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    Chapter 36

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    Chapter 36
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    The Letter

    The people of Creith wondered to see their lord's principal guest, and, if rumour did not lie, the future owner of the estate, moving his lodgings to the village inn; but Hamon had got to the point where he did not care what they thought. A week ago, such an affront to his dignity would have driven him desperate; but now something else was at stake. Unexpectedly his world was rocking dangerously.

    He wired Lydia to meet him in London on the morrow, and, waiting until it was dark, he went out from his lodgings and bent his steps to the gardener's cottage. Mrs. Cornford opened the door to him, and at first she did not recognise him in the darkness.

    "I want to see you, Mrs. Cornford," he said.

    "Who is it?" she asked.

    "Ralph Hamon."

    She did not move, standing squarely in the narrow passage, and then, opening the door wider:

    "Come in," she said, and followed him into the little parlour.

    "You haven't changed very much, Mrs. Cornford," he said, at a loss how to approach the subject which had brought him there.

    She made no reply. It was an awkward situation, and again he sought for an opening.

    "I suppose you're still feeling sore with me?"

    "No," she replied quietly, and then: "Won't you sit down, Mr. Hamon?"

    "There is no reason why you should feel sore. I did everything I could for Johnny."

    "Where is he?" she asked.

    "I don't know--dead, I suppose," he said, and at the brutality of his words she winced a little.

    "I think he is dead too," she breathed, nodding slowly. "You were equally sure that he was alive twelve years ago," she said quietly. "What happened to his money, Mr. Hamon?"

    "He lost it: I told you that before," said Hamon impatiently.

    Her eyes never left him.

    "He wrote to me from Morocco, saying that he had seen the mine, and how splendid a property it was, and then a month later he wrote from London, saying that he was fixing everything with you, and I never heard from him again."

    "He disappeared: that is all I know," said Hamon. "He was coming to my office to complete the purchase of shares, and he didn't turn up. I wired you, asking where he was, immediately."

    His tone was a defiance.

    "I only know that he drew a hundred thousand pounds from the bank, and that neither he nor the money was seen again," she said steadily. "I am not pretending, Mr. Hamon, that my husband and I were very happy. He was of too erratic a disposition, had too many friends of both sexes that I could not possibly approve; he was a drunkard too, but he was in some respects a good man. He would not have left me a beggar as he did."

    He shrugged his shoulders.

    "Why didn't you go to the police?" he asked blandly. "If you had any doubts about me----"

    She looked down upon him, a contemptuous smile upon her tired face.

    "You begged me not to go to the police," she said in a low voice. "I see now what a fool I was. You begged me, for my own sake and for the sake of my husband's people, not to advertise his absence."

    "Didn't I put advertisements in every newspaper? Didn't I send agents to Monte Carlo, to Aix, to Deauville--to every gambling place where he might be?" he demanded with simulated indignation. "Really, Mrs. Cornford, I don't think you're treating me quite fairly."

    It was useless to reply to him. He had put her off her search until the cleverest detective agencies in England found it impossible to pick up a clue, for she had delayed independent action until that independent action was futile. One day she had been a rich woman with a home and an independent income. The next, she was beggared.

    If John Cornford had been the ordinary type of business man, there would have been no question as to her action. She would have notified the police immediately of his disappearance. But Johnny Cornford, prince of good fellows to all but his own, had a habit of making these mysterious disappearances. She had learnt, in the course of her life, the discretion of silence.

    "Why have you come?" she asked.

    "Because I wanted to settle up this matter of Johnny. I feel responsible, to the extent that I brought him to London. Will you show me the letter he sent you from town?"

    She shook her head.

    "You wanted to see that before, Mr. Hamon. It is the only evidence I have that he had returned to England at all. Some time ago, a man asked you what had become of my husband, and you said that he had been lost in the desert in Morocco. Hundreds of people who knew him are under the impression that he died there."

    "What is that?" he asked suddenly. There was a low wail of sound.

    "I have a young man staying with me who is very ill," she said, and hurried from the room.

    He looked round the apartment. Where would a woman of that sort keep her letters? Not in an accessible dining-room, he thought. Somewhere in the bedroom, probably. The door connecting the rooms was open, and he looked in. A candle was burning on the table. He heard her footsteps and stepped back quickly to his seat.

    "Now I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Mrs. Cornford. If you will let me see that letter, I will tell you the whole truth about Johnny's death."

    "He is dead, then?" she asked huskily, and he nodded.

    "He has been dead ten years."

    She seemed to be struggling with herself. Presently she got up, went to the bedroom and closed the door behind her, returning in a few minutes with a small ebony box, which she opened.

    "Here is the letter," she said. "You may read it."

