Secret of the River - Fred M. White - ebook

Secret of the River ebook

Fred M White

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Vern is an excellent example of medieval architecture with soft pink brick and curved chimneys. Neville Ashdown crossed the park on a winter day to call the house where he was born. However, so much time has passed. New home owners. New story. But this place is full of secrets.

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Liczba stron: 231

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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

ASHDOWN CROFT was not a great house by comparison with some of our famous show places, but it dated back to Tudor days, and had had its place more than once in history, especially in the darkest hours of the Stuarts and their followers. It stood in its own park on the banks of the River Wern a fine specimen of mediaeval architecture, with its soft, rose-tinted brick and twisted chimneys. Inside were suites of low, panelled rooms, and beyond the bedrooms in the centre, a long picture gallery, terminating in a chamber, above the broad, open fireplace of which was a sort of priest’s hiding-hole, and from there, a secret way out into the grounds. Just the sort of glorious old mansion that might form the centre of a romance, as, indeed, it had on more than one occasion in the days gone by. A charming house, with a character all its own, and the cherished possession of Nevil Ashdown; and thereby hangs a tale.

For the park and the house and the long range of training stables on the south side of the park, backing on the river, had nearly been lost to its present owner ten years before. It was at the time when he had just come of age, when the old family solicitor in London told him for the first time the parlous position in which he, Nevil, stood.

Nevil Ashdown crossed the park in the winter sunshine on his way to make a call at the house where he was born. Because, for a long time past, the property had been let, just as it stood, to a wealthy City man whom Nevil had never seen till a month or two before, when he had returned from America to take up his residence in one of his own farm houses a mile or two away.

He was going through that fateful interview in his mind as the front of Ashdown Croft loomed up before him. He was hearing the lawyer telling him that the future of the house trembled in the balance, and that unless something very like a miracle occurred, it would pass out of the possession of the Ashdowns for ever.

“It’s like this, my boy,” the lawyer had said. “Your father was criminally extravagant. I warned him over and over again, to no effect, so that, as we stand to-day, the property is mortgaged to the extent of over £50,000. Of course, you can go on living at Ashdown if you like, but you will have to close most of the house, and discharge many of the servants. You won’t have enough to keep up the gardens as you should, and you will have to sell all the horses your father had in training.”

“I shan’t worry much about that,” Nevil smiled. “Horse racing has no attractions for me, and I never had a bet in my life. Of course, all this comes as a bit of a shock because my father never took me into his confidence. Now, tell me, Mr. Wren, what precisely have I to live on?”

“That is not exactly the point,” the old lawyer had said. “But call it £1500 a year, all told.”

“And if I live by my own exertions for a few years? What difference will that make?”

“All the difference in the world. If you could support yourself say for ten years and leave the management of the estate to us, we can hand it over to you intact. My idea would be to pull the stables down and sell the horses and build, where the stables are to-day, a series of glass houses. In that sheltered situation, there is quite a thousand a year to be made out of fruit grown under glass. And you have on the property, if you only knew it, one of the best gardeners in England, only he has never had a chance. Then I would put a good man in to manage the home farm, instead of the present steward, who robbed your father right and left, and I would lease your famous stretch of salmon water for a small fortune. It is the best on the river, being just above the tideway and–oh, well, there are a dozen methods of turning a dead loss into a handsome profit. If you are disposed to listen to me––”

“I am infinitely obliged to you,” Nevil had said. “It shall be exactly as you say. It’s hard lines if I can’t get a living without touching my limited income, because I am young and strong and the West appeals to me.”

So the old man and the young one had shaken hands together on the bargain and Nevil had made his way to America with just £100 in his pocket. And there he had gone through various experiences before his natural talent for the stage brought him in contact with a syndicate whose business it was to run vaudeville shows all over the West. So that, in the course of time, Nevil was not only making a good living, but actually sending money home to his solicitor in London. And now, on this bright winter morning, he had been back in England for three or four months, living in a farm house hard by and patiently waiting the time when the long tenancy of Everard Murray, the wealthy City man, came to an end. That would be a matter of something less than a year and, meanwhile Nevil was on the best of terms with Murray and his daughter Angela.

Indeed, he was on something more than good terms with Angela. He had been meeting her nearly every day and was on his way to call on her now in connection with some amateur theatrical which were being given in a day or two in the village hall for the benefit of some local charity.

It was just as Nevil had crossed the rustic bridge leading from the park into the grounds themselves that he encountered Murray himself, with two companions.

“Hello. Mr. Murray,” he said. “I hardly expected to see you down here at this time of the week.”

The genial head of the firm of Everard Murray and Company laughed pleasantly. He was a fine figure of a man, clear-eyed and clean-skinned, and carrying his fifty-odd years with the ease of a man half is age. With his grey moustache, and slight swagger, he might have passed for an ex-cavalry officer. Of the two other men, one was dressed in a slight caricature of fashion, with a little spiked moustache and imperial, all eminently French, which, indeed, Monsieur Jules Blanchin was. A famous chemist, Nevil had heard, and one who was an inventor of distinction, which fact, no doubt, had induced the shrewd Murray to take him into partnership. The third man was a lank and lean individual, sallow of face, and given to long periods of silence. This was Mr. Joseph Sidey, who, so Nevil understood, looked after the financial side of that extremely flourishing City business.

