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    Chapter 25

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    Chapter 25
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    Joan Called Jane

    Not since that night of storm had Joan seen the lodger at Mrs. Cornford's cottage. She had purposely avoided her visitor, and with that extraordinary determination which was part of her character, had ruled out her vision and knowledge as a bad dream, something hideous born of the storm.

    Once in the middle of the night she woke up to the stark reality of fact. In the morning Jim had seen traces of the despair that had entered her heart, and had wondered, and, wondering, had been troubled.

    On the morning that was to see her final visit to Wold House, her maid came into her room as she was dressing.

    "Mrs. Cornford wishes to see you," she said, and Joan paled.

    "You're a great coward," she said aloud.

    "Me, my lady?" asked the astonished girl.

    "No, me, Alice. I'll be down in a few minutes."

    There are certain disadvantages about putting things out of your mind. The reactions are apt to be a little drastic, and Joan was inwardly quaking when she came into the presence of her guest.

    "I heard that you were back, and I came to ask whether Lord Creith would grant me a lease of the cottage, Lady Joan."

    "Is that all?" said Joan, immeasurably relieved. "Of course he will, Mrs. Cornford. Are you settling in Creith?"

    Mrs. Cornford hesitated.

    "I think so," she said. "Mr. Farringdon is doing so well that he wants me to stay. He has made me a very handsome offer, and I can afford to give up my music teaching."

    "Mr. Farringdon?" Joan's voice trembled a little. "He is your lodger, isn't he? The young man who--who drinks. Where did he come from?"

    "I don't know. He was on the West Coast of Africa for some time. He got into some scrape in England, and his people sent him abroad when he was very young--he was expelled from his school for an escapade."

    "Did he tell you what it was?"

    She waited, holding her breath.

    "No--he just said that he did something pretty bad. He took to drink on the Coast, and drifted back to England. His father died and left him an annuity. Would you like to meet him?"

    "No!"

    The refusal was so abrupt and so emphatic that Joan saw she had hurt the woman.

    "No, my dear--I don't want to meet him--my nerves are a little on edge with recent happenings in this neighbourhood."

    "You mean Mr. Morlake. How very terrible that was! His servants have left him, they tell me. I almost volunteered to look after him. Mr. Farringdon saw him on the night of his arrival."

    "I know he did," said the girl, and corrected herself hastily. "I'm told he did."

    Mrs. Cornford left her a little thoughtful. She must go back to London and stay there, even though she left the American burglar to subsist on raw eggs!

    * * * * * * *

    There were two strange men in the village. Joan saw them long before the gossips of Creith told her that they were young business men spending a holiday in the country. She saw them as they rode into the village on the previous afternoon, two healthy-looking men who seemed to find time hanging on their hands.

    When she came to Wold House to cook the breakfast (it was half-past nine when she appeared) she mentioned her discovery.

    Jim Morlake nodded.

    "Yes--Sergeant Finnigan and Detective Spooner from headquarters. I saw them arrive the night after I returned. They came by the last train and were driven over from the station in a car belonging to the local police."

    He saw the concern in her face and laughed.

    "You didn't imagine that the police would drop me as an unprofitable subject, did you? Welling sent them to make a study of my habits. They will be here for at least another week--I thought of asking them up to dinner one night. I guess the food they get at the Red Lion doesn't wholly satisfy them."

    She made no reply, turning instantly to another matter.

    "I shall not come again. I think you can gather your domestic staff. I saw Cleaver in the village yesterday and he was almost tearful at the thought of losing a good job."

    "He's lost it," said Jim grimly. "He's fixed--permanently! He is the one man I'll never have."

    "When he asks to return, you must take him back," she said. "Don't be feeble! Of course he must come back."

    "Must he?--Well, if you say----"

    "It isn't what I say. Don't shield your weaknesses behind me. You'll take him back because you can't quarrel with servants any more than you can quarrel with poor Mr. Colter."

    She heard him chuckle, and frowned.

    "Forgive my unseemly mirth, Lady Joan," he said penitently, "but I haven't been bullied for--oh, a long time! I'll take Cleaver or anybody else. Why did you tell Lydia----"

    He stopped, and she paused, fry-pan in hand, to shoot a questioning glance at him.

    "Tell her--what?"

    "Oh, nothing ... I suppose you said it to annoy her. She thinks so anyhow."

    He found himself confused; he could feel the colour going to his face, and the more he tried to control this ridiculous display the more incoherent of speech and gauche of manner he became.

    "You mean that I told her I was engaged to you?" she said calmly. "Yes, I did. I wanted to shock her, and yours was the first name that occurred to me--you don't mind?"

    "Mind...? Well, I should say not...!"

    "I hoped you wouldn't. When I remembered, after I had left you, that I had confided my awful secret to Lydia Hamon, I had ten million fits."

    Skilfully she lifted the eggs from the pan and laid them on the dish.

    "I was afraid that I had hopelessly compromised you--you're married, of course?"

    "I am not married," he said violently, "and have never been married."

    "Most nice people are," she said with such indifference that his heart sank; "and I suppose you are nice ... yes, I'm sure you are. Don't put your elbow on the egg--thank you!"

    He had no mind for eggs. He hated eggs: the sight of a yolk made him shudder.

