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    Act II

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    Chapter 3
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    VENDALE MAKES LOVE

    The summer and the autumn passed. Christmas and the New Year were at
    hand.

    As executors honestly bent on performing their duty towards the dead,
    Vendale and Bintrey had held more than one anxious consultation on the
    subject of Wilding's will. The lawyer had declared, from the first, that
    it was simply impossible to take any useful action in the matter at all.
    The only obvious inquiries to make, in relation to the lost man, had been
    made already by Wilding himself; with this result, that time and death
    together had not left a trace of him discoverable. To advertise for the
    claimant to the property, it would be necessary to mention particulars--a
    course of proceeding which would invite half the impostors in England to
    present themselves in the character of the true Walter Wilding. "If we
    find a chance of tracing the lost man, we will take it. If we don't, let
    us meet for another consultation on the first anniversary of Wilding's
    death." So Bintrey advised. And so, with the most earnest desire to
    fulfil his dead friend's wishes, Vendale was fain to let the matter rest
    for the present.

    Turning from his interest in the past to his interest in the future,
    Vendale still found himself confronting a doubtful prospect. Months on
    months had passed since his first visit to Soho Square--and through all
    that time, the one language in which he had told Marguerite that he loved
    her was the language of the eyes, assisted, at convenient opportunities,
    by the language of the hand.

    What was the obstacle in his way? The one immovable obstacle which had
    been in his way from the first. No matter how fairly the opportunities
    looked, Vendale's efforts to speak with Marguerite alone ended invariably
    in one and the same result. Under the most accidental circumstances, in
    the most innocent manner possible, Obenreizer was always in the way.

    With the last days of the old year came an unexpected chance of spending
    an evening with Marguerite, which Vendale resolved should be a chance of
    speaking privately to her as well. A cordial note from Obenreizer
    invited him, on New Year's Day, to a little family dinner in Soho Square.
    "We shall be only four," the note said. "We shall be only two," Vendale
    determined, "before the evening is out!"

    New Year's Day, among the English, is associated with the giving and
    receiving of dinners, and with nothing more. New Year's Day, among the
    foreigners, is the grand opportunity of the year for the giving and
    receiving of presents. It is occasionally possible to acclimatise a
    foreign custom. In this instance Vendale felt no hesitation about making
    the attempt. His one difficulty was to decide what his New Year's gift
    to Marguerite should be. The defensive pride of the peasant's
    daughter--morbidly sensitive to the inequality between her social
    position and his--would be secretly roused against him if he ventured on
    a rich offering. A gift, which a poor man's purse might purchase, was
    the one gift that could be trusted to find its way to her heart, for the
    giver's sake. Stoutly resisting temptation, in the form of diamonds and
    rubies, Vendale bought a brooch of the filagree-work of Genoa--the
    simplest and most unpretending ornament that he could find in the
    jeweller's shop.

    He slipped his gift into Marguerite's hand as she held it out to welcome
    him on the day of the dinner.

    "This is your first New Year's Day in England," he said. "Will you let
    me help to make it like a New Year's Day at home?"

    She thanked him, a little constrainedly, as she looked at the jeweller's
    box, uncertain what it might contain. Opening the box, and discovering
    the studiously simple form under which Vendale's little keepsake offered
    itself to her, she penetrated his motive on the spot. Her face turned on
    him brightly, with a look which said, "I own you have pleased and
    flattered me." Never had she been so charming, in Vendale's eyes, as she
    was at that moment. Her winter dress--a petticoat of dark silk, with a
    bodice of black velvet rising to her neck, and enclosing it softly in a
    little circle of swansdown--heightened, by all the force of contrast, the
    dazzling fairness of her hair and her complexion. It was only when she
    turned aside from him to the glass, and, taking out the brooch that she
    wore, put his New Year's gift in its place, that Vendale's attention
    wandered far enough away from her to discover the presence of other
    persons in the room. He now became conscious that the hands of
    Obenreizer were affectionately in possession of his elbows. He now heard
    the voice of Obenreizer thanking him for his attention to Marguerite,
    with the faintest possible ring of mockery in its tone. ("Such a simple
    present, dear sir! and showing such nice tact!") He now discovered, for
    the first time, that there was one other guest, and but one, besides
    himself, whom Obenreizer presented as a compatriot and friend. The
    friend's face was mouldy, and the friend's figure was fat. His age was
    suggestive of the autumnal period of human life. In the course of the
    evening he developed two extraordinary capacities. One was a capacity
    for silence; the other was a capacity for emptying bottles.

    Madame Dor was not in the room. Neither was there any visible place
    reserved for her when they sat down to table. Obenreizer explained that
    it was "the good Dor's simple habit to dine always in the middle of the
    day. She would make her excuses later in the evening." Vendale wondered
    whether the good Dor had, on this occasion, varied her domestic
    employment from cleaning Obenreizer's gloves to cooking Obenreizer's
    dinner. This at least was certain--the dishes served were, one and all,
    as achievements in cookery, high above the reach of the rude elementary
    art of England. The dinner was unobtrusively perfect. As for the wine,
    the eyes of the speechless friend rolled over it, as in solemn ecstasy.
    Sometimes he said "Good!" when a bottle came in full; and sometimes he
    said "Ah!" when a bottle went out empty--and there his contributions to
    the gaiety of the evening ended.

    Silence is occasionally infectious. Oppressed by private anxieties of
    their own, Marguerite and Vendale appeared to feel the influence of the
    speechless friend. The whole responsibility of keeping the talk going
    rested on Obenreizer's shoulders, and manfully did Obenreizer sustain it.
    He opened his heart in the character of an enlightened foreigner, and
    sang the praises of England. When other topics ran dry, he returned to
    this inexhaustible source, and always set the stream running again as
    copiously as ever. Obenreizer would have given an arm, an eye, or a leg
    to have been born an Englishman. Out of England there was no such
    institution as a home, no such thing as a fireside, no such object as a
    beautiful woman. His dear Miss Marguerite would excuse him, if he
    accounted for _her_ attractions on the theory that English blood must
    have mixed at some former time with their obscure and unknown ancestry.
    Survey this English nation, and behold a tall, clean, plump, and solid
    people! Look at their cities! What magnificence in their public
    buildings! What admirable order and propriety in their streets! Admire
    their laws, combining the eternal principle of justice with the other
    eternal principle of pounds, shillings, and pence; and applying the
    product to all civil injuries, from an injury to a man's honour, to an
    injury to a man's nose! You have ruined my daughter--pounds, shillings,
    and pence! You have knocked me down with a blow in my face--pounds,
    shillings, and pence! Where was the material prosperity of such a
    country as _that_ to stop? Obenreizer, projecting himself into the
    future, failed to see the end of it. Obenreizer's enthusiasm entreated
    permission to exhale itself, English fashion, in a toast. Here is our
    modest little dinner over, here is our frugal dessert on the table, and
    here is the admirer of England conforming to national customs, and making
    a speech! A toast to your white cliffs of Albion, Mr. Vendale! to your
    national virtues, your charming climate, and your fascinating women! to
    your Hearths, to your Homes, to your Habeas Corpus, and to all your other
    institutions! In one word--to England! Heep-heep-heep! hooray!

