The Face in the Dark
THE FACE IN THE DARK.
A POWERFUL SHORT STORY
By L. T. MEADE and ROBERT EUSTACE. Illustrated by SIDNEY PAGET
I AM an unmarried man with sufficient means to support myself in a quiet way. I enjoy a bachelor's life, am fond of dabbling in literature, write occasionally for the Press, possess a fair knowledge of science, and produce the best photographs of any amateur that I know. I have no present intention of marrying, but I am by no means unsociable. I like the company of my fellow men, and go a good deal into society. My name is Laurence Hyne, and I am thirty-two years of age.
In these days of intense living no man who is not a confirmed hermit can shut himself away from strong situations, from moments of danger, or from hours when the world seems more or less to totter beneath him. I, like others, have had my due share of adventures of one sort and another, and the one I am about to tell was by no means the least curious of those that occurred to me.
On the 18th of a very hot June, I went to the reception of some friends of mine, the Sitwells, who lived in Berkeley Square. This was always a brilliant function, and I knew that I should meet many of my friends there. On this occasion there was one in particular, a young fellow of the name of Granby Manners, whom I particularly wished to shake once more by the hand. I had known him as a boy and as his mother had been my dearest and most valued friend, I took an interest in him. He was an open-handed, unselfish, clever lad, but was also one of the most nervous boys I had ever come across. His ideas were lofty and aspiring, but his nerves hampered him, and to such an extent that, when still quite a lad, not more than seventeen, he was ordered abroad, where he had resided under the care of a tutor ever since. Mrs. Manners had been a sort of elder sister to me—she had done me many good turns in life—had assisted me more than once, not only by her advice, but practically, and on her death-bed had charged me most emphatically to look after Granby, and if at any time I could do him a kindness not to hesitate, for her sake, to do it.
"He is ten years your junior, don't forget that, Laurence," she said. "He knows little or nothing of English life. When the estate comes to him he will be surrounded by adventurers—help him if you can."
I promised faithfully, and now the time had come, for Granby's mother and father were both dead—the boy inherited the old Croftwood estates, and had come home to attend to business matters.
On the day of the Sitwells' function I received a letter from Lady Willoughby, Granby's aunt. She wrote from Scotland.
"My nephew is in London," she wrote. "Pray find him out and write to me with regard to his appearance, his prospects, his present ideas of life. He was always a strange hoy, and not at all a person to own a big estate like Croftwood Hall. I am unable to travel, as you know, but my dear sister told me on her death-bed that you had promised to be good to him. Pray do what you can and let me know,"
Accordingly I went to the Sitwells primed in every way to see after young Manners. Mrs. Manners had had an unhappy life—her burden was a heavy one, so heavy that it had sent her to her grave before her time. The facts were these. Her husband was one of the worst of men—a drunkard, reckless, fast, extravagant. There were rumours of even darker vices—of deeds committed that ought never to have seen the light of day. Some people said that the man was half insane. Well, he was dead, and the boy was not in the least like him.
I arrived at the Sitwells in good time. The house was already full of guests and very soon I ran up against young Manners. He had a bright face, a refined, elegant appearance, and an affectionate manner.
I am glad to see you," he said to me. "This is quite like old times. Where can we go to have a long chat?"
"You must come to my rooms for that, Granby. But here—this terrace is empty for a few moments. Come and stand under this awning and let me look at you."
We went out through an open window and stood on a beautiful terrace screened by an awning and decked with flowers.
"You do look quite a man, Granby, "I said. "Why, you must be two-and twenty. Your hands must be pretty full of business now, my boy, with that big estate, and you the sole person to look after it."
"The fact is, Hyne,'" he answered, "I am so harried and rushed about that I have hardly a minute to call my own. I want to come to see you, and will at any hour you like to appoint."
"Here are two chairs," I said, suddenly, for as he spoke I noticed the old nervous catch in his voice, and the quick movement of the head that spoke of a highly-strung system. "Sit down, won't you, Granby. "You have a big story to tell me. Let's begin to hear it at once."
"Well," he answered, "there's a great deal to say. My father has left things involved, but, of course, they may come all right; I can't say. Sometimes I fear—sometimes I hope. Anyhow, I shall know soon. What day is this—the 18th. I shall know, I must know, before the 24th."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked in astonishment.
