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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    Hamon Tells His News

    "Wasn't that thunder?" asked Lord Creith, and raised his hand to hide a yawn.

    Joan sympathised with his boredom, for the dinner had seemed interminable.

    "Sounds like it," said Hamon, rousing himself with a start from an unpleasant reverie.

    The three people had scarcely spoken through the meal. Once Lord Creith had made a pointed reference to the dullness of the country and the fun that a man of Ralph Hamon's quality could find in town, but the financier had ignored his opportunity.

    "It is thunder," said Creith with satisfaction. "October is rather late for storms. I remember when I was a boy...."

    He made a feeble effort to galvanise the little party into an interest which they did not feel, and ended his reminiscence almost before it had begun. And then, unconsciously, he turned the conversation to a channel which made two pairs of eyes turn instantly to his.

    "I've been asking Stephens about this fellow Morlake. Queer fish--very queer. Nobody knows the least thing about him. He came from nowhere three years ago, bought up Wold House and settled himself as a country gentleman. He doesn't hunt or dance, refuses every invitation that has been sent to him, and apparently has no friends. A queer devil."

    "I should say he was!"

    Joan heard Mr. Hamon's loud chuckle of laughter, and looked across at him in surprise.

    "Do you know him?"

    Mr. Hamon selected a cigarette from the box on the table before he answered.

    "Yes, I know him. He is an American crook."

    "What!"

    Joan tried to suppress the indignation in her voice, but failed, and apparently the man did not notice the implied defence of the master of Wold House.

    "Yes," said Mr. Hamon, enjoying the sensation he had created, "he's a crook. What his real name is, I don't know. He is one of the big men of the underworld, a cracksman and a blackmailer!"

    "But surely the police know all about him?" said the amazed Creith.

    "They may. But a man like Morlake, who has made a lot of money, would be able to keep the police 'straight.'"

    Joan had listened speechless.

    "How do you know?" she found her voice to demand. Hamon shrugged his shoulders.

    "I had an encounter with him a few years ago. He thought that he had found something about me which gave him a pull. He tried to blackmail me, and he had a narrow escape. He won't be so fortunate next time, and the next time"--he opened and closed his hand suggestively--"is near at hand! I've got him like this!"

    Joan sat stunned by the news. Why this revelation should so affect her she could not explain, even to herself. She hated Ralph Hamon at that moment--hated him with an intensity out of all proportion to his offence, real or imaginary. It required the exercise of every scrap of self-control to prevent her anger bursting forth, but that she exercised and listened, biting her lip.

    "His real name I don't know," Mr. Hamon went on. "The police have had him under observation for years, but they have never been able to collect evidence to convict him."

    "But I never knew of this," interrupted Lord Creith, "and I am a magistrate. The county police invariably speak well of him."

    "When I said 'police' I meant headquarters," corrected Hamon. "Anyway, they are not the kind of people who would talk."

    "I don't believe it!" Joan's pent-up indignation came forth in a rush. "It is an absurd story! Really, Mr. Hamon, I am beginning to suspect you of reading sensational stories!"

    Hamon smiled.

    "I admit that it sounds unreal," he said, "but there is the truth. I saw the man this morning."

    "Mr. Morlake?" asked Joan in surprise, and he nodded.

    "He was pretty uncomfortable when he saw me, I can tell you, and to know that he had been recognised. He begged me not to tell anybody----"

    "That isn't true. Of course, it isn't true," said Joan scornfully, and Hamon went a dull red. "Mr. Morlake is the last man in the world who would beg anything from you or anybody else. I don't believe he's a thief."

    "A friend of yours?" asked Hamon loudly.

    "I've never met him," said Joan shortly. "I have seen him ... at a distance, and that is all."

    There was an awkward silence, but Ralph Hamon was blessed with a thick skin, and although he had been given the lie direct, he was not particularly disconcerted, not even when, attempting to resume the discussion of Morlake's past, Joan brusquely turned the talk into another direction. When Lord Creith had gone to his room, she walked out of the house to the lawn, to watch the lightning flickering in the southern sky, and to think free of Hamon's stifling presence, but he followed her.

