick, and Chick, most anxious for diversion, obeyed the summons with alacrity.
"Go down to the butler," said Mr. Gregory Boyne, "and bring up half a dozen quarts of Pommery—tell him it is for Mr. Boyne. Hurry!"
"Certainly," said Chick, and went down the stairs more cheerfully than he had come up, for at least he had found a momentary occupation. He was being useful, and he felt more in the swing. They were treating him as an equal, he thought, making him one of them.
He found the butler in the buffet room, a stout, imposing man.
"Six bottles of Pommery, sir? Certainly. For Mr. Boyne, I think you said."
"I will send a waiter up with them."
"Don't bother," said Chick; "I'll take them."
The butler looked at him knowingly.
"All right, sir," he said, with a smile. And Chick went up the stairs, now happily deserted, with three large bottles under each arm.
He knocked at the door, and after a while he heard a key turned, and it was opened by Boyne.
"Come in," he said. "You had better stay here and open these bottles."
The room was a comparatively small one. Under a silver electrolier was a round green table, and seated about it were five men. Mr. Boyne, when he returned, was the sixth.
"Now open a bottle quick," said Boyne in a low voice, "and see that that gentleman's glass is kept filled."
Chick peered at "that gentleman," who sat half turned to him, and to his amazement he discovered it was Mansar.
"And look here, waiter——" said Boyne in the same tone.
"Eh?" said the startled Chick.
"Don't interrupt, confound you!" snapped Boyne, "You must serve Mr. Krenley and myself from that bottle." He pointed to a large magnum on the sideboard. "It is ginger ale. You understand?"
"Excuse me," began Chick, anxious that he should not be admitted under any false pretences, and realising that he had been mistaken for one of the hired waiters, "I should like to say——"
"I know what you'd like to say, but you'll get a tenner extra; all you have to do is to keep your mouth shut and that glass full."
"Yes, sir," said Chick feebly. Suddenly he had realised the enormous discredit of being mistaken for a waiter, and he prayed that he could elude the gaze of Lord Mansar, Has lordship, however, was fully occupied and wholly absorbed in the game.
The bright pink which Chick had seen in his cheeks was now a brick red, his voice was thick, and his actions a little unsteady. Chick refilled the glass at his elbow and stood behind him, watching.
They were playing a game with which he was not familiar, but which he afterwards learnt was chemin de fer. A half an hour's observation produced several convictions in Chick's mind. The first and the most obvious of these was that Lord Mansar was losing very heavily; the second, that he lost most heavily when he held the bank; the third, and not the least startling of his discoveries, was that whenever Lord Mansar took the bank, the cards were shuffled and handed to him by either Mr. Krenley or Mr. Boyne.
The game was played with one pack of cards, and Chick noticed that as Lord Mansar, at the end of a very unsuccessful bank, picked up a nine of clubs, which had been his undoing, he left the wet impress of his thumb on the white surface of the card, for he had been handling, a little unsteadily, a glass of champagne immediately before. When it came round to his turn to be banker again, by an odd coincidence the card he turned was a nine of clubs, which had not the wet imprint of his thumb. Chick drew a long breath.
"My luck is diabolical," said his lordship, with an unsteady laugh, as he affixed his signature to an I.O.U. for eighteen hundred pounds. "How much have I lost, Boyne?"
"Oh, not a great deal," said Boyne soothingly, as he added the I.O.U. to a number of others. "We'll have a settling up when this is finished, and you can give me a cheque."
"How much have I lost?" insisted the young man, with drunken gravity.
"Play on," smiled Krenley. "I've lost as much as you, Mansar. You've got as many of my I.O.U.s as you have of Mansar's, haven't you, Gregory?"
Mr. Boyne nodded, and the game went on.
Chick was watching so intently that once Boyne had to kick his foot to remind him that Mansar's glass was empty.
"I'm finished," said Mansar, after a further disaster. He rose shakily from the table, put his hand to his hip pocket, and took out a cheque book. "How much is it?"
"Twenty-seven thousand pounds," said Boyne, who had been totalling up the I.O.U.s on a piece of paper.
Lord Mansar stared at him.
"Twenty-seven thousand pounds'" repeated Boyne calmly "You've had a lot of bad luck, old man."
The shock half sobered Mansar. For a moment he looked at the other, then he sat down again at the table.
"I see," he said quietly. "Will somebody give me a pen and ink?"
They handed him a fountain pen, and rapidly he wrote the cheque.
"Thank you," said Boyne. But before his hand closed on the slip of paper, it was snatched away. He turned round, open-mouthed, to see the "waiter" calmly tearing the cheque into shreds. Mansar saw it, and recognised the young man.
"Why—why, Pelborough," he stammered, "what the devil are you doing?"
"I'm tearing up a cheque," said Chick, with his queer little smile.
"But, my dear chap, that's outrageous. You ought not to——"
"I'm tearing up your cheque, Lord Mansar, because you have been cheated."
"Oh, indeed!" It was Boyne who spoke. "That's a pretty serious accusation to make, but I suppose that a guttersnipe——"
"Hold hard," said Mansar. "He wouldn't make that charge without some reason. What do you mean, Pelborough?"
"I don't know anything about this game," said Chick, "but I think you are under the impression that you played with one pack of cards. As a matter of fact, it has been played with fourteen, to my knowledge."
"What do you mean?"
"Every time it was your turn to be banker—that's the word, isn't it?" said Chick, "that fellow"—he pointed to Boyne—"changed the cards. He took a new one from his pocket and passed the old one to that fellow on his right. I'll bet he has still some packs in his pocket."
There was a deadly silence, which Boyne broke.
"You don't believe——" he began.
"Let me see your pockets," said Mansar.
"Do you know what you're asking?" It was Krenley who interrupted. The other two men were silent, and Chick had long since recognised that they were the mere padding of the party, probably confederates of Boyne.
"I know what I'm asking," said Mansar. "Lord Pelborough has made a charge that is a very easy matter for you to meet."
"And do you seriously expect me to turn out my pockets?" sneered the florid man.
"That is exactly what I expect you to do," replied Mansar quietly. "If Lord Pelborough is mistaken, I will give you a cheque for the amount I have lost, and offer you every reparation that a gentleman can offer to one whom he has grossly insulted, for I am inclined to associate myself with Lord Pelborough."
"If you expect that I am going to allow you to search me, you've made a mistake," said Boyne furiously.
"Take off your coat."
It was Chick's cool voice.
Boyne looked at him for a moment, and then, with a roar of rage, sprang at the slim figure. He was a head taller than his intended victim, and almost twice as heavy. But Chick was a scientist—probably the greatest fighter at his weight in England. He took that queer dancing side-step of his, and brought his left and right to the body. Boyne staggered, and before he could recover himself, Chick's smashing left struck him on the point, and he went down with a thud that shook the room. Chick bent over him and put his hand in his pockets, and, there before the startled gaze of Mansar he produced, like a conjurer extracting articles from an apparently empty receptacle, pack after pack, neatly and dexterously bound together by rubber bands.
Chick went downstairs with Mansar, and Mrs. Krenley followed them into the night.
"You've behaved disgracefully to my brother, Lord Mansar," she said, lowering her voice that the waiting chauffeur might not hear, "and as for the street arab you have brought with you——"
"Mrs. Krenley"—Mansar's voice was like ice—"the word of this street arab will be sufficient to drive you out of decent society."
Mrs. Krenley went back to her desk with a pained expression on her face. Upstairs, attended by his brother-in-law and his satellites, Mr. Boyne also had a pained expression, and with better reason.