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    Chapter 25

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    Chapter 25
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    Lady Sybil Crotin was not a popular woman. She was conscious that she had married beneath her--more conscious lately that there had been no necessity to make the marriage, and she had grown a little soured. She could never mix with the homely wives of local millionaires; she professed a horror of the vulgarities with which she was surrounded, hated and loathed her lord and master's flamboyant home, which she described as something between a feudal castle and a picture-palace; and openly despised her husband's friends and their feminine relatives.

    She made a point of spending at least six months of the year away from Yorkshire, and came back with protest at her lot written visibly upon her face.

    A thin, angular woman, with pale green eyes and straight, tight lips, she had never been beautiful, but five or six years in an uncongenial environment had hardened and wasted her. That her husband adored her and never spoke of her save in a tone of awe was common property and a favourite subject for local humour. That she regarded him with contempt and irritation was as well known.

    In view of Lady Sybil Crotin's unpopularity, it was perhaps a great mistake that she should make herself responsible for the raising of funds for the local women's hospital. But she was under the impression that there was a magic in her name and station which would overcome what she described as shyness, but which was in point of fact the frank dislike of her neighbours. A subscription list that she had opened had a weak and unpromising appearance. She had with the greatest difficulty secured help for the bazaar, and knew, even though it had been opened by a duchess, that it was a failure, even from the very first day.

    Had she herself made a generous contribution to the bazaar fund, there might have been a hope; but she was mean, and the big, bleak hall she had chosen as the venue because of its cheapness was unsuitable for the entertainment she sponsored.

    On the afternoon of the second day, Lady Sybil was pulling on her gloves, eyeing her husband with an unfriendly gaze as he sat at lunch.

    "It was no more than I expected," she said bitterly. "I was a fool ever to start the thing--this is the last time I ever attempt to help local charities."

    Mr. Crotin rubbed his bald head in perplexity.

    "They'll come," he said hopefully, referring to the patrons whose absence was the cause of Lady Sybil's annoyance. "They'll come when they hear what a fine show it is. And if they don't, Syb, I'll come along and spend a couple of hundred pounds myself."

    "You'll do no such thing," she snapped; "and please get out of that ridiculous habit of reducing my name to one syllable. If the people of the town can't help to support their own hospital, then they don't deserve to have one, and I'm certainly not going to allow you to waste our money on that sort of nonsense."

    "Have your own way, love," said Mr. Crotin meekly.

    "Besides," she said, "it would be all over the town that it was your money which was coming in, and these horrid people would be laughing at me."

    She finished buttoning her gloves and was looking at him curiously.

    "What is the matter with you, John?" she asked suddenly, and he almost jumped.

    "With me, love?" he said with a brave attempt at a smile. "Why, there's nothing the matter with me. What should there be?"

    "You've been very strange lately," she said, "ever since you came back from London."

    "I think I ate something that disagreed with my digestion," he said uneasily. "I didn't know that I'd been different."

    "Are things well at your--factory?" she asked.

    "At mills? Oh, aye, they're all right," he said. "I wish everything was as right as them."

    "As they," she corrected.

    "As they," said the humble Mr. Crotin.

    "There's something wrong," she said, and shook her head, and Mr. Crotin found himself going white. "I'll have a talk with you when I've got this wretched bazaar business out of my head," she added, and with a little nod she left him.

    He walked to the window of the long dining-hall and watched her car disappearing down the drive, and then with a sigh went back to his entremets.

    When Colonel Dan Boundary surmised that this unfortunate victim of his blackmail would be worried, he was not far from the mark. Crotin had spent many sleepless nights since he came back from London, nights full of terror, that left him a wreck to meet the fears of the days which followed. He lived all the time in the shadow of vengeful justice and exaggerated his danger to an incredible degree; perhaps it was in anticipating what his wife would say that he experienced the most poignant misery.

    He had taken to secret drinking too; little nips at odd intervals, both in his room and in his private office. Life had lost its savour, and now a new agony was added to the knowledge that his wife had detected the change. He went to his office and spent a gloomy afternoon wandering about the mills, and came back an hour before his usual time. He had not the heart to make a call at the bazaar, and speculated unhappily upon the proceeds of the afternoon session.

    It was therefore with something like pleasure that he heard his wife on the telephone speaking more cheerfully than he had heard her for months.

    "Is that you, John?" she was almost civil. "I'm bringing somebody home to dinner. Will you tell Phillips?"

    "That's right, love," said Mr. Crotin eagerly.

    He would be glad to see some new face, and that it was a new face he could guess by the interest in Lady Sybil's tone.

    "It is a Mr. de Silva. Have you ever met him?"

    "No, love, I've not. Is he a foreigner?"

    "He's a Portuguese gentleman," said his wife's voice; "and he has been most helpful and most generous."