    Obenreizer's voice had barely chanted the last note of the English cheer,
    the speechless friend had barely drained the last drop out of his glass,
    when the festive proceedings were interrupted by a modest tap at the
    door. A woman-servant came in, and approached her master with a little
    note in her hand. Obenreizer opened the note with a frown; and, after
    reading it with an expression of genuine annoyance, passed it on to his
    compatriot and friend. Vendale's spirits rose as he watched these
    proceedings. Had he found an ally in the annoying little note? Was the
    long-looked-for chance actually coming at last?

    "I am afraid there is no help for it?" said Obenreizer, addressing his
    fellow-countryman. "I am afraid we must go."

    The speechless friend handed back the letter, shrugged his heavy
    shoulders, and poured himself out a last glass of wine. His fat fingers
    lingered fondly round the neck of the bottle. They pressed it with a
    little amatory squeeze at parting. His globular eyes looked dimly, as
    through an intervening haze, at Vendale and Marguerite. His heavy
    articulation laboured, and brought forth a whole sentence at a birth. "I
    think," he said, "I should have liked a little more wine." His breath
    failed him after that effort; he gasped, and walked to the door.

    Obenreizer addressed himself to Vendale with an appearance of the deepest
    distress.

    "I am so shocked, so confused, so distressed," he began. "A misfortune
    has happened to one of my compatriots. He is alone, he is ignorant of
    your language--I and my good friend, here, have no choice but to go and
    help him. What can I say in my excuse? How can I describe my affliction
    at depriving myself in this way of the honour of your company?"

    He paused, evidently expecting to see Vendale take up his hat and retire.
    Discerning his opportunity at last, Vendale determined to do nothing of
    the kind. He met Obenreizer dexterously, with Obenreizer's own weapons.

    "Pray don't distress yourself," he said. "I'll wait here with the
    greatest pleasure till you come back."

    Marguerite blushed deeply, and turned away to her embroidery-frame in a
    corner by the window. The film showed itself in Obenreizer's eyes, and
    the smile came something sourly to Obenreizer's lips. To have told
    Vendale that there was no reasonable prospect of his coming back in good
    time, would have been to risk offending a man whose favourable opinion
    was of solid commercial importance to him. Accepting his defeat with the
    best possible grace, he declared himself to be equally honoured and
    delighted by Vendale's proposal. "So frank, so friendly, so English!" He
    bustled about, apparently looking for something he wanted, disappeared
    for a moment through the folding-doors communicating with the next room,
    came back with his hat and coat, and protesting that he would return at
    the earliest possible moment, embraced Vendale's elbows, and vanished
    from the scene in company with the speechless friend.

    Vendale turned to the corner by the window, in which Marguerite had
    placed herself with her work. There, as if she had dropped from the
    ceiling, or come up through the floor--there, in the old attitude, with
    her face to the stove--sat an Obstacle that had not been foreseen, in the
    person of Madame Dor! She half got up, half looked over her broad
    shoulder at Vendale, and plumped down again. Was she at work? Yes.
    Cleaning Obenreizer's gloves, as before? No; darning Obenreizer's
    stockings.

    The case was now desperate. Two serious considerations presented
    themselves to Vendale. Was it possible to put Madame Dor into the stove?
    The stove wouldn't hold her. Was it possible to treat Madame Dor, not as
    a living woman, but as an article of furniture? Could the mind be
    brought to contemplate this respectable matron purely in the light of a
    chest of drawers, with a black gauze held-dress accidentally left on the
    top of it? Yes, the mind could be brought to do that. With a
    comparatively trifling effort, Vendale's mind did it. As he took his
    place on the old-fashioned window-seat, close by Marguerite and her
    embroidery, a slight movement appeared in the chest of drawers, but no
    remark issued from it. Let it be remembered that solid furniture is not
    easy to move, and that it has this advantage in consequence--there is no
    fear of upsetting it.

    Unusually silent and unusually constrained--with the bright colour fast
    fading from her face, with a feverish energy possessing her fingers--the
    pretty Marguerite bent over her embroidery, and worked as if her life
    depended on it. Hardly less agitated himself, Vendale felt the
    importance of leading her very gently to the avowal which he was eager to
    make--to the other sweeter avowal still, which he was longing to hear. A
    woman's love is never to be taken by storm; it yields insensibly to a
    system of gradual approach. It ventures by the roundabout way, and
    listens to the low voice. Vendale led her memory back to their past
    meetings when they were travelling together in Switzerland. They revived
    the impressions, they recalled the events, of the happy bygone time.
    Little by little, Marguerite's constraint vanished. She smiled, she was
    interested, she looked at Vendale, she grew idle with her needle, she
    made false stitches in her work. Their voices sank lower and lower;
    their faces bent nearer and nearer to each other as they spoke. And
    Madame Dor? Madame Dor behaved like an angel. She never looked round;
    she never said a word; she went on with Obenreizer's stockings. Pulling
    each stocking up tight over her left arm, and holding that arm aloft from
    time to time, to catch the light on her work, there were moments--delicate
    and indescribable moments--when Madame Dor appeared to be sitting upside
    down, and contemplating one of her own respectable legs, elevated in the
    air. As the minutes wore on, these elevations followed each other at
    longer and longer intervals. Now and again, the black gauze head-dress
    nodded, dropped forward, recovered itself. A little heap of stockings
    slid softly from Madame Dor's lap, and remained unnoticed on the floor. A
    prodigious ball of worsted followed the stockings, and rolled lazily
    under the table. The black gauze head-dress nodded, dropped forward,
    recovered itself, nodded again, dropped forward again, and recovered
    itself no more. A composite sound, partly as of the purring of an
    immense cat, partly as of the planing of a soft board, rose over the
    hushed voices of the lovers, and hummed at regular intervals through the
    room. Nature and Madame Dor had combined together in Vendale's
    interests. The best of women was asleep.

    Marguerite rose to stop--not the snoring--let us say, the audible repose
    of Madame Dor. Vendale laid his hand on her arm, and pressed her back
    gently into her chair.

    "Don't disturb her," he whispered. "I have been waiting to tell you a
    secret. Let me tell it now."

    Marguerite resumed her seat. She tried to resume her needle. It was
    useless; her eyes failed her; her hand failed her; she could find
    nothing.

