By FRED M. WHITE.
PEGGY CLIVE struggled back to consciousness out of a dream involving the marvellous recovery of Lady Lucy Tennant's emeralds. She had found them herself in a loaf of bread stolen from a baker's cart by one of the Bedlington terriers just at the moment when she was being hauled off to prison by two members of the judicial bench. It was the sort of stuff that dreams are made of—ridiculous, with a touch of the horrible grotesque in it.
In a way the dream was natural enough. For the emeralds had been stolen, and most of the house-party had sat up half the night looking for them. It was a dramatic finish to Mrs. Ohve's fancy dress ball, to which half the county had been invited. The discovery was made soon after supper by Lady Lucy herself. The emeralds were family jewels with a history of their own. Of course, it was a careless thing to leave the case on a dressing-table, but then prudence had never been one of Lady Lucy's virtues. Besides, her maid had only slipped out of the dressing-room for a moment. . . .
The emeralds were gone, and that was the one certain fact. At half-past three, weary and worn out, Peggy had gone to her own room, closing the door carelessly behind her. She was no more than a simple pierrette herself, so that her dress was of the plainest. She dropped into a chair for a moment and closed her eyes. When the dream had cleared away, she came back to the knowledge that she was cold and stiff, that the fire had burnt out, and that it was past four of that wintry morning.
It was very stupid of her, of course, but then she had been very tired. Now, with the contrariness of things, she was exceedingly alert and wide awake. Every little noise was exaggerated—the creaking of her chair and the rustle of the trees outside. The door of her room was slightly ajar, and she could see down the long oak corridor, where one of the electroliers was still burning.
Into the long focus of it presently there moved a figure. It was a furtive, slouching figure, light-footed and noiseless. Peggy caught just a gleam of a white set face and a pair of glittering eyes. Then the vision vanished into one of the dressing-rooms. Peggy should have been wildly alarmed, she should have rang her bell and screamed for assistance, but then Peggy Olive was not that sort. She was very pretty and very dainty, and withal feminine, but she loved the outdoor life, and her nerves worked with the regularity of a chronometer. And, being a woman, she was curious.
She weighed up the whole thing carefully. She dismissed the idea that here was the thief who stole the emeralds back again, thirsting for further plunder. The house was full of guests, so that the exploration of the bedroom was a dangerous matter. Making a rapid calculation in her mind, Peggy concluded that the invaded dressing-room was the one occupied by her brother Ted when he was at home, and he happened to be laid up in London just now. On the other side of the dressing-room was the bedroom occupied by Mrs. Oakley-Murray. Strange that Granville Oakley-Murray and his wife did not hit it off well together. Nobody knew what the quarrel was about; nobody knew how they managed to keep up separate houses on their slender resources. It was very awkward that they should have met at the dance that evening. Oakley-Murray had not been asked simply because his wife had. But he had come over with the Worthingtons, and—well, it really was a little awkward. Still, Olive Old Hall was a big place, and two hundred guests had gathered there for a dance. In society——
Peggy pulled herself together. Why was she dwelling on this paltry scandal at such a moment? She must really be doing something—give the alarm to the household. On the whole, she preferred to have the adventure to herself. Where was that case of ivory-handled revolvers that Ted had given her on her last birthday? She had done a lot of practice at the time. Yes, here was the revolver, with the six chambers still loaded. Peggy slipped out into the corridor and waited. She was not in the least afraid. In the hall the electric light still burned; it had been left on in most of the rooms. It was not the fault of the servants, but the matter had been overlooked in the general uneasiness that had followed the disappearance of the emeralds.
