"I don't know whether there's a law that stops my doing this, Jim; but if there is, you've got to get round it. You're a lawyer and you know the game. You're my pal and the best pal I've had, Jim, and you'll do it for me."
The dying man looked up into the old eyes that were watching him with such compassion and read their acquiescence.
No greater difference could be imagined than existed between the man on the bed and the slim neat figure who sat by his side. John Millinborn, broad-shouldered, big-featured, a veritable giant in frame and even in his last days suggesting the enormous strength which had been his in his prime, had been an outdoor man, a man of large voice and large capable hands; James Kitson had been a student from his youth up and had spent his manhood in musty offices, stuffy courts, surrounded by crackling briefs and calf-bound law-books.
Yet, between these two men, the millionaire ship-builder and the successful solicitor, utterly different in their tastes and their modes of life, was a friendship deep and true. Strange that death should take the strong and leave the weak; so thought James Kitson as he watched his friend.
"I'll do what can be done, John. You leave a great responsibility upon the girl—a million and a half of money."
The sick man nodded.
"I get rid of a greater one, Jim. When my father died he left a hundred thousand between us, my sister and I. I've turned my share into a million, but that is by the way. Because she was a fairly rich girl and a wilful girl, Jim, she broke her heart. Because they knew she had the money the worst men were attracted to her—and she chose the worst of the worst!"
He stopped speaking to get his breath.
"She married a plausible villain who ruined her—spent every sou and left her with a mountain of debt and a month-old baby. Poor Grace died and he married again. I tried to get the baby, but he held it as a hostage. I could never trace the child after it was two years old. It was only a month ago I learnt the reason. The man was an international swindler and was wanted by the police. He was arrested in Paris and charged in his true name—the name he had married in was false. When he came out of prison he took his own name—and of course the child's name changed, too."
The lawyer nodded.
"You want me to—?"
"Get the will proved and begin your search for Oliva Predeaux. There is no such person. The girl's name you know, and I have told you where she is living. You'll find nobody who knows Oliva Predeaux—her father disappeared when she was six—he's probably dead, and her stepmother brought her up without knowing her relationship to me—then she died and the girl has been working ever since she was fifteen."
"She is not to be found?"
"Until she is married. Watch her, Jim, spend all the money you wish —don't influence her unless you see she is getting the wrong kind of man… "
His voice, which had grown to something of the old strength, suddenly dropped and the great head rolled sideways on the pillow.
Kitson rose and crossed to the door. It opened upon a spacious sitting-room, through the big open windows of which could be seen the broad acres of the Sussex Weald.
A man was sitting in the window-seat, chin in hand, looking across to the chequered fields on the slope of the downs. He was a man of thirty, with a pointed beard, and he rose as the lawyer stepped quickly into the room.
"Anything wrong?" he asked.
"I think he has fainted—will you go to him, doctor?"
The young man passed swiftly and noiselessly to the bedside and made a brief examination. From a shelf near the head of the bed he took a hypodermic syringe and filled it from a small bottle. Baring the patient's side he slowly injected the drug. He stood for a moment looking down at the unconscious man, then came back to the big hall where James Kitson was waiting.
The doctor shook his head.
"It is difficult to form a judgment," he said quietly, "his heart is all gone to pieces. Has he a family doctor?"
"Not so far as I know—he hated doctors, and has never been ill in his life. I wonder he tolerated you."
Dr. van Heerden smiled.
"He couldn't help himself. He was taken ill in the train on the way to this place and I happened to be a fellow-passenger. He asked me to bring him here and I have been here ever since. It is strange," he added, "that so rich a man as Mr. Millinborn had no servant travelling with him and should live practically alone in this—well, it is little better than a cottage."
Despite his anxiety, James Kitson smiled.
"He is the type of man who hates ostentation. I doubt if he has ever spent a thousand a year on himself all his life—do you think it is wise to leave him?"
The doctor spread out his hands.
"I can do nothing. He refused to allow me to send for a specialist and I think he was right. Nothing can be done for him. Still—"
He walked back to the bedside, and the lawyer came behind him. John Millinborn seemed to be in an uneasy sleep, and after an examination by the doctor the two men walked back to the sitting-room.
"The excitement has been rather much for him. I suppose he has been making his will?"
"Yes," said Kitson shortly.
"I gathered as much when I saw you bring the gardener and the cook in to witness a document," said Dr. van Heerden.
He tapped his teeth with the tip of his fingers—a nervous trick of his.
"I wish I had some strychnine," he said suddenly. "I ought to have some by me—in case."
"Can't you send a servant—or I'll go," said Kitson. "Is it procurable in the village?"
The doctor nodded.
"I don't want you to go," he demurred. "I have sent the car to Eastbourne to get a few things I cannot buy here. It's a stiff walk to the village and yet I doubt whether the chemist would supply the quantity I require to a servant, even with my prescription—you see," he smiled, "I am a stranger here."
"I'll go with pleasure—the walk will do me good," said the lawyer energetically. "If there is anything we can do to prolong my poor friend's life—"
The doctor sat at the table and wrote his prescription and handed it to the other with an apology.
Hill Lodge, John Millinborn's big cottage, stood on the crest of a hill, and the way to the village was steep and long, for Alfronston lay nearly a mile away. Halfway down the slope the path ran through a plantation of young ash. Here John Millinborn had preserved a few pheasants in the early days of his occupancy of the Lodge on the hill. As Kitson entered one side of the plantation he heard a rustling noise, as though somebody were moving through the undergrowth. It was too heavy a noise for a bolting rabbit or a startled bird to make, and he peered into the thick foliage. He was a little nearsighted, and at first he did not see the cause of the commotion. Then:
"I suppose I'm trespassing," said a husky voice, and a man stepped out toward him.
