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    Chapter 23

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    Chapter 23
    Previous Chapter
    Jim Learns Things

    Lady Joan Carston! Jim could not believe his ears.

    "Surely you are mistaken, Miss Hamon?" he said. "This lady is Miss----" He stopped.

    "This lady is Lady Joan Carston, and I am delighted to see that you are such good friends. I'm sure my brother's fiancée will be only too happy to help me in my little scheme to make you and Ralph better friends."

    "Who is your brother's fiancée?" asked Joan, electrified by this cool claim.

    "It is generally understood that you are," smiled Lydia sweetly.

    "It may be understood in lunatic asylums, where many people are even under the impression that they are related to Napoleon Bonaparte," said Joan sharply, "but it is certainly not understood either by me or by my father. And we should be the first to know."

    Lydia shrugged her shoulders. She was trying to find an explanation of the girl's presence in this house and from her viewpoint only one explanation was possible. And then it began to dawn on her that the house was empty, save for these two people, and her attitude, her manner and her voice became instantly stiffened by the shock.

    "I suppose your father is here, Lady Joan?" she asked primly.

    "My father is not at Creith," replied the girl, who saw what she was driving at. "Nor is my aunt, nor any of my cousins. In fact, I have no other chaperone at Wold except the kitchen stove and a sense of my immense superiority."

    The eyebrows of the red-haired girl went up to points.

    "I don't think Ralph would like this----" she began.

    "There are so many things that Ralph doesn't like"--it was Jim who stepped into the breach and saved Joan Carston from the humiliation of apologising for the things she undoubtedly would have said--"but I shouldn't bother to catalogue them. I don't think, Miss Hamon, that we need trouble Lady Joan with the old family feud."

    He turned to the girl and held out his hand.

    "I am extremely grateful to you," he said. "That is a very banal thing to say, but it expresses completely just how I feel."

    He expected to find her embarrassed, but she was coolness itself, and he marvelled at her self-possession.

    "I think you had better go in search of your housemaids," she said with a twinkle in her eyes, "and arrange for them to come to you to-morrow afternoon at two o'clock."

    She emphasised the words, and a weight rolled from his heart, for he knew that Joan Carston would be there to breakfast.

    Lydia watched the girl as she walked down the drive.

    "Then it is true that Lady Joan is engaged to you?" she asked, and Jim's jaw dropped. "She told me so, but I thought she was being--well, annoying."

    "Engaged to me?" he gasped. "Did--did she say so?"

    Lydia smiled contemptuously.

    "Of course, it wasn't true, though it might have been, judging by her indiscretion. She is a friend of yours?"

    "A great friend," said Jim vaguely, "but only in the sense that Lady Bountiful is a friend of the bedridden villager."

    "You, of course, being the bedridden villager?"

    She forced a smile, but he saw in her face something of the emotion she was endeavouring to suppress, as the object of her visit came back to her.

    "Seriously, Mr. Morlake," she drawled, "don't you think it is time that your stupid quarrel with Ralph came to an end?"

    "Do I understand that you are an ambassador bearing olive branches?" he asked, a little amused. "Because, if you are, I suppose, like all ambassadors, you have something to offer me besides an intangible friendship, and that of a very doubtful quality."

    She walked across to the door and closed it, and then, coming nearer, said in a low voice:

    "Ralph said that you wanted something that he had--he no longer has it!"

    Jim frowned down at her.

    "Has he destroyed it?"

    "He no longer has it," repeated the girl. "It is in other hands."

    He stared at her incredulously.

    "Do you seriously mean that?"

    She nodded.

    "Then how does it come about that your brother is at large?" he asked, and she flamed up at that.

    "I don't know what you mean, Mr. Morlake. 'At large?' Do you mean that my brother should be in prison?"

    "He should be in prison, anyway," said Jim calmly. "But if the document--and I take it you are referring to a certain document--has fallen into other hands, then most certainly, unless the finder is a thief and a blackmailer, your brother should be waiting his trial."

    It was very evident to him that she had been speaking in the dark, and that she had no idea of the nature of the missing paper.

    "What does he want me to do?" he went on.

    "He particularly wants your friendship," she said. "He asked me to tell you that there is no difference between you which cannot be smoothed over."

    "In other words, if the gentleman who has the statement in his hands brings it to light, your brother wishes me to testify in his favour?"

    She hesitated.

    "I don't know whether that is what he wishes--perhaps it is. He did not tell me any more than I have told you, that the something which you wanted had passed out of his hands, and he asked for your friendship."

    Jim walked to the window and looked out, trying to solve the riddle she had set him; and all the time there ran through the web of his thoughts the more amazing discovery that Jane Smith was Joan Carston, the daughter of the Earl of Creith, and, from his standpoint, an unapproachable person.

    That was the first of the many surprises that awaited James Morlake.

    "I don't see what I can do," he said, turning back to Lydia. "The feud, as you prefer to call it, between your brother and myself is dependent upon his making reparation. You may tell him that."

    "Then it is to be war?" she said, a little dramatically.

    He smiled, and was serious again instantly.

    "Yes, I'm afraid it is to be war."

    She bit her lip, thinking quickly. Her instructions had been more or less vague, and Ralph Hamon had left to her the actual method by which she would carry his suggestions into effect. There was an alternative attitude for her to take, and she decided that the moment had come to initiate the new rôle.

    "Do you know what this means to me, his only sister?" she asked with a little catch in her voice. "Do you realise what it means to lie awake night after night, thinking, worrying, terrified of what the morning will bring forth?"

    "I'm sorry that I don't. Honestly, Miss Hamon, I am not sympathetic. If it is true that you feel these misgivings and emotions--well, that is unfortunate."

    He walked up and stood squarely before her.

    "You may take this message to your brother, Lydia Hamon--that I am in this to the very end. I have risked consequences more fearful than any you can picture, and I go on until my mission is completed."

    "A burglar with a mission!" she sneered.

    "Rather amusing, isn't it?" he said good-humouredly.

    If he had any doubts as to her sincerity, those doubts were now dispelled. The woman was an actress and a bad one; she could not sustain the pose of distress at the continuance of the "feud," or hide the chagrin of her failure.

    "You've had your chance, Morlake," she said, the venom in her coming out. "I don't know what this trouble is between you and Ralph, but he's too clever for you, and sooner or later you'll admit it. I'm sick of the whole business! If Ralph's a crook, what are you? Aren't there enough pickings in the world for both of you?"

    "Spoken like a little lady," said Jim Morlake, as he showed her to the door.
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