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   Chapter 16 THE LAST STRAW.

Red Money By Fergus Hume Characters: 22453

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Lady Agnes was inaccurate when she informed Miss Greeby that her cousin had taken a house in Kensington, since, like many women, she was accustomed to speak in general terms, rather than in a precise way. The young man certainly did live in the suburb she mentioned, but he had simply rented a furnished flat in one of the cheaper streets. He was the poorest of all the Lamberts, and could scarcely pay his club subscriptions, much less live in the style his ancient name demanded. The St. James's chambers had merely been lent to him by a friend, and when the owner returned, the temporary occupant had to shift. Therefore, on the score of economy, he hired the dingy flat and brought up Mrs. Tribb to look after it. The little woman, on her master's account, was disgusted with the mean surroundings.

"When you ought to be living in a kind of Buckingham Palace, Master Noel, as I should declare with my dying breath," she said indignantly. "And have the title, too, if things was as they ought to be."

"I shouldn't be much better off if I did have the title, Mrs. Tribb," replied Lambert with a shrug. "It's common knowledge that Garvington can scarcely keep his head above water. As an old family servant you should know."

"Ah, Master Noel, there's many things as I know, as I'm sorry I do know," said Mrs. Tribb incoherently. "And them lords as is dead and buried did waste the money, there's no denying. But some of your cousins, Master Noel, have gone into trade and made money, more shame to them."

"I don't see that, Mrs. Tribb. I'd go into trade myself if I had any head for figures. There's no disgrace in trade."

"Not for them as isn't Lamberts, Master Noel, and far be it from me to say so, gentry not being so rich as they used to be when my mother was a gal. I don't hold with it though for you, sir. But now Lady Agnes having millions and billions will make things easier for you."

"Certainly not, Mrs. Tribb. How could I take money from her?"

"And why not, Master Noel? if you'll excuse my making so free. As a child she'd give you anything in the way of toys, and as a grown-up, her head is yours if not her heart, as is-"

"There! there! Don't talk any more," said Lambert, coloring and vexed.

"I haven't annoyed you, sir, I hope. It's my heart as speaks."

"I appreciate the interest you take in the family, Mrs. Tribb, but you had better leave some things unsaid. Now, go and prepare tea, as Lady Agnes has written saying she will be here this afternoon."

"Oh, Master Noel, and you only tell me now. Then there ain't time to cook them cakes she dotes on."

But Lambert declined to argue further, and Mrs. Tribb withdrew, murmuring that she would have to make shift with sardine sandwiches. Her tongue was assuredly something of a nuisance, but the young man knew how devoted she was to the family, and, since she had looked after him when he was a child, he sanctioned in her a freedom he would not have permitted any one else to indulge in. And it is to be feared, that the little woman in her zeal sometimes abused her privileges.

The sitting room was small and cramped, and atrociously furnished in an overcrowded way. There were patterns on the wall-paper, on the carpet, on the tablecloth and curtains, until the eye ached for a clean surface without a design. And there were so many ill-matched colors, misused for decorative purposes, that Lambert shuddered to the core of his artistic soul when he beheld them. To neutralize the glaring tints, he pulled down the blinds of the two windows which looked on to a dull suburban roadway, and thus shut out the weak sunshine. Then he threw himself into an uncomfortable arm-chair and sought solace in his briar root. The future was dark, the present was disagreeable, and the past would not bear thinking about, so intimately did it deal with the murder of Pine, the threats of Silver, and the misery occasioned by the sacrifice of Agnes to the family fetish. It was in the young man's mind to leave England forthwith and begin a new life, unhampered by former troubles and present grievances. But Agnes required help and could not be left to struggle unaided, so Lambert silently vowed again, as he had vowed before, to stand by her to the end. Yet so far he was unable to see what the end would be.

