The Career of Joan Carthew/Chapter 4
No. IV.—THE WOMAN WHO KNEW.
JOAN went straight from Cornwall to London and the Bloomsbury boarding-house in which some of her curiously earned money was invested. All was to begin over again now; but to the girl this idea brought inspiration rather than discouragement, for the world was still her oyster, if she could open it, and experience had already taught her some dexterity in the use of the knife. At this house in Woburn Place she had the right to live without paying, while she "looked round," and Miss Witts, who owed her present position to Joan, was only too delighted to welcome her benefactress.
The place was doing well, and the corner of difficulty had been turned, was the news the manager-housekeeper had to give Joan. Every room but one was full, and so far the boarders seemed to be "good pay," with perhaps a single exception.
"There's only the little top floor back that's empty," cheerfully went on Miss Witts. "Of course, I will take that and give you up mine."
"You'll do nothing of the sort, my dear woman," said Joan. "I like running up and down stairs. It does me good. Besides, I'd rather be at the back. There's a tree, or something that once tried hard to be a tree, to look at, as I know well, for the room used to be mine; so there's no use talking any more about that matter—it's settled. You stay where you are, and I will rise, like cream, to the top. Now tell me about this doubtful person you are afraid won't pay. Is it a man or a woman?"
"A woman," replied Miss Witts, "and one of the strangest beings I ever saw. It is a great comfort to me that you are here, miss, for you can decide what is to be done about her. She hasn't paid her board for a fortnight, but she keeps pleading that as soon as she is well, and can go out, she will get remittances which have been delayed."
"Oh, she is ill, then?"
"So she says. But I am not sure, miss, it isn't just an excuse to work upon my compassion, for why should she have to go out for remittances? She stops in her room, lying upon a sofa, and makes a deal of bother with her meals being carried up so many pairs of stairs, though it's hardly worth while her having them at all, she eats so little. Yet she doesn't look a bit different from what she did when she was supposed to be well and going about as much like anybody else as one of her sort could ever do."
"What do you mean?" asked Joan, whose curiosity was fired.
"Only that she is, and was, more a ghost than a human being, with her great, hollow, black eyes, like burning coals, set deep under her thick eyebrows and overhanging forehead: with her thin cheeks—why, miss, they almost meet in the middle—her yellow-white skin, her tall, gliding figure and stealthy way of walking, so that you never hear a sound till she's at your back."
"Queer kind of boarder," commented Joan.
"That she is, miss; and when she applied for a room, I would have said we were full up, but in those days we had several of our best rooms empty, and, strange as she was, her clothes were so good, and the luggage on the four-wheeler waiting outside was so promising, as you might say, that it did seem a pity to send away two guineas a week because Providence had given it a scarecrow face. So I showed her the best back room on the top floor——"
"Next to mine," cut in Joan.
"If you will have it so, miss; and there she's been for the last six weeks, not having paid a penny since the end of the first month."
"What is the ghost's name and age?" the girl went on with her catechism.
"Her name, if one was to take her word, which I'm far from being certain of, is Mrs. Gone; and as for her age, miss, she might be almost anywhere between fifty and a hundred."
"What a clever old lady!" laughed the girl. "Well, we can't turn the poor wretch away while she's ill, if she is ill, can we? I know too well what it is to be alone in the world and down on your luck, to be hard on anybody else, especially a woman. We must give Mrs. Gone the benefit of the doubt for a little while. But your description has quite interested me; I should like to see this ghost who doesn't walk."
"The house is the same as yours, miss," said Miss Witts. "You have the right to go into her room at any time, more particularly as she hasn't paid for it."
"Perhaps I'll carry up her dinner this evening, by way of an excuse," returned Joan—"if you think she could bear the shock of seeing a strange face."
Upon this, Miss Witts, who adored the girl, protested that, in her opinion, the sight of such a face could only be a pleasure to any person and in any circumstances. Joan laughed at the compliment, but she did not forget her intention. Mrs. Gone's meals were usually taken up a few minutes before the gong summoned the guests to the dining-room, because it was easier to spare a servant then than later, and it was just after the dressing-bell had rung that the girl knocked at the "ghost's" door.
