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    Chapter 40

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    Chapter 40
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    A Photograph

    Jim Morlake had one predominant habit of behaviour. It was to clear up as he went along. Before the girl was out of sight he had decided on his line of action, and without hesitation turned off from the field path, and crossing the field, reached the by-lane which led to the village, and incidentally, to Mrs. Cornford's cottage.

    Farringdon must give the girl her freedom and he must disabuse that young man's mind of any queer ideas which had crept into his crazy brain.

    Mrs. Cornford opened the door to him, and he saw at a glance that something out of the ordinary had happened to trouble her.

    "I hope I haven't come at an inconvenient moment."

    She shook her head.

    "I'm glad to see you, Mr. Morlake," she said, and showed him into her little sitting-room.

    It was not hard to guess where the trouble lay, for the sound of ravings came to him distinctly.

    "I've come to the end of my dreams," she smiled, "a little suddenly."

    "That is a tragic place to reach, Mrs. Cornford," said Jim. "What is wrong?"

    "I was hoping to stay on at Creith, but everything depended upon my keeping Mr. Farringdon with me."

    "Is he going?" he asked.

    She shook her head.

    "Not of his own will, but I must ask him to leave. He is like a maniac to-day. A few minutes ago he came in, so beside himself that I was terrified."

    Jim thought for a moment.

    "I want to see him," he said, and her face grew grave.

    "I wish you wouldn't," she begged. "Perhaps to-morrow, or later in the day. He has locked his door. I tried to take him a cup of tea just now, and he would not open it. I am growing frightened."

    Jim felt sorry for the woman, for he had guessed that some tragedy had come to her which had altered the whole course of her life. She had the air of one who was used to good living and comfortable surroundings; and it was a pain to him to realise what this drab life must mean to her.

    "Will you forgive me if I ask you what you do for a living?" he asked. "Perhaps I might be able to help you?"

    She shook her head.

    "Unless you wanted music lessons, I'm afraid you can't be of much assistance to me," she said, and he laughed softly.

    "Music isn't my long suit," he said, "but I may be able to help you in other directions."

    The raving became louder and he looked round and half-rose from the chair to which she had invited him, but she put out a restraining hand.

    "Leave him alone," she said. "I will get the district nurse. I think he is ill again."

    "Will you forgive me if I ask you a very personal and very impertinent question?"

    She did not reply, but her eyes gave him encouragement.

    "You have----" he hesitated, not knowing how to frame the question--"you have lost a great deal of money at some time or other?"

    "You mean I have come down in the world?" she smiled. "Yes, I'm afraid I have. My husband disappeared some years ago and when his affairs were settled it was found that he, who I thought was a very rich man, was practically penniless. That is my whole story in the smallest compass," she said frankly. "John Cornford was rather a law to himself and did eccentric things which made tracing him a very difficult matter. Perhaps I was ill-advised at the time, for I did not attempt to make enquiries. I trusted Mr. Hamon----"

    "Hamon?" he said quickly. "Was it Hamon who gave you the advice not to trace him? When did your husband disappear?"

    "Nearly eleven years ago," she said.

    He made a rapid mental calculation.

    "In what month?"

    "In May. May was the last time I heard from him. It was his last letter that you so kindly recovered from Mr. Hamon."

    "May I see it?" he asked.

    She brought it to him and he read it through twice.

    "Your husband's name was John Cornford?"

    "Why?" she asked eagerly. "Did you know him?"

    He shook his head.

    "No, only--years ago I had a very singular adventure. It happened a week after your husband disappeared, but it is absurd to associate the two things. Have you his portrait?"

    She nodded, and went into her bedroom and was gone some time.

    "I had to search for it," she apologised. "I put it away in a place of safety."

    He took the photograph from her hand and he did not betray by so much as a twitching muscle the shock he received.

    It was the portrait of a good-looking man of forty, clean-shaven and obviously satisfied with himself.