Of course, it was a very nasty business altogether. The same thing had happened in one or two country houses lately. In each case the robbery had been found out almost immediately, and in each case there was absolutely no clue to the thief. Certainly the dressing-room had not been entered from the outside of the house. And people were saying nasty things. It was not nice to think that amongst the general body of guests there lurked a thief who——
The door of the dressing-room opened noiselessly, and the intruder came out. He was wearing a plain evening suit, with the traditional white tie and glossy shirt-front. Beyond the fact that his hair was cropped close to his head, there was nothing in his appearance to offend the most fastidious critic. If this man was a thief, he had certainly graduated through the medium of public school and Varsity. He was very nice-looking, too, though at the moment he presented an appearance of embarrassment.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Peggy asked. "If you dare to move——"
"Not for a moment, Miss Olive," the intruder said, "Don't—don't you recognise me?"
The little silver-plated weapon fell to Peggy's side. Her lips trembled. Just for a moment the tears came to her eyes—tears of mingled pity and anger.
"Have you no sort of shame at all, Mr. Faversham?" she asked.
"Indeed, I hope so. Miss Peggy," Faversham replied. "It is my earnest desire to convince you of the fact. I did not expect to meet you like this; I did not expect to meet you at all. A man fresh from a gaol, with the prison taint upon him, is not the kind likely to find an entrance at Olive Old Hall. And yet I was a welcome guest here once."
"You were a friend of my brother's," Peggy said coldly.
"And, I venture to say, a friend of yours also. Oh, yes, I was. A brainless idiot who wasted all his money without any heed for the future. When he realised what his possibilities might have been, it was too late. He told you so, and you were sorry for him. He might have told you more, but he was not quite so bad as all that. He was up to his eyes in debt and difficulty; he did not know where to turn for money. That was easily proved against me at my trial."
"You were found with the diamonds actually in your pocket."
"I was. What is the use of denying it? A pretty scandal for a big country house! There was not a person in the whole court who doubted my guilt. The only point in my favour is that I was quite willing to be searched with the rest of them. I dare say you will call that pure bravado."
"What are you going to do now?" Peggy asked incontinently.
"Now? Oh, I'm all right financially. My uncle, General Faversham, didn't have time to alter his will, and I got all his money. Ironical situation, isn't it? An outcast, a pariah, with possession of ten thousand a year! Nobody will speak to me, and I am expelled from all my clubs. I merely tell you this fact so that you may see for yourself that I didn't come here to steal. There is an utter absence of what the law calls 'motive.' I came for quite another purpose."
"But suppose you had been found? Suppose that anybody but myself——"
Peggy paused, and the warm colour stained her cheeks. The inference of her question was obvious. Peggy did not need to see the gratitude leaping to Faversham's eyes to realise that.
"I quite understand what you mean," he said quietly, "and from the bottom of my heart I thank you for it. You are not going to alarm the household, and you are not going to give me up. And now I will tell you why I came here. I came to try and prove my innocence."
"You were not dressed as you are a quarter of an hour ago, Mr. Faversham?"
"Quite correct. I found my way into the house by means of an unfastened window. Your servants appear to be terribly careless, Miss Olive."
"There was every excuse for them to-night," Peggy said. "Please go on."
"I waited till the whole house was quiet. I only came out of gaol this morning. I had no time to spare if I wanted to settle the matter at once. When I got here, I recollected Ted's dressing-room. I have worn some of his clothes before, and I am doing so now. You see, if any early rising housemaid happened to see me now, she would conclude that I was a guest staying in the house. And there are certain reasons why I must remain in the house an hour or two longer. There are reasons, too, why I cannot explain in this corridor. Can't we talk in the hall or one of the living-rooms?"
Peggy flushed slightly. There was something about this man that fascinated her—there always had been. And he did not talk in the least like a guilty person. Anyway, she had started on a conversation, and she would see it through now. If anybody came along——
"Quite right," Faversham said reading her thoughts with a startling clearness. "You can hold your revolver to my head and ask for a policeman. You won't regret it, Miss Peggy. And if I can prove myself, even by inferences, to be a deeply wronged man, you will be the first to rejoice with me."
"I would give everything that I possess to know it," the girl said quietly. "It shall be as you suggest, Frank. I suppose I ought not to use that name, but it slipped out."