    "We have been talking," said Vendale, "of the happy time when we first
    met, and first travelled together. I have a confession to make. I have
    been concealing something. When we spoke of my first visit to
    Switzerland, I told you of all the impressions I had brought back with me
    to England--except one. Can you guess what that one is?"

    Her eyes looked stedfastly at the embroidery, and her face turned a
    little away from him. Signs of disturbance began to appear in her neat
    velvet bodice, round the region of the brooch. She made no reply.
    Vendale pressed the question without mercy.

    "Can you guess what the one Swiss impression is which I have not told you
    yet?"

    Her face turned back towards him, and a faint smile trembled on her lips.

    "An impression of the mountains, perhaps?" she said slyly.

    "No; a much more precious impression than that."

    "Of the lakes?"

    "No. The lakes have not grown dearer and dearer in remembrance to me
    every day. The lakes are not associated with my happiness in the
    present, and my hopes in the future. Marguerite! all that makes life
    worth having hangs, for me, on a word from your lips. Marguerite! I
    love you!"

    Her head drooped as he took her hand. He drew her to him, and looked at
    her. The tears escaped from her downcast eyes, and fell slowly over her
    cheeks.

    "O, Mr. Vendale," she said sadly, "it would have been kinder to have kept
    your secret. Have you forgotten the distance between us? It can never,
    never be!"

    "There can be but one distance between us, Marguerite--a distance of your
    making. My love, my darling, there is no higher rank in goodness, there
    is no higher rank in beauty, than yours! Come! whisper the one little
    word which tells me you will be my wife!"

    She sighed bitterly. "Think of your family," she murmured; "and think of
    mine!"

    Vendale drew her a little nearer to him.

    "If you dwell on such an obstacle as that," he said, "I shall think but
    one thought--I shall think I have offended you."

    She started, and looked up. "O, no!" she exclaimed innocently. The
    instant the words passed her lips, she saw the construction that might be
    placed on them. Her confession had escaped her in spite of herself. A
    lovely flush of colour overspread her face. She made a momentary effort
    to disengage herself from her lover's embrace. She looked up at him
    entreatingly. She tried to speak. The words died on her lips in the
    kiss that Vendale pressed on them. "Let me go, Mr. Vendale!" she said
    faintly.

    "Call me George."

    She laid her head on his bosom. All her heart went out to him at last.
    "George!" she whispered.

    "Say you love me!"

    Her arms twined themselves gently round his neck. Her lips, timidly
    touching his cheek, murmured the delicious words--"I love you!"

    In the moment of silence that followed, the sound of the opening and
    closing of the house-door came clear to them through the wintry stillness
    of the street.

    Marguerite started to her feet.

    "Let me go!" she said. "He has come back!"

    She hurried from the room, and touched Madame Dor's shoulder in passing.
    Madame Dor woke up with a loud snort, looked first over one shoulder and
    then over the other, peered down into her lap, and discovered neither
    stockings, worsted, nor darning-needle in it. At the same moment,
    footsteps became audible ascending the stairs. "Mon Dieu!" said Madame
    Dor, addressing herself to the stove, and trembling violently. Vendale
    picked up the stockings and the ball, and huddled them all back in a heap
    over her shoulder. "Mon Dieu!" said Madame Dor, for the second time, as
    the avalanche of worsted poured into her capacious lap.

    The door opened, and Obenreizer came in. His first glance round the room
    showed him that Marguerite was absent.

    "What!" he exclaimed, "my niece is away? My niece is not here to
    entertain you in my absence? This is unpardonable. I shall bring her
    back instantly."

    Vendale stopped him.

    "I beg you will not disturb Miss Obenreizer," he said. "You have
    returned, I see, without your friend?"

    "My friend remains, and consoles our afflicted compatriot. A
    heart-rending scene, Mr. Vendale! The household gods at the
    pawnbroker's--the family immersed in tears. We all embraced in silence.
    My admirable friend alone possessed his composure. He sent out, on the
    spot, for a bottle of wine."

    "Can I say a word to you in private, Mr. Obenreizer?"

    "Assuredly." He turned to Madame Dor. "My good creature, you are
    sinking for want of repose. Mr. Vendale will excuse you."

    Madame Dor rose, and set forth sideways on her journey from the stove to
    bed. She dropped a stocking. Vendale picked it up for her, and opened
    one of the folding-doors. She advanced a step, and dropped three more
    stockings. Vendale stooping to recover them as before, Obenreizer
    interfered with profuse apologies, and with a warning look at Madame Dor.
    Madame Dor acknowledged the look by dropping the whole of the stockings
    in a heap, and then shuffling away panic-stricken from the scene of
    disaster. Obenreizer swept up the complete collection fiercely in both
    hands. "Go!" he cried, giving his prodigious handful a preparatory swing
    in the air. Madame Dor said, "Mon Dieu," and vanished into the next
    room, pursued by a shower of stockings.

    "What must you think, Mr. Vendale," said Obenreizer, closing the door,
    "of this deplorable intrusion of domestic details? For myself, I blush
    at it. We are beginning the New Year as badly as possible; everything
    has gone wrong to-night. Be seated, pray--and say, what may I offer you?
    Shall we pay our best respects to another of your noble English
    institutions? It is my study to be, what you call, jolly. I propose a
    grog."

    Vendale declined the grog with all needful respect for that noble
    institution.

    "I wish to speak to you on a subject in which I am deeply interested," he
    said. "You must have observed, Mr. Obenreizer, that I have, from the
    first, felt no ordinary admiration for your charming niece?"

    "You are very good. In my niece's name, I thank you."

    "Perhaps you may have noticed, latterly, that my admiration for Miss
    Obenreizer has grown into a tenderer and deeper feeling--?"

    "Shall we say friendship, Mr. Vendale?"

    "Say love--and we shall be nearer to the truth."

    Obenreizer started out of his chair. The faintly discernible beat, which
    was his nearest approach to a change of colour, showed itself suddenly in
    his cheeks.

    "You are Miss Obenreizer's guardian," pursued Vendale. "I ask you to
    confer upon me the greatest of all favours--I ask you to give me her hand
    in marriage."

    Obenreizer dropped back into his chair. "Mr. Vendale," he said, "you
    petrify me."

    "I will wait," rejoined Vendale, "until you have recovered yourself."

    "One word before I recover myself. You have said nothing about this to
    my niece?"

    "I have opened my whole heart to your niece. And I have reason to hope--"

    "What!" interposed Obenreizer. "You have made a proposal to my niece,
    without first asking for my authority to pay your addresses to her?" He
    struck his hand on the table, and lost his hold over himself for the
    first time in Vendale's experience of him. "Sir!" he exclaimed,
    indignantly, "what sort of conduct is this? As a man of honour, speaking
    to a man of honour, how can you justify it?"

