Queen of Hearts - Fred M. White - ebook

Queen of Hearts ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

Loving woman possesses charms. And not every man can resist them. So our hero, Tom Gilchrist, was fascinated by the beauty of the girl. His uncle, Sir Walter Vanguard warns that this is a bad idea. Perhaps he is right.

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Liczba stron: 228

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER I

The younger of the two two men standing just outside the Royal enclosure at Ascot on that sunny Cup day heaved a sigh of relief as the more or less informal mannequin parade mingled with the well-dressed crowd and vanished. The other–tall and distinguished, with his silver hair and hawklike, aristocratic features, smiled just a little grimly as he caught the expression on his junior’s face. His smile, though humorous and perhaps a trifle mocking, did not lack a certain austerity that hinted at stern determination of character behind the jauntiness of the mere man of the world.

“Yes,” he said. “She is an amazingly pretty girl, but, if I were you, Tom, I would not think seriously about her.”

Tom Gilchrist looked a little uneasy. There were times when his uncle, Sir Walter Vanguard, seemed to read his thoughts in an almost uncanny fashion.

“And why not?” he asked. “What is your prejudice against Maudie Vascombe? Dash it all, uncle, if she does get her living as a mannequin and serve in a milliner’s shop, that is no disgrace these times, is it? And, anyway, she is a lady. And, what is more, I have known her and her brother Ian practically all my life. It was not so many years ago since the Vascombes were big people, before the smash came, and the war reduced them to poverty. But, of course, seeing that you have spent most of your life in China, you have probably forgotten that. Don’t you think you are rather inclined to be old-fashioned? Everybody nowadays is in business of some sort or another. And I don’t see any difference between a girl getting her living as a shop girl and hanging on to some of her aristocratic friends, waiting for a chance to sell herself to some rich man who probably started life in a marine store.”

“I dare say there is something in what you say,” Vanguard replied. “But that is not exactly the point, my boy. I know what hard work is, nobody more so. When I was a boy I could have hung about the old house and watched my father beggaring himself over horses and cards and selling the family estates by instalments, as he did, and found myself today a pauper. Instead of which, I went out to China, about the time most boys are leaving school, and made a fortune there by my own exertions. And that is why I am a rich man today and why you, the last of the race, and my dead sister’s only son are enjoying a handsome allowance after ruffling it at Eton and Cambridge with the best of them. I dare say you will think this is no time for a moral lecture, but I think you owe me something. Tom–”

“Of course I do,” Tom Gilchrist said warmly. “I owe you everything. And I am not ungrateful. But, dash it all, uncle, I don’t want to marry Mona Catesby and might just as well say so sooner or later. Because that is what you are driving at, though why, goodness only knows.”

“But, my dear boy, a little consideration would show you. Who bought the best part of our family property 20 years ago? Tell me that.”

“Why, Mona’s father, of course.”

“Now happily dead,” Sir Walter said, a trifle sardonically. “A self-made man of the worst type, but he had the money and the best part of land which has belonged to our family for 300 years. And, what is more to the point, he had a daughter, to whom he left everything. She is still single and so far as I know, unattached. And anybody can see with half an eye that she would be only too willing to throw her lot in with yours and, once that was done, the ambition of my life would be satisfied. I should like to live to see the Vanguard property back in the family again, though your name is Gilchrist. And you can’t say she is not an attractive girl, and you can’t say she is not a lady.”

“Oh, attractive enough, if you like,” Tom Gilchrist agreed. “But she doesn’t come out of the top drawer. I don’t care for those big girls, though I must admit that she carries it off very well. I can’t see–”

Sir Walter turned away a little impatiently. There was a hard gleam in his eye and the humorous lines about the corners of his mouth had stiffened into something like cruelty.

“Well, we won’t discuss it now,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bring it up at all yet, only you looked so infernally sentimental when those girls were passing that I felt impelled to speak. Come inside and we can watch the big race together.”

“Presently,” Tom said. “You go alone, uncle, and I will follow a little later.”

Sir Walter passed in through the gates of the Royal Enclosure, whilst his nephew turned and pushed his way through the crowd. He came presently to the object of his search. She was standing quite alone, gazing about her with an interested air, for it was the first time she had ever been on the famous heath and she was enjoying the prospect to the full now that her rather trying ordeal was over.