Joan was surprised to find her heart quickening its beats as she waited for a bidding to "Come in!" One would think that a sight of this old woman who would not pay her board was an exciting event! She smiled at herself, but the smile faded as she threw open the door in answer to a faint murmur on the other side. Miss Witts' sketch of Mrs. Gone had not been an exaggeration.
There she lay on a sofa by the window, her face gleaming white in the twilight; and it was a wonderful face. A shiver went creeping up and down Joan's spine, as a flame leaped out from the shadowy hollows of two sunken eyes to hers.
"This woman has been someone in particular—someone extraordinary," the girl thought quickly; and as politely as if she had addressed a duchess, she explained her intrusion. "The servants were busy, and I offered to carry up your dinner," Joan said. "I arrived only to-day; and as Miss Witts looks upon me as a sort of proprietor, she told me how ill you have been. I hope you are better."
The old woman with the strange face looked steadily at the beautiful girl in the pretty, simple, evening frock which was to grace the boarding-house dinner. "Did Miss Witts tell you nothing else?" she asked, in a voice which would have made the fortune of a tragic actress in the death scene of some aged queen.
"She told me that she was afraid you were in trouble," promptly answered Joan, who had her own way of dressing the truth. By this time the girl had entered the room, set the tray on a table near the sofa, and taking a rose from her bodice, laid it on the pile of plates. This she did on the impulse of the moment, not with a preconceived idea of effect, and she was rewarded by a slight softening of the tense muscles round the once handsome mouth.
"I hope you like roses?" she asked.
"Yes," Mrs. Gone answered brusquely. "Why do you give it to me?"
"Because I'm sorry you are ill, and perhaps lonely," said Joan, able for once to account for an action without a single mental reserve. "I have had a good deal of worry in my life, and can sympathise with others, as I told Miss Witts when she spoke of you. One reason why I came was to say that you needn't distress yourself about your indebtedness to this house. Try to get well, and pay at your convenience. You shall not be pressed."
Joan had not meant to say all this when she arranged to have a sight of Mrs. Gone. She had merely wished to satisfy her curiosity; but now she felt impelled to utter these words of encouragement—why, she did not know, for she had not conceived any sudden fancy for the sinister old woman. On the contrary, the white face, with its burning eyes and secretive mouth, inspired her with something like fear. A woman with such a face could not have many sweet, redeeming graces of character or heart. There was, to supersensitive nerves, an atmosphere of evil as well as mystery about her; but though Joan felt this, it gave a keener edge to her interest.
"Thank you," said Mrs. Gone. "You are kind, as well as pretty. I do not like young people usually, but I might learn to like you. I hope you will come again."
The words were a dismissal and a comment. Joan accepted them as both. She promised to repeat her visit, and after lighting the shaded lamp on the table, left Mrs. Gone to eat her dinner.
The girl would have given much to lift the veil of mystery so closely wrapped about this woman's past and personality. She even boasted to herself that she would find some way, sooner or later, at least to peep under its edge; but day after day passed, and though she went often to Mrs. Gone's room, and was always thanked for her kind attentions, she seemed no nearer to attaining her object than at first. Beyond occupying a room which she did not pay for, Mrs. Gone was not an expensive guest. She ate almost nothing; and when Joan had been in Woburn Place for a week, the white face with its burning eyes had become so drawn with suffering that in real compassion the girl offered to call a doctor at her own expense. But Mrs. Gone would not consent. "I hate doctors," she said. "No one could tell me more about myself than I know."
The girl's own affairs were absorbing enough, for she saw no new opening yet for her ambition; still, she found time to think a great deal about Mrs. Gone. "Am I a soft-hearted idiot, allowing myself to be imposed upon by a professional 'sponge'?" she wondered; "or is there something in my odd feeling that I shall be rewarded for all I do for this extraordinary woman?"
Such questions were passing through her mind one night when she had gone to bed late, after being out at the theatre. She had been in Woburn Place eight days, and was growing impatient, for none of the boarders were of the kind to be used as "stepping-stones," and none of the Society and financial papers, which she studied, afforded any hopeful suggestion for another phase of her career. To be sure, the young man with whom she had consented to go to the theatre was employed as a reporter for a great London daily, and she had been "nice" to him, with the vague idea that she might somehow be able to profit by his infatuation; but at present she did not see her way, and it appeared that she was wasting sweetness on the desert air.