    "I can only justify it as one of our English institutions," said Vendale
    quietly. "You admire our English institutions. I can't honestly tell
    you, Mr. Obenreizer, that I regret what I have done. I can only assure
    you that I have not acted in the matter with any intentional disrespect
    towards yourself. This said, may I ask you to tell me plainly what
    objection you see to favouring my suit?"

    "I see this immense objection," answered Obenreizer, "that my niece and
    you are not on a social equality together. My niece is the daughter of a
    poor peasant; and you are the son of a gentleman. You do us an honour,"
    he added, lowering himself again gradually to his customary polite level,
    "which deserves, and has, our most grateful acknowledgments. But the
    inequality is too glaring; the sacrifice is too great. You English are a
    proud people, Mr. Vendale. I have observed enough of this country to see
    that such a marriage as you propose would be a scandal here. Not a hand
    would be held out to your peasant-wife; and all your best friends would
    desert you."

    "One moment," said Vendale, interposing on his side. "I may claim,
    without any great arrogance, to know more of my country people in
    general, and of my own friends in particular, than you do. In the
    estimation of everybody whose opinion is worth having, my wife herself
    would be the one sufficient justification of my marriage. If I did not
    feel certain--observe, I say certain--that I am offering her a position
    which she can accept without so much as the shadow of a humiliation--I
    would never (cost me what it might) have asked her to be my wife. Is
    there any other obstacle that you see? Have you any personal objection
    to me?"

    Obenreizer spread out both his hands in courteous protest. "Personal
    objection!" he exclaimed. "Dear sir, the bare question is painful to
    me."

    "We are both men of business," pursued Vendale, "and you naturally expect
    me to satisfy you that I have the means of supporting a wife. I can
    explain my pecuniary position in two words. I inherit from my parents a
    fortune of twenty thousand pounds. In half of that sum I have only a
    life-interest, to which, if I die, leaving a widow, my widow succeeds. If
    I die, leaving children, the money itself is divided among them, as they
    come of age. The other half of my fortune is at my own disposal, and is
    invested in the wine-business. I see my way to greatly improving that
    business. As it stands at present, I cannot state my return from my
    capital embarked at more than twelve hundred a year. Add the yearly
    value of my life-interest--and the total reaches a present annual income
    of fifteen hundred pounds. I have the fairest prospect of soon making it
    more. In the meantime, do you object to me on pecuniary grounds?"

    Driven back to his last entrenchment, Obenreizer rose, and took a turn
    backwards and forwards in the room. For the moment, he was plainly at a
    loss what to say or do next.

    "Before I answer that last question," he said, after a little close
    consideration with himself, "I beg leave to revert for a moment to Miss
    Marguerite. You said something just now which seemed to imply that she
    returns the sentiment with which you are pleased to regard her?"

    "I have the inestimable happiness," said Vendale, "of knowing that she
    loves me."

    Obenreizer stood silent for a moment, with the film over his eyes, and
    the faintly perceptible beat becoming visible again in his cheeks.

    "If you will excuse me for a few minutes," he said, with ceremonious
    politeness, "I should like to have the opportunity of speaking to my
    niece." With those words, he bowed, and quitted the room.

    Left by himself, Vendale's thoughts (as a necessary result of the
    interview, thus far) turned instinctively to the consideration of
    Obenreizer's motives. He had put obstacles in the way of the courtship;
    he was now putting obstacles in the way of the marriage--a marriage
    offering advantages which even his ingenuity could not dispute. On the
    face of it, his conduct was incomprehensible. What did it mean?

    Seeking, under the surface, for the answer to that question--and
    remembering that Obenreizer was a man of about his own age; also, that
    Marguerite was, strictly speaking, his half-niece only--Vendale asked
    himself, with a lover's ready jealousy, whether he had a rival to fear,
    as well as a guardian to conciliate. The thought just crossed his mind,
    and no more. The sense of Marguerite's kiss still lingering on his cheek
    reminded him gently that even the jealousy of a moment was now a treason
    to _her_.

    On reflection, it seemed most likely that a personal motive of another
    kind might suggest the true explanation of Obenreizer's conduct.
    Marguerite's grace and beauty were precious ornaments in that little
    household. They gave it a special social attraction and a special social
    importance. They armed Obenreizer with a certain influence in reserve,
    which he could always depend upon to make his house attractive, and which
    he might always bring more or less to bear on the forwarding of his own
    private ends. Was he the sort of man to resign such advantages as were
    here implied, without obtaining the fullest possible compensation for the
    loss? A connection by marriage with Vendale offered him solid
    advantages, beyond all doubt. But there were hundreds of men in London
    with far greater power and far wider influence than Vendale possessed.
    Was it possible that this man's ambition secretly looked higher than the
    highest prospects that could be offered to him by the alliance now
    proposed for his niece? As the question passed through Vendale's mind,
    the man himself reappeared--to answer it, or not to answer it, as the
    event might prove.

    A marked change was visible in Obenreizer when he resumed his place. His
    manner was less assured, and there were plain traces about his mouth of
    recent agitation which had not been successfully composed. Had he said
    something, referring either to Vendale or to himself, which had raised
    Marguerite's spirit, and which had placed him, for the first time, face
    to face with a resolute assertion of his niece's will? It might or might
    not be. This only was certain--he looked like a man who had met with a
    repulse.

    "I have spoken to my niece," he began. "I find, Mr. Vendale, that even
    your influence has not entirely blinded her to the social objections to
    your proposal."

    "May I ask," returned Vendale, "if that is the only result of your
    interview with Miss Obenreizer?"

    A momentary flash leapt out through the Obenreizer film.

    "You are master of the situation," he answered, in a tone of sardonic
    submission. "If you insist on my admitting it, I do admit it in those
    words. My niece's will and mine used to be one, Mr. Vendale. You have
    come between us, and her will is now yours. In my country, we know when
    we are beaten, and we submit with our best grace. I submit, with my best
    grace, on certain conditions. Let us revert to the statement of your
    pecuniary position. I have an objection to you, my dear sir--a most
    amazing, a most audacious objection, from a man in my position to a man
    in yours."

    "What is it?"

    "You have honoured me by making a proposal for my niece's hand. For the
    present (with best thanks and respects), I beg to decline it."

    "Why?"

    "Because you are not rich enough."

    The objection, as the speaker had foreseen, took Vendale completely by
    surprise. For the moment he was speechless.

