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    Chapter 30

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    Chapter 30
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    Joan Tells the Truth

    Jim Morlake returned home in the early hours of the morning. At half-past three, Spooner saw the white window shade go up and Jim appeared, silhouetted against the bright light of the room. In another second he opened the French windows and stepped out, crossing the lawn to the gate. The detective drew back to the shadows, but Jim's voice hailed him.

    "Is that you, Finnigan, or is it Spooner?"

    "Spooner," said the officer a little sheepishly, as he came forward.

    "Come inside and have a large glass of ice water," said Jim, opening the gate. "Pretty cold waiting, wasn't it?"

    "How did you know we were here?"

    Jim laughed.

    "Don't be silly," he said. "Of course I knew you were here. Say when."

    The detective drank the potion that was offered him and smacked his lips.

    "I think it is silly, too," he said, "wasting a good man's time----"

    "Two good men," corrected Jim.

    "Don't you ever get any sleep?" asked the detective, selecting a cigar from the box Jim handed him.

    "Very rarely," replied his host gravely. "It freshens me up, walking up and down this room."

    "How do you do it? I only notice you pass the window one way."

    "I walk round the table as a rule. It is quite a good stretch," said the other carelessly. "What I principally wanted to speak to you about, Spooner, was to ask you whether you had heard anybody shouting, or whether insomnia is getting on my nerves?"

    Mr. Spooner shook his head.

    "I've heard nobody shout. It must be your imagination. From what direction did it come?"

    "From the meadows on the other side of the river," said Jim. "But if you didn't hear it, it is not worth while investigating."

    "Is there a bridge?" asked the detective, glad of any diversion. "What sort of a noise was it?"

    "It sounded like a cry for help to me," said Jim. "If you think it is worth while, I'll get a lamp and we'll go and look."

    He lit a storm lantern and they crossed the lawn to the little footbridge. He led the way over the bridge.

    "It was from this field that the cry seemed to come," he said, and then the detective saw a figure lying on the ground and ran toward it.

    "What is it?" asked Jim.

    "Looks to me like a drunk. Here, wake up!"

    He dragged the inanimate figure to its knees and shook it vigorously by the shoulder.

    "Wake up, you! It is the young man who lives at Mrs. Cornford's cottage," said Spooner suddenly.

    "I thought I recognised him," said Jim. "I wonder how the dickens he got here. Perhaps you'll see him home?"

    After the detectives with their half-conscious burden had gone their staggering way to the village, Jim returned to the house. Not only the work of the night had been heavy--and Marborne's burglar-proof safe had been one of the hardest jobs he had ever tackled--but the responsibility of this half-crazy dipsomaniac had added a new tax on his strength. He had gone back for the car he had left near Shaftesbury Avenue and had deposited the drunkard in a corner just in time to save him from arrest. Mr. Ferdie Farringdon had slept in the car what time Jim went about his unlawful occasions. He had slept all the way down and in the end Jim had had to half-carry and half-walk him from the place where he had left the machine to Wold House. Here he had settled him comfortably in the meadow of Creith Hall before it occurred to him that he might utilise the detectives who were watching him, to save the sleeping man from the serious consequences of his folly.

    He went up to his bedroom, counted the heap of notes that he took from an inside pocket, put them in an envelope and addressed them, before he placed the implements of his craft in the secret hole beneath the carpet.

    He had failed, but his failure was less oppressive to him than the strange story that Farringdon had told. It could not be Joan--and yet, her father was a peer; she had the heart-shaped scar on the back of her hand, and her name was Joan.

    "It's preposterous!" he muttered. "Preposterous! How could Joan ruin any man's life? Why, she's only a child...."

    It was the mad babble of a drunken man, he tried to tell himself, but reason would not accept that explanation. He made a resolve. At whatever risk, he would call upon Mr. Ferdinand Farringdon in the morning and ask for an explanation.

    He slept for four hours, and, waking, took a cold bath and dressed. His first thoughts on waking, as were his last thoughts on sleeping, revolved about the dipsomaniac and his strange statements.

    After swallowing a cup of tea that Binger brought to him he mounted his horse and taking the side-road that misses the village came to the gardener's cottage. He had never seen Mrs. Cornford before and his first impression was a correct one. She was a lady, as he had expected her to be. He had heard, not from Joan, but from those prolific sources of gossip which existed in Creith, that she was a friend of the girl's.

    "My name is Morlake," he said, watching her keenly. "I'm glad to see that you do not faint at the approach of a member of the criminal classes," he added, as she smiled her recognition of his name. "I want to see your boarder."

    "Mr. Farringdon?" Her face changed. "I'm afraid you can't see him; he's very ill. He is an invalid, you know, and he went out yesterday afternoon when I was shopping in the village and did not come home until late this morning. I have just sent for the doctor."

    "Is he very ill?" asked Jim. "I mean, too ill to see me?"

    She nodded.

    "I'm afraid he has fever; his temperature is high and he is not normal in other ways. Do you know him very well?" she asked.

    "Not very well. I know something about him, that is all."

    She was evidently not prepared to discuss the eccentric young man who lodged with her, and Jim had to return. He turned his horse and rode across the fields to No Man's Hill, a ride of which he was particularly fond. He could learn no more until the man had recovered--if he ever did recover. That kind of person had nine and ninety lives, he reflected, and he could wait until he sought an explanation from a saner and a more convincing Mr. Farringdon.

    It was freakish of him to turn from the well-known road to send his horse climbing the hill, threading a slow way between the pines and the rhododendrons, but he had a sudden desire for the solitude which hill-tops give to man. He could not see the crest for the surrounding trees, and until he rode clear to the flat top, he was unaware that there was another early morning rider. Suddenly he came face to face with Joan. She was sitting her horse, a quizzical smile in her eyes, and she laughed aloud at his look of surprise.

    "Father came back to Creith last night," she said. "Our humdrum life has been resumed, and we expect the Hamon man at any moment."

    "Congratulations!"

    "And do you know there was a burglary in London last night? It looked very, very much like one of yours!"

    Her eyes were fixed on him steadily.

    "Base imitation," said Jim. "Will you make me responsible for every robbery----"

    "Was it you?" she asked.

    He swung from the saddle with a laugh.

    "You're a most disconcerting young lady, and I shan't satisfy your curiosity."

    "Will you tell me it wasn't you?" she bent down toward him, watching him closely.

    "Mr. James Morlake refuses to make any statement; this is official," said Jim.

    "It was you!" She caught her breath in a sigh. "I was afraid it was, though they are perfectly certain in the village that you didn't leave Wold House."

    "As a matter of fact, I did leave Wold House, and I was in London last night. Whatever evil work I did, at least I performed one kindly action. I saved a young man from being arrested for drunkenness, and I brought him home to his good, kind Mrs. Cornford."

    Her face went deathly white.

    "That was kind of you," she said steadily.

    "Do you know this man?"

    She did not answer.

    "Has he any reason to hate you?"

    She shook her head.

    "Joan, are you in some kind of trouble?"

    "I'm always in trouble," she said lightly, "and have been since I was so high!"

    "I see you won't answer me. Will you tell me this?" He found difficulty in framing the words. "Joan--if, if I were not--if I were a respectable member of society and could claim to be ... of your own class--would you marry me?"

    Her eyes, deep and sombre, held his as she shook her head.

    "No," she said.

    "Why not?" he asked.

    "Because ... you asked me about Ferdie Farringdon just now."

    "Well?" as she paused.

    He saw her lick her dry lips, and then:

    "He is my husband," she said, and, pulling round her horse's head, she sent it at full gallop down the uneven path.
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