"I will tell you presently. I could not in this crowd."
He glanced nervously behind him.
"Come and dine with me to-morrow night," was my answer.
His face lit up with pleasure. He was about to reply in the affirmative when some people came on to the terrace. They were two girls, both handsome and total strangers to me. I saw, however, that Granby knew them. His face flushed with vivid colour, and his eyes grew dark with delight. He greeted both girls, and especially the slighter and smaller of the two, with effusion.
"This is good," he said; "I was just talking to a special friend of mine. May I introduce you?"
A moment later I was shaking the hand and looking into the face of the brightest and most capable girl probably in the whole of England. Her name was Angela Dickinson. She was the daughter of a well-known barrister, who would undoubtedly be appointed to a judgeship before long. She had only lately come out—had met Manners when abroad; they were great chums. Oh yes, it was good to see him again. They smiled at each other, and young Manners and Miss Angela Dickinson went off together; the other girl, whose name was Muriel, fell to my share to entertain.
"I am so glad we have met Mr. Manners and that he looks so well," she said. "When we saw him at Naples he often appeared very much troubled. I am glad he has met an old friend in you."
"Yes," I replied. "I have known Granby since he was a little boy. His mother was one of my best friends. Granby had a sad childhood; his father—I suppose everyone knows about him."
She nodded and looked grave.
"The man is dead," I continued. "Let his ashes rest in peace. It seems to me, Miss Dickinson, that Manners' only fault is that he is extremely sensitive."
"I know that," she replied. "Angela and he are great friends."
I followed the direction of her eyes. The pair were standing closely together at the further end of the balcony.
"There is not a doubt that they care for each other," said Miss Muriel; "but up to the present no word has been spoken—at least to my father. I wish he would speak—his silence puts Angela in a strained position."
Soon afterwards I took my leave, going home to attend to some special business which was occupying me that night. Just as I was going downstairs young Manners bounded after me.
"May I come to night instead of to-morrow night?" he said. "It doesn't matter about dinner. I want to talk things over with you."
I told him to come in about nine o'clock, and he nodded his acceptance.
Punctually to the hour he arrived, looking handsome and gentlemanly in his evening clothes. I offered him a pipe; he sat down and we both smoked in silence for a minute or two.
"Well," I said, suddenly—for I saw that it must be my business to lead the way—"I felt rather anxious about you when we sat together in the balcony; but Miss Dickinson has relieved all my fears. You are all right, Manners—I congratulate you most heartily on your future."
He wrung my hand but did not speak.
"I suppose the engagement will soon be announced?" I said, after a pause.
"Oh, we are not engaged, at least, not exactly. I'd give the world if it could be, but I don't see my way—there are difficulties, and monstrous ones. It is about those I want to talk to you."
"Well, speak up, old chap. I am interested in you from every point of view. Tell me everything and we will take counsel together."
He drew his chair close to mine.
"When were you last at Croftwood?" was his remark.
"Not for some years now—not since your mother's death. I grant that the old place is gloomy, but nevertheless I love it. In your hands it will assume a very different appearance. You can rebuild and redecorate. You can cut down sufficient timber to give the place more air, and not such a crowded-up appearance. Croftwood Hall will be, I am sure, a lovely place in your reign, Manners, and Miss Angela is the very girl to make you happy there."
"I love the place, ho answered—"it has been in our family for hundreds of years. Nevertheless I dread it very much. I had a terrible fright there and have never been the same since. Did you hear of it?"
"No," I answered, puzzled at his tone.
"It happened a long time ago now, and it was on account of that I was sent abroad. My mother and father were away at the time—my mother was ordered to the sea for her health. You know, of course, that the old place is supposed to be haunted?"
"Most old places are,' I answered in some heat. "But really, Manners, at this time of day to talk of haunted houses means nonsense. No old family seat is complete without its ghost. But what of that—no one really believes in the unearthly visitant."
"Some people do," he said with a shudder. "Well, let me tell you. My father and mother were both away—my mother wanted me to go to her, but my father refused. You know what a brute he was."
"Hush," I sad, "he is dead."