"I suppose," Joan said to herself, turning over her hot pillow, "that if I were an ordinary girl, I might be contented to go on as I am. I can live here for nothing, and get enough interest on the money I've put into this concern to buy clothes and pay my way about, with strict economy. All the men in the house are in love with me; and if they were more interesting, that might be amusing. But I'm not born to be contented with small people or things. I don't want clothes. I want creations. I don't want the admiration of young men from the City. I want to be appreciated by princes. I believe I must have been a princess in another state of existence, for I always feel that the best of everything is hardly good enough for me."
As she thought this, half laughing, there came a sound from the next room—that room which might have been the grave of the strange woman who occupied it, so dead was the silence which reigned there day and night. Never before had Joan heard the least noise on the other side of the dividing wall, but now she was startled by a crash as of breaking glass, followed by the dull, soft thud which could only have been made by the fall of a human body. Joan sat up, her heart thumping, and it gave a frightened bound as a groan came brokenly to her ears.
She waited no longer, but slipped her bare feet into a pair of satin mules, flung on her dressing-gown, and in another moment was out of her room and in the dark passage, fumbling for the handle of the other door.
Mrs. Gone kept her door unlocked in the daytime, perhaps to save herself the trouble of rising to admit servants, or her only visitor, Joan Carthew; but the girl feared that it might not be so at night, and that before she could penetrate the mystery of the fall and the groan, the whole house would have to be disturbed. She was relieved, therefore, to find that the door yielded to her touch. Pushing it open, she listened for an instant, but only the dead silence throbbed in her ears.
As she got into her dressing-gown, with characteristic presence of mind Joan had caught up a box of matches and put it into her pocket. The room was as dark as the passage outside, and the girl struck a match before crossing the threshold. The little flame leaped and brightened. Something on the floor glimmered white in the darkness, and Joan did not need to bend down to know what it was.
The gas was close to the door, and she lighted it with the dying match, which burnt her fingers. Then she saw clearly what had happened. In tottering uncertainly across the floor, Mrs. Gone had knocked over a small table holding a china candlestick, a water-bottle, and a goblet. She had fallen, and after uttering that one groan which had crept to Joan's ears, she had lost consciousness.
The girl's quick eyes sought for an explanation of the catastrophe. The long, white figure lay at some distance from the bed, and near the mantel. On the mantel stood a curiously shaped, dark green bottle which Joan had once been requested to give to Mrs. Gone. She had seen a few drops of some colourless liquid poured into a wineglass of water; and when it had been swallowed, the ghastly pallor of the face had changed to a more natural tint. Mrs. Gone had then said that she took the medicine when very ill. If she used it oftener, its effect would disappear, and she would have nothing left to turn to at the worst.
"It was that bottle she was trying to find in the dark," Joan guessed. "She must have been too ill to try and light the gas. Now, how much was it that I saw her pour out? It might have been ten drops—no more."
So thinking, the girl filled a glass on the wash-handstand a third full of water, measured ten drops of the medicine with a steady hand, and raising Mrs. Gone's head, put the tumbler to her lips. The strong teeth seemed clenched, but some of the liquid must have passed their barrier, for the dark eyes opened wide and looked up into Joan's face.
"Too late——" the woman panted, with a gurgling in the throat which choked her words. "Dying—now. Wish that—you—you have been kind—only one in the world. My secret—you might have—Lord Northmuir would have given——"
The voice trailed away into silence. The gurgle died into a rattle; the woman's breast heaved and was still. Her eyes had not closed, but though they stared into Joan's, the spark of life behind their windows had gone out. Mrs. Gone was dead, and had taken her secret with her into the unknown.
Joan had never seen death before, but there was no mistaking it. Her first impulse was to run downstairs, call Miss Witts and a young doctor who had his office and bedroom on the dining-room floor. Nevertheless, when she had laid the heavy head gently down and sprung to her feet, she remained standing.