    "Your income is fifteen hundred a year," pursued Obenreizer. "In my
    miserable country I should fall on my knees before your income, and say,
    'What a princely fortune!' In wealthy England, I sit as I am, and say,
    'A modest independence, dear sir; nothing more. Enough, perhaps, for a
    wife in your own rank of life who has no social prejudices to conquer.
    Not more than half enough for a wife who is a meanly born foreigner, and
    who has all your social prejudices against her.' Sir! if my niece is
    ever to marry you, she will have what you call uphill work of it in
    taking her place at starting. Yes, yes; this is not your view, but it
    remains, immovably remains, my view for all that. For my niece's sake, I
    claim that this uphill work shall be made as smooth as possible. Whatever
    material advantages she can have to help her, ought, in common justice,
    to be hers. Now, tell me, Mr. Vendale, on your fifteen hundred a year
    can your wife have a house in a fashionable quarter, a footman to open
    her door, a butler to wait at her table, and a carriage and horses to
    drive about in? I see the answer in your face--your face says, No. Very
    good. Tell me one more thing, and I have done. Take the mass of your
    educated, accomplished, and lovely country-women, is it, or is it not,
    the fact that a lady who has a house in a fashionable quarter, a footman
    to open her door, a butler to wait at her table, and a carriage and
    horses to drive about in, is a lady who has gained four steps, in female
    estimation, at starting? Yes? or No?"

    "Come to the point," said Vendale. "You view this question as a question
    of terms. What are your terms?"

    "The lowest terms, dear sir, on which you can provide your wife with
    those four steps at starting. Double your present income--the most rigid
    economy cannot do it in England on less. You said just now that you
    expected greatly to increase the value of your business. To work--and
    increase it! I am a good devil after all! On the day when you satisfy
    me, by plain proofs, that your income has risen to three thousand a year,
    ask me for my niece's hand, and it is yours."

    "May I inquire if you have mentioned this arrangement to Miss
    Obenreizer?"

    "Certainly. She has a last little morsel of regard still left for me,
    Mr. Vendale, which is not yours yet; and she accepts my terms. In other
    words, she submits to be guided by her guardian's regard for her welfare,
    and by her guardian's superior knowledge of the world." He threw himself
    back in his chair, in firm reliance on his position, and in full
    possession of his excellent temper.

    Any open assertion of his own interests, in the situation in which
    Vendale was now placed, seemed to be (for the present at least) hopeless.
    He found himself literally left with no ground to stand on. Whether
    Obenreizer's objections were the genuine product of Obenreizer's own view
    of the case, or whether he was simply delaying the marriage in the hope
    of ultimately breaking it off altogether--in either of these events, any
    present resistance on Vendale's part would be equally useless. There was
    no help for it but to yield, making the best terms that he could on his
    own side.

    "I protest against the conditions you impose on me," he began.

    "Naturally," said Obenreizer; "I dare say I should protest, myself, in
    your place."

    "Say, however," pursued Vendale, "that I accept your terms. In that
    case, I must be permitted to make two stipulations on my part. In the
    first place, I shall expect to be allowed to see your niece."

    "Aha! to see my niece? and to make her in as great a hurry to be married
    as you are yourself? Suppose I say, No? you would see her perhaps
    without my permission?"

    "Decidedly!"

    "How delightfully frank! How exquisitely English! You shall see her,
    Mr. Vendale, on certain days, which we will appoint together. What
    next?"

    "Your objection to my income," proceeded Vendale, "has taken me
    completely by surprise. I wish to be assured against any repetition of
    that surprise. Your present views of my qualification for marriage
    require me to have an income of three thousand a year. Can I be certain,
    in the future, as your experience of England enlarges, that your estimate
    will rise no higher?"

    "In plain English," said Obenreizer, "you doubt my word?"

    "Do you purpose to take _my_ word for it when I inform you that I have
    doubled my income?" asked Vendale. "If my memory does not deceive me,
    you stipulated, a minute since, for plain proofs?"

    "Well played, Mr. Vendale! You combine the foreign quickness with the
    English solidity. Accept my best congratulations. Accept, also, my
    written guarantee."

    He rose; seated himself at a writing-desk at a side-table, wrote a few
    lines, and presented them to Vendale with a low bow. The engagement was
    perfectly explicit, and was signed and dated with scrupulous care.

    "Are you satisfied with your guarantee?"

    "I am satisfied."

    "Charmed to hear it, I am sure. We have had our little skirmish--we have
    really been wonderfully clever on both sides. For the present our
    affairs are settled. I bear no malice. You bear no malice. Come, Mr.
    Vendale, a good English shake hands."

    Vendale gave his hand, a little bewildered by Obenreizer's sudden
    transitions from one humour to another.

    "When may I expect to see Miss Obenreizer again?" he asked, as he rose to
    go.

    "Honour me with a visit to-morrow," said Obenreizer, "and we will settle
    it then. Do have a grog before you go! No? Well! well! we will reserve
    the grog till you have your three thousand a year, and are ready to be
    married. Aha! When will that be?"

    "I made an estimate, some months since, of the capacities of my
    business," said Vendale. "If that estimate is correct, I shall double my
    present income--"

    "And be married!" added Obenreizer.

    "And be married," repeated Vendale, "within a year from this time. Good-
    night."

    VENDALE MAKES MISCHIEF

    When Vendale entered his office the next morning, the dull commercial
    routine at Cripple Corner met him with a new face. Marguerite had an
    interest in it now! The whole machinery which Wilding's death had set in
    motion, to realise the value of the business--the balancing of ledgers,
    the estimating of debts, the taking of stock, and the rest of it--was now
    transformed into machinery which indicated the chances for and against a
    speedy marriage. After looking over results, as presented by his
    accountant, and checking additions and subtractions, as rendered by the
    clerks, Vendale turned his attention to the stock-taking department next,
    and sent a message to the cellars, desiring to see the report.

    The Cellarman's appearance, the moment he put his head in at the door of
    his master's private room, suggested that something very extraordinary
    must have happened that morning. There was an approach to alacrity in
    Joey Ladle's movements! There was something which actually simulated
    cheerfulness in Joey Ladle's face

    "What's the matter?" asked Vendale. "Anything wrong?"

    "I should wish to mention one thing," answered Joey. "Young Mr. Vendale,
    I have never set myself up for a prophet."

    "Who ever said you did?"

    "No prophet, as far as I've heard I tell of that profession," proceeded
    Joey, "ever lived principally underground. No prophet, whatever else he
    might take in at the pores, ever took in wine from morning to night, for
    a number of years together. When I said to young Master Wilding,
    respecting his changing the name of the firm, that one of these days he
    might find he'd changed the luck of the firm--did I put myself forward as
    a prophet? No, I didn't. Has what I said to him come true? Yes, it
    has. In the time of Pebbleson Nephew, Young Mr. Vendale, no such thing
    was ever known as a mistake made in a consignment delivered at these
    doors. There's a mistake been made now. Please to remark that it
    happened before Miss Margaret came here. For which reason it don't go
    against what I've said respecting Miss Margaret singing round the luck.
    Read that, sir," concluded Joey, pointing attention to a special passage
    in the report, with a forefinger which appeared to be in process of
    taking in through the pores nothing more remarkable than dirt. "It's
    foreign to my nature to crow over the house I serve, but I feel it a kind
    of solemn duty to ask you to read that."