"Dead or alive, I must speak the truth—he was a brute. I dreaded and hated him, but I worshipped my mother. I was terribly put out at being left behind. I was a big lad—fifteen at the time, but I cried myself ill. The house was horribly lonely, and there were only two servants—old Tarring, the butler, who is still there, and the cook. Half the rooms were shut up. The days were terrible and the long evenings were enough to turn ones brain. I had not even a book to read, for my father had locked up the library. I had not a friend to speak to, there was not a young person anywhere within miles. My nervousness, always a big thing, got worse. I lost my sleep—I used to wander about the old house half the night. On one special night I was so bad that I could not eat any dinner, and afterwards I had a fit of shivering and fancied I saw things whenever I looked up. I rang for Tarring at last and begged of him, for God's sake, to keep me company. You know him, of course, a bent old party with a nose like a beak. He came up and looked into my face and said solemnly—
"‘Master Granby, if this goes on you will be mad soon.'
"‘What do vou mean?' I asked looking at him with terror.
"‘You have madness in your eyes, sir, and you inherit it—don't you forget that. There's that gentleman, your great-great-uncle, whose portrait is in the picture gallery. He died in Bedlam. You'd best go and look at his picture and be warned. A young gentleman like you ought to be happy. He should come to his meals with appetite and sleep sound o' nights. Take my advice, sir, think no more about nerves or fancies, or they will be your undoing.'
"He went away, having positively refused to stay with me another moment, declaring that my face gave him the blues and that he preferred cook's company in the kitchen. I thought I would go to bed and drown my terrors in sleep. I covered myself well up with the bedclothes, but I could not rest. You remember the picture gallery at Croftwood, don't you, Hyne?"
"Perfectly well," I replied.
"It is on the ground floor, and occupies almost the whole west. wing, of the house. It communicates with the chapel at one end and with the dining-hall on the other. I lay with my eyes wide open, my heart beating like a hammer, and my thoughts full of my mad great-uncle. Suddenly I remembered that his name was also Granby Manners. I took an unhealthy desire to look at his face. It could not be combated. I got up, and candle in hand went down through the old house. At last I found myself in the picture gallery. You know those deep embrasures near the mullioned windows?"
"The picture was at the end close to the old chapel. But as I got up to it, I saw someone standing behind me—someone in back—with a hood on. The whole thing was over in a minute for I fainted away. But I remember now as distinctly as though it were only just happening, that the figure spoke and with outstretched hands pointed at me and said—
"‘Granby Manners, you will die in this room!'
"My screams must have brought old Tarring. I was taken to my bedroom, the doctor was summoned, and I was in bed in danger of brain fever for many weeks. My mother got better and returned home. When I saw her I told her exactly what had happened. She was full of sympathy and tenderness and love. She took immediate steps and I was sent abroad with a tutor. We went from one sunny land to another, and I began to forget my troubles and grew strong and healthy once again. Then came the terrible news of my mother's death—I should never see my darling more. I was stricken to the earth—I resolved never to return to England. But two years after my father died, and the lawyers wrote and said that I must return home at once. I found the estate terribly involved, in short, the outlook is most gloomy."
"Have you told this strange story to Miss Dickinson?" I asked.
"I have. She knows everything. She knows that we cannot be engaged until things clear up a bit If they never do, which is more than probable, I must give her up. Yes, I must, however hard it may be. As to the story of my mad ancestor, I do not think much about it. There has not been a second case of insanity in the family—so that goes for nothing; but I cannot ask Mr. Dickinson for Angela when I have no money to support her with."
"Surely that sounds ridiculous," I said. "You, as owner of Croftwood Hall, must have plenty of money."
"That is the point, Hyne," he replied. "The complications are enormous. I will come to that presently; but as we are talking of nerves and fancies, may I tell you something else? You have heard, of course, of the Croftwood Elm?"
I nodded. He was alluding to an enormous elm, of great age, which grew by itself just within sight of the house. There was a superstition in the old place that a branch from this elm always fell before the owners death.
"I was at Croftwood last week," continued Granby. "The gardeners were clearing away the great branch which had fallen from the elm two days before my father's death."
"Well," I said, "you are not going to think anything of that. It was merely a coincidence. Gales of wind will break off the branches of old trees to the end of time. Come, Manners, I am ashamed that you should pin your faith to such rubbish. But tell me, when are you going to Croftwood again?"
"What! To-morrow! May I come with you?"
"Would you come?"
His face lighted up with intense pleasure.
"That would be splendid, he said. "I can't tell you how I hate these visits. A great deal hangs on what takes place in the next few days. Poltimore will be there. He is the horrible man to whom the estate is mortgaged."