A beautiful girl, slim and rather tall, with a certain haughty carriage of her head and a free movement of her slim limbs which spoke of perfect health. There was something about her that would have attracted attention anywhere. Even had Maudie Vascombe been dressed in rags, she would have stood out from her fellow women with a distinction that is more easily imagined than described. And now, beautifully dressed for the occasion in the last word of fashion, she stood there with a hundred curious eyes upon her. If she was aware of the fact, she did not show it, for she had all that savoir faire and serenity which is the hall mark of birth and breeding all the world over.

She turned with a brilliant, almost caressing smile as Tom Gilchrist murmured her name.

“Oh, you, is it?” she said. “I saw you just now with Sir Walter, though you may not know it.”

“Did you?” Tom asked. “That is very sweet of you, Maudie. But what are you doing here all by yourself?”

“All my lovely companions have faded and gone, like the last rose of summer,” the girl laughed. “As a matter of fact, I am looking for Ian. He is about somewhere, taking notes. You know what he is. A most forgetful boy, especially when he has his notebook in his hand.”

Gilchrist smiled. He knew all about that. He was perfectly aware of the fact that Ian Vascombe made a fair and increasing living by dress designing–a rather ignoble profession for a man who had once been captain of the Eton cricket eleven, but then, in these strange times, the mere fact of getting a living at all is no mean achievement.

“Oh, never mind about Ian,” Gilchrist said. “Have you had any lunch? No, I can see you haven’t. I suppose Madame Ninette sent you and the rest down here without making any provision of that sort.”

“We are supposed to take care of ourselves,” Maudie smiled.

“Ah, yes, I thought so. Now, you come with me to the club tent, and I will give you a glass of champagne and a lobster salad or something like that.”

“My dear Tom, are you actually proposing to entertain a mere mannequin in your exclusive club tent? You would never hear the last of it.”

“I am not troubling about that,” Tom said. “Besides half the women there get their own livings, don’t they? And some of them not half as honestly as you do. Now, come along, don’t be silly.”

With that, Gilchrist led the way to the gaily decorated tent which, by this time, was half empty. He found seats for himself and his companion and, over a more or less elaborate lunch, proceeded to discuss certain intimate affairs.

“How long are we going on like this, Maudie?” he asked. “I simply hate to see you leading this sort of life. It is damnable to think of a girl, bred and born like you, going to shows like this, dressed up doll fashion for a lot of male and female cads to make remarks about. Why don’t you marry me and have done with it?”

Just for a moment a soft look crept into the great grey eyes that were turned on the speaker.

“Now, my dear Tom, do be reasonable. How can I marry you? Oh, I am not saying I am not fond of you, but am I as fond as all that? I live fairly comfortably and with what I earn and Ian earns, we can afford to run the cosy little flat we have been living in for the last year or so. And now answer me one straight question. What are we going to live on? When you tell your uncle that you are going to marry a mannequin, what will he say, and, more to the point, what will he do?”

“Make the best of it,” Tom said sanguinely.

“Oh no, he won’t, my boy. He’ll cut you off with a shilling. I don’t say he hasn’t been a good uncle to you up to now, but if you don’t offer to marry Mona Catesby, then you will have to look to yourself. Oh, Tom, don’t make it harder for me than you can help. Let’s be happy whilst we have a chance. Of course I could listen to what you say and ruin your life, but you may be sure I shan’t do that.”

“Well, it’s dashed hard,” Gilchrist groaned.

“Of course it is,” Maudie laughed. “And perhaps it is a good deal harder on me than it is on you.”

CHAPTER II

Meanwhile, Sir Walter had returned to the sacred enclosure as if the subject recently under discussion had been settled once and for all. It was the first time that he had ever spoken freely to his sole surviving relative on the subject of the latter’s future, and, from his point of view, there was no more to be said. Tom Gilchrist was entirely dependent upon him and he was not in the least likely to imperil his future and ruin his prospects for the sake of a romantic attachment to a girl who was no more than a mere shop assistant. Of course, Maudie Vascombe was a lady and all that sort of thing, but it was ridiculous to imagine that she could fly that little kite of hers to the detriment of a scheme which Sir Walter had had in his mind since the day, twenty years ago, when his only sister had died and he had made up his mind to see to the future of his nephew, for even in the midst of his activities in china, where he had remained for upwards of forty years without a break, there had always been one object uppermost in his mind.