    Vendale read as follows:--"Note, respecting the Swiss champagne. An
    irregularity has been discovered in the last consignment received from
    the firm of Defresnier and Co." Vendale stopped, and referred to a
    memorandum-book by his side. "That was in Mr. Wilding's time," he said.
    "The vintage was a particularly good one, and he took the whole of it.
    The Swiss champagne has done very well, hasn't it?"

    "I don't say it's done badly," answered the Cellarman. "It may have got
    sick in our customers' bins, or it may have bust in our customers' hands.
    But I don't say it's done badly with us."

    Vendale resumed the reading of the note: "We find the number of the cases
    to be quite correct by the books. But six of them, which present a
    slight difference from the rest in the brand, have been opened, and have
    been found to contain a red wine instead of champagne. The similarity in
    the brands, we suppose, caused a mistake to be made in sending the
    consignment from Neuchatel. The error has not been found to extend
    beyond six cases."

    "Is that all!" exclaimed Vendale, tossing the note away from him.

    Joey Ladle's eye followed the flying morsel of paper drearily.

    "I'm glad to see you take it easy, sir," he said. "Whatever happens, it
    will be always a comfort to you to remember that you took it easy at
    first. Sometimes one mistake leads to another. A man drops a bit of
    orange-peel on the pavement by mistake, and another man treads on it by
    mistake, and there's a job at the hospital, and a party crippled for
    life. I'm glad you take it easy, sir. In Pebbleson Nephew's time we
    shouldn't have taken it easy till we had seen the end of it. Without
    desiring to crow over the house, young Mr. Vendale, I wish you well
    through it. No offence, sir," said the Cellarman, opening the door to go
    out, and looking in again ominously before he shut it. "I'm muddled and
    molloncolly, I grant you. But I'm an old servant of Pebbleson Nephew,
    and I wish you well through them six cases of red wine."

    Left by himself, Vendale laughed, and took up his pen. "I may as well
    send a line to Defresnier and Company," he thought, "before I forget it."
    He wrote at once in these terms:

    "Dear Sirs. We are taking stock, and a trifling mistake has been
    discovered in the last consignment of champagne sent by your house to
    ours. Six of the cases contain red wine--which we hereby return to
    you. The matter can easily be set right, either by your sending us
    six cases of the champagne, if they can be produced, or, if not, by
    your crediting us with the value of six cases on the amount last paid
    (five hundred pounds) by our firm to yours. Your faithful servants,

    "WILDING AND CO."

    This letter despatched to the post, the subject dropped at once out of
    Vendale's mind. He had other and far more interesting matters to think
    of. Later in the day he paid the visit to Obenreizer which had been
    agreed on between them. Certain evenings in the week were set apart
    which he was privileged to spend with Marguerite--always, however, in the
    presence of a third person. On this stipulation Obenreizer politely but
    positively insisted. The one concession he made was to give Vendale his
    choice of who the third person should be. Confiding in past experience,
    his choice fell unhesitatingly upon the excellent woman who mended
    Obenreizer's stockings. On hearing of the responsibility entrusted to
    her, Madame Dor's intellectual nature burst suddenly into a new stage of
    development. She waited till Obenreizer's eye was off her--and then she
    looked at Vendale, and dimly winked.

    The time passed--the happy evenings with Marguerite came and went. It
    was the tenth morning since Vendale had written to the Swiss firm, when
    the answer appeared, on his desk, with the other letters of the day:

    "Dear Sirs. We beg to offer our excuses for the little mistake which
    has happened. At the same time, we regret to add that the statement
    of our error, with which you have favoured us, has led to a very
    unexpected discovery. The affair is a most serious one for you and
    for us. The particulars are as follows:

    "Having no more champagne of the vintage last sent to you, we made
    arrangements to credit your firm to the value of six cases, as
    suggested by yourself. On taking this step, certain forms observed in
    our mode of doing business necessitated a reference to our bankers'
    book, as well as to our ledger. The result is a moral certainty that
    no such remittance as you mention can have reached our house, and a
    literal certainty that no such remittance has been paid to our account
    at the bank.

    "It is needless, at this stage of the proceedings, to trouble you with
    details. The money has unquestionably been stolen in the course of
    its transit from you to us. Certain peculiarities which we observe,
    relating to the manner in which the fraud has been perpetrated, lead
    us to conclude that the thief may have calculated on being able to pay
    the missing sum to our bankers, before an inevitable discovery
    followed the annual striking of our balance. This would not have
    happened, in the usual course, for another three months. During that
    period, but for your letter, we might have remained perfectly
    unconscious of the robbery that has been committed.

    "We mention this last circumstance, as it may help to show you that we
    have to do, in this case, with no ordinary thief. Thus far we have
    not even a suspicion of who that thief is. But we believe you will
    assist us in making some advance towards discovery, by examining the
    receipt (forged, of course) which has no doubt purported to come to
    you from our house. Be pleased to look and see whether it is a
    receipt entirely in manuscript, or whether it is a numbered and
    printed form which merely requires the filling in of the amount. The
    settlement of this apparently trivial question is, we assure you, a
    matter of vital importance. Anxiously awaiting your reply, we remain,
    with high esteem and consideration,

    "DEFRESNIER & CIE."

    Vendale had the letter on his desk, and waited a moment to steady his
    mind under the shock that had fallen on it. At the time of all others
    when it was most important to him to increase the value of his business,
    that business was threatened with a loss of five hundred pounds. He
    thought of Marguerite, as he took the key from his pocket and opened the
    iron chamber in the wall in which the books and papers of the firm were
    kept.

    He was still in the chamber, searching for the forged receipt, when he
    was startled by a voice speaking close behind him.

    "A thousand pardons," said the voice; "I am afraid I disturb you."

    He turned, and found himself face to face with Marguerite's guardian.

    "I have called," pursued Obenreizer, "to know if I can be of any use.
    Business of my own takes me away for some days to Manchester and
    Liverpool. Can I combine any business of yours with it? I am entirely
    at your disposal, in the character of commercial traveller for the firm
    of Wilding and Co."

    "Excuse me for one moment," said Vendale; "I will speak to you directly."
    He turned round again, and continued his search among the papers. "You
    come at a time when friendly offers are more than usually precious to
    me," he resumed. "I have had very bad news this morning from Neuchatel."

    "Bad news," exclaimed Obenreizer. "From Defresnier and Company?"

    "Yes. A remittance we sent to them has been stolen. I am threatened
    with a loss of five hundred pounds. What's that?"

    Turning sharply, and looking into the room for the second time, Vendale
    discovered his envelope case overthrown on the floor, and Obenreizer on
    his knees picking up the contents.

    "All my awkwardness," said Obenreizer. "This dreadful news of yours
    startled me; I stepped back--" He became too deeply interested in
    collecting the scattered envelopes to finish the sentence.