For some minutes she stood motionless, almost rigid, her lips pressed together, her eyes hard and bright. Then she struck one hand lightly upon the other, exclaiming half aloud: "I'll do it!"
It seemed certain by this time that no one had heard the crash of glass and the fall which had alarmed her, for the house' was still. Nevertheless, Joan tiptoed to the door and bolted it. When she had done this, she opened all the drawers of the dressing-table and searched them carefully for papers. Discovering none, she left everything exactly as she had found it. Next she examined the pockets of the three or four dresses hanging in the wardrobe, but they were limp and empty. There were still left the leather portmanteau and handbag which had appealed to Miss Witts' respectful admiration. Both were locked, but Joan's instinct led her to look under the pillows on the bed, and there lay a key-ring. She was able to open portmanteau and bag, but not a paper of any kind was to be seen, and the girl recalled a remark of Miss Witts', that never since Mrs. Gone had become a boarder in Woburn Place had she been known to receive or send a letter.
Having assured herself that no information was to be gained among the dead woman's possessions, Joan unlocked the door and went softly downstairs to rouse Miss Witts. She justified what she had done by reason of Mrs. Gone's last words, for she believed that the dead woman would have made her a present of the secret if she could.
Awakened and informed of what had happened, the housekeeper called the doctor, who looked at the body and certified that death had resulted from failure of the heart, which must have been long diseased. Joan paid for a good oak coffin and a decent funeral. She bought a grave at Kensal Green and ordered a neat stone to be erected. If she had previously earned Mrs. Gone's gratitude, she felt that she had now merited any reward which might accrue in future, and the curious, erasible tablet that did duty as her conscience was wiped clear.
The morning after Mrs. Gone's funeral, the girl put on her favourite frock of grey cloth, with a hat to match, which had been bought at two of the most fashionable shops in Monte Carlo. This costume, with grey gloves, grey shoes, and a grey chiffon parasol, ivory-handled, gave Joan an air of quiet smartness, a combination particularly appropriate for the adventure which she had planned. She hired a decorous brougham and said to the coachman: "Drive to Northmuir House, Belgrave Square."
It was but ten o'clock, and, as Joan had gleaned some information concerning the habits of the occupant, she was confident that he would be at home. Mrs. Gone had not been dead two hours when the girl was searching through her own scrap-book, compiled of cuttings taken from Society papers. Whenever she came across the description of any important member of the aristocracy—his or her home life, manners, fancies, and ways—she cut it out and pasted it into this book, in case it should become valuable for reference. The moment that the dying woman uttered the name of Northmuir, Joan's memory jumped to a paragraph (one of the first that had gone into the scrap-book), and as soon as she could shut herself up in the little back room, she had consulted her authority.
The Earl of Northmuir was, according to the paper from which the cutting had been clipped, still the handsomest man in England, though now long past middle age. Once he had been the most popular also, but for some years he had lived more or less in retirement, owing to illness and family bereavements, seldom leaving his fine old town house in Belgrave Square.
"He'll be in London, and he won't be the sort of man to go out before noon," Joan said to herself.
Her heart was beating more quickly than usual, but her beautiful face was calm and untroubled, as she stood on the great porch at Northmuir House, asking a footman in sober livery if Lord Northmuir were at home.
The girl in the exquisite grey dress and grey hat, with large, soft ostrich feathers, might have been a young princess. Whatever she was, she merited civility, and the servant, who could not wholly conceal surprise, politely invited her to enter, while he inquired if his Lordship could receive a visitor. "What name shall I say?" he asked.
"Give him this, please," said Joan, handing the footman an envelope, addressed to "The Right Honble. the Earl of Northmuir." Inside this envelope was a sheet of paper, blank, save for the words, "A messenger from Mrs. Gone, who is dead"; and the death notice was enclosed.
With this envelope the man went away, leaving her to wait in a large and splendid drawing-room, where stiffness of arrangement betrayed the absence of a woman's taste.
Joan looked about appreciatively, yet critically. Then, when she had gained an impressionist picture of the room, she glanced at the jewelled watch on her wrist, a present from Lady John Bevan after the sale of the Titania.