"Croftwood Mall mortgaged?" I cried.
"Yes, and up to the hilt. I shall be awfully glad to tell you. Of course, what I say is in confidence. I don't want the whole world to know that I am a pauper."
"You cannot be that, I answered; "but anyhow, you can trust me."
"I will tell you everything to-morrow," was his answer.
He rose as he spoke, and soon afterwards took his leave.
According to my appointment, I met the lad at Waterloo the following day. We reached Croftwood soon after six o'clock. It was a lovely day, bright and not too warm, and as we drove through the park the old trees in their summer greenery restored many memories to my mind.
"Here we are," cried Granby, as the dog-cart put us down at the porch, where the old butler was waiting to receive us.
A more decrepit, bent old man I had never seen. His hooked nose, his distorted, claw-like hands, gave him the appearance more of a bird of ill-omen than anything else. As he glanced with a fixed and by no means amiable expression from Granby to myself, I observed that his eyes were keen, bright, and sharp as a needle, Whatever else had happened to old Tarring, his intellect was still well to the fore. Tarring knew me, although he pretended to regard me as a total stranger, and evidently viewed me with small favour.
"Are there no letters?" asked Manners.
"The post won't he in just yet, sir."
"Well, Tarring, Mr. Hyne has come to stay with me; See that you get a room ready for him. Now, Hyne, let us have a stroll before dinner. Doesn't the place look lovely just now? By the way, you never have met Mr. Poltimore. He was a great friend of my father's. I will tell you how my affairs stand before we see him."
We strolled off through one of the gardens.
"The situation is far worse than you have any idea of," he began. "I will endeavour to explain. Mo one knows exactly what my father's life was, but there is no doubt that on a certain night he got into a most terrible affair in London. Nobody knows what he did, but it was necessary for him to have twenty thousand pounds in cash that night. It was that or suicide. He obtained the sum, how I don't know, from Mr. Poltimore, who is a rich jewel merchant in the city.
"In exchange for the money my father gave the man a document all duly attested and witnessed—a sort of mortgage on Croftwood. It is to this effect. That Mr. Poltimore hold the place as security for his money, and the mortgagee has to pay 10 per cent. on the loan. There are arrears of interest now amounting to ten thousand pounds. This sum has to be paid on Midsummer day, or, according to the mortgage, Mr. Poltimore seizes the property, which is worth not less than a hundred thousand pounds. But there is another and more terrible clause. It is this: even if the interest is paid regularly, I shall only have the place for my life, after that it passes altogether into Poltimore's hands, or into the hands of his heirs. If the arrears of interest can be paid by Midsummer day all will be well as far as I am concerned, but no child of mine can ever inherit the place. You must see for yourself that under such conditions I can't ask Angela Dickinson to be my wife."
"I am not surprised," I answered. "But have you no reasonable hope that your lawyers will raise the money?"
"They say they will do their best. But it is by no means easy."
"Suppose they fail—have you no other means of getting the money?"
"No," he answered. "I once purchased some shares in a gold mine, and I think they will, in time, bring me in a lot of money, but of course it is all a speculation, and I don't suppose anyone would lend on the chance."
"I see," I replied. "And of course it is very much to Mr. Poltimore's advantage that you should not pay the interest on Midsummer day, for he would then have a place worth one hundred thousand pounds for twenty thousand."
"Quite so," was his reply.
Our stroll had led us by this time to the old elm tree.
"Ah," cried Manners, "look for yourself. Here is the place where the branch fell before my father's death."
We struck off across the grass towards the gnarled old tree.
"I thought they had cleared it away before now, but it is still there. How odd."
We were standing exactly under the tree, and a big branch, looking very fresh and green, lay beneath it at our feet. Granby's face turned white.
"Another branch," he cried. "What does this mean?"
"Nothing, except a fresh gale," was my answer.
"You don't understand," he replied, impatiently. "A branch of the old elm always falls before the death of the owner. I am the present owner. What does this allude to?"
"Come away, and don't be nonsensical," were the words which crowded to my lips, but before I could utter them a bass voice, loud and ringing, sounded through the trees.
"Hullo!" it called.
I glanced up with relief at the interruption, and saw a tall, heavily-built man in corduroys approaching us rapidly.