And that object was the restoration of the family estate. A considerable portion of it had remained to him after his father’s death, subject to heavy mortgages, and these he had gradually paid off, but the old family residence and the home park had been sacrificed to strangers, and, unless luck stood him in very good stead, they had gone for ever.

And then, a few years before had come the news that the new man, Catesby, was dead, leaving an only daughter to inherit the property that Sir Walter so coveted. And when he returned to England, he found that the girl was much more presentable than he had expected, that she was single and unattached and by no means averse to fall in with his scheme which had shaped in his mind directly he had discovered how the land lay.

It seemed to him to be an excellent plan and one, moreover, which he could bring about without any expense to himself. He was quite prepared to buy the old homestead, but if it came back into the family through a marriage between his nephew and the present owner, so much the better. It almost looked as if the whole thing were providential.

And when once Sir Walter made up his mind to a thing, he carried it through. In his way, he was a kindhearted, genial man, but a business one to his finger tips and not inclined to allow sentiment to stand between him and his ambitions. And now he had warned his heir and if Tom liked to defy him, then that foolish young man must take the consequences. He had spoken his mind and there was an end of it.

It was characteristic of the man that, once having come to this decision, he could turn aside to other and lighter things without giving it a second thought. He strode through the crowded enclosure in search of somebody he knew with a view, presently, to getting up to the top of the stand and watching the great race of the day, for it was nearly 3 o’clock and before long the numbers of the starters in the Gold Cup would go up on the board opposite.

It was just at that moment that Sir Walter came face to face with the one individual who had been recently uppermost in his thoughts. Here was Mona Catesby herself, beautifully dressed and strikingly handsome and alone.

“Oh, Sir Walter,” she cried. “You are quite a godsend to me. I have been deserted by my party because I didn’t want to go into that wretched paddock to see the horses. They are all very well when they are racing and you have a bet on, but otherwise I dislike the creatures extremely.”

“Ah, the modern touch,” Sir Walter laughed. “You, of course, prefer cars.”

“Of course I do. Who wouldn’t?”

“Oh, well, it is all a matter of taste. Now, if my ancestors had preferred cars to horses, if such a thing had been possible, you would never be in the happy possession of my ancestral home, and I should not have had the pleasure of being your faithful cavalier. Now, what do you say to coming to the top of the stand with me and watching the race?”

“Nothing would be more delightful,” the girl said. “I suppose you have made all your bets?”

“I have made my modest one,” Sir Walter explained. “You see, I have no use for gambling. And that is where I differ from those who preceded me. I have backed Comus for a modest five pound note and that is the extent of my wager. Just sufficient to have an interest in the race, you know.”

“And I have got my money on The Palmer,” Mona said. “Only I have gone a bit further than you have; in fact, I have a whole hundred on the horse. Disgraceful, isn’t it?”

“Oh, well, a bet is a relative thing, after all. What’s gambling with one person is merely a pastime with another. Now supposes we have a little bet on between us. I’ll back my horse against yours–”

“For how much?” Mona asked eagerly.

“Oh, it need not be for money. Didn’t you tell me a night or two ago that you were going to The Twin Arts Ball and that you couldn’t think of a really original costume?”

“Fancy you remembering that!” Mona cried.

“So you are still undecided to your mind?” Sir Walter asked. “Very well, then. You bet me a dinner at the Carlton against an absolutely original design for your dress, the loser to pay. If you win, I supply you with a dress design that has never before appeared in public, and if I win, you shall stand me a dinner at the Carlton and give me the pleasure of your company. What do you think of that for a new–”

Sir Walter broke off abruptly as he caught sight of a man a few yards away who took off his grey top hat to Mona as he passed in the direction of the paddock. It was almost as if someone had struck Vanguard a blow.

“I am rather short-sighted,” he said huskily. “But that man who saluted you strongly reminds me of an individual who some years ago, struck a note of tragedy in my life. I may be wrong, but would you mind telling me who he is?”

“Oh, that,” Mona said with some surprise. “His name is Heek. I have met him once or twice lately. Not an Englishman. I think, in fact, it would be rather difficult to say what nationality he is. But everybody says he is enormously rich and within the last few months he has been seen everywhere. You know how those sort of people get taken up.”

Sir Walter seemed to control himself with an effort.

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