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    Chapter 2

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    Chapter 2
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    The Lady of Creith

    Stephens, the butler at Creith House, read of the robbery in the morning newspaper, and, being of a communicative nature, he carried the news to his master with his morning coffee. He might have created a greater sensation had he told the guest of the house, but he disliked Mr. Ralph Hamon for many reasons, and added to his dislike was a certain uneasiness of mind. A servant may find pleasure in his prejudices only so long as they are directed toward the uninfluential. So Mr. Ralph Hamon had appeared on his first few visits to the Earl of Creith. His attitude of deference toward the head of the house, his humility in the presence of the young lady, his eagerness to please, emphasised his inferiority. But his desire to stand well with the folk of Creith House did not extend to the servants. The tips he gave were paltry or were pointedly withheld, but for this Stephens and his staff were prepared, for Mr. Hamon's chauffeur had advertised his meanness in advance.

    It was the change in the financier's attitude toward the family that worried Stephens and caused his plump, smooth face to wrinkle in uncomfortable thought.

    In the early days he had addressed the Earl as "my lord"--and only servants and tenants and tradesmen "my lord nobility." And Lady Joan had been "your ladyship." Now it was "my dear Creith" and "my dear young lady," more often than not in a tone of good-natured contempt.

    Stephens stood at the long window of the banqueting hall, staring across the broad expanse of shaven lawn to the river that traced the northern boundary of the Creith acres. It was a glorious morning in early autumn. The trees held to their deep green, but here and there the russet and gold of autumnal foliage showed on the wooded slopes of No Man's Hill. Sunlight sparkled on the sluggish Avon, the last wraith of mist was curling through the pines that crested the hill, and the tremendous silence of the countryside was broken only by the flurry of wings as a hen pheasant flew clumsily from covert to covert.

    "Morning, Stephens."

    Stephens turned guiltily as he heard the voice of the man about whom he was at that moment thinking so disrespectfully.

    Ralph Hamon had come noiselessly into the panelled hall. He was a fair man of middle height, stockily built, inclined to stoutness. Stephens put his age at forty-five, being inclined, for personal reasons, to discount the visitor's slight baldness. Mr. Hamon's large face was sallow and usually expressionless. His high, bald forehead, his dark, deep-set eyes and the uncompromising line of his hard mouth suggested learning. Stephens was reminded of a hateful schoolmaster he had known in his youth. The baldness was emphasised by the floss-like wisp of hair that grew thinly on the crown, and was especially noticeable when he stooped to pick up a pin from the polished floor.

    "That is lucky," he said, as he pushed the pin into the lapel of his well-fitting morning coat. "There's no better way of starting the day than by getting something for nothing, Stephens."

    "No, sir," said Stephens. He had a desire to point out that the pin was somebody's property, but he refrained. "There has been another Black robbery, sir," he said.

    Hamon snatched the paper from his hand, frowning.

    "A Black robbery--where?"

    He read and his frown deepened.

    "The Burlington this time," he said, speaking to himself. "I wonder----?" He glared at Stephens, and the stout man wilted. "I wonder," said Mr. Hamon again, and then, abruptly: "Lord Creith is not down?"

    "No, sir."

    "And Lady Joan?"

    "Her ladyship is in the park. She went riding an hour ago."

    "Humph!"

    Mr. Hamon's thick nose wrinkled as he threw down the newspaper. Overnight he had asked Joan Carston to ride with him, and she had made the excuse that her favourite hack had gone lame. Stephens was not a thought reader, but he remembered hastily certain instructions he had received.

    "Her ladyship didn't think she would be able to ride, but her horse had got over his lameness this morning."

    "Humph!" said Mr. Hamon again.

    He took a quill toothpick from his pocket and nibbled at it.

    "Lady Joan told me that she had put somebody in one of the cottages on the estate--at least, she didn't tell me, but I heard her mention the fact to Lord Creith. Who is it?"

    "I don't know, sir," said Stephens truthfully. "I believe it is a lady and her daughter ... her ladyship met her in London and gave her the cottage for a holiday."

    One corner of Hamon's mouth lifted.

    "Being a philanthropist, eh?" he sneered.