Peggy walked down the stairs into the drawing-room on the right of the hall. With a gesture Faversham indicated an easy arrangement of screens and palms near the door.
"This will suit us admirably," he said. "I must be somewhere so that I can hear everything that is going on. I shall be greatly disappointed if I don't show up something startling presently. Would you mind if the rest of the conversation is conducted in whispers? Now look at this."
He took from his pocket a newspaper cutting from a local paper. It contained a preliminary account of the great festivity about to take place at Clive Old Hall, together with a list of the invited guests and the house-party assembled at Mrs. Olive's for the occasion.
"This conveys nothing clear to me," Peggy said.
"Perhaps not, but I can imagine that it will before long. I have other cuttings here procured for me by a friendly warder. I have been watching the various social functions in this locality for the past few months—I mean the places where the robberies of jewels took place. In each case the names of the house-party are given. Now see if you notice one name that appears in them all."
Peggy ran her eye over the names eagerly enough. She was interested now, and in sympathy with her companion. It was utterly wrong and illogical, but then she was a woman, and the man was asking for assistance. Already she had half perceived herself that there was a hideous blunder somewhere. And now one name out of the list was beginning to turn in her brain.
"I don't like to say it," she murmured; "it does not seem fair. But if you ask for a reply——"
"I don't," Faversham said eagerly. "Keep the name to yourself. I don't suppose I should have suspected but for something I heard in—in gaol. Convicts have a way of talking to one another. It is a kind of language that one soon picks up. I had to take an interest in something, or go mad. So I learnt the patter. There are one or two mysteries that puzzled the public on which I could throw a light. One man was a notorious receiver of stolen goods. I gathered that he had clients in all walks of life. And I more than gathered that the Grantham pearls found their way into his possession. You remember the affair of the Grantham pearls, Miss Peggy? They were the proceeds of the first robbery that startled this county. And I found out who sold them to the receiver."
"Somebody we know?" Peggy asked eagerly. "If you will tell me—"
Faversham laid a sudden grasp on Peggy's arm.
"Be silent," he whispered. "You are going to see for yourself, unless I am greatly mistaken. Don't move. If luck is on my side—I think it is—she is coming in here."
Assuredly somebody was coming down the stairs. Peggy's quick ears caught the swish of a woman's skirt. The door of the drawing-room was pushed open, and a woman came in. Without looking to the right or the left, she crossed over to one of the long French windows and pushed back the catch. The figure of a man emerged out of the darkness and stood by her side.
"I began to think that something had gone wrong, Laura," he said. "All right, I hope?"
"Oh, it's all right," the woman said impatiently. "I thought that they would never go to bed. Up to half an hour ago I heard voices outside my room door. And those Scotland Yard people will be here quite early. You can imagine how anxious I was to get rid of the things."
"A fig for Scotland Yard!" the man said. "We can afford to laugh at these idiots. What a game it is, Laura! And who would possibly suspect what is going on? The man and his wife who have had a deadly quarrel, and are pledged never to speak to one another again! Sometimes it is me, and sometimes it is you. Those chaps know that this is a double-handed game, but they'll never spot the combination in a thousand years."
"They very nearly spotted it once," the woman said meaningly.
"You are alluding to the affair when we had to make use of Frank Faversham? I was sorry for that, but the danger was too close for me to be particular. And Frank happened to be handy."
"It was a hateful thing, all the same," the woman said. "How much longer is it going to last? We can't go on like this for ever, Granville. We ought to make ten thousand pounds over to-night's business, A man with your brains and audacity ought to be able to turn that into a million."
"Plenty of time to talk about that, my dear. Hand me over the stuff. I must get back to Marton Manor before daylight, so as to make it appear that I slept in my bed."
The woman turned so that her pale weary face could be seen by the watchers behind the bank of palms. She took from under her cloak a shabby green case, which she handed to her companion. At the same moment Faversham snatched the revolver from Peggy's hand and strode into the room.