The stranger carried himself with a certain jauntiness, and he had need of what assistance artifice could lend him, for he was singularly unprepossessing. He was a man who might as well have been sixty as fifty. His clothes soiled, torn and greasy, were of good cut. The shirt was filthy, but it was attached to a frayed collar, and the crumpled cravat was ornamented with a cameo pin.
But it was the face which attracted Kitson's attention. There was something inherently evil in that puffed face, in the dull eyes that blinked under the thick black eyebrows. The lips, full and loose, parted in a smile as the lawyer stepped back to avoid contact with the unsavoury visitor.
"I suppose I'm trespassing—good gad! Me trespassing—funny, very funny!" He indulged in a hoarse wheezy laugh and broke suddenly into a torrent of the foulest language that this hardened lawyer had ever heard.
"Pardon, pardon," he said, stopping as suddenly. "Man of the world, eh? You'll understand that when a gentleman has grievances… " He fumbled in his waistcoat-pocket and found a black-rimmed monocle and inserted it in his eye. There was an obscenity in the appearance of this foul wreck of a man which made the lawyer feel physically sick.
"Trespassing, by gad!" He went back to his first conceit and his voice rasped with malignity. "Gad! If I had my way with people! I'd slit their throats, I would, sir. I'd stick pins in their eyes— red-hot pins. I'd boil them alive—"
Hitherto the lawyer had not spoken, but now his repulsion got the better of his usually equable temper.
"What are you doing here?" he asked sternly. "You're on private property—take your beastliness elsewhere."
The man glared at him and laughed.
"Trespassing!" he sneered. "Trespassing! Very good—your servant, sir!"
He swept his derby hat from his head (the lawyer saw that he was bald), and turning, strutted back through the plantation the way he had come. It was not the way out and Kitson was half-inclined to follow and see the man off the estate. Then he remembered the urgency of his errand and continued his journey to the village. On his way back he looked about, but there was no trace of the unpleasant intruder. Who was he? he wondered. Some broken derelict with nothing but the memory of former vain splendours and the rags of old fineries, nursing a dear hatred for some more fortunate fellow.
Nearly an hour had passed before he again panted up to the levelled shelf on which the cottage stood.
The doctor was sitting at the window as Kitson passed.
"How is he?"
"About the same. He had one paroxysm. Is that the strychnine? I can't tell you how much obliged I am to you."
He took the small packet and placed it on the window-ledge and Mr. Kitson passed into the house.
"Honestly, doctor, what do you think of his chance?" he asked.
Dr. van Heerden shrugged his shoulders.
"Honestly, I do not think he will recover consciousness."
The lawyer was shocked. The tragic suddenness of it all stunned him. He had thought vaguely that days, even weeks, might pass before the end came.
"Not recover consciousness?" he repeated in a whisper.
Instinctively he was drawn to the room where his friend lay and the doctor followed him.
John Millinborn lay on his back, his eyes closed, his face a ghastly grey. His big hands were clutching at his throat, his shirt was torn open at the breast. The two windows, one at each end of the room, were wide, and a gentle breeze blew the casement curtains. The lawyer stooped, his eyes moist, and laid his hand upon the burning forehead.
"John, John," he murmured, and turned away, blinded with tears.
He wiped his face with a pocket-handkerchief and walked to the window, staring out at the serene loveliness of the scene. Over the weald a great aeroplane droned to the sea. The green downs were dappled white with grazing flocks, and beneath the windows the ordered beds blazed and flamed with flowers, crimson and gold and white.
As he stood there the man he had met in the plantation came to his mind and he was half-inclined to speak to the doctor of the incident. But he was in no mood for the description and the speculation which would follow. Restlessly he paced into the bedroom. The sick man had not moved and again the lawyer returned. He thought of the girl, that girl whose name and relationship with John Millinborn he alone knew. What use would she make of the millions which, all unknown to her, she would soon inherit? What—
He turned swiftly.
It was John Millinborn's voice.
The doctor had leapt into the room and made his way to the bed.
Millinborn was sitting up, and as the lawyer moved swiftly in the doctor's tracks he saw his wide eyes staring.
"Jim, he has… "
His head dropped forward on his breast and the doctor lowered him slowly to the pillow.
"What is it, John? Speak to me, old man… "
"I'm afraid there is nothing to be done," said the doctor as he drew up the bedclothes.
"Is he dead?" whispered the lawyer fearfully.
He beckoned the other into the big room and, after a glance at the motionless figure, Kitson followed.
"There's something very strange—who is that?"
He pointed through the open window at the clumsy figure of a man who was blundering wildly down the slope which led to the plantation.
Kitson recognized the man immediately. It was the uninvited visitor whom he had met in the plantation. But there was something in the haste of the shabby man, a hint of terror in the wide-thrown arms, that made the lawyer forget his tragic environment.
"Where has he been?" he asked.
"Who is he?"
The doctor's face was white and drawn as though he, too, sensed some horror in that frantic flight.
Kitson walked back to the room where the dying man lay, but was frozen stiff upon the threshold.
The doctor followed the eyes of the other. Something was dripping from the bed to the floor—something red and horrible. Kitson set his teeth and, stepping to the bedside, pulled down the covers.
He stepped back with a cry, for from the side of John Millinborn protruded the ivory handle of a knife.