    "Bring him along," said Crotin heartily. "I'll be glad to meet him. How has the sale been, love?"

    "Very good indeed," she replied; "splendid, in fact--thanks to Mr. de Silva."

    John Crotin was dressing when his wife returned, and it was not until half an hour later that he met Pinto Silva for the first time. Pinto was a man who dressed well and looked well. John Crotin thought he was the most impressive personality he had met, when he stalked into the drawing-room and took the proffered hand of the mill-owner.

    "This is Mr. de Silva," said his wife, who had been waiting for her guest. "As I told you, John, Mr. de Silva has been awfully kind. I don't know what you're going to do with all those perfectly useless things you've bought," she added to the polished Portuguese, and Pinto shrugged.

    "Give them away," he said; "there must, for example, be a lot of poor women in the country who would be glad of the linen I have bought."

    At this point dinner was announced and he took Lady Sybil in. The meal was approaching its end when she revived the question of the disposal of his purchases.

    "Are you greatly interested in charities, Mr. de Silva?"

    Pinto inclined his head.

    "Both here and in Portugal I take a very deep interest in the welfare of the poor," he said solemnly.

    "That's fine," said Mr. Crotin, nodding approvingly. "I know what these poor people have to suffer. I've been amongst them----"

    His wife silenced him with a look.

    "It frequently happens that cases are brought to my notice," Pinto went on, "and I have one or two cases of women in my mind where these purchases of mine would be most welcome. For example," he said, "I heard the other day, quite by accident, of a poor woman in Wales whose husband deserted her."

    Mr. Crotin had his fork half-way to his mouth, but put it down again.

    "I don't know much about the case personally," said Pinto carelessly, "but the circumstances were brought to my notice by a friend. I think these people suffer more than we imagine; and I'll let you into a secret, Lady Sybil," he said, speaking impressively. He did not look at Crotin, but went on: "A few of my friends are thinking of buying a mill."

    "A woollen mill?" she said, raising her eyebrows.

    "A woollen mill!" he repeated.

    "But why?" she asked.

    "We wish to make garments and blankets for the benefit of the poor. We feel that, if we could run this sort of thing on a co-operative basis, we could manufacture the stuff cheaply, always providing, of course, that we could purchase a mill at a reasonable figure."

    For the first time he looked at Crotin, and the man's face was ghastly white.

    "What a queer idea!" said Lady Sybil. "A good mill will cost you a lot of money."

    "We don't think so," said Pinto. "In fact, we expect to purchase a very excellent mill at a reasonable sum. That was my object in coming to Yorkshire, I may tell you, and it was only by accident that I saw the advertisement of your bazaar and called in."

    "A fortunate accident for me," said Lady Sybil.

    Crotin's eyes were on his plate, and he did not raise them.

    "I think it is a great mistake to be too generous with the poor," said Lady Sybil, shaking her head. "These women are very seldom grateful."

    "I realise that," said Pinto gravely. "But I am not seeking their gratitude. We find that many of these women are in terrible circumstances owing to no fault of their own. For example, this woman in Wales, whose husband is supposed to have deserted her--now, there is a bad case."

    Lady Sybil was interested.

    "We found on investigation," said Pinto, speaking slowly and impressively, "that the man who deserted her has since married and occupies a very important position in a town in the north of England."

    Mr. Crotin dropped his knife with a crash and with a mumbled apology picked it up.

    "But how terrible!" said Lady Sybil. "What a shocking thing! The man should be exposed. He is not fit to associate with human beings. Can't you do something to punish him?"

    "That could be done," said Silva, "it could be done, but it would bring a great deal of unhappiness to his present wife, who is ignorant of her husband's treachery."

    "Better she should know now than later," said the militant Lady Sybil. "I think you do very wrong to keep it from her."

    Mr. Crotin rose unsteadily and his wife looked at him with suspicion.

    "Aren't you feeling well, John?" she asked with asperity.

    It was not the first time she had seen her husband's hand shaking and had diagnosed the cause more justly than she was doing at present, for John Crotin had scarcely taken a drink that evening.

    "I'm going into the library, if you'll excuse me, love," he said. "Maybe, Mr.--Mr. de Silva will join me. I'd--I'd like to talk over the question of that mill with him."

    Pinto nodded.

    "Then run along now," said Lady Sybil, "and when you've finished talking, come back to me, Mr. de Silva. I want to know something about your charitable organisations in Portugal."

    Pinto followed the other at a distance, saw him enter a big room and switch on the lights and followed, closing the door behind him.

    Mr. Crotin's library was the most comfortable room in the house. It was lighted by French windows which opened on to a small terrace. Long red velvet curtains were drawn, and a little fire crackled on the hearth.

    When the door closed Crotin turned upon his guest.

    "Now, damn you," he said harshly, "what's thy proposition? Make it a reasonable sum and I'll pay thee."
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