    Yes, it was blue! He knew that it was written on Critton Hotel notepaper--the Critton note was blue.

    He read the scrawled writing. It was dated from a London hotel.

    I am seeing Ralph Hamon to-day, and we are fixing the purchase of the shares. The only thing about which I am not certain--and this I must discover--is whether the property I saw was Hamon's mine, or a very prosperous concern which has no connection whatever with Ralph's company. Not that I think he would deceive me.

    She watched him intently, ready to snatch at the letter if he attempted to pocket it, but he handed it back to her, and she replaced it in the box and closed the lid. She was about to speak when again there came that moaning sound from the next room. She hesitated a moment, locked the little ebony box and carried it back to her bedroom, turning the key on the bedroom door after her when she came out. He watched with a certain amount of amusement, and when she went into the invalid's room he followed her.

    "Who is this man?" he asked, regarding curiously the gaunt face that lay on the pillows.

    "He is my boarder," she said, troubled. "I'm afraid he is worse to-night."

    Farringdon rose on his elbow and tried to get out of bed. It took all her strength to push him back. Again he tried to rise, and it took their united efforts to force him back.

    "Will you stay here whilst I get the doctor?" she asked.

    Ralph Hamon had no desire to act as nurse to a half-crazy patient, but in all the circumstances he thought it would be advisable. He pulled up a chair and watched the poor wretch who tossed from side to side, muttering and laughing in his delirium. Presently the sick man's voice grew clear.

    "Joan--married? Yes, her father is Lord somebody or other," said the patient. "I never knew. You see, they found out that afternoon--the house-master heard me talking to Bannockwaite. We were married at the little church in the wood. I didn't want to marry, but the gang insisted. We drew lots. It was Bannockwaite's fault. He was never quite normal. You know Bannockwaite? He was ordained that year, and he thought it was a great joke. They chucked him out of the Church for something queer that happened, but I was abroad then and don't quite know what it was all about. Anyway, he was killed in the war. He ought never to have been a parson. Bannockwaite, I mean. He started the society, the Midnight Monks, when he was a kid at Hulston--that's my school. The girls at the convent next door used to sneak over the wall and we ate candies.... Joan, that was her name--Joan. Her father was Lord somebody and lived in Sussex. Bannockwaite told me that she was a peeress. I didn't want her.... Ban called her Ada something when we were married, but her name was Joan...."

    Hamon listened, electrified. Joan! It must be Joan Carston. He bent over the sick man and asked eagerly:

    "Where were you married?"

    For a time the invalid said something that he could not catch.

    "Where?" he asked sharply.

    "Little church in a wood at Ascot," murmured Farringdon. "It is in the register."

    Hamon knew the reputation of Bannockwaite, and guessed the rest of the story. Joan was married! He pursed his lips at the thought. It was at once a lever and a barrier. He heard the feet of Mrs. Cornford and the doctor, and drew back to the doorway. It was easy to take his farewells now, and, with a nod to the woman which she hardly saw, he went back to the hotel.

    It was half-an-hour before the doctor left, and, in spite of the feverish condition of the patient, he reported a distinct improvement.

    "I'll have a nurse in from the County Hospital to-night, Mrs. Cornford," he said, and she thanked him gratefully. She had had little sleep for forty-eight hours.

    Why had Ralph Hamon called, she asked herself? And what could be the object of his wanting to see that letter? He had asked years before, but she had refused him access, feeling, in some way, that its possession retained for her a last grasp on the fortune which had slipped through her hands.

    She had taken a great risk in letting him touch it, and she was thankful that there were no worse consequences to her folly. Before she went to bed that night she opened the drawer of her bureau, took out the box and unlocked it. There was the faded blue letter on the top. She was closing the lid down when it occurred to her to read this last message from her husband, and she opened the sheet. It was blank.

    Ralph Hamon knew the colour of the letter, knew its shape and size. It had been easy to ring the changes.

    What should she do? The hour was late. Should she go to the hall and invoke Lord Creith's assistance? She had only seen him once, and she was already in his debt. And then her mind turned to Jim--that quiet, capable man, and, putting on her hat and coat, she hurried to Wold House.

    There are certain advantages and some disadvantages to an hotel. The disadvantage, from Ralph Hamon's point of view, was its accessibility to the outside public. He was sitting before a fire in his bedroom, for the night was chilly, smoking his last cigar, and ruminating upon the queerness of this latest development, when, without so much as a knock, the door opened and Jim Morlake walked in.

    "I've got two pieces of news for you, Hamon. The first is that your Moor is caught. The second is that you're going to give me a letter that you stole from Mrs. Cornford, and you're going to give it to me very, very quickly."
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