    Stephens could only wonder at the cool assurance of a man who, a year before, had almost grovelled to the girl about whom he could now speak with such insolent familiarity.

    Hamon walked slowly through the stone-flagged entrance hall into the open. There was no sign of Joan, and he guessed that if he asked Stephens which way Joan had gone, the man would either plead ignorance or lie. Hamon had no illusions as to his popularity.

    If the girl was invisible to him, she saw him plainly enough from No Man's Hill, a black against the green of the lawn. She sat astride the old hunter she rode, looking thoughtfully toward the big, rambling house, her young face troubled, the clear grey of her eyes clouded with doubt. A slim, gracious figure, almost boyish in its outlines, she watched the black speck as it moved back to the house, and for a second a faint smile trembled at the corners of the red lips.

    "Up, Toby!" She jerked the rein, disturbing the grazing horse, and set his head to the top of the hill. No Man's Hill had been disputed territory for centuries, and its right to be included within the boundaries of the adjoining estates had impoverished at least three generations of two families. The Creiths had fought their claim in the courts since 1735. The Talmers had indulged in litigation for fifty years, and in the end had died embittered and ruined. The owners of Wold House had gone the same way. Would the new owner of the Wold continue the bad work, Joan wondered? Somehow she thought he was too sensible. He had been two years in occupation and had not issued a writ, though his title deeds undoubtedly gave him that disastrous right.

    Presently she stopped and, dismounting and letting the horse graze at will, she climbed the last sheer slope and came to the top. Mechanically she looked at the watch on her wrist. It was exactly eight o'clock. And then her eyes sought the bridle path that skirted the foot of the hill.

    She need not have examined her watch. The man she was overlooking had ridden out of the copse at exactly this moment, day after day, month after month. A tall man who sat his horse easily and smoked a pipe as he rode.

    She took the glasses from the case she carried and focussed them. The scrutiny was inexcusable; Joan admitted the fault without hesitation. It was he; the lean, aesthetic face, the grey patch at the temples, the open-throated rough shirt. She could have drawn him, and had.

    "Joan Carston, you are an unmaidenly and shameless woman," she said sternly. "Is this man anything to you? No! Are you enveloping him in a golden cloud of romance? Yes! Isn't it vulgar curiosity and the desire of youth for mystery that brings you here every morning to spy upon this middle-aged and harmless gentleman? Yes! And aren't you ashamed? No!"

    The unconscious object of her interrogations was parallel with her now. In one hand he carried a thin, pliable riding whip with which he smoothed the horse's mane absently. Looking neither to left nor right, he passed on, and she watched him with a puzzled frown until he was out of sight.

    Mr. James Lexington Morlake was as great a source of puzzlement to the people of the country as to himself. For two years he had been master of Wold House, and nothing was known of him except that he was apparently a rich man. He most certainly had no friends. The Vicar had called upon him soon after his arrival. He had been canvassed on behalf of local charities, and had responded handsomely, but he had declined every social invitation which would bring him into closer touch with his neighbours. He neither visited nor received. Judicious enquiries were set afoot; cook talked to cook, and parlourmaid to parlourmaid, and in the end he stood disappointingly revealed as a man whose life was exemplary, if a little erratic, for nobody could be certain whether he was at home at Wold or in London. Even to his servants he did not disclose his plan for the day or the week. This eccentricity was common property.

    Joan Carston mounted her horse and rode down the hill toward the path the man had followed. When she came to the track she looked to her left in time to see the battered sombrero he wore disappearing in the dip that leads to the river.

    "I'm a rash and indelicate female, Toby," she said, addressing the twitching ears of her horse. "I am without reserve or proper pride, but oh! Toby, I'd give two paper pounds sterling--which is all I have in the world--to talk with him and be disillusioned!"

    She sent her audience cantering along the road, turning off through the dilapidated gate which led her back to her father's estate. Where the main road skirted Creith Park was a lime-washed barn-like cottage, and to this she rode. A woman standing in the garden waved her hand as the girl approached. She was of middle age, slim and pretty, and she carried herself with a dignity which almost disguised the poverty of her attire.