While he thus contemplated the unpleasantness of life he became aware that the front door bell was ringing, and he heard Mrs. Tribb hurrying along the passage. So thin were the walls, and so near the door that he heard also the housekeeper's effusive welcome, which was cut short by a gasp of surprise. Lambert idly wondered what caused the little woman's astonishment, but speedily learned when Agnes appeared in the room. With rare discretion Mrs. Tribb ushered in the visitor and then fled to the kitchen to wonder why the widow had discarded her mourning. "And him only planted six months, as you might say," murmured the puzzled woman. "Whatever will Master Noel say to such goings on?"

Master Noel said nothing, because he was too astonished to speak, and Agnes, seeing his surprise, and guessing its cause, waited, somewhat defiantly, for him to make an observation. She was dressed in a gray silk frock, with a hat and gloves, and shoes to match, and drew off a fur-lined cloak of maroon-colored velvet, when she entered the room. Her face was somewhat pale and her eyes looked unnaturally large, but she had a resolute expression about her mouth, which showed that she had made up her mind. Lambert, swift, from long association, to read her moods, wondered what conclusion she had arrived at, and proceeded to inquire.

"Whatever is the meaning of this?" he demanded, considerably startled.

"This dress?"

"Of course. Where is your widow's cap and-"

"In the fire, and there they can remain until they are burned to ashes."

Lambert stared harder than ever. "What does it mean?" he asked again.

"It means," said Agnes, replying very directly, "that the victim is no longer decked out for the sacrifice. It means, that as Hubert insulted me by his will, I no longer intend to consider his memory."

"But, Agnes, you respected him. You always said that you did?"

"Quite so, until his will was read. Then when I found that his mean jealousy-which was entirely unreasonable-had arranged to rob me of my income by preventing my marriage with you, I ceased to have any regard for him. Hubert knew that I loved you, and was content to take me on those terms so long as I was loyal to him. I was loyal, and did what I could to show him gratitude for the way in which he helped the family. Now his will has broken the bargain I respect him no longer, and for that reason I refuse to pose any longer as a grieving widow."

"I wonder, with these thoughts, that you posed at all," said Lambert gloomily, and pushed forward a chair.

"I could not make up my mind until lately what to do," explained Agnes, sitting down gracefully, "and while I accepted his money it appeared to me that I ought to show his memory the outward respect of crape and all the rest of it. Now," she leaned forward and spoke meaningly, "I am resolved to surrender the money. That breaks the link between us. The will! the will!" she tapped an impatient foot on the carpet. "How could you expect any woman to put up with such an insult?"

Lambert dropped on the sofa and looked at her hard. "What's up?" he asked anxiously. "I never saw you like this before."

"I was not free when you last saw me," she replied dryly.

"Oh, yes; you were a widow."

"I mean free, in my own mind, to marry you. I am now. I don't intend to consider the family or society, or Mr. Silver's threats, or anything else. I have shaken off my fetters; I have discarded my ring." She violently pulled off her glove to show that the circle of gold was absent. "I am free, and I thank God that I am free."

"Agnes! Agnes! I can't reduce you to poverty by marrying you. It would not be honorable of me."

"And would it be honorable on my part for me to keep the money of a man I despise because his will insults me?" she retorted.

"We argued all this before."

"Yes, we did, and concluded to wait until we saw how the estates could be freed before we came to any conclusion."

"And do you see now how the estates can be freed without using Pine's money, Agnes?" asked Lambert anxiously.

"No. Things are ever so much worse than I thought. Garvington can hold out for another year, but at the end of twelve months the estates will be sold up by the person whose name is in the sealed envelope, and he will be reduced to some hundreds a year. The Lamberts!" she waved her arm dramatically, "are ruined, my dear; entirely ruined!"

"And for the simple reason that you wish us to place love before duty."

Agnes leaned forward and took his hand firmly. "Noel, you love me?"

"Of course I do."

"Do you love the family name better?"

"In one way I wish to save it, in another I am willing to let it go hang."