    But it was something else: it was the face of the dying sailor whom he had picked up from the Portsmouth Road, and who, before his death, had told him the strangest story that James Morlake had ever heard.

    * * * * * * *

    John Cornford was the unknown sailor who slept in a nameless grave at Hindhead! For ten years he had trailed the man responsible for his death, seeking the evidence that would bring him to justice.

    "Do you know him?" asked Mrs. Cornford anxiously.

    He handed the portrait back to her.

    "I have seen him," he said simply, and something in his tone told her the truth.

    "He is dead?"

    Jim nodded gravely.

    "Yes, he is dead, Mrs. Cornford," and she sank down into a chair and covered her face with her hands.

    Jim thought she was weeping, but presently she looked up.

    "I have always felt that he was dead," she said, "but this is the first definite news I have received. Where did he die?"

    "He died in England."

    Again she nodded.

    "I knew he had died in England. Hamon said he was lost in the desert. Can you tell me anything about it?"

    "I'd rather not," said Jim reluctantly, "not just yet. Will you be patient for a little while?"

    She smiled.

    "I've been patient for so long that I can endure for a little while longer. Please understand, Mr. Morlake, that, though this is a great shock, my husband and I were not," she hesitated, "were not very great friends. I don't think the blame is mine. I am almost ready to accept it all, though it is very difficult to analyse where the blame lies after so many years."

    "Can I have that portrait?" he asked.

    She handed it to him without a word.

    "There is one more thing. Before your husband died, he handed me a sum of money to give to his wife----" And then, seeing the look of surprise and doubt in her face: "You will understand, Mrs. Cornford, that I did not know his name."

    "You didn't know his name?" she asked in amazement. "Then how----?"

    "It is too long a story to tell, but you will have to trust me."

    Then suddenly she remembered Jim's antecedents and the proved charge against him.

    "Was he mixed up in any--any----" She was at a loss how to put the matter politely.

    "In any crooked business?" smiled Jim. "No, so far as I am concerned, he was a perfect stranger to me when I saw him. I tell you I do not even know his name."

    He was gone before she began to ask herself how John Cornford could have given him a thousand pounds without telling him the name of the wife to whom it was to be delivered.

    He had not left half-an-hour before Binger came to the door with an envelope. It contained ten notes for a hundred pounds, and a scrap of writing on a visiting-card.

    "Please trust me," it said, and for some reason she felt no embarrassment when she locked the money away in her box.

    "Did you wait?" asked Jim.

    "Yes, sir, and she said there was no hanswer."

    "I suppose it sounded like that," said Jim with a sigh of relief.

    "Have you any plans, sir?"

    "About what?"

    "About the future, about going back to town. To tell you the truth, sir," said Binger, "the country don't agree with me. The hair isn't like what it is in London. Some like country hair; personally I prefer the hair of the Barking Road."

    Jim thought awhile.

    "You may go back by the next train. Get me on the telephone and ask Mahmet to speak."

    Telephones Mahmet under no circumstances would touch. All other conveniences of civilisation he could employ familiarly, but there was something about that forbidding machine which terrified him.

    Binger left by the next train with the greatest alacrity. He was a Cockney, to whom the quiet and unsociability of the country was anathema. And Jim was not sorry to see him go, for the regularity which Binger imposed upon life was repugnant to him at the moment. Binger was the spirit of the stereotyped. He did things in a regular way at regular hours. He brought morning tea as the clock struck seven; set the bath tap running at a quarter past; at a quarter to eight Jim's shoes fell with a clatter outside his bedroom door. The Cockney valet was a constant reminder that time was flying.

    Jim Morlake needed the solitude, for a new factor had appeared, a new leader from the main stream of his mystery. It was one of those coincidences which appear in every branch of investigation, that, on the day that Mrs. Cornford revealed the identity of the dead sailor, Mr. Julius Welling took hold of a thread that was to lead him to the same discovery.
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