What if Lord Northmuir had never known the dead woman under the name of Gone? What if—there were many things which might go wrong, and Joan had put her whole stake on a single chance. If she had been mistaken—but as her mind played among surmises, the footman returned.
"His Lordship will see you in his study, if you will kindly come this way," the servant announced.
Joan rose with quiet dignity and followed the man along a pillared hall to a closed door. "The lady, my lord," murmured the footman, in opening it. Joan was left alone with a singularly handsome old man, who sat in a huge cushioned chair by the fireplace. It was summer still, but a fire of ship-logs sparkled with changing rainbow lights on the stone hearth. In a thin hand, Lord Northmuir held an exquisitely bound book. He must have been more than sixty, but his features were of the cameo-fine, classic cut, of which the beauty, like that of old marble, never dies, and it was easy to see why he had once borne a reputation as the handsomest man in England. It was easy to see also, by his eyes as they noted each item of Joan's beauty, that he had been a gallant man, not blind to the charms of women. Nevertheless, his voice was cold as he spoke to the unexpected visitor.
"I haven't the pleasure of knowing your name, or why you have honoured me by calling," he said. "Forgive my not rising. I am rather an invalid. Pray sit down. There is something I can do for you?"
"Several things, Lord Northmuir," returned the girl, taking the chair his gesture had indicated.
"You will tell me what they are?"
"I am anxious to do so. In the first place, I wish to be a relation of yours, and not a poor relation. I wish to have a thousand pounds a year, either permanently or until my marriage, should I become the wife of a rich man through your introduction."
Lord Northmuir stared at the girl, and if there were not astonishment in his eyes, he was a clever actor. "You are a handsome young woman," he said slowly, when she had finished, "but I begin to be afraid that your mind is unfortunately—er—affected."
"There is a weight upon it," Joan replied—"the weight of your secret. It's so heavy that unless you are very kind, I shall be tempted to throw the burden off by laying it upon others."
Now the blood hummed in her ears. If she had built a house of cards, this was the moment when it would topple, and bury her ambition in its ignominious downfall. But Lord Northmuir's slow speech had quickened her hope, for she said to herself that it was not spontaneous; and gazing keenly into his face, she saw the blood rise darkly. She had staked on the right chance, yet the risk was not past. Her game was the game of bluff, but its success depended upon the man with whom she had to deal.
"I do not understand what you are talking about," he said.
"I dare say I haven't made my meaning clear," answered Joan, half rising. "Perhaps I'd better explain to my solicitor, and get him to write a letter——"
"You are nothing more nor less than a common blackmailer," Lord Northmuir exclaimed, striking his white hand on the arm of his chair.
"I may be nothing less, but I am a good deal more than a common one," retorted Joan, surer of her ground. "I will prove that, if you force me to do it."
"Who are you?" he broke out desperately.
"I am a Woman Who Knows," she replied. "There was another Woman Who Knew. She called herself Gone. She is dead, and I have come. I have come to stay."
"Don't you understand that I can hand you over to the police?" demanded Lord Northmuir, with difficulty controlling his voice so that it could not be heard by possible listeners outside the door.
"Yes; and I understand that I can hand your secret over to the police. They would know how to use it."
He flushed visibly, and Joan saw that her daring shot had told. For the instant he had no answer ready, and she seized the opportunity to speak again. "You can do better for yourself than hand me over to the police. There need be no trouble, if you will realise that I am not a common person, and not to be treated as such."
"Again I ask: Who are you?" he cried.
Joan risked another shot in the dark.
"Can't you make a guess?" she asked, with a malicious suggestion of hidden meaning in her tone.
An expression of horror and surprise passed over Lord Northmuir's handsome face, devastating it as a marching tornado devastates a landscape. It was evident that he had "made a guess," and been thunderstruck by its answer. Joan's curiosity was so strongly roused that it touched physical pain. Almost, she would have been ready to give one of her pretty fingers to know the secret.
"Do you still wish to ask questions?" she inquired.
"Heaven help me, no! What is it that you want?"
"I have told you already. If I insisted on all I have a right to claim, you would not be where you are now."