"Yes. Those were my views until three or four days ago."

"And what caused you to change your mind, dear?"

"A visit which Clara Greeby paid me."

"Oh." Lambert sat up very straight. "She hasn't been making mischief, has she?"

"Not at all. On the contrary, she has done both of us a great service."

Lambert nodded thankfully. He felt doubtful as to whether Miss Greeby really had meant to renounce her absurd passion for himself, and it was a relief to find that she had been acting honestly. "Has she then learned who killed Pine?" he asked cautiously.

Lady Agnes suddenly rose and began to pace the room, twisting her gloves and trying to control herself. Usually she was so composed that Lambert wondered at this restlessness. He wondered still more when she burst into violent tears, and therefore hastened to draw her back to the chair. When she was seated he knelt beside her and passed his arm round her neck, as distressed as she was. It was so unlike Agnes to break down in this way, and more unlike her to sob brokenly. "Oh, I'm afraid-I'm afraid."

"Afraid of what, darling?"

"I'm afraid to learn who killed my husband. He might have done so, and yet he only fired the first shot-"

"Agnes," Lambert rose up suddenly, "are you talking of Garvington?"

"Yes." She leaned back and dried her tears. "In spite of what he says, I am afraid he may be guilty."

Lambert's heart seemed to stand still. "You talk rubbish!" he cried angrily.

"I wish it was. Oh, how I wish it was rubbish! But I can't be sure. Of course, he may have meant what he says-"

"What does he say? Tell me everything. Oh, heavens!" Lambert clutched his smooth hair. "What does it all mean?"

"Ruin to the Lambert family. I told you so."

"You have only told me scraps so far. I don't understand how you can arrive at the conclusion that Garvington is guilty. Agnes, don't go on crying in so unnecessary a way. If things have to be faced, surely we are strong enough to face them. Don't let our emotions make fools of us. Stop it! Stop it!" he said sharply and stamping. "Dry your eyes and explain matters."

"I-I can't help my feelings," faltered Agnes, beginning to respond to the spur, and b

ecoming calmer.

"Yes, you can. I don't offer you brandy or smelling salts, or anything of the sort, because I know you to be a woman with a firm mind. Exert your will, and compel your nerves to be calm. This exhibition is too cheap."

"Oh," cried Agnes indignantly, and this feeling was the one Lambert wished to arouse, "how can you talk so?"

"Because I love you and respect you," he retorted.

She knew that he meant what he said, and that her firmness of mind and self-control had always appealed to him, therefore she made a great effort and subdued her unruly nerves. Lambert gave her no assistance, and merely walked up and down the room while waiting for her to recover. It was not easy for her to be herself immediately, as she really was shaken, and privately considered that he expected too much. But pride came to her aid, and she gradually became more composed. Meanwhile Lambert pulled up the blind to display the ugly room in all its deformity, and the sight-as he guessed it would-extorted an exclamation from her.

"Oh, how can you live in this horrid place?" she asked irrelevantly.

"Necessity knows no law. Are you better?"

"Yes; I am all right. But you are brutal, Noel."

"I wouldn't have been brutal to a weaker woman," he answered. "And by acting as I have done, I show how much I think of you."

"Rather a strange way of showing approval. But your drastic methods have triumphed. I am quite composed, and shall tell you of our disgrace in as unemotional a manner as if I were reckoning pounds, shillings and pence."

"Disgrace?" Lambert fastened on the one word anxiously. "To us?"

"To Garvington in the first place. But sit down and listen. I shall tell you everything, from the moment Clara came to see me."

Lambert nodded and resumed his seat. Agnes, with wonderful coolness, detailed Miss Greeby's visit and production of the letter. Thence she passed on to explain how she had tricked Garvington into confession. "But he did not confess," interrupted Lambert at this point.