    "It looks as though it will be a stormy night," he said, by way of making conversation, and she agreed, and was turning back to the house when he stopped her. "Where did you find that woman who's living in the gardener's cottage?" he asked.

    She raised her brows in astonishment. It was the last question in the world she expected from him.

    "You mean Mrs. Cornford? Why--is she a criminal too?" she asked.

    He smiled indulgently at the sarcasm.

    "Not exactly; only I am interested. I have an idea that I met her years ago. I suppose she knows me, doesn't she?" he asked carelessly.

    "She has never mentioned your name, possibly because I have never spoken about you," she said, a little surprised and her curiosity piqued.

    "I seem to remember that she was a little wrong in the head. She was in a lunatic asylum for twelve months."

    The girl was surprised into laughing.

    "Really, Mr. Hamon," she said dryly, "I begin to suspect you of trying to frighten me. Such of my friends as aren't criminals must be lunatics!"

    "I didn't know he was a friend of yours," said Hamon quickly.

    He went toward her in the darkness.

    "I have already told you that Mr. Morlake is not a friend. He's a neighbour, and neighbours, by our convention, are friends until we discover they are otherwise. Shall we go in?"

    "One moment."

    He caught her by the arm, and gently she freed herself.

    "That isn't necessary, Mr. Hamon. What do you want to tell me?"

    "Has your father spoken to you?" he asked.

    "My father frequently speaks to me," said the girl. "Do you mean about you?"

    He nodded.

    "About your wanting to marry me?"

    "That's it," he said a little huskily.

    "Yes, he did speak about it to me," said Joan steadily, "and I told him that, whilst I was very sensible of the compliment you paid me, I have no desire to marry you."

    Hamon cleared his voice.

    "Did he also mention the fact that I am virtually the owner of Creith?"

    "He also mentioned that," said the girl bravely.

    "I suppose Creith is very dear to you? Your ancestors have had it for hundreds of years?"

    "Very dear, indeed," said Joan, stifling her anger, "but not so dear that I am prepared to sacrifice my life's happiness to retain the title of mistress of Creith. There are worse things than being homeless, Mr. Hamon."

    She made a move to go, but again he restrained her.

    "Wait," he said. His voice was low and vibrant. "Joan, I am twenty years older than you, but you're the sort of woman I have dreamt about since I was a boy. There isn't a thing I wouldn't do for you, there isn't a service I wouldn't render you. I want you!"

    Before she realised what he was doing he had caught her in his arms. She struggled to escape, but he held her in a grip that could not be broken.

    "Let me go--how dare you!"

    "Listen!" He almost hissed the word. "I love you, Joan! I love you, although you hurt me with your damned contempt. I love your face, your eyes, your dear, slim body...."

    She twisted her head aside to avoid his greedy lips. And then, from the hallway, she heard, with a gasp of relief, the voice of her father calling:

    "Where are you, Joan?"

    Hamon's arms dropped, and she staggered back, breathless and shaken, horror and disgust in her soul.

    "I'm sorry," he muttered.

    She could not speak; she could only point to the door, and he went in. She herself did not follow for some minutes, and Lord Creith peered at her short-sightedly.

    "Anything wrong?" he asked, as he saw her pale face.

    "Nothing, Daddy."

    He looked round. Hamon had disappeared through the open door of the drawing-room.

    "A primitive fellow. I'll kick him out if you say the word, my dear."

    Again she shook her head.

    "It's not necessary. Yes, he is a little primitive. If he doesn't go to-morrow, will you take me to London?"

    "I'm going to London anyway," said his lordship with satisfaction. "Do you wish me to talk to Hamon?" he asked anxiously.

    "It isn't necessary," said Joan, and Lord Creith went back to his study relieved, for he hated any kind of bother.
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