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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11787

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The venerable-looking old cleric sat there for the better part of an hour in the patient attitude of one who waits for a friend, but though he puzzled his cunning brain he could see no way out of the difficulty. He had no money, and the police were after him. He recognised only too well that he had to thank Sartoris for this-he had measured his cunning against that of the little cripple, and he had failed. He had played for the greater part of the stake that was at the bottom of the mystery, and he had paid the penalty. Bitterly he regretted his folly now.

Presently, his humming brain began to clear. He saw one or two people there whom he knew; he saw Beatrice come down to the office and go out presently, with a little flat case under her arm. Richford's eyes gleamed, and a glow of inspiration thrilled him.

"As sure as fate she has the diamonds," he told himself. "She is afraid that I should hit upon some scheme for getting them, and she is going to dispose of them in some hiding-place. I'll follow her. Courage, my boy-the game is not up yet."

As a matter of fact, Richford had summed up the situation correctly. In some vague way Beatrice was a little alarmed. She had heard of such things as injunctions and the like. Suppose the law stepped in to protect the rogue, as the law does sometimes. And Beatrice had something else to do, for she had read Berrington's letter, and she had made up her mind to go to Wandsworth without delay. But first of all she would walk as far as the old family jewellers in Bond Street and deposit the stones there. She had every faith in the head of the firm, whom the family had dealt with for so many years.

No sooner had Beatrice stepped out of the hotel than Mary Sartoris came back. She proceeded quietly up the stairs to find Adeline alone in the room of her mistress. The girl blushed as Mary put the question that rose naturally to her lips.

"I'm very sorry, miss," the girl stammered; "but I forgot all about your message and the letter. I left the letter on the table, and my mistress has just gone out."

"Did she get the letter before she went?" Mary asked quickly.

"Well, yes, I suppose so, miss," was the reply, "seeing that the letter is no longer on the table. I suppose that my mistress has got it. She must have done so, for the envelope is in the grate."

Sure enough, the envelope with the forged handwriting of Berrington upon it lay in the grate. Mary was too mortified to speak for the moment, besides there was no occasion to tell the maid anything.

"I'm sorry you were so careless," she said. "Did your mistress go out alone?"

"I believe so," the contrite Adeline said. "She had a visitor, an old clergyman who--"

But Mary was not listening, she was only thinking of Beatrice's danger. At the same time she had a clear recollection of the old clergyman, for he had pushed past her into the hotel at the moment when she was leaving the building for the first time.

She went out into the street which was dark by this time. She would take a cab to Wandsworth at once and get there before Beatrice came. But there was no cab in sight, so that Mary had to walk some little way. At the corner of the road she stopped and hesitated for a moment. Close by stood the well-dressed couple who had imposed themselves upon Beatrice under the guise of Countess de la Moray and General Gastang.

Whatever were they doing here, just now, Mary wondered? Just for the moment it flashed across her mind that they were prying upon her movements. But another idea occurred to her, as the two were accosted by the old clergyman that Mary had seen before, and who had been a visitor to Beatrice Richford such a little time previously.

She saw the man raise his hat politely at some question from the clergyman, then she saw his face change to a startled expression, and instantly Mary understood.

"I know who it is," she said half aloud. "It is Stephen Richford in disguise. He has been to see his wife. I should like to know what they are talking about."

The trio were talking very earnestly indeed now. Just for the moment it had looked as if the man called Reggie and the woman called Cora had decided to give Richford the cold shoulder. But he had said a few words, and the scene was suddenly changed. The three walked off together and turned into a small restaurant a little way down the street.

Moved by a feeling which she would have had some trouble to explain, Mary followed. In some vague way she felt that Beatrice was in danger. The restaurant was by no means a fashionable one, and few people were there. Mary noticed, too, that the inside was divided into compartments in the old-fashioned way. She stepped into the box next the one where the three conspirators were seated and ordered a cup of tea. It was a satisfaction to the girl to know that she could hear all that was being said in the other box. She heard the popping of a champagne cork, speedily followed by another. She had only to sit there and listen. She had forgotten all about Beatrice by this time.

"Wine like that puts life into a man," she heard Richford say.

"And gives him a tongue too," the man called Reggie laughed. "Deadly expensive stuff unless you can see some reasonable return for your outlay in the near future. Come, Richford, we are both eager to know how you propose to put money into our pockets."

"And yet I can put a lot," Richford said. "Oh, you need not be afraid of that crooked little devil at Wandsworth, for he shall not know anything about it. What do you say to £10,000 apiece and nobody any the wiser? Doesn't that make your mouth water?"

"It would if you could show me the way," Reggie said. "But in the most delicate way possible, my dear Richford, let me put it to you-that you are under a cloud at present. And why do you offer to divide the plunder in this very irrat

ional way?"