“Well, my boy,” Murray smiled, “even business men like ourselves must have a little recreation some times. We have been working exceedingly hard lately, so we ran down last night for a long week-end, which will enable us to have the pleasure of watching those famous theatricals. I don’t know whether you are aware of it, Blanchin, but our young friend here is quite a famous histrion. They tell me that if he had cared to stay in the States, he would have gone to the very top of the tree. As it is, he prefers to come back and live in the home of his ancestors and carry on a miserable existence on a few thousands a year. Between ourselves, I am trying to persuade him to put a block of capital into our show. If he did, I think we could guarantee him something like cent per cent. for his money.”

Monsieur Blanchin showed his fine teeth in a grin.

“Of that there is no doubt whatever,” he said. “Five or ten thousand pounds, as the case may be, and as many golden sovereigns per annum as he cared to risk. Risk! Bah, why do I speak of it? There is no risk at all.”

“Oh, well, I dare say he will come to his senses in time,” said Murray with his most genial laugh. “But don’t worry him now, Blanchin, when he has got his mind on those theatricals. If I were to hazard a guess, I should say that he is here this morning to see Angela and not us, eh, Ashdown?”

“You’ve guessed it,” Nevil said, with a slight change of colour. “That is, with your permission.”

“Fancy young people asking the stern parent’s permission at this time of the day,” Murray said cheerily. “As a matter of fact, you will find Angela behind the conservatories feeding those golden pheasants of hers.”

With that, Nevil went on his way, but, before going very far the girl whom he sought came from behind a shelter of laurels and met him face to face. A smile flashed like a gleam of sunshine across the lovely features of Angela Murray and he could see in her eyes a look that set his heart beating a little faster than usual. He had seen that look once or twice before and wondered why it was always so fleeting. She had, for the moment, the appearance of a girl who had come suddenly into the presence of her lover and then, in an instantaneous flash, the air of one who is meeting a stranger for the first time.

“You wanted to see me,” she said, almost coldly.

“Of course I wanted to see you,” Nevil said, half sadly and half angrily. “You know perfectly well that that is always my condition. Angela, why is it that when we come face to face suddenly, you look–how shall I put it–as if I was the one man in the world, and then, before my heart warms, it is as if you really disliked me?”

“Please don’t talk like that,” Angela said. “I have asked you not to, before, and you promised. There are reasons which I dare not tell you. If you have any regard for me––”

“I am sorry,” Nevil murmured. “Perhaps, some day–but never mind. I wanted to see you about to-morrow night’s show. That little bit of business where I come suddenly into the room without expecting to see you. I think we can improve on that.”

CHAPTER II

NEVIL turned his back on Ashdown Croft half an hour later in a very dejected frame of mind. It seemed hard upon a man, who had just achieved what appeared to be the height of his ambition and was on the verge of stepping back into the property which he had worked so strenuously to regain to lose something that he valued still more highly. During the last month or two, he had fallen headlong in love with Angela Murray, and there were times when he had felt certain that he was by no means indifferent to her. Times when she was gay and free in her manner, times when mutual sympathy drew them close together, and she had listened with heightened colour and sparkling eyes to the tales of his struggles in America and how he had overcome all his difficulties.

And then, when everything appeared bathed in golden sunshine, there were occasions when Angela almost turned her back upon him and at any rate, treated him with a coldness and indifference as if she had discovered some discreditable incident in his past and had resolved to keep him severely at a distance. There were occasions, too, when Angela was dull and listless, and once Nevil had found her seated in the park with tears in her eyes.

And yet, outwardly, at all events, there was no apparent occasion for the swift gamut of the emotions. That Angela was in the best of health, there could be no question. She had a luxurious home, the apparent command of whatever she needed, and a father who seemed to dote upon her. And yet, with it all, it was clear that there was something radically wrong somewhere. And when this theatrical show was over, Nevil vowed that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of it.

In the meantime, he put the problem resolutely out of his mind and devoted all his time to the coming performance. It was to take place in the village hall and people from far and near were coming to witness it. All the village, of course, and everybody of importance within twenty miles. When the night arrived, despite the fact that there was something like twenty degrees of frost and rumours that the river was actually frozen over, the hall was packed. Nevil, peeping through a hole in the curtains could see that there was not a vacant seat anywhere. The front seats showed quite a dazzling array of women in evening dress, some of them sparkling with jewels, and men in gleaming shirt fronts and black ties.

“Quite a society gathering,” the leading lady laughed, as she took a glance over the audience. “We shall have to do our best or be disgraced for ever. I don’t mind telling you, Nevil, that I am feeling most horribly nervous.”

“Of course you are,” Nevil laughed, “and I am very glad to hear it. There never was an actor or an actress yet who was worth a hand who didn’t know the meaning of nervousness.”

He turned to Angela, who was standing by his side. “And you,” he asked, “how do you feel.”

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