    "Good morning, Lady Joan. We reached here last night and found everything ready for us. It was lovely of you to take such trouble."

    "What is work?" said Joan swinging herself to the ground. "Especially when somebody else does it? How is the interesting invalid, Mrs. Cornford?"

    Mrs. Cornford smiled.

    "I don't know. He doesn't arrive until to-night. You don't mind my having a boarder?"

    "No," Joan shook her head. "I wonder you don't stay here permanently. Father said you might. Who is your boarder?"

    Mrs. Cornford hesitated.

    "He is a young man I am interested in. I ought to tell you that he is, or was, a dipsomaniac."

    "Good heavens!" said the startled girl.

    "I have tried to help him, and I think I have. He is a gentleman--it is rather tragic to see these cases, but at the Mission, where I help when I can spare the time, we see many. You are sure you won't mind?"

    "Not a bit," laughed Joan, and the woman looked at her admiringly.

    "You look pretty in riding things," nodded Mrs. Cornford approvingly.

    "I look pretty in anything," said Joan calmly. "There is no sense in blinking facts: I am pretty! I can't help it any more than you can. I'm going to breakfast with you!

    "Yes, they are expecting me at Creith," said Joan, spreading marmalade thickly on her bread. "At least, our visitor expects me. Father expects nothing but a miracle that will bring him a million without any effort on his part. The miracle has partly materialised."

    Mrs. Cornford's eyes spoke her surprise.

    "No, we're not rich," said Joan, answering the unspoken question; "we are of the impoverished nobility. If I were a man I should go to America and marry somebody very wealthy and live a cat and dog life until I was well and truly divorced. As I am a girl, I must marry a home-bred millionaire. Which I shall not do."

    "But surely...." began Mrs. Cornford.

    "The house, the estate, our London house, are, or were until a week ago, mortgaged. We are the poorest people in the county."

    Joan's cool confession took the other's breath away.

    "I'm sorry," she said gently. "It is rather terrible for you."

    "It isn't a bit," said Joan. "Besides, everybody here is at poverty's door. Everybody except the mysterious Mr. Morlake, who is popularly credited with being a millionaire. But that is only because he doesn't discuss his mortgages. Everybody else does. We sit round one another's tables and talk foreclosures and interests and the price of corn and cattle disease, but mostly we talk about the loss the country will sustain when the improvident nobility are replaced by the thrifty democracy."

    Mrs. Cornford was silent, her grave eyes searching the girl's face. Joan had known her a year. It was an advertisement which Mrs. Cornford had inserted in a London newspaper asking for needlework that had brought Joan to the dingy little suburban street where the woman earned sufficient to keep herself and her daughter by her quick and clever fingers.

    "It is not easy to be poor," she said quietly, and Joan looked up.

    "You've been rich," she said, nodding her head sagely. "I knew that. One of these days I'm going to ask you to tell me the grisly story--no, I won't! Yes, it's horrible to be poor, but more horrible to be rich--on terms. Do you know Mr. Morlake?"

    The elder woman smiled.

    "He is a local celebrity, isn't he? I should hardly know him, but he seems to exercise the imagination of the people hereabouts. The girl from the village whom you so kindly sent here to tidy the cottage told me about him. Is he a friend of yours?"

    "He is a friend of nobody's," said Joan. "In fact, he is so unfriendly that he must be rich. I used to think that he was going to be my prince charming," she sighed dolefully.

    "I wonder if you are really sad?" smiled the woman. "I wonder."

    Joan's face was inscrutable.

    "You wouldn't imagine that I had a grisly past too, would you?" she asked. "Remember that I am quite old--nearly twenty-three."

    "I shouldn't imagine so," said Mrs. Cornford, amusement in her fine eyes.

    "Or a terrible secret?"

    "No, I shouldn't think that either." Mrs. Cornford shook her head.

    Joan sighed again.

    "I'll go back to my burden," she said.

    The "burden" was walking in the long chestnut avenue when she overtook him.

    "I'm glad you've come, Lady Joan," he said with ill-assumed heartiness. "I'm starving!"

    Joan Carston wished she had waited an hour or two.
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