"Hullo Granby," he cried. "Just come down, eh? How seedy you look—white as a turnip, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, thanks. Let me introduce you to my friend, Mr, Laurence Hyne, Mr. Poltimore."
Poltimore raised his hat. I thought I had never seen a more disagreeable face. He eyed me with small favour and turned again to the boy.
"Is your friend coming to stay?" he asked somewhat pointedly.
"Certainly. As my guest," said Granby, in a low tone.
Poltimore uttered a mocking laugh.
"Your guest, forsooth," he said. "By the way, have you had that letter?"
"No, but it may come by this evening's post."
"You will be out of suspense at least, after you have heard," said Poltimore.
He glanced round with a frown at me, and we turned towards the house. As we entered it, Tarring approached and handed Manners a letter in a blue envelope.
"Ah, here it is," he cried.
He turned aside to open it, his fingers shaking. Poltimore watched him with intense excitement.
"Well," he said impatiently, "what is the news?"
"Good news for you, Mr. Poltimore," said Granby then. "There need be no secret," he continued, and he glanced from me to the other man. "The loan cannot be raised, therefore, in four days this house is yours."
Poltimore raised his hand and brought it down again with great force on his thigh.
"It's an ill wind that blows nobody good," he said. "Upon my soul, I am sorry for you, lad, but I can't pretend that I'm not pleased on my own account at the turn events are taking. No offence to you, Mr. Hyne, but when the property comes into my hands I choose my own guests. You understand, sir. Now I am off to the village. Don't wait dinner for me."
He went away with a great stride, banging the heavy oak door after him.
Manners turned to me. "Isn't he a brute?" he said. "But for my sake you will try to endure him, Hyne."
"My dear lad, Poltimore is nothing to me, nothing whatever, except as far as you are concerned. But show me that letter. I don't believe that the worst can have happened."
"But it has," he answered, and he handed me the letter, the contents of which had so elated Mr. Poltimore.
I read it; it ran as follows:—
Dear Sir,—We regret to inform you that we cannot raise the money. The shares in the mine you hold are of no value as security. The estate will therefore pass to Mr. Poltimore on Midsummer day.
"But surely," I cried, "it would be possible to find twenty thousand pounds in order to let you keep the property. To tell you the truth, Manners, I don't believe in that extraordinary document your father signed. At least, I should like to have a good look at it. The estate is entailed."
"Yes; but he broke the entail."
"How so? How is that possible? He could not do it without your permission, and you were not of age."
"He sent me a paper to sign on my twenty-first birthday. I never even guessed what it was, and signed practically without reading, but now I am certain it was that, and I signed away my birthright."
I could not help feeling a sense of dismay. Manners had no more notion of business than an infant.
I thought hard during the remainder of that evening, and at last it suddenly occurred to me to consult no less a man than Mr. Dickinson, the father of Miss Angela. I determined to tell Granby of my resolution.
"You shan't want a friend at this juncture," I said. "If I had the money I would lend it to you with a heart and a half, and think myself well off, too," I added, "for Croftwood Hall is admirable security for any loan. But I have nothing like that amount at my command, so there be no good wasting time over that thought. The place, however, is worth saving;, even if you had nothing to do with it. We don't want an old family place to get into the hands of a scoundrel of Poltimore's sort. Now I propose to go to London to-morrow, for there is, as you are aware, not a moment to lose, and when there I shall consult Dickinson."
"What?" cried Granby. "Angela's father?"
He looked uncomfortable, started up and began to pace the room. "You—would not surely tell him—about——?"
"You must leave that to me, my boy. Whatever happens, I must have an open hand. You cannot be worse off than you are now, and it would be impossible for Dickinson to despise you for loving his daughter."
The poor fellow covered his face with his hands and groaned.
"I am off in the morning to do what I can," I said. "In the meantime, stay here and await events."
I was sorry afterwards that I had not insisted on taking him with me: but how could I foretell the horrible future.
I reached home soon after eleven o'clock, and telephoned immediately to Dickinson to know if he could see me. I had a reply in the affirmative, and went to his chambers soon after noon.
"Come out and have lunch with me," he said heartily, "and then you can tell me what it is all about. Young Manners and the Croftwood estate! But surely that is a fine property?"
"It is if we can rescue it," I replied, "and it is for that purpose I want to consult you."
