"You have beauty," said Mr. Maurice Tarn carefully, "you have youth. You will in all probability survive me by many years. I am not the kind of man who would object to your marrying again. That would be sheer selfishness, and I am not selfish. When I die you will have great property; whilst I live you shall enjoy my wealth to its full. Possibly you have never looked upon me in the light of a husband, but it is not unusual for a guardian to marry his ward, and the disparity in our ages is not an insuperable obstacle."
He spoke like one who was reciting a carefully rehearsed speech, and Elsa Marlowe listened, stunned.
If the old-fashioned sideboard had of its own volition stood on end, if Elgin Crescent had been suddenly transported to the suburbs of Bagdad, she could not have been more astounded. But Elgin Crescent was in Bayswater, and the gloomy dining-room of Maurice Tarn's maisonette remained undisturbed; and here was Maurice Tarn himself, sitting on the other side of the breakfast table, an unshaven, shabby man of fifty-six, whose trembling hand, that went automatically to his shaggy grey moustache, was an eloquent reminder of his last night's carouse (there were three empty bottles on the table of his study when she looked in that morning), and he was proposing marriage.
She could only gaze at him open-eyed, scarcely believing the evidence of her senses.
"I suppose you think I am mad," he went on slowly. "I've given a lot of thought to it, Elsa. You are heart-free, as I know. There is no reason in the world, except—except the difference in our ages, why this should not be."
"But—but, Mr. Tarn," she stammered, "I had no idea… of course it is impossible!"
Was he still drunk? she wondered, without a tremor of apprehension, for fifteen years of association with Maurice Tarn had not tended to increase her awe for him; if she had not been so staggered by this proposal which had come like a bolt from the blue, she might have been amused.
"I don't want to marry you, I don't want to marry anybody. It is very—very kind of you, and of course I feel"—she could hardly bring her lips to say the word—"honoured. But it is too ridiculous!" she burst forth.
His tired eyes were watching her, and he did not even flinch at the word.
"I'm going away to—somewhere. I've got to go away for—for my health. Since Major Amery has come into the firm it is impossible to continue."
"Does Ralph know this—that you're going away?" she asked, curiosity overcoming her amazement.
"No!" He almost shouted the word. "He doesn't, he mustn't know! You understand, Elsa? Under no circumstances must Ralph know—what I have said to you is confidential. Think it over."
With a gesture he dismissed the subject, to her great relief. For fully ten minutes she sat staring out of the window. Mr. Maurice Tarn's dining-room looked out upon the garden of Elgin Crescent, a garden common to all the houses that backed upon it. It was not a garden in the strictest sense of the word, being no more than a stretch of worn grass, intersected by brown paths; and its chief value was best appreciated by the parents of very young children. On sunny days the shade of the big tree in the centre of the garden was a favourite resting-place for nursemaids and their tiny charges. At this hour the garden was deserted. The pale yellow sunlight, slanting through the big window, lit a diagonal patch on the table, and gave to the spring flowers that, by a movement of her chair, mercifully hid Mr. Maurice Tarn from her view, the glory which belonged to them.
She stole a glance at him past the flowery screen. He was wearing yesterday's collar—he invariably made a collar last three days; and his rusty black cravat was fastened behind with a tarnished buckle. The lapels of his ancient frock-coat shone with much wear; his cuffs showed ragged threads. Speculatively and, for her, cold-bloodedly, she examined him in the light of a possible bridegroom and shuddered.
Elsa had preserved toward her guardian and his habits an attitude of philosophical patience. She had grown tired of urging the purchase of clothes. He had a fairly good income, and once she had surprised the information that he had a substantial balance at his bank. But by nature and habits he was miserly. She owed him something… but not much: an education at the cheapest boarding-school he could find; a dress allowance reluctantly given; an annual holiday at Clacton—a fortnight in a crowded boarding-house; and a post-graduate course in short hand and typewriting which was to fit her for the position of a private secretary to old Amery. In addition to these things, Maurice Tarn gave her what he was pleased to call "a home."
She had often wondered what freak of generosity had induced him to adopt the orphan child of a distant cousin, but the nearest she had ever reached to explaining that fit of altruism was when he told her, one evening, that he hated complete loneliness and preferred a child in the house to a dog.
He was apparently absorbed in the devilled chicken he was cutting into microscopic pieces, for presently he asked:
"Is there anything in the paper?"
He himself never read the newspapers, and it had been part of her duty for years to supply him with the principal items of the morning's news.
"Nothing," she said. "You know about the parliamentary crisis?"
He growled something under his breath, and then:
"Nothing, except the drug scandal," she said.
He looked up suddenly.
"Drug scandal? What do you mean?"
She picked up the newspaper from the floor where she had dropped it.
"It is about two gangs that are importing drugs into this country—I didn't think you'd be interested in that," she said, searching for the paragraph.
She happened at that moment to look across at him, and nearly dropped the paper in her surprise. Mr. Maurice Tarn's complexion was one of consistent sallowness, but now his face was a deathly white. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were staring.
"Two gangs?" he croaked. "What do you mean? Read it, read it!" he commanded huskily.
"I thought—" she began.
"Never mind what you thought, read it!" snarled Tarn.
Masking her astonishment, she found the item. It was a half-column on the top of the principal page:
"Yesterday morning Detective-Inspector Bickerson, accompanied by half a dozen police officers, made a raid upon a small warehouse in Whitechapel, and, after arresting the caretaker, conducted a search of the premises. It is understood that a considerable quantity of opium and a package containing 16 pounds of cocaine were seized and removed, and it is believed that the warehouse was a distributing centre used by one of the two gangs which are engaged in putting illicit drugs upon the market, both here and in America. The police believe that one of these nefarious associations is conducted by a Japanese merchant named Soyoka, who, however, is the merest figure-head in the business, the operations being carried out by a number of unknown men, said to occupy good social positions, and two of whom are believed to be officials in the Indian Civil Service. The composition of the second gang, which during the past two years has amassed a considerable fortune, is not so well known. Behind these two organisations are hundreds of agents, and a small army of desperadoes are employed to cover the gangs' workings. The recent arrest of a Greek in Cleveland, Ohio, and his confession to the Federal authorities has enabled Scotland Yard to get a line on the British branch of the 'business.' From the statement of the Greek Poropoulos, it is believed that the heads of the second gang include an English doctor and a leading merchant of the City of London—"
It was not a groan, it was not a sigh, but something that combined the quality of both. Elsa looked up and saw her guardian's head sinking over the table, and sprang to her feet.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
He waved her aside.
"Get me some brandy—in the cupboard of my study," he mumbled, and she hurried into the stuffy little room, returning with a tumbler half-filled, the contents of which he swallowed at a gulp.
Slowly the colour came back to his face, and he could force a smile.
"You're responsible," he grunted, with heavy pleasantry. "A fellow of my age doesn't propose at this time of the morning without feeling the effects—eh? A little too old for love-making, I guess. Think it over, Elsa. I've been a good friend of yours."
"Do you want me to read any more?"
He stopped her with a gesture.
"Stuff! A newspaper invention: these fellows are always out for sensation. They live on it."
He rose to his feet with an effort.
"I shall see you at the office," he said. "Think it over, Elsa." The door of his study slammed behind him—he was still in his locked room when the girl boarded an eastward bound 'bus that carried her almost to the door of the Amery Corporation.