    "Don't trouble yourself," said Vendale. "The clerk will pick the things
    up."

    "This dreadful news!" repeated Obenreizer, persisting in collecting the
    envelopes. "This dreadful news!"

    "If you will read the letter," said Vendale, "you will find I have
    exaggerated nothing. There it is, open on my desk."

    He resumed his search, and in a moment more discovered the forged
    receipt. It was on the numbered and printed form, described by the Swiss
    firm. Vendale made a memorandum of the number and the date. Having
    replaced the receipt and locked up the iron chamber, he had leisure to
    notice Obenreizer, reading the letter in the recess of a window at the
    far end of the room.

    "Come to the fire," said Vendale. "You look perished with the cold out
    there. I will ring for some more coals."

    Obenreizer rose, and came slowly back to the desk. "Marguerite will be
    as sorry to hear of this as I am," he said, kindly. "What do you mean to
    do?"

    "I am in the hands of Defresnier and Company," answered Vendale. "In my
    total ignorance of the circumstances, I can only do what they recommend.
    The receipt which I have just found, turns out to be the numbered and
    printed form. They seem to attach some special importance to its
    discovery. You have had experience, when you were in the Swiss house, of
    their way of doing business. Can you guess what object they have in
    view?"

    Obenreizer offered a suggestion.

    "Suppose I examine the receipt?" he said.

    "Are you ill?" asked Vendale, startled by the change in his face, which
    now showed itself plainly for the first time. "Pray go to the fire. You
    seem to be shivering--I hope you are not going to be ill?"

    "Not I!" said Obenreizer. "Perhaps I have caught cold. Your English
    climate might have spared an admirer of your English institutions. Let
    me look at the receipt."

    Vendale opened the iron chamber. Obenreizer took a chair, and drew it
    close to the fire. He held both hands over the flames. "Let me look at
    the receipt," he repeated, eagerly, as Vendale reappeared with the paper
    in his hand. At the same moment a porter entered the room with a fresh
    supply of coals. Vendale told him to make a good fire. The man obeyed
    the order with a disastrous alacrity. As he stepped forward and raised
    the scuttle, his foot caught in a fold of the rug, and he discharged his
    entire cargo of coals into the grate. The result was an instant
    smothering of the flame, and the production of a stream of yellow smoke,
    without a visible morsel of fire to account for it.

    "Imbecile!" whispered Obenreizer to himself, with a look at the man which
    the man remembered for many a long day afterwards.

    "Will you come into the clerks' room?" asked Vendale. "They have a stove
    there."

    "No, no. No matter."

    Vendale handed him the receipt. Obenreizer's interest in examining it
    appeared to have been quenched as suddenly and as effectually as the fire
    itself. He just glanced over the document, and said, "No; I don't
    understand it! I am sorry to be of no use."

    "I will write to Neuchatel by to-night's post," said Vendale, putting
    away the receipt for the second time. "We must wait, and see what comes
    of it."

    "By to-night's post," repeated Obenreizer. "Let me see. You will get
    the answer in eight or nine days' time. I shall be back before that. If
    I can be of any service, as commercial traveller, perhaps you will let me
    know between this and then. You will send me written instructions? My
    best thanks. I shall be most anxious for your answer from Neuchatel. Who
    knows? It may be a mistake, my dear friend, after all. Courage!
    courage! courage!" He had entered the room with no appearance of being
    pressed for time. He now snatched up his hat, and took his leave with
    the air of a man who had not another moment to lose.

    Left by himself, Vendale took a turn thoughtfully in the room.

    His previous impression of Obenreizer was shaken by what he had heard and
    seen at the interview which had just taken place. He was disposed, for
    the first time, to doubt whether, in this case, he had not been a little
    hasty and hard in his judgment on another man. Obenreizer's surprise and
    regret, on hearing the news from Neuchatel, bore the plainest marks of
    being honestly felt--not politely assumed for the occasion. With
    troubles of his own to encounter, suffering, to all appearance, from the
    first insidious attack of a serious illness, he had looked and spoken
    like a man who really deplored the disaster that had fallen on his
    friend. Hitherto Vendale had tried vainly to alter his first opinion of
    Marguerite's guardian, for Marguerite's sake. All the generous instincts
    in his nature now combined together and shook the evidence which had
    seemed unanswerable up to this time. "Who knows?" he thought. "I may
    have read that man's face wrongly, after all."

    The time passed--the happy evenings with Marguerite came and went. It
    was again the tenth morning since Vendale had written to the Swiss firm;
    and again the answer appeared on his desk with the other letters of the
    day:

    "Dear Sir. My senior partner, M. Defresnier, has been called away, by
    urgent business, to Milan. In his absence (and with his full
    concurrence and authority), I now write to you again on the subject of
    the missing five hundred pounds.

    "Your discovery that the forged receipt is executed upon one of our
    numbered and printed forms has caused inexpressible surprise and
    distress to my partner and to myself. At the time when your
    remittance was stolen, but three keys were in existence opening the
    strong-box in which our receipt-forms are invariably kept. My partner
    had one key; I had the other. The third was in the possession of a
    gentleman who, at that period, occupied a position of trust in our
    house. We should as soon have thought of suspecting one of ourselves
    as of suspecting this person. Suspicion now points at him,
    nevertheless. I cannot prevail on myself to inform you who the person
    is, so long as there is the shadow of a chance that he may come
    innocently out of the inquiry which must now be instituted. Forgive
    my silence; the motive of it is good.

    "The form our investigation must now take is simple enough. The
    handwriting of your receipt must be compared, by competent persons
    whom we have at our disposal, with certain specimens of handwriting in
    our possession. I cannot send you the specimens for business reasons,
    which, when you hear them, you are sure to approve. I must beg you to
    send me the receipt to Neuchatel--and, in making this request, I must
    accompany it by a word of necessary warning.

    "If the person, at whom suspicion now points, really proves to be the
    person who has committed this forger and theft, I have reason to fear
    that circumstances may have already put him on his guard. The only
    evidence against him is the evidence in your hands, and he will move
    heaven and earth to obtain and destroy it. I strongly urge you not to
    trust the receipt to the post. Send it to me, without loss of time,
    by a private hand, and choose nobody for your messenger but a person
    long established in your own employment, accustomed to travelling,
    capable of speaking French; a man of courage, a man of honesty, and,
    above all things, a man who can be trusted to let no stranger scrape
    acquaintance with him on the route. Tell no one--absolutely no
    one--but your messenger of the turn this matter has now taken. The
    safe transit of the receipt may depend on your interpreting
    _literally_ the advice which I give you at the end of this letter.

    "I have only to add that every possible saving of time is now of the
    last importance. More than one of our receipt-forms is missing--and
    it is impossible to say what new frauds may not be committed if we
    fail to lay our hands on the thief.