"Simply because I am under a cloud," Richford growled. "I'm powerless and desperate. I don't even know where to turn for a night's lodging. Now look here, the matter may take a day or two, and in the meantime I've got to put up somewhere. And as a warrant of my good faith, I'm not going to ask you for any money. All I require is food and a bed and shelter, and that you may very well give me at Edward Street. Sartoris never goes there."

"Make it worth while and the thing's done," Reggie said. "Give it a name."

"Well, suppose we call it diamonds?" Richford suggested. "Have you forgotten those magnificent diamonds that I gave my wife, bless her, for a wedding present?"

A little gasp came from the listeners. It was evident to Richford that he had struck the right chord, for he proceeded with more confidence.

"I gave my dear wife stones worth nearly, if not quite, £40,000," he said. "I didn't hand over that little lot altogether out of disinterested affection. A man who takes risks, as I do, is pretty sure to come up against a financial crisis sooner or later, only it has been sooner in this case. Though my wife chose to ignore me, I left the stones in her possession because, being my wife, no creditor could lay hands upon those gems. I went to her to-day and asked for them. Of course I did not anticipate any difficulty whatever; I expected that she would cock that imperially haughty nose of hers in the air and hand them over to me as if I were dirt beneath her feet. To my astonishment she utterly refused to do anything of the kind."

"Unkind," the woman Cora laughed; "and yet so like a modern wife. Had she pawned them?"

"Not she! I was fool enough to say something that was not quite complimentary of my creditors, and she refused to part with the stones anyhow. Said that they would go to pay my debts. I threatened violence and all kinds of things, but it was no good. I said that unless I had money in forty-eight hours I should be in jail, but it was all to no effect. Did you ever hear anything so maddening in all your life?"

"You have my deepest sympathy," Reggie said; "but you did not bring us here to listen to a story that has no point to it like yours. You have got some scheme in your head for getting hold of the stones. But you can't do it alone."

"If I could should I be such a cursed fool as to bring you two in?" Richford growled. "But I-but I can't appear. All I can do is to show you the way and trust to your honour to give me a third of the plunder when it is turned into cash."

"Hadn't you better get to the point?" Reggie suggested with undisguised eagerness.

"I'm coming to that. After my interview with my wife I sat in the hall trying to pull myself together. Presently I saw her ladyship come down and go to the office. Those diamonds had been deposited in the hotel safe for obvious reasons. My wife came out of the office presently with the case in her hand. Then I recognized what had happened. She was afraid of some move of mine, and she was going to deposit the stones elsewhere. It did not take me long to make up my mind where she was going. She was about to take the plunder to Hilton in Bond Street."

"How long ago?" the woman called Cora asked eagerly. "This is important."

"Well, not more than an hour, anyway," Richford replied. "Why do you ask?"

"Because Hilton closes at five," the woman said. "I know that, because the firm has done several little jobs for me lately. You may be pretty sure that your wife did not deposit those stones at Hilton's to-day; therefore she still has them in her pocket. That being so, what we have to do now is to discover where she has gone. If you like I'll go round to the Royal Palace Hotel at once and see if she has returned. I'll ask the clerk in the office, and if he says she has returned, you may safely bet that those stones are back in the hotel safe again. If she has not returned, they are still on her person."

"It's just as well to make sure," Reggie said reflectively.

The woman flitted away and came back soon with a smile on her face.

"So far, so good," she said. "The lady has not returned to the hotel. Now, Mr. Richford, if you can only put us on the track of the timid little hare, then--"

"Done with the greatest possible ease," Richford replied. "She's gone to Wandsworth. I can't make the thing out at all, and in any case it does not in the least matter. When I was waiting for my wife just now I saw a letter to her from Berrington,-Colonel Berrington. As you know, he is a prisoner in Audley Place, and why he should have written that letter, or how Sartoris persuaded the warrior to write it, I don't know any more than Adam. But that's where she has gone. If you can intercept her before she gets there, or waylay her when she leaves, why there you are. I don't suppose my wife will tell Sartoris that she has all that stuff in her pocket."

"Do you think that she took a cab?" Reggie asked.

"I should say not. Cabs cost money, and Beatrice has not much of that. Wandsworth is not a place you can get to in ten minutes, especially after the business trains have ceased running for the evening; so that if you took a cab--"

Reggie jumped to his feet excitedly.

"No use wasting time here," he said. "Come along, Cora. I'll just scribble a few lines on one of my cards, so that you can be safe at Edward Street. There you are. And if I don't get those stones before bedtime, why I'm a bigger fool than the police take me for."

Thrilling with excitement, Mary followed the others into the street. She saw the two get into a cab, and she proceeded to take one herself. The cabman looked at her dubiously as he asked where he was to go to.

"No. 100, Audley Place, Wandsworth Common," Mary said. "If you get there ten minutes before the cab in front, I'll give you an extra half-sovereign."

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