We lunched in his favourite coffee house off the Strand, and I told Dickinson as much as I thought necessary of the story. He was a middle-aged man, with a staid, reserved face. It was difficult to understand how he could be the sparkling and vivacious Angela's father. He sat quietly after my communication had come to an end. then he said abruptly—
"Have you told me everything?"
I looked at him and resolved to trust him.
"There is one thing I have left out," I said. "It is this. Young Manners loves your youngest daughter as faithfully and truly as a man can love a woman. He would make her a good husband, and Croftwood is not to be despised."
"That is true," answered Dickinson. "I don't know what can be done, but I will consult my solicitor. If anyone can help you, Wantage is the man. Stay, I will give you a letter to take to him at once. You can explain matters more quickly than I could, and there isn't a moment to lose."
"The worst happens on Midsummer day, and this is the 20th. We have only four days."
He gave a low, significant whistle, then dashed off a few words to Wantage and put the letter into my hands.
Wantage was busy in his office in Lincoln's Inn. He was a little red-headed, freckled, elderly man, with a keen face, an observant eye and a manner which expressed nothing. He was very busy, as numerous clerks testified, but Dickinson's letter was Open Sesame, and I was allowed to see him almost immediately.
"A curious case," he said, after we had talked for over un hour. "Will you kindly leave me now, Mr. Hyne, and come back about this time to-morrow. I can give you my answer then—yes or no."
There was nothing for it but to comply. I spent the evening at my club, slept as best I could during the night that followed, and punctually to the moment was back with Wantage in the afternoon of the twenty-first. I was taken at once into his presence. He shut the door and locked it.
"I have not been idle since I saw you," he said to me. "I have been making enquiries with regard to those gold reefs. I have also heard several things by no means to Poltimore's credit. I do not believe that at the worst he can uphold his claim. It is my very firm impression that the law wants him, and sooner than he has any idea of. At any rate, one thing must be done—the cheque must be paid. I will let you have the amount. I heard, on the whole, favourable accounts with regard to those gold reefs. Croftwood is worth saving, the young man is worth rescuing. Now, if you will help me, the thing can be done."
"No fear of my not helping you," I answered cheerfully. "I would almost cut off my right hand to help that boy."
"Thanks, Mr. Hyne," he said, gazing at me critically and almost with a quizzical expression. You are a good friend."
"His mother was a good friend to me."
"Ah, I respect you, Mr. Hyne. Well, this is your part in the matter. The cheque must be paid to you, and you must pay it to Poltimore. The lad himself must have nothing to do with it. You must accept Poltimore's letter of release. This is a matter for a lawyer, however, and if you are going down to Croftwood to-morrow I shall have pleasure in accompanying you. Poltimore may play tricks with Manners, and possibly also with you; but I do not think he will dare to try them on with me. Will you be ready to accompany me to Croftwood Hall to-morrow?"
"Certainly," I said.
We talked a little longer; matters were finally arranged, and I left in high spirits.
On my way home it occurred to me that I would wire to Granby.
I accordingly sent the following very cheerful message:—
All right. Money will be raised. Coming down with solicitor to-morrow. Cheer up.—Laurence Hyne.
The rest of the day passed as usual. It was not until nine o'clock, just after I had returned from dining at my club, that all of a sudden it flashed upon me what a deadly and dangerous thing I had done in sending that wire to Granby. I sprang from my chair. Manners would, of course, tell Poltimore, and the man would he beside himself with rage and disappointment. Beyond doubt, Poltimore was in a most serious position; his own affairs were so critical that if he did not get relief soon, such as the Croftwood estate would furnish him with, he would go under, how deeply and how far I could not guess; but he would be submerged—ruined. As far as he was concerned, everything depended on whether young Manners was able to pay him by Midsummer day, or—great heavens! there was another alternative. Should Granby Manners die before Midsummer day, Poltimore would be equally safe—indeed, more safe than if the arrears of interest were paid. Then, beyond doubt, the estate would be his. He would be a rich man. Should Granby die Poltimore would have attained the utmost height of his ambition. The position was too fearful to contemplate quietly. I, who had hoped to liberate the boy from all his troubles, had, by sending that telegram, in all possibility sealed his death warrant. A desperate and cruel man with no principle would do anything. Then there was that scoundrelly butler, a coward without a scrap of conscience. He had always hated the boy. I saw hatred in his eyes when he greeted us both at Croftwood Hall. Yes, beyond doubt Manners was in the gravest danger.