    "I am sorry you are Lady Joan. I liked Jane.... I like Joan too, immensely. There was a girl in Springfield, Connecticut, that I knew----"

    "Is it necessary to tell me about your early love affairs?" she asked. "I am too young to be interested."

    "This was not a love affair," he protested hotly. "Her name was Joan, and she called me Jim. Her father was an Alderman."

    "My name is Joan, and if you wish to call me Joan don't let anything stand in your way," she said, seating herself at the kitchen table. "I may even call you Jim, but father has a pet Persian cat he calls Jim, and if I called you that I'd expect you to mew! I don't like Lexington--it is too much like the name of a railway station. And I don't like Morlake. I had better call you nothing.... About this engagement of ours. I wonder if you would mind if I did not break it off for a week or so? Mr. Hamon has views about me and my future."

    "But suppose he carries this ridiculous story to your father?" he asked, aghast.

    "'Ridiculous story' would have come better from me," she said coldly, "but as you got in first, it is due to my father to say that he would be amused. I was worried at first for fear the story got into the newspapers."

    "Why has Hamon such a pull in this part of the country?" he asked.

    She told him very frankly just how Mr. Hamon's local interests had developed, and he whistled.

    "So you see, our title is rather a hollow mockery. The real Lord of Creith is Hamon, and I am his handmaiden. He wants to marry me, just as all bad men in stories want to marry the daughter of the ruined earl. To make the story complete, I should be madly in love with the poor but honest farmer who is the real heir to the estate. But all the farmers round here are rich, and daddy says that there isn't one he'd trust with a waggon load of wurzels."

    He could not keep his eyes from her as he listened, fascinated. It was not her beauty that held him, nor her breathtaking self-possession, nor the humour behind irony. A little of each perhaps, but something else. He remembered the morning--was it yesterday?--that she had come with the unmistakable evidence of tears in her eyes. This hard, practical side of her, this flippancy of comment, was not the real Joan Carston. She puzzled him a lot, and frightened him too.

    "Don't stare, James--that is better than Jim, but rather on the footman side--it is very rude to stare. I wanted to ask you something too ... what was it? I know! Last night I borrowed a pair of night glasses from Peters. From my window I can see Wold House. At night there is a yellow blob of light which I couldn't identify. With the glasses I saw that it was the library window. And I saw your shadow passing and repassing across the white blind. Why do you have white shades, James? You need not answer that. You were still walking up and down when I went to bed at one o'clock. I watched you for an hour ... why are you laughing?"

    "Finnigan and Spooner watched for longer," he said between paroxysms. "They made a special report on my restlessness. I guess that."

    "How do you know--that they were watching, I mean?"

    "After it was dark I laid down 'trip wires,' only I used black thread," he said. "Every thread was broken this morning. So was the cotton I pegged across the gate, which I left unlocked. On the path under the window I laid down sheets of brown paper covered with bird lime--I found them on the road this morning."

    Her eyes danced with joy.

    "The boy who cleans the boots at the Red Lion is a friend of mine. I went down early this morning and found him scraping the sticky stuff off Finnigan's boots, and Spooner's pants were horrible to see--he must have sat down in it! They will watch me, of course--they would be fools if they didn't."

    When the meal was over and they were washing the dishes together, she asked:

    "What were you thinking about last night that you couldn't sleep?"

    "My sins," he answered solemnly, and for some reason or other her attitude was a little frigid toward him for the remainder of the morning.

    And to whatever error he had committed in the morning, he added what proved to be a crowning indiscretion. He came into the kitchen and found her at the table, bare-armed, kneading some pastry.

    "That was a bad burn," he said.

    He had never before seen the heart-shaped scar on the back of her hand.

    To his surprise, she flushed red.

    "It only shows sometimes," she said shortly.

    She left soon after without saying good-bye.

    In the afternoon came a humble Cleaver, with a rambling and unconvincing story of the causes that led to his resignation. Jim Morlake cut him short.

    "You may come back," he said, "and you may reëngage any servants who wish to return. But there is a new routine in this household. Everybody must be in bed by ten, and under no circumstances may you or anybody else interrupt me when I am working in my room."

    "If Mr. Hamon hadn't, so to speak, lured me away----" began Cleaver.

    "I have known Mr. Hamon in many rôles," interrupted Jim, "but I confess that Hamon the siren is a new one on me."

    The study was situated at that end of the building nearest Creith House. It was a long, rather narrow room, with two entrances, one leading to the hall, the other opening into a small lobby. Here was a narrow staircase leading directly into his bedroom, which was above the study. The bedroom, in a sense, ran at right angles to the room below, for whilst this ran lengthwise along the front of the house, the bedroom extended from the front to the back.

    Whilst Cleaver was collecting his scattered staff, Jim went up the staircase to the bedroom, locked the door, and, taking up a corner of the carpet, opened a small trapdoor in the floor and took out a black tin box, which he carried to the table. From this he extracted his little leather hold-all of tools, a gun and the inevitable square of silk, and these he took down to the study, putting them into his drawer. Though all the detectives in the world were watching him, though the threat of life imprisonment hung over him like a cloud, The Black must again go about his furtive work. For the voice of the dead was whispering again, urgently, insistently, and Jim Morlake did not hesitate to obey.
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