    Your faithful servant
    ROLLAND,
    (Signing for Defresnier and Cie.)

    Who was the suspected man? In Vendale's position, it seemed useless to
    inquire.

    Who was to be sent to Neuchatel with the receipt? Men of courage and men
    of honesty were to be had at Cripple Corner for the asking. But where
    was the man who was accustomed to foreign travelling, who could speak the
    French language, and who could be really relied on to let no stranger
    scrape acquaintance with him on his route? There was but one man at hand
    who combined all those requisites in his own person, and that man was
    Vendale himself.

    It was a sacrifice to leave his business; it was a greater sacrifice to
    leave Marguerite. But a matter of five hundred pounds was involved in
    the pending inquiry; and a literal interpretation of M. Rolland's advice
    was insisted on in terms which there was no trifling with. The more
    Vendale thought of it, the more plainly the necessity faced him, and
    said, "Go!"

    As he locked up the letter with the receipt, the association of ideas
    reminded him of Obenreizer. A guess at the identity of the suspected man
    looked more possible now. Obenreizer might know.

    The thought had barely passed through his mind, when the door opened, and
    Obenreizer entered the room.

    "They told me at Soho Square you were expected back last night," said
    Vendale, greeting him. "Have you done well in the country? Are you

    better?"

    A thousand thanks. Obenreizer had done admirably well; Obenreizer was
    infinitely better. And now, what news? Any letter from Neuchatel?

    "A very strange letter," answered Vendale. "The matter has taken a new
    turn, and the letter insists--without excepting anybody--on my keeping
    our next proceedings a profound secret."

    "Without excepting anybody?" repeated Obenreizer. As he said the words,
    he walked away again, thoughtfully, to the window at the other end of the
    room, looked out for a moment, and suddenly came back to Vendale. "Surely
    they must have forgotten?" he resumed, "or they would have excepted me?"

    "It is Monsieur Rolland who writes," said Vendale. "And, as you say, he
    must certainly have forgotten. That view of the matter quite escaped me.
    I was just wishing I had you to consult, when you came into the room. And
    here I am tried by a formal prohibition, which cannot possibly have been
    intended to include you. How very annoying!"

    Obenreizer's filmy eyes fixed on Vendale attentively.

    "Perhaps it is more than annoying!" he said. "I came this morning not
    only to hear the news, but to offer myself as messenger, negotiator--what
    you will. Would you believe it? I have letters which oblige me to go to
    Switzerland immediately. Messages, documents, anything--I could have
    taken them all to Defresnier and Rolland for you."

    "You are the very man I wanted," returned Vendale. "I had decided, most
    unwillingly, on going to Neuchatel myself, not five minutes since,
    because I could find no one here capable of taking my place. Let me look
    at the letter again."

    He opened the strong room to get at the letter. Obenreizer, after first
    glancing round him to make sure that they were alone, followed a step or
    two and waited, measuring Vendale with his eye. Vendale was the tallest
    man, and unmistakably the strongest man also of the two. Obenreizer
    turned away, and warmed himself at the fire.

    Meanwhile, Vendale read the last paragraph in the letter for the third
    time. There was the plain warning--there was the closing sentence, which
    insisted on a literal interpretation of it. The hand, which was leading
    Vendale in the dark, led him on that condition only. A large sum was at
    stake: a terrible suspicion remained to be verified. If he acted on his
    own responsibility, and if anything happened to defeat the object in
    view, who would be blamed? As a man of business, Vendale had but one
    course to follow. He locked the letter up again.

    "It is most annoying," he said to Obenreizer--"it is a piece of
    forgetfulness on Monsieur Rolland's part which puts me to serious
    inconvenience, and places me in an absurdly false position towards you.
    What am I to do? I am acting in a very serious matter, and acting
    entirely in the dark. I have no choice but to be guided, not by the
    spirit, but by the letter of my instructions. You understand me, I am
    sure? You know, if I had not been fettered in this way, how gladly I
    should have accepted your services?"

    "Say no more!" returned Obenreizer. "In your place I should have done
    the same. My good friend, I take no offence. I thank you for your
    compliment. We shall be travelling companions, at any rate," added
    Obenreizer. "You go, as I go, at once?"

    "At once. I must speak to Marguerite first, of course!"

    "Surely! surely! Speak to her this evening. Come, and pick me up on the
    way to the station. We go together by the mail train to-night?"

    "By the mail train to-night."

    * * * * *

    It was later than Vendale had anticipated when he drove up to the house
    in Soho Square. Business difficulties, occasioned by his sudden
    departure, had presented themselves by dozens. A cruelly large share of
    the time which he had hoped to devote to Marguerite had been claimed by
    duties at his office which it was impossible to neglect.

    To his surprise and delight, she was alone in the drawing-room when he
    entered it.

    "We have only a few minutes, George," she said. "But Madame Dor has been
    good to me--and we can have those few minutes alone." She threw her arms
    round his neck, and whispered eagerly, "Have you done anything to offend
    Mr. Obenreizer?"

    "I!" exclaimed Vendale, in amazement.

    "Hush!" she said, "I want to whisper it. You know the little photograph
    I have got of you. This afternoon it happened to be on the
    chimney-piece. He took it up and looked at it--and I saw his face in the
    glass. I know you have offended him! He is merciless; he is revengeful;
    he is as secret as the grave. Don't go with him, George--don't go with
    him!"

    "My own love," returned Vendale, "you are letting your fancy frighten
    you! Obenreizer and I were never better friends than we are at this
    moment."

    Before a word more could be said, the sudden movement of some ponderous
    body shook the floor of the next room. The shock was followed by the
    appearance of Madame Dor. "Obenreizer" exclaimed this excellent person
    in a whisper, and plumped down instantly in her regular place by the
    stove.

    Obenreizer came in with a courier's big strapped over his shoulder. "Are
    you ready?" he asked, addressing Vendale. "Can I take anything for you?
    You have no travelling-bag. I have got one. Here is the compartment for
    papers, open at your service."

    "Thank you," said Vendale. "I have only one paper of importance with me;
    and that paper I am bound to take charge of myself. Here it is," he
    added, touching the breast-pocket of his coat, "and here it must remain
    till we get to Neuchatel."

    As he said those words, Marguerite's hand caught his, and pressed it
    significantly. She was looking towards Obenreizer. Before Vendale could
    look, in his turn, Obenreizer had wheeled round, and was taking leave of
    Madame Dor.

    "Adieu, my charming niece!" he said, turning to Marguerite next. "En
    route, my friend, for Neuchatel!" He tapped Vendale lightly over the
    breast-pocket of his coat and led the way to the door.

    Vendale's last look was for Marguerite. Marguerite's last words to him
    were, "Don't go!"
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    Chapter 3
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