"Put that down, Oakley-Mnrray!" he said. "Put it down, or I fire! And be so good as to ring the bell on the left side of the fire-place—the communication with the butler's quarters."
With a snarl on his lips, Oakley-Murray strode forward.
"So it's Faversham," he said—"Faversham, the gaol-bird. Where did you come from?"
"You have asked me a very pertinent question," Faversham said coldly. "I came out of gaol to-day. I came on here in consequence of something I gathered from a fellow-prisoner of mine called Cutty Parsons, a well-known receiver of stolen goods. He seems to know you, though you may not be aware of the fact. In happier circumstances he expected to blackmail you later on. As it is, you will probably face him at Lewes instead. I should drop that blustering swagger if I were you. I have heard everything, including the confession that you put those stones in my pocket. Directly I read in the local paper that your wife was here, I guessed that something of this sort would happen. Are you going to ring the bell?"
"Why should I?" Oakley-Murray asked. "Why should I not say that I caught you here with the emeralds in your possession? My wife will swear anything I ask her. You are just a little bit previous, my friend. On second thoughts I think I will ring the bell. Let me see. My wife sent me a note urging me to see her, with a view to a reconciliation, and I came to keep the assignation."
A warning glance from Faversham kept Peggy in her hiding-place. She checked the burning impulse to dash out and lash those miscreants with her tongue. With a smile on his face, Faversham approached the open window and whistled softly.
"An excellent programme from your point of view," he said. "But, unfortunately, you never can quite tell what the enemy's programme is. I laid certain facts before my solicitors, and they agreed to a certain course that I proposed. . . . These are two London detectives, who probably have not only seen everything, but heard it as well. They didn't want me to take an active part in the campaign, but I insisted on that. And now, if you will be so good as to ring that bell for me——"
Oakley-Murray made no effort to move. He gazed from one to the other of the two men standing there; a lump seemed to be working up and down in his throat. Mrs. Oakley-Murray dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands. A half-awakened butler surveyed the scene with sleepy astonishment.
"We need not disturb your mistress to-night," one of the officers explained. "We have arrested Mr. Oakley-Murray and his wife on a charge of stealing Lady Lucy Tennant's emeralds. Might go so far as to say that we caught them red-handed. Knock up one of the men and get a motor ready to take us to Lewes. And see if you can find Mrs. Oakley-Murray's maid. She may want some things got together."
The whole thing was over in less time than it takes to tell. The household, for the most part, was still sound asleep as the big car purred on its way down the drive with the prisoners inside. The sleepy butler went yawning back to bed—the story was too good to be wasted at this hour. That would be all told with variations in the servants' hall later on. The house dropped into the pit of silence again as Peggy came out of her hiding-place with wet cheeks and blazing eyes.
"How can you possibly forgive me?" she asked.
"We'll talk about that later on," Faversham smiled. "I shall have to attend and give evidence to-morrow against those people at Lewes. Now you see the advantage of borrowing Ted's dress-clothes. I'll get you to steal one of his overcoats for me as well. Why didn't I go back to Lewes with the others? Well, it's no great way, and I shall enjoy the walk. Besides, I wanted to have a word with you first."
"Is there anything that I can possibly say?" Peggy whispered.
"There is a good deal that you can say," Faversham replied. "Oh, you need not tell me you are sorry, for I can read deeper than any words in those beautiful eyes of yours, Peggy. It was you who first made me ashamed of myself, and filled me with the idea of leading a new life. How could a poor wretch like me tell you what I felt? I knew that you liked me——"
"It was a little more than that," Peggy confessed.
"Well, I didn't like to say so, but I felt it. What a dreadful business it was—for——"
"For both of us, Frank. The most awful year I have ever passed. And I asked Ted to meet you and bring you here to see me, only he was laid up in town, and——"
"And there is no more to be said," Faversham replied. "Give me a kiss before I go, dear. Let me feel that this good fortune is more than a dream."