She watched him. He grew deathly and bowed his white head. Joan felt sorry for the man now that he was at her mercy; but her imagination played with the secret, as a child plays with a prism in the sunshine. Its flashing colours allured her. "Oh! if I only knew something," she thought, "something which would hold in law, and could go through the courts, where might I not stand? I might reach one of the highest places a woman can fill. But it's no use; I must take what I can get, and be thankful; and, anyway, I can't help pitying him a little, though I'm sure he doesn't deserve it. He's old and tired, and I won't make him suffer more than is necessary for the game."
Joan again named her terms, this time with much ornamental detail. She was to be a newly discovered orphan cousin from Australia. Her name was to be, as it had been in Cornwall, Mercy Milton. She was to be invited to visit, for an indefinite length of time, at Northmuir House. Her noble relative was to exert himself to the extent of giving entertainments to introduce her to his most influential and highly placed friends. He was also to make her an allowance of a thousand pounds a year.
"Don't think, if you gamble it away as—as the other did, that I will go beyond this bargain, for I will not!" cried Lord Northmuir, with a testy desire to assert himself and show that he was not wholly to be cowed.
"I don't gamble, except with Fate," said Joan.
This exclamation of his explained one or two things which had been dark. She guessed now why Mrs. Gone, evidently used to luxuries, had been reduced to living on the charity of a boarding-house keeper, and why it had been necessary to wait until she should be well enough to go out before she could obtain "remittances."
Having concluded her arrangement with Lord Northmuir, and settled to become his relative and guest, Joan went back in her brougham to Woburn Place. She told Miss Witts that she had been called away, packed her things, left such as she would not want in Belgrave Square in boxes at the boarding-house, delighted the housekeeper with many gifts, and the following morning drove off with a pile of luggage on a cab. Turning the corner of Woburn Place into the next street, she also turned a corner in her career, and for the third time ceased to be Joan Carthew.
She had chosen to take up her lately laid down part of Mercy Milton for two reasons. One was, that in this character as she had played it in Cornwall, with meekly parted hair, soft, downcast eyes, simple manners and simple frocks, she was not likely to be recognised by anyone who had known the dashing and magnificent Miss Jenny Mordaunt; while if she should come across Cornish acquaintances, there was nothing in her new position which need invalidate the story of Lady Pendered's gentle sister.
If Lord Northmuir had looked forward with dread to the intrusion of the adventuress whom he was forced to receive, he soon found that, beyond the galling knowledge of his bondage, he had nothing disagreeable to fear. The young cousin from Australia did not attempt to interfere with his habits after he had provided her with acquaintances, who increased after the manner of a "snowball" stamp competition. The two usually lunched and dined together, and—at first—that was all. But Miss Mercy Milton made herself charming at table, never referred by word or look to the loathed secret, and was so tactful that, to his extreme surprise, almost horror, the man found himself looking forward to the hours of meeting. Joan was not slow to see this; indeed, she had been working up to it. When the right time came, she volunteered to help Lord Northmuir with his letters (he had no secretary) and to read aloud. At the end of six months she had become indispensable, and he would have wondered how existence had been possible without his treasure had he dwelt upon the dangerous subject at all. If, however, the blackmailer's instalment in the household had turned out an agreeable disappointment to the blackmailed, it was a disappointment of another kind to the author of the plot. Joan Carthew did not find life in Belgrave Square half as amusing as she had pictured it, and though she was surrounded by luxury which might be hers as long as Lord Northmuir lived, each day she grew more restless and discontented.
She had found society on the Riviera delightful, but the butterfly crowd which fluttered between Nice and Monte Carlo had little resemblance to that with which she came in contact as Lord Northruuir's cousin. Jenny Mordaunt could do much as she pleased—at worst she was put down as a "mad American, my dear"; but Mercy Milton had the family dignity to live up to. Lord Northnmir's adopted relative could not afford to be "cut" by the primmest dowager; and being an ideal, conventional English girl in the best society did not suit Joan's roaming fancies.