"Not at the moment. He did yesterday in a letter to me. You see, he left my house immediately and slept at his club. Then he went down to The Manor and sent for Jane, who, by the way, knows nothing of what I have explained. Here are two letters," added Agnes, taking an envelope out of her pocket. "One is the forged one, and the other came from Garvington yesterday. Even though he is not imitating my writing, you can see every now and then the similarity. Perhaps there is a family resemblance in our caligraphy." Her cousin examined the two epistles with a rather scared look, for there was no doubt that things looked black against the head of the family. However, he did not read Garvington's letter, but asked Agnes to explain. "What excuse does he make for forging your name?" asked Lambert in a business-like way, for there was no need to rage over such a worm as Freddy.

"A very weak one," she replied. "So weak that I scarcely believe him to be in earnest. Besides, Freddy always was a liar. He declares that when he went to see about getting the gypsies turned off the land, he caught sight of Hubert. He did not speak to him, but learned the truth from Mr. Silver, whom he forced to speak. Then he wrote the letter and let it purposely fall into Mr. Silver's hands, and by Mr. Silver it was passed on to Hubert. Freddy writes that he only wanted to hurt Hubert so that he might be laid up in bed at The Manor. When he was weak-Hubert, I mean-Freddy then intended to get all the money he could out of him."

"He did not wish to kill Pine, then?"

"No. And all the evidence goes to show that he only broke Hubert's arm."

"That is true," murmured Lambert thoughtfully, "for the evidence of the other guests and of the servants showed plainly at the inquest that the second shot was fired outside while Garvington was indoors."

Agnes nodded. "Yes; it really seems as though Freddy for once in his life is telling the exact truth."

Her cousin glanced at Garvington's lengthy letter of explanation. "Do you really believe that he hoped to manage Pine during the illness?"

"Well," said Agnes reluctantly, "Freddy has tremendous faith in his powers of persuasion. Hubert would do nothing more for him since he was such a cormorant for money. But if Hubert had been laid up with a broken arm, it is just possible that he might have been worried into doing what Freddy wanted, if only to get rid of his importunity."

"Hum! It sounds weak. Garvington certainly winged Pine, so that seems to corroborate the statement in this letter. He's such a good shot that he could easily have killed Pine if he wanted to."

"Then you don't think that Freddy is responsible for the death?" inquired Agnes with a look of relief.

Lambert appeared worried. "I think not, dear. He lured Hubert into his own private trap so as to get him laid up and extort money. Unfortunately, another person, aware of the trap, waited outside and killed your poor husband."

"According to what Freddy says, Mr. Silver knew of the trap, since he delivered the letter to Hubert. And Mr. Silver knew that Freddy had threatened to shoot any possible burglar. It seems to me," ended Agnes deliberately, "that Mr. Silver is guilty."

"But why should he shoot Pine, to whom he owed so much?"

"I can't say."

"And, remember, Silver was inside the house."

"Yes," assented Lady Agnes, in dismay. "That is true. It is a great puzzle, Noel. However, I am not trying to solve it. Clara says that Mr. Silver will hold his tongue, and certainly as the letter is now in my possession he cannot bring forward any evidence to show that I am inculpated in the matter. I think the best thing to do is to let Freddy and Mr. Silver fight out the matter between them, while we are on our honeymoon."

Lambert started. "Agnes! What do you mean?"

She grew impatient. "Oh, what is the use of asking what I mean when you know quite well, Noel? Hubert insulted me in his will, and cast a slur on my character by forbidding me to marry you. Freddy-although he did not fire the second shot-certainly lured Hubert to his death by forging that letter. I don't intend to consider my husband's memory any more, nor my brother's position. I shall never speak to him again if I can help it, as he is a wicked little animal. I have sacrificed myself sufficiently, and now I intend to take my own way. Let the millions go, and let Freddy be ruined, if only to punish him for his wickedness."

"But, dear, how can I ask you to share my poverty?" said Lambert, greatly distressed. "I have only five hundred a year, and you have been accustomed to such luxury."