It was impossible for me to rest. Late as it was, I found myself ten minutes afterwards in a hansom cab. I had determined to catch the ten o'clock train from Waterloo. Not an instant's delay must keep me from the place. I would wire to Wantage in the morning. He could come down and the necessary business could be transacted. But I, in the meantime, would be on the spot to prevent mischief.
I am not given to nervous fancies, but I must confess that during that railway journey to Croftwood station I had about as bad a time as a man often lives through. There was the lonely deserted house, steeped in all its superstitions; there was the supposed ghost; there was the villain who would stop at nothing: there was his tool, the old butler; and there was the boy himself, nervous, highly strung, innocent.
The train seemed to crawl—it stopped at every station. By the time I reached Croftwood station it was nearly one o'clock. There was no fly to be had—there was nothing for it but to finish my journey on foot. I knew my way well, and struck along the country lanes at a brisk pace. The night was fine with a high wind. Scuds of broken cloud raced across the moon, giving alternate moments of bright light followed by darkness,
At last I turned up the avenue and finally reached the house. There was no light in any of the windows. I determined not to ring the bell, but to make my way round to the left under some close growing shrubberies. I thought it extremely probable that I could enter by the old chapel, a place no longer used either for prayer or praise. No one would think of the chapel, or be concerned as to whether the heavy oak door was locked or not. I had observed that it was unlocked when with Granby two days ago. Now it yielded to my pressure. I went straight through the chapel. This led me into the picture gallery, at the further end of which was a secret door by which I could eventually reach Granby's room.
As I walked quickly down the long picture gallery, the greater part of which was in intense darkness, the windows having been all barred and bolted, I suddenly paused and listened. Something had broken the silence. What could it be? It sounded like low guttural breathing. My heart beat fast as I advanced, then it almost stopped, for hanging unsupported, and brought into relief by a long ray of moonlight which fell through a badly-fitting shutter, was a face within a few feet of my own. Oh God!—the face was upside down while breath passed quickly between the anguished lips. It was the face of Granby.
This scene lasted for only a minute; before I could speak everything was changed—a bright light flooded the apartment, and Poltimore, a candle in his hand, approached from the dining hall end. Granby was hanging by his feet. I rushed at the villain—a desperate encounter took place.
"What is this, you scoundrel?" I shouted.
He swung me off with the strength of a man nearly double my size, pushed the old butler towards me and dashed away. The latter I seized.
"Help me at once, Tarring," I cried, "or I'll wring your neck. Save Mr. Granby—what are you about man? Be quick."
His face was ghastly, but he spoke no word. We worked quietly. A step-ladder stood behind us and a few moments later Manners lay upon the floor, still breathing, but unconscious.
"Go and fetch brandy," I cried.
The man disappeared and soon returned with a (decanter and a glass. I poured a little down the boy's throat, and he opened his eyes.
A few hours later Granby was able to tell his own story.
"I got your telegram, and was nearly mad with joy," he said. "Poltimore found me holding it in my hand. He rushed at me, seized the sheet and read the news. I shall never forget his face. It was just as though I were in Hades, and saw the face of a lost spirit. But before I had time to realise anything, he had caught me in his powerful grip. He said something to Tarring who was not far off and they carried me away with them to the picture gallery. I think I fainted, for when I came to myself I was tied by the ankles to that beam. What I lived through during the next awful hours I can never by any possibility explain."
The doctor when he arrived made it clear that death must have ensued in a very short time. This would have been caused by the enormous congestion of the brain. The cunningness of the mode of murder was made apparent when the doctor further said that after the boy died and the body was lowered down, there would not be the slightest trace apparent to anyone of what had happened.
Both Poltimore and Tarring were arrested, and are now undergoing a term of penal servitude.
As to Granby, his friends clustered round him, and the estate was put on a firm basis. He is about to marry Angela Dickinson in a short time. The shares in the gold reef have also turned out trumps, and the owner of Croftwood Hall will once more be a very rich man.
In the bright, calm, handsome fellow, who shows not a trace of fear or nervousness, who is happy of the happy, and gay of the gay, few would recognise the boy whom I was the means of rescuing from the most terrible death.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1943, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 79 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.