It was supposed that she would be Lord Northmuir's heiress; consequently mothers of eligible young men were charming to her, which would have been convenient if Joan had happened to want one of their sons. But not one of the men who sent her flowers and begged for "extras" at dances would she have married if he had been the last existing specimen of his sex. This was annoying, for in planning her campaign, Joan had resolved to marry well and settle satisfactorily for life. Now, however, she found that it was simpler to decide upon a mercenary marriage in the abstract than when it became a personal question.
At the close of a year with Lord Northmuir she had saved seven hundred pounds, and at last, after a sleepless night, she made up her mind to take a step which was, in a way, a confession of failure.
She went to Lord Northmuir's study as usual in the morning, but this time it was not to act as reader or amanuensis.
"It's a year to-day since I came," she said abruptly, with a purposeful look on her face which the man felt was ominous.
"Yes," he answered. "A strange year, but not an unhappy one. What I regarded as a curse has turned out a blessing. I should miss the albatross now if it were to be taken off my neck."
"I'm sorry for that," said Joan, "for the albatross intends to fly away."
"What! You will marry?"
"No. I'm tired of being conventional. I've decided to relieve you of my presence here; and you can forget me, except when, each quarter, you sign a cheque for two hundred and fifty pounds."
Lord Northmuir's handsome face grew almost as white as when she had first announced her claim upon him. "I don't want to forget you. I can't forget you!" he stammered. "If I could, I would publish the whole truth; but that is impossible, for the honour of the name. You have made me fond of you—made me depend upon you. Why did you do that, if you meant to leave me alone?"
"I didn't mean it at first," replied Joan frankly. "I thought I should be 'in clover' here, and so I have been; but too much clover upsets the digestion. I must go, Lord Northmuir. I can't stand it any longer. I'm pining for adventures."
"Have you fallen in love?"
"No. I wish I had. I've been trying in vain."
"A year ago I would not have believed it possible that I should make you such an offer, but you have wrought a miracle. You came to blackmail, you remained to bless. Stay with me, my girl, till I die, and not only shall you be remembered in my will, but I will increase your allowance from one thousand to two thousand a year. I can afford to do this, since you have become the one luxury I can't live without."
"I was just beginning to say that, if you would let me go without a fuss, I would take five hundred instead of a thousand a year."
"But now I have shown you my heart, you see that offer does not appeal to me."
Joan broke out laughing; this upsetting of the whole situation was so humorous. A sudden reckless impulse seized her. She could not resist it.
"Lord Northmuir, you will change your mind when I have told you something," she said, "I have played a trick on you. I have no connection with your family, and know no more about your secret than I know what will be in to-morrow's papers. Mrs. Gone, in dying, mentioned a secret and your name. I put two and two together, and they matched so well that I've lived on you for a year, bought lots of dresses, made crowds of friends, had heaps of proposals, and kept seven hundred pounds in hand. Now I think you will be willing to let me go; and you can lie easy and live happy for ever after."
Having launched the thunderbolt, she would have left the room, but Lord Northmuir, old and invalided as he was, sprang from his chair like an ardent youth and caught her arm.
"By Jove! you shan't leave me like that!" he cried. "You have made your first mistake, my dear. Instead of being in your power, you have put yourself in mine. I need fear you no longer. But as a trickster I love you no less than I did as a blackmailer. Indeed, I love you the more for your diabolical cleverness, you beautiful wretch! Stay with me, not as the little adopted cousin, living on charity, but as my wife, and mistress of this house. Or, if you will not, I shall denounce you to the police."
For once, Joan was dumfounded. The tables had been turned upon her with a vengeance. She gasped and could not answer.
"You see, it is my turn to dictate terms now," said Lord Northmuir.
Joan's breath had come back. "You are right," she returned, in a meek voice. "I have given you the reins. But—well, it would be something to be Countess of Northmuir."
"Don't hope to be a widowed Countess," chuckled the old man. "I am only sixty-nine, and for the last ten years I have taken good care of myself."
"I count on nothing after this," said Joan.
"You consent, then?"
"How can I do otherwise?"
Lord Northmuir laughed out in his triumph over her. "The notice of the engagement will go to the Morning Post immediately," he said. "To-morrow, some of our friends will be surprised."
But it was he who was surprised; for when to-morrow came, Joan had run away.