"I have another five hundred a year of my own," said Agnes obstinately, "which Hubert settled on me for pin money. He refused to make any other settlements. I have a right to that money, since I sacrificed so much, and I shall keep it. Surely we can live on one thousand a year."

"In England?" inquired Lambert doubtfully. "And after you have led such a luxurious life?"

"No," she said quickly. "I mean in the Colonies. Let us go to Australia, or Canada, or South Africa, I don't care which, and cut ourselves off from the past. We have suffered enough; let us now think of ourselves."

"But are we not selfish to let the family name be disgraced?"

"Freddy is selfish, and will disgrace it in any case," said Agnes, with a contemptuous shrug. "What's the use of pulling him out of the mud, when he will only sink back into it again? No, Noel, if you love me you will marry me within the week."

"But it's so sudden, dear," he urged, more and more distressed. "Take time to consider. How can I rob you of millions?"

"You won't rob me. If you refuse, I shall make over the money to some charity, and live on my five hundred a year. Remember, Noel, what people think of me: that I married Hubert to get his money and to become your wife when he died, so that we could live on his wealth. We can only prove that belief to be false by surrendering the millions and marrying as paupers."

"You may be right, and yet-"

"And yet, and yet-oh," she cried, wounded, "you don't love me."

The man did not answer, but stood looking at her with all his soul in his eyes, and shaking from head to foot. Never before had she looked so desirable, and never before had he felt the tides of love surge to so high a Water-mark. "Love you!" he said in a hoarse voice. "Agnes, I would give my soul for you."

"Then give it." She wreathed her arms round his neck and whispered with her warm lips close to his ear, "Give me all of you."

"But two millions-"

"You are worth it."

"Darling, you will repent."

"Repent!" She pressed him closer to her. "Repent that I exchange a lonely life for companionship with you? Oh, my dear, how can you think so? I am sick of money and sick of loneliness. I want you, you, you! Noel, Noel, it is your part to woo, and here am I making all the love."

"It is such a serious step for you to take."

"It is the only step that I can take. I am known as a mercenary woman, and until we marry and give up the money, everybody will think scornfully of me. Besides, Freddy must be punished, and in no other way can I make him suffer so much as by depriving him of the wealth he sinned to obtain."

"Yes. There is that view, certainly. And," Lambert gasped, "I love you-oh, never doubt that, my darling."

"I shall," she whispered ardently, "unless you get a special license and marry me straightaway."

"But Garvington and Silver-"

"And Clara Greeby and Chaldea, who both love you," she mocked. "Let them all fight out their troubles alone. I have had enough suffering; so have you. So there's no more to be said. Now, sir," she added playfully, "wilt thou take this woman to be thy wedded wife?"

"Yes," he said, opening his arms and gathering Agnes to his heart. "But what will people say of your marrying so soon after Pine's death?"

"Let them say what they like and do what they like. We are going to the Colonies and will be beyond reach of slanderous tongues. Now, let us have tea, Noel, for I am hungry and thirsty, and quite tired out with trying to convince you of my earnestness."

Lambert rang for the tea. "Shall we tell Jarwin that we intend to marry?"

"No. We shall tell no one until we are married," she replied, and kissed him once, twice, thrice, and again, until Mrs. Tribb entered with the tray. Then they both sat demurely at the first of many meals which they hoped would be the start of a new Darby and Joan existence.

And the outcome of the interview and of the decision that was arrived at appeared in a letter to Mr. Jarwin, of Chancery Lane. A week later he received a communication signed by Agnes Lambert, in which she stated that on the preceding day she had married her cousin by special license. Mr. Jarwin had to read the epistle twice before he could grasp the astounding fact that the woman had paid two millions for a husband.

"She's mad, crazy, silly, insane," murmured the lawyer, then his eyes lighted up with curiosity. "Now I shall know the name of the person in the sealed letter who inherits," and he forthwith proceeded to his safe.

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